Warrior Initiation and Witch Teachers

In the Norse myths and legends, supernatural women – goddesses, giantesses and valkyrias – often appear to teach young men during initiation. Snorri stated that it was Freya who taught the art of seiðr to the Aesir. An Edda poem also relates how the goddess Freya initiates young Óttarr by taking him down into the Underworld, in which a giantess, Hyndla,the she-wolf, teaches him about universal interconnectedness through a séance of seiðr [divination].[1]

In the Edda poem Gróagalðr, a young man called Svípdagr invokes his dead mother Gróa [“Growth”] at her burial mound, so that she may guide him and teach him spell-songs. The name Gróa is otherwise known to be that of a völva, a witch-priestess, who heals the god Thor by singing spell-songs over his wounds. In the Prose Edda we learn about how Thor , who has vowed to go unprotected and unarmed into the world of the giants, seeks the aid of a giantess called Gríðr [“Truce”]who after teaching him about the true nature and the weak points of his opponent, lends him her magical wand, her power-belt and her gloves so that he may defeat his opponent.

In the heroic poems of the Edda, valkyria brides are responsible for transmitting knowledge, purpose and esoteric teachings to the young men, to guide them in life and to magically protect them in battle.

Now, to another source which is not the Eddas. The fornaldarsögur – “The Sagas of Old Times” – written down during the 13th and 14th centuries A.D.. but claiming to tell the legends of really old times. These sagas, a lot of them, repeatedly present the theme of a witch or giantess who teaches a young man. The stories seem to resemble initiation stories told in a fairy-tale-like manner. [2]

In Kjalnesinga Saga, the hero Búi [“Inhabitant”] walks through cold and uninhabited wilderness before he finally knocks on a door leading into a mountain. He is on a quest for a special and magical game-board. He meets The Mountan King´s daughter Friðr [“Peace”], who can tell him that many have come to the mountain before him “without having shown themselves worthy”, and it has been their death. Búi and Fríðr enjoy a long erotic adventure together within the mountain during winter. At spring, the maiden assists Búi in his quest for the magical game-board, and it is stated that he could not have done it without her help.

The mountain, especially the inside of the mountain, the cold, the winter and the wilderness are all typical Norse metaphors for death and the underworld, as is the theme of making love to a giantess in the underworld. The game-board itself is symbolic of fate, and the story faintly echoes the initiation story of the god Óðinn´s adventure with a giant´s daughter inside the mountain of Suttungr.

In the saga of Torstein Geirnefjufostra[3], the hero Torsteinn has to win over the giant Sökkolfr [Dark Wolf = Dark Death] before he can win the love of the giantess Geirnefja. Her name means Spear-Beak, which refers to a deadly vulture. Torsteinn is named after her in a manner that shows her role in his upbringing, or, indeed, his apprenticeship: He is called Torsteinn Geirnefjufostra [Fostered by Geirnefja].. In the same saga, another version of their relationship is presented in which Geirnefja brings the wounded warrior, Torsteinn, to her hall. She heals his wounds and teaches him to hunt with bow and arrow. He loves her until she dies.

In the saga of Illugi Gríðarfostra [which means Illugi, Fostered by Griðr],[4] the hero Illugi encounters problems at sea as his ship is wrecked against dangerous cliffs. Illugi is picked up on the shore by the giantess maiden Hildr [Battle], daughter of the eagle-clawed giantess hag called Griðr [Truce]. Hild, the daughter, treats Illugi harshly and violently, but Illugi displays no fear. His courage causes a spell to be lifted from the two women, and they are transformed into beautiful and helpful ladies. They reveal to him that the unfriendly introduction at first was a test that few could pass. Illugi is called Gríðarfostra after his apprenticeship to the mother giantess within a cave.

The theme of a hostile giantess turned good and helpful is present in several other sagas. In the saga of Illugi Tagldarbani [The Bane of Tögld], a hostile giantess called Tögld [Chewing One =Death] sends mist and a storm in order to wreck Illugi´s ship. Illugi has to fight the giantess Hrímgerðr [Frosty Enclosure=Death by freezing water], and as he wins the battle, it turns out that this was a test, and by displaying his fearlessness and conquering death, he also wins the eternal allegiance, guidance and protection of the giantess that he has conquered. In the same saga, Illugi frees a princess from captivity among the giants. Another saga relates how the hero Gunnar wins over the giantess Fala [To Bid For (your life)] in battle, and thus wins her allegiance, help and protection in further battles against trolls.[5] The hero Sörli conquers the giantess Mána and she swears her eternal allegiance and help. She gives clothes to the hero, magical clothes that may not be penetrated by weapons, and she gives him a sword that cuts through steel and stone.[6]

The theme of the healing and protecting giantess is also prominent. In the saga of Halfdan Brönufostra [, which means Halfdan, Fostered by Brána][7] the hero Halfdan encounters the giantess Brána[8] in a giant´s cave (a metaphor for death and the underworld). Brána remains a helping and guiding power in the life of Halfdan. She offers magical gifts, herbs, a protective and warning ring, and a ship. She chooses his bride, saves him from fire, saves his sister from being raped, and turns up in his dreams in order to remind him of an old oath he must stick to. In the saga, Halfdan too frees a princess who is a captive of the giants – another repetitive theme.

The saga of Torstein Vikingsonar Skellinefjas[9] relates how the hero Torsteinn almost drowns, but is saved by a giantess called Skellinefja [Her name means Shouting Beak/Nose, which may refer to the high pitched nasal sound used for performing spell-songs known as galdr. The fact that Torstein is called Skellinefjas refers to her having ownership over him.[10]], In the saga, she heals his wounds. Torsteinn has to accept marriage with the horrible-looking giantess, but the moment he accepts, the giantess is transformed back into the beautiful princess she really is.

The same theme – ogress turned princess – appears in Grímr Lodinkinna´s saga, where the hero Grímr lies on the battlefield, close to death after having conquered twelve men, when he is saved by the giantess Geirríð[Spear-Ride=Death], who heals his wounds. Torsteinn has to promise marriage with Geirríð, who immediately turns into the beautiful princess with whom he was originally engaged.

In the saga of Arrow-Odd[11], the hero Odd traverses a rocky mountain-landscape before he arrives at a violent riverfall. He finds no way to cross over to “the other side.” The wilderness is a known metaphor for the Underworld, and close to Hel there is a resounding and terrible river that forms the border between the living and the dead. Suddenly, a huge eagle, another known metaphor for death, lifts him up and flies up into the mountains with him, placing him in her nest. Odd has to conquer the hungry eagle-chicks, and through cunning he manages to kill the eagle [=conquer death].

He calls on the aid of a giant who can take him across the river of death, where he is taken to the giant´s daughter, Hildigunnr [Battle Warrior], and Odd remains there through the winter as her lover. She allows him to leave as spring comes, but lets him know that he would never have gotten out of the world of the giants if it had not been for her help. Like in the first case I mentioned, this clearlyechoes the initiation story of Óðinn and Gunnlöð.

I would never have returned from the hall of the giants, had it not been for the help of Gunnlöð,              that good wife whom I embraced.

Hávamál, st.

Poetic Edda

In the saga of Egill and Ásmundr, the heroes set sails until they arrive at the shore of the world of the giants, where they go inland. They travel through deserted wilderness and almost starve to death. After several months they see a herd of goats and try to catch one to eat. Just as they are hunting, they are disturbed by a huge female monster who asks, in a high-pitched, bell-like voice who they are who are trying to steal the goats of the Queen.


The two heroes try to placate the monster, calling her beautiful, and she takes them home to her mother. The mother of the monster is the mighty Queen Eagle-Beak, who rules over Jótunheimr [The World of the Devourers=Giants].

The heroes are well received at the house of the two giantesses, and at the dinner table they share each other´s life-stories. Queen Eagle-Beak reveals the existence of two beautiful princesses who are being held captive in the World of the Giants, and who are to be married off to the Queen´s two giant uncles. The Queen and her daughter aid the heroes in their effort to trick the giants and save the princesses, who finally become their wives. The Queen of the giants heals the heroes´ wounds, even to the point of restoring the cut-off hand of Egill.

Real Life Warriors´ Priestesses, or Warriors´ Guardian Spirits?

Several more sagas relate the stories of heroes who free princesses from captivity among the giants.[12] Almost all of these sagas relate how the heroes have to overcome cold, frost, ice, solitude in the wilderness and shipwreck, before they are either saved by, or have to fight giantesses who later promise their eternal help and allegiance.[13] The giantesses are very often associated with eagles, which are metaphors for death.[14] The trials of the heroes resemble in many respects the typical trials of the shaman initiate.[15]

The sagas in which these strange fairy-tales occur are very late renderings of the 13th and 14th centuries, some written even as late as the 15th century. Thus it is problematic to use them as sources to actual pagan religion, even though the writers claimed that they were faithfully rendering the oldest ancestral lore. However, the elements of pagan initiation rituals in these stories are so obvious that they clearly represent some oral memory of the real thing. The dangers, the trials, the encounter with death, the staying “on the other side” (often literally described as such), and the mysterious female who saves the hero´s life, teaches him, helps him and in many cases become his wife or mistress. The home of this giantess is in almost all the cases situated within a mountain or hill, a stone or rock dimension. This is important in the light of the fact that caves and stone-formations and mounds had a religious function in Norse paganism, as burial-places and the home of “elves,” or souls, vettir [spirits] and other underworld inhabitants to whom one could sacrifice and pray. The dark, tomb-like home of the giantess often reveals a hidden palace filled with brightness and beautiful, magical treasures. this basic formula is repeated throughout the Norse myths, testifying to its widespread importance and probable antiquity.

According to the rules of Norse poetry, any name or character in a story may – and will –  be a metaphorical disguise for an actual character, which is known to the listener/reader through his or her attributes and the various meanings of his or her many names. In the case of these stories, the giantesses seem to represent either human women and/or the actual mythical forces of death. The one possibility does not necessarily exclude the other – a real, human priestess-witch could very well be representing a mythological character in a ritual setting:

One candidate is the sea giantess Rán [Robbery – a name referring to her tendency to rob people of their lives]. She and her daughters cause shipwreck and drowning, but are also identifiable as “the lights of the gods,” according to Snorri.[16]The numerous shipwreck and near-drowning scenes hint to this goddesses of the ocean and the waves. Another, obviously, is Hel, the giantess of death who is famous for having two sides to her character, one of fertile maiden and one of rotting corpse, hence the very ambiguous nature of the giantesses in the stories. A third possible actual character is Skaði [Fatal Injury] who symbolically “hunts with bow and arrow” in the rocky mountain, enjoying the howling of wolves, another metaphor for death. She too has a two-sidedness to her: As a wife of the god of winds and waves, Njorðr, she spurs her foster-son Freyr to undertake initiation,[17] and her love-relation to the gods staggers her natural wish to devour them all and allows them to keep the bright Iðunn and her apples of immortality. Of course, the three giantesses of death are probably just various aspects of the same original character – the Lady of the Underworld.

In the stories, the giantess also takes on the role of a sort of guardian spirit. If the legends reflect real life initiation experiences or rituals for young warriors, as I think they do, the giantess may have been represented by a witch who, possibly, performed a role as a personal priestess to her “foster-son”, offering guidance and spells of protection throughout his life. There is enough evidence that women performed this role dating back to Iron Age German societies at the very least.

At the same time, the giantess may very well have been identifiable as a typical fylgja [follower], a female guardian spirit who was thought to “follow” a human individual throughout his or her life, and is probably the same figure described by Snorri as a personal norn, a fate-goddess who appears at birth and who follows the individual through life, spinning his or her fate. Both Snorri and the Prose Edda assert that bad lives are caused by bad fate-goddesses – not bat because they are evil but because they are in a state of coma (“the daughters of Hibernation [Dvalinn]”). We will talk more about this subject in another  video. Now.

The theme of young men´s apprenticeship with giantesses who might easily represent real life priestesses is so overwhelmingly present in the lore of the Vikings  that one has to wonder if this is not actually reflecting real-life initiation stories in which völu, witches may have played a part as teachers. I am convinced that they do, even more so as the much older source of the Poetic Edda seems to be telling the same stories of initiation as its main plot.

The almost countless stories of heroes trying to save captive princesses (often, indeed, sleeping in their captivity) or transform horrible-looking ogresses into the beautiful and helpful maidens “they really are” seems to me to be reflecting an initiation ritual in which the waking up of one´s sleeping fate, so as to aquire a powerful, divine fate, is the real goal.

I dedicate this video to the research of Lotte von Motz, who pointed out the initiation pattern in these sagas and who was the first to compare them.


[1] Hyndluljóð, the Poetic Edda, and Steinsland

[2] Motz, Lotte

[3] Torstein Geirnefjufostras saga

[4] Illuga Griðarfostra saga

[5] Gunnar Keldugnupsfifls saga

[6] Sörlas saga Sterka

[7] Halfdans saga Brönufostra

[8] I have not been able to translate this name. The Norse word brá means eyelash or eyelid, but with the -na it is incomprehensible.

[9] Torsteinn Vikingssonar Skellinefjas saga

[10] Actually, the name could also refer to making a high nasal sound, a technique employed for the singing of galðr , that is, spell-songs, which hints to the giantess`role as a witch, a völva.

[11] Örvar Odds saga

[12] See also Egil Einhendas saga and Jökull Búasonar tottr

[13] See also Ármans saga unga, Ásmundr Atlasonar saga, Ketils saga

[14] The original mythical Eagle of the World Tree is called Hræsvelgr, Corpse Swallower.

[15] See the previous chapter

[16] Skaldskaparmál, Prose Edda

[17] Skírnismál, Poetic Edda

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