Old Norse myth: what is it?
When we use the phrase ‘Old Norse mythology’, what we are really referring to is our reconstruction of the myth and religion that existed in Viking Age Scandinavia: stories about the gods and their world, about how these gods interacted with humans and vice versa, and about other mythological beings, such as giants, elves and dwarves. This is a reconstruction because Viking Age Scandinavians have only left us traces of the mythological system that was once widespread before they adopted Christianity in the late-tenth and eleventh centuries. Some impressions about the beliefs of ancient Scandinavians can be drawn from archaeological material. Objects found in burials, such as amulets or metal figurines, can depict figures which we think are of mythological importance. Alternatively, we might turn to sources like tapestries, which sometimes depict scenes that can be interpreted as mythological. Other impressions can be drawn from surviving carvings in wood and stone, which also depict mythological stories.
The Tjängvide image stone from Gotland, Sweden. This Viking Age stone appears to depict Odin atop his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The most detailed source that allows us to reconstruct the mythological stories that ancient Scandinavians probably told is textual, and this is probably the most problematic source of all. Scandinavian people in the Viking Age had a vast poetic tradition that, in the absence of writing, they passed on by word of mouth. Much of this poetry discussed ancient gods, giants and other mythological beings; how they interacted; and the world in which they lived. This poetry continued to be spoken after Scandinavia was converted to Christianity, and some of it began to be written down in Iceland in thirteenth century.
One of the most important manuscripts containing mythological poetry is called the Codex Regius. Scholars have called the poems in this manuscript, with a few extra additions, the Poetic Edda. Being written down so late, it is difficult to say how much of the poetry contained in the Poetic Edda is actually from the Viking Age—and if it is, how much this poetry has been changed from the Viking Age to the time when it was recorded.
The Codex Regius, containing many of the poems that form the Poetic Edda. Image sourced from Reykjavik City of Literature.
Another source of this poetry is a text composed during the early thirteenth century by an Icelander named Snorri Sturluson, called the Prose Edda, to distinguish it from the Poetic Edda. In the Prose Edda, Snorri writes down a lot of mythological poetry. He also gives a simple breakdown of how Scandinavian mythology worked, and tells numerous mythological stories. However, Snorri’s Edda is also problematic. Snorri was a Christian, and his text bears the marks of that fact. Sometimes, his take on ancient Scandinavian mythology has been affected by his Christian education and purpose. Both the Poetic Edda and Snorri’s Prose Edda needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as neither is a perfect window into how Scandinavian mythology would have looked. With that warning in mind, let’s take a closer look at the myths, and the characters involved.
The Beginning of the World
According to the Seeress’s Prophecy, the first poem recorded in the Codex Regius, the world started out as a formless void—there was no sand, sea or grass, and there was no earth or heaven. Snorri's Prose Edda tells us that this void was called Ginnungagap. On one side was a realm called Muspell, which exuded great light and heat, and on the other, a dark and cold realm called Niflheim. Snorri suggests that eleven icy rivers flowed from Niflheim into the empty Ginnungagap. These rivers gave off a poisonous vapour which froze into frost. When this frost met with the great heat from Muspell, it began to melt. The drops that fell formed the first being—an enormous giant named Ymir. The Seeress’s Prophecy tells us that Ymir made Ginnungagap his home. According to another poem from the Codex Regius named Sayings of Vafthrudnir, Ymir produced his own children asexually, and this is how the race of giants first emerged. We must turn back to the Prose Edda for details about the next stage of the world’s creation. Snorri suggests that a cow named Audumla also arose from the melted frost, whose milk fed Ymir. This cow licked the frost for sustenance, and as it did so, the form of a third being—a man—began to emerge. This man was called Buri, and was the first in the family line of the gods. Snorri describes him as handsome, large and mighty. Buri had a son called Bor, who himself had three children with a giantess called Bestla. These are Odin, and his brothers Vili and Ve. As soon as these two dynasties of gods and giants are established at the beginning of mythological time, they engaged in conflict—a pattern that repeats throughout the body of Old Norse mythological stories. Odin and his brothers slay the huge Ymir, whose body provides the materials from which they can construct the universe. The Sayings of Vafthrudnir tells us:
‘From Ymir’s body the earth was shaped,
and from his bones the mountains,
the heaven from the skull of the ice-cold giant,
and the sea from his blood.’
This account is continued in another poem, the Sayings of Grímnir:
‘And from his eyebrows the happy gods
made Midgard for the sons of men;
and from his brains all the stern
clouds were shaped.’
To round off this period of cosmic time, the gods set the sun and moon in their places. They also produce the dwarves from the remaining parts of Ymir’s body. The Seeress’s Prophecy rounds off this picture with the gods living an idyllic existence: they build high halls, produce forges and tools, play games happily at Idavoll plains, and do not want for gold. This is the beginning of the world where the mythological stories contained within the Poetic and Prose Eddas take place.
With its origins in polytheistic religion, the Old Norse mythological material that has come down to us features a wide range of gods. Although the gods can be thought of as belonging to a kind of pantheon, especially as they are described in Snorri’s Prose Edda, they are actually grouped into two families.
The first family, known as the Æsir, includes some of the most important gods and goddesses, such as Odin, Frigg and Thor. The second, smaller family, known as the Vanir, includes the god Frey and the goddess Freyja.
Although we are told that these two families were at war early in mythological time, they are presented as allies in all of the mythological narratives that have survived. There are too many gods and goddesses to discuss in this module, so the most important figures will be considered instead.
A nineteenth-century depiction of the Norse gods that is strongly influenced by Classical portrayals of the Greek and Roman pantheons. Norse religious beliefs are unlikely to have been this unified, with gods holding different levels of relevance for different communities. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Loki’s killing of Balder and the moral disgrace of this act is generally thought to be the reason behind the event known as Ragnarok, which in Old Norse means ‘the doom of the gods’. In a narrow sense Ragnarok refers to a grand battle between the gods, giants, and their allies which brings about the end of the known world. In a wider sense, Ragnarok can be thought of more as an era characterised by moral and social decay which is initiated by the death of Balder. The Seeress’s Prophecy tells us that the beginning of Ragnarok is signalled by sinister portents: the sun turns black; Eggther, the leader of giantesses, plucks
his harp; divine roosters crow; and the hound Garm howls. The seeress continues:
‘Brother will fight brother and become his slayer,
cousins will commit adultery,
it is hard in the world, there is great whoredom,
axe-age; sword-age; shields are split;
wind-age; wolf-age before the world is overthrown;
no man shall give mercy to another.’
After this period of decline, Heimdall blows his mighty horn and the battle of gods and giants begins proper. The giant Hrym sails from the east on his boat of dead men’s nails, and Loki sails a ship of giants from the fiery world of Muspell to meet the gods. The dwarfs roar before their stone doors, the gods meet in council, and the giant Surt travels from the south with his flaming sword. As the heavens begin to split, the gods and their enemies do battle. Odin falls to Loki’s monstrous offspring, the wolf Fenrir. Vidar, Odin’s young son, pierces the wolf’s heart and avenges his father. Frey is killed by the fire giant Surt. Thor destroys another child of Loki, the great Midgard serpent, but dies from its poison. After this, the universe begins its final collapse: the sun once again turns dark, the earth sinks in the sea, the bright stars disappear, and great heat scorches the very heavens. With this, the age-long struggle between gods and giants comes to an end.
The Seeress’s Prophecy does not end with Ragnarok, however. She tells us that the world will rise from the sea anew. The remaining gods find each other at Idavoll, the place where the old gods first lived an idyllic existence. They reminisce about the mighty Midgard serpent, and about the runes of Odin. They even find the golden chequers in the grass which the gods once used to play their boardgames. The seeress tells us that fields will grow unsown, and all hatred will be eradicated. Balder and Hod settle in Odin’s old halls. All seems well in the new world. However, the seeress leaves us with a sinister image: we glimpse the dark dragon, Nidhogg, flying through the sky and carrying corpses in his talons. Perhaps the new world of the gods, like the old, will not be free from hatred and strife after all.
Johannes Gehrts, Ragnarok, 1903. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.