Saturday, November 26, 2011

How long does winter have to be to be a Fimbulwinter?

I was lurking somewhere on the net being distracted by someone (I forget who) 's conjecture about the length of the fimbulvetr (really big/terrible winter) which would be only a year and a half because there is no summer in between. However, the Norse measured years by winters. The Zoëga entry on 'vetr' lists year as an alternative definition.
Then there is the word for season 'misseri' which lasts for six months, giving the Norse two seasons-summer and winter only much like us Canadians. In the plural, however misseri means a twelve month period. So, you could make an argument for an eighteen month winter which would be terrible enough but it could very well be three years. Snorri stated in Gylfaginning that the fimbulwinter would be preceded by three winters (years) of fighting. Then a wolf swallows the sun, after which it won't just be cold but dark, too, since another wolf swallows the moon. The gods will be fighting in the dark. Or by the flame of Surt's sword, which everyone would want to crowd around being the only thing giving off heat for a while.
Anyway, since Snorrie mentions the other three years while discussing fimbulwinter, I think he is saying it lasts for three years.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Lay of Helgi Hjövard's Son

Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar is a poem in Old Norse from the Codex Regius. There are a number of good English versions out there. Helgi is a king's son and a hero. He married a Valkyrie named Svava. One day, his brother met a troll-woman in the woods who offered him companionship for the night. Hedin declined and she said he would regret it at the bragarful. He did, too.
It was Yule, a time when the old year ended and the new one began. It is also a time when supernatural beings were likely to appear; rather like Samhain (Hallowe'en). The bragarful is a toast drunk between the one to the Aesir and the one to the dead. One is expected at this occasion to utter a boast or make a vow. Hedin vowed that he would have his brother's wife in the New Year. Of course, such a vow would have to be fulfilled but Hedin was so ashamed he left town immediately to look for his brother and tell him what happened.
Astonishingly, Helgi was not angry. He told his brother that the troll woman must have been his fylgjur (??!!) and that he was about to die. He told Hedin that he had his blessing to marry Svava. Then he went to a battle and died. Svava and Helgi were reincarnated as Sigrun and Helgi.
I have several thoughts. First is that the old troll woman might have been an early version of the 'loathly lady'. Hedin should have let her have her way with him. Second, if she is Helgi's fylgjur, why is she appearing to Hedin and causing trouble? Third, this bragarful sounds a little like a New Year's Resolution. The Vikings don't get credit for this little nuisance. They probably should. Fourth, if Svava is a Valkyrie, then she is Odin's handmaiden and has duties. How does she get to marry a human and have children with him? I am working on that last question - what exactly was a valkyrie anyway?

Friday, November 18, 2011

fylgjur - Norse Protective Beings

In Njal's Saga, Thord sees a goat covered in blood lying in a hollow that Njal cannot see. Njal tells him that he must have seen his fylgja and he should be careful. Thord says being careful will not help, he is about to die. He does die in an ambush by Sigmund and Skiolld, while Thrain stands by.
In Hallfreder Saga, as he lay dying, Hallfred saw a woman in armour approaching him. He called her his fylgjukona.
The fylgjur is rather like the banshee, a protective spirit that is rarely seen by the people whom it protects except when someone is about to die. The banshee wails in mourning as a harbinger of death, not as a bringer of death. Banshee simply means 'woman of the Sidhe' or fairy woman.
Fylgjur may be related to fylgja or afterbirth. The belief was that when a person was born, the afterbirth followed and that was the person's fylgja. You had to be careful in disposing of the afterbirth least an animal consume it and the person's soul with it. It is interesting that Icelandic peoples thought the afterbirth was an Otherworldy being. Also interesting that Celts and Norse thought this spirit was a woman.
(from Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend by Andy Orchard)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hagar the Horrible

I was translating some Old Norse and came across the word 'hagr' which has little to do with the cartoon since the word as an adjective means 'skilful' and the noun has even less to do with the Viking bumbler.
Hagar has been with us since 1973. When the original cartoonist, Dik Browne (who bore a slight resemblance to Hagar) died, his son, Chris Browne, continued the cartoon. It is a funny look at Vikings in the later part of the first millennium. Hagar raids castles but he does not seem to raid small villages or sell people into slavery like a real Viking. That would not be at all funny.
I found a website with 3,450 strips to look at. I like Hagar so I recommend it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thor and Valkyries

I have been working on a paper on Valkyries and Swan Maidens in reference to Volundrkvida (Wayland's Ballad). Sounds exciting? The majority of what I am reading says that the Valkyries are later developments in Norse myth, in the late first millennium after the Viking period got underway. This is about the time Thor rises to prominence as everyone's favourite Aesir. I don't think there is a connection but it is odd. And....... in connection to the Wayland myth, it is even odder when you consider Thor's weapon of choice is a hammer because Wayland (who is a smith) used a sword.