In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!
(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)
NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.
Opening the Word-Hoard*
Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:
- First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
- Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
- I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
- I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.
Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.
Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!
I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.
I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.
Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).
The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).
Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.
Norse Cultural Values 101
For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.
Resilience / Fatalism
One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:
We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)
So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,
We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)
To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.
The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.
No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)
Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.
Humor and cleverness
One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.
For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.
(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)
Sadness / Emotional expression
I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.
My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.
Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.
Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)
Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:
So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.
I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.
I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)
There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.
A brief note about that fairy tale book…
Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.
Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.
As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.
When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)
Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.
Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)
*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂