LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Odin, Freya and Loki must be jealous.
In the new “Gods of the Vikings” exhibit in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot in Disney World, it was the slightly larger-than-life bust of Thor – especially the Norse god’s hammer, Mjolnir – that was getting the most photo-opp attention during a visit by The Wild Hunt.
People young and old, and speaking numerous foreign languages, clutched the imposing, 18-inch Mjolnir as friends or family took photos – perhaps an indication of how the Marvel Comics movie franchise has made Thor a rock star beyond the community of practicing Heathens and followers of Ásatrú.
Five feet from the Thor bust, however, was another Mjolnir, one less than an inch and a half long: an authentic Thor’s hammer pendant, made circa 800-1000 A.D. The artifact is on loan to the exhibit from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.
“It is believed Vikings wore silver hammer amulets, resembling Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir, for spiritual protection,” reads the text beside the encased amulet. “The circular decorations on this particular pendant may be a reference to Thor’s eyes.”While “Gods of the Vikings” exhibit may be Asgard 101 to Heathens, it is such genuine, millennium-old artifacts – a sword, a spear, a drinking horn and more — that make the exhibit a respectful, scholarly-based, educational and enlightening display for the uninitiated or the curious.
The exhibit is housed in an Old World-looking building known as the Stave Church Gallery, in a space about 10,000 times smaller than Valhalla — that is, in a space only slightly larger than the living room of an average American home. It’s not exactly an imposing venue to house tributes to three gods and a goddess, but the exhibit makes judicious use of its space.
At the center is a faux wooden tree – a visual reference to Yggdrasil, the world tree which in Viking cosmology supports the nine worlds that make up the universe. Busts of Odin the “Ruler of the Gods, Thor the “Protector God,” Loki the “God of Mischief” and Freya the “Greatest Goddess” are carved into each quadrant of the tree’s trunk. Curiously, it’s Loki and Thor who face the two entrances to the gallery and are thus the first gods to greet visitors.
Though Loki’s grin or Thor’s Mjolnir will be a visitor’s first encounter with these Norse deities, a text panel near the Thor entrance sets the exhibit’s tone:
The myths and depictions of the gods and goddesses in this exhibit are inspired by two ancient Norse texts, the Poetic Edda and the Snorra Edda.
The Poetic Edda contains over a dozen poems that feature the gods and dwarves. Scholars believe these poems were chanted and performed virtually unchanged for hundreds of years before being written down. The Poetic Edda is our only original source of information about the beliefs of the Vikings.
The Snorra Edda was written by an Icelandic scholar in the 13th century named Snorri Sturluson who wanted to revive Viking Age poetry. [Editor’s note: both “Snorra” and “Snorri” are correct historical usage.] It was frowned upon by medieval monks and clerics, but managed to survive in Iceland. Snorri explains many of the mythical references in the poetry, greatly expanding our understanding of Viking mythology.
That mythology is explored via display cases devoted to each deity and Yggdrasil, with each case including some of those artifacts plus modern illustrations, explanatory texts and a short retelling of a myth written in fanciful script. Recordings of those myths – recited in a raspy female “hag” voice straight out of central casting – play intermittently in the hall.
The Odin case reads: “The wise and mysterious Odin, ruler of Asgard, traveled the nine worlds seeking knowledge and truth – and would sacrifice nearly anything to attain it. According to mythology, Odin gave one of his eyes to a giant in exchange for one sip from the Well of Knowledge. What wisdom Odin couldn’t find himself, he discovered with the help of his two loyal ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Munnin (Memory), who traveled the worlds as his messengers.”
A horse rattle on display, dating to 800-1000 A.D. and on loan from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is explained thus: “Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, could gallop harder, jump faster, and create twice as much noise as any regular horse. Before Vikings rode into battle they would attach metal rings to the bridles of their horse to create a similar, menacing sound.”
Likewise, a drinking horn from 1400 A.D. accompanies a short retelling of “Odin and the Mead of Poetry.” A related text says that “the Vikings believed poetry was a gift from the high god Odin, and that feasting was an honorable activity. In fact, Viking warriors were emboldened during battle, in hopes that they would die and be welcomed into Odin’s own feasting hall in the afterlife.”
The Loki case says he “was a masterful trickster who delighted in creating chaos all around him. As the son of a giantess, Loki had mixed family loyalties. For this reason the gods, giants, and other creatures were never quite sure if they could trust him.”
The text then brings the Loki myth into the real world of Viking daily life: “In the Viking Age, there were no governments, no businesses and no schools, and very little central authority or organized religion. The main institution that kept the social order was family, and the sense of honor that came from being a part of a respected household. The mischievous Loki gave the Vikings a way to talk and think about loyalty to family and the danger of cross-loyalties. Friends, foes, and even blood relatives could not be fully trusted in the complex game of fame and honor.”
The Freya case notes that she “was the most powerful and highest ranking of all goddesses,” and that she “ruled over a magnificent hall, Folkvang, where she welcomed half of all Viking warriors and shieldmaidens slain in battle.”
Freya also “rode a chariot pulled by two cats and possessed a famous golden necklace, Brisingamen, which was made for her by the dwarfs.”
That tantalizing, passing mention of shieldmaidens brings up one the downsides of such a necessarily sketchy, survey-style exhibit as this: shieldmaidens? Warrior women? Tell me more! Alas, though the brevity of the exhibit’s texts can be frustrating, at least they point the way to further research on one’s own.
Other artifacts in various cases include arrowheads, wooden and clay game pieces, keys, a trifoil brooch, an iron axe head, an iron sword that was excavated from “what was likely a cremation burial,” and other pieces.
One entire side of the gallery features a life-size “Seeress” figure seated against a painted backdrop of craggy, snow-covered mountains overlooking a fjord. The exhibit’s creators likely want visitors to imagine it is she who is reciting those recorded myths.
A text panel notes that in the very first poem of the Poetic Edda, Odin seeks knowledge from a wise woman who carries a staff and who is “often called ‘The Seeress’ because she can see into the future. In the Viking Age, the seeress was a well-attested female figure.”
The Seeress is accompanied by an authentic Broa picture stone dating to 700-800 A.D. and on loan from the Gotland Museum of Visby, Sweden. (Broa is a site on the Swedish island of Gotland.)
The two-foot-high stone depicts a female figure holding a cup of mead and welcoming a man on a horse. “Some Viking scholars believe this figure represents the goddess Freya, while others interpret the figure as a Valkyrie, one of the female deities who flew over battlefields and selected which soldiers would live or die,” reads the accompanying text.
A “Thank You” posted in the exhibit cites “Viking Age Specialist” Dr. Elisabeth I. Ward, as well as the above-mentioned museums and others in Norway, Iceland and Sweden.
Given that a mere 50 yards from the “Gods of the Vikings” exhibit, a sombrero-wearing Donald Duck cavorted with kids in a photo-opp spot at the Mexico Pavilion, one might imagine that Odin, Freya, Thor, and Loki are thankful that their stories have been told so respectfully and engagingly in the land of Mickey Mouse.