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Vikings Wished For Their Legacies To Live On

Vikings wished for their legacies to live on beyond their death but they also held beliefs of what existed beyond their world in the spiritual realm. In Viking society, Gods and men occupied separate planes. Although Norse cosmology is comprised of nine different planes of existence, there were three main categorizations. Humans were located in Midgard ("the home of the humans"), the gods lived on a higher plane called Asgard and the giants in Jotun-heim. The gods of primary importance were Odin, the god of war, who lived in Valhall, where Vikings who fell in battle were taken. The god of fertility and growth, Frey was very important to the Viking culture as many who did not go on expeditions were by and large farmers. The god of most prominence and most well known by most was Thor(Tor). He was the god of thunder, lightning, farmers and sailors. It is no surprise that he was the most revered of the Norse gods.

The Vikings thrived in Scandinavia from around A.D. 800-1100. They were an amazing group of people, who combined farming and lawmaking with ferocious treasure-hunting raids and daring voyages of discovery. Their myths are still alive in everyday English - the words Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday recall some of the chief Viking gods: Tyr, the god of war; Odin, the father of the gods; Thor, the god of thunder; and Frigg, Odin's wife.

Viking mythology tells about both the beginning of the world and of its final destruction. Both events are described with imagery that vividly evokes the icy landscape of Scandinavia with its mountains and glaciers. At the beginning of time the Vikings imagined two opposing realms, one of ice and one of fire. Between these domains was the Gap - a huge nothingness. From the ice realm of Niflheim flowed rivers heavy with poison, which built up layer by layer in the Gap. And from the fire realm of Muspell came fiery sparks and dancing airflows.

Where the cold winds from the north met the hot winds from the south they carved the poison ice into the shape of a man. This was Ymir, the father of the frost giants and the rock giants. Ymir slept, and as he slept, he sweat. From his sweat, a man and a woman grew under his left arm. They were the first giants, the enemies of the Viking gods.

The frost giants lived where four rivers of milk joined together. The rivers flowed from the magical cow Audhumbla, which lived in the ice realm of Niflheim. When Audhumbla licked the ice into the shape of a man, she created Buri, the first Viking god. Bestla, one of the younger frost giants, fell in love with Buri, and they had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve, who became Viking gods.

One day Odin, Vili, and Ve decided to kill Ymir, Bestla's frost giant father. So much blood flowed from Ymir's fatal wounds that it drowned all the frost giants, except one family who cscaped in a boat. Odin and his brothers then created Middle Earth, the world of man, using Ymir's body to make the land, his blood to create the sea, and his skull to make the sky, They also created the first man and woman from driftwood logs of ash and elm that they found lying on the beach.

The Viking gods have their origins in the Germanic gods of northern Europe. Woden, or Wotan, and Thunor, or Donar, were the chief gods of the Germanic people by the 1st century A.D. But the Viking goddesses owed a great deal to the Danish fertility goddess Nerthus.

The barbarian Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, the Saxons, the Franks, the Vandals, and the Visigoths, exploited the decline and fall of the Roman Empire from the A.D. 300s-500s in order to establish their own kingdoms. As they transformed from tribal warrior groups into great nations - such as that of Anglo-Saxon England - they also gave up their old tribal beliefs in favor of Christianity.

By the 700s the heathen religion of Woden had been replaced in Europe by the new faith. In the far north, however, the old religion still had power, and the rise of the Vikings in Scandinavia may be seen as the last glorious gasp of the old Germanic spirit.

The Viking myths did not represent a religion with a set theology. Instead individual humans could ally themselves with the various gods to gain inspiration, strength, and good fortune. Sacrifices to the gods were a way of obtaining their favor - in battle, love, or life. The gods could be honored in temples or outdoors - in forests, on hills or mountains, or by springs.

The Vikings are often seen as violent and bloodthirsty because their seafaring raids brought such terror to their victims. Yet they were basically people who survived by farming. They had strong laws, which gave many rights to women, and they established the first parliament in Thingvellir in Iceland. This majestic spot straddles the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and European continental plates are moving apart from each other.

In Viking mythology the gods are divided between those who are essentially gods of fertility and peace and those who are basically gods of war. It is thought that the Vanir, the gods of fertility, were worshipped first and that the rise of the war gods, the Aesir, happened much later.

One myth tells about the war between the Vanir and the Aesir. It ended with a truce, but the clear winners were the Aesir, who were then joined by the chief Vanir gods. These were Njord, a god of the sea, and his son and daughter, Freyr and Freja, the gods of peace, plenty, and fertility.

Odin was the. king of the Aesir. After he created humankind Odin married Frigg, and their children were the Aesir, who included Thor, Tyr, Heimdall, and Balder the Beautiful. Less is known about the Asyniur, the Aesir goddesses, although it is thought that they were just as revered.

There was one god, Loki, the shape-changing trickster, who belonged to neither the Aesir nor the Vanir. He was a joker whose pranks slowly turned sour. He engineered the death of Balder and prevented him from being brought back to life. Hel, the underworld goddess, would not release Balder unless everyone wept for him; and Loki refused.

Loki's origins are unclear, but in the battle of Ragnarok his allegiance stood with the giants. He had three children - the world serpent Jormungand, the blue-faced goddess of the underworld, Hel, and the wolf Fenrir - by the giantess Angrboda.

The Vikings believed that in the center of the universe was a huge tree namedYggdrasil. This tree was the backbone of the world. Yggdrasil had three roots: one in Asgard, the home of the gods; one in Jotunheim, the home of the giants; and one in Niflheim, the realm of ice. According to Viking mythology, Asgard was linked to Middle Earth, the home of humankind, by Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. Gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil was an evil serpent, Nidhogg. At the top of the tree sat an eagle, Hraesvelg, surveying all of creation. The flapping of the eagle's wings caused the winds to blow in the world of men.

Beneath each of the three tree roots lay a spring. Under the roots in Niflheim was the poison spring that first filled the Gap, the nothingness between fire and ice at the beginning of the world. Under the roots in Jotunheim was the well of wisdom. And under the roots in Asgard was the well of fate, where the three Norns - Fate, Being, and Necessity - lived. They shaped the lives of men and women from birth to death. They also watered the tree every day with pure water from the well of wisdom, thus keeping it alive. This water fell onto the earth as dew in order to sustain and refresh the world.

Yggdrasil supported the realms of gods, giants, and the dead - just like the temples of the gods were supported by great tree-trunk pillars. The myths of the Vikings are mostly set in these realms rather than in Middle Earth, where humankind lived.

Norse gods

Their turf was a place called Asgard. They were led by Odin, who had two ravens perched on his shoulders that flew recon missions for him all over the world. So while he got fantastic intel, his dry-cleaning bills were through the roof. Thor, the god of thunder, had a superpowerful hammer, Mjollnir, and a belt that doubled his strength and held in his mead belly. Loki was god of tricks and fart jokes. Slain warriors went to Valhalla, a Legion hall with eternal beer-chugging, goat-eating, and big-screen TVs!

Middle Earth was linked to Asgard by the rainbow bridge, and there were ways for human beings to get there. One way was to die in battle. Viking warriors - who were socially superior to the peasants - hoped to be selected by the Valkyries, female spirits whose name means "choosers of the slain," to live in Odin's great hall of Valhalla. There warriors were always ready for the final battle at the end of the world. A second way to join the gods - and avoid the terrors of the underworld-was to die a sacrificial death. This path was open to women as well as men.

Pagan Vikings in the A.D. 900s wore small hammer amulets around their necks in order to secure the protection of Thor. These hammers were similar to the crucifixes worn by European Christians. In fact, silversmiths cast both hammers and crosses in the same molds. In the transitional period between paganism and Christianity many Norsemen hedged their bets. Records show that one Viking, Helgi the Skinny, said that he "believed in Christ but prayed to Thor on sea journeys and in tough situations."

The Vikings turned to Christianity partly because it offered a more reliable promise for the afterlife and partly for practical reasons of trade and politics. When King Canute of Denmark conquered England in A.D. 1016, he was happy to convert in order to keep his new kingdom. Norway converted in the 900s and l000s. The Althing in Iceland voted for Christianity in 1000. Uppsala in Sweden, where the great temple of Odin, Thor, and Freyr once stood, was ruled hy a Christian bishop by 1164.

This was a true twilight of the gods. By 1300 the Viking gods had been surpassed by Christianity. Their worship survived only in scattered fragments of folk religion and superstitions. But the gods themselves were prepared for such a fate. Their own mythology anticipated the final battle of Ragnarok, in which they would fight with all their strength but be defeated. It was also prpphesied that Loki would lead the hordes from the underworld in a ship made from dead people's nails and that the wolf Fenrir would swallow the sun.

In the last battle the war god Tyr was not able to fight because the wolf Fenrir had bitten off his right hand. Thor died while trying to kill the world serpent Jormungand. Loki and Heimdall killed each other, and Fenrir devoured Odin. Finally Surt, who had waited at the fiery gates of Muspell since the dawn of time, set the world on fire.

Then a new sun was born, and a new earth rose from the sea. To this young land came Odin's sons Vidar and Vali and Thor's sons Modi and Magni, the only survivors of the last battle. They were Joined by Balder the Beautiful, who was released from the underworld at last with his blind brother, Hoder, bv his side. Together, they stood where gold-roofcd Asgard used to be. In the grass they found the golden chess pieces with which the Aesir used to play and wept remembering the days of glory.

Neil Philip. Mythology of the World. Kingfisher, Boston. 2004.

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