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Every ancient culture had their own brand of religion complete with myths and legends of beings greater than themselves. They all had their own story of the Creation, how people's lives were governed by these beings, and ethical rules. One such culture in Scandinavia worshipped beings like these and tried to follow their example. Norse mythology has also been an inspiration to people such as JRR Tolkien, Richard Wagner and more recently, Robin Jarvis.
'The Vikings' is a collective name given to Nordic people, namely Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. They were the great explorers, traders and sailors of their time - the Viking Age - from 800AD to 1100AD.
The view that the Vikings only pillaged, sacked and maimed is a highly exaggerated opinion of them. Yes, they did do all those things, but it has only been exaggerated by the people they attacked - the monasteries, who were the historians of their time. The Vikings also developed streamlined longboats for sailing quickly across the sea, produced brilliant works of art and became rich from their booming maritime commerce.
The Vikings visited many lands in their capacity as great explorers and sailors. They landed in England, where they ruled parts of it until the Saxons drove them out. Erik the Red discovered Greenland, and colonised the country with Vikings. Leif Erikson landed in America or 'Vinland' as they called it. They increased their territories rapidly and many countries feared their presence.
Viking myths and legends are known as 'sagas' and were told as highly popular entertainment for the interested audience after or during a feast. The Vikings believed in a higher world - one where dwarves, elves, giants and the gods fought ceaseless battles. The stories would span from the Creation of the World, the Gods and Man to Ragnarok - the Coming of the End of the World. These stories were highly popular with the Vikings.
In 1030 AD, the Vikings were converted to Christianity, and the worship of the Nordic gods soon died out.
The Norse Pantheon
There are two groups of deities in Norse mythology, permanently at war with one another, in their home of Asgard. The Aesir are sky deities, led by the chief god, Odin. The Vanir were made up of deities from the earth and its depths. Some deities, either made blood siblings of Odin or sent as peace offerings by the Vanir, are considered to be members of both groups.
|Name of God/Goddess||Group||Rôle|
|Aegir||Vanir||God of the seashore and ocean|
|Balder||Aesir||God of light and joy|
|Bragi||Aesir||God of poetry|
|Frey||Both||God of fruitfulness, prosperity, peace and weather|
|Freya||Both||Goddess of love, fertility, beauty and battles|
|Frigga||Aesir||Goddess of marriage and the sky; wife of Odin|
|Gefjon||Both||Goddess of virgins|
|Heimdall||Aesir||God of mankind|
|Hel||Vanir||Goddess of the dead and underworld|
|Idun||Aesir||Goddess of youth|
|Loki||Both||God of mischief, trickery and cunning|
|Njord||Both||God of giving|
|Odin||Aesir||God of war, wisdom, magic and poetry; leader of the Aesir and king of the gods|
|Ran||Vanir||Goddess of sea storms|
|Skadi||Vanir||Goddess of snowshoes|
|Thor||Aesir||God of thunder|
|Tyr||Aesir||God of war|
|Ull||Aesir||God of the hunt|
There are many other divine beings which, while only minor deities, still appear in the stories:
The Norns were three divine women who determined the fate of every being in the world. They were Urd (fate), Skuld (necessity) and Verdandi (being). They were the tenders of the World Tree Yggdrasil and drew magical water for it from the Well of Mimir. They wove the destinies of everyone on a loom and nothing could change their decision. They have many similarities with the Grecian Fates.
The Valkyries were originally priestesses of the goddess Freya, but became warrior-maidens in the service of Odin. They chose which warrior would be slain on a battlefield to join Odin in Valhalla for the coming of Ragnarok.
There were three types of giant:
- Normal giants
- Fire giants
- Frost giants
The giants were all part of the Vanir and so against the Aesir, and at the time of Ragnarok, would cross over Bifrost and break it. They would fight against Odin and the other Aesir at Vigrid. The normal giants lived in Jotunheim, the fire giants lived in Muspelheim, and the frost giants lived in Niflheim.
The dwarves or dark elves were also part of the Vanir. They lived in the realms under the earth, or Svartalfheim. They created the chain which could bind the Fenris-wolf until Ragnarok.
All of these mythological characters appeared in stories, but the main gods and goddesses appeared more than the others.
The stories are more folk tales than fables, but gave a possible answer to the questions that we are still faced with today. There are many variations of these stories depending on the translation.
In the beginning, there was the void, and the void was called 'Ginnungagap'. To the north of the void lay Niflheim, the land of fog and ice, and to the south, Muspelheim, the land of fire.
Niflheim, the realm of intense cold, was the location of a spring named 'Hvergelmir'. From this spring, eleven rivers flowed. These rivers, or Elivagar, froze layer upon layer until the entirety of the northern half of the void was filled with ice. Concurrently, sparks and molten lava from Muspelheim filled the southern half with fiery material.
The concoction of fire and ice caused a section of the Elivagar to melt. From this change in state, Ymir the primeval giant and Audhumla the cow were formed. The milk from the cow became the giant's food. As Ymir slept, his armpits began to sweat copiously. The salty water formed two frost giants, one male and the other female. The primeval giant's legs created another male frost giant.
During the creation of the frost giants, the cow Audhumla was busy with her own creations. By licking the salty ice which was her nourishment, she made the god Buri. This god had a son known as 'Bor', who was the father of Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve.
Ymir, the first giant, was now dying. His blood caused a flood which swept all the frost giants to their death. Only two survived - Bergelmir and his wife. They escaped in their rowing boat. Odin and his brothers placed the corpse of the great giant in Ginnungagap, and created the Earth and sky from it. From the sparks from Muspelheim, they created the Sun, stars and moon.
On the beach of the new Earth, the brothers found two logs lying on the seashore. From these, they made the first two humans - Ask and Embla. Audhumla, as the cow who created the first gods, was first worshipped as a sacred animal.
Ragnarok is the day of the last world battle. First, three little ice ages will fall upon the world, known as the Fimbulvetr, and many other prophetic signs will appear. When the time finally arrives, all the cocks in the world will crow simultaneously. The fire giants led by Surt will come out of Muspelheim and march toward Vigrid, the place of the final battle. Naglfar, the ship made of dead men's nails, will sail the frost giants to the battlefield, led by Loki and Hel. Heimdall, the watcher on the rainbow bridge, will sound his horn, Gjallar, signifying the end of the world. He and his adversary Loki will battle to the death, with neither being the victor.
The Fenris-wolf will be released from his chains and wreak havoc across the world. He will finally devour Odin in the last moments of battle. The World Tree Yggdrasil will perish and a new and improved world will spring from its roots.
Claims Direct - Norse Style
Skadi, the goddess of snowshoes, was the daughter of the giant Thiazi. Thiazi was tragically killed by the Aesir, and Skadi took her claim for damages to Asgard. As compensation, Odin allowed her to choose a husband from the gods. The small catch was that she could only make her choice judging by their feet. Skadi thought that the best-looking feet would belong to Balder as he was renowned for being the most aesthetically-pleasing god in the world. Unfortunately, this was not true, as to the goddess' dismay she found that she had picked the god with the best-looking feet, but a face that not even a mother could love - Njord.
Again, she sought a claim for damages with a demand that one of the Aesir should make her laugh. This was achieved by Loki. Always the joker, but not always the sharpest tool in the box, he tied one end of a rope to a goat's beard. He tied the other end to his testicles. Pulling on the rope, both bellowed loudly.
As the final part of Skadi's compensation, the gods threw her deceased father's eyes into the sky, turning them into stars.
Dude Looks like a Lady
The gods all had their favourite objects. For the god Thor, it was his hammer, Mjollnir. He treasured this hammer to the point of sleeping with it under his pillow. That was how much he loved it.
One day, after a hard night of excessive drinking, Thor woke up to find his hammer gone. Slightly miffed at this, he then vowed to get it back. He knew that this must have been the work of his arch-enemies, the giants! After going to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants, and asking relatively politely for his hammer back, Thor was told that the only way that he would get it back was to persuade Freya, the goddess of love to marry the lord of the giants.
Returning to Asgard, he met up with Freya and explained all that had happened to him. He also explained the deal he had made with the giants. Freya was single and looking for a husband, but she wasn't that desperate. Especially if it was a mean bean of a giant. Thor, unsuccessful in his attempt to persuade his fellow deity, decided that there was only one course of action left: dressing up in a rather fetching wedding dress and donning Freya's distinctive gold necklace, he travelled back to Jotunheim in the hope that they would take him for the goddess. Now, to the average bog-standard mortal, this was a wholly unconvincing attempt at looking like the most beautiful creature in the universe. But he had to try. Giants aren't necessarily the brightest sparks in the fire: when Thor arrived in the great hall, they were instantly pleased. Even if 'she':
- Ate eight whole salmon...
- ... and one whole ox...
- ... and then washed it down with three barrels of mead
Of course, the bulging muscles and the beard might have been a slight giveaway.
Thor's hammer was then brought in to the hall to bless the 'bride'. Thor then lost it Ivanisevic-style. He leapt out of his disguise, grabbed Mjollnir and got a little crazy.
After a short, yet sufficiently violent fight, the giants agreed to give the god his hammer back.
Norse mythology became a large part of the Vikings' life. Unfortunately, as Christianity swept through Scandinavia, centuries of Norse worship stopped, and the stories stopped being told as well. However, Norse mythology still remains one of the most fascinating aspects of history.