Saturday, June 21, 2014

ART CONTEST – Adult Winners, Midsummer 2014

We had a very large number of entries in the adult division of this year's Midsummer Art Contest, and they were all fantastic! It was very difficult for the judges to rank them all in order, but we finally managed to do it. The artists live in many countries around the world: Brazil, England, Netherlands, Norway, Romania and the United States. The wandering ways of Odin sure have taken him to some interesting places!

Joanne's latest: The Gospel of Loki
All technical issues overcome, both Joris van Gelre and Joanne Harris were able to carefully consider and rank all the entries in the adult division. I greatly appreciate the time that both of them put in. Due to the large number of wonderful entries, the adult division was particularly hard to put in order.

I wish Joris the best of luck with his two post-Heidevolk music projects (:NODFYR: and Wederganger), and I sincerely hope that Joanne's publishers will realize how many fans her Runemarks series has here in the United States – and will release an American edition of her latest, The Gospel of Loki. We like Norse mythology here in the colonies, too!

You'll notice that we have a tie for runner-up this time around. Sveinn and Jorge both earned the exact same total score – only one point away from the bronze medal spot. We think that these two wonderful artists both deserve to have their work seen, and we think that you'll agree!

If you haven't seen the winning entries in the other age divisions, click here for the kid winners and here for the teen winners. Congratulations to all who won, thanks to everyone who entered, and hails to the judges for their work. Stay tuned for the Midwinter Art Contest later this year!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE
Carl Olsen
Age 36
Santa Cruz, California, United States

Carl wrote this about his entry:
Since this sort of contest typically has to do with us (humans) viewing images of the Norse gods, I thought it would be fun to depict a viewing of the human world on the part of the Æsir and Vanir. 
For the midsummer theme, I have a majstång (midsummer pole/maypole) set up in the human world – maybe next to a Swedish lake from the looks of it – while a few of the gods (maybe Þórr, Freyja and Freyr, with Loki skulking in the corner) look on. In particular I thought it would be fun to have the majstång juxtaposed with the world tree Yggdrasill, here portrayed as a shady picnic spot for our mythic cast, but with gargantuan roots showing up in the human world to hint at its "foundational" role in the cosmos.
Carl won third place in Midsummer 2013 contest and third runner-up in the Midwinter 2013 contest. His art is always deeply informed by Norse mythology and culture. This makes sense, given that Carl has both an MA and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley, where the well-known scholar John Lindow was his dissertation advisor. You should definitely check out Carl's own blog – Vikings, Books, Etc. I'm very glad that Carl won the top spot this time around!

First Place: Carl Olsen

SECOND PLACE
Nina Bukala
Age 25
Echt, Limburg, The Netherlands

Nina really did a lot of research while working on her entry. While I'm not wholly convinced by her claims regarding ancient beliefs, I think her essay makes very clear why she included the various elements in her artwork.
The notion of the sun being pulled across the sky by a horse was already prevalent in prehistoric Indo-European societies. The simple initial image of one white horse pulling the sunwheel, later developed into more elaborate images including several white horses, a chariot and an anthropomorphic sun god(dess) driving the chariot. Because in the Northern Hemisphere, a left-right motion of the sun can be observed during the day, the sun horse has usually been depicted facing towards the right. Midsummer marks the day when the sun appears highest in the sky. At this point, the sun's movement seems to stop for a moment before reversing direction. While a moving wheel is represented by a tilted cross within a circle, a motionless wheel is symbolized by an upright cross within a circle. 
Among midsummer traditions and beliefs, plants take on an important role. Ferns, for example, were thought to flower and produce seeds only on Midsummer Night. According to folklore, the flower of the royal fern brings prosperity or magical abilities to the person who finds it and was therefore much sought after. The seeds would make one invisible and bring buried treasures to the surface. Midsummer has been Christianized as the feast of St. John the Baptist. Consequently, one herb which is traditionally linked to midsummer throughout Europe, has been named after the saint. St. John's wort, whose yellow flowers represent the sun, were picked at midsummer for their healing powers, protection against bad spirits and for divinatory purposes. 
Ox-eye daisy is a plant so white, that it has been compared to the fair god Baldr and therefore received the name “Baldr's brow.” On a astronomical level, Baldr's death symbolizes the decline of the sun's power after reaching its greatest height at the summer solstice. Cornflower is one of the many herbs that bloom at midsummer. Wild strawberries peak at midsummer as well and have been consumed in Europe since the Iron Age.
It certainly is a striking image! Congratulations to Nina for taking this project so seriously. The judges definitely appreciated it.

Second Place: Nina Bukala

THIRD PLACE
Jennifer Elizabeth Speer
Age 43
Monrovia, California, United States

Jennifer writes, "My artwork represents Yggdrasil and includes the flowers calendula and St. John’s wort, both considered to have magical healing properties." Again, I'm not so sure about the connection between these beliefs and ancient practice, but this definitely is a beautiful and striking work of art!

Third Place: Jennifer Elizabeth Speer

RUNNER-UP (TIE)
Sveinn Fjölnisson
Age 22
Essex, England

Sveinn is a fascinating fellow. Based on his study of ancient languages, he has created a very personal reconstruction of what he considers to be the original Germanic gods that eventually evolved into the Norse gods that we are familiar with. Here's his description of the reconstructed group of gods that appear in his artwork:
Fascinated by mythology and language, my research has led me back to reconstruct a pantheon of the Common Germanic gods which later became Norse and Anglo-Saxon pantheons. 
Here we see the Ansiwiz (Æsir) enjoying midsummer as a family. Fergunaz (Fjörgynn) holds his axe aloft to bless the midsummer cheese and beer they will enjoy. His wife Fergunijō-Nerþuz (Fjörgyn-Njörð) stands by him proudly, resting her hands on the shoulders of their youngest son Þunraz (Þórr), who is brandishing his own mighty axe, for it's many years before Loki will join them and give him Melþunjaz (Mjölnir). Þunraz's older brother and sister, the famous twins, are Ingwaz-Frawjaz (Yngvi-Freyr) and Frijjō-Frawjō (Frigg-Freyja). The loving hand of Frijjō's husband, Wōdanaz (Óðinn), rests upon her shoulder, as she holds their baby son Baldaz (Baldr) who poking his tongue out, enjoys the warm summer air. 
Other figures to spot are, Fergunaz's hawk Wedrafalunjaz (Veðrfölnir) up a tree (creating birds from thought is a trick Fergunaz later teaches to Wōdanaz, who goes one further and creates two) and Tīwaz (Týr) the king of the sky, guiding the goddess Sōwilō (Sól) across the sky, herself being pulled by the glowing steed Skīnfahsô (Skínfaxi). 
The midsummer theme here is mainly influenced from the Latvian midsummer festival of Jani, where they eat cheese with caraway seeds, drink homemade beer, wear floral or oak wreaths in their hair, and stay up all night singing traditional songs by their fire waiting to greet the sun as she returns the next morning.
Sveinn's now studying linguistics at Birkbeck University of London. It's wonderful to have another person who loves this material decide to study it an advanced level. I'm very curious to know where his research will lead!

Runner-Up (Tie): Svein Fjölnisson

RUNNER-UP (TIE)
Jorge Alves de Lima Júnior
Age 45
Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil

Jorge's work comes from a very different creative space than these other entries. Rather than writing a explanation of his research, he sends a beautiful and spiritual description of his entry's conception:
Bifröst like I see – or better, like I feel. 
It is Midsummer Night. The sky is starry. The people gather around a campfire and tell stories – stories of gods and their exploits, stories of living in places in the ambiguous range between dream and reality 
Locking eyes packaged by the narrative, I have a brief and fleeting glimpse. I watch a good distance away what appears to be a bridge, but it is not a bridge. In my heart I know what it is, but I cannot rationally accept its existence: it is Bifröst, the link between worlds.
Jorge's work really does move beyond language and representation into a deeper place.

Runner-Up (Tie): Jorge Alves de Lima Júnior

Friday, June 20, 2014

ART CONTEST – Teen Winners, Midsummer 2014

This year's entries in the teen division of the Midsummer Art Contest were incredibly strong. These young artists are really quite impressive! It's interesting that they come from diverse locations around the world, yet they are all inspired by Norse mythology to create such original works.

Joris during his years with Heidevolk
We were finally able to sort out the technical issues that prevented Joris van Gelre from judging the kids' division, and he was able to study the teen entries and weigh in on the judging with Joanne Harris and myself. I'm very glad that we managed to finally make this happen.

I would like to thank both Joris and Joanne for the time they freely spent considering the artwork, reading the artists' descriptions of their entries, and doing the difficult task of ranking all the pieces. With so many wonderful young artists submitting their work, judging wasn't easy!

The three winners in the teen category show how the wonderful heritage of the Norse myths continues to spark the creativity of young artists across great distances of time and space. These three artworks are very different from each other in subject matter and approach, but the beauty of the old traditions shines through each one in a wonderfully unique way.

If you haven't seen the kids' division winners yet, check them out by clicking here.

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE
Eric Matzner
Age 19
Quesnel, British Columbia, Canada

Erik has written a wonderful description of his work:
This painting shows a Midsummer's Eve celebration out near the water. The people are dancing and having a good time. In the background can be seen the fields with crops growing up in a bountiful harvest and the longships waiting to go out for trade and plunder. These symbolize the beginning of the summer months, but also the slow descent of the sun back to winter, when the crops and raided goods will be needed to make it through the harsh northern winters. 
Árvakr and Alsvidr can also be seen riding across the sky. The sun is safe from the wolf Sköll, as the sun is at its highest and farthest from danger. The horses trod on with no worries of the wolf. The fire is being held at a special spot – the old oak tree, ash bushes and large runestone can all attest to the sanctity of this rock outcrop into the ocean.
In a rare case of complete agreement, all three judges independently placed Eric's piece in first place. This is truly a wonderful work, and it is at once original in conception and reminiscent of midsummer scenes painted by the great Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup. Fantastic!

First Place: Eric Matzner

SECOND PLACE
Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler
Age 15
Korsberga, Sweden

Nordhild submitted a very personal and very creative explanation of her piece:
I chose to draw the most fun part of midsummer – the celebration. 
In Sweden, people dance around the maypole, which they first decorate with greens and flowers. Here, I choose to let them dance about the warmth of the bonfire itself instead. I've included several traditions like feasting, dancing, the symbol of fertility, pagan stone circles, and collecting a certain number of flowers to put under your pillow to see whom you will marry. 
Midsummer was believed to be a time with high magical activity, and Christian priests feared the Devil had more power than during the rest of the year to tempt people. I wanted to show that they were exactly right. People here do dance with supernatural beings like elves and sprites – and celebrate life. Something the little priest hiding behind the tree doesn't like…
Nordhild won second place in the Midwinter 2013 contest. Her entry then had the same sense of night and magic that this new piece does. This young artist certainly has a wonderful spirit!

Second Place: Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler

THIRD PLACE
Christina Bountona
Age 18
Perea, Thessaloniki, Greece

From a southern land of ancient myths, Christina sends an explanation of her artwork's inspiration by a northern land of legendary sagas:
The drawing presents the preparing of the midsummer celebration. In the distance there can be seen human figures carrying wood to their village in order to light up the bonfire. The landscape (rocks, waterfall, cliffs) is based on a real location in Iceland (Þingvellir National Park). In the front, there is the figure of the Allfather, watching the people reviving the old traditions.
Christina really captures the sense of history and the spiritual essence of this wonderful landscape. She is a truly impressive artist, and I am very curious where her creative travels will take her!

Third Place: Christina Bountona

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

ART CONTEST – Kid Winners, Midsummer 2014

We received many wonderful works of art in the kids’ division of this year's Midsummer Art Contest. So many pieces were so good that – for the first time in three contests – we have a three-way tie for third place! The winners are determined by adding together the scores of all three judges, and the total scores were exactly the same for our trio of bronze medalists.

You may have noticed that the announcement of winners has arrived a day later than planned. Joanne Harris and I had already finished ranking the entries, but Joris van Gelre was experiencing technical difficulties viewing that entries that we were, in the end, unable to resolve.

Kári Pálsson in Reykholt, home of Edda author Snorri Sturluson
Our friend Kári Pálsson heroically stepped in as the third judge yesterday and added his scores to ours. Kári is an Icelander who serves on the lögretta (very roughly translated as “board of directors”) of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), Iceland’s organization for those who practice Ásatrú, the modern version of the ancient religion of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other Norse gods and goddesses. He is very passionate and knowledgeable about the Old Norse myths and poems, and I am always glad for his input.

Special thanks to both Joanne and Kári for their work as judges. It is much appreciated!

Congratulations to our five winners! The assignment was to create a piece that was on the theme of midsummer and contained at least one element from Norse mythology. Judging was based not purely on technical ability; creativity and connection to mythology were upmost in the minds of the judges. These young artists impressed all three of us, and I hope that they continue to explore the rich tradition of the Norse myths and to create new works of original art.

Three of the five winners have been students of Cathy Yeoman in Victoria, Australia. Her students made a clean sweep of the kids category in the Midsummer 2013 contest, and they took two of the top spots in the Midwinter 2013 contest. Cathy teaches Norse mythology to her Class 4 students, and the results are very impressive. I would like to again thank her for her work in keeping the myths alive. We need more teachers like her around the world!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE
Sheoaka F.
Age 11
Briar Hill, Victoria, Australia

Sheoaka describes her picture: "Odin is sitting on the sweet grass with his raven, Hugin, resting on his hand. Freya is walking her cats. The bonfire is ablaze, ready for the midsummer celebrations."

This piece has such a strong composition and so wonderfully integrates several elements from the myths. Sheoaka won first place in the Midsummer 2013 contest, and her work continues to mature and inspire. We all hope to see more from her in the future!

First Place: Sheoaka F.

SECOND PLACE
Rani K.
Age 11
Briar Hill, Victoria, Australia

Rani writes, "In my picture I drew an ash tree with Hugin and Munin (Odin’s ravens) flying around it, Ratatösk the squirrel jumping about, and a deer nibbling at the grass. Hugin and Munin have come to tell everyone that the midsummer festival is beginning in Midgard."

Rani won first place in the Midwinter 2013 contest, and this new artwork again shows a creative mind and a wonderful spirit. She has created a piece that is both beautiful and instantly classic.

Second Place: Rani K.

THIRD PLACE (TIE)
Emma H.
Age 10
Briar Hill, Victoria, Australia

Emma sets the scene: "It is Midsummer’s Eve, and Freya and Frey are walking along the beach in search of a spot for their picnic. In the background there is the cat-drawn carriage and the smoke billowing up from in the depths of the valleys. That is where the bonfires are. There is also Iduna’s golden apple tree, the apples of which keep the gods young."

Emma won third place in the Midsummer 2013 contest with a whimsical picture of dwarves gathered around a Midsummer Eve fire. This time, she has created a multi-level work that places Freya and Frey in the front, their transportation to Midgard in the middle, and the sign of human celebration in the distance. The tiny cat pulling the cart is the best part!

Third Place (Tie): Emma H.

THIRD PLACE (TIE)
Alyssa Broadwater
Age 12
Pennsylvania, United States

Alyssa says, "In this sketch, I created a small, lighthearted festival among several elves. They've come to together to celebrate the announcement of midsummer as warmer weather surges delightfully throughout the beautiful and delicate forests where they dwell. Before taking to their feast, they decide to have a nice little bonfire to keep spirits high as the cool summer breeze flows throughout the trees."

Alyssa's technical approach immediately stood out from the other entries. Her interesting usage of modern tools of art won her second place in the Midwinter 2013 contest. We're curious to see what she creates for the teenage division next year!

Third Place (Tie): Alyssa Broadwater

THIRD PLACE (TIE)
London Hatrak
Age 9
Belleville, New Jersey, United States

London writes, "This is a painting of Sol carrying the sun across the sky and being chased by the wolf Sköll. The people are dancing around the bonfire to celebrate midsummer."

London impressed all the judges with her sense of composition and her spirit. It will be very interesting to see how her work develops in the coming years!

Third Place (Tie): London Hatrak

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ANOTHER SIXTH GRADER ASKS ABOUT NORSE MYTHOLOGY AND NORSE RELIGION, Part Three

Click here for Part One; click here for Part Two.

7. What importance did Odin's spear have?

Rock carving of large figure with spear
(Sweden, Bronze Age)
Many sources suggest that what we know as Odin’s spear Gungnir (“the swaying one”) has a long history as a symbol of dedication to the god.

As we saw with the hammer, the spear appears in very old rock carvings from long before the Viking Age. Some carvings show a huge spear carried by a large number of men. Others show a spear carried by an enormous figure that is much bigger than the other figures depicted – similar to the scene of the large hammer god and the tiny male/female couple. Does this image represent an early god who will eventually develop into Odin?

The poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) describes “the first war in the world” beginning with a symbolic act: “Odin shot a spear, hurled it over the host.” This idea of throwing a spear over the enemy forces before a battle occurs repeatedly in the myths and sagas.

In one story, the Swedish king Eirík makes a bargain with Odin for victory. Odin gives him a reed, telling him to throw it over the enemy army and shout, “Odin take you all!” When Eirík does so, the reed turns into a spear as it flies through the air, the enemies are suddenly struck blind, and a mountain falls on them. Wow! You don’t want to mess with Odin.

In one of the sagas, a chieftain throws a spear over the enemy host and the narrator says he does it “following an ancient custom.” Sometimes this old practice even shows up in literary sources that were written in a Christian context: in the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied (from around 1200), a character named Volker “lifted a sharp spear and hard from the ground… and hurled it strongly across the courtyard, over the heads of the folk.” The description of the ritual act survives, even though the poet himself doesn’t seem to understand its ancient religious function.

But what is its religious function? The meaning of the spear-symbol may appear in the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), which supposedly records the words of Odin himself. In a very famous verse, Odin says:
I know that I was hanging
on a windswept tree
nine whole nights,
gashed with a spear
and given to Odin
– myself to myself –
on that tree
of which no one knows
from roots of what it originates.
This is part of the well-known story of Odin gaining mystic knowledge of the runes, the ancient Germanic letters that (in the mythology, anyway) have magic powers. Let’s leave aside the strange idea of sacrificing yourself to yourself (!) for now. The important part is that the spear is used in a sacrifice to Odin. Ynglinga Saga, also written by our friend Snorri Sturluson, seconds this idea and suggests that followers of Odin marked themselves with a spear before death to dedicate themselves to the god.

Statue of Odin (Wotan) in Hannover, Germany (1888)
by Wilhelm Engelhard
In light of this information, it seems that throwing the spear over an enemy army was a way of dedicating them to Odin. The suggestion of the symbolic act was that any enemies killed in battle were actually sacrifices to the god. This was a very serious way of calling on Odin for support in battle; the spear-thrower was offering a mass sacrifice in exchange for Odin’s help in the conflict. Odin’s spear-throwing in “the first war in the world” is – like his hanging and stabbing of himself on the tree – really an act of sacrificing to himself.

I think it’s very interesting that both Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear have symbolic religious significance far beyond their use as literal weapons. This is not so unusual, really.

Think about the use of the cross by Christians. Historically, crucifixion was used as a horrible means of torture and execution. Christians, however, see the cross as a sign of Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice in order to bring salvation to humanity. [Wait, you mean like Odin’s self-sacrifice in order to bring the runes to humanity? Hmm.] The cross has a meaningful reality for believers as a symbol that goes far beyond its historical use as a means of execution.

The same goes for the hammer and the spear. The hammer is a sign of Thor’s blessing and protection. The spear is a sign of dedication to Odin – either your dedication of yourself as a follower of the god or your dedication of others as sacrifices. Make sense?

8. Did Frey have any special objects?

In the same story that tells of the dwarves forging Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear, Snorri tells of the magic golden boar that they make for Frey:
To Frey [Loki] gave the boar and said that it could run across sky and sea by night and day faster than any horse, and it never got so dark from night or in worlds of darkness that it was not bright enough wherever it went, there was so much light shed from its bristles.
The name of the boar is Gullinborsti (“the one with the golden bristles”) or Slidrugtanni (“the one with the dangerously sharp tusks”). It pulls Frey’s chariot, like goats pull Thor’s chariot and cats pull Freya’s.

Some of the Icelandic sagas mention the sacrifice of a sonargöltr (“sacrificial boar”) at the Yule celebrations in the middle of winter. The German scholar Rudolf Simek writes that “the sacrifice of the boar was originally unquestionably a sacrifice to the fertility god Frey, whose attribute was a boar.” The use of the boar as the sacrificial animal associated with Frey does not, however, explain the boar of gold that shines with bright light through the night.

Two warriors wearing boar-helmets appear on this die
used for making helmet-plates (Sweden, Vendel Period)
So how do we explain it? The Swedish kings believed that they were descended from Frey himself, and they took the boar as their royal symbol. Images showing helmets crowned with boars have been found in Sweden and dated to the Vendel Period (the era just before the Viking Age). The boar-helmet, however, is not found only in Sweden.

The Old English Beowulf text mentions boar-helmets several times. The poem even includes a reference to a swīn ofer helm (“swine over the helmet”). Most interestingly, Beowulf also mentions a swȳn eal-gylden, eofer īren-heard (“swine all golden, a boar iron-hard”). Although the text does not explicitly say this second object is a helmet, if it is a helmet, it would sure help to make sense of Frey’s mythic boar!

Luckily, the Beowulf poem does have this:
Boar-images gleamed, covered with gold, over cheek-guards, patterned and fire-hardened; the warlike, helmeted man accorded them safe conduct.
This clearly describes a boar-helmet. Did such fantastic things really exist? Actually, yes!

The Anglo-Saxon helmet found at Benty Grange
In 1848, a helmet was unearthed at the Benty Grange farm in Derbyshire, England. It dates from the sixth or seventh century – not too far distant in time from the historical events that are mentioned in Beowulf. The so-called Benty Grange helmet was in pretty sad shape when found, but clearly has an iron boar on top with a slot on its back, probably for bristles (as seen in the reconstruction). The boar has copper spots and tusks, its shoulders and buttocks are covered with silver, and its eyes are made of garnets in gold mountings. The boar stands on a plate of bronze atop the helmet.

Here we have an example of a gleaming metal boar with bright eyes and shining spots. Maybe the reference to Frey’s golden boar in Snorri’s Edda really refers to a magic helmet and not an actual animal. This would make sense, since the boar in question is created in the forge of the dwarves; a helmet would line up with the weapons given to Odin and Thor in the same story. The idea of the boar pulling the chariot may simply be Snorri’s attempt to provide a parallel for Thor’s goat-drawn wagon.

Reconstruction of the Benty Grange helmet
In addition to writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar who studied, taught and wrote about all the literature that I’ve been discussing. In his lectures, he pointed out that two old poems – the German Nibelungenlied and the English The Fight at Finnsburg – both have scenes where characters are warned of nighttime attacks by the gleam of helmets in the darkness.

In the Nibelungenlied, the fiddler-fighter Volker is warned of impending assault in the middle of the night when he “saw a helmet shining from a window far off.” In the surviving fragment of The Fight at Finnsburg, “the battle-young king” Hnæf likewise sees a gleam in the darkness that signals approaching enemies, and he says:
This is not the dawn rising from the east, neither is this a dragon flying, nor is this the gables of this hall burning, but they [i.e., the enemy warriors] are approaching.
Note that all the things mentioned give off light of their own accord: the sun shines as it rises, the dragon breathes fire, and the burning wood of the hall lights up the night with its flames. The helmets may only reflect, but they gleam brightly enough to have been mistaken for these other sources of light.

Close-up of the boar on the Benty Grange helmet replica
This literary idea of helmets that shine even in the dark can connect the actual boar-helmets with the mythical glowing boar of Frey. This connection is strengthened by a common image in Old Norse literature of weapons so highly polished that they seem to give off their own light. In the Edda, Snorri describes a drinking party in Odin’s hall:
And in the evening when they were about to start the drinking, Odin had swords brought into the hall, and they were so bright that light shone from them, and no other light was used while they set drinking.
The idea seems to be that the weapons are so shiny that they reflect the fire, so no other illumination is necessary. The same idea appears in the introduction to the poem Sigrdrífumál ("Lay of Sigrdrifa"):
On the mountain [Sigurd] saw a great light as if fire were burning and gleaming up against the sky. And when he came there, there stood a shield-wall with a banner flying over it.
The metal of the shields reflects the sun so brightly that the hero Sigurd at first thinks he is looking at a fire. In this context, the idea of Frey’s golden boar glowing in the darkness really does seem to be part of a literary tradition of describing shiny metal war-gear.

Beowulf wears a fantastic boar-helmet while fighting his dragon
Illustration by Laszlo Matulay (1947)
Why would a warrior want a boar on his helmet at all? Beowulf again offers an explanation. Before the hero dives into a pool full of water-monsters to fight Grendel’s mother (yet another long story), he puts on an object that should be familiar to you by now:
The bright helmet… preserved the head distinguished by jewels, encompassed by a fringe of chain mail, just as the armorer had constructed it in days long gone, formed it amazingly, studded it with boar-images, so that afterward no blade or battle sword could bite into it.
The idea of a helmet with boar images suggests something resembling the Vendel Period helmet I mentioned earlier. Notice that the Beowulf poet mentions the brightness of the helmet (like Frey’s boar) and that the result of having boar imagery on the helmet is that “no blade or battle sword could bite into it.” The boar-helmet, then, seems to bring the protection of the god Frey to the warrior who wears it. Pretty cool, right?

You would be totally justified in asking why a god associated with fertility would be called upon to protect a warrior. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the roles of the gods are not so clear-cut. Frey may be considered a fertility god, but he is also the glorious forefather of the Swedish kings, the god associated with the terrifying wild boar, and one who can protect warriors in the heat of battle. You really can’t put the Norse gods and goddesses into neat little boxes.

P.S. The Benty Grange helmet also has a silver cross on the nose-guard. It appears that the wearer was hedging his bets by calling on both Frey and Jesus for protection – sort of like wearing both a belt and suspenders!

9. Did all the gods have magical objects associated with them?

Frey, Odin & Thor in an 1843 illustration by Wilhelm Kaulbach
No, not all of them did. As I mentioned earlier, there are many gods and goddesses in addition to the famous ones like Odin, Thor, Frey and Freya. Some of them survive today as little more than names. However, there are a few other magical objects that we know about in addition to the ones I’ve already discussed – the hammer, spear and helmet. To find out about them, we have to return again to the story about the treasures that the dwarves forged for the gods.

By the way, you really should read the original story! The Edda has many wonderful myths in it. You can skip over the parts that get technical about poetry until you’re older, but you can jump in right now and start reading the myths themselves. Some of them are pretty hilarious. There are also many retellings of the myths that have been written over the last several decades that would be great to read.

If you’re able to read eBooks on your computer or other device, you can download a free version of Snorri’s Edda from the “Medieval Sources” section of The Norse Mythology Online Library. If the language is too difficult right now (it’s sometimes too difficult for adults, too), I highly recommend a retelling of the myths by Padraic Colum called The Children of Odin. It’s the first book of Norse myths that I read myself, it’s easy to understand, it has all the classic stories, and it has great illustrations. You can download it as a free eBook in the “Retellings & Reinterpretations” section.

In the story of the gods’ treasures, the dwarves create several items in addition to Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spear and Frey’s boar. Here are brief descriptions of the items, and some suggestions of how we might interpret their symbolism:

Loki cuts off Sif's golden hair
Illustration by Katharine Pyle (1930)
Golden hair: This is attached to Sif’s head after Loki cruelly cuts all her hair off. It attaches itself and grows like real hair. One way to interpret this is that Sif’s golden hair is like the yellow fields of grain that are cut to stubble at harvest time in the fall, only to grow anew in the spring.

Skidbladnir (“made from thin pieces of wood”): This magic ship given to Frey “had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go, and could be folded up like a cloth and put in one’s pocket if so desired.” This seems pretty strange, until you learn that the ship has ancient meanings in Norse religion. All the way back to the Bronze Age rock carvings that I’ve mentioned, the ship appears in contexts that suggest a connection to fertility. Several scholars have suggested that Frey’s magic ship is really a mythic version of a model wooden ship used in religious rituals – one that could be folded up and put away when not needed for the festivals.

Draupnir (“dripper”): Snorri writes of Odin’s ring that “every ninth night there would drip from it eight rings equal to it in weight.” Written sources from Iceland, England and even Italy mention rings used by northern people in religious rituals. These rings are also shown in visual art that, as Rudolf Simek writes, “show the ring in a function of legitimizing the sacred right of the king to power.” These ritual objects may have been arm-rings, not finger-rings. The large Pietrossa rune ring, for example, dates to before the year 380 and has an inscription in runes that says “Inheritance of the Goths. I am holy.” Taken together, the evidence suggests that the so-called “temple ring” was an object used in religious rituals and associated with the swearing of oaths to the gods – like people today swear on the Bible in court.

The Pietrossa ring and its inscription in runes
It’s amazing that all the objects discussed above (including Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear) have a religious or cultural role in real life in addition to their magical role in the myths. Interestingly, Snorri writes of Thor’s hammer that, when the god didn’t need it, it could be made “so small that it could be kept inside his shirt.” Remember the Thor’s hammer pendants I mentioned earlier, the ones that have been found in grave sites? Here again is a connection between a mythical object and an archeological one; Thor wears a Thor’s hammer pendant – a reflexive act that is reminiscent of Odin sacrificing himself to himself.

All of the answers that I’ve given should suggest a very important idea: myths are more than just make-believe fantasy adventure superhero stories. Sure, they can be read as exciting tales – because they are! However, they also contain deep meanings that you can only discover by doing what you’re doing: reading, researching, asking questions and thinking deeply about the material. You’re on the right track!

Thank you for asking all of these wonderful questions. I hope that what I’ve written makes sense to you. Please keep me posted on your further studies!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

ANOTHER SIXTH GRADER ASKS ABOUT NORSE MYTHOLOGY AND NORSE RELIGION, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

4. Why was Thor such an important character in Norse mythology?

Thor (Iceland, 18th century)
In the Norse myths, Thor is the protector of both gods and humans. Snorri introduces him in the Edda like this:
Thor is the most outstanding of [the Æsir]; he is known as Asa-Thor [“Thor of the Æsir”] or Öku-Thor [“driving-Thor,” because he drives a goat-drawn chariot]. He is strongest of all the gods and men.
Snorri’s assertion that Thor is the strongest god is supported by many of the names associated with the Thunderer. His children are named Magni (“strong one”), Módi (“angry one”) and Thrúd (“power”). His residence in Asgard is called Thrúdheim (“power-home”). He wears a belt called megingjörd (“power-belt”) that, according to Snorri, doubles his godly strength when he buckles it on. All of this makes it very plain that Thor is one strong fellow.

Why do we need Thor to protect us? The answer is simple: the giants are out to get us. In the poem Hárbarðsljóð (“The Song of Graybeard”), Thor repeatedly brags about killing giants. At one point, he tells Graybeard (really a disguised Odin):
I was in the east, and I fought against giants,
malicious women, who roamed in the mountains;
great would be the giant race if they all lived,
mankind would be as nothing on the earth.
If not for Thor being out there to fight back the giants, their numbers would become large enough to threaten the very existence of humanity. What more important role could a god play than to fight against the forces that would destroy us all?

Earlier, I quoted from Adam of Bremen’s 11th-century description of heathen worship in Sweden. You may remember that he calls Thor “the mightiest” of the gods. In the same text, he also describes Thor’s role in that particular place and time:
Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops…

For all their gods, there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor.
Here we have a connection between the myths and the religion that helps to explain both. If you only read the myths, you might come away with the impression that Thor really is a superhero, like in the Marvel comics and movies. Stop and think about this last quote from Adam, though.

Thor statue in Stockholm, Sweden
Does Thor seem like a god of war? Does his power come from violence? No, his strength comes from providing the winds and rains that help the farmers to grow food for their people. Who are the enemies Thor fights? Plague and famine – forces that threaten the human community. Is this all starting to make sense?

Thor isn’t really a “god of thunder.” Thunder and lightning are merely manifestations or signs of his power – the power to bring the rain needed by the farmers. In terms of religious belief, the enemies that Thor protects us from are things that threaten the community: plague and famine, but also other terrifying natural forces like avalanche, flood and wildfire – forces that are personified in the myths as giants.

Now you can start to see how the characters in the myths represent powerful forces all around us. Actually, one of the Old Norse terms for the gods was regin, which meant “powers.”

Although they can be read simply as exciting stories, the myths also symbolically represent the religious beliefs of the community that originally told them. If we are to have any hope of understanding what those beliefs were, we have to cross-check the myths with other sources – including written descriptions like Adam's, archeological finds, and artistic representations.

By the way, doesn’t Adam’s description of Thor remind you a bit of Snorri’s description of Frey? As I said before, the roles of each god aren’t simple things that can be summarized by the formula “X is the god of Y.” There is a quite a bit of overlap between their domains.

5. Were any giants friends of the gods?

Don't mess with an angry giantess.
I wouldn’t exactly call them friends, but there are several giants who are related to the gods and goddesses. We’ve already met Gerd, who marries the god Frey. The giantess Skadi marries the god Njörd, even though the Æsir killed her father (it’s a long story). Gods marrying and/or having children with giantesses was not uncommon.

You may be surprised to learn that some of the gods are actually half-giant. In the world of the myths, it’s clearly the father’s line that determines the status of the child. If you have a god for a father, you’re a god; if you have a giant for a father, you’re a giant.

There are many cases of a god/father and giantess/mother pairing, but I can’t think of a single case of a giant/father and a goddess/mother. Although many giants try to win a goddess for a wife, they never succeed. Maybe they would have been more successful in their wooing if they had tried conversation instead of kidnapping!

Odin’s father is Burr and his grandfather is Búri, the fellow who was licked out of the salty ice by the magic cow at the beginning of mythological time. Odin’s mother, however, is a giantess named Bestla (possibly meaning “bark”) whose father was the giant Bölthorn (“thorn of misfortune”). Notice that both names connect the giants to the natural world. Thor is the son of Odin and the giantess Jörd (“earth”) – another representation of nature. So, two of the most important gods have mothers from among the giants. This makes the eternal enmity between the gods and giants seem like a family dispute between in-laws!

The infamous Loki is a giant who is (according to Snorri) “reckoned among the Æsir.” One verse in the poem Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”) may explain how the tricky fellow came to be part of the gods’ company. Loki says:
Do you remember, Odin, when in bygone days
we mixed our blood together?
You said you would never drink ale
unless it were brought to both of us.
This suggests that Loki and Odin swore blood brotherhood, which was a very serious thing and meant that they owed each other the loyalty of true brothers. Please note that Loki is not the adopted son of Odin – that’s a concept from Marvel Comics, not Norse mythology.

However, a tale called Sörla Þáttr (which basically means “Sörli’s Story”) suggests a different relationship between Loki and Odin. Here is how Loki is introduced in this medieval Icelandic work:
He was not a big man, but he early developed a caustic tongue and was alert in trickery and unequalled in that kind of cleverness which is called cunning. He was very full of guile even in his youth, and for this reason he was called Loki the Sly.

He set off to Odin’s home in Asgard and became his man. Odin always had a good word for him whatever he did, and often laid heavy tasks upon him, all of which he performed better than could have been expected. He also knew almost everything that happened, and he told Odin whatever he knew.
This makes Loki seem less like a friend or blood brother and more like a servant. The last line even puts him on par with Odin’s two ravens who travel the nine worlds and report what they see back to Odin. This servile role is a pretty far cry from the blood brotherhood suggested in the poem.

Thor & Loki: frenemies to the bitter end
Illustration by George Hamilton Frye (1906)
Which version of Loki (if either) is closer to how people thought of Loki in the Viking Age? In the stories that survive of Loki in the mythology, he does often seem more like a servant than an equal. Sometimes, he even seems like a sort of court jester who provides comic relief. Scholars have been arguing over the question of Loki for a very long time, and the issue is far from settled.

In the myths recorded in Iceland, Loki goes on adventures with both Odin and Thor. He sometimes seems quite a social sort of fellow, if not entirely trustworthy.

However, Loki also assaults Thor’s wife Sif by cutting off all of her hair, publicly insults all the gods and goddesses, turns the goddess Idunn over to the giants, lures Thor into the hall of a hostile giant without his hammer, and wickedly causes the death of Odin’s son Balder. At the end of time, he will [SPOILER ALERT!] lead the forces of darkness against the gods, kill the god Heimdall and help to destroy the world.

I’m not sure if you’d really count Loki as a friend, in the end.

6. What importance did Thor's hammer have?

In Thor’s mythic adventures, his hammer has a pretty clear function: to smite giants. We’ve already seen why the troll-smashing role of Thor is so important. In one of the stories, Odin, Thor and Frey have to decide which one of the treasures made for them by the dwarves is the most precious. Snorri writes:
Their decision was that the hammer was the best out of all the precious things and provided the greatest defense against frost-giants.
Used as a weapon, Thor’s hammer keeps the giants from overrunning the worlds of gods and humans. I discussed above how the mythic giant-fighting of Thor can be understood in terms of religious beliefs. The myths also mention another use for the hammer – one that again seems to reflect ancient religious practices.

Thor kicks Lit before blessing Balder's funeral pyre with his hammer.
It's hard out here for a dwarf.
After Odin's son Balder is killed, the gods take his body to the sea and give him a funeral by placing him on his ship, launching it into the water, and setting it aflame. Immediately after the ship is set on fire, Snorri tells us that “Thor stood by and consecrated the pyre with Mjölnir” – he blesses the funeral pyre with his hammer. That’s very different from busting a giant in the head with it, isn’t it?

There’s also a myth about Thor dressing as a woman in order to marry a giant (again, it’s a long story). It includes the idea that the hammer was used during wedding ceremonies “to sanctify the bride.” Again, we find the hammer being used for a ritual blessing – a role that is quite distinct from its use as a weapon.

This may all seem a bit strange, but it’s reflects a very ancient symbolic role for the Hammer of the Gods. Thomas A. DuBois has pointed out that Thor’s blessing of both the funeral pyre and the bride “appear paralleled in human rituals connected with burial and weddings.” In addition, Hilda Ellis Davidson states that “the hammer was raised to hallow the new-born child who was to be accepted into the community.” Birth, marriage and death – Thor’s hammer blesses the major events of life.

Long before there were Norse myths, long before there were Vikings, people living in what we now call Sweden during the Bronze Age made rock carvings showing a large figure holding a hammer or axe over an embracing man and woman. There are other carvings that also suggest this blessing function of the weapon, and archeologists have found actual axe heads that seem to have been given as offerings to the gods.

In the Viking Age – 2,000 years after the Bronze Age – there are large memorial stones in Sweden and Denmark with images of Thor’s hammer and messages to Thor written in runes asking the god to bless or hallow the message and the memorial. There are also Thor’s hammer necklaces that have been found in burial sites in many places from many times. Christopher Abram points out that “[w]here Thor’s hammers are found in graves, they are more likely to be the resting-place of a woman than a man,” which seems connected to the idea of the hammer being used to sanctify the bride.

Thor's hammer pendant from the Viking Age
Öland, Sweden
Taken together, this all suggests a blessing role for Thor’s hammer in religious life, in addition to the protective role I discussed earlier. Thor’s hammer is a symbol of the god blessing and protecting people throughout their lives – from their welcome into the community at birth, through their acceptance of adult responsibilities at marriage, to their departure from the community at death.

[We could have an entire discussion on whether or not the individual really leaves the community at death, but let’s save that for another time.]

Thor’s hammer, then, is a symbol of all the things that bind a society together and keep them safe. In light of this binding idea, it’s interesting that another Old Norse term for the gods is bönd (“bonds”). The gods help keep us together.

To be concluded in Part Three.
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