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  1. #11
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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Loki


    Loki


    Norse Mythology for Smart People
    Loki.jpg
    Loki (pronounced “LOAK-ee;” Old Norse Loki, the meaning of which will be discussed below) is the wily trickster god of Norse mythology.

    While treated as a nominal member of the gods, Loki occupies a highly ambivalent and ultimately unique position among the gods, giants, and the other kinds of spiritual beings that populate the pre-Christian Norse religion.

    His familial relations attest to this. His father is the giant Farbauti (Old Norse Fárbauti, “Cruel Striker”[1]). His mother is Laufey (the meaning of which is unknown) or Nal (Nál, “Needle”[2]). Laufey/Nal could be a goddess, a giantess, or something else entirely – the surviving sources are silent on this point. Loki is the father, by the giantess Angrboda (Angrbođa, “Anguish-Boding”), of Hel, the goddess of the underworld; Jormungand, the great serpent who slays Thor during Ragnarok; and Fenrir, the wolf who bites off one of the hands of Tyr and who kills Odin during Ragnarok – hardly a reputable brood, to say the least. As we’ll see below, Loki demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the well-being of his fellow gods, a trait which could be discerned, in vague outline, merely by considering these offspring of his.

    With his proper wife Sigyn (“Friend of Victory”[3]), he also has a son named Nari or Narfi, whose name might mean “Corpse.”[4]

    Loki often runs afoul not only of societal expectations, but also of what we might call “the laws of nature.” In addition to the progeny listed above, Loki is also the mother – yes, the mother – of Sleipnir, Odin’s shamanic horse, whom Loki gave birth to after shapeshifting into a mare and courting the stallion Svadilfari, as is recounted in the tale of The Fortification of Asgard.

    In the tales, Loki is portrayed as a scheming coward who cares only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation. He’s by turns playful, malicious, and helpful, but he’s always irreverent and nihilistic.
    For example, in the tale of The Kidnapping of Idun, Loki, by his recklessness, ends up in the hands of a furious giant, Thiazi, who threatens to kill Loki unless he brings him the goddess Idun. Loki complies in order to save his life, and then finds himself in the awkward position of having the gods threaten him with death unless he rescues Idun. He agrees to this request for the same base motive, shifting his shape into that of a falcon and carrying the goddess back to Asgard in his talons. Thiazi pursues him desperately in the form of an eagle, but, having almost caught up with Loki as he nears his destination, the gods light a fire around the perimeter of their fortress. The flames catch Thiazi and burn him to death, while Idun and Loki reach the halls of the gods safely. Loki ultimately comes to the aid of the gods, but only to rectify a calamity for which he himself is responsible. This theme is repeated in numerous tales, such as in The Creation of Thor’s Hammer and the aforementioned The Fortification of Asgard.

    After Thiazi’s death, the giant’s daughter, Skadi, arrives in Asgard demanding restitution for the slaying of her father. One of her demands is that the gods make her laugh, something which only Loki is able to do. To accomplish this, he ties one end of a rope to the beard of a goat and the other end to his testicles. Both he and the goat squawk and squeal as one pulls one way and the other pulls the other way. Eventually he falls over in Skadi’s lap, and the giantess can’t help but laugh at such an absurd spectacle. Here, Loki once again comes to the aid of the gods, but simply by being silly and outlandish, not by accomplishing any feat that a Viking Age Scandinavian would have found to be particularly honorable.

    Loki alternately helps both the gods and the giants, depending on which course of action is most pleasurable and advantageous to him at the time. During Ragnarok, when the gods and giants engage in their ultimate struggle and the cosmos is destroyed, Loki joins the battle on the side of the giants. According to one Old Norse poem, he even captains the ship Naglfar, “Nail Ship,” which brings many of the giants to their battle with the gods.[5] When the battle for the world is fought, he and the god Heimdall mortally wound each other.

    Loki is perhaps best known for his malevolent role in The Death of Baldur. After the death of the beloved god Baldur is prophesied, Baldur’s mother, Frigg, secures a promise from every living thing to not harm her son. Well, almost everything – no such oath is obtained from the mistletoe, which the gods think too small and safe a thing to harm Baldur. Upon discovering this omission, Loki carves a mistletoe spear, places it in the hands of the blind god Hod, and instructs him to throw it at Baldur. Hod, not knowing the origin of the weapon, complies, and Baldur is impaled and dies. The god Hermod rides Sleipnir to the underworld and implores Hel to release Baldur, pointing out how beloved he is by all living things. Hel retorts that if this is so, then it shouldn’t be difficult to compel every being in the world to weep for Baldur, and, should this happen, the dead god would be released from the grave. Every living thing does indeed cry for Baldur’s return, with one sole exception: a frost-hearted giantess named Tokk (Ţökk, “Thanks”), who is almost certainly Loki in disguise. So Baldur must remain with Hel.

    For his many crimes against them, the gods eventually forge a chain from the entrails of Loki’s son Narfi and tie him down to three rocks inside a cave. A venomous serpent sits above him, dripping poison onto him. Loki’s apparently very faithful and loving wife, Sigyn, sits at his side with a bowl to catch the venom. But when the bowl becomes full, of course, she has to leave her husband’s side to pour it out. When this happens, the drops of venom that fall onto him cause him to writhe in agony, and these convulsions create earthquakes. And in this state he lies until breaking free at Ragnarok.

    A fascinating variant of the tale of Loki’s being bound comes to us from the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. In his History of the Danes, Thor, on one of his many journeys to Jotunheim, the homeland of the giants, finds a giant named Útgarđaloki (“Loki of the Utgard“). Útgarđaloki is bound in exactly the same manner as that in which Loki is bound in the tale mentioned above, which comes from Icelandic sources.[6][7] It seems that even the pagan Scandinavians themselves held conflicting views on whether Loki was a god, a giant, or something else entirely.

    For the centuries that Norse mythology has been a subject of scholarly study, scholars have been unable to explain the meaning of Loki’s name in any convincing way. Most have simply thrown their hands up and declared the meaning of his name to be unknown and probably unknowable. Recently, however, the philologist Eldar Heide may have solved this puzzle. In his research into Nordic folklore from periods more recent than the Viking Age, Heide noticed that Loki often appears in contexts that liken him to a knot on a thread. In fact, in later Icelandic usage, the common noun loki even means “knot” or “tangle.” Spiders are sometimes referred to as loki in a metaphorical sense, as their webs are compared to the fish nets (which are made from a series of knots and loops) that Loki crafts in certain surviving Viking Age myths. From all of this, the most straightforward meaning of Loki’s name would seem to be “Knot” or “Tangle.”[8][9]

    This proposed meaning of Loki’s name powerfully resonates with his role in Norse mythology in two ways. First, it points to his role as a maker of nets, both literal fish nets and metaphorical “nets” in the form of his cunning schemes that trap the gods in perilous situations. Second, it could indicate his being the “knot” in the otherwise straight thread of the gods and their world, the fatal flaw that ultimately brings about their demise.

    Even though Loki is in some sense a god, no traces of any kind of worship of Loki have survived in the historical record.[10] Is this any wonder, given that his character is virtually the antithesis of traditional Norse values of honor, loyalty, and the like – and that he is ultimately a traitor to the divinities the Norse held in such reverence?


    References:
    [1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 127.
    [2] Heide, Eldar. 2009. More Inroads to Pre-Christian Notions, After All? The Potential of Late Evidence. In Á austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia: Preprint Papers of the 14th International Saga Conference. Edited by Agneta Ney et al. p. 363.
    [3] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 284.
    [4] Ibid. p. 228.
    [5] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 51.
    [6] Saxo Grammaticus. 1905. The History of the Danes. Book VIII.
    [7] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 138.
    [8] Heide, Eldar. 2009. More Inroads to Pre-Christian Notions, After All? The Potential of Late Evidence. In Á austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia: Preprint Papers of the 14th International Saga Conference. Edited by Agneta Ney et al. p. 363.
    [9] Heide, Eldar. 2012. p. 90-91. Loki, the Vätte, and the Ash Lad: A Study Combining Old Scandinavian and Medieval Material. In Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 7.
    [10] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 195.

  2. #12
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    Default Re: Gods and Goddesses


    The Vikings’ Selfish Individualism


    Norse Mythology for Smart People
    Egil-Skallagrimsson.jpg
    The saga hero Egil Skallagrimsson There’s a common Romantic image of the Vikings fighting their wars for the collective well-being of their nations and homelands, putting tribal loyalty above self-interest. That image could hardly be further from the historical reality. The Vikings weren’t dutiful soldiers selflessly sacrificing themselves for their people; they were mercenaries who, when it really came down to it, cared first and foremost for their own selfish gain.
    The Vikings’ particular type of individualism was rather different from the one we have today in several respects. And, to be sure, it was subject to some substantial constraints, both in theory and in practice.

    As I discuss in the article The Self and Its Parts, the Norse self wasn’t thought of as something that existed prior to, or outside of, its actions and social relationships. The individual wasn’t an atomistic individual, as it is in our society. Rather, it was effectively an extension of its actions and social relationships; they were what made a man or woman who he or she was. Because of the high value placed on honor in the Viking world, and because one’s honor was largely dependent on one’s loyalty to one’s family, friends, and chieftain,[1] those social relationships imposed certain obligations on a Viking.

    But those obligations were contingent upon the specific character of those social relationships. Viking society imposed no obligation to Viking society as such – let alone to mankind as such – but only to those specific people with whom one associated. In other words, Norse society afforded considerable freedom to choose one’s own social bonds (although more so for men than for women), and inasmuch as one was free to choose one’s own social bonds, one could accept or refuse an obligation. There were few absolute obligations that could not be changed by changing one’s social position – such as by leaving the chieftain one had been serving and joining up with another, or by moving to a different town or region.

    And the ultimate measure of a man was not his passive obedience to authority or social expectations, but the active greatness that he achieved for himself through his own heroic efforts.[2] Exceptional men were remembered by name, and they and their deeds were celebrated in song long after their deaths. Glory was given to them as individuals, not just as members of a group. Indeed, this was, in an important sense, what gave a person the possibility of an immortal life. As one Old Norse poem (the Hávamál) puts it:

    Wealth will pass,
    Men will pass,
    You, too, likewise, will pass.
    One thing alone
    Will never pass:
    The fame of one who has earned it.[3]

    This was complicated by the Vikings’ belief that all beings were subject to fate, because fate severely restricted the range of thoughts and actions that could truly be considered to be self-chosen.[4] But a great man was great whether he became great through fate or through choice, and his greatness would be celebrated just the same.

    Starkad.jpg
    An illustration of Starkad from Olaus Magnus’s
    History of the Northern Peoples (1555)


    Consider the nature of the most important Viking social and political institution: the warband, the body of warriors led by a particular chieftain. Warbands functioned so much like modern companies that Canadian sociologist Ricardo Duchesne has called them “proto-capitalistic.”[5] Warbands were groups of individuals who came together to cooperate out of shared self-interest, and to compete with other groups. They were meritocracies, and treated kinship and tribal ties as more or less irrelevant. Individual warriors chose which warband they wanted to join – subject to the chieftain’s approval, of course – and could leave and join another at any time. The warriors exchanged their services for a share of whatever spoils were obtained in battle.[6]

    Viking warriors – like Indo-European warriors more broadly – were young men who were certainly motivated by the desire for wealth and power, but were also (again in Duchesne’s words) “eager for adventure, joy, and standing.” Their raids and conquests were “driven by an ethos wherein fighting and voluntarily risking one’s life was the essential ground of being worthy of respect and honor.”[7] The Viking style of warfare was therefore based on the freedom of the individual warrior to strive to outdo his peers, rather than just marching in lockstep with others.[8] Indeed, it was fairly common for members of the same warband to challenge each other to single combat to the death over a dispute about who’s deeds were greater – especially at feasts in which large quantities of alcohol were consumed.[9]

    The chieftains who led these warbands weren’t autocrats. They commanded the respect and loyalty of their followers only inasmuch as they were generous with the profits of war and appreciated their followers’ accomplishments. In the words of Alfred David, one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature: “In the poetry depicting this warrior society, the most important of human relationships was based less on subordination of one man’s will to another’s than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion.”[10]

    The Vikings’ graves were individual graves. The degree of their grandeur showed the status of the person buried there, and the objects that were buried with the dead person were those that were indicative of his or her individual life.[11] That way, “the fame of one who has earned it” would “never pass,” but would instead be memorialized for all passersby to see.

    The targets of Viking attacks were commonly other groups of Vikings. But they didn’t stop there. They frequently captured other Vikings and sold them into slavery, just as they would foreigners captured in battle. They seem to have made little if any distinction in this regard between Vikings and non-Vikings, pagans and Christians, etc.[12]


    Selfish Individualism in Norse Paganism

    This ethos extended to the Vikings’ representations of, and interactions with, their gods.

    For example, even though the gods all fight as one at Ragnarok, they do so like a warband: out of shared self-interest. If they don’t fight, they’ll be destroyed by the invading giants (who are fated to succeed in the end, anyway). They don’t sacrifice themselves for a “greater good” that’s antithetical to their own well-being.

    Odin-Self-Sacrifice.jpg
    Or consider the myth of Odin’s discovery of the runes. Odin “sacrifices himself to himself,” in the words of the Hávamál,[13] in order to obtain the ecstatic vision whereby he comes to understand the runes, powerful symbols that correspond to cosmic forces, and how to use them in magic. In the Hávamál, it’s clear that he does this to enhance his own power, not for any altruistic motives.

    As I describe in the article on Norse theology, the relationship between the Norse gods and their human worshipers followed the same basic model as the relationship between a chieftain and his warriors. There were no absolute commandments given, and no unconditional piety was expected. The Vikings “served” their gods in the same way that they “served” their chieftains: for their own selfish gain. Humans made sacrifices to the gods with the expectation that the favor would be returned in all manner of earthly blessings.

    Furthermore, since the Norse religion was never systematized or codified while it was still a living tradition, this fluidity passively afforded its adherents a considerable degree of individual choice in interpreting the shared and more or less fixed centerpieces of that tradition as they wanted. They didn’t have to particularly worry about being “orthodox” in their thinking, because there wasn’t much of a standard of orthodoxy in the first place.


    Conclusion

    Given all of the above, it’s extremely difficult to accurately portray the Vikings as proto-nationalists or something to that effect. If anything, they were much more like, say, the Wildlings in Game of Thrones – halfway still in the Hobbesian “state of nature.”[14]

    But I think there’s a larger, and more important, message to be distilled from this. We frequently hear claims that the purpose of religion is to instill in people an altruistic moral code. But as this case study of the Vikings and their religion shows, there’s no necessary connection between religion and altruism whatsoever – let alone one in which the latter is the cause of, and justification for, the former. The essence of religion must lie elsewhere.


    References:
    [1] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 62.
    [2] Duchesne, Ricardo. 2012. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Studies in Critical Social Sciences, Vol. 28). p. 399.
    [3] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanza 76. My translation.
    [4] See Chapter Five, “Fate,” in my book The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion[/URL].
    [5] Duchesne, Ricardo. 2012. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Studies in Critical Social Sciences, Vol. 28). p. 341-418.
    [6] Ibid. p. 375-376.
    [7] Ibid. p. 367-368.
    [8] Ibid. p. 369.
    [9] Ibid. p. 399.
    [10] Ibid. p. 398.
    [11] Ibid. p. 373.
    [12] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 116-117.
    [13] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-141.
    [14] The reference, of course, is to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, where he describes the imagined lives of people prior to the existence of governments as unrestrained and unremitting selfish competition.

  3. #13
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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Hel (The Underworld)


    Hel (The Underworld)


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Heimdal_verlangt_die_Ruckkehr_Iduns_aus_der_Unterwelt.jpg
    Hel (Old Norse Hel, “Hidden;”[1] pronounced like the English word “Hell”) is the most general name for the underworld where many of the dead dwell. It’s presided over by a fearsome goddess whose name is also Hel. Occasionally, it’s also referred to as “Helheim,” “The Realm of Hel,” although this is much more common in the secondary literature than in the Old Norse primary sources.

    Like physical graves, Hel was thought to be located underground. Some sources also place it in the north, the direction which is cold and dark like the grave.[2] A dog is sometimes said to guard its entrance, much like Cerberus in Greek mythology.[3]


    What Kind of Place Was Hel?

    The names of Hel and Hell, the Christian realm of eternal suffering ruled over by Satan, come from the same root in the Proto-Germanic language, which is an ancestor of both Old Norse and, by way of Old English, modern English. That common root has been reconstructed by modern scholars as *haljo, “concealed place,” and words stemming from *haljo seem to have been used to denote the underworld in virtually all Germanic languages. We modern English speakers call the Christian concept of a land of damnation “Hell” because the concept was called hel or helle in Old English.[4] Presumably, hel/helle originally referred to the same kind of Germanic pagan underworld as the Norse Hel, and Christian missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons used the closest word they could find in Old English to refer to Satan’s realm.

    But apart from the fact that Hel and Hell are both realms of the dead located beneath the ground, the two concepts have nothing in common. While the Old Norse sources are far from clear on exactly how one ended up in one of the Norse afterlife realms rather than another (there were several), what is clear is that where one goes after death isn’t any kind of reward for moral behavior or pious belief, or punishment for immoral behavior or impious belief. (See the article on Death and the Afterlife for more on this point.)

    Furthermore, while the underworld isn’t described often in the sources, when it is, it’s generally cast in neutral or even positive terms. As a place where the dead live on in some capacity, it’s sometimes portrayed as a land of startlingly abundant life on the other side of death.[5] The dead in Hel spend their time doing the same kinds of things that Viking Age men and women did: eating, drinking, fighting, sleeping, and so forth. It wasn’t a place of eternal bliss or torment as much as it was simply a continuation of life somewhere else.

    Of all of the Old Norse sources, only one describes Hel as a thoroughly unpleasant place: the Prose Edda of the thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. Snorri wrote many generations after Norse paganism had given way to Christianity and ceased to be a living tradition, and he had a habit of stretching the evidence available to him to present his pre-Christian ancestors as having anticipated aspects of Christianity.[6] His downright comically over-the-top portrayal of Hel is an excellent example of this tendency of his. For Snorri, the plate of the goddess Hel is called Hunger (Hungr), her servants Slow (Ganglati) and Lazy (Ganglöt), the threshold of her door Stumbling Block (Fallandaforađ), her bed Illness (Kör), and her curtains Bleak Misfortune (Blíkjandabölr).[7] Few scholars accept such descriptions as being authentic products of the Viking Age.[8]

    Similarly laughable is Snorri’s assertion that those who die in battle go to Valhalla, the sublime hall of the god Odin, while those who die of sickness or old age go to Hel. Snorri himself blatantly contradicts his distinction between Valhalla and Hel in his version of the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s son, who is killed violently and is nevertheless borne to Hel.[9] No other source makes this distinction, and several offer further examples to the contrary.


    The Road to Hel

    The Old Norse sources describe in uncharacteristic detail the course that one has to travel in order to reach Hel. It even has a name that comes up repeatedly in Old Norse literature: Helvegr, “The Road/Way to Hel.”[10] Given how closely the accounts of this course correspond to the narratives of traditional shamanic journeys of other circumpolar peoples,[11] they seem to recount, and possibly provide templates for, the journeys of Norse shamans. Throughout the Old Norse sources, we find instances of such journeys to Hel undertaken by gods or humans in order to recover a dead spirit or obtain knowledge from the dead.

    A journey by the hero Hadding from the Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) by the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus is typical. Here is Old Norse scholar E.O.G. Turville-Petre’s apt summary:

    While he was living with Ragnhild, Hadding had another mysterious experience. A woman appeared bearing some herbs. Wishing to know where such herbs grew in winter, Hadding went with this woman under the earth. They passed through mists, and then through sunny, fertile regions, where the herbs had grown. Then they came to a raging torrent, flowing with weapons. Crossing by a bridge, they came upon armies of fallen warriors, locked in eternal battle. As they pressed forward, a wall stood in their way; they could go no further, but the woman tore off the head of a cock, which she happened to have with her, and flung it over the wall. Immediately the cock came to life and crowed.[12]

    The chicken being thrown over the wall of the underworld (variously called Helgrindr, “The Fence of Hel,” Nágrindr, “Corpse-Fence,” or Valgrindr, “The Fence of the Fallen”[13]) is especially intriguing. I have yet to see a convincing explanation as to its meaning, but it seems to correspond to a Norse funeral custom. The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan recorded a scene he witnessed where a Norse chief had died and a woman was about to be killed to accompany him, and she cut off a hen’s head and threw it into the ship where her dead body would soon follow.[14]

    Another typical account is the journey of Hermod to Hel to attempt to retrieve Baldur, who had been killed by Loki. While the account comes exclusively from Snorri, it matches the other pieces of this genre of underworld-journey narratives closely enough, both in its overall form and in small details, that we can be sure that Snorri relied on an older source or sources now lost to us. The relevant part of the story goes like this:

    The god Hermod departed from Asgard, the celestial stronghold of the gods, on Sleipnir, the horse of Odin. He descended down the trunk of Yggdrasil, the great tree that forms the central axis of the cosmos. For nine nights, he rode through deep valleys, so pitch-black he could not see the way. Finally, he came to a river, Gjöll (“Loud Noise”[15]), which was spanned by a bridge named Gjallarbrú (“Bridge over Gjöll”[16]). On the bridge stood a giantess, Móđguđr (“Furious Battle”[17]). The guardian of the bridge wanted to know why Hermod wanted to cross, since she could tell from his appearance that he was not yet dead. His answer, that he was going to look after Baldur, was evidently satisfactory to the giantess, who let him cross, telling him that Hel lay downwards and northwards (niđr ok norđr) from the bridge. When Hermod arrived at the fence around Hel, he jumped over it rather than going through the gate. He then made his way toward the hall of Hel (the goddess), where he found Baldur sitting in the seat of honor.[18]

    The common elements in Snorri’s and Saxo’s accounts seem to be the following: Hel was located underground – down and to the north, the realm of cold and general lifelessness. It was reached by descending from a higher point with the help of a guide – an unnamed (dead) woman in Hadding’s case, and Sleipnir in the Prose Edda and the poem Baldrs Draumar (Baldur’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda. After traveling through darkness and mist, the traveler would come to a river, perhaps a torrential river of water, but more commonly a river of clanging weapons.[19] There was a bridge over the river that one had to cross. After a time, one would finally arrive at the wall surrounding Hel. The dead presumably entered through the main gate, but those living beings who, for whatever reasons, undertook the journey to Hel seem to have thought it either impossible or unwise to enter through the gate. So they either found sneakier ways to cross into Hel or turned back.


    References:
    [1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 156, 168.
    [2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.
    [3] The Poetic Edda. Baldrs Draumar, stanzas 3-4.
    [4] “Hell” in the Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/hell
    [5] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 85-86.
    [6] Abram, Christopher. 2011. Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen. p. 208-213.
    [7] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 34.
    [8] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.
    [9] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 84.
    [10] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 139.
    [11] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.
    [12] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 214-215.
    [13] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.
    [14] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 215.
    [15] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.
    [16] Ibid.
    [17] Ibid. p. 220.
    [18] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 48.
    [19] I say “more commonly” because the river of weapons motif is also found in the Völuspá, stanza 36, Grímnismál, stanza 27, and Gylfaginning, chapter 38.

  4. #14
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    Default Re: Gods and Goddesses


    Ask and Embla


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Ask-and-Embla.jpg
    Ask and Embla are the first humans – male and female, respectively – to be created in Norse mythology.
    The story of how they were created, as it has come down to us in Old Norse literature, goes like this:
    Not too long after the world itself was created, Odin was walking along the coast of one of the new land masses. With him were two other gods: in one version, these were his brothers Vili and Ve,[1] and in another version, they were the obscure figures Hoenir and Lodurr.[2]

    The three deities found two tree trunks, perhaps pieces of driftwood, lying on the beach. They were shaped like a man and a woman, but they were lifeless and powerless. So the three gods decided to give them what they lacked and make them true humans. Odin blew into them the breath of life, while his two companions imparted inspired mental activity, a healthy complexion, and the ability to speak, hear, and see.[3] They dressed them in suitable clothes and named the man “Ask” and the woman “Embla.” Ask and Embla were then given Midgard, the world of human civilization, for their dwelling-place. They became the father and mother of the entire human species.[4][5]

    In the Viking Age, there was surely more to this story that has since been lost due to the rather sparse and fragmentary nature of the primary sources. One of the two extant Old Norse versions of this myth comes from a poem (the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda) which seems to be missing one or more stanzas that would have come directly before the two stanzas that recount the creation of Ask and Embla.[6] In the form in which the poem has come down to us, the stanzas before these have to do with dwarves, and the transition from them to this myth is abrupt and seemingly arbitrary. However, a few scholars have interpreted those preceding stanzas as implying that the dwarves – the master craftsmen of the cosmos – had fashioned the initial forms of Ask and Embla, which the gods then brought to life.[7]

    The meaning of the name Ask is very straightforward: the original Old Norse form of the word is Askr, “Ash Tree” – a fitting name, since the pair was made from tree trunks.[8]

    The meaning of Embla’s name is more elusive. Some of the main scholarly guesses so far are “Elm,”[9] “Water Pot,”[10] and “Vine.”[11] If “Vine” is correct, it could be a sexual metaphor. Vines were used as kindling and the drills were made of harder wood, so the drill, which corresponds to Ask, would make a fire, which corresponds to life, by boring into the vine, which corresponds to Embla.[12]

    Trees are frequently used as metaphors (kennings, more precisely) for humans in Old Norse poetry, which suggests a strong association between humans and trees in the Norse mind. Perhaps this is an indirect corroboration of the myth as we find it in the Eddas.[13] Old Norse scholar Henning Kure interprets this association thusly: “Man has his feet on the ground, anchored in this world, with roots – ties – to death and chaos in his nature. But his crown, his head or mind, is in the mental or spiritual world. Like the world tree, man possesses the capability of connecting the world above with the world below. But it takes the way of the god to create the link…”[14]


    References:

    [1] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 8.
    [2] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 17-18.
    [3] The meanings of a few of the corresponding Old Norse words in these passages aren’t entirely clear, and are disputed by scholars. My rendering of them here is largely based on:
    Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 21.
    [4] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 17-18.
    [5] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 8.
    [6] Hultgĺrd, Anders. 2006. “The Askr and Embla myth in a comparative perspective.” In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 58.
    [7] Ibid.
    [8] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 21.
    [9] Ibid. p. 74.
    [10] Hultgĺrd, Anders. 2006. “The Askr and Embla myth in a comparative perspective.” In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 59-60.
    [11] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 74.
    [12] Ibid.
    [13] Kure, Henning. 2006. “Hanging on the world tree: Man and cosmos in Old Norse mythic poetry.” In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 70-71.
    [14] Ibid. p. 71.

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