Norse mythology both obscure and fascinating – Redlands Daily Facts

Students of religion are routinely taught the well-known stories of Greek and Roman mythology, and a great many people know of Apollo and Zeus. Less well-known but still often studied are the earlier cults in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many of my students like to wear jewelry with the all-seeing Eye of Horus. But when we turn our eyes to the north, to the Norse and Germanic worlds, things come to be a little more complicated.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

The myths and beliefs of the Nordic peoples of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland in the pre-Christian era can be obscure, unless one foolishly relies of tales from comic books and cinema. But they can be fascinating for those who deal with confusions and apparent contradictions in the texts.

The “Poetic Edda” survives primarily in one manuscript known as the “Codex Regius,” or the “Royal Code” because it came into the possession of the kings of Denmark.

The manuscript appears to have been written in Iceland around 1300 in the Old Norse language, or the “way of ancient words.” What happened to it after its composition is unclear, but around 1643 it was in the possession of a gentleman named Jon Finnsson, whose family had held it for an unknown period. Lutheran Bishop of Skalholt, Brynjolfur Sveinsson with some difficulty persuaded Finnsson to donate it to him, the bishop in turn presented it to King Frederick III of Denmark, who placed it in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In 1971, the Danish government returned the document to Iceland.

The “Poetic Edda” is a collection of 31 poems, which cover a number of different subjects. We learn of the creation of the world, of gods, frost giants, humans, dwarves, elves, and their many adventures. All of this is popularly known as “Norse mythology.” On a most serious note, we learn of the end of the world, Ragnarok, an apocalypse in which the world, the gods and other creatures are destroyed. There also heroic poems, which tell the genealogy and adventures various epic heroes, some of which have some historic credibility. There are also sections containing wisdom literature, in some ways like the biblical Book of Proverbs. Although the “Poetic Edda” is the primary source of Northern mythology, there are other independent sagas of various kings which make religious reference.

Significantly, there is another work, known as the “Prose Edda,” which was written by a colorful Icelandic gentleman named Snorri Sturluson who lived in the transitional period, when the older paganism was giving way to Christianity. In Nordic culture, religious information was handed on orally by bards known of as skalds, who memorized and transmitted old lore. Christianity, whatever else it might be, was a religion which used writing in the Latin alphabet. Although he was a Christian, Sturluson was concerned that the old stories would be lost, and so he wrote many down and encouraged people to take up the skaldic vocation with instructions on how to composed or recompose the ancient stories.

A simplified version of the Norse cosmology is something like this:

Originally the universe consisted of the two opposed elements of fire and ice. As the two got closer to one another, ice began to melt out of which Ymir emerged, the first of the ice giants. As he was a hermaphrodite, he could produce other gods. Also emerging from the first primal waters was a cow, who licked the ice, producing the sculpted forms of Bor and Bestla, the first of the gods. From them was born Odin and other gods. Odin murdered Ymir, and from his corpse created the world as we know it, after which they created the first humans. Yet outside the world of the gods and men, there still remains the brutal reality of the ice giants, the terrible heirs of Ymir who will one day make war on the rest of us.

Their world view was that the gods made and worked with an enormously large tree named Yggdrasil. At the top level would be Asgard, where the high gods lived, another level is Midgard, the middle level where men and women live. At the roots of the tree is the well of Mimir, where a god by the same name sits and grows ever wiser as he drinks of these waters. There is the realm of Hel, where many of the dead go to live on in the spirit world. This should not be confused with the Christian hell, a place of eternal torment. There is the better known realm of Valhalla, where half of the bravest warriors go when they die in combat. There they fight and train and feast until Ragnarok when they will be summoned to the final wars.

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