There is expansive reading material available on the Norse myths. However, those who wish to take a step further, there is real terrain to explore where these myths and sagas took shape, both in continental Scandinavia and in Iceland. These countries have fascinating artifacts and landscapes to explore that will deepen one’s appreciation of the Norse myths and sagas and provide rich experiences in their own right.
Jelling Rune Stones
Regarding Norse artifacts, interestingly, there are more memorial rune stones in eastern Scandinavia, in Denmark and Sweden, than in Norway, or in the western islands settled from Norway, such as Iceland, the Faroes, and Greenland.
In Sweden and Denmark, these rune stones are often left in situ. The famous Jelling rune stones are located not too far from Aarhus, Denmark, on the Jutland peninsula (the part of Denmark that is connected to the European continent).
The two Jelling stones, in Norway, were commissioned by King Gorm and his son, King Harald Bluetooth, respectively, in the mid-900s AD. The stones commemorated fallen kin and boasted of their accomplishments. King Harald Bluetooth boasted on his stone that he had “made the Danes Christian”, and a large picture that takes up one face of the stone shows Christ, posed as though on the cross but entangled in branches.
It has long been speculated that this arboreal depiction of Christ’s crucifixion might have been influenced by the hanging of Odin on the tree.
The Snaptun Stone
Denmark, in the area near the Jutland peninsula, and in the islands, such as Zealand where Copenhagen is located, has produced many finds that continental Scandinavia and in Iceland told there were in the Viking Age.
The Snaptun stone, for example, depicts the god Loki with his sewn-together lips (his lips were sewn together by the dwarves who made Mjollnir, in revenge for Loki’s insincere wager with them). This stone is now housed in the Moesgaard Museum, in Aarhus.
In Norway, the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, houses a large collection of Viking Age weapons. The National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, however, displays an impressive collection of fascinating Viking Age artifacts. One of the most intriguing, but smallest, is an ornamental button, discovered only in 2019, that depicts the god, Tyr, as his hand is bitten off by the wolf, Fenrir.
Hints of the Ragnarok Myth
In Sweden, the rune stones that dot the countryside provide the most immediate and impressive passage back to the time when the Eddic poems of Odin and Thor were composed. In the town of Rok, not too far south of Stockholm, stands the enigmatic Rok rune stone, with its possible hints of the Ragnarok myth and what are likely its riddling records of an ancient famine and a man’s loss of his son.
In addition, there is also the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, which exhibits carved doors from a destroyed stave church that feature several scenes from the Volsung myths, such as Regin forging Sigurth’s sword and Sigurth slaying the dragon Fafnir.
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Urnes Stave Church
One can see a stave church without leaving the Oslo area, at the Norsk Folkemuseum, also known as the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. The museum is located next to the fascinating Viking Ship Museum, which holds the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, huge Viking ships in which early Norwegian local monarchs were buried.
And yet, perhaps the most celebrated of these Norwegian stave churches is the Urnes Stave Church, located in western Norway, on the shores of Lustrafjorden. The Urnes Stave Church has door carvings that depict deer eating the foliage of a tree—reminiscent of the deer said to feed on the leaves of the great tree Yggdrasil in pre-Christian Norse mythology.
Those who wish to venture to the land of fire and ice itself, where the Eddas and sagas were written, will find world-class adventure in Iceland. In Iceland’s capital and only major city, Reykjavik, one can see the original manuscript of the Poetic Edda usually on display at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies.
This manuscript is referred to in English by its Latin name, the Codex Regius, and is known as the Konungsbok in Icelandic. The manuscript is surprisingly small, only the size of an average paperback book and also easy to read. It is written in a clear and beautiful medieval style of handwriting called Carolingian-Insular, on calfskin pages that are largely unfaded.
Snorri Sturluson’s Home
To the north-northeast, one can visit Snorri Sturluson’s own home town of Reykholt. There is also Snorri’s Bath, or Snorralaug in Icelandic. This naturally heated pool might constitute one of the oldest remaining man-made structures in Iceland, with stones at the bottom of the pool placed as early as the 900s AD. With the water piped in from a nearby hot spring, this pool was used by Snorri himself, and it is still usable today.
Reykholt is also where Snorri did a great deal of his writing, and it’s also where he was finally murdered after he turned against the King of Norway, in favor of greater autonomy for Iceland.
The Thingvellir Site
About 45 minutes east of Reykjavik is Thingvellir National Park. This is the site where the annual Thing, or parliament, was held during the Viking Age, and into the medieval Christian period.
This was a site intimately familiar to Snorri himself, who served for many years himself in the prestigious role of ‘Lawspeaker’, the man who held the responsibility of reciting, from memory, one-third of the laws when the Thing met each year. The Thingvellir site is also a monument to the island nation’s longstanding commitment to non-monarchical government.
Common Questions about Artifacts and Real Locations of Norse Sagas
The two Jelling stones were commissioned by King Gorm and his son, King Harald Bluetooth, respectively, in the mid-900s AD.
One can see the original manuscript of the Poetic Edda usually on display at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies.
Reykholt is where Snorri did a great deal of his writing.