(Extracted from Grolier Encyclopedia)
After 1000 BC some form of Indo-European language was spoken by most European cultures. From the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Germanic tribes lived in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. Their expansions and migrations from the 2d century BC onward are recorded in history. Scandinavian and Germanic mythology have a common origin and structure; they will, therefore, be discussed in their unity.
With the exception of the observations made by the Romans Julius Caesar and Tacitus, all of the sources on Germanic mythology are late and Christian. The main body of traditions is contained in the Prose Edda of SNORRI STURLUSON (c.1179-1241), an Icelandic historian who is considered the most accurate editor, redactor, and interpreter of the religious and mythological sources of the old Norse religion.
The myth of creation is given in detail only by Snorri, who edited several sources in presenting a somewhat coherent form. In the beginning was a great void (Ginnungagup). Before the Earth was formed, the world of death existed; in this world (NIFLHEIM) was a great well, from which flowed 11 rivers. South of Niflheim existed an extremely hot world (Muspell) guarded by a giant called Sutr ("the Black"). The rivers of Niflheim froze, and these frozen rivers occupied Ginnungagup. Sparks from Muspell, however, fell on the rivers and melted them. Droppings from this melting took shape as YMIR, the giant, and from Ymir's sweat other giants, male and female, were formed.
Another version relates that the melting drops took the form of the primordial cow, Audumbla, who fed Ymir with her milk. The cow also licked the salty blocks of ice, shaping them into the form of the first man, who is called Buri. Buri has a son, Bor, who marries Bestla, daughter of a giant, Bolthorr; the children from this union are the gods ODIN, Vili, and Ve. Odin and his brothers kill Ymir and from his body fashion the Earth.
The gods endow two tree trunks with the qualities of wit, breath, hearing, vision, and so on. These tree trunks are the archetypes of the human race; the man is Askr (an ash tree) and the woman, Embla (a creeper). They next build ASGARD, the abode of the gods. Snorri describes in other versions how a great tree, Yggdrasil, the tree of fate, arises in the center of the world. Beneath the tree is the well of fate, which is described as feminine in form; the course of human life is decided here. In some versions, the council of the gods is convened around the tree. The tree is supported by three roots; one of these roots stretches to the underworld (HEL), another to the world of the frost-giants, and the last one to the world of human beings. The welfare of the entire world is dependent on the primordial tree, Yggdrasil.
The Norse deities are divided into two major groups, the Aesir and the Vanir. The most important of the Aesir are Odin, THOR, and sometimes Tyr. Their counterparts among the Vanir are Njord, FREY, and FREYA. The Vanir symbolize riches, fertility, and fecundity. They are associated with the earth and the sea as these symbolize the sources of fecundity. The Aesir symbolize other values: Odin is a magician, chief among the gods, and a patron of heroes; Thor, who is god of the hammer, is an atmospheric deity of thunder who presides over work. In many of the Norse mythological cycles these two kinds of deities live in peace and engage in cooperative enterprises. Several important versions, however, report that in the distant past a fierce war was fought between the Aesir and the Vanir.
Some scholars have interpreted this war between the Aesir and the Vanir as the reflection of the historical encounter of the Germanic peoples with indigenous cultures. Georges Dumezil and Jan de Vries, however, see the warfare and division among the deities as part of the unitary structure of Indo-European mythology. The familiar triad is formed by Odin and Thor, who divide the functions of the magical lawgiver; Tyr, the warrior god; and the Vanir, the fertile producers, who are defeated and subsumed into hierarchy.
In the Norse cycles the conflict between the gods begins when Odin and Thor, the greatest of the gods, refuse the full status of godhood to the Vanir. The latter entreat the Aesir by sending to them a woman, Gullveig (gold-drink, gold drunkenness), who corrupts them. War then breaks out. After both sides are exhausted, each side exchanges members of its group with the other; the Vanir send Njord and his son Frey, the Aesir, MIMIR and Hoenir. The truce is celebrated by a meeting at which all the gods spit into a bowl, creating a giant called Kvasir, who is the sign of peace and harmony among the deities. Kvasir is later sacrificed and from his blood a more potent drink for the gods is made. Kvasir thus becomes the drink that inebriates deities and gives inspiration to the poets.
An important mythological episode involves the deities BALDER and LOKI. Balder, one of the sons of Odin, appears as the essence of intelligence, piety, and wisdom. He holds court in a hall in heaven called Glitnir. Both gods and men come to him to settle legal disputes, and his judgments are reconciling and fair. Loki is a giant who is an Aesir by adoption. He and Odin have made a vow of friendship.
Balder has a very disturbing dream in which his life is threatened. Upon reporting this dream to the Aesir, his mother, FRIGG, exacts an oath from fire and water, all metals, bird and beast, and earth and stones that they will not harm Balder. After this the Aesir begin to amuse themselves by placing Balder in the midst of them and throwing darts and stones at him. Because of the oath Balder remains unharmed. When Loki sees this spectacle, he disguises himself as a woman and inquires of Frigg why Balder suffers no harm. Frigg tells him of the oath and also tells him of the one form of nature from which she did not exact the oath, the mistletoe. Loki immediately brings the mistletoe to the assembly of the Aesir and offers it to the blind god Hoder, brother of Balder, volunteering to direct his aim so that he can participate in the game. When the mistletoe strikes Balder, he falls dead. The Aesir want to take vengeance on the perpetrator of the deed, but because of the sanctity of the court they cannot.
Because Balder is not a warrior and does not die in battle, he does not go to VALHALLA, the hall of slain heroes, but into the domain of Hel, keeper of the dead. When Odin requests his release, Hel responds that if everything in the world both dead and alive weeps for Balder, then he can return to the Aesir; otherwise he will remain with Hel. The Aesir send messengers throughout the world requiring all nature, humanity, gods, and beasts to weep for Balder. All respond except a giantess, Thokk (Loki in disguise), whose refusal to weep forces Balder to remain in Hel's domain.
The Aesir finally succeed in capturing Loki and chaining him to prevent him from carrying out his evil tricks. The prediction is, however, that he will one day break these chains. This will be the sign for the loosing of all evil, monsters and giants, to attack the gods in the great battle of RAGNAROK, the twilight of the gods. Odin will be devoured by the wolf FENRIR, who will then be killed by Vidar, a son of Odin. Terrible fights will rage among the gods and the forces of evil until finally the primeval god HEIMDALL and Loki come face to face and kill each other. The Earth will then be destroyed by fire, and the entire universe will sink back into the sea. This final destruction will be followed by a rebirth, the Earth reemerging from the sea, verdant and teeming with vegetation. The sons of the dead Aesir will return to Asgard and reign, as did their fathers.