From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths 
by Heather O’Donoghue.
Tauris, 224 pp., £20, April 2007, 978 1 84511 357 5
Show More
Show More

Norse myths are probably more familiar than classical ones in the modern world, perhaps even more familiar than the Old Testament stories Europeans were once brought up on. That is remarkable when one considers the almost vanished literature on which our knowledge of the myths is based. We would know virtually nothing of the tradition of Eddic poetry, with its stories of Thor and Odin and Balder and the giants, if Bishop Brynjolfr Sveinsson had not found the one manuscript that contains most of them in an Icelandic farmhouse in 1662 and sent it as a curiosity to the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Our other main source is the prose account, to some extent based on the poems, which the unlucky Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) wrote as a guide to obsolete poetic diction a few years before his enemies cut him down as he hid in his own cellar. The Dane Peder Resen translated it into Latin in 1665, although interest in such subjects had been stirring in Scandinavia, as Heather O’Donoghue points out, for a hundred years before that. Just the same, Shakespeare, for instance, can’t have known anything at all about Norse myth. Hamlet may, as O’Donoghue claims, go back to the story of Frodi’s mill and the giantess-slaves who grind at a magic stone there, as told in one of the few Eddic poems outside the bishop’s Codex Regius, and Hamlet’s feigned madness may have something to do with the many riddle and wisdom contests to be found in Old Norse; but by Shakespeare’s time these had long been overlaid by Latin versions, their originals lost or forgotten. Siward in Macbeth does sound very Norse, with his gruff refusal to mourn his son – ‘Had he his hurts before? . . . Why then, God’s soldier be he’ – but Vikings did not have the patent on stoicism. Until about 1600 no English-speaker showed any awareness of Norse myth: the tradition was dead.

Things are very different these days, now that one-eyed Odins, trickster Lokis and hammer-wielding Thors are fantasy and comic-book clichés. Why have these stories broken out of their academic and antiquarian milieu? One secret of their appeal is surely that, in a manner which has always been seen as typically Anglo-Scandinavian, they are deeply gloomy, in a cheerful sort of way. The most striking aspect of Norse mythology is that it is fundamentally hopeless. Odin busily harvests warriors from the battlefield using his Valkyries, the ‘choosers of the slain’, so that he can host them in Valhalla. One of these warriors, according to the poem ‘Eiríksmál’, was Eirik Bloodaxe, King of Norway and latterly of York, killed by his enemies at Stainmore (on the modern A66 between Scotch Corner and Penrith). The poem is thought to have been commissioned by his widow. Odin’s top hero, Sigmund, asks why all this is happening now, and Odin answers: ‘Because it’s not known for sure. The grey wolf looks at the seat of the gods.’ What is not known for sure is when Ragnarök will come, the battle at the end of the world when the wolf Fenrir, along with other monsters and giants, will challenge gods and men. Odin wants his first team available and in training for the day. Not that it will make any difference, for it is known that the gods and heroes will lose, Thor dead from poison spat by the Midgard-Serpent, Odin swallowed by Fenrir, Frey killed by the fire-giant Surt. There may be a new world after the destruction, but there is no indication that Sigmund and Eirik and the rest of Odin’s einheriar will be part of it, let alone the rest of us. Much of the rest of the mythology has the same grim feel. We are not in a divina commedia, and what drives the sun and moon across the sky is not divine love or the primum mobile, but two wolves called Sköll and Hati chasing them. One day they’ll catch up; eclipses show they’ve nearly managed.

Nevertheless, the other side of the myths is a raucous amusement. Thor wakes up and finds his hammer gone: the giants have stolen it, and demand the love goddess, Freya, as ransom. What’s to be done? Simple: disguise the burly red-bearded god as Freya and send him along. The giants will produce the hammer to swear wedding oaths on, and as soon as he gets his hands on it, that will be that. But this means Thor is going to have to cross-dress, and as he says in alarm in the poem ‘Thrymskvitha’, ‘The Æsir [the other gods] will call me argr, if I let myself be dressed in bridal linen.’ How argr should be translated into modern English is a question, and there are a number of possibilities, all vulgar. But then Old Norse myths, and hero-tales too, are often vulgar. Ragnar Lothbrok, or Hairy-Breeks, dying in King Ella of Northumbria’s snake-pit, says roguishly, and in verse, ‘The little pigs [grísir] will grunt [gny´ thja] when they hear of the old boar’s death.’ What he means is that his appalling sons, Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-Eye and the rest, will take a really appalling revenge on the English king, as indeed it seems they did; but heroes from the Iliad and the Aeneid don’t talk like that. Norse poets, unlike Dr Johnson, did not think barnyard vocabulary incompatible with dignity, or that laughter should be kept out of tragedy.

O’Donoghue gives an account of these by now well-known myths in four opening chapters running from ‘Creation’ to ‘Apocalypse’. There are moments when she seems out of tune with her sources, as when she says that Odin, declaring his intention of setting out to challenge the wise giant Vafthruthnir, is met by ‘anxious entreaties’ from his wife, Frigg. Anxious entreaties would be much too sentimental for Norse writers, and rude as well: if someone’s made up his mind to do something, that’s his business. What really happens is that Odin asks her what she thinks of the idea, she says she’d keep him at home (if she could, unstated), he repeats that he’d like to go, and she wishes him luck. Now that’s the way to talk: short and not very sweet. O’Donoghue writes off Killer-Glum, hero of the Víga-Glúms saga, as ‘an unattractive character’. He’s certainly not very nice. In extreme old age, he lets it be known that he would like to patch things up with his old enemies Gudmund and Einar before he dies, and invites them to dinner. This is so out of character that Einar smells a rat and persuades Gudmund to turn back. When this is reported to Glum, who by this time is blind, he remarks, ‘I didn’t think I’d miss them both,’ and it’s seen that he had a drawn short sword under his cloak. But Glum is a joker too. In his youth his Norwegian grandfather is reluctant to acknowledge Glum till he kills an annoying berserker, but then does so effusively. Glum says only – and in Norse you can say this in five words, with both verbs ironically subjunctive – ‘it would have been welcome even if it had come sooner.’ Not-nice doesn’t necessarily mean ‘unattractive’. It depends on what you value.

There is accordingly a running tension between the myths as paraphrased and the values of modern liberal academic society. How does the poem ‘Skírnismál’ relate to feminism? The obvious answer is, extremely badly. The poem, its story repeated in Snorri Sturluson’s prose account, opens with the god Frey moping, and his mother asking his ‘shoe-boy’ Skirnir to find out what’s the matter. After a predictably surly response, Frey admits that he has fallen hopelessly in love with a giant-girl he saw from Odin’s high-seat (which he probably should not have been sitting in). But who will take the dangerous role of go-between? Skirnir volunteers, for a price – it includes Frey’s famous sword, lack of which will lead to his death at Ragnarök – and sets off, to bribe the giant-girl Gerd, threaten her with the magic sword, and finally pronounce on her an extensive runic curse that will condemn her, seemingly, not only to sexual servitude down in Hel, but also to never-ending sexual frustration. At this she gives in, and names a place and a day. All this looks like verbal rape preparing for an actual rape, but O’Donoghue, questing for ‘a modern, theoretical feminist reading’, picks out ‘the vulnerability of Gerd to what has been called “male gaze”’, i.e. Frey’s first sight of her. In any case, she adds, Gerd strikes a blow for female power by making Frey wait. So she does, but one wonders whether this counterbalances the threats, the harassment – and the clear archaeological and documentary evidence of slave-girl murder throughout the pagan Norse (and Anglo-Saxon) world. An Arab merchant called Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of a meeting with some Scandinavians on the banks of the Volga in the early 10th century, viewing them with fascinated horror: perfect physical specimens, he reports, ‘tall as date palms’, but when they cremated their chieftain they went through an elaborate ritual of gang-rape and girl-murder. O’Donoghue finds ‘several reasons to be sceptical’ about this, but concedes that some details are corroborated. In truth, none of the documentary evidence in this area is totally reliable. But it’s all we have, other than archaeology, which may tell you what, but very rarely why.

Did these myths ever mean anything? There is an old theory that the Skirnir story fictionalises a solar myth, in which Skirnir (‘the shining one’) descends to Gerd (the barren earth), and persuades her to yield to Frey, god of fertility (his emblem is a phallus). The poet Ludwig Uhland developed such theses as long ago as the 1830s, with special reference to Thor, who does indeed look like an easy option for nature allegory. Thor in Norse means ‘thunder’, as does the Anglo-Saxon form of his name, Thunor. Mjöllnir, the hammer, which always flies back to his hand, must be the lightning-bolt. Uhland went on to work through all the Thor legends in great and oddly convincing detail, arguing for instance that when Thor duels the stone-giant Hrungnir he is fighting the rocks that prevent the tilling of Scandinavian fields; after all, the name of Groa, the witch who removes a stone-splinter from his head, means ‘grow’. The story of Thor’s passenger Orvandil, whose frozen toe is broken off and hurled into the stars, becomes an allegory of the seed sown too early. O’Donoghue has little time for this kind of thing, preferring to stress the probable diversity of Norse mythical beliefs and practices, and the possible derivation of late accounts like Snorri’s from learned European sources, Christian, Neoplatonic and even Judaic. This, though, turns attention away from the consistently idiosyncratic nature of the myths, which is the first thing everyone notices about them.

The reason for O’Donoghue’s caution becomes clear in the book’s final four chapters, which deal with the myths’ reception after their rediscovery. The first two take us through what signs there are of continuity in authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare (not many), and on to the 18th-century vogue for sentimental barbarism, sparked off by ‘Ossian’, continued by Gray’s translations from the Norse, and in particular by Thomas Percy’s 1763 Five Pieces of Runic Poetry. Percy popularised one of the most enduring clichés of the genre, that Vikings were in the habit of drinking out of their enemies’ skulls, which stemmed from a misunderstanding of the complex Norse poetic diction. It has never been forgotten, for all the efforts of scholars: even in Astérix et les Normands, the ‘Normans’ are forever offering each other a quick skull: ‘O non, je ne refuse jamais un petit crâne.’ Just a joke, maybe, but the aggressive clichés kept on building up – skulls, Viking funerals, sword-in-hand deaths, passage to Valhalla etc – and in the end became, as O’Donoghue describes them, a ‘destructively influential political ideal’.

What animates O’Donoghue’s last two chapters is the issue of Aryan racism, which she sees springing primarily from German scholarship in the 19th century and into the 20th. There is no doubt that there are connections. Wagner’s Ring, to which O’Donoghue devotes a dozen pages, is based far more on Norse works like the Völsunga saga than on the Middle High German Nibelungenlied; arguably, it projects anti-semitic stereotypes onto the despised but menacing Nibelung dwarfs, and became part of the ‘ideology of National Socialism’. Himmler picked runic emblems for SS uniforms, Wotanism (the German variant of Odinism) gained some kind of foothold in Nazi Germany (though Hitler thought it was silly) and tall fair ‘Nordic’ heroes became a staple of Nazi poster-art – which, incidentally, caused a good deal of embarrassment and uncertainty during the occupation of Norway, especially in dealings with King Haakon, who was immensely tall, unquestionably Nordic and uncompromisingly hostile. Mild versions of this nonsense broke out in Victorian Britain as well, with Thomas Carlyle’s ‘On Heroes’, Matthew Arnold’s very Mediterraneanised ‘Balder Dead’ – classical scholarship never really lost its stranglehold on Victorian Oxford and Cambridge, whatever was happening in Göttingen – and William Morris’s many poems, romances and saga translations. Morris, indeed, perhaps deserves more space. He kept up with the scholarship, travelled in Iceland, knew the languages first-hand, and created a semi-socialist northern wonderland of his own in his romances, which have exerted a continuing influence.

The myths, and some, though not all, of the scholars who studied them, are surely not to blame for the way they were incorporated first into a nationalist and then into a racist ideology. In her last chapter O’Donoghue devotes some time to Tolkien, and concludes, fairly enough, that he may have ‘unconsciously reproduced some of the prejudices’ of his time in his fiction, but that his ‘personal distaste for and opposition to racism, especially anti-semitism, is clearly documented in his letters’. A reading of his posthumously published works would, however, have brought out the anxiety that he seems increasingly to have felt at any use of the Eddic myths, as being alien to his self-consciously English models, and even dangerously pagan. In any case, the danger element in the myths, as Tolkien saw at an early date, was not exactly racism, of which there is little original trace, but the heroic world-view that some scholars chose to regard as a racial possession – bolstered by a great deal of self-justifying argument about which ‘race’ was meant, ‘Nordic’, ‘Germanic’, ‘Aryan’ or whatever. This theory no longer has political support, but a trawl through websites using some of the old codewords reveals that it is still widespread.

The trouble is that the Norse myths, and the literary and artistic clichés derived from them, have become part of the cultural wallpaper, like flying saucers and earth-mothers and ley lines and vampires. Hardly anyone knows where the ideas came from, but almost everyone knows what they are. You can buy runic dice to tell your fortune with; the horned helmet is instantly recognisable, though I don’t believe one has ever been found (they would be dangerously impractical); ‘Viking funerals’ as commonly understood, with the blazing boat pushed out to sea, are rare in Norse literature, but they stud the pages of modern thrillers and fantasies from Beau Geste to Terry Pratchett. All this makes O’Donoghue’s final attempt to round up contemporary responses look eclectic at best. She mentions a few poems and novels, but the number could be multiplied many times over, and some of the best known do not appear. Any regular reader of fantasy literature will remember de Camp and Pratt’s The Incomplete Enchanter, which opens with two modern Americans mysteriously transported into Thor’s expedition to the hall of Utgartha-Loki. It started a vogue for comic fantasy-lands drawing on Old Norse myth, which still continues. And surely the most influential image of pagan Norseness in the modern world must be the 1958 movie The Vikings, with its determined focus on the old Valhalla theory of warrior-death. Who can forget the image of Ragnar, clearly modelled on his Hairy-Breeks namesake, holding out his bound hands for the cord to be cut so he can jump freely into King Ella’s wolf-pit (the film goes for a wolf-pit, not a snake-pit) and die like a man, not a victim? Or his one-eyed son, Kirk Douglas, reaching out, mortally wounded, for a sword to be put in his hand so he can go to Odin like Eirik Bloodaxe? The whole lot – skulls, berserkers, Valhalla, Valkyries and all – must go back to Thomas Bartholinus in 1689, but who cares about that now, or has any hope of stuffing the genie back in its bottle? Meanwhile, as good a guide to Norse mythical clichés as any is the 1989 Terry Jones film Erik the Viking, which picks them all up for amiable parody. It may be true, as O’Donoghue says, that ‘none of the canonical figures of English literature drew directly . . . on Old Norse myth,’ though this is to reject Auden from the canon. But so what? Whatever use is made of them, myths are still in fashion, and canons are not.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences