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There were two main clans of deities within the pantheon of gods in Norse mythology, these being; the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir were considered to be the primary and most powerful group which included gods such as Odin, Frigg, Thor, Balder and Loki. The Vanir included gods such as Njord, Freya and Freyr.
As was the case with many pre-christian European religions the Norse paganism in Viking age Scandinavia was a polytheistic faith, which many different Gods who each has their own story, personality and represented a different aspect of daily life for the norsemen.
The family tree of Norse Gods was extremely complex, due to the common instances of incest and even cross species breeding which only complicated things further. In this post we will be focusing on the Aesir gods, however some of the prominent members of the Vanir tribe are also included. There are many other gods which are not covered in this article, however since so little information remains about them it is difficult to cover some of them in any kind of detail. This is meant to be an introduction to some of the primary characters for those who aren't familiar with norse mythology.
Check our our other blog post if you are interested in some of the most famous Viking Goddesses.
|1 - Ymir (Ymir)
|2 - Odin (Óðinn)
|3 - Thor (Þórr)
|4 - Loki (Loki)
|5 - Balder (Baldr)
|6 - Tyr (Týr)
|7 - Frey (Freyr)
|8 - Heimdall (Heimdallr)
|9 - Hodr (Höðr)
|10 - Bragi (bragr)
|11 - Njord (Njörðr)
|12 - Vidar (Víðarr)
In Norse Mythology Ymir was the first living being in existence, being the father of all of the giants and by extension all of the Gods. As he is the first being he plays a key part in the mythos of Norse creationism.
It was said that Ymir was birthed when the fire from Muspelheim met with the Ice from Niflheim. He was then suckled by a giant cow named 'Audhumla' who provided the nourishment he needed to grow large. Ymir was able to asexually reproduce and gave birth to various other giants from the sweat of his armpits as he slept.
The great cow fed on a giant block of salt, which released a new being by the name of 'Buri' as she chipped away at it. Buri was the father of Odin, Villi and Ve, who he conceived with one of Ymir's daughters.
Odin and his two brothers then proceeded to kill Ymir and create the universe from his corpse. A rough translation from the Poetic Edda is as follows:
"From Ymir's flesh the Earth was fashioned, And the mountains made from his bones; The sky was made from the frost giant's skull, And the ocean from his blood."
Ymir suckles on Audhumla as she frees Buri from the salt - Nicolai Abildgaard, 1790
Often reffered to as the 'Allfather' Odin was the greatest of the Norse Gods, and is probably the best known diety from Norse Mythology in modern times. He is well known for his pursuit of knowledge and quest to unluck the many mysteries of the cosmos.
There are many stories about Odin throwing off his kingly duties and wandering the earth as a weary traveller, he was also willing to make sacrafices for his pursuit of knowledge and power. He is said to have given his eye in order to gain a better vision of the cosmos at the life tree, Yggdrasil. Odin is also said to have hung himself from the tree for nine days in order to be blessed with knowledge of the runic alphabet, which he later gifted to mankind.
From his throne in asgard Odin could observe what was happening in each of the nine realms. He used his ravens, Huginn and Muninn to fly over the earth and relay information back to him. The raven is often a symbol associated with the Allfather.
There are many contradictory aspects to Odins complex character, being the god of War, Poetry, Magic and Knowledge. He is described as a feirce warlord who lusted for battle and victory, however he was also said to once have been expelled from Asgard for engaging in feminine magic.
Odin the wanderer - Georg von Rosen, 1886
Thor is another famous Norse god, who was the protector of humanity and God of thunder. He was known for his bravery, strength, and short temper. He was the wielder of the great hammer, Mjolnir, which was recognised to be the most powerful weapon in existence. There are many cases of norse burial sites including Mjolnir pendants with over 50 of them being found throughout Scandinavia and the British isles.
He was part of the prominent Aesir tribe of Norse gods and was conceived as a result of an extramarital affair between Odin and a mysterious woman named Jord. Thor had a number of half-brothers including lesser known gods such as Ullr, Hodr and Bragi. He was also a half brother of the aforementioned Baldur and of course his infamous adopted brother was the trickster, Loki.
During his missions in service of Asgard Thor managed to acquire many enemies, including the great serpent of Midgard, Jormungandr. The two of them are mentioned together numerous times in the Norse Sagas and it was prophesied that they would eventually fight each other to the death during the battle of Ragnarok.
Thor fights with the giants - Marten Eskil Winge, 1872
Loki was an infamously mischievous and deceitful god, he could shape shift and take many animalistic forms. The son of frost giants, Loki was said to have been adopted by Odin as a child.
He is said to have fathered many children the most famous of them being the three that he had with his giantess mistress, Angroboda. These were Fenrir, the giant wolf, Jormungandr, The giant serpent of midgard and Hel, the Goddess of the underworld.
As punishment for his role in Balders death Loki was chained to three boulders and had a poisonous snake placed above his head, which dripped venom onto his face.
The punishment of Loki - Louis Huard, 1900
The son of Frigg and Odin, Balder was the most beloved of all the gods by both gods and men. He was the Norse God of light and purity, often depicted as being wise, elegant and fair. His name in Old Norse translates to 'Brave'.
Balder is most famous for his tragic death. Due to his mothers protective spell he was thought to be immortal. His fellow gods would often use balder for target practice for arrows and throwing knives, which would simply bounce off him. However when casting the spell Frigg forgot about one small plant; mistletoe. Loki found out about this weakness and decided to exploit it. Motivated by jealousy, he crafted a dagger made from the plant and gave it to Balder's blind brother, Hodr. When this was thrown at Balder it killed him.
Odin attempted to resurrect Balder by making a pact with Hel, the Norse Goddess of the udnerworld. She agreed to return Balder to the land of the living, if every single living creature would weep for him at the same time. Every being in the nine realms wept at the same time, apart from one giant, therefore Balder never returned and Hodr was executed for his part in the death of his brother. This giant was thought to be Loki in disguise.
Baldr - Johannes Gehrts, 1901
It is thought by historians of Norse Mythology that in the early days preceding the viking age Tyr was amongst the most important of the Norse Gods. He was mentioned in various historical texts along side Thor and Odin as one of the primary Gods, and although his importance in Norse culture declined towards the late viking age we feel like Tyr is still worth a mention.
One of the only surviving stories of Tyr in the Norse sagas is in the binding of Fenrir when he sacrifices his hand in order to trick the wolf into being bound with a magical chain. Try was the only one of the gods brave enough to agree to thee sacrifice. He was also said to fight another wolf named 'Garm' to the death during Ragnarok, which many suspect may also be a reference to Fenrir by another name.
Tyr sacrificing his arm to Fenrir - John Bauer, 1911
According to the Prose Edda Frey was one of the most renowned of all the Gods and was said to be loved by all. He was originally a member of the Vanir tribe however he was also accepted as a member of the Aesir since he was sent there as a hostage after the war between the two clans. He was the son of Njord and the brother of Freya, who also spent much of her time amongst the Aesir.
In Norse society Frey was often associated with peace, pleasure and a good harvest. He was often the God of choice to whom animal sacrifices would be made at Viking weddings and other celebrations, usually with a boar being the desired animal. Frey was sometimes depicted in statues and drawings with an erect phallus, which demonstrates his image as a God of both sexual as well as agricultural fertility.
Frey was also the owner of the golden boar, 'Gullinbursti' which was created by the dwarves at the same time as Gungnir. It was said to have a golden mane and have the ability to run faster than any horse. Another legendary item belonging to Frey was his magical ship 'Skíðblaðnir' which had the ability to fly over water, land and air and could be folded up and fit into his pocket.
Since Frey's residence was on the elven world of Alfheim, there is some speculation by modern historians that he could have been the leader of the elves, or perhaps even descended from them in some way. There is little surviving information to verify or discredit any of these theories, therefore it remains open for debate.
In his final act Frey was to fight to the death with the fire giant, Surtr, who was the leader of the forces of chaos who would destroy Asgard and the majority of the gods in the Norse pantheon.
Frey and Surtr in their final battle - Lorenz Frolich, 1895
Heimdallr had an important role amongst the Norse gods, being the watcher and protecter of Asgard who would warn the others about the onset of Ragnarok. He was the guardian of the Bifrost and the owner of the great horn 'Gjallahorn'. This is the horn he was said to blow to signal the start of the great battle of Ragnarok when he saw Loki and the giants ascending along the Bifrost.
Heimdall was often depicted as a duty bound and loyal figure, in stark contrast to Loki who was a cunning trickster. The two of them were said to fight to the death at the battle of Ragnarok, with both of them dying from the wounds stay sustained during the brawl.
Heimdall was said to have been born to nine mothers and like many of the other Gods he was one of the many sons of Odin.
Heimdallr blows Gjallarhorn - Lorenz Frolich, 1895
A member of the Aesir, and son of Odin and Frigg, it seems like Hodr should have been a prominent figure in Norse Mythology, however he only appeared in one saga; 'The death of Balder'. Little is known about Hodr, and the two versions of the story vary greatly in their description of him.
In the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, Hodr was described as being blind and was tricked by Loki into killing his brother. After Balder was enchanted with magical protection by his mother, he became invulnerable from harm. His only weakness was mistletoe, the one thing his mother had forgotten to protect him from. It from this that Loki crafted a spear and tricked Hodr into killing his brother. He was then murdered by the rest of the Gods in vengeance and anger.
There is however another version of events which is outlined by Saxo Gramatticus in his work the 'Gesta Danorum'. In the tale Hodr is an accomplished military commander and does battle with Balder and his armies in order to win the hand of a goddess named 'Nanna'. Due to Balder using a special potion which made him invulnerable to harm, Hodr decided to travel to the realm of Hel, the Norse underworld, in order to obtain a powerful enchanted weapon capable of countering Balder's magical protection. This allowed Hodr to slay Balder in combat, however much like the previous version he would later be killed in an act of revenge.
The two versions of this series of events have some key similarities, however Hodr's character is extremely different in both. In one he is an easily manipulated and gullible figure, whereas in the other he is a brave and skilled warrior. The meaning of the word 'Höðr' in Old Norse literally translates to 'warrior', which could indicate that the Saxo Grammaticus version of the story was the more accurate portrayal of his true character.
Hodr warned of Balder's magical protection by wood maidens - Lorenz Frolich, 1820-1908
Bragi was the God of poetry who's name was derived from the word for poet in Old Norse, 'bragr'. In some accounts Bragi was one of the sons of Odin, however in others he was a bard who upon his death was granted entry into Valhalla.
The Prose Edda quotes many poems written by 'Bragi Boddason', a Swedish poet who served in the courts of various kings in the 9th century. It was supposed by later historians that he was then sent to Valhalla to be a bard and sing poems for the dead heroes who had been slain in battle, known as the Einherjar, as they awaited Ragnarok.
Whether or not Bragi was an original God and was indeed the son of Odin, or if he was simply a skilled poet who was allowed into Valhalla and was only mistaken for a God by later historians, remains open for interpretation.
One of the most prominent members of the Vanir tribe and the father of both Frey and Freya, Njord was also sent to live amongst the Aesir as a hostage along with his two children after the war between the two clans. With time they were all accepted as honorary members of the Aesir tribe and lived together them in harmony.
It has been supposed that Njord was one of the most worshiped of all the viking Gods. Despite this relatively few historical sources remain to give us insight into his character. What little is known is that he was associated with the ocean, seafaring, fishing and wealth. Since these activities were so fundamental to the viking's way of life it should come as no surprise that he was considered to be one of the primary deities in Norse Mythology.
In one of the only remaining sagas about Njord he was said to have been married to a giantess named 'Skadi'. The giantess had allegedly confronted the Aesir, seeking compensation for their part in the death of her father, and had been promised a husband of her choosing from amongst their ranks. Skadi chose Njord, however this was not intentional as he had meant to pick Balder instead. The story described their marriage as being terrible as Skadi's home was in the icy mountains, whereas Njord lived by the sea where it was warm and sunny. Neither of them was able to stand to stay with the other in their respective home and so the marriage was terminated shortly after.
The god of vengeance and one of the only deities in Norse Mythology who was said to survive the events of Ragnarok. He was the son of Odin and was referred to in the Prose Edda as the 'silent god'. It is not known why he was given this nickname, however oaths of silence were often associated with vengeance in Norse culture, which would help to explain its significance.
Fairly little is known about Vidar since one of his only remaining mentions is in the story of Ragnarok where he kills the giant wolf, Fenrir, in a vengeful rage after it devoured Odin. There was also mention of him being almost as strong as Thor, which is confirmed by the fact that he manages not only to defeat a formidable opponent in Fenrir, but also be one of the only survivors of the perilous battle of Ragnarok.
He managed to kill Fenrir by using a magical shoe, which had increased strength and kicking the giant wolf's bottom jaw open, allowing him to hold its mouth open and stab it through the roof of the mouth with his sword. This image is shown in an 11th Century engraving on the Gosforth Cross which was found in Cumbria, England.
Vidar slaying Fenrir, Inspired by the image on the Gosforth Cross - W.G. Collingwood, 1908
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