UTESITTING by Tyr Neilsen

Utesitting tyr neilsen - photo B. Wemundstad

Utesitting tyr neilsen - photo B. Wemundstad

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. It didn't matter if a 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.

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VEIEN - the WAY of the VIKING WARRIOR by Tyr Neilsen

veien - the way of the viking warrior - tyr neilsen - glima 

veien - the way of the viking warrior - tyr neilsen - glima 

Veien is a Norwegian word meaning the way, path or road, and is used to describe the way of the Viking warrior. This way was based on a strict code of ethics from the Viking clan code, the Viking code for doing business, and the code of brotherhood to fellow warriors. 

Veien defines the codified Viking way of life, originating from Viking values of loyalty, honor, honesty, courage, respect, strength, perseverance, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, generosity and justice. This moral and spiritual code can be found within the 13th century Scandinavian documents of Hávamál (the sayings of the high one), the Biærköa rætter (Birka Law) and Konungs skuggsjá (Kings Mirror). 

The Viking Code

During the Viking Age, there was no law against waring with others nations, just as there is no law against it today. And just as it is around the world today, Vikings had no law against piracy, as long as it was against the "enemy". 

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During the Viking Age, any Norseman who turned his hand to piracy abroad did nothing illegal according to Scandinavian law, so long as they adhered to the Viking code. So strong was this code, it created a Viking brotherhood during trading and raiding journeys.  

When a band of Viking warriors undertook a sea journey to another land, it was vital that each man could rely on the man next to him to protect his back in order for everyone to survive. Warriors who went ‘a-Viking’ together considered their sailing and raiding companions as brothers, in the most literal sense, and the Viking code these ‘brothers’ held to was all important.

Loyalty was central to Viking life. Vikings had to be loyal to each other during dangerous journeys, and no Viking would desert a leader he had promised to support. A Viking would fight to the death so that his brothers, and his wife or children would be proud of him. This type of loyalty was necessary in the Viking age, as endangering a crew mate would directly affect themselves, the rest of the crew, and family back home. 

Honor was of extreme importance to a Viking. Every Norseman lived his life as a member of an extended family circle, and if he did something dishonorable, he could easily bring disgrace and ruin to his brothers and his entire family. A Viking's honor being ruined was considered worse than death itself. Having a good reputation after death was something that could help the family for generations.   

On such journeys, honesty was very important in order for the Viking brotherhood to trust each other in dangerous situations. The word of a Viking was an oath, and once the word of a Viking was given it had to be kept at any cost. A Vikings oath was a legal bond, and arm-rings or finger-rings were often used to seal oaths. An oath-breaker had no friends.

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It was extremely important for each Viking to have courage. Vikings despised cowards, and Hávamál states that people should be brave in conflict, as only fools think that they will have peace by avoiding conflict. Courage was not just something to have in battle, courage was a quality needed in daily life. A Viking life was not to be wasted, but to be lived to the full. According to Hávamál, the cowardly fear everything, whilst the generous and brave live best and seldom nurture sorrow. 

Respect was not given in the Viking Age, it was earned. Respect was needed in order for Vikings to live together, fight for each other and to succeed. In order for this to happen, a Viking had to respect himself first and foremost. This could only happen by making sure a person didn’t do anything to dishonor themselves.

Strength was highly regarded in Viking society. It was not something to be abused, but rather a quality to be used wisely. 

Perseverance was essential to the Vikings. Success depended on perseverance, and in the Viking Age, no man was considered useless if he persevered, even if he was injured or maimed. 

Discipline and industriousness were very important qualities for all Vikings. In the Viking Age it was vital to get up early and work hard and smart. All could be lost if this was not done. According to Hávamál, a sleeping wolf rarely gets meat, and the lazy rarely get victory.

For a Viking, self-reliance was a necessity. If a person did not own self-reliance, he or she was a burden to family and society. In order to be self-reliant, a person needed to have common sense. Hávamál mentions the need for common sense many times, and states that a person can never have a more dependable guide than good common sense. This highly valued skill was considered to be of the greatest worth when far from home.

Generosity was expected of a Viking. For a Norseman who travelled, it was important to know that in friendly territory, he would always have food, shelter and protection. 

Justice was of paramount importance to the Vikings, because without justice, their society would collapse. Justice was decided by a Lovsigemann (law-reader), by a clan leader, or a group leader. When a-Viking, if any wrong doing was done to one of the crew, it would be righted by a fellow brother, and if a crew member was murdered, his Viking brothers would get justice by avenging him

Sometimes justice meant solving a dispute by revenge, Hólmganga (Holmgang -duel), or in the form of compensation in money. If the people in Viking society felt that justice had been denied, they would feel compelled to take justice into their own hands and blood feuds could ensue, so it was extremely important that justice was fair. 

There were different rules to societies a thousand years ago, and the rugged people of the North depended on their code in order to survive in a hostile world. By following the Viking code, Vikings grew strong and successful. Through this code, each person kept to important values that created a good life for themselves and their family.

The way of the Viking warrior is not an easy path, and it can be difficult to follow such a code, but the Viking values of loyalty, honor, honesty, courage, respect, strength, perseverance, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, generosity and justice are still worthy values to aspire to. 
  

VIKING DUEL by Tyr Neilsen

combat glima - Holmgang - viking duel - tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

combat glima - Holmgang - viking duel - tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

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. 

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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. 

                                                                                           Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870)

                                                                                           Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870)

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:

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•    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. 

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THE VARANGIAN GUARD by Tyr Neilsen

Varangian Guard.- tyr neilsen

Varangian Guard.- tyr neilsen

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. 

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VIKING WISDOM - HÁVAMÁL by Tyr Neilsen

Havamal - viking wisdom - tyr neilsen

Havamal - viking wisdom - tyr neilsen

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. 

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VIKING RUNES by Tyr Neilsen

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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 rúnaröðthe 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.

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Viking runes can be used to spell out words. The illustration above shows the corrolation between Viking runes and the Alphabet.

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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)

SWORD RUNES

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".

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc.

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc.

RUNESTONES

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.

       Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

       Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

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".

RUNE CARVINGS

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”.

RUNIC CALENDAR

                                       Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

                                       Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

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.

BIND RUNE

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.

                                The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

                                The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

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.

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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. 

RUNE SPELLS

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.