LL – What part of Norse mythology do you find the most fascinating?
KS – My answer to this is really the same as my answer to your previous question: Odin, Thor and Freya. Let me explain.
|Odin takes a deep drink from the Well of Wisdom.|
I think that Thor is inspiring because he is so honest and so willing to stand up against the forces of darkness. He always speaks out against what he thinks is wrong, and he is brave enough to stand up against overwhelming and terrifying monsters (like the snake so big that it surrounds the earth). In the myths, he doesn’t just defend the gods; he also protects the scared little humans who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the destructive giants. I’m not saying you and I need to start running around and hitting monsters in the head with a big hammer. I think we can, however, learn how act bravely – even at the times when we are the most scared inside. We can learn to stand up against the monsters of our own time: prejudice, bigotry and bullying of all kinds. We can learn to speak up and defend those who maybe can’t defend themselves.
|Freya hangs out high up in the clouds above.|
LL – How does Norse mythology affect modern times?
KS – Norse mythology is around us every day. Have you ever heard someone talk about a bolt of lightning? The full name is thunderbolt. The English word thunder comes from the Old English word þunor, which was not only the word for thunder, but also what the Anglo-Saxons called Thor. Bolt is an Old English word meaning a short, heavy arrow. So, when we talk about a thunderbolt crashing to the ground, we’re keeping alive the memory of Thor throwing his mighty thunderweapon down from the sky. That’s pretty cool. If you study this material in more depth when you’re older, you’ll discover that there is a lot in modern English that can be traced back to ancient roots like this; many of the words we use every day are grounded in ancient myth and religion.
|I think we can all agree that the Marvel Comics Thor|
is totally cool, even if he's not really true to the myths.
LL – Around where and when did Norse mythology originate?
KS – The Norse myths that most of us familiar with really come from two Icelandic books that were written down in the 13th century – the Poetic Edda and the Edda. If you read popular versions of the Norse myths (popular meaning books for a non-scholarly audience, not popular meaning the mean girls in your gym class), almost all the stories that modern writers will tell you have been taken from these two books from Iceland. That’s actually pretty strange, and I’ll tell you why.
|Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote the Edda,|
one of our main sources of Norse mythology.
Way back around the year 0 (that’s right – zero), Roman authors wrote descriptions of the Germanic tribes that they were encountering on the continent. Although these Latin sources tend to interpret the gods of the northern tribes through the lens of their own religion, it’s pretty clear that the northerners were worshiping gods very similar to those that we’re familiar with from the much later Icelandic sources. Scholars have picked apart what the Romans recorded and decoded which “Roman” god in Germanic lands was really a version of Odin, Thor and so on.
Even earlier than that, we can find what I like to call “reverse echoes” of the Norse gods. Almost back to 2000 BCE, we can find rock carvings in Sweden that show very early versions of Norse religious figures and symbols. We can’t point at any specific image and say, “This is Thor” or “This is Freya,” but we can see that there is a continuum of concepts that stretches back many centuries. I think it’s very interesting that these carvings come from around the same time as the traditional date for the birth of Abraham, which means that Norse religion has roots just as old as that of Judaism.
LL – Where did Norse mythology spread to?
KS – Norse mythology spread everywhere. Mythology is a set of stories. You’re reading the stories now in California in the 21st century. That’s pretty far away from where these tales originated!
|The Germanic tribes sure did move around a lot, and they took|
their religion and mythology with them wherever they went.
This map shows the movement of the tribes from 378-439, and
it's just one small part of a much longer story. History is cool!
Like I said earlier, the version of the myths we are most familiar with come from Iceland in the 13th century, long after the island was converted to Christianity. The stories we know from the Icelandic sources are a very late version – a version that has been arranged into a neat, logical order by medieval writers. If we travel further back and farther abroad, the sources are much more fragmentary and confusing. Part of the fun of studying Norse mythology is trying to piece together all these little bits and figure out what people may have believed in various times and places.
LL – When and why did people stop believing in Norse mythology?
|DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME.|
Art by Andy Fairhurst
Religion’s role in history did not work out the same way. In different parts of the northern world, the Old Way was replaced by Christianity at different times. The conversion of England began in 597. The continental tribes were basically converted by 800. We’ve already talked about Iceland converting in the year 1000. Sweden wasn’t fully converted until around 1150. These official dates of conversion don’t mean that people completely stopped believing in the Norse gods, however.
There is evidence that belief in the gods and other mythological creatures (especially elves) continued in some places even into the 20th century. Jacob Grimm (as in Grimm’s Fairy Tales) recorded elements of the old belief system that were still practiced by rural European people in the 19th century. In Iceland today, more than half of the population says they still believe in elves – and five percent say they have met one of the Huldufólk (“hidden people”). Wow!
LL – Around what part of Norse mythology does your research center?
KS – Well, Lori, you’ve actually touched on most of it with your questions! I love learning about all aspects of history, mythology and religion. I think that these three things are really inseparable. In order to understand any one of them, you need to understand the other two. Every day, I read something related to one of these topics. I have books scattered all over the house with bookmarks in them, and my phone is full of digital books so I can read wherever I am.
|You'll have to wait until you're older to read|
this big book, but it's pretty exciting stuff.
I’d like to thank you for contacting me and asking me all these questions. It’s clear that you’ve thought a lot about this topic, and I hope that my answers will help you understand a bit more about the Norse myths. I wish you the best of luck in your future studies as you continue to explore this fascinating subject!