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October 2011

October 2011 -- Scandinavian Mythology

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  • Scandinavian Mythology
    by Jenny Heidewald

    When one thinks Scandinavian, some tend to think of IKEA, Swedish blondes, or akavit. Others will think of the Norse and Vikings, and who hasn't heard the stirring strains of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" from his epic opera "Die Walkure," or seen it spoofed by Elmer Fudd in the famed 1957 Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" ("Kill da wabbit!! Kill da wabbit!!"). The Nordic culture and mythos was widespread, arising from Germanic paganism. In modern times, the Scandinavian countries include the three former kingdoms of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, sharing a common ethnic culture (but not language). In the modern Anglo-American culture, the most widely used Norse influence is in the names of some of the days of the week: Tuesday is Tiu's day, the Germanic old English god, but associated with the Norse god Tyr; Wednesday is Woden's day, or Odin; Thursday is Thor's day, Friday is Freya's day. The best-known god from Scandinavian mythology is Thor; many works have been made with this character, including comic books, shows, and movies



    Mythology

    Most of what we know of the Norse myths comes from Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson, who was a Christian Icelandic scholar. Snorri himself referred at times to an earlier collection of work by the name of Poetic Edda.

    In a simplified version of the Norse legend of the world's beginning, there was only fire and ice; when the two collided it created Ymir, a jotunn (giant, or troll generally described as nature spirits with super strength), and a cow, Audhumla. From Ymir more people emerged, one from his foot, some from his sweat; these were more jotnar (jotunn). The cow licked a salt block, and from that emerged a man named Búri who in turn was the father of Borr. From the union of Borr and Bestla (daughter of Bolthorn, a frost giant) were born the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve.

    These gods later killed Ymir and created Midgard (the world of man) from his body; the stars in the sky were sparks from the fire world. A side effect of Ymir's death was that his blood was so copious that it drowned all the jotunn except two. They propagated quickly and were soon back to their old numbers before the killing of Ymir. The three gods Odin, Vili and Ve also made the first man and woman out of trees, Askra and Embla. While "askr" means ash tree in Norse, the meaning of Embla is contested as either being an alder, elm, or vines.

    The ash tree Yggdrasill connects the nine mythical Norse worlds together. The three roots reached to springs in three worlds, the branches curve above Asgard. Various creatures live in the tree, an eagle at the top, a dragon at the bottom, and a squirrel that runs between them, to deliver insults from each party. Under the world tree, near one of the springs, live the Norns, goddesses of fate Urd (present), Verdande (past), and Skuld (future). In addition to weaving the web of fate, these three ladies were also set to the task of sprinkling Yggdrasil with water from the Urdur fountain to keep the tree green and ever growing.

    Above Midgard is the home of the gods, Asgard. The only way for the gods to access Asgard, with the exception of Thor, is a rainbow bridge, called The Bifrost. The god Heimdall guarded the bridge from the giants. The gods are always in battle or matching wits with the giants, who coveted what the gods had. Among those coveted items were the apples that the gods ate to keep them young and immortal. These were in the care of a goddess named Idun, and she distributes them from a golden chest that is magically replenished.

    Odin, also known as Woden, was the highest of the northern gods, the leader of Asgard, the Aesir, and the father of many sons, the best known being Thor. Complex and fickle; some of the things he is associated with are war, wisdom, victory, magic, death, poetry, and the wild hunt. He has an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, as well as a magical spear named Gungnir, which was obtained by Loki from the dwarves.

    His typical appearance is that of an older man, on his throne or in battle, he would wear a helmet. An important physical feature of this god is that Odin had given up an eye in return for a drink from Mimir's spring of wisdom. Odin also wandered the world in the guise of an old man, with a hat that he could pull down over his face to conceal the fact that he only had one eye.

    In one hall that Odin resided over in Asgard there was a throne named Hlidskialf; from there he could see the whole world and everything that was happening in it. The only other person that was allowed to sit on this throne was Odin's wife, Frigg. He had his share of animals as well, the most prominent were two ravens that he sends out during the day to gather information, thought and memory ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory). He also has two wolves named Geri and Freki. These wolves he fed from his own plate, the god himself imbibing in nothing but mead.



    b>Frigg (or Frigga) is the wife of Odin, and doesn't get as much time in the tales as her husband. The goddess of love, marriage, childbirth and clouds, in some cultures, she is combined with Freya. The Norse called what is now known as Venus, Friggjarstjarna ('Frigg's star").



    Thor, with his mighty strength, supplemented by a belt, and famous hammer, Miölnir (the crusher), which always returned to his hand after being thrown, is probably is the best-known deity of all Scandinavian mythology. Son of Odin and Gaea, he is a straightforward god, a bit slow witted and thus a target for trickery. He is a defender of Asgard against the giants; his name is derived from "thunder". Thor is unable to cross the Bifrost Bridge due to the fact that, as the god of thunder, his presence might set the bridge on fire.

    Thor's hammer was used as a form for many amulets, and, when a storm was blowing through, the people believed that the lighting was Thor throwing his hammer.



    Freya (the same as Frigg in some cultures), the sister of Freyr, is the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and love, and she was also the leader of the valkeries, riding through the battlefields to claim half the heroes. In her hall, Sessrymnir, she entertained her half of the heros, as well as maidens and wives, so that they could be with their husbands after death. The tales of this abode enticed Scandinavian women to follow their lovers and husbands into death, if not by throwing themselves onto swords, then by being voluntarily burned with their beloved one. She owned a golden necklace, Brisingamen, made by dwarves. This necklace was known for its epic beauty, and it is the center of a few tales.



    Freyr (or Frey) is the god of sunshine, summer, showers, peace and prosperity., as well as being the god of fertility. He would ride in a chariot pulled by a boar to spread fertility across the land. His sister, Freya, sometimes joins him. Among the fabulous items he possessed is the ship Skidbladnir, which could be folded to fit in the pocket, or expanded wide enough to accommodate any number of gods and items. He also owns the boar Gullinbursti.



    Loki, the mischief maker and trickster, is attributed to having a major part in the slaying of Balder, of whom he was jealous. He is also a shape-changer and is the parent of a few different beasts, the serpent Jormungandr (who was cast out of Asgard by Odin and grew so large that it circled the world and could grip its tail in its mouth), Slepniier, and the wolf Fenrir. He also is the father of Hel, who was assigned to the realm that shared her name in Niflheim by Odin. His last wife's name is Sigyn, and is depicted in the following picture



    Baldr, the god of light, was one of the most fair of the gods, and Odin and Frigg's favorite son. In one account, the god is married to Nanna (goddess of immaculate purity), and they had a son named Forseti. Balder is to come back to the world after Ragnarok. The most remembered story concerning Balder is that of his death.



    Valhalla, "the hall of the chosen slain", is where valiant and brave slain warriors, called Einherjar, were brought by the valkeries to be praised by Odin. There they would feast night after night. When they are done feasting, they took up weapons and fought each other, knowing that all wounds would be healed and they could start the whole cycle when the dinner horn sounded to call them in. The valkyries would wait on the men as they dined, bringing them mead and boar meat to their fill. The boar was a magical animal that would rise whole and alive each day, so there was a never-ending supply of meat. These warriors were to take part in defending the gods in Ragnarok.

    (The word "valhalla" has had some influence in more contemporary popular culture, either directly influenced by the concept of Norse mythology or referring simply to a gathering of the chosen dead or a hall in honor of them. Some museums have even adopted the term.)

    Valkyries are the souls of virginal women warriors, and those strong and beautiful women whom Odin favored. Valkeries were thought to be clouds, with lightning being the flashing of their weapons. The northern lights (aurora borealis) were also thought to be the valkyries, riding out to sweep the souls of brave men to Valhalla. These maidens had golden hair and fair skin; they wore helmets, corsets, and carried shields and spears. The white steeds they rode were thought to be frost and dew, which was said to rain down from the manes as their riders urged them above the battle. In reality, there were no female warriors in the Viking culture.



    One of the most famous of the valkeries, Brunhild, served Odin for many years until she went against his will. For punishment, even though she was his daughter, she was sentenced to live out the rest of her life on earth, and Odin decreed that she should also marry. Brunhild worried that she might be married to a coward. To ease her fears Odin placed the former valker in a castle and caused her to fall into a magical sleep. Then he raised a circle of fire around the place, so that she would be required to marry only a man brave enough to ride through the ring of fire for her.

    Also, in the Norse mythos are dwarves and elves, the dwarves are featured more than the elves, as they are pivotal in several story plotlines.

    A quick note about Finland: Finland is not included in the modern-day definition of Scandinavia; the Finns have their own separate mythos, which has been collected into a work called The Kalevala. This epic poetry from was collected in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot. Three of the main characters that The Kalevala follows are Vainamoinen (the first man), Ilmarinen (a smith), and Lemminkainen.



    Clothing

    Teutonic Clothing: Not a lot of records or artifacts are left from the Viking times, but from what could be deduced Vikings liked colorful clothing. They used dyes from various plants, for example: red from madder, blue from woad, and yellow from weld. When designing a costume for a Scandinavian character there are a few key items. First, fur; The Teutonic people used a lot of fur and leather for their outfits. They also used different metals, for things like helmets, weapons, and belt buckles. In addition to fur, they also had the ability to weave (linen and wool), so you are likely to find a combination. Making cloth clothing was a time consuming task, and it is conjectured that once they had a set of clothes that it was expected to last for years; as a person would wear the same thing day after day, unlike modern times. If they could afford it, a linen undershift was worn under the outer tunic, as it was more comfortable against the skin. A staple of the costume are the leggings, since these people lived in colder climates, keeping warm was a main concern. These leggings were sometimes held to the legs with strips, which were crossed around the legs and tied. In the case of fanciful clothing, for a Valkerie a chain mail top is appropriate, you can also add loads of fur, and those horned helmets.

    I have to note here that contrary to popular belief and cliche, there is no evidence that Viking helmets had horns attached to them; this myth was perpetuated by opera costumes. They did wear conical helmets; either beat from one piece of metal or joined rivets and bands of leather or metal. There could be an extension to protect the nose (a nasal), also face guards and cheek guards weren't uncommon. In the case of art, horns add drama, and a ferocious, wild, barbaric feel.





    In Closing:

    The roots of the origins of Nordic mythology thread through many cultures, and some have even drawn parallels to the mythology and structure of different cultures. It is likely that, in the same way that Christian culture and practices have borrowed from and supplanted some holidays and traditions with those of their own, newer beliefs grew out of the old, changing with the times. Many good books on the subject of Scandinavian Mythology delve into this fascinating world more than I do here, although one will likely have to search a large city or university library for many of the more complete and authoritative books.

    A note about pictures one through ten: These media files are in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. These pictures were gathered from
    Wikimedia.

    Resources:

    WebsitesHurstwic, Viking Age History

    Books

    Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson

    Teutonic Myth and Legend, by Donald A. MacKenzie

    From Asgard to Valhalla,The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths, by Heather O'Donoghue

    The Norse Myths, by Kevin Crossley Holland

    Myths of Northern Lands, by H.A. Guerber

    Myths and Symbols in Pagan Eurpoe, Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, by H.R. Ellis Davidson

    Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, by H.R.Ellis Davidson

    The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition by Elias Lönnrot (Oxford World's Classics),By Elias Lönnrot (Author), Keith Bosley (Translator), Elias Lonnrot(Author), Albert B. Lord(Author)

    Jenny Heidewald is one of those self-taught artists that has been drawing since she was little; she remembers the exact moment she decided that she wanted to be an artist. Interestingly enough, it was while watching her mom draw the hand of God reaching from the clouds to His followers. Jenny was floored, it seemed to be magic, an image appearing out of nowhere. She thought, "I want
    to do THAT!" In addition to writing for EMG-zine, Jenny is a prolific artist who has worked in many mediums. Her current favorite technique is working with colored micron pens, and coloring either with watercolor or Photoshop. Jenny lives in Maryland with her husband. Please check out her Sketchfest, Portrait Adoption, Deviant Art, and Elfwood pages.
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