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The Norse Pantheon: A Studied Examination

  • 13 min read
Snorri Sturluson, writing in Iceland in the thirteenth century, says that, excluding Odin and his wife Frigg, ‘The divine gods are twelve in number…The goddesses [who number thirteen] are no less sacred and no less powerful.’ This section introduces the four principal deities, Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja, in some detail, and points to the principal attributes of the others; they, and other protagonists, are discussed further in other blogs where appropriate. Odin is often called Allfather: this means he was not only the actual father of many of the gods and (with his two brothers) created the first man and woman, but that he was also foremost of the gods. Snorri Sturluson is quite clear on this point: Odin is the highest and oldest of the gods. He rules all things and, no matter how mighty the other gods may be, they all serve him as children do their father…He lives for ever and ever, and rules over the whole of his kingdom and governs all things great and small. He created heaven and earth and sky and all that in them is. Germanic pre-Christian Europe was fraught with conflict between family and family, tribe and tribe, country and country. A culture finds the gods it needs and the Norse world needed a god to justify the violence that is one of its hallmarks. Odin appears to have inherited the characteristics of the earliest Germanic war gods, Wodan and Tîwaz, and is seen above all as the God of Battle. Terrible, arrogant and capricious, he inspired victory and determined defeat; in his hall, Valhalla, he entertained slain warriors, chosen and conducted there by the Valkyries, who were to fight with him at Ragnarok; and he required propitiation with human and animal sacrifice. The same inspiration that enabled one man to win a battle enabled another to compose poetry. Thus Odin, the God of War, travelled to Jotunheim to win the mead of poetry for the gods, and one reason why he is so prominent in the eddaic poems may be that he was the patron of the poets who composed them! Odin was not only the God of Battle and the God of Poetry; he could also act as a seer. Like a shaman, he could send out his spirit, sometimes riding on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, sometimes in another shape, on journeys between worlds; like a shaman, he could win wisdom from the dead. In the eddaic poem Voluspa, and in his voluntary sacrifice on the world ash Yggdrasill, we see him as the God of the Dead. Odin is a formidable presence. He has only one eye and wears a wide-brimmed hat to escape instant recognition; he always wears a blue cloak and carries the magic spear Gungnir; on his shoulders sit the ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), birds of battle symbolic also of flights in search of wisdom; and from the high seat of Hlidskjalf, in his hall Valaskjalf, he could survey all that happened in the nine worlds. He is a terrifying god: maybe a god to be respected, but not a god to be loved. Thor, son of Odin and Earth, was second in the pantheon and it is clear from the terms in which he is described by the eddaic poets, Snorri Sturluson and the saga writers, and from the large number of place names embodying his name, that he was the most loved and respected of the gods. While Odin stood for violence and war, Thor represented order. With his hammer Mjollnir, he kept the giants at bay and was physically strong enough to grapple with the world serpent, Jormungand. Men invoked him in the name of law and stability. Odin championed the nobly born – kings, warriors, poets; Thor championed the farming freemen who constituted the majority of the population. His physical image fits this role well; he was huge, red-bearded, possessed of a vast appetite, quick to lose his temper and quick to regain it, a bit slow in the uptake, but immensely strong and dependable. The eddaic poets (and Snorri Sturluson in their wake) may have exaggerated Odin’s significance; according to the eleventh-century historian Adam of Bremen, Thor was the greatest of the Norse gods and, in the great temple as Uppsala, his statue occupied the central position between Odin and Freyr. The second myth in this collection which forms a complete cycle, beginning with the creation and ending with the destruction of the nine worlds, describes a war between the warrior gods, the Aesir, and the fertility gods, the Vanir. This conflict appears to embody the memory of a time when two cults struggled for the possession of men’s minds and, as invariably happens when one religion replaces another, were ultimately fused. Thor thus took on characteristics associated with fertility and made them his own. The hammer Mjollnir, for instance, was not only an instrument of aggression but also of fertility. Likewise, Thor was the cause of thunder (the noise made by the wheels of his chariot) and lightning (fragments of a whetstone were lodged in his head) and, in the words of Adam of Bremen, Thor was held to control ‘the winds and showers, the fair weather and fruits of the earth’. The most important of the fertility gods, however, was Freyr, God of Plenty. Freyr appears to have been a descendant (who somehow changed sex) of Nerthus, the Earth Mother whom Tacitus described as having been worshipped in Denmark in the first century AD. And Snorri Sturluson writes: ‘Freyr is an exceedingly famous god; he decides when the sun shall shine or the rain come down, and along with that the fruitfulness of the earth, and he is good to invoke for peace and plenty. He also brings about the prosperity of men.’ The idol of Freyr at Uppsala had a gigantic phallus and Freyr was clearly invoked not only for the increase of the earth but also for human increase. Freyr’s principal possessions, the ship Skidbladnir and the boar Gullinbursti, are both ancient fertility symbols, and the one surviving myth directly concerned with him is a celebration of all that he stands for. Freyr’s father was Njord and his sister was Freyja and all three were involved in the exchange of leaders when the Aesir and Vanir made a truce . Njord, the senior god of the Vanir, governed the sea and the winds and guarded ships and seafarers. His hall was called Noatun or shipyard. Njord married the frost giantess Skadi and his son the frost giantess Gerd in myths which both symbolise the union of opposites . There are a bewildering number of theories about another of the leading gods, Heimdall, but he, too, was probably originally one of the Vanir. He was associated with the sea and was the son of nine maidens (perhaps nine waves). According to Snorri, ‘He needs less sleep than a bird, and can see a hundred leagues in front of him as well by night as by day. He can hear the grass growing on the earth and the wool on sheep, and everything that makes more noise.’ His stamina and acutely developed senses made Heimdall the ideal watchman for the gods. His hall Himinbjorg (Cliffs of Heaven) stood near the rainbow Bifrost, and he owned the horn Gjall whose blast could be heard throughout the nine worlds. Heimdall is also identified in the prose preface to the Rigsthula as the progenitor of the races of men; we do not know enough about his origins to be sure why he and not Odin (who, with his brothers, actually created the first man and woman) appears in this context. Another leading god, Tyr, was a son of Odin, although one source makes him the son of the giant Hymir. Like Odin, he inherited characteristics from earlier Germanic gods of battle, and his origins are discussed in a later blog. He is the bravest of the Aesir and only he is prepared to sacrifice a hand so that the wolf Fenrir can be bound, thereby ensuring the safety of the gods until Ragnarok. Ragnarok is precipitated by the death of Balder, the gentle and beloved son of Odin and Frigg, who is felled by a mistletoe dart thrown by his own brother Hod, a blind god whose aim is guided by the evil Loki. Balder’s character shall be discussed in detail in a later blog; bur in the inimitable words of Snorri Sturluson: There is nothing but good to be told of him. He is the best of them and everyone sings his praises. He is so fair of face and bright that a splendour radiates from him, and there is one flower so white that it is likened to Balder’s brow; it is the whitest of all flowers. From that you can tell how beautiful his body is, and how bright his hair. He is the wisest of the gods, and the sweetest-spoken, and the most merciful, but it is a characteristic of his that once he has pronounced a judgement it can never be altered. None of the remainder of the twelve ‘leading’ gods feature signifi­cantly in the surviving myths. Forseti, the son of Balder and Nanna, was god of justice; Bragi, son of Odin, was god of poetry and eloquence; Ull was particularly concerned with archery and skiing, and was invoked in duels; Vali, son of Odin and his mistress Rind, who avenged Balder’s death by killing his unwitting murderer, and Vidar, son of Odin and the giantess Grid, who will avenge Odin’s death, both survive Ragnarok. Apart from the twelve principal gods three other male inhabitants of Asgard must be mentioned. Honir was involved in the exchange of leaders between the Aesir and Vanir. His most pronounced characteristic appears to have been his indecisiveness and he was associated with Odin and Loki on several occasions. It seems that after Ragnarok he will be Odin’s successor as first among the gods. Secondly, Hermod, a son of Odin, makes one significant appearance: his name implies resolve and it is he who journeys to the underworld of Hel in an attempt to recover his dead brother Balder. And, finally, there is Loki. The son of two giants and yet the foster-brother of Odin, Loki embodies the ambiguous and darkening relationship between the gods and the giants. He is dynamic and unpredictable and because of that he is both the catalyst in many of the myths and the most fascinating character in the entire mythology. Without the exciting, unstable, flawed figure of Loki, there could be no change in the fixed order of things, no quickening pulse, and no Ragnarok. Snorri Sturluson says that Loki is handsome and fair of face, but has an evil disposition and is very changeable of mood. He excelled all men in the art of cunning, and he always cheats. He was continually involving the Aesir in great difficulties and he often helped them out again by guile. This is a very fair description of the Loki of the earlier myths: he is responsible for a wager with a giant which imperils Freyja but by changing both shape and sex, characteristics he has in common with Odin, he bails out Freyja and the gods; his shearing of Sif’s hair is more mischievous than evil, and he makes handsome amends in the end; and although his deceit leads to the loss of the golden apples of youth, he retrieves them again. Loki’s origins are particularly complex and he has been compared to a number of figures in European and other mythologies; it is now generally accepted, though, that he was no late invention of the Norse poets but an ancient figure, and one descended from a common Indo-European prototype. Noting this turn and turnabout quality in Loki’s make-up, H.R. Ellis Davidson has also tellingly compared him to the Trickster of American Indian mythology: The trickster is greedy, selfish, and treacherous; he takes on animal form; he appears in comic and often disgusting situations, and yet he may be regarded as a kind of culture hero, who provides mankind with benefits like sunlight and fire. At times he even appears as a creator. He can take on both male and female form, and can give birth to children. He is, in fact, a kind of semi-comic shaman, half way between god and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element, foreign to both, thrown in. hel and fenrir But, as time goes on, the playful Loki gives way to the cruel predator, hostile to the gods. He not only guides the mistletoe dart that kills Balder but stands in the way of Balder’s return from Hel; his accusations against the gods at Aegir’s feast are vicious and unbridled; even when fettered, he remains an agent of destruction, causer of earthquakes. And when he breaks loose at Ragnarok, Loki reveals his true colours: he is no less evil than his three appalling children, the serpent Jormungand, the wolf Fenrir and the half-alive, half-dead Hel, and he leads the giants and monsters into battle against the gods and heroes. We hear far less about the goddesses in the myths; and since Snorri Sturluson asserts their equality with the gods, we can only assume a disproportionate number of stories concerning them have been lost. Freyja is the only ‘divine’ goddess to have survived as a fully rounded and commanding figure. With her father Njord and brother Freyr she came to represent the Vanir when they exchanged leaders with the Aesir. Her husband was called Od (sometimes equated with Odin) and Freyja is often described weeping for this shadowy figure who had for some reason left her. Freyja was invoked by pre-Christian Scandinavians as goddess of love, and is portrayed in the myths as sexually attractive and free with her favours: on two occasions, giants lusted after her; she sold herself to four dwarfs in exchange for the Necklace of the Brisings – the most striking symbol of her fertility; and the giantess Hyndla roundly censured her for riding on her human lover Ottar and for leaping around at night like a nanny goat. Freyja was also associated with war. She rode to battle in a chariot drawn by two cats and the eddaic poem Grimnismal says that she divided the slain with Odin; half went to Valhalla and half to her hall, Sessrum-nir, on Folkvang (Field of Folk). The end of some myths displays this warlike face of Freyja, while it is noteworthy that in another tale the alias of Freyja’s lover Ottar is Hildisvini, which means ‘battle-boar’. War and death stand shoulder to shoulder and, like Odin, Freyja had connexions with the world of the dead. She was said to have been mistress of magic and witchcraft and owned a falcon skin which enabled her spirit to take the form of a bird, travel to the underworld, and come back with prophecies and knowledge of destinies. But although a great deal about the practice of shamanism in pre-Christian Scandinavia (and Freyja’s association with it) can be adduced from contemporary sources, no myth survives that displays Freyja as seer or volva. Of the other twelve ‘divine’ goddesses, Gefion was also counted among the Vanir, and the story of how she tricked Gylfi, the King of Sweden, establishes her connexion with agriculture in general and ploughing in particular. Eir was goddess of healing; Sjofn and Lofn were concerned with firing human love and bringing together those ‘for whom marriage was forbidden or banned’, while Var heard the marriage oath and punished those who strayed from it; Vor was a goddess from whom nothing could be hidden and watchful Syn was invoked by defendants at trials; Snotra was wise and gentle and knew the value of self-discipline; Saga was distinguished only for drinking each day with Odin in her hall Sokkvabekk; and Lin, Fulla and Gna appear to have been no more than handmaidens to Odin’s wife, Frigg. It is a pity that we do not know more about Frigg herself, who shared with Odin a knowledge of men’s destinies. Like Freyr, she must have had her origin in the image of the Earth Mother: she was the daughter of Fjorgyn, the Goddess of Earth; she was invoked by women in labour; and her maternal qualities are evident in her mourning for the loss of her son Balder. H. R. Ellis Davidson has written of the likely connexion between Freyja and Frigg: The two main goddesses of Asgard indeed suggest two aspects of the same divinity, and this is paralleled by the twofold aspect of the fertility goddess in the Near East, appearing as mother and as lover. Sometimes both roles may be combined in the person of one goddess, but it is more usual for the different aspects to be personified under different names. It is even possible to recognise a triad of goddesses, such as Asherah, Astarte, and Anat of Syria, or Hera, Aphrodite, and Artemis of Greece. Here the three main aspects of womanhood appear side by side as wife and mother, lover and mistress, chaste and beautiful virgin. Frigg and Freyja in northern mythology could figure as the first two of such a trio, while the dim figure of Skadi the huntress might once have occupied the vacant place. We know rather more about other female inhabitants of Asgard than about some of the ‘divine’ goddesses. Idun, the wife of Bragi, was custodian of the apples of youth, and the myth of how she was tricked by Loki into leaving Asgard and then kidnapped by the giant Thiazi is one of the most haunting in the cycle. Like Idun, Sif, the wife of Thor, must have been a fertility goddess; she had incomparable golden hair and its loss is the starting point for another myth. Nanna was Balder’s loyal wife; her heart broke at the sight of him lying dead on the ship Ringhorn and she was cremated with him and accompanied him to Hel. And Sigyn was no less loyal to her husband Loki; when he was bound by the gods, she stood beside him and with a bowl caught the deadly venom that dripped from a snake’s fangs on to his face. The gods and goddesses symbolise specific beliefs and many of them have highly distinctive personalities. Giants and dwarfs, on the other hand, appear as a genera. There is little to choose between one giant and another, one dwarf and the next. The giants largely represent the forces of chaos, attempting through physical force, trickery and magic to upset the order of the universe. They range from the blunt and brutal Geirrod and Hrungnir, both disposed of by Thor, to the wily and evil Utgard-Loki, who sees Thor off the premises. But the distinction between gods and giants is far from absolute. Some gods have bad qualities, some giants have good; and the gods and giants do not only fight one another, but form friendships and embark on love relationships. Perhaps it is legitimate, indeed, to see the gods and giants not as polarised opposites but rather as opposing aspects of one character – warring, making peace, warring again and, in the end, mutually destructive. The ugly, misshapen dwarfs, meanwhile, represent greed; they do nothing that is not in their own interests. Master-smiths and magicians, quick to show malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after gold. Light elves and dark elves and the inhabitants of Niflheim are mentioned in the myths from time to time, but they do not have an active part to play in them. Of the five myths involving humans, I will have more to say.