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Norse Mythology vs. Greek Mythology

Introduction:

When starting to think about the Vikings and how they perceived the world we came to think about their religion, which in many ways is described in their myths. This leads to a second thought, where did their religion come from or did they make it up themselves? Greek mythology is in many ways similar to Norse mythology. Because of this we have compared these two mythologies and how they might have been a reflection of each society.

Definition of the Word Mythology:

If we are to compare two different mythologies it is important that you know exactly what we mean when we write mythology.

As we understand it, the word myth was derived from the Greek word "mythos". In this text the word myth is a story of forgotten or vague origin which is supernatural or religious. A story was made up to explain or rationalise one or more aspects of the world.

It is also important to remember that these myths that are given as examples in our document have at some point been believed to be true by the people in the societies that used or originated them. Therefore it is clearly separated from the everyday speech meaning of the word myth, which mostly refers to an imaginary story. (I2)

The Norns and the Fates

The Norns

The Norns exist in the Norse mythology as the three creatures that determine Fate. Before they came to Asgard time did not exist. Because of this, one can say that the Norns are above the gods in such meaning that the gods can not stop the Norns from doing their job, which is to create time. Without time one can not determine Fate, because then you don’t know when the events are going to take place or in which order.

The Norns visit each being, human or god, immediately after they are borne to determine his or her future. Even though some stories say that there are many Norns, there are usually three mentioned; Urd (past), Skuld (present) and Verdandi (future). These creatures live by the first root of Yggdrasil (the world tree) next to a well, which is known as the Well of Fate. Every morning they come out of the cave they spend their night in, then scoop up water and mix it with the sand around the tree to create magic dough. They spread it on Yggdrasil to prevent it from become rotten and preserve the life spirit of the tree. (I1) (B1) (B4)          

The Fates

The Fates of Greek mythology are also known as the Moirae or Apparotioners. These three females decide how long every individual is going to live. They were sometimes considered superior to the gods. They were called Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Drawer of Fates) and Atropos (Inevitable). Clotho comes to the newborn and spins out the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and decides what is going to happen to this being and Atropos cuts it off. (I1) (B2)

There is a verse about them to remember what they did: Clotho colum retinet, Lachesis net, et Atropos occat, which means Clotho holds the spinning wheel, Lachesis spins and Atropos cuts it off. (B3)

They are often imagined sitting around a cauldron or a spinning wheel. (I1) (B2)

Comparison

In both sets of mythologies the creatures that determine Fate are identical in purpose, gender and number. They are both above the gods and their jobs are inevitable for everyone. No one can go against the Fates. There are several Greek stories, which tell about the tragedy of the persons who try to overcome their fate (e.g. Oedipus). In Norse mythology Odin himself learns about his fate (being killed during Ragnarök, the doomsday, by the wolf Fenris) from the Norns, and there is nothing he can do about it but prepare himself and his allies.

Both the Norns and the Fates were thought as sitting around something circular, this may represent the circle of life, which is not exclusive to these myths.

If we consider the mythologies as a reflection of the society, the conclusion is that both the Greeks and Vikings believed that their lives were already decided and one can only follow his/hers fate. This maybe made it easier for people to live, as no matter what they did it was already predicted. As written, the power of the Weird Sisters was inevitable for everyone. (I1)

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The Norse Creation Myth Compared to the Greek and Roman Creation Myth

The Romans copied their mythology from the Greeks, therefor we will only mention the Greek creation myth in this text. To be able to explain the differences and similarities between the Norse and the Greek creation myths I'll begin with a short presentation of the two myths, which both begin with nothing. The world is nothing but a dark and void place.(I3)

The Greek Creation Myth

In the darkness of the Greek creation myth there is a bird with black wings (I3). This bird is making a golden egg from which the God of Love is coming (I3). One of the shells from the egg becomes the sky, which is also called Uranus, while the other shell becomes the earth, Gaia (I3).

Later on there is a fight between the God of Loves child and grandchildren (I3). The child of the God of Love had heard from the Oracle that his son should eat him up so when his son Zeus was a little boy his father instead ate him up(I3). Trying to run away from his fate, he is punished and at least Zeus and his brothers win against their father (I3).

Zeus has two sons who have one responsibility each. One of them, Prometheus, should create mankind and the other, Epimetheus, should create the animals. They should also give their creations one gift. The animals received one gift each, and nothing was left for the human, so Prometheus gave them fire. Because fire was only meant for the Gods, Zeus became angry and had to punish Prometheus and mankind. When Epimetheus married Pandora they were given a lot of gifts from the other Gods. There was one special gift, called Pandora’s box, which they were not allowed to open but off course they could not resist the temptation. Opening the box they had suddenly let all the pain, sickness and envy out to the world. There was nothing they could do to stop it. Later on they heard a sound, like "let me out", from the box. They opened the box one more time and out flew all hope.(I3)

The Norse Creation Myth

The Norse creation myth begins, as I have already written, with nothing but dark chaos. This nothing, called Ginnungagap, is placed south of Nieflheim, where there is only ice and north of Muspelheim where there is nothing but glowing embers (I1, 5).

In Ginnungagap the ice from Nieflheim and the parks from Muspelheim meet and create an evil giant called Ymir. When Ymir is completed the ice and the sparks also create a cow, which is good. The cow feeds the giant Ymir, and itself is licking blocks of ice. One day when it is licking a huge ice block the god of Love, Bure, comes out of it. (I4, 5)

Later on Bures offspring has a struggle against Ymir and the other giants. Ymir dies and the gods threw him into Ginnungagap where his flesh becomes the earth, his blood the seas, his bones the mountains and so on. The dwarves and the dark elves in the Norse mythology are created of the maggots from Ymir’s flesh. (I5, B1)

When some of the gods are walking on a shore they see two tree trunks and give them souls, motions and senses. These become the two first humans, Ask and Embla. (I5, B1)

Analysis

In the Norse creation story the world was made from an evil giant (I5), while the world in the Greek creation story was made from an egg (I3). I think the Greek people looked at the world in a different way. Maybe they thought the world was more fragile than the Norse people did. Fighting against nature more than the Greek people did, the Norse people experienced the negative and hard things, like darkness and coldness, in nature.

In both stories there was a struggle between a god, who later on would be the ruler of the other gods, and someone else (I1). In the Greek creation story, Zeus fought against his father (I3) while Odin fought against the giant, Ymir. I think the ruler of the gods had to show everyone that they were good and brave enough to be the leaders. Then the other gods and the humans could respect and trust them. It is also very interesting to draw parallels to Oedipus (B6) and Beowulf (B7). Beowulf had to give his life to show his people that he was their right king (B7). A king could never be afraid of death nor to struggle. Oedipus did not have to struggle physically, but instead he solved a riddle and that way he saved the people (B6). Not solving the riddle he would never have become the king.

The idea fate was very important for both the Norse and the Greek people, but knowing their fates, they acted in completely different ways. The Greeks always tried to run away from their fate (I3). In the Greek creation story, one might have noticed that Zeus father ate Zeus so that the fate would not be fulfilled, but you can again draw a parallel to Oedipus (B6), which is a story based on running away from fates. In Norse mythology they instead prepared themselves to meet fates (I3).

The Greek gods punished the people with the opening of Pandora’s box. Here it is easy to draw a parallel to the Christian religion, which also lets the people live with a sin (B8). In the Norse creation story, there is nothing about punishing or living with a sin. I think the Greek people were more often punished because they always ran away from their fates, something that the Norse people never did. Instead there is nothing about hope in the Norse creation story, compared to the Greek creation story where a bird flew out of Pandora’s box with hope (I3). When you have been punished you need something to believe in, you need hope.

In Norse mythology there are a lot of elves and witches compared to the Greek mythology (I1, 5). What could the reason be? I think that imaginations about witches and elves are much easier to have when you are living in a cold country with a lot of dark forests. Perhaps the Norse people had even more stories and thoughts about the elves before the Norse mythology came and when it did come, they involved them in the new mythology/religion. Here I think you can draw a parallel to the Christening of the Norse people. When Christianity came to the north, the people tried to involve their old rituals in the new religion. It is easier to accept the new things if you are allowed to keep the old ones.

Similar Words

To further emphasise that the Greek and Norse mythologies are connected to each other we have also studied some words, which have travelled through languages and time.

Urd, which means Fate is related to the old English word wyrd

, which originally meant Fate too. Today we have the word left as the Weird Sisters. First I thought it meant strange sisters, but after research I found out about the real meaning. They are the three sisters of Destiny, which play a big part in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (B5)

In Greece Odeion was the name of a sort of a construction, which was often used as a theatre. Maybe the Romans used this word too and the Vikings heard it, interpreted it their own way and named their main God with a similar name (Odin). Lots of names may have been travelling around like this. Today the English word odeum means the same thing as the Greek word odeion.

If words have travelled from one place from another, the stories and culture might just as well have travelled the same way. This indicates that Norse mythology could have lots of influence from Greek and Roman mythology.

Conclusion

After comparing the different mythologies, we have come to the conclusion that they are strongly connected to each other. The main stories e.g. the creation myths and ones about the fates are very similar. The Norse probably borrowed their stories from the Romans, who had copied their mythology from the Greeks. Similar to the mythologies, which have travelled, some words have come with them.

The few differences are a result of local interpretation, environment, languages and the countries’ earlier history.

By: Åsa Birgersdotter and Marie-Therese Nilsson Vinnars

 

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Last modified: september 24, 1999