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As the Vikings gathered around their campfires at night, they told tales of the mighty heroes, mysterious gods and terrible monsters that would make up one of the world's most influential mythological landscapes.
The heroes of Norse myth reflect the Viking's respect for strength and courage. The vast forests and rugged mountains of Scandinavia inspired tales of elves, dwarves and giants. The cold oceans that surrounded Scandinavian lands brought to mind sea monsters dwelling in the deep.
Here are nine fearsome beasts and mischievous creatures that inhabit Norse mythology.
9 Norse Monsters and Spirits
- The Kraken
- The Norn
The giant wolf that was bound by the gods with chains crafted by dwarves. Fenrir is the son of the trickster god Loki and is prophesied to play a major role in the final battle known as Ragnarok. It's said he will swallow the sun and murder the god-king, Odin, before being slain by Odin's son Víðarr.
The name Fenrir comes from an old Norse word that means "he who dwells in the marshes". The Norse had no written language but carved messages in runes, many of which mention the coming of the beast Fenrir.
2. The Kraken
The 1981 film Clash of the Titans, based on Greek mythology, features the Kraken as an antagonist; but the beast actually originated in Norse folklore.
It resembles a giant squid, large enough to create whirlpools and drag ships to the depths of the ocean with its tentacles.
Stories of the Kraken can be traced back to 1200, with the earliest account being written by King Sverre of Norway. The name originates from the Norweigan word "Krage", which is similar to the Germanic word for octopus. Drawings from the time depict the creature as being 50 feet in length.
A Real-world Basis for the Kraken?
The legend of the Kraken may have been inspired by sightings of giant squid, which are known to dwell in the depths of the ocean.
In 1853, a large beak washed up on a beach in Denmark, believed to be that of a cephalopod (the family to which the squid and octopus belong).
Furthermore, Ichthyosaur fossils have been discovered with wounds consistent with constriction. In one case, researchers estimated that the Ichthyosaur was strangled by a creature at least 66 feet long.
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The legend of Beowulf may have been written in Old Saxon English, but the characters and setting featured are all Scandinavian, indicating that it may have had Norse origins.
Either way, Grendel is an iconic mythological antagonist whom the Swedish warrior Beowulf slays at the request of the Danish king Hrothgar. Grendel is referred to in the text as a "shadow walker", probably because he prowls the night while the Norse seek shelter in their mead halls.
He has been depicted as a giant or a Scandinavian berserker, and the texts name him a descendant of the biblical Cain. The Saxons probably intended Beowulf's victory to represent the triumph of Christian civilisation over Pagan heathenism. The tale can also be understood from a psychological perspective.
They appear in many literary creations, including those of the Brothers Grimm and J.R.R Tolkien, but it's believed they originated in Norse mythology, where they are depicted as dwarf-sized tricksters rather than the vicious behemoths of Tolkien lore.
The ghosts of Vikings who were guilty of incessant greed in life; Draugr dwell in tombs containing treasure. They may be mythology's earliest version of zombies.
Dead Vikings were sometimes buried with their toes tied together and needles driven through their feet so as to prevent their rising from the dead as Draugr.
Draugr in Norse Epics
In the Grettis Saga, the hero Grettis slays a Draugr named Kárr inn gamli (Kar the Old) with an ancient and powerful sword.
He later fights another Draugr named Glammr, who was made undead as punishment for refusing to fast on Yule-tide (the pagan version of Christmas). Glammr, with his dying breath, lays a curse on Grettis, ultimately leading to the hero's downfall.
Their name is derived from the old Norse word "dvergr" They first appear in the Poetic Edda, a 13th-century collection of Norse poems. They are said to dwell in Svartalfheim, one of the nine realms of Norse legend.
As in many other fantasy works, the dwarves of Norse mythology are excellent craftsmen. It was they who forged Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, and Odin's ring, Draupnir.
However, unlike the heroic and honourable dwarves of Tolkien fame, dwarves of Norse mythology are vicious in nature.
Two wicked dwarves named Fjalar and Galar killed the wise god, Kvasir, and used his blood mixed with honey to create the mead of poetry, an enchanted liquid that transforms the drinker into a great Skald (a Norse bard).
The same dwarves hosted the giant Gilling and his wife as guests, but when Gilling drowned in a boating accident, the dwarves dropped a rock on his wife's head because they couldn't stand her weeping.
These forest creatures take the form of seductive women with tails. Their name translates as "secret", and they may have been the early inspiration for elves and witches.
They enjoy appearing to young men and testing them. If the man is polite (and doesn't comment on the Huldra's tail), he will be rewarded with gifts. For example, in one tale, a boy is interrupted while fishing by a Huldra, who rewards his good behaviour by telling him to fish on the other side of the river, where his efforts prove immensely successful.
However, if a man fails the test, he will be enslaved and perhaps forced to dance to death.
The giants (Jotnir) of Norse folklore are equals to the gods and often their rivals. They represent chaos while the gods represent order.
Ymir was the father of all giants; his birth resulted from the merging of ice from the realm of the dead (Niflheim) with heat from the realm of fire (Muspelheim).
The gods slew Ymir, and his body was used to create the world. His blood became the oceans, his bones became mountains, his hair became the forests, and his skull became the sky surrounding the world of Midgard (Middle Earth).
Two Types of Giants
Niflheim and Muspelheim are two of the nine realms of Norse folklore. The former is the birthland of the frost giants (the children of Ymir), while the other forged the fire giants, who will play a role in Ragnarok (the fire giant, Surt, stands guard over Muspelheim and will set the world ablaze when the final battle comes).
Thor and Thrym
In one famous tale, the giant Thrym falls in love with the goddess Freya. He steals Thor's hammer and refuses to return it unless Freya grants him her hand in marriage.
Determined to retrieve his hammer, Thor disguises himself as Freya, with Loki pretending to be the bridesmaid.
They arrive in Thrym's palace, and a banquet is thrown in their honour. Thrym is surprised when his bride-to-be consumes an ox, eight salmon and three barrels of mead.
Eventually, Mjolnir is brought out and presented to "Freya" as a wedding gift. Thor immediately seizes his hammer and slaughters all the giants in the palace (while still wearing a wedding dress).
9. The Norn
The three women who control fate, thus being the Norse equivalent of the three fates from Greek Mythology.
Their names are Urd (Old Norse for Urðr, "The Past"); Verdandi (Old Norse Verðandi, "What Is Presently Coming into Being") and Skuld (Old Norse Skuld, "What Shall Be").
They live beneath the world tree Yggdrasil, where they fetch water every morning from the well Urðarbrunnr and pour it over the tree so as to ensure it remains green and healthy.
Accept Your Fate
There's no evidence that the Norn were worshipped by the Vikings, who believed fate was blind and could not be changed; thus, there was no point in appealing to the guardians of fate.
However, they were honoured in some ways. For example, women who had just given birth were fed a special kind of porridge called "Norn porridge".
An inscription in the Borgund stave church in Norway reads:
Þórir carved these runes on the eve of Olaus-mass, as he traveled past here.
The Norns presented measures of good and evil, great toil … they created before me.
General information. Britannica.
Salvador, Rodrigo Brincalepe, PhD student in Paleontology. 2015, December 30. The real-life origins of the legendary Kraken. The Conversation.
Manea, Irina-Maria. 2021, March 8. Elves & Dwarves in Norse Mythology. World History Encyclopedia.
Christensen, Christian. The Giants of Norse Mythology: Meet the Jotnar. Scandinavia Facts.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.