The Norse God Family Tree
UPDATE 11/23/2015: I made a poster version! Check it out!
I realize this is a weird way to lay out a family tree. In my defense, it’s a weird family. And also a very inconsistent family – a lot of these relations are vaguely defined at best, and in some cases different sources directly contradict each other. The most comprehensive primary source, written by Snorri Sturluson, is the least reliable by far, because it’s partly true but badly cited, and partly made up, and we can’t be really sure which is which. But since the choice was use Snorri or leave half of these descriptions blank, I went with Snorri.
Now, onto the individual descriptions of all those gods up there.
No, wait, first, some classifications (or as close to classifications as medieval Norsemen got)”
Aesir: the gods.
Vanir: also the gods, but from a different tribe.
Jotnar (singular Jotünn): usually translated as “giants” but probably closer to “devourers.” If the Aesir represent order and civilization, the Jotnar are primordial chaos and destruction.
NOW onto the individual descriptions of all those gods up there.
According to Norse myth, Ymir was the first being to form within the primeval chaos that preceded everything. Well, him and a cow (see Auðumbla). It seems like everyone descended form him, to the extent that we can be sure that anyone descended from anyone. Pre-Christian European societies weren’t big on organizing/rationalizing their pantheons. At some point, Odin and his brothers killed Ymir and made the cosmos out of his corpse.
Here’s the first of many deities about whom we know basically nothing. In this case, we know that his name means something like “dangerous striker,” he’s married to Laufey, and together they produced Loki. Based only on that, I’m guessing he was a jerk.
I could find even less on Laufey. She’s only mentioned in relation to her son Loki, and even that’s not always clear. Seriously, at one point Loki’s referred to as “son of Fárbauti and Laufey or Nál.”
Aegir and Rán
Aegir and Ran were sea giants who live beneath the ocean with their nine daughters. Aegir’s in charge of friendly, bountiful seas, and Rán is in charge of seas that drown sailors. Sometimes they throw parties for other gods.
Himinglaeva, Dufa, Blodughadda, Hefring, Udr, Hronn, Bylgja, Drofn, and Kolga
These are all sort of spirits of the waves, or specific aspects of the ocean – shine, transparency, etc. I’m thinking maybe it’s the seafaring viking god version of how distant northern tribesmen have, what, fifty words for “snow?” Although I’ve also been told that’s a racist myth, so who knows.
Not much to her other than her name means something like “grief-bringer” and she and Loki made some horrible monster babies.
Jotünn? It’s really not clear.
Finally, someone we do know something about. When I started researching for this, I assumed Loki was some machiavellian schemer, or at least a clever jokester. But he’s not. He’s just an asshole. Basically every story about him has him being a huge jerk for no reason, getting in trouble, and then (maybe) fixing things.
He steals, complains, kidnaps, kills, and at one point shaves Sif’s head. There’s one skaldic poem that is literally just pages of Loki barging into a feast and insulting everyone. I don’t know who cast Tom Hiddleston in the part, but knowing what I know now I might have gone with Danny Devito.
Eventually Loki managed to piss everyone off enough that they chained him up in a cave where venom drips onto his face forever. His wife Sygin (not pictured) was loyal enough to stay with him, and block what venom she could with a bowl. Wikipedia says her name is old norse for “Victorious Girl-friend,” which could be literal, in that Loki put a ring on it, or it could be ironic, in that she wound up tending to him in prison for the rest of eternity. But my money’s on neither, because when you’re translating things across a thousand years of languages and cultures, meanings get kind of screwy.
The story here is that someone had agreed to build a fortified settlement for the gods in exchange for Freyja, the sun, and the moon. The gods set an unrealistic deadline in the hopes that the builder would fail and the work would free, but Loki convinced them to allow the builder to use his horse. Except it turns out the horse (named Svaðilfari) is a super-horse, so the work goes super-quickly and the gods get super-mad. They order Loki to fix the problem, which he apparently took to mean “have sex with a horse.”
Heimdall is the god’s watchman. He stands at the end of a fabulous rainbow bridge, ever watchful in case of Ragnarok (read: the apocalypse). When Ragnarok comes knocking, Heimdall’s job is to blow real hard on his horn so everyone knows. I don’t know what the horn was supposed to look like, but this is my favorite illustration of it.
Fenrir is a giant fearsome horrible big bad wolf who spends most of his time eating things he shouldn’t. Or he did – the gods eventually managed to trick him into being chained up forever by playing a “game” where they bet him he couldn’t break out of a bunch of chains. I know these are big important myths that had deep significance to a lot of people, but I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m reading about a bunch of third-graders. Anyway. On the third try, they used special unbreakable chains, but Fenrir got suspicious and demanded that someone put their hand in his mouth as collateral. And that’s how Tyr lost his hand.
During Ragnarok, Fenrir breaks free, eats a good portion of the world, and kills Odin.
Jormungandr is pretty much the coolest explanation for the edge of the world that I’ve ever heard. None of this “and the water falls off into nothing forever” stuff – the Norse world is bound on all sides by a giant snake monster. Thor spends some time fishing for him, and actually manages to snag him at one point, but a nearby giant cuts the line for fear that Thor was triggering Ragnarok.
Jotünn, I think.
Hel rules helheim, aka niflheim, aka the norse underworld. She’s portrayed as looking half-dead, with blueish skin. Creepy corpse lady? Brooding goth? I’ve never heard anyone say vikings *didn’t* wear pounds of eyeliner. But regardless of appearances, from what I’ve read, Hel actually seems like a pretty cool lady. Her realm is apparently nice enough, and she provides the dead with food and lodging. A couple times she even offered to return folks to life, although there were strings attached and to my knowledge no one actually made it.
Loki’s eight-legged son/Odin’s eight-legged steed.
So, it’s not strictly true that Ymir was the first being in existence. He was tied for first with a primeval supercow named Auðumbla. The first thing Ymir did was drink Auðumbla’s milk (straight from the source, if you believe the paintings) and the first thing Auðumbla did was to lick a block of salt.
Tyr is an interesting one. He’s referenced enough in stories, sayings, and place names that he was probably a really big deal at some point, maybe even the leader of the gods, but by the time things started getting written down he’d fallen out of favor. The best explanation I could find is that as the culture and circumstances of the people worshipping changed, the gods they chose to worship did too. Tyr out, Odin in.
But I should actually describe the guy, shouldn’t I? Tyr is a god of law, justice, and oaths. Odin is, too, but where Odin’s all about will and inspiration and knowledge and generally being a canny old bastard, Tyr is more about law and responsibility and caring for those under your power.
Mimir is a god of wisdom and knowledge and is mostly important for two reasons. First, Odin sacrificed an eye at the well of Mimir in exchange for inner wisdom. Second, at the end of the Aesir-Vanir War, he was sent with Hoenir to live with the Vanir as a hostage and wound up beheaded. But it was ok, because Odin embalmed his head with magic herbs and now it keeps him company and gives advice.
Mother of Odin, Vili, and Vé. And that’s about it.
There’s even less info out there on Borr. Basically the only time he, Bestla, or Búri come up is in lists of Odin’s ancestors.
Well. There is one other cool thing about Búri. Remember that salt block Auðumbla was licking? Búri was inside. I’m not sure if that makes the cow his mother, but I figure it’s close enough to connect them in the family tree.
Fjorgynn is Frig’s dad. I wish I could say more.
Vili and Vé
Aesir (I think)
Here are two more we know very, very little about. Their positions as Odin’s brothers and long historical footprint seem to indicate that they were pretty big deals at some point, but there aren’t many primary sources around that even mention them at this point. We do know that Odin, Vili, and Vé are sort of about inspiration, conscious intention, and the sacred, respectively. And we also kind of know that they all got together to beat up Ymir back in the beginning of everything, although that might also be an invention of Snorri Sturluson’s.
Hoenir is either a frightening war-leader or a complete doofus, depending on which accounts you read. The most famous one involves him and Mimir being traded to the Vanir as hostages following the Aesir-Vanir war. The Vanir look at Hoenir, figure “this guy seems like a leader” and start asking him to make decisions for them. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it turns out that while Hoenir has the body, Mimir has the brains, and when Mimir isn’t around to advise him Hoenir refuses to make any decisions. So the Vanir behead Mimir. Poor guy can’t catch a break.
Frigg is a sort of mother spirit, as well as a famously adept practitioner of seidr, which is a traditional Norse form of divination involving weaving thread. Frigg is very similar to Freya – in fact, people have made the case that they were actually the same goddess in previous traditions, who was in the process of being separated into two when Christianity came along and replaced the whole shebang. If they’re right, then Frigg and Freya are sort of goddesses being born.
Odin kind of blows my mind. Like, he’s definitely the leader of the pantheon, which would lead me to expect that he’d be big or strong or serious or respectable or, you know, leadery. Maybe not a god of war, but at least in the same ballpark. But he’s not – or at least not the way you might expect. Odin is sometimes associated with war, but more often wisdom, wit, learning, and magic. Most of the stories about him have him wandering off alone and doing things like trading his eye for wisdom, or hanging himself as a sacrifice to himself, which sounds like some post-modern take on godhood, but then, a lot of Odin sounds like some post-modern take on godhood. Speaking of which, if you’re looking for a post-modern take on godhood featuring Odin as a main character, you might try American Gods by Neil Gaimon. I read it last year and loved it.
Jörd is a personification of the earth. It seems like she’s used interchangeably with the more general concept of earth. I’m not sure what that means for her relationship with Odin, but it produced Thor, so who am I to judge?
Goddess of joy itself. She eventually died of grief over her dead husband, Baldr. Or, in another version of the story, didn’t die and never married him in the first place because she liked Hoðr more.
Poor, poor Baldr. I’ve heard him referred to as Norse Jesus, but only because he died. If you’re at a party at somehow get on the subject of Norse myths, but it’s not the kind of party where you can talk about Loki and A Horse, I’d go with this one instead.
Baldr was the totally beautiful god of radiance and love and light and everyone just loved the dude. And everything was pretty great until one night his mother, Frigg, had a dream predicting his death. So she went to every single thing in existence and demanded that it not harm Baldr, and every single thing in existence promised not to harm Baldr. Except for mistletoe, because it’s small and harmless and Frigg didn’t think to ask it. Perhaps you can see where this is going.
One day the gods are playing their new favorite game, throw-stuff-at-Baldr-and-watch-it-not-hurt-him, except for Hoðr, who is blind, and Loki, who is a jerk. Loki offers to help Hoðr shoot an arrow at Baldr, and even provides the (mistletoe) arrow. And that’s how Baldr died, Hoðr was revenge-killed, and Loki finally did something bad enough to be chained up forever.
The blind god I just mentioned who got tricked into killing his brother Baldr. Or, in another telling, the winner in a competition with Baldr for Nanna’s love. Or, in my roommate’s telling, “We literally just watched Game of Thrones, Korwin. Hodor doesn’t have a beard.”
Bragi is the god of poetry, and I think he’s the most metal member of the Norse pantheon. He’s so poetic that he has runes on his tongue.
Iðunn takes care of the fruits that the gods eat to maintain their immortality. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, here is my favorite Iðunn story:
Odin, Loki, and Hoenir encountered a giant named Thjazi and agreed to share a meal. Loki, who is a jerk, got into a fight with Thjazi (something about who got the choicest cuts of meat). Thjazi turned into an eagle, snagged Loki in his talons, flew up high, and threatened him until Loki agreed to bring him Iðunn and her fruits. Later, when everyone got back home, Loki tricked Iðunn into wandering into the woods where Thjazi waited to kidnap her.
When the other gods realized what he’d done, they seized Loki and threatened him with all kinds of horrible things unless he brought Iðunn back. So he turned into a hawk, flew to Thjazi’s house, turned Iðunn into a nut, and carried her back, with eagle-Thjazi chasing close behind. The other gods saw them coming and prepared kindling, lighting it just after Loki flew past and just in time to burn eagle-Thjazi to a crisp.
So, in summary, Loki kidnapped a goddess to save his own skin, and then returned that goddess to save his own skin, and in the end someone who wasn’t Loki died.
He seems to be a god of law, justice, and government, but there’s so little written down about him that that’s basically all we know.
Sif had totally bodacious golden hair and loved it, but then Loki cut it all off while she was sleeping. Did I mention he’s a jerk? Loki’s a jerk. Anyway, Thor god mad, and went to kill Loki, but Loki got him to spare his life on the condition that he find Sif some better hair. Now Sif has a wig made of gold.
Thor is strength personified. He’s also a god of thunderstorms, oak trees, healing and hallowing, but mostly he’s a god of being a total badass. He is fierce and honorable. He is not, however, very wise, and his go-to solution for when he has a problem is to hit it until it stops moving. He has a famous hammer (Mjolnir) as well as a slightly-less famous belt and pair of gloves.
Oh! And there’s one story where a giant steals Thor’s hammer, hides it, and says he’ll only give it back if Freya marries him. Thor is forced to crossdress and pose as the bride until they bring out the hammer for the wedding, whereupon he grabs it and beats everyone involved to death.
Literally nothing to say here except that she and Thor got jiggy.
Goddess of mountains and wintery things like skiing. Did you know they had skis in medieval Scandinavia? I had no idea, but after a few google searches I feel like I’m the last person to learn this.
Anyhow, after the gods killed Thjazi (see Iðunn), his daughter Skadi showed up demanding reparations. There a few couple parts to this, including a bit where Loki tied one end of a rope to his balls and the other end to a live goat for a game of tug-of-war, but the upshot of the whole thing was that Skadi got Njord as a husband and they went off to live together. Problem was, Njord lived on a sunny beach and Skadi lived in a cold dark place on a mountain, and neither could stand the idea of living in the other’s place, so they split up. I don’t know if it counts as a divorce, because I don’t know much about what viking marriages entailed in the first place, but I’ve started calling Skadi the goddess of divorcees anyway.
Wealthy, somber god of the sea. Apparently very wealthy, and possessed of the most beautiful legs (seriously, that comes up.) Married and then divorced from Skadi.
I have no idea who Ullr was. He was apparently a big deal at some point, but the mentions of him that survive today tell us basically nothing. Like, “all this stuff was happening and also Ullr was there, you know, Ullr, that guy we all know about.”
And that’s all we know about him. I found someone saying that there might be a lost story of him sailing across the ocean on a shield?
Modi, Thrud, Magni
Their names apparently mean “Angry,” “Strength,” and “Strong,” so I drew them as bodybuilders.
All I know about Gerðr is that Freyr thought she was really, really hot. So hot that he traded a sword that fought on its own for her hand in marriage.
Freyr was a god of fertility, harvests, wealth, and peace. Apparently he was depicted with a golden board, a collapsable ship, and/or a raging erection. While I was reading about him, I found some descriptions of priests and priestesses of Freyr, who would ride chariots with statues of him from town to town starting giant parties everywhere they went, like some medieval effigy party bus.
Beautiful goddess of love and fertility (which is anthropologist for sex). She was also an accomplished seer and weaver, and led the valkyries. It’s possible that she’s the same goddess as Frigg, but I already went into more detail on that in her article so I won’t bother repeating it here.
Some people have theorized that Oðr might be the same as Odin, but called something different. Some people have theorized that those two gods were gradually being divided into two by their worshippers. I have no idea.
Whew – done! Well, mostly done. I didn’t include everyone, and if you think some of these descriptions are scant, you should see some of the ones I didn’t include. Example: Loki’s two brothers, Byleistr and Helblindi, who are mentioned like twice as being Loki’s brothers, and that’s it. Who were they? What did they represent? Were they important? Were they even relevant? Were they just the product of some poor preliterate soul’s failed attempt to remember the song of his people? I doubt it. But it’s possible, right?
I have no idea what I’ll do next. Maybe some women’s history – I just learned about Nancy Wake and now she’s pretty much my hero.
EDIT 6/29/2015: I totally forgot that I had intended to link this site on Norse mythology. I’m no expert, so I can’t say much about it for sure, but I thought it was really, really interesting. Especially the page on polytheistic theology and ethics.
EDIT 11/24/2015: While I updated the names on the poster for consistency, I totally forgot to update the comic here until now. I went with the modern English rather than the old Norse, because in old Norse Thor is Þórr)