Every mythology the world over has its own spooky creatures. But just as the Norse like to knock everything up to the most radical, blood-filled, raging, headbanging degree, so do their mythological monsters. Read on, if you dare, and learn about what went bump in the night for even the mightiest of warriors.
If you’ve played Skyrim, you’ve probably had a chance encounter with a draugr or a thousand. And while those dudes are pretty easy to kill in-game with a fireball or a glass sword, in Norse folklore, it’s a little more complicated.
Scandinavian countries have thousands of miles of coastline combined so it’s not unusual that they have many water myths. In the case of the Draugen, these are exclusively the ghosts of men who die in the water. And instead of being dry corpses, these are ginormous, covered in seaweed, and they row in a broken boat. They are more prominent during stormy weather, dragging sailors out of their ships and drowning them, and wrecking their boats.
Ok, so we know this is more of a Scottish myth than a Norse one, but the nuckelavee comes from the Orkney Islands, which were long an operational base of the Norse during their raids on the British Isles. And it’s too creepy to pass up for this list.
The nuckelavee is somewhat similar to the Celtic kelpie, or the Norwegian nøkk. It’s a sort of horse-creature, but it usually has the torso of a man attached to its back. This might bring to mind friendly images of centaurs from the Harry Potter or Narnia books. No, not the nuckelavee. It’s just the torso, and it’s attached to the back, behind the actual horse-like head, like a legless rider. And best of all, the arms of this rider can reach the ground. Oh yeah– and it has a gigantic, swollen head for no reason at all, because fuck anyone who has to see this thing, right?
The horse head isn’t just a regular horse head either. Oh no. It’s widely-slashed mouth emits an awful, toxic breath, responsible for wilting crops and poisoning livestock. So they’re not just scary as balls, but they also cause famine and drought.
Oh yeah, and the whole thing has no skin and black, rotten blood that you can see moving in its veins and powering its sinewy muscles.
The Norse were not free from their share of pestilence and death, and their folklore reflects that. Pesta is their personification of the Black Death itself– an event that had so much impact on the psyche of the Norse, they had to turn her into a person.
Pesta is an old, traveling woman. You can usually just kind of tell who she is by seeing her. And Pesta herself was not malevolent. She just sort of brought disease with her wherever she went and it was impossible to keep her out. That in itself is pretty creepy: it’s easy to fear something as horrifying as the nuckelavee. But just an old woman walking down the road? During this time, there were likely thousands of these ladies wandering around with non-malicious intentions. So they were everywhere.
But here’s the most important part: if you see Pesta carrying a rake, not everyone in your house will die. They will escape like through the teeth of the rake. If you see her with a broom, however, everyone will be swept away.
One story goes that a ferryman was called across the water to give a ride to an old woman. When he got there, it was, of course, Pesta herself. Knowing he was already pretty screwed, he asked Pesta if she could skip him over.
“Nah,” she said. “But since you were kind enough to give me a ride, your death will be easy.”
So the man showed her to the other side of the river, then went home exhausted and fell asleep. He never woke up.
As you may know from Tolkien's lore, wargs are giant wolves that are ridden by goblins. In Game of Thrones, to warg is to see through the eyes of an animal you're particularly connected to (and for the Stark family, it was in fact, their giant direwolves). In Norse mythology, the word warg is often used to refer to Fenrir and the other great wolves, Skoll and Hati, who follow the sun and the moon.
A warg rider from the Hunnestad Monument
But regular, unnamed wargs also served as rides for giants, such as Hyrrokkin the Giantess when she went to Baldr's funeral. Like in Tolkien's books, Norse wargs will permit people to ride them, but not often people with good intentions. Thanks to this discrimination, it's not hard to see why the Vikings both feared and revered these great wolves.
It's important to remember that while the Vikings were uncannily brave in battle, a long winter's night so far up north always meant that wolves were on the prowl. And if you're being harried in the darkness by a whole, starving pack, it can often seem more like you're being followed by a giant, vicious monster.
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a pressing weight on your chest or your legs, unable to move, and the sense of a malevolent presence nearby? These days, we call this occurrence, ‘sleep paralysis,’ and understand it (as best we can) as the mind awakening while the body is still in REM sleep.
But the Norse attributed this terrifying feeling to a creature called the Mare. And yes– for many Scandinavian cultures, the root of this word is the same that means, “Nightmare.”
The Mare is a female spirit who can do all sorts of dick things while she’s sitting on you. She might tie your hair in knots, resulting in marelocks, or tangles that develop suddenly and can’t be combed out. She could also sit on your horse and leave him sweaty and exhausted first thing in the morning.
Bonus fact: the Mare appears in other myths the world over. In Persian folklore, they are called the Bakhtak; in English, she is the Old Hag. The myth of the incubus or the succubus also comes from the same, spooky feeling.
We talked in depth about the Dökkálfar and the Ljósálfar in our previous article. If you read that, you probably realized something is pretty creepy about Norse elves– something that didn’t quite make it into Tolkien’s elves (unless you’ve read The Silmarillion). Norse elves are often considered somewhat benevolent spirits. They’re beautiful (especially the Ljósálfar) and they have a connection to the gods. But there’s something really unsettling and weird about them.
For one, they require sacrifices if you ever need anything helpful from them. They also hang out around burial mounds and can sometimes infect humans who hang out there too long with dangerous, fey moods. They can cause disease and pestilence at will, and they often can be called to do the bidding of witches and other ill-meaning folk. Humans could become elves when they died, or they could breed with elves and create fantastical children with mysterious powers and ways.
Instead of Tolkien’s wise and careful elves (again, unless we’re talking The Silmarillion), a better example of the Norse elves would be the Celtic Sidhe, or The Man with the Thistledown Hair from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Strange, creepy, and not benevolent in any way.
Dragons and Serpents
There are a number of dragons and serpents present in Norse mythology, and each is more terrifying than the last.
Níðhöggr is the creature that gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil. He is considered to be the most villainous of monsters-- while his name means 'malice striker,' but his name also implies he has absolutely no honor.
Fafnir and his horde
Jormungand is another, called the World Serpent As the son of Loki, Jormungand has a very important role in Norse mythology, which you can read more about here.
And finally, there's Fafnir, from the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. Fafnir was originally a dwarf who was both powerful and fearless. But he eventually became greedy for gold (not unlike the dwarves in the works of Tolkien) and turned into a dragon, who fearlessly guarded his treasures and breathed poisonous air. Fafir wound up being slain by the great warrior, Sigurd.
This is by no means an exclusive list of the Norse dragons, but it as list of those that were feared most. Like many cultures around the world
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