In public consciousness, Norse gods such as Thor, Loki and Odin have risen to prominence thanks to the Marvel Comics movie series. It’s actually not an entirely inappropriate introduction to the complex world of Norse folklore and mythology because this particular cultural lore is wild enough to liken to ancient science-fiction.
Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life
Before even peeking into the pantheon of Norse gods, one must begin with Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil was an impossibly immense tree which connected the nine worlds of the mythology:
Asgard, home of the Aesir gods ruled over by Odin and Frigg;
Vanaheim, home of the future-seeing fertility gods known as the Vanir;
Muspelheim, the birthplace of the stars and populated by fire creatures;
Midgard, a.k.a. Earth;
Swartalfheim, a world inhabited by elves;
Jutenheim, a world of giants;
Niflheim, a realm of cold which serves as an afterlife for non-heroic types; and
Hel, the purpose and function of which is easily ascertained.
These nine worlds – and the spaces between – comprise the settings for all tales in Norse mythology, which often portrays conflict and/or battle between habitants of these worlds. An incredibly complex tapestry of tales results, from telling of the animals which inhabit Yggdrasil itself – a legless dragon, an eagle and three horses(!) – to creation of a tumultuous river running between the extreme climates of Muspelheim and Niflheim, to stories of great walls built to keep out the Juten.
No matter how compelling the tale or involving the backstory, characters run the narrative. And like the perhaps more familiar mythologies of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, the Norse gods and goddesses are extensive – not to mention rife with quirks.
As mentioned above, the Aesir gods of Asgard are ruled over by Odin and his wife Frigg. Odin is a god of many earthly concerns such as battle and death, but also over magic and poetry. Socially speaking, the roots of Odin as mythological figure go back further than Norse culture itself to the “proto-Germanic” peoples of Northern Europe, enjoying Zeus-like status for centuries. Also of note is Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who ports the souls of heroes from Earth to Valhalla, the heavenly hall of Norse mythology.
Frigg defies such easy description, as an Earth goddess-type who additionally bears the power of foreknowledge. As is the usual wont of such highly venerated goddesses, Frigg bore Odin several children including the well-known Thor. When Christianity came to Viking civilization, Frigg survived in folk tales straight through to modern-day pagan practices.
Týr is yet another figure whose mythological existence predates classic Norse mythology and thus has some contradiction within his origin: Most reckon Týr as a son of Odin, but even this is up for grabs. Indisputable is Týr’s status as the god of law and war; his predilection for demanding sacrifices attests to his long personal history among human storytellers.
Thor, wielder of the mighty hammer Mjollnir, is a weather god charged with protecting the Earth realm. Naturally, this leads to many a scrape with Loki; while portrayed as Thor’s brother in the Marvel movies, Loki’s parents are actually the giant Fárbauti and the goddess Lafey. Sometimes referred to in Norse myth as a god, sometimes not, Loki is always essentially a more malevolent version of the trickster gods seen in polytheistic belief everywhere from Native America to Africa. Loki is the father of Hel, overseer of the afterlife realm which bears her name.
Baldur and Höðr are twin offspring of Odin and Frigg; while Baldur is often assigned a Cupid-like role, i.e. that of a god of love, his brother is quite the opposite. The blind Höðr was once assisted by Loki in an attempt on Baldur’s life, and Höðr’s half-sister Váli later slew him for his treachery at Odin’s behest.
This is of course merely scratching the surface of the intricate and voluminous tales of the Norse gods, but one tale in particular bears mention for its uniqueness among ancient mythologies.
How many polytheistic mythologies include the story of the death of their primary gods? So it is in Norse mythology, whose poetic Eddas conclude with Ragnarök (or “the fate of the gods”) as a prophecy for Odin and the rest to contemplate.
After the typical sort of Book of Revelations-style shenanigans break out on Earth, Asgard itself comes under attack by an apocalyptic force of giants, dwarves and deities with axes to (literally) grind. In the fight, many of the pantheon die in battle, among them Odin, Thor, Týr and Loki. Earth is meanwhile ravaged by the massive dragon Jörmungandr; the snake’s actions lay waste the world, killing all but two humans, with the beast going on to finish off Thor.
In the wreckage of Ragnarök, the Norse gods will rebuild Asgard, while the surviving human coule will repopulate the reborn Midgard.
With the rise of Christianity in Viking lands, the gods and goddesses of the previous millennium no longer held their positions of mythological privilege, though the more popular figures such as Odin, Thor and Loki were still central figures in folk tales through at least the 17th century.
More dominant in Nordic folklore (for purposes of modern cataloguing, “Nordic folklore” extends from modern-day Scandinavia to include Finland and Iceland) are stories of mystical creatures and their interactions with humans.
Beyond the mermaids common to all seafaring cultures and the witch figures seen throughout European folklore, the more notable (and even influential to the present day) characters in Norse folk tales include:
Well before the internet, trolls were playing terrible tricks on those who simply wished to cross over a bridge under which these ugly little dudes might be living. The trollkonor are witch-like figures and wives of trolls.
Huldra was a daughter of Eve who was the victim of God’s wrath after another attempt at duplicity by Earth’s first mother (she never learned, apparently). When Eve tried to hide her children’s presence, Huldra and some of her siblings were banished to live below the earth as “underground dwellers.” For some reason, Huldra is portrayed as having a bovine tail and was sometimes said to lure men into the forest to steal their souls
The Nisse are elven house spirits capable of much mischief but are easily mollified by a bowl of porridge with butter on Christmas Eve. Many specific folk tales feature the Nisse, such as “The Nisse Who Stole Fodde,” a typical rascally episode featuring one of the little guys robbing from a neighbor to assist his home’s family.
The Nattmara (also known as “she-werewolves”) make for quite a dark tale: The legend goes that a group of peasant women wishing to avoid the pain of childbirth performed a ritualistic ceremony, only to the effect that they would slowly and painfully morph into monster canines every midnight. Naturally (or maybe supernaturally), their daughters have carried on the curse since those bygone days.
The fossegrimen and nøkken similarly use music to entice humans, but to wildly different ends. The fossegrim lives in a waterfall and will assist an aspiring musician in exchange for meat. Nøkken are more akin to sirens, tempting sailors to their death by drawing them into danger with his violin skills.
Finally, there’s the big one – in more ways than one. Not much could scare the Vikings, but a mythological beast known as the Kraken would give any seadog the willies. In modern times alone, the Kraken has been portrayed in dozens of ways, but is typically a nearly-indestructible squid-like monster of impossible size. Geez, the Aesir sure could’ve used this guy during Ragnarök…