Although Viking mythology came long after Roman and Greek mythology, the Norse gods are far less familiar to us than the likes of Zeus, Aphrodite and Juno. But their legacy on the modern-day world can be found in all kinds of places — from the days of the week in the English language to superhero films.
The Viking mythology is primarily established in texts written in Old Norse, a North Germanic language in which modern Scandinavian languages have their roots. The majority of these texts were created in Iceland and include the famous sagas, stories written down by the Vikings that were mostly based on real people and events.
The Norse gods are central to Viking mythology but which are considered the most important?
The son of Odin and husband to the golden-haired goddess Sif, Thor was famous for relentlessly pursuing his foes. These foes were jötnar, ambiguous beings who in Norse mythology may be friends, enemies or even relatives of the gods. In Thor’s case, he also had a lover who was a jötunn, named Járnsaxa.
Thor’s hammer, named Mjölnir, was not his only weapon. He also possessed a magical belt, iron gloves and a staff, all — as was the Norse tradition — with names of their own. And Thor himself was known by at least another 14 names.
Generally described as sporting a red beard and red hair, Thor was also portrayed as being fierce-eyed. It is perhaps unsurprising then that he was associated with thunder, lightning, oak trees, the protection of mankind and strength in general. What is surprising, however, is the fact that he was also associated with hallowing and fertility — concepts that seem at odds with some of the other parts of his reputation.
Although Odin may not have been quite as popular as his son with the Vikings, he was still widely revered and arguably more important. Not only did he father Thor, but he was considered the father of all the Norse gods, giving him the name “Allfather”.
Odin, associated with everything from wisdom, healing and death to poetry, sorcery and frenzy, was portrayed as a shaman-like figure or wanderer who wore a cloak and hat. Married to the goddess Frigg, he was also depicted as being long-bearded and one-eyed, having given away one of his eyes in exchange for wisdom.
Like his son, Odin also had a named weapon; in this case a spear called Gungnir. He was also known for being accompanied by animal companions and familiars, most famously a flying eight-legged horse named Sleipnir which he rode into the underworld (known in Norse mythology as “Hel”).
Loki was a god but a bad one, known for the many crimes he committed against his peers — among them, having wheedled his way into becoming Odin’s blood brother.
A shape-shifter, Loki fathered and mothered many different creatures and animals while in different forms, including Odin’s steed, Sleipnir. He is also known for fathering Hel, the being who presided over the realm of the same name. In one text, Hel is described as having being given the job by Odin himself.
Despite his bad reputation, Loki was sometimes described as assisting his fellow gods, depending on the Norse source. But this all ended with the role he played in the death of Baldr, the son of Odin and Frigg. In the crime considered his worst of all, Loki gave a spear to Baldr’s blind brother, Höðr, which he inadvertently used to kill his brother.
As punishment, Loki was forced to lay bound under a serpent that dripped venom on him.