Norse Mythology | The origin of the myths and legends of the Nordic Gods !
Norse mythology and Scandinavian, although less well known than that of the Greeks or Romans, is today one of the greatest sources of inspiration in popular culture. The modern adaptations that draw their scenarios from it are countless!
Whether in the fabulous universe of Marvel, or the cold and bloody world of the Vikings series, Scandinavian mythology amazes. It fascinates as much by the stories of its gods and by its unique symbolism, as by the role it played in the birth of the greatest civilization of Europe: the Vikings!
Get ready to discover the richness of Norse mythology in this article. We’ll reveal the origin of Norse folklore, the meaning of its symbols and how these beliefs shaped the Viking civilization!
Norse Mythology: the birth of the Scandinavian legends!
The Viking Age (between 790 and 1100 AD) is the period during which Norse mythology spread throughout Europe. Just before the influence of Christianity and the church took over this civilization, Viking folklore was the secret of the greatness of the Scandinavian people.
What we know today as “Norse mythology” is not only a collection of stories and myths about fascinating gods and fantastic creatures. This mythology is at the same time a philosophy, a doctrine, but above all the religion that gave meaning to the life of the Vikings.
The Scandinavian civilization was intimately linked to the Nordic landscapes, to their environment and to the harsh and merciless climate where they were located. They were the major source of inspiration for the myths of this pagan religion.
Despite this, the Vikings remain one of the least understood peoples of modern times. This is largely due to the demonization of their culture by the church in the Middle Ages.
However, recent years have seen a huge resurgence of interest in Norse folklore in popular culture. You’d be surprised by the number of works that Norse mythology inspires, some of which you’d never even know existed!
The origin of Norse mythology: the Poetic Edda
The Scandinavians have long been an oral society. They have mainly transmitted their legends, myths and customs in the form of oral poems and songs. This is what makes understanding Norse mythology so complex. In fact, what we know today of Viking legends is only the tip of the narrative and historical iceberg.
The most interesting pre-Christian source of Norse mythology is the Poetic Edda. It is a collection of poems written in Old Norse dating from the 13th century, gathered in a single collection: the Codex Regius. They relate events spanning the entire Viking era.
The poems of the Poetic Edda do not have precise authors. They would be a retranscription of songs and scaldes, or “skald”. Skald meaning in Old Norse “a poetic sound”. They are Scandinavian lyric poets who would be at the origin.
Moreover, the Codex Regius contains only a part of these poems (31 in total) divided into two categories: mythological and epic. That said, many other poems are classified in the Poetic Edda, without being included.
The extracts of the Norse mythology which contain the Poetic Edda are :
- The Völuspá: it is the prediction of a seer, the völva. She tells the god Odin the whole history of the Viking universe, from its creation to Ragnarok, even taking an interest in its revival. In this story, she reveals many prophecies that will come true later;
- The Lokasenna: this poem tells the quarrel between Loki and the other Aesir gods. It is an impressive poem, because it takes up the rivalry that will lead to the imprisonment of the god Loki and the triggering of Ragnarok;
- The Hávamál: whose name means the words or advice of the Most High. These are the benevolent words of the god Odin to the Vikings, transcribed in a long poem of 165 stanzas. He gives many advices to his believers on how to live and survive the most hostile environments.
As for the epic poems, they tell the story of 19 Viking heroes and their exploits.
Other historical sources of Norse mythology
Several years after the Poetic Edda, more precisely during the medieval period, two other sources of Norse mythology were written:
- The Edda in prose by the great Snorri Sturluson: this is the greatest masterpiece of Norse and Scandinavian literature. Written during the 11th century by the great historian Snorri, he reorganized the poems to better present the course and chronology of Norse mythology;
- Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus : this book traces the history of the Danish kingdom and its legendary kings, in particular that of Ragnar Lodbrok. It was largely influenced by Christianity. It remains nevertheless a reliable source of Viking mythology. It elaborates with precision the fate of the Viking gods, who according to the legends would have become human kings.
It is essentially thanks to these two sources that Norse mythology resurfaced in the 18th century. This same fascination will be at the origin of the first researches of history on the Scandinavian and Viking civilization.
However, historians still advise to keep a critical eye on the myths and legends told in these books, especially because of the Christian context of their writing.
Of course, there are many other sources on Norse mythology, but they have often had a minor role for historians. They include: the Hauksbók, the Landnámabók, and Völsunga saga.
In contrast to the latter, non-Germanic sources are considered to be a mine of valuable information about Viking civilization and folklore. Historians refer to the most important ones:
- Germania by the great historian Tacitus: written in the year 98, it traces the origin of the Germanic peoples, ancestors of the Vikings;
- The Gaulish War written by Julius Caesar: this book tells of the exploits and victories of King Caesar. It cites the way of life of the Nordic peoples, as well as their unfailing courage in battle.
The beginning of the Viking world
According to the Poetic Edda, the Scandinavian universe was at the beginning only an immense endless void: the Ginnungagap. It was bordered by two original kingdoms on either side:
- To the north lies Niflheim, a lifeless world dominated by ice and cold. From this realm flow three icy rivers: the Élivágar ;
- On the southern side, there is another kingdom opposite to the first one, Muspellheim, made of heat, fire and light.
From the Völuspá, the infallible source of Norse mythology, we learn how the Scandinavian universe came into being. The Elivágar gradually make their way to the center of Ginnungagap, eventually encountering the heat of Muspellheim, which melts them into drops of water.
From this water, the first being of the Nordic universe will be born: “Ymir”, the original giant. Soon after, the steam from the meeting of cold and heat of these opposite worlds will give birth to a giant cow: Audhumla. A “mother” cow, from which four rivers of milk flow to feed Ymir.
Ymir will give birth to the lineage of the terrible giants, or Jötunn, enemies of the gods. The cow Audhumla, for her part, will create “Buri”, the grandfather of the god Odin, by licking a block of ice from Niflheim.
This marks the beginning of Norse mythology. As we continue to read the Völuspá, we discover the origin of the gods and the giants, and the cause of the rivalry that continues between them until the end of time. If you are intrigued by the story of the creation of the Viking world, you can discover it in more detail in our article on the god Odin.
Norse mythology is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for many literary and cinematographic works, including the Marvel comic book “Thor”, the successful series Vikings, but also several Japanese mangas!
Indeed, it may surprise many, but this same legend inspired the Japanese manga with worldwide success “Shingeki no Kyojin or Attack of the Titans”. The story takes place in a world where the giants, or titans, represent a real power of destruction. In addition to this reference to the Jötunn, we discover later that all the giants come from the original titan “Ymir”.
The Hof, pantheon of the Nordic gods
In Norse mythology, the gods are divided into two clans. The Aesir or Æsir, are warriors and sovereign masters of the 9 worlds, whose leader is none other than Odin. The Vanes or Vanir, are essentially gods linked to fertility with divinatory powers.
There are also other deities that do not belong to these two families and that play a fundamental role in the Viking culture.
The main Aesir gods
Based in Asgard, the Aesir are the main deities of Norse mythology. At their head, the god Odin guides the pantheon of deities and makes it a benevolent force that takes care of men, and protects them from the omnipresent threat of the giants.
Odin, the primordial Viking god
The god Odin is the supreme deity of Norse mythology. He has many names, but he is best known by “Alfödrt”, which means: father of all gods and creator of men. His thirst for wisdom and power made him the ruler of the 9 worlds, and the most glorious warrior of the universe.
Frigg, the Queen of Heaven
Wife of the god Odin, and queen of the gods and the kingdom of Asgard. She possesses powers of premonition, and is the only being allowed to sit on the Hlidskjálf throne, apart from Odin. She can see everything that happens in the nine worlds.
Thor, the destructor of giants
Son of Odin, he is the god of lightning and thunder. Armed with his hammer Mjöllnir, he is the greatest enemy of the giants, because he controls all the elements and is characterized by an immeasurable strength. Many consider him to be the most powerful Viking god.
Baldr, Odin’s favorite son
God of love and light, he is an Ases god loved by all, but whose death was foretold by the Völuspá. When Baldr begins to have sinister dreams of his death, his mother Frigg resolves not to let him die. She swore an oath to everything in existence never to harm him, except for mistletoe. This unfortunate oversight had harmful consequences later on.
Loki, the god of chaos
The god Loki is the master of cunning and malice. He is an omnipresent character in Norse mythology, who has proven to be of great help to the Aesir gods in the worst situations. It is his deviousness that will lead to the death of the god Baldr, and that leads him to be banished from the Aesir kingdom. He is imprisoned in a cave until Ragnarok.
Sigyn, faithful wife of Loki
Wife of Loki, and mother of his two children, this goddess remains faithful to him against all odds. In spite of her husband’s unforgivable crime, and the punishment that the Aesir gods put him through, she remains at his side in the worst situations.
When the Aesir chains Loki in a cave, a snake is placed above him. This one lets venom flow on Loki’s face. Sigyn, unable to bear the suffering of her husband, resigns herself to collect this venom in a container, and this until the end of time.
Heimdall, messenger of Ragnarok
Heimdall is a major god of Norse mythology. His name means in Old Norse the white or flaming god. He has the heavy task of watching over the Bifröst, a bridge made of a rainbow, which connects the world of the gods “Asgard”, to that of the Vikings “Midgard”.
When the day comes, he announces to the Aesir the beginning of Ragnarok by blowing into a mythical Lur, the “Giallarhorn”. During the prophetic end of the world, he kills the god of malice, Loki.
Týr, the ancient essential god
He is the god of justice. He would have been the major deity of the Germanic people before the later arrival of Thor and Odin. Despite this, he remains at the center of many legends, including that of the imprisonment of the wolf Fenrir.
Vidar, avenger of the god Odin
Divinity born from the union of Odin and Gríðr, a beneficent giantess. She gives Thor his belt and magic gloves, without which he cannot wield his magic hammer.
Vidar, on the other hand, is described as the god of vengeance. More powerful than Thor himself, he avenges the death of the god Odin by killing the terrible wolf Fenrir. Afterwards, he manages to survive Ragnarok, and to make the world be reborn a second time.
Vale, or Vali, avenger of Baldr’s death
Son of Odin and the goddess Rind, he was born with the sole purpose of avenging the death of his older brother Baldr. He is only one day old when he kills Höd who, bewitched by Loki, has mortally wounded Baldr. Of all Norse mythology, he is the only deity, apart from his brother Vidar, to have the title of vengeful god.
Idunn, the goddess of immortality
Idunn is the Asyne goddess of immortality and eternal youth. In Viking mythology, the Norse deities are mortal, and age like men. In order to preserve their youth, and to obtain their power of immortality, Idunn gives them magical apples that revive their spirits.
The main deities of the Vanes
Few names of gods are remembered among the Vanes. Apart from their chief Njörd, god of the sea and the winds, only the legends of Freyr and Freyja are well known.
Despite their secondary integration into the Aesir, the goddess Freyja and her brother Freyr are the two most notable gods of the Vanes. Many historians state that after resolving their longstanding feud, the Vanes join the Aesir and all live peacefully together in Asgard.
Lódur or Lytir, the brother of Odin
He is one of the three primordial gods along with Odin and their brother Honir. Son of the god Bor and the giantess Bestla, they rose up against the reign of the giants by killing their leader and mother Ymir.
In Norse mythology, it is from the body of Ymir that the universe was born. It is also during one of their adventures that the three brothers created the first man from a dead tree trunk: while Odin breathed life into him, Lodur gave him all his senses.
Freya or Freyja, the first Valkyrie
The goddess Freya is undoubtedly the most emblematic and venerated goddess of the Nordic pantheon. Goddess of fertility, beauty and love, she is desired by both gods and men.
Nevertheless, underneath her grace and feminine elegance lies a formidable warrior. Freya is the first and most powerful Valkyrie. She leads half the troops of the gods during the Ragnarok.
Frey, or Freyr, the third primordial god
Along with Thor and Odin, Frey is one of the three fundamental gods of Norse mythology. He represents the god of fertility, fecundity and prosperity, often associated with the sun and light. Despite his pivotal role in Scandinavian civilization, and an importance attested by eminent historians, few legends about Frey have come down to us.
Other Viking deities
Aegir & Ran, the masters of the sea
Aegir is the personification of the oceans and the sea in Norse mythology. Despite the fact that he belongs to the clan of giants, he is described as a close friend of the Aesir gods, for whom he organizes many banquets.
Endowed with great magical powers, he was granted the privilege of marrying the goddess Asyne “Ran”. This goddess is also linked to the sea since she protects men from drowning by fishing them out of the water with a magic net. These two complementary deities protect the Vikings during long sea voyages.
Angrboda, the mother of desolation
This jötunn, or Viking giantess, is known in Norse mythology as a source of destruction and desolation, and moreover, was the mistress of the god Loki. He had with her 3 children: the wolf Fenrir, the snake Jörmungandr and the goddess of death Hel; filthy creatures at the origin of Ragnarok.
Hela or Hel, the queen of the dead
Daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, she is exiled by the gods to the world of the dead. Goddess of death, Hel takes all the souls of Vikings who did not have a glorious end to Helheim, a dark and cold kingdom. During the Ragnarok, all these souls will reinforce the ranks of Loki’s army against the Aesir gods.
Sol & Mani, the sun and the moon
In Scandinavian culture, the sun and the moon are described as goddesses continually pursued by two creatures of darkness. Thus, Sol, goddess representing the sun, and Mani, incarnation of the moon, try to escape from two giant wolves: Sköll and Hati; who are none other than the children of the wolf Fenrir.
When the Ragnarok will sound, these two wolves will finally succeed in devouring these goddesses. Fortunately, before their death they will give birth to a new celestial star, which will continue their mission after their death.
Norse mythology in Viking society
Norse mythology was an integral part of Viking daily life. What proves this point with certainty is the common use of the term “síður” to refer to it. “Síður” means “custom or usage” in Old Norse, and is the closest thing to a religion that the Scandinavians had.
Of course, the beliefs of the Vikings have changed a lot over the ages, and differ from one region to another. However, there is archaeological evidence of devotion to specific gods.
Each Nordic god had his own powers and privileges that he attributed to his followers. This explains why the Viking civilization worshipped and called upon several Nordic gods through numerous rituals.
Indeed, according to the historian Adam of Bremen, there is a large temple in Uppsala, Sweden, where the Vikings met every 9 years. In this sacred place, there were images and effigies in honor of the god Odin, Thor, but also Freyr.
During this great ceremony, the Vikings cut their long braids and sacrificed animals and human beings by tying them to the trees of the sacred grove. According to Norse mythology, this ritual, which might seem barbaric, brought fertility, prosperity and glorious victories to the Vikings.