A Catalogue of Heroes: Mortal Men of the North
Following a precarious chronology in our catalogue, we go from mythology to legends, from gods to heroes. I call this chronology precarious as we cannot necessarily be certain that the stories of the gods analysed in the previous post are older than the stories that will be analysed here; add to this, some of these heroic stories involve the gods to such a degree, they can be construed as mythological in nature themselves.
It is useful for the sake of understanding to imagine the concept of the hero on a timeline, though, with the earliest roots in mythology and gradually evolving through heroic legends, which are also originally oral literature, before the concept matures into our written literature. To aid with this, my examples of Norse heroes are structured to begin with the one that seems most mythical in nature and end with those that seem almost historical.
Quick recap for those who are not interested in reading the entirety of my last blog post or cannot remember the details. I categorised the mythical ‘heroes’, the gods, into four. Champion (positive source of power seeking to preserve society), Guile Hero (negative source of power seeking to preserve society), Iconoclast (positive source of power seeking to destroy society), and Villain (negative source of power seeking to destroy society). After having discussed Norse gods in the last posts, we move on to seeing how Norse heroes fit into this categorisation.
Have a visual reminder too.
Thanks for this still goes to Amina Belkhojayeva.
The first of our heroes is Starkad. It is important to remember our use of the word hero is not the modern sense, i.e. someone who performs good deeds and is to be revered, but the old sense of a character who is the subject of legends, whether for good or bad reasons. Starkad is an intriguing example due to his complexity.
Starkad is of Jotun descent, which accounts for his great strength and prowess in battle. Furthermore, he is the foster child of Odin, who bestows great gifts upon him. He is to live three lifetimes, gain great fortunes and victory in battles, he has the gift of poetry and the esteem of the powerful. However, Thor, who despises all Jotuns, places a curse to go with each gift. Because Starkad shall live three times longer than other men, he is doomed to commit villainous deeds in each lifetime. No matter his wealth, he will always hunger for more riches. Every victory in battle shall be at the cost of grievous wounds. He will be unable to remember any poetry he makes, and the common people shall despise him.
Driven by desire for fame and fortune, Starkad goes on numerous adventures, enlisting with many Viking kings to go on raids and into battles. The gods’ judgement upon Starkad holds true. He wins countless battles, but suffers terrible injuries, and he is never satisfied. By accident, he kills his foster brother. Even worse, Starkad kills his old friend while the latter is defenceless in the bath for a sum of gold. Thus, his hard-won honour is stained by his own actions.
Due to the complexity of his character and fate, Starkad is difficult to place into the four categories I described in my last post. He has the strength of the Jotuns and commits heinous acts, which would put him squarely in the Villain category. Like Loki, however, it is not so black and white. Starkad also commits many deeds worthy of a champion, often righting wrongs, helping those in need. If not for his ancestry and Thor’s judgement upon him, Starkad might have been the greatest Champion of the Norse heroes.
This begs the question: is Starkad truly guilty of being a Villain if it was always his fate to be one? The concept of fate and doom, so familiar in Greek myths and legends, rears its head here as well.
Dude was jacked, though.
By Olaus Magnus, from Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555).
Völsung and his descendants are a large chapter in the Norse sagas. Völsung himself is descended from Odin, which confers the expected gifts onto Völsung and his line. Generally, the descendants of Völsung are strong and hardy warriors, concluding with Sigurd, the famous slayer of the dragon Fafner. Sigurd is not only a strong warrior of Odin’s blood, but also wields the magical sword Gram. He has all the makings of a Champion.
Yet Sigurd does not keep to the laws and morals of society, which is a common theme in this family. Sigurd’s father, Sigmund, and his aunt, Sigyn, commit incest in order to take revenge on the aunt’s husband (that is Norse sagas for you). The result is a son, Sinfjötli, (Sigurd’s brother/cousin), who becomes a werewolf (seriously) along with Sigmund and kills his father’s new brother-in-law (Sigmund takes another wife, who, thankfully, he is not related to), adding kinslaying to the list. Sigmund’s new wife poisons Sinfjötli in retaliation. If you are confused, the gist to take away is that the Völsung family chart is complicated and riddled with tragedy.
Sigurd’s personal tragedy is his liaison with Brynhildr, which yields a daughter, Aslaug. However, each of them are later married to other people, spawning a tale of jealousy worthy of any soap opera. The end result is the death of both of them as well as Sigurd’s little son by his wife. The death of children is an important feature, because the (natural) procreation of children is essential for the continuation of society, and also why children through incest is a perversion of that creating force. In general, this family tragedy is why I would consider Sigurd and the Völsung descendants as Iconoclasts; despite their positive powers as warriors, their deeds tear at the fabric of Norse society, which is family and children.
Dude was jacked, though.
By Johannes Gehrts. Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen.
Things become muddled, historically, with Ragnar. There is evidence of a historical Ragnar, who looted Paris. This is easy to conflate with Ragnar Lodbrok, who ended his days in a snake pit in England after many other deeds, and who was avenged by his sons, who are legitimate, historical people. It is difficult to say if Ragnar Lodbrok actually lived or not, if he is the same as the one who took Paris or not, and if any of his deeds truly happened or not. Thankfully, the only thing that matters here are the stories about Ragnar and his exploits. Whether historically true or not, the stories exist as examples of heroes of that age.
Ragnar’s most famous deed, which won him his nickname (which means something like “fur pants”), was the slaying of a dragon. He dressed himself in furs that were coated with tar and sand, protecting him against the acerbic blood of the dragon that sprouted out after inflicting a death wound upon it. This story, the archetype of the dragon slayer, is probably the cleanest example of a Champion we can hope to find in Norse sagas.
This is only the first of Ragnar’s feats; he wins titles, fame, and riches. He has many sons, including with Aslaug (thus tying his story to that of Sigurd’s above). In the end, Ragnar is captured on a raid in Northumbria by King Ella and dies in a snake pit, prompting his sons to swear revenge.
Dude was jacked, though.
By Hugo Hamilton, 1830. Teckningar ur Skandinaviens Äldre Historia.
We finally arrive at what has firm historical basis. Ivar Boneless, reputed to be the son of Ragnar and Aslaug, is mentioned in other sources, and there is no reason to doubt his existence. He is mentioned to have had some form of debilitating disease affecting his bone structure; the result of a curse upon the first child of Ragnar and Aslaug. He is in one instance described as being carried around on a shield rather than being able to walk himself. This is possibly an exaggeration, but regardless, it is not Ivar's martial skills that are emphasised. Instead, his capabilities lie in his wits and wisdom, exemplified in his revenge against his father’s killer.
Whereas his brothers immediately seek to invade and kill Ella as retaliation, Ivar accepts restitution from Ella and appears to reconcile with the Northumbrian king. Ivar even settles in Northumbria and makes friends among the English lords, thanks to his clever ways. In the end, Ivar summons his brothers and their armies to attack Ella, whose own vassals support Ivar and stays out of the fight, leaving Ella to be defeated and tortured to death.
Ivar is a good example of the Guile Hero. He cannot fight openly through strength of arms, but must use cunning instead. His goal is noble, however, as it is any son’s duty to avenge the ignominious death of his father.
Dude was not jacked.
Drawing by the great Albert Uderzo.
This has been a quick overview of some of the most famous Norse heroes, mentioning their stories and analysing what type of hero they are, exactly. We continue with this blend of oral and written tradition for another post concerning Greek heroes before finally delving into exclusively written literature.