This is an overview of Norse mythology, its backdrop and main deities, surfing through the complex and rich legacy of Heathenism.
The bulk of this Indo-European mythology took shape in Germanic Europe, around 1000 BCE. The sources recounting the tales of old are scarce, as Germanic and Scandinavian societies mostly relied on oral traditions to convey their system of beliefs prior to the works of medieval poets, somewhere around the first millennia AD and on.
Few literary sources document Norse mythology and I will be mostly following the versions of the myths recorded in the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson of Iceland, in the 13th century. Although Sturluson was a Christian, he recorded the collection of stories as perhaps he would have heard them from his father and grandfather before him.
Myths serve as a collective way of explaining the phenomenon that surround us. Why does the sun and the moon rise and set? What is rain, thunder and lightning? Who created life and why? Where do we go when we die?
Nowadays, it is difficult to take a myth at its face value, as pre-Darwinism societies could…Perhaps the world was not created from a cow licking a frost giant out of the ice, as the Norse creational myth implies. However, we can appreciate the stories for the metaphors they convey and connect with the archetypes populating these myths.
Myth has existed since the birth of man, for man creates myth to explain that which lays beyond his grasp.
On this note, here is an abridged survey of Norse cosmology and its pantheon .
The Nine Worlds
The colorful layout in the above representation makes the Norse cosmology easier to understand.
The Great Ash, Yggdrasil, links and balances the Nine Worlds. Imagine the worlds stacked on three planes, like plates separated by spacers. Yggdrasil has three roots, each embedded in one of the planes. Where the roots pitch, a spring wells.
The Tree of Life cares for and protects all beings in the Nine Worlds but suffers in the endeavor: deer nibble its leaves and buds, the dragon Nidhogg gnaws on its roots, and Ratatosk the squirrel scurries up and down carrying insults from the dragon to the eagle at the crown of the tree.
The Nine Worlds are:
Asgard: Land of the Aesir, warrior gods
Alfheim: Land of the Light Elves
Vanaheim: Land of the Vanir, the fertlity gods
Midgard: Land of Man
Nidavellir: Land of Dawrfs
Jotunheim: Land of Giants
Svartalfheim: Land of Dark Elves
Niflheim: The Frozen World of the Dead comprising Hel’s Realm of the Dead
Muspellheim: Land of Fire
Asgard and Midgard are linked by Bifrost, the flaming or rainbow bridge. Interestingly enough, other realms are connected by wormholes, inter dimensional gateways connecting two remote locations at a pin point-modern day physics present in ancient mythology, why not?
Odin is the Allfather, the God of gods. He presides over Asgard and oversees all from his throne in his hall. He is the god of poetry, runes, warfare and death. He often roams the land hiding under a large rimmed hat to conceal his identity. He hung from a tree for nine nights and, on a different occasion, sacrificed one eye to gain wisdom and knowledge. He rides Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse born to Loki, and carries the spear Gungnir. He is often depicted with two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, and two wolves, Geri and Freki. Epithets: the One-Eyed god, the Terrible One, the God of Battle, God of the Hanged
Thor is the god of strength and the son of Odin. He is the protector of men and the slayer of giants. He wields Mjollnir, an indestructible hammer, forged by the dwarfs. Thunder roars with every hit of his hammer. Thor rides a goat-drawn chariot.
Freyr is the god of fertility, virility and crops. He is the son of Njord, god of the wind and the sea, and brother of Freyja.
Tyr is the God of war, son of Odin. He is bravest and boldest. He sacrificed a hand for the binding of Fenrir the wolf until the coming of Ragnarok.
Heimdall is the guardian of Bifrost, the flaming bridge. He is gifted with superior sight and hearing. At Ragnarok, he will sound his horn Gjall, raising the call to the End of Days battle.
Loki is the trickster god. With his sharp wits, he hinders and pesters the gods, yet he helps them out of difficult situations. He is ambivalent at best but soon grows evil as time inches closer to Ragnarok. He is a shapeshifter: he can morph into any human, giant or animal (often using a hawk skin to fly). As in the imagery above, Loki finds himself paying the price for his retribution against the gods of Asgard and, following his refusal to cry the death of Balder, Loki is caught by the gods and bound to a rock until Ragnarok. In another instance, his lips are sewn shut. His children are: Sleipnir the horse, Jormungand the serpent, Fenrir the wolf and Hel goddess of the Realm of the Dead. Epitheths: The Sly One, The Shapeshifter, The Deceiver, The Sky Traveller.
Balder is the fairest, wisest and gentlest of gods. His dreams are plagued with visions of his impending death. His mother Frigg vows to prevent his passing and obtains an oath from all living-and non living-things in the Nine Worlds swearing not to harm her son. The oath is sworn by all but one. Frigg overlooks a holly sapling. Loki tricks and guides the blind god Hod into shooting the sapling turned arrow at his brother, hence killing Balder and fulfilling the dream visions. Balder is greatly mourned and given a grand funeral; his body is placed on a boat that carries him to the afterworld. He lands in Helheim, forced to live an eternity in the dreary halls of Hel.
More on other gods below.
FREYJA & FRIGG
Freyja and Frigg can appear as distinct goddesses or are sometimes melded into one. In any case, they share similarities. Frigg is Odin’s wife and perceived as the Allmother. She is associated with motherhood and is linked to witchcraft. She assists Odin in choosing the spirits of slain warriors granted passage to Valhalla. Freyja is the daughter of Njord, god of the sea, and sister of Freyr. She is associated with love, fecundity and the harvest, as well as war. Freyja rides to battle in a cat-drawn chariot and is linked to witchcraft, magic and divination. The falcon skin she owns allows her to travel to the afterworld and return with prophecies. Freyja cries tears of gold.
Idun is the keeper of the golden apples granting eternal youth to the gods. A pranking Loki steals the apples, laughing as the gods wither with old age. He returns the fruits before long, sneering at their vanity.
Skadi is a goddess whose father, a giant, was slain by the gods of Asgard. As reparation for the crime, she demands a husband. To settle the debt, Odin agrees and she marries Njord for a while. She is associated with hunting, winter and skiing.
Hel is a monster goddess presiding over the Realm of the Dead. Her upper body is that of a maiden and her legs are those of a corpse. She receives the deceased who have passed from old age or sickness. Her hall is cold and dark, her table leaves her guests hungry and thirsty. She lies in Sick Bed and is tended by two old servants. She is the daughter of Loki.
The Norns are the three goddesses of destiny who sit at the well of Urd. They weave the threads of destiny, for men and gods alike, slating all from birth to death. Fate is a constant of Heathen philosophy. The Norns tend to Yggdrasil, each day sprinkling well water on its branches to nourish and nurture the suffering tree.
The Valkyries are beautiful maidens who choose the warriors doomed to die in battle and worthy of Valhalla. In the heavenly golden hall, they tend to the Einherjar, the dead warriors who fight by day and feast by night, providing them with drink and pleasure until the coming of Ragnarok.
Fenrir is a monstrous wolf and the son of Loki. He is bound and restrained by the gods. At Ragnarok, he swallows the heavens and tears up the earth. He kills Odin and dies at the hand of Vidar, son of Odin.
Jormungand is a gigantic serpent, hideous and fearsome. He swallows his tail, the Ouroboros, ringing the oceans of Midgard. He is caught by Thor, who tries to slay him, but escapes. At Ragnarok, Thor and the serpent fight each other and die in battle. He is Loki’s son.
AND…Lest we forget
Aegir, god of the sea. He lives in a hall of gold shining like fire.
Forseti, god of justice.
Bragi, god of poetry and eloquence.
Honir, god known for his indecisiveness. He survives Ragnarok and succeeds Odin as foremost leader in the rebirth of the new world.
Ull, god of archery and dueling.
Vali and Vidar are half brothers and Odin’s sons. Vali kills Balder’s murderer while Vidar kills Fenrir to avenge Odin’s death at Ragnarok. Both survive the End of Days.
Njord, God of sea and wind.
Hermod, Balder’s brother. He travels to the Realm of the Dead and fails to negotiate Balder’ release from Helheim.
Var, goddess who hears marriage oaths and punishes oath breakers.
Vor, goddess who sees the truth. Nothing evades her.
Snorta, goddess of self-discipline and wisdom.
Saga, goddess who drinks from the well of Urd with Odin
Sif, Thor’s wife. Fair goddess of fertility with a set of gold-spun hair.
Hlin, Gna, Fulla, handmaidens to Frigg.
Eir, goddess of healing.
Sjofn and Lofn goddesses who ignite and unite forbidden love.
As you can see, Norse mythology is populated by a wide array of deities, each mirroring different aspects of the human psyche.
In future posts, I will explore various tales involving the pantheon.
Myths fuel fiction. Enjoy!