The celtic culture had an extensive reach over a greater portion of Northern Europe. Their nomadic tendencies took them as far east as the steps of Ukraine, to the southern reaches of Spain, and may have traveled as far west as Northern Canada. Although much of their culture was suppressed or extinguished by the Roman army and later by the Protestant Reformation, the influence of this "Barbarian" race has withstood the test of time.
Northern Europe has a far shorter growing season than their neighbors to the south and so the livelyhood of the ancient Celts was mostly through animal husbandry. Therefore thier calendar relfects the lifestyle of shepherds and farmers tending their herds.
Their calendar tracked by the movement of the sun along the ecliptic and cycles of the moon. The eight solar Sabbats of the ancient Celts marked the milestones of farm life and celebrated the fertility of the land.
Samhain - A cross quarter holiday marking the midpoint between the Summer solstice and the Autumnal equinox. Considered the Celtic New Year, Samhain is a celebration of the last harvest of the year. It traditionally takes place on the three nights of the October / November full moon. Today it is better known as Halloween and is celebrated on October 31.
Yule (Midwinter) - A celebration of the Winter solstice. Along with the burning of a yule log and feasting, the home is decorated with Winter greenery such as holly boughs, mistletoe, and pine garlands.
Imbolc (Brigid's Day) - A cross quarter holiday marking the midpoint between the Winter solstice and the Vernal equinox. It is the festival of milk and the celebration of the newborn lambs to the flock. Rituals include the lighting of candles, hearthfires, special foods, and watching for omens. One well known divination ritual is the observation of underground dwelling animals such as badgers and groundhogs for the the arrival of Spring.
Eostar (Ostara) - A celebration of the Vernal equinox and the fertility of the land. Common to the celebrations are the egg as a symbol of birth and the rabbit for fecundity.
Beltain - A cross quarter holiday marking the midpoint between the Vernal equinox and the Summer solstice. Beltain celebrates the beginning of open Summer pasturing season, where the cattle are driven out to the open fields and mountain sides for grazing. Bonfires along with rites of purification are a big part of the ceremonies.
Litha (Midsummer) - The celebration of the Summer solstice marked the change from spring sowing to summer hay-making. For the Celts, herbs gathered during Midsummer had greater healing power and were collected on this night. Bonfires lit on Midsummers Night were protection against mischeivous nature spirits which roamed freely as the sun turned its way southward once again.
Lamag (Lammas, Lughnasadh) -A cross quarter holiday marking the midpoint between the Summer solstice and the Autumnal equinox. Lamag is a celebration of the first harvest of the year.
Mabon (Harvest Home) - A celebration of the Autumnal equinox. A ritual of thanksgiving for a good harvest and the sharing of bounty and good will to secure the blessings of the Gods during the Winter months.
For the Celts night was a time of dreams, mystical transitions, and when spirits walk the Earth. Because the barriers to the spiritual realm were weakest after sunset, their festivals took place at night so they could commune with or protect themselves from ghosts and nature spirits. For this reason they reckoned their calendars by the night rather than the day.
In the nordic pantheon there are very clear distinctions in races: Giants, Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and Gods are all segregated into their own realms with few exceptions. Among these races there are ongoing feuds and wars that would eventually come to an end in Ragnarok (The End of the Universe). In spite of the ongoing emnity between these groups cross breeding often ocrurred, creating great heros and horrendous monsters.
The first Giant was Ymir, who was created from the frozen mists of Ginnunga-gap. His body was a seething mass of ice and clay from which the world would be created after his death. As he slept, his body would thaw and bring forth new giants.
As their name would indicate, giants are known for their immense proportions and their great strength. They are the first of the races having come the frost giant Ymir body directly. There are many clans of Giant: Mountain, Stone, Frost, Fire... each having attributes of the elements for which their clan is named. The actual size of a giant can vary from being an extraordinarily large man to being the size of a mountain. Some giants are known to have magical abilities such as shape shifting and the ability to create illusions.
The hold the giants have over land is symbolic of winter and the depravation that comes with it, they are percieved as evil for this reason. The coming of new life to the land is often associated with the death of a giant.
Trolls and Ogres
These beings seem to be a lesser form of giant often lacking in magic and intelligence but still retaining the strength, they are notorious canibalistic brutes capable of heinous acts of cuelty. Twisted and ugly from birth, their appearance is marked by a variety of deformities from having oddly proportioned bodies or animal like quailties like fur, tails and tusks. Because sunlight turns them to stone, they spend their lives seeking out victims under the cover of night. They tend to be reclusive, taking up residence in remote caves or the abandoned dwellings of other races. Stories abound throughout the ages of how these creatures would snatch children or unwary travellers and eat them.
The first God was Buri (the Producer), who came from a block of salt at the bottom of the great chasm (Ginnunga-gap). The primordial cow, Audhumla (the Nourisher), licked the salt revealing and eventually freeing Buri. Buri in turn, produced his son Borr. When the Giants discovered the existence of the Gods they immediatly started warring with them. Borr took the giantess Bestla as a wife, who in turn gave birth to Odin (Spirit), Vili (Will) and Ve (Holy). In spite of the constant fighting between the Gods and Giants, there were also many marriages between these two powerful races.
In the realm of Asgard there are twelve Aesir (Gods) and twenty-four Asynjur (Goddesses). Even though the Gods work together on most occasions, there are clear divisions and squabbles among them as well. Although there are strong familial ties among the gods, the marriages between couples do not tend to endure and the gods may have many spouses over an extended period of time but there is no clear indication of polygamy or polyandry.
Odin (Wotan, Wodan)
Odin is refered to as the "All Father" among the Aesir. He, along with his brothers Vili and Ve created humanity. Odin has also sired many gods as well from many different wives. Among his children are Thor, Balder, Bragi, and Loki. When he is not trying to maintain order within his own kingdom much of his time is spent in the acquisition of knowledge and power. He is credited with the invention of the norse alphabet which he gained knowlege of by hanging himself from the world tree for nine days. He also sacrificed one of his eyes at Mimir's Fountain (the fountain of all wit and wisdom) in order to gain knowledge of the fate of the gods. In addition, Odin has two pet ravens Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) who would fly about the world and return at nightfall to rest upon his shoulder and bring him news of all that they have seen.
Odin has worked tirelessly in gathering the greatest and most heroic warriors into his service for Ragnarok: the final battle between the gods and giants at the end of the world.
Of all the wives Odin has taken his most enduring relationship is with Frigga. In addition to being the Queen of the Gods, she is also the patron goddess to all wives and marriages. Frigga is also the goddess of the clouds and dresses the sky to according to her mood. Although she is faithful to her husband she is not beyond doing things behind Odin's back if she knew they would not meet with his approval.
Balder is the favored son of Odin. He was known for his great physical beauty and charming personality.
As the God of Thunder, Thor's strength and quick temper has served to make him the strong arm of the Aesir. He has an extreme dislike of the giants and will often attack them without provocation.
Sif is the wife of Thor and though she is known for her great beauty and long golden hair. Her hair was the source of much of her vanity which inspired Loki to cut it off while she was sleeping, Upon seeing his bald wife Thor went into a rage and threatened to kill Loki for the violation of his wife. In fear of his life; Loki went to the dwarves and had them create a new head of hair for Sif out of real gold. In order to regain his standing with the Aesir he also had the dwarves create a spear for Odin, a folding ship and golden boar for Frey, and a war hammer for Thor. When the new hairpiece was placed on Sif's head it immediately bonded to her scalp and became as her real hair. Many of the gods agreed that it looked even better than her original hair.
Sif does not seem to have one specific realm of control but may be a goddess of fertility with her hair being a metaphor for fields of wheat. The actions of Loki cutting off her hair may be symbolic of the harvest and the labor involved with returning the fields to their former beauty.
Loki is well known for being the trickster amongst the norse deities. Although his cunning had served many beneficial functions for the Aesir he had no tolerance for overconfidence or vanity of his fellow deities. Eventually his mischevious tendencies had fatal results for his half-brother, Baldur.
Tyr is most noted for his relationship with Fenris. He befriended the wolf as a cub but as the beast grew in size and strength over time he became feared by the rest of the Aesir. When the time came to trick the beast into being bound a magical string called Gleipnir, Fenris would only agree to being tied up if Tyr would first place his right hand into the wolf's mouth. Tyr accepted without hesitation which allowed the other Aesir to quickly bind Fenris in the unbreakable string. When the wolf found himself unable to free himself he bit of Tyr's hand.
Hiemdal is the guardian of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard (The Realm of the Aesir) with Midgard (The Realm of Men). He is noted for his exceptional hearing and keen sight. He carries with him a horn that is loud enough to be heard all through Asgard and would be used to alert the Aesir to the invasion by the giants.
The goddess Hel is the daughter of Loki and a giantess. She is said to half of her body discolored, bruised or possibly even dead. Hel was cast into the realm of Niffleheim by Odin and it is there that she rules as the goddess of the dead.
The Midgardsorm is the son of Loki and the same giantess that birthed Hel and Fenris. Odin cast the Midgardsorm into the ocean where it grew to such immence proportions that it could wrap its body around the world and bite its own tail.
Although Fenris is the son of Loki and the same giantess that birthed Hel and the Midgardsorm, he took on the form of a wolf. As a cub he lived among the Aesir but, as he grew in size and strength so did the aprrehension of the gods. Eventually, it was decided that the beast had became too dangerous to allow to roam free and in attempt to contain the beast, the Asgardians held a series of contests of strength for Fenris to see if he could break the strongest chains. Over and over Fenris delighted snapping through every binding the dwarves created. Finally, with the help of the Elves, they created an unbreakable string made of a cats footfalls, the roots of a mountain, the beard of a woman, the sinew of a bears sensitivity, a fish's breath and a bird's spittle. When the Aesir challenged him to break the silken thread, Fenris sensed something was amiss and would only agree to be boun with the cord if one of the gods would place their hand in his mouth. It was Tyr who agreed the wolf's term and immediately lost his hand when Fenris found himself unable to break free of his bindings.
This malignant creature constantly gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil in order to tear down the foundations of the universe.
Dwarves and Elves
While the Gods were creating the world from Ymirs body they noticed that maggot-like creatures had formed inside him. The Gods gathered them together and gave them intelligence and form. The Gods observed their behavior and divided them up by their nature.
Although very clever and cunning, the Dwarves were too dark and trecherous; they were therefore banished to an underground.realm called Svart-alfa-heim. The Dwarves were never to allowed to go out into daylight or they would be turned into stone. So the Dwarves spent their lives building great halls and tunnels in the earth while gathering vast hordes of gemstones and precious metals.
The Elves were the remaining beings that were light, fair and good natured. They were given a beautiful realm of light between heavan and earth called Alf-heim. The Elves were allowed to travel wherever they pleased to tend the birds, flowers, and trees. The Elves were also well versed in song and enjoyed dancing in the moonlight upon the green places in Midgard.
Although Midgard was created for the human race there was a point before the existed. It was at this point that Odin, Vili, and Ve were walking along the newly created shoreline of the world when they came upon two blocks of driftwood; one from an ash tree and the other from an elm tree. Odin noticed that they had a crudely human form and decided to give them the breath of life, Vili imbued them with intelligence and the ability to move, and Ve refined their human form, and gave them sight, hearing and speech. Ask (Ash) and Embla (Elm) were to become the progenetors of the human race.
One of the most pervasive images in ancient Northern European art is that of a tangled network of roots. It is featured in stone and wood carvings, jewelry, and is the definitive characteristic of most Celitic art. Its pagan origins would suggest that these images are the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree. According to mythology, Wodan, and his brothers, Vili and Ve slew the frost giant Ymir. They in turn divided up Ymir's body to create the universe. Yggdrasil is an ash tree that grew out of the corpse of Ymir and in turn bound the many parts of universe together. Its roots connected the realm of death (Niffelhiem), the kingdom of the Aesir (Asgard), and the home of the giants (Jotunhiem). The the base of Yggdrasil is central to Midgard while its branches touch the sky. The images of Yggdrasil are symbolic of unity of all things, even those which are in opposition.
According to the most ancient traditions, Wodan has a strong connection to the world tree. He was known as a messenger god and guide to the underword, in both cases would require that he travel along the roots and branches of Yggdrasil. In one legend, Wodan hung himself from the world tree for nine days in order to gain knowlege of writing and using glyphs for divination.
The Norse cosmology came from the ancient tales of nomads and farmers of northern
In this model of the universe the gods roam the sky around Yggdrasil, the world tree, in a representation of the planets in an Earth-centered universe. Coincidently they also represent the days of the week: Sun (Sunday), Moon (Monday), Tyr (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), Freya (Friday), and Saturn (Saturday) who in some models is depicted as Loki.
The central disk from which Yggdrasil is growing is Midgard, the earthly realm of man. In this model it also serves as a calendar.
The Norse worldview depicts a fragmented universe with nine worlds connected and divided by mystical bridges and barriers:
According to legend the frost giant Ymir and the giant cow Audhumbla were created in the Gunnungagap when its great winds mixed the sparks of Muspell mixed with the frosty mists of Niffleheim. While Ymir slept, an entire host of giants were born of his body as it thawed. When he woke he drank Audhumbla's milk while she licked a block of salt. From the salt came the giant Bure. Bure fathered the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve along with one of the giants of Ymirs body. When Odin, Vili, and Ve grew old and strong enough they slew Ymir, creating a flood that killed all but two of the giants. From Ymir's body, Midgard (Earth) was made. The world tree Ygdrasill sprouted from his body and connected Asgard, Jotunhiem and Nifflehiem at its roots. The rainbow bridge, Bifrost, connects Midgard to
Below in Asgard, Loki (the trickster god of mischief) is being punished for killing Woden's son Baldur. He was chained down so that serpent's venom would drip into his eyes. His wife was allowed to catch the venom in a cup, but each time she empties it, the poison once again drips into Loki's face making him scream so loud that the earth shakes.