In today’s context, nearly everybody on the street would know of characters like Thor and Loki thanks to popular media, like that of the comics and the movies. We all know Thor as an Avenger hero and Loki for being the evil brother. Truth be told, the modern portrayal of the two characters/gods is very different from their actual history.
Norse mythology can be closely relatable to a polytheistic religion. However, an interesting contrast between Norse Mythology against other polytheistic religions is the distinguishing factor between each god. The gods in most polytheistic religions such as Hinduism, are usually well-defined to one or very few traits or symbols. However, the Norse gods often have multiple traits and characteristics associated with each of them.
Let’s travel back in time to have a brief look at the actual history behind the Norse mythology, culture, mythology and finally about Vikings.
Firstly, let's talk about the one particularly significant Norse God, Odin. Odin is commonly known, according to most sources, as the “Allfather” of the gods. Historically, he is known to the ancient Norse to be a shaman-like figure, symbolistic of war and battle, as well as poetry, music, prophecy, and magic. He was more commonly associated with ‘softer’ traits in historical times. In contrast, modern popular culture often portrays Odin as a war god – a ruler and a commander of the battlefield – with focus on his more masculine and warlike traits.
Norse mythology has had a heavy influence in the shaping of modern western culture. A small, yet impactful example can be seen in the naming of our days of the week. Some days of the week were named in honour of the Norse gods, for example, Frigedag, or Friday, would be the day in honour of the Frigg (The wife of Odin); and Torsdag, or Thursday, would be the day in honour of Thor.
A prominent time period where a ruler helped to shape culture with Norse mythology was in the 7th century Mercia, also known today as the English Midlands. King Penda rose to power through conquest, and was a pagan in a time when Christianity was growing in the Anglo-Saxon region. King Penda was established as the most powerful ruler of Mercia and King of England. At the same time, King Penda claimed a lineage linked to Wōden/Odin; and with this claim, we can see a strong implication of shared culture between the Angles of the time as well as the Germanic/Scandinavian peoples.
Norse culture and history would not be complete without the mention of the age of Vikings, (793–1066 CE). The Vikings were infamous for their raiding, plundering and colonizing across the seas through to England or Britain, to the European continent, as well as parts of Russia, to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
So who are the Vikings? The name Viking came from the Scandinavians themselves, from the Old Norse word "vik" (bay or creek) which formed the root of "Vikingr" (pirate). Vikings are not a race of people, they are rather a collective group of raiders and traders of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish origin. The Vikings are known to have explored and raided neighbouring lands via sea; this was initially to search for more fortune. But soon after, their goal became that of colonization as well due to unconfirmed overpopulation within the Scandinavian lands.
The raiding begun in 793 CE when the Vikings attacked the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of Northumberland in England in a “hit and run raid” (Kurrild-Klitgaard, P., & Svendsen, G. T. , 2008). This marked the beginning of the Viking age. Being non-Christians and having a complete different perception of life than that of the English people, these intruders were seen to be barbaric in their ways. The Vikings destroyed and desecrated the monastery, and took all that was valuable. From another school of thought, researchers Kurrild-Klitgaard, P., and Svendsen, G. T. found that there is economical rationalizing in the Viking’s efforts to plunder, raid, or colonise the lands in terms of cost benefits and cost of each raid.
The “hit and run raids” persisted until about 853 CE. Then came a transition when the Vikings banded up in larger fleets and army from 835 CE to 895 CE; they built temporary bases and plundered from local towns and markets in the land they were on. Occasionally, Vikings combined forces with several Viking towns to form a larger force known as the “Great Army”. Over time, competition started to evolve in terms of seas raids and piracy, the Vikings had to look towards alternatives and thus begun to convert their operations to stationary banditry. The Vikings begun to colonize places like Northumbria, Dublin, York and the Isles between 850 CE to 925 CE. They settled in these places and collected taxes and extorted from neighbouring towns in return for not raiding them. This process of extortion was called “Danegeld”. Finally, in 896 CE the last “Great Army” was broken up with a significant amount of Vikings killed. The Viking’s final efforts were seen from 980 CE to 1066 CE where they became literal conquerors; with a great king leading a strong army to attack England. They were successful only until Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (1015 – 1066 CE), who was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE.
Though most of its true origins lost or fragmented, much of the Norse culture has spread throughout the world today. In Western popular culture, we enjoy stories and/or characters such as Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, The Elder Scrolls series, or even Marvel’s Thor and Loki. These stories can be seen as examples where primarily English speaking writers went looking for interesting stories or mythology; and found symbols or characters that they found compelling for their stories, and one that fit well with the language they were telling the story in.
Thanks for reading! Here's a bonus video just for laughs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhJvhlSye48