There are heaps of books available on Norse mythology, especially at the beginner level. Trying to decide where to start can be daunting. In hopes of helping people to navigate this field and get to the good stuff, here’s a list of 10 of the best books on Norse mythology (as of October 2013). 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 from the most newbie-friendly to the most advanced.
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 begins 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. There’s absolutely nothing in here that would frighten away the nonspecialist.
2. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars and popularizers of Norse mythology. 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 practice of the ancient religion itself. Despite its accessibility, the work holds to Ellis Davidson’s always impeccable scholarly standards, and includes frequent references to and discussions of primary literary sources, archaeological evidence, and other forms of evidence for the heathen Germanic religion.
3. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia by E.O.G. Turville-Petre
The overall aim of Oxford Old Norse professor Edward Oswald Gabriel Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion of the North is much the same as that of Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, but Turville-Petre’s work is far more thorough and bold. 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. While somewhat drier and more academic than Ellis Davidson’s book, Turville-Petre more than makes up for this with his sheer comprehensiveness and acuity of insight. To put it simply: until you’ve read this absolutely essential book, you’re just a dabbler in Norse mythology.
4. Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek
Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology consists of, as the title implies, a dictionary of alphabetical entries on virtually any proper noun you’ll ever encounter in the study of Norse mythology, whose primary sources (see below) are as full of obscure names as any of Tolkien’s works. This book is an extremely handy tool for navigating that landscape, which can at times be formidable (but, of course, well worth it). Due to the format of the book, Simek presents no “big picture” view of Norse mythology (see #9 and #10 for books that do), and the few interpretations of the evidence he does offer are sometimes suspect. However, when all is said and done, Dictionary of Northern Mythology is unmatched for its convenience as a tightly organized compendium of facts.
5. The Poetic Edda translated by Lee M. Hollander
If you’ve read the four books above, you’re more than ready to tackle the primary sources themselves (in English translation, of course, unless you can read Old Norse or Latin). The Poetic Edda in particular is a work of such insight and overwhelming beauty that it’s practically unparalleled 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 of the Old Norse texts, but Lee M. Hollander’s translation is a highly commendable accomplishment that comes closer than any other translation I’ve read.
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 the second most important source for our information on Norse mythology (after the Poetic Edda). 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 attempted to provide as close to a systematic account of the old heathen mythology as the ecclesiastical authorities of his day would have allowed (not the least of which were his own conscience and Christian commitments). Scholars fiercely debate how accurate the information he has provided us with 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.
The medieval Icelandic sagas are wondrous literary works, written in a stark, matter-of-fact style that brims with unspoken implications. 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 to the Icelandic sagas out there, and for less than $20, it’s quite a bargain.
8. Germania by Tacitus, translated by Harold Mattingly
Written around 100 CE by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, Germania describes the land, history, culture, and religion of the Germanic tribes living north of the Empire and east of the Rhine in Tacitus’s time. Norse/Germanic mythology is far older than just the Viking Age, and Germania helps us get a sense of how the heathen religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples changed over time, as well as the high level of continuity across its many temporal and spatial permutations. Some passages, such as the famous description of the worship of the goddess Nerthus or the sacred woods of various tribes, also possess a haunting power that stirs something deep within even a 21st century reader.
9. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture by Paul Bauschatz
Now we come to secondary sources for the more advanced student of the mythology of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. In my opinion, the single best work at this level is Old English professor Paul Bauschatz’s The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. 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.
Since this book has unfortunately been out of print for a while now, it’s often difficult to find reasonably-priced used copies on Amazon or other online bookstores. If that’s the case, try looking for freely available electronic copies online – there are usually a few floating around.
10. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Neil S. Price
Alongside Bauschatz’s The Well and the Tree (#9 above), archaeologist Neil Price’s The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia presents the most comprehensive overview 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 and insightful 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.
Unfortunately, The Viking Way is currently out of stock at Amazon.com – and everywhere else, for that matter. Please email me if you find it somewhere. In the meantime, you can find electronic copies on the Internet if you know where to look.
For a bonus eleventh book, I couldn’t resist putting in a shameless plug for my own book, The Love of Destiny. Like The Well and the Tree and The Viking Way, The Love of Destiny discusses the overwhelmingly 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 most of 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 basically 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.