We usually think of the Norse gods as being white — and I mean WHITE — because that’s how we think of the Old Norse people. After all, the Vikings got the drop on their victims by disguising themselves as snow banks and then jumping out and screaming “SÜRPRÏSE!” at their unwary prey, causing them to shit gold bricks and run. Right?
Okay, that’s not how it happened. At. All.
Historical Reality Check
Genetic studies of remains found in Viking burials show considerable genetic diversity, particularly around trading hubs. Vikings travelled far and wide to raid and trade, and met a lot of different people along the way. And no, they didn’t kill all of them. People from other regions joined them (consensually or otherwise) and women from other groups married them (again, consensually or otherwise). In fact, the Old Norse had a penchant for cleanliness that Saxon women found appealing, much to the dismay of Saxon men, who apparently didn’t bathe or change their clothes with any frequency.
And in case you didn’t notice, European history is not strictly a study in whiteness. People of colour were always part of European history — they didn’t conveniently pop into existence when white European colonialists were looking to get rich off of slave labour.
So it was perfectly appropriate to include people of colour in Black Wolf — but I didn’t do it for historical purposes.
Don’t get me wrong, historical accuracy (or at least historical appropriateness) was a priority for me. However, this is a mythological story, so history wasn’t the primary focus. And believe it or not, I found a basis for including people of colour in the mythology.
Multiple Regions, Multiple Peoples
When I was researching and writing the book, I noticed that John Lindow refers to “Jötunheimar,” which is plural. This shifts the meaning to “homes of the Jötnar” or, if you prefer, “enclosures of the Jötnar.” In any case, the implication is that there are multiple regions in which the Jötnar reside, as opposed to the one region (Asgard) in which the Aesir reside. In the real world, multiple regions translates to multiple groups of people — people who may look different, speak different languages, adhere to different cultural norms, etc.
The Vikings certainly knew about and interacted with people from different ethnic groups and different cultures, and their mythology envisions multiple types of beings, including two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. Now it appears they may have viewed Jötunheim as being a place with multiple regions. Within the Jötnar, there were very human-like beings that the Aesir were happy enough to marry, as well as “trolls,” who were typically ugly and often ended up dead. It seems that the Jötnar weren’t a uniform crew.
Surt is frequently referred to as a fire god. He carries a flaming sword and will leave a trail of fiery devastastion at Ragnarök. His name can be translated to “black one,” which may imply that he is charred — you know, from fire.
My entire MO in writing Black Wolf was to convert the fantastical worlds of the gods into a semi-realistic environment and to present the characters with as much flesh-and-blood realism as I could manage. This involved toning down some of the over-the-top features of the mythology, so representing the “black one” as an actual Black man rather than a well-done steak on legs made a lot of sense.
Order and Disorder vs Uniformity and Difference
Some people theorize that the Aesir represent order and the Jötnar disorder. While I think this is a debatable position, it is clear that there is an us-versus-them mentality embedded in the myths, which reflected the realities in which the Old Norse people (and everyone else in the world) lived.
Community was, and still is, a critical feature of human life. And when that life needs to be sustained in a harsh environment, community and collective effort becomes absolutely necessary. In fact, the worst sentence outlined in the medieval Icelandic legal code in Grágás was outlawry. If you were outlawed, you were literally deemed to be outside of the law. This meant you were barred from all participation in community, had no rights, and could be lawfully killed. In the far northern regions of Europe, and especially in subarctic regions such as Iceland, this was essentially a death sentence in disguise.
In the mythology, the supposedly orderly world of the Aesir was protected from the outside world by a wall built by a being who turned out to be a Jötun in disguise (and yes — he ended up dead). The result is a community protected from the dangers of the outside world but which still benefits from those intrepid few who venture outside the walls and bring back goods and people to benefit the community.
In the novel, I shifted away from the order/disorder dichotomy to more of a contrast between uniformity and difference. I decided to represent the tightly controlled community of the Aesir as a stereotypically white European population that is at odds with a more diverse outside population that includes people with both pale and dark skin.
The Master of Mischief Himself
Once I had divided the world of Black Wolf into different regions and the characters into distinct populations, I had to decide what to do with our main man, Loki. Our favourite trickster is, by definition, an oddball. He lives in Asgard with the Aesir, but he is one of the Jötnar. He is of one group, but he is with another, although he can fit in (or stick out) equally well in either community. Therefore, it was only fitting to represent him as being different from each.
From a strictly visual perspective, I chose to make him brown-skinned. On the spectrum of skin tone, he would stick out in the predominantly pale-skinned population of Aesir, but would fit in among the various groups of Jötunheim. Phenotypically, however, I envisioned him as being Middle Eastern or perhaps Spanish or Indigenous North American so that his facial features and complexion would resemble those common in some mainland European populations. Again, the idea was to make his appearance somewhat similar to the Aesir while still being clearly distinct from them.
If you know how the arc of the mythology ends (and if you’re here, you probably do), then you know that the Jötnar rain down death and destruction on the Aesir. This means that in my novel, the Black and Brown people (and some white people) march on Asgard and kick the living shit out of the Aesir.
This means, of course, that the book has an anti-colonialist reading, which is totally legitimate. But it wasn’t the point, nor was it even intended. The point was about metaphysics.
Look, the Old Norse believed that the broad arc of history was determined. They lived in areas where a poor harvest or loss of livestock could mean death in the long, bitter winters of the north, and travelling the seas to raid and trade was a dangerous business. They were largely at the mercy of their environment and circumstances. And Mother Nature is rarely merciful.
So, the metaphysical reasoning behind the way I structured Black Wolf is roughly thus:
- If an outcome is guaranteed to happen, then it stands to reason that at least some preceding events leading up to that outcome are also determined, perhaps by an external guiding force or by mere dint of history. It really doesn’t matter how. The point is that something is going to ensure that this specific outcome materializes.
- If you believe in a universe where some principles of cause and effect have force (and you do, because otherwise you wouldn’t bother working or making plans for the weekend), then you also believe that certain preceding events must happen to produce an expected outcome. There may be multiple courses of events that could produce this outcome, but as long as one such course of events actually occurs, then the outcome is guaranteed.
- The Old Norse did believe in determinism and they also believed their actions could potentially sway events in their favour (a position known as “compatibilism”). More importantly, they admired those who struggled to defy an undesirable fate, even if their efforts were doomed.
- Norse mythology clearly presents Ragnarok as an inescapable fate, but Odin makes tremendous efforts to thwart destiny by collecting dead warriors (the einherjar) to bolster his forces in the final battle.
- The mythological relationship between the Aesir and the Jötnar was fraught with petty squabbles, political tensions, and deadly battles.
- In the real world, escalating social and political tensions can and do lead to violence, both within and between societies.
- Whether you believe in determinism or not, a world-ending battle and the armies that fight it don’t simply burst forth from the ether ready to fight.
- Subconclusion: If Ragnarok is guaranteed to happen, then at least some events leading up to it would also be guaranteed to happen.
- Conclusion: It is reasonable to view the overarching events of the mythology as being set against an implicit background of rising tensions that sets the stage for, and either directly or indirectly causes, Ragnarok.
It’s not the tightest argument I’ve ever laid out, but you get the point. The end of the world was coming, and something was going to cause it.
In Black Wolf, there are two story arcs that eventually intertwine and lead to a most unpleasant end for virtually everyone involved: (1) the unequal and sometimes violent relationship between the Aesir and the Jötnar, and (2) growing tensions between Odin and Loki.
More to the story…
There are a lot of characters in Black Wolf who have far more backstory than I included. When I was writing the book, I had no inkling that I might get another novel out of it, although I do have one veeeeerrry sloooooooowly percolating in the back of my brain.
In Fires of Jotunheim, I want to explore the world of the Jötnar and the relatively minor Aesir characters. In particular, I want to build up the history of Jötunheim and the sway of the powerful Jötun Vafthrudnir (who causes Frigg concern in the poem “Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”), the rise of Utgarda-Loki, and the people of Muspellheim. I also want to give characters like Frigg, Hodr, and Heimdall more “air time,” as it were, and to view the politics of the gods through the perspective of their servants, including Hermod and Syn. Essentially, it’s the “downstairs” look at the world through the eyes of those who are in some way subordinate to (or subordinated by) Odin, but who nonetheless suffer for his machinations.
Of course all of this depends on me writing the damned story and publishing it, assuming of course that it’s any good. Black Wolf was already in editing when I conceived of this companion book, so I’ve written myself into some corners. Also, I have a day job and about a million other hobbies.
And frankly, this second book scares the daylights out of me. It’s much more intimidating because it has to be an independent novel while fitting around all the details of the first book. Perhaps the most terrifying prospect is figuring out how to retell all the critical points of the story from new perspectives so that the story makes sense without simply regurgitating the scenes laid out in Black Wolf.
Folks, I just don’t know how I’m going to do this. But if the gods have decreed it or the stars align, it might just happen.
Bessason, Haraldur and Robert J. Glendinning, ed. Laws of early Iceland, Grágás I. transl. Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba .
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto .
Simek, Rudolph. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. trans. Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge .
- Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Jesse Byock. Penguin Books Ltd. .
- Wolf, Kirsten, ed. Laws of early Iceland, Grágás II. transl. Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba .