By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
By the time their Norse-speaking Viking cousins arrived in England, beginning around AD 800, the English had long since ceased to tell the old gods’ stories. When a Viking raider landed on the soil of England, it might have been on a day that both that Viking and an Englishman called ‘Thor’s day’. But only the Viking remembered or cared who Thor was.
The Norse Myths
The Norse myths preserve stories about the gods once worshipped throughout Scandinavia, and at an earlier period even in England and Germany as well. All of these areas of northern Europe speak what are called Germanic languages.
Because the old Germanic languages, including Old Norse, Old High German, and Old English, had split off from one ancestor language in northern Europe only a few centuries before the Viking Age, the Old Norse language remained a very close relative to Old English.
And just as these languages shared a common root in an ancestor language spoken in the early centuries AD, the cultures speaking these very similar languages originally had much in common. Before the English were converted to Christianity (largely in the 500s to 600s AD), they worshipped the same gods as their Norse-speaking cousins.
After the much later conversion of the Norse-speaking countries to Christianity, by around AD 1000, only a small and remote population of Iceland continued to maintain their already long-standing fascination with their pre-Christian heritage.
Thus, the significant written sources come from only one country, Iceland.
However, the Icelanders did not start to write down these myths until two centuries after Iceland had already been converted to Christianity. Before that, during the Viking Age, roughly AD 800 to 1100, mythology was transmitted orally, not written down.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Viking Age Alphabet
Interestingly, some short inscriptions in the Viking Age alphabet, the runic alphabet called the Younger Futhark, mention a god or gods by name—usually Odin or Thor. But these are not stories—they are simple phrases like “Thor bless”.
We also see the gods’ names abundantly in the names of places in Scandinavia and Iceland that survive from these early centuries. The maps of Scandinavia and Iceland are full of places called ‘Thor’s harbor’, or ‘Odin’s sanctuary’, or ‘Frey’s grove’.
And some art on stone from this period also include scenes that we believe depict stories of the gods, though we would not be able to interpret them without the aid of the stories written down much later.
Indeed, little of the poetry that the pagan Vikings prized was written down in the Viking Age itself. The Rok rune stone in Sweden does preserve what might be cryptic poetry about Ragnarok, carved during the Viking Age.
Yet, the rune alphabet was used mostly for carving short prosaic messages, such as memorial stones or ownership tags.
So, how do we know anything much more than names?
The Scandinavian Settlers
Scandinavian settlers, largely from Norway, began to take up homes in the large, previously uninhabited island of Iceland in the 870s AD.
The landscape in Norway was fragmented by natural barriers, with the narrow valleys of cultivated land separated by high mountains and deep water. So, for the most part, each valley had developed its own local king or chieftain.
But during the last half of the 800s AD, Norway was being unified for the first time, and many of these local leading men of small regions chose to leave rather than submit. Power was being consolidated during this period under the rule of one king, remembered to history as King Harald Fairhair.
The Birth of Iceland
The birth of Iceland, remarkably, bears some similarities to the birth of the United States. For the Norwegian lords who left their homeland and established themselves in Iceland did not set up a new kingdom, but rather a kind of republic.
The social atmosphere was aristocratic—all the leading families traced their lineage back to important families in Norway—but balanced by a rough frontier egalitarianism, too.
And when, in AD 1000, Iceland was converted to Christianity, it happened peacefully (unlike in Norway), by an action taken at the Icelandic parliament.
Oral Pagan Poetry
This peacefully negotiated transition to a new religion, in a place far from the rest of Europe, allowed these medieval Icelanders to continue passing on the oral poetry of their pagan forebears, which they valued for cultural heritage and entertainment purposes, without the same anxiety and suspicion that might have attended it elsewhere.
At the same time, the religion they practiced was now Christianity. Hence, no instructions for the worship of the old gods—no prayers, no rituals—were passed down; only the stories.
Think of how parents today might read their children stories about Hercules, without teaching their kids to sacrifice to Hercules. The story is part of a rich cultural heritage, embedded in numerous literary references to the Twelve Labors for example, but it is now divorced from any feelings of reverence for, or any rites practiced to propitiate, a god named Hercules.
Thus, lore about the pre-Christian gods and heroes continued to be treasured in Iceland for two centuries after the conversion to Christianity, right up to the time when an unknown editor decided to write down some of the traditional mythic poems, probably around AD 1200. This editor chose to compile, in writing, a total of about thirty poems, eleven focused on the gods, dwarves, and elves, and about twenty featuring the heroes of the Volsung family.
Common Questions about Viking Gods and the Pre-Christian Viking Heritage
The Icelanders did not start to write down the myths until two centuries after Iceland had already been converted to Christianity. Before that, during the Viking Age, roughly AD 800 to 1100, mythology was transmitted orally, not written down.
The rune alphabet was mostly used for carving short prosaic messages, such as memorial stones or ownership tags.
In AD 1000, Iceland was converted to Christianity. As the religion practiced by the Icelanders was now Christianity, no instructions for the worship of the old gods—no prayers, no rituals—were passed down.