A Catalogue of Heroes: Norse Gods
This will be the last of the introductory entries in this blog series. While I previous employed the aid of others well-versed in mythologies less known to me, we have reached the Norse subject matter. A major influence on much fantasy literature and one of my own areas of interest. It is possible that the catalogue will be expanded to include Slavic mythology if I can do it justice, but for now, Norse gods will conclude the introduction to the catalogue before the actual analysis begins.
The Norse myths arrive to us through many different sources; many of them have literal gaps in the text or mental gaps in our understanding as language, society, and customs change to make certain aspects unrecognisable. The following is an amalgam of these various sources, but intrigued readers are directed towards the Poetic and Prose Edda as good starting points for further studies.
To gain a basic understanding of Norse mythology in respect to Norse societies, there are three gods to mention: Odin, Thor, and Freyr. In general, mythology seems to enjoy this type of divine hierarchy appearing in threes; the previous post on Indo-European mythology showed this, Greek mythology has Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, and the Holy Trinity in Christianity is another example. For the Norse, these three are who’s who.
Odin is the king of the gods and has numerous names and titles. His titles often refer to his many powers or deeds, such as Allfather (being one of the driving forces behind the creation of the worlds and the human race), whereas his names are often aliases employed by him on his travels to hide his true identity. Check out this list, for instance.
Odin is characterised by his knowledge, especially of the secret kind. From his seat in Valhalla, he is able to view the entire world. His trademark appearance as a one-eyed man stems from when he gave up one eye in exchange for drinking from Mimir’s Well, achieving great wisdom in the process. He once hanged himself ritualistically for nine days on the world tree Yggdrassil, returning to life with knowledge of the runes and their secret powers. Lastly, he is a practitioner of specific form of sorcery, seiðr, which he was taught by Freya.
The patented Father Christmas look, but with a one-eyed twist. By Georg von Rosen in the 1893 Swedish translation of the Poetic Edda.
He is also typically accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freri, and two ravens, Huginn and Munnin. Both should be thought of as symbols of death; ravens are carrion eaters, and Odin’s wolves are described doing this as well, searching the battlefields for corpses to eat. This points towards how, besides knowledge of the supernatural, Odin’s primary attributes as a god are in the domains of war and death. This does not mean he can be relied upon in battle, however, on the contrary. Odin collects the dead warriors to his halls, gathering an army for the day when Ragnarök takes place: the climactic, doomsday-battle of Norse myths. Only warriors who die in battle might reach Valhalla, meaning if Odin lends support to promising warriors, his end goal is to have them die on the battlefield eventually. The weekday Wednesday takes its name from Odin, via his Western Germanic name and counterpart, Wotan. The legendary kings of Denmark, the bloodline of the Scyldingas, were said to be descended from Odin.
Thor was possibly the most popular god in Germanic societies before Christianity; evidence of this would be that as god of thunder and the sky, Thor is equivalent to Zeus and Jupiter in other mythologies (in general, sky gods tend to be the supreme deities of their mythologies, which is probably why the Christian God is located in Heaven). When the Germanic tribes adopted the Roman calendar, it was Jupiter’s day that became Thor’s day (Thursday). While some might think of him as a god of war, it would be more correct to think of him as a god of warriors; war is the providence of Odin, as mentioned, and the god Týr, who gave us the name for Tuesday. As the strongest of the gods and armed with the hammer Mjölnir, Thor is first and foremost the protector of mankind. Many of his exploits in the myths revolve around him dealing with the enemies of gods and humanity, primarily the Jötunns.
For those unaware, the real Thor is red-haired. Accept no blond imitations. Drawing by Silja Danielsen.
In the warlike society of the Norse lands, Thor was an obvious ideal and object of veneration for the warriors who went Viking, that is, went raiding across the sea. As the Christianisation of Europe began to pressure Scandinavia, Thor furthermore became the symbol of opposition to the new religion. This was no doubt aided by the fact that his hammer was an excellent symbol to wear as jewellery much like the cross of the Christians. There were also pragmatists back then; moulds have been found in old smithies containing both Thor’s hammer and the cross, allowing the smith to suit his customer’s religious wishes.
Freyr is a fertility god, and his providence is life and growth. He is thus indispensable in the Norse pantheon, and along with Odin and Thor, he completes a basic triangle of divinity found elsewhere. I mentioned a few examples before, but probably the best comparison is from Hinduism. Here, the Trimūrti is the supreme divine trinity consisting of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Similarly, Freyr is the bringer of life, Thor its protector, and Odin is its end. Changing geometrical metaphors, these trinities of gods also serve as examples of each phase of the circle of life.
We can also bring this interpretation to the prophecy of Ragnarök. During this climactic battle, Freyr is fated to fight against Surtr, a Jötunn from the realm of fire. Having given up his magical sword once to gain the affections of a woman (he may be a god, but he is still a man), Freyr is killed by Surtr. The battle of Ragnarök ends with Surtr, after killing the symbol of life and growth, raising his fire sword to engulf the Earth in flames and destroy it.
That's his steed, by the way. Talk about driving a hog. Image by Eduard Ade - Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen.
The Norse societies are today most known for their skill in seafaring, and, contingent on that, their skill as raiders and traders; however, they were essentially an agricultural society. Every free man was a farmer, and even the wealth and power of the nobility came first and foremost from fields and livestock. Freyr was thus worshipped by all free men, regardless of status. A special place of worship for him was Uppsala, where human sacrifices were made in his name, and he was said to be the ancestor of the legendary kings of Sweden, the Ynglings.
While not a god like the others, Loki is of interest both as a character in Norse mythology and for our analysis in the next post. Loki is not of the divine tribes of the Æsir, like Odin and Thor, or of the Vanir, like Freyr. He is one of the Jötunns, possessing their powers of shape change. He has mixed his blood with Odin, however, becoming his sworn brother, which explains his presence in Asgard amongst the gods. In popular understanding and retellings of the myths, Loki is often cast as the villain, which is not entirely false, but not the whole picture either.
Take a prank too far against people with no sense of humour, you end up like this. You've been warned.
By Louis Huard (1813-1874) - The Heroes of Asgard: Tales from Scandinavian Mythology.
Loki eventually betrays the gods and is severely punished for it, trapped in a cave and tortured by a giant, venomous serpent until Ragnarök, when he will break free and fight against the gods. Before this, however, Loki is frequently a companion to Odin and Thor, for better or worse. What makes Loki such an interesting character is that he both aids and hinders the gods, according to his own whims. In general, duality runs through his character. He is of the Jötunns, but lives with the gods in Asgard. He is at times accepted by both sides, but also at times rejected by both. Sometimes he causes problems, sometimes he solves them, often both in the same story. This unpredictability along with him relying on his wits and powers of shape changing has made him the most iconic trickster for those familiar with that archetype.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of the most important figures in the Norse pantheon. Next blog entry will be an actual analysis of these mythological/heroic figures, in particular focusing on the Norse examples.