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В книге рассматриваются волшебные мифы и легенды Норвегии, Швеции, Дании, Исландии и Гренландии эпохи викингов. Введение помогает определить место скандинавской мифологии в истории, во второй главе объясняется значение мифологического времени, и в третьей, основной секции представлен словарь по скандинавской мифологии.Образцы сканов:
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Norse Mythology:
A Guide to the Gods, Heroes,
Rituals, and Beliefs

John Lindow

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Norse Mythology

This page intentionally left blank

Norse Mythology:
A Guide to the Gods,
Heroes, Rituals, and
Beliefs
John Lindow

3

3

Oxford New York
Auckland Bangkok Buenos Aires
Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Hong Kong Istanbul
Karachi Kolkata Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City
Mumbai Nairobi São Paulo Shanghai Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto
and an associated company in
Berlin

Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow
First published by ABC-Clio
130 Cremona Drive, P.O. Box 1911
Santa Barbara, California 93116-1911

First issued as an Oxford University Press paperback, 2002
198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016
www.oup.com
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lindow, John.
[Handbook of Norse mythology]
Norse mythology: a guide to the Gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs / by John Lindow.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-19-515382-0 (pbk.: alk. paper)
1. Mythology, Norse. I.Title.
BL860.L56 2001
293'.13—dc21 2001058370

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

CONTENTS

A Note on Orthography, xv
1 Introduction, 1
The Historical Background, 2
The Indo-European Background, 30
Cult, Worship, and Sacrifice, 33
The Importance of Scandinavian Mythology, 36

2 Time, 39
The Nature of Mythic Time, 39
Mythic Past, Present, and Future, 40
Cyclical Time, 42
Time and Space, 43
Myth, Narrative, and Language, 44
Myth and History, 45

3 Deities, Themes, and Concepts, 47
Ægir, 47
Ægir’s Daughters, 49
Æsir, 49
Æsir-Vanir War, 51
Álfablót, 53
Álfheim (Elf-land), 54
Alfödr (All-father), 55
Almáttki áss, 5; 5
Alvíssmál, 56
Andhrímnir (Sooty-in-front), 58
Andlang, 58
Andvari (Careful), 58
Angrboda (She-who-offers-sorrow), 59

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vi

Contents

Árvak and Alsvin (Early-awake and Very-swift), 59
Ása-Thor (Thor-of-the-æsir), 61
Ás-Brú (Æsir-bridge), 61
Ásgard (Enclosure-of-the-æsir), 61
Ask (Ash-tree) and Embla, 62
Atla, 63
Audhumla, 63
Aurboda (Gravel-offerer), 64
Aurgelmir (Mud-yeller), 64
Aurvandil, 65
Baldr, 65
Baldrs Draumar (Baldr’s Dreams), 70
Báleyg (Flame-eye), 71
Barri, 71
Baugi (Ring-shaped), 72
Beli, 73
Bergbúa tháttr (The Tale of the Mountain-dweller), 73
Bergelmir (Bear-yeller, Mountain-yeller, or Bare-yeller), 74
Berserks, 75
Bestla, 77
Beyla, 78
Bil and Hjúki, 78
Bileyg (Wavering-eye), 79
Billing’s Girl, 79
Bilröst, 80
Bilskírnir, 81
Bláin, 82
Bölthor(n), 82
Bound Monster, 82
Bous, 84
Bracteates, 84
Bragi, 86
Breidablik, 88
Brimir, 88
Brísinga men, 88
Brokk, 89
Bur, Bor (Son), 90
Búri, 90
Byggvir, 90
Byleist (Byleipt, Byleift), 91

Contents

Dag (Day), 91
Dáin (Dead), 92
Delling, 92
Dísablót, 93
Dísir, 95
Draupnir (Dripper), 97
Duneyr, 98
Durathrór, 98
Dvalin (Delayed), 98
Dwarfs, 99
Eggthér, 102
Egil, 102
Eikinskjaldi (With-an-oaken-shield), 103
Eikthyrnir (Oak-encircler), 103
Ein(d)ridi (Lone-rider), 103
Einherjar (Lone-fighters), 104
Eir, 105
Eiríksmál, 105
Eistla, 106
Eitri, 106
Eldhrímnir (Fire-sooty), 107
Eldir, 107
Élivágar (Hailstorm-waves), 108
Elli (Old-age), 109
Elves, 109
Eyrgjafa, 111
Falhófnir (Pale-hoofed), 111
Fárbauti (Anger-striker), 111
Fenrir, 111
Fensalir (Bog-halls), 114
Fimafeng, 115
Fimbul-, 115
Fjalar (Deceiver), 115
Fjölnir, 116
Fjölvar, 117
Fjörgyn, 117
Fólkvang (People-field or Army-field), 118
Fornjót, 118
Forseti (Chairman), 119
Freki (Ravenous-one), 120

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Contents

Frey, 121
Freyja (Lady), 126
Frigg, 128
Fródi, 130
Fulla, 132
Galdrar, 132
Game of the Gods, 133
Garm, 134
Gefjon, 135
Gefn, 137
Geirröd, 137
Gerd, 138
Geri (Ravenous-one), 139
Gestumblindi (One-blind-to-guests?), 139
Gimlé, 140
Ginnunga Gap, 141
Gísl, 142
Gjallarbrú, 142
Gjallarhorn (Screaming-horn), 143
Gjálp, 144
Glad (Glad), 144
Gladsheim, 144
Glær (Glassy), 145
Gleipnir, 145
Glen, 146
Glitnir, 146
Gná, 146
Gnipahellir (Gnipa-cave), 147
Gods, Words for, 147
Greip (Grip), 149
Gríd, 149
Grímnismál, 150
Grottasöng, 151
Gullinborsti (Gold-bristle), 153
Gullintanni (Gilded-tooth), 154
Gulltopp (Gold-top), 154
Gullveig, 154
Gungnir, 155
Gunnlöd, 156
Gyllir, 156

Contents

Gymir, 156
Hábrók (High-pants), 157
Haddingjar, 157
Hadingus, 157
Hákonarmál, 158
Háleygjatal, 160
Hallinskídi, 161
Hárbardsljód, 161
Harthgrepa (Hard-grip), 163
Hati Hródvitnisson, 163
Hávamál, 164
Heid, 165
Heidrún, 166
Heimdall, 167
Hel, 172
Hermód, 173
Hildisvíni (Battle-pig), 173
Himinbjörg (Heaven-mountain), 174
Hjadningavíg (Battle-of-the-followers-of-Hedin), 174
Hlidskjálf, 176
Hlín, 176
Hlóra, 177
Hlórridi, 177
Hnoss (Treasure), 177
Höd, 177
Hoddmímir’s Forest, 179
Hœnir, 179
Hörn, 181
Hræsvelg, 181
Hraudung, 182
Hrímfaxi, 182
Hrímgrímnir (Frost-masked), 183
Hringhorni (Ring-horn), 183
Hródvitnir, 184
Hropt, 185
Hrungnir, 185
Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Mind), 186
Hvedrung, 188
Hvergelmir (Hot-spring-boiler), 188
Hymir, 189

ix

x

Contents

Hymiskvida, 191
Hyndluljód, 194
Hyrrokkin (Fire-smoked), 196
Idavöll, 197
Idun, 198
Ifing, 200
Ing, 200
Ingunar-Frey, 201
Interpretatio Germanica, 202
Interpretatio Romana, 203
Járnsaxa (Armed-with-an-iron-sword), 204
Járnvid (Iron-woods), 204
Jörd (Earth), 205
Jötunheimar (Giant-worlds), 206
Kvasir, 206
Lærad, 207
Laufey, 207
Léttfeti (Light-foot), 208
Líf and Lífthrasir, 209
Lit (Color, Countenance), 209
Ljódatal, 210
Loddfáfnismál, 211
Lódur, 212
Lofn, 213
Logi (Fire), 213
Lokasenna, 214
Loki, 216
Lopt, 220
Magni (The Strong), 220
Mánagarm (Moon-dog), 221
Máni (Moon), 222
Mannus (Man), 223
Mardöll, 224
Matres and Matrones, 224
Mead of Poetry, 224
Meili, 227
Merseburg Charms, 227
Midgard (Central-enclosure), 228
Midgard Serpent, 229
Mímir (Mím, Mími), 230

Contents

Módgud (Battle-weary), 232
Módi (Angry-one), 233
Mundilfœri, 233
Muspell, 234
Naglfar, 235
Naglfari, 235
Nál (Needle), 235
Nanna, 236
Nari and/or Narfi, 236
Nerthus, 237
Nidafjöll, 238
Nidavellir, 238
Nídhögg (Evil-blow), 239
Niflheim (Fog-world) and Niflhel (Fog-Hel), 240
Njörd, 241
Norns, 243
Nótt (Night), 246
Ód, 246
Odin (Old Norse Óƒinn), 247
Ódrerir, 252
Ögmundar tháttr dytts ok Gunnars Helmings (The Tale of Ögmund Dint
and Gunnar Half), 253
Ragnarök (Judgment-of-the-powers), 254
Rán, 258
Ratatosk (Bore-tooth), 259
Regnator Omnium Deus, 259
Rígsthula, 260
Rind, 262
Röskva (Ripe?), 263
Sæhrímnir, 263
Sæming, 264
Sága, 264
Seid, 265
Sif (In-law-relationship), 266
Sigyn, 267
Sindri (Slag), 267
Sjöfn, 268
Skadi, 268
Skídbladnir, 270
Skínfaxi (Shining-mane), 272

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Contents

Sköll, 273
Skrýmir (Big-looking), 273
Sleipnir, 274
Slídrugtanni (Dangerous-tooth), 277
Snotra, 278
Sól (Sun), 278
Sörla tháttr, 280
Starkad, 281
Surt, 282
Suttung, 284
Syn, 284
Sýr (Sow), 284
Thjálfi, 285
Thjazi, 287
Thor, 287
Thrúd (Strength), 291
Thrúdgelmir (Strength-yeller), 292
Thrúdheim (Strength-world), 292
Thrúdvangar (Strength-fields), 293
Thrymheim (Din-world), 293
Thrymskvida (The Poem of Thrym), 293
Tuisto, 296
Týr, 297
Ull, 299
Urdarbrunn (Well-of-Urd), 301
Útgard (Outer-enclosure), 302
Útgarda-Loki (Loki-of-the-Útgards), 302
Vafthrúdnismál, 304
Válaskjálf, 307
Valhöll (Carrion-hall), 308
Váli, Son of Loki, 309
Váli, Son of Odin, 310
Vanir, 311
Vár, 312
Vedrfölnir (Storm-pale), 312
Vídar, 312
Vídbláin (Wide-blued), 315
Vídblindi (Wide-blind), 315
Vidfinn (Wood-Finn), 315
Vili and Vé, 316

Contents

Vingólf (Friend-hall), 316
Völund, 316
Völuspá, 317
Vör, 319
Yggdrasil (Ygg’s-steed), 319
Ymir, 322
Yngvi, 326

4 Print and Nonprint Resources, 327
Background—Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 327
Archaeology, 329
Etymology, 330
The Conversion of Iceland, 330
Medieval Iceland, 331
Women and Gender, 332
Encyclopedias, 332
Primary Sources—Translations, 333
Primary Sources—Commentary and Analysis, 334
Eddic and Skaldic Poetry, 334
Snorri Sturluson, 335
Literary Histories, 336
Mythology: General Treatments, 336
Mythology: Important Studies, 337
Nonprint Resources, 339
Index, 341

xiii

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A NOTE ON ORTHOGRAPHY

B

ecause this book is intended for a general audience, a decision was made
to limit the use of the specialized characters usually employed to represent the sounds of the older Germanic languages, including those of Norway and Iceland during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. Specifically, in names
and titles the letter π (thorn) is here represented as th, ƒ (eth) as d, and o̧ (o-hook)
as ö. These letters have, however, been retained in discussions of specific terms,
such as “πylja” and “goƒi.” Other characters, such as æ, œ, and ö, have been
retained. In addition, the nominative singular final r has been removed from
names, and the accent marks have been removed from the names “Odin” and
“Thor,” since these forms are the most widely used in English.
These compromises naturally create inconsistencies, but I hope they will
not divert from the aim of the work, namely, to let the texts speak for themselves and to give the reader an idea of the main issues in the study of Scandinavian mythology.

xv

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1
INTRODUCTION

W

hen most of us use the word “myth” in conversation, we refer to
something that is not true. When historians of religion use it, they
generally refer to a representation of the sacred in words. When
anthropologists use it, they often refer to narratives that tell about the formation
of some social institution or behavior. None of the definitions, however, will
hold directly for the characters and stories this book treats. That is in part
because of the enormous time frame: Materials relevant to the study of Scandinavian mythology, broadly defined, span two millennia or more. But even if we
limit the discussion to the relatively small body of texts from the Viking Age
and later Middle Ages about the gods Odin, Thor, Frey, and the others and their
constant battles with forces of evil and chaos, it is difficult to reconcile these
texts with any one of the narrow definitions of myth suggested above. Certainly
they had some truth value to the people who composed them and those who
wrote them down, but these were not always the same people—usually they
were not—and it is obvious that what was true, sacred, and an account of how
the world got to be the way it is to a Viking Age pagan poet can have been none
of the above to a Christian scribe copying the story in a manuscript hundreds of
years after the Viking Age. It is therefore easier and more enlightening to talk of
formal criteria and content.
In form, then, myth in general, and the texts that comprise Scandinavian
mythology in particular, are narrative, although this narrative is couched in both
verse and prose. In general, one expects myth to recount important events that
took place at the beginning of time and helped shape the world, and Scandinavian mythology indeed has sequences that tell of the origin of the cosmos and of
human beings. The story goes on, however, to the destruction and rebirth of the
cosmos, and everything in it is presented in light of an enduring struggle
between two groups of beings, the gods on the one hand and giants on the other
hand. These terms are to some extent misleading: Although the group that creates and orders the cosmos is often referred to by words that can best be translated “gods,” the principal word, “æsir,” is explicitly presented by the most

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Norse Mythology
important medieval interpreter, Snorri Sturluson, as meaning “People of Asia,”
and indeed the word often has the feel in mythological texts of an extended kin
group or tribe rather than of a collective of deities. And the other group, the ones
who aim for the destruction of the cosmos and disruption of order, are certainly
not “giant” in the sense that they are demonstrably larger than the gods. They
are usually called the “jötnar,” and again as the term is used in the mythology it
feels more like a tribal or kin group than anything else.
The world in which the æsir and jötnar play out their struggle has its own
set of place-names but is essentially recognizable as Scandinavia. There are
rivers, mountains, forests, oceans, storms, cold weather, fierce winters, eagles,
ravens, salmon, and snakes. People get about on ships and on horseback. They
eat slaughtered meat and drink beer. As in Scandinavia, north is a difficult direction, and so is east, probably because our mythology comes from west Scandinavia (Norway and Iceland), where travel to the east required going over
mountains, and going west on a ship was far easier for this seafaring culture.
It is helpful to think of three time periods in which the mythology takes
place. In the mythic past, the æsir created and ordered the world and joined with
another group, the vanir, to make up the community of gods. Somehow this
golden age was disrupted in the mythic present. As dwarfs, humans, and occasionally elves look on and are sometimes drawn into the struggle, the æsir and
the jötnar fight over resources, precious objects, and, especially, women. The
flow of such wealth is all in one direction, from the jötnar to the æsir, and in fact
one might divide the narratives of the mythic present into those in which the
gods acquire something from the giants and those in which an attempt by the
giants to acquire something from the gods is foiled. In the mythic future, this
world order will come to a fiery end as gods and giants destroy each other and
the cosmos, but a new world order is to follow in which the world will be reborn
and inhabited by a new generation of æsir.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Scandinavia consists of the low-lying Danish islands and the peninsula of Jutland
and the great Scandinavian peninsula, which in its northern reaches is divided in
two by the huge mountain range known as the keel. On the eastern side lies Sweden with its gentle Baltic Sea coast and a great deal of fertile land, especially in
the central parts of Sweden, around the lakes Mälaren, Vännern, and Vättern, and
to the south. On the west lies Norway, where tall mountains spring from the
coast, which is protected from the Atlantic by a series of small islands. To the
south lies Denmark, which until 1658 included not only Jutland and the islands

Introduction
but also southern portions of the Scandinavian peninsula. The names are indicative: Norway, the northern way, the sea route up and down the coast; Denmark,
the forest of the Danes, which separated them from the Saxons; Sweden, the
kingdom of the Svear, the people around Mälaren who at some point during the
Viking Age subdued their southern neighbors in Götaland. The name “Scandinavia” appears to be the Latinized form of an unattested German word, *Scandinaujā. (The asterisk before the word means that it was never recorded but rather
was reconstructed by linguists.) This word is a compound, the second part of
which, aujā, means “island.” What the first part means has been endlessly
debated. It appears to contain the same root as the name of the southern part of
Sweden, Skåne, and may therefore mean “Skanian island.”
As the ice from the last great Ice Age retreated, the low-lying lands of the
south were first exposed, and pollen analysis indicates settlement on Sjælland
and elsewhere by around 10,000 B.C.E. We know little about these settlements,
but by 6500 B.C.E. or so, a hunting and fishing culture may be identified. By 2500
B.C.E. or so, there are indications of agriculture and the raising of animals. At
around 2000 B.C.E. the archaeological record begins to show characteristic small
ax heads, made of stone but carefully copying the marks of metal pouring that
was used for such axes to the south in Europe. A hypothetical culture associated
with these axes and an even more hypothetical immigration of persons with
them from Europe is known as the Boat-Ax culture. Around 1000 B.C.E. the Scandinavian Bronze Age begins, and from this same period there are numerous spectacular rock carvings, which may have had a religious purpose. The Scandinavian
Iron Age begins circa 500–400 B.C.E., and its first stage, up to around the beginning of our era, is known as the Pre-Roman Iron Age, despite incipient trade with
the Roman Empire. Around the beginning of our era we begin to get runic
inscriptions from Scandinavia and the Continent in a language that is identifiably Germanic, and in Scandinavia the so-called Roman Iron Age begins. On the
Continent this is the time when the Germanic peoples confront the Roman
Empire, with increasing success. By around 400 C.E. gold appears in Scandinavia,
and the Germanic Iron Age begins; the Older Germanic Iron Age, from circa 400
to 550 or 575 C.E., is also know as the Migration Period because of the extensive
movements of the Germanic tribes around Europe, as is especially known from
accounts of interaction with Germanic peoples written by Roman historians.
Scandinavia was probably the homeland for some of these peoples. For example,
the Burgundians would appear to have come from the island of Bornholm, the
Goths either from Götaland in Sweden or from the island of Gotland off Sweden’s east coast, and the Vandals either from the Vendel area of Sweden or what
is now Vendsyssel in Denmark. Part of the Anglo-Saxon immigration to England
probably came from Angeln in what is now Denmark.

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Norse Mythology

Buckle clasp in silver, gold, and precious stones from Admark, Norway, seventh
century C.E. (The Art Archive/Historiska Museet Norway/Dagli Orti)

The period circa 600–800 C.E. is usually called the Younger Germanic Iron
Age, although Swedish archaeologists usually called it the Vendel Period
because of the wealth of finds from Vendel, an area northeast of Lake Mälaren.
During this period, too, there was extensive trade from across the Baltic centered at Helgö, then an island in the southern part of Lake Mälaren. And in Den-

Introduction
mark it appears that a Danish state was already beginning to establish itself in
Jutland.
Between circa 600 and 800 C.E., a number of linguistic changes occurred in
the northern area of the Germanic speech community, and by the end of this
period one may speak of Scandinavian languages. By this same time some Scandinavians burst spectacularly on the European scene. Although there appears to
have been sporadic raiding before the autumn of 793, in that year Vikings sacked
the rich monastery at Lindisfarne off the east coast of northern England, and for
nearly three centuries Vikings, and later, the Scandinavian kingdoms, would play
a major role in European history. What the word “Viking” originally meant is not
known; the European writers, mostly clergymen, who made it famous painted a
fairly clear picture of pagan marauders who destroyed and despoiled wherever
they went. Certainly there is some truth to such a picture, especially in the early
part of the Viking Age, when the Scandinavian sailors do seem to have had military advantages, with their light, swift, maneuverable ships. But it is important
to consider that there were individual forays, larger expeditions, armies wintering in England and on the Continent, and, finally, the North Sea empire of Cnut
the Great. Besides this military activity there was continuous trade and a pattern
of settlement in the lands to which the Scandinavian ships came.
Some of these lands were already settled, such as the French coast and
northeast England. In Normandy the Scandinavians left relatively little trace,
but in England their influence was great. The creation of the Danelaw—a relatively fixed area in which Scandinavian law obtained—arranged by Alfred the
Great and the Danish king Guthrum in the 880s, indicates just how pervasive
the Scandinavian presence was. The enormous number of Scandinavian loanwords into English indicates an extended period of contact between the English
and the Scandinavians, and as the Scandinavian kingdoms began to emerge during the ninth and tenth centuries, there was not infrequently contact with
English courts. For example, one of the sons of Harald Fairhair of Norway,
Hákon the Good, had been fostered at the court of King Athalstan of England.
According to tradition, Harald had united all Norway into a single kingdom (this
had occurred somewhat earlier in Denmark and would probably happen somewhat later in Sweden, for which the sources are rather meager). During the reign
of Harald (870–930) serious emigration began over the sea to the islands to the
west: the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, and Iceland. This push was finally
to reach Greenland and North America, and it was paralleled by extensive travel
from Sweden to the east, to Finland and Russia, down the great Russian river
systems to Constantinople and the Black Sea.
According to the Icelandic sources, powerful chieftains fled western Norway
and settled in Iceland in order to avoid the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. There may

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Norse Mythology

be some truth in this, and even if
Norway was hardly the only
source of immigration into Iceland, it remained the country
most connected to Iceland and the
kingdom into which Iceland was
finally folded in 1262–1264. But
from the time of the settlement—
Iceland was “fully settled” by 897
according to learned authors of
the twelfth century—until then,
Iceland functioned as a commonwealth in which judicial power
was in the hands of a group of
chieftains, and there was no king
or other central authority. These
leaders were called goƒar (sing.,
goƒi), and although the sources
rarely show much religious activSome English jet was exported from Yorkshire to
ity on their part—and what they
Norway during the Viking Age. This carving of a pair
do show may not be reliable—the
of bear-like gripping beasts brings to mind related
term clearly incorporates the
examples in amber. (Historisk Museum, Bergen
word for “gods.” Therefore they
Universitetet)
must have had some sort of religious function. Goƒar had “thingmen,” who owed them allegiance and whom they in turn helped; every free
man had to be some goƒi’s thing-man. The word “thing” (πing) means assembly, and one of the duties of a goƒi and his thing-men was to attend the local
assemblies and the national assembly (alπingi) to participate in litigation and,
one assumes, to renew friendships and exchange stories. There were few towns
in Scandinavia during the Viking Age and none at all in Iceland, so the assemblies, and especially the annual national assembly, must have played an important social role. There, one-third of the law was recited from memory each year
by the only national official in the country, the lawspeaker. The position was
one of status and influence but of little direct power. People lived on farms, and
the basic social unit was the household. So important was this principle of
household membership that people could switch from one household to
another only at certain specified times of the year, the “moving days.” Farming
consisted primarily of raising cattle and the hay that would be needed to support the cattle.

Introduction
The Viking Age is by definition a period when Scandinavians and Europeans
interacted, and without that interaction and the written documents it gave rise
to in Europe, archaeologists might have called the period from 800 to circa 1000
the “Scandinavian Iron Age.” The beginning of the period, as we have seen, is
portrayed by those who wrote the history, the literate members of the Christian
church, as a meeting between pagan and Christian, and it was only natural that
as time passed attempts would be made to convert the Scandinavians, as Charlemagne had converted the Saxons. Indeed, those Scandinavians who traded or
settled in Christian lands had ample contact with Christianity, and many of
them either converted or had themselves “prime-signed,” that is, they accepted
the sign of the cross, the first step toward baptism, so that they could do business with Christians. Furthermore, the gradual emergence of European nationstates in Scandinavia during the Viking Age and their increasing integration with
Europe made it inevitable that the issue would arise at the national level as well.
There is documented missionary activity in Scandinavia from the early Viking
Age onward, most famously by Ansgar, the “apostle of the north,” who worked
with both Danish and Swedish kings in the first half of the ninth century.
The process was to bear fruit first in Denmark in the later tenth century,
when King Harald Bluetooth witnessed the priest Poppo carrying a red-hot piece
of iron, with no harm to his hands, as a demonstration that Christ was greater
than the pagan gods. At Jelling in Jutland, King Harald Bluetooth erected an elaborate rune stone celebrating his parents and himself, the person who “made the
Danes Christian,” as the Jelling rune stone says.
In Norway there is evidence of Christian burial from around this time, and
Hákon the Good was a Christian king whose reign ended around 960, when Harald converted. But Hákon was buried in a mound and celebrated in pagan poetry.
Olaf Tryggvason, who ruled Norway from 995 to 1001, had been baptized in
England, and he undertook a program of forcible conversions throughout the
country. He was of a family from the Oslo fjord, and the most obdurate pagans
were allegedly in the other power center in the country, the area near modern
Trondheim. Credit for the final conversion is given to Olaf Haraldsson. When he
was killed at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, a battle having far more to do with
national politics than religion—his opponents were supported by Cnut the
Great, the Christian king of Denmark and England—people quickly saw signs of
his sanctity, and he became the most important saint of northern Europe.
We are less well informed about the conversion in Sweden. Although the
kings of Sweden were Christian from the beginning of the eleventh century, the
monk Adam of Bremen, in his history (ca. 1070) of the archbishopric of HamburgBremen in northern Germany, which had responsibility for Scandinavia, reported
a vast pagan temple at Uppsala, with idols of the pagan gods and gruesome sacri-

7

Rune stones depicting Thor’s hammer like this one in Sweden are fairly easy to find. Compare
this to the rune stone on page 10; both are from the late Viking Age. (Statens Historika
Museum, Stockholm)

Introduction

Illustration from Flateyjarbók, a late-fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript. The
scene may depict St. Olaf killing a monster. (Bob Krist/Corbis)

fices. But eleventh-century rune stones from that very same part of Sweden are
openly Christian: “God rest his soul,” many of them ask, in runes surrounding
an incised cross. Most historians accept that Sweden was fully Christian by the
beginning of the twelfth century at the latest.
The conversion in Iceland followed a fascinating course. Missionaries were
active in the latter decades of the tenth century, but so were their pagan opponents. Olaf Tryggvason, whose role in the conversion was championed by
twelfth-century and later Icelandic monks, took hostage some wealthy young
Icelandic travelers, and there was further resolve among Christians in Iceland to
complete the conversion. However, as the two sides approached the althingi in
Iceland in the year 1000, it appeared that war would break out. Finally it was
agreed that a single arbiter should choose one religion for the entire land, and the
lawspeaker Thorgeir, a pagan, was chosen. After spending a night under his
cloak, he emerged and decreed that Iceland should be Christian. And so it was.
At first some pagan practices were permitted if carried out in secret, but later
even this permission was rescinded. However, for reasons that are no longer
quite clear, the old stories about the gods were not lost on Iceland. Poems about
them lived on in oral tradition, to be recorded more than two centuries after the
conversion. Some mythological poems may actually have been composed by

9

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Norse Mythology

Christians in Iceland, and Snorri
Sturluson made extensive use of
the mythology in his writings.
Thus Scandinavian mythology was, with virtually no exception, written down by Christians,
and there is no reason to believe
that Christianity in Iceland was
any different from Christianity
anywhere else in western Europe
during the High Middle Ages.
Although the earliest bishops were
sent out from Norway, quite soon
the bishops were native born, and
by the end of the eleventh century
there were two episcopal sees, the
original one at Skálholt and a new
one for the north at Hólar. There
were several monasteries, adhering both to the Benedictine and
Augustinian orders, and there was
also one nunnery in Iceland before
the demise of the commonwealth
in 1262–1264. At least some of the
monks were literate, and they
composed both Latin and Icelandic
texts. Some lay persons of higher
status were also apparently literate, at least in Icelandic, but all
writing, whether in the international language of the church or in
the vernacular, was the result of
Compare this rune stone with a cross to the one on
the conversion to Christianity,
page 8. (Statens Historika Museum, Stockholm)
which brought with it the technology of manuscript writing.
Before and after the church brought manuscript writing to the north, there
was some writing using the native runic writing system. Since in the older runic
alphabet there are no horizontal strokes, it is assumed that the system was originally invented for scratching the letters on wooden sticks, whose grain would
obscure horizontal strokes. Only special circumstances permit wood to remain

Introduction

11

Detail of the rune stone from Rök, Sweden, from the ninth century C.E. Created by Varin for
his dead son, Vemod, with center as ode to Theodoric, king of the Goths. (The Art Archive/
Dagli Orti)

undecayed in the ground for archaeologists to dig up centuries later, and as a
result most (but by no means all) of the extant runic inscriptions are on stones.
It is important to stress that carving on wood or stone is a fairly laborious
process and that the kinds of things recorded using the runic alphabets tended to
be short and of a different nature from texts that can be easily written only in
manuscripts. Most runic inscriptions are utilitarian, and despite popular conceptions, they have little to say about mythology or magic.
The oldest runic inscriptions are from around the time of the emergence of
the Germanic peoples and are written in an alphabet of 24 characters whose origin is greatly debated. Early in the Viking Age a new runic alphabet developed in
Scandinavia, one with 16 characters. Later several variations grew out of this
basic Viking Age runic alphabet. Of the approximately 4,000 runic inscriptions,
most are from the Viking Age; most of these are from Sweden; and most of these
are from the provinces around Lake Mälaren, especially Uppland. Most are
memorial: They explain who erected the stone, whose death is memorialized,
and what the relationship was between the two. Although the few rune sticks
and other kinds of runic inscriptions that have been retained show that runes

12

Norse Mythology
could be used in a great many ways, Scandinavia through the Viking Age was for
all intents and purposes an oral society, one in which nearly all information was
encoded in mortal memory—rather than in books that could be stored—and
passed from one memory to another through speech acts. Some speech acts were
formal in nature, others not. But like speeches that politicians adapt for different audiences, much ancient knowledge must have been prone to change in oral
transmission. Without the authority of a written document, there was no way to
compare the versions of a text, and we therefore cannot assume that a text
recorded in a thirteenth-century source passed unchanged through centuries of
oral transmission. This fact makes it extremely difficult to discuss with any
authority the time or place of origin of many of the texts of Scandinavian
mythology, especially eddic poetry.
“Eddic poetry” is the name we use for a group of about 35 poems, all of them
recorded in Iceland during the Middle Ages, nearly all in the thirteenth century.
The term “eddic” is a misnomer: Most of these poems are in a single manuscript, and when the learned bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson first saw this manuscript in the seventeenth century, he perceived a similarity to the book called
Edda by Snorri Sturluson and imagined that this manuscript, another “Edda,”
had been composed by Sæmund Sigfússon the Learned, a priest who flourished
in the years around 1100 and who according to tradition was the first Icelandic
historian, although no works by him have been preserved. This manuscript was
therefore called not only “The Edda of Sæmund” but also the “Elder Edda,”
since Sæmund had lived a century before Snorri. It has been more than a century
since anyone has taken seriously the idea that Sæmund had anything to do with
the composition of this work or that it preceded Snorri, but we still call it
“Edda”: the Poetic Edda. Because the manuscript became part of the collection
of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, we now call it “Codex Regius (royal manuscript) of the Poetic Edda,” and we call the kinds of poems in it “eddic poetry.”
Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, which is now preserved in Iceland, was
written down toward the end of the thirteenth century, probably in the years
around 1280. It appears to be a copy of a now lost manuscript, probably written
circa 1250, and it seems that some of the poems in it may have been written
down as early as the very beginning of the thirteenth century. These are not,
however, the mythological poems. Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda contains 31
poems, sometimes joined or interrupted by prose passages, arranged in a deliberate order by the unknown scribe who wrote it, an order that moves from the
mythological to the heroic. It is ordered within the mythological and heroic sections as well.
The manuscript begins with Völuspá (Prophecy of the Seeress), which gives
a summary of the entire mythology, from the origin of the cosmos to its destruc-

Introduction

Pages from the famous Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda. (British Library)

tion to its rebirth. Völuspá can also be regarded as an Odin poem, since it is Odin
who causes the seeress voicing it to speak. The following three poems are also
Odin poems: Hávamál (Words of the High One), which contains Odinic wisdom
and several stories that describe the acquisition of that wisdom; Vafthrúdnismál
(Words of Vafthrúdnir), which describes the context of wisdom between Odin and
the wise giant Vafthrúdnir; and Grímnismál (Words of Grímnir), which describes
Odin’s ecstatic wisdom performance at the hall of the human king Geirröd. The
next poem, Skírnismál (Words of Skírnir) or För Skírnis (Skírnir’s Journey),
belongs to Frey, in that it describes the journey of Frey’s servant Skírnir to woo
the giantess Gerd. The following four poems are probably to be assigned to Thor.
The first of these is Hárbardsljód (Song of Hárbard), in which Thor and a disguised Odin exchange insults and anecdotes. The next is Hymiskvida (Hymir’s
Poem), an account of Thor’s journey to the giant Hymir and fishing up of the
Midgard serpent. Lokasenna (Loki’s Verbal Duel) follows, and in it Loki insults
all the gods. It is a Thor poem because it is Thor who finally chases Loki away.
The last of the Thor poems is Thrymskvida (The Poem of Thrym), a burlesque in
which Thor, disguised as Freyja, retrieves his hammer from the giant Thrym. The
last two mythological poems are Völundarkvida (Völund’s Poem) and Alvíssmál

13

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Norse Mythology
(The Words of All-wise). Völundarkvida has no gods in it and to us today looks
like a heroic poem, but the compiler of Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda must
have thought that Völund’s elfish background was good reason to situate the
poem here, elves being creatures from the “lower mythology” (neither of the gods
nor of the giants). Alvíssmál has another such creature in Alvíss, the “all-wise”
dwarf who sues for the hand of Thor’s daughter and is kept dispensing synonyms
by the god until the sun comes up and turns the dwarf to stone.
At this point the heroic poems begin, but the gods are by no means wholly
absent, especially from the poems telling the early parts of the story of Sigurd
the dragon-slayer. Odin, Hœnir, and Loki appear in the prose header to Reginsmál (Reginn’s Poem), and Loki appears in the poem itself. There are several allusions to Odin, and these poems contain much fascinating information about
such mythological beings as norns, dwarfs, and the like.
There is a second main manuscript containing many of these poems, but,
unlike Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, it is not apparently ordered. Because it
was retained as manuscript number 748 in the Arnamagnæan Collection in
Copenhagen, it is called AM 748. It was written down a bit later than Codex
Regius of the Poetic Edda. There are few differences between the texts of the
poems in the two manuscripts, but AM 748 contains a mythological poem not
included in Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, namely, Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s
Dreams), an account of Odin’s questioning of a seeress about the fate of Baldr.
One additional mythological poem, Rígsthula (Ríg’s Rhymed List), which tells of
the origins of the human social order, is found in a manuscript of Snorri’s Edda.
Each eddic poem had its own history before it was written down, and there
has been much speculation about the dates and origins of the various poems.
Most scholars believe strongly in the possibility that some of the mythological
poems were composed, after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, by antiquarians secure enough in their Christianity to be able to compose in the old form
about the old gods. Thrymskvida is the poem most often mentioned in this context, but there are many others. On the other hand, there is no way to tell
whether a poem, even one that looks as young as Thrymskvida, might have been
composed during the Viking Age or even, theoretically, earlier, and changed in
oral transmission so as to look like the product of a Christian antiquary. Whatever the original dates and origins of the mythological eddic poems, it seems to
me that the similarities outweigh the differences and that the pictures of the
gods are fairly consistent.
In form, the eddic poems are short stanzaic poems that rely chiefly on two
meters, fornyrƒislag, “old way of composing,” and ljóƒaháttr, “song meter.”
Fornyrƒislag is equivalent to the verse form used in Old English, Old High German, and Old Saxon, the other Germanic languages in which verse has been pre-

Introduction
served, although the division into stanzas appears to be a Scandinavian innovation. Like the poems in the second half of Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, verse
in Old English and Old High German is about heroes, and even the major surviving example of Old Saxon, a verse life of Christ called Heliand (Savior), exhibits
heroic diction. Heroic eddic poetry, then, especially when it uses fornyrƒislag,
appears to be the heir of common Germanic poetry. We may also surmise that
there was verse about gods during the common Germanic period, but only Iceland
has preserved any. Fornyrƒislag tends to be used for third-person narrative,
ljóƒaháttr for dialogue. A version of ljóƒaháttr is called galdralag, “meter of magics,” and its use, although sparing, has considerable stylistic power.
Besides these anonymous mythological and heroic poems, there is far more
verse that has been transmitted to us with the name of a poet attached to it. The
word for “poet” was skáld, and these verses are usually called “skaldic.” They
are far more complex in form than the eddic poems, both with respect to meter
and, in the case of the more complex longer poems, with respect to the structure
of the poem itself. In addition, they use a far more complex diction. The high
degree of formality and complexity make some skaldic verse difficult. Although
a great many skalds are known, ranging from Icelandic saga heroes to bishops,
some of the most famous skalds served at the courts of kings and other powerful rulers. Sometimes these men gave the skalds valuable gifts, such as a shield,
and if the shield was decorated with scenes taken from narrative, the skald
might compose a poem describing those scenes as thanks for the gift. Such a
shield poem can be of considerable interest in the study of mythology and heroic
legend, for the scenes depicted on shields tended to be from those realms. There
are other examples of this sort of ekphrasis (Greek: “a plain declaration,” in this
context a text about an image) in the skaldic corpus, such as Úlf Uggason’s Húsdrápa, which describes carvings in a newly built hall in late-tenth-century Iceland. In some cases we lack the context of a poem but can surmise the existence
of an ekphrasis.
Skaldic poetry is retained as individual verses not (apparently) connected
with any poem and as fragmentary or whole poems. The most elaborate poems
are called drápur (sing., drápa), which are broken into sections by means of one
or more refrains, which here means lines repeated in the same place within a
given stanza. A drápa should also have introductory and concluding sections
that lack the refrain(s). I will translate drápa in this book as “refrain poem.” A
poem without refrains was called a flokkr, “flock.”
The earliest known skald is ordinarily taken to be Bragi Boddason the Old,
whom most scholars think was Norwegian and active in the second half of the
ninth century. According to Snorri, he was associated with the semilegendary
Viking Ragnar Lodbrók (Hairy-breeches). Fragments of a poem addressed to Rag-

15

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Norse Mythology
nar, Ragnarsdrápa, exist. The poem, as we have it reconstructed, describes four
scenes on the shield Ragnar gave Bragi, and three of these have to do with the
mythology: Thor’s fishing up the Midgard serpent, Gefjon’s plowing land from
Gylfi, and Hild’s inciting Högni and Hedin to endless battle.
Another early Norwegian skald was Thjódólf of Hvin, who flourished
around the end of the ninth and beginning of the tenth century and was patronized by several Norwegian rulers. Two of the poems attributed to him are important mythological sources. Of these, the first is Ynglinga tal (Enumeration of the
Ynglingar), which Thjódólf composed for Rögnvald heidumheiri (Honoredhighly) Óláfsson, a king from the important Vestfold district in the Oslo fjord.
Ynglinga tal lists the ways that 22 generations of the Ynglingar, kings centered
in Uppsala and predecessors of Rögnvald, met their deaths and where they were
buried. The poem clearly originally served a dynastic purpose, but, especially in
its discussion of the earliest kings, it has much to tell us about mythology and
religion. Thjódólf also composed the shield poem Haustlöng (Autumn-long,
which may refer to the poem’s gestation period). He describes two mythological
scenes that adorned the shield: Loki’s betrayal of Idun and her apples to the giant
Thjazi and her rescue, and Thor’s duel with Hrungnir, the strongest of the giants.
From the earliest skaldic tradition come three “eddic praise poems,” poems
in eddic meters (but in which the meters are ordinarily more strictly adhered to
than in eddic poems proper), composed to honor not gods or ancient heroes but
recently deceased kings. Two of these describe Valhöll in connection with the
arrival there of the king the poet wishes to praise. One, the anonymous Eiríksmál,
was allegedly commissioned by Gunnhild, the widow of King Eirík Haraldsson
Bloodax, who died in 954. The other, attributed to Eyvind Finnsson skáldaspillir
(Spoiler-or-debaser-of-poets), praises Hákon the Good, who died in 961.
Úlf Uggason was an Icelandic skald who lived around the tumultuous period
of the conversion. Around 985, according to the chronology of Laxdœla saga, Úlf
composed a drápa celebrating the building of an ornate hall by Óláf pái (Peacock), an important chieftain in western Iceland. The hall was decorated within
with scenes from the mythology. Three of the scenes are in what we now think
we have of the poem, which Úlf recited at the wedding of Óláf’s daughter. These
are Baldr’s funeral, Thor’s fishing up of the Midgard serpent, and Loki’s fight
with Heimdall.
Another skald who lived during this period was Eilíf Godrúnarson, about
whom nothing is known—not even his nationality—other than that he was
patronized by Hákon Sigurdarson, jarl of Hladir, a notorious pagan. Eilíf composed Thórsdrápa, a complex and difficult account of Thor’s journey to Geirröd.
Besides these poems treating mythological subjects, there are numerous
other relevant texts and fragments. A poem like Sonatorrek (Loss of Sons) by Egil

Introduction
Skallagrímsson, the tenth-century hero of Egils saga, may tell us something
about his own religious attitudes. “Rán has robbed me greatly,” he says, alluding to the drowning death of one of his sons.
In skaldic poetry, Thor is the most frequent mythological subject. The most
tantalizing of these are two verses addressing Thor in the second person, both
probably from the last years of paganism in Iceland.
Skaldic poetry is valuable not just for the direct exposition of mythological
subjects but also for its very diction. The primary stylistic feature is the kenning,
a two or more part substitution for a noun. Kennings consist of a base word (e.g.,
“tree”) and a modifier (“of battle”). What is a “tree of battle”? This figure is
indeed something like a riddle. Because he stands tall in a battle, a “tree of
battle” is a warrior. What is the “din of spears”? Because battles are noisy affairs,
the “din of spears” is battle. Kennings are known from eddic poetry and the verse
of the other older Germanic languages, but they took on a special importance in
skaldic poetry because skalds linked them by using one kenning as the modifier
of a base word to create another, for example, “tree of the din of spears” for warrior. The examples I have chosen so far are relatively obvious, but skalds also
made kennings based on narrative, that is, on heroic legend and myth. For example, they called gold “the headpiece of Sif,” which is only comprehensible if
one knows the myth in which Loki cuts off Sif’s hair and has the dwarfs make
golden hair to replace it. Kennings can be helpful in dating myths, for a kenning
that relies on a myth indicates the myth was known to the skald and his audience at a given time. Seeing whether a minor god or goddess is used in the base
word of a kenning—for example, “Gná of rings” for woman—can give us some
indication as to whether the figure in question was at all known.
Skaldic poetry, then, was a showy, ornate oral poetry, which must have
taken much time to master; indeed, it is clear that a certain amount of training
would have been needed just to understand it as a member of the audience. It is
certainly possible that knowledge of the myths survived the conversion to Christianity because of the value early Christian Iceland placed on the skaldic poems
about kings and rulers. In other words, it is possible that the continued transmission of poetry about early kings and battles as historical sources required a
continuing knowledge of heroic legend and of myth, not as the object of belief or
as something associated with cult but simply as stories that people interested in
the history of their own culture had to know. In the same way, students today
may study the Bible to be able to understand allusions in older literature. It is
even possible to imagine that eddic poems continued to be recited for their narrative value in support of the kenning system, although once belief in the older
gods had ended, they could also be recited purely by and for those who enjoyed
a good story.

17

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Norse Mythology
Certainly such a motivation associates the earliest recording of eddic and
skaldic poetry and the systematization of the mythology by Snorri Sturluson.
Snorri was born during the winter of 1178–1179 into a wealthy family, the
Sturlungar, who were to give their name to the turbulent age in which Snorri
lived: the Age of the Sturlungs. He grew up at Oddi, the foster son of the most
powerful man in Iceland; one of his foster brothers was to become bishop, and
Snorri himself was a goƒi and twice held the office of lawspeaker. Through various alliances he soon grew to be one of the most powerful men of his time, and
he was deeply involved in the politics of the Age of the Sturlungs. During this
time politics became increasingly deadly, and many disputes were settled with
weapons. Snorri was assassinated in 1241 by enemies who claimed to be working on behalf of the king of Norway.
Snorri had visited that king, Hákon Hákonarson the Old, in 1218–1219, and
he composed a poem in praise of the boy king and his regent, the jarl Skuli. This
poem is called Háttatal (Enumeration of Meters), and it exemplifies 101 metrical
or stylistic variants in its 102 stanzas, equipped with a commentary. From an
explication of meter and style, it seems, he moved to a discussion of the system
of kennings and rare or poetic words and names called “heiti,” which he embodied in a treatise called Skáldskaparmál (The Language of Poetry). This text comprises for the most part lists of kennings and heiti arranged by the nouns they can
replace, illustrated with a large number of citations from skaldic poetry, quoting
in blocks of half a stanza. But besides this, he used a narrative frame to retell
some of the more important myths that underlie skaldic kennings. According to
this frame, a man named Ægir or Hlér from Hlésey (“Hlér’s Island,” modern
Læssø off the Danish coast), a master of magic, goes to Ásgard, where the æsir
receive him well but with visual delusions. The hall is illuminated by swords
alone. Twelve male and twelve female æsir are there. Ægir sits next to Bragi, who
tells Ægir many stories of events in which the æsir have participated. The first
of these is the full story of the alienation and recovery of Idun and her apples, the
death of Thjazi, and the compensation granted to Skadi. When Bragi has finished,
he and Ægir have a short conversation about a few kennings, and then Ægir asks
Bragi the origin of poetry, which elicits the story of the origin and acquisition by
Odin of the mead of poetry. At the end of this story Ægir puts questions and Bragi
answers them in a way that looks very much like the master-disciple dialogue
that so typifies didactic texts in the Middle Ages. Scholars pay special attention
to this dialogue, for it sets forth more clearly than in any other place some of the
principles of skaldic poetry. After it there follows a paragraph inviting young
skalds to pay attention to the narratives that follow if they wish to learn skaldic
poetry, but reminding them that Christians are not to believe in pagan gods or
the literal truth of the narratives. This can hardly be Bragi’s voice; rather, it is

Introduction
that of Snorri or, arguably, one of his copyists, and it intrudes on the framing
device of a dialogue between Ægir and Bragi. That device is taken up again when
Snorri introduces the story of Thor’s duel with Hrungnir and of Thor’s journey to
Geirröd, but thereafter it is dropped. Additional mythic narratives in Skáldskaparmál include the acquisition from one set of dwarfs of Sif’s golden hair, the
ship Skídbladnir, Odin’s spear Gungnir, Odin’s ring Draupnir, Frey’s boar
Gullinborsti, and Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir, and the subsequent acquisition from
another dwarf of the gold and cursed ring that play a large role in heroic legend.
A good deal of heroic legend is also recounted in Skáldskaparmál.
It seems that Snorri next was moved to write up the rest of the myths and
to do so with a frame story consistently carried out. The result was Gylfaginning
(Deluding of Gylfi). Here the frame story has a Swedish king, Gylfi, come to visit
Ásgard. He does so because he has heard that all goes to the will of the æsir, and
he wishes to determine whether it is because of their own nature or because of
the gods whom they worship. A wise man with a control of magic, he assumes
the form of an old man. But the æsir were wiser in that they possessed the power
of prophecy, and, foreseeing his journey, they prepared visual delusions for him.
He thinks he arrives at a great hall, and, assuming the name Gangleri, he meets
the chieftains there, Hár (High), Jafnhár (Equally-high), and Thridi (Third) and
declares his intention to determine whether there is any learned man there. Hár
says that Gangleri will not emerge whole if he is not the wiser, and a series of
questions and answers ensues, the questions put by Gylfi/Gangleri, the answers
given by usually by Hár with occasional amplification by Jafnhár or Thridi.
These questions treat the mythology: first the issue of a supreme deity; then the
creation of the cosmos, the identity of the gods and goddesses and some of the
myths attaching to them, and then myths untreated there or in Skáldskaparmál;
and finally Ragnarök and its aftermath. Then Gylfi/Gangleri hears a crash, and
the hall disappears.
Snorri quotes liberally from eddic poetry in Gylfaginning, especially from
Völuspá, Vafthrúdnismál, and Grímnismál. The arrangement of the subjects he
treats, following the discussion of the “highest and foremost of the gods,” which
is Gylfi/Gangleri’s first question, is essentially that of Völuspá in its sweep from
beginning to end of mythic time. Snorri also seems to have known eddic poems
beyond those he quotes, and he also paraphrases myths that he probably knew
from skaldic poetry; but he quotes no skaldic poetry outside the device of the
frame, at the beginning of Gylfaginning.
If the arrangement of materials to some extent follows Völuspá, the frame
story itself is reminiscent especially of Vafthrúdnismál and other contests of
wisdom. We learn Gylfi’s motivation for his journey, and he conceals his name.
Hár stipulates a wager of heads, but this motif is dropped; indeed, the nearest

19

King Gylfi of Sweden questions Hár, Jafnhár, and Thridi, from DG 11, a fourteenth-century
manuscript containing Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. (Werner Forman/Art Resource)

Introduction
analogy to the hall’s disappearance at the end of the text is Thor’s visit to
Útgarda-Loki, not any myth of Odin. Gylfi takes the Odin-role in this contest of
wisdom, as the traveler under an assumed name, and indeed this assumed name,
Gangleri, is one of Odin’s in Grímnismál, stanza 46 and elsewhere. This is somewhat ironic, since Hár, Jafnhár, and even Thridi are also names of Odin, the latter two also in Grímnismál. But as we shall see, Hár, Jafnhár, and Thridi
probably also, in Snorri’s view, were no more Odin than Gylfi was.
These three sections, in the opposite order from the one in which I just presented them (i.e., Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, Háttatal) and probably in the
opposite order from the one in which Snorri wrote them, make up, with a prologue, Snorri’s Edda, as the work is called in one of its manuscripts. The meaning of this word is not clear, but it seems to have to do with Latin edo, in the
sense “to compose,” and probably therefore meant something like “Poetics.”
Certainly Snorri’s Edda, as a whole, is first and foremost a handbook of poetics,
even if it is now far more famous as an explication of mythology.
As I have mentioned, Skáldskaparmál contains a warning to young skalds
about the pagan nature of the material. It seems that Snorri wished to make this
statement more forcefully, and he did so in the prologue to his Edda. Here, too,
he advances his understanding of the historical nature of the gods and gives us
the key to understanding Gylfaginning. Snorri starts the prologue to his Edda by
stating, “Almighty God created heaven and earth and all things that accompany
them, and finally two people, from whom genealogies are reckoned, Adam and
Eve, and their progeny multiplied and went all around the world.” Ultimately,
however, after the Flood, people lost sight of God, but they observed that there
were similarities and yet differences among humans, animals, and the earth, and
they began to trace their genealogies from earth. And seeing the importance of
the heavenly bodies for time reckoning, they assumed that some being had
ordered the course of these bodies and probably existed before they did and
might rule all things. This knowledge they possessed was worldly knowledge,
for they lacked spiritual knowledge.
This is medieval speculation on the origin of paganism, and it ascribes to
pagans a kind of natural religion, one based on unenlightened observation of the
environment. It was especially attractive to Icelanders like Snorri, who traced
their genealogies from pagans and for whom the conversion of their land to
Christianity was a relatively recent event. The first extant work of Icelandic history writing is a little treatise called Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), by the
priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned, who wrote about a century before Snorri did,
and it is plain that for Ari the conversion was the most important event in the
history of the Icelanders. In the Sagas of Icelanders, which were composed for the
most part in the thirteenth century but which are often set in pagan Iceland, the

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Norse Mythology
“noble heathen” is a stock character. All that conversion required, according to
this theory of natural religion, was for Icelanders to regain sight of God. Unlike
the pagans whom Icelanders learned about when they translated and read the
lives of the early saints of the Christian church, Nordic pagans were not doomed
souls in league with Satan. They were merely sheep who had lost their way.
Snorri now adds a historical dimension to his prologue. After presenting a
standard medieval view of the world as consisting of Africa, Europe, and Asia, he
says that near the center of the earth, in Tyrkland, lies the city of Troy. A king
there was called Múnón or Mennón, who was married to Tróan, the daughter of
King Priam; their son was Trór, “whom we call Thor.” He was raised by Duke
Loricus, whom he subsequently killed, and he took over the kingdom of Loricus,
Trákía (Thrace), “which we call Thrúdheim. Then he traveled widely from country to country, explored the entire continent, and alone defeated all berserks and
all giants and the greatest dragon and many animals.” He married Síbil, a seeress, “whom we call Sif.” He begat an entire family, and eighteen generations
later was born Vóden; “we call that one Odin.”
Troy was a known place, and Agamemnon and Priam were historical figures
known in Iceland from the twelfth century onward. Snorri sets Thor in that
environment; that is, he tells us that there was a historical figure whom the
Nordic peoples called Thor who lived before Christ was born and who performed
historical acts (it is important to remember that berserks and dragons were not
as fantastic to medieval historians as they seem to us) that look very much like
some of the myths about Thor that later were to be told by the Nordic peoples.
The idea that gods derive from humans whose actions are reinterpreted and
deified by later generations is called “euhemerism,” after the Greek philosopher
Euhemeros (fl. 300 B.C.E.), whose claim to have discovered an inscription showing that Zeus was a mortal king elevated to deity was generalized into a theory
that has had considerable currency down into modern times.
Snorri’s euhemerism in the prologue to his Edda continues with Odin,
whose gift of prophecy informs him that his future lies to the north. He sets off
from Tyrkland with a large band of followers, young and old, men and women,
and they brought many precious things with them. Wherever they went people
said great things about them, “so that they seemed more like gods than
humans.” Odin tarries for a while in Saxony and there sets up his sons as kings.
For example, Beldeg, “whom we call Baldr,” he makes king of Westphalia. Traveling through Reidgotaland, “which is now called Jutland,” he establishes the
Skjöldungar as the kings of Denmark. His final destination is Sweden. “That
king is there who is named Gylfi. And when he hears of the journey of those
Asia-men, who were called æsir, he went to meet them and invited Odin to take
as much power in his kingdom as he wished, and those good times went with

Introduction
them, that wherever they stayed in lands, there was peace and prosperity, and
everyone believed that they were the cause of that.” Odin settles in Sigtúnir
(modern Sigtuna, on Lake Mälaren south of Uppsala) and establishes his sons
Sæming as king of Norway and Yngvi as king of Sweden after him.
Although the medieval Icelandic word æsir (sing., áss) etymologically has
nothing to do with Asia, the derivation of the æsir from Asia-men completed the
euhemeristic process. Snorri tells us who the historical figures were who were
deified by his ancestors, and he alleviates somewhat the peripheral northern
location of Scandinavia by associating it with the ancient center of the world. It
is not difficult to imagine that Gylfaginning represents the first encounter
between Gylfi and the Asia-men and that Gylfi’s delusion was in accepting that
the stories told to him by Hár, Jafnhár, and Thridi were about gods. In other
words, it is easy to believe that Snorri wishes us to believe that Gylfi’s meeting
with the æsir contributed to their euhemerization. This theory makes it possible
for a learned Christian author to retell and order mythological narratives of his
forefathers in a handbook of poetry; the myths in Gylfaginning are told by the
Asia-men Hár, Jafnhár, and Thridi (none of whom needs to be Odin), just as the
myths in Skáldskaparmál are told by Bragi, a known skald.
Snorri’s Edda is thus very much a document of its time, the Christian
Middle Ages, and also of its place, an island where the older poetry, for whatever
reason, was still transmitted. As it happens, Skáldskaparmál quotes much
skaldic poetry known from nowhere else, and without it our notion of the genre
would be much poorer. And manuscripts of Snorri’s Edda also contain systematic lists of synonyms called “thulur,” doubtless copied there because of the
reliance of skaldic poetry on kennings and heiti.
Snorri is also the author of another work, a vast compilation of lives of the
kings of Norway known as Heimskringla (The Orb of the Earth). Other similar
compilations were undertaken in the thirteenth century, but Snorri’s is unique
in that it starts with prehistory. The first saga in it, Ynglinga saga, follows
Thjódólf of Hvin’s Ynglinga tal and expands or paraphrases it in places, but the
saga begins before Ynglinga tal does, at Troy in Tyrkland. Thor is not in this version, however, as he is in the prologue to Snorri’s Edda. Additional information
not found in the Edda prologue is that Vanaland or Vanaheim—the land or world
of the vanir—lay along the river Tanais, that is, the Don. To the east lay Ásaland
or Ásaheim—the land or world of the æsir—whose capital was Ásgard, a great
place of sacrifice. Odin was the chieftain who ruled there, and the opening chapters of Ynglinga saga are very much about Odin. Snorri starts the euhemerism in
this text by reporting that Odin was constantly victorious, which led his men to
believe that if he had “blessed” them before battle they would emerge victorious, and they began to call his name when they were in trouble. From this they

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Norse Mythology
got relief, and all their consolation was in him, as Snorri puts it, using vocabulary that is strongly religious. So end the first two chapters.
Chapter 3 of Ynglinga saga mentions Odin’s long journeys away and the
story of his brothers Vili and Vé taking his inheritance and his wife Frigg during
one particularly long absence.
Chapter 4 of Ynglinga saga offers the fullest account of the war between the
æsir and vanir, understood here of course as a historical conflict. The exchange
of hostages is present, although with slightly different details. However, the
mixing of spittle and creation of the mead of poetry are wholly absent, doubtless
in keeping with Snorri’s historical project here. Mímir’s head is sent back to the
æsir and pickled by Odin and used for divination, but we must accept that Snorri
found such a concept within historical possibility. He would have been aided in
such a supposition by the veneration and use of relics within Christian Europe
of the Middle Ages. Also as part of the settlement after the war between the æsir
and vanir, Njörd, Frey, and Freyja join the æsir, and Freyja brings the magic art
of seid, a form of sorcery and divination, associated in the mythology especially
with Odin. Brother-sister incest, which was practiced among the vanir, is
dropped when they join the æsir, and Snorri may wish us to believe that the æsir
were morally to be preferred to the vanir, even if both groups were pagan.
Chapter 5 describes the emigration from Tyrkland, again motivated by
Odin’s seeing that his future lay to the north. Again he goes through Saxony, but
this time he stops in Ódinsey (modern Odense on the Danish island of Fyn) and
sends Gefjon to look for land. The story of her plowing up land from Gylfi and
the quotation of the Gefjon stanza by Bragi Boddason the Old are also in
Gylfaginning, although again the narrative details are slightly different. “Odin
and Gylfi contested much in tricks and illusions, and the æsir always were the
more powerful,” Snorri writes, in an apparent allusion to the euhemeristic frame
of Gylfaginning. Odin settled at Sigtúnir, and, as in the prologue to Snorri’s
Edda, he established other æsir in their dwelling places.
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on Odin’s characteristics and comprise a significant
description of him. To his friends he appeared fair of countenance, but to his enemies fierce and grim. He spoke only in verse, and poetry arose from him and his
chieftains. In battle he could make his enemies blind or deaf or overcome with
fear, but his warriors could go berserk. He was a shape-changer, his body lying
apparently inert while he was off and about in some animal form. Here I see the
key to this “historical” Odin of Snorri, for this is a classic description of a
shamanic trance and journey. If Snorri’s historical Odin was a shaman from
Tyrkland, he was just a charismatic version of the Sámi shamans who are
described in the medieval Scandinavian historical record. To cite but one example among a great many, Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), a work

Introduction
composed presumably in Norway before 1211, describes a shamanic trance and
journey to the world of the spirits witnessed by Norwegian traders among the
Sámi people in the Norwegian mountains. The author describes the event as
though it were fact, as indeed it was for medieval Scandinavians. Odin did not
have to be a god to do what Snorri has him do in Ynglinga saga. Snorri says
explicitly that Odin was a master of seid, which surely refers to the shamanic
arts. “His enemies feared him, but his friends relied on him and believed in his
strength and in Odin himself.” So Snorri expressed his euhemerism at this point.
And he extended it by reporting that Odin and his chieftains taught their skills
to others, which I take to be an attempt on Snorri’s part to account for shamanism among the Sámi. Snorri knew from the saga record (and wrote later about
such subjects in Heimskringla) that Icelanders, too, had practiced seid during the
pagan period, and his historical theory therefore must have been that shamanism originated with Odin and was lost by the Scandinavians upon conversion to
Christianity but was retained by the Sámi, who were unconverted in his time.
In chapter 8 Snorri writes that Odin established various pagan customs, primarily cremation funerals, but also various sacrifices. In chapter 9 Odin dies, not
in the jaws of a monstrous wolf but of old age. He has himself marked with the
point of a spear and gathered for himself all the warriors felled by weapons. He
said he wished to go to Godheim or Godheimar, and from this the Swedes concluded, according to Snorri, that Odin had gone to ancient Ásgard and would live
there until eternity. “Belief in Odin and calling on him grew up anew.” Snorri
must have imagined that Godheim was a historical land, misunderstood by the
Swedes in connection with their euhemerism, for goƒ is a word for pagan gods.
Subsequently in Ynglinga saga he has two of the kings of the Ynglingar set out
to look for Godheim, to the east in “Greater Sweden.”
Njörd ruled the Swedes after Odin. He was followed by Frey, who made
Uppsalir (modern Uppsala) the capital. His was a reign of peace and prosperity,
the “Peace of Fródi” according to Snorri. Because of this he was worshipped even
more than other goƒ. When Snorri uses a word for pagan gods here, he must feel
that the euhemerization of the æsir had been completed. Frey is the first of the
Ynglingar, and his successor, Fjölnir, is the first king cataloged in Thjódólf’s
Ynglinga tal. From this point, Ynglinga saga follows Ynglinga tal closely, and
the strictly mythological section is at an end. However, the rest of Ynglinga
saga, and other parts of Heimskringla as well, also contains information that is
useful for the study of Scandinavian mythology.
Eddic and skaldic poetry, Snorri’s Edda, and Ynglinga saga are the most
important direct sources of Scandinavian mythology, and as I have shown, each
has its history and is anchored, either by recording or composition, in thirteenth-century Christian Iceland. Iceland recorded its older traditions with

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Norse Mythology
extraordinary diligence, and within this large vernacular literature there is
much that is of interest for the study of Scandinavian mythology, especially
among the sagas.
The word saga is related to the verb “to say” and in medieval Icelandic
means both “history” and “narrative.” There are many kinds of sagas, of which
one category, for example, comprises sagas of the Norwegian kings of the sort
that are in Heimskringla. The other most important saga genres are the mythicheroic sagas (fornaldarsögur, literally “sagas of an ancient age”; sg., fornaldarsaga) and the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur). The mythic-heroic sagas
are an amorphous lot joined essentially by being set long ago or far away, that is,
before the settlement of Iceland or in the Viking lands to the east. Gods appear
as characters in such mythic-heroic sagas as Völsunga saga, in part a retelling of
some of the heroic materials of the second half of Codex Regius of the Poetic
Edda, or Gautreks saga, which tells of an assembly of the gods to set the fate of
the hero Starkad. The Sagas of Icelanders recount no myths but rather are seemingly sober accounts of events carried out mostly in Iceland during the pagan
period. As a result of this time setting, they sometimes give information about
paganism, such as the account of the pagan temple in Eyrbyggja saga or of a
horse sacred to Frey in Hrafnkels saga. Scholars agree that one must proceed
with care in using such accounts, since they may include antiquarian reconstructions of the past, but as we have seen, such caution must be used with virtually every text of Scandinavian mythology.
Some other vernacular texts are also of interest. Short independent texts are
usually called thættir (sing., tháttr), which etymologically means “thread” and
suggests the interweaving of such texts in larger works, as would be the case
when they were recorded in manuscripts. Some of these are quite relevant to the
subject. For example, Sörla tháttr tells how Freyja acquired the Brísinga men, a
torque or necklace, by sleeping with dwarfs in order to outwit a cunning Loki
who is Odin’s liege man. Whereas Sörla tháttr seems like a mythic-heroic saga,
Thidranda tháttr ok Thórhalls shares the setting of the Sagas of Icelanders and
presents some of the evidence regarding the dísir, female spirits.
Not all the important source material is from Iceland or even in the vernacular. An extremely important source is Gesta Danorum, a Danish history written by the priest Saxo Grammaticus (that is, “the Grammarian”). Little is known
about Saxo, other than that he came from a family of warriors, probably in Jutland, and that he was a member of the household of Absalon, who was archbishop of Lund from 1178–1201. Some of the Gesta seems to have been written
before the death of Absalon; the rest was probably completed after 1216, or in
other words, just a few years before Snorri began his mythological project. Saxo’s
history consists of 16 books, of which the first 8 treat pagan Denmark and the

Introduction
second 8, Christian Denmark. The first books are therefore, like Ynglinga saga,
set in prehistory, and gods and heroes play a major role that continues down
through the ninth book. Saxo offered a theory of euhemerism similar to that of
Snorri, for he says in book 1 that Odin was a man falsely believed to be a god.
Höd has become a human king, but Baldr is a demigod, and sometimes Saxo
seems to be far more interested in the narratives he is recounting than in any
theory of euhemerism. Saxo tells us he got some of his materials from Icelanders, and these materials probably sounded rather like the mythic-heroic
sagas. The mythic-heroic sagas are prose with interspersed verse, and Saxo
adorns his Latin prose with verse, often rather ornate but still thought to be
translated from Scandinavian originals.
Certainly the versions of the myths he presents often vary widely from the
versions we have from Iceland. To use the example of Baldr’s death: In Saxo’s version, Baldr and Höd are not brothers but rivals for the hand of Nanna, a human
beauty. Höd is not blind—indeed, he is a most accomplished fellow. Neither
Loki nor Frigg appears in the story, and there is no mistletoe. No attempt is made
to restore Baldr from the world of the dead, and he enjoys only an attenuated
funeral. Saxo’s story adds some odd forest maidens and some magic food and sets
the death of Baldr in the context of several pitched battles between the forces of
Baldr and Höd. Yet Saxo’s version does include disquieting dreams, Baldr’s invulnerability, and, perhaps most important, the linked story of the siring of an
avenger by Odin on Rind (Rinda in Saxo). The extent to which the variation
between Saxo’s version and the Icelandic sources represents differences between
Danish and Icelandic traditions, as opposed to variation within Icelandic tradition reported to Saxo, has never been fully sorted out and probably never will be.
Besides these and a host of other written sources, from inside and outside
Scandinavia and in languages ranging from English to Arabic, there are valuable
nonwritten sources. Of these the most important is surely the archaeological
record. We have, for example, numerous representations from the Viking Age of
the encounter between Thor and the Midgard serpent, from Scandinavia and also
from England. We have numerous small hammer-shaped amulets, which must be
representations in the human world of the protective power conferred by Thor’s
hammer. We even have dies for casting such hammers and for casting Christian
crosses, an eloquent piece of testimony to the mission and conversion. Some
small objects with human form have been interpreted as representations of various gods in sculpture. Although these carvings and objects are understood by
application of the texts, archaeologists are quite confident in their identifications,
and our understanding of Scandinavian mythology would be less rich without
them. Some adventurous scholars have even attempted to work from archaeological artifacts back to the mythology, for example, by using the illustrations on

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Norse Mythology

Soapstone mold for making both Thor’s hammer and the Christian cross. (National
Museum of Denmark)

Migration Period bracteates (small brooches) to reconstruct a set of hypothetical
myths about Odin as a healing god.
An example of the importance of the text-object relationship is the large
number of small pieces of stamped gold foil that are increasingly being
unearthed in apparent cult contexts from Viking Age sites in Scandinavia. Sometimes these portray a man and woman, but there is no direct connection to any
text. These fascinating objects belong to the study of the history of religion, but
not yet to the study of Scandinavian mythology.
Finally, in discussing the sources of our knowledge of Scandinavian mythology, I must mention etymology (the study of the origin and historical development of words), especially in the study of place-names. Etymology can help us
understand the original nature of a god by asking about the meaning of the name
of a god in Proto-Germanic, the language of the Germanic peoples around the
start of our era, or in Proto-Indo-European, the parent language of ProtoGermanic. Neither of these languages has left any texts, and what we know of
them is reconstructed by linguists. For example, according to linguists, the name
“Odin,” medieval Icelandic Óƒinn, derives from a word that would mean something like “leader of the possessed.” We cannot be sure what Týr’s name meant

Stamped gold foil from Norway depicts embracing figures. (Historisk Museum, Bergen
Universitetet)

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Norse Mythology
in Proto-Germanic, but in Proto-Indo-European it was probably a word for “god”
or “sky.” This may suggest that Týr is an older god than Odin, but such a surmise hardly helps us to understand texts recorded more than a millennium after
Proto-Germanic was theoretically spoken and more than two millennia after
Proto-Indo-European was spoken. And although it is instructive that Odin’s
name originally may have meant “leader of the possessed,” we cannot assume
that Viking Age or later Scandinavians were aware of that fact, and even if we
knew they were aware of it, we would still use that fact only as one detail in
building up a complete interpretation of Odin.
Most of the place-names of Scandinavia are very old, and over time they
have changed enough that only etymology can recover the original meaning.
Thus, for example, Copenhagen (Danish København) originally meant “merchants’ harbor.” Not a few place-names originally contained the names of gods,
and the distribution in time and space of these names can tell us much. Nearly
all of these theophoric (referring to a deity) names are compounds, in which the
name of the god is followed by a noun referring to a natural or cultural feature
of the landscape. For example, there are several places in Denmark called “Torshøj,” “Thor’s hill,” and the major city of the Danish island Fyn is Odense,
which originally meant “Odin’s holy place.” Scholars usually distinguish
“nature-names” from “cult-names,” but the distinction is not as clear as the previous pair of words suggests.

THE INDO-EUROPEAN BACKGROUND
The Germanic languages, of which English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages are the modern representatives, constitute one branch of the
Indo-European family of languages. The name “Indo-European” was coined
when the family relationship between Sanskrit, the classic literary language of
India, and Greek and Latin, the classic literary languages of Europe, was discovered in the eighteenth century. Most of the languages of modern Europe fall into
the Indo-European category, which includes the Germanic, Romance (French,
Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian), Slavic (Russian, Polish,
Ukrainian, Czech, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Manx, and
Breton), and Baltic (Lithuanian, Latvian) groups. Finnish and Hungarian are the
two national languages of Europe that are not Indo-European; Sámi and Basque
represent two other non-Indo-European languages spoken in modern Europe.
Language branches (like Germanic) and families (like Indo-European) are
reconstructed on the basis of careful comparison of sounds, words, and grammatical forms. Only such comparison makes possible the etymological research

Introduction
I discussed above. Going on the assumption that shared language meant shared
culture, scholars also tried cultural comparison, and one area in which such
comparison was common in the nineteenth century was myth and religion. But
although persons who studied comparative mythology were extremely erudite,
they did not apply the same rigor to this subject as was used in comparative linguistics. The goal of linguistic comparison was reconstruction of a given language at an earlier state; similarly, comparative mythology hoped to lead to
reconstruction of older states of a mythology or, in the Indo-European area, of
the myths and conceptions of the hypothetical ancestors of the Indic, Germanic,
and other Indo-European peoples from around 2,000 years ago. The project was
doomed from the start, however, by notions of what myths were about. Few
people thought that a particular sound “meant” something in and of itself. That
is, for example, the sound that turned up as ç in Sanskrit, c [= k] in Latin, and h
in Germanic was not thought to be anything other than the reflection of a k in
Proto-Indo-European, a sound whose meaning was always arbitrary. In myth,
however, the situation was quite different. Comparative mythology in the nineteenth century was above all a field driven by interpretations of myths as reflections of natural phenomena, primarily involving the sun, moon, fire, storms, and
so forth. This nature mythology was taken as a kind of given, and bits and pieces
of myths from all over the world were put to its service. There was no way to
test the theory, since even if a bit of mythological lore was taken from a living
people, nobody bothered to ask them what they thought it meant, and in fact the
comparative method allowed one to ignore living beings, since change could
have obscured the original meaning of something.
Although Adalbert Kuhn was an important early adherent of nature mythology, the person most closely associated with it today is Max Müller, a German
Indo-Europeanist resident in England who was widely read and very influential
for the entire second half of the nineteenth century. Müller’s theory of myth was
actually based on the notion of a “disease of language,” the idea that language
itself was inadequate to express everything it had to and therefore was a major
contributor to the development of gods and myths, which grew out of linguistic
confusion. Müller was an ardent solar mythologist (one who thought that nearly
all myths were symbolic stories about the rising and setting sun, light and darkness, and the seasons), and he had followers who were even more ardent than he,
if less learned. The indiscriminate aligning of narrative elements to natural phenomena led to the eventual discrediting of comparative mythology, not least
when Andrew Lang, a critic of Max Müller, demonstrated that Müller himself
was a solar myth.
The discrediting of nature mythology coincided with the growth of anthropology based on field observation in a single culture, and the result was the

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demise of comparative mythology in the early part of the twentieth century. But
Georges Dumézil, the great comparativist, began his academic career at the
same time, trained by the Indo-European linguist Antoine Meillet but influenced
by the sociologists Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim. Dumézil, unlike most
of his linguistically trained predecessors, compared structure, not etymology,
and he was quite prepared to argue that two deities in different Indo-European
traditions were equivalent even when they had no etymological relationship
whatever. Nor was he the least bit interested in potential reflection of the phenomena of nature. Rather, he thought that three social “functions” were represented in the mythologies of the various Indo-European peoples. The first
function was that of sovereignty, which, according to Dumézil, is ordinarily represented by two deities, each of whom is associated with one or the other side of
sovereignty: either with the awe inspired by a leader or with the legal, contractual nature that a sovereign was obligated to uphold. The classic split was found
in the Vedic god Varuna and the Persian god Mithra; in Norse mythology,
Dumézil argued, Odin represented the awesome side and Týr the legal or contractual side of sovereignty. The second function was might or force, and in
Norse mythology Thor fulfilled that function. The third function was fertility,
and here the deities are often doubled, as are Frey and Freyja. At one time
Dumézil thought these functions represented actual social classes in proto-IndoEuropean society, but later he backed away from this notion and was content to
argue for the structure on a purely mythological plane.
A second aspect of the Dumézilian theory involved the “displacement of
myth,” that is, the idea that a mythic structure could be “displaced” to the level
of divine heroes or in some cases historical fictions. In the Scandinavian area,
Dumézil’s most forceful argument for such displacement involved the prehistoric king Hadingus, who had many aspects, according to Dumézil, but who also
enacted in his life and career all three functions.
Until the late 1950s or early 1960s Dumézil was little known outside
France, but thereafter scholars in many fields began to acquaint themselves with
his huge output of scholarly writings, and translations of his work began to
appear. It was probably inevitable that with such an ambitious project covering
so much territory, there would errors at the most specialized level, and in Norse
mythology, as in other areas, part of the initial reaction was to point these out.
Other critics noted that a tripartite division of the sort Dumézil proposed was
relatively common and therefore might have little explanatory power. In
medieval Christian Europe, for example, the theory of society involved a division into priest, warriors, and laborers, and that could hardly be an Indo-European inheritance. Even so, the Dumézilian apparatus is by now so widespread
that every student of an Indo-European mythology must be aware of it.

Introduction
Dumézil was not the only person in the twentieth century to seek the IndoEuropean background of the mythology of one of the daughter traditions, and
many contributions have been made outside his theoretical focus. In Norse
mythology, study of Thor has especially profited from a look at such figures as
the Vedic god Indra and Baltic thunder gods.

CULT, WORSHIP, AND SACRIFICE
This is a book about myths (narratives), not religion (here defined as ritual practice), and as I explained above, few of the narratives were composed during the
pagan period and virtually none was recorded then. This makes any study of the
cult and ritual that Norse mythology might have accompanied a tricky matter
indeed. Nevertheless, we do have some information.
Discussions of the ritual practices associated with Norse mythology usually
begin with descriptions by Roman writers of the Germanic peoples, and this is
justifiable because the gods we know from our mythological texts also left traces
in such forms as the names of the days of the week (see the entry Interpretatio
Germanica in chapter 3).
The foremost witness is the Germania of Tacitus, from the last years of the
first century C.E. Tacitus describes several ritual acts carried out by various Germanic tribes, of which the most famous is surely the worship of the goddess
Nerthus described in chapter 40 of his Germania. Nerthus, Mother Earth, covered by a cloth, is transported in a cart drawn by cows and accompanied by a
priest who recognizes when she is present. This procession takes place in a holy
grove on the island on which she lives, and all weapons are laid aside on the days
on which it takes place, which are ones of peace and quiet. After the procession,
everything is washed in the ocean by slaves who are then drowned.
A number of the aspects of this ceremony agree with what scholars think
they know about cult and ritual of the Germanic peoples. Tacitus says elsewhere—and other sources, including place-names, agree—that worship occurs in
a sacred grove. The killing of the slaves might also be regarded as a form of sacrifice, a subject to which I will return shortly. Other aspects of the worship of
Nerthus find striking agreement with texts recorded much later that are associated specifically with the vanir. Freyja’s cart is pulled by cats, and according to
Ögmundar tháttr dytts, admittedly a late text, (an idol of) Frey is pulled about
in a cart accompanied by an attendant, female in this case. Fródi, who shares
many characteristics with Frey, was also pulled in a cart, and a time of great
peace and prosperity was associated with both Frey and Fródi.
Although there does not seem to have been a separate priestly class, the

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Norse Mythology
term goƒi, as suggested above, implies a religious function for the leaders of Icelandic society before the conversion to Christianity. As a Roman, Tacitus used the
vocabulary of his own era and therefore called the man who accompanied Nerthus
a “priest,” but he could easily have been something like a goƒi, a person of status
and a secular leader on the days when the goddess was not present. It is the “goƒi”
who notices when the goddess is present, and unlike the slaves, he survives to
preside over the ceremonies another day. Most or all cults must have been of this
nature, led by the chieftain when public ritual was enacted and by the head of
household in the case of private ritual. Many historians of religion have argued for
a close connection between law, society, and religion, and this connection would
be embodied in the men who presided over secular and sacred affairs.
Although Tacitus says the Germanic peoples worshipped in the open, the
notion of pagan temples is common in many of the later sources. This probably
marks both a change in paganism, perhaps as building techniques changed, and
the influence of Christian (and also pagan Roman) worship. In the northern
reaches of Scandinavia, the Sámi people seem to have retained an open-air priestless paganism, and they were far from such influences. The eddic poems have
references to the building of places of worship (e.g., the “high-timbered” altar
and temple of Völuspá, stanza 7), and there is one very explicit description of a
pagan temple in Eyrbyggja saga, which shows, if nothing else, where a thirteenth-century Icelander thought his pagan ancestors had worshipped three centuries earlier. Adam of Bremen’s account of the pagan temple at Uppsala,
mentioned above, is difficult to discount, but it must be remembered that the
end of the eleventh century, when Adam was writing, was a time of enormous
Christian influence in Sweden, and it is quite conceivable that the notion of a
building reserved for religious purposes could have resulted from such influence.
Scandinavian pagans had probably much earlier come in out of the rain for their
religious ceremonies: Scholars now agree that large homesteads were the sites of
cult activities as well as of other social activities.
The sources mention something called a hörgr, which I have translated “altar”
in this book. The eddic poems suggest the hörgr was something that could be reddened, and they make it appear to be some sort of altar, at least in the sense that
sacrifices were made upon it. Etymologically the word seems to have to do with
stones or rocks, and it is not difficult to imagine the Germanic hörgr as a pile of
rocks in a sacred grove; the Old High German cognate is in fact sometimes found
with the meaning “sacred rock” and sometimes with the meaning “sacred grove.”
Tacitus says the Germanic peoples did not produce images of their gods.
Adam of Bremen says the pagan temple at Uppsala had idols of Thor, Wodan
(Odin), and Fricco (Frey). Again, the difference lies in the millennium that passed
between the times the two authors wrote, and probably also to some extent in

Introduction
the influence of other models. Certainly medieval Scandinavians believed that
their pagan forebears had worshipped idols, for they routinely put idols in their
historical writings. In the Sagas of Icelanders, the expression “the gods” almost
always refers to idols, and when Icelanders translated the lives of the Christian
saints, they sometimes attached the names of their own pagan gods to the idols
worshipped by the pagans whom the early saints encountered.
The word used for pagan cult activity is blót. The etymology is disputed,
and that is a pity, for if we could recover the original meaning of the word we
would at least know something of the origin and perhaps nature of the activity
among the Germanic or pre-Germanic peoples. The two credible suggestions are
that blót is related to Latin flamen, “priest of a specific deity,” from a root meaning ultimately something like “sacrificial activity,” or to a root meaning “to
make strong,” ultimately deriving from a root meaning “swollen.” The first has
the advantage of being associated with religious activity, but it does not tell us
much about the actual conception. Far more important are the loans of blót into
Finnish, namely luote, “magic charm,” and Sámi luotte, “magic song.” These
show us the importance of verbal activity at a blót, specifically verbal activity
aimed at producing a result, presumably by means of intervention by the deities.
Another way to influence the deities was of course to make sacrifices to
them, and here we have an ample record to draw on. Bogs, wells, lakes, and the
earth have yielded such objects as broken weapons, which can only be interpreted as gifts to the gods after battle. Classical sources report that the Germanic
peoples killed their defeated enemies rather than take them prisoner, again as a
form of sacrifice, and Adam of Bremen says that every ninth year at the pagan
temple at Uppsala, sacrifices of all kinds of creatures took place, including
humans. But the most important sacrifices at the blót were surely animals that
were slaughtered and eaten, presumably in some form of honor of a god.
In chapter 8 of his Ynglinga saga, Snorri Sturluson says that Odin established the succession of blót ceremonies in the north. Toward winter (i.e., in fall)
there should be a blót for prosperity; at midwinter, one for the growth of the soil;
and at summer, a third one, the victory-blót. There is an evident connection
here, as one would expect, with the rhythm of the year: The fall ceremony would
occur after the last harvest was in, and the animals slaughtered would be those
that were not to survive the winter. Some of their meat could be eaten fresh at
the blót, but much would be preserved for winter. The midwinter blót would
occur after the longest nights had passed and would celebrate the rebirth of the
earth; and the summer ceremony, if it was for victory, would coincide with the
departure of ships on raiding (and, more mundanely, trading) voyages.
Later in his Heimskringla, in Hákonar saga góda (The Saga of Hákon the
Good), Snorri gives an elaborate description of a blót that shows just how perva-

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Norse Mythology
sive the influence of Christian liturgy was on the view of late Nordic paganism
of Snorri and other Icelandic intellectuals. The word hlaut is cognate with
English “lot,” as in “to cast lots.” I cannot find a reasonable translation, so I have
left it in the original.
It was the ancient custom, when a blót was to be held, that all farmers should
come to where the temple was, and to transport there the supplies they would
need as long as the banquet lasted. At the banquet everyone was to drink beer.
All sorts of cattle and horses were killed there, and all the blood that came from
them was called hlaut, and the vessels in which it stood hlaut-bowls, and the
hlaut-twigs were made like an aspergillum [a brush used to sprinkle holy water
in Catholic liturgy]. With it one was to redden the pedestal together with the
walls of the temple inside and out and also to sprinkle it on the people, while
the meat of the slaughtered animals was to be cooked for people to enjoy. . . . A
tankard was to be carried to the fire, and the one who made the banquet and was
the chieftain should bless the tankard and all the sacrificial meat and should
first toast Odin—that should be drunk for victory and for the kingdom of his
king—and after that a toast to Njörd and Frey for peace and prosperity. Then
people were eager to drink the bragafull [chieftain’s toast] next. People also
drank a toast to their kinsmen who had been buried in mounds; that was called
minni [memorial].

Take away the references to the gods and the blood spattered all about, and
one might well have a picture of a wealthy man’s feast in medieval Norway or
Iceland.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SCANDINAVIAN MYTHOLOGY
Although worship of the Scandinavian gods ended a thousand years ago, and the
myths are now exotic and foreign to most people in the English-speaking world,
we make implicit reference to the gods and myths almost every day of our lives.
That is because the names of the weekdays Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and
Friday all contain the names of old Scandinavian gods (Týr, Odin, Thor, and
Frigg; the Old English forms were Tiw, Wodæn, Thunor, and Friija), and the
choice of the gods for each of these days was based on myths about them. (I treat
the subject at greater length in the entry on Interpretatio Germanica in chapter
3.) Furthermore, when we read about or travel in places like Odense, Denmark
(probably best known outside Denmark as the birthplace of Hans Christian
Andersen), we see a place-name that once bore the name of the god Odin. There
are hundreds of these in Scandinavia, but they are seldom obvious, except in Ice-

Introduction
land, where there are places with names like ∏órsmörk (Thor’s forest), a favorite
place for hiking and camping. And if you are acquainted with or have heard of
anyone called Freyja, Thor, Baldur (a not uncommon name in Iceland), or any
Scandinavian name beginning with Tor, you know of the persistence of the
names of the gods in personal naming systems.
The era when Norse mythology was most known in more recent times was
the Romantic period, when the gods and myths were a popular source of inspiration. Paul Henri Mallet’s Introduction à l’histoire de Dannemarc, ou l’on
traite de la religion, des loix, des moeurs, et des usages des anciens danois
(Copenhagen: Berling, 1755) made Norse mythology widely known for the first
time in a world language, and the work was translated into English in 1770 as
Northern Antiquities: Or, A Description of The Manners, Customs, Religion,
and Laws of The Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations; Including Those
of Our Own Saxon Ancestors. With a Translation of The Edda, Or System of
Runic Mythology, and Other Pieces, from The Ancient Icelandic Tongue (London: T. Carnan and Co., 1770). The translator was Bishop Percy, who is famous
for his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, a collection of ballads and other pieces that
was one of the most influential works of English Romanticism. The second volume of Mallet contained a translation of the mythological stories of Snorri’s
Edda, in a late arrangement done by Magnús Ólafsson, parson at Laufás in the
early seventeenth century and therefore known as the Laufás Edda. It was at the
end of the eighteenth century, too, that translations of eddic poetry began to
appear in the European languages. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Norse mythology was the vogue, especially in Germany and
Scandinavia, and many of the famous Romantic poets reworked stories from
Norse mythology into drama or verse. Romantic painters also found inspiration
in the Norse myths.
In a way the ultimate result of this Romantic interest in Norse myth and
heroic legend was the opera cycle by the German composer Richard Wagner entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). This mighty work,
originally intended to be heard over the course of just three days, consists of a
prologue called Das Rheingold (The Rhine-gold), followed by three hefty threeact operas, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Wagner wrote the book as well as the music, using a kind of
alliterative, archaic German that has its own strange charm, at least when sung.
He based his story loosely on the so-called Burgundian cycle, that is, the heroic
poems of the Poetic Edda centering on Sigurd, Völsunga saga, and the medieval
German epic Das Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). The major action
of the first part of the cycle Wagner took from the story that prefaces Reginsmál
in the Poetic Edda, involving a cursed ring that the gods obtain and must give

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Norse Mythology
up. Although many of the gods make only small appearances, Odin, called either
Wotan (the German form of his name) or the Wanderer, plays an absolutely pivotal role. He leaves the stage at the end of the second act of Die Walküre, but
Walhalla, the abode of the gods, is seen crumbling at the end of Götterdämmerung as the Rhine overflows its banks and cleanses the world of the cursed
ring. It is powerful music and powerful theater.
Wagner was one of Hitler’s favorite composers, and Norse mythology had a
sad revival in connection with Nazi ideology. Today Norse mythology every
once in a while is found in connection with contemptible neo-Nazi activities,
but for the most part it is the stuff of either comic books or fantasy literature.
There was a revival of “belief in the æsir” some years ago in Iceland, which
seemed to have to do at least in part with tax breaks for organized religion,
although partying is also important. That revival had its counterpart in Norway,
where a group of students announced themselves to be believers in the æsir. In
celebration, they drank some beer and sacrificed a sausage.

2
TIME

THE NATURE OF MYTHIC