The name Viking is a borrowed word from the native Scandinavian term for the Norse warriors who raided the coasts of Scandinavia, the British Isles, and other parts of Europe from the late 8th century to the 11th century. Vikings traveled to the west and Varangians, who were best known as the Varangian Guards of the Byzantine emperors, to the east. This period of European history (generally dated to 793 - 1066 AD) is often referred to as the Viking Age.

The word 'Viking' was introduced to the English language with romantic connotations in the 18th century. Today, somewhat controversially, the word is also used as a generic adjective, referring to the Viking Age Scandinavians. The medieval Scandinavian population, in general, is more properly referred to as Norse.




Etymology

The etymology of "Viking" is somewhat unclear. One path might be from the Old Norse word, vk, meaning "bay," "creek," or "inlet," and the suffix -ing, meaning "coming from" or "belonging to." Thus, viking would be a 'person of the bay', or "bayling" for lack of a better word. In Old Norse, this would be spelled vikingr. Later on, the term, viking, became synonymous with "naval expedition" or "naval raid, and a vikingr was a member of such expeditions. A second etymology suggested that the term is derived from Old English, wc, ie. "trading city" (cognate to Latin vicus, "village").

The word viking appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelandic sagas, vking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse farar i vikingr "to go on an expedition"), and vkingr, to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 6th or 7th century in the Anglo-Saxon poem, 'Widsith.'

In medieval use (eg. Widsith, and the writings of Adam von Bremen), a viking is a pirate, and not a name for the people or culture in general. Indeed, when Scandinavian raiders left their boats, stole horses and rode across country, they were never referred to as "vikings" in English sources.

The word disappeared in Middle English, and was reintroduced as viking during 18th century Romanticism. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to the raiders, but also to the entire period; it is now, somewhat confusingly, used as a noun both in the original meaning of raiders, warriors or navigators, and sometimes to refer to the Scandinavian population in general. As an adjective, the word is used in expressions like "Viking age," "Viking culture," "Viking colony," etc., generally referring to medieval Scandinavia.

During the last century, speculations began about whether foreign traders, known as varyags who had trade posts along the Russian rivers down to the Byzantine Empire were of Scandinavian origin, and since then, the term has been interpreted also to refer to tradesmen from Scandinavia who established colonies in Russia. Early Scandinavian colonies in North America are also labelled as "Viking" by modern English speakers.

It should be noted, however, that no written sources, in the cases of Vinland, Rus', or Varyags, use the term "Viking."Scandinavians, in general, were not Vikings. They were farmers, fishers and hunters, as were most other people in Europe at the time. As the Scandinavian shores were attacked by enemy forces, they established the defence fleet called leidang, which was also used as protection against Vikings.

Though a common practice today, calling all northmen (Scandinavians) Vikings, rather than reserving the word solely for those involved in piracy, can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. As members of the leidang fleet, as well as farmers and fishers now and then, were attacked by Vikings, most Scandinavians probably saw Vikings as their enemies and fought against them with all their might.




Historical Records

The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 787 AD when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to Portland, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793 AD, was on the monastery at Lindisfarne the "Holy Island" on the east coast of England. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.

However, the vast majority of the Viking attacks were naturally attacks on France as we know from the official histories because the Emperor Charlemagne was seen as the main enemy, but other parts of the Holy Roman Empire also fell victim to such attacks as well as other Christian countries in Europe.

Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered and colonized large parts of England (see Danelaw). They travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.

Adam of Bremen records in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum "There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king."

Icelandic sagas Norse mythology, Norse sagas and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, the transmission of this information was primarily oral, and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars, such as the Icelander Snorri Sturluson for much of this. An overwhelming amount of the sagas were written in Iceland. Vikings in those sagas are described as if they often struck at accessible and poorly defended targets, usually with impunity. The sagas state that the Vikings built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders.

Rune Stones - Many rune stones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions. Other rune stones mention men who died on Viking expeditions, among them the around 25 Ingvar stones in the Malardalen district of Sweden erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The rune stones are important sources in the study of the entire norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the viking segment of the population.




13th Century

King Harald I of Norway finally was forced to make an expedition to the west to clear the islands and Scottish mainland of Vikings. Numbers of them fled to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but the Norse sagas are rather subjective in their descriptions, and hence the Vikings in those sagas are sometimes characterized as heroes, later shaping the attitude towards Vikings during the 18th century Romantic period. Still, in Scandinavia, Vikings were not seen as an accepted part of society. They may even have been considered outlaws - several sources name Vikings in association with Jomsborg or Julin, which, according to modern history, was a refugee center for Slavic pirates, as opposed to the descriptions in the Norse saga.




Viking Ships and Viking Longships

There were no specific "Viking ships" or "Viking longships"; Vikings used any of the common Scandinavian longships. These boats were identical to those used by the Scandinavian defense fleets, known as the ledung. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its Romantic associations. It is suspected that most Viking ships had an average length/width ratio of 4.5:1. Scholars also debate whether or not Vikings had cooking fires aboard their ships. There is no evidence connecting any discovered longship to any particular classical Viking raid. Nor has any "Viking" boat construction site, or harbor, been found or excavated. Thus, our knowledge of the actual boats Vikings used is limited.




The Viking Age

The Viking Age is the name of the period between 793 and 1066 AD in Scandinavia and Britain, following the Germanic Iron Age (and the Vendel Age in Sweden).

During this period, the Vikings, Scandinavian warriors, leidangs and traders, raided and explored most parts of Europe, south-western Asia, northern Africa and north-eastern North America.

Apart from exploring Europe by way of its oceans and rivers with the aid of their advanced navigational skills and extending their trading routes across vast parts of the continent, they also engaged in warfare and looted and enslaved numerous Christian communities of Medieval Europe for centuries, contributing to the development of feudal systems in Europe, which included castles and barons (which were a defense against Viking raids).

Viking society was based on agriculture and trade with other peoples and placed great emphasis on the concept of honor both in combat and in the criminal justice system.

It is unknown what triggered the Vikings expansion and conquests, but historians have suggested that technological innovations imported from Mediterranean civilizations along with a milder climate led to population growth due to a long period of good crops. Another factor was the destruction of the Frisian fleet by Charlemagne around 785, which interrupted the flow of many trading goods from Central Europe to Scandinavia and led the Vikings to come looking for it themselves.

The beginning of the Viking Age is commonly given as 793, when Vikings raided the important British island monastery of Lindisfarne (although a minor incursion was recorded in 787); and the end of the Viking Age is traditionally marked by the failed invasion of England, attempted by Harald Hardrade, who was defeated by the Saxon king Harold Godwinson (himself an Anglicised Viking), in 1066. Godwinson himself was next defeated that same year by another Viking descendant, William, Duke of Normandy (Normandy had itself been acquired by Vikings (Normans) in 911).

The clinker-built longships used by the Scandinavians were uniquely suited to both deep and shallow waters, and thus extended the reach of Norse raiders, traders and settlers not only along coastlines, but also along the major river valleys of north-western Europe. Rurik also expanded to the east, and founded the first Russian state, with a capital at Novgorod, (which means, "new city"). According to one author, the word "Rus" originally meant "Viking raider", as distinct from the native slavic peoples.

Other Norse people, particularly those from the area that is now modern-day Sweden, continued south on Russian rivers to the Black Sea and then on to Constantinople (which had been established in 667 B.C., and was re-named Constantinople in 330 A.D. by Constantine the Great). Whenever these viking ships would run aground in shallow waters, the Vikings would reportedly turn them on their sides and drag them across the land, into deeper waters.

France, "the Kingdom of the Franks" (a Germanic tribe who settled in Gaul, after the fall of the Roman Empire, and whose famous King was Charlemagne, who had re-united the Kingdom by 771), was particularly hard-hit by these raiders, who could sail down the Seine River with near impunity. The region now known as Normandy (after the Viking "Norsemen, men from the north") was profoundly disrupted during this period.

In 911, the French king, Charles the Simple, was able to make an agreement with the Viking warleader Hrolf Ganger, later called Rollo. Charles gave Hrolf the title of duke, and granted him and his followers possession of Normandy. In return, Hrolf swore fealty to Charles, converted to Christianity, and undertook to defend the northern region of France against the incursions of other Viking groups.

The results were, in a historical sense, rather ironic: several generations later, the Norman descendants of these Viking settlers not only thereafter identified themselves as French, but carried the French language, and their variant of the French culture into England in 1066, after the Norman Conquest, and became the ruling aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England. These Norman Viking descendants, although converting to Christianity, maintained their warlike nature, and eventually adopted chivalry, which joined learning to fight on horseback (like their Moorish enemies in Spain) with becoming knights or "holy warriors" of the Cross. One of their pass-times was jousting, or tournaments of armored knights fighting with lances (the Celtic "lancia") on horse-back.




Geography

There are various theories concerning the causes of the Viking invasions. For people living along the coast, it would seem natural to seek new land by the sea. Another reason was that during this period England, Wales and Ireland, which were divided into many different warring kingdoms, were in internal disarray, and became easy prey. The Franks, however, had well-defended coasts, and heavily fortified ports and harbors. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor. A reason for the raids is believed by some to be over-population caused by technological advances, such as the use of iron.

Although another cause could well have been pressure caused by the Frankish expansion to the south of Scandinavia, and their subsequent attacks upon the Viking peoples. Another possibly-contributing factor is that Harald I of Norway, ("Harald Fairhair") had united Norway around this time, and the bulk of the Vikings were displaced warriors who had been driven out of his kingdom, and who had nowhere to go. Consequently, these Vikings became raiders, in search of subsistence and bases to launch counter-raids against Harald. One theory that has been suggested is that the Vikings would plant crops after the winter, and go raiding as soon as the ice melted on the sea, then returned home with their loot, in time to harvest the crops, and to tell stories of their adventures. They became wandering raiders and mercenaries, like their Celtic cousins.

One important center of trade was at Hedeby. Close to the border with the Franks, it was effectively a crossroads between the cultures, until its eventual destruction by the Norwegians in an internecine dispute around the year 1050. York was the center of the kingdom of Jorvik from 866, and discoveries there show that Scandinavian trade connections in the 10th century reached beyond Byzantium (e.g. a silk cap, a counterfeit of a coin from Samarkand and a cowry shell from the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf), although they could be Byzantine imports, and there is no reason to assume that the Varangians themselves travelled significantly beyond Byzantium and the Caspian Sea.




British Isles

The Danes sailed south, to Frisia, France and the southern parts of England. In the years 1013-1016 Canute the Great succeeded to the English throne.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, after Lindisfarne was raided in 793, Vikings continued on small-scale raids across England. In 865 a larger army, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum (and other 'landless' kings) arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria, where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings. However, Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his country. Alfred and his successors continued to drive back the Viking frontier. A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York.

The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign. The Viking presence dwindled until 1066, when the Danes lost their final battle with the English. See also Danelaw.

The Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded a few towns, including Dublin. At some points, they seemingly came close to taking over the whole isle; however, the Vikings and Scandinavians settled down and intermixed with the Irish. One of the last major battles involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which Vikings fought both for High King Brian Boru's army and for the Viking-led army opposing the High King. The Normans invaded Ireland in 1172.




Iceland

The Norwegians traveled to the north-west and west, founding vibrant communities in the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, Iceland, Ireland and Great Britain. Apart from Britain and Ireland, Norwegians mostly found largely uninhabited land, and established settlements in those places.

According to the sagas of Erik the Red, and Leif Eriksson, the Vikings named the an island in the North Atlantic "Iceland". When Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland he went west. There he found a land that he named "Greenland" to attract people from Iceland to settle it with him.

Greenland

The Viking Age settlements in Greenland were established in the sheltered fjords of the southern and western coast. They settled in three separate areas along approximately 650 kilometers of the western coast.




Southern and Eastern Europe

The Swedish Varangians sailed east into Russia, where Rurik founded the first Russian state at Novgorod and on the rivers south to the Black Sea, Miklagard (Constantinople) and the Byzantine Empire.




American

In about the year 986 A.D., North America was reached by Bjarni Herjolfsson.

Leif Ericsson and Karlsefni from Greenland attempted to settle the land, which they dubbed Vinland about the year 1000 A.D. A small settlement was placed on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, near L'Anse aux Meadows, but previous inhabitants, and a cold climate brought it to an end within a few years.

The archaeological remains are now a UN World Heritage Site. It has now been scientifically established that at the height of the Scandinavian expansion, the northern hemisphere entered into a period of unusual, and long-lasting cold, which continued for several hundred years. This miniature ice-age decimated the Greenland colonies, hampered the Scandinavian homelands and stopped further westward expansion. Also, around this time, a plague broke out in Europe, which decimated the population, and also stopped westward expansion into America. The Viking out-post in Iceland was reportedly left without supplies, and cut off from reinforcements.




Technology

The Vikings were equipped with the then technologically superior longships; for purposes of conducting trade, however, another type of ship, the knarr, wider and deeper in draught, were customarily used. The Vikings were competent sailors, adept in land warfare as well as at sea, and they often struck at accessible and poorly-defended targets, usually with near impunity. It is the effectiveness of these tactics that earned them their formidable reputation as raiders and pirates, and the chroniclers paid little attention to other aspects of medieval Scandinavian culture.

This is further accentuated by the absence of contemporary primary source documentation from within the Viking Age communities themselves, and little documentary evidence is available until later, when Christian sources begin to contribute. It is only over time, as historians and archaeologists have begun to challenge the one-sided descriptions of the chroniclers, that a more balanced picture of the Norsemen has begun to become apparent.

Besides allowing the Vikings to travel vast distances, their longships gave them certain tactical advantages in battle. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they approached quickly and unexpectedly, then left before a counter-offensive could be launched. Because of their negligible draught, longships could sail in shallow waters, allowing the Vikings to travel far inland along the rivers. Their speed was also prodigious for the time, estimated at a maximum of 14 or 15 knots.

The use of the longships ended when technology changed, and ships began to be constructed using saws instead of axes. This led to a lesser quality of ships; and, together with an increasing centralisation of government in the Scandinavian countries, the old system of Leidang -- a fleet mobilization system, where every Skipen (ship community) had to deliver one ship and crew -- was discontinued. Shipbuilding in the rest of Europe also led to the demise of the longship for military purposes. By the 11th and 12th centuries, fighting ships began to be built with raised platforms fore and aft, from which archers could shoot down into the relatively low longships.

There is an archeological find in Sweden of a bone fraction that has been fixated with in-operated material; the piece is as yet undated. These bones might possibly be the remains of a trader from the Middle East.

The nautical achievements of the Vikings were quite exceptional. For instance, they made distance tables for sea voyages that were so exact, that they only differ 2-4% from modern satellite measurements, even on long distances, such as across the Atlantic Ocean.

There is a finding at the island of Gotland in Sweden that might possibly be components from a telescope, although the "telescope" was invented in the 1600's.




Religion and Archaeology

The Vikings adhered to a system of beliefs they called Asatru. Their pantheon of gods and goddesses included their belief in Valhalla, or "Heaven for Warriors" (which partly explains their war-like nature). According to Viking beliefs, valorous Viking chieftains would please their war-gods by their bravery, and would become "worth-ship"; that is, the chieftain would earn a "burial at sea", or a burial on land, which may have included a ship, treasure, weapons, tools, clothing and even live slaves and women buried alive with the dead chieftain, for his "journey to Valhalla, and adventure and pleasure in the after-life".

Then, living sages would compose sagas about the exploits of these chieftains, keeping their memories alive on earth as well (a different kind of "immortality"). These sometimes vast, often rich burial mounds have been found extensively through-out the regions visited by the Vikings, and have provided archaelogists with rich material about the Vikings (who apparently were illiterate themselves; their stories were passed down by oral tradition, until the Christian monks and other clergy wrote them down).

The Viking Invasions: Commercial War?

According to Joel Supry, the French author of 'Le Secret des Vikings', the Scandinavian attacks against the Frankish Empire were carried out not by raiding adventurers looking for gold and silver but by armies applying a military strategy.

In 795 AD, long before the start of the Danish invasion proper in 840, Scandinavians were present in Asturias, on the northern shore of Spain, where they fought with the local king against the Moors.

In 799, the Franks attacked them in Noirmoutier; in 812, a Viking fleet was seen off Perpignan on the Mediterranean Sea. In 816, Northmen were in Pamplona fighting together with a Navarrese army against the Moors. In 823 and 825, their presence was recorded on the Ria Mundaka in Biscaya. According to Supery, the intention of these Vikings was to create a commercial route to the Mediterranean Sea, then the centre of the world's trade.The main western European trading route between the south and the north was the Rhine-Rhone axis.

The Franks initiated a form of commercial blockade in an effort to weaken the Danish kingdom. The Danes therefore decided to create their own route to the south along the Frankish coast. On this route they met the Moors, who were the masters of the Strait of Gibraltar.

As this course was deemed too risky, they decided to reach the oriental markets by crossing the Pyrenees, passing through Mundaka (Guernika), Pamplona and then Tortosa, which was the main slave market in Europe.In 840, the Danes began their attacks on the Frankish Empire not on the Seine but on the Adour. Gascony fell under their complete control as early as 844. The leader of the invasion, Bjorn Ironside, became the ruler of the area and gave his name to Bayonne (originally "Bjrnhamn").

Hastein had occupied Noirmoutier in 843.

In 845 Asgeir began to settle in Saintonge in Aquitania. Effectively, by 845 all the lands around the Bay of Biscay were under Danish control.

The Danish war in the north of France began with two objectives: to weaken the power of King Charles the Bald and to prevent the Franks from attacking in the south. In 858, having crushed the Frankish kingdom, Bjorn concluded a treaty with Charles the Bald whereby - according to Supery - the Danes were formally granted all the country south of the river Garonne, an area which was thereafter no longer mentioned in the Frankish annals.

In the following year, Bjorn forced the king of Navarre to make a treaty allowing the Danes to cross Navarre to reach the river Ebro and Tortosa. He then sailed with Hastein to the Mediterranean Sea.

While Hastein set about disorganizing trade in the Rhine valley and Italy, Bjorn attacked Constantinople, after joining up with the Swedish Varyags who had come across Russia. He obtained a commercial treaty from the Byzantine Emperor intended to attract trade away from the Rhone to the Ebro.

In 863, Dorestad in Frisia, the Franks' main commercial centre on the Rhine, was definitively destroyed. The first Viking war was over: the Danes had set up a new trade network in place of an older and opposing one.Then a new war began: the Danish chiefs tried to emulate the success of Bjorn in Gascony and to create their own overseas kingdoms. Northumbria, Mercia, Frisia, Aquitaine, Bretagne and Normandy were all affected by these attempts to found Scandinavian settlements.

Gascony stayed under the Vikings' control for 140 years. Their army was finally defeated in 982 by forces from Gascony, Prigord and Navarre. The Gascons of Nordic origin were allowed to stay in the country which had become rich under their rule, but they were condemned not to mix with other communities, becoming (according to one legend) the despised and ostracized Agotes or Cagots.

Yet their continuing presence in the Biscay area may help to explain why the Basques have so many traditions (such as whale hunting) with possible Nordic origins, and perhaps why they are said to have reached America one hundred years before Christopher Colombus.




Norse Gods and Goddesses


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The Aesir

In old Norse Mythology the Aesir are the principal gods of the pantheon. They include many of the major figures, Odin, Frigg, Thor, Balder and Tyr.

A second clan of gods, the Vanir, is also mentioned in the Norse mythos. The god Njord and his children, Freyr and Freyja, are the most prominent Vanir gods who join the Aesir as hostages after a war between Aesir and Vanir. The Vanir appear to have mainly been connected with cultivation and fertility, the Aesir with power and war in the duality of mythology.

Mythology follows the patterns of birth, death, and rebirth in the alchemy of time and consciousness created by the patterns of Sacred Geometry - the Golden Ratio. The formula, which creates the lessons are about duality, with the godd and goddess pantheons, as well as the human DNA experience.


Yggdrasil - World Tree - Tree of Life

Yggdresil is a gigantic tree, thought to connect all the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. It is often suggested to be an ash tree, an interpretation generally accepted in the modern Scandinavian mind.

Ginnungagap was the vast chasm that existed between Niflheim [Land of Mist] and Muspelheim [fire giants] before creation. To the north of Ginnungagap lay the intense cold of Niflheim, to the south the insufferable heat of Muspelheim. At the beginning of time, the two met in the Ginnungagap; and where the heat met the frost, the frost drops melted and formed the substance eitr, which quickened into life in the form of the giant Ymir, the father of all Frost giants. See his entry for the continuation of the Old Norse story of the Creation. It is similar to Chaos Theory.

Ragnarok is the final battle, equivalent to Judgment day in the battle of good and evil, when balance is restored and a new creation begins.




Odin

Odin is the chief divinity of the Norse pantheon, the foremost of the Aesir. Odin is a son of Bor and Bestla. He is called Alfadir, Allfather, for he is indeed father of the gods. With Frigg he is the father of Balder, Hod, and Hermod. He fathered Thor on the goddess Jord; and the giantess Grid became the mother of Vidar.

Odin is a god of war and death, but also the god of poetry and wisdom. He hung for nine days, pierced by his own spear, on the world tree. Here he learned nine powerful songs, and eighteen runes. Odin can make the dead speak to question the wisest amongst them. His hall in Asgard is Valaskjalf ("shelf of the slain") where his throne Hlidskjalf is located.

From this throne he observes all that happens in the nine worlds.

The tidings are brought to him by his two raven Huginn and Muninn. He also resides in Valhalla, where the slain warriors are taken.

Odin's attributes are the spear Gungnir, which never misses its target, the ring Draupnir, from which every ninth night eight new rings appear, and his eight-footed steed Sleipnir. He is accompanied by the wolves Freki and Geri, to whom he gives his food for he himself consumes nothing but wine. Odin has only one eye, which blazes like the sun. His other eye he traded for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, and gained immense knowledge. On the day of the final battle, Odin will be killed by the wolf Fenrir.

He is also called Othinn, Wodan and Wotan. Some of the aliases he uses to travel icognito among mortals are Vak and Valtam. Wednesday is named after him (Wodan).

Amongst his gifts to us, his children, was the greatest of all: the gift of writing. To accomplish this Odin hung himself upside down upon the World Tree, [Tree of Life] the gigantic ash Yggdrasil (a compound meaning "terrible horse").

After nine days of fasting and agony, in which "he made of himself a sacrifice to himself", he "fell screaming" from the tree, having had revealed to him in a flash of insight the secret of the runes. Their initial manifestation took the form of eighteen powerful charms for protection, increase, success in battle and love-making, healing, and mastery over natural causes.

This story illustrates an important dynamic of the Northern pantheon, which did not allow for omnipotence - even Odin must pay his due. At Mimir's well, which lay deep under the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the god had earlier chosen to undergo an important forfeit. Odin paid with one eye for a single drink of the enchanted water. His mouthful granted him wisdom and fore-sight. It is due to this sacrifice that Odin's face is depicted with a straight line indicating an empty eye, or alternately, in a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low over the missing orb.

His quest for knowledge was never-ending. Upon his shoulders perched two ravens, Hugin ("Thought"), and Munin ("Memory"). These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt. He cherished them both, but particularly Munin, which seems to underscore the importance he placed on rune writing, record keeping, and honouring the heroic deeds of the past. There is another bird associated with Odin, the eagle. The god often transformed himself into this canny raptor, both to view the workings of the world and to intervene when an avian form was better suited to his ends.

Odin's fabulous grey horse Sleipnir was like no other. This is the eight-legged horse depicted so beautifully on the painted stones of Gotland, a now-Swedish island in the Baltic. Sleipnir was the offspring of a giant's magical stallion and the "trickster" god, Loki, who disguised himself as an alluring mare to distract the stallion from the task of building a wall around Asgard, home of the Gods.  If the wall had been completed by a certain date, Freyja, the goddess of beauty, war and sexuality would have been forfeit to the giant as payment for his labors. (The gods also stood to lose the Sun and the Moon, but did not seem particularly concerned about their impending loss!)

Loki was successful, but vanished for a few seasons as he had to bear the fruit of his trickery. He returned to Odin leading his equine offspring, which he presented as a gift. With his eight legs, Sleipnir could run twice as fast as ordinary steeds, and it is he who carries the valiant dead from the battle field to Valhalla.




Balder

The god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation. Son of Odin and Frigg, he was loved by both gods and men and was considered to be the best of the gods. He had a good character, was friendly, wise and eloquent, although he had little power.

His wife was Nanna daughter of Nep, and their son was Forseti, the god of justice. Balder's hall was Breidablik ("broad splendor"). Nanna is linked with the Sumerian goddess Inanna.

Most of the stories about Balder concern his death. He had been dreaming about his death, so Frigg extracted an oath from every creature, object and force in nature (snakes, metals, diseases, poisons, fire, etc.) that they would never harm Balder. All agreed that none of their kind would ever hurt or assist in hurting Balder. Thinking him invincible, the gods enjoyed themselves thereafter by using Balder as a target for knife-throwing and archery.

The malicious trickster, Loki, was jealous of Balder. He changed his appearance and asked Frigg if there was absolutely nothing that could harm the god of light. Frigg, suspecting nothing, answered that there was just one thing: a small tree in the west that was called mistletoe. She had thought it was too small to ask for an oath.

Loki immediately left for the west and returned with the mistletoe. He tricked Balder's blind twin brother Hod into throwing a mistletoe fig (dart) at Balder. Not knowing what he did, Hod threw the fig, guided by Loki's aim. Pierced through the heart, Balder fell dead.

While the gods were lamenting Balder's death, Odin sent his other son Hermod to Hel, the goddess of death, to plead for Balder's return. Hel agreed to send Balder back to the land of the living on one condition: everything in the world, dead or alive, must weep for him. And everything wept, except for Loki, who had disguised himself as the witch Thokk. And so Balder had to remain in the underworld.

The others took the dead god, dressed him in crimson cloth, and placed him on a funeral pyre aboard his ship Ringhorn, which passed for the largest in the world. Beside him they lay the body of his wife Nanna, who had died of a broken heart.

Balder's horse and his treasures were also placed on the ship. The pyre was set on fire and the ship was sent to sea by the giantess Hyrrokin.Loki did not escape punishment for his crime and Hod was put to death by Vali, son of Odin and Rind. Vali had been born for just that purpose.

After the final conflict (Ragnarok), when a new world arises from its ashes, both Balder and Hod will be reborn. Rising from the ashes goes to Egyptian mythos about the Phonnix she who rises from the ashes - resurrection and rebirth.


Frigg

As the wife of Odin, Frigg is one of the foremost goddesses of Norse mythology. She is the patron of marriage and motherhood, and the goddess of love and fertility. In that aspect she shows many similarities with Freya, of whom she possibly is a different form.

She has a reputation of knowing every person's destiny, but never unveils it. As the mother of Balder, she tried to prevent his death by extracting oaths from every object in nature, but forgot the mistletoe. And by a fig made from mistletoe Balder died.

Her hall in Asgard is Fensalir (water halls).

Frigg's messenger is Gna, who rides through the sky on the horse Hofvarpnir. In some myths she was rumored to have had love affairs with Odin's brothers Ve and Vili.

As Woden/Odin gave his name to Wednesday, and Thunor/Thor to Thursday, so Frigg is remembered in Friday. Frigg was the direct daughter of Fjorgyn, the Goddess of Earth. She kept her own hall, called Fensalir. Women prayed to her for children and prayed again for safe labor and delivery.




Thor

Thor is the Norse god of thunder. He is generally depicted as red-headed and bearded.

He is a son of Odin and Jord, and one of the most powerful gods. He is married to Sif, a fertility goddess. His mistress is the giantess Jarnsaxa ("iron cutlass"), and their sons are Magni and Modi and his daughter is Thrud.

Thor is helped by Thialfi, his servant and the messenger of the gods. who is Hermes in Greek Mythology and Mercury in Roman Mythology.

Thor was usually portrayed as a large, powerful man with a red beard and eyes of lighting. Despite his ferocious appearance, he was very popular as the protector of both gods and humans against the forces of evil. He even surpassed his father Odin in popularity because, contrary to Odin, he did not require human sacrifices.

In his temple at Uppsala he was shown standing with Odin at his right side. This temple was replaced by a Christian church in 1080.

The Norse believed that during a thunderstorm, Thor rode through the heavens on his chariot pulled by the goats Tanngrisni ("gap-tooth") and Tanngnost ("tooth grinder"). Lightning flashed whenever he threw his hammer Mjollnir.

Thor wears the belt Megingjard which doubles his already considerable strength.

His hall is Bilskirnir, which is located in the region Thrudheim ("place of might").

His greatest enemy is Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent.

At the day of Ragnarok, Thor will kill this serpent but will die from its poison. His sons will inherit his hammer after his death.

Donar is his Teutonic equivalent, while the Romans see in him their god Jupiter.

Thursday is named after him.


"Thor's Hammer" Found in Viking Graves   National Geographic - August 11, 2010

Norse warriors saw "thunderstones" as protection against lightning. Long dismissed as accidental additions to Viking graves, prehistoric "thunderstones" - fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor's hammerhead were actually purposely placed as good-luck talismans, archaeologists say.





Tyr

The original Germanic god of war and the patron god of justice, the precursor of Odin. At the time of the Vikings, Tyr had to make way for Odin, who became the god of war himself.

Tyr was by then regarded as Odin's son (or possibly of the giant Hymir). He is the boldest of the gods, who inspires courage and heroism in battle.

Tyr is represented as a man with one hand, because his right hand was bitten off by the gigantic wolf Fenrir (in old-Norse, the wrist was called 'wolf-joint').

His attribute is a spear; the symbol of justice, as well as a weapon.

At the day of Ragnarok, Tyr will kill the hound Garm, the guardian of the hell, but will die from the wounds inflicted by the animal. In later mythology, "Tyr" became to mean "god".

He is also known as Twaz, Tiw and Ziu.




Loki The Trickster

The most unpredictable and certainly the most dangerous god in the Northern pantheon was Loki. His activities ran from the merely mischievous to the blatantly malicious. Supremely clever, Loki ensnared everyone in complicated problems, to which he always supplied a remedy - through his solution often engendered even greater troubles.

His parents were both giants (the perpetual enemies of the gods.)

Loki is an immensely powerful magician, and shares with Odin the ability to sex and shape shift at will.

Loki was fair of face, and took many lovers, despite his constant criticism of goddesses who did the same.

His wife is Sigyn, who stayed loyal to him, even when the gods punished him for the death of Balder.

Loki's mistress is the giantess Angrboda. With her he is the father of three monsters.

He had some unusual children, including the huge wolf borne from Loki's brief dalliance with a giantess. Loki was the father (and in few instances the mother) of many creatures, men and monsters. Having liaisons with giantesses was nothing unusual for gods in Norse mythology - both Odin and Freyr are good examples; and since Loki was actually a giant himself, there is nothing unusual about this activity.

It is Loki who begins the chain of events that leads to the destruction of the gods. He does this by causing the death of the beautiful Baldr, Frigg's son, who in his goodness and perfection embodies the attainment of every desirable quality. Baldr's death plunges all of Asgard into mourning. Yet Loki feels no remorse, and in fact relishes every opportunity to exert his contrary nature.

Loki was chained to three large boulders; one under his shoulders, one under his loins and one under his knees. A poisonous snake was placed above his head. The dripping venom that lands on him is caught by Sigyn in a bowl. But every now and then, when the bowl is filled to the brim, she has to leave him to empty it. Then the poison that falls on Loki's face makes him twist in pain, causing earthquakes.

After Frigg had gone to great lengths to bring Baldr back to the land of the living by asking all beings to weep for his return, Loki (in the guise of an old female giant) steadfastly refused to shed a single tear for the slain god. Thus Baldr was consigned to the realms of the dead, under the governance of Lady Hel.

This loss of innocence represented by Baldr's death is the act that triggers Ragnarok, the end of all things. Ragnarok begins with famine and darkness and bitter cold - a winter lasting three entire years.

It ends with all creation becoming a flaming furnace. In the middle is staged the disastrous final battle in which the gods are arrayed against the powers of evil represented by the giants. Nearly everything and every body, in all realms, is destroyed. Loki fights against the gods, and is killed, as is Odin, Tyr, Freyr, and Thor.

Even the elves, dwarfs, Sun and Moon are destroyed. Out of this a new Earth arises, and a single man and woman, Lifthrasir and Lif, who had hidden themselves in Yggdrasil the World Tree, emerge. Baldr comes forth, and a few sons and daughters of the gods survive, and begin a fresh cycle of life.

This final lesson reminds us that nothing can remain static, even the gods and stories evolve into new.

Metaphors

Here we find another mth about birth, death, and resurrection. It reminds me of the story of Isis, Osiris and Horus.




Freya

In Norse mythology, Freya is a goddess of love and fertility, and the most beautiful and propitious of the goddesses. She is the patron goddess of crops and birth, the symbol of sensuality and was called upon in matters of love. She loves music, spring and flowers, and is particularly fond of the elves (fairies). Freya is one of the foremost goddesses of the Vanir.

Goddess of sex, battle, and pleasure, most beautiful and desirable of white-armed women, Freyja was sister to the male fertility god Freyr. Freyja had unusual parity with Odin, for they divided the heroic dead amongst themselves. Half went to live eternally in Odin's hall, and half in Freyja's hall Sessrumnir- and the goddess got first pick.

As befits a goddess, Freyja owned potent magical equipment. Like Frigg, she possessed a falcon skin, which when pulled over her shoulders, allowed her to take the form of that raptor.This also provided a useful disguise when needed - important to a goddess whose personage made her instantly recognisable.

Freyja's most wonderful adornment was her necklace (or possibly a jewelled belt), Brisingamen.It was crafted by four dwarfs, and was of exceptional beauty.Freyja so longed for it that she consented to spend one night each in the arms of its makers as her payment.This was a just recompense in the eyes of the goddess, for as the necklace was the finest of all things the dwarfs could produce, the utter summation of their skill, why not repay them with an equally precious example of her love-art?

Freyja always wished to give her love freely.Her beauty and desirability often attracted the attention of those she did not want, such as the giant who offered to build an impregnable defensive wall around Asgard, the dwelling of the gods, in exchange for taking Freyja away as his wife. The goddess knew nothing of this agreement, and her outraged indignation at being so wagered grew the greater as the wall grew taller. Never believing they would have to forfeit Freyja, the gods grew more and more uneasy in their wager, until Loki ,who had urged the agreement, was forced to utilise his trickster ability to the fullest.

Three animals are associated with Freyja. She is pulled about in a cart to which two cats are harnessed. Their sinuous beauty and comfort-loving nature recall one side of the goddess. The other two animals are direct symbols of sexuality and strength.

Her golden-bristled boar is called Battle Swine (Hildisvini), and recalls her role as the receiver of heroic dead. Battle helmets topped with iron and bronze images of boars have been found throughout England and Scandinavia, for the boar's savage and cunning nature was widely revered. The other animal is the mare, associated with night, unbridled sexuality, and dangerous magical power. To "ride the night-mare" meant then, as now, to have bad dreams.




Sif

The golden-haired wife of the god Thor. There is not much known about her, except that she could originally have been a fertility goddess. Neither does she appear often in the myths.

The best know myth, however, is when Loki the Trickster sneaked into Sif's bedroom and lopped off her hair. Furious, Thor threatened to smash him unless Loki managed to replace the hair. He went to a great cave, the home of the sons of Ivaldi, and told them the reason of his journey. He then asked the dwarfs to spin gold as fine as Sif's hair and imbue it with magic that it will grow on her head. The dwarfs agreed and made a long wave of fine golden strands, which Loki gave to Sif.




Bragi

The god of eloquence and poetry, and the patron of skalds (poets) in Norse mythology. He is regarded as a son of Odin and Frigg. Runes were carved on his tongue and he inspired poetry in humans by letting them drink from the mead of poetry. Bragi is married to Idun, the goddess of eternal youth. Oaths were sworn over the Bragarfull ("Cup of Bragi"), and drinks were taken from it in honor of a dead king. Before a king ascended the throne, he drank from such a cup.




Forseti

In Norse mythology, Forseti is the god of justice. He is the son of the god Balder and his mother is Nanna. Forseti rules in the beautiful palace Glitnir, which serves as a court of justice and where all legal disputes are settled. Glitnir has a roof of silver that is supported by pillars of red gold. Forseti can be compared with the Teutonic god Fosite, who was worshipped on Helgoland.




Heimdall

Heimdall is the god of light, the son of nine mothers (variously given as the daughters of Geirrendour the Giant or of Aegir).

He was born at the end of the world and raised by the force of the earth, seawater and the blood of a boar.

Because of his shining, golden teeth he is also called Gullintani ("gold tooth").

His hall is Himinbjorg, The Cliffs of Heaven, and his horse is Gulltop.

Heimdall carries the horn Gjallar.

He is the watchman of the gods and guards Bifrost, the only entrance to Asgard, the realm of the gods.

It is Heimdall's duty to prevent the giants from forcing their way into Asgard. He requires less sleep than a bird and can see a hundred miles around him, by night as well as by day.

His hearing is so accurate that no sound escapes him: he can even hear the grass grow or the wool on a sheep's back. At the final conflict of Ragnarok he will kill his age-old enemy, the evil god Loki, but will die himself from his wounds.

As the god Rig ("ruler"), Heimdall created the three races of mankind: the serfs, the peasants, and the warriors. It is interesting to note why Heimdall fathered them, and not Odin as might be expected. Furthermore, Heimdall is in many attributes identical with Tyr.




Ve

Ve is one of a triad of ancient Scandinavian gods including Odin and Vili - sons of the primordial pair of giants Bor and Bestla. The three brothers created heaven and earth from the slain body of the primeval being Ymir and built the twelve realms. They also created the first pair of humans. The male was named Ask ("ash") and the female the named Embla ("elm"). Ask and Embla became the progenitors of the human race and Midgard was given to them as their residence.

In Norse myth, Midgar is the defensive fortress which the gods build about the middle portion of the Earth allotted to men in order to protect mankind from the giants. Midgard ("middle world") is on the same level as Nidavellir (land of the dwarfs), Svartalfheim (land of the dark elves/dwarfs) and Jotunheim (the land of the giants).

In Norse mythology, Ymir is the primordial giant and the progenitor of the race of frost giants. He was created from the melting ice of Niflheim, when it came in contact with the hot air from Muspell. From Ymir's sleeping body the first giants sprang forth: one of his legs fathered a son on his other leg while from under his armpit a man and women grew out.

The frost kept melting and from the drops the divine cow Audumla was created. From her udder flowed four rivers of milk, on which Ymir fed. The cow itself got nourishment by licking hoar frost and salt from the ice. On the evening on the first day the hair of a man appeared, on the second day the whole head and on the third day it became a man, Buri, the first god. His grandchildren are Odin, Ve and Vili.

Odin and his brothers had no liking for Ymir, nor for the growing number of giants, and killed him. In the huge amount of blood that flowed from Ymir's wounds all the giants, except two, drowned. From the slain body the brothers created heaven and earth. They used the flesh to fill the Ginnungagap; his blood to create the lakes and the seas; from his unbroken bones they made the mountains; the giant's teeth and the fragments of his shattered bones became rocks and boulders and stones; trees were made from his hair, and the clouds from his brains. Odin and his brothers raised Ymir's skull and made the sky from it and beneath its four corners they placed a dwarf.

Finally, from Ymir's eyebrow they shaped Midgard, the realm of man. The maggots which swarmed in Ymir's flesh they gave wits and the shape of men, but they live under the hills and mountains. They are called dwarfs.


References: Encyclopedia Mythica


List of Norse Gods

Vanir

Aesir




In the News ...



"Thor's Hammer" Found in Viking Graves   National Geographic - August 11, 2010

Norse warriors saw "thunderstones" as protection against lightning. Long dismissed as accidental additions to Viking graves, prehistoric "thunderstones" - fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor's hammerhead were actually purposely placed as good-luck talismans, archaeologists say.


51 Headless Vikings Found in English Execution Pit?   National Geographic - July 28, 2009

Authentic Viking DNA Retrieved From 1,000-year-old Skeletons Science Daily - May 28, 2008

"Sagas" Portray Iceland's Viking History National Geographic - May 2004
Written by unknown authors in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the sagas contain 40 narratives, describing the life of Icelanders in the Viking age immediately before and after the year 1000.

Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade National Geographic - February 2004





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