The stories that have come down to us as Norse myths developed throughout Northern Europe as part of an oral tradition dating from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. The forms of the tales we have today come from the earliest extant manuscripts, dating to the thirteenth century. Encompassing both mythological tales of the gods and heroic tales of warriors and leaders, the Norse mythological tradition offers insights into both the religious beliefs and the history of the cultures of Northern Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the birth of early modern national cultures. Its primary myths treat themes common to most cultures: the creation of the world, the nature of good and evil, and the cycles of life, death and regeneration. The heroic tales present glimpses of the daily life and thought, as well as of the significant historical figures and moments of the Northern tribal peoples. The Poetic Edda stands as one of the most significant literary works of the middle ages, and the Eddic tradition as a whole remains valuable not only for research into mythology and literary history, but also for the study of folklore, medieval history, and Scandinavian, Germanic, and Old English culture.
Norse myths have their roots in tales told by a variety of Indo-European peoples who populated much of north and central Europe from as early as 600 B. C. These groups moved steadily south from Scandinavia, through what is now central and eastern Europe, toward the ever-expanding border of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome, Indo-European peoples migrated further into former Roman territory, and the Angles and Saxons settled in England. Latin culture remained dominant and the fall of the Roman Empire did not stop the spread of Christianity. By the seventh century, Christianity had spread widely throughout the British Isles and Western Europe. It would not arrive in Scandinavia for another three hundred years. It was during these years that the northernmost of the old Indo-European tribes began to move south into England and Western Europe, and as far west as Iceland and the North American continent, in the relentless Viking raids. It is these people, known as the "Northmen," who told and preserved the stories of the old gods and inspired many of the heroic legends that form the basis of Norse mythology.
These stories were part of an oral tradition in a pagan culture, but the written versions that have come down to us were written centuries later, in Christianized cultures. Thus, dating the works and separating out differing cultural influences is a difficult, if not impossible, task. The primary literary sources are the Snorra Edda, the Saemander Edda, and the Skaldic poems. Saxo Grammaticus's History of the Danes, Old Icelandic sagas, primarily family histories and genealogies, and other historical accounts round out the picture. The most well known sources are the Eddas. The word Edda is of uncertain and somewhat debated origin; it is most often interpreted as a form of the place name "Oddi," which is associated with both the main compiler and the main commentator on the Eddic tradition. Other accounts treat it as stemming from a variant of the Norse word for poetry, or poetics, or from the term for great-grandmother. One recent interpretation connects it to the Latin word edere, meaning to write or publish.
The Snorra Edda, or Prose Edda, is a kind of Norse "poetics," written by Snorri Sturluson, one of the most learned and influential Icelanders of his day. It explicates the art of poetry for the Skalds (poets), bards who told tales in praise of their Viking lords. Sturluson (1178-1241) was chief judge and president of the legislative assembly as well as a writer and scholar. His Edda is a three-part work with a loosely Christian preface. The first part provides an account of the major Norse gods and goddesses, with extended quotations from the oral poems that make up the Poetic Edda. This mythological tradition was referred to by the Skaldic poems and is implicit in much of their meaning. The second section analyzes the poetry of the Skalds, offering both advice on composition and excerpts from exemplary work. The final section follows on this with a detailed explanation of the meters Skaldic poets used in composing their poems. Snorri's other major work was the Heimskringla, a compilation of sagas about the Norse kings.
The Poetic Edda was discovered in 1642, in a manuscript dating to 1300 that contained twenty-nine poems. It has been attributed to Saemund, an Icelandic priest and collector of poetry who died in 1133. Later, other poems found in old manuscripts were added to the collection. Scholars believe that Saemund may or may not have been the collector of the poems, but that he did not write them. They represent the work of many authors over several centuries, most likely dating back to anywhere from 850 to 1000. These are the oldest and most authentic accounts of the Norse mythological tradition, antedating the widespread establishment of Christianity. Perhaps the most important and striking of these tales is Voluspa, addressed to Odin by a seeress. It is a long and comprehensive account of the origin of the cosmos, the gods, and their rise and fall. Other stories, such as Grimnismal and Vafprudnismal, offer encyclopedic retellings of important events. Grimnismal is Odin's fireside account to a king and his sons; Vafprudnismal is written in the form of a dialogue between Odin and the giant Vafprudnir. All of the poems are written in characteristic meters derived from the practices of oral storytelling. They are strongly alliterative, with the accent on the first syllable of each word. Lines are broken in half, with a noticeable caesura (or pause) in the middle, and there are three consistent verse forms: a story meter (for narrative exposition), a speech meter (for dialogue or monologue), and a song meter.
The Skaldic poems, primarily elegies and eulogies, derive from a similar time period, though in general, they are later. Both the Eddic and the Skaldic poems assume an audience with a deep knowledge of the stories of the Norse gods. The oldest Eddic poems are in dialogue format, with little or no narrative exposition; the assumption was that the listeners knew the main outlines of a tale as well as the characteristics of the primary actors. The art of telling lay in the variation of interpreting and the dramatic rendering of the events. Skaldic poetry could be even more elliptical, since the main focus was on the lord being praised. Mythological details enter in metaphors or in descriptive verbal formulas commonly used in the oral tradition. Poems about the gods and elegies to heroes often share a similar structure: there is a challenge, battle, and death, followed by renewal or "resurrection" in the warriors' pantheon of Valhall. Interaction or mingling between the gods and humans are at best a small part of any of the poems.
Because the tales come from many sources over centuries, a considerable variety has developed in the stories told and the beliefs described in them. Thus, while there is a tendency to speak of a uniform Norse tradition, in fact, the written record we have represents fragments and discontinuous elements of the literatures of many related but decentralized peoples. Notwithstanding this variability, there are broad common outlines to the Norse pantheon and cosmology. The cosmos of Norse mythology is divided into three levels, corresponding loosely to the realm of the gods, the realm of humans, and an underworld. These realms are subdivided into nine worlds, peopled variously by gods, slain warriors, elves, humans, dwarves, giants, and the dead. In the creation myth, the giants preceded the gods, who emerged from them to create the rest of the world. The giants and the gods were enemies and much of the drama of the myths centers around their conflicts and, more generally, conflicts resulting from contact between disparate worlds. After the initial emergence of the gods and the creation of the tripartite cosmos, there was a brief golden age which was soon disrupted by conflict and battles, especially between the gods and the giants. The gods won the largest battle, instigated by the trickster Loki, but suffered significant losses, most notably the death of Baldur. Conflict continued until Ragnavok, the final "battle of all," which resulted in the end of the world and the gods, and the dawn of a new cycle of time.
The main characters in the stories are the gods; dwarves and giants tend to be generic and usually remain unnamed. Descriptions of the Norse pantheon vary somewhat from account to account, but the most important figures are constant. Odin is the "all-father," the oldest and highest of the gods. He is the creator and is associated with poetry, charms, battle, and the dead. Thor, the most popular god, represents strength, stability, and order. With his association with thunder and lightning, which bring rain for crops, he is also linked with fertility, as is Frey, the god of plenty, fertility, prosperity, and the weather. The masculine Frey may have become Freya, a fertility goddess. Freya, in her turn is often associated with Frigg (or Frigga), the wife of Odin. Baldur, the most pure god, was slain in one of the conflicts that led inexorably to the final battle and the destruction of the world; some later accounts interpret Baldur as a Christ figure. His death was instigated by Loki, who is not properly a god. A giant, he became foster brother to Odin's sons, and is a classic trickster figure, begetting monsters, changing sex and appearance, and bringing chaos and conflict.
As a whole, the works of Norse mythology provide valuable insights into the literary and religious thought of the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe and offer impressive examples of poetic imagination. Their tales and figures have also had a lasting influence on many European languages and cultures, lingering in place names, the days of the week, and in the characters and landscapes of folk and fairy tales.