Norse Mythology – The Gods of the Ancient Icelanders

An eruption in Iceland

Who were the main Gods in Norse mythology, and why are they still important today? When did the Icelanders shift their belief from paganism to Christianity, and do any people still believe in the Old Gods? Read on to discover the fascinating, and often strange, myths that shaped Iceland. 

In an article such as this, one could not hope to cover the full breadth and complexity that makes up the body of myths once worshipped by North-Germanic people. Norse mythology is a subject that has been studied, picked apart, and appreciated since its inception; to gain an understanding of every character, every story, every theme and piece of imparted wisdom, would take a lifetime to acquire. 

Saying that, some aspects of the Norse legends have left such a vivid impression on modern culture that covering the fundamentals is more approachable. With that said, this article hopes to briefly describe some of the main characters, as well as notable events, creatures, and locations. 

You’ll likely know some of this information already considering that the mythology of the Norse gods continue to inspire today. Literature, art, cinema, music, comics – all owe a debt to this most intriguing of human origin stories. Marvel movies like Thor are direct, albeit action-packed interpretations of the legends, while video games like God of War, Valheim, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla have twisted them into unique stories of their own. 

The History of Norse Mythology in Iceland 

The wreck of a longship
Photo. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Facebook

A belief in the norse deities began in North Germania. It travelled with migrants to the region of Scandinavia between 2300 – 1200 BC. Whereas these stories were traditionally passed down by word of mouth, they were finally written in the Old Norse dialect in the 13th Century. The majority of these writings are encompassed within mediaeval sagas first scribed in Iceland. 

As a whole, the ancient Icelanders did not worship the Norse Gods for long. In fact, the Christianisation of Iceland was one of the most significant cultural events in this young nation’s history. However, one of the caveats of Icelanders accepting the Christian doctrine was that pagan worship was still permitted so long as it was done so in secret.

Decreed by the recently converted Norwegian king that Iceland, then a vassal state, the notion that Iceland would switch its spiritual allegiances was a point of enormous contention back in 1000 AD, but ultimately, the Norse Gods were abandoned in favour of a newer, more fashionable religious belief. 

Still, a deeply ingrained veneration of the heathen traditions is not easily dismissed, so much so that, even today, Icelanders continue to name their children, towns, companies, and landmarks after the Norse pantheon. 

Who are the main characters in the Norse myths? 

People around a campfire.
Photo: Golli. Campfire near Reykjavík

The pantheon of Norse Gods can be split into two distinct factions – the Æsir and the Vanir. Both tribes consist of celestial deities, though each has its own culture and function within the mythos. For example, the Æsir are associated with strength, war, and the sky, while the Vanir are more inclined towards nature, agriculture, and the ocean. 

Given their differences, the Æsir-Vanir War is a central subject in Norse mythology, ending with their merging into one distinct pantheon. This blend of Æsir and Vanir is said to signify the many different aspects of the eternal divine. Interconnectedness is a major theme throughout the various sagas and myths, so the distinction between these two clans is not always strict, with various deities from each playing a part in one another’s stories.

Odin, the Allfather 

 

Known by many names, the one-eyed deity, Odin, is considered to be the enthroned ruler of the Gods, central to the pantheon through his authority and wisdom. He is largely associated with poetry, war, and magic, and has been regularly depicted as a bearded fellow in a large conical crown hat, draped in a dark shawl. His empty eye socket is a result of his relentless pursuit of knowledge, for he sacrificed it at the Well of Mimir to learn its secrets. 

Another way he seeks out information is through his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who seek answers wherever they may find them, only to return to Odin with their findings. Today, many people are aware that the name of the midweek, Wednesday, is derived from ‘Woden’s Day,’ a variation of his name in Old English.

Frigg

 

The Queen of the Æsir, and the wife of Odin, was Frigg – for centuries, her name was synonymous with the divine feminine, meaning marriage and motherhood. Like Odin, she was known for her great wisdom, as well as her ability to foresee future events. 

Lightning strike
Photo: Thennicke, CC 4.0

Thor 

 

Known for his courage and strength, Odin’s son, Thor, has always been associated with thunder and lightning. Today, in our pop-culture obsessed age, many will know him as a central character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in ancient Iceland, the awe he inspired was far less entertaining, but entirely reverential. 

With his prominent red beard and giant warhammer, Mjölnir, Thor is considered to be the principal defender of Asgard, the realm of the Gods. In fact, it is the striking of Mjölnir that is said to cause lightning to appear. As such, his adventurous qualities define the spirit-warrior archetype, which is why his legacy remains so prevalent in Western culture to this day. 

Loki 

 

Loki, often known as the trickster god, is a difficult character to pin down. Born to a giant and a goddess, he is sometimes an ally to the Æsir; other times, an endless source of mischief and malice. With an ability to shape-shift, it is little wonder this God is known for his deceit, 

Loki is the father of the vicious wolf, Fenrir, and Jörmungandr, the world serpent. Only enforcing the idea of how complex and odd Norse stories can be, Loki also gave birth to the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, while in the form of a mare. 

Baldr 

 

As the son of Odin and Frigg, Baldr could very much be described as the Prince Charming of Norse mythology. Blonde, fair-skinned, and good-hearted by nature, Baldr has been widely associated with gentleness and kindness. His place among the Gods is a rare example of how some deities can be pure in their intentions. 

Green northern lights above a lake in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The auroras can appear in many forms and colours

Heimdall

Heimdall is another of the Norse God’s defenders. He stands guard of the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, that connects the realm of Gods with that of men. Heimdall is known for his great sense of hearing, as well as his Golden Armour and his “hollering horn”, Gjallarhorn. The sound of Gjallarhorn is said to bring about the end of the world, Ragnarök. 

Freyr

 

Freyr is another significant God, this time connected to sunshine and prosperity. According to the myths, his magical sword, Gullinbursti, can fight off its own accord. And his great longship, Skíðblaðnir, has the ability to sway the ocean winds to its advantage.

Freyr’s ending is a tragic one, though it does demonstrate the cyclical nature of life and death. During Ragnarök, he courageously faces off against the fire-giant, Surtr, despite already knowing that destiny tells he will fall in battle.  

Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn.
Photo: Golli. Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn.

Freyja

 

Known as the Goddess of love, and leader of the warrior-maiden Valkyries, Freyja is the sister of Freyr. Originally a member of the Vanir, she switched sides upon the end of the Æsir-Vanir war. 

To the ancient Norse, her name would have gone hand-in-hand with the coming of spring, the blooming of wildflowers, and the birth of new life. Given these links to nature and animals, Freyja is capable of shapeshifting thanks to the cloak in her possession, allowing her to transform at will into a falcon. 

Regardless of this avian form, it is her connection to cats that, perhaps, left the biggest impression on Icelanders, who are known for their deep affection for furry friends. According to the legends, Freyja rode a chariot that was pulled by gigantic felines, all the while adorned in her magical necklace, Brísingamen. 

Sif

 

Sif is the wife of the thunder-God Thor, often illustrated as a woman of great beauty with long golden hair. In fact, her hair plays a large part in one of the Norse stories. Ever the prankster, Loki cuts it in jest, angering Thor, who demands that he rectify the situation at once. Seeking the help of the dwarves, Loki crafts her new hair that shines more brightly than the old ever did. It is this regrowth that symbolises why Sif is the goddess of fertility. 

What are the major locations in Norse Mythology? 

Þingvellir
Photo: Golli. Þingvellir National Park

The worlds and realms of the Norse Gods can be described as many things; apocryphal, dramatic, ethereal. After all, these locations are cosmic, home to the deities, and thus break many of the earthly rules we here in Midgard understand. There are many notable settings in which these Nordic legends take place. Let’s take a look at some of the most important: 

Yggdrasil

 

The World Tree, Yggdrasil, is among the most iconic symbols when imagining the mysterious world the Norse Gods inhabited. Its vast branches and roots encompass all the nine realms of the cosmos. It is said that Odin would travel across the ash tree on his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir. 

Valhalla

 

Decorated with an arsenal of mythic weapons and armour sets, the grand hall of Valhalla! Here is where the Æsir enjoy a never ending feast. This bountiful realm is where chosen warriors, known as the Einherjar, are rewarded for their bravery after death. But it’s not all celebrations. The Einherjar train in Valhalla, preparing themselves to fight Odin’s enemies at Ragnarök, an apocalyptic end of the world sometimes known as the twilight of the Gods

The Nine Realms 

 

As we’ve learnt, there are nine realms contained with the luscious body of Yggdrasil. These realms are as follows: 

  • Asgard – the primary realm of the Æsir Gods.
  • Álfheim – Literally translating to “World of the Elves.”
  • Niðavellir – Fields of the Dwarves
  • Midgard – Our realm, that of human beings
  • Jötunheim – World of the Giants
  • Vanaheim – Headquarters to the Vanir tribe of Gods
  • Niflheim – A realm ravaged by glaciers and blizzards
  • Muspelheim – A hellish realm of infernos 
  • Helheim – The Norse interpretation of the underworld, or hell

What other creatures are found in Norse Mythology?

An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.
Photo: Golli. An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.

Aside from the wide roster of celestial figures in the Norse pantheon, there are also countless animals and creatures. 

The Jötnar (Giants)

 

The Jötnar, or Giants, play a large part in many stories. Sometimes in alliance with the Gods, and sometimes in conflict. As a subspecies distinct from the Gods, they are primal, fierce, strong, and linked with the elements. For example, Sutr is a Fire Giant, while Ymir is a Frost Giant. Loki is sometimes considered a Jötunn given that he was born of a Giant mother named Laufey. During Ragnarök, it is the Jötnar who lead the charge against the Gods. In doing so, they bring about the end of the known cosmos. 

Fenrir

 

Fenrir is a huge and vicious wolf that was born to the trickster God, Loki, and the giantess, Angrboða. Though small as a pup, Fenrir’s stature became so monstrous that the Gods were forced to bind him in magical ribbons. These were constructed of mountain roots, the paw steps of a cat, and a beard shaved from a lady. 

Unsurprisingly, given the construction materials involved, these chains were easily broken by Fenrir. His escape marked the beginning of Ragnarök. During this event, he would eventually end with his killing of the Allfather, Odin. The ancient Norse considered Fenrir’s name as synonymous with the unrelenting force of nature. The underlying chaos of the world. 

Sleipnir

An icelandic horse at sunset
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. An Icelandic horse at dusk

Another child of Loki’s, Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse. He is ridden by Odin across the nine-realms comprising the World Tree, Yggdrasil. These extra legs allow for the horse to gain unimaginable speeds. They also symbolise the eight different directions on a compass. 

Sleipnir’s parentage might be considered troubling, even in progressive society. While transformed into a mare, Loki became impregnated by a stallion named Svaðilfari. He soon after gave birth to a foal. He did this to distract the Gods from building a defensive wall around Asgard. But the foal was lovingly adopted by Odin, and thus was made to help the Gods rather than hinder them.  

In North Iceland, a beautiful, horse-shoe shaped canyon called Ásbyrgi is said to have been formed by Sleipnir’s hoofprint. With its high rock walls and dense forest basin, Ásbyrgi is often cited as one of the most beautiful spots in Iceland’s northern region.

Jörmungandr

 

The enormous World Serpent – sometimes referred to as the Midgard Serpent – Jörmungandr, is another of Loki’s beastly children. Grown in the ocean to truly gigantic stature, Jörmungandr is able to coil its entire body around the world. This brings with it a heavy implication of impending doom. Fearing this, Odin banished Jörmungandr to the seas around Midgard, the human realm, where he fought the thunder-God, Thor, on numerous occasions. 

What is Ragnarök – The Destiny of the Gods? 

Jökulsárlón glacier lake in South Iceland
Photo: Golli. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

Described in terrifying detail in Völuspá, part of the Poetic Edda collection of poems, the Doom of the Gods is the most dramatic event that occurs in the Norse myths. Vicious battles between the Gods, and cataclysmic natural events, bring about the apocalypse, ending the existence of the Gods, and all living things within the Nine Realms. 

Ragnarök begins with Loki’s betrayal of the Gods, an act that seals the fate of many of the most important names in the pantheon. Odin the Allfather is slain by the great wolf, Fenrir, while his son Thor falls to the World Serpent, Jormungandr. 

With such powerful deities destroyed, the earth is sunk in a tempestuous ocean, the cosmos itself is set alight, and the universe reaches its untimely end. Despite all this chaos, two humans were said to survive the events of Ragnarök – it is they who the Norse considered descendents of modern civilisation. Not only that, but Baldr also is resurrected, enforcing the notion that the world, and the Gods, are destined to return time and time again. 

Do Icelanders still believe in Norse Mythology?

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. An Icelandic heritage site.

To this day, Iceland remains a Christian country. The abundance of quaint country churches, plus the prominence of Hallgrímskirkja over the Reykjavik skyline, proves as much. Still, Iceland is forever becoming a more diverse society, with many of its citizens belonging to other religious groups, or adhering to no religious doctrine at all. 

With that in mind, it might surprise you that a small contingent of the population has returned to revering more heathen traditions. Named Ásatrúarfélagið, or the Ásatrú Fellowship, this new religious organisation was founded on the first day of summer in 1972 by the farmer and poet, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson.  

What museums in Reykjavík can you visit?
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík at dusk.

While it does not follow the Norse pantheon, nor any dogma, its shift towards pagan spiritualism shares much with the religion of old. The former high priest, Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, once said in an interview; 

“The world is split into two in its nature, divided into constructive forces, the Æsir, and the destructive forces which we call jötnar. The gods shape the dwelling places of people, the earth and the solar system out of the material that already exists. To that extent we can look on the forces of nature as the gods themselves and to a large extent that is what people did in antiquity.”

According to their website, the Ásatrú believe the following. “In the Icelandic/Nordic folklore, the spirits and entities the folklore represents, in addition to gods and other beings from the Nordic pantheism.” As of 2018, there are around 600 members.    

Where can you learn more Norse Mythology in Iceland? 

Auroras over a mountain in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Northern Lights above a mountain peak

There are many places you can learn more about the Norse myths during your stay in Iceland. For example, the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands) displays many artefacts and displays boards related to the history of this island, many of which are related to the Icelanders’ heathen beliefs. 

Of course, another great option is to stop by Iceland’s bookshops and libraries. Within their shelves, you will find many books about local folklore, as well as translations of the Icelandic sagas. 

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies also contains copies of the sagas, making this establishment of particular interest to travelling scholars. On that note, inquisitive visitors should also stop by Snorrastofa Medieval Center near Reykholt. Here, they can learn more about the sagas’ primary writer, Snorri Sturluson. 

While Viking World Museum (Víkingaheimar) in Njarðvík does not have an exhibition about Norse mythology specifically, it is a great place to discover how Icelanders in the Settlement Era lived, providing some insight into the cultural environment and challenges that nurtured a belief in pagan mysticism. As much is true for many other museums across the country. This includes the Saga Museum (Saga minjasafn), which contains many replica models of famous Icelanders throughout history.  

Viking helmet and gloves
Photo: Golli. A Viking helmet.

12,000 Guests Visit New Centre for Icelandic Studies

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies

The inauguration of the University of Iceland’s new Centre for Icelandic Studies last Thursday proved to be well-attended, with 12,000 guests stopping by to visit the state-of-the-art building that will soon house Iceland’s most valuable Medieval manuscripts. To celebrate its completion, the new centre hosted an open house on April 20 last week, the First Day of Summer.

At the inauguration, Minister of Culture and Trade Lilja Alfreðsdóttir revealed the name of the new Centre: Edda. The name references both the Prose and Poetic Edda, seminal works in the study of Old Norse poetry and is also a woman’s name in modern Icelandic. The name was chosen from some 1,500 submissions. Lilja explained that the winning name is both uniquely Icelandic and internationally known, referencing the centre’s function while also complementing other building names on the University of Iceland campus.

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies
Golli. Edda, the new Centre for Icelandic Studies.

The University of Iceland’s Árni Magnússon Institute is in the process of moving its operations into the new centre, which will house the institute’s collection of Medieval Icelandic manuscripts as well as featuring specially-designed rooms for conservation, research, and exhibition of the artefacts. A library, café, lecture halls, and classrooms will also be part of the facilities.

Edda Centre for Icelandic Studies
Golli. Edda, the new Centre for Icelandic Studies.

The Icelandic Parliament originally decided to finance the building of the centre in 2005, but the construction faced several delays, most recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.