Norse mythology comes from the northernmost part of Europe, Scandinavia: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. The mythology of this region is grim, shadowed by long, sunless winters. But the darkness is laced with gleams of grandeur and sparks of humor. The myths depict a universe in which gods and giants battle among themselves in a cosmic conflict fated to end in the destruction of the world.
Background and Sources
Norse mythology developed from the myths and legends of northern peoples who spoke Germanic languages. It shares many features with the mythology of pre-Christian Germanic groups. When some of these groups spread into England and Scandinavia, they carried their myths with them. As they converted to Christianity, their traditional beliefs faded. But Christianity did not take hold in Scandinavia until a later date, and the Norse version of Germanic mythology remained vigorous through the Viking era, from about a.d. 750 to 1050. Modern knowledge of Norse mythology stems from medieval texts, most of them written in Iceland. Descendants of Norse colonists in that country maintained a strong interest in their heritage even after becoming Christian.
A major source of information about Norse mythology is a book called the Poetic Edda, sometimes known as the Elder Edda. It consists of mythological and heroic poems, including Voluspa, an overview of Norse mythology from the creation to the final destructive battle of the world, called Ragnarok. The unknown author who compiled the Poetic Edda in Iceland around 1270 drew on materials dating from between 800 and 1100.
Around 1222, an Icelandic poet and chieftain named Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, or Younger Edda, which interprets traditional Icelandic poetry for the audiences of Snorri's time. Part of the Prose Edda describes a visit by Gylfi, a Swedish king, to the home of the gods in Asgard. There the king questioned the gods about their history adventures, and fate.
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about a.d. 500 to 1500
saga story recounting the adventures of historical and legendary heroes; usually associated with Icelandic or Norse tales of the Middle Ages
Norse mythology is known from other Scandinavian texts as well. Many Norse poems refer to mythic events or figures. In the early 1200s, Icelanders started writing family sagas about their ancestors and heroic sagas about their legendary heroes. Many of these sagas contain references to mythological subjects. Also in the 1200s, a Danish scholar named Saxo Grammaticus wrote a history of the Danish people that begins with an account of their pagan gods and ancient heroes. Works by earlier Roman and medieval historians also include information about Germanic and Norse myths. In a.d. 98, for example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote Germania, a description of the Germanic tribes that mentions some of their religious beliefs and customs.
Major Deities and Figures
like the Greek deities, the Norse gods and goddesses have all the characteristics of larger-than-life human beings. Unlike the Greek deities, however, they seldom interact with human beings. The world of Norse mythology includes two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir, as well as giants, trolls, elves, dwarfs, and heroic human warriors.
The Aesir. The Aesir were gods of war and of the sky. Chief among them was Odin, god of battle, wisdom, and poetry, who was regarded by the Vikings as the ruler of the deities and the creator of humans. The mighty Thor, warrior god of thunder, ranked as the second most important Norse deity. Tiwaz, an early Germanic sky god who became Tyr in Norse mythology, appears in some accounts as a son of Odin. Balder, also Odin's son, was a gentle, beloved god. Murdered, he descended to the underworld, to return after a new world had been created. Loki, a cunning trickster, sometimes helped the other gods but more often caused trouble because of his spiteful, destructive nature. The sky goddess Frigg was Odin's wife and the patron of marriage, children, and households.
The Vanir. The Vanir were associated with the earth, fertility, and prosperity. In the beginning, the Aesir and Vanir waged war against each other, perhaps reflecting an actual historical conflict between two cultures, tribes, or belief systems. Realizing that neither side could win, the two groups of gods made peace and together fought their common enemy, the giants. To ensure a lasting peace, some of the Vanir came to Asgard, the home of the Aesir, as hostages. Among them were Njord, the patron of the sea and seafaring. His twin children, Freyr and Freyja, were the most important Vanir and represented love, sexuality, and fertility The giants' desire to capture Freyja was one cause of strife between the gods and the giants.
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
deity god or goddess
underworld land of the dead
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
supernatural related to forces beyond the normaf world; magical or miraculous
Other Mythological and Legendary Beings. The supernatural beings who inhabited the Norse mythic world included elves, creatures related to humans; and dwarfs, skilled crafts workers who made many of the finest treasures of gods and humans. The most powerful and dreaded mythological beings were the giants, huge beings associated with ice, snow, and paralyzing cold. They were descended from Ymir, the frost giant, who was killed by Odin and his brothers. Although the giants were generally enemies of the gods, many marriages took place between deities and giants. Both the mother and the wife of Freyr, for example, were giantesses.
|Norse Deities and Other Supernatural Beings|
|Balder||Odin's son, gentle and handsome god|
|Bragi||god of poetry and music|
|Fenrir||monstrous wolf, child of Loki|
|Freyja||goddess of love and fertility, twin of Freyr|
|Freyr||god of fertility and prosperity, twin of Freyja|
|Frigg||wife of Odin, goddess of the sky, marriage, and childbirth|
|Heimdall||god who guards Asgard, the home of the gods|
|Hel||goddess of the dead, child of Loki|
|Idun||goddess of fertility, spring, and rebirth|
|Loki||trickster figure, companion to the gods|
|Mimir||giant who guards the well of knowledge|
|Njord||sea god, father of Freyr and Freyja|
|Odin||god of wisdom, battle, and poetry, and ruler of the gods|
|Thor||god of the sky and thunder, associated with the weather, crops, and warriors|
|Tyr||god of war, justice, and order|
|Valkyries||female spirits, servants of Odin|
|Ymir||frost giant whose body was used to form the world|
epic long poem about legendary or historical Heroes, written in a grand style
destiny future or fate of an individual or thing
chaos great disorder or confusion
Although human beings appear rarely in Norse myths about the gods, Norse literature is filled with legends of heroic warriors, kings, and ancestors. The most important is the Volsunga Saga, written around 1300. The Norse version of the German epic the Nibelungenlied, it tells the story of Sigurd, a hero who slays a dragon, acquires a magical ring, awakens a sleeping beauty (the Valkyrie* Brunhilde), and bravely meets his destiny. Like Beowulf, another Germanic hero, Sigurd triumphs over the forces of evil and chaos by slaying a monster.
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Major Themes and Myths
Bravery in the face of a harsh fate is one of the main themes of Norse mythology. Even the gods were ruled by an unalterable fate that doomed everything to eventual destruction. A hero who strove to accept his destiny with reckless courage, honor, and generosity might win lasting fame, regarded as the only true life after death.
Creation. Various accounts of the creation of the world and of human beings appear in Norse mythology All begin in Ginnungagap, a deep empty space between realms of heat and ice. Frost formed and became a giant, Ymir. A cosmic cow named Audhumla also appeared. Licking the cliffs of ice, she revealed a man who had three grandsons. One of them was Odin. With his two brothers, Odin killed the frost giant Ymir and formed the earth from his body, the seas and rivers from his blood, and the sky from his skull, which was held suspended above the earth by four strong dwarfs.
The Voluspa says that Odin and his brothers made the first man and first woman out of an ash tree and an elm tree. They gave the humans life, intelligence, and beauty. A poem called "The Lay of Vafthrudnir," however, says that the first man and first woman grew out of Ymir's armpits before he was killed.
The Universe. Once they had killed Ymir, Odin and the other gods created an orderly universe in three levels. Although journeys between the different levels of the universe were possible, they were difficult and dangerous, even for the gods. The top or heavenly level contained Asgard, the home of the Aesir; Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir; and Alfheim, the place where the light or good elves lived. Valhalla, the hall where Odin gathered the souls of warriors who had died in battle, was also located on this level.
Connected to the upper level by the rainbow bridge Bifrost was the middle or earthly level. It contained Midgard, the world of men; Jotunheim, the land of the giants; Svartalfaheim, the land of the dark elves; and Nidavellir, the land of the dwarfs. A huge serpent called Jormungand encircled the middle world. The bottom level consisted of the underworld of Niflheim, also known as Hel after Loki's daughter Hel, who ruled there.
The Last Days
The Voluspa is presented as the vision of an old woman who can predict the future. She paints a bleak picture of the war and lawlessness into which the world will plunge on the brink of Ragnarok. There will be
an axe-age, a sword-age,
shields will be cloven,
a wind-age, a wolf-age,
before the world's ruin.
After three bitter winters with no summers in between, great wars will erupt throughout the world, and fire will destroy everything. However, Balder, Thor's sons, and some minor gods will survive. They will sit on the green grass of the new world and talk of Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent and battles past.
Running through this universe from bottom to top, holding it all together and linking the three worlds of heaven, earth, and underworld, was a great ash tree called Yggdrasill. Its branches spread over the heavens, and its roots stretched into all three worlds. Springs rose from these roots. One, the Well of Urd, was guarded by the Norns, the three goddesses of fate. A serpent or dragon named Nidhogg gnawed endlessly at the Yggdrasill's roots, and an eagle perched on its topmost branch. Goats, deer, and other animals ate the tree's shoots and lived in it, and a squirrel named Ratatosk ran up and down its trunk, carrying messages and insults between the eagle and Nidhogg.
Good Against Evil. The gods represented order in the universe, but their enemies the giants tried constantly to return to the state of formless chaos that had existed before the creation. Although the gods sometimes displayed treachery cowardice, or cruelty, in general they stood for good against evil.
Other entries related to Norse mythology are listed at the end of this article.
Myths describe the gods' interactions with one another and with the giants. One story, for example, tells how Loki helped a frost giant kidnap Idun, the goddess who tended the golden apples that kept the gods young. Without the magic apples the gods began to age, and they demanded that Loki rescue Idun. Donning a feathered cloak, he flew to Jotunheim, changed the goddess into a nut, and brought her back to Asgard. The giant took the form of an eagle and pursued Loki. But the gods lit a fire on the walls of Asgard that burned the giant's wings, causing him to drop to the ground, where the gods killed him. The giant's daughter was furious. However, Loki the jokester made her laugh, and she made peace with the gods.
Another myth tells of Fenrir, a wolf who was one of several monstrous children that Loki fathered. Fenrir grew up in Asgard among the gods, but he was so fierce that only Odin's son Tyr could feed him. Fearing what Fenrir might do, the gods tried to chain him down. The wolf, however, broke every metal chain as though it were made of grass. Odin ordered the dwarfs to produce an unbreakable chain. The suspicious Fenrir would not let the gods put it around his neck until Tyr placed his hand in the wolf's mouth. Once he discovered that he could not break this new chain, the enraged Fenrir bit Tyr's hand off. The gods left Fenrir bound on a distant island, from which his howls could be heard. When the final battle of Ragnarok approaches he will break free.
Ragnarok. The twilight of the gods and end of the earth began when Loki used trickery to kill Balder, whose death was a sign that the orderly universe was falling apart. The gods chained Loki to a rock, but eventually he will break loose and lead the giants in a last bitter battle against the gods and the greatest heroes from Valhalla. The bridge Bifrost will shatter, cutting Midgard off from Asgard, and all monsters will run free. Fenrir will kill Odin, while Thor will perish in the process of slaying the serpent Jormungard. In the end, all worlds will be consumed by fire and flood. One man and one woman will survive, sheltering in the World Tree Yggdrasill, to become the parents of a new human race.
Norse mythology inspired the stirring poems and sagas that were written down during the late Middle Ages, and it has inspired more recent artists as well. German composer Richard Wagner used the legend of Sigurd as the basis for his cycle of four operas, known collectively as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Some modern writers of fantasy have drawn on Norse stories and creations such as elves and dwarfs in their work. The best known of these is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings features many themes from Norse mythology, such as dragon slaying and enchanted rings. High-spirited and muscular Thor, the subject of many of the most popular myths, has even been the subject of a comic-book series called The Mighty Thor. In one form or another, the Norse gods have managed to survive Ragnarok.
See also Balder; Beowulf; Berserks; Dwarfs and Elves; Fenrir; Freyja; Freyr; Frigg; Heimdall; Hel; Idun; Loki; Mimir; Nibelungenlied; Odin; Ragnarok; Sagas; Sigurd; Thor; Trolls; Tyr; Valhalla; Valkyries; Yggdrasill; Ymir.