Peter Andreas Munch was one of the few Norwegian historians whose works filtered out into the vast records of world history. Within his homeland he was regarded as a great historian, with other works in archaeology and anthropology. His works had a nationalistic flair and Munch had a talent for finding new sources of knowledge and exploiting them to match his research into Norway’s independence. He had a theory that Norwegian peoples first immigrated from the far north and so were a separate race of “Norsemen,” instead of “Scandinavian,” such as the Swedes and Danes, thus leading Norwegians to trace their roots and to gain their own independent state.

Munch wrote the History of the Norwegian People, first published in 1851–63, and became the main authority on the nation’s history. By the introduction of information on Norse mythology, Munch performed a service, establishing a sense of historical continuity between Norway’s independent, warlike past, and its ideas of nationalism, especially romantic nationalism, in which Munch was a prominent figure, from poetry to folklore.

Munch entered the world of Norway’s gods and legends to inspire a nationalistic feeling among Norway’s scholars, school students and the general public. Norway had not been an independent state since the Union of Kamlar. During the 19th Century period of Swedish rule, there was a huge resurgence of nationalism, and the romantic nationalist movement grew enormously strong, with many poems and sagas revisited and updated, most with the gods and heroes being the main subject. Munch himself edited and published many such works, stressing the uniqueness of their local culture, which was distinctly “Norwegian.”

Norway was one of the northern countries who held the pagan beliefs of their gods, called Æsir, much longer than most. They took tome time to bow down to the new clergy of Christianity. Norwegians were interested in searching out old traditions, and listening to tales of ancestral prowess. The Christian church naturally outlawed the speaking of old gods when in religious gatherings, which was much resented by believers of the old faith.

Munch interpreted this mythology as describing the gods as mighty warriors, who looked kindly upon only those killed in battle. Beautiful and strong Norwegian women ruled over both Norway’s scenery and its forms of justice. The gods battled and held sway over others: the Vanir, whom they held a truce with; the Giants, who the Æsir battled at any opportunity; the Dark-elves, dwarfs and Nightmares, who were women who stole sex from men while terrorising their sleeping minds. The Æsir’s kingdom, separated from Earth by the Bifrost Bridge, was named Asgard, to where all men who fell in battle were taken by Valkyries, where they could fight and kill each other all day, then stand unharmed at the end of the day to eat endless supplies of boar meat and ale. The rest of the dead went to Hel, to be tormented or just to stand there, moaning. The main god, Odin, utilised such animals as wolves and ravens for his messengers and servants. He was a mighty warrior who used a magical spear, which became a favorite of early battles, and could be used to possess the enemy before the battle in early Norway. All Odin’s sons were placed among the higher deities. Thor, the guardian of men from the wild forces of nature, which were personified into the Giants. Balder, the holiest of gods, who radiated white light, and was god of innocence and purity. Other sons were Vidar, Vali, Meili and Tyr, the true god of war, courage and heroism.

The god’s enemies, the Giants, were said to dwell in a land of giants, called Jotunheim, which was separated from the Æsir by the river Irving which never froze.

There were several supernatural creatures in these myths, who helped or guided people. The Norns were the fates, a race of women of which three, Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, direct the immutable laws of the universe, the destinies of people and the Æsir. Not a person shall live one day longer than the Norns allow, so when death came those around the ill person know that it was their time to go. This could have led to not fearing death, as the Norns would allow the fatal blow to strike only when it is time. Familiar and Attendant spirits were supernatural women who directed people upon their course of destiny. Familiar spirits give good luck, and Attendant spirits formed animals to accompany people. To call upon a spirit in battle, would be stronger and more courageous. Valkyries also had a hand in fate, choosing the men about to fall in battle to guide them up to Æsir.

Munch’s book Norse Mythology has been a strong instrument of building nationalist feeling in Norway’s past, and because it was written by a famous Norwegian historian, it was taken much more seriously than other folklore, with future meaning searched for behind every god and glimpse of the past.

Reviewed by Kristian Mundy
Nordic Notes, Vol 1, 1997