The tales – or stories, legends, or myths – of Norse mythology, when taken together, tell a grand, cyclical narrative that starts at the creation of the cosmos, ends with the downfall of the cosmos at Ragnarok, and then resumes again with the creation. Here are the major tales that comprise this cycle, in roughly chronological order:
The Creation of the Cosmos
The Aesir-Vanir War
The Mead of Poetry
Loki and the Dwarves
The Fortification of Asgard
Why Odin is One-Eyed
Odin’s Discovery of the Runes
The Kidnapping of Idun
The Marriage of Njord and Skadi
The Binding of Fenrir
The Tale of Utgarda-Loki
Thor Fishing for Jormungand
Thor the Transvestite
Thor’s Duel with Hrungnir
The Death of Baldur
This cycle – from birth to life to death to rebirth – is the same cycle that we see repeated in the course of the day, the year, the phases of the moon, and the life cycle of any organism. For the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, these myths expressed the invisible meaning they perceived within the visible phenomena that follow these cycles – which is to say, all visible phenomena.
These tales linked everything that one might encounter during the course of one’s life back to the sacred realities at the heart of life. The heathen Germanic peoples could therefore say, along with the poet William Blake, that “everything that lives is holy.” They had no need to long for a distant Heaven or to dread a distant Hell; this world, here and now, is where the sacred reveals itself, in all its wonder, beauty, and terror.
Another way of saying this is that the tales of Norse mythology, their divine characters, and the invisible places where the action takes place, comprise a worldview that was expressed in images and narratives rather than in the conceptual language with which we today prefer to express the worldviews that help us to make sense of our lives – historical progress, science, etc.
This prioritization of the story over the concept is due to the animistic nature of the pre-Christian Germanic religion. For animistic societies, the world is not comprised of inert matter that mechanically follows fixed and predictable laws like we in the modern world hold it to be. Through animistic eyes, everything is conscious, willful, and spiritual. Consciousness is not locked up within one organ (the brain) of one species (humanity). Rather, anything humans can perceive can also perceive us, whether through what we call the “senses” or through more subtle means that the modern worldview tends to dismiss as being “merely subjective.”
For an animist, everything one can perceive – every human, every tree, every blade of grass, every turtle, every bear, every river, every mountain – are all characters who are enacting the same grand story. And, for the ancient Germanic peoples, Norse mythology was that grand story that forms the sacred archetype of which all of our personal stories are manifestations.
Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.