The Greek gods could not be heroic, as they were all immortal, invincible, and always assured of victory. It is the opposite with the Norse gods. The Aesir (the gods) know that in the end they will be defeated by the Giants, their evil enemies, at Ragnarok.
Hamilton reiterates the significance of Ragnarok and how important heroism was to the Norsemen. In the bleak, doomed universe of their myths it was all they had.
Odin, like Zeus, is the chief of the gods and the lord of the sky, but otherwise the two are almost opposite. Odin rules from his palace, Gladsheim, in Asgard, but even when he feasts there he never eats, instead giving his food to two wolves at his feet. He has two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), who constantly bring him news from the world. Odin ponders silently while the other gods feast.
Odin is a strange, somber god who fits with the character of the Norse myths. As the chief of the gods, Ragnarok mostly concerns him, and he seeks wisdom even at the price of suffering. This is a stark contrast to Zeus, who spends his time feasting and cheating on his wife.
Odin constantly seeks more wisdom, and even gave up one of his eyes to drink from the Well of Wisdom. To gain knowledge of the Runes (inscriptions of power), he hung himself from a tree for nine days – a mysterious offering to himself – and then passed his knowledge on to mortals. He risked his life again to obtain the skaldic mead for men, a liquor that makes its drinker a poet.
In the story of the Runes Odin becomes a Christlike figure, sacrificing himself to himself for humanity’s sake. Like the Greeks, the Norsemen also greatly valued poetry and artistic beauty, as they had Odin risk his life to obtain the gift of poetry.
Odin is attended by maidens called Valkyries, who decide at his bidding who should survive and who should perish on the battlefield. They then bring fallen heroes to Valhalla, the heavenly hall. Wednesday is Odin’s (Woden) day.
The days of the week are the most common legacy of these Norse myths. Valhalla is the home of the heroes and the hope of mortals, but even that hall is doomed to be destroyed at Ragnarok.
Balder is the most beloved god. He dreams that he is fated to die, and Odin learns from Hela, Goddess of the Dead, that Balder’s death is inevitable. Balder’s mother Frigga still tries to keep him safe by making every living and inanimate object on earth swear to never harm him. They all agree, but Frigga forgets to ask the mistletoe plant.
The Norsemen were intrigued and troubled by the idea of unavoidable fate, as Ragnarok shows, but Balder’s death is also an example of a character trying his best to avoid fate, and by his actions sealing that same fate. The mistletoe also becomes a symbol of the small, fatal flaw.
The gods then make a game out of Balder’s invincibility, throwing things at him as nothing will hurt him. Loki, the son of a Giant, is a trickster and often a villain. He learns about the mistletoe and convinces Hoder, Balder’s blind brother, to throw a twig of mistletoe at Balder. Loki guides it to Balder’s heart and kills him.
This story is less ironic than those of Oedipus and Orestes, as Loki is an active villain who takes advantage of Balder’s fate, rather than circumstance itself causing the crime. It is still notable that one of the major Norse gods dies though.
Frigga still doesn’t give up hope, and she asks Hela to return Balder to life. Hela agrees to release him from death if it can be proved that every living thing mourns for his passing. Everything does indeed mourn Balder, as he was so beloved, except for one Giantess, who dislikes him. Because of her refusal to mourn, Balder stays dead.
The story continues in a similar vein, as Frigga still tries to avert fate, and it still only takes one tiny mistake – among everything in the universe – for the inevitable to come to pass.
As punishment for this Loki is chained up inside a deep cave, and a serpent is placed above him so that it drips burning venom onto his face. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, helps him by catching the poison in a cup, but whenever she has to empty the cup Loki’s agony is so great that he causes earthquakes.
The Norsemen had their own horrible, eternal punishments just like the Greeks. This also becomes an explanation myth for the earthquakes that accompany the volcanic activity of Iceland.
There are three other important Norse gods: Thor is the strongest of the Aesir, and the God of Thunder, Heimdall guards the Bifröst, the rainbow bridge to Asgard, and Tyr is the God of War. No goddesses are as important as they are in Greek mythology. The two notable ones are Frigga, Odin’s wife, and Freya, the Goddess of Love and Beauty who also claims half of those slain in battle. The only land ruled by a goddess is the Kingdom of Death, where Hela is supreme.
While the Norse mythology is as rich and complex as that of the Greeks, Hamilton only gives the deities a cursory glance here. The important goddesses are notably different, as the Aphrodite-figure is also associated with death in battle, and the only other important goddess rules the dead. Nothing is safe from sorrow and the tragedy of life.
The Creation. In the Norse creation story, the universe begins as a huge chasm bordered in the north by Niflheim, the cold land of death, and in the south by Muspelheim, the land of fire. Rivers of ice and fire from the two realms combine in the chasm, and from the mist are formed frost maidens and Ymir, the first Giant and Odin’s grandfather.
The Greeks began with chaos, darkness, and death, and the Norse universe similarly begins with emptiness, death, and fire. But there is no golden-winged Love suddenly appearing in the Norse creation story.
Odin and his two brothers kill Ymir and make the sea from his blood, the earth from his body, and the heavens from his skull. Sparks from Muspelheim become the sun, moon, and stars. The walled-in world where mortals live is called Midgard, and here the first man and woman are created from trees. Dwarfs and Elves also live in Midgard – Dwarfs are ugly craftsmen who live underground, and Elves are lovely creatures who tend flowers and rivers.
Like Cronus, Ymir is also overthrown by his descendant Odin. The Dwarfs and Elves correspond to nymphs and other supernatural creatures of the earth. While the Greeks created mortals from metals, the Norsemen show them created from trees.
The magical ash tree Yggdrasil holds up the universe. One of its roots goes up to Asgard, and beside it is the holy Urda’s Well, which is guarded by the three Norns. These are Urda (the Past), Verdandi (the Present), and Skuld (the Future), and like the Greek Fates they allot destinies to mortals. A serpent gnaws constantly at Yggdrasil’s roots, and when it kills the tree the universe will come falling down.
The Norns are basically the Norse version of the three Fates of Greek mythology. The serpent gnawing at Yggdrasil is also a symbol of fate, as it is inevitable that it will bring down the tree eventually, and then everything will be destroyed.
The Frost Giants and the Mountain Giants of Jötunheim are the brutal powers of the earth, and the enemies of good. In the final contest they will be victorious over the powers of heaven, and all the gods will die. This hopelessness seems contrary to the human spirit, but the only hope the Norsemen (with their icy land and bleak winters) allow themselves is a legend that after the Ragnarok, a new universe will be created, ruled over by a single, all-powerful god who will vanquish evil.
This post-Ragnarok vision is similar to Hamilton’s theory about Zeus – that he evolved into a more virtuous, powerful, and universal God. The tragedy inherent in the Norse universe is not just that the gods must all die as tragic heroes, but that it is evil and brute force that is victorious – just as the early humans were often defeated by the terrible winters of Scandinavia.
The Norse Wisdom. In odd contrast to the solemn heroism of its mythology, the Elder Edda also contains many proverbs and sayings about common sense. There is even a touch of humor in them, and the proverbs touch on all parts of human nature with wit and wisdom. Hamilton emphasizes how this sense of everyday wisdom combines with the terrible bravery of the Norsemen. She finishes by saying that Norse mythology, just like Greek mythology, had a profound influence on Western and American culture.
While the myths have no place for lightheartedness, the Norsemen were still human, and so had to live with common sense instead of a constant code of tragic heroism. The myths were for battle and philosophical ponderings, but these wisdom sayings were more useful for daily life.