Author: Tor Aage Bringsvaerd.
The way to the North – Norway – has always been regarded as a route that is hard to find, difficult to tread and fraught with unspeakable dangers. To the writers of ancient Greece and Rome Norway was a mythical world – Ultima Thule, peopled by wild barbarians and full of strange and fantastic creatures.
In the 4th century BC, the Greek Pytheas described a place where the laws of nature seemed to be suspended, where earth and water and air came together and everything seemed to float about freely. The renowned historian Herodot complained that it was actually quite impossible to say anything at all about the northern regions, because one simply couldn’t see a foot in front of one. This was because of all the white feathers that constantly blow in people’s faces – the air is thick with such feathers, he wrote, and the ground completely covered by them! We should probably interpret this observation as the somewhat unsuccessful attempt of a southerner to describe a snowstorm. However, it’s true enough; Norway has always had more than its share of snow and ice. A major portion of our country lies north of the Arctic Circle. And even though the glaciers have long since receded from these parts, the Ice Age lasted longer in Norway than in most other places.
Paganism too lasted longer here in the north. When the rest of Europe had been Christianized for almost a thousand years, Norwegians were still worshipping their old pagan gods.
They were called Vikings, the Norsemen who around the year 1000 rendered the coasts of Europe unsafe, terrorizing people from London and Paris to deep into the Mediterranean area, those wild and ruthless “barbarians” who did not hesitate to plunder churches and monasteries. Was nothing sacred to them? What did these blond marauders themselves believe in?
This article is an attempt to provide a thumbnail sketch of Norse mythology, based on the gripping Eddic poems about the gods, which were created a thousand years ago (author unknown) and preserved in 13th century Icelandic manuscripts.
Do these ancient tales hold any meaning for us today?
Myths and fairytales will never be out of date. Far from dealing merely with “those days” and “those times”, they have an ageless, universal quality that makes them just as much a description of “each time” and “always”. To me, Norse mythology is one of the most intriguing, original and thought-provoking attempts ever made to depict our inner and outer reality – to capture life and human existence in words and poetic images.
How did the world begin?
In the beginning there was Cold and Heat. On one side, Niflheim, the land of frost and mist. On the other, Muspellsheim, a sea of raging flames. Between them, there was nothing but a vast, bottomless abyss, Ginnungagap. Here, in this yawning void – flanked by light and dark – lay the origin of all life. In the encounter between ice and fire … Slowly, the snow began to melt and, shaped by the cold, but brought to life by the heat, a strange creature came into being – a huge troll named Ymer. No greater giant has ever lived.
As the ice melted, the drops formed yet another creature – with udders and horns: a colossal cow by the name of Audhumla. She had so much milk that it flowed from her huge teats like great rivers. Thus Ymer found food. And Audhumla? She immediately began to lick the salty, frost-covered stones that lay all around the giant and herself. But then something strange occurred. Suddenly, the cow licked some long strands of hair from one of the stones! The next day a head and a face appeared from out of the stone. And on the third day the cow finally managed to lick the entire body free. It was a man, tall and handsome. His name was Bure, and from him descended the gods, whom we call Æsir.
The giant Ymer bore his own child. As he lay sleeping, he began to sweat, and suddenly, from his left armpit, a male and a female emerged. Refusing to be outdone by his arms, Ymer´s feet coupled and gave birth to a son with six heads. This was the origin of the Rime Giants, sometimes called trolls, but best known as Jotuns.
The various creatures must have managed to live in peace with one another for quite some time. At any rate, they had children together… Odin – who later became the chief of all the gods – was the son of Bestla, daughter of a Jotun, and Bure´s son Bor. However, the Rime Giants steadily increased in number and the place was soon swarming with Jotuns. Then one day, Odin and his brothers, Vilje and Ve, rose in revolt against Ymer and his kin. A terrible battle ensued, from which Odin and his brothers emerged victorious. They slew the giant, and a wave of blood flooded over the enemies of the Æsir, drowning them all… all but two. From this Jotun couple, who fled into the mist, seeking refuge in the land of fog, descended all the subsequent generations of Rime Giants. Audhumla, the first cow, must also have been washed over the edge of the precipice during the bloodbath, as no one has seen hide nor hair of her ever since…
The Æsir dragged Ymer´s dead body into the middle of the huge void, Ginnungagap, positioning him like a lid over the abyss.
From the body of the giant they then created the world. His blood became the sea, his flesh the land. His knuckles formed cliffs and peaks. His teeth and broken splinters of bone became stones and boulders. His hair turned into trees and grass. The gods threw his brains high into the air, creating clouds. And the sky? That was the giant´s skull, which was placed like a vaulted dome over all they had created. Next, the gods caught sparks from the fiery Muspellsheim and hung them in the sky, where they still sparkle brightly. Inside what was once the skull of the giant Ymer… Thus were the stars created.
Small worms crawled out of Ymer´s corpse to become the very first dwarfs, who dwelt in the caves and grottoes of the netherworld. The Æsir chose four of the dwarfs to hold up the heavenly vault and guard the four corners of the world. These dwarfs were named East, West, North and South.
Thus order and reason came to be.
How was mankind created?
One day, as Odin and his brothers were walking along the beach, they found two wooden logs that had been washed ashore.
They set the logs on end, and brought them to life. Odin blew breath and souls into the logs. Vilje gave them the ability to think and move, while Ve gave them the powers of speech, hearing and sight. The gods infused them with warmth and colour.
No longer mere driftwood, the logs had become Man and Woman. The Æsir called the man Ask and the woman Embla, from whom all human beings are descended.
How did time begin?
In the beginning there was no time. In a way, everything stood strangely still.
However, the Æsir gave the Jotun woman Night and her son Day a horse and carriage each, placing them in the sky, where they were to circle the world every day. Night rode in front, mounted on her steed Rimfakse. Its mane was silver with frost, and the dew that fell on the fields every morning were drops of foam from the horse´s bit. Night was followed by her son Day. His horse was named Skinfakse, because of its gleaming mane.
The gods then took sparks from Muspellsheim to make the sun, and set the moon on its proper course. Each of them was given a celestial chariot, with two children to ensure that they did not fall off and to drive the swift horses. The sun and the moon sped across the sky, constantly pursued by two huge wolves who snapped at their heels, trying to devour them! And one day … one day perhaps they will succeed…
Was their world round?
It was round – but not like an apple or a ball. The world was circular in shape… like a thin, flat slice of wood sawn off the end of a log.
Where in the world did we and the Æsir live?
In the beginning everything was jungle or desert. But like pioneers, the Æsir cleared the land, creating a space to live in, both for themselves and for us. They called mankind´s home Midgard, because it was situated in the middle of the world. In the centre of Midgard – so that men and women would not feel alone and abandoned – the gods built a stronghold for themselves named Åsgard, a gigantic fortress, surrounded by thick walls. The fortress could only be entered by riding over the rainbow, a fiery bridge of flames. Strong bulwarks were also erected around Midgard, to protect it from the dark and terrible forces that reigned in the wild, uncharted terrain outside the walls. There, in Utgard and Jotunheim, lived the Jotuns and trolls. Thus the world was structured like the rings of a tree trunk. And all around, on every side, the mighty ocean lapped at its edge.
But weren´t there dwarfs and elves in the world too?
Yes, there were elves and dwarfs. Dwarfs were usually to be found among rocks and cliffs, often hidden away underground in Midgard and Utgard. Although they were skilful smiths, they were never fully to be trusted. Elves, on the other hand, were friends to both gods and men. They lived in Alvheim, which was believed by some to be located within the walls of Åsgard and by others in Midgard. So little is known about dwarfs and elves. Some people even believe them to be related and that they should be called “light elves” and “dark elves”. At one time, there was another race of gods besides the Æsir who were called the Vaner and who lived in Vanaheim. However, their fortress was destroyed and now no mortal knows where its site lay…
Did the world have a centre?
At the centre of Midgard lay Åsgard, and at the centre of Åsgard the gods planted a tree, a mighty ash called Yggdrasil. It was the largest tree imaginable. One of its roots lay in Åsgard, another in Jotunheim and a third in Niflheim, and its branches were so widespread that they embraced the entire world. Yggdrasil was the centre of the world, and as long as the tree remained green and lush, and put forth new shoots, the world would continue to exist.
Who could see the future, who knew what fate would bring?
Three goddesses of destiny – the Norns Urd, Verdande and Skuld – dwelt beside a well in Åsgard. The Norns knew the destiny of every living being and what lay in store for everyone and everything. Some people maintain that there were other Norns as well, among the elves and dwarfs. Among human beings, too, there were women who could see more than others. This kind of soothsayer was called a Volve, which means “stave-bearer”. Her stave was the symbol of her supernatural powers. By entering into a trance, she could contact the spiritual world, and she knew many powerful magic spells.
Who were the most important gods?
Odin was the greatest of the gods. A sage and magician, he ruled over all the gods. Wednesday is his day (Odin´s day), while Friday is named after his wife Frigg (Frigg´s day). Odin´s horse Sleipner had eight legs. Odin also had two ravens (Hugin and Munin), who flew out over the world every morning to watch and listen, returning home in the evening to report to Odin all they had seen. His spear Gungnir never failed to hit its mark. From his ring Draupne, eight rings of equal magnificence dripped every ninth night. Odin had only one eye; as a young man, he pawned the other to the giant Mime for the right to drink from the marvellous fountain of wisdom guarded by the giant. (Mime was later beheaded, but Odin found the giant´s bloody skull and anointed it with healing herbs. The eyes in the head immediately opened and the mouth was again able to form words. After that, Mime´s head remained one of Odin´s most cherished advisers.)
Odin´s son Thor was the second mightiest god. Thursday (Thor´s day) is his day. Strong and quick-tempered, Thor was always ready to do battle with giants and trolls. Although Tyr (Tuesday – Tyr´s dag) might have been a little braver, no one in the whole world was as strong as Thor. And his hammer Miolnir was the most dangerous weapon, both in heaven and on earth. Thor could make it as small or as large as he wanted. When he threw it, it always struck its target and then returned to his hand. Whenever he travelled, his chariot was drawn by goats instead of horses. His goats, Cracktooth and Gaptooth, could be slaughtered in the evening and yet be full of life again the next morning, if care was taken not to break a single bone when eating the goatmeat, and if all the bones were collected and placed in the goatskins at the end of the meal. Thunder was the sound made by Thor´s chariot rolling across the sky.
Siv was the name of Thor´s wife. Her hair was made of pure gold, and of all the goddesses only Freya – the goddess of love – was more beautiful. Freya was also the one who taught the Æsir the art of witchcraft. She owned a magic feather cloak, with which she could transform herself into a falcon whenever she desired, and she drove a chariot drawn by cats. Although everyone turned to Freya for assistance or consolation in matters of the heart, she was unable to heal her own eternally broken heart. Her husband had left her to wander the world (no one knew where). Freya often wept bitterly over her loss, and her tears were of the purest gold. Freya´s brother was named Frey, which means “Lord” or “The Foremost One”. Frey was the god of fertility. Both he and Freya were actually descended from the Vanir (the race of gods against whom the Æsir fought for control of the world at the beginning of time). The two children had originally come to the Æsir as hostages, along with their aged father. Frey owned a magic boar named Goldenbristle, which could run as fast on land as on sea and in the air. He also possessed the magic ship Skidbladner, whose sails were always filled with wind and which could be folded up like a piece of cloth and put away in his pouch when he wasn´t using it. The gods in Åsgard had many other priceless treasures, but the finest of them all were the magic apples tended by the goddess Idunn – the apples of youth that the gods had to take a bite of from time to time to avoid growing old and decrepit.
Odin had many sons. Although it´s impossible to mention all of them, we can´t get around Heimdall. Nor could anyone else! Heimdall, who was born in a miraculous manner of nine young giant girls way back at the dawn of time, was the watchman of the gods. He lived near Himmelberget and stood guard over the rainbow bridge Bifrost. Heimdall needed less sleep than a bird, could see as clearly by night as by day and could hear the grass grow. He owned the Giallar Horn, which he was to blow on the very last day to summon the Æsir to arms in the final great battle against trolls and the powers of darkness.
Balder was the son of Odin and Frigg, and was renowned for his friendliness, gentleness and wisdom. Balder was haunted by nightmares and was afraid of dying, but his mother – the most powerful of all the Åsgard goddesses – extracted an oath from everyone and everything that no one would ever do him harm. The gods soon made a game of flinging weapons at Balder, since he could no longer be killed or wounded. However, Frigg forgot to ask the mistletoe, which she considered too small and insignificant. Loki the Troublemaker learned of this, and deceived the blind Hod into killing Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe. The Æsir sent a rider to Helheim, the Realm of the Dead, to ask for Balder´s return. Hel, Queen of Helheim, replied that Balder would be restored to life if the entire world shed tears over his fate. And everything and everyone – even the stones and trees – are still trying (in vain) to weep the dead god back to life.
Who were the enemies of the gods and humans?
Although sometimes known as Rime Giants or Trolls, they generally went by the name of Jotuns. These giants lived in the wilderness and rugged mountains of Utgard and Jotunheim. Often huge and mighty hulks, they were forces of chaos. The only Æsir who could really hold his own with them in a wrestling match was Thor, the God of Thunder. However, the Jotuns had unrivalled magic powers. On one occasion, for example, they fashioned a huge giant out of clay, and called him Mokkurkalve. An artificial, living being that was terrible to behold – ninety kilometres tall and with a chest span of thirty kilometres! Jotun giantesses rode on wolves, using vipers for reins. While they could be frightfully ugly and some truly monstrous, they could also be incredibly beautiful… so lovely that even Odin on more than one occasion allowed himself to be lured into wild, amorous adventures.
Weren´t Loki and his children even more dangerous?
A troublemaker and schemer, Loki was originally a Jotun. However, at an early age he mixed blood with Odin and was therefore accepted among the Æsir.
Loki was a joker, a trait that eventually led to his downfall. He betrayed the Æsir and caused the death of Balder. As punishment for this heinous act, he was chained beneath a serpent that dripped deadly, acid venom onto his face. However, his wife Sigyn, who remained loyal to him, stood patiently by his side holding a large bowl to catch the poisonous venom. From time to time, however, she had to turn aside to empty the bowl. Then the venom dripped right onto Loki´s face, making him writhe so violently that the entire world trembled. This is what is called earthquakes. Loki had children in Åsgard, as well as other, stranger offspring. With the giantess Angerboda, he fathered the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent and Hel, and he gave birth to the horse Sleipner, after coupling with the stallion Svadilfare.
The Fenris Wolf was a truly monstrous beast. It grew up in Åsgard, but soon became so huge, wild and dangerous that only the god Tyr dared to feed it. The Æsir had the dwarfs forge an unbreakable chain, Gleipnir, which was made of the sound of a cat´s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a rock, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird. (That is why a cat´s footfall no longer makes any sound, why women have no beard, etc.) By great cunning they managed to tie the wolf up so tightly that it could barely move, and thrust a sword into its mouth so that its jaws were always open yet unable to bite. It is only when the world comes to an end that it will finally be able to shake off its bonds…
The second child that Loki conceived with the giantess Angerboda was a serpent. The Æsir threw it into the sea, where it eventually grew so incredibly large that they called it the Midgard Serpent because it encircled the entire earth, holding its own tail in its mouth.
Nonetheless, it is perhaps the last of Loki and Angerboda´s three children who has caused the most trouble for Æsirs and mortals. She was a ghastly girlchild, half black, half white. She was expelled from Åsgard and settled far to the north, where she created a subterranean realm of the dead, a cold, damp, grey world. Her name, and that of the kingdom over which she ruled, was Hel. All those who died of illness and old age went to Hel, where they led a sad, shadowy existence. The Queen of Death herself resembled a corpse, and everything she owned had names reminiscent of the cold “life” in the grave. In the olden days, when people felt the presence of ghosts, they would say, “The gate to Hel is open.” On the day of the Last Great Battle, Hel and her army of dead will do battle with the Æsir.
Were there any other places to go after death?
Those who displayed valour on the battlefield went to Odin or Freya when they died. The king of the gods sent out Valkyries clad in coats of mail to fetch fallen heroes. These female warriors were armed and could ride through the air. In Åsgard the dead were divided up between Odin and Freya. Half of them lived with Odin in Valhall (“val” means battlefield), and the other half with Freya in Folkvang (“folk” in this context meaning men arrayed for battle).
While little is known about life in Folkvang, there are numerous descriptions of Valhalla. On the embankment outside the enormous “barracks”, the heroes were allowed to fight to their heart´s content all day long. It did not matter if they lost a arm or two, because in the evening they arose from the battlefield without a scratch. As friends on the best of terms, they marched into the vast banquet hall where beautiful Valkyries served them mead and boiled pork. The pig they ate, SÆhrimnir, was also unique. Every day it was slaughtered and eaten, yet when dawn came it had been restored to life.
On the final day, Odin will lead the Æsir and the dead heroes in the last great battle against the Jotuns and the powers of darkness. He himself will fight the Fenris Wolf, and will be devoured by the monster. All this has been prophesied.
Can gods die?
Yes, gods can die.
How will the world end?
As the end draws nigh, there will be famine and strife. This final period is called Ragnarok, which means “the twilight of the gods”. Brother will slay brother and son will not spare his own father. Three continuous years of Fimbul winter will then ensue, after which sky-wolves will devour the sun and the moon. Mountains will crumble, and every bond will be broken. The Fenris Wolf will finally be loosed and will run around the world with jaws agape. Its lower jaw will drag along the ground, its upper jaw will touch the clouds. Its eyes will burn with a strange fire, and its nostrils will breathe flames. Loki, too, will be freed. He will rig a ghastly vessel, Naglfar, a ship made of dead men´s nails. With ragged sails and a crew of rotting corpses, he will sail up from his daughter´s realm of the dead. And the Midgard serpent will slither ashore, winding its way over fields and meadows. To the south the heavens will be torn asunder. From the country beyond – the frightening, unknown Muspellsheim, land of fire that existed long before Odin and his brothers created the world – will come a mighty host of riders clad in shining vestments, armed with fiery swords. Everything will burst into flame and burn as they charge forward, and the great rainbow bridge will collapse under their weight. The final, decisive and bloody battle will be fought at a place called the Plain of Vigrid (a thousand kilometres wide and a thousand kilometres long). Odin will be devoured by the Fenris Wolf. Thor and the Midgard Serpent will slay each other, as will Heimdall and Loki. The whole world will go up in flames. Even Yggdrasil – the great world tree – will burn. When the flames die down, the world will be a smoking ruin. The charred remains will sink below the surface of the sea and disappear.
Will that be the end?
No. Out of the sea a new earth, green and lovely, will grow, fertile as a dream. With fields that sow themselves, and an abundance of fish and game. No one will go hungry any more, nor will anyone suffer from the cold. Behold! The sun has given birth to a daughter. An end has been put to all evil. The earth has been washed clean. A new life may begin! Åsgard is no more. Not a single stone remains of the old fortress of the gods. Nonetheless, it is to Åsgard that the Æsir who were not slain in the last, great battle will return.
So someone will survive?
The fortunate – those who shall inherit the earth.
Are there any mortals among them?
Just one man and one woman survive. Their names are Lif and Lifthrasir. They sought refuge in a place called Hoddminir´s Holt and thus escaped the conflagration. They are disgorged, alive, by the sea. The morning dew is long their only food. From these two mortals a new human race will arise.
So there is hope after all?
According to the myths, there will always be hope.
The author of this article, Mr. Tor Aage Bringsvaerd (1939- ) has received awards for his work as author and playwright. He writes for both children and adults. Mr. Bringsvaerd´s works have been translated into fifteen languages, and his plays have been produced in thirteen countries.
Norwegian name: Norsk mytologi.