A Refresher On Norse Mythology Before You Watch 'The Northman'
A young Viking prince embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s murder.
For those of you that weren't aware, we have a viking revenge epic on the horizon in Robert Eggers 'The Northman'. I was lucky enough to see a screening of it last week and it was absolutely god damn awesome. It was basically Oldboy meets John Wick meets Shakespeare meets Vikings and it rocks out loud. However, one big complaint that I have seen about it is that it dives maybe too deep into Norse mythology and history. To be honest, that is a fair complaint!
I have a baseline of knowledge from games like Age of Mythology and AC as well as movies/shows like Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Valhalla Rising etc. In the movie, there are a few simple references but some definitely go deeper than even I knew. For those with no background in Norse stuff and those of you with some, here is a refresher on stuff you may want to know before watching 'The Northman'.
The term, which means “Bear shirt”, was used to describe powerful viking warriors that went into a trance-like state, sometimes brought on by psychoactive drugs/booze. Supposedly, lot of them worshiped the Bear Cult, and believed that to go Beserk was to literally transform into a bear.
In battle the berserkers were subject to fits of frenzy, called berserksgangr (furor bersercicus, cp. the phrase, ganga berserksgang), when they howled like wild beasts, foamed at the mouth and gnawed the iron rim of their shields; during these fits they were, according to popular belief, proof against steel and fire, and made great havoc in the ranks of the enemy; but when the fever abated they were weak and tame
Other Berserkers worshiped wolves. They wore wolf skins and were called Úlfhéðnar(Wolf coat). They’re described as the god Odin’s special warriors.
A seiðr was a man that was a practitioner of magic. They were considered unmanly and weak because it was a woman’s profession(Völva) as well and they wore the same outfits. They would use drugs to put themselves into trances in order to have visions, prophecies etc.
Some Gods & creatures to know:
- Odin: He’s the allfather! The big dog(and god). He gave his eye in exchange for divine wisdom.
- Fenrir: This guy is a giant-ass wolf. He is prophesied to kill Odin during Ragnarok
- Tyr: He sacrificed his hand in order to capture Fenrir and stop him from wreaking havoc. Tuesday is named after him.
- Víðarr: He is the son of Odin and the god most associated with vengeance. He is destined to kill Fenrir after he kills Odin.
- Freyja: She is the norse goddess associated with love, fertility, war, gold and magic.
If you die in combat, Valkyries come down and carry you to Valhalla. It’s heaven except there is a lot more sex, booze and fighting. Valkyries are female warrior spirits that choose and collect the dead. They decide who goes to Valhalla with Odin and who goes to Folkvangr with Freyja(which is functionally the same as Valhalla except it is run by Freyja).
Ravens are very important in Norse mythology. Odin was always accompanied by 2 ravens called Thought and Memory who collected the news of the world for him. They were considered physical manifestations of Valkyries since they would be ever-present after a battle to eat the dead. They are a symbol of war but also wisdom.
Trees played a big part in Norse mythology. Yggdrasil, the world tree, is the most famous. It is a giant ash tree that is in the center of the universe. The gods eat from the tree and watch over the nine realms from there.
When a warrior of stature died, they would be given a ship burial. They get put in a boat filled with offerings for the afterlife. During this process, their slaves/thralls would get really drunk before being sacrificed at funeral so that they could serve the dead Viking in the afterlife. A viking’s widow may also follow suit. Some of them would be buried with their riches in barrows, which are just big, hollow mounds of dirt. These would sometimes be laid with traps to fend off grave robbers.
These are undead creatures. Zombies, basically. They’re also referred to as Draugr, a term you may recognize if you played Skyrim. The term haugbúi means “barrow-dweller”, and they were known to sit and guard the aforementioned barrows from would-be grave robbers from stealing their loot.
As you might have guessed, this this Hell. Those who die cowards(which, in this case, includes those who die of sickness or old age) end up there along with evildoers. It is a frozen wasteland ruled by a goddess named Hel.
Viking would sacrifice animals and sometimes people for a lot of reasons. Horses and pigs were the main targets. They would get a blow to the neck, and their blood would be pooled into a bowl. Twigs would be dipped into the bowl, and the blood would get flung onto buildings, objects and people. The people would then eat the animal’s meat and drink booze.
A lot of weapons in norse myth have effects but also conditions. Dainsleif was a sword that, once drawn, could not be sheathed until it killed someone. Skofnung was a sword with the strength of 12 Beserker souls bound to it. It could not be drawn during daytime or in the presence of women. The sword of the god Freyr could move and fight on it’s own but it is used to kill him during Ragnarok after he surrendered it to marry a giantess.
Norns & Destiny
The Norn are a group of 3 female deities that create and control the destiny of everyone, man and god. They sit at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, watering it and spinning the threads of fate for everyone. The threads can be altered over time by the Norn, and men can also alter their own a little bit with free will. Destiny plays a major role in Norse mythology.
The reach of viking conquest
The Vikings are mostly known for their raids into England. However, keep in mind that they also raided France, Spain Italy, Russia, Eastern Europe, Iran and more.