Shield Maidens – Real Life Legends?

There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.

They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.

Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life

(Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum 6.8)

Spear-wielding horse-riding woman from Stavnes church, 11th century Norway

I was recently asked about shield maidens, warrior women of the Viking Age, a fascinating topic since Old Norse legends provide a great deal of material which, alongside other accounts of strong women, serves to make Scandinavian women of the Dark Ages stand out in comparison to their sisters on the Medieval European continent at the time, stand out as strong, self-assertive, self-confident and sometimes even powerful, and they even had warrior women who appear to have fought on an equal standing as their brothers.

The question is, how true is this?

I would hate to disappoint my fellow women in this regard, but as a serious historian I also need to search for the truth of the matter, and all my studies tell me that the position of Scandinavian women prior to the conversion compared to the position of women in Christian, Medieval Europe says a lot more about the “Gilead”-like society of Christian medieval Europe than it says about Viking Age Scandinavian women.

The position of European women in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages and even right up to the last centuries was horrendously oppressive. Not only were their lives controlled, their potentials suppressed and their opportunities limited, they were also constantly told that they were weak both of mind and body, that they were less intelligent, and that they were more sinful and besides terrible temptresses who needed to be put in their places most of the time, and they were almost constantly blamed if they were victimized.

Medieval Europe was a terrible time and place for women, and even for most men, since very few men actually had any power either, but lived to serve and toil for their masters too.

Compared to that sort of life, Scandinavian women and men were practically freewheeling hippies, only considerably more warlike.

TV-series such as “Vikings” have emphasized this aspect of Norse culture; the relative individual freedom, the sexual freedom, the relative equality, the lack of misogyny, the existence of warrior women, women who led religious rituals – all that is sort of true, but some of it is perhaps a bit exaggerated, especially in the way they depict individual independence in both sexes.

Individual independence is a great thing, but is also completely dependent on a society that will legally protect your right to that independence, and that sort of central government who would protect everybody´s individual freedom did not exist in the Viking Age. You had to go to your clan if you wanted protection of your rights, and then you had to make sure your clan agreed with you, and that your clan was powerful enough to protect you. You had to think communally rather than individually if you were even to survive, whether you liked that or not.

My studies also tell me that Scandinavian women were not quite as equal to men as we would have liked them to be.

Yes, it is a fact that Scandinavian women were blessed with a lack of misogyny and a cultural basic respect for our gender and not the least a deep respect for our potential for equal intelligence that was unheard of in the rest of Europe at the time.

Yes, it is a fact that there were loopholes for women who did not fit into the traditional gender roles in some way or other.

But it is also a fact that Viking Age society was a clan-based society where the extent of your power to be self-assertive depended a lot on the strength and power and importance of your clan, whether you were a man or a woman.

The Clan and Patriarchy

The clan was patriarchal in the original sense; patriarchal because the head of the clan, the one with the final decisions and the right to vote at parliament (most Norse societies were more or less democratic, and yes, there were differences from tribe to tribe in this matter), and the right to command everybody else in the clan, was a man, the head of the clan would always be a man, and only in cases where the man died and left sons too young to rule would his widow act in his place. Her children would always carry the name of their father, not her. Only if a woman gave birth outside of marriage would the child sometimes be surnamed after her, although it appears to have been more common to invent surnames such as “Guest´s Son” or “Viking´s son” rather than applying the mother´s name (and yes, they were relatively laid-back concerning births outside of marriage).

However, today, the term “patriarchy” has come to mean something different than what it once did. Patriarchy in its original sense did not necessarily mean that all men ranked above all women or that they were all privileged as men compared to women, and it certainly did not mean that in Scandinavian society – as said, your family, your clan, and its united power to put swords behind words, decided your rank more than gender did.

The clan would mean your entire extended family alongside other dependents, fosterlings, servants, warriors and lesser farmers all living together in the settlement that the clan owned. Sometimes, a settlement would consist of more than one clan, but usually they made up a sort of small confederation of clans where one of them took precedence. Within this community, everybody had to do their part, men and women worked at everything that was needed for everybody to thrive, and women´s work was just as important as men´s, and even more time-consuming, which may be why most girls never got to practice the arts of combat that freeborn boys were obliged to practice every day from the time they could walk. Only in extremely powerful, noble clans who had lots of servants and slaves could time be freed for the occasional noble maiden who wished to learn the battle arts alongside her brothers.

As to independence, only the vǫlur (traveling oracles and witch-priestesses) could be described as independent women. There would also be the occasional independent, rogue warrior, but they were not fortunate as such, and would usually attempt to become bound to a clan, since that was how you actually survived back in those days.

Everybody else, men and women, would have been completely powerless if they were independent, because everybody, men and women, depended completely on their clans for physical protection, legal representation, economic support and status. Without the clan, you had nothing and nobody to protect you against hostility, represent your legal cases, or take care of you in case of sickness and old age. So to say that anyone was independent would have been wrong – people had to be a part of a community and act within that community as an active, productive member in some way or other, and I think it is hard for modern westerners to even imagine the degree of communal thinking that people back then depended upon for their lives and their well-being.

Within the clan, led by a patriarch, his wife, the House-Freyia, was second in command and would be first in command in his place while he was away, and would also be first in command in the case she was widowed before her sons were grown. In matters of combat and war, however, most House-Freyias would assign a male warrior kinsman for the task of leading her warriors.

Norse society was not egalitarian even if it provided a certain dignity and freedom to the individual compared to other places at the time; It was a hierarchic society that would mean some women did take a leading role in many circumstances, but only if they were the wives or widows of a powerful man, or if they happened to belong to a category of women who wielded religious and magical power – but these women were the exception, not the rule.

Most women were wives and daughters of men who did not have that much power in society, and the relative power of women depended completely on the power of their menfolk. Men were usually the only ones who could put blades behind words.

Norse people also kept slaves, just like everybody else did at the time in some way or other; Slaves, whether male or female, had no power at all, and sources more than suggest that slave women could be sexually abused, bought and sold, although the sources that we have also suggest that they were usually treated with the same famous lack of misogyny and victim-blaming that the Old Norse society is known for. Women who were abused were hardly ever blamed for it in any way. Free women could honorably avenge themselves or demand that their kinsmen did it for them. Beating your wife could get you killed by her kinsmen or else cause her to act in a way that would get you killed anyway, and nobody would blame her, since beating a free person was unpardonable. Some of the slave girl stories tell us that even an enslaved woman could impress her masters if she acted with dignity and self-respect all the way – that sort of personal quality could even earn her freedom.

This complete lack of cultural woman-hatred in itself could have provided Scandinavian women with a great deal of freedom even compared to many places today– freedom to not live in shame and self-loathing and the constant message that you were a lesser human being and that your sexuality or looks defined you – they were free from that.

It was also taken for granted that a woman could possess wisdom and intelligence and cunning just as men could, and if a woman possessed such qualities, she would be respected for it, and she was allowed to speak up and could expect to be listened to. Women could trade and own their own property and get a divorce if they were unhappy in their marriage. Once widowed or divorced, she could not be married off again without her personal consent.

So yes, compared to other medieval to Iron Age cultures, Scandinavian women really did stand out.

But did they fight alongside men?

Warrior Women in Written Sources

Shield Maiden figurine Viking Age Denmark, Odense

It would be extremely exaggerated to say that warrior women abounded in Old Norse society. Not even the written sources, where we have most of our information about such women, do women as such stand out as warriors. Men, on the other hand, appear to have been obliged to practice and excel in combat art – even commoners. They had annual parliaments where all free men had to appear carrying all the weapons they owned, and they could be fined if they did not possess the weapons appropriate to their rank. Only noblemen were expected to own expensive swords, but every commoner needed at least a battle-axe and a spear. This was because, if needed, every free man had to partake in the defense of their tribal land. So even among low-ranking farmers and other commoners, a free man was always supposed to be a warrior, and to be afraid of fighting was a deep shame for a man unless he got off the hook due to extreme talent at some craft or because he chose the path of seiðr.

Women were not in any way expected to own weapons or prove themselves as warriors or partake in battle and combat. But in such a warlike society, they were constantly surrounded by a warlike mentality and appear to have been engaged anyway. Many women would have known a little about fighting and weaponry, and in cases where women acted with warlike courage in order to help their outnumbered menfolk, they were appraised for that.

Several sources describing courageous women who took up arms despite having no chance against a large, heavy, trained warrior also suggest that a certain  gentlemanly behavior was expected of men; it would dishonor a man to use his strength against a woman, and if attacked by a woman he would attempt to just disarm her rather than harm her. Most women spent their girlhoods learning all the crafts needed for the community´s survival, including medicine and surgery, and had no time to set aside for combat practice. Most boys, however, were under obligation to set aside time for that. By the time they were grown, the greatest difference between the sexes would have been that men were expert at all sorts of martial arts while women were expert at transforming fiber into clothing and sails and shoes, and at mending wounds and making plant medicine and running farms.

However, as mentioned before, there were high-ranking noble clans where the work of young maidens could be done by servants. In such clans, it appears that girls who wished to train in battle were allowed to do that, and nobody raised an eyebrow. This is where we are most likely to find women carrying arms and acting like warriors, but we still do not know to what extent they actually partook in battle on an equal standing as their brothers. Also, while an army would have consisted of all the free men of the tribe regardless of rank, only a very few, high-ranking women would have been present.

Around the year 1200, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote, in his Gesta Danorum (The History of the Danish People) several passages concerning warrior women. In chapter six, he summed up what he believed had been a past, pagan tendency:

“And that no one may wonder that this sex labored at warfare, I will make a brief digression, in order to give a short account of the estate and character of such women. There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.

They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.

Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life. These women therefore (just as if they had forgotten their natural estate, and preferred sternness to soft words) offered war rather than kisses, and would rather taste blood than lips, and went about the business of arms more than that of armorers. They devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom. They assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks, they thought of death and not of dalliance.”

In chapter 8, we hear of more such women, ready to attend the legendary Battle of Brávellir, which may have taken place around the year 750:

“Now out of Lejre came Hortar and Borgar, and also Belgi and Beigad, to whom were added Bari and Toli. Now out of the town of Sle, under the (female) captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hákon Cut-Cheek came Tummi the Sail-Maker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Vebjörg was also inspired with the same spirit….

…The maidens I have named, in fighting as well as courteous array, led their land-forces to the battle-field…”

This all sounds splendid. But the reality of medieval and Iron Age warfare was harsh, and women could be mutilated and killed just like men could. During the Battle of Brávellir, the shieldmaiden Vebjörg killed the champion Soti and managed to give additional wounds to Starkad, who was greatly angered. She was killed by the champion Thorkell. Furious, Starkad went forth in the Danish army, killing warriors all around him, and cut off the shieldmaiden Visna’s arm, which held the Danish banner.[2]

Another and very ambitioius Shield Maiden was Rusla, whom Saxo refers to as a Norwegian Amazon (chapter 8):

“At the same time, the amazon Rusla, whose prowess in warfare exceeded the spirit of a woman, had many fights in Norway with her brother, Thrond, for the sovereignty. She could not endure that Omund rule over the Norwegians, and she had declared war against all the subjects of the Danes. Omund, when he heard of this, commissioned his most active men to suppress the rising. Rusla conquered them, and, waxing haughty on her triumph, was seized with overweening hopes, and bent her mind upon actually acquiring the sovereignty of Denmark.

She began her attack on the region of Halland, but was met by Hormod and Thode, whom the king has sent over. Beaten, she retreated to her fleet, of which only thirty ships managed to escape, the rest being taken by the enemy. Thrond encountered his sister as she was eluding the Danes, but was conquered by her and stripped of his entire army, he fled over the Dovrefjell without a single companion.

Thus she, who had first yielded before the Danes, soon overcame her brother, and turned her flight into a victory. When Omund heard of this, he went back to Norway with a great fleet, first sending Homod and Thole by a short and secret way to rouse the people of Telemark (a tribe in Norway) against the rule of Rusla.

The end was that she was driven out of her kingdom by the commoners, fled to the isles for safety, and turned her back, without a blow, upon the Danes as they came up. The king pursued her hotly, caught up her fleet on the sea and utterly destroyed it, the enemy suffered mightily, and he won a bloodless victory and splendid spoils.

But Rusla escaped with a very few ships, and rowed ploughing the waves furiously; but, while she was avoiding the Danes, she met her brother and was killed.”

*

Warrior women who lost a battle would easily have become booty, like Saxo here describes how Alfhild tried to escape her suitor by assuming a masculine role, but is defeated and forced to marry him anyway (chapter 6):

“Thus Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane, whereupon she changed woman´s for man´s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover.

Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind, she happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valor of woman (….)

… For Alfhild had gone before them with her fleet into the same narrows… The Danes wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily beauty and such supple limbs. So, when they began the sea-fight, the young man Alf leapt on Alfhild´s prow, and advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all who withstood him. His comrade Borgar struck off Alfhild´s helmet, and, seeing the smoothness of her chin, saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings. So Alf rejoiced that the woman whom he had sought over land and sea in the face of so many dangers was now beyond all expectations in his power, whereupon he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man´s apparel for a woman´s, and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid. Also Borgar wedded the attendant of Alfhild, Groa, and had by her a son…”

*

Another shield-maiden who was maimed and ended up married to the man who maimed her, was “Stunt-Brynhild” of the Saga of Bósi and Herrauð, chapter 2, although Brynhild may have been luckier with her man than Alfhild and Groa:

“There was a man called Thvari or Bryn-Thvari, who lived not far from the king´s residence. He had been a great Viking in his younger years and during his fighting career he had come up against an amazon, Brynhild, the daughter of king Agnar of Noatown. They had set about one another, and soon Brynhild was wounded and unable to carry on fighting. Then Thvari took her into his care, along with a great deal of money. He saw to it that her wounds were fully healed, but she remained bent and twisted for the rest of her life, and so she was known as Stunt-Brynhild. Thvari made her his wife, and although she wore a helmet and a coat of mail at her wedding, their married life was a happy one.”

*

A far more successful Shield Maiden was Lagertha, or, as she would have been called in a less Latinized account, Hlaðgerð. She is found in Saxo´s book chapter 9 as one of several women who, after having been  had been forced into prostitution and who would now rather join the army before being raped more:

“At the time, Fro, the King of Sweden, after slaying Siward, the King of the Norwegians, put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar Lóðbrok heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their person or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage.

Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge.

Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might on one woman…

…Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men, and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.”

*

There is also the story of Hervör, a shield maiden who even got a whole saga named after her and her grand-daughter by the same name, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. In this saga, Hervör the elder retrieves the sword of her own father from his grave after conquering his ghost. Hervör was described as being as strong as the boys from an early age, and learned archery, swordsmanship, and horse riding. She dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged, played tafl and even demanded to be called by a masculine name, Hervarðr.

After having traveled far and wide, she settled down, resumed her female identity, got married and had two sons, Angantyr and Heiðrek. The latter had a daughter who took after her father´s mother and was also named after her; Hervör the younger became the commander in chief of a Gothic fort, but perished during an attack of the Huns. Upon hearing of her death, her brother made a praising lament about her:

“Unbrotherly the bloody game they played with you, excellent sister.”

***

Stories like these do tell us something: they tell us that people of the Viking Age told legends of warrior women and that they appraised these, and that these stories were remembered and told way into the High Middle Ages, when they were written down by men who, like Saxo, felt the need to explain that this was how things were back in the pagan era.

Stories will often reflect the attitudes and values of a culture, and often also reflect some realities about that culture. Numerous so called “shield maiden graves” have been found, serving to give evidence to the truth of these stories – although many archaeologists are cautious and pointing out that many of these graves are not quite as certain evidence as we might think on first sight. When the skeleton of a woman found next to a sword belongs to a woman who could hardly have weighed more than 40 kilograms and probably was unable to lift and wield the sword effectively, we have to consider whether she was actually the warrior or whether the grave could yield some other possible explanations, which they often do.[3]

Images of fighting women or armed women from the Viking Age are rare, but they are there. Stories about fighting women are also there, but they are also quite rare compared to the entire source material available. Graves belonging to warrior women are also there, but even they are rare. We must assume that the presence of women warriors in this society was also rare, even if they existed – but when they did, they appear to have been honored as such.

I will finish this with a short account of a woman who appears in the Poetic Edda, Gudrun Giuki´s daughter, a princess of the Burgunds. As with the saga of Hervör, the story is set in the time of the Huns, which would historically mean that these are legends of the 4th and 5th centuries, the deep Iron Age, as is the case with many of the shield maiden stories.

Gudrun does not appear to be a warrior in most of the story, but when her brothers are outnumbered by the Huns, she does pick up arms. The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (Attila) tells us, in stanza 50-51:

50: Guiki´s daughter ————– Dóttir lét Givca

brought down two warriors —-drengi tva hníga,

she struck at Atli´s brother——brodvr hio hon Atla,

he had to be carried thereafter—bera varþ þann siþan,

she designed her fight————scapþi hon sva scǫro,

cut the foot from under him——sceldi fót vndan.

51: Another man she struck so hard—-Annan reþ hon hꜹggva,

he could not get up again——— sva at sa vpp reisat,

into Hel she had him sent———-i Helio hon þann hafdi,

and her hands never trembled.——þeygi henne hendr scvlfo.

Despite her courage and skill, Gudrun and her brothers are taken down, and Gudrun must watch how her brothers are tortured to death. She commits a terrible revenge, tricking the Hunnish king, Atli (Attila) into eating the hearts of his two sons by her, spellbinds the entire hall and burns it down and strikes her sword into Atli´s heart. The real Attila was rumored to have died by the hands of a Germanic princess whose brothers and father he had slayed.

In the Medieval, Christian version of this story, Gudrun is called Kriemhild, and when she picks up arms to avenge herself, she is condemned and killed, for in this Christian Medieval world, a woman could not be suffered to live if she transgressed the limited role of a woman.

But in the Edda, a much older source and far closer to the pagan mind, Gudrun is praised in the end, praised as the last warrior woman.

Stanza 43 in the Lay of Atli goes;

Fully this story has now been told—— Fvllrętt er vm þetta,

never again will anyone see—————-ferr engi sva siþan

a bride in armor——————————brvþr i brynio

avenging her brothers———————-brǫþra at hefna;

She had, to three—————————–hon hefir þriggia

great kings————————————-þioþkonvnga

been the bane——————————– —-banorþ borit

that bright woman, before she died too —–biort, aþr sylti.

 

 

[1] First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani stanza 32-44, the ritual bickering between Gudmund and Sinfiötli where they end up revealing that they have been intimate together before, and then argue about which one was the stallion.

[2] Gesta Danorum Book Eight and Sögubrot

[3] https://www.tor.com/2015/06/08/viking-warrior-women-did-shieldmaidens-like-lagertha-really-exist/

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The Vǫlva as an Oracle in Old Norse Sources

nehalennia 4“Vǫlva” was the official title for a woman who practiced seiðr professionally. We do not know if there were more sorts of practitioners, but we do know that the title of a fully-fledged female practitioner with a proper standing in society was called a vǫlva. The title is derived from the word vǫl, meaning “wand” or “staff”. We are immediately reminded of Gandalf ’s staff or other magical staffs such as those in Harry Potter. And indeed, graves belonging to magical practitioners often do include staffs of all sorts and sizes – these women certainly held staffs of office.

We do not know exactly how the Norse vǫlur used their staffs, but we do know that their art of divination was similar to shamanistic rituals of divination and that there had been ancient bonds between Siberia and Scandinavia. According to the ethnographer Vilmos Dioszegi[1], female shamans in Siberia often carried staffs which they used to shake and rattle with in order to enter a state of trance instead of a drum.

Interestingly, the term for “staff” in this case, the vǫl, is the same as the term for “horse penis”. In one saga short story known as the vǫlsa-tott, the penis of a sacrificed stallion is preserved by the “House-Freyia” (the Lady of the house) and passed around the table during a family ritual, while songs are sung about its power and ability to sexually please the giantesses, to whom the vǫl is dedicated, and with a plea that Óðinn himself will assume the power of the vǫl in order to please the giantesses.

The title vǫlva appears to mean “Wed to the Wand”.

Briefly summarized, the Vǫluspá poem explains that the god Óðinn seeks the prophecy of a vǫlva by giving her precious jewels. In this, his action is echoed in the saga sources, the vǫlva is always invited to the settlement by its patriarch:

Host Father (Óðinn) chose for her
rings and jewels
for her wise counsel
and her spells of divination
she saw widely, so widely
into all the worlds.

In response, the vǫlva begins her prophecy, and we are taken back to the beginning of the Vǫluspá poem, where she demands the attention of everybody in the entire universe. She declares that she remembers a time before time itself, and that she herself existed back then, remembering the nine worlds that came before the present.

The vǫlva proceeds to tell of the creation of the present world, grown to spurt out of the Well of Origin, the oldest norn (fate goddess), how everything is arranged, how human beings are given thought, warmth and desire, then how the first war started, leading up to the moment when Óðinn finally becomes so worried that he seeks the vǫlva for a séance of seiðr in order to understand what is happening and where it is leading – the present moment in that poem. Then begins a vision of the apocalyptic future, paving the way for a new and better world in the end.

Interestingly, in the Vǫluspá, the first war in the world is strongly connected to the first time a vǫlva appears among human beings on earth. Most scholars agree that this is a tale of how Freyia and the Vanir came to be with the Aesir gods (and of how seiðr was introduced to them). The first stanza describes an attempt to burn and stab the witch called Gullveig (“Gold Power-Drink”), but she conquers death every time. After this trial (a trial of initiation, probably), she appears as a fully-fledged vǫlva doing what vǫlur did – travelling the land, helping people everywhere, and teaching her art to the women:

She was called Heiðr (Bright, Open Space)
when she came to the settlements
the Vǫlva of good prophecies
she knew spells/magic
she made seiðr wherever she could
she made seiðr with a playful mind
she was always loved
by ill/wicked/bad women.

The last line is a bit puzzling. The adjective “illr” is directly related to the English word for “ill” as in sick, and it would make sense that “ill women” loved her, since she could heal them. But in Old Norse, the word primarily meant “wicked” or “bad”. The word “brúðar” would refer to “women” but literally meant “brides”, and I cannot help but wonder if we are speaking of “bad brides” here, as in women who were not exactly housewife material. For the vǫlva was not, by any account, a married woman but one independent, who travelled as she pleased, and who, unlike most women in this largely patriarchal society, had a status completely independent of male relatives.

In many shamanic traditions, there are myths of the “first shaman” – a divine being who introduced the arts of shamanism or similar.    I regard the myth of Gullveig/Heiðr as a myth of the first vǫlva to introduce the art of seiðr.

The most famous and detailed descriptions of seiðr in Old Norse sources take the form of oracular or divinatory seiðr. Like many such descriptions, we see hints of breathing techniques designed to induce “altered states of consciousness”. Adding to breathing techniques, other descriptions also hint towards secret rituals and the application of songs, also as a part of inducing a trance-like state in which the practitioner may see what had before been hidden about fate, and reach communication with spirits.

THE SAGA OF HROLFR KRÁKI

[In the Saga of Hrolf Kráki, we hear of a séance of seiðr performed by a vǫlva, where the distinct purpose of the ritual is to discover the whereabouts of two wanted boys. However, the vǫlva sympathizes with the boys and aids them through obscure hints. In this description of seiðr, the vǫlva appears to be applying a particular breathing technique]:

Chapter 2: The search

Then a vǫlva called Heiðr arrived. The king told her to use her art to divine what she could learn about the boys. The king held a magnificent feast prepared for her and had her placed on a high seiðhjallr [a platform or seat where the seiðr was practiced]. Then he asked her what she could see of the future, “Because I know,” he said, “that much will be made clear to you. I see that there is great fortune in you, so answer me as quickly as possible.”

She wrenched open her jaws and yawned deeply, and this chant emerged from her mouth

[The vǫlva called Heiðr speaks forth her prophecies about the whereabouts of the boys that the king is chasing, and all her prophecies are spoken in poetical riddles. The vǫlva is corruptible, however, for when the queen, wanting to protect the wanted boys (her own brothers), offers a gold ring to the vǫlva, she declares her own previous prophecies as false.

The king is angry and commands her to tell him the truth, threatening her with torture if she doesn’t. The vǫlva proceeds]:

Her mouth gaped wide, but the spell became difficult. Finally she spoke this verse…”

[The vǫlva solves the problem of loyalty by speaking forth true prophecies, but uses the metaphorical language of poetry to disguise what she really sees, in effect warning the boys who have hidden in the hall. Solving a poetical riddle could take time, and her maneuver gives the boys and herself enough time to flee the king´s hall].

ÖRVAR-ODDS SAGA

The Saga of Örvar-Odd is a 13th century Icelandic romance about the life and death of the champion Oddr, also known as Arrow-Oddr (Örvar-Oddr). It belongs to the category of fǫrnaldarsǫgur (sagas of the olden times), placed in the time of Heathenism, yet written down by Christian scholars who stayed relatively true to the legends but had a tendency to make their heroes into people who were very skeptical towards the old religion, perhaps in order to appease a Christian audience. The way they describe the vǫlva is, however, in tune with other descriptions and may offer interesting and relatively genuine information about the rituals of seiðr that these women practiced, and what sort of position they had in society.  

Chapter 2: The Wand-Witch Made a Prophecy for Oddr (Völvan spáði Oddi)

A woman was called Heiðr[2]. She was a vǫlva and a seið-woman (Seiðkona) and she knew about things that had not happened yet out of her great wisdom (fróðleik). She went to feasts and told men about their destinies and forecasted the weather of coming winters. She had with her fifteen boys and fifteen maidens. She was invited to a party not very far from where Ingjald lived.

There was a morning when Ingjald was up early. He went to where Oddr and Ásmundr were resting, and told them; “I want to send you on an errand from this house today.”

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Oddr.

“You are to invite here the vǫlva, and tell her that there is a feast ready for her,» said Ingjaldr.

“Then I will not go,» said Oddr, «and I will be very ungrateful to you if she comes here,» said Oddr.

“You shall go, Ásmundr,” said Ingjaldr, “I can command you.”

“I am going to do something,” said Oddr, “that will seem no better to you than this seems to me.”

Ásmundr went off and invited the vǫlva, and she accepted and came with all her following, and Ingjaldr went to meet her with all his men and invited her into the hall. Then they got things ready for her performance of seiðr the next night. And when people had eaten, they went to sleep, and the völva to her night-travel-seiðr (til náttfarsseiðs) with her company.

And Ingjaldr came to her in the morning and asked, how the seiðr had fared.

“I think this,» she said, «that I have discovered all that which you want to know.

“Then all the people should go to their seats,” said Ingjaldr, and he was the first to stand before her.

[The vǫlva offers her prophecy to Ingjaldr, and then to Ásmundr, both prophecies turn out true in the end]

Then Ásmundr went to his seat, and the rest of the household went to the seið-woman, and she told each that which they were destined for, and they were all pleased with their lots. Then she predicted the weather for the following winter and many other things that was not previously known by men. Ingjaldr thanked her for her prophecies.

[Oddr is the only one who does not want to have a prophecy, but the vǫlva gives him one about how long he is to live, about how he will fare, and about how he will die – all turns out true in the end, but Oddr, in accordance with the attitudes of those who wrote his saga, turns aggressive towards the woman who everybody else in their Heathenism believes is holy]

“Damn you for making this prophecy about me,” said Oddr. And as soon as she had finished speaking, he sprang up and struck her so hard on the nose with the stick that her blood gushed onto the floor.”

“Get me my clothes,” said the vǫlva, “let me out of here. I have never been to any place before where I have suffered a beating.”

“Don’t go,” Ingjaldr pleaded, “there is compensation for every injury. Stay here for the three nights [obviously, that she stayed three days would have been the common practice] and I will give you fine presents.”

She accepted the gifts, but did not stay for the celebrations.

THE SAGA OF EIRIK THE RED

Chapter 4: The Little Vǫlva

There was a terrible famine on Greenland. Those who had gone hunting had poor results, and some of them had failed to return.

In the district there lived a woman called Thorbjörg, and she was a prophecy-woman (spá-kona), and she was called the Little Vǫlva (Litilvǫlva ). She had had nine sisters [niu systr[3]], and they had all been prophecy-women, and she was the only one of them who still lived [Her nick-name, the Little Vǫlva, is probably explained by her once having been the youngest of the coven of nine vǫlur, perhaps a child when she began her path].

It was Thorbjörg´s custom to spend the winter visiting one farm after another where she had been invited, mostly by people who were curious to learn about their own future or what was in store for the coming year. Since Thorkel was the leading farmer there, people felt that it was up to him to try and find out when the hard times which had been oppressing them would let up.

Thorkel invited the prophecy-woman to visit, and preparations were made to entertain her well, as was the custom of the time when a woman of this type was received.

The High Seat[4] was offered to her (búit var henni Hásæti) [To be offered the High Seat was an extreme honor – usually, only the patriarch and his wife would be seated there, and offered to guests only if the guest was of considerably higher status than the patriarch and his wife], complete with a cushion. This cushion was stuffed with chicken feathers.

When she arrived in the evening along with the man who had been sent to invite her, she was so dressed, that she was wearing a dark blue mantle with a strap which was adorned with precious stones right down to the hem. About her neck she wore a string of glass beads and on her head a hood of black lambskin lined with white cat-fur.

She carried a staff in her hand and it had a knob on the top made of brass and adorned with stones. About her she had a linked charm-belt with a large purse. In it she kept the charms which she needed for her predictions.

She had tall boots made of lamb-skin lined with fur, with long, sturdy laces and large pewter knobs on the ends. On her hands she wore gloves of cat-skin, white and lined with fur.

When she entered, everyone was supposed to offer her respectful greetings, and she responded according to how the person appealed to her [this meant that she did not adhere to social status, but treated people according to her own liking, and that she was above or beyond the ordinary hierarchy].

Thorkel the farmer took the wise woman (vísendakona) by the hand and led her to the High Seat which had been prepared for her. He then asked her to survey his people, his servants and his buildings. She had little to say about all of it.

That evening tables were set up and food was prepared for the seeress. Porridge of kid´s milk was made for her, and as meat she was given the hearts of all the animals available there. She had a spoon of brass and a knife with an ivory shaft, its two halves clasped with bronze bands, and the point of which had broken off.

Once the tables were cleared, Thorkel approached Thorbjörg and asked what she thought of the house there and the conduct of the household, and how soon he could expect an answer to what he had asked and everyone wished to know. She replied that she would not reveal this until the next day after having spent the night there.

Late the following day she was provided with things she required to carry out her seiðr.

She asked for women who knew the chants required to carrying out the seiðr, which are called Varðlokur (“Invocation of the Guardians”). But such women were not to be found [in this time of transition, many women were no longer brought up in the old ways, but were vaguely Christian]. Then the people of the household were asked if there was anyone with such knowledge.

Guðríð replied: “I am not versed in magic (fjǫlkunnig) nor am I a wise woman (visendakóna), but in Iceland, my foster-mother Halldís taught me chants that she called Ward-Invocations (varðlokur).”

Thorbjörg said: “Then you are wiser than I expected.”

Guðríð said: “These are, however, actions I do not wish to partake in, because I am a Christian woman.”

Thorbjörg answered: “It could be that you could help the people here by doing it, and you would be no worse a woman for that. But I expect Thorkel to provide me with what I need.”

Thorkel (the patriarch and the boss) then urged Guðríð who said that she would do what he wanted.

The women formed a ring around the seið-platform (seiðhjell), and Thorbjörg sat perched on top of it. Guðríð chanted so well and so beautifully that people there said they had never heard anyone recite the chant in a fairer voice. The seeress thanked her for her chant.

She said that many “natures” (nattúrur – “spirits, beings, wards”) had been attracted by the chant because of its beauty – “though earlier they wished to turn their backs on us and refused to do our bidding. Many things are now clear to me which were earlier concealed from both me and others. And I can tell you that this spell of hardship will last no longer, and times will improve as the spring advances. The bout of illness which has long plagued you will also improve sooner than you expect.

And you, Guðríð, I shall reward on the spot for the help we have received, since your fate is now very clear to me. You will make the most honorable of matches here in Greenland, though you will not be putting down roots here, as your path leads to Iceland and from you will be descended a long and worthy line. Over all the branches of that family a bright ray will shine. May you fare well, now, my child.”

After that the people approached the wise woman (visendakona) to learn what each of them were most curious to know. She made them good answers, and little that she predicted did not occur.

Following this and escort arrived from another farm and the seeress departed, Thorbjörn was also sent for, as he had refused to stay at home on the farm while such heathen practices were going on.

With the arrival of spring the weather soon improved, as Thorbjörg had predicted…

***

(Guðríð, whose full name was Guðríður víðförla Þorbjarnardóttir,  was later married to Thorfinn Karlsefni, and with him she traveled to Vinland and was one of the first Norse explorers in the western lands, possibly America. She was given a nickname, víðförla, which meant Guðríð the Far-Traveled, and while in Vinland she gave birth to Snorri Thorfinnson, the first (known and named) European to be born in America. Her first marriage was with Thorstein Eiriksson, a son of Eirik the Red. Her children did, as the vǫlva had predicted, become very important people and ancestors to even more important people in Iceland.)

 

[1]   Dioszegi, 1968, s. 110-114 (Tracing Shamans in Siberia)

[2] Incidentally, this is also the name of the vǫlva who appears in the Edda poem Vǫluspá (The Prophecy of the Wand-Witch), where Heiðr (“Bright Open Space”/“Heath”) is the new name of the vǫlva Gullveigr who survived being burned and stabbed three times and who then travels from settlement to settlement in order to perform seiðr (divination, witchcraft) and teach the women her arts.

[3] The number nine is probably not coincidental – it may mean that there were actually a coven of nine vǫlur who accompanied the settlers from Iceland to Greenland, and that the number nine was considered important in real life, or it may simply be an association to the typical number nine of female collectives that had to do with magic and the divine – like the nine mothers of the world, the nine previous worlds, of which the vǫlva in Vǫluspá also speaks.

[4] To be offered the High Seat was an extreme honor – usually, only the patriarch and his wife would be seated there, and offered to guests only if the guest was of considerably higher status than the patriarch and his wife).

Steinunn Réfsdóttir – A Female Skald at the Age of Conversion

Steinunn Skald was an Icelandic woman and devoted pagan who came from a powerful family of góðar – as in pagan priests. She was the daughter of Refr the Great and mother to a famous skald, Hofgarða-Refr Gestsson, a name which translates as “Refr of the Temple Farms, son of Gest”.

She was also a poet in her own right, and one of the few female skalds whose poetry, albeit only two verses, have been preserved in writing. She composed the verses as a way of letting a Christian missionary know that her lord Thor had crushed his ship and was, therefore, stronger than Christ. She was the only representative of the pagan faith that these missionaries could not outwit in any way.

Steinunn was a real historical person, mentioned in three saga sources: Njáls saga, Kristni saga and Landnámabók.

In Landnámabok (the book about the settling of Iceland), she is listed as the niece of a pagan priest, Hjörleif Góði, whose sister was Finna, married to Refr the Geat, and they had Steinunn, who was the mother of Refr of the Temple Farms by a certain Gest. (Landnámabók 27: Hans son var Skafti, faðir Hjörleifs goða og Finnu, er átti Refur hinn mikli, faðir Steinunnar móður Hofgarða-Refs.)

In Kristni saga (the saga of the conversion to Christianity), we hear that the Saxon missionary Thangbrand had his ship wrecked and that Steinunn composed a verse about it, and we are then given the verses.

But in Njáls saga, we get more detail, so I have chosen to quote from that one:

Steinunn Skald in Brennu-Njáls saga

Erik Werenskiold Heimkringla illustration, Sigrid and Olaf Tryggvason

Erik Werenskiold illustration to Heimskringla

100: “There was a change of rulers in Norway. Earl Hákon had passed away, and in his place came Olaf Tryggvason [King of Norway between 995 and 1000 A.D., and the second king who attempted to convert Norway to Christianity]. The end of Earl Hákon´s life came when the slave Kark cut his throat at Rimul in Gaulardal. Along with this came the news of a change of religion in Norway. They had given up their old faith [actually, more than half the population was still pagan and did not convert until sometime after 1030 A.D., 35 years later]. The king had also converted the western lands to Christianity; the Shetlands, Orkney, and the Faroe Islands. Many people [in Iceland] were saying, and Njál heard them, that it was a great scandal to reject the old faith …

…That autumn a ship came into Berufjord [in Iceland] in the east and landed at a place called Gautavik. Thangbrand was the name of the skipper; he was the son of Count Vilbaldus of Saxony and had been sent out here to Iceland by King Olaf Tryggvason to preach the faith. With him was an Icelander called Gudleif, who was the son of Hogni Ari, the son of Mar, the son of Atli, the son of Ulf the Squinter, the son of Hogni the White, the son of Otrygg, the son of Oblaud, the son of King Hjorleif the Womanizer of Hordaland. Gudleif was a great warrior and very brave, tough in every way….

101: The following spring Thangbrand travelled around preaching the faith, and Hall went with him… [what follows is an account of how Thangbrand and Hall encountered many pagan enemies of the Christian faith and conquered them all in diverse ways – all, until they met with Steinunn Skald:]

102: … Hjalti and Gizur the White went abroad that summer. Thangbrand´s ship, the Bison, was wrecked off Bulandsnes in the east. Thangbrand travelled through all the western part of the land. Steinunn, the mother of Ref the Poet, came to meet him. She preached heathenism at great length to Thangbrand. Thangbrand was silent while she spoke, but then spoke at length and turned all her arguments upside down.

“Have you heard,” she said, “that Thor challenged Christ to a duel and that Christ didn’t dare to fight with him?”

“What I have heard,” said Thangbrand, “is that Thor would be mere dust and ashes if God didn’t want him to live.”

“Do you know,” she said, “who wrecked your ship?”

“What can you say about it?” he said.

“I will tell you,” she said:

  1. The shaping gods drove ashore

The ship of the Keeper of Bells [=Thangbrand]

The  Slayer of the Son of the Giantess [=Thor]

smashed Bison on the Sea-Gull´s Rest [=the sea]

No help came from Christ

when the Sea-Horse [=the ship] was crushed:

I don’t think God was guarding

Gylfi´s Reindeer [=the ship] at all.

She spoke another verse:

 

  1. Thor drove Thangbrand´s Beast of Thvinnil [=the ship]

far from its place;

he shook and shattered

the ship and slammed it ashore;

never will that Oak [=the ship] of Atal´s Field [=the sea]

be up to sea-faring again;

the storm, sent by Thor,

smashed it so hard into bits.

With that, Steinunn and Thangbrand parted, and Thangbrand and his men went west to Bardastrond.”

 

Steinunn´s poetry in the original language:

10.Þórr brá Þvinnils dýri Þangbrands ór stað lǫngu, hristi búss ok beysti barðs ok laust við jǫrðu; munat skíð of sæ síðan sundfœrt Atals grundar, hregg þvít hart tók leggja hônum kent í spônu.

11.Braut fyr bjǫllu gæti (bǫnd rôku Val Strandar) mǫgfellandi mellu môstalls visund allan; hlífðit Kristr, þás kneyfði knǫrr, malmfeta varrar; lítt hykk at goð gætti Gylfa hreins at einu.

 Sources:

Njáls saga 100-102 (The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders III, Viðarr Hreinsson, ed., Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, Bernard Scudder, Leifur Eiriksson Publishing 1997)

Landnámabók 27 ( https://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/landnama.htm )

Kristni saga (VIKING SOCIETY FOR NORTHERN RESEARCHTEXT SERIES, GENERAL EDITORS:Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay, VOLUME XVIII
ÍSLENDINGABÓK — KRISTNI SAGA, THE BOOK OF THE ICELANDERS — THE STORY OF THECONVERSION ( http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/IslKr.pdf )

 

“The Briton´s Kinsman of the Cave” – Foreign Identities in Old Norse Poetical Metaphors

Not long ago, someone asked me in a comment on social media whether the elves [álfar] in Norse mythology might not be a cover for the Sami [Sápmi] people. As an argument, the questioner referred to the Edda poem Vǫlundarkvíða [Lay of Volund].

The poem centers on the tragic hero, Vǫlundr, who in the prose introduction to the poem is identified as one of the three sons of the Finnakonungr – the Finnish King. In the Old Norse language, a Finn equaled a Sami person. Furthermore, Vǫlund´s realm, Ulfdal [Wolf Valley] is invaded by a king from the south, Vǫlundr is captured and hamstrung and set to work in the king´s forge on an islet, exploited, but extracts his revenge through the use of great magic. The idea that the poem deals with cultural memories of how the Sami people were suppressed and exploited by Norse people who lived to the south of them is certainly tempting, although it should be mentioned that Norse and Sami people mainly lived side by side in peace and that there is little reason to speak of severe suppression until quite late – the Sami paid taxes to Norse kings during the Viking Age, but so did everybody else, including the common Norseman. The real suppression did not come until way after the conversion, when the Sami came to represent the only surviving pagans of Scandinavia.

In stanza 13 and stanza 32 of the actual poem, the conquering king addresses Vǫlundr as a Lord of Elves [visr alfr].

Do these cues prove that elves were really ways of describing the Sami people in poetry and myth?

Not really. Another “Lord of Elves” in Norse mythology is actually Freyr, who is often called Álfa Drottinn [“Lord of Elves”] (yes, they had tons of words for “lord”), and he was clearly a god of agriculture, law, kingship, representing a lifestyle that was not exactly particular to the hunter-gatherer culture of the Sami.

Also, Vǫlundr is described as a smith. His magic is conjured mainly through the forging of metals. Metalwork was not exactly particular to the reindeer-hunting Sami either. In fact, elves are often identified with dwarfs as well as with the so-called haugbúi – the mound dweller, the soul of an ancestral father being present and awake in his burial mound. And they are constantly associated with the forging of metals, which is clearly not a good description of the Sami people.

What about his magic? We know that the Sami were deeply respected for their magical prowess and that Norse people sought them for shamanistic séances and even for apprenticeships. But even in his magic does Vǫlundr fit neatly into Old Norse traditions.

His name means “Wand Grove” – incidentally, in Old Norse, a labyrinth is called a Vǫlundarhús – “The House of the Wand Grove”. Labyrinths had been used by Norse people ever since they imported the symbol and rituals from the Minoan culture during the Bronze Age.

The word for wand in his name and in the word for labyrinth, vǫlr, is the same word that is applied in the title of the famous oracle of Old Norse religion, the Vǫlva [“Wand-Wed”/ “Shrine of the Wand”].

If we look to more details in the poem, we may notice that Vǫlundr and his two brothers are married to three “southern” valkyriur, who one day show up at Sævarströnd, spinning the precious linen of fate and wearing the hides of swans. The name of this place where the three “sons of the Finnish king” meet their supernatural, fate-spinning valkyriur, literally translates as “The Beach of the Soul”. Later, when Vǫlundr is set to work at the king´s forge, this forge is situated on an islet called Sævarstadir – “The Place of the Soul”. The symbolism of Wolf Valley and Wolf Lake in the poem, where the three “Finnish” brothers go to live with their divine valkyria wives, are typical to Norse myths – wolves represent desire, ambition, hunger, greed, will to live, all the positive and negative aspects of being alive in the material world.

Rather than being a story of one people suppressing another, it is a story of how the soul may get lost in the material world of the living, how the soul may succumb to the powers of greed. This is not far-fetched; Norse myths are in fact related to the myths of the Vedas, where such themes abound.

Also, the worship of elves in Norse religion is well known. The annual Alfablót was also intimately linked to the worship of ancestral fathers, and we know that there was a frequent overlap in Norse sources between the álfar [elves] and the haugbúir [mound-dwellers, i.e. buried ancestors]. The worship of elves was clearly connected to ancestral father worship – and as such, the elves are somehow connected to archaic, shamanistic concepts of the “soul”.

Interpreting the story of Vǫlundr as a story of the Sami people fails when seen in a larger context, and is an interpretation that fails to consider the metaphorical and spiritual aspects of Norse myths. And there is more. Norse poets constantly applied foreign identities in order to describe otherworldly creatures:

“The Scots of Iði´s Settlement”.

In Norse myths, foreign identities are constantly used to describe the “other” – whether they are gods, elves, dwarfs or giants. Let me use the Skaldic poem Thorsdrápa [Þórsdrápa – Song of Thunder] as an example, since I recently translated it for my latest book, The Trickster and the Thundergod:

In the Þórsdrápa, we hear the story of Thor´s battle with the giant Geirrǫðr and his daughters. The rules of Skaldic poetry demand that every character or place is referred to by poetical metaphors known to us as kennings.

The poem consists of 19 stanzas going through every detail of that myth, in each stanza providing at least two marvelous kennings for “Thor” (or “god”) and another two kennings for “giant”.

This means that the poet had to invent at least 38 metaphors for “giant” just for this one poem. And so he got creative. Among these 38 kennings for “giant”, Elifr (the poet) applied several different foreign identities in order to say “giant”.

Out of 38 kennings, only one, in stanza 18, actually refers to the giant by its real name, Jötunn. The rest apply all sorts of associations that would be understandable to a Norse audience well used to the concepts of poetical metaphors and allegories. And the application of foreign identities in order to describe giants are frequent:

Eilifr, the poet, was a Norwegian skald,  addressing an audience of Norwegians who obviously did not come from the county of Rogaland, and who thought that the use of Britons, Scots, Welsh, Swedes and, well, Rogalanders, were perfectly fine poetical metaphors for “giants”.

  • In stanza 2, we learn that giants may be called ríkri skotum Iðja setrs : The Scots of Iði´s Settlement.
  • In stanza 11, a giant is called skyld-Breta skytju: The Briton´s Kinsman of the Cave.
  • In stanza 12, giants are called Flesdrótt kólgu dólg-Svíþjóðar: The Wave of the Enemy Crowd of Svear (Swedes).
  • In stanza 13, the court of giants is referred to as hellis hringbálkar Kumra: The Welsh Ring Court of the Cave.
  • In stanza 19, the giants are called Rygir Lista val-látrs: The Rogalanders of the Districts of the Falcon Lair. Rogaland was then an ancient tribal land and is still a county of the same name in southwestern Norway.

Does this mean that Scots, Britons, Welsh, Swedes and Rogalanders were identified as giants? Of course not. They were identified as giants no more than Finns were identified as elves. In the poem Haustlöng by another Norwegian skald, Thióðolf, a giant is indeed referred to as a Fjalla Finns: A Mountain-Finn.

So when another poem refers to a Finn who is also an elf, like Vǫlundr, this does not mean that Finns (Sami) and elves are identifiable, for then, Finns would also be identifiable to giants, just like Scots, Britons, Swedes and Rogalanders.

And let us not forget the Danes; in the Edda poem Hýmiskviða, stanza 17, giants are referred to as BergdanirMountain-Danes – and Thor is their “breaker”, Briotr Bergdana; the Breaker of the Mountain Danes.

Not even the Goths/Gauts (people from Götaland in Sweden) are spared: In stanza 20, we hear that the boat of the giant Hymir is referred to as Hlunngotr – “The Wave-Goth”. In fact, the use of gotr/gautr (Goth, Götalander) often appears in Norse myths either referring to a man in general, a god, a horse – or in kennings for other steeds (like boats)– and for giants.

We know that many of the skalds whose poems have been preserved to us because of Icelandic chroniclers were Norwegians, many of them from the courts of Trøndelag in Norway, and that this area may also have been a late pagan cultural stronghold in which many of the Edda poems took the forms that we know today. To these Norwegian Thronds, other tribes such as Goths, Danes, Swedes, Finns, Britons, Scots, Welsh and Rogalanders were representing foreign identities, that which existed outside of their home spheres.

For this reason only, they could be applied in poetical metaphors for “giants”. And all through the Norse material, what counted for foreign identities could be used not only for giants, but for all supernatural beings – even the gods are sometimes appearing in the guise of a foreign nation – someone from the outside – such as when the Edda heroic poetry applies the Hunnish nation to describe the Aesir and the king Attila to describe Odin – an identification which was clearly not meant to be understood literally.

Article by Maria Kvilhaug

 

Lussi Long-Night

The night between the 12th and the 13th of December has held a special place in Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia. Our pre-Christian sources to this celebration are scarce, and we can only rely on folklore that survived until the present day and that we know was practiced at least by the 13th century – its attributes clearly stemming from far earlier, pagan times.

image.jpg

Julereia – the Yule Riders – led by Lussi in some traditions, this was the night when the creatures of the other worlds would roam the night, and people ought to stay inside.

This is the night when the month of Yule began. And it was also the most dangerous night of the year. A female spirit, a vette, ruled this night, going by the name of Lussi (“Light”). She was the mother and/or queen of the vettir (spirits) and other Huldrefolk (otherwordly beings), as such a kin to Huldra, gnomes, trolls, and at some time in history, even to the gods (hence her relation to the Ásgardsrei – the Riders from Ásgard, who in some traditions appeared on this night, while in other traditions they are called the Julereia – the Yule Riders). People had to stay inside this night, eating and celebrating to placate and avert the anger of Lussi´s retinue, and keeping the lights on. It was also very important to take care of the animals.

images lucia 05

Lussi, pale-faced and terrible, would come to check that everything was ready for Yule – the spinning and the baking, primarily. If this work was not satisfactory, she could become so angry that she came down the chimney and into the house, and sometimes she would break down the whole chimney. Or she could press her terrifying face to the window to check how it looked, and if things were not ready for Yule, she would, according to Norwegian sources, cry out, piercingly: “Inkje bryggja, inkje baga, inkje store eld hava!!” (Not brewed, not baked, no great fire do they have!”)

Julereia (the Yule Riders) by Niels Bergslien. Lussi was the mother and queen of the otherworldly creatures that roamed the Long (dark) Night of Light.

This was also the night of the year in which the animals would talk to each other and let pass their verdicts on how their humans treated them – and woe to the people who did not treat their animals well – vengeance would then come from Lussi and her retinue of dark winter spirits! So the barn and the stable had to be clean and comfy for the beasts, and they would be bribed with particularly good food this night, in the hopes that they would give a favorable report to Lussi. The animals would discuss all the year´s events and pass on all the gossip that they had witnessed.

This was thought to be the longest night of the year, hence the term “langnatt” (Long Night). And apart from brewing the beer and the ale and the mead, feeding the animals well and keeping the houses clean, and having finished with the year´s spinning, the most important cakes had to be made; the Lussi-cats (a term indicating a link between Lussi and the goddess Freyia?).

Lussi Cats

The Lussi-cats (Lussekatter) are baked with sapphron (although you may use turmeric), an imported spice that gives a yellow color, symbolizing gold, sun and light, all associated with both Freyia and Lussi. They must be formed like two spirals, and a raisin or other dry fruit would serve to give the impression of cat´s eyes, sight in the dark. These are ancient symbols of the sun reaching back to the Nordic Bronze Age. It was important to have these cakes ready for Lussi, although they were eaten in her honor by all the people of the farm, including the lowest.

As soon as the Scandinavian countries had taken to Christianity, Lussi Long-Night became the celebration of a Roman saint, Lucia (also meaning “light”). The celebration would take the form of a procession led by a young maiden carrying a crown with four candles, singing “Santa Lucia”. She symbolizes the bringer of light in the dark. To what degree this celebration took a new form or is directly copied from pagan ritual processions is not known, but it is widespread; particularly in Scandinavia and in Italy, and in the Nordic primstav, a wooden runic calendar, her celebration was always marked.

If you want to bake Lussi-cats, here is a recipe: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/st_lucia_saffron_buns/

Hel´s and Thor´s Family Relations

 

Hel and ThorI am pretty sure some of you are going to be surprised by this chart I made, showing the lineages of Loki, his children – and Thor´s own maternal lineage. But this chart is based directly on the Norse sources we have, and Snorri based his genealogy on the much older skaldic poetry in which gods and giants are often referred to as the son or daughter of this, and the sibling of that, and these are consistent.

We should never imagine that the family relations of gods and giants are going to be “logical” in the sense of adhering to ordinary human genealogy, and if we look at it, we see that the sharp distinction between gods and giants has never really been there – that distinction is a much younger legacy we carry with us that was simply not there when people still had a pagan mindset.

The idea that there was a fight between “good” on one side and “evil” on the other side is an idea we have inherited from Christianity. The fight between the powers in Norse, Pagan  mythology is a lot more subtle and a lot less clear-cut: Whereas it is true that the giants often represented a threat to the gods, to men and to the divine order, they were not “evil” as such, or completely different from the gods. The gods married giantesses – Gerd and Skadi are two grand examples of that. The gods even descended from giants and giantesses. Loki was a Jötunn but also of the Aesir. And even Odin himself sought out the giants and the giantesses when he needed to learn more about the world, and about wisdom.

Here follows the text on which this chart is made:

Gylfaginning, Chapter 33:

About Loki Laufeyson

“Among the Aesir is counted the one whom some call the Slanderer among the Gods, and he is the origin of all treason, and a shame to gods and men. His name is Loki or Loftr[1], the son of Fárbauti[2] the Jötunn[3]. His mother is called Laufey or Nál.[4] His brothers are Býleistr[5] and Helblindi.[6] Loki is beautiful and fair to look at, but evil of character and fickle in his behavior. More than other men he had that quality called cunning, sly tricks for every purpose. Often he led the Aesir into great trouble, and often he solved these troubles with his cunning advice.

His wife is Sígyn[7], and their son is Nári or Narfi.[8]

Gylfaginning chapter 34: “Loki also had more children. Angrbóða[9] was the name of a giantess in the Giant World.[10] By her, Loki had three children. One was the Fenris-wolf.[11] Another was Jörmungandr,[12] that is the Middle World Serpent.[13] The third is Hel.[14]

When the gods knew that these siblings were being brought up in the Giant World, and they considered the prophecies, that these siblings may cause misfortune; on the mother´s side they had a very bad legacy, and it was even worse on the father´s side, then All-Father (Odin) sent the Aesir on their way to claim the children and lead them to him.

And when they came to him, he threw the serpent out into the deep ocean that surrounds all lands, and the serpent grew so that it lies in the middle of the sea around all lands and bites its own tail. He threw Hel into Misty World[15] and gave her the power to rule nine worlds, so that she could lead away all those who were sent to her, the ones who die from illness and old age. She has great estates and halls there, and around them there is a fearsome high fence and an enormous gate. Her hall is called Dampened By Rain, her table Hunger, her knife Starvation, her slave Slow Walk, and her slave girl Slow Walk, her doorstep is called Falling Danger, her bed Sickly, her bedcovers Shining Accident.[16]

She is blue (black, dark) on one side, but has an ordinary complexion on the other side, so that she is easily recognized, somber and scary as she is.”

Divine family relations are often complicated, and often defy our assumptions about gods and giants. In the text above, we hear that Loki´s first son by his wife, Sígyn, was Narfi.

Narfi, meaning “Corpse”, is also mentioned elsewhere as the father of Night and the grandfather of Earth – and, since Earth is the mother of Thor, the Norse thundergod, and besides the mother of all human lineages as well, Loki´s son is actually Thor´s great grandfather. In Gylfaginning 10, we read:

“Nörfi or Narfi was that giant called who built in the Giant World. He had a daughter whose name was Night. She was black and dark as her lineage. She was married to the man who is called Naglfari (Nail Traveller). Their son was Abundance. After that she was married to the one called Ánarr (Ancestor). Their daughter was Earth. Finally she was married to Dellingr (Shining/Famous One), and he was of divine lineage. Their son was Day.”

******

Footnotes below.

Old Norse Text:

 

33. Frá Loka Laufeyjarsyni.

Sá er enn talðr með ásum, er sumir kalla rógbera ásanna ok frumkveða flærðanna ok vömm allra goða ok manna. Sá er nefndr Loki eða Loftr, sonr Fárbauta jötuns. Móðir hans heitir Laufey eða Nál. Bræðr hans eru þeir Býleistr ok Helblindi. Loki er fríðr ok fagr sýnum, illr í skaplyndi, mjök fjölbreytinn at háttum. Hann hafði þá speki um fram aðra menn, er slægð heitir, ok vélar til allra hluta. Hann kom ásum jafnan í fullt vandræði, ok oft leysti hann þá með vélræðum. Kona hans heitir Sigyn, sonr þeira Nari eða Narfi.

34. Frá börnum Loka ok bundinn Fenrisúlfr.

Enn átti Loki fleiri börn. Angrboða hét gýgr í Jötunheimum. Við henni gat Loki þrjú börn. Eitt var Fenrisúlfr, annat Jörmungandr, þat er Miðgarðsormr, þriðja er Hel. En er goðin vissu til, at þessi þrjú systkin fæddust upp í Jötunheimum, ok goðin rökðu til spádóma, at af systkinum þessum myndi þeim mikit mein ok óhapp standa, ok þótti öllum mikils ills af væni, fyrst af móðerni ok enn verra af faðerni, þá sendi Alföðr til goðin at taka börnin ok færa sér. Ok er þau kómu til hans, þá kastaði hann orminum í inn djúpa sæ, er liggr um öll lönd, ok óx sá ormr svá, at hann liggr í miðju hafinu of öll lönd ok bítr í sporð sér.
Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim ok gaf henni vald yfir níu heimum, at hon skyldi skipta öllum vistum með þeim, er til hennar váru sendir, en þat eru sóttdauðir menn ok ellidauðir. Hon á þar mikla bólstaði, ok eru garðar hennar forkunnarhávir ok grindr stórar. Éljúðnir heitir salr hennar, Hungr diskr hennar, Sultr knífr hennar, Ganglati þrællinn, Ganglöt ambátt, Fallandaforað þresköldr hennar, er inn gengr, Kör sæing, Blíkjandaböl ársali hennar. Hon er blá hálf, en hálf með hörundarlit. Því er hon auðkennd ok heldr gnúpleit ok grimmlig.

10. Tilkváma Dags ok Nætr.

Nörfi eða Narfi hét jötunn, er byggði í Jötunheimum. Hann átti dóttur, er Nótt hét. Hon var svört ok dökk, sem hon átti ætt til. Hon var gift þeim manni, er Naglfari hét. Þeira sonr hét Auðr. Því næst var hon gift þeim, er Ánarr hét. Jörð hét þeira dóttir. Síðast átti hana Dellingr, ok var hann ása ættar. Var þeira sonr Dagr. Var hann ljóss ok fagr eftir faðerni sínu. Þá tók Alföðr Nótt ok Dag, son hennar, ok gaf þeim tvá hesta ok tvær kerrur ok sendi þau upp á himin, at þau skulu ríða á hverjum tveim dægrum umhverfis jörðina. Ríðr Nótt fyrri þeim hesti, er kallaðr er Hrímfaxi, ok at morgni hverjum döggvir hann jörðina af méldropum sínum. Sá hestr, er Dagr á, heitir Skinfaxi, ok lýsir allt loft ok jörðina af faxi hans.”

[1] Nobody has ever been able to agree on the meaning of the name Loki. It may possibly be related to the Norse verb for “to close” something; loka. His other name, however, Loftr/Loptr means «Lofty, High, Airy», from ON lopt – “air”.

[2] Fárbauti means “The Dangerous Hitter”, perhaps in the sense of lightening.
[3] Jötunn literally means «devourer» but is usually translated as «giant».

[4] Laufey literally translates as “Leaf Island”, possibly a metaphor for Earth. Her other name, Nál, means “needle” as in something piercing, narrow and sharp.

[5] Býleistr (or Byleiptr, Byleiftr) translates as “Wind Lightning” (from bylr=wind and leiptr=lightning).

[6] Helblindi means «Death Blind» or «Death Blinder», perhaps an allusion to immortality, and is also one of the names for the god Odin.

[7] Sígyn: “Victory Woman»

[8] Nári: from nár=corpse. Narfi is an alternate form of the same, and is in other sources identified with Nörr, a giant who is said to be the father of Night: “Nörfi or Narfi was that giant called who built in the Giant World. He had a daughter whose name was Night. She was black and dark as her lineage. She was married to the man who is called Naglfari (Nail Traveller). Their son was Abundance. After that she was married to the one called Ánarr (Ancestor). Their daughter was Earth. Finally she was married to Dellingr (Shining/Famous One), and he was of divine lineage. Their son was Day.” (Gylfaginning 10, Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson). In another passage, Odin was the one who fathered Earth on Night.

[9] Angrbóða=”Bids Anger”

[10] “Giantess”=gýgr. “Giant World”=Jötunheimr

[11] Fenrisulfr/Fenrir=Greed

[12] Jörmungandr= Great Magic

[13] “Middle World Serpent”=Miðgarðsormr

[14] Hel= Hidden = Death

[15] «Misty World»=Níflheimr, the icy dark world from which Odin´s own father and grandfather emerged at the beginning of the universe.

[16] Éljúðnir heitir salr hennar, Hungr diskr hennar, Sultr knífr hennar, Ganglati þrællinn, Ganglöt ambátt, Fallandaforað þresköldr hennar, er inn gengr, Kör sæing, Blíkjandaböl ársali hennar

The Indo-European Migrations

For a long time, the only evidence we had of an ancient, proto-Indo-European culture was the fact that many European and Asian languages evidently belonged to the same family, sharing a basic grammatical structure and etymology.

By the method of comparative linguistics, scholars since the 19th century have been working on comparing languages in order to establish how they relate to each other historically. Languages that share many root words and which follow a similar grammatical structure may share common historical origins.

By way of comparison and cutting languages down to commonly shared roots words, scholars have been able to reconstruct what they believe may have been the original, Proto-Indo-European language.

Ethnicity Does Not Equal Language

A shared language family does not necessarily mean that all the speakers are ethnically or genetically related. Sometimes, a new language is introduced into a geographical area or a tribe of people due to invasion or else significant  foreign influence on trade, economy, and the culture of the ruling classes.

  • The Romans, for example, added to, but did not replace the older, Celtic-speaking populations of Gaul (France) and Iberia (Spain & Portugal), but their Italic (Latin) language held so much influence for hundreds of years that the residents in these lands have been speaking Italic languages ever after.
  • The Anglo-Saxons who arrived from Jutland in Britannia as soon as the Romans had packed up and left some time before the 5th century AD, likewise added to, but did not replace, the older Celto-Roman populations, they just held such prominent positions in society for such a long time that most people began to speak their language, “Old English”.
  • People in Turkey carry the same genetic ancestry as people in Greece and other parts of southeastern Europe, and were once very much a part of the Classical world and the Roman Empire. Yet, because of a Turkic invasion from the east happening only a thousand years ago, they now speak Turkish, a Turkic language.

If the upper classes promote a particular language, this is the language that is going to dominate eventually.

  • 15th century Scandinavia experienced a surge of foreign economic investments from German and Dutch-speaking countries. These rich foreigners held such a dominant position for such a long time that, eventually, speaking medieval German and Dutch was for a long time deemed more classy and fashionable than speaking the native language, “Old Norse”. This attitude changed the Scandinavian languages from the original “Old Norse” to the languages spoken today – the change took less than a century to be completed. Only Iceland and the Faroe Islands were able to maintain their original Norse language.

The language of the upper classes is the language in which documents are written, and is always the language that is deemed the most fashionable, classy and cultivated one. This in itself is enough to change the language of a nation, and does not mean that the people themselves have been replaced.

If we look at the populations of Finland compared to the populations of Scandinavia, we see that they speak completely different languages.

  • Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family.
  • Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) belong to the Indo-European language family.

And yet, if we look at the archaeological as well as genetic lineages of the populations of Finland and Scandinavia, it is clear that we mostly share the same ancestors. Finland knew exactly the same Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures as did Scandinavia, cultures that have now been recognized as basically Indo-European, but, like the Hungarians and the Basque peoples, they maintained their older language forms. Evidently, the Indo-European speakers did not always manage to complete their linguistic domination in all European lands.

For this reason, we cannot assume that the spread of the Indo-European language family always meant invasions and massive migrations, even if these evidently also happened. It could just as easily mean that one particular culture held so much economic and cultural influence in an area that their language became the official language spoken by all, a bit like the position of English in so many other countries than just England.

The “universal” language does not mean that the other languages are wiped out, but history has shown that the existence of one dominant, universal language may, after centuries of dominance, influence other languages to such a degree as to change them forever.

However, as show the examples of Finnish, Hungarian and Basque, some groups may retain their original languages despite massive cultural influence from abroad.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans

 

In recent years, archaeological and genetic evidence has shown a pattern that is so consistent with the spread of the Indo-European language family that it is now widely regarded as connected. As such, it is pretty safe to say that there was indeed a proto-Indo-European tribe existing 6000 years ago on the Pontic Caspian Steppe.

A steppe people, they shared similar lifestyles to their eastern steppe neighbors, among them Proto-Turks and Proto-Mongols; although they knew agriculture, they were primarily pastoral (shepherding) and nomadic people whose wealth depended on the size of their flocks, a trait they also shared with numerous Afro-Asiatic (including Semitic) pastoral mountain tribes to their south. As such, they had, culturally and economically speaking, more in common with these diverse groups of nomadic shepherds than they had with the hunter-gatherers to the north or the European agricultural village peoples of the southwest or the civilizations of the southeast.

The Yamna Culture

One of the earliest cultures known to archaeology that is associated with the Indo-European language family is the Yamna. This culture is now regarded as the most likely candidate for a Proto-Indo-European culture which existed between 6.000 and 4.300 years ago (4.000-2.300 BCE). The name of this culture is Ukrainian for “Pit Grave” culture, a name given by archaeologists based on their burial customs. It is also associated with (identical to) the Kurgans.

The Yamna descended partially from the Ice Age Mal`ta Buret culture that existed on the western side of lake Baikal 15.000 years ago. Genome studies of skeletons from this culture show that these Baikal people of East Central Asia were also among the ancestors to Siberian and Native American peoples. Some 15.000 years ago, some of these East Asians moved further east and north and entered the American continent, others moved north and became Siberians, while others still moved west and roamed the Pontic Caspian steppes until they reached the area to the north of the Caucasus, where they mingled with descendants of Ice Age Europeans and Ice Age Middle Eastern peoples. By 6.000 years ago, this mix of three different geographical and ethnic origins, all Ice Age hunter-gatherers, had become a culture in their own right, the shepherding Yamna, and the first speakers of an Indo-European language.

Nordic Looks?

Because of the study of ancient and modern genomes, we know that about 50 % of father-to-son (Y-DNA) lineages in Scandinavia derive directly from the Yamna, lineages that are also shared by most men who live in the areas of Khazakstahn and Russia. The other 50 % of male Scandinavians, as well as a majority of mother lineages (MtDNA) descend from the earlier Scandinavian populations. This means that, counting both genders, about 25-40 % of Scandinavian genomes derive directly from the Yamna, and the rest is, strictly speaking, from European prehistory before the Indo-European migration.

In other parts of Europe, the percentage of Yamna DNA is lower, sometimes considerably so, and one of the reasons for this is that there were a lot more people living in the rest of Europe compared to the northernmost parts, so that the Yamna could not dominate in numbers and therefore added less to the gene pools than they did in the far north. Another reason may be because most of them came to the northern lands first – through the Combed Ware Culture – and by the time they started spreading out into the rest of Europe they had already blended in with original European populations.

Many myths regarding the origins of Nordic-looking people (blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin and relative tallness) have been associated with the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and most of these have long since been proven wrong.

  • The genetic marker for blue eyes developed somewhere in Europe during the last Ice Age, a long time before there were any Indo-Europeans, and while their ancestors dwelled in at least three different regions of the world – East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The genetic marker for blue eyes cannot be pinpointed to any one particular group, but appears to have originally spread from one individual who happened to have a lot of descendants, whose descendants again branched out, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, where blue eyes are common to this very day. The blue eye genetic marker is not automatically connected to blondeness, tallness or fair skin.
  • Genetic markers for pale skin have occurred whenever people anywhere have been living in the northern hemispheres of the world for countless generations as a way of adapting to low levels of sun radiation. This is even true of the Neanderthals. When people moved into the northern lands, such as Finland and Scandinavia, a move that happened from about 12.000 years ago, they gradually developed even paler complexions than before.
  • Blondeness appears to have developed particularly in Finland and Scandinavia, while the rest of Europe mostly maintained the default setting for browner hair types.
  • Genetic markers for tallness have also existed in several places, but were indeed common to the Yamna – they were often taller than most of their neighbors. It is widely believed that the “typical” Nordic tallness was indeed inherited by the Indo-Europeans who entered northern Europe from about 4.000 years ago.

It appears that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were relatively light-skinned, but were dark of hair and mostly of eyes too, however, genetic markers for tallness was very common among them and may account for the fact that many descendants are taller than the average height for humans, exempting several African peoples who also carry genetic markers for tallness (the first hominid that carried a genome for tallness was the Homo Erectus – only modern humans have ever since grown as tall as they did).

Extreme paleness, blondeness and blue eyes, however, did not come from them but developed separately, as different genetic markers (one marker for the blue eye color, many different markers for paleness, other markers for blondeness, yet other markers for height, although all of these markers together became common in the northern hemispheres after people began living where the ice caps had once covered everything.

Because of the studies of ancient genomes, we know for certain that the Yamna people began moving westwards into Europe some 5.000 years ago. Descendants of these people, along with descendants of the people that they met with and mingled and married into wherever they came, spread out into several different cultures speaking branches of Indo-European – languages sharing a common origin with the Yamna people as well as with other, unknown ancient languages of Europe and Asia. This spreading of branches is called the Indo-European Migration. It happened over a period of 2.000 years and was often a matter of migration, although it sometimes also took the form of invasion. In any case, in many of these places, these newcomers held such prominent positions that their language came to influence the old cultures or the new cultures resulting from this merging, to the point of leaving an Indo-European linguistic and – or – cultural legacy in large parts of Europe and southwestern Asia. In Europe, only Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian may brag an older linguistic ancestry native to Europe prior to the Yamna expansion.

The Danube River Valley Culture

One of the earliest branches of Proto-Indo-European spread from the Yamna through the Danube River Valley into Europe and eventually ended up in Anatolia, where the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family was spoken by several tribes, some of whom became powerful nations, such as the Hittites. Other branches spread into Greece and other surrounding areas, speaking Thracian and Hellenic languages.

On their way, they encountered many different native European peoples whom they appear to have easily dominated, such as the Tripillya- Cucuteni in Ukraine and the Neolithic Egeian cultures of Greece and those of Anatolia, and finally, as late as the Bronze Ages, Indo-Europeans called the Mycenians coquered the last Egeian outpost; the Minoans.

The Corded Ware Culture

Between 4.900 and 4.350 BP (years before present), a period of less than 500 years, a distinct culture evolved in northern Europe; the Corded Ware Culture. This culture existed from the river Volga in the east to the river Rhine in the west, and covered the southernmost parts of Scandinavia and Finland as well.

The People They Met

It is believed that the Corded Ware Culture, descended from the Jamna, was the culture that introduced the Indo-European language forms here, particularly disseminating into the Germanic and the Balto-Slavic branches. The reason why such very different branches arose from the same culture during the same time is because the Corded Ware people, who spoke Yamna/Proto-Indo-European, met with different tribes who spoke different languages, from Volga in the east to the Rhine in the west, and they blended with these.

While dominating the realm between Volga and the Rhine, the Indo-European Corded Ware Culture replaced, culturally speaking, the earlier, native, agricultural Funnelbeaker Culture, but existed side by side with the older, native, hunter gatherer Pitted Ware Culture of Northern Europe. They also replaced, culturally speaking, the Pit Comb Ware culture of Finland and the Baltic regions and the Dnieper-Donets Culture and Samara Culture of Russia. As such, there were at least five different cultures of the northern lands that were affected by, and that changed radically because of, the Indo-European speaking Corded Ware Culture.

If we are to take a guess, the Germanic branch evolved from the fusion of the Yamna with the Megalithic/Neolithic Funnelbeaker culture, perhaps with some input from the Pitted Ware hunters. The Balto-Slavic branch may be the result of a fusion betweenthe Yamna and the Dnieper-Donets and the Samara peoples. The cultural fusion of Yamna and Pit Comb Ware people unusually enough led to the latter, original population retaining their Finnic language.

Others moved further to the south and the west and met with yet other people, blended with these too – and thus the Celtic and the Italic branches were born.

In Finland and surrounding areas, however, the older Finnic language remained dominant despite strong cultural influence from the Indo-European speaking populations. In Scandinavia, the Sámi peoples also maintained their Finnic languages. The Corded Ware Culture has also been known as the Battle-Axe Culture.

Sintashta & Bell Beaker Culture

Out of the Corded Ware Culture several different groupings of Indo-European origin spread from between 4.900 and 3.800 years ago:

  • To the east, a culture developed, known as the Sintashta. The Sintashta people were the ancestors of the Aryan branches of the Indo-European family; the Skythians (Iranian), the Persians (Iranian-Avestan) and the Vedic (Indo-Aryan) culture that finally claimed the older Indus Valley civilization.
  • To the west, alongside the evolution of Germanic and Slavic branches, yet another culture developed out of the Corded Ware culture; the Beaker Bell. It is considered the most important ancestor to the Celtic and Italic language families and spread into the Western and South-Western parts of Europe-
  • In Scandinavia and parts of southwest Finland, a Battle Axe culture evolved independently from the merging of the older tribes and the new. This led directly to the Nordic Bronze Age from which the Norse culture arose. Although covering parts of Finland and influencing the cultures there, Finnic peoples maintained their language completely.

 

 

 

 

 

Religious Tolerance in the Pagan North

As I read the accounts of Christian and Moslem visitors to the Heathen North during the 700ds AD, I keep being struck by the extreme discrepancy between the way they describe their feelings towards the Heathens, and the way they describe how they are actually treated by them.

Because, so far, without exception, these “civilized” visitors kept feeling that the Heathens are terrible, cruel, dangerous and stupid, ignorant people who will make them into martyrs at sight, but all the time they are actually treated with respect, generous hospitality, and extreme patience to the point of being endlessly humored by those terrible Heathens – no matter how badly they act.

Today I am going to tell the tale of two eager missionaries of the Medieval Church whose greatest ambition in life was to become martyrs for their faith, and one about a Moslem ambassador to Denmark during the Viking Age.

Martyrs

Believing that the most cruel forms of barbarian pagans were to be found in the Pagan North (a belief that has, somehow, lingered on to the present day), they sought out these northern barbarians and made it their utmost to provoke these cruel Heathens enough to get a good, proper execution worthy of a martyr.

Sounds crazy? Back in those days, it appears that the belief in an afterlife was a given, not something anybody really doubted. So, seeking a worthy death that would ensure you glory in the afterlife was a perfectly normal and sane attitide, both among Christians and among Pagans.

The problem of these would-be martyrs was, however, that the cruel barbarian Heathens had a nasty habit of being extremely tolerant both when it came to religious beliefs and when it came to the treatment of foreigners who were considered ambassadors – add to that an obvious tolerance towards the insane – because these missionaries were clearly considered mentally disordered.

St. Sabas the Goth

St. Sabas (Sava, Sabbas, Savva, Saba) the Goth (334-372AD) was born in the Buzau river valley and lived in  what is now the Wallachian region in Romania, which was Gothic territory at the time. The Arian bishop Wulfilas (Arian means a branch of Christianity which was later condemned as heretic by the Catholic Church) had preached Christianity among the Goths, and Sabas converted to the Arian Christian faith as a very young man. He was to become a martyr among the Goths – after a great deal of struggle to reach that status…

In the year 370, the Gothic king Athanaric set about to persecute the Christian parts of the Gothic population. They ordered religious ceremonies that the Christians would find unacceptable. In refusing to participate, the Christians would reveal themselves and, by spurning communal ritual state that they were neither part of the community nor interested in its well-being. This would bring down their Heathen neighbors enmity upon them, Athanaric thought.

One Gothic tribe decided to cheat their king at the ritual feast by giving their Christian tribesmen meat that had NOT been sacrificed to the gods, and thus would not upset the Christians. In this way, the Pagans protected and shielded their Christian kinsmen and tribal members.

But among these Christian tribesmen was Sabas, who refused to go along with the tribal deception and made at the feast a public statement of his belief, adding that anyone who did participate in the feast was not a proper Christian. The elders (one of the references to a council of elders in many Germanic communities) then threw him out of the village (because he was placing them all in danger, openly talking about how they were deceiving the King by protecting Christians against persecution, basically ratting them all out).

But Sabas soon returned to pester his village and set his fellow Christians at risk, for such was his great zeal for his faith. Another test feast was to be held and a persecutor was sent by king Athanaric to oversee the feast and detect Christians. Then the tribe communally swore an oath that there were no Christians in their midst (even if that was a lie). But Sabas, who could not suffer his kind to live and practice their faith in secret, strode into the meeting and openly revealed that the tribe had sworn falsely by declaring himself a Christian.

The persecutor asked the villagers whether Sabas was a rich man, and the tribe, still willing to protect their kinsman Sabas, declared that he was a poor fellow who owned nothing except the clothes he wore. The persecutor declared that Sabas was no threat to anyone and, rather than actually persecuting Sabas (although he is called “persecutor” throughout the story), he just had him expelled from the tribe once more.

Sabas was by now exasperated. All his dreams of becoming a martyr seemed to be thwarted. He waited eagerly for a new chance.

One of the king´s relatives, the “lawless bandit” Atharid, swooped on a village that had received Sabas among them after his expulsion with all his men (also called “lawless bandits”) during Easter, when Sabas and the local Christian priest were celebrating openly, putting the village that had taken him in at risk once more. Both were captured, and Sabas was beaten up and tied to the wheel of a wagon. Finally he was going to become a martyr after all.

But what do you know? One of the tribeswomen came to him during the night and untied him! But Sabas was determined to meet his glorious martyr end and refused to run away.

Atharid´s men captured him again the next morning without further ado, and tried to make him eat sacrificed meat. Sabas refused the food and claimed to be immune to pain. Athanarid did not follow Sabas hopeful little hint and did not torture him. He just told his men to go and drown him in the river Mousaios (The Buzau in Wallachia).

But not even Atharid´s “lawless bandits” seemed to wish for Sabas to die. As soon as they were out of sight of Atharid, they released Sabas and told him to get lost. But Sabas had had enough of all the kindness showed him by the sinful Heathens and insisted that the men carry out their orders. Reluctantly, the “lawless bandits” did what he said, and Sabas got his martyrdom after all.

Mad Martyrs

Sabas was a very zealous Christian who dreamed of nothing more than becoming a martyr. This was quite common in early Christianity – most of the saints that were established back then were martyrs, and their stories often belong to a category that I personally call “The Mad Martyrs” – because rather than being innocently persecuted as such, they sought persecution actively and went to great lengths to become martyrs – even by openly and publicly insult heathen chiefs and lords or commit sacrileges (destroying heathen “idols” and temples and rituals) – to the point where they would inevitably be put to death – and then become martyrs. If they lived in already Christian countries, they would volunteer to travel into Heathen territories only to commit acts of sacrilege against their Heathen customs, and at the same time demanding the right to preach and convert the people – which they usually got!

All the “Mad Martyr” stories are related in so-called “Passions”, and are told from the point of view of the martyr or those who sympathized with him. This Passion was meant to show how pious Sabas was, so that he had earned his title of Saint after his death (hence St.Sabas the Goth). This may seem utterly insane to us, and after a fashion it is.

However, the mentality showed in these passions gives me at least a clue as to how those Heathens who volunteered to become sacrificed may have thought. To the Mad Martyrs, becoming a martyr was a choice of career – it did not end in death but in eternal, glorious life as Saints! There was no doubt in their minds that life did not end with death.

In the same way we see how the slave concubine among the Rus, as described by eye-witness Ibn Fadlan, a woman slave who volunteered to be sacrificed and follow her master into his grave, and who firmly believed that she had hit the jackpot – by choosing this end, she would be released from slavery and enter the afterlife with glory, honor and a very high status, meet her family and friends etc.

To these people, life after death was a given, and could offer promising new options if one only chose a glorious exit to the present one.

And yet, by contemplating the way they were met and treated by others, and how much they had to struggle to become martyrs due to the kindness of those horrible Heathens – and yet continue to perceive the Heathens as horrible persecutors –  it becomes clear to me that:

  1. They were actually quite insane (hence “The Mad Martyr”)
  2. The Heathens who were insulted also deemed them insane
  3. The Heathens were generally very reluctant to punish an insane person for committing acts that were insane, even if they involved sacrilege (hence the great difficulties encountered by the men who eagerly wished to become martyrs).

Barbarian Tolerance

To me, the Passion of St.Sabas is in many ways a story that tells us of the kindness and compassion and solidarity that even the most dissident of tribal members were met with. Sabas keeps getting helped and protected, even when he is making it very difficult to help him – even when he keeps putting others at risk too.

Also, the insanity of his actions – clear to all who are not into the medieval martyr mindset – and the way people are reluctant to punish him for these – shows me a degree of sophistication and psychological depth understanding combined with kindness and loyalty to ones tribal members – even when they have been adopted into the tribe – the willingness to disobey the King, the persecutor and the royal bandit – all to protect a most ungrateful benefactor.

To round it all up – the Passions of the Mad Martyrs are highly interesting indirect reads about ancient Heathen cultures. It shows a degree of kindness, loyalty, and their deep acceptance of and compassion towards insane people and diversity that I think makes their world more tangible to us, more human, and less stereotypical.

Willibrord – Apostle to the Frisians

And it is not just because Sabas was a kinsman – for we see the same reluctance and kindness shown to other martyr-wannabes in pagan territories, such as Brother Willibrord from Northumbria (658-739 AD) who traveled to Frisia and Denmark in an attempt to convert the populations. Failing to become a martyr among the Frisians, on account of them being surprisingly kind to him all the time, Willibrord sought his fortune (that is, his glorious death) among the even more vicious Danes. And yet the Danes keep failing to even try and persecute him, so Willibrord travels on to a sacred island called Fosetiland (The Land of Forseti – a heathen Norse god of peace and justice mentioned also by Snorri), where he, after having his life saved by the Heathen priests there and accepted their kind hospitality, commits terrible sacrilege against the Heathen sanctuaries, knowing this to be punishable by death.

Willibrord (658 – 739) was a Northumbrian missionary saint, known as the “Apostle to the Frisians” in the modern Netherlands. Sponsored by the Frankish kings who wished to secure important trading routes away from the Heathen Danes by making the people who lived on these routes Christians, Willibrord was sent to Friesland first, trying to convert their king Radbod (the one who finally decided that he would rather be in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with his enemies the Franks), and then went into Denmark “at terrible peril for his life”…NOT, it would seem, although dear Willibrord keep insisting that this was very dangerous.

In the year 725 AD, Willibrord traveled from Friesland to Denmark. It was a dangerous journey, he claimed, but it was in fact danger that he sought – he had long been doing his missionary work in Friesland but found that it was too easy – not that he managed to convert many people, but he could see no hope of becoming a martyr among those Frisian Heathens, because oddly enough they refused to kill and torture him no matter how rudely he behaved towards them.

And so, in the hope of becoming a martyr, he traveled to the people thought to be the most barbaric and savage of them all – the Danes. Willbrord notices with astonishment that the savage and Heathen king Radbod did not even try to hinder him in travelling wherever he wanted to speak the word of God..! Why, they kept disappointing him whenever he expected them to persecute him, but he never stopped hoping!

Now Willibrord sought the Danish king Ongendus (probably Angantyr), and said that (I quote the words of Willibrord: …“he (Ongendus king) was grimmer than any wild beast and harder than any stone and yet (!) he treated the messenger of God and the Herald of Truth with respect.”

Uh…yes…this is in style with all that Willibrord writes. He keeps telling us how terrible and beastly the Heathens are, and yet how they fail to treat him with anything but hospitality and kindness and extreme, overbearing tolerance. As we shall see…

Willibrord asked the beastly and hard Danish king if he could spread his divine message among the Danes, and tried of course to also convert the king. Ongendus did not accept the faith, but saw no reason to stop him from trying to convert other Danes. Willibrord was even allowed to take thirty volunteering young boys with him to learn more about Christianity and the foreign languages, and to see if he could convert them. Willibrord accepted this generous offer, understanding that it would be far easier to convert Danes later if some of their own people could return, speaking their own language, and trying to convert their fellow Danes.

Willibrord´s return journey was dramatic. He went by sea, and a storm forced his ship to take refuge on an island called Fositeland (after the Norse god of justice and fairness, Forseti, who had a sanctuary on that island, which is probably the island Helgoland).On the island he found many Heathen temples that were so sacred they should not be touched. The sacred cattle that roamed free on the island must never be butchered and eaten, and nobody was allowed to bathe in the water-sources and lakes. The water on the island was so holy that even when taking water to drink one must do it with great reverence and in silence. These rules were carefully explained to the shipwrecked crew who were received and helped by those who guarded the island…

In absolute lack of gratitude for the island-priests´  help and hospitality and in absolute disrespect for anything Heathen, Willibrord now saw his opportunity to become a martyr after all – this was his expressed and foremost wish. And so he proceeded to baptize three men in one of the sacred water-sources, against all custom going into the water with them making a lot of noise, after which he also let butcher many of the holy cows and ate them.

He was very proud of his sacrilege, by the way. The Frisian King Radbod got to hear of the blasphemy on the island, and when Willibrord and his crew returned to Friesland, they could expect terrible punishment. They were indeed taken as captives and led to the Heathen king, who again failed to make Willibrord a martyr. Instead of persecuting all the guilty men, the king let them draw lots and executed one of them – and that one was not Willibrord. To his great disappointment.

Al-Ghazal

Willibrord was not the only disappointed wannabe martyr in the North; he was followed by Ansgar, who also made a great effort to become a martyr in Sweden, but who was instead, disappointingly, allowed to build a church and convert whoever wished to become Christians.

Hundreds of years later, Adam of Bremen could reveal that one of the most horrible things that Christians had to go through in Pagan Sweden was that they had to pay a small fine for not participating in the annual sacrifices at Uppsala – a humiliating fate worse than martyrdom if we are to believe Adam.

Moving onwards to around 844 AD, we hear of the Spanish ambassador Al-Ghazal, a Moslem who visited Denmark. The Danes and other Norsemen traded a lot with the Moslem world both in the east and in the west, since the Moslems did not have any rules against trading with Heathens, which the Christians did. When Al-Ghazal came to the Heathen North, he looked so down on these filthy, Heathen barbarians that he feared more than anything that he would have to kneel down or bow deep before a Heathen barbarian king, the way he would have to kneel and bow before a Caliph. He heard that he would not have to kneel, but he hardly believed that, not knowing that the Norse people never knelt to anyone, hardly even to their gods.

But when he was to enter the house of the King, he discovered that the door was so low that one would in fact have to bow deep just in order to enter. Al-Ghazal did not bother to inquire as to why. If he had asked, he might have learned that all doors into important places were made this low as a matter of security – it would be very difficult to make an attack on a house if you had to bow down in order to enter – and it would be far easier for just one person with an axe to defend the entire house if those who had to enter had to do it one by one while bowing low. But all this escaped our civilized ambassador. He was convinced that the door was made thus low just to spite him after his request to not have to bow or kneel, and that they had put it there so that he would have to bow nevertheless. The world just centered around the ambassador, you see.

Now Al-Ghazal decided that he would outwit the wicked Danes. And so he sat down on his behind and shoved himself through the door in a seated position. The Danes just stared curiously at the crazy visitor. The King inquired, and when he learned the reason for the Spanish visitor´s act, he said; “If he had not been an ambassador, we would not have tolerated this from him.”

And that was all the retribution he got from those savage Heathens. Afterwards, Al-Ghazal was treated him with the utmost hospitality for the rest of his stay. Despite his civilized arrogance towards the barbarians who continued to treat him with a great deal more courtesy than he returned to them, Al-Ghazal has provided some very interesting entries into Danish culture, especially regarding the free-spoken and freewheeling Danish women, since he was amazed at the relative equality between the sexes and even more impressed by all the free sex, and wrote extensively about it.

 

The Seið-men of Warlock-Reef

1a

The Saga of Ólaf Trygvason in Snorri Sturluson´s “Heimskringla” is an interesting medieval source to the Christening process in Norway during the late 9th century. Ólaf Trygvasson was not the first king who tried to convert the Norwegians, nor was he the last.

  • The first to try was Hákon the Good (920-961) who sought to convince his countrymen through deeds and friendship.
  • Then came Ólaf Trygvasson  (961-1000), who, according to the saga about him, appears to have used a great deal of Christian magic! When the people had gathered their best men to argue with the king at Parliament against the new religion, each one of them suffered from hoarseness and coughing and was not able to speak up. This way, Ólaf Trygvasson got his way… Add to that a severe persecution of all men who practiced witchcraft, an example of which I shall render below.
  • The last and most successful – and most ruthless one was Ólaf Haraldson (995-1030), known in his time as Ólaf Dígri (“The Huge”), but after his death during a battle against the pagan opposition as “Ólaf the Holy“.

But let us return to Ólaf Trygvason, and take a moment of silence for his distant relative, Eyvind Kelda and his men.  The following is an exerpt from  the Saga of Ólaf Trygvason by Snorri Sturluson.

Chapter 69: Seiðmanna brenna – “The Burning of the Seið-men”

Hugo Hamilton (1802-1871) Hall of the Seven Kings Burned by Ingjald

Ólaf King traveled to Tunsberg, and there he held Parliament again. He spoke at the Parliament, and said that anyone who were found guilty of performing galdr [incantations, spell-songs] or other deeds of witchcraft, or if they were seið-men, they should leave the country altogether, all of them. Then the king let search for such people in the neighboring counties, and invited them all to come to him.

They came there, and with them was a man named Eyvind Kelda (“Kettle”), and he was the grandson of Ragnvald Rettilbeini, son of Harald Hárfagri [by a Sámi mother. Ragnvald had also been a seið-man]. Eyvind was a seið-man and knew and awful lot of witchcraft.

Ólaf King let all these men gather in a hall, and he catered well to them, made a banquet for them, and let them have a lot of strong drink. And when they were thoroughly drunk, Ólaf let the hall burn, and the hall burnt with all the people inside there, except Eyvind Kelda, he managed to escape through the roof smoke-hole, and escaped.

When he had come far away, he met some people on the road, who were on their way to see the king. Eyvind asked them to tell the king this, that Eyvind Kelda had escaped the fire, and that he never again should submit to his power, and that he was going to do as before with his witchcraft. When these men came to Ólaf King, they told him what Eyvind had told them to say. The king said it was a bad thing that Eyvind was still alive.

Chapter 70: Dráp Eyvindar keldu – “The Murder of Eyvind Kelda”

1 Seidmennene-på-Skrattaskjær-1

The Seidmen of Skrattasker by Halfdan Egelius

As spring came, Ólaf went west into Víkinn (the Oslo fjord) and visited his estates, and he sent for all the people in Víkinn to let them know that he wanted to have an army out the next summer for the purpose of going to the northern parts of the country (Norway). Then he went to the north of Agder. When there was the long fast (Easter), he went north into Rogaland and came to Avaldsnes at Karmøy on Easter eve. There was prepared an Easter Banquet for him, and he had nearly 300 men.

The same night, Eyvind Kelda came there to the island, he had a longship and a full crew; all of them were just Seið-men and other sorts of troll-folks. Eyvind and his army disembarked and went ashore a long way from the ship, and started to perform their Seið.

Eyvind made his men invisible, and made such a black fog that the king and his people could not see them.

But when they came up to the farm at Avaldsnes, there was bright day all of a sudden. Then it turned out differently from what Eyvind had imagined; this darkness, which he had created with his magical cunning, clouded his own view and that of his comrades, so that they could not see more with their eyes than they saw with their necks.

The guardsmen of the king saw them, and they could not fathom what sort of people these were. The King was alerted, and he and his retinue got up and dressed. Then the king could see Eyvind and his men walking about there, and told his men that they should take weapons and go and find out what sort of people these were. The kingsmen recognized Euvind, and they captured him and all the others, and led them to the king. So Eyvind had to explain how everything had happened for him.

Afterwards, the king let all of them gather and placed them out on a reef that was known to be completely flooded with the high tide, and he bound them there. This way, Eyvind and all his men lost their lives.

Ever since, that reef has been known as Warlock Reef [Skrattasker].

 

 

Snorri´s Ancestral Stories about the “Men from Asia”

In Snorri Sturluson´s Prologue to the Prose Edda, as well as in his Ynglinga saga [the first chapter of Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings], this Medieval Icelandic historian claimed that the Aesir, gods of the Norse pagan pantheon, in reality were ancestors from Asia who had once entered North-Western Europe and whose language, religion and societal structure came to dominate the northern lands.

In this article, I will provide you with the full texts in English translation, but firstly, an introduction to explain these texts better.

What Sources Did Snorri Have For His Ancestral Origin Stories?

Snorri did not invent these stories out of the blue. He based them on old poems about the origins of certain royal and noble lineages in Scandinavia, origin stories transmitted, celebrated and preserved by the members of these lineages themselves. These were the tales of the ancestral origins of great pagan royal lineages in Scandinavia who had long since claimed descent from the gods.

  • The noble lineages of the Háleygir and the Thronds of northern Norway, for example, claimed to be descended from Sæming, the son of Óðinn and Skaði.
  • The Skioldunga lineage that once ruled in Denmark, claimed descent from Skiold/Scyld, who in some sources was the son of Óðinn, and who was married to the goddess Gefion/Gefn [which is listed as one of the many names for Freyia].
  • The Ynglinga lineage, that once ruled in Uppsala and later came to rule in Norway, claimed descent from the god Freyr and the iotunn woman Gerðr.

The Ancestral Stories were a Part of Pagan Lore

Obviously, these tales of divine descent were important to the ruling clans of the Scandinavian tribes.

  • Firstly, they served to legitimize the ruling power of these lineages.
  • Secondly, they were a part of the mythology of the cult of Sacred Marriage in connection to kingship; the divine king had to marry a tribal fylgja/goddess in order to be inaugurated.
  • The stories fit neatly in with the fact that pagan people tended to worship some of their ancestors as if they were divine beings.

As such, origin stories involving the gods playing a role as human ancestors were a vital part of the official pagan cults of Scandinavian tribes.

They were not just invented by Snorri or other medieval chroniclers of history, as some have erroneously suggested.

They were not just a Christian invention meant to discredit the gods; they were very much a part of pagan lore, existing side by side with other myths in which the gods are clearly supernatural beings or even allegories of higher spiritual mysteries.

When Snorri told these stories, he may have added some [we know he added some] details and perspectives that made these stories fit better into a general Christian, Medieval worldview, and he may have emphasized the role of gods as human ancestors in order to take out a perceived threat to the new religion, but he certainly did base these stories on lore that he had heard and knew; lore that had been passed down through the generations.

This is why I think we, who are interested in pagan Norse lore, should take Snorri´s origin stories seriously even if we cannot vouch for all the geographical or personal or historical details. We do not have to (and should not!) blindly believe that Óðinn was in fact a man who traveled from the east – but we can recognize that some of our pagan ancestors certainly believed so, and that in reality, the Indo-European prototypes of Óðinn [alongside many other prototypes to Norse gods and the religion of the pagan Norse] originally came into northwestern Europe with migrations of people who came out of Asia – because they did.

And If you look at the structure of the stories, the general movement being described, you will start to see overwhelming similarities to a huge era of migration which actually did take place in European prehistory some 5-4000 years ago, an era of upheaval and change that actually led to the forming of a proto-Norse culture alongside many other cultures of Indo-European type. This is too interesting a coincidence to be overlooked, and there is good reason to believe that the lore of such past movements and migrations actually was a part of the Norse pagan worldview, even if Snorri may have added a little here and there.

Troy, Thrace or Dón River People

In both stories, Snorri claimed that the Aesir were “Men from Asia” who lived around the Black Sea area, but he seems to have had different sources as to whether they came from the southern or northern side of the Black Sea.

  • In the Prose Edda, Snorri claimed that the Aesir came from Troy [in Anatolia, today´s Turkey] and that they also had close connections to Thrace [Bulgaria mostly]
  • In the Ynglinga saga, he claimed that they were rather from the northern side of the Black Sea, but to the east of the river Dón, which provided the border between Europe and Asia.

Aesir

Interestingly, both of the areas proposed were among the first areas settled by Indo-European people when they began migrating from their original homes of the mountains and steppes of West-Central Asia.

  • In Anatolia, their descendants became Hittites, Lydians and other Indo-European Anatolian peoples of the Bronze Age. Beginning as pastoral barbarian nomads, they adopted the civilized systems of people who already lived there before, and learned, among other things, how to write. Most of this did not happen until about 3.500 years ago [1.500 BC].
  • In Thrace, to the south of the Danube river, a mysterious, non-literate, barbarian Indo-European people came to be known as “Thracians” from around 2.700 years ago [700 BC].
  • To the northeastern side of the Black Sea, however, we know of a much older, more primitive Indo-European shepherding folk that we call the Jamna/Yamnaya, and who we now know constituted most of the people who were responsible for a massive migration from the southeast into northwestern Europe, beginning 5.000-4.000 years ago [3.000-2.000 BC], a long while before any of these groups became famous in Anatolia and Thrace.

Another interesting detail in Snorri´s story about the Don river Asians is the fact that they met a very powerful culture as soon as they crossed the river Don; the Vanir.

There was in fact a powerful culture existing on the western [European] side of the Don at the same time as the Jamna lived on the eastern [Asian] side; a culture that we today call the Cucuteni. The Cucuteni lived between the Don and the Danube rivers and had lasted for an incredible 2.000 years without interruption or any signs of warfare, and were a part of the Neolithic cultural complex known as “Old Europe“.  Old Europe consisted of several Neolithic village cultures situated in the eastern and southern parts of Europe from between 10.000 and 5.000 years ago (BP), that is, from between 8.000 and 3.000 BC. These cultures shared a symbolic language much focused on the female body and shape-changing themes, they were sedentary with large villages connected through trading routes, and could actually have been called a civilization depending on how that term is interpreted. They appear to have known very little hierarchy (“egalitarian”), were deeply religious or spiritual, and remarkably woman-friendly, and their most important deity was probably a goddess. 

Moving further west (Iberia) and north (Scandinavia), we see a Megalithic culture spreading during the same time as “Old Europe” existed, a culture that differed somewhat from their contemporaries of “Old Europe”, but which also shared many symbols and themes. Both cultures had largely sprung out of the Ice Age and Mesolithic cultures of Europe with added input from the Middle East at the start of the Neolithic, and both existed side by side with older hunter-gatherer cultures.

All three types of ancient European cultures were seriously challenged by migration waves from the east (West Asia) happening between 4.000-3.000 years ago (2.000-1.000 BC), when Indo-European shepherds from the steppes and mountains of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea area began moving westwards. The Cucuteni would have been the first to encounter these shepherds, and within 500-1.000 years, all the Old European and Megalithic peoples had changed radically into far more warlike, hierarchic and patriarchal cultures than they had been before, and in most places their languages were changed so drastically as to become members of the Indo-European language family. This also happened in Asia; similar groups of Indo-European shepherds moved south across the Caucasus and entered Anatolia, Iran, Pakistan and India.

Aesir and Cucuteni

Snorri as a Source to Pagan Lore

First of all, let us briefly present Snorri Sturlusson [1179-1241], our main source to pagan ancestral lore in Scandinavia.

Snorri was an Icelandic scholar, chief, historian and poet whose greatest legacies are the many sagas he wrote about ancestral lineages and kings of Norway as well as his Prose Edda, which basically sums up almost all the pre-Christian mythological material that had survived in folklore and in a body of Norse poetry known as Skaldic and Edda poetry. His Prose Edda is also a way of explaining the metaphorical, allegorical nature of Norse, pre-Christian poetry. Because of Snorri´s hard work, we are able to decipher and understand this ancient form of poetry, and because of his work, we know almost everything there still is to know about Old Norse mythology. Almost anything you know about Norse myths is thanks to Snorri Sturluson.

On what basis did Snorri know so much about pre-Christian mythology? By the year 1100, Old Norse paganism [Heiðindómr] had been conquered and suppressed by the Medieval, Catholic Church [Kristinndómr]. Even by then, paganism had been seriously challenged and probably changed a bit for more than a hundred years already. In the year 1000 AD, 50% of the Icelandic parliament voted for Christianity to be the official religion of Iceland, and after a deal of consideration, it was decided that the new religion should be the new official, public religion of the country, but the 50 % who wanted to continue worshipping the old gods were allowed to do so for another hundred years. In Norway, Christianity became strong after the 1030s while in Sweden, the Temple of Uppsala was destroyed and replaced by a church during the 1080s. Paganism was not outlawed in Iceland until about a hundred years after Christianity became the official religion, around 1100.

Snorri Sturluson, however, was born in 1179, a whole generation after paganism had been outlawed in all the Norse-speaking countries.

However, oral traditions were still strong, and Icelanders (perhaps due to descending from Norwegian exiles) took a deep interest in their past and their roots even back then. As soon as some Icelanders learned to write with Latin letters on leather manuscripts, they started to write down their countless stories of their ancestors – in their own language. They were conscious about showing the world that there was more to their past than just being robbers and bandits, and they still took some pride in their mythological, poetical traditions; even during the 11th century, pagan poetry was written down – manuscripts that Snorri had access to.

Additionally, Snorri and his peers could still speak to old people who remembered parents and grandparents who had been pagan, as he says in his introduction to the Heimskringla;

Ari also learned a lot from Turið, daughter of Snorri Góði [a Góði was the title of a pagan lawman and priest]; she was wise, and she remembered Snorri her father, and was about 35 years old when Christianity came to Iceland, and he died a year after the death of Ólaf the Holy.”

Ari was one of Snorri´s predecessors whose written works have been lost, but which were available to Snorri Sturluson. Ari had learned ancestral lore from Turið and other old people; Turið had learned from her father, who had been a pagan priest and lawman and remembered both the time before and after the conversion. As such, Snorri is a pretty good source to what the most knowledgeable and knowledge-seeking people of his time could still know about the recent, pagan past, a lore that was still very much alive during his lifetime. In his Prose Edda, which he wrote in 1225, he commented that “young people” are beginning to forget the myths that are basic to Norse poetry. This means that when he grew up, people were still very familiar with these myths.

Ancestral Lore of the Prose Edda [the Prologue]

I will skip the very first paragraph of Snorri´s Prologue, as it begins with a typical, Medieval, Christian take on everything non-Christian; claiming that, as people spread across the globe after the Exodus, they “forgot” the one true God – an explanation of pagan beliefs. This is clearly an addition to whatever may have been an original pagan ancestral story.

There are probably several other details that have been added with the expanding Medieval worldview that Snorri had also grown up with, but if we start to look at the structure of the story, it may still, I believe, actually be reflecting some ancient stories of real, prehistorical migrations that actually did lead to the beginning of Germanic and other Indo-European religious traditions. From the next paragraph, I shall render the entire story in full [in English translation]:

The Earth Goddess as Ancestral Mother

“One thing they wondered and pondered over: what it might mean, that the Earth [Jǫrð] and the beasts and the birds had one nature in some ways, and yet were unlike in manner of life. In this was their nature one: that the Earth was cleft into lofty mountain-peaks, wherein water spurted up, and it was not needful to dig longer for water there than in the deep valleys; so it is also with beasts and birds: it is equally far to the blood in the head and the feet.

Another quality of the Earth is, that in each year grass and flowers grow upon the Earth, and in the same year all that growth falls away and withers; it is even so with beasts and birds: hair and feathers grow and fall away each year.

This is the third nature of the Earth, that when she is opened and dug up, the grass grows straightway on the soil which is uppermost on the Earth. Boulders and stones they likened to the teeth and bones of living beings.

Thus they recognized that the Earth was quick, and had life with some manner of nature of her own; and they understood that she was wondrous old in years and mighty in kind: she nourished all that lived, and she took to herself all that died. Therefore they gave her a name, and traced the number of their generations from her.

The same thing, moreover, they learned from their aged kinsmen: that many hundreds of years have been numbered since the same Earth yet was, and the same Sun and stars of the heavens; but the courses of these were unequal, some having a longer course, and some a shorter.”

The Ancestors Figured Out the Idea of a Higher God

“From things like these the thought stirred within them that there might be some governor of the stars of heaven: one who might order their courses after his will; and that he must be very strong and full of might. This also they held to be true: that if he swayed the chief things of creation, he must have been before the stars of heaven; and they saw that if he ruled the courses of the heavenly bodies, he must also govern the shining of the Sun, and the dews of the air, and the fruits of the Earth, whatsoever grows upon her; and in like manner the winds of the air and the storms of the sea. They knew not yet where his kingdom was; but this they believed: that he ruled all things on Earth and in the sky, the great stars also of the heaven, and the winds of the sea. Wherefore, not only to tell of this fittingly, but also that they might fasten it in memory, they gave names out of their own minds to all things.

This belief of theirs has changed in many ways, according as the peoples drifted asunder and their tongues became severed one from another. But all things they discerned with the wisdom of the Earth, for the understanding of the spirit was not given to them; this they perceived, that all things were fashioned of some essence.”

Medieval  Geography

“The world was divided into three parts: from the south, extending into the west and bordering on the Mediterranean Sea,–all this part was called Africa, the southern quarter of which is hot, so that it is parched with the sun.

The second part, from west to north and bordering on the ocean, is called Europa or Eneá; its northern part is so cold that no grass grows upon it, and no man dwells there.

From the north and all down over the eastern part, even to the south, is called Asia. In that region of the world is all fairness and pride, and the fruits of the Earth’s increase, gold and jewels. There also is the centre of the Earth; and even as the land there is lovelier and better in every way than in other places, so also were the sons of men there most favored with all goodly gifts: wisdom, and strength of the body, beauty, and all manner of knowledge.”

The Trojans, Thor and Síf

“Near the Earth’s centre was made that goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland. This abode was much more gloriously made than others, and fashioned with more skill of craftsmanship in manifold wise, both in luxury and in the wealth which was there in abundance.

There were twelve kingdoms and one High King, and many sovereignties belonged to each kingdom; in the stronghold were twelve chieftains. These chieftains were in every manly part greatly above other men that have ever been in the world. One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor [the Thunder god, always present in all Indo-European religions as a very important ancestral god].

He was fostered in Thrace by a certain war-duke called Lóríkus; but when he was ten winters old he took unto him the weapons of his father. He was as goodly to look upon, when he came among other men, as the ivory that is inlaid in oak; his hair was fairer than gold. When he was twelve winters old he had his full measure of strength; then he lifted clear of the Earth ten bear-skins all at one time; and then he slew Duke Lóríkus, his foster-father, and with him his wife Lórá, or Glórá, and took into his own hands the realm of Thrace, which we call Thrúdheim.

Then he went forth far and wide over the lands, and sought out every quarter of the Earth, overcoming alone all berserks and giants, and one dragon, greatest of all dragons, and many beasts. In the northern half of his kingdom he found the prophetess who was called Sibyl, whom we call Sif, and wedded her. The lineage of Sif I cannot tell; she was fairest of all women, and her hair was like gold.

Their son was Lóridi, who resembled his father; his son was Einridi, his son Vingethor, his son Vingener, his son Móda, his son Magi, his son Seskef, his son Bedvig, his son Athra (whom we call Annarr), his son Ítermann, his son Heremód, his son Skjaldun (whom we call Skjöld), his son Bjáf (whom we call Bjárr), his son Ját, his son Gudólfr, his son Finn, his son Fríallaf (whom we call Fridleifr); his son was he who is named Vóden, whom we call Óðinn: he was a man far-famed for wisdom and every accomplishment. His wife was Frígídá, whom we call Frigg.”

Of Óðinn

“Óðinn had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the Earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men. They made no end to their journeying till they were come north into the land that is now called Saxland; there Óðinn tarried for a long space, and took the land into his own hand, far and wide.

In that land Óðinn set up three of his sons for land-wardens.

One was named Vegdeg: he was a mighty king and ruled over East Saxland; his son was Vitgils; his sons were Vitta, Heingistr’s father, and Sigarr, father of Svebdeg, whom we call Svipdagr.

The second son of Óðinn was Beldeg, whom we call Baldr: he had the land which is now called Westphalia. His son was Brandr, his son Frjódigar, [whom we call Fródi], his son Freóvin, his son Uvigg, his son Gevis [whom we call Gave]. Óðinn’s third son is named Sigi, his son Rerir. These the forefathers ruled over what is now called Frankland; and thence is descended the house known as Völsungs. From all these are sprung many and great houses.”

Óðinn´s Journey to the North

“Then Óðinn began his way northward, and came into the land which they called Reidgothland; and in that land he took possession of all that pleased him. He set up over the land that son of his called Skjöld, whose son was Fridleifr;–and thence descends the house of the Skjöldungs: these are the kings of the Danes.

And what was then called Reidgothland is now called Jutland.

After that he went northward, where the land is called Sweden; the king there was named Gylfi. When the king learned of the coming of those men of Asia, who were called Æsir, he went to meet them, and made offer to them that Óðinn should have such power in his realm as he himself wielded. And such well-being followed ever upon their footsteps, that in whatsoever lands they dwelt were good seasons and peace; and all believed that they caused these things, for the lords of the land perceived that they were unlike other men whom they had seen, both in fairness and also in wisdom.”

Aesir Prologue 2

Óðinn´s New Order

“The fields and the choice lands in that place seemed fair to Óðinn, and he chose for himself the site of a city which is now called Sigtún. There he established chieftains in the fashion which had prevailed in Troy; he set up also twelve head-men to be judges over the people and to judge the laws of the land; and he ordained also all laws as, there had been before, in Troy, and according to the customs of the Turks.

After that he went into the north, until he was stopped by the sea, which men thought lay around all the lands of the Earth; and there he set his son over this kingdom, which is now called Norway. This king was Sæmingr; the kings of Norway trace their lineage from him, and so do also the jarls and the other mighty men, as is said in the Háleygjatal.”

A New Language

“Óðinn had with him one of his sons called Yngvi, who was king in Sweden after him; and those houses come from him that are named Ynglings. The Æsir took wives of the land for themselves, and some also for their sons; and these kindreds became many in number, so that throughout Saxland, and thence all over the region of the north, they spread out until their tongue, even the speech of the men of Asia, was the native tongue over all these lands.

Therefore men think that they can perceive, from their forefathers’ names which are written down, that those names belonged to this tongue, and that the Æsir brought the tongue hither into the northern region, into Norway and into Sweden, into Denmark and into Saxland. But in England there are ancient lists of land-names and place-names which may show that these names came from another tongue than this.”

****

As we can see, Snorri here offered a Medieval explanation of the spread of the Indo-European language family a long time before there even was such a concept; his take was clearly based on his studies of history and language and was not at all far from the historical truth. For more on the Indo-European spread into Europe, go here.

bC

Now to the other Ancestral Origin Story. In his Ynglinga saga, Snorri tells the tale of how the Aesir came to Scandinavia via Russia and Saxland [Sachsen] and introduced their new religion and societal system.

Incidentally, this story also provides one of our most important written sources to Óðinn as a seið-man and shaman.

****

Ynglinga Saga or The Story of the Ynglinga Family from Óðinn to Halfdan the Black

1. OF THE SITUATION OF COUNTRIES.

“It is said that the earth’s circle which the human race inhabits is torn across into many bights, so that great seas run into the land from the out-ocean. Thus it is known that a great sea goes in at Nörvasund [“The Narrow Strait” = Gibraltar], and up to the land of Jerusalem.

From the same sea a long sea-bight stretches towards the north-east, and is called the Black Sea, and divides the three parts of the earth; of which the eastern part is called Asia, and the western is called by some Europa, by some Enea.  Northward of the Black Sea lies Swithiod the Great, or the Cold [=Siberia/Russia].

The Great Swithiod is reckoned by some as not less than the Great Serkland [The Islamic Caliphate with base in Baghdad]; others compare it to the Great Blueland [Africa].  The northern part of Swithiod [Siberia] lies uninhabited on account of frost and cold, as likewise the southern parts of Blueland [Africa] are waste from the burning of the sun.

In Swithiod [Siberia] are many great domains, and many races of men, and many kinds of languages.  There are giants, and there are dwarfs, and there are also blue men [dark-skinned people], and there are any kinds of stranger creatures.  There are huge wild beasts, and dreadful dragons.  On the south side of the mountains which lie outside of all inhabited lands runs a river through Swithiod, which is properly called by the name of Tanais [Don], but was formerly called Tanaquisl, or Vanaquisl, and which falls into the Black Sea.

The country of the people on the Vanaquisl [Don river] was called Vanaland, or Vanaheim; and the river separates the three parts of the world, of which the eastermost part is called Asia, and the westermost Europe.”

Aesir2

 

2. OF THE PEOPLE OF ASIA. [The New Religion of the Aesir/Vanir]

“The country east of the Tanaquisl [Don river] in Asia was called Ásaland, or Asaheim, and the chief city in that land was called Ásgarðr.  In that city was a chief called Óðinn, and it was a great place for sacrifice.  It was the custom there that twelve temple priests should both direct the sacrifices, and also judge the people.

They were called Diar, or Drotner, and all the people served and obeyed them.  Óðinn was a great and very far-travelled warrior, who conquered many kingdoms, and so successful was he that in every battle the victory was on his side.  It was the belief ofhis people that victory belonged to him in every battle.  It was his custom when he sent his men into battle, or on any expedition, that he first laid his hand upon their heads, and called down a blessing upon them; and then they believed their undertaking would be successful.  His people also were accustomed, whenever they fell into danger by land or sea, to call upon his name; and they thought that always they got comfort and aid by it, for where he was they thought help was near. Often he went away so far that he passed many seasons on his journeys.”

3. OF ÓÐINN’S BROTHERS.

“Óðinn had two brothers, the one called Ve, the other Vili, and they governed the kingdom when he was absent.  It happened once when Óðinn had gone to a great distance, and had been so long away that the people Of Asia doubted if he would ever return home, that his two brothers took it upon themselves to divide his estate; but both of them took his wife Frigg to themselves.  Óðinn soon after returned home, and took his wife back.”

4. OF ÓÐINN’S WAR WITH THE PEOPLE OF VANALAND.

“Óðinn went out with a great army against the Vanaland people; but they were well prepared, and defended their land; so that victory was changeable, and they ravaged the lands of each other, and did great damage.  They tired of this at last, and on both sides appointed a meeting for establishing peace, made a truce, and exchanged hostages.

The Vanaland people sent their best men, Njǫrðr the Rich [in mythology, he was the god of winds and waves], and his son Freyr [in mythology, he was the god of growth, sex and fertility, cultivated nature and government/order].

The people of Ásaland sent a man called Hænir [in mythology, he was the god who gave the gift of thought to men and women], whom they thought well suited to be a chief, as he was a stout and very handsome man; and with him they sent a man of great understanding called Mímir [“Memory” – in mythology, he is the giant who guards the well of Memory].

On the other side, the Vanaland people sent the wisest man in their community, who was called Kvasir [in mythology, he is the embodiment of divine wisdom].

Now, when Hænir came to Vanaheim he was immediately made a chief, and Mímir came to him with good counsel on all occasions.  But when Hænir stood in the Parliaments or other meetings, if Mímir was not near him, and any difficult matter was laid before him, he always answered in one way –

“Now let others give their advice”;

so that the Vanaland people got a suspicion that the Ásaland people had deceived them in the exchange of men. They took Mímir, therefore, and beheaded him, and sent his head to the Ásaland people.

Óðinn took the head, smeared it with herbs so that it should not rot, and sang incantations over it.  Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets.  Óðinn placed Njǫrðr and Freyr as priests of the sacrifices, and they became Diar of the Ásaland people.

Njǫrðr’s daughter Freyia [in mythology, she is the goddess of fate, death, seið (magic, shamanism, oracular divination), love, wild nature and initiation mysteries) was priestess of the sacrifices (blótgyðja), and she was the one who first taught the Ásaland people the art of seiðr, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people.

While Njǫrðr was with the Vanaland people he had taken his own sister in marriage, for that was allowed by their law; and their children were Freyr and Freyia.  But among the Ásaland people it was forbidden to intermarry with such near relations.”

[It has been speculated that Njǫrð´s unnamed and forgotten sister/wife may have been identical to the goddess Nerthus described as the mother goddess of the Germanic Suebi tribes of the Iron Age. “Nerthus” is a Latinized form of a Germanic name that may have been Njerðr or Njórunn – a feminine variant of the masculine name Njǫrðr. Unless it was true as Snorri claimed,  that the three Vanir gods were adopted into the Aesir pantheon, while the older goddess was left behind with her native people, this is probably the case].

Aesir spread in Scandinavia Ynglinga saga

5. ÓÐINN DIVIDES HIS KINGDOM: ALSO CONCERNING GEFION.

“There goes a great mountain barrier from north-east to south- west, which divides the Greater Swithiod from other kingdoms [the Caucasus]. South of this mountain ridge it is not far to Turkland, where Óðinn also had great possessions.

In those times the Roman chiefs went wide around in the world, subduing to themselves all people; and on this account many chiefs fled from their domains.  But Óðinn having foreknowledge, and magic-sight, knew that his posterity would come to settle and dwell in the northern half of the world.

He therefore set his brothers Vé and Víli over Ásgarðr; and he himself, with all the gods and a great many other people, wandered out, first westward to Garðariki [Russia], and then south to Saxland.

He had many sons; and after having subdued an extensive kingdom in Saxland, he set his sons to rule the country.  He himself went northwards to the sea, and took up his abode in an island which is called Odense [Óðinn´s Ey = “Odin´s Island”] in Fyn [Funen].

Then he sent Gefion [in terms of the Norse language, Gefion (“The Provider”) is identical to Gefn, who was listed as one of the many names for Freyia. She was now an Aesir goddess of Vanir origin] across the sound to the north to discover new countries; and she came to King Gylfi, who gave her a ploughgate of land.  Then she went to Jotunheim, and bore four sons to a giant, and transformed them into a yoke of oxen.  She yoked them to a plough, and broke out the land into the ocean right opposite to Óðinns.  This land was called Zealand, and there she afterwards settled and dwelt.

Skjold, a son of Óðinn, married her, and they dwelt at Lejre (Hleiðargarðr). Where the ploughed land was is a lake or sea called Great Lake.  In the Swedish land the fjords of Great Lake (Mälaren) correspond to the nesses in Zealand” [Snorri must have gotten this part of the legend wrong; The only Swedish lake that could possibly have looked like it could have been the water version of Zealand, and thus inspire this sort of legend, is the far bigger lake Väneren, possibly meaning “Vanir Lake”].

Aesir abode

 

Bragi the Old sings thus of it: —

     "Gefion from Gylfi drove away,
     To add new land to Denmark's sway --
     Blythe Gefion ploughing in the smoke
     That steamed up from her oxen-yoke:
     Four heads, eight forehead stars had they,
     Bright gleaming, as she ploughed away;
     Dragging new lands from the deep main
     To join them to the sweet isle's plain.

Now when Óðinn heard that Parliaments were in a prosperous condition in the land to the east beside Gylfi; he went thither, and Gylfi made a peace with him, for Gylfi thought he had no strength to oppose the people of Ásaland.

Óðinn and Gylfi had many tricks and enchantments against each other; but the Ásaland people had always the superiority.

Óðinn took up his residence at the Great Lake (Mälaren) lake, at the place now called Old Sigtun. There he erected a large temple, where there were sacrifices according to the customs of the Ásaland people.  He appropriated to himself the whole of that district, and called it Sigtun.  To the temple priests he gave also domains.  Njǫrðr dwelt in Noatun, Freyr in Upsal, Heimdal in the Himinbergs, Thor in Thrudvang, Balder in Breidablik; to all of them he gave good estates.”

6. OF ÓÐINN’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

“When Óðinn of Ásaland came to the north, and the Diar with him, they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practiced.  Óðinn was the cleverest of all, and from him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than other people.  But now, to tell why he is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it.

When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it, but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes.  This arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way he liked.  Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him.  He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call skaldskáp(bard-craft/poetry).

He and his temple priests (Hófgóðar) were called song-smiths (ljóðasmíðir), for from them came that art of song into the northern countries.

Óðinn could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves.  These were called Berserker.”

7. OF ÓÐINN’S FEATS.

“Óðinn could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people’s business.

With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased.  Óðinn had a ship which was called Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he could roll up like a cloth.

Óðinn carried with him Mímir’s (Memory´s) head, which told him all the news of other countries.  Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign (draugardrótinn), and lord of the hanged (hangadrottin).

He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew f)ar and wide through the land, and brought him the news.  In all such things he was pre-eminently wise.

He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called galdrar (incantations), and therefore the Ásaland people are called incantation-smiths (galdrasmiðir). 

Óðinn understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practiced; namely, what is called seiðr (A Norse form of magic, oracular divination, witchcraft, shamanism).

By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art.

Óðinn knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased.  From these arts he became very celebrated.  His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself.  He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices (blótgóðar), and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge.  Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time seiðr spread far and wide, and continued long.

People sacrificed to Óðinn and the twelve chiefs from Ásaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after.  From Óðinn’s name came the name Audun, which people gave to his sons; and from Thor’s name comes Thore, also Thorarinn (“The Thunder Warrior”); and also it is sometimes compounded with other names, as Steinthor, or Hafthor, or even altered in other ways.”

8. ÓÐINN’S LAWGIVING.

“Óðinn established the same law in his land that had been in force in Ásaland.  Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth.  Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth.

For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Óðinn’s time.  On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.  Over all Swithiod the people paid Óðinn a scatt or tax — so much on each head; but he had to defend the country from enemy or disturbance, and pay the expense of the sacrifice feasts for a good year.”

9. OF NJǪRÐR’S MARRIAGE.

“Njǫrðr took a wife called Skaði; but she would not live with him and married afterwards Óðinn, and had many sons by him, of whom one was called Sæming; and about him Eyvind Skaldaspiller sings thus: —

     "To Asa's son Queen Skaði bore
     Sæming, who dyed his shield in gore, --
     The giant-queen of rock and snow,
     Who loves to dwell on earth below,
     The iron pine-tree's daughter, she
     Sprung from the rocks that rib the sea,
     To Óðinn bore full many a son,
     Heroes of many a battle won."

To Sæming, Earl Hakon the Great reckoned back his pedigree.  This Swithiod they called Mannheim, but the Great Swithiod they called Godheim; and of Godheim great wonders and novelties were related.”

*****

What follows then is an anecdote of how the gods, one after the other, die, how they are buried, and how people began to worship them as gods ever after. I have related this part in another article about The Temple of Uppsala.

Eventually, only Freyia is still alive of the gods, and she continues the rituals, and before the story of Freyr´s descendants, the Ynglingar, really begins, the first part about the Aesir/Vanir gods concludes;

***

“When it became known to the Swedes that Freyr was dead, and yet peace and good seasons continued, they believed that it must be so as long as Freyr remained in Sweden; and therefore they would not burn his remains, but called him the god of this world, and afterwards offered continually blood-sacrifices to him, principally for peace and good seasons.”

***

What is really being told here, is the genesis of a religion. We do not know to what extent Snorri based his knowledge on real ancestral stories, and to what extent he figured it out (or imagined) on his own, based on the general Medieval higher education of his time.

But we do know that the story has an underlying, basic structure echo; a story that perfectly fits the slow but steady, millennium-long expansion of the Indo-European Jamna people into Europe by way of Cucuteni territory, while other Indo-European groups went south into Iran and Anatolia.

And if that parallel echo is not purely coincidental, then what we may have in Snorri´s work is whatever pieces then remained of an ancestral legend reaching back thousands of years, and which, truthfully or not, attempts to explain the origin of their own religion.

Most religions have that sort of origin myth.

*

Article About Ancient European Migrations here.

Gefion_Fountain_-_front_view.jpg

Gefion and her bulls – Danish statue