What Are the Major Elements of Germanic Mythology?

J.E. Holloway

Germanic mythology is the set of religious and supernatural beliefs shared by the populations of Northern Europe before their conversion to Christianity. The term "Germanic" usually encompasses cultures speaking a Germanic language, and therefore refers to modern-day Germany and Austria, the Netherlands, and parts of Belgium, Scandinavia, England and Iceland. There are several major branches of Germanic mythology, separated by time and space, but they share some key elements.

Germanic languages are spoken in modern-day Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, parts of Belgium, Scandinavia, England, and Iceland.
Germanic languages are spoken in modern-day Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, parts of Belgium, Scandinavia, England, and Iceland.

The Germanic cosmology seems to have been based on the idea of a number of distinct worlds, each with its own inhabitants. The world inhabited by humans was in the middle of the universe; this is the origin of the term "Middle Earth." Other realms were inhabited by gods, by the dead or by other types of supernatural beings.

Germanic mythology involves the existence of a number of gods and goddesses, each with particular powers and responsibilities. Some of these are unique to particular peoples or times, but others are shared. Shared gods include Woden — also called Wotan, Odin or Wotanaz — the god of magic and poetic inspiration. In Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, the god of rulers and the divine ancestor of kings was known as Odin, or sometimes Woden. Following the conversion of the English to Christianity, Woden remained part of royal genealogies, reduced to the status of a human hero.

Other major gods of Germanic mythology include Donar, Thunor or Thor, the god of thunder. Odin's wife is known as Frigg or Frige, while Freyja or Freo is known as the goddess of romantic love and beauty. The classical writer Tacitus describes an earth goddess named Nerthus, who may be related to the later Norse god Njord, the god of the sea and father of Freyja.

In addition to the gods, Germanic mythology involves a number of human or semi-divine heroes, many of whom have supernatural powers of their own. One of the most widespread of these is Weland, also called Weyland or Volund, a smith who could craft objects with magical properties, such as a pair of wings which allowed him to fly. Weland appears in Old Norse poetry and art, as well as in Anglo-Saxon place names and carvings.

The study of Germanic mythology covers a wide geographical area and a long period of time. To further complicate matters, writing was rare in Germanic societies prior to the introduction of Christianity. Almost everything we know about Germanic mythology comes from records written by Christians or Roman authors who may have distorted or misunderstood the religion they were describing. As a result, it is difficult to say which elements of Germanic mythology were truly consistent over the whole of the Germanic world.

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