Frigg demanded of fire and water, of iron and all sorts of minerals, of the rocks, of the Earth, of the trees, of the illnesses, of the animals, of the birds, of the poisons and of the snakes, that they would not harm Balder…

Frigg said: “Neither metal nor wood will harm Balder, for I have made all things swear an oath on it”

The woman asked; “Have all things really sworn not to harm Balder?”

Frigg said: “There is a stickling growing to the west of Valhalla, he is called the Mistletoe. I thought he was too young to demand oaths from.”

(Skaldskaparmál, the Prose Edda)

In the myth about Balder´s death, his mother, the goddess Frigg, demands of all nature that they swear an oath not to harm her son, Balder. The very notion that fire, water, iron, minerals, rocks, the Earth, the trees, the illnesses, the animals, the birds, the poisons and the snakes may actually swear oaths, and that one of them, such as the Mistletoe, was regarded as “too young” to demand oaths from, speaks volumes about how our pagan ancestors regarded nature. This is a nature where all things are sentient, where all things have life, where all things can make agreements and understand otherwise very human concerns, where they may be too young or too old for making contracts. This notion stands in stark contrast to how civilized humanity has been regarding and treating nature for the last couple of hundred years.

Modern society carries with it a certain history of disregard for nature and our fellow living creatures here on Earth. We may not pinpoint one single reason for this, but I can certainly think of a few significant influences. According to the Bible, God created heaven and Earth and all the animals, finally creating human beings in His image and setting them to rule over all other beings. Today, at least here in Scandinavia, there are many Christians who interpret this as a responsibility to nature and to the animals; that we are set here to safe-keep and honor “God´s nature”. However, the idea that nature and animals only exist to serve our human needs has evidently been much stronger, and human beings are perceived as not only above, but even as totally different from the rest of nature; after all, we are the only ones who got to be created in His image. The idea that God exists outside of nature and that creation is imperfect, dirty and sinful, has had a very strong impact on our relationship to nature.

Adding to this tradition, the first scientists of Europe tended to adhere to a mechanical philosophy in which nature was seen as a huge mechanism, a sort of machine. Nature, animals, even our very bodies – were mere mechanisms totally set apart from the soul and from the divine. This attitude has also played its part, for why connect with nature on a deeper level when it is only regarded as a sort of impersonal, mindless, soulless machinery?

The insane, but sadly very common idea that animals do not feel any pain and have no emotions, that they simply react out of mechanical instincts, has been fundamental to the way we treat our fellow beings here on earth. The idea that nature is a mechanism, a sort of machinery, and that it is only here to serve as economic resources for our civilizations, has helped to further cement our human society´s relationship to nature on a global level. Adding to this, there is capitalism, the ruling paradigm of our world, in which the profits of the few and a belief in the necessity of constant economic growth, is fundamental to how absolutely everything is ruled.

In this article, I have decided to explore our pagan ancestor´s relationship to Earth as a living, breathing, sentient being, full of creatures and beings with meaningful lives of their own.

By our pagan ancestors, I am generally referring to people who lived outside of the great civilizations, but since my specialty is the Old Norse and Germanic cultures that existed up here in the northern parts of Europe, these are the ones I am going to write about in this article.

God´s Free Nature

I once read a book that was written some time in the 1930s about Norwegian forest management and its history. I found that book in my family´s mountain cottage and I do not remember the title or the name of the author, but I do remember some of its contents. The author was referring to a letter found in Bergen which dated back to the 16th century. It was written by a Dutch merchant, one of the Hansa company people who came to Norway in order to make business, and who became a very dominant class, the earliest of capitalists in this country, establishing themselves especially in Bergen.

The merchant wrote in a language that was steeped with greed, declaring that the entire country of Norway was full of dense, ancient oak forest which covered the country from the south and all the way up to Bergen. Oak was so common that even the poorest of commoners could make their entire houses and all their furniture with top quality oak wood. The merchant suggested that his company make use of that resource, and so they did.

Is this true? Well, back in the 13th century, another author, Snorri (Ynglinga saga), wrote that the entire region of Vingulmark, which roughly represents Oslo and Akershus counties, was so dense with oak forest that nobody could venture through on foot without getting lost, and that only light elves lived there. Whether there were light elves or not, we know today that it was true; Norway really did have an amazing oak forest stretching all across the land even up to Bergen and beyond. Then it was discovered by capitalist merchants. And within a couple of centuries, it was gone.

The author of the book I mentioned then proceeded to an article written 300 years later, during the 19th century, in which it was declared that oak was foreign to Norway and hardly even existed, and that the few oaks that could be found at all had probably been imported and planted here. There was hardly an oak left, and people did not remember the great forests; they believed that the oak was a foreign tree that hardly ever grew in this land. It was only when excavating Viking ships and archaeological sites in modern times that the ancient oak forests of Norway were rediscovered.

In the same book, the author offered up an anecdote about two brothers who owned a forest, and they were also working as forest keepers, which was actually a proper job back then. This was during the 1920s, and the two brothers were very old and lived inside that forest, unmarried. They were constantly harassed by a timber company who wanted them to sell the forest or at least the timber of that forest, but the brothers refused. When asked why they did not want to earn some money and preferred living in poverty, they replied; “Where are all those little birds going to live, then?”

The author, writing back in the 1930s, used this example as one of several to show that common people´s attitude towards the forests and the natural world and their care for animals was actually traditional and typical of the lower classes, and that it was only recently, gradually, being changed by the so-called forces of progress.

And it is true that such a respectful attitude towards nature was a lot more common in the old days, nature was often referred to as “God´s free nature”, and many believed that venturing into nature was as important as going to church. I even remember it from my own grandparents, an extreme love for nature and a sense of obligation to protect it. When my grandparents built a cottage in the mountain, some of the point was to experience annual vacations where you had fetch water from the well or even from natural streams, and to boil your water on a kettle over the fire, fetching wood and doing things that you did not have to do anymore in your daily, busy life in the cities – there was a sense of longing, yearning back to a more natural and simple existence – a yearning that was so common, it became the typical holiday goal for ordinary people in Norway. I grew up with summer and autumn and spring holidays where we all packed up and went to the cottage and happily carried water to boil and chopped wood for our fires. Only over the last few generations has this changed, now, the cottages of people have electricity and running water and the whole point of returning to a simpler existence no longer seems to have any thrill to it.

The Sentient Earth

To our pagan ancestors, nature was sacred, and nature was personal. The gods dwelled within nature and within particular natural powers, and according to medieval sources, people would think deeply about nature, and considered the Earth to be a living being, a goddess, and our first mother:

According to Snorri Sturluson, who wrote down many of the Norse myths, our ancestors had deep thoughts about nature and its holiness. In 1225 he wrote:

The people before us considered and wondered how it could be that the earth, the animals and the birds had the same qualities in certain things, even if they were of different kind. One quality is this, that if you dig in the Earth high up on the mountaintops, water can burst out there, so that you do not need to dig further down for water up there than you have to dig in deep valleys. It is the same with animals and birds also, that there is equally short way to the blood in the head as in the feet.

Another quality that the Earth has, is that every year, grass and flowers grown upon her, and the same year they fall down and decay. So it is also with animals and birds, that hair and feathers grow and fall off every year.

A third quality of Earth is this, that when she is opened, and dug into, grass will grow on the dirt that is highest up. They believed that rocks and stones corresponded to the bones of living beings.

From all this they understood that the Earth was alive, and that she had a sort of lifespan. And they also knew that she was incredibly old of years, and powerful of nature. She raised all life and took back into herself all that which dies. From this reason, they gave her a name, and counted their lineages from her.”

The Earth was, indeed, a goddess to our pagan ancestors. She was alive, and she was sentient, and she was the ancestral mother of all human beings. The myths speak of shrines and sanctuaries in her honor, it was in Iarðar Vé – the Earth´s Shrine – that you could get access to inspiration and the mead of poetry, for example. If you drank beer or any other strong drink, you should always pour a little as a sacrifice to the goddess. Her name was Iórðr, which means Earth, and she had many nicknames that described her, such as Fjǫrgyn, which means Life Struggle.

The Gods in Nature

The Earth goddess was also the mother of Thor, the thundergod, who existed in a place called Thruðvangr, which literally translates as the Power Field. From this realm, the god of thunder and lightning protected his mother and all life from the hurling rocks of the frost giants from Utgarðr, which means the Outer World. Today, we do know that there is indeed an electromagnetic field of power around the entire globe, protecting the planet and all life from the hurling, frosty rocks that constantly bombard us from outer space, causing most of them to burn up before they reach the ground. Thor, the thundergod, was a god of protection before anything else, the champion of his mother and of all his siblings, namely all living beings.

Other nature deities were the Sun goddess and the Moon god, and they played an important part in the creation story. According to the Edda poem Vǫluspá, both siblings came hurling from the southern realms of cosmos and had no idea where they were going until the first three Aesir gods showed them to their proper places. Then, the Sun goddess, taking the lead, hurled her right hand around the “door of the steeds of heaven” while the Moon claimed Earth as his “hall”. The Earth was the Sun´s “hall” too, and the Sun goddess sent her nourishing rays to the young, barren, rocky Earth goddess, who then began to grow the green growth.

There was a god called Njǫrðr or a giant called Aegir, who ruled the winds and the waves of the ocean, a goddess, Rán who ruled the ocean depths and who received the drowned. Their nine daughters dwelled within the waves and had passions of their own, waves coming at a ship was really these nine wave giantesses wanting to claim the men aboard for their lovers. There was a god, Freyr, who ruled the power of growth and fertility, a goddess, Freyia, who resided in wild nature and took the shape of wild animals, and numerous other powers, spirits and giants and trolls and dwarves and elves, residing in mountains and hills, forests and rivers and lakes. These bodies of water were also personified, a river could be a goddess and the ancestral mother of tribes.

Many of the Norse goddesses and giantesses appear to be aspects of the Earth goddess, such as Frigg, who has power over plants and beast and birds and metals and rocks and water. In the myth were we learn about Frigg´s power over nature, we also learn that she can make agreements and demand oaths from each of these things; she obtains oaths from all of them, except one who was too young to make oaths. The very idea that animals, birds, water, and even rocks and metals may make agreements and oaths suggests, very strongly, that we have to do with a sentient, natural world, in which even metals and rocks have lives, and consciousness, and wills of their own.

From place names, we know that many natural formations were associated with particular gods and goddesses. From archaeology, we know that water was considered the recipient of sacrifices to the gods, lakes and rivers and bogs were shrines in which the gifts to the gods could be deposited and sent on their way.

What may be grasped from this is that nature was steaming with sentient life to our pagan ancestors, and for this reason, much of their spiritual life was deeply connected to their natural surroundings. When Christianity came to Scandinavia, the pagans were referred to as Heiðningar, “Heathens”, and this was a direct reference to the fact that they worshipped in heaths or other natural bright open spaces, groves and fields, surrounded by wilderness. When someone died, mounds were often built for their remains, mounds that became a part of the surrounding nature.

Sacred Groves

The first written source we have that describes Scandinavian pagan religion dates back to about 98 Ad, almost two thousand years ago. A Roman called Tacitus described a type of people that the Romans referred to as Germans. This is not a reference to Germany as we know it, but to many tribes who spoke a Germanic language, and who originated in Scandinavia. During this era in history, many Scandinavian tribes began to migrate into the European continent, where they encountered the Romans. Tacitus wrote about these people:

“The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence, which is seen only by the eye of reverence.”

“The grove is the center of their whole religion. It is regarded as the cradle of the people, and the dwelling-place of the supreme god, to whom all things are subject and obedient.”

Tacitus has more to say about the subject, he also describes some of the rituals that take place in such natural temples:

“Although the familiar method of seeking information from the cries and the flight of birds is known to the Germans, they have also a special method of their own – to try to obtain omens and warnings from horses.

These horses are kept at the public expense in the sacred woods and groves that I have mentioned; they are pure white and undefiled by any toil in the service of man. The priest and the king, or the chief of the state, yoke them to a sacred chariot and walk beside them, taking note of their neighs and snorts. No kind of omen inspires greater trust, not only among the common people, but even among the nobles and priests, who think that they themselves are but servants of the gods, whereas the horses are privy to the gods’ counsels.”

Animals, gods and people

Yes, horses are privy to the god´s counsels. Horses, not men. In the pagan religion, humans are not above the animals when it comes to relationship to the divine; animals are often the ones who transmit divine messages and knowledge to human beings.

In the Edda heroic poems about Gudrun, Sigurd´s widow, it is said that she understood that her husband Sigurd had been killed when she saw his horse, Grani, weeping.

The first sentient being in the entire universe was a great cow, Auðhumbla, who nourished herself on dead matter and was subsequently able to nourish living matter. The entire, living, breathing, sentient universe that she brought up with her streams of milk was imagined either as a giant, or as a huge tree. At its roots there was a serpent, at its top there was an eagle, in between the eyes of the eagle there was a hawk, and between the two was a messenger in the shape of a squirrel.

If any of you know a bit about Tantrism, you may recognize some of the same images as a metaphor for the human spiritual body, and this was also true of Norse myths; the first human beings were created from wood in Norse mythology, in poetry, men could be described as ashes and yews and apple trees, women as oaks and linden and spruce. Each human being could poetically be described as trees, as Snorri said it (Skaldskaparmál):

“…poets have called men Ash or Maple or other masculine tree-names… It is proper to refer to her by calling her Willow or Log… hence woman is called in kennings by all feminine tree-names… woman is also referred to in terms of stone and all words for stone.”

Almost every god or goddess or other supernatural being is associated with animals.

  • The Sun goddess, Sól, drives a chariot pulled by two named horses, Árvakr (Early Awake) and Allsviðr (Very Quick), while her brother, the Moon god Máni, also has horses.
  • Freyr rides a magical horse, Bloðughofi (Bloody Hoof) or else a golden boar, Sliðrugtanni/Gullinbursti (Golden Bristles).
  • Odin rides a magical horse, Sleipnir, birthed by Loki in the shape of a mare, and this eight-legged horse has the power to move between cosmic dimensions or worlds. A similar horse is granted to the hero Sigurdr, Grani. Odin also owns two wolves and two ravens, and sometimes take the shape of a serpent or an eagle.
  • Thor has two goats, also named, who come back to life after being butchered, if only the bones are kept.
  • Freyia has cats, falcons, hawks and boars.
  • The many-named giantess who rules the underworld owns serpents and wolves.
  • The goddesses of fate could have swans and also assume the shape of swans,
  • The valkyriur could ride horses or turn into ravens or swans or other birds…
  • and many of these animals have names and identities of their own, and magical abilities too.

The Fylgja – an Animal Follower

Even people are associated with animals; each person had at least two so called Fylgjur – followers; One (or more) in the shape of a woman (a norn, fate goddess), another (only one) in the shape of an animal follower. Where the woman Fylgja holds power over your fate, the animal Fylgja represented your life and your personality. A big strong, brave man could have a bear fylgja. A king had, perhaps, a polar bear or even a lion. A warrior could have a wolf fylgja, a beautiful woman could have a swan, there could be foxes and weasels and even diverse kinds of birds – each person had one such animal.

Is this the same as a spirit animal or a totem? It is hard to say, but in the saga sources, people often dream of animals doing something, and always interpret these dreams as the animals representing someone they know, and that the dream is a prophecy about what these people are going to do. If you dreamt about your own animal fylgja, it was usually a warning of danger, and if you happened to actually see your own animal fylgja walking before you, then stopping, turning to look at you, it was an omen of your own imminent death.

It was believed that the animal fylgja walks before you, staking up your path of destiny, so if it stopped and looked back, it was because it had reached the end.

Learning from Animals

What about learning from animals?

In one Edda poem, we hear of a young man called Atli. He had been given an impossible task from his king, to find a magical woman who resided in another world.  One day, Atli was out in a sacred grove, and there was a bird sitting in the branches up above him, and she told him exactly how to fulfil the king´s wishes, and in return, she demanded shrines and sanctuaries and gold-horned cattle in her honor, suggesting that she was a goddess in disguise.

Later, Atli follows the bird´s directions; in order to reach the other world, he had to go up on a mountaintop to seek visions, and later he had to sleep by a river so that he could cross it while dreaming. In the other realm, there is a guardian in the shape of an eagle.

In the Volsunga saga, a young boy and his father live in exile in what they call jarðhúss -an earth-dwelling, and underground house. They learn how to assume the hides of wolves and run around in the forest while howling and hunting. One day, the boy is wounded, and his father takes him back to their dwelling and wonders what to do next.

Then the saga reads:

“One day, Sigmund saw two weasels. One bit the other in the windpipe, and then ran into the woods, returning with a leaf and laid the leaf on the wound. The other weasel sprang up healed. Sigmund went out and saw a raven flying with a leaf. The raven brought the leaf to Sigmund, who drew it over Sinfiötli´s wound. At once, Sinfjötli sprang up healed, as if he had never been injured.”

The story is not very credible in itself, but does speak volumes about how people perceived nature; as something to observe and learn from, and animals as helpers and advisers that could have something to teach us, and that animals were sentient beings with societies of their own, who could care for each other and attempt to heal each other.

This perception of animals as persons with feelings and intentions of their own was much more common back in the days. I do not know how this was in Pagan times, but only a couple of hundred years ago, it was common for hunters to have vacation days for animals, namely days and time periods were nobody hunted, simply for the reason that they wanted to let the animals have some peace and some time off. These non-hunting days often coincided with human holidays.

It was also common to believe that animals could gossip about humans and that they could complain to the gods about being badly treated by humans, especially during the Yule period, and then the gods would punish the humans for treating the animals badly. During Yule, it was common to decorate the stables and the barns for a party and offer up the best of food to them, and to leave out grains for the wild birds to help them through winter.

Utiseta – “To Sit Outside” – Outdoor Meditation and Vision Quests

I have already mentioned Atli, who was out in a grove when a bird began to talk to him. Norse myths and sagas have many examples of how people would sit outside in groves, on mountaintops, by rivers, and perhaps most importantly, on burial mounds, in order to communicate with the spirits of nature, with the dead, or other supernatural beings who might help. They even had a name for it, Utiseta. Utiseta means “to sit outside”, and it was a way of outdoors meditation which usually happened at night-

During the pagan era, laws had been memorized by specialized lawmen, and many of these laws concerned rules about how and when to conduct the larger, public, pagan rituals. When Christianity came to Scandinavia and became the chosen religion of the ruling classes, new laws were imposed, of course. These laws were, for the first time in Scandinavian history, also written down.

One of the earliest written laws in Norway was the one we know as the Law of Frostating. It was written down sometime during the 1100ds, give or take, when Christianity was still quite fresh and many people, who probably even thought that they were good Christians, still practiced ancient, ancestral rituals. The lawmen of the period needed to set a few things straight, and in chapter 5 of the Frostating religious laws, we can read about who will get the hardest of all punishments:

“Those men who forfeit their life because of theft or robbery, whether they rob from ships or on land, and likewise they who forfeit their lives due to murder or witchcraft, divination trips or utiseta in the nights in order to wake up trolls and thus promote paganism, all such men are ubotamenn and have lost their properties and their protection from the law.”

An ubotamaðr was a man who had no protection from the law; anyone could take his possessions, claim his property, or kill him without punishment. His family would also lose their home and the protection of the law. This was the harshest law known in all of Norway at the time; an ubotamann (and his family) was basically exiled from society and fair game to anyone who might want to hurt them. This terrible punishment was given to thieves, robbers, rapists, murderers, and people who practiced witchcraft, divination or so-called utiseta – to sit outside. Basically, meditation was outlawed, especially if it happened outside in a natural temple, and it was obviously considered the core and root of paganism, which was criminalized.

This early law against meditation outdoors was not enough. The custom was so deeply ingrained in Scandinavian culture that a new law was made in 1267 to clarify what was illegal. 1267 is actually quite late – more than 200 years had passed since the conversion to Christianity, yet the law reveals that the old, pagan practice was still very much up and running. The new Gulating-law declares:

“And these things belong to misunderstandings and pagan beliefs: Galdrar (spellsongs), witchcraft, to call a man troll-rider, prophecies or divination, the belief that landvetter (land-spirits) live in the groves and the mounds and the waterfalls, so also utiseta in order to ask about fate, and those who oppose God and the holy church in order to find in the burial mounds or in any other way become mighty and wise, so also those who try to wake up the dead or a haugbu (mound-dweller).”

Natural Dwellings

Not only did they not like to contain their gods indoors, they also preferred to live in natural surroundings. Even when they saw the constructions works of Roman civilization, they remained unimpressed and saw absolutely no need to copy it. According to one Roman source, some tribes who came to live within the borders of the empire became depressed when they had to live within civilized, modern Roman stone houses, feeling suffocated and imprisoned. About their native dwellings, Tacitus wrote:

 “It is a well-known fact that the peoples of Germany never live in cities and will not even have their houses adjoin one another. They dwell apart, dotted about here and there, wherever a spring, plain, or grove takes their fancy.

Their villages are not laid out in the Roman style, with buildings adjacent and connected. Every man leaves an open space round his house, perhaps as a precaution against the risk of fire, perhaps because they are inexpert builders. They do not even make use of stones or wall-tiles; for all purposes they employ rough-hewn timber, ugly and unattractive-looking. Some parts, however, they carefully smear over with a clay of such purity and brilliance that it looks like painting or colored design.

They also have the habit of hollowing out underground caves, which they cover with masses of manure and use both as refuges from the winter and as storehouses for produce. Such shelters temper the keenness of the frosts; and if an invader comes, he ravages the open country, while these hidden excavations are either not known to exist, or else escape detection simply because they cannot be found without a search.”

Grotti´s Song

I am going to conclude this article with an example from Edda poetry which seems eerily relevant today, the Edda poem Grǫttasǫngr.

“Odin´s son was called Shield, and from him are the Skioldunga lineage descended; he had his seat and ruled the lands that are now known as Denmark, but which was then called Gotland. Shield had that son who was called Peace Heritage, and he ruled the lands after him. The son of Peace Heritage was called Wisdom, he took the kingdom after his father, in that time when Augustus Caesar ruled and there was peace in all lands, then was Christ born. And because of Wisdom being the mightiest King in the Northern lands, so the peace was known by him in all Danish tongues, and the North-men called that age the Peace of Wisdom.

No man would hurt another, even if he saw the bane of his father or the bane of his brothers free or even bound; there were no thiefs and no robbers, to the point where a golden ring lay a long time on the Ialangr-Heath. King Wisdom sought a visit to Sweden to that king who is named Many-One/Very Much [Odin ], and from him he bought two she-slaves whose names were Heath-Dweller and Necklace Wearer (or Achiever and Rememberer); they were large and strong.

In that time there was in Denmark a mill-stone so very big, that no man was so strong that he could pull it, and in the nature of this mill-stone it was so that it would grind what the millner spoke.

This mill-stone´s name was Grotti; Hanging Open Mouth he is called, who gave the mill-stone to King Wisdom. King Wisdom led the slave-girls to the mill-stone and asked them to grind gold and peace in the service of Wisdom.

Then he gave the women no more rest and no more sleep than the time it takes for a cuckoo to keep silent, or the time needed to speak forth a verse.

It is said that the women then sang a song that is called the Grotti-song:”

Now, to sum up what the poem is about. The two giantesses who pull the millstone reveal that they were present when the very Earth was shaped and made to spin, and that they functioned as norns (fate goddesses) and as valkyriur. It is also clear that the millstone represents destiny, and that they are the ones who run the show. Their connection to nature is one of identification  with nature, they represent nature herself. When Wisdom (Froði), representing humanity or at least what rules humanity (its king), enslaves them, they are happy to bring fortune to him at first. But when he never lets them rest, and when his greed only increases, and he abuses them, they make their revenge by reminding him of their ancestral power while grinding a harsh fate for all men.

Towards the end, they issue a warning; Wake up, Wisdom, Wake up, Wisdom, if you want to know our ancient songs…

1.Now there have come

to the house of the king

two prescient women:

Heath-Dweller/Achiever (Fenia)

and Necklace-Owner/Rememberer (Menia):

They were with Wisdom,

Son of Peace-Heritage:

The Mighty Maidens

he owned as his slave-girls.


2(The slave-girls) were led to the mill

where they ordered

the grey stones

to grind into motion

He (Froði) promised them neither

rest nor pleasure

until he had heard

the slave-girls´ song.


They kept up the sound

of the never-silent mill

“Let us set down the grinder

let us stop the millstones!”

But he bid the Maidens

to keep grinding as they owed.


4.They sang and they turned

the fast-revolving stone

so that the Household of Wisdom

mostly fell asleep

Then sang the Necklace-Owner/Rememberer

who had come to the milling:



“Let us grind prosperity for Wisdom

let us grind joyfully

abundance of everything

on the mill of fortune

Let him sit on gold

Let him sleep on feathers

Let him wake to happiness

That is well ground out.



Here shall no one

bring harm to another

not plot damage

or strive to take lives

Nor shall he strike

with a sharp sword

even if he finds bound

the bane of his brother.”



He did not speak at all

except these few words:

“You shall not sleep

any longer than the hall´s cuckoo

or longer than I take

to recite a verse.”


8 (The Maidens sing:)

“Beware, Wisdom

you are not fully wise

you friend of human eloquence

when you bought the slave girls

and chose them for their strength

and for their appearance

But of their lineage

you asked not…




Hard was the Roaring One

and his father

although the Slave-Binder*

was mightier still

The Moving One and Earth-Dweller

our close kinsmen

brothers of mountain giants:


–             From them are we two born!


*Skaði´s eagle-giant father




The Mill of Fate

would not have fallen

from the grey mountains,

nor would the hard stone block

have come out of the Earth,

nor would we have ground so

–             we rock giant maidens

if we had not known

how she* was made.



*“She” (“hennar”) refers to Grotti

– the Mill of Fate from within the Earth



We grew nine winters

we were playful*

great maidens growing

nourished beneath the Earth:

We Maidens where the directors

of great deeds:

All by ourselves we moved

the flat mountain from its place.


*Leikur can mean “plays” and “sports” but also means “lovers”, “playmates”, and “girlfriends” – but it is not said who they are “playmates” with…



We rolled the boulder (the Mill/ Earth)

from the world of the giants

so that the Earth

began to shake

we turned then

the fast-revolving stone (the Mill/ Earth)

to the high hall

so that men took it.



But later we

in the land of the Swedes

–             we two who know fate:

moved among people

We broke armors

and we broke shields:

We marched against

the grey-clad armies.



We overthrew some

supported others*

we gave good help

to the people of Divine Serpent

There was no peace

until Knuckles fell



We kept going

for some seasons

so that we became famous

for our battle deeds;

there we sliced

with sharp spears

blood from wounds

made swords red.



Now we have come

to the house of the king

without compassion

towards slave-girls

mud eats at our feet

and we are otherwise chilled

we pull the Calmer of Strife

but there is no joy at Wisdom´s house




Hands should rest

Let the stone stand still

I have ground

my full share;

We may not to our hands

give rest

until fully ground

as Wisdom sees it.



Hands shall clasp

the hard shafts

weapons bloodstained…


Wake up, Wisdom!

Wake up, Wisdom!

If you wish to hear

our songs

and ancient tales.



I see a fire burn

east of the city

a war-spell has woken

that must be a beacon;

an army will come

here very soon

and burn the settlement

despite the Abundance-Descendant (Wisdom).



You shall not keep

the throne of Lejre (Denmark)

nor the red-gold rings

nor this Ruling Rock (=the millstone of fate)

Let us seize the handle:


Maiden! Turn (the Mill) more swiftly!

We are not yet warmed

by the death-stir (=blood)



My father´s maiden

ground powerfully

so that she foresaw the death

of multitudes

the great shafts snapped

away from the Mill´s frame

enclosed in iron,

Let us grind even more!



Let us grind more!

The son of the She-Bear

on the Half-Lords

will avenge Wisdom

so that he is famed

both as her son

and as her brother

as we two know well.”



The Maidens ground,

empowered by rage,

the young girls

had the giant´s strength

the shaped wood shook

the frame collapsed

the heavy grindstone

broke in two.



And the Bride of the Mountain Giant

these words spoke:

we have ground, Wisdom,

to the point where we must stop

for the ladies have had a full stint

of milling.”



“Greedy for Gold” or Conquering Death? -Restoring Gullveig´s Reputation as the First Völva

When the Wand-Witch came to the Settlements

Shamanistic traditions often feature a mythical “first shaman” – one who was responsible for creating the art of shamanism, and whose path would be followed by aspiring shamans ever after. The legendary and mythical stories of the first shaman would function as a map for navigating the various dimensions of reality and for contacting the spirits, especially during the initiation phase when the shaman apprentice needs to learn. In Norse myths, there are, likewise, stories of the first practitioners of seiðr, they whose discoveries would stake out the path for seið-folk to follow. There is not only one, but at least two or three such characters in Norse myths, and today I shall discuss the one who first taught the arts to gods and human beings.

The First Master of Seiðr

There are two versions of the myth of the first vǫlva appearing in the world of gods and men, and one of them is found it in Snorri Sturlusson´s Ynglinga saga, chapter 4. Here, the vǫlva in question is the goddess Freyia:

“Njǫrðr´s daughter was Freyia, she was a sacrificial priestess [blótgyðja], and she was the first who taught seiðr to the Aesir, as it was known to the Vanir” [Dóttir Njarðar var Freyia, hon var blótgyðja, ok hon kendi first með Ásum seiðr, sem vǫnum var titt].

That the first vǫlva among the gods was a sacrificial priestess is logical – there are a few other sources which indicate that blood sacrifice could be part of a seiðr-ritual. In the Edda poem Hyndlulióð, Freyia appears and instigates a magical journey to the underworld where she partakes in a séance of seiðr – after (and as a result of) a blood sacrifice:

10.Freyia said:
“An altar did he make for me
made out of stone
Now the rocks have turned to crystal –
Crimson he colored it
with the blood of the sacrificial beast:
Óttarr always put his faith
in the Ásyniur [goddesses].”

In the story of Thorbjǫrg Litilvǫlva, we hear that the vǫlva is offered the hearts of each type of animal present on the farm, suggesting that a ritual slaughter and a ritual meal had taken place as part of the preparations for seiðr. In the skaldic poem Haustlǫng, dating back to ca. 900 A.D., a bull is slaughtered and placed on a “broad table” (an altar) before it becomes a “sacred meal”. This happens just prior to a magical journey from this world towards the world of the jǫtnar.

In Norse mythology, we see that Freyia came to Ásgarðr in connection with the truce between the Aesir and the Vanir, and that she brought the art of seiðr to the Aesir gods, as it had only been known among the Vanir before, and that she was the first to teach it. She was also a goddess who was known for taking multiple shapes and new names wherever she came among people. For these reasons, it is natural to assume that she is the real identity behind the vǫlva who appears as Gullveigr/ Heiðr in the Vǫluspá.

When the Vǫlva was Burned and Conquered Death

Just after we are introduced to the norns, the goddesses of fate, and their works, we learn of a “first war”, evidently the same war between the Aesir and the Vanir that led to the arrival of Freyia and her art of seiðr. The beginning of the tale of this first war introduces “Gullveigr” and describes how she conquered death even after being pierced by spears and burned three times. In the next stanza, she appears as “Heiðr”, a typical name for vǫlur in Norse literature, and now she starts to spread her knowledge and teachings in seiðr into the world of human beings, particularly to the women.

21.She remembers the first war in the world
when Gullveigr [Gold Power-Drink]
was hoist on the spears
and in the High One`s hall they burned her;
Three times they burned the Three Times Born
often, not seldom, yet she still lives!
22.She was called Heiðr [Heath/Bright Open Space]
when she came to the settlements,
the well-divining vǫlva;
She could cast spells
She did seiðr wherever she could
She did seiðr with a playful intent
She was always loved by wicked/ill women


“Greedy for Gold?”

The Swedish professor Britt Mari Näsström, in her book Freyia – Great Goddess of the North (1998) – assumes that Freyia´s function as a witch among the hostile Vanir is to infiltrate the stronghold of the Aesir with witchcraft, and even as they try to kill her, she returns, continuing her “destructive plan”, first and foremost through demoralizing the women. Already while operating secretly within the fortress of the Aesir, the Vanir gods break down the fences of the Aesir, entering with their spell-songs of victory. The name Gullveigr, Näsström concludes, must be “Gold Thirst”, showing her insatiable greed for gold and jewelry, while the name Heiðr is dismissed as a common name for a sorceress.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is not actually based on the only source we have to the myth – the Vǫluspá stanzas 20-21 – nor is it an accurate description of the way neither Snorri nor the subsequent Vǫluspá stanzas describe the war between the Aesir and Vanir. Neither is the “translation” of Gullveig´s name accurate. With all due respect to this by me otherwise much esteemed scholar, the interpretation just referred to can only be based on Näsström´s own imagination combined with the interpretations made by earlier modern writers, equally imaginative and equally without any fundament in the actual Norse texts. Before I proceed to more detailed criticism, I will add a few other typical examples of how this myth is traditionally misrepresented:

Margaret Clunies-Ross (1994) also identifies Gullveigr with Freyia through her role as a vǫlva practicing seiðr and being associated with the Vanir-Aesir war. Thus Freyia and Gullveigr perform the same mythological functions. Furthermore, that Gullveigr appears to be sacrificed links her to Freyia´s function as a sacrificial priestess. So far, so good. Clunies-Ross proceeds by analyzing the myth in light of her understanding that the Norse cosmos is divided into polarities where male and female is one of them. She claims that the Aesir are fundamentally male, representing order and the reasoned world. Gullveigr is female and a master of sorcery, which in itself makes her appear threatening to the Aesir. According to Clunies-Ross, Freyia/Gullveigr offers herself sexually as well as her magical arts to the Aesir, but they will have none of it. Their stabbing her with spears is a symbolical penetration, leading to death rather than to the kind of penetration desired by Gullveigr and the Vanir. This horrible treatment of Gullveigr leads to the war because the Vanir were angry on behalf of their kinswoman. Thus the war is the result of a sort of symbolic war between the masculine world of “reason and order” and the feminine world of sex and magic, where the masculine violates the feminine because the feminine threatens the “male order”.

Both Clunies-Ross and Näsström fail in their analysis by moving far beyond what the texts actually say, and by understanding the myth within particular paradigms that in my opinion do not provide accuracy. Here is my criticism:

  • The fact is that we are given absolutely no explanations anywhere as to why Gullveigr is stabbed and burned in the Hall of the High One, so that these imaginative accounts are nothing but imagination. It seems that the violence described has immediately caused emotional reactions in the most seasoned scholars, creating a need to explain why, which is understandable.
  • However, these explanations are equally without fundament in the sources: Nowhere does it say that Gullveigr was treated this way because she was “greedy” for gold, nor because she was a witch, nor because she “demoralized the women or because she “threatened the male order”.
  • There is in fact absolutely no indication in the sources which supports the idea that the Vǫlva/Freyia has any negative meaning such as greed or low morals. Gold is always a positive metaphor for something great and divine, and the practice of sorcery was an acceptable art. Its professional female practitioners, the witches, were venerated within the Pagan religion – also by most men.
  • Näsström sticks to the common notion that the name Gullveigr means “Greed for Gold”, which emphasizes the evil character of this witch, and idea which is also seen in Rudolf Simek´s dictionary where she is said to be “the personified greed for gold” There is absolutely no basis in any Norse source for this popular claim about Gullveigr, yet it is a misinterpretation which has become the standard way of viewing the myth since scholars such as Turville-Petre, Müllenhof, Krause and Nordal first decided that Gullveigr was a greedy witch (who deserved what she got, apparently). Turville-Petre explained the name as “the drunkenness of gold, hence the madness and corruption caused by this precious metal”. Again, this is pure invention, since gold in the Edda lore always signifies something esoteric and precious.
  • Both the interpretations above assume that the Vanir attacked the Aesir because of the way they treated their Witch. But the subsequent stanzas of the Vǫluspá clearly states that it was Óðinn and the Aesir who started the war.
  • The fact is that neither the name Gullveigr nor any other feature of this myth supports such an interpretation of the name (“Greed for Gold”). It is purely an invention made by highly recognized scholars in modern times, which is probably why nobody has dared to ignore this interpretation and look out for a new and more accurate understanding based on the literal meaning of the name and how that places the Witch within the greater framework of the Edda lore.
  • There is nothing in the Edda lore which truly supports the notion that the male-female polarity is one of “order and reason” against “sexuality and sorcery”. That is a very modern way of interpreting Norse myths which is based on a Greek-Christian dualism rather than any Norse Pagan concept. All the male characters of the Norse myth are highly sexual as well as magical, often performing sorcery, and often being very emotional and passionate, for better and for worse. Likewise, the female characters are in no way more sexual or more magical than the male ones, and the rule of laws and order are in the hands of the Norns as much as in the hands of the Aesir. The male-female polarity is, as I keep explaining throughout this book, a far more complex matter of the inner and the outer, the shaped form and the free flow.


Gro Steinsland (1991) has provided a somewhat different analysis of the myth, where she sees Gullveigr as a representation of the three stages of time. That she is killed three times and reborn three times may mean that she is present in each era. The three Norns by the well beneath the tree, representing past, present and future, would testify that their names provide a model of time divided into three. I recognize great wisdom in this interpretation, yet, like the other interpretations mentioned, it fails to explain why Gullveigr moves on to operate as a professional Vǫlva with a new name just after her experience of violent death and dramatic, supernatural rebirth, and it does not explain her names.

A Structure of Initiation

Now to my own alternative interpretation of the myth of Gullveigr: Why the meaning of her name has been so problematized is beyond me, since it is a very easy one to translate literally. Her name is derived from the Norse words gullr, which means “gold”, and veigr, which means “strong drink” or “power”. As a drink, the veigr will be a “power drink”, a strong drink.

Hence I translate the name, literally,  as Gold Power Drink.

The true meaning of Gullveig´s name should not be taken from any modern concept about gold being the cause of greed or any paraphrasing of the word veigr into “thirst” or “greed”, which is simply not what this word means. Instead of imagining things based on a more recent, tragic history of witch-hunts, misogyny, “gold-fever” and dualism, we should look strictly to what the concepts of “gold” and “power-drink” means within the context of the Edda lore.

It can only be in the light of knowledge about what “gold” and “drink” actually means in the Edda poetry that we may understand what Gullveigr truly represents:

  • Gold is the main theme of the Skáldskaparmál, where Snorri lets the god Bragi explain numerous poetical metaphors for “gold”. These metaphors subtly serve to indicate a deeper, more sublime meaning of “gold”, which in itself is also a poetical metaphor for something deeply mysterious. Gold is what shines and provides light in the “Hall of Aegir” – that is, in the Cosmic Ocean. One of countless metaphors for gold is in fact the Light of the Daughters of Aegir (the waves). Gold is what shines from the hero Sígurðr as he finally is ready to overcome hatred, greed and fear and wake up the sleeping Valkyria within, receiving her sacred knowledge about the runes.
  • To take a short-cut, (since this is a theme we often return to) gold appears to be a metaphor for divine power, divine knowledge, magic and perhaps for spiritual enlightenment itself. It is much sought after, and sometimes the greed for this gold is destructive and leads to unwise actions and death – but only when it is sought with the wrong intentions. In the Edda myths, such negative qualities (“greedy for gold”) are always represented by masculine characters such as Reginn, Atli (a malevolent version of Óðinn) and Niðuðr, who all seek the “gold” (the knowledge) in order to enhance their own worldly power and with a hope to attain immortality. They all fail miserably, whereas the worthy owners of “gold”, such as Sígurðr, provide wisdom and healing and experience resurrection in death. The “gold” ultimately has to do with resurrection from death and is closely connected to a sacred marriage to the Valkyria.
  • The Power Drink is identical to the “precious mead” or “mead of memory” which is served to the god/hero/initiate in all the initiation poems that will be further described in this book. In one of the poems, this magical and benevolent drink is also called veigr – as in dyrar veigar [The Precious Power-Drink]. There is also a chapter on the Maiden with the Mead, a basic character of the Edda initiation stories who provide this drink to the worthy initiate while he still dwells in the Underworld. The powerful, precious drink provides knowledge, power and resurrection from death. The drink is often associated with gold and goldenness.

We see that the theme of initiation, sacred knowledge, resurrection in death and enlightenment (going up in “flames”) are more credible associations to both her name and her story of self-resurrection in the fire than any of the earlier (mis)interpretations. Taking this as a starting point, we can analyze the story with fresh eyes. We have here a woman, probably a goddess, perhaps a goddess incarnated in a woman, who before the eyes of the gods (in the Hall of the High One) defies the ultimate fate of all mortals: Death.

Why was she stabbed and burned? Was it a sacrifice? Was it a punishment?

The story does not say, but I wonder why nobody has asked the same question about the hanging of Óðinn: Why is it that nobody asks why “they” hanged Óðinn, stabbed him and refused to give him food and drink for nine days? Why is it that nobody wonders why the god was “punished”? Why is it that nobody invents a story about how bad and greedy the god was, being treated like that? Why is it that nobody assumes that this is the masculine quality that is being violated because it threatens the (hypothetical) female quality?

The fact is that nobody ask such questions because it has long since been recognized that the trials on the World Tree follows the basic structure of initiation into sacred mysteries and professions, a structure which is summarized here in simplified form:

  1. Symbolic Death
  2. The Transmission of Sacred Knowledge During “Death”
  3. Resurrection
  4. A New Profession/Identity/Name to go with the New Powers

Seen in this light, the previous interpretations of Gullveigr become absurd. It is a fact that the burning of Gullveigr is described in much the same way as the hanging of Óðinn, and follows exactly the same structure of initiation. The same terminology we find in the Vǫluspá stanzas is right there in the Hávamál stanzas about Óðinn; in both accounts we have someone invisible and unnamed called “they” who appear to attend (or torture) the suffering deities.  “They” – whoever they are – gave him no food or drink, and “they” stabbed him with spears as he hung. Likewise, we have the mysterious “they” who burned and stabbed Gullveigr. In both cases, we are seeing a form of sacrifice which is transformed from sacrifice into a ritual of initiation, where conquering death is the final, ultimate test.

In both stories – which can only be initiation stories – the successful initiates, after conquering death – begin their new lives as practicing professionals and wise people. Óðinn describes how he barely survived his trials and how he now experiences increased wisdom and eloquence with every day, and how he is now a sage living among the gods, and how he brought the mead of poetry to the “Shrine of Earth”. Gullveigr, who performed the feat before him and was his teacher, begins her career as a vǫlva who does what all vǫlur did – travels and offers her services to people, and teaches the women who are unconventional enough to want to learn.

Her new name after the initiation is Heiðr, which means “illuminated”, “bright”, “open space” and is the same word that is used in the name Heiðrún, the she-goat who produces the precious mead at the roof of Valhǫll which brings eternal resurrection to its inhabitants. Interestingly, it is also the word that makes up the Old Norse word for “Paganism” – Heiðindómr [Judgment of the Open Space/Illumination/Brightness].

Seiðr – the Art of Conquering Fate

The chronology of Freyia-Gullveig´s path is an exact replica of the typical career of any shaman or similar spiritual professional in Pagan cultures; She goes through her mortally dangerous trials, survives, and begins to work within her profession, eventually teaching her knowledge. The fact that this leads to a war between the Aesir and the Vanir will be understood better if we realize that the war that Óðinn started and then almost lost eventually led to Óðinn learning about seiðr from Freyia. Seiðr, ultimately, has to do with altering fate, and the ultimate fate of all mortals is death.

The Ynglinga saga first relates how Freyia taught the art of seiðr to the Aesir, and then describes Óðinn as a practitioner, explaining the essentials of this art, clearly associating it with the arts of poetry, shape-changing soul journeys, runes and spell-songs [galðr]:

“He said everything by rhyme, just like one now speaks that which is called the Art of Poetry, he and his temple-priests were called verse-smiths…Óðinn could make it so in a battle that his enemies were blinded or deaf or filled with terror…but his own men went without armor and were crazed like hounds or wolves, biting their shields, being strong as bears or oxen…it is called to run berserk [“bear-clad”].

Óðinn often changed his shape, then his body lay like dead or sleeping, while he himself was a bird or a four-footed animal, fish or serpent, and could travel in a moment to distant countries, in service of himself or others. He could also do other things, only with words could he quench a fire, silence the ocean and turn the wind in the direction he wanted…Óðinn had with him the head of Memory, which told him the tidings of other worlds beyond; sometimes he woke up the dead from the ground of sat beneath a hanged man, that is why he is called the Lord of Ghosts [Draugardrottin]. He had two ravens, which he had taught to speak, they flew widely across the lands and told him many tidings. From all this he became very wise.

All these arts he taught in runes and in a kind of songs known as galðr [spell-songs, charms], that is why the Aesir are called galðr-smiths. Óðinn knew that art which carries with it the strongest power, and he practiced it himself, it is seiðr, and through it he could know the destiny of people, and of things that are yet to happen, he could give people death or misfortune or bad health, he could steal the wit and the power from people and give it to others. But this sorcery brings with it so much perversion/unmanliness for those who practice it that men cannot practice it without shame, and therefore they taught this art to the priestesses.”

Within the Old Norse context, seiðr was particularly concerned with fate – with knowing and controlling fate, even that most ultimate fate which is death. There are some saga descriptions where practitioners change shape and travel in the form of an animal, practice forms of witchcraft, and in Snorri´s Gylfaginning, one vǫlva chants galðr in order to heal a wound, her chants drawing a splinter out of Þór´s body. One account claims that a vǫlva could chant to call the fish into the bay during times of hunger.

Many Medieval accounts, including Snorri`s, emphasize the use of seiðr for harmful purposes. However, even the Medieval sagas seem to harbor enormous respect for the vǫlur, who primarily were the performers of seiðr. The art and societal position of the vǫlva in Norse Paganism resembles shamanism in most respects. In most shamanic cultures, the mythology clearly mirrors the world of the shaman who travels between dimensions and contacts spirit beings. The world of the dead is a particularly important place as it is the place where knowledge about fate is hidden. This is also the case with Norse mythology.

But most of the accounts describe a séance that can best be identified as a divination. This divination had to do with seeing the past, the present, and the future, something which could happen through the help of spirits invoked through song. But it was not just passive prophecy – the real power of seiðr was that the divination was operative – that is, the master of this art could not only see destiny, but also alter it. The ultimate fate of all mortals is death, and even that could be conquered through this most powerful of all arts.

I believe that the clue to changing fate is to capture it as it is caught in the present moment. We recall from the previous section that fate is a matter of fusion between the past and the present. This fusion happens within the realm of the norns. The person who could enter this realm and alter the carvings that are taking place in the present moment would actually be able to alter fate itself.

This is the true secret of fate, and of the art of seiðr, and why Óðinn sought the knowledge of this art. It is exactly the uncovering of the carvings of fate that is the main purpose of his initiation. And as the goddess Freyia showed him that it is possible to conquer even the ultimate fate, death, the god of Spirit began his quest for knowledge.

nehalennia 4

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


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.


[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].


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.


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.


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 ( )



“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.


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:

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.


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.


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.