When the Roman poet Lucan wanted to show the savagery of Gaulish religion, he used the bloodthirsty cults of three Gaulish gods to make his point: Taranis, Toutatis and Esus. While the first two had well-established cults in Gaul and Britain, Esus is more elusive.
Kvasir was the Norse god whose blood became the first mead, a drink that made a poet out of those who imbibed it. This drink, blood fermented with honey, was the motive for several murders, and wound up in the hands of the god of poets and inspired ecstasy, Odin.
The story of Kvasir is one level another John Barleycorn story – he dies to make mead, just as Barleycorn did to make beer – we know that Kvasir was supposed to be the wisest of the gods, and that mead was supposed to bestow poetic inspiration. The sharing of wisdom is another concern in this story, since Kvasir shared freely with all he met, and died for it.
Celebrity feuds are the meat and drink of modern gossip columns. But what do you do when it’s two gods duking it out? The Greeks had plenty of god feuds, as you might expect, including Poseidon vs. Zeus, and Hera vs. Hercules. And the Norse had a god feud of their own, involving their two most important gods: Odin and Thor.
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.
Two stories about Apollo, one well-known and one obscure, focus on white ravens. Odin sent out ravens to learn what was going on in the world, but Apollo’s white ravens also brought messages to humans, as servants of the god of oracles. The one occasion when a raven brought him news ended very badly indeed. Continue reading
When you think of Norse myths, you tend to think of Thor, smiting the giants, or Odin, outwitting his opponents. Or perhaps you think of Loki, causing mischief wherever he goes.
But life is not all battles and uproar. Alongside the gods of war were the gods of peace and plenty, the chief of whom was the god Njord. Poets used his name as a kenning for “warrior”, so he must have been able to fight, but his real interest was good harvests, peace for his people, and wealth.
Njord’s nature reflects Norse society: we often think of him as a sea-god, but he really looked after sailors, merchants and all who travelled on the sea. Equally important, the god known as Njord the Wealthy would make your voyage worthwhile.
Human rulers die, and the next generation takes over. Sometimes the older generation gets “helped” off the throne, either by assassination or war. So it’s not surprising that mythology has many versions of this succession story, which rarely involve peaceful inheritance.