the norse gods -- 3/23/21

Today's selection -- from A Concise History of Sweden by Neil Kent. Thor, Odin, Freyr, and Freyja:

"Among the most prominent Norse gods -- and it should be remem­bered that their veneration was not restricted to Sweden but extended throughout Scandinavia and beyond -- were Thor, Odin and Freyr.

"Thor was invoked for a successful harvest and his protection was sought by farmers against the giants who were thought to reside in the mysterious realm of Jotunheim. While they battled with both gods and men, these giants also provided them with much wisdom and many skills. One of their number, Ymir, was considered to be the first living creature.

"Thor was one of the most powerful of the gods and his domain was a world of order and stability in which chaos was kept at bay. The god Odin, in turn, was invoked when military campaigns were undertaken. He was deemed to be the protector, not only of the sword-bearing aristocracy, but also of the bards who sang of their exploits. However, like the gods of ancient Greece, he was a fickle divinity whose deviousness was feared, especially as he was also associated with death and the world of the dead.

"Odin's handmaidens, the Valkyries, were the arbiters of the war­riors who would die in battle, destined, therefore, to ride victoriously into Valhalla. This was a Nordic version of the Greek Mount Olympus, known as Asgård in Swedish. Archaeological excavations confirm that many warriors in the tenth century were buried with their weapons in seeming anticipation of a heroes' welcome in Valhalla. Once arrived in the afterworld, the deceased warriors were expected eventually to enter a new military affray, a confronta­tion in which, together with the gods, they would fight the chaos which threatened all order, both human and divine. This, it was believed, would occur at Ragnarök; in a Nordic version of the German Götterdämmerung, that is, a spiritual apocalypse, which not only implied the doom of the gods themselves but also had overwhelming significance for the whole of human history. In this scenario, Thor and Odin also played major roles. This shattering event, however, was perceived not as the end of history, but rather as the occasion for its re-creation.

"The gods themselves were divided up into two family groupings. Both Thor and Odin were of that known as the æsir, Freyr, by contrast, was from the family known as vanir and was the son of Njord, god of wind, sea and fire. He himself was the god of fertility -- ­as well as lust -- and much political clout was later made of the legend that maintained that the Swedish royal house of Yngve Frej was descended from him. Freyr's sister, in turn, was Freyja, associated with a cult of fertility, but, at the same time, linked to the world of the dead, where she welcomed newly arrived warriors fallen in battle.

"Other goddesses included the Norns, a Nordic version of the Fates, who determined the length of every person's life span. There were also the disir, female beings to whom festive sacrifices, the so-called blót, were made, usually at the solstices, as reflected in extant exam­ples of skaldic poetry of the time.

"While the gods, goddesses and heroes resided in Asgård, human­kind was confined to the middle realms of Midgård, that is, the earth. While all of creation was itself, in turn, encompassed by a giant sea serpent, its centre was by no means fixed, as in Christianity of the same period. That said, a central feature of this cosmology was the so-called Yggdrasill or World Tree, a mystical abstraction of consid­erable complexity. Ancient trees on individual farmsteads were fre­quently venerated in conjunction with it, thereby linking family life and wellbeing to the cosmic order itself. The natural world was, thus, inextricably intertwined in the religious world of pre-Christian Sweden, with a resonance which has inspired many, politically as well as culturally, in the centuries following and up to our own day." 



Neil Kent


A Concise History of Sweden


Cambridge University Press


Neil Kent 2008


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