Site Map
Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes
Section › 7   Set    Search  Previous Next


Reservations   Contents    

The Norns — Familiar Spirits — Attendant Spirits — The Valkyries — Thorgerd Hælgabrud and Irpa — The Forces of Nature — Ægir — Night — Day — Hel — The Giants — The Dwarfs — The Vettir

The Norns

Next in order to the major gods and goddesses were other powerful divinities, and besides, certain supernatural beings of a lower degree. Most highly regarded were probably the Norns, the goddesses of Destiny. Though their number was rather large, three of them were more prominent than the rest, namely, Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, who dwelt beneath Yggdrasil, beside the well which after Urd is called Urd's Well, where two swans resort, where the branches of Yggdrasil drip honey dew, and where the gods meet in solemn assembly. The Norns control the destiny of all men and even of the Æsir themselves; and they direct the immutable laws of the universe. At the birth of every child the Norns are present to determine its fate, and no man lives one day longer than the Norns grant him leave. There are both good [31} and evil Norns; but the decrees of all alike must be obeyed.

On the Norns

Page 31, line 2 — The Norns are mentioned in countless passages in our ancient literature, and faith in them lingered long after the introduction of Christianity. Thus a runic inscription in the timber church at Borgund runs as follows: "The Norns have done both good and evil."

Of the Norns, according to Gylfaginning, there are, besides the three who are definitely named, also others, who come to each person at his birth, to determine his destiny. Some of them are of the race of the gods, others of the Elves, and others again of the Dwarfs.

The very names of the three principal Norns designate their function as rulers of fate. Urðr (having close affinities with verða, "to take place") is an ancient word for "fate," to be found also in Old Saxon wurth and in Anglo-Saxon wyrd. Only at a [302} relatively late period, and only among our forefathers, have Verðandi (present participle of the verb verða) and Skuld (connected with skulu, "shall"; cf. skuld, "duty," "obligation") come into being to form a trinity representing past, present, and future. It is reasonable to assume that the three Parcœ of classic mythology have had something to do with this development. The word norn is frequently compared with Swedish dialectal norna, nyrna "to communicate in secret," "to forewarn," and with older English nyrnen, "to utter." The word corresponds fairly to Vulgar Latin fata, "goddess of destiny," which comes from Latin fatum, "fate," more literally "that which is uttered" (whence French fée, which through the medium of fairy tales has come into German and into Norwegian: fe).

Familiar Spirits —Attendant Spirits

Related to the Norns were the Familiar Spirits (hamingjur) and the Attendant Spirits (fylgjur). The Familiar Spirits were supernatural, usually invisible feminine beings who accompanied men and directed their course. Each person had his Familiar Spirit, who strove to bring him good luck; [1] it was possible to lend one's Familiar Spirit to another in case one desired to run a risk in his behalf. The Attendant Spirits (fylgjur), on the other hand, ordinarily had the shape of animals who walked before men or beside them. Each person had, according to the belief of our fathers, one or more Attendant Spirits; and certain people pretended that they could see the Attendant Spirits and thus ascertain in advance who was drawing near. The Attendant Spirit usually corresponded to the character of the individual in question; powerful chieftains had bears, bulls, and the like as Attendant Spirits, crafty folk had foxes, and so forth. Supernatural beings of this type were not made the object of worship or prayer. Tales have come down to us of sundry men to whom these beings by preference revealed themselves and who by such means gained an uncommon insight into the destinies of other men. Faith in Familiar Spirits and Attendant Spirits [32} persisted after the introduction of Christianity; even zealous Christians like Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf were not wholly free from such beliefs. Occasionally both of these classes of tutelary powers were designated outright as Norns; the popular mind appears not to have drawn a sharp distinction in this respect.

  1. Hence the word hamingja used as a synonym for "good fortune."

On Familiar Spirits — Attendant Spirits

Page 32, line 6 — Hamingja really means: one who shows himself in a certain "shape" (hamr) or likeness different from his own; the fundamental word hamr may at times have the same signification. Sometimes the notion of external form is wholly set aside, so that the supernatural being may be called simply (a person's) "idea" or thought (hugr). When the tutelary spirits of a given family were thought of as a group, the names kynfylgjur, œttarfylgjur (kyn, "kin," "family") were often used. At times these spirits would appear in dreams, as the so-called draumkonur. They might also be designated as spádísir (on dís, see p. 33), in which case the emphasis rested on their prophetic function. It was frequently the tutelary spirits of deceased relatives who thus revealed themselves to the living kindred; hence the mention of "departed women" (konur dauðar). — As instances of the belief in Attendant Spirits may be mentioned the following: The Icelander Einar Thveraing foretold the death of his powerful brother Gudmund on the basis of a dream; he had seen an immense ox pace up through the parish of Eyfjord to Gudmund's farm and fall dead at the very high seat itself; this ox, said Einar, was the Attendant Spirit of some man or other (Ljósvetninga Saga, chapter 21). Harold Gormsson once sent a Finn in the likeness of a whale to Iceland to spy out the land with hostile intent, but he was driven away by the Land-Sprites who thronged all the mountains and mounds (cf. p. 42), and by the foremost chieftains' Attendant Spirits: a bellowing bull, for Thord gellir (that is, [303} "the bellower") in Breidafjord; a great bird with a large number of smaller birds, for Eyolf of Modruvellir in Eyfjord; a dragon, accompanied by serpents and toads, for Brodd-Helgi in Vapnafjord; a Cliff-Ettin armed with an iron staff, for Thorodd the Priest of the Southland (Heimskringla I, 316 ff.).

The Valkyries

Other feminine beings who exercised control over the fates of men and were closely related to the Norns, were the Valkyries. Victory lay in their government, and mortality in battle; Odin sent them forth to "choose the slain" or the heroes who were doomed to fall. [1] They were therefore also called the Maidens of Odin. They were beautiful young girls; armed and fully panoplied, they rode through the air and over the waters, to the ends of the world. At home in Valhalla they served as cupbearers to the Æsir and Heroes in the halls of Odin. There were two classes of Valkyries: an original order, the celestial Valkyries; and another order, half mortal and half divine, who lived for a time among men as mortals but who later came to Odin in Valhalla, evidently a sort of feminine counterpart to the Heroes. The number of the celestial Valkyries is variously computed, as nine or as nine times nine; they were frequently imagined as riding about in three groups. Those most commonly mentioned were Gondul, Skogul (also called Geir-Skogul) [33} or Spear-Skogul), Lokk, Rist, Mist, Hild, and others. Skuld [2] was also counted among the Valkyries. Besides these, there were other Valkyries who created dissension among the Heroes and who were employed only in the most menial tasks.

Valkyries, Norns, Familiar Spirits, Attendant Spirits, and occasionally even certain of the goddesses, notably Freyja, [3] were known by the general designation of Disir. Dís (plural dísir) was no doubt originally a term used to denote a distinct group of gods. [4] Worship of them consisted of a special kind of sacrifice (dísablót), doubtless a more intimate cult, participated in only by women; the Disir were supposed to have particular concern for the good of the home and the family, and in so far were not noticeably different from the Attendant Spirits of a family (kynfylgjur, spádísir), which have been discussed above. [5] From their number, however, proceeded a goddess who was to become the centre of a more general cult; and it must have been this goddess — perhaps Vanadís, Freyja — who was worshipped in Disarsal near Uppsala. [6] In connection with the annual sacrifice to the Disir at Uppsala were held also a court assembly (dísaþing) and a market; until very recent times the market-fair of Uppsala at Candlemass, early in February, was commonly called "Distingen,"that is, the Disir court.

  1. Their name is from valr, "the fallen," and kjósa, participle kørinn, korinn, "to choose."
  2. See p 30.
  3. Vanadís, p 27.
  4. According to some scholars, death goddesses; according to others, earth goddesses.
  5. Cf. p 31 and note to p 32.
  6. Dísarsalr, mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga, chapter 29, in the narrative of the death of king Adils. [34}

On the Valkyries

Page 33, line 27 — Ancient Norse literature contains many accounts of the Valkyries. In Njál's Saga there is a picturesque story indicating the notions our forefathers entertained about the Valkyries as paganism was waning away. A farmer named Darrad, living in Caithness, Scotland, was said to have had a vision on the very day of Brian's bloody battle at Dublin in the year 1014. Twelve women came riding through the air and disappeared in a mound; through an aperture the man peeped within and saw them weaving a web of human entrails, using a sword for a weaver's beam and arrows for shuttles. They were singing meanwhile a song, the Song of Darrad (Darraðarljóð), which the saga recites at length. The saga further explains that they were weaving a web for the battle which was about to be fought; the struggle was to be sanguinary, a king was to be victorious, but another king and with him many great leaders were to fall. Among the women weavers mentioned by name are Hild, Hjorthrimul, Sangrid, and Svipul, all of them Valkyries. When they had finished their web, they tore it asunder, whereupon six of them rode off with the one piece toward the north and six with the other toward the south. — In Eyvind Skaldaspillir's splendid verses on Hakon the Good (Hákonarmál) it is said that Odin sent forth the Valkyries Gondul and Skogul to choose which king was to be the guest of Odin. They rode away on horseback, armed with helmet, spear, and shield, found Hakon, and conveyed him to Valhalla. — Warfare and battle had numerous designations after the Valkyries; "Hild's Game" is especially common. The name Hild is still used, alone: and in a large number of combinations, such as Ragnhild (from ragn or regin, "the ruling powers"; see p. 6); Gunnhild (from gunnr, "battle"); Alfhild (from alfr, "elf"); and others. The word dís also is very common in feminine names, such as Halldis, Herdis, Hjordis, Thordis, and the like. — The legend of Thidrandi, son of Sidu-Hall (Fornmanna Sögur II, 192 ff.) informs us how different, mutually hostile Disir [304} might be attached to certain families. A short time before the introduction of Christianity into Iceland, a promising youth named Thidrandi, contrary to the prohibition of the sorcerer Thorhall, went out after a winter night's merrymaking to see who had knocked at the door; thrice he had heard knocking at the door after the inmates of the house had lain down to sleep. Thidrandi saw nine women dressed in black come riding out from the north and other nine, dressed in white and mounted on white horses, riding up from the south; the sable-clad women bore in upon him and left him lying wounded to the death. He was discovered outside the door in the morning; and before he died, he told what he had seen. Thorhall interpreted the vision as portending a change in the ancient faith of the fathers. Both bands of women, so he read the tokens, were Disir, familiars of the household; but those garbed in black had loved the olden faith, now inclining to its fall, and had willed to demand a sacrifice or a tribute from the household before they parted from it forever. The women in white, on the contrary, were to remain alone as Disir of the family under the new dispensation; and these had sought in vain to keep the young man from harm. (In this legend are employed both the terms fylgjur and dísir; cf. p. 31 and note, and note to p. 47).

Of the literature on the Disir may be mentioned the following titles: L. Levander, Antikvarisk Tidskrift för Sverige XVIII, no. 3; M. Olsen, Hedenske kultminder I, p. 184 ff.; K. F. Johansson, Skrifter utgifna af K. Humanistiska Vetenskaps-Samfundet i Uppsala XX, no. 1.

The most complete catalog of Valkyries is to be found in Snorri's Edda II, 490: "Hrist, Mist, Herja, Hlokk, Geiravor, Goll, Hjorþrimul, Guðr [Gunnr], Herfjotur, Skuld, Geironul, Skogul ok Randgníð , Ráðgríð, Gondul, Svipul, Geirskogul, Hildr ok Skeggold, Hrund, Geirdriful, Randgríðr ok prúðr, Reginleif ok Sveið, Þogn, Hjalmþrimul, Þrima ok Skalmold."

Thorgerd Hælgabrud and Irpa

Within one of the greater families, the ancestral Disir might attain the rank of goddesses and become the objects of something more than private worship Of this there is an example in the goddesses of the Haloigja family, namely Thorgerd Hælgabrud and her sister Irpa. Thorgerd was the daughter of an ancient mythical king Hælgi, after whom Halogaland is said to have its name; that is, Hælgi is the eponymous hero of the district, the personal name having been formed by the operation of myth to explain the place name. Thorgerd Hælgabrud is also called, but less correctly, Horgabrud [1] and Horgatroll. In more recent saga tradition this designation of "troll" no doubt had some connection with the aid she was supposed to have given to Hakon, Earl of Lade, in the battle of Hjorungavag. According to Snorri's Edda (I, 400), her father also was worshipped; the mound in which he was buried was constructed from alternate layers of earth and stone, and of silver and gold — "these were the treasures offered up before him."

  1. From horgr, a certain type of sanctuary.

On Thorgerd Hælgabrud and Irpa

Page 34, line 20 — The account in ancient sources of a temple erected to Thorgerd by Earl Hakon at Lade may have an historical foundation; but there is probably no solid historical basis for the description of the temple and the image of the goddess as it is found in Sigmund Brestesson's Saga. The like is the case with the [305} story in Njál's Saga concerning a temple which Earl Hakon is supposed to have had together with Dale-Gudbrand: here we have Thor sitting in his chariot, Thorgerd wearing a head kerchief, and with them Irpa, all of them adorned with arm rings of gold. — In the naval battle against the Joins-Vikings, Earl Hakon went ashore and sacrificed to Thorgerd his own son Erling. Whereupon she sent down from the north — the home of the Trolls — a terrific hailstorm accompanied by thunder and lightning; those among the enemy who were gifted with second sight then saw on board of the Earl's ship first a Troll, and thereafter two (Thorgerd and Irpa) engaged in hurling a shower of arrows, "as if an arrow were flying from each finger," against the Joms-Vikings; who then, and not until then, fled the field. (Here we meet with notions of the same kind as those which have given occasion for the discussion of the divinities mentioned in the paragraph next below). — Cf. Gustav Storm's article, Om Thorgerd Hølgebrud, in Arkiv för nordisk filologi II, p. 124 ff.; K. Liestøl, Norske trollvisor, p. 48 ff.

The forces of Nature — Ægir

While the Æsir as major deities governed all the forces of Nature and strove to direct them in the interest of mankind, almost every natural force or element had its own indwelling divinity; this divinity, a kind of personification of the natural force or element itself, [35} was able to set those forces in motion but unable to determine their activities wholly. Thus Njord governed the winds and guided their course, but he was not their prime mover; that function was fulfilled by the Giant Ræsvelg (Hræsvelgr, that is, Consumer of Corpses) who, sitting in the guise of an eagle at the northern confines of the heavens, produced the winds by the beating of his wings. So long as the rude powers of Nature are left to themselves, their activities are rather harmful than beneficent, for which reason it is no wonder that our fathers commonly regarded these elementary divinities as Giants; for it was distinctly characteristic of the Giants that they were seldom on good terms with the Æsir and that they constantly had to be kept in subjection. The most powerful of these lesser divinities were Fornjot and his kin. Fornjot, according to story, had three sons: Ler, Logi, and Kari. Ler ruled the sea, Logi ruled the fire, and Kari ruled the wind. Kari's son was named Jokul or Frosti; Frosti's son was named Snjo; and Snjo in turn had four children: Thorri, Fonn, Drifa, and Mjoll. Fornjot was no doubt originally a name for Giant; [1] he was probably to be identified with the primordial Giant Ymir. Kari means literally "wind," [2] and Logi means "flame." Jokul means "icicle"; Frosti, "frost"; Snjo, "snow"; Thorri, "black frost"; Fonn, "perennial snowbank"; Drifa, "snowdrift"; Mjoll, "fine driving snow." The names themselves thus indicate what these divinities represented. Most [36} remarkable of them all was Ler, god of the sea. He was also, indeed usually, called Ægir; and by reason of the similarity in names, Snorri fixes his abode on the island of Læsø in the Kattegat. At first he was no friend of the Æsir. Thor, however, intimidating him with piercing eyes, constrained him to give a banquet for the gods each winter in his own hall; later he in turn paid visits to the Æsir, who received him in a friendly manner. His banquets were in very truth merrymakings, at which ale flowed of its own accord; his hall was lighted by gleaming gold instead of candles; his brisk serving men, Eldir and Fimafeng, ministered to the guests. Yet now and again Ægir's evil nature got the upper hand. He kept meditating vengeance against Thor, who had presumed to lay commands upon him; at length he hit upon the plan of having Thor find for him a kettle large enough to brew ale for all the Æsir together. Such a kettle he knew was to be had from the Giant Hymir alone, and it was only after running many a risk that Thor succeeded in obtaining the kettle and carrying it away with him. [3] Ægir's wife, Ran, endeavored by all possible means to bring mischance upon mankind; she had in her possession a net, with which she made it her constant pursuit to draw seafaring men down to herself in the deeps of the ocean. Ægir and Ran had nine daughters; their names form various designations for the waves, which explains why the skalds sometimes describe the waves as Daughters of Ægir or of Ran. In the kenning for gold, "Ægir's Fire," the [37} name of the god of the sea also occurs; gold, it will be remembered, was employed in the lighting of his banquet hall.

  1. See note.
  2. Old Norse kári, in Norwegian dialects kåre, "gust of wind."
  3. See p 65 ff.

On the forces of Nature — Ægir

Page 37, line 3 — Ægir is originally an old word for "sea," connected with Gothic ahwa, Old Norse á, "river"; cf. the ancient name of the river Eider, Egidora, Old Norse Ægisdyr ("the door to the sea"). Ægir was also called Gymir, and the sounding of the waves "Gymir's Song." Hence we read in Thjodolf's lay on that king Yngvar who was buried in a mound on the shores of Estland: "The East Sea sings Gymir's song to pleasure the Swedish king." — The names of Ægir's daughters were Himinglæfa ("the translucent one who mirrors the heavens"), Dufa ("one who pitches or dips"), Blodughadda ("the bloody-haired"), Hefring, Unn, Ronn (Hronn), Bylgja, Drofn (this word and the one preceding are different names for "wave"), and Kolga ("the coal-black"). (Snorri's Edda II, 493.)

Of Fornjot and his kindred we read in the legendary works, Hversu Noregr bygðist and Fundinn Noregr (Flatey Book I, 21 ff.; 219 ff.). Here Thorri, king of Finland and Kvænland, has three children: the sons Nor and Gor and the daughter Goe. Goe is stolen away, and the brothers go out to hunt for her. Gor goes by sea along the coast of Norway, and Nor goes by land. In this way Norway came to be discovered and inhabited, both the coast [306} with its islands and the interior. Goe proved to have been carried off by Rolf of Berg (in Hedemark), son of the Giant Svadi (cf. Svaðubú, a part of the Ringsaker of our day). After Thorri, we read further, our fathers called the first month of winter Thorri, and the following month Goe, after Goe (Gjø); this is the reason why our almanacs long carried the headings "January or Thor's Month" and "February or Goe's Month." A piece of childish doggerel runs as follows:

Torren med sit skjegg
lokkar borni under sole-vegg.
Gjø'i med sitt skinn
lokkar [eller: jagar] borni inn.

Thor with the beard
Calls children to the sunny wall.
Goe with the pelts
Calls [or: chases] children in.

The meaning seems to be that during Thor's Month there was hard frost and sunshine, while during Goe's Month heavy weather and snowstorms were common. Cf. S. Bugge, Arkiv för nordisk filologi IV, p. 126. — It is a moot question what Fornjot really means (cf. E. Hellquist, Arkiv XIX, p. 134 f.). If it was a word for "giant," it may be explained as signifying "the consuming one," "the destroyer"; cf. Old High German fir-niozan, "to consume." The same mythical name seems to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Forneotes folme, "Fornjot's hand."

There are indications that Loki has med certain qualities of a fire being (cf. note to p. 25); in Iceland, chips and refuse are still called Loka-spœnir, "Loki's chips"; Loka-daunn, "Loki's vapor," is a term for subterranean sulphur fumes. In Norway, when flames crackle, it is said that Loki is whipping his children.

Eldir means: "he who kindles fire"; Fimafengr; "he who is clever at providing ways and means."

Night — Day

The divinities of day and of night were also of Giant race. The Giant Norvi had a daughter by the name of Nott (Night), who was dark and swarthy like the rest of her kindred. She was first wedded to Naglfari, with whom she had a son named Aud; later, to Anar, with whom she had a daughter named Jord, who became the wife of Odin; [1] and finally, to Delling, of the race of the Æsir, with whom she had a son named Dag (Day), who was bright and fair like his father's family. The All-Father took Night and her son Day, gave them two horses and two wains, and stationed them aloft in the heavens, where they were to ride around the earth in alternating courses of twelve hours each. Night drives the horse known as Rimfaxi (Hrímfaxi, that is, "having a mane of rime"), and each morning the fields are bedewed with froth that drips from his bit. This horse is also called Fjorsvartnir (from fjor, "life," and svartr, "black"). Day drives Skinfaxi ("with the shining mane"); earth and sky sparkle with the light from his mane.

On Night — Day

Page 37, line 23 — Night drives before Day because our forefathers were in the habit of beginning the twenty-four hours with the night. Therefore they also invariably reckoned time by nights, not as we do now, by days. When a person had sojourned somewhere six days, he would say, "I have been there six nights." [307}


Far down beneath the root of Yggdrasil, in darkest and coldest Niflheim, lies the fearful domain of Hel, [2] [38} daughter of Loki and Angerboda. One half of her body has a livid tinge, and the other half the hue of human flesh; she is harsh and cruel, greedy for prey, and tenacious of those who have once fallen under her rule. The dark, deep vales surrounding her kingdom are called Hell-Ways; to go there men must cross the river Gjoll ("roaring," "resounding"), spanned by the Bridge of Gjoll, which is paved with gold. Lofty walls enclose her dwelling place, and the gate that opens upon it is called Hell-Gate. Her hall is known as Eljudnir; her dish or porringer, as Hunger; her knife, as Famine; her bondman and bondmaid, as Ganglati and Ganglt (both words meaning "tardy"); her threshold, as Sinking to Destruction; her couch, as Sickbed; the curtains of her bed, as Glimmering Mischance. Her huge bandog, Garm, is bloody of chest and muzzle. Her "sooty-red" cock crows to herald the fall of the universe. In the midst of Niflheim stands the well Vergelmir, [1] beside which lies the serpent Niddhogg. The brinks of Vergelmir are called Nastrand (the Strand of Corpses); here is the most forbidding spot in Niflheim. All who did not fall in battle were said to go to Hell; but the general belief seems nevertheless to have been that only the wicked found their way there.

In the terminology of the skalds, Hel is not infrequently designated as the Daughter of Loki, the Wolf's (the Fenris Wolf's) Sister, and the like. The names Hell (and Niflhel) are often used of the realm of the dead; thence the expression in Norwegian, å slå [39} ihjel> (ihel), — "to strike into Hell," "to kill." When ghosts walked abroad, the saying might commonly be heard, "Hell-Gate is open" (hnigin er helgrind); for then it was possible for spirits to slip out.

  1. Cf. note to p 27.
  2. Hel is here used to designate the goddess; hell, her realm. —Translator's note.
  3. Hvergelmir, p 6.

On Hel

Page 39, line 4 — Hel is a very old word for the kingdom of death, the nether world (Gothic halja, Old High German hella, Anglo-Saxon hell). Related words expressing the same thing appear to occur far outside of the boundaries of the Germanic languages; cf. E. N. Setälä, Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen XII (1912), p. 170 ff., and H. Güntert, Kalypso (Halle 1919). — It is, however, only among the inhabitants of the Scandinavian North that we find the Germanic word for the realm of death used for the personification of that realm: the feminine ruler of the kingdom of the dead. — A word into the composition of which Hel enters is helvíti, "hell," literally: "punishment (víti) in the nether world"; Old High German, hellawîzi; Anglo-Saxon, hellewīte.

The Giants

The Giants, sworn enemies of men and of Æsir, were savage and violent but not always malicious. On occasion they might even manifest downright simplicity and good nature. They were of monstrous size, they often had several heads and hands, and they had dark skin and hair. Many of their women were well-favored, as for example Gerd; others again were most hideous: one might have a tail, another two heads, and so forth. The Giants owned great herds of cattle, bulls with gold horns, sheep, horses, and dogs. They loved darkness and the deeds of darkness; their women, avoiding the light of day, were in the habit of riding forth by night, and so they were sometimes called Dark-Riders or Night-Riders. If the sun's rays chanced to strike a Giant, he turned at once to stone. Now and then it happened that the Giants fought among themselves, throwing huge boulders at one another; but for the most part they were occupied in battle against mankind and the Æsir. The sanctuaries dedicated to the gods were most obnoxious to them, and when the Æsir gave ground before God and his saints, the hatred of the Giants spent itself on the newer deities. Long after the introduction of Christianity, the Giants survived in popular beliefs, and a [40} multitude of legends bear witness to the hostility of the Giants against churches and church bells. To this day in many localities legends are current connected with great boulders or even mountains which are said to have been hurled at churches by the Giants. In earlier times they had as opponents Thor and Odin; later they did battle with mighty saints, with the archangel Michael, and above all with Saint Olaf. To the present day, tradition has preserved legends about fat and well-fed cattle — always black — owned by Mountain-Trolls or Jutuls, about Giant women with long tails which they find it impossible to conceal, and about the malice and stratagems of these beings toward mankind, whom they frequently entice to themselves into the mountains.

The Giants were skilful builders, wise and experienced in all the occult arts. When they became angry, a so-called Giant valor seized them which made their strength double what it was before. As already explained, the Giants lived in Jotunheim or in mountains lying nearer the haunts of men. More than ordinary fame attaches to Utgard, the Giant counterpart to the Midgard of mankind. The river Iving, which never froze over, marked the boundaries between Giants and gods. When the expeditions into the Arctic seas of the North began, Jotunheim or Giant-land gave its name to a real country: the great Russian steppes about the White Sea or Gandvik (the Bay of Trolls), or more particularly the regions bordering on the river Dwina. Here ruled the Giant kings, Geirræd and his brother Godmund of Glæsisvoll; and many a daring voyager [41} who visited them had surpassing dangers to encounter. The actual ruler of Utgard, however, was the crafty Utgard-Loki.

On the Giants

Page 41, line 3 — Various Giant women were said to have ridden on the backs of wolves, for which reason the skalds sometimes refer to the wolf as the "Dark-Riders' horse." — In the ancient Eddic poem dealing with Helgi Hjorvardsson we learn of a Giantess who turned into stone at the rising of the sun. Helgi and his shipmate Atli craftily detained her in talk until morning; as the sun rose, Atli said: "Look to the East, Rimgerd, and see if Helgi has not struck you with death-runes ... Now day is risen, and Atli has made you tarry and has put an end to your life; a laughable sea-mark you seem, standing there in the figure of a stone." — A similar story is told of the voyage of king Olaf during which he created the sound lying between Hornelen, on Bremanger, and Marøy. The king bade the cliff cleave asunder; just then a Giant woman came forward and called out to him: "Tell me, man with the white beard, why you split my rocky wall in twain?" Olaf answered: "Stand there, Troll, always in atone; and no man more shall make his moan!" And it happened according to his word: a figure of stone stands there to this day. — Many legends relate how a Mountain-Troll, pursuing a human being, is overtaken by the rays of the sun and turned to stone. Other legends deal with Trolls who have made compacts with Olaf to build churches, just as in the case of the owner of Svadilfari (see p. 24 and note to p. 25).

On the warfare of the Giants against one another and against [308} Christendom, legends are to be found in almost every parish; as examples may be mentioned the story from Gudbrandsdalen of Jutulberget and Vågå church, and from Ringerike of Gyvrihaugen. The Giants are so firmly established in the credence of the people that the legends connected with them cannot easily perish; they belong, with the Brownie, the Huldre, and the Nix, to that group of supernatural beings with which the countryman in Norway, even down to the present day, has believed himself surrounded. In very recent times new legends have sprung up, after the fashion of the older. See, for instance, in Asbjørnsen's Huldreeventyr, The Jutul and Johannes Blessom, and others of a similar tenor.

As was the case with Ginnunga-gap, so Jotunheim was removed to greater and greater distances according as the geographical knowledge of the Northern regions increased among our ancestors. Moreover, influences emanating from southern legends of the felicity of the Hyperboreans, or Dwellers in the Uttermost North, no doubt contributed toward placing the home of the Giants in vaguely remote confines; in the imagination of most people, Glæsisvoll and the neighboring Udainsaker (the Land of the Immortals) took the form of an earthly Paradise, where men were permitted to live in eternal bliss. Among the Roman stories of the Hyperboreans there is one to the effect that those who became sated with living, ended their days by throwing themselves over the edge of a high mountain. Something of the same kind is to be found in a romantic Norse saga (Gautrek's Saga), in which however the scene is not the same; according to this story there is in Götaland a beetling cliff, Ætternisstape ("the ancestral crag"), where the ancients sought death by hurling themselves down from the summit.

According to Kaarle Krohn (Skandinavisk mytologi, p. 58 ff.), the original notion of the Giants was that they were primeval folk who had taken refuge in the waste places of the land. They are different from the lower orders of the spirit world, the Sprites (vettir, p. 42), in that the Giants received no sacrifices. Nor were they originally among the beings who lived and moved in the darkness of the Yuletide season; see Liestøl's article, cited above, note to p. 4. On the more or less close identification of the Giants with natural forces, see C. W. von Sydow's article mentioned in the same connection. [309}

The Dwarfs

The Dwarfs and the Dark-Elves, between whom a sharp distinction was not always drawn, lived far beneath the surface of the earth or else made their habitat within great rocks or mounds. They were small of stature and ill-favored; the Dark-Elves were commonly reputed to be blacker than pitch. A large number of Dwarfs are mentioned by name in ancient literature; an interpolated passage in the Voluspá lists a long array of them, among others their chief Modsognir (or Motsognir?), and next in order after him, Durin. Other Dwarfs were Brokk,l Dvalin, and the four whom Odin appointed to hold up the vault of the heavens, namely North, East, South, and West. The chief occupation of the Dwarfs was that of smith, in which they had no rivals. All the most notable weapons and all the precious gems mentioned in the oldest myths were the work of cunning Dwarfs. The Dwarfs hated both gods and men and were unwilling to do them service; if nevertheless they were compelled to do so, they strove to give their handiwork some magic quality of evil omen so that it brought little joy to any one who came into possession of it.

  1. See p 51. [42}

On the Dwarfs

Page 41, line 25 — Of the king of the Swedes, Svegdi, Snorri tells in the Ynglinga Saga that he was decoyed into a stone, from which he never emerged. So firmly fixed was the faith of the fathers in the actual presence of these beings within the mountain sides, that they designated the echo as dvergmáli, that is, "the speech of the Dwarfs." In the romantic Bosa Saga (Fornaldar Sogur III, 222) occurs the line, "Sigurd played upon the harp so loudly that the speech of the Dwarfs resounded through the hall." In several localities in Norway we find Dvergstein as the name for a farm, [1] and P. A. Munch has pointed out that more than one mountain top bears the name "Dvergemål-kletten" ("Dwarf-speech-summit").

Among the chief examples of the work of Dwarf artisans may be mentioned the Necklace of the Brisings, Mjollnir, Gungnir, Draupnir, Sif's golden hair, and the swords Tyrfing and Gram.

The Norwegian word dverg is known also in Old German (twerc, German Zwerg) and in Anglo-Saxon (dweorg, English "dwarf"). A Dwarf woman was in old Norse called dyrgja. The connotation of the term is uncertain.

  1. See § 86 of the Norwegian original. — Translator's note.

The Vettir

All supernatural beings, good and evil alike, had one name in common, Vettir (vættir, véttir, "spirits," "sprites"), which is still to a certain extent in use. The good ones were called Kind Sprites (hollar vættir), and the evil ones were called Bad Sprites (meinvættir, úvættir). To the Kind Sprites belonged the so-called Land-Sprites, guardian divinities of a given country. In Iceland the Land-Sprites were held in high esteem; according to the earliest legal code ("Ulfljot's Law"), it was forbidden to sail a ship of war into any Icelandic harbor bearing at the prow a "gaping head or snout," which might terrify the Land-Sprites. The worst misfortune one could bring to a man was to invoke upon him the hostility of the Land-Sprites. This was exactly what Egil Skallagrimsson did when to gain revenge he raised a "libel-pole" against Erik Bloody-Axe. Before sailing away from Norway, Egil went ashore on an island lying far out to sea. As the story runs: "Egil walked up on the island. Carrying a hazel pole in his hand, he made his way to a rocky headland looking out upon the mainland. Taking a horse's head, he fixed it on top of the pole. Then, making use of a certain formula (a curse), he spoke thus, 'Here I erect this libel-pole, and I turn the libel against king Erik and queen Gunnhild,' — and with these words he turned the horse's head toward the mainland —; 'I aim this libel against the Land-Sprites of this country, to the end that they shall go astray and that no one of them shall reach or find his dwelling [43} until they have driven Erik and Gunnhild forth from the land.' Thereupon he drove the pole into a crevice and left it there. He also turned the head landwards, and on the pole he wrote runes containing all the words of this curse. Then he went on board his ship."

Among the Kind Sprites may be reckoned all Æsir, Vanir, and Bright-Elves; among the Bad Sprites, Giants, Dwarfs, and Dark-Elves. After the coming of Christianity, however, no distinction was made between the Sprites; either they were all regarded as evil, or at any rate they were supposed beyond doubt to imperil the salvation of any man who should remain their friend. The Catholic clergy made it a point to arouse hatred against all the race of Sprites rather than to break down men's reliance on them. Numerous myths eventually sprang up having to do with Sprites that had suffered expulsion by means of the chants, the prayers, or the holy water of the priests, and so perforce had abandoned their dwelling places in stones or mounds. Each spring during Ascension Week in the North, as everywhere else throughout Catholic Christendom, the priests walked in procession around meadows and fields, holy water and crucifix in hand, intoning prayers and benedictions, and thus compelling the Sprites to flee the cultivated acres. During this particular week [1] there were several processional days; [2] besides these, there were two fixed processional days: the "greater," on April 25th; and the "less," on May [44} 1st. Ceremonies of just this sort lent themselves directly to the maintenance of belief in the Sprites; even in our own times traditions persist relating to "Sprite mounds" and "Sprite trees," sacred trees that no hand must touch, — where the Sprites not long since were accustomed to receive offerings of food.

Among more recent superstitions concerned with the lesser supernatural beings, those relating to Elves and Giants (Jutuls, Trolls, Mountain-Trolls) are by far the most prevalent. Among the Elves must be counted the Huldre Folk, [3] who occupy a conspicuous place in the superstitions of Iceland. These Elves have quite the appearance of human beings. They make their homes under ground or in the mountains, and are not always hostile toward men but at times rather amiable and friendly; for this reason they are occasionally given the designation Darlings. [4] Among the Norwegians, too, there are numerous stories about the Hidden Folk or the underground people (mound folk, mountain folk), and above all about the Huldre herself, the Hill-Lady. She is often malicious; but at other times she shows a friendly demeanor toward men, as when she appears before the herdsman and speaks and dances with him. The Hill-Lady is often very beautiful as seen from the front, an impression enhanced by her blue smock and white linen hood. From behind she is hideous: her back is hollowed out like a trough and she has a tail that she is never able to conceal. [45}

She owns a large herd of fat cattle and dogs to shepherd them ("huldre dogs"). She sings and plays well, but always in a melancholy strain; her tunes are called the "Hill-Lady's harping."

The underground folk are unable to beget children with each other. For this reason they desire to decoy young men or women in order to wed with them. They also have a bad habit of stealing human children; instead they lay one of their own brats in the cradle, the so-called changelings. [5]

Other Sprites are the Nix and the Water-Sprite. They live in rivers and lakes, and in certain localities are considered evil beings; in Telemark, for example, traditional report has it that the Nix demands each year a human sacrifice and that he is impelled to draw down to himself persons who approach the water after nightfall. As a rule, however, these Water-Sprites are guileless and friendly; they are adept at playing the fiddle, and it is possible to induce them to teach the art. Having no hope of eternal salvation, they are melancholy of mood; but they are made happy when any one promises to bring about their redemption, and they often demand the prospect of heavenly bliss as a reward for instruction in playing the fiddle. When the Nix is heard moaning and groaning, it is an omen that some one is about to be drowned. The Nix is able to reveal himself under various guises: as a handsome young man with long hair, as a dwarf, or as an old graybeard.

Out in the ocean dwell Merman and Mermaid. [46} They too sing and play beautifully and entice human beings to their haunts. They have the power to foretell future events. The upper part of their bodies has a human shape and the lower part has the likeness of a fish; the Mermaid appears beautiful as long as she does not let her finny tail be seen.

Among the Sprites the Brownie (Modern Norwegian Nisse) occupies a position of his own. He is a small boy or a small man dressed in gray clothes and a red cap; the crown of his head remains always moist, and his hands lack thumbs. Lingering about the farmsteads, he makes himself most useful so long as he is well treated; but if he takes umbrage at his hosts, he is capable of causing a great deal of trouble. If the Brownie is pleased with his surroundings, he will help the stableboy feed the horses, will assist the milkmaid in the care of the cows, and will even steal from the neighbors both hay and food to supply the farm on which he lives; but if he grows dissatisfied, he will bewitch the cattle, spoil the food, and bring misfortunes of other kinds upon the house. It may happen that two Brownies from two different farms encounter each other in foraging for hay, and then they will perhaps start a spirited fight armed with wisps of the hay. On Christmas Eve prudent folk are accustomed to set out for the Brownie a dish of Christmas pudding.

Whenever a person in sleep felt a weight upon his chest or when he dreamed disquieting dreams, he had no doubt that the Nightmare or Incubus was abroad, that he was being "ridden" by the Nightmare. [6] [47}

According to one account the Nightmare has no head, and is in fact hardly anything more than a mere brown smock; according to another description she is an actual woman who has the faculty of moving about by night and pressing her weight upon the sleeper. Thus the Nightmare does not differ widely from the so-called Werewolves, [7] who by day are actual human beings, but who during the night assume the shape of wolves; in this guise they course about bent on sinister mischief, attacking people in sleep, exhuming and devouring corpses in the churchyards. An ancient legend connected with one of the first Yngling kings in Sweden, Vanlandi by name, relates that a witch named Huld came over him in the form of a Nightmare and choked him to death. So firmly rooted was the belief of our forefathers in such things that the old ecclesiastical law of Eidsifa contained the following provision: "If evidence shows that a woman rides (as a Nightmare) any man or his servants, she shall pay a fine of three marks; if she cannot pay, she shall be outlawed." Nightmare and Werewolf are obviously related to the Dark-Riders or Night-Riders already mentioned, [8] and during later times no great distinction was drawn between them. One who had the ability to disguise his outward semblance was, in the ancient phrase, "multiform" (eigi einhamr), and was sometimes also called "shape-shifter" (hamhleypa).

  1. Gangdaga-vika: "procession week."
  2. Gangdagar.
  3. Huldufólk: "the hidden folk."
  4. Ljúflingar, lýflingar, from ljúfr, "dear," "friendly"; a formation like that of German Liebling, from lieb.
  5. Old Norse skiptingr, víxlingr.
  6. Old Norse, mara trað hann: "the Nightmare was treading him."
  7. German Werwolf, literally "man-wolf"; this word even as far back as the period of Old Norse had been changed into vargulfr.
  8. See p 39. [48}

On the Vettir

Page 47, line 27 — To the word vœttr corresponds the German Wicht, and German legends are much occupied with beings called Wichtlein, Wichtelmännchen. Here belongs also the well-known German word Bösewicht. In Anglo-Saxon the word was wiht, whence the English "wight," a term occurring frequently in ballads. Originally the word vœttr and its variants had a more general meaning (e.g., "a thing"), a signification that still appears in ekkivœtta, in Modem Norwegian dialects ikkje (inkje) vetta, "nothing." The compound, form (eit) godvette, "guardian spirit," persists in present usage; in Nordland (ei) godvetter (-vetra) is practically equivalent to Huldre, "Hill-Lady." (Mountain names such as Vettaåsen, Vettakollen are, on the other hand, to be connected with viti, "a beacon-fire.")

The notes to p. 32 record instances in which the Land-Sprites of Iceland and the Attendant Spirits of mighty chieftains join in the protection of the land against hostile strategems. In [310} the story of the seer Thorhall and the kin of Sidu-Hall, of which an excerpt is given in the note to p. 33 occurs also the following account: One day shortly before the coming of Christianity Thorhall lay in his bed looking out through a window; he smiled, and his host, the powerful Sidu-Hall, one of the first men who accepted baptism, asked him what he was smiling at. Thorhall answered: "I am smiling to see many a mound opening up and all living beings, great and small, packing their belongings and moving elsewhere." From these examples it is clear that there was no important distinction between the Vettir and Disir (Attendant Spirits) of the country and those of the individual family.

The narrative of Egil Skallagrimsson and his libel-pole is of importance for the illustration of the ancient runic magic; see M. Olsen, Om troldruner (Fordomtima II, Uppsala 1917) p. 19 ff. (=Edda V, p. 235 ff.) — On procession days, cf. Joh. Th. Storaker, Tiden i den norske Folketro (Norsk Folkeminnelag II), Christiania 1921, p. 97.

In certain localities, for example in Telemark, a distinction is made between Goblins or Hill-Goblins (tusser or haugtusser) and Jutuls; the Goblins are not larger than men, while the Jutuls are tall as mountains. The Vettir of this district are the same as the Hidden Folk; they are no larger than a child of ten, and dressed in gray clothing and black hats; their cattle are called huddekrœtur, "Huldre cattle," and their dogs huddebikkjer; "Huldre curs."

The name of the Huldre or Hill-Lady, huldr, probably comes from at hylja, "to hide," "to cover." The Germans are conversant with a somewhat similar being, Holle, Frau Holle, Mutter Holle or Holde, whose name appears at an early period to have been associated with the adjective hold, Old Norse hour, "kind," "amiable," "friendly." Frau Holle sometimes takes the role of a severe and industrious spinner, who rewards the diligent and punishes the indolent; but usually she is described as having a hideous appearance and as riding about in the company of witches. Our Huldre, on the contrary, bears a name which linguistically has always been kept distinct from the adjective hollr. — In the Sturlunga Saga (Kålund's edition, II, 325) we read of a Huldar Saga ("of a great Troll woman") which the Icelander Sturla Tordsson told to king Magnus Lawmender and his queen; this saga is no longer extant. Cf. K. Maurer, Abhandlungen der königlichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften I Cl. XX, 1, 2.

In Denmark, popular belief is concerned more particularly with [311} Elves, and in Norway with the Hidden Folk (cf. note to p. 4). Both classes of beings show a decided preference for the alder and for the twigs of the alder, perhaps through association with the name, since hulder is like older, just as the Danish word ellefolk ("elves") approaches in sound the Danish name for the alder: elle.

The Nix (nykr) is called in Swedish necken and also strömkarlen ("the man of the stream"), who no doubt comes nearest to the Norwegian fossegrimen ("the water-sprite"). In German the Nix is called Der Nix, Nickel, Nickelmann; the Nix woman is called Nixe, Wassernixe. The Nix is said to apportion his instruction according to the gifts he receives. One who gives him bread he teaches to tune the fiddle; but one who gives him a ram he teaches to play perfectly. Of several peculiar, wild melodies it is told that the Nix has taught them to the fiddlers. In older times people also imagined the Nix as having the form of a dapple-gray horse; now and then he would come forth from the water, and it even happened that he permitted himself to be used for some work or other during the day. Concerning the prophecies of Mermen or Mermaids, various legends have been current, such for example as the one in Half's Saga about the Merman who exercised his gift of prophecy for king Hjorleif the Woman-Lover (p. 252).

Formed in the same manner as marmennill "merman" from marr, "sea" and maðr, "man") is the Old High German merimanni, "mermaid." As early as the period of Old High German this word took the form meriminni (minni means "love," "the beloved," and in the language of children, "mother"). From the German comes the Danish mareminde, a word which later was erroneously applied to the Nightmare. According to the description in the King's Mirror, the Mermaid (margýgr) is not beautiful and winsome as Mermaids are usually represented; to be sure, she is a woman above the middle and a fish below the middle, but her hands are large and webbed between the fingers, and her features have a terrifying aspect, with sharp eyes, broad forehead, large mouth, and wrinkled cheeks. She makes her appearance only as a harbinger of great storms. On such occasions she emerges above the water holding fishes in her hands. If she eats the fishes or throws them in a direction away from the ship, the sailors have hopes of weathering the storm; but if she plays with them or tosses them toward the ship, the signs indicate misfortune. [312} With the Brownie may be compared the German Kobold, who also is a kind and good-natured domestic fairy dressed in a red cap; further, the English Puck or Robin Goodfellow. The Swedes do not use the name Nisse but tomtegubbe, tomtekarl, "brownie"; in Norwegian occur the similar terms: tuftekall, tomtegubbe (tomtvette, tuftvette), sometimes shortened to tufte, tomte. The notions on which these designations are based may be illustrated by corresponding terms current in western Norway: tunvord (tunkall), gardvord, ("the guardian of the yard or the farm"). Nisse is really a diminutive pet name for Nils (Nicolaus). This relatively modern designation has come to Norway from Germany, where Nicolaus, Niclas, Nickel, Klaus are used to denote a being who appears in disguise on St. Nicholas' Day (December 6) to distribute rewards or punishments to children; it is also used of a little imp.

In German the Nightmare is called Alp, the same word as Norwegian alv. In many countries legends prevail concerning people who were able to show themselves in a guise different from their own natural shape. We shall meet with several examples of this sort of thing in the Heroic Legends: Bodvar Bjarki fought at Rolf Kraki's side in the likeness of a bear (p. 220); Sigmund and Sinfjotli cloaked themselves as wolves (p. 156); and Valkyries appeared in the semblance of swans (p. 126). German legend abounds with stories of beautiful maidens who turn into swans as soon as they put on an enchanted ring or belt. In like manner the Werewolves were able to assume their alien guise as wolves through the aid of ring or belt. The myths of the gods also have something to tell of such metamorphoses (Freyja's feather-coat, p. 76); Odin above all others was skilled in the arts of transformation (Ynglinga Saga, chapter 7).

All the various beings of Northern superstition who may be brought under the common designation of Vettir (Elves, Hidden Folk, Underground Folk, and the like) were, according to Kaarle Krohn, departed spirits who had become attached to certain localities ("localized spirits or sprites"); see his exhaustive array of evidence in Skandinavisk mytologi, p. 36 ff. One link in his argument has to do with the inability of these Vettir to beget children with each other. Radically different from such Vettir are the Giants, who according to Krohn were prehistoric men who had migrated into waste places. [313}


Many sources

Norse mythology, Norse stories, Peter Andreas Munch, Norse gods and heroes, P. A. Munch's Norse tales from the Eddas, etc, To top    Section     Set    Next

Norse mythology, Norse stories, Peter Andreas Munch, Norse gods and heroes, P. A. Munch's Norse tales from the Eddas, etc. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2008–2019, Tormod Kinnes [Email]