Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: legendary 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.

 

Fast Facts About Alfheim

LotR_BfMe_II_Elf_siege_concept_art_1Some of the lands of Norse mythology are a bit harder to talk about than others simply because we are not told much about them. Today’s entry is one of those tough ones – Alfheim

What’s in a Name?
Alfheim means, simply, “Elf home.” In later English and Scots ballads it sometimes showed up as Elphame or Elfhame.

Who Owned It?
The Eddic poem Grinismal has one of the few mentions of the land of the Elves but all it tells us is “And Alfheim the gods | to Freyr once gave.” Freyr, or Frey, was given the land when he first arrived in Asgard as an infant and lived there afterwards.

Let There Be Light
Gylfaginning, doesn’t tell us much either. In talking about the many glorious place in heaven the poem simply says “That which is called Álfheimr is one, where dwell the peoples called Light-Elves.”

One of the Nine
Most scholars list Alfheim as one of the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. It is generally thought to be in the heavens like Asgard and Vanaheim.

Is That All You Got?
um… yes, unfortunately. I did find some references to the Kjalnesinga saga which relates the adventures of a human boy who journeyed to Alfheim and fell in love with a girl there but I haven’t be able to find the text in anything other than the original Icelandic. (I’d love to hear from anyone who knows of a good English translation of this saga.)

Fast Facts About the Jotun

Giants are often thought of as monsters. We have them serving the role of villain in folk tales and myths from around the world. The Norse myths are no exception with Thor, the defender of man, defeating numerous giants throughout his adventures. But if you think of the Jotun as nothing more than cardboard cutout bad guys then you’re making a big mistake.

The First Creatures
The first creature who was not a god was a giant. Ymir’s body arose out of the region where the cold of Niflheim met the fire of Muspelheim, although we are also told that Elivigar, the rivers that existed in Ginungagap, cast forth drops of venom and these formed the body of Ymir. Either way “all giants (come) from Ymir.”

It Does a Giant’s Body Good
If he was born before the world was formed, what exactly did Ymir survive on? Luckily for him, after the drops of vapor condensed to form his body they also produced a cow named Audhumla. Ymir survived on the milk that came from the cow.

They Were Useful
The sons of Bor (Vee, Vili and Odin) killed Ymir. We aren’t told the specific reason for them doing this although earlier in the saga it is mentioned that Frost-giants are inherently wicked. The three brothers then used Ymir’s blood to create the seas and all the waters, his flesh became the land, his bones became the mountains and his skull was used to form the sky.
A giant built the walls of Asgard. Granted, he was in disguise at the time, and he had the help of a magical horse that could pull tremendous loads of stone, and Thor killed him when his deception was uncovered, but he built the walls.

They Were Worthy Foes
During Balder’s funeral the gods can not move the laden funeral-ship because it is too heavy. The gods had to summon a giantess to move it for them so we know the giants could be stronger than the gods.
When Odin wanted to test the extent of his knowledge he traveled to see the giant Vafþrúðnir and entered into a battle of wits. Odin won, but only with the final question whereby he asked something that only he could know the answer to.
Giants were also behind the defeat of of Thor and Loki in the hall of Utgard-Loki. Loki lost an easting contest when his opponent ate not just the food but the plates and table the meal was set on. Thor lost both a drinking contest and a wrestling match. They were tricked and only discovered this when Utgard-Loki volunteered the information after they had left his hall.

 They Could Be Beautiful
Yes, the giantess Angrboda gave birth to the Midgard Serpent, the Fenrir Wolf, and Hela, so Jotun had the capacity to be monstrous with a capital “M.” But we also have several instances of gods falling in love with giants. The most notable one is probably Frey who fell head over heels in love with the giantess Gerd and eventually married her. In addition to Loki (who fathered those three children with Angrboda) Thor and Odin also had their dalliances on the giant side of the street.

So the story of the Jotun, like many parts of Norse myth, is a lot more nuanced and varied than popular culture would lead you to believe. It’s definitely worth your time to do some further digging on your own.

Fast Facts About Nifllheim

misty-mountains-coldLast week I wrote about Muspellheim, the land of fire. This week we’ll be heading in the opposite direction, to Niflheim, the land of ice and mist. I started with these two since the Eddas tell us that they were the first two lands formed “many ages before the earth was made.” Let’s see what we can learn about the icy land of Niflheim.

What’s In A Name?
We have two parts to the name. Nifl has been translated as “dark” and “misty.” Heim means “home” or “land” depending on the source you’re checking. So Niflheim is the dark-land or the mist-home. If you do an internet search “Abode of Mists” seems to be the more popular interpretation. However, the index of my copy of the Eddas says it means “Nebulous-Home.” The takeaway from all of this is that Niflheim is a cold, dark, misty place – the opposite of Muspellheim’s bright, hot. dryness.

It Takes Two
Niflheim was one half of the equation that created the first being. When it’s icy cold encountered the raging heat of  Muspell, the two combined and created Ymir, the father of the race of Frost Giants.  Odin and his brother Ve and Villi would later kill Ymir and use the parts of his body to create the world.

A Helish Place
You can find various arguments stating either that Helheim, or simply Hel, is located inside of Niflheim or right next to it. Hel is listed as one of the Nine Worlds so I am more inclined to believe the latter. There are some instances that say just the gates to Hel are located inside of Niflheim so it is more likely to me that they are separate worlds and you must travel through Niflheim to get to Hel.

It Has Roots
One of them at least, for we are told that one of the three roots of the World Tree Yggdrasil stands over Niflheim. The root is constantly gnawed on by Nidhoggr, the great serpent or dragon who lives there.
Underneath this root we also find the spring called Hvergelmir (roaring cauldron) which, being a hot spring, must be the only source of warmth in this dismal land. Hvergelmir is also the source of twelve different rivers, one of which is Gjoll, the river nearest the gate to Hel.

Come back next week as we visit another of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology.

Fast Facts About Muspellheim

lavaThe cosmology of Norse mythology begins with two opposites, two contrasting regions: Muspellheim in the south, a land of fire and light; and Niflheim in the north, a land of water and cold. This week we’re going to talk about the first one of them and learn what the Eddas tell us about the land of primordial fire.

Visitors Not Welcome
Muspell, we are told, is full of flame, so bright and hot that it is “too luminous and glowing to be entered by those who are not indigenous there.” In other words, if you don’t have a least of drop of fire-giant blood running through your veins, don’t bother coming because you won’t be able to stand the heat.

The Stars Above
The stars in the sky are errant sparks of flame and fire that drifted out of Muspell. The sons of  Borr – Odin, Vili and Vee-  took these sparks and set them in the heavens to cast light on the world.

Sparks of Evil
Surtur, guards the borders of Muspelheim. This fire-giant has a a flaming falchion, a sword that “outshines the sun.” At the end of the world he will lead the sons of Muspelheim to defeat the gods. Surtur’s most notable victim is the god Frey, who will come to regret giving away the magic sword that was able to fight by itself. After the battle Surtur’s flames will “consume the universe with fire.”

Bridge-breakers
The sons of Muspell will shatter Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, when they ride across it. We are told that Bifrost is a most wonderful bridge and well constructed, but nothing in nature can withstand the destructive power of the fire-giants riding out to the final battle.

Next week we’ll look into the other half of this equation with some fast facts about Niflheim. See you then!

 

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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