12 Essentials You'll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology

Tim Flight - May 29, 2018

Over the last 200 years, Norse Mythology has been used to sell everything from racism (via the propaganda arm of the Nazis) to Hollywood movies. On a cultural level, it is hard to avoid the old Norse gods and their deeds, as their legends permeate music (from Richard Wagner’s operas to modern black and death metal), visual media (Vikings and Game of Thrones, to name but two recent examples), and comics (from Marvel to anime and manga). It has even become a religion once again, almost a millennium after it was last widely-practiced, in the form of Germanic Neopaganism (Ásatrú).

All of the above, however, have an extremely tenuous foundation. Norse Mythology, having long ceased to be a practiced form of religion, was rediscovered by antiquarians in the 19th century. The quality of Victorian antiquarianism ranges widely from the obscure and preposterously thorough to the outright fantastical, and the period’s publications on Norse paganism are no different. Without deliberately doing so, many 19th-century writers were often reinterpreting, misunderstanding, or inventing much of what they wrote about the old beliefs, and their influence has been passed onto modern popular culture through Wagner and books of myths for young children.

Divorced from the entertaining narratives spun by Victorian writers, however, Norse Mythology is still fascinating. The pre-Christian Scandinavians had a polytheistic faith and unusual manner of explaining the nature of the universe, which it behoves us to rediscover at source. The nature of any myth is that it will be told and retold in different ways across different times and cultures, and so whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with Thor the superhero, our purpose here is to understand as far as possible what the original practitioners actually believed. Here are the 12 essential things you need to know.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Snorri Sturluson by Christian Krohg, Oslo, 1899. Wikimedia Commons

Snorri Sturlusson

At the very outset, it is vital to bear in mind that much of what we know about Norse Mythology comes from a single Icelandic writer, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Snorri was a member of the powerful Sturlungar family, whose prominence in Iceland was such that the period of history in which our poet lived is known as the Age of the Sturlungs. He grew up at Oddi, Southern Iceland, fostered by Jón Loftsson (1124-97) to compensate his parents for a successful legal dispute. Loftsson was related to the Norwegian Royal Family, and the most powerful man in Iceland.

Snorri received the best-possible education at Oddi, and became acquainted with influential members of Icelandic society, from both the Church and the secular world. He became a lawyer and a poet, and after his marriage effectively ended owing to his infidelity, he was elected the sole lawspeaker (essentially a source of legal knowledge who would be present to arbitrate in legal disputes) of Iceland in 1215. Snorri’s heritage and connections meant that he was a prominent, albeit not entirely popular, politician in his day, and he was assassinated in his own home because of his connections with Norway in 1241.

It is as a poet, rather than as a political failure, that we remember Snorri best. After his term as lawspeaker Snorri was invited to the Norwegian court, where he wrote poetry for the young King of Norway, Hákon Hákonarson, for which he was richly rewarded (though his relationship with the Norwegian Crown led to his eventual death). It was at King Hákon’s court that Snorri wrote the poems that would be combined into the Prose Edda, the essential work on Norse Mythology: Háttatal (‘Enumeration of Meters’), Skáldskaparmál (‘the Language of Poetry’), and Gylfaginning (‘The Deluding of Gylfi’).

The Háttatal and Skáldskaparmál were written to praise the king and to explain the largely-oral form of Icelandic poetry, but used Norse myths as a frame-narrative in which to do so. Gylfaginning, by contrast, was written to complete Snorri’s explanation of Norse Mythology. The mythology of the Prose Edda is a mixture of lost oral tales and quotations of some of the poems which made up the slightly-older collection of skaldic verse, the Poetic Edda. Though the Poetic Edda is older, its collection of tales is largely only comprehensible through the medium of Snorri’s coherent systemisation of Norse Mythology.

As the contents of the Poetic Edda testify, Norse Paganism was not a dogmatic religion with an enforced system of devotion, but ‘a disorganised body of conflicting traditions’ (Anthony Faulkes). Snorri was merely the first author to render skaldic poetry and beliefs about the gods and into a coherent, systematised narrative. Thus we must bear in mind that the beliefs evidenced in the Prose Edda are one man’s interpretation of a body of mostly-oral traditions and, furthermore, a man who did not practice the religion which was predominantly extinct in his lifetime. Nevertheless, we would be lost without Snorri’s assistance.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
The Nine Worlds, illustration from Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths, London, 1988. Endless Round

The Nine Worlds

Having addressed the problems of characterizing a non-uniform set of beliefs which we can only understand because of a single individual, we can move onto what we believe were the tenets of Norse Mythology. In Norse Cosmology, the universe is made up of Nine Worlds which surround the giant ash tree, Yggdrasil (discussed in detail on the next page). In the beginning, there was Ginnungagap, a primeval void, within which the Nine Worlds came into being. In an interesting parallel with today’s Big Bang Theory, no deliberate action caused the creation of the Norse universe: it just happened.

First to emerge was Muspelheim in the south, the realm of fire ruled by Surtr and the fire-giants. Next was Niflheim in the north, the world of mist, cold, and freezing water. Between these 2 elemental places came the other 7 realms. Alfheim (‘Home of the Elves’) is the home of the Ljósálfar (‘Light-Elves’) who, according to Snorri, are ‘more beautiful than the sun’ (Gylfaginning, 17). Asgard (‘Enclosure of the Æsir’) is the home of the Æsir, the principal group of gods, and is surrounded by an incomplete defensive wall intended to protect the gods from the giants.

These giants live at Jötunheimr, though it seems likely that this name, in fact, designated several different locations. At Vanaheimr (‘Home of the Vanir’) live the Vanir, the other group of gods with whom the Æsir once fought a war (see below). The counterparts to the Ljósálfar are the Svartálfar (‘Dark Elves’) who live at Svartálfaheim, and are known for their craftsmanship. Midgard (‘central-enclosure’) is the Earth, where people live, and is placed directly in the middle of the cosmos. Snorri tells us that Midgard ‘is circular around the edge, and surrounding it lies the deep sea’ (Gylfaginning, 8).

Finally, Helheim is the realm of the undesirable dead, and is located beneath one of Yggdrasil’s roots. The desirable dead reside at Folkvangr and Valhalla (see below), which are located at Asgard. There is considerable debate about the number of worlds, however, since many are only alluded to, and others may refer simply to a god or goddess. There is also considerable overlap between some of the realms. Again, this confusion and ambiguity is the nature of the beast: we have only the fallible Snorri and skaldic poetry as our guide to the religion and its complex cosmology.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, London, 1886. Wikimedia Commons

Yggdrasil

Connecting all of the Nine Worlds is Yggdrasil, a colossal ash tree. The name Yggdrasil is usually translated as ‘Odin’s horse’, Ygg (‘the terrible one’) being another name for the father of the gods, and drasil meaning ‘horse’, an archaic term for gallows, for it was from Yggdrasil that Odin hung himself in sacrifice for the runes (see below for the story). Yggdrasil however is older even than Odin, and grew from a seed after the worlds began. Although its precise function differs amongst the sources for our understanding of Norse Mythology, all agree on Yggdrasil’s importance and sanctity.

Snorri’s source for his discussion of Yggdrasil is Grímnismál (‘Grimnir’s Sayings’), a poem included in the Poetic Edda. Grímnismál notes that the Æsir ride to Yggdrasil each day ‘to sit as judges’ (33). Under its three roots dwell, individually, Hel, the frost-giants, and people. There is a squirrel, Ratatoskr (‘bore-tooth’), who carries words from the eagle at the top of the tree to Nidhogg, a dragon, who gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots, and back again, stirring up enmity between them. There are also 4 stags – Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór – who stretch their necks to feast upon Yggdrasil’s branches.

Grímnismál further elaborates that Yggdrasil is slowly being consumed from above and below:

The ash of Yggdrasil suffers agony

More than men know:

A hart bites it from above, and it decays at the sides,

And Nidhogg rends it beneath. (Grímnismál, 35)

The 4 harts are thought to represent the 4 seasons, and in this reading Yggdrasil’s species is important to note. The Ash Tree is deciduous, meaning that it appears to die in winter, then comes to life again in spring, making it a potent symbol of death and rebirth, a strong theme throughout Norse Mythology.

The roots of Yggdrasil are also important symbols. The 3 roots drink water from the land of the dead, the land of people, and the land of the frost-giants, and transport it up to where the branches grow, from which it drips as moisture onto the earth. Yggdrasil is tended by the Norns, female Fates who control the destiny of men and gods alike by carving runes on the tree trunk. Yggdrasil thus not only connects the Nine Worlds but past (in the form of the water from Hel), the present, and the future (in the form of the Norns).

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
The Heroes in Valhalla by Friedrich Hottenroth, Germany, c.1890. AKG Images

Valhalla

Valhalla (‘carrion-hall’) is Odin’s hall where half of those who die in battle go:

Gladsheim a fifth [abode of the gods] is called, there gold-bright Valhall

Rises peacefully, seen from afar,

There Odin chooses every day

Those dead in combat. (Grímnismál, 8)

It is decorated according to the tastes, we can assume, of the warriors chosen to travel there: ‘the hall has spear-shafts for rafters, with shields it is thatched/ mail-coats are strewn on the benches’ (Grímnismál, 8). Furthermore, there is endless mead at Valhalla: ‘she will fill a vat of shining mead/ that liquor cannot ever diminish’ (Grímnismál, 25).

Those who die and are chosen to travel to Valhalla are called einherjar (‘lone-fighters’), and are personally selected by the valkyries (female spirits who choose who lives and dies in battle). Further detail about the entertainment for fallen warriors at Valhalla is provided by another Poetic Edda poem, Vafþrúðnismál: ‘all the einherjar fight in Odin’s courts every day’ (41). After fighting one another all day, the warriors enjoy a nightly hog-roast, made of the self-resurrecting pig Sæhrímnir. They are also served beer by the valkyries themselves. The afterlife, for the einherjar, really is just more of the same warrior-culture.

An interesting divergence from more familiar religions is that the afterlife in Norse Mythology is not permanent. The einherjar are selected not merely for dying a noble death in battle, but because they are brilliant warriors, and thus suitable for fighting alongside Odin at the end of the world (Ragnarök). Specifically, the einherjar will die helping Odin fight the great wolf, Fenrir. Both their physical lifestyle and daily nourishment keep the einherjar in suitable shape for battle. In further preparation for the final battle with Fenrir, Valhalla has 540 doors so that 800 einherjar can leave all at once.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
The Æsir fight against the Vanir during the Æsir-Vanir War by Carl Ehrenberg, Leipzig, 1882. Wikimedia Commons

Æsir and Vanir

There are 2 pantheons of gods in Norse mythology, the Æsir and the Vanir. The term Æsir simply means ‘gods’ in Old Icelandic, but its Indo-European root, *h₂énsus, means ‘breath’, suggesting the links between deities and life-giving. ‘Vanir’ is the etymological root of the Icelandic word for friend, though the precise origin of the name for the gods is uncertain. Unusually amongst world religions, the 2 pantheons do not displace one another, but live contemporarily, by contrast to the Titans and Olympians in Greek Mythology, for example. The pantheons are merged after fighting a war early in the universe’s history.

The Æsir are the principal Norse gods, including Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Baldr. Amongst the Vanir, the most notable members are Njörðr, Freyr and Freyja. The Vanir tend to have a stronger relation to fertility, wisdom, and soothsaying, but to understand best the differences between the groups it is best to consider the Æsir -Vanir War. This took place at the beginning of the world, and was brought about by the magic practiced by the Vanir. Our chief sources for this conflict are, again, Snorri, who discusses it in both the Prose Edda and Ynlinga saga, and the Poetic Edda.

The war starts when Gullveig enters Asgard to practice seiðr, a form of divination and manipulative sorcery. At this stage, only the Vanir practiced seiðr, and it seems that its introduction to Asgard created havoc:

She charmed them with spells;

She made magic wherever she could, with magic she played with minds,

She was always the favourite of evil women. (Voluspa, 22)

Being the ‘favourite of evil women’, in its historical context, probably means some sort of sex-magic. The name Gullveig itself means ‘gold-intoxication’, which suggests that she introduced seiðr amongst the Æsir out of greed for wealth.

The Æsir’s reaction to Gullveig was uncompromising, as the Poetic Edda tells us:

They buttressed Gullveig with spears

And in One-eye’s [Odin’s] hall they burned her;

Three times they burned her, three times she was reborn. (Voluspa, 21)

Seiðr lies behind Gullveig’s miraculous reincarnation, which must have angered the Æsir yet more. Thus the first war broke out, with Odin throwing the first spear. In Ynglinga saga Snorri elaborates that the war was an even contest in which neither side could gain the advantage, and thus a truce was called and hostages exchanged, leading to the merging of the pantheons.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Odin riding Sleipnir, Iceland, 18th Century. Wikimedia Commons

Odin

Odin is the head of the Norse pantheon, and the god of wisdom, poetry, hosts, and the dead. Snorri calls him Alfaðir (‘all-father’), meaning that he is the father of the gods. His grandfather, Buri, has a particularly unusual origin:

As the icy rime dripped, the cow called Audhumla was formed… she licked the blocks of ice which were salty. As she licked these stones of icy rime the first day, the hair of a man appeared… on the third day [there emerged] the whole man. (Gylfaginning, 6)

Buri was the first god, carved by a gigantic cow’s tongue.

Odin and his brothers were responsible for the creation of the earth. They dragged the ancient giant, Ymir, into Ginnungagap, and ‘from his blood they made the sea and the lakes… the earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones’ (Gylfaginning, 8). The brothers also created people out of trees they saw growing by the sea: the first man created was called Ask (‘ash-tree’), and the woman Embla (‘elm’). Odin next built Asgard, having created the earth from the body of a giant, rather than the other way around as in the Abrahamic religions.

Odin is strongly associated with wisdom. His desire for knowledge is such that he willingly hangs himself on Yggdrasil in order to be granted knowledge of the runes he had seen the Norns using to determine Fate:

I know that I hung on a windy tree

Nine long nights

Wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

Myself to myself,

[…]

I took up [learned] the runes, screaming I took them. (Hávamál, 138; 139)

Odin says he sacrificed himself to himself, which only make sense when we remember that he is the Alfaðir and relate his sacrifice to an intellectual journey.

On another quest for knowledge, Odin travels to Mimir’s Well, which leads to the kingdom of the frost-giants at the root of Yggdrasil. Mimir’s Well contains wisdom and intelligence, and naturally Odin wants some: ‘All-Father went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get one until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge’ (Gylfaginning, 15). He also disguises himself as a slave in order to obtain a mouthful of the Poetic Mead from the giant Suttungr, transforming into an eagle to make good his escape before spitting it into goblets at Asgard.

Odin’s 2 ravens, Huginn and Muninn (‘thought’ and ‘mind’), fly around the world, and whisper news into the god’s ears to improve his knowledge. He also goes on shamanic journeys himself, whilst his physical body appears to be dead or sleeping, according to Snorri’s Ynglinga saga. Thus in iconography Odin is usually depicted as a traveller with one-eye and ravens on his shoulders, emphasising his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Despite Snorri’s appellation, Odin is not the father of all the gods, but did sire the important deities Thor and Baldr. ‘Wednesday’ is a derivation of ‘Woden’s [Odin’s] Day’.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Thor’s Fight with the Giants by MÃ¥rten Eskil Winge, Stockholm, 1872. Wikimedia Commons

Thor

Thor is the thunder god, the son of Odin, and father to Módi, Magni, and Thrúd. Though attested throughout the pre-Christian period in Scandinavia, Thor rose in popularity when the missionaries arrived, becoming a symbol of resistance to the conversion (see final item on this list). His popularity rivalled, and even surpassed, that of Odin, leading some scholars to posit that Thor and Odin were the heads of separate pagan pantheons that were eventually amalgamated, with Thor being originally the god of craftsmen and farmers, Odin the god of chieftains and politicians. ‘Thursday’ is a derivation of ‘Thor’s Day’.

Thor is rarely seen without his great hammer, Mjölnir (‘crusher’), with which he chiefly slays giants. Indeed, Thor’s role as a god seems to be, chiefly, the destruction of the jötnar: skaldic poems dedicated to him from a few years before Iceland was Christianised simply list the names of giants he has killed. Mjölnir was made for Thor by Eitri the dwarf:

Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that with it Thor would be able to strike whatever came before him with as mighty a blow as he wished, because the hammer would never break. (Skáldskaparmál, 5).

From its inception, Mjölnir was designed for one thing in particular: ‘it provided the best protection against the frost giants’ (Skáldskaparmál, 5). The boastful giant Hrungnir (‘brawler’) is challenged to a duel by Thor, who cleaves the vainglorious jötunn’s skull in two, but Thor is also capable of killing giants without Mjölnir, the theft and recovery of which forms the plot of many tales. In one story the giant king Geirrod steals Mjölnir, and so Thor instead kills him with a red-hot iron, and then slays his three daughters (one with a rock, the others by accidentally sitting on them).

Thor is the god most associated with people. The Hymiskvida of the Poetic Edda calls him ‘the protector of humans’ (22), whilst he is often attended by the human bondsman Thjálfi. The closeness of Thor and people is attested by the archaeological record, in which the only talismans associated with the Norse gods are images of Mjölnir, usually worn as necklaces. Thor’s principal means of travel is by a chariot pulled by two billy-goats, Tanngniost (‘tooth-gnasher’) and Tanngrisnir (‘snarl-tooth’). His other chief possessions are iron gloves and a belt of strength, first used in his slaying of Geirrod (Gylfaginning, 21).

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Freyja Riding with her Cats by Ludwig Pietsch, London,1874. Wikimedia Commons

Freyja

Freyja, daughter of Njörd, is the only female member of the Vanir to be named, and her name translates simply to ‘lady’. Snorri is full of praise for her:

Freyja is the most splendid of the goddesses. She has a home in heaven called Folkvangar [‘warriors’ fields’. Wherever she rides into battle, half of the slain belong to her… She drives a chariot drawn by two cats. She is easily approachable for people who want to pray to her… She delights in love songs, and it is good to call on her in matters of love. (Gylfaginning, 24)

Snorri describes Freyja as ‘beautiful and powerful’ (Gylfaginning, 24). Her beauty makes Freyja the frequent subject of the jötnar’s amorous attentions, and her gigantic suitors are slain by Thor. She is also attested to be promiscuous, and is accused of nymphomania by Loki – ‘of the Æsir and the elves, who are in here/ each one has been your lover’ (Lokasenna, 30) – and even of incest: ‘you were astride your brother, all the laughing gods surprised you/ and then, Freyja, you farted’ (Lokasenna, 32). This promiscuity explains why ‘it is good to call on her in matters of love’.

Like Thor, Freyja’s popularity rose in the last years of Norse paganism. We have preserved a record from Iceland in which a Christian was outlawed (a serious punishment, which meant the condemned could be killed without penalty by anyone) for blaspheming her name. This man, Hjalti Skeggjason, sang a ditty in which he called Freyja a bitch (probably meaning ‘whore’ in this context) at an assembly. By contrast to the depiction of women in the Abrahamic religions, Freyja’s sexual potency is praised, and she is so powerful a goddess that she shares dead warriors only with Odin.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Illustration of Loki, Iceland, c.1680. Wikimedia Commons

Loki

Loki is the son of the giant Fárbauti, and thus in terms of paternal lineage he is not one of the Æsir: Snorri implies as much when he says describes Loki as ‘also counted among the Æsir’ (Gylfaginning, 33). Loki is the archetypal trickster figure found throughout world mythology: ‘one whom some call Slanderer of the Gods, the Source of Deceit, and the Disgrace of All Gods and Men… Loki is pleasing, even beautiful to look at, but his nature is evil and he is undependable’ (Gylfaginning, 33). Later, Loki and his offspring fight against the Æsir at Ragnarök.

Whilst an ally of the Æsir, however, Loki is willing to sacrifice his own honour to save them, though his slippery nature is manifest in all such incidents. For example, a giant smith once offered to build a wall around Asgard to keep the giants out, but demanded Freyja and the moon and sun as payment. The gods agree, but only if he can do so in one winter. To avoid paying him the agreed price, Loki turns himself into a mare, and distracts the builder’s mighty horse long enough to delay construction. He gives birth to an 8-legged foal.

Loki’s equine son, Sleipnir (‘fast-traveller’), is given to Odin as a gift, but Loki has other unequivocally monstrous children who fight the gods at Ragnarök. By the giantess Angrboda, he has the wolf Fenrir (who bites off Tyr’s hand, and kills Odin at Ragnarök), the Midgard Serpent (slayer of Thor at Ragnarök), and Hel, a half-blue woman who rules over the dead unwanted by Odin and Freyja at the roots of Yggdrasil. As in Sleipnir’s conception, Loki’s untrustworthy character is demonstrated here: he can produce animal offspring, and is willing to sleep with giants, the sworn-enemies of the Æsir.

Ragnarök aside (see final item), Loki’s worst crime is the death of Baldr. Baldr is the wise and handsome second son of Odin, who takes an oath from all things that they will not kill him. Much sport is had by the Æsir in pelting Baldr with things that cannot kill him. Loki is furious about this, and disguises himself as a woman to ask Frigg (who helped Baldr obtain the oaths) whether anything can harm Odin’s son. She reveals that mistletoe was deemed too inconsequential to consult. Loki thus smears a spear with mistletoe, and seeks out Baldr.

Loki hands the spear to Baldr’s blind brother, Hödd, who innocently throws the spear at Baldr, killing him instantly. Baldr is the first Æsir to die: ‘this misfortune was the worst that been worked against the gods and men’ (Gylfaginning, 49). Attempts to revive Baldr fail, Loki’s treachery is discovered, and he is caught by Thor trying to escape justice in the form of a salmon, and chained to a rock for eternity. It is unclear why Loki is not simply killed as punishment, and sparing his life turns out to be a fatal mistake from the Æsir.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
The Ash Lad and the Troll by Theodor Kittelsen, Norway, 1910. Pinterest

The Jötnar

‘Jötnar’ describes all of the giants in Norse Mythology, the eternal enemies of the Æsir. They are the most ancient beings in the Norse Cosmos, for the first living thing of all was the giant Ymir, who was formed when the heat of Muspellheim melted the ice in Ginnungagap: ‘there was a quickening in these flowing drops and life sprang up, taking its force from the power that sent the heat’ (Gylfaginning, 5). Ymir was nourished with the milk from Audhumla, the aforementioned gigantic cow who was produced shortly after the first giant, also from the melting ice.

As discussed above, Ymir was killed by Odin and his brothers, and from his body the universe was created. Before being slain, a male and female pair of giants emerged from the sweat of Ymir’s left armpit, and thus the race of frost-giants was born. The jötnar thenceforth multiplied, and their race was also called trolls, thurs, and risi. Although it makes sense to include their homeland, Jötunheimr, in the Nine Worlds of Norse Cosmology, the beings lived all over the universe, including the caves and forests of Midgard, and proved a constant nuisance to men and Æsir alike.

Despite being older than the Æsir, and stronger than most of them, the jötnar never manage to slay the gods. Beyond their great strength, jötnar are not known for their intellect; the previously-mentioned story of the wall around Asgard, built by a giant in disguise, is a case in point. Their main interactions with the Æsir are attempting to seduce or capture Freyja, stealing Mjölnir, or making challenges that they inevitably lose. The giants are also usually portrayed as physically grotesque, in which context Loki’s familiarity with them must be interpreted as perverse, to say nothing of his paternal ancestry.

The Þrymskviða (‘Poem of Thrym’) of the Poetic Edda epitomises the portrayal of giants in Norse Mythology. The giant Thrym steals Mjölnir, and demands Freyja as payment for it. Thor and Loki dress up as Freyja and a bridesmaid, and travel to Jötunheimr for the wedding. The giants are too stupid to realise that the bride is, in fact, Thor, despite Freyja’s reputation for beauty and the enormous appetite for food and alcohol ‘she’ exhibits. When Mjölnir is brought before the wedding feast as payment, a laughing Thor seizes the hammer and batters the giants to death in full drag.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
Ragnarök by Louis Moe, Copenhagen, 1898. Wikimedia Commons

Ragnarök

Ragnarök (‘judgement of the powers’) is the demise of the gods and cosmos at the end of the present mythological phase. Though it involves the end of the gods, Ragnarök occurs in 2 parts, the second of which is rebirth. Like most apocalypses, Ragnarök is a complex sequence of events, with several iterations across diverse sources; what follows here is Snorri’s version from Gylfaginning, 51-53. Events begin with the Fimbulvetr (‘extreme winter’), which will be 6 consecutive winters, the first 3 of which will witness terrible battles motivated by greed and enmity: ‘the sun will be of no use’.

Next, ‘the wolf will swallow the sun… then the other wolf will catch the moon’. In Norse cosmology, the sun, Sol, and moon, her sister Máni, are chased across the sky by the wolf Fenrir’s offspring, Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson. The stars shall disappear from the sky, and a great earthquake will break all the bonds of those in captivity – including Loki and Fenrir. The sea will surge onto the land, and Loki’s other monstrous son, the Midgard Serpent, will advance across the land alongside Fenrir. From the south will advance Surtr, a giant with a flaming sword.

The giant is accompanied by the other inhabitants of Muspelheim, and Surtr’s fiery sword will melt the Bifrost Bridge, and all the Æsir’s enemies will assemble at the plain called Vigrid (‘battle-plain’) for the final battle of Ragnarök. Yggdrasil shall shake, ‘and nothing, whether in heaven or on earth, is without fear’. Tyr fights the wolf, Garm, guardian of Helheim, and both die. Thor kills the Midgard serpent, but takes 9 steps and dies himself. Odin and the einherjar fight Fenrir, but Fenrir will swallow Odin. Fenrir is killed by Vidar. Loki and Heimdall will fight and kill one another.

After this, Surtr ‘will throw fire over the earth and burn the whole world’. However, this is the beginning of a new age. ‘The earth will shoot up from the sea, and it will be green and beautiful.’ The gods that survive will be Vidar, Vali, Modi and Magni, armed with Mjölnir, and Baldr and Hödd will escape from Helheim; all live happily together. Completing the rebirth are Lif (‘life’) and Leifthrasir (‘life-yearner’): ‘[at] Hoddmimir’s Wood, two people will have hidden themselves from Surtr’s fire… from these will come so many descendents that the whole world will be inhabited’.

12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology
King Olaf I arrives in Norway with Christian missionaries, Peter Nicolai Arbo, Norway, 1860. Wikimedia Commons

The Christianisation of the Nordic Countries

The Christianisation of the Nordic Countries took place between the 8th and 12th centuries. Officially, all of Scandinavia was converted to Christianity by the latter date, though it took more time to die out amongst all people in the region; the Sami people of the far north were not converted until the 18th century (though their religion was not that of Thor and Odin). Denmark was the first to give up Norse paganism (at least officially) when King Harald Bluetooth declared conversion in c.975 AD. Norway followed (after earlier unsuccessful attempts) in the early-10th-century reign of Olaf II.

Sweden was all-but Christian by the 12th century, but Iceland provides more of a conundrum, for whilst its conversion took place in 1000, paganism was initially permitted in private. However, this partially explicates the importance of Iceland to our knowledge of Norse Mythology. Most of the great sources for our knowledge of Norse paganism – not least Snorri – are Icelandic. Iceland was, historically, a very literate country (and still has a strong tradition of reading and writing today) which, in addition to its religious tolerance, made it the perfect place for pagan legends and sagas of heathen heroes to be recorded.

Christianisation was not a pleasant experience for the Nordic countries. As a case in point, the first canonised Scandinavian, Saint Olaf, brutally enforced conversion in Norway by killing those who would not comply. Converting to Christianity was often motivated by practicality and self-interest, rather than an acceptance of its particular truth. Harald Bluetooth, for instance, converted Denmark to maintain his independence from Germany. The Christian missionaries were also well-travelled, well-educated, and well-connected: accepting their faith meant improving trade and diplomatic alliances with the rest of Europe, which was a boon to the seafaring mercantile economies of the North.

As for much of Europe, with Christianity came the death of the old religion. The medieval church was fiercely-intolerant of other faiths and diversions from its dogma and ritual, and so religious subversion was extremely rare. The Christianisation process also required the destruction of temples, carvings, and folk-customs related to paganism, effectively wiping heathenism from the history books. This is why piecing together Norse Mythology is so very difficult; nevertheless, it is miraculous that so much evidence has survived. Though we will never know the precise details of Norse paganism, we can still stare in wonderment at what remains.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Brown, Nancy Marie. Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of the Norse Myths. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Viking & Norse Mythology. London: Chancellor, 1996.

Ferguson, Robert. The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. London: Penguin, 2010.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mortensen, Karl. A Handbook of Norse Mythology. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. Ed. by Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 1988.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Trans. by Jesse L. Byock. London: Penguin, 2006.

The Poetic Edda. Trans. by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996.

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