From Wagner to William Morris in the late 19th century, via Tolkien’s dwarves and CS Lewis The final battleuntil last year controversial film The NorthmanScandinavian gods and heroes have been central to the stories we tell ourselves.
As a professor of medieval European literature, I have been exploring Old Norse mythology since my undergraduate degree. I have always been fascinated by the ways in which the ancient myths remain vital and relevant in the present, especially now in various pop cultural forms. In my new book, The Nordic myths that shape our way of thinkingI explore how 10 key Norse myths and legends have been reworked over the past 200 years.
Although these stories have been influential since they were discovered in 17th-century Europe, in recent years Nordic stories have exploded across fiction, Hollywood blockbusters, rock albums, opera, video games and TV shows – these are just some of the cultural spheres where Nordic myths have been put to work. Here I introduce three of the most important deities, the feminine divine in the form of valkyries and shield maidens, and finally the looming threat of raga smoke – the end of the world.
Gods and monsters
The main gods – not so much the goddesses unfortunately – offer ways to think about different stages of masculinity. Odin, the all-father, is the leader of the Norse pantheon, the creator of mankind and the god of wisdom. He will die by raga smoke, consumed by the great wolf Fenrir.
Starting with the main character Wotan in Das Rheingold, first part of Wagner’s Ring bike – and also in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 epic American Godsand Douglas Adams’ 1988 comic novel The long dark tea time of the soul – Odin is a figure who feels that power is draining away from him. Yet he ingeniously searches for ways to cling to his waning authority, making shady deals and manipulating his own flesh and blood through cunning and deceit.
The Marvel Comic Universe has already killed the aged god, for he embodies an older patriarchal principle, one that refuses to step aside for the next generation.
In Norse myth, Thor The main role is to strike giants with his great hammer Mjöllnir, patrolling the borders of the gods and human territory to keep enemies out. An indomitable practitioner of mighty feats, he is not always taken seriously in myth: a favorite story involves him being forced to dress up as a reluctant and unlikely bride.
So too, the modern Thor is often depicted as a bumbling thug who reaches for his hammer instead of thinking things through. Contemporary authors, such as Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon, make him the end of their stories for younger readers – the cross-dressing storyline makes for great comedy.
The image of God has been saved through his incarnation as the Mighty Thor. In the Marvel comics and movies, he has learned maturity, how to wield and hold back his power, and has come to care for others, both human and his own people, the demigod Asgardians. Marvel’s Thor constructs a new kind of masculinity, one that understands that violence isn’t always the answer and has learned the value of thoughtfulness and compromise.
Half-god, half-giant, Loki is a curiously ambiguous creature; in the Marvel Universe, he is Thor’s adoptive brother, though not in the original mythos. He gets the gods out of tight situations – often ones of his own making – but he will march against them with their enemies at raga smoke. For novelist AS Byatt, he is the god of the intellectual, questioning and non-conformist, while Marvel and Disney have made Loki a shape-shifting, gender-changing cult hero, always ready with a joke when he double-crosses Thor again.
A female perspective
Loki is also the father of monsters: his daughter Hel, the goddess of death, is the heroine of Gavin Higgins and Francesca Simon’s 2019 chamber opera, The monstrous child. Hel is a sparkling teenager living with disabilities and consigned to a bleak underworld, a girl whose story takes in love, revenge and learning the true extent of her powers.
Warrior maidens and goddesses of fate rolled into one, the valkyries tower high above the battlefield, deciding who will live and who will die. Wagner’s Brünnhilde is the strangest of the Valkyries, his true heroine Ring bikefulfill her father Wotan’s will and finally bring down the gods.
Valkyries were also envisioned as the battle-trained warrior women who now abound in television shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom, skilled fighters who fight on equal terms with men. These women vividly dramatize aspects of contemporary femininity: efficient in traditionally masculine domains, exercising power and choosing their own lovers, yet working out how to manage sexual relationships and motherhood alongside their professional identities.
Literally “doom of the gods”, raga smoke lies in the mythical future of gods and men: the forces of ice and fire will destroy the earth. Tolkien suggests that this inevitable end shapes the northern spirit, igniting courage and resignation in the face of certain doom.
Wagner saw his Götterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) as sweeping away the corrupt divine order and leaving a purified, empty world where free men could build anew. On HBO Game of Throneshumanity’s apocalyptic clash with the icy power of the Night King is resolved by a young woman’s courage and determination.
The Norse myths imagine a purified green world rising from the sea, but the climate catastrophe we are heading towards allows no such renewal. Perhaps we can learn from the bad faith and carelessness of the gods in time to avert the doom the raging smoke portends for us all.
Author: Carolyne Larrington – Professor and Tutorial Fellow in English, University of Oxford