In 2011, everyone suddenly fancied themselves an expert on Norse mythology, thanks to the cinematic adaptation of one central figure: Thor. Whether it was an unexpected interest in the Scandinavian mythological framework of the Viking Age or — more likely — Chris Hemsworth’s dedication to deadlifts and crunches, ancient Norse mythology was having a very modern moment.
But beyond the Hollywood versions of characters like Thor, there’s a centuries-old history behind Norse mythology that experts are still discovering and busting myths around. Here are some of the basic facts to know.
The Original Sources of Nordic Mythology Are Two 13th-Century Books
“The main original sources are two books called Edda written down in Iceland in the 1200s C.E.,” writes Dr. Jackson Crawford, resident scholar at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder, via email. “One, the ‘Poetic Edda,’ is an anonymous compilation of about thirty Old Norse poems about the gods and heroes. Based on linguistic evidence, many of these poems probably were composed before Iceland was converted to Christianity (in 1000 C.E.), so these are our most direct sources. The poems include narratives about creation, the end of the world at Ragnarök, and the gods’ many adventures between.”
The other book, the “Prose Edda,” was written around 1200 C.E. by the Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturlson, who also wrote a collection of sagas called the “Heimskringla.” “Snorri was trying to preserve the traditional style of Old Norse poetry for a younger generation that was increasingly following the more fashionable poetic style and themes of England and France (the Arthurian stories were popular in his day even in Iceland),” Crawford says. “To teach the old poetic style, he had to teach the myths, which were alluded to extensively even in poems that weren’t directly about the gods.” According to Crawford, the “Prose Edda” quotes its predecessor, the “Poetic Edda” and “streamlines” certain narratives in more cohesive ways.
Jackson explains more about the differences between the Eddas here:
The Gods of Norse Mythology Aren’t Quite Like Other Gods
“Our temptation today is to say that one god is ‘god of’ this and another ‘goddess of’ that, but these labels don’t match well with the reality of their portrayal in our surviving medieval sources,” Crawford says. “It’s not especially meaningful to talk about who is ‘god of’ what or ‘goddess of’ what. The gods are more distinct personalities than distinct roles in the Eddic texts.”
Unlike the Greek or Roman gods who weave a tangled web of interconnected stories, marriages, murders and more (or the 2,000-plus deities of the Egyptian religion), the Nordic mythological figures are somewhat separate and distinct. “The gods are not particularly united, except in terms of where they live (in the realm of Asgard, which means the ‘enclosure of the gods’), and who their mortal enemies are,” Crawford says. “The gods are opposed to a group of beings called the jotnar in Old Norse. These beings are usually called ‘giants’ in English translation but they are not actually larger than the gods or any different in appearance. Most of the gods (including Thor and Odin) have at least one parent from among the jotnar or ‘giants.'”
There Are, However, Four Main Gods to Know
There are likely more than a dozen Norse gods who belong to two major tribes — Æsir and Vanir — but the four who come up the most in the stories in the Eddas are Thor, Odin, Loki and Freyja.
“Thor is the protector of the realm of the gods, as well as human beings, from the gods’ enemies,” Crawford says. “He fights with his great hammer Mjollnir, forged for him by the dwarves.”
In Norse mythology, Freyja is a goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, sex, war and death. She rides in a cat-drawn chariot.
While Thor may be the one most of us are familiar with, thanks to the modest Marvel franchise helmed by Chris Hemsworth, he’s actually not the top dog when it comes to Nordic gods. “Odin is the highest-ranked of the gods,” Crawford says. “He stirs up battles and fighting among humankind, so that he can have his Valkyries (mortal women in his service with the gift of flight) harvest the dead from the battlefield for his own army he is collecting in Valhalla.”
Marvel took inspiration from another Nordic god in the character of Loki, a supervillain turned hero. “Loki is an ambivalent figure who is sometimes a comical sidekick to Thor, and yet will lead the forces of the ‘giants’ (jotnar) and monsters against the gods during the final battle of Ragnarök,” Crawford says, adding one myth-busting fact: “Thor and Loki aren’t brothers, despite their portrayal as such in the Marvel films.”
The best known goddess of Nordic mythology is known for zooming around Asgard in a cat-drawn carriage. “Freyja is a beautiful goddess often desired by the ‘giants’ (jotnar) and by pretty much everyone else too,” Crawford says. “Her name simply means ‘lady’ or ‘noblewoman,’ and probably isn’t her original name — it’s likely that at some earlier point she was identified with Odin’s wife, Frigg.”
While there are plenty of other gods in the Nordic world, they have a much more limited presence in the Eddas, according to Crawford. “Heimdall guards the realm of the gods, Týr sacrifices his hand to bind the wolf Fenrir until the final battle of Ragnarök, and Frey gives up his only weapon in order to marry a woman he desires from among the jotnar,” he says. “Today we often underestimate the importance of the main Norse mythical heroes, such as the heroes of the Volsung legends like the dragon-slayer Sigurth, whose love affair with the cursed Valkyrie named Brynhild causes his death.”
Destruction Is Inevitable — and Predestined
“One of the central beliefs of Norse mythology and a belief that sets it apart from most other mythologies, is the underlying concept that the gods are doomed to destruction,” writes Jesse Byock, author of “Viking Age Iceland” and translator of “The Prose Edda,” via email. “Ragnarök, the final battle between the gods and monsters, such as the Midgard Serpent and the giants, will end in disaster. Knowing the coming disaster in advance, the gods accept their fate, but try to stave off the timing of the battle and weaken their opponents. Odin, in Valhalla, gathers about him an army of dead warriors who will march out to defeat in the final battle, while Thor repeatedly strives to keep the power of the giants at bay. Both the ‘Prose’ and ‘Poetic Edda’ present vivid images of this final war.”
“Each person (and god) has a destined day of death, which that person almost certainly doesn’t know — though now and then a myth or saga has a seeress reveal someone’s destiny, usually in mysterious and vague terms,” Crawford says. “Because there is only one way to get into the glorious afterlife (by dying), there is a cultural imperative to fight on almost any pretext — because if you die fighting, you were destined to die anyway that day.”
The Body and Mind Are Not Distinct From the Souls or Spirits
“There is no separable ‘soul’ or ‘spirit;’ the afterlife involves the whole person,” Crawford says. “Most of the dead go to Hel — spelled with one l; not a place of torment, but just an underground world often literally understood as within the grave mound. As the Viking Age progresses, there grows a belief that men who die in battle may go to Valhalla, where they will join the god Odin’s army at Ragnarök.”
Mythology Played a Central Role in Viking Society, But More for Entertainment Than Worship
“No doubt many of the myths of the ‘Poetic Edda’ were told for entertainment — such as the story of Thor having to retrieve his hammer while dressed like a bride in the poem, ‘Thrymskvitha.'” Crawford says. “Others contained traditional wisdom, channeled through the voice of a god like Odin, such as the poem ‘Hávamál.'”
“While the Eddas contain stories about the Norse gods and some traditional wisdom, they don’t contain information about how the Nordic society of the time worshiped gods or if and how they might have prayed to them. The stories in the Eddas do date back to pre-Christian times (based on linguistic and other evidence). But medieval Christians were willing to, and did, transmit stories without transmitting the actual religion.”
Vikings weren’t just one group of people; they lived in groups across a large geographic region but shared many of the same pre-Christian beliefs and cultural practices of other speakers of Old Norse across northern Europe. And while it’s been reported that practitioners of Nordic religion met in the open air to “praise the gods and make offerings to them,” the formal worship of Norse gods (as well as other figures) known as “Asatro” didn’t become popular until the 19th century. The Vikings themselves didn’t have a name for their religion, and simply called it “the old way” (Forn Sidr), in contrast to Christianity, which they considered “the new way.”
“Consider how a Christian parent today might read a child a bedtime story about Hercules,” Crawford says. “Both of them are ‘safe’ to do so because there’s no one around them who takes the stories of the Greek gods as the foundation of an alternative religion — they’re just entertaining stories. No parent today tells a bedtime story about Hercules and concludes it with the instructions for how to sacrifice livestock to him. No doubt it was similar when the Eddas were written down in the 1200s in Iceland; the stories were valued and enjoyed, but Christianity had supplanted the rites and practices of the old religion that worshipped those gods, and so the latter weren’t passed down along with the stories.”
The Norse Gods & Goddesses
The supreme deity of Norse mythology and the greatest among the Norse gods was Odin, the Allfather of the Aesir. He was the awe-inspiring ruler of Asgard, and most revered immortal, who was on an unrelenting quest for knowledge with his two ravens, two wolves and the Valkyries. He is the god of war and, being delightfully paradoxical, the god of poetry and magic. He is famous for sacrificing one of his eyes in order to be able to see the cosmos more clearly and his thirst for wisdom saw him hang from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights until he was blessed with the knowledge of the runic alphabet. His unyielding nature granted him the opportunity to unlock numerous mysteries of the universe.
Odin’s wife, Frigg, was a paragon of beauty, love, fertility and fate. She was the mighty queen of Asgard, a venerable Norse goddess, who was gifted with the power of divination, and yet, was surrounded by an air of secrecy. She was the only goddess allowed to sit next to her husband. Frigg was a very protective mother, so she took an oath from the elements, beasts, weapons and poisons, that they would not injure her brilliant and loving son, Balder. Her trust was betrayed by Loki, a most deceitful god.
Frigg and Odin are the parents of Balder, who was described as living between heaven and earth. Balder was the epitome of radiance, beauty, kindness and fairness. He was believed to be immortal, but he was killed with mistletoe – the golden bough that contained both his life and his death.
Loki was a mischievous god who could shape-shift and can take up animalistic forms. He conceived a scheme to cause the death of Balder. Upon learning that mistletoe was the only thing that could hurt Balder, he placed a branch into the hands of the blind god, Hod, and tricked him into throwing it at Balder, killing him.
Thor was Odin’s most widely-known son. He was the protector of humanity and the powerful god of thunder who wielded a hammer named Mjöllnir. Among the Norse gods, he was known for his bravery, strength, healing powers and righteousness.
Freya was one of the most sensual and passionate goddesses in Norse mythology. She was associated with much of the same qualities as Frigg: love, fertility and beauty. She was the sister of Freyr.
Freyr was the god of fertility and one of the most respected gods for the Vanir clan. Freyr was a symbol of prosperity and pleasant weather conditions. He was frequently portrayed with a large phallus.
Heimdall, known as the ‘shiniest’ of all gods due to him having the ‘whitest skin’, was a son of Odin who sat atop the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard, the world of the Aesir tribe of gods, with Midgard, the world of humanity) and remained forever on alert; guarding Asgard against attack.
Hel was the goddess and ruler of the Norse underworld of the same name (also known as Helheim). She has pale skin and appears to be death-like. She nurtures and houses any who enter her realm.
Vidar was another son of the supreme god and Grid (a giantess), and his powers were matched only by that of Thor.
Vale was the son of Odin who avenged Balder’s death by killing Hod, the god who pierced Balder with mistletoe.
The richness of the Norse mythology and folklore continues to mesmerise people of all ages and backgrounds. Immersed in the sagas, we let our imagination go wild, as we learn of old worlds and consider new and exciting interpretation