The Were-Wolf in the North
Norse Traditions—Manner in which the Change was effected—Vœlundar Kvœda—Instances from the Völsung Saga—Hrolf’s Saga—Kraka—Faroëse Poem—Helga Kvida —Vatnsdæla Saga—Eyrbyggja Saga
IN Norway and Iceland certain men were said to be eigi einhamir, not of one skin, an idea which had its roots in paganism. The full form of this strange superstition was, that men could take upon them other bodies, and the natures of those beings whose bodies they assumed. The second adopted shape was called by the same name as the original shape, hamr, and the expression made use of to designate the transition from one body to another, was at skipta hömum, or at hamaz; whilst the expedition made in the second form, was the hamför. By this transfiguration extraordinary powers were acquired; the natural strength of the individual was doubled, or quadrupled; he acquired the strength of the beast in whose body he travelled, in addition to his own, and a man thus invigorated was called hamrammr.
The manner in which the change was effected, varied. At times, a dress of skin was cast over the body, and at once the transformation was complete; at others, the human body was deserted, and the soul entered the second form, leaving the first body in a cataleptic state, to all appearance dead. The second hamr was either borrowed or created for the purpose. There was yet a third manner of producing this effect—it was by incantation; but then the form of the individual remained unaltered, though the eyes of all beholders were charmed so that they could only perceive him under the selected form.
Having assumed some bestial shape, the man who is eigi einhammr is only to be recognized by his eyes, which by no power can be changed. He then pursues his course, follows the instincts of the beast whose body he has taken, yet without quenching his own intelligence. He is able to do what the body of the animal can do, and do what he, as man, can do as well. He may fly or swim, if be is in the shape of bird or fish; if he has taken the form of a wolf, or if he goes on a gandreið, or wolf’s-ride, he is full of the rage and malignity of the creatures whose powers and passions he has assumed.
I will give a few instances of each of the three methods of changing bodies mentioned above. Freyja and Frigg had their falcon dresses in which they visited different regions of the earth, and Loki is said to have borrowed these, and to have then appeared so precisely like a falcon, that he would have escaped detection, but for the malicious twinkle of his eyes. In the Vælundar kviða is the following passage:—
Meyjar flugu sunnan
þær á savarströnd
Settusk at hvilask,
Dró sir suðrœnar
Dýrt lín spunnu.
From the south flew the maidens
Athwart the gloom,
Alvit the young,
To fix destinies;
They on the sea-strand
Sat them to rest,
These damsels of the south
Fair linen spun.
Ein nam þeirra
Egil at verja
Fögr mær fíra
Önnur var Svanhvít,
En in þriðja
Var i hvítan
One of them took
Egil to press,
Fair maid, in her
Another was Svanhwit,
Who wore swan feathers;
And the third,
Pressed the white
Neck of Vœlund.
The introduction of Sœmund tells us that these charming young ladies were caught when they had laid their swan-skins beside them on the shore, and were consequently not in a condition to fly.
In like manner were wolves’ dresses used. The following curious passage is from the wild Saga of the Völsungs:—
“It is now to be told that Sigmund thought Sinfjötli too young to help him in his revenge, and he wished first to test his powers; so during the summer they plunged deep into the wood and slew men for their gods, and Sigmund saw that he was quite of the Völsung stock. . . . Now it fell out that as they went through the forest, collecting monies, that they lighted on a house in which were two men sleeping, with great gold rings an them; they had dealings with witchcraft, for wolf-skins hung up in the house above them; it was the tenth day on which they might come out of their second state. They were kings’ sons. Sigmund and Sinfjötli got into the habits, and could not get out of them again, and the nature of the original beasts came over them, and they howled as wolves—they learned “both of them to howl. Now they went into the forest, and each took his own course; they made the agreement together that they should try their strength against as many as seven men, but not more, and. that he who was ware of strife should utter his wolf’s howl.
“‘Do not fail in this,’ said Sigmund, ‘for you are young and daring, and men would be glad to chase you.’ Now each went his own course; and after that they had parted Sigmund found men, so he howled; and when Sinfjötli heard that, he ran up and slew them all—then they separated. And Sinfjötli had not been long in the wood before he met with eleven men; he fell upon them and slew them every one. Then he was tired, so he flung himself under an oak to rest. Up came Sigmund and said, ‘Why did you not call out?’ Sinfjötli replied, ‘What was the need of asking your help to kill eleven men?’
“Sigmund flew at him and rent him so that he fell, for he had bitten through his throat. That day they could not leave their wolf-forms. Sigmund laid him on his back and bare him home to the hall, and sat beside him, and said, ‘Deuce take the wolf-forms!”‘ —Völsung Saga, c. 8.
There is another curious story of a were-wolf in the same Saga, which I must relate.
“Now he did as she requested, and hewed down a great piece of timber, and cast it across the feet of those ten brothers seated in a row, in the forest; and there they sat all that day and on till night. And at midnight there came an old she-wolf out of the forest to them, as they sat in the stocks, and she was both huge and grimly. Now she fell upon one of them, and bit him to death, and after she had eaten him all up, she went away. And next morning Signy sent a trusty man to her brothers, to know how it had fared with them. When he returned he told her of the death of one, and that grieved her much, for she feared it might fare thus with them all, and she would be unable to assist them.
“In short, nine nights following came the same she-wolf at midnight, and devoured them one after another till all were dead, except Sigmund, and he was left alone. So when the tenth night came, Signy sent her trusty man to Sigmund, her brother, with honey in his hand, and said that he was to smear it over the face of Sigmund, and to fill his mouth with it. Now he went to Sigmund, and did as he was bid, after which he returned home. And during the night came the same she-wolf, as was her wont, and reckoned to devour him, like his brothers.
“Now she snuffed at him, where the honey was smeared, and began to lick his face with her tongue, and presently thrust her tongue into his mouth. He bore it ill, and bit into the tongue of the she-wolf; she sprang up and tried to break loose, setting her feet against the stock, so as to snap it asunder: but he held firm, and ripped the tongue out by the roots, so that it was the death of the wolf. It is the opinion of some men that this beast was the mother of King Siggeir, and that she had taken this form upon her through devilry and witchcraft.”—(c. 5.)
There is another story bearing on the subject in the Hrolfs Saga Kraka, which is pretty; it is as follows:—
“In the north of Norway, in upland-dales, reigned a king called Hring; and he had a son named Björn. Now it fell out that the queen died, much lamented by the king, and by all. The people advised him to marry again, and so be sent men south to get him a wife. A gale and fierce storm fell upon them, so that they had to turn the helm, and run before the wind, and so they came north to Finnmark, where they spent the winter. One day they went inland, and came to a house in which sat two beautiful women, who greeted them well, and inquired whence they had come. They replied by giving an account of their journey and their errand, and then asked the women who they were, and why they were alone, and far from the haunts of men, although they were so comely and engaging. The elder replied that her name was Ingibjorg, and that her daughter was called Hvit, and that she was the Finn king’s sweetheart. The messengers decided that they would return home, if Hvit would come with them and marry King Hring. She agreed, and they took her with them and met the king who was pleased with her, and had his wedding feast made, and said that he cared not though she was not rich. But the king was very old, and that the queen soon found out.
“There was a Carle who had a farm not far from the king’s dwelling; he had a wife, and a daughter, who was but a child, and her name was Bera; she was very young and lovely. Björn the king’s son, and Bera the Carle’s daughter, were wont, as children, to play together, and they loved each other well. The Carle was well to do, he had been out harrying in his young days, and he was a doughty champion. Björn and Bera loved each other more and more, and they were often together.
Time passed, and nothing worth relating occurred; but Björn, the king’s son, waxed strong and tall; and he was well skilled in all manly exercises.
“King Hring was often absent for long, harrying foreign shores, and Hvit remained at home and governed the land. She was not liked of the people. She was always very pleasant with Björn, but he cared little for her. It fell out once that the King Hring went abroad, and he spake with his queen that Björn should remain at home with her, to assist in the government, for he thought it advisable, the queen being haughty and inflated with pride.
“The king told his son Björn that he was to remain at home, and rule the land with the queen; Björn replied that he disliked the plan, and that he had no love for the queen; but the king was inflexible, and left the land with a great following. Björn walked home after his conversation with the king, and went up to his place, ill-pleased and red as blood. The queen came to speak with him, and to cheer him; and spake friendly with him, but he bade her be off. She obeyed him that time. She often came to talk with him, and said how much pleasanter it was for them to be together, than to have an old fellow like Hring in the house.
“Björn resented this speech, and struck her a box in the ear, and bade her depart, and he spurned her from him. She replied that this was ill-done to drive and thrust her away: and ‘You think it better, Björn, to sweetheart a Carle’s daughter, than to have my love and favour, a fine piece of condescension and a disgrace it is to you! But, before long, something will stand in the way of your fancy, and your folly.’ Then she struck at him with a wolf-skin glove, and said, that he should become a rabid and grim wild bear; and ‘You shall eat nothing but your father’s sheep, which you shall slay for your food, and never shall you leave this state.’
After that, Björn disappeared, and none knew what had become of him; and men sought but found him not, as was to be expected. We must now relate how that the king’s sheep were slaughtered, half a score at a time, and it was all the work of a grey bear, both huge and grimly.
“One evening it chanced that the Carle’s daughter saw this savage bear coming towards her, looking tenderly at her, and she fancied that she recognized the eyes of Björn, the king’s son, so she made a slight attempt to escape; then the beast retreated, but she followed it, till she came to a cave. Now when she entered the cave there stood before her a man, who greeted Bera, the Carle’s daughter; and she recognized him, for he was Björn, Hring’s son. Overjoyed were they to meet. So they were together in the cave awhile, for she would not part from him when she had the chance of being with him; but he said that this was not proper that she should be there by him, for by day he was a beast, and by night a man.
“Hring returned from his harrying, and he was told the news, of what had taken place during his absence; how that Björn, his son, had vanished, and also, how that a monstrous beast was up the country, and was destroying his flocks. The queen urged the king to have the beast slain, but he delayed awhile.
“One night, as Bera and Björn were together, he said to her:—’Methinks to-morrow will be the day of my death, for they will come out to hunt me down. But for myself I care not, for it is little pleasure to live with this charm upon me, and my only comfort is that we are together; but now our union must be broken. I will give you the ring which is under my left hand. You will see the troop of hunters to-morrow coming to seek me; and when I am dead go to the king, and ask him to give you what is under the beast’s left front leg. He will consent.’
“He spoke to her of many other things, till the bear’s form stole over him, and he went forth a bear. She followed him, and saw that a great body of hunters had come over the mountain ridges, and had a number of dogs with them. The bear rushed away from the cavern, but the dogs and the king’s men came upon him, and there was a desperate struggle. He wearied many men before he was brought to bay, and had slain all the dogs. But now they made a ring about him, and he ranged around it., but could see no means of escape, so he turned to where the king stood, and he seized a man who stood next him, and rent him asunder; then was the bear so exhausted that he cast himself down flat, and, at once, the men rushed in upon him and slew him. The Carle’s daughter saw this, and she went up to the king, and said,—’Sire! wilt thou grant me that which is under the bear’s left fore-shoulder?’ The king consented. By this time his men had nearly flayed the bear; Bera went up and plucked away the ring, and kept it, but none saw what she took, nor had they looked for anything. The king asked her who she was, and she gave a name, but not her true name.
“The king now went home, and Bera was in his company. The queen was very joyous, and treated her well, and asked who she was; but Bera answered as before.
“The queen now made a great feast, and had the bear’s flesh cooked for the banquet. The Carle’s daughter was in the bower of the queen, and could not escape, for the queen had a suspicion who she was. Then she came to Bera with a dish, quite unexpectedly, and on it was bear’s flesh, and she bade Bera eat it. She would not do so. ‘Here is a marvel!’ said the queen; ‘you reject the offer which a queen herself deigns to make to you. Take it at once, or something worse will befall you.’ She bit before her, and she ate of that bite; the queen cut another piece, and looked into her mouth; she saw that one little grain of the bite had gone down, but Bera spat out all the rest from her mouth, and said she would take no more, though she were tortured or killed.
“‘Maybe you have had sufficient,’ said the queen, and she laughed.”—(Hrolfs Saga Kraka, c. 24-27, condensed.)
In the Faroëse song of Finnur hin friði, we have the following verse:—
|Hegar íð Finnur hetta sær,
Mannspell var at meini,
Skapti hann seg í varglíki:
Hann feldi allvæl fleiri.
|When this peril Finn saw,
That witchcraft did him harm,
Then he changed himself into a were-wolf:
He slew many thus.
The following is from the second Kviða of Helga Hundingsbana (stroph. 31):—
May the blade bite,
Which thou brandishest
Only on thyself,
When it Chimes on thy head.
Then avenged will be
The death of Helgi,
When thou, as a wolf,
Wanderest in the woods,
Knowing nor fortune
Nor any pleasure,
Haying no meat,
Save rivings of corpses.
In all these cases the change is of the form: we shall now come to instances in which the person who is changed has a double shape, and the soul animates one after the other.
The Ynglinga Saga (c. 7) says of Odin, that “he changed form; the bodies lay as though sleeping or dead, but he was a bird or a beast, a fish, or a woman, and went in a twinkling to far distant lands, doing his own or other people’s business.” In like manner the Danish king Harold sent a warlock to Iceland in the form of a whale, whilst his body lay stiff and stark at home. The already quoted Saga of Hrolf Krake gives us another example, where Bödvar Bjarki, in the shape of a huge bear, fights desperately with the enemy, which has surrounded the hall of his king, whilst his human body lies drunkenly beside the embers within.
In the Vatnsdæla Saga, there is a curious account of three Finns, who were shut up in a hut for three nights, and ordered by Ingimund, a Norwegian chief, to visit Iceland and inform him of the lie of the country, where he was to settle. Their bodies became rigid, and they sent their souls the errand, and, on their awaking at the end of three days, gave an accurate description of the Vatnsdal, in which Ingimund was eventually to establish himself. But the Saga does not relate whether these Finns projected their souls into the bodies of birds or beasts.
The third manner of transformation mentioned, was that in which the individual was not changed himself, but the eyes of others were bewitched, so that they could not detect him, but saw him only under a certain form. Of this there are several examples in the Sagas; as, for instance, in the Hromundar Saga Greypsonar, and in the Fostbræðra Saga. But I will translate the most curious, which is that of Odd, Katla’s son, in the Eyrbyggja Saga.—(c. 20.)
“Geirrid, housewife in Mafvahlið, sent word into Bolstad, that she was ware of the fact that Odd, Katla’s son, had hewn off Aud’s hand.
“Now when Thorarinn and Arnkell heard that, they rode from home with twelve men. They spent the night in Mafvahlið, and rode on next morning to Holt: and Odd was the only man in the house.
“Katla sat on the high seat spinning yarn, and she bade Odd sit beside her; also, she bade her women sit each in her place, and hold their tongues. ‘For,’ said she, ‘I shall do all the talking.’ Now when Arnkell and his company arrived, they walked straight in, and when they came into the chamber, Katla greeted Arnkell, and asked the news. He replied that there was none, and he inquired after Odd. Katla said that he had gone to Breidavik. ‘We shall ransack the house though,’ quoth Arnkell. ‘Be it so,’ replied Katla, and she ordered a girl to carry a light before them, and unlock the different parts of the house. All they saw was Katla spinning yarn off her distaff. Now they search the house, but find no Odd, so they depart. But when they had gone a little way from the garth, Arnkell stood still and said: ‘How know we but that Katla has hoodwinked us, and that the distaff in her hand was nothing more than Odd.’ ‘Not impossible!’ said Thorarinn; ‘let us turn back.’ They did so; and when those at Holt raw that they were returning, Katla said to her maids, ‘Sit still in your places, Odd and I shall go out.’
“Now as they approached the door, she went into the porch, and began to comb and clip the hair of her son Odd. Arnkell came to the door and saw where Katla was, and she seemed to be stroking her goat, and disentangling its mane and beard and smoothing its wool. So he and his men went into the house, but found not Odd. Katla’s distaff lay against the bench, so they thought that it could not have been Odd, and they went away. However, when they had come near the spot where they had turned before, Arnkell said, ‘Think you not that Odd may have been in the goat’s form?’ ‘There is no saying,’ replied Thorarinn; ‘but if we turn back we will lay hands on Katla.’ ‘We can try our luck again,’ quoth Arnkell; ‘and see what comes of it.’ So they returned.
“Now when they were seen on their way back, Katla bade Odd follow her; and she lea him to the ash-heap, and told him to lie there and not to stir on any account. But when Arnkell, and his men came to the farm, they rushed into the chamber, and saw Katla seated in her place, spinning. She greeted them and said that their visits followed with rapidity. Arnkell replied that what she said was true. His comrades took the distaff and cut it in twain. ‘Come now!’ said Katla, ‘you cannot say, when you get home, that you have done nothing, for you have chopped up my distaff.’ Then Arnkell and the rest hunted high and low for Odd, but could not find him; indeed they saw nothing living about the place, beside a boar-pig which lay under the ash-heap, so they went away once more.
“Well, when they got half-way to Mafvahlið, came Geirrid to meet them, with her workmen. ‘They had not gone the right way to work in seeking Odd,’ she said, ‘but she would help them.’ So they turned back again. Geirrid had a blue cloak on her. Now when the party was seen and reported to Katla, and it was said that they were thirteen in number, and one had on a coloured dress, Katla exclaimed, ‘That troll Geirrid is come! I shall not be able to throw a glamour over their eyes any more.’ She started up from her place and lifted the cushion of the seat, and there was a hole and a cavity beneath: into this she thrust Odd, clapped the cushion over him, and sat down, saying she felt sick at heart.
“Now when they came into the room, there were small greetings. Geirrid cast of her the cloak and went up to Katla, and took the seal-skin bag which she had in her hand, and drew it over the head of Katla.(i) Then Geirrid bade them break up the seat. They did so, and found Odd. Him they took and carried to Buland’s head, where they hanged him. . . . But Katla they stoned to death under the headland.”
(i) A precaution against the “evil eye.” Compare Gisla Saga Surssonnar, p. 34. Laxdæla Saga, cc. 37, 38.