In her new book, Viking Myths & Sagas, Rosalind Kerven reveals how the Vikings’ favourite tales included myths, heroic legends, folk tales, and family and local histories.
She explores how, because most people were illiterate, these stories circulated orally, sometimes in the form of complex narrative poems.
Passed on through successive generations, many were written down in the 13th century, mainly by scholars in Iceland. Their books included the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda – which today form the basis of much of what we know about ancient Norse myths and legends – and numerous Sagas, which are supposedly based on true stories of real Viking Age people.
Here, writing for History Extra, Kerven explores some of the most memorable Viking tales…
1) The curse of Andvari’s ring
This lively epic inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is really two separate legends, linked by a supernatural ring that brings brutal tragedy to all who wear it. Its colourful cast includes heroic warriors and callous villains: three gods, a dwarf, a valkyrie, a dragon, a witch-queen, the infamous tyrant Atli (Attila) the Hun, and another queen who single-handedly destroys him.
With multiple gruesome murders (most notably by being suspended over a pit full of poisonous snakes), dramatic suicides, deceits and broken hearts, the plot more than purges the emotions, and it’s richly embroidered with enchanted fire, treasure hoards and birds that possess the power of human speech.
Undoubtedly one of the Vikings’ favourite stories, the legend is recounted in many ancient written sources, and scenes from it are depicted on a number of surviving Viking Age carvings in England, the Isle of Man, Norway and Sweden.
2) The theft of Thor’s hammer
Viking pagan mythology is dominated by eternal conflict between the gods and their archenemies, the giants. Among the gods, the role of ‘chief giant-basher’ belonged to mighty Thor. As defender of both the divine and human realms, he had a penchant for smashing in the skulls of giants with his magic hammer, Mjollnir. This short, humorous tale is a fine example.
Mjollnir is stolen by one of the giants, who refuses to return it unless the beautiful goddess Freyja agrees to marry him. Thor gallantly disguises himself as the requested bride – a truly courageous act in a society where cross-dressing was considered an outrage against virility – travels to Giantland, and pretends to take part in the wedding. As soon as the hammer is delivered, in accordance with the bargain, Thor seizes it and destroys the giant in a single blow.
Thor’s popularity in Viking times is demonstrated by the many pagan temples that were dedicated to him; the large number of miniature ‘Thor’s Hammer’ pendants ex-cavated, and the prevalence of personal names in the Sagas that include the component ‘thor’ – for example, ‘Thorunn’ for women, and ‘Thorstein’ for men.
3) Odin wins the runes
During the pagan era, Odin was respected as the mysterious and omniscient god of war, wisdom, death and fate. Sacrifices were often made to him, particularly in times of conflict. He was also feared, particularly because he sometimes travelled through the human world in disguise, meddling in people’s affairs or changing the course of battles.
This brief and exquisitely mystical story links Odin to the Vikings’ only form of writing during the pagan era – by carving rune-letters into wood, stone, metal or bone. The myth appears in 25 cryptic verses of a poem called Havamal (‘The Sayings of the High One’), possibly dating back to the ninth century.
Usually claimed to be in Odin’s own words, it describes him sacrificing “himself to himself” by hanging upside-down on a lonely tree for nine nights. Finally, he has a vision of the runes, alongside the secrets of many esoteric spells.
Most surviving Viking stories are very down to earth, but this one demonstrates that the old pagan religion had a highly mystical and spiritual side.
4) An explosive love triangle: Gudrun, Kjartan and Bolli
This tragic love story forms the central thread of the 13th-century Laxdaela Saga, probably based on real 10th and 11th-century people and events.
The beautiful and capable Gudrun – twice married, divorced and widowed at an early age – falls in love with the charismatic Kjartan. However, his father believes Gudrun to be very unlucky, so he tries to extricate Kjartan from the relationship by sending him on a trading expedition to Norway.
There he is held hostage by the king, and during his prolonged absence, Kjartan’s cousin and foster-brother, Bolli, persuades the reluctant Gudrun to marry him instead. Kjartan returns shortly afterwards, and Gudrun realises she has made a terrible mistake. Her regret sparks off a series of inflammatory events, which culminate in Bolli slaughtering his beloved foster-brother – who dies in his arms – and then being killed himself in revenge.
Intriguingly, the saga reveals elements of Viking Age culture that are mirrored in the modern world – for example, pre-nuptial agreements, freely available divorce, forced religious conversion and youths going on ‘gap year’-style travels abroad.
5) The Norse discovery of America
Two medieval manuscripts, Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, claim that in the early 11th century, 500 years before Columbus, Viking men and women reached North America. They describe how an unknown country was initially sighted by a ship blown off-course in bad weather, and shortly afterwards, by a series of expeditions that set out from the Viking colony in Greenland in order to explore it.
Following the strange coast southward, the explorers came to a rich and fertile land full of game and timber. They also found wild grapes growing in profusion, so they called it Vinland (Wineland). One group attempted to settle there, including a woman who gave birth to the first European child born on American soil, but they beat a hasty retreat after an altercation with the local Native American people whom they disparagingly called Skraelings.
For many centuries, these accounts were regarded with great scepticism. However, during the 1960s a Norwegian husband-and-wife team of explorer-archaeologists followed the descriptions and sailing directions given in the two sagas. Eventually, they found themselves at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, Canada. There they excavated eight 11th-century Viking-style houses, a forge and four workshops – offering exciting and conclusive proof that the so-called ‘Vinland sagas’ really were true.
6) The burning of Njal
The sagas reveal that surprisingly complex laws and legal procedures played an important role in the Viking lands. These form the background to another supposedly true story of the late 10th century, recorded in the medieval Njal’s Saga.
Njal is an Icelandic lawyer, renowned throughout the country for skilfully contriving peaceful monetary settlements to end some of the long blood feuds that blighted all Viking societies. Despite this, he is unable to prevent his wife, best friend and finally his sons from being caught up in vendettas of their own.
Eventually he too is drawn in, and finds himself burned alive in his own house – a common act of revenge at the time. It’s a long and chilling cautionary tale full of twists and turns. Like Laxdaela Saga, it also offers plausible information on the Norse conversion to Christianity.
The Penguin Classics paperback edition of Njal's Saga. © sjbooks / Alamy
If the name looks like an anagram of something rather familiar, you’re not mistaken – this is one of the main sources that Shakespeare used for Hamlet. It’s a legend from Viking Denmark, based on a cast of royal characters who lived several hundred years earlier.
Just as in Shakespeare’s play, Amleth’s uncle kills his father and marries his mother; Amleth feigns madness as a way of coping with his terrible predicament, and he is sent to England by his wicked uncle in a thwarted attempt to have him murdered.
The Viking version doesn’t include any love interest, and the plot is less complex than Shakespeare’s. However, there are comical scenes featuring humorous word-play, which possibly inspired the great playwright.
8) Volund the Smith
This heroic legend, illustrated on Viking Age carvings from England and Sweden, is part fairy tale, part horror story.
Volund is a princely goldsmith who fashions exquisite rings. In the romantic yet melancholy opening, he falls in love with a spirited valkyrie, who comes to him in the form of a swan maiden. However, after a brief marriage she abandons him and returns to work on the battlefields, gathering up slain warriors to be honoured by Odin.
As he grieves over his loss, Volund is abducted by an enemy king who imprisons him in an island smithy for refusing to marry his daughter. The hero’s revenge is to murder the girl’s brothers and fashion their body parts into grisly jewellery, which he presents to his unwitting captors. In a final twist, he forges himself some golden wings and flies away to resume the search for his lost wife.
The popularity of this tale clearly extended even beyond the Viking world, for Volund is also mentioned in Anglo-Saxon poems, including Beowulf.
9) Grettir the outlaw
This cycle of folk tales, apparently based on the exploits of a real 11th-century Viking troublemaker, were collected together in the 14th-century Grettir’s Saga.
Grettir ‘the strong’ is powerfully built, constantly takes offence, relishes violence, and has a talent for composing acerbic poetry. He is outlawed several times, which means losing all his property, being banished abroad and condemned to be killed by anyone with impunity.
His larger-than-life adventures include single-handedly killing monsters, trolls, ghosts, a bear and a whole troop of berserkers, only to be vanquished in the end by an elderly sorceress whose spells bring about a humiliating death.
Like other world religions, Viking paganism included an apocalyptic vision predicting that the existing world will be destroyed by cosmic forces and characters, and will then be reborn into a new, more perfect age.
This scenario is most vividly brought to life in a 10th to 11th-century poem called Voluspa (‘The Prophesy of the Seeress’), possibly developed from a series of dreams experienced by a real-life wise woman.
As horror overwhelms the world, causing it to freeze and wither, gods, monsters and giants engage in cosmic battle until even Odin and the sun itself are vanquished. However, the poem ends with the optimistic promise of a new world rising from the ruins of the old – a powerful and haunting tale.
Rosalind Kerven’s Viking Myths & Sagas: Retold from Ancient Norse Texts (Talking Stone) is on sale now. To find out more, visit www.vikingmythsandsagas.blogspot.co.uk and www.workingwithmythsandfairytales.blogspot.co.uk