XXIV (121)But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza,–and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe,--found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. (122) There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps,-
In the Blade Honer series, a group of unordinary women called “the Hel Runes” feature with increasing prominence. From barely being mentioned in Book One, “The Hammer of Greatness“, they appear as mysterious figures acting behind the scenes in Book Two, “My Enemy´s Head“, before they make their first public appearance in Book Three, “The Hel Rune´s Claim“. However, only in Book Four, “A Twisted Mirror“, do we really learn who they are – priestesses of death and human sacrifice whose primary function is to deal with burials and dead bodies, taking the appearance of morbid witches and living like incarnations of the Norns on earth – in charge of the final Judgment, known in Old Norse sources as Nórna Dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”.
On what historical sources have I built the Hel Runes?
Well, take a look at the quote above first. Jordanes wrote his Getica in Constantinople around the year 551 A.D. Here he wrote about the history of the tribe he had emerged from, the Goths, about how a large retinue of Götar (a tribal people from Götaland in south Sweden) moved south across the sea into the European continent from where they spread out during the Age of Migrations. Once in Europe, these northerners changed some of their customs as well as parts of their ancestral religion. Among them, says Jordanes, there were women called “Haliurunnae“, a title that includes the name Hel (the goddess of the dead/the world of the dead) and the word “rune”, meaning symbol, letter, secret, whisper or mystery. Obviously, these women were aquainted with the deeper mysteries of death.
Such a coven of women who specialized in the mysteries of death, a female priesthood, perhaps, was obviously brought from the homelands at the time of departure from Scandinavia – but once on the continent, one of the first Gothic kings, Filimer, had them expelled from the tribe. And this, concludes Jordanes, was the reason why the Goths were later invaded and subjected to the rule of the cruel Huns from the east – such was the revenge of the Hel Runes.
Searching for more knowledge about these women, I found another, even earlier source describing priestesses of human sacrifice among the migrating tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutones and the Ambrones who were the first migrating Iron Age Scandinavians to clash with the Roman Empire back in 113-101 B.C. What turned out to be the most shocking revelation to the Romans about these barbarian tribes, was the way their women and children accompanied their men on their military expeditions, and not the least the way some of these women acted after having won a battle:
“Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.”
(Strabo: Geogr. 7.2.3, trans. H.L. Jones)
There is absolutely no reason to dismiss Strabo´s account, as what he describes only serves to explain a lot of archaeological evidence for exactly this sort of custom. The grim image of the priestesses of human sacrifice as an ancient and integral part of old Scandinavian culture only keeps repeating itself both in mythology, legendary material, as well as in a much later historical source by the Arab emissary Ibn Fadlan, who visited the Volga Rus vikings back i 921 A.D. and describes whiteclad priestesses who are, indeed, in charge of human sacrifice:
“When that man whom I have mentioned earlier died, they said to his slave-girls, “Who will die with him?” and one of them said; “I shall”. So they placed two slave girls in charge of her to take care of her and accompnay her wherever she went, even to the point of occassionally washing her feet with their own hands (…)
When the time had arrived for cremation, they pulled his longship ashore and put it on a platform of wood, and they made a bed for the dead chieftain on the ship. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his body sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old. (…)
Thereafter, the thrall girl was taken away to the ship. She removed her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. Thereafter she removed her finger rings and gave them to the two slave-girls who had waited upon her, they were the old woman’s daughters. Then they took her aboard the ship, but they did not allow her to enter the tent where the dead chieftain lay. The girl received several vessels of intoxicating drinks and she sang and bade her friends farewell. (…)
The crone called the “Angel of Death” placed a rope around her neck in such a way that the eds crossed one another and handed it to two to pull on it. She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs, now here, now there, while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.”
Dealing with death, human sacrifice, taking care of dead bodies (Ibn Fadlan noticed, for example, that the “Angel of Death” knew how to preserve a body for ten days and the body was still not stinking at all), and making prophecies based on the blood and entrails of victims – none of that leaves us with a very favorable impression of these ladies, and yet their gruesome image was vital to Old Norse religion both before and during the Viking Age. In many ways they resembled the grimmest aspects of Fate itself.
Death is the ultimate Fate, so it is not surprising that concepts of fate and death go hand in hand in Norse lore. In the Edda poem Fafnismál, Sigurd declares that all men must one day reach the shore of Hel and deal with nórna dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”. In the Edda poem Sólarljód, we learn that the dead must sit for nine days in the “Chair of the Norns” where judgment on one´s life is passed before the soul may pass on to Heaven or wherever else.
We also learn that there are nine norns waiting for us in Hel:
Here are runes
that have been carved
by the nine daughters of Njǫrðr :
Ráðveig the oldest
and Kreppvǫr the youngest
and their seven sisters.
(SÓLARLJÓÐ – The Song of the Sun, st. 79)
Such imagery of frightful death-women abounds in Norse myths, and the myths often also reveals that such women are more powerful than any other powers in the universe, and that they are in possession of great and sacred knowledge. They may be courted for this knowledge if one has the courage to seek them – and only gods and heroes sometimes take that path. That these death-women are related both to Fate and Death is beyond doubt. They usually appear in a partiular number: 2, 3, 6, 9 or 12, or sometimes “three by nine” or similar variations. They may be described as norns, as valkyries, or as terrible ogresses. Whether they will be beneficial or not is up to the seeker – that they are dangerous is evident, sought only by the bravest.
I finish here with a quotation of the famous poem Darraðarljóð, where twelve valkyries weave a web of war out of human entrails, a symbolic reference to the Hall of Hel.
Blood rains from the cloudy web
On the broad loom of slaughter.
The web of man grey as armor
Is now being woven; the Valkyries
Will cross it with a crimson weft.
The warp is made of human entrails;
Human heads are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave this web of battle.
The Valkyries go weaving with drawn swords,
Hild and Hjorthrimul, Sanngrid and Svipul.
Spears will shatter shields will splinter,
Swords will gnaw like wolves through armor.
Let us now wind the web of war
Which the young king once waged.
Let us advance and wade through the ranks,
Where friends of ours are exchanging blows.
Let us now wind the web of war
And then follow the king to battle
Gunn and Gondul can see there
The blood-spattered shields that guarded the king.
Let us now wind the web of war
Where the warrior banners are forging forward
Let his life not be taken;
Only the Valkyries can choose the slain.
Lands will be ruled by new peoples
Who once inhabited outlying headlands.
We pronounce a great king destined to die;
Now an earl is felled by spears.
The men of Ireland will suffer a grief
That will never grow old in the minds of men.
The web is now woven and the battlefield reddened;
The news of disaster will spread through lands.
It is horrible now to look around
As a blood-red cloud darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained with the blood of men,
As the Valyries sing their song.
We sang well victory songs
For the young king; hail to our singing!
Let him who listens to our Valkyrie song
Learn it well and tell it to others.
Let us ride our horses hard on bare backs,
With swords unsheathed away from here!
And then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands… The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.