In a new series of articles about the mythological elements of the Vikings, I thought I’d start with a basic introduction to some of the more familiar animals from the Sagas.
Ravens hold an important place in Norse mythology and appear in many of the Sagas. They’ve even worked their way into the more coarse vocabulary of the Vikings: The insult Hrafnasueltir, for example, means raven starver. Seemingly inoffensive until you remember how important ravens are to Norse mythology; anyone who starved ravens would be considered a coward and a fool. The dead on the battlefield were fodder for hungry ravens, and anyone who couldn’t provide this feast ie not fight was a coward.
A coin of Anlaf (Olaf) III Guthfrithsson, King of Jorvik AD 939-941 (Image: BBC)
Odin has two ravens who accompany him: Huginn (Old Norse: ‘thought’) and Muninn (ON: ‘memory’ or ‘mind’). The ravens fly around the world gathering information and reporting it back to Odin, as recorded in the Prose Edda (stories recorded by historian Snorri Sturluson, 1179 – 1241):
“The ravens sit on his shoulders and say into his ear all the tidings which they see or hear; they are called thus: Huginn and Muninn. He sends them at day-break to fly about all the world, and they come back at undern-meal; thus he is acquainted with many tidings.”
Image from an 18th Century Icelandic manuscript showing Odin with Muninn and Huginn sitting on his shoulders (image: Wikipedia)
The Heimskringla (a history of the Norwegian kings, written by Sturluson), states that Odin gave his ravens the ability to speak:
“He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news.”
The Ninth Century poem Hrafnsmál tells the story of a meeting between a raven and a Valkyrie where they talk about Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway.
“How is it with you, ye ravens? Whence are ye come
with bloody beak at the dawning of day ? Torn flesh is
hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes
from your mouths. I doubt not that ye have passed the
night amid a scene of carnage.’
The sworn brother of the eagle shook his dusky plumage,
wiped his beak, and thought upon his answer:
We have followed Harold, the son of Halfdan, the
youthful scion of Yngvi, ever since we came out of the egg.”
Archaeological evidence for the importance of ravens includes finds of bracteates, gold medals worn by Vikings as jewellery. The example below, discovered in Sweden and now in the Ashmolean, shows Odin and a raven.
There have also been military finds across the Norse world that include ravens: shields, helmets, armour, banners and longship carvings. Some scholars believe including a raven on your armour would allow you to harness the power of the Allfather.
Perhaps the most well-known horse in Norse mythology is Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. Sleipnir is mentioned in many of the Sagas and is the offspring of Loki and Svaðilfari, a horse belonging to the builder of the wall around Asgard. The builder offers to construct the wall in exchange for the goddess Freyja, the sun, and the moon. The gods agree but place restrictions on him, including a deadline of no longer than three seasons to finish and no one but his horse Svaðilfari to aid him. When it looks like he’ll be done on time, the gods demand that Loki intervene. The day before the builder is to finish his task, Loki disguises himself as a horse and distracts Svaðilfari long enough for the builder to fail. A short while later Loki gives birth to Sleipnir.
The Poetic Edda (a collection of early Norse poems) has this to say:
“Of all the gods is Odin the greatest,
And Sleipnir the best of steeds;”
Sleipnir is such an impressive horse that Odin’s son, Hermódr the Bold, rides the horse to Hel on a quest for the goddess Frigg.
Odin riding Sleipnir on the Tjängvide image stone (Sweden; Image: Wikipedia)
Even Sleipnir’s offspring are exceptional:
“So the next day went Sigurd to the wood, and met on the way an old man, long-bearded, that he knew not, who asked him whither away.
Sigurd said, “I am minded to choose me a horse; come thou, and counsel me thereon.”
“Well then,” said he, “go we and drive them to the river which is called Busil-tarn.”
They did so, and drave the horses down into the deeps of the river, and all swam back to land but one horse; and that horse Sigurd chose for himself; grey he was of hue, and young of years, great of growth, and fair to look on, nor had any man yet crossed his back. Then spake the grey-beard, “From Sleipnir’s kin is this horse come, and he must be nourished heedfully, for it will be the best of all horses;” and therewithal he vanished away.
So Sigurd called the horse Grani, the best of all the horses of the world; nor was the man he met other than Odin himself.” (Völsung Saga)
Other horses of note are Arvakr (ON: ‘early awake’) and Alsviðr (ON: ‘very quick’) who pull the sun chariot of Sól. It’s said that if Sól stops or slows down her chariot then Sköll, the wolf who is destined to destroy the world at Ragnarock will catch her and eat the sun.
(Fun fact: in Iceland there is a horseshoe-shaped canyon called Asbyrgi, said to have been formed by Sleipnir’s hoof).
Asbyrgi Canyon, Iceland (Image: Wikipedia)
The most famous wolf in Norse mythology is Fenrir (ON: Fen-Dweller). He is another of the sons of Loki and is the father of Sköll and his brother Háti (who is destined to eat the moon).
When the gods learn that Fenrir is prophesized to kill Odin at Ragnarok, they bring him before the Allfather to be restrained. Three different fetters are made to bind Fenrir, each one progressively stronger than the last. The last, and strongest:
“…was made of six things: the noise a cat makes in foot-fall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a rock, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” (Prose Edda)
Fenrir insist he would remain still while the last fetter was laid on him. In fact, he said he’d be so still that someone could put their hand in his mouth and it would be safe. Týr volunteers and loses his hand when Fenrir snaps. The movement, however, tightens the fetter, trapping the wolf.
17th-Century manuscript illustration of the bound Fenrir (Image: Wikipedia)
Sköll and Háti have already been mentioned, the sons of Fenrir and the grandsons of Loki.
“Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens.” (Prose Edda)
Odin not only has two ravens who accompany him, but also two wolves. Named Geri and Freki (both names mean ‘ravenous’ or ‘greedy’), Odin feeds them food from his own table, choosing instead to only live on wine. Like ravens, the two wolves prowl battlefields in search of flesh to eat: “Vidrir’s hounds went about the isle slaughter-greedy.” (Poetic Edda – Vidrir is Odin).
And A Squirrel
One of my favourite Norse creatures is Ratatoskr (ON: ‘Drill Tooth’), a squirrel who runs between the eagle at the top of, and the serpent Níðhöggr at the bottom of, Yggdrasil. Ratatoskr listens to the eagle and serpent talk about each other, then carries the slanderous messages back and forth.
Ratatoskr, from a 17th-Century Icelandic manuscript (why he is depicted with a horn is unknown. Image: Wikipedia)
There are dozens of animals in Norse mythology, some with a purpose, some merely mentioned in passing in the sagas. Next time I’ll be discussing the animals who live in the world tree, Yggdrasil.