Monday, 3 November 2014

Legend from the Land of Ice and Fire - Part Three - The Guardian Spirits of Iceland

King Harald told the warlock to hie to Iceland in some altered shape, and to try what he could learn there to tell him: and he set out in the shape of a whale.  And when he came near to the land he went to the west side of Iceland, north around the land, where he saw all the mountains and hills full of guardian-spirits, some great, some small.  When he came to Vapnafjord he went in towards the land, intending to go on shore; but a huge dragon rushed down the dale against him with a train of serpents, paddocks, and toads, that blew poison towards him.  Then he turned to go westward around the land as far as Eyjafjord, and he went into the fjord.  Then a bird flew against him, which was so great that its wings stretched over the mountains on either side of the fjord, and many birds, great and small, with it.  Then he swam farther west, and then south into Breidafjord.  When he came into the fjord a large grey bull ran against him, wading into the sea, and bellowing fearfully, and he was followed by a crowd of land-spirits.  From thence he went round by Reykjanes, and wanted to land at Vikarsskeid, but there came down a hill-giant against him with an iron staff in his hands.  He was a head higher than the mountains, and many other giants followed him.  He then swam eastward along the land, and there was nothing to see, he said, but sand and vast deserts, and, without the skerries, high-breaking surf, and the ocean between the countries was so wide that a long-ship could not cross it.  At that time Brodhelge dwelt in Vapnafjord, Eyjolf Valgerdson in Eyjafjord, Thord Geller in Breidafjord, and Thorod Gode in Olfus.  Then the Danish king turned about with his fleet, and sailed back to Denmark.
        From Heimskringle by Snorri Sturlason

The above story is embodied in The Seal of Iceland.  Here you can see that:
  • the Dragon represents and guards the East
  • the Bird, represents and guards the North
  • the Bull represents and guards the West
  • the Giant represents and guards the South

The guardian spirits found their way onto Iceland's coat of arms on February 12, 1919.  A royal decree stated, 'The Icelandic coat of arms shall be a crowned shield charged with the flag of Iceland.  The bearers of the shield are the country's four familiar guardian spirits: a dragon, a vulture, a bull and a giant.'

As these four creatures are present on the Icelandic coat of arms, I thought people might enjoy learning some of the myths, legends and folklore that include them.  Below you will find some of the stories I discovered.  It may be worth noting that dragons are often referred to as worms in Icelandic and Norse myth.

'The Scandinavian Mester Stoorworm was father of all worms, the first and the largest, with its length stretching halfway across the world.  His venomous breath could kill every creature and could wither up all growing things.  It looked like a gargantuan mountain, with eyes that glowed and flamed like a ward fire, and a forked tongue thousands of miles long; he could sweep whole towns, trees, and hills into the sea.  As he died, Mester Soorworm spewed out his teeth and they became the Faroes, Orkneys, and Shetland Islands.  His forked tongue entangled itself on the moon, and his body hardened into Iceland.'
        From: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Elves and Fairies by Sirona Knight

The Tree of Yggdrasil - the tree of the universe or the tree of life - gives us not one but two of the guardians of Iceland: the bird and the dragon.  Below are quotes from the story.
'From its tree great roots the tree attained such a marvellous height that its topmost bough Lerad (the peace giver) overshadowed Odin's hall, while the other wide-spreading branches towered over the other worlds.  An eagle was perched on the bough Lerad, and between his eyes sat the falcon Vedfolnir, sending his piercing glances down into heaven, earth, and Nifl-heim, and reporting all that he saw.

'In the seething cauldron Hvergelmir, close by the great tree, a horrible dragon, called Nidhug, continually gnawed the roots, and was helped in his destruction by countless worms, whose aim it was to kill the tree, knowing that its death would be the signal for the downfall of the gods.'

The dragon Nidhug can also be found in the book Viking Tales of the North by Rasmus B. Anderson:

            'Through all our life a temper prowls malignant,
            The cruel Nidhug from the world below.
            He hates that asa-light, whose rays benignant
            On th' hero's brow and glitt'ring sword bright glow.

Nidhug or Nidhogg (Old Norse Níðhöggr, meaning 'Curse-striker' or 'He Who Strikes with Malice') is prominent in Norse mythology and also plays a role in Ragnarock - the foretold doom of gods and men.  Nudhug can be found in Völuspá (Insight of the Seeress), the first and best known poem of the Poetic Edda:

            '39: I saw there wading through rivers wilde
            Treacherous men and murderers too,
            And workers of ill with the wives of men;
            There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain,
            And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?'

            'There comes the dark dragon flying,
            the shining serpent, up from Niðafjöll
            Níðhöggr flies over the plain, in his wings
            he carries corpses.'
            Niðafjöll means 'Mountains of the Dead Moon'.

Nithafjoll, also written Niðvellir, meaning dark mountains, is the name of the mountains of the northern underworld.

The rest of this epic poem can be found HERE.

While it is too long to relate here, there is also the Norse myth that tells of Fafnir, the great dragon that was slain by Sugurd, which is told in the Volsunga saga (Saga of the Volsungs).  In this myth Fadnir is the son of the dwarf king, Hreidmar and has two brothers, Otr and Regin.  Fafnir murders his father so he can take his gold - gold which was compensation from Odin for the loss of one of Hreidmar's sons.  Fafnir transforms into a great dragon so he can guard his stolen treasure and is later slain by the hero Sigurd.  Birds can also be found in this tale.  When Sigurd cooks the dragon's heart for Regin to eat, he burns his thumb of the heart and puts his thumb in his mouth, giving him the ability to understand the language of birds.  The birds tell Sigurd that Regin had intended to kill him, so Sigurd kills Regin and leaves with Fafnir's treasure.  You can find the complete myth HERE.

Birds feature prominently in Icelandic myth, with the whooping swan, rjúpa (ptarmigan) and gyrfalcan having strong influence in their stories.  In the Poetic Edda, the Valkyries are often referred to as swan-maidens because they worse swan feathers, enabling them to fly.

            'Maids from the south through Myrkwood flew.
            Fair and young their fate to follow;
            On the shore of the sea to rest them they sat
            The maids of the south, and flax they spun.
            Hlathguth and Hervor, Hlothver's children,
            And Olrun the Wise Kjar's daughter was.
            One in her arms took Egil then
            To her bosom white the woman fair.
            Swan-White second - swan-feathers she wore.
            And her arms the third of the sisters threw
            Next round Völund's neck so white.
            There did they sit for seven winters,
            In the eighth at last came their longing again.
            (And in the ninth did need divide them).
            The maidens yearned for the murky wood.
            The fair young maids, their fate to follow.

The above excerpt from the poem  Völundarkvitha in the Poetic Edda tells us of Volund, a famous master smith, and his two brothers Egil and Slagfid who encountered the three swan-maidens bathing in the lake.  The three brothers married the maidens, with Volund marrying Alvit, Egil marrying Olrun and Stagfid marrying Svanhvit.  The swan-maidens remainded with the three brothers for seven years before abandoning their husbands, never to be heard of again.

The following myth, called Rjúpa, is a translation by Baldur Bjarnason  from this version and tells of both the falcon and the ptarmigan.
The Falcon's Shriek
     Once upon a time, Virgin Mary summoned all of the birds to meet her.  Waiting for them, when they arrived, was a shallow pit of fire.  Mary ordered them to wade the fire to prove their loyalty to her.  The birds knew that Mary was the queen of heaven and commanded great power.  They dared not disobey her orders and instructions and so, one by one, they jumped into the flames and waded through the fire.
     Everybody except the rjúpa.
     Every other bird came through the fire with all of the feathers on their legs scorched off and the skin seared, which is how they have been ever since, all because of the Virgin Mary's pit of fire.
The rjúpa's fate was decided that day, since she was the only bird to defy the command to wade the fire.  Mary was furious at the rjúpa and cursed her to be the most defenceless and harmless of all of bird-kind, ad that she would be relentlessly stalked, harassed, and chased from here on, except during Whitsun.  The falcon, the rjúpa's loving brother, was now to hunt and kill her and feed on her flesh.
Mary had some mercy for the rjúpa and made it so that the rjúpa would change colours depending on the seasons, white in the winter, mossy-grey in the summer, so that she could hide from the falcon.
Since then, the falcon has hunted, killed, and eater his sister, and his enchanted fury doesn't waver or wane except for that one moment when he has torn through the rjúpa's breast.
     Upon seeing her torn open, her heart bare to the world, he realises that she is his sister - that he has eaten her to her heart - and is so overtaken with such sorrow that his shrieks fill the sky for days afterwards.

However, the bird that comes closest to being the Icelandic National Bird is the raven and, without doubt, Huginn and Muninn are most well known.

 Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory or mind) belong to Odin and were a gift from Hulda.  During the day these two ravens fly throughout the worlds and return to Odin in Valhalla during dinner to whisper all they have discovered.  Huginn represents the power of intellectual thought and the left side of the brain, while Muninn represents the power of reflective memory - of both past and future events - and the right side of the brain.  In the poetic Edda, Odin says,

            'O'er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
            Each day set forth to fly;
            For Hugin I fear lest he come not him
            But for Munin my care is more.'

Bulls, oxen and cattle feature heavily in Icelandic mythology, often as nourishment and many of these myths also feature giants.  They first appeared, along with giants, in the Norse Creation of the World myth:

'As the heat of Muspell began to thaw the ice of Niflheim, the evil giant Ymir emerged.  Then a cow called Audhumla formed out of the melting ice, and produced milk for Ymir to drink.  As he drank and was further warmed by the air of Muspell, Ymir started to sweat, and two more giants were formed in the sweat under his left arm while another emerged from his legs.  When Audhumla licked the ice, she freed yet another giant, called Buri, from inside the ice.  These frost giants ruled the cosmos.  Buri's son Bor married Bestla, daughter of the giant Bolthorn, and had three children, the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve.  Ymir was cruel to all around him, and the sons of Bor hated him.  They fought the giant and killed him, and used his body as material from which to create the world.  From his skull they made the sky; from his brains, the clouds.  The gods made rocks from his bones and rivers and seas from his blood, which was so prolific that it drowned all the other frost giants except for two, Bergelmir and his wife.'

The myth of Thor and the Midgard Serpent is another myth containing both cattle and giants.  Hymir, meaning dark one, was a frost giant.  He had a huge cauldron which was so deep it could brew enough ale for all the gods.  Without the cauldron Aegir, the sea god, was unable to offer hospitality to Odin and his companions.  So Tyr and Thor were sent to retrieve the huge vessel.  When they arrived, Tyr's mother told them to hide until she had explained their presence to Hymir.  Hymir found them and, while uneasy, offered them a meal.  Thor amazed those around the table when he devoured two oxen by himself.  The next day Hymir suggested they go fishing or there would be nothing for them to eat that day.  Off they set in Hymir's boat.  Thor baited his colossal hook with the head of Himinrjot, a huge black ox belonging to Hymir.  The bait was taken by Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent.  Thor hit the serpent with his hammer.  But Hymir was terrified and, in the chaos that followed, Jormungand tore free off the hook and sank, bleeding, beneath the surface of the waves.  Two whales ended up being the meal for the day.  On the return to Hymir's hall, relations between the host and his guests quickly deteriorated until Thor left, taking the cauldron with him.  Hymir and some other frost giants tried to follow him in order to regain the cauldron, but Thor used his hammer, killing all who had tried to follow.

I hope you've enjoyed reading.  Please check our some of the websites and books below.  They are all really helpful if your interested in this topic.  Until next time.

Sources for Further Reading


Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas by H. A. Guerber
Viking Tales from the North by Rasmus B. Anderson
The Riddles of the Hobbit by Adam Roberts
Vril: The Life Force of the Gods by Robert Blumetti
The Encyclopedia of World Mythology by Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm
DK Eyewitness Companions: Mythology by Phillip Wilkinson and Neil Philip
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Elves and Fairies by Sirona Knight


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