Norse Mythology 101 - by George Allan

Key terms:

Viking age: period between roughly 800-1100 CE when Norsemen known as Vikings undertook large-scale raiding and colonising.

Snorri Sturluson: Icelandic historian and poet, born in the late 12th century. His Edda is the most extensive source for Norse mythology. Also has a great name.

The Nine Realms: the universe in Norse mythology is split into nine separate realms. The most important are Asgard (the realm of the gods) and Midgard (Earth, the realm of humans).

Yggdrasil: the World Tree, believed to be at the centre of the universe. All nine realms of Norse mythology stemmed from Yggdrasil.

Valhalla: meaning "hall of the slain", Valhalla is an enormous hall in Asgard, ruled by Odin. Half of those who die in battle will go to Valhalla, preparing to assist Odin for when Ragnarök comes.

Norns: female beings who create and control fate, which even the gods are subject to.

Frost Giants: the Frost Giants - or jǫtnar - come from the realm of Jotunheim and are the traditional enemies of the gods in Norse mythology. It is important to note that the term giant in this sense does not necessarily mean large in size, and jǫtnar may be described as both beautiful and grotesque.

Ragnarök: meaning "Fate of the Gods", Ragnarök is a series of events foretold in Norse mythology including battles, natural disasters and the death of many of the gods. None can escape their fate in Ragnarök, and afterwards the world will be born again.


Norse mythology has a diverse and complex history, rooted in Germanic culture and custom. It is perhaps more connected to other parts of the ancient world than we often think, with Snorri Sturluson (the most prominent source for tales from Norse mythology) tracing the origins of the gods back to the Trojan War, much like Greece and Rome. Nonetheless, Norse mythology is undoubtedly distinct, with its own canon of gods, monsters and mythological tales. Norse culture is most closely associated with the Vikings of Scandinavia and evokes images of great bearded warriors, frozen wastes and roaring fires. More importantly, it contains plenty of toilet humour and a massive wolf. Interestingly, the events of Norse mythology are all predetermined, hurtling inevitably towards the wolf's jaws (literally) in Ragnarök, the doom of the gods. But just who were these gods? Who were the major figures around them? And just what is so important about this wolf?


Odin

We start with the All-Father himself. Also known as Wotan or Woden, Odin is one of the oldest Germanic gods, and is referenced as early as the 1st century CE by the Roman author Tacitus. By the Viking age, Odin was the preeminent god in the Norse canon and the ruler of Asgard. Known as the all-father of the gods, Odin is often depicted as an old man with a spear and a long beard. He is a war god and a great magician and is associated with runes. He is also the god of poets. He is connected to both the wolf and the raven, and in fact has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, with whom he watches over the Nine Realms. He also has an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir. Odin only has one eye, as he threw the other in the giant Mimir's well to gain wisdom. He also hanged himself from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights to gain knowledge of each of the Nine Realms. Sadly for him, Odin will be killed by the great wolf Fenrir during Ragnarök.


Odin doing his best Gandalf impression. By Georg von Rosen, 1886.
Odin doing his best Gandalf impression. By Georg von Rosen, 1886.

Freyja

Freyja is a goddess with many associations, including love, fertility, sex, beauty, war and gold. She rules over the heavenly field Fólkvangr, where she receives half of those who die in battle. Freyja has a brother called Freyr – her parents weren't very creative – and is described in the Edda as "the most glorious" of the goddesses. Interestingly, Freyja retained her supernatural status way beyond the Viking age, maintaining religious significance in areas of Iceland and Sweden as late as the 19th century. It seems that Freyja had many forms, and was received and interpreted in different ways throughout the Viking era and beyond. She is associated with cats, and her chariot is pulled by two of them (anyone who has owned cats will confirm that this seems impractical).


Thor

We all know Thor, the most famous of the Norse gods and sometimes avenging superhero. He has transcended Norse myth into our contemporary cultural consciousness. But Chris Hemsworth's heroic Avenger is somewhat different to the Thor of mythology. Son of Odin and god of thunder, but also god of farmers and free people, Thor is the defender of Asgard and his strength and might are uncontested. His superhero origins here are evident. However, he is incredibly temperamental. He is of course equipped with the hammer Mjolnir, which only he can lift, but also the magic belt Megingjord which increases his strength, and the iron gloves Járnglófar, which just look nice. On one occasion, the giant Thrym steals Mjolnir, leaving Asgard undefended. Thrym demands Freyja as his bride in exchange for the hammer, so Thor dresses as a bride and pretends to be her to infiltrate the giant's keep. Once reunited with the hammer, he reveals himself and slaughters all the giants in revenge. Thor's archenemy is the great snake Jǫrmungandr – he is fated to die fighting Jǫrmungandr during Ragnarök.


Loki

Another from the Marvel canon, Snorri Sturluson undoubtedly would have foreseen Tom Hiddleston's popularity on Twitter. Loki is the trickster god of Norse mythology, as well as being a shapeshifter. He is not the son of Odin nor the brother of Thor, but actually the son of a Frost Giant. As such, his allegiance to the Norse gods is often in question. Much like his Marvel equivalent, Loki is neither good nor evil, but rather a representation of chaos and disorder. There are many stories in Norse mythology of Loki doing something to threaten the gods' safety and then being forced (usually by Thor) to make amends. Loki has three children with the giantess Angrboda – Hel, Jǫrmungandr and Fenrir – who will all play a major role in the events of Ragnarök. Loki himself is in fact responsible for the events of Ragnarök, as his trickery and mischief will cause the death of Odin's son Baldr. As punishment, he is tied to a rock with the venom of a snake dripping constantly on his face. Loki's release from his prison will signal the beginning of Ragnarök, and he will fight alongside the jǫtnar in the final battle between gods and giants. He will die fighting Heimdall in the brawl (but in a different timeline will grab an infinity stone and get his own series on Disney+).


Tyr

Tyr is the one-armed Norse god of war. He represents battle and bloodshed but perhaps confusingly also symbolises justice and order. Like Odin, Tyr is one of the oldest Germanic gods, and his name comes from the same root as those of Zeus and Jupiter. Consequently, he was probably a very significant god early on, but his importance in Norse religion waned. Tyr is best known for the story of the chaining of Fenrir, the great wolf. The gods were understandably concerned with Fenrir's fate and raised him in Asgard so as to keep him in sight at all times. Tyr was the only one who would approach Fenrir to feed him. The wolf soon grew too large and they had to prevent him from wreaking havoc across the nine realms. They repeatedly attempted to chain Fenrir up, telling the wolf that the bonds were a test of his strength; no chains were able to hold him. The gods turned to the dwarves of Svartalfheim, who were able to forge a magic, unbreakable chain called Gleipnir. The chain was made of a cat's footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains and the breath of a fish: essentially, things that don't exist, and therefore are futile to struggle against. Fenrir didn’t trust the gods' test of strength with the suspiciously light and slim Gleipnir and only consented to being bound by it if one of the gods laid their hand in the wolf's mouth as a promise of good faith. Tyr was the only one to volunteer, knowing he would lose an arm in the process. Sure enough, when Fenrir realised he couldn't escape, he bit off and swallowed the god's arm. As you've probably guessed by now, Tyr dies during the great battle at Ragnarök.

Tyr and Fenrir by John Bauer, 1911
Tyr and Fenrir by John Bauer, 1911

Valkyries

The Valkyries are female warriors who lead fallen warriors to the halls of Valhalla. The meaning of their name is ‘choosers of the slain’ – they were believed to choose who lives and who dies in battle. Though often depicted as noble and heroic maidens, their darker and more gruesome side is also highlighted in several sources such as the Volsunga, which compares looking at a Valkyrie to staring into a flame. The Valkyries were by nature strongly associated with the afterlife, which in Norse mythology was quite unclear. Half of those who died in battle went to Valhalla, the other half to Fólkvangr with Freyja. Others, however, would go to Hel.


Hel

Just a heads up: Hel in Norse mythology is confusing. It's important to note that Hel is not the same as Christian Hell, and there are differing accounts of the moral judgement of those who go there, with some sources suggesting it was the place for wicked and evil men and others simply stating it was for those who did not die in battle. It is clear however that while Valhalla and Fólkvangr were part of Asgard in the heavens, Hel was seen as the underworld. The most famous occupant of Hel was Baldr, and he is described as neither wicked nor evil. Even more confusingly, the location Hel is ruled over by the being Hel, the daughter of Loki. Hel is not a goddess but a giant and is generally underdeveloped in literature. She may simply be a personification of death and the underworld. Her face is described as half black and half white, with a perpetually fierce expression.

Jǫrmungandr

Another child of Loki, Jǫrmungandr – or the Midgard serpent – is a huge sea snake that surrounds the whole world. He is the archnemesis of Thor and has two encounters with the thunder god: the first when Thor tries to pull him from the ocean with a fishing line, and the second at Ragnarök, where the two are fated to kill one another. Jǫrmungandr was what Norse people used to explain earthquakes, but don't write that in your geography exam.


Fenrir

Finally, we come to Fenrir, the talking wolf who runs wild and devours half the cosmos. The third child of Loki and Angrboda, Fenrir was, as we know, tied up by the gods with the magic chain Gleipnir. A sword was also placed in his mouth, keeping his jaws open. The foam from his mouth formed a river called Van, meaning ‘expectation’, foreshadowing the chaos the wolf will bring when Ragnarök comes. He will break free at this point and run across the worlds, with his lower jaw to the earth and his upper jaw reaching to the sky, consuming everything in his path. He will even kill Odin himself. He will eventually be slain by Odin's sons and Ragnarök will end, and the few remaining gods will meet at Idavoll to watch the world be born anew.


Further reading:

The Prose Edda: http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/EDDArestr.pdf

The Poetic Edda: https://ia802608.us.archive.org/24/items/poeticedda00belluoft/poeticedda00belluoft.pdf

A good podcast episode on the Norse gods: https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/guide-norse-gods-mythology-carolyne-larrington-podcast/

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, 2018) is a fun and accessible retelling of the most prominent stories from Norse mythology.

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