Seldom Told Tales; Unraveling Viktor Rydberg’s Norse Mythos
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Freya and Svipdag, by the illustrator John Bauer. This is one of several stories I had never read about before reading Viktor Rydberg's Norse mythology.
A thrice-burnt witch; a vengeful smith; an orphan hero seeking out a beautiful goddess held by giants: these are some of the little-known tales woven into the tapestry of Norse mythos by the 19th century Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg! Newcomers to Rydberg’s vision of a consolidated Germanic mythos will find a number of ideas, both fascinating and controversial, and a dizzying constellation of figures, some familiar, others not, who relate to one another in ways that differ from traditional tellings of mythic and legendary history. Rydberg's theories were largely rejected in his lifetime, but despite this, he made often fascinating uses of scraps of details from extant sources that were probably too scant for other anthologists to present as part of the canon of Norse myth stories. Here I share some of the most compelling stories Rydberg included in his Norse mythos that you may not have heard elsewhere. This is meant as the simplest introduction I can provide a newcomer to to the changes and additions Rydberg made and shared in his text, Our Fathers’ Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves. Some knowledge of Norse mythology will be helpful, but I've tried to explain enough of the common details of the myths to aid the memory of someone who would benefit from a review. I have only begun to follow up my reading of this text with a study of Rydberg's purposes and methodology and expect to follow up with a companion to this piece.
Rydberg was a man of varied literary talents who came to prominence in his native Sweden in the second half of the 19th century. He was a philosophical and political thinker who spent time in the Swedish parliament, but he rose to prominence as a Romantic novelist and also published a highly regarded collection of poems. I recently learned that Rydberg's poem "Tomten" was the inspiration of a series of children's books by Astrid Lindgren. Rydberg was given an honorary doctorate at Uppsala University, was elected to the Swedish Academy and became a professor at the University of Stockholm. Rydberg wrote two volumes devoted to Germanic mythology in the 1880s, in which he tried to unify stories from the Scandinavian tradition with legends and tales from Old German and Old English sources. Rydberg's Our Fathers' Godsaga is the child of his studies.
Viktor Rydberg and Our Fathers' Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves.
Rydberg's attempt to present a pan-Germanic mythos that consolidated legends from Norse myth, later German romances and tales from Old English poetry was not embraced by the philologists of the time and he is likely not more than a footnote in the study of Norse mythology today. The stories Rydberg draws together are all pulled from known manuscripts and the sources of the commonly known stories of Thor, Loki and Odin, but to these he adds lesser-known Eddaic tales and also tales I only knew from my Old English studies and my reading of the Saga of Dietrich of Bern. Some of Rydberg's consolidations make better sense than others and throughout this piece I will point out unusual interpretations and why I think they work or do not.
A Mill that Turns the Heavens and the Seas
Kepler's illustration to describe the orbit of Mars. I could find no illustrations of the World Mill, but this comes closest to what I see in my mind's eye (it's short seven giant maidens.)
I most enjoyed reading Rydberg’s version of the ordering of the cosmos because it made the history of the world of Norse myths feel richer. In most tellings of Norse myths we hear about the Aesir and Vanir gods trading hostages. Rydberg adds the surviving giants to this list and also the elves (who have always seemed interchangeable with dwarves in Norse myth, apologies to Lord of the Rings.) By this exchange, Loki and the giantess Gullveig come to Asgard. I have seen Gullveig mentioned as a witch, but here she is very much the female version of Loki, and takes over the role of Angrboda in an interesting way I will get to later. Representing the elves are Mimir and Ivaldi, whose families play a significant role in the rise and fall of the age of the Aesir gods. Mimir plays the role of decapitated (but animated) head in the myths you know, but more on that later. At least one of the Aesir (Iduun) is the daughter of one of the elves.
Rydberg’s interest in the creation of the world gives birth to another addition to the myths we know, which is the World Mill. At the foundation of the world are two great mill stones powered by nine giantesses (according to Rydberg, the nine mothers of Heimdall) which churn the oceans and spin the heavens. The World Mill’s job is to grind down the flesh of the primeval giant Ymir and spit out the earth that becomes the world and the salt which fills the sea. There is nothing new about Ymir’s body being used to form the world (his skull serving as our heavens) but the World Mill seems to be unique to Rydberg. I love the idea and I’m interested in knowing what suggested it to him and whether there is a source in existing literature for it. My searches online for the World Mill seem attached to Rydberg and have no obvious avenues for further sources. In extant sources, Heimdall is said to be the son of nine mothers, but to my knowledge the mothers aren’t identified and this statement isn’t explained. Rydberg has Heimdall born from the holy fire generated by the friction of the stones in the world mill, which is, in turn, generated by the nine giantesses. Heimdall, the white and shining, who seems to have had a more important role than he does in extant stories, is a character I am dying to know more about.
This is very good storytelling and as important as it is to me to know how Rydberg derived his new details, I was more or less enthusiastic and suspending that part of me that is a stickler for sources. But then he began to mix mythological characters with characters generally considered to be from later legendary sources. Heimdall comes to earth to help order human society (which is standard Norse mythology) but he comes in the form of Skef/Sceaf, whom you may know from the opening of Beowulf. To use the Old English name, Sceaf arrives in the land of the Danes as a foundling child in a boat, lying on the sheaves of grain that give him his name and surrounded by treasures. In Rydberg, Heimdall does everything he does in standard tellings of the myths disguised as Sceaf: he establishes the three classes of society and is a sort of Promethean figure helping mankind. As Sceaf he also gives birth to the figure known as Scyld in Old English which leads to the great hero-king Halfdane, the father of Hrothgar in Beowulf. To me, the Sceaf genealogy is hard to reconcile with Heimdall because the established story about Heimdall creating the freemen, karls and jarls has Heimdall stay as guest with three couples and the woman of each house later bearing Heimdall’s child. This competes with the notion that as Sceaf he establishes another family line. A tale about the origin of a social order seems to be a typical myth. A tale about a line of kings being founded by a god seems a propaganda tool more serving of that line of kings. Both can be said to be a kind of propaganda, but they seem different to me.
The smith Wayland on the Franks Casket, an 8th Century whalebone box roughly the size of a tissue box and one of my favorite artifacts at the British Museum, London.
Many of my concerns and troubles with Rydberg stem from similar mergings of figures. Sometimes it seems reasonable. For instance, Rydberg makes the legendary smith Volund (Wayland in English) the son of the legendary smith Ivaldi. This seems reasonable. For those who do not know Wayland, he is a sort of Daedelus of Northern legend, who is imprisoned by a king, and even constructs a pair of wings to escape. Beowulf has a piece of armor fashioned by Wayland. It was fashionable for heroes to have one. Wayland was vengeful though, and before escaping his imprisonment he kills the king’s two sons and turns their heads into wine goblets. He also rapes the king’s daughter. Rydberg keeps these elements, but makes the king Mimir, who in Rydberg is the patriarch of the rival clan of elvish smiths. The story about the contest over who creates better crafts for the gods becomes part of the downfall of the Aesir gods. Volund nurses his vengeance by sending waves of blizzards to freeze Middle Earth. Rydberg suggests that Volund's magics are the source of the harsh winters that precede Ragnarok. Volund freezes the world while forging a sword of vengeance that will best Thor’s hammer. This seems like a fair myth, but elevating a figure like Volund to such prominence without more stories about him starts to feel thin. Volund’s sword of vengeance eventually falls into the hands of Frey, who gives it up for the love of a woman. Volund's sword falls into the hands of Surtr, the fire giant that attacks Asgard during Ragnarok.
The Burning of Gullveig
The Aesir burn Gullveig in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich.
Some of Rydberg’s shifts though, make very good narrative sense, regardless of whether he was reconstructing tales as a mythologist or creating them as a storyteller. The elevation of Gullveig is one of them. In the sources I have seen, Gullveig is a witch who is burnt three times and reborn in different guises. Gullveig’s burning is also said to be the cause of the war between the Aesir and Vanir. I don’t know if there is more information about Gullveig in the sources than that, which is a bit tantalizing or frustrating. In Rydberg, each time Gullveig is burnt, her icy heart remains and Loki eats it. Loki later gives birth to one of the monstrous children attributed in other sources to his union with Angrboda. This still isn’t a lot of detail for a tale, but the series of three deaths, three hearts, three monsters, is good mythmaking. The story of Svipdag has a Cinderella flair to it, with a stepmother with questionable motives sending him on a dangerous quest. Svipdag meets his true mother at her grave and she puts charms on him to protect him while he faces challenges by giants who hold Frey and Freya captive. This is an extant story I did not know. Likewise extant are the associations between Svipdag and Freya and I did not know them either.
Much of the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga impressed me the least, with characters from different story traditions quickly collapsing into each other. A battle between mortals drags the Aesir and Vanir into the conflict. The legends associated with the vengeful Goth king Jormunrek/Ermanrich is played out with Loki posing as Ermanrich's evil counselor Bekki. Hadding becomes Dietrich of Bern. Svipdag the elf-god is also Svipdag the legendary king. The rabbit hole is convoluted and I was already familiar with many of the stories that Rydberg injected into the Norse myths. I found the genealogies difficult to follow, which isn’t necessarily bad. I usually can't follow all of the figures in a complex mythos the first time I read it. But once I recognized the sources and saw the use Rydberg made of them I didn’t feel there was much of a reason to commit to understanding. They just didn't feel consequential to the overarching narrative of the rise and fall of the Aesir, which is the throughline of Norse mythology. Ragnarok felt a bit paler for the Aesir gods to have been benched for so much of the book to make way for Rydberg's larger cast of characters. I also wondered why, among all of the stories he reached for, Rydberg left out the crown jewel of the north, the Volsunga Saga, known to the Germans as the Nibelungenlied, or as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. To me the Volsunga Saga is the closest northern literature got to its own Iliad.
By the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga, it was hard for me to think that Rydberg was still reconstructing old myths, though I could be wrong. Details I learned that I am grateful for were from the stories of Gullveig and Svipdag. I think that my encounter with Rydberg makes me wonder how many details I've passed over in Voluspa or other texts in the Eddas that I have not held onto because they didn't fit together with the stories I am familiar with, which have been curated by hands other than Rydberg's. Rydberg has made me think about mythological canons and how they came about; who constructed them and with what purpose; and whether we can still search through the records to answer these questions. I feel myself at the beginning of a new search through the Norse texts with an eye of capturing the details that do not seem to fit or make sense. I am also interested in following up with Rydberg to understand his methodology.
But what do you think? Have you hungered for a deeper, lusher Norse mythology as I have? Do you want the legends of the North to get treatments worthy of Homer and the writers of the south? Do you prefer that sense of longing and loss that J.R.R. Tolkien sought to emulate and share? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Germanic Mythology Website
The front page of Germanicmythology.com, which led me to Viktor Rydberg and which I have not begun to plumb the depths of.
Our Fathers’ Godsaga’s translator, William P. Reaves, is an independent scholar who has worked for many years to present Rydberg’s writings and other works related to the Norse myths. I cannot read Swedish, so there is a limit to my ability to comment on Reaves' translation, but I can say that the text is exceptionally clean of typos and other distractions that can make their way into small publications. The print is also very easy to follow, which sounds like a small matter, but again, many small publications like this are printed in fonts too small or hard on the eyes. Reaves maintains the sprawling germanicmythology.com website, where I first encountered Rydberg through his essay “Brisingamen’s Smiths,” also translated by Reaves.