There are so many books on Norse mythology out there, especially at the beginner level, that if you were to make a pile with one copy of each it would probably reach all the way up to Asgard itself. Trying to decide where to start – or where to go next from your current position, wherever that is – can be daunting. In hopes of helping people to navigate this field and get to the good stuff, here’s a list of 10 (actually 13) of the best books on Norse mythology (last updated January 2015).
This list is written primarily with the beginner or intermediate student of Norse mythology in mind, although some of the more specialized books in this list will be of great use to those who are already familiar with the basics of the ancient mythology and religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples and want to go further.
The order of the books in this list runs roughly from the most newbie-friendly (#1, #2) to the most advanced (#10, #12, #13).
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon.com links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths is the best introduction to Norse mythology out there for the total beginner. The book starts with a short summary of the Norse cosmology and pantheon, which sets the stage for the real centerpiece of the work: Crossley-Holland’s entertaining and accurate retellings of several of the most central tales of Norse mythology, which occupy the great majority of the book’s pages.
The Norse Myths is the best of both worlds; while virtually any Old Norse scholar would praise the reliability of Crossley-Holland’s book (something which definitely can’t be said for many other introductory books on Norse mythology), it’s extremely accessible. There’s absolutely nothing in here that would frighten away a nonspecialist. Click here to view or buy The Norse Myths at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 45% from the list price.
2. The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
If you’re a parent looking for a book on Norse mythology for your child, The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is easily the best book on Norse mythology for children. There’s not even a close second. The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is specifically written for ages 5-9, or kindergarteners through fourth graders.
Lovingly and evocatively written and very easy to understand, these retellings of the Norse tales and descriptions of the gods and their world are sure to fire your child’s imagination and get him or her interested in Norse mythology. Numerous color pictures are interspersed throughout the text. It’s also completely “family-friendly” – the d’Aulaires exclude the lurid elements of Norse mythology that some parents might find objectionable in their children’s reading material. Click here to view or buy The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 36% from the list price.
3. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
Back to the books for adults.
Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of Norse mythology, yet most of her works were written for a general audience rather than just her fellow academic specialists. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is her most accessible work, and is perfect for beginners who want a more scholarly take on Norse mythology than Crossley-Holland’s introductory work (above).
Her book describes the pre-Christian religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples in a manner that focuses less on retelling the tales than Crossley-Holland does, and more on the historical religion of which the tales were only one part. The reader comes away with a picture of pre-Christian Germanic religion and spirituality that’s more thorough and nuanced than just about any one-volume popular introduction to this topic or similar ones. Click here to view or buy Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 19% from the list price.
4. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia by E.O.G. Turville-Petre
Much like Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (#3 above), legendary Oxford Old Norse professor E.O.G. Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion of the North provides a comprehensive overview of the pre-Christian religion of Scandinavia. However, while somewhat more academic than Ellis Davidson’s book (which is why I listed Gods and Myths of Northern Europe as #3 and Myth and Religion of the North as #4), Turville-Petre more than makes up for this with his sheer comprehensiveness and acuity of insight. Where Ellis Davidson is highly admirable, Turville-Petre is downright astonishing.
In numerous universities across the world today, Myth and Religion of the North is treated as the go-to reference book for all things related to Norse mythology, and with good reason. Reading this book is something like an intellectual initiation. To put it simply: until you’ve read this absolutely essential book, you’re just a dabbler in Norse mythology. Click here to view or buy Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 15% from the list price.
5. The Poetic Edda translated by Lee M. Hollander
Now we come to the primary sources themselves (in English translation, of course).
The Poetic Edda is a work of such vision and overwhelming beauty that it has few rivals in all of world literature. It’s a collection of Old Norse mythical and heroic poems, composed by anonymous poets in Iceland or Scandinavia during the Viking Age and shortly thereafter. Taken together, these poems comprise our single most important source of information for Norse mythology and religion.
To be perfectly frank, no English translation that’s been published so far comes close to conveying the full extent of the grandeur and nuance (both aesthetic and philosophical) of the Old Norse texts. To a large extent, this is inevitable; as Robert Frost once said, “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” However, Lee M. Hollander’s translation is a highly commendable accomplishment that reads more like the original than any other translation I’ve read. Click here to view or buy The Poetic Edda at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 31% from the list price.
6. The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L. Byock
The Prose Edda was written in the thirteenth century by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, and it’s often considered to be the second most important source for our information on Norse mythology (after the Poetic Edda, #5 above). It was originally written as a treatise on the mythology behind numerous conventional images in Old Norse poetry, to be used by poets and those who wanted to understand the works of older poets better. Snorri provides something akin to a systematic summary of the narratives, deities, and cosmology of Norse mythology.
Scholars fiercely debate how accurate the information in his book is, and there’s a widespread consensus that, at the very least, Snorri can’t be taken at face value. Nevertheless, one way or another, his Prose Edda is a treasure trove of facts that would have been totally lost otherwise, regardless of the difficulty of separating the facts from Snorri’s own embellishments or misunderstandings. Click here to view or buy The Prose Edda at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 45% from the list price.
7. The Saga of the Volsungs translated by Jesse L. Byock
The Saga of the Volsungs is probably the most popular and influential of the Icelandic sagas, which, along with the Eddas, are the most important literary sources of our present knowledge of the mythology and religion of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. The Saga of the Volsungs is a truly epic story if ever there was one, and recounts the larger-than-life deeds of the Volsung clan, the gods who had a hand in their fortunes, and especially the hero Sigurd. Dragons are slain, treasures are lost and recovered, humans become animals and animals become people, and all the while the reader is gaining authentic knowledge about ancient northern European gods, myths, and values.
The stories upon which this saga is based date from the early centuries AD and were common throughout the Germanic world. Elements of them also survive in a few of the poems in the Poetic Edda (#5 above) and the medieval German Das Nibelungenlied. The Germanic peoples evidently saw these stories as being among their most important. The Saga of the Volsungs in particular was also the basis for Richard Wagner’s Ring operas and a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Click here to view or buy The Saga of the Volsungs at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 24% from the list price.
8. The Sagas of Icelanders
The medieval Icelandic sagas are wondrous literary works, written in a stark, matter-of-fact style that brims with unspoken implications. And, once again, they’re also some of our most important literary sources of information on the pre-Christian mythology, religion, and culture of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. This 740-page tome contains no less than ten of these sagas, as well as an assortment of numerous shorter tales.
The centerpiece of The Sagas of Icelanders is Egil’s Saga, which recounts the deeds of the nigh-invincible warrior-poet and devotee of Odin Egil Skallagrimsson. It’s among the best of the sagas, both in terms of its literary quality and what the attentive reader can learn from it.
The translations are all carefully selected and top-notch. This is the best introduction out there to the Icelandic sagas as a genre, and for less than $20, it’s quite a bargain. Click here to view or buy The Sagas of Icelanders at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 42% from the list price.
9. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs by John Lindow
Professor Lindow’s Norse Mythology mostly consists of an alphabetical encyclopedia of some of the most important personages, cosmological locations, and other such “key terms” in Norse mythology. It’s certainly not a standalone introduction to Norse mythology (see #1-4 on this list for such books). Rather, it’s a very handy reference book that you can use when reading other books on Norse mythology, much like the glossaries that sometimes accompany Tolkien’s works, which similarly feature a potentially confusing profusion of proper nouns.
While not as thorough as Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology (#10 below), Lindow’s book is more accessible, which is why it’s listed here as #9 while Simek is #10. Click here to view or buy Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 24% from the list price.
10. Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek
As the title implies, Professor Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology consists of a dictionary or encyclopedia of alphabetical entries on virtually any proper noun you’ll ever encounter in the study of Norse mythology. This book is an extremely useful aid in navigating that landscape. Due to the format of the book, Simek presents no “big picture” view of Norse mythology, nor does his book provide a standalone introduction to the subject. However, Dictionary of Northern Mythology is unmatched for its convenience as a tightly organized compendium of facts.
While not quite as accessible as Lindow’s Norse Mythology (#9 above), Simek more than makes up for this with sheer thoroughness (both in terms of how many entries there are and how much information is related within each entry) and overall quality, which in the end makes Dictionary of Northern Mythology the more rewarding and valuable of the two, in my opinion. But some will surely prefer Lindow. Either way, you can’t lose. Click here to view or buy Dictionary of Northern Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 10% from the list price.
For a bonus eleventh entry, my own book, The Love of Destiny, presents the beautiful, rich, and intellectually compelling worldview of the ancient Germanic peoples in a big-picture sense. No prior knowledge of the mythology of the Norse or other Germanic peoples is assumed.
Unlike the other books on this list, however, The Love of Destiny is primarily a work of philosophy or creative writing rather than history or anthropology, although it certainly delves into those latter categories along the way. It offers a much fuller presentation of many of the conceptual themes that feature prominently in the articles on this site, such as polytheistic theology, animistic theories of knowledge and perception, the cyclicality of time, and the inherent divinity of the world, than what one can find elsewhere on Norse-Mythology.org – or practically anywhere else, for that matter.
You can read more about The Love of Destiny at its page. That page also includes links to the book on Amazon.
Any list of the best books on Norse mythology would be woefully incomplete without including the following two titles: Paul Bauschatz’s The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture and Neil S. Price’s The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Sadly, however, both are out of print, and scarce to the point that it’s virtually impossible to buy a copy for yourself without spending several hundred dollars – which is why I felt it was best to include them at the end as “honorable mentions” rather than putting them in the main part of the list.
Some libraries have copies, so I’d recommend looking for them in whatever libraries you can access. University libraries are probably your best bet. (That’s where I found them.) If your library doesn’t have them, but is part of an interlibrary loan system, use that.
12. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture by Paul Bauschatz
Bauschatz’s book discusses the worldview of the heathen Norse and other Germanic peoples at a conceptual level. That is, it asks questions like, “Taken together, what do Tacitus, Beowulf, the Norse sources, and the grammatical structure of Germanic languages tell us about the ancient Germanic view of time and space?” and “What exactly was the Germanic concept of Wyrd (Destiny), which sources describe only in isolated, concrete examples, and what role does it play in that model of time and space?”
Bauschatz’s willingness to ask deeper questions than others and to answer them by way of pointing out powerful connections that no one else has noticed make this a bold and daring text that’s indispensable reading for anyone who’s serious about understanding Norse mythology as its pre-Christian adherents did.
13. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Neil S. Price
Alongside Bauschatz’s The Well and the Tree, archaeologist Neil Price’s The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia is one of the most insightful explorations of the heathen Germanic worldview to date. Price examines the interrelations between war, magic, shamanism, and religion in the Viking Age world. He demonstrates that an emphasis on competitive struggle and a very high opinion of the value of overcoming life’s challenges is at the heart of the pre-Christian Germanic worldview (and the factor that most strongly unites the aforementioned categories), and that Odin was revered as the animating spirit of this will to overcoming and self-overcoming (hence his title of “Allfather”).
Along the way, Price treats the reader to some of the most in-depth discussions in print concerning Norse shamanism and the relationship between the pre-Christian Germanic worldview and practices on the one hand and those of other circumpolar peoples such as the Sámi and Siberians on the other.
And if you’d like to keep up with my ongoing work here and elsewhere, the best way to do so is to follow me on Google+: Dan McCoy.