Witches, Werewolves, Ghosts and the Undead
Many people know that Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic holy day, Samhain. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Irish immigrants brought these traditions to America, where they developed into one of our most popular holidays. However, some of the best-known themes and elements in modern Halloween come from Viking lore, and not Celtic alone. This article will briefly look at some of these motifs and stories, exploring the Viking (and/or Norse mythology) influences on Halloween.
Belief in witches stretches across almost all cultures in history, and the Vikings definitely did not invent them. But the particular image of witches prevalent at Halloween was inspired by many motifs in Norse lore.
Vikings believed in magic and never took it lightly. There are about 40 different words for magic and magic users in their language of Old Norse, showing the range of understanding and the importance they placed on it. Freya (or Freyja in Old Norse), the most venerated of the Norse goddesses, was a goddess of magic and taught her arcane arts to Odin. Freyja is sometimes called a witch in the Eddic poems and was much maligned for this by later Christians (as depicted in Njal’s Saga). Freyja traveled in a chariot drawn by black or gray cats. These quiet, intelligent, ruthless creatures are her familiars or messenger spirits. A Viking who looked up to see a raven might see it as an omen from Odin, just as he might see a black cat as a sign that Freyja was watching.
So, magic users such as witches, sorcerers, and wizards were taken seriously and respected in the Viking world. This is further attested by the many Viking Age graves archaeologists have discovered that have grave goods (valuables deliberately interred with the body) associated with magic users. One tell-tale sign of a witch’s grave is an iron staff. It is thought that these iron staffs were used by Völva sorceresses in certain magic rituals, held between the thighs as the witch entered a shamanistic trance. At such times, it was thought that the witch's layers of inner self left their outer body (what occultists now refer to as astral projection). One passage referring to this is in the Havamal (Sayings of the High One):
I know a tenth spell
If I see witches
at play in the air
I can cast this spell
So that they get lost
So they can’t find their skins
So they can’t find their minds
If the Viking Age, witches used their iron rod as a means of traveling across levels of consciousness, it is easy to see how later Medieval Christians would say that witches "flew through the air riding on brooms."
So, the pagan Vikings respected (and feared) witches and often turned to them for help, but when the Vikings gradually became more Christian, witches were targeted as public enemies by the Church. Witchcraft never wholly died out, though. In Iceland, in particular, witchcraft survived in a well-documented line from early Viking times until the present – though it certainly changed and took on elements and influences from other cultures.It is not just the Medieval Christian that shifted the perspective of the witch from medicine woman and soothsayer to evil, hexing hag, though. Viking lore is replete with frightening or “wicked” witches. There are at least three Eddic poems in which the speaker is a dead witch awoken by Odin or Freyja’s necromancy, and forced to lend her wisdom to the gods though she is full of spite for them. The worst of the evil witches were sometimes referred to as “Troll Wives” and were Jötnar rather than human. Like many fearsome beings in Norse lore, Troll Wives are seldom described in detail. However, the impression given fits the Halloween image of a lank-haired, green-skinned disfigured distortion of the elderly.
But it is clear that there is a broad range of witches. Only some of them could really be classified as good or evil – which is typical of the moral complexity and honesty that has made Norse lore so poignant and enduring.
Vikings believed that some gods, giants, dwarves, elves, spirits, and even human beings could change shape. Examples of such shape-shifting includes Odin turning into an eagle to steal the mead of poetry; Loki turning into a mare and becoming mother to the 8-legged horse, Sleipnir; Fafnir, a dwarf whose greed turned him into a massive dragon; and other incidents of characters becoming salmon, snakes, otters, falcons, seals, swans, or bears. But one of the most common – and most terrifying – of these shapeshifters were werewolves.
Stories of werewolves and similar human-animal shapeshifters have been around for thousands of years and are found throughout the world, and so it could hardly be said that the Norse invented them. Yet, the werewolf holds a very special place in Viking lore. In their stories, we see these dark manifestations of humankind’s animal nature better explored than ever before.
The Vikings had different types of werewolves. Several appear in The Volsunga Saga (definitely some of the Vikings’ favorite stories). In the fifth chapter of this long epic, Sigmund and 9 other sons of the heroic Volsung family have been captured by an evil king and bound in massive timber stocks out in the wild, black forest. Every night, an enormous she-wolf comes and devours one of the brothers while the others watch helplessly. This continues until Queen Signy – the wife of the evil king and the sister of the hapless Volsungs – smears her favorite brother’s face with honey. When the demonic wolf comes to kill Sigmund, she is distracted by the honey, and – as she licks her victim’s face and sticks her long, lolling tongue in his mouth, Sigmund bites hard and holds on. As the wolf thrashes to get free, she smashes Sigmund’s fetters – and rips her own tongue out. The hero breaks loose as the creature bleeds to death. It is later revealed this unworldly wolf is the mother of the evil king who had transformed her shape using dark arts.Later in The Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and his son, Sinfjotli, are outlaws in the woods. Using enchanted wolf skins, Sigmund and Sinfjotli become werewolves for 9 nights at a time. While thus enchanted, young Sinfjotli is so terrifying and powerful that he can kill 11 armed men at once. This transformation affects more than just their physical strength though – in a fit of savage rage while in wolf form, Sigmund rips his own son’s throat out. Realizing what he has done, Sigmund uses all his willpower, magic, healing skill, and a little help from the gods to break out of his wolf trappings and heal his son before it is too late. The two burn their wolf mantles after that and do not go back to being werewolves.
The Volsunga Saga is one of the legendary sagas, and so is full of dragons, dwarves, and the like. Did the Vikings really believe these things, or for them, was it just a good story? Werewolves also appear in the more "realistic" Islandasagur sagas, suggesting that Vikings (or at least, many of them) did really believe in the existence of werewolves. For example, in Egil’s Saga, the hero’s father is called Kveldulf (“Evening Wolf”) for his lupine personality and the rumors that he runs with wolves by moonlight.
There were also real-world examples of Viking “werewolves." Viking warbands featured berserkers – the frenzied bear-inspired warriors devoted to Odin. They also had another type of elite known as úlfheðnar (literally, "wolf-skins"). Not much is known about these Viking wolf warriors, aside from what clues appear in poetry or in art from the Viking Age and earlier Vendel period. In the depictions, these warriors appear as fearless and savage in the extreme. They take on all the qualities of the wolf and strike dread into the hearts of their enemies.
So, the Viking image of werewolves is diverse and ranges in its believability. Missing in Norse lore is the direct association between werewolves and a full moon. Indeed, one does not become a werewolf by being bitten by another werewolf. In the stories, though, one sees a clear relationship between the wolf nature and night. Especially in the case of Kveldulf, we see the “werewolf personality” of a mysterious, reclusive, abrasive, dangerous loner. As in the story of Sigmund and Sinfjotli, we see how the savage nature of the wolf takes over human nature and how the human spirit struggles to achieve some kind of control over it. All these themes are still present in the better werewolf tales of today.
Ghosts, Haunted Places, and the Undead
Most people have heard that for the Vikings, brave warriors went to Valhalla while everyone else went to Hel (the underworld), but actual Norse beliefs were more complicated and less standardized than that. To the Viking mind, there were different layers of self and different time frames. These elements could move on – as well as various places they could go. This left plenty of room for ghosts and the undead in the Norse imagination.
Stories of ghosts occur in many of the sagas and Eddic poems. They sometimes visit the living in dreams or can be found haunting their burial mounds. One reference in Njal’s Saga speaks of a ghost who sits atop his burial mound singing by night, seemingly content. This offers a glimpse of how the Vikings felt their ancestors were always with them.
The Eddic poem, Helgaknitha Hundingsbana II (The Second Poem of Helgi Killer of Hunding), paints a darker picture of such a haunting. Helgi, the slain hero, returns to his burial mound from Valhalla on one (unnamed) magical night. Helgi’s ghost has physical substance and still bleeds from his battle wounds. His grieving widow, Sigrun, spends the night in his arms within the cold tomb. Sigrun returns to the burial mound night after night, though it is unknown if Helgi ever returns. She eventually dies from her sorrow. The poem ends with the lines, “all the dead are more powerful by night than they are by bright day.”
Some ghosts are not lost loved ones visiting from beyond the grave, though. The Vikings believed in beings called Draugr (also called an Aptrganga or “after-walker”), a malicious ghost with physical form. This undead being usually had been a bad man who died in a bad way. They were recognizable as the dead man but had grotesque features, bluing skin, and eyes that could render humans immobile with fear. They had otherworldly strength. They could sometimes appear much larger than they had been when alive and were usually described as inexplicably heavy.
Sometimes the Draugr was content to guard his treasure in his burial mound, but others terrorized farms or haunted a specific area. An embodiment of the bad luck that could plague the farms of the Viking world, the Draugr would kill livestock, horses, or pets. They could cause rooves to collapse or other disasters. Sometimes, the Draugr would kill people directly, especially if he was challenged. Shepherds, servants, or cattle-drivers would be found dead, and when their bodies were inspected, it was found that every bone – big and small – was broken.One of the most detailed accounts of these “Viking zombies” is in Grettir’s Saga. Grettir is an outlaw and an antihero, but he is a fearless Viking of great physical strength. Early in his life, he faces a Draugr in a burial mound and kills it, winning the short sword (seax) that was buried with it. Years later, though, Grettir faces Glam, a very dangerous, malevolent Draugr. Grettir decapitates Glam, but not before Glam places a heavy curse on him. This curse causes Grettir trouble and tragedy for the rest of his life, and ever-after the mighty Viking is afraid of the dark.
According to Grettir’s Saga and some other sources, the Viking method for killing the undead was not a stake through the heart or fire, but rather by cutting off the fiend’s head and place it next to its ass. Interestingly, archaeologists have found several Viking Age graves in which the skull was found between the skeleton's legs, just below the pelvis. Other remains have been found weighed down by heavy stones to keep the dead where they were.
Halloween is a holiday when our culture collectively acknowledges our fear and the fragile barrier between the natural and the supernatural. These traditions came most directly from Celtic customs, but similar festivals and sensibilities can be found across many times and peoples. This shows just how much a part of the human experience these thoughts and feelings are. Modern Halloween is a blend of many older traditions, as well as many new ones. It is a time, though, when Viking heritage is readily apparent in the stories we tell. When we study the legends of the past, we find that perhaps we have not changed all that much.
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- The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
- The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Brodeur, A. G. (translator). Retrieved from http://www.redicecreations.com/files/The-Prose-Edda.pdf. Published 1916, Accessed November 3, 2017.
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
- The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Scudder, B. (translator). Penguin. London. 2005.
- Volsunga Saga (the Saga of the Volsungs). Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2017.
- Egil’s Saga (Egils saga Skallagimssonar). Scudder, B. (translator). In The Sagas of the Icelanders (editor, Thorson, O. & Scudder, B.) Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
- Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.