In early September 2019, I travelled to Iceland and visited Eldhestar Icelandic horse trekking company located less than 30 minutes drive southeast from the capital Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Viking settlers. You can read about about Icelandic Viking history and the history of Reykjavik here. There are also a series of posts on iconic southeastern Icelandic waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes and iconic Icelandic landscape.
Eldhestar translates to “volcano horses” in Icelandic and aptly named Eldhestar riding stables are located in the valley beneath the volcano Hengill, a region populated by natural hot springs, geysers and rivers. The nearby town of Hveragerði has a thriving horticulture industry using extensive greenhouses where heating and electricity is supplied by geothermal power from the nearby active Hengill volcano.
The Icelandic horse is native to Iceland, being brought to the island with the Viking settlers and isolated from other horse breeds throughout much of history. For this reason, Icelandic horses have not been exposed to other equine viruses if horses leave Iceland, they cannot be re-introduced but most be left in mainland Europe. There are also no other horse breeds allowed in Iceland but nearly every farm, hamlet or paddock contains Icelandic horses which outnumber the human population according to a public census several years ago! Icelandic horses are also semi-domesticated and, for the most part, are not stabled and even spend the harsh winter months foraging for feed in the snow drifts. This hardy character and the endurance of the breed to travel extensive distances over the volcanic rock and challenging terrain makes the horses beloved by many Icelanders.
I was interested in the Icelandic horse for several reasons. First, I had to see these legendarily tough horses for myself. They are certainly smaller than I’d expected but not in a noticeable way. When moving, they can cover huge amounts of ground with a very large stride, which includes the unique tolt, a gait that occurs naturally in most Icelandic horses. This trot, is uniquely fast and a longer-stride which is surprisingly comfortable.
My guide with Eldhestar was wonderful and the Icelandic horse I was riding (Freya) was enthusiastic and free-willed (a trait that I admire and seems expected in a breed that needn’t rely on human assistance). The Eldhestar riding tours can be as large as a month-long trek across the island, where an entire support team of horses are required, riding horses swapped each day for fresh mounts. In true Icelandic fashion, the 3-4 horses for each rider follow the riding line in a free-moving herd.
Apologies in advance for some jerky and imperfect video of a herd of Icelandic horses, the amazing landscape in the fertile floodplains.
Gotland Museum contains an amazing variety of prehistoric Swedish and Viking Age archaeology and history. The collections include picture stones from Gotland Island, large collections from establishment of the official seal and recognition of Gotland county, the doomed Battle of Visby and Viking Age silver and gold hoards found on Gotland Island.
The Gotland Museum collections contain some of the oldest picture stones in Sweden with many dating from the prehistoric era of circa 9000 years ago and including the pre-Viking Age era of circa 700 AD. The earliest picture stones feature animal and geometric motifs before the more familiar Celtic styles of decoration are incorporated into the picture stones. Some of the largest picture stones are well over 6 ft and depict themes and motifs mentioned in Norse mythology. There is one famous picture stone that appears to depict common themes and characters from Norse mythology with a warrior riding into battle on an eight-legged horse, a wolf and a woman holding out a drinking horn. Below that scene is a Viking ship and armed warriors and possibly a Valkyrie or similar winged female archer.
There are also prehistoric human skeletal remains recovered from sites on Gotland Island that offer a rare glimpse into the ritualistic behaviour of the early inhabitants on the island.
The burial of a young woman in her early twenties has been called the “Hedgehog Girl” for the many items made from the local Gotland Island hedgehog which were used to decorate her grave. She was buried with five hedgehog jaws placed across her chest and would have originally worn a cap made from hedgehog skin while her dress was edged with beading made from fox and seal teeth. There were many hedgehog spines found beside her head and it was likely the cap was decorated with hedgehog spines while her grave goods also included offerings of hedgehog spines and teeth. The local inhabitants of Visby confirmed that the hedgehog is still an important symbol of Gotland Island and, despite the ram being on the official seal of Gotland Island, the hedgehog continues to be the symbolic animal of Gotland. There is a strong Association between the symbolic role the hedgehog played in the prehistoric communities and that the common animal today was of symbolic and, possibly ritualistic importance, in the past with some archaeologists interpreting the hedgehog girl had a ritualistic or shamanic role in the prehistoric community.
The grave of a young woman has been named the “Girl with the Flutes” for the total 35 of false bone flutes, 23 buried throughout the grave and another 12 placed directly beside her. The grave was also decorated with red ochre and contained fishing tackle, bone fishing hooks, a finely carved bone comb and bone jewellery. A clay figurine at the foot of the grave is difficult to discern but is either a bird or a seal. The grave was located on the cliffs overlooking the sea and combined with the numerous flutes, it has been suggested a literal or symbolic communication between the girl and the birds or the seals. Whatever the case may have been, the burial shows a strong symbolic nature to the burial where the sea and the role of the flutes was clearly important for the woman buried on the sea cliffs. There was likely a close connection between the prehistoric communities of Gotland Island, they were probably reliant on the sea for survival in times when crops or livestock failed.
The Viking Age was also well-known for the silver and gold hoards that were buried throughout Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe. Gotland Museum has an interesting display of the various hoards associated with the island. Many are vast collections of coins from different regions, silver bracelets, gold torques, silver and gold rings, beautifully crafted silver brooches for cloaks and the elaborately engraved square brooch used by women. Most of the items in these hoards have been recovered during excavations at specific archeological sites but in a few occasions, including a hoard of gold coins stored in a clay jar, an industrious rabbit warren disturbed the buried treasure, bringing the hoard once more to the surface.
Gotland Museum contained an interesting collection of archaeological and historical items from the pre-Viking Age era, Viking Age and through to the Middle Ages. Items from the Viking Age included axe blades and swords recovered from local archaeology sites, carved game pieces made from bone and horse teeth. A gilt weather vane for a Viking longship appears an extraordinary extravaganza by modern standards but retains the deep swirling pictographs on the surface. The arrival of Christianity to Gotland Island was ushered in slowly with early wooden churches a solemn, pagan-appearing place, the wooden form of Christ more resembling Odin during his search for knowledge as he hung upon the tree Yggdrasil. Symbolic jewellery like Thor’s hammer was slowly replaced by the crucifix and the combination ancient and “new” religions defined by the crucifix marked by runes scored into its surface. Other unusual items included Wolfs-head endpieces for a row of church pews, near-immaculately preserved leather boots and the old former seal of Gotland Island established in 1280.
The Battle of Visby was fought in 1361 when Danish forces invaded Gotland Island led by King Valdemar IV and the well-trained Danish army, the force numbering around 2000-2500. In contrast, the defending forces of Visby numbered only 2000 and were not trained infantrymen, or were older individuals, those who had survived previous battles and still bore the marks of injury. The result was a massacre, the Danish forces taking Visby and leaving many of the surviving defending forces of Visby so badly injured they later died from their injuries. The grisly remains from the mass graves outside Visby reveal the savage injuries caused by swords and axes, the damage inflicted from the mace and other battle weapons broke bones and shattered skulls. The healing of these injuries was inadequate and health of the individuals was compromised, with the bones badly set, often twisted and likely leaving the limb unusable.
In late September 2019, I visited the Historika Museet (National History Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. I only had a few days in Stockholm but I the Historiksa Museet is located in the central part of Stockholm city and is easily accessible by tram, bicycle or on foot. I visited the museum for the detailed exhibitions on seven important Swedish Stone Age sites and the associations with ritual practices in these prehistoric societies. You can read more about my visit to the Viking Age burial mounds at Uppsala here and the early Viking picture stones at Gotland museum here.
The Historiska Museett in Stockholm normally hosts a large Viking Age exhibition but this was unfortunately closed for renovations when I visited. I did spend several hours walking through the Prehistory section which detailed seven ritual burials and sacrifices from the Scandinavian region.
Prehistory is classified by an absence of a written record and so naturally, the end of the prehistoric era and the beginning of the historic era is very different in many regions of the world. In Scandinavia, Prehistory included the the Stone Age from 9, 000 BC until 1, 000 BC which marked the Bronze Age. The Iron Age did not begin until 0 AD and encompassed the later half of the Roman Empire and the Viking Age in Scandinavia which occurred around 900 – 1, 000 AD.
The Scandinavian Prehistoric era included artifacts ranging from very early blades made from antler horn, a carved comb depicting a human-like face and possibly a horse or dog made from fine stone or the necklaces of split boar teeth.
One of the oldest female burials in Sweden is known as the woman from Barum, excavated in Skåne. The ritualized burial dates from 9, 000 BC and has the woman’s body placed upright in a seated position, arms folded around the chest. Originally excavated in 1939, the Barum burial was described at first as the burial of a male hunter because of the grave goods that consisted of arrows, fragments of a spear and a spear-thrower. The skeleton is actually that of an older woman, with the Barum burial showing another side of prehistoric Scandinavian life where women were buried with similar valued items used in hunting as the men in these communities.
The museum also had fascinating exhibitions on the early stages of the Viking Age where the written records of the legendary sagas and mythologies begin to show traces in artifacts recovered from burials and caches of weapons and treasures.
One such item is the gold brooch depicting a dragon crouched over the body parts of slain warriors who lay scattered around the coiled dragon. There are noted similarities with the epic poem Beowulf and the Viking Age sagas of early Swedish kings. The dragon guardian of treasure and the beast who slays armies is a common monster featuring in the folklore of that time.
The runic language underwent several transformations over the hundreds of years it was used throughout Scandinavia. The most problematic of these changes has meant that the difference between the Younger (more recent) Futhrak and the Older (oldest) runic script do not share similarities and some parts of the Older Futhrak have not been able to be translated except in very simplistic terms. Other items included the large standing stone containing all the letters in the runic alphabet of the Futhrak.
The final aspect of the Viking Age of Sweden exhibition was a reconstruction of Viking Age society including the many accessories used by both women and men to reflect social status, personalities and kinship ties.
The display of replica historical musical instruments like the stringed harp-like instrument displaying the skills and hard work of Viking Age communities.
The final reconstructed item shows Viking Age archaeological material from warfare with battle shields, exemplar swords and various items of horse and military equipment.
I have been working hard writing a large scene over several chapters in my novel-in-progress, Ragnarok Dreaming. The scene is based on a significant section in Norse mythology recorded in The Prose Edda, called the Skaldskaparmal, where Loki is portrayed for the first time as a more malicious being. The Skaldskaparmal describes Loki’s deliberate deception of the most innocent among the gods, Idunn who is also the guardian of immortality for the Aesir. In return for his own life, Loki promises Idunn to the mightiest of the frost giants, Thrazi. When Loki deceives Idunn into following him beyond the protective lands of the Aesir, she is kidnapped by Thrazi and held as his prisoner. Although Loki’s guilt is evident, his concern grows as the Aesir begin to age rapidly without Idunn tending the tree that provides the apples and their immortality. Odin has Loki beaten for his betrayal which has the desired effect to spur Loki’s conscience. He finally agrees to helps rescue Idunn from Thrazi‘s wintry mountain fortress. In truth, the Aesir are too weakened and aged to assault the mountain fortress, Thyrheim. Loki rescues Idunn and lures Thrazi back toward Asgard where Odin and Thor have built a bonfire. In the form of a hawk, Loki easily evades Thrazi’s eagle-form but Thrazi is caught by the flames and destroyed.Loki retains some of his humanity in the Skaldskaparmal but from now on, his considerations of the Aesir are complicated, alternating more swiftly from bitter dislike to a sense of familial belonging. Loki is neither Aesir nor truly of the jotnar but is caught somewhere in-between.
In my work-in-progress, Ragnarok Dreaming, I explore Loki’s conflict where he belongs to neither the giants nor the gods; a conscious and unconscious character motivation.
I am delighted to announce I’ve just finished writing Part 2 of my work-in-progress novel, Ragnarok Dreaming ! Now that the halfway point has been reached, I’m ready to continue the story of Norse Trickster Loki, enjoying the interacting themes between ancient Norse mythologies and Australian legends and folktales. Onwards to Part 3 !
Much of the information about Norse mythology is gleaned from the historical texts called the Eddas. As recounted in the Eddas, two separate hosts of deities initially existed, the Vanir and Aesir . These two hosts waged several unsuccessful wars against each other until they united as a single host, combining their strength against the giants. The union of the Vanir and Aesir was then strengthened through marriage alliances. The deities of the Vanir are introduced in this first post, while a second post discusses the Aesir.
A host of Norse deities almost exclusively associated with the natural elements. These included affinities with the seasons, celestial bodies, and the sedir, a magic associated with women that included foretelling the future. The war between the Aesir and Vanir was settled with an exchange of hostages before several marriages permanently united them.
Njord was a prominent god among the Vanir and the father of sibling deities, Freya and Freyr. Njord was embodiment of the winds, especially those winds close to shore. Associated with fishing, Njord was symbolic of the bounties from the sea and often invoked by fishermen. Njord was also invoked by sailors returning from sea voyages hoping for the safety of the shore. Njord was often depicted as an older man, features marked by exposure to the harsh weather of the sea winds.
Son of the Vanir god Njord and sibling to goddess Freya. As with the deities of the Vanir, Freyr was associated with natural elements and was the personification of summer. Freyr was the embodiment of abundance and wealth, associated with harvests, hunts and forests. Freyr was also associated with some aspects of warfare and was often depicted with a golden sword, radiant like the summer sun. More commonly, Freyr was associated the wealth and abundance of good harvests and the bountiful summer forests.
Daughter of Vanir god, Njord and sister of the god Freyr. Similar to her sibling, Freya was the personification of Spring. Freya was associated with lovers and with the association of spring, she embodied fertility. Commonly, Freya was depicted as a beautiful maiden and often wreathed in garlands of flowers. There was a darker aspect to Freya that associated her with battle and death. Freya is the leader of the Valkyries, the female warrior spirits who take the souls of honoured warriors slain in battle. Freya was also the archetypal völva, a practitioner of the ancient Norse magic, the sedir, which had many shamanistic qualities and was both revered and feared for the gift it offered of foresight. Freya first taught the sedir to the Norse gods and, by extension, to the mortal realm of Midgard.
Much of the information about Norse mythology is gleaned from the historical texts called the Eddas. As recounted in the Eddas, two separate hosts of deities initially existed, the Vanir and Aesir. These two hosts waged several unsuccessful wars against each other until they united as a single host, combining their strength against the giants. The union of the Vanir and Aesir was then strengthened through marriage alliances. The deities of the Vanir were introduced in an earlier post, while this post discusses the Aesir.
A host of Norse deities that are very different to the Vanir and, considered by many scholars, to be the more recent in Norse mythology. The primary deities in the Aesir are almost exclusively male and associated with warfare and aspects of community and family life. Lesser gods in the Aesir are associated with craftsmanship but all have specific personality traits that would be invoked during prayer.
The principal leader of the Aesir. Odin was also the eldest of the gods and the father of many lesser deities. Odin was the embodiment of a leader protecting his dependants through wisdom and seeking knowledge. Odin was also often invoked by leaders before battle as Odin was associated with victory in battle. Odin’s quest for further wisdom to improve his leadership and maintain it, led to many sacrifices including the offering of his eye to gain the foresight he required. Odin was the real leader of the Norse deities and was an exemplar of how rulers should sacrifice themselves for the furthering of their dependant community and family.
Goddess among the Aesir and wife to Odin, who in Odin’s absence from Asgard, became the leader of the Aesir. As the only principal goddess among the Aesir, there is curiously little written specifically about Frigg in the Eddas. Frigg was the embodiment of a virtuous Nordic wife, associated with the household and invoked by married couples for her embodiment of love and marriage. Frigg was commonly depicted as wife, mother and leader but her elaborate clothing revealed a darker aspect to her. Frigg’s powers were like those of Odin, associated with the air. Frigg was responsible for the discovery of flax and her spinning distaff was capable of enacting her fickle mood where she would spin the clouds into her clothing, all as changeable as the weather.
A god among the Aesir, the embodiment of thunderstorms and the personification of physical strength. Thor was the son of Odin and often associated with warfare and, like Odin and the god Tyr, these three gods formed a triad of gods often invoked during battle. Where Odin’s powers in warfare are related to qualities aspired for strong leadership, Tyr was invoked for strategic planning and swordsmanship. Thor, on the other hand, was admired for the brute strength and fury he possessed, a battle-rage and lust that could sustain armies and inspire victory. Thor is rarely described or praised for intelligence but his powerful strength and warhammer were often used to save the Aesir and Vanir from attacks by the giants, their common enemy.
In Norse mythology, the giantess Angrboda is mentioned only fleetingly in connection with her affair with Loki and the three monstrous offspring she bore. The “Hag of the Iron Wood” is one title she is referred to but the other is her name, Angrboda meaning “the bringer of sorrows”. Norse myth is full of tales where Odin constantly seeks more knowledge, always to aid the Aesir and ultimately, prevent Ragnarok and the destruction of the Nine Worlds. It is curious then how little information is contained in the Norse texts referring to Angrboda, especially as two offspring she has with Loki play key roles in the final demise of the gods as does Loki himself. The relative silence concerning Angrboda seems to add power to the darkness and destruction the giantess embodies. In the Norse myths and legends, references to how Loki seduced the horned giantess of Iron Wood in Jotunheim who bore three monstrous offspring. The true nature and relationship between Loki and Angrboda is not clearly detailed but the following tales of Loki’s wife Sigyn and her devotion to him during his binding and punishment, contrast with the betrayal and shame Sigyn apparently endures for Loki’s affair with Angrboda and the children she bore him. The three children born to Loki and Angrboda play pivotal roles in Norse myth.
The only daughter of the union was Hel, a sorrowful and deformed woman who was half-beauty, half-corpse and given the stronghold of the same name, Hel. There in Hel, the daughter of Loki holds the shades of the dead until Ragnarok.
Jormungand, the Midgard serpent is the other important offspring from Loki and Angrboda. Jormungand is a giant sea-serpent, prone to fits of anger and sharing a mutual hatred of the god, Thor. It is the Aesir who cast Jormungand into the Midgard sea where the serpent grows to encircle the land, forming the edges of the sea. In the final battle of Ragnarok, Jormungand and Thor slay each other, the weapons of their own demise.
The last and most destructive of the offspring is the wolf, Fenrir. The giant wolf is cunning and fated to devour the Nine Worlds at Ragnarok. In an effort to tame Fenrir, Odin and the Aesir commission the dwarves to forge a chain the wolf can not break. In the end, the Aesir are successful in binding Fenrir and although the god Tyr loses his hand to the cunning wolf, Fenrir will stay bound until the battle of Ragnarok. Chained at the entrance to Hel, Fenrir will break his fetters and his howl signal the unfurling of Ragnarok. It is Fenrir who kills Tyr and Odin at Ragnarok before being slain by Odin’s son.
Idunn is a Norse goddess, the guardian of a sacred fruit that provides immortality to the Aesir. There are several accounts of Idunn in the Prose Edda where she is often described as possessing child-like trust, giving her a sense of naivety. The first account of Idunn is in the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, where Idunn is referred to as the wife of Bragi, a god skilled in poetry and knowledge. Here, it mentions Idunn keeps the sacred fruit of the Aesir within a carved wooden box. Every day until the final battle of Ragnarok, the Aesir must eat these apples to remain youthful (although, apples arrived late to Iceland and more likely these were tree nuts, similar to Irish lore). In a later section of the Prose Edda, the Skaldskaparmal, a retelling of a legend about a bargain struck between Loki and the powerful frost giant, Thjazi. Loki promises to lure Idunn and the fruit away from Asgard. In bringing Idunn to Thjazi, the giant takes her to his fortress Thrymheim. During Idunn’s absence and, without the daily renewal of their youth, the Aesir quickly weaken and age. The Aesir question Loki over Idunn’s disappearance and Loki bargains to retrieve Idunn if Freyja gifts him the magic to change form into a falcon. After agreement, Loki flies to Thrymheim during Thjazi’s absence. Finding Idunn alone, Loki changes her into a nut before flying back to Asgard with Idunn in his talons. The Aesir see Thjazi in pursuit of Loki, the giant guised as an eagle. Quickly, the Aesir light a large fire with barely enough time for Loki to return safely into the Asgard fortress. Following closely behind Loki, Thjazi is unable to safely land and still in eagle-form, is burned by the flames and killed by the Aesir.