We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton, 2017.
Earlier this year I reviewed Carolyne Larrington’s The Norse Myths, a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Norse myths for a popular audience. While Larrington’s book is more scholarly and objective, Gaiman’s book is laid out as a series of stories; retellings rather than analysis.
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.
When I was researching the story of how the giant Thiazi took the apples of immortality for the giants, one thing that kept jumping out at me was how often the goddess who kept the apples, Idunn, was treated as if she were property as well.
The myth of Njord and Skadi could also be called the Divine Divorce. Usually, even unhappily married deities stay together, but these two bucked the trend. Skadi married Njord as part of a settlement after the gods killed her father, but the marriage didn’t last.
Popular sources describe this story as a nature-myth, with the sea-god and the mountain-goddess being unable to find common ground. This myth, however, has multiple meanings, and goes to the heart of Norse myth and the god-giant conflict that will bring destruction.
My last post on Gefjun touched on the question of her status. She is counted among the goddesses, but so are Skadi, Gerdr and Jord, all of whom are giantesses by birth. John Lindow has argued that she was obviously a giant or other primal being, although others have seen her as an earth goddess. So is she a goddess, a giantess, or both?
Verbal duelling is a major part of the sagas and Eddas, as a substitute for other kinds of violence. Mostly it happens between two men, who accuse each other of cowardice, effeminacy, and general unmanliness.
However, there are incidents of male – female flyting as well, with men and women trading insults, usually much the same insults. The two best-known examples of male – female flyting in the Eddas are the quarrel between Skadi and Loki in Lokasenna, a poem which is essentially Loki’s verbal duel with each god and goddess in turn, and the heroic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, which features a bout between the hero and a giantess.
The goddess Skadi has one main myth, but it is a well-developed story, spanning three generations, and involving the feud between the gods and giants. The actual story is scattered around through a variety of sources, but its outline is clear.
Only four Norse goddesses have homes of their own. Out of these, two are given to Frigg and Freyja, who are the preeminent goddesses of the pantheon and might be expected to own their own property. The other two are Saga and the giantess Skadi.
The latter is extremely interesting because we know that she inherited her home, Thrymheim, from her father, the giant Thiazi. What little we are told about the Aesir’s homes suggest that they created them from scratch – that Skadi inherits hers tells us that the giants are older beings than the gods. This is why the giants were often shown as knowing the history and layout of the cosmos so well that Odin would come and quiz them about it.
Although Hoenir was a companion to Odin and Loki, two well-publicized Norse gods, very little has survived about him, and he does not seem to have had cult places or worshippers.
Which is surprising in a way, because in Völuspá he is the one performing the old rites after the world is reborn, so you automatically think “priestly god”. Several scholars have decided that his role was in fact a priestly or vatic one, based on this.