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.