In 2011, everyone suddenly fancied themselves an expert on Norse mythology, thanks to the cinematic adaptation of one central figure: Thor. Whether it was an unexpected interest in the Scandinavian mythological framework of the Viking Age or — more likely — Chris Hemsworth's dedication to deadlifts and crunches, ancient Norse mythology was having a very modern moment.
But beyond the Hollywood versions of characters like Thor, there's a centuries-old history behind Norse mythology that experts are still discovering and busting myths around. Here are some of the basic facts to know.
The Original Sources of Nordic Mythology Are Two 13th-Century Books
"The main original sources are two books called Edda written down in Iceland in the 1200s C.E.," writes Dr. Jackson Crawford, resident scholar at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder, via email. "One, the 'Poetic Edda,' is an anonymous compilation of about thirty Old Norse poems about the gods and heroes. Based on linguistic evidence, many of these poems probably were composed before Iceland was converted to Christianity (in 1000 C.E.), so these are our most direct sources. The poems include narratives about creation, the end of the world at Ragnarök, and the gods' many adventures between."
The other book, the "Prose Edda," was written around 1200 C.E. by the Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturlson, who also wrote a collection of sagas called the "Heimskringla." "Snorri was trying to preserve the traditional style of Old Norse poetry for a younger generation that was increasingly following the more fashionable poetic style and themes of England and France (the Arthurian stories were popular in his day even in Iceland)," Crawford says. "To teach the old poetic style, he had to teach the myths, which were alluded to extensively even in poems that weren't directly about the gods." According to Crawford, the "Prose Edda" quotes its predecessor, the "Poetic Edda" and "streamlines" certain narratives in more cohesive ways.
Jackson explains more about the differences between the Eddas here:
The Gods of Norse Mythology Aren't Quite Like Other Gods
"Our temptation today is to say that one god is 'god of' this and another 'goddess of' that, but these labels don't match well with the reality of their portrayal in our surviving medieval sources," Crawford says. "It's not especially meaningful to talk about who is 'god of' what or 'goddess of' what. The gods are more distinct personalities than distinct roles in the Eddic texts."
Unlike the Greek or Roman gods who weave a tangled web of interconnected stories, marriages, murders and more (or the 2,000-plus deities of the Egyptian religion), the Nordic mythological figures are somewhat separate and distinct. "The gods are not particularly united, except in terms of where they live (in the realm of Asgard, which means the 'enclosure of the gods'), and who their mortal enemies are," Crawford says. "The gods are opposed to a group of beings called the jotnar in Old Norse. These beings are usually called 'giants' in English translation but they are not actually larger than the gods or any different in appearance. Most of the gods (including Thor and Odin) have at least one parent from among the jotnar or 'giants.'"
There Are, However, Four Main Gods to Know
There are likely more than a dozen Norse gods who belong to two major tribes — Æsir and Vanir — but the four who come up the most in the stories in the Eddas are Thor, Odin, Loki and Freyja.
"Thor is the protector of the realm of the gods, as well as human beings, from the gods' enemies," Crawford says. "He fights with his great hammer Mjollnir, forged for him by the dwarves."
While Thor may be the one most of us are familiar with, thanks to the modest Marvel franchise helmed by Chris Hemsworth, he's actually not the top dog when it comes to Nordic gods. "Odin is the highest-ranked of the gods," Crawford says. "He stirs up battles and fighting among humankind, so that he can have his Valkyries (mortal women in his service with the gift of flight) harvest the dead from the battlefield for his own army he is collecting in Valhalla."
Marvel took inspiration from another Nordic god in the character of Loki, a supervillain turned hero. "Loki is an ambivalent figure who is sometimes a comical sidekick to Thor, and yet will lead the forces of the 'giants' (jotnar) and monsters against the gods during the final battle of Ragnarök," Crawford says, adding one myth-busting fact: "Thor and Loki aren't brothers, despite their portrayal as such in the Marvel films."
The best known goddess of Nordic mythology is known for zooming around Asgard in a cat-drawn carriage. "Freyja is a beautiful goddess often desired by the 'giants' (jotnar) and by pretty much everyone else too," Crawford says. "Her name simply means 'lady' or 'noblewoman,' and probably isn't her original name — it's likely that at some earlier point she was identified with Odin's wife, Frigg."
While there are plenty of other gods in the Nordic world, they have a much more limited presence in the Eddas, according to Crawford. "Heimdall guards the realm of the gods, Týr sacrifices his hand to bind the wolf Fenrir until the final battle of Ragnarök, and Frey gives up his only weapon in order to marry a woman he desires from among the jotnar," he says. "Today we often underestimate the importance of the main Norse mythical heroes, such as the heroes of the Volsung legends like the dragon-slayer Sigurth, whose love affair with the cursed Valkyrie named Brynhild causes his death."
"Each person (and god) has a destined day of death, which that person almost certainly doesn't know — though now and then a myth or saga has a seeress reveal someone's destiny, usually in mysterious and vague terms," Crawford says. "Because there is only one way to get into the glorious afterlife (by dying), there is a cultural imperative to fight on almost any pretext — because if you die fighting, you were destined to die anyway that day."
The Body and Mind Are Not Distinct From the Souls or Spirits
"There is no separable 'soul' or 'spirit;' the afterlife involves the whole person," Crawford says. "Most of the dead go to Hel — spelled with one l; not a place of torment, but just an underground world often literally understood as within the grave mound. As the Viking Age progresses, there grows a belief that men who die in battle may go to Valhalla, where they will join the god Odin's army at Ragnarök."
Mythology Played a Central Role in Viking Society, But More for Entertainment Than Worship
"No doubt many of the myths of the 'Poetic Edda' were told for entertainment — such as the story of Thor having to retrieve his hammer while dressed like a bride in the poem, 'Thrymskvitha.'" Crawford says. "Others contained traditional wisdom, channeled through the voice of a god like Odin, such as the poem 'Hávamál.'"
"While the Eddas contain stories about the Norse gods and some traditional wisdom, they don't contain information about how the Nordic society of the time worshiped gods or if and how they might have prayed to them. The stories in the Eddas do date back to pre-Christian times (based on linguistic and other evidence). But medieval Christians were willing to, and did, transmit stories without transmitting the actual religion."
Vikings weren't just one group of people; they lived in groups across a large geographic region but shared many of the same pre-Christian beliefs and cultural practices of other speakers of Old Norse across northern Europe. And while it's been reported that practitioners of Nordic religion met in the open air to "praise the gods and make offerings to them," the formal worship of Norse gods (as well as other figures) known as "Asatro" didn't become popular until the 19th century. The Vikings themselves didn't have a name for their religion, and simply called it "the old way" (Forn Sidr), in contrast to Christianity, which they considered "the new way."
"Consider how a Christian parent today might read a child a bedtime story about Hercules," Crawford says. "Both of them are 'safe' to do so because there's no one around them who takes the stories of the Greek gods as the foundation of an alternative religion — they're just entertaining stories. No parent today tells a bedtime story about Hercules and concludes it with the instructions for how to sacrifice livestock to him. No doubt it was similar when the Eddas were written down in the 1200s in Iceland; the stories were valued and enjoyed, but Christianity had supplanted the rites and practices of the old religion that worshipped those gods, and so the latter weren't passed down along with the stories."