Skip to main content

The Symbolism of the Body in Northern Europe. Cognitive Metaphors and Old Norse Myth from the Viking Age to Late Medieval Times

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SYMBODIN (The Symbolism of the Body in Northern Europe. Cognitive Metaphors and Old Norse Myth from the Viking Age to Late Medieval Times)

Okres sprawozdawczy: 2018-08-01 do 2020-07-31

The issue

The main focus of the project was the issue of symbolic usage of body parts in human thinking, especially mythology. Mythology was chosen due to its surreal nature where metaphoric processes abound. Myth and ritual serve as a tool for the integration of the diverse experiences of the human body and that the human body in turn serves as a source of cognitive metaphors, which are important for the structuring of the shared symbolic system of a given culture.

The goal was to study the system of values and symbolisms connected to the human body and its parts via the analysis of Old Norse myths and rituals, especially those connected with sacrifice and initiation. Myths and rituals have a very special position in a society, being of collective traditional nature and having overarching and sacred status. The project is highly relevant to the scholarly fields because, even if some partial studies about bodily symbolisms have been done in the past, there is no comprehensive synthetic work of this sort.

The importance

While myths are studied by specialists, their importance is still generally overlooked as they are perceived just as a thing of the past or a primitive phenomenon to be ‘debunked’ by real science. My approach to myth attempted to bridge the space between specialist’s analysis of myth and public discourse by stressing the commonalities of myth and everyday discourse and showing how the surrealness of myth is grounded in the same cognitive processes that direct our thinking and form our everyday speech.

The objectives

The overall objectives were to explore the research topic in the form of one general theoretical study and three case studies – four academic articles in toto. Beside the academic texts targeted at the scholars the results of the research were to be disseminated and presented to various audiences through various media: public lectures, Youtube interviews, outreach articles in specialized outreach journals targeted at policy makers, newspaper articles, seminars for students and presentations for specialists in different disciplines (e.g. physicians) etc. On the personal level the objective was to enrich my skill set (especially management and conference organization) and my experience in specialized methods (especially philology and manuscript studies), and my network by establishing my communication with leading experts in the field.
The complete list of main results including dissemination can be found at https://symbolmyth.wordpress.com/the-msca-project/ Due to the limited word count only a part of the results could be displayed in this report.

The main body of the project research consisted of four studies into the metaphoric and analogic nature of myth, as exemplified by the Old Norse mythology. The four work packages resulted in four academic articles, which are as of September 2020 in various stages of the publishing process.

Full-Length Academic Journal Articles successfully completed during the project

I. “Óðinn and the Mead: The Two-Faced Myth”, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia
II. “Body Parts and Metaphors: The Logic of Symbolic Transformations in Old Norse Myth”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion
III. “The Echo of Creation: Parallels between Old Norse Cosmogony and Eschatology”, History of Religions
IV. “The Dialectic of Seduction: Óðinn and Vǫlundr”, Scandinavian Studies
V. “Rhetorical Tropes and Body Symbolism: The Semiotic Approach to Old Norse Myth”, Methodology in Mythology (Collection)

Another – quite strong – aspect of the project was dissemination of the results of the research to various audiences, academic as well as student and general public:

Invited Lectures at the Universities in Prague and in Reykjavík.

Dissemination to primarily non-academic audiences
• “Why Are Myths So Weird?”, public lecture at the Municipial Library in Prague, 2020
• “The Language of Myth” in The Project Repository Journal, Vol 7, 2020
• “Sacrifice and Body Parts in Viking Myths” on YouTube Channel of Dr. Matthias Nordvig ( https://youtu.be/1ksKDrno3rc ), 2019

Papers Presented at International Conferences and Workshops (10 entries, not included here due to limit on the word count)

Part of the dissemination process was also targeted at students at the University in Bergen (UiB), where the developing concepts and ideas were thoroughly discussed with young scholar-to-be.

Conference and Workshop Organizing
• Mythology as a Branch of Learning: International workshop of UC Berkeley (Peder Sather Center) and University of Bergen
• Methodology in Mythology: Aarhus Mythology Conference, Bergen 2019
• The International Workshop on Conceptual Metaphors and Body Symbolism, Bergen 2019

It is important to stress that originally in the application there were no workshops or conferences promised as a part of the project. Thanks to the support and care of the supervisor and the support of the institution these three successful events took place. The cooperation with Berkeley and the Peder Sather grant was an unforeseen major opportunity that greatly enriched the original work plan.

Another form of dissemination was the presentation and discussion of the contents of the research with the colleagues within research groups at the University of Bergen.

To sum up: the four work packages were completed, resulting in five academic articles – the four that were promised in the application plus an additional, related one. The ongoing and finished research was widely disseminated through the channels listed above targeting various audiences and starting conversations on the research topic. Major addition to the promised outcomes were two workshops and one conference.
Before the start of the project there existed virtually no examples of cognitive linguistic–semiotic study devoted to Old Norse mythology. SYMBODIN opened a new systematic approach to the study of mythology by developing a typology of symbolic transformations that connect mythological motifs to cognitive-linguistic categories like metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche or irony. The project shows in practice how mythology uses the same cognitive operations known from everyday phenomena, but uses them in a very specific way to generate surreal images which are fascinating for the human mind because they bring forth the associative connections that usually stay hidden.

The project thus enables a new systematic study of myth which is no longer disconnected from contemporary issues, but sheds light on aspects of culture we live in. Phenomena like conspiracy theories and various aspects of the so-called ‘fake news’ derive their efficacy from the use of metaphoric, metonymic, synecdochic or ironic transformations. The images are surreal, and therefore are criticized as ‘fake’ by the rationalists, but at the same time they are efficacious because they surreally express the background associations generated by our culture.

The wider societal implications of this study then are the confirmation of continuity in the logic of the constitution of mythic images, in other words: a mythic type of discourse is still with us, and by studying the ancient and medieval cultures and their mythical discourses, we can shed light on a number of ‘problematic’ phenomena of today which are usually mis-categorized as ‘false’, while they are being akin to mythology.
Poster presenting one of the core theses of the project