Rediscovering Norse Mythology in the 21st Century


By Jackson Crawford, University Of Colorado, Boulder

With respect to Norse mythology, on the one hand, there’s real old lore, real ‘mountains’ if you will, written down in the Eddas some 800 years ago. And then there are the ‘clouds’ of airy speculation and fancy that have settled over the real peaks and valleys of Norse mythology, accumulating there for hundreds of years. Even today, those ‘clouds’ of speculation and imagination are most of what one is going to find when they search the Internet for information.

Two people wearing Loki and Thor 's costumes, based on the versions in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Multimillion-dollar movie and television franchise describe Thor as Loki’s brother. Yet, in the Eddas, they are not brothers, not even foster-brothers. (Image: Ewen Roberts/Public domain)

Norse Mythology in Popular Culture

Today, most of the places where we encounter names from Norse mythology in daily life and popular culture are connected to the medieval sources only in the names that are used.

The owners of many a recent business have taken their company’s name, or their products’ names, from Norse mythology. An always popular choice is the name Valhalla, often misleadingly dubbed the ‘heaven’ of the Vikings, even though Valhalla is a place where the brutally killed get brutally killed again, every day, in preparation for a hopeless battle for their hopeless god—very far from most people’s idea of heaven.

And then a multimillion-dollar movie and television franchise follows the exploits of Thor, described as the god of thunder, as he fights to save the universe from his so-called brother Loki. And yet, in the Eddas, unlike in the movies, Thor and Loki are not brothers, and not even foster-brothers.

It is not a coincidence that it is specifically Norse mythology that is so popular today, even in an often distorted form. Part of it is also how much these mythological stories have influenced our own science fiction and fantasy so deeply over the last century.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Impact

J. R. R. Tolkien was a primary driver of the renewed influence of Old Norse mythological lore in the last century. Tolkien was an Oxford professor who specialized in the Old English and Old Norse languages, and the myths and sagas left a deep imprint in his own creative works. This includes everything from simple details like the way the dwarves in The Hobbit are all given the names of dwarves named in the poem, Voluspa, to the way major events in the hero Aragorn’s life are patterned after the career of the great Volsung hero, Sigurth.

An image of the first page of the book, The hobbit.
The dwarves in The Hobbit are all given the names of dwarves in the poem, Voluspa. (Image: Strebe/Public domain)

In turn, Tolkien’s work influenced generations of writers of fantasy novels, games, and movies. Indirectly, through this influence, many tropes of the sagas live on in the work of people who have never read them.

And Tolkien’s popularity has also lifted the public profile of the original Old Norse works themselves, as readers seek more stories with a similar feel to Tolkien’s.

Of course, this is not the only reason why more and more people have sought to discover Norse mythology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But certainly new audiences seeking the works that inspired Tolkien’s legendarium are part of that surge of interest.

The Asatru Fellowship

And beyond all these manifestations in popular culture are the growing numbers of people who identify powerfully with the stories in the Eddas, and consider themselves latter-day pagans. Their movement is often known as Asatru, a modern neologism, constructed from Old Norse words, that translates to ‘faith of the Aesir gods’.

As we have seen, there is really only a little to go on in reconstructing the actual religious practices of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Some of the latter-day Asatru groups acknowledge this reality, and carefully distinguish between what draws on our old sources and what is new or guesswork. The major present-day Icelandic group, the Asatruarfelagid or Asatru Fellowship, is even constructing a temple in Reykjavik, in the early 2020s, attempting to follow the bare hints in archaeology and sagas for what a historical temple might have looked like.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Not-so Reliable Resources

But not all practitioners are as responsible with the source material, and some aggressive modern gurus and self-anointed prophets even present their own so-called ‘revelations’ as sources for the lore of the Norse gods.

These are, at times, influential enough to leak into, what might otherwise seem like, responsibly sourced websites.

Searcher, beware: anyone can make a slick-looking video, write a reasonable-sounding essay, or edit Wikipedia, and often it is the most eager rather than the most knowledgeable who are most active in this regard. Keep in mind, that, it is the most-often and most enthusiastically clicked website that rises to the top of search results, not the one with the best bibliography.

Reinterpretation of Old Stories

Of course, stories of every description have been getting reinterpreted every generation for as long as humans have walked the globe and told stories. Even our medieval sources for Norse myth evidence a changing set of beliefs and narratives that varied from place to place and century to century.

Therefore, reinterpretation and reuse of old stories is a legitimate tradition, and indeed part of the same tradition that our original sources themselves continued.

But we do the past and the present both a disservice when we allow the interpretations of modern filmmakers and the declarations of recent gurus to displace our understanding of the Viking Age myths preserved in the Eddas.

As Odin says in Hávamál, stanza 27:

It’s best for a fool

to keep his mouth shut

among other people.

No one will know

he knows nothing,

if he says nothing.

An ignorant man

does not know how little he knows,

no matter how much he talks.

For those who want to get to know the real ‘mountains’ of Norse mythology, there is a vast terrain to explore.

Common Questions about Rediscovering Norse Mythology in the 21st Century

Q: What is the name Valhalla is often misleadingly dubbed as?

The name Valhalla, often misleadingly dubbed the ‘heaven’ of the Vikings.

Q: Who was J. R. R. Tolkien?

J. R. R. Tolkien was an Oxford professor who specialized in the Old English and Old Norse languages, and the myths and sagas left a deep imprint in his own creative works.

Q: What is the Asatru movement?

A growing numbers of people identify powerfully with the stories in the Eddas, and consider themselves latter-day pagans. Their movement is often known as Asatru.

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