This week’s post could easily have been called “fearsome deities“: Odin, whose name means “fury”, and the Morrigan, who steps out of the fairy realm to stir up war and slaughter. It’s not hard to see what they have in common.
The Greek god Apollo is the most rational, artistic and fastidious of the Olympians. So why is an animal noted for its ravening nature part of his cult?
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.
Apollo seems to have made a habit of swallowing up other gods. He took over (or was given, according to later mythology) the oracle of Delphi, which had belonged to his grandmother, Phoebe. He seems to have taken over the healing role of a very early Greek god, Paean, and also an Italian god named Soranus.
We don’t know a lot about Soranus, but he was worshipped at Mt. Soracte in Etruria, an area sacred to underworld gods like Dis Pater. Like most of the Italian gods, he had a partner, Feronia, whose sanctuary stood next to his. Although his cult may have involved the otherworld and the dead, his name is probably connected to that of the Etruscan god Suri, a god of purification and prophecy.
In his fickleness and imagination he even gave pleasure to Odin, who with his well-sipping and auto-asphyxiation knew too much ever to be otherwise amused …the reason why Odin had taken the great, foredoomed step of making Loki his blood brother – for the pleasure, pure and simple, of his company. (Chabon: 53)
Odin and Loki are blood-brothers, and we have to wonder what each saw in the other that led to such an unusual partnership. After all, the two are on entirely different trajectories. Odin is trying to get as far as he can from his giant ancestry, to the extent of murdering his own grandfather to make the world. Loki, on the other hand, is constantly pulled back and forth, but usually ending up with the gods, until he chooses the giants for good.
These Greek, Nordic and Celtic gods may not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they resemble each other in several ways, all of which illuminate aspects of their characters. All three are intellectual, associated with the arts, and have magical or oracular powers in addition to an unforgiving nature.
Both giantesses and witches used wolves as their steeds; a sign of their ability to control wild and dangerous forces. The wolf-riding woman could do what others could not.
The ambiguity of wolves comes through again in the two groups of humans identified with them: warriors and outlaws. What both groups have in common is bloodshed; the difference is between legitimate and illegitimate violence. (The difference, so to speak, between Oðin’s pet wolves and Fenrir.)
Wolves, as predatory animals and carrion-eaters, had a somewhat grim reputation among the Norse. There was the Fenris Wolf, who would devour Oðin at Ragnarok, and on a more human level, outlaws were called vargr, wolves.
At the same time, though, Oðin had two as pets, and in one Eddic poem he praises the killer wolf Garm as the “best of hounds”. Warriors gave themselves wolf-names, and in addition to the well-known berserker, Úlfhéðnar were men imbued with the ferocity of wolves.
In my next three posts, I will be taking a closer look at the ambivalent mythology surrounding wolves in Norse myth. In particular, I want to look at three aspects of the wolf-mythos:
- Mythological wolves, such as Fenrir and Garm, and their relation to Loki.
- Metaphorical wolves, such as outlaws and warriors.
- Magical wolves, associated with giantesses and witches.
The image of the wolf goes to the heart of the Eddic story of creation and eventual doom, and exposes some of the fractures at the heart of the society the Æsir created. I hope you will enjoy reading these posts. If you find them interesting, please feel free to comment or like them.
If you liked the image at the top, click here.