Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2011


(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
A Handbook of Norse Mythology
Content Page
Kellscraft Studio Logo
(HOME)

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

1. By "Norse mythology" we mean the information we have concerning the religious conceptions and usages of our heathen forefathers, their faith and manner of worshiping the gods, and also their legends and songs about the gods and heroes. The importation of Christianity drove out the old heathen faith, but remnants or memories of it long endured in the superstitious ideas of the common people, and can even be traced in our own day.

There has never been found on earth a tribe of people which did not have some kind of religion, but the lower the plane of civilization on which the people are found, the ruder and less pleasing are their religious ideas. Religions consequently change and develop according as civilization goes forward. One can, therefore, learn much by knowing the mythology of a race, since it shows us what stage the people in question have attained in intellectual development, what they regard as highest and most important in life and death, and what they regard as good or evil.


Sun-worship and Nature-worship. — We can easily perceive that a belief in counseling and controlling gods presupposes a far higher civilization than savage people in their earlier history possess. Religious ideas proceed partly from soul belief, belief in the continued life of the soul, and partly from the belief that nature is something living, peopled by mysterious beings which control regular and irregular changes in nature upon which man feels himself dependent. Such beings are often designated by the Greek word Demons. These nature-demons make themselves plainly known through the roaring of the storm, the rippling of the water, or the wind's gentle play with the tree-tops. But races in the childhood period of their development cannot hold fast to a belief in life apart from bodies. Demons, therefore, are thought of in bodily form — as men or beasts. At the same time man feels his helplessness and powerlessness in the presence of Nature and its mysterious forces; he is prompted, then, by offerings and supplications to gain friendly relations with these powers which he with his own strength cannot over- come. In this we begin to find the first germ of divine worship which is capable of subsequent development, since ever increasing domain is 'given to the single demon. With the advance of civilization there is developed in the place of the belief in demons a belief in mighty gods, who are thought of as beautiful and perfect human forms.

Greek and Norse Mythology. — With the more developed heathen people there is always an exact correspondence between the nature of the country, the character of the people, and their religious belief. There is, therefore, a striking distinction also between Greek and Norse mythology. The Greek is bright and pleasant, like the country itself; the gods are thought of as great and beautiful human forms who are extolled not merely as gods, with offering and worship, but also as inspired Greek artists and poets, producers of statues and songs, the equal of which the world has scarcely seen. Norse mythology as we know it from the latest periods of the heathen age is, on the contrary, more dark and serious, and when it lays the serious aside it often becomes rude in its jesting. Norsemen felt the lack of talent for the sculptor's and painter's art, although they were really clever in carving wood; their idols were as a rule merely clumsy wooden images embellished in various ways. Their religious faith, on the other hand, has called forth poetry which in its way is by no means inferior to the Greek; and our forefathers' view of death and particularly their teaching about Ragnarok, concerning which we shall speak later, can rightly be preferred to the Greeks' faith in a miserable shadow-life in a realm of death (Hades).

Why We Teach Norse Mythology. — For us Norse mythology has in any case the advantage of being the religion of our own forefathers, and through it we learn to know that religion. This is necessary if we wish to understand aright the history and poetry of our antiquity and to comprehend what good characteristics and what faults Christianity encountered when it was proclaimed in the North. Finally, it is necessary to know the most important points of the heathen faith of our fathers in order to appreciate and enjoy many of the words of our best poets. This is especially true concerning Oelenschlaeger and Gruntvig, who not only have embodied large parts of the Norse mythology in independent poetic works (as "The Gods of the North," "Earl Hakon," "Scene from the Conflict of the Norns and Acsir") but also often borrow from it in their other works terms and figures which we ought to be able to understand. To point to the antiquity of the North and to our fathers' faith, life, and achievements was one of the poet's principal means of awakening the slumbering national feeling at the beginning of our century.


2. Oldest Inhabitants of the North. — It is possible that it was our ancestors who, several thousand years before the Christian era, inhabited Scandinavia, in the stone age. Learned investigations have in every case proved as most probable and reasonable that people of the bronze age, both before and after the year 1000 B.C., belonged to the same race as the Northmen of the iron age, so that our heathen era stretches over a space of at least two thousand years. We must, therefore, seek information about the

oldest religious ideas of the North in prehistoric archeology, the science which investigates and throws light upon every species of relic preserved from antiquity. Here it is especially burial rites and the placing in graves of objects supposed to be offerings which have mythological significance.



Fig. 1 — Round Burrows

a. In the remains of the earliest stone age, the refuse heaps, no burial places have been discovered; but from the latest stone age have been found a great number of graves, round and long barrows, sepulchral chambers (Figs. 1-3), and stone "chests," in which bodies were laid unburned and supplied with the necessary implements, which shows a belief in a continued life after death. Burned places and remnants of pyres in the graves seem to indicate

offerings to or for the dead, and hewn in the stones are often found certain saucer-like depressions, wheels and crosses, which most likely have religions significance (Fig. 4).

b. In the bronze age, which ends some hundred years before the birth of Christ, men long preserved burial rites from the stone age. Bodies were not burned, but were placed in raised mounds in a tightly closed stone setting or in chests of hollowed trunks of oaks. Later, however, the burning of bodies became more and more common; ashes were preserved in stone vessels or most often in clay urns within the mounds; many times use was made of old mounds from the stone age. The greatest number of our barrows contain, therefore, tombs from the bronze age (Figs. 5-7). The reason for this change in the mode of burial seems to be the rise of new ideas about life after death. At first people believed in a continued life of the body, later they burned the body to set free the soul. Likewise in the stone age men deposited in the graves sacrificial gifts, handsomely wrought objects for use or ornament, For decoration are used now also hooked crosses and trefoils (Figs. 8-9). These emblems, whoa significance is not known, are found used as sacred tokens ("religious symbols") among all Indo-European peoples.



Fig. 2 – Long Barrows.

c. The iron age begins probably sometime in the fourth century B.C. In very ancient times; even, the Northmen had enjoyed commercial relations with Asia and Greece. From about the time of Christ's birth there begins a strong Roman influence, which, among other things, gives the Gothic-Germanic people a peculiar alphabetic writing, the Runes. The iron age stretches even into historic times; the last division is the Viking time (c. 800-1000). In the course of the iron age people again stopped burning bodies, since, as Snorri says, the cremation-age was succeeded by the mound-age. Bodies were once more regularly provided with objects for use — weapons and vessels for food and drink. Discovery has been made of large and splendid offerings (e.g. golden horns), urns with slain animals, perhaps even altars upon which rude images1 of the gods seem to have been raised (Fig. 10). Several other things from the middle-iron-age will be touched upon in what follows; but we do not see anything really definite, indicating belief in gods, until far on toward Viking times.


3. Common Norse Language. — At the beginning of the Christian era, the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes constituted but one tribe, speaking the same language, Urnordisk, Primitive Norse. This common language was preserved, with a succession of natural transitions and changes, to be sure, to about the year 1000. In Viking times this was called den danske Tunge, "the Danish Tongue," and from it the separate Norse languages have gradually been developed. It is also probable that the Northmen had the same heathen religion in all the main points; even in the worship of the gods there has been but little difference in the different provinces.

Gothic-Germanic Race. — We may even go a step farther back, for it can be established in many ways that Northmen, Germans, and Englishmen also were once one great race, which is usually called the Gothic-Germanic, and this Gothic-Germanic race has again a common origin with most of the European peoples (e.g. the Greeks), and with the inhabitants of Persia and India.

Indo-Europeans. — We must then picture to ourselves a "primitive people" whose original place of abode we cannot determine, but from which these related peoples have through long periods been developed. This primitive people as a matter of course had certain religious ideas, and it is probable that we may be able to find traces of the original divine faith in the Indian, Greek, and Norse mythology; and this is actually the case. The linguists who are occupied with comparisons between the languages of the different Indo-European races have been able to establish many such points, but here we must be content with bringing forward a few examples.



Fig. 3 – Sepulchral Chambers, or Cairn.

Aesir. — The general name for the gods was, among the Northmen, Aesir, which is developed from the older Anser. Corresponding forms are found in most of the related languages. The Heaven-God was called among the Indians Dyâus, by the Greeks Zeus, by the Romans Ju-piter. The Germanic people believed in a god whom they called Tiu while there is found in the Norse religion the name Tyr (preserved in Dan. Tirsdag, Eng. Tuesday). In the oldest Norse language this word must have been TiwaR.2 But all these names undoubtedly spring from a common basal form, which signifies "the bright one" or "the shining one," and which consequently may have designated the god of the heaven or the sun.

Tyr, Odin, Thor. — Gradually, as the Indo-Europeans scattered and in the course of time settled in different regions with greatly differing climate, they gave to their god of heaven many epithets, according to the nature of the country in which they had settled. The Gothic-Germanic people called him now by the original name, now Wothanar or ThonaraR ("the blowing one," "the thundering one"), and it was not long before they forgot that these names were only appendages to the old heavengod's name. Now they enumerated as many gods as there were names, and thus arose, among other things, belief in the three divinities, Tyr, Odin, and Thor. (The Germans said Wodan and Donar. In the North we have little or nothing of the worship of Tyr; Frey takes the place of this god.) Consequently new divinities and new religious ideas seem to have arisen among our forefathers according to the rule that the god's epithet or title is separated from his name and then designates an independent personal being. Since this is applicable to a god, one can easily imagine that something similar can be the case with many other points in mythology.



Fig. 4 – Stone with Saucer-like Depressions, Wheels and Crosses.

Common Myths — But a direct comparison also between the heathen faiths of the Indo-European people shows that many single points in their religions (myths) correspond. Myths about a world-tree are found among both Indians and Northmen. The highest god among the Indians. Greeks, and our forefathers alike is armed with a sure-striking missile in his capacity of the thunder-god, whether this he represented plainly as a thunderbolt (lightning-flash), a hammer. or a club.

Cæsar and Tacitus — Besides this we know but little with certainty about particular points in the mythology of the oldest Gothic-Germanic people; and so it is also with regard to the religion of the Northern people in the first centuries of the Christian era, for they have left no written records behind them. We have already spoken of what we can learn from ancient finds, not a few important points of information, especially the latter in his historical books and in his brief account of Germany.



Fig. 5 – Coffins from the Bronze Age.

4. Runes. — But about the third century after Christ the Gothic-Germanic people soon reached also the Northern races, where they were scratched upon objects in common use, as combs, clasps, weapons, and drinking or sacrificial horns. Here belong the aforementioned golden horns from Gallehus in southern Jutland. These were found in 1639 and 1734 and had a value in our money of about 17,000 kroner ($4,760). At the very beginning of our century they were stolen on account of their great value and melted over, so we now must content ourselves with drawings and casts of these splendid monuments of antiquity, which may have been a sacrificial gift. They consisted of two smooth golden horns of very fine gold with an outer casing of tight-fitting rings likewise of gold, on which there were engraved figures and ornaments, and between these again there were raised figures firmly soldered (Figs. 11-13). Many attempts have been made to interpret these pictorial representations, which easily have a religious significance. Worsaae, our renowned archæologist, was of the opinion that one horn represented life in hell (the serpents), the other life in Valhalla (the stars), which however is wholly uncertain. Along the uppermost ring of one horn one may read in the primitive Norse language:


ek hlewagastiR holtingaR horna tawido,
that is: I, Lægtæst, Molt's son (or, from Holt), made the horns.

Rune-Stones. — Somewhat later men began to use runes for inscriptions on bowlders, which were placed in or oftenest upon grave mounds or elsewhere, as memorials for the departed. Such rune-stones are found in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden from different ages, but with us Danes only from epochs between 800 and 1070,3 the oldest therefore even from the heathen time. Rune-stones give the earliest and surest contribution to our knowledge of Aesir-faith in the North.



Fig. 6 – Grave Mound with Urns.

Thor on Rune-stones. — On the Glavendrup stone from about 900, which contains the longest Danish runic inscription, we read, after the memorial words themselves, the following:


May Thor consecrate these runes!

On another Danish rune-stone the invocation comprises the whole memorial, for on the margin of the stone is engraved:


May Thor consecrate this monument!

Such a place consecrated or dedicated to the gods is called a Ve or Vi, which name we have preserved in Odense (i.e. Odinsve) and Viborg. On the Glavendrup stone, which is raised over the Chieftain Alle, the latter is called "Vierne's honorable servant," and on a south Jutland rune-stone Chieftain Odinkar's daughter calls herself Vi-Asf rid.

Thor the Chief God. — Only on these two stones is the name of the god of thunder expressly given, but on others we find engraved trefoils, quatrefoils ("hooked crosses"), or hammers (Fig. 14), which is an evidence of the fact that Thor at this time was the chief god of the Danes; and this same thing we can establish in many other ways, and for the rest of the North also. This is shown by the many compound person and place names in which Thor's name is the first member (e.g. Thorsteinn, Thorbergr). Finally, it can be emphasized that when the Gothic-Germanic people translated the Latin names for the days of the week, in the fifth day, which in Latin is called Jupiter's day (dies Jovis), they translated Jupiter by Thor (Icel. Thorsdagr, Dan. Torsdag, Ger. Donnerstag).



Fig. 7 — Row of Grave Mounds.

Odin and Frey. — Together with Thor, Odin and Frey were especially worshiped, and some evidences of this fact are found upon rune-stones. Odin, however, was not understood as the mighty supreme god among the common people. He is so represented only in Norwegian-Icelandic poetry, and it was among the Germanic people dwelling southward that Odin-worship played an important part at an early period.


5. Iceland. — There are, therefore, but few details known to us of our forefathers' religion at the beginning of Viking times. But from about the year 900 and later we have full and rich information about the religious ideas of the Northern people in the Norwegian-Icelandic literature.


Fig. 8 – Quatrefoil or Hooked Cross. Fig. 9 — Trefoil

Mythological Poetry. — When different families of the Norwegian nobility at the close of the 9th century began to settle in Iceland, they carried with them from the mother country not only their old religion hut also a store of songs and traditions about the gods and heroes. This poetry was preserved faithfully by oral transmission, from generation to generation. Poetical activity soon evinced itself among the Icelanders themselves, and gradually a great and rich literature developed, which became far more important and more truly presented original and national ideas than that of the rest of the Scandinavian country, whose intellectual productions took on through Christianity a foreign, learned-Latin stamp. We can, therefore, expect to find among the Icelanders fuller information about the old faith than elsewhere, and such is also the case. In the Norwegian Old Icelandic poetry the Norse religion is worked together into a whole, which comprises the creation of the world, the relation of gods to men in life and death, and finally the downfall of the gods and of the world at Ragnarok, after which there shall come a new heaven and a new earth where men are judged after their uprightness and good conduct, and not for their bravery alone.

Odin. Chief God. — An essential point which we ought to note here is, as touched upon before, that Odin in this poetry is conceived of as the chief god, before whom the others, both gods and goddesses, must bow.

If we now, in what follows, wish to make a coherent presentation of the religion as we find it in Norwegian-Icelandic literature, we must in the first place remember well that Denmark and Sweden hardly had the same faith, viewed as a whole, even if there are points of conformity in essentials. It appears among other things from the myths of the gods which Saxo has presented to us in the first' books of his Latin history of Denmark, that various details in the teachings about the gods are told otherwise here (in Denmark) than in Iceland, and that we have traditions to which nothing in Iceland corresponds and vice versa. But in the next place the contention is made, especially by the Norwegian philologist Bogge, that a great many things in mythological poetry, through contact with the Celts and others in the Viking expeditions, have been strongly influenced by Christianity, yes, even by Jewish and Græco-Roman ideas. Against this view, however, many and important objections are raised; but no one can deny that Christianity can and must have had in any case some influence upon the later development of Norse mythology. Finally, it cannot be strongly enough emphasized that most of the myths and hero-sagas which are retold in what follows must not be understood as direct testimony concerning our fathers' belief, but generally are only a poetically interpreted and modified portrayal, the material for which is most certainly derived from the belief of the people.

Fig. 10 – Altar from the Iron Age.

Therefore it is Norwegian-Icelandic mythology such as developed in Viking times and soon afterwards (800-1100) which we know best, and it is all we know connectedly. We must see first, then, from what sources we derive this knowledge.



Fig 11. – A Gold Horn.

6. Eddic Poems and Scaldic Lays. — The oldest and most important sources are the old Norwegian-Icelandic poems. It is customary to distinguish between the so-called Eddic Poems and the Scaldic Lays.

The Eddic Poems preserved in an Icelandic manuscript and wrongly called the Elder Edda were composed in the aforementioned period, in the time of transition and of conflict between paganism and Christianity. They are of unknown authorship and treat partly doctrines of the gods and the heathen view of life in connected form, and partly the different sagas of gods and heroes which in the North are usually given a mythological background. The most important of the Eddic poems will be mentioned in the following pages.

The Scaldic Lays come from authors whose names are mentioned. The oldest and best are from the same period as the Eddic Poems, but only a few of them have a thoroughly mythological content — chiefly the "shield poems," treating the myths which arc pictorially represented on the fields of the shields, and the "Song of Praise" to the chieftain whose lineage is traced up to the gods. On the other hand they all contain in their poetic paraphrases, the so-called Kenningar, allusions to mythology or legendary history which presupposes that the myth or saga in question is known to the hearer. When the gallows can be called by a poet "the cool, windy steed of Signy's bridegroom," the hearer must in order to understand the expression know well the legend of Hagbarth and Signy and Hagharth's death on the gallows.

From Iceland came likewise two important primary sources of Norse mythology in prose, namely Snorri's Edda and the Saga of the Volsungs.


Snorri (d. 1241). — Snorri Sturlason was Iceland's most important prose author and withal a clever Scald. In his historical masterpiece, "Heimskringla," he used especially for matters concerning the earliest time, old Scaldic lays as proofs for his description, and therefore he acquired accurate and intimate knowledge of their content: and as a Scald he of necessity completely understood the substance and nature of the poetical paraphrases. He then conceived the plan of committing his knowledge to writing, and therefore he composed his Edda. This word is most closely defined as "Poetics" or "Handbook for Scalds." The book falls into three main divisions. The first, Gylfaginning, 'Delusion of Gylfi,' relates the story of a king Gylfi, who journeyed forth to learn about the power of the Aesir. He disguised himself as a wayfarer and came to a great hall in which were many people and three chieftains, who sat each in his high seat, one higher than the other. These he questioned about all the mythological relations, and he received clear answers to all his inquiries. Within this framework Snorri takes occasion to present a general view of the whole doctrine of the gods, particularly following old poems which he frequently cites in evidence. He mentions several of the Eddic poems still preserved, but also some which we do not know now from any other source.



Fig. 12 – Pictures on Gold Horns.



Fig. 13 – Pictures on Gold Horns.



Fig. 14 – Laeborg Stone with Sign of Hammer.

The second section, Skaldskaparmal,4 reviews and explains the different poetic paraphrases. Where these allude to the doctrine of the gods or to traditional history, the myths or traditions in question are recounted and a number of scaldic verses are cited as passages in evidence.

The third section, finally, Hattatal,5 which is the least important for the mythology, is a practical application of the foregoing theory, since Snorri has composed a number of verses in different meters, making use of the paraphrases which he has explained in what preceded.

In the introduction to the whole and in the arrangement of the material one easily feels that Snorri has sought to bring about coherence in the old traditions — perhaps involuntarily under influence of his Christian faith — and tries to coin history out of myths and sagas, since Odin is made into a prince versed in magic, dwelling originally in Asia, but who later wandered to the North, where he became the ancestor of the kings of the realm and was worshiped as a god. Snorri advances the same view also in the first part of the Heimskringla, the so-called Ynglinga Saga, which contains important but obscure mythological information. 6

The Saga of the Volsungs contains a connected prose version of the Sagas of the Volsungs and Nibelung, an amplified re-narration of the Eddic Hero-Poems; but here, as in Gylfaginning, it is apparent that the unknown author had for his authority poems now lost.

But in the other pieces of Icelandic prose literature also there are given here and there important details about the heathen worship of the gods and its forms. This applies both to the Heimskringla (the attempt of the two Olafs to introduce Christianity into Norway) and to not a few of the family-sagas. There are also found mythical-heroic sagas in the style of the Volsunga Saga and romantic sagas with mythological material.


8. Popular Songs and Saxo. — In the German saga-poetry Dietrich von Bern (Theodoric of Verona) plays the leading part, and tales about him have also wandered to the North, where they are treated both in Eddic poetry and in folk-songs. Meanwhile the same theme is treated far more explicitly in the Thithrek Saga, which was composed in Norway in the middle of the 13th century on the basis of tales and songs of Low German merchants.

Folk-Songs. — Finally, an important but late source is found in the ancient ballads proper, which partly contain allusions to myths ("Tor of Haysgaard," "The Youth Svendal," "Sven Vonved," "Rage and Else"), and partly treat whole saga-cycles ("The Volsungs," "Hagbarth and Signe"). In several of the magic songs also there are preserved many heathen ideas, while their apparent Christian character is somewhat superficial. Here we can also mention popular traditions and popular adventures and especially popular usages, which have often preserved one or another heathen reminiscence.

As already remarked above, Saxo in his ancient history, the first nine books of his works, retells and works in together a number of sagas about the gods, heroes, and kings. In his work, which was finished in the beginning of the 13th century, he has made use of both Danish and Icelandic 'tradition for its foundation. The ancient history has extraordinary mythological importance, but as a source it must be used with the greatest caution. Saxo gives the same historical interpretation to the whole that he does to any part and therefore he has altered and rearranged myths and sagas when coherence seemed to demand it. The old gods are interpreted as might be expected from a religious author. Old songs are often quoted, but unfortunately in a remodeled Latin version.


NOTE. — Canon Adam of Bremen, who lived contemporaneously with Svend Estridson, made a Latin account of the history of the Archbishop of Hamburg, in which he also tells of the paganism of the Northern countries. Of foreign sources which can throw light upon the interrelation of myths among the Gothic-Germanic people can he named the "History of the Goths," written by Jordanes, and the "History of the Lombards," by Paulus Diaconus. Finally, there are found important contributions on this point. in Old German and Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is now purely heathen, now Christian with a background of heathen ideas and expressions. In England are found not a few pictorial representations with half-heathen content, of which several will be used in what follows.

_______________________________________

1 In a single instance undoubted images of gods were found in certain marsh-lands.

2 R answers to voiced S in older stages of the language.

3 Some younger stones from Bornholm and a single one from Skaane need not be mentioned here.

4 Poetic Phraseology or Language of Poetry.

5 Enumeration or Tale of Meters.

6 "The Round World," History of the Scandinavian Races.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.