Wednesday, July 16, 2014

THOR IS DEAD

Marvel swears female Thor is forever.
Forever? Forever ever? Forever ever?
Actually, Thor has been dead several times in Marvel Comics.

He's also been Captain America, a Christian priest, a clone, a construction worker, a crazy person, a cult member, a divorced architect, a doctor with a bad leg, a dog, an exile from Asgard, a frog, a heathen priest, a horse-headed space alien, Lord of Asgard, a paramedic, Storm, a TV cameraman and a zombie. At the moment, those are the ones I can remember. I may have missed a few status updates.

Given the above, please excuse me for yawning while reading the breathless responses in mainstream media and social media to the Marvel Comics announcement that Thor will now be a woman. I hadn't even bothered to follow links to read any of the "news" stories, but people keep forwarding them to me and asking for my thoughts. I finally did some clicking around, and all was as I expected.

Marvel Comics editor Wil Moss insists, "This new Thor isn't a temporary female substitute – she's now the one and only Thor." As a check on the definitiveness of this definitive statement, please refer to the above list of the company's thunder god incarnations.

One of the female Captain Marvels
There are those among you who seem to be unfamiliar with the way comic books work in the post-"Death of Superman" era. Ever since the 1992 announcement of the Man of Steel's demise generated international media reports and millions of copies of a single issue, DC and Marvel – the two American comic book giants – have periodically killed characters or made other changes designed to fuel media reports and consumer interest.

The more popular the character, the less permanent the change. Superman stayed dead for less than a year. The reports of the deaths of Batman, Captain America and many other household names have also been greatly exaggerated.

Changes of race, gender and sexual preference of supporting characters have also been used to generate media attention and sales. Jewish Lesbian Batwoman got a lot of press. Asian Batgirl brought new attention to the character, for a time – then she moved aside for the return of White Batgirl. Female Robins have come and gone. Captain Marvel (Marvel version) seems to change gender every few years.

Female Loki on Marvel's commitment to "female-centrism"
Marvel gained a lot of attention for its Thor titles when Loki became female. When that novelty wore off, he became a teenage boy. When that novelty wore off, he was zapped back to his original adult age  – thus skipping the awkward post-collegiate years when he moves back into Odin's basement and plays video games while "looking for a job."

The Marvel website claims that the new female Thor is part of some wonderful empowerment plan for young American women: "THOR is the latest in the ever-growing and long list of female-centric titles that continues to invite new readers into the Marvel Universe. THOR will be the 8th title to feature a lead female protagonist and aims to speak directly to an audience that long was not the target for super hero comic books in America: women and girls."

Balder dead? What will they think of next?
This is somewhat reminiscent of the Marvel website asking in 2012, "Does Sif have the potential to be one of Marvel’s greatest heroines?" They answered their own question by canceling the female Asgardian's series after only ten issues. So much for Marvel's commitment to "female-centric titles."

Most people reacting to the Female Thor press release seem to have missed this little tidbit from IGN News: "The original Thor will still be operating in the Marvel Universe, however. He will now be wielding his magical god-slaying ax Jarnbjorn, which he used back in his younger days."

Do you think "the original Thor" will get his hammer back in time for the third Thor movie? Will Marvel re-start his comic book series with a Special Collector's Item First Issue in the lead-up to the film? Can we expect an iconic cover of Classic Thor holding the dead body of Not-a-Temporary-Female-Substitute Thor?

Yawn.

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!
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