Sunday, March 6, 2011

Champion of Thor, Part One

Written in the early 13th century, the first nine books of Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danes are a rich source of material on Norse mythology. The gods Balder, Frey, Hod, Odin and Thor all make appearances in the text, albeit in forms very different from those in the Icelander Snorri Sturluson’s contemporaneous Edda. These differences underscore the difficulty of painting a clear picture of Norse mythology as it existed in religious practice throughout the Germanic world in the pre-Christian era. Stories, characters and relationships are radically divergent in the various surviving records of mythology and religious practice of the period. In large part, this reflects differences in belief and ritual over a very wide geographical and temporal space. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that most surviving written sources are from the post-conversion period and contain editorial alterations by Christian writers.

Bas-Relief of Odin & Thor in Reykjavík - July 4, 2010

One legendary figure who epitomizes this complicated tangle of myth is Haldan, a Danish king whose exploits are related in Book VII of Saxo. He is roughly equivalent to Helgi in the Icelandic Hrólfs Saga Kraka and Helgo in the Skjöldunga Saga. There are aspects of Haldan’s adventures similar to those of Amleth, whose story is told by Saxo in Book III and whose tale formed the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Saxo’s Haldan is important for the study of Norse mythology because of his special relationship to the god Thor – a relationship with some elements that are clearly stated and others that are only obliquely suggested in Book VII.

In Saxo’s telling, Haldan is portrayed as a champion of Thor – as a warrior who is particularly dedicated to the cult of the thunder god and who is in opposition to the cult of Odin. In Book VII, Haldan exhibits attributes of Thor, calls on his patron god for help, is venerated by the Swedes as Thor’s son, and comes into conflict with characters associated with Odin. A close reading of Haldan’s tale can uncover long-buried forms of Thor-worship and differences between those who followed Thor and those who followed Odin.

Throughout Haldan’s adventures, he is associated with the oak, a tree that was particularly sacred to Thor among the continental Germanic tribes. The Anglo-Saxon monk known as Saint Boniface famously cut down the massive “Thor’s Oak” in Hesse as a dramatic move in his conversion of the local pagans. The oak is not associated with Thor in Icelandic sources, as the tree is a rare species on that far northern island; he is linked, instead, to the smaller and wirier rowan. It seems understandable that Denmark, with its closer proximity to the ancient German forests described by Julius Caesar and Tacitus, would preserve the oak’s association with the god.

Young Haldan’s guardians hide him inside a hollow oak to save him from the wrath of his murderous uncle Frothi, who had previously murdered Harald (father of Haldan, brother of Frothi). In light of the later importance of oak trees in the text and the adult Haldan’s appeal to Thor for help, this act may represent a ritualized call for divine protection or a sanctifying of the child to the thunder god. One explanation for the sacredness of the oak to Thor was that, as one of the largest trees of the ancient forest, it was often hit by lightning – a sign that it was a favorite target of the thunder god. Perhaps Haldan’s hollow oak was one of these lightning-hallowed trees.

In an attempt to discover the hidden child, Frothi enlists the aid of a sorceress with powers of divination. She is able to “summon to her hands something in the distance, visible to her alone, even when it was tied up tightly with knots.” This is the first adversary encountered by Haldan who is associated with Odin, even if her connection is not stated explicitly.

In poetry and saga, Odin is connected to the form of magic known as seiðr. According to Snorri, seiðr enabled the god to know “the fate of men and future pitfalls.” The divining power of Frothi’s sorceress thus forms the first of her links to the god. For somewhat obscure reasons, seiðr was considered an unmanly art; Snorri writes that “men believed that they could not practice it without dishonor, and so they taught this art to the priestesses.” The sorceress appears to be one of these priestesses. She is tied yet more strongly to Odin by her ability to summon an object “tied up tightly with knots.” In the Eddic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), Odin relates his mystic ability to unbind chains and fetters, and the sorceress evinces a similar Odinic power.

Haldan feels that he and his likewise hidden brother are “being drawn out of their recess by the weird potency of the enchantress’s spells and pulled under her very gaze.” Odin is known to sit on high-seat Hliðskjálf and watch over the events of the world with his one eye; the pagan seeresses known as völva similarly sit on raised chairs when they offer prophecies. All of this ties Frothi’s sorceress to the cult of Odin and sets up an opposition between Haldan and Odinic forces. Haldan and his brother ultimately prevent the nameless enchantress from revealing them by giving her a small bribe, an incident which negatively portrays the followers of Odin as devious and dishonorable.

Click here for Part Two.


Wodensson said...

There is certainly no better example of the tangle of Norse legend and myth than that found in Saxo's history. Even the Eddas show a considerable reworking of archetype. The Viking mythology as it has come down to us simply could not, in detail, represent the ancient faith as it existed back to the Neolithic and beyond. I have myself done considerable work in reconstructing and correcting this mythology against archetype.

Wodensson said...

My researches indicate thay Haldan / Halfdan / Thjalfi was originally conceptually identical with Waldere / Baldere an elf- like nature spirit who made a heroic voyage to the hall of the greedy Ice-King Frosti (later mis-identified with his brother the sea god described as "Frothi"). This formed the basis of the Aurvandill story as well as Sigurd the Volsung.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

There is definitely much mystery surrounding these figures. The first nine books of Saxo, for example, feature four distinct Haldans, eight Halfdans, and six Frothis.

Next Post Previous Post Home