A myth, says the Oxford English Dictionary profoundly, is 'a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena'; it adds more cheerfully that the word is often used vaguely 'to include any narrative having fictitious elements'. In this book I use 'myth' neither as loosely as in the second of these definitions nor as rigorously as in the first. Certainly most of the tales retold here deal with supernatural persons and actions, and so provide a guide to pagan Norse thinking as reported by medieval writers. But not all the stories are purely fictitious. Some of those in the final chapter, treating of battle, murder and sudden death in a heroic society, have an origin in historical event, though distant. However, most chapters contain myths of the gods and goddesses of pagan Viking Scandinavia. Some of these clearly embody ideas about natural phenomena (and hence, I suppose, the reason for their creation); these are likely to appeal to readers engaged in modern cults of mysticism. Other stories may also have done this, but they are opaque, and I, not being an anthropologist or folklorist, can only guess at what the ideas were. Others again look to us now like tales told for pleasure, and that is presumably what most modern readers will take them as.
From the records that survive it is clear that the Norsemen had many gods and goddesses. Some of them are hardly known to us, as Ull, splendid archer, ski-champion and fighter, and Var, the goddess 'who takes note of oaths and specific agreements made between men and women... and wreaks vengeance on people who break them'. Such deities are little more than names to modern readers, though in their day they, like their fellow-gods, may have had myths told of them. Inevitably, however, the body of this book records the myths of the great gods and goddesses of Scandinavia, though we should always keep in mind that what survives may be only a small, and is certainly a random, sample of what once existed.
Best known are the gods of the race of Aesir, one of the two main groups of gods in the Norse pantheon. Leading them is Odin, universal father, god of poetic inspiration, of mystery and magic, patron of warriors. He was married to Frigg, goddess who knows the fates of all men. Other gods are often referred to as Odin's children. First is Thor, a warrior god, defender of the Aesir against their natural enemies, the giants. He married Sif about whom little is known save that her hair was of gold. Other sons of Odin are Bragi, god of eloquence and poetry, married to the important goddess Idunn who kept the apples of eternal youth; and the handsome but unfortunate Baldr, married to Nanna, and who was killed by accident by the blind god Hod. Also defined as Odin's son is Tyr, the brave and wise god of war who lost his hand in helping to fetter the dread wolf Fenrir. A more mysterious figure is Heimdall, watchman and herald of the final battle that ends the life of the gods in this world. He is the foe of Loki, a baffling figure, part god and part demon, who was son of a giant Farbauti, and married to the devoted Sigyn. However, he also had issue by a giantess Angrboda, and theyturned out to be sinister indeed: the wolf Fenrir, the World Serpent Iormungand and the supernatural creature who presided over the other world, Hel.
Side by side with the Aesir live a group of gods of the race of Vanir, deities of fertility and wealth. These are Niord, Freyr and Freyia. Niord is god of seafaring, fishing and riches. He married a giantess Skadi, but they could not agree. Niord's children are the twins Freyr and Freyia, who also mated together. Freyr married a giantess Gerd, and Freyia a character called Od. Freyr and Freyia control fertility and produce.
There are also a number of minor deities, Hoenir, Kvasir, Gefion, Vali, Vili, Ve, Vidar and so on, as well as a variety of other supernatural creatures below the rank of gods: dwarfs, elves, norns, witches, valkyries. But the gods' greatest enemies are the iotnar (singular iotunn), a word usually translated 'giants'; for these ancient, ugly, terrible and usually ill-intentioned creatures something like 'demons' or 'trolls' would be equally apposite.
In the translations in this book I have sought to be fluent rather than faithful to the original in every detail. This is particularly the case in the verse translations, where I have tried to make sense while keeping roughly to the lineation of the primary texts. There will always be some arbitrariness in rendering Old Norse names (and other words) in modern English prose, and I admit this in the present work. In the main, if I give a name or word in italics, it will be in the 'standard' Old Norse/Icelandic form. This will sometimes contain unusual letter forms, of which the most important are þ and [edh] which Norse uses for the various sounds that modern English represents by th. Otherwise, if the name is in Roman in continuous prose, it will be an adaptation of the standard form, without inflexional ending or accent and perhaps with some adaptation like d for [edh]: as Odin in the place of Ó[edh]inn. This will raise occasional problems when I quote Latinised forms, as Othinus instead of Odin, or Frothi for Frodi (Fró[edh]i). Occasionally I have completely anglicised a name or nickname: it seems absurd, for instance, to speak of Eirik blodox (Eiríkr blóþøx) rather than Eric Bloodaxe.