An Introduction to Norse Mythology

Thanks to popular culture, many have heard of Thor, Odin, Loki, and the other gods and goddesses associated with the Norse mythological tradition. But are their representations in movies, comic books, and TV shows anything like the original myths?

The answer is yes, and no. While the characters of Norse mythology do often strongly resemble their pop culture counterparts, there are many key differences. Let’s dive into some information about the content and origins of Norse mythology.

Where does Norse mythology come from?

Norse mythology originated in the pagan, pre-Christian belief system of the North Germanic peoples, who are commonly known as the Norse. These people originated in northern Europe and spoke the Old Norse language, which is the predecessor of modern Germanic languages. 

Our knowledge of Norse mythology stems mainly from two historical sources: the Prose Edda, compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century, and the Poetic Edda, an older collection of narrative poems. These works were written down long after the end of the Viking Age, mostly by Christian scholars who may have altered some of the original oral tradition as they wrote it down. But it can be difficult to determine what was altered, or by how much. 

Other sources and verifications of the myths stem from the histories (sagas) of various Norse families, as well as a number of runestones and other archaeological artifacts.

Is Norse mythology Viking?

Yes. “Viking” commonly refers to those seafaring Norse explorers who raided and settled many areas throughout Europe. Fun fact: The word “viking” actually had two related meanings—to describe both a person (víkingr, a seafaring traveler/adventurer) and an activity (víking, the act of traveling or participating in a seafaring adventure). 

How many gods and goddesses are in Norse mythology?

As many as 66 different gods and goddesses are recognizable in Norse lore. There are two main groups of Norse gods: The Aesir, considered the principal pantheon, and the Vanir, a secondary group associated with nature and fertility. Legend has it that the Aesir and Vanir once waged war against each other, eventually coming to a truce and uniting together.

Who is the main god in Norse mythology?

Here are several of the most prominent gods:

  • Odin: The Allfather, the one-eyed leader of the Aesir. He sacrificed himself to himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to gain knowledge of the runes, and also gave his eye at Mimir’s well for more wisdom—all in an attempt to prevent the onset of Ragnarök, the apocalypse in Norse myth. Half of those who die in battle are sent to his hall in Valhalla, where they fight to the death each day and feast through the night.
  • Thor: The red-haired and red-bearded son of Odin—not blond, despite his Marvel depiction. Generally depicted as the brawniest of the Aesir, he is the chief enemy of the Jötnar (giants), the archrivals of the Norse gods. His hammer, Mjolnir, is one of the most famous weapons in Norse lore. 
  • Loki: Not a son of Odin, but actually his sworn brother. A cunning trickster who spends as much time getting the gods into trouble as he does getting them out of it, he has the ability to change his shape, as well as his sex. Eventually he is punished for his crimes by being bound to a rock for eternity, with poison dripping from the fangs of a snake into his face—that is, until Ragnarök, when both he and his children play key roles in the end of times.
  • Tyr: The god of law and justice, he sacrificed his right hand during the binding of the great wolf Fenris, son of Loki, in an attempt to prevent the wolf’s prophesied participation in Ragnarök. Some scholars believe that Tyr may have had a higher position in the pantheon of gods during an earlier age. 

Other famous gods include Freyr, one of the Vanir and a god of fertility and the harvest; Heimdall, the guardian standing watch over the Bifrost (the bridge to the home of the Aesir in Asgard); and Balder, a god beloved by all, whose death due to Loki’s scheming is one of the central stories of Norse mythology and begins the chain of events leading to Ragnarök.

Who are the main goddesses in Norse mythology?

Here are a few of the most central goddesses in Norse myth:

  • Frigg: The wife of Odin and queen of Asgard. She is the goddess of marriage, motherhood, and the family. Known as a prophetess, she foresaw the death of her son Balder, and made every living being in the nine realms swear they would never harm him—except for the mistletoe plant.
  • Freya: One of the Vanir and the twin sister to Freyr. She is the goddess of love, beauty, and magic (seiðr), and several Norse myths center around attempts for her hand in marriage. The other half of those warriors who die in battle are sent to her hall at Fólkvangr
  • Hel: Daughter of Loki, she rules over the underworld, which is named after her. All those who do not die in battle are sent to her halls, including Balder, whose story she figures in prominently. 

Other famous goddesses include Idun, whose apples preserve the youth of the gods; Eir, a goddess of healing; and Skadi, goddess of the hunt and of skiing.

What is the most famous Norse myth?

The tale of Ragnarök, the end of the world in Norse mythology, is the story that much of Norse mythology centers around. Odin’s chief goal is to prevent Ragnarök, but much of what he does to stop it ends up bringing it about anyway. Nearly all the gods are killed in the battle: Odin leads the Einherjar of Valhalla into battle but is swallowed by Fenris, who is then killed by Odin’s son, Vidar; Thor kills and is killed by Jormungandr, the World Serpent (another son of Loki’s); and Loki and Heimdall kill each other. Only a handful of the gods survive, and are joined by Balder, who comes back from the dead to help rebuild the world. 

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