As a medievalist it is always satisfying to point out that many traditions can be traced back to the medieval period – and this applies also to the custom of setting and telling tales of ghosts and monsters at the time of the winter solstice. It is well known that this time, one of long-established feasts and rituals both inside and outside the Roman Empire, was deliberately chosen as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ. What may be less well known is that the supernatural conflict between the old religion and the new is a haunting presence within the ghost stories told by the sagas. Encounters between human heroes and destructive monsters were often set at Yule and in the semi-pagan past. In this post I shall try to illustrate the point by retelling stories which set lasting patterns for tales of the supernatural.
I. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God
First up is the Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, which tells the story of the half-human Bard, son of King Mist, ruler of Helluland in the mysterious far North, and his descendants. Bard’s mother, Mjoll, was human but Mist was part giant and part troll, and Bard inherited superhuman strength. He added study of sorcery to this before leading his family to settle in Iceland. When he grew old Bard disappeared from human society into the glacier at the head of his valley. He reappeared to give protection to those who called on him, gaining the name of ‘God of Snowfell’. One such reappearance was to Odd, son of Onund, whom Bard invited to a Yule feast. Odd fought his way through the gathering midwinter storms and the devious behaviour of enemies, and was rescued from the mountainside by Bard himself in time for Yule. However, Bard was not always so kind. He abandoned one of his lovers, with her son, Gest, and only took Gest into the glacier when he was almost an adult.
Gest willingly learnt both law and magic from Bard and was thus well prepared when the troll, Bag, invited father and son to a great Yule feast in her cave. Like Yule feasts across Scandinavia and Britain this one involved competitive drinking and violent games, during which Gest made an enemy of the ogre, Kolbjorn, but lived to leave the cave with his father. This was a time when both trolls and ogres preyed on humans and their animals, killing many but also kidnapping women. Kolbjorn followed this pattern and, as well as causing terrible losses to local farmers, stole and starved Bard’s daughter, Solrun. During another violent feast in Kolbjorn’s even more terrifying cave Gest rescued Solrun and killed a small army of ogres, despite the intervention of Kolbjorn’s mother, a powerful sorceress.
Ultimately more threatening for Gest is King Olaf Tryggvason and his energetic promotion of Christianity. Gest and Solrun are invited to court for Yule, known to King Olaf as Christmas. Gest refuses to be baptised but attends the Christmas Eve celebrations, where events strongly anticipate the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Into the court strides a tall and evil-looking warrior, wearing mail and armed with a sword, who issues a challenge (of course). He dares all the assembled company to try to take his treasure – and then disappears, leaving most people unconscious. Gest identifies this revenant as Raknar, ancient king of Helluland and murderer of his own parents amongst very many others, who was buried alive in his ship along with 800 warriors. At Olaf Tryggvason’s request Gest, bound by the rules of hospitality and honour, agrees to take up the supernatural challenge. He is given assistance in the form of two magicians and a priest, though he is not happy about the priest. Magical equipment is also given – a sword, a piece of cloth and a candle.
In the early stages of the quest the priest is something of a hindrance, killing a pagan who offers more magic and having to be carried on Gest’s back. However, the priest, unlike the magicians, proves to be immune to magical threats and uses his crucifix to kill a supernatural bull which nearly kills Gest. The priest is also able to watch through the night, despite terrifying apparitions and ghostly visions. Gest’s own powers are great enough to enable him to reach the inner depths of the enormous burial mound within which Raknar and his undead army wait to kill him. Gest cuts off the heads of 500 warriors, seizes the treasure and finds Raknar himself seated on a carved throne. At this crucial moment the magic in Gest’s equipment becomes exhausted and, as Raknar is about to kill him, he calls upon Bard. The call is answered but, when the candle burns out and the dark returns, the dead men rise up and prevent Bard from reaching Gest. It is only when Gest calls upon Olaf Tryggvason and his new God that Raknar is vanquished. Gest then has no real choice but to accept Christianity, although the decision proves fatal when Bard arrives to punish him.
II. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
The second saga is the better-known story of Grettir the Strong, a heroic but deeply flawed warrior who encountered a series of monsters (human and otherwise) at Yule. His career can be placed c1,000 CE, at the time when Iceland accepted Christianity. Even as a child Grettir was noted for his strength and courage – and also his stubbornness and love of insults. This complex character was demonstrated when, after being shipwrecked, Grettir was taken in by a wealthy landowner called Thorfinn. This man’s father, Kar the Old, was buried in a mound on an isolated headland but returned to haunt everyone who tried to farm on ‘his’ island. Grettir could not resist the challenge and broke into Kar’s barrow, opening up its roof, before venturing further in. Here he found treasure and the bones of an enormous horse, as well as the barrow-dweller himself, sitting on a carved throne. Like Gest, Grettir was able to seize the treasure but was attacked from behind in the dark while trying to escape. Unlike Gest, Grettir was able to cut off Kar’s head without assistance. This exploit, unsurprisingly, was not greeted with unmixed joy by Thorfinn. Grettir’s next adventure on the island took place while Thorfinn and most of his warriors were away at a Christmas feast on the mainland. A boatload of Vikings took the opportunity to attack Thorfinn’s hall but were routed and killed by Grettir, thus earning the reward he desired.
The next Christmas season found Grettir at Saltfjord in Halogaland, where an enormous bear was causing havoc. Only Grettir was able to kill the bear, after wrestling it over a cliff – but once again he made enemies and was forced to move on. He was now famous enough to go back to Iceland and work for rich men who needed his protection, as well as to pursue old enmities. One of Grettir’s clients, Thorkell, owned land in a valley which was permanently dark in midwinter and haunted by an ogre-like creature. This had led Thorkell to hire a Swedish fighter called Glam, who was nearly as gigantic and frightening as the monster. Glam was perfectly willing to fight ghosts but completely unwilling to go to church, and demonstrated his hostility to the new religion by demanding to be fed on Christmas Eve, when all good Christians were fasting. Later that night he went out on guard but failed to return. On Christmas day a search party found his mangled body on the mountainside, with monstrous footprints, splashed with blood, leading away into the mountain. The body resisted all attempts to take it to church for burial but allowed itself to be buried in a cairn.
Glam himself now became an undead monster, reappearing at night through the winter and causing terrible fear and harm until the return of sunlight forced him away. A new shepherd was hired but Glam returned with the winter, killed the shepherd on Christmas Eve and left the mangled corpse to be found on Christmas morning as another unwelcome ‘Christmas present’. Glam then grew even more powerful and destructive than the first monster – at which point Grettir arrived. Like the monster Grendel in the story of Beowulf, Glam broke into Thorkell’s hall at night, so strong he could tear the building apart and so huge his head reached the rafters. In the human space of the hall Grettir held his own against the monster, but Glam managed to drag him into the moonlight, where Glam’s strength grew greater. Grettir managed to overcome Glam, although only after Glam laid a curse on him. The curse turned Grettir’s own strength against him and condemned him to lifelong bad luck, outlawry and loneliness, as well as constant haunting by Glam himself.
The curse took effect and Grettir found himself almost alone when facing an enemy named Thorbjorn and his foster-mother, Thurid. Thurid was human but retained great powers of sorcery, despite being baptised. Once again the power of the supernatural increased in the darkness of winter, and Thurid took advantage of this to carve enchanted runes into the trunk of a fallen tree, chanting spells while walking widdershins and filling the runes with her own blood. Grettir had seized Drang Island, where he hoped to hold off his enemies, but the enchanted tree trunk reached the shore, against wind and tide, and was fatally taken as firewood by his servant. Under the power of the curse Grettir’s own axe caused a festering wound in his leg, making him vulnerable to his enemies. He died at Christmas, supported only by his brother, Illugi, despite all the people he had saved. It was only after death that he was reconciled with Christianity and was buried in a churchyard. These stories, like their heroes, reflect supernatural conflicts on many levels. The new religion triumphs and its enemies are identified with sorcery. And yet Christmas remains a time when feasts are threatened by many kinds of darkness and when the cold of the solstice reduces most humans to huddling around their fires, telling stories of heroes and monsters until light and warmth return. The sagas of Bard, Gest and Grettir, like many others, make it clear that elements of the old religion retained their powers – even if only in the forms of barrow-dwellers and undead warriors – and their stories can still bring a sense of darkness and cold to a midwinter’s night.
Anne Lawrence-Mathers is a Professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, specialising in medieval magic and science, and the interfaces between the two. Anne’s latest monograph, Medieval Meteorology, is available here.