There are actually scholars who claim that we know absolutely nothing about the pre-Christian beliefs of Northern Europe. The poems and stories of the Eddas were written down by Christians in early medieval times, and according to these scholars we do not have any reliable sources of how the Norse viewed the world and the universe. There are undeniably some Christian influences within the written sources of the Norse mythology; but these scholars take this way too far and claim that the myths completely were made up by Christians. According to these people we do not even know for certain which gods the Scandinavians worshiped before they became Christians.
This could perhaps be plausible for those who know absolutely nothing about the subject, but the Eddas are supported by many other sources. There are illustrations on rune stones that show the same stories as within the Eddas. There are the famous pictures stones found on the island of Gotland that portray Oden and his eight legged horse exactly the same way as they are portrayed in the Eddas.
(Above- wooden figure of Odin- the picture was taken at the historical museum of Oslo.)
There are place names found all around Scandinavia with the ending of hov, ve or lund, these endings indicates that these were places of worship. Often the first part of these place names is the names of the deities found in the Eddas. I just need to take the car around my area for an hour or so to pass by numerous places dedicated to gods such as Oden, Thor, Ull, Frej and others. One common name is Fröslunda- which means the grove of Frö/Frej, there are also places called Torslunda, Ullunda, Skadevi, Odensala etc.
The Scandinavian folklore supports the Eddas, through the folklore people had a living understanding of the gods up until modern times, and there were both stories and songs passed down from one generation to the next. One example is the song called “Hammarhämtningen”, the fetching of the hammer, variations of this song has been handed down throughout Scandinavia since pre-Christian times. The fetching of the hammer is merely a variation of the poem Þrymskviða that is found in the poetic Edda.
(Above- a rune stone in Södermanland, Sweden; with
an illustration of Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor.)
There are also stories written down by people who visited Scandinavia, or people who got in contact with the Norse outside of Scandinavia, there is also archaeological remains that support the information in the Eddas.
If we keep the above in mind, those who claim that “we have absolutely no knowledge about the pre-Christian beliefs of Scandinavia because everything was made up by Christians”- come across as uneducated and ignorant. Without taking it too far, we can claim that these people are intellectually dishonest, and in many cases it is quite obvious that these people have an agenda, for one reason or another. These people are not qualified to make any statements at all about Norse mythology.
(Above a picture of “Odens
flisor” located at the island of Öland in the Baltic sea. The folklore around
this monument supports the Eddas. There are several similar monuments called
“Odens flisor” in different parts of southern Sweden.)
There are also people that claim that stav is a modern invented martial art, and that stav is just copied from Japanese styles. One prominent member of the neo pagan community publicly stated that “stav is just people doing Aikido in Norwegian clothing”. This could perhaps be plausible for anyone that knows nothing of the subject. If this person knew anything at all about stav or Aikido he would quickly notice the differences. Stav is not a martial art in essence; it is a philosophical and educational system, the martial arts are just one of many practical expressions based on the philosophy within the stav tradition. Stavs philosophy is based on Norse mythology and the runes; therefor stav has a very different structure compared to Japanese martial arts.
The pre-Christian beliefs of northern Europe shared the same fundamental principles and the same pantheon, but the specific perspectives varied between regions, clans, or between different layers of the society. Myths with different perspectives are collected within the Eddas and therefor they differentiate a bit and put emphasis of different deities. A lot of scholars and neo pagans really have a hard time getting their head around the subject due to this. The version of the mythology described within stav is unique, since it is coherent and all the layers fit tightly together. The stav mythology has a different motor and driving factor compared to the Edda of Snorre Sturlasson, some of the deities are also described a bit differently. Some events within the stav mythology are also different compared with the medieval influenced descriptions of Snorre Sturlasson, and the mythology of stav is clearer about many specific details.
Within stav there is also a coherent description of the Norse cosmology, which is something that the Eddas completely lack. Once again, the cosmology within stav follows the written sources but takes the knowledge further and makes it meaningful. Most of the modern interpretations and illustrations I have seen of the cosmology do not follow the written sources even slightly.
The mythology and martial art of stav is systemized around the sixteen younger runes, the runes were the ancient letters used in Scandinavia before the church introduced the Latin alphabet. The runes served as a parallel writing language in parts of Sweden up until modern times. Within Stav the runes are primarily not used for writing, they are used as a memory aid to remember and internalize mythological associations. All of the runes are associated with deities, elements, classes and a lot of other things.
(Above – a rune stone in the town of Eskilstuna,
There are no contradiction between the understanding of the runes within stav and the perspective given by serious scholars, but stav takes the understanding further than the scholars. Stav connects and systemizes the knowledge in a way that it is not possible for scholars to do with the information they have at hand. But for us who comes out of a stav perspective, it is possible to reverse engineer a lot of the information by using linguistics and information found in medieval rune poems. The runes have names that imply certain associations, a couple of runes will be associated with deities through their names, and a couple of runes will be associated with trees. Some names of the runes associate them with elements, and so on. When modern neo pagans or scholars investigate these associations it gives a really fractured understanding of the runes and their associations. Within stav every single rune is associated with deities, trees, herbs, elements, animals and classes and more! All together this gives the sixteen runes hundreds of associations. The system fits very well with what is known from the sources, but it takes the understanding so much further.
Trough literary sources and folklore it is known that some of the deities are associated with trees and herbs- in stav all the deities have these connections. Through the sources some of the deities are associated with animals, or so called familiars, in stav all the deities have these associations. There are more familiars within stav than known from all the literary sources together- but even more importantly, within stav the knowledge of why these familiars are important is preserved.
The really unique thing with stav is that it connects the runes, the mythology and the cosmology into a coherent structure. You can follow a logical path from the runes, to the cosmology to the deities and back. This is not possible to do in any other contemporary system of Norse mythology or within the modern interpretations of the runes. Stav provides a graphic structure that helps the student to understand and analyse the mythology- again a very different perspective compared with the Eddas, but no contradiction. The poems of the Eddas and stavs visualisation of the mythology trough the runes completes each other.
(Above- the famous rune stone at Rök in
Stav also incorporates the classes of the Eddic poem of Rigstula into the structure. The understanding of the classes described within Rigstula is basically socio-economic and describes the levels of the society. Stavs perspective is more philosophical and spiritual- and very personal; again there are no contradictions, only a different perspective. My personal impression is that Rigstula and stav are parallel traditions. A lot of people studying stav have tried to understand the classes through Rigstula, which is fine; as long as you are aware of that they have a different perspective. In a modern context stav is the only Norse form of paganisms in which the classes are meaningful in a spiritual and practical aspect. Here in Scandinavia most neo pagans do not even bother trying to interpret the Rigstula, they do not find the poem relevant and meaningful.
Compared to modern neo-paganism; stavs structure enables the stav practitioner to focus on the deeper and important levels, instead of spending time trying puzzle it together. I have spent a lot of time studying stav in depth, and I have compered stav with the literary sources. I have also read a lot of academic papers covering norse mythology, specifically researching the areas were stavs mythology at first glance differentiate from the literature sources. Those who claim that stav is a modern creation simply come across as uneducated and ignorant. Often enough, it is quite obvious that many of the critics of stav have a personal agenda, for one reason or another. Over the eighteen years I have been involved in stav; I have heard a lot of negative opinions about stav, but so far I have not heard any qualified criticism.
Stavs authenticity or age has no real relevance for the practitioner- the only thing that is relevant is our personal gain. No matter if you are drawn towards stav from a martial arts perspective or out of a spiritual need; there is only one way evaluate stav- and that is by investing some time in researching the system. Perhaps you will find that it is nothing for you, or perhaps you will come to the same conclusion I did; that stav is something very valuable to you. Either way, do not let the self-proclaimed experts of the internet make the choice for you.
The first step to learning to know yourself through stav- is to quit being a “trell”! Trell is often translated as slave, but this is not really a correct translation. A trell is basically someone who is not free and who is not a master over his own destiny. In the pre Christian society a trell was someone who had to work for someone else, with little financial gains in return- but there were also trells that worked for the king and that were very wealthy. Historically a trell could be able to win their freedom. In the psychological perspective of stav- a trell is simply someone that is not capable of taking control of their own destiny, people who need others to tell them what to do and what is worth pursuing. Out of stavs psychological perspective; most trells would be able to win their own mental freedom.
(All pictures found in this blog post were taken by the author- please feel free to use them as long as you specify the source.)
(Above - old Uppsala, probably
the most prominent cultural and religious centre of pre Christian Scandinavia.)