Reading visual art: 39 Major Norse deities

Hans Thoma (1839–1924), The Trek of the Gods to Valhalla (1880), oil on canvas, 74.3 × 62 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Deities from the classical Mediterranean civilisations appear in innumerable paintings. If you need a key to identify a Greek or Roman deity, try these: Goddesses and Gods.

Northern European cultures, particularly those of the Nordic region, have their own mythologies. Although they don’t feature in as many paintings, they’re by no means confined to the work of artists from that region. In this and tomorrow’s articles I show some of the better-known Norse deities.


Nicolai Abildgaard (1743–1809), Auðumbla (1790), oil, 37 × 45.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Norse mythology features creation myths, among which is the story of Auðumbla, the primaeval cow, shown in Nicolai Abildgaard’s painting of Auðumbla from 1790. The giant Ymir is seen suckling at the four udders of Auðumbla, as the cow is licking the figure of Búri out of the ice. The latter task took Auðumbla three days to accomplish, following which Búri was the first of the gods, father of Borr, and grandfather of Odin, Vili, and Ve.


He is perhaps the best-known of the Norse pantheon, also spread into Old English and Germanic mythologies, and living on in the day of the week Thursday. He famously wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, with which he forges thunderbolts, and is associated with thunderstorms, storms more generally, oak trees, the protection of mankind, and fertility. He’s the husband of the goddess Sif, but like Zeus/Jupiter has several extramarital relationships resulting in children.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Battle Between Thor and the Snake of Midgard (1788), oil on canvas, 131 × 91 cm, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Fuseli’s painting of The Battle Between Thor and the Snake of Midgard (1788) shows one of his many exploits: his battle with the monstrous Jörmungandr, a sea serpent born of the giant Angrboða and Loki.

This celebrated battle occurred when Thor went fishing with the giant Hymir. Thor baited a strong line with an ox head, which the serpent bit. When Thor pulled it from the water, Hymir shied away, as shown here. When Thor reached for his hammer to kill Jörmungandr, Hymir cut the line, letting the serpent escape, only to face a further battle with Thor at Ragnarök, the end of the world.

Mårten Eskil Winge (1825–1896), Thor’s Fight with the Giants (1872), oil on canvas, 26 x 32.7 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Mårten Eskil Winge’s painting of Thor’s Fight with the Giants (1872) shows a lesser-known battle, but provides greater detail, including the two goats drawing his chariot. In any other circumstances those goats might have looked rather feeble, but Winge makes them as ferocious as Thor himself.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911), Thor (Perkūnas) (1909), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Mikalojus Čiurlionis’s painting of Perkūnas (1909) shows the Lithuanian version of Thor, whose thunderbolts are particularly vivid.

Odin and Valhalla

Odin (or Woden) is also well known, and prominent in the Norse pantheon. Husband of the goddess Frigg, he has many sons including Thor. He’s associated with death, and is the overseer of Valhalla, where heroes go after death. Conversely, he’s also associated with healing, knowledge, and sorcery, and lives on in the day of the week Wednesday.

Hans Thoma (1839–1924), The Trek of the Gods to Valhalla (1880), oil on canvas, 74.3 × 62 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Thoma’s painting of The Trek of the Gods to Valhalla (1880) shows the group of gods known as the Æsir riding across the bridge Bifröst, which is formed from a burning rainbow to reach from Midgard, realm of humans, to Asgard, realm of the gods. The Æsir traditionally include Odin, Frigg, Thor, Baldr, and Týr. Recognisable on the bridge are Odin, holding his staff, with Frigg, and Thor with his hammer. At the left is probably Iðunn, holding an apple of her youth aloft. This is another event foretold as part of the process of Ragnarök.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Valkyrie (1864), oil on canvas, 263 × 203 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons.

Valhalla is also home to the Valkyries, fearsome women whose role is to select those who die in battle from those who will survive. Of those who die, the Valkries bring half to Odin’s Valhalla, where they become einherjar, preparing for the events of Ragnarök. The other half who die are taken to Freyja’s Fólkvangr, a field of afterlife. Peter Nicolai Arbo painted at least two different versions of a Valkyrie, that above from 1864, and that below from 1869.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Valkyrie (1869), oil on canvas, 243 x 194 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.
Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914), Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie) (1902), gouache and pastel on paper, 109.5 × 79 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Robert Hughes’ Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie) from 1902 is an erotic fantasy of a naked and unarmed woman riding a winged horse in the sky over a late Victorian city, such as London.


Freyja is the goddess of love, sex, beauty, and war, and custodian of the field of the afterlife, Fólkvangr, where she is seen in her hall, Sessrúmnir. She is the wife of the often-absent Óðr, by whom she has two daughters. Her chariot is drawn by two cats, often shown as black.

Nils Johan Olsson Blommér: Freja sökande sin make.NM 1198
Nils Jakob Blommér (1816-1853), Freyja Seeking her Husband (date not known), oil on canvas, 133 x 197 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Nationalmuseum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nils Jakob Blommér’s undated painting of Freyja Seeking her Husband shows the goddess in her chariot drawn by cats, wearing her golden necklace Brisingamen. As she rides through clouds she’s surrounded by winged cupids, borrowed from more Roman influences.

Brisingamen features in several of her myths, notably when Loki steals it from Freyja’s neck while she’s asleep, on the instructions of Odin. It falls to the god Heimdall to recover the necklace and return it to its owner.

Nils Jakob Blommér (1816-1853), Heimdall and Freyja (sketch) (date not known), oil on canvas, 37.5 x 30 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Nationalmuseum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Blommér’s undated sketch of Heimdall and Freyja seems to be an early idea for telling this story, which he then developed into his finished painting below.

Nils Jakob Blommér (1816-1853), Heimdall returns Brisingamen to Freyja (1846), oil on canvas, 89 x 66.5 cm, Malmö konstmuseum, Malmö, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Heimdall returns Brisingamen to Freyja (1846), Heimdall keeps watch for invaders and the start of Ragnarök, and here wears his horn Gjallarhorn, with which he announces events. He and Loki are antagonists, and are foretold to kill one another during Ragnarök.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), Freya (1901), oil on canvas, 61 × 45.5 cm, Zornsamlingarna, Mora, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Anders Zorn’s unconventional painting of Freya was made in 1901 as a gift for Samuel Roosevelt, cousin of the US President. Her waist-length hair sweeps down over her right arm, as she lounges in her throne in Sessrúmnir. She holds a chalice in her left hand, with a black cat by her feet.


Loki is a shape-shifting god known for the mischievous or malicious tricks and pranks he plays on other deities. He’s the husband of Sigyn, but is also the father of the sea serpent Jörmungandr, and, when he had assumed the form of a mare, the mother of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), Loki and Sigyn (1810), oil on canvas, 134 x 162 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s painting of Loki and Sigyn from 1810 shows Loki’s fate. He engineered the death of Baldr, for which he was bound by Váli using the entrails of one of his sons. A serpent was then placed above him, to drip venom which Sigyn collects in a bowl. When she has to empty that bowl, venom drips onto Loki, causing him excruciating pain and triggering earthquakes.


Baldr is a son of Odin, and brother to Thor and Váli.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), The Death of Baldr (1817), oil on canvas, 142 x 178.3 cm, Kunstakademiet, Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Baldr became depressed by dreams of his own death. His mother Frigg therefore made everything on earth vow that it wouldn’t hurt Baldr, but the mistletoe refused. Loki made himself a magical spear from the mistletoe, and took it to a place where the other gods were amusing themselves by throwing objects at Baldr, as their missiles simply bounced off without harming him as a consequence of the vows.

Loki gave his mistletoe spear to Baldr’s brother Höðr, who was blind. When Höðr threw the spear at Baldr, it killed him. That’s the scene Eckersberg so carefully depicts in The Death of Baldr from 1817. Baldr lies dead in the foreground, with Höðr holding his arms out at the left. Behind him is Loki, barely concealing his mirth. Odin sits in the throne, with Thor to the right. Behind is the immense tree Yggdrasil, which connects the nine worlds, and at its foot are the three Norns, subjects of the next article covering minor deities and the Wild Hunt.