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Norse mythology is filled with fascinating figures which hold a mirror up to the societies that created their legends. From Odin, a one-eyed ruler who sought arcane knowledge, to Hel, keeper of the underworld – we take a closer look at the gods and goddesses of Viking lore…
Before the existence of humanity, there was the Ginnungagap, a great chasm which yawned between two realms of legend: the ice of Niflheim and the fiery Muspelheim. When the borders of the two lands of legend clashed in the void, they formed a burning frost, from which were born the first gods of the Vikings.
So held the pagan beliefs of many Norse societies between the eighth and 11th centuries. In the near-millennium that has passed since the end of the Viking age, such myths and stories have evolved and merged to become fixtures of today’s popular culture – from Thor’s mighty hammer to the notion of Valhalla.
The earliest evidence we have for any of these myths is from around AD 600, Professor Carolyne Larrington explained on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. Early medieval Scandinavian picture stones like those found on Gotland (Sweden’s largest island) show motifs including sundials, dragons and images of Norse deities.
Scandinavia is very much the homeland of such myths, but the period was marked by a great Viking expansion of territory and there were also significant Old Norse settlements in the British Isles. Some of the best evidence for the myths can be found in places like the Isle of Man. For instance, a depiction of Odin, the chief of the gods, being devoured by the wolf Fenrir at Ragnarök (the doomsday-like event that was believed would cause the end of gods and men) was found there, carved on a Christian cross.
There was no single version of a Viking religion across Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and as for the hierarchy of the gods themselves, their importance depended on where they were being worshipped, and by whom. Odin seems to have been an important god in Denmark. In Sweden, it was Freyr, and there’s evidence that Thor was more important in Norway. And because most of the settlers in Iceland came from western Norway, Thor became important in Iceland, too.
The recording of such gods and their stories continued into the 12th century, when they were first written down (by Christians) in the numerous sagas, which are supposedly based on true stories of real Viking Age people, and significantly inform common understanding of Norse beliefs.
The primary source for knowledge of Viking gods is a 13th-century text called Prose Edda, by Icelander Snorri Sturluson. Written long after the Vikings were at their height – and after Scandinavia had already been converted to Christianity – it offers fascinating insight, but should not be taken as gospel.
As there was no religious dogma dictating the worship or interaction with these gods across early medieval Scandinavian society, it is hard to know much other than what the later sagas tell us. Beyond pictures in excavated temples, or figures which may represent the gods placed in burial mounds, there is scanty contemporary evidence of how people interacted with these figures. But the sagas have it that some women looked to Freya, for instance, for help with pregnancy or childbirth, while Thor – the hammer-wielding god of thunder – and Freyr and Odin all seem to have received sacrifices for good weather.
Here is a brief guide to some of the legendary gods, goddesses, and mythical figures – and their famed characteristics…
The ruler of the gods’ realm of Asgard, Odin was linked with war, wisdom, magic and poetry, among other things. Such was his desire for knowledge that he sacrificed one of his eyes for perception of the world and cosmos, and let himself be hanged on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights to gain understanding of the runes.
The one-eyed Odin (or Woden, which is where ‘Wednesday’ comes from) was often depicted in a broad-brimmed hat or cloak so he would not be recognised as he walked the human realm.
He rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and owned two ravens that spied for him. Odin would meet his end fighting the monstrous wolf Fenrir at Ragnarök.
As Odin’s queen, Frigg is most often associated with marriage, fertility and union, and was the only goddess allowed to sit alongside Odin in the great halls of Asgard. Despite this status, surprisingly little is known about her. She also represented motherhood and was fiercely dedicated to her children (see more on her son, Balder).
As Odin gives his name to a day of the week, Frigg informs ‘Friday’, and is also closely linked in legend with Freyja, in both purpose and nature.
As the goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, gold and magic, Freyja – the sister of Freyr – was pleasure-seeking and materialistic. She owned the beautiful necklace Brísingamen and a cloak of falcon feathers that let her fly.
One of the few female deities in the Viking pantheon, her name means ‘Lady’. While half of the warriors slain in battle were selected by the Valkyries to join Odin in Valhalla, the other half went to the field presided over by Freyja, named Fólkvangr.
On the podcast | From Thor to Odin, Carolyne Larrington discusses the legendary figures of Viking mythology:
Freyr was the god of fertility, but was also associated with sunshine, prosperity and peace. As son of the sea god Njörd, he belonged to the Vanir – one of the two warring races of gods, the other being the Æsir.
One of the most venerated of the gods, especially in Sweden, he would receive offerings for a good harvest or virility. According to the mythology, Freyr owned a ship he could fold into his pocket and a sword that battled on its own, and he rode a golden boar made by the dwarves.
God of thunder, lightning and storms, Thor was perhaps the most popular of the pantheon, as he protected humankind and Asgard.
The red-bearded son of Odin boasted such strength that he could fight giants – armed with his iron gloves, enchanted belt and, most famously, his great hammer, Mjölnir, which could level mountains. His hammer became a ubiquitous symbol in Viking art and culture.
It was from his name that we get ‘Thursday’ (‘Thor’s Day’).
One of the best-known stories in Norse mythology is the death of Balder. He was the god of light and purity, the son of Odin and Frigg. As a beautiful and pure god, he is often portrayed as the favourite, and unable to be harmed – some Icelandic stories tell how the gods amused themselves by throwing objects at him, knowing that he was immune.
Yet, although most gods were immortal, Balder had been prophesied to die. His demise came when his mother revealed to the mischievous god Loki that her son’s only weakness was mistletoe (more below). Thus, ‘the best of gods’ was slain.
The trickster, a god associated with mischief (and also fire), Loki was a shapeshifter, able to take on the forms of animals and people. But Loki could also be cruel with his pranks – leading to the death of a beloved god.
Loki tricked Frigg, mother to Balder, into revealing her son’s only weakness, mistletoe, and then had the blind god Höd throw a sharpened branch of mistletoe at him.
At Ragnarök, Loki took sides with the giants, but was slain in the battle.
Heimdall was the watchman of the gods, a shining deity who dwelt at the entry to Asgard. He was the keeper of the Gjallarhorn, the ‘ringing’ or ‘hollering horn’ that would sound to warn of the beginning of Ragnarök. He also kept the Bifröst (the rainbow bridge) between the nine legendary realms, astride a great horse named Gulltoppr (meaning ‘the golden-maned’).
He was characterised by his keen eyesight and hearing, and was also often depicted with golden teeth.
As an enemy of Loki, it was prophesied that the two would meet at the end of the world for their final battle.
Hel was the daughter of Loki, and presided over the Norse underworld, Helheim, where those who didn’t die in battle were sent after their death. The beloved god Balder was sent to Hel’s realm, after his death at the hands of Loki.
According to legend, she was thrown from the sky by Odin into the underworld, and was believed to have skin so pale that she looked already dead.
Tyr was the god of justice and war. He is often depicted as missing an arm or hand, due to the legend that he sacrificed his right hand in return for the safety of Asgard.
This comes from the well-known tale of the wolf Fenrir (a son of Loki), whose fierceness threatened the realm. In order for Fenrir to be bound in an unbreakable chain, Tyr placed his hand in Fenrir’s jaws as a distraction, and lost it in a memorable act of sacrifice.
Bragi was the bard, a wise and learned figure who entertained and educated at the court of Odin. Some characterise him as the god of poetry and another son of Odin (though not by Frigg); others have him based on a 9th-century poet, Bragi Boddason, who was later made into a god.
Some sources describe Bragi as having runes carved across his tongue, indicating how he inspired Norse skalds (poets).
Njǫrd is the great god of sea and wind and, in legend, the father of sibling gods Freyja and Freyr. It was believed that Njǫrd would be one of the only gods to survive Ragnarök.
He could ensure safety at sea, fair winds and plentiful fishing trips – a crucial god in Viking lore, as many communities in Scandinavia were seafaring.
There is evidence that Njǫrd was revered into the 18th century; in Norwegian folk practice, where the god is recorded as Njörðr, he was thanked for a bountiful catch of fish.
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