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    Default Norse mythology

    What Is Norse mythology?

    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman_1886_Odin_the_Wanderer1.jpg
    Before the Norse (a.k.a. the Vikings) converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages, they had their own vibrant native pagan religion that was as harshly beautiful as the Nordic landscape to which it was intimately connected. The centerpiece of that religion was what we today call “Norse mythology:” the set of religious stories that gave meaning to the Vikings’ lives. These myths revolved around gods and goddesses with fascinating and highly complex characters, such as Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki.

    The Norse religion that contained these myths never had a true name – those who practiced it just called it “tradition.” However, people who continued to follow the old ways after the arrival of Christianity were sometimes called “heathens,” which originally meant simply “people who live on the heaths” or elsewhere in the countryside, and the name has stuck.

    Religions are attempts by mankind to reach the numinous, and the Norse religion was of course no exception. It provided a means of doing this that was fitting for the Vikings’ time and place. Even though some aspects of it may strike the modern reader as bizarre, if we approach it with the open mind it deserves, we can recognize within it the common human quest to live life in the presence of the transcendent majesty and joy of the sacred. And even though it’s been a thousand years since the last Vikings laid down their swords, people today continue to be inspired by the vitality and wonder of the Norse myths and the gods who inhabit them.

    For the Vikings, the world as they found it was enchanted – that is, they didn’t feel the need to seek salvation from the world, but instead delighted in, and marveled at, “the way things are,” including what we today would call both “nature” and “culture.” Their religion and myths didn’t sugarcoat the sordidness, strife, and unfairness of earthly life, but instead acknowledged it and praised the attempt to master it through the accomplishment of great deeds for the benefit of oneself and one’s people. A life full of such deeds was what “the good life” was for the Vikings.

    Nicholas_Roerich_Guests_from_Overseas_1899.jpg
    Who Were the Vikings?

    The Vikings were seafaring raiders, conquerors, explorers, settlers, and traders from modern-day Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland who ventured throughout much of the world during the Viking Age (roughly 793-1066 CE). They traveled as far east as Baghdad and as far west as North America, which they discovered some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus. They spoke the Old Norse language, wrote in runes, and practiced their ancestral religion.

    The Vikings were motivated to sail from their homelands by timeless, universal human desires: wealth, prestige, and power. As in most human societies, those aims were intertwined for the Vikings; those who had more wealth typically had more prestige and power, and vice versa. The Vikings sought wealth in both its portable form – gold, silver, gemstones, and the like – and in the form of land.

    We have the Vikings to thank for our present understanding not only of their own pre-Christian religion and mythology, but of that of the other Germanic peoples as well. Thanks to the Old Norse poems, treatises, and sagas that were written during or relatively soon after the Viking Age, we have a much, much fuller picture of what the Vikings’ religion was like (despite the many unfortunate holes that nevertheless remain in that picture) than we do for the religions of any of the other pre-Christian Germanic peoples. But from the little that we do know about those religions directly, they seem to have been variations on common themes that were also shared by the Norse, so we can use the Norse sources to help us reconstruct those hoary religions, too.


    Who Are the Germanic peoples?

    The Germanic peoples are one of the indigenous peoples of northern Europe, along with the Celts, Sami, Finns, and others. Historically, they’ve occupied much of Scandinavia, Iceland, the British Isles, and continental Europe north of the Alps. Their best-known representatives are the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, and the continental Germanic tribes, but they included many other groups as well. In the modern era, they – we – are spread out across the world.

    While there were certainly regional and temporal variations in the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples, there was nevertheless a common core worldview, cosmology, and, to a large extent, a common pantheon as well.

    If you’re a person of northern European descent (including English, Scottish, German, and northern French descent), it’s a safe bet that you’ve got some Germanic blood in you. That means, in turn, that it’s a safe bet that some of your ancestors practiced something very close to the religion represented by Norse mythology.

    Of course, you very well may still find Norse/Germanic mythology to be fascinating and illuminating if you don’t have any Germanic in your ancestry. Mythologies are certainly expressions of a particular person or people, but they’re far from only that; there tends to be a spark of something more timeless and universal in them as well.

    Til árs ok friðar,
    Daniel McCoy

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    Default Norse mythology - Thor’s Hammer


    Thor’s Hammer


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Thors-Hammer.png
    Of all of the symbols in Norse mythology, Thor’s Hammer (Old Norse Mjöllnir, pronounced roughly “MIOL-neer”) is one of the most historically important, and is probably the best known today.

    Thor was the indefatigable god who guarded Asgard, the celestial stronghold of the Aesir, the main tribe of gods and goddesses in Norse mythology. The giants, the forces of chaos, were often trying to destroy Asgard and kill the Aesir, and it was Thor’s task to prevent them from doing so.

    The hammer was his primary weapon. It was no ordinary hammer; whenever Thor cast it at an enemy, it returned to his hands like a boomerang.[1]

    Thor (whose name goes back to a Proto-Germanic root that means “Thunder”[2]) was the god of the storm, and thunder was perceived as being the sound of his hammer crashing down on his foes. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Old Norse name for his hammer, Mjöllnir, probably meant “Lightning.”

    While the etymology of Mjöllnir is uncertain, most scholars trace the name back to an Indo-European root that is attested in the Old Slavic word mlunuji, Russian molnija, and Welsh mellt, all of which mean “lightning.” It may also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, “new snow,” and mjalli, “white,” the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.[3][4] The significance of that symbolism will become clear shortly.


    Thor’s Hammer as an Instrument of Blessing, Consecration, and Protection

    Thor’s hammer was certainly a weapon – the best weapon the Aesir had, in fact – but it was more than just a weapon. It also occupied a central role in rituals of consecration and hallowing.

    The hammer was used in formal ceremonies to bless marriages, births, and probably funerals as well.[5] In one episode from medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Thor once killed and ate his goats, then brought them back to life by hallowing their bones with his hammer.[6] (Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!) The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus records that huge hammers were kept in one of Thor’s temples in Sweden, and that periodically the people would hold a ritual there that involved beating the hammers against some kind of drum that would resound like thunder.[7] This could have been a ceremony to bless and protect the community and ward off hostile spirits.

    Historian Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson provides an excellent summary of the uses of the hammer:
    It would seem indeed as though the power of the thunder god, symbolized by his hammer, extended over all that had to do with the well-being of the community. It covered birth, marriage, and death, burial, and cremation ceremonies, weapons and feasting, travelling, land-taking, and the making of oaths between men. The famous weapon of Thor was not only the symbol of the destructive power of the storm, and of fire from heaven, but also a protection against the forces of evil and violence. Without it Asgard could no longer be guarded against the giants, and men relied on it also to give security and to support the rule of law.[8]

    Of all of these consecration ceremonies, the use of the hammer to bless a marriage is especially well-established. The existence of this rite is assumed in the tale of Thor as a Transvestite, where the giants stole Thor’s hammer and he went to retrieve it by dressing as a bride to be married to one of the giants, knowing that the hammer would be presented during the ceremony. When it was presented, he seized it and promptly smashed the skulls of all of the giants in attendance. A Bronze Age rock carving from Scandinavia apparently depicts a couple being blessed by a larger figure holding a hammer, which indicates the considerable antiquity of this notion.[9] Historian E.O.G. Turville-Petre suggests that part of this blessing consisted of imparting fertility to the couple, which would make sense in light of Thor’s connections with agriculture and the fertilization of the fields.[10]

    These roles of the hammer were inseparable from its use as a weapon to defend Asgard from the giants. As the famed historian of religion Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one of the universal patterns in human consciousness is the concept of the cosmos, a realm defined by sacred time and space, and chaos, a realm defined by profane (ordinary) time and space. The cosmos is typically envisioned as a circle, an island in a sea of chaos.[11]
    In Norse mythology, cosmos and chaos were called, respectively, innangard and utangard. Asgard, the homeworld of the gods, and Midgard, the homeworld of humanity, both have the element -gard in the modern English versions of their names. This suffix (garðr in Old Norse) denoted a fortress or an enclosure, something which was circumscribed by a wall, a fence, or some other kind of boundary to separate it from the areas outside of it. It was a cosmos that was protected against the utangard chaos that surrounded it. The world of the giants was called either Jotunheim or Utgard. Jotunheim simply means “the home of the giants,” while Utgard means “outside of the gard,” just like the more general term utangard. The Aesir, humanity, and their worlds were seen as being innangard, a cosmos, while the giants and their world were seen as being utangard, chaos.

    When something or someone was consecrated with Thor’s hammer, it (or he or she) was taken from the realm of chaos and absorbed into the cosmos. It was protected from the ill effects of chaos and its denizens, and sanctified and sanctioned by the social order and its divine models. The profane was banished and the sacred was established.

    This pattern is borne out both in the use of the hammer as a weapon and in its use as an instrument of blessing, consecration, protection, and healing. When Thor smote giants with the hammer, he was defending the cosmos and banishing the forces of chaos. When he blessed a marriage, a birth, a field, or a dead person with it, his act had the same religious/psychological significance.


    How Thor’s Hammer Was Made

    The story of how Mjöllnir came into existence is told in the tale of The Creation of Thor’s Hammer. To briefly summarize:
    One day, the trickster Loki was feeling especially “tricksy,” and cut off the long, golden hair of Thor’s wife, Sif. Enraged, Thor was about to kill Loki when the latter swore to go down to Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarves, who were renowned as the greatest smiths in all of the Nine Worlds. There he would obtain a head of hair for Sif that was even more marvelous than the one he had lopped off. Thor consented to this plea bargain.

    While in the cavernous smithies of the dwarves, Loki was able to acquire his prize, and, by cunningly challenging several dwarves to prove who was the best smith, he acquired several more treasures for the gods as well. Among these was Thor’s hammer, which was short in the handle because Loki, in the form of a fly, bit the eyelid of the dwarf who was forging it.
    When Thor saw the hammer, the finest weapon in the universe despite its flaw, he agreed to let Loki live.


    Thor’s Hammer as a Symbol in the Viking Age

    In the Viking Age, people sometimes wore hammer amulets on necklaces to display their faith in Thor, a counterpart to those who wore cross amulets to signify their faith in Christ. Such amulets may or may not have been worn prior to the Viking Age – we don’t have enough evidence to say one way or another – but they seem to have become common around the same time that cross amulets were becoming common in Scandinavia. The hammer’s usage as jewelry during that period was probably an imitation of – and/or a reaction against – the Christian practice.[12]

    Thors-Hammer-2.jpg
    A Viking Age mold discovered in Denmark that
    could forge both cross and hammer pendants

    It seems reasonable to suppose that the people who wore hammer amulets would have believed that they provided the same benefits as Thor’s hammer in the mythology: protection, consecration, and general blessing.
    Intriguingly, Viking Age soapstone molds have been discovered in Denmark and Sweden that have molds for casting both cross and hammer pendants.[13] What was the thinking behind this? Was this the work of a shrewd, entrepreneurial blacksmith, or of someone who devotedly followed both Thor and Christ, or of someone with some other set of motivations? Such questions are, of course, unanswerable due to the ambiguity and scarcity of the evidence.[14] One way or another, however, the molds are a clear indication of the parallel usage and symbolism of the hammer and the cross,[15] as are pagan memorial stones that depict Thor’s head next to the hammer in imitation of the common Christian practice of depicting Jesus’s head next to the cross.[16]

    These amulets and memorial stones also exemplify the coexistence of Christianity and paganism in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, however tense or amicable it may have been in different places and at different times.[17] As I point out in The Vikings’ Conversion to Christianity, “paganism” and “Christianity” were highly fluid categories during the Viking Age. Many, perhaps even most, people had elements of both religions in their beliefs and practices. Thus, the cross and the hammer could be used simultaneously without apparently causing much of a stir or creating cognitive dissonance. Consider, for example, the grave of a woman buried near the trade town of Hedeby. Her body was adorned with a cross necklace, yet her coffin was decorated with hammers. Likewise, some of the inhabitants of the village of Pollista in central Sweden were buried with both cross and hammer necklaces.[18]

    The fact that the Norse pagans chose Thor’s hammer to symbolize their adherence to their ancestral gods rather than the spear of Odin, the ship of Freyr, the necklace of Freya, the horn of Heimdall, or any of the other available options, is a testament to how preeminent the veneration of Thor was among the common people at the time.


    References:

    [1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. p. 219.
    [2] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.
    [3] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. p. 219-220.
    [4] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 81.
    [5] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 80.
    [6] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 44.
    [7] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 81-82.
    [8] Ibid. p. 83-84.
    [9] Ibid. p. 80.

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