This is the fourth installment in my series on GOD & the Gods. In this series, the one Christian GOD is compared and contrasted with various non-Christian or pagan gods who comprise diverse belief systems held by cultures worldwide throughout history.
The concepts of death and immortality as related to the various pagan gods can be troublesome for someone from a Christian background. The Celtic gods and goddesses, for the most part, are considered immortal yet there was a belief in a new kind of hybrid being who were immortal and could still be killed as noted in my installment on the Celts.1 The Norse gods, on the other hand, are not considered immortal, but that depends on whether or not you attribute immortality to just the soul or to the physical body as well.
If a person or a being, like a god for instance, can be killed, then that being or person is not immortal in the physical sense. If the Norse gods and goddesses were physical beings like us, then it would make sense to say they are not immortal and can die or be killed. If they were truly immortal, as a spirit being would be, then they would exist in their current state, unchangeable, forever. Yet, Norse mythology describes many gods who married, had offspring, and died or were killed, so I believe it is safe to assume that the Norse gods were mortal physical beings—howbeit supernatural beings.
Then there’s the problem of how to explain the various realms of the dead such as Helheim, Niflheim, and Valhalla. If the dead are to inhabit these realms then some aspect of the various beings in Norse mythology are in fact immortal. After all, wouldn’t it be the souls of those dead Norsemen being assigned to the realms of the dead? Then again, if it were true that the Norsemen really believed the physical body would spend its afterlife in Valhalla, for example, then why would they bury or burn their dead? I suggest that the belief in these afterlife realms implies that the concept of the soul was assumed if not explicitly stated.
While Norse mythological stories are normally associated with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, it was Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet, historian, and politician, who composed the Prose Edda, which contains the authoritative written history of Norse mythology.2
The Viking Period lasted from 800 until 1050 A.D. and its stories, poems, mythology, and religion are of the oral tradition. Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, the most extensive written source on Norse mythology, was written in the early 13th century (1201-1300), approximately 200 years after the end of the Viking Period. By the way, no one today knows what the word Edda means.3
McCoy in his book, The Viking Spirit, asserts that Sturluson deliberately tried to Christianize aspects of Norse Mythology in order to make the stories more palatable to his audience at the time.4 In order to evaluate McCoy’s claims of Christianization, two historical events need to be considered. First, Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in 1517, some 250 years after the Edda was written. Second, In the 13th century, all Catholic church services were in Latin so if Snorri truly was influenced by Catholicism he would have needed to learn Latin in order to read the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. If Snorri Sturluson was in fact unduly influenced by Christianity during his writing of the Edda, as McCoy states,5 how did he come to learn about Christianity? McCoy doesn’t provide any details concerning this aspect of Snorri’s background—maybe it’s because it’s not known.
Of course, there is another possible explanation as to how and why some aspects of Norse religion seem to resemble certain Bible stories based on the following Scripture:
The whole He hath made beautiful in its season; also, that knowledge He hath put in their heart without which man findeth not out the work that God hath done from the beginning even unto the end. (Eccles. 3:11 YLT)
Unlike the Celtic gods and goddesses who inhabit the natural world, the primary Norse gods and goddesses find their dwelling in the “celestial fortress” Asgard.6 The Norse mythological universe consists of “nine worlds”7 of which only three (although technically four) will be considered in this GOD & the Gods series installment.
The Christian view of the universe consists of three worlds, one is the familiar Heaven, the second is Earth or the natural realm, and the third is Hell or Hades, i.e., the underworld. In Norse mythology the three primary worlds are Asgard (Heaven), Midgard (natural realm), and Hel or Helheim (underworld). There is also another realm related to Helheim and that is Niflheim which could correspond functionally to the Christian lake of fire. Likewise, in Christian theology there is a temporary place for dead believers that is referred to as “Abraham’s bosom” that appears to loosely correspond with the Norse realm of fallen warriors called Valhalla.
In Celtic tradition, the “Threefold One” or earth goddess is highly revered, but in Norse mythology, Odin, the King of the Norse Gods, is also known as the “all-father” which is more closely aligned with Christian teachings on GOD as Abba Father.8 More seemingly interesting parallels between Norse mythology and Christianity are provided in the following sections.
All of the following Norse mythology references are taken from The Norse Gods website (with minor typo corrections in the text) unless otherwise indicated.
In Norse mythology, the world is described in the beginning as follows:
All this was in the beginning, before there were waves of sand, the sea’s cool waves, waving grass. There was no earth and no heaven above; only Muspell and Niflheim and, between them, Ginnungagap.
This description seems to closely resemble the Earth’s barren condition in the beginning as laid out in Genesis:
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep… (Gen. 1:2 NASB)
Then there is the creation of the heavenly bodies from Norse mythology:
Then Odin and Vili and Ve seized on the sparks and glowing embers from Muspell and called them sun and moon and stars; they put them high in Ginnungagap to light heaven above and earth below. In this way the brothers gave each star its proper place; some were fixed in the sky, others were free to follow the paths appointed for them.
And again, the parallel verses from Genesis:
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;
and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.
God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also.
God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth,
and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:14-18)
The Norse first man and woman creation narrative:
One day, Odin and Vili and Ve were striding along the frayed edge of the land, where the earth meets the sea. They came across two fallen trees with their roots ripped out of the ground; one was an ash, the other an elm. Then the sons of Bor raised them and made from them the first man and woman. Odin breathed into them the spirit of life; (emphasis mine) Vili offered them sharp wits and feeling hearts; and Ve gave them the gifts of hearing and sight. The man was called Ask and the women Embla and races of men are descended from them.
Was Snorri Sturluson attempting to convey the notion of a Norse trinity using Odin, Vili, and Ve being a type of biblical Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom Christians believe comprise the “Our” and “Us” in Genesis 1:28? If so, then Snorri was very clever indeed.
The biblical creation story is remarkably similar in that the first man was created from the “dust of the ground” whereas in Norse mythology man was created from a fallen tree:
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
However, the two creation narratives diverge strikingly so when it comes to the creation of woman:
The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:22)
Many sermons have been preached on this verse so I won’t try to repeat them here. However, I believe that because the woman was created from the man’s rib, both the man and the woman are coequal and codependent. Whereas in Norse mythology, man and woman are created separately from two different, albeit similar, sources. No doubt that in the Christian view, the woman is naturally more inclined to be attached to the man since she has “skin in the game.” Nevertheless, I’m sure the separate but equal Norse view of the man and the woman is observably more popular with the current generation.
In the biblical creation story, we find the tree of life planted in the Garden of Eden:
Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst [emphasis added] of the garden… (Gen. 2:9)
In the Norse mythological cosmos, there is a tree called Yggdrasil which is located in the “geographical center” [emphasis added]9 of the cosmos whose essence appears to be life giver as written, “the well-being of the cosmos depends on the well-being of Yggdrasil.”10
Also, according to a Norse poem, Yggdrasil has three main roots11—three being a recurring theme in Celtic mythology as well as traditional Christianity.
The Valkyries are warrior maidens who are responsible for escorting slain warriors to Valhalla. Again, not unlike the Norse warriors, Christians are engaged in spiritual battle continually as written in the Bible Book of Ephesians. But in the Bible, it’s the angels who escort fallen believers to paradise not the feminine Valkyries:
And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores…Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom… (Luke 16:20,22)
While Norse mythology has its Brunhilde, the biblical belief system has its archangel Michael. Unlike the Valkyries, biblical angels are asexual but definitely masculine:
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matt. 22:30)
In every belief system, whether mythological or otherwise, there is a primal antagonist and for the Norsemen, that antagonist is Loki. On the other hand, for the “People of the Book” the antagonist is Satan.
I submit that Loki’s attributes are comparable to Satan’s attributes as follows:
Handsome & Fair of Face
Agent of Destruction
Liar and Father of Lies
Mythology has it that the gods eventually became so tired of Loki’s machinations that they decided to constrain him, hence “The Binding of Loki” tale. Since Loki was by no means innocent of the charges laid against him, along with him being “unrepentant”12 of causing the god Balder’s death, the gods’ punishment of Loki was brutal to say the least.
Likewise, the Bible also records a time when an angel (Michael?) will bound Satan for a thousand years:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand.
And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years;
and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. (Rev. 20:1-3)
As Satan’s binding is time constrained, so will Loki’s binding remain until Ragnarok.
Ragnarok is the Norse version of the Apocalypse or what Christians commonly refer to as Armageddon—the final battle. The biblical end times are described throughout Scripture but primarily in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation.
According to conventional wisdom, the Great Tribulation will last seven years, with the first three and a half years being peaceful but the second three and a half years being times of trouble or tribulation.
Coincidentally, in Norse mythology the natural world will be troubled for three winters:
First of all, Midgard will be wrenched and racked by wars for three winters.
This will also be a time when families will turn on each other.
Fathers will slaughter sons; brothers will be drenched in one another’s blood. Mothers will desert their menfolk and seduce their own sons; brothers will bed with sisters.
Brothers will fight brothers, fathers will kill sons. Mothers and daughters will be set against each other. Sisters will fall in battle with sisters, and will watch their children murder each other in their turn.13
According to Scripture:
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. (Matt. 10:21)
The stars and the sun won’t be spared either.
The stars will vanish from the sky.
The sun will be dark and there will be no stars in the sky.
According to Scripture:
But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT,
AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24-25)
and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. (Rev. 6:13)
At the end, the Earth will be destroyed by fire along with the Norse gods.
There will be a sound like a thousand forests turning to flame, and the air itself will begin to burn.14
Then Surt will fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces – places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die.
Similarly, the heavens and the Earth will be burned up but GOD will not and cannot die as is the fate of the Norse gods.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2 Pet. 3:10)
Unlike the Christian GOD, the Norse gods and goddesses are mortal. In addition, according to McCoy in his book The Viking Spirit, none of the gods are “all-powerful” nor is there a notion of a supreme being.15 Even Odin, who is the chief of the gods and who created human beings is neither immortal or “all-powerful.”
Whereas GOD has no beginning and no end, and is above all His creation, the Norse gods and goddesses came into being when the cosmos came into being and are therefore an integral part of the cosmos they inhabit.16
While I believe it is possible that Snorri Sturluson may have embellished portions of his Edda based on his limited understanding of Christian teaching and beliefs, it appears that his narrow embellishments were literarily not doctrinally inspired.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2018 Gerard Sczepura
Gerard Sczepura, “GOD & the Gods: The Celts,” Theological Ruminations (blog), June, 06, 2018, https://gerardsczepura.com/god-the-gods-the-celts/. ↩
Daniel McCoy, The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 20 ↩
Ibid., 21 ↩
Sczepura, “GOD & the Gods: The Celts.” ↩
“Yggdrasil,” Norse Mythology for Smart People. ↩
Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 251. ↩
Gaiman, 270. ↩
Gaiman, 279. ↩
Daniel McCoy, The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 25. ↩
Ibid., 26 ↩