Norse Mythology – History, main gods and prophecies

We explain what Norse mythology is, its worlds and main gods. Also, its cosmogony and what is Ragnarök.

norse mythology
Norse mythology included numerous gods and other supernatural beings.

What is Norse mythology?

It is called Norse mythology, Germanic mythology, or Scandinavian mythology when imaginary common to religion, legends and stories typical of the Scandinavian Germanic peoples, known to have populated the northern regions of Europe.

The best preserved set of this cultural tradition dates especially from the Viking Age (789-1100 AD), after the Germanic Iron Age, in which these peoples ravaged most of Europe, Southwest Asia, Africa and western North America.

Like many other mythological traditions, the Scandinavian one brought together a vast set of stories and imaginations, which embodied an undisclosed religion (that is, one in which the Gods do not deliver a specific “truth” to human beings), and without a holy book of its own, but was transmitted orally through stories, songs and lyrical poetry.

In fact, our current knowledge of Norse mythology comes from the Eddas, medieval compilations composed around 1270, during or after the Christianization of northern Europe.

The stories of Norse mythology reflect a fundamentally warlike and pantheistic vision of the world, in which nine primal worlds coexist connected through the branches of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and in which they inhabited different beings and of different nature. Those nine worlds were:

  • Midgard, the world of human beings, which occupied the center of the known universe (hence its name: mid, “half”, gärd, “crop field”). It was also known as Middle Earth.
  • Asgard, the world of the gods, known as Aesir, in whose heart is the Valhalla, more or less equivalent to the Christian paradise, although destined only to the warriors killed in glorious combat.
  • Jötunheim, the world of giantsjötnar) of ice and rock, primitive beings more or less equivalent to the titans of the Greco-Roman tradition. It was separated from Asgard by the river Iving.
  • Niflheim, the world of darkness and perpetual mist, home of the dragon Nidhöggr, who incessantly gnaws at the roots of the world tree.
  • Helheim, the world of the dead, which exists in the coldest and darkest region of the depths of Niflheim, and is ruled by Hela, goddess of death. It was infinitely surrounded by the river Gjöll, and those who entered it never left again, such as those who died from illness, old age or criminals who required punishment.
  • Muspelheim, the world of fire, home of the fire giants, was the highest of all the kingdoms, located above Asgard and in contrast to Niflheim.
  • Alfheim, the world of elves, ethereal beings who waged a constant war between their two factions: the luminous elves (Ljósálfar) and the dark elves (Swarfar), both related by blood, but with different objectives.
  • Svartálfaheim, the world of the dark elves, mountain dwellers, and possibly the Norse dwarves as well.
  • Vanaheim, the world of Vanir, the second clan of gods different from the Aesir, with whom they fought in an ancient war. Unlike the warrior gods of Asgard, these are deities linked to the land, fertility, prosperity, and the sea.

Many of the supernatural beings and the divinities of the Nordic tradition, as can be seen, are part of the folklore of northern Europe, expressed in numerous and diverse versions and more or less free adaptations, in literary works, films and video games. In addition, along with Greco-Roman mythology, Egyptian mythology and Celtic mythology, it is one of the great traditions of mythical stories of the West.

Cosmogony of Norse mythology

As in all religions, in the Scandinavian one the origin of the world was counted, which was at the same time the origin of the gods and of the nine kingdoms that made it up.

As described by the first and most famous poem of the Poetic Edda, the Völuspá (“Prophecy of the seer”), in the beginning there were only two worlds: Muspelheim, the kingdom of fire, and Niflheim, the kingdom of ice, and between the two was a huge void known as Ginnungagap (“Deep hole”) in which nothing lived.

Until, from the embers of the fire and the frost of the ice, a vapor was born in the void of which the primeval giant was formed, Ymir, next to a giant cow, Audumbla, thanks to which the first survived, drinking his milk. Ymir was a hermaphrodite, and from his own body the first giants were born, primitive beings linked to natural forces.

For its part, the cow melted the ice with its tongue, thus forming Buri, the first of the Norse gods and father in turn of Bor, founder of the Aesir lineage.

Then the Aesir rose against the giants, murdering Ymir and banishing the survivors to Jötunheim. From the corpse of the giant they created the world: with their flesh they created the earth and mountains, with their blood the rivers and seas and lakes, with their bones the rocks, with their hair the trees and bushes, and with their skull they created the firmament, supported on four pillars thanks to the dwarves that they created for that purpose.

Likewise, the gods created day and night, and later the first human beings: Ask (ash tree), the first man; and Embla (elm), the first woman. Both were carved out of wood by Vili and Ve, Odin’s brothers, all sons of Bor. Middle-earth was created for them, connected to Asgard by the bridge Bifrost.

Main gods of Norse mythology

Norse mythology is rich in gods and deities, as well as supernatural creatures. The main gods are the following:

  • Odin. Also called Wotan, he is the father god of the Aesir, god of wisdom, war and poetry, magic, prophecy, hunting and victory. He resides in Asgard in his palace at Valaskjálf, from whose throne he can contemplate the nine worlds. In combat he appears mounted on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, and wielding his spear, Gungnir. He is represented as an old bearded and one-eyed man.
  • Thor. God of thunder and strength, linked with the success of crops and, naturally, with justice and battle, he used a great hammer called Mjolnir to break through the giants. He was the son of Odin and the goddess Jotun, who personified the earth.
  • Heimdal. Guardian god of Bifrost, a bridge between the world of mortals and that of the gods, he was the son of Odin and nine giant women who raised him taking wild boar’s blood. With keen vision and hearing, he could go without sleep for several days and blowing his horn will announce the coming war between giants and gods, a prelude to the end of the world.
  • Balder. God of peace, forgiveness and light, he is the second son of Odin, he is also called Baldur or Balder. He died at the hands of his blind brother, Hödr, after being manipulated by Loki.
  • Loki. Son of the giants Farbauti and Laufey, he is a mysterious figure of the Norse pantheon, god of deception and manipulation, who the Aesir tied to three rocks as punishment. He was not a deity revered by the Norse, but was a minor deity endowed with many nicknames (kenningar), considered a kind of trickster among the gods, who often put them in trouble.
  • Hela. Goddess and queen of Helheim, daughter of Loki and the giant Angrboda, is represented as a beautiful woman on one side and cadaverous and rotten on the other, since this is the vision of the death of human beings.
  • Frigg. Wife of Odin, goddess of the sky and queen of the Aesir, she is associated with female fertility, love, home and marriage, motherhood and housework, as well as with wisdom and foresight. She is the only one capable of sitting on the heavenly throne with her husband.
  • Tyr. Norse god of war, represented as a one-handed man, is the son of Odin and Frigg, in some versions, and of Ymir and the giant Frilla, in others. His missing hand was eaten by Fenrir, a mythical giant wolf, and along with Odin he is considered one of the authority figures of the Norse pantheon.
  • Frey. Vanir brother of Freya, is the lord of vegetation, rain, rising sun and male fertility. He is one of the most important gods of Norse paganism, and the favorite god of the elves, often represented by phallic symbols.
  • Freya. Vanir sister of Frey, goddess of love, seduction and beauty, as well as female fertility, invoked to have good results in childbirth and harvest. Along with Frigg, she was the most revered goddess in the Norse religion, although she was also associated with certain aspects of war, death, magic, and wealth.

The Ragnarök in Norse mythology

The Norse religion also had a prophecy about the future of the world, known as the Ragnarök or “destiny of the gods.” This vision of the future was bleak, and consisted of a great doomsday battle between the Aesir and the giants, the first led by Odin and the second by Surt, a great fire giant.

The entire known universe will be destroyed in that last battle, in which the warriors chosen by Odin will participate among those who have died in combat (and have been rescued by the Valkyries to wait for Ragnarök in Valhalla). Although the gods themselves know from divination what will happen, not even they have the power to prevent it.

The beginning of the end would be, according to tradition, marked by the death of Baldur and the punishment of Loki, as well as by the birth of two evil creatures, daughters of the latter and Angrboda:

  • Fenrir, the giant and monstrous wolf that devours Tyr’s hand, when they try to bind him with a gold chain. His destiny is to kill Odin during the final battle, and then be killed by one of the Aesir’s sons, Vidar.
  • Jörmundgander, the gigantic serpent that surrounds Midgar, a sea monster that at the same time serves as the “ribbon of the world”, that is, that embraces the entire Earth with its tail. The myth says that the serpent, hungry and unable to satisfy itself with what it found in Midgar, proceeded to devour itself by the tail, thus giving rise to a symbol of eternity that inspires the ouroboros alchemical. His role in Ragnarök is to come out of the seas and poison the skies. Thor will kill him, but he will be poisoned later.

The end of the prophecy will be the entire universe set on fire by Surt, which will cost all living beings their lives, extinguish the Sun and the stars, and the earth will sink into the sea.

Only a few gods will survive, to see a new and more just land emerge from the waters, which will be given to the only two surviving humans: Líf (“life”) and Lífbrasir (“who seeks life”), who will repopulate the human world, and will worship a new pantheon of gods, now ruled by Balder.