Concordance in Norse/Germanic and Irish mythology

Pagan mythology evolves in response to the environment which gave birth to it, so it is perhaps unsurprising that mythology along Europe’s Atlantic climes should share much in the way of similarity. In this post, I seek to discuss some of these

Odinn and Manannan:

Legends about Odinn and Manannan demonstrate a number of obvious correlations. They are both wise. They are well-travelled. The look after the souls of those who have passed on. They are rulers of the Otherworld. They possess magical abilities and magical artifacts, which they donate to heroes in stories. They can change their appearance and are shapeshifters. They both ride a magical horse.

Odinn (whose German name Woden means madman) appears to have suffered from episodic bouts of madness or wondering, and although madness is not an explicit theme with Manannan, travel and wondering appears to be. The fact that Manannan appears to have been somewhat conflated with Merlin (who Geoffrey of Monmouth made explicitly unhinged) is of particular interest. He is described as ‘Melinus’ by Geoffrey’s euhemerist colleague-at-arms Jocelyn of Furness, and is also called ‘Merlin’ by early 18thC author George Waldron. Other famously mad tree-dwellers from Irish myth include king ‘Suibne Geilt‘, and from the Fenian mythology the interestingly love-mad Diarmuid Ui Duibne (finally caught hiding in a tree). Diarmuid is paralleled by another Fenian myth with a character who loves Fionn’s intended woman and ‘takes flight’, called Derg Corra . He, like Diarmuid is hunted down by Fionn using his (‘Odinnic’) divinatory power and finally discovered hiding in a tree, seemingly out of his mind. The Eddas refer to Odinn hanging himself from the world tree in order to get divine knowledge, which is a theme linking Fionn to another character from Germanic mythology:

Sigurd and Fionn:

The motif of the dwarf-mentor and the killing and cooking of an otherworld creature is familiar to both the Irish story known as ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ (Irish: Macgnímartha Finn) and the poetic Edda narrative known as the Völsungasaga. In the saga version, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and gains understanding of the language of birds when he inadvertently licks his finger while roasting Fafnir’s heart for the dwarf Regin who desires this knowledge. In the Fenian version, of course, Fionn is cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for the dwarf-druid Finnegas when he does the same. Both of these tales may represent a narrative theme popular in their day as both written texts have been located to the 12th/13thC, but then again – they may be from an older oral tradition!

Finn, Cuchullain and Thor:

Thor and his battles against giants and monsters are one of the key hero-myths of the Icelandic Eddas. Like the ancient Greek figure of Heracles, he transcends what is normally acheivable in his fight against the forces of chaos. The same role is represented in Irish mythology by the ‘larger than life’ heros Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhaill, although when compared to the Eddas and Greek myths, the overt ‘sacred’ nature of their narrative importance has been obscured by christianisation of their stories.

Wayland, Chullain and the Gobban Saor:

The ‘hero-smith’ narrative is widespread throughout Irish mythology and placenames, yet the legends have suffered (like those of the Cailleach) from significant demotion or erasure during the inscription of the traditional narrative tales of the pagan world. This makes them all the more intriguing! A similar problem seems to exist with the Wayland legends, in fact.

Magical wells returning water from the Otherworld:

The Icelandic Prose Edda and the Irish Dindshenchas texts from the middle ages both contain explicit references to the mysterious flow of rivers to and from the Otherworld. In the Eddaic version (Snorra Edda), the ‘Otherworld’ source of waters is from the antlers of the stag Eikthyrnir who stands over Valhalla, and whose streams flow down to the bottom of the tree into the well Hvergelmir which is the source of all the world’s rivers and nourishes the roots of the tree. In the Irish sources, the Otherworld streams flow back into secret wells in fairy mounds, emerging as the springs originating the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, which themselves flow into the ‘world-river’ which laps on the shores of the Blessed Isles. As well as being an aquatic analogy, these appear to be describing the ancient belief in the transmigration of souls! This is an important aspect of the ancient Atlantic religion.

Mystical Trees:

The Yggdrasil is the great ‘world-tree’ of Icelandic Eddaic mythology, which was based on the ancestral beliefs of the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians etc who settled in Iceland before the advent of Christianity in the Scandinavian world. It represents an abstract effigy of the idea of human generations, and nourishing rivers  – roots, trunk, branches and leaves. It also acts as an abode for the metaphorical animals representing this kind of fertility, who are strongly associated with regeneration and rivers by their appearance: stags (with their branching antlers) and serpents (whose bodies mimic the appearance of rivers and who shed their skins and are ‘reborn’). Ireland, being ‘freed’ of serpents by St Patrick, naturally also has a number of serpent legends that deal with the pre-Christian era and during the period of Christianisation, but the imagery of the tree and the river was and is important. The tendency of trees to both depict the shape of and attract lightning, no doubt explains their link to ‘thunder gods’ such as Donar/Thunor/Thor and Roman deities such as Jupiter.

A large number of ‘fairy hills’, stone circles and ‘holy wells’ in Ireland seems to be associated with an ancient thorn tree. The Rowan also has great importance in the Gaelic world (particularly Scotland and the Isle of Man) and one is featured in the Fenian myths as being a sacred possession of a giant called Searbhan in the Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.

Ireland – like the Germanic regions pillaged by the tree-felling St Boniface – has an history of special trees, and their demise was detailed in the medieval texts. These may be figurative or actual – the truth is (as with the Boniface account) unclear. The great tree at  Maigh Adhair was recorded in the Irish annals as a sacred tree associated with the inauguration of Munster clan chiefs: Brian Bóruma and his relatives, in particular. There were others besides, including Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg,many of which were (like Yggdrasil) ashes…



Norse Sea-Giants in more detail…

Giants and monsters have a special connection to the sea in Norse mythology – just like the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. They represent the unconquerable and titanic forces of nature. As characters in stories, their great size can be considered an expression of the large shadows cast by distant things with the low sun behind them – as happens as it passes into the ocean on the western horizon of the Atlantic. The main characters in these tales of oceanic titans are Thor, Loki and Aegir:

Thor wrestling the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

Thor with Hymir wrestling Loki’s son – the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

The 13thC CE, Icelandic christian scholar Snorri Sturluson wrote a mythological ‘theogonic’ dialogue on poetry called Skáldskaparmál (“language of poetry”) in which the primal sea-giant Ægir, also known as Gymir (a version of ‘Hymir’) or Hlér, discusses kennings and mythology with the Æsir god, Bragi, after the style of the poetic Edda composition Alvissmal. That Snorri chose these two as characters in the dialogue is interesting, moreso because of they seem to represent the two ‘Platonic’ aspects of what to the ancients was knowable – the first: nature and the elements (Ægir), understandable through sense, and the second: the gods and spiritual things – knowable through the mind, and therefore the province of poetry and philosophy (Bragi). In Alvissmal, it is a wise earth deity – a dwarf/dvergar called Alviss (‘All-Wise’) who instructs Thor on poetic kennings. In Skáldskaparmál, however, it is the ‘sea’ (Aegir) talking…

Aegir is also the host of the feast at the centre of the important poetic Edda story Lokasenna (Codex Regius): This is the tale of a feast of the gods and elves, hosted by Aegir, whose hospitality (and his ale and mead) is considered sacrosanct to the gods, who become angry when troublesome giant/god Loki starts drunkenly abusing the guests. This episode assures Loki’s imprisonment and Promethean-Orphic torture by the gods (he must endure the poison dripping from the fangs of a serpent ) until the showdown of Ragnarok. Aegir’s legendary cauldron or brewing pan seems to provide a link between the elements and the mind, and Lokasenna (the ultimate drunken social meltdown) provides an amusing view of how leisure and strife were never far away from each other in the Viking world. The poetic Edda version from the Codex Regius says Aegir was also called Gymir, and ‘Hymir’ is the giant with mighty caudron/brewing-pan who is Thor’s host and companion when he goes fishing for the giant Midgard Serpent in the poetic Edda tale of Hymiskviða (Codex Regius). Hymir, Gymir and Aegir are probably the same mythological sea-giant.

Aegir was said to be one of three sons of the giant-ancestor Fornjótr (described as an ancient king of the magical north),the other two being Logi (fire) and Kári (wind).  Fornjótr might in literally mean ‘First Giant’. The compounding of his watery son’s name with ‘-gir’ is redolent of the word ‘Gyr’ (eg – Gygr) and theirefore of the Greek words Gigantes and Gygas, representing the larger than life ancestral deities of ancient Greek myth. Ægir might even be a Norse version of and the sea-giant Geryon, who had three bodies. This association with the elements (water in Aegir’s case) comes from the Skáldskaparmál kennings of the primal elemental forces:

“…How should the wind be periphrased? Thus: call it son of Fornjót, Brother of the Sea and of Fire, Scathe or Ruin or Hound or Wolf of the Wood or of the Sail or of the Rigging…”

The only classical element missing from the ÆgirKáriLogi triad is earth (jörð), usually represented in Norse myth and kennings as the eponymous giantess Jörð – ‘wife of Odin’. The Earth is feminine – like in the Greek Gaia/Ge. It is obvious from both ancient Greek and Norse mythology that the ‘giants’ bear names with suffixes which connect them intimately with ‘mother earth’: Gigantes (‘Born of Gaia/Ge’) and Jötnar (‘Born of Jörð’).

Aegir’s other name or kenning is given as Hlér, which seems incredibly close to the Irish/Welsh/Manx name for the sea: Lir/Ller/Lear of whom the legendary Sea God Manannán/Manawydan was the son. In the most important 14thC Icelandic manuscript collection, Flateyjarbók, the following is said of Aegir/Hlér and his family:

“…There was a man called Fornjót. He had three sons; one was Hlér, another Logi, the third Kári; he ruled over winds, but Logi over fire, Hlér over the seas…”

The connection between Logi and the Norse ‘god’ figure Loki is uncertain. The names certainly seem similar, and Loki is definitely one of the Jötnar, being portrayed in the Edda myths as something of an uncontrollable ambiguous shape-shifter as well as a father (or even a mother) of monsters and magical horses. One might even compare him to the role of the Gorgons in Greek myth – a frightful challenge to be overcome by initiates into the mysteries of life, death and the otherworld. Logi represents fire – perhaps one of the most untameable and dangerous, yet useful ‘elements’ – and Loki represents a similar aspect of chaos in his oppositional and inductive roles in the Eddas. He, in fact, comes across as a character the Christian (and Muslim) narrative would assign to their ‘evil god’ – Satan – otherwise known as God’s right-hand man in the Hebrew Book of Job.

Another ‘giant’ of note in Norse myth who is tied closely to Aegir and Loki in surviving narratives is the god Þórr (Thor), whose name seems to be cognate with the word Thurs (þurs) which is another Germanic word for a giant/titan. In the Icelandic mythologies recorded in the Christian era from orally-transmitted traditional pagan poetic and story traditions, Thor is associated with great strength and battles with giants and monsters using his great hammer Mjölnir which represents both a weapon and a tool. His traditional role in Germanic societies is as a protector and battler with the elements akin to the Greek Herakles (a fact not lost on the 1stC CE Roman author and historian Tacitus), and he seems to have an agricultural/fertility aspect on account of this. This connects him to the folk-legends of similarly enthusiastic (but not too bright) ‘helpful fairies’ – Brownies, Glaistigean, Phynnodderee, the hammer-wielding Leprechauns and the ‘Hobthrust‘ of northern England…

The poetic Edda composition called Hymiskviða is a tale of Thor being sent by Aegir to fetch a giant brewing-pan or cauldron from Hymir – the giant who lives ‘at the edge of Heaven’. Hymir is said to be Aegir’s father, and Aegir also goes by the name Gymir, of which ‘Hymir’ is an aspirated pronunciation. Thor ends up going on a perilous fishing expedition with Hymir, during which Odin’s son manages to land the Midgard Serpent, Loki’s son Jörmungandr who encircles the Earth biting his tailHymir considers it very bad news when Thor bashes the serpent over the head before letting it slide (presumably lifeless) back under the waves… It can be seen here that the same consistent association occurs between oceanic Titans and sea monsters in medieval pagan Norse myths.  The outcome of the story is that Thor obtains the brewing pan that will make the ‘poisonous’ ale or mead that spurs Loki to sow discord among the gods in Lokasenna. The killing of Jörmungandr and the breakdown of order with Loki and the giants/monsters presages the Ragnarok… This imagery appears upon a number of incised stones of the Viking era (including Cumbria and the Isle of Man, as well as in Scandinavia), providing corroborative evidence of its importance in Scandinavian-influenced Atlantic mythology.

There is much to be identified between the Norse myths and the Irish and Welsh. For instance, the theme of sea-giants and a ‘fatal feast’ featuring a caudron that determines the world’s outcome is seen in the Welsh Mabinogion tales, and the Irish tales ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (Fled Bricrenn) and ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Derga) among others. They appear to be different figurative ‘branches’ of the same ancient tree whose roots are nourished by ‘world-river’,