|Saxo Grammaticus by Hans Lamberg Petersen (1866-1927)|
Saxo’s History of the Danes (early 13th century) contains an example of the frightening aspect of the níðstöng. This episode, which takes place in Denmark during the reign of the legendary Frothi III, brings together the fearfulness of the níðstöng with two other elements from the earlier examples: the níðstöng is raised against a more powerful enemy (like the pole of Egil) and the curse is reversed to harm the curser (like the carving of Skeggi).
|Grep flees from the battle of words|
After being soundly trounced by Erik in the battle of words, Grep seeks magical help.
The fury of his over-excited mind was not entirely recalled to discretion; as a prize-fighter in wars of words, who had had scant success in his latest controversy and had been denied armed retaliation, he demanded that at least revenge by way of black magic should be at his disposal.
Having obtained his request [from the king], he set off again for the shore with a chosen bevy of wizards. First he sacrificed a horse to the gods and impaled its lopped-off head on a pole. Then he propped open its mouth with sticks to give it wide-grinning jaws, hoping the outlandish apparition would strike fear into Erik and thwart his immediate efforts. He believed the simple minds of these savages would cringe before the scarecrow head. Erik was already on his way to meet them when he sighted it from far off; comprehending this unsightly creation, he bade his companions be silent and conduct themselves warily. No one must blurt out any words in case unguarded speech gave a loophole for sorcery. If talk should be needed they must leave him to be their spokesman. A river flowed between Erik’s party and the magicians, who, in order to discourage him from approaching the bridge, set up the pole with the horse’s head at the very edge of the water, on their side. Erik, undeterred, walked fearlessly up to the bridge:
Classic illustration of
Grep & his níðstöng
“May this burden’s bad luck recoil on its bearer and ours be the better fortune! Let evil come to evil-doers. Let this accursed load break its carrier. Let stronger auspices bring us safety.” The sequel came exactly as he wished, for the neck was immediately shaken free, and the stake fell and crushed the man who held it. The whole magical contraption collapsed before the power of a single curse and belied its expectations.The níðstöng is presented as the weapon of one who is otherwise powerless against a stronger foe. In addition to possessing innate flaws, Grep is further weakened when the king forbids a physical attack, declaring it “improper.” However, unlike Egil (an acknowledged master of rune-lore) Grep cannot raise the níðstöng by himself. He needs “a chosen bevy of wizards” to help set it up, which further underscores his weakness.
The motivation for erecting the níðstöng is unclear: is it meant to simply scare “simple minds” as an “outlandish apparition,” or is it actually a physical manifestation of a magical curse? The passage makes more sense if we assume that this confusion is really a result of Saxo’s Christian prejudices against heathen magical practice. The fact that Grep sacrifices the horse to the gods and Erik fears that the words of his men may create “a loophole for sorcery” shows that both sides of the conflict are treating the níðstöng as a magical device.
|Portrait of Egill Skallagrímsson|
The idea that magic can harm its user is echoed in another passage from Egil’s Saga. Egil meets Helga, a young woman made sick by a rune-inscribed whalebone given to her by a young man from a neighboring farm. Perhaps the fellow was trying to work love-magic on the farmer’s daughter of the kind attested on actual historical rune-sticks (discussed below).
Then [Egil] examined the bed she had been lying in, and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. He burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired. Then Egil spoke a verse:
No man should carve runes
Unless he can read them well;
Many a man goes astray
Around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw
Ten secret letters carved,
From them the linden tree [= woman]
Took her long harm.
Egil cut some runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying. She felt as if she were waking from a deep sleep, and she said she was well again, but still very weak. But her father and mother were overjoyed.While Egil’s magical “waking” of Helga reminds the Tolkienite of Gandalf’s similar resuscitation of Théoden, the passage is important to this discussion because it underscores that using magic is a dangerous undertaking and should only be attempted by professionals. Who are the hapless members of Grep’s “bevy of wizards”? While the expert Egil sets up his níðstöng alone, it takes a crew of magicians to set up Grep’s pole – and their magic is not strong enough to prevent Erik’s “single curse” from literally bringing it down upon their heads.
|Runic leading charm|
MacLeod & Mees
Frifridil duft mik.
‘Dear beloved desire me! Leek, leek.’MacLeod and Mees suggest that Frifridil is a pet name meaning “beloved” and that the two (backwards) l-runes
are probably abbreviations of the old German word for ‘leek,’ a vegetable associated with penises, lust and fertility in Germanic tradition, the name of which often appears on early runic amulets; the abbreviated terms seem to function similarly to the apparently abbreviated Christian holy names on the Charnay brooch [another leading love inscription], i.e. as magic words that made the amulet more powerful.It seems that the neighbor’s boy in Egil’s Saga was trying to create a love-charm like this for Helga, but went “astray around those dark letters” and instead made the object of his desire become sick.
Putting aside the failure of Grep’s magical efforts, his actual action and intent deserve further discussion.
First he sacrificed a horse to the gods and impaled its lopped-off head on a pole.This connects Grep’s níðstöng to that of Jokul – which called down “the wrath of the gods” – and reopens the question of the meaning of the horse’s head. A possible clue can be found in a passage from the Annals of the Roman writer Tacitus, written in the early 2nd century but describing an event in the year 15 CE.
|Modern Midsummer celebration in the Teutoberg Forest|
Photograph by Bernd Mestermann for CNN
In his Teutonic Mythology (1835, also available as a free download in The Norse Mythology Online Library), Jacob Grimm writes, “these were no other than the Roman horses, which the Germans had seized in the battle and offered up to their gods.” Is he correct in this reading?
On the one hand, these horse skulls may indeed be the remnants of a sacrifice to the gods that offered up the possessions of a vanquished enemy in thanks for their defeat. If this is the correct interpretation, it would suggest an ancient origin of the níðstöng in ritual sacrifice. In his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (c1076), Adam of Bremen describes a holy grove in Uppsala in which the bodies of horses (and dogs and people) sacrificed to the gods were hung from trees.
|Kids enjoying a reenactment of the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest|
Photograph by Friso Gentsch for The Washington Post
Again, to return to Grep’s actions:
Then he propped open its mouth with sticks to give it wide-grinning jaws, hoping the outlandish apparition would strike fear into Erik and thwart his immediate efforts.Jacob Grimm discusses such gaping animal mouths in his Teutonic Mythology:
In Scandinavia they stuck a horse’s head on a pole, and turned the gaping jaws, propped open with a stick, in the direction whence the man they had a spite against, and wished to harm, was sure to come. This was called a neidstange (spite-stake).
It is well worth noticing, that to this very day the peasants’ houses in a part of Lower Saxony (Lüneberg, Holstein, Mecklenburg) have horses’ heads carved on the gables: they look upon it merely as an ornament to the woodwork of the roof, but the custom may reach far back, and have to do with the heathen belief in outward-pointing heads keeping mischief away from houses.
|Horse gables on summer home of German author Thomas Mann|
According to Anglo-Saxon tradition, these are the names of the two leaders of the Angle army during their settlement of England, supposedly in the year 449 AD… The mythical horse-shape of the brothers is strikingly confirmed by the horse heads on the gables of farmhouses in Holstein [Germany] which were known as Hengist and Hors even as late as around 1875 and can still be seen there today.This is truly striking, and suggests the possibility of related beliefs in the magico-protective power of the horse-head (actual, symbolic, or incarnate) throughout the Germanic world over vast stretches of time and distance. The import is even greater if we read Grimm’s footnote to the above passage: “Wolves’ heads were in like manner held open with hazel rods and hung up.”
Aside from reminding us of the hazel pole of Egil, this immediately brings to mind the binding of Fenrir in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (c1220). After the gods have successfully bound the giant wolf Fenrir (through the hand-sacrifice of Týr), they use a “great rock” as an “anchoring-peg” to keep the wolf in place. Fenrir isn’t happy about this:
The wolf stretched its jaws enormously and reacted violently and tried to bite them. They thrust into its mouth a certain sword; the hilt touches its lower gums and the point its upper ones. This is its gum-prop. It howls horribly and saliva runs from its mouth. This forms the river called Hope. There it will lie until Ragnarok.
|The binding of Fenrir in an illustration from the early 1900s|
In this context, the description of Odin’s hall in the poem Grímnismál ("Sayings of the Masked One" – a name of Odin) is suggestive:
It’s very easy to recognize for those who come to OdinHere, the wolf seems to have a protective function similar to that of the horse-heads on historical German houses. As this hanged wolf magically protects Odin’s hall, the chained Fenrir protects the worlds of gods and men.
To see how his hall’s arranged;
A wolf hangs in front of the western doors
And an eagle hovers above.
One piece of evidence that supports the notion of Fenrir as anti-giant níðstöng is something that Thor says to Odin in the poem Hárbarðsljóð (“The Song of Graybeard” – another name of Odin):
I was in the east, and I fought against giants,
Malicious women, who roamed in the mountains;
Great would be the giant race if they all lived,
Mankind would be as nothing on the earth.
|Thor and a lot of dead giants|
The wolf-níðstöng can also be seen as an enforcer of proper behavior (as with our earlier examples), as the giants exist, by definition, outside of the realm of acceptable human or godly actions. The use of the wolf-níðstöng against the giants who would invade Asgard also lines up with the German use of horse-heads against the invading Romans (if that is the correct interpretation of the skulls in the Teutoberg Forest).
This idea gains greater strength if we accept the theory of Týr that Georges Dumézil puts forth in Gods of the Ancient Northmen (1959, also in The Norse Mythology Online Library). He argues that Týr is the god of law, and that his giving up of a hand (the sign of legal pledge) qualifies him for that position – as Odin’s sacrifice of an eye qualifies him to be a god of mystic sight. The fact that the law-god sets up the wolf-níðstöng strengthens the idea that it is meant as a device to keep the giants from breaking the boundaries set out by the gods.
As with the failed níðstöng of Glep, the curse of Fenrir-as-níðstöng is turned against the gods who created it. Significantly, the wolf will break his bonds at Ragnarök and kill Odin, the gods’ master of runic magic. As with Grep, it is the failure of the gods to live up to their own society’s codes of behavior that can be seen as the cause of the níðstöng being turned against its creators.
To be concluded in Part Three.