Thursday, April 18, 2013

Notes for "The Viking Gods," Part One

I recently appeared on episode of the Ancient Aliens television show about “The Viking Gods” on H2, the second History Channel station. As they do for all episodes of this popular series, the producers interviewed scholars of a particular historical period and asked them to explain the culture, mythology and technology of the time. I was asked about Norse mythology, as were Scott A. Mellor (UW-Madison Department of Scandinavian Studies), Timothy R. Tangherlini (UCLA Scandinavian Section), Kirsten Wolf (also UW-Madison) and Jonathan Young (Joseph Campbell Archives).

Crop circle in shape of bass clef – proof of ancient alien bassists?

Personally, I agreed to participate because I wanted to make sure that basic information about Norse mythology and religion was presented in a fair and accurate manner. I told the producers up-front that I have absolutely no interest in “ancient astronaut theory.” My answers were edited down to a few very brief soundbites, which is totally fair and understandable. However, many people have asked me what my full answers were to the producers' questions. I can’t provide transcripts of what I actually said, since I haven’t seen the full footage myself. Instead, I am posting the personal notes I typed up while preparing for the interview. Enjoy.


The Norse gods were worshiped over a very wide range of space and time. Rock carvings and artifacts in Scandinavia dating back to over 1,000 years BCE show what we could call “reverse echoes” of the Norse gods. The conception of the gods hadn’t yet evolved into the characters we’re familiar with as Thor and Odin and the rest, but you can see common symbolic elements such as the sacred chariot, sun wheel and axe or hammer.

Rock carving from Bohuslän, Sweden (c1800 BCE)

Conversion to Christianity began in England around 600. Sweden, the last heathen holdout, converted around 1150. As the various Germanic tribes migrated over time, the gods moved with them. We have evidence from literature, archeology and place-name analysis that shows local variants of Norse religion throughout the continental German lands, Scandinavia, the northern islands and the British Isles.


The World Tree is a poetic concept in Norse mythology that serves as a symbol to connect the Nine Worlds of gods, men, elves, dwarves, giants and the dead. It’s related to the Germanic concept of the Warden Tree, a tree that guards your homestead. A farm would have a Warden Tree to protect the household, a temple would have a tree that protects the community. By extension, Odin’s hall (Valhalla) has its own Warden tree, and the world itself has a tree – this symbolic World Tree that connects the different realms of the various inhabitants of the world.


There’s a wide range of sources for what we now call Norse mythology. There are Latin writings by Julius Caesar and Tacitus that describe the religion of the Germanic tribes that came into contact with the Roman Empire. There are texts by Christian writers during the Conversion Era that discuss heathen beliefs. There are sagas and histories written by Icelanders and Danes that record tales of the gods.

A copy of Snorri Sturluson's Edda (Iceland, 18th century)

Next to these sources, the two books that provide the most coherent version of Norse myth are what we now call the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. They were written down by Christian writers in Iceland in the mid-1200s – over two centuries after Iceland’s conversion. Both texts contain a lot of Christian elements mixed in. Snorri Sturluson, the compiler of the Prose Edda, is particularly keen to let readers know that he thought the pre-Christian religion was nonsense. These books are accessible to modern readers because, in typical medieval fashion, they seek to impose a clear structure on what was really a variable and contradictory set of religious beliefs over a wide range in space and time


Snorri Sturluson was an Icelandic author who compiled a book called the Edda, which is sometimes translated to mean “Poetics.” This book was not written to record religious belief or describe religious ritual. It’s really a poetry manual.

With the coming of Latin learning and continental-style prose writing after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the older art of traditional poetry was dying out. Icelandic poetry was largely based on metaphorical allusions called kennings, which referred to characters and events of Norse myth. In order to understand the poetry, the audience had to know the mythology very well. Two centuries after conversion, this knowledge was fading – and so traditional poetry was becoming difficult to understand. Snorri wanted to record the myths in a systematic, orderly way so that his contemporaries could read and write in the older poetic style.


The concept of the Nine Worlds is a poetic way of imagining the different realms of gods, men, elves, dwarves, giants and the dead. These realms are thought of as discrete areas, mythical versions of the discrete homesteads and communities of the northern world. Gods, giants, dwarves and men in the myths and sagas travel on foot and by horse between these areas, which are clearly not distant planets in outer space – that’s an idea we get from the Marvel Comics version (which appeared nearly a decade before Erich von Däniken published his “ancient alien theory” and seems, along with other 1960s pop culture, to have greatly influenced it).

Map of Asgard and Nine Worlds from Marvel Comics


Asgard means “enclosure of the Æsir” and is named for one of the two tribes of Norse gods. It’s the home of the major Norse gods and goddesses, including Thor, Odin and Freya. Each of the characters has their own hall within the wall of Asgard, and there are poetic ideas connecting Asgard to the afterlife.

Odin’s Valhalla (“Hall of the Slain”) is where he collects dead human heroes to fight the final battle with the giants at the end of time. The goddess Freya takes half the dead who die in battle into her hall, but we don’t know why. Thor gathers the dead from the peasant or farming class, the part of society he is especially connected to as the god who brings rain for crops and defends the common person from the giants, symbols of the terrifying forces of nature.


Midgard means “middle enclosure.” This is where humans live, and the term is the root source for Tolkien’s “Middle-earth.” Midgard is surrounded by frightening places such as the home of the giants and the home of the dead. This is understandable, given the structures of communities in the ancient North, where life was often hard and vicious. Thor was thought of as the protector of humanity, defending his followers from the overwhelming forces of nature, which are given metaphorical form as terrifying giants.


When we think of Norse mythology as a coherent system, we’re really accepting a very late version of the myths that was systematized and written down in Iceland, centuries after the conversion to Christianity. In the Christian era, Snorri Sturluson tried to organize a complicated heritage of poetry and oral tradition into a clear storyline. He clearly misinterprets some of his material and seems to freely invent some passages.

According to this post-conversion synthesis, there are two main tribes of gods. The Æsir include gods more associated with war like Odin and Thor; the Vanir are gods tied more to fertility, like the twins Frey and Freya. These two groups mix freely together, and evidence of actual religious belief tends to blend and blur their supposed roles as gods of war and gods of fertility.


The consistent characteristic of Odin in Germanic myth is his power to inspire. His name is connected to a root meaning both “fury” and “poetry.” This really sums up his role – he inspires the warrior to a battle-frenzy and he inspires the poet to a creative-frenzy. This idea is reflected in his power to metaphorically bind and unbind men’s minds. He could bind the minds of his enemies, which is a poetic way of saying that he could paralyze them with fear – like Mike Tyson did with his boxing opponents. He could also unbind men’s minds, which is poetic way of saying he could inspire creativity by freeing poets from what we now call “writer’s block,” for example.

A bronze figure thought to represent Odin (Sweden, 7th century)
The missing arm appears to be later damage.


Odin’s high seat, which is named with a term that roughly means “watchtower,” is a place where he could sit and look out over the world. On one hand, it’s related to the high seat of the Germanic hall, where the leader of the family would sit during gatherings; Odin is (at least in the late Icelandic version) the leader of the main family of gods. On the other hand, it’s related to the high seat of the prophetess; she would be physically raised up so that, symbolically, she was raised above the world and could see farther ahead in space and time.


Odin has two ravens named Hugin and Munin who fly through the world each day and report back to him what they see. Their names mean “thought” and “memory,” showing them to be symbolic representations of Odin sending out his thoughts in animal form while in a shaman-like trance.


Odin’s hall is called Valhalla, which means “hall of the slain” and may be connected to ancient religious beliefs that the dead lived on inside of burial mounds. This is reflected in poetic descriptions of a host of human warriors that have been killed in battle and selected by Odin and his Valkyries to live on in Valhalla, fighting and dying and being constantly reborn – feasting on an endless supply of mead and pork until the final battle with the giants at Ragnarök. We know about the hall from Icelandic poetry that describes it as full of weapons and shields, populated with fierce warriors who joyfully fight each other and are served endless food and drink by Valkyrie waitresses – clearly an image of paradise for young warriors.


Odin is really a unique character, but the Romans connected Odin to their own Mercury, most likely because of the Roman god’s connection to trade, wisdom and traveling far and wide. Odin was seen by his followers as a god of cargoes, as a seeker after and sharer of wisdom, and as a lone wanderer who traveled the world in a quest for knowledge.

Mercury as god of commerce and industry on a French coin from 1924


The term Valkyrie means “chooser of the slain.” They are mythologized versions of female ritual leaders in the Germanic world mentioned by Roman, Arab and Anglo-Saxon writers. These original women led ritual human sacrifice, literally “choosing the slain” – selecting who would be sacrificed and then carrying out the killing themselves. They would, of course, have been imposing and terrifying figures, and over time they evolved into this conception of mystical warrior-women who decide who is to die on the battlefield – taking the greatest heroes to Odin in Valhalla, where they are gathered to fight in the final battle with the enemies of the gods at the end of time.

To be continued in Part Two.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that the king of the Norse gods was specifically the god of wisdom, poetic inspiration and the quest for knowledge, as well as the keeper of the souls of the dead. This reveals the Norse as far less "barbarous" than historians have claimed.

--Leslie <;)))>< Fish

Terry Exley said...

This is a wonderful contribution to the web. I have always enjoyed reading about the norse gods!

Disenchanted said...

Do you use "heathen" to refer only to Nordic religions? because that is the only way that you can claim the Sweden was the last heathen holdout, as the conversion of Lithuania happened 2 centuries later

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Disenchanted,

Yes - in the context of this website I'm using "heathen" to refer to what you could also call "Norse religion" or "Pan-Germanic religion(s)." I'm interested in the roots of Romuva and Dievturība, but they aren't really what I'm discussing here.


Disenchanted said...

Fair enough! it just that a fried of mine was once supprised to hear that the Lithuanians were the last Pagans in Europe. This was in fact the reason (excuse) that they were at risk of invasion by the Teutonic knights and prompted the Polish Lituanian Union. I really enjoy you blogs by the way - thanks for sharing

Joseph said...

Viking mythology had nine realms and our solar system has nine planets. Makes me wonder, how would they know?

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