Give Your Viking Character a Memorable Nickname

The folks at mental_floss show you how with “33 Crass and Creative Norse Nicknames.”

Before surnames were a well-established way of telling one Olaf or Astrid from another, identifying nicknames were far more prevalent. Historical figures had their share of quirky epithets—from Albert the Peculiar to Zeno the Hermit—but the Norse Vikings seem to have had them beat when it comes to comical range and sheer absurdity.

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Trows

The Faery Folklorist has posted a wonderful introduction to the trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. In case you’re not quite up to speed on your trow-lore, the article begins,

According to Saxby and Edmondston’s ‘Home of a Naturalist’ (1888), “This interesting race of supernatural beings is closely allied to the Scandinavian Trolls, but has some very distinctive characteristics of its own. The Trow is not such a mischief-making sprite as the Troll, is more human-like in some respects, and his nature seems cast in a morbid, melancholy mould.”

From there, the article discusses what trows look like, where they live, and the sorts of things they do. There is even a brief but delightful list of trow names culled from Orkney and Shetland folklore.

Rethinking Vikings

Listverse has a list of ten discoveries that cast the vikings in a new light. It’s quite interesting and worth a read.

Why mention vikings on Saint Patrick’s Day? Mainly because they were instrumental in the development of the city of Dublin:

The Vikings explored vast amounts of Europe and North America, but they eventually settled into the land that would eventually become Dublin. At the time, its relatively mild climate, thick tree cover, and river made it the perfect location for a winter home. There they repaired their ships and set up a trade network.

The number of Viking relics found in Dublin over the years has been staggering. Temple Lane was created by Viking settlers and has been called the oldest street in Dublin. Viking swords have been found in the area around Christchurch, and the earliest foundations of Dublin Castle are clay floors that were also dated to the Viking era. And just south of the River Liffey is a huge concentration of buildings that seem to indicate the center of the Viking settlement, including houses and buildings once used for metalworking and the production of other commodities like leathers, textiles, and jewelry. Also along the area of the Liffey was evidence of amber-working.

Five Classic (or Not) Werewolves

wolfHaving discussed vampires in my last post, let’s move on to werewolves. There are plenty of other werecreatures out there, and I’ll get to them in my next post. For now, however, I’d like to look specifically at humans who turn into wolves.

One thing to note up front is that certain aspects of werewolf-lore don’t go back any further than the 1940s and Lon Chaney, Jr. The idea that werewolves only transform at the full moon, for example, does not seem to be rooted in any actual folk beliefs that I have been able to track down. The whole silver bullet thing is obviously no older than the invention of firearms (although many cultures say that silver is effective in repelling evil.)

What we do find in world mythology is a great variety in terms of how a person transforms into a wolf and whether such people should be looked upon with fear or reverence—or perhaps a mixture of both.

Wolf-straps

One form of werewolf coming from German and Polish folklore involves the use of a magical wolf-skin belt or pelt (sometimes known as a “wolf-strap”). Anyone, it is said, could become a werewolf by fastening such a strap around him- or herself, but the artifact is sometimes associated specifically with witches. In addition to belts of wolf-skin, the skin of a hanged man might also work to effect the transformation from human to wolf.

The wolf-strap is the product of evil magic, however. In fact, it is seen as a gift from the devil himself. Those who possess such a strap couldn’t get rid of it no matter how much they wanted to.

The use of an animal pelt is also common in some Native American cultures. Among the Navajo, for example, evil “skin walkers” are sometimes said to take on animal form by donning the appropriate pelt.

Wolf-coats

According to Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, there are two types of werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. In one, a person undergoes a physical transformation; in the other, the soul or spirit enters into an animal’s body (“The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106/3 [Jul 2007] 281–82).

The most familiar example of the first type is the berserker, a warrior who is supernaturally endowed with the strength and ferocity of a wild animal, usually a wolf or bear. The wolf-warrior was called an úlfheðinn or vargstakkr, both roughly translated “wolf-coat.” As Guðmundsdóttir explains,

One of the most recognizable attributes of the berserks is that they fall into a “berserk frenzy.” They run wild in battle, become crazed, and roar or howl. No weapons can harm them and they tolerate wounds better than other men. The berserk frenzy is actually closely related to shape-shifting, for in both cases men acquire the attributes of animals. The main difference resides, perhaps, in the fact that with shape-shifting it is assumed that either the soul is transported to another body, that is, into an animal’s body (and thus people are described as eigi einhamir, “not restricted to one form”), or that the body undergoes a transformation, whereas in the berserk frenzy men acquire the attributes of wild animals; one could thus say that the berserk is a wild animal in the shape of a man. The condition is therefore psychological in the case of the berserk, but physical in the case of werewolves and other shape-shifters.

Thus, a “berserk” undergoes a psychological change were a “wolf-coat” undergoes an actual physical change. But, of course, this distinction is not always clear-cut and is sometimes a matter of how specific texts are interpreted.

Böðvarr Bjarki and Úlfr Bjálfason

The other form of Norse were-creature, in which a human soul or spirit departs from the body and takes on the form of an animal, is found in the story of Böðvarr bjarki in a text called Hrólfs saga kraka.

In this story, Böðvarr bjarki attacks his opponents in the form of a bear while his body remains asleep, sitting still at some distance from the battlefield. This is said to be an innate ability inherited from his father, not based on any kind of spell or magical device.

Although this is the story of a werebear, werewolves of this sort were also apparently possible. In Egils saga, a shapeshifter named Úlfr Bjálfason, more commonly called Kveld-Úlfr or “night-wolf,” is said to have become ill-tempered as evening approached. Guðmundsdóttir explains, “He had a tendency to sleep in the evening, which has been seen as suggesting that his soul left his body when he slept and entered a wolf’s shape” (278 n. 5).

What is not clear (at least to me) is where the animal form comes from. Does this sort of shapeshifter “hijack” a passing animal and inhabit its body? Or is he able to conjure up an animal’s body out of his own psychic reserves? Either way, this is a type of werecreature I don’t think I’ve ever seen depicted in popular media.

Kurtadams

Not all werewolves are evil. Some, in fact, are revered members of the community. This is the case of Turkic kurtadams, who through long and grueling ritual processes achieved an altered state of consciousness in order to experience a psychological transformation from human to wolf.

Frank Joseph describes this phenomenon as

a man or woman achiev[ing] an altered state of consciousness to spiritually identify with the soul of a non-human animal. In Turkish, for example, the Kurtadam is not only a werewolf, but also a shaman. In fact, the totemic ancestor of the Turks is the wolf. (Unlocking the Prehistory of America [Rosen, 2014] 255)

According to some legends, this transformation was physical as well as psychological, resulting in an upright-walking humanoid wolf-creature.

From the same general region, Herodotus speaks of a Scythian tribe called the Neuri “who annually transformed themselves into werewolves during a cultic warrior festival” (Joseph, 254)

Hounds of God

Finally, there is an account of certain werewolves in Livonia in the Baltic region, one of whom claimed in 1692 to have been given their power of shapeshifting in order to battle the forces of evil.

Carlo Ginzburg offers this account of the proceedings:

In 1692 at Jurgensburg in Livonia an eighty-year-old man named Thiess, whom the townsmen considered an idolater, confessed to the judges interrogating him that he was a werewolf. Three times a year, he said, on St Lucy’s Night before Christmas, the night of St John, and of the Pentecost, the werewolves of Livonia go into hell, “at the end of the sea” (he later corrected himself: “underground”), to fight with the devil and the sorcerers. Women also fight with the werewolves: but not young girls. The German werewolves go to a separate hell. Similar to dogs (they are the dogs of God, Thiess said), and armed with iron whips, the werewolves pursue the devil and sorcerers, who are armed with broomsticks wrapped in horse tails. Many years before, Thiess explained, a sorcerer (a peasant named Skeistan, now dead) had broken his nose. At stake in the battles was the fertility of the fields: the sorcerers steal the shoots of the grain, and if they cannot be wrested from there will be famine. However, that year the Livonian and the Russian werewolves had both won. The harvest of barley and of rye was going to be abundant. There was also going to be enough fish for everyone. In vain the judges tried to induce the old man to admit that he had made a pact with the devil. Thiess obstinately continued to repeat that the worst enemies of the devil and the sorcerers were werewolves like himself: after death, they would go to paradise.

Female Viking Warriors?

It’s beginning to look like Viking shield-maidens may have existed in numbers greater than previously thought, if the excavations at sites in eastern England are any indication:

[Archeologist Shane] McLeod notes that recently, burials of female Norse immigrants have started to turn up in Eastern England. “An increase in the number of finds of Norse-style jewellery in the last two decades has led some scholars to suggest a larger number of female settlers. Indeed, it has been noted that there are more Norse female dress items than those worn by men,” says the study.

So, the study looked at 14 Viking burials from the era, definable by the Norse grave goods found with them and isotopes found in their bones that reveal their birthplace. The bones were sorted for telltale osteological signs of which gender they belonged to, rather than assuming that burial with a sword or knife denoted a male burial.

Overall, McLeod reports that six of the 14 burials were of women, seven were men, and one was indeterminable. Warlike grave goods may have misled earlier researchers about the gender of Viking invaders, the study suggests. At a mass burial site called Repton Woods, “(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield,” says the study.

Personally, I’d like to see a better sampling than fourteen interments before asserting that Viking warriors had something approaching gender parity. Still, this is an interesting discovery. I look forward to seeing where it leads.

Highway to Hel

Dan McCoy provides all the ins and outs of the Norse afterlife in this interesting article. I was interested to read what he thinks are connections between myths of journeys to the underworld and shamanic journeys described by other northern peoples.

What the sources do describe in uncharacteristic detail, however, is the course that one had to travel in order to reach Hel. Given how precisely they correspond to the narratives of traditional shamanic journeys of other circumpolar peoples,[2] they seem to recount, and possibly provide templates for, the journeys of Norse shamans. Throughout Old Norse literature, we find instances of such journeys to the underworld undertaken by gods or humans in order to recover a dead spirit or obtain knowledge from the dead.

Hel was located underground – down and to the north, the realm of cold and general lifelessness. It was reached by descending from a higher point with the help of a guide – an unnamed (dead) woman in Hadding’s case, and Sleipnir in the Prose Edda and the poem Baldrs Draumar (Baldr’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda. After traveling through darkness and mist, one would come to a river, perhaps a torrential river of water, but more commonly a river of clanging weapons.[10] There was a bridge over the river that one had to cross. After a time, one would finally arrive at the wall surrounding Hel, but, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, it wasn’t thought wise to attempt to enter through the gate. More surreptitious ways were preferred. At that point, one would be, in spirit, in the world of the dead in their graves, and one had to take extreme precaution to ensure that one didn’t become trapped there while accomplishing one’s purpose, which is surely part of the reason why all of the surviving accounts of such journeys from northern Europe involve quests undertaken by gods, heroes, or other specialists rather than ordinary people.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Thor’s Hammer

Dan McCoy has the scoop at Norse Mythology for Smart People, and he deserves a link purely on the name of his website!

Thor’s hammer was certainly a weapon – the best weapon the Aesir had, in fact – but it was more than just a weapon. It also occupied a central role in rituals of consecration and hallowing.

The hammer was used in formal ceremonies to bless marriages, births, and probably funerals as well.[4] In one episode from medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Thor once killed and ate his goats, then brought them back to life by hallowing their bones with his hammer[5] (talk about having your cake and eating it, too). The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus records that huge hammers were kept in one of Thor’s temples in Sweden, and that periodically the people would hold a ritual there that involved beating the hammers against some kind of drum that would resound like thunder.[6] This could have been a ceremony to bless and protect the community and ward off hostile spirits.

There’s lots, lots more.