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Nordic FAQ - 2 of 7 - NORDEN
Section - 2.4 What do we know about Scandinavian mythology?

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   Not very much, I'm afraid, and we're lucky to know even as much as we
   do. For example, most of the ancient poems about pagan deities
   (they're the most authentic source of Norse mythology) that survived
   to this date are from a certain book called Codex Regius, the only
   extant copy of which was rescued in half-rotten condition from an
   abandoned Icelandic barn in the 17th century.
  2.4.1 Short introduction to the sources
   Although the Vikings were, in theory, a literate people, the runic
   script was never used for anything more complicated than a few
   sentences, usually commemorating some person or event, e.g "Bjorn had
   these runes carved in the memory of Hofdi. He died in Särkland." The
   runestones and other archaeological material offer clues as to the
   nature of the Norse religion, and there are some accounts by Christian
   and Moslem contemporaries of the Vikings -- e.g the bishop of Hamburg,
   Adam von Bremen, and the Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan -- but the main
   sources of information are the Eddas, written down in Iceland in the
   early middle ages. The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems on
   mythological themes by anonymous poets; even more important is the
   Prose Edda written by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson in about
   1220, which is a collection of old heathen myths in prose form. For
   more about sagas and Eddas, see section 5.5. The medieval Danish
   historian Saxo Grammaticus can also be mentioned, but he is less
   reliable and perhaps less interesting to read.
   The problem with those sources is that they were written down hundreds
   of years after the conversion of Scandinavians to Christianity, indeed
   some of the authors (e.g Saxo) were members of the Catholic clergy,
   and their work is to some extent influenced by Christian and classical
   ideas. Also, the picture given is no doubt biased towards the
   particular form of pagan religion practiced in Iceland; while the main
   deities Odin, Thor and Freyr seem to have been worshiped all over
   Scandinavia, there must have been a lot of local variation, local
   deities, differences in emphasis given to the main deities and their
   aspects, etc.
   Nevertheless, the stories of the Eddas have become a common cultural
   heritage of the Scandinavian countries, and at least a basic knowledge
   of it is a must for anybody interested in Scandinavian culture.
   The following summary of the main features of Scandinavian mythology
   is taken from the excellent book Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by
   H.R.Ellis Davidson, 1964, pages 26-30, Penguin Books.
  2.4.2 The World Tree Yggdrasill
   This world had for its centre a great tree, a mighty ash called
   Yggdrasill. So huge was this tree that its branches stretched out over
   heaven and earth alike. Three roots supported the great trunk, and one
   passed into the realm of the Aesir, a second into that of the
   frost-giants, and a third into the realm of the dead. Beneath the root
   in giant-land was the spring of Mimir, whose waters contained wisdom
   and understanding. Odin had given one of his eyes to drink a single
   draught of that precious water.
   Below the tree in the kingdom of the Aesir was the sacred spring of
   fate, the Well of Urd. Here every day the gods assembled for their
   court of law, to settle disputes and discuss common problems. All came
   on horseback except Thor, who preferred to wade through the rivers
   that lay in his path, and they were led by Odin on the finest of all
   steeds, the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. The gods galloped over the
   bridge Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that glowed with fire. They alone
   might cross it, and the giants who longed to do so were held back.
   Near the spring of fate dwelt three maidens called the Norns, who
   ruled the destinies of men, and were called Fate (Urdr), Being
   (Verdandi), and Necessity (Skuld). They watered the tree each day with
   pure water and whitened it with clay from the spring, and in this way
   preserved its life, while the water fell down to earth as dew.
   The tree was continually threatened, even as it grew and flourished,
   by the living creatures that preyed upon it. On the topmost bough sat
   an eagle, with a hawk perched on its forehead: the same eagle,
   perhaps, of whom it is said that the flapping of its wings caused the
   winds in the world of men. At the root of the tree lay a great
   serpent, with many scores of lesser snakes, and these gnawed
   continually at Yggdrasill. The serpent was at war with the eagle, and
   a nimble squirrel ran up and down the tree, carrying insults from one
   to the other. Horned creatures, harts and goats, devoured the branches
   and tender shoots of the tree, leaping at it from every side.
  2.4.3 The Creation of the world
   The tree formed a link between the different worlds. We are never told
   of its beginning, but of the creation of the worlds of which it formed
   a centre there is much to tell. In the beginning there were two
   regions: Muspell in the south, full of brightness and fire; and a
   world of snow and ice in the north. Between them stretched the great
   emptiness of Ginnungagap. As the heat and the cold met in the midst of
   the expanse, a living creature appeared in the melting ice, called
   Ymir. He was a great giant, and from under his left arm grew the first
   man and woman, while from his two feet the family of frost-giants was
   begotten. Ymir fed upon the milk of a cow called Audhumla, who licked
   the salty ice-blocks and released another new being, a man called
   Buri. He had a son called Bor, and the sons of Bor were the three
   gods, Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three slew Ymir the ancient giant, and
   all the frost-giants save one, Bergelmir, were drowned in his surging
   blood. From Ymir's body they formed the world of men:
     ... from his blood the sea and the lakes, from his flesh the earth,
     and from his bones the mountains; from his teeth and jaws and such
     bones as were broken they formed the rocks and the pebbles.
   From Ymir's skull they made the dome of sky, placing a dwarf to
   support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the
   earth. This world of men was protected from the giants by a wall, made
   from the eyebrows of Ymir, and was called Midgard. The gods created
   inhabitants for it from two trees on the sea-shore, which became a man
   and a woman. They gave to them spirit and understanding, the power of
   movement, and the use of senses. They created also the dwarfs,
   creatures with strange names, who bred in the earth like maggots, and
   dwelt in hills and rocks. These were skilled craftsmen, and it was
   they who wrought the great treasures of the gods. The gods caused time
   to exist, sending Night and Day to drive round the heavens in chariots
   drawn by swift horses. Two fair children, a girl called Sun and a boy
   called Moon, were also set by them on paths across the sky. Sun and
   Moon had to drive fast because they were pursued by wolves, who meant
   to devour them. On the day when the greatest of the wolves succeeded
   in swallowing the Sun, the end of all things would be at hand.
  2.4.4 Asgard, the realm of the Gods
   Once heaven and earth were formed, it was time to set about the
   building of Asgard, the realm of the gods. Here there were many
   wonderful halls, in which the gods dwelt. Odin himself lived in
   Valaskjalf, a hall roofed with silver, where he could sit in his
   special seat and view all the worlds at once. He had another hall
   called Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where he offered hospitality
   to all those who fell in battle. Each night they feasted on pork that
   never gave out, and on mead which flowed instead of milk from the
   udders of the goat Heidrun, one of the creatures that fed upon
   Yggdrasill. Odin's guests spent the day in fighting, and all who fell
   in the combat were raised again in the evening to feast with the rest.
   Horns of mead were carried to them by the Valkyries, the maids of
   Odin, who had also to go down to the battlefields of earth and decide
   the course of war, summoning fallen warriors to Valhalla. Somewhere in
   Asgard there was a building with a roof of gold, called Gimli, to
   which it was said that righteous men went after death. There were
   other realms beyond Asgard, like Alfheim, where the fair elves lived,
   and as many as three heavens, stretching one beyond the other.
  2.4.5 The Gods
   As to the gods who dwelt in Asgard, Snorri twice gives their number as
   twelve, excluding Odin himself. Odin was the father and head of the
   Aesir; he was called All-Father, but had many other names, among them
   One-Eyed, God of the Hanged, God of Cargoes, and Father of Battle. He
   journeyed far and wide over the earth, and had two ravens to bring him
   tidings from afar. His eldest son was Thor, whose mother was Earth.
   Thor was immensely strong, and drove in a chariot drawn by goats. He
   possessed three great treasures: the hammer Mjollnir, which could slay
   giants and shatter rocks; a belt of power which doubled his strength;
   and iron gloves with which to grasp the terrible hammer.
   Another son of Odin was Balder, said to be the fairest of all and most
   deserving of praise; he was white of skin and bright-haired, and was
   both wise and merciful. The gods Njord and Freyr were also dwellers in
   Asgard, but were not of the race of the Aesir. Njord came of the
   Vanir, and was sent to Asgard as a hostage when the two races were at
   war, and Freyr was his son. Njord controlled the winds and the sea,
   helped in fishing and seafaring, and brought men wealth, while Freyr
   gave sunshine and rain and the gifts of peace and plenty. Freyr
   possessed the ship Skithblathnir, large enough to hold all the gods,
   but small enough when folded to lie in a pouch, and also a wonderful
   boar with golden bristles.
   Another god was Tyr, who could give victory in battle, and it was he
   who bound the monster Fenrir and was left as a result with only one
   hand. There was also Bragi, who was skilled in the use of words and in
   making poetry. We hear, too, of Heimdall, who was called the white
   god, and was said to be the son of nine maidens. His dwelling was
   beside the rainbow bridge, for he acted as the gods' warden, guarding
   heaven from the frost-giants. He could see for an immense distance,
   while his ears were sharp enough to catch the sound of grass growing
   on earth, and wool on sheep. He owned the Gjallarhorn, whose ringing
   blast could be heard through all the worlds.
   There was also among the gods Loki, the son of a giant, who was
   handsome to look upon but given to evil ways. He was a cunning
   schemer, who both helped and hindered the gods, and he gave birth to
   the wolf Fenrir, to the World Serpent, and to Hel, the ruler of the
   land of death. These were the chief of gods, and beside them were
   others of whom we know little: Ull, a famous archer and skier,
   Forseti, the son of Balder and a good law-giver, Hoder, a blind god,
   and Hoenir, who was sometimes the companion of Odin and Loki in their
   wanderings. The sons of the great gods, like Vali, Vidar, and Magni,
   had special parts to play, for they were to inherit the world of
   Asgard when the older generation had perished.
  2.4.6 The Goddesses
   There were also certain mighty goddesses. Frigg was the wife of Odin,
   and like him knew the future of gods and men. Freyja was Freyr's twin
   sister, and the most renowned of all the goddesses; she helped in
   affairs of love and had some power over the dead. She drove in a
   chariot drawn by cats. Freyja was said to have husband called Od, who
   left her to weep tears of red gold at his disappearance. Skadi, the
   wife of Njord, came from the mountains to marry the sea god. The
   marriage was not a success, because neither was willing to live away
   from home, and in the end Skadi went back to the hills, where she went
   on skis and hunted with the bow. Bragi's wife was Idun, who had one
   important part to play: she guarded the apples of immortality, on
   which the gods feasted in order to keep their perpetual youth. Other
   goddesses are little more than names. Thor's wife, Skif, had wonderful
   golden hair. Balder's wife was Nanna, and Loki's Sigyn, while Gna and
   Fulla are mentioned as servants of Frigg. There is also Gefion, to
   whom unmarried girls went after death.
   ... do you want to know more?
   The Luleå University has a web-site with more information at

[ the sections above are available at the www-page ]

  2.4.7 Trolls and other beings
   Except for the Gods, who haven't belonged to the Nordic reallity for
   centuries, there are some other important beings:

   Sw: tomte
   Fi: tonttu
   Sw: gårdbo
   Da: nisse
   Tomten is a shy, solitary and longlived human-like being, very bound
   to the ground of his. Tomten regards the humans as temporary lodgers
   in his domain. Tomtar are not known to reside in urban settings, but a
   few less reliable reports say that Tomtar might dwell in the Woods as
   Tomten is known to form families, but very little is known about the
   female tomte, Tomtemor. Tomte-children do not approach humans.
   Although he is more keen on the animals than on the humans, his
   guardiance can, if he is friendly disposed, be very valuable for the
   humans too. In case of fire or other dangers he can take help by the
   humans by alarming or wakening up the master of the house. A few less
   reliable reports say that Tomtar might dwell in the Woods as well.
   To show the tomte appropriate respect is very important. Otherwise he
   would get averse and cause misfortune; and the humans could be forced
   to move on. Misdeeds from children or negligent employees the tomte
   might punish directly. The Nordic version of Sancta Claus is dressed
   as a Tomte of human size.
   For drawings of tomtar and trolls, you could for instance examine the
   drawings by Hasse Bredenberg at

   Vättar are smallish guardians, maybe distantly related to the tomte.
   Families living under stones, in the ground, guarding a wood, an
   island or certain places. They dislike foreigners but are in principle
   Sw: gårdsvättar
   Fi: maahinen
   Families living under dwelling-houses or maybe beneath the stable.
   Vättar like cleanliness, order and warmth. They are said to move from
   a house if abandoned by the people and thereby made cold, but they
   might also get angered if rainwater or sink-water leak in to their
   When provoked they might cause illness, particularly among the

   Sw: dvärgar
   Fi: kääpiö
   Dwarfs are social human-like male beings of asexual generation, living
   in mountains and mines. They are very fond of metals and beautiful
   stones, and can get hostile when disturbed or robbed. It's dubious if
   they are seen in recent years.

   Gnomes are smallish men who mostly dwells on the European continent
   and only rarely visit our northern latitudes. The gnome travels alone
   through the earth as fishes swim through water. He guards the
   treasures hidden in the earth and mountains.

   It's unclear whether Huldra, Vittra and Näcken are to group together
   or not, but they seem all somehow to support the Nature and its
   animals against the dangerous humans.
   No: huldra
   Sw: skogsrå
   Fi: metsänhaltija
   Huldror and skogsrån (wood nymphs) are solitary female beings of
   extreme beauty, but without a spine (being "empty" in the back).
   Skogsrå do mostly approach hunters, probably to defend the animals or
   the wood from the sufferings caused by human hands.
   The hunter falls in love and forgets his duties toward wife and
   family. He can also get allured astray or into a fog and die in the
   wood he thought he knew so well.
   Vittror are female invisible beings, probably solitary. Maybe
   smallish. Dwelling in Norrland, in the high woods and on the fjeld.
   Often with dwellings under earth, but also in abandoned human chalets.
   Vittror are experts in milking, getting fatter and more abundant milk
   both from own (invisible) cattle and from the humans' cows and goats.
   Vittror can be heard sometimes when they milk or when they call for
   their cattle. And the bell of their leading cow might be heard too.
   The vittror do however not normally seek human company.
   It is unclear whether they rule over the fjeld and its woods like the
   skogsrå rules over the grand woods. But it is probable.
   Sw: Näcken
   Fi: Näkki
   Sw: Strömkarlen
   Sw: Bäckakarlen
   Näcken is a very attractive man-like fiddle player or singer.
   Appearing at rivers and in waterfalls. He is fond of women, who
   sometimes are found drowned at places where he appears. Näcken is said
   to dislike clothes.

   In old times powerful men were often accompanied by an invisible
   animal, fitting to their personality, as for instance a bear or a
   bull. The fylgja followed the person throughout life, and they died
   together. Occasionally the fylgja might be seen by others, but by the
   owner only at the end of his life.
   Some families also had a family-fylgja: a female being who followed
   the head of the family, and when he died turned to the heir. She could
   assist in battles, and in general cause problems for enemies.
   People with a powerful family-fylgja had much luck, and were therefore
   often elected as leaders for a village, a ship or a province.

   Elfs are little known beings who originally were closely related to
   the goods. Signs suggest that they in later times have interbred with
   the hidden people of the vittror.
   Alver are human-like beings of both sexes. They often get very old and
   wise but they never look really old. They live their life with minimal
   contacts with humans, why we know very little about alver of today.
   Sometimes they change infants with humans, with the sad consequence
   that the human family gets a very gifted child which however has less
   of solidarity with its relatives than one could expect.
   In old times people used to sacrifice to the alver. Nowadays this
   custom is forgotten, but we guess that such rites could improve the
   harvest, the fertility of the cattle or the health of the family.
   Sw: älvor
   Fi: keiju
   Fairies are beautiful female beings, usually invisible but sometimes
   with visible veils. They are fond of pleasures and beauty, and also
   very enjoyable to meet. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sing or
   giggle. Often shy for humans. They can be seen or heard at some
   distance, but use to disappear, or become invisible, when humans
   approach. They dislike to be disturbed, but might fall in love with
   beautiful men, and can then be very persistent.
   Fairies are rather young - or at least do they behave like
   light-hearted teenage girls. Open meadows, shallow tarns and sheltered
   water mirrors can sometimes attract great parties of fairies.

   Norns are female beings who at birth determine the fate of the
   newborn. The best known has the name Verðandi.
   Valkyrias are probably a kind of norns who is responsible for the
   collection of the warriors whos time it is to die. One is known under
   the name Skuld (of the same root as in "shall").
   A dis is a nowadays almost forgotten female being, related to norns
   and valkyrias, with the power to protect against ones enemies. In old
   times death in late winter was explained by insufficient sacrifice to
   the dises. These sacrifices took place at midwinter time or at fall.

   Fi: peikko
   No: troll
   Sw: troll
   Da: troll
   Trolls are human-like beings living in families or clans in for
   instance woods, mountains and hillocks. Some trolls live in
   pre-Christian graves after great kings and chieftains. They are very
   interested in jewelry in general and gold, silver and beautiful stones
   in particular.
   Trolls usually get very old, but not even as young they are
   particularly beautiful. Trolls are fertile, but they fancy young
   beautiful women and infants seemingly hoping for offspring less ugly
   than they are themselves. Human women, and rarely young handsome men,
   have now and then been captured. Except for sexual services the humans
   have had hard labor as the foreigners they are, and their life at the
   trolls is said to be full of sufferings. Trolls don't seem to
   understand that humans are not as strong and endurant as they are
   When trolls rob infants from their mother they usually leave an own
   infant, a changeling, in exchange. the changeling has however a hard
   time to follow human morals, and is not rarely quite stupid.
   For views of trolls you could for instance examine the drawings at

   Sw: jättar
   Fi: jättiläinen
   Giants dwell in caves, mountains and deep woods. Often in harsh
   landscape were humans can not survive for longer times. Giants are
   said to be insensitive for ice and snow.
   Some people (Mots 1984) believe the giants and the trolls to have been
   the Gods of the pre-Germanic population.

   Sw: gengångare
   Fi: haamu
   Sw: vålnad
   Fi: aave
   (Fi: kummitus)
   Sw: spöke
   Deceased persons who live on after death have usually committed an
   evil deed in their lifetime. They cause illness, insanity and death.
   In medieval times the law punished production of ghosts (i.e. people
   who disturbed the dead).
   The mara is a female being who likes riding horses in their stable,
   and humans in their house, causing unrest, anguish, fear, bad dreams
   and feeling of suffocating. The mara is maybe the ghost of an
   unfortunate woman who died as a unsatisfied virgin.

[ the sections above are available at the www-page ]


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