THE GODS

Norse Myths at Waldorf




Steiner taught that all myths are true,

all the pagan gods really exist.

“Zeus, Apollo, Mars, Wotan, Odin, Thor...

are all real beings...." — Rudolf Steiner

The myths that tell us the most, Steiner said,

are the Norse myths about the

ancient Germanic gods.




Norse mythology holds a special place in the Waldorf curriculum. It reflects the ancient religion of northern Europe, including Germany. Steiner taught that ancient humans had natural clairvoyance allowing them to directly perceive the “gods.” Anthroposophists believe that Norse myths give particularly accurate accounts of spiritual realities.

“No other mythology gives a clearer picture of evolution than Northern mythology. Germanic mythology in its pictures is close to the anthroposophical conception of future evolution.” [1]

At one level, much of Anthroposophy is merely a reworking of these myths.

Here is a brief primer:

Odin is the highest Norse god. His wife is Frigg. They are real, Steiner said:

“Myths and sagas are not just ‘folk-tales’; they are the memories of the visions which people perceived in olden times ... Human beings were aware of the spiritual both by day and by night. At night they were really surrounded by that world of Nordic gods of which the legends tell. Odin, Freya, and all the other figures in Nordic mythology were not inventions; they were experienced in the spiritual world with as much reality as we experience our fellow human beings around us today.” [2]

Alternate names for Odin are Woden and Wotan; an alternate for Frigg is Frigga. Freya, sometimes identified with Frigg, is more generally a separate goddess, presiding over love, war, and death.

Odin and Frigg had two sons, Baldur and Thor.

“The Mother of the gods, Frigga, put all the beings of the earth on solemn oath that not one of them would ever kill Baldur.” [3]

Yet Baldur was killed, due to the machinations of Loki. The latter is the trickster god, attractive and even comical, but also destructive. Steiner associates Loki with Lucifer.

“Lucifer conceals himself behind the figure of Loki who has a remarkably iridescent form.” [4]

Odin and Frigg’s other son, Thor, is the god of thunder. He has an especially tight relationship with human beings. Even today, he is in our minds and bodies. He could have become a higher god, but in order to help us he remains at the relatively low rank of an Angel:

“German-Nordic man has an interest in an Angel-being who is endowed with special power ... And that Being is Thor ... [Thor is] a Being who could have risen to far higher rank had he followed the normal course of evolution, but who renounced advancement comparatively early and remained at the stage of a [sic] Angel ... Thor plays an active part in the implanting of the individual ego [in human beings] ... [T]he pulsation of the blood [in the human body] corresponds to the thunder and lightning ... Germanic-Nordic man sees this clairvoyantly....” [5]

Odin is often referred to as the All-Father and Frigg as the mother of the gods. In some myths, under some names, Frigg is the mother of the German people. (Steiner celebrated Germanic/Nordic culture. Germans and the gods sprang from the same loins.) However, she is also sometimes portrayed as having extremely loose morals. She is the goddess of love, goddess of the night.


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There are many more Norse gods, but these are the leading figures. Their activities are enacted around the tree of life, Yggdrasil.

“‘Ygg’ is the ancient form [i.e., term] for growth and evolution ... [T]he world-ash [i.e., the world’s central structure] is called ‘Yggdrasil.’” [6]

In the same passage, Steiner states that Yggdrasil is connected to the formation of the “I” — which, he taught, is the highest of man’s nonphysical bodies. The god who oversees the formation of the I is Odin, who Steiner says is equivalent to Jehovah.

“Yggdrasil means, ‘the carrying I’; and the name of the god who is connected with the formation of the I is [Odin]...who is a god of the wind and races around in storms. [In Hebrew] ‘Jach’ (Jahweh) [i.e., Jehovah] is the ‘blower’ [that is, the god of the winds]....” [7]

Note that, according to Steiner, Jehovah/Odin is not the one and only God, but a god — one of many, a member of a vast polytheistic pantheon. And, according to Steiner, Jehovah/Odin resides on the moon. [8]

Yggdrasil has roots that extend into the various worlds, including those of gods, giants, dwarfs, and men.

“Everything that refers to ‘giants’ in legends is absolutely based on a knowledge of the truth. If, therefore, a real memory of these times is preserved in the Germanic [i.e., Norse] myths, we feel it to be absolutely correct, from the spiritual scientific point of view, that the giants are stupid and the dwarfs very clever.” [9]

“Spiritual science” is Anthroposophy, the religion underlying Waldorf education. In Norse mythology, the giants arose before the gods came into being, and they must be conquered by the gods. Giants and dwarfs have counterparts, in Steiner’s doctrines, in nature spirits — primordial nonphysical beings that lack true spirit or divinity.

Norse cosmology is gruesomely violent. Struggle and warfare are basic conditions of existence, a bitter struggle. There are two opposing bands of gods, the Aesir and Vanir. They have fought one another many times, as the subordinate Vanir (also called Wanes) sought equality with the prepotent Aesir. Consistent with this vision, Steiner describes a universe of conflicting deities:

“[W]e are watching the battle waged by the good gods against the evil gods....” [10]

But in Norse myths, the warfare between bands of gods pales by comparison to clashes between the gods as a whole and their joint enemies, especially the giants. In the future, the united gods will come to ruin at Götterdämmerung — the Twilight of the Gods, otherwise called Ragnarörk — an apocalyptic, world-shattering showdown between gods and giants. The most horrific combat imaginable, this ruinous battle will lead to the death of all the gods, all the giants, and essentially everyone else in existence. Götterdämmerung is reflected in Steiner's forecast of the War of All Against All, which will bring our world to a violent end. All will fight all; only a tiny remnant will escape.

According to Norse mythology, the physical universe began as a magical void, Ginnunagap. Odin and his two brothers brought forth the earth from the primordial sea; ultimately the earth will sink into that sea again. The three gods breathed life into two tree trunks, thus creating the first human couple, Askr and Embla.

The celestial hierarchy periodically shifts as the fortunes of competing gods wax and wane. Odin has sometimes been supplanted by others at the top of the hierarchy. His general preeminence is connected, however, to his occult wisdom — he has drunk from the fountain of wisdom at the base of Yggdrasil. He paid a price — he had to pluck out one of his eyes at the fountain. (In one version of this myth, the sacrifice of Odin's eye is demanded by the gargantuan decapitated head of the god Mimir, which guards the fountain. In another myth, Odin impales himself and hangs for nine day from Yggdrasil, so that he may learn to read mystic runes. In Anthroposophy, such runes are a celestial script, the Akashic Record, from which initiates may obtain all knowledge.)

Odin collects warriors — the souls of dead heroes — whom he will deploy in Ragnarörk, the ultimate battle. Until that battle begins, the warriors rest at Odin's castle, Valhalla. Odin is also the inspirer of poets, for he has drunk a brew derived from the blood of the wise god Kvasir, who was murdered by dwarfs. In his sleep, Odin is able to travel to other spiritual realms and worlds. Steiner attributes a similar ability to human beings, both past and present. Occult wisdom, Odin’s endowment, is the goal of Steiner’s “spiritual science.”

“The best of all humanity must be chosen and prepared for survival beyond the time of the great War of All against All, when people will oppose them who bear in their countenances the sign of evil....” [11]


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Odin is the god of kings and nobility. A gigantic wolf will devour him at Ragnarörk. Odin's son Thor is the god of commoners. Thor is a warrior, the good gods’ champion, who battles evil gods and giants, smashing their skulls with his mighty hammer Mjölnir. As the god of thunder, Thor is sometimes associated with Jupiter. Thor will die at Ragnarörk when he battles and kills the cosmic serpent Jörmungand. This monster originally arose from the sea and currently encircles the earth. According to Steiner’s telling of the myth, the serpent was “born of selfishness. He lives in the sea that surrounds the earth. From there he blows his poisonous breath onto the land until the day of the twilight of the gods....” [12] By one interpretation, Jörmungand may be equated with the beast foretold in Revelation:

“And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.” (Revelation, 13:1.)

The most dangerous god is alluring, duplicitous Loki. [13] He was born of a giant, and at Ragnarörk he will betray the gods by fighting alongside the giants. He is a shape-changer. In some tellings, he is Odin’s foster brother, perhaps even Odin’s dark twin; he is a face of Lucifer, representing the illusory nature of physical reality as well as the snares of false spirituality. When Frigg required all beings and forces to forswear harming her son Baldur, she overlooked mistletoe. Seeing her error, Loki tricked the blind god Höd into impaling Baldur with a shaft of mistletoe, killing him. According to Steiner,

“[M]istletoe does not belong to our earth, it is alien ... [F]or this reason [it] can serve the straggler, Loki, who is not related to the earth Gods.” [14]

Baldur can be taken as a Christ figure — he is the patient, pure god, the embodiment of the dying spring. As Steiner says,

“[H]e is the hope of the gods ... [H]e is killed by the god Loki with a branch of mistletoe. The God of Light is killed.” [15]

However, Baldur is also sometimes depicted as the god of lust and uncontrolled appetites. He will be reborn after Ragnarörk, when a new world rises from the ashes of the old. Spun this way, the myth of his death can be read as a metaphoric version of Christ's death and resurrection.

To reiterate: In considering Steiner's doctrines and their effect on Waldorf education, it is essential to realize that Steiner taught that myths are true and the gods they describe literally exist. According to Steiner, Norse myths are the most revealing, but all myths are true. Steiner strove to develop interpretations of myths that are consistent with his gnostic form of Christianity, but at root his doctrines are pagan. Norse myths are nearer the heart of Anthroposophy than is the Bible. These tales are true.

“All myths and sagas are handed down from a time when human beings could still perceive the astral world: when they ascended to spiritual vision they encountered Wotan, Baldur, Thor, Loki and other beings who were not physically embodied on earth ... The human being of that ancient epoch descended into his physical body each morning and felt separate and single, but when he returned each night to the world of spirit, he returned also to a unity and wholeness of which he was part, a great company to which he belonged.” [16]

At night, people rejoined Odin, Loki, and the others in the great polytheistic beyond.



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Here is a sampling of Norse myths. These are the sorts of stories that Waldorf students hear and read, sometimes repeatedly. Sit down, children, while we tell you a story...

I have assembled these six myths from a variety of sources, primarily relying on a book I was required to read when I was a Waldorf high-school student: Padraic Colum's MYTHS OF THE WORLD (Grosset & Dunlap, 1959). Guided by these sources, I have attempted to recapture the tone and emphasis I remember from my early Waldorf years, long before I read the myths. With my youthful classmates, I listened to the myths being recited by our teacher. She used the incantatory, reverential tone often employed by Waldorf lower-school teachers. It was in fourth grade, and sitting at my desk, with my head lowered and eyes closed, I listened raptly, enchanted.

For the youngest Waldorf students, the extreme violence of the myths is usually tamped down. But older students are exposed to the full fury of the these tales.




The Creation



In the beginning was Niflheim, the place of fog, and Muspellsheim, the place of fire. Between them was the yawning chasm of Ginnunagap, and out of Ginnunagap arose Ymir the giant and Audhumla the cow.

Ymir drank the milk of Audhumla, and from his feet grew his sons and daughters, giants all.

Now on a certain day Audhumla licked a wall of ice, and licked, and licked. Ymir watched, and he saw a form emerging from the ice — a beautiful, golden-haired form, the first man. And Ymir hated the man for his beauty.

The man was called Buri, and when he stepped from the wall, Ymir wanted to kill him — but Ymir held back, so that Audhumla would still give him milk.

Buri married a giantess, and they had a son, Bur. And Bur married Bestla, daughter of the giant Bolthorn. Bur and Bestla had three sons, and these were the first gods, the first Aesir.

Odin was the highest and eldest of the Aesir. His brothers were Hönir and Lothur. All was well with them until the children of Bur and the children of Ymir became too many, and there was war between the children of Bur and the children of Ymir, the first of all the wars.

Ymir was killed in the great battle, and from his enormous body poured out a tide of blood so wide and deep that all his sons except one drowned in his blood. All drowned except Bergelmir, who was in a boat with his wife. Bergelmir and his wife floated away on the tide of blood to the land of Jotunheim, where they made many children. And these were the race of giants, and Jotunheim was the land of the giants.

Odin and his brothers took Ymir’s enormous body and threw it into Ginnunagap so that it filled Ginnunagap. Then Odin and his brothers took Ymir’s bones and piled them up, making the mountains. They took Ymir’s teeth, and these became the rocks. They took Ymir’s hair, and these were the grass and the forests. And they took Ymir’s hollow skull, and it became the arching sky.

Then Odin and his brothers put the Sun and Moon and stars in the sky, and from an ash tree and an elm tree they fashioned the first human couple, Askr and Embla. [17]



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Use the following link to go to

the continuation of "The Gods".



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ENDNOTES


[1] Lecture synopsis, THE MISSION OF THE FOLK SOULS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2005), a collection of lectures by Rudolf Steiner, p. 17.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, THE FESTIVALS AND THEIR MEANING (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1998), p. 198.

[3] Rudolf Steiner, THEOSOPHY OF THE ROSICRUCIANS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1953), p. 109.

The myths vary from region to region — there is no completely coherent narrative. In some accounts, Odin has several sons borne of various mates.

For the general outlines of Norse mythology, I have drawn primarily from a “Germanic religion and mythology.” ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, Online, 13 Feb. 2009.

[4] THE MISSION OF FOLK SOULS, p. 144.

[5] Ibid., pp. 134-135.

[6] Rudolf Steiner, READING THE PICTURES OF THE APOCALYPSE (Anthroposophic Press, 1993), p. 53.

[7] Ibid., p. 53.

[8] E.g.,

“You know that the Old Testament peoples honored Yahweh. This devotion was aimed at a real being. And this being has a connection with what reveals itself in the physical world as the Moon. Of course it is only an imagistic way of talking, but it does have a reality too, if we say that Yahweh resides on the Moon.” — Rudolf Steiner, SLEEP AND DREAMS (SteinerBooks, 2003), p. 43.

[9] Rudolf Steiner, THE BEING OF MAN AND HIS FUTURE EVOLUTION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1981), p. 117.

[10] Rudolf Steiner, KARMIC RELATIONSHIPS, Vol. 2 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1956), p. 251.

[11] Rudolf Steiner, EVIL, (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1997), p. 194.

[12] Nicanor Perlas, Carol Ann Bärtges, Nick Lyons, EDUCATING AS AN ART (The Rudolf Steiner School, 1979), p. 52.

[13] My Waldorf classmates and I were told many Norse myths, primarily in fourth grade. We especially enjoyed the stories about Loki, who was always portrayed as a clever prankster. We were largely shielded from knowledge of his malevolence.

[14] Rudolf Steiner, THE APOCALYPSE OF ST. JOHN (Anthroposophic Press, 1993), p. 99.

Among the strange characteristics of mistletoe, according to Steiner, is its ability to cure or kill cancer. [See Steiner’s Quackery”.] That mistletoe is not of this earth ranks among Steiner's odder teachings.

[15] Rudolf Steiner, THE TEMPLE LEGEND AND THE GOLDEN LEGEND (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1997), p. 29.

[16] THE FESTIVALS AND THEIR MEANING, p. 294.

Steiner claimed that the human astral body and ego, two of our nonphysical “bodies,” make the same trip every night.

“During sleep our astral bodies return to the harmony of the universe again. When we awaken, we bring enough strength with us out of the cosmic harmony into our bodies so that we can go without being in that state for a while. The astral body returns home during sleep and brings renewed forces back into our life when we awaken ... [O]ur astral bodies are part of a world that embraces additional heavenly bodies. During sleep, therefore, we enter a world that encompasses other worlds in addition to our Earth.” — Rudolf Steiner, AN OUTLINE OF ESOTERIC SCIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 68.

[17] In Waldorf schools, this myth may acquaint students with numerous Anthroposophical concepts: There are many gods; there are two primary threats to our existence (fire and fog, Ahriman and Lucifer); the world was not created by God — it evolved; aside from a mythical giant and a mythical cow, humans are the first life forms on earth; the archetypal human appears Aryan (blond and beautiful); there are elemental beings (giants, dwarfs — Steiner's "nature spirits"); and so forth. The more general effect of these myths, however, was inducement into a sort of mystic reverie. This first myth is a cascade of names and concepts; the listening child cannot absorb it all. Only a swirl of wonderments is, usually, carried away. But the ground is prepared for later explorations of Steiner's teachings and preachments.