Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend

Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend

John McKinnell
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 302
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    Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend
    Book Description:

    A particular, recurring feature of Old Norse myths and legends is an encounter between creatures of This World (gods and human beings) and those of the Other (giants, giantesses, dwarves, prophetesses, monsters and the dead). Concentrating on cross-gendered encounters, this book analyses these meetings, and the different motifs and situations they encompass, from the consultation of a prophetess by a king or god, to sexual liaisons and return from the dead. It considers the evidence for their pre-Christian origins, discusses how far individual poets and prose writers were free to modify them, and suggests that they survived in medieval Christian society because (like folk-tale) they provide a non-dogmatic way of resolving social and psychological problems connected with growing up, succession from one generation to the next, sexual relationships and bereavement.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-414-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. V-VI)
  3. Abbreviations (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Foreword (pp. IX-X)
    John McKinnell

    The idea for this book came to me during an afternoon’s fishing. A fisherman confronts the alien realm of the sea rather as gods and men in Old Norse myth and legend confront creatures of the Other World. Often, such encounters also involve the Otherness of opposite gender. But although there is a great variety of cross-gender encounters with the Other World, each god has his own typical experience. Usually, only the Vanir marry giantesses, only Þórr fights them, only Óðinn seduces them. I decided to look into the nature of these stereotypes and consider what needs might have produced...

  5. Part One: Aims, Methods and Sources
    • CHAPTER ONE Introduction (pp. 1-10)

      Since most of this book will be concerned with Old Norse narrative on mythological and legendary subjects, I shall begin with a simplistic question: in the society of its composers and first audiences, what was such literaturefor?

      If the same question were posed about other literary genres in Old Norse, it would be possible to give some fairly convincing answers. Skaldic poetry was usually either a bargain between the poet and his lord, in which the poet sought to immortalise the lord’s reputation in return for reward and preferment, or an attempt to secure the posthumous reputation of the...

    • CHAPTER TWO Methods (pp. 11-36)

      In his claim of ‘authenticity’ for Old Norse mythology, the pioneering nineteenth-century scholar Jacob Grimm states a profoundly held belief that Old Norse mythological sources can give an accurate picture of what Norse heathenism was really like. He then argues that all the pre-Christian Germanic peoples shared a common poetic, religious and mythological tradition that was grounded in the natural world. He seeks to prove the antiquity of this system by demonstrating linguistic links with other Indo-European languages. For example, the Old Norse god-nameTýrhas the same root as SanskritDyaus, GreekZeusand LatinJovisanddivus.¹ Similarly,...

    • CHAPTER THREE Sources (pp. 37-49)

      Óðinn’s question to Vafþrúðnir is extremely pertinent: how do we know the myths that (we think) we know? This chapter will consider the sources for Other World encounters in Old Norse myth and legend and the rationale for using them. Unlike religious practice, for which the best sources are often archaeological, mythology is essentially narrative and depends chiefly on written sources. Although there are important sources in both prose and verse, most of the prose works derive their material from older poetry, so it is the poetic tradition whose evidence is usually primary. It can be divided into two poetic...

  6. Part Two: The Vanir
    • CHAPTER FOUR The Vanir Patterns: Ritual Origins (pp. 50-61)

      Four of the patterns outlined in Chapter 1 are associated with the Vanir. They are those in which:

      1. A god or hero has a troubled marriage with a giantess.

      2. A goddess helps her lover to gain vital information from a giantess.

      3. A prophetess makes hostile predictions or works magic against a god or a human aristocrat.

      4. A prophetess predicts the glorious career and eventual death of a young man who is unwilling to listen to her.

      In this Chapter I shall consider the evidence for the pre-Christian origins of these patterns.

      The earliest literary source for the worship of the...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Misalliance and the Summer King (pp. 62-80)

      One might have expected myths about the ‘sacred marriage’ between the fertility god and the earth-giantess to be celebrations of a joyful union, but in fact the fundamental hostility between gods and giants was so strong that they are usually misalliances. The myths of Njǫrðr and his son Freyr have many features in common:

      1. The protagonist is one of a dynasty that descends through the male line.

      2. He is (wholly or partly) responsible for the death or threatened death of the giantess’s father or brother.

      3. He or his representative goes on an expedition to win the giantess (but in the...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Goddess and Her Lover (pp. 81-94)

      When we turn to myths associated with goddesses of the Vanir type, the male protagonist is almost unavoidably a human ruler. Simple inversion of the god’s marriage with a giantess would have been intolerable, since it would have implied the subjection of a divine wife to a giant husband and her removal to a frozen, infertile giant world. This would have been to give away the principle of fertility to the forces of chaos; it is a constant desire of the giants, but one which the gods must at all costs resist (see Chapter 1, and as Clunies Ross’s idea...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Vǫlva (pp. 95-108)

      The patterns considered in Chapters 5 and 6 often include a prophetess or magic-working woman. She may be the ally or sister of the Winter Princess (Hulð inYnglinga saga, Irpa, Heiðr inVǫluspá), or herself the princess (Hvít inHrólfs saga kraka), or the opponent of the goddess (Hyndla, Hrímgerðr inHelgakviða Hjǫrvarðssonar). Her role may seem secondary, but it is essential to the narrative. In this chapter I shall consider the typical features of thevǫlvafigure, whether she is of naturalistic or mythic origin, and whether she can be associated with particular patterns of narrative.

      The usual...

  7. Part Three: The Æsir
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Fighting the Giantess: Þórr (pp. 109-125)

      The myths in which the Æsir encounter Other-World females can be divided into what I shall call myths of exploitation and of confrontation. In the first group, the protagonist is usually Óðinn, and the giantesses he seduces seem to represent a natural power which gods and men need in order to defend themselves, generate ruling families or gain poetic inspiration. These are myths about exploitation of and co-operation with the Other World (see Chapters 10–11). But this chapter and the next will consider myths of confrontation, which reject the Other World, assert the defence of mankind against it, and...

    • CHAPTER NINE Þórr and the Bear’s Son (pp. 126-146)

      In Chapter 8 I outlined a pattern in which Þórr encounters one or more giantesses who represent a threat to human life, in particular that of the protagonist’s close kinsman. These are examples of a story pattern whose common features are:

      1. A supremely strong hero makes an expedition to fight a giant.

      2. He has one or more companions, but they usually make no important contribution.

      3. He and his companion(s) are badly received at their destination.

      4. He is attacked by at least one giantess and at least one giant, who are related to each other, and destroys both; both fights include...

    • CHAPTER TEN Seducing the Giantess: Óðinn (pp. 147-171)

      The protagonist in myths of exploitation is usually Óðinn. In the quotation above, he boasts that he knows spells which enable him to win and keep a woman’s love; but his own motivation is usually calculating rather than passionate. In the Gunnlǫð myth he wants to obtain the mead of poetry, but his usual aim is to beget a son who will be a defender of the gods, a just avenger, or the founder of a human dynasty.

      Óðinn’s role as progenitor or seducer is reflected in a few of his many names, most obviously inAlfǫðr‘All-father’. This name...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Seduced by the Giantess: the Odinic Hero (pp. 172-180)

      When the sexual partner of a giantess is a human being, he may sometimes be a transformation of Óðinn, as inBárðar saga(compare the human equivalents of Þórr discussed in Chapter 9), but usually he is either a devotee of Óðinn or, by a simple Christian reversal, a conspicuously outspoken opponent to him.

      Hadingum grandævus forte quidam, altero orbus oculo, solitarium miseratus …

      ‘An aged man with only one eye happened to take pity on the lonely Hading …’


      Five stories of this kind show a common pattern. They are those of:

      a. Hadingus and Harthgrepa in...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Helpful Giantess (pp. 181-196)

      Chapters 8 to 11 focused on the giantess who is destroyed or exploited by the male protagonist. This chapter will consider the helpful giantess who actively helps the protagonist, and some of the meanings which may have been traditionally attached to her.

      In the oldest myths, the friendly giantess often treats the protagonist (usually a Þórr-figure) as if he were her son, although she is literally the mother of his half-brother or foster-brother. The relationship between Þórr and Gríðr appears in the oldest version of the Geirrøðr myth (Eilífr Goðrúnarson’sÞórsdrápa), and must have been traditional by the late tenth...

  8. Part Four: Encounters with the Dead
    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Consulting the Dead (pp. 197-217)

      birgŋu(bo)r(o)swestarminu liubumerwage

      This inscription appears on the early fifth century rune stone from Opedal, Hordaland, Norway.¹ Krause’s translation is ‘Grave. Bora, my sister, dear to me, Wagar’. Alternatively, the last word might be the present subjunctive of Old Norsevægja‘to spare’, which would give the translation: ‘Grave. May Bora, my dear sister, spare me’; Krause objects that this should have appeared in runic Old Norse as *wagije, but his own solution is also doubtful, since the single-element personal name *Wagaris not found elsewhere.² Both interpretations share another difficulty: *birg(i)ŋu is equivalent to Old Englishbyrging, which does not...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Dead Lover’s Return (pp. 218-231)

      So far, I have considered stories of raising the dead that are typically based on a mother–son relationship. Only inHervararkviðadoes a daughter raise her dead father, and this poem clearly uses deliberate gender reversal, perhaps partly to warn women not to usurp masculine roles.¹ Norse daughters doubtless grieved as much for their fathers as sons did for their mothers; the scarcity of such tales therefore demands some explanation.

      Perhaps young women found it difficult to gain a hearing as poets. Most verses attributed to female skalds are by older women of high birth or magical abilities, such...

  9. Afterword (pp. 232-234)

    My first aim in this book has been to establish what is typical in the various patterns of cross-gender encounter between gods or men on one side and giantesses or prophetesses on the other. It is clear that different types of encounter were consistently associated with particular gods, and that gods and men usually represent the human, civilised and rational world, while giantesses are associated with chaos, wild nature or the irrational. Beyond that, ‘meaning’ is a shifting target, changing from one period to another and capable of being adapted or contradicted to fit the particular concerns of individual poets...

  10. APPENDIX: Summaries and Translations of Sources Not Available in English (pp. 235-247)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 248-266)
  12. INDEX (pp. 267-291)
  13. Back Matter (pp. 292-292)


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