The origin of the Viking myths lies lost in the depths of time. They appear to have their roots amongst the ancient group of peoples known collectively as Indo-European. The myths, in a form still recognizable today, however, grew and developed in the region populated by the Germanic tribes and later extended into Scandinavia. Following the fall of the Roman Empire these barbarian tribes migrated across northern and western Europe taking their beliefs with them. The Angles came to southern Britain, giving it the name Angleland or England, followed by the Jutes and Saxons. Together these peoples brought an age of paganism to a land which, under the protection of the Roman armies, had been Christian for roughly a hundred years. They brought the myths of Odin and of Thor to the fearful Christian Celts. As time passed however, the newcomers were themselves converted, by various means, to Christianity by the missionaries and the indigenous population.
The return of Christianity was short-lived, for in the eighth century the Vikings came to these British shores. In 793 they attacked St Cuthbert's monastery at Lindisfarne and from then on they plundered coastal towns as and when il they wished. Later the Norsemen began to settle, first in o the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man, then finally in the 860s they began to colonise much of northern and eastern England. Following a treaty with Alfred the Great in the year 878, the whole of this area, that is the land above a rough line from the river Lea to the river Dee, came firmly under the rule of the pagan kings.
There followed a period of continual unrest between the Saxons and the Norsemen. Slowly with the ascendancy of the Kingdom of Wessex the pawer of the northern kings waned, until by the middle of the tenth century the English had reconquered the lost areas. But early in the eleventh century the whole of England was again conquered by the Vikings, and in 1016, King Canute, a Danish Viking, was accepted as king of all England.
After the death of Canute and his sons, rulership returned to the Saxons, and in 1042 Edward the Confessor became king. He was succeeded in 1066 by the ill-fated Harold Godwinson, who first fought off an invading army of Vikings at Stamford Bridge, but was finally defeated at Hastings by the forces of the Normans, who were themselves descended from the Norsemen.
From the time of the departure of the Romans early in the fifth century, England was constantly under the rule of a group of related peoples originated from northern German and Scandinavia. As a result, each new influx of pagans brought with it beliefs which were already familiar to the existing inhabitants of England. The country swayed precariously between Christianity and paganism, finally falling towards Christianity after the defeat of the Vikings in 1066.
Throughout the whole of this period (and still later) Christianity bore a marked resemblance to their former pagan beliefs. Remnants of this remain visible today, the carvings upon stone crosses and elsewhere show a mixture of pagan and Christian belief. In one such carving Balder, the Norse god of light and wisdom, is clearly equated with Christ. A mould has also been discovered which was used for casting both small metal hammer talismans and Christian crosses side by side.
In order to gain acceptance for their cause, the Christian missionaries emphasized similarities between the two faiths and actively encouraged a form of dual worship. It was for this reason that many early churches were founded on sites of traditional pagan worship. The missionaries had a great advantage aver the Northern priests in that they were organized and, with both threats of Hell and promises of Heaven, they actively sought converts to their faith. The pagan priests, however, were independent and unorganized by their very nature, and further were happy to let any man believe whatever he wished. These factors greatly contributed to the eventual supremacy of Christianity aver the former beliefs of the north.
Today we cannot hope to understand completely just what the myths meant to the Northern peoples. Our beliefs, ideals and moral standards are so far removed from those of our ancestors that we are unable to fully comprehend the part the gods played in their daily lives.
The religion of the North was not an homogeneous whole, there was no formal or centralized religious priesthood every village or farmstead would possess its own group of individual beliefs. These would develop slowly within the community. Over the years, as the people moved to new homes or came into contact with other groups, they would absorb ideas that conformed with their existing beliefs, and reject those that did not. Elements would be forgotten, others developed, it was a process of continuing evolution. At any moment in time within a single community, a structure of beliefs would exist that was unique to the time, people and place. Neighbouring tribes or communities would hold similar but not identical beliefs. Taken as a whole the various subtle shades of worship spread across pagan Europe like an intricately woven cloth of many hues.
Also, at different social levels within the community, there would exist differences in emphasis - the farmer would worship the gods of the land while the warrior would favour the gods of battle. So the beliefs of an Icelandic fisherman at the close of the Viking period would be almost incomprehensible to the mind of a Saxon chieftain living in the immediate post-Roman Britain. No single belief should be considered in any way universal, nor must it be thought that all men followed their beliefs unthinkingly. Some people, as is the case today, would take their religion seriously considering it to be an integral part of their daily lives. Others might view it more casually, perhaps taking part in the main seasonal festivals but ignoring the gods for the rest of the year. Finally there would always have been those who had no religious interests whatever.
Further, a distinction must be made between the beliefs of the people and the mythologies of poets. The poets were professional entertainers, and it is from them that we gain most of our knowledge of the Northern myths. The myths were created in an illiterate society. Although later the use of written runes became widespread, they were used only for short inscriptions and not for recording the lengthy myths. Their stories were handed from generation to generation, passing down the centuries by word of mouth. To aid in the accurate transfer and to help the poets and skalds memorize the material, the stories were presented within an elaborately structured poetry. This stylized form, forever seeking new and novel components, invited the use of alien mythological sources, and the poets borrowed freely from Mediterranean and Eastern sources. After the end of the pagan period the poets continued to use their mythological material developing it along Christian lines and providing the stories with morals acceptable to rapidly growing church.
It is from these later works that much of our knowledge of the Northern myths is derived. They are the work of Christian writers. In the twelfth century the Dane Saxo Grammaticus wrote a history of Denmark, the first nine parts of which contain a wealth of pagan material. It is evident that he had little love for the subject, and found marry of the legends extremely distasteful. However he does preserve material that would otherwise have been lost.
Another writer to record the pagan myths was the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1172-1241), who was a poet, historian and politician. Seeing that the native traditions were losing ground, around the year 1220 he wrote a handbook for poets, known as the Younger or Prose Edda. He provided them with instructions on the recognition of allusions within the myths and their correct poetic use. His writings are based upon oral traditions, some of which can be found in the Poetic Edda, along with others which are no longer known indeed he quotes from some 17 lost mythological poems.
Throughout his work Snorri shows a sympathy and enthusiasm for the myths, which is remarkable for a man of his time, retelling the tales with skill and originality, and as result his versions of the legends are usually preferred to those of Saxo Grammaticus. However, when he was writing, Christianity had enjoyed over 200 years of official acceptance in Iceland, following the decision of the National Assembly in the year 1000, so he found many problems in understanding the myths and may have, at times, unwittingly mis-instructed his readers. A handful of theological poems have also survived from other sources, the majority forming about half of the manuscript known as the Codex Regius, the Elder or Poetic Edda. By comparing the work of Snorri with the surviving poems the accuracy of his writing can clearly be seen, showing that he wrote directly from his sources and did not draw upon his own imagination.
Other details of the myths may be gleaned from the Icelandic Sagas and Scandinavian histories. These contain elements of what by then was folk belief existing within Christian communities, but nevertheless they show strong links with the pagan past. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, written down about 1000 after many years of oral development, is a storehouse of mythological material. It deals with valiant heroes and fire breathing dragons, but it too has strong Christian overtones; Grendal, the fearsome foe of Beowulf, is descended from the biblical Cain. Whatever the original source material, stories would first have been written dawn in a monastery by a Christian monk, and so none are free from Christian editing, and there can be no doubt that many legends were omitted or discarded completely.
Archaeologists may at times shed new light upon the myths. From excavating Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, finds in the form of small hammers have provided evidence that the worship of the god Thor outlasted that of the other gods. This has to be balanced against the humorous treatment of Thor in the later myths. Had his pawer waned to such an extent that he became a figure of fun, or was he still highly revered!
The myths as we have received them are incomplete, they are only the ragged remnants of a once-glorious tradition. Some stories, it is true, are rich and full of wonderful detail. But many more are known only in a heavily condensed form often consisting of no more than a few lines of text. Some are brief in the extreme, others confused and self contradicting, nevertheless they are still of immense value. From these imperfect and scattered fragments we are able to assemble a faint glimmer of a rich and varied mythology, the beliefs that prevailed throughout northern Europe forever a thousand years.
As with the written sources of Northern myths our knowledge of the history and people of the period is also drawn from the works of not impartial Christian scribes. However, with this in mind and using information contained in the later Sagas, it is possible to draw an accurate picture of Viking life.
While the Norseman would defend his personal freedom and independence to the death if necessary, he also placed great emphasis on the importance of family life and ties. The family acted as a strong and single unit, each member secure in the knowledge that every other member would support and assist him in times of need. If a man failed in his obligations, then he risked being cast out from his family and being denied the benefit of their support. To stand alone against the uncertainties of the world, with no hope of help il .from any man, brought fear to the strongest heart. This led tl men to cultivate friendships, for although a man would have his family to back him up in a dispute, the opposing family might be equally strong and powerful. Thus an ill-chosen word or an ill-conceived action could, as described to great effect in Egil's Saga, easily escalate into the most tragic sequence of retaliation and counter-retaliation. In the past life was hard, men had to be able to stand up to all that might be set against them.
There were three basic avenues of work available to which a Norseman could turn in order to sustain himself and his family. These were a fanning by growing crops or raising animals, hunting and n fishing, and trading. In reality the majority of men would engage in more than one of these, depending on local circumstances.
The sea offered fish, the fertile plains provided great scope for arable farming, while the mountain pastures encouraged the herding of sheep. Full advantage was taken of any opportunity that presented itself a man might easily be farmer, fisherman, hunter and trader, a strong element in all these occupations there was uncertainty. The farmer and the fisherman relied much upon favourable weather. Without sun and rain in the correct season or the benefit of a good wind when required all his efforts were doomed to failure. In addition to being dependent upon the weather, the trader, if he chose to usual in search of profit, also had to contend with the lawless bands of pirates who swarmed the seas in search of easy plunder.
The women folk would work in the fields with their husbands or about the home. They would spin and weave cloth (although this was not an occupation reserved wholly for women), cook and attend to the domestic side of life. They had equal rites in marriage and were given equal say in the running of the household. They also held the keys of the house, which along with small knives and other useful implements, were suspended on chains either from their waists or from a decorative brooch.
So with his family firmly behind him, a man faced what was essentially an unfriendly and unpredictable world. In this unsure climate, two things developed hand in hand. The first was a healthy ambivalence to the problems of life. Life passed too quickly to dwell on its shortcomings it was lived to the full, each day taken as it came. Even in the depths of disaster one should retain hope and a cheerful heart. The greatest of enemies held in highest esteem those who met death with a joke on their lips.
The second development was a collection of myths and legends which fully reflect the nature of life, peopled by gods who had themselves little control their own futures. Susceptible to ageing and the passage of time, their lives lay in the hands of a force more Powerful than themselves. They could be killed like mortals - even Odin, the god of war and death, could not be totally relied upon to provide his followers with victory, nor could he bring his much-loved son back from the dead.
The nature of the gods falls into two distinct categories. There were the gods of war, sky and justice, and the gods of the earth and fertility. The former were the Aesir, the warrior gods of Asgard, and the latter the Vanir of Vanaheim. It was to the gods and goddesses of the Vanir that the farmer and the hunter turned for assistance. Niord, the leader of the Vanir, was the god of both fertility and the sea. His son Frey possessed a magical ship and was also concerned with fertility. He was ruler of Alfheim, land of the elves, those helpful spirits of the earth. Freya, Niord's daughter, was the goddess of love and beauty, who presided over childbirth. Of the Aesir we have Odin the sky god, the god of war, sacrifice and runes. Tyr was an older sky god whose place Odin had assumed. Then there is Forseti, the god of law and justice, and Bragi, god of poetry and music. These were all gods of people of a higher social class; the ordinary man had little time for such matters as concerned the Aesir.
Also of the Aesir, but standing apart from them in her sphere of concern, is Frigga, the wife of Odin. Her attributes were so similar to those of Freya that one cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the two were derived from a common source. Both were goddesses of marriage and fertility, both are connected in the myths with a much valued necklace and both are referred to as weeping goddesses. Frigga was married to Odin, while Freya's husband was the illusive Urd, a god who, although little is known, has close parallels with Odin. So it would appear that Frigga and Freya were once a single goddess of fertility who, as time progressed, became divided between the Aesir and the Vanir.
Besides worshipping their gods, the Northern people loved to hear tales of their exploits. The Viking poets, known as Skalds, were highly honoured members of society and welcomed wherever they went. They were presented with generous hospitality and rich gifts in return for their stories - stories that relieved the monotony of everyday life, that provided an escape from worldly troubles and gave promise of better things. As the wind raged in the darkness outside the people would gather from near and far. From the snow covered hillsides they came and from the frozen valleys. They entered their lord's cheerful hall with hearty greetings, meeting friends new and old. Heavy cloaks were cast aside to steam in the heat of the great central fire; from the highest king to the lowest thrall, each in his place, warm before the flickering flames. A crowded hall eagerly anticipating the story that was about to begin.
© copyright Clive Barrett 2012