Are the Aesir Gods the Villains of Norse Mythology?

Marvel movies and children’s stories cast Odin and Thor as heroes. But Aesir gods of Norse Mythology seem more like the villains.

Feb 12, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology
aesir gods norse mythology villains

 

Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods are usually cast as the “good guys” in modern versions of Viking legends. But in Old Norse Mythology, the gods are rarely portrayed as heroes. They are flawed, greedy, vengeful, and ruthless.

 

In the original myths, the gods committed an act of genocide against the Jotun, the giants of Norse mythology, and then hunted them for sport. They declared war on the Vanir gods over matters of culture and murdered children out of vengeance.

 

Let’s look at some of the crimes of the Norse gods to decide whether they are they are heroes or villains.

 

Odin vs. Ymir

buri emerges primordial goop
Buri emerging from the primordial goop, SAM 66 74r, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

According to the Norse creation myth as found in the Prose Edda the first beings to emerge were the Jotun Ymir and the god Buri. They became the progenitors of all giants and gods.

 

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Buri seems to have procreated the old-fashioned way with female giants. Ymir reproduced asexually with both male and female giants springing forth from the sweat of his armpits. Six-headed beings were also born from his legs. Meanwhile, Buri had a son called Bor. He in turn had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve. Odin and his brothers became concerned about how many giants were emerging from Ymir while their numbers remained few. They decided to kill Ymir.

 

According to the Prose Edda, the death of the primordial being caused an immense flood of blood. This killed all but two giants, who went on to repopulate their race at a more acceptable pace. Odin and his brothers then used the body of Ymir to reshape the world as they saw fit. Ymir’s body and bones became the earth and mountains, his blood the surrounding sea, and his skull hung overhead as the sky of this new world. They created mankind to populate their world. To protect their creations, they placed men in Midgard and enclosed it with a fence made from Ymir’s eyelashes.

 

The surviving sources do not mention any specific problems caused by Ymir’s offspring, just their quickly growing number. Perhaps we are meant to infer that the giants caused chaos based on general knowledge about the nature of giants. Still, the gods didn’t have a problem mating with giant women. Odin’s mother was the giantess Bestla. Odin himself mated with the giantess Jord, who gave birth to Thor. It is not hard to see the killing of Ymir as an act of genocide.

 

Thor Was Hunting Giants for Sport?

thor battling giants painting
Thor’s Fight with the Giants, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872. Source: National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.

 

Following the creation of the new world, Thor was made the protector of mankind. He was charged with keeping the giants in check, battling them with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. But the stories of his battles with the giants often describe fun adventures rather than heroic acts of protection.

 

In one story, the gods are drinking with the giant Hrungnir following a fun bet that the giant lost in good humor. But Hrungnir becomes so intoxicated and belligerent that the gods grow tired of him and ask Thor to kill him. Thor approaches the giant from behind, intending to end him quickly. However, Hrungnir denounces this as cowardice. Never one to miss an opportunity to demonstrate his abilities, Thor accepts the challenge of a duel. The god of thunder wins and kills his opponent.

 

thor hymir fishing
Thor and Hymir fishing, SAM 66 79v, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

On another occasion, Thor went to visit the giant Hymir. Thor — who was famous for his ability to eat and drink — ate two whole oxen by himself in a single sitting at Hymir’s table. Not willing to slaughter more of his animals, Hymir told Thor that they must go fishing to catch their next meal. Thor killed the rest of the Hymir’s oxen to use their heads as bait. Hymir was devastated but continued to accommodate Thor, as was his duty as host.

 

As the two of them rowed out into the sea, they caught multiple enormous fish; more than enough for the evening’s meal. However, Thor was dissatisfied and insisted on rowing further out to catch even bigger fish. Thor eventually snagged something on his line that was big and strong enough to throw the god off balance. Hymir realized immediately that this was the terrible sea serpent Jormungandr, one of the few creatures able to challenge Thor’s strength. Hymir warned Thor that he should not pull the creature up since its gigantic body would cause tidal waves around the world. Thor was unconcerned. Eventually, in his fear, Hymir cut Thor’s fishing line and the serpent sank back to the depths of the ocean. Thor was so annoyed that he threw his host overboard and rowed away, presumably leaving Hymir to die.

 

Thor’s encounters with the giants are never described in terms of heroic protection. They are almost always stories of a strong warrior keen to show off his abilities. A warrior who hunts and kills giants for sport.

 

Building the Walls of Asgard: Dishonest Dealings?

odin riding sleipnir
Odin riding Sleipnir, SAM 66 75r, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

After the Aesir-Vanir war, the Aesir gods decided that they needed to fortify their realm against future enemies.

 

Hearing of their need, a builder came to Asgard and offered to build their walls. As payment he wanted the hand of Freyja in marriage and the sun and the moon. The gods were unwilling to pay the price, but Loki came up with a plan. At the time, Loki, a giant, was allowed to live in Asgard due to a blood brotherhood pact that he had made with Odin.

 

Loki suggested that they take the builder up on his deal but make the task impossible. The gods then told the builder that he would have to complete the work in a single season with the help of no man. They believed that he would not finish the walls, but they would get his season of labor for free. The builder agreed on the condition that his horse Svadilfari help him. The deal was struck.

 

It soon became apparent that Svadilfari was a uniquely strong and hard-working horse. With the help of this special steed, it looked like the builder would be able to finish the work prior to the deadline. The gods became angry at Loki for convincing them to make the deal and demanded that he fix the problem. Loki transformed into a beautiful mare and distracted Svadilfari with his feminine charms. Loki became pregnant while a mare and gave birth to the incredible eight-legged stallion called Sleipnir. He gifted the horse to Odin as his steed.

 

The gods were not obliged to pay the builder since he failed to complete his work. But after the incident, they discovered that the builder was a giant and killed him anyway.

 

While the gods may have blamed Loki for tricking them into the deal, no one forced them to cheat someone they believed to be a reputable craftsman. Their decision to kill the builder was based purely on bigotry.

 

Binding the Children of Loki

fenrir imprisoned
Fenrir imprisoned, AM738 4to 42v, c. 1680. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

Perhaps one of the worst crimes that can be attributed to the Aesir gods relates to their treatment of Loki’s children. Loki had several children in addition to Sleipnir.

 

With the giantess Angrboda, Loki had three children, the great serpent Jormungandr, the mighty wolf Fenrir, and the giantess Hel. Knowing nothing of the individual children, the Aesir decided that the offspring of such a monstrous union were too dangerous to be left unchecked. They decided to imprison each in a place where they could do the least harm.

 

They decided to throw the young and small serpent Jormungandr into the waters surrounding Midgard. This ended up being a dangerous decision. The serpent grew to such an enormous size that it ended up encircling the entire world and holding its tail in its mouth.

 

The wolf Fenrir was too strong to be subdued so they had to trick him into imprisoning himself. The gods made formidable chains and then suggested that Fenrir put them on and break them as a demonstration of his strength. The wolf agreed and did so easily multiple times. Eventually, the gods acquired some enchanted chains from the dwarves that were as light as ribbons but unbreakable. They asked Fenrir to repeat the same feat.

 

Duly suspicious, Fenrir only agreed to put on the chains if one of the gods would put their hand in his mouth as a sign of good faith. This was to guarantee that they would free him if he could not break the chains. The god Tyr agreed and sacrificed his hand to imprison Fenrir permanently.

 

The giantess Hel was born with a hideous visage. Half of her body was alive, and the other half dead. The gods found her appalling and sent her to rule Helheim, a realm of the dead. While a queen there, she was still banished from the world of the living.

 

loki sigyn painting denmark
Loki and Sigyn, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1817. Source: SMK Open, Denmark.

 

However, these are not the worst crimes that the Aesir committed against Loki’s children. He had two more children with the Aesir goddess Sigyn. Their names were Narfi and Vali.

 

The Aesir eventually threw Loki out of Asgard for his role in the death of the god Balder. As punishment, they also decided to chain him to a rock with a venomous snake hanging over his head, dripping burning poison onto him for all eternity.

 

But it seems that this was not sufficient punishment. The gods turned their wrath on Loki’s children. They turned Vali into a wolf so that he lost his senses and killed his brother Narfi, tearing his body to pieces. They then used Narfi’s entrails to tie Loki to his rock.

 

It is hard to describe the gods’ treatment of Loki’s children as anything other than persecution.

 

Ragnarök: Apocalypse or Justified Vengeance? 

ragnarok odin fenrir thor jormungandr
Ragnarök. Odin fights the Fenrir Wolf and Thor the Midgard Serpent, by Johannes Gehrts, 1903. Source: Norwegian Digital Learning Arena.

 

Ragnarök is a prophecy in Norse mythology about how the world will end. It is described as an apocalypse in which the forces of evil will attack Asgard. The forces of the gods will battle against the forces of the giants resulting in mutual destruction and the end of all life.

 

The apocalypse is heralded by many omens, including earthquakes that will allow Loki and Fenrir to break their chains. The disruption will also enable Hel to sail out of Helheim and Jormungandr to emerge from his waters.

 

ragnarok battle relief ernst alpers
Warriors Fight a Wolf and a Giant Snake, Ernst Alpers, 1867. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, United States.

 

Loki and his children will lead the attack on Asgard. Fenrir will devour Odin whole. Thor and Jormungandr will fight to the death. Thor will kill the serpent, but Jormungandr will spew so much poison onto Thor that he will die within minutes. Loki will kill Heimdall, and Tyr will be killed by Garm, Hel’s personal guard dog.

 

Considering the past actions of the gods, this attack hardly seems unprovoked. The gods seem to have sealed their fate through the callous way they treated those around them, especially Loki’s children.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica hold a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.