Norse Mythology in Fantasy, Games and Culture

Edit: Spoiler Warning – there are some slight spoilers for the Wheel of Time series included below.

Recently, I’ve been playing the 2018 edition of God of War. Installments in this video games have traditionally been Greek themed, but this game takes place in Midgard and of course, the Norse Gods and myths are all real. I paused to look around at the lore and I was struck with how pervasive Norse Mythology is in modern media and culture. This is, I think, thanks in large part to Chris Hemsworth’s quippy, golden-locked Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s nefarious Loki. But even Marvel aside, there are so many other examples of Norse Mythology in media that I wanted to dig deeper. The story of Ragnar Lothbrok is more and more well known thanks to History Channels ‘Vikings’, and also served in piquing my interest in the topic. As I was playing God of War, I began to listen to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology again (quick six hour listen, highly recommend). I was quickly swept away in the stories of Idunn and her apples of immortality, Ivaldi’s sons and their forging of Mjolnir, and Ragnarok, ‘the Twilight of the Gods’.

The main characters of Norse Mythology are well known. The trickster Loki. Hammer-wielding, giant smashing Thor. Odin, the devious and many times sinister ‘all-father’. There are many other lesser known gods and goddesses, a pantheon of similar scale to the Greek, Roman and Egyptian pantheons. Their stories are interesting as well. Like stories of Angrboða. She is a giantess and the wife of Loki. She is mother of Fenrir, the world serpent Jormungundr and the Goddess Hel. The pantheon is full of stories of giants and dwarves, many of which play critical roles in the creation of Midgard as well as in Ragnarok.

After several dozen hours of game play, I began to ask myself how the themes and characters of Norse myth have insinuated themselves into modern works of fantasy.

God of War characters Kratos and Atreus with Jormungundr, the World Serpent (Photo credit: Polygon)

A (Very) Brief History of Norse Mythology

The history of the Norse pantheon and their deeds were, for many centuries, oral stories passed down. The first appearances of the Norse gods are chronicled in Roman texts, where Tacitus references the gods of the Germanic Suebi tribe.

Of the gods, Mercury is the principal object of their adoration; whom, on certain days, they think it lawful to propitiate even with human victims. To Hercules and Mars they offer the animals usually allotted for sacrifice.

The Germany and the Agricola – Tacitus (Gutenberg.org for full text and citations)

Tacitus is performing a behavior common of Romans (called interpretatio romana) when they interacted with other cultures. They often mapped Roman gods onto those of other cultures based on their characteristics. Here, Mercury is in reference to Odin, while Hercules and Mars are Thor and Tyr, respectively.

It was not until the 13th century, well after the introduction of and conversion to Christianity for much of the Scandinavian population that Snorri Sturluson, Icelandic historian and author of the Prose Edda, wrote down many of the stories for Norse Mythology. By this time, many of those who had passed down the oral stories of Tyr, Freya, and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim had converted away from the traditional belief system. In addition to the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, as a part of the larger Codex Reginus manuscript, makes up the vast majority of extant knowledge of Norse myth. Though Christianity arrived in Scandinavia as early as the 9th century, it did not make easy inroads into Scandinavian society and culture as there is evidence of people appealing to Valkyries for help as late as the 13th century. But you can imagine that the original myths would have taken on a Christianized form well before they were ever written down. Between the tradition of oral history and the co-mingling of Christianity with traditional Norse beliefs for so long before oral histories were written down, many of the tales from Norse Mythology are now lost to us.

“It is, perhaps, as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were the deeds of Theseus and Hercules. We have lost so much.”

-Neil Gaiman in Norse Mythology

So it comes as no surprise that the stories that are told in modern media surround these heroes, Thor and Loki. It’s possible to assume that most of the stories that are extant are what contemporaries considered interesting and expedient to their daily lives. The creation of Thor’s hammer, Odin stealing the mead of poetry and Ragnarok are all riveting tales, and many of them also serve to explain natural phenomena. It is an unfortunate reality that the less compelling stories about minor gods were deemed not as critical for preservation. A similar phenomenon happened with the lost books that accompanied the Iliad and the Odyssey in the Epic Cycle. The most interesting (and exciting?) works were the ones most likely to be carried through to later generations and have managed to survive to today. I am saddened to think of all the tales that are lost to time.

Norse Folklore in Fantasy

Switching gears away from the history of Norse Mythology, I want to discuss the influence these tales have had on the genre of fantasy.

Tolkien

The tradition of Norse folklore started early in the genre of Fantasy, with it’s godfather J.R.R. Tolkien himself leaning heavily on the mythos of Scandanavia for his world building. A quick look at Tolkien’s dwarvish runes reveals obvious similarities with Norse Elder Futhark ones.

Tolkein’s Dwarvish Runes (photo credit LOTR Wiki)

Many of the runes are simple modifications of the originals. Quenya (one of the two Elvish languages created by Tolkien) takes inspiration from elsewhere leaning heavily on the Finnish language.

The similarities between Tolkien’s works and Norse Mythology do not stop there. Many of the names of the dwarves in the Hobbit are taken from a poem within the Poetic Edda, the Voluspa. I’ve highlighted a few of more the obvious ones below.

“11.Nýi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri, Althjófr, Dvalinn, Nár and Náinn, Nípingr, Dáinn, Bifurr, Bafurr, Bomburr, Nori, Ánn and Ánarr, Óinn, Mjodvitnir. 12.Veggr and Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Thorinn, Thrár and Thráinn, Thekkr, Litr ok Vitr, Nýr and Nýrádr, now have I Dwarfs, Reginn and Radsvidr,rightly mention.13.Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Nali, Hepti, Vili, Hanarr, Svíurr, Billingr, Brúni, Bildr and Buri, Frár, Hornbori, Fregr and Lóni, Aurvangr, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.”

The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Poetic Edda

Clearly Tolkien utilized his vast knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history and wove what he knew into his work. I remember how disappointed I was to learn this. I wanted Thorin and Gandalf and all his other characters to be purely the works of the author’s imagination. But that’s not the way most world building works. Inspiration is all around us, but so many implausible things have happened throughout history, it would be silly to ignore them when digging for inspiration. In fact, Tolkien going to a self-translated 13th-century text for his naming content is about as original as it comes with world building. Without the internet as an endless resource, this took intense effort. It took me 30 seconds to Google the passage of the Poetic Edda that includes the names of Tolkien’s dwarves. On that note, there is a popular recent fantasy book called The Age of Myth that has a protagonist named Persephone, spelled and pronounced the same of the daughter of Zeus captured by Hades. No spelling change, and no, the book does not take place in anything like a Greek mythological setting. With that in mind, understanding the lengths Tolkien went to to derive his work is inspirational.

He was never shy about acknowledging his sources, if you’re interested in learning more about that, click here.

The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has many characters similar to ones of Norse Mythology. Perrin Aybara wields a hammer, mah’allenir which sounds similar to Thor’s Mjolnir. Another character hangs from a World Tree equivalent in order to receive the gift of knowledge akin to Odin’s sacrifice on the boughs of Yggdrasil and has several other character traits that tie him closely with Odin. The Wheel of Time also has a ‘Wild Hunt’, a concept many fans of the Fantasy genre are familiar with thanks to the rampant success of the Witcher game of the same title. In Norse Myth, during the Wild Hunt Odin rides through dramatic winter weather with his armies, and one may see ghosts in the forest if you were caught outside during the Hunt. Even the series’s main character,Rand al’Thor, bears the name of a Norse god, .

American Gods

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods also includes the classic characters of Norse Mythology. Loki, Odin and Thor must all find their way in a world that now believes more in consumerism and technology than the Gods of old.

Game of Thrones

One could dig into a lot of the world of Westeros and see inspiration from Norse Mythology, though I don’t care to dig so deep here. The end of the series still angers me. The denizens of the Iron Isles are essentially Viking raiders, White Walkers, Ice Giants and the Children of the Forest all carry elements of Norse myth.

Joe Abercrombie, author of the great First Law series has discussed his use of Norse myth and culture on his website here.

It seems as though many of the best and most popular Fantasy books carry with them elements of Norse Mythology. Many more subtle references appear through fantasy literature, Mark Lawrence, author of the Broken Empire and the Red Queen’s War, has a character named Snorri. As the genre diversifies with new voices across more and more cultures I expect to see this influence wane, but maybe we will see continued fresh takes on the old tales. What are some other books that leverage Norse Mythology? I am sure I’m missing some obvious examples.

Norse Influence in Video Games

God of War is a great way to learn much of the lore surrounding the Norse Gods, with obvious deviations for plot cohesiveness. The way the game blends real lore with great game play makes learning the stories of the Norse gods fun and exciting. Santa Monica Studios created a great system of exploring and learning the nine different realms connected by Yggdrasil and the inhabitants of each.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Another great and unique game that utilizes Norse themes is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. In this game, you take on the role of a schizophrenic young Pict woman, who must battle with the gods and giants of Norse Mythology in order to save her lover from Hel. I have never experienced a game like Hellblade before, but I absolutely loved it. Fighting with Surtr, the fire giant who begins Ragnarok was as awesome as it was intense. The second game is due to release with the new Xbox.

Banner Saga

Another unique game that is heavily influenced by Norse themes is Banner Saga. The aesthetic is drawn directly from old Norse tradition and creates a beautiful and sad world as you and your convoy attempt to survive the death of the Gods. One of my favorite parts of the game was arriving with your convoy at a Godstone, which are shrines for dead gods. I think this game unintentionally influences many of my ideas regarding my College of the Gods world, which two manuscripts I have written are set in.

Banner Saga Godstone.

One final game that is heavily influenced by Norse Mythology is an obvious one, Skyrim. The culture of the Nords in Skyrim and the aesthetics of the game are like stepping into a magical Viking world. For me, it was the first introduction to many elements of Norse myth. I first learned the name of Thor’s hammer in the game once I acquired the weapon Mjolnir, and what an exciting Easter egg that was. Enemies like draugr and the afterlife sovngarde were fun ways to see Norse Mythology come to life.

For a Mythology that has been truncated by time, it is extraordinarily flexible in it’s uses for the genre of Fantasy. I know I personally can’t wait to get into the more obscure corners of the mythology and add those to my own writing. The genre of Fantasy owes much to Snorri Sturluson and the authors of the Codex Reginus, passing on those tales to later generations. Fantasy is richer for the inclusion of Norse elements, though we have come to a point where Viking-like Northmen, wise ravens and wolves and metal-working dwarves are overplayed tropes. This doesn’t make using them bad, but I look forward to new cultural elements invigorating the genre.

What is your favorite example of Norse Mythology in modern media? Marvels Avengers? ‘Vikings’ Floki and Lagerta? Mr Wednesday in American Gods? Write me a comment!

Best,

JL

If you’re enjoying my writing, or find a factual inaccuracy, please let me know! You can find me on Facebook @writerlarkin or on Twitter @larkinwriter. Thanks for reading.

Published by writerlarkin

Neuroscience and Research Project Manager background; deep passion for all things fantasy and writing and mythology!

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