This is an extract from our Bronte Aurell’s book NØRTH – available here and in all good bookshops. – A tongue in cheek look at our native Scandinavia.
Scandinavians are a little conflicted at times. Christianity is the main religion, but pagan roots shine through in our heritage and there is always that little bit of Odin and Thor running through our veins. Perhaps the mythology and belief in the old ways are left over from all those years before the Vikings became Christians. Many of our celebrations are still connected to the cycle of the year, the pagan traditions and beliefs. To get a brief overview of what is a very large collection of sagas, we need to start from the beginning:
In Norse mythology, the earth is a flat disc and that disc is the branches of the cosmological tree of life, Yggdrasil. This tree, supposedly an Ash, links the nine worlds (Asgard, Vanaheimr, Álfheimr, Niðavellir, Jötunheimr, Niflheim, Muspelheim, Midgard and Hel) together. The tree has three axes and therefore three levels of worlds. In the centre of this world is Asgard, land of Æsir, which is where the gods lived. You can only get to Asgard if you cross a bridge called Bifröst – actually, it is a flaming rainbow, not really a bridge. Bifröst connects Asgard and Midgard. You then have the frost giants – they live in a place called Jötunheimr, which means ‘the Giant Place’. In the south, the fire giants rule in a place called Muspelheim. In the north, a dark place called Niflheim was ruled by Hel, daughter of Loki the trickster god. Dead people usually end up here. Midgard is the place for the living man and lies between Asgard and Niflheim. Álfheimr is the home of the light elves, lighter than even the sun. Vanaheimr is home to the wise, to fertility and future-tellers – the home of Vanir. Niðavellir is the land of dwarves, or possibly of dark elves, and called Svartálfheirur, it’s all a bit complicated. Hel, which shares the same name as the goddess, is possibly the origin of the English word ‘hell’. Visitors had a varied reception.
The hall in Asgard presided over by Odin where those who died in battle await Ragnarök. If you die in battle, half of you go to Valhalla, which is better than going to Niflheimr, which is where most go when they die a normal death. The Valkyries choose who gets slain in battle.
Ragnarök refers to a great battle that ultimately results in the death of major gods, including Odin, Thor, Freya and Loki. It also tells the story of natural disasters and the world being submerged in water. When all this has ended, the world is reborn again, fresh and new and fertile – and the surviving gods will meet and the world will be re-populated by two human survivors. A few years ago, Ragnarök was supposedly near, but seeing as we’re still here, perhaps there was a calculation error.
How things began
First, there was fire and ice and two worlds, Muspelheim and Niflheim. When the hot air from one hit the cold air from the other, the giant (jötunn) Ymir and the icy cow Auðumbla were created. Then Ymir’s armpit made a woman and his foot made a man. From his sweat he made the fire giant Surtr. The cow then licked a stone and a man called Búri grew out from it. Búri fathered a son called Bar and this was the father of the three gods: Odin, Vili and Ve.
The gods then killed Ymir and created another seven worlds. They used his blood to make oceans and his brain for clouds. His bones were useful as stones and heaven was made from his skull.
The three little gods went out walking one day and saw two tree stumps. They decided to make these into Embla – the first woman – and Ask – the first man. Odin made them come to life, Ve made them able to speak, see and hear, and Vili gave them their minds. The gods created Middle Earth for them and then fenced it all the way along with Ymir’s eyelashes to keep out the other giants.
The Norse gods are depicted in the sagas from the ninth century. All the stories of them were passed down through poetry via the Edda and other texts in the centuries that followed and have shaped our understanding of the gods.
There are many, many gods – some are similar and likely the same, some stand out and are well known in popular culture today. Among the top gods are:
Baldr – Son of Odin and Frigg. A kind, gentle god, who is due to return after Ragnarök. Associated with light, peace, love and happiness.
Loki – The anti-hero, trickster, shape-shifter. Son of giants, but became a god anyway. God of mischief. Father of Hel. Caused the death of Baldr and is now trapped until Ragnarök comes around.
Freya – Goddess of love, of sex and fertility, war, death and gold. Her name means ‘lady’. Has a cart pulled by two cats. Sister of Freyr.
Freyr – One of the most important gods in Norse mythology. Freyr means ‘lord’ and he was god of peace and fertility and had close links to the sun. He was ‘hated by none’ and always swanned around with a massive erection. You can do that when you are god of fertility, you see, nobody minds. Seen as an ancestor to the Swedish royal house.
Frigg – The highest-ranking goddess and a völva (shaman). Wife of Odin and mother of Baldr.
Heimdallr – The watchman of the gods and guarder of Bifröst, the rainbow bridge to Asgard. Loves all things gold. Son of nine mothers.
Hel – Goddess, ruler of Helheim, the realm of the dead in Niflheim. Daughter of Loki.
Iðun – The goddess of spring and rejuvenation and keeper of the magic apples of immortality. Had some run-ins with Loki.
Odin – The undisputed king of the Norse gods. He was the god of battle, poetry and death and he was also the Chief of Æsir. He had one eye. Married to Frigg. Father of Baldr.
Thor – The god of thunder, of the sky and of fertility. Likely the guardian of the Norse gods, he ensured order in Asgard. He was the son of Odin. When it thunders, it is Thor who rides his chariot pulled by goats in the sky – and throws his hammer, Mjölnir.
Týr – One of the principle gods of war, along with Thor and Odin. Unfortunately, Fenrir the wolf bit off his hand.
Sága – Odin’s drinking companion and all-round goddess.
Ullr – God of skiing. And archery, but mainly skiing. He was really good at it. You have to be good at stuff to be the god of it. Slalom and everything.
Want to read more about Scandi-basic stuff? Here’s the book North.
© 2018 / Aurum Press. Illustrations by Lucy Panes.