On the Nature of the Norse Gods

I’ve mentioned before how the Norse Pantheon is comprised of war gods – there isn’t a single deity that cannot be connected, in some way, to war. I’ve just started reading Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion by Edward P. Butler, and it already has me thinking – a sign that it is an excellent book.

He mentions using Sallustius’s five models of interpretations for myth with a heavy focus on the theological interpretation. The five models are theological, physical, psychical, material, and mixed. What is meant by the theological interpretation is the way that the very essence of the gods can be considered. Butler states, “The total body of myths belonging to a culture forms a comprehensive paradigm of the cosmos as expressed within that cultural sphere.”

I wrote awhile ago on the avenues I personally feel need to be explored in order to fully comprehend a polytheistic tradition, which you can read here, and one of the avenues I mentioned is cosmogony.

I’ve been thinking about the Norse creation myth recently, and as I was reading through part of Butler’s work, I made connections that I wasn’t really expecting to make but which made sense upon reflection.

As I said, the Norse gods are gods of war, and that nature can be seen within the creation myth itself. Life emerges from conflict, from the meeting of elements of opposite natures. Fire and ice merge to create life, which is ironic as both elements are more than capable of destroying life as well. Both are so powerful in their own right that they cannot retain their own forms in the presence of the other, so they are forever altered by the interaction, and life comes forth in the shape of an asexual giant.

In some ways, Ymir can be viewed as the personification of the force of ice, as he is the first frost giant ever born. Audhumla comes forth as well, and she nourishes Ymir. She provides him with the sustenance to sustain his life. While doing so, she uncovers the first god in the ice, bringing him forth into being. She is able to melt the ice, and so it may be possible to view her as the personification of the force of fire. The two primeval beings created from the two primeval elements after coming into contact with one another. Buri, the first of the gods, may represent the first combination of the two elements in a single form. He is born of both fire and ice – encased in ice, frozen in time, he is given life by Audhumla’s actions, making him the first being to be created from a combination of elements.

Of course, while Audhumla is freeing Buri from the ice, Ymir is busy asexually reproducing more frost giants. The giants born from him are, like him, born entirely of ice. We aren’t told that Audhumla frees anyone else from the ice, so there’s no way to know for sure if Buri is the only god that she brings to life this way. What is noted next is that Buri has a son Bor (whose origin is never mentioned) and that Bor marries a giant named Bestla and the two of them give birth to Odin, Vili, and Ve.

Whether Buri has Bor through procreation or asexual reproduction is never mentioned, so it is hard to make any inferences from the fact that Bor is Buri’s son. On the other hand, we know that Bor marries Bestla – a god with a giant – and that’s that first real indication we have of the mixing of gods and giants. Bestla, as a giant, most likely came into existence through Ymir’s asexual reproductive habits, and it can be presumed that she, like all other frost giants at the time, is representative of the primeval power of the element of ice. At the same time, Bor has a mixture of both fire and ice within him, as he is the son of Buri who is also of mixed elements. Through the introduction of the mixed elements of fire and ice into the giant’s gene pool, the Aesir gods are born.

The fire within Bor introduced to Bestla ran contrary to her nature – as a being of pure ice, any form of fire should not have been able to take hold. And yet it did. And through that conflict, the Aesir gods come into being. They are birthed through the conflict of primeval elements at war with one another.

A conflict which continues with the problem that Odin, Vili, and Ve have with Ymir that results in his death. I’ve read a couple of theories as to why Ymir was seen as a threat. One theory is that he was overpopulating the world with frost giants with his asexual reproduction and needed to be stopped. Another theory is that he became so greedy for the sustenance Audhumla provided him that he killed her, and the gods killed him in revenge. The first seems more plausible to me, as I can’t fathom why anyone would kill their only source of sustenance – it’d be counter to the survival instinct.

Either theory can be viewed in the light of a conflict between the two creative/destructive elements of ice and fire. The gods, who have the power of creation and thus represent an embodiment of fire, have a power of creation very different from that of the frost giants. Ymir’s asexual reproduction can be seen as a type of creative power that was quickly spiraling out of control and becoming destructive,if utilizing the theory that the Aesir trio killed him because of the overpopulation of the world. The creative power the Aesir have is much more controlled, which can be seen in the way they carefully craft the earth out of Ymir’s remnants after they slay him. Nothing goes to waste – everything is re-purposed.

If, however, we view the myth from the angle that Ymir becomes so greedy he cannot control himself and kills Audhumla, we also see the destructive power of ice. The Aesir trio may have killed him to avenge Audhumla, but it is more likely that they killed him to prevent any further destruction. In this case, as well, we see the creative power of the element of ice being overtaken by its destructive power.

The Aesir are able to halt the destruction because they have both fire and ice elements within them. For that reason, they can slow the destructive nature of the primeval ice world that flows within their veins, and they can use the power of fire to restructure the world. Fire is a crafting power when used creatively, but it also has the ability to overwhelm its creative power through its destructive power. It is through the mix of the two elements that the gods are able to stay the destructive powers of both elements and utilize the constructive powers of each.

And they use those powers to craft worlds out of Ymir’s remains. Ymir’s blood floods the world, and only two giants are able to escape the aftermath. A sign, perhaps, that the primordial element of ice cannot be entirely eliminated from the world, especially as it was one of the elements that helped create the world. The gods use every piece of Ymir to create Midgard, letting nothing go to waste. Out of the conflict they had with him, they create something new. Out of conflict and destruction, creation and construction emerge.

Through all of this, of course, there’s a backdrop – the Ginnungagap. The Void. The Nothingness of Non-Existence through which the elements of both Muspellheim and Niflheim must pass in order to come into contact with one another to allow for life to take shape at all. It is the Unknowable Mystery, and the concept of such a Non-Existence is impenetrable, as our minds slide around it as we try to grasp it. Trying to do so, in actuality, might drive someone insane. Because it is not possible to know non-existence, as non-existence, in our reality, does not exist, and, therefore, the concept of it is not easily (or ever) grasped.

But it is this concept that the gods are intimately familiar with, as they originally live within the Ginnungagap. It is to the center of this place that they take Ymir’s body and use his remains to create Midgard. It is from this Non-Existence that physical reality emerges, the place from which Midgard comes forth. There is an inherent contradiction there that is not possible to resolve because it is a concept that we cannot grasp – that existence comes from non-existence, and that non-existence itself in some form exists. Our minds aren’t readily made to deal with such concepts…if they were, then the contemplation of the existence of non-existence wouldn’t have the potential to drive us mad.

For the gods, however, they existed within the Ginnungagap at the beginning. They dealt with the conflict between the two primordial worlds of fire and ice and saw the results of having the two elements mixed. They were born into a world of conflict, a world at war with itself, and it seems natural that they became deities of war because of that. In some ways, it could perhaps be argued that the Norse gods are gods at war with themselves, as they possess the inherent properties of the creative and destructive nature of fire, ice, and non-existence. It is a testament to how complex the nature of the gods are that it is so difficult to get a firm grasp on what may be the essence that defines them, the essence that sets them apart from us and makes them gods instead of men.

I find it fascinating to find such a connection to the Aesir as gods of war through the cosmogony of the Norse tradition, and I enjoy analyzing myths from multiple vantage points. I will not say that this is the only interpretation of this myth that is plausible, nor that it defines the nature of the gods. This is only one of my own interpretations – I don’t limit myself to a singular interpretation of any myth (notice, I even explored two different theories in this one about Ymir) – and it is not meant to be reflective of anyone else’s experiences, practices, or beliefs.

Polytheistic Theology: Avenue of Avenues

When we think of theology, we typically think of monotheistic theology, especially the structures found within Abrahamic faiths. But theology itself is not inherently monotheistic – in fact, theology is simply the study of deity. Because most polytheistic faiths are inherently pluralistic, it is safe to say that it is impossible to identify a single theology that unifies polytheistic belief. That’s part of what makes polytheistic faiths so beautiful.

It’s easy to prove how impossible it is to identify a single theology for polytheistic faiths. Take Hinduism, for example, and examine the way many sects of Hinduism base their faith around the idea of a unified plurality – there are multiple deities, but those deities are all aspects of the greater whole. Then take another polytheistic faith, like Asatru, that bases faith around the concept of multiple distinct deities, all separate and completely unique from one another. While there are certainly connections between polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Asatru, the way that deity is approached is distinct between them.

Because of that distinction, a singular approach to theology – the study of deity – is impossible. However, I do think that it is possible, within each polytheistic faith, to approach deity through multiple strands of exploration. That is what I propose is the best way to approach the study of deity through polytheistic faiths, and I am proposing a framework for a polytheist to use in their own study of deity within their own religions, rather than proposing that deity can be understood the same way through all polytheistic faiths.

Note: When I say deity, I mean the essence of deity or what makes a god a god (what makes gods gods).

I believe the following components can be explored through all polytheistic faiths:

  • Cosmogony
  • Cosmology
  • Theogony
  • Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices
  • Eschatology
  • Axiology
  • Pneumatology
  • Psychology
  • Semiotics & Symbology
  • Sexology
  • Sophology
  • Occultology

Cosmogony is the study of the creation of the universe (or multiverse). Studying how the cosmos originated in accordance with a particular polytheistic tradition through myths and legends allows us to begin to develop a framework with which to approach deity through our respective faiths.

Cosmology is the study of the universe (or multiverse). Different faiths propose different models of the world. For example, in many shamanistic traditions, there are three worlds while in the Norse view, there are nine worlds. Understanding the cosmos is a necessary foundation before exploring what deity actually is can really get underway.

Theogony refers to the lineage of the gods. Every pantheon has a unique structure and hierarchy (though it can be argued that some pantheons aren’t hierarchal). It seems self-evident that the pursuit of theology requires the understanding of theogony.

Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices. This particular component is really three-in-one, but every polytheistic faith has a calendar of sacred rites and practices. Since most (if not all) polytheistic faiths are orthopraxic (focused on right practice), this is the most direct route of exploring theology – again, when I say theology here, I mean the pursuit of the understanding of deity.

Eschatology is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. In essence, it is the study of the afterlife. Every faith has an idea of what happens to a person after they pass from this world. Not all polytheistic faiths believe in a final judgment, but some do. This is an area where the greatest discrepancies between faiths exist, and it may also be an area where the greatest insights into the nature of deity can be found.

Axiology is the study of values and ethics. In other words, the study of morality. At first glance, it may not be obvious what this has to do with theology. However, the myths and legends of each tradition shape the morality of the people who follow those traditions. Understanding the ethics held by a particular culture can enhance the pursuit of theology.

Pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. Beliefs about mythical creatures like dragons, sirens, mermaids, brownies, kelpies, the Fae, ghosts, landvaettir, etc. This is where understanding the cosmology of a polytheistic faith comes into play as well, as some traditions have worlds set aside specifically for certain types of entities.

Psychology is the study of the soul, and it is the closest term I could find to describe what I actually mean. When I say psychology here, I don’t mean the traditional Western version of the study of the human psyche. I wish there were a better term (so if someone has an idea for one, I’m all for suggestions). What I mean is the study of the constructs of the soul-the parts of the soul. Many polytheistic traditions propose that the soul is not a singularity but a plurality, constructed of a myriad of parts that are meant for particular purposes. Understanding the way in which the soul is viewed is vital in the pursuit of theology, as the soul is the expression of the most inherent divinity a living being has in its possession.

Semiotics & Symbology is the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations and uses. This includes things like the study of divination and omens. While some symbols are fairly universal – like the serpent that represents wisdom – others are not as clear-cut. Understanding the way that a particular tradition utilizes semiotics & symbology helps create a clearer path towards the understanding of deity.

Sexology is the study of sex. Each religion approaches sex in different ways, and in many traditions, the act of sex is one the most powerful ways to experience divinity. There aren’t many polytheistic faiths that view sex in a negative light, and I say that simply because there may be a few that do – I do not proclaim to be an expert on all the polytheistic faiths that exist, and I do not wish to potentially exclude even one.

Sophology is the study of wisdom. Defining wisdom is a very difficult thing to do, as it is a very abstract concept. Generally speaking, it is the ability to take acquired knowledge and put it to good use. In many polytheistic traditions, the study of wisdom is equated with the study of the myths and the cultures with which the traditions started. But because wisdom relies on application, it assumes that a person will take the myths and cultural learning they have developed and will incorporate it into their own practices. Applying the knowledge gained of deity through the myths is, perhaps, one of the most direct ways to approach theology, although it is by no means the only way.

Occultology is the study of the occult, meaning mystery or secret. It is generally associated with magic, and there are several polytheistic traditions that incorporate magic into their practice. There are many different types of magic, but the one that deals most directly with deity is Theurgy, which is magic done with the aid of deity.

Many of these components, on their own, require extensive research, and many of them weave in and out of one another. These are the strands that I see throughout every polytheistic faith – though each faith has its own unique set of these strands.

I’ve read multiple books on polytheistic theology, and every time, I see the same problem arise – there is no unified set of principles that underlie every polytheistic tradition. Some polytheistic traditions venerate ancestors, others don’t. Some believe in pluralistic deities, others in unified plurality.

So this is my attempt to address that issue – rather than looking for underlying principles that exist in all polytheistic traditions, I decided to look for the categories of principles that weave through all polytheistic traditions. Sometimes, to simplify, you have to complicate, and looking at categories instead of principles isn’t an obvious thing to do. The stark truth is that we still live in a predominantly monotheistic culture, and we all often fall into the trap of trying to collapse things down into smaller parts.

As polytheists, we need to work on expanding outward, breaking things into larger pieces rather than collapsing things down into smaller ones. So what I have done here is propose a framework, an avenue of avenues of exploration for those who are interested in the pursuit of theology from a polytheistic perspective.