Since I'm a big fan of world mythology I've decided to do a series of posts on the gods of old. First up shall be the Norse, since I love them most, followed by the Greeks. Then, if I don't loose interest first, I shall do a tour of the Mediterranean with the Babylonians and Egyptians before finishing up with the Celts. While this doesn't even begin to cover the 'world' part of world mythology I'm a little uncomfortable with talking about current belief systems as if they were myths. So while I may talk about the Aztecs I won't be writing about any Asian, African, or Native people's beliefs.

Now on to the Norse!

(A word of warning! I am not an expert on any mythology. This is a fascination and a hobby of mine, but I don't know enough to even begin to claim I'm an expert. There will be times where I'm wrong, and if you notice that I am, please tell me!)

A few years ago, if someone had asked me about Norse mythology I would have probably said "it's interesting, but we don't know much about it." This is untrue. Scholars actually know a lot about the Norse gods and goddess, but unfortunately there aren't many direct sources. Most of the written records for Norse myths were written only after Christianity had become the dominant religion of the area. The two major works that collected the Norse myths are the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and the Poetic (or Elder) Edda, which was also written in the 13th century by an unknown author.

While the Elder Edda seems to be a collection of minstrel songs that deal with Norse myths, the Prose Edda is very obviously biased in Christianity's favor. In order to explain how the Scandinavians came to worship their gods, Snorri wrote a foreword describing how Odin and his kin were actually super-powered humans from Troy who traveled north and tricked people there into thinking they were gods. (I'm not kidding.) There are also several gods that I would suspect were edited to make them follow Christian beliefs closer. Whether this was done by early missionaries to try and convert people, or by the pagan believers to try and make their native religion seem less threatening to the early church (or even if it was done at all!) I wouldn't know. I'll have to get that time machine working to figure it out.

The thing, to me, that is really interesting about the Norse myths is that it's inhabitants are in a constant battle against fate itself. Ragnarok, the end of the gods, is always looming and nearly every story is about how the gods are trying to keep the end at bay. Unfortunately for them, many of the actions they take only hasten it's approach. But I'll get to that when I write about Tyr and Balder. For worshipers, every year that passed meant that the gods had held off the inevitable for a little longer. However, before we dwell too much on the end, we should start at then beginning.

(Today's primary source is The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jean Young. It's currently out of print, but the Penguin Classic version is great if you're desperate to read it.)

In the beginning, there was nothing but Ginnungagap, the void. Then, the first land Muspell appeared. It was a land of heat and fire where the well Hvergelmir was. In this land dwells Surt, a giant with a flaming sword, who will come at Ragnarok to burn the world. From the well Hvergelmir flowed eleven rivers which went north into the void and turned it into a sea of ice. The ice grew thick, cold, and treacherous and became Niflheim which would become the location of the underworld. In between the fire and ice was a pleasant place where life began. From the melting ice at Niflheim's border came the giant Ymir who is the ancestor of the gods and giants.

This is where things start getting a little weird. You see, Ymir fathered the Jotunn (Frost Giants) while he was asleep. From under his left arm grew a man and woman while one leg got the other leg pregnant and gave birth to a six-headed son. These were the first frost giants and the beings that the gods shall soon be in eternal battle with.

The frost of Niflheim continued to thaw and from the ice came the cow Audhumla. Now Audhumla was the best dairy cow ever as her milk was so plentiful that four rivers of milk flowed from her which fed Ymir and his giants. Audhumla herself survived by licking the ice and she quickly licked the man Buri from it's depths. Buri sired a son named Bor who in turn sired Odin.

While I'll talk about Odin a great deal next time, all you need to know about him now is that he had two brothers, Vili and Ve. Now, I'm not sure why, but Odin and his brothers decided that killing Ymir was a great idea. They did so, and Ymir bleed so much that it drowned all the giants except Bergelmir and his wife who escaped. We'll have to assume that the blood flood also killed Audhumla since I have never seen another mention of her. The brothers then took Ymir's body to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his flesh. The seas were made from his blood, the mountains from his bones, plants from his hair, the sky from his skull, and clouds from his brains. Taking fire from Muspell they made the sun and the stars and put them in the skies. They also took Ymir's eyebrows and built a wall around their world which would hold in the seas and block out the jotunn who were pretty ticked about the whole 'murdering their esteemed Grandfather and the flood of blood' thing.

Their world complete, they named it Midgard or, for all you Tolkien lovers, Middle Earth.

While walking their world, Odin and his brothers found two trees washed up on shore. Having nothing better to do, they brought the trees to life making the first man and woman. The man was named Ask (ash-tree) and the woman Embla (elm-tree). The brothers then built themselves a fortress in the middle of the world which they named Asgard. There, they settled down, got married, and started making many little god-lings. Or at least Odin did, because Vili and Ve are about to vanish from mythology. And never mind the fact that there were no goddess to make god-lings with. The jotunn must have bred quickly while the world was being made or something.

It's interesting that the Norse quite happily put themselves in the center of the world between what sounds suspiciously like the Arctic (Niflheim) and the Sahara (Muspell). While everyone knows that the Vikings did a lot of traveling around in northern Europe, they must have also been pretty aware of what things were like south of them as well. That said, descriptions of Midgard have a flat-world feel to them despite the Vikings knowing that the world was round. They were, after all, the first (non-successful) European people to try and colonize the Americas. I suspect that the mythology came before anyone tried to sail to Canada and wasn't updated to reflect what the sailors knew.

Also, just like Christianity and many other religions, we have mankind's beginnings starting with massive amounts of incest. Seriously gods, if you want worshipers you need to create a couple hundred people, not two. I'm surprised that more people didn't end up with webbed feet.
4 Responses
  1. Gary Corby Says:

    Mimzy, this is really very well written! Fun too. I'm impressed.


  2. Gary Corby Says:

    Hey Mimzy, Yamile reports something I've noticed too: your word verification doesn't fit inside the available window and looks like it isn't there. You have to tab down to find it. Just letting you know.

  3. Amalia T. Says:

    This is great! I'm wondering how I haven't come across your blog before now, since we seem to follow similar blogs!
    I'm a pretty big Norse fan myself so I'm kind of excited to see your features.

  4. Mimzy Says:


    Thanks for coming, I'm glad you came! I'll probably keep writing articles on the Norse until I run out of material, so feel free to keep checking back to see more. I usually post the articles on Monday, unless school gets in the way. Professors tend to think that I should be paying attention in class or doing homework rather then writing for my blog for some strange reason. :)