The Resurgence of Norse Mythology (And Where to Start)

[Editor's Note: This article features XChange Picks – deals and products we think you might like. These features may contain affiliate links from our partners.]

MANILA, Philippines — God of War’s 2018 Reboot, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mr. Wednesday of American Gods, The History Channel hit show Vikings.

You may have missed it, but the Norse are slowly conquering pop culture.

More like a steady tide rather than a tsunami, the Nordic resurgence is much subtler than say the 80s nostalgia craze or the popularity of superheroes nowadays (though this might have contributed to the Norse revival). Silent as it may be, their sheer presence in our media is a testament to the richness of its material.

The Norse allure

Norse mythology is easier to make sense of compared to its hitherto more famous Greek counterpart.

Greek mythology is bountiful, more disparate, as it comes from numerous oral and written accounts passed down through the centuries. The Norse myths we know of today, on the other hand, is tighter narratively as it comes mainly from only two sources: The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda.

The former is a collection of anonymous poems that relay the mythology and legends of Germanic heroes (Think Biag ni Lam-ang), while the latter follows a more straightforward textbook-like approach as detailed at around 1270 AE by Icelandic historian and politician Snorri Sturluson.

What makes Norse myths so persistent until this very day is the strength of its source material — many of its tales carry qualities that would fit that of today’s blockbusters. They often feature high adventure as the gods travel realm to realm; comedy from Loki’s maneuvering, Thor’s brawn over brains, and other ungodlike behavior from the pantheon (there’s one story where they recount the origins of lousy poetry coming from a fart of Odin himself); and lastly, Norse myths often carry substantial amounts of drinking.

The levity that comes from this very human take on the gods though works as a double-edged sword as, just like man, the Norse pantheon can get petty, darker and brooding even. But unlike the Greek gods and goddesses who often toyed with men’s lives, their Norse counterparts often only fought amongst themselves.

Loki, just as popular as his Marvel counterpart, is often the star of these stories as his uncalled-for trickery is what frequently sets events in motion. As Neil Gaiman describes in his book, “Norse Mythology,” “That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even you hated him the most.”

Loki would often trick the gods but also be their most useful ally because of his sharp wit and cunning.

An anonymous painting of Loki on the 18th-century Icelandic manuscript u0022Su00c1M 66u0022

This is compounded upon by the overall sense of fatality Norse myths carry. Norse gods were not as immortal as their Greek counterparts; death could stick. To add to this, the concept of Ragnarok — the knowledge of their fates being closed off by this fiery apocalyptic doom — added tragedy to both the heroes and villains.

All characters were moving with a sense of borrowed time, pushing closer and closer to their assured destruction. This creates an implicit layer to Loki, who is foretold to be leading the opposing side of the gods when Ragnarok comes. One can imagine the internal conflict this knowledge carries when you’re still part of “the good guys.”

"Ragnarok,” Gaiman writes in Norse Mythology’s introduction, “made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.”

So where to start?

Neil Gaiman in his book “Norse Mythology” takes a cue from Edith Hamilton and the D’Aulaires’ as he retells the myths of before, reconstructing stories from both Eddas to create a comprehensive look into these gods of mythology.

"I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interesting as I can," Gaiman explains. Furthermore, he elaborates that he only took artistic cues in the dialogue and narration to further contextualize the message and the character motivations of these myths.

Among the 15-standalone stories, one can check out three notable stories that give readers a holistic peek into the exciting yet tragic lives of the Norse gods.

There is “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which recounts the tale of Thor losing his hammer, Mjolnir, and his having to crossdress as the goddess Freya, to trick the ogre who is asking for the goddesses’ hand in marriage as ransom to Mjolnir.

The story works well in presenting Thor and Loki’s unique relationship. Gaiman best describes it in this passage: “There were things Thor did when something went wrong.  The first thing…was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. … So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to ask Loki for advice. Loki was crafty.  Loki would tell him what to do.”

Another excellent tale is “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants,” in which Thor, Loki, and Thor’s servant Thialfi, find themselves going through a set of challenges set by a giant king. Interestingly, the story serves as a reversal to the typical structure of myths, as here the protagonists find their skills lacking, and them actually losing challenges to more skilled adversaries (this includes Thor losing to a wrestling match to an elderly nurse).

Lastly, worth reading, is “The Death of Balder” which highlights the much-feared dark turn of Loki as he manipulated the blind god Hod into killing his brother, the beloved Balder. His subsequent punishment and release are finally to bring about Ragnarok.

All accounts of Ragnarok are unclear if the event has already passed or is just about to come. The timelessness of this doom adds to the mythology’s allure.

If you think about it, there’s something interesting in how the Norse’s centrality on the concept of finiteness, of foreboding mortality, are the same themes that are keeping their stories, ironically, immortal.-

Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.