Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them. As best we can tell, the gods of Asgard came from Germany, spread into Scandinavia, and then out into the parts of the world dominated by the Vikings…. In English, the gods have left their names in our days of the week. You can find Tyr the one-handed (Odin’s son), Odin, Thor and Frig, the queen of the gods, in respectively, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.”
Christianity very nearly drove the old gods of the Northmen from the face of the Earth. There was something so tangible about the pagan gods. They had personalities, fallacies, and a sense of humor that didn’t always bode well for their human worshippers. If we learned that Loki, in particular, had taken an interest in our troubles, we felt more trepidation than relief. His cunning intelligence was more often used for creating mayhem than it was providing solutions to dire problems. He was the gasoline that turned a smoldering, warm, ash heap into a raging forest fire.
Loki made enemies of everyone, which was why he had to live in a house with four doors facing each direction. He was the instigator of much of the troubles the gods found themselves facing, but he was also the one who always brilliantly conceived a plan that saved them from those troubles. Was Loki more of an asset or a liability? You will have to decide that for yourself. I do know that finding out he was not on the side of the gods in the final battle, Ragnarok, made me tremble with concern for the gods.
Who didn’t want Thor on their side? He wasn’t the brightness bulb in a chandelier, but once he entered a fight, one side breathed a sigh of relief, and the other side started fleeing for their lives. His magic belt, Megingjord, doubled his strength, but it was his hammer, Mjollnir, that made Giants, Trolls, and other gods tremble. The great, recently departed, Stan Lee mined the Old Norse tales heavily for his writing. These Norse gods were superheroes long before the term ever existed.
What would we give up to have all the wisdom of the world? Odin gave up an eye. He even plucked it from his head with his own fingers. He was the god of the gods and, according to legend, the father of us all. ”Because he was the father of the gods, and because he breathed the breath of life into our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents. Whether we are gods or mortals, Odin is the father of us all.”
How about this for creepy? The Death Ship, Naglfar, was made from the untrimmed fingernails of the dead. A friend of mine was once moved into a different office where he worked. He kept finding fingernail clippings in drawers, in between stacks of paper, under the desk legs, wedged behind the computer speakers, snagged in the carpet fibers. Every time he would clean a new section of his office, he would find piles of fingernail clippings to sweep up. This was all very creepy for him, but when I told him that the man those clippings belonged to had recently died, he nearly came out of his skin. Suddenly, those annoying nail clippings became eerie reminders of mortality.
Speaking of mortality: ”When the gods felt age beginning to touch them, to frost their hair or ache their joints, then they would go to Idunn. She would open her box and allow the god or goddess to eat a single apple. As they ate it, their youth and power would return to them. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would scarcely be gods…” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a bite of those Golden Apples. I’m not even greedy; just a nibble would be great.
Even the mighty Thor could be temporarily flummoxed. ”There was a giantess in the kitchen, cutting up onions as big as boulders and cabbages the size of boats. Thor could not help staring: the old woman had nine hundred heads, each head uglier and more terrifying than the last. He took a step backward.” If you were fighting a monster like this, where would you start and where would you end?
The stories that Neil Gaiman gathered together here were based on what little was left of the pagan stories of the Norse gods. Fortunately, a 13th century Icelandic saga writer named Snorri Sturluson recorded these tales in his book Prose Edda. Neil Gaiman retold them with his entertaining and illuminating prose. Check out the life of Snorri Sturluson when you get the chance. He might have written about heroes of old, but his life was equally fascinating to read about.
What stories we have were the tip of the iceberg of the stories that were originally told. Wouldn’t it be great if more of them were found? The Norse gods were mere shadows of what they were in the past.
This was a wonderful introduction to Norse Mythology. If you know very little about the old gods, this would be a great place to start. If you have some idea of the Norse legends, you would certainly benefit from reading them in Gaiman’s engaging style. I even found myself chuckling at several points...that Loki kills me every time.
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