August 9, 2022

The god Odin (Old Norse Óðinn) wanders the land. Art by Rim Bitik for Mimisbrunnr.info, 2019.

Getting Started with Norse Mythology

Quality resources on Norse mythology have never been more plentiful, approachable, and available than today. Unfortunately, looking for all that quality information on the topic also means sorting through more nonsense than ever before: The internet in particular swarms with hucksters, ideologues, and other purveyors of misinformation, their combine marketing efforts make disentangling fiction from fact tough.

Originally composed by Joseph S. Hopkins in December 2018. Last updated November 2019. Featured at Mimisbrunr.info.

Quality resources on Norse mythology have never been more plentiful, approachable, and available than today. Unfortunately, looking for all that quality information on the topic also means sorting through more nonsense than ever before: The internet in particular swarms with hucksters, ideologues, and other purveyors of misinformation, their combine marketing efforts make disentangling fiction from fact tough. But whether you’re casually interested in Norse myth or you’re embarking on a life-long journey to become as familiar with the Old Norse record as possible, we here at Mimisbrunnr.info have designed this guide solely so that you may ponder the great mysteries of the corpus with the rest of us.

As this guide outlines, Mimisbrunnr.info recommends that you start with retellings. From there, you might consider approaching some of the better known and important items of the Old Norse corpus while consulting quality tertiary sources (such as handbooks) and thereafter approach more advanced studies based on your interests. The needs and desires of readers will vary, and you should feel comfortable swapping one step for another. Whatever the case, beginner researchers are wise to consult only material published by university presses until they feel entirely comfortable with discerning fact from fantasy.

Mimisbrunnr.info remains a non-commercial resource. We have no desire to sell you anything, and Mimisbrunnr.info gains nothing from the purchase of any resources we recommend here. This resource contains no affiliate links. However, when purchasing items from this list, please consider supporting local and independent bookstores whenever possible (if you’re in the United States, try the IndieBound search engine!).

For an expansion of the present guide into Germanic myth more broadly, see Mimisbrunnr.info Guide: Getting Started with Germanic Mythology.

Consider This: A Little Background

A little background goes a long way when encountering some of the concepts and topics discussed in this resource. For example, since colloquial use of some key terms differs greatly from how they’re used by specialists who study these topics—academics—let’s get this out of the way: Like closely related genres such as legend and folklore and alongside other orally-transmitted genres like jokes, recipes, and proverbs, myth is a genre of folklore. While definitions of the term myth varies among folklorists, myth is generally considered to be a narrative about a deity or deities, and that’s how we’ll be using the term here, as well as the rest of the site.

Next, while we’ve kept it to a minimum, you’ll encounter words here and there in the guide below that may cause a little confusion. One of those terms is Germanic, which among linguists refers to a family of languages (and not the modern nation of Germany).

Linguists organize the Germanic languages into three different branches: North Germanic (including Old Norse, which developed into today’s Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic), West Germanic (including modern English, Dutch, and German), and East Germanic (such as Gothic, now extinct).

All of these languages stem from a mostly unrecorded and largely reconstructed language known as Proto-Germanic, which in term developed from Proto-Indo-European. Numerous other language families also developed from Proto-Indo-European, such as all the Romance languages (like Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese), Slavic languages (such as Russian and Ukrainian), and Hellenic (Greek). Some language families that you might not expect, such as the Indo-Aryan languages (like Iranian and Indian languages), also derive from Proto-Indo-European.

A tree diagram of the development of the Germanic languages, including Old Norse (red) and Modern English (white). Please note that while tree diagrams are useful for communicating general lines of descent (diachronic developments), they can be misleading for topics such as mutual influence (for example, looking at this readers would never known Old Norse had a major influence on the development of English). For showing on-the-ground change at a specific point in time, linguistics often employ a wave model (not pictured here).

Both folklore studies and linguistics provide key insight into Norse myth and its historical context because most Germanic languages contain references to Germanic mythology, the bodies of myths indigenous to the ancient Germanic peoples, the North Germanic extension of which being Norse mythology.

Comparison between mentions of Germanic myth among the Germanic languages, such as records of Norse myth (North Germanic) and Old High German Merseburg Incantations or the Old English Nine Herbs Charm (both West Germanic), provide important insight into how these deities were conceptualized. We’ll provide further information about these topics later in this brief introduction.

A depiction of the second Merseburg Incantation (MZ II). Art by Rim Bitik for Mimisbrunnr.info, 2019. Read more about the charm here.

Dive In: Retellings

The easiest way to get familiar with the tales that make up what we today call Norse mythology is by reading retellings. With retellings, readers skip the complications that come along with approaching translations of Old Norse material and engage with streamlined versions of the myth body’s most famous narratives.

Today’s readers have a few particularly excellent options at their disposal. Consider, for example, the retellings of notable authors Kevin Crossley-Hollandand Neil Gaiman. Skilled and experienced storytellers, both writers distill from the source material with respect and care.

Dig Deeper: Source Texts

Readers interested in digging deeper will be rewarded with complexities, mysteries, and imagery they won’t encounter in retellings. In terms of source texts, the most approachable is the Prose Edda, composed in the 13th century but rich with much earlier material. While Mimisbrunnr.info hosts a comparison of all academic English translations of the Prose Edda, we strongly recommend Anthony Faulkes’s translation, titled Edda and published by Everyman. Faulkes’s edition is the only available ‘complete’ translation, features extensive notes, and is very reasonably priced.

  • Faulkes, Anthony. 1987. Edda. Everyman’s Library.

Additionally, the Viking Society for Northern Research freely hosts the normalized Old Norse text Faulkes translates, complete with extensive notes, only adding to its value.

Once you’ve become familiar with the Prose Edda, you will want to turn to a collection of poems known to us today as the Poetic Edda. As its name implies, the Poetic Edda consist primarily of poems, and not the sort that rhyme. Here you’ll find an incredible collection of enigmatic, ancient, and often beautiful poems of a type known as alliterative verse.

New readers of the Poetic Edda find these poems notoriously difficult to parse and so, like specialists, you’ll benefit from editions featuring extensive notes. Mimisbrunnr.info hosts a comparison of English language translations of the Poetic Edda, allowing readers to get an idea of how greatly editions and translations of eddic poems can vary. However, we recommend that readers new to the Poetic Edda turn to scholar Carolyn Larrington’s 2014 revised translation. Larrington’s approachable translation remains widely available, low-cost, and attractive. Additionally, her translation features extensive footnotes filled with insight and a variety of rarely translated poems. These factors make Larrington’s revised edition the best entry point for readers new to the Poetic Edda on the market today.

  • Larrington, Carolyne. 2014. The Poetic Edda. Revised edition. Oxford World’s Classics. Publisher website.

You’ll also benefit from dipping a toe into the better known saga material. The Völsunga saga, greatly influencing notable artists and authors such as William Morris, Richard Wagner, and J. R. R. Tolkien,remains the most translated and celebrated saga from the Old Norse corpus. Readers can find an excellent edition (if not simply the outright best) of the saga available for free online, R.G. Finch’s translation (also presented by the Viking Society for Northern Research).

Bring Backup: Tertiary Sources

Every scholar worth her salt takes great joy in extensive notes, and for good reason: There’s often much more than meets the eye behind those ancient sentences. However, translators can only pack so many notes into an edition before a publisher’s editorial team has to put its collective foot down. Tertiary sources such as handbooks offer the solution, and highlight other rarely discussed items, such as runic inscriptions and comparative material. At Mimisbrunnr.info, we recommend two different handbooks (each with caveats):

  • Lindow, John. 2002. Handbook of Norse Mythology. Oxford University Press. Publisher website.John Lindow is a noted academic in the world of ancient Germanic studies, and his handbook features entries for many topics readers can expect to encounter when rooting through the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and related sources. Lindow’s approach is readable and straightforward, with limited injection of his own theories, making this a great handbook with which to start. On the other hand, Lindow’s handbook lacks some key entries (there’s no entry for “valkyrie”, for example) and is also out of date (for example, Lindow has some odd things to say about Heathenry, the modern revival of Germanic paganism—on this topic, see for example our recommendation of scholar Jennifer Snook’s book below).
  • Simek, Rudolf. 1996. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D. S. Brewer. Publisher website.Rudolf Simek is also a well-known academic in the field, and there’s nothing else out there quite like his handbook. The handbook is far more extensive than that of Lindow, casting a much wider net. However, Simek’s pet theories play a major role in many of his entries, and the handbook has not been updated with academic developments, such as archaeological finds, since at least the 1980s. The handbook also lacks an index (but we made one!) and Simek at times refers to absent entries, making it unwieldy to use. The English edition of the handbook is also a revised translation of Simek’s original German language editions, which results in sometimes notable translation issues. Nonetheless, many of the topics Simek covers here receive very little discussion in English language sources beyond this handbook, and this reason alone makes the handbook a necessity for serious researchers in ancient Germanic studies.

Beyond the handbook format, we recommend starting out with two (comparatively) recently published books by academics (but aimed at general audiences) that provide solid and reliable overviews of the topic of North Germanic mythology:

  • Abram, Christopher. 2011. Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Northmen.Continuum. Publisher website.
  • Larrington, Carolyne. 2017. The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes. Thames & Hudson. Publisher website.

And while readers may have been advised by, say, their high school teachers to avoid Wikipedia, English Wikipedia’s coverage of topics related to Norse Mythology remains generally excellent, and almost always draws from quality scholarship (see, for example, the site’s “valkyrie” entry for an example of first-rate coverage on a topic that Lindow’s handbook, for example, lacks). Best of all, Wikipedia entries remain absolutely free to access.

Embark!: Endless Possibilities

For an expansion of the present guide into Germanic myth more broadly, see Mimisbrunnr.info Guide: Getting Started with Germanic Mythology.

Unlike nearly all Indo-European branches outside of the Vedic and Classical World—and, in fact, most mythologies throughout the world—the ancient Germanic peoples left behind a large body of material from which we can draw today. As a result, readers who just can’t get enough Norse Mythology (like those of us at Mimisbrunnr.info!) will never run out of material to analyze, ponder, and from which to draw inspiration.

But where to go after the recommendations above? That’s up to you. It may be that a specific area of interest draws your attention, such as the North Germanic archaeological record, or perhaps you’re interested in pursuing your own translations of an Old Norse text. Maybe you hope to achieve a broader understanding of some of these topics on a more general level, and the greater Germanic record—or beyond—attracts you. Whatever the case, here’s a few of our recommendations to help you to follow more wild paths:

  • Mathias Nordvig (University of Colorado Boulder), Youtube channelAn instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Mathias Nordvig discusses all things Germanic paganism on his Youtube channel. Nordvig originally hails from Denmark and happens to also be a heathen, and readers will no doubt find his insight enlightening. You can read an interview with Nordvig for Six Questions here.
  • Jennifer Snook (Grinnell College), bookAmerican academic and heathen Jennifer Snook’s American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Temple University Press, 2015) focuses, as its title implies, on the American extension of Germanic Heathenry, the modern revival of historical Germanic paganism (you’ll remember from above that the Norse, like the Anglo-Saxons, were a Germanic language-speaking people). Readers interested in the development and application of this new religious movement will find this volume invaluable. You can read an interview with Snook for Six Questions here.
  • Rune Rasmussen (University of Uppsala), Nordic Animism, Youtube channel and calendarA religious studies PhD candidate at the University of Uppsala, Rune Rasmussen administers both the Nordic Animism Youtube channel and has also designed a unique calendar that emphasizes animism in Nordic religion (readers can find information about the calendar on his Youtube channel). Rune aims his efforts at a general audience, heathens, and anyone in between. Rasmussen’s insight, particularly from a comparative perspective, will no doubt interest readers of this website.
  • Eirik Storesund, Brute Norse, podcast and Youtube channelA Norwegian academic and writer based in New York, Eirik Storesund regularly publishes podcast episodes and Youtube videos aimed at a general audience under the name Brute Norse, where he discusses topics such as the folklore of moving islands. Storesund regularly features other scholars in the field, and the resulting podcasts make for educational and entertaining listening. You can read an interview with Storesund for Six Questions here.
  • Teresa Dröfn Njardvík (University of Iceland), bookScholar at the University of Iceland and an Ásatrúarfélagið member Teresa Dröfn Njardvík recently published a highly approachable, attractive, and altogether unique book on the development of the Icelandic runic alphabet, Runes: The Icelandic Book of Fuþark (The Icelandic Magic Company, 2018). While the book focuses specifically on the development of the Icelandic runic alphabet, its exceedingly attractive and approachable nature (Teresa authored the book with noted Icelandic graphic designer Sigi Odds) makes Runes a great place to start with the topic of runes in general. You can read an interview with Teresa for Six Questions here and readers will no doubt find Sigi’s other runic work interesting.

As briefly touched on above, sometimes it’s easy to forget that when we’re talking about Norse mythology, we’re talking about a topic—the genre of myth—that falls under the broad category of folklore studies, itself a subdiscipline of anthropology, the study of humankind. When approaching folklore topics, whether myth, legend, folktale, or some other genre, readers stand to benefit from learning about comparative material, including discussion about the topic of folklore in general or the specific beliefs, practices, and values of different peoples. Fortunately, there are some great sources out there today on the topic of folklore studies. Here are a few that Mimisbrunnr.info recommends:

  • Danica Boyce, Fair Folk Podcast
    Based out of Smithers, British Columbia, folklorist Danica Boyce always seems to go the extra mile in her fieldwork, as evident in the extensive effort and eye for detail she displays in her podcasts. Readers can dig into the Fair Folk Podcast here, where they will no doubt find her work on Northern Europe folklore to be particularly valuable.
  • Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran (Memorial University of Newfoundland), Folklore & Fiction, newsletterCanadian-American folklorist Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran authors an excellent and highly informative newsletter on the topic of folklore studies, which serves as a great point of introduction for readers new to folklore studies and provides insight valuable no doubt to practicing folklorists.

If you’re interested in chatting with others on the topic of Norse myth, consider the following:

  • r/AncientGermanic, RedditMimisbrunnr.info personnel operate a friendly, educational, and inclusive subreddit—a message board on Reddit—focused on Ancient Germanic studies, primarily with an academic-focus. Come on over!

Finally, if you’re interested in finding a place to start digging into related bodies of myths—such as Celtic, Greek, or Classical mythology—Mimisbrunnr.info recommends scholar Jaan Puhvel’s Comparative Mythology, which includes sections devoted numerous cultures connected to the ancient Germanic peoples:

  • Puhvel, Jaan. 1989. Comparative Mythology. Johns Hopkins University Press. Publisher website.
J. S. HOPKINS

Writer, Editor, & Researcher
Academic Publications: academia.edu
EditorRMN Newsletter (Department of Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki)
AdministratorMimisbrunnr.info

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

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