Fostering by Giants in Old Norse Saga Literature by Hilda R. Ellis (1941) 1


Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss Statue 3
Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss Statue (Arnarstapavegur, Arnarstapi, Iceland)

A study of the part played by giants and giantesses in the Fornaldar Sögur reveals an interesting motif, which reappears in a number of stories, and which I think deserves closer study. It will be seen that it does not depend merely on similarity of plot in different tales, and is indeed in many cases irrelevant to the main thread of the story. Moreover this motif is not confined to the Fornaldar Sögur , but is also found in certain stories of the kings of Norway in the Flateyjarbók and the Fornmanna Sögur, in two of the sagas of Iceland, in particular Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss and in the Danish history of Saxo Grammaticus. It is found also in certain of the Irish sagas. Most of the texts from which my evidence is taken do not go back beyond 1300, but I hope to show that there are certain affinities between these stories and earlier material ; moreover the richness of the evidence and the consistency with which certain conceptions recur suggests that we are dealing with old and imperfectly remembered traditions from heathen times.

The giantess foster-mother.

Giants and trolls play a large part in the Fornaldar Sögur, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other. Both frequently appear as black, hideous beings, dressed in skins, and of great size and strength. The troll-woman from Ketils Saga Hangs is a good representative example : ‘When he came to shore, he caught sight of a troll-woman (troll-hona) in a kirtle of bearskin on the cliff. She had just come from the sea, and she was as black as pitch. She was grinning at the sim.’ (F.A.S.2 II 5 p. 152). The so-called ‘giants’ (jötnar) of Örvar-Odds Saga are clearly of the same nature as this. One of their women is described as ‘ in a skin kirtle, of great stature, and so ugly that they thought they had never seen such a creature ‘ (F.A.S. II 5 p. 193). A distinction must be made, however, between giants of this kind and those encountered by Oddr later in the same saga ; these are similarly called jötnar, but sometimes also risir, and they  live in Risaland. Of the family of Hildir, the giant who takes Oddr home to be a plaything for his daughter, we read :

‘It was the nature of these folk to be much bigger and stronger than any other race. They were fairer too than most people elsewhere, but no wiser.’ (18 p. 231).

Undoubtedly the terms jötunn, risi, troll, are not used with precise accuracy in the sagas, but the distinction between the black and the fair giants is worth bearing in mind, as it will recur elsewhere.

Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra (JS_27_fol.,_0363r)
Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra (Manuscript JS 27 fol., 1670)

Both the trolls and the fair giants are usually encountered in families ; we may notice in Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra,3 for instance, that the giantess Brana has two young sisters, Mána and Molda, and an old father, Járnhauss, with six heads. The giants of Risaland also form a family, consisting of Hildir and his wife Hildiriðr, their daughter Hildigurn and their baby son Guðmundr. There is also a certain amount of organization among both races of giants. Oddr watches a troll assembly, and sees a number of trolls meet in a cave under the leadership of their king,4 while Ketill Hæng encounters a troll-woman on the way to the trolls’ assembly, at which a number of personages of some eminence, including Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr, are expected to attend.5 The Risaland giants also have a thing, and their king is chosen by popular vote; Oddr helps his friend Hildir to gain this coveted position by finding him a ‘dog’ fierce enough to overcome those of the other candidates.6These giants and trolls reside in caves, and on several occasions we find the heroes spending the winter with them there. In such cases the giantess concerned usually becomes the protector and guardian of the hero for the rest of his life; he is often told to call upon her in time of need, when she will come to his assistance. Sometimes a child is born to the giantess after the hero has left, but the relationship of the man to the supernatural woman is rather a peculiar one ; it is as foster-mother rather than as wife or mistress that he seems to regard her. Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra is a saga concerned with such a relationship. Brana is supposed to be half giant, half human, and she is well disposed to young Hálfdan from the first, even though he kills her two young  sisters.7 Hálfdan, when a lad of sixteen, stays the winter with her ; and then she sends him to England, with implicit instructions to him to woo the king’s daughter, Marsibil, when he gets there. Moreover she sees to it that he does not fail to carry them out ; for on one occasion when Hálfdan has forgotten Marsibil owing to a spell she appears to him in a dream ‘ to whet his almost blunted purpose.’ This determination to settle Hálfdan in life is the more strange because when Brana sends him away she is expecting a child by him.8 It is arranged that it shall be sent after the father if it is a son, but that if it is a girl it shall stay with the mother ; and apparently the latter is the case, for when Brana appears later in the tale9 to rescue Hálfdan from a perilous situation she mentions her little girl, to whom, she says, she must get back in case she grows up rough-mannered without her mother. This however is all we hear of the daughter.

Brana can give help immediately her name is uttered. On one occasion, when the villain Áki is attempting to break into Ingibjörg’s room, she cries to Brana for help, and the latter by her magic powers fastens the wretched man to the door, where he remains till morning.10 Another time, when the affair is more serious and Hálfdan is trapped in a burning house, Brana appears in person :

. . . ‘ At that moment a woman came out of the woods ; she was of great stature, and she waded through the fire without hesitation, and took up all the foster-brothers in her arms and carried them out of the fire into the wood.’ (13 p. 453-4).

We have another saga with a similar title, Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra; here however there is little justification for the name in the story as it stands, and it seems likely that part of the original plot has been altered or omitted. The giantess in this story is an enchanted queen, and in her changed shape is hideous beyond belief. She has however a beautiful daughter, whom the hero is allowed to wed after the giantess has tested him by demanding three ‘ truths ‘ from him, and by testing his courage by threatening to kill him.11 But it is expressly stated that no children are born of the marriage.12

Sörla saga sterka, manuscript F. 8v of Rask 32 (18th century).
Sörla saga sterka, manuscript F. 8v of Rask 32 (18th century).

Another giant foster-mother appears in Sörla saga sterka. Mána is a giantess of the usual type, and Sörli kills the giant with whom she lives, and then is nearly killed by her.13 He finally gets her at his mercy, however, and then spares her life; and from that time she becomes his faithful friend. He stays one night with her, and she gives him a drink from a him which makes him lose all his weariness; next morning she gives him a great store of treasure, and when he returns a month later she has ready for him the magic armour which he has demanded as the price of her life.14 She too comes to his aid when he calls on her name, for on one occasion when he is wooing Queen Marsibil and she will not listen to him he exclaims ‘ Would now that the old wife Mána, my friend, were here to silence your tyranny ! ‘ and the queen immediately alters her attitude towards him and even consents to marry him.15

Another instance worth noting is that of Hjálmþés saga ok Ölvés. Here the foster-brothers slay nine giant sisters, and afterwards Hörðr goes out and kills their, giant father.16 He spares however the one giantess left alive, Yma, and stays the winter in her cave ; she gives him various treasures, and bids him call on her name if ever he needs help. We do not however hear of his doing so, and on one occasion when he is in desperate need it is his two sisters who are summoned, and not Yma.17 The incident with her is, indeed, completely irrelevant and quite unnecessary to the plot ; and therefore on the face of it more likely to be earlier, half-remembered material.

Örvar-Odds Saga

Again in Örvar-Odds Saga it is interesting to notice that when Oddr visits the fair giants of Risaland his relations with the giant’s daughter, Hildigunn, are first those of foster-child and then of husband.18 When she first sees him, she lays him in the cradle with her baby brother, and treats him like an infant ; but later he becomes her husband, and a child is born to Hildigunn after he leaves her. The boy,..Vignir, grows up and joins his father, but only to be slain by Ögmundr. There is a strange story given in the first book of Saxo  Grammaticus,19 where he deals with the adventures of Hadingus with his ‘foster-mother’ Harthgrepa, which seems as though it should be considered here. Harthgrepa is the daughter of the giant Vagnhofthus, to whom Hadingus as a boy was sent to be fostered and instructed,20 and she herself can be of giant size when she wishes, though she is not always so. She tells Hadingus that she can change her stature at will, and either ‘ reach the clouds,’ as Saxo puts it, or be restricted to mortal size.21 She makes an impassioned appeal to the hero to take her as his wife, claiming that he ought to enter into marriage first with the woman who has fostered him in earliest childhood, and that her size is no obstacle to a union between them. She has the power, she declares, of

‘dividing my countenance between shapes twain, and adopting two forms ; with the greater of these I daunt the fierce, while with the shorter I seek the embraces of men.’

It seems possible that there is something in common between this conception and the motif of a lovely woman disguised as a hideous troll or giant, which occurs so often in the Fornaldar Sögur. The woman under such an enchantment has usually to be embraced before her true shape can be discovered, while even those giantesses who do not actually change their shape generally introduce themselves in a ferocious and threatening manner, in contrast with their later treatment of the hero.

It is interesting to notice that Hadingus is not the only member of his family to be reared by giants ; his father, Gram, is brought up in the same way, and, like Hadingus, marries the daughter of his foster-father : ‘He took to wife the daughter of his upbringer ( educatoris , glossed in one variant pedagogi ), Roarius, she being his foster-sister and of his own years, in order the better to show his gratefulness for his nursing ‘ (I 12 p. 19). This is clearly a marriage of exactly the same kind as that of Hadingus and Harthgrepa, and like that, and the other marriages in the Fornaldar Sögur , it does not last long ; for almost immediately the unnamed daughter is married to his follower, Bessus, while Gram’s affections are engaged elsewhere. Oddly enough  we find Gram, in his meeting with Gro,22 playing the part usually assigned to women in these stories ; he disguises himself as an ugly giant, and afterwards reveals his true shape and receives the embraces of the maiden. The fact that a writer of the twelfth century is thus shown to be familiar with the fostering motif we have been studying in the Fornaldar Sögur is an important argument in favour of a genuine old tradition from heathen times recurring in these stories.

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss book

A saga which serves to place these scattered passages in a new and interesting light is one of the shorter Íslendinga Sögur, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. It can hardly be said to rank properly with the other sagas of life in Iceland, because it deals for the most part, like the Fornaldar Sögur, with supernatural personages and strange events remote from everyday life, and it is in these and not in character that the main interest lies ; nevertheless the story is set in Iceland and some of the characters are well-known Icelanders. Bárðar saga tells the story of a man who retired into the mountains and was worshipped as a god, and is unique in the fact that it is written from the point of view of the supernatural figures in it rather than from that of men. After Bárðr retires from his home, on account of various family troubles, according to the saga, he is called Bárðar Snæfellsáss, and is worshipped as a god to whom men ‘made their vows’ ( heitguð ).23 His friends may call on him in moments of danger ; for instance he comes when summoned and saves Ingjaldr when the latter is nearly dead from exposure as the result of a quarrel with a troll woman,24 and on another occasion he assists Þórir in wrestling.25 ‘All his friends called on him,’ says the saga ‘ if they were placed in any need.’ At such moments he usually appears in person, clad in a grey hood, with a rope girdle about his waist, and with a spiked stick in his hand to help him over the ice.26

Bárðr dwells in a cave in the mountains, with no company save that of his nine daughters, who are described as ‘ rather big, but comely.’27 He sometimes brings young men to the cave to spend the winter with him. A youth called Oddr is invited there this way,28 and while there he is taught law by Bárðr, and is allowed to become the husband of one of the daughters, Þórdis ; we are told however that she dies three years later, and that they have no children. On another occasion Bárðr  spends the winter in disguise at a farm, and teaches ‘ law and genealogies ‘ to the farmer’s son, a boy of sixteen years.29 The farmer’s daughter gives birth to a child after he has gone, and the little boy is taken away and fostered by Helga, the eldest and strangest of Bárðr ‘s daughters.30 He is brought back when he is twelve years of age, but the next winter Bárðr  comes for him and takes him into the mountains, where he teaches him ‘ all his crafts.’

Of Bárðr ‘s nine daughters, none, so far as we. can leam, has any children, although one is married very happily to Oddr, and another lives for some years with Skeggi of Greenland.31 The saga also records the fact that Gestr, Bárðr ‘s son, is not believed to have left any children.32 The eldest daughter, Helga, is a particularly interesting figure. She will not stay with her father, although she visits him from time to time ; the explanation for this being that she is broken-hearted at being separated from Skeggi.33 This however hardly explains her mode of life, which is very strange. She wanders about Iceland, and ‘ scarcely ever has any dealings with men, property or houses.’ She is said to live mostly in caves and hills, but occasionally to pay visits to houses and to live there in secret, as she did for one winter at Hjalla.34 She slept little while she was there, but would lie awake in her curtained bed, playing the harp most of the night. Once a man tried to discover who she was, and had an arm and leg broken for his interference. Helga remarks on one occasion that her ‘ dwelling is not in any one place,’35 and she is still leading this roving existence when she brings up the little Gestr.

Bárðr and his son are closely connected with the giants and trolls. Bárðr himself is said to be of giant stock on his father’s side, since his grandfather was one of the fair risir, like those  mentioned in Örvar-Odds saga, (‘ fairer and huger than other men ‘), while his grandmother was a troll. His mother, however, was a woman of dazzling fairness from Kænland. He was fostered by Dofri, a ‘ cliff-dweller,’ in a cave, and from him is said to have learned ‘ spells and magic so that he was able to foresee the future and know many things.’36 He associates with a rather dubious company of trolls and giants in the mountains, and so does his son, but Bárðr always maintains the upper hand, and is respected by all as being the strongest of them.37 There is a vigorous and riotous picture of troll life given in the saga, which bears out the briefer glimpses in the Fornaldar Sögur, and includes the account of a Yule feast at which all the most celebrated trolls are present.38 On the other hand Bárðr  figures as the protector of men against wicked trolls and evil creatures.39

The earliest manuscript of the sagas was destroyed in the eighteenth century ; it does not seem to have been written before about 1400. However we have evidence that tales of the protective ‘ Ass ‘ of Snasfellsness were familiar in Iceland for some time before that, since in one version of Njáls saga (AM 468) which goes back to the end of the thirteenth century, in the passage where Skarpheðinn makes his insulting allusion to the dubious relations between Flosi and ‘Svínfellsáss’, Snæfellsáss been substituted. The scribe, as Götzen suggests,40 was probably one familiar with local traditions in the Snaefell region. It is usually held that the adventures of Gestr at the end of the saga have been added by a later hand ; the style and manner are very different, and there is much less reliance on Landnámabók.41 Concerning the story of Bárðr and his daughters, however, there seems no reason why the saga as we have it should not have been put together from much older material, mixed with various local traditions about various individuals known from  Landnámabók. and traditional legends about the local ‘ guardian spirit ‘ of the mountains ; these last, Götzen notes,42 continued to  be current in the district long after the saga was compiled. The stanzas spoken by Helga are thought to come from a genuine old poem known to the compiler of the saga.43 The dating of events in the saga is muddled and inconsistent,44 since for example Bárðr  must have arrived in Iceland, if the saga is correct, about 880, and Helga later encounters Eiríkr the Red, who settled in Greenland about a century after; however, Bárðr and his family are on the whole represented as timeless and ageless, as befits supernatural beings, so that we must not stress this too much. Oddr, as far as the dating of the saga can be followed up, is represented as living in the first part of the tenth century.

The most convincing plea for the importance of Bárðar Saga as a storehouse of early and important traditions, however, is that in it a great many of the points which we have noticed in the tales of the giantesses in the Fornaldar Sögur are here found to be collected in one more or less harmonious whole. We have here the supernatural protector, summoned by name in time of need ; the huge fair women who dwell in caves, who play the part of both foster-mother and wife to mortals in their charge ; the sojourn of the hero as a youth in the cave with them, while he gains both wisdom and material aid ; the curious insistence that either no children are born of such unions, or that they meet with an untimely end ; the idea that the heroes visit the caves at the time of adolescence, before marriage, and that their real and permanent marriage takes place afterwards, frequently with the help of the giant wife ; the picture of nine sisters dwelling in the mountain with their father ; the connection with both the trolls and the fair giants. The story of Bárðar Saga (apart from its suspiciously late date) is not in itself sufficiently logical and consistent to make it a possible source of such ideas ; it gives the impression that a genuine tradition has been partly rationalized – as for example in the laborious and quite unconvincing explanation of Bárðrs retirement and Helga’s wanderings – and partly entwined with other motifs, as for example the story of the breaking into the howe by Gestr at the end. It may be noticed that Bárðr  is very definitely identified with heathenism ; his son Gestr is visited by his father in a dream and deprived of his sight for deserting the old religion for Christianity, and dies soon  afterwards. The impression given by the whole, taking the evidence from the Fornaldar Sögur and Saxo into consideration, is that here we have fragmentary reminiscences of some kind of cult connected with mountains, and with some kind of community of women with a ‘ father ‘ at their head, used partly for educational purposes for certain picked young men of the community.

The youth of Haraldr Hárfagr.

Harald Fairhair by
Harald Hårfagre Statue, Haugesund, Norway, (Photo: Andrew Dixon)

There is some evidence for such a cult connected with a historic figure, King Haraldr Hárfagr, who ruled Norway in the second half of the ninth century. Again the direct evidence for this comes from sources which do not go back before the end of the twelfth century, but they are, I think, of interest in relation to the other stories we have examined. In Snorri’s Heimskringla we are told in the Saga Hálfdanar Svarta (8) that when Haraldr was a boy he helped a Lapp prisoner who was being tortured by his father to escape, and then accompanied him to the dwelling of a certain ‘ chief,’ with whom he remained until Hálfdan’s death, when he became king in his father’s place. This chief is said to be responsible for the mysterious disappearance of food from King Hálfdan’s Yule feast, which began the trouble, but beyond this we are told nothing about him. However in the version of the story given in Flateyjarbók45 we learn a great deal more. Here the captive of King Hálfdan is a giant, Dofri ; he would have been killed had not young Haraldr, a boy of five, helped him to escape. The king in great anger drives away his son, and while the boy wanders in the forest Dofri appears to him and takes him home to his cave. There he stays for five years, guarded by Dofri as though he were his own son: ‘ Dofri taught him much learning (fróði) and also trained him in accomplishments (ipróttir), and Haraldr increased much in size and strength.’ (454 p. 566).

According to this story it was Dofri who urged him to work for the sovereignty of Norway, and to cut neither his hair nor his nails until this was accomplished. He promised also at parting to continue to help and support his foster-son in battle. When later Haraldr prospered in his struggles with the other petty  kings, the saga tells us that men attributed this partly to his valour as a fighter and partly to the help Dofri gave him.

The reliability of this tradition about Haraldr and Dofri formed the subject of two articles written by F. Jónsson46 and S. Bugge47 in 1899 and 1900. Jónsson regarded it as spurious and of little value, since there were no versions referring to Dofri before 1300 or so, although the story of the Lapp who is not named in Snorri comes from the earlier manuscript, Agrip. The early part of Bugge’s article questions this, and his arguments seem to me valid, although when he goes on to identify the Lapp with Oí inn on the strength of a dubious interpretation of one passage about Yule in Flateyjarbók his reasoning, although in many ways illuminating, is not very convincing. But his connection of the Lapp story with Dofri is certainly significant, and so is the resemblance between the story of Haraldr and the plot of Grímnismál, though there is no need to press it as far as he does. These arguments will be discussed further below.

In the story of Haraldr we have no description of Dofri’s home in the mountains, and no women are mentioned. A little later on,48 however, we are told that King Haraldr sends two of his men on a dangerous expedition to Bjarmaland, and tells them that before they leave they must visit his foster-mother Heiír. They find her in Gandvík, and she, like the seeresses of the same name in some of the Fornaldar Sönger, has the power to foretell the future, and seems to be recovering from a trance when they arrive.49 She is described as being of great stature, and, like the trolls, is very ugly, and is clad in a skin kirtle. They offer her a gift from the king in the shape of a keg of butter and two flitches of bacon, and these, particularly the butter, delight her. ‘ King Haraldr is not like other men,’ says she ; ‘ these are good treasures such as I have never received before. . . . My foster-son knows what I like best.’ In return she uses her skill in magic to help them on their journey. Here then we have a connection between Haraldr and a giant fostermother which neither Jónsson nor Bugge seemed to have noticed.

King Harold Fine-Hair cutting the fetters from the giant Dofri
King Harold Fine-Hair cutting the fetters from the giant, Dofri (Illumination from the Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók, c.1394).

Dofri is not said to possess any daughters in the story in Flateyjarbók. It seems, however, that he may be equated with the Lapp of Snorri’s story ; and in another tale in Heimskringla50 we find that Haraldr weds the daughter of a Lapp called Svasi. This mysterious figure arrives one Yuletide, and sends a message to the king to cross the stream to his house and meet his daughter. The king, who apparently knows from whom the message comes, does as he asks, and is at once overcome with love for Snæfriðr, Svasi’s lovely daughter, and marries her. She does not live very long, and after her death her body does not decay and the king keeps it with him; and not until Þorleifr the wise interferes and the body is burned is Haraldr delivered from the magic influence, here represented as harmful, which she casts over him. In another story from a later saga, to be examined below, the daughter of Dofri is called Friðr; and there seems at least a possibility that this story may originally have been connected with the giant foster-father of Haraldr and his daughter, married to his foster-son in accordance with the other stories we have studied. Whatever influence over the king Svasi répresents, the source from which Snorri took the story is clearly hostile towards it ; and this may partly account for misrepresentation. We may further notice, in connection with Haraldr, that twice in Snorri’s history he is represented as going over Dovrefell, the mountain south of Trondheim associated with Dofri, at a critical time in his life ; once before the opening of the campaign to make Norway his own,51 and once before the birth of his first child.52

Dofri again appears as foster-father to a young man in one of the Íslendinga Sögur,53 where the hero Bùi visits him in what is now represented as his court inside a mountain. He is sent there by Haraldr Hárfagr, as a penalty for a deed of violence, and is told to obtain a chessboard belonging to Dofri for the king. He is directed to climb Dovrefell on Yule Eve, and when he does so, and knocks on the rock face, it opens and a woman appears : . . . ‘ She was huge in size, fair of face, and well arrayed, in a red kittle all trimmed with lace-work, with a broad belt of silver  around hex waist. She had her hair loose, as was the custom for maidens, and it was thick and fair. She had lovely hands, with much gold on them, and firm arms, and was altogether good to look on’ (13).

This is Friðr the daughter of Dofri, who befriends Bùi and introduces him to her father as a 4 little page-boy ‘ (skóbarn).54 Dofri is introduced as an old man with a long beard, and his halls are full of people, mostly giants in size, including many young men and fair women. Bùi stays over Yule, and as usual when he takes leave of Friðr he is told she is expecting a child, and that she will send it after him if it is a boy. Later on in the saga55 a young man called Jökull appears; Bùi refuses to believe he is his son, and the younger man overthrows him in a wrestling match, causing his death ; Jökull then leaves the country, and we are not tola what became of him. In the Jõkuls pdttr Blasonar, however, the story continues ; it resembles in some respects the tales of heroes and giants in the Fornaldar Sögur , though no actual fostering is mentioned. However again the hero kills all the family of a giantess and spares her, and she becomes his vinkona. He helps her to obtain a husband (variation on the usual motif), and when he leaves the two bid him ‘ call upon them if he needs any little thing.’ The story of the king in the mountains and of the young man who weds his daughter is a familiar subject in Norwegian folk tales, where Dovrefell and Yule are constantly recurring together also ; Ibsen made use of this motif in Peer Gynt. It will be seen however that even if this story in Kjalnesinga Saga is a late one, there are interesting resemblances to the others we have studied which deserve notice. Both this saga and Bárðar saga , incidentally, mention the fostering of Haraldr by Dofri, so that the compilers must have been familiar with the version used in Flateyjarbók. Another extremely interesting reference noted by Bugge is that given in the prose introduction to Grímnismál. Here Oðinn and Frigg are said to sit on Hliðskjálfr and look down on the worlds beneath, and Oðinn remarks to his wife:

‘ Look at Agnarr your foster-son. He breeds children with a giantess in a cave, while my foster-son, Geirröðr, is king, and sits ruling in his land.’

We are told no more about the fortunes of this Agnarr, who was cast adrift by his more quick-witted brother ; but the reference to fostering and to the sojourn of a youth with a giantess is significant, appearing here in an earlier and more reliable context. The resemblance of the, plot of this story to that of the young Haraldr Hárfagr, with Oðinn himself as the persecuted captive, has been pointed out by Bugge, and adds both to the complications and the possibilities of the problem.

The daughters of King Guðmundr.

Þorsteins þáttr bæjarmagns (Manuscript Lbs 3625 4to, 1800-185)
Þorsteins þáttr bæjarmagns (Manuscript Lbs 3625 4to, 1800-185).

In these tales of fostering by supernatural folk dwelling in the mountains, there are certain resemblances to another group of stories, those dealing with King Guðmundr  of Glasisvellir in the Flateyjarbók and Tornamanna Sögur. Guðmundr is one of the most mysterious figures in Norse literature ; he is said to rule over the ‘ land of the not-dead ‘ (Odainsakr ) ; and of his realm Hervarar Saga56 tells us : ‘ Everyone who came there turned his back on sickness and age and would not die.’ This ruler of strange regions has, we learn, a number of daughters who, like those of Bárðr, are taller than mortal men and very fair, and who have dealings with heroes. In pattr Helga Póríssonar in the Flateyjarbók57the hero blunders into the kingdom of Guðmundr  by accident. After going ashore in a land unknown to him, he meets twelve of the daughters of Guðmundr  riding on red horses in the forest; he stays three nights with one of them, and when he leaves she gives him rich treasures to take back with him. Next Yuletide he is carried away by two of Guðmundr ‘s men from King Oláff’s court, and remains with Guðmundr  for two years before returning to his own people ; he comes back blinded, because, he says, the daughter of Guðmundr  has pricked out his eyes in her anger at having to give him up. In Þorsteins þáttr bæjarmagns58 another hero visits the kingdom of Guðmundr , and becomes the friend and helper of the king. Again we are introduced to Guðmundr’s family, although this time only sons are mentioned ; there are twenty-four of them, of gigantic size. Another expedition to Glasisvellir is described in Saxo Grammaticus,59 and here again the king has twenty-four children, but twelve of these are daughters. Here the leader of the expedition warns his men to have nothing to do with these fair women, or else they will never return to their homes again.

King Guðmundr himself is very closely connected with both giants and trolls. He himself is of giant stature, as the Þorsteins þáttr tells us ; and the same story adds that the realm of Risaland, where it will be remembered the fair giants are said to live, is subject to him. As for the black and ugly trolls, they too enter into these stories, for in several accounts Guðmundr appears together with Geirröðr , a dark and hideous giant ruling over a gloomy tomb-like realm. In Þorsteins þáttr the two are rivals, and Guðmundr the unwilling vassal of Geirröðr ; in Saxo’s accounts they are brothers, and their kingdoms lie side by side ; in Hervarar Saga Guðmundr is said to be a king in Jotunheim. He himself is not of troll race, however ; his handsomeness is usually emphasized, and in Þorsteins þáttr60 a the whiteness of his skin is contrasted with that of the black and troll-like Agöi when they wrestle together.

A peculiarity of Guðmundr’s realm is that it is extraordinarily difficult of access. The perils undergone by travellers in reaching it are vividly described in Saxo’s account, where Thorkellus and his party have to struggle through intense darkness and cold to the bright kingdom beyond. With this we may compare the picture of the difficulties often undergone by those who seek the inaccessible abodes of the giants in the Fornaldar Söger ; while the adventures of Oddr in reaching the cave of Bárðr61 are, though more homely, not altogether unlike those of Thorkellus, since he stumbles along a path ‘ steep and slippery ‘ in bitter cold and raging storm and darkness, and is unable to see his way until Bárðr appears to guide him to a bright cave.

Another resemblance between Bárðr and Guðmundr is that the latter is pictured very definitely as hostile to Christianity, this is shown clearly in the stories of his dealings with King Óláfr,62 and Helgi, like Bàrðr’s son Gestr, is blinded when he returns to the Christian court. We may notice too that Guðmundr, like Bárðr, is said to have been worshipped as a god after death.

Celtic parallels.


The subject of Guðmundr is far too complex to be discussed in detail here ; nor would such discussion be relevant, since the parallels with the motifs in the fostering stories are the only ones which immediately concern us. Similarly it would be rash to attempt a detailed investigation of Celtic influence in these tales of fostering by giants. This has been commented on, though not treated in any detail, by Neckel.62 It is unquestionably of importance also in the stories of King Guðmundr. Here however I intend to do no more than to point out a striking example of the fostering motif from Irish sources. It is found in the tale of the youth of the hero Cú Chulainn and his wooing of Emer. He is unable to win the maiden as his bride without performing certain feats of strength and warfare, and in order to increase his already prodigious skill in battle he decides to be instructed by Scathath, the woman warrior. He forces her to consent to three demands : she is to teach him everything she can ; she is to allow him to wed her daughter ; and she is to foretell his future. To this she agrees, and while he is with her he becomes the husband of her daughter Uathach. When he leaves her, however, to win Emer we hear no more of Uathach.

Here again we find the story of the fostering and teaching of the hero, who enters into a temporary marriage with the daughter of his teacher, and then leaves to woo a bride elsewhere, aided by the help he has received. It forms a close parallel to the tales of the giant foster-mothers in the Fornaldar Söger, and indicates clearly that it will be necessary, in pursuing the subject further, to enter fully into the difficult question of Celtic influence in Norse literature, or perhaps it would be wiser to say the interrelationship between the literature of the Scandinavian and Celtic worlds.

This short study is, indeed, intended only as an introduction to what I believe may prove a wide field of investigation, yet to which, ‘so far as the Norse evidence at least is concerned, little attention seems to have been paid up till now.

Englefield Green. Hilda R. Ellis

Source: Medium Ævum, Vol. 10, No. 2 (JUNE 1941), pp. 70-85

Published by: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature.


  1. This study formed an appendix to a thesis on Eschatology and Manticismin Old Norse Literature approved for the degree of Ph.D. at Cambridge, 1940, now lodged with the University Library, Cambridge.
  2. Fornaldar Söger Norðrlanda (Reykjavik, 1891)
  3. F.A.S. III 6 p. 444 f.
  4. Örvar-Odds Saga, 5 p 193.
  5. Ketils saga hængs, F.A.S. II 4 p. 154.
  6. Ibid, 6 p. 194.
  7. Op cit.7.
  8. Ibid. p. 447.
  9. Ibid. 13 p. 454.
  10. Ibid. 12 p. 453.
  11. F.AS. III 4 p. 509 f.
  12. Ibid. p. 514.
  13. F.A.S. III 3 p. 315 f.
  14. Ibid. 6 p. 319.
  15. Ibid. 26 d. 343.
  16. F.A.S. III 12 p. 370 f.
  17. Ibid. 20 p. 390.
  18. F.A.S. II 18 pp. 231, 235.
  19. Danish History (trans. Elton, London, 1894) I pp. 24-28.
  20. Cf. I 19 p- 24, where the giant Haphlius is also mentioned as assisting with the upbringing of young Hadingus and his brother.
  21. Note that in his Preface (p. 14; Saxo declares this to be a characteristic of the inhabitants of the gloomy realm of Guðmundr in the north.
  22. Danish History (trans. Elton, London, 1894) s.c. I 13 p. 19 f.
  23. Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss (Reykjavik, 1902) 6 15 p.  
  24. Ibid. 8 p. 19 f.
  25. Ibid. 9 p. 22.
  26. Ibid. 20, 8, 9, 10.
  27. Ibid. 10 p. 26
  28. Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss pp. 24.
  29. Ibid. II p. 29 f.
  30. Ibid. II p. 30, 12 p. 31.
  31. Ibid. 5 p. 13.
  32. Ibid. 20 p. 59.
  33. Ibid. 7.
  34. Ibid. p. 10.
  35. Ibid. 12 p. 31.
  36. Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss I.
  37. Ibid. 9, pp. 22, 23 ; 12 pp. 32-34.
  38. Ibid. 13 p. 32 f.
  39. Ibid. 8, 9, 20.
  40. J. Götzen Über die Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss (Berlin Dissertationen, Philosophische Fakultät, 1903), p. 2.
  41. Götzen op. at. especially p. 37 f.
  42. Ibid. p. 65. The allusion to Svínfellsáss , referred to above, is of interest, since it suggests other local traditions of a similar kind elsewhere in Iceland.
  43. Götzen, op. cit. p. 19 f.
  44. Ibid. p. 18 ; p. 37.
  45. Flateyjarbók, Þattr Halfdanar Svarta I 455 f.
  46. Jónsson, Arkiv för nordisk filologi XI (1899) pp. 262 f.
  47. Bugge, Arkiv för nordisk filologi XII (1900) p. 1 f.
  48. Flateyjarbók I 400 p. 580.
  49. Yawning in the sagas is used consistently to denote recovery from a mantic trðance, after which the man or woman concerned can give advice or foretell the future, as Heiðr does here, cf. Hrólfs Saga Kraka (F.A.S. 1, 3), Njáls saga 12.
  50. Heimskringla, Haralds S. Hárfagra 24.
  51. Ibid: 5.
  52. Ibid. 17.
  53. Ķjalnesinga Saga 13.
  54. Cf. The introduction of the human hero to King Geirröðr by Guðmundr in the story of Þorsteinn Bsearrnagn (10) referred to below :
  55. Kjalnesinga Saga 18.
  56. F.A.S. 1 1.
  57. Flateyjarbók, Oláfs S. Tryggpasortar 293 p. 359 f.
  58. Fornmanna sögur III p. 175 t.
  59. Danish History (trans. Elton, London 1894) VIII 286 p. 344 f.
  60. op. cit. 7.
  61. Bárðar S. 10.
  62. e.g. in Helga þáttr and Þorsteins þáttr, op. cit.
  63. A.f.n.F. (1918) p. 323 f.
  64. Cross and Slover, Ancient Irish Tales (Chicago, 1935) pp. 163 f. (trans, from Cú Chulainn Saga).
Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss Statue 1
Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss Statue (Photo: )

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