Balder

In Norse mythology, there was an immaculate god known as Balder (alternatively Baldr or Baldur), whose role is as ambiguous to us as it was important to the Vikings. Balder was a son of Odin and Frigg, the king and queen of the Norse pantheon, and described as being the most beautiful of the Aesir, the divine race from Asgard. Fair and handsome and kind, he was said to shine with purity, and was loved by all. Even his abode, Breidablik, was the best-looking of all the halls in the Nine Worlds. However, Balder’s purpose is unclear to scholars; some argue he was the personification of lordship and nobility, while others claim the etymology of his name strongly suggests an association with the coming of day.

One of the most famous and significant stories in the Norse myth cycle concerns the death of Balder. It was prophesised to Odin long before that his son’s demise would be a herald of Ragnarok (the Doom of the Gods), and that Balder’s dreams would foreshadow this. When Balder begins to have terrible visions, his mother Frigg makes all living things swear that they will not harm him, but forgets to ask mistletoe. The gods thereafter have much fun throwing things at Balder, knowing he cannot be injured. When Loki the trickster learns of Frigg’s oversight, he convinces Balder’s blind twin, Hod, to shoot him with an arrow made of mistletoe. Hod mortally wounds his brother, and is slain himself. By Odin’s command, the goddess of the Underworld (Hel), agrees to release Balder from her domain on the condition that every object – alive or dead – weeps for him. However, a giantess – believed to be Loki in disguise – refuses to do so, and initiates a chain of events that ultimately leads to Ragnarok. It is foretold, though, that Balder will return from the Underworld after the destruction of the Nine Worlds, a lead the gods into a new age.

Freyja

The Norse pantheon was split into two separate races of gods: the Aesir and the Vanir. The Vanir were the deities associated with nature and fertility, and of these the most iconic female was Freyja (The Lady). She was the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, as well as playing a role in war and death. Freyja was often described as being beautiful and blonde-haired, clad in exquisite gems and clothing, and driving a chariot pulled by cats. The twin of Frey, she was held in very high esteem, though her lust for jewelry and suspiciously-promiscuous character was somewhat questionable. Freyja was the Vanirian counterpart of Odin, welcoming half of all slain warriors to her home, Fólkvangr, while the rest went to Valhalla. Due to inconsistencies in the legends, some have theorised that her nomadic husband Ódr was none other than Odin himself, though the clear distinctions between Freyja and his wife Frigg suggest otherwise.

Hel

In Old Norse lore, the ruler of the Underworld was the daughter of the trickster god Loki, taken from her giantess mother along with her siblings Jormungandr (the Midgar serpent) and Fenrir (the great wolf destined to kill Odin at Ragnarok). Both she and her domain bore the name Hel, and to “go to Hel” literally meant to die.

Hel was described as being a vibrant young maiden on one half of her body, and having the decayed features of a corpse on the other. Due to her heritage, she was cast by Odin into the murky depths of the Nine Worlds, where her countless halls and torture pits would welcome those who had died non-heroic deaths. While she shares many similarities with her Greek counterpart, Hades, Hel was considered more gloomy and malevolent, and plays an important role in the events leading to Ragnarok – the Doom of the Gods.

Idunn

Idunn is a fair maiden whose name loosely translates as the “Rejuvenator”. Her father was Ivaldi, a dwarf lord with exceptional skills as a smith, yet she herself is said to be descended from elves. As the keeper of the golden apples, she plays an important role as the goddess who allows the Aesir to remain immortal; whenever they grow old, one bite of the fruit will return them to youth. Idunn lives in the beautiful groves of Brunnak in Asgard with her husband Bragi, one of Odin’s illegitimate sons. The gods rely heavily on her kindness, and one tale recounts how they faced the prospect of death when she was kidnapped by a giant. In Old Norse culture, apples were also associated with fertility.

Loki

When it comes to trickster deities, there are few better known in global mythology than Loki. Considered an important figure among the Norse pantheon, tales of Loki were very popular, and he commonly appeared alongside the God of Thunder, Thor. While Loki’s character was often used for comedic or playful effect, he was also a deceitful and malicious being, happy to inflict chaos or death simply for his own amusement or self-preservation. He was said to have been a friend of Odin’s since the early days of the Nine Worlds, but he was not himself from the race of gods; instead, his powerful sorcery and shapeshifting talents came from his Jotun (giant) heritage. As such, the gods were troubled by a prophecy that three of his children – the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jormungand, and the undead Hel – would grow too strong, and play a major role in Ragnarok, the destruction of the universe.

Like all tricksters, many of the stories involving Loki tell of how he got himself or the gods into trouble, then used his cunning to save the day. However, as the myth cycle goes on, he becomes increasingly more wicked, and eventually engineers the slaying of Odin’s son, Balder. The gods capture Loki and bind him, leaving snake venom to drip on his face. It was believed that earthquakes occurred when his wife, Sigyn, was unable to catch the venom, with Loki’s agonised writhing causing the land to shake. He is destined to break free of his chains at Ragnarok, and lead armies of giants into battle against the gods to fight alongside his monstrous children.

Nerthus

Nerthus was an important fertility goddess of the Germanic peoples, predating Saxon and Norse deities by hundreds of years. She was associated with bountiful crops and purity, and detested war, so all weapons had to be hidden away whenever she was being worshipped. Based on the evolution of her name through the centuries – particularly Hertha and its derivatives – scholars identified her as a Mother Earth figure, secretly venerated during occupation by the Roman Empire. She was said to intervene in human affairs where she saw fit, riding from village to village in her cattle-drawn chariot (or wagon) to bless the people. This was replicated by priests during festival periods, and accompanying slaves were drowned in sacrifice to wash away the impurities of believers, keeping the sacred rituals a mystery.

One of the most curious aspects of Nerthus, though, is that her name directly preceded the Norse god Njörd. He was chief of the Vanir – the divine race which represented nature, peace and fertility – and father of the beloved twins Frey and Freyja. The twins’ mother was said to be Njörd’s wife and sister, but she is never named in the myths. Given their etymological connection between Nerthus and Njörd, it would stand to reason that somewhere along the line, Nerthus’ influence was divided in two, and that her female Norse cognate was Frey and Freyja’s mother (possibly called Njorun). In addition, many of her roles as fertility goddess seem to have transferred to Frey, lord of summer and the harvest.

Odin

Known as the “Terrible One” and “Allfather” to the Norse Gods, Odin is strong willed, and bears a lust for conflict and knowledge in equal measures. He regularly travels between the Nine Worlds in disguise, seeking wisdom from those he meets, and has a deep interest in magic. So determined to reach enlightenment was Odin that he did not hesitate to sacrifice an eye in exchange. Despite his authority and foresight, he holds little regard for law or justice, and is often plotting sinister actions for the benefit of the Aesir. It was Odin and his brothers who killed the primordial giant Ymir and almost brought his race to extinction, later creating human beings and establishing sovereignty among the gods. He watches over the universe from his throne in Asgard, and is host to the slain warriors of men – the Einherjar – at Valhalla, feasting them daily and preparing them for the events of Ragnarök. Wednesday (Woden’s Day) is named after him.

Surt

In the Old Norse cycle of myths, it was foretold that the universe as we know it would come to a devastating end with an apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok – the Doom of the Gods. Playing a major part in Ragnarok, the fire giant destined to set the Nine Worlds ablaze is Surtr, anglicised as Surt or Surtur. Surt is the powerful ruler of Muspellheim, the realm of primordial fire, and stands guard over its impassable entrance. There, he bides his time for when he and his kin can ride forth to scorch the heavens and the Earth.

Other than his role in the Doom, little is known of Surt. His name loosely translates as “the Swarthy One” or “Black”, and he is often depicted as huge and bearded, with dark or smoke-stained skin. Some sources also claim he is married to the giantess Sinmara, though there are few attestations of this. What is certain, though, is that he wields a flaming sword as bright as the Sun, believed to represent the volcanic eruptions of Iceland. At Ragnarok, Surt will lead the Muspellsynir (Sons of Muspell) to Asgard where he will do battle with Frey, finally slaying the God of Fertility before setting the universe alight. Despite the immense destruction, however, Surt’s efforts will be in vain, for new worlds of gods and men will be reborn from the ashes, emerging once more from the seas.

Thor

An illegitimate son of Odin to the personified Mother Earth, Jord, Thor’s immense strength and rash behavior are renowned throughout Germanic lore. He is among the mightiest of the Aesir and wields a dwarf-made hammer called Mjöllnir which, by his hand, is capable of smashing valleys into mountains. Thor’s sworn enemies are the giants of Jotunheim which he is regularly engaging in contests or slaying outright. As the Jotnar are considered to represent the chaotic forces of nature, his role is more complex than simply violence and warmongering: his actions restore balance, and he was loved for it by his peasant-class worshippers. He lives at Bilskirnir with his wife, Sif, on the fields of Thrudvang in Asgard, and travels in a chariot drawn by two goats. The prophecy of Ragnarok states that he will both kill and be killed by the monstrous serpent Jörmungand. Thursday (Thor’s Day) is named after him.