Getting Started with Norse Mythology
Originally composed by Joseph S. Hopkins over the course of November and December 2018. Regularly updated.
High quality resources on the topic of Norse mythology have never been more plentiful, approachable, and available than today. Unfortunately, readers looking for quality information can also expect to encounter more nonsense out there than ever before: The internet, for example, swarms with hucksters, ideologues, and misinformation, which can make separating fact from fiction tough. Whether you’re casually interested in the topic or you hope to embark on a life-long journey to become as familiar with the North Germanic record as well as possible, we’ve designed this guide so that you can ponder the great mysteries of the corpus with the rest of us.
As this guide outlines, we at Mimisbrunnr.info recommend that readers start with retellings. From there, readers might consider approaching some of the better known and important items from the Old Norse corpus while consulting quality tertiary sources, such as handbooks, and thereafter approaching more advanced studies based on their interests. The needs and desires of readers will vary, and readers might consider swapping one step for another. Whatever the case, we recommend sticking to material published by university presses until readers feel entirely comfortable with discerning fact from fantasy.
Please note: Unlike many guides of this type, we at Mimisbrunnr.info do not try to sell readers anything and so, for example, this list contains no affiliate links. We hope that readers support independently owned bookstores whenever possible.
Dive In: Retellings
The easiest way to get familiar with the tales that make up what we today call Norse mythology is by reading retellings. In turn, readers skip the complications that come along with approaching translations of Old Norse material and engage with streamlined versions of the myth body’s most famous narratives. Today’s readers have a few particularly excellent options at their disposal. Consider, for example, the retellings of notable authors Kevin Crossley-Holland and Neil Gaiman. Skilled and experienced storytellers, both writers treat the source material with respect and care.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 1981. The Norse Myths. Pantheon.
Gaiman, Neil. 2017. Norse Mythology. W. W. Norton and Company.
Dig Deeper: Source Texts
Readers interested in digging deeper will be rewarded with complexities, mysteries, and imagery they won’t encounter in retellings. In terms of source texts, the most approachable is the Prose Edda, composed in the 13th century. Recommending a translation for the Prose Edda is easy enough: We advise all readers to turn to scholar Anthony Faulkes’s translation, titled Edda and published by Everyman’s Library. Faulkes’s edition includes complete translations of all four sections accompanied by extensive notes. Additionally, the Viking Society for Northern Research makes available Faulkes’s edition of the normalized Old Norse text he translates available for free, also complete with extensive notes.
Once they’ve become familiar with the Prose Edda, readers will want to turn to a collection of poems known to us today as the Poetic Edda. As its name implies, the Poetic Edda consist primarily of poems, and not the sort that rhyme. Here readers find enigmatic, ancient, and often beautiful poems of a type known as alliterative verse.
New readers find these poems notoriously difficult to parse and so, like specialists, benefit from editions featuring extensive notes. Mimisbrunnr.info hosts a comparison of English language translations of the Poetic Edda, allowing readers to get an idea of how greatly translations of this text can vary. However, we recommend that readers new to the Poetic Edda turn to scholar Carolyn Larrington’s 2014 revised translation. This approachable translations remains widely available and cheap at the time of writing, and features both numerous footnotes and a variety of rarely translated poems.
Readers also benefit from dipping their toes into the better known saga material. The Völsunga saga remains the most translated and celebrated saga from the Old Norse corpus to date and readers can find an excellent edition of the saga available for free online, R.G. Finch’s translation (also presented by the esteemed Viking Society for Northern Research).
Bring Backup: Tertiary Sources
Every scholar worth her salt takes great joy in extensive notes. However, translators can only pack so many notes into an edition before a publisher’s editorial team has to put its collective foot down. Tertiary sources such as handbooks offer the solution. At Mimisbrunnr.info, we recommend two different handbooks (each with caveats):
Lindow, John. 2002. Handbook of Norse Mythology. Oxford University Press.
John Lindow is a noted academic in the world of ancient Germanic studies, and his handbook features entries for many topics readers can expect to encounter when rooting through the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and related sources. Lindow’s approach is readable and straightforward, with limited injection of his own theories, making this a great handbook with which to start. On the other hand, Lindow’s handbook lacks some key entries (there’s no entry for “valkyrie”, for example) and is also out of date (for example, Lindow has some odd things to say about Heathenry, the modern revival of Germanic paganism—on this topic, see our recommendation of scholar Jennifer Snook’s book below).
Simek, Rudolf. 1996. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D. S. Brewer.
Rudolf Simek is also a well-known academic in the field, and there’s nothing else out there quite like his handbook. Simek’s handbook is far more extensive than that of Lindow, and casts a much wider net. However, Simek’s theories play a major role in many of his entries, and the handbook has not been updated with academic developments, such as archaeological finds, since at least the 1980s. Simek’s handbook also lacks an index and at times refers to absent entries, making it unwieldy, and is a revised translation of Simek’s original German language editions, resulting in some notable translation issues.
Beyond the handbook format, we recommend starting out with two (comparatively) recently published books by academics but aimed at general audiences that provide solid and reliable overviews of the topic of North Germanic mythology:
Abram, Christopher. 2011. Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Northmen. Continuum.
Larrington, Carolyne. 2017. The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes. Thames & Hudson.
Additionally, while readers may have been advised by, say, high school teachers to avoid Wikipedia, English Wikipedia’s coverage of topics related to Norse Mythology remains generally excellent, and almost always draws from quality scholarship (see, for example, the site’s “valkyrie” entry). Best of all, Wikipedia entries remain absolutely free to access.
Embark!: Endless Possibilities
Unlike nearly all Indo-European branches outside of the Classical World—and, in fact, most mythologies throughout the world—the ancient Germanic peoples left behind a large body of material from which we can draw today. As a result, readers who just can’t get enough Norse Mythology (like those of us at Mimisbrunnr.info!) will never run out of material to analyze, ponder, and question on the topic.
But where to go after the recommendations above? That’s up to you. It may be that a specific area of interest draws your attention, such as the North Germanic archaeological record, or perhaps you’re interested in pursuing your own translations of an Old Norse text. Maybe you hope to achieve a broader understanding, and the greater Germanic record attracts you. Whatever the case, here’s a few of our recommendations to help you ask further questions:
Mathias Nordvig (University of Colorado Boulder) on Youtube
An instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Mathias Nordvig discusses all things Germanic paganism on his Youtube channel. Nordvig originally hails from Denmark and happens to also be a heathen, and readers will no doubt find his insight enlightening. You can read an interview with Nordvig for Six Questions here.
Jennifer Snook (Grinnell College), book
American academic and heathen Jennifer Snook’s American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Temple University Press, 2015) focuses, as its title implies, on the American extension of Germanic Heathenry, the modern revival of historical Germanic paganism (the Norse, like the Anglo-Saxons, were a Germanic people). Readers interested in the development and application of this new religious movement will find this volume invaluable. You can read an interview with Snook for Six Questions here.
Eirik Storesund, Brute Norse, podcast and Youtube channel
A Norwegian academic and writer based in New York, Eirik Storesund regularly publishes podcast episodes and Youtube videos aimed at a general audience under the name Brute Norse, where he discusses topics such as the folklore of moving islands and pod bodies. Storesund regularly features other scholars in the field, and the resulting podcasts make for educational and entertaining listening. You can read an interview with Storesund for Six Questions here.
Teresa Dröfn Njardvík (University of Iceland), book
Scholar at the University of Iceland and an Ásatrúarfélagið member Teresa Dröfn Njardvík recently published a highly approachable, attractive, and altogether unique book on the development of the Icelandic runic alphabet, Runes: The Icelandic Book of Fuþark (The Icelandic Magic Company, 2018). While the book focuses specifically on the development of the Icelandic runic alphabet, its exceedingly attractive and approachable nature (Teresa authored the book with noted Icelandic graphic designer Sigi Odds) makes Runes a great place to start with the topic of runes in general. You can read an interview with Teresa for Six Questions here and readers will no doubt find Sigi’s other runic work interesting.