Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 7 Chapter 2 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 7, Chapter 2 : The Norse Gods | Summary

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Summary

The Norse gods are aloof and heroic. Odin, their king, the All-father, gives men the knowledge of Runes—powerful magical inscriptions—and works to postpone Ragnarok, or doomsday. He is attended by maidens called Valkyries who bring heroes to a place called Valhalla, the "Hall of the Slain," when they die.

Balder is a beloved god, son of Odin and Frigga, who exacts "an oath from everything" to do Balder no harm. Odin alone knows that his wife's efforts will prove unsuccessful and Balder will someday die. All the gods honor Balder for his invincibility, except Loki, the son of a Giant who likes to make trouble. Loki is determined to find a way to injure Balder, and he discovers that Frigga never exacted her oath from a mistletoe shrub. Loki tricks Balder's brother Hoder into throwing a mistletoe branch at Balder. The branch pierces Balder's heart and kills him.

Frigga sends one of her sons to Hela, the goddess of the dead, to bring back Balder. Hela agrees to release him if "all everywhere mourned for him." Messengers gather evidence, but one Giantess refuses to grieve, so Balder stays dead. The gods punish Loki by binding him in a cavern under a serpent that drips venom on his face. Loki's wife helps by gathering the venom in a cup, but he is still exposed when she empties the cup, and his suffering causes earthquakes.

Other notable gods include Thor, the god of thunder; Tyr, the god of war; Freyr, the goddess of fruits of the earth. Heimdall guards the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. Odin's wife, Frigga, is described as wise, but she seldom speaks. Freya is the goddess of love, but she also claims half the dead killed in battle.

The Creation

At the beginning, there is only a chasm with the realm of death, Niflheim to the north, and Muspelheim, the land of fire, to the south. Twelve rivers flow from Niflheim and fill the chasm with ice. Fiery clouds from Muspelheim turn the ice to mist, giving rise to Odin's father, the Giant Ymir. Odin and his brothers kill Ymir and make the earth and sky from his body, and the sea from his blood. They use his eyebrows to build a wall to protect the Midgard where humans live.

An ash tree called Yggdrasil supports the universe. A holy well lies next to the tree, guarded by Urda (Past), Verdandi (Present), and Skuld (Future). Under another root of the tree is the Well of Knowledge.

All of these creations are doomed, and the divine powers of heaven fight the brutality of the Frost Giants and the Mountain Giants who bring evil to the world. The Eddas only offer the vague hope that a greater god than Odin will emerge "when Odin falls."

The Norse Wisdom

In the Elder Edda appears a listing of wise sayings, resembling proverbs. For example, one reads, "None so good that he has no faults,/None so wicked that he is worth naught." The sayings offer insight about human nature, sometimes with touches of humor or cheer. These phrases reflect both the pessimism of the Norse worldview and its respect for courage and common sense.

Analysis

The Norse gods are much more serious than the Greek and Roman gods. Odin is dignified and noble, giving gifts to assist mankind in their fight for survival in a hostile universe. In contrast, Zeus jealously protects the powers of the gods and punishes Prometheus in Part 1, Chapter 3 for giving too many gifts to mortals. It is difficult to picture Zeus handing over something as powerful as the Runes to humans, but Odin is the All-father. He is a paternal figure who, despite his distance from humanity, wants the best for humans and devotes himself to postponing their destruction. The classical myths make no mention of a doomsday or end of the universe, which leaves Zeus free to pursue mortal women and engage in more frivolous pursuits.

The story of Balder highlights the most important difference between the Norse gods and the classical gods. The Norse gods can be killed. They are immortal only in the sense that they do not appear to suffer from disease and aging, or these processes are delayed for them. That the Norse gods are vulnerable to death exposes the root of the relatively sunless culture's bleak outlook: everyone is vulnerable and everyone can die.

The primary gods of the Norse pantheon highlight the values of Norse culture, and these gods are similar to the most important gods in Greek and Roman mythology. Thor, the god of thunder, emphasizes the connection between human existence and weather, along with the human desire to understand weather patterns and control those patterns by appealing to a deity. Tyr represents war, another prevalent part of the Norse culture. The Norse people were Vikings, and so much of their economy rested on the process of conquering lands and other cultures for resources, mainly for farming. Freyr represents the importance of agriculture. The other notable goddess, Freya, represents love, the driving human emotion. Freya's claim to the dead from battle also draws the connection between love, war, and death that seems inevitable; the Greeks draw the same connection in their myths by making Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Ares (the god of war) lovers.

The Creation

In the Norse tradition, the world is created from death, ice, and fire, reflecting the bleakness of the culture's worldview. The earth and seas come from the dead body of Odin's father, while the earth in classical myth is a living mother figure, which is much more nurturing. The giants and monsters of classical myth are eliminated to make way for the Olympians in Part 1, Chapter 3, but in Norse myth the Giants remain an ongoing threat to humanity and to the gods. The contrast of the bleak world of Norse myth and the multifaceted world of Greek myth may be based on a simple difference in climate. Northern Europe has a far more inhospitable climate than the area surrounding the Mediterranean, which makes survival a bitter struggle. It stands to reason the Norse would envision a world born from ice and fire where threats are omnipresent, as winters in this region would make such a vision very close to reality.

The Norse Wisdom

Edith Hamilton provides a list of selected aphorisms from one of the Icelandic Eddas under the heading of "wisdom," even as she criticizes these aphorisms for their lack of profound insight. Hamilton presents common-sense snippets that endorse humor, cheer, and tolerance, celebrating friendship, family connections, bravery, and thoughtfulness.

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