|Preach to the choir
|Crux of the matter
|Speak of the devil
|An act of faith
Norse mythology involves the belief-system of pre-Christian Scandinavian people. Historical texts on the topic exist only after Christianization — previous knowledge was spread solely by oral tradition before its commitment to paper in the 12th and 13th centuries. Despite this, it's still better-known than some other pagan mythologies,[note 1] and among
pagan not-widely-practiced-anymore religions, it is arguably second only to the Greco-Roman religion in terms of its impact on modern pop culture (though Egyptian mythology is also up there).
Norse mythology forms a subset of Germanic mythology, with which it shares (for the most part) a common pantheon. Similarities to the Greco-Roman pantheon may be due to: a) Interpretatio romana and b) actual common roots in pre-Christian Indo-European religions
We know very little about pre-Christian Norse religious beliefs: we have no scriptures, just accounts by outsiders and archaeological evidence. There is a body of stories, but they are not documents that tell people how to behave or worship the gods. Archaeology shows considerable variation in religious practice, so it's not clear how representative the stories we have are, or the extent to which they were influenced by other traditions or twisted by storytellers with other purposes.
A variety of entertaining stories were recorded by educated Christian writers, who compiled the Elder Edda (a collection of poetry) and the Younger Edda (a prose work) which contain various myths and legends they heard we know not where. These are the main written sources, although we have a small collection of other remarks recorded by travellers who actually visited the Viking lands in pre-Christian times. The Edda accounts strongly resemble Roman mythology, suggesting a heavy Roman influence on the stories if not the actual practices.
The other source is archaeology. Some finds here corroborate the accounts from the Eddas: we have little hammer pendants suggesting a link to Thor, and images of Valkyries. But evidence from burial practices (the aspect of their lives we have most knowledge of) shows both a lot of variation and a lot of really weird shit that archaeologists have no idea what it means, but it certainly doesn't fit with the Romanised pantheon and legends of the Edda-editors. Incredible amounts of buried silver that can't have just been forgotten about or lost; men buried in women's clothes (in some circumpolar cultures shamans are differently gendered but no idea if that was happening here); corpses clutching food, eggs, stones, game pieces in hands or mouth; someone buried with two horses, both cut in half down the middle and the halves swapped over. Good luck reconstructing those religious traditions, neopagans.
The deities (gods and goddesses) were divided into three clans: the Æsir, the Vanir, and the Jötnar. The Æsir were primarily the major figures of Norse mythology, such as Odin and Thor, frequently to be found riding around in his chariot pulled by Tanngrisni and Tanngnost, two delightful goats, who could be killed and eaten every night and who would somehow be reconstituted the next morning, providing that the bones were not broken and — but, we digress. After an epic war after the fashion of the Titanomachy, the Æsir became non-hostile towards the lesser-known Vanir through hostage-exchange and marriage. The Jötnar (including the notable god Loki) were classified as giants with extraordinary strength and were enemies to both Vanir and Æsir clans, even though marriages have been known between them.
There was widespread belief in creatures such as elves, dwarves, and artifacts. Animals in Norse mythology all had names, and were of such significance that their owners would resurrect them after death through various means. Of these, undoubtedly the greatest and most important was a lil' ol' squirrel named Ratatosk.
These mythic creatures are now staples of fantasy literature, thanks largely to their use by J.R.R. Tolkien, who made extensive studies of Norse mythology (even producing his own rewrite of a large part of the mythic material) and was heavily influenced by it when writing his Middle Earth legendarium. Of particular note are the names of the dwarf characters in The Hobbit, which were taken verbatim from the "Catalog of Dwarves" in the Eddic poem Völuspá.
In Norse mythology, Loki is the son of a giant slain by Odin. He is considered to be a trickster-god, but some interpretations make him out to be the closest thing to the devil that Norse mythology can get. No surprise, there is no evidence that he was ever worshiped.
Loki's favorite holiday is April Fools' Day, during which a veritable orgy of Loki-worship takes place.
In the Skáldskaparmál, the following is written about Loki:
“”How should one periphrase Loki? Thus: call him, Son of Fárbauti and Laufey, or of Nál, Brother of Býleistr and of Helblindi, Father of the Monster of Ván, and of the Vast Monster, and of Hel, and of Nari, and Áli; Kinsman and Uncle, Evil Companion of Odin and the Æsir, Visitor and Chest-Trapping of Geirrödr, Thief of the Giants, of the Goat, of Brísinga-men, and of Idunn's Apples, Kinsman of Sleipnir, Husband of Sigyn, Foe of the Gods, Hammer of Sif's Hair, Forger of Evil, the Sly God, Slanderer and Cheat, Contriver of Baldr's Death, Wrangling Foe of Heimdallr and of Skadi
Of all the iniquities of which Loki is accused, being the thief of the Goat is clearly the worst.
Again, from the Skáldskaparmál, we see an example of Loki being cruel to goats for the amusement of others and his own sick sexual pleasure. Skadi has girded herself for war, and has come to the home of the Æsir seeking recompense for the killing of her hill giant father, Thjazi. The Æsir offer her a husband from among their ranks and she chooses Njord, but she has an additional demand before reconciliation can be achieved: that the gods make her laugh. The only one who can achieve this feat is Loki:
“”Then Loki did this: he tied a cord to the beard of a goat, the other end being around his own genitals, and each gave way in turn and each of the two screeched loudly; Then Loki let himself fall onto Skadi's knee, and she laughed.
That is to say, Loki played a game of tug-of-war between a goat and his own manhood.
Loki also has the (almost?) unique distinction of being both a father and a mother. He fathered a number of “children” but also, as part of a rather complicated story which won't be replayed here, turned himself into a mare to lure away a stallion who was causing the gods trouble, and the plan worked, except the stallion caught up with him and...Loki became a mother.
Like her brother, Freyr, Freyja was originally of the Vanir before joining the Æsir. Freyja is a goddess of sex and magic — mostly sex (though that can be pretty magical). According to one legend, she was the one who taught Odin the art of magic called seiðr said to originate with the Vanir.
She wears the Brísingamen, the most beautiful necklace in the world, which, according to a couple of late-14th-century Christian priests, she acquired by having sex with a bunch of dwarves.[note 2] The reliability of this source is disputed, since the priests also said that the Norse pantheon were people who once lived in Asia.
The dwarf business would have been very out-of-character for her. In an older story, Freyja gets so angry that Brísingamen is shattered and Asgard shakes when Loki brings the frost-giant Thrym's (Þrymr) demands that Freyja be given to him as a wife to ransom for Thor's hammer back to him.
She is the goddess after whom everyone lusts, though often fruitlessly. She also gets half of all the battle-dead warriors the Valkyries bring to Asgard (and we can only speculate as to what she does with them then).
Unfortunately, for such an interesting goddess, there are not very many direct stories.
Freyr is one of the Vanir, the old line of gods who were opposed to the Æsir, and became one of the hostages given to the Æsir at the conclusion of the war. He is also the ruler of Alfheim, making him the lord of the light elves. He is considered the most important of the Norse fertility gods. He is also considered one of the dumber gods, in that he gave away his magical sword, which could "slay by itself" in a battle, as payment to his servant Skírnir in exchange for wooing the giantess Gerd. The lack of this sword will be the cause of his death during Ragnarok (see below).
He is the brother of the beautiful goddess Freyja, and son of the god Njord.
In Sweden, he is one of the most ancient mythical kings, sometimes known as Yngvi-Frey. There were many old ceremonies devoted to him there, involving beautiful maidens and youths.
Frigg is the wife of Odin, but their marriage is likely not a happy one, as she seems to spend a lot of time either telling Odin off or getting it on with his brothers.
In Wagner's "Ring Cycle" operas, her name is translated as Fricka, while English translations sometimes name her Frigga.
We have Frigg to thank for the miracle of Friday, at least etymologically. The name is a derivation of the Old English Frigedag.
Heiðrún grazes the foliage of the Lerad (Læraðr) tree, which also grows on the roof of Valhalla. Her udder produces enough mead to fill a giant cauldron every day. The drink is served by the Valkyrie to quench the thirsts of all of Valhalla's warrior spirit inhabitants or einherjar. One can be certain that the faith bestowed on this blessed goat by Odin gives her an aura of being "trustworthy".
Heidrun appears to have a reputation for being sexually promiscuous. In an acerbic exchange between the goddess Freyja and giantess Hyndla (lit. She-dog, Bitch) in the Edda Hyndlujód, Hyndla compares Freyja to the goat:
Turn away from here! I desire to sleep,
You ran up to Ód ever howling,
One author goes so far as to describe her as "lascivious," which, it must be admitted, is a rather unusual adjective for a goat — but a great one for the unofficial mascot of a den of sin and iniquity such as this.
“”Above all other gods they worship Mercury, and count it no sin, on certain feast-days, to include human victims in their sacrifice to him.
|— Tacitus's Germania.[note 3]
Odin, otherwise known as (among other names) Geirlöðnir, ('All-Father')is the chief god in Norse mythology, the father of Thor, and the blood-brother of Loki. Heiðrún is his goat. Odin did not invent mead; however, he did share it with the poets of the world. (He had to swallow it and then regurgitate it, when in the form of an eagle, to get away. Some of it, however, went through his system. It is said that bad poets did not receive the Mead of Poetry, but instead the droppings that Odin had to expel.)
His diverse repertoire of adventures, seductions, dispensing wisdom to humans, and general mischief making not withstanding, Odin's primary goal is preventing Ragnarok, when the gods themselves will die. To that end, he has done many crazy things to increase his wisdom, including gouging out his own eye and hanging himself from a tree for nine days. He also seduced and stole his way to the mead of inspiration, commanded a prophetess, and even learned the Vanirs' seiðr magic. Nevertheless, all Odin's efforts to acquire wisdom and magic will be for nothing in the end, but at least he will have tried.
Odin's ambiguous gender status (sharing the status as the foremost seiðr practitioner with Freya and hints by Loki that he had shapeshifted into a woman) has led some modern observers to conclude that Odin was seen as either scornfully effeminate or an outright transgender figure. Though this may be stretching the interpretations of the source material a bit, Odin is certainly no perfect god, let alone an unambiguously good or nice one (not a particularly unique situation for even chief gods in polytheistic pantheons). Norse mythology did not have the dualism in the Abrahamic religions and Zoroastrianism where God or the gods are totally good and other (quasi-)divine entities (the devil and Angra Mainyu) are totally evil. Like Loki, Odin is fickle, often unjust, and patronises rulers and outcasts, including some who commit terrible, crazy crimes. While Odin is very wise and shares some of this wisdom with those he likes or finds worthy he is also consistently selfish to the point of resembling someone with a narcissistic personality disorder, and when it suits him he will engage in nasty and anti-social behavior.
Weirdly enough, when the Roman Empire encountered Germanic pagans who worshipped Odin (or at least a similar god), they thought that he was an alternative version of Mercury, as referenced in the quote from Tacitus above and similar quotes from Julius Caesar's war journals. This sort of syncretism was pretty common among Greek and Roman writers (they did very similar things with the Egyptian gods), but identifying Odin with Mercury seems to be a bit strange. Apparently his role as a wandering god and protector of messengers and poets was more relevant to the Romans than his role as king of the gods was.
Ratatosk (drilling tooth) is the red squirrel who scurries up, down, and all around Yggdrasil, the "world tree", and carries news, gossip, and other related information. In particular he ferries insults between the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil, and the dragon Níðhöggr beneath its roots, to distract them from destroying the tree. Inquiries regarding Ratatosk may be directed to Loki, who probably knows him as well as anyone.
“”Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy shall possess the power of Thor.
|— Mjolnir's text
Thor (full name: Thor Odinsson), otherwise known as (among other names) Þunor, is the god of strength and protection in Norse mythology. He is the most beloved of the Norse gods, at least in part because he was the protector of humanity. Thor is commonly associated with storms and thunder.
For fans of this site, his chariot was drawn by two goats that he would kill and resurrect every day. Apparently, they were extremely tasty. According to Norse mythology, strokes from his mighty hammer caused thunder.
“”Be silent and grovel, or my great hammer
Mjöllnir shall shut your mouth:
Your shoulder's stone I will strike from its neck,
Lifeless you shall lie.
|—Thor to Loki
“”"I'm Thor." — "Well, you thould put thome ointment on it, then."
“”My god carries a hammer. Your god died nailed to a crucifix. Any questions?
The Norse god of war, law, and good governance, which they held to be related to one another. His most notable myth was the Binding of Fenrir, where he sacrificed his hand to Fenrir in order to allow the gods to bind the wolf in nigh-unbreakable chains.
While a relatively minor deity by the Viking Age, there is evidence that suggests that Týr was, to early Germanic pagans, one of the most important gods, if not the most important. It is possible that he was once thought of the same way the Norse thought of Odin, as the king of all the gods. Unfortunately, as Odin gained favor with Norse jarls, Týr was considered less and less important.
In England, it is speculated that the Saxon god Saxnōt is the same as Tiw, his English equivalent. This is at least partly due to Jacob Grimm (yes, that Grimm) noticing that Saxnōt is the son of Woden and is associated with war, just like Týr.
Warriors on Earth who fought and died in the midst of battle were resurrected as warrior-spirits. The Valkyrie descend on every battle, pick out the most valiant, and mark them for death. After they die, they are taken by the Valkyrie to Asgard, where half join with Odin in
Sovngarde Valhalla, and the other half join Freyja, in her own domain of Folkvang (Vanir Valhalla). From there, they are known as einherjar, and would train for battle on the upcoming day of Ragnarok. (This training involves fighting all day, probably dying, being resurrected, and then feasting on pork and drinking mead from the goat Heidrun.) Odin himself often goes to Earth to stir up trouble and create battles, because he is thought to need more warriors than he'll ever get.
Niflheim is a sad, gray, cold place, where the non-valorous dead go. It is ruled by the goddess/giantess Hel. The god Baldr went/will go there after he died/dies (triggering the beginning of Ragnarok). It is the mingling of the cold of Niflheim and the heat of Muspelheim that creates the first beings, a giant named Ymir and a giant cow named Auðumbla.
In spite of the modern conception of Niflheim as Norse Hell, that really isn't quite accurate. Niflheim is not that bad a place to be, simply by virtue of the fact that you're just there. The best way to think about it would be Limbo, the first circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno; it's just kind of boring compared to Valhalla/Folkvang. To the Vikings this wasn't exactly desirable, but then again most people wouldn't end up going to Valhalla or Folkvang, so Niflheim wasn't supposed to be torturous. It was where you would most likely end up thanks to disease or starvation or old age, and it basically just entailed doing what you would do anyway in Norse society. This isn't to say the Norse didn't have their own version of Hell,[note 4] though.
Náströnd is where those who committed what the Norse consider grievous offenses such as murder, adultery, and especially oathbreaking end up. Unlike Christianity or Islam, impiety wasn't considered a grave sin by the Old Norse, and as such people who didn't worship the Norse Pantheon didn't necessarily end up here. Here the only thing to drink is the urine of a goat, and the dragon Níðhöggr would devour the corpses of the dead. Of course, this was probably invented after the Norse converted to Christianity, so who knows.
Ragnarök, meaning "End of the Gods," is an event representing the end of the world. During Ragnarök, all of the gods will die, along with all of the people, the sun, moon, World Tree, everything. Odin will be swallowed and killed by the giant wolf, Fenrir. Fenrir will in turn be killed by Odin's son Vidar. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent (the giant snake encircling the entire Earth). The Midgard Serpent will in turn kill Thor when he spits his extremely toxic venom on Thor. Thor manages to take nine steps before succumbing to the venom. Loki and Heimdallr kill one another. The whole world will be destroyed by fire and ice. (In most versions, either two of the gods come back with the children of the other gods or a couple of humans survive everything having gone kaput; however, some consider these are later Christian additions. Either way, there's no heaven for the currently living good to go to after this destruction--they're just dead.)
It is different from similar concepts in many other religions in that the gods already know their fates (although it is no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the Devil has read the end of the Book of Revelation and hence already knows his fate as well). It is notable that the Norse gods were not truly immortal, having to eat golden apples in order to retain their youthfulness.
The End Is Here!
One interpretation of the Ragnarök myth set it to occur on February 22nd, 2014. Apparently, we missed it.[citation NOT needed] The sun has risen, and the world has once again not ended, meaning that we can now wait for the next "apocalypse".
Likelihood of existence
The Norse gods rank somewhere between the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Cloacina, the Goddess of Rome's sewage, in probability of being real (about the same as the god of the Bible). At the very least, the Vikings believed their gods could die, as opposed to many other gods.
Norse mythology today
Among Neopagans, the Norse pantheon has become one of the more popular. However, there is some tension between reconstructionist groups (who are usually referred to as "Asatru") and "eclectics," who do not try to adhere to any notion of "the old ways." Even the terminology is often contested; many Asatru prefer to be called that, or "Heathen," instead of "Pagan," and "Neopagan" is often a snarl word used to refer to the eclectics.
Norse Heathens are typically far more conservative than other Pagans, believing strongly in tradition, military spending and some form of "family values," often more sincerely than their Christian counterparts, who seem to have an alternate definition of that term, viz., "something that will vanish if we give women or gays any rights."
Days of the week
The English language still retains the Saxon names of Norse gods in several days of the week:
- Tuesday is named for Tyr, or Tiw, a god of war.
- Wednesday is named for Odin, or Woden, a god of wisdom.
- Thursday is named for Thor, or Þunor, a god of thunder.
- Friday is named for Freyja, a goddess of love, sex, beauty, and witchcraft.
Unfortunately for more rational worshipers of the Norse pantheon and the like-minded ethnic Scandinavians, there is a long-standing connection between Norse/Germanic Neopagans and neo-Nazism and/or racism in the United States and Scandinavia. Many anti-Semitic Germanic groups have seen the Germanic pantheon as a good substitute for the Jewish-derived Christianity. Norse mythology is seen as an indigenous, and therefore nationalist-friendly, alternative. Some notable Nazis were Germanic Neopagans (although mostly adhering to a mystical variant called Armanism that was largely dreamed up by the crank Guido von List). Even many non-racist Germanic Neopagans believe that non-Germanic people should not worship Germanic deities, or are unable to do it properly.
In the U.S., many Germanic Neopagan cults have been formed with explicitly racist beliefs. These cults used to be referred to as "Odinist," until the white supremacist David Lane realized that Wotan, the German name for Odin, could be turned into a nice backronym for "Will Of The Aryan Nation," and advocated the use of
Mormonism "Wotanism" instead. This ignores that fact that Odin created all of Midgard (Earth) and humanity, "Nordic" and otherwise.
These people also love the idea of a Thor who keeps foreign giants out of heaven with mighty strokes from his magical hammer. They love it so much, actually, that they completely ignore the historical status of Thor as a god beloved of the common people and farmers, and portray him as a god of war and warriors, more like his father or Týr.[note 6]
In recent years, mainstream Asatru groups have explicitly rebuked these kinds of racist beliefs. However, many hate groups continue to use Norse symbolism and invoke Norse deities, particularly in American prisons.
- Polytheistic reconstructionism
- A troll is an unhelpful being in Norse mythology. In real life, a troll is also quite unhelpful.
- The Slavs really got the short end of the stick there.
- Just like that deleted scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
- The Romans constantly equated the deities of other cultures with their own, and presumably their shared characteristics as tricksters and oath-breakers are what caused the Romans to equate Mercury with Woden/Odin.
- Well, as close a version to any punitive afterlife that they had.
- For the record, Týr is the god of war, not Thor.
- Týr is probably not so popular, despite being a war god, because: A) He's handicapped (one-handed), and B) According to some versions Týr is actually the son of the giant Hymir (highlighting the rather tolerant attitudes among the Æsir towards other "races" of (demi)gods). Alternatively, it's because C) white supremacists can't distinguish Thor from Týr due to general cultural illiteracy.
- The old religion, National Museum of Denmark
- Did they even hang bears?: review of The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price, Allen Lane, August 2020, Tom Shippey, London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 16, 13 August 2020
- John Lindow, 'Norse Mythology'.
- The Fortification of Asgard You can read about how Loki became a mare and the mare's adventures with a stallion here.
- "Æsir" assumed to mean "Asia-men"
- Wikisource: Poetic Edda/Þrymskviða Þrymskviða. Instead, Thor disguises himself as Freyja and pays the hammernapper a visit. Thrym is rather credulous, accepting Loki's various bullshit for why, for instance, "Freyja" eats an entire ox, 8 salmons, other unnamed goodies, and drinks copious amounts of mead. After he gets his hammer back, Thor, in his usual style, kills Thrym and his entire extended family, gathered for the wedding feast.
- lascivious Heidrun
- https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/barbarians.html University of Richmond translation.
- Yggdrasil - Kraka.net
- Lokasenna, Auden-Taylor translation, verse 57
- Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon
- Wotanism (Odinism) Der Brüder Schweigen Archives & David Lane's Pyramid Prophecy
- "Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic." —A Declaration of Purpose. Asatru Folk Assembly. 2008 July 1.
- "[W]e do not practice, preach, or promote hatred, bigotry, or racism." —Asatru Alliance By-Laws. Asatru Alliance. 2009 October 1.