The Old Nordic Religion
The religious beliefs of the early Icelandic settlers can be divided into two main categories; that is, belief in pagan gods and belief in other supernatural forces. In turn, the gods were divided into two families, the Ęsir and the Vanir, and the supernatural forces were made up of "landvęttir" (guardian spirits of the land) and "nįttśruvęttir" (spirits of the nature). Some people only believed in their own strength and abilities, whilst others formed a group which followed what has been called "a blend of faiths". Helgi "magri" (the lean) for instance believed in both Christ and Žór. A number of the settlers were Christian.
Belief in the Pagan Gods
Įsatrś, or the idea of pagan worship, is a nineteenth-century term used to describe religious belief in the pagan gods.
The Icelandic settlers who believed in pagan gods followed many gods, or Ęsir, and it appears that they pursued their beliefs through idolatrous sacrifice and mystery plays.
The Ęsir lived in Įsgaršur, and each god had its own home.
Freyr was the male god of fertility, Tżr represented bravery and could grant men victory in battle. Loki the Crafty played many nasty tricks on the gods and was, amongst other things, to blame for the death of Baldur, the white god.
But the greatest of all the gods was Óšinn (Wotan). He was the foremost god of knowledge, poetry and the god of sorcery and rune craft. He was also the god of the dead and of war. The symbols of Óšinn included two ravens and a spear. He was one-eyed, having sacrificed his other eye for wisdom. However, belief in Óšinn is not thought to have been widespread in early Icelandic, farm-based, society.
Another of Ęsir, Žór, was the son of Óšinn and Jörš (Earth) and appears to have been worshipped widely. His symbols include a hammer, called Mjöllnir. Žór drove about the heavens in a chariot harnessed with two he-goats, and brought with him thunder and bolts of lightning.
The goddesses were no less praised than the male Ęsir. The supreme goddess was Frigg: she was the goddess of marriage. Freyja was the goddess of fertility and love, and was often invoked during child birth. There were many other male (Ęsir) and females (Įsynjur) gods.
According to Įsatrś, the gods were in constant struggle against Jötnar (Giants) living in Jötunheimar (the Giants' Land). Amongst them there were various monsters, such as the Mišgaršsormur (the Serpent Middle Earth) which lay in the ocean around the world biting its own tail, and Fenrisślfur (the Monster Wolf), who showed mercy to no-one. The gods used tricks to chain the wolf and Žór came close to killing Mišgaršsormur when he rowed out to fish.
In the end, the giants united in an enormous campaign against the gods. There followed a great battle in which most of the gods fell and the giant Surtr (the fire giant) burned down the entire earth. This is the history of the gods and the world, also known as ragnarök, the fate of the gods. But after the world fire, the earth rose a second time, fresh and green out of the sea. From then on, the best gods and people lived in the ancient homelands of their forefathers.
The written sources of Old Norse religion are the Eddu Kvęši and Snorra-Edda (written by Snorri Sturluson).
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