CategoriesBooks and PapersWeapons and Warfare

Book Review: Men of Terror

There’s few books on the Early Medieval world, and especially the ‘Vikings,’ that engage with my re-enactors brain (we’re rarely a target audience). Popular history books present the facts: what happened? when? who was involved? and why? But the ‘why’ is often focused on the political machinations of ‘great men’ and those lone characters who we tend to focus on in history. Archaeology books show the things, and where they were discovered: excellent for for reproducing artefacts, and gaining the geographic context, but they often lack a certain humanity when dealing with the people who used these objects a thousand years ago. Reading translated literature like Beowulf, The Prose Edda, The Saga of the Icelanders etc., allows us to connect with the people (or people far closer in time than us), but sometimes it’s hard to join the dots to the history and the things.

As a re-enactor, I want to give an audience an impression of the people of the past, their lives, their personalities and motives. Our performances are informed by the historical events, and the things they used, and the stories they left behind – so it’s exciting when a book comes along that examines and contextualises these three things.

Men of Terror, by William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson , examines the mindset of the ‘Viking’ and how the tools, the stories and points in history reflect and inform it. The authors pull in a vast wealth of sources, plus data from their own tests to build a holistic picture of early medieval Scandinavian society (and Germanic society more broadly in some cases).

The text starts from first principles, stating the scientific methodology, and working their way through the weapons found in archaeology, linking to testing from reconstructed historical martial arts, literary references, language use, and more. They never stray from the purpose of trying to work out what makes a ‘Viking’ tick.

The book asks the why and how of living in a society that seems so alien to us. The different mindset of violent actions that are seen as acceptable or not seemingly on a whim, but wrapped up in complex societal rules and laws that hardly make sense to a modern reader, but is beautifully explained in plain language in the book.

This is essential for re-enactors trying to get to the bottom of the warrior impression – it should inform why weapons are designed that way, and how they are likely to be used and why. The idea of early medieval masculinity is examined, and how it interacts with the institutions of the ages, whether they are familial ties, or loyalties owed to lords and masters, vagabonds or brigands. The latter is a lot of fun – when is it acceptable steal? (Hint: when you confront them!)

So, this is a good book, with great discussion and scholarly discipline. I can’t recommend it enough.

CategoriesMedicineReligion

Viking Age Surgery and Medicine

It is very difficult for people in the 21st Century to fully comprehend the rudimentary state of medicine and healing of a thousand years ago. Steeped in ancient superstition, people then believed that ill-health had more to do with God (or Gods) and worship than any other factor. In an age where the existence of germs was unknown and the circulation of the blood as yet undiscovered, many so-called ‘cures’ and remedies belonged to the world of quackery, old wives’ tales and a gullible populace.

The Anglo-Saxon word for doctor was Lach, from whence derives the word leech; hence the common title of collections of remedies – ‘A Booke of Leechdoms.’ That universal panacea for all ills, the humble leech, so beloved of the Middle Ages and ‘Blackadder’ alike, takes its name from this early word rather than the other way round. There are those, however, who, quite cruelly suggest that this epithet, as applied to modern private practitioners of the art, is not entirely inappropriate! Many early lachs were monks, and other learned people.

Despite the perceived wisdom of these ‘doctors’, our ancestors knew little of the workings of the human body. Indeed, in the few remaining texts dealing with Anglo-Saxon medical procedure, magical remedies and charms are used as treatments, often in conjunction with holy days and solar or luna events on the calendar – but not on one of the ‘Egyptian Days’ where a healer must not let neither man’s nor beast’s blood be diminished.

One such charm used to remove a fever is unbelievable to modern eyes and would act as a placebo at best:

“For fever: One shall take several little wafers such as are offered [at the Mass], and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Canstantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm which is named hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, then over the top of the man’s head; and then let a virgin go up to him and hang it on his neck, and let this be done thus for three days. He will soon be better.

Here came stalking in an (inspiden) creature,
Had his (haman) in his hand,
Said that you were his steed.
I Lay for thee his (teage) on the neck.
They began to move from the land.
As soon as they came for the land.
Then his limbs began to cool.
then came stalking in the animal’s sister.
Then she made an end and swore oaths
That never this should do harm to the sick one
Nor to the one who might get this charm
Or who knew how to sing this charm. Amen, so be it.

Lacnunga

Despite these superstitions, there were still practical procedures to deal with ailments. Much of our understanding of Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from only a few texts, and extrapolations from the earlier Roman period. While there is the odd bit of evidence of surgery performed on a broken bone, there has been no archaeological discoveries of tools, or salves, or medicine. However, we can build a picture of a number of procedures and cures from the combined texts of the Venerable Bede, Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, latin texts translated into Old English and others such as the Roman Celsus. The Viking Sagas also occasionally describe cures and techniques for healing. It is likely that many remedies were simply passed down through the generations; but as we know from the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this is hardly going to lead to the consistent application of medicine!

Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library
Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library.

Cures

Some Anglo-Saxon remedies could work, even if their effectiveness is questionable when put up against modern medicine, or the severity of the ailment.

A compound of leek and garlic (antibiotics) mixed with wine in a brass or copper container released cytotoxic properties – literally salt in the wounds. It would be painful, but useful against infection. Bald’s Leechbook describes this for a remedy against a stye on the eyelid.

Honey was also used as an antiseptic – it’s high sugar content draws out water from bacteria cells, dehydrating and killing them. While the Viking Age Lachs’ would not know this, the effects could be seen as a wound heals rather than festers, turns septic or gangrenous.

The use of the herb marrubium vulgare, or horehound, as a treatment for a cough is still used today in lozenges – the Roman, Celsus and the author of Bald’s Leechbook certainly knew that it worked:

“For a cough: boil a good deal of horehound in water, sweeten and give the man a cupful to drink.”

Bald’s Leechbook, Volume III

While they didn’t know the roots of families of plants (sometimes using a plant because its name sounds like it should work on a body part, or against an affliction), experimentation and results were at least noteworthy. It is clear that an awful lot of trial and error led to workable cures.

Surgical Procedure

Just as today, the Viking Age doctors could perform operations on wounded men and women. The tools are broadly the same as today, but larger and less precise: scalpels, knives, tweezers, pincers, saws. It’s unlikely that a surgeon’s tools would belong to a specialised kit. It’s more likely that should a limb need to be amputated, the surgeon would call on the carpenter for his saw; or a seamstress for her needles and silk thread to suture a cut. Other tools might include irons to cauterise a wound, the preferred method of closing a wound, and probably the most devastating to the patient – although he might not have to worry about infection from a dirty needle!

The irons are placed into a fire until red hot, the wound is held closed with pincers and the hot iron is placed upon the wound, searing the flesh shut. Without anaesthetic, the pain would be unbearable. The patient may have been given strong alcoholic drinks, or small amounts of the poisonous hemlock or belladonna – both methods dangerous during surgery as they thin the blood. Simply knocking him unconscious wouldn’t be without risk either with one wrong move inadvertently ending his life. The screams emanating from the lach’s ‘surgery’ must have sounded absolutely horrendous. Perhaps the patient was given something to clench between his teeth, but more often than not, mercifully, he probably passed out.

Even with the risks, these surgeries must have had a degree of success. A simple procedure, like draining an abscess is described by Bede:

…the physician Cynifrid, who was present at both her death and exhumation. Cynifrid used to relate that during her last illness she had a large tumour under the jaw. “I was asked,” he said, “to open the tumour and drain away the poisonous matter in it. I did this, and for two days she seemed somewhat easier…

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

There are also much more dangerous procedures. A stomach wound, perhaps from battle, comes up in many texts.

If someone’s bowels be out […] put the bowel back into the man, sew it together with silk

Bald’s Leechbook

Celsus also describes the treatment of a stomach wound where the intestines have fallen out, and a similar procedure seems to have been used on Thormod after the Battle of Stiklestad, described in Heimskringla, a saga about the Kings of Norway.

Sometimes the abdomen is penetrated by a stab of some sort, and it follows that intestines roll out. When this happens we must first examine whether they are uninjured, and then whether their proper colour persists. If the smaller intestine has been penetrated, no good can be done, as I have already said. The larger intestine can be sutured, not with any certain assurance, but because a doubtful hope is preferable to certain despair; for occasionally it heals up. Then if either intestine is livid or pallid or black, in which case there is necessarily no sensation, all medical aid is vain. But if intestines have still their proper colour, aid should be given with all speed, for they undergo change from moment to moment when exposed to the external air, to which they are unaccustomed. The patient is to be laid on his back with his hips raised; and if the wound is too narrow for the intestines to be easily replaced, it is to be cut until sufficiently wide. If the intestines have already become too dry, they are to be bathed with water to which a small quantity of oil has been added. Next the assistant should gently separate the margins of the wound by means of his hands, or even by two hooks inserted into the inner membrane: the surgeon always returns first the intestines which have prolapsed the later, in such a way as to preserve the order of the several coils. When all have been returned, the patient is to be shaken gently: so that of their own accord the various coils are brought into their proper places and settle there. This done, the omentum too must be examined, and any part that is black is to be cut away with shears; what is sound is returned gently into place in front of the intestines. Now stitching of the surface skin only or of the inner membrane only is not enough, but both must be stitched…

..The signs when the small intestine and the stomach have been wounded are the same; for food and drink come out through the wound;

Celsus, De Medicina

In Heimskringla the wound is diagnosed by ingesting a soup with a strong odour:

The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.

Heimskringla

The probing, diagnosis, surgical procedure are what you would expect in today’s hospitals; a learned doctor with years of evidence using the best tools he or she has at their disposal. As a patient, you’d probably just hope the ‘magic’ would work.

Further Reading

For more about Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicine, see more posts on the blog!

  • Bald’s Leechbook (Translation available online)
  • Celsus: On Medicine (Translation available Online)
  • Cameron, M.L (2006). Anglo-Saxon Medicine
  • Heimskringla (Translation available online)
  • Herbal remedies, Paulinus of Aquileia, Astronomical tables and more – Harley MS 3091
  • Lacnunga, Herbarium, Medicina de quadrupedibus – Harley MS 585
  • Sherley-Price, L trans. Bede (1990). Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Pollington, S (2008). Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing

This article is a repost of an older article from our website, originally at https://www.vikingsof.me/surgery-medicine. See also a further exploration into Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicines here.

CategoriesDaily Living and PastimesGamesLiteratureMaterial Culture

Early Medieval Board Games: Hnefatafl

This is the first in a series looking a Viking-Age board games.

Hnefatafl is classified as a war game by board game scholars. There are many variants of hnefatafl, which often fall under the category of ‘tafl’ games. Hnefatafl is a game that is played with unequal sides or forces: the smaller force (the defenders) has a king piece whose aim is to escape to a corner square of the lattice board. The larger forces (attackers) task is to capture the king to stop it from escaping. The rules were not written down contemporarily with the origins of the game, however this it is most likely Hnefatafl was played in its most basic rule set in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. Early 20th Century scholar Harold Murray recognised a game recorded by 18th Century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus called tablut as a ‘tafl’ game.

Carl Linnaeus's drawing of Tablut, a variant of Hnefatafl played by the Sami in the 18th Century.
Linnaeus’s drawing of tablut (1811)

Linnaeus noted tablut in his diary in July 1732 during a tour of Lapland, he commented that it superficially resembled chess, played on a board of 9×9 cells with two forces: the white or Swedish with eight defenders and a king piece, and the dark opposing side or Muscovites with sixteen attackers. The aims are as described above, each piece moves the same, orthogonally, and all are captured by being sandwiched between two opposing pieces in the same row or column.

It is not disputed by academics that tablut is hnefatafl because it matches both archaeological and literary evidence. The Norse sagas give references to playing board games, but most do not describe the rules as this was not the purpose of the story, it was assumed people knew the rules already. If a character in a story written today is playing chess the rules are not described because the assumption is made that the reader knows how to play.

Hervarar saga contains two riddles that relate to gaming. The riddle goes :

‘Who are the maidens who fight around their defenceless lord? The darker ones defend all the time, the fairer ones advance’.

The second riddle goes:

‘What is that beast all girdled with iron which kills the flocks? It has eight horns but no head’

The first riddle’s answer is hnefatafl, the second answer is the hnefi (the king piece is often referred to at the hnefi, although it means ‘fist’ in old Norse). These riddles share elements of the tablut game described by Linnaeus with two sides, one involving a king piece, one side attacks and the other defends. Fridthjof’s Saga gives reference to a double-attack being possible, which supports tablut, as a double attack suggests to surround a piece on two sides to take it out of the game. The archaeological finds of gaming pieces particularly from Scandinavia support Murrays claim as elaborate hnefi pieces are found alongside game pieces that are designed for uneven sides.

For example the image below shows the game pieces from Birka grave 523 has one anthropomorphic king piece, fourteen decorated with spirals and five plain dark glass.

Blue glass gaming pieces, possible used for Hnefatafl, including anthropomorphic king piece discovered in Birka grave 523.

There are numerous lead gaming pieces from the Viking winter camps in Lincolnshire, along with copper alloy pieces in a similar style. Glass gaming pieces from Lindesfarne, Northumberland and Dundurn Hill Fort in Scotland have similar qualities, suggesting a wide distribution of fashion.

hnefatafl board with a mix of similar pieces but in different materials - glass, copper-alloy and lead.

There is evidence for different sized variations of hnefatafl throughout Britain and Ireland. In Ireland the Gaelic terms Brandubh and Fidcheall are mentioned. Brandubh means black raven and could signify the shape of the king piece, although no archaeological evidence supports this so far. Fidcheall means ‘wood sense’ and could be the equivalent to the term for table being used as the name of the game in old English. The old Irish poem Scela Cano mac Gartnain tells of King Cano and his retinue sailing to Ireland in AD 668 with ‘fifty well armed warriors, fifty well-dressed ladies and fifty liveried gillies each with the silver leads of two greyhounds in his right hand, a musical instrument in his left and a fidcheall board on his back along with the silver and gold playing men.’

The Ballinderry board found in Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath, Ireland in 1932, supports this. It was found broken in two parts 8ft apart and has been dated to the 10th century. What is interesting about this board is that it is built with the intention to be travelled with. It is a pegged board so the pieces stay in place when played on a rocking boat or carriage. It also has two decorated projecting heads, one human one animal that can be used as handles on unstable terrain. Both fidcheall and brandubh are listed in Irish laws of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Gaming board found in at Ballinderry, Ireland
The Ballinderry board

The game tawlbwrdd occurs frequently in ancient laws of Wales, however, it was not described until 1587 by Robert ap Ifan. He provides a drawing of an 11×11 board and includes a description of the rules that are very similar to Linnaeus’ tablut. Ifan, includes extra rules, including moving one of your pieces between two of the oppositions pieces and not being captured, you have to say ‘I am your liegeman’ for your piece to safely move into that space though!

Tawlbwrdd means throw board and could suggest the use of dice with the game, however there is limited evidence of dice in conjunction with a ‘tafl’ game. One example was found at Keythorpe Hall in Leicestershire where two dice were excavated with forty-six bone playing pieces. The majority of gaming sets that could be a ‘tafl’ game include no dice. This does not mean dice were not used as there have been games known to use dice that have been found archaeologically missing their dice, such as the Gloucester Tables Set, a late 11th century backgammon board.

The etymology of the name tawlbwrdd may possibly answer the question about dice. Tawlbwrdd is possibly a misunderstanding for the name of the original game by borrowing and confusing taefl in old English and tafl in old Norse meaning board with the welsh tawl. Thus making tawlbwrdd mean board-board and therefore not indicating the use of dice within the game. Ifan’s account supports this, he states that when a piece is captured it is thrown from the board ‘ai daflu or gwarau’ [and he is thrown from the game]. Taflu is the lenited or softening form of daflu .

Replica bone dice
Reproduction bone 6-sided dice with ring-and-dot scoring decoration

The Anglo-Saxon evidence for ‘tafl’ games comes from an Irish gospel manuscript of the 11th century and can be seen below. It is played on an 18×18 lattice board with forty-eight attackers and twenty-four defenders and is called alea evangelii or ‘game of gospels.’ It was known in English court during the reign of Athelstan AD 925-39. Here the game has taken on Christian symbolism: there are seventy-two men because the number of items in the harmony is seventy-two and it is played on an 18×18 board because, four evangelists, four gospels and ten canons equals eighteen.

 alea evangelii as it appears in corpus christi manuscript
Corpus Christi College Manuscript 122

The earliest date for hnefatafl is from evidence of the 5th century AD board fragment found in a grave from Wimose, Denmark. Murray states that it was played by Scandinavian people from 400 AD and brought by the Norsemen to Iceland, Britain and Ireland, where it then spread to Wales. However, there is limited evidence of hnefatafl being played earlier. This evidence is that of conical playing pieces that were not used in the Roman period except for one exception, dating from 1st to 4th centuries AD found amongst an assemblage of Roman gaming pieces in Spain. An excavation at Cnip has a conical piece that dates from first century BC to the first century AD. Pieces from the Shetland isles have also been found, however, because they are all pre-Viking in date (before 6th century) a hnefatafl identification has been avoided.

See also Remembering Hnefatafl, the 1000-year old Viking game murdered by Chess.

Further Reading about Hnefatafl

  • Ashton, John (2007) Linnaeus’ Game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hnefatafl
  • Bell, R. C. (1979) Board and Table Games From Many Civilisations
  • Hall, M (2007) Playtime in Pictland: The Material Culture of Gaming in Early Medieval Scotland
  • Parlett, David (1999) Oxford History of Board Games
CategoriesMedicineReligion

Medicines for all infirmities

When we look back at Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine in the early medieval period, we often think of it as inept at best, lethal at worst. We see a reliance on magic and religion over science and are glad we were born when we were. However, the reality is a little more complex and interesting than it first appears.

While the Anglo-Saxons believed that afflictions were just that, afflictions from God, they were the first people north of the Alps to create medical texts in their own language. This suggests that they took medicine seriously. Similarly, the Icelandic Sagas tell us of astute healers who employed fairly effective methods of healing.

To understand the medicine and society at the time we must look at the way people lived. If you were at the top of the social hierarchy the chances were, you would be well fed and have the possibility of a balanced diet. However, if you were at the other end of the scale in the winter months you would rarely have enough food and be unlikely to ever see a balanced diet. For most of society, malnutrition coupled with living in cold, dank hovels did not make for the best start to a healthy world.

Into this world strode the lǣċe, (pronounced leech or larch), which was the common term for a healer of any kind in Old English, in Old Norse it was læknir. Both words come from a similar Proto-Germanic origin and arguably derive from either the term to bleed or a term for an enchanter. Either of these origins would fit given the nature of the work they did.

Healers in Saxon England ranged from local healers often known as cunning women/men who had knowledge passed down through the ages in a verbal tradition, to monks who were specifically trained. Interspersed between the two, were secular, educated physicians of varying abilities who earnt their livelihood through their medical skills.

A lot of the book learned healing and monastic training came from old Latin and Greek texts. Some of these texts were translated such as the Herbarium, passing Mediterranean medicine into the Saxon tradition. This meant that bleeding, the four humours and Roman treatments were still being practiced in Saxon England to one degree or another.

One of the best sets of medical texts of the time were Bald’s Leechbooks. It still has elements of faith, superstition and magic but goes about critically looking at the body and its working, literally from head to foot. It often gives sound advice such as pregnant women should avoid salty foods, alcoholic drinks and vigorous exercise.

The Lacnunga by comparison is an erratically written collection of ‘knowledge’, often haphazardly put down. This may have not been the best for the patient but gives us an excellent look at beliefs that common people had that even Bald stayed away from. The best example of this is:

“157. Against when a man cannot sleep: take henbane’s seed and gardens mint juice; stir together and smear the head with it; better will come to him.
158. When a man first tells you that your cattle are lost, say then, before you say anything else “Bethlehem was that city called in which Christ was born…”

Here we can see that in the Saxon mind a purely herbal remedy held the same weight as a purely magical cure. Many cures, especially for things that were incurable at the time, were a mixture of both. This blending often meant that any success gained by the herbs, poultices and broths would also be giving credit to the more magical elements such as incantations, Luna phases and holy relics.

Vikings by comparison had none of these written traditions, to draw from or contribute to. Our evidence comes from the saga’s written generations after the events described and archaeological remains. Undoubtedly healing went on, and at the very beginning of the Viking period this was at a local level.

The use of runes and charms are often cited in the sagas and the belief in their power was just as strong as the Saxon belief in Christian religion. In Egil’s saga chapter 73 for example a young woman was first harmed by the improper use of runes and then healed by the correct use of runes.

Given the violent, dangerous world they lived in the Saxons and the Vikings often became proficient in first aid and surgery. The tools of their trade were in many ways not dissimilar to our own, if a little cruder. Many would come from everyday life such as a needle or sharp knife. Others would be closer to workmen’s tools such as a saw, mallet or given some of Bald’s descriptions, a sledgehammer.

Germs and infections undoubtedly killed a large percentage of patients. Surprisingly, many people survived these procedures. There is evidence that people even survived trepanning from skulls that have subsequently healed. More interestingly, some of the science they employed seemed far in advance of their age. Bald recommends an early variant of biodegrading stitches, while in Heimskringla we see a clever diagnostic technique.

The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.

Many cures worked and are still supported by science today. Horehound was a treatment for coughs and is still used in lozenges. Honey was used as an antiseptic, and we know that its high sugar content draws out the water from bacteria, dehydrating and killing them. At one end of the scale there was often science behind the medicine, so genuine healing took place, even if the science wasn’t known to the practitioner. Just as often we have magical and (some) herbal cures that offer nothing more than hope and a placebo effect.  At the other end, there were a number of lethal treatments which became more dangerous than the ailment they were trying to treat. All of these treatments combine into a lucky dip, that few in the modern age would be brave enough to try.

See more posts about Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine throughout our blog!

CategoriesLiteratureReligion

The Road to Hel is not paved with good intentions, it has a gold roof

I am constantly being told that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, I decided to do some digging just in case I have been misinformed. This is what I found.

Hel in the Eddas was a little bit different to the similar sounding Hell of Christianity. For a start Hel was ruled over by Hel the daughter of Loki. To me that could get mightily confusing on the to day administration of the place. For a start does being told to go to Hel mean person or place? Does the person want us to report to the boss or just go to a place usually reserved for the dead? I guess the only way to find out is to go there. The question is how do we get there?

Not wanting to die, the best way to find out is to look for directions from the Prose Edda, especially concerning the death of Baldur and his time in Hel (the place not the person…). This is not a ramble blog about Baldur, so I will keep it light and promise to talk about him and his misfortunes at a later date. Right now, it is about going to Hel and the best person for that was Hermóðr who volunteers to ride to Hel (the place, not the being) to get Baldur out.

Riding on  Slipnirr, Odin’s 8 legged steed, he rides the Helvegr or hell road. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda, almost certainly got this from earlier poetry, as Hermóðr has to ride through more alliteration than a one eyed Aseir could shake a stick at. He has to ride nine nights through deep and dark valleys which looks something like this in written form: Døkkva dala ok djúpa

Riding through all the alliteration he comes to the river Gjǫll spanned by a bridge Gjallabrú which is covered by a roof of gold. Here he was met by a young woman called Móguðr who asks him why he is riding to Hel. A reasonable question as he was not dead.

She comments that 5 groups of warriors passed that way yesterday which is interesting as it sounds like this was the default destination for people at the time. This is probably based on an earlier belief system where everyone goes to Hel. Being a coward and incredibly lazy this works for me as I have to put no extra effort into the afterlife.

Hermóðr who was not a coward asked Móguðr if she had seen Baldur, to which she says she had. He had ridden there earlier. This ties in with the fact Baldur was cremated with his horse, which is incredibly useful if you are Baldur, not so good if you are his horse. With stories like these it is not so good for any horse. The amount of Danish horse burials is quite staggering…

So, if you want to go to Hel, while avoiding the whole dying thing, head to the river Gjǫll and look out for a bridge with a gold roof. After that go down and north. While this is not quite Google Maps it is a good start for a time when maps were a bit thin on the ground. It is also the start of a phrase that lasted hundreds of years. Being told to go down and north was for hundreds of years like being told to go to hell.

Just like Rome, there appears to be many roads to Hel, just in case there is congestion. It also suggests it is more like a physical place than a conceptual one. In the poem Helreið Brynhildar in the Poetic Edda, Brynhildar rides to Hel after her cremation on a wagon. Again, not so good for the wagon, not so good for the horse.

Instead of finding a bridge of gold she rides through the farm of a giant woman whose name we are not given. Which is not that helpful, but just adds to the idea that this is a place where you journey to and where you can meet fairly normal things (for the Eddas).

The thing with both of these directions is that there is very much a physical road you can ride, which is part of your transitioning across. It also seems mundane compared to other concepts of the dead. Okay, a gold roof is pretty swish, but we are riding on a bridge over a river, or on a road past a farm… Hel itself does not seem to bad either, there are no tortured souls, roasting sinners or other unpleasantness. Baldur even got a feast, which has got to be better than turning up hungry.

My takeaway from the road to Hel is that it is not paved with good intentions, the chances are it is not even paved at all. No matter the state of the road it leads to a place, underground or not, it is a place, not some mystical state. You don’t find Hel at the centre of the earth just by digging and you don’t wake up there after falling badly off your horse. You can (if you are insane or a hero like Hermóðr) go there before you die, but my advice is that Miami is probably nicer this time of year. Should you wait until the end of your life there are no real entry requirements and you are likely to find some interesting people and the occasional Valkyrie, so it’s not all bad.