Table of Contents
Like most ancient religions and cultures, the Nordic people had a very complicated pantheon of deities. With new gods from neighboring regions and tribes added every other century and new myths and legends created along with them, the Norse mythos is a convoluted but beautiful reading to get into. These Nordic gods have inspired modern culture, making them highly significant.
Here’s a look at some of the most important Norse gods, what they symbolized and why they matter.
Æsir and Vanir – The Two Norse God Pantheons
One of the major misconceptions about the Nordic deities is that they had only one pantheon of gods, similar to the Greeks. That’s not exactly the case. While the Æsir or Asgardian gods were the more numerous and well-known gods, the Norse also worshipped the Vanir gods.
Mostly represented by Freyja and Freyr, the Vanir were the more peaceful gods compared to the war-like Asgardians and they had their fair share of confrontations with them too. The Vanir are believed to have come from Scandinavia while the Æsir were worshipped among all Norse people, from Scandinavia to the Germanic tribes in central Europe.
In some myths, the Vanir gods would join the Æsir in Asgard after the great Æsir vs. Vanir war, while in others they stayed separate. Additionally, many of the gods in both pantheons were also believed to have been giants or jötnar (plural for jötunn) in older legends, further adding to their mysterious and convoluted origins.
While not technically a god, Ymir is at the center of the Norse creation myth. A cosmic entity that’s essentially a personification of the entire universe, Ymir was slain by Odin and his two brothers, Vé and Vili.
Before his death, Ymir had given birth to the jötnar – primeval beings with chaotic, morally ambiguous, or outright evil characters who came directly from Ymir’s flesh. When Odin and his brothers killed Ymir, the jötnar fled on the rivers of their father’s blood and scattered across the 9 worlds.
As for the worlds themselves – they were formed from Ymir’s dead body. His body became mountains, his blood became the seas and oceans, his hairs became trees, and his eyebrows became Midgard or Earth.
The All-Father god who stands atop the Æsir pantheon, Odin is one of the most beloved and well-known of the Nordic gods. As wise and loving as he was fierce and powerful, Odin looked after the Nine Realms from the day of their creation until Ragnarok itself – End of Days in Norse myths.
In the different Nordic cultures, Odin was also called Wōden, Óðinn, Wuodan, or Woutan. In fact, the modern English word Wednesday comes from the Old English Wōdnesdæg or The Day of Odin.
Wife of Odin and matriarch of the Æsir pantheon, Frigg or Frigga was a goddess of the sky and had the power of foreknowledge. More than just “wise” like her husband, Frigg could see what would happen to everyone and everything around her.
This didn’t give her the power to stop Ragnarok or save her beloved son Baldur, however, as events in the Norse mythology are predestined and cannot be changed. It also didn’t really stop Odin from going behind her back to enjoy the company of many other goddesses, giantess, and jötnar.
Nevertheless, Frigg was worshipped and beloved by all Norse people. She was also associated with fertility, marriage, motherhood, and domestic stability.
Thor, or Þórr, was the son of Odin and the Earth goddess Jörð. In some Germanic myths, he was the son of the goddess Fjörgyn instead. Either way, Thor is famous as the god of thunder and strength, as well as for being Asgard’s most staunch defender. He was believed to be the strongest of all gods and other mythical beings, and he would ride across the sky on a chariot drawn by Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir, the two giant goats. During Ragnarok, Thor managed to kill the World Serpent (and Loki’s monstrous child) Jörmungandr but he also died moments later from its venom.
Loki is widely-known as Thor’s brother thanks to modern-day MCU movies but in the Nordic mythos, he was actually Thor’s uncle and a brother to Odin. A god of mischief, he was also said to be a jötunn and the son of the giant Farbauti and the goddess or giantess Laufey.
Whatever his ancestry, Loki’s deeds have peppered the Nordic legends with myriad mischievous “accidents” and eventually even lead to Ragnarok. Loki is also the father of the World Serpent Jörmungandr who kills Thor, the giant wolf Fenrir who kills Odin, and the goddess of the underworld Hel. Loki even fights on the side of the jötnar, giants, and other monsters against the gods during Ragnarok.
The beloved son of Odin and Frigg, and a younger half-brother of Thor, Baldur was worshipped as the god of the sun itself. Also called Balder or Baldr, he was believed to be wise, gracious, and divine, as well as fair and more beautiful than any flower.
As the Nordic myths were not written to be particularly uplifting, Baldur met a premature, accidental, and tragic end at the hand of his own twin brother Höðr. The blind god Höðr was given a dart made from mistletoe by Loki and he decided to jokingly fling it toward Baldur as a harmless prank. Frigg had made her beloved son impervious to harm from almost all natural elements in order to protect him but she had missed mistletoe so the simple plant was the only thing that could kill the sun god. Loki, naturally knew that when he gave the dart to the blind Höðr so he was almost directly responsible for Baldur’s death.
The goddess Sif was the wife of Thor and was associated with the Earth, just like his mother Jörð. She was known for her golden hair which Loki once cut as a prank. Fleeing Thor’s wrath, Loki was tasked with finding a replacement for Sif’s golden hair and so he went to Svartalfheim, the realm of the dwarves. There, Loki not only obtained a new set of golden hair for Sif but he also had the dwarves create Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, Odin’s spear Gungnir, Freyr’s ship Skidblandir, and several other treasures.
The goddess Sif is associated with the family and fertility as the Old English word for “family” sib comes from the Old Norse sif. The Old English poem Beowulf is also said to be partly inspired by Sif as Hroðgar’s wife in the poem, Wealhþeow resembles the goddess.
Týr, or Tyr, was a god of war and a favorite to most Germanic tribes. Tyr was said to be the bravest of the gods and was associated not just with wars but also with all the formalities of wars and battles, including signing peace treaties. Because of that, he was also worshipped as a god of justice and oaths.
In some legends, Tyr is described as Odin’s son and in others, as the son of the giant Hymir. Either way, one of the most iconic myths with Tyr was the one about the chaining of the giant wolf Fenrir. In it, in an attempt to trick the beast, Tyr promised not to lie to it and release it from the bonds the gods were “testing” on the wolf. Tyr had no intention of honoring that oath as the gods meant to imprison the beast so Fenrir bit his arm off in retribution.
In another instance of canine misfortune, Tyr was killed by Garm, the guard dog of Hel during Ragnarok.
The Norse god of justice and reconciliation, Forseti’s name translates as “the presiding one” or “president” in modern Icelandic and Faroese. A son of Baldur and Nanna, Forseti was in his elements in courts. All who visited Forseti for justice or for a ruling were said to leave reconciled. Forseti’s peaceful justice stands in contrast with Tyr, however, as the latter was said to reach “justice” through war and conflict, not reasoning.
Curiously, the Germanic word Fosite, which was used for Forseti in central Europe, is linguistically identical to the Greek Poseidon and is said to be derived from it. It’s theorized that the word came from ancient Greek sailors, likely trading amber with the Germans. So, while there’s no mythological connection between the gods Forseti and Poseidon, these trading relations are likely the origin of the “president” god of justice and mediation.
Vidar, or Víðarr, was the Norse god of vengeance. A son of Odin and the jötunn Grid (or Gríðr), Vidar’s name translates as “wide ruler”. He was described as a “silent” god as he didn’t speak much, however his actions more than made up for that. During Ragnarok, Vidar was the one who slew the giant wolf Fenrir and avenged the death of Odin, not Thor or any of the other sons of Odin. Vidar was also one of the very few Asgardian gods to survive Ragnarok and he was said to have lived on the field of Idavoll after the great battle, awaiting the new cycle of the world.
Njörður, or Njord, was the “All-Father” of the Vanir gods, standing in contrast to Odin of the Æsir or Asgardian gods. Njord was the father of Freyja and Freyr, the two most famous Vanir deities, and was viewed as a god of the sea, as well as wealth and fertility.
After the Æsir vs. Vanir War, Njord went to Asgard for the peace treaty between the two pantheons and decided to live there with the Æsir. In Asgard, Njord married the giantess Skadi who gave birth to Freyja and Freyr. However, in other myths, the siblings were alive during the Æsir vs. Vanir War and were born from Njord’s relationship with his own sister. Either way, from then on Njord was known as both a Vanir and an Æsir god.
The daughter of Njord and a matriarch deity of the Vanir pantheon, Freyja was a goddess of love, lust, fertility, and war. Newer myths list her as an Æsir deity as well and she’s also sometimes confused with Frigg. However, she’s best known as a Vanir goddess. In some myths, she’s married to her brother but in most, she’s the wife of Óðr, the frenzied one.
While a peaceful and loving deity, Freyja didn’t hesitate to defend her realm and her people in battle which is why she was also known as a goddess of war. In fact, according to many Scandinavian legends, Freyja would take in half of the warriors who died heroically in battle in her heavenly field Fólkvangr with only the other half joining Odin in Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors.
Brother of Freyja and son of Njord, Freyr was a peaceful god of farming and fertility. Depicted as a large and brawny man, Freyr was associated with peace, wealth, and even sexual virility. He was often accompanied by his pet boar Gullinborsti, or Golden-Bristled. He was also said to travel the world on a chariot drawn by giant boars similar to Thor riding a chariot drawn by giant goats. He also rode on Skíðblaðnir, the fastest ship in the world, brought to him by Loki from the dwarven realm Svartalfheim.
Heimdallr, or Heimdall, is one of the more famous gods and yet – one of the deities with the most confusing family trees. Some legends say he’s the son of the giant Fornjót, others cite him as the son of the nine daughters of the god/jötunn of the sea Ægir, themselves described as the waves of the sea. And then, there are also myths that describe Heimdall as a Vanir god.
Whatever his origins, Heimdall was best-known as a guardian and protector of Asgard. He dwelt at the entrance to Asgard, guarding the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge). He wielded the horn Gjallarhorn, the Resounding Horn, which he used to alert his fellow Asgardian gods about approaching threats. He’s described as having extremely sensitive hearing and vision, which allowed him to even hear wool growing on sheep or to see a 100 leagues into the distance.
Idun or Iðunn was the Norse goddess of rejuvenation and eternal youth. Her name literally translates to The Rejuvenated One and she was described as having long, blond hair. A wife of the poet god Bragi, Idun had “fruits” or epli that bestowed immortality to those who ate them. Often described as apples, these epli are said to be what made the Norse gods immortal. As such, she’s an essential part of the Æsir but also makes the Norse gods a little more “human” as they don’t owe their immortality to just their divine nature but to Idun’s apples.
A daughter of the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboda, Hel was the ruler of the Norse underworld Helheim (Hel’s kingdom). Her siblings were the World Serpent Jörmungandr and the giant wolf Fenrir so it’s fair to say that she comes from a fairly “dysfunctional” family.
Her name later became synonymous with hell in the Christian mythos, however, Helheim was very different to the Christian hell. Where the latter is said to be full of fire and eternal torment, Helheim is a quiet and gloomy place. The Nordic people went to Helheim after their death not when they were “bad” but when they died of old age.
Essentially, Helheim was the “boring” afterlife for those who led boring lives while Valhalla and Fólkvangr were the “exciting” afterlives for those who had lived adventurous lives.
A son of Odin and the giantess Rindr, Váli or Vali was born with the sole purpose of avenging the death of his brother Baldur. Vali did that by killing his other sibling, Baldur’s blind twin Höðr, who had accidentally killed Baldur. After killing Höðr, Vali also took his vengeance on Loki, the god of mischief who had tricked Höðr into killing Baldur – Vali binds Loki in the entrails of Loki’s son Narfi.
As a god born to exact vengeance, Vali grew to adulthood within a day. After he fulfilled his destiny he lived on in Asgard with the rest of the Æsir gods. He was also prophesied to be one of the few to survive Ragnarok together with his other brother Vidar, also a god of vengeance.
The husband of the goddess of youth and a god of poetry, Bragi was the “Bard of Asgard”. His name roughly translates to “Poet” in Old Norse. Many of Bragi’s traits and myths seem similar to legends of the 9th century bard Bragi Boddason who served in the courts of Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn at Hauge. It’s unclear whether the god’s myths were ascribed to the real-life poet or vice versa. In some legends, the bard went to Valhalla where he received “godhood” for his famed ballads.
Famous as both an Æsir goddess and a jötunn, Skaði was associated with winter, skiing, mountains, and bowhunting. In some myths, Skaði married the Vanir god Njord and became the mother of Freyr and Freyja, while in others the two siblings were born by the union of Njord with his unnamed sister.
Many scholars believe that the goddess’s name is the origin of the term Scandinavia where many of the Norse myths and legends came from.
Mimir was one of the oldest and wisest gods in Norse mythology. His wisdom was so well-known that he was also said to have advised the Æsir All-Father Odin. Mimir’s name is the origin of the modern English word memory too.
The wise god met his end after the Æsir vs. Vanir War. He was one of the gods sent by Odin to negotiate the truce. However, because Mimir was so wise and cunning, the Vanir gods suspected him of cheating during the negotiations, and so cut off his head, and sent it back to Asgard.
According to some myths, Mimir’s body and head lie near the Mímisbrunnr well in the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasill where Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to gain wisdom. In other legends, however, Odin preserved Mimir’s head with herbs and charms. This allowed Mimir’s head to “live” on and whisper wisdom and advice into Odin’s ear.
The Norse gods were revered and worshipped by the Vikings and other Nordic people, and thanks to them, these myths have entered our modern culture. Although some characters exist in different versions than the originals, they continue to enthral and inspire.