Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology. You will meet quite a few of them in these pages. Most of the stories we have, however, concern two gods, Odin and his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother, a giant’s son called Loki, who lives with the Aesir in Asgard.
The highest and the oldest of all the gods is Odin.
Odin knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself.
He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.
He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.
Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.
Odin has many names. He is the all-father, the lord of the slain, the gallows god. He is the god of cargoes and of prisoners. He is called Grimnir and Third. He has different names in every country (for he is worshipped in different forms and in many tongues, but it is always Odin they worship).
He travels from place to place in disguise, to see the world as people see it. When he walks among us, he does so as a tall man, wearing a cloak and hat.
He has two ravens, whom he calls Huginn and Muninn, which mean “thought” and “memory.” These birds fly back and forth across the world, seeking news and bringing Odin all the knowledge of things. They perch on his shoulders and whisper into his ears.
When he sits on his high throne at Hlidskjalf, he observes all things, wherever they may be. Nothing can be hidden from him.
He brought war into the world: battles are begun by throwing a spear at the hostile army, dedicating the battle and its deaths to Odin. If you survive in battle, it is with Odin’s grace, and if you fall it is because he has betrayed you.
If you fall bravely in war the Valkyries, beautiful battle-maidens who collect the souls of the noble dead, will take you and bring you to the hall known as Valhalla. He will be waiting for you in Valhalla, and there you will drink and fight and feast and battle, with Odin as your leader.
Thor, Odin’s son, is the thunderer. He is straightforward where his father Odin is cunning, good-natured where his father is devious.
Huge he is, and red-bearded, and strong, by far the strongest of all the gods. His might is increased by his belt of strength, Megingjord: when he wears it, his strength is doubled.
Thor’s weapon is Mjollnir, a remarkable hammer, forged for him by dwarfs. Its story you will learn. Trolls and frost giants and mountain giants all tremble when they see Mjollnir, for it has killed so many of their brothers and friends. Thor wears iron gloves, which help him to grip the hammer’s shaft.
Thor’s mother was Jord, the earth goddess. Thor’s sons are Modi, the angry, and Magni, the strong. Thor’s daughter is Thrud, the powerful.
His wife is Sif, of the golden hair. She had a son, Ullr, before she married Thor, and Thor is Ullr’s stepfather. Ullr is a god who hunts with bow and with arrows, and he is the god with skis.
Thor is the defender of Asgard and of Midgard.
There are many stories about Thor and his adventures. You will encounter some of them here.
Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle, and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.
Loki is the son of Laufey, who was also known as Nal, or needle, because she was slim and beautiful and sharp. His father was said to be Farbauti, a giant; his name means “he who strikes dangerous blows,” and Farbauti was as dangerous as his name.
Loki walks in the sky with shoes that fly, and he can transform his shape so he looks like other people, or change into animal form, but his real weapon is his mind. He is more cunning, subtler, trickier than any god or giant. Not even Odin is as cunning as Loki.
Loki is Odin’s blood brother. The other gods do not know when Loki came to Asgard, or how. He is Thor’s friend and Thor’s betrayer. He is tolerated by the gods, perhaps because his stratagems and plans save them as often as they get them into trouble.
Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god.
Loki drinks too much, and he cannot guard his words or his thoughts or his deeds when he drinks. Loki and his children will be there for Ragnarok, the end of everything, and it will not be on the side of the gods of Asgard that they will fight.
BEFORE THE BEGINNING, AND AFTER
Before the beginning there was nothing—no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.
To the north was Niflheim, the dark world. Here eleven poisonous rivers cut through the mist, each springing from the same well at the center of it all, the roaring maelstrom called Hvergelmir. Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily. The skies were hidden by mist and the ground was clouded by the chilly fog.
To the south was Muspell. Muspell was fire. Everything there glowed and burned. Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray, molten lava where the mist world was frozen. The land was aflame with the roaring heat of a blacksmith’s fire; there was no solid earth, no sky. Nothing but sparks and spurting heat, molten rocks and burning embers.