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University of Basel

From Troy to Scandinavia – Old Norse topographies

Lukas Rösli

In recent years, popular culture has been rediscovering Norse mythology. This colorful world has been passed down to us mainly via written sources such as the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, preserved in medieval manuscripts. With their help, we can work out what the topographies described in the Scandinavian myths looked like.

Blockbuster movies such as “Marvel’s The Avengers” and Hollywood’s two “Thor” movies, based on the Marvel comics of the same name, portray not just the mythological characters themselves but their surroundings. But how do we know about the world of the Norse gods that is portrayed in such detail in these comics and films? Apart from a few schematic illustrations of mythological scenes on Scandinavian picture stones, the Old Norse myths have come down to us mainly in literary form. The two most important works, written in Old Icelandic in the second half of the 13th century and preserved in several medieval manuscripts, are known today as the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda.

The Poetic Edda is an anonymous collection of songs made up of both Scandinavian myths about the gods and Common Germanic heroic songs that form part of the same corpus of material as the Middle High German Song of the Nibelungs. The Prose Edda, on the other hand, is a mythographic and poetological text. It was probably designed to teach prospective skalds – the court poets of medieval Scandinavia – the stories about the world of the Norse gods that were essential to mastering their complex art, so that they could use them in their poems. The Prose Edda also quotes stanzas from the Poetic Edda at various points and fashions a unified mythology from its verses, which are often very obscure. A substantial part of the Prose Edda describes not only the creation and lives of the gods and a few humans, but numerous topographical structures that appear, change, expand or vanish, only to collapse again in the end.

Gods on the move

Following Genesis, the prologue to the Prose Edda tells of the creation of the world by an all-powerful God. It describes how, after the world has been purified by the Flood and human beings have once again forgotten God’s name, Odin and his companions leave Troy for northern Europe, in response to a prophecy that they will be venerated there as gods. By tracing the Norse pantheon back to people from the city of Troy, the text – which was written down more than 200 years after the Christianization of Iceland – was able to evade the charge of glorifying the pagan gods.

At the end of their journey, the migrants from Troy settle in Scandinavia and are venerated there as supernatural, divine beings, known collectively as the Aesir. The wise Swedish King Gylfi wants to discover the source of the divine power attributed to the Aesir, so he travels to their castle disguised as an old man. There he is tricked by three Aesir kings into imagining that he is standing in a great hall while he asks them about the creation and history of the world, and the lives and deeds of the Aesir.

Creation from the primordial giant

First, Gylfi wants to know whom the Aesir kings consider to be the greatest of all the gods. They respond with a description of the All-father, who made heaven and earth and everything in them. Following the same narrative that appears at the beginning of the prologue to the Prose Edda – which recalls the creation story in Genesis – they also tell Gylfi about the immortality of the soul and the division of the next world into heaven and hell. This cosmogony, which bears a clear Christian stamp, is implicitly rejected by Gylfi when he asks where the All-father resided before creating this dualistic world. In response, the three kings tell him that the All-father lived with the frost giants.

Having referred to a time and a world from before the creation they have just described, the Aesir kings are forced to outline a new cosmogony. Gylfi learns that in the beginning there were only two regions, a hot one in the south and an icy one in the north, divided by the Ginnungagap, a yawning abyss. The interaction between ice and heat in this empty space produced dew drops; these formed the primordial giant Ymir, who gave rise to further giants. According to the genealogy related here, a giantess and another unspecified being had three sons, one of whom was named Odin. Odin and his two brothers killed Ymir and used his body to create the world. Ymir’s blood produced the sea, his skin became the earth, his bones became mountains and the top of his skull formed the dome of the sky.

The land, which was bounded on all sides by sea, was protected from the hostile giants, who lived along the shoreline, by a rampart called Midgard, consisting of Ymir’s eyebrows. In the center of this new world, Odin – who in the three kings’ story is retrospectively equated with the All-father – and the Aesir erected a castle, which they called Asgard. According to the kings, this Asgard was modeled on the old Asgard, which they identify with Troy.

Mirrored spaces

Even in this short account by the three Aesir kings, we can identify some of the narratological techniques used to create topographies for the Eddic myths in the Prose Edda. Two principles – the mirroring of known topographies and their dynamic transformation through adaptation to new narratives – are deployed to particularly good effect. Mirroring involves picking up a topographical structure introduced previously in the Prose Edda and adapting it to a new spatial narrative. We see this technique at work in the creation story from the prologue, which is itself based on the start of Genesis and is subsequently taken up by the Aesir when presenting Gylfi with their first cosmogony.

The all-powerful God who is introduced as the creator of the world in the prologue is replaced in the Aesir kings’ tale by the figure of the All-father, whereas the process of creation itself mirrors that described in the prologue. However, this mirrored cosmogony fails to stand up to Gylfi’s critical questions and has to be replaced by a new narrative. Only with the story of Ymir and of how Odin and his brothers formed the world from the primordial giant do we arrive at an independent Eddic cosmogony. It takes Gylfi’s question to prompt the Aesir to relate this new creation story, in which Ymir becomes the primordial matter and the medium from which the world is created.

Narrative worlds as fictions

The dialogical narrative mode in the Prose Edda produces a dynamic that allows the Aesir continually to reshape the topographies they describe in the Eddic myths and to adapt them to Gylfi’s critical questions. Thus, the prologue describes a world created by God, which in the three Aesir kings’ version becomes one fashioned by the All-father, which in turn has to give way to a world formed from the body of Ymir. In their account of the Eddic world, ancient Troy – the original home city of the Aesir according to the prologue – becomes the model for Asgard and therefore part of the topography of Norse mythology. As mentioned above, the cosmographies set out in the Prose Edda and the topographies they produce within this mythical world are presented to Gylfi – and, at the same time, to the text’s audience – within the framework of a hallucination. The illusory character of this narrative space, in which the three Aesir kings are forced to come up with answers to Gylfi’s questions, serves to qualify their narrative. Every statement about the lives of the Norse gods and the world they inhabit that is made in this bogus hall is therefore part of a stage-managed deception by the three kings. At the same time, however, it is Gylfi’s questions that steer the narrative on to the topographies of the Eddic myths. The formation of an independent Eddic world comes about only because he challenges the story he is initially told about creation by the All-father.

This dynamic, triggered by Gylfi’s rejection of the cosmogony with which he is first presented, is carried forward by his subsequent questions and forces the three Aesir kings to continue coming up with new stories, until the questioner is satisfied with what he has heard. It is thus only in the course of the narrative that the worlds described by the Aesir kings and the topographies portrayed in them are created.

Even these two narratological principles of mirroring and dynamic transformation that we see exemplified in the Prose Edda show just how difficult it is to derive a unified or static topography from the Eddic myths. Tracing these mythological stories, recast as literature, back to the world view of people in pre-Christian Scandinavia is an even harder task. However, the dynamic quality of the Eddic world and the ease with which its topographies can be adapted to new narratives – which in the Prose Edda is demanded by the narrative itself – leaves ample scope for new forms of representation, such as the films and comics mentioned above.

Dr. des. Lukas Rösli is a research associate at the Department of Nordic Studies at the University of Basel.

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