Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

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“Rash war and perilous battle, their delight;

And immature, and red with glorious wounds,

Unpeaceful death their choice: deriving thence

A right to feast and drain immortal bowls,

In Odin’s hall; whose blazing roof resounds

The genial uproar of those shades who fall

In desperate fight, or by some brave attempt.”

Liberty (James Thomson).

A Viking Foray

A Viking Foray

J. C. Dollman

By Arrangement with the Artist

The meat upon which the Einheriar feasted was the flesh of the divine boar Sæhrimnir, a marvellous beast, daily slain by the cook Andhrimnir, and boiled in the great cauldron Eldhrimnir; but although Odin’s guests had true Northern appetites and gorged themselves to the full, there was always plenty of meat for all.

“Andhrimnir cooks

In Eldhrimnir


’Tis the best of flesh;

But few know

What the einherjes eat.”

Lay of Grimnir (Anderson’s version).

Moreover, the supply was exhaustless, for the boar always came to life again before the time of the next meal. This miraculous renewal of supplies in the larder was not the only wonderful occurrence in Valhalla, for it is related that the warriors, after having eaten and drunk to satiety, always called for their weapons, armed themselves, and rode out into the great courtyard, where they fought against one another, repeating the feats of arms for which they were famed on earth, and recklessly dealing terrible wounds, which, however, [21]were miraculously and completely healed as soon as the dinner horn sounded.

“All the chosen guests of Odin

Daily ply the trade of war;

From the fields of festal fight

Swift they ride in gleaming arms,

And gaily, at the board of gods,

Quaff the cup of sparkling ale

And eat Sæhrimni’s vaunted flesh.”

Vafthrudni’s-mal (W. Taylor’s tr.).

Whole and happy at the sound of the horn, and bearing one another no grudge for cruel thrusts given and received, the Einheriar would ride gaily back to Valhalla to renew their feasts in Odin’s beloved presence, while the white-armed Valkyrs, with flying hair, glided gracefully about, constantly filling their horns or their favourite drinking vessels, the skulls of their enemies, while the scalds sang of war and of stirring Viking forays.

“And all day long they there are hack’d and hewn

’Mid dust, and groans, and limbs lopped off, and blood;

But all at night return to Odin’s hall

Woundless and fresh: such lot is theirs in heaven.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Fighting and feasting thus, the heroes were said to spend their days in perfect bliss, while Odin delighted in their strength and number, which, however, he foresaw would not avail to prevent his downfall when the day of the last battle should dawn.

As such pleasures were the highest a Northern warrior’s fancy could paint, it was very natural that all fighting men should love Odin, and early in life should dedicate themselves to his service. They vowed to die arms in hand, if possible, and even wounded themselves [22]with their own spears when death drew near, if they had been unfortunate enough to escape death on the battlefield and were threatened with “straw death,” as they called decease from old age or sickness.

“To Odin then true-fast

Carves he fair runics,—

Death-runes cut deep on his arm and his breast.”

Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).

In reward for this devotion Odin watched with special care over his favourites, giving them gifts, a magic sword, a spear, or a horse, and making them invincible until their last hour had come, when he himself appeared to claim or destroy the gift he had bestowed, and the Valkyrs bore the heroes to Valhalla.

“He gave to Hermod

A helm and corselet,

And from him Sigmund

A sword received.”

Lay of Hyndla (Thorpe’s tr.).


When Odin took an active part in war, he generally rode his eight-footed grey steed, Sleipnir, and bore a white shield. His glittering spear flung over the heads of the combatants was the signal for the fray to commence, and he would dash into the midst of the ranks shouting his warcry: “Odin has you all!”

“And Odin donned

His dazzling corslet and his helm of gold,

And led the way on Sleipnir.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

At times he used his magic bow, from which he would shoot ten arrows at once, every one invariably bringing down a foe. Odin was also supposed to [23]inspire his favourite warriors with the renowned “Berserker rage” (bare sark or shirt), which enabled them, although naked, weaponless, and sore beset, to perform unheard-of feats of valour and strength, and move about as with charmed lives.

As Odin’s characteristics, like the all-pervading elements, were multitudinous, so also were his names, of which he had no less than two hundred, almost all descriptive of some phase of his activities. He was considered the ancient god of seamen and of the wind.

“Mighty Odin,

Norsemen hearts we bend to thee!

Steer our barks, all-potent Woden,

O’er the surging Baltic Sea.”


The Wild Hunt

Odin, as wind-god, was pictured as rushing through mid-air on his eight-footed steed, from which originated the oldest Northern riddle, which runs as follows: “Who are the two who ride to the Thing? Three eyes have they together, ten feet, and one tail: and thus they travel through the lands.” And as the souls of the dead were supposed to be wafted away on the wings of the storm, Odin was worshipped as the leader of all disembodied spirits. In this character he was most generally known as the Wild Huntsman, and when people heard the rush and roar of the wind they cried aloud in superstitious fear, fancying they heard and saw him ride past with his train, all mounted on snorting steeds, and accompanied by baying hounds. And the passing of the Wild Hunt, known as Woden’s Hunt, the Raging Host, Gabriel’s Hounds, or Asgardreia, was also considered a presage of such misfortune as pestilence or war. [24]

“The Rhine flows bright; but its waves ere long

Must hear a voice of war,

And a clash of spears our hills among,

And a trumpet from afar;

And the brave on a bloody turf must lie,

For the Huntsman hath gone by!”

The Wild Huntsman (Mrs. Hemans).

It was further thought that if any were so sacrilegious as to join in the wild halloo in mockery, they would be immediately snatched up and whirled away with the vanishing host, while those who joined in the halloo with implicit good faith would be rewarded by the sudden gift of a horse’s leg, hurled at them from above, which, if carefully kept until the morrow, would be changed into a lump of gold.

Even after the introduction of Christianity the ignorant Northern folk still dreaded the on-coming storm, declaring that it was the Wild Hunt sweeping across the sky.

“And ofttimes will start,

For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s hounds,

Doomed with their impious lord the flying hart

To chase forever on aëreal grounds.”

Sonnet (Wordsworth).

Sometimes it left behind a small black dog, which, cowering and whining upon a neighbouring hearth, had to be kept for a whole year and carefully tended unless it could be exorcised or frightened away. The usual recipe, the same as for the riddance of changelings, was to brew beer in egg-shells, and this performance was supposed so to startle the spectral dog that he would fly with his tail between his legs, exclaiming that, although as old as the Behmer, or Bohemian forest, he had never before beheld such an uncanny sight. [25]

“I am as old

As the Behmer wold,

And have in my life

Such a brewing not seen.”

Old Saying (Thorpe’s tr.)

The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either a visonary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs, called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale.

In the middle ages, when the belief in the old heathen deities was partly forgotten, the leader of the Wild Hunt was no longer Odin, but Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, King Arthur, or some Sabbath-breaker, like the Squire of Rodenstein or Hans von Hackelberg, who, in punishment for his sins, was condemned to hunt for ever through the realms of air.

As the winds blew fiercest in autumn and winter, Odin was supposed to prefer hunting during that season, especially during the time between Christmas and Twelfth-night, and the peasants were always careful to leave the last sheaf or measure of grain out in the fields to serve as food for his horse.

This hunt was of course known by various names in the different countries of Northern Europe; but as the tales told about it are all alike, they evidently originated in the same old heathen belief, and to this day ignorant people of the North fancy that the baying of a hound on a stormy night is an infallible presage of death.

“Still, still shall last the dreadful chase,

Till time itself shall have an end;

By day, they scour earth’s cavern’d space,

At midnight’s witching hour, ascend.


“This is the horn, and hound, and horse

That oft the lated peasant hears;

Appall’d, he signs the frequent cross,

When the wild din invades his ears.

“The wakeful priest oft drops a tear

For human pride, for human woe,

When, at his midnight mass, he hears

The infernal cry of ‘Holla, ho!’”

Sir Walter Scott.

The Wild Hunt, or Raging Host of Germany, was called Herlathing in England, from the mythical king Herla, its supposed leader; in Northern France it bore the name of Mesnée d’Hellequin, from Hel, goddess of death; and in the middle ages it was known as Cain’s Hunt or Herod’s Hunt, these latter names being given because the leaders were supposed to be unable to find rest on account of the iniquitous murders of Abel, of John the Baptist, and of the Holy Innocents.

In Central France the Wild Huntsman, whom we have already seen in other countries as Odin, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, Rodenstein, von Hackelberg, King Arthur, Hel, one of the Swedish kings, Gabriel, Cain, or Herod, is also called the Great Huntsman of Fontainebleau (le Grand Veneur de Fontainebleau), and people declare that on the eve of Henry IV.’s murder, and also just before the outbreak of the great French Revolution, his shouts were distinctly heard as he swept across the sky.

It was generally believed among the Northern nations that the soul escaped from the body in the shape of a mouse, which crept out of a corpse’s mouth and ran away, and it was also said to creep in and out of the mouths of people in a trance. While the soul was absent, no effort or remedy could recall the patient to life; but as soon as it had come back animation returned. [27]

The Pied Piper

As Odin was the leader of all disembodied spirits, he was identified in the middle ages with the Pied Piper of Hamelin. According to mediæval legends, Hamelin was so infested by rats that life became unbearable, and a large reward was offered to any who would rid the town of these rodents. A piper, in parti-coloured garments, offered to undertake the commission, and the terms being accepted, he commenced to play through the streets in such wise that, one and all, the rats were beguiled out of their holes until they formed a vast procession. There was that in the strains which compelled them to follow, until at last the river Weser was reached, and all were drowned in its tide.

“And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,

You heard as if an army muttered;

And the muttering grew to a grumbling;

And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;

And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.

Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,

Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,

Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,

Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,

Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,

Families by tens and dozens,

Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives—

Followed the Piper for their lives.

From street to street he piped advancing,

And step for step they followed dancing,

Until they came to the river Weser,

Wherein all plunged and perished!”

Robert Browning.

As the rats were all dead, and there was no chance of their returning to plague them, the people of Hamelin refused to pay the reward, and they bade the piper do his worst. He took them at their word, and a few [28]moments later the weird strains of the magic flute again arose, and this time it was the children who swarmed out of the houses and merrily followed the piper.

“There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling