Where does our understanding of Norse Mythology come from?

Hi everyone, I hope you’re enjoying Norsevember. Today is the last day of week 1, which means the Gods & Mythology theme is coming to a close!

How can we learn more about Norse Mythology then, and where does a lot of our information come from?

Of course, Norse Mythology is ingrained in the culture, history and identity of Scandinavia and even to some degree, the places they settled, such as Britain and France.

There are resources we can look toward too, and as with most historical sources, there are some discrepancies between them or parts we have to try and fill in ourselves. However, there are so many enlightening and interesting sources, many of them make essential reading for anyone wanting to broaden their knowledge of Norse Mythology. I’m here to tell you about some of them!

The Eddas

The Eddas is the name given to two medieval Icelandic literary works, and have been translated a number of times.

The Prose Edda

Written–or at the very least, compiled–by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturlson around 1200 c.e., the Prose Edda consists of a number of tales that any travelling bard or entertainer would have known. It includes a collection of stories regarding the backgrounds of the gods, as well as their creation and destruction.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda, also known as the Elder Edda, is a collection of stories that includes tales of a number of gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, kings and warrior women. In was also composed by Snorri Sturleson in the 13th century and was the first time anyone had written down all of the bardic tales, or skaldic poetry, and it tells us a lot of what we know today about Norse culture and history.

This collection is one of the most comprehensive sources of Germanic legends, and its influence can be seen in many contemporary writings. Perhaps the most noteworthy tribute is the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was not only an author, but also a scholar of Norse legend – his world is called Middle Earth, afterall. In the 1930s, Tolkien wrote a retelling of the Poetic Edda’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which was not published until 2009.

The Norse Sagas

The sagas are also referred to as the Icelandic Sagas, seeing as the vast majority of the sagas passed on, and certainly the highest quality, were from medieval Iceland.

Not only do they tell us so much about Norse culture and society, they were groundbreaking when they were written. Until then, stories were mostly recorded in the form of poems – the sagas were literary prose which was something pretty much unheard of. In many of the sagas, the characters were ordinary people too, which was a stark change from the stories usually dominated by Gods, kings and heroes.

There are several genres of saga, but for someone wanting to learn more about the Vikings, there are three that you should probably look at first.

The heroic/legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), the historic/kings’ sagas (konungasögur), and the “sagas of the Icelanders” or “family sagas” (Íslendingasögur) – the type that was the biggest contrast to the traditional stories passed down through generations.

The legendary sagas are stories of gods and heroes set in the distant, murky past. They are full of dragons, werewolves, and fantastic elements.

The king’s sagas set down the lives of rulers and historical events that shaped the Viking world but include dialogue and other dramatic elements to bring these stories to life. 

The family sagas, by contrast, tell the stories of real Icelanders. While these stories usually have plenty of fighting and Viking raids, they are not exclusively about that. Family sagas are about human relationships, the struggles of survival in a stark land, and a surprising amount of legal drama. Through the family sagas, one gets to appreciate the complexity of Viking life, the depth of these people’s intelligence and strength, the richness of their culture and quality of their lives.

Well known sagas

There are dozens of sagas, which to me are a bit more entertaining than the Eddas. Here are 5 you might want to check out!

The Volsung’s Saga

This is definitely one for the fantasy fans. Sometimes referred to as “the Iliad of the North,” The Volsung’s Saga (Volsungasaga) is the archetypal legendary saga. There is ample evidence that this was the Viking’s favorite story. Along with its contemporaneous continental cousin, The Nibelungenlied, The Volsung’s Saga has directly or indirectly influenced almost every western fantasy since, from Wagner’s operas and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, to Star Wars and Game of Thrones. The Volsung’s Saga is a story of a cursed treasure, and how this treasure ruins the lives of the people who claim it, culminating in a blood feud between the best of friends.

The Volsung’s Saga century when Goths and Huns battled for survival and supremacy. But despite a cameo by Attila the Hun, The Volsung’s Saga is a work of high fantasy. It has almost every conceivable element: dragons, dwarves, spirits, shape-shifters and werewolves, divine intervention, forbidden love, orphaned heroes, revenge, madness, suicide, betrayal, murder, blood oaths, chosen ones, fratricide, superheroes, prophecies, talking animals, cannibalism, incest, Valkyries, inexorable fate, rune lore, sleeping beauties, intrigue, magic weapons, and lots of sex and violence.

This tale was so popular amongst many Nordic/Germanic peoples for many centuries that it generated several versions.

The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and his Sons

I expect loads more people are more familiar with this than they would have been a decade ago due to the TV show, Vikings.

Ragnar Lothbrok is one of the most famous Vikings of all time, with mentions to him and his sons throughout sagas, poems, and even non-Viking sources (like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and His Sons (Ragnars saga lodbrokar) is the most complete saga form of his story. Ragnar’s saga has legendary elements (like a magical serpent/dragon, curses, improbable genealogies, and protection charms) but is set just before the founding of Iceland and has many verifiable historical details.

Egil’s Saga

Egil’s Saga is probably the best of the Icelandic family sagas for Viking enthusiasts. Set in Norway, Iceland, and England from about 850-1000, the saga tells the story of the Skallagrim clan. The central hero is Skallagrim’s son, Egil, the quintessential Icelandic Viking – a farmer, raider, businessman, soldier, bodyguard, avenger, lover, father, lawyer, and of course an accomplished poet. Egil travels the North Atlantic in search of adventure and trying to stay one step ahead of Erik Bloodaxe (the real-life Viking king of York) and his wrathful witch wife.

The Saga of Hrolf Kraki

Hrolf Kraki is a Scandinavian warlord who gathers a group of extraordinary heroes around him to right wrongs and attain glory. Thus, Hrolf Kraki is something of a Viking version of King Arthur, complete with an epic, tragic ending. The Saga of Hrolf Kraki also contains an alternate, Viking version of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf tale. The legendary sagas like Hrolf Kraki are so old and so embellished that they only contain the specter of real history, but recently archeologists have uncovered sites in Denmark that seem to match up with some episodes in the Hrolf Kraki story.

The Laxdale Saga

The Laxdale Saga is the story of several families settling in Iceland, and the tragic love triangle that arises between a woman, Gudrun, and two best friends, Kjartan and Bolli. As usual, there is plenty of travel, politics, feuds, and honour at stake, but The Laxdale Saga is a complex, sentimental tale of love, loss, and regret. Some experts believe this saga may have been written by a woman, due to the uncommon perspective. There were female skalds in Viking Age Scandinavia, so perhaps there were in post-Viking Iceland as well.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the sagas and the Eddas! Maybe you’re thinking of getting your hands on one of the translations? Or perhaps you feel one of the other sagas should have made the list? Feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading, skål!


4 thoughts on “Where does our understanding of Norse Mythology come from?

  1. Fascinating! When I wrote novel based in medieval Scandinavia, I intentionally avoided incorporating the mythology element– partially because it didn’t serve the story, but also partially because of the extensive amount of research that it would have required. Thank you for this concise but clear summary!

    Liked by 1 person

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