Have you ever died so hard you laughed? In the legends of proud old Skaðinawjō, gruesome death was the privilege of the stupidly heroic. But c'mon, it's the current year: Why should divine genealogies, class, and the gap between myth and ontological reality keep you from dying like a semi-divine king?
Hold your horses, some heavily earned credit is due before we go on: I would probably never have written this article [originally in Norwegian] had it not been for me Stumbling across Samantha Finley's eminent guide How to Tell if You are in an Old English Poem, which inspired me to make one of my own, though from a Norse perspective. For the sake of cultivating my readers, I chose the Old Norse heroic lays as my springboard, because not every day can be Hávamál day. However, I won't rule out the possibility of abusing other genres or poetry or prose for similar purposes at some later point in time. There's no room for democracy on this blog, unless you're part of the priviledged caste of Brute Norse patrons, but I cordially invite you to throw me a comment or ninety-three.
The heroic lays are a somewhat overlooked genre of Norse literature. One gross oversimplification could be that that they comprise, basically, of those eddic poems that don't have gods as their main characters, but rather mortal men and women of legendary, semi-mythical stature (though the gods are certainly guilty in some of the tomfoolery going on in the background). On a more general level, Norse heroic poetry is part of a pan-Germanic cycle of legends, dealing with a magical and distant past of champions and supernatural intrigue. Interestingly, this age of legends does (to some degree) overlap with the historical era known as the migration period. Because of this, they often contain a zany conglomerate of historical and mythical characters, which is enough to drive a rabid barbarophile like myself utterly mad.
I'll avoid the complicated issue of determining the age of these poems, but it's abundantly clear that they were composed in a society dedicated to a radically different ethos from what most of us are accustomed to. The heroes are generally not what common folk would consider "good people". These dudes and dudettes are entirely beyond good and evil, and largely exhibit übermensch levels of amorality and vitalistic disregard for the health and safety of pretty much anybody. This, and certain other things, add up to a series of features that distinguish them from normal people, and are invariably woven from of a certain hardened fiber, that je ne sais pas (that is French for "I don't know what") that makes a true hero. Heroes like Starkad, Helgi, Gunnar, and last by not least: Sigmund, everybody's pan-Germanic bad boy!
None the less, superhuman strength and talent is worth nothing in the world of Germanic poetry, if the hero doesn't fulfill the one true criteria, the sine qua non (that is Latin for "without which there is nothing") of the amoral Germanic hero. Namely that he (or she) must die an impressive, spectacular, and oftentimes utterly needless death. The leaps of logic required to make this final condition come true are less important. What matters is the fact that these Norse kamikaze-by-epic-convention simply need to die, no matter how seemingly banal, brutal or ludicrous a reason it takes. The more inhumane the better, giving up the ghost with a heroic shrug.
Now that the lecture is over, I want to ask: Have you ever wondered if you are yourself the stuff of legends? Do you, or maybe your friends, or spouse, have what it takes to be part of an Old Norse heroic lay? Below I've compiled an inexhaustive checklist for you to print and put in your wallet, put on your fridge door, or hang by the toilet. Underline whichever statement fits your fate or lifestyle, and assess the results accordingly.
The result is not for you to judge, though; the gods shall have the final say:
- Your step-dad is a dwarf.
- Attila the Hun is your brother in law (or, alternately, the father of your children).
- You have some junk laying around that once belonged to Caesar.
- You're attending a party. All other guests are Huns.
- You're a Goth, but you don't know what a mall or eyeliner is.
- Your ale bowl is full of wine. An unseen narrator proclaims that is, in fact, a wine-heavy ale bowl. An unfathomable luxury.
- You are shocked to find that this very beer bowl is the skull of your own child.
- Somebody had to point this out to you, and it implies terrible things about your taste in tableware. Not to mention your parenting.
- You keep bumping into people from vastly different historical eras than your own.
- You consider dying to be the most reasonable #lifegoal.
- Someone is being kind to you. So kind, in fact, that you have reason to believe that they might be plotting to kill you.
- You confirm that there is indeed a plot to kill you. It's the opportunity of a lifetime!
- You consciously create a situation that increases their chance of success.
- You either intend to acquire a hoard of gold, or you already possess one.
- You dump it in a body of water simply because you can. Only death is real.
- You would rather die than tell your abductors you dumped the treasure. You encourage them to torture you all they want.
- They offer merciful alternative, you insist that they torture you instead.
- You laugh as you die. Nobody can question it, because you loudly proclaim it in front of everyone within listening distance. Torturous death is but a game to you.
- You are too weak to see or stand upright, but your famous last words consist of a dozen or so stanzas of poetic autobiography.
- Your final words last longer than it took to torture you to death, but you still have a few stanzas to recite and laughing to do. Death must wait patiently.
- Though you are dead, your lifestyle is pretty much the same as before. You still go to parties and sleep with your girlfriend. Your only regret is that you can't die twice.
- When not searching for ways to die, your life/deathstyle consists of hoarding gold, impressing people with your high alcohol tolerance, and humiliating your enemies.
- You leave the land of the dead. You encounter a couple of living folks who believe: A) that they be tripping B) that Ragnarok is upon them. But you're just out to stretch your legs.
- If you're a man: You never shed as much as a single tear your entire life.
- If you're a woman: Inanimate objects and wild animals alike sob uncontrollably in the presence of your sadness, expressing genuine sympathy for you. Unlike every person you've ever met.
- Your boyfriend was a bit of a vegetable. In fact you like to compare him with some sort of allium, like a leek or onion. Those vegetables are amazing, they are to plants what gold is amongst the metals. Life without leek is tragic.
- Tired of life, you toss yourself in the sea. But not even the ocean wants you, you bitch.
- You could swear there were more warriors attending your feast yesterday, than there are ones attending your battle today.
- You own an incredibly ancient and beautiful sword. Sadly, a curse requires that someone must die whenever it is drawn. So much for a conversation piece.
- Luckily, your vanity is only contested by your pathological bloodthirstiness. If people want to see the sword, let them.
- If you follow the trail of clues, you'll see that this entire mess is the fault of a few incompetent fools.
- You know these fools simply as "the gods".
- The only drinking game you know consists of alternating between verbally humiliating others, and bragging about your own greatness.
- Uh-oh! The hostess is angry with her husband and is making a scene in front of the whole party! How embarrassing.
- Atli, put down that spoon. This isn't pork!
- That's your kids you're eating!
- The birds follow your life like they were watching Game of Thrones.
- Amazing! These birds actually talk!
- It's either very wise or extremely foolish to follow their advice.
- Follow their advice or do not follow their advice, you will regret it either way.
- Divorce is settled with the sword, by means of Freudian assasinations in the marital bed.
- Death does not hamper a healthy and active sex life. Your lover need only pass by your grave.
- You're in a complicated relationship with a valkyrie.
- She flew away, literally.
- Your lover uses you as a guinea pig for worrisome potions.
- The enemy says they've murdered your brother and tortured him in blood-curdling ways, but you don't buy what they are selling.
- You demand they stop messing around and do it for real.
- There can be no doubt that this is in fact your brother's heart, still beating as it was torn from his chest! Surely it must have trembled half as much when it lay inside him, greeting death!
- Having confirmed (and possibly caused) your brother's death, it's time for you to follow. They may throw you in the snake-pit now.
- You bring your musical instruments to play as you die the snake-venom death.
- Your soothing and/or boring melodies put the snakes to sleep, just so you can suffer for longer.
So, if you find yourself a true amoral hero after having checked the list above, there's little else to do but face your inescapable demise. Better to embrace it than flee the fate the Norns intended for you. But if you have to die, die cackling!