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Norse Mythology And Other Traditions

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Henning K. Sehmsdorf (1974)

SOURCE: "Archetypal Structures in Scandinavian Mythology," in Facets of Scandinavian Literature, edited by A. Wayne Wonderley, APRAP Press, 1974, pp. 53-67.

[In this essay, Sehmsdorf analyzes the Icelandic mythological tradition in terms of Jungian psychology.]

The title of my paper is "Archetypal Structures in Scandinavian Mythology." In the few minutes allotted to me, I want to give a rough sketch of an interpretation of the nordic mythological system along the lines of Jungian psychology. As source material I will rely almost exclusively on the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorre Sturluson.

According to C. G. Jung, the archetypes are universal forms of the unconscious manifesting themselves in dreams, fantasies, art, fairytales, myths, and other expressions. As the archetypal images are received by the conscious mind, they initiate a process of reaction and assimilation. In the gradual development of psychological maturation, a person thus experiences and re-experiences the archetypes in ever new relationships and configurations. On the basis of clinical observation and studies in myth, moreover, Jungians have concluded that the gradual transformation of archetypes in the maturation process develops according to a recognizable and practically invariable pattern. Erich Neumann has defined this pattern in terms of three specific phases or cycles which, he has labelled, mythologically speaking: 1. the creation myth, 2. the hero myth, and 3. the transformation myth.1

In the first phase, the cycle of creation, the world and the unconscious are represented as one. The major motif of this stage is the motif of unity and the major form or metaphor is that of the maternal womb to which mythologists have given the name uroboros (from the Greek, meaning "perfect round"). In the two Eddas, the uroboros is symbolized by the image of Ginnungagap which Jan deVries has interpreted as "primordial space filled with magic power."2 In this cosmic space or womb, suffused with life giving power, there are two primordial regions, one a region of icy rivers (Niflheim), the other a region of fire (Muspelheim). Effusions from the two regions mysteriously meet in the center of Ginnungagap, fire and ice merge and grow into the likeness of a human being. This description makes it quite clear that there is no outside father who implants the fructifying seed in the maternal womb; both biological principles, the masculine as well as the feminine, are contained in Ginnun-gagap.

The first being thus to emerge in Ginnungagap, is called Ymir ("The Bellower"). He is neither a god nor human, but a primitive, androgynous giant. Like an infant's, Ymir's primary form of existence is sleep. In that state he unconsciously brings forth offspring which grows from the sweat under his armpit and from the sexual union of his two legs. These are the ancestors of the frost giants.

Ymir, as we said, is bi-sexual; but the second being to emerge from the ice is specifically female, namely a cow by the name of Authumla. She nourishes the sleeping giant with her milk. After Authumla there appears a third group of beings and they are specifically male. Here the cow plays the role of midwife. As she licks the ice in Ginnungagap, there appears a man called Buri; Buri has a son by the name of Bor who marries Bestla, the daughter of a giant. From their union, the first heterosexual union in cosmic history, are born three sons: Othin, Vili, and Ve. These are the first of the shaper gods.

At this point a decisive change occurs in the development of the cosmos. The processes of creation as gradual emergence are...

(This entire section contains 9696 words.)

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superseded by processes of violent struggle, building and shaping. The three gods, Othin, Vili, and Ve, turn upon the primordial being and slay it; separating the feminine element from the masculine, they create a new world which is governed not by the principle of unity, but by the principle of opposites or polarity. Psychologically speaking, this act signifies the beginning struggle of consciousness to separate itself from unconsciousness. Now the Good Mother, originally represented by the life-giving womb and the life-sustaining cow, is transformed into Terrible Mother, the destroyer and devouring monster, symbolizing the tendency of the unconscious to resist assimilation by the conscious system. Thus mythology enters the second stage, the cycle of the hero. I should inject here that Jungian psychologists always hasten to add that the identification of the unconscious with the feminine principle must not be construed to mean that women are or represent the unconscious, while men by implication represent the conscious system. On the contrary, all human beings, male and female, are psychological hybrids, carrying both the feminine and the masculine in them. The processes described here refer to the development of the individual in a trans-personal and trans-sexual sense. However, in mythology the conscious is invariabley represented by masculine symbols, and the unconscious, by feminine symbols. The reason for this is the original identity of body and psyche in the alimentary uroboros of early infancy. The child recognizes father and mother as separate people only secondarily, thus separating the two principles at the same time it becomes conscious of itself as separate from the world.3

The hero slays the androgynous being and creates a new world. Scandinavian mythology has provided two models for this new cosmic structure. One is the image of the world as a series of concentric or superimposed circles or discs. The skull of Ymir becomes the arching vault of the sky, his body the round of the earth, his blood the encircling sea. The gods settle the center of the earth; around this divine center human beings have their abode, while the outermost rim, the mountains, is inhabited by the survivors of the primordial giants. Surrounding the entire world, biting its own tail, the great Midgard Serpent swims in the ocean. As circular snake, the serpent is another transformation of the primordial uroboros, the self-fructifying and perfect womb of nature. But consistent with the thematic shift in the heroic phase, the serpent is now invariably represented as a monster, the implacable enemy of gods and men.4

The second model of the universe is the World Tree. If we hold that the circular shape of the first model suggests the womb or maternal principle, we may well interpret the world tree as a representation of the paternal principle, the phallus.5 In any case it is, as Mircea Eliade put it, a "Cosmic Tree par excellence, the image of polar opposition as well as interdependence.6 In the top branches of the Tree sits an eagle and between his eyes a hawk, a double symbol of consciousness and both personifications of Othin. But while the tree as "erect phallus" topped by the symbol of Othin (the eye, the swift-flying bird), may thus be said to represent the hero's struggle toward the emancipation of consciousness, the myth leaves no doubt that the Tree is and remains rooted in the chtonic earth, the maternal unconscious. There are three roots: one reaches into the land of the giants in Ginnungagap, in other words, it connects the present to the beginnings. The spring of Mimir is found under this root; Othin's journey to this well and his voluntary sacrifice of one eye for a drink, may thus be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the wisdom buried in the primordial unconscious. Another root of the Tree reaches into the land of the dead, Niflheim; at the entrance lies a huge, man-eating dragon, Nidhøgg, a personification of the mother ogress in her most terrifying form. Nidhøgg, the arch-enemy of the eagle in the sky, gnaws at the Tree from below, trying to destroy it. The third root, however, paradoxically reaches up into the sky, the abode of the shaper gods. Under this root, too, there is a spring, and at this spring there live three women, the Mothers of Destiny, called the Norns. Their names (Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld) indicate that they represent Past, Present, and Future. They water the Tree from the sacred spring so that its branches shall not wither or decay. They also determine the fate of the universe; like the Greek Parces, or like Maya, the eternal spinner of Hindu mythology, they spin the web of existence for gods and men alike, determining the destiny both of the individual and of the entire cosmos. To this spring the gods ride daily and there they hold their council and court of justice, thus expressing clearly the interdependence of the maternal and paternal powers: fate spun out by the Norns (the Mothers), is actualized by the shaper gods (the Fathers).

The new cosmic order imposed by the gods of the sky is also carried through on the social level; Othin appoints twelve male gods to rule the world, as well as establishes a religious cult. But most poignantly the new order is expressed by the creation of the human being. Ymir had created his primitive offspring unconsciously; in his story, the power of life was associated with bodily secretions such as sweat and semen. The creation of the human being, by contrast, is a conscious act and here the power of life is preeminently associated with the breath as the representation of spirit. The three creator gods, Othin, Vili, and Ve, find two trees on the shores of the ocean and into these Ve infuses the spark of physical life, Vili the power of reason and will (Jung would identify this power with the ego, the subject of our conscious acts), while Othin gives breath or spirit. The significance of Othin's gift is the most difficult to understand, but here the etymology of his name can help us. Othin's name (related to óðr, meaning "raging") suggests that he represents the raging, dynamic force of nature, the furious, destructive storm as well as the creative, swift moving wind. The notion of divine creativity in the form of wind is known from many mythologies, including the classical and the Christian. Jung defines the creative wind-spirit as the dynamic principle in the human psyche which moves, fires and inspires us and thus forms the very antithesis of the stasis and inertia of our material being.7 Jung says further that archaic man apprehended this spiritual factor as an invisible, breathlike presence, and, equally important, that in dreams, myths, legends, and fairytales spirit is mostly symbolized by two related figures, namely the figure of the Wise Old Man, or its negative aspect, the Terrible Hunter. Both of these descriptions fit Othin. In various heroic legends Othin is depicted as a one-eyed, bearded old man who appears precisely at the moment when the hero finds himself in a critical situation of mortal danger or choice, or when he is in need of special knowledge or inspiration. Othin may give him counsel or maybe a weapon which only the hero, the "inspired individual," is able to wield. Psychologically speaking, the Wise Old Man thus represents an archetypal and autonomous content of the unconscious presenting itself to the conscious mind as personified thought. But, as we said, the Wise Old Man can also appear as his own opposite, as a death-dealer as well as a life-dealer. Then he manifests himself as the wicked magician, a deceiver and evil-doer, or as the terrible hunter riding through the air on a magic horse to come swiftly and unexpectedly strike down the same hero he has supported with counsel and gifts. Again this description fits Othin, who is also called Ygg, The Terrible One. Othin may himself appear on the battlefield and kill his chosen hero, as he did in the case of Harald War-Tooth, or break the hero's weapon and leave him defenseless, as he did with Sigmund, the son of Volsung; or he may send his valkyries who ride on their flying horses and bring death to the best of warriors in the name of the raging god. The heroes are carried to Valhall, the great hall of Othin where they will fight and feast until the end of the cosmic eon. The warrior's death is thus a kind of rebirth into a higher, more perfect form of life; but it remains nonetheless a deeply ambiguous experience robbing the hero of victory and life on earth.

These examples indicate that Othin is an equivocal figure and, further, that he by no means represents only conscious contents of the psyche but also aspects of the unconscious. We will return to this presently, but first I want to take a look at other major sky gods, namely Tyr, Thor, and Frey. These gods are much simpler in their structure and play clearly identifiable roles in the confrontation of opposites. Tyr, the oldest of the Scandinavian pantheon, is remembered chiefly by the sacrifice of his weapon hand for the purpose of binding the monster of the underworld, the Fenris Wolf. Inasmuch as the hand, together with the head and the eye, is a major symbol of consciousness or the masculine principle, Tyr's loss may be interpreted as a form of propitiatory castration. To be sure, by castration in this context, mythologists do not mean actual loss of the male genitilia, but a symbolic castration typical of the hostility of the unconscious to the ego and to consciousness. Tyr's loss thus parallels Othin's payment of one eye for a drink from Mimir. However, it should be pointed out that in both cases the sacrifice was voluntary; Tyr submits to castration in order to contain or control the unconscious, Othin in order to partake of its knowledge; in both cases the act implies a positive, active offering up of consciousness for an important purpose.

Thor, too, is subject to symbolic castration, but his loss is not voluntary. Thor's hammer personifies the bolt of lightning followed by thunder and rain and thus is a bringer of fertility; moreover, like the lightning bolt of Zeus and Indra, the hammer represents the power of the sky pitted against the primordial powers of earth and sea. But once a giant had stolen the hammer and would give it up only if he received Freyja for a wife. This would mean, however, that the power of human productivity would pass out of the hands of the gods, back into the control of the primordial personfications of the earth. To prevent this disastrous possibility, the gods devise a ruse that is not without comedy; they dress the huge, big-bellied and red-bearded Thor in women's clothes, a grotesque image which expresses Thor's temporary emasculation very well. In this guise Thor journeys to the giant, is received by the happy bridegroom who places the hammer in the lap of the blushing bride to make her fruitful, and Thor forthwith slays the giant and all his kin.

A further variation of the symbolic complex of castration can be observed in the story of Frey who gave up his sword to possess Gerth, another personification of the maternal earth. Frey, of course, is a phallic divinity, the chief god of fertility. But here a distinction must be made between his function as the fecundator of the earth and his function as a representative of the masculine sky. From archeological and historical sources we know that during the late Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the chief divinity worshipped was female, the Great Mother Earth. Even during the Roman period the feminine divinities seem to have been in dominance. In Viking mythology, by contrast, we notice a progressive masculinization of the divine and a corresponding suppression of the feminine. Nerthus, the terra mater, whose fertility cult Tacitus had described in detail, appears as a male god Njord in the Scandinavian pantheon.9 The war between the Wanir (the earth divinities) and the ÆSIR (the powers of the sky) suggests a clash between the two cults which was resolved by the absorption of the fertility gods into the tribe of the shaper gods.10 It is characteristic that none of the Vanir contribute to the restructuring of the cosmic order in the heroic cycle. We notice, too, that none of the goddesses, of which there are at least as many as male gods, are included in the government of the world; nor do they have a seat in the high temple, or contribute to the making of the material culture or the making of tools. In the light of this overall trend, Frey's loss of his sword takes on added significance. His troubles begin when he presumes to sit in the highseat of Othin, the supreme sky god, and thus momentarily acquires the world penetrating vision of the All-Father. For in looking out over the world, Frey sees the beauty of the earth personified in the giant maiden Gerth and is possessed by such sexual passion that he gives up his sword, symbol of his higher masculinity or consciousness, for the sake of possessing the maiden. We are told that this is a momentous loss and will eventually cause Frey's death, because he will be defenseless in the great battle at the end of time when the powers of the underworld destroy the cosmos created by the sky gods.

What, then, is the function of the goddesses? By and large, the female divinities associated with the sky are projections of the Great Mother in her positive and beneficent aspects. Among these goddesses we count Frigg, the prophetic wife of Othin; Sif, the golden haired wife of Thor; Ithun, the keeper of the apples of youth; and Freyja, the patroness of human sexuality. Freyja is also called the sow, the bitch, the she-goat, and it is said of her that she lures all men indiscriminately. Thus she represents what mythologists call the "sacred prostitute," or vessel of fertility.11 But Freyja, like Isis of ancient Egypt, has also some negative aspects. She lays claim to half the warriors that fall on the battlefield, for instance, a direct reminder that she represents not only the life-giving, but also the devouring, womb. Most of the truly monstrous qualities of the Terrible Mother, however, have been separated from Freyja and are projected into another figure, the ogress of disease, hunger and death, called Hel. Hel is one of the three monsters born of a giantess and fathered by Loki, a strange figure who claims to be a blood brother of Othin, but actually reveals himself to be an enemy of the sky gods.

The relationship of Loki to Othin is a paradox that has many parallels in world mythology. As Neumann points out: "The structure of the father, whether personal or trans-personal, is two-sided like that of the mother. In mythology there stands beside the creative, positive father, the destructive and negative father."12 We have already talked about the split of Othin, the father figure, into the Wise Old Man and the Terrible Hunter. Now we encounter a parallel split of Othin into the World-Creator on one hand and Othin, the World-Destroyer, on the other. The latter aspect, however, as an expression of absolute evil associated with supreme divinity, has been carefully masked. It is expressed and yet hidden through its projection into a separate figure closely linked with Othin, namely Loki, who is also called Father-of-Lies. Loki enjoyed no cult; he was not worshipped. But as the major representation of the negative power associated with the shaper gods, Loki is always involved whenever the gods find themselves in a major difficulty. One of Loki's disastrous deeds is to father the monsters representing the greatest dangers the gods ever have to face and which eventually conquer them. Psychologically, these monsters symbolize the disintegrative power of the unconscious, "its rending, destroying, devouring and castrating character."13 As devouring forces, the children of Loki are closely associated with the uroboric womb; but just as that womb contained both principles in itself, the monsters of the unconscious can take on either feminine or masculine form. Thus we interpreted Hel, the ogress, as a direct representation of the Terrible Mother. But the second child of Loki, the Fenris-Wolf, a monster so huge that his upper jaw brushes against the sky while his lower jaw scrapes against the earth, appears as a representation of the Terrible Father. Loki's third child, however, the World Serpent called Jormungand, appears to be both. When the gods fling the phallic serpent into the ocean, it winds itself around the world in the shape of a circle, thus representing the womb that both sustains and threatens its offspring. Thor, the defender of the world, is repeatedly pitted against the great serpent. Once he nearly killed it with his hammer, another time he almost lifted it bodily out of the primordial ocean. But ultimately even Thor can defeat Jormungand only at the price of his own death. In the great battle at the end of time Thor slays the monster, but is himself killed by its poisonous breath.

The cataclysmic destruction of the world order is the most awe inspiring chapter in cosmic history written by the Fate and, again, Loki plays a major role in it. The first warnings of approaching disaster are the foreboding dreams of Balder, the young and innocent son of Othin. Psychologically and mythologically, the figure of the divine child or youthful hero is well known. Commenting on the child archetype, Jung says that one of its essential features is its futurity. The child paves the way for a future change of personality, anticipating "the synthesis of conscious and unconscious elements in the personality. It is therefore a symbol which unites the opposites," a symbol of wholeness transcending consciousness which Jung has called the "Self."14 On the divine level, the child hero personifies the collective unconscious which is not yet integrated into the human being. Among the major motifs surrounding this god figure Jung mentions that "he can cope with the greatest perils, yet, in the end, something quite insignificant is his undoing."15 To give an example, Jung refers to the story of Balder who is killed by the seemingly harmless mistletoe. Now Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough, has tried to show that the mistletoe, as a tree parasite, represents the "soul" of the World Tree; so that the myth of Balder's slaying should be interpreted as a scenario for a ritual in which the mistletoe was carved from the tree and the tree itself felled and burned in the expectation that it would renew itself and all of nature in the coming season.16 Without committing ourselves to this particular ritual interpretation, it is of course suggestive to see Balder in relation to the World Tree, and his death as the failure of consciousness seeking to transcend itself and reach for the whole, integrated personality. Consciousness is doomed to defeat in the heroic cycle of cosmic time. The nascent "Self must die.

Othin's role as a cause of this failure is again masked, with Loki acting in his stead. When Balder dreamed that his life was threatened, his mother (Frigg) elicited a promise from all things in the universe that they would not harm her beloved child. The only thing excluded from this promise was the mistletoe which Frigg thought too young and innocent to do harm. Loki, however, in the disguise of an old woman, found out this secret from Frigg herself, and when all the gods were gleefully throwing weapons at the invulnerable Balder, Loki placed the mistletoe in the hand of the blind god Hød, Hød threw it, and killed Balder. The blindness of Hød, a son of Othin, is another obvious expression of lacking consciousness; he is the "castrated" god who kills from ignorance. It should be mentioned, too, that stabbing with the spear was a preferred mode of sacrificing a human being to Othin. In a sense, then, Balder should go to Valhall, but this would necessitate an open admission of the role of the All-Father in the murder of his own son. No, Balder, though dying by the spear, is the one hero belonging to Hel, the devouring womb of the deep. While he yet sails on his funeral ship across the maternal ocean and into the realm of the dead, Othin sends another son, Hermod the Bold, to find out whether Hel would release Balder for a ransom. Hel answers that Balder may return if all living and dead things in the universe would weep for him. Everything did weep, except for Loki. The Father-of-Lies again took on a woman's shape and, disguised as the giantess Thøkk, he refused to shed a single tear. Thus Loki, the projection of the Terrible Father, but in the shape of woman and giantess, in other words, simultaneously as the projection of the Terrible Mother, once more acts as the demonic agent and representative of the unconscious in destroying the developing "Self." With Balder's death the social and spiritual and finally also the physical, form the shaper gods have wrought on the world, collapses in ruin. Ragnarok, the Doom or Fate of the Gods, has been fulfilled.

Yet eventually there rises a new world from the sea, still more beautiful than the old and cleansed of monsters and terror. A new sun illumines the sky. The Serpent and the Wolf are but memories of the past, while the Eagle, symbol of the god of the sky, again flies high over the mountains. And two human beings have survived, a woman by the name of Lif (meaning "Life"), and a man by the name of Lifthrasir (meaning "The One who clings to Life"); they had hidden in a branch of the World Tree which, apparently, had been shaken in the universal cataclysm but not destroyed. And finally a younger generation of gods, the children of the old, return and take over the government of the world together with Balder who is resurrected from the realm of Hel.

The question presents itself whether this story of the death and resurrection of Balder does not give clear indication that Scandinavian mythology had reached the third cycle, the cycle of transformation? We should probably answer, both yes, and no. The description of the new world arising from the eternal womb, the ocean, is a transformed world, a world without monsters; in other words, it suggests a form of existence in which the unconscious is no longer a threat to consciousness, but rather an assimilated part of the self. However, as Neumann points out in his discussion of the death and resurrection of the Egyptian god Osiris, as long as "rebirth is passively experienced by one already dead," we cannot speak of this restoration to life as self-transformation.17 And it seems, indeed, that in the case of Balder both death and resurrection are passive experiences expressing primarily the law of the life cycle, individual and cosmic, spun out by the maternal Fates and enacted by the sky gods. The hero myth is fulfilled and merges into the myth of transformation only when the hero experiences his death as a voluntary act and, simultaneously, as an act of self-regeneration. Only then has the hero overcome the enmity of opposite principles; only then is the twofold human being reborn as the whole and complete human being. The myth of Balder does not fulfill these conditions.

We should, however, take another look at some of the myths describing Othin's journeys to the realm of the maternal powers. For, in these stories, the unconscious appears not exclusively as projections of the Good or the Terrible Mother, but also as the feminine transformative principle, the soul guide, which Jung referred to as the anima. Besides the journey to the spring of wisdom (Mimir), Othin travelled to the realm of the unconscious twice more. Next to wisdom and knowledge, the major gift of the All-Father to mankind is inspiration, the creative power represented by the intoxicating beverage of the gods, the mead. In the paradoxical language of myth, the sources tell us that the mead originated with the gods but also with the primordial giants. When the two races of the gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, made peace between them, they spat into a crock and from this liquid they made a man called Kvasir who became renowned for his judgment. But Kvasir was killed by the dwellers of the underworld, who drained his blood into three vessels and mixed it with honey so that it fermented and became the precious mead of inspiration. This story suggests that the gods' contribution to inspiration is thought, while the fermenting, transformative power comes from the unconscious represented by the earth dwellers. The mead was then placed in the safekeeping of a giantess by the name of Gunnlød. Othin came to her abode, a mountain, drilled a hole through the wall and penetrated in the form of a snake. Once inside, he slept with Gunnlod for three nights and for each night he received one draught from each of the three kettles. On the third morning he escaped in the shape of a falcon. The sexual symbolism of Othin's quest for the mead is obvious. The god penetrates the primordial womb represented by the mountain with the phallus represented by the snake. He has intercourse with the keeper of the mead and for this he is rewarded with the treasured liquid itself. This act represents the creative union with the anima in the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of the opposite principles.

Othin's third descent is yet more dramatic and involves his special relationship to the World Tree. The name of the World Tree is Yggdrasil which means "The Horse of the Terrible One," in other words, Othin. Now, there is an expression in Scandinavia, "to ride the gallows," which means to be hung by the neck. Sacrifice to Othin was performed this way, as well as by stabbing with the spear. The purpose of offering up a human victim was to ensure the help of the god in battle, to win his protection and counsel, and ultimately to achieve afterlife in Valhall. In a remarkable passage in the Poetic Edda (Havamal), however, the victim offered to Othin is Othin himself. By voluntary self sacrifice Othin thus achieves the summa bonum, the highest good, which is the conquest of death itself and self regeneration. For he experiences the moment of death as the very moment of rebirth, both physically and spiritually. In other words, Othin has successfully assimilated the prime creative force represented by the womb into himself. He rises back out of the underworld below the World Tree to the world of earth and sky, taking with him the magic runes which give him power over the dead and the living and over nature's elements.

We should note, too, that Othin's journeys to the spring of Mimir and to the giant maiden who guarded the mead are both included in this passage, in other words that these quests are seen as analogues to Othin's self sacrifice, or even as part of that sacrificial experience.

Othin's achievement is thus the high point in the development of Scandinavian myth as depicted in the two Eddas. The chief god, representing the dynamic and spiritual principle identified with the sun and sky, has opened up channels of creative communication with the unconscious depth, the primordial darkness from which all life takes its issue. He has travelled into the labyrinth of the psyche under the leadership of the soul guide, the transforming feminine anima.—And yet, his achievement is contradicted by the myth of Balder. The reconciliation of opposite principles has been begun on the level of the individual divinity, but it eludes the gods on the universal, all embracing level. In other words, the complete integration of the self, the total personality, has not yet been achieved.


1The Origins and History of Consciousness (Bollingen Series XLII), Princeton, N.J., Princeton U. Press, 1971, passim.

2Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte. Berlin, Walter deGruyter, 1970, II, 362.

3 Neumann, op. cit., 27-29, 290-293.

4 On snake symbolism, the phallic and the ring snake, see Neumann, ibid, 48-49.

5 Jere Fleck ("Othin's Self Sacrifice—A New Interpretation, II: The Ritual Landscape," Scandinavian Studies 43/4 (1971), 400) takes an extreme position on Yggdrasil as cosmic model, interpreting the "connecting axis between a masculine heaven and a feminine earth (as) supremely phallic in nature," and the waters nourishing the world as well as the poet's mead, as Othin's sperm; Neumann (The Great Mother. An Analysis of the Archetype (Bollingen Series XLVII). Princeton, N.J., Princeton U. Press, 1972, 251) takes the opposite view, emphasizing the feminine aspect of the tree that is rooted in the maternal waters of destiny.

6Patterns in Comparative Religion. Cleveland and New York, World Publ. Co., 1963, 276-277.

7The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Bollingen Series XX). New York, Pantheon Books, 1959, IX, part 1, 210.

8 Neumann, Origins, 53-54 (note).

9 Scholars have argued that the cult of Nerthus may have involved a male god who was her brother and consort, the same way that Njord is said to have a sister who is also his wife. One plausible explanation for the change of sex would then be that Tacitus neglected the male divinity because at the time the feminine was the dominant partner; in Viking mythology, by contrast, the dominance has been reversed. See: Folke Strøm. Nordisk hedendom. Tro och sed iforkristen tid. Gøteborg, Akademiførlaget, 1967, 41.

10 An alternative and widely accepted interpretation of this war has been suggested by George Dumézil, who reads the conflict as a struggle between the agricultural and warrior classes. His "structuralist theory," based on an analogy with the class system of India, appears "exotic" (to quote Folke Strøm, op. cit., 105) when applied to the nordic context, where peasant and warrior were usually the same people and no priestly class ever developed as a separate group.

11 Neumann, The Great Mother, 94.

12 Neumann, Origins, 170-171.

13 Ibid, 170.

14 Works, IX, part 1, 164.

15 Ibid, 167.

16 Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion. I Volume, Abridged Edition. New York, Macmillan Co., 1951, 703ff.

17 Neumann, Origins, 254.

Gisli Sigurdsson (1988)

SOURCE: "Mythology," in Gaelic Influence in Iceland: Historical and Literary Contacts, Bókaûtgáfa Menningarsjóds, 1988, pp. 73-82.

[In the following excerpt, Sigurdsson identifies and analyzes links between Gaelic folktales and Icelandic mythology.]

Scandinavian Background

Old Norse/Icelandic mythology as it has been preserved, mainly in Snorra-Edda and the Eddaic poems, mostly written in Iceland in the 13th century, has its origins, at least partly, in pagan times. It can be assumed that the general framework of ideas concerning the gods was brought to Iceland as it existed at the time of the settlement. The ties with Scandinavia never broke so that myths which were later attached to Scandinavian gods could travel back and forth and be told on both sides of the Atlantic, in Iceland and Scandinavia alike. But these were scattered stories and linked up with poems about the gods. Knowledge of these, however, was fundamental for scaldic poets and their audience in order to understand kennings and the poetic vocabulary, much of which is based on the mythology.

The status of the gods was established by the Scandinavians themselves, who composed poems and told stories about them.

The Gaels who were faced with this tradition in Iceland could not have affected its roots or its general background. It is another matter how faithfully our sources reflect Old Norse mythology and pagan beliefs, or how much influence Christianity had on the tradition during the centuries. Such questions need not concern us here. Because of the nature of the material in pagan times, lack of an authoritative collection of myths related to the gods and a lack of any institution which decided on what was genuine tradition and what was not, the stories were open to additions and variations. New stories could be told about the gods and fitted into what had been told of them before. It is in this manner that the Gaelic material could become a part of Old Norse/Icelandic mythology without changing its basic assumptions.

One may therefore suggest that Gaelic influence in Old Icelandic myths would be likely to be limited to single motifs and episodes, a few of which will now be discussed.

Single Gaelic Motifs

The Sons of Tuireann and Loki

From Ireland comes a story, called The Fate of the Children of Tuireann (see esp. pp. 188-89 and 196-97). The text dates from the 18th century but references to its contents are found as early as in The Book of Leinster (1160)1 and A. B. Rooth2 has argued that it might reflect an even older story.

The sons of Tuireann get the task of fetching the apples of life. They fly off as hawks, take the apples but are pursued by fire-vomiting ladies in the form of griffins. The sons—as hawks—catch fire, change again into swans, dart down into the sea and complete their mission.

In Haustlong (a poem dated to the 9th century) and Snorra-Edda we find a story of how Loki saves his life from the giant þjazi (who is in the form of an eagle) by promising to bring him Iðunn and her apples of youth. This he does and when the Æsir find out they send Loki off to fetch them back. Loki transforms himself into a hawk, fulfils his task but is pursued by þjazi, again in eagle guise, into Ásgarður. There, at the right moment, the gods light a fire into which þjazi flies and is killed.

S. Bugge3 has claimed that the Irish story depends on classical sources (this is deduced from the number of tasks involved, similar to those of Hercules, and the occurence of the name "Hisbe" which supposedly goes back to Latin "Hesperus/Hisperus") whereas Haustlong and Snorra-Edda are derived from the Irish.

In a more recent study, A. B. Rooth has accepted Bugge's argument, saying that:

The tale of the sons of Turen agrees with regard to the order of motifs and details with the myth of þjazi, for example the chasing in eagle guise; griffins chase hawks (the sons of Turen); fire, breathed out by the griffins, singes the hawks so that they fall into the sea; […] it would seem that the motif of the burned hawks has been transformed into the motif of þjazi burned by the fire of the Ása gods.4

Rooth further argues that apart from this the author of Haustlong was acquainted with material from the British Isles as well as classical authors. She concludes, however, that the apples did not come into the poem from classical authors directly, but "probably through an intermediary British source such as the tale of the Sons of Turen."5

This story, however, would need to be subjected to more detailed research, and further comparison with other areas must be made before any final conclusions can be drawn.

Táin Bó Fraich and þórr's Visit to Geirröðr

The Irish story Táin Bó Fraich has been suggested as a source for þórr's visit to Geirröðr (in þórsdrápa and Snorra-Edda, Skáldskaparmál, ch. 27)6

In Thin Bó Fraich the king, Ailill, lures Fróech to swim in a pool in which, he tells him, he knows of no danger. Fróech has to take off his belt and swims without a weapon, across the pond to fetch a branch of rowan. He is attacked by a water-monster which clings to him. Fróech receives a sword from Ailill's daughter, Findabair, whereupon Ailill throws a spear at Fróech which he catches in the air and throws back. He misses Ailill but the spear goes through his mantle and shirt. Then Fróech kills the monster with the sword, gets out of the pool and is taken away by a host of otherworld women to recover.

Loki lures þórr to go to Geirröðr and tells him that the road is without dangers so þórr leaves without his weapons but accompanied by Loki/or þjálfi. þórr obtains a magic belt, staff and iron gloves from a certain Grior with whom they stay overnight. On the way they have to pass a river and þórr uses the staff from Gríðr to support himself, wading through the water with Loki/þjálfi clinging to his belt. The river starts to rise and looking around him, Porr sees the cause of this sudden rise: a giantess (or two, Geirröðr's daughters) standing with her legs spread, further up and producing large quantities of liquid. þórr then grabs a stone and throws it at her, saying that a river should be stemmed at its mouth. Climbing out of the river he seizes a rowan tree for support. þórr continues to the otherworld where Geirroor resides and kills his daughters with the staff. Geirróðr throws a glowing metal lump/bar at þórr which he catches with the gloves from Grior and throws back at Geirröðr. The bar goes first through a pillar, then through Geirröðr and finally through the wall, and into the ground.

Rooth has drawn attention to the following parallels': 1) The monster clings on to Fróech "in the same way as Pjalfi (Loki) hung on to lþórr." (72) 2) þórr and Fróech are both fooled into leaving their weapons behind them. 3) The river in þórr's story is parallelled by the pond in Thin Bó Fraich. 4) The rowan tree appears in both stories but with a different function. 5) They receive a weapon (staff/sword) from a woman. 6) They both catch a spear/iron bar which is thrown at them and send it back. Fróech's cast is harmless but þórr, who never misses, does not miss this time either.

Rooth concludes that these parallels are "too numerous and too peculiar to be explained as "natural" in their contexts or as spontaneously originated parallel phenomena."8 And since Thin Bó Fraich appears to be older than our oldest Icelandic source (þórsdrápa) the receiver is deemed to be the Icelandic/Scandinavian tradition.

Death of FergusDeath of Baldr

Similar conclusions are drawn in Rooth's work with regard to the relationship between the Old Irish Aided Fergusa and the story of Baldr's death, mainly found in Snorra-Edda (Gylfaginning, ch. 33-35, but references to it are also in Voluspa, Baldrs draumar, and Saxo).9

In Aided Fergusa, Ailill gets the blind fosterbrother of Fergus, Lugaid, to throw a spear at Fergus where he is playing joyfully with Medb, Ailill's wife, in a lake. Ailill tells Lugaid that these are a hart and a doe in the lake. Another version in Silva Gadelica'10 tells of how Ael (Ailill) kills Ferchis (Fergus) by throwing a spear of "hardened holly" at him, pretending to be aiming at a stag.

In Snorra-Edda, Loki fools Baldr's blind brother, Hoðr, into throwing a sprig of mistletoe at him and thus join in a favourite entertainment of the gods, namely, throwing objects at Baldr. This was a harmless game since all things had sworn to spare Baldr—except the mistletoe which was considered "too young" to swear. The mistletoe proves fatal and Baldr dies.

Comparing the Baldr myth with classical, Christian and Oriental motifs, Rooth concludes that these are too different from the Scandinavian version which agrees in details with traditions from the British Isles. "This indicates that the Baldr myth [Parts 1-2] has come to Scandinavia direct from, or has been influenced by the tradition in, the British Isles."11

The dialogue between Loki and Hoðr is parallelled by the dialogue between Ailill and Lugaid. In the Irish however, Lugaid's blindness is essential "whereas in the Scandinavian tradition it gives the impression of having been clumsily combined with the mistletoe as the only effective weapon."12 It may also be noted that the motif of a plant in this connection is known in Ireland. The idea of a blind figure involuntarily killing his fosterbrother/brother is of course the same.

These examples from Rooth's study will suffice to show the nature of the relationship as argued for by her. Surprisingly, Rooth does not compare Bricriu, the troublemaker in Irish tradition, with his counterpart in the north, Loki. TurvillePetre13 discussed this resemblance, referring to Dumdzil, and claimed that Bricriu bore "a distinct resemblance to Loki"14 without elaborating on that likeness in any detail.

The Masterbuilder

C. W. von Sydow has tried to establish a connection between stories in the Irish Finn cycle about a masterbuilder and Snorra-Edda (Gylfaginning, ch.25) where a giant builds Asgarðr for the gods with the assistance of his horse, Svaðilfari. A similar story is also told about a certain Finn (according to von Sydow the name itself suggests a connection with the Irish) who builds the cathedral in Trondhjem. The story has spread in Scandinavia and been attached to other church buildings."15.

This motif is widespread in the Finn-cycle. The masterbuilder offers to take on a project with his horse and complete it within a certain period. In Snorra-Edda the builder asks for Freyja as a reward as well as the sun and the moon. The last mentioned objects are used by von Sydow as an indication that the story originated in Ireland. He feels that this is too much to ask for as a reward and besides, it is not within the gods' power to give the sun and moon away. This, he claims, could be based on a misunderstanding of an Irish idiom:

"do-bheirim grian agus éasga", ordgrant översatt: "jag ger sol och måne", men dess verkliga betydelse är: "jag svär vid sol och måne" eller helt enkelt: "Jag försäkrar dyrt och heligt". Det ligger nära till hands att en sådan formel skall missförstås av en person som ej tir fortrogen med iriskans alla egendomliga idiom, översättas ordgrant och uppfattas som ett lönevillkor, i stället för vad det är, en bekräftelseformel. Men då är det också tydligt at det är nordborna som här varit låntagare.16

The problem has been discussed by numerous scholars, some of whom have held views irreconcilable to that of von Sydow. The motif is widespread in Scandinavia and whether its origins lie in Ireland or not is of no vital importance for the present discussion. If it is Irish, it may have reached Scandinavia relatively late, possibly via the Orkneys (see p. 47). Its popularity, though, might be seen as an argument against such late foreign influence.17

Pórr's Visit to Útgarða-Loki

A much more detailed study was carried out by von Sydow18 on Bórr's visit to Útgarða-Loki (in Snorra-Edda, Gylfaginning ch. 26-31) in which he argued for Irish origins of the story. He was later criticized by Finnur Jónsson19 which led to lively debate on this particular story, methodology and the Irish question in general in Folkminnen och Folktankar the year after.20 This debate shows, among other things, how entirely correct von Sydow was when he earlier wrote in 1920:

A andra sidan verkar än i dag blotta misstanken om lån från kelterna på germanisterna som ett rödt kläde på en tjur. Knappast någon germanist har underkastat sig mödan att lära sig det utomordentlig svåra gaeliska språket, och kännedomen om keltisk tradition har sålunda ej kunnat framtvinga en undersökning om sammanhanget.21

Ever since, scholars have been expressing their respective opinions on the possible Irish origins of Pórr's visit, most recently R. Power,22 where references to earlier works may be found.

All this effort, however, has not led us to the ultimate goal, i.e. to prove beyond doubt where the story originated. Power's conclusions still leave us with questions to be answered even though it is hardly reasonable to call for more detailed research than that which has already gone into this particular story.

Although it remains a possibility that 'Pórr's Visit' is independent of the Irish tale, the similarities are so great as to suggest some connection. In the absence of any evidence of a common source it is reasonable to assume that this is one case in which an Irish tale reached Iceland.23

We are always faced with the same results. We have to judge for ourselves which is the most likely interpretation of the evidence, basing our judgement on what can be learned from other sources. Individual elements tell us but little until they have been accumulated and thus give support to each other.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads appear in Old Icelandic sources, the most famous example of which is Mimir's head, which Oinn prevents from rotting by smearing it with herbs. The head then speaks to him, tells of various tidings and hidden matters.24

A. Ross25 has looked at the nature of severed heads in Celtic cultures. Of particular interest to us in this connection is the association of heads with wells. Ross26 discusses this aspect of the beliefs and points out the similarities with Mimir's head and well. óðinn's herbal treatment, she says, is "in the manner of the Celts, who preserved the heads of their enemies with oil and herbs"27 and further:

Thus we have, in a Norse context, a group of motifs which, untypical as they are of Norse tradition, are completely familiar from Celtic sources. The decapitation of the head, its preservation, its association with a well, and its powers of prophecy and other-worlds knowledge are all features which recur in Celtic tradition and belief. All the evidence suggests that this episode in Norse mythology, if not a direct borrowing from a Celtic source, at least owes its presence in the Norse tradition to a detailed knowledge on the part of the story-teller of such beliefs amongst the Celts.28

Elaborating on this possibility, J. Simpson29 has considered the myth of Mimir with the idea in mind that he was essentially the Head and can be traced to "Celtic" material. Thus "Celtic" origins for this belief can explain what in Icelandic sources alone appears to be confusing and contradictory.


Irish influence on Rigskula seems to be well established and generally accepted.30 The poem tells of the origins of three classes in society. Rigr (identified with Heimdallr in a prose introduction to the poem) travels from one married couple to another and sleeps with the woman in each place he visits, thus begetting the forefathers of slaves, free workmen ("karla xttir") and earls. A favourite problem of Old Norse philologists, the age of the poem, will not be dealt with here. Both the early 10th and the 13th centuries have been suggested. What concerns us is, first, the name of the poem. The Rig- is taken to be derived from the Old Irish genitive singular, rig of ri, meaning king.

Einar Ólafur Sveinsson31 has summarized several parallels between the poem and Irish material. He compares the god Rígr with the Irish Dagda who is called Ollathaer—"the great father"—and begets a son, Mac Óc32 ("young boy", similar to Konr ungr ("ung' means "young") in Rígsþula) on another man's wife. The custom that a noble visitor is entitled to sleep with his host's wife is known from Ireland but not in Scandinavia.33 Konr ungr also masters some power over birds which reminds us of Cú Chulainn34 and his son, Conlae.35

Rigskula is unique among the Eddaic poems in its realistic and detailed descriptions of domestic matters and different classes. In this it resembles an Old Irish law text where similarly detailed descriptions of different social orders, their possessions, dress and eating habits, may be found.36

Einar Olafur Sveinsson thinks that the poem was probably composed in the tenth century by a person who was familiar with the British Isles.

In her study of Rigsbula, Young37 drew attention to Heimdallr's popularity in the British Isles as is reflected on sculptured crosses with images identified as Heimdallr. She then proceeded to show affinities between a tale in the Rennes Dindsenchas (p. 294-95), explaining the river name Inber n-Ailbine, and references to Heimdallr in Voluspa in skamma (st. 7) and in the lost Heimdallargaldr, quotations from which are preserved in Snorra-Edda (Gylfaginning, ch. 15 and Skaldskaparmal, ch. 16).

In both the central figure is a son born of nine mothers and in both there is an allusion to the use of a human head as a missile. The resemblance becomes the more striking when we remember that Voluspa in skamma states that Heimdall's mothers were sea maidens and that he was nourished on the ice cold sea. The only serious discrepancy between the Heimdall myth and the legend preserved in the Rennes Dinnsenchas is that in the former case the offspring of the nine mothers is slain by a head used as a missile whereas in the latter this same person's own head is used as a weapon. This latter legend however recalls Snorri's kenning for a sword,—Heimdall's head.38

Young suggests that the poem may have been composed around the year 1000 and is a result of contacts in the British Isles between Scandinavians and Gaels; contacts which allowed for friendly cultural exchange by that time.

N. K. Chadwick39 compared Manannán mac Lír, who is associated with the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, and Heimdallr, and pointed out similarities in their association with the sea, shape changing and their function as begetters of children. From this she postulated that the Hebrides were "the centre of distribution of the whole mythological and literary nucleus"40 connected with these two figures.

There is no apparent reason why one should doubt the presence of Gaelic elements in Rigsbula, elements which can explain why the poem is different from other Old Icelandic poetry. But as the commentators have argued, the poem represents an example of later cultural contacts. It has had no radical, deep-felt influence in Iceland on the mythological tradition as a whole and can therefore hardly be a product of the "melting pot" there.

The general conclusions which may be drawn from looking at Gaelic influence in Old Norse/Icelandic mythology are therefore in line with what was said earlier. It neither formed the tradition nor changed its basic characteristics.


1 See E. O'Curry (1862) 394-97.

2 (1961) 20.

3 (1889).

4 A. B. Rooth (1961) 19. See 18-21 for her discussion.

5 Ibid, 21.

6 A. B. Rooth (1961) 72-75.

7 (1961) 72-73.

8 Ibid, 73.

9 See A. B. Rooth (1961) 110-114.

10 P. 119 and p. 129 in translation.

11 A. B. Rooth(1961) 110.

12 lbid, 113.

13 (1964) 145.

14 Ibid.

15 C. W. von Sydow (1907) (1908); and (1920) 26-27.

16 Ibid (1920) 27. (""do-bheirim grian agus easga", literally translated: "I give sun and moon", but its real meaning is: "I swear by sun and moon" or simply: "I declare by everything I hold dear and holy." It is easy to see how such a formulaic expression could be misunderstood by a person who was not familiar with all the local idioms of the Irish language, and then translated literally and regarded as a promise of reward, instead of what it is, a formula of assurance. If so, it is also clear that it is the Norsemen who have been the borrowers.").

17 Apart from von Sydow's articles, see for example W. Liungman (1942); M. Fossenias (1943); I. M. Boberg (1955). M. Chesnutt commented on this whole discussion, saying: "It must be said, in justice to von Sydow, that none of his critics have accounted satisfactorily for the form of the Irish variants." ((1968) 126fn. See there for further references).

18 (1910).

19 (1921) 104-13.

20 C. W. von Sydow (1922); Finnur Jónsson (1922).

21 P. 22 ("On the other hand, the mere suspicion of a borrowing from the Celts affects the Germanists as a red rag affects a bull. Hardly any Germanist has undertaken the task of learning the extremely difficult Gaelic language, and a knowledge of Celtic tradition has thus not been able to promote an investigation of the connection.").

22 (1985).

23 R. Power (1985) 260-61.

24Ynglinga saga, chs. 4, 7. References to Mímir's head are in Snorra-Edda (Gylfaginning ch.38), Völuspá, st. 46 and Sigrdrífumál, st. 13. Apart from this, talking heads in Old Icelandic material are to be found in Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 43 and þorsteins þáttr bœjarmagns, ch. 9 (see p. 58). Severed heads of enemies appear in Orkneyinga saga, ch. 5 (see pp. 45-6), Grettis saga, ch. 82, Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa, ch. 32, Fóstbrœðra saga, ch. 18, and Ljósvetninga saga, (Pórarins þáttr). Finally, super-natural qualities are attached to heads in Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 28/19, Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 27, and Njáls saga, ch. 157 (i.e. the head of King Brjánn). See also Porvaldur Friðriksson (1985).

25 (1959) (1962); see also her book (1967) 61-126.

26 (1962).

27 Ibid, 41.

28 Ibid, 41.

29 (1965).

30 Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (1962) 251-53, 287-91.

31 (1962) esp. 252-53.

32 This is Óengus in Aislinge Óenguso.

33 See J. I. Young (1933) 102 and references there.

34 In The Tain Recension I, 1 781ff. Also in Serglige Con Culainn.

35 In Aided Óenfir Aífe.

36 Apart from Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, see J. I. Young (1933) 100-01, who says: "In its minute description of the appearance, dress and food characteristics of the three classes of society Rígsþula exhibits Irish affinities." (100) Young also draws attention to the description of Mother in Rígsþula where "the poet heightens his description and employs synonymous adjectives in a typically Irish manner." (101) In Rígsþula, st. 28-29, the description of Mother reads: "hugði at ormum, / strauk of ripti, sterti ermar. /l Keisti falld, / Kinga var a bringu, / sioar slaeur, / serk blafaan; / brun biartari, / briost liosara, / hals hvitari / hreinni miollu." ("The lady sat, at her arms she looked, / She smoothed the cloth, and fitted the sleeves; / Gay was her cap, on her breast were clasps, / Broad was her train, of blue was her gown, / Her brows were bright, her breast was shining, / Whiter her neck than new-fallen snow." Transl. by H. A. Bellows (1968) 210-11 (st. 28)). This, she says, may be compared with a description in The Táin (Recension I, 11 32-37) of Feidelm, the poetess of Connact: "Agad fochóel forlethan. Dibroi duba dorchaidi. Abrait duib dáin co mbentáis foscod immedón a dá grúaide. […] Teóra trillsi fuirri. i. di thriliss immo cend súas, trilis tara haiss siar co mbenad a da colphta inna diaid." ("Her eyebrows were dark and black. Her beautiful black eye-lashes cast a shadow on to the middle of her cheeks. [. e.] She had three plaits of hair: two plaits wound around her head, the third hanging down her back, touching her calves behind.").

37 (1933) 102ff.

38 Ibid, 104-05.

39 (1955) 111-15.

40 lbid, 115.


Eddic Poetry


Further Reading