Myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself…Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of an individual it represents a late and mature one.
— Thomas Mann
The following list came from a dozen or so sources, including translations of the Eddas. Where applicable comparisons with Greek and Roman deities appear. For a brief discussion of gods and archetypes see my Celtic Deities page and also some Sami Deities and a Gnostic glossary.
Those of us with a German or Norse ethnic background have sometimes felt reluctant to look more deeply into our mythologies. In part, this is because they are associated with conquest, and in part, because the Nazis trashed them in their attempt to regress to the thought patterns of an earlier time. But these, our stories, were never intended for that; and they need reclaiming and dreaming onward for reasons similar to the need for Christians and Muslims to reclaim their spiritual roots from theocrats who wage wars in the name of the Prophet Muhammad or the Prince of Peace. The river of spirit has gotten polluted, but its headwaters remain clear and nourishing.
Very often seekers who abandon Western culture for Eastern or Native Americans do not realize the depths of what they leave behind. Our stories examine reincarnation, spiritual energy, gift exchange, the vitality of the soul, and the spirit of place. In the old Nordic worldview, everything is in flux and begins, balances out from, and ends with polarities akin to yin and yang. Even the gods are subject to this, undergo transformation, and often pay for what they gain with a corresponding loss. Our concept of wyrd directly relates one’s actions and intentions to personal and intergenerational consequences similar to karma. But our way of understanding these things reflects our own cultural framework and traditions. Coming home to them often increases respect for those of other cultures while eliminating the desperate drive to uproot and appropriate.
The pagan elements surviving in religious observance have often been taken note of. For uncolonized indigenous people–including the indigenous Celts and Germanics–religion as such did not exist. Native views of spirituality wed it to time and place, land and sea and sky, without need of a corporate hierarchy. And so a conqueror might ransack altars or rewrite the calendar, but the original forces live on–for example as Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Frigga’s Day, Saturn’s Day, Yule, Eostre, and All Soul’s. Our forbears lived in an enspirited world, and that world abides, as do its animated sacred dimensions. As H. R. Ellis Davidson puts it, “The gods never cease their struggle against the creatures of cold and darkness.” Neither did those who came before us.
Dedication: to my ancestors: my foremothers and forefathers who danced like furies, lived close to Earth, and held back the night in Britain, France, Germania, Holland, Scandinavia, Spain, Ireland, and Scotland. And what a ruckus in Rome: Diwrnod i’r bren!
Aegir (“AY-ear”): the Norse sea god, master brewer of storms, and husband to Ran, with whom he had nine daughters who personify as waves. Similar to the Greek Poseidon.
Aesir (Icelandic “AY-seer,” Swedish “ASS-seer”; singular “Asa”): the chief Norse gods. Similar to the Olympians of Greek myth. More associated with the skyward spirit than the earthy Vanir. The word means “pillars.”
Alfar (“OWL-var”): male ancestors. See Disir.
Alfheim: world of the elves.
Alvis (“All-Knowing”): clever dwarf outsmarted by Thor in a verbal contest for the hand of Thor’s daughter Thruth (“Might”). The contest lasted so long that the sun came up and turned the would-be groom to stone.
Andhrimnir: the cook for the warriors in Valhalla. His name means “soot in the face.” The pot he uses is named Eldhrimnir.
Andvaranaut: a magic ring named after the shape-shifting dwarf Andvari (“Andvari’s Gift”) and forged by Volund. When Loki stole it to pay a ransom, Andvari cursed it to bring trouble on whomever possessed it. This ring played a key role in Wagner’s work and in Tolkein’s. It was thought lost in the Rhine, but it resurfaces wherever greed trumps reason or peace.
Angurboda: giant lover of Loki. Her name means “Herald of Sorrow.” Their children were the wolf Fenris, the serpent Jormungand, and Hel. The gods took them away from her.
Ari: an underworld giant eagle who scares the dead in Niflheim.
Asgard: the stronghold-world of the gods. It includes Alfheim, where the light elves live, and Vanaheim, where the Vanir live. Asgard is surrounded by a wall built by a giant mason tricked by Loki, who changed into a mare to lure away his stallion so he couldn’t finish by winter’s end. The Aesir breaking of oaths with the giant–he had asked for Freya, the sun, and the moon, and Loki had agreed for them–paved the way for Ragnarok.
Audhumla (Icelandic “oy-THIM-lah,” Swedish “audth-HUM-blah”): a cow formed by the convergence of the ten primal rivers in Niflheim. Her milk fed the giant Ymir. From these two ramified all of existence.
Baldur: bright and wise son of Frigga and Odin, master of the hall Breidablik (“Broad Splendor”), killed by a mistletoe arrow and resurrected. Loki tricked the blind god Hodor into firing it. At his funeral, it is said that even earth, stones, trees, and metals wept dew for his passage. A god of harmony, light, reconciliation, and sacred wells (compare Apollo). He will survive Ragnarok, as will Hodor.
Bergelmir: the father of all the giants.
Berserkers (“bearshirts”): warriors who in some stories could turn themselves into dangerous bears. (The bear was so highly prized in Finnish lore that it could not be named.) Chieftains often surrounded themselves with such warriors, some of whom went without mail and others who painted themselves and their weapons black before night fighting. Their battle frenzy was thought to come from Odin, whose name refers to ecstasy or frenzy.
Bestla: frost giant mother of Odin and his brothers. Her mate was Bor, son of Buri.
Bifrost (“BAY-vrurst”: “Trembling Roadway”) : the flaming, three-strand rainbow bridge that joins Asgard to Midgard and keeps away giants until it breaks under Surt’s legions at Ragnarok.
Blot (“bloat”): an animal sacrifice ritual to honor (“To Strengthen”) the gods.
Bragi (“BRAH-yee”): eloquent god of poetry (“bragr”) and husband of Idunna. Unlike clean-shaven Apollo, Bragi wears a long beard. Often shown with a harp. Patron of minstrels. Loki began with him in an incident where the trickster hurled insults at the assembled Aesir during a lengthy bout of self-congratulating.
Brunhild (“Mailed Warrior”): a shape-shifting Valkarie who fell in love with the hero Sigurd and burned herself to death when he died of treachery.
Buri (“BOO-ree”): son of Audhumla, the primal cow who licked him into life from salty rocks. Grandfather of Odin and father of Bor.
Disir (“DEE-seer”; singular “dis”): female ancestors. See Alfar.
Draugr (plural “draugar”): a powerful undead zombie. Runes were sometimes inscribed on tombstones to keep the undead from rising. The haugbui was a draugr who stayed put but attacked anyone who trespassed near the grave site.
Draupnir: “Dropper,” the magic gold bracelet of Odin that creates eight new rings of gold every ninth night.
Dwarves: underground beings associated with craftsmanship. They sprung like maggots from Ymir’s body, and many live in Nidavellir (“Dark Fields”) below ground. The cardinal directions were sky-supporting dwarves named Austri (East), Sudri (South), Vestri (West), and Nordri (North). Dwarves supplied the magical instruments and weapons of the gods.
Eddas: the collections of stories and poems that constitute the primary early record of Norse and Icelandic mythology. They were penned in the 13th century, the Prose Edda by the Icelandic scholar and poet Snorri Sturluson, who used the thirty-four-poem brew of the Poetic Edda as a source, but they belong to a much more ancient oral tradition. Some of their images go back to the Bronze Age. The original calf-skin vellum on which they were written was lost long ago. “Edda” has been thought to mean “poem” but could refer to Oddi, a settlement in southwestern Iceland, home of Sturluson and the legendary scholar Saemund the Wise. From 1100 on lore collected in Iceland like congealing flows of lava.
Einherjar (“EIN-her-yar”): collective name for the dead warriors gathered in Valhalla. They go out into the couryard and battle by day, recover, and feast in the hall at night.
Eir: a goddess of healing. Compare with the Greek Hygeia.
Elivagar (“Stormy Waves”): the eleven rivers whose dripping venom gave the first giants their fierceness through Ymir. Snorri links them to the Milky Way.
Elves: youthful beings living in forests and near springs. They look like humans and sometimes crossbred. Dark elves were thought to cause diseases. They live in Svartalfheim (“Land of Dark Elves”), whereas bright elves live in Alfheim and Vidblain in heaven. In parts of Sweden the custom is to pour a cup of milk for them and leave it near a tomb.
Eostre, Ostara (“East Shining”): Saxon goddess of springtime and rabbits. Celebrated at the spring equinox, her name gave itself to April. Compare with the Roman goddess Aurora and the Greek Eos.
Etins: giants friendly to the gods, unlike the Jotuns, who aren’t.
Fafnir: a gold-hoarding dragon killed by the hero Sigurd.
Faining: a god-honoring ritual that does not involve animal sacrifice.
Fensalir: the “Sea Halls” of Frigga in Asgard.
Fenris, Fenrir: the wolf son of Loki bound by the gods with Tyr’s help and sacrifice. He will eat Odin at Ragnarok and be slain by Odin’s son Vidar. His slaver forms the river Van (“Hope” or “Expectation”).
Folde: Anglo-Saxon goddess of Earth. Also called Fira Modor (“Mother of Men”).
Forseti: god of law and justice and overseer of civic assemblies. A son of Baldur, he lives in the silver and golden hall Glitnir (“Shining”). An old story tells that he brought a spring from the earth while giving law to the Frisians.
Freya: golden-haired “Lady” and goddess of love and beauty. Compare with Aphrodite and Venus. Freya’s chariot, drawn by cats, bears comparison with Aphrodite’s (called Pothos, the fantasy component of love), and she sometimes takes the form of a dove. Both goddesses are connected to sea swells. Freya’s fire-jewel necklace Brisingamen (“Fiery Belt”) was forged by four dwarves after she spent one night with each. She has eight sisters and a coat that turns the wearer into a falcon. Her hall is Sessrumnir (“Rich in Seats”) at Folkvang, the Field of Warriors, where half the slain in battle go. Her disguised lover Hildisvini’s name means “Battle Boar”; his human name is Ottar. She taught magic (divinatory witchcraft: see “Seidr” below) to other goddesses and gods. When she cries her tears make red gold. Her daughter with lost Od is Hnoss (“Treasure”). She was one of the Vanir sent to the Aesir to bring peace to both. She can be thought of as the archetypal principle that attracts every opposite, from the cohesion of matter to the gravity between galaxies. Through her intercourse became sacred and healing and ceremonial.
Freyr (Icelandic: flap the final “r”): Vanir “Lord” of the elves, husband of the giant Gerd (“Enclosure” or “Field”), and brother of Freya. A god of peace and lusty pleasure and good crops. He sails in the foldable portable ship Skidbladnir (“Wooden-Bladed”) and rides the luminously golden boar Gullinbursti (“Golden Bristles”). His magic sword wielded itself until he gave it away to marry Gerd, so he killed the giant Beli with an antler. Brings
happiness and is kind to women but is prone to depression. He resembles a mixture of Saturn and Dionysus, with Gerd an echo of Arachne. The legendary Danish king Frodi might be a byform of Freyr. The Anglo-Saxons called him Ing. His messenger is Skirnir (“Bright One”).
Frigga (“FREE-yuh”): the Allmother of the Norse and wife of Odin. Goddess of peacemaking, weaving the threads of cosmic order, and holding and keeping political and domestic power. She knows everyone’s fate but does not speak it. Her name means “Spinner.” Compare with Hera or Juno or the Celtic Morrigan. Her handmaids were Fulla, Gna, and Lin. Friday was considered a good day to get married because it was named after her (for the Germanics, Frija’s Day).
Frith: peaceful accord. Arranging a peace is “frith-weaving.”
Fulla, Volla: long-haired virgin sister of Frigga and guardian of her treasure. Her name means “Bounty.”
Fylgja (“FEEL-gyah”; plural “Fylgjur”): a part of the soul that sometimes shows up as an animal and can live outside the body. The form it takes depends on the inner character of the person it visits. The word means “she who follows.”
Garm: the underworld hound of Hel. He is chained in Gnipahellir, the cave entrance of Niflheim, and will die with Tyr at Ragnarok. Similar to Cerberus.
Gefion (“GEF-yon”: “She Who Gives”): Vanir crop and field goddess. Compare Demeter/Ceres. When King Gylfi of Sweden mocked the apparently homeless woman before him by giving her all of Zealand she could plow, she turned her giant-sired sons into oxen and plowed the entire expanse. She overlooks agriculture, acquisition, and material wealth. Women who die as virgins accompany her.
Geirröth: the king who unwittingly bound Odin between two fires (he had thought him a common wanderer whom his dogs refused to attack) to torture him for eight nights. His ten-year-old son Agnar was kind to the disguised god and gave him a horn to drink from. When the king realizes his mistake he falls on his sword. Odin teaches his son sacred lore.
Gerdr (“gurd”: “fenced enclosure”): the beautiful giant coerced into marrying Freyr, who saw her from a distance and admired the way light from her arms lit air and water. Possibly a Norse counterpart to Rhea.
Gimli: the gold-roofed hall where the new gods will live after Ragnarok.
Ginungagap: the creative void or chasm from which all things emanated. Within it lie a realm of fire (Muspelheim) and a world of ice (Niflheim) that contained Hvergelmir, the well from which flowed the primal rivers. When the worlds collided into a big bang, the giant Ymir came to be.
Gladsheim (“Place of Joy”): a pleasant dwelling on the plain of Ida and largest building in existence. The twelve gods had seats of honor there.
Gna: messenger of Frigga whose name means “rise high,” which she does on the backof Hofvarpnir (“hoof-thrower”). Her name shares roots with “looming.”
Grid: the female giant who who loans Thor her staff, iron gloves,and belt of strength so he can kill the giant Geirrod and his two daughters.
Gullinkambi (“Golden Comb”): the cock that awakens the Einherjar warriors of Valhalla to Ragnarok. The cock Fjalar awakens the Giants.
Gullveig (“Gold Might”): the Vanic goddess and seeress whose triple burning by the Aesir offended the Vanir; Odin’s casting a spear over their ranks precipitated the war. Gullveig’s name might indicate a reason for the burning, but the Aesir might also have feared her powerful magic. She was banished to Ironwood until Ragnarok. Some think her a byform of Freya.
Hamingja: luck, partly inherited from the ancestors and partly modifiable through one’s actions.
Heimdal (“HAME-dall,” meaning, “One Who Illuminates the World”): the watchful gold-toothed guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifrost. His hall is Himinbjorg (“Heaven’s Cliffs”) at the end of the bridge Bifrost; his horse is Golltopp (“Gold-Topped”). It is said he gave an ear to Mimir’s well to obtain his otherworldly powers of hearing. He successfully fought Loki to regain Freya’s necklace after both of them had shapeshifted into seals. His horn Gjall (“Ringing Horn”) will announce the final war of Ragnarok, where he and Loki will kill each other. Heimdall’s counterpart watchman among the giants is Eggther. Cf. the Greek Argus, who also tangled with a trickster, and shapeshifting Proteus, foreteller of events and guardian of seals.
Hel: the giant goddess of the underworld. She is half black and half white and lives in the hall Eliudnir (“Sprayed with Snowstorms”) in Helheim, where she is served by male Ganglati (“Tardy”) and female Ganglot (“Tardy”). According to Snorri “her dish is Hunger, her knife is Famine, her slave is Lazy, and Slothful is her woman servant.” Her bed is named Sick Bed, and her bed curtains Gleaming Disaster. Compare Persephone.
Helheim: the world of the dead.
Hermod: Asa messenger of the gods. His name means “Fast.” It was he who rode Sleipnir to the underworld–leaping over its gate Helgrind–to unsuccessfully plead Hel for Baldur’s return. Only the giant Thokk (“Gratitude”: Loki in disguise) would not weep for him. Compare Hermes.
Hlin (“Protectress”): she defends and looks after humans liked by Frigga.
Howe: a burial mound. Gateway to the underworld. In Norse and Germanic myth the dead go to one of several places, including the hall of the deity they revered while alive. Kings and poets sometimes sat on the mounds of their dead ancestors for inspiration or dreams.
Hrede: “The Glorious” or “The Victorious” Anglo-Saxon goddess of the chill that falls before spring.
Hreidmar: the farmer whose son Otter was killed by Loki. He trapped Loki, Odin, and Hoenir with magic and demanded a ransom of red gold, which they paid with wealth tricked out of the dwarf Andvari by Loki.
Hrimfaxi (“Frost-Maned”): the horse of Night (Not), which she rides around the world. The horse of Day (Dag, son of Not and Dogling (“Son of the Dew”) is Skinfaxi (“Shining-Maned”).
Hrungnir: a mountain-sized giant who lost a horse race to Odin and got drunk in Valhalla afterward. He was armed with a magical whetstone that splintered into chunks that buried themselves all over the world for later use by those who seek sharp blades (or sharp minds). Thor cured him of taking Freya for a serving wench by smashing his head.
Huginn (“HYUG-in”): the raven Thought who scouts things out for Odin.
Hugr: soul. The soul was seen as a polycentered, deathless core of selfhood.
Humans: fashioned from an ash and an elm standing on a shoreline into a man (Askr) and woman (Embla) by Odin, who gave breath and soul, silent Hoenir, who gave intelligence, and Lodur, who bestowed senses and form.
Hyrrokkin: the giant who freed Baldur’s stuck boat to carry his dead body out to sea. Four berserkers could not budge it, so the Aesir called for her and she came riding a wolf with a poisonous snake for reins.
Icelandic Sagas: seven hundred prose narratives written down during the thirteenth century by various anonymous authors. Iceland represented a remarkable nexus for Norse and Germanic myth and skaldic poetry from 1000 AD onward.
Innangaro: a sacred social enclosure guarding against the forces of utgaro (destruction). A cultural temenos.
Idunn (“ee-DOO-nuh”): goddess of youth and health, which she bestows on the gods with her apples of immortality kept in a wooden box. Her name means “The Renewer.” Loki delivered her to the giant Thjiazi but rescued her again. She is the wife of Bragi. Her Greek counterpart is Hebe the youth goddess.
Iku-turso: an evil Finnish sea monster.
Illmarinen: the Finnish god-smith who forged the dome of heaven and the mysterious Sampo, a kind of horn of plenty. Similar to the Greek Hephaestos and the Roman Vulcan.
Iving: a river that never ices over and marks a boundary between Asgard and the realm of the giants.
Jarnvid: “Ironwood,” a land east of Midgard where trolls live.
Jord: Earth, daughter of Night, and mother of Thor. The Norse version of Gaia or Terra. Invoked by women in labor.
Jormungand (“YOR-mun-gand”): the enormous, tail-biting serpent of Midgard. Odin imprisoned it in the sea to get rid of it, but it grew until it embraced all of earth. At Ragnarok, it will poison Thor and pollute the sky.
Jötnar (“yötnar”; singular “jötunn): giants. Also called risar (singular “risi”). Those inhabiting icy Niflheim were known as frost giants. Fire giants inhabit Muspelheim.
Jötunheim (“YUR-tun-hame”): the world of the giants. It contains their citadel Utgard and lies somewhere near Midgard, the world of humans.
Kvasir: a wise Vanir formed from the divine spit of the Aesir and Vanir. After two dwarves killed him the mead of poetry was decanted from his blood into the cauldron Odrorir (“Heart-Stirrer”) and later stolen by Odin.
Kennings: the naming of people and things with poetic metaphors like “Freya’s tears” (gold) and “horse of sea” (ship). Kennings avoided the dull and literal, demonstrated poetic skill, drew on a shared cultural history, exercised the imagination, and kept the images fresh through renewing them with words.
Kobold: a troublesome German sprite or goblin. Some haunt mines or caves.
Lightalfheim: the world of light elves.
Lintukoto: the edge of the world in Finnish mythology. The name means “Home of the Birds.”
Lofn (“Comforter”): a giver of hope, she also helps people marry. She and Sjöfn and Snotra bear comparison with the Graces.
Loki: the Trickster god, mother of Odin’s horse Sleipnir, and blood brother of Odin. Loki’s persuasion after cutting off Sif’s hair (to imply promiscuity) resulted in new hair woven of gold, the hammer Mjollnir given to Thor, Odin’s deep-piercing spear Gungnir, and Loki’s shoes of flight. A trick of his resulted in Baldur’s death and resulting survival after Ragnarok. Compare Hermes, Mercury, Prometheus. Loki means “fire.” For insulting the Aesir he is bound to three stones by the entrails of his dead son Narfi until Ragnarok. He is disorder personified and shows up whenever things get too ponderous or routine.
Maegen (“MAYG-in”): the vitality aspect of soul. Similar to the Asian “chi” or “ki.”
Magni (“Might”): strong son of Thor who with his brother Modi (“Wrath”) will receive Thor’s hammer after their father dies at Ragnarok.
Mani: the moon god whose chariot is driven by the horse Alsvid (“Very Strong”). A girl (Bil) and boy (Hjuki) go with him.
Merkstave: when a rune drawn for a reading comes up reversed, resulting in a reversal of its meaning. Literally means “dark stick.”
Midgard: the world of humans. “Middle Earth.”
Mimir (“Remembrer”): god whose head guards the well of wisdom at the base of Yggrasil the World Tree. Possibly uncle to Odin, who gave an eye for a drink. Displeased with Hoenir’s silence, the Vanir beheaded Mimir and sent him back to the Aesir, but the peace worked out anyway.
Mjölnir (“MULE-near”): the hammer of Thor, which he needs a metal glove to wield. The dwarves Brokk and Eitri made it. When he throws it the hammer hits its target and comes back into his hand. The word means “masher” and is linked to “milling.” The tendency of this flying grindstone to give off lightning also makes it a sort of portable thunderbolt. Lapp shamans struck their drums with hammers that resembled Thor’s.
Mundilferi: father of the sun and moon. His name might mean “The Turner.”
Muninn: Odin’s raven Memory. Given the distortions and gaps of Norse mythology, Odin may have been right to fear losing Memory more than Thought (symbolized by the raven Huginn).
Nanna: wife of Baldur, who threw herself on his funeral pyre in grief as he burned on his ship Ringhorn.
Nehellenia: Dutch goddess comparable to Isis and Demeter; her name might mean “Helpful Coming Close.”
Nerthus: Danish goddess of Earth. Similar to the Greek Gaia and the Roman Terra.
Nidhogg: the old dragon who chews on the root of the World Tree. His name means “Dread Biter.”
Niflheim (“Misty Hel”): a realm of darkness under one root of the World Tree. At Nastrond (“Shore of Corpses”), the dragon Nidhogg chews on those who were evil in life.
Nine: a key number in Norse myth. Nine worlds, Odin’s three triangles and nine magic songs, Heimdall’s nine mothers, Hermod’s nine-day journey to the underworld, etc. In alchemy the Third referred to a unifying or synthesizing substance derived by combining two others (a duality). In many mythologies nine (three threes) represents the culmination of a cycle.
Njord (“NEEORD”): father of Freya and Freyr and god of ships and trade who lives in Noatun (“Ship’s Haven”) and calms the seas and winds. His marriage to the giant Skadi failed because she belongs at her father Thjiazi’s home Thrymheim (“Home of Thunder”) in the mountains and he by the sea.
Nornir: the three wise goddesses, also called the Norns, who sit at the foot of Yggdrasil and weave the web of fate. Urd oversees past actions, Verdandi the present, and Skuld the future. Even the gods must bow to their decisions. Compare with the Greek Fates (“Moira”).
Od: lost husband of Freya. When she could not find him she shed tears of gold that turned trees into amber.
Odin (“OHDTH-in”; called Wotan or Woden in Germanic lore): Allfather and shape-shifting husband of Frigga. Lusty god of ecstacy, storm, hunting, poetry, berserk fury, and incantations. His authority is similar to that of Zeus (Greek) and Jupiter (Roman). He sits on the throne Hildskfalf (“hlid-skyalf”: “Watch Tower”) and likes to go about on Earth disguised as a gray-bearded wanderer in a tall hat and dark blue cloak. It was he whose breath animated the first humans and he who leads the dead on the shamanic Wild Hunt of wandering souls. He subsists on wine and loves knowledge from the depths and will make sacrifices to obtain it, as when he exchanged an eye for a drink from Mimir’s well. His seduction of Gunloo to obtain the sacred mead of poetry (Ooroerir) from her Jotun father Suttung resulted in the birth of Bragi, god of poetry. Odin’s imagery marks him as a Shaman of shamans. He is unusual in another way: a god actively seeking wisdom and making sacrifices to open pathways to self-development. On memorial stones and urns his emblem appears: the valknut, three interlocked triangles.
Okolnir (“Not Cold”): the warm ground where the hall Brimir will stand after Ragnarok.
Örlög (“UR-lurg”): a person’s own strand of fate (wyrd). One’s actions can influence its shape.
Ragnarök: often mistranslated as “twilight (rather than “fate”) of the gods”: an apocalypse in which the old gods and their opposites destroy each other, resulting in heavenly renewal and a new race of human beings. C. G. Jung referred to this mythological dynamic as the transformation of the God-image(s). It begins with a three-year winter (fimbulvetr) and giants storming Asgard by land under Surt and riding in on Naglfar, a ship made of the nails of the dead steered by Hrym and captained by Loki. Odin will be eaten by the wolf Fenris, his wolvish offspring Skoll and Hati will devour the sun and moon, Surt will kill Freyr, the world serpent Jormungand will kill Thor with its breath, the hellhound Garm and Tyr will kill each other, and so will Heimdall and Loki. The World Serpent will turn out the seas onto land and Surt will cast flame over the world that ends, like it began, in a union of fire and water. Afterwards Earth will rise again from the sea and the sun and moon’s children Lif and Lifthrasir (Life and Will-to-Live) will repopulate it. Vidar, Vali, Modi, Magni, Baldur, and Hod will come to Idavoll, former site of Asgard, and find the gold playing pieces of the former Aesir.
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men each other spare….
Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves again…
Ran (“Robber”): net-wielding wife of Aegir and personification of the sea’s danger. The drowned go to her after death.
Rune: a character in a pictographic alphabet held to be of divine origin. The 24-letter Germanic Elder Futhark of the second to the eighth centuries (sometimes simplified into the Younger Futhark of Scandinavia) is often used in rune readings. Runes were often carved into pieces of wood and stained red.
Saga: goddess of history, ancestry, and storytelling (her name means “to tell” or “to speak”). She lives in the hall Sokkvabekk (“Sunken Bank”) and often drank there with Odin.
Saehrimnir: the boar eaten by the warriors in Valhalla. They drink mead from the udders of Heithrun, the she-goat who nibbles the leaves of the World Tree.
Seaxnéat/Saxnot: “Sword Friend,” a little-known Anglo-Saxon god, possibly a counterpart to Tyr. A seax was a long, single-edged knife.
Seidur (“saydth”): magic involving an ecstatic state of divination achieved by a wise woman. A form of witchcraft taught by Freya. This talent, later known as witchcraft, involved ceremony and sometimes erotic practice or imagery.
Sif: seeress wife of Thor and mother of his daughter Thruo (“Strength”) and his sons Magni (“Strong”) and Modi (“Angry”).
Sigyn: wife of Loki; “Woman of Victory.” She holds a bowl to catch venom dripped by a poisonous serpent into Loki’s face after the giant Skadi and the gods bound him as punishment (compare the story of Prometheus) for arranging Baldur’s death. His writhings when she turns away to empty the bowl cause earthquakes. Compares to the Greek Nike and the Roman Victory.
Sjöfn (“SYUR-fn”): her name means “affection.” See Lofn.
Skadi (“Shadow”): the skiing mountain giant who hunted with a bow and could not work things out with Njord, whom she married as compensation for the death of her father Thjiazi. Compare Artemis.
Sleipnir (“SLAYP-near”): the fast steed of Odin, eight-legged and fathered by the stallion Svadilfri, who mated with shapeshifted Loki its mother.
Snotra (“Wise”): the goddess of custom and courtesy. See Lofn.
Sol: the sun goddess whose chariot is pulled by the horses Allsvinn (“Very Fast”) and Arvak (“Early Walker”).
Surt: “Black” lord giant of fiery Muspelheim, bearer of a flaming sword, and future leader of the forces opposing Odin’s at Ragnarok, where he will set the world on fire. Compare Hades/Pluto. His wife may have been Sinmora.
Suttung: the giant from whom Odin tricked the mead of poetry. Suttung pursued Odin back to Asgard as an eagle and almost caught him, but Odin spat the mead into vats. Some of it shot out of his rear as well, and it reappears to stain the air whenever one hears bad poetry.
Svalin: “The Cooling” is a shield that stands in front of the sun. Without its ozone-like protection, the world would burn.
Swartalfheim: the world of dark elves.
Syn: gatekeeper of Frigga’s hall Fensalir; her name means “Refusal” or “Denial.” She is invoked by defendants during trials. Compare Hecate.
Thew: tribal law or custom.
Thor: the mighty red-bearded son of Allfather Odin; the Norse Herakles. Armed with his war hammer Mjollnir and Megingjard the Belt of Strength, he tends to flatten whatever grows inflated beyond natural limits, particularly greedy giants. His chariot is pulled by the goats Tanggniost (“Tooth-Grinder”) and Tanngrisnir (“Snarl Tooth”). His hall is named Bilskinir (“bill-skier-near”), “Lightning,” and is located in Thrudheim (“Place of Might”). Thor safeguards important demarcations (e.g., the boundaries of Asgard) while breaking open those that unduly block or limit. He recalls the Anglo-Saxon Thunor, the Celtic Tanaros, the Hindu Indra, and the German god Donar.
Thrym: the giant who stole Mjollnir and wouldn’t give it back unless the Aesir offered him Freya. Thor showed up for the wedding dressed as her and accompanied by Loki in the guise of a bridesmaid. The disguise wore thin when Thor consumed an ox and eight salmon, but Thrym placed the hammer in “Freya’s” lap anyway as a Norse sign of conjugal affection. Mjollnir responded.
Trolls: large, ugly creatures who live in dark or hidden places. Norwegian term for the giant of Sweden or Denmark. Pretty female ones sometimes seduced wayfarers and left them drowned or lost. In stories where Thor is absent sometimes appears a short statement like, “…and Thor was out hammering trolls.”
Tuoni: Finnish god of the underworld (called Tuonela).
Tyr (“teer”), Tiwaz: the binder of the wolf Fenris with the deceptively thin dwarf-crafted rope Gleipnir (“Open One”). He bound the wolf (and lost his sword hand to it) because a seeress foretold that the wolf would kill Odin at Ragnarok. He is a god of honorable conduct and direct action and and linked to the arrow-shaped rune Tiewaz. He is sometimes compared to Ares and Mars. His consort may have been Zisa.
Ukko: the Finnish Odin or Zeus; also called the Overgod. His wife was Akka. His weapon was a stone ax.
Ull: archer god of hunting and skiing and duels; his name means “Glory.” A son of Sif but not Thor, he lives in Ydalir (“Yew Dale”). A kenning for shields was “ships of Ull.”
Urda’s (“Urth-ahs”) Well: the well of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil. Urda is one of the Norns.
Utgard-Loki: the giant who called himself Skrymir (“Big Fellow”) and fooled Thor and his companions Thialfi and Loki by testing them against Elli (Old Age), Logi (Fire), and Hugi (Thought). He and his mansion vanished just before meeting Mjollnir. Such optical tricks are called sjónhverfing (“sight-altering”). Thor having unknowingly drunk up part of the ocean, there are now tides.
Vaettir (“VAY-tear”; singular Vaet): spirits of land and place. Genii loci.
Vafthruthnir: the giant who lost a wisdom contest and his life to Odin.
Valhalla: Odin’s great “Hall of the Slain” within Asgard. There he feeds and trains slain heroes for use in the final battle of Ragnarok. The hall is surrounded by the river Thund (“The Roaring”), raftered with spears, roofed with shields, lit by swords, and fitted with benches strewn with breastplates. A wolf and an eagle are carved above the door. A grove of red gold called Glasir stands in front of the doors.
Vali: son of Odin and Rind. He was born to avenge Baldur’s death by killing blind Hodor.
Valkaries: the implacable “Choosers of the Slain”: warrior women who select who will be slain in battle and transport dead heroes to Valhalla. Descriptions of them often match those of the Furies.
Vanaheim: the world of the Vanir.
Vanir (“VAH-near”; also called the Wanes): an older race of gods similar to the Greek Titans but who continue to interact with the Aesir, with whom they exchanged peace hostages. The earthy Vanir in Norse myth reach far back into pre-Indo-European and indigenous shamanic origins.
Var: goddess of oath-keeping and punisher of those who break promises. Her name means an oath or pledge.
Vidar: Odin’s son and avenger of his death at Ragnarok. He wears a shoe assembled from the scraps of all shoes that have ever been, and he uses it to prop open the mouth of Fenriswolf while tearing the beast apart.
Vigrid (“Battle-Shaker”): the 120-league-square Asgard plain where the gods and the giants will destroy each other at time’s end.
Vikings: seagoing merchant raiders who sailed and fought between the eighth and eleventh centuries. The name “Rus,” or the Swedish Vikings described by Ibn Fadlan, appears in “Russia”; Vikings also founded Dublin, Iceland, Greenland. One of them, Leif the Lucky, not only sighted North America (near Newfoundland) around the year 1001 but stayed there for a few years and might have ventured as far south as New England or Long Island. Their shallow-draft longships allowed them to strike deep inland and made them a terror throughout Europe to as far away as the Mideast. Having witnessed the bloody Christianization of Scandinavia, the Vikings particularly favored attacks on wealthy coastal monasteries. Unlike their enemies they bathed and kept groomed. Their leather and iron battle helmets did not carry horns or wings. An old legend says that goblins originating in France caught a ride with the Vikings to arrive in England.
Vingolf: the goddess’ lovely sanctuary in Asgard. “Friendly Quarters.”
Vor: a wise, watchful, careful goddess about whom little is known. She investigates things deeply, and nothing can remain hidden from her.
Volsung: the king who gave his name to the saga written down by an unknown author in the thirteenth century. The saga includes Sigmund, the Arthurlike son of Volsung who pulls Odin’s sword from the tree Branstock, the sword’s breaking and its remaking into sharp Gram, and the story of the dragon-slaying hero Sigurd and his tragic love Brunhild. In the treasure of Fafnir waits the cursed ring of Andvari: “But hearken, for that same gold which I have owned shall be thy bane too.” And so it is, dooming him, Brunhild, Sigurd’s wife Gudrun, who suffers loss after terrible loss, down to the death of Atli and his clan, when Odin reappears to give their enemies advice. With the theft of the ring Andvaranaut, Loki (and Odin) had set in motion a kind of intergenerational nightmare to bring down a line of proud and once-vital kings who greedily took whatever they wanted by butchery.
NOW MAY ALL EARLS
BE BETTERED IN MIND,
MAY THE GRIEF OF ALL MAIDENS
EVER BE MINISHED,
FOR THIS TALE OF TROUBLE
SO TOLD TO ITS ENDING.
Volund: a smith god similar to Hephaestos/Vulcan and the Anglo-Saxon Weyland.
Völuspá: the first of the poems of the Edda as related by a volva to Odin. It includes the creation and destruction of the world.
Völva: a wise woman, seer, healer, or witch highly respected in pre-Christian times. (Note: the English word “heal” reaches back through German and Icelandic to words for “holy” and “whole.”) Males who held an analogous role were known as vitkar (singular vikti).
Vördr (“verd”): a “warden” or “watcher” spirit that guides the soul throughout life. One’s angel.
Weonde (“WAY-on-day”): Anglo-Saxon ceremony for blessing a space by circling it clockwise while holding torches.
Willa: the will component of the soul.
Wod: the soul’s capacity for passion or creative inspiration.
Wyrd (“whirred”): fate or consequence; similar to karma. Partly personal and partly ancestral. See Örlög.
Yggdrasil (“IG-drah-sill,” with the “i” sound between a long E and a long U): the great World Tree or axis mundi that supports existence and binds it together. Its name means “Steed of Ygg” (of the Terrible); Odin wounded himself with a spear and hung himself from the Tree for nine days to acquire the sacred runes of transformation bubbling forth from the waters below. The Tree has three roots, to the gods, the giants, and the dead: one in Asgard at the Well of Urda, where the Norn goddesses weave the strings of fate; one under Jötunheim at the Spring of Mimir; and one at Niflheim at the Spring of Hvergelmir (“Caldron-Roaring”), headwaters of dew fallen from the horns of the stag Eikthyrnir (“Oak Antlers”), source of eleven rivers (the Elivagar, “Stormy Waves”) and site of the dragon Nidhogg and other Tree-gnawing serpents. The squirrel Ratatok (“Swift Teeth”) runs up and down the trunk ferrying a contest of insults between Nidhogg and the giant eagle Hraesvelg (“Corpse-Gulper”) in the topmost branches, its wings creating the winds as a hawk sits between its eyes. Bees feed on Yggdrasil’s dew, unborn souls hang from it like leaves, and Christmas trees symbolize it, each ornament a tiny world. It trembled at Ragnarok, and again when the missionaries arrived to hack down the sacred groves, but it abides as the worlds come and go in one cyclical “Big Bounce” after another.
Ymir, Aurgelmir: the primordial giant from whose armpit sweat the gods and humans eventually sprang and from whose feet rose the giants. His name might indicate his hermaphroditic nature. Odin, Hoenir, and Lodur carved him up to make the nine worlds. His skull formed the heavens, his flesh the ground, and his blood the oceans and rivers.
Yule: when the old year gives way to the new at the winter solstice, celebrations ensue, the ancestors are close, and Odin rides through the sky on the Wild Hunt. Children would greet him by leaving food for Sleipnir in their boots near the chimney and wake up rewarded with gifts or candy. Slaughtering the boar has given way to eating Christmas ham, but Father Christmas continues to look a lot like generous Freyr gathering and dispensing the harvest.
The study of mythology need no longer be looked on as an escape from reality into the fantasies of primitive peoples, but as a search for the deeper understanding of the human mind. In reaching out to explore the distant hills where the gods dwell and the deepes where the monsters are lurking, we are perhaps discovering the way home. — H. R. Ellis Davidson