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Monday, April 9, 2012

April 9th H Day

I am back on the proper schedule again. Unfortunately H is another long day, H being such an important letter in Old Norse. I am going to skip over things that are just direct translations of English words, like Hrafn meaning Raven, and try to stick to unusual words that have an important cultural context or English words that might have a special meaning to the Norsemen.

H is for Hnefatafl and Halatafl are a pair of Norse board games that were very popular until they were supplanted in popularity by Chess. Hnefatafl is called "King's Table" by some, and the object is to block attackers from getting the king, or to get the king if you are the attacking player. Halatafl is also known as "Fox and Geese" and the object is to protect your geese and trap the fox, or to eliminate the geese if you are playing the fox.

H is for Hair, and, believe it or not, hair is really important to Norsemen. What color it is, what length it is, whether or not you are balding. Fair hair is considered better and more attractive in both men and women, which I think sucks because I have dark hair, which is considered a sign of low birth and untrustworthy character, as well as just being ugly. Free men wore their hair to about shoulder length, women as long as waist length. Thralls of both sexes often had their hair cut short to show their unfree status.

H is for Height, burials indicate that the average male Norseman was 5'8" tall and the average female 5'6" tall, which isn't too far from where modern Scandinavians are. Compare that with the average Saxon who was 6" shorter and I guess that's why everyone assumes the Vikings were giants. That said, I know that the nobility of medieval England stood easily 6" taller on average than the peasants, so I am guessing that the Norsemen just got more meat and dairy in their diets, and more food overall, than the peasantry in the countries they invaded. Score one point for quasi-democratic systems there, eh?

H is for Hel, a Goddess, but I am not certain how to classify her. She is one of the monstrous children of Loki and the Giantess Angrboða, but she certainly lacks the destructive feel of the other two. Sure she is the unfeeling ruler of the land of the dead, which has the same name as her conveniently, but there's not really any malice in it, it's more like it's just her job.

H is for Heimdal, a God of the Aesir, guardian of Bifröst, the rainbow bridge to Asgarð. Interesting things about him include the fact that he has nine mothers, who are possibly the daughters of Aegir, and that he has a cool horn called Gjallarhorn, which can be heard across the nine worlds, and that he is also the father of the three races of men, the Thralls, the Karls, and the Jarls. Oh, he can also see and hear things well beyond what any other God can, and he is bright shining white, blindingly so, needs next to no sleep, and will kill Loki at Ragarok.

H is for Hospitality, which the Norsemen took very seriously. Once hospitality had been granted it was inviolate. A guest was protected from his enemies, even if they were your friends, even if it was discovered he had done you wrong.

H is for Huskarl, which is as close to being a full time standing army type soldier as you get in the Norse world. A Huskarl swears an oath to become a King's or a Jarl's man and lives in his service. I guess it's a pretty sweet deal if you can get it, but you are expected to die with your lord if he falls in battle.

H is for Hávámal, the Sayings of the High One, Odin in this case, it is essentially a Norse code of conduct, full of proverbs and wisdom to live by, most of which, if you updated it to modern terms, would be perfectly applicable today.

H is for Heathen, which, like Pagan, means roughly "person who lives in the country", but with a Germanic root instead of a Latin one; it obviously came to mean a non-Christian. In my current D&D game all of the Characters are Heathens. I am using this term so as not to confuse the modern reconstructionist or neo-pagan terms within the context of in game religious discussion.

H is for Heim, which just means "Home", but can mean that as in "abode of", "region of", "Land of" or even "world of", like Vanaheim

H is for Helga, in addition to being a woman's name, it means "to make holy", which I thought was noteworthy enough to mention.

H is for Hersir, an Old Norse word for "Chief", but in a purely political and military sense, rather than anything religious.

H is for Hildisvíni, the name of Freyja's Boar.

H is for Himinbjörg, the name of Heimdal's hall.

H is for Hliðskjálf, the name of Odin's high seat, from which he can see any point in all the nine worlds.

H is for Hnoss, a Goddess, probably of the Vanir, the Daughter of Freyja and Ód. Her claim to fame is that she is so beautiful that all lovely things are called Hnossir after her.

H is for Hlín, a minor Goddess of the Aesir, a servant of Frigg, whom Frigg sends to protect those she wishes to save from danger.

H is for Hodr, the blind brother of Balder whom Loki tricks into killing Balder with a dart made of mistletoe.

H is for Hoenir, a brother of Odin, exchanged as a hostage to the Vanir after the Aesir-Vanir war, he alone of the oldest generation of Gods will survive Ragnarok.

H is for Hof, Old Norse for temple, technically it is a building with a roof used for religious purposes.

H is for Hörgr, an altar, usually made of stone, that is open to the sky.


  1. I thought H would be for Hrolfr Kraki too...

    1. You know, I'd like to say he got cut for space, along with Hrolf Black-Ear, an actual Viking D&D character, just because I had so much material for the letter H already; but the truth is I just missed the boat on both of them. I find myself sticking so much to mythological and religious sources for inspiration that sometimes the good ones slip past me.