Thursday, April 25, 2013

Notes for "The Viking Gods," Part Two

This is the second part of the personal notes I prepared for my appearance on the Ancient Aliens episode about “The Viking Gods” on H2, the second History Channel station. Click here for Part One.

Thor as ruler with Frigg (left) and Odin (right) in an illustration from
History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus (1555)


Thor is a complicated character who can be seen as both a war god and a fertility god, as both subject to and superior to Odin – depending where and when your source comes from. Despite what modern artistic interpretations show us, he’s never physically described in any detail in the ancient poems, and it’s not even clear if he’s human-sized or giant-sized. All of this underscores that he is a spiritual and symbolic figure. The idea of Thor as a blustery, red-bearded, human-sized character really comes from the Icelandic sagas in the 1200s and 1300s, long after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in the year 1000. In these late sources, he seems to be shrunken down to underscore the victory of the new Christian faith.

In the mythological sources, he’s often in conflict with Odin – a conflict that is sometimes interpreted as reflecting a rivalry between the followers of each god. Odin is characterized as wise and wily, often using deceit and magic to get what he wants. Thor is blunt and honest, facing foes head-on and distrusting magic as dishonorable.


In Iceland, the courtly poets make Odin the superior god – understandable, given that he’s the god of both nobles and poets. Thor, the god of the free farmers and peasants, seems to have had a superior role in pre-conversion Sweden. In some regions in the North, Frey was more important. Thor was particularly associated with farmers and peasants, which shows that a conception of him as only a battling war-god is missing out on his fertility aspects as the god who brings rain to the fields. According to the Icelandic version, his mother is the Earth itself, and the variations on his wife in different sources also seem related to earthly fertility.

Thor’s popularity is connected to his characterization as an idealized self-image of the independent farmer – he’s rough, hard-working, honest and takes children on adventures. He fights off giants (symbols of terrifying natural forces) as farmers would struggle against rough conditions to protect their farms and families. In the conversion era, Thor (with his bluntness and love of common folk) was seen as the direct opposition to Christ as missionaries sought to convert the northern peoples.


Thor’s hammer is usually interpreted as a symbolic representation of lightning. It’s connected to conceptions of the mystic thunderweapon that show up in cultures around the world as early peoples sought to understand how something from the sky could smash trees and destroy homes. Like so many of these poetic images of a physical object that falls from the sky, Thor’s hammer is literally a “thunder-bolt,” a physical object that crashes to Earth with the flash of lightning.

Thor's hammer pendant from Sweden c1000 CE

Although we’re most familiar with the Icelandic image of Thor’s weapon as a metal hammer, other sources describe it as a rock or wooden club. The image of the thunderweapon evolved as human technology evolved, eventually giving us something described very much like the hammer of a smith, but one given the very convenient properties of always returning to the thrower’s hand and being able to shrink down small enough to fit inside Thor’s shirt. This last quality may be connected to the small hammer pendants worn by heathens during conversion times, in opposition to the crucifixes worn by Christian converts.

In the Icelandic myths, Thor’s hammer is the primary weapon of the gods against the enemy giants. Thor is constantly smashing giants at home and abroad with his hammer, and is very upset when it gets misplaced. Unfortunately for those of us who grew up with Marvel Comics, it’s never given a physical description other than mentions that it’s a bit short in the handle.


In Norse mythology, the giants are natural forces that are given a poetic or metaphorical form. The popular image of giants as huge, humanlike creatures really comes from later folklore. In Norse myths, they’re not necessarily big – and Thor himself sometimes swells up to gigantic size. Male giants are sometimes wise old rulers, sometimes frightening trolls. Female giants are sometimes beautiful maidens that mate with the gods, sometimes hideous troll-women.

Some conflicts between giants and gods seem like disagreements between rival families, and the two sides are actually closely related through marriage and parentage. In other cases, the conflict seems to be a symbolic one, between the gods representing order and creation and the giants representing chaos and destruction.


Frey is the main fertility god of Norse mythology. He seems to have been represented artistically as having an immense phallus, a clear symbol of his fertility role. He’s referred to as “the friend of the folk,” the god who is close to humanity and brings them aid – again, a fairly straightforward reflection of his role as fertility god. What records we do have of his worship tend to focus on his gifts of peace and plenty.

Frey (Froh) in Carl Emil Döpler's costume design for
premiere of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen


Frey had a ship called Skíðblaðnir, which means “assembled from pieces of thin wood.” Icelandic sources tell us that it was so cleverly constructed that it could be folded up like a cloth and put in your pocket, which connects it to model boats that were used for fertility rituals and then folded up and put away when not needed. Like so much of the mythological material, it seems that Christian writers in the 13th century and popular writers in the 20th century have misunderstood poetic imagery – which is sometimes based on forgotten religious ritual – and taken it as literal description of mystic objects.


Loki is not a god, but merely counted among the gods. He’s a giant who – for reasons never explained – becomes the sworn blood-brother of Odin. He’s the one character in Norse myth who seems to evolve over the course of mythic time, which is part of the evidence that he was a late literary creation and not part of actual pre-Christian religion.

He starts out as a mischievous character who gets the gods into trouble and then gets them out of it, usually through clever trickery and deceit. Early in the mythic timeline, he’s the travelling-companion of both Odin and Thor, but he goes on to kill the god Balder and will personally lead the army of giants and non-heroic dead against the gods in the final battle at the end of time. He has been interpreted as a sort of shadow-Odin, because many of his characteristics seem like parodies of those of Odin himself – more evidence that he’s really just a literary creation.


The sons of Ivaldi are dwarves who, along with another pair of rival dwarves, are tricked by Loki into making a set of treasures for the Norse gods. They appear briefly in the mythology in the role of smiths, a role taken by dwarves throughout Germanic mythology, legend and folktale.

Loki, the golden hair, and the dwarf in an illustration
from Maria Klugh's Tales from the Far North (1909)


The dwarves were tricked into making a set of treasures for the gods, all of which are symbols for values held by the noble classes of ancient Germanic culture. Among other objects, they fashion Odin’s spear, which represents religion throughout Norse myth and saga. They create Thor’s hammer, which represents the power to protect one’s family and followers. They make Frey’s boar, which is a Nordic symbol of fertility. They forge Odin’s ring that itself creates other rings, a clear symbol of wealth. They also make golden hair that attaches itself to the head of Thor’s wife and grows; her name basically means “wife,” which underscores that this golden, ever-growing hair is a poetic symbol of the bounty of fertility.


Norsemen traveled west to Canada, east as Iran, north to Greenland, and south to Africa. Despite the popular image of the Norse as violent Vikings, they were also great traders and adventurers.


The Icelandic sagas of the 1200s describe Norse voyages to North America in great detail. Archeological proof of their visits to this continent was finally discovered in Newfoundland in the 1960s. Research teams found clear physical evidence, including ship’s nails and remnants of buildings that matched structures in Iceland and Greenland.


Altar to the goddess Nehalennia (Domburg, Netherlands)

Thor, in his role as thunder god, seems to have been invoked for protection against stormy seas, as was a goddess named Nehalennia – there’s some evidence that she was a deadly sea-goddess who was asked by merchants to be merciful, but she may also be have been a benign goddess of fertility and plenty. There was also another sea-goddess named Rán, whose name is related to “robbery,” and who symbolizes the dark and terrifying ocean that drags down men and ships.


Unknown said...

I find Heathen myth often presented as unnecessarily complex. Shouldn't this be a faith of the common man? This is possibly the most down to earth, to the point, description of Heathen myth I've seen! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Complex yes, but human life is complex and contained in the myths are references to these life experiences. Faith? Not really, thats a Christian thing.norse myth is evidenced by its application to day to day living. Faith by its definition is,that which is without evidence

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