Days of the Week
From 43 CE to 410 CE, England was part of the Roman Empire. The official language was Latin, and the days of the week were named after Roman gods. In many European languages, such as French and Spanish, that is still the case. Tuesday is named after Mars (mardi and martes in French and Spanish, respectively). Wednesday is named after Mercury (mercredi and miércoles), Thursday is named after Jove (jeudi and jueves), and Friday is named after Venus (vendredi and viernes).
However, when the Romans left Britain, they were replaced by the Anglo-Saxons. Many of them brought Norse mythology with them, and some days of the week were changed. Tuesday, for example, is Týr’s Day. Wednesday is Odin’s Day, or Wodin’s Day, a name by which he was also known. Thursday is Thor’s Day, and Friday is Frigg’s Day. All of this means that, even though the Norse gods are only worshiped by a few thousand people today, their names are still spoken, in the days of the week, by millions of people every day.
The other days of the week still have Roman origins. Monday is named after the moon, Sunday is named after the sun, and Saturday is named after Saturn.
We can see the influence of Norse mythology in a number of place names throughout Scandinavia. Odense is the third largest city in Denmark, and named after Odin. The capital of the Faroe Islands is Tórshavn, or ‘Thor’s Haven,’ In Sweden, Fröslunda, Frösåker, Frösön, Fröseke, Frösve, and Frösakull are all named after Freyr.
Theophoric place names can also be found outside of Scandinavia. In Britain, for example, 39 places are named after Odin, or Wodin, including Wanstead, Wanston, and Wambrook. Many of the people who live in these locations have no idea that their hometown is named after a Norse god.
The prevalence of different names in different areas is a useful tool for historians. For example, almost all the locations with Týr in their name are in Denmark, whereas the locations with Freyr in their name are in Norway and Sweden. As for Odin and Thor, their names can be found in all 3 countries. These distribution patterns tell us a lot about the popularity of each god in different geographical regions.
The English language is dotted with words which owe their origins to Norse mythology.
For example, a lesser known creature in the Norse belief system was something called a mare. This demonic beast would sit on the chest of a sleeping individual, and when that person woke up, they would be exhausted and sweat-drenched, with their hair all tangled into knots. The modern word ‘nightmare’ is a reference to this creature, but most people are unaware of the connection.
Norse mythology is also the source of the word ‘troll,’ with the Prose Edda describing an encounter between a human rider and an aggressive troll woman, who is probably a type of jötnar. In recent years, the word ‘troll’ has enjoyed a resurgence, often being used to describe an internet user who posts inflammatory comments online. Not many people will consciously associate the word with Norse mythology, but that is where it originally came from.
JRR Tolkien, the distinguished author of The Lord of the Rings, was also a professor of language and history. When he was working at Leeds University in the 1920s, he started a society called The Viking Club, where he and his colleagues would study Norse mythology. These studies left a mark on Tolkien, and Norse mythology came to heavily influence his writing.
The Lord of the Rings includes the mythical races of elves and dwarves. Tolkien’s elves had magical powers and supernatural beauty, just like the elves described in the Prose Edda, while his dwarves lived deep underground and were accomplished metalworkers, just like the Poetic Edda’s dwarves. Tolkien also explained that the character of Gandalf, a wise old man with god-like powers, was inspired by tales of Odin, while Middle Earth, where the story is set, is a reference to the realm of Midgard.
All of these links to Norse mythology proved strikingly popular with readers. In a list of the bestselling books of all time, The Lord of the Rings comes in third.
During the 1960s, a new superhero comic was launched in America by Marvel Comics: The Mighty Thor. In this comic, the hero was a god from Asgard who traveled to Earth to protect humanity. He carried a magical hammer named Mjöllnir, just like the Thor in Norse mythology, while his parents were Odin and Frigg.
These comics proved wildly successful, and new editions are still being published today. The comics are not entirely loyal to Old Norse sources, but they do draw heavily upon the subject material. In various editions, the comic book Thor has teamed up with the characters of Loki, Heimdall and Baldur. He has gone to war against Surtr the fire jötunn and Jörmungandr the world serpent. He has visited Helheim, traveled to Nidavellir, and fought against dark elves.
Looking back on all this in 2002, the creator of the comic, Stan Lee, had this to say: “I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends.”
In recent years, the film industry has profited from Norse mythology. The Lord of the Rings was adapted into a trilogy of films, the third of which won eleven Oscars, which no other film in the history of the awards has bettered. As for The Mighty Thor comics, his character became an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has made more money than any other film franchise in history.
Earlier than all that, in the 1930s, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These dwarves were miners, like the dwarves in Norse mythology, but that is where the parallels end. Apparently, when Tolkien first watched the film, he was horrified by the inaccurate treatment of the dwarves, with slapstick humor, childish personalities, and work-time whistling.
The names of the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings and Snow White is a useful demonstration of Tolkien and Disney’s differing approaches to Norse mythology. Tolkien took the names of his dwarves from the Poetic Edda, remaining carefully loyal to the source material. The Disney dwarves, on the other hand, were arbitrarily called Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy, and Dopey.
Richard Wagner, the German composer, was heavily influenced by Norse mythology. One of his most famous works, Der Ring des Nibelungen, adapted several Norse myths into the medium of opera, and included the characters of Odin, Frigg and Freya, plus several Valkyries, and a distorted retelling of the events of Ragnarök. This opera was first performed in 1869, and remains popular among audiences today.
Unfortunately, Der Ring des Nibelungen is the source of one of the most enduring misconceptions about the Norse people: that their helmets were adorned with long, curved horns. This detail was invented by Wagner’s costume designer, Carl Emil Doepler, without being based on any historical evidence. Historical drawings show that Norse warriors wore simple iron caps.
Despite this inaccuracy, Der Ring des Nibelungen is still a striking example of Norse mythology influencing the modern world. One of the songs in the opera, The Ride of the Valkyries, is one of the most iconic pieces of music ever composed. The Norse belief system may no longer be widely worshiped, but there is no denying its enduring impact on the world today.