Teutonic religion extended through Germany, Scandinavia, and England in the Dark Ages, and as Christianity supplanted it the old gods and rites were destroyed and forgotten. Much of our knowledge of this religion stems from The Elder Edda and The Younger Edda, which were compiled in Iceland during the Middle Ages. The Eddas project a stern and gloomy view of the cosmos and of man's role in it.
The world was created when Odin and his brothers slew the primeval Frost-Giant Ymir, and it will come to an end when the Giants rise against Odin and his comrades and kill them in battle. Certain doom awaits the gods and men alike, but in the face of that doom the one noble activity is war, and to die courageously fighting was the only way to enter Valhalla, the warrior's paradise. Love in the Norse tales was often accompanied by murderous passions, and treachery was commonplace. The world here is a hard, cold, bitter place in which to live.
Despite the starkness of this picture the Norsemen took intense pleasure from such things as friendship, drinking and eating, making love, outwitting strangers, avenging wrongs, and fighting bravely. They were a fierce, hard-headed race, and their myths take no pains to conceal it.
We will examine the creation and destruction of the universe, some tales of the gods, and the epic stories of Beowulf, the Volsungs, and Sigurd. These will give a more vivid and detailed version of how the Norsemen saw the world and what they valued.
Supernatural Races in Norse Myth
The Aesir were the primary race of gods, which included Odin, Thor, Tyr, Balder, and Heimdall, among others. They lived in Asgard and held temporary power over the cosmos. Aging like mortals, these gods renewed their youth by eating magic apples. Their reign would end and they would die at Ragnarok, when evil overcomes good in a final battle.
The Vanir were a secondary race of gods, not essentially different from the Aesir. In ancient times the Vanir and the Aesir battled one another until a compromise was reached in which the Vanir were admitted into Asgard. Among these gods were Frey and his beautiful sister Freya.
The Giants, whether Frost-Giants or Mountain-Giants, were terrible magicians who lived at Jötunheim, engaged in contests with the gods, and would shatter the cosmos at Ragnarok.
The Dwarves were a subterranean race of craftsmen.
The Valkyries, "choosers of the slain," were female warriors who selected brave mortal fighters who died in battle to live in Valhalla in Asgard. Attendants of Odin, the Valkyries were also immortal waitresses that refilled the drinking cups in Valhalla. They were visible only to men about to die fighting.
The Major Norse Gods
Odin (Woden, Wotan) was the chief god, a master of wisdom, magic, and poetry. A protector of courageous noblemen in war, he was also the god of the slain. Odin was blind in one eye, wore a golden breastplate and helmet, carried a magic spear, and rode an incredibly swift, eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. On his shoulders perched two ravens, Hugin and Munin (thought and memory), that flew throughout the world and reported everything to him each night.
Frigga was Odin's wife, who was also wise. She protected brave warriors whom Odin neglected. Both Frigga and Odin had extramarital sexual encounters.
Thor was the god of thunder, a powerful deity, upright in character but fearsome to his enemies. He protected peasant warriors and possessed a belt that doubled his strength, iron gloves, and a magic hammer, Mjölnir, which always struck its target and returned to Thor's hand.
Balder, the son of Odin and Frigga, was especially favored and loved by nearly every being in the world, but he was the first god to die, killed by Loki's treachery.
Tyr presided over public assemblies, legal matters, and battles. His hand was bitten off by Fenrir the wolf, a monstrous enemy of the gods.
Frey was the god of vegetation and fertility.
Freya, his sister, was the goddess of love and beauty.
Heimdall was the watchman of the gods, stationed on the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, that led to Asgard. His trumpet would announce doomsday.
Loki, although allowed in Asgard, was the son of a Giant. Full of malice and cunning, he perpetrated much mischief until the gods bound him in a cavern with a venomous serpent to torment him. He fathered three mighty monsters, including Fenrir the wolf and the Midgard Serpent.
Hel was goddess of the netherworld, and half her face had human features while the other half was blank. She ruled the dead.
Creation and Catastrophe
At first there was only a great void. But to the North of this void there formed a region of mist and ice, while to the South grew a region of fire. Niflheim was the name of the North, and Muspellsheim of the South; and the heat from the latter melted some of the ice of the former, which shaped Ymir, the Frost-Giant with a human form. From Ymir's sweat came the race of Giants, and as the glacial ice melted further a huge cow was created to feed the Giants. This cow in turn was fed by salt contained in the ice. One day it licked the ice and hair emerged, on the next day a head, and on the third day Bur emerged, fully formed. Bur had a son, Buri, who had three sons — Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three were a new race, not Giants but gods. They banded together and murdered Ymir. Most of the other Giants drowned in Ymir's blood, which created a great sea. From Ymir's body the three gods made solid land, the earth, and from Ymir's skull they made the vault of the heavens. Odin and his brothers then created the race of dwarves from the maggots in Ymir's body. Other gods joined these three, and together they erected Asgard and all its halls to be their own home.
Having established their supremacy, the gods made the first mortals, shaping a man from an ash tree and a woman from a vine. The gods bestowed breath, energy, a soul, reason, warmth, and freshness on this first couple. And from their male descendants Odin chose only the bravest to live in Asgard after they died, for these warriors would aid him in the final showdown with the forces of evil.
The cosmos was supported by a tremendous ash tree, Yggdrasil. One of its roots extended to Niflheim, which was the netherworid; another to Jötunheim, the dwelling place of Giants; another to Midgard, the home of man; and one to Asgard, the home of the gods. In its upper branches lived a squirrel and an eagle, while at its rootage lived the serpent Nidhögg, which gnawed away, until at the end of time the whole structure would collapse. In the meantime the Norns, or Fates, watered the tree to keep it from dying.
Odin knew the power of the gods was not eternal, for he and his comrades would die when the Giants and demons rose against them. The last fight would take place at Vigrid, a field one hundred miles in length and breadth. Odin would be swallowed by Fenrir the wolf, but his son would avenge him. Thor and the Midgard Serpent would destroy each other; so would Loki and Heimdall; and Tyr would slay Garm, the fierce dog of Niflheim, and be clawed to death in turn. The stars and all heavenly bodies would plummet from the sky as the earth sank beneath the sea. The twilight of the gods would become night, and the universe would exist no more.
Yet there still existed a power, the Nameless One, that would give birth to a new world beyond the edge of time.