What Is Norse Mythology?

Many successful blockbuster franchises today draw inspiration from pre-Christian eras. For instance, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Marvel’s popular Thor films are heavily indebted to Norse mythology.

But what exactly is Norse mythology, and why has it inspired so many artists in recent years?

Norse mythology is a compendium of (initially) orally transmitted stories that convey the beliefs and underlying worldview of the Norse people.

It emerged in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway in the Viking Age, i.e., between the 8th and 11th centuries CE.  

This article will trace the historical origins of Norse mythology, outline its cosmology and beliefs, and highlight critical differences with the outlook of later Abrahamic faiths.

Also, see How Did Odin Die in Norse Mythology? to learn more.

The Origins of Norse Mythology

Norse mythology consists of narratives involving gods, humans, and other supernatural entities.

In explaining the origins of the world, outlining its different realms, and foretelling its eventual demise, Norse mythology conveys the cultural values and religious beliefs of the Norse people. 

Cultural and Geographic Origins

The Norse were a pagan north Germanic group of people who lived in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway between the 8th and the 11th centuries CE.

Their culture is closely related to that of other regional tribes, such as the Anglo-Saxons, as both emerged from a common earlier Indo-European culture. [1]

Despite the decline of the Norse and the adoption of Christianity across the entire region, Norse culture continues to influence Scandinavian culture today. 

In the wider Nordic region, Norse culture is distinct from Sami and Finnish cultures, both of which derive from Uralic ethnic groups. [2]

At the same time, the Norse settlement of Iceland in the late 9th century CE gives Icelandic culture a Norse heritage. [3]

Also, see What Is Sif in Norse Mythology? to learn more.

Primary Historical Sources

The Norse had a runic script that they used mainly to inscribe monuments and not for maintaining historical records or writing scripture.

Their stories were passed down orally from generation to generation by poets known as skalds. The oral origins of their myths explains why their historical accuracy is difficult to establish.

What we know about the Norse has been pieced together from DNA studies that establish patterns of long-term human migration across Europe and from accounts of the Norse written by outsiders, who often had a hostile view of them.

These sources suggest that the Norse migrated into Scandinavia around 2300 to 1200 BCE and began seeding a culture that rose to its heights between the 8th and the 11th centuries CE.

After the adoption of Christianity in the region, starting in the 10th century CE, Norse culture declined in Scandinavia.

However, the later Christian culture of Scandinavia led to greater literacy, as the new Christian faith, unlike earlier pagan belief systems was based on revealed scripture, that is, on the belief that its version of events had been received through divine disclosure.

Ironically, the increased literacy promoted by Christianity allowed Norse beliefs to live on.

The main sources of Norse mythology were written down in the later Christian era, particularly in Iceland, in what came to be known as the Icelandic sagas.

The sagas are among the greatest literary works to come out of early modern Europe.

The Icelandic sagas include a collection of 10th-century poems written down in the 13th century, known as the Poetic Edda, and two compendiums of stories written by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson around 1220 CE, the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla. [4]

Norse Cosmology and Beliefs

Like many other mythologies, Norse narratives include explanations for how the world came to be and what it consists of.

Norse belief even foretold the end of the world and held it up as inevitable. In doing so, it provided a code by which the Norse were expected to live and die. 

The Nine Worlds

The Norse cosmos included nine worlds or realms. [5] These included:

  • Asgard – the realm of the Æsir (principal gods such as Odin and Thor)
  • Vanaheim – the home of Vanir (deities such as Freyja)
  • Midgard – the human world
  • Jotunheim – the abode of giants
  • Niflheim – the realm of Hel
  • Muspelheim – home of the fire giants
  • Alfheim – land of the light elves
  • Svartalfheim – the abode of the dark elves
  • Nidavellir – the home of the dwarves

Moreover, these realms were not just disjointed abstract spaces. A strongly established geography was folded into the narratives, imbuing the Norse cosmos with meaning. 

For instance, Midgard, the human realm, lay between Asgard, the realm of the Æsir gods, and Niflheim, the cold dark realm where most people were sent after death.

Asgard was believed to lie at the center of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and could only be reached by walking across the rainbow, known as the Bifrost Bridge. 

The Beginning and the End of the World

Likewise, Norse mythology had explanations for the origin and the eventual and inevitable, destruction of the world.

According to the Norse, the world began when the ice of Niflheim met the fire of Muspelheim to create the hermaphrodite giant Ymir and the mythical cow Auoumbla.

Auoumbla then created the gods from ice, and Ymir created the giants.

Later the gods killed Ymir and used its body to make the sky and the earth.

The Norse also had a story about how the world would end. The trickster god Loki, a descendant of giants, and his children would send the dead back to Midgard from Niflheim, unleashing chaos upon the world.

Finally, the forces of order, led by Odin, would fight the chaos and lose.  

While this might appear an exceedingly bleak outlook by modern standards, it did provide a suitable code for the Norse to live by.

It enshrined in their societies values of courage and honor, even in the face of inevitable defeat. 

The Norse Outlook 

Norse beliefs were marked by dualities of light and dark, day and night, order and chaos, but they differed in crucial ways from later monotheistic faiths, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaims.   

Most obviously, the Norse belief system had room for more than one god and was not based on divine revelation or bound by scripture. 

But these seemingly surface features hide deeper structural differences.

Most importantly, like other pagan belief systems, Norse conceptions of order and chaos did not strictly align with a belief in good and evil. 

Gods were not simply good, nor dwarves or giants evil. Gods could act with honor but also fail.

They had aspirations that made them more human compared to the distant God of the Abrahamic faiths.

And in many cases, the inhabitants of different Norse worlds would fight but also form alliances, including in marriage.

In the end, perhaps it is these distinctions that drive the increasing popularity of Norse narratives in the current day.

The nuances of Norse morality seem to align better with a complex and morally ambiguous world. At the same time, its ideals of heroism and honor in the face of doom seem more vital than ever.   

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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