Norse Mythology

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The great Norse myths are woven into the fabric of our storytelling – from Tolkien, Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff to Game of Thrones and Marvel Comics. They are also an inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s own award-bedecked, bestselling fiction. Now he reaches back through time to the original source stories in a thrilling and vivid rendition of the great Norse tales. Gaiman’s gods are thoroughly alive on the page – irascible, visceral, playful, passionate – and the tales carry us from the beginning of everything to Ragnarok and the twilight of the gods. Galvanised by Gaiman’s prose, Thor, Loki, Odin and Freya are irresistible forces for modern readers and the crackling, brilliant writing demands to be read aloud around an open fire on a freezing, starlit night.

 
 

AN INTRODUCTION

 

It’s as hard to have a favourite sequence of myths as it is
to have a favourite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food,
some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up
on). But if I had to declare a favourite, it would probably be for the Norse
myths. My first encounter with Asgard and its inhabitants was as a small boy,
no more than seven, reading the adventures of the Mighty Thor as depicted by
American comics artist Jack Kirby, in stories plotted by Kirby and Stan Lee and
dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber. Kirby’s Thor was powerful and
good-looking, his Asgard a towering science fictional city of imposing
buildings and dangerous edifices, his Odin wise and noble, his Loki a sardonic
horn-helmeted creature of pure mischief. I loved Kirby’s blond hammer-wielding
Thor, and I wanted to learn more about him.

 

I borrowed a copy of Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn
Green and read and reread it with delight and puzzlement: Asgard, in this telling,
was no longer a Kirbyesque Future City but was a Viking hall and collection of
buildings out on the frozen wastes; Odin the all-father was no longer gentle,
wise and irascible, but instead he was brilliant, unknowable and dangerous;
Thor was just as strong as the Mighty Thor in the comics, his hammer as
powerful, but he was … well, honestly, not the brightest of the gods; and Loki
was not evil, although he was certainly not a force for good. Loki was …
complicated. In addition, I learned, the Norse gods came with their own
doomsday: Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, the end of it all. The gods were
going to battle the frost giants, and they were all going to die. Had Ragnarok
happened yet? Was it still to happen? I did not know then. I am not certain now.

 

It was the fact that the world and the story ends, and the
way that it ends and is reborn, that made the gods and the frost giants and the
rest of them tragic heroes, tragic villains. Ragnarok made the Norse world
linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other,
better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old
things. The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter
nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or
even like their gods, although they respected and feared them. As best we can
tell, the gods of Asgard came from Germany, spread into Scandinavia, and then
out into the parts of the world dominated by the Vikings—into Orkney and
Scotland, Ireland and the north of England—where the invaders left places named
for Thor or Odin. In English, the gods have left their names in our days of the
week. You can find Tyr the one-handed (Odin’s son), Odin, Thor and Frigg, the
queen of the gods, in, respectively, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

We can see the traces of older myths and older religions in
the war and the stories of the truce between the gods of the Vanir and the
Aesir. The Vanir appear to have been nature gods, brothers and sisters, less
warlike, but perhaps no less dangerous than the Aesir. It’s very likely, or at
least a workable hypothesis, that there were tribes of people who worshipped
the Vanir and other tribes who worshipped the Aesir, and that the
Aesir-worshippers invaded the lands of the Vanir-worshippers, and that they
made compromises and accommodations. Gods of the Vanir, like the sister and
brother Freya and Frey, live in Asgard with the Aesir. History and religion and
myth combine, and we wonder and we imagine and we guess, like detectives reconstructing
the details of a long-forgotten crime.

 

There are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we
do not know. All we have are some myths that have come to us in the form of
folktales, in retellings, in poems, in prose. They were written down when
Christianity had already displaced the worship of the Norse gods, and some of
the stories we have came to us because people were concerned that if the
stories were not preserved, some of the kennings—the usages of poets that
referred to events in specific myths—would become meaningless; Freya’s tears,
for example, was a poetic way of saying “gold”. In some of the tales the Norse
gods are described as men or as kings or heroes of old, so that the stories
could be told in a Christian world. Some stories and poems tell of other
stories, or imply other stories, that we simply do not have. It is, perhaps, as
if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived
were of the deeds of Theseus and Hercules. We have lost so much.

 

There are many Norse goddesses. We know their names and some
of their attributes and powers, but the tales, myths and rituals have not come
down to us. I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor
of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was a Norse goddess of marriages, or
of Sjofn, a goddess of love. Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom. I can
imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales. They are lost, or buried, or
forgotten. I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately
as I can, and as interestingly as I can. Sometimes details in the stories
contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a
time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in
the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights
perhaps, under the glow of the Northern Lights, or sitting outside in the small
hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people
who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to
live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

 

I was surprised, when I finished the stories and read them
as a sequence, to find that they felt like a journey, from the ice and the fire
that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world. Along
the way we meet people we would know if we met them, people like Loki and Thor
and Odin, and people we want to know so much more about (my favourite of these
is Angrboda, Loki’s wife among the giants, who gives birth to his monstrous
children and who is there in ghost form after Balder is slain). I did not dare
go back to the tellers of Norse myth whose work I had loved, to people like
Roger Lancelyn Green and Kevin Crossley-Holland, and reread their stories. I
spent my time instead with many different translations of Snorri Sturluson’s
Prose Edda, and with the verses of the Poetic Edda, words from nine hundred
years ago and before, picking and choosing what tales I wanted to retell and
how I wanted to tell them, blending versions of myths from the prose and from
the poems. (Thor’s visit to Hymir, for example, the way I tell it here, is a
hybrid: it begins in the Poetic Edda, then adds details of Thor’s fishing
adventure from Snorri’s version.)

 

My battered copy of A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, by Rudolf
Simek, translated by Angela Hall, was always invaluable, continually consulted,
eye-opening and informative. Huge thanks go to my old friend Alisa Kwitney for
her editorial assistance. She was a fabulous sounding board, always opinionated
and forthright, helpful, sensible and smart. She got this book written, mostly
by wanting to read the next story, and she helped me make the time to write it
in. I’m incredibly grateful to her. Thank you to Stephanie Monteith, whose
eagle eyes and Norse knowledge caught several things I might have missed.
Thanks also to Amy Cherry at Norton, who suggested that I might want to retell
some myths at a lunch on my birthday eight years ago, and who has been, all
things considered, the most patient editor in the world.

 

All mistakes, conclusions jumped to, and odd opinions in
this volume are mine and mine alone, and I would not wish anyone else blamed
for them. I hope I’ve retold these stories honestly, but there was still joy
and creation in the telling. That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling
them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.
Read the stories in this book, then make them your own, and on some dark and
icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your
friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the
mead of poetry for the gods .

 

THE PLAYERS

 

Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology. You
will meet quite a few of them in these pages. Most of the stories we have,
however, concern two gods, Odin and his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother, a
giant’s son called Loki, who lives with the Aesir in Asgard.

 

Odin

The highest and the oldest of all the gods is Odin.
Odin knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for
knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself. He hung
from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was
pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched
at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine
nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his
life slowly going out. He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when
his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and
the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their
power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree. Now he
understood magic. Now the world was his to control. Odin has many names. He is
the all-father, the lord of the slain, the gallows god. He is the god of
cargoes and of prisoners. He is called Grimnir and Third. He has different
names in every country (for he is worshipped in different forms and in many
tongues, but it is always Odin they worship). He travels from place to place in
disguise, to see the world as people see it. When he walks among us, he does so
as a tall man, wearing a cloak and hat.

He has two ravens, whom he calls Huginn and Muninn, which
mean “thought” and “memory”. These birds fly back and forth across the world,
seeking news and bringing Odin all the knowledge of things. They perch on his
shoulders and whisper into his ears. When he sits on his high throne at
Hlidskjalf, he observes all things, wherever they may be. Nothing can be hidden
from him. He brought war into the world: battles are begun by throwing a spear
at the hostile army, dedicating the battle and its deaths to Odin. If you
survive in battle, it is with Odin’s grace, and if you fall it is because he
has betrayed you. If you fall bravely in war the Valkyries, beautiful
battle-maidens who collect the souls of the noble dead, will take you and bring
you to the hall known as Valhalla. He will be waiting for you in Valhalla, and
there you will drink and fight and feast and battle, with Odin as your leader.

 

Thor

Thor, Odin’s son, is the thunderer. He is straightforward
where his father Odin is cunning, good-natured where his father is devious.
Huge he is, and red-bearded, and strong, by far the strongest of all the gods.
His might is increased by his belt of strength, Megingjord: when he wears it,
his strength is doubled. Thor’s weapon is Mjollnir, a remarkable hammer, forged
for him by dwarfs. Its story you will learn. Trolls and frost giants and
mountain giants all tremble when they see Mjollnir, for it has killed so many
of their brothers and friends. Thor wears iron gloves, which help him to grip
the hammer’s shaft. Thor’s mother was Jord, the earth goddess. Thor’s sons are
Modi, the angry, and Magni, the strong. Thor’s daughter is Thrud, the powerful.
His wife is Sif, of the golden hair. She had a son, Ullr, before she married
Thor, and Thor is Ullr’s stepfather. Ullr is a god who hunts with bow and with
arrows, and he is the god with skis.

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Author

Neil Gaiman