Today we’re stopping by northern Europe to investigate the ancient tales of the Viking bards, or skalds. My husband suggested today’s topic, as our kids love learning about their Viking heritage and the myths and legends of Scandinavia.
He brought up Beowulf and Grendel. Beowulf is a fabulous story and Grendel is one of the most famous monsters in literary history. However, it is actually an Old English story set in Denmark and Grendel is based on Christian mythology rather than Nordic. So you won’t find Grendel on this list.
Unlike some mythological creatures of the world, many of those from Norse Mythology are still very much with us today. The Dwarves, Elves, Trolls, and Giants that we are familiar with all come from Nordic myths, and were popularized by the fantastic canon of J.R.R. Tolkien.
But these are not the creatures that I want to share with you, either. We want the weird, forgotten monsters that haven’t heard of yet. The things that could be lurking in the dark which you didn’t even know you should be afraid of.
So here you go…
#5 The Mare
Whether or not you know it, you have been visited by one of these creatures. The Mare are malevolent spirits that creep into your bedroom at night, perch upon your chest, and torment you with cruel dreams.
Sometimes the Mare is depicted as an entity conjured by a sorcerer or enchantress in order to punish their victim for some misdeed. It was often thought that the Mare were disembodied spirits of living people, which went wandering at night, unbeknownst to their hosts. The spirit of a witch, for example, might take the form of an animal and go exploring while she was in a trance. Children, too, have restless souls that like to wander while the child is sleeping.
These creatures are the origin of our word for bad dreams, or “nightmares.”
The Fossegrim, or simply the Grim, are a kind of male water spirit that is especially connected to rivers and waterfalls. They are associated with music, and considered the most accomplished fiddlers on earth. The Grim plays the fiddle with such precision that it can imitate the sounds of nature from trees rustling to birds chirping or the burbling of a stream. Their skills were highly sought after by those who desired to master the instrument.
The Fossegrim might be convinced to teach a person, too, if the right offering was made. But if the supplicant’s sacrifice was deemed unworthy, the Fossegrim would drag their hand and fingers over the strings until they bled and the flesh peeled away from the bone.
The music of the Fossegrim is said to be so beautiful that it would lure women and children away from their villages to the water, where they would drown.
#3 The Huldra
The Huldra are a type of sinister elf which would appear as–you guessed it–a beautiful young maiden. These apparitions had flowing white gowns, fair skin, and long pale hair and were commonly found dancing atop burial mounds. If a man saw a Huldra dancing, he would become entranced and approach them… not a great idea.
Of course, the Huldra only appear to be beautiful young women. In reality they are hideous creatures with skin like tree bark and a cow-like tail. Their mission was to entrance a human man and get him to marry her. She could maintain the glamour at all times, except for her back where her true skin and tail were visible. If the man saw her tail, the glamour would be destroyed and he would see her for her monstrous self. If this happened, she would kill him.
If she managed to trick the man into marrying her, she would enslave him, use him for sex, drive him to madness, and eventually kill him anyway. So maybe it’s better to ask your fiancé to lift her skirts before you tie the knot officially? I can imagine more than one Nordic lad of old used that excuse to get past second base.
Maybe not the most obscure creature on the list, but certainly one of the most terrifying, is the Kraken. As sea-faring people, it is only natural that the Nords would have at least one or two blood-curdling beasts said to be lurking beneath the waves. The Kraken were one of two main nemeses of Nordic sailors. Jormungandr, one of the children of Loki, was one of them. We’ll discuss it in the bonus section.
The Kraken were sea-monsters so huge that their bodies were sometimes mistaken for islands. When an approaching ship landed upon its shores, the island would suddenly sink into the water, creating a massive vortex of swirling water and suck sailors and boats into the ocean’s depths.
The Kraken were depicted as huge squid-like creatures. Some stories tell of ships pulled beneath the waves by great, crushing tentacles. Its possible that these myths were inspired by the discovery of the bodies of actual Giant Squid washed up on shore which, thousands of years ago, would have been considered beasts of mythic proportions.
Draugr are creatures that blur the line between zombies and vampires, and they are probably the creepiest creatures on this list. Draugr are the rotten corpses of long-dead people, often found in crypts and tombs and sometimes thought to be guarding the deceased’s valuables. Draugr have inhuman strength, can magically alter their size, and will kill and eat anyone that they catch on their cryptic turfs.
The Draugr can cause madness in anyone who stumbles across them, and were even blamed for madness in animals thought to have been eating too close to one of their burial mounds. They were said to be shape-shifters (one of the creatures they can transform into is a Mare), and to have magical abilities like those of witches and sorcerers. If a Draugr visited you in your nightmares it would leave a token for you to find when you awoke, assuring you that it was indeed not a simple dream.
Draugr can live on for many centuries, but they are not invincible. You can kill them by lighting them on fire, like the Windigo, or if their reanimated bodies are destroyed via dismemberment or simply un-living until they rot away completely.
Bonus Monsters!: Loki’s Children
Loki himself is not really a villain in Nordic mythology so much as he is a trickster. His children, however, born of the monstrous union between Loki and the giantess Angrboda.
Fenrir was a huge, savage wolf so fearsome that even the Gods dared not challenge him. It was said that no chains could contain the beast. One day the Gods held a meeting and decided that something must be done about Loki’s son before he ravaged all of the eight worlds.
Loki refused to have anything to do with it, so the Gods decided to try to trick the wolf-beast. They told Fenrir they wanted to play a game in which he tried to escape from various bonds. Fenrir agreed, knowing that no chains could hold him. After he effortlessly broke free of a number of restraints, the Gods brought out a thin, fragile looking chain. These had been made by the Dwarves, and thought they appeared light they were unbreakable. Fenrir, being suspicious, asks for one of the Gods to place a hand inside his mouth while they tied him, as a demonstration of trust. The God Tyr volunteered, although he knew he would lose his hand, and Fenrir was bound. He is still bound today, awaiting Ragnarok, when he will be freed and will seek his revenge upon the Aesir Gods.
Jörmungandr is also known as the Midgard (World) Serpent. When Odin discovered Loki’s monstrous children he banished Jörmungandr to the ocean where he hoped the creature would do less harm. But Jörmungandr grew and grew until he surrounded the whole world, which is where it got its name. The beast encircles the world, biting its own tail, and it is said that when Jörmungandr releases its tail, Ragnarok will begin.
There is a legend in which Thor goes fishing with the giant Hymir and accidently catches Jörmungandr, thereby winning a bet about who would catch the biggest fish. When Thor is about to slay Jörmungandr with his magic hammer, Mjölnir, the giant panics and cuts the line allowing the serpent to escape.
The giantess Hel is Loki’s only daughter. She is said to have been half beautiful woman on one side of her body, and half corpse on the other side. As such, Odin banishes her to rule over the underworld Helheim. The Nordic Hel is different from the Christian Hell, as it is more like a continuation of life for those who don’t ascend to Valhalla by dying valiantly in battle.
Hel, took, awaits Ragnarok, biding her time until she can seek vengeance upon the Gods of Asgard. She will ride upon them with Loki and an army of the dishonorable dead at her back. Odin had better watch out for this one!
Well, what do you think of these baddies from the tales of ancient Nordic skalds? Would you be able to sleep at night knowing Draugr and Mare haunted the darkness around you? Which one is your favourite?
Where shall we travel next?