Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scandinavian Mythology


Scandinavian Mythology, pre-Christian religious beliefs of the Scandinavian people. The Scandinavian legends and myths about ancient heroes, gods, and the creation and destruction of the universe developed out of the original common mythology of the Germanic peoples and constitute the primary source of knowledge about ancient German mythology. Because Scandinavian mythology was transmitted and altered by medieval Christian historians, the original pagan religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices cannot be determined with certainty. Clearly, however, Scandinavian mythology developed slowly, and the relative importance of different gods and heroes varied at different times and places. Thus, the cult of Odin, chief of the gods, may have spread from western Germany to Scandinavia not long before the myths were recorded; minor gods—including Ull, the fertility god Njord, and Heimdall—may represent older deities who lost strength and popularity as Odin became more important. Odin, a god of war, was also associated with learning, wisdom, poetry, and magic.

Most information about Scandinavian mythology is preserved in the Old Norse literature (see Icelandic Literature; Norwegian Literature), in the Eddas and later sagas; other material appears in commentaries by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus and the German writer Adam of Bremen (flourished about 1075). Fragments of legends are sometimes preserved in old inscriptions and in later folklore.

Gods and Heroes

Besides Odin, the major deities of Scandinavian mythology were his wife, Frigg, goddess of the home; Thor, god of thunder, who protected humans and the other gods from the giants and who was especially popular among the Scandinavian peasantry; Frey, a god of prosperity; and Freya, sister of Frey, a fertility goddess. Other, lesser gods were Balder, Hermod, Tyr, Bragi, and Forseti; Idun, Nanna, and Sif were among the goddesses. The principle of evil among the gods was represented by the trickster Loki. Many of these deities do not seem to have had special functions; they merely appear as characters in legendary tales.

Many ancient mythological heroes, some of whom may have been derived from real persons, were believed to be descendants of the gods; among them were Sigurd the Dragon-slayer; Helgi Thrice-Born, Harald Wartooth, Hadding, Starkad, and the Valkyries. The Valkyries, a band of warrior-maidens that included Svava and Brunhild, served Odin as choosers of slain warriors, who were taken to reside in Valhalla. There the warriors would spend their days fighting and nights feasting until Ragnarok, the day of the final world battle, in which the old gods would perish and a new reign of peace and love would be instituted. Ordinary individuals were received after death by the goddess Hel in a cheerless underground world.

Scandinavian mythology included dwarves; elves; and the Norns, who distributed fates to mortals. The ancient Scandinavians also believed in personal spirits, such as the fylgja and the hamingja, which in some respects resembled the Christian idea of the soul. The gods were originally conceived as a confederation of two formerly warring divine tribes, the Aesir and the Vanir. Odin was originally the leader of the Aesir, which consisted of at least 12 gods. Together all the gods lived in Asgard.

Creation Myth

The Eddic poem Völuspá (Prophecy of the Seeress) portrays a period of primeval chaos, followed by the creation of giants and gods and, finally, of humankind. Ginnungagap was the yawning void, Jotunheim the home of the giants, Niflheim the region of cold, and Muspellsheim the realm of heat. The great world-tree, Yggdrasil, reached through all time and space, but it was perpetually under attack from Nidhogg, the evil serpent. The fountain of Mimir, source of hidden wisdom, lay under one of the roots of the tree.

Religious Rituals

The Scandinavian gods were served by a class of priest-chieftains called godar. Worship was originally conducted outdoors, under guardian trees, near sacred wells, or within sacred arrangements of stones. Later, wooden temples were used, with altars and with carved representations of the gods. The most important temple was at Old Uppsala, Sweden, where animals and even human beings were sacrificed.

source: msn encarta