In recogition of Halloween, I’ve decided to write about my favourite spooky, freaky supernatural moments in early Germanic literature – I’m mainly looking at Old Norse stuff, but a bit of Old English has crept in. In general, Germanic sagas and poems are pretty gory, so there is quite a lot of disturbing stuff I could have picked that’s not at all supernatural, e.g. Freydis murdering a house full of sleeping women with an axe. But as its Halloween, we’ll stick to ghosts, ghouls and the like.
I have included some actual Old Norse and Old English, where I have it to hand, just for anyone who’s interested. Also, I really hope you like puns, because there are plenty ahead.
As I’ve named this post after her, I have to mention Hel – I’m going to mention her name a total of three times in the next sentence alone. So the word ‘Hel’ is completely unrelated to the English word ‘hell’, but the Norse Hel did happen to control the underworld, and ‘hel’ is regularly used to mean the afterlife in Old Norse.
The daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, Hel is said to be half corpse and half living woman. When Odin discovers her existence, along with Loki’s other monsterous children, he banishes her:
Hel he threw into Niflheim and gave her authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age…Her hall is called Eliudnir, her dish Hunger, her knife Famine…her threshold where you enter Stumbling-block, her bed Sick-bed…She is…rather downcast and fierce-looking.
(Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson, in Edda, ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes, p. 27)
So basically, anyone who does not die in battle, including all women, elderly people and children, will not go to Valhalla and instead will go to the underworld to be cared for by Hel, which from the above doesn’t sound particularly inviting. The afterlife is rubbish for Vikings unless you’re a warrior.
Any Old Norse story you read where someone visits the Western settlement in Greenland is probably going to result in something awful happening. For some reason, it seems to have a literary reputation of being full of witches, spirits, zombies and supernatural sickness. Interestingly, the Eastern Settlement in Greenland doesn’t seem to have the same associations and sounds like a pretty nice place to live.
There are quite a few draugar (Viking Zombies!) incidents in the sagas about Greenland – no one seems quite to stay dead there. The spookiest example, I think, is in Eirik the Red’s Saga. So this guy called Thorstein, his wife, Gudrid, and a party of their men are blown off course in their ship and end up in the Western settlement of Greenland. They have to stay with a farmer called Thorstein the Black (there are a confusing number of Thorsteins). During their visit, a large number of the party get mysteriously sick and die, including the wife of their host. During the night the corpse of Thorstein the Black’s wife tries to get into bed with the visitors. Luckily visitor-Thorstein makes pretty sharp work of her and hits her in the boob with an axe – this seems to solve the issue.
For reference, I’m reading the translation in Sagas of Icelanders, translated by Jane Smiley.
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel!
This isn’t Old Norse, but since Grendel from Beowulf is one of my all-time favourite monsters, I felt I had to include him. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Beowulf, its an epic poem in Old English about a warrior (called Beowulf), who travels to Heorot, which somewhere in Sweden, to kill a pair of monsters that have been traumatising the people of King Hrothgar. The first monster is called Grendel and is a horrific cannibal monster-thing who hates people having a good time, and frequently visits Heorot to kill and maim Hrothgar’s thanes:
In off the moors, down through the mist-bands,
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
(Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, p. 24)
Ða cōm of mōre under misthleoþum ō
Grendel gongan, godes yrre bær;
mynte se mānscaða manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan in sele þām hēan.
(Beowulf lines 710 – 713, p. 69 in Beowulf: A Student Edition, ed. George Jack)
Beowulf sets a trap for the monster. He knows Grendel hates the sound of parties and fun, so he and his band of warrior have a jolly good time drinking mead in Heorot and making loads of noise, and then settle down and pretend to be asleep, in the hope that Grendel will attack. He does, and quickly makes short work of a couple of warriors:
Mighty and canny,
Hygelac’s kinsman was keenly watching
for the first move the monster would make.
Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.
(Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, pp. 24 – 25)
mǣg Higelāces, hū se mānscaða
under fǣrgripum gefaran wolde.
Ne þæt se āglǣca yldan þōhte,
ac hē gefēng hraðe forman sīðe
slǣpendne rinc, slāt unwearnum,
bāt bānlocan, blōd ēdrum dranc,
synsnǣdum swealh; sona hæfde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
fēt ond folma.
(Beowulf lines 735 – 745, pp. 70 – 71 in Beowulf: A Student Edition, ed. George Jack)
The fight scene is incredibly gory and vile, and therefore very much befitting the Halloween season. There are also several other horrible monsters in Beowulf, including sea monsters, a water-hag-thing and a dragon, so if you love warriors, fiends and gore, I’d recommend the Seamus Heaney translation of the text. It isn’t an exact translation, so it isn’t great for study, but it does portray the style and pace of the poem really well.
Foreign witches are stealing our kings!
Similar to the Western settlement in Greenland, in sagas the Hebrides are absolutely full of witches. If a Hebridean woman crops up in a story, you can almost guarantee she is about to ruin people’s lives with her sorcery. Same goes for Sámi women – you might say that Norse people didn’t trust foreigners very much. This one happens to be about a Sámi woman called Snjófríðr.
King Harald Fairhair, a semi-legendary Norwegian king, is tricked into marrying Snjófríðr by her father, after he drinks some enchanted mead. He falls for her so hard, that he forgets to govern his kingdom. She eventually dies, in circumstances that are not explained, and Harald continues to sit beside her corpse for three years, refusing to let her body be taken from him. Miraculously, the body doesn’t decay. Finally, his advisors persuade the king that they should be allowed to move the body in order to change its clothes. When they do, the body falls to pieces and putrefies, and only then is the spell on King Harald broken.
And when she was moved there issued from the body a rank and fulsome stench and foul odours of every sort. A pyre was hastily prepared and she was burnt but before that the body blackened and there bubbled out worms and vipers, frogs and toads, and multitudes of vermin. She sank thus into ash, but the king rose to wisdom and abandoned his folly…
Ok þegar er hón var hrœrð, þá sløri á óþefjani ok ýldu ok hverskyns illum fnyk af líkaminn, ok ullu ór ormar ok eðlur, froskar ok pǫddur, ok allskyns illyrmi. Seig hón svá í ǫsku, en konungr steig til vizku ok hugði af heimsku…’
(Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum, ed. and trans. M. J. Driscoll, pp. 6 – 7)
I would direct you in particular to one of my favourite Old Norse words – ‘fnyk’, which means ‘horrible odours’. Just so you know, this story is recounted in a piece of writing called ‘Ágrip af Nóregskonungarsǫgum’ or ‘A synoptic history of the kings of Norway’, and is presented as absolute fact.
The Hrapp-ening (Viking ghosts)
Ghosts crop up reasonably often in Old Norse sagas, and are generally regarded as an unfortunate fact of life, just like damp or a moth infestation. A memorable one is the ghost of a guy named Hrapp, who was considered ‘difficult to deal with’ in life disliked by everyone in the neighbourhood. On his deathbed, still unwilling to stop pissing everyone off, he asks his wife bury him upright under the doorway to the kitchen so that he can keep watch over his house.
‘Everything was done just as he had instructed, for she [his wife] dared not go against his wishes. But if it had been difficult to deal with him when he was alive, he was much worse dead, for he haunted the area relentlessly. It is said that in his haunting he killed most of his servants. To most of the people living in the vicinity he caused no end of difficulty and the farm at Hrappsstadir became deserted.’
(The Saga of the People of Laxardal, The Sagas of Icelanders, ed. and trans. Jane Smiley, pp. 297-8)
To deal with the problem, the local chieftain and his men disinter Hrapp and move him elsewhere. Even so, Hrapp’s old farm, aptly named ‘Hrappsstadir’ or Hrapp’s place, brings bad luck and the next man to live there becomes insane.