When the Roman Empire was in its decline, Germanic (Teutonic) tribes pushed from the Rhine over to land previously defended by the Romans. The Germanic people spoke the Germanic languages as opposed to the Celtic, Slav or Latin-based languages. These people brought their languages, beliefs and myths to these new lands.
Like the Celts, few written records have surfaced. Most are from outside observers such as Roman historian, Tacitus and Christian authors. The Germanic people did not write but used their runic alphabet for more mystical purposes. The runes were used for carving inscriptions on wood or stone for magical purposes. They were used throughout northern Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isle and Iceland from about 100 B.C.E. to 1600 B.C.E.
The harshness of the climate and lives of the people living in the northern climes are reflected in their myths and gods. The Norse gods were a race of half-god, half-giants who were not immortal. Although it seems like the Norse pantheon is male-dominated, this is not the case. The Christians seemed to have a particular hatred for the goddess Freyja (perhaps they didn’t like her eroto-magical poetry and songs) and obliterated most of the teachings and traditions of this goddess. Freyja’s worshippers involved orgiastic rites which horrified the Christians.
The Ancient Norse believed in a world clearly divided between good and evil. Good and evil were equally balanced and it was the struggle to keep things balanced that was the mythology of the Norse. Generally the giants represented chaos and negativity and the gods and goddesses needed to contend with them in order to keep balance.
The Germanic vision of the universe was multi-dimensional. The World-Tree, Yggdrasill, was made up of three levels which contained nine worlds. On the top level was Asgard (Asgardhr) is the kingdom of the Aesir (a group of gods). The Vanir (another group of gods) lived on Vanaheim. Alfheim was the domain of the elves. Below these three worlds was the Migard where men lived. Also on this level was Jotunhei, the land of the giants; Svartalfheim, land of the black eleves and Nidavellit the home of the dwarves. On the level below this was Niflheim which was very cold. Yggdrasill’s main column passed through each level. Its branches extended over the entire earth and its three roots went into the three levels of the universe. Under the root which went into Niflheim was the spring of Hvergelmir. Hvergelmir eas the source of the 11 rivers of creation.
Odin (or Woden, Wotan) was the Father of all Gods and men. He is usually pictured wearing a floppy hat, or a winged helmet and a cloak. He could travel to any realm in the nine worlds. His two raven companions, Huginn and Munin (Thought and Memory) fly over Midgard (the world of men) and return daily to tell him what has happened. He is the god of magick, wisdom, wit and learning. During Viking times he was associated with war and bloodshed, although not in earlier times. In order to gain the knowledge and power of the runes, Odin hangs himself upside down on the Tree of Yggdrasill.
Thor (Donnar) was also known as the Thunderer. He was considered to be the son of Odin, by some but many tribes supplanted Odin with Thor as their favorite god. He is considered the protector of Migard and he wields a mighty hammer called Mjollnir. Of all the gods, Thor is considered the most “barbarian” but is still faithful to the rest of Aesir. Thursday (Thorsdaeg) is sacred to him.
Freya is the goddess of love, beauty, magic, death and sex. She is also a warrior goddess and possesses great wisdom and magick. She, along with her twin brother Freyr, are part of a race of gods known as the Vanir. She is known as “the Lady” and Queen of the Valkyries. She wears the sacred necklace Brisingamen. The cat is her sacred symbol. The day Friday (Frejyasdaeg) was named for her.
Freyr (Fro Ingwe) is Freya’s twin brother. He is the horned god of fertility (similar to the Celtic god Cernunnos). He is known as the King of the Elves (Alfs). The boar is his sacred symbol. His boar, known as Gullenbursti, is supposed to represent daybreak. He is also known as the god of success. Freyr had an association with a horse cult and horses were sacred to him. He is also the lord of prosperity and physical well-being.
Frigga (Frigg, Fricka) was a fertility goddess as well as the goddess of love, marriage and destiny. . She was the wife of Odin and Queen of the Asgard. She was considered to be the Mother of all and protectoress of children. Some believe that Friday was named after her rather than Freyja. She was said to have great prophetic powers. She was a sky goddess who was responsible for weaving the clouds (which affected sunshine, rain and crops.) She was also responsible for weaving the fates. She is credited with the creation of the runes as a tool for divination.
Norns (Urd, Verdande and Skuld) are the equivalent of the Greek Fates. They determined the destinies of the Gods and Man. They are female spirits who were thought to visit each child at birth and brought either good or bad fortune. They also maintain the World Tree, Yggdrasill. To counteract suffering, the Norns that lived near the Tree mixed water from the well of Urd and the mud around the well and poured it over the branches every day. This mixture was so holy that everything it touched was protected.
Tyr(Tiw, Ziw, Tiwaz) is the ancient god of War and Lawgiver of the gods. At one time he was the leader of the Norse gods but was later supplanted by Odin. He was originally known at Tiwaz. Warriors marked their swords with a T to gain the god’s protection. He (Tiwaz) was worshipped with human sacrifices conducted deep in the forests.
Hel (Hoole, Hulda) was the goddess of Death. She is portrayed by the Vikings as half-dead and half-alive. She was also seen as Mother Holle, pure nature and being helpful unless you crossed her or transgressed natural law. She was the ruler of Niflheim, the land of the mists. Heroic souls go to Valhalla. Those who die of disease or old age go to Niflheim. It is impregnable and surrounded by high walls and strong gates.
Loki was a trickster who challenges the structure and order of the Gods. He is also known as the god of Fire. He is neither an Aesir or a Vanir but comes from a race of elementals (Ettins). He is supposed to possess some demonic qualities and while he may help the Aesir, he also spawns monsters. Hel is his daughter.
Heimdall is the god who guards the Bifrost Bridge which is the entrance to Asgard. He is the one who will sound the great horn Gjallarhorn on the day of Ragnarok (the end of the world). In the battle he will slay Loki.
Njord is the chief of the Vanir, Lord of the winds and of the sea and giver of wealth. Oaths in law courts during pagan times, were sworn in his name. He is known for his bare feet (which in ancient Norse times was considered a fertility symbol).
Ragnarok means “destruction of the powerful ones”. This is the great battle between the gods and the Frost Giants. The forces of evil will gather and make war on the gods. The world will be destroyed and made anew.
Skadi was the Goddess of Winter and the Hunt. She is married to Njord. She is the goddess of Justice, Vengeance and Righteous Anger. She is represented as “The Snow Queen” and “The Ice Princess” in Hans Christian Anderson’s tales.