Norse Paganism & the world of the Vikings
Updated: Jul 20
In order for us to understand the world of the Vikings, we must first understand the mythologies that governed them. How did a Viking think, and what beliefs inspired this mindset?
By reviewing the violent Norse cosmology, mischievous gods, and the blazing fires of Ragnarok, we enter the mythical mind of the Norse Viking. There, we will unlock understanding of his legendary desire for fortune and fame - but we will also encounter the darkness and brutality of the Norse world itself. This was a world forged in violence, and therefore also destined to perish in violence.
Norse Creation Myth: Order vs. Chaos
Creation myths in Norse heathendom are obscure, but there is a general outline found in various poetic sources that we can acknowledge as their cosmological story. First, great fire and ice smashed together in a great void (Ginnungagap), forming Ymir (meaning Screamer), a giant of astronomical size, and Audhumla, a cow. Out of the flesh of Ymir arose other creatures: scores of smaller giants, dwarfs and elves. There appears from Ginnungagap also a god of some sort, who had a son, Borr. This son married one of the giantesses that emerged from Ymir's body. Their children, in turn, were Odin, Ve and Vili, who became the first three "gods". The gods then fought Ymir and killed him, and with his flesh, they began creating the realms of the world, all bound together by the cosmic tree Yggdrasil.
In a sense, one can view "Ymir" as matter itself, and the unrealized potential of matter, like a lump of clay. In Norse mythology, the gods then used this lump of matter to create earth and its creatures. All the deeds of the gods had a reflection in nature, and in this way, all aspects of nature - the weather (winter, summer, thunder, sun, moon, wind etc..), human moods and desires (brutality, sexuality, curiosity, deception etc.), and human acts (agriculture, seafaring, war, trade etc.) - could be explained with a mythological story about the gods. The Norsefolk therefore believed that the gods and their deeds were the "algorhithm" of structure that gave the earth its form. The gods were therefore the source of Order.
Chaos came from the giants, who sought to avenge the murder of Ymir by killing the gods and destroying the new order. The gods and giants were equally powerful, thus, this was a conflict that would last until the end of time. The gods fortified themselves in Aasgard, while the giants took residence in Jotunheim (a mountain range in Norway).
The Norse gods
The Norse worldview is therefore one of constant conflict. There is an ongoing war between chaos and order, which takes place both in Midgard (the Earth), and other realms. Conflict is a creative process, because it always produces change, and since change is a constant aspect of our universe, so is conflict. It is therefore no wonder why the Vikings believed that all creation must stem from a type of conflict.
There were two races of gods: the Æsir and the Vanir. They fought against each other, but eventually arranged a peace treaty and began inter-marrying, giving rise to numerous other deities.
Chief in the Norse pantheon was Odin. who desired wisdom above all else, and would roam the earth in disguise on various self-interest missions to enhance his power, knowledge and magic. One of Odin's wives, Jord (the goddess of earth), birthed Thor - the thundering warrior god who's hammer, Mjolnir, wrecked havoc upon the giants. Thor often went on adventures with Loki, the god of deceit.
The modern reader is tempted to belittle all these mythologies as "childike fantasies". But this prejudgment is ignorant of the language of mythology. Put in simple terms, the Norse recognized that the world is governed by higher forces, and a mix of randomness (chaos) and fate (order). What happens in these other realms is therefore equated to happenings on earth. Thus, when Thor smashed giants with his hammer, it was "felt" on earth via the thrusts of thunder. Obviously, the Vikings did not think Thor physically smashed giants on our clouded sky to produce thunder, but they believed that through thunder, they felt Thor's actions in other realms.
In general, though, Norse mythology did not draw distinctive lines between the gods and what element in the world they represented. Sure, Freya was more associated with love, and Njord more associated with seafaring - but ultimately, they were "spirits" of particular characters, ambitions and desires. Both Odin and Loki were known as tricksters, for instance. Tyr was the war-god, but Thor, and even Freya, were popular to invoke before battle.
It is striking to see how limited and weak the Norse gods are in the mythology. Frequently, they are humiliated by giants and dwarfs. They struggle to empower other creatures, and regularly fail. Often, they are fooled. Odin, who is supposed to be full of wisdom, is tricked by his own wife Frigg, and other times, by giants.
They are also full of pride. They are easily enchanted by praise and adoration, and always eager to prove their powers to others. They cannot stand humiliation. Their desire for power goes in accord with their sexual desires, too, as they lust after other female gods, giantesses and even human women. They are fickle, corruptible, and untrustworthy, evident from their weaknesses as well as their characters.
In short, we observe that the Norse gods are anthropomorphic, meaning they are very much alike human beings, just "writ large". Norse gods are, in a sense, created in mans image. They are a reflection of the observed realities of a fallen human race. Since humans are full of these passions, it follows that the creators of humans must also be full of these passions, just to a greater extent.
This implies a bond between humans and these "gods", where they can cooperate to further their own agendas. Worship of Norse gods was always transactional. Pagans would sacrifice animals or humans and use their blood to gain the attention of the gods. They would then sing praises to them, hoping that the gods, charmed by their praises and drunk on their blood, would grant them their wishes. These wishes could be success in plundering, a good harvest, business success, safety at sea, and so on. Any type of worldly progress.
Norse paganism was therefore selfish at its core. Everything revolved around how the worshipper could gain fortune for one's own self. And the gods, full of pride, demanded ritualized blood sacrifices in exchange.
Teachings and the Afterlife
We note the deafening absence of morality. There is no clear teaching on Good v. Evil, because the gods do not ask of men to "become good" or "refrain from evil". Norse pagans did not worship these gods in search of moral goodness or self-correction, but for fortune and self-acclaim.
One of the most popular stories about Odin perfectly demonstrate this attitude. Odin, it is told, hung painstakingly on Yggdrasil - the tree of the world - for nine days in order to gain understanding of the Runes, which were said to be cosmic symbols capable of magic. Havamal (the Proverbs of the Norsemen) says that he "sacrificed himself for himself," - in other words, he did it only to enhance his own power, not to the benefit of anyone but himself.
That said, when reviewing the mythical stories of the gods, we observe some general traits that the Norse pagans would naturally try to emulate: fearlessness, ambition, curiosity, cunning, orderliness, fairness in trade, brutality against enemies and generosity towards friends.
However, these were not "virtues", because they were not done for the benefit of others or society. As mentioned, a distinctive element of Norsedom was its extreme selfishness. Each man was expected to act in his or her self-interest. The idea of "loyalty to a nation" or "obedience to a King" was foreign to them. Cooperation only took place if there was mutual interests, similar to how a business company works today. The moment fortune turned against the chieftain, the warriors could switch alliances without shame.
This obsession with self-enhancement and human passions is also reflected in the mythology of the Afterlife. The bravest of fallen warriors were selected by the Valkyries (maidens of Odin) to enter Valhalla - the hall of Odin. Here, they would sit alongside Odin and drink unlimited ale, eat a never-ending feast of pig meat, and be entertained and pleased by loosely-dressed virgins. Entry into Valhalla was limited - it held only 540 doors. Those warriors who did not make it to Valhalla entered Folkavang, the hall of Frey. Those who had lived weak or boring lives were sent to the underworld of the goddess Hel, a dull place, though very little is known about it. However, the afterlife did not, in any capacity, work as a reward or punishment for moral behavior.
Thus, the value of a human life was simply based on worldly strength and social standing. Slaves were valued nothing more than their economic utility, and their owner was free to exploit them physically or sexually. Upon the owners death, they were usually strangled to death and buried with their former master so as to serve him in the afterlife. Besides this, slaves were the usual victims of human sacrifices. The elderly were seen as a burden to society, and encouraged to commit suicide by Ættastup. Unwanted children, typically girls, were abandoned in the woods for wolves to devour. Defeated enemies were also considered weak, and were often humiliatingly mistreated.
Ragnarok: the Death of the gods
Odin, it is told, once sacrificed his right eye in order to gain more wisdom. But once his eye was mutilated, he understood that he and all the gods would die at the End of Time, and became depressed. Although originating from divinity, the gods were children of a giantess from Ymir (the "fabric of the earth"), and therefore cursed to suffer the same fate as the Earth.
This is what was known as Ragnarok - the End of Time. The giants would rise up, unleashing the great beasts of Fenrir and Jormungand upon Aasgard. The gods, already mutilated and weak, would fight in one last battle against the beasts alongside humans, but inevitably lose. The entire world would be engulfed in a blazing fire, in which all the gods and souls of men would be devoured. Then, the cosmos would return to a state of nothingness. All will be obliterated, even all memory.
The Essence of Norse paganism
Norse paganism was, in a sense, a worship of created entities. They, therefore, had the intuition to acknowledge that their gods were, ultimately, quite weak and limited, and that they would perish at the End of Time. Quite interestingly, the gods only wanted humans to perish in the fire alongside them.
This entire mythology wallows in a dark landscape where hope is nowhere to be found. Doom is certain for all creatures. All that matters is how much fortune, fame and honor one can accumulate before the bitter end.
With the stark absence of moral discussion, the Norse world is a struggle in darkness - a battle between those that seek to mold the clay (Order) and those who seek to unmold it (Chaos). But there is no discussion on the purity or goodness of the clay itself.
Sure, molded clay is better than unmolded - but what is the purpose if the clay will eventually be unmolded, and perish in flames? Many Norsemen must have begged their gods for an answer to this question, but their gods had none to offer. They are "mute and blind".
The only refuge a Norseman could find in this cold world was in the vain excitement and delight of his own passions: the spell-binding feeling of fame, the thrill of combat, the seduction of hedonism - all of which the gods could help grant them in exchange for human and animal blood.
The Death of Norse paganism
We see that the concept of being "all-mighty" or "all-knowing" was completely foreign to the Vikings. So was the hope of redemption from this doomed reality. Moreover, the idea of a God who "loves by nature" or who beheld humility - was totally unimaginable.
We can therefore very easily see the appeal to Christianity. Christianity brings a hope "beyond Ragnarok". Christianity offers fellowship with the All-Mighty Creator, who is Superior to all in every sense. He is not limited or constrained. He is Eternal, and therefore pre-Existing all things. He is not part of, or subject to, the stains of matter, for He created matter. And through Christ, matter has been sanctified, so that it does not lead to doom at Ragnarok, but can be transformed to lead to eternal communion with the One God.
Of course, Christianity came with a very different call, namely, to go diametrically opposed of the principles of heathendom. To pursue perfect humility over pride, to purge one's passions and deny one's life for the sake of love for others. To obtain true virtue, by which the grace of God fills man and sanctifies him. This is a hard task.
Yet the contrast is stark. In the shadow of the cross of Christ, the Norse deities are exposed as self-obsessed, prideful and lustful creatures. Christ laid down His life for the sake of salvation for humankind, out of pure love for mankind. The Norse deities only managed to mutilate themselves in vain pursuit of self-enhancement and power, completely devoid of the ability to love. And therefore, the Norse deities wail about as they dread death - but Christ is Risen from the dead.
Understanding this, it is no coincidence why Christianity eventually triumphed in Scandinavia. Why do you want to perish at Ragnarok? Join yourself to the One who is Risen, and who will judge all, and who loves all.
"You wish to frighten us with your god, who is both blind and deaf, and can neither save himself nor others? ... But now I expect it will be a but a short time before he meets his fate. Turn your eyes towards the East - Behold, our God advancing in great light."
- Saint Olaf of Norway (Heimskringla)