Time has obliterated many of the pagan elements of Scandinavian culture, and much of the pre-Christian belief system has vanished from hman memory. But while the cults of Thor and Odin no doubt included lore and practices now lost to us, the cults of the Vanir deities are even more obscure, perhaps because certain features offended Christian sensibilities.
In Norse myth Hel is a place and a person, like the Greek Hades. The word hel means “hidden,” linked to hylja, “to cover”. Lindow speculates it may have referred to the grave at first, since that is where the dead live (171). Both he and Rudolf Simek (138) seem to think Hel was just a personification of the place, perhaps because unlike Hades, she has very little myth attached to her.
When you consider what Hercules did for Gaul, it’s no wonder that they loved him. He founded the city of Alesia, and introduced the rule of law. “And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time…”1 (Diodorus Siculus 4.19.1)
Other myths said that Hercules was the father of Celtos, Galatos and Iberus, the ancestors of the Celts, Galatians and Iberians. This would make him the ancestor of the French, Spanish and Anatolian Celts, who would thus become many-times-grand-children of Jupiter.
To honour their fore-father, they offered statuettes of him at shrines (especially the god Borvo’s), and many Gaulish gods, including Ogmios and Smertrios, were paired with him as part of interpretatio celtica. (MacKillop: 248)
The imagery of the Greek Gorgon can be traced back to Persian and Near Eastern art, but the myth of the beautiful Medusa seems to come from a different source. A story found in various forms in Greece, India, Ireland and Wales tells of a woman who either becomes a horse or has a strong equine connection, gives birth to twins and suffers greatly.
However, Demeter, Saranyu, Macha and Rhiannon are goddesses, while Medusa is considered a monster. Still, her story is so similar to these others that it obviously descends from the same Indo-European myth.
In Greek myth, the North wind had a home: a cave on Mount Haemus in Thrace. From there he sent the cold winds, and to emphasize this artists painted him with his hair and beard spiky with ice. As its name suggests, the land of Hyperborea lay beyond Boreas’ realm, where cold, along with old age and want, was unknown.
I was originally going to call this piece Poseidon’s Scary Girlfriends, with Demeter the Furious and an unnamed Harpy joining Medusa. But when I began researching Medusa I found so many layers of interpretation that it seemed worth going back to the original sources and seeing what went into the myth.
In fact, it seems like there are almost two different myths, one involving a headless demon that terrified all who saw it, and another about the mortal Medusa, who either was a snaky-headed monster or became one.
Poseidon has three main aspects: sea-god, earth-shaker, and giver of horses. As sea-god he could stir up the waves or calm them, while as the earth-shaker his power was terrifying. Only as the god of horses was Poseidon a clear friend to humans.
We know very little about the gods known as the Vanir, or their cult. One common thread, especially in the cult of Freyr, was taking the god’s statue for a tour in a wagon, so worshippers could see their deity, and be blessed by them.
There was a discussion recently on the Mythology Stack Exchange about whether Poseidon had been the first head of the Greek pantheon. It’s an interesting question….
You can argue this one in a number of ways. While the name Zeus is clearly Indo-European (one of the very few that is), the name Poseidon, along with his title Earth-Shaker, appears in Mycenean texts from very early times. On the Messenian coast, at least, he seems to have kept his status, and like Zeus he is the father of kings and heroes. (Indeed, the number of his offspring is second only to Zeus’.)
There are two stories in Norse myth where part of a dead body is transformed by being rubbed with herbs. One of these is the mystical, cosmological story of Mimir’s head, which Odin revived by smearing with herbs and chanting over it. The other is a conversion narrative, in which a preserved horse’s penis is part of a house cult that St. Olaf brings to an end.
So these stories could not be more unalike. But the penis grows and “becomes lively” after the woman of the house covers it in herbs and wraps it in linen. So what herbs do you use to enliven a horse’s penis and a god’s head?