The mythology of the Germanic peoples was made up of fantastic tales of gods, giants and men in the cold lands of the north. The myths were known by many of the inhabitants of northern Europe, including the Angles, Saxons, Germans, Danes, Jutes, Swedes and Norwegians. It is most famous as the belief system of the Vikings.
The stories that made up Norse mythology came together a couple of millennia after Classical mythology and incorporated stories that travelled from Asia and other parts of Europe. The mythology took over from the Celtic mythology in many parts of Northern Europe, especially in Britain. Many of its ideas are still part of our everyday life, whether found in the names of the days of the week or in the concept of hell.
Mythologies often explain and mirror the world of the people. In Norse mythology, many of the places are harsh icy lands.
The First Gods
In the beginning, there were just three places in the Norse cosmos. In the north there was Niflheim, the land of fog; in the south there was Muspelheim, the land of fire; and in the middle was the Ginnungagap. Elivagar, the eleven rivers, flowed from Hvergelmir in Niflheim and iced over in Ginnungagap. Eventually, the heat from Muspelheim caused part of the Elivagar to melt. The first living creature to form out of the ice was the frost giant, Ymir, and the next was the primeval cow, Audhumla.
The cow nourished herself by licking the salt-ice. Ymir nourished himself on the milk from the cow. One male and one female frost giant grew from Ymir's armpit sweat, and another male grew from between Ymir's legs. The frost giants continued to procreate.
Meanwhile, the cow had licked out the shape of the first man, Buri. Buri's son, Bor, married the frost giant Besta and fathered the three gods Odin, Vili and Ve. The three gods were rather narked at Ymir and killed him. The frost giant's blood drowned all the other frost giants except for Bergelmir and his wife who escaped in a tree trunk to found Jotunheim.
The gods threw Ymir's body into the Ginnungagap and used bits of his body to form other bits of the cosmos. Highlights include the making of Midgard, the world of men, out of his eyebrow; the fashioning of clouds out of his brains; and the creation of an entire race of creatures, the dwarfs, from Ymir's stomach maggots by shaping them into men and giving them wits.
The Norse cosmos consisted of nine worlds on three levels. As with all mythology, different people have different versions, the following being just one of them.
- The First Level - Asgard, the world of the Aesir gods, Vanaheim, the world of the Vanir gods and Alfheim, the world of the light elves.
- The Second Level - Midgard, the world of men, Nidavellir, the world of the dwarfs, Jotunheim, the world of the giants and Svartalfheim, the land of the dark elves.
- The Third Level - Hel, the world of the dead and Niflheim, the world of the fog and the dead.
This doesn't include Muspelheim, but various sources suggest that Hel and Niflheim may have been the same world, or that dwarfs and dark elves were the same so that Niadavellir and Svartalfheim were also one and the same. If either of these suggestions is correct, then Muspelheim, the land of fire, was the ninth world.
The sun was chased across the sky by Skoll, the wolf whose only aim was to eat the sun and plunge the world into darkness. The moon was also pursued by another wolf called Hati.
After Odin and his brothers had created the world they found two logs: an ash and an elm. They made the first man and woman out of them. Odin gave them life, Vili gave them intelligence and emotion and Ve gave them their senses.
A vast ash tree called Yggdrasil grew in the middle of the cosmos, its branches overhanging the nine worlds. It had three roots that reached into Jotunheim, Asgard and Niflheim. A dragon called Nidhogg lived by its root in Niflheim. It generally ate up the bodies of the dead, but occasionally tried to chew away at the root of the great tree. Yggdrasil aged very slowly and the three Nords, the fates, used to take care of it by taking water from the well where the gods held their daily meeting and mixing it with the earth. Yggdrasil was home to a number of animals including an eagle that was insulted daily by Ratatosk, the squirrel who was sent by Nidhogg.
The Gods and the Giants
Just as in Classical mythology, the giants and the gods were at war with each other. However, in Norse mythology, there were two races of gods, and these were at war with each other as well.
The Frost Giants
Frost giants were the personification of the mountains of the Norse homelands. They were huge, evil and most of them hated the gods, not having got over the time when Odin and his brothers killed Ymir and drowned the rest of their race. They all lived in fear of Thor who was the only god who could kill a frost giant.
The Aesir Gods
These were the main ruling gods who had their halls1 in Asgard. They tended to be warrior gods. They were briefly at war with the Vanir gods. Asgard was protected by vast walls and could only be reached by way of the rainbow, Bifrost.
The walls were knocked down in the war with the Vanir and needed rebuilding in a hurry. The stonemason, Hrimthurs, said it was an eighteen-month job, but Loki, the trickster god, under orders from Odin, managed to negotiate with the mason to complete the work in six months. The mason demanded that, in that case, his horse be allowed to help him and that he got the goddess Freyja and the sun and moon as payment for the job. The gods agreed, assuming that it was impossible to do it on time. They reckoned without the stallion Svadilfari who was doing all the heavy moving. Odin threatened to kill Loki if the walls were completed on time, so Loki changed into a mare and drew Svadilfari away. The walls were not completed after six months and Hrimthurs revealed himself to be a frost giant. Thor was so surprised at this that he smashed him over the head with his hammer and killed him. Seven months later, Loki reappeared having given birth - Loki was a male god by the way - to Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse that could also fly and was unbeatable in a race. Sleipnir became Odin's ride.
The Vanir gods
Many of the Vanir gods were older than the Aesir2. They were gods of nature and fertility, knew witchcraft and tended to be less warlike than the Aesir. After the war with the Aesir was over, the two groups swapped over a few gods. The Aesir were sent Njord, the wealthy sea god and his children Freyja and Freyr. The Vanir received the wise Mimir and the long-legged Honir. The Aesir claimed that Honir was, as well as being long-legged, a great leader. The Vanir soon discovered that without Mimir's advice to guide him, Honir was indecisive and useless. Their response to the trickery was to cut off Mimir's head3 and sent it back to Asgard. Surprisingly, this didn't start another war. The Vanir gods were not mentioned much after this swapping of gods.
The gods were all kept young by apples that belonged to Idun. When Loki once kidnapped Idun - having been captured by a frost giant, he had promised the goddess in exchange for his freedom - the gods aged rapidly. Eventually Loki was made to go back disguised as a bird and steal Idun. The frost giant Thiassi gave chase but the gods set fire to his wings, killing him. His daughter, Skadi, demanded a husband and a good laugh in compensation. She was allowed to choose any god, but had to pick them out by their feet alone. She got the sea god Njord. Loki provided the laughter by tying his testicles to a goat, pre-empting MTV's Jackass by centuries. Njord and Skadi had a rather brief marriage: he refused to live in her hall, she refused to live in his, so they separated!
These are some of the main gods - along with some less godly mythical creatures - and some of the myths associated with them.
Odin was the chief god of the Aesir. He is depicted as an old bearded man with one eye and a large, wide-brimmed hat.
He was married to Frigg and was the father of Thor, Balder, Hodr and Vali. He was not the most faithful of husbands and fathered a number of children by a number of wives and conquests. He sat on the throne of Hlidskialf from where he could overlook the nine worlds. News was brought to him by his ravens Huginn and Muninn. He had two wolves called Geri and Freki. His spear was called Gungir and it would always hit its target.
He was the god of magic and always strove to increase his knowledge. He gave up his eye to drink from the well of Mimir. On one occasion, Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil and impaled himself with a spear so as to die temporarily and gain more wisdom. This scene is replicated in many tarot decks on the Hanging Man card, where a man is shown willingly sacrificing himself with his limbs in the form of the tree of life.
Odin was told that he would be killed by the wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok, the doom of the gods. He was obsessed with his downfall and amassed a vast army of dead warriors called the Einherjar. These were the glorious dead, picked from the battlefield by Odin's Valkyries and housed in the great hall of Valhalla. The glorious dead feasted with each other then fought each other to the death, knowing they would be reborn the next day, so keeping themselves in constant practice. Odin's desire to build an army meant that he would often help one side in a battle only to switch sides halfway through, so as to create more havoc and dead warriors. He even asked Freyr to find a couple of kings and set them at each other's throats.
One legend has it that Odin advised the Danish King Harald Wartooth on tactics and brought him many victories. He took the place of his charioteer for one battle and drove the king to his death, justifying his actions with the stark prophecy of his own impending doom: 'the grey wolf watches the hall of the gods.'
The Vikings worshipped him greatly and their fiercest warriors, the Berserkers, often chanted his name to work themselves up into a frenzy. Odin was rather malevolent, occasionally playing tricks on gods and men alike. Many Norse colonists, especially the farmers, preferred to worship a less bloodthirsty god.
Thor was the god of thunder and the champion of the gods. He was the son of Odin and the goddess Fjorgyn. He was large, with great strength and a huge appetite. Thor was a rather straightforward god: he rarely lowered himself to trickery, preferring the honesty of a straight fight. He rode through the cosmos on a chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisni (Tooth Gnasher) and Tanngnost (Tooth Grinder). He lived in Thruthheim, the Land of Strength and his hall was called Bilskinir.
Thor was married to Sif. She had beautiful golden hair until one night Loki cut it off. To appease the irate Thor, Loki went off to get new hair for Sif. He found some dwarfs, the sons of Ivaldi, who weaved gold into a wig so that the strands felt like hair and would even grow on Sif's head. They decided that they wanted the gods to be even more in their debt, so they made a collapsible ship, Skidbladnir, which was eventually given to Freyr, as well as Gungnir, Odin's magic spear. As Loki was heading back, he found some more dwarfs, Brokk and Eiti, whom he challenged to make something even better than the sons of Ivaldi. In this way Loki also came back with Mjollnir, the mighty hammer.
Mjollnir was the symbol of Thor. He had to hold it with iron gauntlets because of its intense heat. When he threw it, it became a bolt of lightning that struck down his enemies before returning to his hand. It became even more lethal because Thor wore a belt that doubled his strength. Mjollnir had other magic properties as well: if Thor used the hammer on the bones of a dead animal he could bring it back to life, which was handy when travelling as it provided him with an endless supply of food.
Mjollnir was the only weapon that the frost giants feared and it killed a vast number of them. Thor went on many quests, most of which ended up with him killing a frost giant. On many of these quests he was accompanied by Loki: such quests generally involved Loki's big mouth getting him into trouble and him then trying to talk himself out of it by helping to set a trap for Thor, who usually obliged by falling for Loki's tricks, but then killing whatever tried to trap him anyway.
Thor travelled with two human servants, Thialfi and Roskva. Thor had been travelling alone when he stopped at their father's house to shelter. He provided the meal by killing his goats and invited the family to tuck in, warning them to leave the bones intact. Thialfi was so hungry that he broke a thighbone to get to the marrow. When Thor came to resurrect his goats, he found one was lame and demanded compensation - so Thialfi and his sister joined Thor on his travels.
Thor had a number of children. There were the twins Magni and Modi and a daughter, Thurd. Magni was the god of strength and the son of Thor and a giantess, Jarnsaxa. When Thor was trapped under the body of Hrungnir, the strongest of the frost giants who had met with the wrong end of Mjollnir, no god could lift the leg of the giant to free Thor. A three-year-old Magni came and freed his father, before claiming that he could have beaten the giant with his bare fists. Modi was the god of battle-wrath and was followed by the most hardened of the Viking Berserkers.
Thurd was at one stage promised in marriage to a dwarf, Alvis. Thor didn't look favourably on dwarves and was opposed to the match. Alvis was one of the wisest creatures around so Thor gave him a test of knowledge. The test lasted all through the night until sunrise, when the rays of the sun turned the dwarf to stone. This was a rare example of Thor using words rather than a hammer to solve his problems.
Since Thor was a simple god, who was honest and did not require the human suffering that Odin did, he was a popular god, worshipped more than Odin, especially in the farming communities on the fringes of the Viking world.
Loki, the god of fire, is an unusual god in terms of major mythologies. While 'the trickster' is a common figure in many polytheistic belief systems, whose gods are generally good but work to their own agendas, Loki was evil. He started out as a malevolent trickster but eventually descended into unalloyed malevolence and brought about the end of the gods.
He was the son of the giants Farbauti and Laufey. For reasons best known to the Vikings, he became a member of the Aesir. Although he was a giant, he was not a large figure and in fact used to travel by clinging onto Thor's belt.
Norse mythology is littered with stories of how Loki bit off more than he could chew and had to sort out major problems, occasionally by direct cunning but more often by tricking Thor into helping him. Loki was responsible for acquiring many of the weapons that the gods relied on.
As befits a god of fire, Loki had the ability to change shape. With the giantess Angrboda he fathered three creatures that were to bring about the end of the world and the defeat of the gods.
Hel was a hag. The top half of her body was that of a normal - if ugly - and grim woman. Her lower half was dead and decaying. Odin threw her out of her mother's hall and into the lowest world where she was put in charge of the inglorious dead, all the people who died of sickness or old age. Her hall in Helheim was called Eljudnir.
Hel shares her name with the Old Norse word for 'covered' or 'concealed', which made its way into Old English as the name of the Christians' own land of the unworthy dead.
Jormungand was a giant serpent with poisonous breath. It grew so large that it encircled the world. When Thor was out fishing with the frost giant Hymir, he used the head of Hymir's ox, Himinrjot, as bait. He drew out Jormungand from the ocean and was halfway through killing the beast when Hymir managed to unhook the serpent, which sank back into the ice.
Fenrir was the great wolf. The Norns warned Odin that Fenrir would kill him at the end of the world so Odin brought Fenrir to Asgard to keep an eye on him. The gods tried to restrain the wolf but it broke every chain that was put on it. Eventually, the gods got the dwarves to make Gleipnir, which was fashioned from bird spit and the roots of a mountain and was as light as a ribbon. Fenrir boasted that he could break anything but was suspicious of the ribbon and so he demanded that one of the gods leave their hand in his mouth while he made the attempt. The war god Tyr stepped forward. When Fenrir found he couldn't break free, he bit Tyr's hand off, which amused the gods no end. Fenrir was chained to a rock and a sword was stuck in his mouth.
Freyja was one of the Vanir who were sent to the Aesir. She was a beautiful maiden who flew across the sky in a chariot drawn by four cats. Freyja was the goddess of love and, more importantly, lust.
She wore the necklace of the Brisings, which was made by four dwarves. To acquire it, she had to sleep with all four of them. Odin was so disgusted by this that he made her start a war between men as a punishment. Freyja took a great interest in wars and split the glorious dead with Odin. Her half, together with all the women, went to live in her hall of Sessrumnir in Folkvang.
Freyja also had a coat made of feathers that she could use to fly. She had a companion in Ottar who was a human king: Freyja turned him into a boar so that she could hide him in Asgard. Her actual husband was called Od, but he left her and she spent much of her time searching for him, crying tears of gold. It has been suggested that Od and Odin are one and the same.
Freyr came to the Aesir with his father Njord and his twin sister Freyja. He was the god of fertility, sunlight, rain and peace.
When Freyr travelled, he went in style. His chariot was pulled by two boars. When he wasn't using them he had the magic ship Skidbladnir. The ship would sail directly to its destination across land, sea or sky. It was big enough to hold all the gods but could fold up into Freyr's pocket.
Freyr fell in love with the beautiful frost giant Gerda. He sent his servant Skirmir to try and get her hand in marriage. Skirmir offered her gifts and threatened violence, but she only relented when he threatened to cast a spell on her. Freyr gave his servant his magic sword, which could fight on its own, as a reward. This meant that Freyr would enter the final battle without a weapon.
Freyr was meant to be king of the light elves and is said to be the ancestor of the Swedish royal family. The major centre of his worship was at Uppsala in Sweden. There was a statue of him there that showed, as befitted a god of fertility, that his lunchbox was very well-packed!
Heimdall was the watchman of the gods. Nine sisters gave birth to him and he was raised by elemental forces at the end of the world. His role was to stand guard over the rainbow Bifrost and to stop any giants from entering Asgard. He required less sleep than a bird, could see a hundred miles in the day or night and could hear the growing of the wool on a sheep's back.
Disguised as the god Rig, Heimdall visited three families in Midgard and fathered the three casts of men.
He first visited an old couple, Ai and Edda (great-grandfather and great-grandmother), disguised as an old traveller. He was given a simple meal and was allowed to sleep in the couple's bed between them. He left after giving the couple some advice. Nine months later, Edda gave birth to the ugly Thrall. Thrall took himself an ugly wife and they had lots of ugly kids called delightful names such as Noisy, Fatty and Lazybones. These became the oppressed slave cast, the Thralls.
He next visited a much nicer house, the home of Afi and Amma (grandfather and grandmother). They fed him a decent meal and he left after three nights, leaving them good advice. Amma gave birth to a boy called Karl, who was fresh-faced and bright-eyed. Karl took Snor as his wife and together they had fresh-faced, bright-eyed children such as Strongbeard, Husbandman and Prettyface. These became the free peasant farmer cast, the Karls.
Rig finally visited the hall of Fadir and Modir (father and mother). They gave him a great meal. Once again he slept between them and left after three nights. Nine months later, Modir bore Jarl, a handsome man with bright piercing eyes who grew up and learnt to fight, ride and hunt. Rig returned and taught Jarl how to reclaim his lands. Eventually, Jarl took Erna as a wife and had twelve sons, one of whom had a knowledge of magic even greater than Rig's.
Balder was a good loving god who spread goodwill wherever he went. He was worried by dreams of an impending death. This upset the Aesir because he was the god who deserved death the least. Odin rode to the land of the dead and found out that Balder would be killed by his brother, the blind god of winter, Hodr.
Frigg set out around the world to get every single thing in the nine worlds to swear they would never hurt Balder. In attending to things which grew out of the ground, she ignored a harmless little plant in a far-off land, which was called mistletoe. The gods, thinking Balder was invulnerable, enjoyed throwing stuff at him.
Since Balder was the personification of goodness and light, Loki really didn't like him. The fire god changed shape and got Frigg to reveal that Balder was vulnerable to mistletoe. Loki headed off and got some of the plant and made it into a dart. He then encouraged Hodr to join in the game and handed him the mistletoe dart. Guiding the blind god's arm, he managed to get Hodr to throw a dart straight through Balder's heart.
Balder descended to Hel. Odin sent his son Hermod, the messenger of the gods, to Hel to get him back. She agreed to release Balder if every living creature in the nine worlds cried for him. Every creature did except a frost giant witch called Thokk who said that Hel should keep what she held. Many legends say that Thokk was in fact Loki in disguise.
The body of Balder and his wife, Nanna, were put into a ship along with his possessions: a chopped-up horse and a random dwarf that Thor threw in. The ship was set alight and sent out to sea.
Vali was then born to Odin and Rind, a daughter of a human king. He grew to manhood in one day and then killed Hodr.
The gods were having a feast at the hall of the sea god Aegir to commemorate Balder when Loki turned up and started insulting them. Thor threatened some 'hammer-time' on Loki's head, but, as Aegir's hall was a sanctuary, he couldn't touch it. Odin looked on, depressed, as he knew this was the beginning of the end of the gods. Loki escaped disguised as a salmon but was captured and tied to a rock, with his own son's intestines used to bind him. He was placed under the head of a venomous snake, put there by Skadi.
Vidar was a son of Odin and the giantess Grid and is the god of silent revenge. He was one of the strongest gods who spent all his time sitting alone in silence in his hall, Vidi, in a forest. His only purpose was to avenge the death of his father.
The Doom of the Gods
The 'Doom of the Gods' was long prophesied and Odin had spent much of his life preparing for it. The death of Balder and the imprisonment of Loki marked the oncoming of Ragnarok. There would be three harsh winters, Fimbulvetrs, with no summers in-between. Arguments would break out, even within families. All morality would cease4. The wolves Skoll and Hati would eat the sun and the moon. Two cockerels, Fjalar and Gullinkambi, would raise the giants and the gods, while a third would raise the dead. All bonds would break, including those around Loki and Fenrir. All beings would head towards the plains of Vigrid.
Odin, the gods and the glorious dead would form one army. Fenrir would break free and when he opened his vast mouth his jaws would touch both the sky and the ground. Jormungand would rise from the sea and in his wake would be Naglfar, a ship made out of dead men's nails, captained by Hymir and carrying the frost giants to Vigrid. A second ship steered by Loki would carry Hel and her army of the dead. From the Muspell in the south would come the fire giants led by Surt, who carried a flaming sword as bright as the sun.
Thor would once again face up to Jormungand and kill the serpent, but its poisoned venom would kill the thunder god. Freyr was to arrive without a weapon and wouldn't last long against Surt. After a long fight, Odin would be swallowed by Fenrir, at which point Vidar would get up from his hall and, coming to the battlefield, grab hold of Fenrir's jaws and rip the wolf in half. The one-handed Tyr would kill Garm, the wolf that guarded the gates of Hel, but suffer fatal wounds.
The last god to fall would be Heimdall, who fought with Loki, neither of them surviving. By now Surt would be spreading fire all around the world, setting everything from frost giant to trees alight. Eventually, the earth would sink into the sea.
There were to be only a few survivors of the great battle, ready to inhabit a new world of abundant resources in which evil would be banished and men and gods live peacefully. The human race were to be descended from Lif and Lifthrasir, who had hidden in Yggdrasil. While a few of the lesser gods would survive, Balder and Hodr would be reborn and rule over the new world.
Norse Influence in Modern Culture
The Norse gods still appear in our everyday life.
Days of the Week
While the days of the week come from a Roman calendar, the English gave the days the names of Norse gods that were the equivalent of the Roman gods. This can be seen by comparing the French names, which are based on Latin. It should be noted that Quakers, who disapprove of the pagan names, do not use these names for their calendar.
Monday is named after the moon, which gets its name from the Germanic god Mani. The French name is lundi which comes from the Latin for 'moon', luna.
Tuesday is named after the one-handed war god Tyr. Tyr was the equivalent of the Roman Mars, after whom mardi is named.
Wednesday is named after Odin, who was called Woden by the Anglo-Saxons. Because he was quick-witted and a wanderer, he was compared with the Roman god Mercury, hence the French name mercredi.
The thunder god Thor was often compared with the chief Roman god Jupiter, since both were associated with thunder and lightning. This is why the French have jeudi, Jupiter's day and the English have Thursday, Thor's day.
There is a question as to whom Friday is named after. Some say it is Frigg, others that it is Freyr. The latter, the goddess of love and beauty, has more in common with her Latin counterpart, Venus, after whom vendredi is named.
A Norse influence is apparent in many works of modern fantasy. Tolkein's world of Middle Earth has many things in common with Norse Mythology. Both feature worlds of men, magic, dwarves and elves. There are final apocalyptic battles with undead warriors and rings of power. Perhaps because of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, it is very difficult to find a fantasy RGP without some dwarfs and elves. Computer games such as Baldur's Gate and Heimdall have been released.
Norse Mythology has also found its way into science fiction. The friendly, grey Roswell-type aliens in Stargate SG-1 are called the Asgard5. In the Star Trek episode 'The Gamesters of Triskelion', Kirk, Chekov and Uhura were made the slaves of a bunch of gamblers. The slaves were called Thralls.
In at least one series of The Incredible Hulk, he had a nerdy sidekick who just happened to be able to call the mighty Thor back to life, while Loki appears in a number of the X-Men comics.
The idea of an old wanderer, Odin, travelling the world, reached the Balkans where he became a Father Christmas figure.