Most people have some passing familiarity with Norse mythology and legend. Even the days of our modern week are named after its gods and goddesses. But there is a dark side to the Nordic mythos that few people are aware of. Some of the episodes described below reveal uncomfortable truths about the cosmos. Some exhibit the jaundiced eye with which the Norse viewed life and death. And some are just gross.
1. A world made by murder
The Norse believed that the universe emerged from an empty, yawning gulf separating worlds made of ice and fire, respectively, inhabited only by a mysterious, hermaphroditic being named Ymir, who became the mother and father of the race of the jotuns, chaotic nature spirits that would later be the enemies of the Norse gods. Eventually, another being, Buri, came into existence, and his grandchildren, Vili, Ve and Odin, decided to create the world and fill it with life. But unlike the Judeo-Christian conception of God, the Norse deities could not create substance out of nothing, so Odin and his brothers did the only sensible thing – they murdered Ymir and made the world out of his body and the sky out of his skull. Ymir’s blood became the sea, his bones and teeth became rocks and mountains, and his brains the clouds.
The act of sacrifice gave great power to the three brothers, and they proceeded to give life and intelligence to human beings. The outlook of the Norsemen, who often saw the world as a cruel and unforgiving place, was surely influenced by the fact that they lived in a universe made possible only by death.
2. Odin’s loses an eye (and gains a little too much knowledge)
Popular literature makes Odin the most important of the Norse gods, but in reality he was an unpopular deity and his cult was never widespread beyond poets, shamans and kings. Odin practiced seidr, a form of magic considered unmanly, and was the god of frenzy, betrayal and death (in addition to inspiration and wisdom). A particular obsession of his was the hoarding of knowledge, and he sent his servants, ravens nicknamed Thought and Memory, out into the world to bring him news. Norse myths tell of Odin’s quest for the secrets of the universe. Wisdom came with a price: to gain insight into the future, Odin sacrificed an eye to drink from a magical well, but in the process learned of his own inescapable fate.
But worse was yet to come. To gain the knowledge of the runes, a magical writing system that could give great power to the user, Odin had to stab himself with a spear and hang himself from a tree for nine days and nights. In memory of this act, sacrifices to Odin were killed in similar fashion – including a few kings whose subjects grew tired of their failures.
3. Loki’s cross-dressing gets carried a bit too far
Loki was Odin’s blood-brother and something of an alter-ego. A trickster whose games often crossed the line into the malicious, Loki convinced the gods to make a wager with a giant who promised to build them a fortress in a short span of time. If successful, the giant wanted the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage. When it seemed that the building would actually be finished on schedule, the gods threatened Loki with death. The wily deity turned himself into a mare and seduced Svaðilfari, the giant’s horse, making completion of the fortress impossible. You can probably guess what happened next – Loki became the proud “mother” of an eight-legged stallion, Sleipnir, who became Odin’s ride.
Loki’s malicious ways eventually caught up with him when he became responsible for the death of Odin’s son Baldur and composed scandalous verses about his fellow-gods. The gods, tired of putting up with him, bound him in chains made from his own son’s entrails and imprisoned him under the earth to wait until the end of days.
4. The wild adventures of Hadding
The writer and scholar Poul Anderson called the story of Hadding “dark and violent even by saga standards.” Hadding, a mythological king of Denmark, was sent as a child to be fostered by a family of jotuns (Ymir’s children, see #1 above). When he grew to manhood, he became the lover of his own wet-nurse, only to watch her torn to pieces by alien, chaotic powers beyond his understanding.
Guided by Odin in disguise, he won back his father’s kingdom and enjoyed great success in wars against neighboring kings. But what goes up, must come down, and Hadding, facing old age and the death of friends, ended his life hanging himself in a grove of sacred trees as a sacrifice to his patron, Odin.
5. It’s not always good to be the king
Domaldi, a legendary Swedish king, did not have a happy life. He became king when his two older half-brothers murdered their father Visbur, and his stepmother cursed Domaldi with a life of bad luck. This was one curse not made in vain; Domaldi’s reign was marked by famine and plague. The first year of starvation, the Swedish chieftains sacrificed oxen, and when the harvest was still terrible, they offered up human beings the following year. Because the luck of the land was believed to be tied to the luck of the king, on the third year the chieftains reluctantly decided they had to sacrifice Domaldi (who was generally liked and well-regarded). Superstition? Maybe, but one saga relates that Sweden’s luck changed once the altar was splashed with Domaldi’s blood, and the next year’s harvests were excellent.
6. Beowulf teaches Grendel’s mother that “no means no”
OK, it’s technically Anglo-Saxon, not Norse, but Beowulf comes out of the same body of tradition as the Norse myths and takes place in Scandinavia. In one scene, the hero is locked in mortal combat with Grendel’s mother. During their struggle, Grendel’s mother (who has been interpreted by different scholars as a demon, a troll, a valkyrie, or some sort of fertility goddess) pins and straddles the warrior. Some scholars interpret this scene as a depiction of an ancient sacrificial rite, where a priestess mated with, and then killed, a victim to ensure a bountiful harvest. But Beowulf was having none of it, and managed to slaughter his opponent and go on to many more adventures over the course of the 3,182-line poem.
7. Signy becomes her own sister-in-law
Völsunga saga is one of the best known of the Old Norse legendary sagas. Together with the Nieblunglied, with which it shares common source materials, it has become the inspiration for such diverse works as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Tolkien also wrote an epic poem based on the saga, published posthumously as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun).
The opening chapters of the saga contain some bits usually left out of polite discussion of the work. A princess named Signy marries Siggeir, the king of the Geats (Beowulf’s people), who then treacherously murders Signy’s whole clan with the exception of her brother Sigmund, who is imprisoned. Sigmund manages to escape, but he and his sister are both obsessed with revenge. Signy sends her two sons by Siggeir to Sigmund who, with her approval, murders them both. The siblings then sleep together, and Signy gives birth to a son, Sinfjötli, who goes on to help his father/uncle burn Siggeir in his palace and avenge the family. But vengeance was bitter-sweet; Signy, having accomplished her revenge, preferred to die with her hated husband than escape with her son/nephew and brother/baby-daddy.
8. Starkad’s betrayal
Starkad is the hero of a number of legendary sagas. Descended from giants and a favored worshipper of Odin, Starkad was blessed with the lifespan of three ordinary men. But the blessing bore its own curse, which was that Starkad was destined to commit three heinous acts. In the most famous of these, Starkad’s friend King Vikar of Agder (in southern Norway) was marooned with his fleet because they could not get a favorable wind. Vikar’s men decided that a human sacrifice was required, and when they cast lots to see who would be chosen, it was Vikar himself who got the “honor.” Starkad convinced the king to participate in a mock sacrifice, where he would be “hanged” with a loose noose and “stabbed” with a reed. It was an Odin-inspired trick, however – the noose became tight and strong, the reed was magically transformed into a spear, and Vikar, predictably, died at the hands of his best friend.
9. They don’t call him “Bad-Ruler” for nothing
Ingjald was a legendary king of the Swedes. As a small, mild-mannered child, he had been given a wolf’s heart to eat to toughen him up. His people learned the hard way that trying to change a person can have unintended consequences, and Ingjald became cruel and ruthless from that day forward. Wanting no competition, he built a grand feasting hall and invited seven client-kings over for dinner. When they showed up he locked them in and burned the hall, along with everyone inside, to the ground. Ingjald and his men waited outside to cut down anyone who tried to escape. For this episode he became known as “Illrádi,” or “Bad-Ruler.” Ingjald’s daughter Aasa was no better. When Ingjald married her off to Gudrod, a neighboring king, she convinced her new husband to kill his own brother, then arranged for Gudrod’s own death before returning to her father’s house.
Years later the evil pair got their comeuppance, though. Ivar, Gudrod’s nephew, raised a rebellion against Ingjald and marched on his hall. Aasa and Ingjald, realizing that all was lost chose an appropriate exit – they set fire to their own hall and died in the flames.
10. What began in murder ends in fire
It was perhaps the most feared word in the Norse lexicon. Ragnarök, or the Doom of the Gods, was a fate set in stone, and even the mighty and wise Odin could not escape it. The Norse believed that there would be an “an ax age, a sword age … a wind age, a wolf age, before the world falls.” Three years of chaos, famine and plague on earth would be followed by a mighty war in the heavens, when the gods of the Norse pantheon would finally have to face the armies of chaos – including jotuns, giant wolves, a world-spanning serpent, and a liberated and revenge-hungry Loki – in battle. Most of the important Norse gods, including Odin, Thor, Frey and Tyr, would fall, and the fire-giant Surt would burn the entire world to ashes, killing virtually everything that lives.
Lest you be left with the impression that the Norse were complete sadsacks, one work, the Völuspá, contains a faint glimmer of hope. In its final lines the poem describes how a new world would arise from the ashes of the old, the surviving gods and men would rebuild their homes and re-discover lost knowledge, and a mysterious “mighty lord” would arrive to “order rules, fix rights, and ordain laws that shall live forever.”
Brian Gottesman is a lawyer in Wilmington, DE. He is the creator of Saga, an upcoming comic book series set in Viking-Age Norway, Scotland and Iceland published by Archaia Comics.
Yesterday was October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we planned a bunch of 10 lists, and the mass listeria has spilled into 10.11.10. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.