Six Questions XVII

Mathias Nordvig

Photo: Rob Fitzgerald

Interview conducted via email by Joseph S. Hopkins, August 2018

For our seventeenth Six Questions entry, we interview Danish academic Mathias Nordvig. Nordvig grew up in Denmark and Greenland, and today teaches at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado. Nordvig uploads lectures to his Youtube channel, and conducts research on a wide variety of topics in ancient Scandinavian studies. Readers can find some of his academic work here.

1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Denmark and Greenland. I was born in Denmark but lived a part of my childhood in Nuuk, Greenland. We came back to Denmark when I was 12.

2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context?
In Denmark, Norse mythology is part of every child’s upbringing. We are taught the stories in school and by our parents. My first encounter with the stories of the Norse gods was when I was very young, perhaps five or six. My mother read a Danish children’s story for me about a boy who walks through a Viking Age burial mound and enters the world of the gods. As far as I remember, he ends up fighting with the gods at Ragnarökk. As a child in Greenland, we would also learn about the Inuit traditions, their gods and heroes. Some of these stories are still with me, too.

When I turned thirteen, I remember becoming more absorbed by Norse mythology, and my parents gave me a Þórr’s hammer pendant and a copy of the Eddic poems as a coming of age gift. My parents always had a very non-Christian, or heathen, outlook on the world, and they raised me that way. 

Photo: Erica Lindberg

3. What is your academic background in Germanic studies? What courses do you teach on the topic of ancient Germanic studies?
I have a PhD in Norse mythology. I wrote a dissertation on how the Norse myths may reflect the experiences of the Nordic peoples with the environment. I am currently turning it into a book that will be titled Myth and Environment in Early Iceland.

I have a very interdisciplinary background in the studies of Norse mythology and religion, and the Viking Age. The topics that I studied as a graduate student, especially, range from literature and language to Viking Age archaeology, history and the history of Nordic religion.

I teach many different topics related to Scandinavia and the North. Among them are subjects on Viking history, Norse myths, Nordic folklore, Icelandic sagas, Arctic culture and society, Danish language, even modern Nordic culture and society, not least 19th and 20th century Nordic literature.

4. What was your earliest work on the topic of Germanic mythology?
Uhm, that is an interesting question. It must be that rune spell I carved on a pine branch invoking Óðinn, consecrated in sacrificial blood… at the age of thirteen… From that time and up until my early twenties, I scribbled hundreds of smaller or half-assed treatises on the subject in various notebooks and paper pads. Mostly in runes. But all that hardly counts as academic works.

My earliest strictly academic work on the subject of Norse or Germanic mythology must be the paper I handed in on non-typological place-names with Þórr and Týr in the Danish area from the period 500-1000 AD. This was in my second year of college. My earliest published work would be an article titled ‘A Method for Analyzing World-Models in Scandinavian Mythology’ from 2012.

5. Which scholars had the greatest influence on your work? Why?
Oh, that list is long. I guess that I have a certain reverence for scholars who – each in their own way – have stirred controversy by applying new critical views on Norse mythology; scholars who have demonstrated their ability to do really solid academic work; or scholars who have revealed aspects of Norse mythology in ways that are mind blowing. Walter Baetke and Klaus von See deserve some credit for doing just that. I am also a pretty big fan of Jan de Vries for his solid academic work and attention to detail, which I have always aspired (but probably failed) to copy. Jens Peter Schjødt, Stephen Mitchell, Rudy Simek, Anette Lassen, Terry Gunnell, Pernille Hermann and John Lindow are scholars whose teaching and lectures have had direct influence on my work.

Attending classes taught by them or lectures that they have held over the years has given me a sense of what high quality academic work in this field looks like, and how the literature on Norse mythology opens interpretive doors that lead in directions that may take you into quite different domains – from scholarly views that almost denounce the existence of Norse mythology altogether to the insistence that there definitely is a core of historicity in the material. If anything, these scholars have taught me the wide range of interpretation of Norse mythology. 

Photo: Mathias Nordvig

6. What research are you currently conducting that relates to ancient Germanic studies? What do you hope to work on related to the field in the future?
I am working on various projects at the moment. I am expanding my research on the connection between Norse myth and the environment; I am also working on a project with the working title ‘Assholes in the Sagas of Icelanders’. Have you ever wondered why there are so many of these saga heroes that behave like outrageous assholes? Well, I have, and I gave a paper on that at the 17th International Saga Conference in August this year. It was well received, so I am thinking of turning the work into a broad study of the exceptional character of the saga heroes. Aside from that, I am also writing a textbook on the Viking Age.

Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Mathias Nordvig for his participation.