10 Writing Prompts from Norse Mythology
Here we are again looking to ancient mythology to inspire stories. If you are into this sort of thing, I have two other posts you might like about Greek Myths, Irish Myths, and Bulgarian Folklore.
This one was fun to do. Norse mythology is popular right now thanks to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and the new God of War game. For a more thorough reading of the stories I encourage you to check out Gaiman’s book. He is a wonderful storyteller. For my purposes I used Norse-Mythology.org. They have good, concise retellings that are often followed by scholarly commentary.
Below I have summed up ten myths and then given you prompts to follow to create your own stories using the themes from the original.
1) The Creation of Thor’s Hammer
Loki, being his mischievous self, cut of the hair of Thor’s wife Sif. When Thor found out, he was furious and threatened Loki, who begged for mercy and said he would get her new, better hair. Thor allowed this. Loki went down to Svartalfheim, home of the dwarves, to get Sif new hair.
He first went to the sons of Ivaldi who made him Sif’s new hair, Skidbaldnir (a ship that always has favorable winds and can fold up and fit in one’s pocket), and Gungnir (the best spear).
But Loki wasn’t satisfied, he hadn’t caused any trouble. So he went to the brothers Brokkr and Sindri and asked them to make gifts that were even better. He said if they did, they could have his head. They agreed. In order to win the bet, Loki took the shape of a fly and bit one of them each time they made an item. They made Gullinbursti (a live boar with golden hair “who gave off light in the dark and could run better than any horse”), Draupnir (a ring from which “every ninth night, fell nine new golden rings of equal weight), and finally Mjollnir (a hammer which never missed and returned to its owner). The only gift that was flawed was the hammer, which had a short handle.
Loki took all the gifts and returned to Asgard where he distributed them among Thor, Sif, Odin and Freyr. Despite how impressed they all were, they told Loki he owed the dwarves his head. He claimed they could only have his head and not his neck so it would be impossible. The dwarves settled for sewing his mouth shut.
Write a story where your main character must replace a magical item. Perhaps they stole the original and perhaps they were framed. What adventures could they have in trying to obtain the replacement?
2) Thor’s Womanly Disguise
Thor rose one morning to find his beloved hammer missing. After traveling to Jotunheim, land of the giants, Loki learned that Thrym, chief of the giants, had stolen it and would not return it unless Freya married him. This made all the gods angry and they devised a plan.
Thor would disguise himself as Freya and go to meet Thrym. Thor was not happy with this solution which he saw as being humiliating. But the others convinced him there was no other way. Loki went as his hand-maid.
When they arrived, Thor almost gave himself away by eating all the food available. When Thrym got suspicious, Loki told him Freya had been so lovesick she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Then Thrym lifted the veil to kiss his bride. “Thor’s eyes glared at him so intently that they seemed to burn holes right through him.” This time Loki told Thrym she had also been unable to sleep for weeks. He accepted these explanations and the ceremony was begun.
When Mjollnir was retrieved from its hiding place and laid in Thor’s lap as part of the proceedings, he took hold of it and slaughtered all the giants. He then, gratefully, changed his clothes.
This is a fun tale of disguises and tricks. I can imagine Loki doubled over laughing the whole time. Write a story where someone must don a disguise s/he finds distasteful. Have a secondary character around who enjoys every minute. Does the main character learn any lessons by the end?
3) The Kidnapping of Idun
One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling through the mountains and they stopped to eat an ox. But the ox wouldn’t cook over their fire. Finally, they noticed an eagle who told them he was keeping it from cooking. He would let the fire do its job if they let him eat from the ox first. They agreed but the eagle took the best parts and Loki charged in anger.
The eagle took hold of Loki’s weaponized branch and flew high above the mountains. Loki was so scared he would do anything. The eagle was actually Thjazi, a giant in disguise, and he wanted Idun and her fruit that kept the gods young. Loki agreed.
When the gods returned to Asgard, Loki found Idun and convinced her to follow him out of Asgard. He said he found fruits even better than hers and she should come see them and bring her own for comparison. When they were away, the eagle came and took her back to the mountains.
When she was gone, the gods began aging. They panicked and got angry when they found out what Loki had done. They demanded he go and bring Idun back. He flew to the mountains as an hawk and found Idun alone, Thjazi off fishing. He turned her into a nut so he could carry her in a talon and took off.
Before he had gotten far, however, Thjazi returned, found Idun missing, and began the chase. The eagle was quickly gaining on Loki and both he and the other gods were worried the hawk wouldn’t make it. They made a giant pile of wood around Asgard and when Loki crossed it, they lit it on fire, killing Thjazi in the explosion. Idun was safely returned.
There are a great many stories of goddesses being kidnapped and bargained for. Sometimes they escape and sometimes they don’t but they often have very little choice in the matter themselves.
Write a story where the kidnapped goddess/woman rescues herself, or is rescued by other women. Perhaps the men keep failing so the women take it into their own hands. Perhaps she wants to escape the “valiant knights” coming to her rescue as much as the evil-doer who kidnapped her in the first place.
4) The Marriage of Njord and Skadi
After the death of Thjazi, his daughter, the giantess Skadi, came to Asgard for vengeance. The gods managed to convince her to accept reparations instead.
First Odin took Thjazi’s eyes and cast them into the sky, turning them into stars. Next they were supposed to make her laugh. None were able until Loki played tug of war with a goat by tying his end of the rope to his testicles. Finally, she was allowed to choose one of the gods to marry, but she could only look at his legs and feet. Hoping to choose Baldur, she actually chose Njord.
After the wedding, they had to choose whose home to live in. Njord lived on the beach, being a sea god, and Skadi lived up in the cold mountains. They lived on the mountain for nine months and then went down to live in Njord’s home. Each hated the home of the other, being such opposites. Njord hated the sound of wolves and the unceasing cold. Skadi hated the constant call of seabirds. They decided they were too different to make it work and parted ways.
After all the times a man won a woman as a prize, a woman warrior decides to do the same. But she soon learns that winning your spouse is not all its cracked up to be.
5) The Binding of Fenrir
Loki had three children with the giantess Angrboda, Jormungand, Hel, and Fenrir, a great wolf. All three had terrible implications for the gods and the coming of Ragnarok. The gods force Jormungand and Hel into the ocean and underworld respectively, but decided to keep Fenrir in Asgard. Tyr, the god of law and honor, was the only one brave enough to feed and tend Fenrir.
When it became clear that Fenrir would grow too large to remain in Asgard, they decided to chain him and stash him away somewhere. They tricked Fenrir into letting them place all manner of chains on him by saying it was a test of his strength. They even cheered every time he broke free.
Finally, they sent to Svartalfheim, the realm of dwarves, and asked them to make a chain that would hold the wolf. They managed the feat: “it was wrought from the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird – in other words, things which don’t exist, and against which it’s therefore futile to struggle. Gleipnir (“Open”) was its name.”
Seeing this fancy new chain, Fenrir suspected a trap. He said he would only let them put it on him if one of them was willing to place his or her hand in his mouth as collateral, so to speak. All refused except Tyr. When the chain went on and Fenrir was unable to break free, he bit off Tyr’s hand.
The gods then moved the wolf out of the way and chained him to a boulder and placed a sword in his mouth to keep it open. The drool pouring from his mouth formed the river Van, or Expectation. He waited there until Ragnarok.
Write a story where the characters must deal with a force/person/beast/object that they know will eventually be their demise. They want to put it off and they know any solution will only be temporary. What lengths are they willing to go to in order to by some time?
6) Origin of the Cosmos
For this I will quote norse-mythology.org directly. They did a wonderful job of compiling the account and follow it up with some great commentary that I encourage you to read.
Before there was soil, or sky, or any green thing, there was only the gaping abyss of Ginnungagap. This chaos of perfect silence and darkness lay between the homeland of elemental fire, Muspelheim, and the homeland of elemental ice, Niflheim.
Frost from Niflheim and billowing flames from Muspelheim crept toward each other until they met in Ginnungagap. Amid the hissing and sputtering, the fire melted the ice, and the drops formed themselves into Ymir, the first of the godlike giants. Ymir was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce asexually; when he sweated, more giants were born.
As the frost continued to melt, a cow, Audhumbla, emerged from it. She nourished Ymir with her milk, and she, in turn, was nourished by salt-licks in the ice. Her licks slowly uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor, who married Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bolthorn. The half-god, half-giant children of Bor and Bestla were Odin, who became the chief of the Aesir gods, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.
Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and set about constructing the world from his corpse. They fashioned the oceans from his blood, the soil from his skin and muscles, vegetation from his hair, clouds from his brains, and the sky from his skull. Four dwarves, corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth.
The gods eventually formed the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.
There is much in this tale that could be used as story inspiration. The rise of Odin, the son of the first gods, his killing (was it betrayal, murder?) of Ymir. The fact that, in order for a wold suitable for humans to live on, the first living being had to be slain, is a very compelling idea.
Try writing a story about a scholar uncovering the truth of their creation. One religion sets up the Odin-figure to be a hero and Ymir to be the evil he had to vanquish. Another calls Odin the villain who slew the peaceful Ymir. The scholar does some investigating to discover that they worked together in order to create a place safe for humans to live. What would be the religious, political, social, and other ramifications of such a discovery?
7) The Fortification of Asgard
One day a giant who was a smith arrived in Asgard. He offered to build a wall around the place that would protect it from anything. He told the gods he could build it in three winters and that his price was Freya, the sun, and the moon. The gods really wanted that wall but they didn’t want to lose Freya, the sun, and the moon. They had a debate and Loki told them they should agree to the giant’s payment but make him do it in one winter and with no help other than his horse. They decided this was brilliant as the giant could never finish it on time but they would still get a good portion of wall. The giant agreed as long as they guaranteed his safety during his stay in Asgard.
As the winter progressed so did the wall. The gods watched the giant and his horse, Svadilfari, make quick work of the project. They also noted that the horse did twice as much work, carrying the stones and equipment around. When there were only three days left, it was clear that the wall would be completed on time. The gods panicked. They didn’t want to lose Freya, the sun, and the moon but they couldn’t see a way out. They caught Loki and berated him for giving them this advice. They demanded he fix it.
So, when the smith and his horse went out into the woods to collect stones, Loki disguised himself as a mare. Svadilfari saw the mare and was immediately distracted. He took off and chased mare Loki. When the horse didn’t return, the giant knew he had lost his commission. He reported to Asgard. The gods decided that his payment would be death and Thor’s hammer “shattered his head into pieces no bigger than breadcrumbs.”
Loki mare, meanwhile gave birth to an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Odin rose this horse throughout the nine realms.
This story has quite a few interesting qualities: the mysterious stranger who offers a valuable service in exchange for an impossible price (why was a giant offering to help the gods anyway?), an oath made by gods but very soon regretted, the questionable choices made by said gods regarding said oath, a male god turning into a female horse to distract a male horse, the same god allowing him/herself to be caught in order to bear a child, the practical murder of the giant who did build them most of a fantastic wall. Wow. Where to start. The male-female thing is a can of worms I don’t think I have the time for right now so I’ll go with the oath angle.
I like the idea of the giant walking into the stronghold of his enemy and offering them his services, no matter how high the price. Or perhaps he was hoping they would negotiate. The commentator at norse-mythology.org ( https://norse-mythology.org/tales/the-fortification-of-asgard/ ) points out that without the wall Ragnarok is not far away, so he is helping them put off the end of their reign. What could have motivated him to do that, to help the enemy of the giants in this way?
So, create two civilizations who are so opposed that this act seems nearly impossible. What price does your stranger demand? What is the compromise? Does he see the betrayal coming and can he avoid it?
8) The Aesir-Vanir War
There were actually two tribes of Norse gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The former included Odin and Thor and the latter included Freya, Freyr and Njord. Sources are a little vague on the differences and at times there seems to be no distinction. But they did have a war.
The war was started when the Aesir noticed Freya and her magic. She practiced seidr, “a form of magic principally concerned with discerning and altering the course of destiny.” The Aesir gods became so consumed with using her magic that they began to neglect their other duties like “honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to law.” Instead of owing up, they blamed Freya and tried to kill her three times. All three times she was reborn from the ashes.
After this incident the two tribes hated each other and the war began. The Aesir fought with weapons and force and the Vanir fought with magic. They were evenly matched and the war lasted a very long time. Eventually both sides tired of fighting and decided to make a truce.
As was the custom, they agreed to a hostage exchange. Freya, Freyr, and Njord went to live in Asgard and Hoenir and Mimir went to live with the Vanir. Freya and company lived happily enough but Hoenir and Mimir met with trouble from the Vanir. Hoenir would dispense wonderful advice but only when his brother was there. After a misunderstanding (and rather harsh reaction) they beheaded Mimir and the advice was gone. But Odin took Mimir’s head and enchanted it so that it would keep giving him advice when he needed it.
Rather than renew hostilities the two sides decided to let this misunderstanding go and they sealed their truce. They all spit into a cauldron. From the spit was born Kvasir, the wisest of all gods.
Write a story from the hostages point of view. Imagine a war between two opposing societies. Play up the differences or use their similarity as part of the plot. Follow the lives of the two groups of hostages as they are forced to live out their lives with their new hosts. Do any of them fit in? Are any mistreated? How do the others react? How do their families back home react? Are your societies as forgiving as the Norse gods in this example were?
9) The Mead of Poetry
After the Aesir-Vanir war the gods came together to create Kvasir, the wisest being. He went around sharing his wisdom and solving people’s problems. But not everyone was as kind and he soon met a terrible end.
Two dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, invited Kvasir to their home and when he arrived they murdered him and brewed his blood into mead. This mead granted anyone who drank it great wisdom and s/he would become a scholar or poet.
The dwarves were, apparently, fond of murdering people and after slaying a giant and his wife, they had to face the giant’s angry son, Suttung. They begged for their lives and the giant agreed on the condition that they give him the mead. They agreed. The giant then hid the mead under a mountain and bade his daughter, Gunnold, watch over it.
Odin did not want the mead wasting away under some mountain so decided to get it for himself. In disguise, he went down to the farm of Baugi, Suttung’s brother. There, he tricked Baugi’s farmhands into murdering each other. He then told Baugi he would do the work of all nine men if Baugi would help him get a sip of the mead. Baugi agreed, not thinking one man could do the work of nine.
When Baugi took Odin to Suttung and asked for the mead, Suttung, predictably, refused. Odin then made Baugi help him sneak in. He gave Baugi an auger and made him drill a hole into the underground chamber. Baugi tried tricking Odin but failed. When the hole was done, Odin changed into a snake and slid through. Baugi tried to kill him with the auger but missed.
Once inside, Odin met Gunnold. He made a deal with her. He would sleep with her for three nights if she would grant him three sips of the mead. She agreed (perhaps she shouldn’t have been locked up in the basement of a mountain for so long) and after the third night Odin took one gulp from each of the three casks, downing the whole thing. Then he turned into an eagle and flew off.
Suttung found out what happened and turned into an eagle to give chase. Suttung wasn’t fast enough though and Odin beat him to Asgard. The other gods had put out some containers and Odin spit up the mead into them. Some drops fell down to earth in the process, the source of all bad poetry and scholarship. Odin then dispensed the mead to those he thought worthy.
First, I love that this story starts and ends with spit. Ah, the Norse. Anyway, I think this myth inspires a good heist story. You could give Odin a team or just follow a single man or woman’s efforts. You could make things more interesting by adding other contestants for the prize.
Are they still trying to get to the bottom of a mountain? That seems like a good place to hide something so precious. But what other dangers are in store? Is the giant’s daughter all that she seems? Are there other creatures or traps awaiting the main character? And is s/he a hero or an antihero?
10) How Odin Lost his Eye
Odin, as you can tell from the previous myth, coveted knowledge and wisdom. He did a great many incredible things in order to obtain it. (I recommend you check out the myth of how he discovered runes.) On this occasion he found the Well of Urd, the well at the base of Yggdrasil, the world-tree.
Upon discovering the well, he wanted to drink from it. Mimir, who we have met and know to be extremely wise, was the guardian of the well. He wanted to make sure Odin wasn’t granted this blessing easily. He demanded that Odin pay for his drink with an eye. “Odin – whether straightaway or after anguished deliberation, we can only wonder – gouged out one of his eyes and dropped it into the well.” He was then allowed to drink from the well.
This myth is simple in its delivery, but complex in meaning. It is about sacrifice. Did Odin need to deliberate or should Mimir have raised the price?
Write a story about sacrifice. Does your character want something for him/herself or for a loved one or for society? What is s/he asked to sacrifice and how willing is s/he to comply? In the end, is the sacrifice worth the reward?
Once again, I hope these myths inspired you to write many wonderful stories of your own. Let me know in the comments if you got any different writing ideas from any of these myths.
Photo credit: SarahDarkmagic on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA