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Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes
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The Creation of the World — The Giants — The Æsir — Men and Women — Dwarfs — Vanir — Elves — The Plains of Ida — Valhalla — Yggdrasil

1. Myths of the Gods

The creation of the world — The giants — The Æsir — Men and women — Dwarfs — Vanir — Elves

Our forefathers imagined the infinities of space to be a profound abyss, to which they gave the name Ginnunga-gap; on one of its confines there were icy frosts and mists; on the other, flame and heat. The frozen reaches were known as the Home of Fogs, or Niflheim; the torrid region as Muspellsheim, which may perhaps be rendered, the Home of Desolation. As the ice of Niflheim gradually melted away before the heat of Muspellsheim, there flowed forth from Niflheim into Ginnunga-gap chill streams of venom (the Élivágar), and yet the animating beams from Muspellsheim called the first living beings into life: a prodigious Giant (jotunn), called Ymir or Aurgelmir, and the cow Audhumla, from whose milk he drew sustenance. From Ymir in turn sprang other Giants, and thus he became the progenitor of all that evil race. The cow Audhumla likewise brought about life anew by licking the icebound boulders of salt. In this manner Buri came into being; his son Borr, with Bestla, daughter of the Giant Bolthorn, had three sons, named Odin, Vili, and Ve. These sons of Borr were good and fair to see; they became the forebears of the race of the Æsir. [1]

When the descendants of Ymir had multiplied beyond number, the sons of Borr put Ymir to death; in [2} his blood all of the Giants were drowned except Bergelmir, who with his wife saved himself by means of a boat. The Æsir thus failed in their attempt to exterminate the race of Giants, and Bergelmir's kindred grew to a mighty host. The Giants, or Jotuns, were also known by the names Thursar (pursar), Rime-Thursar (hrímpursar), Ettins (risar), Cliff-Ettins (bergrisar), and Trolls (troll); they persisted in the most evil courses. From the body of Ymir the sons of Borr made earth, sky, and sea. The body itself became the earth, the bones became mountains and stones, the hair became trees and grass, the skull became the vault of heaven, the brain became clouds, and the maggots in Ymir's body became small Dwarfs, who dwelt beneath the earth's surface and in rocks, and who lived on a better footing with the Giants than with the Æsir.

Odin, Vili, and Ve, the sons of Borr, were at first the only Æsir. Not content with shaping inanimate nature, they brought to life sentient beings as well, both men and animals. The first human pair, Ask and Embla, they created from two trees. Odin gave them breath, Vili [2] gave them soul or understanding, and Ve (Lodur) gave them bodily warmth and color. From these two sprang the entire race of men.

The sons of Borr likewise created the celestial bodies. To this end they employed the sparks that flew into space out of Muspellsheim. The sun and the moon were placed each on its wain, and each wain was drawn by two horses; the horses of the sun were named Arvak [3} and Alsvin. [3] Before the sun stands the shield Svalin. [4] As drivers of the wains were appointed the two beautiful children of Mundilfari, called Sun and Moon. Mundilfari was so proud of the two that he had named his daughter after the sun and his son after the moon; as a punishment the Æsir gave the children the task of guiding the wains of the sun and the moon. Moon once carried away from the earth two small children just as they left the well Byrgir carrying the cruse Sæg slung from their shoulders on a pole called Simul. The two children were named Bil and Hjuki, and their father's name was Vidfinn. Since that time they have followed the moon in his course.

The Giants or the Rime-Thursar continued without ceasing to disquiet the Æsir and disturb their labors. A hideous Giantess, mother of a great brood of Giant werewolves, bore among the others two called Skoll and Hati, who took up the pursuit of Sun and Moon, to devour them. Sun and Moon therefore must needs make haste in their journey across the heavens; yet in the end their pursuers will overtake them. Hati was the more forbidding of the two; he was known also as Manigarm, or the Moon-Hound. Toward the race of men the Giants were so ill-disposed that the Æsir found themselves compelled to build from the eyebrows of Ymir a great defensive fortress encompassing the midmost region of the earth. The fortress and all that it contained bore the name Midgard; beyond its [4} confines lay Jotunheim. In the centre of the universe the Æsir established their own dwelling, Asgard; there Odin had his own seat, Lidskjalf, from which he might survey the whole universe, both the heavens and the earth, and see all that happened there. The race of the Æsir here grew to a goodly number; Odin particularly had many children.

Aside from the Æsir, the Dwarfs, and the Giants, our forefathers peopled the universe with other supernatural beings, such as the Vanir and the Elves. To the Vanir, dwelling in Vanaheim, the direction of the forces of nature seems particularly to have been attributed. Once upon a time, so the story runs, hostilities arose between the Æsir and the Vanir; the dispute ended with a treaty of peace, the terms of which prescribed an exchange of hostages. The Æsir delegated Hænir; the Vanir delegated Njord, who in this way came to be numbered among the Æsir. The other deities who came from the Vanir were Frey and Freyja. Of the Elves, beings who associated preferably with men, some were good and some were evil. The good Elves, called Bright-Elves (ljós-alfar), who were brighter than the sun, had their abode in Alfheim; the evil Elves, called Dark-Elves (svart-alfar, døkk-alfar), were blacker than pitch, had their homes beneath the surface of the earth, and so are often confused with the Dwarfs.

  1. Áss, plural æsir, genitive ása.
  2. Hænir, p 19.
  3. Árvakr, ie, "the early-waking one"; Alsviõr, ie, "the fleet one."
  4. "The cooling one." [5}
On the creation of the world — the Giants — the Æsir — Men and women — Dwarfs — Vanir — Elves

Page 4, line 7 — Our forefathers thought of the earth as a round disk or plate, which had been lifted up by the sons of Borr in such a manner that it swam on the surface of the universal ocean. Round about along the coasts of this sea lay Jotunheim, the home of the Giants, separated from Midgard by huge mountains. It is for this reason that the Giants were also called Cliff-Ettins. Jotunheim was a cold and dreary realm; thence the name Rime-Thursar. These beliefs rested on the more primitive supposition that mountains in general were the habitat of Giants or Mountain-Trolls, who harassed neighboring human beings, robbed them of their cattle, enticed persons into the mountain fastnesses, and the like (see p. 39). The earliest form of the name of the Giants, or Jotuns, seems to have been "etuna-," related to the verb eta, to eat; the original meaning would then appear to be "big-eater" (cf. C. W. von Sydow, Jättarna i mytologi och folktradition, in the periodical Folkminnen och Folktankar VI, Lund 1919; cf. also VII, 1921, p. 136 ff.). In Anglo-Saxon the name had the form eoten. A Jotun woman was called in ancient times a gýgr, and to this day the mountain-troll's wife is designated as "gygr" or "gyvr." The later, Christian conception of the Jotuns has been thoroughly dealt with by K. Liestøl in an article, Jøtnarne og joli (Maal og Minne 1911).

As the geographical horizon of the Northern peoples gradually became more extended, Ginnunga-gap was moved farther and farther outward. As early as the 13th century, Bjarmiland in Northern Russia was supposed to stretch far to the north and west until it joined the boundaries of Greenland. "Trollebotn" now came to occupy the spaces formerly assigned to Ginnunga-gap in the Arctic Seas (cf. p. 40) and according to one theory Ginnunga-gap was placed at the outermost edge of the ocean between Greenland and Vinland, while Vinland was thought to touch the boundaries of Africa. See Gustav Storm's article, Ginnungagap i Mythologies og i Geografien (Arkiv för nordisk filologi VI, 1890, pp. 340-50).

Audhumla (a later form has -humbla) was no doubt imagined to be a cow without horns, since in Scottish dialects "humblecow" still has that meaning (adjective homyll, hummilt, "polled"); it is uncertain whether the first syllable of the name is the adjective [287} auðr, "waste," or the substantive auðr, "riches" (referring to the wealth of milk); probably it is the latter. Polled cows — which are excellent milkers — are mentioned by Tacitus (about 100 A.D.) as a characteristic feature of the agricultural economy of the Germanic tribes. The explanation of Audhumla as meaning "the rich polled cow" was put forward by P. A. Munch (1854). This etymology has recently been justified independently by A. Noreen, in his article, Urkon Auðhumla och några hennes språkliga släktingar, in the periodical Namn och Bygd VI, 1918, pp. 169-72.

Manigarm is not mentioned in the Poetic Edda, the omission being due to Snorri's misunderstanding a passage in the Eddic poem Grímnismál. According to this poem, both Skoll and Hati are the pursuers of the sun. The basis for the notions about them is to be found in the so-called mock suns (variegated beams of light caused by the sun's rays breaking through clouds); in Norway and Denmark these phenomena are known as "solulver" (sun-wolves), and in Sweden as "solvargar" (sun-wolves). See Axel Olrik, Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed 1902, p. 189 ff.

Lidskjalf, from hlið, "gate," "portal," and skjálf (skjolf), a word known from place names (Skjelve, Skjelver) and from the Anglo-Saxon scylf, "point"', "tower" (cf. E. Björkman, Namn och Bygd VII, 1919, p. 174 f). The word then probably has the meaning "gate-tower."

The name Æsir (Modern Norwegian singular "ås") is the Old Norse form, derived from a theoretical *ansuz, Gothic *ansus; thus even the ancient Gothic author Jordanes relates that the Goths, before they accepted Christianity, worshipped "Anses." The ancient ans- has become, in our language, "ås," just as anst-(love) has become "åst" (cf. the feminine name Åsta), and as gans- has become "gås." In German the form ans- remained. In Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, it was contracted to ōs, plural ēse. In Sweden and Denmark it appears in the mutated form œs-. Evidences of these facts occur particularly in the numerous personal names with Ans-, Ós-, Æs- or Ás-, for example, German "Ansmand," Anglo-Saxon, "Osmund," Danish and Swedish "Æsmund," Norwegian "Åsmund." The celebrated missionary's German name "Ansgar" corresponds to the Danish "Æsger," the Norwegian Åsgeir. It is thus easy to see that the name of the Æsir, contrary to a common supposition, has nothing to do with Asia. — The meaning of the word "æser" or "ewer" is not certain. — From "ås" is derived the feminine form "åsynjer," [288} a designation for the goddesses (in Old Norse ásynja, plural ásynjur).

Page 4, line 27 — Among scholars the opinion is general that the warfare between the Æsir and the Vanir is the reflection of a struggle between an earlier, more naturalistic cult and a later cult introduced from without. In this connection stress is laid on the circumstance that the worship of Odin appears to have come from the south into the North at a relatively late date. Cf. Henry Petersen, Om Nordboernes Gudedyrkelse og Gudetro i Hedenold, Copenhagen 1876; Kaarle Krohn, Skandinavisk mytologi, Helsingfors 1922, p. 93 ff.

In many localities the Elves are still a subject for familiar discussion. In Sweden they are known as älvor (cf. "älvkvarnar," a term used to designate saucer-shaped hollows in stones [rock engravings], in which the Elves up to a recent time were accustomed to accept offerings in kind), in Denmark as elver or eller; and many legends are current concerning elf-maidens and elfin kings. According to popular belief, they lived on hills or in barrows (Danish, elf-hills), in forests and thickets, particularly in copse wood (Danish "elle-krat"). [1] Although they are described as beautiful ("fair as an elfin woman"), they may often be very malicious (cf. Norwegian "alvskot," a term applied to various illnesses; see Nils Lid, Um finnskot og alvskot, in Maal og Minne 1921). Among the Anglo-Saxons the word was œlf (English "elf") among the Germans, alp; but in modern German the word "Alp" has another meaning (see note to p. 47), and the term commonly used at present, "Ellen," was not introduced before the 18th century, when Wieland took it over from English. — On the position of the Elves in the history of religion, see note to p. 47, toward the end.

The word Alfheim implied in part a dwelling place of the gods, and in part an entire world. In the minds of our ancestors there were several such principal worlds (heimar) namely Godheim (home of the gods), Vanaheim, Alfheim, Mannheim (home of men), Svartalfaheim, Jotunheim, Hel (heim), and Niflheim.

  1. The notion that the Elves ("ellefolket ") lived in elf thickets ("ellekrattet") is due to popular etymology based on a similarity in sound. between two words originally quite different. The same similarity led Herder to render "ellekonge," in the Danish ballad Elveskud, into German as "Erlkönig"; thence the word passed on into Goethe's famous ballad. [289}

The plains of Ida — Valhalla — Yggdrasil

In Asgard the Æsir built an immense fortress, in the midst of which lay the Plains of Ida. Here they erected two splendid halls: Gladsheim, which contained high seats for Odin and the twelve peers among the Æsir; and Vingolf, which had high seats for Frigg and the goddesses. Round about Lidskjalf, from where Odin surveys the universe, rose the hall Valaskjalf, roofed with a silver roof. [1] The chief of the halls of Asgard, however, was Valhalla, the banquet hall of the Æsir. Here Odin held high festival not only for the Æsir, but for all the translated heroes (einherjar), brave warriors who after death came into his presence. In Valhalla there were 640 portals, through each of which, 960 warriors might march in abreast.

Between heaven and earth the Æsir constructed a bridge called Bifrost, or the Rainbow. The ruddy hue of the bridge is the light of a fire that burns without ceasing to prevent the Giants from crossing over it. Bifrost is of all bridges the most splendid and the strongest, and yet at last it will fall asunder, when the end of all things shall have come.

Besides Odin, there were twelve of the Æsir who were held to be chief deities of the universe; among themselves they had apportioned rule over all things, and each day they held counsel about what events should come to pass. Odin was their lord; he was supreme, mightiest of the gods, the preserver of all [6} things, and therefore he was called All-Father. In Gladsheim, where stood the high seats of the gods, they took counsel together. As rulers of the universe the gods bore the titles regin or rogn, governors; bond or hopt, binding or uniting powers; and year, the holy ones. Their high seats were also called judgment seats (rokstólar). The gods or Æsir were designated as white, bright, shining, holy, mighty; as war-gods (sigtívar) or battle-gods (valtívar). They loved the race of men, protected men against Giants, Dwarfs, and Dark-Elves, and upheld righteousness and justice.

When the gods held their solemn assemblies, to which came all the Æsir, they resorted to the ash Yggdrasil, the tree of the universe. Here was their principal sanctuary. The ash Yggdrasil spread its branches abroad over the whole world. It had three roots: one among the Æsir, another among the Rime-Thursar, a third in the depths of Niflheim. Beside the root in Niflheim there was a fearsome well, Vergelmir; there lay a dreadful serpent, Nidhogg, which, together with a great number of other serpents, gnawed without respite at the root of the tree, threatening to destroy it. Beside the root that rested with the Rime-Thursar there was also a well, which belonged to a Giant, the wise Mimir; in it lay hidden the highest wisdom, and from it Mimir drank each day. Beside the third root, which stretched out to the Æsir, there was also a well, called Urd's Well. It was here that the gods held their assembly. Among the branches of the ash many animals had their resort; there were a sagacious eagle, a hawk, four stags, and the little [7} squirrel Ratatosk, which continually ran up and down bearing evil communications between the eagle and Nidhogg.

  1. See footnote p 19.

On the plains of Ida — Valhalla — Yggdrasil

Page 5, line 21 — Vingolf in all probability means "friend-floor," "friend-hall," from vinr, "friend." Although Vingolf was the domain of the goddesses, the Heroes received entertainment there. Valhalla comes from valr, i.e., "the men who lie slain on the field of battle." Einherjar (the Heroes) is connected with herr, "army," and means "eminent, excellent warriors." Bifrost means "quivering roadway," rost being "way."

Page 7, line 3 — The ash Yggdrasil is a symbol of the structure of the entire universe, which is at once illimitable in extent and closely conjoined. The warfare of Evil against Good and against the whole of Creation is represented by the serpent Nidhogg (that is, "he who strikes with malice, with bitter enmity or spite"), and the continual flux and transitoriness of created things find an emblem in the ever-perishing tree. So run the verses of Grímnismál: "Yggdrasil's ash is afflicted, no man knows how sorely; the stag crops its crown, the trunk rots away, Nidhogg gnaws at the root."

Scholars have long suspected that the Yggdrasil myth has come under the influence of Christianity. They have pointed to a series of strophes in the Hávamál, where the following words, among others, have been ascribed to Odin: "I know that I hung on the wind-swept tree for three full nights, pierced with a spear, and dedicated to Odin; I to myself, on the tree whereof no man can tell from the roots of what tree it springs" (strophe 138). Here the reference is plainly to "Ygg-drasill," that is, Odin's (Ygg's) horse, a poetical paraphrase for the gallows (cf. "Hagbard's horse" = the gallows, p. 231 and note.) Odin on the gallows, so the argument proceeds, corresponds to Christ on the cross. For this opinion Sophus Bugge has endeavored to present conclusive proofs in his famous Studier ever de nordiske Gude- og Helte-Sagns Oprindelse (1881-89); and students of folklore have definitely allied themselves with Bugge inasmuch as they have extended the limits of the enquiry, and have brought forward and systematized a mass of fresh materials; see Kaarle Krohn, Skandinavisk mytologi, p. 105 ff. Yet the scholars who derive the myth of Odin on the gallows from the story of Christ on the cross, and Yggdrasil's ash from the cross as the tree of life, have at the same time maintained that ancient pagan faith and cult had become ingrained in the Norse myth. This point will be more fully discussed in the following section dealing with Odin. [290}


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