Otherworldly Beings in the Pre-Christian North

Tribal, Chiefdom, and Archaic Religion and the Use of Cultural Evolutionary Theory





pre-Christian Nordic religion, cultural evolution, cultural evolutionary theory, ontology, dispositions of being, Robert N. Bellah, Philippe Descola, álfar, vanir, tribal religion, chiefdom religion, archaic religion, otherwordly beings


The interplay between societal and cultural change consists of a host of different factors. Religious conceptions are just one and are this article’s focus. Various conceptions of Otherworldly beings can be found in the textual sources for pre-Christian Nordic religion. To better understand these differing descriptions, one can employ various theoretical frameworks when constructing the particular model for the reconstruction of pre-Christian Nordic religion. For this article a cultural evolutionary framework inspired by the work of Robert N. Bellah is paired with a model of ontology in a case study suggesting that specific types of Otherworldly beings belong to specific types of religion. It is suggested that Otherworldly beings such as the álfar may represent what might be termed a tribal religion, while Otherworldly beings such as the vanir seem to belong to an archaic religion. The proposed intermediate category of chiefdom religion is then suggested as relevant for a different kind of Otherworldly being, which is explored by applying Phillipe Descola’s work on ontology. These differing groups of Otherworldly beings further seem to fulfil similar functions while remaining relevant throughout our textual corpus. This is ultimately seen as an example of Bellah’s notion that ‘nothing [important] is ever lost’.

Author Biography

Simon Nygaard, Aarhus University

is Assistant Professor of pre-Christian Nordic religion at Aarhus University, Denmark




How to Cite

Nygaard, S. (2022). Otherworldly Beings in the Pre-Christian North: Tribal, Chiefdom, and Archaic Religion and the Use of Cultural Evolutionary Theory. Temenos - Nordic Journal for the Study of Religion, 58(1), 67–89. https://doi.org/10.33356/temenos.102495