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What is Norse Mythology
What do you know of Legendary Heroes?
A mythology derives its characteristics from the land and peoples of its origin.
The land of the Norse was a cold, cruel land of frost, snow, and ice.
Life was a continual struggle for survival against these elements.
It is only natural that Norse Mythology was filled with gods who also had to battle against huge frost giants.
There were heroic gods safe in their home on sunny Mount Olympus, knew that they and their home on Asgard would eventually be destroyed.
In a way their prophecy was fulfilled, for Christianity all but extinguished talk of the old gods, except in Iceland.
There, in the thirteenth century, Snorri Sturluson, a poet, scholar, and historian, collected many of the Norse myths and legends into a book called the Prose Edda.
Much of his writing was based on an earlier verse collection called the Poetic Edda.
These two books are the primary sources for an individual's knowledge of Norse Mythology.
It is too bad that children do not know these myths as well as they know those of the Greeks. In some ways the Norse tales seem more suited to children than the highly sophisticated Greek tales.
These stories appeal to the child's imagination, with their tales of giants and dwarfs, eight-legged horses and vicious wolves, magic hammers, and rings.
Primarily they are bold, powerful stories of the relationships among the gods and their battles against the evil frost giants.
Odin is the serious protector of the humans he created, willingly sacrificing one of his eyes to obtain wisdom that would allow him to see deep into their hearts.
The largest and the strongest of the gods is Thor, owner of a magic hammer that will hit its mark and then return to his hands, and Balder, the tragic god of light, is the most loved by all the other gods.
Amusing stories indeed!
Epic of Legendary Heroes
An epic is a long narrative or a cycle of stories clustering around the actions of a single hero. Epics grew out of myths or along with them, since the gods still intervene in earlier epics like the Lliad and the Odyssey.
Gradually, the center of action shifted from the gods to human heroes, so that in tales like ''Robin Hood'' the focus is completely on the daring adventures of the man himself.
The epic hero is a cultural or national hero embodying all the ideal characteristics of greatness in his time.
Thus Odysseus and Penelope , his wife, represented the Greek ideals of intelligence, persistence, and resourcefulness.
Odysseus survived by his wit rather than his great strength. Both King Arthur and Robin Hood appealed to the English love of justice and freedom: King Arthur and his knights represented the code of chivalry; Robin Hood was the champion of the commoner, the prototype of the ''good outlaw.''
The epics, then, express the highest moral values of a society. Knowledge of the epics gives children an understanding of a particular culture; but more importantly, it provides them with models of greatness through the ages.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The epic of Gilgamesh, recorded more than four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, is one of the oldest hero stories.
The epic poem, first discovered written on clay tablets in the library of Assur-Bani-Pal, an Assyrian King who ruled from 668 B.C, is the compilation of many earlier myths.
The original stories actually concerned three figures: Gilgamesh, a Sumerian King; Enkidu, a primitive wild man; and Utnapishtim, the man we would call Noah. In Gilgamesh the King we are introduced to the God-king who plays the central role in the three books, written by a Canadian author, Ludmila Zeman who retold and illustrated the story in three episodes.
The god-king is bitter and cruel because he has not experienced the power of human companionship.
When his desire to build a great wall threatens his people's survival, the sun god sends Enkidu, another man as strong as Gilgamesh, to earth, where he lives in the forest and cares for the animals. When he threatens of the Gilgamesh's hunters,
Gilgamesh sends the lovely singer Shamar to tempt Enkidu out of the forest. In spite of his beastly appearance, she teaches him about human love and they leave the forest to confront Gilgamesh.
The two men engage in a terrible struggle on Gilgamesh's famous wall, but because their powers are equal they seem to be at an impasse.
Then Gilgamesh stumbles on a stone and would fall to his death except that Enkidu reaches out a hand to help him.
Gilgamesh's experience with human kindness is transforming, and the two become like brothers. In the second book, The Revenge of Ishtar, the two meet the goddess Ishtar, who offers to marry Gilgamesh and give him a chariot of gold.
When he spurns her, he makes a great enemy who will plague him all his life and cause the deaths of Shamar and Enkidu. In the Last Quest of Gilgamesh, the great king is so heartbroken by the death of his friends that he sets out to find the secret of immortality.
When he learns that Utnapishtim is the only human who knows that secret Gilgamesh endures a terrible journey across the waters of death to Utnapishtim's island. Utnapishtim explains that he arrived on the island on a great ark after he had been warned of a terrible flood that would destroy the earth.
Gilgamesh cannot accomplish the task that Utnapishtim sets him to become immortal, and after one more battle with Ishtar he returns home heartbroken at his failure.
Enkidu is sent by the gods to show him that the immortality he craves is there in the great civilization he has created. Zeman's majestic illustrations, done in mixed media and incorporating motifs from Mesopotamia art, have a wonderful sense of timelessness.
The Lliad and the Odyssey
According to tradition, a blind minstrel named Homer composed the epic poems the Lliad and the Odyssey about 850 B.C.; but scholars generally believe that parts of the stories were sung by many persons and that they were woven into one long narrative before they were written.
The Lliad is an account of the Trojan War fought over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. When Helen is kidnapped by Paris, a Trojan, her Greek husband, king Menelaus, enlists the Greeks in a ten-year siege of Troy that is led by the Greek warriors, Agamemnon and Archilles.
The complex story is long and difficult to understand, although specific incidents, such as the final defeat of the Trojans by the cunning device of the Trojan Horse, do intrigue some children.
The Odyssey is the story of the hazardous ten-year journey of Odysseus called Ulysses by the Romans from Troy to his home in Ithaca, following the end of the war. Odysseus has one terrifying experience after another, which he manages to survive by his cunning.
For example: He defeats the horrible one-eyed Cyclops by blinding him and ten strapping his men to the undersides of sheep, which were allowed to leave the cave.
His ship safely passes between the whirlpool of Charybdis and the monster Scylla, but later is shipwrecked and delayed for seven years.
A loyal servant and his son aid the returned hero in assuming his rightful throne and saving his wife. Penelope has had a difficult time discouraging the many suitors who wished to become king.
While children or teachers might be acquainted with episodes from the story, it is the total force of all his trials that presents the full dimensions of this hero.
The Ramayana is the epic tale of India that tells how the noble Rama, his devoted brother , and his beautiful, virtuous wife, Sita, manage to defeat the evil demon Ravana. Heir to the throne, Rama is banished from his home through the trickery of his stepmother. Prince Rama, his brother, and the devoted Sita spend fourteen years in wandering and adventure one day Sita vanishes, kidnapped by Ravana.
Rama searches for her unsuccessfully and then turns to a tribe of monkeys for help. Finally Sita is found, and with the help of an entire army of monkeys, Rama rescues her.
To be cleansed from her association with the demon, Sita must withstand a trial by fire. Her faithfulness proved, she is united with her beloved Rama. Peace and plenty prevail during Rama's region.
Composed in India by the sage Vlamiki during the fourth century B.C, the Ramayana represented some 24,000 couplets that were memorized and repeated. It constitutes part of the gospel of Hindu scripture, for Rama and his wife are held as the ideal man and woman. Jamake Highwater has written Rama, a novel based on the Ramayana, for older readers.
Heroes of the Middle Ages
Some historians believe there was a King Arthur who became famous around the sixth century. Defeated by the invading Saxons, his people fled to Wales and Brittany and told stories of his bravery and goodness.
Other stories became attached to these, and the exploits of Tristram, Gawaine, and Lancelot were added to the Arthurian cycle.
The religious element of the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, was also added. Whether or not the chalice actually existed, it remains as a symbol of purity and love. In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur was one of the first books printed in England and became a major source of later versions.
In the short novel The Dragon's Boy, Jane Yolen tells of the boyfriend of Arthur, here called Artos.
Artos has been raised by Sir Ector in a small castle. One day while searching for a prized dog he discovers a cave in which a dragon dwells. Both fascinated and terrified. Artos agrees to seek wisdom from the dragon when he is not doing his work at the castle.
Children will find this a compelling introduction to the Arthur legends as they sympathize with the lonely boy who confronts his fears to discover the truth about the supposed dragon, his own parentage, and his future as the great King Arthur.
There were other books introduced to children, like about Arthur and Merlin.
What is your opinion on Norse Mythology?
© 2013 Devika Primić