Most of our Viking mythology comes from the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda that were both written in Iceland during the 13th century, several years after the actual Scandinavian Viking age. Sometimes people refer to the Edda’s as part of the Icelandic Sagas, which technically is not correct because the Sagas are strictly about Icelandic history. However, since Snorri Sturluson—a famous historical Icelandic poet, historian, and politician—is the author of the Sagas and the Prose Edda, you can’t blame people for being confused.
In my Viking Warriors series, I keep things simple and refer to the historical texts that the Vikings and Valkyries sometimes turn to for information as The Sagas. I am originally from Sweden and the term works for me since “saga” in Swedish means “story” or sometimes, “fairytale.” Little kids in Sweden ask for a “saga” to be read to them before bedtime. When I was a kid, I usually asked to be read to from a book of Norse tales. Here are three of my favorites.
How Odin brought the Mead to Asgard
The gods and goddesses who live in Asgard are of two different origins. There are the Aesir, the gods made popular by the Marvel Comics like Odin, Thor, and Loki. Although technically Loki is only a half god, but more about him later. The other kind of gods and goddesses are Vanir who are associated with nature, fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future. Originally, the two groups of deities fought each other and after a long and fierce war, there was a peace treaty. After the peace, the Vanir Njord and his two children, Frey and Freyja, came to live among the Aesir. During the peace treaty negotiations, a big jar separated the two groups of deities and once an agreement was made, they used their saliva and molded the jar into a man named Kvasir to commemorate the new agreement. Kvasir was the first poet and very beloved by the gods, especially Odin. Unfortunately, he was killed by two dwarves named Fjalar and Galar. They mixed Kvasir’s blood with honey to make the first ever batch of mead.
When Odin noticed Kvasir missing, he went on a long journey to try to find him and eventually figured out what had happened to his favorite poet. Meanwhile, the dwarves Fjalar and Galar had been captured by a giant named Suttung and used the mead to negotiate their release. Suttung put the mead in his cellar and told his daughter Gunland to guard the precious brew. In a long convoluted tale that involves Odin becoming a laborer with the power to do nine regular men’s work in one day, turning himself into a worm to enter the secret cellar, and then turning himself into a handsome young man who seduced Guland into allowing him to drink three draughts of the mead—which completely emptied the barrel—and then finally turning himself into an eagle, Odin managed to bring the mead back to Asgard. According to legend, or Norse myths, there the mead remains to this day and only those who the gods love are allowed to drink it.
How Thor got his Hammer Mjölnir
In Norse mythology, Loki appears as everything from a trickster to a truly evil half-god. He is often jealous of other gods and mythological creatures, and generally can’t seem to help himself from doing bad things. In one of the tales, he cut off Thor’s wife Sif’s gorgeous long blond hair. When Thor found out, he chased Loki down and was about to strangle him when Loki offered to go down to the dark elves’ dwelling and ask them to create a crown of golden hair to replace Sif’s tresses. That all went according to plan, Sif got her beautiful hair back, but the dark elves also gave Loki a spear that never missed its target (Gungnir) and a ship that always reached its destination and could sail without wind (Skidbladnir). Loki bragged about these amazing gifts and at one point said that the dark elves were much better smiths than the dwarves. He was overheard by the brother, Brokkr, of the most famous dwarf smith, Sindri. Angry Brokkr claimed his brother could make even more beautiful things than what Loki brought back from the black elves. And so Loki challenged the dwarves to a contest, and they agree to have the Aesir gods as judges. If the dwarves won, they would not only claim the title as greatest smiths, they would also get Loki’s head.
As Sindri began to create three things more awesome than Sif’s crown of gold hair, the spear Gungnir, and the ship Skidbladnir, he asked Brokkr to blow the bellows so that the fire in the smithy would be as hot as possible. Brokkr managed to do this for the first two items created—a golden boar and a ring—despite twice being bitten by a huge horsefly. However, when Sindri made the third item—an iron hammer—the fly bit Brokkr right between the eyes and he couldn’t help but swat at it. Because of the inadequate bellowing, the hammer, Mjölnir, ended up with a much shorter shaft than first intended.
The gods were presented with the three items Sindri made: A golden ring for Odin that made eight more golden rings every ninth night, a golden boar for Frey that ran on land, in the air, and on water, more swiftly than any horse, and whose golden bristles made nighttime as bright as day, and finally a hammer for Thor that would never fail and would always return to Thor’s hand no matter how far thrown. Thor swung this magnificent—yet short-shafted—hammer around his head and lightning flashed through Asgard as big booms of thunder could be heard. All the gods and goddesses agreed that Sindri’s gifts were mightier than those from the dark elves. And so, Sindri was again known as the greatest smith but through some fast thinking and talking, Loki saved himself because he claimed that although he may have promised the dwarves his head, he never said they could touch his neck. That meant the dwarves couldn’t behead Loki. Furious over the half-god’s trickery, they sewed his lips together—since they didn’t have to touch his neck to do that—and Loki was for a short time kept from boasting.
How Freya got Her Cats
The Edda’s have several mentions of Freya driving a wagon pulled by cats, but there isn’t a clear reference to how she acquired those cats. Scholars also argue whether or not the animals really are cats because although the Old Norse word used, fress, translates to tom-cat, it could also mean bear. The animals are also in one section called köttr, which in addition to cat could also mean weasel or marten. We know however that the Vikings did have cats as pets and I love the idea of Freya driving a chariot pulled by two enormous lynxes, so my version of Freya definitely has wagon-pulling cats. And that leads me to my absolute favorite Norse story. The origin of this story is a Russian folktale and another proof that the Vikings traveled deep into Russia. It tells the tale of how Freya got her cats.
One day Thor the Thunderer bashed through the forest and disturbed Freya’s afternoon nap. Irritated, she asked the god where he was heading and he told her he was going fishing, trying to catch the Midgard Serpent. Sometime later, Thor found himself with his fishing-pole on the banks of the Buyan Island. He heard a blood-curling noise that then changed into a soothing lullaby, which lulled the god into sleep. But then he was awakened by that same loud noise that had started the sweet song, and so Thor set off to find who was disturbing his peace.
He passed through a dense forest and under an oak, he found a large, fluffy, striped cat that was mewing softly to two blue kittens. The big cat was Cat Bayun and he told Thor that he was a single father and needed help arranging the kitten’s destiny. Thor remembered how irritated Freya had been when he woke her from her nap and thought that maybe she’d forgive him if he gave her the kittens. He told Cat Bayun that he might be able to help.
“But remember,” Cat Bayun said, “these are not ordinary street cats. They are my children and if anything happens to them—”
Angry at being threatened, Thor charged the cat but before he could reach him, the cat changed into the magic bird Gamayun and flew away. Although he was still pissed off, Thor couldn’t leave the two defenseless kittens on their own, so he took them with him and gave them to Freya. The goddess was delighted and ever since, her chariot has been pulled by two blue cats who are the children of the magic Cat Bayun.
Hope you enjoyed these short retellings of the original stories. Do you have a favorite Norse myth, god, or goddess?