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.

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Easter Bunnies

This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every year, thousands of families, church groups, and event planners enlist entertainment companies to dispatch a costumed bunny for their Easter celebrations. These performers often endure oppressive heat, frightened children, and other indignities to bring joy to the season.

It can be a thankless job, which is why Mental Floss approached several hares and their handlers for some insight into what makes for a successful appearance, the numerous occupational hazards, and why they can be harassed while holding a giant carrot. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on under the ears.

1. They might be watching netflix under the mask.

Has a bunny ever seemed slow to respond to your child? He or she might be in the middle of a binge-watch. Jennifer Ellison, the sales and marketing manager for San Diego Kids’ Party Rentals and a bunny wrangler during the Easter season, says that extended party engagements might lead their furry foot soldiers to seek distractions while in costume. “We book the bunny by the hour and he is often booked for multiple hour blocks,” she says. “Listening to music definitely helps the time pass.” One of her bunny friends who does a lot of shopping mall appearances has even rigged up a harness that can cradle a smart phone. “It sits above the bunny's nose, resting right at eye level for the performer inside, easily allowing the performer to stream Netflix, scroll through Facebook, or check emails.”

2. They can’t walk on wet grass.

Bunnies that appear at private functions, like backyard parties or egg hunts, have to maintain the illusion of being a character and not a human in a furry costume. According to Albert Joseph, the owner of Albert Joseph Entertainment in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of Easter engagements, one of the cardinal rules is never to set foot on wet grass. Why? “They wear regular shoes under their giant bunny feet,” he says. “If they step on wet grass and then walk on cement, they’ll make a human foot print, not a bunny print.”

3. There’s a reason they might not pick up your kid.

Bunnies might be amenable to posing for a photo with your child on their lap, but they’re probably not going to grab the little tyke and sweep them off their feet. According to Steve Rothenberg, a veteran performer and owner of Talk of the Town Entertainment in Rockville, Maryland, deadlifting a kid is against the rules. “The last thing you want is to lift them up and have them knock off your head,” he says.

4. Giant carrots will invite inappropriate behavior.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
As the 3-foot-long carrot proves, adults are easily the least mature guests at a child's Easter party.
lisafx/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Joseph’s warren of party bunnies usually come equipped with a 3-foot-long giant carrot as a prop. While children are amused by the oversized vegetable, the adults at the parties usually can’t help making observations. “Practically every visit, there’s always someone saying, ‘My, what a big carrot you have,’” he says.

On one occasion, Joseph attended a function at a retirement home. One of the women, who he estimated to be in her 80s, commented on his big feet in a lascivious manner. “She told me she was in room 37.”

5. Clothes make the bunny.

Easter bunny at the White House.
Every year, a well-dressed Easter bunny visits Washington, D.C. for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While “naked” (i.e., unclothed) bunnies remain popular, Ellison’s lineup also includes Mr. Bunny, a “classy lad with a top hat and vest,” and a Mrs. Bunny sporting a purple dress. Why would kids care if a bunny has sartorial sense? “Kids can probably better relate to a giant, furry character if it's dressed like a human,” Ellison says. “[And] we just thought the costumes looked cute.”

6. They can’t wear dark clothing underneath.

If a bunny wants to wear a black shirt under his or her fur, it stands to reason there wouldn’t be any issue: It's all hidden from sight. But Joseph insists that his cast stick with white apparel only. In addition to being cooler, it serves a practical function. “There’s always an opportunity to see a little something around the neckline or near the feet,” he says. Light clothing helps preserve the character.

7. They use an upholstery cleaner for their heads.

Most bunny costumes can be tossed in any regular washing machine, with the feet going in a larger commercial-use unit. But the heads, which are typically massive and unwieldy, get special attention. “You know those upholstery cleaners you can rent from a grocery store?” Joseph asks. “We use those. There’s a wand attachment to it for cleaning carpet.”

8. There’s a trick to keeping cool.

Costumes made of fake fur in the spring can be a recipe for disaster—or at least some lightheadedness. While none of the bunnies we profiled had experienced fainting spells, Ellison says that the trick to staying cool is actually adding a layer underneath the outfit. “Light, breathable clothing underneath the suit usually does the trick, but some people choose to wear an ice vest under the suit as well.”

Many bunnies also work in intervals: 45 to 50 minutes “on,” and 10 to 15 minutes in a private area to cool off and drink water. “Clients are usually understanding and sympathetic of the bunny and will allow even more breaks if necessary,” Ellison says.

9. Mints are essential.

Bunnies may favor carrots and grass, but their human operators need something other than that in order to deal with the humidity. Rothenberg says that his bunnies usually nibble on mints while working a crowd. “They’ll typically chew gum or have some kind of mint to keep their throat from drying out,” he says.

10. They use bunny handlers to prevent knockdowns.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
An Easter Bunny makes a young girl's day.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Any professional bunny knows that having an assistant watching their back is the best way to ensure an appearance goes smoothly. “Your vision is limited and you can’t really look to the left or right,” Rothenberg says. “Having an assistant prevents kids from running up behind you.”

11. They have damaged butts.

In order to ease apprehensive kids, Joseph advocates for his bunnies to squat near a child rather than bend over. “It gets them at a child’s level so they can touch and feel for themselves,” he says. “But a bunny that does a lot of squatting winds up needing their [costume] butts re-sewn. I’ve repaired a lot of them.” Joseph will also invite mothers to sit on the bunny’s lap so fearful children are more likely to approach. “You don’t want to prod the kid,” he says.

12. They’re not just for easter.

While bunny costume season is a fleeting few weeks, companies are happy to roll out their rabbits for other occasions. Once, Ellison sent out a bunny for a customer’s Alice in Wonderland-themed gathering. “The client wanted the White Rabbit, so we dressed up our bunny in a vest and top hat and gave him an over-sized pocket watch. It worked out great.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The 48 Most Frequently Banned Wedding Songs

Bogdan Kurylo/iStock via Getty Images
Bogdan Kurylo/iStock via Getty Images

Who among us hasn't attended a wedding and cringed at the playlist? In 2017, stats/polling site FiveThirtyEight asked more than two dozen professional DJs who had DJ’d around 200 weddings what songs couples ban from their weddings and, after surveying 182 wedding playlists, came up with a list of 48 songs. They gave each song a percentage, which represents the share of weddings that banned the song.

The first 10 on the list represent silly dances people like to do but shouldn’t do, like The Chicken Dance, The Macarena, and The Electric Slide. After that, the list starts to see overplayed songs like “Don’t Stop Believin',’” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Sweet Caroline,” and call-and-response songs like “Shout.” The list contains a mix of new and old hip-hop, R&B, and pop hits, and several songs ended up tied.

Interestingly, a few songs from FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 ultimate wedding playlist also appear on the banned list, including “Hey Ya!,” “Uptown Funk,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Call Me Maybe.”

You may or may not agree with this list, but don’t feel bad if you decide to ban any of these songs from your own wedding playlist—chances are, someone out there agrees with you.

  1. “The Chicken Dance”

  1. “Cha-Cha Slide” // DJ Casper

  1. “Macarena” // Los Del Rio

  1. “Cupid Shuffle” // Cupid

  1. “YMCA” // Village People

  1. “Electric Boogie (Electric Slide)” // Marcia Griffiths

  1. “Hokey Pokey”

  1. “Wobble” // V.I.C.

  1. “Happy” // Pharrell Williams

  1. “Shout” // Isley Brothers

  1. “Love Shack” // The B-52's

  1. “We Are Family” // Sister Sledge

  1. “Blurred Lines” // Robin Thicke

  1. “Celebration” // Kool & The Gang

  1. Cotton Eye Joe” // Rednex

  1. “Dancing Queen” // ABBA

  1. “Don’t Stop Believin’” // Journey

  1. “Single Ladies” // BeyoncÉ

  1. “Sweet Caroline” // Neil Diamond

  1. “Turn Down for What” // DJ Snake & Lil Jon

  1. “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” // SilentÓ

  1. “Hot in Herre” // Nelly

  1. “Mony Mony” // Billy Idol

  1. “All About That Bass” // Meghan Trainor

  1. “Baby Got Back” // Sir Mix-a-Lot

  1. “Booti Call” // Blackstreet

  1. “Gangnam Style” // Psy

  1. “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” // Big & Rich

  1. “Stayin’ Alive” // Bee Gees

  1. “Sweet Home Alabama” // Lynyrd Skynyrd

  1. “Uptown Funk” // Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars

  1. “Wagon Wheel” // Nathan Carter

  1. “What Do You Mean?” // Justin Bieber

  1. “All of Me” // John Legend

  1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” // Queen

  1. “Brown Eyed Girl” // Van Morrison

  1. “Call Me Maybe” // Carly Rae Jepsen

  1. “Footloose” // Kenny Loggins

  1. “Get Low” // Lil Jon

  1. “Hey Ya!” // Outkast

  1. “Hotline Bling” // Drake

  1. “I Will Survive” // Gloria Gaynor

  1. “My Heart Will Go On” // CÉline Dion

  1. “SexyBack” // Justin Timberlake

  1. “Shake It Off” // Taylor Swift

  1. “Sugar” // Maroon 5

  1. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” // Bonnie Tyler

  1. “You Shook Me All Night Long” // AC/DC

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