Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All in the (Berserker) family, Part I

Last night, I hosted my first Adult Folktale Telling, at lovely Porter Square Books. It was Hallowe'en, and there's nothing like the ancient Celtic New Year to get me in the mood to tell stories. Now, for normal folks, fall's chill makes them yearn for pumpkin spice lattes and ugly Christmas sweaters. And then there's me. That nip in the air puts me in mind of some of my favorite folklore friends: The Suffocated Bride, The Little Old Woman who ate Hairy Toe Stew, the Longridge Boggart, Hoichi the Earless. Those there are my homies, and Hallowe'en doesn't pass without my paying them a visit. This year, I brought a new friend to the party, and she wasn't shy. In fact, she may have freaked out the others, and they don't scare easily.

Her name is Hervor the Shieldmaiden, and she is a Nasty Woman.

The story of Hervor is ancient, its earliest known version dating from the 12th century. Despite having been raised to be a servant and kept in ignorance of her ancestry, her bloody parentage made itself known even before she hit puberty. Given to bursts of savage violence and brutality, unusual even in Viking culture, Hervor made few friends, and her enemies feared her. Whoever told her about her lineage was probably hoping that the news would motivate her to move on. It did.

Turns out, Hervor was the posthumous daughter of Angantyr, one of the twelve sons of Arngrim, a famous Berserker. Violent mayhem was her birthright; that, and a cursed dwarf-forged sword, called Tyrfing. To a penniless orphaned bond-maiden, ownership of Tyrfing offered the promise of wealth and eternal fame, the twin lodestones of Viking culture. Neither curse nor threat of death mattered to Hervor. Only her father's sword, her rightful inheritance. (Believe it or not, Vikings were sticklers for legal niceties regarding legacies and moveable goods. Since women had higher status in Viking society than nearly anywhere else in the ancient world, they could - and did - defend their inheritance rights.) The only wrinkle in this case was that Hervor's relatives were all dead, and their weaponry, including Tyrfing, had been buried with them. But that didn't worry her.

So who were these Berserker relatives? Therein lies a
tale.... Hervor's grandfather, Arngrim, was the first in her family to claim Tyrfing, which he took from the severed hand of its first owner. This was Svafrlami (don't hurt yourself trying to say his name), one of the god Odin's numerous spawn. Odin, lord of Valhalla, was called All-Father for good reason; not even he could keep track of all of the mortal women he impregnated over the centuries, and the men and women who claimed him as their direct ancestor were legion. The luckless Svafrlami had kidnapped and forced a pair of dwarves to forge him an unbreakable, invincible sword. They complied, but in revenge they embedded a curse into the wicked blade, which caused the death of its owner, and three generations of destruction upon the House of Arngrim. In addition, the power of Tyrfing was such that whoever drew it was so overcome by bloodlust, that they felt an irresistible compulsion to kill; no drawback to a Berserker!

Proud Arngrim took Tyrfing, but he also took Svafrlami's daughter, and he fathered twelve murderous Berserker warriors on her for good measure. He amassed a fortune pillaging and terrorizing the land, before retiring in comfort and bequeathing his most prized possession to the tallest and strongest of his sons. In this way, Angantyr son of Arngrim, came to own Tyrfing. One by one, Angantyr and his brothers found and took wives; but, like their mother, few joined the House of Arngrim willingly. One of the twelve, Hjörvard, set his sights on Ingeborg, the daughter of the king of Sweden. With his eleven brothers as his wingmen, he arrived in Uppsala and announced his intention, demanding the princess. But Ingeborg already had a suitor, Hjallmar the champion of Sweden, and she was loathe to marry a Berserker. Enraged, Hjörvard challenged the Swedes and demanded the right to fight for the bride he had chosen. So Hjallmar brought a host of hundreds to meet the twelve sons of Arngrim on the small island of Samsø, off of Denmark, in a bloody battle. It was the Hunger Games, Viking Edition. Total mayhem ensued.

When it was over, the Swedes had triumphed, but just barely. Hjallmar only lived long enough to sing his own death song, but it was a song of victory nonetheless. The twelve sons of Arngrim lay mutilated and dead in a gory heap on the field of battle. The battered Swedish warriors, eager to leave the scene of slaughter, hastily covered over the gruesome corpses with the blood-soaked dirt upon which they lay. In this manner they formed a traditional warriors' barrow in which to contain the dead, whose feats of arms they grudgingly acknowledged with a runestone marking the place where the twelve Berserkers had fallen. No doubt everyone hoped that this marked the end of the reign of terror of the House of Arngrim. No such luck; as we already know, Angantyr's wife bore Hervor several months after the carnage on Samsø. Despite her attempts to keep the story of her daughter's heritage buried, along with her late unlamented husband and his cursed sword, Hervor eventually learned the truth. She somehow got her hands on a ship, recruited a crew, and sailed for Samsø, intent on claiming her inheritance. And that's when things began to get really interesting!

..........to be continued...........

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