The Men of the North
and the Power of Norse Paganism (Part I)

THE NORSE In the Eddas, both the Younger and the Elder, the Gods are strong and definitive beings of staggering power and divine splendor. They embody various aspects of the […]

THE NORSE

In the Eddas, both the Younger and the Elder, the Gods are strong and definitive beings of staggering power and divine splendor. They embody various aspects of the world and our lives, through imagery pertaining to loyalty, honor, or the acceptance of difficulty; also joy and revelry in bountiful times, while in lean times determination and resolve. The various deities of Asgard and Vanaheim embody these tenets to the point of stubbornness in some situations. For instance, Thor is a being both bold and strong, yet quick to anger and susceptible to being goaded; Týr stalwart and efficient, and yet put upon most severely in the binding of Fenrir. There are many more Gods in the pantheon and I will touch on this more in the next part of this article, but for now we shall focus more on the aspects of the Gods that the men we now call Norse embodied in their everyday lives.

A man in ancient Norse Pagan society was more than just a warrior, although excellent warriors they were. Aside from being very knowledgeable in combat their role was also that of a land-owner, a provider of goods or perhaps a priest of the community. Some Norsemen were thoroughgoing men of war and consequently did not have time for other things, as there was an abundance of conflict in their world lasting for their entire known history. Clans fought each other and fought abroad often — for spoils or conquest usually, but the inter-clan blood feud was not an uncommon occurrence either. These conflicts led to immense battles and there were sagas written of legendary Viking warriors who often held off an impossible amount of enemies in small numbers and, in some stories, completely alone.

Aside from their fearsome resolve in battle and their various roles in society, Norsemen were intensely vested in their religion. Their Gods were the embodied spark of the divine, and that spark lives in all things, including men, who claim their descent from the Gods. By being like the Gods and upholding their teachings, a man could become God-like. A man of immense strength was ascribed the favor of Thor or a man of immense knowledge was thought to walk with Odin, the All-Father himself. Those who were exceptional at mediation or resolving issues were thought to be favored by Týr or Heimdall. Women who were very fertile were blessed by Freyja. Females of exceptional beauty were beloved of Sif.

Great warriors and women of legendary worth are written of in sagas, as the Gods themselves recorded their own exploits. It is a true honor to be remembered in festive song and story by those who knew you and, later, by those who revere you for being who you were and nothing else. This practice is very much minimalized in our modern world, where individual deeds seems to rarely be noticed let alone exalted by anyone other than your immediate family past the death of the individual who carried them out. The Men of the North knew that the strength of a great man was worthy of notice, that his blood and his upbringing were a direct cause of his greatness. This is why lines of lords and kings in their culture were from continuous lines of venerable descent.

Aside from those on a throne or a seat of power, all of the people of the Norse world tracked their bloodlines in some way or other. It was important to know where you came from and who came before you, as they were a link to the past and the cause of your current station. Even a farmer could track back his line at least five or six generations to various men of means and great warriors, and the fact that he was now in agriculture instead of battle wasn’t shameful as his line had fought many great battles before him and brought the family honor. Women descended from strong lines were likewise proud and strong as their father’s fathers has also brought them honor through battle and great deeds. To marry into a family of strength and honor was an eminently good thing and was heartily encouraged. Linking together the two lines would only produce stronger progeny and further the greatness of the kin.

Along with ensuring the blood of your own immediate family, it was also important to maintain the strength of your wider clan. Weak marriages were looked down upon as they brought nothing beautiful, useful or salutary to the community. A man considered weak or incompetent should not have children, as he would pass down his weakness to them and weaken the line of the mother as well. Often, a man who had definitively shown he was of no worth or substance was sent away so as not to shame his people further; this applied to women as well, since the Norse were, in many ways, much closer to a gender parity in public life than other, more southerly civilizations, e.g. the Mediterranean civilizations of the Greeks or Romans.

This leads us to another point. In the ancient world, a woman had a small place in most cultures. In Norse society, by contrast, a capable and free-born woman could own land and property and also could divorce her husband if she found him lacking. Likewise, of course, a man could divorce a woman if she failed to produce heirs or was incompetent as a wife. Even though Norse women did not go to battle with the men, they were fearsome warriors in their own right. Any band of mercenaries or raiders attempting to take a Norse village while the men were away at battle were often killed or forced to retreat, beaten by a force of angry Norse mothers and housewives.

Both women and men in the Norse world took their religion seriously. The various rituals and tenets of the Gods applied at all times. Honor and loyalty were paramount, strength and valor were seen as virtues to which one could not but aspire, to become the greatest possible in everything they did is what the Gods expected of them and nothing short of that would suffice. It is no great wonder that the Norse people were seen since time immemorial as a strong and virile people when one recalls that the very core of their religion and myth expected them to excel in all things. Furthermore it was easy to flourish within a religious structure that did not apply guilt or fear to everyday life but instead pride and joy at accomplishment, along with the love of one’s family and people, side-by-side with the Gods themselves.

About Thorgrim Gunnarson