10 Disturbing Episodes from Norse Mythology

LittleElefant/iStock via Getty Images
LittleElefant/iStock via Getty Images

Most people have some passing familiarity with Norse mythology and legend. Even the days of our modern week are named after its gods and goddesses. But there is a dark side to the Nordic mythos that few people are aware of. Some of the episodes described below reveal uncomfortable truths about the cosmos. Some exhibit the jaundiced eye with which the Norse viewed life and death. And some are just gross.

1. A world made by murder

The Norse believed that the universe emerged from an empty, yawning gulf separating worlds made of ice and fire, respectively, inhabited only by a mysterious, hermaphroditic being named Ymir, who became the mother and father of the race of the jotuns, chaotic nature spirits that would later be the enemies of the Norse gods. Eventually, another being, Buri, came into existence, and his grandchildren, Vili, Ve and Odin, decided to create the world and fill it with life. But unlike the Judeo-Christian conception of God, the Norse deities could not create substance out of nothing, so Odin and his brothers did the only sensible thing – they murdered Ymir and made the world out of his body and the sky out of his skull. Ymir’s blood became the sea, his bones and teeth became rocks and mountains, and his brains the clouds.

The act of sacrifice gave great power to the three brothers, and they proceeded to give life and intelligence to human beings. The outlook of the Norsemen, who often saw the world as a cruel and unforgiving place, was surely influenced by the fact that they lived in a universe made possible only by death.

2. Odin’s loses an eye (and gains a little too much knowledge)

Popular literature makes Odin the most important of the Norse gods, but in reality he was an unpopular deity and his cult was never widespread beyond poets, shamans and kings. Odin practiced seidr, a form of magic considered unmanly, and was the god of frenzy, betrayal and death (in addition to inspiration and wisdom). A particular obsession of his was the hoarding of knowledge, and he sent his servants, ravens nicknamed Thought and Memory, out into the world to bring him news. Norse myths tell of Odin’s quest for the secrets of the universe. Wisdom came with a price: to gain insight into the future, Odin sacrificed an eye to drink from a magical well, but in the process learned of his own inescapable fate.

But worse was yet to come. To gain the knowledge of the runes, a magical writing system that could give great power to the user, Odin had to stab himself with a spear and hang himself from a tree for nine days and nights. In memory of this act, sacrifices to Odin were killed in similar fashion – including a few kings whose subjects grew tired of their failures.

3. Loki’s cross-dressing gets carried a bit too far

Loki was Odin’s blood-brother and something of an alter-ego. A trickster whose games often crossed the line into the malicious, Loki convinced the gods to make a wager with a giant who promised to build them a fortress in a short span of time. If successful, the giant wanted the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage. When it seemed that the building would actually be finished on schedule, the gods threatened Loki with death. The wily deity turned himself into a mare and seduced Svaðilfari, the giant’s horse, making completion of the fortress impossible. You can probably guess what happened next – Loki became the proud “mother” of an eight-legged stallion, Sleipnir, who became Odin’s ride.

Loki’s malicious ways eventually caught up with him when he became responsible for the death of Odin’s son Baldur and composed scandalous verses about his fellow-gods. The gods, tired of putting up with him, bound him in chains made from his own son’s entrails and imprisoned him under the earth to wait until the end of days.

4. The wild adventures of Hadding

The writer and scholar Poul Anderson called the story of Hadding “dark and violent even by saga standards.” Hadding, a mythological king of Denmark, was sent as a child to be fostered by a family of jotuns (Ymir’s children, see #1 above). When he grew to manhood, he became the lover of his own wet-nurse, only to watch her torn to pieces by alien, chaotic powers beyond his understanding.

Guided by Odin in disguise, he won back his father’s kingdom and enjoyed great success in wars against neighboring kings. But what goes up, must come down, and Hadding, facing old age and the death of friends, ended his life hanging himself in a grove of sacred trees as a sacrifice to his patron, Odin.

5. It’s not always good to be the king

Domaldi, a legendary Swedish king, did not have a happy life. He became king when his two older half-brothers murdered their father Visbur, and his stepmother cursed Domaldi with a life of bad luck. This was one curse not made in vain; Domaldi’s reign was marked by famine and plague. The first year of starvation, the Swedish chieftains sacrificed oxen, and when the harvest was still terrible, they offered up human beings the following year. Because the luck of the land was believed to be tied to the luck of the king, on the third year the chieftains reluctantly decided they had to sacrifice Domaldi (who was generally liked and well-regarded). Superstition? Maybe, but one saga relates that Sweden’s luck changed once the altar was splashed with Domaldi’s blood, and the next year’s harvests were excellent.

6. Beowulf teaches Grendel’s mother that “no means no”

OK, it’s technically Anglo-Saxon, not Norse, but Beowulf comes out of the same body of tradition as the Norse myths and takes place in Scandinavia. In one scene, the hero is locked in mortal combat with Grendel’s mother. During their struggle, Grendel’s mother (who has been interpreted by different scholars as a demon, a troll, a valkyrie, or some sort of fertility goddess) pins and straddles the warrior. Some scholars interpret this scene as a depiction of an ancient sacrificial rite, where a priestess mated with, and then killed, a victim to ensure a bountiful harvest. But Beowulf was having none of it, and managed to slaughter his opponent and go on to many more adventures over the course of the 3,182-line poem.

7. Signy becomes her own sister-in-law

Völsunga saga is one of the best known of the Old Norse legendary sagas. Together with the Nieblunglied, with which it shares common source materials, it has become the inspiration for such diverse works as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Tolkien also wrote an epic poem based on the saga, published posthumously as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun).

The opening chapters of the saga contain some bits usually left out of polite discussion of the work. A princess named Signy marries Siggeir, the king of the Geats (Beowulf’s people), who then treacherously murders Signy’s whole clan with the exception of her brother Sigmund, who is imprisoned. Sigmund manages to escape, but he and his sister are both obsessed with revenge. Signy sends her two sons by Siggeir to Sigmund who, with her approval, murders them both. The siblings then sleep together, and Signy gives birth to a son, Sinfjötli, who goes on to help his father/uncle burn Siggeir in his palace and avenge the family. But vengeance was bitter-sweet; Signy, having accomplished her revenge, preferred to die with her hated husband than escape with her son/nephew and brother/baby-daddy.

8. Starkad’s betrayal

Starkad is the hero of a number of legendary sagas. Descended from giants and a favored worshipper of Odin, Starkad was blessed with the lifespan of three ordinary men. But the blessing bore its own curse, which was that Starkad was destined to commit three heinous acts. In the most famous of these, Starkad’s friend King Vikar of Agder (in southern Norway) was marooned with his fleet because they could not get a favorable wind. Vikar’s men decided that a human sacrifice was required, and when they cast lots to see who would be chosen, it was Vikar himself who got the “honor.” Starkad convinced the king to participate in a mock sacrifice, where he would be “hanged” with a loose noose and “stabbed” with a reed. It was an Odin-inspired trick, however – the noose became tight and strong, the reed was magically transformed into a spear, and Vikar, predictably, died at the hands of his best friend.

9. They don’t call him “Bad-Ruler” for nothing

Ingjald was a legendary king of the Swedes. As a small, mild-mannered child, he had been given a wolf’s heart to eat to toughen him up. His people learned the hard way that trying to change a person can have unintended consequences, and Ingjald became cruel and ruthless from that day forward. Wanting no competition, he built a grand feasting hall and invited seven client-kings over for dinner. When they showed up he locked them in and burned the hall, along with everyone inside, to the ground. Ingjald and his men waited outside to cut down anyone who tried to escape. For this episode he became known as “Illrádi,” or “Bad-Ruler.” Ingjald’s daughter Aasa was no better. When Ingjald married her off to Gudrod, a neighboring king, she convinced her new husband to kill his own brother, then arranged for Gudrod’s own death before returning to her father’s house.

Years later the evil pair got their comeuppance, though. Ivar, Gudrod’s nephew, raised a rebellion against Ingjald and marched on his hall. Aasa and Ingjald, realizing that all was lost chose an appropriate exit – they set fire to their own hall and died in the flames.

10. What began in murder ends in fire

It was perhaps the most feared word in the Norse lexicon. Ragnarök, or the Doom of the Gods, was a fate set in stone, and even the mighty and wise Odin could not escape it. The Norse believed that there would be an “an ax age, a sword age … a wind age, a wolf age, before the world falls.” Three years of chaos, famine and plague on earth would be followed by a mighty war in the heavens, when the gods of the Norse pantheon would finally have to face the armies of chaos – including jotuns, giant wolves, a world-spanning serpent, and a liberated and revenge-hungry Loki – in battle. Most of the important Norse gods, including Odin, Thor, Frey and Tyr, would fall, and the fire-giant Surt would burn the entire world to ashes, killing virtually everything that lives.

Lest you be left with the impression that the Norse were complete sadsacks, one work, the Völuspá, contains a faint glimmer of hope. In its final lines the poem describes how a new world would arise from the ashes of the old, the surviving gods and men would rebuild their homes and re-discover lost knowledge, and a mysterious “mighty lord” would arrive to “order rules, fix rights, and ordain laws that shall live forever.”

Brian Gottesman is a lawyer in Wilmington, DE. He is the creator of Saga, an upcoming comic book series set in Viking-Age Norway, Scotland and Iceland published by Archaia Comics.

Yesterday was October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we planned a bunch of 10 lists, and the mass listeria has spilled into 10.11.10. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About the White Night Riots

Rioters outside of San Francisco City Hall on the night of May 21, 1979, reacting to the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White, which ensured White would serve just five years for the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
Rioters outside of San Francisco City Hall on the night of May 21, 1979, reacting to the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White, which ensured White would serve just five years for the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
Daniel Nicoletta, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. Evading metal detectors, he snuck through a basement window and shot and killed both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as city supervisor after he previously resigned from the position; Milk was among those who backed the mayor's choice. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open-and-shut murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.

The city's gay and lesbian population stood aghast on May 21, 1979, as White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which only carried with it a maximum prison sentence of seven years and eight months (White would only serve five years). That night, thousands of enraged protestors showed up at City Hall and engaged in violent clashes with the police over the outcome of the trial. What would later become known as the White Night Riots redefined the relationship San Francisco's gay and lesbian community had with the political structure and law enforcement in the city at the time. Here are some facts that you should know about the White Night Riots, one of the most violent protests in San Francisco history.

1. Dan White's trial will forever be known for the "Twinkie Defense."

During Dan White's trial, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client wasn't a cold-blooded killer but was instead a man suffering from diminished capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White wasn't in his right mind during the killings was the fact that he had recently given up his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give these claims credibility, the defense even called Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, to the stand to talk about how, among other things, White's sudden intake of sweets was clearly a sign of a man depressed. (He also brought up White's strained marriage and unkempt beard.)

Reporters covering the trial would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its outlandish nickname, it was enough to sway the jury after six days of deliberation. Today, "Twinkie defense" has been inscribed into law dictionary history as a derogatory label for an improbable legal defense. (Though, in reality, Twinkies weren't even brought up during the trial, and the killings were never blamed directly on junk food itself.)

2. The police openly supported Dan White's cause.

Dan White, the former police officer, turned himself in to an old friend down at the department just a couple of hours after the killings. Soon, members of the city's police and fire departments had helped raise over $100,000 for White's defense and many officers were seen openly wearing “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the weeks and months before the trial.

3. The White Night Riots started off as a peaceful march on Castro Street.

Many within the city's gay community were furious when the verdict was announced, and that night, a crowd of people spontaneously gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a nonviolent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and led the way, chanting “No justice, no peace!” throughout the district. Originally, 500 people began the march, but that number would soon balloon to 1500 as the crowd moved through the city.

4. Famous activists spoke at the protest, including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh.

Harvey Milk’s friend, Cleve Jones, spoke to a crowd on Castro Street through Milk's own bullhorn. He angrily denounced White's conviction, saying, “I saw what those bullets did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

When the marchers reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and gave a speech in front of the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for each other. That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t some big leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like we do. I think we should feel like it more often!”

In the years after the protests, Jones and Hollibaugh would continue to be vocal activists in the LGBTQ community. In 1987, Jones became one of the creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a handmade quilt made up of more than 50,000 panels that commemorate the lives of over 105,000 people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. It remains the world’s largest community folk art project. And Hollibaugh went on to establish Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that addresses the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor, and the criminalization of survival.

5. Chaos broke out once the crowd reached City Hall.

By the time the demonstrators had reached City Hall, they had attracted a crowd of 5000, and the peaceful march soon evolved into a full-fledged riot. Grieving and angry protesters broke the windows and bars of City Hall, set police cars on fire, pelted the cops with rocks, and ripped parking meters off the sidewalks, leaving 59 officers and 124 protestors injured in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of San Francisco’s most violent protests, and one estimate put the cost of the damage at $1 million.

6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riots.

When police arrived on the scene, they were ordered to hold the crowd back. However, many officers began assaulting the demonstrators with night sticks, with some even covering their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off tree branches to use them as protection against the police who were armed with clubs and riot shields. After three violent hours, the police used tear gas to stop the protestors. Later, the FBI investigated the police’s use of force but no officers were ever reprimanded.

7. Rogue police officers retaliated by raiding The Castro District, San Francisco’s “Gay Mecca.”

The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

After the destruction at City Hall, some rogue police officers headed to The Castro District, an area known for its large gay community. Harvey Milk was an admired public figure throughout the district and was even nicknamed “the Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite haunts was the Elephant Walk bar, a safe space for people otherwise unwelcome in straight bars.

During the White Night Riots, a crowd of people dashed into the bar for shelter, but the police stormed in and demolished the property. Officers clubbed and injured the people inside, crashed bar stools, and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb questioned why officers were pouring into the Castro when it had been quiet and nonviolent, the police captain allegedly responded, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We aren’t going to lose this one.”

In 1995, 16 years after the riots, and after surviving a fire that almost destroyed the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it at 500 Castro Street.

8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protestors from speaking out.

Days after the riots, flyers appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet in fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read, “Our defense against the police is each other, our strength is our silence.” The ongoing distrust in the gay community ran so deep that the flyers even discouraged people from cooperating with law enforcement looking for information about the Elephant Walk attack.

9. The day after the White Night Riots would have been Harvey Milk's 49th birthday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The day after the riots, May 22, would have been Harvey Milk’s birthday, and an estimated 20,000 San Franciscans peacefully gathered to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months prior to the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came prepared with community “gay monitors” who wore shirts with “PLEASE! No violence” printed on them. The community policed themselves as Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunken” celebration of Milk's life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night, gay men and lesbian women showed the world we’re angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. "Tonight, we are going to show them that we are building a strong community.”

10. The 2008 movie based on Harvey Milk's life and assassination omitted all mention of the White Night Riots.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the biographical film Milk details the life of Harvey Milk, focusing on his rising political career as a gay rights trailblazer. But the film comes to an abrupt end when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone, with a closing shot of a candlelight vigil across San Francisco. The film’s omission of the violence that wracked the city on May 21 also omits Harvey Milk’s legacy that sparked an aggressive fight for gay rights on the West Coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant did wind up recreating the riots as a producer on the miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles the major events in recent LGBT history.