Whether we realize it or not, we’re well-informed about Greek and Roman mythology, but many of us are oblivious re the stories of ancient Teutons. Ask anyone to name a Norse god. The answer will probably be Thor, god of thunder. Request another god and you’ll likely get only a blank stare.
The biggest reason for this is, except for the Icelandic Edda, almost nothing remains of the writings of ancient Germanic peoples. Throughout Scandinavia and northern Germany, runic stones still exist. These stones carry carved inscriptions. But runes and the Edda are it.
Runic characters (runes) are a primitive writing system said to have been invented by Odin — one of those Norse gods nobody mentioned.
Sometimes, Odin’s name is spelled Wodin, or Wodan, or Woden. Sometimes he’s called Alfadur (All-Father). Scholars believe Odin is the Norse name for the same god northern and western Germans call Wodan.
Whatever we call him, he’s the chief Teutonic god, corresponding to the Roman, Jupiter, and the Greek, Zeus. Still, it’s difficult to compare these gods. Greeks and Romans believed their gods immortal — unable to die. Conversely, the Norse saw every god as fated for death in a great end-of-the-world catastrophe — Ragnarök (the fatal destiny of all the gods) from Old Norse rokkr (darkness, twilight).
In German, this word, Ragnarök, is Götterdammerung from Götter (plural of god) and Dammerung (twilight). From this term, we got the phrase “The twilight of the gods,” which means the destruction of the world in a conflict between good and evil. The phrase appeared in English in 1768.
Today, we use Götterdammerung to depict the collapse of society. It was first used this way in English in 1909.
Odin, being mortal, died during this raging battle. In fact, he was the first to die.
The enemies of the gods were the giants, a race in existence even before the gods. According to the Edda, giants were the first creatures on earth. They are mentioned again and again in Teutonic folklore.
The Edda tells us that both giants and gods died in the fiery Ragnarök. So did mankind. The earth itself was torn to bits.
An Old Norse name for giant is troll, a word also used for monster and demon. Known in English since 1616, trolls are variously portrayed as friendly or mischievous dwarfs, or sometimes as giants living in caves, in hills or under bridges.
Music lovers know Götterdammderung as an opera by Wagner. In that opera, Odin is called Wotan. The Valkyrie, also featured in Wagner, were warlike virgins who helped Odin escort the dead to the Otherworld, and, as Odin’s messengers, had the duty of selecting which warrior slain in battle should enter Valhalla — the Hall of the Dead. Their name means “Choosers of the Slain.”
The Valkyrie wore armour and helmets and carried spears. When they rode forth, light flashed from their armour and flamed across the skies. This was the aurora borealis, called Norôrljós in Old Norse and Nordlicht in Modern German — our “northern lights.”