European Mythology: Gods & Monsters
By Eve Volungeviciute
Myths and folklore are tales that can give us an insight to the past – what people believed in, worshipped, even detested. Just as every country has its own unique history, it also has different mythical creatures that originated there (although there’s certainly an overlap for some countries based on their relations).
In the spirit of our latest theme, I decided to write an article giving a brief look into different mythologies by region since, considering the amount of information about each of them, if I dived deep this would be more like a novel. It’s also the reason why I’m separating articles by the region, starting closer to home with European mythology. Without further ado, let’s begin!
Southern Europe – Classical
It’s safe to say that when one thinks about mythology, Greece is the first country that pops to mind. The lore of Ancient Greek gods remains to this day an important part of the Western cultural heritage. A lot of us have at least heard of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which are some of the most popular sources of the Greek mythology.
According to the Greek creation myth, at first there was only Chaos, which was basically nothingness. Eventually, Gaia emerges out of the void along with some other beings. She gives birth to Uranus and the two form a union which creates the twelve Titans. Twelve is also the number of the Olympic gods, such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and others, each of them responsible for a certain element, like the sea, thunder, fire. Each of them has their own myths that enrich the world even more. There is also Heracles and his (again, twelve!) tasks. Some of my personal favourite myths include Hades and Persephone, Medusa and Ariadne. Overall, there is a reason why Greek lore is such a staple in the Western culture – their relationships, personalities and havoc they cause are captivating to read about.
It is argued that Romans didn’t actually have much of their own mythology. This statement is definitely backed up by the fact that most of the Roman gods represent Greek ones, except they have their own names (for example, Aphrodite’s counter path is called Venus, Poseidon’s is Neptune and so on). However, there are also some differences – for instance, Romans did not emphasise mortal heroes like the Greeks did because they put more importance in the afterlife, which is arguably inspired by religious undertones. There is also the Romulus and Remus myth, although it’s more about the founding of Rome rather than world creation.
Books to read:
- The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
- Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
- For the Most Beautiful: A Novel of the Women of Troy by Emily Hauser
- Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
- The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
- Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
Eastern Europe – Baltic
Baltic countries were one of the last European regions to be Christianised back in the Middle Ages, which allowed myths to roam the land for a while longer. I feel obligated to talk about the mythology of my home country Lithuania (researching into it, I found some things I never knew about!), as well as its neighbour Latvia, which has a fair bit of similarities in its folklore.
Both Latvian and Lithuanian myths focus on omniscient deities in the sky as their gods. They also put importance on the sun, which is meant to symbolise a circle of life. As an opposite to the god in the sky, there is also an evil being in the underworld (called Velnias in Lithuanian). There are also goddesses of various elements, such as fate and fertility, as well as gods of thunder and fire (not dissimilar to Greek mythology). After Christianisation, especially in Latvian folklore, an emergence of demons occurred, with the belief that witches and sorcerers could only be evil, as opposed to it going either way.
Apart from its creation myths and tales about how the world works, Lithuania also has its more specific folk tales, such as Egle and the Queen of Serpents, which is considered the country’s theogonic myth. The titular Egle promises to marry a serpent in exchange for her stolen clothes. Naturally, her family try to trick the serpent’s servants which fails. As it turns out, the serpent is actually an ocean king and Egle lives happily with him for a while, bearing four children, until one day she wants to visit home. Without spoiling the rest of the story, this wish bears some tragic consequences.
Another popular myth that originated in Lithuania is Jurate and Kastytis, which has varied versions, but the basic tale is that a sea goddess Jurate fell in love with a human fisherman Kastytis. Perkunas, the god of the sea, finds out about their affair and destroys Jurate’s amber castle, which is also an origin story of why ambers are found at the bottom of the sea. Both myths have a tragic love story at the forefront, as well as explanations for some of the world’s origins.
Books to read:
- Of Gods and Men: Studies in Lithuanian Mythology by Algirdas J. Greimas
- Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards: Pagan Mythology, Shamanism, and Magic from Finland, Lapland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by Francis Jenkins Alcott
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Northern Europe – Scandinavian/Germanic
Scandinavian folklore has common roots with Baltic mythology. Its creatures, such as trolls, have been popularised in the Western culture and have been used in various fantasy movies (from Lord of the Rings to Frozen). There is also an ‘evil’ element surrounding nature and the elements, such as forest seductress Huldra and water being Nokken.
According to Finland’s folklore, the world formed out of a bird’s egg. Birds in general play a huge part in the country’s mythology. Finnish people also used to believe the Earth was flat and that sky dome rotates around the North Star. This is where Norse mythology is similar as, according to them, there are nine worlds that spin around Yggdrasil, a cosmological tree. More common things include gods of thunder and lightning (Thor being the most popular god in the Viking age in general).
English mythology takes a slightly different turn as most of its legacy is legends about various heroes rather than world creation myths. Even those who haven’t researched into the lore that much have at least heard of Robin Hood, the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. King Arthur and the knights of the round table is a phenomenon in its own right, with many subplots and different adaptations spanning through the centuries, sometimes containing fantasy elements or sometimes abstaining from them. There’s also Lady Godiva, whose statue is in Coventry city centre for local people reading this article, bringing the legends fairly close to home!
Books to read:
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
- We Are Our Deeds by Eric Wodening
- The Sagas of Icelanders translated by Jane Smiley
- The Saga of Volsungs translated by Jesse Byock
- Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe: A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey
- The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights by James Knowles
Western Europe – Celtic
To wrap this article up, we’re travelling to the West and brushing up on Celtic mythology. It’s assumed that most Celtic writings were destroyed by the Romans, which is why Irish myths are only dated from the early Middle Ages. Dagda is portrayed by the leader of the gods, which, due to the lack of information on their origins, were considered to be more of a clan. Morrigan, a battle goddess is also a prominent figure in the mythology; however, the god appearing most often would have to be Lugh, a master of multiple disciplines.
One of the more utilised entities in Irish mythology is a banshee, a female spirit attracted to death and known for her wailing, often so strong that it can kill regular humans. Something interesting to note is that while in the original Irish stories they are fairly harmless, focused mostly on grieving the dead, modern popular culture portrays them as sinister and menacing more often than not, which better matches Morrigan’s traits.
Books to read:
- Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis
- Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions by H.R. Ellis Davidson
- The Morrigan: Celtic Goddess of Magick and Might by Courtney Weber
- Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier