Introduction to Midgard

 

Close the door, put out the light, you know they won't be home tonight.

The snow falls hard and don't you know, the winds of Thor are blowing cold.

They're wearing steel that's bright and true, they carry news that must get through.

They choose a path where no one goes…

They hold no quarter. They ask no quarter.

It was the Age of Summer. It was the time when the Legend-Makers of old strode across the fertile soil of Midgard. It was a time of heroics, of great deeds, of epic songs, of the fullness of life, and of the tragedy of death. And with the passing of the champions, namely Sigurd and Beowulf, there came a new era of prosperity and security. The savage forces of nature; winter, battle, and magic, seemed to slumber and take pause in their brutal attack on the people of Midgard. Even the gods in Asgard appeared to celebrate this new time of peace and tranquility.

It was the Age of Autumn. Up rose the spires of the Four Cities of the South, and with them the four law-makers of the age. The northernmost outpost, which separated the civilized world from the frozen wastes of the North, was the citadel of Bifrost's End. Within its thick stone walls, the guardian-sons of Heimdall kept constant vigil over their frontier fortress. Further to the South, was the golden-gilded city of Wodensheim. It was a city of incredible wealth, obtained (often legitimately) through the silver-tongued dealings of its inhabitants. Here political intrigue was always the order of the day as the power-hungry struggled for whatever meager control they could obtain. To the West lay the mystical forest city of Alfheim, home of the elves. Many wisdom-seekers searched in vain to find the mysterious sylvan roads which led to its fabled halls. On the shores of the South Sea, lay the city-states of Tiwazalla. Its warlords waged a ceaseless battle for control of the lands and waters and hence for the right to pillage and raze the ripe lands of the South.

Far to the North, an impossibly thin tower of pure crystal thrust its spindly frame into the harsh skies of the frozen wastes. Within its translucent walls, the Ice Queen sat on her throne and she cast her gaze towards the South. There she saw full life bursting out in bud, in love, and in song. And the poison that flowed through her veins slowed to a crawl as she gazed at the abomination. And she seethed, in stillness, in the frigid silence…and she hated. Days and months passed and her malice grew, not with passion, but with the unrelenting persistence of frostbite, of venom. The icy tomb that had long ago replaced her heart slowly swelled, and soon she could think of nothing else except enveloping the world in that frozen grave. So she summoned her sisters and brothers, the witches and warlocks of the North, and she shared her razor-edged dream with them. Then she bade the trolls of the frozen wastes to heed her call, and she sent them creeping, like spiders, like an ice age, towards the hideous South. And there they purged the people of their hot blood and showed them the way of fear and of hatred. But the gates of the Four Cities opened, and out spilled the heroines and heroes of the age. They marched north to protect the dreams of their ancestors who had shown them paradise during the Age of Summer. Against overwhelming odds, they pushed back the troll horde until the monsters had fled before them, and they stood at the gate of the Ice Queen's tower. There they uttered their challenge and there they took their stand and the frozen wastes shook and heaved with their fearful battle. The red blood of the valiant spilled over the white ground, but they would not relent. Weeks of fevered fighting followed, like a howling winter storm, until eventually the queen was vanquished. And as the few remaining champions stood over her body in bittersweet victory, she breathed the curse.

Thus began the Age of Winter, when the biting north winds descended on the cities of the South, burying them beneath mountains of ice. And Midgard heaved beneath them, and the World Tree shook. And for once, even the gods knew terror. And in their wrath, they fueled the winter storms. The human survivors fled to the caves and feared. For years to come they knew nothing but winter, and the savage past returned. They turned on their wizards, both the evil and the good, identifying them with the Ice Queen's terrifying dream. The lucky were exiled, to live a life of utter solitude. The unlucky were murdered, often horrifically. As the storm began to finally abate, the survivors stumbled bleary-eyed out of their caves and started to rebuild the cities of the South, and hopefully the dream of their ancestors.

Now the age is unknown. Some say the Age of Winter will never end. Some say we are witnessing the dawning of the Age of Spring, where new prosperity and life will begin. If this is so, then Midgard has need of new Legend-Makers. Of brave souls who will take up the heavy mantle of goodness and restore the land to its glorious destiny. Will you heed the call?

We come from the land of the ice and snow,

from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow;

the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,

to fight the horde, singing and crying: "Valhalla, I am coming!"

What follows here is some information on Norse culture and mythology from Legends and Lore. It's really good stuff, so enjoy!

The Norsemen

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne had forged an empire that covered much of Europe. It included what is now Northern Spain, the low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, France, Austria, Switzerland, West Germany, and Italy to well south of Rome. By any standards, it was a significant realm, placing a huge territory and a great diversity of peoples under the rule of a single man.

It was also a wealthy, ponderous dominion ripe for plunder and the Vikings were just the people to do so.

Toward the end of Charlemagne's reign, his domain was already suffering raids from the northmen's longships. These seaborne attacks were as brutal and ferocious as they were unpredictable and fast. Fierce beasts carved on their prows, a flotilla of longships filled with greedy and murderous warriors would simply appear out of the morning mists. By nightfall, the town would be burning, many of its inhabitants slain, and the raiders gone.

Two generations after Charlemagne's death, the ferocious attacks became so common that most people viewed them as divine retribution for society's sins. But Charlemagne's empire was not alone in suffering this scourge. The fierce Viking marauders raided locations as far apart as Constantinople and York, overwhelmed cities as powerful as Paris and London, and burned towns like Aachen and Cologne. In the second half of the Ninth Century, they pillaged Tours six times. To the common man of the time, it must have seemed like these fair-haired killers called no place but the sea their home. That was not the case, however. They inhabited much the cold, bleak land now thought of as Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In Norway and Sweden at least, the interior landscape consisted of rugged, craggy mountains that made travel difficult and agriculture all but impossible. Therefore, most Viking villages were located near the coast, where deep fjords offered protection from the harsh winter and shelter for fishing boats. Wherever they would find suitable land, they established farms, and there was no doubt an abundant supply of game for fresh meat. Their homeland was rich in natural resources: ivory, pelts, wood, and all of the essential items.

What caused a people possessed of these abundant resources to emerge so suddenly as such a far-ranging force of destruction? One important factor was overpopulation. Scandinavia had long been a thinly settled wilderness, but its population slowly and steadily grew. With its rugged inland mountains forbidding any major expansion beyond the coastal areas, the population eventually reached the point of overflowing.

In addition to overpopulation, there were several cultural conditions which contributed to their ferocity. Armed with their knowledge of the sea, the Vikings were far-ranging traders and merchants who acquired a taste for monetary wealth – a taste which they soon learned to indulge through ransacking defenseless towns. Another important factor was that most chieftains had several wives and many sons, but inheritance was only passed on to the eldest son. Consequently, a large number of elite warriors were forced to make their own way in the world. This dangerous condition, when combined with an inherent sense of adventure and their newly acquired taste for wealth, opened up the possibility of piracy on a grand scale.

Without their legendary longboats, however, the Vikings might have remained little more than bothersome barbarians from the north. The longboat was a shallow-drafted galley equally capable of sailing the high seas or a relatively shallow river. A typical model was 70 feet long and 16 feet at the beam. It could carry up to a 100 men who could man up to 30 oars. The vessel could make 10 knots under its single square sail, and was sturdy enough to make stormy Atlantic crossings. At the same time, it was light enough to dragged overland for short distances, and maneuverable enough to slip past shore defenses. It is not surprising that they often lavished the best of their spirited art on these marvelous boats, carving the heads of majestic dragons or wild beasts upon the prows.

The Vikings used these longboats for more than just hit and run raids. They were aggressive merchants, trading ivory, furs, and amber for silk, spices, glass, slaves, and other goods in mercantile centers as far away as Baghdad. The Norsemen, as they came to be called, also established colonies in Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, the low countries, France, and other European areas. After founding trading centers in the vicinities of the Volga and Dnieper rivers, they eventually merged their holdings and created the Russian state. The Vikings were even the first (albeit unsuccessful) colonists of America.

Viking Culture

As fierce as they were, the Vikings were more than mere barbarians. Although they lived in villages scattered along the entire length of the Scandinavian shoreline, they shared many traits that mark them as belonging to a common culture.

For most Vikings, life followed a simple pattern. After the snows melted in the spring, they would prepare their fields and plant their crops. If the household was a wealthy one, this would be done with the aid of the family slaves. Then the men would turn their attention to the sea and go raiding, trading, or fishing while their young and women stayed at home to tend the crops and herds. In the fall, the men who had gone to trade or raid would return home, hopefully laden with treasure. After the crop was harvested and the snows came, they would turn their attention to hunting and taking pelts, either for clothing or trading. Although there were certainly many variations on this basic pattern, the lifestyles of most Vikings no doubt followed the same seasonal patterns and incorporated the same elements of constant outdoor adventure.

Considering this ruined lifestyle. it is no wonder that the Norsemen had a well-developed spirit of self-reliance and independence. Although they acknowledged the classes of king, nobleman, freeman, and slave, they were fiercely individualistic and firmly maintained that all Norsemen were equal. It was not uncommon for a group of Vikings to demonstrate this essential truth by drowning or killing a king they no longer wished to follow.

Family ties were of great importance to the Vikings. The family was a large unit of kinsmen, including uncles, brothers, and kinsmen. It stood together in all things, and to attack one member of it was to attack the entire family. In the reverse, if one member of family committed a social transgression, the consequences often fell on the entire family. For instance, if a man killed someone, the killer's cousins might be called upon to pay blood-money to the victim's family.

As the example above suggests, the Vikings had an elaborate code of laws. This code allowed for divorce, property holding among women as well as men, orderly inheritance, mutual obligations between chieftain and follower, and all of the other relationships necessary to the orderly functioning of a society. Generally speaking, in their legal code Vikings respected honesty, loyalty, honor, generosity, and individual freedom. Outside of the legal code, they also admired warlike prowess, hardihood, and courage. Notably lacking in their legal code or personal value system was any concept of mercy.

The lack of compassion among the Norsemen is probably a function of their outlook on life, which seems as bleak and cold as the climate of their native land. Although they believed in a blissful after-world, Valhalla was a realm for warriors, and the only way to gain entrance was to die courageously in battle. Here, warriors would spend their days fighting and their evenings feasting. Even then, the refuge offered by Valhalla was a temporary one. All the men and gods were doomed to vanish in Ragnarok, a final, terrible battle in which all the gods and men were destined to perish. In the face of such certain doom, the only noble response was to fight honorably as best one could, and to take what pleasure was available in life.

Mythology

According to Norse mythology, at first there was only a great void. To the north of the void was a region of mist and ice, Nifleheim, and to the south a region of fire, Muspellheim. Where the two realms met, the heat melted the ice and formed a great frost giant, Ymir. He created a race of giants and, from glacial ice, a cow to feed them.

The cow was fed on briny ice, and, as she licked the ice, she uncovered a being name Buri. Upon being uncovered, Buri immediately produced a son, Bor, who had three godly sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve. As soon as the giants became aware of the gods, they started a war, which was ended when the three gods killed Ymir. After killing Ymir, Odin and his brothers made the earth from the frost giant's body and the vault of the heavens from his skull. From the maggots in Ymir's body, they created dwarves.

This done, Odin and his brothers created the home of the gods, Asgard, in the plane of Gladsheim. Then Odin created more gods, the Aesir, to populate Asgard. Another group of gods, the Vanir, appeared either shortly before or after the Aesir. Their origins are rather mysterious, but they seem to have populated Vanaheim, a land close to Asgard. For a time, a terrible war raged between the Aesir and the Vanir. A peace was finally arranged when the two groups agreed to exchange hostages. The Vanir sent Niord, Frey, and Freya to live with the Aesir, and the Aesir sent Hoenir and Mimir to live with the Vanir.

After establishing themselves in Asgard, Odin, Vili, and Ve created the first man, Ask, from an ash tree. They created the first woman, Embla, from an elm. Then Odin gave them each a spirit, Vili endowed them with their five senses and the ability to move, and Ve gave them life and blood.

The entire plane of Gladsheim is supported by a giant ash tree, Yggdrasil. Its roots extend to Nifleheim (now a frozen netherworld), Jotunheim (home of the giants), Midgard (earth), and Asgard itself. The Midgard serpent surrounds the earth, devouring anyone who attempts to pass out of Midgard. Another giant serpent, Nidhogg, gnaws at the roots of the tree. When he finally kills the tree, at the end of time, the entire structure will collapse.

As Nidhogg gnaws away the last root of Yggdrasil, the giants and their allies will rise up against the gods. In a terrible battle called Ragnarok, they will defeat Odin, the other gods, and all the great warriors who have been living in Odin's hall of Valhalla. At this point, Yggdrasil will collapse and the cosmos will come to an end.

 

Introduction to Midgard

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