Norse Mythology and the Creation of Humankind


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

Norse mythology describes the creation of humankind. However, the story of how humankind came to be more populous, and got divided into separate classes with separate tasks, is told only in one poem called Rigsthula. While Rigsthula was not included in the manuscript in which most of the Poetic Edda was compiled, it was preserved in a manuscript of similar age.

An image of the rune alphabets.
Jarl was tutored by Heimdall himself in the art of reading and carving the rune alphabet. (Image: David Persson/Shutterstock)

Heimdall, and Ai and Edda

According to Rigsthula, the god Heimdall takes the name Rig and goes walking along a seashore early in the history of humankind.

Heimdall walks until he comes to a farm and asks for hospitality. The owners, a gray-haired couple named Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother (or in Old Norse, Ai and Edda) take him in happily, though they have little to share.

They are a poor Norse couple, and so they can only afford to feed him their lumpy, seed-filled bread and boiled meat, before sleeping the next three nights with Heimdall in their bed between them.

The god leaves then, and nine months later, Great-Grandmother gives birth to a boy named Slave (Old Norse Thraell).

The Norse Stereotype

Slave grows up to fulfill the Norse stereotype of an ugly, hardworking slave, as we read in stanza 8:

His hands had

scabby skin,

knobby knuckles,

and fat fingers.

His face was ugly,

he had a bad back.

He would be tasked with all kinds of work befitting a low-status peasant on the farm, such as hauling firewood and the tedious work of making ropes and baskets.

Slave and Slavewoman

Slave later meets a woman of similar status, named Slavewoman (Old Norse Thi). Both of them are described as sunburned, a trait the class-conscious Norse looked down on in low-class laborers forced to till outdoors in the sun.

They share a bed—though they don’t marry, since marriage is a practice of classes with property.

Over time they have children: boys with names such as Lumpy, Barn-cleaner, and Noisy, who make fences, shovel manure, and herd pigs and goats; and daughters with deprecating names like Shorty, Fatty, and Fat-calf.

All of these unflattering designations give us a window into the demeaning Norse view of the unfree farm laborers, who often were kidnapped foreign slaves of Slavic or Celtic extraction, or descendants of such foreign slaves.

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Heimdall, and Afi and Amma

An image of a red haired baby.
Grandmother, or Amma, gave birth to a red-haired, ruddy-faced boy, named Freeman (Karl). (Image: Mr.Nikon/Shutterstock)

Heimdall’s walk continues, and he comes to a second home where he’s invited in by a younger Norse couple named Grandfather and Grandmother (or in Old Norse, Afi and Amma).

These two lead more privileged lives, and have more refined appearances: the man has a fashionable long-banged haircut and a well-kempt beard, and the woman has a lace choker and jeweled brooches at her shoulders.

Once again the god sleeps between them for three nights, and nine months later, Grandmother gives birth to a red-haired, ruddy-faced boy they name Freeman (Karl).

Freeman and Daughter-in-law

Freeman, or Karl, will grow up to be a hard worker, but at more dignified and less menial types of farm work than Slave—he will tame oxen, make plows, and build houses. He will marry formally, with an exchange of gifts between families, and his bride will be a well-dressed Norse woman, named just Daughter-in-law.

These two original middle-class Norse people will have sons with names describing middle-class occupations and aspirations—Smith, Farmer, and even a boy named Drengr, or Valorous Warrior. Their daughters will have less vocational, but very class-consciously proper Norse names like Bride, Swan, and Lady.

Father and Mother

Finally, Heimdall’s journey takes him to a third home, which advertises its status with a door-knocking ring and fragrant, comfortable straw strewn on the floor within.

He finds a good-looking couple here inside the warm home: Father and Mother (Fathir and Mothir in Old Norse language).

This couple is noticeably more affectionate toward one another than others. The wealthy Father spends his time making arrows and bows, and his wife spends much of her time looking after the fine appearance of her brightly colored clothes and golden jewelry.

Nobleman, Old Norse Jarl

At mealtime, Father and Mother feed the god a splendid spread, served on a clean tablecloth, replete with rarities such as poultry, and exotic treats like wine and white bread. And before long, after this rich banquet, the god once again beds down between his hosts for three nights.

Nine months later, Mother gives birth to Nobleman—Old Norse Jarl—a blonde boy with snake-like eyes, as Norse heroes are often said to have.

At birth, Jarl is splashed with water, in a ceremony seemingly reminiscent of baptism. Jarl will then grow up to learn many skills and arts restricted to the well-born, such as swimming, archery, horsemanship, and swordplay.

Sometime in Jarl’s youth, Heimdall himself visits him. He tutors the boy himself, imparting even more rarefied skills—the art of reading and carving in the rune alphabet that was used in Scandinavia in the Viking Age.

A Generous Norse Warlord

Young Nobleman will conquer neighboring lands and become a warlord generous to his men. He will marry another lord’s daughter, She-Eagle (Old Norse Erna), and their many sons will include Scion, Descendant, Successor, and most importantly, the youngest, Konr ungr (‘young Konr’, a Norse pun on konungr, the word for ‘king’).

This ‘King’ learns magic for saving lives and understanding the speech of birds, and he meets Heimdall, as his father Jarl had before him, and learns runes even better than his divine grandfather can teach them.

The poem is probably incomplete, but what we have ends with King killing birds in the forest with his bow, when a crow criticizes him for wasting his arrows. The crow says, “Kill men, and start with your neighbors, who have more lands than you”, and so is born the top class of Norse society, the raiding war-king.

And thus is set in motion the constant roil of battle between competing mortals, mirroring the complex violent interplay of the gods and anti-gods above.

Common Questions about Norse Mythology and the Creation of Humankind

Q: Why did Slave and Slavewoman not marry?

Slave and Slavewoman shared a bed, but they did not marry as marriage was a practice of classes with property.

Q: Which skills and arts did Jarl grow up to learn?

Jarl grew up to learn many skills and arts restricted to the well-born, such as swimming, archery, horsemanship, and swordplay.

Q: What did the crow say to King?

The crow said, “Kill men, and start with your neighbors, who have more lands than you”, and so was born the top class of Norse society, the raiding war-king.

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