Connections of Norse Mythology

Making connections to other cultures around the world

Mythology and legends have been an intrinsic part of human societies all around the world and across all points in time. From the ancient Greco-Roman myths of creation to the Christian book of Revelation, these stories have served their purpose of trying to explain the mysteries of human creation, the uncertainties of life, and the all but predictable future. If one were to examine the multitude of myths and legends in a single culture, they would find very common themes or symbols within the stories. However, some stories from one culture may have an uncanny resemblance to a story told from a completely different culture from across the globe.

My goal is to examine how the stories in Norse mythology are strongly connected to the stories of other cultures. My biggest piece of evidence is the explanation of the “world tree”, Yggdrasill. The way the tree is structured and the overall theme of the tree is very similar to the Mayan interpretation of their respective “world tree” called Wakah-chan. Another eerie similarity is between the Norse story of creation and the Christian story of Adam and Eve. Examining these examples and other similarities can quite possibly change the way we look at how ancient societies were connected. Three integral questions I pose about this topic are: How old are each of the stories being compared? Who recorded the stories? How can these stories be so similar given that the societies where the stories originated from are geographically far apart? I believe that by exploring every possible avenue of these questions, I can have a better understanding of how these stories came to fruition and how their proliferation impacted not only their respective societies, but those outside as well.

I would like to start by first examining the written mythological history of the Scandinavian people. According to Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies, the first written accounts of Nordic mythology were written by a group of unknown authors. Collectively, they wrote and compiled their works into what is now called the poetic Edda. Mythology cites that these works were written roughly around the early thirteenth century. A short time later, a man named Snorri Sturluson, who was an Icelandic politician, wrote the prose Edda. Sturluson lived from 1179 Common Era to 1241 Common Era. Mythology describes Sturluson to have “lived an adventurous life as a political leader, gaining great wealth and influence” (Mythology, 234). His work with the writing of the prose Edda was so profound because “it is a guide to the conventions of traditional Icelandic poetic composition, written for the benefit of aspiring poets. Of its four parts, the two most important sources of mythological information and narratives are Skaldskaparmal and Gylfaginning” (Mythology, 234).

The stories from Norse mythology are much older than the thirteenth century, but they were never recorded, in full, on paper. There was also never an official date or time period that the myths were said to have begun proliferating. This was discussed in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s work The Norse Myths. Crossley-Holland explained that the stories were originally only shared orally, whether they were sung, poetically canted, or simply said aloud. Whatever the situation, the Norse peoples did not write these stories as to share them with others (Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths). It was only through the works of Sturluson and the other anonymous parties that wrote the poetic Edda and prose Edda that the Norse myths came to be shared with much more people throughout Scandinavia and eventually around the world.

This is the starting point from which the meat of this paper will derive. The first story I would like to present is the story of creation as retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland. This excerpt tells the story of the first humans that were created:

One day, Odin and Vili and Ve were striding along the frayed edge of the land, where the earth meets the sea. They came across two fallen trees with their roots ripped out of the ground; one was ash, and the other an elm. Then the sons of Bor raised them and made from them the first man and woman. Odin breathed into them the spirit of life; Vili offered them sharp wits and feeling hearts; and Ve gave them the gifts of hearing and sight. The man was called Ask and the woman was called Embla and they were given Midgard to live in. All the families and nations and races of men were descended from them (Crossley-Holland, 5).

This story of creation was something that struck me as very odd and eerily familiar to another story of creation most people are fairly familiar with: the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis, found in the Christian Bible. For the sake of comparison, this is the story of man’s creation, from the Catholic Douay-Rheims version of the Christian Bible:

And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he had placed the man whom he had formed […] Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. And Adam said: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man (Genesis, 2:7–2:23).

These stories, when compared solely as pieces of literature and not with the bias of religious preference, are clearly similar in certain aspects. From the little details of the deities “breathing life” into what was once lifeless objects to the glaring similarities of the names of the first humans (Adam and Eve from the Bible, Eve was named in Genesis 3:20; Ask and Embla from Norse mythology) and how all the descendants are from the original two humans, one can clearly see some kind of pattern to storytelling taking place. The Old Testament is said to be written no earlier than the sixth century Before Common Era, around the time the Hebrew language was first being written. As stated before, the stories of Norse mythology may have been written in the thirteenth century, but the stories themselves have been around for a significant amount of time.

One other story of Norse mythology is of Odin, the All Father, seeking knowledge through self-induced suffering. In Rick Riordan’s book Magnus Chase: The Sword of Summer, Riordan describes Odin’s quest for knowledge to be a painful one. It reads: “Odin hung himself on the branches of Yggdrasil with a wound in his ribs for nine days to gain the knowledge of the universe. Knowledge is powerful, and Odin understood this. That is why he hung himself for nine days. And his omniscience? That came with sacrifice as well. He gave up his eye in order to see what is to come” (Riordan, 246). This imagery show a deity suffering for multiple days in order to obtain more wisdom. In the Bible, it is said that Jesus suffered on the cross and died for the sins of men by will of his Father, the Lord God. Even though the purposes of suffering was different, both versions evoke powerful imagery and can bring people closer to these figures because they can relate to the suffering these deities felt.

Another connection can be found between Norse mythology and Mayan mythology. It is here that the connections of Norse mythology seems to be very hard to believe from a logical stand point. The Mayan empire was said to have started before two thousand years B. C. E., and the sophistication of the Mayan cities began around 750 years B. C. E. The Mayan empire was not dissolved until sometime during the late seventeenth century C. E. With a history spanning over three thousand years, it is very easy to see how an ancient civilization could possibly conjure stories for any and all occasions and purposes. It is for this reason that their stories of the world tree and the cardinal points are of interest, especially because these stories are extremely similar to the one of Norse mythology.

According to Mythology, the story of the Mayan tree was an essential part of their belief of how the world functioned. As Mythology puts it, “the World Tree (Waka-Chan) […] literally means ‘raised up sky’. The tree joins the Overworld, the Middleworld, and the Underworld into a unified cosmic whole” (Mythology, 477). In the same book, the Norse version of this “world tree” is told as such: “The great tree of the world extends through all the levels of the universe: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. The Bifrost Bridge, which humans see as a rainbow, links the real and supernatural worlds” (Mythology, 234). Once again, the similarities between these two stories is uncanny.

It only gets more interesting, as there is another story to be told about the Cardinal points. In Crossley-Holland’s work, he retells the Norse story of how the sky came to be: “Then the three brothers raised Ymir’s skull and made the sky from it and placed it so that its four corners reached the ends of the earth. They set a dwarf under each corner, and their names are East and West and North and South” (Crossley-Holland, 4). In Mythology, the story of the sky coincides with the world tree, and reads: “Four special trees in the Middleworld correspond to the four directions, and each has a different color: north (white), south (yellow), east (red), and west (black) […] White, yellow, red and black are also the color of the maize kernels that were used to create the first humans” (Mythology, 477). These stories of how the sky is situated, held up by four entities, and declared the cardinal points show some indication of what was possibly a common thought process, or possibly an interaction and exchange of stories between two seemingly very different cultures. To make this more interesting, the part about the maize kernels shares the theme of man being a creation of the earth, just like in Norse mythology and in Christian belief.

Even though there is no evidence to prove that the Mayans ever interacted with the Scandinavian people, there may still be an explanation for why these stories are so similar in theirs themes, setting, and outcome. As for the connections of Norse mythology and Christian belief, some of the stories told by the Scandinavian people may have been influenced by Christian or Hebrew writings. The Vikings were known to have traveled as far as the Middle East to trade goods, so it may not be too farfetched to think that the Judeo-Christian stories may have influenced their imaginations. There is also the possibility that the Scandinavian stories had influenced the writings of the Bible, seeing the similarities in the creation of man and the use of imagery of the suffering endured by Odin and Jesus. If I were to know the answer to one question, it would be this: “Which story came first?”

Works consulted:

1) Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies. Birmingham: Sweet Water Press, 2013. Print.

2) Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. Print.

3) The Holy Bible. Ed. Bishop Richard Challoner. London: Baronius Press, 2010. Print.

4) Riordan, R. (2017). The sword of summer. Los Angeles: Disney-Hyperion.