Norse Mythology and the Harry Potter World
Unlike with Greek and Roman mythology, Norse mythology is not such an obvious influence on Harry Potter. There were multiple characters in the Harry Potter books who took their names directly from Greek and Roman mythology, but only one with a name from Norse mythology. However, the Norse influence is still felt throughout the books, if you know where to look! Let’s look at the mythological references in the Harry Potter books.
In Harry Potter Fenrir Grayback is a werewolf, a particularly vicious werewolf who likes to attack innocent people and even places himself near people when he changes. He attacked and turned Remus Lupin into a werewolf. Fenrir is involved in key scenes in the books: in the battle of Hogwarts, in the tower when Dumbledore is killed, and as one of the “snatchers” who captured Harry, Ron, and Hermione in The Deathly Hallows.
In Norse mythology Fenrir is the wolf offspring of the god Loki and the giantess Angrboda, and is the father of all wolves. Even though Fenrir was a wolf and the offspring of a giantess, Odin allowed him to live with the gods and goddesses in Asgard. Fenrir lived in Asgard, but he grew so huge that no one wanted to go near him except the god of war, Tyr. Tyr fed Fenrir and was the only god whom Fenrir trusted. All the gods feared Fenrir, because he was so big and had such a huge appetite.
There was even a prophecy surrounding the great wolf. Fenrir will be the one to kill Odin at the end of the world. Once the other gods heard this prophecy, they wanted Odin to kill Fenrir, but Odin knew you couldn’t change fate. He decided to have the wolf bound in shackles. At first the gods tried iron shackles and Fenrir agreed—he knew there were no shackles in the world that could bind him. Of course, the iron shackles didn’t work and he kicked them off easily. The gods tried a second time, but those shackles didn’t work either. Odin finally went to the dwarfs and asked them to create chains with which to bind the giant wolf. They constructed a magical ribbon called Gleipnir (glaip-neer). In Gleipnir the dwarfs wove six magical ingredients—the sound of a moving cat, the beard of a woman, a fish’s breath, the spit of a bird, the roots of a mountain, and the sinews of a bear.
The gods took the ribbon to Fenrir and asked him to let them tie him up with it, but he suspected a trick and suspected the ribbon was magical since it was unnaturally thin. Fenrir demanded that one of the gods put their hand in his mouth as a guarantee it was no trick. None of the gods were willing, until Tyr agreed to it. He put his right hand in Fenrir’s mouth. The other gods bound Fenrir with Gleipnir and the magical ribbon worked. He struggled but could not get free. Angry at being bound and tricked, Fenrir bit off Tyr’s right hand. Tyr is always depicted with only one hand.
Fenrir will remain bound by Gleipnir until Ragnarok. The evil all around the world will make Gleipnir fall off, then Fenrir will escape and kill Odin. He swallows Odin whole. Vidar, Odin’s son, will rip open Fenrir’s jaws and stab him in the heart, and kill him.
Losing a Hand
There are several stories, both ancient and modern in which a god or hero loses his hand. In our Celtic mythology section we will learn about a Celtic god, Nuada, who loses a hand in battle and then receives a magical silver hand as a replacement. In modern times, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both lose their right hands in light saber duels, and both have their hands replaced by artificial hands.
In the Harry Potter world, it is Wormtail who loses his hand in sacrifice to aid in the Dark Lord’s regeneration. He also has his hand replaced—Wormtail is rewarded for his sacrifice with none other than a silver hand!
The loss of a hand carries great significance in the mythological stories. A hero’s right hand is his sword hand, the hand that he uses to fight, to protect himself and others, and even, as is the case with Nuada, to demonstrate that he is able to be a king. The loss of a hand also provides the hero, or other character, a chance to show that he can overcome a huge obstacle and still persevere.
In Harry Potter Hagrid travels to the land of the giants to convince them to join Dumbledore’s side rather than Voldemort’s. He does not succeed, and the giants fight with Voldemort at the end. Hagrid also finds his half-brother, Grawp and keeps him in the Forbidden Forest. Grawp rescues Harry and Hermione from Professor Umbridge and the centaurs.
In Norse mythology the world is populated with giants, and with stories involving giants and the gods. These giants are similar to the giants we meet in the Harry Potter series—ugly, huge, and usually mean. However, the Norse giants were clever and intelligent. Some used magic to transform themselves into animals like eagles. For example, in one story a giant turned into an eagle and kidnapped Idun, the goddess who keeps the magic apples. They can transform into human shape. When the gods needed a wall built around Asgard the “man” who came to do the job, with payment being the goddesses Freya and Sif, was actually a giant in disguise.
The giants, called Jotun (YO-tun), live in Jotunheim (YO-tun-haim), a separate world from the gods and from people. The first giant of Norse mythology was Ymir (EE-meer), a frost giant. He was part of the story of the creation of the world.
The god Thor hated the giants, and was at odds with them all the time, although his mother was a giantess. Most of the giant stories in Norse mythology involve the god Thor.
Harry Potter Connection! Like Thor, Hagrid is a half-giant and huge by human standards, but small compared to full giants. His full giant brother, Grawp, towers over Hagrid and can even beat him up!
Another Harry Potter Connection! At the end of the world, the giants, led by Hyrm (heer-rim), will come from Jotunheim and fight on the side of evil. In Harry Potter, the giants fight on the side of evil as well when they fight for Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts.
In Harry Potter Harry, Ron, and Hermione have a run-in with a troll in The Sorcerer’s Stone. The troll is described as, “twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite gray, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald head perched on top like a coconut. It had short legs thick as tree trunks with flat, horny feet” (SS, 174).
In Norse mythology trolls are a race in between giants and men. The giants concern themselves with the gods, while trolls and men fight amongst each other. Trolls are described as bigger than men in size and strength though not as big as giants. The trolls are dumber and less clever than men. They inhabit the mountainous out of the way places of the earth.
In Harry Potter Harry encounters dragons on three occasions. In The Sorcerer’s Stone Hagrid receives a dragon egg and then raises the dragon Norbert. It is the first time that Harry is introduced to a real dragon or is even aware that there are real dragons in the world. In The Goblet of Fire the Tri-Wizard champions have to retrieve an egg from a dragon. In The Deathly Hallows, Harry, Ron, and Hermione encounter the dragon that protects the vaults at Gringott’s bank.
In Norse mythology there are three noteworthy dragons— Nidhogg, Jormungand, and Fafnir.
Jormungand—Jormungand is the serpent that encircles Midgard, the world of humans. His body wraps around the world and he holds on by biting his own tail. Thor had three encounters with the Midgard serpent (I am including Jormungand in the dragon section, because in Norse mythology and legend the giant serpent and the dragon were interchangeable). The final encounter between Thor and Jormungand will be at Ragnarok, the end of the world. Thor was Jormungand’s most bitter enemy among the gods. When things are set in motion for Ragnarok, Jormungand will release his tail, rise up creating terrible waves, and his breath will poison the sky. He and Thor will meet and battle. Thor will kill Jormungand but will be himself fatally wounded by Jormungand’s poison. Thor will take nine steps before dying. His son, Magni will pick up his hammer and will be one of the few to survive and begin a new world.
The Nidhogg (Malice Striker) is the dragon/serpent that gnaws at the base of the World Tree Yggdrasil. This is the World Tree from which all of the worlds of gods, men, dwarfs, and elves are sustained. He and the eagle that lives in the world above trade insults. A squirrel delivers the insults back and forth. During the end of the world battle, Nidhogg will rise up from the earth bringing the corpses of the dead with him. He survives and lives on in the next world.
Fafnir—he was born the human son of a magician until greed turned him into a dragon. He stole his father’s gold treasure and then turned into a dragon to protect it. He was killed by the hero Sigurd.
In Harry Potter the goblins are small, sly, sneaky little creatures. They run the wizarding bank Gringott’s and are good with handling money and protecting treasure. They prefer underground places and that is where they keep the vaults of money for the bank. Like the dwarfs, the goblins are expert metalworkers—they crafted the sword of Godric Griffindor and Helga Hufflepuff’s cup. Harry encounters goblins for the first time in The Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid takes him to Gringott’s to withdraw money. In The Deathly Hallows the goblin Griphook helps Harry, Ron, and Hermione get into the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange to steal Helga Hufflepuff’s cup. Griphook ends up betraying them. In the Harry Potter world, goblins do not come off as very pleasant beings.
Harry Potter Connection! Many of the Goblins of Harry Potter have Norse sounding names: Alguff, Bodrig, Gornuk, Hodrod, Nagnok, Ragnok, Ug, Urg, and Vargot.
In Norse mythology there are no goblins, but the goblins in the Harry Potter books are similar to the dwarfs in Norse mythology. Dwarfs were one of the first beings created after the gods. When Odin and his brothers killed the frost-giant Ymir, they used his body parts to create the world and the different races of beings like the dwarfs and elves. Dwarfs are referred to as “dark elves” or “black elves” but not because they are dark or evil, but because they live in a different world than the “light elves.” The “light elves” live in Alfheim which is in the upper world near to the gods in Asgard. They are favored by the gods, particularly the goddess of love and beauty, Freya.
The “dark elves,” by contrast, live in Svartalfaheim which is a lower world closer to that of men. It is a dark, underground world between the world of men and the underworld. The gods put them in charge of all the gems, precious metals, and stones that are found under the earth. The dwarfs are not pleasant beings, being greedy and sneaky. In Norse mythology, dwarfs are the size of men and as smart as men. Later, in folklore and legend they become what we think of when we think of dwarfs, small, stocky little men with beards and deep, gruff voices.
Like the Harry Potter goblins, Norse dwarfs or “dark elves” are expert metalworkers. The gods and goddesses asked the dwarfs for help when they needed something special. The dwarfs made:
- Odin’s spear Gungnir—it always hits its mark.
- Sif’s hair—Sif is Thor’s wife and has beautiful golden hair. Loki cut it off as a prank, Thor became furious and made Loki replace it. Loki went to the dwarfs and they fashioned new hair for her out of gold.
- Frey’s ship Skidbladnir—his ship can sail on land, sea, or air, and will never veer off course. It is big enough to fit all the gods and their animals, but it folds up so small it will fit in a pouch.
- Odin’s ring Draupnir—a magic ring (arm ring) that can multiply itself. Every ninth night it “drips” eight new rings of the exact same weight and size as the original. Draupnir means “dripper”.
- Thor’s hammer Mjolnir—Mjolnir is very strong, it always hits its mark and will always come back to Thor no matter where he throws it.
- Freya’s necklace Brisingamen—it has no magical properties, though it is very beautiful. Loki stole it from Freya.
- Frey’s boar Gullinbursti—a golden boar who pulls Frey’s chariot. The boar’s bristles shine like the sun.