Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: historiography

On Hervör / Hervarðr

Hervör getting the sword Tyrfing from her dead father

In Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), we read of Hervör, a woman who spent much of her time living as a man.

Hervör is the daughter of Angantýr, who was one of twelve berserker brothers, and had in his possession the magical and cursed sword Tyrfing. At her birth, it was noted that she wasn’t like other girls:

Bjarmar’s daughter was with child. That was an exceptionally fair lass. She was sprinkled with water and given a name and called Hervör, but it was the opinion of most that she should be left outside, and they said she wouldn’t be too ladylike if she took after her father’s kin.

Needless to say, Hervör does indeed take after her father’s berserker-brothers.

She was brought up with the Jarl and was as strong as the boys. And as soon as she could do anything for herself, she trained more with shot and shield and sword than sewing or embroidery. She did more bad than good too. And when these things were forbidden to her, she ran into the woods and killed men for their money. And when the Jarl hears of this highwayman, he went there with his troops and caught Hervor and brought her home, and then she stayed at home for a bit.

Note that there’s no reference here to any specific gender role expectations that were being broken. Rather, the strong implication is that she is forbidden to be manly because “she did more bad than good.”

And note also that when she was captured after her adventure in the woods killing people and taking their stuff, she wasn’t executed, but merely brought into the Jarl’s home again.

She discovers the truth about her parentage, and of the magic sword owned by her father, and assumes the (male) name Hervarðr:

Then she got ready to leave alone with the gear and weapons of a man and made her way to where some vikings were and sailed with them for a while and called herself Hervard.

A little later, the captain died and this ‘Hervard’ took command of the crew. And when they came to the island of Samsey, ‘Hervard’ told them to stop there so he could go up onto the island and said there’d be a good chance of treasure in the mound. But all the crewmen speak against it and say that such evil things walk there night and day that it’s worse there in the daytime than most places are at night. In the end, they agree to drop anchor, and ‘Hervard’ climbed into the boat and rowed ashore and landed in Munway just as the sun was setting.

She then proceeds to challenge her dead father’s ghost for possession of the magic sword Tyrfing, and wins it through her boldness and courage in a famous episode often called Hervararkviða. She then goes on with her life as Hervarðr for many years:

Then she went to the ships. But when it got light, she saw that the ships were gone. The vikings had taken fright at the thunders and fires on the island. She gets herself passage from there but nothing is known of her journey till she comes to Godmund in Glasisvellir, and she stayed there over winter and still called herself Hervard.


One day, as Godmund [a king of Jotunheim] was playing chess and was on the verge of losing, he asked if anyone could help him. Then ‘Hervard’ went up and advised for a little while until things were looking better for Godmund. Then a man picked up Tyrfing and drew it. ‘Hervard’ saw that and snatched the sword off him and killed him, then went out. The men wanted to run after him.

But Godmund said, “Settle down, there won’t be as much vengeance in that one as you think, because you don’t know who it is. This woman will cost you dear before you take her life.”

Note here that the king knows well that ‘Hervard’ is really a biological woman, but doesn’t begrudge her the male persona she has adopted. But her return to female life is presented as a conscious choice:

Then Hervor spent a long time in warfare and raiding, and had great success. And when she tired of that, she returned home to the jarl, her mother’s father. From then on, she went along like other girls, weaving and doing embroidery.

Now, it is important to note that this is one of the fornaldarsögur (“legendary sagas”), presumably dating from around the 13th century, with the oldest manuscript copy coming from the late 14th/early 15th centuries. Fornaldarsögur are not generally noted for their historicity (as compared to the Family Sagas), but rather reflect what an author 200 years after the Conversion imagined pre-Conversion society to be like.

However, it’s also important to note that this actually works in favor of the story of Hervor, at least in the general sense, reflecting reality. The oldest existing Icelandic law book, called Grágás (“Grey Goose”) specifically bans women dressing and acting as men almost exactly in terms that could describe Hervör:

Staðarhólsbók, one of the existing versions of Grágás, prohibits a woman from wearing male clothing, from cutting her hair like a man, bearing arms, or in general behaving like a man (chapters 155 and 254), however it does not mention behaving sexually in the male role.

But here’s the kicker. Staðarhólsbók was written about 1280 CE. That’s the late 13th century. Around the same time that the saga itself was composed, and nearly 300 years after the official conversion to Christianity. I believe the inclusion of those prohibitions are Christian, rather than Heathen, in nature. It would make a lot of sense; if the Christian author of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks wanted to portray life as it was in pre-Christian times, he would naturally have characters doing things that were anathema to Christians, in order to play up their nature as Heathens.

Hervör’s granddaughter, also named Hervör, dies as her
namesake lived, fighting as a man against the Huns

Just as the early law codes and penitentials guide us to pre-Christian practices through their prohibitions, so too does Staðarhólsbók, written well into the Christian era, and which specifically prohibits the practice of women living as men. What we in our modern world label as transgender.

That said, I am by no means trying to overstate the case and claim that this is something that was normative in Norse or broader pre-Christian Germanic society. It was doubtless a rarity, given the sparse sources that reference it outside of this late but detailed case. But neither was it something specifically banned or viewed as “unnatural”; gender and sexuality in Germanic society prior to the coming of Christianity was a much more complex thing than the reductionist Christians (and, much later, the very puritanical and sexually repressed Victorians who inform our ideas of sexuality to this day) might insist.

Historical pre-Christian Germanic society viewed sex and gender very differently than we do today. They didn’t share our Victorian squeamishness about the subject, and almost certainly didn’t view the so-called “traditional family” of a man, wife, and kids (the modern “nuclear family”) as normative, either. Families were extended, and the interrelationships between family members were very different than they are today (how many boys have the sorts of intense relationships with their uncles that are constantly described in the Sagas, for instance?).

I don’t say it was, or is, normative. I don’t say it’s something that was, or should be, embraced as a widespread thing. But it seems clear that at the very least women assuming male roles for a lengthy part of their life wasn’t completely unknown, and wasn’t banned (unless the specific individual was a complete jackass) until Christianity came along with its ingrained hangups about sexuality that we’re still dealing with today.

Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings

Medievalists.Net brings us a golden oldie from the Proceedings of the Sixth Viking Congress, 1969, entitled Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings by Bertil Almgren. The thesis seems to be that the success of the Vikings was due to the shallow draft of their ships, which allowed them to travel farther up river inlets and over a wider range than other contemporary vessels. While that’s certainly true as far as it goes, I’m not sure that would be one vital factor I would choose.

Bonus; you can download the entire Proceedings book from Scribd at the link above. Lots of good stuff in there by some names that should sound familiar, including Gabriel Turville-Petre.

This is why checking primary sources matters

Yesterday I ran across a perfect example of why it’s always dangerous to rely on what people say about historical sources, rather than going back and fact-checking. Sometimes, the sources don’t say what the modern scholar says they say. (In fact, I wrote a whole paper on the subject, debunking a claim about Augustines City of God in a modern scholarly book on pagan Europe, as part of my work in the Troth Loremaster program.)

But the example I have in mind is much simpler than having to slog through hundreds of pages of Augustine to prove a negative. This involves a paper written by T. C. Lethbridge in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 83, No. 2 (Jul. – Dec., 1953), pp. 175-181, available via JSTOR (readable with a free account), entitled Christian Saints or Pagan Gods? The Lough Erne Figures. I’m doing some research on Christian saints that had their origin in Heathen deities, so this seemed interesting.

Now, the author makes the following statement about one of the figures:

One of them, that of a male (a), is claimed to have a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing. He is therefore Saint Patrick. The bell, however, on inspection appears to be a typical Irish short-sword; the crozier may be a scepter or some other wand of office and the man appears to be stroking his chin in thought. There is nothing about him to suggest that he is a saint.

Fine. Fair enough. And the author has also included some illustrations to make his point clear:

In Fig. 1 I have drawn five of the figures (a-e) after a study of various photographs, omitting such signs of weathering as seem to obscure the details of the carving. I have not included the carving of a single isolated head on a flat stone slab, because it does not appear to belong to the same series as the others and may not even be of the same date. Two other fragments may be architectural.

Great! Now we can see exactly what he’s talking about in his Figure a:

Copyright (c) JSTOR
And his Figure a does indeed look the way he described it; sword, wand, hand on chin. But here’s where the problem comes in. Not having heard of the Lough Erne Figures (also known as the White Island Figures), I checked to see if there were any photographs of them to be found. And indeed there are. Here’s a great one:
Photo by Jim Dempsey
Off to the right we see the disembodied head and an unfinished figure that could be the “architectural feature” the author mentions. But do you see a figure that “has a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing”? Yes; the third figure from the left (the largest one, in fact). But that’s not the one the author was discussing!! His Figure a is the one next to the one with the crozier and the bell!
All of his analysis in that section I quoted was based on looking at the wrong figure.
My best guess (and it’s only a guess) is that, since the author was working off of photographs, he simply didn’t have a complete selection of photographs, and was trying to make the best sense he could of a written description that didn’t jive with the visual evidence. Because he was missing the crucial photograph that would have let everything fall into place.
The moral of the story being, when you’re reading a scholarly article or a book, never take for granted that what the author tells you something means, is accurate. Dig into the footnotes. Read the quotes in context. And if the primary sources don’t agree with what the modern author says they mean, don’t assume he knows better than you do, even if he’s published in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and you’re not.

We can learn a lot from the Christians

One thing I often see, both from the reconstructionist and non-recon sides of Paganism, is a blind spot when it comes to sources that derive from Christian writers. I see this a lot particularly in Ásatrú and related Heathen faiths: when there’s a debate on something in the Sagas, or the Eddas, someone will inevitably chime in with the fact that most of the written lore comes down to us from Christian writers, who were writing after the official conversion from Heathen beliefs to Christianity, as if to shut down the discussion by impugning the sources.

The reality, of course, is that without the written sources, we would know next to nothing about the religion of the Norse. Indeed, much of our knowledge of Roman Pagan religion also comes to us from Christian sources, and the watchword from a Pagan or Heathen point of view could be, “If the Christians were against it, it’s probably a good idea.”

For example, a masterpiece of erudition on the subject of Roman religion by Marcus Terentius Varro, a book called Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum is lost. Its contents are known to us chiefly through Augustine’s City of God, in which he critiques Varro. But for Augustine, our knowledge of Varro would be much less, and thus our knowledge of the Religio Romana would be all the poorer.

Too, there remains a treasure trove of Pagan lore in the multitude of sermons, Bishops’ and Saints’ lives, capitularies, and law codes, all designed to promote Christian society by denouncing or ridiculing Pagan belief. Many of these are quite early writings, and thus could contain entirely contemporaneous accounts of Pagan practices. Take, for example, these items from “Punishments for Pagans and Others who Turn from the Church of God”, an Anglo-Saxon law text from c. 690 CE:

  • If anyone eats or drinks in ignorance by a heathen shrine he is to promise never to do so again and to do 40 days penance on bread and water. … But if he did it in honour of the demons and to glorify the idol, he is to do penance for 3 years.
  • If anyone eats what has been sacrificed to idols and was under no compulsion, he is to fast 12 weeks on bread and water…
  • If any keep feasts in the abominable places of the heathen, taking and eating their food there, they should be subject to penance for 2 years…
  • If any do sacrilege, that is summon diviners who practice divination by birds, or does any divination with evil intent, let him do penance for 3 years…
  • It is unlawful for clerks or laymen, to be sorcerers or enchanters, or to make amulets which are proved to be fetters for their souls…
  • If any use love potions and hurt nobody, if he is a layman he is to do penance for half a year…
  • If anyone seeks diviners whom they call prophets, or does any divinations, in that this too is diabolical, let him do penance 5 years…
  • If anyone take lots … or have any lots whatsoever, or take lots with evil intent, or make divination, let him do penance for 3 years…
  • If any make or perform a vow at trees, or springs, or stones, or boundaries … let him do penance for 3 years…

This is just a small sample of the whole, and it’s just one source, but you get the idea. From these negatives, we can gain an enormous understanding of what the ancient Pagans actually practiced, and this can in turn serve as the basis for revived practices among contemporary Pagans and Heathens.

Heck, even the Christian Bible itself has a lot of information on the religions of the Canaanites and Greeks. All those Israelite prophets had a lot of condemning to do, and what they condemned, we can use.

In most cases, of course, we don’t have specifics. We don’t know what words were said to make those vows, or the foods that were used in those offerings to the Gods and spirits of the land, or the rules that guided those casting of lots for divination. But the very knowledge that such things existed can give us a jumping-off point that will serve to enrich and give texture to our modern practices.

This isn’t to say that Christian sources should just be swallowed as-is; far from it. Discernment is needed to know what is actual contemporary practice, what is invention, and what is a reaction to literary sources that the Christian authors were using that were themselves outdated by the time of the fall of Rome. And reconstructionists and non-recons will have different takeaways. Recons will want to know what is relevant to their particular spiritual ancestors, and non-recons can cast their net wider, and yet still find themselves possessed of a wealth of genuine pre-Christian practices, even if the details may be different.

But even so, Christianity has done us an enormous favor by collecting and recording these Pagan and Heathen practices in the course of denouncing and banning them. This is a rich source of material that is hardly ever tapped because of its source, and that’s an attitude that doesn’t serve the contemporary Pagan and Heathen communities well. Let’s use these sources to enrich our own practices, and in some small way use that as a memorial for those who were persecuted because they refused to abandon the beliefs of their ancestors.

Ancestor worship

Many people within the umbrella of Heathenry have the idea that the worship of the dead was an integral part of the historical religion of the peoples of Northern Europe. To some extent, this is true, but almost never in the way that modern Heathens seem to think it was.

Many modern Heathens will, for example, keep a shrine to their ancestors somewhere in their home. Pictures of grandfathers and more historical figures adorn a table or shelf, or even a full-blown altar. Some will perform rituals in honor of those ancestors, usually variations on the same sorts of rituals that are used to honor the Gods, land-wights, etc. Unfortunately, this is not a practice attested to at all in either the written lore or the living folklore of Scandinavia, Great Britain, or the northwest Continent.

Some well-respected Heathen scholars have approached me on this topic, and are certain that they have seen attested references to such worship somewhere. When we try to track down these elusive references, however, they seem to have never existed. The desire (and perhaps the need) for such a practice seems to play tricks on the memory of just what has, or has not, been actually read. This is by no means a failing on anyone’s part; many’s the time I could swear I read something, only to find that I either misremembered what I thought I had read, or just couldn’t find it at all when I try to revisit a particular subject.

This is not to say that the dead were never venerated; far from it. The practice of mound-sitting is well-attested to in the lore, for example. But the mounds what were involved were those of kings or other influential members of the community (particularly in Iceland, where there were no kings, but fallen goðar seem to have taken their place in some instances). But by no means was every fallen ancestor so honored.

Also, we have the minne, or memorial toast. This is a toast, made during sumbl, in honor of an ancestor. But that is something done to both honor the ancestor and the person making the toast (by virtue of connecting that person making the toast to an ancestor of great renown, implying that such renown reflects positively on the person making the minne toast). Fine and good, and I myself have made such toasts, and will again.

There is also the singular ritual of the arvel; a feast in honor of a fallen famly member. When this was a head of the household, his successor would ceremonially assume the headship of the family as a part of the rite. Doubtless many minne toasts were made in honor of the fallen. However, this is a one-time event, not a regular ritual. Its primary purpose was to ceremonially provide continuity between the dead relative and the new head of the family. It is, essentially, a special form of sumbl, and in no way resembles a regular offering to a dead relative at some family shrine.

Ancestor worship, in the form of offerings made regularly at some sort of household altar or shrine, is simply not a practice supported in the lore, as far as I can see. If someone has a reference to such a thing, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send it my way, as I am more than happy to change my attitudes on such things when presented with new evidence.

Does this mean that modern Ásatrúar, for example, must abandon the practice of having a household shrine dedicated to their ancestors, and making regular offerings to them? Of course not. But it does mean that they need to understand and accept the fact that doing so is not an historical practice. Different branches of Heathenry pay more or less attention to such things, and although my own Þéodish Belief rests squarely on the more historical end of the spectrum (and I emphasize historicity more than most), such practices must be left to the conscience of the individual.

But personally, I see no need to insert something where it was not before, as far as we know.

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