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The Religion of the Northmen
Beside the Æsir proper, there were also certain inferior Divinities arising out of the Asa Faith, which were honored and adored by the heathen Northmen. Of this class of superior beings were the Dísir, Landvættir, and Álfar.
The name Dísir (sing. Dís) properly denotes Goddesses, but it is used especially of a peculiar kind of supernatural beings, who also frequently appear under the appellations: Hamingjur (sing. Hamingja), the Goddesses of Good Fortune, and Fylgjur (sing. Fylgja), Following, Attending Spirits. They were nearly related to the Valkyrjur and Nornir, especially to the latter, whose messengers they were strictly considered to be. They were imagined to be feminine beings, who, mostly as protective, but sometimes as persecuting, spirits, attended the single individual or whole races, throughout this earthly life. They revealed themselves on important occasions, sometimes to the waking eye, sometimes in dreams, and in the latter case they were also called Dream-wives (Draumkonur).
When the Icelandic chieftain Thorstein Ingemundsson, of Hof, in Vatnsdal, was invited as a guest of Groa, a magic-skilled woman who dwelt in his neighborhood, he dreamed for three successive nights before the festival, "that the woman who had been the attendant of him and his family" showed herself unto him and forbade him to go thither. He obeyed, and staid at home with his friends. But on the very day that the festival was to have been, Groa's house was buried beneath a mountain slide, which was called forth by her sorcery. (1)
The renowned and mighty Icelander, Viga-Glum, dreamed one night that he stood on his estate Thverá, and saw a woman coming toward him, who was so large that her shoulders reached the mountain-tops upon both sides of the valley. He interpreted this dream to signify that his uncle, the Norwegian hersir Vigfus, was now dead, and the woman was his Good Fortune (hamingja), which was higher than the mountains, and which now took up its abode with Glum. (2)
When Hallfred Vandræðaskald lay deathly sick in his ship, a woman was seen to walk along with it. She was of a goodly aspect and was clad in armor; she walked over the waves as though it had been upon firm land. Hallfred looked upon her and saw that it was his Fylgja-kona (Guardian Spirit), but as he had embraced Christianity, he was anxious she should not accompany him in the realms of death, and he said to her, "I now declare myself to be separated from thee!" "Wilt thou accept me?" she asked of Thorvald, Hallfred's brother. He answered in the negative. Then said Hallfred the Younger, a son of the skald, "I will accept thee!" (3)
It is said, however, of the hopeful Icelandic youth Thiðrandi Hallsson, that he was slain by the Dísir of his family. It was shortly after the introduction of Christianity into Iceland, that Thiðrandi's father Hall, on a winter night, gave a banquet (no doubt a sacrificial banquet in honor of the Dísir) at his estate of Hof, on Alpta-fjörð. The soothsayer Thorhalli, who was among the guests, forbade any one to go out at night; for whoever did so would bring about some mishap. When all had gone to bed there were three raps upon the door, but no one heeded it, except Thiðrandi, who lay nearest to the door. He, believing it to be guests who had arrived, sprang up with the third rap and went out with his sword in hand. As he perceived nothing at first, he went a little way from the door; but now he heard the trampling of horses' feet, and saw nine women in black ride from the North, bearing drawn swords, and nine women in light clothing, upon white horses, ride across the fields from the South. He now wished to go in; but the women in black came in his way and attacked him. He defended himself bravely, but fell at last. Some time afterward his father awoke and missed him. They sought Thriðrandi, and soon found him lying sorely wounded. He related his vision, and died in the morning. The wise Thorhalli explained this whole occurence to be a warning of a change of Faith. The women had been the Dísir of his family; those in black had favored the ancient faith, which was now soon to be forsaken. They had wished to obtain a tribute from the family before they left it, therefore had they slain Thiðrandi, whom the light Dísir had sought in vain to defend. But these same light Dísir were to protect the race, when they should have accepted the new faith. (4)
The Icelander Gísli Sursson related of himself, that he had two Draum-konur; the one was ever friendly toward him, the other always foretold him evil. When he roved about outlawed and unfortunate, the latter made her appearance the oftenest, and would sprinkle him with blood; but occasionally the former consoled him, and once she showed him his place of abode, where she promised him a happy sojourn after death. (5)
When a person's good fortune was on the wane, it was ascribed to the anger or imbecility of his Dísir; and then it was also said that his Dísir were dead or had forsaken him. In Hálf's Saga, in the poetic altercation between Hálf's champion Utsteinn and the Dane, Ulf the Red, the former says:
"Up should we rise,
Forth should we go,
And loudly make
Our shields resound;
I trust that our Dísir,
Hither have come
To which Ulf answers:
"Dead may all
Your Dísir be;
Fortune has fallen
From Hálf's champions!" (6)
In the old Eddaic poem, Grimnismál, Odin says to King Geirröð, just before the latter falls by his own sword:
"I know life is leaving thee,
Unpropitious are thy Dísir." (7)
In the Altamál, Glaumvör says to her husband Gunnar, whom, on hearing the recital of his ill-boding dream, she vainly tries to dissuade from the journey in which he met with his death:
"I fear that thy Dísir
Have all forsaken thee!" (8)
When it occurs in the Sagas that a powerful man gives his Good Luck (hamingja, gipta) to one whom he sends on a dangerous errand, or to whom he in any way wishes well---an expression still used in Christian times---the idea was conveyed originally, that the Dísir of the one, in such cases, took the other for a time or for ever under their protection. When the Icelandic Chieftain Höskuld, on his deathbed, divided his property among his sons, but was not able to let his unmarried son Olaf, whom he loved the most, share equally with the other sons against their will, he bestowed upon him, besides a few costly treasures, his own and his kinsmen's Good Luck (gipta); he knew very well, he added, that it had already taken its place with Olaf. (9) When the Norwegian King Olaf Haraldsson sent his chief marshal Björn into Sweden, on a difficult errand, Björn's companion, the Icelander Hjalti Skeggjason, though a Christian, begged the king to bestow upon them his hamingja upon their journey; and the king replied that he would do so if it were really of any importance. (10)
The expressions kynfylgja (family attendant) and ættarfylgjur, which sometimes occur in the Sagas in signification of the cleverness or power which was peculiar to some family, (11) refer to the belief in attendant or guardian spirits as the origin of the predominating qualities of that family.
The belief in this kind of Dísir or protecting Goddesses being so universal among the heathen Northmen, nothing could be more natural than that they should endeavor by worship to gain over and strengthen the favor of these beings. This was doubtless the object of the so-called Dísa-blót or Dísa Sacrifices, which are mentioned in many places in the Sagas, and which appear to have been held chiefly in autumn upon Winter-night. Of the Kings Helgi and Halfdan of Sokn, the sons of Bele, it is stated, that they were gone to attend the Dísa-blót in Baldur's temple, when Frithjof brought them the tribute from the Orkney Islands; and as a part of the same temple is mentioned a distinct edifice under the name of Dísaralr---the Dísa Hall. (12) King Adils of Upsala lost his life by his horse stumbling under him, when at a Dísa-blót he was riding around in the Dísir hall. (13) Alfhild, daughter of King Alf in Alfheim, was carried off by Starkað, as she was engaged in sprinkling blood upon the altar one night at a great Dísa sacrifice which her father held one autumn. (14) The Norse King Eirik Blood-axe and his Queen Gunhilda held Dísa-blót at a royal palace at Atley, in western Norway, (15) and of the Norwegian hersir Vigfus it is stated, that he held great festivals and Dísa sacrifices on Winter-night, which solemnities all his people were to remember. (16)
There are two beings which may doubtless be reckoned with this class of Divinities, which are often mentioned in our ancient Sagas as an object of worship, although we do not find them named among the actual Gods: they are the sisters Thorgerd Hörgabrúd and Yrp. Of Thorgerd, who is the oftenest named, it is stated that she was a daughter of King Haulgi (the Holy), after whom Halogaland is said to have received its name. Both the father and daughter were worshiped by sacrifices, and Haulgi's funeral mound was built up of alternate layers of gold and silver, and of mold and stone. (17) This account can imply little else than that Thorgerd was a Divinity peculiar to the Haleygir, or rather, to the renowned race of Hlaða-Jarls, from Halogaland descended, and therefore was their Dís or Protecting Goddess. She was specially worshiped by the most famous man of this family, Hákon Sigurdsson Jarl. It is stated that during the battle with the Jómsvíkingar, he sacrificed to her his little son who was but seven years old, in order to gain her help. She accordingly made her appearance in a raging hail-storm from the North, and the enemy believed they saw her and her sister Yrp upon the Jarl's ship amid the storm; while from every one of their oustretched fingers an arrow was flying, and each arrow became the death of a man. (18) In Gudbrandsdal she and Yrp, together with Thor, were worshiped in a temple, which Hákon Jarl and the Chieftain Gudbrand owned in fellowship. (19) In western Norway she had likewise a temple fitted up in the most magnificent style, in which this same Hákon Jarl worshiped her with the highest veneration. (20) Even in Iceland Thorgerd was worshiped with several of the Gods in a temple at Ölvus-vatn, and was regarded as a guardian spirit of the Chieftain Grimkel and his family, who came originally from Orkadal. (21) Thorgerd's universal surname Hörgabrúðr, signifies the Bride of the Altar or place of sacrifice (from hörgr, altar, sacrificial inclosure), and has reference to her supposed sanctity. She was also called Haulgabrúðr, which doubtless denotes the Bride or Goddess of the Haleygir.
The appellation Fylgja, which, as already appears, was synonymous with Dís or Hamingja, was also used, though mostly of a kind of beings which were believed to attend on mankind under the form of animals, or rather to go before them. These Fylgjur were imagined to be a lower order of spirits than the proper Dísir or Hamingjur, and there are scarcely any traces to be found of their having been objects of worship. Every man was believed to have his Animal-Fylgia, and we usually find that the animal was conceived to be in some degree corresponding with the character or standing of the man. Thus cunning folks were said to have foxes for their Fylgjur; wild warriors, wolves; powerful chieftains, eagles, oxen, bears, or other strong animals. (22) The men who had powerful Fylgjur were more difficult to be overcome and more feared than those who had weak ones. "The brothers have strong Fylgjur (rammar fylgjur)" said the Icelandic Sorcerer Thorolf concerning the sons of Ingemund of Hof, when he foresaw that they were going to attack him. (23) The veteren Vifil said likewise, when it had been revealed to him in a dream that King Froði was drawing near his dwelling to search for his nephews Hroar and Helgi, whom Vifil had concealed from his attempts: "Great and mighty Fylgjur have come hither to the island!" (24) The wise Icelander Einar Eyjólfsson dreamed that he saw a noble, strong-horned ox walking up along Eyja-fjörð until it came to the estate Möðruvell, when it went to every house and at last to the High-seat, where it fell down dead. Einar said that the dream was significant, and that it was a man's Fylgja which had made its appearance. On the same day his brother Gudmund the Mighty came home from a journey to his estate Möðruvell, and died suddenly soon after he had seated himself in the high-seat. (25)
The Fylgjur mostly appeared in dreams. In the Eddaic poem, Atla-mál, where Kostbera relates her evil-boding dream to her husband Högni, she says among other things: "Methought there flew an eagle through the house; it besprinkled us all with blood; it seemed by its threatening mien to be the guise of Atli." (26) When Queen Auð related to her husband, King Rörek, that she had dreamed of a Stag which was slain by a Dragon, Rörek said, "Thou has seen the Fylgjur of Kings." (27)
The Fylgjur made their appearance more especially as the forerunners of the arrival of those to whom they belonged, and a sudden irresistible drowsiness was thought to herald the approach of these beings. Thus it is stated of the Troll-man Svan, that he yawned greatly and said, "Now come Osvif's Fylgjur," (nu sækja at fylgjur Osvifs). (28)
Sometimes, also, the Fylgjur were seen by persons in a waking state, but it was only by those who were gifted with a supernatural sense. It is related of the wise Icelander Niál, that he one night would not lie down to sleep, but walked out and in continually. When asked what was the cause of this, he answered, "Many things pass before my eyes; I see many grim Fylgjur of Gunnar's enemies." In the same night his friend Gunnar, of Hliðarendi was attacked by his enemies. (29) Once, as the boy Thorstein, who was afterwards called Ox-foot, ran in across the floor in his foster-parents house, and fell down there, a wise old man named Geiter, who happened to be present, began to laugh. The boy asked him the reason, and he answered, "I saw what thou didst not see; a white bear's cub ran into the room before thee, and it was over it that thou fell." By means of this vision the Sage discovered that Thorstein was of a more distinguished family than was generally supposed. (30)
What the Dísir were for the individual man or family, were the Landvættir (31) believed to be for whole provinces and their inhabitants, but in such a manner that they were properly bound to the place, and not to the people, with whom they were connected only in-so-far as they were inhabitants of a certain district.
It is most probable that the heathen Northmen believed their country to be under the special protection of some one of the Æsir, probably of Thor, and that it is this Protecting-God which the Skald Egil Skallagrimsson means by the Land-Ás whose hostility he, in a poem, calls down upon King Eirik Blood-axe. (32) The Landvættir, however, were beings of less importance, who protected the smaller districts of the country, and on whose favor the prosperity of the inhabitants in a great measure depended. Hence is derived a provision which occupied the first place in the heathen laws of Iceland; that "no one shall have ships on the sea bearing figure-heads upon the prow; but if any one have such, he shall remove the heads before coming in sight of land, and not sail toward the land with gaping heads and out-stretching snouts, lest the Protecting Spirits of the Land (Landvættir) should be frightened thereby." That a similar belief was prevalent in Norway is evinced by the proceedings of Egil Skallagrimsson when he wished to avenge himself on King Eirik Blood-axe and Queen Gunhilda. He went up, it is stated, on an island near the coast of Norway and set up a hazel-stake in a cleft of the rocks facing the land, and fastened a horse's head upon the stake. Thereupon he said, "Here do I raise up a Nithing-post (33) and turn the disgrace against King Eirik and Queen Gunhilda." He turned the head toward the land and continued, "I turn this disgrace against the Protecting Deities of the Land which inhabit this country, so that they shall all run wildly about, without ever being able to find their homes, until they have driven out King Eirik and Queen Gunhilda from the country." (34) The enmity of the Landvættir was thus believed to be the cause of King Eirik's later misfortunes, when with his wife and children he had to fly from Norway.
On the other hand it was believed that the man who enjoyed the favor of the Landvættir was peculiarly fortunate. Thus it is related of the Icelander Björn, a son of Molda-Gnúp, one of the original settlers, that he made a covenant with a mountain spirit (bergbúi) which appeared to him in a dream, and from that hour Björn's cattle multiplied incredibly. It was said, moreover, that clairvoyants (ófreskir menn---men endowed with supernatural vision, ghost-seers) could see how all the Guardian Deities of the land accompanied Björn when he rode to the Assemblies, and his brothers when they went out on fishing excursions. (35)
The Landvættir were believed to be of various forms; in some places they were great animals, in others, again, they were giants. When the Danish King Harald Gormsson had the intention of attacking Iceland, he sent out beforehand---so the account goes---a magic-skilled man, who was to explore the country. The sorcerer goes forth in the form of a whale, but he finds every mountain and promontory upon the island filled with Landvættir both great and small. When he came to Vápnafjörð and was about to go up, there met him from the upper valley a great Dragon with many snakes and toads in its train, which cast forth venom upon the sorcerer and forced him to fly. When he came to Eyjafjörð a bird flew against him, which was so large that its wings reached the mountains upon each side of the valley, and a crowd of large and small birds followed it. In Breiðafjörð he met a great beast which waded out into the sea and bellowed dreadfully; many Landvættir accompanied him also. Finally, at Reykjanes he saw a mountain-giant with an iron staff in his hand; his head towered above the mountain-tops, and many Jötuns followed him. Intelligence concerning the powerful Guardian Spirits of this island had, it seems, the effect of deterring King Harald from the intended invasion of Iceland. (36)
It is quite certain that in Norway and Iceland the Landvættir were most commonly considered as belonging to the Jötun race, and as dwelling chiefly in the mountains. To regard the Jötuns as still being in a manner the actual owners of the country with reference to inanimate nature, was fully in accordance with the dogmas of the Asa-faith; and that, although the Jötuns on the whole were recognized as evil beings, yet the people still endeavored by a kind of worship to make friends of the few within whose territory they lived, and whose influence they imagined themselves to feel continually---this was but a natural consequence of the usual conception which heathens form of supernatural beings in general, and of their influence on human life.
The third kind of inferior Deities which the heathen Northmen worshiped was the Elves (Álfr, a spirit; plur. Álfar). The belief in them rests wholly upon the Asa doctrine, which represents the Elves as the inhabitants of that region of the atmosphere nearest to the Earth's surface, and of the interior of the Earth. The former were called properly, Light-Elves (Ljósálfar), the latter, Dark-Elves (Dökkálfar); (37) but the two classes were blended together at an early period in the popular faith, and it appears to have been a very general belief that the Earthly Elves were neither black nor evil. It was thought that in their whole nature and appearance they were like men, and that they had their dwellings in mounds. They showed themselves occasionally and were thought to have power to do both good and evil to the people who lived in their vicinity. Therefore men sought to gain their friendship by sacrifices (Álfablót) and by services, whenever the Elves might demand them.
When the Icelander Thorvard Eysteinsson had been severely wounded in a hólmgang with Kormak Augmundsson, and his wound was very difficult to heal, he applied to a certain Thordis Spakona for counsel. She told him that at a short distance there was a mound in which the Elves lived. He must get the blood of the ox that Kormak, according to common usage, had slaughtered as an offering after the duel; with this blood he must sprinkle the mound and at the same time give the Elves a banquet of the flesh; then he should become healed. Her advice was followed and Thorvard speedily recovered his health. (38) Sighvat, the Skald of Olaf the Saint, on a journey through Gothland, stopped at a country house to find shelter for the night, but the mistress, who was standing in the door, forbade him, for they were just then engaged in "Álfablót" or sacrifices to the Elves. (39) In Hrolf Ganger's Saga, which in reality is a fiction of the fourteenth century, but which in single fragments throws light on the customs and the modes of thinking of olden times, there are also found traces of the Elfen-faith. Once, when Hrolf, the hero of the Saga, has been long in pursuit of a stag which it had been enjoined upon him to take, he comes towards evening to a clearing in the woods and there he sees a beautiful grass-covered mound. As he approaches it, the mound opens and an elderly woman in a blue cloak steps out. She compassionates Hrolf for the vain labor he has had, but promises to procure him the stag, which belongs to her, if he will go with her into the mound and assist her daughter, who has been nineteen days in the pains of child-birth and cannot be delivered until she is touched by a living human being (mennskr maðr). Hrolf followed the Elf-woman and came into a beautiful apartment. The sick woman was delivered when he touched her, and he received the stag in return, together with a gold ring. (40)
The Dísir were often reckoned among the Elves, and sometimes also the Landvættir.
The Elfen-faith has been kept up until the present time among the people of Norway and Iceland, in the belief in the Huldra-fólk, or rather Huldu-fólk (the concealed, invisible Folk), and likewise in Denmark in the belief in Elle-folk (the Elves or Fairies).
1. Vatnsd. S., 36. [Back]
2. Viga-Gl. S., 9. [Back]
3. Magnusen's Eddalære. Vol. IV. p. 45: (from Hallfred's Saga). [Back]
4. Ol. Tr. S. in. Fornm. S. 215 [Back]
5. Gísli Surs. S. 22, 24, 30, 33. [Back]
6. Hálfs S. 15. [Back]
7. The O. Edda: Grimn. 53. [Back]
8. Ib.: Atlam. 25. [Back]
9. Laxdæla S. 26. [Back]
10. Snor.: Ol. Hel. S. 68. [Back]
11. Völsúnga S. 4; Þorð. Hreð. S. 8. [Back]
12. Friðþ. S. 5 and 9. [Back]
13. Snor.: Yngl. S. 33. [Back]
14. Hervarar S. 1. [Back]
15. Egils S. 44. [Back]
16. Viga-Gl. S. 6. [Back]
17. The L. Edda: Skálda, 44. [Back]
18. Jomsvíkinga S. (Copenh. 1824) Ch. 14; Fornm. S. XI. p. 134; Ol. Tr. S. in Fornm. S. 90. [Back]
19. Niáls S. 89. [Back]
20. Fareyinga S. 23. [Back]
21. Saga af Hörði, 1, 18. [Back]
22. Niáls S. 23, 61; Völs. S. 34; Órvar-Odds S. 4; Þorstein Víkingssons S. 12, &c., &c. [Back]
23. Vatnsd. S. 30. [Back]
24. Saga Hrólfs Kraka, 2. [Back]
25. Ljósvetninga S. 21. [Back]
26. The O. Edda: Atlam. 19. [Back]
27. Sögubrót, 2. [Back]
28. Niáls S. 12. [Back]
29. Niál var þessa nótt i Þórólfsfelli ok mátti ekki sofa, ok gekk ýmist út eða inn. Þórhilldr spurði Niál hvi hann mætti ekki sofa? "Margt berr nú fyrir augu mir," sagði hann. "Ek se margar fylgjur grimmligar úvina Gunnars, ok er nokkut undarliga." Niáls S. 70. [Back]
30. Fornm. S. III, p. 113---Concerning Dísir and Fylgjur much excellent information is given in Magnusen's Eddalære, Vol. IV, pp. 35-49. [Back]
31. Land-guardians, from land, and vættr or vætt, a genius, spirit. [Back]
32. Egils S, 58. [Back]
33. Niðstaung, a stake set up in disgrace of some one, which it was believed had power to bring harm upon the party it was directed against. It is probably derived from nið, infamy, disgrace; AS. nið, wickedness. The term Niðing, both among the Northmen and Anglo-Saxons, conveyed ideas of consummate wickedness, baseness, and contemptibleness, and was employed as an expression of the highest degree of infamy and disgrace that could be heaped upon any one. [Back]
34. Egils S. 60. [Back]
35. Landnmb. IV. 12. [Back]
36. Snorri: Ol. Tr. S. 37. [Back]
37. The L. Edda: Gylf. 17. [Back]
38. Kormaks S. 22. [Back]
39. Snorri: Ol. Hel. S. 92. [Back]
40. Gaungu-Hrólfs S. 15. [Back]
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