Eleazar Meletinskij
Scandinavian Mythology as a System of Oppositions


This paper is a condensed version of the article "Scandinavian Mythology as a System" which originally appeared in two parts in The Journal of Symbolic Anthropology 1 :43-58 (1973) 2:57-78 (1974).

The purpose of the present study is not to give a new interpretation of Scandinavian myths based on a critical revision of the sources, but to outline patterns governing the systematic arrangement of certain mythological concepts as they appear in Younger Edda and Elder Edda. The system which may be elicited from the Scandinavian mythology is composed of two spatial subsystems, a horizontal and a vertical subsystem, and two temporal subsystems, a cosmogonic and an eschatological subsystem.


Within the spatial system, the horizontal anthropocentric system is built on the opposition between the populated enclosed middle part of the earth (Midgard) and whatever is found beyond its limits, outside the enclosure, a sphere both inimical and devoid of culture (Utgard). The Midgard-Utgard opposition is, undoubtedly, a realization of the elementary semantic opposition of "own" versus "alien." It also implicitly reflects the opposition of order versus disorder, center versus periphery, close versus remote, town versus desert, home versus woods. As in the horizontal model, the sky (Asgard) is not practically opposed to the earth, and the abode of deities is topologically inseparable from Midgard. In narratives, Asgard and Midgard usually appear as alternatives.

On the strength of the dual opposition center versus periphery and land versus water, Midgard is contrasted to the wide ocean surrounding the earth. Midgard is the home of Jorrnungand, the dragon of Midgard. The very name of the dragon of Midgard may serve as an indication that it was perhaps regarded as a positive element of the general cosmological system. However, Scandinavian mythology, with its attraction to eschatology, sees Jormungand as yet another chaotic power harnessed by the deities. Midgard and Asgard are contrasted to Hell, the realm of death, Midgard and Asgard being located in the south and Hel in the north. On the basis of the oppositions center
versus periphery and west versus east,
Midgard is contrasted to the giants' country of Jotunheim (practically identical to Utgard), located on the verge of the earth, in a wild and rocky desert. The giants' country is sometimes conceived of as also extending northwards, most probably as a result of the conventional demonical nature of the north in Scandinavian as well as many other Eurasian mythologies. The south is regarded as demonic only in the eschatological model of Scandinavian mythology where it is the habitation of the fiery giant Surt, The horizontal cosmic model provides a spatial setting for the numerous epics about the adventures of the Acess, seen as a conflict between the Aces and the giants (Jotuns and Thurses), and only partially between the Acess and the dwarfs (Zwergs and black Elves).
The deities and giants are portrayed as being in a state of continual  warfare, chiefly due to Thor's innumerable eastbound expeditions in which he batters the giants. Thor stands out also as the world dragon's chief adversary. Eddic poetry represents Thor as almost wholly devoted to the protection of "his own people" from foreigners and deities, from giants and demons. This pattern fits the horizontal projection of the cosmos. The struggle against giants may often be waged over the possession of women (a goddess is the giants' permanent object of desire) and miraculous objects (sources of affluence  and renewal) produced by the high workmanship of blacksmiths and dwarf-craftsmen for the deities. These goods are circulated among deities, giants, and dwarfs chiefly through the efforts of the mythic rogue Loki, who travel with eAces from one world to another maintaining a kind of shamanic mediation between them though, of course, his role as a mediator is confined within the bounds of the horizontal cosmic model. The concept of dwarfs who are named after the four parts of the world (north, south, west, east) and who support the firmament at the corners of the universe, forms part of the horizontal model, although it is somewhat isolated.

The center of the vertical cosmic model is the world tree Yggdrasil,  the ash tree, which connects the sky and earth, the earth and the lower world, dividing the universe on the vertical axis into three parts by the double opposition of top and bottom. The trichotomous vertical  division is aptly represented by the zoomorphic series localized on different levels, with the eagle at the top of the tree, the dragon gnawing the roots, and deer nibbling the leaves on the middle level. The squirrel who runs from the dragon to the eagle is a zoomorphous mediator between the top and the bottom.

The concept of the cosmic tree connecting the various parts of the universe is specifically related to concepts of shamanism. Odin passes through a patently shamanic initiation in being first pierced through with a spear and then hanged on the tree for nine days. This emphasizes the role of the world ash tree as Odin's "horse." Apart from Odin, there is another figure closely related to the world tree, namely, Heimdal, the guard of the deities, and perhaps originally Odin's anthropomorphous incarnation (or even a zoomorphous one?). Indeed, Heimdal possesses a horn which he blows and from which he drinks mead, though the epithet "steep-horned" indicates perhaps his apostasis as a deer (the latter being inseparable from the world tree in Siberian shamanism). The cosmic tree is also the tree of life and the tree of fate. It is evergreen; along it drips downward the life-giving honey or milky dew which feeds the springs at the roots (the master of which is Mimir). From these springs the Norns, in turn, spray the world tree (opposition of damp versus dry like live versus dead). The Siberian parallel throws some light on the way in which the world tree is organically linked with the idea of genesis and birth. This refers not only to the birth of shamans but of men in general (hence the tree-related images of human origin such as the "embryo" of people from the ash tree and the willow in the Scandinavian myth). The epitome of the relation between the idea of birth and the cosmic tree is the Norns, who may be compared to the female spirits of the shamanic tree who give souls to new born humans or protect deliveries. Norns have specific functions as midwives or donors of personal fate (opposition of fortune versus misfortune). In fact, the destiny of the world and the gods themselves is tied to the cosmic tree.

The tree top, which is in heaven, is the gathering place of deities. In heaven is located the permanent abode of deities (Asgard) as well as a special realm of the dead, ruled by Odin (Valhalla). There Odin receives the souls of heroes who fell bravely in battle. Decisions on fates in the battle are taken by Odin and the Valkyries.

Niflheim, the last refuge of the ordinary dead, is located deep down below the earth. The differentiation and opposition of the upper versus lower realms of the dead and, accordingly, of Valkyries versus Norns are important to the vertical cosmic model. Thus, along with the opposition of life versus death, the vertical cosmic model produces the opposition of two kinds of death and an opportunity for a kind of mediation between life and death and, finally, for the regaining of life through war and death. In the myths about Odin, war is conceived as a mediator between life and death, a mediator which works in both directions. The giant:" are practically nonexistent in the vertical model, apart from the casual mention that people, giants, and Hell are found under the roots of the ash tree.

Certain correspondences exist between the vertical model and the horizontal model. These correspondences may be conceived as transformations. The main link between both models is the equation of north and also east with bottom (the location of the realm of the dead and, more generally, of chthonic demonic forces). The meaning of the water element (sea) is largely negative in the horizontal model, and positive in the vertical model when it appears as springs. Jorrnungand shows some measure of equivalence with Nidhogg gnawing the cosmic tree roots. The vertical model does not include Loki's shamanic mediation between the Aces, giants, and dwarfs, and the shamanic functions are performed only by Odin. The vertical model gives an extensive description of the celestial world of deities and the celestial "happy" realm of the dead. The opposition of deities versus giants and the struggle against the latter is actually missing. The contrast between the deities and the giants may to some extent be construed as corresponding to the contrast of the realm of the deities to the realm of the dead and of the chthonic forces. While in the horizontal model the opposition culture versus nature is most pronounced, it is the opposition cosmos versus chaos that comes to the fore in the vertical model.

An example of a transformation from the horizontal to the vertical model may be found in the story of the acquisition by Odin of the sacred mead which bestows poetic inspiration and wisdom. The Younger Edda narrates how Odin stole the mead of poetry from the cliff where it was guarded by Gunnlod, the giant Suttung's daughter. Odin spent three nights with her, for which he was allowed to drink the mead which he then "spat out" as soon as he was back in Asgard. The entire story unfolds, as it were, in the horizontal projection against the background of the Aces' perpetual struggle with giants who live on the ends of the earth among cliffs and rocks. There is only one implicit turn of the plot related to the vertical pattern of the world: Odin finds his way to the cliff as a dragon, but comes back to Asgard as an eagle. Bearing in mind that the eagle and the dragon represent the upper and the lower levels of the world tree, its top and its roots, the celestial abode of the deities and the chthonic sphere, we can identify this episode, i.e. the transformation from dragon to eagle, with the vertical (downward and upward) travel along the tree. In the mythology of many nations, the cliff (mountain) is analogous with the world tree; accordingly, Gunnlod, the mistress of the cliff  and the mead contained therein, appears to be in remote connection to the Norns who live at the tree roots, near the sacred spring. Gunnlod's father Suttung can be likened to Mimir, the master of the honey spring at the roots of Yggdrasil, or even to Heimdal, the guardian of the world tree, Mimir's anthropomorphic counterpart. Thus, as transition is made from the horizontal to the vertical model, the cliff turns into the world tree covered with the life-giving mead and fed from the honey spring. Accordingly, Odin receives a mouthful of the sacred mead after he has volunteered to be hung on the world tree and has made some self-sacrifice. During the transition from the horizontal to the vertical plane, the culture hero turns into the first shaman and passes through an excruciating initiation after he has stolen the mead from its original guardian (the motif of the cosmic tree is specifically related to shamanism). The stealing of the mead from the giant (with the help of a cunning trick) is transformed into a gift from the giant after a ritual initiation. The liaison with the giant's daughter is transformed into an honorable kinship with the giants on the maternal side. Accordingly, a change occurs in the treatment of the giants themselves: instead of being the stupid ogres of the fairy tale, they emerge as the guardians of ancient wisdom who conduct the initiation of their grandchildren and give not only mead, but also the magic runes.


In the course of time, the cosmic model bifurcates into the cosmogonic and eschatological subsystems. A certain asymmetry between them may be ascribed to the fact that the eschatological aspect pervades the whole of Scandinavian mythology.

The cosmogonic mythology of the Edda (which is not all a sum total of independent etiological myths) depicts a process whereby the world has emerged from the void (presumably the primordial abyss Ginnungagap), cosmos created from chaos. The motif of the origin of the earliest anthropomorphous beings is broken down into the stories of the first giant Ymir who sprang from ice, the procreator of deities Bur (literally a "parent") from a stone which the cow Audhumla used to lick, and the earliest human beings from chunks of wood revived by the Aces (Odin, Lodur, and Honir). Thus the motif of the origin of anthropomorphous beings assumes a systematic arrangement, inasmuch as the giants, deities, and humans have their counterparts in a series of solid natural substances (ice, stone, wood). In addition there is an indication of the progressively growing role of the demiurges, a trend from spontaneity to organization. The sacrifice of Yrnir by Bur's sons and the subsequent creation of the world from his body parts (earth from his flesh, sea from his blood, sky from his skull, and mountains from his bones) IS the supreme act of creation, the elevation of chaos into cosmos.

Among the cosmogonic myths there are several which are related to eschatology, namely the stery of the harnessing of the mythic monsters borne by the giantess Angrboda to Loki. These are the world dragon Jorrnungand, the mistress of death Hel, and the wolf Fenrir. The Eddic myth of the golden age (when the Aces made everything of gold, played dice, and rejoiced) perpetuates the moment before the advent, in the newly created cosmos, of that "inner curse" which was to ruin it later. The etiological myth about the first war (between the Aces and the Vans) already heralds the forthcoming death, because of the breach of treaties and vows. The role of death is even more significant because the Vans are in a way related to the ritual of fertility, prosperity, and wealth.

The myth about the creation of humans states that they were created without breath or fate. The Aces revived them whereas fate seemed to have been granted to them by the Noms, who appear only at the end of the Golden Age. Fate, the important element in Scandinavian mythology, is a necessary component of the organized world order, but it also spells out the possibility of peril not only for individual humans, but for the gods and the world as a whole. Finally, the myth about Baldr, central to the ancient Scandinavian mythology, is in essence an etiological myth about the origin of death. It is also a prologue to the tragedy of the end of the world, a proper introduction to the Scandinavian eschatology. While the sacrifice of Yrmr amounted to the transformation of chaos into cosmos, the sacrifice of Baldr prepared the ground for the reversal of cosmos into chaos.

In part, eschatologic myths represent a mirror image of cosmogonic myths (this mirror-like relationship is a significant feature of the two subsystems). The story of the harnessing of chthonic monsters has its opposite in the story about their releases and battles with the deities. Come what may, Thor still remains the chief adversary of the world dragon; Heimdal fights with Loki (as they once did in the guise of seals when contesting Freya's jewel); and Tyr challenges the chthonic hound Garrn, whose twin Fenrir he used to tame in the past (the Ace Odin is now fighting Fenrir). Land previously lifted from the sea now sinks down again; stars put by gods on the sky plummet downward; the sun which the Aces had specially installed to give light is extinguished; ice and fire, the substances whose interaction brought about the world, now destroy the universe.

The eschatologic subsystem is markedly closed. Some of its features are at variance with the cosmogonic mythology and the myths about the wanderings and adventures of gods. Thus, in some myths Loki and Odin join forces and nearly duplicate each other functionally, while in eschatological myths they are sharply contrasted to one another. Odin, the father of the gods and of Baldr (who was the leader of the Einherjar), is opposed to Loki, the father of the chthonic monsters, the pilot of the ship of the dead who planned Baldr's murder. Odin and Thor often alternate with each other in the stories describing cosmogonic acts (Odin lifts the earth and Thor draws the dragon of the middle earth) and in the adventures of gods. They act together on the eschatologic plane. The Aces and the Vans, deities of farming, while opposed in cosmology, are fused into one in eschatology. Finally, the dwarfs, who are partly contrasted to gods, fear just as the latter do the invasion of chthonic monsters on the eschatologic plane.


The interrelation of the spatial and temporal models poses a problem in Scandinavian mythology. The image of the earth surrounded by the sea is derived from the conception of the earth's cosmogonic emergence from the ocean and its eschatologic submergence into water. In the process of cosmogony, the Aces are contrasted to the giants on both the temporal and the spatial axis: the giants appear before the Aces, and the Aces kill them in order to create a world from the body of one of them, Ymir. On the spatial axis this contrast is revealed by the opposition between Asgard and Jotunheim which engage in continual warfare. Instead of the key role being played by Odin, the creator, it is played by Thor, the warrior. This extension of the same opposition over space as well as time, the existence of two subsystems, spatial and temporal, is characteristic of poetic thinking. It will be noted, however, that the above-mentioned convergence between cosmogony and cosmology belongs only to the horizontal projection. In plots unfolding in the horizontal projection, the progress of time is not so tangible, because they are built on the cyclic principle. They describe cyclic circulation of goods among various classes of mythic beings (though these themes are genetically myths). Thus, the sacred mead passes from the Aces to the dwarfs, from the dwarfs to the giants, and back to the Aces again. The enmity between the Aces and the giants provides a background for the adventures of Odin, Thor, and Loki, but the general cosmic situation remains unchanged with time.

The vertical spatial model is more sensitive to the irreversible temporal processes, for the cosmic tree is a concentration of the world's fate. Generally, the cosmic tree is the most significant element.

In eschatologic pictures, though it is largely divorced from cosmogony. The concept of the world tree provides in effect an alternative to that of the creation of the world from parts of the body of an anthropomorphous being. Redundancy is compensated for by the fact that the theme of the world creation from Ymir's body never extends beyond the cosmogonic framework: it is as if the world has indeed been created from Ymir, yet its structure is further determined not by the shape of a human body but by that of a tree.


The deities as one group of mythological beings are opposed to the giants (Jotuns, Turses) and the dwarfs (Zwergs, black Elves), as well as to certain other classes of female beings such as Norns and Valkyries, which are inferior to the Aces. The giants and dwarfs associate with the Aces rather than with each other. One mportant distinguishing feature is height (i.e. giants and dwarfs are taller or shorter than the deities or humans). This accounts perhaps for a peculiar balance in the narratives of the Aces' adventures: Aces always confront one giant but two dwarfs, the giants are more often challenged by two or three Aces (Thor or Odin with their associates), while Loki alone confronts the dwarfs.

The Vans (who seem to be identified with the white Elves, hence the common alliterative formula "Aces and Elves") confront the Aces as a limited group of deities who are associated with agrarian cults through certain secondary patterns. The Vans possess magic and the gift of prophecy as well. Though the arts of magic and prophecy are attributes of Odin, love of peace an attribute of Baldr, and agrarian welfare an attribute of Thor, i.e, genuine Aces, it is the Vans alone who show a combination of all three attributes together.

Odin is an ever-present party in the matters of creation, sometimes with Loki as a coparticipant. Odin alternates with Thor in the adventures with the giants, and Loki can act as a companion toeither. The groups of Odin and Thor are opposed in terms of the number of participants involved. From the viewpoint of mythological type, the difference between Thor and Odin appears to be that of culture hero (Odin) and hero (Thor) who cleans the earth of chthonic monsters (cf. Prometheus versus Hercules). Odin's shamanic ecstasy is contrasted with Thor's combatant wrath. At the same time, Thor, when armed with a hatchet or hammer, is opposed to Odin with the spear, a symbol of military power and military magic. While Thor is a prototype of armed freemen, Odin is a prototype of a body of professional warriors. While Thor, like so many epical heroes, defends "his own folk," i.e. humans and deities against "foreigners" (i.e. the giants and chthonic monsters), Odin is the inciter of discords and wars between humans in his function of the giver of military luck. As a patron of initiations, Odin allows occasional deaths among his fellow warriors, but these are but a temporary death in the overall ritual, to be followed by the superlife of the Einherjar in the myth.

In effect, Odin, Thor, and Loki are the only three active characters of the mythic epic. They are also endowed with a certain epical personality. Thor possesses the immense epic physical power (its other manifestations are his wrath, gluttony, .etc.), In that sense he is contrasted to the wit and guile of Odin and Loki. The opposition of Thor to Loki is that of strong versus tricky. Loki, as Thor's companion and aide, possesses the cunning necessary for the success of his undertakings. Loki appears as the comical counterpart of Odin in cosmogonic myths but as his evil antagonist in eschatological myths. Odin's wit, a combination of lofty wisdom and lowly perfidy, clairvoyance, cunning, and omnipotent witchcraft, is wider than Loki's guile and artifice. When Odin and Loki operate jointly, Loki carries out either their' common objective or one of Odin's designs (such as the theft of Freya's necklace, which caused her to spark off animosity between two heroes, or the robbery of the dwarf Andvari's gold).

Tyr's military function is, in fact, that of upholding order: he is the one who tames Fenrir, the foremost chthonic destructor. Tyr is opposed to both Odin, the inciter of feuds (law against luck) and Thor, the tempestuous warrior, who always defends "his folk" from the external forces of chaos. Odin, Thor, and Tyr are continually in touch with each other as specifically celestial deities (the celestial localization is perhaps the permanent feature of the pantheon as a whole). The relict and etiological features mark Tyr as the primordial "master" of the sky (like Dios-Zeus) while Odin emerges only later as the principal celestial deity and the principal antagonist of the tellurian chthonic monsters, primarily Fenrir the wolf.

The Eddic narrative plots constitute a semantic system which developed in a certain way from the syncretism of etiological myths. The system comprises a number of complementary parts (such as the mythic symbolism of mead as the embodiment and source of wisdom and the source of physical renewal, the perpetual renewal of food sources).

The theme of obtaining the magic drink (food) is broken down into paradigms (such as sacred-profane, content-container, i.e. internal-external, liquid-solid) and distributed among several characters (Odin, Thor, Loki). Specific narrative cycles are associated with them such as the myths about the culture hero and gallant warriors, and the mythological anecdotes about the trickster's frolics. Since each of these cycles relates the same basic plot, by telling the plot in three different ways it becomes possible to overcome the redundancy of mythic information.