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 of the best books on Norse mythology (last updated August 2016).
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 to the most advanced. The lower-numbered books aren’t necessarily better than the higher-numbered ones, but the lower-numbered ones are more accessible.
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 Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion by Daniel McCoy
As you probably already know, this is my own book. My intention in writing it was to create the ideal introduction to Norse mythology and religion, and in my own (obviously biased) estimation, it achieves that goal. Check it out for yourself and see if you agree.
The Viking Spirit is an introduction to Norse mythology like no other. As you’d expect from the creator of this enduringly popular website, it’s written to scholarly standards, but in a simple, clear, and entertaining style that’s easy to understand and a pleasure to read.
It includes gripping retellings of no less than 34 epic Norse myths – more than any other book in the field – while also providing an equally comprehensive overview of the fascinating Viking religion of which Norse mythology was a part. You’ll learn about the Vikings’ gods and goddesses, their concept of fate, their views on the afterlife, their moral code, how they thought the universe was structured, how they practiced their religion, the role that magic played in their lives, and much more.
With its inclusion of the latest groundbreaking research in the field, The Viking Spirit is the ultimate introduction to the timeless splendor of Norse mythology and religion for the 21st Century.
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 30% from its list price.
3. The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Back to the books for adults.
If, for whatever reason, The Viking Spirit doesn’t look appealing to you, but you still want an excellent introduction to Norse mythology, you might want to take a look at Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths.
The Norse Myths retells fewer Norse myths than The Viking Spirit, and you’ll be missing out on the discussion of Norse religion altogether. The Norse Myths also has a tendency to naively take the medieval literary sources on Norse mythology at face value, which can make it difficult for the reader to get a sense of which of the stories are likely authentic Viking Age myths and which aren’t.
But Crossley-Holland is a highly gifted writer and storyteller in his own right, and The Norse Myths was the standard introduction to Norse mythology for many years. Like The Viking Spirit, it’s highly accessible and contains nothing that would frighten away a total newbie. Click here to view or buy The Norse Myths at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 44% from the list price.
4. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
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 ideal for beginners who want a scholarly take on Norse religion.
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 on the historical religion of which the tales were only one part. The reader comes away with a picture of pre-Christian Germanic religion that’s more thorough and nuanced than just about any other one-volume popular introduction to this topic or similar ones. For decades, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe has justifiably been one of the most widely-read books on the Viking Age. Click here to view or buy Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 37% from the list price.
5. 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 (#4 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 #4 and Myth and Religion of the North as #5), 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.
6. 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 39% from the list price.
7. 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, #6 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 18% from the list price.
8. 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 (#6 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 33% from the list price.
9. 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 30% from the list price.
10. 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 #1-5 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.
Lindow’s book makes the perfect companion to any and all of the other books in the field. Click here to view or buy Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 41% from the list price.
Once you’ve read some of the books on this list, you’ll be ready to move on to The 10 Best Advanced Norse Mythology Books.
If you’ve found this list to be helpful, you might also be interested in these other guides of mine: