In his introduction to Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman says that many Norse myths have been lost. By the time these stories were transmitted in folktales, retellings, poems and prose, Christianity had already displaced the worship of the Norse gods.
Prior to reading Neil Gaiman’s version of the Norse myths, my only knowledge came from reading Thor comics and, more recently, seeing the films. The featured drawing is one I did (copying from a comic) when I was in my Marvel comics phase as a teenager.
Norse Mythology is an accessible and entertaining book of stories about the Norse gods. The book is split into fifteen stories that, taken together, describe the Norse world as we know it. It starts at the beginning (before the birth of gods) and ends with Ragnarok, the series of events foretelling the death of the major gods.
In the beginning
The first story describes a world in which there was nothing — no earth, heavens, stars or sky. There existed only a formless, shapeless, cold mist world (Niflheim) and a constantly burning fire world (Muspell).
Surtr lives at the edge of the fire world, where the lands end and before the mists begin. He holds a flaming sword and existed before the gods. He will leave his station at Ragnarok, using his sword to burn the world. The gods will be destroyed.
Between the worlds of mist and fire was a void, an empty place of nothingness. The rivers of the mist world flowed into the void and formed glaciers. These in turn melted when the fire touched it. Out of the melting ice, life was formed. First was a person-like creature (Ymir) who was larger than worlds. It was both male and female — and the ancestor of giants. Other creatures formed including Buri, the ancestor of gods, and whose children gave birth to Odin.
Odin and his two brothers realised that whilst Ymir lived, worlds couldn’t be created. So, they killed it. From that death, all life as we know it emerged. Ymir’s flesh was turned into soil; the bones into mountains; the teeth into rocks, pebbles, sand and gravel; the blood and sweat into seas; the brains into clouds; and the sky was the inside of Ymir’s skull. The sparks that flew from Muspell turned into planets, comets and shooting stars.
The giants live at the edge of the world. To keep them away, Odin and his brothers built a wall using Ymir’s eyelashes. The place within the wall was Midgard.
The brothers found two logs and collectively breathed life into them, gave them intelligence and drive, and finally shaped them into two people: Ask (ash tree, male) and Embla (elm tree, female). Ask and Embla, who lived safely within the walled Midgard, are the father and mother of all living beings — the Adam and Eve of the Norse world.
Odin, being the father of gods and the creator of Ask and Embla is called the all-father — the father of all of us.
Yggdrasil and the nine worlds
The largest of all trees, Yggdrasil the ash tree, grows between and joins the nine worlds. Of the nine worlds, Odin lives in Asgard, as do the Aesir (his tribe of gods). The other tribe of gods, the Vanir, live in Vanaheim. The two god tribes have peace treaties, which allow some of the Vanir to live in Asgard too.
The other worlds are inhabited by elves, dwarfs, giants, humans (in Midgard), the dead (in Hel) with the mist and fire worlds making up the remaining two.
In the myths, the gods are governed not by compassion for and love of others but rather by human desires and fallings (despite their fantastic powers). They plot and suffer for their hubris; are used as bargaining chips during negotiations; grow old but can be rejuvenated by eating Idunn‘s apples of immortality; fall in love at first sight; and are petty, devious and unkind.
The main gods in the myths are Odin, Thor and Loki.
- Odin — the highest and oldest of all gods; he’s cunning and devious but also wise having given up an eye for wisdom.
- Thor — Odin’s son, the thunderer with his hammer Mjollnir; he is straightforward and good-natured.
- Loki — Odin’s blood brother and son of a giant; he is handsome, likeable, wily, subtle and shrewd.
The myths describe how Odin lost an eye, how Thor’s hammer was created (and why it has a short handle), and why Loki is both loathed and indispensable to the other gods.