Glossary of Frequently Recurring Terms and Names
Angantyr. The eldest of twelve sons of the warrior Arngrim.
Angantyr was given possession of the magic sword Tyrfing, which had
lightning properties, but killed a man every time it was unsheathed.
His daughter Hervor awakened Angantyr’s ghost in his tomb to
successfully claim the magic sword.
Asgard. The home of the Norse gods known as the Æsir, ruled over by Odin. Asgard was in the
centre of the Norse universe.
Æsir. Warrior deities of the sky, who lived in Asgard. Based on a false etymology, Snorri Sturluson
claimed that the Æsir derived from the word Asia, making them
euhemerized warriors from Troy. They were opposed to the pantheon of
(perhaps older deities) Vanir, who were associated with the earth and
fertility. The most important Æsir mentioned in English poetry were
Odin and his wife Frea/Frigg; Thor, the thunder god; and Balder, the
Balder. Son of Odin by his wife Frea/Frigg. He was seen as the
purest and best of the Æsir. His mother persuaded everything in
the world to swear an oath not to harm him, but she did not extract
this promise from the mistletoe. The cunning god Loki tricked the blind god
Hoder to aim a dart made of mistletoe at Balder, which killed him.
Bartholin, Thomas (Bartholinus) (1616–1680). Danish
physician, mathematician and antiquary. Bartholin wrote the patriotic
history Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptæ a
Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis (1689; Danish
Antiquities on the Pagan Danes’ Disdain of Death). This work
achieved European-wide fame and became one of the most frequently used
sources for information on the heroic warrior mentality of the
Scandinavians and, by extension, the pre-Christian Germanic world.
Edda. Poetic and Prose. The Poetic Edda,
also known as the Elder Edda, refers to the collection
of probably pre-Christian poems compiled about 1270. The poems fall
into two groups: heroic lays and mythological lays. The latter group
comprises the Völsunga saga, a history of the
Norse gods from creation to apocalypse, and the Hávamál, the words of the High One (Odin). In the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this collection was sometimes
called Saemund’s Edda, as it was wrongly
attributed to one Saemund Sigfusson, a writer of the twelfth century.
- The Prose Edda was written by the Icelander Snorri
Sturluson about 1220. It is divided into a prologue and three parts:
the Gylfaginning, a series of mythological stories told
in the form of a dialogue; the Skáldskaparmál, in which Snorri illustrates the
rules of skaldic verse, while retelling many myths and legends; and
the Háttatal, a long poem, in which each strophe
exemplifies a Norse metre.
Frea/Frigg. The wife of Odin and goddess of fertility. She
often represented as the grieving mother of Balder, the dying god.
Hel. Both the name of the underworld and the goddess who ruled
it. In the Romantic period, English writers often used the name Hela
for the cruel mistress, to distinguish her from her cold underworld,
Hel. From her waist down Hel was rotting flesh. Hel, the location, was where
those who died of sickness or old age would go. The description of
this place as surrounded by high walls and a gate, within which hunger
and starvation rule, is found in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning.
Jotun (Old Norse Jötunn). Member
of the race of giants, enemies of the gods.
Loki/Loke/Lok. Represented in Norse mythology as a mischievous
trickster figure, and sometimes god of evil. He was the father of
Fenrir, the Midgard’s serpent, and Hel. He contrived the death of
Odin’s much-loved son Balder and was punished for it by being
bound to a rock with chains until Ragnarök, when he will break
free and fight against the Æsir.
Odin. Woden or Wotan in English tradition. He is the principal
god in Norse mythology, a deity of battle, magic, poetic inspiration,
and the dead. His name probably meant “wild” or
“furious”. He inspired the feared berserkers, warriors
who rushed naked into the midst of battle, inebriated with fury.
Mead. Drink made by fermenting a mixture of honey and water.
In Valhalla, it is served to the warriors, when
they rest after a long day of fighting. The leaves of the tree
Læraðr is eaten by the goat Heiðrún, which
in turn produces mead.
Paul-Henri Mallet (1730–1807). Geneavean professor in
Copenhagen. His two books of interest are Introduction
a l’histoire du Danemarch (1755, 2nd ed. 1763), a history of the Old North; and
Monuments de la mythologie et de la poesie des Celtes, et
particulierement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), a
translation of Scandinavian legends and Norse literature into a major modern
European language for the first time. These were commissioned by the
Danish government. Mallet’s works were translated into the
two-volume Northern Antiquities: Or, a Description of the
Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and
Other Northern Nations; Including Those of Our Own Saxon
Ancestors (1770) by Thomas Percy.
Niflheim. The underworld of eternal cold, darkness and mist.
It was the place to which those who did not die a heroic death on the
battlefield would go. It was ruled over by the goddess Hel.
Norns. (Old Norse Nornir). The three
virgin goddesses of destiny (Urd or Urdar, Verdandi, and Skuld), who
sit by the well of fate at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, where they
spin the web of fate.
Ragnarök. The “End of the Gods”. The
original Old Norse form is ragna rök, from ragna “of the gods” and rök “destined end”, but the
variant Ragna rökr (rökr “twilight”), which occurs in the
Prose Edda, has given the often-used translation
“twilight of the gods”. In Norse mythology, it is a
final battle between the gods and the powers of evil. According to the myth,
the beginning of the end would be signalled by men fighting each
other, fathers killing their sons. A three-year winter (Fimvulvetr)
would then ensue. The wolf, Skoll, would swallow the sun. The wolf Fenrir
and bound Loki would break their bonds. Natural disasters will abound.
It is foretold in legend that Heimdall, the guardian of the
Æsir, will sound the Gjallarhorn, alerting the gods to the onset of
the final battle against evil. A major figure on the side of evil is
the Giant Sutr, who will fight with his flaming sword. In this battle,
most of the Æsir will die. But out of Ragnarök, a new world
will be born. A new sun will take the place of the old and some gods
will return to the ruined Asgard, led by the resurrected Balder, the
best and most beloved of gods.
Raven banner (in Old Norse Hrafnsmerki).
A flag reported to have been used by Vikings at the time of their
conquests. It was triangular, with a rounded outside edge. It was possibly a
symbol of Odin, who is often depicted with two ravens (Hugin and
Munin) and may have served to gain his favour in war. This type of
banner is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (sub anno 878) and a number of other English
Skald/Scald/Scalder. An Old Norse word for a poet, usually
applied to a court poet or bard of the period from the ninth century
to the thirteenth. The skald was a composer and reciter of poems
honouring heroes and their deeds. The accomplishment of poetic composition
was counted among the íþróttir (“skills”,
“art”) suitable for a warrior.
Skuld. See Norns.
Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). Icelandic historian and
poet, who was a leading figure of medieval Icelandic literature. He
wrote the mythological Prose Edda and the Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway
from mythical times to the year 1177. He wanted to preserve the stories and
methods of skaldic and Eddic poetry for his contemporary Icelandic
Thor. The god of sky and thunder, who was responsible for law
and order in the world of humans.
Torfæus, Thormodus (Þormóður Torfason)
(1636–1719). Icelandic historian. Author of Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (four volumes, 1711).
This Latin history of Norway covers the very earliest of time to 1387.
It contained much historical information on the Old Norse kings.
Torfæus uses a number of saga manuscripts as sources.
Valhalla. Literally, “hall of the slain”. To be
rewarded a place here was a privilege reserved for warriors who fell
heroically in battle. In the Gylfaginning section of
the Prose Edda (c. 1220), the Icelandic historian
and writer Snorri Sturluson created a vigorous image of this place. It was
depicted as a glittering palace of spears and a ceiling of shields,
presided over by Odin. Fallen warriors battled each day in endless
preparation for Ragnarök, after which they retire for festivities,
where drink and mead were provided afresh each night, served by
Valkyries. Odin’s twelve handmaids who conducted the
slain warriors which they picked from the battlefield to Valhalla. The
Old Norse Valkyrja is literally “chooser of the
slain”. The Valkyries are fate-weavers and therefore approach
the role of the Norse Norns, who rule the destiny of men. From the
surviving body of poetry, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a hard
distinction between the two species of female deities (dísir). This is why the Valkyries are
“weavers” of fates in Thomas Gray’s adaptation
“The Fatal Sisters”.
Völva. A prophetess, seeress. In Old Norse society, a
female practitioner of magic divination and the foretelling of events.
According to the myth of Odin, which several Romantic writers took up,
this god called up a seeress from the dead, who told him how the world would