The Vikings made a prominent impression in Northern Europe during the five hundred years after Rome fell (500 AD – 1000 AD). They were descended from very ancient Germanic tribes that would have migrated into Europe from the middle east, and like all old cultures they carried with them a set of mythological stories which they called tradition. This tradition would have been their religion and the stories would be equivalent to the written stories of the Jewish Testaments.
This tradition was a great narrative tale that was passed down via word of mouth in order to help each new generation understand how the Vikings were connected to their extremely harsh Northern Europe environment. It is essentially a novel that was wrote by an entire culture over the course of a thousand years, without ever putting it to paper. The only way we know about this narrative is from a set of texts wrote in Iceland after Christianity outgrew the Vikings influence: known as the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and the Saga of the Volsungs.
In this article I am going to give an overview of their wonderful hidden story, and highlight one of their most fantastic characters.
Have you ever sat in a quiet room and really started listening? Pretty soon you ears become so eager to hear something that they pick up all these weird high frequency noises that we call white noise. In the beginning of the Norse universe there was this great emptiness called Ginnungap, and it was nothingness: like a sky without stars. On either side of this Abyss lay the positive: fire and the negative: ice. These pair creeped toward each other and met in the Ginnungap, creating a white noise which the Norse called Ymir.
Ymir is Germanic for Scream, in the same way that the high frequency white noise of silence can strangely seem like a scream. It is allegorical of how positively charged electrons meeting negatively charged electrons create what we call a current of electricity. Ymir, this screaming current, began to sweat from the intensity of the mixing fire and ice that created him: Imagine the Big Bang as a big scream. This sweat evaporated in the fire, but rolled down and formed new beings in the ice. One of these was a cow called Audhumbla. She began licking the salty residue on the ice and then produced milk that relaxed the manic Ymir.
Odin The All Father
Audhumbla’s persistent licking of the ice eventually revealed new beings, and the first ever God then arrived known as Buri. One of Buri’s grandsons was named Odin. Odin was rebellious by nature and convinced his two brothers that Ymir, this strange sweating monster, needed to be killed in order to make something out of his corpse. So they murdered him and tore apart his body to fashion the universe. They used his blood to make the oceans, his flesh to make the earth and his skull to make the dome of the sky.
Odin hence defined his role as a creator, but it was not in the all knowing tradition of the Christian God Yahweh. Odin was more like an experimental punk rock musician, whereas Yahweh was a classical music composer. Odin set about discovering knowledge, having experience and creating art just to see what would happen.
Look at the above picture of the electromagnetic spectrum. You can see that there is a broad range of light, but only a tiny fraction is visible to us. The Norse imagined reality as part of similar spectrum, there were a whole range of realities. At one end of the reality spectrum there lived a group of beings called the Aesir. The Aesir were Gods who lived in a place called Asgard, meaning above world (perhaps the Gamma rays in the above picture). On the opposite end was a place called Helheim, meaning underworld (perhaps the Radio waves in the above picture) which also leant its name to the Christian underworld Hell.
Odin in one of his art projects created a middle world known as Midgard, which lends it’s name to Tolkien’s middle earth. In Midgard Odin created humans from a set of tree trunks, and so defined that Midgard would be the human realm (like the tiny band of visible light in the above picture.)
The World Tree
Like our spectrum of light the Norse had a symbol for the spectrum of reality. They called this symbol Yggdrasil and it was their World Tree. Odin would climb down the world tree to visit Helheim or the humans in Midgard, and any person inclined to find Yggdrasil, could journey through the various worlds themselves.
Why would Odin travel Yggdrasil down to Hell? Surely Heaven is a better place to hang out? This is where Odin’s defining trait is revealed. Odin is a seeker of knowledge, his only real care it to have intense experiences which will grant him access to greater powers. He would travel to the depths of Hell if he had an inclination that it would teach him a skill that he could utilize to gain more power. This is where his name “The master of ecstasy” derives from, Odin desires the experience of intensity, and to master himself during these moments.
The Norse understood reality as a computer program. Yggdrasil would have been the operating system in which the computer program ran on. Odin would have been a mercurial hacker who zoomed around the operating system adding in his own gliches and banners. To be able to hack a computer successfully you need to understand the coding language, like java script. The better you understand this language the better you can alter the program.
The Runes are the symbolic letters of the Norse language. Odin figured that the Runes were the coding language of the program which we consider reality. He believe that fluency in the Runes could lead someone to be able to reprogram Yggdrasil to suit their needs. This is obviously and incredible skill, so incredible that Odin went to find out where he could learn them.
At the bottom of Yggdrasil was a well called The Well of Urd which Yggdrasil drew its nourishing waters from. Around this well stood three ladies known as Norns. The Norns were like programmers for Yggdrasil, they scratched Runes into it’s roots and as the nourishment moved up through the tree it would blossom into reality. These Norns were the scriptwriters of Destiny and the language they used was the Runes, hence the Norse word for Destiny is called Wyrd: Where we derive the English word and weird.
Odin heard this, and decided to descend down to the very deep of Yggdrasil and learn of the power of these Runes. He hung himself from the tree and stared into the water so as to peer into their depths and figure out their secrets.
But nothing happend.
He waited for nine days hanging from the tree and just as he nearly died, the runes revealed themselves beneath the waters of the well. In that moment he was exalted. He had now discovered the language of Yggdrasil and brought this knowledge back to Midgard to teach all who proved themselves worthy of how to reprogram reality. By scratching these symbols onto Yggdrasil’s trunk Odin could alter it’s destiny, essentially hacking the code that the Norns had written.
Why was Odin so hungry for knowledge and power? Odin seemed to know deep down that he was going to one day die: death was Odin’s ultimate destiny. He did not want this, he wanted to beat death. So he spent his time searching for ways to overcome this great obstacle and grant himself the ultimate strength: immortality. Hence he searched for the Runes to hack Yggdrasil and rewrite his own destiny.
But he could not rewrite Yggdrasil’s destiny. Eventually the operating system for the program has to turn off. This is the end of Yggdrasil, when everything gets destroyed including Odin since he is part of its contents. Odin’s great struggle would be coming to terms with this: that he cannot live forever. In order to have a good life he must accept his destiny of mortality: he must learn to love his destiny.
This great event is known as Ragnarok: the Twilight of the Idols. This is the moment at the end of the great story when everything reverse’s and reality disintegrates falling back into Ginnungap: like how a computer game just flashes into a silent black screen when the plug is pulled on the computer.
Now the whole story has come full circle. We arrive back at Ginnungap, The supreme silence. Over time the edges of Ginnungap form fire and ice and these slowly making their way towards each other to form Ymir… Again, Who discovers Audhumbla… Again, who reveals Buri… Again. This becomes the great cosmological cycle, where reality is born, lives and dies only to be born again.
Now you may have noticed I have left out many great figures from the Norse story that you are familiar with such as Thor, Valhalla and Loki, but I believe that this narrative (Odin and Yggdrasil) is the central story in which to get to know initially, so that all other characters and stories fall into place when you choose. I’ll leave you with some recommended reading from a great author on the subject of the Germanic Worldview known as Dan McCoy.