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

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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

M is for Mjölnir

Sindri then put iron on the hearth, and told Brokkr that, for this next working, they must be especially meticulous, for a mistake would be more costly than with the previous two projects. Loki immediately stung Brokkr’s eyelid, and the blood blocked the dwarf’s eye, preventing him from properly seeing his work. Sindri produced a hammer of unsurpassed quality, which never missed its mark and would boomerang back to its owner after being thrown, but it had one flaw: the handle was short. Sindri lamented that this had almost ruined the piece, which was called Mjollnir (“Lightning”[1]). Nevertheless, sure of the great worth of their three treasures, Sindri and Brokkr made their way to Asgard to claim the wages that were due to them.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Without Loki, there would be no Mjollnir. It was Loki’s mischief, cutting off Sif’s golden hair, that resulted in his traveling to Svartálfaheimr to get the dwarves to make a replacement, along with two other gifts for the gods. And while there, he couldn’t help himself but to challenge other dwarves to make items even more wondrous than the three he already had. We have Loki to thank for Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir.

Without Mjollnir, would Thor have been as powerful? There would be far fewer tales without Mjollnir. One of my favorites wouldn’t have happened at all without Mjollnir because it is the tale of what happened when Thor lost his hammer.

One morning Thor realized Mjollnir was missing. Because all the Aesir relied on Thor and his hammer to protect Asgard, Thor was enraged and searched everywhere, without success.

Freya offered to help by loaning Loki, the shape shifter, her falcon feathers so he could fly to find Mjollnir. Loki took the feathers and flew in search of the hammer. Because Loki was sure one of the giants had stolen Mjollnir, he flew to Jotunheim where he again took his own shape as a god before he approached chief of the giants, Thrym.

Loki asked Thrym if he knew who had taken Mjollner. Thrym proudly admitted he had Thor’s hammer, and he had buried the hammer deep in the earth. He also said he would never return the hammer unless he could have Freya as his bride.

Loki used the falcon feathers and flew back to Asgard to tell Thor and the other gods what he learned. When Loki was finished, Heimdall–not Loki–suggested that Thor should disguise himself as Freya and go to Jotunheim to trick Thrym into giving him back his hammer. Thor objected, saying the other gods would mock him for the rest of his days. Loki pointed out that if Thor did not go to Jotunheim to retrieve Mjollnir, Asgard would be ruled by the giants.

Reluctantly, Thor agreed, and Loki offered to go with him as “Freya’s” servant.

When the two arrived at Thrym’s home, the giant bragged to all those who would hear that he finally had been given a gift worthy of him.

At dinner, Thor ate and drank so much that Thrym became suspicious. Loki quickly responded that the bride had been so looking forward to her arrival that she had not eaten or drunk anything for a week. This pleased Thrym so much that he lifted the veil and faced Thor’s glaring eyes. Thrym turned to Loki and said he had never seen such piercing eyes. Again Loki quickly responded by saying the bride had been so eager to come that she hadn’t slept.

After the ceremony, as was the custom, Thrym presented his bride with his most prized possession, the hammer Mjollnir. Once Thor had the hammer in his hands, he threw off the women’s clothing and struck and killed Thrym. After killing all the rest of the wedding guests, Thor and Loki returned to Asgard.

For more information about Mjollnir, see The Poetic Edda, stanza 51, Vafthruthnismol, The Ballad of Vafthruthnir; stanza 14, Harbarthsljoth, The Poem of Harbarth; stanza 37, Hymiskvitha,  The Lay of Hymir; stanzas 57, 59, 61, 63, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanzas 1, 31, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym;

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 219-220.

Image credit: Public Domain, Link

M is for Miðgarðr

Midgard (Old Norse Miðgarðr, Gothic midjungards, Old English middangeard, Old Saxon middilgard, Old High German mittilgart or mittangard, Proto-Germanic *meðjanagarðaz,[1][2] “Middle Enclosure”) is one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology and an important concept in the pre-Christian worldview of all of the Germanic peoples. It’s the inhabited world, and roughly corresponds to the modern English word and concept of “civilization.” It’s the only one of the Nine Worlds that’s primarily located in the visible world; the others, while they may intersect with the visible world at various points, are first and foremost invisible locations.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People

Midgard is the visible world. Where humans live. In the middle. Between the land of the gods above and the land of the giants and chaos below. The place that should be most familiar to humans.

Most of the action in Norse mythology takes place outside Midgard. In fact, the gods seem to have been indifferent to humans. But they did take some steps to protect Midgard. When the gods created the cosmos from the body of the giant Ymir, they placed Ymir’s eyebrows around Midgard to serve as a fence or a wall, to protect it from the chaos that surrounded it.

One of Loki’s children, Jormungand, the serpent, lived in the sea that surrounded Midgard, where Odin threw him with the hope that being tossed against the rocks in the sea would kill him. But it didn’t. The serpent grew until it was so large that it circled the earth with enough room left to put its tail in its mouth.

While Jormungand surrounded Midgard, it was not for protection. The serpent was a threat to the humans of Midgard as well as the gods. Because Midgard is in the middle.

More on that when I get to R is for Ragnarok.

[1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 264.

[2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 214.

Image credit: By Image extracted from page 039 of Histoire des peuples du nord, et des Danois et des Normands, by WHEATON, Henry. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Copied from Flickr. Note: The colours, contrast and appearance of these illustrations are unlikely to be true to life. They are derived from scanned images that have been enhanced for machine interpretation and have been altered from their originals. This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. View image on Flickr   View all images from book   View catalogue entry for book |   Public Domain Link

L is for Loki

Loki (pronounced “LOAK-ee;” Old Norse Loki . . .) is the wily trickster god of Norse mythology.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The children of Loki and the giantess, Angrboða: Fenrir the wolf; Jormungand, the serpent that surrounds Midgard; and Hel, the guardian of Hel

Loki is difficult to describe. He isn’t one of the Aesir, but he gets lumped with them because of his association with Odin, especially in the tales where Odin, Hoenir, and Loki travel together.

At least one of his parents was a giant, his father Farbauti. Not much is known about his mother, except her name, Laufey or Nal.

Loki is the father of Fenrir, Jormungand, and Hel, by the giant, Angrboda.

Loki, with his wife Sigyn, had one other child, Narfi or Nari.

And most mysteriously, Loki is the mother of Odin’s eight legged horse, Sleipnir, as a result of his shape-shifting into the form of a mare in order to lure the stallion Svadilfari away from his master’s task. Svadilfari’s master was a giant who had challenged the gods that he could complete building a protective wall around Asgard within one winter. The giant’s price for accomplishing the task: the hand of Freya as well as the sun and the moon.

The unnamed giant builder had originally proposed he could build the wall, with only the help of his stallion, in three seasons. Loki suggested to the gods that they accept the giant’s proposal but to insist the work be done in only one winter. The builder accepted.

Because the builder made progress so much more quickly than the gods had expected, they seized Loki and threatened to kill him if he could not come up with a solution to stop the progress so they would not have to give up Freya, the sun, and the moon. Loki’s shape-shifting solved the problem. The builder could not complete the wall without the assistance of his stallion. Freya, the sun, and the moon were not lost.

When the giant insisted he receive fair payment for the work he had done, the gods gave him what they considered he deserved, a fatal blow on his skull that broke the bones into pieces no larger than breadcrumbs.

Any tale involving Loki seems to involve ambiguity in its lessons.

Did the giant deserve death for not completing the work within one season instead of three seasons?

Did the gods act fairly when they insisted Loki take action to prevent the giant from completing the task?

Did Loki act on the gods’ behalf when he suggested changing the terms of the task from three seasons to one winter?

Was the giant’s intention–to plunge the whole cosmos into darkness by removing the sun and moon–so abominable that taking any action, including trickery, was appropriate to prevent it?

Those questions and others like them follow Loki in every tale that includes him. He is the reminder that the world is not black and white. That answers are not either true or false, good or bad. That reality includes a bit of all opposites, and living requires recognizing ambiguity exists everywhere. No one can escape it.

For more information about Loki, see the Poetic Edda, stanzas 15-18, 35,-51, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; all of Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; all of Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; stanzas 30, 42-43, Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla; stanzas 42, 50, Svipdagsmol – The Ballad of Svipdag; stanza 44, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; all of Reginsmol, The Ballad of Regin;

Image credit: By Willy Pogany – Originally from Colum, Padraic (1920). The Children of Odin. New York: The Macmillan Company. Illustrated by Pogany, Willy. As found at http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=colum&book=odin&story=_contents Uploaded 01:24, 23 August 2008 (UTC) by Bloodofox (talkcontribs) to en:wiki., Public Domain, Link

K is for Kvasir

At the conclusion of the Aesir-Vanir War, the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great vat. From their spittle they formed a being whom they named Kvasir (“Fermented Berry Juice”[1]). Kvasir was the wisest human that had ever lived; none were able to present him with a question for which he didn’t have a satisfying answer. He became famous and traveled throughout the world giving counsel.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The way I count them, there were two Aesir-Vanir wars. The first one began when the Aesir tried to kill Freya, a völva from the Vanir clan who traveled to Asgard, using the name Gullveig. Three times they tried to burn her to death. And three times she came back to life.

That first war ended after the two tribes realized they were equally strong, each using their own methods, with an exchange of hostages. The Vanir sent Njord and his twin children, Freyr and Freya, to live with the Aesir, and the Aesir sent Hoenir and Mimir to live with the Vanir.

We know from previous posts that Freyr and Freya assimilated with the Aesir so thoroughly that both are sometimes referred to as Aesir. But Hoenir and Mimir didn’t fare so well among the Vanir.

Impressed by Hoenir’s handsome appearance, the Vanir made him a chieftan and turned to him for advice. Initially they observed that Hoenir was able to dispense excellent advice, but they failed to noticed that he was only able to do so in the presence of Mimir, the creature who guarded the well at the bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil which held the source of wisdom in its waters. Hoenir was a good traveling companion, but didn’t stand up to challenges on his own.

When the Vanir noticed that Hoenir’s response to requests for advice were too often that they should let someone else decide, they felt they had been deceived. To respond, they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Asgard as a protest.

Fortunately, because Odin had obtained both knowledge of the runes and wisdom through drinking the water from Mimir’s well, he was able to chant magic poems over Mimir’s head and embalm it in herbs so he could continue to ask for Mimir’s counsel.

Thus began the second Aesir-Vanir War, or perhaps only the threat of another war.  Since the two tribes of gods already knew the outcome of any continuing battle would likely be the same as before, they decided to conclude or forestall hostilities this time by both Aesir and Vanir spitting into a vat, mixing their spittle. From the mixture a new being arose, Kvasir, an exceedingly wise being to serve as a reminder of their pledge never to take up hostilities again.

For more about Kvasir, see the tale of the Mead of Poetry in Daniel McCoy’s Norse Mythology for Smart People.

For source references to Kvasir, see The Prose Edda, license for use at www.gutenberg.org

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 184.