The Norse Myths: a Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington, Thames and Hudson, 2017.
As the title suggests, this book is intended as an introduction to Norse myths, aimed at readers with little or no knowledge of the subject. The author, Carolyne Larrington, is an academic who has written several popular books, including a translation of the Poetic Edda. She has also written books on the green man and the women in Arthurian myth, and co-edited The Feminist Companion to Mythology.
The book itself is currently available in hardback or on Kindle. The hardback is a nice size for holding in one’s hand, and as you might expect from a Thames and Hudson production, has plenty of illustrations. Along with the main text of the book there are numerous sidebars explaining various terms and giving capsule versions of myths or summarizing the lore about the gods.
The introduction describes the sources available to anyone studying Norse myth: the skaldic and Eddic poetry, Snorri’s Prose Edda, the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, archaeology and other Germanic traditions (like the Merseburg charms and church writings).
Next, she discusses the gods and goddesses. She goes into some depth about Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Baldr and Loki for the Aesir, then profiles all three Vanir (since they’re the only three we know of). Heimdall might seem an odd choice for a major god, but the poem Rigsthula makes him the founder of human society, and he is the watchman of the gods.
Part of the fun of this book is in the small observations, as when she is describing the Aesir goddesses and notes that they have a collective noun, asyniur, but there is no equivalent word for the female Vanir, perhaps because there is only one, Freyja. (31) She also notes that Baldr has only one function in Norse myth: he dies. (41)
She then turns to the myths of creation, from the non-violent version in Völuspá in which Odin and his brothers raise the earth out of its surrounding waters, and the sun then warms it into green life to more dialectical version in the Prose Edda, which begins with ice and fire, and culminates in the murder and dismemberment of the giant Ymir to form the universe.
Larrington sees this violence as a theme of Norse myth:
In weaving aggression into the very fabric of the universe, the gods incorporate and endorse violence among humans and gods. (60)
The violence continues in the various myths of conflict between gods and giants, with the giants inevitably getting the worst of it. Most of the myths involve god-on-giant violence, which makes the Baldr myth all the more shocking: he is slain by his own brother and his uncle-by-adoption.
She dismisses any theory of Baldr as sacrifice (either for fertility or to Odin), pointing out that no one benefits from Baldr’s death. His death unleashes a cycle of vengeance that is the more awful for being within the family. The irony is:
Óðinn is fortunate in that the can sire new sons, replacing those who die. But, as the myth acknowledges, sons are not so interchangeable; Vali cannot take Baldr’s place. (186)
Violence continues to be a theme in the next two chapters, which discuss the more human stories of Norse myth: the Volsung saga (which inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and then other heroic tales, such as the stories of Starkadr and Ragnar Lothbrok. (No doubt the success of the TV show Vikings inspired this, although his story is an interesting one in its own right.) She also discusses a heroine: Hervor, who breaks into her dead father’s mound to take his sword and go raiding herself.
These heroic stories bring a human dimension to a mythology that, Larrington notes, is not that concerned with humans. Odin aside, the gods rarely interact with human beings. (Compare Greek myth, whose mortals might wish the Olympians took a lot less interest in them.)
The last chapter, fittingly, is focused on the end times of Norse myth, the Ragnarök. The world will be destroyed by fire, the gods will perish in pre-ordained ways, and all life will be extinguished. But, unlike in Christian myth, the destruction is a gateway for a new world and new life. Baldr and some of other young gods will survive, and two surviving humans will repopulate the new world.
It is tempting to see this new world as purified by the strife that came before it, but as Larrington points out, Odin’s companion Hoenir survives, and cuts lots like the norns did, so fate still exists, and the last image in Völuspá is of the dragon Nidhoggr flying. Unlike in Christian myth, this new age may in its turn succumb, and be destroyed.
Obviously, an introductory book has to leave a lot out, but Larrington still manages to include lots of thought-provoking comments for those already familiar with the myths. Whether you are a total newbie or a Norse myth nerd, you will get something from this book.
PS – I will be reviewing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as well, soonish.
(The image at the top is of Stokkness, in Iceland.)
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