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.
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.