Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Here are the heroes that courage revealed,
The battle-bright warriors who strode to the field
Of the war, their swords a light in the fray?
The heroes are gone, they are all passed away.
Where are the earls who led in the van?
And the valiant kings who held sway in the land
Of our fathers, revered in story and song?
They are all passed away, now our heroes are gone.
Where are the unsung who silently strove,
The women and children and all the unknowns
Who were models upon which to pattern our deeds?
Those heroes are gone, from this life they are freed.
And now in this time of the dark of the sun,
Remember what’s ended is only begun.
As Sun sets each evening, she rises at morn,
To the halls of the gods are the heroes reborn.
And we, who with valor must conquer each day,
We too can be heroes as gallant as they,
With truth as our banner and courage our light
We will come to those halls when we tread the long night.
So lift up a toast with the ale-filled horn,
To those who have faced well their wyrd and are gone,
Live well your life and traditions all keep,
Drink to god and to hero this Midwinter’s Eve.”
- “Midwinter’s Toast” by Gunnora Hallakarva
In our sagas and lore, we find exemplary models of behavior in certain individuals who live up to the Heathen ethos in almost every way. Let these brave and honorable folk serve as a guidepost around which the members of our theod base themselves. Let their tales resound around the hearth-fire, the minne-draught be drunk to their name at symbel, and their example inspire us every day! May the gods see us and take heed of our deeds as they once looked with favor upon the quests and travails of our honored forebears.
Even outside of modern heathen tribes, this warrior is famed as the hero who sojourned to Denmark to battle the troll Grendel, ridding King Hrothgar of the menace that plagued him and his tribe for so long. He undertakes this brave deed to repay the king for sheltering his father. What is truly amazing about his fight with Grendel is the fact that he chose to fight the monster unarmed and unarmored, since he wished the fight to be on equal terms. No other man in Hrothgar’s company had the strength, skill, and courage to do such a thing, even when fully armed and armored! During a ferocious grapple, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off and Grendel runs into the bogs and woodlands to die from blood loss, while Beowulf returns with the severed arm as proof of his deed. When Grendel’s vengeful and monstrous mother comes to the hall seeking revenge, Beowulf pursues her to her lair in an underwater cave, wielding an ancient sword made for Etins (giants) that he finds there because the sword given him by the king’s thyle, Hrunding, would not bite into her tough, stony flesh.
Beowulf is descended on his mother’s die from the royal house in Geatland, a kingdom in southern Sweden. His maternal grandfather was King Hrethel. Beowulf’s mother was the daughter of King Hrethel and the sister of King Hygelac.
On his father’s side, Beowulf came from a noble house called the Waegmundings, composed of a long line of great warriors. After the death of his Uncle Hygelac, Beowulf is offered the kingship on account of his great deeds done for Hrothgar and his people. The former king’s wife, Hygd, recognizes the strength in Beowulf and wishes the kingship for him because she fears an invasion from the Frisians and the Swedes. However, Beowulf respectfully declines the offer, recognizing that by right Heardred was next in line for the throne, being the king’s son whereas Beowulf was the king’s nephew. However, Heardred later dies in battle, leaving Beowulf as the last surviving member of the House of Hrethel and obligating him to take the throne. This time Beowulf accepts the kingship. Beowulf ruled justly and wisely, defending his people and bringing prosperity and happiness to the realm. When an old man, a dragon threatens the land, and Beowulf once more does battle with a powerful opponent. Though he saves his people from the dragon’s wrath, he is mortally wounded in the fight. Beowulf was hence the sacral king for his people; when it became necessary, he sacrificed his life for them, and while lived he ensured peace and plenty. Beowulf lived one of the most honorable lives. He had never broken an oath, purposefully sought out strife without just cause or necessity, or raised his sword against his fellow kinsmen. He repayed all good deeds done for him and met his foes bravely, never flinching or backing down once he had set out to do something and never allowing his courage to waver when the horror of the situations he faced reached their utmost.
This is the hero of the Volsungasaga and the Sigurd poems found in the Poetic Edda. He is also known as Sigmund in the later German epic called the Nibelungenlied. In the Volsunga Saga, the action begins with Sigurd’s father Sigmund. His sister Signy marries Siggeir, the king of Gautland. Sigmund and his father Volsung/Volsi are attending the wedding feast (which lasted for some time before and after the actual marriage. The god Woden/Odin comes along in the guise of a beggar and plunges a sword into the living tree around which Volsung’s hall is built. Woden announces that the man who can remove the sword will have it as a gift. Many try, but only Sigmund is able to free the sword. . This might ring familiar with some who have heard of King Arthur and the sword in the stone, which is a Celtic story from a culture very similar to the Scandinavian/Germanic. Siggeir is envious of Sigmund, and wishes the sword for himself. He invites Sigmund, his father Volsung, and nine of Sigmund’s brothers to a visit in Gautland to see him and Signy a few months later. When they arrive, the Volsungs are attacked by the Gauts; King Volsung is killed and his sons are captured. Siggeir’s shapeshifting mother turns into a wolf and devours one of the brothers each night after they are put in stocks deep in the woods and left to die. Each night the wolf returns and eats one of the brothers. Signy devises a plan to help her Sigmund, who is the last remaining; she has a servant smear honey on Sigmund’s face and when the she-wolf arrives she starts licking the honey off. When she sticks her tongue into Sigmund’s mouth he bites it off, and she bleeds out and dies. He then hides in the forests of Gautland and his sister Signy brings him what he needs in secret. Signy disguises herself as a volva (sorceress) and has a child with him called Sinfjotli. Wanting revenge for the death of their father King Volsung, Signy sends her sons to Sigmund in the wilderness, one by one, to be tested. As each fails, Signy urges Sigmund to kill them. Finally, Sinfjotli (born of the incest between Signy and Sigurd) passes the test. In an initiation laid out for them by Woden, Sigmund and Sinfjotli roam the woods as outlaws, growing in power and riches though they live in constant want, hardship, and danger because of their status in Gautland. One day Woden leads them to find two men sleeping in wolfskins. When they kill the men and put the skins on, Sigmund and Sinfjotli become werewolves. Eventually, the time comes when the two of them burn King Siggeir’s hall and avenge their family. Signy, who approves of the revenge, nevertheless feels bound by her marriage to Siggeir and chooses to die by his side. The father and son pair then go harrying together. Sigmund takes a woman named Borghild and has two sons; one of them named Helgi. Helgi and Sinfjotli rule a kingdom jointly. Helgi marries a woman named Sigrun after killing her father. Sinfjotli later killes Sigrun’s brother in battle and Sigrun avenges her brother by poisoning Sinfjotli. Later, Sigmund marries a woman named Hjordis. After a short time of peace, Sigmund’s lands are attacked by King Lyngi. While in the battle, Sigmund fights an old man (who is Woden in disguise.) Woden shatters Sigmund’s sword, and Sigmund falls at the hands of other enemies in the fight. Dying, Sigmund tells Hjordis that he has wielded sword while Woden willed it. He also tells her that she is pregnant and that her son will one day make a great weapon out of the fragments of his sword, and that she must keep the shards safe until that time comes. That son was Sigurd Fafnirsbane.
Sigurd is fostered by the dwarf Regin, brother of the dragon Fafnir. Regin wishes the death of his brother so that he can get at the treasure horde Fafnir guards. Regin reforges the sword Gram from the shards. Sigurd first goes to avenge his father’s death, and then kills Fafnir. Regin has him cook the dragon’s heart on a spit. While doing so, he burns his finger and puts his hand to his mouth, tasting the blood. Suddenly he is able to understand the speech of the birds, who warn him that Regin plans to kill him. They also tell him about a Valkyrie imprisoned on top of a mountain, stuck with a sleep-thorn by Woden for choosing the wrong warrior to bring to Valholl. Sigurd kills Regin, takes the dragon’s hoard, and goes to rescue and awaken Sigdrifa/Brynhild. She teaches him many sorts of wisdom and magic, including the craft of Rune Galdr.
Sigurd’s journeys then take him to the hall of the Gjukungs, where Grimhild, the mother of Gunnarr, Hogni, Gudhrun, and their half-brother Guthorm, gives him a magic potion that dooms him: he forgets Sigdrifa and instead falls in love with Gudrun. The deceived Sigurd then swears blood-brotherhood with Gunnar and Hogni, and then changes shape with Gunnar so that he can win the love of Brynhild, who will only have the man who can braves the ring of fire surrounding the holy mountain. Several years later, Brynhild learns the truth during an argument with Gudhrun. The enraged Brynhild seeks revenge on Sigurd by appealing to Gunnar, who plots the death and has Guthorm carry it out. While Sigurd lies sleeping, Guthorm stabs him, but Sigurd has enough strength left to run Guthorm through. Both of them die; Brynhild, who has felt as much sorrow and guilt as rage, then kills herself. The two of them are burned together on a funeral pyre.
Gudrun marries Atli (better known as Attila the Hun) and her new husband invites Gunnar and Hogni to his fall for a feast. A fight breaks out, and Gudrun chooses to fight alongside her brothers in the struggle. The two brothers are captured, and Atli asks them where Sigurd’s treasure is. When they refuse, Hogni’s heart is cut out and Gunnar is thrown into a snake pit. By way of revenge, Gudrun and Hogni’s youngest son Niflung kill Atli while he sleeps. Gudrun then marries again and has several children, all of whom come to horrible ends due to the curse of Fafnir’s Rhinegold (the story of exactly how the gold became cursed is a distinct one found in our lore. It served as one of the influences for JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series.)
Radbod of Frisia:
While some of our ancestors are known for great and heroic deeds, others are best known for their efforts to resist the oncoming invasion of Christianity over the Heathen lands (efforts great and heroic in their own right!) King Radbod of Frisia is one such example. There is a famous anecdote found in the dark age text Vita Wulframmi which tells the story of how Radbod is finally coerced into receiving baptism. He is confused about one point in Christianity, and asks whether or his ancestors, according to Christian belief, reside now in heaven or hell. The bishop answers that his Heathen ancestors who had never been baptized were most assuredly bathing in the flames of hell at that very moment, but Radbod was about to be spared this. King Radbod recoils in horror from this answer, seeing an eternal separation from his ancestors as a fate worse than any hell the Christians might cook up to scare him into compliance. He steps away from the baptismal font, and said that he “did not want to have to sit around in heaven with a little pack of beggars, and therefore he could not give the new faith any troth and he would rather stay with the one to which he, along with the whole of the Frisians, had held fast.” From that moment on, Radbod actively worked against the Christian efforts to convert the Northlands, and did his utmost to defend and uphold heathenry in his own domains.
This figure has been made famous through the TV show “Vikings”, but since this show, while entertaining, is fraught with inaccuracies, it is best to read the actual saga and adhere to the more reliable information found within. That being said, Ragnar did indeed live a very famed and storied life. His heitith, “Loddbrok”, means leather or hairy breeches. He accrued this name when he used armor made of such material in his fight with a dragon. Ragnar was famed for leading the sack of Paris in 845. After making quite a name for himself in England, he is finally captured by his enemy, the English King Aella, and is thrown into a pit of adders. As he dies, Ragnar appears to be able to foresee the vengeance his sons would wreak, and is quoted as saying: “the piglets would grunt if they knew the plight of the old boar,” and then spoke what has come down to us as “Ragnar’s death song.” He faced his death bravely, knowing that soon he would be feasting in Valhalla with his ancestors. Ragnar’s sons do come back for revenge, cutting the blood eagle on Aella (a particularly brutal form of execution reserved for the worst sorts of wrongdoers.) They stood at the helm of the famed “Great Heathen Army” which invaded and swallowed up a large part of England into what is commonly known as “the Danelaw.”
King Hrolf Kraki:
This Danish hero has his own saga, the Hrolf’s Saga Kraka, however he also figures in the story of Beowulf, appearing as the character “Hrothulf.” He got his heitith from a low-born boy who was shocked to see that the king’s physical stature did not match his reputation and accomplishments (kraki means “stick.”) Hrolf recognized the outburst as youthful folly, choosing to give the youth a gold ring rather than a sharp rebuke. He even accepts the name! Touched by this, the boy (Vogg) swore to avenge King Hrolf if he were slain, and he makes good on this oath. Hrolf’s warband is also famous, and included many berserks and sorcerers, including a warrior named Bodhvar Bjarki (Battle-Bear), whose father had been transformed into a werebear by a witch. Bjarki was able to send his spirit forth in the form of a bear to do battle while his physical body remained in trance, seemingly asleep.
Hermann of the Cherusci (“Arminius”):
Hermann lived during the days of the Roman occupation of Germania, around the first century C.E. He was an auxiliary soldier in the Roman Army for a long time (the Romans had long held the practice of inducting recently conquered native troops into their armies.) However, upon returning home, he had gained a lot of knowledge about the cutting edge Roman military tactics of the day, and (even more importantly) how to counter them. When the Emperor Augustus unleashed another campaign to totally conquer all of Germany, Hermann led the opposition forces and destroyed the Roman forces at the Battle of Teutoburger Wald in 9 CE. The Roman Army was so crippled by the loss of so many of its troops that it never again mounted another serious campaign east of the Rhine. The emperor was so enraged and horrified that he exclaimed “Quintili Vare, Legiones Redde!?” (Quintilius Varus, Where are my Legions!?) Ironically, this same general had been Hermann’s commanding officer in the past. He ran himself through with his own sword, as was the way of many defeated and disgraced roman officers of the period. A statue of him was raised in the middle of the forest where the battle took place as the sign of German freedom.
The quintessential Odinsman, this hero of the sagas was, like the god he took as his fulltrui, “many skilled.” He was a famous rune magician, skald, and warrior (and not just any warrior, but a berserk.) His family had fled Norway for Iceland because they had run afoul of his ambitions to take sole rule over all of that country. He was a brave man with a strong sense of honor, but this was offset by a fiercesome temper and a penchant for greed. Physically, he was not very attractive, but his poetry was stunningly beautiful to hear (and is still amazing to read.) Egil was made famous for his feud with King Eric Bloodaxe and Queen Gunhild of Norway, and he famously cursed these two with one of the most feared forms of Nordic curses, the nithing pole, which he used to drive them out of Norway. He would also use his magical abilities for more benevolent purposes, such as the time when he identified the errors in a rune-stave cut by an amateur and placed under a sick girl’s bed in an attempt to cure her. Egil located the rune under her pillow, set the runes aright, and replaced it, and the girl soon recovered. He got into a lot of close scrapes in his life, such as the time when he was forced to compose the poem “Head-Ransom” in one night in exchange for his life. Unlike many other warriors from Nordic countries, he fought for the Anglo-Saxon kings rather than against them, and at one point went into military service on behalf of King Aethelstan.
Grettir the Strong:
Grettir hailed from Iceland, but despite being possessed of great might of body and mind, he was haunted all his life by his perpetual ill-luck. He was outlawed from several places, and lived a chancy life on the run, eventually meeting his bane on a tiny island (the last place of refuge he could come to) off the coast of Iceland, felled by a witch’s curse which caused him to be wounded to death by a glancing blow from his own axe while he attempted to cut a cursed piece of firewood. Infection set in, and he was killed as he lay helpless and his enemies closed in on him. His immense strength and courage allowed him to get the better of many opponents, even those that were undead or troll-kin! . His end was foretold by one such undead, a draugr which he wrestled called Glam, who before dying (for a second time) prophesied such portents. Despite all this, he did have one notable weakness: a fear of the dark, though not necessarily of the things that stepped out of the dark to challenge himThis dread was so great that the outlaw ironically was always in search of human company, preferring the risk this brought to being caught all alone after sundown. This proved to be his bane, as the life of an outlaw is of necessity often a lonely one.
Gisli the Outlaw:
Another Icelandic hero who was outlawed, the story of Gisli shows the depths the bonds of blood-brotherhood can reach when sincerely entered into. The saga begins with Gisli, Thorgrim, Thorkel, and Vestein entering into blood-brotherhood with one another in the “raised turf” ceremony, but one of them, Thorgrim, back out because he does not think much good will come from being bonded to Vestein in such a way. The blood oath remains incomplete after the argument breaks out, but the intentions of Gisli and Vestein were sincere. When Thorkel learns that that his wife Aud has an attraction to Vestein, he is enraged and kills him. The identity of the killer is not conclusive, as he wore a mask and then fled afterwards (despite the Icelandic law of reporting a killing immediately so that the Allthing can judge the rightness of it.) Gisli is furious, but suspects the wrong person (Thorgrim) and kills him in like fashion. When it is discovered that Gisli has done the deed, more men come after him, and he kills them, setting in motion a vicious cycle of revenge until dozens and dozens of men are coming after Gisli at one time! He puts up a heroic struggle, managing to dispatch a large number of them through his quick wits and skill at arms and moving from one hideout to another until he is finally slain in a final showdown with his pursuers where he determines to stand and fight till the bitter end. Throughout the saga, Gisli has dark, foreboding dreams about women spinning his entrails on a loom and weapons wielded by phantom hands coming out of the dark to smite him. When he gets his death blow, his entrails begin spilling out from the wound in his abdomen, and he pushes them back in and tightens his belt, and amazingly continues to fight! When he spots the leader of his pursuers on the ground below the rocky crag on which he is fighting, he leaps from the heights, burying his sword in the man’s head in a final show of retribution before his insides burst out again from the impact and he breathes his last. Few would have fought on for as long as he did against such insurmountable odds, but more than this, it is what he chose to fight for (brotherly love) which earned him a place among the heroes of our folk.
Hengest and Horsa:
In the 400s CE, these two Saxon brothers led the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the invasion of Celtic Britain, their names meaning “stallion” and “horse.” They swept over the land, bringing the Germanic religion and culture with them and forever altering the folk identity of the British Isles. They initially served as mercenaries for Vortigern, King of the Britains, but later went to war with him. After they had established their people in these new lands, Hengist (Horsa had died in a battle) set the stage for the first truly Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England by becoming the forefather of its kings. These first truly “English” kingdoms remained pagan right up until the last pagan king, Penda of Mercia, was defeated in 655 AD.
Female Heroes: It bears mention here that women were esteemed as highly as men in Heathen societies, usually taking different roles from men but sharing equally in social status. I say “usually” because there was a class of female warriors called shield-maidens in Germanic societies. Most women did not pursue this type of life, but those with the skill and desire were free to do so. Even women who did not live as shield-maidens were willing to stand by their men on the battlefield; they would bring weapons and shields to the sidelines, and in the case where their menfolk were defeated, they chose to fight on until they met their deaths rather than live as slaves of their enemies. Outside of the warrior role, women were seen as a very important part of the social structure. While some women fought for their people as warriors, others chose a “peacemaker” role that was designed to keep these ancient societies from totally falling apart at the seams from wars and feuds. Many mothers and sisters would urge their menfolk onto revenge for wrongs or deeds to improve the family name and standing; however, once what needed doing was done, they would work to mend the wounds left from the initial strife waged in the name of honor and necessity, making the community whole again. To settle feuds, a women from one family was often sent to the home of the rival family as a “peace-weaver.” She would essentially sacrifice her life for the greater good, living heroically for the rest of her life among her enemies to see that her people would survive, and each day was a test of courage for her. It also bears mention that there were no modern medical facilities to assure the relatively safe and (less) painful affair of childbirth; these women did not take pain medication, but toughed it out until it was over, and sometimes died in the process, all so that their line could continue and their tribes could flourish.
Hervor was the daughter of a berserk named Angantyr, who after being killed was laid in a mound with eleven of his brothers. Hervor disguises herself as a man and journeys to the isle of Samsey were the mound was raised, having lived as a robber and then the captain of a Viking raiding vessel. The men of her crew flee when the ghost of her father appears and gives her the cursed sword Tyrfing, knowing full well that though it would bring her glory and victory, it would bring her death as well. Hervor was the mother of King Heidhrekr, who fathered the Swedish royal dynasty. Since his mother was a shield maiden and his father was an Etin (Gudhmundr, husband of Hervor) he was a mighty warrior indeed! Hervor has her own saga.
Sigrid the Strong-Minded:
When King Olaf Trygvasson, the Christian traitor to his people, was laying all of Norway under him, Queen Sigrid thought it would be diplomatically sound to marry him and ensure the welfare of her people. However, she underestimated just how domineering this man was; he demanded that she become Christian, even though she, as a Heathen, was alright with him being Christian, preferring to let each do as they willed in matters of religion. When he insisted, she cooly replied: “I will not go from the faith I have had before, and my kinsmen before me. I will not say anything against thee if thou believe in the god that pleases thee.” Olaf was enraged with this, slapping her across the face and shouting “Why should I wed thee, thou Heathen bitch!” She then replied “this may well be thy death,” and her words proved no idle threat, as she brought about the coalition army between her later husband Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, and her son, the King of Sweden which eventually brought about Trygvasson’s death in the battle of Svolder around the year 1000 CE. Her story can be found in the Saga of Olaf Trygvassion, one of the sections of the Heimskringla.
Queen Wealtheow: Wife of King Hrothgar from Beowulf, she stood out as all that a proper heathen queen should be. She would always give wise counsel to her husband, kept wisdom and used it on behalf of her people, and making sure that the warriors that served her folk and her royal house were well rewarded with gifts. She served as peace-weaver at Hrothgar’s court; ensuring the goodwill and cooperation between her folk and that of Beowulf and his band of Geatish warriors, and urging her husband to remember his obligations.