NORSE MYTHOLOGY written by David Cowles

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Beyond the works of Wagner (The Ring),Tolkien (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) and, of course, Marvel Comics, most of what we know about Norse Mythology comes from just two sources: The Elder Edda, often known as the Poetic Edda, and the Younger Edda, usually known as the Prose Edda.

The former is a collection of poems, some dating back to the 9th century AD; the latter is the work of a single man, Snorri Sturluson of Iceland.

The Prose Edda, written c. 1220 AD, draws its content from the Elder Edda and other ancient Norse sources. Sturluson’s contribution is to organize the varied material into a coherent narrative. What makes the Prose Edda so important, and therefore the focus of this essay, is the revolutionary structure of that narrative.

In another essay in this collection, Mythology, we discovered that mythic thinking necessarily expresses itself in narrative. True to form, Sturluson sews together countless short stories into a single over-arching tale. It is no exaggeration to describe the Prose Edda as an “Autobiography of Everything”, reminiscent of the works of 20th century authors like James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.

Sturluson’s Prologue situates Norse mythology in the context of Jewish proto-history:

“Almighty God created heaven and earth and all things in them, and lastly two humans from whom generations are descended, Adam and Eve…After Noah’s flood there lived eight people who inhabited the world and from them generations have descended…”

“(But) it happened just as before that…the vast majority of mankind…neglected obedience to God and…refused (even) to mention the name of God. But who was there then to tell their children of the mysteries of God?”

So God “…gave them a portion of wisdom so that they could understand all earthly things…what it could mean that earth and animals and birds had common characteristics in some things…”

“…They reasoned that the earth was alive. It fed all creatures and took possession of everything that died. For this reason they gave it a name…” And so mythology was born!

“From such things they thought it likely that there must be some controller of the heavenly bodies who must be regulating their courses according to his will…”  So also theology!

But Sturluson also situates his narrative in the context of Greek proto-history:

“Near the middle of the world was constructed…Troy. We call the land there Turkey…Twelve kingdoms were there and one high king…The name of one king there was Munon or Mennon. He was married to the daughter of the high king Priam…”

Twelve turns out to be a critical number. It connects the tribes of Israel, the signs of the Zodiac and the apostles of Jesus with various themes in Norse mythology.

“They had a son, he was called Tror; we call him Thor…When he was ten…he was as beautiful to look at when he came among other people as when ivory is inlaid in oak. His hair is more beautiful than gold. When he was twelve he had reached his full strength…Then he travelled through many countries and explored all quarters of the world and defeated unaided all the berserks and giants and one of the greatest dragons and many wild animals. In the northern part of the world, he came across a prophetess called Sibyl, whom we call Sif, and married her.”

Eighteen generations later, a descendent of Thor and Sif was born, “…a son whose name is Woden, it is him we call Odin. He was an outstanding person for wisdom and all sorts of accomplishments. His wife was called Frigida, whom we call Frigg. Odin had the gift of prophesy and so did his wife, and from this science he discovered that his name would be remembered in the northern part of the world and honored above all kings. For this reason he became eager to set off from Turkey and took with him a very great following…they seemed more like gods than men…” And so Norse mythology is born!

Note that Thor left Turkey (Troy) and migrated to “the northern part of the world”; but then eighteen generations later, Thor’s descendent, Odin, sets out again from Turkey. This will not be the last time that the narrative recapitulates itself. What is important here is not the historical details but the recurring connections (e.g. Troy with Scandinavia).

Apparently, Sturluson sees Troy as the cradle of civilization and is eager to associate Scandinavia with it. In this he is following Virgil whose Aeneid connects Troy with the founding of Rome. In this view, Troy is the prototype of all cities. It is the City of Cain (Enoch), it is Pound’s “city of patterned streets” (Ecbatana), it is Joyce’s omphalos (Dublin): it is at “the middle of the world”.

“…Odin went north to what is now called Sweden. There was there a king whose name was Gylfi and when he learned of the arrival of the men of Asia (who were called Aesir) he went to meet them and offered Odin as much power in his realm as he wished himself.”

“…(Odin) organized rulers there on the same pattern as had been in Troy, set up twelve chiefs in the place to administer the laws of the land, and he established all the legal system as it had previously been in Troy…After that he proceeded north to where he was faced by the sea, the one which they thought encircled all lands, and set his son over the realm which is now called Norway…their  language, that of the men of Asia, became the mother tongue over all these lands.”

So ends the Prologue. Now begins Gylfaginning (“The Tricking of Gylfi”), the core of the Prose Edda:

“King Gylfi was ruler in what is now called Sweden…(he) was clever and skilled in magic. He was quite amazed that the Aesir-people had the ability to make everything go in accordance with their will…He set out to Asgard (home of the Aesir) and travelled in secret and assumed the form of an old man and so disguised himself. But the Aesir were wiser in that they had the gift of prophesy, and they saw his movements before he arrived, and prepared deceptive appearances for him.”

When Gylfi arrived in Asgard, he entered what appeared to be Val-hall (Valhalla) and was taken to meet the Aesir King. “He saw three thrones one above the other, and there were three men, one sitting in each…the one that sat in the lowest throne was king and was called High, next to him the one called Just-as-high, and the one sitting at the top was called Third.”

The structure of divinity in the Prose Edda parallels, of course, the Christian doctrine of Trinity. As we shall see, there is one God (‘All-father’) but High, Just-as-high and Third represent different ‘faces’ or ‘personae’ of this one God. It is said of Third, for example, “…You can be confident that he will not lie now for the first time who never lied before.” We are immediately reminded of the Holy Spirit, ‘the spirit of truth’.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Gyfli is invited to ask any questions he wishes; what follows reads something like the Baltimore Catechism. Gylfi’s questions are mainly answered by High but sometimes by Just-as-high and Third as well.

Q: “Who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?”

“He is called All-father in our language, but in Old Asgard he had twelve names.” (12 again!)

Q: “Where is this god, what power has he and what great works has he performed?”

“He lives throughout all ages and rules all his kingdom and governs all things great and small…He made heaven and earth and the skies and everything in them…But his greatest work is that he made man and gave him a soul that shall live and never perish though the body decay to dust or burn to ashes.”

Q: “What was he doing before heaven and earth were made?”

“Then he was among the frost-giants.”

This seems odd. Before heaven and earth were made, there were ‘frost-giants’? Yes! In Norse mythology, the concepts of ‘creation’ and ‘heaven and earth’ are quite different from what we’re used to in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The ‘created’ universe as we know it, ‘heaven and earth’, is actually embedded in a much broader reality. This concept has resurfaced over the past half-century in various versions of a ‘multiverse’.

Q: “What was the beginning? And how did things start? And what was there before?”

Here High quotes from the Elder Edda: “It was at the beginning of time, when nothing was; sand was not, nor sea, nor cool waves. Earth did not exist, nor heaven on high. The mighty gap (Ginnungagap) was, but no growth.”

Q: “What were things like before generations came to be and the human race was multiplied?”

In answer to this question High, Just-as-high and Third begin to set out the fundamental doctrines of Norse cosmology. The primal (‘uncreated’) cosmos consisted of a region of great heat (Muspell) and a region of great cold (Niflheim) with a great chasm (Ginnungagap) between them (“the mighty gap”, above).

At the beginning of Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead posits three “undefined terms”: one, many, creativity. These are concepts that lie, Gödel like, outside his system but whose actuality and meaning are presupposed throughout that system. Unity and plurality function as primal opposites, like heat and cold in Norse mythology, while ‘creativity’ is the void, the receptacle, the pure potentiality on account of which creation, growth, process and evolution can ultimately occur.  The mighty gap plays this role in Nordic cosmology.

Sparks from Muspell and icy rime from Niflheim spilled over into the ‘gap’ and formed a vapor.

“…There was a quickening from these flowing drops due to the power of the source of the heat, and it became the form of a man, and he was given the name Ymir…and from him are descended the generations of frost-giants…”

Ymir lived on four rivers of milk that came from a cow (Audhumla) who fed herself by licking the salty rime-stones found in Ginnungagap. As she licked the stones, sculptor-like she began to uncover a human form latent in the rime-stones.

Soon, “…there was a complete man. His name was Buri…He begot a son called Bor…(and Bor) had three sons. One was called Odin, the second Vili, the third Ve…And it is my belief that this Odin and his brothers must be the rulers of heaven and earth…”

Here we are presented with yet another Trinitarian divinity and we left to wonder: Are High, Just-as-high and Third actually Odin, Vili and Ve? (Probably so! Remember, the Aesir used their gift of prophesy to prepare “deceptive appearances” for Gyfli. Also recall that this narrative is continually recapitulating itself. It is quite likely therefore that Gyfli is dialoging with All-father himself.)

We are confronted with yet another apparent paradox. Earlier we learned that Almighty God created heaven and earth and all things in them but now we learn that that same God, All-father, (aka Odin, Vili and Ve) was really the grandson of the primal Buri. And we further learn that there is an older, parallel race descended from the primal giant, Ymir.

The word ‘man’ is used to describe both Ymir and Buri. But neither are ‘man’ in the sense of ‘hu-man’. Ymir turns out to be the progenitor of ‘frost-giants’ and Buri turns out to be the progenitor of ‘gods’, the Aesir. ‘Humanoid’ might have been a better term.

“Bor’s sons (Odin, Vili and Ve) killed the giant Ymir. And…they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir. He went up on to his ark with his wife and was preserved there, and from them are descended the families of frost-giants…”

Throughout the Prose Edda, Genesis themes are repeated. Races are descended from primal parents, destroyed, and then reborn from a surviving remnant.  

“They (Bor’s sons) took Ymir and transported him to the middle of Ginnungagap, and out of him made the earth, out of his blood the sea and the lakes. The earth was made of the flesh and the rocks of the bones…They also took his skull and made out of it the sky and set it up over the earth…Then they took molten particles and sparks that…had shot out of the world of Muspell and set them in the middle of the firmament of the sky…”

Creation then, as we think of it, began with Odin and his brothers. The primal opposites (heat and cold) and the creative potential of the mighty gap combined to form a primal entity, Ymir. Using that primal entity as material, the sons of Bor built ‘heaven and earth’ as we know it and so it is that our universe is embedded in a broader ontological reality.

Note the complex ecosystem in place prior to creation, ‘before’ even the beginning of time. The primal entity, Ymir, feeds off of milk from the cow, Audhumla, who produces milk from nourishment she receives by licking salty rime-stones. But that process of licking in turn uncovers a second primal entity, Buri, from whom Odin, Vili and Ve are descended. These grandsons of Buri in turn kill Ymir but they recycle his body as the raw material need to create heaven and earth, the temporal realm.

It seems that time is not a prerequisite for process after all. (Whitehead)

Q: “How was the earth arranged?”

“It is circular round the edge, and around it lies the deep sea, and along the shore of this sea they gave lands to live in to the race of giants. But on the earth on the inner side they made a fortification round the world against the hostility of giants and for this fortification they used the giant Ymir’s eyelashes, and they called the fortification Midgard (‘Middle Earth’).”

Q. “…And where did the people come from who inhabit this world?”

“…As Bor’s sons walked along the sea shore, they came across two logs and created people out of them. The first gave breath and life, the second consciousness and movement, the third a face, speech and hearing and sight…”

This is a sophisticated Trinitarian model, similar to…but importantly different from…the Christian model. In the Norse model, it is Odin, the first person of the Trinity, who gives breath and life; in the Christian model, that role is traditionally assigned to the Holy Spirit, the third person. The Nicene Creed reads, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, Lord, the giver of life…”

Consciousness and independence (movement) may be by-products of Incarnation (cosmos as recursive and self-aware); both models associate these functions with the second person of the Trinity (Son or Vili). But Sturluson’s association of personal identity (“face, speech”) and personal experience (“hearing and sight”) with the third person (Ve) is an entirely fresh concept, consistent with but unanticipated in orthodox Judeo-Christian ontology.

“The man was called Ask, the woman Embla, and from them were produced the mankind to whom the dwelling-place under Midgard was given. After that they made themselves a city in the middle of the world which is known as Asgard. We call it Troy…In the city there is a seat called Hlidskialf, and when Odin sat in that throne he saw over all worlds and every man’s activity and understood everything he saw.”

Humans build a city, Troy, which becomes the homeland of the gods (Aesir), who originally created heaven and earth, homeland of humans. The process of creation flows both ways; gods create for humans, humans create for gods.

There is a modern parallel in ‘Process Philosophy’, a school of thought founded by Alfred North Whitehead (introduced above). Whitehead understood the relationship of God and man (or God and the world) as a dialectical one in which each term completes the other.

There is an even stronger parallel in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

“Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out/The bride awaiting the god’s touch; Ecbatan/City of patterned streets…” There is definitely a sense here of a city built by human hands but destined to be home to the gods. In another essay in this collection, Ecbatan, we connect this ancient Iranian city both to Cain’s city (above) and also to the ‘patterned streets’ (circles) found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps Pound  had Asgard in mind…or should I say, Troy.

But back to the Prose Edda: “His (Odin’s) wife was called Frigg Fiorgvin’s daughter…And this is why he can be called All-father, that he is the father of all the gods and of men and of everything that has been brought into being by him and his power. The earth was his daughter and his wife. Out of her he begot the first of his sons…(wait for it)…Asa-Thor.”

Ok, enough! Are we not going around in circles? Our story began with Thor, grandson of the proto-historical king of Troy, Priam. Eighteen generations later Odin was born. Odin married Frigg and together they migrated to Scandinavia. Now we learn that this same Odin is ‘All-father’, the father of all gods and men, that Frigg, his daughter and his wife, is really ‘earth’ and that the first of their sons is the very same Thor with whom our story began.

What are we to make of all these apparent contradictions?

Nothing! There are no contradictions in mythology. The concept of contradiction arises in systems characterized by identity, quantity, causality, extension, duration, scale and logic. None of these concepts figures in any important way in mythological thinking.

What we have here is simply mythology recapitulating proto-history…but the order of events is reversed. So what? In Mythology (cited above) we learned that mythic thinking has only one proper subject: ‘the pattern of everything’. That pattern will inevitably turn out to be a commutative, symmetrical, non-orientable fractal.

Therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever in describing Odin as the 18th generation of Aesir sons and the father of all gods and men. And there is no contradiction whatsoever in describing Thor as the great…great grandfather of Odin and as his first born son. Or in Frigg being both his wife and his daughter…and earth itself. In mythology, we are not concerned at all with specific relations among specific elements; we are only concerned with the universal patterns they elucidate.

In spite of the important parallels with Christian theology and Greek proto-history, the Norse cosmos is fabulously more complex. As we have already glimpsed, in addition to humans there are many other humanoid races: frost-giants (including trolls and, unexpectedly, wolves), light elves, dark elves (aka drawfs) and, of course, gods (Aesir).

Each of these races has its own ‘homeland’, but there are other homelands as well. First, Muspell and Niflheim, realms of the primal opposites, heat and cold respectively:

“It was many ages before earth was created that Niflheim was made…But first there was the world in the southern region called Muspell. It is bright and hot.”

Then there is Hel, the land of the dead, Val-hall (Valhalla), the final home of fallen warriors, and Gimle, the final home of the righteous:

“…(Gimle) shall stand when both heaven and earth have passed away, and in that place shall live good and righteous people for ever and ever.”

Astoundingly, all of these ‘homelands’ are connected by a single ash tree, Yggdrasil, that has three principal roots: one in the realm of the Aesir (Asgard), one in the realm of the frost-giants and one in Niflheim that is constantly nibbled by a serpent.

We learn from Third that “Odin is the highest and most ancient of the Aesir. He rules all things…Odin is called ‘All-father’ for he is father of all gods. He is also called ‘Val-father’ (father of the slain)…Hanga-god (god of the hanged) and Hapta-god (god of prisoners), Farma-god (god of cargoes, possibly to be understood as human cargoes, i.e. travelers, or even slaves)…” We see that All-father (Odin) has a lot in common with the Judeo-Christian God as portrayed in the New Testament.

But one of the Aesir, “…Loki or Lopt, son of the giant Farbauti…is pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior.”

“There was a giantess called Angraboda in Giantland. With her Loki had three children. One was Fenriswolf, the second Lormungand (i.e. the Midgard serpent), the third is Hel. And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland…All-father sent the gods to get the children and bring them to him. And when they came to him he threw the serpent into that deep sea that lies around all lands, and this serpent grew so that it lies in the midst of the ocean encircling all lands and bites on its own tail. Hel he threw into Niflheim…The Aesir brought up the wolf at home…”

But as the wolf grew, the Aesir felt the need to tether it securely. So they went to the dwarfs and asked them to make a bond that that wolf could not break…and they did!  “It was made of six ingredients: the sound of the cat’s footfall and the woman’s beard, the mountain’s roots and the bear’s sinews, and the fish’s breath and the bird’s spittle…”

To prove this this story is true, we are told, “…You must have seen that a woman has no beard and there is no noise from a cat’s running and there are no roots under a mountain…”

The drawfs’ “fetter was smooth and soft like a silken ribbon” but it acted just like the strong force binding quarks in an atomic nucleus: “…When the wolf kicked, the band grew harder, and the harder he struggled, the tougher became the band.”

Earlier attempts to fetter Fenriswolf all failed…because the tethers were made out of ordinary materials. No matter how strong they were at the outset, they were inevitably weakened by the wolf’s incessant struggles. They were ultimately subject to the law of entropy and eventually, the wolf escaped them all.

The text leads us to believe that a woman has no beard, for example, because the drawfs used it to make Fenriswolf’s fetter.  But there is another possible interpretation. What if the drawfs made something (a fetter) out of nothing, out of things that do not exist (e.g. a woman’s beard)? ‘Something made out of nothing’ is, well, something else. The laws of physics may be reversed, entropy upended. Now, the greater the struggle, the tighter the bond.

Jack, my nine year old grandson says, “The fetter was made out of the opposite of everything.” Exactly so, and therefore it behaved in a way opposite to the behavior of all other materials.

And now we are ready to explore the final chapter of Norse mythology, Ragnarok, the Apocalypse.

Q. “What information is there to be given about Ragnarok?”

“There are many important things to be told about it. First of all that a winter will come called fimbul-winter (mighty or mysterious winter). Then snow will drift from all directions. There will be great frosts and keen winds. The sun will do no good. There will be three of these winters together and no summer between.”

“…The wolf will swallow the sun…the other wolf will swallow the moon…The stars will disappear from the sky…trees will become uprooted from the earth and mountains will fall, and all fetters and bonds will snap and break.”

“Then Fenriswolf will get free…the Midgard serpent will fly into a great rage and make its way ashore…After that Surt (a fire demon from the race of giants) will fling fire over the earth and burn the whole world.”

Q. “What will happen then after heaven and earth and all the world is burned…will there be any kind of earth or sky?”

“The earth will shoot up out of the sea and will be green and fair. Crops will grow unsown…And in a place called Hoddmimir’s holt, two people will lie hid during Surt’s fire called Life and Leifthrasir, and their food will be the dews of the morning. And from these people will be descended such a great progeny that all the world will be inhabited.”

And so ends the discourse on Norse cosmology; and now comes the really interesting and totally revolutionary part:

“But the Aesir sat down to discuss and hold a conference and went over all these stories that had been told him (Gyfli), and assigned those same names that were mentioned above to the people and places that were there (in Sweden), so that when long periods of time had passed men should not doubt that they were all the same, those Aesir about whom stories are told above and those who were now given the same names. So someone there was given the name Thor…and to him are attributed the exploits which Thor (Hec-tor) performed in Troy.” Wow!

In Ulysses, James Joyce maps a day in the life of ordinary Dubliners onto events in Homer’s Odyssey. An incredible feat! But the Prose Edda goes much further. Sturluson begins by mapping Norse mythology onto both Jewish and Greek proto-histories. Then he maps Christian theology onto Norse mythology. Finally, he maps Norse mythology onto the lives of ordinary, contemporary Swedes and, for his piece de resistance, he maps the lives of ordinary, contemporary Swedes back onto events in Greek proto-history. To borrow a concept from Christian theology, everyone of us is ‘priest, prophet and king’.

What Joyce (and Pound) demonstrated brilliantly, Snorri Sturluson had demonstrated with even greater power and complexity eight centuries earlier: the various ontological categories that populate human thought are really just different ways of experiencing and understanding the present lives of ordinary people. Everything that happens is happening right now!

On the one hand, the Prose Edda is an unrivaled literary triumph. But on another hand, it is exactly what Mythology is all about. Sturluson searched for the universal patterns that connect all times, all places and all scales…and he found them.