'The North' and 'the East': The Odin migration theory

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Between 2001 and 2002, Thor Heyerdahl, the popular Norwegian adven-turer and ethnographer, excavated digs near the Sea of Azov, northeast of the Black Sea. The idea behind this project was to provide evidence for the theory that Odin, known from Old Norse texts, was in fact a (human) warlord who had migrated from this area of the world to northern Europe. 1 The 'search for Odin' archaeological project yielded finds prov-ing that people had lived in the area around the time that Heyerdahl thought the so-called 'Odin people' had migrated (c.60 BCE). Despite Heyerdahl's own conviction that he had revolutionised ethnographic history, however, no direct links to Scandinavia were recovered, and academic communities across the board were critical of how a legend was allowed to dictate the project, as well as the interpretation of its findings. In fact, the archaeological project was a belated attempt to revive the idea that Asiatic migration had formed the bedrock of culture along the North Sea littoral 2,000 years ago. This was a much rehearsed theory in the mid–late eighteenth century, which had collapsed as a viable histor-ical model during the course of the nineteenth century. This chapter is concerned with the so-called 'Odin migration theory', which has received surprisingly little attention in modern critical studies, and with its importance to a range of mid–late eighteenth-century areas of enquiry. 2 The attempt is not, of course, to follow Heyerdahl's misguided endeavour and seek to prove the theory as fact. My claim rather is that the theory is important because of the extent to which it was intertwined with Europe's cultural self-perception, and constituted an important point of reference for debates about ethnicity and literary heritage, during the mid– late eighteenth century. Focusing primarily on English responses to the legend, I aim to investigate its importance to the construction of English literary history. My argument is that the Odin migration legend enabled a renegotiation of the cultural relationship between 'the West', 'the North', and 'the East', and provided a means of engaging with 'the East' as something other than wholly 'Other'. Responses to the legend became, in other words, a site for constructing hybrid cultural identities, quite different from the polarised categories often associated, in academic his-tories, with romanticisms and romantic nationalisms in Europe at the time. The theory of an Asian origin connected a nation on the periphery of Europe with ancient civilisation and thereby endowed it with cultural pedigree and prestige. Concretely, the legend of Odin's migration was used by English antiquarians, philologists, and others, to promote a re-evaluation of literary history: to interrogate the dominance of Classical models, and to re-establish a connection with the ancient culture of 'the North'. As we shall see, the legend became a key element in the revaluing of the fantastical and the imaginative which we today associate with the 'romantic' in art. The chapter has two parts. In the first, an examination of the origins of the Odin migration legend, and the process by which it gained momen-tum as a cultural paradigm, will be followed by a brief sketch of how that legend came to be embedded in a number of literary works. In the second, I will show how the migration legend was used by antiquarians, philolo-gists, and others, in the mid–late eighteenth century to construct a history of English literature: a history which circumvented the Classical tradition and sought the roots of vernacular writing, and of the romance genre in particular, in the ancient literature of 'the North'.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRomantic Norths: Anglo-Nordic Exchanges, 1770-1842
Number of pages27
Publication date27 Jun 2017
ISBN (Print)9783319512464
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2017
SeriesRomantic Norths: Anglo-Nordic Exchanges, 1770-1842

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