Note: The picture used is for illustration purposes only.
Pop culture is teeming with Norse mythology. Creatures in world-renowned books (looking at you LOTR), blockbuster hits (Avengers anyone?), and popular video games (hello, Elder Scrolls) are often derived from Norse mythological creatures.
You’ve likely been personally affected by Norse mythological creatures. Maybe trolls crashed your Christmas party. Maybe one of Ymir’s teeth has gotten stuck in your shoe. Maybe a Norn sent you a traffic jam when you were late for work.
…Or, maybe you’ve just encountered Norse mythology creatures on screen or within the pages of books.
Either way, the world of Norse mythology is colorful and intricate. So, we’ve decided to cover the quintessential creatures in Norse mythology.
To put these compelling creatures into context, we will retell the stories of Norse mythology: from the beginning of the world, across the Norse gods, other Norse mythology creatures, the Norse gods’ family tree, and the family tree of Nordic mythical creatures in general, to the end of the world.
Norse mythology and its captivating creatures in a nutshell
So the story goes…
Before the universe existed, and time and space with it, there was only Ginnungagap (Old Norse: “yawning void”), a massive primordial abyss.
Then, a realm formed called Muspelheim. This land was aflame, and fires burned in all its corners. In Muspelheim lived the giant Surtr, who wielded a flaming sword, and other fire giants.
The realm of the fire giants. Photo: IsaacFryxelius / Pixabay
Shortly after, north of Muspelheim formed, a frigid land covered in ice. In this land sprung the primordial spring Hvergelmir, from which flowed the primordial rivers.
The rivers streamed into the north of the void, where they, like their homeland, froze and created a vast glacial landscape.
The south of the void was fiery and hot, warmed by Muspelheim from which embers and sparks emanated into the void.
Some of the sparks flew to the north side, where they made contact with the ice and caused it to release melting droplets. From the droplets grew life, taking the form of Ymir, the first frost giant.
A frost giant depiction. Photo: Stefan Keller / Pixabay
On the night of his birthday, Ymir slept, and as he lay, sweat from his left armpit took the form of two children and his legs the form of a six-headed child. Ymir and his children later became the ancestors of the frost giants.
After Ymir, the ice droplets conglomerated into the form of the primordial cow Auðumbla. Auðumbla’s milk became Ymir’s sustenance, which she fed herself by licking the salty, icy stones surrounding these Norse mythological creatures.
On the first day, Auðumbla licked the stones, and the top of a head was uncovered beneath them. The next day, the entire head became visible. Finally, on the third day, the Nordic mythical creature fully emerged. His name was Búri, and he soon had a son called Borr.
Borr went on to marry the daughter of a giant (Bölþorn), called Bestla. Borr and Bestla soon had three children: the eldest was Odin, the second-eldest Vili, and the youngest Ve.
The three brothers soon decided to kill the first frost giant Ymir. The wounds of Ymir poured blood across the northern side of the realm, and all of the frost giants drowned in it – save Bölþorn, who constructed an arc which he boarded with his wife. Thus, they became the new ancestors of all frost giants to come.
Odin, Vili, and Ve carried Ymir’s body to the void’s very center and decided to create the world from it (remember, the world here isn’t referring to one single planet, but rather to the entire universe; the opposite of the empty void that one was).
Ymir’s blood became water, forming the sea and the lakes. Ymir’s flesh became land. Ymir’s bones became mountains. Ymir’s teeth became pebbles, stones, and boulders. Ymir’s skull became the sky, which the brothers placed directly over the world’s four corners.
Then, Ymir’s flesh was used to form the dwarves. Four dwarves stood under each of the world’s four corners and were called East, West, North, and South.
The three brothers crafted clouds out of Ymir’s brains and threw them across the skies. Then, they carried sparks and embers from Muspelheim and scattered them throughout the heavens. These became the stars. The brothers placed some of them carefully – to distinguish day from night and light from dark.
This is when time began.
The world eventually became a sphere, taking on a circular shape. Surrounding the world were deep, tempestuous oceans. The brothers created a realm, called Jotunheim, for the giants to live in along the shores of these oceans. The giants were strong and powerful but could be turned to stone if the sun shone on them.
A giant turned to stone. Photo: Tama66 / Pixabay
Still, Odin, Vili, and, Ve feared the giants. Up to this day, giants are thought of as creatures that cause trouble.
They evolved throughout the centuries into two types: large, aggressive giants, and small, irksome creatures (who, for some reason, love crashing humans’ Christmas parties).
Trolls are uninvited guests during Christmas. Photo: Prawny / Pixabay
They’re also known under a different name: trolls. Learn all about Norse trolls here.
Anyway, the brothers created a fortified realm out of Ymir’s eyebrows located far from Jotunheim. This land was called Midgard. Midgard itself wasn’t free of threats – for example, Kraken terrorized the seas (though these massive, tentacled creatures didn’t enter the world of Norse mythology until later). These sea terrors were thought to have eyes the size of dinner plates, all the better to spot the ships – and people – they feasted on.
Then there were the Draugr, undead creatures usually living underground, in grave-filled caverns, protecting the treasures also buried below. Those who dared enter their territory were subject to their attacks which were unleashed with superhuman strength.
Finally, the brothers decided to create new life from driftwood. Each of them had a task: Odin gave the new beings breath and life itself, Vili intelligence and emotion, and Ve shape, sight, hearing, and speech. This new life became woman and man; the first humans.
The woman was called Embla (from the Old Norse ‘almr’, meaning ‘elm’) and the man Ask (from the Old Norse ‘askr,’ meaning ‘ash tree’). Embla and Ask were given a home, Midgard. Humans reside in Midgard to this day.
Next, at the very center of the world, the brothers built Asgard, a place they themselves could call home. Odin was the ruler of this great city. He married the beautiful Frigg (later equated, by some, with Freya), and they had children called the Æsir – the Norse gods.
A depiction of Frigg. Photo: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash
Odin became known as All-Father, ancestor of all; both gods and humans.
The gods wished to connect the realms, so they built the Bifrost, a bridge that appears as a rainbow.
The faithful guardian of the Bifrost is the gods’ watchman, who keeps an eye out for giants in particular.
Heimdallr has perfect day and night vision and carries the great horn Gjallarhorn, which can be heard across all the universe.
The Bifrost connects Asgard and Midgard (pictured). Photo: Al Seeger / Pixabay
This doesn’t mean no connections existed between the giants and the rest of the world. For example, in Jotunheim, the giant Narfi had a daughter called Nótt (‘night’ in Old Norse).
Nótt, in turn, gave birth to a son called Dag (‘day’ in Old Norse). Odin took Nótt and Dag and bid them to ride around the heavens in a never-ending circle, each with their own horse and chariot.
In Midgard, two additional sky-riders were chosen: the human boy Máni (meaning ‘moon’) and the human girl Sól (meaning ‘sun’). Sól was designated as the pilot of the chariot pulling the son, and Máni the moon.
Sól and Máni are constantly being chased by the hungry and terrible wolves Sköll (Old Norse meaning ‘treachery’ or ‘mockery’) and Hati (Old Norse meaning ‘hatred’).
In all, nine realms were formed:
- Asgard – Realm of the Æsir
- Alfheim – Realm of the elves (beautiful, fair-haired beings who helped or hurt humans at their whim)
- Hel – Realm of those who did not die in battle (presided over by the same-named goddess/giantess, Hel)
- Jotunheim – Realm of the non-fire giants
- Midgard – Realm of the humans
- Muspelheim – Realm of fire and the fire-giants; primordial
- Niðavellir/Svartalfheim – Realm of the dwarves and/or dark elves
- Niflheim – Realm of ice; primordial
- Vanaheim – Realm of the Vanir, wise gods of fertility
A great ash tree called Yggdrasil connects all of the worlds.
From Yggdrasil stem three important roots. One sits above Well of Urðr (meaning fate), where the gods meet for council each day. Next to the Well of Urðr live the Norns, three prophetic maidens determining the human fates.
Another of Yggrdasil’s roots is located above Mímisbrunnr Well (the wisdom well). The third of Yggrdasil’s roots is placed above the primordial spring Hvergelmir. The dragon Níðhǫggr forever gnaws on this root.
At the top of Yggdrasil sits a huge eagle who causes the winds when he flaps his great wings in flight. The eagle and the dragon are enemies. The squirrel Ratatoskr runs up and down the hill and carries insults from one Norse mythology creature to the other.
As the world unfolds, the gods (and their leader Odin in particular) are constantly training for Ragnarok, the inevitable end of the world. In preparation for the final fight between good and evil, Odin sent the Valkyries, divine warrior maidens, to each battle on Earth.
The Valkyries would select the most heroic spirits who perished in battle and bring them to Valhalla, Odin’s feast hall in Asgard.
The fallen warriors, known as Einherjar, drink, feast, and happily battle amongst each other here, while Odin watches.
The Valhalla way. Photo: GioeleFazzeri / Pixabay
Odin, who didn’t feast with the warriors as he only needed wine to sustain himself, sat at his throne at the head of the table. He was flanked by his great wolves Geri and Freki.
On his shoulders perched the two raven Huginn (from the Old Norse ‘thought’) and Muninn (from the Old Norse ‘memory’ or ‘mind’), who gather information from across the world each day for Odin.
Thor, the protector of humankind and god of thunder, was the strongest of the Æsir.
Thor and Heimdallr. Photo: CarlosR38 / Flickr
Thor was married to the goddess Sif and famous for his dwarf-crafted hammer Mjolnir, which crushed all in its path and always faithfully returned to the god.
Thor was known to anger quickly but was mostly benevolent. Except for when it came to clashing with the nefarious god of mischief and son of giants, Loki.
Loki was always a prankster but occasionally aligned with the gods. Eventually, their relationship turned to outright opposition.
On Loki’s side were often his cruel children; which included the giantess Hel, the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, and the giant wolf Fenrir.
Later, the discord turned to war. Then came Ragnarok, but that’s a stormy story for another time…
Now you’ve met the quintessential Scandinavian mythical creatures.
These ancient tales are a fascinating look into the religion of Vikings – as well as the pop-culture power their mythological creatures still hold today.