As far as we know, the Vikings never formulated their views on the divine in the abstract, conceptual language of theology or philosophy. Instead, they used the concrete imagery and narrative form of myth to portray divinity as they saw it. As unique and powerful as those mythical portrayals are, they leave us wondering how the Vikings perceived divinity as such – in other words, what it means to be a god, not merely what specific gods do and have done.
Luckily, we can answer that question, at least to some degree. For while the Norse have left us no explicit theology, there is an implicit theology in those very myths. Formulating a Norse theology is therefore a matter of teasing out the theological implications of the depictions of the gods in the myths.
Before we get to the specifically Norse conception of divinity, let’s define what we’re talking about in the first place. While divinity is notoriously impossible to adequately express in words of any sort – mythical, theological, or otherwise – some descriptions come much closer to the mark than others.
The best description of the divine to date is surely the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto’s classic 1917 book The Idea of the Holy. For Otto, the divine – or, to use his preferred term, the numinous – is something that presents itself as being “wholly other” than the things that we experience in our everyday, mundane lives. It seems to come from a different plane of existence altogether. Confronted with it, one experiences oneself as being “but dust and ashes,” utterly insignificant and inconsequential in the face of something immeasurably greater. It has a majestic, daunting, even terrifying aspect, which Otto calls the mysterium tremendum (“awe-inspiring mystery”), as well as a blissful, comforting side, which he calls the mysterium fascinosum (“alluring mystery”) or simply fascinans.
The Norse gods were – in addition to all of the other things they were – images of this universal, inscrutable force that were drawn from the particulars of the Viking world, which made them especially fitting ways of imagining and connecting with the divine in that time and place.
Some deities represented specific aspects of the numinous more than other aspects. For example, Odin, the mighty but devious chieftain who ruled through arcane wisdom and magical power, would have naturally evoked the sublime but frightening side of the divine. Tyr or Freya, by contrast, were much more straightforwardly beneficent, prosocial, and comforting, which made them particularly effective images of the “lighter” side of the numinous.
The Pillars of the Cosmos
The most widely-used Old Norse word for “god” was áss (pronounced “OWS”), or æsir (pronounced “EYE-seer”) in the plural (“gods”). Its corresponding feminine form for “goddess” was ásynja (pronounced “ow-SIN-ya”), or ásynjur (pronounced “ow-SIN-yur”) in the plural (“goddesses”). When referred to as a collective that included both gods and goddesses, the masculine plural æsir was used. These words are all derived from one of two Proto-Germanic roots: *ansaz, “pole, beam, rafter,” or *ansuz, “life, vitality.”
This powerfully suggests that the Vikings thought of their gods as the “poles” or “vital forces” that held together and sustained the cosmos and its order.
And, indeed, this is exactly what we find in their myths. The gods were very much a part of the cosmos rather than beings who merely manipulated it from the outside. When the cosmos arose, they arose with it as part of the same process. And when the cosmos will fall, as the Norse believed it would at Ragnarok, the gods will fall with it.
But even though the gods were part of the cosmos, they weren’t just ordinary members of it. The structure of the cosmos was seen as analogous to the Norse social hierarchy, with the gods and goddesses as the rulers (Old Norse regin, pronounced roughly “RAY-gen,” another common word for the gods) who established and enforced the order of the cosmic system as a whole, to which any and all other inhabitants of the cosmos were subject.
The gods reigned over other beings, but just as any medieval ruler was obligated to protect his or her people from foreign aggressors, so too were the gods obligated to protect the cosmos from the forces of chaos – the giants – who wished to destroy it.
Language, myth, and social practice all complemented and reinforced each other here, which points to this having been one of the most central parts of the implicit Norse theology.
There Was No Norse “Supreme Being”
While the power of the Norse gods was extreme, it wasn’t total. There was no “supreme being” in the Norse religion. Instead, even the gods were subject to limitations. These limitations basically fell into two categories.
First, since the Vikings worshiped many gods, each of which had a personality and role distinct from the others, no one deity possessed all of the powers that were attributed to the gods as a whole. Some gods were better warriors than others; some were wiser than others; some were more skilled than others at blessing lands, crops, livestock, and people with prosperity and fertility; and so forth.
Perhaps the most telling example of this is Odin, who was famed for his almost unmatched knowledge and wisdom. Yet even he had to go on numerous trying quests to learn that lore; it wasn’t simply innate within him. (See, for example, the tales of Odin’s Discovery of the Runes, Why Odin Is One-Eyed, and The Mead of Poetry.)
The second way in which the gods’ power was limited was that even they couldn’t escape being subject to fate. They, too, were doomed to have various misfortunes befall them, to suffer, and ultimately, at Ragnarok – Old Norse Ragnarök, “Final Fate of the Gods” – to die.