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Norse Mythology and Religion: A Discussion on Viking-Scandinavian History and Culture

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Lore and mythology have been around human history for the longest time. These were ways in which our ancestors tried to understand and explain great natural events in the past. The ancient texts, more often than not, also contain a detailed and immersive history of the old tribes and of their triumphs and failures when the world was young. Such texts narrate the stories of men in fluid and rhythmic form that would rival even today’s best Hollywood films in picturesque presentation.

Nowadays, when we speak of lore and mythology, we are more likely to conjure images of wands and dragons, and refer to modern bestsellers such as the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and other fantasy novels which try to elicit from us a sense of magic and mysticism in a day and age of modernity and scientific advancements.

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Very few find satisfaction in riffling through the dusted pages of ancient myths, and much fewer still know that the mythological versions of today are merely copies of what have been told and re-told ages ago.

Perhaps the farthest that an average person can retrace the history of myth will be the oft quoted and read Greek myths. And even while Greek mythology is indeed as far as one can get in terms of Western lore, there is still one other that is unknown to most that predated almost everything else. In fact, if one were so bold to assume, Greek and Hellenistic mythologies up to the modern day Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are merely copies—a retelling of the primordial mythic system that is the Norse Mythology.

The Norse mythology, the attendant rituals, beliefs, customs and practices are an amalgamation of ancient peoples and tribes who migrated to Northern Europe. Collectively known as the Western Aryan race, these groups shared among them a body of stories in order that they may be able to record their monumental feats, and to make sure that the succeeding generations would not lose sight of and forget their heritage. The period of migration of the Western Aryan race from the east portions of Asia, Asia-Minor and of Europe has resulted to a diffusion of ideas and belief systems. Yet although the representations of gods, idols and stories, the concomitant practices and customs are varied and unique across different cultures and tribes, there exists a shared similitude and likeness from each of these differences. At once these stories are unlike and like in form and content (Hassenson 31).

Sir George Dasent, a famous Philologist and Anthropologist scholar on Norse mythology, compares the diffusion to that of a large family of related kin that, in time, have grown and spread out individually to other lands, while at the same time carrying with them a shared memory of a story that has been told from a single fountainhead accruing from the mouth of the primordial father. To wit, “their father hath write them as his own little story” (41), but as the children grew up “they throw off the original copy, educate themselves for good or ill, and finally assume new forms of feeling and feature under an original development of their own” (ibid.).  He also posits that no matter how far and old each of these individuated tribes have come and grown, they possess universal sentiments and a common consciousness.

As if by recalling the past in a dream, these tribes unconsciously imitate an a priori story and retell it in the best exactitude in the original as much as possible. Memory of the past might be blurry to a certain point and thus oftentimes new additions and myriad alterations are made. Likewise, the next generations might make liberal revisions of the past to suit their present conditions. Yet the recollection gains the power of similarity and clarity “like the sleeping thoughts of many men upon one and the same thing” (Dasent 41). Dasent opines further that “suppose a hundred men to have been eye-witnesses of some event on the same day, and then to have slept and dreamt of it” (42) we will have as many representations, ideas and versions as there were eyes who perceived the event. However, despite of the variety of understanding and the different ways in which the event arrives to the people’s sense, the idea gravitates upon one single thought of the past. In effect, however the popular tales of the present are diverse and assorted, invariable to the disparity of re-telling the single memory of the past is written and retold all over again. The subsequent consciousness of the present

“snatches up bits of its old beliefs, and fears, and griefs (sic), and glory, and pieces them together with something that happened yesterday” and afterwards, “holds up the distorted reflection in all its inconsequence, just as it has passed before that magic glass, as thought it were genuine history, and matter for pure belief […] that everything we know to be real now has originated from a single thread of the pass” (42).

Accordingly, there is little doubt, with regard to the question of the origin of tales, “that they are common in germ at least to the Aryan tribes before their migration” (Dasent 38). The varied traditions of the Greeks, Latin, Celt, Teuton, Slavonian and other tribes of near kin owe a large part of their literature to a singular fountainhead (Hassenson 33). Historians generally hold the belief in the theory that the sources of fable and tradition, the entire Western lore, fables and tales “had come by direct translations from the East” (Dasent 43). This means that Western though, in terms of myths and customs, originated from the popular tales of the Semitic, Arabic and Persian tribes. A storehouse of literary evidence point to the veracity, if not likelihood of such theory. Suffice it said, however, that throughout the ages the stories have been masked and covered with other supplementary incidences which more or less accurately speak of the brand of culture where these stories are propagated. In other words, time has nearly erased all traces of the stories’ origins simply by editing and rehashing the thoughts of the past to fit the ideals and travails of the present. Historical events have also changed the form and style of the stories so much so that the stories are more likely attributed to the culture and tradition which adopted them, than to the originals sources where the stories have been adopted (Hassenson 21).

A conscientious scholar, trying to draw a map of the migration patterns of ideas, myths, rituals, customs and traditions, is hard put to find the exact routes of travel. The same might be overwhelmed with more differences than with similarities in the narratives of the motley cultures inasmuch as the pieces of evidence of similitude he wishes to find might no longer exist. If some did survive the straddle of time and history, they exist as minute hints of the past migration, and not something as obvious and convincing that one can clearly conclude that the stories all come from one point. Yet despite the wall to which the scholar might face, fortune and hope arises from the remote possibility of finding a body of texts that have not yet been spoiled by time and history. Informed by the difficulties of tracing the roots, one may still ask, if luck permits, whether there exists a tradition that verily represent the same consciousness and sentiments reminiscent of the past. Can there be a clear and genuine copy of the original which has not been lost in the multiple copying and re-copying, editing and re-editing, telling and re-telling of a memory from a distant past in history? Norse mythology might just be that lone text by which the treasures of the past can be recovered. Thus, coming from that point onward, draw all other traditions, be it the Greek or the far Teutons, together in one grand family reunion.

Historians and anthropologists agree that the Norsemen or the Vikings as the group who went farther up north to settle in Iceland and the Scandinavian provinces (Hassenson 10). They were the indigenous pre-Christian tribes who gathered up tribal lore in one text, and in doing so, for a substantial period of time, the Norsemen were able to universalize their beliefs formed from an even older version found in Germanic paganism with a few sources derived from Anglo-Saxon mythology. Precisely because the Vikings were one of the last ancient civilizations and tribal groups converted to Christianity, there traditions have long been so ingrained in their way of life that the narratives of their culture become impervious to change. Dasent similarly concludes that as against the influence and change in the environment, namely the power of time and history to blur the past, the Norsemen held fast and strong (Dasent 55). Norsemen were able to resist these agents of change and weathered the stormy happenstance of dilution and diffusion from a variety of circumstance that worked to their favor. The first is the fact that their settlement in Iceland isolated them, by way of a protective shield so to speak, from the revolutions of thought and ideas that were pervasive in southern Europe. Their language was preserved and “its literary treasures” remained pristine and incorrupt. Second, their late conversion to Christianity made it possible for their cosmogony, mythology, religion, rituals etc to flourish at full bloom, an inauspicious favor that have not been the same for other tribes who had their nascent traditions cut before such have developed petals of glory and fashion. The Norsemen had the “rare advantage of running its course free and unfettered until the bombardment of a creed for weapon of a new belief” (70).

 Nowhere but in the Norse mythology can one “pick up and piece together the wretched fragments of faith and belief, the articles of which its own priests had forgotten to commit to writing” (56). Where the oral traditions of the Norse have continued to live, the oral traditions of the rest have been largely decimated by the coming of the first Christian wave of conversion. The Christians “dashed to pieces and destroyed, wherever their zealous hands could reach” (Dasent 56). Consequently, in the two Eddas, where our knowledge of the Norse mythology and poetry are gleaned from, the early Sagas, in Saxos tilted in Latin, “which barely conceals the popular songs and legends from which the historian drew his materials […] we are enabled to form a perfect conception of the creed of the heathen Norsemen […] enabled us to trace the natural and rational development of that creed of the simple worship of nature and her powers” (57). Indeed, pagan mythology of most of the Germanic tribes underwent a gradual decay after the spread of Christianity. At around the end of the fifth century and up to the eight century, the tribes in France, England and Germany succumbed to the pressure. It is only in the northern parts of Europe, where the lands were inaccessible and the journey formidable, that pagan mythology remained. For a full millennia after the birth of Christ and the proselytizing of Christian missionaries of their creed, did Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden finally adopted Christian faith (Munch 3).

Tribes from the southern most parts of Europe were the most devastated with regards to the destruction of pagan mythology and belief. Where the Christian clergy and missionaries were the most adamant against professing a creed other than their own, pagan mythology was subjected to a complete marginalization until finally such ancient creeds perished from inattention and apostasy. It can not be gainsaid that the Christian influence was strong and pervasive. Even the lands that were ingrained with strong Germanic cultures and traditions had to immediately give way to the new teachings of Christ. With so much as a fuss about defending their own culture from foreign invasion, southern tribes embraced Christianity.

In addition, the improvements on communication, writing and education have rendered the oral traditions obsolete. Those who perpetuated the religion of Christianity were the same people who taught the pagan tribes how to write and read. As a consequence, Christian teachers had absolute control over the materials that were being taught. Any mention of pagan beliefs was quickly hushed, and if such were found in text, were also deleted as soon as they come into writing. In other words, by swift and bold strokes Christianity and its followers successfully uprooted the pagan tradition simply by literally expunging them from the text thereby literally erasing them form the pages of history (Munch 5). Fortunately for the northern tribes, they had managed to cultivate their culture.

Besides the geographical advantage, the survival of ancient traditions can also be linked to the Norsemen’s fondness for local poetry, otherwise known as Skaldic poetry and song (Munch 10). While the threat of conversion was looming around the corner, the Norse tribes maintained a healthy and propitious attachment to their own tradition. They had no need for extraneous additions to their narratives. Neither did they need, much acknowledge the importance and value for learning the Latin language which was the main linguistic tool to peddle Christianity throughout regions in Europe. Put more bluntly, the Norse had achieved the fruition of their culture even before the dawn of Christianity. The constant practice and adherence to their pagan beliefs were important to brush aside foreign culture and its practices. Furthermore, aside from enjoying a relatively stronger safeguard against cultural invasion, the continued practice and adherence to their mythology allowed them to develop a brand of literature that can no longer be upended by whatever persuasive weight Christianity had on the pagans.

During this period of relative ease, the Norse saw the creation of the two great books which would then be the primary source of Norse mythology. Snorri’s Edda and Sæmund’s Edda, the great source books of pagan hegemony, finally brought together the lore in a definitive anthology. Edda is a local term for “great-grandmother” which obviously is a reference to the original source from where the ancient narratives and songs had come from and were handed down. In circa 1220, Snorri Sturluson wrote his version of Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, with honesty and integrity in mind in order to recall and narrate the lore all reminiscent of the ancient past. The first part “contains a full account of the ancient system of divinity” (Munch 11), and “a number of separate stories about the gods and their deeds” (ibid.). On the other hand, Sæmund’s Edda[1], or the Elder Edda, is “a collection of poems celebrating the gods and heroes of olden times” (ibid.). Some historians continue to debate on which came first but whatever may be the case, the fact remains that the publication had little to do with its authoritative weight because by this time the mythology has already crystallized. Both books make exact references to popular local tradition, early narratives and ancient poetry. At any rate, the books are excellent sources, perhaps the only ones in existence, for Norse Mythology[2] (Munch 12).

Coming now to the text of the mythology, Dasent observes that the tertiary system of Polytheism, from the worship of nature, monotheism and then polytheism, “is the soil out of which the mythology of the Eddas sprang” (Dasent 56). To wit, the powers of nature were subject to the whim and control of Odin and Æsir, “by the Great Father and his children, by One Supreme and twelve subordinate gods” who shall rule for a set span of time until the dawning of the day of reckoning in the day of Ragnarök (ibid.). Coincidentally, and not without the slightest bittersweet irony, the Ragnarök seems to have envisioned the coming of Christianity and augured the future events that would lead to the disappearance of the gods and goddesses in the mythology by way of cultural subjugation.

The Norse Mythology, based on the Elder Edda, begins with a prophecy from an Oracle who outlined the origin of the cosmos, its growth and the process of its development, its destruction and finally its rebirth (Lindow 12). From that point, the details of the origin of the universe and space and the birth of the gods are revealed. In the manuscript, the infinite expanse of space was an abyss called the Ginnunga-gap where on one part lay ice, frost and mist, and on the other, flame, heat and furnace. The former is home to Fog or also referred to as Nifelheim, the first of two worlds. The latter is home of Desolation or properly known as Muspellsheim. Eventually the frozen world of the Nifelheim gradually melted from the heat of the other side. During this transition of ice and heat, there came into being giants Ymir and Audhulma who both sustained each other until other giants were born. Audhulma freed Buri who was trapped in a boulder of salt, who consequently sired other descendants the most famous of whom were Odin, Vili and Ve, the forbearers of the Æsir race (Munch 2). The three were the first of the Æsir who controlled nature, “brought to life sentient beings as well as man and animals” (ibid.). When the first Æsirs have mustered enough number of men, they killed Ymir and the blood which flowed out of his body drown every giant with the exception of Bergelmir and his wife who survived the inundation by holing themselves in a boat (3).

Odin and his siblings also fashioned the cosmos. Stars were formed out of the sparks in Muspellsheim, the Sun and Moon were set in orbit (Munch 4). They were drawn by two horses Arvak, for the sun, and Alsvin, for the moon. The giants who were brooding dissent harassed the Æsir in the hopes of stopping them in their attempts to fashion the world into being as the Vikings so it then. One of the giants, the brood of giant werewolves, gave birth to Skoll and Hati who were destined to gobble the Sun and the Moon (ibid.). Therefore, both the sun and moon must constantly move with deliberate speed to avoid being devoured. Yet at the end of the days, were all things and order shall be broken, Skoll and Hati will finally overtake the restless Sun and Moon (ibid.).

The giants who were once decimated during the flood slowly began to increase in numbers (Munch 2). As such, the Æsir were compelled to build a fortress from where they should make their defense. Taken the eyebrows of Ymir, they built a gigantic fortress which encompassed the midmost region of the earth (3). The land that the fortress contained was known as Midgard, or the inhabitable earth where men shall live. The Æsir likewise created their own place in the universe right smack in the center—they called it the Asgard, where Odin shall reign over men, oversee the whole universe and fix his eyes on every part of the world (4). The Æsir favored men above any other living creature. The gods, especially Odin, protected them from the hostile forces of the giants, the dwarves and dark-elves, bringing to them righteousness and justice as well (7).  The solemn assemblies of the Gods were held in their principal sanctuary and source of wisdom. Yggrdrasil, the tree of the universe, had its roots and branches spread across the whole expanse of the world (8).

Foremost in the list of deity in Norse Mythology is Odin. Odin is referred to as the All-Father apart from other special names invariable to the occasion to which his name is being invoked. The manuscript presents Odin as “the wisest of all the gods […] from him the others always sought counsel when need arose” (Munch 10). His almost infinite wisdom is furthered increased by drawing mead from the well of knowledge and acumen found in one of the roots of the Yggdrasil. At first, Odin had two eyes, but because he desired so much to see beyond the present, he traded one of his eyes to Mimir for the ability to foresee the future and understand the unfolding of events up until the day of the Ragnarök (ibid.). In the same vein, Odin had the aid of two ravens Hugin, the raven for afterthought, and Munin, the raven for forethought, to help him decide the correct course to take when problems arose lest his wrong decisions would spell out the coming of the Ragnarök sooner than foretold. The ravens also served as messengers and scouts for the things that transpire within the province and activities of men and of gods.

The worshippers of Odin believed that from time to time, “during rare intervals, the good powers showed themselves in bodily shape to the mortal eye passing through the land in divine progress” (Dasent 77) carrying the blessings from the heavens in its wake and receiving the offerings laid down by men. Likewise, the Norsemen believed in the infinite power of Odin and feared him as he “sweeps through the air in cloud and storm, riding on the wings of the wind, and speaking in awful accents, as the tempest howled and roared” (78) and the sea trembled in his passing. Odin was the glimmer in the dust filled battle plains when war is fought, the silhouette when a man gives chase to a game; his footsteps become stars that pepper the night-sky of the majestic Milky Way in all its plenitude (79).

            Second in rank in the hierarchy of the Æsir is Odin’s son Thor, the god of fertility, is envisioned by the Norse as “tall and strong, handsome and dignified […] he had a red beard, and gripped Mjollnir in his hand (Munch 23). Thor took charge of Æsir’s defense against the continuous attacks of the giants and other hostile creatures. He was the main protector of men and their labors in this regard. He commanded lightning and thunder. In addition, every time Thor went out to ride in his chariot drawn by two goats Tanngjost and Tanngrisni[3], the firmament trembled (ibid). Thus, whenever he rode out there followed thunder that announced his journey across the heavens. In addition, Thor wielded the three most important weapons for the defense of the Æsir: 1) the Mjollnir hammer which he could increase or reduce in size as he saw fit, which always found its mark and returned to his grip when thrown, 2) the majestic gauntlets by which he can effectively use the hammer, and 3) a belt of strength which multiplied his strength ten-fold and allowed him to throw the hammer at distances, high-speeds and with forceful impact (ibid.).

Moreover, very much like the Homeric tragic hero we have come to known in the character of Achilles, Thor, although invaluable to the cause of the Æsir, had a short temper. Thor was quick to anger and slow to forgive. Oftentimes, Thor created more hostilities than he militated. Nevertheless, unlike Achilles, his fame as the strongest and boldest man preceded much of his boastfulness. Time and again he has proven his legend as the vanguard of men through his deeds and display of strength. For instance, in the drinking contest between the giants, he guzzled with gusto a draught of mead to prove his worth (Munch 61). Although he lost the contest, the giants later disclosed that the supposed mead was drawn from a conduit to the world’s ocean. To the giants’ horror, when Thor was able to finish three gulps down which caused the ocean to ebb. The story explains why the ocean ebbed and flow (62).

            Another major deity is Njord who “guides the course of the winds and governs sea and fire […] he grants to those who call upon him good fortune at sea and in the chase, and he dispenses wealth, whether of lands or of chattels” (Munch 25). Identical to the Greek god Poseidon, Njord had his dwelling near the sea called Noatun. Although there are nothing to be gleaned from the text of the actual connection between his place in the sea and his control over the aquatic creatures of the world, Njord took care of different water fowls (26).

Njord was forced to marry the giant Skadi after she sought punitive recompense for the death of her father (Munch 27). Out of random circumstance, perhaps informed by a specific inclination of Skadi for a certain type of feet, Njord was chosen to be her husband. In brief, Skadi was allowed to choose among the Æsir a husband. The gods lined up and Skadi was “to see only their feet” (ibid.). Believing that the one of the pairs of feet belonged to the fair Balder, Skadi chose Njord. Thus it came to pass that they married, but because they could not suffer to live away from their respective abode, they decided to take turns in either Thrymheim or Noatun (ibid.).

Understandably, the arrangement did not last very long because both could not suffer to live in each other’s respective places. Njord could not stand the desolation and noise in Thrymheim as much as Skadi despised the mocking squawk of the water fowls in Noatun (Munch 28). After some time they decided to part ways. Religious wise, Njord was called as the “Scion of the Vanir and the God without blemish” for being the bastion of honesty and candor. Men invoked his name and Freyr’s whenever they had to take an oath or stand in testimony and swear by Thor for retribution once men reneged on their promises or tell a falsehood (ibid.).

            Like Njord, people swore by the god Freyr his son. Freyr “is fair to look upon, mightier and more valorous than even his own father” (Munch 29), more importantly Frey “governs tillage […] in his hands lie prosperity of harvest, joy and peace” (ibid.). Because of his cunning and charm, he maintains correspondences with the Bright-elves, and exerts substantial influence over the entire dominion of the Alfheim—the land of the elves. Further, the Dwarfs, who were expert blacksmiths of magical weapons, forged for him a set of items imbued with mysticism and power that only the Dwarfs could make. Freyr has the ship Skidbladnir which could sail over both land and sea, whose sails directed the winds to blow in the right direction, and the ship could be folded back small enough to fit one’s pocket and unfolded again to its original size (ibid.). He also had in his possession the prized boar Gullinbusti that could skitter to and fro the ends of the world in nearly one leap. Gullinbusti served as Freyr’s chariot whenever he had to go travel far distances just as Hermes had golden slippers which enabled him to journey distances in such accelerated dispatch to run errands or look over men.

Freyr is worshipped by the Norse and built temples to honor his name. Munch adds that “the Swedes showed particular zeal in the cult of Frey; and from Yngvi-Frey (Yngvi, Yngvifreyr, also Ing or Ingunar-freyr) in Uppsala, the family of the Ynglings, Norway’s royal house is said to have descended” (30). Additionally, “there are accounts of horses dedicated to Frey, the so-called Manes of Frey” (32.).

Perhaps contra to the twelve major deities of Norse mythology, Loki acts as both the bane and boon of the Æsir. Cunning and malicious, Loki applies his skills in trouble for stirring mischief among the gods and men. Loki was born as a giant and later became the adopted brother of Odin. He is part of the Æsir host but he did more harm to the gods than he did good. Sometimes, however, when situations present themselves too difficult for the gods, they consulted Loki for advice. Yet despite all the help he gave he remained a giant at heart, maintaining secret liaisons with the giants and even confiding to them well-guarded secrets of the Æsir. His evil and crafty designs wrought havoc, and on the day of the Ragnarök, he shall ride chief among the giants to meet the horde of the Æsir, the Heroes of Valhalla and the men in one last clash. It is said that Loki connived to cause the death of Baldur the fair.

In addition to his mischief, Loki, without the consent of the gods, surreptitiously sped away to marry a giantess Angerboda, and through their union resulted to the creation of the three most feared monsters in Midgard. First was Fenrir, a giant wolf, who had the strength of a thousand men, whose viciousness is only surpassed with his apparent boast and pride. Second was Jormungand, a giant serpent, “was a hideous, venom-spewing serpent” (Munch 22). Third of the progeny was Hel “a horrible hag” (ibid.). Because the gods knew that the monsters would become too powerful to handle when they grow up, they decided to kill them in their infancy. However, Odin advised against this and suggested instead to banish and chain them down until the day of Ragnarök should break all the chains and release all the prisoners. Odin, on this point, was motivated by the wisdom not to change the course of fates for if he were to accede to the wishes of the other Æsir to put to death Loki’s children, Ragnarök might be soonest nigh on them (23). As such, since these were terrible giants, too large in size to be imprisoned in ordinary closures, they decided to cast them away into the deepest and farthest the places of the universe. Hel, the horrible hag, was thrown into the abyss of Nifelheim “to hold sway there and to receive her abode all should die of illness or old age, whether men or other beings of earth” (ibid.). Jormungand, the Midgard serpent, was “hurled into the deep sea of the universe, where he grew and waxed so great as to be able to encompass the earth to bite his own tail” (ibid.). Lastly, and the most cause for trouble, was Fenrir whom the Æsir nurtured in Asgard so they can check him from time to time.

Even at such a young age, Fenrir displayed feats of remarkable strength. It was getting harder and harder to feed the wolf and only Tyr, one the mightiest of the Æsir, volunteered to feed Fenrir (Munch 25)). Soon enough, Fenrir grew in strength and power. The gods began to feel more and more uneasy about this so they tried to trick Fenrir to put on a number of chains guised as a contest of strength. Although Fenrir obliged them of their game, he was able to break the chains as soon as the gods bound it upon him. This process was repeated chain after chain, one supposedly stronger than the first, yet Fenrir continued to rend the chains asunder. Beaten at their own game, the Æsir realized that no ordinary chain will be able to tie the ferocious giant wolf. Odin finally sought the help with the Dwarfs, and asked them whether they could fashion a chain so strong and sturdy not even Fenrir will be able to break it. To this, the Dwarfs forged Gleipnir, a slither of fine silk made out of “the sound of a cat’s footfall, the bear of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of fishes, and the spittle of the birds[4]” (24).

Fenrir was suspicious of Gleipnir when it was presented to him but eventually he assented to the persistent demands of the gods provided that the hand of Tyr would be placed in his mouth as collateral should anything go awry. Gleipnir was tied around his foot and body. The moment that Fenrir tried to break loose the chain tightened and fastened him firmly. Before long, the chain Gleipnir bound Fenrir securely and the wolf was unable to move about no more. The gods mocked and laughed at Fenrir who was then completely rendered powerless and feeble. On the part of Fenrir, realizing that the Æsir had no intention of releasing him, bit down the hand of Tyr. Immediately, the gods drew the other end of the chain and drove it down deep into the ground and anchored it with a huge boulder. Fenrir went wild with rage and “snapped and bit at everything […] but they thrust a sword into his mouth so that his jaws gaped wide […] and this he shall lie bound till the world comes to an end” (Munch 25). Thus it came to pass that brave Tyr lost his hand for a good cause and that Fenrir shall be bound until he shall be freed once again in the battle against the gods during the Ragnarök.

Indeed, these and the rest were the gods that the Norsemen worshipped and believed who represented both the evil and the good in men (Munch 59).  However, apart from the stories narrated in the Edda concerning the gods, there were songs and poetry dedicated to the feats, travails and achievements of ordinary but great men: “there were heroes of the human race whose fame and glory were in every man’s memory, and whose mighty deeds were in every minstrel’s mouth” (60), namely Helgi, Sigmund, Sinfjotli, Sigurd, Signy, Brynhildr, Guldrun and son. They were the champions of men who took a place in the great hall of Valhalla—where only the greatest and boldest of men who died in battle shall rest until the day of Ragnarök. The tales embodied therein comprise the story of the Volsungs. The Volsungs were descendants of Odin, and Sigmund, the wielder of the blade Gram, among them. Without dwelling much into details, the Volsung tales tell of the various adventures of heroes. Each story narrates the achievements of the great men who will take the stand against the giants beside the gods on the day of the Ragnarök.

As was posited earlier, Norse mythology is grounded on a three-tiered belief system starting from 1) worship of nature, 2) monotheism in a part and 3) polytheism. Animism or nature worship comprises a huge part of pagan belief and religious rituals. They were sensitive to their surroundings and paid great respect to natural phenomena. In a land and time where environmental conditions were harsh, when harvest and crops failed season after season, where the mountain passes were riddled with danger and when brute animals roamed to strike terror in the hearts of men, the Norsemen understandably prostrated before nature fearful of its power and influence. The pious Viking took care no to disturb the order of nature and thus even worshipped inanimate objects like stones, trees, mountains and oceans.

In Turville-Petre’s adumbration of heathen worship viz. the essay on the “Fertility of the Beast and Soil”, he contends that the worship of inanimate objects were not for the individual to ask for grace but dedicated as an offering to the gods that they be merciful (243). Literary sources evince that the worship of inanimate objects is not purely of a nature-worship but is related to the worship of personal gods. As in the case of the Norsemen who “brought sacrifices to rocks, waterfalls, trees and groves” (247), they did not do so for their own benefit but rather for the deities that was closely related to the objects of worship. Such revered objects come to be associated with one god or another who were thought to live in them. Several kinds of animals might have also been worshipped or used for worship either out of respect or precisely because they were held sacred by the Æsir. There are a number of beasts associated with the god Freyr and the Vanir such as the pigs and swine because they manifested in them an idea of productivity, harvest and fertility. These beasts were sacrosanct to the tales in the Eddas and as such were the most appropriate offering for the gods.

For instance, horses were revered among the Germanic tribes because in many way than, these horses were precious because they were rare, and the horses represented the magnanimity and nobility befitting the gods in Asgard. Accordingly, Vikings believed that “the future could be divined from their neighing for they were thought to be the mouthpiece of the gods” (Turville-Petre 263). Most of these horses were dedicated and sacrificed in the name of Freyr.  Most of these ceremonial horses were dedicated to Freyr, and “Norwegian traditions suggest that one way of sacrificing horses was to push them over a cliff, drowning them in a pool below, just as the slaves and the sacrificial victims of Uppsala were drowned” (264). Cattle were also among animals which might be dedicated to Freyr and the Vanir. In other words, the beasts sacred to Freyr were those useful to the farmer: “the pig, the horse, the cow, not the raven, eagle, wolf, or bear, all of which had some religious significance” (265). In addition, since the Norsemen relied greatly on the fruits of their harvest, constant references to the fertility god and the gods of fortune and mercy can be gleaned from the records on pagan worship (255) as well.

            At the height of pagan worship right before the coming of the Christian missionaries, temples and other places of worship and sacrifice can be found aplenty in several regions of northern Europe (Munch 266). Around this period, the time of Tacitus before the Conversion, the combination of Germanic and Viking tribes had developed an advanced form of worship of gods in their oral traditions and manuscript although few cult groups still retained some of the old practices and customs of nature worship. At any rate, perhaps because of the developments in new building techniques and the dawn of Christianity, pagan worship evolved from the worship of gods under open fields and in forests, otherwise known as open-air priest-less paganism (Lindow 34), to a concentrated congregation of men in a designated place of worship called a Hof (Munch 267). The Hofs were temples of worship were more or less used as a place of sacrifice and offering. The Hofs were altars fashioned out of stone which its enclaves were open to the heavens. There are conflicting theories about the etymology of the word Hof, but scholars agree that the Hof means sanctuary, or a “hallowed ground set apart as the inviolate meeting place for the legal assembly, which as such was enclosed within vé-bounds” (Munch 268) for the heathen worshippers.

Tacitus, a scholar and witness of the heathen times, notes several other ritualistic acts peculiar to the Germanic tribes. The most popular was the worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth, among the pagans. In one of the regular religious ceremonies, a woman acts out as Nerthus covered in cloth, “transported in a cart drawn by cows and accompanied by a priest who recognizes when she is present” (Lindow 33). The entire ceremony “takes place in a holy grove on the island where she lives” (ibid.), and there is an agreement of peace among warring tribes on days which the ceremony takes place. Further, at the conclusion of the procession the materials used for worship are “washed in the ocean by slaves who are then drowned afterwards” (ibid.). The creeds of Christianity and Norse Mythology may differ on some points but all in all, with the extant allusions to the ultimate demise of men and the end of all things in the Norse manuscripts, one is led to imagine that the downfall of pagan worship because of Christianity has long been foretold by ancient seers in the simulacra of the Ragnarök. As pointed by Lindow, “Ragnarök was seen by at least some Christians as the demise not only of the pagan gods but of the belief and worship in them” (45).

On that final point, Norse mythology has been the very last bastion of pagan belief until the dawn of Christianity. The myth, tales and traditions embodied in the manuscript show traces of cultural influence from different regions of Europe and of Asia. The Western Aryan races and tribes have diffused into different regions of Europe. Each of these tribes practiced and adhered to a form of religious worship and had distinct cultural customs and traditions that can all be traced to a single progenitor. Although the main line has long been blurred and the original source can not be traced with the highest degree of certainty, the manuscripts all tell a shared theme of how ancient peoples viewed the world. Among these tribes, the Greek and the Vikings share a lot in common, not only in terms of philosophical consciousness but also in their religious beliefs. The prominent characters in their myth meet at some points, for instance, Odin and Zeus both originated from the giants, and considered to be the father of the gods. In the same vein, gods like Njord and Poseidon, Thor and Ares,  Freyr and Hermes among others bare some distinguishable similarities as well.

There are of course huge differences in the mythology but this is partly due to the geographical and social contexts by which these tribes were situated. While the Greeks and their mythology have suffered a gradual decay in practice and adherence because of the coming of the Christians, the Norse myths held steadfast in their belief very late in the 12th century. Because of this, the tenets in the mythology were successfully imbibed in neighboring regions in Europe. So much so, that the beliefs and practices have rooted quite firmly in the tribes of the Anglo-Saxons, the French and on most Scandinavian countries. These influences may have been silenced by the onslaught of conversion to Christianity, but the seeds of culture and tradition have not been totally eradicated. These germinated culture in a manner of speaking, lie dormant at the deepest recesses of European consciousness. Time and again, these cultural seeds come to life at random intervals in literature and culture in these regions in history up to the present. The themes found in Norse mythology are rehashed and told differently but essentially they remain true to the original idea. Coming back to the previous assertions at the first part of the paper, the modern novels seem to have been informed with some aspects of the ancient pagan belief system. Most notable are Tolkien’s concept of the Middle Earth and the end of all things in his famous trilogy, turned a movie blockbuster The Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling’s (perhaps?) own version of Jormungand in the form of a basilisk hidden in the vaults of the Slytherins in the Harry Potter Book I-VIII series.

Perhaps, these references to the past evince the kind of nostalgia the Western world have for magic, mystery and lore. Fortunately enough, the pristinely kept conditions of the manuscripts of Norse mythology have enabled us to retrace the modern tales further back during the heathen times. These give us a sort of relief and assurance that since time immemorial we already have possessed a universal notion of nature and world; and that we shall never forget where we came from and how it all started form the very beginning. Even more importantly, that we all share the same origins and that perhaps we are more alike with the rest of the civilizations than what one may readily presuppose.

Works Cited

Dasent, Sir George Webbe. Popular Tales from the Norse. Detroit: Grand River Books, 1971.

Hannesson, Johann S. The Sagas of Icelanders: Íslendinga Sögur. Ithaca, New York: Cornell

University Press, 1957.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. London:

Oxford University Press, 2002.

Munch, Peter Andreas. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. New York: The

American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1926.

Turville-Petre, E.O. “Fertility of Beast and Soil in Old Norse Literature”. Old Norse Literature and

Mythology. Ed. Edgar Polomé.  Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1969.

[1] Dasent describes the Elder Edda as a collection of poetry and of “simple majestic songs, whose mellow accents go straight to the heart through the ear, and whose simple severity never suffers us to mistake their meaning” (59).
[2] Edddic poetry is the name used for a group of 35 poems “all of them recorded in Iceland during the Middle Ages, nearly all in the 13th century” (12). Lindow, prominent Norse Mythology scholar also writes that the term “eddic” is a misnomer, as “most of these poems are in a single manuscript (ibid.).
[3] Munch notes “these goats Thor could kill and eat and bring to life once more provided all the bones are gathered up in the hides” (23).

[4] Munch adds: “this is the reason why the footfall of the cat no longer has any sound, why women have no beards,

why mountains have no roots, and so on…” (24).

Cite this Norse Mythology and Religion: A Discussion on Viking-Scandinavian History and Culture

Norse Mythology and Religion: A Discussion on Viking-Scandinavian History and Culture. (2017, Apr 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/norse-mythology-and-religion-a-discussion-on-viking-scandinavian-history-and-culture/

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