the Germanic tribes and the Norsemen

Lecture 17 Barbarians: the Germanic tribes and the Norsemen

The Germanic and the Norse mythologies are very similar and they reflect the harsh environment and the fierce fighters that these people were. These are the people that the Romans called barbarians; that’s where the word comes from. The very sophisticated Romans feared the barbarians, who were actually able to bring down the entire Roman Empire. These are the Vikings, a different group, because they not only were able to trade and went from Scandinavian countries all the way down to North Africa and had trading ventures with the Muslim states, but at the same time they were pillaging the coastlines of Europe and the British Isles. They had settled Iceland. You talk about global warming. At the time that the Vikings were heading out, Greenland was actually green and for 75 years, the Vikings had established a community there in this very rich environment until the ice returned. An entire village is caught under 20, 30, 40, 50 feet of snow and is now being excavated. The Vikings even went further on, using Greenland as a base probably, and went to Nova Scotia or in that area and established communities there. These were a wide ranging people who believed that the gods were there as protectors and the gods were there as helpers, but when it came down to brass tacks, these people believed that a person controlled his own destiny. You tried to do your best, you asked for help, but then you play the cards, the hand, that you are dealt.

Another interesting side note about Viking culture is that generally in all the Germanic tribes, and they were mostly tribes and clans, the succession of leader went to the strongest, the fittest, and the bravest. But, when some of the Vikings became extremely wealthy with their trading particularly with the Muslims in North Africa, they wanted to keep that money within their own families, so they changed the succession so that it went from father to son, rather than strongest to strongest. It is interesting to note that in some of these clans where the succession had changed, the entire culture fell apart within a couple of generations.

Even our days of the week remind us of the Norse gods. For instance, Thor’s Day, Thursday. Thor was the god of thunder, and the most powerful god. It is interesting that he was not the leader of the family of gods, but by far the most powerful one. He had a magic hammer, Mjollnir, that every time he threw it, it would return to him. Freya’s Day, Friday. Freya being the goddess of fertility and love, the most beautiful of all the goddesses. And Wodin’s Day, Wednesday. Wodin is also known as Odin, depending on the pronunciation and spelling of the locality where it comes from. Odin was actually the leader of the gods, the one who was able to keep the family, the loose confederation, of the gods together. He was a one-eyed god and it is not often that we have the main god in a mythology being what one would call deformed. But in this case he actually gave up one of his eyes, he ripped out his own eye, and gave it up in order to gain more wisdom, so he is the wisest of all the gods.

Like the Celtic literature, the preservation of these myths is only due to the isolation of an area, in this case, Iceland. Most of the myths and legends and sagas from the Germanic people come to us piecemeal, except for Iceland. Particularly one man, Snorri Sturleson in the 13th century, wanted to make sure that they didn’t lose all the old stories, the eddas. So he wrote down all the myths that he knew and all the myths that others had known, and put it together in a book. So most of our knowledge about Norse mythology comes from this one man, Snorri Sturleson.

There are two basic groups of gods within Norse mythology, the Aesir, the gods of the sky, and the Vanir, the gods of the earth. At one point in the mythology these two sets of gods were fighting each other and it was very destructive to the gods, the earth and the universe due to the great fighting that was going on. But is Odin that established a peace between the two, and in a kind of brilliant formulation, he had some of the gods from Aesir move to Vanir, and vice versa. That way, they were able to maintain the peace.

Another interesting part of the mythology is that a tree is the actual center of the universe. If you look at the environment, this very harsh and bleak environment, is generally heavily wooded. Trees are very important, especially the ash tree. In the myth, the world tree, Yggdrasil, is rather a symbol of universality and the interconnectedness of all things, since its roots go all the way down to the underworld, and its branches reach up into the heavens, and all things are connected to this one tree. And even at the end of the entire universe, at that moment, the world tree is going to protect life so that it can become once again renewed, and a new universe can be constructed.

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