Norse Religion: Stories of the Pagan Gods

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: NORSE MYTHOLOGY

By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

The stories of pre-Christian gods and heroes make up Norse mythology proper. The stories we have were written down and preserved by writers in a Christian era, who transmitted stories about the gods for edification and entertainment. Yet, because that transmission was through Christian hands, there was no attempt to pass on any information about how to worship those old gods.

Statue of Odin
Sacrifices were made to the Norse gods in order to gain advantage in this life. (Image: Drakuliren/Shutterstock)

Relationship with God

There is a line drawn between Norse mythology—narratives about pre-Christian gods—and Norse religion—practices and rituals for worshipping these beings. There is only sparse, but intriguing, information about the latter. From what we do know, it appears that religion had a different place in the lives of the pre-Christian Norse than a synagogue or church holds in traditional Judeo-Christian communities today.

Norse paganism does not seem to have had ‘commandments’ as such, nor a central focus on virtues and corresponding sins. The relationship with the gods of such a religion—and this is as true of Norse paganism as of Greco-Roman paganism—was more transactional, with honor done to the gods as a way of propitiating them.

For example, sacrifices were done less in ‘love’ of a god than in hopes that he will repay the community sacrificing to him with some equal or greater favor—good weather, good harvest, good fishing, victory in war, or perhaps a special advance glimpse of the future.

The gods could demand and offer different things—Odin, for example, famously demanded death in battle, with the questionable reward of a more glorious afterlife. Other than the imperative to die in battle rather than go to the boring realm of Hel, the afterlife never appears to have been a major factor in Norse thinking. Rather, sacrifices were made to the Norse gods in order to gain advantage in this life.

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Polytheistic Religion

The Norse belief in a large set of gods is also less exclusive in attitude than people raised in modern monotheist religions are often aware.

To worship Thor was not to exclude the worship of Odin, or even to exclude the worship of Christ. If Christ was a foreign god to the pre-Christian Norse, he was still a powerful one, and there was no ban on testing out any god to see whether currying favor with him might lead to advantages.

For example, in part 3 of the Icelandic Book of Settlements, a work whose oldest surviving manuscript dates from a compilation in the 1200s AD, we read about the pioneer generations arriving in Iceland during the period from roughly 870 to 930. And there we read about an early settler named Helgi, who was “…very mixed in belief. He believed in Christ, but prayed to Thor for success in sea voyages and in hardship”.

This wasn’t unscrupulous for a Norse pagan in the way that traditional Christianity would recoil if a Christian worshipper turned to Thor occasionally. In this polytheistic conception, an unknown number of powerful beings were above humanity, somewhere in the cosmos.

Title page of Prose Edda.
Even before Snorri wrote his Prose Edda in the 1220s, there was still some traditional awareness of the stories about the old gods. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Early Norse Christian poems even mention Christ sitting in judgment over the world near the roots of the tree of Yggdrasill—reminding us that changing the god you pray to doesn’t necessarily change what you envision the god doing, or where.

Stories of Norse Gods

It is no surprise that we know so relatively little about pre-Christian Norse religion. Christians in the Middle Ages who were interested in their countries’ past pagan beliefs would always walk a line, cautious to avoid suspicion that they were encouraging or practicing heresy. And yet the stories of the Norse gods remained popular in Iceland (at least) after the conversion, and so they continued to be told—stripped of any remnants of pagan ritual.

We know that even before Snorri wrote his Prose Edda in the 1220s, there was still some traditional awareness of the stories about the old gods. In a contemporary account, we learn that Snorri’s father, Sturla, was in conflict with a neighbor woman who tried to stab him through the eye. She missed the eye, but as she thrusted at him, she screamed, “Why not make you more like the one you most want to be like? That’s Odin!”

This shows us that in the last half of the 1100s, before anyone had bothered to write down the ancient poems about the gods, enough stories about them were passing around orally for a woman to refer casually to the physical features of a god—Odin’s one eye—and his character traits, like his domineering, manipulative ways, which she hated in her neighbor Sturla, too.

Passing Down of Stories

This is similar to how stories of the Greek and Roman gods were passed down by Christian scholars throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period as well. Even today, parents can read to their children from a story about Hercules on Saturday night and then go to church the next morning. The myth has been wholly separated from any kind of religious practice, and even from any suspicion of religious inclination.

Much the same was true of Iceland in the 1200s AD; otherwise, we would have none of the stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, et al., preserved. And even where a genuine medieval written source means to give us a little information about religion, it’s much less than what the interested reader today wants.

Common Questions about Stories of the Pagan Gods

Q: How was people’s relationship with pagan gods?

The relationship of people with the pagan gods was transactional, with honor done to the gods as a way of propitiating them.

Q: What was the reason for sacrifices done in Norse religion?

Sacrifices in Norse religion were done in hopes that god would repay the community sacrificing to him with some equal or greater favor—good weather, good harvest, good fishing, victory in war, or perhaps a special advance glimpse of the future.

Q: Why do we know so little about Norse religion?

We know relatively little about pre-Christian Norse religion because Christians in the Middle Ages, who were interested in their countries’ past pagan beliefs, would always walk a line, cautious to avoid suspicion that they were encouraging or practicing heresy. And while the stories of the Norse gods remained popular in Iceland (at least) after the conversion, they were stripped of any remnants of pagan ritual.

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