Norse full moon ceremony at Gokstad burial mound, Norway
Disputes throughout the ages have been ‘solved’ by combat. In Viking Age Scandinavia, sometimes a dispute became an unregulated duel called Einvigi, “single combat”, other times it was solved by a regulated duel called Holmgang “small-island walk”. This meant that all Norsemen had to be ready to fight to protect their property with their life, at all times.
In Viking Age Scandinavia, there was no regulated police force to take care of disputes. To keep peace and order, Viking society used a Viking ‘Code of honor’ system and a system of laws concerning property and crimes. In this self-regulated society, the Viking honor system was ingrained in everyone, and the concept of "honor" and of a "good name" was extremely important for the survival of the family or clan.
The Viking ‘Code of honor’ held that any apparent insult, deliberate or imagined, had to be paid for with money or blood. Honor had to be defended, or people would feel they could insult any member of any family with fear of consequences. This system left the choice of payment to the victim or victim’s family. If compensation was denied, Viking society demanded blood vengeance. This was justified revenge, which could be realized as arson or manslaughter.
Respect in the Viking community was a high priority, and any offence, in word or deed, or anything that might have hurt a person's honor, had to be dealt with in order to uphold that respect. Vengeance was not a punishment from the person whose honor was tarnished, vengeance repaired the honor of the injured person. Vengeance didn’t have to be directed against the individual who caused the offense, it could be directed at a close family member to the offender.
Grágás, the medieval Icelandic lawbook, permitted a man who was seriously injured, to avenge himself without penalty at any time, up until the time the case was brought to court. Sometimes, even when the law forbade vengeance, there were cases when public opinion demanded it. In Viking society, duels were an accepted way of making good in such situations.
The main Viking laws were rules for inheriting property and describing various crimes and their punishments. Anyone who killed a man accidentally, had to pay the man’s relatives what the man was worth, which depended on the man’s status. Blood feuds could be ended with one death cancelled out another death of equal value. The worst crimes were punished by banishment.
These laws were based upon the Ting (thing) system, the Viking legislative assembly and court, created through common-meetings that dated back to at least the 7th century. Norse legalities were created and disputed in a Ting, and there were many types of Ting in Norse society. The first settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government, and the World’s oldest National Parliament is the Allting, or All-Thing, created in Þingvellir, Iceland in the year 930.
Not only did the Norse people have laws, we know what they were like. ‘Law and Order’ comes from the Old Norse words “Lov og Orden”, were legalities memorized and argued by a "lovsigemann" (law reader man). Every free man had to respect Norse law, including chieftains and kings. The Norse law system was democratic and included everybody as citizens, except slaves and outlaws.
If a person in Viking society was convicted of being a criminal, he or she was either fined or declared an “out-law”. Outlawry was one of the harshest penalties in the Norse legal system. Outlaws had to live outside of society and were forced to live in the wild. No one was allowed to help outlaws in any way whatsoever, and outlaws were free game for their enemies, who were free to hunt such a criminal down and kill them.
Whether it was a matter of honor, ownership, property, compensation, debt, legal disagreement, a contended fine, or to help a family member or friend, a duel could decide who was in the right. Hólmganga, the Old Norse for holmgang, was a regulated duel that was a common way of solving disputes. Anyone offended could legally challenge the other party to holmgang, regardless their difference in social status.
If the duel was agreed inland, then the holmgang would take place either on a pre-specified area, or on a traditional place that was commonly used for a holmgang. If the duel was agreed near the coast, then a small islet, hulme (holme) or skerry was chosen as the place where the holmgang would occur. A duel fought on small, deserted island, prevented cowards from running away, and limited possible interference from third parties.
Many descriptions of holmgang duels in the sagas begin with a recitation of hólmgöngulög, the dueling law. This law varies from one saga to the next, but there are similarities and detailed rules. A holmgang would take place 3 to 7 days after the challenge, and it had to be agreed that the holmgang would be won by first blood or by death. All weapons were allowed, though swords and shields were favorite weapons for a holmgang. Combatants were permitted a specific number of shields they could use, usually three, which could be used if an opponent's strikes broke a shield. The challenged was allowed to strike first and then the combatants were free to strike.
The Swedish Hednalagen, (Pagan law) is a fragment from a 13th century document from Västergötland in Sweden, which stipulates the conditions for a holmgang:
• If someone speaks insults to another man (”You’re not the like of a man, and not a man in your chest!” – ”I’m a man like you!”), they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.
• If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry ”Niðingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.
• Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.
In Kormakssaga, it’s stated that holmgang was fought on an ox hide or cloak with sides that were three meters long. The hide or cloak was staked to the ground in a specific manner that is unknown. Then the area was marked by drawing three borders around the square hide, each about one foot from the previous one. Corners of the outermost border were marked with hazel staves, and holmgang combatants had to fight inside these borders. Stepping out of borders meant forfeiture and running away meant cowardice.
Also in the Saga of Kormak is mention of a sacrifice of a bull before the holmgang and there are many references about the sacrifice the winner made after the victory. In this saga, it’s stated that holmgang combat would normally end on the first blood and the winner would receive three marks of silver. This was intended to avoid unnecessary loss of life and excessive profiteering, and is confirmed in later Icelandic versions of holmgang. If the dispute was about a specific property, the most the winner could receive was the three marks of silver.
To begin a holmgang, the challenger had to recite the rules, traditional or those agreed upon, before the duel could begin. Rules determined the allowed weapons, who was eligible to strike first, what constituted a defeat or forfeiture. In Gunnlaugs saga, it is stated that when a man became weaponless, he was defeated, but losing a weapon did not necessarily mean defeat, as a duelist could use glima. In Egils saga, it’s said that Egill killed Atli in a duel by grappling with him and biting out his throat.
Some holmgang duels were resolved quickly, such as the one described in Víga-Glúms saga, where Eyjólf's first blow cut off Ásgaut's foot. Ásgautur then paid his opponent to release himself from the duel, and lived the rest of his life as a cripple. Some holmgang duels went on for a long time, and Þorsteins þáttur stangarhöggs tells of a duel between Þórsteinn and Bjarni that lasted so long that they stopped multiple times to rest and refresh themselves.
In Ljósvetninga saga, another form of holmgang is mentions. Here, the duel has four men on each side. The challenge was offered by Hrólfur as either a duel one on one with his opponent Eyjólfur, or with four men on each side. It was agreed that the challenger had the privilege of choosing who the additional men would be on each side, and Hrólfr chose mercenaries and robbers to fight alongside him.
If a holmgang ended with the death or incapacitation of a combatant, it was not considered murder, and the winner could not become outlaw, or have to pay weregeld. To win a duel was regarded as proof that the winner was in the right, because the Norse gods always helped the "right" man to win. The Norse god Tyr was often called upon for in a Holmgang, as Tyr was the Viking god of dueling and justice.
If the person challenged did not turn up for the holmgang, the challenger was considered the winner. If the offended party did not turn up for the holmgang, they were deemed niðingr (nithinger), meaning a nothing-person. This was a social stigma implying the loss of honor, with the status of coward or villain, and such a person could be also sentenced to outlawry.
Because of the massive consequences of holmgang, if a person was clearly outclassed, unable or unwilling to defend their claim, a capable warrior could volunteer to fight in their place. The law also gave a person involved in a dispute the right to choose a warrior to fight in their stead. This led to Viking warriors traveling from thing to thing as professional duelers, fighting for someone who didn’t have the ability or means to fight for themselves.
In most instances, both parties agreed to what the winner would receive, but in Norway, the winner of a holmgang could claim everything the loser owned. With such stakes, professional Viking duelists used Holmgang as a form of legalized robbery. Some claimed rights to land, women, or property, and proved their claims in a Holmgang duel, at the expense of the legitimate owner. Many sagas describe berserks who abused holmgang in this way. With this abuse of the Viking legal system, Holmgang duels began to be outlawed in the Nordic countries.
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, "the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue", describes the last duel to take place in Iceland, in the 11th century. This saga is about two Icelandic poets, Gunnlaugr Ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson, and their love of Helga the Fair, granddaughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. Their competition for Helga resulted in a duel of honor at the Alþing, which ended as a draw. The next day, the law council abolished duels in Iceland. Gunnlaugur and Hrafn traveled to Norway to continue their duel, in which Hrafn killed Gunnlaugur, only to die himself shortly thereafter.
Christianity changed the Holmgang to an ordeal by fire. Járnburdr is the Old Norse name of the ordeal of grabbing a hot iron from boiling water and walking 9 paces with it carrying it with both hands to prove innocence.
With the increasing popularity of Viking fighting, friendly holmgang competitions regularly take place at Viking festivals around the world. These modern Viking duels are exciting to watch and thrilling to take part in, whether it is in training, show, demonstration or competition, and although they are not fought to first blood or death, there is still the element of danger and injury from the blunt steel weapons used.
Viking warriors headed one of the most legendary elite fighting units in history, the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard was a specialist fighting force in the Byzantine army, when the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. Viking warriors also formed the personal bodyguard to the Emperor of Byzantium, which became Constantinople, then later Istanbul, the most populated city in Turkey.
At a time when most Vikings were busy conquering or plundering in Europe, this unit of Scandinavian warriors was protecting Byzantine emperors, and fighting for the Byzantine Empire in the many wars it was involved in. Here, the Varangian guard often played a decisive role, as they were typically used at critical moments of a battle. These Viking warriors were tough and capable. They had weapons, armor, and organized training in order to function as the elite mercenary fighting unit in dangerous and decisive battles around the Middle East.
From the 9th to 14th century, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic warriors were part of this exclusive guard. The Varangians were not a specific ethic group, though the Byzantines used it to indicate any Norseman. The word Varangian is from the Old Norse word ‘var’ meaning pledge, and that pledge was to each other.
Norsemen who arrived in Byzantium did not automatically enter the Imperial Guard. This was a highly prized and very exclusive unit. The Varangian Guard received higher pay, and had the privilege to be among the first to loot and plunder after a victory. For the Viking warriors, who were members of the Varangian Guard, it was a singular high honor, to be called the “emperor’s axe-bearing barbarians.”
The first record of Vikings in Byzantium is in the year 839, when they were on their way home to Scandinavia via Germany. In 860, Byzantines faced a large Viking raiding force that terrorized Constantinople for ten days. In the year 874, Swedish warriors, called Rus, the Old Norse word for route, became the earliest members of the Varagian guard. As early as 911, the Varangian guard is mentioned in records, as mercenaries fighting for the Byzantine Emperors.
Around the year 1000, Vikings had become the primary body guard of the Emperor Basil II, who also used the Scandinavian warriors in his battles. While the Varangian Guard comprised of about 6000 warriors, it was rarely used as a single unit. Most often, units of 500 men were used, frequently to carry out orders that were particularly brutal, destructive, or dealt with political situations.
There are two main reasons that the Varangians became the bodyguard unit to the Emperor. The first was the sense of loyalty that was the core value of Viking culture. The second was that the Varangians came from distant lands and were indifferent to the political intrigues that enveloped the Emperor. The Norsemen were especially appreciated for their loyalty, and according to , the Greek princess Anna Comnena, a major source of information regarding Byzantine history, Norsemen in the Varangian Guard passed down this loyalty from generation to generation almost like a sacred heritage.
The connection between Byzantium and Scandinavia proved ideal for the recruitment of mercenaries. The rich empire had constant need for reliable troops, and Scandanavia’s warrior population looking to make their fortune, was the perfect match. In battle, the Varangian Guard proved itself constantly, and quickly earned a reputation for being the elite of the Byzantine army. A Byzantine chronicle tells of battles in southern Italy in 1018 against Lombards and Normans: "When the Emperor learned that brave knights had invaded his country, he sent his best soldiers against them. In the first three battles the Normans were victorious. But when they encountered the Rus, they were defeated and their army was completely destroyed."
Except for some names on rune stones, and small passages in some Icelandic sagas, very little is known about members of the Varangian guard. The exception is Harald Sigurdsson, who became known as Harald Harðráði, which means ‘hard ruler’ in Old Norse.
As a boy, Harald was forced to leave Norway, when his half-brother was overthrown. Harald made his way to Kiev in Russia, where his brother-in-law Yaroslav ruled. In the year 1034, Harald led 500 men to Byzantium to join the Varangian Guard, and eventually became leader of the guard.
After learning that his nephew was now on the throne of Norway, Harald decided to leave the guard and return home. In the year 1042, political turmoil overtook Byzantium, and Harald is credited with blinding the deposed Emperor Michael V. After being accused of misappropriating booty, Harald and his men had to sneak out of the city. Not long afterwards, Harald took the throne of Norway, and then tried to take the throne of England.
The Fourth Crusade that took place in the years 1202–04, all but destroyed the Varangian Guard. In a siege the Varangians defended the Balchernae Palace, until the siege ended with the flight of the Emperor Alexius III and the sacking of Constantinople. The Varangian Guard resisted little and eventually surrendered.
After the Fourth Crusade, some members of the Varangian Guard fought for Latin and Greek Emperors as they fought to regain the Empire. By the middle of the 14th century the Varangians ceased to be a military unit and were mostly employed as mercenaries before disappearing from records.
The prowess of the Varangian Guard is unquestioned and they are an exciting and interesting part of World history.
Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia, and is well described as the Wisdom of the North. This collection of ancient sayings attributed to Odin, is to Scandinavian culture as the Tao is to China, the Vedas to India and the Iliad to Greece.
Hávamál means "the high one’s speech", or Odin's speech, and Hávamál is a collection of wisdom and guidlines for living, written as a poem and attributed to the Norse God Odin. Hávamál is both practical and supernatural in content, and expresses highly valued ideals such as wisdom, friendship, morality, caution, courage, and commonsense.
No one knows who wrote the Hávamál manuscript, or if it originated in Norway or Iceland, but Odin’s advice for living is believed to be based on a source from around the 9th century, and reference to Hávamál is found in the 10th century Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.
Hávamál is the most famous poem from the Elder Edda manuscript, (also called the Poetic Edda), written around the year 1270. The Elder Edda consists of 32 poems in all, written on 45 pages of vellum, or calfskin parchment. The Elder Edda manuscript is beautifully made and stunning to look at, with ornate letters and decorated capitals to each paragraph.
The term Edda was originally the name for Snorri Sturlason's book on poetry from around 1220, and the word Edda is believed to be related to the word meaning grandmother, which means stories from grandma's time, a derivation of óðr, which means writing. Together with Snorri's Edda, the Elder Edda is the most important surviving source on Norse mythology and heroic legends.
In the first part of the Elder Edda, there are three poems by Odin as protagonist, of which the first is Hávamál. Hávamál is presented as a single poem in the Elder Edda, but its 164 verses make Hávamál the longest of all edda poems. Hávamál itself consist of at least five independent parts:
Verses 1-80 are known as Gestaþáttr, Hávamál guidelines for living, or the ‘Hávamál proper’.
Verses 81-102 are about women, love and Odin.
Verses 103-110 are about how Odin got the mead of poetry.
Verses 111-138 are called Loddfáfnismál, a collection of gnomic verses similar to Gestaþáttr.
Verses 139-146 are called Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes.
Verses 147-165 are called Ljóðatal, which is a collection of spells.
Although the Elder Edda was written in the 13th century, we know nothing about its whereabouts until it was found in Iceland in 1643 by the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson. In 1662, almost 20 years after it was found, the Bishop sent the manuscript to Denmark as a gift to King Frederik III of Denmark and Norway. The manuscript was named Codex Regius, or Konungsbók (King’s Book) in Icelandic, and was incorporated in the Danish Royal Library's Manuscript Collection.
In 1971 the Elder Edda manuscript was transported back to Iceland by ship, accompanied by a military escort, and is now kept in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The only surviving source for Hávamál is contained within the Elder Edda, and this priceless document is considered one of Iceland's most prized possessions.
Hávamál is a reflection of its time, and the poems are as tough and resilient as the Vikings themselves. Hávamál’s insight remains timeless and as relevant today as it was in the Viking Age. It has been handed down from generation to generation, and there is still much wisdom and inspiration to find here, inherited from our powerful ancestors.
Norse Mythology is a representation of Viking Age Scandinavian people's collective understanding of the universe, nature, history, customs, culture and spirituality. It is their collection of sacred stories, passed down from generation to generation, for over a thousand years.
The mythology of the Vikings is full of powerful gods and goddesses, sacred dieties that are heightened versions of the individuals who worshipped them. Most of the Norse gods and godesses are fertility beings, who are strong, passionate, brutal, committed, vengeful, lusty, courageous, crafty, and imbued with a dark sense of humor. Virile qualities that were valued by the Vikings, and woven into their daily lives as part of everything they were.
The most powerful Norse god is Odin, the Allfather of the Universe and ruler of the Æsir, the main gods in Norse mythology. Odin reigns in Asgard, from Old Norse Ásgarðr, meaning "Enclosure of the Æsir". Odin’s grandfather Buri was created by the primeval cow Audhumbla, who is the origin of the Æsir gods. Odin’s parents are Bestla and Bor, and he has two brothers, Vili and Ve. These three brothers are the first Æsir gods. Together they killed the giant Ymir and created the visible world from his body. The brothers also created the first human couple, Ask and Embla out of two logs that drifted by. The Allfather then gave both Ask and Embla a heart and soul.
The Norse God Odin has had many relationships with different women. With the goddess Fjörgyn, Odin has a son, Thor. With a Jotun woman called Grid, Odin has a son, Víðarr. With the goddess Rid, Odin has a son Váli, and it is possible that he also had sons Hermód and Höd with unknown mothers. Odin is married to the goddess Frigg, and together they have a son Baldr.
Odin is the Viking god of war, death and wisdom. His hall is the largest and most majestic of all the gods halls, and is called Valhalla, from Old Norse Valhöll, meaning "Hall of the slain". Odin's home is Valaskjálf, meaning "Shelf of the slain". Here, Odin has a throne called Hliðskjálf, which means "Mountain shelf". From this throne, Odin can looks over all the realms of the universe, and this world to see what people do.
As the most important Norse god of war, and the one who brings victory, Odin uses trickery and deception to defeat opponents and reach his goal. The Allfather has a spear called Gungnir, meaning "swaying one" in Old Norse ". Gungnir can hit any target, and was thrown over the heads of an opposing army to start the battle. Odin receives half of those who have fallen in battle. These Viking warriors become Einherjar and will fight beside Odin against evil at Ragnarok. In Old Norse Ragnarök means "Fate of the Gods" or "Twilight of the Gods".
Odin has many animals around him. His horse Sleipnir, mean "Slippy" in Old Norse, and is untamable and the fastest of all horses. Sleipner has eight legs, can run over land, water, mountains and in the air, and can navigate through the worlds. The Allfather has two wolves, Geri and Freki, meaning "the ravenous" and "greedy one" in Old Norse. These wolves sit in front of his throne in Valhalla. The Prose Edda refers to Odin as "raven-god" due to his association with his two ravens, Huginn, meaning "thought" or "conciousness", and Muninn, meaning "memory" or "mind". These two ravens fly all over Midgard, the realm of humans, and bring information to Odin, according to the 13th century Poetic Edda.
Odin has a voracious for wisdom, and in his insatiable search for knowledge, Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to drink from Mímisbrunnr, meaning "Mímir's well" in Old Norse. Odin also hanged himself for nine nights from the world tree Yggdrasil to recieve understanding, rune secrets and knowledge. Odin has great magic and is the Norse god of spells.
Odin often travels to Midgard, and walks among the people. Here he gave the gift of the runes to humans, and through Hávamál, Odin gave good advice on how people should live their lives, both physically and metaphysically. The Allfather has been worshiped by people since the migration period, and the ruling class were probably those who worshiped Odin most. The Allfather was both generous and cruel, and however people sacrificed to Odin and got his blessing, they never knew how the outcome would be, because in the middle of a situation, Odin could change his mind. In the Younger Edda, Snorri Sturluson describes Odin as the ancestor of the Royal lineage in Scandinavia.
The Scandinavian people of the Viking Age, who were surrounded by and lived in raw nature, believed that everything in nature had a spirit. It was incredibly important for Vikings to communicate with nature spirits, the spirits of their ancestors, and to cultivate their own strong spirit.
No diety personified nature to the Vikings more than the Norse goddess Fjorgyn. The Old Norse name Fjörgyn means Mother Earth, planet Earth, or land that is earth. Fjorgyn is the Norse people's oldest living Æsir goddess, their main fertility goddess, and the personification of the fertile earth. According to the Prose Edda, everything that happens on the planet Earth is because of the goddess Fjorgyn.
According to Snorri's Prose Edda, Odin created the Earth and fell in love with her. Fjorgyn became Odin's first wife, or mistress, and bore him a son, Thor, the God of thunder. This union between the sky god and the Earth created the strongest of all the Norse gods, a product of the earth's power.
Fjorgyn nurtures the divine children and protects mortal children, and thus humanity. Everything we humans surround ourselves with is created by Mother Earth, and everything that lives and then dies becomes the Earth. Fjorgyn nurtures all living things and takes everything that dies. The Norse people knew that our planet was alive and had a life. They showed Fjorgyn respect and knew that they had to take care of her fertility, because without her, there is no life.
Vikings knew that the Earth was incredibly old and had powerful forces. They also knew that when they cultivated the earth she became more fertile, and because of this they had a much better life. Vikings used earth in sacred rituals involving life events. In Sigrdrífumál, the Valkyrie Sigrdrifa (Brynhild) teaches her magic spells to Sigurd, in appreciation for his rescuing of her. The verse she uses mentions Fjorgyn, and is one of the oldest recorded greeting we know from the Norse culture:
heil sia in fiolnyta fold
mal oc manvit
gefit ocr męrom tveim
oc lęcnishendr meþan lifom
heil sjá in fjölnýta fold,
mál ok mannvit
gefið okkr mærum tveim
ok læknishendr, meðan lifum.
Hail bounteous earth!
Words and wisdom
give to us noble twain,
and healing hands in life!
Hail to the gods!
Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom
and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
In Norse mythology, Odin sends his Valkyries to select the bravest warriors on Midgard. These brave warriors are then chosen by the valkyrie to die in battle and accompany them to Asgard. Once they are in Asgard, the fallen brave are divided between Odin and Freya. Those chosen by Odin are called Einherjar, which means One-army in Old Norse.
The sole purpose of the einherjar is to fight as Odin's warriors. Every day they train and prepare for the biggest battle in Norse Mythology; Ragnarök, meaning "Fate of the Gods".
The einherjar stay at Odin’s hall called Valhalla, the 'Hall of the fallen'. In Vallhalla, the einherjar will be taken care of by the valkyrie, who will give the warriors mead and ensure that they thrive.
In the morning when the einherjer wake, they ready themselves with their armor, helmet, shield and weapons, and then go to iðavöllr for combat training. The einherjar continue their brutal combat training until sundown, when the fallen arise unscathed, and all ride back to Valhalla as good friends, where the valkyrie serve mead and meat from the boar Sæhrímnir, to the einherjar warriors.
The einherjar symbol is the Valknut, a symbol consisting of three interlocked triangles. Valknut is from the Old Norse ‘valras’ meaning 'killed warriors’ and ‘knut’ meaning 'knot '. This symbol found on various Norse and Germanic places, like runestones and the Osberg ship.
One of the Norwegian kings who became an Einherjar is Håkon the Good. It is the valkyrie Skogul who chooses that the jarl will die in battle and be with her to Valhalla. When Håkon arrives at Valhalla, he dreads meeting Odin, as he chose a different faith. But Håkon is welcomed by the gods, and the god Bragi tells Håkon that he has eight brothers in Valhalla, that he should drink of the Æsir’s mead, and that would possess the peace from all einherjar.
Eirik Bloodaxe is another Norwegian king chosen to be einherjer. In Valhalla, the god Bragi wondered who was making the sound of thunder. Odin replied that Bragi know it was Eirik Bloodaxe who would shortly be arriving in Valhalla. There was a reason for celebration new einherjer came to Valhalla, especially einherjer who were kings.
Einherjar are a confirmation in Norse mythology, that to live a bold life, a person can be reborn at a higher level, meaning to live with the gods. With the gods, the einherjar have one task, which is to fight at Ragnarok, and sacrifice themselves for the new world.
Valkyrie are female spirits who are Odin's warriors. The Old Norse word valr, means those who fall in battle, and kyrja means to choose. In Old Norse, Valkyrie means the 'choosers of the slain', which describes their mission.
Valkyries choose the bravest and most courageous warriors to fall on a battlefield, and determine the outcome of the battle. The valkyries then take the fallen warriors with them to Asgard.
In Asgard the Norse goddess Freya gets half the fallen warriors and takes them to her home Folkvangen, "the field of the warriors". The remainder of the fallen warriors become Odin's einherjar and stay at Valhalla.
In Valhalla, the tasks of the valkyrie are to serve Odin and the einherjar. Here the valkyries ensure that the einherjar have enough mead to drink, which is an important ritual in Valhalla. The valkyries are important to sacred Norse ceremonies, and in such rituals, the valkyries fill the drinking horn with mead that brings out memories.
Valkyrie were concerned that the dead were buried in kindness, and the valkyries accompanied Odin and Frigg to one of the largest ceremonies in Norse Mythology, that of Balder's funeral.
There are two kinds of valkyrie in Norse mythology. The original valkyrie are those that come from Valhalla. The other valkyrie are half human and half divine, who lived on earth as mortal women, then traveled to Valhalla after their death.
They are also portrayed as everything from beautiful sheild-maiden/hostess to fearsome spirits. The Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, between 1220 and 1241, described valkyries as semi-goddesses with shield and sword or spear. Poems and sagas written before, and after, Snorri, have described the valkyries as monsters who tread bloody battlefields in search of brave warriors.
It is written that valkyries are armed and dressed in full armor, with shields and helmets. Valkyries are skilled riders and ride their horses in herds, through the air, water and overland. When valkyries come galloping through the air can than see a glimpse of the bright light that may seem like a lightning flash across the sky. When they are on the ground, it may look like they are on fire.
Valkyries are lovers of heroes and other mortals, and some valkyrie were the daughters of kings. Sometimes valkyries can change into swans, and sometimes they have with them ravens, who they can communicate with. In the poem Oddrúnargrátr, the valkyries are also called óskmey, "wish maid", and in the Nafnaþulur they are also called Óðins meyjar, "Odin's maids".
Valkyries also have knowledge of magical abilities of the runes. They also have the power of healing and are able to give good advice on how people should live their lives. Valkyries advise on how people should behave at a Thing, Viking parliament, that a man should not argue with someone who is drunk, that he should not let a beautiful women seduce him, that he should not force young girls or married women to sex, to not be vengeful on people who have flaunted themselves, and to be brave in battle.
Some valkyries went against Odin's will, which meant that he punished them harshly. The most famous of these is the valkyrie Brynhild, whose name means 'armor battle' or 'shining battle'. Brynhild has seven sisters, all of whom are valkyries, and she is known as the strongest of the valkyries.
In the Poetic Edda is a short Old Norse verse called Helreið Brynhild, "Brynhild's journey to Hel". The poem describes Brynhild as a Valkyrie and shieldmaiden. During an important assignment for Odin, Brynhild disappointed the All-father during an important assignment. As punishment, Odin sentenced her to live life as a mortal woman.
Brynhild was imprisoned in a remote castle, where she had to sleep inside a circle of flames until a brave man came to rescue and marry her. The brave hero who rescued her was 'Sigurd the dragon slayer', and the story has a tragic ending.
Valkyries are mentioned or appear in the Poetic Edda poems Völuspá, Grímnismál, Völundarkviða, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, Helgakviða Hundingsbana II and Sigrdrífumál. Many valkyrie names are mentioned in the Eddas, and many of the names emphasize associations with battle, especially the spear, which is associated with Odin.
Archaeological excavations throughout Scandinavia have uncovered amulets theorized as depicting valkyries. Specific valkyrie are mentioned on two runestones; a valkyrie riding a wolf as her steed on the early 9th century Rök Runestone in Östergötland, Sweden, and the valkyrie Þrúðr on the 10th-century Karlevi Runestone on the island of Öland, Sweden.
In 1905, the 9th century Oseberg Viking ship was discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg, Norway. Amongst the grave goods found on the wreckage of this amazing ship, were some fabrics, including a stunning fragmentary tapestry depicting a Viking Age ceremony.
This fabric, called the Oseberg Tapestry, which was probably a part of the funeral offering in the Oseberg ship, was created in about the year 834. Over 1100 years old, the tapestry is in bad condition and its decay meant it took several years to extract.
The fragments of this beautiful national treasure feature a scene of what looks like a procession. Amongst the many images in this scene are two black birds, very probably Odin's ravens Huginn and Munnin, hovering over a horse with a rider who could be Odin. Also featured in the scene are images of valkyries carrying drinking horns, as they would at a sacred Norse ceremony.
Spirituality was an integral part of the Norse people. It was a part of everything they were, in a way that is difficult for us born in this modern world to understand. For the Scandinavian people of the Viking Age, everything in nature had a spirit. For these people, it was important to communicate with spirits and cultivate their own strong spirit.
Much of our understanding of Viking spirituality comes from Norse Mythology. Mythology is a collection of sacred stories of a religious or cultural tradition. A culture's collective mythology helps convey explain nature, history, customs, and a culture’s spirituality.
In Norse mythology, there are stories about interpreting dreams and the sacrifices. According to these sacred stories, everything in the universe is physically connected, and everything is spiritually connected.
There were and are many spiritual paths in Viking spirituality. Seiðr, galdr, utesitting and runes are forms of coming in contact with spirituality. There are Norse ceremonies that follow year cycles and phases of the moon. In Old Norse, seiðr was a type of sacred ritual which was practiced in Norse society during the Viking Age.
Our ancestor’s wisdom can be found in the Norse myths, in the Edda poems and sagas. Wisdom and understanding can be found in Norse myth stories about the world's creation, destruction and renewal. Urkraft, a name for ancient power, is a strong and free power, which can't be suppressed or manipulated.
Viking spirituality has many similarities with Sami shamanism and other shaman traditions around the world. The Norse vǫlva (a female shaman or seer) and Seiðmenn (seið-men) had a thorough understanding of healing herbs found in nature, energies, spirits and wisdom. Vǫlva in Old Norse means "wand carrier" or "carrier of a magic staff". Practitioners of seiðr were predominantly women, vǫlva or seiðkona, seiðr-woman or seiðr-wife". There were male practitioners, seiðmaðr, seiðr-man, as well, but this was deemed unmanly.
For the Viking warrior, his or her spirit and spirituality was of paramount importance, according to the Edda’s. This is very clear in a specific part of the Poetic Edda called the Hávamál.
Spirituality is very important regarding the way the Norse people and especially Viking warriors lived. A major part of this spirituality was connected to fate and destiny and the understanding of life after death.
To live not just without fear of death, but to live and fight knowing that you would live again and serve a greater purpose, gives a freedom to live and fight without reservation that is hard to imagine for most people today. This wasn't a question of belief, these people knew that this was the way of things, which made it possible to live and fight to the fullest.
There is not a lot written about Norse spirituality, and a lot of the Viking's spirituality is very misunderstood, but spirituality was a major part of a Viking's life.
HÁVAMÁL - VIKING WARRIOR WISDOM
For the Viking warrior, his or her spirit and spirituality was of paramount importance, according to the Edda’s. This is very clear in a specific part of the Poetic Edda called the Hávamál.
Often described as the wisdom of the North, Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia. Attributed to the Norse God Odin, the Hávamál’s wisdom gave spiritual nourishment to the Vikings in their daily lives, their long journeys to discover new lands, and their personal journeys to discover the meaning of life and death.
Hávamál - verse 15
Þagalt og hugalt People should be
skyldi þjóðans barn Quiet and thoughtful
og vígdjarft vera. And brave in conflict
Glaður og reifur They should live
skyli gumna hver Happy and friendly
uns sinn bíður bana. Until their last day.
The first 80 verses called "Hávamál proper" deals with basic everyday wisdom. Verses 80 to 164 deal with magic. Vikings garnered wisdom and inspiration from Hávamál, inherited from their ancestors. Hávamál’s content provides a clear picture of the Viking's philosophy and beliefs about how life should be lived both as a physical being and a spiritual entity. On a spiritual level Hávamál explains how to deal with a world of spirituality where unknown dangers and sacred knowledge are hidden.
A way for a Viking to achieve wisdom and strengthen their spirit was through Utesitting, which is directly translated means ‘sitting-outside’. The modern equivalent would be meditation done out in nature. By sitting alone in nature, people of the Viking culture could seek inner wisdom and visions.
Utesitting is an ancient ritual that the Norse people used to come in contact with their spirituality. It is an ancient practice known from Norse sources such as the poem Völuspá, from the Poetic Edda, an Icelandic manuscript from the year 1270.
Utesitting was a way to build the spirit and an individual’s spirituality. It could be a calm and gentle experience, or a deeply transformative experience. After utesitting, a person was more serene, more aware, more focused in mind, body and spirit. Utesitting was a way to connect with other energies, the gods, or the universe. This was a way to undertake a vision quest to put a person in touch with themselves and the spirit world.
It was very important that the place chosen for utesitting would be a place where a person was not disturbed. During utesitting, where a person would go, and how long they would be gone, would be decided naturally within the utesitting ritual. It would take however long it took. Sometimes such a ritual could take a short while, or an afternoon, but sometimes it could take days.
Utesitting themes could be personal questions, major issues, or life's big questions. Utesitting could be used as a spiritual cleansing process. It could be used to open a spiritual door or as a way to introduce a person to the elements and environment around them.
Utesitting, as the name suggests, is time spent in meditation in nature. This was done both for inner wisdom and as a way to lead to a higher consciousness through contact with nature. It was and is a method to find a person’s place in nature, or way back to a natural state. It makes no difference whether a person is troubled by large or small issues, or is making large or small processes regarding changes in life, utesitting was and is, a way to clarify a person’s intention and co-create with nature.
Sacrifice was very important to the Norse people, and rituals always contained some sort of offering. A gift to nature and the nature spirits would be offered before and after utesitting. Whether an specific utesitting felt like a good or bad experience, Vikings obtained wisdom and understanding from this practice. Utesitting could be an hour, a day, a night, or weekend in the forest or mountains. This practice was helpful to Vikings who needed to withdraw from "normal life", in order to bring them to a place where they could get closer and have better contact with themselves.
Getting in contact with ones-self and the universe became a problem with the coming of Christianity, and utesitting was perceived as so threatening for this religion that it was forbidden. The custom of sitting out in nature with a view to induce wisdom or visions was deemed dangerous in Norway and Iceland, and the church sanctioned hard against those who practiced that kind spirituality, or ‘magic’.
In 1267, King Magnus of Norway received instructions regarding this according to Gulatings-loven. Utesitting in groves or on mounds were crimes against the Holy Church. It was forbidden to sit alone in the forest or mountains and open the mind and the inner contemplation. It was prohibited to connect with nature's energy and the beings of the forest. If a person had undertaken utesitting, they had to confess to a bishop and not a regular priest, according to the scripture commands the bishop Torlak in Skâlholdt in Iceland at the end of the 1100s.
All of this suggests that utesitting for personal wisdom and spirituality were very important activities for the Norse people.
Seid, or seiðr, is a collective term for the knowledge and techniques that are at the interface between religion and magic. Seid was considered secret/sacred knowledge in the Iron Age and Viking Nordic region.
In Norse society, seid was mainly practiced by women who were called Volve, vǫlur, Seiðkonur and vísendakona. A man could also engage in seid, but he did not receive the same respect as the Crone or Volve. There are accounts of male practitioners, known as seiðmenn, but in practising this sacred knowledge, they brought a social taboo known as ‘ergi’ on to themselves, and were sometimes persecuted as a result.
Odin is the Norse god who is simultaneously responsible for war, poetry and sorcery. It is said that Odin learned seid from the goddess Freya. This shows that Odin was a god who had no boundaries or adherence to social norms.
Accounts of Seid/seiðr are found in sagas and other literary sources, and evidence of Seid has been unearthed byarchaeologists. Various scholars have debated the nature of seiðr over the centuries, with some arguing that it was shamanic in context, involving visionary journeys by its practitioners.
The Old Norse word Rún means "secret", and runes were thought of by Vikings as sacred secrets, and a way of interacting with both the living and the spirit world.
Hávamál - verse 80
Þat er þá reynt When searching for
er þú at rúnum spyrr Answers in the runes
inum reginkunnum Which were created by the gods
þeim er gerðu ginnregin And written by Odin
ok fáði fimbulþulr It is best to reflect
þá hefir hann bazt ef hann þegir Over the meaning
According to legend, the Norse god Odin speared himself to a tree, in a self-sacrificial attempt to receive sacred knowledge. At the end of his ‘shamanistic journey’, hanging suspended for nine windy nights, Odin learned the mysteries of the runes, which he then passed on to his people.
Hávamál - verse 139 (as told by Odin)
Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi, No bread was I given nor drink from a horn,
nysta ek niþr, downwards I peered;
nam ek vp rvnar, I took up the runes,
opandi nam, screaming I took them,
fell ek aptr þaðan. then I fell back.
Since the Vikings believed the runic symbols to be a gift from Odin, they treated them with great reverence. Belief in the divine origin of the runes meant that runes possessed magical powers.
The Vikings are often portrayed as illiterate and uncultured barbarians who were more interested in plunder than in wisdom. This is very far from the truth. The Vikings left behind a great number of manuscripts written on vellum, which are both rich in wisdom and artistic achievement. These documents were based on the earlier Viking oral tradition and information Vikings had carved in stone, wood, bone and metal.
What was carved in these hard materials were enigmatic symbols made up of straight lines. Each symbol, called a rune, had its own unique sound that was said, or sung, to represent them. These sounds could be used singularly as a chant, or together as a chant. These chants, or rune-songs, are known as Galdr, and any serious use of runes would include them.
The first collection of 'Viking runes' is called Eldri rúnaröð, the older rune-row, which had 24 runes. These were the runes used by the Norse people from the 2nd to 9th century. This changed to Yngri rúnaröð, the younger rune-row, which had 16 runes, was also called the Scandinavian runes, and was in use from about the 9th century onward.
We associate runes used for writing as letters of an alphabet. The Viking ‘alphabet’ is now called the Futhark, from the first 6 rune symbols which look like the letters f,u,t,h,a,r, and k. The Elder Rune-row (or Futhark) of twenty-four runes, at some point in time was arranged into three groups of eight runes called an Ætt, meaning clan. Each Ætt had 8 runes, and each Ætt were ruled over by their own particular spirit or Norse God. Respectively these are Freya’s Ætt, Hagall’s Ætt, and Tyr’s Ætt. Freya is the Norse goddess of fertility, we are not sure of the exact meaning of Hagall in this respect, and Tyr is the Norse god of war and justice.
THE SECRET OF THE RUNES
We know of the meaning of Viking rune symbols from Viking Rune Poems. These poems list the rune symbols and provide an explanatory poetic stanza for each rune symbol/word. There are three different poems that have been preserved:
The Norwegian Rune Poem is a 17th-century copy of a destroyed 13th-century manuscript.
The Icelandic Rune Poem is recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, the oldest of the four dating from the late 15th century. This has been called the most systemized of the rune poems (including the Abecedarium Nordmannicum) and has been compared to the ljóðaháttr verse form.
The Old English rune poem is dated to the 8th or 9th century.
The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems list 16 Younger Futhark runes, but the Old English rune poem has 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. Each poem differs in poetic verse, but they contain numerous parallels between one another.
The rune poems and old texts, give sets of associations for the runes, but the meanings of the runes are quite fluid. Each rune symbol has a meaning, or several meanings, connecting a variety of things including: objects, creatures and archetypal processes, feelings, experiences, and spirits.
Rune writing was a very important skill for the Vikings, and runic inscriptions are found on artifacts including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, calendars and runestones. But rune symbols were not only used for writing, they were also used to tell fortunes, cast spells, provide protection and for spiritual purposes.
The Poetic Edda mentions the magical significance of the runes. Verses 80, 111, 137, 143 and 158 of the Hávamálare about Odin mentioning the runes in contexts of divination.
The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) gives advice on the magical properties of runes. Some of these are:
"Victory runes" (stanza 6, referring to the Tyr rune to be carved on the sword hilt) Ølrunar "Ale-runes" (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife) Biargrunar "birth-runes" (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth)
Brimrunar "wave-runes" (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder)
Limrunar "branch-runes" (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees "with boughs to the eastward bent")
Malrunar "speech-runes" (stanza 11, refers to a spell to improve rhetorical ability at the thing)
Hugrunar "thought-runes" (stanza 12, discusses a spell to improve wit)
Vikings believed that runes had magical qualities that were very valuable to a warrior, such as protecting a warrior in battle or at sea, cursing or guarding against threats, and curing illnesses. The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period.
Runes inscribed on a sword blade gave it magic power. A warrior who knew the secret of the runes could strengthen his own blade or blunt his enemy’s weapons. Viking warriors customarily carved the runic symbol for Tyr, the Norse god of war, onto their swords and shields. In the Poetic Edda, the Sigrdrífumál mentions "victory runes" which should be carved on a sword: "some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice".
Viking runes were inscribed into large freestanding rocks or boulders called Runestones. Runestones were often decorated with inscribed intricate Norse patterns and painted in black, blue, red and white paint.
Many Rune-stones served as spiritual stones for sacred ceremonies. Runestones served as spiritual commemorations for the dead. Runestones also served as memorials to honor men and women, or to document how much land the deceased Viking had owned and listing relatives who would likely inherit that person's estate.
When the seafaring Vikings traveled to faraway lands, they brought their system of writing with them, and left behind runic inscriptions in paces as distant as Greenland and Byzantium.
Wherever they went, Vikings turned to runes to express both the poetic and the plain, inscribing them on everything from great stone monuments to common household items. Rune carvings varied from "Listen, ring-bearers, while I speak of the glories in war of Harald, most wealthy" to "Rannvieg owns this box".
Runes were carved into many objects, such as staves, staffs. A Rune Stave was found in the cult room of the Norwegian Oseberg burial mound, alongside the two women who were buried there in the year 834. The round birch stave is 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm at the ends. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”.
The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” which translated means “Man knows little”. Another interpretation is that it reads “litill vissm”, which translated reads “(Although) I am small I am wise”. A third interpretation is “litil vés m” meaning “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.
A Runic calendar is a calendar that correlates to the Sun and the Moon. Runic calendars were written on parchment or carved onto staves of wood, bone, or horn. The oldest known runic calendar is the Nyköping staff from Sweden, from the 13th century. Most of the several thousand which survive are wooden calendars dating from the 16th and the 17th centuries.
A primstav, prime staff, is the ancient Norwegian calendar stick, engraved with images instead of runes. The images depicted the different non-moving religious holidays. The oldest primstav is from the year 1457 and is exhibited at Norsk Folkemuseum.
A bandrún, bind rune, is a binding of two or more rune symbols. Bind runes are rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in earlier (Proto-Norse) and later (medieval) inscriptions. There are several types of bind runes:
One type of bind rune is formed by two (or rarely three) adjacent runes being joined together to form a single conjoined symbol, (usually sharing a common vertical stroke.
Another type is called a same-stave rune, which is common in Scandinavian runic inscriptions. This type is formed by several runic letters written sequentially along a long common stem-line.
Bind runes are now also being used in modern industry. The Bluetooth logo merges the runes ᚼ (Hagall) and ᛒ(Berkanan) together, forming a bind rune. The two letters form the initials 'H B', alluding to the Danish king and Viking raider Harald Bluetooth.
Bind runes were initially used pre-Viking age on Norse gravestones. They gradually faded out of use along with all other runic writing, except in Iceland where the tradition continued. Not only were bind runes used in Iceland for the purpose of writing in general, but they were also used in protection and luck symbols called Galdrastafir.
According to the Museum of Icelandic history, the effects credited to most of the rune staves were very relevant to the average Icelanders of the time, who were mostly subsistence farmers and had to deal with harsh climatic conditions.
Several popular bind runes, or Galdrastafir, include:
Vegvísir is a stave to guide people through rough weather or used as instruction to guide the way.
Vegvísir in Icelandic means 'sign post'. This magical stave is intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather, as attested in the Huld Manuscript, collected by Geir Vigfusson in 1880, consisting of material of earlier origin. (Nearly all ancient/pagan manuscripts were collected in Iceland throughout the centuries). A leaf of the manuscript provides an image of the vegvísir, gives its name, and, in prose, declares that "if this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known"
Ægishjálmur, the ‘Helm of awe’ used to induce fear and to protect against abuse of power.
Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive Jötunn associated with the sea; ægis is the genitive case of ægir (and has no direct relation to Greek aigis). In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir bears on his forehead the ægishjálmr "Ægir's helmet" or "Helm of terror/protection".
Bind runes were also used in Viking combat and in glima competition. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi staves were kept in shoes. Gapaldur under the heel of the right foot and ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot.
Viking poetry reads: "Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well". Many from the Viking upper classes could read and write runes, but most Vikings called in a specialist when dealing with the spiritual properties of rune symbols. These experts were called Rúnemester, rune masters, and were specially trained to bring runes into play for divination and spirituality.
One common rune-casting technique was carving runes on pieces of bark then flinging the pieces on the ground. Picking three at random, the symbols inscribed on the bark would give the answer to specific questions.
Another method of divination is using painted runes on flat pebbles, inscribed and painted runes on pebbles, and inscribed runes on pebbles. These rune pebbles are placed in a leather bag and shaken then cast onto a solid surface. Runes that land face up are used for divination.
Galdr (plural galdrar) is an Old Norse word for spell, incantation or song enchantment. These were usually performed in combination with certain rites, such as before a battle or Glima competition.
Galder’s were used to make swords blunt, make armor soft and decide victory or defeat in battles. Examples of such galders can be found in Grógaldr and in Frithiof's Saga. In Grógaldr, Gróa chants nine (a significant number in Norse mythology) galdrar to aid her son, and in Buslubœn, the schemes of king Ring of Östergötland are averted.
Galdr incantations were composed in a special meter named galdralag, and could be used by both women and men. A practical galdr for women was one that made childbirth easier, but they could also be used to affect another person’s humor. Galdr is referenced in Skírnismál, when Skirnir uses galdrar to force Gerðr to marry Freyr.
Galdr is also mentioned in several of the poems in the Poetic Edda, for instance in Hávamál, where Odin claims to know 18 galdrar. Odin mastered galdrar against fire, sword edges, arrows, fetters and storms, and he could conjure up the dead and speak to them.
Galdring is a tool for achieving spiritual wholeness. Making and singing a galdr is an excellent means to strengthen a person objective and future goals. A personal galdr song can be fortified with words verses from the eddas to create esoteric mantras.
Mjölnir is the sacred hammer of Thor, the Norse God of thunder. Mjölnir comes from the Old Norse word Mjǫlnir, which means "the painter and the crusher of dust", and according to Norse Mythology, it is one of the most fearsome and powerful weapons in existence.
Mjölnir was given to Thor by the Norse God Loki as compensation after Loki tricked the dwarf Eitri (or Sindri) and his brother Brokkr to forge the most beautiful objects in the 9 Worlds. Because of Loki's interference in the forging process, the handle to Mjölnir became shorter than planned so that it can only be weilded with one hand, but Mjölnir is so awesome that when Thor weilds it, he can protect the gods.
Mjölnir is often interpreted as a weapon, as it is described as something so powerful it could level mountains. Thor could decide what power the hammer would hit with, and when he aimed and threw Mjölnir, it always hit the target. No matter how far Thor threw Mjölnir, the hammer always always returned to its owner.
Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short. — The Prose Edda, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916).