Whether you are from the UK or America, the chances are that you will have some Viking blood running through your veins. The Vikings were a seafaring race that originated in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Between 800 and 1050 AD, they went through a period of rapid expansion, travelling through Europe and the North Atlantic, sending out raiding parties and invading practically any land mass that they encountered. This became known as the Viking Age and is an historical example of one of the most successful invasion movements of all time. Consequently, many races integrated with the Vikings, absorbing their culture, beliefs and their bloodlines.
As with any mythology, the Viking legends were created to try and rationalise man’s place in the universe and as a way of explaining the forces that acted around him. Elemental forces such as thunder and lightning, the seasons and even life and death needed some explanation and so the Viking legends were born. What seems to have captured the public’s imagination must be that the Norse myths are so rich and vivid, peppered with heroes and villains, monsters and benign beasts, caught up in a cyclical story of battles and periods of peace, losses and victories and creation and destruction.
The influence of the Vikings is still very much alive today and incredibly prevalent in popular culture, even having made its way into Hollywood films. Even if you are unaware of these iconic figures, you only have to take a look at your calendar to see evidence of the Viking legacy, most evident in the names of the days of the week.
The Nine worlds of Viking myth
The Vikings believed that the universe comprised of nine worlds. Rather than being physical worlds, these could be likened to different planes of existence or realms. As with most mythology, some of these worlds were inhabited by the forces of good, represented as natural, creative and life-giving presences, while others were populated by the forces of chaos, death and destruction. Man’s role was seen as having to decide which force he would ally himself with and then to play his part, accordingly.
Asgard was the realm of the Viking gods; the Aesir. Here, in the hallowed halls, Odin ruled supreme over all the other gods, although many stories focus on his battles with Loki, the god of mischief. Rather than being an impenetrable sanctuary, Asgard was more of a stronghold, open to invasion from other forces, such as the Frost Giants, who also feature strongly in many of the legends. Each domain had a guardian, a threshold and a rune. In Asgard’s case, the guardian was Heimdall, whose job it was to overlook its point of access: the Rainbow Bridge. The rune associated with Asgard is known as Gibo.
Vanaheim was home to the Vanir. The Vanir were thought to be another group of gods, whose powers were linked to wisdom, fertility and the ability to see the future. Originally, they were a separate group but, after a war between the Vanir and the Aesir, the Vanir were embraced by their counterparts and counted as part of the Nordic pantheon. The goddess Frey guards the entrance to Vanaheim and the rune associated with this world is Inguz.
Although only mentioned twice in the Nordic legends, Alfheim was thought to be the home of the Light Elves, a race ‘fairer to look upon than the sun.’ The Light Elves were often allies to the Aesir, helping them in battles against the Giant races and their own nemeses, the Dark Elves. The guardian to this plane of fertility, plants and animals was Delling and the associated rune, Sowulo.
Midgard represents Earth, the realm of men. Of all the worlds in the Norse universe, this is the only one that is governed by time. It also serves as the interface for all the other worlds and, consequently, was the scene for many battles and dramatic acts. Thor, the god of thunder served as the guardian of Midgard and its associated rune is Jera.
The realm of fire was named Muspelheim. It was believed to be populated by the violent race of Fire Giants, who often plotted and attempted to overthrow the Aesir. Also known as the Sons off Muspell, the Fire Giants were particularly significant in Norse legend as, according to the prophecies, they would be responsible for bringing about Ragnarok – the end of time – by destroying the Bifrost Bridge - the rainbow bridge that connected Asgard to Midgard. Surth the Destroyer is both the ruler and guardian of this realm and its associated rune is Dagaz.
The antithetical world to Muspelheim was Nifelheim, the realm of ice and cold. Home to the Frost Giants, it is guarded by the Nidhogg Dragon and its associated rune is Nauthiz.
Just as the Light Elves had their own world and just as Muspelheim was reflected by Nifelheim, Svartalfheim was home to the Dark Elves. Where the Light Elves were bright to behold, the Svartalf were thought to be ‘as black as pitch.’ However, some historians interpret this race as being a race of dwarves; the complete antithesis to the Light Elves. Svartalfheim was guarded by Modsognir and its associated rune is Eihwaz.
If Asgard represented a notion of heaven, then it is easy to guess what Hel was thought to symbolise. Hel was the underworld and thought to be the realm where ‘evil men’ went, after they had died. Its guardian, Hella, is mentioned in many of the legends as various gods have to make their way to Hel to complete a task or, as in the case of Loki, try to join forces with her to facilitate Ragnarok. Its associated rune is Hagzlaz.
Jotunheim was the headquarters for the forces of chaos. This is where all the Giant races would begin there plots against Asgard and Midgard, in their attempts to overthrow the gods or destroy mankind. It was guarded by the giant, Thrym, who has a particular hatred for Thor. Its associated rune is Isa. The Norse legends weave a rich tapestry of heroes and villains that brilliantly reflects mankind’s internal and external struggles.