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Parallels in mythology fascinate me, for I feel it can be interpreted as a sign that different mythologies could have been born from different accounts of the same events. The way information is recorded and passed down in ancient times is highly susceptible to change; some stories are recited through oral tradition for years, then finally written down. It’s only to be expected that with time, as different orators tell the tales and different scribes write them down, that these tales break off in separate directions while still having a similar backbone.
Einherjar & Kleos
Norse mythology mirrors many concepts found in Greek mythology, though the inevitability of death haunts is uniquely prominent in Nordic concepts. In a way, while the concepts of chasing glory and fate appear in both, Greek mythology is somewhat more optimistic. Norse mythology holds the promise of Ragnarok; for warriors, they could either die on the mortal battlefield in Midgard or be selected as einherjar to train endlessly until they meet their end during Ragnarok, the end of the world.
The concept of Greek heroes competing for glory, or kleos, to reach a place in Olympus in works such as The Iliad closely mirrors the Nordic myth of warriors fighting valiantly to be chosen as einherjar by valkyries and taken to Valhalla. The similarities are strong enough that they could be interpreted as the same myth manifesting in different cultures.
In Norse mythology, valkyries are portrayed as powerful, elegant women who serve as choosers of the slain. They select the mightiest of human warriors after they die valiantly in battle and take them on as einherjar. From the human perspective, the concept of being chosen and experiencing all the pleasures of Valhalla is essentially life after death.
However, from the divine perspective, it is not as joyful; Odin’s reason for collecting einherjar is to prepare for Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world. In this sense, the promise of a better life is not eternal. Additionally, their lives in Valhalla are not perfect. By day, they are expected to constantly train and fight against each other to sharpen their skills, to the point where they are mortally wounded. However, by night, they are blessed with the honor of eating at Odin’s side and their wounds are healed miraculously, no matter how severe. Though finding a place in Valhalla is a revered goal, there is still the impending lurid promise of constant combat and injury.
In Greek mythology, people would try to win the favor of the specific god or goddess who they wanted to take them into Olympus. For followers of Nordic myth, their objective was much more specified, for it was specifically the valkyries who were tasked with scouting battlefields to find warriors. For humans, the concepts are similar, though on the divine end, there are differences. The parallel of seeking fame for glory and life after death remains as the central theme in both myths, with only minimal story variations and differing names.
Valkyries were esteemed members of the Nordic pantheon and are often portrayed with idealized beauty and strength, though there are some darker interpretations that connect them to the Norns and Greek Moirai. A poem in the Nordic work Njal’s Saga tells of a scene with twelve valkyries weaving the destinies of warriors on a loom, though they use intestines as thread and severed heads as weights.
While this interpretation is very different from the widely known portrayal of valkyries as beautiful heroines, it is still extremely interesting because the activity of weaving appears in the stories of the Norns and Moirai, although especially the Three Fates. The existence of the Greek sisters is central to their function with the strings of fate, which makes their connection to both Valkyries and Norns seem like a story retold too many times and therefore confused. The connection also shows how the concept of fate pervaded both mythologies and that the quest for glory was desperate but still predetermined.
Both Nordic Norns and Greek Moirai have haunting similarities; both groups are three sisters who govern fate. The Norns have one significant difference from the Moirai of Greek mythology. Norse mythology carries a heavy reminder that death is inevitable, which remains true for the Norns. They have a function beyond being the three sisters of fate, for they must maintain Yggdrasil as well. They gather mud and water from the Well of Fate and pour it on Yggdrasil to slow the world tree’s decay.
When a modern observer considers the grim implications of such standards, the people would see the world as an ephemeral place nestled on the fragile branches of the world tree. The sense of an impending end and the fragility of life appear in countless facts of Nordic myths.
According to Encyclopedia Mythica, the names of the Norns are Urd for fate, Verdandi for necessity, and Skuld for being. The Moirai, or the Fates, each had a specific name and a specific duty to their collective mission. The Fates’ names are Clotho for spinner, Lachesis for allotter, and Atropos, for unturnable, inflexible, inevitable.
For this comparison, Atropos is of particular interest. Atropos, the inevitable, would cut the thread when the time of death for that person in question came about die. Her title of “the inevitable” closely relates to Verdandi, for when discussing the topic of death, necessity and inevitability can be very similar things. Her title also can be compared to the meaning of Urd’s name, though that definition can be interpreted as a direct connection to the Three Fates. Atropos also shows the darker end of Greek mythology, for the people had to acknowledge that death was going to claim them. It also added to the sense of urgency in obtaining adequate glory in time to go on to Olympus.
While there are notable differences, the similarities largely outweigh them. The parallels between myths can be reasonably explained by a story traveling years and continents, with each retelling putting a different spin on the same concept.
The Moirai and the Norns have the closest parallel, but the valkyries are not far behind in the twist of a story retold countless times. The connections also show that fate was a governing factor in the lives of both societies, with the inevitability of death just a breath away.