Who were the Norse gods?
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Who were the Norse gods?

man sacrificing another man on an altar
A Viking religious sacrifice (ca. 900 AD, Sweden)

From their first appearance in historical literature around 100 BC, the Germans were polytheistic (believed in many gods), like the Greeks and the Romans and the Persians and the Indians and other Indo-European people. The most important German gods are closely related to the Greek and Roman gods, and all three sets of gods are descended from an original Indo-European religion.

Like the Greeks, the Germans believed that the world started with nothingness, and that one god formed out of the nothingness and was the parent of the other gods. The Germans called this first god Twisto, or Ymir (depending on the region). Ymir was fed by a cow, and this cow made a man by licking a salty block of ice. From this man came the god Odin and his two brothers. As in the Greek story, Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. They created the world from his body. His flesh became the earth, his bones became the mountains, and his blood became the oceans (the Greek Kronos also had his blood in the ocean). Odin and his brothers also made the first man and woman from two pieces of driftwood. The man was named Ash and the woman was named Vine (probably).

The most powerful of the German gods was Odin (or Wotan) the oldest and the chief of the gods. He was tricky, hard to pin down, and magical. Tyr and Freya and Thor were the other main gods.

The Germans called the main part of the world, where people lived, Middle-earth, and they believed it was surrounded by a big ocean (as Germany indeed has the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Baltic Sea to the North, and the Mediterranean to the south). Somewhere within Middle-earth, they said, was Asgard, where the gods lived. You got there by crossing the rainbow like a bridge. The world of the dead, Hel, was in the cold north somewhere, and sometimes associated with a world of giants, who attack fertility goddesses and carry them off just as Hades does to Persephone.

Learn by doing: Draw a map of Middle-Earth, Asgard, etc.
More about Odin

Bibliography and further reading about the Norse gods:


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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