The best books on Norse myths

Jackson Crawford Author Of The Wanderer's Havamal (Translated By Jackson Crawford)
By Jackson Crawford

The Books I Picked & Why

The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Translated By Jackson Crawford)

By Jackson Crawford, Unknown

The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Translated By Jackson Crawford)

Why this book?

The stories of the Norse gods and heroes were passed down orally in long, traditional poems during the Viking Age. While none of these were written down before the conversion, linguistic evidence suggests that the roughly 30 poems contained in the Poetic Edda--written down in the 1200s in Iceland--were mostly composed before 1000, and thus represent the closest remaining thing to an undiluted source from the Viking Age. Here we read ancient and enigmatic poems of the creation of the realms and the ultimate death of the gods, such as Vǫluspá and Vafþrúðnismál. There are humorous tales of the exploits of Thor, such as Þrymskviða and Hymiskviða, and poems in which the bickering gods insult each other, such as Lokasenna and Hárbarðsljóð. Hávamál, the poem of Odin's wisdom, is here, and a revised and improved translation appears in The Wanderer's Hávamál alongside the Old Norse original. But the Poetic Edda is more than the stories of the gods; the Norse had their own pantheon of legendary heroes, especially the Volsungs, who populate half of the Poetic Edda with their tragic cursed exploits. The lives of the Volsungs are thoroughly tangled with the calculating designs of Odin and are also told in a streamlined format in The Saga of the Volsungs (below).


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Edda (Translated By Anthony Faulkes)

By Anthony Faulkes, Snorri Sturluson

Edda (Translated By Anthony Faulkes)

Why this book?

This is a distinct book from the Poetic Edda, and this "Edda" is usually called the Prose Edda for clarity (unfortunately the terminology around these books is somewhat confusing and conflicting, and varies from scholar to scholar). Written by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar and chieftain in the 1220s, in some senses the Prose Edda is really a secondary source since Snorri sought to explain the myths encoded in the already old poems of the Poetic Edda (which he knew) to a younger generation that was forgetting them. In the process, he also tells stories that did not make it into the Poetic Edda, making Snorri the only surviving primary source for many of the best-loved myths today, such as Thor and Loki's disastrous visit to the enigmatic illusionist Utgard-Loki, and the bizarre tale of how Loki became the mother of Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir. It is best to read the Poetic Edda before this Prose Edda, so as not to let Snorri's interpretations color your own take on the original poems too much. Also, keep in mind that Snorri was a medieval Christian, so he tried hard to "rationalize" these profoundly un-Christian gods for his audience by turning them into nothing less than the survivors of the Trojan War!


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History of the Danes

By Saxo Grammaticus, Peter Fisher

History of the Danes

Why this book?

While Snorri wrote in his native Old Norse in Iceland, unbeknownst to him, a Danish writer remembered as Saxo the Grammarian ('Grammaticus') was writing a monumental history of the Danish kingdom in Latin. Since the old gods were held to be the ancestors of the royal families of medieval Scandinavia, Saxo spends quite a bit of time in the first nine books of 'The History of the Danes' retelling their stories. Many fans of Norse mythology who read the Eddas still never approach Saxo's work, which in fact has been mined in recent centuries for many rich details that are preserved nowhere else. Like Snorri, Saxo tries to "rationalize" the old gods into becoming misguided or deceitful human beings from the distant past, and he does a more thorough job of it, but even through this veneer, it is hard not to recognize the same characters that we know from the Eddas. Fascinatingly, Saxo often knows the same basic story in a form that is recognizably similar to one in the Eddas but told with reversed roles or with details or subplots given different significance--a good example is his version of the death of the beloved god Baldr. Like the Poetic Edda and Snorri's Prose Edda, Saxo's work also discusses some of the colorful legends of ancient heroes of pre-Christian times.


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The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Translated By Jackson Crawford))

By Jackson Crawford, Unknown

The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Translated By Jackson Crawford))

Why this book?

The closest thing to a "novel" from medieval Scandinavia, The Saga of the Volsungs was written down in the 1200s in Iceland by an author who knew the poems about the Volsungs in the Poetic Edda, but also knew a vast wealth of additional poems about them that are otherwise lost to us. Rather than transmit the poems directly, this unknown author chose to attempt to put together a cohesive story of the sprawling generations of this family, beginning with the fathering of their first ancestor by the god Odin and continuing through all the events that lead Odin himself to engineer the death of its last generations. Here we have dwarves forging magic swords, dragon-slayers, Valkyries laboring under the weight of ill-considered oaths, and star-crossed lovers seeking bloody revenge. This volume also includes the medieval "fanfic" sequel, The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrók, written shortly after The Saga of the Volsungs and connecting its heroic family with the bloodline of the notorious Viking raider Ragnar Lothbrók and his celebrated warrior sons. All in all, this is the "Iliad" of the Vikings, or their "Star Wars" to compare it to a vast body of lore that seems to have seeped into every corner of cultural life in a comparable way in the 2020s.


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Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

By Carolyne Larrington

Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

Why this book?

You can choose to read this book before or after you've made your way through the primary sources in this list. Larrington, a professor at Oxford, is one of the foremost authorities on Norse mythology living today. What she presents in this book is the fruit of a career's worth of research and consideration, distilled into a readable 200 pages. Not only do her carefully-considered thoughts complement a close reading of the major primary sources, but she provides the necessary background to appreciate how they interlink, and how they are supported by archaeological finds in northern Europe.


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