Norse mythology

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Norse mythology represents the early pre-Christian religion, beliefs and legends of the Scandinavian people.

Most of this mythology was passed down orally, and much of it has been lost. Happily, some of it was captured and recorded by enlightened Christian scholars such as (particularly) Snorri Sturlusson in the Eddas, who rejected the idea that pre-Christian deities were devils. Quite similar mythologies were held by more southerly Germanic tribes.

Exceptions to this shortfall in documented resources relating to the mythologies of early Germanic societies can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Beowulf sagas and the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus. Limited information exists in the Germania of Tacitus. But the Eddas remain our main source of information.

The Poetic Edda was probably written around 1275 by the scribe Saemund. It contains 29 long poems, of which 11 deal with the Germanic deities, the rest with legendary heroes like Sigurd the Volsung (the Siegfried of the medieval Nibelungenlied).

Scholars think it was written down later than the other Edda, but because of the antiquity of the contents, we know it as the Elder Edda.

The Prose or Younger Edda was written about 50 years earlier and is a handbook for aspiring poets which lists and describes traditional tales which formed the basis of standardised poetic expressions, called "kennings". For example, the sea would be called "the whale's way", and there would be a legend explaining why this expression came to be a standard one. We know the author of the Prose Edda to be Snorri Sturlusson, the renowned Icelandic poet and diplomat whose other masterpiece is the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kingdom.

The Scandinavians recognized two "families" of deities, the Aesir and the Vanir. The distinction is relative, for the two were said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war, which the Aesir had finally won. Some gods belonged in both camps. Some scholars have speculated that this tale symbolized the way the gods of the invading Germanics supplanted the older nature-deities of the aboriginal peoples, but there is no way to prove this.

Against the gods were arrayed the iotnar (singular: iotunn), generally translated as "giants", although "trolls" and "demons" have been suggested as suitable alternatives. Some of these are mentioned by name in the eddas, but they are generally symbolic representations of natural phenomena or psychic states. There were thought to be two general types of giant: the frost-giants, who symbolised the severe winters of the area, and the hill-giants, who symbolised the mountains. The ancient Scandinavians also believed in the existence of elves and dwarfs, whose role is shadowy but who were generally thought to side with the gods. In addition there were all sorts of other supernatural beings: Fenris (or Fenrir) the gigantic wolf, and the sea-serpent (or "worm") that was coiled around the world and thus kept it together, for instance: these two monsters were described as the progeny of Loki, the god of evil, and a giantess. More benevolent creatures were Hugin and Munin (thought and memory), the two ravens who kept Odin the chief god appraised of what was happening on earth.

The gods lived in a place called Asgard, the location of which is unclear but which might have been located in the sky, since it was reached by means of the rainbow (the Bifrost bridge). The Giants lived in an equivalent abode called Iotunheim (giant-home). A cold, dark underground abode called Niflheim, was ruled by a goddess called Hel, who was another monstrous child of Loki's. This was the eventual dwelling-place of most of the dead. In between these was Midgard, the "middle paddock", the world as we know it. In the centre of this world stood Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree the branches of which reached to the sky.

The origin and eventual fate of the world are described in Voluspa ("The sybil's prophecy"), one of the most vivid poems in the Poetic Edda. These haunting verses contain one of the most vivid creation accounts in all of religious history and an account of the eventual destruction of the world that is unique in its attention to detail.

The poem presupposes some knowledge about its setting: Odin, the chief god of the Norse pantheon, has conjured up the spirit of a dead sybil (a prophetess or witch) and commanded this spirit to reveal the past and the future. She is reluctant: "What do you ask of me? Why tempt me?"; but since she is already dead, she shows no fear of Odin, and continually taunts him: "Well, would you know more?" But Odin insists: if he is to fulfil his function as king of the gods, he must posses all knowledge. Once the sybil has revealed the secrets of past and future, she falls back into oblivion: "I sink now".

What then was the Germanic view of creation? The world was created by obscure deities called "Bur's sons" who lifted it out of Gingunnagap, a "grinning (or yawning) gap" in which nothing lived but a giant cow and a primordial giant. The gods regulated the passage of the days and nights, as well as the seasons. The first human beings were Ask (ash) and Embla (elm) who were carved from wood and brought to life by the gods Odin, Honir and Lodur (these may all be synonyms for Odin). The sybil describes the great ash tree Yggdrasil and the three norns (female symbols of inexorable fate; their names indicate the past, present and future) who weave the cloth of fate beneath it. She describes the primeval war between Aesir and Vanir and the murder of Baldur. Then she turns her attention to the future.

Few other mythic systems can have as bleak a vision of the future as the ancient Scandinavian. Finally, it was believed, the forces of evil and chaos would outnumber and overcome the divine and human guardians of good and order. Finally, Loki and his monstrous children would burst their bonds; the dead would sail from Niflheim to attack the living. Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, would summon the heavenly host with a blast on his horn. Then would ensue a final battle between good and evil, which the gods would lose, as was their fate (Ragnarok).

The gods, aware of this, were gathering the finest warriors to fight on their side when the day came, but in the end they would be powerless to prevent the world from descending into the chaos out of which it had once emerged; the gods and their world would be destroyed. Odin himself would be swallowed by Fenrir the wolf, the very embodiment of evil. Still, there would be a few survivors, both human and divine, who would populate a new world, to start the cycle anew. Or so the sybil tells us: scholars are divided on the question whether this is a later addition to the myth that betrays Christian influence.

An interesting aspect with this mythology is that it (along with many other polytheistic religions) is utterly lacking in dualism. Though often portrayed as the "bad guy", Loki is not an adversary of the Gods. In fact he is often an ally and resource for Asgard. He is also one of the four gods (under his alternate name of Lodur) that create mankind, along with Odin, Vile and Ve. And even though the giants are generally opposed to the gods, they are possible to parley with (and even to party with!). The problem with giants is just that they are rude, boisterous, malignant, treacherous, uncivilized and homicidal. Not evil per se.

The stories that comprise what is left of the Norse mythology depict the gods and giants as colourful characters. Much like archetypes for human behaviour and abilities. For example Odin embodies wisdom and magic, Bragi is the "super-poet", Freya is everyman's desire and so on. The gods are also given very human fallacies and interests.

The form of worship practiced by the ancient Scandinavians closely resembled that of the Celts: it occurred mostly in groves and forests, and included human sacrifice in various forms: an example of Odinic sacrifice is Tollund Man. Archaeological evidence for this practice has been found in the shape of bodies of sacrificial victims perfectly preserved by the acid of the Danish peatbogs into which they were cast after having been strangled. More evidence can be found in the report which a Muslim explorer wrote of the habits of the Rus, Swedish immigrants to the area of modern Russia and Ukraine. He described how the Rus sacrificed a slave girl to keep her recently deceased master company. Only at a very late stage did a temple cult appear in the more urban areas - Christian missionaries reported seeing a magnificent temple in Uppsala that housed wooden statues of Odin, Thor and Tyr. While a kind of priesthood seems to have existed, it never took on the professional and semi-hereditary character of the Celtic druidical class.

Like that of the Celts, the ancient Germanic religion has left its traces in modern society. An example of this is some of the names of the days of the week:

Tuesday - Tyr's day
Wednesday - Odin's (Woden's) day
Thursday - Thor's day
Friday - Frey/Freyya's day

The Romance languages, on the other hand, used Graeco-Roman deities to partition their week.

Germanic religion also indirectly gave the world's one of its greatest cultural treasures when Richard Wagner used literary themes from it to compose the four operas that comprise the "Ring of the Nibelungen" cycle. Another artistic treasure that was deeply influenced by the Germanic supernatural world is J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". More recent have been attempts in both Iceland and the USA to revive the old pagan religion under the name Asatru.

A common problem when researching things Norse is that the spelling of names varies much depending on one's country of origin. In the articles presented here, several common forms of the names will be presented.

Norse gods

Norse sea gods

Aegir

Norse giants

Utgardaloki, Baugi, Suttung, Thiassi, Skadi, Olvaldi, Gilling, Gerdur Gymisdottir

Norse dwarves

Brok Ivaldi

Other assorted beings

Bur, Ratatosk, Geri and Freki, Hugin and Munin, the Norns, Nidhogg, Fenris, Sleipnir, Elli, Valkyries, Draugrs

Places

Niflheim Muspelheim Jotunheim Midgard Asgard Utgard Valhalla Ginnungagap Bifrost Bridge Hvergelmir Yggdrasil Bilskirnir Briedablik

Events

Fimbulwinter Ragnarok

Artifacts

Brisingamen Draupnir Dromi Skithblathnir Gungnir

Humans

Ragnar Lodbrok, Ask and Embla, Skirnir

Archaeological evidence

Tollund Man, The Temple at Uppsala,

Bibliography

  • Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson
  • The Heroes of Asgard, A & E Keary
  • Handbuch der Deutschen Mythologie, Simrock
  • Younger Edda, Snorri Sturlusson
  • Elder Edda, Saemund

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