Despite many attempts to extinguish it throughout recorded history, pagan cultures, such as that of the Norse in Old World Scandinavia, endure today. This post explores the old Norse culture and mythology at an introductory level, as well as compares them to depictions in American popular culture.
I will preface this feature with knowledge that I want to share about the Vikings.
The Term: Viking
What do people usually think about when they hear the word Viking? Typically in the States, the average person thinks of either an American football team, or some crazed barbarian sporting blonde braids and a horned helmet. Some still think that all Vikings were nothing but rapists and murderers. Commonly taught history has certainly cast quite a shadow over the old Norse people, but like so much of history, it is written by the victor, and in the Old World, the victor in the battle for Europe’s spirituality was certainly Judeo-Christianity over paganism. That isn’t meant as an affront to anyone’s faith, but a simple matter of historical fact: what many Vikings did back in the 8th through 11th Centuries did not jive with the Holy Roman Empire/Catholic Church. This means that only in much more recent times has more been uncovered about these intrepid people, beyond what some of them are most infamous for in the eyes of medieval Catholicism.
In the Old World, the word Viking struck fear into the heart of the common man. Today, it is a cliche that almost everyone knows but few understand. The word itself has a very simple origin: the Old Norse word vik, meaning “creek,” or “inlet,” the latter being synonymous with fjord. This word was used to describe vikingr, people who came from the fjords. So, in essence, any Scandinavian who traveled out from their home fjords became a Viking.
The Viking Influence
Most Norse men and women stayed at home and lived relatively peaceful lives, and it was mainly the young men who struck out with vigorous fervor into the world beyond. This was due to the simple fact that at the time, climate was improving in Northern Europe, and in the more hospitable environment, mortality was lessened, and there were now more sons surviving into adulthood and finding themselves with no land, no inheritance, and forced to fend for themselves among squabbling lords and clans. With advanced, superior ships at their disposal that could travel as easily by river as by sea, young Vikings took to adventuring to seek their own freedom and fortune. Now of course, there are possibly and likely other factors that contributed to the explosion of Vikings striking out from Scandinavia, but with better technology and more favorable weather patterns, it is only logical to conclude that this spurred adventure.
I suppose that sounds overly romanticized, and there is no denying that atrocities were committed by many of these young, ambitious adventurers, starting with the assault on Lindisfarne in 793 C.E. Arson, murder, and rape were carried out, slaves were taken, goods and treasures were stolen. There is no justification for these acts, whether committed by the Vikings or anyone, then or now. Even without word of these acts preceding them, the Vikings naturally struck fear into other people wherever they went. A hardy offshoot of the Germanic peoples, the Scandinavians thrived on protein heavy diets, and their home was a harsh, demanding environment that shaped them into tall, broad, strong people who towered over their peers. Even a peaceable Norse trader must have looked intimidating to men from other regions. Vikings were also keen on using psychological warfare, most famously through the berserker (a term thought to be coined at least in part through the wearing of bearskin in battle). The cliche of the horned Viking helmet is a fabrication. However, Vikings did sometimes use helmets that had iron beards attached, to make them look more menacing.
What I find important to note is that by and large, the Vikings made invaluable contributions to Europe and Western Civilization as we know it. Most of the adventuring men were explorers and traders, and they injected energy and enterprise into a dying continent. Viking traders went as far as Portugal, the Mediterranean Sea, Constantinople, and Baghdad; Norse explorers–one of the most famous being Leif Ericsson–were responsible for settling Iceland, Greenland, and the most audacious of them successfully sailed to North America 500 years before the time of Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus). The Norse were also, for their time, fairly progressive, especially with their treatment of women. Though hardly close to the level of equality we see today, Norse women were allowed to own land, manage money, get a divorce, and had many laws in place to protect them from the unwanted attention of men.
The culture and influence of the Vikings is felt to this day, and Western Civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist without them. They are with us everyday. The words “they” and “thing?” Thank Old Norse for those. Thursday? That is Torsdag (Dönnerstag), or Thor’s Day. Wednesday is derived from Woden’s Day, Woden being a variant of Odin. Russia takes its name after the Rus, a term bestowed to Swedish Vikings who ventured east from their homeland and took over the city of Novgorod. Gandalf the Grey? J.R.R. Tolkien based him on Odin, and there are many other traces of Norse Mythology in his beloved Middle Earth. Even though they are a radical departure from actual Norse Mythology, the Marvel Comics interpretations of Thor are part of our popular culture, and have of course spawned a major motion picture franchise.
The Scandinavian and Germanic peoples who espoused Norse Mythology were raised in a harsh and demanding geographical landscape. The ice, fjords, fog, mountains, and dark, dense forests which dominated their environment, shaped their culture and their beliefs. As well, this brutal, survival of the fittest lifestyle contributed to the stark, matter-of-fact fatalism that permeates the Norse myths. There is a certain degree of parallel between the Norse views, and those of Judeo-Christianity, on life after death. Both have quite fatalistic viewpoints on mankind’s ultimate destiny, though the Norse were considerably more naturalistic and cyclical in their beliefs. Viking stories, such as their story of creation, also were influenced, no doubt, by environments like Iceland, where one can find fire and ice in equal measure.
The Nine Realms
The Norse Cosmos did have Nine Realms, and in them, Earth was also referred to as Midgard. Midgard in Old Norse, does translate as “Middle World” or “Middle Earth.” Midgard was, naturally, in the middle of all the other realms: Asgard, Alfheim, and Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, Niflheim, Helheim, Jotunheim, and Muspelheim. These realms were connected by the great World Tree, Yggdrasil, also referred to as the Tree of Life, and the bridge Bifrost which was known either as the Flaming Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge, connecting the realm of Asgard to the others. The Marvel comics and movies do lift the correct names, but they depict Yggdrasil as some sort of cosmic string, and the Nine Realms as wholly separate planets, or floating islands in the case of Asgard.
In Thor: The Dark World, Chris Hemsworth’s character mentions that the Nine Realms are connected within Yggdrasil, yet the Marvel Asgardians require their version of Bifrost to transport between worlds. It seems like the Marvel Yggdrasil acts as some form of cosmic anchor which keeps the nine different worlds connected to each other, at least enough for limited FTL travel. How this works exactly is not explained, but it does seem that the construct of Bifrost itself is a necessary component to traversing this interplanetary connection. Without it, travel between realms is limited to wormholes like the one Loki exploits in The Dark World, or using concentrated dark energy, which is how Odin sent Thor to Earth in The Avengers. When Heimdall and Thor use Bifrost at will in Avengers: Infinity War, it seems that the line between it and Yggdrasil is quite blurred. Too bad it will probably not ever be explained properly.
In the Norse myths, travel between realms was not a galactic affair, and indeed many of the gods are depicted as being able to travel to the realms on foot, or by horseback. One such tale is Hermod’s ride into Helheim, to beg the release of Balder’s soul. Balder, purest and most beloved of the Aesir was slain unintentionally by the blind god Hod, in a scheme developed by Loki.
Marvel’s use of the Norse Cosmos, starting with the original character created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber, and continuing into today’s movies, is an interesting choice. It is true that other old heroes (such as Hercules) had already been tapped in stories and comics, so I appreciate that along the way someone thought to take a look at the rich world of Norse Mythology. That said, I feel that modern perceptions of said mythos are a bit muddled, and the Thor comics and movies, while fun, only add to the confusion. They add a pseudo sci-fi element to the mix, but seem to often not be very good explaining the science aspect of the fiction. Especially in the movies, the plots don’t even seem to be entirely convinced of their own science, and they don’t stop to explain how things work. The chief protagonist may go out of his way to say, “here’s what these things are,” but there is no explanation of how Yggdrasil or Bifrost work, or why there is a special relationship between these nine seemingly unrelated planets.
As presented, the cosmos of Marvel’s Thor seem to be a hodgepodge of ideas and technologies, borrowing elements from various bits of sci-fi and some of the Norse myths, but with little substantial explanation.
The Norse cosmos, as relayed to us in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, while existing in nine distinct parts (with the Tree of Life as the central anchor of it all), was still a large organism of its own. The fate of all the worlds were bound together, and all would have to face Ragnarok, the end of the world as the Norse foresaw it. However, even in the end of the world as they knew it, the Norse recognized the duality of life and death, and how nature, in its cyclical ways, always manages to balance itself out. It regenerates, it renews. A handful of gods and humans were destined to survive Ragnarok, and usher in the existence of a brand new realm.
Out of all the Western mythologies that I have studied, I have found none quite like that of the Norse, which strike me as closely in touch with the ebb and flow of life, death, and the nature of the universe. Like any other religion or mythos, it is a way of humans trying to explain things that they don’t understand. Although this was the case with mythologies in other civilizations, I respect that quite prominently in the Norse cosmos, even the gods are fallible, and are far from invincible. These myths, while capable of influencing a sense of fatalism, can also inspire, and serve as a reminder that the universe, and nature, favor no one, not even the gods. These stories are ways to remind oneself to live life to the fullest. Live with zest today, for tomorrow all may die. Brutal, perhaps, but I can respect it.
In today’s world, where the vast majority of people are either part of a monotheistic religion, or who might be agnostic or atheist, the idea of polytheism, which is the belief in a pantheon of multiple gods and goddesses, seems hopelessly outdated. But before the “big three” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) conquered most of the world, polytheism was common for many cultures the world over. Many of the great civilizations throughout history based their culture and ideas on these polytheistic beliefs, and these beliefs were also ways of explaining how the universe worked and how it came to be. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Norse, and many other civilizations held beliefs in multiple gods and goddesses. Some of these civilizations have extremely similar figures and myths to one another, which is a symptom of conquest, stories being passed from settlement to settlement, or a culture emulating a neighbor for varying reasons.
The Famous Gods
From the perspective of being a history buff, as well as someone who is trying to learn more about his heritage, I feel most strongly attracted to the heroes, legends, and gods from Norse mythology. And, since Marvel Studios has had smash success with movies based on the mythological hero turned superhero, Thor, Norse mythology has found itself put back into the limelight, by loose interpretation. Of course, considering when it was made available, at a time when the monotheists took hold over much of Europe, even the Prose Edda is likely not a perfect representation of what the Norse actually believed, so Marvel is merely re-re-interpreting the old myth. That being said, Norse mythology, like that of the Greeks and the Romans, has had some of the longest-lasting influences on our everyday lives. There are many fascinating gods and goddesses in this pantheon, but I am going to focus on the three that are most prominent in popular culture, as these tend to be the ones most misconstrued.
Although Odin was indeed the All-father, and in some ways the most powerful of the gods, he was not necessarily the most popular among the Norse and Germanic peoples of Europe. He was purportedly quite feared, and was thought to be somewhat fickle in whom he granted favor to. He was a god of war, but also one of wisdom, and he was said to be responsible for giving the Norse peoples the runes, the method with which they wrote their language. He lost his eye to gain the knowledge of the runes, and as befitting the god of sacrifice, he also impaled himself on the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, in order to gain this precious knowledge. Odin was said to travel Midgard, or Earth, as an old, bearded man with gray robes and a gray hat. Sounds kind of like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? That is not a coincidence. Also, Odin’s name has various spellings, one of which is Woden. As I have mentioned before, Wednesday is in fact Woden’s Day, a day on many calendars in Western Civilization. Odin was a badass of the Norse gods, which made it all the more odd to me that Anthony Hopkins was chosen to portray him in the Marvel films. Hopkins is a great actor, but I find the way he is portrayed as Odin to be rather frail at times, and doesn’t convey the strength that befits the legend. Odin was a distant, implacable god, one demanding of respect but not necessarily one you would be chummy with.
Thor, son of Odin, was by far the most popular of the gods. Though he was also associated with warfare along with his father(especially against giants), he was the protector of mankind, and aside from his connection to lightning, oak trees, and storms, his portfolio included healing and fertility. He was the embodiment of everything people of those times treasured, and he has arguably had the longest lasting and most substantial influence on our world today. But he wasn’t necessarily a charming, dashing sort of fellow. He was an easily angered, womanizing brute. Okay, so maybe Marvel wasn’t too far off… Even setting aside the Marvel films, Thor’s name is part of our everyday lives. Don’t forget that Thursday is Thor’s Day. Also in science, his influence is felt: the element thorium was named in honor of the legendary hero-god. His hammer Mjolnir was a giant-killer first and foremost, and was powerful enough to level mountains. The whole bit about being worthy enough to wield it is all from the comics. In the myths, only Thor could lift the thing because of his great strength, and even with his prodigious strength he had to rely on his magical belt and gauntlets.
Loki is an interesting figure. He is one of the most prominently featured characters in the Norse myths, yet he is also among the most nebulous of them all. In stories that predate Ragnarok, he was little more than a trickster and an illusionist, whose deceit helped and hindered the other gods in equal measure. But toward the end, he became a force of pure malevolence, and was largely responsible for setting off Ragnarok. Two of his monstrous children, Fenrir and Jormungandr, ended up killing Odin and Thor, respectively, and he led an army of the dishonored dead in a final assault on Asgard. Loki’s wide span of personalities and the reach of his portfolio suggest that he may have been a combination of several other gods. Fire gods and tricksters are a regular staple of many ancient myths, and Loki is effectively the embodiment of them all. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies is easily the closest representation of his mythological counterpart; he is duplicitous, treacherous, charming, and capable of almost any act for good or ill. In the mythos, though, Loki was blood brother of Odin, not Thor, and was the parent of Hel. I suspect that in the Thor comics, Hel was renamed Hela in order for her name to appear softer to younger audiences, or to not provoke the ire of conservative watch dogs.
So aside from names, days of the week, and cool comic books, what kind of heritage has Norse Mythology left for us? What can we learn from it, and other myths throughout history? A lesson to glean across all systems of belief, is that they are ways for human beings to understand the universe and their place in it. We don’t like not knowing how our world works. We like to believe that we are more than a happy accident of evolution, more than flotsam floating on the cosmic winds of the universe. And before the onset of monotheism, and the widespread meme regarding a deity that is unknowable and infallible, humans tended to think of gods as more like themselves. More powerful, certainly, but still capable of weakness, still capable of making mistakes.
I’m not here to proselytize. The debates of faith versus science, of religion versus atheism and everything in between, are not anything that I wish to open up here. I’m not here to suggest that, for example, Norse mythology is somehow superior to any other mythological system in the world. It is my favorite to study, and it is part of my lineage, but that doesn’t make it superior. What I do want to emphasize is that we, humanity, have struggled for thousands of years to understand our place in the universe. We have come up with a lot of very elaborate ways to explain how the world works, and what humanity’s role is within it. Along the way we’ve created some interesting heroes, legends, and gods. We don’t have to worship these figures to respect what they represent.
Human beings like having heroes. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be a comic book industry. Star Wars would not have been successful, and there would be no such thing in literature as the Hero’s Journey. It’s nice to have heroes, exemplars to strive for. I personally think the world could use more of them. Humans are flawed, finite, and fallible, but we can still strive to be better than what we are. In our lifetimes, we may never really understand the universe, how it came to be, or what purpose humanity really serves. That scares most people, I think, but I find it fascinating. My only hope for my lifetime is that somehow human beings will stop trying to one-up each other, and stop trying to say that their belief system is the right one, and that the beliefs and faiths of their neighbors are therefore wrong. Take a look at history. Take another look at the myths of old. It is all part of the human condition, and we have inherited the memes and culture of the Norse, and many other mythologies, all the way up to the twenty-first century.
Recommended reading for those who want to get started with learning more about the old myths:
Myths & Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. Wilkinson, Philip. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2009.
Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Belief, Mythology, and Art. Woolf, Greg. Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., London, 2005.
Image created by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, circa 1886, now part of public domain.
*This work is a repost and combination into one article from what I originally wrote as three pieces for The Uncommon Geek, circa 2014. Reposted for purpose of fixing some minor inconsistencies, grammatical and typographical errors, as well as to combine the three separate entries into one. I also wished to share this work, with eliminating some unintentional suggestion on my, the author’s, part, that Western Civilization or Norse Mythology might have certain exclusive interesting aspects that other myths and civilizations do not. There previously existed a statement that could be construed as an insinuation that somehow the Norse myths were the only ones with fallible gods and with a strong link to nature, which is of course totally untrue. I hope the updated article was informative and enjoyable.