“Njord’s Desire of the Sea” by W.G. Collingwood (1908)

V is for Vanir

The Vanir (Old Norse Vanir, pronounced “VAN-ear”) are one of the two principal tribes of deities featured in Norse mythology. (The other tribe is the Aesir.) Among their ranks are FreyaFreyrNjord, and arguably the early Germanic goddess Nerthus as well. Their home is Vanaheim, one of the Nine Worlds held within the branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

“Freyja and the Necklace” by James Doyle Penrose (1890)
“Freyr” by Johannes Gehrts (1901)

While the Aesir were known for their warlike nature and fighting ability, the Vanir were known for their powers over the sea and the fertility of the land. Why the two groups were so much at odds with one another isn’t clear since cooperating seems a sensible solution for both groups to be protected (through the powers of the Aesir) and able to propagate and fill the land (through the powers of the Vanir). But never mind. Eventually both sides recognized the strength of the other and decided continuing battles were counterproductive.

Thus ended the first Aesir-Vanir War.

About the only Vanir recorded in the Poetic Edda are those mentioned by Daniel McCoy in the above introductory paragraph. The Vanir gave Njord and his twin children, Freyr and Freyja, as hostages to the Aesir as guarantee of their good will at the end of the war in exchange for the pair Hoenir and Mimir given by the Aesir to the Vanir. From that point on, the three Vanir gods become integrated into the world of the Aesir. So much so that it is not clear whether Freyja and her husband Odr are not in fact Frigg and Odin.

And then there is Nerthus, not mentioned in the Poetic Edda at all. Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania (authored about 100 CE) referred to her as Mother Earth and described rituals where she would arrive in an area riding in a chariot drawn by cattle, accompanied by priests. Before her arrival, all iron implements must be hidden away so that there will be no war or violence while she is present. While she is there, the populace make merry and celebrate until she decides it is time for her to move on. Once she leaves an area, the chariot and all vestments as well as Nerthus herself are taken to a lake to be spiritually cleansed. All those humans involved in the cleansing are then drowned in the lake, apparently willing sacrifices for the goodness Nerthus brings to the earth. [1]

But it isn’t that simple. Those with more linguistic knowledge than I have pointed out that the name Njord is exactly what the Proto-Germanic name Nerthus would look like if translated into Old Norse. Perhaps Nerthus and Njord are really a linked pair, like Freyr and Freya, or even that they are names for the two aspects of a hermaphroditic god. [2]

“Nerthus” by Emil Doepler (1905)

[1] McCoy, Daniel. Norse Mythology for Smart People, article on Nerthus.

[2] Ibid.

Featured image credit: “Njord’s Desire of the Sea” by W.G. Collingwood (1908)

 

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U is for Ullr

Ullr (pronounced “ULL-er,” often Anglicized as “Ull,” and also occasionally referred to as “Ullinn”) is an obscure and enigmatic Norse god. References to him in Old Norse literature are sparse and tell us little to nothing about his personality or role in pre-Christian religion and mythology. Nevertheless, these passing references indicate that he was once a deity of considerable importance, even if we don’t know why.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Okay, I admit it. I picked U is for Ullr because I couldn’t find any other name that begins with U. The only place name I could come up with is Uppsala, but that’s in Sweden, and I will be traveling to Norway. And most of the resources I could find having to do with Uppsala are disputed by others.

So I’m sticking with Ullr or Ull. He is listed among the gods in the Poetic Edda. He was the son of Sif and the step-son of Thor. He was known for his skiing and his archery skills. But there are no known stories that include him.

But even he has made his mark on modern culture.

Ski patrols in parts of Europe wear a medallion with Ullr’s image, on skis, and carrying a bow and arrow. Breckenridge, Colorado, hosts a Ullr fest each January, supposedly to gain his favor and plenty of snow for the rest of the skiing season. There is even a New Zealand TV program that ran from 2011 to 2013, The Almighty Johnsons, based on the premise that a man woke up on his 21st birthday and discovered he and his family were reincarnated Norse gods who don’t yet know how to control their powers. And Ullr was one of the gods in the main character’s family. Clearly important.

And there are many place names in Norway that include his name, something for me to look for during my travels there.

For the tiny bit of information on Ull in the Poetic Edda, see stanzas 5, 42, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; notes for stanza 30, Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla; stanza 32, Atlakvitha En Grönlenzka, The Greenland Lay of Atli

Image credit: Public Domain, Link

T is for Týr

Tyr (pronounced like the English word “tier”; Old Norse Týr, Old English Tiw, Old High German *Ziu, Gothic Tyz, Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz, “god”[1][2]) is a Norse war god, but also the god who, more than any other, presides over matters of law and justice. His role in the surviving Viking Age myths is relatively slight, and his status in the later part of the Viking Age may have been correspondingly minor. But this wasn’t always the case. Other kinds of evidence show us that Tyr was once one of the most important gods to the Norse and other Germanic peoples.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Little remains documenting the achievements of Tyr. A note in the translation by Henry Adams Bellows of Hymiskvitha, The Lay of Hymir in the Poetic Eddas, indicates that the two great achievements of Tyr, the god of battle, were “thrusting his hand into the mouth of the wolf Fenrir so that the gods might bind him, whereby he lost his hand . . . , and his fight with the hound [of hell] Garm in the last battle, in which they kill each other.” [3]

Tyr’s sacrificing of his hand parallels Odin’s sacrificing of his eye in some ways. Where Odin’s sacrifice was in search of wisdom, Tyr’s was in defense of justice. For if the gods had succeeded at binding Fenrir through trickery, there would be no justice in their actions.

While references to Tyr are scant in the Poetic Eddas, there is evidence that the Romans knew of him and considered him to be the same god as Mars. The fact that in Latin languages the name for the third day of the week (Mardi in French, martes in Spanish, martedì in Italian) is based on the name of Mars, in Germanic languages the name for the same day (Tuesday in English, Dienstag in German, tirsdag in Norwegian and Danish, tisdag in Swedish), is based on Tyr, though the German version relies on a Latin version of the name for Tyr and the others go back to an alternate spelling, Tiw.

One of the runes in the Futhark alphabet (named by spelling out the first letter of the names of the first six runes where th represents one rune) is Tiwaz, the Proto-Germanic spelling of Tyr’s name. The rune means victory and honor. This connection with Tyr represents both his status as a god of war and of justice.

Many names referred to in the Poetic Edda end in “tyr” which in that context means “god of.” For example, Hangatyr, one of the Odin’s names, literally means the “god of the hanged.”[4]

In other words, he must have been an important god, though few tales remain.

[1] de Vries, Jan. 2000. Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. p. 603.

[2] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 408.

[3] Bellows, Henry Adams. 1923. Poetic Eddas p. 102

[4] Wikipedia entry for Tyr

Image credit: By John Bauer, Public Domain, Link

S is for Sleipnir

Sleipnir (pronounced “SLAYP-neer”; Old Norse Sleipnir, “The Sliding One”) is the eight-legged horse of the god Odin. Sleipnir is one of Odin’s many shamanic helping spirits, ranks that also include the valkyries and Hugin and Munin, and he can probably be classified as a fylgja. Odin rides Sleipnir on his frequent journeys throughout the Nine Worlds, which are held in the branches and roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Odin rides Sleipnirt o Hel

My granddaughter is fascinated with My Little Pony right now. Some of the inhabitants of Hasbro’s magical land of Equestria are just that–ponies. Some have wings. Some are unicorns. And some both are unicorns and have wings.

Whatever color or version–with a horn or without, with wings or without–My Little Ponies are magic.

Just like Sleipnir. Even without having a unicorn’s horn or wings, he can fly. And he has eight legs.

Though my A to Z challenge is to write about Norse mythology, the fact that references to Sleipnir mention that eight-legged horses can be found in other mythological traditions as well, usually associated with shamanism in some way, has veered my thinking in a different direction. So for today I decided to go in search of information about other eight-legged, mythical horses. After all, I’ve already talked about Sleipnir in L is for Loki and O is for Oðinn, so you already know how Loki shape-shifted into the form of a mare to attract the giant builder’s stallion away from the task of completing the wall around Asgard and that Odin rides on Sleipnir during his wandering through the cosmos.

I found several tales of horses with miraculous powers, most often the ability to fly or at least to cover great distances in a short period of time. But I didn’t find many examples of eight-legged horses–with or without magical powers.

The most promising possibility comes from South Korea where there is a tomb, Cheonmachong, from the 5th to 6th century CE, referred to as the Heavenly Horse tomb, with a stylized painting of an eight-legged, winged horse on a birchbark saddle flap inside the tomb. I searched for a myth to go with this, but failed to find one. I probably need more time.

I found references to a tale about an eight-legged horse from the area near Lake Baikal, but I couldn’t find the tale itself. This is as much as I found:

Eliade recounts a Buryat legend about a shamanic steed with eight legs: “a young woman takes as her second husband the ancestral spirit of a shaman, and after this mystical marriage one of the mares in her stud gives birth to a foal with eight legs. The earthly husband cuts off four of them. The woman cries: ‘alas! it was my little horse on which I used to ride like a shaman!’ and vanishes, flying through the air, to settle in another village.”

–from KRISTEN PEARSON, “CHASING THE SHAMAN’ S STEED” page 11

Tales about horses in Mongol culture are fascinating because in many of them, the horses, not the humans, are the heroes, and divinity is believed to be held by the horse, not humans.[1] But I couldn’t find one where the horse had more than the normal four legs.

I found a reference to Bagri Maro from Hindu folklore, which at least one anthropologist suggested is a horse with not only eight legs but also four heads. Another researcher suggests Bagri Maro refers not to a horse but to four people carrying a coffin since the only mention of Bagri Maro in English is from a funeral dirge.

I think I’ll ask my granddaughter what she thinks about a My Little Pony with eight legs. She accepts so many other wondrous elements in her corral of ponies. Maybe she’ll think having one with eight legs would be just fine. Just so long as it has cutie marks.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_culture_in_Mongolia

Image credit: By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) – The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 238. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from https://archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft This image was made from the JPEG 2000 image of the relevant page via image processing (crop, rotate, color-levels, mode) with the GIMP by User:Haukurth. The image processing is probably not eligible for copyright but in case it is User:Haukurth releases his modified version into the public domain., Public Domain, Link

R is for Ragnarøk

Ragnarok (Old Norse Ragnarök, “The Doom of the Gods”) is the name the pre-Christian Norse gave to the end of their mythical cycle, during which the cosmos is destroyed and is subsequently re-created. “Ragnarok” is something of a play on words; an alternate form, which sounds almost identical when spoken, is Ragnarøkkr, “The Twilight of the Gods.”

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Whether it is The Doom of the Gods or The Twilight of the Gods, the gods knew it was their destiny. As much as they worked to change it, when the first sign appeared, Baldur’s death, they knew Ragnarok was coming.

Odin gathered as many warriors as he could in Valhalla, to strengthen his army against the giants. But he knew even that would not prevent their destiny. The best outcome would be the destruction of the giants so that they could not return, even if it meant the destruction of the gods at the same time.

The occupants of Midgard, humans, also played a role in the coming of Ragnarok. They abandoned their traditional ways and kinship bonds and fell onto wayward paths.

The weather changed. Three years of winters passed without summers intervening.

At last, Fenrir and his father Loki, both of whom had been bound by the gods in attempts to prevent the destruction of Asgard, broke free of their bindings and joined with the giants as they moved to attack. Heimdall saw the giants coming and sounded the alarm with Gjallarhorn.

The fire giant, Surt, attacked with a sword of fire and set everything in flames. Surt killed Freyr, who did not have the protection of his sword because he had given it to his servant, Skirnir, for his assistance in obtaining the hand of Freyr’s wife, Gerd. In the battle, Freyr also kills Surt, just as Heimdall and Loki kill one another.

Jormungand, another of Loki’s offspring, attacked Thor, who was able to strike the serpent with his hammer, Mjollnir, and crush his skull before the serpent could unleash his venom on the earth. But Thor could only step back nine steps before the serpent blew his venom which killed Thor.

Fenrir ran with his jaws wide open so that he devoured everything in his path between the land and the sky. Fenrir killed both Odin and Tyr, though he was killed by Odin’s son, Vidar, about whom little is known except for his role in Ragnarok and that he survived along with his brother Vali, and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni.

At the end of the battle, the cosmos collapsed, returning to Ginnungagap.

But all did not remain dark and void. The earth returned from the seas, Baldur returned from the dead, two new humans, Lif and Lifthrasir, awoke in the newly green world, and the gods returned to take up their old lives.

Ragnarok destroyed the cosmos. Ragnarok made the way for a new cosmos to arise. The cycle continues. As do all cycles. Day becomes night which becomes day again. The full moon wanes to the new moon which waxes to become full again. Spring becomes summer which becomes autumn which becomes winter which becomes spring again. Seeds sprout and grow plants, plants blossom and grow more seeds, plants die and the seeds fall to the earth to be planted and sprout again. Birth leads to life which leads to death which leads to rebirth.

Life is cyclical, always leading to a new starting point. It is not a straight line connecting two opposing points.

Image credit: By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) – The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 276. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from https://archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft This image was made from the JPEG 2000 image of the relevant page via image processing (crop, rotate, color-levels, mode) with the GIMP by User:Haukurth. The image processing is probably not eligible for copyright but in case it is User:Haukurth releases his modified version into the public domain. Public Domain, Link

O is for Oðinn

Odin (pronounced “OH-din”; Old Norse Óðinn, Old English and Old Saxon Woden, Old High German WuotanWotan, or Wodan, Proto-Germanic *Woðanaz, “Master of Ecstasy”) is one of the most complex and enigmatic characters in Norse mythology, and perhaps in all of world literature. He’s the ruler of the Aesir tribe of deities, yet he often ventures far from their kingdom, Asgard, on long, solitary wanderings throughout the cosmos on purely self-interested quests. He’s a relentless seeker after and giver of wisdom, but he has little regard for communal values such as justice, fairness, or respect for law and convention. He’s the divine patron of rulers, and also of outcasts. He’s a war-god, but also a poetry-god, and he has prominent “effeminate” qualities that would have brought unspeakable shame to any historical Norse/Germanic warrior. He’s worshiped by those in search of prestige, honor, and nobility, yet he’s often cursed for being a fickle trickster. What kind of literary figure – let alone a god whose historical worship spanned much of a continent and several centuries – could possibly embody all of these qualities at once, with their apparently glaring contradictions?

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Odin riding Sleipnir, while his ravens Huginn and Muninn, and his wolves Geri and Freki appear nearby.

Odin is the father of the gods. Figuratively. Odin travels relentlessly in search of knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes he travels with Loki and Thor. Sometimes with Thor and Hoenir. Most of the time alone.

When he travels, he takes other names so that those he encounters are not aware of who he is. It doesn’t usually take long for others to figure out he is Odin.

Odin knows the value of sacrifice. He was prepared to sacrifice his life by hanging himself from Yggdrasil for nine days in exchange for knowledge of the runes. He sacrificed his eye for a drink from Mimir’s well from which he gained wisdom. From the giants, he stole the mead of poetry, brewed from Kvasir’s blood after the dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, had killed him.

Odin is associated with the dead. He reigns over Valhalla, the Hall of the Fallen. The valkyries gather half of all the dead in battles to live with Odin in Valhalla in order to fight with Odin against the giants when the war of wars, Ragnarok, begins. He also seeks the knowledge and wisdom of the dead.

Odin choses to share his knowledge and wisdom but not with all the gods. He choses those whom he choses.

Odin is accompanied by mystical, perhaps magical, creatures, seen with him in the image above. Two ravens, Hugin and Munin, accompany Odin, flying out each morning to see what may happen, returning to tell Odin what to expect. Two wolves, Geri and Freki, sit beside him when Odin is on his throne.

Odin travels on Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse borne to Loki when he took the shape of a mare to entice the builder giant’s stallion away from the task of completing the protective wall around Asgard, in order to save Freya, the sun, and the moon from falling into the hands of the giants.

Among other magical powers, Odin has the power of seidr, in spite of the fact that only women are expected to practice that magical art. Because of this, the other gods mock him as being unmanly. But Odin doesn’t care about honor. He cares about power, knowledge, and wisdom, gained by whatever means available.

Odin knows what is coming in Ragnarok. He knows he must face Fenrir, another of Loki’s offspring, and that Fenrir will kill him in the end.

He knows. But even he, the most powerful of the gods, cannot prevent it.

Image credit: By Lorenz Frølich – Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). Den ældre Eddas Gudesange. Photographed from a 2001 reprint by bloodofox, Public Domain, Link

N is for Nornir

In Norse mythology, the Norns (pronounced like “norms” with an “n” instead of the “m”; Old Norse Nornir) are three female divine beings who have more influence over the course of destiny than any other beings in the cosmos. They dwell within the Well of Urd beneath Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that stands at the center of the universe and holds the Nine Worlds in its branches and roots. They shape destiny by carving runes into the trunk of the tree, or, in some sagas and poems, by weaving destiny like a web or tapestry.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The three Norns who dwell within the Well of Urd are Urd (“What Once Was”), Verdandi (“What Is Coming into Being”) and Skuld (“What Shall Be”).

When I chose Norse mythology as the topic for the A to Z Challenge, I naively thought I could pull together some stories that I heard as a child and add a few descriptions of characters that I know have been used as inspiration for current culture heroes. But as I do the research, I have found so many sources from those who have in-depth knowledge of the tales, the players, and the religion or philosophy that binds them all together. I can barely scratch the surface. For a more thorough understanding of Norse mythology, I recommend the following sources:

Now back to the topic of the day. To answer the question “what are the Norns?” requires a complex knowledge of Norse and Germanic world views and many more words than I planned to put into any one of my posts during the April A to Z Challenge.

Let me try not to fall back on children’s fairytale versions in a simplified version of what I have learned about the Norns. Note: there are many other creatures in Norse mythology referred to as norns, without a capital n. Only the three who dwell within the well are known as Norns with a capital N.

Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld reside within the Well of Urd beneath the tree Yggdrasil. The tree connects all levels of the cosmos. The water from the well is drawn up the tree’s roots into the trunk and branches, and is eventually released through the leaves into the atmosphere where it collects and is returned to the earth as dew or rain. The movement of the water from the well is cyclical, with every bit of what flows through the tree nourishing the tree or returning to the Well.

The three Norns carve runes into the bark of the tree to declare what will happen to every living thing in the cosmos. For this reason, some refer to the Norns as fates or destiny. But just as the water that runs from the well, through the roots, up the trunk and out to the branches and leaves, and into the atmosphere will return and change the tree, other cycles in the world may affect what the Norns have written, causing the runes to change as well.

The pre-Christian northern Europeans believed it was possible to divine the future as well as change it. Freya introduced the magical power of seidr, to alter the future, to the Aesir.

Because the future can be altered, the work of the Norns never ends. As forces change the future, the Norns must incorporate those changes into the runes they carve on the trees.

Too simple, I admit. Perhaps by the time I reach Y is for Yggdrasil I will have absorbed more and can fill in some of the gaps.

For more about norns in general, see Poetic Edda, stanzas 8, 14, 19-20, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanza 111, Hovamol, The Ballad of the High One; stanza 49, Vafthruthnismol, The Ballad of Vafthruthnir; stanza 53, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 7, Svipdagsmol, The Ballad of Svipdag; stanzas 2, 4, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanza 18, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II, The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanzas 2, 24, Reginsmol, The Ballad of Regin; stanzas 11-13, 44, Fafnismol, The Ballad of Fafnir; stanza 17, Sigrdrifumol, The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer; stanza 7, Sigurtharkvitha En Skamma, The Short Lay of Sigurth; stanza 17, Atlakvitha En Grönlenzka, The Greenland Lay of Atli; stanza 13, Guthrunarhvot, Guthrun’s Inciting; stanza 28, Hamthesmol, The Ballad of Hamther

Image credit: By Amalia Schoppe. – Die Helden und Götter des Nordens, oder Das Buch der sagen. G. Gropius., Public Domain, Link