Myths of the Norsemen

Myths of the Norsemen

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by H. A. Guerber

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"Myths of the Norsemen" from H. A. Guerber. British historian most well known for her written histories of Germanic mythology (1859-1929).  See more details below


"Myths of the Norsemen" from H. A. Guerber. British historian most well known for her written histories of Germanic mythology (1859-1929).

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Every culture throughout history has tried to find answers to the mysteries of life: how the world began and what was there before then, what the limits of the world are and how they were established, how humans were created and where they go when they die, and how the world will come to an end and what will happen after that. The Viking Age Scandinavians answered these questions in their myths and legends which personified the forces of order and chaos through the continuous struggle between gods and giants. Folklorist Helene Adeline Guerber brings to life these stories in Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. Ranging from the comic to the tragic, the myths and legends tell of passion, love, friendship, pride, courage, and betrayal. Among the characters we meet are giants who fight the gods and yet are not entirely evil; norns who determine the course of an individual's destiny; dwarves who live in rocks and work as craftsmen; tutelary goddesses who are associated with fertility and death; valkyries who select and gather dead warriors from the battlefield; female fetches who attach themselves to individuals at birth and remain with them to death; elves who promote fertility and are associated with deceased kinsmen; divine heroes of Norse or continental Germanic origin; animals, birds, and monsters. They inhabit various worlds: Asgard, the residence of gods, goddesses, and fallen warriors; Utgard, where giants and monsters live; Midgard, the home of humans; and Niflheim, the sinister abode of the dead. A subject of intense study by some of the Western world's greatest scholars of myth, religion, and folklore, Norse mythology is also asource of inspiration for many literary, pictorial, and musical artists. German composer Richard Wagner, for example, popularized Norse mythology with his operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Helene Adeline Guerber was born in Mount Clemens, Michigan, in 1859. With the exception of her education, for which she went to Paris, France, she lived most of her adult life in New Jersey, where she died in Montclair in 1929. A teacher by profession, Guerber devoted her life to educating her fellow citizens about European literary and cultural history through the publication of about three dozen books on a vast array of topics ranging from famous operas to Jewish history to Shakespeare's plays. Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas, originally published in 1895 under the title Myths of Northern Lands, was her second book.

Scholarly preoccupation with Scandinavian mythology goes back to the sixteenth century, but became especially intense during the Romantic period when the Nordic countries began to reflect more on their past histories. As such, Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas is and was but one of many studies, and while it did not contribute to scholarship within the field of Scandinavian mythology, it did much to make the Norse myths and legends known in the English-speaking world and now has the status of a classic. In twenty-nine chapters, Guerber retells and explains the age-old Norse stories about the beginning of the world and its end, and about gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, elves, and heroes of Germanic folklore. The book concludes with a comparison of Norse and Greek mythology, on which she had published a book in 1893. The poetic quotations from sagas and poems interspersed throughout this volume give readers a feel for how the myths and legends may have been told originally, and the large number of illustrations showing gods and goddesses engaged in heroic deeds help visualize the stories related. An extensive glossary and index make the book a useful reference tool.

The Norse myths and legends are among the most fascinating tales of all times. Most of them are dramatic narratives detailing episodes in a slowly evolving story that begins with the frost-giant Ymir, who owed his existence to the coming together of heat and frost in the gaping void of Ginnungagap. Ymir was sustained by the primeval cow Audhumla, who fed off the ice itself, licking the salty blocks. By the end of the first day, there appeared from the blocks a man's hair, by the end of the second day a man's head, and by the end of the third day the whole man. The man became the ancestor of the first gods, Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve. The three killed Ymir and brought him into the middle of Ginnungagap. From his flesh they made the earth, from his bones the mountains, and from his teeth and shattered bones pebbles and small rocks. His blood became lakes and the sea, which encompassed the earth on all sides, and his skull became the sky. This world was protected from the giants by a wall made from the eyebrows of Ymir and was called Midgard, the home of humans, whom the gods created from two tree trunks on the shore and endowed with breath, wit, hearing, vision, and other qualities of life.

While some of the myths and legends are deeply tragic, others are extraordinarily humorous. Famous among the former is the sad tale of the death of Odin's son, the innocent and handsome Baldr, who is so troubled by disturbing dreams of his own demise that his mother, the goddess Frigg, extracts solemn vows from all beings, animate and inanimate, that nothing will harm him. But she neglects to ask a mistletoe, which, through the machinations of the mischievous demi-god Loki, is transformed into a murderous weapon and brings about the death of the beloved god. To the latter category belongs the lighthearted tale of the giant Thrym's theft of the precious hammer of the warrior god Thor, and his refusal to return it, unless Freyja, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, is given to him as his bride. Without the hammer the gods are helpless against the giants, and so Thor, the epitome of masculinity, reluctantly undertakes a journey to the land of the giants, decked out in bridal regalia and posing as Freyja with Loki as his handmaid. Surprisingly, Thrym and the other giants are taken in, and when Thrym orders up the precious hammer to bless the bride with, Thor uses the opportunity to batter all the giants. The story about Thor's stolen hammer is usually cited for its entertainment value, but it is also instructive in that it stresses the two most common themes in the myths: on the one hand, the sexual attraction between gods and giants, and on the other, the hostility between them. The hostility between the inhabitants of Asgard, the home of the gods, and Utgard, the land of the giants, is typically presented as struggles between individual gods and giants, and most of them involve Odin and his son Thor. However, the two major gods stand in sharp contrast to one another, and in their combats with the giants they use very different means. The complex Odin usually uses strategy, that is cunning and wit. Odin's immense wisdom had in large measure to do with the sacrifice of his one eye for a drink from the well of the god Mimir, in which all wisdom was stored, and his mastery of poetry, which he had stolen from the giants and given to gods and humans--the topics of yet other myths. The simple-minded Thor, by contrast, uses force, symbolized by his hammer. The story of Thor's struggle during a fishing trip against his most formidable enemy, the world-encircling serpent Iormungand, who lives in the ocean, fascinated not only medieval writers and poets, but also pictorial artists. Two major versions of the myth exist; their main point of difference is that in one Thor conquers this symbol of evil, while in the other he fails to do so.

Interspersed among these dramatic narratives are myths that are quite different in form in that they contain little action and serve instead to impart mythical knowledge. One of these is the question-and-answer tale about the wisdom contest between Odin (in disguise) and Vafthrudnir, an aged giant. Vafthrudnir reveals his immense cosmological knowledge by competently answering Odin's questions about the origin of heaven; the earth, moon, and sun; worlds of the dead; life in Odin's palace, Valholl; Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, and its sequel. He ultimately is defeated when finally Odin discloses his identity by asking a question to which only he knows the answer: What did Odin whisper into the ear of his dead son Baldr before he was placed on the funeral pyre?

It is in myths of this kind that the story of the end of the world is found. Odin fears the Ragnarok, the end of the world and the old gods' regime, and so goes to an ancient seeress, who can foretell the future, to gain wisdom and prepare himself for what is in store. She tells of the death of Baldr, corruption among the gods, the breaking free of monsters, the collapse of moral order, and universal fear among gods and humans. The world tree, Yggdrasil, will tremble, giants will converge from three directions, and then the battle will begin. Odin and Thor will be killed by their enemies. Demons and giants will fling fire in every direction. Asgard, and Utgard, along with Midgard, the world of humans , and Niflheim, the world of the afterlife will burn, and the earth will sink into the sea and the heavens and will be consumed by fire. However, when the Ragnarok has passed, all will rise again to be ruled by innocent gods. A man and a woman will survive the holocaust, and their food will be the morning dew. And from these people a new race of humans will be born.

The myths and legends of the Norsemen are found in a wide array of sources from different periods and different places. Most of our knowledge about them derives from three major sources, all Icelandic. One is the Poetic Edda, which may be characterized as an anthology of twenty-nine loosely related poems. Eleven of them are on mythological topics and sixteen (plus two fragments) are on heroes of Germanic folklore. The place and date of the composition of the individual eddic poems have been the source of much debate. The poems are all anonymous, and it is hard, if not impossible, to localize their composition. Some poems may go back to the beginning of the Viking Age; others may be only a little older than the Codex Regius, the manuscript containing them, which has been dated to about 1270–1280, that is, almost three centuries after Iceland officially became Christian. Some poems may have their origin in Norway; others may be from Iceland, Greenland, or other Norse settlements.

Many of the poems were used by later writers, including the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241), whose Edda, written in the 1220s, is the second major source of Norse myths, although it has been recognized that Snorri was a literary artist, not an anthropologist or a religious historian, and that in some instances he manipulated and fabricated material to suit his purposes. Snorri's Edda was not designed as a treatise on mythology, but as a handbook for the poets of his time, who relied on myths and legends as their primary source of imagery. By the thirteenth century, these old tales were fading from people's minds, and so Snorri undertook to relate the poetic imagery (called kenning in Old Norse) in sections of his Edda so they could continue to be properly understood.

The use of kennings—circumlocutions which sometimes have been called myths in miniature—is one of the main features of skaldic poetry, which is the third major source of our knowledge of the myths and legends of the Norsemen. The word “skaldic” is derived from the Old Norse noun skáld (“poet”), and as borrowed into English it refers to a professional Viking Age poet, usually attached to the entourage of a king or other great leader. As the term is used today, skaldic poetry pretty much defines all the early Old Norse poetry that is not eddic. It is characterized by its complex diction and its very elaborate combination of verse forms, rhymes, and alliteration, which make it difficult for modern readers to understand. Unlike eddic poetry, the majority of skaldic poems is attributed to named poets; and whereas eddic poetry takes its themes from a heroic and mythological past, skaldic poetry makes recent or contemporary events, such as a glorious victory or heroic defeat, its primary subject matter. The bulk of the skaldic poems praise living or recently dead dignitaries, but in a not insignificant number of verses the skalds speak of themselves, boasting of successes or lamenting losses. The earliest skaldic poems have been dated to the ninth century, but, like eddic poetry, the extant verses are transmitted in manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century and later, and most of them are preserved as quotations in prose works, notably the Sagas of the Kings of Norway and, to a lesser extent, the Sagas of Icelanders, which allude to pagan practices.

In addition to these sources, Snorri's Ynglinga saga—an account of the kings of the Yngling dynasty and the first saga in his Heimskringla, a vast history of Norway—and the Danish Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum—a Latin history of Denmark, from the early thirteenth century—both contain mythological and legendary lore. The so-called mythical-heroic sagas from the late medieval period dealing with the activities of a number of legendary and heroic figures from days of yore are also important sources; the best known among these is Völsunga saga about Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer and his kinsmen.

It is clear that from such an array of sources, which typically avoid direct articulation of key beliefs, no coherent account of Norse mythology can be extracted, and, indeed, there is no reason to assume that the myths seek to express a single, orthodox belief. Most likely, there was considerable variety among the religious ideas and attitudes of the Norsemen, who had no universal doctrines, no central church, and, interestingly, no specific word for religion. The closest concept was sidr, meaning custom, which reveals how integrated religion was in daily life. The multiple versions of specific myths and legends and the often conflicting representations of principal gods like Odin and Thor suggest that the beliefs of the Norsemen varied from region to region and that different people or communities found different gods appealing depending on familial, occupational, economic, regional, and cultural factors. Moreover, it is unlikely that the myths and religious practices of the Norsemen remained static or fixed at any given period of time and unsusceptible to outside influences. Unlike Christianity, the pagan Scandinavian religion was fluid and forbearing, and it never underwent the processes of open codification that characterized Christianity from its earliest stages onward. But despite the scattered nature of the sources and the problems inherent in their transmission and interpretation, the myths and legends of the Norsemen, as reported by medieval writers, provide intriguing insight into the Norsemen's ideas about the supernatural powers that guided their lives and shaped their world--a world, which, according to the myths and legends, began with a primeval cow, ended with a holocaust, and then began again with a new age of hope and dead gods returning.

Kirsten Wolf is professor and Torger Thompson Chair of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has written extensively on Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature.

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Meet the Author

Helene Adeline Guerber was born in Mount Clemens, Michigan, in 1859. With the exception of her education, for which she went to Paris, France, she lived most of her adult life in New Jersey, where she died in 1929. A teacher by profession, Guerber devoted her life to educating her fellow citizens about European literary and cultural history through the publication of about three dozen books on a vast array of topics ranging from famous operas to Jewish history to Shakespeare's plays. Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas, originally published in 1895 under the title Myths of Northern Lands, was her second book.

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