Norse Mythology: What We Know

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series The Songweaver's Vow: Easter Eggs & Background

So to start, we don’t know very much about Norse mythology.

By Mårten Eskil Winge - 3gGd_ynWqGjGfQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22007120

Thor’s Fight With The Giants by Mårten Eskil Winge

Oh, sure, we have quite a lot of stories, and we’ve made them into quite a lot more stories. But we don’t really have a grasp of how old proto-Germanic religion functioned, how seriously people took these stories, and how these stories fit together.

The Songweaver’s Vow was a tough book to write, for a number of reasons. For one, this was the first time I was writing a story which wasn’t entirely mine and I had to follow a previously-defined plot, as the base story of The Songweaver’s Vow is a Greek legend. And Euthalia brought her Greek stories with her to Asgard, so this meant that I had two separate mythologies to blend while simultaneously trying to make the determined plot my own. It was like writing historical fiction which had to fit both our history and an alternate Earth history. Not gonna lie, it was a workout.

And so much was familiar in pop culture already, but not necessarily in the way I wanted to use it. I’ve written previously about the trouble with writing Loki in a modern world, but that wasn’t the only problem. I wanted to reference the dwarfs present in one scene, but I knew naming them would throw my reader out of what should have been a tense moment. Today, we still know the names Bifur, Bofur, Bömbur, Nóri, Óinn, Thrór and Thrain, Fíli and Kíli, but they call to mind a different picture!

Vidar, by W.G. Collingwood, based on the Gosforth Cross

Vidar, by W.G. Collingwood, based on the Gosforth Cross

But for all the references in pop culture and interest in neo-pagan studies, we have some fairly significant gaps in our knowledge of Norse mythology. This is largely due to the fact that during the heyday of Norse myth, few people were writing them down. What we have preserved was mostly written later by Christians recording what remained of pre-Christian stories, some with more literary sympathy than others. And just as there are a dozen or more versions of the Crybaby Bridge story across America, adapting to local custom, there were several oral traditions carrying down these stories. Many of the later scribes were copying from previous records which have since been lost, but we can identify the variations in style or meter when they are copy-pasting from a previous source.

We know the shape of some of what we’re missing, but not what fills the hole. For example, while Odin gets the Allfather spotlight nowadays, it seems that Tyr and possibly Ullr held more prominent positions in older myth, but we do not have the relevant stories of their exploits or rule.

Language

Whenever I travel or learn a new subject, I feel it’s important to get at least a bit familiar with the native language and terminology, and learning a more authentic pronunciation helped me to separate the older Norse stories from the popular modern retellings, generally mispronounced for decades or centuries. Heimdall (with a long /i/) is a different character in my mind than Heimdallr (with a dipthong). The Bifröst, for example, is not pronounced as Chris Hemsworth says it in the Marvel films, but is more accurately beef roast. (Okay, I know. But look, bye-frahst doesn’t sound good, either, and at least the Old Norse accent is pretty cool.)

Here’s a great collection of some key names and how they should be said, from Dr. Jackson Crawford, a historical linguist and Old Norse expert. You’ll hear from him again in another post.

The Songweaver's VowIf you don’t yet have your copy of The Songweaver’s Vow, you can fix that right here.

 

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