Scandinavian Myth and Legend Explains the Natural World

For centuries, ancient cultures lacking modern scientific techniques and procedures have explained the world in which they lived through supernatural and mythological stories. The Scandinavian area of northern Europe, which includes Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and surrounding areas, is no exception with their rich library of these types of myths. Scandinavians did not fully understand things like weather, natural disasters, celestial bodies, and other aspects of the natural world as modern societies do. Therefore, the Scandinavians looked to their pantheon of deities, magical beings, and other paranormal folk to explain these phenomena. An oral tradition of storytelling kept these beliefs alive for many years in Scandinavia. And today, these stories survive in the written works of the early authors that recorded them as well as in the later writings of Christians such as Snorri Sturluson and many others who took a keen interest in the pagan beliefs of the freshly Christianized Scandinavians.

The sun, stars and moon are huge spheres of gas and rock set in the immense vacuum of space, but to the Scandinavians, they were all lively characters of mythic proportions. In the very early times of Earth’s mythical history, Odin and his two brothers, Vili and Ve created the heavens from a skull of a giant they had killed called Ymir. Under this newly created sky, they set four dwarves named, Austri, Vestri, Nordi and Sudri at the four cardinal directions -east, west, north and south. At this point, Voluspa states, “The sun did not know where its hall would stand, the stars did not know where they would be set, the moon did not know what would be its might” (Terry). These dwarves gave order to the chaotic skies filled with “molten particles and sparks” that had come out of Muspell, and thus created the sun, stars and moon. Then, they set these astronomical bodies into their positions in the sky (Sturluson). According to legend, a person named Mundifaeri had two children, a daughter called Sol (also called Alfrodul, “Elf-Beam,” in the poem Vafthrudnismal) and Moon (or Mani) (Orchard). Mundifaeri was overly proud of his two beautiful offspring, and this angered the Aesir (the group of gods that includes Odin, Thor and many others). To punish Mundifaeri, the Aesir cast his children into the sky and forced them to drive the chariots of the sun and moon pulled by the horses Arvak and Alsvinn. While Sol illuminated the world during the day, Moon controlled the waxing and waning of the moon at night (Sturluson).

Both were constantly fleeing in terror from two wolves that were the descendants of a giantess from Ironwood forest in Midgard whose children were always born in wolf-form. A wolf named Skoll pursues Sol, driving him ever forward through the sky, and a wolf called Hati Hrodvitnisson chases Moon through the night sky. Voluspa states that following three winters with no summer in between, a wolf relative of Skoll and Hati Hrodvitnisson called Moongarm will swallow the stars, moon and sun during Ragnarok (the end of the world) causing darkened skies and disastrous weather (Sturluson). Interestingly, modern science predicts that the sun will eventually exhaust all of its fuel for nuclear fusion and will collapse. Like the story in Voluspa, (if the planet survived this massive explosion) scientists predict that this too would cause darkened skies and a permanent winter filled with terrible storms.

Other stories tell that the sun, moon and stars were formed from the breaking of an egg. In “Kalevala,” the Finnish National Epic, a virginal daughter, Water-Mother, of an early god named Air wanders the barren ocean until she offers a teal bird her knee to make its nest upon. It lays its eggs and soon, Water-Mother’s knee becomes so hot that she jerks it and breaks the eggs. From the broken eggs come the earth and sky, followed by the sun from its yolk, the moon from the white, the stars from the mottled portions of the egg and the clouds from the “blackish” part of the egg. In a similar story, “The Sampo,” an old man called Vainamoinen offers his knee, this time, to a scaup duck. Like Water-Mother, Vainamoinen ‘s knee becomes too hot and he breaks the eggs when he moves it. In this account, the smallest pieces of the egg do not become stars, and only clouds are formed from them (Conroy).

Movement of the earth’s tectonic plates is known to be the cause of earthquakes today, but Scandinavian myth states that the rumbling of the earth is due to one mischievous giant, Loki Laufeyiarson. Loki tricked the Aesir into killing Baldr with a mistletoe stick (the only material from which Frigg had not gotten an oath not to hurt Baldr). Loki fled for fear of what the Aesir might do to him for killing Odin’s kin and hid as a salmon in Franangr waterfall. Eventually, the Aesir caught Loki and bound him with his son’s entrails under three large stones. As punishment, a poisonous snake was positioned over his head allowing venom to drip onto his face. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, is said to catch the venom in a bowl, but when goes to she empty it, the venom drips onto Loki and his jerking and struggling cause the earth to shake violently in an earthquake (Sturluson).

In the same story, condensation of water on objects when heated or cooled is also given an animated explanation. In order to retrieve Baldr from Hel, Hel demands that all living and dead things in the world must weep for his loss, which everything does, save one giant (thought by many to be Loki in disguise). The story tells that when water droplets appear (condense) on anything, the item is weeping for Baldr who is still trapped in Hel. Morning dew, on the other hand, was not the grass or ground weeping for Baldr. It was said to be saliva dripping from the bit of Night’s horse, Hrimfaxi, as Night and her son, Day (with his horse, Skinfaxi), circle around the earth each day (Sturluson).

Wind has a wide variety of supernatural sources in Scandinavian mythology. It is usually attributed to witchcraft, sorcery or, most often, the Aesir god Thor. A legend from “Scandinavian Folk Legend and Belief” tells of an old woman named, Haka-Per, known to be a witch with wind-controlling capabilities. In a farm neighboring her own, a small tempest suddenly arose, and the neighboring farmer spat on his knife and threw it into the whirlwind, stopping it dead in its tracks. He then went to the home of Haka-Per to retrieve his knife from her leg, since she had transformed herself into the tempest (Conroy)! In another story, “Sorcerers Take Revenge” from “Laxdaela Saga,” magic is again the cause of a sudden storm. In this story, however, the sorcerers conjure up a tempest rather than transforming into one. The story tells that a sorcerer named Kotkel built a seidhjall (a large, raised platform used for chanting magic spells) and climbed upon it with his two brothers, Hallbjorn Sleekstone-Eye and Stigandi. The three brothers began to use their most potent form of magic, galdr (a type of magical chanting). The galdr immediately blew up a storm which the sorcerer brothers used to whip up huge, unnatural swells and drive the ship of the men that had accused them of witchcraft and thievery into a shallow reef. The plan worked, and the ship of their accusers crashed and all the men drowned (Conroy).

Snorri’s “Edda” has a completely different idea of where wind originates. In this story, as Sturluson writes, “At the northernmost end of heaven there sits a giant called Hraesvelg. He has an eagle form. And when he starts to fly, winds arise from beneath his wings” (Sturluson). Like the stories of a giant breaking eggs to create the heavens and celestial bodies, this story of how wind is created is a prime example of how Scandinavians often attributed phenomena that they did not fully understand to the actions of giants and other supernatural beings.

Rather than sorcerers’ and witches’ magic or giants in eagle form, Thor is usually thought to be the creator of winds, among a great many other things. Adam of Bremen lists Thor’s attributes in “A Description of the Nordic Islands” in “Gesta Hammaburgensis.” According to this story, “Thor, they say, rules in the air – he controls thunder and lighting, wind and rain, good weather and the harvest” (Conroy). Like witches and sorcerers, Thor could control the wind and use it against his enemies. In “Flateyjarbok,” Thor raises a tempest against Olaf Tryggvason by blowing through his infamous, giant, red beard. According to the story, “Thor blew hard into his beard and puffed out the bristles. Immediately a gale came up against the king.” His beard is mentioned in a great many legends and myths which emphasizes his close association with the creation of wind. Also, its red color is associated with lightning due to the red color that the sky becomes prior to a thunderstorm. Some scholars suggest that Thor’s association with wind and lightning were inherited from two earlier gods of the Germanic tribes, Tiwaz (god of war) or Donar (god of thunder) (Davidson).

Also know as Oku-Thor (Charioteer Thor), Thor was thought to drive his noisy chariot across the sky causing loud booms and crashes of thunder and lightning. A ninth century poem, entitled “Haustlong,” tells of one such journey:

“The Son of the Earth drove to the iron game, and the way of the moon resounded before himâÂ?¦The holy places of the powers burned before the kinsman of Ull. Earth, ground of the deep, was beaten with hail as the goats drew the wagon-god for his meeting with HrungnirâÂ?¦The rocks shook and the boulders were shattered; high heaven burned” (Davidson).

This excerpt from the poem shows that Thor’s chariot was so loud that the sound hit both the moon and the earth, shaking the ground, as thunder does. It also speaks of Thor’s control over lightning in describing the burning heavens and “holy places of the powers” (the skies). Thor also utilizes thunder and lighting in order to defeat his enemies, as in the tale of his duel with the boastful giant, Hrungnir. When Hrungnir throws an enormous whetstone, Thor uses thunder and lighting to break apart the whetstone just before he deals the final blow to the giant with his hammer (Sturluson). In fact, the hammer’s name, Mjollnir means ‘lightning’ or ‘bright one’ (Orchard).

In addition to creating thunder and lightning, Thor is also said to have created the tides. Although today, we know that it is actually the gravitational field of the moon orbiting the earth that causes the tidal fluctuations of the sea, this Scandinavian legend provides a clever version of why sea levels rise and fall. When he travels with Loki and two children to visit the giant King Utgarda-Loki, the king tricks the small party into a variety of unfair contests. When Thor attempts a drinking contest, Utgarda-Loki gives him a magical horn to drink from that secretly has one end in the ocean, so the horn could not have been emptied (unless one drank the entire ocean!) After Thor and his friends had failed all of the contests and left the king’s castle, Utgarda-Loki let them in on what he had done. He also told Thor that he had drank so much from the horn that he had actually lowered the level of the ocean, and thus had inadvertently created the tides (Sturluson).

Another story tells of Thor using his control over wind and tides to bring a whale to starving explorers on the island of Straumsey. According to “Thorhall Prays to Thor” from “Eirik the Red’s Saga,” a man named Thorhall who was faithful to the ancient Scandinavian beliefs prays to Thor to aid him and his party of Christian explorers. Shortly thereafter, a whale washed up upon the shores near the hungry group of men. (However, everyone that ate the whale got sick, and the Christians promptly decided to commit their cause to God while completely ignoring Thor) (Conroy).

While Adam of Bremen stated that Thor controlled rain and good weather, a wide variety of other sources state that it is actually from Freyr (a god given as a hostage by the Vanir to the Aesir) that rain, sunshine and therefore a good harvest emanate. According to Edda, “He [Freyr] is ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth, and it is good to pray to him for prosperity and peace” (Sturluson). In the “Saga of the Ynglings,” Freyr is described as the successor of Njord (as he succeeded Odin) as ruler of Sweden the Great (another name for the realm of the gods). While Freyr ruled, he was said to have brought “good season over all the land,” once again affirming his position as the originator of rain and sunshine (Conroy).

Deities driving chariots across the sky, eggs turning into astronomical bodies, and witches and sorcerers casting spells on their enemies were just part of daily life in Scandinavia over one thousand years ago. These stories provide an interesting insight into the life and culture of the peoples of this vast expanse of land. Different areas produced varying versions of the same tale, and these stories no doubt changed as they were passed orally from one generation to the next. Without a doubt, these stories provided nightly entertainment at the very least. In some surprising cases, the predictions of the stories (with the fantastic elements removed) come surprisingly close to the predictions made by modern science – as in the case of what will happen when the sun ceases to shine and the world “ends.” While now relying on physics, biology, geology, and a myriad of other sciences, modern humans, like the ancient Scandinavians, are simply looking for ways to explain and understand the world they live in.

“The Son of the Earth drove to the iron game, and the way of the moon resounded before himâÂ?¦The holy places of the powers burned before the kinsman of Ull. Earth, ground of the deep, was beaten with hail as the goats drew the wagon-god for his meeting with HrungnirâÂ?¦The rocks shook and the boulders were shattered; high heaven burned” (Davidson).This excerpt from the poem shows that Thor’s chariot was so loud that the sound hit both the moon and the earth, shaking the ground, as thunder does. It also speaks of Thor’s control over lightning in describing the burning heavens and “holy places of the powers” (the skies). Thor also utilizes thunder and lighting in order to defeat his enemies, as in the tale of his duel with the boastful giant, Hrungnir. When Hrungnir throws an enormous whetstone, Thor uses thunder and lighting to break apart the whetstone just before he deals the final blow to the giant with his hammer (Sturluson). In fact, the hammer’s name, Mjollnir means ‘lightning’ or ‘bright one’ (Orchard). In addition to creating thunder and lightning, Thor is also said to have created the tides. Although today, we know that it is actually the gravitational field of the moon orbiting the earth that causes the tidal fluctuations of the sea, this Scandinavian legend provides a clever version of why sea levels rise and fall.When he travels with Loki and two children to visit the giant King Utgarda-Loki, the king tricks the small party into a variety of unfair contests. When Thor attempts a drinking contest, Utgarda-Loki gives him a magical horn to drink from that secretly has one end in the ocean, so the horn could not have been emptied (unless one drank the entire ocean!) After Thor and his friends had failed all of the contests and left the king’s castle, Utgarda-Loki let them in on what he had done. He also told Thor that he had drank so much from the horn that he had actually lowered the level of the ocean, and thus had inadvertently created the tides (Sturluson). Another story tells of Thor using his control over wind and tides to bring a whale to starving explorers on the island of Straumsey. According to “Thorhall Prays to Thor” from “Eirik the Red’s Saga,” a man named Thorhall who was faithful to the ancient Scandinavian beliefs prays to Thor to aid him and his party of Christian explorers. Shortly thereafter, a whale washed up upon the shores near the hungry group of men. (However, everyone that ate the whale got sick, and the Christians promptly decided to commit their cause to God while completely ignoring Thor) (Conroy). While Adam of Bremen stated that Thor controlled rain and good weather, a wide variety of other sources state that it is actually from Freyr (a god given as a hostage by the Vanir to the Aesir) that rain, sunshine and therefore a good harvest emanate. According to Edda, “He [Freyr] is ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth, and it is good to pray to him for prosperity and peace” (Sturluson). In the “Saga of the Ynglings,” Freyr is described as the successor of Njord (as he succeeded Odin) as ruler of Sweden the Great (another name for the realm of the gods). While Freyr ruled, he was said to have brought “good season over all the land,” once again affirming his position as the originator of rain and sunshine (Conroy). Deities driving chariots across the sky, eggs turning into astronomical bodies, and witches and sorcerers casting spells on their enemies were just part of daily life in Scandinavia over one thousand years ago. These stories provide an interesting insight into the life and culture of the peoples of this vast expanse of land. Different areas produced varying versions of the same tale, and these stories no doubt changed as they were passed orally from one generation to the next. Without a doubt, these stories provided nightly entertainment at the very least. In some surprising cases, the predictions of the stories (with the fantastic elements removed) come surprisingly close to the predictions made by modern science – as in the case of what will happen when the sun ceases to shine and the world “ends.” While now relying on physics, biology, geology, and a myriad of other sciences, modern humans, like the ancient Scandinavians, are simply looking for ways to explain and understand the world they live in.

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