Lesser-Known Norse Myths
Everyone knows that Thor carries a hammer, Odin is the king of the gods, and Loki is ever the trickster, but what about some of the lesser-known myths and deities of Norse legend? It turns out, there are some fun legends that get much less airtime in pop culture. Let’s explore some!
Heimdall Creates the Social Classes
Ready to dismantle monarchies or hierarchical social structures? Blame Heimdall for them. Heimdall, the guard who keeps watch over Asgard, is credited with creating social classes. It was common for Norse deities to take on a false name when they traveled to Earth (or Midgard). While here, he called himself “Rig,” or King. Now, humans didn’t know what a king was and didn’t have any social power structure at the time, so Heimdall took it upon himself to organize humankind into a society – and of course it had classes, ranks, and titles. And how did he do it? By procreating.
While on Earth, Heimdall fathered a son named Thraell, or “Farmhand,” after persuading his human parents to let him sleep between them for three nights in a row. After the third night, Thraell’s mom was pregnant with him. Thraell was a low class farmhand and married Thir, or “Bondwoman,” and they had children who had names like “Cow Shed” and “Haystack.” You can see where this is going.
Another of Heimdall’s sons was named Jarl, or “Earl,” and was born after Heimdall slept between another couple, Fadir, or “Father” and Modir, or “Mother,” for – you guessed it – three nights. Jarl eventually grew up to be a warlord and fathered children with names that included “Young King” and “Noble.” Thus the social classes were born.
Odin Poses as a Peasant and Gets Tortured for it
This story tells of two brothers named Agnar and Geirrod who were lost far from home as young boys. An old man and old woman took them in at their humble cottage and took care of them for the winter. The old woman took an interest in Agnar and the old man was most interested in Geirrod. The old man even taught some of Geirrod his wisdom, of which he was very proud. The couple sent the boys back home in a boat across the ocean to their birthfather in the spring, but not before the old man whispered something in Geirrod’s ear.
When the boys landed, Geirrod shoved his brother and the boat back out to sea, letting him drift back into the ocean. Geirrod arrived home and told everyone that Agnar was dead, and since his father had died during the winter, Geirrod assumed the throne.
Spoiler alert: The old man and old woman were Odin and Frigg.
Many years later once both boys had grown into men, the pair looked over Midgard. Odin poked fun at Agnar because he lived in caves and had children with giantesses. He was very proud of Geirrod, who was now king and, as Odin believed, was well regarded in his kingdom.
Frigg told him what she really thought of Geirrod and called him dishonorable and stingy. She told Odin that Geirrod is the type of king who, when he has too many guests at dinner, tortures them to death for fun. So, Odin made a bet with Frigg. He said that if he went to Midgard disguised as a peasant seeking a place to stay for the night, Geirrod would surely be as hospitable as they had been to him and his brother when they were children.
As you may have guessed, it didn’t go down that way. Odin disguised himself as Grimnir, the “hooded one” and dogs were surprisingly happy to be around the stranger. They wouldn’t so much as utter a bark.
To help her cause, Frigg had sent a message to Geirrod’s court to tell him that there was a malicious magician on his way to his kingdom and the king would know him by how well the dogs treat him. In short, Grimnir (Odin in disguise) was arrested and tortured, but even when he was tied up between two huge fires, for eight nights, he wouldn’t reveal who he really was. Only Geirrod’s son, also named Agnar, showed him kindness when he brought him water to drink.
In his super dramatic reveal, Grimnir/Odin informed the crowd around him that he had been the old man who saved Geirrod and the first Agnar when they were boys. He then prophesied Geirrod’s death, which happened right away, when Geirrod rushed to free Odin with his sword and instead slipped and fell on the blade. Moral of the story? Don’t be a jerk to strangers.
The Woman Who Beat Thor
Only one legend tells of Thor’s defeat and, interestingly enough, he was defeated by an old woman. Talk about girl power! Elli, which means “old age” in Old Norse, was the personification of old age, wisdom, and the hidden strength found in our elders. While at Jotunheim, Thor, Loki, and their servants participated in competitions.
Loki bragged about his big appetite and tried to eat the giant Logi, or “Fire.” Unsurprisingly, Loki was unable to eat Fire. Thor then said he could defeat Hugi, or “Thought.” The pair participated in a swimming competition and Thor’s team lost. Thor then said he could outdrink anyone in the room. He began drinking from a giant horn that was attached to the ocean and the judges called him off when he just wouldn’t stop. They were afraid he’d drink the whole ocean.
Finally, he invited anyone to wrestle with him and the judges called Elli forward. Remember, her name means “old age,” and in this legend, of course not even Thor could defeat, wrestle, or escape old age.
What About Minor Deities?
Like the other pantheons around the world, the Norse pantheon includes a variety of major and minor deities. Here are some that you may be less familiar with.
Forseti: Forseti is the God of Justice and Law. Son of Baldr and Nanna, Forseti listens to the disputes between humans and the gods and is known for always making a fair verdict. His name actually means “the presiding one.”
Bragi: Bragi is the God of Poets and the son of Odin and Gunnlod a giantess. He is known for having the most beautiful voice among all nine worlds and it protects him from anything negative.
Skadi: Skadi is the Goddess of the Hunt and the winter tools of snowshoes and skis.
Tyr: Along with Odin, Tyr is considered the God of War. He rewards the daring and brave in battle and is often seen with his spear, which is also a symbol of justice.
Hel: Unlike the Marvel movie’s plotlines, Hel is actually Loki’s daughter (not sister) with the giantess Angrboda. She’s the Goddess of the Underworld. It’s said she looks like a beautiful woman on one side and an old hag on the other.
What’s your favorite Norse myth?
References & Further Reading:
The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, by Daniel McCoy
BaViPower.com The Woman that Defeated Thor in Norse Myth
AleHorn.com The Lesser-Known Gods in Tales of Norse Mythology