In the first of these two articles, I looked at some paintings of the major deities in the Norse pantheon, and the myths associated with them. This article continues with some of the less well-known deities and other figures, and concludes with a myth which evolved from Norse sources and grew into one of the great stories of Northern Europe.
The Norns, or Nornir, are curiously close to the classical Mediterranean Fates, and deeply embedded even in more modern narratives – such as Shakespeare’s three witches in his play Macbeth, modern Celtic-based religion, and Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (1988).
In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, they are named as Urðr (or Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. Among the many stories involving them, their common role is to draw water from the Well of Urðr (Fate), which they pour over the immense ash tree of Yggdrasil, so that its branches will not decay. They rule the destiny of both the gods in Asgard, and of humans in Midgard.
Johan Ludwig Lund’s The Norns of Norse Mythology, from about 1844, is atypical in that it shows one Norn with wings. They are here symbolically equipped with a book, containing the record of fate, a balance to weigh people’s lives with, and a wooden measuring stick. Their names are given in the Runes below.
Alois Delug’s evocative painting of The Norns from 1895 shows them at the foot of Yggdrasil handling the thread of fate, a reference to the more southern Fates.
Like most mythologies, the Norse pantheon has numerous figures which are too minor to merit deity, and are mere personifications of less tangible things in life. Peter Nicolai Arbo provides fine paintings showing two of the better-known personifications of day and night.
Arbo’s Dagr (1874) shows the Norse deity of the day (as opposed to night), the son of the god Dellingr, and the rider of the bright-maned horse Skinfaxi. Together they bring day and its light to mankind, much in the way that Apollo’s sun chariot crossed the sky for the Mediterranean civilisations, only here it is a burning brand which makes the light.
Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887) shows the dark side, the night. Nótt is given as the daughter of Nörvi, whose third marriage was to Dellingr, their son being Dagr.
There are many other deities in the Norse pantheon, most of whom have not yet been shown in paintings (as opposed to illustrations intended to accompany texts of the Eddas, Sagas, etc.). This is compounded by the confounding of the pantheon and its deities with legendary heroes and other semi-historical figures, just as in Mediterranean myth (Troy, Odysseus, Aeneas, and many others).
Lorenz Frølich’s magnificent undated painting of Gefjon Ploughs the Earth in Sweden, from the latter half of the nineteenth century, shows this goddess associated with ploughing. She is also associated with foreknowledge and virginity, and myths involve her with two legendary kings, Gylfi of Sweden, and Skjöldr of Denmark.
In the story of Gylfaginning, Gefjon tricks Gylfi, king of Sweden, and removes a chunk of his country, which she transports to Denmark to form the island of Sjælland (Zealand).
Nils Blommér’s painting of Idun and Brage (1846) shows two of the more interesting minor deities. Bragi is the skaldic (Viking court) god of poetry, renowned for his wisdom and fluent speech. He sits playing a harp, another parallel with southern myths, while his wife Iðunn stands behind, holding the apples of her youth – her normal associations as a goddess.
Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Hervör’s Death (1880) shows this shieldmaiden – who in many respects resembles a Valkyrie in her dress – dying in an inheritance conflict. She had been leading an army against an assault of a much larger army of Huns. The conflict arose between her brothers, Hlöd and Angantýr, and it has been suggested that the men shown represent her foster father Ormar, and brother Angantýr. This appears to be a variation on the accounts of the Poetic Edda, where she is mourned by those men in Árheimar rather than on the battlefield as shown.
The Wild Hunt
This takes us beyond Norse myth, to a folk myth which extends across much of Northern, Western, and Central Europe, and was first documented fully by Jacob Grimm. In this, a supernatural group of hunters pass an observer, in wild pursuit of unseen quarry. The hunters can be spirits of the dead, or mythical figures such as elves, fairies, or Valkyrie-like horsewomen/men.
The leader of this wild hunt is often an Odin/Woden-like individual, although different cultures vary this by citing semi-historical or legendary heroes. When people see the Wild Hunt pass by, it is supposed to be the harbinger of some catastrophe, or a portent of the death of those who witness it.
Peter Nicolai Arbo’s epic Åsgårdsreien (Åsgård’s Ride, The Wild Hunt) (1872) is a disturbingly apocalyptic vision rooted in Norse myth, apparently involving Valkyries and dead heroes from Valhalla. They are snatching up naked young women, to carry off on their black horses: all very Ragnarök.
Franz von Stuck’s Wild Hunt (1899) appears to have been influenced by Lovis Corinth, and teems with furious figures, expressions, and action drawn from a gamut of mythologies. In the foreground is a Gorgon, perhaps Medusa who was later beheaded by Perseus, with her scalpful of snakes. Behind is a bearded man riding a white charger, perhaps Odin himself on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Further into the background are others on horseback, including a nude woman who is screaming with her mouth wide open.
Rich and fascinating as the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies are, I think that we could also do with some more paintings of Norse myths, don’t you?