Viking mythology is a fascinating topic that has captivated the imagination of many people for centuries. The stories of the Norse gods, heroes, and creatures are full of adventure, magic, and mystery. But how much do you really know about this ancient belief system? This article will explore some of the most exciting and surprising facts about Viking mythology: gods, legends, and beliefs. You will learn about the origins, the sources, the main characters, the cosmology, the rituals, and the legacy of this rich and complex mythology.
What is Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology is the term used to describe the myths and legends of the Scandinavian people who lived in the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries CE). These people were also known as Norsemen or Northmen, and they spoke a language called Old Norse. They practiced a polytheistic religion that worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses and various spirits and beings. They also believed in a complex cosmology that involved nine realms connected by a giant tree called Yggdrasil.
How Do We Know About Viking Mythology?
Unlike other ancient mythologies, such as Greek or Egyptian, Viking mythology does not have a single authoritative source or a canonical text. Instead, we must rely on various sources written or recorded by different people at different times and places. Some of these sources include:
- The Poetic Edda: A collection of Old Norse poems that date back to the 10th century CE or earlier. They contain stories of the creation of the world, the adventures of the gods and heroes, and the prophecy of Ragnarok (the end of the world).
- The Prose Edda: A manual of Norse mythology and poetry written by an Icelandic scholar named Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century CE. It is based on the Poetic Edda and other oral traditions, but it also adds some explanations and interpretations of the myths.
- The Sagas: A genre of Old Norse literature that narrates the history and legends of various Viking families, kings, warriors, and explorers. They were written between the 12th and 14th centuries CE by anonymous authors or by descendants of the protagonists.
- The Runestones: Monuments carved with runes (an ancient alphabet) that commemorate important events or people in Viking history. They are primarily found in Scandinavia and date from the 9th to 11th centuries CE.
- The Archaeological Evidence: Artifacts, burials, temples, ships, and other material remains provide clues about the Viking culture and religion. They are scattered across Europe and beyond, reflecting the wide range of Viking exploration and settlement.
Who Are The Main Characters in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology features a large cast of characters that belong to different groups or races. Some of the most important ones are:
- The Æsir: The leading group of gods who live in Asgard, one of the nine realms. They are associated with war, wisdom, justice, and civilization. Some of the most famous Æsir are Odin (the chief god), Thor (the god of thunder), Frigg (the goddess of marriage), Tyr (the god of law), Balder (the god of light), and Loki (the trickster god).
- The Vanir: Another group of gods who live in Vanaheim, another realm. They are associated with fertility, nature, magic, and prosperity. They were once at war with the Æsir but later made peace and exchanged hostages. Some of the most famous Vanir are Frey (the god of wealth), Freya (the goddess of love), Njord (the god of the sea), and Skadi (the goddess of winter).
- The Jötnar: The giants who live in Jotunheim, another realm. They are often enemies or rivals of the gods but sometimes allies or lovers. They represent chaos, destruction, and primal forces. Some of the most famous Jötnar are Ymir (the first being), Surtr (the fire giant), Thrym (the king of frost giants), Hel (the goddess of death), Fenrir (the wolf), Jormungandr (the serpent), and Angrboda (the mother of monsters).
- The Elves: The supernatural beings who live in Alfheim, another realm. They are divided into two types: light elves, who are beautiful and benevolent, and dark elves, who are ugly and malicious. They have magical powers and can influence human fate.
- The Dwarves: The skilled craftsmen living in another realm in Nidavellir or Svartalfheim. They are responsible for creating many weapons and artifacts used by the gods and heroes. They are short and sturdy but also greedy and cunning.
- The Humans: The descendants of Ask and Embla, the first man and woman created by the gods. They live in Midgard, the realm of the earth. They are often involved in the affairs of the gods and the other beings, sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies, and sometimes as victims.
How Is The World Structured in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology has a unique and complex cosmology involving nine realms or worlds connected by a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil. The nine realms are:
- Asgard: The home of the Æsir gods and their hall of Valhalla, where the Valkyries take the souls of fallen warriors.
- Vanaheim: The home of the Vanir gods and their hall of Folkvangr, where the souls of those who die peacefully are taken by Freya.
- Jotunheim: The home of the Jötnar or giants and their leader Utgard-Loki, who often challenges the gods to contests of skill and strength.
- Midgard: The home of the humans and their protector Heimdall, who guards the rainbow bridge Bifrost that connects Midgard to Asgard.
- Alfheim: The home of the light elves and their king Freyr, who is also a Vanir god and the brother of Freya.
- Svartalfheim or Nidavellir: The home of the dark elves or dwarves and their king Hreidmar, who is skilled in crafting magical items and weapons for the gods and heroes.
- Helheim: The home of the dead who are not worthy of Valhalla or Folkvangr and their ruler Hel, who is also a Jötunn and the daughter of Loki.
- Niflheim: The realm of ice and mist and the source of the primordial waters that gave birth to Ymir, the first being.
- Muspelheim: The realm of fire and lava and the source of the primordial flames that will destroy the world at Ragnarok.
The nine realms are constantly in motion and sometimes overlap or collide with each other, causing natural disasters or wars. The tree Yggdrasil supports and nourishes the realms with its roots and branches. Still, it is also under attack by various enemies, such as the dragon Nidhogg, who gnaws at its roots, or the squirrel Ratatosk, who carries insults between Nidhogg and the eagle Hraesvelg, who sits at its top.
What Are The Main Events in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology is full of stories that describe the origin, history, and destiny of the world and its inhabitants. Some of the most important events are:
- The Creation: According to Viking mythology, there was only a vast abyss called Ginnungagap, where two opposite realms met: Niflheim, the realm of ice, and Muspelheim, the kingdom of fire. A giant named Ymir emerged from their collision, the ancestor of all Jötnar. From his sweat came more giants, and from his legs came a male and a female who mated and produced more offspring. Ymir was nourished by a cow named Audhumla, who licked a block of salty ice and revealed a man named Buri, who was the ancestor of all Æsir. Buri had a son named Bor, who married a giantess named Bestla. They had three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three brothers killed Ymir and used his body to create the world: his flesh became the earth, his blood became the sea, his bones became the mountains, his teeth became the rocks, his hair became the trees, his skull became the sky, and his brains became the clouds. They also created the sun, the moon, and the stars from sparks from Muspelheim. They then took two logs from Yggdrasil and made them into the first man and woman: Ask and Embla. They gave them Midgard as their home and protected them from the giants with a wall made from Ymir’s eyebrows.
- The War Between Æsir And Vanir: According to Viking mythology, there was once a war between two groups of gods: the Æsir and the Vanir. The fight started when Odin sent a group of emissaries to Vanaheim to learn about their magic. However, they were mistreated by Gullveig (or Heid), a powerful Vanir goddess who practiced seidr (a type of sorcery). She was burned three times by Odin, but each time, she came back to life. This angered Freyja (or Freya), another Vanir goddess skilled in seidr. She led her people to attack Asgard in retaliation. The war lasted long until both sides grew tired and decided to make peace. They exchanged hostages as a sign of goodwill: Njord (or Njordr), Frey (or Freyr), and Freyja went to Asgard as representatives of the Vanir, while Hoenir (or Honir) and Mimir went to Vanaheim as representatives of the Æsir. However, the exchange was unfair: Hoenir was a silent and indecisive god who relied on Mimir for advice, while Njord, Frey, and Freyja were powerful and influential gods who brought many benefits to the Æsir. The Vanir soon realized that they had been tricked, and they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to Odin. Odin preserved the lead with herbs and magic and kept it as a source of wisdom. The peace treaty also involved a ritual of spitting into a cauldron, from which emerged a being named Kvasir, who was the wisest of all. He traveled the world to teach and share his knowledge until he was killed by two dwarves who wanted to steal his blood. They mixed his blood with honey and made a mead that gave poetic inspiration to anyone who drank it. This mead was later stolen by Odin after a series of adventures and became known as the mead of poetry.
- The Ragnarok: According to Viking mythology, Ragnarok is the final battle that will end the world as we know it. It will be preceded by a series of signs and events, such as three winters in a row without summer in between (the Fimbulwinter); the sun and the moon being devoured by two wolves named Skoll and Hati; the earth-shaking and cracking; the release of Loki and his children from their bonds; the sounding of the horn Gjallarhorn by Heimdall; the breaking of the rainbow bridge Bifrost; the emergence of the fire giant Surtr and his army from Muspelheim; the arrival of the ship Naglfar made from the nails of the dead; the attack of the dragon Nidhogg and his horde of undead from Helheim; and the appearance of Fenrir, Jormungandr, and Hel on the battlefield. The gods and their allies will face their enemies in a fierce and bloody fight, resulting in many deaths on both sides. Some of the most notable duels are Odin vs. Fenrir, Thor vs. Jormungandr, Frey vs. Surtr, Tyr vs. Garm (a hellhound), Heimdall vs. Loki, and Vidar (Odin’s son) vs. Fenrir. In the end, most gods, giants, monsters, and humans will die, and the world will be engulfed in flames and sink into the sea. However, this is not the end of everything: a new world will rise from the ashes, where some gods will survive or be reborn, such as Balder, Hod (his brother), Magni and Modi (Thor’s sons), Vali and Vidar (Odin’s sons), and Hoenir. Two humans who hid in Yggdrasil will join them during Ragnarok: Lif and Lifthrasir. They will repopulate the earth and live in harmony with nature. The new world will also have a new sun, the daughter of the old one, and a new hall called Gimle, where the righteous will dwell.
What Are The Main Rituals And Practices in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology was a collection of stories and a way of life for the people who followed it. They had various rituals and practices that expressed their beliefs and values, such as:
- The Blot: A sacrifice or offering to the gods or spirits that involved animals, food, drink, or even humans. The blot was performed at certain times of the year or for specific purposes, such as to ask for favor, protection, fertility, victory, or healing. The blot was usually done outdoors at a sacred site or indoors at a temple or hall. The participants would gather around an altar or a fire where the offering was placed or burned. They would drink mead or ale from a horn or a bowl and pass it around while reciting prayers or songs. The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the altar, the fire, or the people as a sign of consecration.
- The Seidr: A form of magic or divination that involved contacting or manipulating supernatural forces or beings. The said was practiced mainly by women called volvas (seeresses) or men called sediment (sediment), who were often feared or shunned by society. The seidr involved entering a trance state by chanting, drumming, dancing, or using drugs. The practitioner would then travel to other realms or communicate with spirits or ancestors to gain knowledge or influence events. The said could be used for various purposes, such as to foretell the future, curse enemies, heal illnesses, shape-shift into animals, or control the weather.
- The Runes: A system of symbols or letters representing sounds, words, concepts, or forces. The runes were used for writing, carving, painting, or tattooing.
What Are The Main Symbols And Artifacts in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology is rich in symbols and artifacts representing or embodying the power and attributes of the gods, the heroes, or the concepts. Some of the most famous ones are:
- The Hammer: The weapon of Thor, the god of thunder and protector of Midgard. His hammer is called Mjolnir, which means “the crusher” or “the lightning.” It was forged by two dwarves named Brokkr and Eitri, who made it as a gift for Thor after Loki cut off the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif. The hammer has many magical properties, such as it always returns to Thor’s hand after being thrown; it can change its size and weight according to Thor’s will; it can create thunder and lightning; it can strike any target with great force; and it can be used to bless or consecrate things. The hammer is also a symbol of strength, courage, and justice, and it is often worn as an amulet by the followers of Thor.
- The Valknut: A symbol of three interlocking triangles that form a knot. Its name means “the knot of the slain” or “the knot of the chosen.” It is associated with Odin, the god of war, wisdom, and death. It represents his power over life and death, as he chooses who lives and dies in battle. It also means his connection to the Valkyries, the female warriors who serve him and carry the souls of the fallen to Valhalla. The valknut is also a symbol of sacrifice, loyalty, and fate, and it is often carved on runestones or graves as a mark of honor or devotion.
- The Horns: A symbol of two curved horns that form a circle. Its name means “the horns of the drink” or “the horns of the mead.” It is associated with Freyja, the goddess of love, beauty, and magic. It represents her power over fertility, sexuality, and pleasure, as she owns the necklace Brisingamen, making her irresistible to anyone who sees her. It also represents her connection to the mead of poetry she obtained from Odin after sleeping with four dwarves who made it from Kvasir’s blood. The horns are also a symbol of creativity, inspiration, and ecstasy, and they are often used as drinking vessels or musical instruments by the followers of Freyja.
- The Helm Of Awe is a symbol of eight spikes radiating from a central point. Its name means “the helm of terror” or “the helm of protection.” It is associated with various gods and heroes who used it as a magical device to enhance their power or defense. For example, Odin wore it on his forehead to strike fear into his enemies; Sigurd (or Siegfried), a legendary hero who killed the dragon Fafnir, wore it on his chest to protect himself from harm; and Skadi, the goddess of winter and hunting, wore it on her shield to increase her strength and speed. The helm of awe is also a symbol of courage, confidence, and victory, and it is often drawn or tattooed on the body by the followers of these gods and heroes.
What Are The Main Themes And Values in Viking Mythology?
Viking mythology reflects the worldview and culture of the people who created and followed it. It expresses some of the main themes and values that shaped their identity and behavior, such as:
- Honor is a sense of personal dignity and respect earned by actions and deeds. Honor is one of the most critical values in Viking society, as it determines one’s status, reputation, and fate. Recognition is gained by being brave, loyal, generous, honest, skillful, and wise. Honor is lost by being cowardly, treacherous, greedy, deceitful, incompetent, or foolish. Honor can be restored by avenging oneself or one’s kin against those wronged or by performing heroic deeds that redeem their name.
- Fate is a belief in a predetermined course of events controlled by supernatural forces or beings. Fate is one of the most dominant themes in Viking mythology, as it affects everything and everyone in the world. Fate is determined by the Norns (or Nornir), three female beings who spin the threads of life for each individual at their birth. They are Urd (past), Verdandi (present), and Skuld (future). They also carve runes on Yggdrasil that influence the outcome of events. Fate can be favorable or unfavorable depending on one’s actions or luck. Fate can be known or unknown depending on one’s ability to see or interpret signs or omens. Fate can be accepted or resisted depending on one’s attitude or will.
- Glory: A desire for fame and recognition achieved by performing great deeds or feats. Credit is one of the main motivations in Viking mythology, as it inspires the gods and the heroes to pursue their goals and challenges. Glory is attained by being strong, courageous, adventurous, clever, and successful. Glory is displayed by boasting, singing, or telling stories about achievements or exploits. Credit is preserved by leaving a legacy, such as a monument, a treasure, a poem, or a saga. Glory is rewarded by being honored, praised, or remembered by others.
Viking mythology is a fascinating and complex subject that reveals much about the beliefs and values of the Scandinavian people who lived in the Viking Age. It is a rich source of stories and symbols that have influenced and inspired many aspects of art, literature, culture, and history. It is also a window into a different and exciting world that can teach us many lessons and insights about life and human nature. If you are interested in learning more about Viking mythology: gods, legends, and beliefs, you can check out some of these resources:
- [The Poetic Edda]: A translation of the original Old Norse poems that contain the core of Viking mythology.
- [The Prose Edda]: A translation of the manual of Norse mythology and poetry written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century.
- [The Sagas of Icelanders]: A collection of stories that narrate the history and legends of various Viking families, kings, warriors, and explorers.
- [Norse Mythology]: A book by Neil Gaiman that retells some of the most famous stories of Viking mythology in a modern and accessible way.
- [Vikings]: A TV series that dramatizes the lives and adventures of some famous Viking characters, such as Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha, Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, and Floki.
- Q: What is the difference between Viking and Norse?
- A: Viking is a term that refers to the people who lived in Scandinavia and engaged in raiding, trading, exploring, and settling across Europe and beyond during the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries CE). Norse is a term that refers to the language, culture, religion, and mythology of these people.
- Q: What are some of the most famous names derived from Viking mythology?
- A: Some of the most famous names derived from Viking mythology are: Odin (a god), Thor (a god), Loki (a god), Freya (a goddess), Eric (a king), Astrid (a star), Magnus (a great), Ingrid (a beautiful), Leif (a descendant), Sigrid (a victorious), Gunnar (a warrior), Ragna (a ruler), Bjorn (a bear), Hilda (a fighter), Sven (a young), Elsa (a noble), Olaf (an ancestor), and Magnus (a great).
- Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about Viking mythology?
- A: Some of the most common misconceptions about Viking mythology are:
- The Vikings wore horned helmets. This is a false image that was popularized by 19th-century romanticism and opera. There is no evidence that the Vikings wore horned helmets in battle or ritual. The only horned helmets found are from the Bronze Age or other cultures.
- The Vikings were barbaric savages. This biased view was propagated by their enemies or victims, such as the Christian monks who wrote the chronicles. The Vikings were not more violent or cruel than other people at their time. They had a sophisticated culture and society that valued law, justice, art, poetry, trade, exploration, and innovation.
- The Vikings were pagans who hated Christianity. This simplistic view ignores the diversity and complexity of their religious beliefs and practices. The Vikings were not a monolithic group that followed a single religion or ideology. They had various forms of polytheism, animism, shamanism, magic, and syncretism. They also interacted with other religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Some converted to Christianity voluntarily or by force; some remained faithful to their old gods; some mixed elements from different religions; and some were indifferent or tolerant to religious differences.