Norse Theology

“Balder’s Death” by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1817)

As far as we know, the Vikings never formulated their views on the divine in the abstract, conceptual language of theology or philosophy. Instead, they used the concrete imagery and narrative form of myth to portray divinity as they saw it. As unique and powerful as those mythical portrayals are, they leave us wondering how the Vikings perceived divinity as such – in other words, what it means to be a god, not merely what specific gods do and have done.

Luckily, we can answer that question, at least to some degree. For while the Norse have left us no explicit theology, there is an implicit theology in those very myths. Formulating a Norse theology is therefore a matter of teasing out the theological implications of the depictions of the gods in the myths.[1]

The Numinous

Before we get to the specifically Norse conception of divinity, let’s define what we’re talking about in the first place. While divinity is notoriously impossible to adequately express in words of any sort – mythical, theological, or otherwise – some descriptions come much closer to the mark than others.

The best description of the divine to date is surely the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto’s classic 1917 book The Idea of the Holy. For Otto, the divine – or, to use his preferred term, the numinous – is something that presents itself as being “wholly other”[2] than the things that we experience in our everyday, mundane lives. It seems to come from a different plane of existence altogether. Confronted with it, one experiences oneself as being “but dust and ashes,”[3] utterly insignificant and inconsequential in the face of something immeasurably greater. It has a majestic, daunting, even terrifying aspect, which Otto calls the mysterium tremendum (“awe-inspiring mystery”), as well as a blissful, comforting side, which he calls the mysterium fascinans (“alluring mystery”).[4]

The Norse gods were – in addition to all of the other things they were – images of this universal, inscrutable force that were drawn from the particulars of the Viking world, which made them especially fitting ways of imagining and connecting with the divine in that time and place.

Some deities represented specific aspects of the numinous more than other aspects. For example, Odin, the mighty but devious chieftain who ruled through arcane wisdom and magical power, would have naturally evoked the sublime but frightening side of the divine. Tyr or Freya, by contrast, were much more straightforwardly beneficent, prosocial, and comforting, which made them particularly effective images of the “lighter” side of the numinous.

The Pillars of the Cosmos

The most widely-used Old Norse word for “god” was áss (pronounced “OWS”), or æsir (pronounced “EYE-seer”) in the plural (“gods”). Its corresponding feminine form for “goddess” was ásynja (pronounced “ow-SIN-ya”), or ásynjur (pronounced “ow-SIN-yur”) in the plural (“goddesses”). When referred to as a collective that included both gods and goddesses, the masculine plural æsir was used. These words are all derived from one of two Proto-Germanic roots: *ansaz, “pole, beam, rafter,” or *ansuz, “life, vitality.”[5]

This powerfully suggests that the Vikings thought of their gods as the “poles” or “vital forces” that held together and sustained the cosmos and its order.

And, indeed, this is exactly what we find in their myths. The gods were very much a part of the cosmos rather than beings who merely manipulated it from the outside. When the cosmos arose, they arose with it as part of the same process. And when the cosmos will fall, as the Norse believed it would at Ragnarok, the gods will fall with it.

But even though the gods were part of the cosmos, they weren’t just ordinary members of it. The structure of the cosmos was seen as analogous to the Norse social hierarchy, with the gods and goddesses as the rulers (Old Norse regin, pronounced roughly “RAY-gen,” another common word for the gods) who established and enforced the order of the cosmic system as a whole, to which any and all other inhabitants of the cosmos were subject.

The gods reigned over other beings, but just as any medieval ruler was obligated to protect his or her people from foreign aggressors, so too were the gods obligated to protect the cosmos from the forces of chaos – the giants – who wished to destroy it.

Language, myth, and social practice all complemented and reinforced each other here, which points to this having been one of the most central parts of the implicit Norse theology.

There Was No Norse “Supreme Being”

While the power of the Norse gods was extreme, it wasn’t total. There was no “supreme being” in the Norse religion. Instead, even the gods were subject to limitations. These limitations basically fell into two categories.

First, since the Vikings worshiped many gods, each of which had a personality and role distinct from the others, no one deity possessed all of the powers that were attributed to the gods as a whole. Some gods were better warriors than others; some were wiser than others; some were more skilled than others at blessing lands, crops, livestock, and people with prosperity and fertility; and so forth.

Perhaps the most telling example of this is Odin, who was famed for his almost unmatched knowledge and wisdom. Yet even he had to go on numerous trying quests to learn that lore; it wasn’t simply innate within him. (See, for example, the tales of Odin’s Discovery of the Runes, Why Odin Is One-Eyed, and The Mead of Poetry.)

The second way in which the gods’ power was limited was that even they couldn’t escape being subject to fate. They, too, were doomed to have various misfortunes befall them, to suffer, and ultimately, at Ragnarok – Old Norse Ragnarök, “Final Fate of the Gods”[6] – to die.

The Relationship Between the Gods and Humans

By this point, it should go without saying that the Norse thought of their gods as highly anthropomorphic beings – that is, they were very much like humans, just writ large. Even their spiritual nature didn’t separate them absolutely from humans, or, for that matter, from the rest of the physical world. Just as humans had a material part and a spiritual part or parts, the gods, though spiritual, manifested themselves in various physical phenomena. In the lingo of philosophy of religion, this is called a “theophany” (the manifestation of a god) or a “hierophany” (the manifestation of the sacred).

For example, Thor, whose very name meant “Thunder,” was not so much the “god of thunder” as he was the god thunder – the divinity whose presence the Vikings felt in the thunder. His wife, the goddess Sif, was known for her long, luscious, golden hair that seems to have symbolized fields of ripe grain.[8] Sif would therefore have been the goddess grain, and the storms fertilizing the vegetation would have been practically a ritual enactment of the consummation of the marriage of Thor and Sif.[9]

This wasn’t exactly pantheism, the idea that all of nature or the physical world is divine. There’s no indication that the Norse thought that the physical world in its entirety manifested the gods. But parts of the physical world certainly were thought to embody them. (It’s extremely doubtful that there was ever a firm list of which parts did so; the Norse seem to have treated this as more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing.)

Since the gods were imagined to have human characteristics, and since they regularly manifested themselves in, and intervened in, the affairs of the world, it was possible for humans and gods to interact with each other. Such interactions were an essential part of Norse religiosity.

This occurred in countless different ways, the most intimate of which was the belief that the gods copulated with humans in order to found royal and heroic families.[10][11]

The most common interaction between the gods and humans happened through ritual sacrifice, the cornerstone of Norse religious practice. The pragmatically-minded Norse didn’t only worship their gods out of a sense of wonder or love. They also usually wanted to get something in particular from the gods.

In human interactions, if you want to get something from someone – at least in a way that maintains a healthy relationship between the two of you – you have to give that person something in return. Since the gods were so much like humans, when humans wanted something from the gods, they had to give them something of value, too. This was the logic of sacrifice: by piously offering the gods a gift, their human worshipers hoped to receive gifts from them.

This reciprocity between the gifts of the gods and humans mirrored the more strictly human reciprocity between a Viking warrior and his chieftain. The warrior who fought bravely and loyally for his chieftain would be rewarded with his share of whatever spoils were taken in the battle or raid. Despite the unequal status between the warrior and his chieftain, and the unequal status between humans and gods, both parties in these transactions had obligations to the other that they were expected to fulfill. The warrior had obligations to his chieftain, who in turn had obligations to him; and humans had obligations to the gods, but the gods in turn had obligations to them.[12] When human worshipers performed the appropriate sacrifices, they could legitimately expect the gods to bless them with victory in battle, bountiful harvests, sexual fertility, or whatever it was they sought.

There was an element of unconditional fealty present in the chieftain-warrior relationship as well, exemplified by the expectation that an honorable warrior would sooner die by his chieftain’s side than flee and live. But this was largely subsumed by the sense of mutual obligation; a Viking warrior could choose to whom he offered his mortal loyalty, and leave one chieftain for another if he thought that another would treat him with more generosity.[13]

As chieftains became kings and Christianity triumphed in the later part of the Viking Age, the emphasis was reversed. The relationship between the king and his fighters – which had necessarily become much more impersonal with the great increase in the number of fighters each king commanded – was spoken of in terms borrowed from Christian language. No longer did humans and gods have reciprocal obligations to one another, in which both parties participated more or less voluntarily and held a dignified position despite their immense inequality. In the same way that medieval Christians were supposed to serve God unconditionally as his “slaves and thralls,” so, too, were a king’s men supposed to serve him.[14] What had previously been a contract or a bargain was replaced with decree, fiat, commandment.

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The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy

References:

[1] For the terminology of “explicit theology” and “implicit theology,” I’m indebted to Jan Assmann. See:

Assmann, Jan. 2001. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton.

[2] Otto, Rudolf. 1958. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John W. Harvey. p. 25-30.

[3] Ibid. p. 9.

[4] Ibid. p. 12-40.

[5] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 20-21.

[6] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 259.

[7] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.

[8] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 84.

[9] The term for this basic idea, common to many ancient religions, is a “hierogamy” (“divine marriage”), which typically takes place between a sky god and an earth goddess. See, for example:

Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 145-146.

[10] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 56, 70.

[11] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4-13. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.

[12] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 143.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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