The world of Norse mythology and legend is a thoroughly fascinating one, and my guest has captured it in all its compelling mystery in his book which retells those stories, called Tales of Valhalla. His name is Martyn Whittock and today he takes us on a gripping tour of Norse culture and myth.
We begin the show discussing who the Norse people were, and the misconceptions people commonly have about them, including associating them exclusively with Vikings. We also talk about misconceptions about the Vikings themselves, and what it really meant to be a Viking. We then get into why it’s hard to completely recapture Norse myths and rituals as they were originally known. Martyn then unfolds the Norse creation story, offers interesting snapshots of the major Norse gods, including Odin, Thor, and Loki, and explains what Ragnarok was all about. We end our conversation discussing Norse sagas, and how Norse culture continues to influence our modern culture today.
- Who were the Norse? What misconceptions do we have about them?
- The worldwide reach of the Norse people
- What about Vikings? Who were they?
- How do we know about the Norse people and myths?
- Were there rituals or even canons associated with these North myths?
- The Norse take on the creation of the gods and the universe
- Why this mythology is so complex
- The very human traits of the Norse gods
- Short primers on the primary gods and their characters
- Why (and how) Odin came to overshadow the other gods
- The curious and complex nature of Loki the trickster god
- The dark and ever-present shadow of Ragnarok
- What were the sagas of Norse mythology? Why were they written in the first place?
- Influences of Norse mythology in our modern world and culture
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on Norse Mythology
- Snorri Sturluson
- The Poetic Edda (link to read it online)
- The Prose Edda (link to read it online)
- The 80 Wisdom Sayings of the Vikings
- Ask and Embla
- Primary Norse gods and goddesses
- Richard Wagner
- How Norse Mythology Influenced Tolkien
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The world of Norse mythology and legends is a thoroughly fascinating one. My guest has captured it in all its compelling mystery in his book which retells these stories called ‘Tales of Valhalla’. His name is Martyn Whittock and today he takes us on a gripping tour of Norse culture and myth.
We begin the show discussing who the Norse people were and the misconceptions people commonly have about them including associating them exclusively with Vikings. We also talk about misconceptions about the Vikings themselves and what it really meant to be a Viking. We then get into why it’s hard to completely recapture Norse myths and rituals as they were originally known. Martyn then unfolds the Norse creation story, offers interesting snapshots of the major Norse gods including Odin, Thor, and Loki, and explains what Ragnarök was all about.
We end our conversation discussing Norse sagas and how Norse culture continues to influence our modern culture today. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/norsemyths. Martyn joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right, Martyn Whittock, welcome to the show.
Martyn Whittock: Good to speak with you.
Brett McKay: You co-authored a book with your daughter Hannah Whittock called ‘Tales of Valhalla: Norse Myths and Legends’. Before we get into some of the specific Norse myths, let’s talk about the Norse themselves. I think this is a people that we hear a lot about. They have an influence on our culture even today, but we don’t know much about. Who were the Norse?
Martyn Whittock: Good question. Basically, misunderstandings about the Norse, who are they, where do come from, I think basically, one of the problems is often when we look at the past, we forget how complicated, sophisticated, and subtle the past can be and we can have a very simplistic view of the past. I think that almost applies to anybody when they look at the past at any point in history. The past is always a bit primitive and a bit out there and a bit over there.
I think that the Norse suffer from that misconception more so than many others because of the Vikings. We’ll probably talk about Vikings a little bit later one, but because people have this incredible image of violence and destruction and I’m not for a moment going to pretend that some of that did not happen … In fact, a significant amount of that clearly happened. We pretend to have a rather very rough and ready view of the Norse and of the Scandinavians of the Viking age whereas, in fact, when we actually study them, we see people of remarkable sophistication, great artistic skills, cultural skills, poetic skills, and so on.
These people are people just like you and me. The fact that they live within a different technological period of time doesn’t stop them having the same level of sophistication and questions and issues and problems and so on and so forth. I think we have to remember that when we’re looking at them and we have to look sometimes through some of the very popular views of them, particularly the Viking ax-in-hand type person. I realize that behind there there are men and women, young and old, of all sort of different classes who have very, very, interesting and complicated lives.
We’re looking at people who lived in Scandinavia, so the modern countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Though they didn’t exist as such in the Viking age, they were forming, they were coming together. Kingdom forming was going on, but we tend to say Denmark, Norway, and Sweden for … Well, simplicity really. We need to have some kind of fix on this. And, the amazing diaspora, the amazing spread of these people’s culture from about near 750 onwards for the next 200 years, we’ve got this incredible explosion of settlement out of Scandinavia which stretches all the way from Kiev Rus’ and the Caspian Sea, unbelievably, to North America where we now have pretty solid evidence for Viking settlement on Newfoundland. Probably, we’ll find more eventually down the Eastern Seaboard, northwestern Seaboard of the modern U.S.A. as well.
They raid into the Mediterranean and you basically have got this amazing east, west, north, south spread of Norse culture along the English Channel into Ireland and Northern Scotland, taking over parts of England, Frisia, raiding into Francia, which is now modern France. They are a remarkably dynamic and energetic people who have a huge impact on their neighbors. You can see why people sometimes remember the shock and awe of the Viking age without necessarily remembering the sophistication and the culture. It’s getting through one to reach the other is the challenge.
Brett McKay: I guess the misunderstanding about the Norse is that they were all Vikings, they all wore the helmets with the horns, right? That wasn’t like that.
Martyn Whittock: No. No. In fact, interestingly at the most simplistic, not a single Viking-age helmet has been found with horns on or with wings. In fact, our most powerful image of the Vikings … If you go to a fancy dress party in a horned helmet, everybody knows who you are. You’re a Viking. No. Vikings as far as we can tell, did not wear horned helmets. They did not have winged helmets. What’s interesting is that’s probably how gods were represented, that we do in fact see carvings on rune stones and other major monuments of people with winged helmets and horned helmets. It’s probably gods that were represented in that, way not ordinary people.
A Viking was something rather more of what you did rather than what you were. It means something like adventurer. There’s various debates about where the word comes from. There’s an Icelandic word that means to go out, to turn around, to go places. There is an area of Southern Norway called Flekke. It may well, in fact, refer to a creek or an inlet of the sea from which these people went forth on their adventures but basically, to go Viking was to go adventuring. It was kind of, how should one put it, a muscular free-enterprise, which probably meant that if the people you met were ready for you, you did a bit of trading. If they weren’t ready for you, you did a bit of smash and grab.
It was a very kind of flexible free-enterprise expansion out into neighboring areas. You can see if you were obviously, the object of the smash and grab, you had a pretty negative view of these Norse. Otherwise, they’d be quite interesting people trading walrus ivory and amber and all sorts of stuff. It’s also probable that people have different phases of their lives, particularly elite, young men, in which they did a bit of Viking, got a bit of money, came back, got married, settled down, and turned into a farmer in Denmark or Norway and put their Viking days behind them.
As I say, Viking was probably more of something that you did rather than something that you were, but it’s now very much entered into the popular culture … And, I use it. We all use it. We talk about the Viking age. We talk about Vikings, but technically we should be talking about Norse and Norse culture and Vikings are one aspect of that. So, that also obscures things a bit.
Brett McKay: Are there any misconceptions about Vikings besides that a Viking was just sort of a period of your life that you might have taken part in? Any other big misconceptions about that?
Martyn Whittock: I think the other big misconception was that one assumes that Vikings were all the same for the whole period of the Viking age. Basically, between let’s say 750 and 1050, big expansion of people outside Scandinavia, but people weren’t the same throughout that time. There were different levels of sophistication of different people. They changed over time.
One of the things that’s often forgotten is that although the … We’ll come onto this perhaps a little bit later on … that although the Scandinavian homelands were some of the last places to convert to Christianity, where Vikings settled, they tended to convert to Christianity within one or two generations. Actually, the Vikings were cultural chameleons. They did change where they landed, where they arrived at, but also they fitted in with what was going on already and that’s the kind of image of the Christian Vikings, if you see what I mean, away from the homeland that we’ve totally forgotten about entirely.
I think that’s something to be born in mind that they are very, very, flexible. They are very accommodating. Where they come across something that they want to accommodate to people, they’re cultural chameleons in many ways.
Brett McKay: Let’s get more into the Norse culture. As you said, it’s very sophisticated and they have a very somewhat complex mythology which influences their culture. As I was reading the legends and the myths, it’s like a spiderweb almost. It all built upon each other and you had to remember what happened in this story to understand what happened in this story. How do we know about Norse mythology? Where they prolific writers? How do we know about that stuff?
Martyn Whittock: This is a really, really important question. It goes to the heart of a lot of what we know or don’t know about Norse mythology. The simple matter is, to put it very, very, simply, virtually nobody that believed in Norse mythology at any time sat down and wrote about it. We see almost all of it through the lens of later writers because, for large parts of the Viking age, the Norse that we’re talking about were literate or semi-literate. They used runes in order to make inscriptions, but not to actually create literature.
Almost everything we know about the Norse myths comes from two much later Medieval sources. The first one is the 13th-century Prose Edda and the 13th-century Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda, sometimes also called the Younger Edda, is believed to have been written by a man called Snorri Sturluson. That’s a great Icelandic name, isn’t it? An Icelandic chieftain in the early 13th century. Now, Snorri himself was a Christian and what he basically was doing was he was gathering together a whole bunch of old traditions that were no longer as potent as they once had been because Iceland had been Christian since about the year 1000.
He was very interested in Norse culture and Norse poetry. A lot of what he was doing was trying to explain where a lot of the complicated imagery in Norse poetry came from. Things like calling gold Fafnir’s Bane or something. He goes into the mythology in order to explain what that’s about. The other big source is something called the Poetic Edda and that’s a collection of anonymous, old Norse poems brought together probably about 1270 in Iceland. Again, written by or brought together by people who actually were Christian, but who were seeking to bring together, explain something about their shared past and explain something about where they were coming from and the kind of language and culture they now use, trying to trace its roots really.
Because of that, we see it very much from the lens of much later people. That actually makes it quite difficult because a lot of those sources are not ultimately trying to give you the A to Z of Norse mythology. It’s like, “Well, you know we do this. Well, let me explain to you a little bit about where that’s coming from. You know that’s an expression you come across in poetry. Well, let me tell you something about that.”
One of the challenges that we found when we were writing the book was we felt we were a little bit like paleontologists. You pick up that great big slab of rock and somewhere buried in it is a skeleton of a dinosaur if you like and it’s covered by all this matrix of complexity and explanation. As it is, you’re looking at it thinking, “I don’t quite get this. I can’t quite see the shape of it.” Because Snorri Sturluson wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive analysis of Norse myths and legends.
What we’ve done is, and what other people have done as well, is we’ve pulled out the various different legends. We’ve teased them out. We’ve made them more discrete and we’ve written about them. As a consequence, you can then find this particular story or that particular story or this particular tale or tradition. If you actually go back into the Prose Edda or the Poetic Edda, what you’ll find is all these things mixed in together, mashed in together and buried under this quite complicated layer.
I’m not saying it can’t be accessed, but it does make it quite difficult to actually get your head around it. We’ve tried to pull it out and say, “There’s a discrete story here, a discrete story there. There’s a tradition here.” Then, of course, the stories are amazing. They’re remarkable. They’re dramatic. They’re bloody. They’re intriguing. Sometimes they’re funny. You can then examine them as stories in their own right. Snorri Sturluson wasn’t actually storytelling. He was pulling on the past in order to make points in 13th-century Iceland.
Brett McKay: It’s not like ancient Greek mythology where there’s written stories or even Roman mythology where Ovid talked about all the different stories very discretely. Yeah, you had to do the work to suss this out, to get an idea of what their myth is.
Martyn Whittock: That’s right. That’s right. It’s not like also, for example, opening up the Old Testament and it starts at the beginning and it works through and it works through and it works through. It’s this person’s story, that person’s story then this happens and that happens. That’s just not how it is. You find yourself in the middle of one story and then you’re off into another one. Then, you’re off into another one and then you double back. You get, as we’ll see a little bit later on, you get a different story about the origins of the world and you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought I had one story in my head already,” because clearly there’s a lot going on here.
It is quite challenging to read in the original, translation I mean, because, as I say, it’s buried within this matrix of a different kind of agenda. But we also find information about the mythology in some other areas as well, which is perhaps a little bit more clear cut. We can find it in some of the latest sagas. We might talk about that a bit later on, some of the stories that refer to the gods and goddesses. We can find it in place names. We realize, obviously, these gods and goddesses were significant to the Norse so today, a big hiking area in Iceland is called Thórsmörk, Thor’s forest. Well, obviously, that’s recalling Thor. You can find places like Thunder’s field in England, Thor’s open countryside. You can find various different place names named after the Norse gods and goddesses. That’s another source.
Archeology gives you some information as well. We find Thor’s Hammers found by archeologists across Scandinavia and Britain. We can see something about the associated culture that went with being a follower of Thor. We can see on some helmets from Sweden we can see mounted warriors with birds on their shoulders, probably Odin and his ravens. We can see a woman carrying a drinking horn from Öland in Sweden. She’s probably a Valkyrie. A warrior struggles with two bears on a bronze plaque from Torslunda also in Sweden, seems to show you animal hybrids. You can go to somewhere in Gotland and stare at a picture stone and see Odin. It doesn’t say it’s Odin, but it obviously is from elsewhere riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
All sorts of clues are left in other areas that kind of join the dots to help us make sense of the written sources in Snorri. For example, in north of England and on the Isle of Man, you can find some amazing Christian crosses which have pictures of, of all things, Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent in Cumbria. What’s going on there? You can see Odin being eaten by the wolf at Ragnarök from Kirk Andreas on the Isle of Man. You can see Reginn forging Sigurd’s sword and Sigurd roasting a dragon’s heart on a stone cross from Halton in Lancaster.
These show you how as the Norse went into other areas, they used their existing imagery, that powerful mythological imagery to declare themselves, to record their stories, and sometimes, even when they became Christians, to use the old imagery to carry new messages. So, we’ve got the Eddas, we’ve got the archeology. It’s not complete, but from it, we can get a picture of some of these dramatic stories and mythologies.
Brett McKay: Do we have any idea if there were rituals associated with their mythology? Did they make sacrifices to these gods?
Martyn Whittock: Yeah, good point. A lot of what happened within the practice of Norse mythology seems to be quite home-based. There were big cult centers. For example, we know at Uppsala in Sweden was a big cult center where there were big sacrifices. People came together in large numbers at Uppsala, went well into the 11th century, for example, which is pretty late. But the evidence seems to suggest that quite a lot of what happened in terms of devotion to a particular god or goddess happened very much within the local community, within the home community.
For example, in Iceland, we see local chieftains called gothi who seemed to be responsible for the local carrying out of devotion to Thor or devotion to Odin or devotion to Freyja. Quite a lot of it seems to be quite local, quite small-scale, in that sense, quite community-based, and without the kind of accompanying literature that you would find within Islam or Christianity or Hinduism. A lot of it will be orally transmitted from place to place. As a consequence, we can’t always be sure whether a Norse settler in Normandy has exactly the same set of ideas and beliefs as a Norse settler in Dublin, let’s say, or back in the homelands.
What we do find the same gods and goddesses cropping up, so there is clearly this common pantheon, if you like, of gods and goddesses. Clearly, people pick on the ones that they feel most associated with. We have, for example, some in Iceland who was called Freyja’s gothi because he was so associated with Freyja that that was the particular devotion that he had. We hear in the Vinland Sagas somebody talking particularly about his devotion to Thor. I think in some ways it could be a little bit pick and mix in terms of where you wanted to lay your emphasis as an individual within Norse society.
Overall, you made up this complicated mosaic and there would have been sacrifices. There would have been rituals that were carried out, but we struggle to find what you might call a very clear example of a priesthood or organization across the whole of the Norse world. It just doesn’t seem to have worked quite that way.
Brett McKay: I imagine that contributed to the chameleon aspect that you mentioned of a Norse mythology. There wasn’t a set dogma they followed so they were able to incorporate that into their own personal beliefs.
Martyn Whittock: I think that is very, very, true. I also think it meant that when they moved away from the homelands, it actually made it, in some ways, harder to maintain the old mythologies. ‘Cause, on one hand, obviously, it didn’t need a trained priesthood. It didn’t need literate people to write books as it were, but on the other hand, its very low key, localized version, I think, allowed it to dilute and break up more readily and become more compromised I suppose.
We hear, for example, of an Icelandic warrior who was a Christian, but he prayed to Thor before sea journeys and when facing particularly difficult decisions. You think, “Okay, I don’t think that’s quite how it’s meant to work from either side,” but clearly, it allowed him for a generation at least to mix and match between the two. I think it kind of encouraged this break up in the long term. Strangely enough, what was quite a flexible religion in the end probably doomed it to disintegration.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s get into the specifics here of some of the Norse mythology. Every human culture has a genesis story of some sort, a creation story. What did the Norse mythology say about the creation of the world or the universe?
Martyn Whittock: Very, very, dramatic. We have a collection of Norse myths known as the Prose Edda as I said, particularly in it there’s a section called the Tricking of Gylfi. In that, we find stories brought together telling tales of the adventures of Norse gods and giants and the beginning of life to the building of the bridge, Bifröst, between Asgard and the Earth. What we have is this image that before time or anything else existed, there was simply a great void and no life. Then, there came into existence a place called Niflheim with a great spring at its center and from it flowed 10 rivers.
Near here was Hel Gates, a flaming region called Múspell appeared. From this place, at the very end of the world as it were, would come Surtr, who would defeat the gods and burn up all things with fire. To begin with, out of this frozen Scandinavian wasteland, you can see the geographical background speaking and out of this frozen wasteland great poison rivers flowed, encrusted with ice, there we go, and from which vapors rose. The northern part of this was covered in thick ice, the southern part melted with the heat from Múspell.
At the point where the ice and the heat met, and I suspect Icelanders would have understood very much about where heat and ice meet, the melting drops took on the form of a man. This man was actually a giant. His name was Ymir. He was a frost giant and from Ymir was descended all the frost giants. He sweated while he slept and from the sweat under his left arm, there was formed a male and a female. A son grew from the sweat of his legs and all the race of frost giants came from him.
The ice continued the melt and it dripped and it formed a great cow Auðumbla. From its udder, there flowed four great rivers of milk, which fled this giant. Then, the cow licked the salty rocks and from these melting rocks appeared somebody called Búri and from him came three sons, Odin, who we’ll hear a lot more about later, Vili and Vé. They killed the giant Ymir and from his body there flowed so much blood that it drowned all the other frost giants except for one. They then took his body, broke it apart, and created from that body the cosmos as we know it.
From his body, they made the Earth. From his blood … This is Odin and his brothers. From the blood of the giant, they made the sea and all the lakes. From his bones, they made the rocks. They took his teeth and created the tumbled, broken pieces of rock scree that lie on mountainsides. The sea surrounded all the Earth and confined the Earth in the middle of the great sea. Then they took his skull and with it, they made the sky, which had four corners and under each corner there sat a dwarf.
They took sparks of fire from that place of fire, Múspell, threw it into the air and made the stars. They took his brain and made the cloud. Then, they structured the Earth. This is where it will start to sound familiar to anybody who’s read Tolkien, for example, because Middle-earth’s about to appear. They said, “Well, the Earth is a great circle and beyond it lies a great sea.” The giants live on the shore of that great sea, but they’re prevented from entering the other places of the Earth because a great hedge has been established there, which they’ve made from the eyelashes, Odin and the other gods, from the eyelashes Ymir. That mighty hedge is called Midgard or Middle-earth. Tolkien fans will recognize Middle-earth and that’s the place where people lived.
A principle seems to be that the gods are put within the fence of civilization is called Asgard, the fence of the gods. The giants are put outside of the fence in Utgard outside and in between there is Middle-earth, if you like, Midgard where human beings live. You’ve got this kind of tripod-like break up of different beings. You’ve got gods in the most civilized place as it were. You’ve got the giants and the forces of destruction and of raw energy and of violence and of lust. They’re literally beyond the pale. They’re outside the fence. In between, kind of a bit of one and a bit of the other, you can see human nature here, there are human beings.
Human beings are made from pieces of wood found on the seashore. Odin and his brothers form these beings and one of the brothers gives them the gift of life. The second brother gives beings the gift of consciousness. The third gives human beings the gift of speech, hearing, and sight. You can see how there is this mythological story about how the world as we know it, but also how the world as we imagine it and as it might be, exists. It’s all united by this great ash tree. You have to imagine this huge tree, Yggdrasil, and its branches stretch right across the whole world and they unite all these different realms of being.
It grows up into the realm of the gods. Its roots go into the land of the giants. Odin, for example, goes down to a well there and gives it one of his eyes as payment for wisdom. At the very bottom, there’s a dragon called a Nidhogg gnawing at the roots of the tree. The gods hold court at one level and the giants are being touched by the roots of the tree at the other level. Within that strange view of this tree-like connection of the worlds, in the middle there, living beneath the ash tree are the Norns, N-O-R-N-S. They decide the fate of human beings.
You have this quite dramatic cosmology of different worlds and levels of being united by this great ash tree. I’m giving you a very simplified version of it ’cause there’s stags in the branches and there’s a dragon at the bottom called a Nidhogg, and there’s a squirrel called Ratatoskr who spends all his time running up and down the tree taking messages of ill will and trouble between an eagle on the top and the dragon at the bottom. This strange, mysterious, dynamic world, as I say, trying to explain the world in which we live, but also the imaginary world as we think it might be beyond us, the world of dragons, the world of giants, the world of dwarves, the world of the gods, united by this great ash tree.
Brett McKay: No, it’s very complex and really rich. You were describing that and I was like, “Boy, the Adam and Eve story. It’s pretty simple. God created the Earth in seven days, Adam and Eve created. That’s it.”
Martyn Whittock: It’s much more straight-forward. Exactly. The Norse myths and legends are very, very complicated. As we’ll see when we come on to look at the gods, how the gods came into existence, there are sometimes different stories feeding into it as well. Part of the complexity is due to the fact that there is no one simple canon of what is it we all sign up to. I think what we have to imagine is that when people like Snorri Sturluson brought it all together, they actually pulled on a tradition that was probably never completed coherent or never completely agreed.
If, in fact, as you’re reading it you end up thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m not following this quite. I thought that was there. How is that there?” It’s probably because you’re spotting the joins in a story that people like Snorri bolted together. You’re spotting the construction evidence and thinking, “How does that tie together then?” Some of the richness and complexity certainly comes from the fact that people like Snorri were bringing together a whole bunch of stories that nobody had actually sat down before that, as far as we know, and put it all together in one place. That makes a complexity. It makes for it being quite intriguing. It also means that sometimes you get stories that seem to contradict other stories too.
Brett McKay: We talked about how Odin came into existence. How did the other gods come into existence?
Martyn Whittock: Well, this is a very, very, good question. If I could just pull from Odin just for one moment because actually, Snorri has two completely different stories for how Odin came into existence, indeed, how the gods came into existence. This leads into your second question. The first one was note the cow, the ice, the melting, the formation of the gods. Okay. But also in an account called Ynglinga Saga, Snorri Sturluson also has a very, very, different account, dramatically different. He says, “Well, actually, the gods were once heroes. They were actually human beings just like you and me. Actually, they lived to the east of the Tanais Vistula river, which it sounds like he’s talking about the River Don.
Now, that’s in Southern Russia, east of the Ukraine and bordering the Caucasus. We have one story, which is very, very mythological and then we have another story by Snorri that says, “Actually, there is an account that once the gods lived in the Northern Caucasus.” They lived in effectively Southern Russia. There, they were heroic. They were people. They were human beings like you and me, but they were so dramatic, they were so successful in war that later people decided they were gods. In fact, he says the land that they lived in was Asaland, literally land of the Æsir or Asia land.
We end up with these two very, very different stories. Then, Snorri says, “Well, how did they get to be in Scandinavia?” Well, there were two different families of gods. There were the Æsir and that’s Odin, the one who we all know about, Odin, Thor, Frigg, Tyr, Loki, Balder, Heimdall, and so on. Then, there was a different family of gods called the Vanir. Those are people like Njörðr and his children Freyja and Freyr. As the gods, the Æsir, migrated out of Asaland, they crashed into the Vanir and there as a war between the Æsir and the Vanir. In the end, they decided they’d make peace by giving each other hostages, which said Snorri, “Is why you now find some of the gods of the Vanir living amongst the Æsir and why you find some of the gods of the Æsir living among the Vanir.”
Then, they came to Scandinavia and they set themselves up there and they founded the kingdoms and then they died. Then, later people thought they were gods and worshiped them as such. You’re thinking, “What is going on here?” I think what’s going on here is two things. One, Snorri as a Christian is uncomfortable with the idea of the Norse gods and goddesses being real gods and goddesses. He puts forward a construction where he says, “Actually, they were heroes. Later people thought they were gods and goddesses and told all these remarkable stories about them that I’m about to tell you now. That’s all the stuff we know about Norse myths and stuff. Actually, between you and me, they weren’t real gods. They were just heroes and other people got it wrong.”
I think partly that’s going on. It’s Snorri working with earlier myths and feeling uncomfortable with what he’s got. Secondly, I think probably that in this relationship between the Æsir and the Vanir, you’ve probably got two earlier traditions of religion within the Norse. Probably, at some point, people in Scandinavia believed in a different set of gods and goddesses and one group became more dominant than the other. One ideology became more successful than the other and that left people with a puzzle because they ended up with gods they knew pretty well who were warrior, out-there gods, fighting gods, people like Odin and Thor and so on.
But, they also are left with people that were primarily fertility gods, Freyja, for example, and her brother Freyr. It’s possible, this is all a bit speculative, but it’s possible the fertility gods actually belonged to a different layer of Norse mythology and at some point in prehistory that we’ll never, ever untangle, these two ideologies, there two different religions, clashed, came together, and were kind of fused. What came out of it was this strange construct where there’s two different families of the gods, they live in different places, they do marry each other, they do have relationships, they do sort of work together, but they’re kind of different. Amazing, isn’t it?
Brett McKay: No, it is amazing. The way the gods are described, they’re very human. It’s not like the Christian god. They’re very human. It’s almost like they’re humans with superpowers, right? They’re like the Marvel comic Thor.
Martyn Whittock: Yes.
Brett McKay: I guess I’m imaging they weren’t omnipotent or omniscient, correct?
Martyn Whittock: It is quite purist because I say, when you have this one thread of Snorri, they are magical figures but Odin actually is a mortal who dies and is cremated and so on. When you get on to the more fully-formed myths, when you actually are describing them as being gods as it were, on one level, they appear immortal, they appear all-seeing, they appear all-knowing, they reveal themselves to people, they can disguise themselves, they take sides in quarrels, people pray to them, and so on. As you look at them. They actually are much more like empowered divine human beings.
They got a lot more in common with the inhabitants of Greek Olympus than they have with any Christian or Islamic, for example, view of God. For example, they’re very flawed. They fall out with each other. They squabble with each other. They fight with each other. They betray you with each other. They commit adultery. Odin, for example, has to sacrifice his eye to get wise. Thor ends up with a fight with a giant and a giant’s wet stone embedded in his skull. We see them having affairs with giantesses. Yeah, so giants aren’t always bad you see. We see them causing trouble as when we look at Loki in a little while. We see mischief going on.
Of course, eventually, hanging over all of this is the Day of Ragnarök, which no doubt we’ll look at a little bit later on. Effectively, these gods apparently immortal, apparently all-powerful, apparently dramatic, have hanging over them utter and complete destruction. The Day of Ragnarök is always coming. The monsters will break out. The giants will crash into Asgard, the home of the gods. They will destroy the bridge, Bifröst. They will bring down the created order in fire. It will be the twilight of the gods.
Brett McKay: That’s intense and we’ll talk about Ragnarök here in a bit. Let’s talk about each of the individual gods because like the Greek gods, they all seem to take on a particular attribute or virtue or they represented something larger. Odin, he’s often called the Allfather. He’s the like sort of Zeus, in the Olympic gods. What did he represent to the Norse?
Martyn Whittock: Odin’s interesting actually, very interesting. Because on one level, he is a warrior god. We hear stories of Odin throwing his spear over the assembled host and that would decide who would live and who would die. We hear about Valkyries, these extraordinary women who ride out and choose the best of the dead, the best of the slain to come back and live in Odin’s home in Valhalla. It’s one of those places that lots of people have heard of and they fight all day and kill each other all day, and then they feast all night. They’re all ready to come to Odin’s aid on the Day of Ragnarök.
On one hand, he is a warrior god. It’s interesting that, for example, the Anglo-Saxons, when they were Pagans in England, they believed in a similar god called Woden. Woden is Odin, for example, and every single one of the Anglo-Saxon royal families except for the royal family of the Kingdom of Essex all claimed descent from Woden that is Odin. So, Odin on one hand, is a warrior god. He’s a god of aristocrats. He’s a god of rulers. He’s a god of kings. He’s a god who’s going to grant you victory in battle.
On the other hand, he’s also mysterious because he can also sometimes choose to travel in the company of men in the guise of Grimnir, the masked one. When he’s in his masked form, you don’t know it’s Odin at all. Then, he’s mysterious and he’s challenging and then he’s troubling. For example, he comes across Thor in a myth called The Conflict at the Ferry and they end up in a battle of insults. They’re very, very, very rude to each other and Thor comes off worse than … You’re thinking, “But he never knows it’s Odin doing this to him.”
We see, for example, the sons of a king, King Hrauðungr. Frigg, Odin’s wife, looks after one. Odin looks after the other and they both compete as to which ones of these little boys who are their clients are going to win. Odin basically encourages one to betray the other, to undermine the other, to destroy the other. We see in the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki that one his way to battle, he stays at the house of a farmer, strange mysterious old man, the classic stuff, gray beard, hood up, one-eyed perhaps. He makes a mistake that he doesn’t accept gifts given to him by the man. Later on, we discover, “Ah, it was Odin. If only he’d accepted them.” As a result of that, Odin’s angry and Odin curses him and Hrolf Kraki dies in battle.
On the one hand, we have this Odin Allfather as he’s described, this kind of Zeus-type figure. On the other hand, we have this rather strange, mysterious, sometimes appears in disguise god. You don’t quite know it’s him or not. He sits beneath the scaffold because he’s the god of the slain. What’s that all about, you know? His Valkyries chose who will live and who will die. There is something quite grim in the way in which we normally use that word about Odin as well as grand. It’s also interesting that at some point, it looks like he might have surpassed or replaced Thor as the chief god because some very early records talk about three major Norse gods being worshiped in Scandinavia. They seem to suggest that it’s Thor who’s first.
We’ll come to Thor, perhaps in a moment, but it looks like there might have been a time when Odin and Thor, while it wasn’t necessarily clear who was the dominant force between the two. At some point, this looks like there may have been a shift in the mythology and Odin became the dominant god with Thor then becoming, as we’ll see in a moment, much more the god of farmers, the god of weather, and so on and so forth. But we can’t trace exactly when that happened or why that happened because we haven’t got written records for it.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. Odin’s a very accomplished guy. He’s a warrior god, he’s mysterious because he can go around in disguise, but he’s also the god of wisdom. He sacrificed his eye for wisdom. Then, he hung himself on a tree, a sacrifice to myself for myself, so he could uncover the power of the runes. Yeah.
Martyn Whittock: Yeah, to get the power of rune magic, yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
Brett McKay: What was run magic? That was just the power of knowing what the symbols meant or did they actually-
Martyn Whittock: Yes. Yeah. Basically, runes were Scandinavian letter forms deliberately made angular because they are very easy to carve on wood or engrave on stone or put into metal. It just reminds us that the pre-Christian Scandinavia was not entirely illiterate. Runes were used, and they were used to very mundane things. I’ve seen a comb, for example, from Eastern England and it just says, “[Hofstraff 00:41:57] made this comb,” in runes. That’s not terribly magical.
Then, you find other use of runes were thought to, right in certain combinations, they become spells. Runes are an interestingly ambiguous thing. On one hand, they are mundane things. You can find rune stones in Scandinavia that will simply tell you, “This guy went on an adventure to the east. He died fighting the Saracens. He never came back. That was a bit of a disaster, wasn’t it? By the way, he’s left his land to his brothers and his sons.” Straightforward memorial stuff.
But, you could also find things engraved with runes in which the runes in their combinations seem to be magical. It’s quite clear that some people in the Norse period believed that runes in combination had magical significance and they believed that the power to use runes and to work magic went back to this original Odin hanging himself on the tree, sacrificing himself to himself, reaching out screaming, grabbing the runes, and having this magical knowledge in his grasp.
He is, you’re absolutely right. He’s also a god of magic and it was said that he gained this magic from his relationship with the Vanir, those rather more fertility gods and goddesses that we mentioned earlier on, that he had a special kind of magic that he could use to take over people’s minds, to control people’s minds. Of course, some people who are adherents of Odin believed that if they listened to him and they did these things, they could gain this magic for themselves. He is a complex character. Thor is interesting too, of course.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was talking about Thor because he’s famous because of Marvel comics and the movies.
Martyn Whittock: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Tell us about him.
Martyn Whittock: Well, as I say, it’s possible that Thor might represent earlier strata of Norse belief, before the warrior god of the Vikings, Odin as it were. He’s a weather god. That’s why we have thunder, for example. The word thunder comes from Thor, Thor’s voice. Thursday, appropriately today, we’re speaking about today. Thursday is Thor’s day is out of interest. The days of the week often record the names of Norse gods and goddesses. He’s very popular amongst ordinary farming folk and he’s also the traditional enemies of giants and defenders of the homes of the gods.
For example, we see him going off to get a giant’s cauldron in a poem called Hymir’s Poem. He gets caught up in all sort of adventures. He’s often comic. We have him cross-dressing as a woman to fool giants in Thrym’s Poem, for example. He sometimes is represented as being strong, but not very bright. He’s bested by Odin at the insult which takes place at the ferry. In the Tricking of Gylfi, he doesn’t know he’s hiding in a giant’s glove, so in the morning he says, “Ah, that strange place we were hiding in, it was a giant’s glove.” He gets beaten at a series of challenges in the Hall of King Utgarda-Loki.
But, he’s clearly popular. He’s clearly popular. He’s popular amongst ordinary people. He’s regarded as, as I say, a weather god, perhaps a god of crops. He’s famous for his magical hammer, Mjolnir, depicted as a fearsome weapon to crush skulls and level mountains. He battles with the Midgard Serpent, which is this strange, mythological creature who’s a sea serpent fathered by Loki with a giantess. So large, it circles the entire world. According to Norse mythology, Thor will encounter the Midgard Serpent three times, three times he’ll battle it. He’ll go out on a fishing trip and he’ll almost get it into the boat and then it will break free. The third time he comes across it will be at Ragnarök, the end of the world when they will destroy each other.
He is a guardian of the gods. He’s a protector of the gods. He’s the one that goes off on adventures into giant land. He crushes giants’ skulls. On the other hand, sometimes he’s strong, but he’s not very quick. He can be a bit poked fun at. Basically, in the mythology, no one pokes fun at Odin, but they sometimes do at Thor.
Brett McKay: Another god that’s pretty famous that a lot of people think about when they think about the Norse gods is Tyr is another one.
Martyn Whittock: Yes.
Brett McKay: What did he represent? What was his role in the mythology?
Martyn Whittock: Tyr’s interesting because Tyr is a war god who you would think would have a higher profile than he does in Norse mythology. When he appears, he’s clearly a war god. He also presides over matters of justice and of law. He’s remembered in Tuesday, for example. Tue or Tyr are related names of this god. He gave his name to the T rune in Norse runic alphabet. He has quite a dramatic character when he does appear.
In one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the Valkyries go out and they instruct the human hero Sigurd to invoke Tyr for victory in battle. Pray to him and he’ll give you battle victory. In another Eddic poem, Loki insults him by saying, “You’re good at stirring up people into strife, but you’re no good at reconciling them, are you?” He is given the job, for example, of holding the jaws of Fenrir the Wolf, who is this great terrible destructive wolf character who the gods decide they want to chain up to stop him destroying them. The wolf basically says, “No, I’m not going to do that.”
And, they say, “Well, look. What we’ll do is, we promise you that Tyr will put his hand in your mouth and we’ll, therefore, put this silken cord around you. You know that we won’t obviously, do anything against you because why would we do that? Because obviously, Tyr’s put his hand into your mouth as a hostage.” Anyway, they then put this silken cord around the wolf. It then turns into an incredibly strong chain that the wolf cannot break free of and he bites off Tyr’s arm. So, Tyr’s a very important character in here because by sacrificing his hand or his arm, he allows the gods to chain up this terrible wolf, Fenrir the Wolf, this great wolf of destruction.
He’s important, but for such an important god, he doesn’t appear as much as you think he would or should in Norse mythology. One of the theories is that like Thor, he’s been overshadowed by Odin and, at some point in the formation of Norse mythology, Tyr was a more dominant war god than he later was. As the cult of Odin increased in its popularity, that he rather overshadowed Tyr. So, Tyr was left with this role of hero, warrior god, the one who helps control the wolf. He’ll be there on Ragnarök fighting, but he’s no longer as dominant as he should be you would have thought. Because Odin seems to have displaced him somewhat.
Brett McKay: Well, one god that gets a lot of play in the mythology, you’ve mentioned his name throughout, this is Loki.
Martyn Whittock: Yes.
Brett McKay: What was his role in the Norse mythology?
Martyn Whittock: Loki is a very, very interesting god. It’s very easy to simply see Loki or Loki as the Norse equivalent of the devil. But, Loki is more complicated than that, in as much as there’s an ambiguity about him. There’s a whole collection in the Prose Edda section called the Tricking of Gylfi in which we’re introduced to the trickster god, Loki and his terrible children. His character’s absolutely central to Norse mythology and to the group dynamics of the gods.
What’s interesting is Loki is described as the half brother of Odin. They share the same mother, but whereas Odin’s father was one of the gods, Loki’s father was a giant. So immediately, we have this, “Ah, there’s giant DNA in Loki. This is not going to end well.” ‘Cause, as I say, the gods look at the giants as being the forces of destruction, primordial chaos, for example. It means that Loki enjoys a particular distinction. He belongs to two worlds at the same time, the gods and the giants, natural enemies.
He’s a cause of conflict, but at other times, he’s a trickster god. He’s not always portrayed as evil, for example. He is described, for example, in the Seeress’ prophesy as that evil-loving Loki and Snorri describes him as Loki has a handsome and pleasing appearance, but he is evil in character and he pays capriciously. We can certainly see that. He insults the gods and goddesses in Loki’s Quarrel. It causes no end of trouble. He contrives the death of Balder by the blind god Hod because the twigs, the mistletoe, had never promised it wouldn’t hurt Balder. So, he can fashion an arrow out of that, get Hod to throw it or fire it, and Kill Balder.
This is just sheer nastiness. This is evil mischief-making, no question about that. On the other hand, he’s also seen as being a trickster god. He is seen as sometimes being on adventures with Thor, for example. He’s not always presented as being ultimately evil, but the evil is always there bubbling below the surface. It’s not surprising, for example, that he fathers a whole bunch of destructive forces. He’s the father of Fenrir the Wolf who will eventually destroy Odin. He’s the father of the Midgard Serpent that will eventually kill Thor. He’s the father of Hel, who will eventually create a boat that will allow the force of destruction to sail right up to Asgard and destroy it.
Loki is a curious character. He clearly is presented in lots of stories as evil, as destructive. In other ones, he is a trickster god, a god who uses his wits as it were, who’s always out for number one. But he’s curiously ambiguous. It’s as if the Norse could not finally come down on one side of the other as to who they see him as. Ultimately, he will make his own decision, and he will decide against the gods at Ragnarök and he will be a primary force in their ultimate destruction. So, I suppose that’s the ultimate ending. He will destroy the gods eventually whatever he’s done in the past.
Brett McKay: My favorite story of Loki was the one where he was in Asgard and he was just stirring the pot. He was going around to each of the gods and saying … Bringing up the stuff you don’t talk about. They’re like, “You don’t talk about that.”
Martyn Whittock: No. Very sexual.
Brett McKay: Yeah, very sexual. It reminded me of the person, that one person in your family that when there’s a family reunion, they’re always like … They’re trying to create conflict. That’s what Loki was doing.
Martyn Whittock: Yeah, he’s really rude as well. He goes in and says, “Freyja, yeah, yeah. Do you remember the time you were having sex with your brother and everybody came in and found you? Yeah, yeah. While you’re doing it, you were so embarrassed you suddenly passed wind very, very, loudly.” You’re thinking, “What? What?” Loki says that. Not surprisingly, people are shocked and horrified. Yeah, he’s a stirring up god. If anybody’s got an uncle like that, their family’s got a problem.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, let’s talk about Ragnarök ’cause it’s all leading up there. The gods are … They’re powerful, they’re omniscient, but they know that they’re going to be destroyed at some point at Ragnarök. So, what happens at Ragnarök?
Martyn Whittock: Ragnarök hangs over the gods throughout. It is this dark shadow. It is this cloud that’s always on the horizon. We are told that Ragnarök will come at a point in the future that is signaled by certain cosmic events. There will be three terrible winters in which the world will be torn by conflict, son against father, daughter against mother, terrible destructions. Then, as if that isn’t enough, it will be followed by three strange and cold winters, deep snow will cover the land, the sun will lack the heat to thaw that deep snow. After those six winters, the forces of chaos that have been held throughout the centuries will finally break free.
The wolf named Skoll will pursue the sun, catch up with her, and will swallow her bringing disaster on all people. The wolf called Hati Hróðvitnisson will pursue the moon and will swallow the moon. The stars will disappear from the sky. The Earth will be shaken. Mountains will fall and trees will be uprooted. Fenrir the Wolf, the greatest force of destruction, will break his bonds and be free. The Midgard Serpent that circles the world, in his rage, will fling itself against the shore, and the sea will flow across the land. The ship, Naglfar, constructed from the fingernails and toenails of dead men will break forth from its moorings.
The Midgard Serpent will spit its poison across sky and sea and side by side with Fenrir the Wolf and with that great and terrible ship, will drive towards Asgard. The sky will tear apart. The sons of Múspell will ride from the place of fire. They will break the bridge, Bifröst, that connects heaven and Earth. Freyja, the Vanir god, will fall. Tyr too, will fall in battle before the great evil dog called Garmr. Odin himself will, at last, die, swallowed by the jaws of Fenrir the Wolf. Loki and Heimdall will kill each other in battle and fire will consume the whole world. Thor will, at last, kill the Midgard Serpent, but as he walks away from it, he will succumb to its poison, and the world of the gods will crumble in fire, destruction, terror, and blood.
Brett McKay: That’s frightening. No, it’s really scary.
Martyn Whittock: But, it’s not the end. Because the strange thing is that we are told that somehow the Earth will once more rise from the sea. Green will come back. Crops will grow. Two or three gods will have survived the slaughter. A couple of people will have survived the slaughter, and it will start to grow again. It’s as if they will rebuild from the ashes of the destruction, but they will find golden playing pieces lying in the long grass and pick them up and think, “These are remnants of a world now gone, of games once played by gods no longer here.”
There is a strange suggestion that after Ragnarök comes something else. Intriguing.
Brett McKay: It is intriguing. We talked about Norse mythology, but another part of Norse literature that we have, thanks to these 13th-century writers, are the sagas. What were the sagas and how did they incorporate Norse mythology into them?
Martyn Whittock: Many people will know Norse culture from the sagas. Basically, mostly in Iceland in the 13th century, a little bit later, we get a series of dramatic stories being told about the doings of heroes. They tend to fit into a number of broad categories. Some of them are what we call family sagas. They tell the doings of great characters from the Icelandic past who’ve sailed the seas and founded settlements and carved out a home in the wilderness. It’s very much American West-type stuff. Go west, young man, and create your destiny-type stuff. It’s those sort of pioneering people that appear in the family sagas.
Every now and then we get little snippets and gods and goddesses in mythology, but mostly they are larger than life, possibly real people from the past. But they have a kind of Robin Hood, King Arthury-type feel about them. You have a feeling maybe they did exist, but maybe they’ve been added to and developed over time. Those are the family sagas and some of them are not mythological at all. They basically are the everyday violent doings of Icelandic folk.
Then we have other ones which we call the Fornaldarsagas, sagas of the ancient times. Those are ones that form a bridge between the straightforward myths that we’ve been talking about and the non-supernatural world of politics, family quarrels, ambitions, burning your neighbor’s farm, that we find in the family sagas. They tend to have strange mixtures of real-life people and some pretty mythological events. For example, in one called the Saga of the Volsungs, we see the human world, but we also see echos of real, perhaps 4th and 5th-century events but intermingled with mythological features.
We see a broken sword being reformed, again, very Lord of the Rings this, and therefore being invincible. We see the doings of the gods and the goddesses appearing alongside events that may be echos of real historical events. We see Fafnir the serpent-dragon being killed by Sigurd the warrior. But these kind of strange, clearly mythological events, are often set in a half-remembered world of early Germanic tribes, battles with the Huns, folk movements that happened at the end of the Roman Empire.
The sagas of the ancient times are the ones that give us our best mix of mythological elements mixed in with echos of perhaps real events. That’s quite intriguing because it just goes to show how people do mix the mythological and the half-remembered history together in one go. Some of the sagas aren’t like that at all. They are, as I say, the everyday story of fairly violet, Icelandic folk.
Brett McKay: As you talk about in the book, the sagas, there was this period where they’re were just pumping these things out. What was going on there? This was before there was a lot of written records in Europe, but in Iceland, for whatever reason, they were just putting stuff out with these sagas. What was going in there?
Martyn Whittock: Yeah, that’s a good point because there clearly is this huge formative period towards the end of the 12th into the 13th century … Snorri Sturluson, for example, he’s writing the 1220s, that sort of period of time. There’s a huge creative activity there in which these things have been put together and retold and told and retold again and so on. There’s a big debate about what was going on here. One way of viewing it is that by the 13th century, Christianity is dominant in Iceland. The battle’s been won. The cross of Christ has beaten the hammer of Thor. That allows Christian Icelandic writers to, if you like, draw upon their current cultural heritage because it’s no longer spiritually threatening.
They can talk about it because most people don’t believe in that kind of thing anymore. So, it’s almost like now we don’t believe that anymore. Now, we don’t think those gods really were real. Let’s talk about it. There also seems to have been a kind of self-conscious antiquarianism as well. A kind of a let’s celebrate our historic roots. Let’s define ourselves as who we are as Icelanders, for example. Some of that may have been because of politics. There was a big tussle going on at the time between the dominant forces in Iceland and the king of Norway as to whether Iceland was to remain an independent republic or whether it was to be brought back under the control of the Norwegian kings.
In the end, the Norwegian kings won out. Sad to say, Snorri Sturluson, who we’ve heard an awful lot about today, was murdered by agents of the Norwegian king. In fact, you can go to his farmstead on Iceland and you can sit next door to the natural hot water pool where Snorri went to have an evening with his friends and gathered all these legends. You can step back from it and just down the hill, there will be remains of the barn where Snorri ran into there to try to escape his assigns, was tracked then into a corner, and was hacked to death. Not a happy ending for Snorri, I’m afraid.
But it may well be that some of the politics of the time encouraged people like Snorri to try to create an Icelandic culture which was independent of Norway, vibrant, culturally confident, as part, almost if you like, of a nascent Icelandic nationalism. Because of that, we suddenly get this explosion of literary accounts of traditions which otherwise would have been totally lost. This one man, Snorri Sturluson, is actually responsible for a considerable amount of it. He’s not the only one, but he’s responsible for a considerable amount of it. It does remind us how certain people in history can play a major part in preserving and communicating the traditions of their people.
Brett McKay: Throughout this, you’ve been talking about how we still see the influence of Norse mythology in our culture today. We have days of the week named after gods. Tolkien used Norse mythology a lot in his work. Where else do we still see it today in the 21st century?
Martyn Whittock: Well, clearly it’s spoken to quite a lot of our view of the northern world. Richard Wagner, for example, the Ring of the Nibelung, Twilight of the Gods. A lot of people will know about Ragnarök and these incredible stories. They’ll know about gold hidden in the Rhine. They’ll know about some of these Norse heroes because of the big input into particularly 19th-century, classical music, for example, particularly German music. Wagner played a very big part in that, the ring cycle, for example, the operatic ring cycle, a big part of popularizing that in the 19th century.
Yeah, we’ve got Tolkien. When you read The Hobbit. When you look at the Lords of the Rings and you look at the world of Middle-earth, it’s that word again, Midgard. When you see these giants and you see effectively three trolls, when you see elves and dwarves, you are looking into a world which is very much indebted to the mythology of the northern world of the Norse and also of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. It’s not surprising, for example, that Tolkien was an Old English scholar. He was an academic. He knew his stuff. That’s entered into our mythology in a very big way.
In different ways, of course, Marvel have picked up the whole concept of Thor and these dramatic larger than life characters. In many ways, many people will now know about Thor not because of the myths themselves, not because of these echos in other mythologies, but they’ll know about him because of his place within The Avengers films, within Marvel’s comics. In many ways, we’re seeing a quite interesting take on Thor there where he is clearly regarded as a superhero and yet he seems strangely human as well. That’s an interesting take on him and an interesting retake, recreation of him.
We could also see a very dark side as well. It’s not surprising, for example, that the Nazis in the 1930s became absolutely obsessed with Nordic mythology. It’s not surprising, for example, that the SS runes that we see on the helmets of Hitler’s black-shirted, black-uniformed, Nazi army, the Waffen SS are, in fact, taken from Norse mythology. The Nazis, sadly, took this Norse mythology and gave it a terrible, dark spin as a way of trying to create a different kind of religious mythology to Christianity which they were very, very against.
Perhaps, in a more positive sense, because always that’s a very dark use and a very dark manipulation of Norse mythology, I think one of the reasons why they are of enduring interest to people is because rather like the Greek deities, for all their mythological character, they do rather look like larger than life humans. Looking at the Norse myths, you can see themes of love, betrayal, lust, greed, conflict, and interaction. You can see conflict between forces of construction. You can see forces of chaos. I think people find that quite approachable and quite an interesting illustrative way to talk about some of the both light and dark aspects of human nature if you see what I mean.
Also, I guess Ragnarök may sometimes appeal to a rather nihilistic element of human nature living in a nuclear age. So, the Norse’s myths remain with us and still intrigue us.
Brett McKay: Martyn, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Martyn Whittock: For those wishing to explore this topic further, our recently published book, ‘Tales of Valhalla: Norse Myths and Legends’ by Martyn and Hannah Whittock and published by Pegasus Books of New York, offers a retelling of the stories. Because this is a retelling rather than a new translation, we have had the freedom to focus on the particular stories, explain aspects otherwise maybe confusing or obscure, and introduce each story with background information. But we have kept close to the content of the original old Norse myths and legends.
To read these stories in their original context, a number of modern academic translations are available. Listeners can find these by looking for Prose Edda, Poetic Edda, and the various sagas either through local booksellers or online searches.
Brett McKay: Well, Martyn, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Martyn Whittock: Thank you for having me. It’s been good to be with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Martyn Whittock. He is the co-author of the book ‘Tales of Valhalla’. It’s available on amazon.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/norsemyths where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com where you can find all the podcast archives there. We’re coming up on 500. Also, we’ve got thousands of articles up there including a whole series about Norse mythology, so check that out.
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