Introduction to Norse Theology
Some philosophers think the human necessity for religious belief is as old as the existence of a human soul itself. They support their claim with a simple trait all of us naturally have and apply in our everyday lives – our need to understand the world.
Many psychologists have gone even further, stating that the human need for creating myths and religious stories is an as great part of us, as we are of it. They continue saying, it is rather inborn than inherited, and it lives together with our motives and feelings, creating the Unconscious.
Archeologists and historians confirm those claims with physical evidence of religious rites as old as 100 000 years. This adds that just because, for example, the Neanderthal man wasn't able to write his beliefs, it doesn't mean he didn't have them.
Eventually, different pagan religions evolved in the different parts of the world, all with similar motives but different presentations of their deities.
Pre-Christian Gods were, by rule, reflections of people who honored them - their unreachable super-egos, the ideals they aspired to follow.
If, as an example, a certain group of people led more peaceful lives throughout history, spending most of their time in nature, you would notice that their pantheon would mostly consist of deities and creatures who were deification of natural phenomena. It is safe to say that a perfect example of this type of religious system is Slavic paganism.
On the other hand, if we were speaking about more warlike groups of people, such as Scandinavians during the Middle Ages, we could see that the main religious focus was not on reaching harmony with nature, but on reaching physical and mental strength to fight and conquer. Their beliefs, morals, ideals, and views connected to religion will be our today's topic.
Odin the All-father, ruler of Asgard
Apart from social cohesion and psychological support, one of the main functions of any religion is to provide the answers to big questions of human existence.
Who am I, and where did I come from? What is the purpose of life? What comes after life?
In this segment of the article, we will try to explain Norsemen's view on these universal topics.
Vikings believed that origin of life used to lay between two essential elements – Fire and Ice. As we already know, Muspelheim was the home of the giants and the land of everlasting fire, and Nifelheim was land of the cold and ice.
These two polar opposites created the bottomless abyss called Ginnungagap. They also believed that once the Ragnarok comes, Ginnungagap will open again, and the world will disappear right where it was created.
We have all heard of the Ancient Greek mythical story of primordial gods Uranus and Gaea, who mated and together created the world. Since Uranus was the father of the sky, and Gaea was considered to be Mother Earth, it is no wonder why the Greeks put two and two together and created this myth.
The same parallel can be drawn between Norse god Thor and his wife, Sif.
According to Poetic Edda, Thor was the god of storm, lightning, and rain whose hammer Mjölnir would cause thunder. Sif was Thor's wife and the goddess of Earth, who was blessed with long golden hair that represented fields of wheat and, therefore, growth and fertility. Whenever Thor sent his rain to Sif, the land would become more fruitful, and the plants would grow more easily. This ritual of Thor's and Sif's encounter represented the origin of life.
The Gods and Humans
Nordic deities, just like the Ancient Greek ones, had many similarities with humans.
They were not only far from impeccable, but oftentimes more foolish than the mortals who respected them. During the Viking Era, God-human relations were more fraternal than parental, which could be concluded through any of their interactions.
Perhaps the most common way of communication with the deities was through worship and sacrifice.
Even these sacred acts weren't the one-way street. Vikings never prayed only to express their love and respect for the Gods, they expected a favor in return. Whether it was a successful raid, plentiful harvest, long life, good health, or the birth of a child, Vikings knew they had to give in order to receive.
Norse Theology in Art
During the late 18th and the beginning of 19th-century artists stopped focusing so much on Classical Greek and Roman mythology. Instead, they decided to seek inspiration in nature, paying more attention to pre-Christian, Medieval religions.
They needed to rebel in order to show the society that sublimity isn't the only face of beauty. And that is precisely how Norse Theology found its place in European art.
German composer Richard Wagner was the first musician from the era of Romanticism to ever shine the light on the beauty of Viking religion. His cyclic set of musical dramas called Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring of the Nibelung was based on Old Nordic saga named Völsunga, as well as on mythical poems from Poetic Edda.
The story follows the life of a little dwarf named Alberich and his desire to poses a magical ring with which he could rule the world. 'Das Rheingold' and 'Die Walküre' are two out of four parts of The Ring of the Nibelung that have their own individual stories and can be performed separately from this 15-hour long musical piece.
Also, Wagner was not the only artist to pay homage to this epic mythical story. Famous English writer John Ronald Reuel Tolkien took this Nordic idea of an omnipotent ring and used it for his fantasy books we all know – The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Important symbols of the Norse universe
Unfortunately, we are all witnesses to misinterpretations and misuse of Medieval history and mythical stories by various political groups and parties.
It's not uncommon that great ideas are taken out of context, appropriated, and finally used to manipulate the society into trusting its oppressors. And that is precisely how The Third Reich Nazis began to use Old Norse symbols (Swastika) and references in order to justify and legitimize their racist beliefs.
It is no secret that neo-paganism is one of today's largest polytheistic religious systems.
Its origin and development are almost as old as human existence. Just like in the past, it is presently divided into various denominations with their own set of beliefs, values, scriptures, and religious practices.
While some of the followers of this long-lasting faith, proudly claim the term paganism, others, however, find the phrase derogatory for it was invented by Christians, and prefer to be called by a new, universal expression – ethnic religions.
Expectedly, one of the most popular ethnic religions today is a polytheistic reconstruction of Norse Theology.
Heathenry or Heathenism is a neo-ethnic religion fraction predominantly based upon a Germanic Pre-Christian belief system before and during the Middle Ages. Despite the stigma that goes along with it, Heathenry is a rather peaceful religion, and most of its set of beliefs and morals are based upon Nordic scriptures Prose Edda and Poetic Edda.
Additionally, given the fact that Odin, Thor, Freyr, and Freyja are the Gods who are the most honored and respected among the Heathenry followers, we can easily conclude that its pantheon is no different than it was during the Viking Era.
Basing its values on the Old Norse sagas, Heathenry doesn't leave much space for elitism, exclusiveness, and animosity. On the contrary, it is open for individual interpretations and comprehensions of what it has to offer.
So while some Heathenists take their polytheism as serious as the Trappists obey to Christ, the others prefer the term 'soft polytheists' and base most of their views on the Nordic deities as if they were rather of a psychological than physical nature.
Jungian theory of archetypes plays a huge role in this specific denomination of Heathenists, for they recognize the Nordic deities as parts of their inborn representations of both mythological and biological heritage. Having that said, it is important to remember neither of those branches is superior to the other.
Despite the popular belief, Norse Theology wasn't by any means inferior to the Christian one, nor was that the reason it started to disappear from the Scandinavian soil.
Reasons for that were more economical and political than religious nature.
And even though it may not be among the world's largest religious groups anymore, it doesn't mean Old Norse Faith is forgotten.
Stories of its magnificent worlds and deities are forever kept both in the sagas and our hearts, therefore no preachers can erase it.
Moreover, there are artists who perpetuated its glory, thanks to whom we can still hear Valkyries riding and Thor slamming his hammer.
And thanks to you, our fellow Vikings, we can rest assured that neither our ancestors nor their faith will ever be forgotten. Thanks to your trust, we can continue to explore these magnificent worlds of the past, knowing you will do it with us, every step of the way.
With these words of hope and gratitude, we leave you, until we meet again in the next great story from the Aesir.