Norse mythology is closer than you think. If you speak English you summon the old Norse gods every time you say the words Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Tyr is the one handed god of war. Odin is the one-eyed all father who hung on the world-tree in order to win wisdom. Thor is the huge, hammer wielding bearded one you have come across in films. And Freya, the beautiful goddess who has a cloak of falcon feathers that allows her to fly wherever she wants. The vikings went much further than we realise. One group gave their name to the country we now call Russia. Another were the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas. The French speaking Normans who invaded England were actually ‘Northmen’, in other words, Vikings. Have a look at the Bayeux Tapestry and you will see their dragon headed long boats.
Olaf was here
Another striking thing about the Norse travellers was there fondness for graffiti. I have seen runic graffiti on the inside of a neolithic burial chamber at Maeshowe on Orkney and inside the church of Aghia Sofia in Istanbul.
We think of the Vikings as being Scandinavian and they certainly originated in that part of the world. However if you want to see the best Viking carved stones you have to go to England or Scotland. St. Ragner’s Rock in St. Giles Church in Northampton is my favourite. Personally I don’t think there ever was a ‘St. Ragner’ his rock is actually a portrayal of Ragnerok – Norse mythology about the end of the world!
Neil Gaiman has put together a great collection of Norse Mythology. The stories are tribal and personal. Great store is placed on beautiful and magic possessions. Bravery and poetry are valued as highly as each other and there is a huge amount of eating and drinking.
There are some extreme characters in Norse mythology. These include the impossibly huge frost giants, especially Surtr with his flaming sword. And then there is Hel, the goddess of those who have died dishonourably (in other words – not in battle). She cuts a strange and hideous figure. One side of her face and body is that of a beautiful young woman but the other side is that of a rotting corpse.
Norse Mythology for our Time
Neil Gaiman is a witty and knowledgeable storyteller and tells these Norse myths with humour and irony. But this is no attempt to make the tales palatable for modern sensibilities. He is playing the part of Loki, the trickster god. Relaxing us and gaining our confidence so that we let our guard down. Suddenly the story takes an unexpected turn and we plunge deep into the story. We experience the loss, grief and triumph of the gods and we are suddenly in the middle of it, believing every word. Just like Loki, Neil Gaiman carries on the story, smiling sweetly and setting us up for the next moment of mythic intensity.
I really liked this book and it is a great introduction to Norse Mythology. If you are into mythology you might like to find out about Celtic mythology too. There’s some something to whet your appetite here and, if you’re feeling ready for a whole story you can start finding out about Pig Boy here.