• Clive Gilson

The Old Norse...

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

And so we reach the final volume in this small collection of tales from the northern reaches of Europe. Originally I intended to complete this part of the series with the Finnish volume, but as ever, there were just too many fabulous stories in my archive to call such an immediate halt.

In Tales from the Old Norse we have work collected by Jørgen Engebretsen Moe and Peter Christen Asbjørnsen taken from East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon and Norske Folkeeventyr, much of which I have adapted from George Webbe Dasent’s translations in Popular Tales from the Norse and from Andrew Lang’s Red Romance Book.

Norse mythology is generally considered to be the body of myths of the North Germanic peoples , stemming from Norse paganism and continuing after the Christianisation of Scandinavia and into the Scandinavian folklore of the modern period. The northernmost extension of Germanic mythology, Norse mythology consists of tales of various deities, beings, and heroes derived from numerous sources from both before and after the pagan period, including medieval manuscripts, archaeological representations, and folk tradition.

The collecting of generic Scandinavian folklore began when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, in the 1630’s, sent out instructions to all of the priests to collect the folklore of their area. They collected customs, beliefs that were not sanctioned by the church, and other traditional material.

Central to Norse mythology are the ways and the wars of the gods and their relationships with creatures, beings and worlds around them, such as with the jötnar. Records of personal names and place names suggest that the most popular god among the Scandinavians during the Viking Age was Thor, who is portrayed as unrelentingly pursuing his foes with his thunderous hammer, Mjölnir, in hand.

The god Odin is also frequently mentioned in surviving texts. One-eyed, wolf and raven-flanked, and spear in hand, Odin pursues knowledge throughout the worlds. In an act of self-sacrifice, Odin is described as having hanged himself on the cosmological tree Yggdrasil to gain knowledge of the runic alphabet, which he passed on to humanity. Odin has a strong association with death and is generally held to be the ruler of Asgard. Odin's wife is the powerful goddess Frigg who can see the future but tells no one, and together they have a beloved son, Baldr, later killed by Loki and destined to reside in Hel.

Odin must share half of his share of the dead with a powerful goddess; Freyja. She is beautiful, sensual, wears a feathered cloak, and practices seiðr. She rides to battle to choose among the slain and brings her chosen to her afterlife field Fólkvangr.

Freyja's brother, the god Freyr, is also frequently mentioned in surviving texts, and in his association with the weather, royalty, human sexuality, and agriculture brings peace and pleasure to humanity.

Various beings outside of the gods are also mentioned, including elves and dwarfs. Elves are described as radiant and beautiful, whereas dwarfs often act as earthen smiths. A group of beings variously described as jötnar, thursar, and trolls frequently appear. These beings may either aid, deter, or take their place among the gods. The norns, dísir, and valkyries also receive frequent mention.

The cosmology of the worlds which all beings inhabit is centred on a cosmological tree, Yggdrasil. The gods inhabit the heavenly realm of Asgard whereas humanity inhabits Midgard, a region in the centre of the cosmos. Outside of the gods, humanity, and the jötnar, these Nine Worlds are inhabited by beings, such as elves and dwarfs.

The afterlife is a complex matter in Norse mythology. The dead may go to the murky realm of Hel, may be ferried away by valkyries to Odin's martial hall Valhalla, or may be chosen by the goddess Freyja to dwell in her field Fólkvangr. The goddess Rán may claim those that die at sea, and the goddess Gefjon is said to be attended by virgins upon their death.

According to the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda poem, Völuspá, the first human couple consisted of Ask and Embla; driftwood found by a trio of gods and imbued with life in the form of three gifts. After the cataclysm of Ragnarok, this process is mirrored in the survival of two humans from a wood; Líf and Lífþrasir. From this two humankind are foretold to repopulate the new, green earth.

As a result of their common Germanic origin, Scandinavian folklore shows a large correspondence with folklores elsewhere, such as England and Germany, among others.

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