Norse Mythology

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History And Mythological Tradition

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Brian Branston (1955)

SOURCE: "Historical Introduction," in Gods of the North, Thames and Hudson, 1955, pp. 1-46.

[In the following excerpt, Branston provides the historical context and description of the Norse people and culture, particularly in Iceland.]

Mythology is every man's business; whether it be of the private kind called psychology or the collective kind which manifests itself in stories of the gods.

A myth is like a dream; it is a direct expression of the unconscious mind, and the events of a myth, its characters and symbols are to the human race as the events, characters and symbols of his dream are to the individual. Like a dream the myth may ignore the conventional logic of space and time relationships, of events following one after another in a causal sequence. Nevertheless, a dream has a meaning which can be made plain; and so has a myth. It is not easy to interpret the myths of our own race, for our near ancestors—those of a thousand odd years ago—were persuaded to forget them or to relegate their broken remnants to the nursery. The Gods of the North were once upon a time the gods of our forefathers. The fossilized remains of these deities survive in place-names for instance, as Wansdyke, Wednesbury, Wensley, Tuesley and Thundersley; in the names of the days of the week, as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; in folklore and fairy tale with their stories of Wayland Smith, witches on broomsticks and the Wild Rider. Such remains are, on their own, largely useless as an aid to reconstructing the mythology of our forefathers; if we want to do that we can call in archaeology and philology but mainly we must rely on a literature which grew, first orally and then in manuscript, in Iceland. How we should have such close links with the men of Iceland asks for an explanation.



The basic written authority for early English history is the Old English or Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a sort of national diary. This diary begins with a summary of history in Britain from before the invasion by Julius Caesar down to the year A.D. 1 when it records Octavianus reigned 56 years and in the 42nd year of his reign Christ was born. Scanty annals follow up to the year A.D. 449 when the coming of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to Britain is recorded. From then on the entries become (in general) more detailed and longer. Today there exist seven known manuscripts of the Old English Chronicle. All are derived as far as the year A.D. 891 from a set of annals written (in the English language of the time) in the reign of Alfred the Great (d. 26 Oct. 899). Soon after 891 the Chronicles begin to differ from one another, presumably because they were sent out to different churches for their continuation. Still, up to the year 915 the Chronicles have much material in common. After the Norman Conquest they begin to peter out.

The entry in the Old English Chronicle for the year A.D. 787 runs:

This year Beorhtric took to wife Eadburg daughter of King Offa. It was during Beorhtric's days that three ships of the Northmen first came here from Hörðaland. The reeve galloped to meet them, intending to drive them to the king's town (Dorchester) for he did not know who or what they were. They killed him.

These were the first ships of the Danes ever to seek England.

The filibustering crews of these three clinker-built longships shouted and splashed ashore in Weymouth Bay,...

(This entire section contains 19864 words.)

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Dorset. It is instructive to note what theChronicle calls them: it says they were "Northmen", "Danes" and that they came from "Hörỗaland", a district on the west coast of Norway. The name Hörðaland is equivalent to "Lancashire", "Yorkshire" or any other of the English counties with a coastline. No doubt the invaded English fishermen and farmers recognized their assailants in general as coming from Scandinavia or Denmark, but for them to remember and for their clerks in holy orders to put on record the actual name of the district whence the pirates came argues two things: first, that the speech of both peoples was near enough for them to understand each other and second, that some of the Dorset men asked the raiders where they came from and were told in reply "Hörỗaland".

Can we picture the scene when (round about A.D. 787) the three keels ran up on to Weymouth sands? It is reasonable to suppose that the blond-haired, bewhiskered crews (some 30 to 40 in each boat) had dropped their single sails of black and yellow vertical stripes hanging from a single yard and a single mast. And to suppose that they lifted their round shields in readiness from the gunn'ls, and keeping their swords and iron axes out of the salt water, waded ashore. Were they attacked or did they themselves attack at once? Neither, it would seem. A certain amount of inquisitive chat must have gone on between them and the locals while word was sent up to Dorchester ten miles away of the arrival of strangers. King Beorhtric of Wessex's representative in Dorchester was his reeve Beaduheard. The reeve, "with a few men", trotted out of Dorchester town for the last time: he passed (probably without a thought) the monuments of former peoples, the grass-grown Romano-British amphitheatre on his left, the long hog-back of the Stone Age earthwork Maiden Castle on his right. He passed them, cantering down from the heights to the sea with the Stone Age round barrows pimpling the skyline behind him, and he little realized that he was to be one of the first eye witnesses of the scouts of a new invasion. Beaduheard saw the blue sea, the three ships, their canting masts, the knot of skin-bleached men with their conical helmets and round shields; it is said that he thought "the newcomers were merchants rather then enemies. He addressed them in a commanding tone and ordered them to be brought to the king's vill. But he was killed there and then, and those that were with him.1

If these sailormen actually came from Hörðaland on the west coast of Norway then the Chronicle is right to call them "Northmen" but wrong to refer to them as "Danes". Is there any meaning behind this confusion? Perhaps we can get further light from another entry, the annal for the year A.D. 793:

This year awful forewarnings (which terrified the wretched people) were witnessed throughout Northumberland: first there were continuous lightning storms and next, fiery dragons were seen flapping across the sky. A mighty famine quickly followed these portents and shortly after, on 8th June of this same year, the Heathens grievously harried and destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne in order to plunder and slay.2

This new designation "heathen" emphasizes two points: at this time and for many years to come the invaders were heathen, while the invaded had for many years been Christian. "Northmen", "Danes", "heathen"—the Chronicle employs these terms imprecisely without taking much account of whether the invaders were Norwegians, Danes or Swedes. Another frequent Chronicle term for this thorn in the flesh was the Old English word here meaning "army" or "host", particularly an "enemy host". A word found in Old English glossaries dating from the eighth century is włcingsceaða; the first part of this word is related to Old Norse víkingr; but the word "viking", which has been in fashion for only a century and a half, came into vogue with the Victorians.3 "Viking" really refers to a way of life lived by some members of all four of the countries Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland between the years 700-1100 A.D.

The historical Norse saga writers (e.g. Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla) use the term "Northmen" (O.N. Nord(r)menn) when alluding to natives of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland; this is equivalent to the O.E. Chronicle's Nordmenn, and to the monks' medieval Latin North(o)manni. It must be admitted that O.N. Nord(r)menn can bear the restricted meaning "Norwegians", but this is hardly ever the case with O.E. Nordmenn and med. Lat. North(o)manni where the general meaning is "men from the north". "Northmen" then is the blanket term which will be employed in this book, except where "viking" may be used to indicate a Northman of the raiding, trading, colonizing years 700-1100 A.D., and except where it is necessary to indicate Icelander, Norwegian, Swede or Dane.


The Vikings: Settlement of Iceland

Through the world of their time the vikings spread like a terrible tide: England, the coasts of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Frisia, France, Spain, Italy and America. Northmen colonized the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland; gained a foothold on the Wendish and Prussian coasts, gave their name to, and became lords of Russia, harried north Persia and formed the Greek Emperor's bodyguard at Constantinople. But like the tide that spreads over a porous land and, except for isolated pools, disappears, so disappeared the Northmen, or seemed to do so as they merged into the peoples they had briefly dominated. Only the pools remained—the Faroes, Iceland and for a time Greenland.

Of these three places, Iceland is most important, for Iceland became the cradle of the written records of the traditions concerning the Gods of the North. These traditions are mainly contained in the two Eddas; the Verse Edda being a collection of ancient poems by unknown authors, and the Prose Edda a later combined account of Norse myth and poet's handbook by a famous Icelander, Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241).

Apparently the Northmen first discovered Iceland by chance: a Norwegian called Naddoð was driven by contrary winds on to the coast; Garðoar a Swede drifted there from the Pentland Firth. Flóki, another Norwegian, attempted to settle in Iceland but neglected to make hay to over-winter his cattle. He was forced to leave. Before he did so, he climbed a mountain and saw a fiord filled with pack ice: he called the country Iceland. These visits to Iceland took place around A.D. 860, five years before the "Great Army" (see page 20) descended on East Anglia and began the foundation of the Danelaw in England. Some ten or twenty years later a significant and famous battle took place at Hafrsfjörðr10 in Norway when Harold Fairhair (son of king Halfdan the Black) after fifteen years of fighting broke the resistance of the West Norwegians and made himself king of all Norway. It seems that the threatened loss of independence drove many of Harold's defeated enemies to emigrate (another reason for the flitting "west-over-sea") and most of them went to Iceland, the first settler being one Ingolfr. According to Ari Thorgilsson, writing between 1122-1133, Ingolfr:

settled in the south, in Reykjavik. He first touched land at the spot called Ingolfr's Head east of Minpakseyrr; and he laid claim for ever to Ingolfr's Fell west of Olfossa. At that time Iceland was well wooded between the fells and the sea shore. (Libellus Islandorum).

Ari Thorgilsson goes on to say:

There were living in Iceland then those Christian folk whom the Northmen called papishers.11 But they afterwards went away, not liking to remain here with heathens though they left behind them Irish books, bells and croziers: and this was sufficient evidence of their being Irish monks. After that there was a great flitting of people from Norway out here until king Harold [Fairhair] put a stop to it for fear of depopulating the homeland. (Libellus Islandorum.)

Ingolfr settled at Reykjavik (now the capital) about the year 874; Ari Thorgilsson says it took another fifty years to colonize the island completely. A traveller of a later day has left us a description of the topography of Iceland:

Imagine to yourself an island, which from one end to the other presents to your view only barren mountains, whose summits are covered with eternal snow, and between them fields divided by vitrified cliffs, whose high and sharp points seem to vie with each other to deprive you of the sight of a little grass which scantily springs up among them.… Rivers and fresh-water lakes abound; the latter of very considerable extent and well supplied with fish; the former … much obstructed by rocks and shallows.12

The traveller who wrote this, William Jackson Hooker, describes the barren moors, morasses, volcanoes, sulphur springs and boiling fountains; he mentions what the main items of the native diet were, and there is little reason to suppose these items had changed a great deal since Ingolfr's days—fish and butter. The fish was eaten mostly dry and uncooked, and the butter made without salt and with all the whey and superfluous moisture pressed out (so that if necessary it could keep indefinitely—ideal provender for long sea voyages). Milk was converted into syra or sour whey preserved in casks until it fermented. This mixed with water was called blanda. Then there was striugar, whey boiled to the consistency of curd; skiur, which was striugar with the moisture squeezed out. The flesh of sheep and bullocks could be eaten only by the well-to-do.

It is important to remember that not all the first colonists of Iceland came from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Many emigrated from the colonies of Northmen in the British Isles, especially from the settlements in the Hebrides and Ireland. Even if these Northmen themselves had no Celtic blood in their veins, many of their descendants had, for their fathers married or entered into concubinage with Celtic women; and a childhood spent at a Celtic knee meant for the child an absorption of Celtic lore and culture. Evidence of links between Iceland and the Celtic countries can be seen in the names borne by famous Icelanders of the tenth century, Njáll, Kormakr, Kjartan; and by such stories as that of Helgi the Lean who settled in Iceland and whose mother was Rafarta (Irish Rafertach) daughter of an Irish king, Kjarvalr, said to be Cearbhall, king of Ossory who died in 887. Many of the Icelandic thralls obviously came from Ireland or the Hebrides: they have such names as Dufan and Melkólfr, while the Vestmannaeyjar to this day bear witness as a group of islands where thralls from Ireland set up a brief republic. A fair sprinkling of Icelandic places have names of Irish origin, and how are they to be explained except as the abodes of Celts or Northmen with Celtic links? Examples of such place-names are Papey, Pappabýli, Patreksfjörðr, Minþakseyrr (near Ingolfr's first landing place), Brjánslcekr and Dufgusdalr. As regards Irish loan words in Old Icelandic, examples are to be found in slavak, chickweed (sleabhac), sust, a flail (szuiste), tarfr, a bull (tarbh). This evidence of Celtic links is important when one comes to consider whether or not the Old Icelandic eddaic verse holds notions deriving from Christianity through the Christian Irish.

Still, the bulk of emigrants to Iceland came from Norway bringing with them, besides their pots and pans, a fierce spirit of independence, a love of adventure and a superb seamanship to back it up. They brought, too, long memories and to assist those memories a strong mould of genealogy and another strong mould of alliterative verse both of which gave and kept shape to their oral tales and unwritten ballads. Ten centuries later a visitor to Iceland was struck forcibly by the tough fibre of this oral tradition:

Scarcely a man in Iceland bears the same surname as his father. Only a few householders have a family name and they are all recent arrivals. A man whose name is Eric Sigurdsson may have his son baptized Olaf, and this child will all his life bear the name of Olaf Ericsson. If, in turn, Olaf gives the Christian name of Hankur to his son, that fellow will have, as his full name Hankur Olafsson.…

This would be a shiftless arrangement were it not for the genealogical interest which each man takes in his forefolk. They can all tell you their ancestors' names for the last thousand years, and are thus conscious of living, not in the current generation but a river of personal life. "I am the thirty-fourth generation since the immigration," one will tell you. The immigration is the year 874, when the first of them landed on their empty island.13

The strength of tradition (and the Icelander's respect for it) is contained in that sentence They can tell you their ancestors' names for the last thousand years; and there is not the slightest doubt but that that tradition was just as strong and just as respected for those first immigrants themselves.

At first, none of the traditions was warped or transmuted (according to the way you look at it) by Christianity, for the settlement of Iceland as an outpost of heathendom continued for over a century. Then, at a famous meeting of the Council of the country, the Althing, in A.D. 1000 it was decided officially to accept Christianity.

The Althing was set up about 930 after the Icelandic godar or chiefs-cum-religious leaders had appointed one of their number, Ulfljot, to draw up a code of laws which he did after spending three years as an observer in Norway. A president over the Althing, the Lawspeaker (logsogumadr) was appointed for a term of years, and one of his duties was to recite the laws (or part of them) at the yearly meeting. This meeting always took place on the Thingvellir in the summer time. Few details of the ancient laws remain, but enough to show they were given some force by heathen oath and ritual.

The Althing played an important part in the conversion of the country. To all intents and purposes Iceland remained pagan from its first colonization by the Northmen in 874 down to the year 1000. Some of the earlier settlers were indeed Christianized emigrants from Ireland or the Hebrides such as Helgi the Lean (already mentioned) and Aud the Deepminded, widow of Olaf the White, viking king of Dublin (page 18). Helgi made the best of both worlds: he believed in Christ and called his estate in Iceland Kristnes (Christ's Headland), its name to this day; but in any tight corner or when he was at sea he always invoked the help of Thor. Aud, on the other hand, was a devout Christian who set up crosses near her home at the spot which thenceforward to the present has been called Krosshólar (Cross Mounds). Aud's nephew, Ketill, was nicknamed "the Fool" by his heathen neighbours because of his Christian religious practices; but Helgi the Lean's descendants returned to paganism. So, though at first some settlers were Christian and some others were influenced by Christianity, it would seem that after a generation the pagan gods reclaimed their own and throughout the ninth century heathenism was general in Iceland.

How far the Icelanders of these early years could be called practising pagans is something of a puzzle. Probably (and I speak without irony) with as much truth as one could call the population of Great Britain practising Christians today. The pagan religion (in contrast to Christianity) had no dogma and appears to have made few moral or ethical demands on its subscribers. The poem Voluspá does indeed speak of oathbreakers, murderers and possibly adulterers as persons who must tread the Helway. But in general, the pagan ritual of Iceland seems to have called mainly for propitiation of the gods by prayer and sacrifice. The centre of organized religion was the temple, a simple rectangular building. Remains at Hofstadir near Myvatn in the north of Iceland show a building oriented north-south with two rooms, a main one and a smaller one at the north end where (it seems likely) were set up wooden figures representing the god or gods. Round the walls of the main room there were benches for the participants. In Eyrbyggjar Saga there is a description of furniture used in a temple dedicated to Thor and built by Thórólfr, a settler in the Broadfirth region who had come there from Norway. In the middle of the small room, standing on the floor, was a pedestal (like an altar) on which lay a great arm ring "without join". This ring weighed twenty ounces and all oaths had to be sworn on it. At public gatherings the temple priest had to wear the ring on his arm. Animals were sacrificed and their blood caught in a bowl which also stood on the pedestal; in the bowl was a sacrificial twig like the aspergillus used in the Roman Church to sprinkle holy water over the congregation: but the twig spattered blood. This blood was called blaut; and according to Eyrbyggjar saga the effigies of the gods stood around the altar-like pedestal.

Even as late as A.D. 1013, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, bears witness to heathen customs which he must have observed in the Danelaw or heard of being used in the northern countries; he says in the course of the sermon already quoted from on page 25:

Among the heathen Danes no man dare withhold one jot or tittle laid down for the honouring of their idols: but we everywhere far too frequently fail to render God His lawful dues. Nor among the heathen dare men desecrate inside or out the offerings or sacrifices laid before their graven images: but we have stripped clean God's Church of every due, out and in. Everywhere (or nearly so) the servants of God are deprived of the respect and reverence which is their right: yet men say among the heathen nobody dare as much as offer to hurt their priests.…

Of course, we have to remember that Wulfstan was very likely exaggerating his contrasts for effect; and he shows no evidence of understanding the peculiar position of the heathen priest as a temporal as well as a spiritual leader.

The gods who were actively worshipped in Iceland appear to have been few in number. The favourite (if personal and place-names are anything to go by) was Thor: Thor was a favourite in Norway and the preponderance of his devotees in Iceland is another indication that the majority of settlers came there from Norway. Frey was the favourite in Sweden; in Iceland he was commemorated in place-names, had temples dedicated to him and was patron of a famous góði called Hrafnkell (nicknamed Freysgðdi) and of a family called Freysgydlingar. Njoror is remembered in such place-names as Njaravik; and there is slight evidence of a cult of Tyr and Balder.

Perhaps the first regular attempts to convert Icelanders to Christianity were made shortly after A.D. 980. An account of such attempts is given in Kristni saga (Saga of Christianity) and þorvalds þáttr Víðförla (Story of Thorwald the Wanderer). Both date from the thirteenth century and while unreliable as connected historical accounts they probably have a basis of truth. If one person could be called responsible for the conversion of Iceland, that person must be Olaf Tryggvason, a very famous Norwegian viking who made himself king of Norway in 995. In the five years of his reign, Olaf Tryggvason is said to have made Christians of six nations (according to Agrip), namely the peoples of Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Faroe, Shetland and Orkney. It is told how Olaf while harrying in England played a similar sort of trick on a Christian hermit as Charles the Dauphin and Gilles de Rais are said to have played on Joan of Arc. Olaf s disguise was spotted at once and the hermit (to give good measure) foretold happenings which took place in the next few days and convinced Olaf of the genuineness of the new religion. He is said to have been baptized. At all events, Olaf Tryggvason appears in English records accompanied by Swain Forkbeard in an attack on London (8th September 994). King Ethelred the Redeless bought his peace by the pound (16,000 pounds of silver) and stood sponsor for Olaf to be confirmed into the Christian religion. When Olaf Tryggvason returned to Norway the next year, 995, and made himself king, he took with him a bishop (sometimes called Jón, sometimes Sigurd) and a number of other priests. There can be little doubt but that Olaf preached Christianity in Norway with fire and sword wherever he met opposition: he himself went out like a light, dowsed in the waters of the Baltic when his ship the Long Serpent was ambushed by one Eirik. Fifteen years after Olaf s death, the interior of Norway was completely pagan while the people of the coastal districts, although baptized, knew little of Christian teaching. It was left to St. Olaf, king of Norway, who worked on much the same lines as Olaf Tryggvason, to complete the conversion before he was killed at the battle of Stiklastaðir A.D. 1030.

As to Iceland, one of the six countries claimed as proselytized by Olaf Tryggvason, conversion dates from the year 1000. At the June meeting of the Althing that year the pagan party and Christian party declared each other outlaws and each elected its own Lawspeaker. But moderation prevented bloodshed and finally the parties agreed to abide by the decision of the pagan Lawspeaker, a man of recognized integrity called Thorgeir. Thorgeir retired into his booth and pulled a cloak over his head; he spoke to nobody for a day and a night. He then came out of his tent and ascending the Lawrock announced his decision: all Icelanders were to be Christian in name and to be baptized, but at the same time, those who desired were to be allowed to observe their pagan rites in private. It was some years before these heathen observances were forbidden.

It is instructive to compare the tolerance meted out to paganism in Iceland with the intolerance it received in Norway. Although paganism as a religion lived on longer in Norway, when it came to be dealt with it was fanatically and fiercely burnt and cut out: that treatment effectively suppressed pre-Christian religious traditions in Norway. But in Iceland those traditions lived on, at first orally, then to this day in written edda and saga.


1 According to Ethelweard, aldorman of West Wessex telling the story some 200 years later. v. Monumenta Historica Britannica, ed. H. Petrie and T. Sharpe (1848).

2 The Chronicle says "January" not "June". A scribal error: the Northmen's boats were unsuitable for winter expeditions.

3N.E.D. gives 1807 as first appearance of "vikingr" (noun) and 1847 "viking" (adjective).…

10 Ari Thorgilsson writing in the twelfth century fixed the date of the battle of Hafrsfjörðr at c. 872. Vigfusson and Powell argued that Harold Fairhair's reign was much later, i.e. 900-945. Modern opinion tends to split the difference and dates Hafrsfjörðr c. 884.

11 O.N. papar, Irish pab(b)a, Lat. papa. This word meant in Irish a monk or anchorite.

12 William Jackson Hooker, F.L.S., Journal of a Tour in Iceland in the summer of 1809, printed by J. Keymer (King St., Yannouth) 1811, ("Not published").

13 Alastair M. Dunnett, Land of Promise in the Sunday Times, 27th Sept., 1953.

John Arnott MacCulloch (1964)

SOURCE: "The Other World," in The Mythology of All Races, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1964, pp. 303-47.

[In this excerpt, MacCulloch summarizes the Eddic creation myths and the conception of the Heavens and Earth.]

The Eddic picture of the origin of the universe goes back to a time when neither gods nor men, Heaven nor earth, existed. There was a great abyss, Ginnunga-gap, 'Yawning chasm,' a conception probably due to popular belief in an abyss outside the ocean surrounding the earth. North of it had been made (by whom?) Niflheim, a frost and mist region, within which was the well Hvergelmir, 'Cauldronrushing,' from which flowed several rivers. To the south was Muspell, light and glowing, ruled over by Surt. The streams or Elivagar from Niflheim, as they flowed, became ice, which spread into Ginnunga-gap. There the ice met warm airs from Muspell or Muspellheim and began to melt. Life was quickened in this by the power of that which sent the heat (whose was this power? there is perhaps a Christian influence here), and took form as a giant Ymir. From him came the Frost-giants.

From the dripping rime there sprang the cow Audhumla (explained as 'the rich, polled cow,' audr, 'riches,' i.e., its milk, and humla, 'polled'). Streams of milk from its udders nourished Ymir, and the cow was nourished by licking the salty iceblocks. As she licked there came forth from the ice Buri, who was father of Borr. Borr married Bestla, a daughter of the giant race. They had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve.

Thus the giant race preceded the gods, as Saxo also indicates, and gods and giants were opposed to each other.

The sons of Borr slew Ymir, and his blood drowned all the Frost-giants save Bergelmir with his wife and household. The three brothers bore Ymir's body into Ginnungagap and made of it the earth. Sea and waters came from his blood; gravel and stones from his teeth and such bones as were broken; rocks from his bones. The sea was placed as a ring round the earth. His skull became the sky, set up over the earth and upheld by four dwarfs. The earth is ring-shaped, and on its coasts the gods gave lands to the giants. Within the earth they erected a wall against the giants, made of Ymir's eyebrows. This they called Midgard. Of Ymir's brain, thrown into the air, they made the clouds. The glowing embers and sparks from Muspellheim were set in the Heaven, above and beneath, to illumine Heaven and earth. The gods assigned places to all, even to such as were wandering free.1

This is Snorri's account, based partly on sources now lost, partly on stanzas of Voluspa, Grimnismal, and Vafthrudnismal. Voluspa says:

In time's morning lived Ymir,
 Then was no sand, sea, nor cool waves;
 No earth was there, nor Heaven above,
 Only a yawning chasm, nor grass anywhere.

Then Borr's sons upheaved the earth
And shaped the beautiful Midgard;
From the south the sun shone on earth's stones,
And from the ground sprang green leeks.2

The first verse seems to contain the myth of Ymir formed in Ginnunga-gap. The second gives a myth of earth raised out of an existing ocean, not made from Ymir's flesh. The sun shone on it and growth began. Whether both verses come from one hand or, as Boer holds, the second alone belongs to an earlier form of the poem, is immaterial. The myth of earth raised out of ocean is found in other mythologies.3 The next verses tell how sun, moon, and stars were allotted their places, and how the gods gave names to night, new and full moon, etc.

In Vafthrudnismal the giant in response to Odin's question, tells how earth and sky arose, but does not speak of them as a work of the gods.

Out of Ymir's flesh was shaped the earth,
 The mountains out of his bones,
The Heaven from the ice-cold giant's skull,
 Out of his blood the boisterous sea.

This is succeeded by an account of the giants, the first of whom is said to have been made out of the venom from Elivagar. No mention is made of fire and heat, only of frost and ice.4

Grimnismal speaks of the origin of earth from Ymir's flesh, ocean from his blood, Heaven from his skull, the hills from his bones, and it adds that trees were formed from his hair, Midgard from his eyebrows, made by the gods for men, and out of his brain the clouds.5

In Voluspá three gods lift earth out of ocean, but the other poems merely mention gods, without specifying the number or saying how they came into existence. Snorri says that from Odin and Frigg came the kindred known as the Æsir, a divine race.6 In an earlier passage he speaks of All-father or Odin living through all ages and fashioning Heaven, earth, and all things in them.7 The latter is probably a reflexion from Christian views of Creation.

The conception underlying Snorri's main account is that giants, gods, and all things may be traced back to the union of water (ice and mist) and fire. The ice contains salt, and this plays an important part in the myth of Audhumla. An interesting comparison is found in Tacitus, who, speaking of the sacred salt springs near the Saale, says that the waters were made to evaporate on red-hot coals, and salt was thus obtained from two opposite elements, fire and water. This may point to an old Germanic cosmogonic myth with fire, water, and salt as elements.8 Skaldic kennings illustrate the Eddic myth of Ymir. Heaven is 'skull of Ymir' or 'burden of the dwarfs'; earth is 'flesh of Ymir'; the sea is 'blood of Ymir'; the hills are 'Ymir's bones.'9

Grimm cites passages from medieval ecclesiastical documents dating from the tenth century onwards, in which man is said to have been created out of different materials. One of these says that Adam's bones were made from stone, his flesh from earth, his blood from water, his heart from wind, his thought from clouds, his sweat from dew, his hair from grass, his eyes from the sun. The four documents differ in details, but there is a curious inverse parallel with the Eddic account, which 'uses the microcosm as material for the macrocosm, and the other inversely makes the universe contribute to the formation of man.10

Voluspá goes on to tell that the gods met at Ithavoll in the midst of Asgard and built temples and altars, made forges to work gold, wrought tongs and fashioned tools. This was during their golden age. Then the creation of dwarfs is described.11 Snorri amplifies this. All-father gave counsel about the town in the midst of Ithavall. A temple was made with twelve seats and a thirteenth for All-father. It is all of gold and is called Gladsheim. A second house was built for the goddesses, called Vingolf. Houses were made for workshops; and tools, anvils, hammers, and tongs were fashioned. The) Esir worked in metals, stone, and wood, and fashioned their household wares of gold. Hence that time is called the Age of Gold. Then follows the creation of the dwarfs.12

Voluspá next gives the myth of human origins. Odin, Hcanir, and Lodur came forth to the land and found Ask and Embla (Ash and Elm) unprovided with fate and without strength, soul, breath, movement, heat, or colour. Odin gave them soul, Haenir sense, Lodur heat and goodly colour.13 Snorri says that Odin, Vili, and Ve, walking on the shore, found two trees, which they shaped into human beings. Odin gave them soul, Vili life, Ve hearing and sight. They named the male Ask and the female Embla, and of them mankind was begotten.14 In an earlier passage, where biblical influence may be seen, Snorri says that All-father made man, giving him spirit which shall never die, though the flesh-frame rot or burn to ashes.15 The shaping of human beings out of trees may have been suggested by wooden images, such as those which the speaker in Havamal says that he found and on which he of human put clothes. Now they regarded themselves as champions. Such images, called tremadr, are mentioned in other documents.16 In Rigsthula the different classes of men were begotten by Rig. The account given by Tacitus of the founders of the Germanic race is interesting by way of comparison. The Germans celebrate in ancient hymns a god Tuisto, issued from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the originators of their race. Mannus had three sons, progenitors of the Ingvaeones, Herminones, and Istavones. Some, however, think that the god had other sons, progenitors of other tribes.17 Mannus is thus the first man, born of a god who comes out of the earth, perhaps regarded as spouse of a Heaven-god. His sons were eponymous ancestors of three chief German groups. If Tuisto was thought to be produced by earth alone, and himself alone produced sons, he would resemble Ymir, who begat giants without a female (p. 275).

Separate cosmogonic myths occur here and there. A river, Van, is formed from the slaver out of the mouth of the Fenris-wolf. Stars were made of the eyes of Thjazi or Aurvandill's toe; a well from the footprint of Balder's horse, etc.18

For the Eddic conception of the universe we begin with the earth, the middle of things, a general Teutonic conception—Gothic midjungards, OS middelgard, AS middangeard, OHG mittigart, ON midgard, literally 'boundary-wall,' i.e., the mountains by which the giants were shut out from the habitable earth, then the earth as the dwelling-place of man, or, as Snorri conceived it, a citadel. Thor is 'Midgard's warder' (veorr) against the giants.19 Earth is a vast disc, surrounded by the ocean or floating upon it, and in this ocean is the Midgard-serpent, lying about the land and surrounding it, his tail in his mouth, 'the girdle of all lands.' Around the shores of earth are mountains, rocks, wastes, and caves, and these are the dwelling of giants, Jotunheim or Utgard, though Utgard was also regarded as being beyond the ocean.20

According to one passage of Snorri, Asgard, the abode of the gods, is a city which men call Troy, in the midst of Midgard. It is the new Asgard, in place of the elder Asgard in Asia.21 This conception of Asgard is due to Snorri's euhemerism and the desire to connect the Scandinavian people and deities with ancient Greece. The earlier pagan view of Asgard made it a heavenly abode, or possibly it was on the top of a lofty central mountain, which would give a link with Snorri's view of Asgard on earth.

Above all was Heaven, overarching and resting on earth. Between Heaven and earth was the bridge Bifrost or Bilrost, which the gods had made, the Asbru or 'bridge of the ksir.' It is the rainbow, of three colours. It is very strong and made with greater craft than any other structure. The red colour is fire, which keeps the Hill-giants off. Over this best of bridges the gods ride daily to their tribunal at Urd's well. Another name of the bridge is Vindhjalmsbru, 'Wind-helmet's (the sky) bridge.' At the Doom of the gods the sons of Muspell will cross it and break it down. Meanwhile Heimdall is its guardian.22

Valhall is Odin's hall in Asgard, where are also Gladsheim and Vingolf, but Grimnismal places Valhall in Gladsheim, 'the Place of joy.'

Separate dwellings of gods and others are enumerated in Grimnismal and by Snorri, and these appear mainly to be in Heaven. The chief of them are Alfheim, abode of the Alfar and Frey; Breidablik, Balder's abode; Valaskjalf, 'Seat of the fallen,' possessed by Odin and thatched with silver, in it is Hlidskjalf, 'Gate-seat,' whence Odin surveys all worlds. Valaskjalf may be Valhall. Thrudvangir, with its hall Bilskirnir, is Thor's abode.

Much speculation has been indulged in regarding the 'nine worlds,' spoken of in Voluspá and Vafthrudnismal, as well as in an interpolated stanza in Alvissmal where the dwarf says: 'Oft have I fared in the nine worlds all, and wide is my wisdom in each.' In Voluspá the Volva says that she knows 'nine worlds, nine rooms of the mighty World-tree.' The giant in Vafthrudnismal says that he has been in every world, the nine worlds, even to Niflheim.23 In all three passages the idea is that of comprehensive knowledge on the part of the speaker—dwarf, seeress, giant. This knowledge is possessed by different kinds of beings dwelling in different regions. Alviss knows the names given to various things by several orders of beings dwelling in earth, Heaven, Alfheim, etc. 'Nine worlds' would thus be more a figurative phrase than one expressing local geography or cosmology. In Voluspá these worlds are connected with the World-tree, itself a comprehensive symbol.

Regarded as different regions, the nine worlds may be—1. Asgard, 2. Vanaheim, 3. Alfheim (though this is one of the dwellings in Heaven), 4. Midgard, 5. Jotunheim, 6. Muspellheim, 7. Svartalflheim, 8. Hel or Niflhel. The ninth is uncertain. It may be obtained by dividing Hel from Niflhel or, preferably, by including a Water-world.24 Undoubtedly the numbering of nine worlds is connected with the sacredness and importance of the number nine in religion, myth, folk-belief, and poetry.25

Below Midgard is Svartalfheim, the region of the dwarfs. Hel or Niflhel is also a subterranean abode. While Snorri speaks of Niflhel in this sense, he also speaks in error of Niflheim, apparently another form of the name, as a region in the North, the cold region of mist, whence streams flowed into Ginnunga-gap. In Niflheim Snorri places the well Hvergelmir, whence spring certain rivers, among them Gjoll, which is near Hel-gates. It is under the root of Yggdrasil which stands over Niflheim. In Grimnismal, the site of Hvergelmir is not given, but it is said that from the horns of the hart which eats the branches of Lacrad, a stream drips into Hvergelmir and thence all the rivers run.26

The Ash Yggdrasil

To the seeress of Voluspá the World-tree with its nine divisions or worlds, is 'the mighty Fate-tree (or 'well-planned tree,' mjotvithr), deep in the earth.' The nine worlds are contained in the tree or symbolized by its divisions. In later passages the Volva speaks of an ash called Yggdrasil, reaching high aloft, wet with white water, thence come the dews that fall in the dales. It stands by Urd's well, and the three Noms dwell in a hall under it.27 This reference to the three Norns may be interpolated, enlarging on Urd's connexion with the tree. Heimdall's horn is hidden under the tree, and a mighty stream pours from Odin's pledge (which is in Mimir's well) on the tree. At the Doom of the gods the tree shakes and its leaves rustle.28

The picture of the tree in Svipdagsmal is similar. Mimameith ('Mimir's tree'?) stretches its branches over all lands. No one knows what roots are beneath it. Few can guess what shall fell it, not fire and not iron. Then follows a piece of folklore. The fruit of the tree placed in fire is good for women in childbirth. What was within then comes out, such might has the tree for men. Gering points out that in Icelandic belief a hard legumen borne to Iceland by the Gulf Stream is used for the same purpose. On the highest bough stands the cock Vithofnir, glittering like gold, shining like lightning, ever-watchful, the terror of Surt and Sinmora.29 If this bird is the same as Gollinkambi, who wakes the heroes in Valhall, the top of the tree must be in Asgard. The bird's watchfulness is a terror to the enemies of the gods.

These two passages give a picture of a wonderful world-tree, its roots on or under the earth, beside it Mimir's well—probably the older conception—or Urd's well. As we shall see, Snorri puts these two wells beside two separate roots of the tree.

A more elaborate picture is given in Grimnismal. The ash Yggdrasil is 'best of trees.' Beneath one of its three roots is Hel; the Frost-giants beneath the second; mankind are beneath the third. A lost stanza may have spoken of the wise eagle that sits on the top of the tree, for the next stanza speaks of the squirrel Ratatosk which carries the eagle's words to the dragon Nidhogg below. Four harts nibble the uppermost twigs, perhaps a later amplification of the single hart of a succeeding stanza. Numerous serpents lie beneath the tree and gnaw its branches. Thus the tree suffers, for the hart bites its top; its trunk is rotting; and Nidhogg gnaws its roots. Meanwhile the gods ride daily to give judgments at the tree. Thor walks there.30

Snorri combines this information, but gives varying details. Of the three roots, one is among the Æsir, one among the Frost-giants, and one over Niflheim. Beneath each is a well or stream. As the Æsir are in Heaven, a root cannot be there, unless we assume that Snorri still regards Asgard as on earth. But later he says that the root is in Heaven, and underneath it is Urd's well. Mimir's well is underneath the root among the Frost-giants. The third root, over Niflheim, is gnawed by Nidhogg. The eagle in the tree knows many things. Between his eyes sits the hawk Vedrfolnir. Ratatosk bears envious words between the eagle and Nidhogg.31

Snorri thus upsets the whole conception of Yggdrasil by placing one of its roots in Heaven, with Urd's well there, and by setting Mimir's well among the Frost-giants.

Most of the details in Grimnismal may be no more than decorative motifs, perhaps derived from the presence of birds or other animals in sacred trees or groves, or, as R. M. Meyer supposes, from sculptured representations of trees with conventional animals.32 Bugge thought that the poet had seen monuments in the north of England with ornamentation like that on the Bewcastle cross in Cumberland, if not that cross itself. On such crosses was carved a tree, in the foliage of which sat an eagle or hawk, squirrels and serpents, and ate of its fruits.33 If the tree or the animals had any mythic significance, the key to it is lost, in spite of the ingenious conjectures of modern mythologizers.

The ash Yggdrasil has many prototypes. It recalls sacred trees beside sacred wells from which oracles were obtained. It is linked to the Vårträd or 'Ward-tree' growing beside Swedish houses, which, if cut down, brings the prosperity of the house to an end—a significant fact when we remember that the gradual destruction of Yggdrasil denotes the approach of the Doom of the gods. It may thus have once been a mythic heavenly Vårträd, growing beside the hall of the gods. Such a tree is spoken of in a stanza quoted by Snorri—Glasir growing by the doors of Valhall, its leafage of red gold, the fairest tree known among gods and men.34Grimnismal also speaks of a tree, Lærad, growing beside Odin's hall. From the horns of the hart which bites its branches a stream falls into Hvergelmir, whence all the rivers flow. This also resembles a Vartrad, and both trees may be forms of Yggdrasil.35 When Grimnismal speaks of the gods riding to judgment beneath Yggdrasil, this may be reminiscent of actual processions to judgment beneath a Vårträd or a temple tree.36

Yggdrasil also resembles the sacred tree growing beside a temple, like that one described by the scholiast to Adam of Bremen. Beside the temple at Upsala was a great tree with spreading branches, always green, even in winter. Its origin was known to none. Near it was a spring used for sacrifices.37 The branches of Yggdrasil were also far-spreading; it was always green; beside it was a spring; no one knew its fate or its roots. The Old Prussian holy oak at the sanctuary called Romove also offers an analogy to Yggdrasil. It had three divisions, each sacred to a god, and an image of each stood in each section. Before the god Perkuna of one division burned perpetual fire; before Potrimpo was the snake fed by the priests and priestesses; before Patollo the heads of a man, horse, and cow. This tree was also evergreen.38

The full name of the Eddic tree was Askr Yggdrasils, 'the Ash which is Ygg's (Odin's) Steed,' or 'the Ash of Odin's Horse.' Yggdrasil was a kenning for Odin's horse Sleipnir. The name may be due to the fact that victims sacrificed to Odin were hung on sacred trees, riding the tree, gallows, or horse sacred to him. Other explanations are given. It is the tree in which is Odin's steed, the wind. Or Odin tethered his horse to the tree, or, less likely, it is the tree on which Odin hung, hence his gallows or steed.39 In the same way the gallows was called 'the ice-cold steed of Signy's husband' in a skaldic poem.40 But, as Chadwick points out, there is 'not a single reference to the World-tree having served as Odin's gallows,' while 'the name Yggdrasil may have been applied to the earthly Vartrad, and transferred together with the conception of the tree to its heavenly copy."41

The mythic Yggdrasil was almost certainly a tree growing on earth before it was transferred to the Other World and the region of myth.

This tree is also connected with wide-spread myths of a World-tree growing on a mountain or in the centre of the earth, and reaching to Heaven. Such a tree also resembles the mythic World-pillars supporting Heaven. Both trees and pillars are many-storied. The roots of the tree go down into the Underworld, its topmost branches pierce the sky, and it stands by a spring, lake, or sea, or in the sea itself. As in a Yakut tale, a goddess dwells at the root of the tree and foretells the future, like Urd or Mimir. Tree or pillar is often the tethering-post of deities, especially of the Over-god, as in the Yakut tale, and this throws light on Yggdrasil as connected with Odin. Such mythical pillars and trees are known all over Northern Asia, and can be traced in India, Iran, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The eagle Garuda or Garide is believed to dwell in the tree. At its roots is a dragon or snake at which the eagle pecks.42 In some of these myths a spring flows from the tree or from its sap, and, as in Iranian belief, all the rivers of earth have their source in it.43 So out of Yggdrasil flows dew, called by men honey-dew, on which bees are nourished, and the source of rivers is connected with the tree Lmrad.44

Such mythic trees would be suggested by lofty forest-trees on which the sky seemed to rest, and, as in some Polynesian myths, which separated earth and Heaven. Then, as the sky seemed to recede into a remoter distance, arose the fable of one lofty tree reaching from earth to Heaven.45 Myths of a Heaven-supporting tree are numerous, and they survive in tales of 'Jack and the Beanstalk.'46 The resemblances of the Scandinavian tree to such mythic trees are numerous, and its origin need not therefore be sought in medieval Christian legends of the Cross as a World-tree, which, in fact, carry on the tradition of these mythical trees.

The myth of the sky as a tent-roof supported on a pillar or post occurs among the Lapps, Finns, and North Asiatic tribes, Japanese, and ancient Egyptians.47 The Asiatic pillar is seven-storied, representing the seven Heavens, and it is the tethering-post of the stars or of the horses of the gods.48 Posts with seven branches, on which sacrificial victims are hung, symbolize the mythical post. The Lapps also had such sacrificial pillars, representing the heavenly pillar supporting the world, with an iron nail at the top, a symbol of the World-nail which fixed the sky in place. The nail of the sky is the Pole Star, round which the Heavens are thought to revolve. This belief of the Lapps may have been borrowed from the Scandinavians.49 Similar beliefs were entertained by the Celts and in ancient India.50 The symbolism of the seven Heavens in tree or pillar, like the three divisions of the Romove tree, recalls the nine worlds or divisions of the Eddic tree.

This helps us to understand the Irminsul of the Saxons, a word denoting 'sanctuary,' 'image,' or 'pillar,' such as was destroyed by Charlemagne,51 but its general significance was that of a pillar or tree-stump. Rudolf of Fulda says that the Saxons venerate leafy trees and springs, and worship a huge tree-trunk called Irminsul, which means universalis columna, as if it sustained all things.52 The Irminsul must have been a symbol of a mythic World-pillar, and connected with the cult of a god Irmin. The nail of the sky may also have been known in Scandinavia, as its name, veraldarnagli, occurs in Icelandic folk-poetry.53 The mythic World-mountain may be seen in the Himinbjorg, or 'Heaven-mountain,' situated at the end of Bifrost.

These various conceptions show that, whatever details may be due to Christian influences, the Eddic World-tree was a native conception. The theory that it was copied from the medieval legend of the Cross was advanced by Bugge, E. H. Meyer, and Golther, though Bugge admitted the existence in Scandinavian belief of a wonderful holy tree, which, under Christian influence, was transformed into a World-tree. In the medieval legend the Cross was a tree linked to the Tree of Life in Paradise. Its end, set in the earth, reached down to the Underworld, the top reached to Heaven, the two arms spread over the world. The Cross was our Lord's steed, according to medieval poetic usage, and 'steed' was a metaphor for 'gallows,' the victim being the Rider. The point d'appui here is the explanation of Yggdrasil as Odin's gallows, because he hung on it. As we have seen there is no evidence that the tree on which he hung was Yggdrasil. The dragon Nidhogg is the serpent of Eden, associated with the Tree from which the Cross was derived.54 Be this as it may, the Yggdrasil conception is not entirely, if at all, due to such legends as these.

The Doom of the Gods

A phrase used in the Poetic Edda is ragna rok, 'fate or doom of the gods' (ragna being genitive plural of regen, 'powers,' 'gods'). It resembles the phrase aldar rok, 'destruction of the world,' used in Vafthrudnismal. Another phrase, with which it is often confused, is ragna rokr, 'the darkness of the gods,' which occurs in Lokasenna and is used by Snorri.55 Used mistakenly as a proper noun, Ragnarok, the phrase is often rendered 'Twilight of the gods.'

This Doom of the gods, the central incident of a wider myth of the destruction of the world, is the subject of a great part of Voluspa, and shows that, as the gods are not eternal aparte ante, so their life at last comes to an end. In view of that Doom, Valhall must be filled with heroes, and even now Thor fights with the enemies of the gods.

The Voluspa poet connects the Doom with the coming of the three giant-maids, the Norns, which brought the Golden Age of the gods to an end. Now the gods are brought under the power of fate. The Doom is also linked to the first war, when gods fought the Vanir, and, more immediately, with the death of Balder.56

The verses describing these events do not all belong to the original poem, and may have been interpolated by a moralizing poet. The dualism which results in the conquest of gods by demoniac beings, who are themselves annihilated, is the foundation of the myth. This is bound up with fate, stronger than the gods, but the verse regarding this (the coming of the Norns) is isolated and is followed by interpolated verses about the dwarfs, which may have ousted stanzas continuing the subject.

Then follows an outrage perpetrated by the gods—a wild kind of justice, described in two interpolated stanzas. This is 'the first war in the world,' and concerns the slaying of Gullveig by the gods. She must have had some evil design in coming to the gods' world: hence they slew her, yet she ever lives. This may be connected with the war between Æsir and Vanir, if Gullveig was Freyja, a Vanir goddess. This war is also called the first war. During the contest with the Vanir, the wall of the gods' citadel was broken down. A moralized sign of the end is now introduced—a reference (intelligible only from Snorri's account of the myth) to the breaking of oaths made by the gods to the giant artificer, whom Thor slew. The gods have perjured themselves. Balder's death is the next step to the Doom. The working of demoniac might through Loki against the gods has begun. Loki is put in bonds, but greater woes are coming, and 'Frigg weeps sore for Valhall's need.' The coming Doom was almost certainly the subject whispered by Odin into the dead Balder's ear.57 As a consequence of the gods' violence and treachery, evils abound among men—oath-breaking and revenge, and these are punished in the Underworld.58

That the final destruction and Doom of the gods is a genuine Teutonic myth, we take for granted. There seem, however, to be different myths of the manner in which this would happen, and these are more or less combined in Voluspa.

  1. A destruction of the world by its sinking into the sea, from which it had emerged, according to one cosmogonic myth.

    The sun becomes black, earth sinks into the sea,
    From Heaven fall the bright stars.

    This is also described in Hyndlujod:

    The sea ascends in storm to Heaven,
    It swallows the earth, the air becomes sterile.

    To this may be linked the swallowing of the sun by a monster—an eclipse myth used to heighten the effect of the myth of the world's destruction.59 This myth of the sinking of the earth into the sea is perhaps connected with the daily apparent sinking of the sun into the sea, as seen by dwellers on the coast.

  2. The world ends with a mighty winter, fimbul-vetr. In Vafthrudnismal Odin asks what of mankind shall survive the mighty winter. Vafthrudnir answers that Lif and Lifthrasir, hid in Hoddmimir's wood, will survive it. In Snorri's account they survive the destructive fires of Surt. Hyndluljod speaks of snows and furious winds which follow the sinking of earth in the sea, and in Voluspa mighty storms come in summer. Snorri says that this winter will precede the Doom. Snow will drive from all quarters, with sharp frost and wind; the sun will be without power. Three such winters will follow in succession with no summer between. Over the earth are mighty battles. Brothers will slay each other for greed's sake: none spares father or mother in murder and incest. He then cites a stanza of Voluspa which refers to these evils:

    Brothers shall fight and slay each other,
    Sisters' sons break kinship's bonds;
    Hard is it on earth, with much unchasteness,
    Axe-age, sword-age,
    Shields are cloven,
    Wind-age, wolf-age, ere sinks the world;
    No man will ever another spare.60

  3. A third myth is that of the destruction of the world by fire. Voluspa tells how Surt comes from the South with 'the scourge of branches,' i.e., fire. In the stanza which describes earth sinking into the sea, it is said that steam rages and the preserver of life (fire); fire shoots high to Heaven itself. The fires of Surt are also mentioned in Vafthrudnismal as occurring at the end of the world. The possible destruction of the world by fire, viz., by the sun, is spoken of in Grimnismal. If it were not for the shield in front of the sun, mountains and seas would be set in flames. Snorri often refers to this final fire, and says that Surt will cast fire and bum the world. The sons of Muspell ride forth, Surt at their head, before him and after him burning fire. His sword is very good, from it shines a light brighter than the sun. As they ride over Bifrost, the bridge breaks down. In an earlier notice, Surt is said to sit at the world's end by Muspellheim. At the last he will go forth and harry, overcome the gods, and burn the world with fire.61 Fire and heat were sources of life: now they are its destruction.

These separate myths, or at least the first and second, are combined in Voluspa, together with the myth of the freedom gained by chained monsters, the Fenris-wolf, Loki, and Garm, and all three appear in Snorri's account of the Doom, in which he quotes freely from the poem.

The doom begins with moral evils on earth.62 The sons of Mim (the waters or spirits of the waters) are in motion.63 The Gjallar-horn sounds the note of Doom as Heimdall blows it. All the Hel-ways are in fear. Yggdrasil shakes; its leaves rustle, for the giant, the Fenris-wolf, is free. Odin consults the head of Mim, but the wolf will slay him soon. Then comes an impressive stanza:

How fare the gods? How fare the Alfar?
 All Jotunheim roars; the gods take counsel.
 The dwarfs stand groaning before their rock
 The lords of the rock-walls. Would ye know
 yet more?

From the East comes Hrym, leader of the giants. The Midgard-serpent writhes in giant-fury. The eagle Hrasvelg screams aloud, gnawing corpses. The ship Naglfar is loose, steered, as Snorri says, by the giant Hrym and carrying the giants.64 Another ship sails from the North with the people of Hel, steered by Loki. Wild hosts65 follow the Wolf. With them is Byleipt's brother (Loki). From the South comes Surt with fire. The hills are shattered; the giantesses fall; the dead crowd Hel-way; Heaven is cloven.

To Frigg comes yet another grief: she sees Odin die by the Wolf. Frey seeks out Surt, Vidarr pierces the Wolf with his sword, avenging Odin. Thor advances against the Midgard-serpent, and strikes a death-blow, but himself falls dead, suffocated by the venom. Now the sun turns black; earth sinks into the sea, stream and flame grow in fierceness, and fire leaps up to Heaven itself. It is the end.

Snorri's account of the advance of the gods and the fighting is vivid. The Wolf rushes forward, mouth gaping, the upper jaw touching Heaven, the lower the earth, fire blazing from eyes and nostrils. The Midgard-serpent by its side blows venom. Heaven is cloven, and Muspell's sons, led by Surt, ride forth, fire preceding and following them. They ride to a field Vigrid, and there come also the Fenriswolf, the Midgard-serpent, Loki, Hrym, and the Frostgiants. The people of Hel follow Loki. Heimdall blows his horn. Odin rides to Mimir's well to take counsel with him. Yggdrasil trembles: all in Heaven and earth are in fear. The Æsir arm themselves and ride to the field, with all the Einherjar from Valhall. Odin is in front, with golden helmet, birnie, and spear. Thor is beside him, but cannot aid him against the Fenris-wolf, as he must encounter the Midgard-serpent. The watch-dog of Hel, Garm, is loose, doing battle with Tyr, each slaying the other. Thor slays the Serpent, strides away nine paces, and falls dead, overcome by its venom. Frey fights with Surt and falls, for he lacks his sword, having given it to Skirnir. The Wolf swallows Odin, but Vidarr sets one foot on its lower jaw, and with his hand seizes the upper jaw, and tears them in two. Loki fights with Heimdall, and each slays the other. Surt then throws fire over the earth and bums it up.66

Snorri gives details not in Voluspa, e.g., Tyr's fight with Garm, and Heimdall's with Loki. He incorporates some incidents from Vafthrudnismal which also contains some notices of the Doom, viz., the field Vigrid, Njord's return to the Vanir before the end, the mighty winter which Lif and Lifthrasir survive, the swallowing of the sun, the fires of Surt, Odin's death by the Wolf, its slaying by Vidarr, and Thor's end.67

In spite of the large muster of forces, only a few are described as actual combatants—on one side Odin, Thor, Tyr, Heimdall, Frey, and Vidarr; on the other the Wolf, the Serpent, Garm, Loki, and Surt. No account of the participation of other gods or of the Einherjar is given. Some of these pairs of opponents are found in hostility to each other in non-eschatological myths—Thor and the Serpent, Heimdall and Loki.

The Doom is known to the poets who wrote Baldrs Draumar and Grimnismal. In the former the sibyl tells Odin that none shall seek her till Loki is free from his bonds and the destroyers come to the Doom of the gods. In the latter Thor is to dwell in Thrudheim 'till the gods are destroyed'—a phrase used also in Vafthrudnismal.68 Some of the skaldic poems also refer to it. In Eiriksmal Odin speaks of the time not being known when the grey Wolf shall come upon the seat of the gods. In Hakonarmal are the words: 'the Fenris-wolf shall be let loose on mankind ere such a good king as Hakon shall arise.' Verses by Kormak (c. 935 A.D.) say: 'the earth shall sink, the mountains drop into the sea' before such a fair woman as Steingud shall be born. Arnor larlaskald (c. 1065 A.D.) wrote: 'the bright sun shall turn black, the earth sink into the dark sea, the dwarfs' burden (Heaven) shall be rent, the sea rush up over the hills, ere such a one as Thorfinn shall be born.' These references are in conformity with the Eddic account. In the story of the Hjadnings' battle, it is said that the fight will continue till the Doom of the gods; and when the maiden saw the dead Helgi and his men riding to their barrow, she cried: 'Is this the Doom of the gods, that dead men ride?'69

How far Christian influences have coloured or moulded the ideas and incidents of the world catastrophe is problematical. Different critics assume more or less of such influence. While here and there echoes of Scriptural language and incidents may be found, the conception as a whole seems original, or at least based on native folklore and eschatological myths. Parallels from other mythologies exist, but it does not follow that there was borrowing from these. The swallowing of the sun by a monster is a wide-spread myth. Iranian mythology has a parallel to the mighty winter in its eschatology—the devastation caused by the rain of Malkōsh, when most of mankind die of excessive cold, snow, and famine. Rydberg and others regard the Iranian and Eddic myths as examples of an old Indo-Germanic belief.70 The belief in the world's destruction by water and fire existed among the Celts, apart from Christian influence. There are classical references to this belief among the Celts, and it exists in native Irish documents. The prophecy of the War-goddess Badb about evils to come and the end of the world, and that of Fercertne in The Colloquy of the Two Sages have a certain likeness to the prophecy of Doom in Voluspa.71

One point requires further elucidation. Snorri says that the sons of Muspell ride with Surt at their head over Bifrost bridge. At the end of the conflict the fires of Surt consume the world. He has already spoken of the southern region of fire, Muspell or Muspellheim, at whose frontiers sits Surt waiting to go forth against the gods and destroy the world with fire. Muspell has the largest ship, Naglfar. From the sparks flowing out of Muspell, the gods made the chariot of the sun and the lights of Heaven.72

Two passages only of the Poetic Edda mention Muspell. Loki told Frey that when the sons of Muspell ride through Myrkwood he will be weaponless. In Voluspá the manuscripts have the reading 'the people of Muspell,' which is corrected by critics to 'the people of Hel.'73 Bifrost is spoken of twice. In Fafnismal the gods assemble at Oskopnir ('the not yet created,' perhaps another name for Vigrid) to meet Surt, and Bifrost breaks down as they cross it. Elsewhere it is the hosts of Surt who break it down. A stanza in Grimnismal speaks of Thor wading through rivers, for Bifrost burns in flame. This may either refer to the time of Doom or express a myth of the sun's reappearance after thunder when the rainbow-bridge seems to be on fire.74

Is Muspell a word originating from pagan or from Christian conceptions? Grimm says that in it 'we find another striking proof of the prevalence of Old Norse conceptions all over Teutondom.'75 The word occurs in the Saxon Heliand: 'the power of mûdspelli fares over men,' and 'mudspelli comes in dark night as a thief.' The reference is to the Day of Judgment; and a Bavarian poem says of the fire which burns up the world: 'no friend can help another for the mûspilli'.76 Thus the word refers to a world conflagration as in the Eddas. Did it first betoken the fire as a Christian conception, or was it originally applied to a similar pagan conception? Opinions are sharply divided here, as also on the root-meaning of the word. Grimm takes it to mean 'fire,' its component parts being mud, mu, 'earth,' 'wood,' 'tree,' and spilli, cognate with ON spilla, 'destroy': hence the word is an epithet of fire. Others connect spilli with OHG and AS spell, 'prophecy,' and regard mud as a Latin loan-word from mundus—hence 'a prophecy of the world,' viz., of its end. In this sense the word, originating from Christian preaching about the end of the world by fire, took root in Teutonic thought and passed to Scandinavia.77 Other derivations have been suggested and there is a copious literature on the subject.78

There is every likelihood that the destruction of the world by fire was a native conception, as in other mythologies, though Christian influences may have worked upon it. The Poetic Edda personifies the agents of destruction as 'Muspell's sons,' i.e., spirits of fire of Fire-giants. Fire may have been personified as a giant called 'Muspellr.'79 Snorri then gives the conception of a southern region of fire, Muspell or Muspellheim, whether this originated with him or not. The destruction of the world by fire was a Celtic conception, as has been seen, and this may have passed from Celts to Teutons or have been a belief common to both.

Why a myth of the destruction of the gods should have originated in Scandinavia is uncertain. It does not appear to signify the defeat of Norse gods by the Christian religion, for there is no trace of such a conception in the sources. We cannot even say that it arose out of a weakening of the old religion among the people. They were still firmly attached to it when Christianity appeared in the North. The best parallel to it is found in Scandinavian mythology itself (as in Greek)—the destruction of the older race of giants by the gods.

The Renewal of The World

The gods are gone, men destroyed, the earth sunk in the sea or burned, but now appears a new world. This is the theme of the final stanzas of Voluspa:

Now I see for a second time
Earth in fresh green rise from the sea;
The cataracts fall, the eagle flies,
He catches fish from the rocks.

The Æsir assemble on Ithavoll,
They speak of the mighty earth-engirdler,
They recall the mighty events of the past,
And the ancient-runes of Fimbul-tyr.

Then once more will the wonderful
Golden tables be found in the grass,
Which once in old time the gods possessed.

On fields unsown will fruits spring forth,
All evils vanish; Balder comes back.

Hod and Balder dwell in Hropt's battle-hall,
The hall of the mighty Battle-gods.

Then can Hœnir choose the prophetic wand.
The sons of the brothers of Tveggi abide
In spacious Vindheim. Would ye know yet

A hall I see, brighter than the sun,
O'erlaid with gold, on Gimle stand;
There dwell for ever the righteous hosts,
Enjoying delights eternally.

From on high comes a Mighty One
To the great judgment, ruling all.
From below the dark dragon flies,
The glistening snake from Nithafjoll;
On his wings bears Nidhogg, flying o'er the
The corpses of men. Now must I sink.80

There is thus a new earth without ills, where fruits unsown ripen—a typical Elysian or Golden Age world. Some of the gods return—those who were not destroyed, Balder, Hod, Hœnir, the sons of Tveggi's ('the Twofold,' Odin) brothers, of whom nothing is known. They speak of the things of the past, of the Midgard-serpent, of Odin's runes (Fimbul-tyr, 'the mighty god'). They find the golden tables on which the gods had once played a kind of draughts in the Golden Age (cf. v. 8: 'In their home at peace they played at tables'). The mysterious 'Mighty One' is almost certainly a borrowing from Christianity, just as the hall on Gimle is a reflexion of the Christian Heaven. The final stanza about Nidhogg is apparently not in its right place. Its last words, however, belong to the end of the poem, and refer to the Volva, who, having delivered her prophecy, sinks back whence she came. Some have taken the verse as meaning that the dragon tries to rise, but is defeated and sinks for ever. This is unlikely, and 'she must sink' = 'I must sink') refers to the seeress.

Hyndluljod also speaks of the High God to come:

There comes another, a Mightier,
 Yet dare I never his name forthtell;
 Few are they who can further see
 Than when Odin shall meet the Wolf.81

The new world, as well as other details, is known to the poet of Vafthrudnismal. During the mighty winter Lif and Lifthrasir survive. The sun (Alfrodull) will bear a daughter ere the Wolf swallows her, and this daughter will follow her mother's ways when the Powers fall. Odin then enquires about the maidens who shall fare over the sea. Vafthrudnir's reply shows that three throngs of maidens descend over Mogthrasir's dwelling-place. They will be guardian spirits to men, though they come of giant stock. These are perhaps kindly Norns. The giant then tells Odin that, after Surt's fires have sunk, Vidarr and Vali shall dwell in the realm of the gods, and Modi and Magni, sons of Thor, shall have his hammer Mjollnir.82 In this forecast of the new world, there is a further conception. Lif and Lifthrasir ('Life' and 'Vitality'), progenitors of a new race of men, are hidden in Mimir's grove, possibly Yggdrasil if Mimameid, 'Mimir's tree,' mentioned in Svipdagsmal, is the World-tree. This corresponds to the Iranian myth of the vara or 'enclosure' of Yima, the first mortal, whose reign is a Golden Age. He was commanded to make this vara and fill it with happy mortals, who will repeople the earth after the devastating winter has passed.83 There will be a new sun, and certain gods will reappear, their names differing from those in Voluspa. The giant maidens who act as guardian spirits, presumably to the dwellers on the new earth, descend over Mogthrasir's 'thorp' or dwelling-place; and, as Boer suggests, Mogthrasir, 'he who desires sons,' may be the same as Lif, progenitor of the new race.84

Snorri combines the Voluspá and Vafthrudnismal passages in his account of the new world. But he adds a description of places of bliss and punishment, and here, as we have seen, he seems to have misunderstood his sources.85

Apart from the reference to Gimle, which appears to be for the righteous dead, the poems say nothing about the lot of the dead in the renewed world.


1Gylfaginning, cc. 4 ff.

2Voluspa, 3 ff.

3 Boer, in loc., Holmberg, Siberian Mythology, in this Series, Chapter II; Alexander, North American Mythology, p. 279.

4Vafthrudnismal, 20 f.

5Grimnismal, 40 f.

6Gylf, c. 9.

7 ib., c. 3.

8 Tacitus, Annals, xiii. 57.

9Skaldskaparmal, cc. 23 ff.; Corpus Poeticum Boreale i. 277, ii. 55, 194.

10 Grimm [a], ii. 563 ff.; Kemble, i. 408.

11Vol., 7, 9 ff.

12Gylf:, c. 14.

13Vol., 17, 18.

14Gylf, C. 9.

15 ib., c. 3.

16 See Clarke, p. 107 and note.

17 Tacitus, Germ., c. 2.

18Gylf, c. 34; Bragaraedur, c. 1; Skaldsk., cc. 17, 23; Harb., 19; cf. CPB ii. 9.

19 Vol., 56.

20Gylf, cc. 35, 45, 47; Hym., 23; Vol., 50.

21Gylf., cc. 9, 14. Asgard is mentioned twice in the Poetic Edda. Loki tells Thor that, if his hammer is not recovered, the giants will dwell in Asgard, Thrymskvitha, 17. Thor and Tyr go from Asgard to get the giant Hrym's kettle, Hym., 7.

22Gylf, cc. 13, 15, 27, 51; Grim., 29, 44; Fafnismal, 15; Helgakvitha Hundingsbana, ii. 48.

23Vol., 2; Vaf, 43; Alvissmal, see Sijmons and Gering, i. 152.

24 So Gering, Edda, note to Vaf, 43, p. 66.

25 Mogk, 'Neunzahl,' in Hoops, iii. 312.

26Gylf, c. 4 and see Gering's note, p. 300; cc. 5, 34, 42; Baldrs Draumar, 2; Vaf, 43; Grim., 26.

27Vol., 2, 19 f.

28 ib., 27, 47; Svipdagsmal, 29 f.

29 Gering, Edda, p. 132.

30Grim., 31 f.

31 Gylf, cc. 15 f.

32 R. M. Meyer, p. 477.

33 Bugge, [b], Introd., p. xxiv.

34Skaldsk., c. 34.

35Grim., 25 f.

36 Chadwick [b], p. 78.

37 ib., p. 75 f.; MOllenhoff [a], v. 103 f.

38 E. Welsford, 'Old Prussians,' Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics ix. 489.

39 Cf. Gering, Edda, p. 105.

40CPB i. 246.

41 Chadwick [b], p. 75.

42 Cf. U. Holmberg, Der Baum des Lebens, Helsinki, 1922, pp. 67, 68.

43 ib., p. 75 and passim; cf. also Siberian Mythology in this Series, pp. 349 ff.

44Gylf, c. 16; Grim., 26.

45 MacCulloch [c], pp. 442-3.

46 ib., Chapter XVI.

47 ib., p. 441; Holmberg, Finno-Ugric and Siberian Mythology, pp. 222, 333 ff.

48 Holmberg, p. 337.

49 ib., pp. 221-2; Der Baum des Lebens, p. 17 f.

50 ib., Der Baum, p. 19; MacCulloch [a], pp. 228, 232.

51 Grimm [a], i. 116.

52Monumenta Germ. Hist., Scriptores, iii. 423.

53 A. Olrik, 'Irminsul og Gudestøtter,' Maal og Minne, 1910, p. 4 f.; Holmberg, Der Baum, p. 10.

54 E. H. Meyer [b], §112; Golther, p. 530; Bugge, Studien, pp. 421 ff.

55Vol., 44,49, 58; Vaf, 55; BDr., 14; HH ii. 39; Atlamal, 21, 38, 42. Cf. Vaf, 38, 39, 42, tiva rok (tivar, 'gods'). Lokasenna, 39.

56Vol., 8, 21 f., 32; cf. Mogk, ERE iv. 845, 'the golden age of the gods came to an end when the Norns came into being.'

57Vol., 25 f.

58 ib., 39.

59 ib., 57, cf. 45, 'the world falls'; Hyndluljod, 44; Vaf, 46 f. and Vol., 40. Cf. p. 199. Gylf, c. 51, speaks of the wolf swallowing the sun, and the other wolf swallowing the moon. The stars vanish from the Heavens. This follows the passage in Grim., 39, and Snorri's own earlier narrative in c. 12. For Eclipse myths see MacCulloch [a], p. 178; A. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion,2 London, 1906, i. 132 f.; Grimm [a], i. 244, ii. 705; ERE x. 368. Swedish, Danish, and Norse folk-lore knows the sun-wolf. In Iceland an eclipse is 'Ulfakreppa.' Golther, p. 524.

60Vaf, 44 f.; Gylf, c. 53; Hynd., 44; Vol., 41, 45, cf. Gylf, c. 51.

61Vol., 52, 57; Vaf, 50 f.; Grim., 38; Gylf, cc. 4, 17, 51.

62 In Gylf:, c. 51, the mighty winter precedes or is contemporary with these evils.

63 Perhaps Mimir's sons are giants, if Mimir is to be regarded as a giant, cf. Boer, ii. 22. Hence Heimdall blows his horn, because the giants are in motion.

64 After the account of the mighty winter Snorri here inserts the swallowing of the sun and moon; the trembling of earth and breaking of all fetters; the advance of the Wolf; the sea rushing over the land because the Serpent is stirring in giant fury; the ship Naglfar loose and floating on the flood, steered by Hrym. In Vol., 50, Hrym comes from the East; the Midgard-serpent and the Eagle seem to be with him. The stanza ends with 'Naglfar is loose.' Does this mean that they are on board it? Or should this line go with the next stanza, which tells of a vessel coming from the North steered by Loki, with the people of Hel. Is this vessel Naglfar? If the people of Hel are the dead, not giants, Naglfar would be a ship of the dead, and, by a false etymology, the ship made of dead men's nails. But why should the dead attack the gods? Snorri elsewhere assigns Naglfar to the sons of Muspell, Gylf, c. 43. In c. 51 Snorri says that this ship is made of dead men's nails, wherefore men should be warned that if a man die with uncut nails he is adding material to this ship, which gods and men would fain see unfinished.

65 The 'wild hosts,' fifl-meger, are perhaps the people of fifl, a giant or monster, or 'the nameless host who follow without knowing why.'

66Gylf:, c. 51.

67Vaf, 18, 39, 41 f.

68BDr., 14; Grim., 4; Vaf:, 52.

69CPB i. 261, 265, ii. 65, 197; Skaldsk., c. 49; HH ii. 39.

70 E. W. West, Pahlavi Texts, in Sacred Books of the East, xviii. 109 f.; N. Soderblom, La vie future d'apres Mazdeisme, Paris, 1901, p. 179 f.; Rydberg, pp. 256 ff.; L. H. Grey, ERE ii. 703; A. J. Carnoy, Iranian Mythology, in this Series, p. 307.

71 See MacCulloch [a], p. 232, [b], p. 34.

72Gylf, c. 51, cf. cc. 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, 37, 43, 51.

73Lok., 42; Vol., 51.

74 Faf:, 15; Grim., 29.

75 Grimm [a], ii. 808.

76 ib.; Heliand, 2591, 4358.

77 Golther, p. 541.

78 See these in W. Braune, Althochdeutsche Lesebuch,7 p. 190 f.

79 Mogk, in Hoops, iii. 288.

80Vol., 59 ff.

81Hynd, 45.

82Vaf:, 44 ff.

83Svip., 30; ERE ii. 702 f.

84 Boer, ii. 58 f.

85Gylf:, c. 52. Seep. 318.

Kevin Crossley-Holland (1980)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Norse Myths, Pantheon Books, 1980, pp. xiv-xli.

[In this excerpt, Crossley-Holland describes the Norse pantheon and the primary sources for the Norse mythological tradition.]

The Pantheon

Snorri Sturluson, writing in Iceland in the thirteenth century, says that, excluding Odin and his wife Frigg, 'The divine gods are twelve in number… The goddesses [who number thirteen] are no less sacred and no less powerful.' This section introduces the four principal deities, Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja, in some detail, and points to the principal attributes of the others; they, and other protagonists, are discussed further in the notes where appropriate.

Odin is often called Allfather: this means he was not only the actual father of many of the gods and (with his two brothers) created the first man and woman, but that he was also foremost of the gods. Snorri Sturluson is quite clear on this point:

Odin is the highest and oldest of the gods. He rules all things and, no matter how mighty the other gods may be, they all serve him as children do their father … He lives for ever and ever, and rules over the whole of his kingdom and governs all things great and small. He created heaven and earth and sky and all that in them is.

Germanic pre-Christian Europe was fraught with conflict between family and family, tribe and tribe, country and country. A culture finds the gods it needs and the Norse world needed a god to justify the violence that is one of its hallmarks. Odin appears to have inherited the characteristics of the earliest Germanic war gods, Wodan and Tîwaz, and is seen above all as the God of Battle. Terrible, arrogant and capricious, he inspired victory and determined defeat; in his hall, Valhalla, he entertained slain warriors, chosen and conducted there by the Valkyries, who were to fight with him at Ragnarok; and he required propitiation with human and animal sacrifice.

The same inspiration that enabled one man to win a battle enabled another to compose poetry. Thus Odin, the God of War, travelled to Jotunheim to win the mead of poetry for the gods (Myth 6), and one reason why he is so prominent in the eddaic poems may be that he was the patron of the poets who composed them!

Odin was not only the God of Battle and the God of Poetry; he could also act as a seer. Like a shaman, he could send out his spirit, sometimes riding on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, sometimes in another shape, on journeys between worlds; like a shaman, he could win wisdom from the dead. In the eddaic poem Voluspa, and in his voluntary sacrifice on the world ash Yggdrasill (Myth 4), we see him as the God of the Dead.

Odin is a formidable presence. He has only one eye and wears a wide-brimmed hat to escape instant recognition; he always wears a blue cloak and carries the magic spear Gungnir; on his shoulders sit the ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), birds of battle symbolic also of flights in search of wisdom; and from the high seat of Hlidskjalf, in his hall Valaskjalf, he could survey all that happened in the nine worlds. He is a terrifying god: maybe a god to be respected, but not a god to be loved.

Thor, son of Odin and Earth, was second in the pantheon and it is clear from the terms in which he is described by the eddaic poets, Snorri Sturluson and the saga writers, and from the large number of place names embodying his name, that he was the most loved and respected of the gods. While Odin stood for violence and war, Thor represented order. With his hammer Mjollnir, he kept the giants at bay and was physically strong enough to grapple with the world serpent, Jormungand. Men invoked him in the name of law and stability.

Odin championed the nobly born—kings, warriors, poets; Thor championed the farming freemen (Myth 22) who constituted the majority of the population. His physical image fits this role well; he was huge, red-bearded, possessed of a vast appetite, quick to lose his temper and quick to regain it, a bit slow in the uptake, but immensely strong and dependable. The eddaic poets (and Snorri Sturluson in their wake) may have exaggerated Odin's significance; according to the eleventh-century historian Adam of Bremen, Thor was the greatest of the Norse gods and, in the great temple at Uppsala, his statue occupied the central position between Odin and Freyr.

The second myth in this collection which forms a complete cycle, beginning with the creation and ending with the destruction of the nine worlds, describes a war between the warrior gods, the Aesir, and the fertility gods, the Vanir. This conflict appears to embody the memory of a time when two cults struggled for the possession of men's minds and, as invariably happens when one religion replaces another, were ultimately fused. Thor thus took on characteristics associated with fertility and made them his own. The hammer Mjollnir, for instance, was not only an instrument of aggression but also of fertility (see Note 10). Likewise, Thor was the cause of thunder (the noise made by the wheels of his chariot) and lightning (fragments of a whetstone were lodged in his head) and, in the words of Adam of Bremen, Thor was held to control 'the winds and showers, the fair weather and fruits of the earth'.

The most important of the fertility gods, however, was Freyr, God of Plenty. Freyr appears to have been a descendant (who somehow changed sex) of Nerthus, the Earth Mother whom Tacitus described as having been worshipped in Denmark in the first century AD. And Snorri Sturluson writes: 'Freyr is an exceedingly famous god; he decides when the sun shall shine or the rain come down, and along with that the fruitfulness of the earth, and he is good to invoke for peace and plenty. He also brings about the prosperity of men.' The idol of Freyr at Uppsala had a gigantic phallus and Freyr was clearly invoked not only for the increase of the earth but also for human increase. Freyr's principal possessions, the ship Skidbladnir and the boar Gullinbursti, are both ancient fertility symbols, and the one surviving myth directly concerned with him (Myth 11) is a celebration of all that he stands for.

Freyr's father was Njord and his sister was Freyja… and all three were involved in the exchange of leaders when the Aesir and Vanir made a truce (Myth 2). Njord, the senior god of the Vanir, governed the sea and the winds and guarded ships and seafarers. His hall was called Noatun or shipyard. Njord married the frost giantess Skadi and his son the frost giantess Gerd in myths which both symbolise the union of opposites (see Notes 9 and 11).

There are a bewildering number of theories about another of the leading gods, Heimdall, but he, too, was probably originally one of the Vanir. He was associated with the sea and was the son of nine maidens (perhaps nine waves). According to Snorri, 'He needs less sleep than a bird, and can see a hundred leagues in front of him as well by night as by day. He can hear the grass growing on the earth and the wool on sheep, and everything that makes more noise.' His stamina and acutely developed senses made Heimdall the ideal watchman for the gods. His hall Himinbjorg (Cliffs of Heaven) stood near the rainbow Bifrost, and he owned the horn Gjall whose blast could be heard throughout the nine worlds. Heimdall is also identified in the prose preface to the Rigsthula as the progenitor of the races of men (Myth 5); we do not know enough about his origins to be sure why he and not Odin (who, with his brothers, actually created the first man and woman) appears in this context.

Another leading god, Tyr, was a son of Odin, although one source (Myth 17) makes him the son of the giant Hymir. Like Odin, he inherited characteristics from earlier Germanic gods of battle, and his origins are discussed in Note 7. He is the bravest of the Aesir and only he is prepared to sacrifice a hand so that the wolf Fenrir can be bound (Myth 7), thereby ensuring the safety of the gods until Ragnarok.

Ragnarok is precipitated by the death of Balder, the gentle and beloved son of Odin and Frigg, who is felled by a mistletoe dart thrown by his own brother Hod, a blind god whose aim is guided by the evil Loki. Balder's character is discussed in detail in Note 29; in the inimitable words of Snorri Sturluson:

There is nothing but good to be told of him. He is the best of them and everyone sings his praises. He is so fair of face and bright that a splendour radiates from him, and there is one flower so white that it is likened to Balder's brow; it is the whitest of all flowers. From that you can tell how beautiful his body is, and how bright his hair. He is the wisest of the gods, and the sweetest-spoken, and the most merciful, but it is a characteristic of his that once he has pronounced a judgement it can never be altered.

None of the remainder of the twelve 'leading' gods feature significantly in the surviving myths. Forseti, the son of Balder and Nanna, was god of justice; Bragi, son of Odin, was god of poetry and eloquence; Ull was particularly concerned with archery and skiing, and was invoked in duels; Vali, son of Odin and his mistress Rind, who avenged Balder's death by killing his unwitting murderer, and Vidar, son of Odin and the giantess Grid, who will avenge Odin's death, both survive Ragnarok.

Apart from the twelve principal gods three other male inhabitants of Asgard must be mentioned. Honir (Myths 2, 8 and 26) was involved in the exchange of leaders between the Aesir and Vanir. His most pronounced characteristic appears to have been his indecisiveness and he was associated with Odin and Loki on several occasions. It seems that after Ragnarok he will be Odin's successor as first among the gods. Secondly, Hermod, a son of Odin, makes one significant appearance: his name implies resolve and it is he who journeys to the underworld of Hel in an attempt to recover his dead brother Balder. And, finally, there is Loki.

The son of two giants and yet the foster-brother of Odin, Loki embodies the ambiguous and darkening relationship between the gods and the giants. He is dynamic and unpredictable and because of that he is both the catalyst in many of the myths and the most fascinating character in the entire mythology. Without the exciting, unstable, flawed figure of Loki, there could be no change in the fixed order of things, no quickening pulse, and no Ragnarok.

Snorri Sturluson says that Loki

is handsome and fair of face, but has an evil disposition and is very changeable of mood. He excelled all men in the art of cunning, and he always cheats. He was continually involving the Aesir in great difficulties and he often helped them out again by guile.

This is a very fair description of the Loki of the earlier myths: he is responsible for a wager with a giant which imperils Freyja (Myth 3) but by changing both shape and sex, characteristics he has in common with Odin, he bails out Freyja and the gods; his shearing of Sif s hair is more mischievous than evil, and he makes handsome amends in the end (Myth 10); and although his deceit leads to the loss of the golden apples of youth (Myth 8), he retrieves them again.

Loki's origins are particularly complex and he has been compared to a number of figures in European and other mythologies; it is now generally accepted, though, that he was no late invention of the Norse poets but an ancient figure, and one descended from a common Indo-European prototype. Noting this turn and turnabout quality in Loki's make-up, H. R. Ellis Davidson has also tellingly compared him to the Trickster of American Indian mythology:

The trickster is greedy, selfish, and treacherous; he takes on animal form; he appears in comic and often disgusting situations, and yet he may be regarded as a kind of culture hero, who provides mankind with benefits like sunlight and fire. At times he even appears as a creator. He can take on both male and female form, and can give birth to children. He is, in fact, a kind of semi-comic shaman, halfway between god and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element, foreign to both, thrown in.

But, as time goes on, the playful Loki gives way to the cruel predator, hostile to the gods. He not only guides the mistletoe dart that kills Balder but stands in the way of Balder's return from Hel; his accusations against the gods at Aegir's feast (Myth 30) are vicious and unbridled; even when fettered, he remains an agent of destruction, causer of earthquakes. And when he breaks loose at Ragnarok, Loki reveals his true colours: he is no less evil than his three appalling children, the serpent Jormungand, the wolf Fenrir and the half-alive, half-dead Hel (Myth 7), and he leads the giants and monsters into battle against the gods and heroes.

We hear far less about the goddesses in the myths; and since Snorri Sturluson asserts their equality with the gods, we can only assume a disproportionate number of stories concerning them have been lost. Freyja is the only 'divine' goddess to have survived as a fully rounded and commanding figure. With her father Njord and brother Freyr she came to represent the Vanir when they exchanged leaders with the Aesir. Her husband was called Od (sometimes equated with Odin) and Freyja is often described weeping for this shadowy figure who had for some reason left her. Freyja was invoked by pre-Christian Scandinavians as goddess of love, and is portrayed in the myths as sexually attractive and free with her favours: on two occasions, giants lusted after her; she sold herself to four dwarfs (Myth 13) in exchange for the Necklace of the Brisings—the most striking symbol of her fertility; and the giantess Hyndla roundly censured her for riding on her human lover Ottar (Myth 18) and for leaping around at night like a nanny goat.

Freyja was also associated with war. She rode to battle in a chariot drawn by two cats and the eddaic poem Grimnismal says that she divided the slain with Odin; half went to Valhalla and half to her hall, Sessrumnir, on Folkvang (Field of Folk). The end of Myth 13 displays this warlike face of Freyja, while it is noteworthy that in Myth 17 the alias of Freyja's lover Ottar is Hildisvini, which means 'battle-boar'.

War and death stand shoulder to shoulder and, like Odin, Freyja had connexions with the world of the dead. She was said to have been mistress of magic and witchcraft (Myth 2) and owned a falcon skin which enabled her spirit to take the form of a bird, travel to the underworld, and come back with prophecies and knowledge of destinies. But although a great deal about the practice of shamanism in pre-Christian Scandinavia (and Freyja's association with it) can be adduced from contemporary sources, no myth survives that displays Freyja as seer or volva.

Of the other twelve 'divine' goddesses, Gefion was also counted among the Vanir, and the story of how she tricked Gylfi, the King of Sweden (Myth 21), establishes her connexion with agriculture in general and ploughing in particular. Eir was goddess of healing; Sjofn and Lofn were concerned with firing human love and bringing together those 'for whom marriage was forbidden or banned', while Var heard the marriage oath and punished those who strayed from it; Vor was a goddess from whom nothing could be hidden and watchful Syn was invoked by defendants at trials; Snotra was wise and gentle and knew the value of self-discipline; Saga was distinguished only for drinking each day with Odin in her hall Sokkvabekk; and Lin, Fulla and Gna appear to have been no more than handmaidens to Odin's wife, Frigg.

It is a pity that we do not know more about Frigg herself, who shared with Odin a knowledge of men's destinies. Like Freyr, she must have had her origin in the image of the Earth Mother: she was the daughter of Fjorgyn, the Goddess of Earth; she was invoked by women in labour; and her maternal qualities are evident in her mourning for the loss of her son Balder. H. R. Ellis Davidson has written of the likely connexion between Freyja and Frigg:

The two main goddesses of Asgard indeed suggest two aspects of the same divinity, and this is paralleled by the twofold aspect of the fertility goddess in the Near East, appearing as mother and as lover. Sometimes both roles may be combined in the person of one goddess, but it is more usual for the different aspects to be personified under different names. It is even possible to recognise a triad of goddesses, such as Asherah, Astarte, and Anat of Syria, or Hera, Aphrodite, and Artemis of Greece. Here the three main aspects of womanhood appear side by side as wife and mother, lover and mistress, chaste and beautiful virgin. Frigg and Freyja in northern mythology could figure as the first two of such a trio, while the dim figure of Skadi the huntress might once have occupied the vacant place.

We know rather more about other female inhabitants of Asgard than about some of the 'divine' goddesses. Idun, the wife of Bragi, was custodian of the apples of youth, and the myth of how she was tricked by Loki into leaving Asgard and then kidnapped by the giant Thiazi is one of the most haunting in the cycle (Myth and Note 8). Like Idun, Sif, the wife of Thor, must have been a fertility goddess; she had incomparable golden hair and its loss is the starting point for Myth 10. Nanna was Balder's loyal wife; her heart broke at the sight of him lying dead on the ship Ringhorn and she was cremated with him and accompanied him to Hel. And Sigyn was no less loyal to her husband Loki; when he was bound by the gods, she stood beside him and with a bowl caught the deadly venom that dripped from a snake's fangs on to his face.

The gods and goddesses symbolise specific beliefs and many of them have highly distinctive personalities. Giants and dwarfs, on the other hand, appear as a genera. There is little to choose between one giant and another, one dwarf and the next. The giants largely represent the forces of chaos, attempting through physical force, trickery and magic to upset the order of the universe. They range from the blunt and brutal Geirrod and Hrungnir, both disposed of by Thor, to the wily and evil Utgard-Loki, who sees Thor off the premises. But the distinction between gods and giants is far from absolute. Some gods have bad qualities, some giants have good; and the gods and giants do not only fight one another, but form friendships and embark on love relationships. Perhaps it is legitimate, indeed, to see the gods and giants not as polarised opposites but rather as opposing aspects of one character—warring, making peace, warring again and, in the end, mutually destructive.

The ugly, misshapen dwarfs, meanwhile, represent greed; they do nothing that is not in their own interests. Mastersmiths and magicians, quick to show malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after gold. Light elves and dark elves and the inhabitants of Niflheim are mentioned in the myths from time to time, but they do not have an active part to play in them. Of the five myths (5, 12, 20, 21 and 25) involving humans, I will have more to say.…


The greater part of this magnificent mythology, Indo-European in origin, took shape in Germanic Europe between 1000 BC and the birth of Christ. The survival of Bronze Age rock carvings, however, some of them featuring religious symbols, indicates that certain elements in the myths were current in Scandinavia in the previous millennium. But not until Tacitus's Germania, written at the end of the first century AD, do we have a written record of ancient Germanic religious beliefs, and our chief sources are much later still, dating from thirteenth-century Christian Iceland, when the old beliefs were largely discredited. We have to rely on poets and antiquarians 'out on the end of an event, waving goodbye'.

There are six primary literary sources (some single, some plural) fundamental to a study of Norse mythology. The notes at the end of the book discuss in some detail the source(s) for each myth and also refer to mythological parallels, literary analogues and archaeological finds.

In 1643 the Bishop of Skalholt in Iceland discovered a manuscript, Codex Regius, now thought to have been written in about 1270, consisting of twenty-nine mythical and heroic poems. Confusion over its authorship led to its being called Saemund's Edda (the term 'edda' is thought to derive from the Old Norse oðr meaning poem or poetry). A few other poems of the same type were subsequently discovered, notably a group of six in the Arnamagnaean Codex of which five appear in the Codex Regius and one (Baldrs Draumar) does not. The Elder Edda or Poetic Edda was adopted as the umbrella title for these poems, thirty-four in all, unified by subject matter and form. They appear to have been composed by poets who believed in the old gods, many of them are unique sources for individual myths, and many are highly accomplished poems in their own right. The Elder Edda, moreover, possesses in Voluspá (The Sibyl's Prophecy) a poem that is by common consent one of the greatest literary achievements of the Germanic world—a powerful and moving account of how the world was created, how it moved from a Golden Age to an age of strife, and how it had to end in total destruction before there could be a new innocence and a new cycle of time.

Although the majority of its poems were probably composed in the tenth century, the Elder Edda is actually an anthology of different poets from different places and times; this accounts for the contradictions and many chronological inconsistencies (detailed in the notes) within the myths they recount. There is, of course, no 'right' order or version for the myths (pre-Christian Germanic Europeans were no more uniform in their religious beliefs than any other people) and in retelling the cycle, I have simply attempted to find a psychologically satisfying sequence that reduced difficulties of this kind to a minimum.

Scaldic poems—eulogies and elegies by known poets celebrating their contemporaries—are the other major poetic source for the myths. Their intricate form, which includes syllabics, alliteration, internal rhyme and consonance, resists the most stout-hearted attempts to render them in an acceptable modem poetic translation, but the rich allusive detail they contain is invaluable. The 'shield poems', as a few of them are known, describe mythical scenes painted on the quarters of a shield presented to some king or local chieftain; the poem came along as, so to speak, an ancillary present. These are important sources for a number of the myths, but the greatest pertinence of the scaldic poems lies in the countless kennings, or condensed metaphors, that comprise part of their diction. Many of the kennings are rooted in myths with which the poem's original audience was clearly familiar. So, for instance, four of the kennings for gold are 'Freyja's tears', 'Sif s hair', 'Otter's ransom' and 'Aegir's fire'. As readers of these myths will discover, this is because Freyja wept tears of gold; because when the goddess Sif s hair was cropped by Loki, it was replaced by spun gold; because three gods had to pay a ransom for killing Otter by covering his pelt with gold; and because the sea god Aegir's hall was illumined only by gold that shone like fire. Many of the kennings, then, endorse those myths that have survived and give us tantalising glimpses of those that have not.

The finest man of letters that Iceland has ever produced was Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). An important political leader and landowner, he was also a great poet, sagaman, historian and critic. His poems include Hattatal, a scaldic eulogy for King Hakon and Duke Skuli; his sagas include the brilliantly vivid Egil's Saga, while the Heimskringla is nothing less than a survey of the whole of Norwegian history from its legendary origins up to his own time. But by far Snorri's most significant work for the student of Norse mythology is his Prose Edda.

Iceland had democratically adopted Christianity in 1000 AD, and the accompanying exposure to new European literary modes was eroding both the use of the old scaldic technique and familiarity with the kennings. Snorri's reaction was to write a handbook to encourage poets to compose in the scaldic style—a kind of North European equivalent of Aristotle's Poetics. The Prose Edda, written in about 1220, includes rules of poetic diction, quotes extensively from scaldic poems that would otherwise be lost to us, displays familiarity with almost all the poems in the Elder Edda and retells in full many of the myths that lie behind the kennings in scaldic poetry. One section in particular, 'Gylfaginning', consists exclusively of retellings from the myths.

Snorri Sturluson was writing here both as a Christian and an antiquarian, and we must keep this in mind in using and assessing his work. It would be wrong to suppose that, writing in thirteenth-century Iceland, Snorri Sturluson gives a thoroughly reliable and authentic firsthand view of ancient beliefs. His material fascinated and at times amused or misled him, but above all it fired the storyteller and poet in him (see Note 17 for the complete version of Thor's visit to Hymir). Absorbed by the drama of, and interplay between the nine worlds, he took material from existing sources and, with his own imaginative touch, created in 'Gylfaginning' a superb and delightful work of art—pages that tell many of the myths better than they have been told before or since.

In about 1215, just twenty years before Snorri Sturluson completed Heimskringla, a Dane called Saxo, nicknamed Grammaticus, wrote the last words of his sixteen-volume Latin history of the Danes, Gesta Danorum. Like Heimskringla, this work began with prehistoric times, and the first nine books are a confused medley of myth, legend and religious practice. Saxo Grammaticus knew and used variant versions of many of the myths recorded by Snorri, but his approach is markedly different. Snorri does not sermonise about the gods but lets them stand or fall by their own actions. But, as E. 0. G. Turville-Petre writes:

For Saxo, as for the medieval Icelanders, the gods were not gods, but crafty men of old. With superior cunning they had overcome the primeval giants; they had deluded men into believing that they were divine. But Saxo carried euhumerism further than the Icelanders did. Saxo's gods play a more intimate part in the affairs of men.… Saxo differs from the Icelandic writers chiefly in his bitter contempt of the gods and all they stood for. Snorri sometimes poked fun at them, but it was a good-humoured fun, of a kind which had no place in Saxo's mind.

Nevertheless, Gesta Danorum is still the primary source for the Danish and West Norse traditions, just as Snorri Sturluson represents Icelandic tradition. The note to 'The Death of Balder' (Myth 29) includes a detailed comparison of the versions offered by Snorri and Saxo.

The great Icelandic sagas (there are no fewer than seven hundred) together constitute the most surprising and one of the most distinguished achievements in European literature. Written in the thirteenth century by known and unknown hands, some are historical and revolve around the lives and deeds of kings and saintly bishops, some celebrate legendary heroes such as Sigurd the Volsung, some describe the Norsemen's insatiable appetite for exploration and settlement; and perhaps the greatest are the racy, ice-bright family sagas that tell of the lives, loyalties, dilemmas and feuds of individuals and families in Iceland's Heroic Age around 1000 AD.

Inevitably the sagas reflect the religious beliefs and attitudes of their protagonists, and they make available to us a great deal of information about pre-Christian belief and practice—much of which appears to have persisted well into the Christian period in Iceland. In the Eyrbyggja Saga, for example, one Thorolf decides to migrate to Iceland. In order to decide where to disembark

Thorolf threw overboard the high-seat pillars from the temple—the figure of Thor was carved on one of them—and declared that he'd settle at any spot in Iceland where Thor chose to send the pillars ashore.

Thorolf did just that and the saga then describes in detail the building of a temple to Thor, the function of the temple priest, and the use of the temple and its surrounds:

Thorolf used to hold all his courts on the point of the headland where Thor had come ashore, and that's where he started the district assembly. This place was so holy that he wouldn't let anybody desecrate it either with bloodshed or with excrement; and for privy purposes they used a special rock in the sea which they called Dritsker [Dirt Skerry].

In the last category are actual historians and their histories. As mentioned above, Tacitus was the first to write about the religions of the Germanic tribes within the Roman Empire. In the tenth century, the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan wrote a detailed record of his prolonged contact with the Norsemen, including a horrifying account of a ship burial in Russia; in the eleventh century, Adam of Bremen offered a sustained description of Swedish paganism and left a very vivid and detailed picture of the greatest of the heathen temples, dedicated to Odin, Thor and Freyr, at Uppsala. The thirteenth-century Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), which is a survey of Iceland man by man and inch by inch, contains a significant amount of religious history, i'ncluding the Icelandic heathen law concerning sacerdotal functions, sacrifices, oath swearing, and so forth. These and many other historical sources, some no less significant than those cited, help us to build up a picture of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Our principal sources stand only half-way between us and the people who accepted the myths as truths. The filters of literary artifice, fragmented manuscripts, prejudice and contempt occasioned by conflicting religious belief, and hindsight, all obscure our picture. However much we may know, there is far more that we can never know; we are rather like searchers using glow worms to guide us through the darkness.

The Literary Structure of the Myths

The majority of the myths are vigorous dramatic narratives. They are also episodes in a slowly developing, panoptic story.

First Odin and his brothers create the worlds and their inhabitants, and then follows a time of peace. Snorri Sturluson characterises this as the Golden Age, metaphorically because it is pure and untarnished and literally because the god's halls and sanctuaries and implements and utensils were made of gold.

This Golden Age ends with a war between the Aesir and the Vanir, the first war in the world. When it becomes clear that neither side will prevail, a truce is called and leaders are exchanged. But no sooner have the Aesir and the Vanir learned to live side by side than, in the third myth in the cycle, the recurring motifs of the myths announce themselves: the antagonism of gods and giants, and the ambivalence of Loki.

A giant masquerading as a mason visits Asgard. He tricks the gods into a wager involving Freyja, the sun and the moon, but Loki's cunning prevails. And the citadel's walls, shattered in the war between the Aesir and the Vanir, are restored into the bargain.

There now follow a number of myths ranging between the worlds in which the gods and giants flex their muscles against one another. Initially worsted (sometimes because of Loki's double dealing), the gods invariably come off better in the end (sometimes because Loki, under pressure, rights the situation). Odin journeys to the world of the giants, Jotunheim, to win the sacred mead of poetry; Loki follows in his footsteps to retrieve Idun and the apples of youth; and in a hilarious burlesque, Thor and Loki travel to Jotunheim together, disguised as bride and bridesmaid, to recover Thor's stolen hammer. In all three myths, the gods achieve their aims and the giants are killed.

But during this time the gods sustain losses too; the wise Kvasir is murdered by two dwarfs and his blood is the basic ingredient of the mead of poetry; in order to fetter the wolf Fenrir, Odin's son Tyr is obliged to sacrifice one hand; and in what is the longest and most picaresque of the myths, superbly told by Snorri Sturluson, Thor suffers very considerable loss of face in the course of a visit to the court of the magical Utgard-Loki. We see here that illusion is not only the tool of the gods but of the giants too.

Running parallel to this motif of antagonism is one of love and friendship. Two gods, Njord and Freyr, marry giantesses, and both Odin and Thor have a number of giant mistresses. The giantess Grid lends Thor her iron gloves, her belt of strength and her staff which enable him to dispose of the giant Geirrod and his two daughters. As already suggested the conflict between gods and giants is all the more tragic because they are also drawn to one another and, in many respects, resemble one another; because, in a sense, they are fighting a civil war in which both sides are inevitably the losers.

The theme of sexual attraction between inhabitants of different worlds persists throughout the cycle: four dwarfs buy the body of the goddess Freyja for four nights; in an intricate and passionate myth, the human Svipdag searches for and wins Menglad, a figure with one foot in Asgard, one in Jotunheim; Odin, so quick to boast of his conquests, is frustrated by a human girl, Billing's daughter; and the dwarf Alvis's journey to claim Thrud, Thor's daughter, as his bride ends when the sun rises and he is turned into a block of stone.

There are elements of playfulness and genial humour in many of the myths in the early part of the cycle. But the time of prodigious contests, of thefts and retrievals, and unexpected love matches, comes to an end with the myth of Thor's visit to the giant Geirrod (Myth 24); here, once again, the giants are bent on destroying Thor and unseating the gods, but here it is also apparent that the greatest threat to the gods is not the giants but one of their own number—Loki.

In the most famous of the myths, certainly one of the world's great tragic stories as it is told by Snorri Sturluson, the beautiful and innocent god Balder is killed by a mistletoe dart—and his return from the world of the dead is prevented by one cynical goddess, Thokk, who refuses to weep for him. Loki's is the hand that guides the dart and Loki is the giantess. From this moment on, it is clear that the world is approaching its end. Loki subjects gods and goddesses to vitriolic abuse; he is pursued and fettered. But the forces of evil cannot long be contained. Odin has already learned the future; he knows it is the destiny of gods, giants, men, dwarfs, and all creation to fight and destroy one another at Ragnarok.

But a shaft of light penetrates the final darkness of this most fatalistic mythology. Odin has also learned that a new cycle of time and of life will begin after Ragnarok. Balder, several other gods, and two humans will survive and return to Asgard and Midgard to repeople the world. The end will contain a beginning.

Interspersed with these colourful and often racy narrative tales are a number of myths whose form is quite different. They are pauses in the development of the cycle somewhat like arias in opera; their function is to reveal mythical knowledge. They are taxing to read in that, although they may have a skeletal narrative framework, they are actually litanies—condensations of a great number of names and facts into the minimum number of words. Three of these myths reflect Odin's unceasing search for, and acquisition of, wisdom. In 'Lord of the Gallows', Odin voluntarily sacrifices himself on Yggdrasill and, as he says, learns nine magic songs and eighteen highly potent charms; we learn what effects they have. In 'The Lay of Vafthrudnir', Odin successfully pits his knowledge against a giant, and in 'The Lay of Grimnir', he reveals a plethora of facts to the boy prince Agnar about both the layout and inhabitants of the mythical universe; both these myths were extensively used by Snorri Sturluson and are unique sources for much information about the cosmology, protagonists and other constituents of the myths.

Two 'flyting' poems—contests of abuse—also furnish many valuable details about the gods. In 'The Lay of Harbard', Odin, disguised as a ferryman, and Thor, anxious to get home, fling taunts at one another across a deep river; and in 'Loki's Flyting', Loki savages one god after another with injurious disclosures and gratuitous insults.

Five myths tell specifically of traditions in Midgard, the world of men. 'The Song of Rig' describes the social structure of the Norse world, 'The Lay of Loddfafnir' lays down a number of rules for social conduct, and 'The Lay of Alvis' is effectively a list of synonyms, an aidememoire for poets (put into the mouths of a god and a dwarf); 'Gylfi and Gefion' describes how Sweden and Denmark were given their present shape and 'Hyndla's Poem' is a catalogue of many legendary heroes known to the Norseman. From these myths especially, much information can be elicited about day to day life in the Norse world, the people who believed or half-believed in the gods and who composed, in the tenth century, most of the surviving poems about them.




Eddic Poetry