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33 Crass and Creative Norse Nicknames

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Before surnames were a well-established way of telling one Olaf or Astrid from another, identifying nicknames were far more prevalent. Historical figures had their share of quirky epithets—from Albert the Peculiar to Zeno the Hermit—but the Norse Vikings seem to have had them beat when it comes to comical range and sheer absurdity.

Paul Peterson, now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois, dedicated his advanced studies to Norse nicknames, completing a masters thesis and doctoral dissertation [PDF] at the University of Minnesota on the subject. He writes in the abstract, “The quantity of nicknames in Old Norse literature is incomparably rich, and recurring nicknames provide a tool for understanding saga transmission, cultural history, slang, and etymology.” Plus, some of them are really silly.

Many—although not all—of the nicknames he cites through the text are pulled from a compendium of Icelandic settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries called Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) and fall into the following rough categories: “those describing physical features, mental characteristics, and one’s deeds or habits (good or bad).” Often, they're not exactly flattering.

Monarchical nicknames—both legendary and historical—are especially descriptive, and often survive in the Norse canon along with an explanation for the epithet that helps to contextualize the king. These include:

1. Óttarr the Vendel Crow: So given because after he was slain in a battle at Vendill, his body was eaten by crows.

2. Hálfdan the Generous and the Stingy with Food: This contradictory nickname is rooted in a surviving anecdote that claims the king paid his men well, but also starved them.

3. Walking-Hrólfr: A royal count, Hrólfr was said to be given this nickname because he was too large for any horses to carry him, and thus he walked everywhere.

4. Magnús Barefoot or Barelegged: King Magnus traveled west to the British Isles, where he and his men adopted the kilt styles worn there, and brought the fashion back to Norway. The sartorial choice was especially noteworthy after a blow to his bare leg in battle ultimately cost him his life.

5. Haraldr War Tooth: There is some discrepancy in the legends about Haraldr—whether he earned his epithet through naturally prominent (and yellow) teeth or whether he was bestowed with a mystical immunity that included re-growing a pair of teeth that were knocked out on his wedding night.

Sometimes, an explanation of the nicknames of non-royal Vikings, however obtuse, was also included in the text. Such as:

6. Billy Goat Bjǫrn: So-called because he dreamed of a “rock-dweller” and awoke to find an extra male goat amongst his herd, which quickly multiplied and made Bjorn wealthy.

7. Ǫlvir the Friend of Children: There was a low bar for earning this epithet in Medieval Iceland. Ǫlvir was a friend of children because, according to Landnámabók, “He did not allow himself to catch children on spears, as was then customary among Vikings.”

8. Þórir Leather Neck: He earned what was likely a mocking nickname after attempting to fashion armor with cheaper cowhide.

9. Ragnarr Hairy Breeches: The explanation given for this nickname—that Ragnarr was wearing his hairy breeches when he slew a serpent to win his wife’s hand in marriage—makes sense as a momentous occasion worth commemorating, but it doesn’t explain why he was wearing the fur pants to begin with.

10. Þóra Hart of the Castle: Like many women’s nicknames, this is a reference to beauty. Þóra was said to be so beautiful that she stood out from other women as a hart (or stag) stands out from other animals.

11. Þorbjǫrg Coal Brow: Her nickname is a reference to her black hair and eyebrows—but it is not intended as a compliment among Vikings.

12. Hallgerðr Long Pants: The wife of a legendary hero, Hallgerðr’s nickname refers to her abnormal height and thus, presumably, the long pants she would have to wear.

Many nicknames survive without any explanation (though many are obvious enough that you could probably guess why the epithet was given). A surprising number are openly insulting and include crude sexual allusions or “potty humor”:

13. Kolbeinn Butter Penis

14. Eysteinn Foul-Fart

15. Herjólfr Shriveled Testicle

16. Ásný Ship-Chest (or: Ásný The Busty)

17. Þórir Billy Goat’s Thigh

18. Skagi the Ruler of S**t

19. Ásgeirr the Terror of the Norwegians

20. Bǫðvarrthe Little Bear

21. Auðr the Deep-Minded

22. Finni the Dream Interpreter

23. Olaf the Witch-Breaker

24. Vemund the Word-Master

25. Hlif the Castrator of Horses

26. Astrid the Wisdom-Slope

27. Ófeigr the Grimacer

28. Tjǫrvi the Ridiculer

29. Vékell the Shape-Shifting

30. Þorfinnr the Splitter of Skulls

31. Bjarni the Tall Man with a House

32. Hjǫrleifr the Amorous

33. Þorgeirr the Frantic

[h/t Medievalists.net]

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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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