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Role Playing Northern Reaches based on "real" Norse Mythology

by Niels Just Rasmussen

Using Norse religion in Role Playing where you have nations based on the vikings - Northern Reaches in Mystara is an obvious example:

This is an attempt to actually use "real" (as well as it can be reconstructed) Scandinavian believes in Role Playing and not the common view on "Vikings"; that is often as distorted as with having in a Role Playing game based on Christian religion with "Christian Warrior Nuns fighting with two-handed swords, all married to their polygamous leader called the Bishop, who wears an big tall hat and carries a magic staff"! [I'm exaggerating in this example, but only a bit when it comes to how Vikings are portrayed].

A lot of the common view is based on the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson and his Prose-Edda (combined with modern television), but research shows that obviously there is a great deal more to be found.

When people read Snorri Sturluson's Prose-Edda one can easily get the feeling that he speaks from a wealth of knowledge about Scandinavian religion. People might not realized that he writes from a very sophisticated agenda.
It is important to note that Snorri is a christian and writing in a country [Iceland] that has been christian for over 200 years. He knows about poetry and so knows a great deal about the mythology, but far less about rituals and actual believes. He will interpret the Norse religion from a specific learned classic standpoint.
Around 1200AD it became popular (again) in Christianity to explain pagan religions after the idea if Euhemeros (4'th century AD) that all gods once were historical kings. After him this interpretation is called "Euhemerism": Mythology is basically distorted accounts of real world history.
After 200 years [1000-1200] of destroying and vilifying all things based on the old pagan ways, some Scandinavian christian used Euhemerism to make their countrymen proud of their ancestry. It comes at a time where the old ways had died out and was no more a competitor for the christian church [Sweden is an exception where it was still active in remote parts]. In Denmark Saxo Grammaticus [Danish Sakse - same meaning as Anglo-Saxon "Seax" - a single edged fighting knife] wrote the "Gesta Danurum" (The deeds of the Danes) in Latin finished between 1208-1215 and in Iceland Snorri Sturluson wrote his Prose-Edda in Icelandic around the 1220's.

In their christian views the Scandinavians hadn't really believed in any "real" gods, but had been fooled by clever magicians (The Aesir and Vanir) into thinking them as Gods. Furthermore these guys were not local but had come from the Black Sea area - so they have brought in foreign ways. It is an early form of the "Noble Savage" explanation. Their ancestors were "virtuous pagans" that just had to find the right way through the magic illusions - the Light of Christ would reveal all the trickery. So even if they died as pagans it was simply because the light of Christ didn't reach them before their death. It's very obvious with Saxo, but a lot more subtle with Snorri. But isn't one of his books in the Prose-Edda called Gylfaginning! [= The fooling/"eye-blinding" of Gylfi, a Swedish King -> maybe simply meaning that the pagan Swedish are still fooled by these magicians - especially Odin who appears as a mock trinity - High, Just-as-High and Third - fooling the naive Gylfi]. But it gives Snorri an excuse to actually tell about Scandinavian mythology in a christian package. Beside his christian agenda he also want the poetic knowledge to be preserved.

So where it is fairly easy to see where Saxo has a christian interpretation to events in his stories (pagan things are stinking and foul and often a devil will be cast out), it's much harder to know with Snorri. When does give actually true Scandinavian mythological accounts and where has he changed it into a christian understanding?! What is interesting is that sometimes Saxo and Snorri recounts the same story but in very different ways.
Especially the Balder myth: Where in Saxo Balder is the bad guy (and immune to steel) whereas Høder the good guy (not blind) receiving a magic sword called Mistelteinn to kill Balder, which he does! In Snorri the blind Høder (by trickery of Loke) kills the innocent Balder by use of a plant Mistletoe used as an arrow!
So likely there is no single mythology, but huge variants all over Scandinavia.
It seems that Saxo's sword version is a correct one - Mistelteinn - since it's also the name of a sword in an icelandic saga. Also -teinn [danish "ten"] is a very usual sword ending ["ten" meaning sharp point].
Furthermore the plant Mistletoe doesn't grow in Iceland and is quite rare in Norway. Mistelteinn as a plant is furthermore the only plant given the -teinn suffix. The prefix "Mistel" is probably in the meaning of Death -> Mistelteinn = "the mist-(sending to Hel) Sword(point)". In Snorri, Balder is actually send to Hel after being killed by the Mistletoe and not allowed to come back before after Ragnarökr.

Snorri and the Norse pantheon:
It's probably a creation of Snorri. A way to show classic learning - since the Greek had a pantheon on Olympos, so did they Norse people. Snorri knows myth and poems written at different times and for different kings in different places. So he gather all his diachronic material together and compose a "static" learned version, that is the common idea even today for most people. It has with all likelihood never existed anywhere! Instead of Herodotus to actually give many conflicting different accounts Snorri settles for one - probably a mix of many different versions.
His Balder myth is probably a huge mix of Anglo-Saxon influence, Icelandic folk tales, and lines from old poems all mixed together in a totally new creation - Snorri's creation - the authorized Christian version.
You have to take the hat of to the man, he is truly a master manipulator, that would have made even Odinn proud. After all Snorri was a chieftain and from one of leading family in Iceland - the Sturlungar family clan. Snorri was also poet, lawyer, twice Lawspeaker at the All-Thing and politician. This guy knew his craft, though he was killed in a the power struggle with the Norwegian King Hákon IV Hákonarson in 1241.

In Denmark Saxo was a "clerk" for two consecutive danish Archbishops of Lund - Absalon Assersøn and Anders Sunesøn. These were both from the powerful "Hvide"-family on Zealand (dan. Sjælland), so where his account is very patriotic about Danes, people from Zealand are clearly better than from other parts of Denmark. Unusually Saxo wrote in a very elaborate classical Latin (most educated people would write middle-age Latin), which shows he was probably a Danish nobleman, that was send south to Europe and educated at the Paris University - this is not cheap!
So that he calls himself a "mere clerk" is probably the typically christian humility. With all likelihood Saxo was from the Hvide-family, since he also mentions that his granddad, dad and himself had served as warriors for King Valdemar I the Great in battle. Valdemar I was childhood friends with Absalon and his brother Esbern Snare and the Hvide family supported Valdemar's rise to power.
Saxo's work was meant to dazzle Europe with its quality, showing Denmark at the level of classical learning and being equal to the Romans and the Greeks in ancestry. So his style is not Nordic with use of few condensed words, but classical with a lot (a lot!) of talking.
Saxo's oldest nickname is stated as "Saxo, cognomine Longus" (Saxo called "the Long"), also showing he was from well-fed warrior-nobility. Since Archbiship Absalon was just under 2 meter and not called long, Saxo must have been pretty imposing! It was first a long time after his death he was called Grammaticus.

To conclude both Snorri and Saxo wrote in a political and theological context, but they didn't invent the stories out of the blue air. The had gathered old knowledge and made their versions. So the quest is to peal the layers off to find what is behind their stories - the mass of varieties of old myths and legends.

Also by use of etymology and place names you can come closer to a more pre-christian understanding on rituals and believes. I would concentrate first on the famous Viking pantheon (and show it didn't exist).

God-friendship instead of pantheon worshiping:

Scandinavians had a very different view of their Gods than what people are used to today. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is to be feared/awed/worshiped. God is way more powerful and mighty than you., so you can never really have an equal standing.
For the Norse people it was not worship of gods, but FRIENDSHIP with A God! A family was tied in friendship with a certain Aesir and Vanir immortal or a collective group of beings living on the same land (vætter, elves) and that was not something to be broken lightly. As you can be friends with a famous politician or warrior, the gods are good powerful friends to have, but they accept you as friend - meaning (almost) equal. Like when a warrior is dining in the hall of the king, being proud that he and the kings are friends.
The founder of a family had guest/host friendship with a certain god that was inherited in the family. You would do everything to maintain that friendship and the god with help you in need. He had helped your ancestors, otherwise you wouldn't even be here today. The God and your family have had friendship for centuries maybe and that is something to cherish and hold on to.
You didn't chose what god to be friends with - you were born into that friendship.
This way of thinking is also seen in English names such as Ælfwine or Goodwin (elf-friend and God-friend).

Friendship being very sacred is clearly old Indo-European thinking. The guest/host (both from Proto Indo-Europeaen *Ghos-ti-; "guest" being danish and "host" being Anglo-Saxon) friendship can be found also in Homer. One Trojan and one "Greek" warrior meets on the battlefield and before the fight they state their lineage. Then they realized that one grandfather had been a guest at the other grandfather. So they can't fight each other, but they exchange gifts and depart as friends. Friendship & Family-honour comes first, no matter if there is a war going on.

Changing God is a total betrayal of all your ancestors and your clan. A spitting on your family and disassociating with all your kin's exploits and honour.
The is a famous story where a Viking coming to the German Holy Roman Empire and thinks that Jesus Christ sounds like a mighty God and is first willing to be baptized. He then asks about his family and ancestors if they will go to heaven as well. When he hears the answer is "no", he steps out of the baptismal barrel and declares that he would rather be in Hell with his family than in Heaven alone. That truly sums up the Norse mindset!
That is probably why Jesus emphasizes that you can't be his disciple, unless your hate your father and mother, brother and sister. As Christian you break free from family ties (calling your family devil-worshipers) and finds a new family in a christian congregation.

In the Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, you have a Frey-friend (Ravnkel) that is a local chieftain (goði) with a temple dedicated to Frey and have dedicated his favourite horse "Freyfaxi" as well, that no one is allowed to ride. He has vowed to kill anyone that rides it. [seems correct since the Horse is one of the the most important symbols connected with Frey].
Off course being a saga everything goes wrong for him.
It ends with Ravnkel turning away from the Frey-worship because of all his misfortunes and he changes from being very aggressive and troublesome to becoming peaceful, and then things start to get better again. Probably delighting the christian listeners of this story. Only be turning away from the Norse gods can you be a good person, would be a moral of the story.

But the story informs that changing your god-frienship will have enormous consequences for you and your family. The friendship defines who you are, so giving up on Frey makes you into another man.

It is also obvious that Ravnkel has friendship with Frey, he doesn't worship any pantheon. Frey is HIS family-God. Other families have other gods, some Thor, some Jesus, some are friends with elves and some are self-believers (not really atheists "per se", but people unaffiliated with any God. Those thinking they are tough enough to take care of themselves).
You would in pagan times have major seasonal rituals where a special god is asked for help, but they are for greater communities and for all the land, not your family's land alone.
It's likely that noble families had major gods as friends and minor families were friends with the collective beings of the land (elves, vætter).
The specific god-friendship showed your class - Odin was clearly someone who befriended nobles and kings.

Role Playing this idea:
So when making Northern Reaches character have them in different family groups fighting for power. One family thinks that Thor is the leader of the pantheon (their family God), some have Odin, others Frey etc.
You don't normally make individual choices about religion - you fight for the honour of your family and your God-friend will help you in the struggle.
You could in a role playing setting making this god-friendship also defines who the PC are and behave. As Tyr-family warrior you will likely be cool, controlled and unafraid. As Thor warriors you are passionate and straightforward. As Odin-warriors you are enraged (Berserkir), and involved in information and disinformation and trickery and so on.
For instance Odin could avoid the guest friendship rules by using another name and in disguise (which he has many) and by trickery kill those he was invited to, so this trickery would be typical for Odin-friends.