Discover the Ancient Secrets of the Norse
The religion of the Norse or, as they referred to it, Tradition, has captured the minds of many. Though the religion and beliefs of the Vikings are largely out of practice in the world today, the influence of this religion lives on, and in a very profound way.
In the modern day, we see Norse mythos cropping up in movies, television and anime, as well as video games such as Final Fantasy VII, and in comic books. This interest has also reached into the world of music, both from indigenous genres such as the black metal of Norway and other Scandinavian countries, but can be found in various other forms of music and artistic expression.
But what did the Norse believe? How did they view the world and what was their conception of their gods? In this book, it is my aim to give you, the reader, an overview of Norse mythology in a way that’s not only informative, but interesting.
As with my other texts on mythology (Greek Mythology and Egyptian Mythology) I’ve found the most effective way to communicate the stories and religion of the Norse is through their stories.
Like many societies, much of Norse lore has been lost to the ages. However, there are a few good sources in this regard, specifically the Eddas. The Poetic Edda in particular is a treasure-trove of insight into the Norse belief system and, through that lens, the Norse way of life.
One thing worthy of mention here is that the central texts still extant on Norse Tradition, namely, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, were written in the thirteenth century. The Tradition, however, was around long before that. As this is the case, much of the knowledge that we now have of the Norse is incomplete and, in some cases, the Poetic Edda disagrees with the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda, as mentioned above, is particularly insightful, however, as it collects and shares many of the stories of the Norse people.
While this book is not a complete record of the Norse beliefs (and such a record is, to my knowledge, nonexistent,) it has been my pleasure to assemble some of the most pertinent and interesting myths of the Norse. We’ll find Odin on his many quests for knowledge and wisdom, the formation of the world out of the body of a giant and we even find Thor in a veiled wedding dress (no, seriously.) From the birth of the sun and moon to the berserkers of Valhalla to the eventual destruction and reformation of the nine worlds, the Norse Tradition tells of captivating gods and goddesses, of heroes and unmitigated disasters.
The pantheon of the Norse is large, like that of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. While some principal players such as Odin, Thor and Loki are well-fixed in the popular mindset, many others exist which are just as compelling. The Tradition of the Norse is filled with stories of valor and treachery, love and hatred, Valhalla and Hel. So, from the creation of the cosmos, according to the Norse, all the way through Ragnarök and beyond, I invite you to share this fascinating journey with me into one of the most iconic cultures the world has ever known.
It is first necessary to point out that, unlike most creation myths, in the Norse Religion—simply referred to by its adherents of old as “the tradition”—the creation of the cosmos and the destruction thereof was not a one-time deal. After Ragnarök, that is, the apocalyptic war in which many of the gods would be killed, the world would begin anew. I mention this here, because there are certain aspects of Ragnarök which are good to know throughout the creation myth, as it’s something that the deities, demigods, etc. were aware of from the beginning. Ragnarök itself will be discussed in more detail later.
According to the Norse Tradition, the primordial universe was called Ginnungagap, the void (trans. gaping void.) Here, neither darkness nor light nor sound nor silence existed. Ginnungagap was immeasurably vast, said to extend in all directions infinitely (although, tradition also says that it was large enough to encompass a billion universes, had they existed. Either way, it was big—really, really big.)
From this primeval state of ultimately vast nothingness came two realms: Niflheimr (“house of mists,”) the realm of ice, located in the north, and Muspelheimr (alternatively, Muspell; “home of desolation”) the realm of fire located in the south of Ginnungagap.
Muspelheimr was a realm of eternally erupting volcanoes, thick, black smoke and flame. Winds blew smoke and volcanic exhaust throughout this realm. Muspelheimr was inhabited by the jötunn1, Surtr, a fire-demon who wielded a sword of unmeasurable power in preparation for Ragnarök—more on him later.
Niflheimr was the land of ice and freezing rain. Just as vast and extreme a realm as Muspelheimr, Niflheimr was also home to unyielding winds, which blew frozen precipitation throughout its area. Niflheimr was also home to Hvergelmir, the primordial river (trans. bubbling/boiling spring,) and Élivágar, the primordial spring (trans. waves of ice.) From these sources, all of the waters in existence would come.
Although the realms of Niflheimr and Muspelheimr were, initially, separate, over time, they both spread. It is where these forces of fire and ice would meet that is of primary concern to the tale.
Once the frigid materials of Niflheimr came into contact with the molten substances of Muspelheimr, a violent reaction occurred. The waters were thrown into the air, only to fall and mix with the incredibly hot elements below. From this process, the first of the jötnar was created. The jötunn was named Ymir (also referred to as Aurgelmir.)
The mixing of the fire and lava of Muspelheimr would continue to mix with the ice and water of Niflheimr, slowly melting that which was frozen and solidifying that which was molten.
Unlike most creation myths, Ymir, the first lifeform (other than Surtr, who seemed to spring out of the fires of Muspelheimr instantaneously,) laid without life for millennia. During this time, the composition of Ymir’s body continued to form and mix together.
As Ymir’s composition became more stable, he began to perspire. This perspiration formed the first of his children: a male and a female. After his feet mated with each other (now there’s a mental picture,) another offspring was produced: a male, six-headed jötunn. These jötnar would become the progenitors of the gods.
Now, at the same time that Ymir was forming, and the ice and snow of Niflheimr melted from the heat of the lava and fire of Muspelheimr, another being came into existence: Auðumbla, a cow. Auðumbla, who received her nourishment through salt contained within the ice, would be the source of food for Ymir who suckled from the cow’s teats.
As Auðumbla continued licking her way through the frozen-but-melting expanse, she began to lick the stones beneath the ice into the shape of a man; the first of the Aesir (also, Æsir) Gods: Buri. (Alternatively, some versions have her simply uncovering the already-formed god.)
From these beginnings, the ingredients and chief movers that would go on to create the gods, the worlds (all nine of them; more on that later) and all living things, were all present.
Now for a little genealogy (I’ll try to keep it brief): Buri produced a son named Bor. Bolthorn, a jötunn, produced a daughter named Bestla. Bor and Bestla would marry and give birth to the Aesir gods Odin (aka Wodan, Woden, or Wotan,) Vili and Ve (or Vé.)
Theories diverge on what led to the confrontation which led to the death of Ymir at the hands of Odin and his siblings (some say that it was a matter of usurpation, others, a noise complaint levied against the jötunn that got a little out of hand,) however, the result is the same. The blood of the slain jötunn was so vast that it would end up drowning all but one frost ogre (a type of jötunn.) The surviving frost ogre, Bergelmir, survived by climbing into a boat called a lur (alternately, by swimming through the blood, towing his wife behind by the latter’s hair.)
After killing Ymir, the three used different parts of the jötunn’s body to create existence as the Norse saw it: The blood of Ymir was used to create the oceans, his flesh became the soil and primary substance of the earth, stones were fashioned from his teeth, trees from his hair, mountains from his bones, the sky from his skull and the clouds from his brains.
The sky was held aloft by four dwarves2 named Nordri, Sudri, Austri, and Vestri3. Embers from Muspelheimr continued to float through the air, and so the three gods collected these and placed them in the skies to light the world.
The first humans were fashioned by Odin, Vili and Ve out of driftwood. The three gods bestowed upon humans gifts: Odin breathed life into them, Vili gave them knowledge and Ve gave them their physical appearance and their senses. These humans were named Askr (or Ask) and Embla.
The world of mankind, created of the slain jötunn’s body, was called Midgardr (or Midgard.) This land, though surrounded by the realm of giants (the Jötnar,) was protected by the three Aesirs by fashioning a fence from the jötunn’s eyelashes.
Midgard was located between the primeval realms of Niflheimr and Muspelheimr. The other eight worlds were generally invisible to the inhabitants of Midgard, although there were times where other worlds could be perceived. One example of this is the connection between Midgard and Ásgardr (or Asgard,) the world of the gods, by a “rainbow bridge” called Bifrost.
So, we now have the world of the humans. As the other eight will be discussed to varying degrees later in the book, I’ll forego a close inspection of each here. However, it is helpful to know what each of these worlds were and which beings would call them home. They are as follows:
Midgard was the world of humans.
Ásgardr was the world of the Aesir gods.
Vanaheimr was the world of the Vanir gods.
Jötunheimr was the world of the Jötnar.
Álfheimr4 was the world of the elves.
Hel was the world of the dead or Náir5.
Svartálfar was the world of the Dvergar or dwarves.
Niflheimr was the world of ice.
Muspelheimr was the world of fire and lava, home to Surtr.
Now, the stage is set. In the next chapter, we’ll take a look at the major gods of Norse Tradition, and some of the important myths surrounding them.