Nine Norse Gods You Don't Know Anything About
Marvel’s (Disney) newest movie is out, and Thor: Ragnarok puts everybody’s favorite Norse God of Thunder under pressure to save Asgardian civilization from the clutches of the Norse Goddess of Death, Hela. Norse mythology is hot right now (but see this), and it couldn’t have happened to a better group of gods and goddesses.
Deities of the inevitable and of the frightening are common in all polytheistic systems of spirituality, but what about the deities who were in charge of boring stuff, like plowing the fields or shooing away the sun to make way for the moon?
Below is a list of nine little-known Norse deities and creatures that demand more fame. Norse paganism was highly decentralized and spread throughout Scandinavia, northern Germany, the Baltics, and probably parts of the Slavic-speaking world, so spellings will no doubt be varied and academic consensus (to say nothing of theological canon) is not as robust as it is for, say, the deities of the Roman Empire.
With those caveats out of the way, by Odin, here are nine little-known Norse deities who demand more fame:
Gullinbursti: A boar whose bristles were made of gold and also made him glow in the dark. He was created by a couple of dwarf brothers, one of whom was engaged in a bet with everyone’s favorite mischief maker, Loki. Loki was bragging about all of the wonderful possessions he had acquired, and the dwarf, probably to shut Loki up, bet him that his brother could make things much more beautiful than the things in Loki’s possession. The prize for winning the bet? The loser of the bet’s head.
So the dwarf who made the bet (Brokkr) goes to his brother’s shop and tells him he made a bet with Loki and needs him to help Brokkr make some really cool stuff. They made Gullinbursti, a golden ring named Draupnir, and ... Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. Of course this stuff was waaaaaay better than what Loki had, so Loki told Brokkr that he couldn’t have his head because it would hurt his neck, which wasn’t part of the bet.
Gullinbursti eventually came to be in the service of Freyr (you’ll meet him later), and seems mostly to have been used as a beast of burden during funeral processions.
Kvasir: Not exactly a God, though not exactly a creature either. Kvasir came into existence when the war between the Gods of Asgard ended and they needed to seal their peace treaty. And what better way to end a war than by chewing up a bunch of berries, spitting the mulch into a collective bowl, fermenting the mulch, and drinking it together? That’s just what the gods of Asgard did, and the resulting beverage was Kvasir.
Kvasir became the wisest of all beings. As such, he took to a life of wandering, where he doled out wisdom left and right. He met a terrible fate, though, when two dwarves killed him and drained his blood into three separate containers (two were alike, usually jars, and one was different, usually a cauldron or barrel). When the gods of Asgard came looking for Kvasir, the dwarves told them he had died from choking on his own wisdom (which the gods believed to be true). The dwarves then brewed the blood of Kvasir with honey, thus creating the Mead of Poetry, which gave to anyone who drank it wisdom and a knack for poetry.
Skoll and Hati: A couple of wolves who chased after the sun and the moon. In most accounts the wolves are brothers and considered to be wargs (evil wolves) who chase, individually, the sun and the moon. Sometimes the sun and moon are carried around in chariots dragged by two horses, and it the horses who Skoll and Hati are chasing.
That light-devouring wolves are used to explain day and night in Norse mythology is not surprising, but in most of the tales the wolf brothers succeed in catching the sun and the moon, thus contributing to the darkening of the world and the beginning of Ragnarok.
Nidhogg: The dragon or large snake who dwelt at the bottom of the World Tree, Yggdrasil (we’ll get to it shortly), gnawing at its roots. Some accounts say that Yggdrasil is actually holding Nidhogg under the nine worlds of the cosmos, so that he can’t unleash his malice upon them. Other accounts stress Nidhogg’s importance as a purveyor of chaos, which, as bad as it is, is necessary for the universe.
Nidhogg is often thought to be a representation of the three actions Norsepeople loathed: murder, adultery, and oath-breaking. The serpent is sometimes given the task of being the lord of the shore of corpses in the underworld, which is where all the people who commit the three loathed acts above are sent to dwell, but this task is controversial because it is seen to represent Christian influences on pagan mythology and thus is not considered by some to be wholly indigenous.
Sleipnir: The eight-legged horse of Odin himself. A horse with eight legs surely deserves to be more well-known than some of the Norse deities who have made appearances in Marvel’s mighty movies. Sleipnir is actually Loki’s child. No seriously, Loki morphed into a mare and was eventually mounted and impregnated by the horse of a giant.
Sleipnir often accompanies Odin on his journeys through the nine worlds of Yggdrasil. How Sleipnir came into Odin’s possession, and how Loki explained his predicament to the god who would take his horse-son, is unknown but certainly worth researching in the future.
Gefjun: The goddess of plowing, Gefjun travelled through Scandinavia disguised as a transient, presumably to get a better sense of the generosity of the people. A king known for his generosity gave Gefjun land enough to plow on, and she summoned her four oxen to the land to begin plowing and to show the generous king that his decision was a wise one.
As with most agricultural deities in decentralized polytheistic societies, Gefjun has a number of contradictory tales about her. For instance, her four oxen were actually her sons who she bore for her husband, an unnamed giant. In another tale, she transformed her four sons into oxen once she had been granted the land by the generous king. In many accounts, Gefjun is actually a virgin, thus contradicting the whole four oxen-as-sons theme, while in other accounts Gefjun gets into a spat with Loki (surprise, surprise) who ends up accusing her of sleeping with men in exchange for gifts.
Any way you slice-and-dice it, the Goddess of Plowing’s tales are at least as interesting as the God of Thunder’s.
Yggdrasil: A massive ash tree that connects all nine worlds of Norse mythology. It has three roots that are fed by two wells (Urd and Mimir) and a spring (Hvergelmir). Urd is located in Asgard, home of the gods, while Mimir is located in the home of the giants. The spring (sometimes it’s a well instead of a spring) is located in the dark, icy lands of Niflheim, home of the dishonored.
There is a massive amount of speculation, scholarly and otherwise, on Yggdrasil, but Mimir, the well associated with knowledge, is where Odin plucked out his eye for a drink of its tasty liquid.
Njord: This author’s personal favorite, Njord is a god associated with wealth and bad marriage. After the war between the gods (the one that resulted in Kvasir’s creation), Njord was selected by his side (“Vanir”) to live among the gods on the other side of the war. He wasn’t quite a hostage or a ward, but he wasn’t born into the rival god’s tribe (“Aesir”) and thus could never truly be a member of their tribe.
He eventually ended up marrying a giantess who had come to Asgard seeking restitution for the killing of her father. As restitution tradition demanded, the giantess was free to pick any of the gods as a husband, and she picked Njord mistakenly believing he was somebody else (a great warrior god). The two of them were miserable. They split their time between her home in snowy mountainous regions (which he couldn’t stand), and the bountiful beaches along the coast (which she couldn’t stand).
That’s about all we know about Njord, though, because of his association with wealth he was quite popular throughout the pre-Christian Nordic and Germanic worlds.
Freyr: Njord’s son, who lives among the elves in Alfheim rather than the gods in Asgard. It is he who rides Gullinbursti and is worshipped as a god of peace, wealth, and virility. He is the lover of numerous goddesses and giantesses, and his penis is incredibly large and always erect (kings in what is now Sweden were especially apt to claim his bloodline).
Freyr eventually falls in love with a giantess named Gerdr, a daughter of the King of the Giants, and even gives away his magic sword (which can fight on its own) to do so. A fire giant is fated to kill him during Ragnarok precisely because Freyr has no sword to properly defend himself.
Marvel’s take on Norse mythology
Wikipedia of Norse mythology
Norse Mythology for Smart People, a website owned and operated by Dan McCoy
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods novel is much more fun when you know a bit more about the Norse and their deities