- The Vikings were the early medieval
descendants of stone-aged people who migrated northward
from the desert regions of the middle east into northern Europe,
sometime around the end of the last ice age. Like most stone-age
cultures at that time, these people created a religion of sorts, to
help them explain the world and their place in it.
- The ancient Scandinavians found themselves in a
rugged land of great seasonal contrasts. Summers, marked by a
mid-night sun, were short but warm. Winters were long and cold and
frequented by storms off the frigid North Atlantic. During the endless
winter nights, the skies were illuminated by the dancing lights
of the Aurora Borealis. Viking myths clearly reflected this world
and their struggles to survive in it.
- To make sense of their surroundings, the
ancient ancestors of the Vikings created a series of
deities. They imagined that their world was fashioned by powerful
gods whose presence was evident in every natural force they experienced
and in the fortunes and misfortunes of their daily lives.
- The Vikings believed that in the beginning, a
great abyss (gap) the size of which no one could fathom
existed in the centre of space. On one side of the abyss was Niflheim
(ne ful ham). It was filled with cold, ice, mist and darkness and from
its huge spring flowed twelve large rivers. As the waters flowed into
the cold abyss, ice blocks formed and filled one side of the gap.
- On the opposite side of the abyss was
Muspelheim (mus pel ham). It was filled with the fire, warmth and
brightness and was guarded by a flame giant whose sword sent great
showers of sparks into the gap.
The Birth and
Death of Ymir, The First Frost Giant
- Eventually, the fire of Muspelheim and the ice
of Niflheim regions mixed in the abyss. A mist rose from the gap
and froze to create an ice giant named Ymir. An enormous cow was also
created to nourish him.
- From a salty ice block licked by the cow, the
first god, Buri emerged. Soon more giants appeared-two from drops
of sweat under Ymir's arms two giants and two more from his Ymir's feet.
As time passed, even more giants were born. Eventually, there was a
struggle between the giants and the gods. The struggle continued until
the birth of Odin and his two brothers Vili and Ve. Their father was
Borr, the son of Buri, and their mother Bestla, the daughter of a frost
giant. Together with their father, the three brothers killed Ymir. His
blood gushed into the abyss, drowning all but two of the frost
giants who escaped the deluge in a boat. The Vikings imagined
that all frost giants descended from these two. They also imagined that
from Ymir's corpse, Odin and his brothers created the universe.
Odin Creates the
- Odin and his brothers first fashioned
the earth (Midgard) from Ymir's flesh and, using his eyebrows,
encircled it with a protective wall. Using Ymir's unbroken bones,
they created mountains and from his teeth the rocks, boulders and
stones. Using Ymir's blood, they created the sea and lakes. Using the
dead giant's skull, they created the endless expanse of the sky
and supported its corners with four dwarfs (Nordi, Surdi, Austri,
Westri) from whose names we get the four main points of the compass;
North, South, East and West. From Ymir's brains they created the clouds
and from the sparks of Muspell, they created the sun, moon and stars to
give light to the world. While the stars were fixed, the sun and moon
were placed in golden chariots. Two riders named Day and Night
were charged with guiding the sun and moon on their daily journey across
the sky. They were pursued by a wolf intent on devouring
them and from time to time, it did catch them in his mouth. Because of
the cries of the terrified people of Midgard, the wolf released
them, only to pursue them once again.
- The Vikings also imagined that by using the
rotting remains of Ymir, Odin and his brothers created trolls, dwarfs,
gnomes, fairies and elves. The brothers confined the dwarfs to
the darkness of the underworld during the day. He made them the
collectors of gold and silver which they stowed in secret
crevices in the rocks. The fairies and elves were given the air
between heaven and earth and attended to the needs of the
flowers, plants, butterflies and birds.
The Creation of
- After the creation of Midgard, the Vikings
imagined that Odin and his brothers created the first humans. From a
branch of an ash tree they created a man named Askr and from the branch
of an elm tree, they created a woman named Embla . They were both placed
in Midgard and from the human race grew. Because Odin cared for his
human creations, future generations of their offspring were
watched and protected by the gods. It is in this part of the creation
myth that Loki, an offspring of frost giants and blood brother of
Odin, is introduced. Loki gave the humans blood. To
influence the destinies of humans, a rainbow bridge called
Bifrost connected Asgard and Midgard.
- The nine worlds of the universe the Vikings
imagined existed within a world tree named Yggdrasil (egg-draw-sill).
Asgard, the realm of the gods was at the top, Midgard in the
middle and Hel at its roots. The realms of the dwarfs and the frost
giants also existed within the tree.
The Yggdrasil tree had three large roots, each one of which dipped
into three different wells. The first root dipped into the waters of
Mimir's spring. These waters were filled with wisdom. The second root
lay in the Well of Urd, where mythical creatures weaved the fates of
mankind and tended to the needs of the tree. The third root fell into
the dark waters where a dragon tore gnawed unceasingly at the tree. Four
stags nibbled hungrily at the tree's green buds, while goats tore at the
bark. High in the branches an eagle sat with a hawk perched upon his
brow. a squirrel scurried up and down the Ash all day carrying insults
between the eagle above to the dragon below.
The Myths and the
Viking's Natural Surroundings
- Because the ancient Norse were trying to
explain the natural world in their myths, it is important to
connect the life and times of their mythical characters with the
world they experienced. It is easy to image that Niflheim and the frost
giants represented the cold and icy parts of their northern
latitude home, especially in the winter. It is equally easy to
imagine that Muspelheim represented the warmer lands and climates
they first visited as traders and later returned to as raiders. In
astronomy, in its easy to image that eclipses of the sun and moon
occurred when the hungry wolf caught the chariots carrying Day and
Night. Even the cow created from the ice to nourish Ymir is
connected to Viking life. They were successful farmers, and saw the cow
as a source of life (milk and meat for food and leather for clothing)
for its people.
- The Vikings and their ancestors did not record
their religious beliefs. They relied on storytelling to pass their
beliefs on from one generation to the next. In the mid-thirteenth
century, nearly two hundred years after the end of the Viking Age, and
Icelandic historian and poet decided to write down the tales he had
heard. Collectively, his works is called the Prose Eddas. With a
few exceptions, they are the only written record of the Viking's
- How close are these records to the true beliefs
held by these early Scandinavians? Expert opinions are mixed.
Some scholars suggest that when they were first recorded, the
Vikings had been converts to Christianity for two
centuries and that the skalds that recorded these myths
were undoubtedly influenced by their Christian beliefs and their own
views on the ancient myths. This, experts argue, is why there are so
many similarities between Viking paganism and Christianity.