by Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Most ancient civilisations believed that they were not alone in the universe. They could see and interact with the world around them, but they longed to find meaning in it. From the most ancient civilisations on the planet to modern society, people have believed in otherworldly beings that sometimes protect us, sometimes threaten us and in some cases, want nothing to do with us.
For many ancient people, these mystical beings were gods. There were the creators and enders of worlds. They were the ones who brought us into the world and the ones who would eventually take us from it and perhaps guide us into another one.
One ancient group of people who had an entire pantheon of gods were the Norse. Originating from the places that would today be Norway, Sweden, Denmark and, of course, Iceland, the Norse had an almost endless list of gods and goddesses who controlled, watched over and guided the events happening on this little blue planet.
What are the origins of Norse mythology? What was their origin story? How many gods did they have? Do people still believe in them? Read on to find out all this and more.
What is the Origin of Norse Mythology?
The Norse were an ancient people that inhabited much of what we now call modern-day Scandinavia. Their name comes from the language they spoke, which is now called ‘Old Norse.’
Old Norse actually had a large influence on modern-day English because of some of the settlements they established in England, as you can see in the video below.
Most of what we know about the Norse has come from early records of their writing, primarily a collection of stories that were written in Iceland in the 13th century. This collection of stories was known as ‘The Sagas,’ it’s equal parts history and fantasy, and in some cases, it’s totally nuts.
Fun fact: the word Saga is actually the Old Norse and modern Icelandic word for ‘story’.
Generally, experts agree that the sagas are a heightened verbal history that was eventually written down, a romanticised version of the things that happened to the Norse people in their mission to conquer much of Northern Europe. Their beliefs stem from paganism and still continued after the introduction of Christianity to most Norse nations.
A Brief History of the Gods
The basic Norse story of creation begins with two worlds that sat on either side of a bottomless abyss called ‘Ginnungagap, which was kind of like the universe before the big bang.’ These two worlds were a land of ice called Niflheim and a land of fire called Muspelheim.
Over time these two worlds grew stronger and competed for space. During the conflict, the combination of fire and ice created water droplets which fell into the abyss and created life. The very first life was called Ymir, a giant that was equal parts male and female.
Other beings were also created from water droplets, and they eventually overpowered and killed Ymir. These beings used Ymir’s blood, teeth, hair and bones to create the known universes and became the first gods of them.
The original gods of Norse mythology represented two different houses called Æsir and Vanir. Although they fought a lot, it was understood that both houses were required to provide all that was needed for life to exist.
How Many Norse Gods & Goddesses Were There?
The Norse were polytheistic, which means that they worshipped more than one god. It’s impossible to say exactly how many gods and goddesses the Norse people worshipped because a lot of their history isn’t exactly available to us. It’s possible that many of the gods were melded together over the course of centuries and even that some have been completely forgotten about.
One thing that sets the Norse gods apart from other gods in history is that they were never really perceived as perfect beings. They were powerful but ultimately very human and flawed. They represented the best and worst attributes of humanity.
From the time the first tribes formed to become the Norse till the introduction of Christianity, it’s believed they may have worshipped up to 66 different gods. Of the myriad of gods they worshipped, there are at least 13 that are widely considered to be important to understand their role in Norse culture.
The Norse also believed that there were 9 different universes or realms. The one that people lived on was known as Miðgard, the home of the gods was Asgard, and they were all connected through a mystical tree called Yggdrasil.
Below is a list of the main gods in Norse mythology.
Odin was known as the ‘Allfather.’ He was basically the first being to decide to kill Ymir and create the universe, and as a result, he crowned himself as the leader of the gods. He was the king of Asgard and probably the most respected and feared of all the gods.
Odin was constantly hungry for knowledge and power and was loyally followed by his two ravens, two wolves, and an army of superhuman women called Valkyries. Odin is the god of war but has a sensitive side because he’s also the god of poetry and magic.
Mythological Stories About Odin
As far as god stories go, Odin is one of doing whatever it takes to get what he wants. He famously had only one eye because he sacrificed one to be able to see the cosmos more clearly. He was so relentless in his search for knowledge and understanding that he even allowed himself to be hanged from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights so that he could eventually be given the ability to understand the runic alphabet. Odin didn’t come here to make friends; he came to learn all the secrets of the universe.
The goddess Freya was one of the most sensual. She was associated with love, beauty, fertility and gold. She would travel in a carriage pulled by two cats and had a pet boar. Some scholars believe that she and another goddess (Frigg) were once the same person. She wasn’t just considered to be kind and compassionate; she was also a bit of a party girl.
Mythological Stories About Freya
Probably one of the most important stories about Freya was that she claimed half of all the souls that died in combat. Those she claimed would spend their afterlife in her domain, a lush meadow in Asgard called Fólkvangr. The other half would be sent to Valhalla (the hall of champions) with Odin.
It might be hard to believe, but even with all that thirst for knowledge, Odin still had time for a wife. Her name was Frigg, and she was the queen of Asgard. Frigg was the only goddess who was ever allowed to sit next to Odin, and she was associated with beauty, love and fertility. Where she differs from Freya is that Frigg was also associated with fate and had the power to see the future.
Mythological Stories About Frigg
Many of the stories about Frigg centre on her being a very protective mother. She saw the death of her son, Balder, in a vision and took an oath to protect him from weapons, poison and any other misfortune. This would have worked if it weren’t for another god, Loki, but there’s more on him later.
Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is probably one of the most well-known Norse gods. Even back in the ancient Norse times, he was the most famous son of Odin and was seen as the protector of humanity as well as the god of thunder. He was able to create thunder with a special hammer that was a gift from his father. The hammer’s name was Mjöllnir and could only be held by someone worthy of its power.
Mythological Stories About Thor
There are many stories of the exploits of Thor. He was the protector of humanity, but he was also often getting himself into odd situations, like one time when the other gods promised a dwarf that he could marry Thor’s daughter, and although this might sound like a hilarious sitcom idea, it actually ended in Thor finding a way to kill off the dwarf.
Most of the Norsemen believed that lightning was a sign that Thor was flying through the sky, and the sound of thunder was made by Mjölnir as he killed giants.
Heimdall was known as the shiniest god. You might think that this has something to do with light or sunshine, but instead, it was because he had the whitest skin and teeth made of gold.
He possessed very fast reflexes, exceptional hearing, and the ability to see the future. He had nine mothers and was believed to be the reason the Norse had social classes. Heimdall was also obsessed with the end of the world, also known as Ragnarök.
Mythological Stories About Heimdall
Heimdall was so fixated that the end of the world was coming that he would spend most of his time sitting on the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that connected the human world, Miðgard, to the kingdom of the gods, Asgard, looking for incoming danger. Even though he was preoccupied with preventing the end of the world for his entire life, he eventually died in Ragarök when he and Loki killed each other.
Alva doesn’t really refer to one specific god but instead a species of creatures that later became Elves. They were human-like but possessed magical powers. In Norse mythology, they were typically broken into two houses, Light Elves and Dark Elves. They weren’t really perceived as complete gods, more like supernatural beings who could help or screw with people depending on how they felt that day.
Mythological Stories About Alva
In Iceland, the elves evolved over time to become a legendary race of people who exist in the same universe as humans but are invisible to us until they wish to be seen. They notoriously want to be left alone, and it’s believed that you should never trust an elf because whenever they are around humans, they generally want to mess with them or turn them into slaves.
There are many large rock formations in Iceland that are believed to be the homes of elves, and, generally speaking, Icelanders might not believe in them, but they tend to leave them alone (just in case).
Njord was the Norse god of the wind and sea. Of the two factions of gods that created the universe, he was the leader of the Vanir (Odin was the leader of the other group ‘Æsir’). He was the father of Freyr and Freya. He was believed to be the god responsible for protecting fishermen and those who travelled across the seas. Because of the nature of the Norse as seafaring, Njord was a very popular god.
Mythological Stories About Njord
The fated cataclysm that was believed to one day be the end of the world and the end of all gods known as Ragnarök was very prominent in Norse mythology. Njord had a special role in this because it was believed that he would be the only god to survive.
Njord also quite possibly had the prettiest feet of the gods. His wife was a frost giant called Skaði. They got together because she was given the opportunity to pick any of the gods to be her husband, but the catch was that she could only choose by looking at their feet.
Balder was the son of Odin and Frigg. As far as the children of the gods went, he was basically the superman of the time. Balder was described as a being who lived in the heavens but also occasionally dwelled in the human realm of Miðgard. Like superman, he was immune to everything except one thing; this one thing was his absolute kryptonite. Balder’s kryptonite was… mistletoe. Yes, this god was killed by a tree many people now associate with kissing at Christmas time.
If you’re a fan of the Thor movies or the Disney Plus series ‘Loki’, you might think of him as the adopted brother of the god of thunder; however, in Norse mythology, he was completely different.
To the Norse, Loki was a trickster god who wasn’t related to Thor at all, but he did often help him because of his intellectual brilliance. His parents were a giant called Fárbauti and a goddess called Laufey.
Loki had a very full life of adventure and mischief and was the kind of god who never thought anything was too far. Once he transformed himself into a female horse to carry out some sabotage and, in the process, had a romantic rendezvous with a male horse. Loki got pregnant and later gave birth to an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, which was believed to be the best horse that ever existed. Sleipnir was then given to Odin as a gift.
Loki was also the one who indirectly caused the death of Balder.
Freyr was the twin brother of Freya and the son of Njord. He was associated with peace, prosperity, fertility, sunshine, good weather and plentiful harvests. He was given the realm of the Elves’ Alfheim’ as a gift when he was still a toddler. Because he was the representation of male fertility and virility, statues of him often have an oversized phallus. He was a popular god, and in the old days, he was believed to be the ancient ancestor of the Swedish royal family.
Hel was the goddess of the underworld, which was called Helheim. The word ‘hell’ in English is closely linked to this goddess because her name later became the word ‘hel’ in old English, which meant ‘to cover or hide.’
Hel was said to have skin that was so pale that she looked dead. Her job was to take care of the souls who had somehow ended up in the underworld. In some ways, she was less of the torturing demon that the devil is perceived to be and more like the overworked manager of a terrible resort.
Vidar was the son of Odin and half-brother of Thor (Odin had a lot of children with a lot of different women). It was believed that Vidar was the second strongest of Odin’s children after Thor, and he was one of the few gods that actually survived Rangnarök.
Vale (or Váli) was another one of Odin’s children and also a half-brother to Thor. Vale is interesting because his whole point for existing was to fulfil prophecies. He was born to avenge the death of Balder by killing the poor blind god Höðr who accidentally threw mistletoe at him after being tricked by Loki.
Vale was a fast grower too. The Norse believed that he grew into a full adult within a day of his birth.
Does Anyone Still Follow Paganism?
Compared to other countries, Iceland isn’t particularly religious. A survey in 2016 actually found that no Icelanders under the age of 25 believed in the creation story from the Christian bible.
Iceland has an interesting history with Christianity. They were still practising pagans until it was decided they needed to abandon it and adopt Christianity in 1000 AD. The reason they made the switch wasn’t really about belief; it was more about doing it so that their Nordic neighbours would trade with them instead of seeing them as heathens.
In modern Iceland, the most common religion is Lutheran, but there has been a resurgence of Norse paganism. The modern church of Icelandic paganism is called Ásatrú. It is as close as people can get in Iceland to the religion of the Vikings, and it’s actually the fastest-growing religion in the country.
Ásatrú was given new life by a group of passionate locals in 1973 and has continued to grow. The religion has actually seen a 244% increase in members since 2007.
Where Can You Learn More About Norse Mythology in Iceland
There are many places to learn more about Norse mythology in Iceland. The country is filled with monuments, museums and sites that have been inspired by or allegedly were the actual places where these stories took place.
In Reykjavík, a great place to start would be the Icelandic Saga Museum. This attraction is an incredible time capsule that traces the history of Iceland from the very first settlers right through to the innovative, quirky people they are today.
If you want a little more ‘wow-factor’, you could make a trip op to the remote northeastern town of Raufarhöfn to visit ‘Arctic Henge.’ Although it bears some similarities to the ancient Stonehenge formation in England, Arctic Henge is actually a modern monument. It is designed to work in a similar way to Stonehenge and use the sun to tell the time of day and year. Its construction has been completely inspired by the religious beliefs of the original settlers of Iceland and is a great new addition to the wildly remote lands of the north.
How You Can Choose Which God or Goddesses Lodge You Stay in
There are many accommodation options available to those who want to experience the beauty, magic, wonder and history of Iceland, but there are none quite like the Panorama Glass Lodge.
The Panorama Glass Lodge takes the exquisite beauty of the Icelandic countryside and brings it inside with luxury accommodation that provides 360-degree views while at the same time giving you perfect privacy.
Each luxury cabin boasts large glass windows on the walls and ceiling, which let you take in the undisturbed views while keeping you shielded from the elements. Panorama is the perfect example of bringing the outside in. What you might not know is that each of these special cabins has been named after a Norse god.
Nestled in the countryside of Iceland’s south coast, there are 4 beautiful glass lodges. Each of them has a king-sized bed, bathroom, terrace and private hot tub. These magnificent lodges are called Alva, Odin, Thor and Freya. Also, coming soon to the west of Iceland will be two more cabins that sleep two people, Heimdall and Njord, as well as a special family cabin that sleeps 5 called Frigg.
The easiest way to pick which one to stay in is to check out their availability and perhaps see which god or goddess vibes with you the most. So check it out and don’t miss the opportunity to stay in the most interesting and relaxing accommodation Iceland has to offer.
The Norse gods and goddesses have played a significant role in the history of Iceland. They helped the early settlers make sense of the mystifying and strange world they had landed in and helped them to see the beauty in small things. If you’ve ever wondered what could make people believe in these fantastical stories, a few days in the land of fire and ice will show you. So get your bags packed and get over here.