Norse or Scandinavian mythology comprises the pre-Christian religion, beliefs and legends of the Scandinavian people, including those who settled on Iceland, where the written sources for Norse mythology were assembled. It is the best-known version of the older common Germanic mythology, which also includes the closely related Anglo-Saxon mythology. Germanic mythology, in its turn, had evolved from an earlier Indo-European mythology.
Norse mythology was a collection of beliefs and stories shared by Northern Germanic tribes. It was not a revealed religion, in that it was not a truth handed down from the divine to the mortal (although it does have tales of normal persons learning the stories of the gods from a visit to or from the gods), and it had no scripture. The mythology was orally transmitted in the form of long, regular poetry. Oral transmission continued through the Viking Age, and our knowledge about it is mainly based on the Eddas and other medieval texts written down during and after Christianisation.
In Scandinavian folklore, these beliefs held on the longest, and in rural areas some traditions have been maintained until today. Others have recently been revived or reinvented as Germanic Neopaganism. The mythology also remains as an inspiration in literature (see Norse mythological influences on later literature) as well as on stage productions and movies.
Most of this mythology was passed down orally, and much of it has been lost. However, some of it was captured and recorded by Christian scholars, particularly in the Eddas and the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, who believed that pre-Christian deities were men and women rather than devils. There is also the Danish Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, where, however, the Norse gods are strongly Euhemerized.
The Prose or Younger Edda was written in the early 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, who was a leading poet, chieftain, and diplomat in Iceland. It may be thought of primarily as a handbook for aspiring poets. It contains prose explications of traditional "kennings," or compressed metaphors found in poetry. These prose retellings make the various tales of the Norse gods systematic and coherent.
The Poetic Edda (also known as the Elder Edda) was committed to writing about 50 years after the Prose Edda. It contains 29 long poems, of which 11 deal with the Germanic deities, the rest with legendary heroes like Sigurd the Volsung (the Siegfried of the German version Nibelungenlied). Although scholars think it was transcribed later than the other Edda, the language and poetic forms involved in the tales appear to have been composed centuries earlier than their transcription.
Besides these sources, there are surviving legends in Scandinavian folklore. Some of these can be corroborated with legends appearing in other Germanic literatures e.g. the tale related in the Anglo-Saxon Battle of Finnsburgh and the many allusions to mythological tales in Deor. When several partial references and tellings survive, scholars can deduce the underlying tale. Additionally, there are hundreds of place names in Scandinavia named after the gods.
A few runic inscriptions, such as the Rök Runestone and the Kvinneby amulet, make references to the mythology. There are also several runestones and image stones that depict scenes from Norse mythology, such as Thor's fishing trip, scenes from the Völsunga saga, Odin and Sleipnir, Odin being devoured by Fenrir, and Hyrrokkin riding to Baldr's funeral.
In Denmark, one image stone depicts Loki with curled dandy-like mustaches and lips that are sewn together and the British Gosforth cross shows several intriguing images. There are also smaller images, such as figurines depicting the god Odin (the one with one eye), Thor (with his hammer) and Freyr (with his erect phallus).
- Main article: Norse cosmology
In Norse mythology, the earth is represented as a flat disc. This disk is situated in the branches of the world tree, or Yggdrasil. Asgard, where the gods lived, was located at the centre of the disc, and could only be reached by walking across the rainbow (the Bifröst bridge). The Giants lived in an abode called Jötunheimr (giant realm).
A cold, dark underground abode called Niflheim was ruled by Hel, daughter of Loki. According to the Prose Edda this was the eventual dwelling-place of most of the dead. Located somewhere in the south was the fiery realm of Muspell, home of the fire giants.
Further otherworldly realms include Álfheim, home of the light-elves (ljósálfar), Svartálfaheim, home of the dark-elves. In between Asgard and Niflheim was Midgard, the world of men (see also Middle Earth).
The cosmology of Norse mythology also involves a strong element of duality: for example the night and the day have their own mythological counterparts Dagr/Skinfaxi and Nótt/Hrímfaxi, the sun and the chasing wolf Sol and Skoll, the moon and its chasing wolf Mani and Hati, and the total opposites of Niflheim and Muspell is the origin of the world. This might have reflected a deeper metaphysical belief in opposites as the foundation of the world.
There are three "clans" of deities, the Æsir, the Vanir, and the Iotnar (referred to as giants in this article). The distinction between Æsir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war, which the Æsir had finally won. Some gods belong in both camps. Some scholars have speculated that this tale symbolized the way the gods of invading Indo-European tribes supplanted older nature-deities of the aboriginal peoples, although it should be firmly noted that this is conjecture. Other authorities (compare Mircea Eliade and J.P. Mallory) consider the Æsir/Vanir division to be simply the Norse expression of a general Indo-European division of divinities, parallel to that of Olympians and Titans in Greek mythology, and in parts of the Mahabharata.
The Æsir and the Vanir are generally enemies with the Iotnar (singular Iotunn or Jotuns; Old English Eotenas or Entas). They are comparable to the Titans and Gigantes of Greek mythology and generally translated as "giants", although "trolls" and "demons" have been suggested as suitable alternatives. However, the Æsir are descendants of Iotnar and both Æsir and Vanir intermarry with them. Some of the giants are mentioned by name in the Eddas, and they seem to be representations of natural forces. There are two general types of giant: frost-giants and fire-giants. There were also elves and dwarfs, whose role is shadowy but who are generally thought to side with the gods.
In addition, there are many other supernatural beings: Fenrir the gigantic wolf, and Jörmungandr the sea-serpent (or "worm") that is coiled around the world. These two monsters are described as the progeny of Loki, the trickster-god, and a giant. More benevolent creatures are Hugin and Munin (thought and memory), the two ravens who keep Odin, the chief god, apprised of what is happening on earth, and Ratatosk, the squirrel which scampers in the branches of the world ash, Yggdrasil, which is central to the conception of this world.
Along with many other polytheistic religions, this mythology lacks the good-evil dualism of the Middle Eastern tradition. Thus, Loki is not primarily an adversary of the gods, though he is often portrayed in the stories as the nemesis to the protagonist Thor, and the giants are not so much fundamentally evil, as rude, boisterous, and uncivilized. The dualism that exists is not evil vs good, but order vs chaos. The gods represent order and structure whereas the giants and the monsters represent chaos and disorder.
Völuspá: the origin and end of the worldEdit
The origin and eventual fate of the world are described in Völuspá ("The völva's prophecy" or "The sybil's prophecy"), one of the most striking poems in the Poetic Edda. These haunting verses contain one of the most vivid creation accounts in all of religious history and a representation of the eventual destruction of the world that is unique in its attention to detail.
In the Völuspá, Odin, the chief god of the Norse pantheon, has conjured up the spirit of a dead Völva (Shaman or sybil) and commanded this spirit to reveal the past and the future. She is reluctant: "What do you ask of me? Why tempt me?"; but since she is already dead, she shows no fear of Odin, and continually taunts him: "Well, would you know more?" But Odin insists: if he is to fulfil his function as king of the gods, he must possess all knowledge. Once the sybil has revealed the secrets of past and future, she falls back into oblivion: "I sink now".
In the beginning there was the world of ice Niflheim, and the world of fire Muspelheim, and between them was the Ginnungagap, a "grinning (or yawning) gap," in which nothing lived. In Ginnungagap, the fire and the ice met, and the fire of Muspelheim licked the ice shaping a primordial giant Ymir and a giant cow, Auðumbla whose milk fed Ymir. The cow licked the ice, creating the first god, Búri, who was the father of Borr, in turn the father of the first Æsir, Odin, and his brothers Vili and Ve. Ymir was a hermaphrodite and alone procreated the race of giants. Then Borr's sons; Odin, Vili, and Ve; slaughtered Ymir and, from his body, created the world.
The gods regulated the passage of the days and nights, as well as the seasons. The first human beings were Ask (ash) and Embla (elm), who were carved from wood and brought to life by the gods Odin, Hœnir/Vili, and Lóðurr/Vé. Sol is the goddess of the sun, a daughter of Mundilfari, and wife of Glen. Every day, she rides through the sky on her chariot, pulled by two horses named Alsvid and Arvak. This passage is known as Alfrodull, meaning "glory of elves," which in turn was a common kenning for the sun. Sol is chased during the day by Skoll, a wolf that wants to devour her. Solar eclipses signify that Skoll has almost caught up to her. It is fated that Skoll will eventually catch Sol and eat her; however, she will be replaced by her daughter. Sol's brother, the moon, Mani, is chased by Hati, another wolf. The earth is protected from the full heat of the sun by Svalin, who stands between the earth and Sol. In Norse belief, the sun did not give light, which instead emanated from the manes of Alsvid and Arvak.
The sybil describes the great ash tree Yggdrasil and the three norns (female symbols of inexorable fate; their names; Urðr (Urd), Verðandi (Verdandi), and Skuld; indicate the past, present, and future), who spin the threads of fate beneath it. She describes the primeval war between Æsir and Vanir and the murder of Baldr. Then she turns her attention to the future.
The end times (Eschatological beliefs)Edit
- Main article: Ragnarök
The Old Norse vision of the future is remarkably bleak. In the end, it was believed, the forces of evil and chaos will outnumber and overcome the divine and human guardians of good and order. Loki and his monstrous children will burst their bonds; the dead will sail from Niflheim to attack the living. Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, will summon the heavenly host with a blast on his horn. Then will ensue a final battle between good and evil (Ragnarök), which the gods will lose, as is their fate. The gods, aware of this, will gather the finest warriors, the Einherjar, to fight on their side when the day comes, but in the end they will be powerless to prevent the world from descending into the chaos out of which it has once emerged; the gods and their world will be destroyed. Odin himself will be swallowed by Fenrir the wolf.
Still, there will be a few survivors, both human and divine, who will populate a new world, to start the cycle anew. Or so the sybil tells us; scholars are divided on the question whether this is a later addition to the myth that betrays Christian influence. If pre-Christian, the eschatology of the Völuspá may reflect an older Indo-European tradition related with the eschatology of Persian Zoroastrianism.
Kings and heroesEditThe mythological literature relates the legends of heroes and kings, as well as supernatural creatures. These clan and kingdom founding figures possessed great importance as illustrations of proper action or national origins. The heroic literature may have fulfilled the same function as the national epic in other European literatures, or it may have been more nearly related to tribal identity. Many of the legendary figures probably existed, and generations of Scandinavian scholars have tried to extract history from myth in the sagas.
Sometimes the same hero resurfaces in several forms depending on which part of the Germanic world the epics survived such as Weyland/Völund and Siegfried/Sigurd, and probably Beowulf/Bödvar Bjarki. Other notable heroes are Hagbard, Starkad, Ragnar Lodbrok, Sigurd Ring, Ivar Vidfamne and Harald Hildetand. Notable are also the shieldmaidens who were "ordinary" women who had chosen the path of the warrior. These women function both as heroines and as obstacles to the heroic journey.
Centres of faithEdit
The Germanic tribes rarely or never had temples in a modern sense. The Blót, the form of worship practiced by the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian people resembled that of the Celts and Balts : it could occur in sacred groves. It could also take place at home and/or at a simple altar of piled stones known as a "horgr". However, there seems to have been a few more important centres, such as Skiringsal, Lejre and Uppsala. Adam of Bremen claims that there was a temple in Uppsala (see Temple at Uppsala) with three wooden statues of Thor, Odin and Freyr.
While a kind of priesthood seems to have existed, it never took on the professional and semi-hereditary character of the Celtic druidical class. This was because the shamanistic tradition was maintained by women, the Völvas. It is often said that the Germanic kingship evolved out of a priestly office. This priestly role of the king was in line with the general role of godi, who was the head of a kindred group of families (for this social structure, see norse clans), and who administered the sacrifices.
A unique eye-witness account of Germanic human sacrifice survives in Ibn Fadlan's account of a Rus ship burial, where a slave-girl had volunteered to accompany her lord to the next world. More indirect accounts are given by Tacitus, Saxo Grammaticus and Adam von Bremen.
The Heimskringla tells of Swedish King Aun who sacrificed nine of his sons in an effort to prolong his life until his subjects stopped him from killing his last son Egil. According to Adam of Bremen, the Swedish kings sacrificed male slaves every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices at the Temple at Uppsala. The Swedes had the right not only to elect kings but also to depose them, and both king Domalde and king Olof Trätälja are said to have been sacrificed after years of famine.
Odin was associated with death by hanging, and a possible practice of Odinic sacrifice by strangling has some archeological support in the existence of bodies perfectly preserved by the acid of the Jutland (later taken over by Danish people) peatbogs, into which they were cast after having been strangled. An example is Tollund Man. However, we possess no written accounts that explicitly interpret the cause of these stranglings, which could obviously have other explanations.
Interactions with ChristianityEdit
An important problem in interpreting this mythology is that often the closest accounts that we have to "pre-contact" times were written by Christians. The Younger Edda and the Heimskringla were written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, over two hundred years after Iceland became Christianized.
Virtually all of the saga literature came out of Iceland, a relatively small and remote island, and even in the climate of religious tolerance there, Snorri was guided by an essentially Christian viewpoint. The Heimskringla provides some interesting insights into this issue. Snorri introduces Odin as a mortal warlord in Asia who acquires magical powers, settles in Sweden, and becomes a demi-god following his death. Having undercut Odin's divinity, Snorri then provides the story of a pact of Swedish King Aun with Odin to prolong his life by sacrificing his sons. Later in the Heimskringla, Snorri records in detail how converts to Christianity such as Saint Olaf Haraldsson brutally converted Scandinavians to Christianity.
In Iceland, trying to avert civil war, the Icelandic parliament voted in Christianity, but tolerated heathenry in the privacy of one's home. Sweden, on the other hand, had a series of civil wars in the 11th century, which ended with the burning of the Temple at Uppsala. In England, on the other hand, Christianization occurred earlier and sporadically, rarely by force. Conversion by coercion was sporadic throughout the areas where Norse gods had been worshipped. However, the conversion did not happen overnight. Christian clergy did their utmost to teach the populace that the Norse gods were demons, but their success was limited and the gods never became evil in the popular mind in most of Scandinavia.
Two centrally located and far from isolated settlements can illustrate how long the Christianization took. Archaeological studies of graves at the Swedish island of Lovön have shown that the Christianisation took 150-200 years, and this was a location close to the kings and bishops. Likewise in the bustling trading town of Bergen, many runic inscriptions have been found from the 13th century, among the Bryggen inscriptions. One of them says may Thor receive you, may Odin own you, and a second one is a galdra which says I carve curing runes, I carve salvaging runes, once against the elves, twice against the trolls, thrice against the thurs. The second one also mentions the dangerous Valkyrie Skögul.
Otherwise there are few accounts from the 14th to the 18th century, but the clergy, such as Olaus Magnus (1555) wrote about the difficulties of extinguishing the old beliefs. The story related in Þrymskviða appears to have been unusually resilient, like the romantic story of Hagbard and Signy, and versions of both were recorded in the 17th century and as late as the 19th century. In the 19th and early 20th century Swedish folklorists documented what commoners believed, and what surfaced were many surviving traditions of the gods of Norse mythology. However, the traditions were by then far from the cohesive system of Snorri's accounts. Most gods had been forgotten and only the hunting Odin and the giant-slaying Thor figure in numerous legends. Freya is mentioned a few times and Baldr only survives in legends about place names.
Other elements of Norse mythology survived without being perceived as such, especially concerning supernatural beings in Scandinavian folklore. Moreover, the Norse belief in destiny has been very firm until modern times. Since the Christian hell resembled the abode of the dead in Norse mythology one of the names was borrowed from the old faith, Helvíti i.e. Hel's punishment. Some elements of the Yule traditions were preserved, such as the Swedish tradition of slaughtering the pig at Christmas (Christmas ham), which originally was part of the sacrifice to Freyr.
|Tuesday||Tyr's (Tiw's) day|
|Wednesday||Odin's (Woden's) day|
|Friday||Frigg's or Freya's day|
The Germanic gods have left traces in modern vocabulary. An example of this is some of the names of the days of the week: modelled after the names of the days of the week in Latin (named after Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn), the names for Tuesday through to Friday were replaced with Germanic equivalents of the Roman gods. In English, Saturn was not replaced, while Saturday is named after the sabbath in German, and is called "washing day" in Scandinavia.
More recent have been attempts in both Europe and the United States to revive the old Germanic religion as Germanic Neopaganism, variously under the names of Ásatrú, Odinism, Forn Sed or Heathenry. In Iceland Ásatrú was recognized by the state as an official religion in 1973, which legalized its marriage, child-naming and other ceremonies. It is also an official and legal religion in all the Nordic countries except Denmark, though it is still fairly new.
Norse mythology has also left a lot of influences in popular culture, specifically in literature and modern fiction.
Template:Commonscat Spelling of names in Norse mythology often varies depending on the nationality of the source material. In the articles presented here, several common forms of the names will be presented. For more information see Old Norse orthography.
- Dedicated to Norse mythology. Detailed re-tellings of the old Norse sagas.
- A collection of most of the standard texts in (generally) comprehensible English translation
- Nordische Götter - Götter-Portal (German)
- Sacred-Texts.com - More source materials
- Timeless Myths - Norse Mythology - Information and tales from Norse and Germanic literatures
- Jörmungrund: Skálda- & vísnatal Norrœns Miðaldkveðskapar [Index of Old Norse/Icelandic Skaldic Poetry] (in Icelandic)
- Project Runeberg - a Nordic equivalent to Project Gutenberg
- Norse Gods, Goddesses, Giants, Dwarves and Wights
- Modern retellings (often inventive)
- Armstrong, Fredrick and Puls, Dave (2004). It Came From Animatus. Rochester, N.Y.: Animatus Studio. DVD UPC: 825346-49479-1. Includes The Derf The Viking Trilogy, a cartoon series featuring the Norse gods.
- Colum, Padraic (1920). The Children of Odin: A Book of Northern Myths, illustrated by Willy Pogány. New York, Macmillan. Reprinted 2004 by Aladdin, ISBN 0689868855.
- Sacred Texts: The Children of Odin. (Illustrated.)
- Crossley-Holland, Kevin (1981). The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0394748468. Also released as The Penguin Book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140258698.
- Guerber, H. A. (1909). Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas. London: George G. Harrap. Reprinted 1992, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover. ISBN 0486273482. (The scholarly veneer is deceptive. Material from primary sources, scholarly speculation, and secondary invention is indistinguishably mixed.)
- Keary, A & E (1909), The Heroes of Asgard. New York: Macmillan Company. Reprinted 1982 by Smithmark Pub. ISBN 0831744758. Reprinted 1979 by Pan Macmillan ISBN 0333078020.
- Mable, Hanilton Wright (1901). Norse Stories Retold from the Eddas. Mead and Company. Reprinted 1999, New York: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0781807700.
- Mackenzie, Donald A. (1912). Teutonic Myth and Legend. New York: W. H. Wise & Co. 1934. Reprinted 2003 by University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 1410207404.
- Munch, Peter Andreas (1927). Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes, Scandinavian Classics. Trans. Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt (1963). New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation. ISBN 0404045383.
- Rydberg, Viktor (1889). Teutonic Mythology, trans. Rasmus B. Anderson. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Reprinted 2001, Elibron Classics. ISBN 1402193912. Reprinted 2004, Kessinger Publishing Company. ISBN 0766188914. (Rydberg's theories, although interesting, are generally not accepted.)
- Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology (Displayed by pages.)
- General secondary works
- Branston, Brian (1980). Gods of the North. London: Thames and Hudson. (Revised from an earlier hardback edition of 1955). ISBN 0500271771.
- Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1964). Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Baltimore: Penguin. New edition 1990 by Penguin Books. ISBN 0140136274. (Several rune stones)
- —————— (1969). Scandinavian Mythology. London and New York: Hamlyn. ISBN 0872260410. Reissued 1996 as Viking and Norse Mythology. New York: Barnes and Noble.
- de Vries, Jan. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., 2nd. ed., Grundriss der germanischen Philogie, 12–13. Berlin: W. de Gruyter. (Generally considered the most authoritative current standard reference.)
- Dumézil, Georges (1973). Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Ed. & trans. Einar Haugen. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520035070.
- Grimm, Jacob (1888). Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols. Trans. S. Stallybras. London. Reprinted 2003 by Kessinger. ISBN 0766177424, ISBN 0766177432, ISBN 0766177440, ISBN 0766177459. Reprinted 2004 Dover Publications. ISBN 0486436152 (4 vols.), ISBN 0486435466, ISBN 0486435474, ISBN 0486435482, ISBN 0486435490.
- Lindow, John (1988). Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland Folklore Bibliographies, 13. New York: Garland. ISBN 0824091736.
- —————— (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195153820. (A dictionary of Norse mythology.)
- Orchard, Andy (1997). Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell. ISBN 0304363855.
- Page, R. I. (1990). Norse Myths (The Legendary Past). London: British Museum; and Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292755465.
- Simek, Rudolf (1993). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 0859913694. New edition 2000, ISBN 0859915131.
- Simrock, Karl Joseph (1853–1855) Handbuch der deutschen Mythologie.
- Turville-Petre, E. O. Gabriel. (1964). Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Reprinted 1975, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837174201.
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