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    Default Gods and Goddesses


    Gods and Creatures


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Thor-Fishing-for-the-World-Serpent.jpg
    Thor fishing for the World Serpent (Franz Stassen, 1920) The gods and other spiritual beings of Norse mythology are among the most wondrous and unique of any mythology. The Norse gods had very human-like personalities and frequently intervened in human affairs, but were larger-than-life and awe-inspiring in ways that decisively set them apart from mere humans. Their characters were often richly complex and multifaceted; one-dimensional epithets like “god of war” or “goddess of fertility” typically fail to describe anything more than one of their several aspects.

    The gods and goddesses weren’t the only spiritual entities the Vikings perceived and interacted with. The whole world teemed with other unseen creatures. Most of these were less powerful than the gods, but they nevertheless played an important role in making the Norse universe what it was. Some of these beings were largely benevolent. Some were fearsome, chaotic, and destructive. And some could be either or both, depending on the context.

    The gods and other numinous creatures of the Norse world include:

    • The Aesir gods and goddesses, the main tribe of deities. They live in the celestial fortress Asgard and maintain the order of the cosmos. Among them are: Odin, the wisest and most magically powerful of the gods; Thor, the fiery-tempered defender of Asgard; Loki, the cunning trickster; the youthful and universally popular Baldur; the loving sorceress Frigg; Heimdall, the ever-vigilant watchman; Tyr, the upholder of law and justice; Idun, the keeper of the apples of perpetual youth; Bragi, the court poet; and many other lesser-known gods and goddesses such as Vili and Ve, Forseti, Gefjun, Sif, Fjorgynn and Fjorgyn, Jord, Sol and Mani, Ullr,Hoenir, Vidar, Hodr, Vali, Hermod, and Lodurr.


    • The Vanir gods and goddesses, the second tribe of deities. They tend to be more associated with the “natural world” than the Aesir. Among them are Freya, the most popular goddess among the heathen Norse, and Freyr, Njord, and Nerthus, the keepers and bringers of peace and wealth. The obscure figures Gullveig and Odr should probably be grouped with the Vanir as well.


    • The giants, more properly called the “devourers,” the chaotic spirits of night, darkness, winter, and death, who are often the enemies of the Aesir. Among them are: Hel, the ruler of the underworld; the huntress Skadi; Aegir and Ran, the rulers of the sea; the hermaphroditic Ymir, the first being in the Norse creation narrative; Fenrir, the wolf who consumes Odin during Ragnarok; Jormungand, the sea serpent who encircles the land mass where humanity lives; Nidhogg, the snake who gnaws at the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; Skoll and Hati, the wolves who hunt the sun and the moon; Surt, whose flaming sword burns the world during Ragnarok; and Garm, an obscure canine who seems to have been, for all practical purposes, synonymous with Fenrir.


    • The elves, light, beautiful, demigod-like beings.


    • The dwarves, master craftspeople who live underground.


    • The land spirits, the animating spirits of a particular locality.


    • Human ancestors, the worship of whom was an integral part of the pre-Christian Germanic religion.


    • The valkyries, female helping spirits of Odin who influenced the outcome of battles and bore some of the dead back to Valhalla.


    • Others of Odin’s helping spirits, including the eight-legged horse Sleipnir[/URL] and the ravens Hugin and Munin.


    • Ask and Embla, the first human man and woman to be created.


    • The Norns, extremely powerful female entities whose whims become the fate of all other beings – including even the gods.


    • The Disir, female spirits whose precise identity is highly ambiguous and varies from source to source.


    • Kvasir, the wisest of all beings, who was murdered and had his blood brewed into the Mead of Poetry.



    Finally, if you want to learn more about the Vikings’ conception of divinity in general – to go beyond who the gods were and take a look at what they were – then check out the article on Norse Theology.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - The Aesir Gods and Goddesses


    The Aesir Gods and Goddesses


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    The Aesir (pronounced “ICE-ir”; Old Norse Æsir for multiple gods, Ásynjur for multiple goddesses, Áss for one god, and Ásynja for one goddess) were one of the two main tribes of deities venerated by the pre-Christian Norse. (When referring to a group of deities that included both male and female divinities, the masculine plural “Aesir” was used.)
    The second tribe was the Vanir, who are only nominally distinct from the Aesir; in Old Norse literature, the word “Aesir” is commonly used to refer to the gods as such, without regard for the nominal tribal distinction. Most of the best-known Norse gods and goddesses belong to the Aesir, including Odin, Thor, Frigg, Tyr, Loki, Baldur, Heimdall, Idun, and Bragi. Their home is Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds, which is located in the highest, sunniest branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil. In the Norse sources, Odin, the “Allfather,” is their chief.

    The word “Aesir” is almost certainly derived from one of two Proto-Germanic words: *ansaz, “pole, beam, rafter,” or *ansuz, “life, vitality.”[1] In either case, when this linguistic evidence is combined with the Aesir’s role in the tales of Norse mythology, it becomes clear that the Aesir were thought of as being the powers that hold the cosmos together, and prevent the giants from succeeding in their attempt to drag it back into the formless chaos from which it originally came. At Ragnarok, however, the gods are fated to fail, and the giants to succeed.

    For more on how the Vikings conceptualized the gods in general, see Norse Theology.

    References:
    [1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 20-21.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - The Vanir Gods and Goddesses

    The Vanir Gods and Goddesses

    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    The Vanir (Old Norse Vanir, pronounced “VAN-ir”) are one of the two principal tribes of deities featured in Norse mythology. (The other tribe is the Aesir.) Among their ranks are Freya, Freyr, Njord, and arguably the early Germanic goddess Nerthus as well. Their home is Vanaheim[/URL], one of the Nine Worlds held within the branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil.


    Controversies

    Unfortunately, as fragmentary as the sources on pre-Christian Germanic religion are, we know next to nothing about what the pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought of the Vanir as a group. “Vanir” is a rarely-used word. Its meaning is unknown. While there is a smattering of plausible evidence for the worship of Freyr, Freyja, and/or Njord outside of Scandinavia and Iceland, the title “Vanir” is never used in connection with them. Some have even questioned whether the Scandinavians and Icelanders themselves thought of Freyja, Freyr, and Njord as belonging to a separate clan known as the “Vanir” before the writings of the Christian historian and poet Snorri Sturluson.[1] The Vanir do seem to be somewhat more associated with human and ecological fertility than the Aesir, but this is a vague tendency at best, and certainly not an absolute distinction; the Aesir god Thor, for example, had a large role to play in the fertility of the land and human society as well. Ultimately, all we can confidently say about the Vanir is that some late Norse literary sources portray them as being a group dimly distinct from the Aesir, and the gods and goddesses to whom the title “Vanir” has been applied were among the most widely and passionately venerated of the pre-Christian Norse deities.

    References
    [1] Simek, Rudolf. 2010. The Vanir: an Obituary. In The Retrospective Methods Newsletter, December 2010. Edited by Helen F. Leslie and Mathais Nordvig.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Asgard

    Asgard

    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    The-Rainbow-Bridge-between-Asgard-and-Midgard.jpg
    The Rainbow Bridge between Asgard and Midgard in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, directed by Otto Schenk (1990) Asgard (Old Norse Ásgarðr, “Enclosure of the Aesir) is one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology and the home and fortress of the Aesir, one of the two tribes of gods (the other being the Vanir, who have their home in Vanaheim). Asgard is located in the sky[1] (albeit spiritually rather than physically, of course) and is connected to Midgard, the world of humanity, by the rainbow bridge Bifrost.

    The -gard element in Asgard’s name is a reference to the ancient Germanic concept of the distinction between the innangard and utangard. That which is innangard (“inside the fence”) is orderly, law-abiding, and civilized, while that which is utangard (“beyond the fence”) is chaotic, anarchic, and wild. This applies both to the geographical plane and the human psyche; thoughts and actions can be innangard or utangard just as readily as spatial locations. Asgard is the ultimate model of the innangard, while Jotunheim, the “Homeland of the Giants,” is the epitome of the utangard.

    Midgard (“Middle Enclosure”), the world of human civilization, is, as the name implies, somewhere in the middle – not quite as innangard as Asgard and not quite as utangard as Jotunheim. But Midgard is a space enclosed, on the geographical plane, by fences, and on the psychological plane by norms and laws. This makes it much closer – at least in theory – to Asgard than to Jotunheim. In other words, Asgard is the divine model upon which the pre-Christian Norse people patterned their world.


    References:
    [1] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 13.

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    Default Re: Gods and Goddesses


    Odin


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman_1886_Odin_the_Wanderer1.jpg
    Odin (pronounced “OH-din”; Old Norse Óðinn, Old English and Old Saxon Woden, Old High German Wuotan, Wotan, or Wodan, Proto-Germanic *Woðanaz, “Master of Ecstasy”) is one of the most complex and enigmatic characters in Norse mythology, and perhaps in all of world literature. He’s the ruler of the Aesir tribe of deities, yet he often ventures far from their kingdom, Asgard, on long, solitary wanderings throughout the cosmos on purely self-interested quests. He’s a relentless seeker after and giver of wisdom, but he has little regard for communal values such as justice, fairness, or respect for law and convention. He’s the divine patron of rulers, and also of outlaws. He’s a war-god, but also a poetry-god, and he has prominent “effeminate” qualities that would have brought unspeakable shame to any historical Viking warrior. He’s worshiped by those in search of prestige, honor, and nobility, yet he’s often cursed for being a fickle trickster. What kind of literary figure – let alone a god whose historical worship spanned much of a continent and several centuries – could possibly embody all of these qualities at once, with their apparently glaring contradictions?


    What’s in a Name?

    As mentioned above, Odin’s name can be translated as “Master of Ecstasy.” His Old Norse name, Óðinn, is formed from two parts: first, the noun óðr, “ecstasy, fury, inspiration,” and the suffix -inn, the masculine definite article, which, when added to the end of another word like this, means something like “the master of” or “a perfect example of.” The eleventh-century historian Adam of Bremen confirms this when he translates “Odin” as “The Furious.”[1] Óðr can take countless different forms. As one saga describes Odin, “when he sat with his friends, he gladdened the spirits of all of them, but when he was at war, his demeanor was terrifyingly grim.”[2]

    This ecstasy that Odin embodies and imparts is the unifying factor behind the myriad areas of life with which he is especially associated: war, sovereignty, wisdom, magic, shamanism, poetry, and the dead.


    War

    In modern popular culture, Odin is often portrayed as being an eminently honorable ruler and battlefield commander (not to mention impossibly muscular), but to the ancient Norse, he was nothing of the sort. In contrast to more straightforwardly noble war gods such as Tyr or Thor, Odin incites otherwise peaceful people to strife with what, to modern tastes, is a downright sinister glee.[3] His attitude is not far from Nietzsche’s dictum, “You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.”[4]

    In keeping with his associations with sovereignty (see below), Odin doesn’t generally concern himself with average warriors, preferring instead to lavish his blessings only on those whom he deems to be worthy of them. Many of the greatest Germanic heroes, such as Starkaðr and the Volsung family, have enjoyed Odin’s patronage.

    He maintains particularly close affiliations with the berserkers and other “warrior-shamans” whose fighting techniques and associated spiritual practices center around achieving a state of ecstatic unification with certain ferocious totem animals, usually wolves or bears, and, by extension, with Odin himself, the master of such beasts.

    Thus, as a war-god, Odin is principally concerned not with the reasons behind any given conflict or even its outcome, but rather with the raw, chaotic battle-frenzy (one of the primary manifestations of óðr) that permeates any such struggle.


    Sovereignty

    Odin’s preference for the elite extends to all realms of society. As the chief of the Aesir gods, he’s the divine archetype of a ruler. He’s the legendary founder of numerous royal lines,[5] and kings are as likely as shamanistic warriors to claim him as their beneficiary.

    The Germanic peoples, like other Indo-European peoples, originally had a three-tiered social/political hierarchy: the first tier consisted of rulers, the second of warriors, and the third of farmers and others occupied with production and fecundity. The gods and goddesses can be profitably mapped onto this schema, and Odin, along with Tyr, corresponds to the first tier, the rulers.[6] The crucial difference between Tyr and Odin in this regard, however, is that Tyr has much more to do with rule by law and justice, whereas Odin has much more to do with rule by magic and cunning. Tyr is the sober and virtuous ruler; Odin is the devious, inscrutable, and inspired ruler.[7]

    Paradoxically, Odin is often the favorite god and helper of outlaws, those who had been banished from society for some especially heinous crime, as well. Like Odin, many such men were exceptionally strong-willed warrior-poets who were apathetic to established societal norms – Egill Skallagrímsson (Egil’s Saga) and Grettir Ásmundarson (The Saga of Grettir the Strong) are two examples. The late twelfth/early thirteenth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus even relates a tale of Odin being outlawed from Asgard for ten years so that the other gods and goddesses wouldn’t be tarnished by the vile reputation he had acquired amongst many humans.[8]

    Whatever their social stature, the men and women favored by Odin are distinguished by their intelligence, creativity, and competence in the proverbial “war of all against all.” Whether such people become kings or criminals is mostly a matter of luck.


    Wisdom, Magic, and Shamanism

    One of the greatest differences between monotheistic theologies and polytheistic theologies is that, in the former, God is generally all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, etc. Polytheistic gods are none of these things; like any human, tree, or hawk, they are limited by their particularity. For Odin, any kind of limitation is something to be overcome by any means necessary, and his actions are carried out within the context of a relentless and ruthless quest for more wisdom, more knowledge, and more power, usually of a magical sort.

    One of the most striking attributes of his appearance is his single, piercing eye. His other eye socket is empty – the eye it once held was sacrificed for wisdom.

    On another occasion, Odin “sacrificed himself to himself” by hanging on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, receiving no form of nourishment from his companions. At the end of this ordeal, he perceived the runes, the magically-charged ancient Germanic alphabet that was held to contain many of the greatest secrets of existence. He is depicted as having subsequently boasted:

    Then I was fertilized and grew wise;
    From a word to a word I was led to a word,
    From a work to a work I was led to a work.[9]

    Odin’s competitive side once drove him to challenge the wisest of the giants to a contest to see who was more knowledgeable and learned. The prize was the head of the loser, and Odin won by asking his opponent something that only he himself could know. Odin then claimed his prize and returned to Asgard.[10]

    Along with Freya, he’s one of the two greatest practitioners of shamanism amongst the gods.

    His shamanic spirit-journeys are well-documented. The Ynglinga Saga records that he often “travel[s] to distant lands on his own errands or those of others” while he appears to others to be asleep or dead.[11] Another instance is recorded in the Eddic poem “Baldur’s Dreams,” where Odin rode Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse typical of northern Eurasian shamanism,[12] to the underworld to consult a dead seeress on behalf of his son.[13]

    Odin, like shamans all over the world,[14] is accompanied by many familiar spirits, most notably the ravens Hugin and Munin, the wolves Geri and Freki, and the valkyries.

    The shaman must typically undergo a ritual death and rebirth in order to acquire his or her powers,[15] and Odin underwent exactly such an ordeal when he discovered the runes.

    We’ve already, albeit briefly, discussed the berserkers and other distinguished “warrior-shamans” under Odin’s patronage. This was the form of Germanic shamanism that was the most socially acceptable for men to practice.

    The other main form of Germanic shamanism is contained within the magical tradition known as seidr, of which Odin and Freya are the foremost divine practitioners. In traditional Germanic society, for a man to engage in seidr was effectively to forsake the male gender role, which brought considerable scorn upon any male who chose to take up this path. As the sagas show, this didn’t stop some men from practicing seidr anyway. However, even Odin wasn’t exempt from such charges of “unmanliness,” and was taunted for adopting the feminine traits and tasks that form part of the backbone of seidr. Saxo, in the passage on Odin’s exile alluded to above, relates that “by his stage-tricks and his assumption of a woman’s work he had brought the foulest scandal on the name of the gods.”[16] Note also the reference to being “fertilized” in the verse quoted above – while this is certainly a metaphor, it’s a metaphor loaded with sexual implications that would have been immediately recognizable to any Viking Age or medieval reader or hearer of the poem. A fuller discussion of the relationship between Germanic shamanism and gender roles can be found here. For our present purposes, it’s sufficient to point out that, in the eyes of the pre-Christian northern Europeans, Odin’s practice of seidr made him a rather “unmanly” being incapable of fulfilling the expectations placed upon an honorable man.

    But we’ve already noted Odin’s scant concern for honor. He isn’t one to refuse any ecstatic practice, even those that bring him ill repute.


    Poetry

    Odin speaks only in poems,[17] and the ability to compose poetry is a gift he grants at his pleasure. He stole the mead of poetry, the primeval source of the ability to speak and write beautifully and persuasively, from the giants. Ever since, he has dispensed it to certain gods, humans, and other beings whom he deems worthy of it. The mead’s Old Norse name is Óðrœrir, “The Stirrer of Óðr,” and, as we have seen, óðr (“ecstasy, fury, inspiration”) is the root of Odin’s name as well. This intoxicating drink, along with the power it grants, is yet another manifestation of his overflowing ecstasy.


    The Dead

    When Roman writers spoke of the gods and goddesses of other peoples, they generally tried to identify them with deities from their own religion. When they mentioned Odin, they glossed him as Mercury, the Roman psychopomp (the divine figure who guides those who have just died from the realm of the living to that of the dead, and, in due time, back to the land of the living again).[18] This is significant, because it shows that Odin’s associations with death were seen as being even more significant than his associations with war, or else he would have been glossed as Mars. (This designation usually fell to Tyr or Thor instead.)

    Odin presides over Valhalla, the most prestigious of the dwelling-places of the dead. After every battle, he and his helping-spirits, the valkyries (“choosers of the fallen”), comb the field and take their pick of half of the slain warriors to carry back to Valhalla. (Freya then claims the remaining half.)

    He was a frequent recipient of human sacrifice, especially of royalty, nobles, and enemy armies. This was generally accomplished by means of a spear, a noose, or both – the same manner in which Odin “sacrificed himself to himself” (Old Norse gefinn Óðni, sjálfr sjálfum mér) in order to acquire knowledge of the runes. A common – and chilling – way of securing his favor in battle was to throw a spear over one’s foes, sacrificing them to the god with the cry, “Odin owns ye all!” (Old Norse Óðinn á yðr alla).[19]

    His mastery of necromancy, the magical art of communicating with and raising the dead, is frequently noted.[20]

    While there are several reasons Odin maintains this commerce with the dead, including his desire to learn what knowledge and wisdom they possess, the most significant reason is his dread-driven desire to have as many of the best warriors as possible on his side when he must face the wolf Fenrir during Ragnarok – even though he knows that he’s doomed to die in the battle.


    The Allfather

    One of Odin’s countless names is “Allfather” (Old Norse Alfaðir), “because,” according to Snorri Sturluson, “he is the father of all of the gods.”[20] And, as we’ve already noted, Odin is listed as the divine ancestor of countless families from all over northern Europe. He’s simultaneously an Aesir god, a Vanir god (the Vanir god Odr is only an extension or transposition of Odin), and a giant (his mother is Bestla, one of the first frost-giants). One Old Norse poem even identifies him with önd, the breath of life.[22]

    What can we discern in all of this regarding Odin’s identity? In the same way that Thor is the divine force whose presence the Vikings felt in the thunder, Odin is the divine force whose presence the Vikings felt in óðr. To them, this inspiration/fury/ecstasy was not a profane phenomenon, but a sacred and even divine one that lay at the heart of countless different undertakings, including many that were both especially rarefied and especially decisive in the Vikings’ lives. This is perhaps why Odin is the chieftain of the gods – the realms of life over which he presided were to the other aspects of life what a ruler is to common people.

    The Norse saw their gods as the vital forces that held the cosmos together. As the “Allfather,” Odin was the vital force of vital forces – the “breath of life,” or something almost akin to Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” It’s surely no accident that Odin played a greater role than any other god in the creation of the world. Without his vivifying ecstasy, and the enchantment, insight, and clarity that it brings, life – and in particular a life worth living – would be impossible.


    References:

    [1] Adam of Bremen. c. 1080. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis Joseph Tschan. p. 207.
    [2] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 6. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [3] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 50-52 and references therein.
    [4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1954. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a Book for All and None. In The Portable Nietzsche. Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 159.
    [5] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 56, 70.
    [6] Dumézil, Georges. 1988. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Translated by Derek Coltman.
    [7] Dumézil, Georges. 1973. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen. p. 46.
    [8] Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes.
    [9] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál 138-141. My translation. The original Old Norse of verse 141 reads:

    Þá nam ek frævask
    ok fróðr vera
    ok vaxa ok vel hafask,
    orð mér af orði
    orðs leitaði,
    verk mér af verki
    verks leitaði.

    [10] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál.
    [11] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 7. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [12] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 380.
    [13] The Poetic Edda. Baldrs Draumar.
    [14] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 6.
    [15] Ibid. p. 14.
    [16] Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes.
    [17] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 6. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [18] See, for example, Tacitus’s Germania.
    [19] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 42-50.
    [20] See, for example, Ynglinga Saga 7 and Hávamál in The Poetic Edda.
    [21] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.
    [22] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá 18.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Thor


    Thor


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Thors-Battle-with-the-Giants.jpg
    Thor (Old Norse Þórr, Old English Đunor, Old High German Donar, Proto-Germanic *Þunraz, “Thunder”[1]) is one of the most prominent figures in Norse mythology. He was a major god of all branches of the Germanic peoples before their conversion to Christianity, although he reached the height of his popularity among the Scandinavians of the late Viking Age.


    The Warrior God Par Excellence

    Thor, the brawny thunder god, is the archetype of a loyal and honorable warrior, the ideal toward which the average human warrior aspired. He’s the indefatigable defender of the Aesir gods and their fortress, Asgard, from the encroachments of the giants, who are usually (although far from invariably) the enemies of the gods.

    No one is better suited for this task than Thor. His courage and sense of duty are unshakeable, and his physical strength is virtually unmatched. He even owns an unnamed belt of strength (Old Norse megingjarðar) that makes his power doubly formidable when he wears the belt. His most famous possession, however, is his hammer, Mjöllnir (“Lightning”[2]). Only rarely does he go anywhere without it. For the heathen Scandinavians, just as thunder was the embodiment of Thor, lightning was the embodiment of his hammer slaying giants as he rode across the sky in his goat-drawn chariot. (Of course, they didn’t believe he physically rode in a chariot drawn by goats – like everything else in Germanic mythology, this is a symbol used to express an invisible reality upon which the material world is perceived to be patterned.)

    Thor’s particular enemy is Jormungand, the enormous sea serpent who encircles Midgard, the world of human civilization. In one myth, he tries to pull Jormungand out of the ocean while on a fishing trip, and is stopped only when his giant companion cuts the fishing line out of fear. Thor and Jormungand finally face each other during Ragnarok, however, when the two put an end to each other.

    Given his ever-vigilant protection of the ordered cosmos of pre-Christian northern Europe against the forces of chaos, destruction, and entropy represented by the giants, it’s somewhat ironic that Thor is himself three-quarters giant. His father, Odin, is half-giant, and his mother, variously named as Jord (Old Norse “Earth”), Hlöðyn, or Fjörgyn, is entirely of giant ancestry. However, such a lineage is very common amongst the gods, and shows how the relationship between the gods and the giants, as tense and full of strife as it is, can’t be reduced to just enmity.


    Hallowing

    His activities on the divine plane were mirrored by his activities on the human plane (Midgard), where he was appealed to by those in need of protection, comfort, and the blessing and hallowing of places, things, and events. Numerous surviving runic inscriptions invoke him to hallow the words and their intended purpose,[3] and it was he who was called upon to hallow weddings.[4] (Evidence of this is preserved, amongst other places, in the tale of Thor Disguised as a Bride.) The earliest Icelandic settlers implored him to hallow their plot of land before they built buildings or planted crops.[5]

    Thor’s hammer could be used to hallow as readily as it could be used to destroy – and, in effect, these two properties were one and the same, since any purification necessarily involves the banishing of hostile forces or elements. The blessing of weddings, for example, was effected through his hammer. Perhaps the most striking case of this, however, is his ability to kill and eat the goats that drive his chariot, gather their bones together in their hides, bless the hides with the hammer, and bring the animals back to life, as healthy and vital as before.[6]


    Fertility and Agriculture

    In addition to his role as a model warrior and defender of the order of society and its ambitions, Thor also played a large role in the promotion of agriculture and fertility (something which has already been suggested by his blessing of the lands in which the first Icelanders settled). This was another extension of his role as a sky god, and one particularly associated with the rain that enables crops to grow. As the eleventh-century German historian Adam of Bremen notes, “Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops.”[7] His seldom-mentioned wife, Sif, is noted for her golden hair above all else, which is surely a symbol for fields of grain. Their marriage is therefore an instance of what historians of religion call a “hierogamy” (divine marriage), which, particularly among Indo-European peoples, generally takes place between a sky god and an earth goddess. The fruitfulness of the land and the concomitant prosperity of the people is a result of the sexual union of sky and earth.[8]


    Thor’s Role in the Viking Age Social World

    Through archaeological evidence, the veneration of Thor can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age,[9] and his cult has gone through numerous permutations across time and space. One of the features that remained constant from the Bronze Age up through the Viking Age, however, is Thor’s role as the principal deity of the second class or “function” of the three-tiered social hierarchy of traditional European society – the function of warriors and military strength. (The first function was that of rulers and sovereignty, and the third was that of farmers and fecundity.)[10]

    Thor seems to have always had close ties to the third function as well as the second, and during the Viking Age, a time of great social confusion and innovation, this connection with the third function seems to have been strengthened still more. This made him the foremost god of the common people in Scandinavia and the viking colonies.[11]

    This role can be made clearer by contrasting Thor with the god who was virtually his functional opposite: Odin. Odin was the foremost deity appealed to by rulers, outcasts, and “elite” persons of every sort. Odin’s primary values are quite rarefied: ecstasy, knowledge, magical power, and creative agency. They stand in stark contrast to Thor’s more homely virtues. The Eddas and sagas portray the relationship between the two gods as being often uneasy as a result. At one point, Odin taunts Thor: “Odin’s are the nobles who fall in battle, but Thor’s are the thralls.”[12] In another episode, Odin is conferring blessings upon a favored hero of his, Starkaðr, and each blessing is matched by a curse from Thor. In the most telling example, Odin grants Starkaðr the favor of the nobility and rulers, while Thor declares that he will always be scorned by the commoners.[13]

    Due to demographic shifts, whereby the second and third functions became largely indistinguishable from one another, the prominence of Thor seems to have increased at the expense of Odin throughout the Viking Age (c. 793-1000 CE). Late period sources describe Thor as the foremost of all the Aesir,[14] a statement that would have been rather ludicrous before the Viking Age, when Odin and his Anglo-Saxon and continental equivalents occupied this position.

    Nowhere was this trend more pronounced than in Iceland, which was originally settled in the ninth century by farming colonists fleeing what they found to be the oppressive and arbitrary rule of an Odin-worshiping Norwegian king. The sagas are rife with examples of the fervent veneration of Thor amongst the Icelanders, and in the Landnámabók, the Icelandic “Book of Settlements,” roughly a quarter of the four thousand people mentioned in the narrative have Thor’s name or a clear allusion to him somewhere in their own names.[15] Famed Old Norse scholar E.O.G. Turville-Petre admirably summarizes: “In these [late Viking Age Icelandic] sources Thor appears not only as the chief god of the settlers but also as patron and guardian of the settlement itself, of its stability and law.”[16]

    There’s yet another reason for the upsurge in the worship of Thor during the Viking Age. When Christianity first reached Scandinavia and the viking colonies, the people tolerated the cult of the new god just like they tolerated the cult of any other god. However, when it became clear that the Christians had no intention of extending this same tolerance to those who continued to adhere to the worship of the old gods, but instead wanted to eradicate the traditional religion of northern Europe and its accompanying way of life and replace it with a foreign religion, the northern Europeans retaliated. And who better to defend their traditional way of life and worldview from hostile, invading forces than Thor? One of the many areas of life in which this struggle manifested – and one of the easiest to trace by the methods of modern anthropology – was modes of dress. In deliberate contrast to the cross amulets that the Christians wore around their necks, those who continued to follow the old ways started to wear miniature Thor’s hammers around their necks. Archaeological discoveries of these hammer pendants are concentrated in precisely the areas where Christian influence was the most pronounced.[17] Though ultimately doomed, their efforts to preserve their ancestral traditions no doubt benefited from the divine patron whom they could look to as a model.


    References:
    [1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.
    [2] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 81.
    [3] Ibid. p. 82-83.
    [4] Ibid. p. 81.
    [5] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 84.
    [6] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 44.
    [7] Adam of Bremen. c. 1080. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis Joseph Tschan. p. 207.
    [8] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 84.
    [9] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 322.
    [10] Dumézil, Georges. 1973. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen.
    [11] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 322.
    [12] The Poetic Edda. Hárbarðsljóð, stanza 24. My translation. The original Old Norse text reads:

    Óðinn á jarla,
    þá er í val falla,
    en Þórr á þrælakyn.

    [13] Gautreks Saga 7.
    [14] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 21.
    [15] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 320.
    [16] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 86.
    [17] Ibid. p. 83.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Freya


    Freya


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    freyja3.jpg
    Freya (Old Norse Freyja, “Lady”) is one of the preeminent goddesses in Norse mythology. She’s a member of the Vanir tribe of deities, but became an honorary member of the Aesir gods after the Aesir-Vanir War. Her father is Njord. Her mother is unknown, but could be Nerthus. Freyr is her brother. Her husband, named Odr in late Old Norse literature, is certainly none other than Odin, and, accordingly, Freya is ultimately identical with Odin’s wife Frigg (see below for a discussion of this).

    Freya is famous for her fondness of love, fertility, beauty, and fine material possessions – and, because of these predilections, she’s considered to be something of the “party girl” of the Aesir. In one of the Eddic poems, for example, Loki accuses Freya (probably accurately) of having slept with all of the gods and elves, including her brother.[1] She’s certainly a passionate seeker after pleasures and thrills, but she’s a lot more than only that. Freya is the archetype of the völva, a professional or semiprofessional practitioner of seidr, the most organized form of Norse magic. It was she who first brought this art to the gods,[2] and, by extension, to humans as well. Given her expertise in controlling and manipulating the desires, health, and prosperity of others, she’s a being whose knowledge and power are almost without equal.

    Freya presides over the afterlife realm Folkvang. According to one Old Norse poem, she chooses half of the warriors slain in battle to dwell there. (See Death and the Afterlife.)


    Freya the Völva

    Seidr is a form of pre-Christian Norse magic and shamanism that involved discerning the course of fate and working within its structure to bring about change, often by symbolically weaving new events into being.[3] This power could potentially be put to any use imaginable, and examples that cover virtually the entire range of the human condition can be found in Old Norse literature.

    In the Viking Age, the völva was an itinerant seeress and sorceress who traveled from town to town performing commissioned acts of seidr in exchange for lodging, food, and often other forms of compensation as well. Like other northern Eurasian shamans, her social status was highly ambiguous – she was by turns exalted, feared, longed for, propitiated, celebrated, and scorned.[4]

    Freya’s occupying this role amongst the gods is stated directly in the Ynglinga Saga, and indirect hints are dropped elsewhere in the Eddas and sagas. For example, in one tale, we’re informed that Freya possesses falcon plumes that allow their bearer to shift his or her shape into that of a falcon.[6]

    During the so-called Völkerwanderung or “Migration Period” – roughly 400-800 CE, and thus the period that immediately preceded the Viking Age – the figure who would later become the völva held a much more institutionally necessary and universally acclaimed role among the Germanic tribes. One of the core societal institutions of the period was the warband, a tightly organized military society presided over by a chieftain and his wife. The wife of the warband’s leader, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, held the title of veleda, and her role in the warband was to foretell the outcome of a suggested plan of action by means of divination and to influence that outcome by means of more active magic, as well as to serve a special cup of liquor that was a powerful symbol of both temporal and spiritual power in the warband’s periodic ritual feasts.[7][8]

    One literary portrait of such a woman comes to us from the medieval Old English epic poem Beowulf, which recounts the deeds of King Hroðgar and his warband in the land that we today know as Denmark. The name of Hroðgar’s queen, Wealhþeow, is almost certainly the Old English equivalent of the Proto-Germanic title that Tacitus latinised as “veleda.”[9] Wealhþeow’s “domestic” actions in the poem – which are, properly understood, enactments of the liquor ritual described above – are indispensable for the upkeep of the unity of the warband and its power structures. The poem, despite its Christian veneer, “hint[s] at the queen’s oracular powers… The Hrothgar/Wealhtheow association as presented in the poem is an echo of an earlier more robust and vigorous politico-theological conception.”[10]

    This “politico-theological conception” was based on the mythological model provided by the divine pair Frija and Woðanaz, deities who later evolved into, respectively, Freya/Frigg and Odin. Woðanaz is the warband’s chieftain, and Frija is its veleda. In addition to the structural congruencies outlined above, Wealhþeow and Freya even own a piece of jewelry with the same name: Old English Brosinga mene and Old Norse Brísingamen (both meaning something like “fiery/glowing necklace”). That both figures refer to the same ancient archetype, whether on the human or the divine plane, is certain.


    Freya and Frigg

    While the late Old Norse literary sources that form the basis of our current knowledge of pre-Christian Germanic religion present Freya and Frigg as being at least nominally distinct goddesses, the similarities between them run deep. Their differences, however, are superficial and can be satisfactorily explained by consulting the history and evolution of the common Germanic goddess whom the Norse were in the process of splitting into Freya and Frigg sometime shortly before the conversion of Scandinavia and Iceland to Christianity (around the year 1000 CE).

    As we’ve noted above, the Migration Period goddess who later became Freya was the wife of the god who later became Odin. While somewhat veiled, this is ultimately still the case in Old Norse literature. Freya’s husband is named Óðr, a name which is virtually identical to that of Óðinn (the Old Norse form of “Odin”). Óðr means “ecstasy, inspiration, furor.” Óðinn is simply the word óðr with the masculine definite article (-inn) added onto the end. The two names come from the same word and have the same meaning. Óðr is an obscure and seldom-mentioned character in Old Norse literature. The one passage that tells us anything about his personality or deeds – anything beyond merely listing his name in connection with Freya – comes from the Prose Edda, which states that Óðr is often away on long journeys, and that Freya can often be found weeping tears of red gold over his absence.[11] Many of the surviving tales involving Odin have him traveling far and wide throughout the Nine Worlds, to the point that he’s probably more often away from Asgard than within it. Many of Odin’s numerous bynames allude to his wanderings or are names he assumed to disguise his identity while abroad. Thus, it’s hard to see Freya’s husband as anything but an only nominally distinct extension of Odin.

    Freyja and Frigg are similarly accused of infidelity to their (apparently common) husband. Alongside the several mentions of Freya’s loose sexual practices can be placed the words of the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who relates that Frigg slept with a slave on at least one occasion.[12] In Lokasenna and the Ynglinga Saga, Odin was once exiled from Asgard, leaving his brothers Vili and Ve in command. In addition to presiding over the realm, they also regularly slept with Frigg until Odin’s return.[13][14] Many scholars have tried to differentiate between Freya and Frigg by asserting that the former is more promiscuous and less steadfast than the latter,[15] but these tales suggest otherwise.

    Frigg is depicted as a völva herself. Once again in Lokasenna, after Loki slanders Frigg for her infidelity, Freya warns him that Frigg knows the fate of all beings, an intimation of her ability to perform seidr.[16] Frigg’s weaving activities are likely an allusion to this role as well. And, as it turns out, Freya is not the only goddess to own a set of bird-of-prey feathers for shapeshifting – Frigg is also in possession of one.[17]

    The word for “Friday” in Germanic languages (including English) is named after Frija,[18] the Proto-Germanic goddess who is the foremother of Freya and Frigg. None of the other Germanic peoples seem to have spoken of Frija as if she were two goddesses; this approach is unique to the Norse sources. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in the Norse sources we find a confusion as to which goddess this day should have as its namesake. Both Freyjudagr (from Freyja) and Frjádagr (from Frigg) are used.

    The names of the two goddesses are also particularly interesting in this regard. Freyja, “Lady,” is a title rather than a true name. It’s a cognate of the modern German word Frau, which is used in much the same way as the English title “Mrs.” In the Viking Age, Scandinavian and Icelandic aristocratic women were sometimes called freyjur, the plural of freyja.[19] “Frigg,” meanwhile, comes from an ancient root that means “beloved.”[20] Frigg’s name therefore links her to love and desire, precisely the areas of life over which Freya presides. Here again we can discern the ultimate reducibility of both goddesses to one another: one’s name is identical to the other’s attributes, and the other name is a generic title rather than a unique name.

    Clearly, then, the two are ultimately the same goddess. Why, then, are they presented as nominally distinct in the late Old Norse sources? Unfortunately, no one really knows.


    References:
    [1] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanzas 30, 32.
    [2] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [3] Heide, Eldar. 2006. Spinning Seiðr. In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 166.
    [4] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 279-328.
    [5] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [6] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 117.
    [7] Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania 8.
    [8] Enright, Michael J. 1996. Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.
    [9] Ibid. p. 192.
    [10] Ibid. p. 66.
    [11] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 35.
    [12] Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes.
    [13] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, verse 26.
    [14] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 3. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [15] See, for example: Grimm, Jacob. 1882. Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. p. 302.
    [16] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, verse 29.
    [17] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 18-19.
    [18] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 111.
    [19] Grimm, Jacob. 1882. Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. p. 300.
    [20] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 114.

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    Default Gods and Goddesses - Hel


    Hel (Goddess)


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Hel_1889_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg Hel (Old Norse Hel, “Hidden”[1]) is a giantess and/or goddess who rules over the identically-named Hel, the underworld where many of the dead dwell. Her name’s meaning of “Hidden” surely has to do with the underworld and the dead being “hidden” or buried beneath the ground.

    According to the thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, Hel is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda (Old Norse Angrboða, “Anguish-boding”), and therefore the sister of the wolf Fenrir and the world serpent, Jormungand.[2] This makes her part of a highly dangerous and disreputable family.

    Hel is generally presented as being rather greedy, harsh, and cruel, or at least indifferent to the concerns of both the living and the dead. However, her personality is little-developed in what survives of Old Norse literature. She’s mostly mentioned only in passing. Snorri describes her appearance as being half-black, half-white, and with a perpetually grim and fierce expression on her face.[3]
    The only surviving myth in which she features prominently is that of The Death of Baldur. The beloved god Baldur was slain by none other than Hel’s father, Loki, and the gods sent an emissary named Hermod to Hel in hopes of retrieving Baldur. Hermod pleaded with Hel, telling her how every living thing was in sorrow over the loss of Baldur. But Hel wouldn’t give up her prize so easily. She told Hermod – in a taunting way, we can imagine – that she would only consent to release Baldur if every last thing in the universe wept for him. Hermod and the other gods went around and got almost everything in the cosmos to weep for Baldur. Only one giantess, who was probably Loki in disguise, refused. But because of that one refusal, the terms of Hel’s offer weren’t met, and Hel kept Baldur in her cold clutches.

    Because of how sparsely-defined her character is, many scholars view Hel as more of a late literary personification of the grave than a goddess who was actually worshiped or appeased in her own right.[4] Due to the lack of conclusive evidence either way, this must remain an open question.

    References:
    [1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 156, 168.
    [2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 34.
    [3] Ibid.
    [4] See, for example:
    Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 84.
    And:
    Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 138.

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    Default Re: Gods and Goddesses


    Death and the Afterlife


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Jelling-runestones-and-burial-mound.jpg
    The Vikings’ religion never contained any formal doctrines concerning what happens to someone when he or she dies. In the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “There is no consistent picture in Norse literary tradition of the fate of the dead,”[1] and “to oversimplify the position would be to falsify it.”[2] The rational order that people today often naively insist on finding in Viking portrayals of the dead simply isn’t there in the sources.

    Nevertheless, the picture presented to us by archaeology and the Old Norse literary sources isn’t complete chaos. There are discernible patterns in the way the Norse conceived of death and the afterlife, even though those patterns don’t hold absolutely, and the details of what one source tells us are almost invariably contradicted by another source.


    The Land(s) of the Dead

    Spiritual parts of the dead were usually thought to end up in a spiritual otherworld of some sort or another (with some exceptions that we’ll explore below).

    The most famous of these dwelling-places of the dead is undoubtedly Valhalla (Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen”), the resplendent hall of the god Odin. Those chosen by Odin and his valkyries live there as celebrated heroes until they’re called upon to fight by Odin’s side in the doomed battle at Ragnarok, the downfall of the gods and the rest of the universe.

    The goddess Freya is said to welcome some of the dead into her hall, Folkvang (Old Norse Fólkvangr, “the field of the people” or “the field of warriors”). Unfortunately, Folkvang is mentioned so sparsely in the sources that we today don’t have any idea what it was thought to be like.

    Those who died at sea – not an uncommon way to go in a seafaring culture like that of the Vikings – are sometimes, but not always, said to be taken to the underwater abode of the giantess Ran.
    But the afterlife world to which the dead are most commonly portrayed as going is Hel, a world beneath the ground presided over by a goddess who is also named Hel. In addition to this conception of a general underworld, people from particular families and localities are sometimes depicted as remaining together in a particular place close to where they lived while they were alive – underneath a specific mountain, for example.[3]

    And what do the dead do in Hel or the local variations thereof? They typically eat, drink, carouse, fight, sleep, practice magic, and generally do all of the things that living Viking Age men and women did.
    The lines between these various abodes of the dead are quite blurry, and there’s no consistent picture of who decides where a particular person goes after death, or how the decision is made.

    An oft-repeated line is that those who die in battle are thought to go to Valhalla, whereas those who die of other, more peaceful causes go to Hel. Leaving aside the fact that this excludes all of the other places to which the dead are thought to potentially go, this artificially tidy distinction was first made by Snorri Sturluson, a Christian historian writing in the thirteenth century – many generations after the pre-Christian Norse religion had ceased to be a living tradition.
    Snorri is known for attempting to impose a systematization on his source material that isn’t present in his sources (many of which we, too, possess), and this seems to be another instance of that tendency. Snorri himself blatantly contradicts his distinction between Valhalla and Hel in the one substantial account of Hel he provides: the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s son, who is killed violently and is nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction – and several contradict it – which means that this snug way of differentiating between who ended up in Hel versus Valhalla is surely an invention of Snorri’s.[4]

    Not only is it ultimately impossible to establish a neat set of criteria for how the dead end up where they do – it’s also impossible to cleanly differentiate these places themselves from one another. For example, Valhalla is often depicted as a realm where distinguished warriors engage in a continuous battle, and just such a place is described, in important early sources, as being located beneath the ground – and, intriguingly, without the name “Valhalla” anywhere in the account.[5] Furthermore, the very name Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen,” clearly seems related to the name Valhallr, “the rock of the fallen,” a title given to certain rocks and hills where the dead were thought to dwell in southern Sweden, one of the greatest historical centers of the worship of Odin.[6][7]

    So are we to conclude that Valhalla is simply one particular part of Hel, rather than an independent realm? Not so fast. It’s elsewhere described as being a part of Asgard, the celestial realm of the gods.[8]


    Rebirth

    Some sources also speak of the dead being reborn in one of their descendants, although never in someone outside of their family line. Here as well, the sources are unclear as to how exactly this would happen, but oftentimes the dead person is reincarnated in someone who is named after him or her.[7]

    It’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between deceased human ancestors and elves in Old Norse literature, to the point that it wouldn’t be amiss to speak of a part of the dead human becoming an elf in some cases. One example of this comes from The Saga of Olaf the Holy, one of the first Christian kings of Norway. Olaf and a servant ride past the burial mound of the king’s ancestor and namesake, who is now called by the name of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr – literally “Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad,” a title that clearly implies the currently elfin state of the king’s forefather. The same passage also insinuates that King Olaf is the reincarnation of the deceased Olaf,[10] showing that the dead could be thought to have multiple fates simultaneously. There’s not necessarily a contradiction on this particular point, since such a scenario would be logically possible in the Norse view of the self having multiple spiritual parts.


    No Reward or Punishment

    Today, many people who believe in an afterlife think of it as a reward or punishment for one’s moral or ideological choices during life. The Norse held no such conception. The ideas of “salvation” and “damnation” were alien to their rather earthy worldview. Thus, people who search for a “Heaven” or “Hell” amongst the Norse dwelling-places of the dead are going to come up empty-handed. (The words “Hell” and “Hel” come from the same Germanic root,[11] but the names and the subterranean location are the only things the two conceptions have in common.)

    There is one late Old Norse poem that mentions a place of punishment after death: Nastrond (Old Norse Náströdr, “shore of corpses”). Its gate faces north, poison drips from its ceiling, and snakes coil on its floor.[12] (Snorri cites this poem in his works, too.[13]) But the poem in question (Völuspá) is rife with Christian influence. Given how anachronistic Nastrond is amongst the other Norse ideas of what happened to a person after death, it, too, surely derives from Christian depictions of Hell.[14]


    References:
    [1] Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. 1993. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. p. 70.
    [2] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 97.
    [3] See, for example, the third chapter of Eyrbyggja Saga.
    [4] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 84.
    [5] Ibid. p. 85-86.
    [6] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 55.
    [7] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 347.
    [8] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 4.
    [9] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 138-147.
    [10] Óláfs Saga Helga. In Flateyjarbók.
    [11] “Hell” in the Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/hell
    [12] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 38.
    [13] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 51.
    [14] See my discussion of this poem in the fourth chapter of my book The Viking Spirit.

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    Default Re: Gods and Goddesses

    The Creation of the Cosmos

    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    Death-of-Ymir.jpg
    The Norse creation myth or cosmogony (an account of the origins of the cosmos) is perhaps one of the richest in all of world literature. First, let’s look at this exceptionally colorful story itself, then consider how the Vikings may have interpreted it and found meaning in it.


    The Origin of the Cosmos

    Before there was soil, or sky, or any green thing, there was only the gaping abyss of Ginnungagap. This chaos of perfect silence and darkness lay between the homeland of elemental fire, Muspelheim, and the homeland of elemental ice, Niflheim.

    Frost from Niflheim and billowing flames from Muspelheim crept toward each other until they met in Ginnungagap. Amid the hissing and sputtering, the fire melted the ice, and the drops formed themselves into Ymir (“Screamer”[1]), the first of the godlike but destructive giants. Ymir was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce asexually; when he slept, more giants leapt forth from his legs and from the sweat of his armpits.

    As the frost continued to melt, a cow, Audhumla (“Abundance of Humming”[2]), emerged from it. She nourished Ymir with her milk, and she, in turn, was nourished by salt-licks in the ice. Her licks slowly uncovered Buri (“Progenitor”[3]), the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor (“Son”[4]), who married Bestla (perhaps “Wife”[5]), the daughter of the giant Bolthorn (“Baleful Thorn”[6]). The half-god, half-giant children of Bor and Bestla were Odin, who became the chief of the Aesir gods, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.

    Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and set about constructing the world from his corpse. They fashioned the oceans from his blood, the soil from his skin and muscles, vegetation from his hair, clouds from his brains, and the sky from his skull. Four dwarves, corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth.

    The gods eventually formed the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.[7][8][9][10]


    Order from Chaos

    Thematically, Ymir is the personification of the chaos before creation, which is also depicted as the impersonal void of Ginnungagap. Both Ymir and Ginnungagap are ways of talking about limitless potential that isn’t actualized, that hasn’t yet become the particular things that we find in the world around us. This is why the Vikings described it as a void (as have countless other peoples; consider the “darkness upon the face of the deep” of the first chapter of Genesis, for example). It is no-thing-ness. But it nevertheless contains the basic stuff out of which the gods can make true things – in this case, the primal matter is Ymir’s body, which the gods tear apart to craft the elements.

    It’s extremely fitting for Ymir to be the progenitor of the giants, for this is the general role the giants occupy in Norse myth. They are the forces of formless chaos, who are always threatening to corrupt and ultimately overturn the gods’ created order (and at Ragnarok, they succeed). But the giants are more than just forces of destruction. In the words of medievalist Margaret Clunies Ross:
    Characteristically […] the gods covet important natural resources which the giants own, then steal them and turn them to their own advantage by utilising them to create culture, that is, they put the giants’ raw materials to work for themselves. These raw materials are of diverse kinds and include intellectual capital such as the ability to brew ale as well as the cauldron in which it is made, and abstractions made concrete like the mead of poetry and the runes of wisdom.[11]

    Not only does Ymir fit this pattern; mythologically speaking, his death and dismemberment is the paradigmatic model for this pattern.
    This also explains why Ymir is depicted as a hermaphrodite who can reproduce on his own asexually. Differentiation, including sexual differentiation, didn’t exist yet. The gods had to create that as part of their task of giving differentiated forms to what had previously been formless and undifferentiated. Various other creation myths from other peoples have used a hermaphroditic being to illustrate this same concept,[12] so we can be confident that this is also what the Norse meant here – despite the superficial counterexample of Audhumla and her udder. (After all, Norse mythology was never an airtight system.)

    Ymir’s name provides an additional – and rather poetic – instantiation of this role as the personification of primordial chaos. Recall that Ymir’s name means “Screamer” (from the Old Norse verb ymja, “to scream”[13]). The scream, the wordless voice, is the raw material from which words are made. By taking formless matter – represented by Ymir’s body – and giving it form, the gods were, metaphorically speaking, making words out of a scream.
    The metaphor is completed by the description of the act of creation in the Old Norse poem Völuspá. There, the verb used for the action by which the gods create the world is yppa, which has a range of meanings: “lift, raise, bring up, come into being, proclaim, reveal.”[14] The primary sense in which yppa should be understood here is “to come into being,” but note the additional shade of “to proclaim.” Given the poetic symmetry with Ymir’s name, this is surely not coincidental. The gods proclaim the world into being as they sculpt it out of the Screamer’s corpse.[15]


    The Centrality of Conflict

    The Vikings, like the other ancient Germanic peoples, were and are notorious for their eagerness for battle. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that conflict is such a central theme in their creation myth – and that conflict is itself a generative force.

    Ymir is born from the strife between fire and ice – and we can surmise that that particular opposition would have had a special poignancy for people living what was more or less a subsistence lifestyle in the cold lands of Scandinavia and the North Atlantic.

    In order for the gods to fashion the world, they must first slay Ymir. This is the first intentional taking of a life in the universe, and it’s performed by the gods themselves. It isn’t presented as a crime or a sin, as in the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel. Rather, it’s a good and even sacred task. This isn’t to say that the Norse valorized killing as such; clearly, they distinguished between lawful and appropriate killing and unlawful and inappropriate killing. But they embraced what they saw as the necessity of having a warlike approach to life, for the sake of accomplishing great deeds that brought honor and renown to one’s name.

    Of course, gods forming the world from the corpse of a being of chaos is a fairly common element in myth. But the precise set of meanings contained in such an act varies from culture to culture. Surely this glorification of honorable aggression, and its status as the defining act that makes the world what it is, were central components of the meaning the Vikings found in their particular myth.


    Both Giants and Gods Define the World

    The Norse saw their gods as the “pillars” and “vital forces” that held the cosmos together. When the gods created the world, they imparted both order and sanctity to it. And since the Norse gods are frequently portrayed intervening in the world’s affairs, their gifts to the world weren’t thought to end with creation. Their defining role in the cosmos was thought to continue as long as the cosmos itself continued – that is, until Ragnarok.

    And yet, since the world was formed from the corpse of a giant, it would seem that the world is what it is largely due to the influence of the giants as well. Aspects of Ymir – his might, his uncouthness, his tendency toward entropy, the ambivalence of his character – remained present in the world, even after the gods had shaped it in accordance with a different set of traits and aims. The giants, too, were thought to intervene in the world; the slaying of their ancestor by no means vanquished them.

    In the Norse view, the world is a battleground between the gods and the giants, whose power is more or less evenly matched. Mankind is in the middle, torn between the opposing claims of holiness, order, and goodness on the one hand, and profaneness, chaos, and wickedness on the other. This tension is ceaseless because it’s been a feature of the world itself since its very beginning. The strife will only be alleviated by Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed altogether, and nothing will remain but the stillness and darkness of a new Ginnungagap.


    References:
    [1] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.
    [2] Ibid.
    [3] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 47.
    [4] Ibid. p. 50.
    [5] Ibid. p. 35-36.
    [6] Ibid. p. 40.
    [7] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá.
    [8] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál.
    [9] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál.
    [10] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.
    [11] Quoted in:
    Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.
    [12] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 277-278.
    [13] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.
    [14] Ibid.
    [15] Ibid.

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