The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods
and Heroes
Carolyne Larrington
Thames & Hudson
208pp, 100 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £12.95

Images of long-bowed ships emerging from the mist, bringing mayhem and terror, are what come to mind when there is a mention of the Vikings. While their warlike character and international strikes left a physical and psychological mark on Europe and beyond, they also bequeathed to the world a rich store of myths that have endured to the present day.

Now, new re-tellings of these myths have been undertaken by Carolyne Larrington, Professor of Medieval European literature, University of Oxford and Official Fellow and Tutor, St John's College. In her comprehensive survey of the subject, The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, Professor Larrington first examines the sources and origins of the myths, before introducing us to the Norse deities. She then considers the myths according to subject matter: those that relate to the creation of the cosmos, the gods' adversaries, the nature of the human heroes and the heroes of the Viking world and Ragnarok, the prophesied end of the world.

Imagination clearly wasn't lacking in the frozen north, and it is an exotic world that these myths portray. Central to the universe stands the Yggdrasill (World Tree) whose roots define the various regions of the world. Different realms lie under the tree, dragons fly about it and four stags graze in its upper branches. Dwarves work beneath the ground creating treasures that the gods covert. An interesting lot with odd attributes (some travel around in chariots drawn by goats and cats), the gods preside over a range of extraordinary creatures including dwarves, giants, serpents, elves and, later, humans. Treachery and violence feature frequently in the relationships and adventures of this rich cast of characters.

Even after the coming of Christianity to Iceland, the old Norse myths and legends endured. New poems were composed using traditional motifs and some were converted into ballads. Since the Icelandic language changed little, Larrington points out, their myths, preserved in sagas, songs and poems, remained well understood over centuries.

In the 17th century, a collection of poems called the Edda were edited and translated into Latin, which aided their circulation around Europe. The first English translations appeared in the early 18th century. As Norse-speaking people emigrated widely, depictions of characters and episodes from the myths have been found far afield, and archaeological finds have furthered our understanding of the Norse world.

These myths and legends were popularised by the Brothers Grimm and Richard Wagner in Germany and by William Morris and JRR Tolkien in Britain. Thanks to them and, now, to television series, such as Game of Thrones, Scandinavian myths and legends are vibrantly alive today.

Clearly set out with a good array of illustrations, Larrington's guide is a valuable, engaging resource for anyone wishing to explore the mysterious and dramatic world of the Norsemen and their gods.
Diana Bentley

 

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