For those of you who haven’t already seen it, Norsemen is a Netflix hit comedy set in the Viking age. Think Monty Python meets the Vikings. Michael Scott meets Ragnar Lothbrok. It has us laughing our assicles off.
Frøya is Norsemen’s resident shieldmaiden and we love her. While her costuming is anything but Viking, her spirit and her sass is what draws us to her.
Loki: the Icelandic God of Mischief
By Dr. Helena Bassil-Morozow - Glasgow Caledonian University
Loki is a trickster – i.e., a figure representing chaos and regularly challenging the existing order of things. Mythological and folkloric narratives portray the trickster as a figure challenging the civilizing forces of society and attempting to destabilize or renew the system. The trickster’s task is to shake up the system, to ensure that it does not go stale or complacent. Gods of the Norse mythology pantheon are afraid that Loki will cause Ragnarok – the end of the world, ‘the twilight of the gods’.
Sleipnir was the eight-legged horse born of Loki, and belonged to Odin. Loki gave birth to Sleipnir after turning himself into a female horse when his father demanded he sabotage the work of a craftsman from being able to complete the fortification of Asgard in one season.
In the early days of Valhalla, a craftsman came to visit. He offered to create a citadel around Asgard which could keep out the giants who may attack from any direction. The man claimed he could complete the fortification of Asgard in three seasons, and for payment demanded that the goddess Freyja be his bride and that he receives the sun and the moon also. The gods however thought his choice of payment was steep and negotiated that he would be paid in full, if he completed the wall in just one season and that he receives no help from any man. The man accepted this with the condition that his stallion, Svadilfari, could help. The gods were unsure, but Loki convinced them that even with the help of his horse, the man would not be able to uphold his end of the bargain, so Freyja, and the sun and moon were not at risk at all.
And so the man set to work on the first day of winter, yet it was his huge stallion that did all the work, effortlessly hauling huge boulders. The progress of the citadel progressed swiftly, and it was so tall and strong that no enemy would be able to take Asgard. Three days before the winter was over the gods sat down for counsel and discussed how they could avoid giving the man payment. Whilst discussing this the gods began to question who had agreed to the man’s terms in the first place. The consensus was that Loki was to blame. The evil Loki was demanded to obstruct the craftsman from completing the last part of the citadel so that they would not need to pay him. Loki would face violence and death if not, so he swore oath that he would stop the man and his horse from completing the citadel.
The intriguing Viking history of a Neolithic burial mound
Maes Howe chambered tomb sits at the heart of the stunning Neolithic landscape of Mainland, Orkney, in close proximity to the stone circles of Brodgar, and Stenness, and the recently discovered temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. The mound is also home to a collection of 30 runic inscriptions, said to date from the 12th century.
But who made these inscriptions, and what do they say? The Orkneyinga Saga sheds a little light on this, and more recently, scholars[i] have translated the carvings, giving us some answers. However, this leaves us with more questions than we started with. The inscriptions in the tomb talk about buried treasure, they refer to the mound as Orkahaugr – Orc Mound, not Maes Howe, and the earth mound itself seems to have been bolstered in the 9th century[ii].
Were there piles of gold under the earth? Where is it now? Were orcs marauding across the land? The runes and sagas don’t tell us everything, some of the stories may be fabricated, and much is left undocumented.
So let’s start at the beginning. Maes Howe is around 4,800 years old. There is no evidence to suggest that burial chambers of this period had gold and silver placed in them. If it had been opened for the first time today, then we would expect to find nothing but bones. Archaeological excavations at the site have shown that the mound was re-enforced in the 9th century, with more earth added to the mound. The end of the 9th century corresponds with the start of the Orkneyinga Saga, and the arrival of the Earls of Orkney.
King Harald Fine-Hair of Norway ruled from 879-930A.D. The Saga tells us that he gave the land to Earl Rognvald after the Earl’s son, Ivar died fighting for the King in/around Ireland and the Isle of Man. Rognvald hands the land to his brother, Sigurd, who becomes the first Earl of Orkney. After Sigurd, the title passes to his son, Guthrum, then to Hallard, Sigurd’s nephew. Hallard couldn’t keep raiders at bay, so skulked back to Norway with his tail between his legs. Two Danes, Thorir Tree-Beard, and Kalf Scurvy decide to take the islands, so Earl Rognvald sent his youngest son, Einar to remove the Danes. There was much turmoil in the late 9th, and early 10th century in Orkney, but the Norse were certainly there.
There is more than one theory to explain why Vikings re-enforced the mound in the early years of the Earls. One[iii] is that it was stripped of the old bones, and turned into a burial mound by the vikings. Another, put forward by Dr Alexandra Sanmark[iv] is that it is was a thing site – a Viking parliament, and that Maes Howe was not actually called Orkahaugr by the Vikings, because Mesow (as written in the 1845 New Statistical Account) could be old norse for Meadow Mound.
Orkahaugr is only referenced twice in history – once in the Orkneyinga Saga – it remains in the English translation of the late 1800’s[v], but was swapped out for Maes Howe in a later edition[vi], and in the actual chamber itself in one of the rune carvings. Despite how fun it sounds, there is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings thought Orkney a mystical land filled with boggarts, fey creatures, and orcs, and Orkahaugr may simply mean ‘that big mound in Ork’ instead of a mound filled with Orcs. The Irish referred to the lands as Insi Orc, the land of the wild boars. We simply don’t know why it was referred to as Orkahaugr instead of Maes Howe, though it should be noted that the Saga was written in Iceland, and the man carving the runes may not have been native to the Orkneys.
And the treasure that these Vikings speak of? The inscriptions say it was hidden to the north-west of the mound, that is was removed by Hakon, and that it was taken away 3 nights before they opened the mound. Is any of this true? We will never know, but it could be said that if the theory about the 9th century Vikings burying someone in the tomb was correct, then there could well have been gold and silver among the grave goods. Or it could simply have been a story or myth told in Viking times to explain these huge monuments in the landscape. The Orkneyinga Saga makes no reference to the contents of the mound.
Do we actually know for sure who carved the runes in Maes Howe? The Orkneyinga Saga says that Earl Harald was travelling from Hamna Voe to Firth 13 days after Christmas, with 100 men, and they sheltered from a snow storm in the Howe. Two men went mad during the night. It is suggested that it was these men that wrote some of the runic inscriptions. This could be true, though you may struggle to fit 100 men in Maes Howe for the night, as it’s not that big internally. Also mentioned in the saga are the men of Earl Rognvald Kali, who went on crusade in 1153. This looks to be around the same time as the incident with Earl Harald, however there is no mention of Maes Howe in the Saga in relation to Earl Rognvald Kali. However, the date ties with the style of runes they are using, the fact that they use the word crusader in one inscription, and the addition of a cross carved into one of the stones, so it could have been these men.
Beyond the date of the original tomb, the earth works done in the 9th century, and the runes dated to the 12th century, it looks like we can theorise until Ragnarok about what really happened inside that mound. What we can certainly take away from the carvings inside Maes Howe, is that runes do have immense power. At some point, men called Hegli, Erlinger, Thorir, Tryggar, Ofram, Thorfir, Ottarfila, and Haermund Hardaxe stood in that small, dark space and left their mark, so that we may sit here nearly 1000 years later, and still know their names.
[i] John Mitchell. Mesehow: Illustrations of the Runic Literature of Scandinavia, Translations in Danish and English of the Inscriptions in Mesehowe, Visits of the Northern Sovereigns to Orkney, Notes, Vocabularies, etc. Edinburgh: 1863.
[iii] Sigurd Towrie. http://www.orkneyjar.com/
[iv] Dr Alexandra Sandmark. Althing and lawthing in Orkney. The Orcadian 2012
[v] Joeseph Anderson. Orkneyinga Saga 1873
[vi] Palsson Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Orkneyinga saga : the history of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981
The Tale of Loki Bound
The sagas tell many tales of Loki and his tricks, but he really incurred the wrath of the other gods when he murdered Baldur. The gods were enraged and demanded vengeance. The tale of what happened to Loki, found in the Prose Edda, is a rather unpleasant one.
First Loki ran far away. He hid himself in a mountain, and built a house with 4 doors – one facing each direction so that he could always see his enemy approach. To pass the time, Loki took on the form of a salmon, and then hid himself in a place called Fránangr- Falls. Here he would ponder what tricks the gods would try and use to capture him at the waterfall. At night, Loki would sit in his house with four doors, and use linen thread to knit fishing nets.
Odin had seen from Hlidskjálf where Loki was hiding, and sent the Aesir to capture him. When they arrived, Loki cast the nets into the fire, turned himself into a salmon again, and leapt into the river to escape.
The wisest of the Aesir who had come to apprehend Loki was Kvasir, so he entered the four door house first. He saw in the fire white ash from where the fishing net had burned away, and deduced that this must be something used to catch fish. So the Aesir made a fishing net, based upon the pattern in the ashes, and took it to the waterfall to catch Loki.
Thor took hold of one end of the net, and all the Aesir, the other, and they stretched it out. Alas, Loki managed to dart ahead, and hid between two stones. So the Aesir tried again, but this time they used a rock to weigh down the bottom of the net so that Loki could not swim under it. Undeterred, Loki jumped over the net this time, and made for the waterfall. The Aesir split into two, to try another time to capture Loki with the net, but Thor waded up the middle of the river. Loki panicked, he had but two choices: to flee to the open sea, or jump over the net again. He chose the net, and leapt gracefully over it, but Thor snatched him mid leap. The salmon slipped through Thor’s fingers, however, the tail stopped him from losing his grip, and his hand stopped there. This is why salmon have a tapered back.
Captured, Loki was taken by the Aesir into a cave. Here they took 3 flat stones, drilled holes in them, and stood them on end. The Aesir brought in Loki’s sons, Váli and Nari, turned Váli into a wolf, and watched as he ripped his defenceless brother asunder. They took Nari’s entrails, and used them to bind Loki to the three stones – one stone under his shoulders, one under his groin, and the last under his legs. The bonds were turned to iron, and Loki lay immobile upon the rocks.
Skadi took a venomous serpent, and tied it above Loki so that it would drip onto his face. His wife, Sigyn stood beside him with a bowl to catch the venom, though when the bowl became full, she would have to empty it out. At this moment, the venom would fall onto Loki’s face, and cause him to writhe in pain. This would cause earthquakes to shake the world. And so there lies bound Loki, tended to by Sigyn until Ragnarök.
with less than two months till Christmas, today we want to talk a bit about the Viking god Odin, which some of you will recognise from our T-Shirts, and how he might actually be related to the modern Santa Claus!