Monday, January 23, 2023

A 4th Grader Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion

It’s been a minute since I posted a set of answers, but I’ve long received emails from students in a wide range of levels who want to interview me about Norse mythology and Norse religion for their school projects.

I first answered questions that were sent by a high school student in 2011, followed by ones from a middle school student in 2012. One sixth grader interviewed me in 2013, then another one did in 2014. A college student sent a series of questions in 2016, and a second high school student sent more in 2018. All my sets of answers can be found in the For Students section of this website’s Archive of Articles and Interviews.

Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah

Eliza L. is a fourth-grade student in Ms. Amanda Ladia’s class at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father explains the “Passion Project” assignment:
Each student is allowed to pick any topic they want that they are interested in and passionate about to explore throughout the year and deepen their knowledge on, and then present their research and knowledge on the topic at the end of the year.

Eliza selected Norse mythology. She has been reading and learning a lot over the past four months and is getting more and more excited about the subject. We have read some of your blog posts and other interviews, and we love the way you explain everything about Norse mythology.
The questions Eliza sent are excellent and actually cover topics that I discuss with my students who are a decade older. Most impressive! Everyone involved gave their permission for her questions and my answers to be posted here, and I hope that what I wrote will be helpful to those of any age who are interested in learning more about the Norse myths.

What is a myth and why does Norse mythology exist?

We discuss this very complicated issue in the college course that I teach on Norse mythology and religion. One way to break it down simply is to define mythology as “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” and religion as “a set of beliefs and practices.” There’s much more to these things, but those two mini-definitions are a good place to start.

Myths can be told in many ways. Long ago, they were often performed in the form of poems or songs. They can be self-contained (like a movie) or linked together in a cycle of stories (like a chapter book). They can be understood in many ways, and you may understand a given myth very differently when you read it now and when you return to it at different stages of your life.

Norse myths are linked to the old religion that existed in various forms at various times and in various places in northern Europe. Before the new religion of Christianity spread throughout these lands, there was a variety of beliefs and practices (remember the religion definition) that included things like exchanging gifts with many gods, goddesses, ancestors, and land spirits.

As in other religions, stories were told about the figures that people who practiced these religions considered important. The stories explain ideas about how the world began, why it is the way it is now, and how it will end. The Norse myths are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, and sometimes scary – just like our own lives are.

What is unique about Norse mythology compared to other mythology from different parts of the world?

One thing is the characters of the characters – how the personalities of each of the main figures is shown through their words and deeds. There are other thundering gods who charge through the sky and throw lightning in other mythologies, but there is only one Thor. When you read about him in the myths, you feel that you really get to know him as a special and unique fellow.

Another thing is the imagery of the myths. They tell of mystical women warriors who ride onto battlefields to choose who will fall. They tell of wise giants and dwarfs who get involved in deadly riddle contests with gods. They tell of mystical weapons that can pass on a god’s blessing or a dwarf’s curse. The unique characters and objects can inspire you to imagine fantastic scenes – no illustrations needed!

What does Norse Mythology have in common with Greek mythology?

This is a good follow-up to your previous question. There are several things, including a god who throws lightning from on high, a trio of mystical female figures connected to fate, a group of gods who fights a rival group of gods, a failed attempt to bring someone beloved back from the land of the dead, and a figure who steals from the gods and is eventually bound and tortured by a single animal.

There are many more similarities, but there are also commonalities with myths from what we now call Ireland, Wales, Iran, India, and elsewhere. Why would similar characters and stories show up in so many different places? The languages from these places are related to each other as part of the Indo-European family of languages. The myths from these places are also related.

The modern understanding of the Indo-European theory of language, mythology, religion, and other cultural elements suggests that, very long ago, ideas about life and ways of living spread out over a wide geographic range. These things – all foundational to the life of a community – changed as they traveled and evolved as they were developed in different places.

It’s surprising to find similar characters and situations in myths composed around 1000 BCE in India and myths written down in Iceland around 1220 CE. That’s over 2,000 years apart, and the distance between the two nation’s capitals is nearly 5,000 miles. Amazing! Learning about Hindu mythology from India has deepened my understanding of Norse mythology and my appreciation of human connectedness.

Who is your favorite Norse god and why?

Can I choose three? When I first read the myths of Thor, he reminded me of my Opa – my grandfather on my German side who grew up a farmer in eastern Europe before becoming a bricklayer in Wisconsin. Thor is the god of the farmers and other regular people who work for a living. He’s as quick to forgiveness as he is to anger, he loves good food and drink, and he takes kids on adventures.

At age four in 1977, Star Wars was the first film I saw in a theater. I loved the space wizard Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same year, a cartoon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was on TV, and I loved the wandering wizard Gandalf. I read T.W. White’s The Sword in the Stone as a kid and loved the wise wizard Merlin. I was predisposed to love Odin, the wizardly god who inspired the creation of so many later characters.

Skaði by Tokubi Ka, Adult Third Place Winner, 2013 Midwinter Art Contest

I’ve always loved strong female characters like Pippi Longstocking, Eilonwy, Supergirl, Dakota North, Merida, Mirabel Madrigal, and Ms. Marvel. So, I immediately fell in love with Skadi, a frost giantess from the mountains whose father is killed by the gods. She goes alone to Asgard, challenges all the gods, and becomes goddess of skiing and hunting (like a Norse Artemis or Diana). She’s definitely cool!

What are a couple examples of the most interesting powers that the gods have, good or evil, in Norse mythology?

If you sit down and think about it, you may discover that powers in mythology aren’t always easily categorized as good or evil in and of themselves. What makes them good or evil is how they’re used. The ability to throw a lightning weapon is good when it’s used to protect us but evil if it’s used to harm us. This idea of power’s goodness or evilness via usage is also true about human power today.

You may have noticed that I wrote “ability to throw a lightning weapon,” not “ability to throw lightning.” Gods aren’t superheroes; they don’t each have a unique superpower. They have magical objects like Odin’s spear that can’t be stopped, Freyr’s glowing metal boar that runs over sky and sea, and Idunn’s apples that prevent the gods aging. If frost giants get these things, they may become gods themselves.

Why do you think gods can die in Norse mythology?

If you’re used to the God of the Bible, reading about the gods of Norse mythology can be a bit of a shock. I went the other way as a little kid. I read the Greek myths (as retold by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire) before I read Bible stories (in various kiddie versions). Given the big family of Greek gods, I thought God must be lonely. I cracked my dad up when I asked him, “Why isn’t God married?”

In Indo-European mythologies, gods and goddesses are much more like human men and women than like sthe Biblical God. God exists outside of time and space while being everywhere all at once, but the gods are of the world around us and live in time like us. They’re born, they live, they love, they experience emotions, they have adventures, and they die – just on a much bigger scale than we do.

Wondering about the nature of death is one of the most fundamental and most difficult things about being human. You could even make an argument that thinking about death is what defines humanity (probably not for a fourth-grade assignment). Humans composed the myths, so it makes sense that this most basic of all truths – that death is part of life – is included in the stories of the gods and goddesses.

Why do Norse gods have kids with more than one partner?

The first answer is again that the deities of Norse myth are like us, but on a grander scale. In the days before modern medicine, childbirth could be fatal to mothers, and fathers would sometimes remarry and have more children. It’s also an unfortunate fact that people sometimes stray from their committed relationships and marriages to have children with others. Gods, like humans, can make poor decisions.

The second answer is that those who wrote down the Norse myths two hundred years or so after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity tried to turn what were sometimes contradictory myths into a logical system. If one myth says a god has kids with one goddess and another myth says he has kids with a different goddess, later writers would merge the conflicting stories and say he had kids with both.

Can all or most of the Norse gods shapeshift?

Some of what at first seems like shape-changing may really just be disguise and cross-dressing. Thor disguises himself as a young boy and as a bride (!) when he travels to the land of the giants, but that’s not quite shapeshifting. Odin also disguises himself as a woman and uses sorcery to change his appearance.

Loki actually changes into a woman and bares babies, including as a female horse. Freyja and Frigg both have falcon cloaks that Loki uses to turn into a bird, but he uses his own abilities to turn into an insect, fish, and horse. Freyja also has the power to change one of her human followers into a boar. So, there’s a mixture of disguise, sorcery, magic objects, and shape-changing powers.

“Odin the Wanderer” by Willy Pogany from The Children of Odin (1920) by Padraic Colum

One thing to remember is that the gods are not literally what they appear to be in the myths. Loki says that Odin wanders the world in the guise of a wizard, which suggests that Odin isn’t really an old man with a long beard who walks in the forest. That’s either a disguise he wears when he visits our world or a way for tellers of myths to spin stories about mystical deities in forms that we can comprehend.

Are myths still being created in Scandinavia and being added to Norse mythology?

If we accept the definition I gave earlier – mythology is “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” – then new myths would have to be written by practitioners of Norse religion. Since the beginnings of Ásatrú (modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or being true to the main group of Norse deities) in 1972 in Iceland, there has been an ever-increasing number of modern practitioners around the world.

Nearly a decade ago, I posted the results of my Worldwide Heathen Census. They showed practitioners of Ásatrú (and variations under names such as Heathenry and Germanic Paganism) in ninety-eight countries. I’m not sure about practitioners in Scandinavia writing new myths, but I’ve read several by Americans that seemed weirdly focused on promoting gun ownership and militarism. Such is life.

If we broaden the definition of mythology to include stories about mythological figures written by non-practitioners, then there’s an enormous amount being created around the world. So many writers of comic books, novels, cartoons, movies, TV shows, video games, role-playing games, and songs are writing new adventures of the old gods and goddesses. There’s always something new being released.

How does Norse mythology influence today’s society?

The most obvious influence is in the forms of entertainment I just mentioned. We shouldn’t brush these aside and say that they’re just for fun. The stories we engage with across forms of media can have profound effects on our lives. They can bring us comfort in dark times, they can change how we see the world, and they can hopefully be a force for positive change.

Less obvious – or at least less visible – is the fact that, as I alluded to above, Norse mythology is once again connected to living religious practice. For today’s practitioners of Ásatrú, the myths can be as deeply meaningful as stories of Christ are for Christians and tales of Muhammad are for Muslims. At some point in your life, you may meet someone devoted to the figures you know from Norse myth!

I’m very glad that you chose Norse mythology for your project subject, and I’m really impressed by the seriousness and depth of your questions. I hope my answers help your understanding and encourage you to do more reading and research. Best wishes for your future studies!


After reading my answers to her questions, Eliza sent me an email with this message.
Thank you for doing my interview. I am very grateful you could do this for me. I liked learning about the comparison to other mythologies throughout the world. I learned many things. One thing I learned is that not all the gods can shapeshift, which I didn't understand before. I learned and understand better what I have been studying. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions.
She also made this amazing postcard with illustrations of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Odin’s spear Gungnir plus another thank you note that she also wrote out in runes. Very cool!

The art of the thank-you note isn’t dead! There is still hope for humanity.

This has been a wonderful experience all around, and I send kudos out to Eliza, her parents, and her teachers. Hail!

1 comment:

Karina said...

Here is my note as well....
Thank you, Dr. Seyfried! Stumbled into your blog while looking for Norse and Germanic Spring customs. I enjoy your writings very much!
Vielen Dank!

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