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inclusion of Norse mythology broadens her narrative, but, by current thinking, her reasons for including it are outdated.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.