Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Category: Norse Sagas

Best of Norse Mythology

People love ranking things. Search for Top Ten lists on the internet and you will get results for everything from the FBI’s top 10 fugitives to 10 bizarre theme parks from around the world. Writing such a list in this day and age seems to be a quick way to open yourself up to criticism. Luckily the internet was not around when the sagas were written and Grimismol told us all about the various best things in Norse mythology.

The Best of Food
Stanza 18 tells us about the magical boar Sæhrimnir, who has a confusing name since it means sooty sea-beast. This beast is cooked up by the chef “Sooty” in his huge cauldron “Fire-sooty” every night and supplies enough food to feed the entire host of Einherjar. Every morning the boar is reborn and ready to provide another night of delicious food.

The Best of Ships
Skithblathnir belonged to Freyr. The name means “wooden-bladed” and whenever its sails were raised a fair wind would appear to take the ship to its destination. The dwarves created this ship and although it is big enough to hold all of the gods and all of their weapons it can be folded down until it is small enough to fit in one’s pocket.

The Best of Trees
Yggdrasil, The World Tree earned this honor. Considering that this ash tree stretched from the depths of Hel all the way up to the heights of Asgard, that is no surprise.

The Best of Gods
Othin, or Odin, was called the greatest of gods. Some researchers have made the argument that Thor was more of a friend and guardian to the race of man than Odin. There is some merit to that argument but you should keep two things in mind. First of all, Odin was the ruler of the gods. Secondly, the poem Grimnismal is told from the point of view of Odin in disguise – who else is he going to say is the greatest?

The Best of Steeds
Sleipner, the eight-legged horse of Odin earns this distinction. Sleipner was born of Loki when the Trickster changed himself into a female horse to trick the giant who was building the walls of Asgard but Loki gave him to Odin. The grey horse was amazingly fast and even bore a rider down to Hel on more than one occasion. His name has worked its way into a number of kennings such as sea-slepnir – meaning a fast boat.

The Best of Bridges
Bifrost, sometimes appearing as Bilrost, is the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard and Asgard. The red color of the bridge is supposedly from flames that set the water beneath it to boiling. Bifrost is very strong and was constructed with incredible skill, but as good and strong as this bridge is there are two things it can not withstand: the chariot of Thor, god of Thunder; and the assault of the “sons of Muspell” during Ragnarok.

The Best of Skalds
Bragi, one of Odin’s sons, has this honor. It is not surprising since his name comes from the Norse word for poetry. He was sired by Odin while the ruler of the gods was stealing the mead of poetry from the giants. One of the things I find unusual is that Bragi was reported to be the only god that was welcome in all of the worlds. Everyone loves a good story or a sweet song and this god’s ability to share both of these things earned him friends wherever he went.

The Best of Hawks
Hobrok, or Hábrók, is reported to be the best of hawks, but unfortunately we have no other mention of him or her in the myths at all.

The Best of Hounds
Garm is the blood-stained hound that guards the gates to Hel. When Ragnarok comes he will burst his chains and run loose upon the world until he meets up with the god Tyr and the two of them slay each other. It is interesting that they choose a Hel-hound for the best of the category. Instead of going with a faithful companion animal or possibly a guardian type dog, Grimnismal basically chooses a monster for the best of hounds.


Proof the Gods Want Us To Be Happy

I would guess that not many stories on Norse mythology start by quoting Benjamin Franklin, but you probably understand by now that I come at the subject from a different angle than most people. The quote is often heard or read as:

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

As with most quotes on the internet, it is not exactly right. Mr. Franklin was actually talking about wine. I think the ancient Vikings would have agreed mightily with that statement in either form. Odin enjoyed his wine. In The Lay of Grimnir we are told that Odin gives his nightly share of the meat from the boar Sæhrimnir to his wolves Geri and Freki and that “on wine only… Odin ever lives.” The Younger Eddas say it again, telling us “wine is for him both meat and drink.” So wine was valued highly. But it seems to be more of a special item. The common conception is that the average Viking drank mead, right?

I was thinking about the many stories of the Einherjar, the honored warriors plucked from the fields of battle who fight all day and feast all night in Valhalla. The Valkyries serve them each night. We even have one of the kennings for Valkyrie being cup-bearer. I have to admit that I had always thought of them as drinking mead. After all we get a description of the goat Heidrûn that stands on the roof of Odin’s hall and produces an endless supply of golden mead. So they had plenty of the stuff. Do a word search for “mead” in the Eddas and you will find it mentioned 34 times. That is a pretty impressive showing.

Except The Lay of Vafthrudnir tells us that the Einherjar “beer with the Æsir drink…” They’re drinking beer, not mead. Later in the same lay we read a list of the names of the Valkyries who “bear beer to the Einherjar.” If we do another word search for “beer” we find this beverage mentioned 35 times, just barely edging out mead. The Lay of the Dwarf Alvis has Odin challenging the Dwarf to provide the different names for beer. He answers:

Ol it is called by men, but by the Æsir biorr, the Vanir call it veig, hreina logr the Jotuns, but in Hel ’tis called miodr: Suttung’s sons call it sumbl.

I hadn’t thought of the Vikings as beer drinkers. After some consideration I think it is because popular culture is filled with so many references to Vikings quaffing their horns of mead. (It seems you have to quaff mead, for whatever reason. There aren’t many references to them sipping it.) We can blame artistic license for that. It certainly seems more exotic for a fantasy-type Viking hero to be drinking mead, which is a fairly uncommon drink, than to have them drinking a plain old beer.

I got to wondering what their beer was like. A quick search lead me to the following article from the Guardian “How to make Viking heather beer.” The article claims this is much like what the Vikings would have drank, although there are probably those who would argue whether this is proper beer or ale or honey-wine or metheglin. I will leave that argument to them. If you’re looking for a recipe that is more for the hard-core homebrewer, I would suggest this one. That recipe also goes into a bit of detail about the history of brewing this sahti type beer, a style which is still made today in Finland.

When it comes to beer I have a quality over quantity approach. I’d rather drink a single bottle of some great stuff than two or three average beers. The Eddas have a number of places where they agree with my limited approach to drinking. The High Father’s Lay warns us that “too much beer-bibbing” is bad because it leads us to a loss of control of our mind. Remember, the Vikings valued wisdom. There are various other references to not indulging in too much drinking because you don’t think straight when you drink too much. Good advice.

Gifts with gifts requite

outdoor-christmas-tree-15For many of us the approaching holiday season means a lot of thought about gifts and maybe even the nature of giving. I know it has been on my mind a lot as I try to juggle an increased work schedule with my yearly drive to make things for people. I am a creative guy and I get a lot of pleasure out of making stuff for my friends and family, especially stuff that they wouldn’t find in a store. One year a friend got a hand-screened t-shirt with a stylized Dwarf’s face and “Bring your pretty face to my axe” written in runes. One of my projects for this year is for my sister’s little boy Kaden. The guy is a big fan of Robin, the Boy Wonder. So I took Robin’s R logo, changed it into a K, cut out the pieces from felt, and sewed it on a shirt for him. Not the fanciest job of sewing (my aspirations outreach my talent in that area) but he’s three and I think he’s going to flip for it. I’ve got four different craft projects going on right now, with two others thankfully finished. I’m dying to show them off but my wife reads the blog so I’ll have to keep them secret until after the holiday.

Since giving has been on my mind I did a quick search of the Eddas to see what they have to say about giving. There are several mentions of bride-gifts and we are told that poetry is called Odin’s gift, but I think the best reference comes from The High One’s Lay. The High One is Odin and he sets out various rules and maxims for people to follow. I found this one particularly appropriate for this time of year:

“To his friend a man should be a friend, and gifts with gifts requite. Laughter with laughter men should receive.”

I hope you are all have a happy holiday season and a great new year.

Viking Smarts

Odin og Völven by Frølich

Viking society was not a literary society – they did not write things down to remember them. Instead the skalds, or poets, committed all of the stories and sagas to memory, passing them along orally from generation to generation. Lack of book-learning does NOT mean that the Vikings were not intelligent people. Yes, they were fierce warriors, but they also valued wisdom. Today I’ll be discussing some of the ways the sagas show that to be true.

The Big O
Let’s start out by talking about Odin. He is chief of the Aesir, ruler of the Norse gods. The gods are assigned areas that they oversee or control. For example, Thor is god of thunder and lightning. He rules the storms. So what area does Odin rule? Which attributes did the Vikings assign to their chief god? War, yes, but also wisdom. He doesn’t just oversee it in some aloof way, either. Odin actively travels the Nine Worlds seeking wisdom and knowledge. The sagas have many stories about his journeys. He often travels in different disguises, but all of the disguises share one common attribute – they only have one eye. Which leads us to…

Knowledge is Valued
We know that the Norse valued knowledge because their chief god was willing to sacrifice one of his own eyes for more knowledge. The Well of Mimir granted great knowledge to those who drank from it, but before he was allowed to drink Odin had to pay the price. He willingly sacrificed one of his eyes in exchange for a drink.
Odin also put the rest of his body through the wringer for the sake of learning. He once pierced himself with his own spear, hanging his body from a tree for nine days so that he could gain knowledge of the runes.

Flyting & Kennings
Flyting is basically a sort of insult contest conducted in verse. Kennings are poetic expressions that stand in for another word. (You would refer to the ocean as the whale-road, for example.) Some of you might disagree with me, but I’d like to argue that both of these are signs of a society that obviously values knowledge.
It takes brains to come up with a rhyming insult. We’re not just talking about two dolts standing up and saying things like “No, you’re ugly.” The saga Lokasenna tells us about a flyting which involved Loki, the Trickster.  There he just didn’t take on another god. No, one by one he took on almost every single god in the hall. The fact that this story was passed down through the generations tells us how such displays of intellect had to have been valued.
As for kennings, there are simple ones such as calling Odin Frigg’s-mate, but there are many filled with an inspired creativity that, to me at least, are signs of a society that revels in knowledge. Kennings even became multi-layered. The mouth could be called the Ship of Words which would lead to the tongue being referred to as the Tiller of the Ship. The second kenning doesn’t have an obvious reference back to the first if it stands alone. Yet audiences were expected to pick up on these references as a matter of course. You don’t hold expectations like that of an uneducated people.

Final thoughts
There is a bit of a popular misconception that the Vikings were all battle-crazed warriors. A little reading and study shows that to be decidedly untrue. The evidence of what they valued, as shown by the things they thought important enough to preserve through poem and song, show they placed a great value on wisdom and intelligence. We could do worse than to remember what we are told in the Lay of Hamdir – “That man lacks much who wisdom lacks.”

Three Famous Ships From the Norse Myths

Today we have a bit of a continuation from last week when I posted some artwork of the figurehead of a drekar or dragon-boat. There aren’t that many named ships in the Eddas, but these three are pretty memorable.

We are going to start with this ship because the Elder Eddas tell us it is… “without doubt the best and most artfully constructed of any (ship.)” The ship belongs to the god Frey and was constructed by the sons of Ivaldi – the Dwarven master craftsmen who also created Odin’s spear Gungnir and the golden hair of Sif. The ship is quite large and has enough room to hold all of the Aesir gods and goddesses and their weapons and war supplies as well. As soon as the sail is raised a favorable breeze springs up and leads the ship wherever you wish to go. To top it all off, the ship is so artfully constructed and so many cunning spells were used in her construction that you can actually fold the ship up like a piece of cloth until it is small enough to fit into your pocket.

When Ragnarok, the doom of the gods comes around, the ship Naglfar will finally be ready to set sail. When we were told that Skidbladnir was the best ship we were also informed that Naglfar was the biggest. The creepiest thing about Naglfar is that it is not made of wood, rather it is being built from the toenails and fingernails of all who have died. In Gylfaginning we are told to take great care not to die with untrimmed nails, for the longer your nails are the sooner the ship will be done. Loki is fated to be the helmsman on that dark day, using the ship to bring the enemies of the gods to the scene of the battle between good and evil.

This was the ship of Balder. Sadly we only read about it at his funereal. At that time we are told it “passed for the largest in the world.” Now we had been told that Naglfar was biggest. Maybe the discrenpancy has something to do with the fact that Naglfar is still under construction. Hringhorn is so big that the gods can not push it out to sea and have to send for a giantess to push the ship for them.

Sturlaug the Industrious

If you’re looking for a good, adventure-filled read, you should give the saga of Sturlaug the Industrious a try.  It is one of the sagas of ancient times or fornaldarsögur. I first came across it through the Norse sagas page on this site which has a nice collection of the legendary sagas translated into English. This 14th century story tells the adventures of Sturlaug, the son of a Norwegian hersir. (A hersir is roughly equivalent to an English lord. He would rule over the local area but owed allegiance to the king.)

In a bit of a twist on the usual order of things, Sturlaug starts off by marrying the beautiful princess – Asa the Fair. He demands her hand in marriage as payment for fighting a duel against Kola the Crafty. Asa is fine with this and even sends Sturlaug to her foster-mother Vefreyja for help in defeating Kola. The saga has magic weapons, sorcery, shape-shifters, battles and a quest for the horn of the auroch and then the story behind the Horn’s creation. The treasure is “fair as gold to look at” but must be handled with care since it is “full of poison and sorcery.”  You should definitely check it out.

Posted by Mark Neumayer

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