This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
We don’t cover Norse mythology here at Ancient World Magazine because the main sources all date from the medieval era. There is some possible continuity between the Norse gods and earlier Germanic deities, but the evidence is very limited, and we should also not underestimate the importance of regional differences and developments across time.
Let’s take the Germanic goddess Nerthus as an example. She is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania (ch. 40), written in ca. AD 100. Tacitus identifies her as Terra Mater or “Mother Earth”. Centuries later, we encounter the Norse deity Njörðr, who is believed to be derived from Nerthus on linguistic grounds, but by the medieval period they have notably switched from being a female goddess to a male god, who is still associated, among other things, with the fertility of the soil.
Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) also wrote about the gods that were worshipped by Germanic tribes in his De Bello Gallico (6.17.1). Foremost among them, according to Caesar, was the deity that he equated with Mercury and whom modern scholars assume may have been an early form of Wotan (whom the Norse would call Odin), the wandering god. Tacitus, in contrast, claims that the main deities worshipped by Germanic peoples were “Hercules” (Donar/Thor?) and “Mars” (Tyr?).
In English, of course, the names of Germanic deities have been immortalized in the days of the week, modelled after the Latin names. Tuesday is named after Tyr (Roman: Mars), the god of war; Wednesday after Wotan (Odin; Roman: Mercury); Thursday after Thunor (i.e. Donar/Thor; Roman: Jupiter), the god of thunder, and; Friday after Frige (Frigg/Freya; Roman: Venus). Comparable names for the week are also found in related Germanic languages, including Dutch, the Scandinavian languages, and, of course, German itself.
The Prose Edda
Among the main sources of information on Norse mythology is a work referred to as the Prose Edda, attributed to the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), although he is likely not responsible for the entirety of the work. The book dates from the thirteenth century and is one of many works created around that time that sought to preserve knowledge about pagan customs and beliefs in the face of christianization.
The Prose Edda, also referred to as the Younger Edda, is so named to not confuse it with a collection of poems that are simply referred to as the Poetic Edda, and which similarly deal with Norse mythology; various poems from the Poetic Edda served as sources for some of the mythic stories recorded in the Prose Edda.
Both of these works date from the thirteenth century and are based on oral traditions that are thought to date back to the Viking Age (ca. 800 to 1100). They are written in Old Icelandic, a language that was more similar to the Old Norse spoken in the ninth century, when Iceland was first settled.
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the Prose Edda, Jesse Byock explains the context in which these works were originally created (pp. x-xi):
Geographical and political circumstances help to explain why the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda were written in the form they were in medieval Iceland. This was an immigrant society formed by colonists from many parts of the Viking world, but especially from Norway and from Norse colonies in the British Isles. In a frontier setting on the far northern edge of the habitable world, the Icelanders held fast to the cultural memories brought by the early settlers, which provided them with a sense of common origin and helped bind them into a cohesive cultural group. Additionally, the Icelanders made the transition from their traditional religious beliefs to Christianity in a manner distinctly different from the contemporaneous conversion in the Norwegian mother culture. There, Christian missionary kings forcefully uprooted the belief in the old gods. The Icelanders, rather than shedding blood among themselves as did the Norwegians, peacefully accepted the new religion through a political compromise in the year 1000 at their annual national assembly, the Althing. This collective decision sanctioned a gradual transition to the new belief system. The old forms of worship faded within a few decades of the conversion, but the Icelanders continued long afterwards to value stories from the pagan times as a cultural heritage rather than a creed.
The Prose Edda consists of four parts: a short Prologue, then the main section of the work called Gylfaginning (Deluding of Gylfi), which tells of the creation of the world and the gods in the form of a dialogue between Gylfi and three figures who are manifestations of Odin, followed by Skáldskaparmál (Language of Poetry), a collection of Scandinavian lore, and Háttatal (List of Meters), a technical treatise that is often omitted from translations, including the Penguin Classics one.
The Prose Edda’s Prologue demonstrates that the author was familiar with certain traditions that allowed him to connect Norse mythology to the ancient world. In chapter 3, the author mentions that, “near the middle of the world”, was Troy, “in the region we call Turkey”. Turkey, of course, is the name given to Anatolia after it was taken over by the Turks in the course of the (later) medieval era. At Gylfaginning 9, it is said that Asgard – the home of the Norse gods – is another name for Troy.
According to the Prose Edda, there were many kings in Troy, and one of them was Munon or Mennon, who had married Troan, a daughter of king Priam. While Priam is obviously known to us from Homer’s Iliad, Troan is not mentioned, as far as I am aware, in any ancient source. According to the Prologue, Munon and Troan had a son called Tror, “the one we call Thor”, who was raised in Thrace and who “had acquired his full strength” by the age of twelve.
This Tror (Thor) eventually travelled north where he encountered “the prophetess called Sibyl, whom we call Sif, and he married her”. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, sibyls were oracles who spoke for Apollo; see my article on Cumae for some more details. They have a number of descendants, among them, several generations removed, is a man “named Voden, the one we call Odin”.
Chapter 4 of the Prologue concerns itself with Odin:
Odin had the gift of prophecy, as his wife also did, and through this learning he became aware that his name would become renowned in the northern part of the world and honoured more than other kings. For this reason he was eager to set off from Turkey, and he took with him on his journey a large following of people, young and old, men and women.
They travelled to “Saxland”, that is, a region in what is today Germany. Odin stayed there for a while and some of his sons became kings, including one called Siggi, who was the ancestor of the Volsungs, the family known from the story that was made famous by Wagner’s nineteenth-century opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.
But Odin was restless. Chapter 5 details his further travels northward, where he took possession of land in Denmark, left more sons behind to rule as kings and found their own dynasties and families, until finally he reached Sweden. There lived a king called Gylfi:
When the king learned of the journey of these Asians, who were called Æsir, he went to meet them, offering to grant Odin as much authority in his kingdom as he wanted.
“Æsir” is the name by which one group of the Norse gods are known, at least in some of our sources. Another group of deities were referred to as the “Vanir”. The Æsir, whose name is here suggested as referring to Asia, were warlike deities for the most part, whereas the Vanir were more closely associated with fertility and nature. The idea of two rival groups of Norse gods is explored in an article by Terry Gunnell that is listed in the further reading, below.
In any event, Odin picked a place to found a new town. There, “in accordance with the customs of Troy, he selected twelve men to administer the law of the land.” But then he grew restless again and travelled even further north, “until he reached the ocean, which people believed surrounded all lands.” This is a reference to the ancient Greek idea that the world was encircled by Okeanos. And here, “in what is now called Norway”, Odin finally settled for good.
The final sentences of the Prologue make clear that the story of how Odin and his kinsmen travelled north from Troy explains why so many people in Central and Northern Europe speak a similar language:
They spread throughout Saxland and from there throughout all the northern regions so that their language – that of the men of Asia – became the native tongue in all these lands.
Of course, the languages that were spoken in ancient Anatolia were definitely not Germanic. But in some sense, it’s true that there is a connection between Anatolia and Central and Northern Europe. Most languages spoken in these regions were, after all, part of the larger Indo-European language family.
The story of Odin’s journey north serves a number of different purposes. For a Christian audience, it may have been troublesome to read up on stories of pagan gods. Giving the Æsir a human, mortal origin was perhaps an attempt to make these tales more palatable. The journey also served to explain how language and customs were similar across a wide geographic area.
More importantly, connecting the Norse gods to Troy served the obvious purpose of linking them to a respectable ancient origin. It also demonstrated that the author was familiar with classical traditions and therefore a learned individual.
All roads lead from Troy?
The Prose Edda is not unique in how it forges a link with ancient Troy. This is, indeed, a much older tradition. When Herodotus wrote his account of the Persian Wars, he started with mythological wars over women in which the Trojan War and Paris’ abduction of the Spartan queen Helen take centre stage. Similarly, Thucydides starts his account of the Peloponnesian War with a discussion of the Trojan War.
Heavily influenced by Greek culture, Roman writers also adopted the practice of using the Trojan War as a convenient starting point in any vaguely historical narrative. The Romans even claimed to be descended from Trojans who had survived the Trojan War and who had travelled westward to settle in Latium. Indeed, Virgil’s Aeneid codifies the origin story of the people who would later found the city of Rome, picking the Trojan hero Aeneas as its pious protagonist.
When the Historia Brittonum was written, probably in the ninth century AD by the monk Nennius, the island of Britain had acquired its own “Trojan” founding hero: Brutus. This work would later be used as a main source for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1136), better known as a History of the Kings of Britain.
In Geoffrey’s book, Brutus is said to be a great-grandson of Aeneas. He had been banished from Italy and so was forced to wander the world. He eventually happened upon a large island that was called Albion, which he promptly renamed “Britain”, after himself. None of this has any historical basis, of course, but before the emergence of the modern discipline of history there was no strict boundary between myth and history, fact and fiction.
Tying the history of your own country or culture to Troy was a way to demonstrate that you were a cultured, well-educated person. And perhaps a hallmark of such erudition was to accept that while all roads lead to Rome, they apparently originate from Troy.
This is part of the series: Medieval reception of the ancient world.