Numbers in Norse Mythology

One of the aspects of religion and mythology that I find strangely fascinating is the use of very specific numbers. One of the most common examples is the use of the number 3 in many cultures and religions. The three parts of the godhead, 3 wishes from a genie, and even 3 roots of Yggdrasil in the Norse Myths. At first it may seem rather trivial and maybe coincidental that a specific number comes up a lot but many scholars and mythologists would argue otherwise. I like to think that the writers and creators of these myths new what they were doing when they wrote about things in specific quantities. It is not a coincidence that the numbers three and nine appear over and over again in the Norse myths. The obvious question to ask though is why are these specific numbers used so often?

No one is really sure why the number 9 is so prominent in the Norse myths. Kevin Crossley-Holland mentioned in his introduction to “The Norse Myths” that it may simply be that it was the last single digit number. We can’t really say why this number became culturally important but one thing does become clear about it. When this number is used it is often used to note how important something is. The same can likely be said for the number 3 since there are many instances of threes in Norse writing. When you analyze old writing like this it is safe to assume that if the author took the time to specify something it was for a good reason and the Norse myths did this quite a lot.

The most well known example of nine in Norse mythology is of course the cosmology itself. There are nine realms. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, Alfheim, Jotunheim, Midgard, Muspellheim, Niflheim, and Nidavellir. Since some sections of early Norse myth sources are missing or ambiguous it is possible that Nidavellier, the Dwarf world, and Svartalfheim, the Dark Elf world, are one and the same where Hel, the land of the dead, would then considered its own world separate from Niflheim. The presence of nine realms seems like a way to emphasize the importance of the cosmology. Another popular example is when Odin hanged himself for nine days and nights in order to learn eighteen magical runes. Even the number eighteen is seen as significant in this case because it is 9×2. One of the artifacts made by the dwarves for the gods was a ring called Draupnir. Every nine days Draupnir magically drops eight rings (for a total of nine) of equal size and weight. This is an interesting case because Draupnir is only mentioned one other time in the recorded myths but it is never fully explained what its purpose is. Since many of the myths are missing or may not have been recorded their could have been references to Draupnir that we have never and will never see. This is the tricky thing with some ancient mythologies. With so much source material missing there is so much that is left up to speculation.

I’ve only listed a handful of examples of the number nine in the Norse myths but I do find this, and the use of other numbers in other religions, very interesting. In part it is fun to learn what the popular numbers are in a culture and wait for them to pop up in their religious writings. Whenever I read a Norse myth or poem and see the number nine I have a wonderfully geeky moment as I discover a new piece of trivia. I also know to make note of whatever objects or events are associated with the number in that context because they’re obviously considered important. Myths and even contemporary writing of all sorts are a great way to learn about a culture and what that culture considers important. When reading these myths anything grouped in groups of nines was likely, for whatever reason, considered very important to the Norse people. I don’t know if anyone else thinks this is even remotely interesting, but it’s something that captures my imagination for some reason. I hope to do a bit more research and learn more about the importance of certain numbers in other religions.

For those who may be interested, here is a link to the wikipedia article on Numbers in Norse Mythology! It lists all of the instances of 3 and 9 in the myths. It’s really fascinating when you look at the list and see what events and objects the writers were emphasizing. It really was an interesting tool for storytelling!


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