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Much of what is known of the Norse myths comes from the 10th century onward. Until this time and, indeed, for centuries afterwards, Norse culture (particularly that of Iceland, where the myths were eventually transcribed) was an oral culture. In fact, in all Scandinavian countries well into the 13th century, laws were memorized by officials known as “Lawspeakers” who recited them at the “Thing”. The Thing was the legislative assembly in Scandinavia “held for judicial purposes”.

One of the most famous of these Lawspeakers was the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, a masterful writer who wrote the Prose Edda in the 13th century. There are other sources for the Norse myths, namely the later Poetic Edda, a collection of poems and prose work, and other sagas, but the Snorri’s Prose Edda is the most complete work whose attribution is known to modern scholars.

The Prose Edda is a collection of Norse Myths split into three sections: the Gylfaginning (the Deluding of Gylfi), the Skáldskaparmál (the Language of Poetry), and the Háttatal (the Enumeration of Meters). The first has a frame story that entails a Swedish King Gylf disguising himself as the old man Gangleri when he journeys to Asgard to meet the gods. When he arrives, he meets three men - “High One, Just-As-High, and Third” - who reveal to him stories of the world and the gods.

Thanks to recent modern Hollywood depictions of Heimdallr (by his Anglicized name Heimdall), played masterfully and enigmatically by the actor Idris Elba, this mysterious Norse god has once again emerged in pop culture. However, knowledge of his name has not brought with it many solutions to the problems of his character. The French philologist Georges Dumézil outlined the problems of Heimdallr excellently in his book Gods of the Ancient Northmen: “The god Heimdall poses one of the most difficult problems in Scandinavian mythography. As all who have dealt with him have emphasized, this is primarily because of a very fragmentary documentation; but even more because the few traits that have been saved from oblivion diverge in too many directions to be easily ‘thought of together,’ or to be grouped as members of a unitary structure.” 

Sadly, there is no known presence of any cult of Heimdallr that could help historians understand the practical role he played in Norse religion, though the myths surrounding him are many and varied. That being said, academics have not ceased to study Heimdallr because the enigmas surrounding him are precisely what make him so fascinating. In order to understand how this god, who was by no means a “lesser” deity in the Norse pantheon, could be so misunderstood today, it is worth analyzing the problems people still face when approaching the Norse “religion”.

Heimdallr: The Origins and History of the Norse God Who Keeps Watch for Ragnarök examines the stories about the legendary Norse deity. 

Jim D. Johnston
hr min
25 April
Charles River Editors

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