Glossary of Frequently Recurring Terms and Names

  • Angantyr. The eldest of twelve sons of the warrior Arngrim. Angantyr was given possession of the magic sword Tyrfing, which had lightning properties, but killed a man every time it was unsheathed. His daughter Hervor awakened Angantyr’s ghost in his tomb to successfully claim the magic sword.
  • Asgard. The home of the Norse gods known as the Æsir, ruled over by Odin. Asgard was in the centre of the Norse universe.
  • Æsir. Warrior deities of the sky, who lived in Asgard. Based on a false etymology, Snorri Sturluson claimed that the Æsir derived from the word Asia, making them euhemerized warriors from Troy. They were opposed to the pantheon of (perhaps older deities) Vanir, who were associated with the earth and fertility. The most important Æsir mentioned in English poetry were Odin and his wife Frea/Frigg; Thor, the thunder god; and Balder, the dying god.
  • Balder. Son of Odin by his wife Frea/Frigg. He was seen as the purest and best of the Æsir. His mother persuaded everything in the world to swear an oath not to harm him, but she did not extract this promise from the mistletoe. The cunning god Loki tricked the blind god Hoder to aim a dart made of mistletoe at Balder, which killed him.
  • Bartholin, Thomas (Bartholinus) (1616–1680). Danish physician, mathematician and antiquary. Bartholin wrote the patriotic history Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptæ a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis (1689; Danish Antiquities on the Pagan Danes’ Disdain of Death). This work achieved European-wide fame and became one of the most frequently used sources for information on the heroic warrior mentality of the Scandinavians and, by extension, the pre-Christian Germanic world.
  • Edda. Poetic and Prose. The Poetic Edda, also known as the Elder Edda, refers to the collection of probably pre-Christian poems compiled about 1270. The poems fall into two groups: heroic lays and mythological lays. The latter group comprises the Völsunga saga, a history of the Norse gods from creation to apocalypse, and the Hávamál, the words of the High One (Odin). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this collection was sometimes called Saemund’s Edda, as it was wrongly attributed to one Saemund Sigfusson, a writer of the twelfth century.
  • The Prose Edda was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson about 1220. It is divided into a prologue and three parts: the Gylfaginning, a series of mythological stories told in the form of a dialogue; the Skáldskaparmál, in which Snorri illustrates the rules of skaldic verse, while retelling many myths and legends; and the Háttatal, a long poem, in which each strophe exemplifies a Norse metre.
  • Frea/Frigg. The wife of Odin and goddess of fertility. She often represented as the grieving mother of Balder, the dying god.
  • Hel. Both the name of the underworld and the goddess who ruled it. In the Romantic period, English writers often used the name Hela for the cruel mistress, to distinguish her from her cold underworld, Hel. From her waist down Hel was rotting flesh. Hel, the location, was where those who died of sickness or old age would go. The description of this place as surrounded by high walls and a gate, within which hunger and starvation rule, is found in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning.
  • Jotun (Old Norse Jötunn). Member of the race of giants, enemies of the gods.
  • Loki/Loke/Lok. Represented in Norse mythology as a mischievous trickster figure, and sometimes god of evil. He was the father of Fenrir, the Midgard’s serpent, and Hel. He contrived the death of Odin’s much-loved son Balder and was punished for it by being bound to a rock with chains until Ragnarök, when he will break free and fight against the Æsir.
  • Odin. Woden or Wotan in English tradition. He is the principal god in Norse mythology, a deity of battle, magic, poetic inspiration, and the dead. His name probably meant “wild” or “furious”. He inspired the feared berserkers, warriors who rushed naked into the midst of battle, inebriated with fury.
  • Mead. Drink made by fermenting a mixture of honey and water. In Valhalla, it is served to the warriors, when they rest after a long day of fighting. The leaves of the tree Læraðr is eaten by the goat Heiðrún, which in turn produces mead.
  • Paul-Henri Mallet (1730–1807). Geneavean professor in Copenhagen. His two books of interest are Introduction a l’histoire du Danemarch (1755, 2nd ed. 1763), a history of the Old North; and Monuments de la mythologie et de la poesie des Celtes, et particulierement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), a translation of Scandinavian legends and Norse literature into a major modern European language for the first time. These were commissioned by the Danish government. Mallet’s works were translated into the two-volume Northern Antiquities: Or, a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations; Including Those of Our Own Saxon Ancestors (1770) by Thomas Percy.
  • Niflheim. The underworld of eternal cold, darkness and mist. It was the place to which those who did not die a heroic death on the battlefield would go. It was ruled over by the goddess Hel.
  • Norns. (Old Norse Nornir). The three virgin goddesses of destiny (Urd or Urdar, Verdandi, and Skuld), who sit by the well of fate at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, where they spin the web of fate.
  • Ragnarök. The “End of the Gods”. The original Old Norse form is ragna rök, from ragna “of the gods” and rök “destined end”, but the variant Ragna rökr (rökr “twilight”), which occurs in the Prose Edda, has given the often-used translation “twilight of the gods”. In Norse mythology, it is a final battle between the gods and the powers of evil. According to the myth, the beginning of the end would be signalled by men fighting each other, fathers killing their sons. A three-year winter (Fimvulvetr) would then ensue. The wolf, Skoll, would swallow the sun. The wolf Fenrir and bound Loki would break their bonds. Natural disasters will abound. It is foretold in legend that Heimdall, the guardian of the Æsir, will sound the Gjallarhorn, alerting the gods to the onset of the final battle against evil. A major figure on the side of evil is the Giant Sutr, who will fight with his flaming sword. In this battle, most of the Æsir will die. But out of Ragnarök, a new world will be born. A new sun will take the place of the old and some gods will return to the ruined Asgard, led by the resurrected Balder, the best and most beloved of gods.
  • Raven banner (in Old Norse Hrafnsmerki). A flag reported to have been used by Vikings at the time of their conquests. It was triangular, with a rounded outside edge. It was possibly a symbol of Odin, who is often depicted with two ravens (Hugin and Munin) and may have served to gain his favour in war. This type of banner is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (sub anno 878) and a number of other English sources.
  • Skald/Scald/Scalder. An Old Norse word for a poet, usually applied to a court poet or bard of the period from the ninth century to the thirteenth. The skald was a composer and reciter of poems honouring heroes and their deeds. The accomplishment of poetic composition was counted among the íþróttir (“skills”, “art”) suitable for a warrior.
  • Skuld. See Norns.
  • Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). Icelandic historian and poet, who was a leading figure of medieval Icelandic literature. He wrote the mythological Prose Edda and the Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway from mythical times to the year 1177. He wanted to preserve the stories and methods of skaldic and Eddic poetry for his contemporary Icelandic poets.
  • Thor. The god of sky and thunder, who was responsible for law and order in the world of humans.
  • Torfæus, Thormodus (Þormóður Torfason) (1636–1719). Icelandic historian. Author of Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (four volumes, 1711). This Latin history of Norway covers the very earliest of time to 1387. It contained much historical information on the Old Norse kings. Torfæus uses a number of saga manuscripts as sources.
  • Valhalla. Literally, “hall of the slain”. To be rewarded a place here was a privilege reserved for warriors who fell heroically in battle. In the Gylfaginning section of the Prose Edda (c. 1220), the Icelandic historian and writer Snorri Sturluson created a vigorous image of this place. It was depicted as a glittering palace of spears and a ceiling of shields, presided over by Odin. Fallen warriors battled each day in endless preparation for Ragnarök, after which they retire for festivities, where drink and mead were provided afresh each night, served by Valkyries
  • Valkyries. Odin’s twelve handmaids who conducted the slain warriors which they picked from the battlefield to Valhalla. The Old Norse Valkyrja is literally “chooser of the slain”. The Valkyries are fate-weavers and therefore approach the role of the Norse Norns, who rule the destiny of men. From the surviving body of poetry, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a hard distinction between the two species of female deities (dísir). This is why the Valkyries are “weavers” of fates in Thomas Gray’s adaptation “The Fatal Sisters”.
  • Völva. A prophetess, seeress. In Old Norse society, a female practitioner of magic divination and the foretelling of events. According to the myth of Odin, which several Romantic writers took up, this god called up a seeress from the dead, who told him how the world would end.


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