Thor at the court of Utgarda-Loki: a lesson in Trollish tactics by Jens Bjørneboe (1955)

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Most of you have heard about Thor's journey to Utgard-Loki's fortress, when they were bid inside to prove their worth in the feats that each knew best. But they lost in all of them. For all their efforts, they managed so badly that Utgard-Loki's retinue laughed loudly at them. Everything went badly. They lost at everything, they did everything wrong. Even Thor, the strongest of the gods, turned out really badly, and when they left the Utgard fortress, they were were certain that they would never win over Loki's men.

It was only later that they came to know, that the results might have been different from how things seemed in there. When Thor failed the test of might that was to empty Utgarda-Loki's drinking horn, it was because the horn reached all the way down into the sea, and that it was the great oceans Thor had drunk from, and that he drank so much in the third sip that the ocean had sunk several inches across the whole world, and the people of Utgard were pale with fright.

When Thor had wrestled with the old wench Elli and only managed to force her to down on one knee, it was age itself he had been fighting. And when Thor only managed to lift Utgarda-Loki's cat so high that it barely raised a single paw from the floor, in reality it was none other than the Midgard Serpent he had lifted, and it was so that it almost lost the grip it has around the Earth. And the laughter the gods had heard from the Utgard people had not been laughter at all, but in reality it was Loki's people that screamed with fear.

So it happened that every time Thor's people won a victory, they believed for themselves that they had lost. And the Midgard Serpent is the biggest and last and most horrible of all dragons, and it has coiled itself tightly around the Earth.

Now it is the same way with humans when they try to do something that is good and right: Utgarda-Loki, the king of the Utgard fortress, uses his witchery to make us think that we have lost, or to believe that what a human can manage is so little that there nothing gained in doing it. Because Utgarda-Loki knows that if only humanity loses its courage, then he will be victorious.

But in reality it is so that when the humans lose without losing courage, then Utgarda-Loki's people scream with fear.


Excerpt from the novel Jonas (1955) by Jens Bjørneboe.
Translated and adapted by Eirik Storesund.
Wassail to Kulturverk for the reminder.

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Associated reading:

The Trollish Theory of Art
No Better than the Gods
Fimbulwinter 536 AD

July 18th and the Myth of Harold Fairhair: Some brief reflections on national mythology

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Heyrði í Hafrsfirði,
hvé hizug barðisk
konungr enn kynstóri
við Kjǫtva enn auðlagða;
knerrir kómu austan,
kapps of lystir,
með gínǫndum hǫfðum
ok grǫfnum tinglum.

 

Did you hear in Hafrsfjord
how fiercely they clashed?
The highborn king
against Kjotvi the rich,
ships came from the east,
eager to compete,
with gaping heads
and carved prows!

 

Thus spake the poet Þorbjǫrn Hornklófi in Haraldskvæði, a praise poem in honor of Norways first and unifying king. July 18th celebrates the day of king Haraldr Hárfagri's victory at the Battle of Harfsfjorð and consequently the first (but certainly not the last) unification of the Norwegian Kingdom, traditionally held to have happened in 872. This event is interesting for a number of surprising reasons.

First of all, we don't know when the battle actually happened, or even if it happened at all, so why July 18th? The mundane answer is that July 18th was chosen because this was the only vacant date in the Swedish crown-prince Oscar II's schedule when it came to unveiling of the Haraldshaugen National Monument ("Harold's Barrow") for the 1000 year anniversary of Norway's unification (we were still in union at the time). Surrounded by 28 granite stones, all sourced from the equal number of districts of Harold's conquest, Haraldshaugen's centerpiece consists of a 17 meter obelisk raised on top of king Harold's alleged burial mound. The occasion was a national holiday, and 20.000 visitors descended upon Haugesund to participate, a sizeable crowd for town of only 4000 people at the time.

A plaque at the pillar's base translates:
"Harold Fairhair was buried here in this mound, 933"

But this laconic statement is not true.

The first source to comment upon Harold's burial site is Ágrip, a short royal saga from the turn of the 13th century, whose author identifies the original unifier's barrow on the farm of Hauge by Hasseløysund. Drawing from what seems to be the same tradition, Snorri gives a detailed description of what he considered to be Harold's grave in Heimskringla. He probably visited the site during his tour of Norway in 1218, which would make him an eye-witness to a local historical tradition. The problem is that Snorri seems describe a stone cyst grave, which is not a Viking Period custom. Barring an archaeological anomaly, Snorri must be mistaken.

Snorri's description was picked up by the Icelandic historian Thormod Thorfæus in the 18th century, who was exiled to Norway after a drunken tavern slaying. Thormod, who was no wiser than Snorri in terms of archaeological theory, found no grave at Hauge, but claimed he found the lid of Harold's tomb on the neighboring farm of Gard, where it was used as a threshold, and sometimes a floor for village dances.

Later antiquarians were not so sure, and frequently argued for and against various locations of the burial, including a "Harold's Mound" on the aforementioned farm Hauge, which had been turned into a root cellar by the local peasants. Though archaeological evidence on Gard was lacking, the identification of a Medieval church site was taken to confirm Snorri's account, and a series of vague exchanges, with ample help from a popular poem by Ivar Aasen, cemented the notion that Gard was indeed the site of of Harold's burial. Among the barely discernible graves on the site, none of which fit Snorri's original description, the monument was raised in part thanks to a populist appeal by prominent local citizens, on what seems to be a Bronze Age cairn with no evidence of a secondary, Viking Age, burial.

This isn't the only scrutiny poor Harold has suffered. Many historians have questioned the narrative of national unification presented by Snorri and other Medieval chroniclers, and some have even gone so far as to question whether Harold ever lived at all, or if he is simply a figment of political propaganda. For all intents and measures, a Medieval PSYOP. This extreme reductionist stance inadvertently highlights an interesting point: What does "being real" mean in the context of a legend? Whether or not Harold lived as his saga describes, the man only set the ball rolling: the myth far outshines the human being.

In the context of myth, a narrative is true: The myth was real enough to Norse monarchs, who attached actions with very real and tangible results to the idea. As myth, Harold is the founding father of not one, but two nations: Iceland and Norway, who interpret his role divergenly as either a manifestation of Norwegian ethnolinguistic integrity, or a catalyst for an apparently innate Icelandic desire to serve no masters, and suffer no tyrants.

The transition of Harold from a man of flesh and blood into a larger than life entity began with the skaldic poetry celebrating him, and he has been a symbol and a tool ever since. It laid the foundation for a myth of origin, which Norway could cling to on the path to independence in the very far removed historical context of the nation state. In that regard, Haraldshaugen remains an anachronism, but one that demonstrates the continuity of a heroic and legendary figure whose real personality eludes us. Above all, it highlights the power of stories.


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No Better Than The Gods: Divine Incompetence in Norse Mythology and the Shortcomings of Humanity

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The gods have made terrible mistakes, it's nothing short of a divine tragedy. We came late in the movie, but the story goes, that by the time man entered the world scene, whether it was as a corrective measure, a supplement to the divine plan, or an act of cosmic love, the world had already started its downward tumble. You see, Norse cosmology describes a world plunged into a dramatic, continuous crisis that will outlast the universe.

As the senile resembles a newborn child, the end must necessarily reflect the beginning. Before the world that you and I live in, there was something else – a non-ambitious chaotic expanse where the giant Ymir lived. But he had to die to accommodate creation. And though the gods were happy for a while, it could not last. The golden age came and went. A world must end for things to return to what they were. A process nobody would survive. The gods of Norse mythology are flawed, like us. And like us they struggle to come to terms with things beyond their control. Incompetent beyond their talents, predestined to fail, doomed to drop cosmic turds where they eat.

It's frequently said that the gods of polytheistic ethnic religions have human qualities. But within the internal logic of these belief systems, it's really the other way around. It's mankind that resembles the gods. What does that imply about us in the context of Norse cosmology, where the gods are aware of future outcomes, yet try and fail to change them? I believe there are indeed a few profound philosophical takeaways.

It seems a certain wistfulness and ambiguity permeated the latter stages of the pre-Christian worldview. It could also be that these sources were curated by medieval Christian scholars who took the introspective, self-critical implications of pagan cosmology as a sign of weakness. We don't know why some eddic poems survived, and others did not, but in many of them the ghost of future doom looms, while ironic tragedy sits at the root of all. Then again, I am prone to sentimental gloom. I have my biases.

The Norse physical cosmos was imperfect, but unlike transcendent religions such as Christianity, there was no heaven, no immaculate and immaterial plane of existence beyond. Instead, the layer cake model of Norse cosmology worked in accordance with the axiom that whatever goes up must also come down. The afterlife, if anything, is like a waiting room for the cosmic reset.

These imperfections were not quite the result of any original sin. It makes more sense to think of them as engineering errors in the supporting structure of reality. The sandy soil that swallows the cathedral. Throughout the sources, the gods appear to make regular mistakes, and it probably goes back to the fact that they lacked the skills or means to make a singular, self-supporting cosmos. Certain things are always out of reach, even to gods.

Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

 

Ár var alda

In the beginning there was the death blow. In Norse mythology, the killing of the cosmic giant Ymir marks the first act of creation. Ymir becomes the first victim, the first product, and the first artifice. The dismemberment of the victim was equal to the parting of earth and sky. The body parts and fluids of the cosmic being were the raw materials of all creation, laid out across the periodic table of the elements. The act of killing as primary creative act, though mythological, is probably telling for how Norse polytheists perceived ontological reality, and I think the metaphor works still: No pain, no gain.

Take a step back and cast one glance at the greater picture, or reach for your nearest physics book. You'll see that perpetuity and permanence are not of this world. Nothing lasts forever. The gods gave their permanence for The World, which is defined by agency and eternal conflict between biological, chemical and geological processes. The world is entirely reliant on competitive balance and antagonism. The gods created the world not as an act of love, but to express their ambition, to spite nature and chaos, represented by the jǫtnar – the giants.

How can there be reconciliation. Gods and giants keep each other in check, like yin and yang. One cannot, should not, defeat the other. The cosmos would not survive as we know it. The world must seem bittersweet to the gods, who are doomed to maintain their creation – yet, the biggest threat is the very ground their creation rests on, as the sinkhole grows ever wider. In the tragic irony of it all, they themselves threaten creation. The world is a twofold and ambivalent place, without the luxury of a clear distinction between good and evil: The gods themselves carry double-edged swords.

Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

 

The age of man

The most common cosmic denominator in Old Norse is heimr, meaning «home, where something belongs». The universe of Norse mythology is full of such homeworlds. But there is also verǫld – which is a cognate of English world. The etymology concerns us here because it literally means «age of man». Perhaps it is a vestige of a prehistoric, non-linear view of history, where time was cyclical. The latter phase of Norse paganism as we see through our sources, is uncharacteristically eschatological for a polytheistic ethnic religion. It gives the impression that the Vikings were obsessed with the end of the world. They did not believe the world would go on forever, but come to a halt soon enough.

But whether or not this was an indigenous feature of pagan Scandinavia, or a sneaking realization that came to them like a thief in the night, it must refelct how many pagans felt at the threshold of conversion, when the temples were razed, and the idols smashed. The world we see, the Age of Man, is an intermediate phase. It's not the first nor the last. If the mythical poem Vǫluspá, The Prophecy of the Seeress, in its most popular redaction is representative of a pre-Christian timeline of mythical and cosmic events, then man did not even exist during the Golden Age. Mankind is a later invention, perhaps even a trick of the gods, who struggled to maintain their work. As someone to stirr the pot as they tended to business. Whatever their reasoning, the gods were invested in man:

Vǫluspá says the gods were loving – ástgir – when they gave us life. It is noteworthy that this is the only instance in the eddic literature where the gods express love towards mankind. According to mythic time, man has experienced only a glimpse, a mere few frames of the grand cosmic display. Yet if man wasn't present when the world was young, the myths state he will live to see Ragnarǫk. He will witness the end of creation, and the end of the gods. Ragnarǫk comes from regin «the gods», literally «those who keep council» and rǫk, which can mean «something that belongs», or «development, destiny, verdict». This divine verdict is the natural result of the carefully balanced, yet delicate cosmic order. 

Acting against the inevitable

Thor's greatest enemy is Jǫrmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. It's imperative that he fights against it, even though it's coiled around the world, and keeps it from falling apart. Pre-Christian skaldic poets associate the creature with much dread, but Thor is locked in an impossible situation: He has the task of carrying out preemptive strikes against monsters and giants, but this protective function is itself a great threat to cosmic stability. When Odin seeks wisdom and advantage, he does so through self-mutilation and vulnerability. He gives up an eye, commits suicide, starves, and lets himself be taken captive.

Freyr gives up his sword out of love-sickness towards the giantess Gerdr. A compromise that later proves deadly when the giants carry it to the final battle against the gods. The gods sacrifice power, body parts, and technology for the vain hope of an upper hand against the giants. The protector destroys! The god of sexual fertility and social status makes himself and impotent! They are merely stalling. Ironically, it may even seem that all their efforts only serve to enable the coming disaster.

The wisdom they accumulate doesn't help them in the long run. The formula doesn't add up, the norns are drunk behind the spinning wheel. Any Norse and Germanic hero knows that is useless to fight one's forlǫg – the predetermined premise of every life: fate! Surely Odin, who sees everything, must understand that his battle can't be won. He sees everything, yet he is blind to the vanity of effort. He is doomed, yet he tries. How telling, how inspirational. This is wisdom we may draw from the poems Hymiskviða, Vǫluspá, and Skírnismál: All that exists does so at the expense of something else, and must be absorbed by something else once it ceases to be. The world clock ticks ever on towards the hour of entropy. The existence of the subject affects the existence of the object. There is no such thing as free lunch – everything has its price.

Thermodynamics and mythical reality

The root of this sad state runs deep. It goes all the way back to the Bronze Age, when Proto-Indo-European pastoral nomads scattered across Eurasia on horseback. Not wholly unlike the gods, these riders were armed not only with superior technology, but with martial ideologies and a will to power unlike anything else. A culture that realized that nothing comes from nothing, that nothing is forever, and that destruction is a sibling of creation. Though harsh as it first may seem, the thought is actually a beautiful one. An undivided theory of nature, a holistic space of equal parts joy and sorrow. Birth, death, and rebirth were allies then. Subjectively speaking, and this is a subjective essay, I believe there are truths in these ideas. Some less comfortable than others. To live includes the anguish of choice. And it is a recognizable feature to many Western cultures still. In many Western democracies, not voting is presented as an immoral lack of action. It is an expression of this line of reasining, that you should prefer the terror of choice over the comfort of inaction. Norse religious practice itself was not overtly speculative, but based around cult, ritual and sacrifice. Do ut des, something for something. I give so you may give in return.

The above view of reality, which I associate with a certain existential wistfulness, is not dreadful but conductive of a certain drive of longing. Action is a consequence of the natural order of things, and the view seems supported not by the Eddas, but also in the concept of prakṛti in Hindu philosophy. Prakṛti means «nature», and states that all things stand in relation to creation, preservation, and destruction. By analogy my mind drifts to the Norse concept of eðli, which may be translated as any living creature's innate nature, essential traits and tendencies, individually and categorically. The word is related to the contemporary Scandinavian word 'edel' (Old Norse aðal) meaning «noble, pure». It is the eagle's eðli that it flies higher than many other birds, to take a real example of its use in the sources. It would also apply to the fact that humans dream, create artifacts, and speak.

When the gods bound the Fenris wolf, they first needed to exhaust something – his fetters were fashioned from the breath of fish, women's beards and the roots of the mountains. These things are depleted, they no longer exist. But even this was ultimately not enough to contain the beast. There is still no such thing as a free lunch.

Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Ragnarok as inner struggle

As I've already gone into, man appears as a theomorphic being. That is to say, we resemble the gods, with all their faults and humiliations. We cannot naturally exceed our blueprints, or their faults and merits. We have our own demons to battle, and World Serpents to lift. We suffer in the crossfire of a deadly battlefield, wedged between the un-nature of lofty, self-righteous gods on the one hand, and the non-culture of cruel, venomous giants. This is the field of reality. If there feral meadowlands were kept in check, they would strangle the cultivated field. But a field unchained, which is a notion belonging in myths of bygone golden ages, where wheat fields sowed themselves (not unlike wild flora), would do equal harm to nature. In this day and age, the question is not whether or not such a field can exist, but how to keep GMOs from destroying ecosystems. This is far from a golden age.

If man derives from the gods, then we should recall that the gods themselves have giant ancestry. Reptile brains that betray the so-called better angels of our nature, grappling with the selfish gene of civilization. It's revealing that when Thor first raised his hammer to crush the serpent's head, their eyes met in symmetrical opposition – like mirror images of each other. The gazer into the abyss and the abyss that gazes back. Thor would finally kill the serpent at Ragnarǫk. In Vǫluspá it is in fact the very last thing that happens before the sun extinguishes, and the earth sinks into the ocean. Stars drop from the collapsing, flaming heavens.

The final blow that ends the universe as we know it, was dealt by its alleged protector. On a microcosmic level, Cultured Man raises the hammer against his own head. He hopes to smash the reptile brain contained within himself, where his urges and most primal, savage, troll instincts dwell. Seeking to beat the life out of the giant of Natural Man, the pre-human hominid, or troll man, in the heat of the moment unable to realize that he would only be killing himself. Man is himself ambiguous. He always struggles with the real and ideal, against the healthy and the unhealthy.

He struggles to balance the beautiful, true, and good, against that equal portion of his self that pertains to the ugly, false, and bad. That which unites beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the good and the bad, that is truly sacred.

The Faustian eddas

A common feature of many old cultures is that the world was perceived through the lens of biological processes. The German philosopher and speculative historian Oswald Spengler was inspired by this sort of thought when he published his magnum opus, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), in 1918. He suggested that human society mirrored the cycle of life and death, very much like we may perceive it in nature. Like a flower, cultures grow, bloom, then ultimately; they die.

Spengler considered civilization to be the final stage before a culture dies. Western civilization would be no different, though it might be too vain to realize it. In the eyes of Spengler, cultural decline is like a body that withers in old age. The ruins of the modern West will sooner or later adorn the museums alongside Assyrian bas-reliefs. A melancholy, but beautiful idea in its own way.

Spengler asserts that the tragic soul of each culture is embedded its archetypes, in their folk heroes and the beings they communicate with in their popular narratives. In his gallery of civilizational archetypes, the spirit of the West belongs to the archetype of doctor Faustus, the misguided alchemist who met his demise in accordance with the same methods through which he tried to achieve greatness. To Spenglers credit, it would seem that the Western world does tend adopt a can-do sentiment where whatever problem and obstacle is simply a symptom of transition, a childhood illness, that everything will work out if we just keep on trucking. Thereby not realizing that the transition is not temporary, all is flowing, all the time.

Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Like the audience of a play, we observe that Odin and the good doctor Faustus should know better, yet the ironic fruit of their actions is lost on them. But we might realize that we are not so different. That the story is really our own. Laugh or cry, the means by which we survive in our day-to-day lives, and as a society, triangulate our ultimate ends.

Perhaps subconciously planned obsolecence is part of the eðli, the essence, of sentience. Are we alone in the universe? Drake's equation states that space – according to statistics – should be teeming with life, so where is everybody? The Fermi paradox tries to address this one fundamental problem since, considering the age of the universe, it should be expected that several civilizations possess sufficient technology for interstellar travel. Yet such civilizations are nowhere to be seen. It could simply be that no such life-form has yet survived itself. That they failed some ultimate test, whether they depleted their resources, died in a nuclear holocaust, or otherwise went the way of the dodo.

If so, what are the chances of mankind surviving its own obsolescence? Is life itself Faustian? We may write empassioned transhumanist manifestos, and ceaselessly launch rocket phalluses towards the star-spangled womb of space, but perhaps we cannot escape the ambivalent seed within ourselves.

The gods themselves are not eternal, and man is not destined for immortality. The amoral hero of the epics and heroic lays becomes a hero the moment he goes full circle in realizing his own vanity.  Only in death may he be elevated into godhood, to sit in the high seat and drink with the gods, as the poems describe. And so the tragic hero often bends his head, allowing the blow to occur. If mankind's genealogy is divine, we are no better than the gods.

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How many dead warriors can you fit in Valhalla? Notes on Viking and Hindu numerology

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This is not a clown car joke. Neither is it a rhetorical question. This very subject is actually addressed in a particular stanza of the eddic lay Grímnismál, wedged in between other nuggets of cosmic knowledge. Never heard of it? Let me give you a quick run down.

Grímnismál - The Sayings of the Concealed One

Our story begins when Odin and his wife, the all wise goddess Frigg, were sitting in the high seat Hlíðskjálf, from whence they could observe the entire world. They noticed the brothers Agnar and Geirrǫd, whom they had kept in foster care when they were children. Look, says Odin; Agnar hasn't amounted to anything at all - he spends all his days boning an ogress! Sad. But look at my boy Geirrǫd here! He's a king, he's got his own country and everything! Now Frigg cast eyes on her husband, and told him that hardly had there ever lived a king more cruel: Geirrǫd is the worst host, she said, and he tortures his guests if he thinks the hall is too crowded. That's a damnable lie, Odin snapped back, rolling his eye, but Frigg insisted it was true. Then husband and wife decided to settle it with a wager to put Geirrǫd's hospitality to the test. Odin went to chieftain's hall disguised as a drifter and called himself Grímnir - the concealed one. But Frigg had sent her servant ahead to rig the game against him, and told the king to be weary of the incoming stranger.

As you can imagine, this only served to whet Geirrǫd's curiosity about the old hobo, but Grímnir revealed nothing but his name when asked. Soon enough the host's patience was exhausted. No more mister nice guy, he might have said, as he made a shibari display of Grímnir between two great fires. For eight full nights he was roasted, but still he revealed nothing. Then Geirrǫd's son, called Agnar after his uncle, thought it was too terrible to see an old man tormented like this. He filled a horn with drink and offered it to Grímnir, whose cape was now beginning to catch fire. The captive chugged down the horn's contents, and immediately started spilling some cosmic beans.

This is where the prologue ends and the actual poem Grímnismál starts, with Odin thanking the boy and giving a lengthy description of the structure of the universe, as well as various past and future events. He talks about the various estates of gods and superhuman entities, of divine animals, and how the various sectors of the cosmos connect through a system of rivers emanating from the cosmic spring Hvergelmir. He ends with a list of his miscellaneous identities, revealing himself as none other than the god Odin. Oh shi- Geirrǫd exclaimed as he got up from his chair, leaping to free the prisoner, but instead he tripped and fell on his sword - killing himself. It is said that Agnar lived a long and prosperous life.

The magic of numbers

But long before this, in stanza 23, Odin-Grímnir touches upon the spaciousness of Valhalla, which contains "five hundred and forty doors", and through each there are "eight hundred champions [Einherjar]" who shall pass through them when Ragnarǫk finally comes:

Fimm hundruð dura
ok umb fjórum t
ǫgum,
svá hygg ek á Valhǫllu vera;
átta hundruð Einherja
ganga senn ór einum durum,
þá er þeir fara við vitni at vega.

Five hundred doors
and then forty more
I think there are in Valhalla;
eight hundred champions
shall walk through each
when they go to battle the wolf.

I love how even Odin struggles to remember what his own house looks like. But what do these numbers really mean, and how many warriors can we actually fit in Valhalla according to this passage? There are two possible answers to this. First of all, the word hundred didn't always stand equal to the number 100 as it does today. In the viking age, as with the middle ages, the Norse number system conventionally thought of a hundred (hundruð) as the sum of twelve times ten. I.e. 120.

This is usually called a long hundred in current English, or alternately a great hundred (Norwegian: storhundre). I first stumbled across this discussion in Andreas Nordberg's influential PhD dissertation called Krigarna i Odins Sal ["The Warriors in Odin's Hall"], where he seems to mention it mostly as a curiosity. A minor detour to his academic road trip of discourse on the aristocratic warrior cult of Odin.

But as I was saying. If the composer of Grímnismál, when saying hundred, actually meant one hundred and twenty in accordance with the oldest convention, then the equation should go like this:

640×960 = 614,400

In other words, Valhalla should be able to fit just about half a million people. That's guests, mind you. I've not taken the waiting and kitchen staff into account, neither have I considered janitors or cleaning ladies. Odin leaves all of that to our imaginations. Never the less it beats the crap out of the Jehovah's Witnesses' measly claim to a full capacity of 144,000 souls in Paradise. However, if for some reason we assume that the author of Grímnismál had our current concept of hundred in mind, that is to say, that one hundred equals 100, then we get a different equation and a far more interesting sum:

540×800 = 432,000

There are a number of reasons why this number is interesting, so keep on reading. First of all we have a similar account of a troop tally in the first lay of Helgi Hundingsbana ("Helgi Hunding's Bane"), in which the hero states there are "twelve hundred trusty men, though in Hátúna ["The High Estate"] twice as many" (stanza 25). Let us do this calculation twice, like we did above, but this time we shall start with the numbers at face value, disregarding our expectation that the author understood "hundred" as the number 120, rather than 100:
 

1200 + 1200×2 = 3600

A very unassuming number indeed. But let's see what happens when we do it again with the archaic long hundred:

1440 + 1440×2 = 4320

That amounts to exactly 1/100 of the number of champions in Valhalla according to Grímnismál, which we saw could fit as many as 432,000 people! But as we recall, this was only when we used the opposite counting system, disregarding the long hundred altogether. So what does this mean? It could be that both poets intended to reach these numbers, but used differing numerical systems to reach them. But why?

432000, multiplications of three, and the Indo-European connection

If you thought this was trippy, you've got another thing coming. The number 432,000 occurs in another, more famous context, namely Hindu texts: 432,000 is the exact number of solar years in the Kali Yuga, which is the final epoch of the Hindu cosmic cycle before the world destroys itself and a new cycle and golde era begins. The entire cycle, by the way, lasts 4,320,000 years according to the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, which it equates to 12,000 "divine years" (120×100). Puranic literature alleges that the Kali Yuga began roughly 5000 years ago, in the year 3102 BC (corresponding roughly with the aegan bronze age), when the god Krishna left his earthly body, having been shot dead by a stray arrow in a hunting accident. Similarly, the Norse god Baldr was shot dead by the blind god Hǫðr, and this too may be considered a point of no return in Norse mythology, opening the path to Ragnarǫk itself.

Nordberg mentions (on page 230) that scholars have been hard pressed to find a plausible connection between these numerical phenomena. There is no evidence for any continuity between these beliefs back to a common Proto-Indo-European origin, apart from the fact that both may draw from a common Indo-European counting system. As for numbers in Indo-European cultures, that's a fascinating subject in itself.

Any fool that ever cast a quick glance at Norse mythology will be struck by the emphasis put on the number three, as well as its multiplications. Particularly the numbers nine and twelve. Gods and other divine beings often operate in units of three, and mythical events are frequently divided into three phases. The same applies to the number nine, like the cosmological concept of níu heimar – the nine worlds – cryptically alluded to in eddic poetry. In the legendary sagas, berserkers frequently appear in groups of twelve, a peculiar principle they share with outlaws and bandits in later Norwegian ballads and folk tales. It's probably no accident that our poem deals with Grímnir being tortured for eight whole nights: Necessarily, he finds respite on the beginning of the ninth day.

As we've already seen, these numbers may be a feature inherited from a common Indo-European source. The study of numbers in comparative mythology recalls the work of the mythographical scholar Georges Dumézil, who alleged that tripartite socio-religious patterns were characteristic of all Indo-European religions, and consequently the Proto-Indo-European culture itself. This formed the basis for social stratification in Indo-European ideology, with a societal hierarchy of priest-rulers, warriors, and producers. To Dumézil, the trinity of Odin, Thor, and Freyr described by Adam of Bremen at the Temple of Uppsala, generally reflect the same ideas and origins as the Hindu caste system, for example.

While Dumézil might be on to something, his model works best if we choose to cherry pick and simplify our body of evidence. For example, the Hindu caste system operates with four rather than three distinct classes. Any overly rigid application of tripartite theory seems bound to fall apart when faced with the inconsistencies and variations of our evidence. Units of three seem universal, but the contents of these units are unstable. But that is a subject for another time.

Fimbulwinter 536 AD: Ragnarok, demographic collapse, and the end of Proto-Norse language

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The gods have abandoned you. The sun's rays are fainter than they used to be. Dim and barely discernible behind a misty veil that stretches across the sky in all directions, reaching far beyond the horizon. You are weak and sickly, your stomach grumbles but there is nothing eat. The pantry is empty and the crops won't grow. It should have been summer by now in this year of constant twilight, but the soil is still frozen. The year is 536, and in Byzantium the chronicler Procopius writes:

It came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

Crisis on a cosmic scale

Irish annals attest to famine, of crop failures and shortages of bread. A dense expanse of fog is described in both Europe and the Middle East. Summer snow is reported as far away as China, where witnesses claim to have heard a powerful boom emanating from the South the year before. In Scandinavia, researchers will later find evidence of severe retardation in tree growth at this point in time owing it to climactic instability, with tree rings bearing tell-tale signs of frost damage in the summer of 536. In the district of Jæren, South-West Norway – a comparatively fertile area by Norwegian standards, archaeologists see indications of agricultural collapse. There must have been famine, pestilence, social and political turmoil. Generations of accumulated power must have poured like sand between the fingers of ancient dynasties and prestigious families. Winter followed winter, without the pleasant respite of summer. Beneath the seemingly dying sun a wolf and axe age erupted. Brothers clashed against their brethren, spawning a militant reorganization of society.

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

We are not entirely sure what caused these terrible and cataclysmic events, or where it all started. Most scholars argue in favor of a super-volcanic eruption. Others suggest it could have been caused by a bombardment of meteorites, which would have flung dust high into the atmosphere, causing a global cooling event. There is also some evidence to suggest an unlucky combination of both. The eighteen kilometer wide Grendel crater, which lies at the bottom of the sea in Skagerrak, betwixt Norway, Sweden and Denmark, may have been created at this time. A meteorite this size would certainly have unleashed a massive tsunami as well, eradicating nearby coastal settlements. Whatever the origin, we may all agree on one single thing: This must have been a terrible time to be European.

But it didn't end there. Just when the North was getting back on its feet, Mother Nature threw another punch: Only five years later, between 541 and 542, the Justinian plague spreads across Europe, «by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated» Procopius states. Historians speculate it might have killed off just about 50% of the European population at the time. The bacterium in question was the dreaded Yersinia pestis, a pathogen of the same breed as the Black Death that swept across the world in the mid-1300's.

 

 

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

From the ashes came a new language

As grim as it must have been to live through these decades, it's an exciting period from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. We may identify and reconstruct ancient linguistic shifts, but we are often clueless about their exact causes. But the extreme conditions following the 536 crisis lead to one of the most prominent linguistic transitions in Scandinavian history, comparable only to the changes caused by the black death some 800 years later. The 6th century climate crisis coincides with the demise of the Proto-Norse language, which in turn gave rise to an early form of Old Norse.

Proto-Norse, originally a dialect of North Germanic, is the language of the oldest runic inscriptions, and you could say that Proto-Norse is the grandfather of all the North Germanic languages. This metaphor is striking for a somewhat bleak reason: Judging from runic inscriptions, the language developed so rapidly that the younger generation must have spoken a distinctly different language from their grandparents. But not due to an external linguistic influence. It's indicative of a demographic crisis: Vast portions of the population were dying, and they must have died young.

I'll use my name as an example: Had I been born around the middle of the 6th century, my Proto-Norse speaking parents would have known me as *Ainaríkiaʀ, or “Single Ruler” in modern English. Had I, on the other hand, been born in the second half of the 7th century, my name would have been something akin to *Ęinríkʀ, and Eiríkr not long after that. Easily recognizable in the modern variants Eirik, Erik, Eric, and so on. If I was proficient in runes, I mightstill discern the phonological content of centuries old inscriptions carved in the elder fuþark script, but their linguistic contents would have seemed as alien as any foreign language.

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

Ragnarok as collective trauma

1500 years later, historians would start using words like the late Antique little ice age and the crisis of the sixth century to describe these events. In Scandinavia a handful of researchers, notably the Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund, would begin to see these events in light of the Eddic poems and Norse mythology. Suddenly, the words Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok are featured in conference presentations about frost damaged growth rings, an increase in votive sacrifices in the late migration era, and extraterrestrial particles in Greenlandic ice cores.

It's been speculated that Ragnarok, the mythological end of the world, is a cultural recollection of the 6th century crisis. Sources forebode it by social conflict and ecological disaster, including three winters with no summer between them, stars falling from the heavens, societal collapse and extinction. The fact that Norse religion had such a prominent eschatological myth sets it apart from most other ethnic and polytheistic religions. Perhaps the story of Ragnarok was really a fossilized, metaphorical account of the traumatic experiences of their migration era ancestors.

I suppose we are all children of our time in one way or another, and this is mirrored in our interpretations of the sources. Many German philologists of the 1930's were obsessed with secret ocieties of ecstatic warrior-initiates, and cultic male bonding. The 1970's gave rise to eroticized readings of the myths, as well as feminist revisions that that say more about the effects of the sexual revolution, than they do about Norse religion. The study of Indo-European mythologies itself became a decidedly unsexy topic for decades in the post-war era. From this it should be clear that we always ought to stop and question the scope and agenda of current antiquarian sciences. Popular research topics may reveal as much about our own age as they may about the past. Ecology and pluralism are both strong features of public discussion today, and is inevitably reflected in archaeology and historiography. Climate change as a doomsday scenario affects our view of the world, therefore it provides a reasonable trigger of application to the soft sciences. Critics of this theory may think it a little far out, and I agree that the 536-event can't account for the entirety of Norse eschatology. Regardless, the disastrous events have left a significant mark on Scandinavian Iron Age society.

I wonder which myths will come of us.

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist

valknut2.png

It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.

This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.

At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.

Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.

I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.

 

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum


*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different

Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork. 

As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.

This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.

The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.

They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.

 

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.

A multivalent symbol

While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.

It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.

 

The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in  other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use. 

The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol. 

Conclusion

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.

I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.



Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse metaphysics pt. 2)

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In this second part of my series on Norse metaphysics, we're going to look at one of the most important, fascinating, and complicated terms in Norse magic: Seiðr (anglicized seid), a specific magical practice, closely associated with spinning and textile work, sexual taboos, and possibly trance and ritual ecstasy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misattributed terms in the study of pre-Christian magic. No wonder, though; the sources leave a lot to the imagination.

Magical misunderstandings 

We're dealing with two main misconceptions. Firstly, seiðr is often confused with siðr – mostly among non-scholars. Though similar in spelling, the two terms have widely different content and etymologies: Seiðr is restricted to a specific magical practice, while siðr refers to abstract notions of “tradition, paradigm, custom”. In short, siðr is the closest thing the Old Norse tongue had to a word for religion, before Christianity appeared with the concept of trú (faith). This goes back to the fact that Norse pagans did not see religion as something distinctly separate from society. The separation of religion and cultural custom was originally inconceivable, as it was an ethnic religion. In such a system one is born and raised according to a certain set of customs and beliefs particular to your family or ethnolinguistic group, but I digress.

The second misconception relates specifically to the contents of seiðr in magical terminology. Namely the idea that seiðr originally referred to Norse magic in the broadest sense – that seiðr is any given kind magic in the Norse world – which is inaccurate, though some sources make such generalizations. For example, medieval translators may reach for seiðr when they need a convenient native word for magic when working with continental sources. It's a mistake commonly found in academic works, perhaps written by scholars who may not be specifically interested in the technical peculiarities of the history of magic. For example, Rudolf Simek – otherwise a true pillar of the academic community – writes in his highly influential Dictionary of Northern Mythology that galdr (“chant, incantation, spell”) is: “an element of the Old Scandinavian magical practices (seiðr)” (Simek 2007: 97). However the sources do not correlate these terms: Seiðr doesn't pretend to be “magic in general”. Moreover, there is no evidence or reason to consider galdr a practice tangibly subordinate to seiðr, though galdr occurs alongside seiðr in certain sources.

Swooping around secondary literature (or online), one may also encounter off-hand comparisons between seiðr and shamanism. I've even seen seiðr referred to as a kind of “Norse shamanism”. I think one should avoid applying this term to the Norse tradition, and please excuse my pedantry. The comparison itself is not helpful without further elaboration, given the large variety of ideas behind such a casually thrown about word. However, it is true that there are qualities to seiðr that are also found in certain traditions, that are conventionally referred to as “shamanistic”. Such as otherworldly visions and what we will call “spirit emissaries”.

Reconstructing seiðr from vocabulary and etymology

So far, we've focused on the things that seiðr is not. To recap, seiðr appears to have been a specific practice, and not all viking age magicians did it. From now on we'll be addressing method and its practitioners, starting with a tentative analysis of vocabulary. For example, one verb associated with performing seiðr is efla - “to prepare, perform, arrange”. In the context of ritual, this same verb is also associated with performing blót, or “sacrificial ceremony/feast”, which was the main expression of public religion in the viking era. From this we may assume that seiðr fell into the category of ceremony, consisting of a series of rituals and rites. In the study of religions, rites are the building blocks of ritual. A rite is any individual gesture, movement or action (for example: a prayer), which may join in a sequence to form a ritual. For example, a prayer may be followed by an offering of food or drink. When several rituals come together they form a ceremony. One may have a procession, followed by a petitioning of the gods, followed by sacrifice, followed by a feast – all with their individual minor rites. If this assumption is correct, it would seem that that the performance of seiðr took the shape of a prepared, sequential event. This also how it is described in Eiríks saga rauða, which gives an elaborate description of such a séance involving a vast number of items and gestures. It also suggests that the seeress was a respected specialists that traveled to offer her services. By the way: A supplement containing a translation of this passage is available to my patrons.

Practitioners and titles

Magic itself is commonly referred to as fjölkynngi which means something akin to “manifold wisdom”. Linguistically, it is associated with the folkloric concept of cunning folk, broadly an umbrella term for European folk magicians of all kinds. Those who possess fjölkynngi are sometimes described as versed in seiðr. There are also specific titles such as seiðkona (“seid-woman”) and seiðmaðr (“seid-man”). The late 12th century king's saga Ágrip recounts that king Harold Fairhair's 20th (!) son, Rögnvald, was a “seid-man, that is to say a seer” (seiðmaðr, þat er spámaðr). The female counterpart is commonly referred to as a spákona, and adds to the general impression that divination (spá) was one essential quality of seiðr. Ágrip also refers to Rögnvald as a skratti, a sorcerer/warlock, which is a common derogatory title for male practitioners, apparently related to Old English scritta “hermaphrodite” (see below for seiðr and sexual taboos).

The practice is further associated with a particular female ritual specialist called a völva (plural völur), conventionally translated as “seeress, oracle”, and is used interchangeably with spákona. The title seems to derive from völr, meaning “stick, staff, wand”. Staffs are also associated with the völur in described in Eiríks saga rauða and Laxdæla saga. With the former described as decorated with gems and brass fittings, and the latter referred to simply as a seiðstafr – “seid staff” (Heide 2006a: 251).

 

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Incidentally, this may be tied to ornamented iron staffs found in several viking era female burials, which bear a striking resemblance to some varieties of traditional distaffs. Scholars generally agree that these may indeed have been magical wands associated with the völur and used for seiðr. This is a theory commonly associated with the work of Neil Price and Leszek Gardeła, with the latter having recently published an entire book on to this subject. These distaff-like staffs lead us to our next point, namely the practice of seiðr and its relationship to spinning and textile work.

Seiðr as magical textile work

Literally, seiðr appears to mean “thread, cord, snare, halter”, according to Eldar Heide. His 2006 doctoral thesis “Gand, seid og åndevind” [Gand, seid, and spirit-wind] is by far the most comprehensive linguistic and philological study on the subject of seiðr. His work is noteworthy not only for the heavy and technical use of etymology, and the pre-Christian traditions of the neighboring Sami people. He also uses later folklore to point out interesting analogies.

 

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

One of Heide's key points is that magicians were believed to send their mind forth in spirit form to do tasks outside of the body. In this he points to an apparent continuity of motifs from later folklore to pre-Christian times, which also includes a parallel notion of magic manifesting as wind – which associates the spirit with breath – which we shall get into later on. Both the will of the magician, and magical winds, could be visualized as something spun, such as a thread or a ball of yarn. For example: Witches in later times were believed to be able to steal milk from other peoples' cows by milking a rope (Heide 2006b: 165). It is significant to Heide's interpretation that the tugging motion involved in milking resembles the pulling of a rope or cord, since seiðr – as we shall see – seems primarily concerned with attracting or pulling things.

Moreover, Heide leans on the consensus that seiðr was a practice in which the magician used spinning to conjure spirits, for example to help her see geographically or temporally distant events. However, his main emphasis lies in the deployment of the magician's mind, or rather what he calls a “mind-in-shape emissary”, a spirit visualized as a cord or line, which may be sent forth to perform various tasks. It has been suggested, based on the meaning “snare”, that seiðr related to binding spells common throughout western magical traditions, but Heide considers this explanation too simple: “Binding is not very characteristic of seiðr. However, with a cord, one can not only bind, but also attract things, and this is characteristic of seiðr” (Heide 2006b:164). Heide seems to keeps a relatively strict emphasis on how words are contextualized in the primary sources. Based on this he asserts that: “Seiðr (initially) seems to be all about the spinning, and sending of, and attraction with, and manipulation by, a spirit-cord” (Heide 2006a: 237).

It should then make sense to us why the völva would carry a staff as an attribute, and why such wands take the shape of distaffs. Notably, this magic could be done on a dedicated platform, a seiðhjallr (hjallr means “platform, scaffold, loft”). Heide remarks: “When one is spinning, one would want to sit high above ground. Because this allows one to spin longer before one has to stop and wind the thread around the spindle” (Heide 2006a: 254).

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

The aforementioned mind-in-shape emissary, or “magic projectile”, is sometimes called gandr (anglicized gand). This is an extremely conflated term that literally means “staff, stick, wand”, but takes a wide array of forms and connotations in viking era, medieval, and also later sources. They may come in the form of not only a cord, but an animal such as a fly, a clawed beast, or even a “spirit-penis”, which may irritate or hook into the skin, or force its way through respiratory passages and bodily orifices. The emissary may also serve as a “supernatural spy drone” or manipulate objects. I must however be noted that such spirit emissaries, even when they attract and manipulate, needn't always be associated with seiðr or gandr. Rather, they may be features of the magical worldview of the pre-enlightenment Nordic area.

All in all, Heide points out two main properties of seiðr according to the primary sources:

  1. A spirit emissary that attracts resources or individuals, like a cord.

  2. Divination, which makes sense if fate was visualized linearly as a thread, which could be manipulated.

At first this may seem constricted, but seen collectively seiðr comes across as very versatile. It is ascribed to the conjuring of storms, making people vulnerable (or invincible), invisibility, killing, and even driving whole groups of people to suicide.

The gender norms and sexual taboos of Seiðr

In its apparent relation to spinning and textile work, it came to be associated mainly with women, as this was their domain within the Norse household. Textile work also had strong connotations to the concept of fate. As such, women are often ascribed strong intuition – and in the sagas it's not unusual for weaving to be associated with fateful events, and handling textiles sometimes foreshadows a character's death. This form of magic was not merely femininely charged; male practitioners were outright stigmatized, which has led to a lot of scholarly speculation regarding the apparent sexual and gendered content of the magical method.

Seiðr has an element of sexual magic, and it would seem; even gender bending. I've already mentioned the connection between Old Norse skratti “warlock”, scritta meaning “hermaphrodite”, suggestive of gender transgression. However, our main source comes from the mythological poem Loksasenna. When Odin accuses Loki of unmanliness (he had spent eight years as a woman in the underworld, milking cows and making babies), Loki retorts by revealing that Odin himself practiced seiðr: “You struck charms as a seeress [völva], in the likeness of a sorceress [vitka] you traveled above mankind. I consider that the pervert's essence.”(st.24) The accusation here is one of ergi, which is yet another hard to translate term meaning “perversion, fornication, indecency, unmanliness”.

One might justifiably think that it is strange to portray the gods in such a demeaning and compromising way, referring to them as witches, perverts, and throwing accusations that could easily get one killed according to Norse legal conventions. But Norse mythology rarely ascribes moral superiority to the gods. Perhaps their divine nature allows them a double standard that humans may not indulge in. It may also underline the fact that the Odin is an ambivalent, and often untrustworthy god, who repeatedly uses subversive methods to further his gains. 

 

The seiðmaðr as “unmanly man”

The concept of ergi also comes in the form of an adjective, argr, which means “unmanly, dishonest, slothful, soft, cowardly”, and less obvious; “recipient of homosexual penetration”. That is to say, all the things a man was not supposed to be, according to Norse notions of gender. Surprisingly the feminine form örg, does not mean “lesbian”, but “nymphomaniac”. When women are accused of ergi, it is because of lacking sexual self-control or loyalty, not any apparent magical association – as the case is with men. It seems that argr/örg could be interpreted as along the lines of “a socially disruptive compulsion to be sexually penetrated”, due to a quirk in Norse gender norms. Obviously, this definition would at first seem to elude the non-sexual, antisocial aspects of the term. Then again, Norse people were essentialists who tended to work with broad, metaphorical generalizations.

Snarky, ludicrous accusations of sexual deviancy were a common means of defamation in viking society, even tough false allegations of unmanliness could legally get the accuser killed. Sometimes, such accusations are supernatural to underline the stigma. While Norse magic is loaded with the same rigid gender expectations as the rest of society, seiðr was considered explicitly unmanly. Male seiðr-practitioners were worthy of suspicion and contempt, and they tend to be presented as antagonists in the sagas, as if their competency in magic underlined their apparent wickedness, and they are often made examples of by means of humiliating and torturous execution. The culture, as we've already seen, applied different standards to male and female gender roles, and while literary sources tend to consider paganism and magic as generally misguided, female practitioners tend to be portrayed as less disruptive to the social order.

A handful of runic curses also attest to the taboo of male practice. Prominently the runestone DR83 from Sønder Vinge, Denmark, which threatens that whoever disturbs the monument shall be considered “a sodomite and a seiðr-warlock” (serði ok seiðhretti). Something like an occult gay bomb by the look of it, it is clearly meant to deter people from breaking the monument. If the prospect of magic sounds tempting to the modern reader, the inscription implies that male practitioners had an abhorrent status viking age Denmark. Similar curses of magicianship and perversion are attested on the Saleby-stone (VG67) in Sweden, and the Danish Glavendrup-stone (DR20). Suggesting that the power to perform certain forms of witchcraft and magic came at an unacceptable cost in the eyes of common society, or that their very presence was considered destructive. I'm reluctant to use the word superstition, but perhaps we can compare the seiðmaðr to the witches of Africa today, who appear to be more abundant in popular imagination than objective, physical reality, but none the less real to those who believe in them.

Then we are forced to ask why the male practitioner held such a strong position in the Norse imagination, or why there was such a strong element of taboo in seiðr. I recall discussing this with Eldar Heide back when I did my BA, and we came to an interesting analogy to human sexuality – which is full of taboos. That that which is forbidden or suppressed, often becomes an object of fetishization – its allure and power may be proportional to the negative pressure it receives in society. It's not a paradox. For example: Japanese society is famously very formal, and infamous for its double standard in terms of sexuality. A strong emphasis on shame appears to conjure a counterpart: That which has no shame is both powerful and terrifying. Obviously, this is not a complete theory of human sexuality or magic, but it might serve to explain why the seiðmaðr was such a vivid character in a society where the concept of homosexuality, to the extent that such a concept even existed, was very negatively charged.

Seiðr, trance and ecstasy

What is less clear is how (and if) seiðr involved trance-like states, though it is very tempting to think so, as this pertains to certain other forms of Norse magic, which we will return to in a future article about spirits and gandr. If the theory holds true that seiðr was connected to spinning, then we may consider that the act of spinning involves rotation, and is suggestive of movements which could well induce a trance. Spinning around, and walking backwards in circles around a fixed axis, are two attested methods of inducing trance – even shape-shifting – in later Nordic tradition (Heide 2006a: 250). We may indulge in this speculation, though it says nothing conclusive about viking era practices.

Seeresses in the sagas make the claim that they see things other people can not, thought it's not clear how this manifests. In Eiríks saga rauða, spirits appear before the seeress (völva) when a particular poem (kvæði) named Varðlokkur is sung. A trance is not suggested, as she seems mentally present during the entire séance. However, there seems to have been a general notion that spirits come and go through respiratory passages, carrying desired information. Trance could have been associated with the magician's own spirit or free-soul (sometimes referred as hugr, vörðr, or fylgja) leaving the body. In Hrólfs saga kráka, a seiðkona repeatedly yawns as she provides information to her client about the whereabouts of certain people, but the sequence suggests that spirits are are arriving through her respiratory passages through magical attraction, feeding her visions, rather than her personal spirit being engaged in extra-corporeal travel (Heide 2006a: 182). This is in line with the idea that seiðr functioned like an invisible snare or line. None the less, controlled breathing remains perhaps the simplest and most common means of provoking trance-like states all over the world.

 

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Seiðr and narcotic drugs

Finally there is the possibility of drug-induced ecstasy, which by the way is never suggested in any primary source. Its plausibility rests mainly on archaeological finds. Famously, a minute amount of cannabis seeds (less than a single dose, according to a friend) was recovered from the 9th century Oseberg burial, and apparently associated with the older of the two inhumated women who may or may not have been a seeress. Another exciting example comes from Denmark, specifically the Fyrkat grave IV, where a woman was buried with a number of peculiar items: An upcycled box brooch, serving as a container for toxic white lead which may have been used as face paint. Fragments of a decorated iron staff, possibly a wand – a seiðstafr. Pellets of rolled hair, fat and ashes – originally thought to be owl pellets. And finally: A small pouch of poisonous henbane seeds, which may be used both as an anesthetic and narcotic drug that produces “visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight” according to a friend by the name of Wikipedia. The peculiar assembly of items, particularly the fragmented staff, is suggestive of a ritual specialist at the very least.

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

A translation of the seiðr séance from Eiríks saga rauða is available as a supplement on my Patreon. Become a patron to access it.

 

Also in this series:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)
Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)
 

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006a: Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006b: “Spinning seiðr”. In Anders Andrén et. al. (eds.): Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Origins, changes, and interactions. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Vägar till Midgård 8. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. 164-70.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006c. Manuscript: Seid-seansen i Eiriksoga / Eiríks saga rauða.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2016. (Magic) Staffs in the Viking Age. Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia, Band 27: Wien.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2009: A Biography of the Seiðr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions. In L. P. Słupecki, J. Morawiec (eds.), Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, Rzeszów: Rzeszów University, 190-219.

  • Price, Neil S. 2002: The Viking Way. Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. The Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007: Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge.