This paper is a condensed version of the article "Scandinavian Mythology as a System" which originally appeared in two parts in The Journal of Symbolic Anthropology 1 :43-58 (1973) 2:57-78 (1974).
The purpose of the present study is not to give a new interpretation of Scandinavian myths based on a critical revision of the sources, but to outline patterns governing the systematic arrangement of certain mythological concepts as they appear in Younger Edda and Elder Edda. The system which may be elicited from the Scandinavian mythology is composed of two spatial subsystems, a horizontal and a vertical subsystem, and two temporal subsystems, a cosmogonic and an eschatological subsystem.
THE SPATlAL SYSTEM
Within the spatial system, the horizontal anthropocentric system is built on the opposition between the populated enclosed middle part of the earth (Midgard) and whatever is found beyond its limits, outside the enclosure, a sphere both inimical and devoid of culture (Utgard). The Midgard-Utgard opposition is, undoubtedly, a realization of the elementary semantic opposition of "own" versus "alien." It also implicitly reflects the opposition of order versus disorder, center versus periphery, close versus remote, town versus desert, home versus woods. As in the horizontal model, the sky (Asgard) is not practically opposed to the earth, and the abode of deities is topologically inseparable from Midgard. In narratives, Asgard and Midgard usually appear as alternatives.
On the strength of
the dual opposition center
the dragon of
dragon of Midgard
may serve as an
that it was
as a positive
element of the
Jormungand as yet another chaotic
Midgard and Asgard are contrasted to
realm of death, Midgard and Asgard
being located in the
north. On the
the oppositions center
world tree Yggdrasil,
earth and the lower
universe on the vertical
three parts by the
of top and bottom. The trichotomous
The concept of the cosmic tree connecting the various parts of the universe is specifically related to concepts of shamanism. Odin passes through a patently shamanic initiation in being first pierced through with a spear and then hanged on the tree for nine days. This emphasizes the role of the world ash tree as Odin's "horse." Apart from Odin, there is another figure closely related to the world tree, namely, Heimdal, the guard of the deities, and perhaps originally Odin's anthropomorphous incarnation (or even a zoomorphous one?). Indeed, Heimdal possesses a horn which he blows and from which he drinks mead, though the epithet "steep-horned" indicates perhaps his apostasis as a deer (the latter being inseparable from the world tree in Siberian shamanism). The cosmic tree is also the tree of life and the tree of fate. It is evergreen; along it drips downward the life-giving honey or milky dew which feeds the springs at the roots (the master of which is Mimir). From these springs the Norns, in turn, spray the world tree (opposition of damp versus dry like live versus dead). The Siberian parallel throws some light on the way in which the world tree is organically linked with the idea of genesis and birth. This refers not only to the birth of shamans but of men in general (hence the tree-related images of human origin such as the "embryo" of people from the ash tree and the willow in the Scandinavian myth). The epitome of the relation between the idea of birth and the cosmic tree is the Norns, who may be compared to the female spirits of the shamanic tree who give souls to new born humans or protect deliveries. Norns have specific functions as midwives or donors of personal fate (opposition of fortune versus misfortune). In fact, the destiny of the world and the gods themselves is tied to the cosmic tree.
The tree top, which
is in heaven, is the gathering place of deities.
heaven is located the permanent abode of deities
realm of the dead, ruled by Odin (
Niflheim, the last refuge of the ordinary dead, is located deep down below the earth. The differentiation and opposition of the upper versus lower realms of the dead and, accordingly, of Valkyries versus Norns are important to the vertical cosmic model. Thus, along with the opposition of life versus death, the vertical cosmic model produces the opposition of two kinds of death and an opportunity for a kind of mediation between life and death and, finally, for the regaining of life through war and death. In the myths about Odin, war is conceived as a mediator between life and death, a mediator which works in both directions. The giant:" are practically nonexistent in the vertical model, apart from the casual mention that people, giants, and Hell are found under the roots of the ash tree.
Certain correspondences exist between the vertical model and the horizontal model. These correspondences may be conceived as transformations. The main link between both models is the equation of north and also east with bottom (the location of the realm of the dead and, more generally, of chthonic demonic forces). The meaning of the water element (sea) is largely negative in the horizontal model, and positive in the vertical model when it appears as springs. Jorrnungand shows some measure of equivalence with Nidhogg gnawing the cosmic tree roots. The vertical model does not include Loki's shamanic mediation between the Aces, giants, and dwarfs, and the shamanic functions are performed only by Odin. The vertical model gives an extensive description of the celestial world of deities and the celestial "happy" realm of the dead. The opposition of deities versus giants and the struggle against the latter is actually missing. The contrast between the deities and the giants may to some extent be construed as corresponding to the contrast of the realm of the deities to the realm of the dead and of the chthonic forces. While in the horizontal model the opposition culture versus nature is most pronounced, it is the opposition cosmos versus chaos that comes to the fore in the vertical model.
from the horizontal to the vertical
may be found in
the story of the
by Odin of the
inspiration and wisdom.
the mead of poetry from the cliff
he was allowed to drink
was back in Asgard.
in the horizontal projection
along the tree.
THE TEMPORAL SYSTEM
In the course of time, the cosmic model bifurcates into the cosmogonic and eschatological subsystems. A certain asymmetry between them may be ascribed to the fact that the eschatological aspect pervades the whole of Scandinavian mythology.
The cosmogonic mythology of the Edda (which is not all a sum total of independent etiological myths) depicts a process whereby the world has emerged from the void (presumably the primordial abyss Ginnungagap), cosmos created from chaos. The motif of the origin of the earliest anthropomorphous beings is broken down into the stories of the first giant Ymir who sprang from ice, the procreator of deities Bur (literally a "parent") from a stone which the cow Audhumla used to lick, and the earliest human beings from chunks of wood revived by the Aces (Odin, Lodur, and Honir). Thus the motif of the origin of anthropomorphous beings assumes a systematic arrangement, inasmuch as the giants, deities, and humans have their counterparts in a series of solid natural substances (ice, stone, wood). In addition there is an indication of the progressively growing role of the demiurges, a trend from spontaneity to organization. The sacrifice of Yrnir by Bur's sons and the subsequent creation of the world from his body parts (earth from his flesh, sea from his blood, sky from his skull, and mountains from his bones) IS the supreme act of creation, the elevation of chaos into cosmos.
Among the cosmogonic myths there are several which are related to eschatology, namely the stery of the harnessing of the mythic monsters borne by the giantess Angrboda to Loki. These are the world dragon Jorrnungand, the mistress of death Hel, and the wolf Fenrir. The Eddic myth of the golden age (when the Aces made everything of gold, played dice, and rejoiced) perpetuates the moment before the advent, in the newly created cosmos, of that "inner curse" which was to ruin it later. The etiological myth about the first war (between the Aces and the Vans) already heralds the forthcoming death, because of the breach of treaties and vows. The role of death is even more significant because the Vans are in a way related to the ritual of fertility, prosperity, and wealth.
The myth about the creation of humans states that they were created without breath or fate. The Aces revived them whereas fate seemed to have been granted to them by the Noms, who appear only at the end of the Golden Age. Fate, the important element in Scandinavian mythology, is a necessary component of the organized world order, but it also spells out the possibility of peril not only for individual humans, but for the gods and the world as a whole. Finally, the myth about Baldr, central to the ancient Scandinavian mythology, is in essence an etiological myth about the origin of death. It is also a prologue to the tragedy of the end of the world, a proper introduction to the Scandinavian eschatology. While the sacrifice of Yrmr amounted to the transformation of chaos into cosmos, the sacrifice of Baldr prepared the ground for the reversal of cosmos into chaos.
In part, eschatologic myths represent a mirror image of cosmogonic myths (this mirror-like relationship is a significant feature of the two subsystems). The story of the harnessing of chthonic monsters has its opposite in the story about their releases and battles with the deities. Come what may, Thor still remains the chief adversary of the world dragon; Heimdal fights with Loki (as they once did in the guise of seals when contesting Freya's jewel); and Tyr challenges the chthonic hound Garrn, whose twin Fenrir he used to tame in the past (the Ace Odin is now fighting Fenrir). Land previously lifted from the sea now sinks down again; stars put by gods on the sky plummet downward; the sun which the Aces had specially installed to give light is extinguished; ice and fire, the substances whose interaction brought about the world, now destroy the universe.
The eschatologic subsystem is markedly closed. Some of its features are at variance with the cosmogonic mythology and the myths about the wanderings and adventures of gods. Thus, in some myths Loki and Odin join forces and nearly duplicate each other functionally, while in eschatological myths they are sharply contrasted to one another. Odin, the father of the gods and of Baldr (who was the leader of the Einherjar), is opposed to Loki, the father of the chthonic monsters, the pilot of the ship of the dead who planned Baldr's murder. Odin and Thor often alternate with each other in the stories describing cosmogonic acts (Odin lifts the earth and Thor draws the dragon of the middle earth) and in the adventures of gods. They act together on the eschatologic plane. The Aces and the Vans, deities of farming, while opposed in cosmology, are fused into one in eschatology. Finally, the dwarfs, who are partly contrasted to gods, fear just as the latter do the invasion of chthonic monsters on the eschatologic plane.
THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF THE TWO MODELS
The interrelation of the spatial and temporal models poses a problem in Scandinavian mythology. The image of the earth surrounded by the sea is derived from the conception of the earth's cosmogonic emergence from the ocean and its eschatologic submergence into water. In the process of cosmogony, the Aces are contrasted to the giants on both the temporal and the spatial axis: the giants appear before the Aces, and the Aces kill them in order to create a world from the body of one of them, Ymir. On the spatial axis this contrast is revealed by the opposition between Asgard and Jotunheim which engage in continual warfare. Instead of the key role being played by Odin, the creator, it is played by Thor, the warrior. This extension of the same opposition over space as well as time, the existence of two subsystems, spatial and temporal, is characteristic of poetic thinking. It will be noted, however, that the above-mentioned convergence between cosmogony and cosmology belongs only to the horizontal projection. In plots unfolding in the horizontal projection, the progress of time is not so tangible, because they are built on the cyclic principle. They describe cyclic circulation of goods among various classes of mythic beings (though these themes are genetically myths). Thus, the sacred mead passes from the Aces to the dwarfs, from the dwarfs to the giants, and back to the Aces again. The enmity between the Aces and the giants provides a background for the adventures of Odin, Thor, and Loki, but the general cosmic situation remains unchanged with time.
The vertical spatial model is more sensitive to the irreversible temporal processes, for the cosmic tree is a concentration of the world's fate. Generally, the cosmic tree is the most significant element.
In eschatologic pictures, though it is largely divorced from cosmogony. The concept of the world tree provides in effect an alternative to that of the creation of the world from parts of the body of an anthropomorphous being. Redundancy is compensated for by the fact that the theme of the world creation from Ymir's body never extends beyond the cosmogonic framework: it is as if the world has indeed been created from Ymir, yet its structure is further determined not by the shape of a human body but by that of a tree.
THE SYSTEM OF THE MYTHIC ACTORS
The deities as one group of mythological beings are opposed to the giants (Jotuns, Turses) and the dwarfs (Zwergs, black Elves), as well as to certain other classes of female beings such as Norns and Valkyries, which are inferior to the Aces. The giants and dwarfs associate with the Aces rather than with each other. One mportant distinguishing feature is height (i.e. giants and dwarfs are taller or shorter than the deities or humans). This accounts perhaps for a peculiar balance in the narratives of the Aces' adventures: Aces always confront one giant but two dwarfs, the giants are more often challenged by two or three Aces (Thor or Odin with their associates), while Loki alone confronts the dwarfs.
The Vans (who seem to be identified with the white Elves, hence the common alliterative formula "Aces and Elves") confront the Aces as a limited group of deities who are associated with agrarian cults through certain secondary patterns. The Vans possess magic and the gift of prophecy as well. Though the arts of magic and prophecy are attributes of Odin, love of peace an attribute of Baldr, and agrarian welfare an attribute of Thor, i.e, genuine Aces, it is the Vans alone who show a combination of all three attributes together.
Odin is an ever-present party in the matters of creation, sometimes with Loki as a coparticipant. Odin alternates with Thor in the adventures with the giants, and Loki can act as a companion toeither. The groups of Odin and Thor are opposed in terms of the number of participants involved. From the viewpoint of mythological type, the difference between Thor and Odin appears to be that of culture hero (Odin) and hero (Thor) who cleans the earth of chthonic monsters (cf. Prometheus versus Hercules). Odin's shamanic ecstasy is contrasted with Thor's combatant wrath. At the same time, Thor, when armed with a hatchet or hammer, is opposed to Odin with the spear, a symbol of military power and military magic. While Thor is a prototype of armed freemen, Odin is a prototype of a body of professional warriors. While Thor, like so many epical heroes, defends "his own folk," i.e. humans and deities against "foreigners" (i.e. the giants and chthonic monsters), Odin is the inciter of discords and wars between humans in his function of the giver of military luck. As a patron of initiations, Odin allows occasional deaths among his fellow warriors, but these are but a temporary death in the overall ritual, to be followed by the superlife of the Einherjar in the myth.
In effect, Odin, Thor, and Loki are the only three active characters of the mythic epic. They are also endowed with a certain epical personality. Thor possesses the immense epic physical power (its other manifestations are his wrath, gluttony, .etc.), In that sense he is contrasted to the wit and guile of Odin and Loki. The opposition of Thor to Loki is that of strong versus tricky. Loki, as Thor's companion and aide, possesses the cunning necessary for the success of his undertakings. Loki appears as the comical counterpart of Odin in cosmogonic myths but as his evil antagonist in eschatological myths. Odin's wit, a combination of lofty wisdom and lowly perfidy, clairvoyance, cunning, and omnipotent witchcraft, is wider than Loki's guile and artifice. When Odin and Loki operate jointly, Loki carries out either their' common objective or one of Odin's designs (such as the theft of Freya's necklace, which caused her to spark off animosity between two heroes, or the robbery of the dwarf Andvari's gold).
Tyr's military function is, in fact, that of upholding order: he is the one who tames Fenrir, the foremost chthonic destructor. Tyr is opposed to both Odin, the inciter of feuds (law against luck) and Thor, the tempestuous warrior, who always defends "his folk" from the external forces of chaos. Odin, Thor, and Tyr are continually in touch with each other as specifically celestial deities (the celestial localization is perhaps the permanent feature of the pantheon as a whole). The relict and etiological features mark Tyr as the primordial "master" of the sky (like Dios-Zeus) while Odin emerges only later as the principal celestial deity and the principal antagonist of the tellurian chthonic monsters, primarily Fenrir the wolf.
The Eddic narrative plots constitute a semantic system which developed in a certain way from the syncretism of etiological myths. The system comprises a number of complementary parts (such as the mythic symbolism of mead as the embodiment and source of wisdom and the source of physical renewal, the perpetual renewal of food sources).
about the culture
and gallant warriors,
telling the plot in three