Three by Three Roots to the Edda myths

The Válknutr: Three by three corners to the wholeness. Detail from a 7th century picture stone, Sweden. (For some reason modern renderings always depict the symbol pointing upwards like a pyramid whereas the ancients always let it point down and to the right like shown here).

A mythology is, like language and culture, always in movement, always changing, always adapting and adopting, influencing and being influenced – yet at any given time, a mythology, just like a language and a culture, is a complete and self-evident system to the insider. I see the Poetic Edda as a time capsule, a written evidence of a particular spiritual tradition that existed some time during and after the Viking Age, and which is, possibly, very old. I will call it the “Edda tradition”, which is not necessarily the same as the wholeness of Norse paganism. How old the Edda tradition is, I cannot say, but we can look to the various roots that may have influenced it.

The Edda itself refers to three “roots”, alternately nine “mothers” to the “Mead Tree”, the present Universe. This could mean a lot of things, but for us, who live in a time when history has been traced and studied in a modern scientific manner,  it is a nice metaphor for the three by three actual, most important basic historical roots of Norse paganism.  

Stone Age

The first and oldest “sub-root” is that of the first Stone Age hunter-gatherers who, in numerous waves, started to enter Scandinavia from the Eurasian steppes as the glacier receded some 10 000 years B.C., carrying with them an age-old tradition of shamanism. These people may have been predominantly Finno-Ugric and Uralic people, explaining why there are strong elements of Uralic root symbols in Norse mythology.

Such Uralic elements are for example the strong emphasis on a sun goddess as the mother of all souls and the image of souls taking the shape of water-birds, in particular of swans, as well as the lake/well of Origin that also features in Norse mythology. Such mythical images have been testified as basic to all Uralic mythologies and their antiquity is testified by Stone Age rock carvings, such as those of Lake Onega, which are at least five or six thousand years old.

The second ”sub-root” is the Megalith-Neolithic agricultural immigrations which started to happen from around 4000 B.C. Goddess worship and the unknown (possibly heavily blended with the spiritual-metaphysical) science of the megaliths seem to have dominated the scene. The Megalith cultures seem to have existed for thousands of years all over Europe, clustering mostly to the Western areas. The tradition probably began in Malta, where the megaliths took the form of enormous temples dedicated to a “fat goddess”.

 The third “sub-root” was planted with the probably Indo-European invasions from the southeast (the so-called Battle-Axe people according to archaologists), beginning around 2000 B.C., and would explain many striking similarities to Old Indian Vedic religions, and also the importance of the Thundergod.

Now all these three basic influences together form one main root: The Stone Age. There is evidence of all these three traditions in the Norse myths, and for thousands of years, all these traditions really did exist, for a lot of the time side by side. .

Bronze Age

The second main root comes with the Bronze Age. Scandinavia by then was possibly a cultural result of the three traditions mentioned above. From Scandinavian rock-carvings of this era we get the impression that worship of the sun (probably a goddess, and of Uralic origin) was central to their religion, and that there were three major male gods characterized by their weapons, testifying to a strong warrior ideology that possibly originated mostly from the Indo-European battle-axe people).

The Bronze Age was a time of travel and cultural exchange across the entire European continent, and also greatly influenced by Aegean and Middle-Eastern cultures. The Sacred Marriage, originating in Sumer, where the king legitimizes his rule by marrying the Great Goddess, appears to have reached Scandinavia and established itself as a powerful institution. Labyrinth symbols, myths and rites, as well as other symbolic influences from the powerful Minoan culture in the Aegean also reached Scandinavia and were incorporated into its culture. The Minoan empire was the last European society to be ruled almost entirely by priestesses, and their labyrinthine temples (still often mistaken for “palaces”[1]) were specially designed for ceremonies and initiation rituals, dedicated to their Great Goddess. The Greek Mysteries of Demeter are reputedly of Minoan origin.

Like many Bronze Age people, Scandinavians got around, even more so because of their ship-making skills, and were obviously influenced by other cultures. The Bronze Age main root layer houses three probable “sub-roots”; One, the heritage of the Stone Age fusion of hunter-gatherer shamanism, Megalithic-Neolithic farmer´s religion – possibly involving some sort of Mysteries, and Indo-European warrior´s ideology.

The second “sub-root” would be the Bronze Age Sacred Marriage tradition,  an international heritage. It may have reached Scandinavia through the Celtic areas. To a largely goddess-worshipping ancestral culture, the Sacred Marriage proved an effective way for the new warrior regimes to legitimize kingship by letting the king symbolically marry the Goddess of the people. There is ample evidence that this happened in Scandinavia. A third “sub-root” of the Bronze Age may very well have been the Minoan and Aegean Mystery traditions.The labyrinth symbol carved into numerous rocks in Scandinavia from this time obviously stem from the Minoan culture, and there are many other Scandinavian Bronze Age symbols which suggest Minoan influence. Myths about and rites performed in labyrinths in Scandinavia have existed up until the present time, usually with the basic theme of “maiden awaiting the hero at the center of the Labyrinth”, which certainly echoes both Norse and Minoan myth.The extremely powerful tradition of priestesses involved with political rule in Scandinavia and the importance of oracles and oracular divination, could also be a pointer to Minoan influence – although both the Mystery tradition and the priestess tradition may have existed before that too, since we know very little of the early Megalith settlers.

Iron Age

The third layer of roots would be the Iron Ages. The Viking Age in Scandinavia is generally considered a part of the Iron Age although the rest of Europe, Christianized, had moved into the Middle Ages. Here too, we see an interesting blend of three spiritual traditions.

Firstly, the Celtic influence during the early part of the Iron Age. Celtic art and religion obviously came to play an important role to the Germanic-Scandinavian tribes, and their particular form of Sacred Marriage in connection to a sacred drink serving ritual. It is of course hard to say which way the influence went but historians and archaeologists seem to generally believe that the Celts wielded the major influence on the Germans and not the other way around. I do not have enough knowledge on this matter to suggest otherwise, but it has occurred to me that since both Celts and Germanic people interacted mutually and probably originated in the same kind of cultural past, the influence may have been more mutual than usually believed.

Secondly, as the Celts were conquered by the Romans, Roman influence came to Germany and Scandinavia. By this time, many Scandinavian tribes had migrated into the Northern European continent. Their encounter with Slavic and Celtic and Hunnish (of Siberian, possibly Mongolian origin, may also have been influental) tribes must have led to some cultural fusion, more importantly it led to an increasingly military culture. By the time of contact with the civilized Roman Empire, the German tribes excelled in the image of barbaric, primitive and blood-thirsty warriors. Roman influence happened, and the sacred letters, the runes, were possibly based on the Roman alphabet. (I have, however, seen a sample of ancient Jemenite letters that predate the Roman empire that seem extremely similar to the runes).

At the time, Rome harbored many important Mystery religions. As mentioned before, Mysteries may have come into Scandinavia with the Megalith Stone Age farmers, or with a Bronze Age Minoan influence, or with the Roman Empire. A fusion of all these three possible cultural nurturers of Mystery traditions is also possible. Religion is never a closed system, it draws on other systems all the time.

The third “sub-root” of this third, Iron Age main root is obviously Christianity, as it slowly grew on Northern Europe. The first German tribes to be converted were the Goths, during the 4th century A.D. By the end of the 9th century A.D., most of Northern Europe except Denmark, Iceland and the Scandinavian peninsula was Christened. Not until the late 11th century was the Church established in these areas. Thus Scandinavians observed Christianity for several hundred years before considering that religion for themselves, and this only happened when petty kings realized that the “one God” correspondence with “one King” was a marvelous way of legitimizing a high king´s sole rule. Norse paganism struggled for its survival and in many places did not give up without armed resistance. Christianity must be regarded as an influence on Norse mythology and the Edda tradition for two reasons: One: The Viking Age period was a time of interaction with the Christian continent. We know that this changed attitudes over time, especially towards witchcraft performed by males, which began to be seen as an unmanly craft, and attitudes towards women. Two: The Eddas and the sagas, our major sources, were written down long after the last conversions and one must be on the lookout for Christian influence, which is very visible in Snorri´s Edda (but less present in the Elder Edda, according to some, and to myself. See article on the Eddas value as source to genuine paganism for more on this).

1. Stone Age:

  –  Shamanism (hunter-gatherer), Finno-Ugric/Uralic culture

  – Neolithic goddess worship / Megalithic (mysteries)

  - Indo-European (similarity to the Vedas, Thundergod worship, warrior ideology

2. Bronze Age (Characterized by worship of the sun goddess and warrior ideology, three major gods known by weapons, see other article about this subject)

 - Fusion of shamanism, Neolithic and Megalithic religion with Indo-European ruling class and their ideology

 - Sacred Marriage (Goddess-King, originated in Middle-East)

 - Mysteries (Minoan/Aegean)

 3. Iron Age

 - Celtic (Sacred Marriage, Oracular religion, witchcraft and art) as well as Slavic and Hunnish (Migration period, militarization.

 - Roman Empire (Mystery Religions)

 - Christianity (Changed basic worldview slowly, to be considered when reading written sources that may be influenced by Christian thought).


[1] Rodney Castleden: Knossos, Temple of the Goddess

3 Responses to Three by Three Roots to the Edda myths

  1. Nick says:

    This is a very fascinating historical summary of the three roots of “The Edda Tradition”.
    My initial impression is that it is impressive that there could be such continuity and building on traditions through those ages, it seems to stand in stark contrast to the transition to christianity.
    I am wondering and very intrigued about whether you implying or do you think its possible that these three roots are part of the original symbolism of the valknutr?

    • Maria Kvilhaug says:

      I think the Valknutr has something to do with the Three by Nine concept of Norse myths related to the number of worlds and the number of universal mothers (nine) and norns, but it would be hard to make a definite statement on the basis of so little information about the symbol. I think it is interesting how the Valknutr seems to spring out of a mans forehead during a sacrifical scene from Gotland… a way of saying how he is “looking into all the worlds” with his Third eye, perhaps?

  2. Erich A Webb says:

    Are you aware ( iam sure you are ! ) of the runs script ( Turkish in origin ? )
    That is identical to futharc yet read backwards …. I find that very odd … can you shead some light on this pls

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