The Norse religion was based on a set of beliefs common to northern Europe at the time. The Germanic tribes that made up the Anglo-Saxons shared many of the same beliefs that the Scandinavian Vikings held; their creation story was similar and their gods were the same in all but name. It was a polytheistic belief system based on a god or goddess that represented almost every aspect of life.
The attributes of these deities reflect the important parts of contemporary life in the Dark Ages, consequently the study of Norse myths and stories has yielded a wealth of information about the time.
The Edda: The First Documents of Norse Mythology
Most of what we know of Norse mythology come from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, historical works created in the thirteenth century in Iceland. Iceland had a proud literary heritage including the Icelandic Sagas, another key source for historians.
The Edda is a written account of the stories of the Norse mythology, the religion of the gathered Scandinavian people known as the Vikings. It stands as a kind of religious manuscript, similar in a way to the Bible. However, before any of the stories had been written down, Norse religion and the tales therein were maintained and shared verbally; amongst families, in the lord’s hall or after battle. The Edda was the first time these stories were collected in permanent, written form.
The Giants, the Aesir and the Creation of the World
Before the worlds were created there was only empty void, Ginnungagap; at either end of this space was Muspelheim, the realm of fire, and Niflheim, the realm of ice. These two reached out across the gulf, fire and ice, until they touched. The combination of these elements created The first being, Ymir, the giant. As the ice melted other beings emerged, the Aesir or gods.
The gods of Norse mythology are familiar to many because of their presence in popular media. The two most familiar are Odin, the all-father and king of the gods and Thor, his son, who was a prince of these gods and patron of smiths, storms and warriors. Odin and his brothers were responsible for the creation of the world — they killed Ymir, the giant, and from his body created the earth, the sky and the oceans.
The Norse Gods
There are dozens of gods referred to in the Edda. Here are three of the most and popular amongst them:
The Father of the Gods and also the most powerful, many myths surround Odin. He was also famous for interacting with mortals. As a consequence many Vikings believed they were the descendants of Odin, most notably the infamous Lothbrook brothers who lead the invasion of England.
Odin had a magical six-legged horse and two ravens who were his messengers and spies. His weapon was a spear and he was often depicted wielding it. He was a god of war, but was most famous for his wisdom. He famously sacrificed one of his eyes for the gift of poetry and wisdom and impaled himself intentionally to gain the knowledge of runes.
Almost as popular today — due to comic books and films — as he was to the Vikings, Thor was the most powerful and popular of the Norse gods. The latter is a known fact, as most of the Viking burials that have been discovered have contained pendants in the shape of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. The hammer has several origin stories, usually of a celestial nature. One of the most popular stories was that his father, Odin, forged it in the heart of a star. It was a tool that could create and destroy, stories of the Edda tell of how it could fell a giant or sunder a mountain with one strike.
Thor was the protector of the home of the gods, Asgard, and a particular defender of the mortal realm, Midgard.
A trickster and the bane of his fellow gods, Loki was the villain of many of the stories in the Edda. He was a master of magic and the motives for his tricks were often ambiguous, sometimes helping the other gods and sometimes foiling them. He stole jewellery from the goddess Freyja, tricked the blind god Hodhr into killing his kin, Baldur and replaced the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif. He also helped thor recover Mjolnir when it was lost, tricked a giant into building the defences of Asgard and also gave up and then rescued the goddess, Idunn, from frost giants.
Loki was the antagonist for many of the great stories of the Edda and was duly punished for his actions. Once he was tied up while a venomous snake dripped poison into his eyes, another time he was imprisoned and his lips were sewn together.
Loki was imprisoned for a long time after one of his worst crimes, the murder of Baldur. It was said that he will be freed when the time called Ragnarok, the end of the world, came about and he would play one of the chief characters in the world’s demise.
Ragnarok: The End of Times
Norse mythology tells of how the universe will end with a final great battle between the Aesir, the Gods of Asgard, lead by Odin, and the Giants, lead by the trickster, Loki. Also involved are the demon wolf, Fenrir and the giant serpent, Jörmungandr.
Loki and Fenris are imprisoned before the battle, but the giants come to release them. Fenrir is said to charge out into the world with his jaws spread wide, devouring all who stand before him. Even the sun is destroyed between his great jaws.
In the darkness that follows, the fire giant, Surt, charges Asgard with his army and flames leap high into the sky. The Edda tells of a great battle and the many heroic deeds of the heroes of Asgard. In the end almost everything in the universe is destroyed. Fenrir slays Odina and the mighty sword-god, Tyr, but is finally defeated by another of Odin’s sons, Vidar. Thor enters into a thunderous battle with the great serpent, Jörmungandr, which ends in both of their deaths. Heimdall and Loki fall in combat with one another, as does Surt and the goddess Freyr.
An End and a Beginning
As the dust settles and the fallen heroes bone’s lay forgotten in the dark wastes left behind, the land sinks slowly into the sea and, the Edda tells us, all is consumed so only an empty void remains. The universe reverts to the way it was before the first being, Ymir, was created. Ginnungagap reigns once more between the lands of ice and fire. And from these distant opposing forces, tendrils of ice and fire begin to reach out, once again, into the void.