“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)

 

Advertisements

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

J is for Jötunheim

Jotunheim (pronounced “YO-tun-hame;” Old Norse Jötunheimr, “World of the Giants”) is one of the Nine Worlds, and, as the name implies, the homeland of the giants (Old Norse jötnar).

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Ragnarok began/will begin when the giants invade Asgard, home of the gods. For this reason, the gods take every precaution, including stationing Heimdall at the Bifrost rainbow bridge to warn the gods when the giants are coming.

It should be no surprise, then, that the tales pitting gods against giants occur in the land of the giants, Jotunheim. Following is a list of the best known of those tales.

One of the simplest to tell is the last, and since it involves Odin, the most important of the gods, and Mimir, who will be important later, that’s the one I’ll tell here.

The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons.

Odin was ever searching for knowledge and wisdom, willing to make significant sacrifices.

First, he willingly wounded himself with his spear, hung himself, and went without food and water for nine days (nine is a significant number in Norse mythology) to gain knowledge of the runes. Runes were much more than just letters; they were pictographs that held secrets and mysteries. Thus knowledge of the runes was the same as knowledge of magic.

Second, he knew wisdom was kept in a well in Jotunheim at the bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the nine worlds of the Norse cosmology.

The well was guarded by Mimir, a shadowy creature who may have been a god or a giant. Or maybe neither. That Mimir was one of two creatures the Aesir offered to the Vanir at the end of the first Aesir-Vanir war suggests to me that Mimur was Aesir, but there is likely equally convincing evidence I haven’t come across yet that he was not.

What is clear is that Mimir was exceptionally wise, and that the source of his wisdom was the liquid in the well.

Odin traveled to Mimir’s well and asked Mimir for a drink of the water. Mimir knew the value of the water and refused to give the visitor a drink unless he first sacrificed an eye. Because he, too, knew the value of the water, Odin cut out one of his eyes and dropped it into the well. In exchange for the god’s sacrifice, Mimir drew water from the well in a drinking horn and offered it to Odin.

The moral of the story, of course, is that no sacrifice is too great to gain wisdom. The rest of the story is tied with how the knowledge and wisdom is used, perhaps as evidenced through other tales, to be told later.

Image credits: 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 colors, 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

Public Domain, Link

D is for Draupnir

Sindri then set another piece of gold on the fire as Brokkr worked the bellows. The fly bit Brokkr on the neck, and Sindri drew out a magnificent ring, Draupnir (“Dripper”[1]). From this ring, every ninth night, fall eight new golden rings of equal weight.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Draupnir, one of six magnificent gifts, is part of the story of how Thor got his hammer. And there’s plenty of deception involved.

Once again, a key player is Loki, the mischievous trickster. He is never satisfied with what he has, always on the lookout for more.

Loki cuts the hair of the goddess Sif.

One day he cut off the golden hair of Sif, Thor’s wife. Thor was not pleased and threatened Loki with breaking all his bones. But Loki pleaded for his life, promising that he could get the dwarves, master craftsmen, to replace Sif’s hair. Thor agreed, and Loki headed for Svartálfaheimr, the home of the Black Elves.

Loki was able to convince the sons of the dwarf, Ivaldi, to create a more beautiful head of hair for Sif than she had had before. But that’s not all they did. They also created two more gifts, Skidbladnir, a ship that could be folded up and put into a pocket, and Gungnir, the mightiest of swords.

“The third gift — an enormous hammer” by Elmer Boyd Smith. The dwarven Sons of Ivaldi forge the hammer Mjolnir for the god Thor while Loki watches on. On the table before them sits their other creations: the multiplying ring Draupnir, the boar Gullinbursti, the ship Skíðblaðnir, the spear Gungnir, and golden hair for the goddess Sif.

You’d think Loki would be pleased that he would return from Svartalfaheimr with more than he promised, but then that just wouldn’t be like Loki. Instead of returning with the replacement hair for Sif, the ship that always found favorable winds, and the mightiest of swords, he thought he’d like to remain with the dwarves, out of Thor’s sight, and able to cause more mischief. He came up with a bet for two dwarf brothers, Brokkr and Sindri, a challenge that they could not match the craftsmanship of Ivaldi’s sons by coming up with three more magnificent items. If they failed, Loki said they could have his head.

Brokkr and Sindri accepted the challenge. In his attempt to foil the two, Loki, a shape shifter, transformed himself into a fly and bit each of the dwarves as they worked to create Gullinbursti, a living boar with golden hair, who gave off light in the dark and could run better than any horse, even through water or air, and Draupnir, the magnificent ring.

Since his first efforts to foil the dwarves with his fly bites had failed, this third time, as Sindri set out to create a hammer for Thor, Loki bit him on the eyelid so that blood dripped into Sindri’s eyes. Sindri pulled out the hammer, Mjollnir, perfect in every way except that its handle was short.

Loki removed the six gifts and headed back to Asgard where he gave the replacement of Sif’s hair and the hammer, Mjollnir, to Thor; the ring, Draupnir, and the spear, Gungnir, to Odin; and the boar, Gullinburst, and the ship, Skidbladnir, to Freyr.

Brokkr and Sindri also traveled to Asgard, assured that their gifts would be accepted in spite of Mjollnir’s flaw. The gods agreed that Loki owed Brokkr and Sindri for their work. When the dwarves approached to take his head, Loki objected, saying he had agreed they could have his head, but not his neck, and removing his head would injure the neck. The dwarves therefore contented themselves with sewing Loki’s mouth shut. [2]

While this tale explains the origin of tools and gifts in the possession of the gods, I think the real lesson concerns Loki, the sometimes charming and sometimes devious trickster.

The trickster is an archetype in many early cultures. The spider, Anansi, in the Caribbean and West Africa, the coyote spirit and Kokopelli in Native American and First Nations traditions, leprechauns in Irish culture; the list goes on.

As frustrating as it is to decide whether to like or dislike Loki and other trickster beings, I appreciate the lessons they provide, that the world and all the people in it cannot be divided neatly into the good and the bad. There is a little of both in all of us.

The tales remind me of an interview I watched with Dustin Hoffman in which he described how he felt about playing villains. To paraphrase, he said no one, even a villain, thinks of themselves as a bad person. So playing a villain just means playing a person who thinks he is a good person but who got caught doing something bad.

I’m sure Loki would agree.

What happened to Draupnir? Odin placed it on the funeral pyre for his son, Baldur–one treasure to accompany another.

Reference to Draupnir can be found in the Poetic Eddas, stanzas 21 and 22 of Skrinismol, The Ballad of Skirnir.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 65.

[2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 43.

Image credits: By Willy Pogany – Uploaded to the English language Wikipedia in August 2008 by Bloodofox (log), Public Domain, Link

By Elmer Boyd Smith (1860 – 1943) – Page 88 of Brown, Abbie Farwell (1902). “In the Days of Giants: A Book of Norse Tales” Illustrations by E. Boyd Smith. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Public Domain, Link