Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Viking Ghost Story

Halloween is one of the few 'holidays' I don't really get; it was never a part of my childhood, and while I enjoy a good seasonal ritual as much as anyone, Halloween in its modern form does nothing for me. I don't tend to enjoy ghost stories unless they involve the ghosts of Saxon archbishops or supremely spooky ballads ('The Wife of Usher's Well' and 'The Unquiet Grave' are my favourites.) However, I do make an exception for the ghosts of Old Norse literature, because they're just so awesome, and the stories have a certain dazzling glamour all of their own. And so (breaking all my own rules about not co-opting medieval literature for modern holidays) can I take this opportunity to interest you in an Old Norse ghost story anyway? Yes? Excellent.

There are several varieties of ghost in Old Norse literature, but one common type is the dead person who goes on living within their burial-mound, sometimes wandering out to cause trouble for the neighbourhood, but mostly just dwelling there and doing whatever it is ghosts do (often, singing). In one particularly unforgettable scene in Njáls saga, two characters are walking past the burial-mound of Gunnar, one of the saga's heroes; the moon is shining brightly, with clouds blowing across it now and then, and all of a sudden they see the mound is open, and the dead man Gunnar has turned onto his side and is looking at the moon. He looks very joyful, the saga says, but he sings a verse which persuades the other characters they have to avenge his death...

Anyway, that's not today's ghost story. This one appears in a text called Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, and is the story of a fearless young woman who dresses up as a man and goes into her own father's burial-mound to retrieve the magical sword which was buried with him. She rouses her father's ghost, and they have a conversation in verse, and it's all deliciously eerie.

The story begins with the magical sword, which is named Tyrfing. The saga tells us that Tyrfing was made by dwarves, and every time it was drawn a light shone from it that was like a ray of the sun. This sword could never be held unsheathed without causing the death of a man, and it always had to be sheathed with the blood still warm upon it. Whatever the sword wounded would certainly die, and the man who carried it in battle would always be victorious if he struck a blow with it. This sword belonged to a viking named Angantýr, who inherited it from his father; but he and his eleven brothers, all berserkers and warriors of great power and strength, were killed together in battle and buried in a mound on the island of Samsey.

And then begins the story of Angantýr's daughter Hervör, born after her father's death, who grows up to be a warrior, Viking, and fearless grave-plunderer. The following is my rather loose translation of the saga, but a closer one can be found in The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, trans. Christopher Tolkien (London, 1960), downloadable here. In the Old Norse almost all the dialogue is in verse, so it's set out like that here.

[Angantýr's wife] was pregnant, and gave birth to a very beautiful girl. She was sprinkled with water and named Hervör. She was brought up by the jarl [her grandfather], and she had the strength of a man; as soon as she could do anything for herself she trained herself with the bow and shield and sword more than with sewing and weaving. She more often caused trouble than good, and when that was forbidden to her she ran away to the woods and attacked people to rob them. When the jarl heard about this highwayman he went with his men and seized Hervör and brought her home with him. After that she lived in his house for a while.

It happened one day that Hervör was standing outside near a group of slaves, and she treated them badly, as she did everyone. Then one of them said to her, "All you ever want is to cause trouble, Hervör, and trouble's all that can be expected from you. The jarl forbids everyone from telling you about your parentage, because he's ashamed that you should know it - the lowest slave slept with his daughter, and you're their child."

Hervör was furious at these words, and she went at once to the jarl, and said:

I can take no pride in our famous name,
though my mother found favour with Fródmar.
I thought I had a hero for a father;
now I'm told he tended the pigs!

The jarl answered:

A lie has been told to you, with no truth:
your father was counted glorious among men.
The hall of Angantýr, covered with earth, [i.e. his burial-mound]
stands on Sámsey’s southern border.

Hervör said:

I am eager to go, foster-father,
to seek my departed kinsmen;
they must have great riches,
which I shall gain for myself, if I survive.

I will swiftly wrap around my hair
a linen cloth before I depart;
much rests on this, that by the morning
a shirt and cloak be prepared for me.

Hervör spoke to her mother, and said:

Wisest of women, as quickly as you can
equip me in all ways as you would your son.
The truth is brought to me in dreams alone;
I can have no rest here now.

After that she made preparations to go away by herself. She took the equipment and weapons of a man and went to a place where there were some vikings, and she travelled with them for a while, calling herself Hervarðr. After a short time she became leader of the group, and when they came to Sámsey she demanded to go up onto the island, saying that there would be treasure in the burial-mounds. All the sailors argued against it, saying that such evil creatures walked there by day that it was worse in the daytime than other places were at night. But she got her way, and the anchor was dropped. Hervarðr got into a boat and rowed to the shore. She landed in Munarvág as the sun was setting, and met a man who was tending his flock. He said:

Who is coming all alone to the island?
Quickly, go and find lodgings!

She answered:

I will not go and find lodgings,
since I know none of the island-dwellers;
but swiftly tell me before we part,
where is the mound named for Hjörvarðr? [one of her father's brothers]

Then the shepherd said:

Do not ask that; you are not wise!
Friend of vikings, you are in danger.
Let us go as fast as our feet can carry us;
out in the open lies terror for men.

She answered:

Let us not fear the roar of the grave-fires,
though all the island be burning with flame.
We should not be afraid of such men;
let us talk further.

He said:

I think him a fool who goes onward,
a man all alone in the darkening night;
fires are flickering, mounds are opening,
field and fen are burning – run faster!

He ran off home to the farm, and so they parted. Now she saw where on the island the treasure-fires were burning, and she went in that direction without fear, though all the mounds stood in her path. She walked through the fires as if they were no more than mist, until she came to the berserkers' barrow-mound.

Norse legend had it that ghostly treasure-fire burned inside and around burial-mounds, showing where gold was hidden.

Then she spoke:

Wake, Angantýr, Hervör wakes you,
child of Sváfa, your only daughter!
Give me from the barrow the sharp-edged blade
forged by the dwarves for Sigrlami.

Hervarðr, Hjörvarðr, Hrani, Angantýr!
I waken you all from the roots of the tree,
with helm and mailcoat, sharp-edged sword,
shield and war-gear and blood-stained spear.

Almost to dust are Arngrím’s sons,
men eager for evil, turned in the mound,
if not one of Eyfura’s sons
will speak to me in Munarvág.

Hervarðr, Hjörvarðr, Hrani, Angantýr!
May it seem to you all inside your ribs
as if you mouldered away in mounds of ants,
unless you fetch the sword which Dvalin forged!
It is not fitting for ghosts to bear precious weapons.

Then Angantýr answered her:

Hervör, daughter, why are you calling?
You are going to a fate full of evils.
You have gone mad and senseless,
wild in your wits; you awaken dead men!

It was no father or kinsman laid me in the grave;
they kept Tyrfing, the two who survived;
and only one wielded it after.

Hervör answered:

You are not telling the truth!
May the gods let you rest safe in your barrow
if you do not have Tyrfing with you;
but you are unwilling to give the heirloom
to your only child.

Then the barrow-mound opened, and it was as if the whole mound were fire and flame. Angantýr spoke again:

Hel’s gate is lifted, the mounds are opening,
all the isle is on fire before you;
now it is terrible to look around you –
flee, girl, to your ships, if you can!

She answered:

There is no fire burning by night
that can make me fear your corpse-flames;
this girl's courage will not falter,
though she see a ghost stand at the grave-door.

Then Angantýr said:

I tell you, Hervör, what will happen:
- hear what I say, prince’s daughter -
you may believe that Tyrfing, girl,
will be the ruin of all your family.

You will have a son who in later days
will bear Tyrfing and trust his strength;
he will be known to his people as Heiðrek,
born the strongest beneath the sun’s curtain. [i.e. the sky]

Then Hervör said:

I thought myself a mortal
before I came seeking your hall;
give me from the mound the piercer of mailcoats,
destroyer of shields, Hjálmar's bane.

Angantýr answered:

Hjálmar's bane lies beneath my shoulders,
encircled all around with fire;
I know no woman alive in the world
who would dare hold this sword in her hand.

Hervör said:

I will hold and take in my hand
the sharp-edged sword, if I may obtain it.
I have no fear of the burning fire;
the flame grows less as I look at it.

Angantýr answered:

You are foolish, Hervör, in your brave spirit,
to rush into the fire with open eyes!
Instead I will give you the sword from the barrow;
young girl, I cannot refuse you.

Hervör answered:

You do well in this, son of vikings,
to give to me the sword from the barrow.
Prince, I count it better to have this
than to hold all Norway beneath my hand.

Angantýr spoke:

You are wretched in your words, miserable woman!
You do not see that you should not rejoice:
you may believe that Tyrfing, girl,
will be the ruin of all your family.

Hervör spoke:

I will take my way to the wave-horses, [i.e. ships]
a prince’s daughter now happy in heart;
I do not care, companion of kings,
how my sons may fare hereafter.

Angantýr spoke:

For a long time you shall hold and keep
Hjálmar's bane safe in the sheath.
Do not touch the edges: poison is in both,
worse than evil and bringer of doom to men.

Fare well, daughter! Gladly would I give you
twelve men’s lives – believe what I tell you! –
the great strength and endurance
the sons of Arngrím left behind them.

And Hervör said:

May you all lie unharmed in the barrow!
I am eager to be away.
I seemed to myself to be set between worlds,
when all about me the grave-fires burned.

Hervör went down to the shore, and when the dawn came she saw that the ships had gone; the vikings had taken fright when they heard the thunder and saw the fires on the island.

'There is no fire burning by night that can make me fear your corpse-flames; this girl's courage will not falter, though she see a ghost stand at the grave-door...' 'I seemed to myself to be set between worlds, when all about me the grave-fires burned...'  Now there's a ghost story for you! The fearlessness of Hervör makes it somehow more eerie than if she were frightened; there's a sense that in her determination to pass beyond this world she has been transformed into something other than human, a creature even the ghost fears. Her willingness to curse the ghosts of her slain father and uncles if they won't give her the sword is... impressively dedicated. But it will not surprise you to learn that the ghost's prediction of disaster for Hervör and her sons comes to pass; you can read about what happens next here.

Entering burial-mounds to gain their treasure is a fairly common motif in both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon literature (think of Beowulf); barrows and burial-mounds are features of the landscape which are both visible reminders of the dead and portals to another world, the abode of ghosts and dragons. As well as appearing in stories like Hervarar saga, they also feature in legends told about historical figures, including one which connects the terrifying Viking Ivar the Boneless to the Norman Conquest of England (which I wrote about here).

Burial mound at Sutton Hoo, from wikipedia

Inexplicably, few artists seem to have depicted the story of Hervör, so the illustrations in this post are Arthur Rackham's Brynhildr (another awakened inhabitant of a fiery earth-mound), and then mist after sunset on Oxford's own version of the Barrow-downs, Port Meadow. And finally, of course, one of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, which more than anywhere else I've ever been conveys the atmospheric power of this kind of landscape. Legend has it that the owner of the estate at Sutton Hoo decided to excavate the land after being told of a sighting of ghostly warriors riding around the mounds. That was in 1939; people have not stopped telling ghost stories about burial-mounds, or entering them in search of treasure.

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