There is endless content that was inspired by north mythology in one way or another. Think of Game of Thrones, The Lord of The Rings, or Marvel’s Thor movies. Think of any time when you read about elves, dwarves, or giants. Have you ever thought of where they came from?
If you have never heard or read any of the original Norse myths, getting started with them can be overwhelming, but I can promise you that it is a world worth discovering.
In this article, you will find a very short and compressed retelling of the most important events in Norse Mythology. I will only focus on the overall story; many things will be left out, and it might even feel like important things are missing, but realize that mythology is a collection of stories, all written by different people, and then scattered across history. Some of them were forgotten before ever being written down, some of them exist in a completely different form from when they were first uttered, and we’ll never know their original versions unless time travel becomes a thing. That being said, there is plenty of tales in between the events that I will mention here today, and you can find them in many different forms online. For example, if you have seen the TV show Vikings, you have already heard many of them.
How it all started
In the beginning, there were only temperatures. It was a lifeless, timeless state. There was an icy cold space and a fiery hot one. In the middle where they met, life sprang out from the melting icy water, the mixture of fire and ice. It wasn’t created life, nor life born from already existing life. It appeared in the form of three creatures: Ymir, the first of the frost giants, and Audhumla, a cow whose milk Ymir fed on. Audhumla also licked away the ice covering Búri, the grandfather of Odin and his brothers. They were genderless, and the second generation of giants was born from their bodies.
Odin and his two brothers were the first generation of gods. They were born as giants, but they became gods when they created the world. They did this by killing Ymir and using his body as material. His flesh became the earth, his bones the mountains, his blood and sweat the sea, his brain the clouds. Dwarves were created from the worms feeding on his flesh. His eyebrows became Midgard, where humans lived.
At first two different kinds of gods lived side by side. The Æsir and the Vanir. The latter ones representing things connected to fertility, gods, who you would pray to for a good harvest, for example, while the Æsir were mostly gods connected to war. When the Æsir killed Gullveig, one of the Vanir, a war started between the two tribes of gods, and it didn’t end until they exchanged “hostages”. This is how Njörd, father of Freyr and Freyja became one of the 12 most important gods and goddesses we think about when we mention the gods of Norse Mythology. The 12 are Odin, Frigg, Thor, Sif, Freyr, Freyja, Loki, Heimdall, Tyr, Baldur, Hödr and Vidar.
The chief god of Norse Mythology is Odin, but this wasn’t always the case. He inherited the title from Tyr after he lost his left hand when fettering Fenrir, the wolf (more of this later). Tyr was known as the defender of oaths, aside from being the god of war, and raising one’s left hand was a gesture used when making an oath.
There is no story without a conflict that needs to be dealt with. Therefore, there is no story without a source of conflict.
A villain. Loki in the beginning was more of a trickster, but he ends up being essential to bad things
happening, as the story advances. Loki has a wife, called Sigyn, but for a while, he lived with a giantess, called Angrboda, outside of Asgard. They had three children together. They are Loki’s monster children, the wolf Fenrir, the snake Jormungandr, and Hel, who became the ruler of the underworld (also called Hel with one L). These creatures end up causing a lot of trouble to the gods. Fenrir has to be fettered, because he was foretold
to kill Odin at Ragnarök, and he was becoming too big and too strong for the gods to handle. Hel was appointed to her role by Odin, but at Ragnarök, she will send an army of undead to fight against Asgard. Odin cast Jormungandr into the ocean, where he kept feeding on fish, until he was so large, that he surrounded the land of Midgard, and bit into his own tail.
Loki also provided conflict in many of the myths, although he either wasn’t acting on his own account (being threatened by giants multiple times) and/or he made up for his wrongdoings. The gods also have Loki to thank for many of their most important belongings (For example Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, or Odin’s spear, Gungnir). It is his actions right before, and during Ragnarök, that make him the villain of the story.
The gods of Norse Mythology are not immortal. They have many human-like characteristics. Many of them have some sort of physical disability, as well as many deficiencies in personality. Odin is famous for having only one eye. He is greedy and wants to know more than anyone does, and for this, he was willing to sacrifice his eye. Frey loses in battle at Ragnarök because he gave away his sword for a woman. Tyr, as previously mentioned, has only his right hand, as he let Fenrir bit off his left when the gods fettered him. Thor has a piece of rock stuck into his skull, and Hödr, Odin’s youngest son is blind.
According to a prophecy, Ragnarök happens as a result of the deteriorating morale of the people of Asgard. It is important to remember, Ragnarök isn’t the end of the world. It is the end of the gods.
Baldur, Odin’s son was loved by all. He was beautiful, and he was good. He had no flaws. When he started having nightmares, of his life being in danger, everyone was worried because Baldur’s dreams often came true. Frigg, his mother made everything in the world swear that they won’t harm Baldur, no matter what. Rocks, swords, fire, even birds and trees. After she was done with this, the gods relaxed, and they were amused by the fact that no matter what they threw at Baldur, they couldn’t hurt him. They stood in a circle, Baldur in the middle, and they threw all kinds of different things at him. When Loki saw this, he wanted to find out what his weakness was. He took on the form of a woman, and went to Frigg, to find out. Frigg told him, there is one small plant she didn’t bother with because it that wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone. It was mistletoe.
Loki went to pick up the mistletoe and somehow managed to make it dangerous. He then went back to the others and saw that only Hödr wasn’t taking part in the fun. He then kindly offered to show him the direction where Baldur was standing, so that he could participate. He gave him the mistletoe, Hödr threw it, and Baldur died.
Aside from being devastated, the gods knew that Baldur’s death would mean that Ragnarök is soon happening, so they tried their best to bring him back from Hel. Loki’s daughter, the ruler of the realm agreed that she would let Baldur go back to them if every living creature wept for him. There was only one person who refused to do so. It was Loki in the shape of an old woman living far away from society. Why to weep for someone who wouldn’t weep for you if the situation were the other way around, she said.
And so, Baldur stayed in Hel. The gods knew that Loki was behind the murder, so they chased him and punished him. They killed his two sons and used their intestines to bind him to three rocks in a cave. They fastened a snake above his head that was dripping venom onto his face. This gave him great pain. His wife, Sigyn stayed by his side and held a bowl under the snake. They say every time Sigyn had to empty her bowl, Loki would shake so violently from the pain, that it caused earthquakes.
The gods’ efforts to prevent Ragnarök were all worthless. You can’t out-smart a prophecy. The words of the seeress spoke of three years of war, brothers killing each other. This would be followed by three winters without summers. The sun wouldn’t give any warmth. Fenrir’s two sons would swallow the sun and steal the moon, and there would be an earthquake so violent, that it would break the fettered Fenrir’s and Loki’s bindings, and they will then join the forces that were preparing to march against Asgard. It was this earthquake that set events into motion, and this is when every party departed to meet at the field, where they fought their last battle.
Many died in this battle, but it didn’t matter, who defeated who, because when it was over, Surtur buried the world in flames, and burned everything down. Two humans were able to hide well enough between the branches of Yggdrasil. A few of the Asgardians were able to survive too.
When the flames died away, a new island emerged from the sea, and the human couple moved here, as well as some surviving Asgardians. Hödr and Baldur came back from Hel. They were the few ones worthy of being the first to live in the new world.