The best books about Norse mythology (from an archaeologist)

The Books I Picked & Why

Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

By Carolyne Larrington

Book cover of Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

Why this book?

There are many books that aim to provide a succinct, coherent introduction to the subject of Norse mythology. Few, however, manage to so with the clarity and authority of Professor Carolyne Larrington’s The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes. This book deals with all of the critical aspects of the mythos: from Ginnungagap (‘the howling void’) to Ragnarök (‘the doom of the gods’) by way of Yggdrasil the world-tree, the divine families (the Æsir and the Vanir) and the giants who opposed them, as well as the doings of human heroes like Sigurd the Volsung. This is an excellent introduction to the subject that includes retellings of many of the most important myths alongside illustrations and vital historical and literary context. If you are just beginning your journey into this realm of monsters and gods, there are few better places to start.

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The Prose Edda

By Snorri Sturluson, Jesse L. Byock

Book cover of The Prose Edda

Why this book?

For those who want to venture further up the river of Old Norse mythlore, the best advice I can give is to first travel to the source. Without the efforts of the thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, our knowledge and understanding of Norse mythology would be greatly impoverished. His Edda, written in Old Norse in around 1220, was the first systematic attempt to explain the pre-Christian mythology of Scandinavia and northern Europe in a way that would make sense to medieval contemporaries. Written primarily as a handbook for the poets of his own time, Snorri’s portraits of Thor, Odin, Loki, Freyr et al. and his account of their dwellings and doings in Ásgard (‘god-home’) and Jötunheim (‘giant-land’) established the dominant (and in some cases only) images of the northern myth-world. This translation, by distinguished Old Norse scholar Jesse Byock, reliably renders the original into readable modern English. Although it omits some of the more dry and technical passages of the original text, it includes a substantial introduction that places Snorri in the context of his time and explores how and why his book is organized in the way it has been passed down. This edition also includes some very useful appendices, genealogical tables, notes and recommendations for further reading.

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The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

By Unknown, Andy Orchard

Book cover of The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

Why this book?

Snorri did not write his Edda in a vacuum, and the mythological and heroic poems collected in the thirteenth century Codex Regius (and a handful of other manuscripts) provide a snapshot of the sort of raw material from which his book was constructed. The apparent antiquity of these poems (quite how old remains a matter of debate) led to them being labelled the ‘Elder’ Edda and, although in their preserved form they are products of the Middle Ages, they powerfully evoke the strange and esoteric world of northern antiquity. In content the mythological poems encompass, amongst much else, Völuspá (the prophetic vision of a sorceress revealing the breaking and rebirth of the world at Ragnarök and the events that will precipitate it), Hávamál (the gnomic wisdom of Odin, including an account of his self-mortifying pursuit of occult knowledge) and Lokasenna (in which the god Loki provides a definitive example of how to ruin a family dinner party). Just as thrilling, the heroic poems range widely through the shadowy groves of old Germanic legend, summoning the tragic shades of the Volsungs and grim tales of Attila the Hun. Andy Orchard’s translation is powerful, direct and sometimes startling. He also provides a very useful introduction and guide to what is a strange, sometimes difficult, but always immensely rewarding journey into the Old Norse imagination.

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Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen

By Christopher Abram

Book cover of Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen

Why this book?

Despite its rather misleading title, Chris Abrams’s Myths of the Pagan North is not a retelling of the Norse myths or a primer to the worlds they describe. It is instead a detailed and sustained exploration of how the myths as we know them developed, what evidence exists for the Norse mythos outside the major compendia of thirteenth-century Icelandic prose and poetry (Snorri’s Edda and the so-called Elder Edda), and what function these stories played in the societies of the Viking Age and medieval north. With chapters exploring the historical context in which the myths developed, the full range of sources that can shed light on them (including runic inscriptions, picture stones, and skaldic verse) and the relationship of the myths to the religious worldview of the pagan and Christian societies that shaped them, this is a book for those who want to go beyond the stories themselves and to explore what they meant to the people who told them.

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The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia

By Neil Price

Book cover of The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia

Why this book?

Although the lines that can be drawn between myth, religion, belief and magic are often fine, how we actually proceed from myths that were written down (mostly) in the thirteenth century to the world-view of the people of the Viking Age is not at all straightforward. In this enormously influential book, the archaeologist Neil Price reconstructs a compelling image of how the people of Scandinavia in the final centuries of the first millennium encountered the invisible world of gods, monsters, spirits and the currents of magic. Along the way the reader encounters shrieking Valkyries, deadly battle magic, sex rituals, shape-shifters and the influence of (and wider parallels with) the practices and pathways of circumpolar shamanism. Although written with great panache and a refreshingly accessible voice, this is an academic book and not for the faint hearted. But for those who want to enrich their understanding of Norse myth with a deep dive into the imaginary, symbolic and physical expression of mythological ideas in early Scandinavian culture, The Viking Way is the swiftest road to strange and unexpected worlds.

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