Six ancient Norse myths that are still relevant today

According to a new book, Norse legends have influenced culture and current ideas, from Marvel’s Thor to Game of Thrones and Neil Gaiman.

Mark Twain, a famous American writer, once said: “There is no such thing as a novel concept. We simply combine a variety of old ideas in a mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn, and they come up with new and unusual combinations.” This is especially true in the case of storytelling. I am a novelist and creative writing instructor. The premise that there are seven basic plots (as outlined in Christopher Booker’s book of the same name) holds sway in this discipline.

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Our stories reflect who we are as individuals and as societies at any given time. It’s reassuring to read stories from centuries ago and discover that, while times change, human instincts and emotions remain more constant and universal. The joy of reading is communing with other people through the stories they have left behind – but also recognising something of ourselves in their worlds.

Carolyne Larrington, an Oxford University professor, has written a new book called The Norse Myths That Shape the Way We Think, which explores the contemporary resonances of Norse myths and their reimagining in popular culture. “The Norse myths are significant because they take place in a landscape that is familiar to people in the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world.” “We recognise them as similar to our own,” Professor Larrington tells BBC Culture. “And, unlike Greek and Roman myths, they depict a finite world. Its people are marching towards the end of time. So they have a pessimistic tone that resonates in a more secular world.”

Despite this, they do not lack hope or illumination. These ancient Nordic myths underpin many of the ways we think today, from an elegiac exploration of the environment to musings on masculinity and a reckoning with existence.

1 Green myth

Whereas biblical texts and other legends attributed floods, plagues, and pestilence to God’s or the gods’ wrath, the story of Yggdrasill resonates more in a world aware of man’s impact. Yggdrasill, a version of the tree of life, is at the centre of the Old Norse universe. Its branches reach into the heavens, while its roots reach into the realms of the dead and frost giants. The animals that inhabit it both thrive and harm it. When the end of the world arrives, the tree groans and totters, but we don’t know if it will fall.

“Yggdrasill is a model for our environment that we would do well to consider,” Larrington says. “It represents a natural world that gives but cannot be taken for granted: a symbiotic system that may – or may not – withstand all the depredations inflicted on it by humanity.”

The implicit warning is especially relevant now, given that Yggdrasill is an ash tree, not just any tree. “It was silver-grey,” Neil Gaiman writes in his mythic 2001 novel American Gods. “Spectral yet completely real.” You only need to walk through one of the many forests around the world that have recently been ravaged by ash dieback disease to see vast ghostly clearings where perfectly real silver-grey trees once stood.

2 Myth of undying fame

Valhalla (or Valhll) is a magnificent hall ruled by the god Odin, where fallen warriors coexist with kings and other legendary figures. They will be summoned to fight the Jotnar when Ragnarök (the end of the world) arrives (giants). It’s a hall of fame for a heroic society, a place where those who died in battle are remembered. Valhalla has also survived.

Richard Wagner, Hunter S Thompson, Elton John and Led Zeppelin all refer to Valhalla in their work

Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria commissioned the construction of a Valhalla temple near Regensburg, Germany, in 1830. Pan-Germanic heroes were honoured here in order to strengthen the German unification project. Around the same time, August Smith established a Valhalla museum at Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly to house shipwreck figureheads. The mythical hall of fame is also depicted in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, numerous paintings, and Hunter S Thompson’s writing. Valhalla is mentioned in songs by Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull.

“In pre-Christian societies, particularly Germanic societies, the only way to survive after death is to achieve fame,” Professor Larrington explains, explaining the myth’s enduring appeal. “People cling to the idea of being famous and impressing the world in some way now that there is less cultural confidence in the idea of life after death. Valhalla represents our 15 minutes of fame.”

3 Myth of the end

Ragnarök (the gods’ doom) is the Norse end of the world, which is clearly echoed in the Christian Armageddon. Ragnarök in Norse mythology culminates in a final battle between gods, demons, and giants, which results in the death of the gods. The world comes to an end in fire and ice.

“Winter is Coming” by George R.R. Martin. The saying in Game of Thrones is House Stark’s motto (it is located in the north of Westeros and is frequently hit hardest by cold winters), but it is also a general warning that bad things will happen. Ragnarök is also a popular theme in Scandinavian death metal, also known as Viking Metal, which is inspired by Norse mythology. The older generation of gods will be destroyed in Ragnarök. “There is an inevitability to this,” Larrington writes in her book. “Even Valhalla’s warriors cannot defeat the cosmic forces. The world will rise again after this mythical ending. But the question is whether it will be an improvement over the old.” Author AS Byatt decides that the world will not return in her retelling of the myth, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, while writer Neil Gaiman finds echoes of Animal Farm in his book Norse Mythology. The same moves are made by the next generation of gods, and history repeats itself. Ragnarök exists in both the future and the past.