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Norse Myth. Sources. Norse myths existed only in oral form while they were central to religious belief. They were only written down after Northern Europe had become Christian. Plus: a wide time span wide geographical range many different sub-cultures And influences …. Sources.

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Norse myths existed only in oral form while they were central to religious belief. They were only written down after Northern Europe had become Christian.

  • Plus:
  • a wide time span
  • wide geographical range
  • many different sub-cultures
  • And influences …


  • New problems with our primary sources:
  • no coherent body of literature showing the myths and legends
  • possible alteration due to the influence of Christianity
  • “fictionalization” of stories which originally had religious importance.

Snorri Sturlesson: The Prose Edda.

  • many different adventures of the Norse gods
  • presented as fictional, sometimes humorous.
  • The closest we have to an overview/ collection of Norse myth
  • but often untraditional, engaged with intellectual & Christian traditions (e.g., he connects Thor with Troy).




Poetic Eddas: Traditional songs, which often refer to mythic incidents, usually just individual adventures.

Skaaldic songs: poems in honor of human accomplishments, with occasional references to myth, sometimes very cryptic.



  • Beginning of Prose Edda
  • Involved in question of god, good & evil
  • Parallelism between Norse tradition/
  • Christian belief

Elemental creation rather than conscious plan …

Opposites and a fertile space in the middle – significance ….



  • What are the central metaphysical aspects of the Norse world?
  • Benevolent, scary, neutral, mixed?
  • Stable, chaotic, linear, cyclical?
  • Geography – what are the main places and the relationships between them? Special places?
  • Places in the “real” world vs. unreachable mythic places?
  • Local significance of myths?
  • Categories of beings and relationships between them?


  • Niffleheim – cold and ice
  • Muspell – fire
  • Ginungagap: the place in between
  • Processes of melting, thawing, emerging … landscape relates to myth
  • Central conflicts:
  • Ymir central to creation, yet defined as evil
  • Genealogy leading to gods to oppose him … creation of Bur

Iceland –

Not discovered till 900s CE ….

Mostly glaciers and volcanoes …




  • Bur’s grandsons, Odin, Vili, and Ve, killed Ymir and made the world from his parts:
  • his skull became the sky
  • his eyebrows formed a barrier between the world of men and the world of giants
  • his blood became sea and lakes
  • his bones became the mountains

Frost-Giants: from Ymir’s feet

Humans: from Ymir’s torso OR from logs washed up on shore …


The Gods

The Vanir:

Njord, a god of the sea and seafaring

Freyr, a god of crop fertility, who may have features in common with “dying gods” like Dumuzi and Adonis;

Freyja, “the most renowned of the goddesses, who alone of the gods still lives” (Sturlesson). Goddess of love and sexuality, also associated with crop fertility; goddess of a realm of death; associated with shamanic experience.



  • Realms:
  • Utgard, the home of the giants
  • Midgard, the land of humans
  • Asgard, the home of the gods, accessible only by Bifrost, the rainbow bridge
  • Hel, home of the dead
  • Alfheim, home of the Light Elves
  • Other less defined realms …
  • The world tree, Yggdrasill, extended between all of these lands.


  • Yggdrasill, the world tree, spans the different realms of Norse myth.
  • These realms (Utgard, Midgard, Asgard) are joined by the three roots of the great tree Yggdrasill. (Each seems to have the whole tree …)
  • At its roots in Asgard is the well of Urd, where the Norns live; at its roots in Utgard is the well of Mimir.

World in the Balance

  • It represents a world equilibrium that is more like entropy:
  • Around its roots is a serpent;
  • At its top is an eagle;
  • A squirrel runs up and down between them;
  • Deer are constantly eating at its branches;
  • and the Norns continually try to shore up the damage.

World in the Balance

Sun (girl) and Moon (boy) chased by wolves

Discovery of new varieties of threat …

Intimations of cataclysm in descriptions of various places and cosmic situations

Bronze age sun chariot

Malene Thyssen,


The Gods

The Norse gods do not have simple family relationships.

Odin is the chief of the gods; more later. His wife is Frigg, whose name means fate.

Thor is a god of thunder, with the muscle, violence, and brute strength laced with intelligence, that we see in Heracles.

Loki is a trickster figure, often on the side of mischief or even evil; his father was a giant.

Tyr is a war god, who bound the wolf Fenrir

Balder (the beautiful) is the beloved god who dies . . .)


The Gods

The Norse gods are divided into two races: Aesir and Vanir.

Aesir are dominant; they are the gods most associated with heroic tales, conflict with giants, warfare, and the beginning and end of the world.

Vanir tend to be fertility deities; there are fewer of them.



  • goddess of love/sexual relations
  • associated with crop fertility
  • searches for Od, her dead husband
  • liaison with Freyr (possibly a dying god?)
  • seidr ritual; idea of flying, platform
  • owner of one realm of the dead

Names of Freyja:

“Giver, sea-woman, sow, flaxen...”

Attribute: necklace

Feather/bird associations

carriage drawn by cats



Odin is a multifaceted, mysterious, often deceptive god. A list of some of his names hints at his complex nature:

The Hooded one, the Warrior, Helmet-god, the High one, the Blind one, Capricious, Inflamer, Weak-eyes, Fiery-eyed, Evil-doer, Father of Victory, The One with the Magic Staff, the Gelding, Feeder, Destroyer, Terror, Wind, God of Men.



God of Wisdom:

Odin has only one eye. He gave up the other to drink from the fountain of Mimir (memory/knowledge) in Utgard. So he has one eye on this world, one eye in another realm of knowledge.

Odin has two ravens, Hugin and Munin. “Thought” and “Memory,” who bring him news from all over the world. His wisdom can be trickiness or betrayal.


Odin as trickster

Odin’s Germanic predecessor, Wotan, was associated with Mercury (Hermes) by the Romans.

Odin often deceives and tricks, sometimes in the interest of justice, sometimes for his own arcane purposes.


Odin in disguise

Odin and Geirrod

Quarrel over human kingship between Odin and Frigg.

Due to Frigg’s plot, Geirrod mistreats Odin in disguise.

When Geirrod realizes his mistake, he rushes to help but falls on his sword.

No mercy …


Odin as deceiver

Mead of Poetic Inspiration:

Thievery: he stole it from the giants (who are fair game).

Ruthless: he tricks the giants servants into killing each other so he can take their place.

Seducer: Then he seduces the giant’s daughter

Shape-changer: He uses his shape-changing powers to get to her, then successful, he flies away as a raven.



Odin won the wisdom of runes:

I remember I hung on the windswept tree nine whole nights, Stabbed by the spear, given to Odin, myself to myself. Of that tree no man knows what roots it springs from.

No bread they gave me, no drink from the horn,

down I peered. I took up runes, howling I took them up, And back again I fell.



Odin and Shamanism:

Hanging on a tree & suffering is a way to access other worlds, other experiences.

Odin is the only male figure to use the shamanic trance known as seidr usually associated with Freyja.

All of these are shamanic skills, ecstatic ways of gaining wisdom and experience.



Odin as a war god:

He is god of the kings in battle.

He can inspire battle-terror (magical binding of the will,) as well as the battle frenzy of the berserker.

He can bestow and withdraw favor easily.

You (Odin) have never been able to order the course of war; often you have given victory to cowards . . .

Odin has broken faith – it is not safe to trust him.



As a god of death:

He presides over Valhalla, where the heroic dead killed in battle go to spend eternity fighting and partying.

The Valkyries, goddesses who come down to the battlefield to bring up the souls of the dead, are Odin’s assistants.

Odin’s wandering, one-eyed “double vision,” and shamanic connections, also associate him with the permeable border between living and dead.

Odin rides and 8-legged horse, Sleipnir, which represents the bier of the dead man, and the passage between worlds.



Thor is the foremost of the gods. He is called Aesir-Thor or Charioteer-Thor. He is the strongest of all gods and men. He has three valuable properties:

The first is the hammer Mjollnir, which the frost-giants recognize the moment it is raised on high!

{The second is his belt of strength, the third is his iron gloves.}

Sturlesson, Prose Edda

Thor’s hammer was a popular good luck talisman in Northern Europe, even in Christian times.



Battler of monsters:

To turn from the sinister, deceitful and complex Odin to the simple-minded and straightforward Thor is something of a relief. Thor is a battler; his enemies are the gods’ enemies: giants, monsters and primeval forces. R. I Page

Human integration:

Images of Thor were used as “flint and steel” to kindle fires.

Pillars representing Thor were flung out of sailing ships to mark the currents toward land.



Thor is a storm god, a thunder god. Thunder was caused either by his hammer, or by the wheels of his chariot, which was pulled by goats.

(The goats had a magical property: they could be roasted and eaten, and would reconstitute themselves overnight.)



God of the People

Thor had a lasting popularity among ordinary people.

He was a straightforward savior, and his hammer was a protective talisman.

His temples proliferated in pre-Christian times, and he was the most-frequently worshipped Norse god.

His ring (an arm ring?) represented fidelity to oaths.



  • Thor’s chief enemies:
  • Frost-giants. He is frequently in conflict with them.
  • Iormungand, the World serpent, which Thor fights several times:
  • Thor fishes it up one time and almost capsizes the boat; his companion cuts the line.
  • In Utgard, Thor tries to lift it, deceived into thinking it’s a kitten
  • Thor fights it at Ragnarok.


  • Typical Thor:
  • Delight in eating and drinking; humorous stories about these capacities
  • Not always very bright; often tricked and finding himself in humiliating circumstances (e.g. when he visits Utgard; when he impersonates Freya to get his stolen hammer back.)
  • Can always be counted on to exert his strength and take care of knotty, difficult problems by brute force.

Thor and Loki in Utgard:

  • What are Thor’s strategies for dealing with enemies and adversity?
  • How does Loki participate in, instigate, or derail the adventure?
  • What does this story show about the relationship of gods and giants?


To a reader of Snorri, Loki is perhaps the most outstanding character among the Northern gods, the chief actor in the most amusing stories, and the motivating force in a large number of plots. (Davidson)

Intelligent, astute to the highest degree, but amoral, loving to make mischief great or small, as much to amuse himself as to do harm, he represents among the Aesir a truly demonic element. Some of the assailants of the future Ragnarok, the wolf Fenrir and the great Serpent, are his sons, and his daughter is Hel. (Georges Dumezil)



  • Loki is a chief instigator in many tales:
  • Bad decisions, helpful tricks: Loki found a way to keep the giant from building the wall of Asgard on time.
  • Gender-bending: He impersonated a mare to distract the giant’s work horse. (He became pregnant and gave birth to Sleipnir.) Shape changing and trans-gender problems are typical of tricksters.
  • Creates and solves problems: He gave up the golden apples of immortality (and got them back)
  • Father of monsters: Sleipnir (Odin’s horse) but also Fenrir, Iormungand, and Hel …


  • Fixes problems: He helped Thor get back his hammer, and went with him to Utgard
  • Cowardly and treacherous: Loki was caught by a giant and betrayed Thor to him
  • Makes wanton trouble: Loki aroused the dragons to hatred of the gods because of a wanton act of cruelty (Otter’s revenge) and used trickery to get out of it
  • Destruction leading to creation: Loki cut off Sif’s golden hair, causing the creation of the greatest treasures of the gods.

Loki & Balder

There is nothing but good to be said about Balder. He is the best of the gods and everyone sings his praises. He is so fair of face and bright that a splendor radiates from him . . . He is the wisest of the gods, and the sweetest-spoken, and the most merciful, but none of his judgments come true.

The most important tale of Loki is how he arranged the destruction of Balder.


Loki & Balder

Balder dreamed he would be killed, so Frigg (his mother) made all living creatures swear not to harm him. (Evading a prophecy??)

The gods then enjoyed throwing things at him, since all fell away harmlessly.

Jealousy & deception: In disguise, Loki found out from Frigg that the mistletoe had not sworn.

Trickery: Then he tricked the blind god Hod into throwing it at Balder, and Balder was killed.

Loki bound? Kirby Stephen stone (England), 10th century


Loki & Balder

Hel agreed to return Balder to the world of the living if every living creature mourned him.

All complied – except for one old giant woman – who was Loki in disguise.

When the other gods found out Loki’s treachery, they condemned him to be bound to a rock, with serpent’s poison dripping onto him (a fate similar to that of the benevolent trickster Prometheus . . .)


Trickery and wisdom: Odin and Loki

  • What do Odin and Loki have in common?
  • In what ways is Odin’s trickery different from Loki’s?
  • Both exhibit treachery from time to time – what (if any) is the difference in the varieties of treachery they show?

Tyr and Fenrir

Tyr is a minor god in Norse myth, featuring in few stories, but was possibly more important in earlier times.

His Germanic predecessor, Tiwaz, was a sky-god similar to Zeus.

The one story in which Tyr features is the binding of the wolf Fenrir. Tyr put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth as a pledge of faith, and when the gods bound the wolf, he bit off the hand.


Lands of Death

  • Hel, the shadowy underworld overseen by Loki’s daughter of the same name. It is dark, gated, and much like Hades/Sheol/Kurnugi
  • Valhalla (a.k.a. Valholl), where the souls of dead warriors are taken after death by the Valkyries. There they dink and fight until Ragnarok, when they will fight on the side of the gods.
  • Freyja’s realm: there are references to Freyja’s taking half of the dead, while Odin takes the other half.
  • Other places: e.g. Gimli (heaven-like)
  • Mixed traditions or complex eschatology?

Lands of Death

  • afterlife in the barrows: High-status people were sometimes buried under a mound, called a barrow; burials of an entire ship have been found.


Norse myth, unlike Greek and Near Eastern, does not portray a world in which the gods have conquered discord and established order, but a world in which the gods are constantly battling their adversaries.

This battle comes to a head at Ragnarok.

The death of Balder is one element in the final episode of Norse myth, Ragnarok, “The Twilight of the Gods.”



An age of axes, an age of swords, shattered shields, an Age of tempests, an age of wolves, before the age of men crashes down.



Loki remains suffering under the poison of the serpent, and Balder remains in Hel (rather than in Valholl!) until the conflicts of Ragnarok.

The end of the world is preceded by an increase of wars and conflicts among men; then there is a three-year winter.

Monsters break loose, Iormungand emerges from the sea and floods the earth. A wolf swallows the sun and her brother the moon; stars fall from the sky.

Led by the giant Surt, with Loki as the helmsman, the giants arrive in their ship, Naglfar, made from the uncut fingernails of the dead.

A huge battle between gods and giants takes place at the gates of Asgard.



Five hundred doors and forty more in Valholl I think there are. Eight hundred warriors at a time will pass each door to fight the wolf. . . Fenrir rushes forward, his jaws agape, so that the upper one touches the heavens, the lower one touches the earth. (Sturlesson/Page)

Thor once again fights Iormungand; he kills it, but dies from the venom.

Tyr fights the hound Garm, and they kill each other.

Odin is swallowed by Fenrir; Odin’s son Vidar kills the wolf in revenge.



Loki and Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, kill each other.

Freyr is killed by the giant Surt, who scatters fire over the earth.

But from this destruction comes a new world:

A second earth [the shaman-woman] sees arise from out of the sea, green once more; the cataracts tumble, the eagle flies over them, hunting fish in the mountain stream. The Aesir meet again . . . (Voluspa)



Balder returns from Hel to rule over this new world, in peace and plenty.

A golden age arises; fields flourish without work.

Two humans survived to begin the race again . . .

Does this renewal of the world show influence from Christianity? Some say yes – given other Christian ideas – others say that the idea of a final conflict and new age is also present in Indo-European mythology.

In any case, the brutal conclusion leads to new life.

The Aesir meet again and speak of the mighty Iormungand, and call to mind the mighty judgments and the ancient mysteries of the Great God himself. (Voluspa)


battle for the mead of poetry