Birds and their meaning in Nordic Folklore


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

Long before human beings had ever dreamed of entering the sky realm birds were considered to have otherworldly abilities letting them fly as messengers and communicators between heaven and earth. Birds became important as a way for humans to read signs from the spirit realm, and they were held in awe and even feared. Different birds communicated different warnings and auspicious messages.

The Raven


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The raven is probably the bird with the most spiritual significance in the Nordic countries. The raven was Odin’s bird, or rather birds, he had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who resided on his shoulders occasionally flying down to the earth realm to be Odin’s eyes on earth. The Norse people considered Raven feathers to be magical, they could among other things pick any lock, perhaps even the lock to someone’s heart.

Another Norse legend tells us of a small pebble that could be found in a raven’s nest, and if you could get hold of this pebble you could, by putting the pebble in our mouth, turn invisible. This pebble was especially sought after by warriors. But if you misused the pebble to do mischief you would be turned into an owl, the least auspicious birds according to the Norse belief, so it came with a fair warning to be used with extreme caution.

If two ravens were seen fighting while a wedding was taking place this warned of a bad marriage, and the wedding could be stopped. If a chieftain saw seven ravens fighting in the sky this meant that war was coming and he had to start preparing his warriors. These signs were taken seriously and followed, without question, by the Norsemen.

The Eagle


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

Another significant bird in the Norse symbolism was the eagle. The eagle in most cultures is a symbol of freedom and strength. To the Norsemen the eagle was even more significant. Odin, the king of gods, could turn himself into an eagle in order to fly to earth to drink the elixir of life that kept him immortal and forever young. So if you saw an eagle in the sky you could never really know if it really was Odin in disguise, and accordingly you were on your best behavior around eagles, trying to display honor, courage and bravery. The symbol of an eagle was therefor often used to inspire bravery in warriors.

The Cormorant


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Cormorant was, to the old Nordic people, the messenger between the “Folk of the Forest” and the humans. They brought warnings to people from the Folk, such as “danger is coming”, this the Cormorant demonstrated by unfolding their wings and holding them up in a protective gesture before the people the warning was meant for. This also gave them the status of being a protector. They could also warn the fishermen of bad fishing by flying against the boat when the men were on their way out to sea.

The Wood Grouse


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Wood Grouse was nicknamed the trollbird by the old Nordic people. The reason for this was that they thought the wood grouse actually was a troll woman turned into a bird. She was someone to be careful around because she could be unpredictable and moody, sometimes choosing to do good while other times she was full of mischief luring young men into the woods to seduce them and kidnap them. But if you found a feather of a wood grouse you were very lucky because it had healing properties, especially for “womanly” ailments.

The Swan


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

There is an old Norse legend that tells of the origin of the Nordic Lights. The legend states that there was a flock of seven swans who were too late to migrate and got stuck in the ice on a lake. Their frozen wings blazed over the sky and turned into beautiful green and blue lights. So whenever the Nordic Lights appeared on the sky it was the seven frozen swans fluttering their wings.

The Dipper


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Dipper is the Norwegian National bird, maybe because of its mystical past in the Norse culture. The Dipper, who spends most of its time on the ground near waterfalls, was in close contact with the underlings, the fey folk living underground. These underlings were considered to be hostile towards humans who tread on their homes, and the Dipper could plot with the underlings taking revenge of anyone who disturbed their nest or young ones. So the Dipper was a bird who were left alone and avoided at all cost.


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

As we can see, birds have a long and mystical history in the North. Most of it is now forgotten and just considered to be old superstition, but many people still swear by birds when it comes to telling the weather or whether or not the fishing is good. Birds do have a deep connection to nature and the elements, and can still be a valuable messengers and teachers when it comes to changes in nature. Besides, some claim that the symbolism around birds is still important today as it points to deeper truths about ourselves and about life.

What do you think?

Advertisements

The Art of Storytelling

image
Art by Albert Anker

I have always been fascinated with the art of storytelling. I was a storyteller before I was a writer. My favorite thing to do when I was little was to go on walkabouts with my two younger cousins making up stories about oddly shaped rocks, twining trees and little lakes, as we wandered through changing landscapes of forests and mountains. Perhaps this talent came from my mother. I will never forget the storm-torn tree with the roots reaching for the skies. It was a magical gateway to another world. A world only my mother knew about. And now me. A miniature world of trolls and elves. And I, with the magical eyes of childhood, saw it all. Or perhaps it was my grandmother who taught me to tell stories. I could not get enough of the stories she told about a wonderful land called Yesteryear. Or her folktales, always with a wicked modern twist to make me laugh.

image
Art by Theodor Kittelsen

When I learned how to write, my writing was first and foremost a way to record my stories. Whenever I wasn’t busy playing you could always find me scribbling something in a notepad or sketching odd characters and fantastical sceneries in a drawing book.
Some of the stories turned into movies which my big brother shot with my father’s old fashioned video camera.

image
Art by Theodor Kittlsen

When I was eight I started writing poetry. I learned the magic of words. Poems were little stories about emotions. And these stories outshone the longer narratives in my teens. Today my writing is a mixture of storytelling and creative poetic writing.

image

The tradition of storytelling is old. Older than recorded history. Storytelling was the way to record history in ancient times. It was a way to teach moral, explain natural phenomena, carry on culture and traditions, and of course, to entertain. In the Norse part of the world, we had the Skald. The skald was a poetic storyteller, often working for the king. He composed actual events into epic heroic sagas, creating heroes and adding valor to kings. Our most famous Skald is Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet who composed the epic Prose Edda. This Prose is still taught in schools today, and is a valuable source to understand ancient history and traditions in the Norse world.

image
Art by Theodor Kittlsen

Other famous storytellers in Norway are Asbjørnsen and Moe. During the National Romanticism in Norway in the late 18th century, there was a general revival and interest for the old Norwegian traditions and culture. This was also true for the Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales. These tales had been told on farms and around bonfires for many many years, but had never been written down. Asbjørnsen and Moe took it upon themselves to collect these folk tales and publish them in two volumes. They traveled around the country from farm to farm listening to stories and writing them down. They were also known for re-telling the different stories to the children they met on their journeys. The two volume of folk tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe have never been out of print since they were first published in 1841, and rarely will you find a Norwegian home without one version or the other of this Fairytale collection.

image
The Iron Age Farm, Stavanger, Norway

I was so lucky as to meet one of the more modern storytellers in Norway, on the Iron Age farm in Stavanger. Nina Næsheim is a professional storyteller who specializes in Norse myths and legends. It was a very special moment sitting inside the ancient stone farmhouse with the rain tapping on the roof and candles swaying in the draft listening to Nina Næsheim telling stories about the Jotne, Thor, Freya and Odin’s Ravens. Seeing a professional storyteller performing a narrative is something completely different than listening to a book being read out loud. It is then you understand that storytelling truly is an art.

image
Inside the Iron Age Farmhouse, Stavanger, Norway.

I met another such contemporary storyteller in Galway, Ireland. Ireland, with its Celtic heritage, has a rich tradition of storytellers, or seanchaí as they are called in Ireland.
The stories often include the mythical Fey Folk, or faeries as we call them today. But these faeries are very far from the Disney fairies we see on screen today. The Irish Faeries were cunning and mischievous and often downright wicked, stealing babies and luring bachelors into Faerierings.
image
Eddie (Edmund) Lenihan is a famous contemporary Irish storyteller who specializes in tales about the Faerie folk. Eddie is featured in the film ” The Faerie Faith”, and claims that the Faeries actually exist. His stories are often modern and stars people who have actually had encounters with this mythical folk. I met Eddie Lenihan in Galway during the yearly storytelling festival. His performance was exceptional, and he captivated his audience, young and old, with his dreamy deep voice, his shape shifting facial expressions and his faerie like body language.

image
Eddie Lenihan by Valerie O’Sullivan

The Irish seanchas were not only the bearers of Faerie Lore, they were also essential in the Druid tradition. Druids were Celtic priests, or wise men, who were called upon to perform weddings and funerals. They were also the holders of the secret knowledge and were considered to be wise and knowledgeable. They often shared and distributed this knowledge in the telling of stories, symbolic tales conveying hidden messages for the listeners.
image
I met a Druid priest on the island of Inish Mor in Ireland. He was a former catholic monk, but had converted to the old faith in recent times. He spent his days studying ancient knowledge and mysteries, and some of this knowledge he shared with me,standing in the stone ruin of an old monastery facing the boisterous Atlantic Ocean, his tales came alive before my very eyes as the skies and seas shifted and roared and spat out the secrets the Druid called upon.

image
Inish Mor, Ireland

We all tell stories. Perhaps funny anecdotes from our own lives, or perhaps stories we’ve heard told about someone else’s misfortune or success. We are made up of stories, memories, moments of learning, experiences, our stories make us who we are. Humanity has always had a fondness for gossip, for eavesdropping, just look at today’s reality shows and social networking. Sharing our story becomes important, it is how we leave our mark on this world, it is how we prevent the sea from washing out our footprints.

image
Art by the brothers Hildebrandt

Whenever I go through something difficult, as we all must do in life, I think of my life as a story, a quest, a heroic tale, something that will grow in interest, excitement and richness, the more adversary I go through. For after all, what is a story without a plot, what is a tale without a quest, what is a saga without a hero? Or in the words of Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings:

“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. ”

* All the images have been sourced from Wikimedia or Wikipedia

Further reading:

Nina Næsheim: http://fortellernina.no/node/1
Eddie Lenihan: http://eddielenihan.weebly.com/

Elves

fairy-dream-alvelek-1909(2)
Art by T. Kittelsen

Did you know that J.R.R Tolkien’s elves are originally from Scandinavia? The name elf comes from the Norse word Alfr meaning Alv (Norwegian) or Elf in English. The belief in elves dates back to the Norse times in Scandinavia, and the elves were a part of the Scandinavian Norse Mythology. They were considered to be nature personified, and they carried the spirit of a tree, a rock, a mountain or a lake within their being.

oldmanwillow
Illustration from Lord of the rings

The nature was worshipped by the Norse people and so were the elves as they were considered to be divine beings with an immortal soul. The elves possessed magical powers that could either be used to help people or to hurt them, so the elves were very much respected and honored. There were Elves belonging to the Light, they lived in Alvheim, and dark elves who lived under ground. The dark elves could be dangerous and could cause natural disasters.

3503f91ee902e110cef23682fb6fe30e
Art by T. Kittelsen

There was no queen of the elves, but a king, and he was called Alberich. In some of the old sagas from the Norse period it has been mentioned that the elves married humans and had children, and that this race became a magnificent and powerful race. The king Alvarim is mentioned, he was the king of Alvheim, and he had a daughter called Alvhild. There is also mention of a King Alvgeir with a son called Gandalv. According to Norse Mythology the God Frey was the ruler of the elves.

gandalf
Art by John Howe

With the arrival of Christianity the Elves were made into something evil, a dark force ruled by the devil, and people were no longer allowed to worship them. They became feared and many spells and amulets were made to keep them away.

Theodor-Kittelsen-The-Princess-Gathering-Cotton-Grass
Art by T. Kittelsen

In the 18 hundreds there was a revival of the elves. They made their way into the fairy tales as young, beautiful and magical beings. In the Norwegian Fairy Tales we hear about elves dancing in the fog in early mornings leaving behind a ring, often overgrown with mushrooms.

350px-Älvalek
Art by August Malmström

We also hear about the danger of entering into these rings or to see the elves dance. The elfin time is different than ours, it moves much slower, and spending an hour in the company of elves can be a lifetime on earth. Therefor people were warned against seeking out elfin rings or the elves.

01972_002
Art by T. Kittelsen

Nowadays, the elves are a part of our Scandinavian heritage and folklore. Very few people believe in elves anymore in Norway, but in Iceland the belief in Elves is still strong and the world of elves is very much alive as a part of the spirit world of nature.

tumblr_myxxwceIBa1sn3ne4o1_500
From Lord of the Rings

In Norway the Victorian image of the flower fairy is more popular as a decorative element in houses or a popular theme for books and movies. The Flower Fairies are more related to the Irish belief in the fey people which is quite similar to the Norse Elves, so much so that many consider them to have sprung from the same root.

Ladys-Smock-Flower-Fairy
Art by Cicely Mary Barker

The Secret Language of Trees

Yggdrasil

Trees have always played a very crucial part in Nordic Mythology and Culture. The first sacred tree we hear about is “Yggdrasil” the cosmic world tree in Norse Mythology. Yggdrasil is an enormous Ash Tree, with roots extended into the many worlds and branches reaching into the Heavens. Yggdrasil means “the horse of the terrifying one”, which scholars have interpreted to mean Odin’s Horse. Odin is the greatest of the gods in Asgaard the abode of the gods, he is the grandfather who rules the worlds.

AskrEmbla

Norse Mythology also claims that the first humans called Ask (Ash Tree in Norwegian) and Embla (Elm Tree in Norwegian) were fashioned from tree trunks. Odin was the one who breathed life into them.

Lønnetre i morgensol

In Scandinavia it was, and still is, the custom to plant a tree outside on the farmyard called the “Tuntre”. The Tuntre would stand watch over the farm for generations and was considered to be a great protector of the farm. The tree was much respected and cared for and often even worshipped. Especially in Finland these trees were given great importance. The Tuntre could also give warnings about the future, if the tree looked sick or unhealthy a great disaster would most likely come to the farm.

nisser

The origin of the tuntre comes from the belief that a holy tree would grow where the “haugbonden”, a magic elf residing over the farm was buried. The tree would protect the grave from bad luck and witchcraft.

eik

Oak

The great Oak tree is considered to be the King of the Trees according to ancient Norse culture. It symbolizes strength and endurance and is considered to be the Norse god Thor’s tree. It is often referred to as the Tree of Thunder. Anyone can seek protection and shelter under the oak and Thor’s sacred power will keep them safe. The Oak is also said to be the keeper of ancient wisdom as it is the tree that lives the longest. You can seek out this tree to obtain this old and mystic wisdom and the tree will bless you forever.

Birch trees in a summer forest

Birch

The Birch tree might be one of the most feminine of trees in the forest. It is said to hold the portal between this life and the afterlife. The Birch holds the light, and it will light your path through even the deepest of the dark. It looks quite angelic lighting up the forest in the night. This tree is able to grow and thrive almost anywhere as long as it has access to water.

Ask

Ash

The Ash tree is an important tree both in Nordic Mythology and in Celtic mythology. It is said to be the abode of fairies and holds the portal to Fairyland. As we have learned the great Yggdrasil is an Ash Tree and the first man was fashioned out of the trunk of an Ash Tree. Odin writes the ancient knowledge in runes on the trunk and branches of the Ash Tree. Ash is a very auspicious tree to keep close to your house because it will bless the house and all the people living close to it, but only if it is treated with respect and care. Ash is a protective tree, especially for sailors and in the ancient North people used charms made of ash to prevent sailors from drowning and give them safe passage over the seas.

hassel

Hazel

The Hazel Tree is Thor’s tree. It is said to protect people against lightening. In ancient Norse Culture it was said that if you stood under a Hazel Tree in a thunderstorm Thor would protect you and you could not be struck by lightening. Hazel tree is also known in Celtic mythology to be the Fairy Tree. It is loved by all fairies, and if you go out looking for fairies you should start with the Hazel Tree. Hazel Tree was also used by the Celtic druids to make themselves invisible. The Hazel is the tree of Fairy Knowledge.

grantre

Spruce

The Spruce, or the Norway Spruce, is the traditional Christmas Tree in Norway. It is the most common tree in most parts of Norway, but especially in the south. It is an evergreen tree symbolizing endurance, courage, long life and positivity.

Tre nummer 70

Alder

Alder is a tree associated with fire. People rarely wanted to build houses near an Alder tree as they were afraid the house would easily catch fire. Witches were said to make flutes out of Alder to come in contact with the North Wind. Alder is a sturdy tree and symbolizes vitality, good health and strength in difficult circumstances.

Alm

Elm

Elm is the tree which the first woman Embla was fashioned out of. Elm is a female tree associated with female qualities. Elm is used in many herbal medicines and is therefor considered to be a great healing tree. Elm is also very nutritious and can be used in cooking to give extra strength. Elm is a very auspicious tree to live close to as it provides protection, nutrition, medicine and healing.

rowan-tree-05

Rowan

Rowan is another tree associated with the Norse god Thor. It is said to have protected Thor against a great flood. Rowan is perhaps the most magical of the trees, believed to be the tree of witchcraft and fairy magic and frequently used in magic potions. It is also said that if you burn rowan twigs in your house then the smoke it creates will chase away ghosts and evil spirits. Rowan can also be used in divination, as it will help you to look into the future and have clairvoyant dreams.

Animals of the North

elg vestlandsnatur  no

Animals have always played an important part in our lives, especially in ancient cultures when people lived more close to, and in harmony with, nature and the natural world. In these old cultures, like the Sami Culture, the Native American culture, the Aboriginal culture and the Celtic Culture animals symbolized powers that we as a humans could posses if we listened and learned from the animals. In the Norse Culture of Scandinavia animals were seen as messengers from the spirit world trying to guide us through life. So let us take a closer look at these animals of the north and try to understand what message it is that they are trying to convey.

Bear

bjoern dagbladet no

Bear was seen as the forefather of man. The Norse Gods Thor and Odin often took the shape of a bear to visit the human world. The bear stands for strength, healing, inner wisdom and balance between the seen and the unseen world. The female bear was the symbol for the feminine aspect and principle and the male bear was the masculine principle. Similar to the Chinese Yin and Yang.

Polar Bear

isbjoern auneforlag no

The polar bear, or Ice bear as we say in Norway, is the animal that will unblock suppressed emotions so that they can flow freely. The polar bear helps us to overcome difficult challenges and to be flexible.

Moose or Elk

elg numedalsnett no

The moose, or the elk, is known in Norway to be the King of the Forest. He carries within his spirit the deep knowledge and mysteries of the forest. The elk will help us to find this inner wisdom and inspire us to be more confident and appear with grace.

Roe Deer

rådyr matportalen no

The Roe deer is the animal that carries within the power of the Goat willow or the selje as we say in Norway. Selje means victory. The ancient mystique Rune associated with Selje is Saille:

S-Saille

The Roe Deer remind us of our spiritual growth. It tells us that we have a soul that longs to grow and expand beyond our body.

Lynx

gaupe bjorneparken no

The Lynx is the guardian of deep secrets and hidden knowledge. This animals symbolizes the power to see beyond what is right here in front of us. It reminds us to explore the depth within ourselves and see what is hidden in our hearts.

Hare

hare lokal-avisen no

The Hare is a moon animal. It carries intuitive messages, and tells us to listen to our intuition.

The hare is associated with the Common Gorse and the mystique rune is Onn:

O-Onn

Red Deer

dyrsrettigheter

The Red Deer carried a lot of meaning to the Norse people. In Norse Mythology we hear about Dunøyr, Duratro, Dvalin and Dain, three Red Deer who graze in Yggdrasil, the tree of Life. The Red Deer is associated with the healing touch and the resurrection of the spirit. It is the messenger between our world and the otherworld.

Horse

fjording

Horse is associated with the Oak tree and the mystique rune for horse is Duir:

D-Duir

The horse had a deep significance to the old Norse people. We find strong horses in Norse Mythology, like Odin’s horse Sleipner:

odin2

Skinnfakse and Rimfakse were the two horses who pulled the wagon of Day and the wagon of Night across the sky. Svadilfari was the stallion who built Asgaard.

Loki_and_Svadilfari_by_Hardy

The horse is the animal of strength, vitality, nobility and intelligence. It is a Sun Animal and symbolizes endurance and faithfulness.

Wolf

ulv snl no

The Wolf is an animal of protection. The wolf is a Moon Animal associated with renewed energy and wisdom through connecting with our inner child. In Norse mythology we hear about Odin’s wolves Freke and Gere who bring him news from Earth.

Raven

ravn birdphoto no

The Raven is Odin’s animal. Odin has two ravens called Hugin and Munin. Hugin is thought and Munin is memory. These ravens help Odin to rule the realms and give him wisdom.

Odins ravner

Eagle

p3 no

The Eagle is associated with the Birch Tree and its rune is Beith.

B-Beith

In Norse mythology we find Vidofnir, an eagle sitting in Yggdrasil, the world tree. The Eagle is Odin’s animal and associated with him. The Eagle is a Sun Animal symbolizing Light conquering darkness, justice, victory, spiritual power and magic. The Eagle helps us to see hidden spiritual truths.

Hawk

hauk nrksuper no

Verfolne is the name of the hawk that sits between the eyes of the eagle Vidofnir in Yggdrasil the world tree. Hawk is a sun animal and is the messenger between worlds.

Owl

ugle

The owl is associated with Hawthorn and the mystique rune is Huathe.

H-Huath

The owl is the guide to the underworld, it helps us to see in the spiritual and actual dark, and it shows us how to look inside the darkness in ourselves and find a way out of it.

The Mountain Goat

mountain goat

The Norse God Thor has two male goats Tanngrisner and Tanngnjost pulling his wagon across the sky. We also hear about the goat Heidrun grazing on the roof of Valhall.

Tor norron-mytologi info

The male goat symbolizes the creational force of nature and the seeking of truth. The female goat symbolizes the fertility of the earth.

All the images have been sourced at Google.no