Few nations have possessed a greater gift of storytelling than the Norsemen or Vikings, the ancestors of the people who today live in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. There are Norse tales of outlaws and heroes, of ghosts and dragons, of sea-kings and peasant farmers, of love and adventure; but perhaps the most interesting of all are the legends of the gods who used to be worshipped in Scandinavia before the coming of Christianity. The same gods, under slightly different names, were once worshipped by many other peoples, including the ancestors of the English and German nations, but here the old pagan faith was swept away by Christian missionaries so early that only scattered traces of it remain. In Scandinavia, especially in the remote island of Iceland, Christianity was not established till the year 1000, or even later, by which time the legends had taken a firm hold on people’s minds, and the Icelanders’ love of a good story made them cling to the old Norse myths even after many converted to Christianity. The fullest and clearest picture of the Viking gods is given in two Icelandic collections of tales called the Eddas.
The Vikings thought of their gods as like human beings, but larger than life. They ate and slept, they were born and they died, they felt love and hate, fear and wonder, they could be surprised by treachery or overcome in battle. Foremost among the Norse gods were the Aesir, who lived in a mysterious dwelling place in the heavens called Asgard. Of these the chief was Odin or Woden (the third day of the week is called Wednesday or “Woden’s day” in his honour). Odin was the All-father of gods and men, lord of the sky and ruler of the dead, who bestowed the gift of song on poets and received in his great hall of Valhalla the Einherjar, the spirits of warriors slain in battle brought to him by his handmaidens the Valkyries. Odin is usually pictured as an old white-bearded man in a cloak which changes its colour like the sky. He has only one eye, for he sacrificed the other as the price of a drink from the god Mimir’s well of wisdom, and is skilled in all magic. At Odin’s feet crouch two wolves, on his shoulders perch the two ravens Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”), and his eight-legged steed Sleipnir runs swifter than the wind. His wife is the queenly Frigga (Friday is “Frigg’s day”), goddess of the fruitful earth, but several tales tell of Odin’s love affairs with other goddesses or with human women.
Of Odin’s many sons the most powerful was Thor (Thursday is “Thor’s day”), with his red beard and magical belt of strength. In his iron-gloved hands he wields the mighty hammer Mjolnir, whose strokes flash in the lightning, while the rolling thunder is the sound of his chariot-wheels. He is the champion of gods and men against the evil race of giants from Jotunheim. Third among the chief gods is the war-god Tyr, whose name survives in the word Tuesday. The enigmatic figure of Odin’s brother Loki is a mischief maker, half-ally, half-enemy, feared for his cunning and disliked for his often malevolent nature. He is a fire god who can change his shape at will and has three monstrous children – Hel, queen of the underworld; the terrifying wolf Fenris, who was bound in chains by the gods at the beginning of time; and the serpent Jormungand, who is believed to lie coiled around the world in the depths of the ocean. Loki’s worst deed was to cause the death of Odin’s son Balder, the beloved young god of the sunshine, for which he was imprisoned in torment till the end of time. Despite this, Loki is also prophesied to play a part in Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods.
The Norse myths tell that the gods were created and then the world was shaped from the body of a huge giant, Ymir. The earth, called Midgard, was supported by the great ash-tree Yggdrasil, whose topmost branches touched Asgard, while its roots were watered by Mimir’s well and by the fountain of the three Norns, or Fates. At the World’s End, it is said that Loki and Fenris will free themselves, the giants will attack Asgard, the Ship of Death will break loose, the Midgard serpent will rise from the sea and the mountains will tremble. A last great battle will be waged between the gods and their enemies in in which all will perish alike, slaying and being slain, and the world together with all of mankind will be swallowed up by fire. Then, however, a new age will dawn, Balder will return and a second earth will rise bright from the ashes of the old.
Norse myths have inspired countless fantasy writers over the years. There is James Lovegrove’s Age of Odin, Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Last of the Renshai saga and of course Marvel Comics’ silly but fun take on Thor, to name but a few. Both J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis grew up steeped in Scandinavian mythology, which was one of the major inspirations for their imaginary worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia. Tolkien in particular, being a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, made extensive use of Viking culture, myths and legends in his stories. In The Hobbit, for example, both the names of Gandalf and those of the thirteen dwarven companions of Bilbo Baggins are taken directly from the Eddas. Rings of power are also central to Norse mythology, which is as rich as it is huge. Day and night, sun and moon, fire and wind, dawn and twilight, mist and snow all have their own stories. There are tales of frost-giants and mountain-giants, cave-dwelling dwarves, elven smiths, trolls who ride the roof-tops at night and spirits who howl in the wind. We have much to treasure, therefore, in the Viking myths that have survived to the present day.