Why are we so obsessed with Norse mythology?

PUBLISHED: 11:43 10 March 2017

Odin or Wotan  One of principal gods of Norse mythology  God of War  Here he seeks wisdom to make him all-powerful  For this he sacrifices one eye  With him are the ravens Huggin Thought and Muninn Memory  Halftone c1900

When: 24 May 2007

Odin or Wotan One of principal gods of Norse mythology God of War Here he seeks wisdom to make him all-powerful For this he sacrifices one eye With him are the ravens Huggin Thought and Muninn Memory Halftone c1900 When: 24 May 2007

Archant

The enduring appeal of the Norse gods and their grandly tragic, absurdly comic, strangely moving tales

The Norse gods are back and ready for a new generation in acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s newly published book Norse Mythology. Yet the truth is the immortality of the gods was never in doubt. These all too human tales have been retold to different audiences in different ways repeatedly over the years. But what makes the Norse myths so irresistible to contemporary writers?

Gaiman retells the ancient stories in a modern idiom and previously took up Norse mythic motifs in both his novel American Gods and his children’s book, Odd and the Frost Giants. He is not alone. Over the last 12 or so years, bestselling children’s and young adult authors Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon have written novels with Norse mythic themes.

AS Byatt, who incorporated Norse myth into her 1990 novel Possession, also retold tales – interwoven with autobiographical elements – in her 2011 Ragnarok. Even Game of Thrones’ icy world beyond the Wall, with its Three-Eyed Raven and White Walkers, riffs on Odin and the frost-giants.

Norse myth has rarely been out of fashion since its rediscovery in Scandinavia in the 18th century. After the Second World War their tenuous association with Nazi ideology caused tales of Odin and Thor to fall out of favour, but in the 1960s the myths were once again retold for children by authors such as Roger Lancelyn Green and Barbara Leonie Picard. These children’s versions were often the inspiration for today’s writers to revisit Norse myth.

As preserved, Norse mythology is easier to make sense of than, say, the dozens of disparate stories that make up the Greek mythological corpus. We only have two major written sources: the collection of poems written down around 1270 in Iceland known as The Poetic Edda, and The Prose Edda, composed by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 1230s.

Snorri was a politician, scholar, poet and a Christian. He set out a systematic account of the Norse gods and the history of the world, from before its creation to the total destruction of the cosmos - known as ragnarok – and, importantly, what happened next. Snorri knew many of the poems in The Poetic Edda along with tales now lost to us.

Gaiman’s retelling closely follows Snorri; consequently his account smooths out some of the uncomfortably jagged elements found in the poetry. The eddic poem Skirnir’s Journey, for example, tells how the god Freyr sent his messenger Skirnir to woo a beautiful giant-girl for him. The girl, Geror, unexpectedly refuses to be won over, whether by Freyr’s charms, gifts, or threats. Only when Skirnir launches into an aggressive multi-stanza curse, calling down sterility, misery and a three-headed husband on Geror, that she finally relents and agrees to a rendezvous with the god. Snorri – and Gaiman – ignore this alternative version with its strong sense of female resistance to patriarchal assumptions.

Snorri’s Christian world view made him add a prologue, explaining that the Norse gods were really humans – refugees from Troy. He synthesises the differing accounts of the creation of the world – rising up out of the sea or crafted by the gods from the body of the slaughtered giant Ymir – and explains how the gods raised temples and halls, forged tools and gaming pieces, created humans and established culture. The gods are described in detail, and the best known stories of Thor’s exploits and Loki’s double-dealing are retold; though there is much less information about the goddesses.

Finally comes a long account of the events leading up to ragnarok, starting with the death of Baldr, and climaxing in the final battle between the gods and the great wolf, Fenrir, the World-Serpent and the frost and fire-giants. Cosmic wolves swallow the sun and moon and the Earth sinks back beneath the sea; fire and steam rage against the dark sky.

In the Prose Edda’s vision the gods behave like great northern lords. They keep the giants – the other of the mythic world – in line through aggression and marriage alliances, gather in council to take important decisions and feast in their splendid halls. Odin is obsessed with discovering whether ragnarok can be avoided; Loki bides his time, waiting to reveal his true allegiance to the forces of chaos. The goddesses embody beauty, sexual desire and motherhood; they have access to prophetic wisdom and more agency than Gaiman credits them with. Frigg, as I discuss in my own recent book on Norse myths and legends, is not simply Baldr’s grieving mother (the role assigned her by Snorri and Gaiman). She competes with her husband as patron of kings and plays a bold trick on her husband so that his own protégé submits him to torture.

After ragnarok the second generation of gods, along with Baldr, and his unwitting slayer, his blind brother Hodr, return, dwelling in a gleaming, golden hall. For the world is made anew, with snow-capped mountains and waterfalls where the eagle hunts for fish. In the freshly sprouting grass they find the golden gaming-pieces, the ones they made when the world was first young. In Gaiman’s account these pieces are images of the previous gods, rather like the Lewis chessmen. When Baldr sets them on the gaming-board history begins, we assume, to repeat itself. In The Seeress’s Prophecy though, they are simply tokens, suggesting that this time around the earth’s future can take a different course.

It is this hope of starting afresh with a new clean world in order to write a more optimistic history – along with the distinctive, human characterisation of the Norse gods and the multiplicity of genres that the mythology encompasses – that brings our culture constantly back to the gods and their grandly tragic, absurdly comic, strangely moving tales.

Carolyne Larrington is a professor and tutorial fellow in English at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared at www.theconversation.com

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a Friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish).
  • Become a Patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You or your company will be mentioned in the newspaper each week (should you wish) and you and a guest will be invited to join the editor at a special lunch in London this June to discuss the anniversary of Brexit.


Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



Latest articles

The choice is simple – vote down extremists, dreamers and chancers

Is it time for toughness to discourage further defections or for accommodation to a changing public mood across the Union?

Question Time Live: Political debate from Oxford ahead of the election

All the action from Question Time as Britain gears up for the Brexit Election.

Britain on collision course with Europe over Brexit bill

Angela Merkel has said the UK has “illusions” about the realities of Brexit and insisted talks on the UK’s divorce bill from the EU must be dealt with before trade negotiations can begin.

Election Live: Boris clatters into campaign mode and Labour on housing

All the news, updates and reactino on April 27.

Election Live: Final PMQs and parties square up over NHS

All the news, reaction and updates on April 26.

Here’s how the Remain cause has ceased to be the establishment

When you think about it, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election should come as no surprise.

Fear is mounting that Brexit’s impact will spill across the Irish Sea

With the clock ticking not only on Article 50, but also a UK general election, is Ireland the part of Europe with most to fear from Brexit’s fallout?

Danger ahead: Could Mrs May’s Brexit Election come back to bite her?

The Prime Minister believes she holds all the cards as the country embarks on a General Election. But Labour could still spring a surprise at the ballot box

Is Tim Farron the man with the most to gain from this election?

The Liberal Democrat leader is the one Number 10 increasingly fears

Starmer vows MPs could veto Brexit under Labour

MPs would be given the chance to halt a Brexit deal secured by a Labour government, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said.

Election Live: Starmer spells out Labour’s Brexit strategy

All the election news, reaction and updates on April 25.

France and the long shadow of Putin

One of France’s most powerful political figures wasn’t on the ballot paper – he was more than 1,500 miles away, at home in the Kremlin

ELECTION LIVE: Tories attack Corbyn on defence, Lib Dem members boost

All the updates, reaction and analysis on Monday April 24.

Labour needs a Brexit strategy, not just ideology

Labour could still shock Theresa May at the ballot box. But Corbyn needs to up his game on Brexit

FRENCH ELECTION: Far-right candidate Le Pen makes it in to final two

Pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron will face far-right Marine Le Pen in a head-to-head battle for the French presidency.

Turkey, Brexit and the danger of referendums: A recipe for division

Brexit raises more and more questions for its backers. Yet they still have no answers

ELECTION LIVE: Corbyn’s new bank holidays and Farron gay row grows

Follow all the developments and reactions on Sunday April 23.

Here’s why May’s election won’t pan out according to plan...

... they never do, says The New European’s election editor

ELECTION LIVE: Candidates hit the streets as ground war kicks off

Live election coverage including news, reaction and analysis on Saturday April 22.

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter