The Scourge of Europe
The Norse were a resilient, seafaring people who originated in Scandinavia. From the 8th century to the 11th century, they took to the ocean in agile longboats and raided coastal communities all over Europe. These raiders, or Vikings, were known for their ruthless hit-and-run attacks: they would moor their boats at the edge of a town, plunder the buildings with devastating speed, then sail away before the enemy had time to respond.
These attacks gave the Norse a fearsome reputation, but there was more to their lives than violence and warfare. These people were also poets and performers, farmers and fishermen, and the practitioners of a rich and powerful belief system full of gods and giants, elves and dwarves, and worlds of fire and snow.
Today, this belief system is no longer widely practiced, after failing to survive the swelling tide of Christianity. But, despite this decline, we can still see its influence in the modern world. Most English-speakers say the name of a Norse deity at least once per day, while their myths and legends have inspired the creation of some of the most popular pieces of media ever made.
Variations in Worship
The Norse belief system was a folk religion, not an organized one. This meant there was no centralized church, priesthood, or set of practices, and the nature of worship could differ drastically from region to region, village to village and home to home.
There were more than 50 gods in the Norse pantheon, and different communities would devote their lives to whichever god felt most relevant to them. For example, a farming community might focus their worship upon a god of fertility, whereas a band of warriors would be more likely to worship a god of war.
But, despite these differences, there were some core beliefs which the majority of the Norse seemed to have in common, such as their ideas concerning the nature of the cosmos, the role of the gods, and the existence of supernatural beings. These fundamental principles were passed from person to person in the form of stories and poems, and many of these ideas thrived in Scandinavia for hundreds of years.
According to Old Norse legends, the first beings to exist in the cosmos, before the appearance of gods and humans and other races, were the jötnar. The first jötunn was called Ymir, and he was formed from the meltwater of a frozen river.
The word ‘jötnar’ is often translated as ‘giants,’ but there is no evidence to indicate that the jötnar were supposed to be large in size. For example, the Prose Edda, a 13th century text, describes how Ymir had “a man’s form.” Because of this, it makes more sense to refer to these beings by the Norse word, jötnar, rather than trying to find an English equivalent.
While the jötnar may have been human in form, they were far from human in nature. Some texts depict them as savage and monstrous, eating the flesh of men and horses. However, it is important to note that the Norse did not view them as evil beings. The people of Scandinavia generally believed that good and evil were subjective principles; one person’s ‘good’ was simply another person’s ‘evil,’ and it would be wrong to place the jötnar in either one of these categories.
Æsir and Vanir
The Norse believed that the first ever god was found embedded in a salt lick by a hungry cow. This god had a son, who bred with a jötunn, and their descendants branched out into 2 distinct tribes. One of these tribes was the Æsir, who were fierce and proud, riding into battles with swords, axes and hammers. The other was the Vanir, who were more peaceful and magical, often associated with the natural world.
There was no sense that either the Æsir or the Vanir were more powerful than the other, but they did have different strengths and weaknesses, and each Norse community would bear this in mind when deciding which tribe to favor. For example, a group of Vikings might be drawn toward the warfaring Æsir, whereas a group of farmers would probably worship the Vanir instead.
The relationship between the Æsir and the Vanir was changeable. There are stories of wars between the 2 groups, but also marriages and alliances. The relationship between gods and jötnar was more consistently hostile, but also dotted with examples of marriages, friendships and interbreeding.
The Norse did not think that humans were alone in the cosmos. As well as gods and jötnar, they believed in several races of supernatural beings, including dwarves, elves and trolls. Some of these races lived in the human world, while others had separate worlds of their own.
Norse mythology also had a vibrant tapestry of mythical beasts. One of these was Fenrir, a monstrous wolf, who once managed to bite off the hand of a god. Another was Jörmungandr, a sea serpent so large that he could coil his body around the entire world. Níðhöggr was a giant dragon, and Auðumbla was a cow who fed the first jötunn, and discovered the first god inside a salt lick.
Another creature was Hafgufa, a many-tentacled sea monster who was large enough to swallow a ship. Unlike the others, the Norse did not think this creature was divine or otherworldly. To them, it was as real as a whale or a squid, and many sailors claimed to have seen it for themselves.
Yggdrasil: the World Tree
The Norse believed that the cosmos was divided into 9 realms. One of these was Asgard, home to the Æsir. Another was Vanaheim, home to the Vanir. Jotunheim was the home of jötnar, while Midgard was the home of humans. The other realms were Alfheim, Muspelheim, Nidavellir, Niflheim, and Helheim. All of these places were clustered around Yggdrasil, a giant, cosmic tree, whose roots and branches connected and supported the different realms.
Unfortunately, none of this is described in much detail by Old Norse sources. The idea of Yggdrasil was so popular and well-established that few writers believed that it needed explaining. In a similar way, a modern writer might not bother to explain that the Earth orbits around the sun; they take it for granted that the reader will know this already.
This approach has left a number of holes in our modern understanding of Norse cosmology. For example, although the name of the place is mentioned in several sources, there is no surviving description of the realm of Vanaheim. Unless a new source surfaces in the future, we will never know how the Norse conceived of this realm.
The Concept of Self
When considering what it means to be a person, some religions think in terms of 2 distinct parts: the body and the soul, together representing a person’s self. For the Norse, however, the situation was a lot more complicated. They conceived of the self in 4 parts, which were often present all together, but which could also function separately.
The first of these was the Hugr, or ‘mind,’ which loosely represented a person’s personality. The Norse believed that the Hugr could separate from the rest of the self when a person was asleep or in a trance. Second was the Hamr, or ‘shape.’ This was the physical appearance of a person, but it wasn’t necessarily fixed. The Norse believed in shapeshifters, or hamrammr, who could change their external form.
The third part of the self was the Fylgja, or ‘follower.’ This was an external companion which often took the form of an animal, such as a cat or a raven, and which were invisible to most people, but not to everyone. Finally, the Norse believed in the Hamingja, or ‘luck,’ which was a guardian spirit who determined whether a person was lucky and happy in their life. The Hamingja was always female, even when the rest of the person was not.
Life after Death
Norse beliefs on life after death were far from simple. The 4 parts of the self could travel to the afterlife together, or separately, or not at all. Sometimes, a person’s Hamingja, or ‘luck,’ would pass to a newborn relative, especially if that relative had the same name as the deceased. At other times, the Hugr, or ‘mind,’ would remain locked within a corpse, and become a ‘mound-dweller’ trapped inside their grave.
For the parts of a person which did make it to the afterlife, they could end up in a number of locations. When a warrior died in battle, they could go to one of two places: Valhalla was the ‘Hall of Heroes,’ while Folkvangr was the ‘Field of the People.’ Drowned sailors, on the other hand, would go to the Realm of Rán, a coral cave system at the bottom of the ocean.
Most other people would go to Hel, a dark, gray, underworld. ‘Hel’ translates as ‘hidden place,’ a meaning which is shared with the Christian word ‘Hell,’ but it is unclear which word came first, or whether either influenced the other. Within Hel was a place called Náströnd, or ‘Corpse Shore,’ where murderers and adulterers were sent. Náströnd was a place of eternal suffering, where Níðhöggr the dragon would chew on the inhabitants until the end of time.
Spread across Europe
The Norse people, and their mythology, may have originated in Scandinavia, but, over hundreds of years, their ideas spread elsewhere. This was only natural for a seafaring people who engaged in so much exploration, colonization, and trade.
For instance, after the Roman Empire pulled out from Britain in 410 CE, a number of tribes from Scandinavia and Northern Germany moved in to take their place. These tribes were collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, and they brought their gods with them. A corrupted version of Norse mythology became a dominant force in the country, and traces of its influence can still be seen in the names of landmarks throughout modern Britain.
In around 874 CE, the Norse also colonized Iceland, constructing a brand new society on the previously uninhabited island. The people of Iceland wrote extensive accounts of Norse mythology, which are important sources for historians today. Without the colonization of Iceland, and the creation of sources which followed it, modern understanding of Norse mythology would be significantly less complete.
A Visit to America
Christopher Columbus is usually given the credit for being the first non-native to visit the Americas, after stumbling across the Bahamas during a voyage in 1492 CE. However, there is evidence to suggest that Norsemen set foot on the American continent almost 500 years earlier.
Norse stories, or sagas, talk about Leif Eriksson, a man who sailed to a land in the distant west. At first, he encountered a gray, uninteresting island, which he called Helluland, or ‘Land of Flat Rocks.’ After that, he traveled south, and found a more plentiful location full of luscious meadows and wild grapes. He named this second location Vinland, or ‘Land of Wine.’
For many years, modern historians thought that Helluland and Vinland were only legends. But, in 1960, a pair of Norwegian explorers, Helge and Anne Ingstad, found the remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland, Canada. The buildings dated back to around 1000 CE, and matched descriptions of Eriksson’s voyage.
This could have been an opportunity for Norse mythology to spread into a new continent, just as it spread across Europe. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Norse ideas were adopted by natives in the region.