The Myth of Norse Discontinuity

2023-05-29 — Updated: 2024-03-02

First, a note on the term “pagan”: This is what most people seem to use when describing people who believe in Norse mythology. To me they are just the stories, because I’m surrounded by them. I’m a fish in water. However, I see the need for labeling it. “Norse mythology” is simple and descriptive enough to make sense, so that’s what I’ll default to.

If you read or listen to Americans on this subject you will often hear them say that Paganism, or northern mythology, or Asatru or whatever they may choose to call it, died a long time ago, and has long been replaced by Christianity. Therefore, anyone still telling stories of the same variety, or people calibrating their moral compass from these stories are simply LARPing being vikings. That they are playing pretend based on what they’ve seen in TV-shows or heard from YouTube-gurus, because they have no connection to the old Norse culture. While this is likely true for a lot of non-European pagans (which I find to be immensely cringe examples of true bugmanism), it’s a very different thing for me, an actual Norwegian.1

The mistake

These Americans tend to have this view that the populus equals what the books say. That he books say that around year 1000-ish Norway became Christian, and therefore the people must all be Jesus-lovers from that point on. That in the religion field of the Excel spreadsheet, Paganism was deleted, and Christianity was pasted in its place. And that, randomly, a thousand years later, a bunch of LARP’ers decided to pretend to be living in year 900, without having any actual connection to it.

Sure, if you were to look at a list of countries and their religions in the 1300s, you would see Norway listed as a Roman catholic country. However go to rural Norway, and all the stories you hear are of the kind descendant of the world before Christianity pretended to be “the religion that people in Norway believe”. Stories of trolls, elves, and gnomes.2

We have mountains named things like Jotunheim. A jotun, for those that don’t know, is a sort of god-giant from Norse mythology. The first creatures of the world, and the opposition of the Æsir.

“Til valhall!” is a war-cry used in the Norwegian army, especially in the Telemark Battalion.

Reading the inscriptions on old rune staves, you will find classic insults towards cheaters, gays and fat people that have survived to this day. My favorite being “deigræv”, an insult calling someone fat, that translates to dough-ass.

Our streets bear viking names, our cities bear names of the Æsir (I live right by Heimdal) and are adorned with statues of jarls, which also feature on our coats of arms.

Our weekdays include Tirsdag (Týr’s day), Onsdag (Odin’s day), Torsdag (Thor’s day), Fredag (Frigg’s day), which are all Æsir.

Despite the explicit religious practices having faded, we are still extremely noticeably descended from the Old Norse heritage and culture.

I liken this to the thing that happened when the Norwegian state decided that the correct way to pronounce numbers is from left to right. 34 is to be said as “thirty-four” (trettifire). Most pronounced it as “four-and-thirty” (firogtredve). It’s been decades since they imposed this, and if you only consume official government media, or only talk to people who live in big cities, you would think everyone changed over. However, many people still say “four-and-thirty”, especially in rural areas.

Imperfect continuity

None of this is to say that we have a perfect surviving verbal tradition of Norse mythology. For instance, we have had hundreds of years where practicing anything other than Lutheran orthodoxy was strictly prohibited. Therefore, much of the most overtly “religious-sounding” parts of Norse mythology have faded. You won’t find anyone in rural Norway that believes in the Æsir and commits blot because their family has done that for 40 generations.

However, enough of the culture has survived that deciding to stick more to the Norse tradition rather than Christianity, for a Norwegian, is very far from the act of sheer bugmanism that it is often made to sound like. It’s not like a Swede suddenly deciding he’s a Buddhist after reading the Wikipedia page and listening to some Alan Watts.

We have a real connection to the culture. That connection may not give grounds for committing blot as some would like to pretend, but it is definitely stronger than others think. And now that Christianity is watered down to mean nothing here in Norway, our ties to actual Christianity are no better than our ties to our own mythology.

  1. Of course there are movements and groups in Norway too that are cringe imitations of what they imagine the viking ages were like. Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost is an officially recognized religious society in Norway that mixes together “current nature-religions” and “neo-heathen experience” to basically make itself whatever you want it to be. This is just a bunch of nerds pretending to be spiritual while painting themselves with cool viking branding, rather than any serious religious belief. As evidenced by their softie version of blot (ritual sacrifice), where they dress up like they’re going to a fair, yet they never seem to kill anything, nor spread any blood. Instead, sacrificing teddy bears, poems and groceries. ↩︎

  2. Americans and reconstructionists tend to only emphasize the role of the Æsir and Vanir, ignoring how most people’s stories of mythical nature were about fellow Midgard creatures like trolls, elves, gnomes, fairies and vetter. ↩︎