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.
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.
Heimdall is the guardian of the gods, and of their home, Asgard. Why is it then, that the Eddic poem Rígsþula describes him wandering the earth and interacting with humans as if he had nothing else to concern him?
The Norse gods have different ways of getting around: Odin and Heimdall have horses, Freyr has a boar, and Thor has two goats to pull his wagon. Freyja’s choice was a little more unusual: she had two cats to pull her chariot.
These three gods have a lot in common: they’re all brawny types whose worshippers were mainly working people, farmers, labourers, miners and even slaves. But what intrigued me about them was that their followers all wore their symbol – the hammer or club each god wielded.
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 rowan is the salvation of Thor”, was a Icelandic proverb, and we have to wonder how this small tree could save a mighty god.
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.