|The horse's head and the goose girl – Illustration by Willy Planck|
Jacob Grimm, ever seeking continuity between ancient and contemporary, connects the world of 13th-century Icelandic mythology to that of 19th-century German folklore:
And as Mîmi’s head retained its wisdom after it was cut off, heathendom seems to have practiced all sorts of magic by cutting off horse’s heads and sticking them up. In a nursery-tale (no. 89) the trusty Falada’s head is nailed up over the gate, and carries on converse with the king’s daughter. This cutting off and setting up of horse’s heads has been mentioned at p. 47-8 as an ancient German custom.The tale he is referring to appears as “The Goose-Girl” in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1815, available as a free download in The Norse Mythology Online Library) by Jacob and his brother Wilhelm. This story tells how the talking horse Falada witnesses a chambermaid forcefully usurp the role of a princess. The chambermaid marries the princess’ fiancé (a prince, of course), and the true princess is given the task of helping the boy who tends the king’s geese. The usurper fears that Falada will reveal her secret, so she orders the horse’s death. The real princess convinces a servant to nail the loyal Falada’s head under “a large dark gateway, through which she had to pass with the geese each morning and evening.”
Whenever the true princess passes under the gate on her way to tend the geese, the following exchange occurs between her and the head:
O du Falada, da du hangest!Translated:
O du Jungfer Königin, da du gangest,
Wenn das deine Mutter wüßte,
Ihr Herz thät ihr zerspringen!
O you Falada, there you hang!Order is restored by the end of the fairy tale, of course, but the role of the talking head is very striking. The motif of the undead talking head that gives counsel brings to mind the line from the Eddic poem Völuspá ["Prophecy of the Seeress"]: “mælir Óðinn við Míms höfuð” [“Odin talks with Mimir’s head”]. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga (c1230), after the Vanir gods behead Mimir,
O you maiden queen, there you walk,
If your mother would know this,
Her heart would break!
Odin took the head, smeared it with herbs so that it should not rot, and sang incantations over it. Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets.
|Odin questions Mimir – Illustration by Emil Doepler|
The idea that the talking head reveals secrets is common to both the Icelandic myth and the German fairy tale, recorded nearly six hundred years apart from each other.
The horse’s head in the fairy tale seems like a half-remembered and mythicized memory of the níðstöng. In his Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm writes that, in this Hessian fairy tale, “we have surviving, but no longer understood, a reminiscence of the mysterious meaning of a suspended horse’s head.” As with the other examples we’ve seen, the horse-head bears witness for the less powerful player in the conflict and brings shame upon the person who has gone against the cultural codes of conduct.
Note: You can read the entire story in English (including the unbelievably grim fate of the grasping chambermaid) by clicking here.
Followers of The Norse Mythology Blog will, perhaps, not be greatly surprised to learn that the níðstöng tradition continues in modern-day Iceland, a land where so much of the Old Way is still part of everyday life.
In 1985, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson received national media attention when he raised a níðstöng against nuclear weapons as part of a protest led by the Samtök Herstöðvaandstæðinga (“Coalition Against Military Bases”) on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. Sveinbjörn was the founder of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) and its allsherjargoði (very roughly translated as "high priest") from its inception in 1972 until his death in 1993.
|Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924-1993)|
Nearly two decades after Sveinbjörn’s action, the media again covered a níðstöng-raising in 2003, this time by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (the current allsherjargoði) against the construction of a hydroelectric dam that was planned without taking into account the harm it would do to the local environment. Hilmar spoke to me in 2010 about his raising of the níðstöng:
I’m just doing things that Sveinbjörn did early on. He was also against the damaging of nature in Iceland by the multinational companies who are, basically, sucking out all the profit and leaving nearly none of it here in Iceland.As with ancient usage of the níðstöng, the modern poles are raised against an overwhelming force of greater power – one that can not (or will not) discuss issues on equal terms. Then and now, the goal is to shame the níðstöng’s target and focus community disapproval. Awareness of the níðstöng-raising would have once worked its way through a word-of-mouth network; today it is propagated by the national media.
The use of the níðstöng is not limited to religious leaders. Ásatrúarfélagið member Jóhannes A. Levy has sent me a collection of news items about six separate instances of níðstöng-raising between 2006 and 2012 alone. However, Jóhannes comments,
What I read and see in this news are people who have no knowledge about using níðstöng. One of those poles is with a fish head on top of it, and that is not níðstöng but vindgapi, which is part of a weather-magic to conjure a storm.
|A Icelandic níðstöng from 2009 – The fish-head is plenty scary!|
The use of fish-heads, however, may simply be a result of squeamishness about using a horse’s head. This is completely understandable, given the Icelandic love for their special breed of horses. Even if the modern Icelanders are mixing up various forms of ancient magic, the intended significance of the pole is clearly as níðstöng.
Kári Pálsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið has also been gleefully sending me news items about recent uses of the níðstöng in Iceland. I asked him why he thought the níðstöng continues to play a role in Icelandic culture today, a millennium after the age of sagas. He answered:
I think the biggest reason is that Icelanders read the Viking sagas over and over again, so they are reminded about níðstangir in the sagas over and over again. Níðstangir are also so associated with sorcery and magic – which lived greatly in Iceland for so long – so the magic runes and sorcery are still deep in the nation's mind, at least from a historical point of view.
Even though we Icelanders might not now believe literally in the magic níðstangir have, we still pay respect for their meaning. Níðstangir are raised if someone has very bad thoughts about some other person, or literally hates him. It’s the biggest shame you can ever get on yourself, and it gets attention because Icelanders are very aware of its meaning.
Þorvaldur Stefánsson, a farmer in Otradal, has erected [a níðstöng] on his land, and it's clearly visible from the main road. The reason for this níðstöng is that, a year ago, Óskar Björnsson – who lives in Bíldudalur – had the misfortune to drive over a puppy belonging to the farmer Þorvaldur. [Þorvaldur] has since decided that this was done with malicious intent, and their disputes have steadily increased.
Þorvaldur slaughtered two calves recently; he scalped and scraped and placed the head of one calf on a níðstöng. He then wrote this powerful curse on the skull: “Here I erect this níðstöng and direct its curse to Óskar Björnsson. I direct this curse to the landvættir who occupy these lands, so that their ways be misled. No relief to this curse will be given until they drive Óskar Björnsson from these lands or leave him dead. Signed, Þorvaldur Stefansson, Otradal.”
Óskar Björnsson has reported this as a death threat from Þorvaldur to the police. According to police on Patreksfjörður, they will talk to Þorvaldur, but it is not clear what action will be taken as modern laws do not cover the erection of níðstöng.Þorvaldur is clearly using the curse from Egil’s Saga, which places an injunction on the land-wights that they shall have no rest until they avenge his wrong. After more than 1,000 years, the words of the ancient poet still have the power to inspire fear in the hearts of an Icelander.
Finally, I offer you some practical information. These are the verbal instructions of Ásatrúarfélagið founder Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson for níðstöng contruction, transcribed by Jónina K. Berg, who herself led the Ásatrú organization from 2002 to 2003. I would like to deeply thank Jóhannes A. Levy for sharing the original text with me. This is its first appearance in English.
As an accomplished poet, Sveinbjörn places great emphasis on the number of letters and the power of verse. His instructions also tap into the entire history of the níðstöng that has been discussed throughout this series.How to Make a Níðstöngby Sveinbjörn BeinteinssonTranscribed by Jónina K. BergTranslated by Jóhannes A. Levy & Karl E. H. Seigfried
The níðstöng is made from a tree. Preferably, the wood should be intact, i.e. not sawn lengthwise or trimmed into shape. The appropriate height of the tree is just over the height of a man.
Carve the wood with runes lengthwise. Begin carving from the end which is turned down and extend the runes a long way toward the other end. From that end, continue carving the runes down the other side. It is possible to cut more than these two lines, but there are two lines that are the most natural.
Take care that no part of the carvings end up in the ground when the pole is raised, which means that you need to keep the lower end uncarved, one or two feet.
At the upper end, some signs should be fixed: horse head, fish head or some appropriate symbol; these may be carved at the end of the pole.
The number of runes are important. The number must be a multiple of twelve: 12, 24, 36, 72, 144, etc. They should be carved so that each rune stands correctly when the pole is in place, not sideways or upside down.
Try to have a balanced range of runes in size and appearance. No additional marks of runic rows should be made, but the head of the pole can have images and signs.
The subject of the carvings will not be discussed here; the carver or the raiser of the pole will make that decision. The nið will be stronger if written in verse.
The most critical issue is that the words be rational and rightly devised, otherwise the nið may prove useless or – if the mistakes are large – it may turn against the author of the pole himself.
The emphasis on the intact wood is reminiscent of the trees with attached skulls in the German forest. While the use of the horse-head is common to most of our above examples, the suggestion of a carved image at the top of the níðstöng lines up with the work of Skeggi and Jokul – and with Simek’s suggestion that an actual animal head may not necessarily be an intrinsic part of the níðstöng. Sveinbjörn’s conception of the rune-inscribed curse is the same as that of Jokul and Egil. The idea of the badly-made magical object turning against its creator is also a theme running through the examples we have seen.
Whether or not you choose to erect a níðstöng against some dastardly foe (boss man, chairman, congressman, etc.), I hope that this series has helped you gain a deeper understanding of this ancient tradition – a tradition that spans 2,000 years and many different lands. I encourage you to delve into the sources that I have cited and explore the intertwining histories and cultures of the North. Please be nice to horses and be careful to not bring nastiness down upon your own head by accident!