The complex cosmology of these myths asserts nine worlds (not to be confused with planets) that are connected by a gigantic ash tree called Yggdrasil.
One of these nine worlds is Midgard, the world of men. In the Norse creation myth as we know it today, Midgard was made from the dismembered body of a huge giant named Ymir, who was killed by the god brothers Odin, Vili, and Ve in revenge for his predations on their ancestors. The progenitors of humanity are Aske and Embla, who were made from two pieces of driftwood found by these gods on the shore of Midgard's ocean.
There are two kinds of gods in these myths: Aesir and Vanir (these are plural names). The world of the Aesir is called Asgard (pronounced more like OWS-gard); the Vanir have their own world called Vanaheim, but a few of them live in Asgard. Norse myths are primarily about the inhabitants of Asgard.
The full roster of worlds is argued by scholars, as the source materials are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory. Some of the other worlds are Alfheim (Elf-home), Svartalfheim (Dark Elf or Dwarf-home), Jotunheim (Giant-home), Muspellheim (Uncertain translation but might as well be Fire-home) and Niflheim (Fog-home). The Germanic pronunciation of the -heim suffix rhymes with time, while the Icelandic pronunciation rhymes with flame; you are likely to hear both. The accent on all of these names is always on the first syllable.
The Norse creation myth is fundamentally different from the Abrahamic (Christian) creation story found in Genesis. In the Abrahamic story, consciousness (God) creates existence and life, but in a common interpretation of the Norse story, a cyclic existence creates or recycles life and consciousness. For example, at the beginning of the Norse story, the fire giant Surt is already imprisoned in Muspellheim. No explanation is given for this situation, but his eventual escape is foretold and not to be looked forward to. The frost giant Ymir is spontaneously generated from the cold vapors of Niflheim, and Buri, grandfather of Odin and his brothers, is released (apparently not generated) from the ice of Niflheim to take up life. Once again, no explanation is given for his being there. One can only imagine, but some preceding cycle of existence is implied.
At the other end of the myths is Ragnarok, a great battle in which the gods and their favored human warriors fight the various giants and their allies. Most of the gods die in this battle, but a few survive, along with two humans, who then begin the next cycle of existence. In the Viking culture, dying in battle was considered highly desirable, as only these warriors might be selected to fight and die (again) with the gods at Ragnarok. Most people who do not die in battle are consigned to spend forever in Niflheim with the death goddess Hela (the origin of the modern English word "hell"). This fate is considered morally neutral: it is not associated with punishment or torment, and the food in Niflheim is reputedly quite good. Truly evil people are sent to a place called Nastrond. Descriptions of Nastrond vary, but it is a place you really don't want to be.
Along with gods, men, giants, elves, and dwarves, a variety of other types of beings are mentioned. Most notable are dragons, trolls, and local land-spirits (wights). The practice of heathen religion tends to have as much to do with wights as with gods.
Odin is usually said to be the leader of the gods. He has many alternate names (Bolverk, Wegtam, Gandalf, Ygg, Valfather, to name a few), and many areas of interest, including war and death, poetry and art, and wisdom in general. Also, Odin is credited with the creation of humans, along with two other gods, either his brothers Vili and Ve, or his friends Hoenir and Lodur, depending on which mythological source you happen to read.
In the myths, Odin is easy to recognize, even when he is disguised as Wegtam the Wanderer. He traded one eye for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, so he wears a large floppy hat pulled low over his face, or drapes his long gray hair over the missing eye. He is said to wear a blue or gray cloak. Of course, as things tend to go in myths, the humans he encounters don't usually know who he is when he arrives on their doorsteps dressed this way. Some people treat their visitor poorly, while others treat him well, with predictable results.
Odin has children by several different giantesses, including his most famous son, Thor. His wife, however, is Frigga, the goddess of marriage, motherhood, and the home. Odin and Frigga have two sons, named Baldr and Hodr.
When Odin goes to war, his special weapon is a spear named Gungnir. He sometimes travels on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. He knows what's happening in the world of men because his two ravens Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory) fly over the world each day, then come home to tell him what they've seen and heard.
"Odin" is this god's Scandinavian name. In Old Anglo-Saxon, his name is "Woden", from which we get our modern English word "Wednesday". In German, his name is "Wotan", and you will see him in Wagner's famous Ring Cycle operas. Although these are all names for the same god, his personality changes a little in these different Northern European subcultures: Wotan is more of a stern war general, while Odin is more of a politician.
Tyr is one of the most important gods, although very few stories about him have survived. In pre-Viking-era mythology, as reported to us by the Roman author Tacitus, Tiw (the Germanic form of "Tyr") was the leader of the gods. During the Dark Ages, very little is known about the specifics of this culture. When we see the culture again in the 9th and 10th Centuries, something has happened: Tyr has receded into the background and Odin is much more prominent.
In one surviving story about Tyr, the gods have decided that the fearsome wolf named Fenris must be bound and imprisoned. But Fenris is so fierce and strong, no one knows how to accomplish this. Eventually, some trickery is suggested: magic chains will be constructed, and Fenris will be dared to break them. Fenris is very proud of his strength, and cannot resist the challenge. Of course, the gods hope he will not be able to break these chains, but he does. Finally, since nothing seems to be able to bind Fenris, an even more magical binding is made, but it is made from things that are essentially nothing. When this is shown to Fenris, he does not like the look of it, but he agrees to be bound if one of the gods will place a hand in Fenris's mouth during the test of this magic binding. Among gods known for their bravery, only Tyr is brave enough to do this. Initially, he offers his left hand, but Fenris insists on Tyr's right hand. Tyr is a famous swordsman, and the loss of his right hand will be an enormous loss to the gods in their wars against evil giants. Still, this must be done, and Tyr does it. The magic binding will not break, and Tyr loses his hand, but the worlds of the Norse myths are safe again, for a while at least.
Among heathens, all sworn oaths are considered important, but oaths sworn on the right hand of Tyr are especially sacred.
Tyr's wife's name is Zisa. Almost nothing is known about her beyond her name.
The Germanic "Tiw" form of Tyr's name is the source of our modern English word "Tuesday". Looking back even farther in the history of languages, and then tracing his name forward again along the Southern European route, Tyr's name becomes "Deus". In other words, Tyr is literally a god whose name means "god".
Baldr is a son of Odin and his wife Frigga. He is handsome, pleasant, and kind. His murder is the precursor of Ragnarok. This murder is arranged by Loki, but carried out unwittingly by Baldr's blind brother Hodr.
Freya (also spelled Freyja) is the love goddess. She is very beautiful and highly desirable. When the evil giants in these myths get the gods in some kind of a bind, they usually demand possession of Freya as the price of ransom. Of course, this price is always unacceptable, and some other solution to the problem must be found.
One of Freya's noteworthy attributes is her necklace, Brisingamen. She bought the necklace from four "dark elves", masters of the making of things, and she paid a very high price for it: among other things, it cost her her beloved husband.
Freya's brother is Frey (also spelled Freyr), who is involved with the mythic history of the kings of Sweden. He is a male "love god" counterpart to his sister, and also a god of agricultural fertility. He is closely associated with the richness of summer. Although he is a great warrior, he is also one of the most benign of the gods. In the early Old English Caedmon's Hymn, the Christian god is described partly by analogy with Frey.
The words Frey and Freya are actually titles, not names. They translate directly as Lord and Lady. Scholars argue over their proper names, but this is mostly guesswork.
Thor is the god of thunder. He is the son of Odin and a giantess Iorth (Earth). Thor is described as having red hair and blue eyes. He is enormously strong, and he enjoys doing battle with evil giants. His special weapon is a magic hammer named Mjolnir that always hits whatever Thor throws it at, and then returns to his hand. The myths state that he makes thunder by riding across the tops of clouds in his chariot, which is drawn by two very large and aggressive goats.
In one of the myths, Thor's hammer is stolen by a giant, who holds it for ransom. This giant says he will give the hammer back if the gods give him the sun, the moon, and the love goddess Freya in exchange. Rather than pay the ransom, it is suggested that Thor dress as Freya, with a thick veil covering his face, and go to get the hammer back himself. Thor really does not like the idea of dressing as a woman, but the other gods talk him into it. After several near-mishaps, the plan works. The giant, still thinking Thor is Freya, places the hammer in his lap. Thor throws off the veil and dress, kills the giant and all the other giant guests at the wedding, then goes home.
Loki is not really a god, but a clever and handsome giant who is befriended by Odin and lives among the Aesir. Loki is the trickster in these myths: a complex and enigmatic character. Describing him simply as "the bad guy" does not begin to describe the many roles he plays. At the end of the mythic sequence, however, he has become evil and seeks the destruction of the gods.
Loki has several children, the most notable being three out of the witch Angrboda: the wolf Fenris, the giant snake Jormungand (often called the Midgard Serpent), and the death goddess Hela. Fenris and Jormungand are unquestionably evil, but Hela, although ghastly to look on (half woman and half corpse), seems to be relatively benign as long as she remains in her domain of Niflheim. These three play a major role in Ragnarok, mentioned above. In another story, Loki, who is a shapeshifter, becomes the mother (yes, mother) of the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, which is given to Odin to ride. Loki's wife is Sigyn, with whom he has two other sons.
- The term "Middle-earth" in J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium is a translation of "Midgard"; many of the names and concepts in his works were adapted or taken directly from Norse myths.
- Since 1962, a comic book has been published on-and-off by Marvel Comics in which Thor is the superhero. The creators of this comic used some of the original mythic material, but did not follow it completely. For example, Thor is shown with blond hair in the comic, and other aspects of the myths were significantly changed.