Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Away with the old - in with the new

File:Manuscript Odinn.jpg

The Old Norse religion apparently did not go under any name in its heyday. It was just there. You held a drinking fest for the gods or made offerings but there was no centralized name for these activities as far as anyone can tell today.

The religion was based in most part on honesty and honor, of the individual but mainly of the family or clan. A whole lot of feuding resulted from this, as revenge is supposedly the antidote for bruised honor.

Each person’s destiny was decided beforehand by three witches Urður, Verðandi and Skuld but how you met your destiny was up to you. Are you going out on your knees or fighting? Personally I hope to be lying down but my views differ greatly from those of the settlers.

The old Norse religion was the main form of belief in Iceland until the year 1000, when Christianity had made its way here through missionaries sent by the kings of Norway and Denmark. They had their work cut out for them as they were not well received and most returned to tell the kings that there was no hope for the Icelandic heathens. The king of Norway, Ólafur did not take no for an answer and hostage sons of some of the most powerful chieftains and requested the country reconsider. They did and Christianity became the Icelandic religion. However when this passed, an agreement or law was made allowing people to continue the old ways alongside the new religion as long as they did not flag it. You were allowed to worship the gods in secret and eat horses and expose newborns in public. This wishy-washy arrangement is said to have angered the gods and a great expulsion of lava at Hellisheiði took place while the parliament (alþingi) was in session, but there is no stopping evolution and change – even if you control the volcanoes.

The highest ranking god was one-eyed Óðinn. It is interesting that he is i.a. the god of magic, war and of all things: poetry. Then there were Þór the thunder god, the son of Óðinn and the strongest of the bunch, Freyr the god of fertility, rain and the sun, Baldur the beautiful and kind also the son of Óðinn. Females also had representatives to name some there was Frigg the wife of Óðinn, Freyja the goddess of love and fertility, Sif the wife of Þór – who had all of her hair cut off while sleeping by Loki the bad boy of the bunch. Being the wife of Þór this debacle had a happy ending as her husband threatened to break every bone in Loki‘s body if he did not make up for this by finding her a wig of gold. As Þór had a pretty impressive hammer and a temper to boot, Loki managed to do this and Sif got her hair of gold, something she probably realized was not as smart as it sounded when she put the heavy thing on her head.

Icelandic names are a mix of names from here and there; we have a lot of Biblical names, Nordic names and names from the Old Norse religion. Þór (Thor) is the most common middle name for men as an example and we have lots and lots of Óðins; Freyjas and Baldurs. It is not uncommon to mix the two, a woman can be named Þóra María and no one would raise an eyebrow. But we hardly have any Loki‘s, only 6 men in carry this name and of these only 2 have Loki as their first name.

This old religion still has followers. My husband and I are invited to a wedding at the end of December where the bride and groom are to be wed by this custom, by the leader of this sect. The bride and the religious leader are cousins of mine and it has all the makings of being a lot of fun. I am not expecting horse to be on the menu, not because Christianity finally managed to do away with this practice but because the happy couple is vegetarian.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. So many questions, I don't even know where to start. In part because I can't find the right keys on my computer to ask them.

    The Greeks also went from the Gods to Christianity in much the same way. Festivals to the ancient gods became name day celebrations to the saints (I know I'll get mail on that one) and even the name for those festivals, "panegyri," comes from the old days.

    What does surprise me is all that talk about not eating horse. Sounds like someone's not just keeping the ways of the old gods, but kosher as well (more mail).

    Saturday is my first book conference panel appearance since we sat next to each other at Bouchercon in St. Louis. It just won't be the same without you. It will also be in Miami...

  2. I loved the Norse Gods, and I had a delightful book about them when I was a child. Very well known authors, and I am having a brain freeze. I thought of you; there was a segment on the news about driving up pretty close to an erupting volcano. Very impressive. (Jeff)-I don't know if horse is kosher. It would have to be killed a certain way. Being vegetarian solves that problem.

  3. Yes, I grew up hearing Greek myths from my very secular father, who was fascinated with them. And I knew of the goddesses, as well as the gods.

    Wish I had known about Norse myths, too, although I do know a bit about Odin and Thor.
    However, I knew nothing about the role of women.

    Along with the toppling of the old religion must have gone the role of women in the belief system. I'm glad to see that the old religion has been retained by some, which means in that belief system, women still have a role.

  4. I just re-read Sigrid Undset's KRISTIN LAVRANSDOTTIR, for which she became the first woman writer ever to win the Nobel Prize, back in (I think) 1926. Although it's set in Norway, it's really set in newly-Christian Scandinavia, when missionary priests are still risking their lives to overturn a perfectly good local myth structure and replace it with their own. (Undset is much more sympathetic with Christianity than I am). But more ancient traditions and value systems coexist with the new Christian order. It's one of my favorite books.

  5. 'You held a drinking fest for the gods or made offerings...'

    Sounds a bit like christmas in England, without the offerings bit. Lovely post Yrsa