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Ch. 31: Northern Mythology: Valhalla, Valkyrior

The stories which have engaged our attention thus far relate to
the mythology of southern regions. But there is another branch
of ancient superstitions which ought not to be entirely
overlooked, especially as it belongs to the nations from which
we, through our English ancestors, derive our origin. It is that
of the northern nations called Scandinavians, who inhabited the
countries now known as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.
These mythological records are contained in two collections
called the Eddas, of which the oldest is in poetry and dates back
to the year 1056, the more modern, or prose Edda, being of the
date of 1640.

According to the Eddas there was once no heaven above nor earth
beneath, but only a bottomless deep, and a world of mist in which
flowed a fountain. Twelve rivers issued from this fountain, and
when they had flowed far from their source, they froze into ice,
and one layer accumulating above another, the great deep was
filled up.

Southward from the world of mist was the world of light. From
this flowed a warm wind upon the ice and melted it. The vapors
rose in the air and formed clouds, from which sprang Ymir, the
Frost giant and his progeny, and the cow Audhumbla, whose milk
afforded nourishment and food to the giant. The cow got
nourishment by licking the hoar frost and salt from the ice.
While she was one day licking the salt stones there appeared at
first the hair of a man, on the second day the whole head, and on
the third the entire form endowed with beauty, agility, and
power. This new being was a god, from whom and his wife, a
daughter of the giant race, sprang the three brothers Odin, Vili,
and Ve. They slew the giant Ymir, and out of his body formed the
earth, of his blood the seas, of his bones the mountains, of his
hair the trees, of his skull the heavens, and of his brain
clouds, charged with hail and snow. Of Ymir's eyebrows the gods
formed Midgard (mid earth), destined to become the abode of man.

Odin then regulated the periods of day and night and the seasons
by placing in the heavens the sun and moon, and appointing to
them their respective courses. As soon as the sun began to shed
its rays upon the earth, it caused the vegetable world to bud and
sprout. Shortly after the gods had created the world they walked
by the side of the sea, pleased with their new work, but found
that it was still incomplete, for it was without human beings.
They therefore took an ash-tree and made a man out of it, and
they made a woman out of an alder, and called the man Aske and
the woman Embla. Odin then gave them life and soul, Vili reason
and motion, and Ve bestowed upon them the senses, expressive
features, and speech. Midgard was then given them as their
residence, and they became the progenitors of the human race.

The mighty ash-tree Ygdrasil was supposed to support the whole
universe. It sprang from the body of Ymir, and had three immense
roots, extending one into Asgard (the dwelling of the gods), the
other into Jotunheim (the abode of the giants), and the third to
Niffleheim (the regions of darkness and cold). By the side of
each of these roots is a spring, from which it is watered. The
root that extends into Asgard is carefully tended by the three
Norns, goddesses who are regarded as the dispensers of fate.
They are Urdur (the past), Verdandi (the present), Skuld (the
future). The spring at the Jotunheim side is Ymir's well, in
which wisdom and wit lie hidden, but that of Niffleheim feeds the
adder, Nidhogge (darkness), which perpetually gnaws at the root.
Four harts run across the branches of the tree and bite the buds;
they represent the four winds. Under the tree lies Ymir, and
when he tries to shake off its weight the earth quakes.

Asgard is the name of the abode of the gods, access to which is
only gained by crossing the bridge, Bifrost (the rainbow).
Asgard consists of golden and silver palaces, the dwellings of
the gods, but the most beautiful of these is Valhalla, the
residence of Odin. When seated on his throne he overlooks all
heaven and earth. Upon his shoulders are the ravens Hugin and
Munin, who fly every day over the whole world, and on their
return report to him all they have seen and heard. At his feet
lie his two wolves, Geri, and Freki, to whom Odin gives all the
meat that is set before him, for he himself stands in no need of
food. Mead is for him both food and drink. He invented the
Runic characters, and it is the business of the Norns to engrave
the runes of fate upon a metal shield. From Odin's name, spelt
Wodin, as it sometimes is, came Wednesday, the name of the fourth
day of the week.

Odin is frequently called Alfadur (All-father), but this name is
sometimes used in a way that shows that the Scandinavians had an
idea of a deity superior to Odin, uncreated and eternal.


Valhalla is the great hall of Odin, wherein he feasts with his
chosen heroes, all those who have fallen bravely in battle, for
all who die a peaceful death are excluded. The flesh of the boar
Schrimnir is served up to them, and is abundant for all. For
although this boar is cooked every morning, he becomes whole
again every night. For drink the heroes are supplied abundantly
with mead from the she-goat Heidrun. When the heroes are not
feasting they amuse themselves with fighting. Every day they
ride out into the court or field and fight until they cut each
other in pieces. This is their pastime; but when meal-time
comes, they recover from their wounds and return to feast in


The Valkyrior are warlike virgins, mounted upon horses and armed
with helmets, shields, and spears. Odin, who is desirous to
collect a great many heroes in Valhalla, to be able to meet the
giants in a day when the final contest must come, sends down to
every battle-field to make choice of those who shall be slain.
The Valkyrior are his messengers, and their name means "Choosers
of the slain." When they ride forth on their errand their armor
shed a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the
northern skies, making what men call the "Aurora Borealis," or
"Northern Lights." (Gray's ode, The Fatal Sisters, is founded on
this superstition.)

The following is by Matthew Arnold:

"-----He crew at dawn a cheerful note,
To wake the gods and heroes to their tasks
And all the gods and all the heroes woke.
And from their beds the heroes rose and donned
Their arms, and led their horses from the stall,
And mounted them, and in Valhalla's court
Were ranged; and then the daily fray began,
And all day long they there are hacked and hewn
'Mid dust and groans, and limbs lopped off, and blood;
But all at night return to Odin's hall
Woundless and fresh; such lot is theirs in heaven.
And the Valkyries on their steeds went forth
Toward earth and fights of men; and at their side
Skulda, the youngest of the Nornies, rode;
And over Bifrost, where is Heimdall's watch,
Past Midgard Fortress, down to Earth they came;
There through some battle-field, where men fall fast,
Their horses fetlock-deep in blood, they ride,
And pick the bravest warriors out for death,
Whom they bring back with them at night to heaven,
To glad the gods, and feast in Odin's hall."

This description of The Funeral of Balder is by William Morris:

Gazed through the cool dusk, till his eyes did rest
Upon the noble stories, painted fair
On the high panelling and roof-boards there;
For over the high sea, in his ship, there lay
The gold-haired Balder, god of the dead day,
The spring-flowers round his high pile, waiting there
Until the gods there to the torch should bear;
And they were wrought on this side and on that,
Drawing on towards him. There was Frey, and sat
On the gold-bristled boar, who first they say
Ploughed the brown earth, and made it green for Frey;
Then came dark-bearded Niod; and after him
Freyia, thin-robed, about her ankles slim
The grey cats playing. In another place
Thor's hammer gleamed o'er Thor's red-bearded face;
And Heimdal, with the old horn slung behind,
That in the god's dusk he shall surely wind,
Sickening all hearts with fear; and last of all,
Was Odin's sorrow wrought upon the wall.
As slow-paced, weary faced, he went along,
Anxious with all the tales of woe and wrong
His ravens, Thought and Memory, bring to him."



Thor, the thunderer, Odin's eldest son, is the strongest of gods
and men, and possesses three very precious things. The first is
his hammer, Miolnir, which both the Frost and the Mountain giants
know to their cost, when they see it hurled against them in the
air, for it has split many a skull of their fathers and kindred.
When thrown, it returns to his hand of its own accord. The
second rare thing he possesses is called the belt of strength.
When he girds it about him his divine might is doubled. The
third, also very precious, is his iron gloves, which he puts on
whenever he would use his mallet efficiently. From Thor's name
is derived our word Thursday.

This description of Thor is by Longfellow:

"I am the God Thor,
I am the War God,
I am the Thunderer!
Here in my Northland,
My fastness and fortress,
Reign I forever!

"Here amid icebergs
Rule I the nations;
This is my hammer,
Miolner the mighty;
Giants and sorcerers
Cannot withstand it!

"These are the gauntlets
Wherewith I wield it,
And hurl it afar off;
This is my girdle;
Whenever I brace it
Strength is redoubled!

"The light thou beholdest
Stream through the heavens,
In flashes of crimson,
Is but my red beard
Blown by the night wind,
Affrighting the nations!

"Jove is my brother;
Mine eyes are the lightning;
The wheels of my chariot
Roll in the thunder,
The blows of my hammer
ring in the thunder."

Frey is one of the most celebrated of the gods. He presides over
rain and sunshine and all the fruits of the earth. His sister
Freya is the most propitious of the goddesses. She loves music,
spring, and flowers, and is particularly fond of the Elves
(fairies). She is very fond of love-ditties, and all lovers
would do well to invoke her.

Bragi is the god of poetry, and his song records the deeds of
warriors. His wife, Iduna, keeps in a box the apples which the
gods, when they feel old age approaching, have only to taste of
to become young again.

Heimdall is the watchman of the gods, and is therefore placed on
the borders of heaven to prevent the giants from forcing their
way over the bridge Bifrost (the rainbow.) He requires less
sleep than a bird, and sees by night as well as by day a hundred
miles all around him. So acute is his ear that no sound escapes
him, for he can even hear the grass grow and the wool on a
sheep's back.


There is another deity who is described as the calumniator of the
gods and the contriver of all fraud and mischief. His name is
Loki. He is handsome and well made, but of a very fickle mood
and most evil disposition. He is of the giant race, but forced
himself into the company of the gods, and seems to take pleasure
in bringing them into difficulties, and in extricating them out
of the danger by his cunning, wit, and skill. Loki has three
children. The first is the wolf Fenris, the second the Midgard
serpent, the third Hela (Death). The gods were not ignorant that
these monsters were growing up, and that they would one day bring
much evil upon gods and men. So Odin deemed it advisable to send
one to bring them to him. When they came he threw the serpent
into that deep ocean by which the earth is surrounded. But the
monster has grown to such an enormous size that holding his tail
in his mouth he encircles the whole earth. Hela he cast into
Niffleheim, and gave her power over nine worlds or regions, into
which she distributes those who are sent to her; that is, all who
die of sickness or old age. Her hall is called Elvidnia. Hunger
is her table, Starvation her knife, Delay her man, Slowness her
maid, Precipice her threshold, Care her bed, and Burning-anguish
forms the hangings of her apartments. She may easily be
recognized for her body is half flesh-color and half blue, and
she has a dreadfully stern and forbidding countenance.

The wolf Fenris gave the gods a great deal of trouble before they
succeeded in chaining him. He broke the strongest fetters as if
they were made of cobwebs. Finally the gods sent a messenger to
the mountain spirits, who made for them the chain called
Gleipnir. It is fashioned of six things, viz., th noise made by
the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the roots of stones,
the breath of fishes, the nerves (sensibilities) of bears, and
the spittle of birds. When finished it was as smooth and soft as
a silken string. But when the gods asked the wolf to suffer
himself to be bound with this apparently slight ribbon, he
suspected their design, fearing that it was made by enchantment.
But Tyr (the sword god), to quiet his suspicions, placed his hand
in Fenris' mouth. Then the other gods bound the wolf with
Gleipnir. But when the wolf found that he could not break his
fetters, and that the gods would not release him, he bit off
Tyr's hand, and he has ever since remained one-handed.


Once on a time, when the gods were constructing their abodes and
had already finished Midgard and Valhalla, a certain artificer
came and offered to build them a residence so well fortified that
they should be perfectly safe from the incursions of the Frost
giants and the giants of the mountains. But he demanded for his
reward the goddess Freya, together with the sun and moon. The
gods yielded to his terms provided he would finish the whole work
himself without any one's assistance, and all within the space of
one winter. But if anything remained unfinished on the first day
of summer he should forfeit the recompense agreed on. On being
told these terms the artificer stipulated that he should be
allowed the use of his horse Svadilfari, and this by the advice
of Loki was granted to him. He accordingly set to work on the
first day of winter, and during the night let his horse draw
stone for the building. The enormous size of the stones struck
the gods with astonishment, and they saw clearly that the horse
did one half more of the toilsome work than his mater. Their
bargain, however, had been concluded, and confirmed by solemn
oaths, for without these precautions a giant would not have
thought himself safe among the gods, especially when Thor should
return from an expedition he had then undertaken against the evil

As the winter drew to a close, the building was far advanced, and
the bulwarks were sufficiently high and massive to render the
place impregnable. In short, when it wanted but three days to
summer the only part that remained to be finished was the
gateway. Then sat the gods on their seats of justice and entered
into consultation, inquiring of one another who among them could
have advised to give Freya away, or to plunge the heavens in
darkness by permitting the giant to carry away the sun and the

They all agreed that no one but Loki, the author of so many evil
deeds, could have given such bad counsel, and that he should be
put to a cruel death if he did not contrive some way to prevent
the artificer from completing his task and obtaining the
stipulated recompense. They proceeded to lay hands on Loki, who
in his fright promised upon oath that, let it cost what it would,
he would so manage matters that the man should lose his reward.
That very night when the man went with Svadilfari for building-
stone, a mare suddenly ran out of a forest and began to neigh.
The horse thereat broke loose and ran after the mare into the
forest, which obliged the man also to run after his horse, and
thus between one and another the whole night was lost, so that at
dawn the work had not made the usual progress. The man, seeing
that he must fail of completing his task, resumed his own
gigantic stature, and the gods now clearly perceived that it was
in reality a mountain giant who had come amongst them. Feeling
no longer bound by their oaths, they called on Thor, who
immediately ran to their assistance, and lifting up his mallet,
paid the workman his wages, not with the sun and moon, and not
even by sending him back to Jotunheim, for with the first blow he
shattered the giant's skull to pieces and hurled him headlong
into Niffleheim.


Once upon a time it happened that Thor's hammer fell into the
possession of the giant Thrym, who buried it eight fathoms deep
under the rocks of Jotunheim. Thor sent Loki to negotiate with
Thrym, but he could only prevail so far as to get the giant's
promise to restore the weapon if Freya would consent to be his
bride. Loki returned and reported the result of his mission, but
the goddess of love was quite horrified at the idea of bestowing
her charms on the king of the Frost giants. In this emergency
Loki persuaded Thor to dress himself in Freya's clothes and
accompany him to Jotunheim. Thrym received his veiled bride with
due courtesy, but was greatly surprised at seeing her eat for her
supper eight salmon and a full-grown ox, besides other
delicacies, washing the whole down with three tuns of mead.
Loki, however, assured him that she had not tasted anything for
eight long nights, so great was her desire to see her lover, the
renowned ruler or Jotunheim. Thrym had at length the curiosity
to peep under his bride's veil, but started back in affright, and
demanded why Freya's eyeballs glistened with fire. Loki repeated
the same excuse and the giant was satisfied. He ordered the
hammer to be brought in and laid on the maiden's lap. Thereupon
Thor threw off his disguise, grasped his redoubted weapon and
slaughtered Thrum and all his followers.

Frey also possessed a wonderful weapon, a sword which would of
itself spread a field with carnage whenever the owner desired it.
Frey parted with this sword, but was less fortunate than Thor and
never recovered it. It happened in this way: Frey once mounted
Odin's throne, from whence one can see over the whole universe,
and looking round saw far off in the giant's kingdom a beautiful
maid, at the sight of whom he was struck with sudden sadness,
insomuch that from that moment he could neither sleep, nor drink,
nor speak. At last Skirnir, his messenger, drew his secret from
him, and undertook to get him the maiden for his bride, if he
would give him his sword as a reward. Frey consented and gave
him the sword, and Skirnir set off on his journey and obtained
the maiden's promise that within nine nights she would come to a
certain place and there wed Frey. Skirnir having reported the
success of his errand, Frey exclaimed,

"Long is one night,
Long are two nights,
But how shall I hold out three?
Shorter hath seemed
A month to me oft
Than of this longing time the half."

So Frey obtained Gerda, the most beautiful of all women, for his
wife, but he lost his sword.

This story, entitled Skirnir For, and the one immediately
preceding it, Thrym's Quida, will be found poetically told in
Longfellow's Poets and Poetry of Europe.

Thomas Bulfinch

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