The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2012 issue.


So you’ve heard of Zeus the Thunderer, presiding over Mount Olympus. And perhaps you’ve read a thing or two about one of his daughters, the virginal, owl-eyed Athena, or her half-brother, the willowy, ferocious Dionysus. Maybe you pass a statue of hatted Hermes every day, or perhaps now and then you see a painting of nude Aphrodite. It is likely that you have heard a fair amount about these gods and their doings, and something or another about the synthesis of Greek deities into the empire of Rome. Much are the Greek gods celebrated in western culture; they are so ingrained in modern Western Culture that the word mythology often simply refers to the deities of the Greeks and Romans.

But what about the gods native to the Germanic peoples, those peoples so greatly responsible for shaping modern Europe, those that were just as responsible for the foundation of what we now know as the Western world? Who were these deities native to the linguistic ancestors of such important modern languages as English, German, and the languages of Scandinavia? And what role do these gods play today?

In this short paper I will very briskly outline the major surviving sources on and key concepts relating to Germanic mythology, the mythology of the Germanic peoples. This category includes the better known Norse mythology, the mythology of the North Germanic peoples. I will conclude this article with a brief discussion on the ongoing influence that these topics have on modern Western society, including their place in modern popular culture and the revival of their appearance in a sacral context among modern Germanic heathen groups. This paper is by no means comprehensive; consider it a key to an overgrown door.


••• Language and Mythology

But before we go any further, it is important that we are clear on a few key terms. Because of its double meaning, the adjective Germanic is a confusing one for English speakers. To be perfectly clear, the adjective Germanic as used in this article does not refer to the modern nation of Germany. Rather, Germanic—in increasingly antiquated works often referred to as Teutonic—refers to a family of languages that stem from a common ancestor, reconstructed by linguists and usually known as Proto-Germanic [z]. The Germanic language family includes numerous living languages, such as English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and several others. Germanic languages may be divided into various branches, such as North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic. The latter, East Germanic, a branch that included Gothic (yes, that’s a language!), is now extinct.

Ultimately, the Germanic language family descends from the same source as a group of numerous other language families, families such as Italic, Indo-Iranian, Celtic, Hellenic, Baltic, and Slavic. Their common ancestor is known as Proto-Indo-European, a language which arrived in Europe sometime during the middle to late European Neolithic. The precise details and origins of the Proto-Indo-Europeans remain a matter of debate and extensive research and reconstruction among archaeologists and linguists. Like the Germanic languages, Germanic mythology sprung from a Proto-Indo-European origin, and like other facets of their culture, the mythology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is undergoing reconstruction. However, one thing is perfectly clear; we now know that we have a whole lot more in common with many of our neighbors than was once thought.

Our working definition of mythology is considerably less complex. For our purposes, mythology is simply a body of tales about a deity (or deities). In this case, we refer to the mythology native to the Germanic peoples prior to Christianization and the memory and records which have thereafter lived on. This includes folklore reaching up until and after industrialization. Numerous tales of heroes also appear throughout the Germanic record, but they will not be handled in this work. All in all, this time period stretches from the end of the Nordic Bronze Age up until widespread literacy less than 100 years ago.


••• The Nature of the Sources

Although the Germanic peoples developed a native script—the various runic alphabets—their society was predominantly oral, with great emphasis on traditional, technically complex poetry. Surviving runic inscriptions tend to be short and to the point. Sometimes these inscriptions invoke deities, often they are perfectly mundane messages for this or that, and sometimes they can only be described as cryptic gibberish. As a result, most information that we have about the mythology of the Germanic peoples comes from either post-Christianization Scandinavian sources or from the comments and records from outside observers. It is these sources, combined with the science of linguistics and comparative material from other Indo-European cultures, that are used to make sense of earlier works that provide little detail. The quantity and quality of sources on Germanic mythology therefore varies greatly from time and place.


••• Early Sources

It was towards the end of the first century when Roman historian Tacitus wrote our single most important and informative source describing the ancient Germanic peoples. In this source, Germania, Tacitus produces a generally positive picture of Rome’s northernly neighbors from largely unknown sources. However, where it may be confirmed, Tacitus’s work is often startlingly accurate.

Tacitus, like authors writing in Latin before and after him, frequently employs a process known as interpretatio romana, a process in which a non-Roman god is equated with a Roman god. For example, by way of interpretatio romana, the Germanic god *Wodanaz (the asterisk means that the word is nowhere written but has been reconstructed by way of its descendents by linguists) handily becomes Mercury. This is due to apparent similarity observed in more descriptive later sources. However, it is very possible that the position of *Wodanaz—the god who we now know most commonly as Odin—may have been in most ways quite unlike that of Mercury at Tacitus’s time of writing. Tacitus also mentions a Jupiter, Mars, an Isis, and a Castor and Pollux. These deity names may respectively be translated as Proto-Germanic forms of who we may later recognize as Thor, Tyr, Freyja (or perhaps Frigg—it’s complicated), and the brothers Hengist and Horsa.

Fortunately for us, Tacitus also provides Germanic names in passing, such as the god name Ing and the semi-Latinized goddess name Nerthus. Unfortunately, Tacitus provides little in terms of myth; while he mentions that the Germanic peoples sing much about their mythology, Tacitus only briefly outlines a potential creation myth involving a being named Tuisto. According to Tacitus, this Tuisto is the earth-born ancestor of the Germanic peoples, and from his son, Mannus, came the three primeval Germanic tribes.

Beginning at around the same time, from 100 to 500 CE, numerous altars depicting females, often in trios, were erected along the borders of Roman-controlled territories reaching into the region that Roman authors refer to as Germania. These Latin inscriptions refer to these females as matres (»mothers«) and matronae (»ladies«). About half of these inscriptions contain Latinized Germanic names. No doubt extensive mythology existed about these celebrated deities, but it has since been long lost. However, like the rest of the deities mentioned in this section, this won’t be the last we hear about these divine figures.


••• Christianize or be Christianized

Unlike the continental Celts, the Roman Empire never managed to consume its Germanic neighbors. Indeed, it was Germanic peoples who formed England after the Romans left Britain, who flowed into previously mainly Romanized Celtic areas such as the Alps, and surged into the Roman Empire, eventually conquering it. However, the Roman Empire remained resilient in its ability to absorb, and so in time these Germanic peoples who worked within Roman borders themselves often became Romans. Yet in the 4th century CE, Rome wasn’t what it used to be. That century, Christianity had been given governmentally favored status under Constantine I. Later that century Rome saw traditional Roman religion’s last official stand in the emperor Julian’s attempt to revive it. Outside of traditional Roman religion, Julian sought general religious tolerance in the empire, returning bishops exiled by previous Christian emperors and making it a point to reach out to other religious groups, such as Rome’s Jews. Julian died a few years into office from wounds sustained in battle.

Not long after Julian’s short reign, the emperor Theodosius I came to power. Theodosius I had the temples of the gods razed and the traditional polytheism of the Romans outlawed. With his reign religious tolerance in Rome was dead. All non-Catholics were now targets for conquest; there was no room for those whose beliefs did not fall in line. Theodosius I was the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

By way of political alliance and missionary work aimed at nobility, Christianity very slowly began to creep northward from Rome. Resistance was eventually met with repression and persecution, and at times a choice between death and conversion; under Charlemagne’s 785 (likely biblically-inspired) legal code Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, execution was authorized for those conquered Saxons that refused to abandon their ancestral beliefs and convert. Scholar Britt-Mari Näsström comments that »Christianity oscillated between regarding the native gods as lifeless idols and malevolent demons. Freyja [an important Old Norse goddess associated strongly with sexuality who we will discuss later] became an easy target for the new religion, in which an asexual virgin was the ideal woman« [y].  Indeed, some of our scant continental sources on the gods, such as the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow, outright refer to them as »demons« and Scandinavian material at times shows a particular hostility towards female deities. The songs that Tacitus once glowingly described by Tacitus were now targeted for extermination.

When deities are mentioned in a non-demonized context, it is usually by way of a process known as euhemerization. Under this process, which is named after the 4th century BCE Greek writer Euhemerus, a god is presented as a historical figure who has come to be deified by way of human folly (perhaps a convenient compromise between half-heathen royalty and anxious monastery!). As a result, formerly venerated gods, such as Woden (the Old English form of the god we now most popularly know as Odin), appear in royal genealogies as the ancestors of rulers of Christian kingdoms.

That said, this isn’t always the case, as we shall see.


••• England and the European Continent

Over half a millennium after Tacitus’s time, often in areas where royalty had declared themselves Christianized a few hundred years prior, a smattering of references to Germanic deities begin to appear on record. In Anglo-Saxon England, mentions of native deities—such as the aforementioned god Ing, the once widely venerated »Mothers«, the goddess Ēostre (the namesake of modern Easter), the god Woden, the horse brothers Hengist and Horsa, and an apparent barley being named Beowa—are made in passing, usually as briefly as possible. Nowhere in the Old English record are heathen myths transparently recorded. Yet there are tantalizing hints; for example, Woden is mentioned as a serpent-slaying, charm-wielding healer in the half-heathen Nine Herbs Charm, and, in the knowledge poem Solomon and Saturn presented as the father of an alphabet.

Perhaps the first straightforward myth about Germanic gods to appear in the body of records that we have today is that of the Langobards, a Germanic people who, according to tradition, ultimately migrated from Scandinavia before ruling over a kingdom in Italy the 6th and 8th centuries. In this myth, recorded in the anonymous 7th century Origo Gentis Langobardorum, the gods Godan and Frea have taken sides among two Germanic peoples who have come into conflict, the Vandals and the Winnili. Godan is Langobardic for the deity we nowadays popularly know as Odin, whereas Frea is Langobardic for either Frigg or Freyja (or a combination of both—it’s complex). After being appealed to by the Winnili leadership for victory, Frea moves Woden’s bed to face Eastward as he sleeps. Upon waking, Odin sees the assembled women of the Winnili with their long hair tied as if beards. Godan, surprised, asks »who are these long-beards?« (»Qui sunt isti longibarbae?« ). Frea comments that he has now named them and should give them victory. As a result, the Winnili were thereafter known as the Langobards; the long-beards.

Strong mythical allusions are found in two heathen charms discovered in the margin of a 9th or 10th century manuscript from Fulda, Germany. In the first of the two charms, written in Old High German and known collectively as the Merseburg Charms (die Merseburger Zaubersprüche), a scenario is recounted in which the gods Wodan and Phol are riding through a wood. The horse on which Balder—apparently the same figure as Phol—is riding wrenches his foot. The goddesses Sinthgunt, Sunna, Frija, and Volla all magically heal the horse alongside the god Woden. The charm ends with the refrain »bone to bone, blood to blood, joint to joints, so be mended!« (»Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin!«). Sinthgunt is an otherwise unknown goddess but is here said to be the sister of the goddess Sunna, the personified Sun, and Frija is in Old Norse sources known as the goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin. Here she is the sister of Volla, a goddess also associated with Frigg in Old Norse sources (Old Norse Fulla).

Other than these scant few mentions, the continental mythology is limited to scattered bits and pieces, small echoes of what once was, such as the Nordendorf I fibula; a 6th or 7th century brooch found in a grave all the way down in Bavaria that features a runic inscription. The inscription mentions the names of at least two gods, Þonar (Thor) and Wodan (Odin), in an unclear context. Fortunately material from Scandinavia offers far more insight.


••• Scandinavia and Norse Mythology

In 12th century Denmark, the historian Saxo Grammaticus authored a series of Latin volumes called Gesta Danorum (»The History of the Danes«). In the early volumes of this work, Saxo produces a narrative that includes a handful of deities. Unfortunately, although Saxo claims to accurately represent his source material, he seems to have done anything but; Saxo presents a heavily moralized narrative for his own purposes and makes no attempts at objectivity. As a result, Gesta Danorum is a highly problematic source for Norse mythology.

However, it is when we turn to the tiny island of Iceland that we get a real look at a late form of the mythology that we are only allowed short glimpses of in the continental sources. Iceland, apparently Christianized by way of pressured compromise rather than military force, had incubated its ancient arts and felt bold enough to put them to parchment. It is on Iceland where, in the 13th century, two enigmatic Old Norse works were produced that are our most important records of Germanic mythology; the Eddas.

The first of the Eddas is now popularly known as the Poetic Edda, and, as the name hints, it consists of a collection of numerous poems. These poems almost exclusively deal with Norse mythology. The Poetic Edda was compiled for unknown reasons by an anonymous individual, by way of unknown, almost certainly oral informants. The second work, generally known nowadays as the Prose Edda, consists of four books that mainly consist of prose. Written by the prolific and learned Icelander Snorri, the Prose Edda is a manual for skalds, a class of traditional poets in Scandinavian society that included both males and females. Poets of this sort were likely once widespread throughout all of Germanic society. The Prose Edda quotes from and explains material found in the Poetic Edda and contains a large amount of material unique to it, such as archaic works by individual skalds reaching hundreds of years before Christianization.

Taken together, the Eddas paint a picture of a vibrant and complex cosmology. At the center of all is the immense, celestial tree Yggdrasill, whose roots reach beyond comprehension. Upon this tree lives a variety of beasts that include four noble stags and an insult-carrying squirrel, while around the tree exists Nine Worlds. In these worlds dwells a variety of beings, including elves, dwarfs, monsters, jǫtnar (singular jǫtunn), mankind, and, yes, gods. According to this scheme, we humans dwell in Miðgarðr, the middle-enclosure, whereas the gods mainly dwell in the sky in a realm called Ásgarðr, the god-enclosure. Mankind’s relation to the gods is intimate; upon encountering driftwood on a beach, the trio decided to make from it the first two human beings, Askr and Embla. The cosmos are made up of abstract personifications and vibrant metaphor. The Sun (Sól), a goddess that we met earlier on the continent, is chased every day by a wolf, while the Moon (Máni), joined by two children, is chased by another wolf. The Earth (Jǫrð) is personified as a goddess, the mother of the god Thor, while the Day (Dagr) is a shining god daily passing his dark female counterpart, Night (Nòtt). The world itself, the sky that surrounds it, and the clouds that pass above it are composed of the elemental pieces of the fallen ur-jǫtunn, Ymir, a hermaphroditic, primordial being, a likely echo of the Tuisto mentioned by Tacitus around 1,200 years prior.

Most of the myths center on the dealings and relations between the gods and the jǫtnar (often inaccurately translated as »giants«), somewhat god-like beings who intermarry with, are related to, or come into conflict with the gods. While numerous gods are mentioned in the Eddas and while the number of goddesses that appear in the text notably eclipse the number of gods, the Old Norse texts often focus on the exploits and adventures of the gods Odin and Thor.

The one-eyed, spear-wielding god Odin (Óðinn), flanked by two ravens whose names are Huginn (»thought«) and Muninn (»memory«) and two wolves named Geri and Freki (whose names both mean »desirous, ravenous«), is the subject of many of the poems found in the Poetic Edda. Similarly to the Old English Nine Herbs Charm that we visited earlier where Woden is said to be a founder of an alphabet, we are told that Odin hung himself from Yggdrasill for nine nights to gain the secret of the runic alphabet, which passed on to mankind. Ever thirsting for knowledge, Odin gave one of his eyes to the well of knowledge, Mímisbrunnr, and with him carries the herb-embalmed head of the well’s namesake owner, Mímir. The head speaks to him and tells him secrets. Often disguised as a long-bearded old man, Odin’s thirst for knowledge leads him to wager his own head in verbal battles of wit. Upon his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, this thirst for knowledge even brings him beyond the world of the living; to Hel, the name of both a location and goddess that extends from the same Germanic origin as our modern word Hell. There he asks from the dead hints of what will be. It is therefore fitting that Odin’s wife, Frigg, is able to see into the future—yet she tells no one what will be.

Described in Old Norse sources as the son of Earth and Odin, the god Thor (Þórr) was the most popular god during the Viking Age, a period generally held to have lasted from 793 to around the 11th century. Many personal names and place names from this period contain his name and inscriptions on runestones invoke his protection. Representations of his particularly shaped hammer, Mjǫlnir, were commonly worn during the Viking Age among believers. With its ability to crush mountain ranges, Thor uses this hammer to assault his foes, yet it may also be used to give blessings. Thor is a ferocious  god whose anger inspires terror in those that witness it but is also good-humored. He protects mankind and rides a chariot led by the goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr (»teeth-snarler« and »teeth-grinder«) and is sometimes accompanied by a boy and girl (Thjálfi and Rǫskva) who act as his servants and helpers. Thor’s name transparently means »thunder«, and his earth-associated, gold-haired wife, Sif, has been seen by scholars as embodying fields of golden wheat. In this sense, we are thus provided the image of storm clouds rolling over vast wheat fields, the showers upon the grain resulting in sustenance and health among mankind.

While it is Odin and Thor that we hear most about, perhaps due to the royal associations of the informants or the compiler, members of a family of deities known as the Vanir also receive frequent mention. This family of deities includes the goddess Freyja (the »Lady«), her brother Freyr (the »Lord«), and their father Njǫrðr (whose name is linguistically a descendant of the Nerthus who we heard about from Tacitus so long ago). Freyja is the most commonly mentioned goddess and was clearly one of the most important in the mythology. It is with Freyja that Odin must split half of the dead in battle; Odin’s share goes to the hall Valhǫll and Freyja’s share goes to her field Fólkvangr. A complex deity, Freyja owns a cloak of falcon feathers, weeps tears of gold, and owns a famously splendid necklace. Freyja is connected with witchcraft, cats, sex, and death.

Details about the many gods and goddesses and their associated mythology require far more than the space I am here allotted. Those who delve deeper than this paper will read about how the god Freyr gave up his self-fighting sword for the love of the beautiful jǫtunn Gerðr and thus must face his inevitable demise; about the arrival of the fierce skiing goddess Skaði, who comes down from her mountains for vengeance before choosing among the gods to marry based on their feet alone; about the death of the god Baldr (who we earlier met in Old High German), who dies by way of the mistletoe arrow of his blind brother Hǫðr, an act engineered by the malice of the half-god Loki; about the abduction of the apple-bearing goddess Iðunn, whose husband is the skaldic god Bragi; about the norns, valkyries, and the dísir, female beings associated with fate who are much like the »mothers« and »ladies« we encountered earlier; about the first war, the Æsir-Vanir War, which ended in a truce where all the gods spat into a cauldron, and from this the wisest of beings was born, Kvasir, who thereafter traveled the land spreading knowledge before he was murdered and his blood distilled as the Mead of Poetry; and about the foretold events of Ragnarǫk, during which the gods and their foes ride to battle, ending in the burning and rebirth of the world, a reinvigorated world to be populated by returning gods, their descendants, and two humans who hid in the woods of Yggdrasill, Líf and Lífþrasir.

From the haunting to the humorous, many myths await the reader of Norse mythology, well beyond those that are described here. Still, the myths are at times highly mysterious in what they don’t say; for example, why is there no discussion of the thousands of stone ships from the heathen period that speckle the Scandinavian landscapes? [x] Scholarship continues to tease out details and offer answers to these mysteries.


••• Folklore and Scholarship

Although we have no material nearly as extensive as the Old Norse material on the continent (and doubtlessly the lore was just as rich), detectable elements of what once was are found in folklore, where traces of earlier myths may be encountered. As late as the 11th century, edicts were being issued against pagan practices in England, and deities are still mentioned by name—in some cases quite in line with the functions described in the pagan period—in folklore records well as late as the 20th century.

However, it was the continued cherishing of this mythology among the Icelanders that brought the myths that we have today to us. After the 13th century, manuscript copies of the Eddas continued to be made in Iceland—no inexpensive labor—all the way up until the 17th century, when editions were printed in Latin and Danish, bringing the Eddas to a much wider audience and sparking a reinvigoration in Norse and general Germanic mythology in Europe. The discovery and translation of texts such as the Eddas resulted in the academic discipline of Germanic philology or Germanic studies.

Of the many faces and hands in this field, the most notable appeared in the 19th century; the linguist and folklorist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), who the reader may best know as one of the Brothers Grimm. To say that Grimm was an important figure for the study of Germanic mythology would be an understatement. Due to his scientific innovations in the area of linguistics, Grimm’s influence reaches well beyond the Germanic sphere, and some scholars consider Grimm to be to the humanities what Charles Darwin was to the life sciences. Grimm’s four-volume compendium Teutonic Mythology (German Deutsche Mythologie) remains an important work to this day.

Since Grimm’s time, mountains of pages have been produced on the subject of Germanic mythology, and his work has been much questioned, developed, and innovated upon. Beyond Grimm, the modern study of Germanic mythology owes much to the scholars Jan de Vries (1890-1964) and Georges Dumézil (1898-1986), who inspired new generations of scholars and brought the study more in line with an Indo-European and modern linguistic framework. A body of works by British scholars E. O. G. Turville-Petre (1908-1978) and particularly Hilda Ellis Davidson (1914-2006) provided fantastic English introductions to Norse and Germanic mythology for the English-speaking general public—myself included!—through the post-World War II period. Nowadays handbooks by active English language scholars Rudolf Simek, Andy Orchard, and John Lindow are only a computer click away, and increasingly quality Wikipedia entries for even the most obscure of topics may be found on the internet free of cost.


••• The Gods Among Us

Outside of modern academia the gods are still with us in many ways. In most Germanic languages, the days of the week are still named after Germanic deities. We all know Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday; in other words, the day of the Sun, the Moon, the god Tiw (Tyr), the god Woden (Odin), the god Thunor (Thor), and the goddess Frige (Frigg). Various given names still contain the names of deities and other beings; Alfred literally means »elf advice«, whereas Ingrid means »beauty of the god Ing«, a name you may remember from Tacitus that is perhaps the true name of the important Norse fertility god Freyr. The modern Danish form of the name of his beautiful and ferocious sister Freyja, Freja, has remained one of the most popular names for Danish girls for the past decade [w].  And these are only a few examples. References to the mythology are all around us.

From the translations, fiction, and poetry of the British socialist polymath William Morris (1834-1896) and the influence he had on the British academic and author J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), to the works of the German composer and conductor Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and even up to the American 2011 Marvel comics film Thor, Germanic mythology has proven to be a sporadic wellspring to the arts. With the amount of resources and information rapidly available in the modern world, this tradition shows no sign of ending. Gods such as Thor are more and more again becoming household names.

In the religious sphere the gods have also returned. In the last 100 years, the veneration of the old gods has been revived and continues to rapidly grow. In 2009, America’s first openly heathen politician, Dan Halloran, came to office in Queens, New York under the Republican ticket. In 2012, the Ásatrúarfélagið (»Asatru Association«), now the largest non-Christian religious group in Iceland [v],  celebrated its 40th anniversary by donating 2 million Icelandic krónur (about 16,000 US dollars or about 12,800 Euros) to the Icelandic Coast Guard’s helicopter fund.

Germanic mythology is alive and well in 2012.


Text | Joseph S. Hopkins, University of Georgia

Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Haukur Þorgeirsson, Juliana Roost, Dr. Alexander Sager and Rebecca Brooks for their feedback while writing this article.

Illustration | Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) inspired by Richard Wagner’s Germanic mythology-inspired opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Courtesy of the artist

Sources |

[z] Other terms in regular use include Common Germanic or sometimes—simply enough—Germanic.

[y] Näsström, Britt-Mari (1995). Freyja – The Great Goddess of the North, page 21. Lund Studies in History of Religions: Volume 5. University of Lund, Sweden.

[x] For a 2011 article authored by Haukur Þorgeirsson and myself on this topic, see »The Ship in the Field« as published in The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter, No. 3, December 2011. The University of Helsinki. ISSN-L: 1799-4497

[w] Statistics Denmark federal website, 2012:

[v] Statistics Iceland federal website, 2012:

Full article here.