The Research That Went Into “Seidman”

There’s very little point in challenging reader comments on your novel.  It can easily blow up into an argument and lead to not only that reader but other readers getting a bad taste in their mouth whenever they think of you.  Even if you win, you lose.

But a reader recently commented that they thought the mythological parts of Seidman were dubious and I feel I should address this, at least here on my blog.

I’ve been researching Norse mythology and Viking Age culture for over twenty-five years.  In college, I read books about the myths and began delving into it seriously a few years later.  When I ran out of books from resellers in the USA that treated the subject of ancient Norse religion in depth (as opposed to retellings of the myths or New Age books on rune magic), I found myself ordering from academic presses in Scandinavia and Iceland, as well as the UK.

I’m only able to read English fluently, but that still gave me access to books by Neil Price, Jesse Byock, Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, and Jennie Blain. I’m not claiming that reading these authors makes me or anyone else an expert, but their work is exceptional and I highly recommend their books — especially Byock’s books on life in Viking Age Iceland and Price’s hefty tome The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. 

I have also, of course, read many books that I would not recommend, which would include quite a large body of work from the 1800s, a time period which was notorious for pompous scholars who loved to inject quotes from Latin and French into their work (disdaining to translate them, because all smart people naturally know these languages), while neglecting to back up any of their outlandish claims with citations from reliable sources.  Much of the distortions of Norse mythology that have found their way into modern texts, such as the preposterous assertion that Freyja and Gullveig are one and the same goddess, have come from these books.

Throw into this mix the fact that my husband and I did at least put some effort into learning Old Icelandic and translating several chapters from some Icelandic sagas (mostly Hrafnkell’s Saga) into English.  I am now in the habit of looking up any passage I don’t fully understand in one of the sagas or Eddas in the original Old Icelandic (well, they’ve usually been normalized for spelling) in order to verify that the English translation I’m reading is truly accurate.  (Often, it proves impossible to tell exactly what the original author meant.)  The two stanzas from the Voluspa that appear in Seidman during Kol’s initiation were translated by my husband from the Old Icelandic, since I was concerned about copyright violation from any of the translations we had available.  (Of course, it comes out nearly the same as the Bellows translation.)

This does not mean I’m any kind of an expert and it doesn’t mean that anybody should take Seidman to be some kind of authoritative document on the practice of Norse religion.  However, I spent years piecing together a plausible reconstruction of Norse religious practice.  I didn’t just read a couple books and wing it.

One area in which my interpretation of Norse mythology differs from that of many others interested in this study is in the way I view the dísir and the alfar.  From everything I’ve read, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are connected to ancestral spirits — the dísir being female spirits and the alfar being male spirits.  Many might find this odd, since the idea is rarely presented in books about the Norse gods, but there are many references that support this notion, as these two Wikipedia articles can attest:

Dísir

Alfar

If those articles leave you with the impression that it’s all a confused muddle, then you’ve stumbled upon one of the Great Truths of Norse religion.  (And no, I don’t get all of my information from Wikipedia, but it often presents us with a good summation of a topic.)  The texts are not consistent; they are not universal.  The alfar were not viewed the same in Iceland as they were in Norway or Denmark, and those perceptions changed over time.

Since Alfheim was awarded to Freyr when he was a baby, I believe that he ruled over the alfar.  Freyja is frequently called Vanadis (“Lady of the Vanir” or “Dís of the Vanir”) and is often associated with the valkyries (valkyrjar), who were in turn associated with the dísir, and she is the goddess who taught Oðinn seiðr, which is associated with the spirits of the dead.  For these reasons and others, I believe her to be the ruler of the dísir.  The reasoning can be convoluted, but there is reasoning behind it.

So the entire point of this is not to demonstrate that I’m a pompous intellectual, but merely to say:  Yes, Seidman was thoroughly researched.  It’s not perfect.  But I’m quite proud of it, both as a novel and as an exploration of what it might have been like to live in that time and place and to worship as the ancient Icelanders might have done.

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5 thoughts on “The Research That Went Into “Seidman”

  1. I know there is an unwritten rule that you can’t get into an argument with reviewers, but it’s a shame that an intellectual discussion can’t take place. I recently addressed a point one reviewer made on my book, but made sure it kept to the topic of the craft point she felt was violated without involving either her post or my book per se, and I think that worked.

    If the rest of the review on yours was thoughtful, then perhaps some future discussion might be merited. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many people around with a depth of interest in the subject, so it may be good to uncover a kindred spirit. Who knows, they may be willing to learn.

  2. It can be done. I’ve had polite, respectful conversations with two reviewers and in one case I provided some additional information to explain a plot point. That worked out fine. In this case, it’s difficult because the criticisms were extremely vague. There was little to address, apart from the issue of whether or not I researched the subject matter.

  3. You could always leave a link to this blogpost as a comment on their review, stating politely that this is not having a go at them but giving more information for those interested. Who knows, it may kindle a deeper interest in the subject if not from them, from someone else who reads their review. Another alternative is to put this blog post or a link to it into your own Goodreads ‘review’ of the book (removing any rating). I’ve done that on mine and that’s generated interest from readers.

  4. Fabulous! And that’s the reason I love this book. I stumbled onto the sagas in college and loved them so much that I did a ton of research, my senior thesis, and taught a seminar class on Medieval Iceland. I flailed around after I graduated and never went on to do anything or learn more, but it was totally clear to me that you’d done your homework – and a lot of mine as well!

    Ah Jesse Byock… I so wanted to go to UCLA and study with him… Alas, my life went in another direction.

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