Although I’m fascinated with much of mythology, Scandinavian myths interest me in particular since they’re the only ones I’ve studied with any kind of depth. Scandinavian mythology, like many other mythologies, is abound with a plethora of gods, each having their own share of attributes often encompassing both the lighter and darker sides of our human nature. The Scandinavian (or Norse) gods are clearly motivated to behave in ways that are expedient for themselves, and in that sense, they could even be seen as inherently selfish or self-centered. But in general, they should not be mistakenly characterized as moral or immoral, good or bad, or in any way possessing authentic human qualities or moral systems, as such a characterization would be overly simplistic and ignores their overarching modus operandi of expedience.
Nevertheless, we can plausibly recognize a number of human-like personality traits throughout the Eddas, i.e. The Poems of the Elder Edda (hereafter referred to as “PE”) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (hereafter referred to as “Prose”), where the gods at least appear to possess some human qualities including bravery, cowardice, wisdom, stupidity, kindness, cruelty, jealousy, lust, and in some ways even possessing love or care for one another. I’d like to highlight some of these anthropomorphic characteristics as they appear to the reader by examining the interplay between the gods from a modern perspective (in terms of how they appear to behave) and also by examining the explicit claims of the gods themselves (how the gods describe one another using these human attributes and their respective nomenclature). If you haven’t yet read the Eddas, then I recommend doing so before reading this post, as I’m going to be referencing these texts quite a bit. On the other hand, if you have a general understanding of these myths, even without having read these texts in their entirety, then hopefully this post is up your alley.
The gods seem to have a somewhat dynamic relationship history (though actual timelines are generally incoherent in Scandinavian mythology) where they have experienced states of cooperation and opposition either within or between the two groups of gods (i.e. the Vanir and the Aesir). We mustn’t forget how the Aesir and the Vanir were once at war with one another, due to the fact that the Vanir wanted to secure for themselves equal rights of worship, which eventually resulted in a peaceful truce in order to avoid further losses from the power of Vanir magic (Prose, p. 100; PE, p. 2). This is a good example of the gods fighting one another, perhaps motivated by a form of jealousy over who is to be praised, but then is subsequently followed by reconciliation and cooperation which seems to hold true from that point forward (with a few exceptions to occur during Ragnarok).
Throughout Locasenna (PE, pp. 72-85), there are a number of instances of cruelty with an occasional instance of kindness between some of the gods. In particular, we have Loki, one of the Aesir, who insults fellow members of his tribe of gods, namely Eldir, Bragi, Idun, Gefjon, Odin, Frigg, Tyr, Byggvir, Heimdall, Skadi, Sif, Beyla, and Thor, and who also insults the Vanir gods, namely Freyja, Njord, and Frey. Throughout this “game of dozens”, as mutually insolent as it was, there were nevertheless a couple examples of apparent kindness and allusions to kind gestures of times past, for instance Loki reminding Odin that he once promised not to have any ale poured unless it was brought for both he and Loki (PE, p. 74). Shortly after this reference, Idun is insulted by Loki but rather than stooping to Loki’s level with a return of insults like that which most of the other gods take part in, she remains kind toward Loki and says that she will not speak spiteful words to him (PE, p. 75). Frigg also tries to keep the peace during this altercation by asking them both to forgive and forget (PE, p. 76). Lastly, we have Byggvir who said he was proud and happy to be where all of Hropt’s (Odin’s) sons all drink ale together – a final example in this story of perceived fellowship and mutual kindness between many of the gods during these feasts (PE, p. 79).
There are also a couple of other apparent acts of kindness in Thrymskvitha, where we hear about Thor trying to get his hammer (Mjollnir) back from the giant Thrym. One such example, indeed a quite simple gesture of kindness, is when Thor asks Freyja if she would lend her feather coat to Loki, so he could fly to help him find his hammer and she said she would gladly give it to him even if it were made of gold or silver (PE, p. 85). Then of course, throughout this adventure, Loki – however out of character he may seem – helps Thor in a number of ways so that he can achieve his goal, and he does this despite our knowing that he is certainly capable of refusing such a gesture given all of his previous shenanigans (PE, pp. 85-88).
Though relatively rare in these stories, there are also a couple of references to loving and caring for one another. For example, when the goddess Freyja is described as being married to Oth, it is also mentioned that she weeped for him when he went on his long journeys, implying that she must have loved and cared for her husband very much (Prose, p. 59). Another form of love stemming from the gods is that of their effects on others, for example the goddess Sjofn is described as being concerned with turning the minds of people towards love, and the goddess Lofn who serves to overrule otherwise prohibited marriages between men and women (Prose, p. 59). On the surface at least, these latter examples would appear to rely on both Sjofn and Lofn having a loving nature of their own.
A far better example, and perhaps the best example of love and caring can be found within the story concerning the death of Balder (Prose, pp. 81-82; PE, pp. 4 and 242). In this story we hear about Balder’s prophetic dream that he would be killed by some future threat, whereupon the gods assembled to find out more about Balder’s life threatening dreams and then Odin eventually goes to Hel to try and learn about this in more detail from a psychic sibyl. The gods appear to be worrying over this and thus display more than a mere semblance of care and love for Balder.
This is further confirmed when we read about the Aesir deciding to seek protection for Balder from any form of harm that they could imagine. Frigg is directly involved with this care for Balder, by exacting oaths from all manner of things that she thought could be used as potential weapons, such that they couldn’t be used to harm Balder. To amuse themselves, the Aesir tested Balder’s invulnerability by throwing all kinds of objects at him, with no harm coming to Balder as expected. Loki became annoyed that Balder was able to withstand being beaten, stoned, and shot at (which could be interpreted as an instance of jealousy), and so he disguised himself as a woman and found out from Frigg that she hadn’t exacted an oath from mistletoe (and therefore found a loophole in Balder’s protection). Then Loki gave the mistletoe to Hod and told him to join the others in the fun, and Balder was struck dead instantly (Prose, p. 81). The reaction from the Aesir was clearly one of dread and grief as they weeped for him, and likewise during Balder’s funeral, when his wife the goddess Nanna saw his dead body being carried onto the funeral ship and then died of a broken heart right there on the spot (Prose, p. 82).
Furthermore, when Hermod rode to Hel to try and give ransom for Balder’s return to Asgard, he talks about how much the gods were weeping over his death. Hel responded by requesting a sort of test, requiring that everyone and everything would weep for Balder, in order to see if Balder was really loved as much as people said he was. The only one who did not weep for Balder was the giantess Thokk (presumably Loki in disguise), thus illustrating just how ubiquitous love and care for Balder was (Prose, pp. 82-84). What could be a better example of love and care for another than weeping over another’s death let alone dying from such overwhelming grief (as in the case of Balder’s widow, Nanna)?
Although love and care are rare attributes to find described in these texts, we do see a few more instances of lust and infatuation (being “in love”) which is nevertheless another human quality. Odin himself, chief among the gods, tells us about his attempted exploits with “Billing’s daughter”, a giantess. Odin talks about how he sat around waiting for this fair woman that he loved beyond soul and body, and yet couldn’t have her (PE, p. 23). He watched her in bed, and felt joyless unless he could sleep with this woman he longed for (PE, p. 24). This giantess ended up deceiving Odin and his wish never came to fruition, and so it is worth mentioning that beyond the reference of love and infatuation, this appears to be an instance of stupidity as well. Not only was Odin deceived here, but he failed to consider using his powerful magic to overcome the barriers that were hindering him from achieving his goal (those guarding the giantess’s bed). It should come as no surprise however that his love-drunk infatuated state clouded his judgement for even Odin himself mentions that wise men are made into fools by the “lures of love” and that despite this, no sickness is worse for the wise man than nothing left to love (PE, p. 23).
Shortly after this tale, we hear about Odin sleeping with the giant Suttung’s daughter Gunnlod for three nights, where Odin mentions that if it weren’t for Gunnlod who laid in his arms for love, how he likely couldn’t have come back from the giant’s court (PE, p. 25; Prose, p. 102). Lastly, Odin makes several mentions of his exploits with women to Thor while disguised as the ferryman named Harbard, where he brags about his having made love to maidens in the land called All-Green, where he specifically mentions having slept with seven sisters (PE, p. 60).
There are mentions of the other gods having various sexual affairs as well, though the bulk of them are only mentioned through Loki’s long stream of insults in Lokasenna. Idun is first described as being the most lustful for men, having locked her “arms in love” around the one who killed her brother (PE, p. 75). Then Frigg is accused of being lustful for men, having slept with both of Odin’s brothers, Ve and Vili (PE, p. 76). Njord and Freyja are both accused of sleeping with their own siblings, and then Freyja is accused of sleeping with all of the elves and the Aesir present at the feast (PE, pp. 77-78). To top it all off, Loki mentions how he himself slept with Tyr’s wife, with the goddess Skadi, and even Thor’s wife Sif (PE, p. 79-81), with this latter affair also referenced by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 64). We also have a brief reference here to Frey’s relations with Gymir’s daughter, the giantess Gerd, which is described in much more detail in Skirnir’s Journey (PE, p. 50). Frey becomes love-sick over Gerd, says nobody has loved a maiden so much as he, and so sends Skirnir in his stead to woo her, eventually culminating in success with Gerd saying that she never believed she could be so fond of Frey (PE, pp. 51 and 56). These sexual affairs as well as the aforementioned exploits of Odin definitely serve to exemplify some of the more primal human attributes of lust and sexual dominance, and can be seen to be even more realistically human with the controversy and shame associated with their being referenced in the context of Loki’s spout of insults.
Another human attribute that is far more apparent in these texts is that of bravery. Although Tyr is mentioned by Snorri as being the boldest of the gods, and the one with the most courage (Prose, p. 53), not least because he was brave enough to put his hand in the mouth of the wolf, Fenrir, knowing it would be bitten off, Tyr himself says that Frey is the bravest as well as the best among the Aesir during the insolent exchange with Loki. In the same exchange, we also hear Frigg refer to Balder as brave (PE, pp. 77-78). Then we have the god Ali (a.k.a. Vali) who is described as being bold in battle (Prose, p. 55). In the Lay of Harbard, Odin (disguised as Harbard) tells Thor that he fought battles and performed many brave deeds while in the land called All-Green (PE, p. 60). When allusions are made to Ragnarok, we also hear that despite the fact that nothing on earth or in heaven will be free from fear (an example of universal cowardice, including that of the gods), the Aesir and all of Odin’s warriors in Valhalla (the “Einherjar”) will nevertheless arm themselves and fight to the death (Prose, p. 87). Likewise, Odin and his son Vidar are destined to go forth to fight Fenrir (with Odin dying in the process), and Frey to go on to battle Surt, the Lord of the fire-giants, all clear acts of bravery (PE, p.6).
It seems clear that, by far the most mentions of bravery are attributed to the supreme killer of giants, the one and only, Thor. Beyond the various mentions of his might and strength (Prose, p. 37, 73, 78; PE, p.69), Thor is mentioned in a number of feats of bravery. Snorri describes how Thor had cracked the skulls of many giants (Prose, p. 50), how he had gone to the east to fight trolls (Prose, p. 67), how he shivered the giant builder’s skull into fragments after the giant flew into a fit of rage (Prose, p. 68), and how Thor fought and killed the strongest of all the giants, Hrungnir (Prose, pp. 104-105; PE, p.82). In the Lay of Harbard, we hear of Thor’s defeating the courageous giant Thjazi, his fighting giant female Berserks, and his waging war with a large throng of giants; a throng so large that they would have killed all the men in Midgard had he not defeated them (PE, p. 60-62).
Perhaps the epitome of Thor’s bravery is that told in the Sayings of Hymir, where he goes fishing with the giant Hymir, and wanted to row farther out to sea, despite Hymir’s warnings of their possible encounter with the World Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 68). Far out at sea, Thor managed to set the hook and pull up the World Serpent right on to the skiff and stared into its eyes, with Hymir turning pale with fear during this face-off and eventually cutting the line to release the Serpent (Prose, p. 79; PE, p. 69). This face-off also served as a beautiful foreshadowing of the final encounter between Thor and the Jormungand during Ragnarok, with Thor bravely defeating the Midgard Serpent before dying himself from the Serpent’s poisonous breath (Prose, p. 88; PE, p.6). Odin also exemplified a far more implicit form of bravery, beyond the mere explicit mentions of his brave deeds in the Lay of Harbard, or his battling during Ragnarok as mentioned earlier. For Odin had another human attribute, namely wisdom (which I’ll expand on in a moment), with this wisdom serving to remind him of his inevitable fate and the fate of the gods as a whole during Ragnarok. Aside from the feats of bravery accompanying any actual battles he fought in, it seems reasonable to suspect that quite a bit of courage was required for him to remain functional and motivated despite the frightening fore-knowledge he obtained from the sibyls pertaining to Ragnarok (PE, pp. xii, xviii, xxii, 38, and 44).
The importance of bravery as an element in these texts is also illustrated by its explicit negation, where a few gods are accused or shown to be cowardly in some way. In the story of the giant builder, we hear that Loki foolishly advised the giant to ask to marry Freyja in return for his building the gods a stronghold within a certain time frame, with this stronghold providing them protection from cliff giants and frost ogres. When it became apparent that the giant was going to complete the project on time, the gods became furious at Loki for his advice to the builder and so they began to torture him. Loki finally succumbed to this form of punishment and out of fear he pleaded for mercy, offering to find them a way out of this predicament no matter the cost (Prose, pp. 66-67). Loki’s involvement in the death of Balder and in preventing Balder’s return from Hel also angered the gods substantially and once again out of fear, we hear about Loki running away and hiding on a mountain in a place called the waterfall of Franang, where he took on the shape of salmon (Prose, p. 84).
In Locasenna, Loki turns the tables (so to speak) and ends up pointing the finger at a few gods for their own cowardice. He mentions how Bragi is the least brave of the gods (PE, p. 74), how Byggvir is a coward (PE, p. 80), and finally reminds Thor of an embarrassing incident when he had travelled eastward to Giantland and hid in the “thumb of a glove” (PE, p. 82). During this journey, also alluded to by Odin in the Lay of Harbard (PE, p. 61), Thor and his companions had felt a great earthquake and Thor had hid himself in a small room in the middle of what he believed to be a great hall. This room turned out to be the thumb of a giant mitten, belonging to a giant named Skrymir. In Thor’s defense, it should be mentioned that while Thor hid here, despite the fact that his companions had ventured further in ahead of him due to their being terrified, Thor sat in the doorway gripping Mollnir ready to defend himself. So one could perhaps defend Thor from Loki’s accusation of cowardice here, however there is more to the story that Loki doesn’t mention in Locasenna. Within the actual story we hear that the earthquake was really a result of the giant Skrymir’s snoring, and when the giant woke up, Thor was, for the first and perhaps the only time ever, too startled to throw his hammer (Prose, pp. 70-71). This latter incident seems to be far less defensible and is quite significant in the sense that it may be the only true example of Thor acting cowardly within the entirety of the Eddas.
The last attribute I’d like to discuss is that of wisdom, which I mentioned earlier while arguing that Odin was brave in his tolerating the foreknowledge of his own destruction and that of the gods. Wisdom is mentioned all over the Eddas in a number of different contexts. Snorri describes Odin standing on his high seat seeing over the whole world and understanding what he saw (Prose, p. 37), with Tyr described as being well-informed and Bragi and Vor described as being famous for wisdom (Prose, pp. 52 and 60). Odin is referred to as the god of knowledge, knowing the past, present and future, and sacrificing one of his eyes to gain such wisdom. Upon sacrificing himself to himself, hanging on a tree for nine days, Odin took up runes, gaining the secret lore and a wealth of wisdom in the process (PE, pp. xviii, xxii, and 31). Even the gods as a whole are ascribed as treasuring wisdom for wisdom’s sake (PE, p. xxii).
While wisdom is ascribed to these gods quite explicitly, there are also several long, drawn-out displays of wisdom in the Poems of the Elder Edda. The first and foremost is that seen in the Sayings of the High One, where Odin gives a plethora of aphorisms about trust, friendship, love, wisdom itself, and much more (PE, pp. 11-34). Next, we have the Lay of Vafthrudnir, where Odin has a battle of wits with the giant Vafthrudnir, displaying his vast knowledge of the world and Norse cosmogony (PE, pp. 37-44). The last extended display of wisdom, found in the Lay of Alvis, is perhaps the most surprising of them all. In this we hear of a dwarf named Alvis who is trying to marry Thor’s daughter, but Thor says he will only permit this if Alvis can correctly answer every question he is asked. Alvis proceeds to answer his questions, effectively amounting to an exhaustive list of the names given by giants, gods, elves, and dwarves, to describe the land, the sky, the moon, the sun, the clouds, the wind, the calm, the sea, the fire, the forests, the night, and the ale. At the end of this exchange, Thor outwits Alvis by having the clock run out (so to speak), for as soon as Thor asks his last question, the sun begins to rise and the sunlight kills the dwarf by turning him into stone (PE, pp. 90-95). This is quite strange because Thor is almost never described as being wise or clever in any way, but rather uses his strength and might to overcome whatever stands in his way. Never have we seen Thor so out of character, but wise he is implied to be nevertheless.
Although the gods in general shouldn’t be seen as having human qualities such as wisdom, kindness, bravery, cowardice, jealousy, and other moral virtues or vices, since expediency is ultimately their motivation, a superficial reading of the text nevertheless makes it apparent (most especially within a modern interpretation) that the gods do in fact display some of these qualities. While the examples I gave in this analysis are hardly exhaustive in terms of all apparent human attributes, I believe that they provide a fair representation of the breadth of these apparent qualities seen throughout the entirety of the Eddas. Moreover, I found it fascinating to survey the Eddas from this perspective, as it seemed to reduce the epistemic barriers and somewhat esoteric nature otherwise associated with these Scandinavian myths.
- Snorri, S., & Young, J. I. (1966). The prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Terry, P. (1990). Poems of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.