When the Vikings first began their raids on England in 787, they had their own pagan religion. Many stories were told about the numerous gods, giants, and monsters that made up Norse mythology. Our knowledge of Norse gods might begin and end with the fact that almost all of the days of the week are named after Norse deities, but most of us would find it difficult to recall any more information about the religious beliefs of the Vikings.
It is a shame that a classical education leaves us with a better understanding of the Greek and Roman myths, while the Vikings are sometimes left behind. The Vikings left their mark on the English language and our psyche, and what they believed is important and well worth discovering. Let us have a closer look at some of the Norse gods.
Loki is known as the trickster god. He is the son of the giantsFárbauti and Laufey and the father of Hel; the spelling is different but the meaning is the same. Hel governs the place of the same name where she receives a percentage of the dead. Loki’s ability to father beings such as a wolf (Fenrir) and a serpent (Jörmungandr) is overshadowed by his ability to give birth (in the form of a mare) to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
Having parents who were both giants put him on a collision path with the gods, as giants are the enemies of the gods. Loki’s actions bring about events that would lead to the destruction of the gods. The death of the beautiful Baldr leads to mass mourning across Asgard.
Loki does not share the remorse and takes every opportunity to show his true feelings. During a punishment ritual which included three boulders being placed under his shoulders, loins, and knees, and a snake dripping venom on him, Loki caused earthquakes across the world.
The goddess Frigg used all of her powers to bring Baldr back from the dead. To achieve this she needed all beings to weep for his return. Loki refused and Baldr was sent to the realm of the dead to spend some quality time with Loki’s daughter, Hel.
Thor is Odin’s most famous son. Thor is associated with thunderstorms and oak trees, and he also protects mankind and is a representative of healing and sanctification. Not only did he have a hammer, but also a magical belt, which doubled his strength. During a thunderstorm, Thor would ride his chariot across the heavens and lightning would strike whenever he threw his hammer.
The name of Thor’s hammer is Mjollnir, and his belt is called Megingjard. Mjollnir could crush mountains, which was very handy for Thor as he was often involved in a number of battles, most notably against the terrifying serpent Jormungandr. During Ragnarök, the day the world will end, Thor will kill Jormungandr, but unfortunately will die from the serpent’s poison. Upon Thor’s death, his sons will inherit his hammer.
Thor was not against shaking up the establishment. The story of him dressing up as a bride was a courageous act in a society where cross-dressing provoked great anger. During the theft of his hammer by one of the giants, Thor dresses up as a bride to woe the giant, he takes part in the wedding ceremony, but as soon as the hammer is delivered as part of the bargain, Thor grabs it and destroys the giant in a single blow.
Thor’s popularity can be measured in a number of ways, most notably the many pagan temples dedicated to him. Excavation of large numbers of “Thor’s Hammer” pendants also point to his popularity. We can also gauge his popularity by the number of personal names in the Viking Sagas that include the component ‘thor’, for example, “Thorstein” for men, and “Thorunn” for women. We also have the red-haired, bearded god to thank for the word Thursday.
Our only goddess in the list is the wife of the god Odin. Frigg concerns herself with marriage and motherhood and is the patroness of both. She is also the goddess of love and fertility. Frigg is the daughter of Fjorgyn, the goddess of Earth.
Her role as the patroness of marriage and motherhood is helped by her ability to be able to know every person’s destiny, but crucially she never reveals it. Women often prayed to her for the safe labor and delivery of their babies.
In some Viking myths, it is rumored that Frigg had love affairs with her husband’s brothers, Ve and Vili. According to the Ynglinga saga, Odin had gone traveling and Ve and Vili started to obsess over Odin’s substantial holdings. The brothers were convinced Odin would not return, and they began dividing up Odin’s inheritance. Eventually, they turned to Frigg, “but his wife Frigg they shared between them. However, a short while afterward, Odin returned and took possession of his wife again.” (The Poetic Edda).
As Thor gave his name to Thursday, Frigg is remembered in Friday, from the Old English “Frige’s Day”. Similar to other Norse gods, Frigg’s name can be found in several place names in Norway and Sweden.
Baldr is the pretty boy of the gods, the original poster child for the Vikings. Baldr is the son of Odin and Frigg and is considered to be the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation. With those credentials, it is no surprise to learn that he was considered the best of the gods and was loved by gods and men. His lack of power was compensated by his good character, described as friendly, wise and eloquent. Baldr’s wife was Nanna and their son was Foresti, the god of justice.
The majority of stories which surround Baldr are associated with his death. For some time Baldr had dreamed of his death. Hoping to calm her son, Frigg extracted an oath from every creature, object, and force in nature. The oath takers promised never to harm Baldr. The invincibility of Baldr led the gods to use him as a target practice for knife-throwing and archery. Unfortunately for Baldr, good looks and a winning personality come with their cost, most notably, jealousy.
The trickster Loki was jealous of Baldr, and he managed to extract information from Frigg about Baldr’s invincibility. The information stated that Frigg had decided not to ask the mistletoe plant to take the oath. Frigg believed the plant to be too small and insignificant to ask for an oath. Loki did not waste any time and rushed to the west, grabbed the mistletoe and tricked Baldr’s blind twin brother into throwing a mistletoe dart at Baldr. Guided by Loki, the dart pierced Baldr’s heart and he died.
Baldr’s wife died of a broken heart and was placed next to him on his funeral pyre. The pyre was placed on Ringhorn, the largest ship in the world, alongside Baldr’s horse and his treasure. The ship was set on fire and sent to sea by the giantess Hyrrokin. Baldr will return when a new world arises from the ashes of the battle between good and evil, known as Ragnarok.
Odin is the main divinity in the Norse pantheon of gods. He is known as Alfadir (Allfather), the father of the gods. He is the father of Baldr, Hod, Herod, Thor, and the giantess Grid. Odin concerns himself with war and death, and he is also the god of poetry and wisdom. His relationship with death allows him to speak to the dead and question the wisest amongst them. His position on his throne allows him to observe everything that happens in the nine worlds.
Odin’s possessions include a spear, called Gungnir, which never misses its target, the ring Draupnir, and his eight-footed horse Sleipnir. The wolves Freki and Geri accompany Odin on his travels. The wolves feed off the food Odin drops for them, while Odin consumes nothing but wine.
Odin’s physical appearance is interesting. He has only one eye, but that one eye blazes like the sun. The story behind the loss of his other eye explains how Odin became so knowledgeable. The eye was traded for wisdom at the Well of Wisdom, where, true to form, Odin consumed more drink. This story reinforces the idea that Norse gods were susceptible to pain.
Odin gave the gift of writing to his children and had a true life-long love of learning. On his shoulders rested two ravens, Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”). The birds would circle the Earth each day, collecting information and then reporting back to Odin. Odin loved both birds but had a soft spot for Muninn, which shows the importance he placed on keeping written records.