Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives

  Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.

Óðinn, Charms, and Necromancy: Hávamál 157 in its Nordic and European Contexts

Stephen A. Mitchell, Harvard University

Abstract: Óðinn claims in stanza 157 of Hávamál that he is able to carve and color runes such that a hanged man will walk and talk with him. In this essay the central image of this the twelfth charm in the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál is examined in the context of parallels drawn from Iron Age archaeology, Old Norse literature, the wide-spread practice of “Charon’s Obol”, and Christian tradition.


To modern sensibilities, few images are more disturbing in Old Norse mythology than the macabre claim made by Óðinn in stanza 157 of Hávamál:

Þat kann ec iþ tólpta,           ef ec sé á tré uppi
                    váfa virgilná:
svá ec ríst         oc í rúnom fác,
                   at sá gengr gumi
                    oc mælir við mic.

I know a twelfth one         if I see, up in a tree,
                    a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve          and colour the runes
                   that the man walks
                    and talks with me. [1]

To what belief system does this grisly presentation of necromancy—if, indeed, that is what it is—refer? [
2] Does this “charm” (ljóð) project pure fantasy or might it reflect what was once an actual practice?

The following comments review possible backgrounds of, and influences on, the text’s key claim that Óðinn can make a virgilnár speak. They build on the work of many earlier scholars who have considered the issue of the dead and dying in Old Norse mythology, from the pioneering studies by Helge Rosén (1918), Rolf Pipping (1928), H. R. Ellis Davidson (1943), Nora Chadwick (1946), and Folke Ström (1947) to the more recent work of Kirsi Kanerva (2011, 2013), Olof Sundqvist (2009, 2010), John McKinnell (2007) and Vésteinn Ólason (2003). [3] Specifically, the essay looks to place Óðinn’s boast in the comparative contexts of native and non-native traditions, exploring on the one hand the Nordic basis for Óðinn’s claim, as well as, on the other hand, the more distant but possibly related European reflexes for the charm, especially those linked to classical traditions of the so-called Ferryman’s Fee (Thompson 1966: P613), and various Christian saint legends. By identifying more precisely the background against which this thirteenth-century text presents the Nordic world’s master of magic making an assertion of this sort, i.e., that he can make a hanged man’s corpse talk and walk through the use of runes, it may be possible to understand what aspect of pre-Christian Nordic religion and mythology it is that we witness in Hávamál 157, how these views relate to pagan and Christian ideology, and just what they can tell us, both about such beliefs and, not least, our medieval religious texts.

Hávamál 157 in its Nordic setting

Allusions in Gylfaginning (ch. 17) and Vǫluspá (st. 28) to the story of Mímir’s well, drinking from which Óðinn gains at the cost of an eye, support a general association of Mímir with wisdom and prophetic connections, but it is especially the story laid out in full in Ynglinga saga (ch. 4, 7), and referred to, e.g., in Vǫluspá (st. 46) and Sigrdrífumál (st. 14), that excites attention in the current context. [7] According to this tale, Mímir and Hœnir are sent as hostages to the Vanir as part of the exchange that helps end the war between this group of gods and the Æsir. The Vanir, believing that they have been defrauded—as Hœnir, when not benefiting from Mímir’s advice, proves to be less outstanding than they had thought—decapitate Mímir and send the head to Óðinn:

Þá tóku þeir Mími ok hálshjoggu ok sendu hǫfuðit Ásum. Óðinn tók hǫfuðit ok smurði urtum þeim, er eigi mátti fúna, ok kvað þar yfir galdra ok magnaði svá, at þat mælti við hann ok sagði honum marga leynda hluti. (Ynglinga saga ch. 4)

(Then they seized Mímir and beheaded him and sent the head to the Æsir. Óthin took it and embalmed it with herbs so that it would not rot, and spoke charms over it, giving it magic power so that it would answer him and tell him many occult things. (Ynglinga saga p. 8))

And a few chapters later, in the enumeration of Óðinn’s magical abilities, the same text notes:

Óðinn hafði með sér hǫfuð Mímis, ok sagði þat honum mǫrg tíðendi or ǫðrum heimum, en stundum vakði hann upp dauða menn or jǫrðu eða settisk undir hanga. Fyrir því var hann kallaðr draugadróttinn eða hangadróttinn. (Ynglinga saga, ch. 7)

(Óthin had with him Mímir’s head, which told him many tidings from other worlds; and at times he would call to life dead men out of the ground, or he would sit down under men that were hanged. On this account he was called Lord of Ghouls or of the Hanged. (Ynglinga saga p. 11))

The story of Óðinn and Mímir’s head holds a unique place in the mythology, [
8] insofar as in opposition to other prophetic “talking heads” in Old Norse literature (e.g., Eyrbyggja saga ch. 43), it is specifically Óðinn’s charm magic that allows or induces Mímir’s head to produce its utterances. [9]

Clearly related to the same mythological complex that assumes that the “Lord of Ghouls” could call the dead to life are such scenes as the following in Baldrs draumar, where Óðinn speaks valgaldr “corpse-magic” (lit., “magic of the fallen or slain”) in order to awaken the vǫlva from her postmortem sleep; she, in turn, utters nás orð “corpse-words”:

Þá reið Óðinn          fyr austan dyrr
þar er hann vissi           vǫlo leiði;
nam hann vittugri           valgaldr qveða,
unz nauðig reis,          nás orð um qvað:(Baldrs draumar st. 4)

(Then Othin rode           to the eastern door,
There, he knew well,          was the wise-woman’s grave;
Magic he spoke          and mighty charms,
Till spell-bound she rose,          and in death she spoke:
(Larrington 2014: 235))

References in the medieval mythological texts to the summoned, prophesying dead (Thompson 1966: M301.14) naturally raise the question of whether these scenes might reflect beliefs about the dead in earlier periods. In fact, the possibility of pre-Christian traditions of such practices as ritual hanging and the gibbeting of enemies—or parts of enemies—killed in battle in northern Europe has been long bruited about. The most famous example comes half a dozen years after the battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 CE), when a Roman army encounters the carnage left from the defeat of three of its legions:

medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut restiterant, disiecta vel aggerata. Adiacebant fragmina telorum equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora. Lucis propinquis barbarae arae, apud quas tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant. (Annals 1.61)

(In the plain between were bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast. Hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks. In the neighbouring groves stood the savage altars at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions (pp. 348–49))

This scene, gruesome as the spectacle of human skulls nailed on tree-trunks must have been, lacks some of the eeriness of the scenario of revivified dead hinted at in Hávamál 157, but it does suggest a frightening range of post-proelial manipulations of the dead in Iron Age northern Europe. [

Yet a remarkable passage from the twelfth- or thirteenth-century Icelandic law code Grágás suggests that even in the Middle Ages the corpses of the deceased (or perhaps near-dead) were not merely the discarded husks of extinguished human life but could also be meaningful sites of debate, differentiation, and classification:

Þeir menn ero eɴ iiii. er náir ero kallaþir þott lifi. Ef mr er hengðr eða kyrcþr eða settr i grof. eþa i scer. eða heptr afialle. eða i fløðar mále. Þar heitir gálg nár. oc graf nár. oc sker nár oc fiall nár. Þa menn alla scal iafnt aptr giallda niðgiolldom sem þeir se vegnir þott þeir lifi. (Grágás p. 202)

(There are another four men who are called corpses even though they are alive. If a man is hanged or throttled or put in a grave or on a skerry or tied up on a mountain or below high-water mark, he is called “gallows-corpse” or “grave-corpse” or “skerry-corpse” or “mountain corpse”. Those men are all to be atoned for by kindred payments as if they had been killed even though they are alive. (Grágás p. 182))

Gallows in non-mythological medieval Nordic contexts generally show them being used for execution, as when in Magnúss saga berfœtts, Egill and Þórir are hanged for raising forces against the king (ch. 6; pp. 216–18). But, of course, once the execution phase of the process was over, hanged corpses, so positioned, transformed into highly effective and tactile warnings for others and could be left gibbeted, hanging—and visible—until they rotted off the rope, thus becoming public spectacles and expressions of authority visible for long distances, which, of course, accounts for the fact that they were often placed on heights (e.g., Galgberget [lit. “Gallows Hill”] in Södermalm, overlooking late medieval Stockholm) and near highly trafficked areas (e.g., crossroads).

Figure 1. Detail from Lärbro Stora Hammars I. Photo by the author.

Apparently a different category comprises the awakened dead female seeress or vǫlva, perhaps the best-known type to modern audiences (in, e.g., Grógaldr, Vǫluspá, Baldrs draumar). The division of these two types, the male haugbúi and the well-informed female vǫlva, although not absolute, is fairly consistent, with some important exceptions, as in Hyndluljóð, which features an awakened giantess who does not spew forth numinous knowledge in the manner of the vǫlur but rather engages, formally at least, in a wisdom contest with Freyja on their ride to Valhǫll (Sennom við ǫr sǫðlom, etc. v. 8). Another exception, in this case of stunning proportions, comes in Book I of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum. Here, in a gender-reversing scene, we witness a recently dead man being used by a female worker of magic, when the giantess, Harthgrepa (significantly, perhaps, dressed as a man), and Hadingus come upon a house where the funeral of the master of the place, who has just died, is occurring. [22] Then, Saxo, continues, Harthgrepa calls his spirit in this manner, with the following results:

Ubi magicę speculationis officio superum mentem rimari cupiens, diris admodum carminibus ligno insculptis iisdemque linguę defuncti per Hadingum suppositis hac uoce eum horrendum auribus carmen edere coegit:

Inferis me qui retraxit, execrandus oppetat Tartaroque deuocati spiritus poenas luat! etc. (Gesta Danorum 1.6.4–5, 1: 108)

(Desiring to probe the will of the gods by magic, she inscribed most gruesome spells on wood and made Hading insert them under the corpse’s tongue, which then, in a voice terrible to the ear, uttered these lines:

Let the one who summoned me, a spirit from the underworld, dragged me from the infernal depths, be cursed and perish miserably, etc. (p. 23))

This “spirit” eventually foretells their fate, but most of all he curses in direst terms “the one who summoned me … dragged me from the infernal depths.” [

Figure 2. The one-eyed figure from the stave church at Hegge, Norway. Photo by John Erling Blad/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

These plays on “tongue-power”—the gold object that cures Oddný, said to have been placed undir tungurætr henni; the gift of mantic speech in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum that comes with the insertion of a rune charm under the tongue of the corpse; and so on—suggest that the various authors had degrees of familiarity with the same tradition from which Hávamál 157 derives. Of related interest to these later literary sources are examples of actual “tongue objects”, or “Charon’s obol” as archaeologists often term them (on which see below).

Hávamál 157 and the learned and ecclesiastical tradition

As we have seen, there exists a rich native tradition that touches, or appears to touch, on the images suggested by Hávamál 157. But is that sufficient to explain the background against which Óðinn formulates his claim to know how to reanimate the dead and make them talk? Perhaps, but certainly there is more to the medieval cultural tapestry concerned with the dead and dying than these native traditions alone. In the end, we may decide that the influence of foreign learned and ecclesiastical materials is slight and favor instead the domestic traditions, but let us first examine the external materials and assess the effects they might have had.

On a related issue, namely the role of the severed head, the story of John the Baptist’s decapitation (Matt. 14: 1–11; Mark 6: 14–29) naturally meant that trunkless heads often played a key role in medieval Christian iconography. The Baptist is the most obvious figure of this sort to modern eyes; however, medieval hagiology includes a large number of saints whose legendary martyrdoms include decapitation. And among these, there are dozens of particular interest in the current discussion, such as the cephalophoric saints, that is those saints who, after being beheaded, pick up their detached heads and carry them, sometimes speaking as they go.

Raising these points about the cephalophoric saints, the Ferryman’s Fee, and the Viaticum and its history is not the same as claiming that these aspects of learned lore necessarily shaped the traditions we see in Saxo, Hávamál, or the other Nordic materials, but given the tendency to adduce parallels between the pre-Christian and Christian worlds, and to see in such analogues, prefigurations, and revelations of the Almighty’s power, that such a parallel existed may well have reinforced the pre-existing concept and even allowed for its easier acceptance within clerical culture.


We perhaps get a bit closer when we examine the provincial laws. Here, for example, the Older Law of Frostaþing speaks of those who are killed for various deeds, including witchcraft, visiting soothsayers, or sitting out in order to awaken spirits [lit., trolls] and thereby promote heathendom (“fordæðu scapi oc spáfarar oc útisetu at vecia tröll upp oc fremia heiðni með því”, Norges gamle Love I: 182). This is just one of nearly a dozen such laws in Iceland and Norway specifying prohibitions against “sitting out.” Sometimes the laws go one step further, as in “So also those who attempt to awaken spirits (draugar) or mound-dwellers (haugbúar)” (“Sua oc þeir er freista draugha upp at ueckia æða haughbua”, Norges gamle Love II: 326–27). This asserted practice brings to mind such developments in the mound as those presented in Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts, for example, as well as the commands used by saga characters that the seeresses and others should “awaken” (vaki þú).

What happened when Nordic prophetic practices involving the dead encountered similar beliefs from the classical world or Christian interpretations of them? Nordic tradition could easily accommodate these views to its own, where the tongue object was not for the purpose of accompanying the dead into the afterlife but for the use of the living to look into the arcana coelestia which could only be known within a certain narrow mantic framework. Given the extensive comparanda over time and space, the practice of placing something in the mouth (and under the tongue) of a corpse need not be envisioned as having been borrowed from elsewhere, either the practices of the classical world or the Church, or indeed from adepts of natural magic. It is possible that these necromantic practices and belief systems had evolved in northern Europe over a very long time with ongoing reticulations between vernacular and learned belief systems.

Accusations of Hávamál being overly consistent are few for good reason. Certainly, in one respect, the earlier part of the poem may have even been very wrong: in verse 71, Hávamál claims “nýtr manngi nás” (a dead man is good for nothing). As we see from verse 157 and its cognate materials, apparently there existed a tradition according to which nothing could be further from the truth.

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“The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-Leg.” Transl. George Clark. In vol. 4 of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Reykjavík: 1997. Pp. 340–54.

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[ back ] 1. Note: A version of this essay was originally delivered in Zürich at the October 27–28, 2011 meeting of the Aarhus mythology conference.

Cf. Martin Clarke’s translation (1923: 85):

A twelfth I know:           if I see on a tree aloft
                  a corpse swinging from a halter,
I cut         and paint runes
                  in such wise that the man walks
                  and talks with me.

English dictionaries (i.e., Cleasby-Vigfusson 1982, Zoega 1975) do indeed gloss virgill as “halter” but in contemporary English, this term, when used in isolation (i.e., not in combination with “top” or “neck”), exclusively conveys the sense of a lead, something similar to a bridle, for securing and guiding livestock (at least in the North American dialects I know). By contrast, “noose”, although technically referring narrowly to the knot (cf. its etymology), carries with it in common parlance the sense of a hangman’s knot and of execution, hence, the expression, “to dangle from the end of a noose” or as Larrington has for váfa virgilná, “a dangling corpse in a noose”. In line with this interpretation, Fritzner (1973) offers, “Strikke hvori Person hænges forat skille ham af med Livet”.

[ back ] 2. Necromancy (< necromantia) properly refers to divination through the use of the dead (cf. Greek nekros “corpse” + manteia “divination”), practices associated with Óðinn in Nordic sources and with such figures as the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28) in Judeo-Christian tradition; however, confusion, intentional or accidental, with nigromantia “black arts” has led to the term’s more general sense of “sorcery” and “witchcraft”, on which see especially Kieckhefer 1990: 151–75 and Kieckhefer 1997: 4, 19.

[ back ] 3. Scholarship on specific topics is, of course, indicated as appropriate, but with regard to the broader, and vast, scholarship on Hávamál, I refer readers to the discussion in Harris 1985, the items listed in Lindow 1983, and the forthcoming volume on Hávamál in the series Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda (von See 1997–). As regards the literature concerned with various aspects of death and the afterlife in the Old Norse context, I refer readers to the discussion and comprehensive bibliography in Nordberg 2004: 313–39.

[ back ] 4. In addition to the works cited in the preceding section, cf. the argument by Andreas Nordberg with regard to the age of the valhǫll concept and the extensive review of related literature he provides (Nordberg 2004). Of related interest is the “mentalities” perspective Arnved Nedkvitne applies to the matter of pre-Christian Nordic views of the dead (2003: 19–47). As I write, publication of Neil Price’s Odin’s Whisper: Death and the Vikings has just been announced.

[ back ] 5. On Mímir, see, e.g., the comments and overviews in Sigurður Nordal 1927: 91; de Vries 1956–1957: I: 245–248, II: 82; Halvorsen 1982; Lindow 2001: 230–32; and Simek 1993; on possible Celtic influence at work in the case of Mímir, as regards both his head and his well, and for a survey of the literature on the topic, see Simpson 1963–1964, as well as the recent review in Egeler 2013: 85–88.

[ back ] 6. H. R. Ellis Davidson, in a discussion of necromancy, brings these poems together with Saxo’s account of Harthgrepa. After describing the necromantic process (e.g., awakening, transmitting of knowledge), she notes: “The wisdom which is imparted is of two kinds. Either it consists of a revelation from the future or the past of what is normally hidden—the doom of the world, the fate of the individual or the line of dead ancestors behind a man of noble rank—or else it consists of spells which give power to the possessor, which can guard him against the baleful magic of others, or give him the power to overcome certain perils in his journeyings” (Davidson 1943: 156).

[ back ] 7. The names Mímir and Mímr are both used; however, they occur in complementary distribution: “The form of the name in the formula ‘Mímir’s head’ is always Mímr, otherwise the form is Mímir” (Simek 1993: 216).

[ back ] 8. Cp. Davidson who suggests that the story of the vǫlsi in Flateyjarbók (Vǫlsa þáttr) may be the closest direct analogue to Mímir’s head in that both call for the preservation of a body part later connected to occult knowledge (Davidson 1943: 157–58).

[ back ] 9. In Eyrbyggia saga, a certain Freysteinn, crossing a scree called Geirvǫr late one evening, encounters a severed human head, which volunteers a quatrain (staka) without any manipulation from Freysteinn:

Roðin es Geirvǫr
gumna blóði,
hon mun hylja
hausa manna.
(Eyrbyggia saga ch. 43)
Geirvǫr is bloodied
by the gore of men,
she will hide
human skulls.
(Eyrbyggia saga p. 116)

Freysteinn relates this vision (fyrirburðr) to Þorbrandr, to whom the episode portends important events (þótti honum vera tíðenda-vænligt).

[ back ] 10. On the possibly related matter of animal skulls being ritually displayed, see the case of the Viking Age site at Hofstaðir, Iceland (Lucas and McGovern 2007) and the other examples cited there. The comments by Adam of Bremen regarding the pagan sacrifices in Uppsala bear mentioning in this context as well, “Ex omni animante, quod masculinum est, novem capita offeruntur, quorum sanguine deos placari mos est. Corpora autem suspenduntur in lucum, qui proximus est temple” (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4.27) (The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple (p. 208)).

[ back ] 11. Against Tacitus’ emotional and elegiac tone, one may, as something of a warning against over-reading, contrast the more blood-thirsty descriptions of other writers, as in the inflamed prose of Florus describing the events in the Teutoburger Wald:

Nihil illa caede per paludes perque silvas cruentius, nihil insultatione barbarorum intolerabilius, praecipue tamen in causarum patronos. Aliis oculos, aliis manus amputabant, uni os obsutum, recisa prius lingua, quam in manu tenens barbarus “tandem” ait “vipera sibilare desisti”. (Epitome p. 340)

(Never was there slaughter more cruel than took place there in the marshes and woods, never were more intolerable insults inflicted by barbarians, especially those directed against the legal pleaders. They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, which one of the barbarians held in his hand, exclaiming, “At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss”. (pp. 339, 341))

Writing in a similar vein, Jordanes, in his sixth-century Getica, maintains that the Goths worshipped “Mars” with terrible rites, including slaying captives as sacrifices:

quem Martem Gothi semper asperrima placevere cultura (nam victimae eius mortes fuere captorum), opinantes bellorum praesulem apte humani sanguinis effusione placandum. (Getica 5.41)

(Now Mars has always been worshipped by the Goths with cruel rites, and captives were slain as his victims. They thought that he who is the lord of war needed to be appeased by the shedding of human blood. (p. 64))

[ back ] 12. Early reports on the project “The army and post-war rituals in the Iron Age—warriors sacrificed in the bog at Alken Enge in Illerup Ådal” suggest that here too there may have been ritual manipulations of the corpses (see, e.g., Lobell 2012). Further research will undoubtedly provide a conclusive answer (cf. Holst, Heinemeier, et al. Forthcoming), but as of the writing of this essay, that some real-world typological parallels existed to the comments made by classical writers may be more likely than once believed. See also “Alken Enge—The mass grave at Lake Mossø” (Museum Skanderborg 2013); “An Entire Army Sacrificed in a Bog” at ScienceNordic.com; and “Barbarisk fund: Vores forfædre bar ligrester på kæppe” (Persson 2014).

[ back ] 13. “For acts that were not considered to be killing and therefore did not grant the right to prosecution, such as leaving someone helplessly on a skerry, mountain, cave, or hung (Grágás, 265), was likewise to be paid compensation (wergild), and the one at fault was responsible for that compensation” (Ahola 2014: 82).

[ back ] 14. “Här tillämpas ordet nár således på varelser med medvetande och förmåga att lida, men under den förutsättning, att de äro sådana, som hemfallit under straff afsedda att icke upphöra, så länge de äro i stånd att förnimma dem” (Rydberg 1886: I: 324).

[ back ] 15. In addition to the probable synonymy of the two “corpse” terms, I note that even the devices from which they were suspended were likely to be thought of as equivalent: galgtré “gallows tree” is a relatively common collocation, used interchangeably with galg “gallows” (e.g., Magnúss saga berfœtts ch. 6). Although tré principally indicates arboreal organisms, it can also mean the products of them, such as “beam”—exactly what is needed to construct an H-shaped galgtré. On the other hand, Old Swedish and Old Danish sources tend to say that a thief should be hanged on either of the alliterative pair, galgha æller gren “gallows or limb”, suggesting perhaps a perceived need for more immediate satisfaction of the death penalty than a constructed gallows would allow. Cf. the term vargtré “wolf [i.e., outlaw]-tree” for “gallows” in Hamðismál st. 17.

[ back ] 16. Cf. Jens Peter Schjødt, who argues for the social reality of such a practice as a rite de passage within pre-Christian cultic practices (Schjødt 2008: 173–206; see also Sundqvist 2009, 2010). As Sundqvist notes, citing Bugge 1881–1889: 291–93, the picture is far from clear, as the medieval Latin pendente in patibulo “hanging in the gallows” was a common expression for the Crucifixion.

[ back ] 17. “Hjörleifr konúngr var uppfestr í konúngs höll með skóþvengjum sínum sjálfs, millum elda tveggja,” and “en Reiðar konúngr lèt hann hengja dauðan á gálga þann, er hann hafði honum ætlat” (Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka ch. 8). I read these two locations as being the same, although I recognize that the wording does not absolutely demand it. Cf. the “hanging” in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða (ch. 5).

[ back ] 18. As Hans-Joachim Klare suggests, the dead could know things even an otherwise all-knowing god would be eager to discover: “Die Toten wissen alles, was geschieht, sie sehen in die Zukunft, drum haben sie ein Wissen, das den nach Allwissen dürstenden Gott immer aufs neue reizt, sie zu befragen” (Klare 1933–1934: 16) (The dead know everything that happens, they see into the future, and thus they possess knowledge that excites that god thirsting for omniscience to question them). The literature in this area is vast: Ström 1947; Kragerud 1981; and Davidson 1988 remain useful portals into it; important recent studies include Schjødt 2008: 173–224; Patton 2009: 213–36; and Sundqvist 2009 and 2010.

[ back ] 19. See, e.g., the discussion in McKinnell 2007.

[ back ] 20. This topic has attracted much attention over the years; see Klare 1933–1934; Ohlmarks 1936; Davidson 1943; and Chadwick 1946.

[ back ] 21. On these types, see my comments in Mitchell 2009. In his fine, wide-ranging discussion of death and the dead in Icelandic literature, Vésteinn Ólason notes of the ungrateful dead, the sort we see in Kárr, that “they are resentful of the living, or some of them, and a strong desire to cause damage and destruction binds them to earthly life” (Vésteinn Ólason 2003: 169; on related concepts in Old Icelandic, such as the draugr, see Ármann Jakobsson 2011).

[ back ] 22. I note here the similarity of this scene to that in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (ch. 3), when Angantýr’s daughter, looking to fulfill a male warrior’s role, goes to his mound and awakens him.

[ back ] 23. On this passage, see further the comments in Davidson and Fisher 1980: 30, as well as my remarks in Mitchell 2008b.

[ back ] 24. Perhaps a more proximate example comes through the manipulations of Þrándr in Færeyinga saga, when he apparently causes three dead men, or their apparitions, to appear in order to discover the causes and places of their deaths. The description of his preparations includes setting a large fire in the fire pit, making four trellises or frames, drawing nine squares, and requesting that no one speak to him: “Þrandr hafde þa latit gera ellda mykla j ellda skala ok grindanna fiorar lætr hann gera med fiorum hornum ok ix ræita ristr Þrandr alla uega vt fra grindunum en hann setzst astol mille eldz ok grindanna hann bidr þa nu ekki vid sig tala ok þeir gera suo” (ch. 40). (Thrand had had big fires made in the hearth-room, and he had four hurdles [frames] set up with four corners, and he scratches nine squares all around out from the hurdles, and he sits on a stool between the fires and the hurdles. Now he gives orders that nobody is to talk to him, and they do as he says” (p. 81)).

[ back ] 25. Víga-Glúms saga ch. 27; Hávarðr halti ísfirðingr 14; Ynglinga saga ch. 7; Heiðarvíga saga ch. 26. Cf. the additional heiti enumerated in Falk 1924: 59–61, and his discussion concerning haptaguð “god of fetters” (?) (62).

[ back ] 26. “Hegge stavkirke, maske på stav – 1” by John Erling Blad – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hegge_stavkirke,_maske_p%C3%A5_ stav_-_1.jpg#/media/File:Hegge_stavkirke,_maske_p%C3%A5_stav_-_1.jpg

[ back ] 27. Without wishing to strain the soup too thin, I note that Hallbjǫrn’s poem specifically praises Þorleifr’s libeling of Earl Hákon and that the story, which is, after all, about Þorleifr, follows with the comment that his brothers go to Norway the summer after his death, but it was not in the cards for them to kill Hákon, that is, “to have his head [lit., scalp; ‘head-skin’] at their feet” (En þeim varð eigi lagið þá enn at standa yfir hǫfuðsvǫrðum Hákonar jarls (ch. 8)). When in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, Hákon is dispatched, is it then mere coincidence that the following scene takes place:

Sá hólmr var þá hafðr til þess at drepa þar þjófa ok illmenni, ok stóð þar gálgi, ok lét hann þar til bera hǫfuð Hákonar jarls ok Karks. Gekk þá til allr herrinn ok œpði upp ok grýtti þar at ok mæltu, at þar skyldi níðingr fara með ǫðrum níðingum. Síðan láta þeir fara upp í Gaulardal ok taka þar búkinn ok drógu í brott ok brenndu. (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 50; emphasis added)

(This island was at that time used for putting to death thieves and evildoers, and a gallows stood there. The king had the heads of Earl Hákon and of Kark fastened to it. Thereupon the whole multitude came with great shouts and stoned them, saying that they should fare thus like every other villain. Then they sent men up to Gaular Dale who hauled away Hákon’s trunk and burned it. (p. 192, emphasis added))

[ back ] 28. “Oddr hefir at varðveita gull þat, er sú náttúra fylgir, at hverr maðr, sem mállaus er ok leggr þat undir tungurætr sér, þá tekr þegar mál sitt, ok af því gulli má móðir þín mál fá” (Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts ch. 6). (Odd keeps a piece of gold whose nature is that whatever dumb person puts that gold under the root of his or her tongue will then gain the power of speech and by means of that gold your mother will be able to speak (p. 346)).

[ back ] 29. Noteworthy here are the Philolmela-like aspects of the story line in the þáttr, i.e., inability to speak, pregnancy, and so on.

[ back ] 30. See especially Gräslund 1965–1966. The recent excavation of an early eighteenth-century site in which 14 small silver coins were found in 13 graves suggests the possibility that this practice continued up to modern times:

Myntfynden för tanken till den grekiska mytologin, som omtalar att färjekarlen Charon. […] Att denna hedniska sedvänja kan ses i gravar från tidigt 1700-tal är ovanligt, och har möjligen att göra med att begravningarna inte ägde rum på den vanliga kyrkogården, och att de som begravts avlidit i en fruktad farsot. Mynten kan således ha fått följa de döda i graven som en extra försäkran om att man trots detta skulle få komma till himmelriket. (Jacobsson 2002: 17).

(The discoveries of coins makes one think of Greek mythology, which speaks of the ferryman Charon […] That this pagan custom is to be seen in graves from the early 1700s is uncommon, and may be connected to the fact that the burials did not take place in a normal cemetery, and that those buried died in a dreaded plague. The coins may thus have followed the dead in their graves as extra assurance that one would despite that enter Heaven.)

[ back ] 31. On this scene and Nordic mortuary beliefs, see Davidson 1943: 168–69. Cf. the comparison Clive Tolley makes between the biblical scene and Vǫluspá, in which he concludes that the echoes of the Bible in the poem are “clear and intentional” (Tolley 2009: 485–86). He goes on to say, in an excellent statement about the full range of purportedly pre-Christian materials, that this view “does not mean that the pagan elements […] are not genuine, but it suggests these elements are being structured and perhaps interpreted in a way which may not have taken place in earlier, more purely pagan times.”

[ back ] 32. This part of the legend is faithfully reproduced in the Old Swedish translation of Legenda aurea, Ett fornsvenskt legendarium, here from Codex Bildstenianus (early 1400s):

Sidhan ledhis han ther wt ater (at / for) hedhan domara (mz sinom kompanom) at thola manga nya pinor: Ok halshuggus mz yxe. The thre. vm sidhe. Dyonisius ok hans compana rusticus ok eleutherius widher mercurii mønster. Sancti dyonisii (liikir / licame) reste sik wp siælfuir. Ok grep howdhit mz armomin. Ok gik æpter ængla ledsagh(ara) Ok himna liuse. thwo mila wægh fra halshuggeno som nu kallas martyrium biærgh til thæn stadh han ligger nu. (Sagan om Sankt Dionysius I: 344)

(Then he was led before a heathen judge with his companions and suffered many new torments. And the three, Dionyisius and his companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were beheaded with an axe at the temple of Mercury. The body of Saint Dionyisius raised itself up and grasped its head with its arms and followed angels and heavenly light for two miles from the place of the beheadings which is now called the hill of martyrs (i.e., Montmartre) to that place where he now lies. (My translation))

[ back ] 33. I note, however, that I have not been able to identify this particular embellishment in any of the medieval sources.

[ back ] 34. Cf. the many examples and themes covered by the essays in Tracy and Massey 2012; Gardeła and Kajkowski 2013 (many of which concern Old Norse topics); and Baert et al. 2013.

[ back ] 35. Vispillonum sane more pluribus pedententim invia perlustrantibus, cum jam posset audiri loquens, ad voces se invicem cohortantium, et utpote socii ad socium alternatim clamantium, Ubi es? illud respondebat designando locum, patria lingua dicens, Her, her, her. Quod interpretatum Latinus sermo exprimit, Hic, hic, hic. (Passio Sancti Eadmundi p. 40)

(A number of the party, like corpse-searchers, were gradually examining the out-of-the-way parts of the wood, and when the moment had arrived at which the sound of a voice could be heard, the head, in response to the calls of the search party mutually encouraging one other, and as comrade to comrade crying alternately “Where are you?” indicated the place where it lay by exclaiming in their native tongue, Here! Here! Here! In Latin the same meaning would be rendered by Hic! Hic! Hic! (p. 41))

Subsequent reworkings of the passion, such as Ælfric’s Life of St Edmund (II: 324–25), sometimes repeat and build on this scene.

[ back ] 36. See the image in, e.g., Larsson 1975: 13. On the legend, see Schmid 1931; Lundén 1967; Larsson 1975; and Celebremus karissimi pp. 9–17.

[ back ] 37. “Charon’s fee: putting coin in dead person’s mouth to pay for ferry across Styx” (Thompson 1966: P613). In her wide-ranging review of the literary and archaeological evidence for the practice in the classical world, Susan T. Stevens summarizes the phenomenon thus: “According to ancient authors, the custom of ‘Charon’s obol’ has four characteristics, though there are some variations in their discussions: (1) a single low-denomination coin (2) is placed in the mouth (3) at the time of death (4) to pay Charon’s fare” (Stevens 1991: 216). Among other motifs connected with this tradition are: A672.1.1, “Charon exacts fee to ferry souls across Styx”; E431.11, “Coin placed in mouth of dead to prevent return”; and E489.3, “Forgetting Charon’s fee” (Thompson 1966). On the many, widely dispersed manifestations of the tradition, see Grinsell 1957.

[ back ] 38. Regarding Peruvian practices in the Cañete valley, Kroeber and O’Neale write:

Most mummies had copper or occasionally silver sheets or ornaments bestowed about the head, most frequently perhaps in the mouth, but also about the ears or elsewhere on the face. Where the metal is entirely corroded it shows in green stains on the bone or teeth, as previously mentioned. This burial habit prevails for the Late period of all parts of the Peruvian coast which I have visited, from north of Trujillo to south of Nazca, frequently even as regards the graves of the poor. The most frequent disposal is of a round or oval sheet of thin metal about the size of a coin, apparently laid on the tongue—a sort of Charon’s obol. (Kroeber and O’Neale 1926: 4: 247)

[ back ] 39. The wide-ranging learning displayed by Grabka in his review of the traditions which led to the Viaticum does not, however, prevent him from seeming to hold two contradictory views of this history. Cp. “The ancient funeral rite of placing the viaticum coin in the mouth of the corpse was responsible for the superstition in Christian burials of administering the Viaticum to the dead” (Grabka 1953: 42) versus “the pagan custom of placing a coin into the mouth of the dead as a viaticum for the journey of the soul to its after-life never gained a firm foothold among the Christians. They had their own Viaticum with which they provided their departing brethren: the Holy Eucharist” (Grabka 1953: 27) and “Seen in its essentials, the ancient Christian custom of providing the dying faithful with the Eucharist as their Viaticum for the journey to eternity was neither derived from nor inspired by the pagan viaticum; it was based on the revealed truths of Christianity” (Grabka 1953: 42).

[ back ] 40. On the learned tradition of magic in the Nordic world—lapidaries, alchemy, and so on—see esp. Mitchell 2008a, as well as Mitchell 2011.

[ back ] 41. On these translations, see Stenbog, LXVIII-CII, and Brix 1943: 38–39.

[ back ] 42. The complete entry under the heading Chelonites runs: “Silenites hetær en steen. oc føthæs af en snæghæl .i. brittani land. Han ær blalyk røth. Haldær man hanum undær ren tungæ. tha ma han spa. Thænnæ steen ma æi eld skathæ.” (There is a stone called ‘Silenites’ which comes from a snail in Brittany. It is blueish[?] red. If one places it under a clean [alt., pure] tongue, then he may soothsay. This stone cannot be harmed by fire.) I take this opportunity to thank Henrik Jørgensen of Aarhus University for his advice on the treatment of blalyk røth. Ny. kgl. Samling 66, 8vo is a composite manuscript, which makes its dating difficult, but it is usually set to ca. 1300. In this instance, the description, although based on Marbod’s lapidary poem, has been altered: India has become Brittany, and tortoise (testudo) has become a snail. Cf. Jespersen 1938: 164. Other manuscripts, e.g., Sth. K4, are fragmentary and do not contain an entry for “Chelonites/Silenites.” For a facsimile (and text) of Ny. kgl. Samling 66, 8vo [136v], see Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab’s online site, Tekster fra Danmarks middelalder 1100–1515, at: http://middelaldertekster.dk/harpestreng-nks66/3/58.

[ back ] 43. “Celonites är en sten som taks vth aff storom skölpaddom. […] Hwilken som honom bär wndy twngonne han talar mangan spaadom som komma skal oc ske” (Stenbok p. 466). (Celonites is a stone taken from large turtles […] Whoever bears it under his tongue can speak many prophecies of things that will come to pass. (My translation.))

[ back ] 44. Cf. modern narratives concerning “uppvakningar eða sendingar” in Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri (I: 304–39), on all aspects of which see especially Gunnell 2012.

[ back ] 45. How the dead person is raised in Grógaldr is unclear. Klare (1933–1934: 16) assumes that in awakening his mother from death and getting her willing assistance, Svipdagr does nothing more than speak (“er hatte nicht einmal Zaubermittel gebraucht. […] Nun genügt ein Wort, sie kommt und hilft bereitwillig”) (he does not even use a magic spell. […] With just a word she comes and helps willingly). Although the poem gives no explicit information other than his command to “awaken”, the audience here, and elsewhere, may, of course, have assumed other operations were in play. In the famous scene in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks between live daughter and dead father (NB: gender-reversed compared to Grógaldr), referred to earlier, Hervǫr too appears to do no more than command that the dead man awaken (vaki þú) to begin their dialogue but there may have been much more to it. Vǫluspá is, if anything, even less clear than these other cases: the poem begins with the vǫlva’s calls for attention, not any act of Óðinn’s. It is from the comparanda and such clues as her addresses to Valfǫðr about what he wants to know and her repeated phrase, “vitoð ér enn, eða hvat?” (do you understand yet, or what more) that scholars draw the reasonable inference that it is indeed cut from the same cloth as the others. And, in fact, rhythmically repeated questions of the “do you understand yet, or what more”-sort characterize most of these poems.

[ back ] 46. Cleasby-Vigusson 1982, for example, glosses valgaldr as “charms, a kind of necromancy ascribed to Odin” and nás orð as “necromancy”.