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The only two original sources of Norse mythology are two Icelandic texts, the Elder Edda (first written around a.d. 1300 but containing earlier tales) and the Younger Edda (written by Snori Sturluson at the end of the 1100s). The Norse myths are bleaker than the Greek and Roman tales. Norse gods live in a high plane called Asgard, where they await the inevitable doom that faces them in the battle that will end the world—a reflection of the pessimistic Norse belief that good will eventually lose to evil. Heroism exists, defined by fighting for good in the face of certain defeat and dying in the attempt. Dead heroes are honored in Valhalla, the afterlife for good warriors, where they sit with gods in Asgard who, like them, face defeat in the end.
The Volsung dynasty’s story is told in the Volsungasaga as well as in the Elder Edda. Signy, a daughter of Volsung, marries an evil man who kills her father, then imprisons and kills all her brothers except Sigmund, whom she is able to rescue. To procure Sigmund a comrade for the vengeance they are planning, Signy disguises herself and spends three nights with her brother and conceives a child. While the boy, Sinfiotli, grows up, Signy keeps quiet and pretends to love her husband. When Sinfiotli comes of age, he and Sigmund kill Signy’s husband and all his children by burning them in a locked house. Seeing her wish done, Signy herself walks into the burning building to die with the family she has killed.
Sigmund later has a son named Sigurd, who braves a ring of fire to free the imprisoned maiden Brynhild, a Valkyrie who has disobeyed Odin, the lord of the gods. Sigurd and Brynhild pledge their love for each other. He leaves her in the same ring of fire, intending to return, and visits his best friend, the king Gunnar. Gunnar’s mother, who wants Sigurd to marry her own daughter, Gudrun, gives Sigurd a potion that makes him forget Brynhild.
Gunnar decides he wants Brynhild for a wife, but he is unable to pass the marriage-test of the ring of fire. Sigurd rides through the flames again disguised as Gunnar and wins Brynhild for his friend. Brynhild marries Gunnar, thinking he legitimately passed the test and assuming Sigurd abandoned her. When she learns the truth, she falls into a rage of vengeance and falsely convinces Gunnar that Sigurd slept with her when he rescued her from the ring of fire. Gunnar persuades his younger brother to kill Sigurd. After Sigurd’s death, Brynhild kills herself, asking to be placed on the funeral pyre next to him.
Odin, the chief Norse gods, rules Asgard from Gladsheim, his palace, attended by the Valkyries and leading the gods in their constant battle against the Giants of Jotunheim. A strange, taciturn god, Odin eats nothing himself but gives his food to his two pet wolves under the banquet table. His two ravens, Thought and Memory, scour the world for news, on which he meditates while the other gods feast. Concerned with wisdom, Odin once gave up one of his own eyes and hung for nine days and nights from a tree in order to gain it. Odin gives this wisdom, along with the Runes—the old Norse written alphabet that has magical powers—and the special liquor that transforms its drinker into a poet, to the race of men.
There are five other great gods besides Odin: Balder, Thor, Freyr, Heimdall, and Tyr. Thor is the thunder-bearer and strongest of the gods; Freyr is the god of the crops; Heimdall is the guardian of the rainbow-bridge between Asgard and the world of men; and Tyr is the god of war. There are three major goddesses—Frigga (Odin’s wife), Freya, and Hela—but they are not important to Norse myth. Frigga is an indistinct figure, a spinner of secret thread; Freya, like Aphrodite, is a goddess of love; and Hela is queen of the underworld.
In one story, Frigga learns that her son Balder is fated to die. In a panic, she persuades every animate and inanimate object on earth never to harm him. They all agree, because Balder is so beloved. But Frigga forgets to ask the mistletoe plant. The other gods make a game of Balder’s invulnerability, throwing things at him because nothing hurts him. The evil deity Loki tricks Frigga into revealing the one object in the world that might harm Balder. Loki convinces Hoder, Balder’s blind brother, to throw a mistletoe dart at Balder. Loki guides it to pierce Balder’s heart. Hela agrees to bring Balder back to life if it can be proved that everything everywhere mourns his passing, but one recalcitrant ogress refuses to show sorrow for Balder. Balder, therefore, must remain with the dead. As punishment, Loki is chained to a rock in a deep cavern, where a serpent is placed over his head that drips burning venom on his face.
In the beginning of the Norse universe, there is only an empty chasm surrounded by Niflheim, the cold realm of death in the north, and Muspelheim, the land of fire in the south. Cold and fire combine in the chasm to form Ymir, the first Giant and grandfather of Odin. Odin and his two brothers kill Ymir and make the heavens from his skull, the sea from his blood, and the earth—Misgard, humankind’s realm—from his body. The gigantic ash-tree Yggdrasil supports the universe. One of its roots goes up to Asgard, and beside it lies the sacred Urda’s well, guarded by the three Norns, who, like the Greek Fates, allot lifespans and destinies to men. A serpent gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil; when he gnaws all the way through, the tree and the universe will topple. The serpent symbolizes Ragnarok, the inevitable doomsday that ends the universe, when even the gods meet destruction as evil vanquishes good. Eventually, a new good god will rise up and rid the world of evil forever. In addition to myths, the Elder Edda also contains a wealth of proverbs and insights about all manner of aspects of human life, from insomnia to irony.
Hamilton’s inclusion of Norse mythology broadens her narrative, but, by current thinking, her reasons for including it are outdated. She writes that the Norse myths are the legacy of “the whole great Teutonic race” and that “by race we are connected to the Norse.” Though Hamilton has valid points, her Eurocentric perspective is anachronistic in the multicultural America of today. Though her perspective may be archaic, the brief glimpse of the compelling themes and ideas of Norse myth that she provides is valuable. We see a counterpoint to the Greek and Roman myths, a world with different meanings and symbols. The Norse gods maintain far more gravity than the classical deities: their stories are never frivolous, self-conscious, or shallow, but rather compelling and provocative.
The idea of Ragnarok, a doomsday when even the gods are fated to die, is unique to the Norse worldview—a cold and bleak outlook, perhaps a reflection of the harsh northern life that the Vikings led. Loki, the wicked demi-god trickster, is unlike anyone in Greek myth. Odin, the chief god, is likewise an unusual figure: in some respects he is Christ-like—with his self-imposed crucifixion from a tree in order to gain wisdom for humankind—yet also removed and withdrawn, with ravens and wolves for companions. Odin is devastatingly serious at all times, aware of the inevitability of Ragnarok and his own responsibility to delay it as long as possible.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!