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What Are the Major Elements of Scandinavian Mythology?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Scandinavian mythology is a term for the collected myths and folktales of the Scandinavian region. While strictly limited to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the mythology expands out to include Germany, the Netherlands, Anglo-Saxon England and Nordic colonies such as Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. It has influenced nearby Slavic mythology and has, in turn, been influenced by the Romano-Greek traditions from the south and west. The mythology has been popularized in modern culture by J.R.R. Tolkien, films such as “The 13th Warrior” and “Beowulf.”

The vast majority of surviving texts of Scandinavian mythology were written by Christians during or shortly after the mass conversion of Scandinavian societies to Christianity. This means there is potential for bias and a skewing of mythology so that Scandinavian mythology and Christianity appear similar. Other information has been presented on the mythology from pagan writers such as Tacitus.

In Scandinavian mythology, the cosmos are divided into a number of realms. These realms center on Midgard, the human realm, better known in English as “Middle Earth.” Above and below this were the realms of the Gods, of monsters and supernatural creatures and the realms of Hel beneath. Asgard was the major realm of the Aesir Gods and was reached by a rainbow bridge called Bifrost. Each God has his or her own hall populated by human souls.

Much of Scandinavian mythology focused on the Gods and Goddesses. They are similarly structured and influenced by classical pantheons such as the Romans and Greeks. Indeed, Tacitus drew parallels between the two in his studies on the Germans. Odin headed the pantheon, while Loki played the trickster. Other Gods included Tyr, Freya, Baldr and Heimdall.

The Gods and other supernatural beings such as giants, or Jotun, elves and dwarves were doomed to fight a last battle known as Ragnarok. Ragnarok is central to the cosmology of Scandinavian Mythology because all tales lead up to it. The battle is signaled by the arrival of a ship made of nails, and during the fight, each God will face off with an adversary. All of the major Gods will be killed in the battle. The Gods will be protected by armies of chosen souls from their halls known as Einherjar.

Scandinavians worshiped their deities in a number of ways. Like the Celts and Slavs, they made use of holy sites, special trees and groves and of piles of stones. They also partook in ancestor worship and feasts. They also made sacrifices of food and animals to the Gods in order to strike bargains. The blot ritual was one of the most important elements of Scandinavian mythology.

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