Thoughts on the problems of interpreting Norse mythology

The mythology of the Norse, or Vikings, have been greatly misunderstood.  In part, it is because so little has survived.  Not only that, much of it is not put into any perspective of the culture and the peoples lives.  We know very little to put it into too much of a perspective.  They are as if ‘hanging in the air’. 

We must also add to this that Norse mythology became known after Greek and Roman mythology became popular.  As a result, much of Norse mythology is looked at in the shadow of these mythologies.  Many times Norse gods are interpreted as if they were Greek gods.  This has caused nothing but misconceptions.

Also, lately, there is a tendency to quickly assign gods a value and simple meaning, which are usually wrong.  Such examples are calling Thor the God of Thunder (as if he were Zeus) or Odin the God of Wisdom or God of War.  These are far too simplistic to be taken too seriously.

The Victorian era, with its romantic images of Norse gods and heros have greatly distorted the Norse or Viking image.  The images as was portrayed in Wagner’s “Ring” operas as well as the fanciful portrayals in J.R.R. Tolkiens “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” has also greatly caused a distortion in the image of Norse mythology.  Naturally, none of these portray Norse mythology with any accuracy at all but, yet, they have greatly impacted the popular imagination of them . . . a little too much.

Since the material for Norse mythology is scanty there is an attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’ with things known or points of views taken about other mythologies, primitive cultures, and other societies.  But we must remember that these, however fanciful they may be, are nothing but attempts to ‘fill in the gaps’, which means they cannot be looked at as doctrine.

To add to this is the misconception about Vikings in general.  Often, they are portrayed as these dirty, barbarian, animal-like creatures, which is not at all accurate.  The modern tendency to perceive everyone in the past, especially as perceived like the Vikings, as stupid dumb brutes does not help the situation.  Western society, really, owes a lot of its believes, customs, traditions, society, and government to the Vikings.  These are not something to look at lightly.  In my opinion, the Vikings should be looked on with respect . . . and, if you look at it closely, they deserve it. 

It seems to me that Norse mythology shows a span of different forms of society.  It reveals a changing social and cultural climate.   At one end is the small hunting-like tribal society of centuries before.  On the other end is a large farming and warrior class society with the kings at its head that appeared later.  It seems that much of Norse mythology is mythology of the small hunting-like tribal society that has had the new larger farming and warrior class society built upon it.  In other words, they took the original tribal mythology and modified it to the new conditions and added new qualities that was lacking.  This gives all these variations and oddities in the mythology. 

The mythology we received is the mythology just before the Christian conversion, in about the 900’s AD.  Since the society was large involving various wars and conflicts, this mythology reflected this fact.  No doubt, the mythology of 500 years before would of been totally different.

Not only that, most of the mythology we have originates from primarily Icelandic sources.  Since most of Iceland was settled by Norwegians, the mythology we have received is from a very Icelandic/Norwegian slant. 

It seems to me that the mythology of Sweden and Denmark were not the same as in Iceland/Norway.  This makes sense as the Norse area was over a wide area.  Much of this area could easily be secluded off from other areas.  Being in this situation, it would only be natural that customs, beliefs, stories, and mythology would change abit to fit that individual area.  This means that theres a very good likelyhood that the beliefs varied from region to region.  I would not be surprised that the stories, powers, and abilities of the gods changed from region as well.  To assume that the mythology that has come down to us is typical for the entire Norse region is quite a stretch, I think.

Overall, what we know of Norse mythology is scanty and minimal.  In addition, what we have is most likely reflective of a certain area and not necessarily typical for the entire Norse lands.  And to add to that, it reflects a certain period of time in Norse history, which probably had great influence on the mythology.  This creates a condition of great variety and missing information.  Conditions like this are not good to understanding and knowing the mythology of these people.  There are too many assumptions, guesswork, estimations, and approximations in the interpreting of Norse mythology to make any of it too reliable.

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Religion and religious stuff, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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