Happy Hel-oween: Zombie Vikings, Germanic monsters and Old Norse witches

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.

Hel no!

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.

Greenlandic-Viking-Zombies

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)

Þryðswyð behēold
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who was the coolest Viking lady?

A friend of mine recently asked me who the coolest Viking lady was. I got so excited thinking about this, that I decided to write an entire blog post about cool Viking ladies who really float my long-ship. I have also put a handy reading list at the bottom, where you can find the best versions of all the sagas/poems I mention.

Please note: a number of these ladies probably didn’t exist or weren’t strictly Vikings (as they didn’t all do the raiding thing), but they are all medieval Norse people!

Hervör Angantyrsdottir

My favourite non-historical cool Viking lady has to be Hervör, who is one of the protagonists of The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and of the poem The Waking of Angantyr.

Christian-gottlieb-kratzenstein-stub-hervor-henter-sværdet-hos-angartyr
I think this is meant to be Hervör chatting to her dad in his grave mound

Hervör wore men’s clothing and adopted the male name Hjörvard so she could go raiding and pillaging with impunity, which is pretty darn cool. The most impressive part of her story takes place in The Waking of Angantyr, in which Hervör sails her crew to a haunted island to retrieve her father’s magic sword, Tyrfing, from his grave mound. There is an epic stand-off between Hervör and the ghosts of her father and uncles, in which they tell her repeatedly that a woman could not wield a sword as mighty and dangerous as Tyrfing. I won’t spoil the ending, but honestly, it’s a great read.

Unn the Deep-Minded

This one is an actually-probably-historical cool Viking lady, and probably my all time favourite. Although not strictly a Viking (as she didn’t go a-raiding), Unn, sometimes called Aud just for confusion, was a bad-ass old Norse lady (and Old Norse lady). After the death of her husband and all her sons, Unn had a ship built and sailed from the Hebrides with a crew of men under her command to Iceland, where she founded a successful settlement and became a respected female chieftain. She was probably pretty elderly by Viking standards when she did this, as its recorded that she married off a load of grandchildren at various points along the journey. Also ‘the Deep-Minded’ is such a great epithet. You can read more about her in The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which she is a founder of one of the main settlements.

Brynhild

This is another legendary female warrior who probably didn’t really exist. Brynhild was a Valkyrie, who are mythological beings, sort of like immortal war angels, who fall in love with particular warriors and protect them in battle.

Ring22
She probably killed her ex with that spear.

Brynhild was also the first love of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, who you might have heard of, and is an important character in The Saga of the Volsungs – the saga about Sigurd and his family. This Valkyrie was a stone-cold badass. After Sigurd is tricked into betraying her and falling for another woman, Brynhild stabs Sigurd while asleep in bed next to his new bride, and then flings herself onto his burial pyre so they can be together for eternity. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of heroism you would want to emulate, but it is a pretty cool story. Don’t cheat on Valkyries, even if you are cursed by a witch: it never ends well. There is also a great poem about Brynhild’s death called Brynhild’s Journey to Hell, where she stops on her way to the underworld to argue with a giantess about the appropriateness of her reaction to Sigurd’s betrayal. Surprisingly, she comes out of the debate looking quite reasonable.

Gudrun Gjúkadóttir

Gudrun was Sigurd’s second love and the above-mentioned bride in bed with her new husband when he is stabbed to death by his ex. So, Gudrun’s mother bewitched Sigurd to make him forget Brynhildr and fall in love with Gudrun, who he then marries. Once Sigurd is killed by Brynhild, life becomes pretty shit for Gudrun, as she and Sigurd actually had quite a good relationship. She is forced to marry a guy called Atli (who is probably meant to be Atilla the Hun!), who happened to have killed her entire family earlier in the story. Now, here is where Gudrun shows some bad-assery of her own and really sheds light on the kind of women Sigurd tended to go for. Unlike Brunhild, Gudrun decides to play the long game in terms of her revenge on the man who has pissed her off. After being married to Atli for a bit and having had two kids with him…she kills both her sons, has them baked into pies and then serves them to her husband. Still not yet satisfied, she then burns down his mead hall to kill everyone instead before attempting to drown herself. It’s all pretty ghastly. However, there are also couple of really quite romantic poems attributed to Gudrun about her grief over Sigurd’s death in the Poetic Edda (basically the definitive collection of Old Norse legendary poetry). Really, this is about as romantic as Old Norse poetry gets.

Freydis Eiríksdóttir

My love of Freydis rests on a single scene that appears in one version of her story. Freydis was the daughter of Erik the Red, famous for founding the Viking settlement in Greenland, and the sister of Leif Erikson, thought to be the first European to discover America, so she was probably a historical person. She appears in both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. In both stories, she is the only woman in a group of Greenlanders who discover and settle North America, but her portrayal is pretty different in each.

I really like her in Erik the Red’s Saga. When she is eight months pregnant, the camp is attacked by Native Americans. Lots of the men are frightened of them and their strange weapons, but Freydis tells them all to stop being cowards. She then whips out her tit and slaps it repeatedly with a sword, screaming nonsense, which terrifies the attackers so much that they flee.

However, for the sake of fairness, I should mention that in the Saga of the Greenlanders, she is a pretty dreadful woman who murders the wives of her business partners with an axe while they’re sleeping, basically because she gets jealous of their longhouse.

Gudrun Ósvífursdóttir

This Gudrun was probably a historical person and is one of the main characters of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which Unn the Deep-Minded also features.

Gudrun_and_the_spear
Gudrun is giving him a death stare because he just killed her third husband and is using her shawl to clean his weapon.

Gudrun is famous for being the most beautiful woman in Iceland and is married four times in total, with all her marriages ending in unfortunate circumstances. The central drama of the saga is a love triangle between Gudrun and a pair of foster brothers, Kjartan and Bolli, that divides Laxardal.

Gudrun prefers Kjartan out of the two brothers – since while both brothers are pretty great, Bolli is just slightly less impressive than Kjartan. However, Kjartan ends up going on a Viking expedition and leaving Gudrun at home and she is deeply unimpressed. To get back at him, she marries his foster brother, Bolli. This decision leads to the death of quite a large number of people.

Cool Norse Lady Reading List

The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek – available in PDF form here

The Waking of Angantyr, The Lays of Gudrun, Brynhild’s Journey to Hel – all in this translation of the Poetic Edda

The Saga of the People of Laxardal – in this really epic compilation of the Sagas of Icelanders

The Saga of the Volsungs

Both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders can be found here, in the Vinland Sagas