THE GODS: A GENERAL SURVEY
A stanza of the short Voluspa in Hyndluljod (30) says that eleven of the gods remained when Balder’s corpse was laid on the funeral pyre. Snorri also says that the number of the gods is twelve,1 but this is merely a round figure, not borne out by other references in his work. Thus, in the account of the gods which follows this statement, fourteen are named. These are Odin, Thor, Balder, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Bragi, Heimdall, Hod, Vidarr, Vali, Ull, Forseti, and Loki.
At the beginning of the Bragarœdur Snorri enumerates the gods present at a banquet, and, including Odin, names thirteen of them. Balder is omitted, and Hœnir appears in place of Hod.
The prose introduction to Lokasenna names Odin, Thor, Bragi, Tyr, Njord, Frey, Vidarr, and Loki. In Grimnismal Odin, Ull, Frey, Balder, Heimdall, Forseti, Njord, Vidarr, and Thor are named. In other poems the other gods are mentioned.
With these gods are also several goddesses, some of whom are little more than names or hypostases of a greater goddess. Their names are Frigg, consort of Odin, Freyja, sister of Frey, Saga, Eir, Gefjun, Fulla, Hnoss, Sjofn, Lofn, Var, Syn, Hlin, Snotra, Gna, Idunn, Nanna, Sif. Besides these, two local goddesses, Thorgerd Hölgabrud and her sister Irpa, are mentioned in Skaldskaparmal and in some of the Sagas.
Other more or less divine beings are mentioned occasionally. Vili and Ve are brothers of Odin, and form a kind of creative
triad with him. A similar triad is that of Odin, Hœnir, and Lodur. There are also subordinate gods, regarded as servants of the higher deities, e.g., Skirnir and Hermod. Ægir, not counted among the gods, is yet a god of the sea; a giant, however, rather than a god. Ran is his consort. Then, again, Hel is a somewhat vague female personification of the Underworld.
Some of the gods are married to giantesses, who, as their consorts, are reckoned with the deities — Frey to Gerd, Njord to Skadi, Odin to Jord (Earth), co-wife with Frigg. Such nature objects as the sun, personified as Sol, and one of the two beings who follow the moon in the sky, i.e., Bil, are also reckoned among the goddesses by Snorri.2
We do not know that all these deities were worshipped together in Norway and Iceland, indeed for many of them no evidence of a cult exists. Some may have been local divinities: some are regarded as creations of the skalds. Among them all Odin, Thor, and Frey are pre-eminent, but, as we shall see, the precise significance of Odin’s position in relation to Thor requires elucidation. In Snorri’s Edda Odin is head of a court or assembly of divinities. Their common home is Asgard, but most of them have a separate abode, as appears from Grimnismal, here followed by Snorri.
We now enquire whether any of these deities were known in other parts of the Germanic area outside- Norway and Iceland.
For Denmark and Sweden we depend mainly on Saxo Grammaticus and Adam of Bremen, the eleventh century historian. Saxo may be assumed to speak for the pagan past of Denmark, though he uses Icelandic sources to some extent in his curious account of the legendary history of that country. He has a conception of the gods as gods, though he generally tends to visualize them from a euhemeristic standpoint, as kings, magicians, and the like. He mentions Othinus (Odin), chief of the gods, whose rule, with that of the other gods, extended over Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, but who used to sojourn more continually at Upsala. Odin is also called Uggerus (Norse
Ygg). Other deities named are Frey, “satrap of the gods,” whose seat was at Upsala; Thor, Balder, Hotherus (Hod), Ollerus (Ull), Freya (Frigg), and Nanna. Loki may be represented by Ugarthilocus (Utgard-Loki). Proserpina may stand for Hel.3 Adam of Bremen describes a sanctuary at Upsala, with images of Thor, Woden, and Fricco (Frey).4 The other Eddic deities are not mentioned by these or other writers about the Danes and Swedes, though Procopius speaks of Ares as a Scandinavian deity, i.e., Odin or Tyr.5
For the Germanic tribes, apart from place or personal names, there are few references to the gods of the pagan period. Tacitus gives Roman names to native gods — Mars (Ziu or Tyr), Mercury (Wodan), Hercules (perhaps Thor). He also mentions a native name of a goddess Nerthus and describes her cult. Two brothers called Alcis are compared to Castor and Pollux, and are said to have been worshipped in a grove as deities by one tribe. He also speaks of the grove of Baduhenna among the Frisians and the temple of Tamfana among the Marsi. The first part of the name Baduhenna is connected with AS beadu, OHG batu-, ON boþ, “war,” and the second part with OHG winna, “quarrel,” MHG winnen, “to rage,” Gothic winno, “passion,” showing that Baduhenna was a War-goddess, “the war-mad one.” A division of the Suebi worshipped Isis, whose symbol was a ship. This cult Tacitus considers of foreign origin, but it is doubtless that of a native goddess whose name is concealed in that of Isis.
Several names of deities are mentioned in inscriptions on altars and other monuments, mainly in Romano-German territory, but the names of these, doubtless more or less local deities, have nothing in common with those of Scandinavia.
More to the purpose are the two Merseburg charms found in a tenth century manuscript in the library of the cathedral at Merseburg, and probably of earlier date. Both charms refer to mythical actions of the deities, and by recounting these similar results are expected to follow. Such charms as these are met
with in ancient times and are of widespread occurrence. The first charm concerns a group of beings called Idisi, a name resembling that of the Norse female spirits called Disir and including Valkyries and Norns. To the functions of the Valkyries those of the Idisi in the charm correspond — binding or loosing fetters on prisoners of war and keeping back the enemy.
The other charm relates that while Phol and Uuodan (Wodan) rode to the wood, the foot of Balder’s colt was wrenched. Sinthgunt charmed it and her sister Sunna; then Frîa charmed it and Volla her sister. Then Uuodan charmed it, as he well knew how to do. The implication is that the goddesses could not heal the foot by their magic, while Wodan’s magic succeeded. As we shall see later various explanations of “Phol” have been suggested, while “Balder” has been regarded as not a proper name here, but an appellative for “prince,” and referring to Odin himself, Phol being then explained as the name of Odin’s horse. Of the four goddesses Frîa is Frigg; Volla suggests the Norse Fulla; Sunna may e a personification of the sun. Sinthgunt is unexplained. Some scholars think that two goddesses only are mentioned in the charm as present; it should then read: “Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister,” and “Frîa, Volla’s sister.”6
Wodan and Frija (Frigg) were also known to the Lombards, as a legend concerning them shows.7
The next piece of evidence is derived from German names of the days of the week. These show that Wodan was known in North-west Germany and Holland; Frîa (Frigg) over a wider area; Donar (Thor) all over Germany, Tiu (Tyr) in the South-west.
A formula of renunciation used at the baptism of Saxon converts in Charlemagne’s time names three gods — Woden, Thunaer (Thor), and Saxnot, as well as other Unholden, divinities or spirits regarded from a Christian point of view as demons.8 Saxnot, “Sword companion,” is the Seaxneat of
Anglo-Saxon genealogies, and is regarded as a form of the god Tyr.
Another god of a local kind is Fosite, mentioned in Alcuin’s Life of S. Willibrord, as worshipped on an island named after him. According to Adam of Bremen this island was Helgoland.9 It is not certain that Fosite is the Eddic Forseti.
Turning now to the Anglo-Saxons, the only available evidence is that of names of the days of the week, genealogical lists, and place-names. The first of these gives Tiw or Tyr (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thunor or Thor (Thursday), Fri or Frigg (Friday). The genealogical lists of the royal families trace descent back to Woden. In those of Bernicia and Wessex Bæeldæg (Balder) succeeds Woden. In that of Essex Seaxneat is his son.10 Thor’s name occurs in place-names.
The evidence from these different regions shows that there was a certain number of deities known locally and objects of a local or tribal cult. Few names of these have been preserved. The wide acceptance of Roman deities by the Celts had no parallel among the Teutons. Nor does the rich variety of native Celtic local deities, whether equated or not with Roman deities, meet us in Teutonic lands. Inscriptions with names of local deities are few and generally enigmatic.11 On the other hand there are some deities known more or less over the whole area — Wodan or Woden or Odin, Thunor or Thor, Tiu or Tyr, and Frija, Frîa, or Frigg. Hence these have been called “pan-Teutonic deities,” who “must have come down from a period when the Teutons were still an undivided people.”12 Nevertheless this statement of Mogk’s requires some modification, since, as is suggested by various lines of evidence and as he himself admits, the cult of Wodan migrated from Germany by way of Denmark to Scandinavia, where it tended to supersede that of Thor.
The divinities of Norse mythology are called Æsir (singular Ass). The original meaning of the word is uncertain. Mogk and others, however, regard it as connected etymologically with
Sanskrit anas, “breath,” “wind.” Hence the Æsir were originally animistic beings or souls. Odin, as leader of the host of the dead, belonged to the Æsir, but as his rank became higher and more divine so the word Ass as applied to him assumed the meaning of god,” and all gods associated with Odin were known as Æsir, Odin being oztr asa, “mightiest of the Æsir.”13 This theory gains some support from the fact that the corresponding Gothic word ansis was used as the title of dead ancestral chiefs in the sense of semi-deos, according to Jordanes, the historian of the Goths. The Bardar-saga relates that, after his death, Bardar, as guardian spirit of the region about Snaefell was known as “Snaefells-áss.”14 The corresponding Anglo-Saxon word is sa (singular ós), used in the phrase esa gescot, ylfa gescot, “the shot of sa and elves.” sa here apparently meant supernatural beings hostile to men, rather than gods, but the word may have once meant “gods,” and Æsir and Alfar (“elves”) are frequently coupled together in Eddic poetry. In other branches of Teutonic speech a corresponding word is found as part of personal names — OHG ans in Anso, Anshelm, and the like, Saxon and AS os in Oswald, Oslaf, Osdag.
Among the Æsir were included certain deities, Njord, Frey, Freyja, and possibly others, called collectively Vanir. These were once opposed to the Æsir, according to certain myths. They were deities of wealth, fruitfulness, trade, and prosperity, and their name may be connected with words meaning “bright,” shining.”
The gods are also known by the general neuter name goþ, “gods,” with the epithet “holy,” “blessed,” this corresponding to Gothic guþ; AS and OS god. Under Christian influence the word became masculine. Other names applied to the gods are regen, the word signifying “decreeing” and “deciding,” hence perhaps “counsellors.” Voluspa speaks of all the regen assembling at the seat of judgment to take counsel. In Havamal, Alvissmal, and Hymiskvitha occurs the word ginn-regen, “the
high or holy gods,” and in Alvissmal up-regen is used with the meaning “the gods above.” In the two passages of Alvissmal where ginn-regen occurs the word may signify the Vanir.15
Still another term for gods is tivar, “shining ones,” related to Sanskrit devas. It occurs in some of the Eddic poems. The forms sig-tivar, val-tivar, “battle-gods,” also occur.16 For some reason not quite clear gods are described as hopt ok bond, “fastenings and bands” or “fetters.”
Goddesses are included in the term Æsir, but a specific name for them is Asynjur (singular Asynja).
Generally speaking the gods of Eddic mythology are conceived under anthropomorphic forms, yet distinguished from men in different ways. Noble or princely men were sometimes regarded as gods. The sons of Hjalti, as they came to the assembly in Iceland, looked so magnificent and well-equipped that the people thought they were Æsir. Of Sigurd in his magnificent war-gear, riding a splendid horse, as he entered Gjuki’s town, it was said: “Surely here comes one of the gods!”17 The birth of some of the gods is related; their human passions or weaknesses are described; they grow old; eventually they must die.
Some of the gods are described in striking language. They are white or shining, like Balder or Heimdall. The goddess Sif is famed for her luxuriant gold hair. On the other hand, if they have not the numerous hands and arms of Hindu gods, some are deformed. Odin is one-eyed, Tyr has only one hand, Hod is blind. Probably most of the gods were regarded as larger than men: this is true of Thor in particular. Some are thought of as older, some younger. Odin is grey-bearded, yet has none of the weakness of age. Thor is as a man in his prime. Balder is a youth, attractive and graceful. Some of the gods waxed in size and strength as soon as born. Vali, son of Odin, avenged Balder’s death when he was one night old. Magni, son of Thor, when three nights old, could lift the giant Hrungnir’s foot off his father, though all the Æsir together
could not do this, and said that he would have slain him with his fist had not Thor killed him.
The gods eat and drink, and much is told of their banquets and ale or mead drinking. To Odin alone wine suffices for meat and drink. Thor is a gluttonous eater and drinker, whose gigantic meals are described. Though the gods are longer-lived than men, they are not absolutely immortal, and their long age or renewed youth depends upon eating the apples of immortality guarded by Idunn. To give immortal youth may originally have been the purpose of Odrörir, the magic mead of poesy.18 Yet the gods are doomed to destruction, and the death of Balder is recounted. Meanwhile they are subject to wounds, and Frey falls sick of love.
The gods have preternatural powers, knowledge, and strength, but sometimes this strength seems to depend on certain possessions, e.g., Thor’s hammer, girdle of strength, and gloves. Odin can overlook the worlds, but only when he sits on his Heaven-throne. Skirnismal shows that when Frey sat thereon, he had the same far vision. Magical powers were inherent in the gods: vanishing suddenly, transformation into other forms, human or animal, the production of glamour, and the like. Though they can move quickly from place to place, swift flight depends on a falcon’s plumage or feather-dress (fiadr-hamr), which belongs to Freyja or Frigg, but is put on by others, e.g., Loki.
They are often described as riding, and their horses are famous steeds. They ride through air and sea and on land, or daily to their place of judgment. Earth shakes when they ride. Freyja rides on a boar, but she has also her wagon drawn by cats. Thor is famed for his wagon drawn by goats.
Like mortals the gods are subject to passions. They are mild or blithe. Their laughter is mentioned. They are joyous. But sometimes they are angry, and then their wrath is terrible, and especially is this true of Thor.19 They are subject to the passion
of love, and, besides their consorts, Odin and Thor have other wives or mistresses.
In many other ways the life of the gods reflects that of men. As described by Snorri, Odin, as chief of the gods, has a court which resembles that of earthly kings. The gods meet for counsel and judgment in the Thing, the Scandinavian assembly for the discussion of important matters and for the making of laws and giving of decisions. Snorri describes their riding daily over Bifrost, the rainbow-bridge, to the well of Urd, where they hold a tribunal. In the stanza which he quotes from Grimnismal and which seems to refer to this, Thor is said to walk when he goes to give dooms at the ash Yggdrasil, beneath one of the roots of which is Urd’s well. The gods delight in banquets and feasting, in song and games of skill. They are fond of fighting and some of them follow the chase. The goddesses spin and weave; one of them, Gefjun, ploughs. They have servants, messengers, and cup-bearers.
The Æsir dwell in Asgard as the Vanir dwell in Vanaheim, the Alfar in Alfheim, the giants in Jötunheim. Asgard is the heavenly home of the gods, but in Snorri’s euhemeristic account, it is in the centre of the earth, perhaps on a mountain, its top reaching to the heavens. Gods also dwell on mountains. The poetic account in Grimnismal of the separate abodes of individual gods is probably due to skaldic fiction rather than to popular belief.
The rank and functions of the gods vary, but these will be discussed in dealing with them separately. It should be noted, however, that, in describing some of the gods, Snorri uses a kind of formula. He tells what phenomena of nature or department of life each one rules over, and for what things it is good for men to call upon them.20
There is a tendency to group certain gods together. Besides the larger groups of Æsir and Vanir, we find certain gods associated, usually three in number. For purposes of cult this was true of Odin, Thor, and Frey. But myths associate Odin,
Hœnir, and Lodur (Loki) in the work of creation and in other actions, or, again, Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve.21 Snorri tells how Gylfi was received by three lords of ascending rank, and their names Har, Jafnhar, and Thridi seem to be poetic names for Odin, as all three are given in the list of his names in Grimnismal. There may here have been some conscious imitation of the Christian Trinity by Snorri in this otherwise inexplicable triad.
The older grouping of the chief Germanic gods was that of Wodan, Dollar and Ziu (Tyr), and it was connected, as doubtless the other threefold groupings were, with the sacredness of the number three. It appears again in the Germanic theogony as reported by Tacitus in speaking of the progenitors of gods and men, the third member of the triad being a group of three — Tuisto, Mannus, and the three sons of Mannus. Corresponding to these in Eddic mythology are Buri, Borr, and Borr’s three sons, Odin, Vili and Ve. The same threefold grouping is seen in the three Norns, three Swan-maidens (as in the Volund story), three groups of Idisi in the Merseburg charm, and three groups of Valkyries, as in Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar.22
The relation of gods and men is generally that of interest and help on the one hand, and of dependence, exhibited by prayer and sacrifice, on the other. Certain offences or kinds of conduct seem to have been regarded as punishable by the gods. Myths speak of their coming and going among men, to help them or to take part in their affairs, as Odin does in battle. This was symbolized in ritual — the procession of a divine image in a wagon (Frey, Nerthus), in which, as Tacitus says, the actual deity was believed to be present.