To Vikings, their gods and goddesses were as real as the guy who lived down the fjord. They were by no means ethically superior beings, but more like hugely admired super humans who lived and loved, fought and cheated, played tricks on each other and of course, ate and drank mightily in the halls of Valhalla.
The world of the gods was very real, and their help was invoked at all the seasons of life. Before battle, of course, in childbirth, at planting and harvesting time – the gods were interwoven with the needs and dreams of the people. The Norse gods are so very human, that it seems likely that they were based on actual people whose skills and attributes passed into legend as the stories about them were handed down through the generations, and they gradually came to be seen as supreme beings. The gods fight with each other, cheat on each other, and generally behave exactly as badly as any group of human being writ large.
Norse mythology has a complex structure, with a creation story, explanations of natural phenomena, magic, punishment and reward, and of course, and end time story also, the Twilight of the Gods. The Viking gods are a close part of our history, whether we know it or not, and they are preserved in the names of some of the days of our week.
The great father of the gods was of course, Odin, who rides his eight legged charger onto the battlefield in times of need. He has just one eye, having traded the other eye for wisdom. Odin is associated with death and war, but also with music and poetry. (The myths of the gods were of course celebrated in poetry and song in the great halls of the Vikings.)
Odin’s wife is Frigg, and she is associated with the earth, fertility, and the concerns of women. She is the goddess of marriage and of love, but she has a temper, and things are not always calm in the matrimonial household which she shares with Odin. In fact, she at times drives Odin out of the house!
Odin and Frigg’s son is Thor (after whom Thursday – Thor’s Day – is named). Thor’s mighty hammer is heard beating out whenever there is a thunder storm – he is the god of thunder, and also of oak trees, which were deemed sacred in northern Europe. Thor is perhaps surprisingly also associated with the gentler arts of healing, as well as of course with war.
Thor has his own huge house, Bilskinir, which has over six hundred rooms, something which would have been unimaginable to the Vikings who characteristically lived in a house with just one room. As well as his hammer, he wears a magic belt and gloves made of iron – with these three weapons his strength is doubled, and he carries all before him. Thor is the protector of the land of the gods, in particular he protects them from the ever threatening giants.
Baldur the beautiful, son of Odin and Frigg, is associated with sunlight and to some extent, goodness. All the things of the earth swore a vow not to hurt him – all that is, except the mistletoe (which interestingly is a common parasite of the sacred oak). The legends say that Baldur was killed by a stake made from mistletoe.
Baldur’s death can be laid firmly at the feet of one of the most interesting gods – Loki the trickster. He is a shape shifter, a deceiver, and cheats and tricks his way past every obstacle. He often appears in the form of an animal to carry out his plans. He was admired for his trickery, even though he could scarcely have been seen as an admirable character. He is the father of the queen of the underworld, Hel.
Hel rules the underworld, and it was her job to look after those who are sent to her, providing them with food, drink and accommodation. Her skin is said to be blue, the colour of the dead, her realm is vast, and her power is great. The Viking goddesses are always portrayed as having power, perhaps a reflection of the reality of women’s position in Viking society.
Freya the beautiful is a complex goddess, she is associated with death, war and battle, and she is also the one who taught Odin magic. She is the goddess of wealth and fertility, and as such, was especially worshipped by women. And of course, Friday is Freya’s Day.
Vikings believed that if they died in battle, they would go straight to Valhalla, a wonderful great hall where there was feasting, drinking and storytelling in perpetuity. They also believed that if they sacrificed their lives for the good of the group – and human sacrifice was not unknown – they would go directly to this manly paradise. (It’s not clear what paradise would have consisted of for women.)