Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

The Vikings' Beliefs

The history books of the Northmen were called Sagas. But long before the Sagas were written down, the stories of the heroes were sung in halls and on battlefields by the poets of the nation. These poets were named Skalds, and their rank among the Northmen was high.

Sometimes the Sagas were sung in prose, at other times in verse. Sometimes they were tales which had been handed down from father to son for so many years that it was hard to tell how much of them was history, how much fable. At other times the Sagas were true accounts of the deeds of the Norse kings. For the Skalds were ofttimes to be seen on the battlefields or battleships of the Vikings, and then their songs were of the brave deeds which they had themselves seen done, of the victories and defeats at which they themselves had been present.

In the oldest Sagas you can read of the strange things that these Norsemen believed. If I tell you some of these beliefs you will see that the Vikings, though they were strong warriors, were yet, at the same time, very much like big grown up children.

They believed even as do you, in giants, good giants and bad ones, in dark and gloomy gnomes, in light and merry little elves.

Each man, they thought, was watched over by a guardian spirit. They could not always see this spirit, but that mattered little to these men of old, for though unseen, the spirit was there, real as the comrade whose hand they could clasp in right good fellowship.

On the battlefield they often saw strange maidens near them, and then they knew, these sturdy Northmen, that the gods had sent from Valhalla to guide the fate of the battle. The strange maidens were called Valkyries.

These Valkyries could ride through the air; of that the Northmen had no doubt. They could ride over the sea too, or on the shafts of lightning, which seemed as rays of sunshine from the face of the gods. The maidens rode their fiery steeds clad in glittering armour, and bearing with them spears sharpened for victory or death.

There were in the earliest days only six Valkyries, but as the years passed their number increased to nine. Once, indeed, Helgi saw as many as twenty-seven maidens on a battlefield.

"Three times nine maidens,

But one rode foremost,

A white maiden under helmet.

Their horses trembled;

From their manes fell

Dew into the deep dales,

Hail on the lofty woods."

At times these wondrous maidens came to dwell on earth. Listen, and I will tell you how they were discovered by three princes.

The princes were sons of one of the kings of Sweden, and used to spend much of their time running on snowshoes, for there was much snow in their country. They also hunted wild beasts.

One day the three princes came to a lake deep hidden in a forest, and there they tarried and built for themselves a house. Early one morning they were astir, and going down to the edge of a lake they beheld, to their great astonishment, three beautiful women who were spinning flax. Near to them lay the swanskins in which they usually disguised themselves before it was possible for any one to see that they were Valkyries. But this morning the three princes were so early that they caught the maidens unawares.

The three brothers spoke to them courteously, and took them to their home, where they dwelt for seven long winters. Then they grew restless, and one day they disappeared. They had heard again the cry of the battlefields and had gone thither. Nor did the three princes ever see them again, though they bound on their snowshoes and sought for them far and wide.

Valhalla, from which abode the Valkyries came, was the home of the gods. It was there that the warriors who had fought bravely and done great deeds were welcomed. It was also called "The Home of the Slain," and had five hundred and forty doors, while each door was so wide that eight hundred warriors could pass through it at the same moment.

Death had no terror for these stalwart warriors. Indeed, some there were who, when the battle was over, sorrowed that they were not among the slain. For it was good to be welcomed to the glad halls of Valhalla, and to sit down to feast at the festive board spread to welcome the brave in the halls of the gods.

Death they did not fear, shame they did, but that could befall them only should they flee before the foe. To win fame, fame that would live in the Sagas of their nation and be handed down from generation to generation, that was the great ambition of these sturdy Northmen.

Another strange belief which the Northmen held will make you think of the fairy tales you know so well.

They believed that some people were able to change their own shape, and become, as they pleased, a bear, a wolf, or any other animal. Those who could not change their own shape, had often this dread power over others.

One of the kings of Norway had a son named Björn who suffered from this evil power of witchcraft. Björn's own mother had died when he was a baby, and he had a stepmother who did not love her little stepson. She therefore struck him with a wolfskin glove one day, saying, "Thou shalt become a fierce bear, and thou shalt eat no food save thy father's cattle. So much cattle shalt thou kill that all men shall hear of it, and never shalt thou escape from this spell."

Then, as she finished speaking, a great bear ran out of the courtyard, and Björn was never seen again.

His father, the king, sought for him throughout his realm, but in vain. But from the day that Björn vanished, it is told that a fierce, gray bear was often to be seen prowling among the king's cattle, until their numbers speedily diminished.

Not only did the Northmen believe that they could change their own or another man's form, they believed that they could change their own tempers or characters as well, and that seems almost a more difficult thing to do. The way in which they could change their temper was to eat the flesh or drink the blood of some wild beast. No sooner did they do this, than they became strong and fierce as the animal of whose flesh and blood they had partaken.

In the old Sagas there are many tales of men who became changed in this way. Here is one which you will like to hear.

It was the merry Yuletide, but in a certain part of Norway gloom hung heavy over the king's court even at this the merriest season of the year. And it was scarce to be wondered at, for a terrible unknown animal with wings on its back had come for two winters to this land, doing much damage to man and beast.

The animal seemed weapon-proof, as the old Norsemen would say, for neither sword, spear, nor arrow seemed able to pierce its hide, so tough and strong it was. It was true that the king's greatest champions were abroad on Viking expeditions, else surely the beast would have been slain long ago.

But Bödvar, a brave hero, was ashamed that none dared to fight the beast. He arose in the king's court and said, "The hall is not so well manned as I thought, if one creature is to lay waste the realm and property of the king." Then as no one spoke, Bödvar himself resolved to fight the unknown animal.

He left the hall, taking with him his comrade Hött; but Hött was so afraid to face the fierce creature who had wrought such havoc in the land, that he could scarce walk. Then, without more ado, Bödvar lifted him up and carried him out of the courtyard and down toward the forest. At length they stood before the beast, and Hött shouted as loud as he could that the animal was going to swallow him. Bödvar then flung his comrade on to the soft, green moss at their feet and bade him be silent. And Hött lay where he fell, nor did he dare to move or to utter a word.

Then Bödvar drew his sword, and, by some mischance, it stuck in its scabbard. However, he got it free, and thrust at the beast under its shoulder so hard that it fell, pierced through to the heart.

Well pleased then was the hero with his deed, and turning to Hött he carried him to where the beast lay dead. But still his comrade trembled for fear.

"Now shalt thou drink the blood of the beast," said Bjorn; and Hött, though he was unwilling to do so, did not dare to refuse. Two large mouthfuls did Bödvar force him to swallow, and also he made him eat part of the creature's heart.

"Thou shalt wrestle with me now," said Bödvar, and they struggled long together.

"Henceforth I do not think that thou wilt fear man or beast," said Bödvar panting with his efforts; "for thou hast become strong." And sturdily answered Hött, "I will not be afraid of thee or of any wild beast, for I feel strength has entered into my heart."

"That is well, my companion," said Bödvar: "let us go lift up the beast." And this they did, and the realm rejoiced once more ere the Yuletide festivals were ended.

The greatest champions in the North were called Berserks. Neither fire nor weapons could harm these men, so it seemed to those against whom they fought. Yet they wore no coats of mail as a protection against their enemies, but fought in bare shirts. It was for this reason that they were called Berserks, for serk is just our word for shirt.

When they saw an enemy, the Berserks would be seized with a sudden, frenzy of rage. They would bite their shields, and then, flinging them aside, they would rush upon the foe with nothing but a club in their hands. But so great was their strength that a blow from one of these clubs was usually a deathblow.

There were times when this frenzy attacked the Berserks though no enemy was near. Then, should they happen to be at sea, they would row to the shore and wrestle with large stones or trees until their rage was spent. In these fierce fits of anger the Berserks were also believed to change their shapes and to take the form of the strongest beast that they knew.

Since the Berserks were never known to fight without gaining the victory, every king and chief tried to gather around him a band of these great champions. For they would stay with him in winter to guard his realms, and go with him in summer on Viking expeditions. If a king or chief were famed for his brave deeds and for the liberal rewards he gave to his followers, the Berserks would flock to his court from the most distant parts of the North.

I have told you that the Viking warriors did not fear death on the battlefields. Their belief in the joys of Valhalla, and the welcome that awaited them there, took away all such dread. But though they were without fear of death, they were careful to tell their sons or subjects where they wished to be buried.

The Northmen wished their bodies to rest near to their friends or near to the homes in which their families would still dwell. For they believed that then their spirits would talk one to the other, and even that they would still be able to watch over their households.

A large mound of gravel and earth was raised above the spot where the Northmen were laid. The mounds of great chiefs were shunned at all times, but especially at night, when flames were often seen to burst forth from them, while the ghost of the chief would appear walking upon the earth.

In very early times the bodies of the slain were laid on a ship, which was then set on fire and pushed out to sea. But in later days the ships were sometimes used as immense coffins, and buried under earth and stones.

If you were in Norway and went to the Museum at Christiania, you would see there the ruins of an old Viking ship which had once been used in this way.

The warrior who was buried in the Gökstad ship, as it is named, had been a chief of great renown. For the skeletons of at least twelve horses were found in the mound and also the remains of several dogs, while the bones and feathers of a peacock were scattered here and there inside the ship. Believing that the dead warrior was going with all speed to the halls of Valhalla, his friends had buried the ship with its prow towards the sea, as though ready for a voyage.

But I have still to tell you of a strange duty which the Northman believed he must do for his dead kinsman. Whether he were going to the bright, warm halls of Valhalla or to the realm of Hades, where all was cold and dark, he must be well shod for his journey.

Therefore the Northman would take shoes—"hell-shoes" they were called—and bind them firmly on to the feet of his kinsman. Sometimes it was not needful to use the "hell-shoes" even when they were bound on, for horses and carriages were buried with the dead man, so that if he willed, he might enter Valhalla driving or riding on horseback.

As I told you, many people were afraid to venture near the mounds in which great chiefs were buried. Yet some there were who cast away all fear, that they might break into these burial-places and seize for themselves the treasures hidden there. When, as often happened, the swords or other buried weapons were believed to have magic"power, the flames and the ghosts of the dead chiefs were the more readily encountered.

"Once," say the old Sagas, "a woman dressed in a man's dress went to a band of Vikings and was with them for a while and was called Hervard. A little after, the chief of the Vikings died, and Hervard got command of them.

"She wished to land at a certain spot where there were mounds, but her men said it would not do to stay out at night.

"But said Hervard, 'Much property is likely to be in the mounds,' and at sunset she went alone on the island.

"There she met a herd-boy and asked him for tidings.

"He said, 'Dost thou not know the island? Come home with me, for it will not do for any man to stay out here after sunset. I am going home at once.'

"Hervard replied, 'Tell me where are the mounds?'

"The boy said, 'Thou art unwise, as thou wantest to search for that at night which few dare search for at midday. Burning fire plays on the mounds after sunset.'

"But Hervard replied that she would certainly go to the mounds.

"Then said the shepherd, 'I see that thou art a bold man though thou art unwise. I will give thee my necklace if thou wilt come home with me.' "

"Hervard answered, "Though thou wouldst give me all thou ownest thou couldst not hinder me from going!' "

So together the shepherd lad and the Viking set out towards the mounds, but when the sun set they heard hollow noises in the island and the mound fires appeared. The shepherd got frightened and took to his feet and ran into the forest as quickly as he could and never looked back.

Now when Hervard reached the mounds she sang aloud that the buried chiefs might hear her, and bade them give her the magic sword which was buried with them.

As she sang, slowly the mounds opened, and fire and smoke leaped out of them and a voice bade Hervard hasten back to her ships. But the Viking was fearless and refused to go without the sword. After many warnings of the harm it might bring to her, the weapon was at length flung into her hands.

Then Hervard was well pleased, for she thought the sword a better gift than the whole of Norway.


Slowly the mounds opened and fire and smoke leaped out.

But the voice spoke again, "Thou wilt not believe it, but this sword will destroy all thy kin."

"I will go down to the steeds of the sea," said Hervard, meaning her ships. "I fear little how my sons may hereafter quarrel."

"If thou wouldst but believe that the sword has poison in both edges and is worse than disease, I would give to thee the strength of twelve men," said the voice from the mound.

But Hervard paid no heed to these words and turned away toward the sea. The dawn broke as she reached the shore, and Hervard saw that the ships had sailed away, for the Vikings had been afraid of the thunder and fire in the island and had forsaken their commander. Thus Hervard was left alone with the buried chiefs.

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