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Norse mythology

Norse mythology represents the early pre-Christian religion, beliefs and legends of the Scandinavian people, also known as the religion of Ásatrú or Odinism.

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 and Heimskringla, 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 Elder Edda (also known as the Poetic Edda) was probably written down circa 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 are inclined to 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. It may be thought of primarily as a handbook for aspiring poets, which lists and describes traditional tales which formed the basis of standardised poetic expressions, such as "kennings". 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, although it should be firmly noted that this is conjecture.

Against the gods were arrayed the iotnar (singular: iotunn or Jotun), 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 Jormungand the sea-serpent (or "worm") that was coiled around the world. 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, and Ratatusk, the squirrel which scampered in the branches of the world ash, Yggdrasil which is central to the conception of this world.

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 Jotunheim (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.

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.

In the Voluspa, 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".

The world was created by obscure deities called "Bur's sons" who lifted it out of Ginnungagap, 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 (Loki), and this world-view bears close comparison with the Norse take on creation.

Sol was the goddess of the sun, a daughter of Mundilfari, and wife of Glen. Every day, she rode through the sky on her chariot and this passage was known as Alfrodull, meaning "glory of elves", and this in turn was a common kenning for the sun, pulled by two horses named Alsvid and Arvak. She was chased during the day by Skoll, a wolf that wanted to devour her. Solar eclipses signified Skoll had almost caught up to her. It is fated that Skoll will eventually catch Sol and eat her; though she would be replaced by her daughter. This parallels her brother, the moon, Mani, who was chased by Hati, another wolf.

The earth was protected fom the full heat of the sun by Svalin, who stood between the earth and Sol. In Norse belief, the sun did not give light; this was caused by the manes of Alsvid and Arvak.

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. 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 of 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 primarily 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. This may reflect a pragmatic and empirical approach to life that contemporaries might label as "existentialist" or "Darwinian." In his work "The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans," Hans Gunther links it to the "naturalistic" views of Thomas Jefferson and other scholars of the Enlightenment.

An important insight into the laconic and pragmatic character of Norse mythology often neglected in encyclopedic works is that the Nordic peoples evolved in very harsh frost-zone environments of this planet, much like the Eskimos, and were very dependent on developing forms of technology to cloth themselves and survive cruel winters and fish in violent oceans in nasty weather. For fishermen (a relatively high proportion of the Scandinavian population) the outlook was bleak; they stood a much greater chance of dying at sea than living to a ripe old age. (This is reflected in the dearth of middle-aged and elderly men buried in old cemetaries of Norwegian fishing villages relative to old women or young children of both sexes who died from disease). The Viking ship, referred to as "a poem carved in wood," was "high tech" for its era, as was Viking navigation. The Viking sword reflected advanced metallurgical skills. The Germanic peoples developed their own "runic" alphabet called the "futhark." Relative to other societies of the time, the Norsemen were an innovative "techno" people, and their attitude towards religion reflected a "technological" approach to life. To this day, Norwegians, Icelanders, and other Scandinavians (to include the Finns, who are actually more "Finno-Ugric" than "Nordic") have one of the highest literacy rates and book, magazine, and newspaper consumption rates per capita compared to other peoples on the planet. Scandinavia is also ahead of most other areas of the world in terms of the number of high tech companies per capita and has always produced a disproportionate number of agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers. (Eskimos, incidentally, also excel in high tech environments, such as working as jet engine repairment at air bases north of the arctic circle).

The stories that comprise what is left of 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 every man's desire and so on. The gods are also given very human fallacies and interests. Icelandic scholar Magnus Magnussen, author of "Viking: Hammer of the North," suggests that there was a stoic, pragmatic, rationalistic side to the Nordic character that tended to treat the mythological figures as allegorical rather than as literal entities, aware that questions of ultimate meaning required a more poetic, intuitive approach. They were capable, much like ancient Roman and Greek historians, of dissociating the secular from the religious.

The form of worship practiced by the ancient Scandinavians closely resembled that of the Celts: it occurred mostly in groves[?] and forests. Some recorded accounts mention occassional instances of human sacrifice such as an Arab account of a girl in Russia who chose to die so that she could accompany her Viking lover to the afterlife, or Swedish King On in the Heimskringla who sacrificed nine of his sons in an effort to prolong his life until his subjects stopped him from killing his last son (there is no indication that this was an institutionalized practice or more than the twisted whim of a particularly cruel and selfish king). A possible example of Odinic sacrifice is Tollund Man. Archaeological evidence for this practice might consist of bodies perfectly preserved by the acid of the Danish peatbogs into which they were cast after having been strangled.

One problem with interpreting death by unnatural causes in primitive societies is that what ancients may have called "human sacrifice" in their day may have fulfilled the same function as such modern terms as "capital punishment," "ethnic cleansing", and "assasination." As an example, there are accounts in ancient Sweden that when things started to go really badly, there were instances where the people would rise up and turn their king into a human sacrifice. Is this really "human sacrifice," or a primitive form of "Cromwellian" or "French Revolutionary" republicanism in disguise?

Another problem is the lack of quantitative data on the degree of certain behaviors relative to other societies. The Norsemen had slaves, but so did everyone else; what is significant is that they had a large free farmer or "bonder" class which participated in parliamentary "things", later reflected in the large English yeoman class of the Middle Ages, and never had a large peasantry, slave class, or pyramidal social structure as did societies further to the south. This was a very "middle class" society. Most men in Norse society were free men and were expected to carry a weapon such as a sword or spear as a mark of their manliness (recorded by the Roman writer Tacitus in his work "The Agricola and the Germania.") Their indulgences in human sacrifice were generally more sporadic and less characterized by institutionalized "superstition" relative to other societies of their day. The thought patterns of their leaders were very similar to the secular writers of ancient Rome and Greece. (The Sabine and Oscian tribes that formed the Roman Republic and Patrician class, and the Ionian and Dorian peoples who formed Greece of the heroic and classical eras were Nordic peoples who migrated from the north). Getting back to the Tollund man, we have no written accounts that explicitly interpret the cause of the hanging. It could have been no more "Odinic" (or more accurately, related to "Tyr," as explained later) than the hanging of outlaw horse thieves and bank robbers in the old American West. Truth be told, we just do not know what the real motivation was, and the scholars who associate Tollund man with "Odinic sacrifice" simply because Odin was associated with death by hanging (among dozens of other associations) may be telling us more about their biases than about the real Tollund man.

Another important problem in interpreting indigenous religious mythologies is that often the closest accounts that we have to "pre-contact" times were written by Christian missionaries or Christian converts who were obviously biased against the former faith, and even taught to refer to it as the work of the Devil. This is true whether we are talking about Native Hawaiian and Native American religions or the old Norse religion. As a case in point, the prose Edda and Heimskringla were written by Snorri Sturlusson over two hundred years after Iceland became Christianized around 1000 AD. The anti-pagan political climate in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark was so oppressive that virtually all of the saga literature ended up coming out of relatively tiny Iceland, and even there Sturlusson had some Christian "political correctness" constraints that he had to work around. The Heimskringla, which is owned today by as many families in Norway as the Bible, provides some interesting insights into this issue. Snorri Sturlusson introduces Odin as a mortal war lord in north central asia who acquires magical powers, and becomes a demi-god following his death. Having undercut Odin's divinity, Sturlusson then provides the story of the pact by Swedish King On with Odin to prolong his life by sacrificing his sons. This does not make Odin look good. Perhaps Sturlusson front-loaded the Heimskringla with some negativity towards Odin as a sop to the Christian establishment in Iceland. Later in the Heimskringla, Sturlusson records in detail how Viking converts to Christianity such as "Saint" Olaf Haroldsson used ruthless campaigns of repression to forcefully convert Scandinavians to Christianity, using such means as burning down homes, gouging out eyeballs, and resorting to mass drownings. Odin is treated more sympathetically and appears as an old grey bearded travelor (somewhat similar to the human form that Zeus takes in Greek mythology) with a broad-rimmed hat who reminds Nordic folk of the "good old days."

When one reads through the Heimskringla and other histories of the Viking era and its aftermath, and counts up who commits what atrocities, one does not necessarily get an impression of Christian moral superiority. The Vikings go from raiding and harrying each other as pagans in "intramural" tribal contests to William the Conqueror's utterly brutal conquest and consolidation of Britain as a "Christian." We see the Crusades where Christianized Germanic peoples massacre Islamic peoples in the name of Jesus who they previously peacefully traded with as pagans. "Christian" government also seems to be less decentralized and more intolerant, idelogically driven, and bureaucratic than in pagan times. In some instances we go from occasional "pagan" human sacrifices to massive "Christian" witch hunts and witch burnings. Is this progress? With the advent of Christianity we do not necessarily get rid of aggression, social injustice, and immorality, we simply rearrange and skew the style, motives, subtlety, and ideological nature of these things.

Last but not least, another problem with interpreting Norse mythology is that the religion may have been distorted during the era in which was recorded by the fact that during the Viking Age, Norse society was under considerable stress while at war with Christians for hundreds of years, on an ideological as well as physical level. Hans Gunther argues in "The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans" that the more militant and warlike deity Odin may have gained ascendancy as a supreme diety compared to Tyr, who may have been more prominent in an earlier, more normal and peaceful setting. This is analogous to how Christian theology changed during the Crusades or during the America's horrific Civil War, when Northerners grimly sang about the "terrible swift sword (of the Lord)" while watching seemingly endless streams of loved ones come home in coffins or permanently maimed, compared to the brand of Christianity practiced in more normal times.

   
Some scholars believe that 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. The lateness of architectural development may have been due to a feeling that the spirit of a supreme being was so great that it could not be adequately contained within or defined by walls. The beautiful old stave churches that still exist in Norway (a replica exists at Disney World!), with dragon heads and carvings of pagan heroes in the woodwork, may have pre-existed the introduction of Christianity. Some scholars argue that Norse mythology never really died out, but simply became blended with Christianity. (For example the "trinitarianism" often found in pagan Indo-European religion went from Odin, Thor, and Frey to emphasizing a Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The cross, which resembles Thor's Hammer, became more popular than the fish symbol for Christianity more widely used elsewhere, and "Ragnorak" morphed into end-world interpretations of the Book of Revelations). The blending was particularly true in Iceland, where under the threat of an armed Norwegian Christian invasion, the Icelandic parliament voted in Christianity, but tolerated paganism in the privacy of ones home. Hence the more tolerant atmosphere that allowed the development of saga literature which has been a vital window to help us better understand the pagan era.

While a kind of priesthood seems to have existed, it never took on the professional and semi-hereditary character of the Celtic druidical class. The head of a cult was called a godi[?], who was like the head of a kindred group of families. There was not the feeling that one had to go through a priest or prostrate oneself to have a valid religious experience, but that each individual had enough worth and dignity to experience the gods on his or her own terms. One Icelandic writer referred to Icelanders as "an aristocratic people with egalitarian tendancies," and these traits were reflected in the style of Norse pagan worship.

Like that of the Celts, the ancient Norse and Germanic religions have left significant 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 - Freya's day

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

Nore mythology also influenced Richard Wagner's use of literary themes from it to compose the four operas that comprise The Ring of the Nibelung.

J. R. R. Tolkien borrowed extensively from Norse mythology in the fantasy fiction work Lord of the Rings. In the Marvel Universe, the Norse Pantheon and related elements play a prominent part, especially Thor who has been one of the longest running superheroes for the company.

More recent have been attempts in both Europe and the United States to revive the old pagan religion under the name Asatru or Heathenry. In Iceland Asatru was recognized by the state as an official religion in 1973, which legalized its marriage, child-naming and other ceremonies.

 
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 cosmology/The Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology

Lists of Norse gods and mythological figures

Norse gods

Norse sea gods[?]

Norse giants

Norse dwarves

Other assorted beings

Places

Events

Artifacts

Humans

Archaeological evidence

See also: Numbers in Norse mythology, Norse mythological influences on later literature; alliterative verse; skald

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[?] (also known as the Codex Regius)

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