The Norse World
In Beowulf, many beliefs had to do with Norse mythology, from the way they buried their dead to their thoughts on war and violence. In Norse mythology, a person?s honor depends on the way they die; a hero proves himself by dying while fighting the forces of evil, not by conquering it. (Hamilton, 444). Beowulf becomes a hero by dying while fighting the dragon. In most religions, Mythology is used to explain the world in which a person lives. For the Anglo-Saxons, the world was filled with war and violence. Norse mythology explains the world, and justifies the kind of people that they are. The gods and goddesses live in a hostile environment filled with war and violence. As Yves Cohat said, “Viking gods (Norse Gods), like the individuals who created them, were violent, ardent, and passionate. They displayed the qualities the Vikings valued in themselves-brutality, anger, lust, humor, strength and guile.” (Cohat, 105). Inevitably the whole religion as well as the people who practiced it are doomed to destruction.
The gods were created by their worshipers, and were therefore very much like the Norsemen. The gods and humans had very close relations and were even thought of as companions (Cohat 10). No one had complete control over the other. If a god did not perform to a worshipers expectation, then the human would not hold back, but turn away from the god, abuse him, or even kill the priest involved! This made the gods even more like the humans; they had to worry about pleasing the people who worshiped them, and what might happen if they did not perform to expectation.
In the Norse pantheon, Odin is the god of war and knowledge. He is the head god, and leader of everyone. He is the wisest of all the gods (http://www.anglo-saxon). On each shoulder sat a raven, one named Thought (Hugin) and the other Memory (Munin). All day they would fly around gaining knowledge, and then came back to Odin reciting everything they had come across. He did anything to obtain knowledge; once in exchange for knowledge, he gave one of his eyes to the giant Mimir. Human sacrifices were also part of his worshiping. “It was believed that the god once hung on a gallows, wounded with the thrust of a spear, and thus gained wisdom.” (http:/www.angol-saxon). This was after the crucifixion of Christ, and much of this belief probably came from the Christian religion. So instead of Odin hanging, some of his worshipers were hung, and he or one of his ravens would go and seek the man’s knowledge.
Thor was the favorite god of the people, and was most like them. He was also extremely strong (Davidson, 59). His prize possession was his hammer, Mojollnir, which he would use against enemies. His other possessions consisted of a belt which made him stronger when it was worn; his gloves, which allowed him to crush rocks, and his chariot lead by goats. He was so important to the people because he would protect them form evil. He would ride across the sky with his hammer in his chariot, protecting everyone from giants, monsters and other enemies.
Thor?s hammer was the most important treasure: it was used to protect the people and gods against their enemies. The hammer was made of gold, and the only flaw was in the handle; it was slightly unfinished, and a bit too short. In the myth, the hammer was given to Thor by his enemy Loki. In a mischievous act, Loki had cut off the hair of Sif, Thor?s wife (Davidson 67). So to spare his own life, Loki repaid Thor by finding two dwarfs to make Sif new hair from gold. He also had them make three treasures, one for Odin, one for Freyn, and the hammer for Thor. The hammer was made to be thrown at a particular item, hit it, and return the owner?s hand. Still despising Thor, Loki tried to ruin the dwarf’s work by stinging him in the eye. The dwarf was not able to finish the handle of the hammer, and it was left short. “In spite of this, (the shortened handle) it was declared by the gods to be the finest of all the treasures.” (Davidson 67).
Gods were always battling other gods and enemies; even from the creation story, gods were portrayed as violent. In this section of the creation story, Odin and his brothers were angry with the frost giants, and almost succeeded in destroying the entire race:
“Odin and his two brothers quarreled with the old giant Ymir and after a great battle they killed him. When he fell, hacked to pieces, so much blood flooded form his body that all his giant family was drowned? The sons of Bor went to work on Ymir?s body. They pounded, kneaded, chopped and slashed his tremendous corpse, pushing and pulling his flesh this way and that as though it were clay until they were satisfied.” (Branston 20)
This is what the worshipers of these gods believed in. Even from the beginning of their religion, they gave elaborate descriptions of gods killing enemies.
The gods were always threatened by their enemies and other forces. In Norse mythology, there are nine separate worlds (Cohat 113). Asgard is the realm of the gods and goddesses, and Midgard is the realm of the humans. Many of the other realms are threatening to Midgard; homes of giants, serpents, and other enemies are always ready to attack Midgard. The realm that supports the entire world is Utgard; it is held by a serpent who, if let free, will destroy the entire universe. Gods and goddesses are not genuinely immortal; they can die, and will die just like other humans. The gods know that they will die, and the Ragnarok (the prediction of the end of the world) will eventually come. Odin?s job is to gain as much knowledge as possible, and prolong the destruction of the world (Hamilton, 455).
The Ragnarok, the destruction of the world, is a day everyone dreads. The signs that it will be coming are: first there will be a world war, masses of people killing friends, neighbors, and even family members. Next will be the Fimbul winter, where there will be three winters in a row, with no summer in between. Loki and Fennir, (evil wolves who were bound because of their size and evilness) will break free and prepare to fight the gods. They will gather with an army form the Hel realm, the serpent and many other evil forces. Odin, Thor and many other gods will also prepare to fight. A huge battle will take place; Odin will charge at the wolf, but will be swallowed whole. Thor will kill the serpent, but will step back and die himself, as Beowulf did. These battles will continue, until all of the gods parish, and Surt is the only one left. He will burn the entire world, until the earth, heaven and universe disappear, and everything is as it was in the beginning. (Branston, 1 44-148)
The gods are ruling a lost cause; they are fighting for a world that is doomed to destruction. Even though they know they will lose in the end, they continue to fight evil, and like their people, do so to their death.
Many episodes in Beowulf can be compared to Norse myths. They have many of the same ideas. In the Ragnarok, the fight between Thor and the mudguard serpent resembles the fight between Beowulf and the dragon (Orchard 16). In both instances, the hero is able to see the victory, and feel pride before dying. Thor knows he will die because no one is destined to survive the Ragnarok, yet he fights for his people until the end. Beowulf goes through the same situation; he is now old, and in no where near the condition that he used to be in, yet he peruses the dragon for his people, and fights until the end.
Another instance in Beowulf occurs during the boat burial of King Scyld. The king was placed on a boat with many treasures, jewels and weapons, and left to sail back to where he came from before he ruled their land. It has many parallels to the burial rights used for the Norsemen (Davidson 73). The Norse gave important leaders or heroes impressive burials after death, much like the one in Beowulf.
Fighting and war are most important in Norse mythology. Since Odin is the head god, it is obvious that he also be the god of war, showing what their people warship and believe in most. Their religion begins and ends with violence, from the creation story to the death of all living creatures. Not just the myths of the gods, but the actual gods are very similar to the people who created them. These hostile gods were the humans only reasoning as to why the world was so harsh and inevitably a world that would end with the death of all living creatures.