Wednesday, 11 January 2012


The coming of Christianity marked the end of an era in all the peoples it reached. The ways of the old gods faded into the ether, their talismans broken asunder by the sign of the cross. Some embraced the new religion selflessly, others laid down their lives to defend the old ways. Nearly one thousand years after the birth of Christ, this struggle reached the northern reaches of Scandinavia, a struggle epitomised in the life of one man - Nornagest.

The Norns weave the baby's fate
Print by Johannes Gehrts
Nearly seven centuries after Christ's crucifixion, a baby was born in the sweeping lands of Scandinavia. Thord, his father, a wealthy man, and joyful at being granted a son, prepared a magnificent banquet for his family and friends. People from far and wide joined in celebration that night, fawning over the baby and congratulating the parents, in between partaking in the lavish revelry the baby's father had generously provided. Such was the vibrancy of the celebrations that not one among them noticed the arrival of three guests. Gracefully moving through the crowds, three youthful women, draped in billowing cloth, came before the cradle. They gazed intently down at the baby, his small face illuminated by the flicker of two candles above his head. The three women were sisters, and illustrious guests. Bound though they were in mortal form, none present saw their true nature. For they were in truth the Norns, the three divine spirits of the Norselands who, wielding power over fate, were mighty deities indeed. The eldest of the Norns, Urðr, the spirit of the past, bent low over the child and declared that he would possess beauty and valour such that all men would one day admire. The second sister, Verðandi, the spirit of the present, stepped forward. The boy would one day grow to be greater than all his forbears as a poet. Just as the final sister moved forward, all gathered shouted with joy. For in the Viking lands, heroism came in many forms, and a man could be revered for his poetry as much as for his prowess in war. Skuld, the third and youngest of the Norns, envied the appraise of her elder sisters, resentful of the shadow they cast over her, the spirit of the future, who decided the future of all men. In the ribaldry and excitement, one of the guests was pushed around, knocking into Skuld, accidentally pushing her to the ground.

A deafening silence gripped the hall, as an atmosphere of fear descended upon the crowd. To their horror, the baby's parents saw Skuld shaking with fury as she got to her feet, her face veiled by her cloak. Pointing one long finger at one of the burning candles above the cradle, she shouted in rage "I assign his future, that he shall not live longer than that candle burns". Without another word, she stormed out of the hall. Taking pity on the distraught parents, Urðr walked over to the baby's mother. Extinguishing the flame, she urged her to hide the candle, lest it should ever burn down to its base, before she too followed her sisters out into the night. Shaken, the baby's parents named their son 'Nornagest', a word which means 'guarded by the Norns'.

The lands of Norway
Photograph taken by 'Olavfin'
Many years later, Nornagest grew up as Urðr and Verðandi had decreed, for his handsomeness was admired far and wide, and his mastery of poetry and the songlike voice with which he shared it, were revered throughout the lands of Scandinavia. Gathered around roaring fires, Nornagest enchanted audiences everywhere, his songs of the old gods and ancient times breathed glorious life into those legends like no other before ever had. His listeners did not just hear the thundering hooves of his stories, they saw the adventures of gods and men, and felt the emotion of the stories. Yet wherever he travelled, Nornagest was always careful to remember the warning from his mother, and kept the candle well-guarded, hidden in his harp. As long as the candle remained whole, Nornagest lived strong and could not die. For three hundred years Nornagest serenaded rich and poor alike, never growing old, neither in form nor voice. Nornagest had not changed. But the times were. New people were arriving in the northern lands. Missionaries from Rome. Slowly, but surely, the old ways were dying. The people, too, were dying. For the word of the Lord reached the ears of the cruel as well as the righteous. One such man was the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason. A fanatical tyrant wearing a mask of piety, King Olaf gave his people a choice - convert to the new faith, or die. It was to Olaf's mighty court that Nornagest one day made his way, one thousand years after the sacrifice of Christ.

The Death of Nornagest
Engraved print by Gunnar Vidar Forssell
The poet was warmly received at court, for as ever, his great name preceded his arrival. Nornagest, however, though his song and story touched the hearts of many around him, was beginning to despair and grow weary of the world. A relic of an older age, he felt like he no longer truly belonged, and could not understand this new world of wanton cruelty. His fellow men were, by force or will, turning their backs upon the very deities of whom he sang. King Olaf, surprised at Nornagest's nobility of bearing and strange presence, as though he were at once both young and old, hosted the bard overnight in the hall. Demanding he sing, Olaf listened to the musical voice of Nornagest. Even hard hearted Olaf could not fail to be impressed by the poet's song, but he twitched in anger at the mention of the names of the old gods, and stories of dragons and gold. Olaf questioned Nornagest as to his parentage, as the weary man told the king his story, of how the Norns had bound his fate whilst only a baby. An uneasy feeling gripped the room. Appalled at the mention of these heathen spirits, the king ordered Nornagest to declare if he had converted yet. The onlookers backed away, knowing all too well the king's wrath. "No", the bard defiantly remarked. "Your king does ill", the furious Olaf declared, "that he lets unbaptized men travel out of his realm among the lands". The king at once sent for holy water, and set about baptising Nornagest. The deed was done, and Olaf demanded of Nornagest:

                                            " How long do you wish to live?...
                                               Just a short time, if God wills it "
                                                         - KING OLAF AND NORNAGEST

Just then, the king remembered the old tale of the candle. "Where is that candle of yours?" Olaf ordered. Slowly, sensing what was coming, Nornagest withdrew the old candle from his harp. "You will light it", Olaf declared, "for the old gods are a falsehood and a lie". The poor man had no choice. Setting a flame in the wick, Nornagest watched as the wax began to soften in the heat. The onlooking crowd, having witnessed the king's reasoning many times before, turned away, having grown tired of watching another pagan being shown that his beliefs were wrong. Olaf turned to them to proudly claim that he had saved another soul.

But something was wrong. The first bead of wax slipped silently down the side of the candle, and a cold chill came over Nornagest. The candle burned brightly, and quickly. Soon another drop of wax fell. Some in the crowd turned, for Nornagest's singing had suddenly grown faint and weak. The candle glowed, burning lower and lower, and the poet shivered. Soon the entire hall except the king was watching, their eyes darting from Nornagest to the candle, and back again. A sudden draught, and the flame flickered threateningly. The poet shuddered violently. A soft hiss sounded throughout the hall, as the candle at last, after three hundred years, burnt out. A small wisp of smoke rose from where the last stretch of wick had stood. King Olaf, still facing the stunned crowd, jubilantly trumpeted the lies of Nornagest, and the falsehood that was his story. But no one was looking at the king. All eyes were on the great poet, his body now lying on the floor, an expression of serenity in his unmoving face. He was dead...

United Kingdom

Norna-Gest's þáttr:
Stories and Ballads of the Far Past: Translated from the Norse (Icelandic and Faroese) with Introductions and Notes
(A collection of Norse sagas, including Nornagest, translated from Icelandic and Faroese)

United States

Norna-Gest's þáttr:
Stories and Ballads of the Far Past: Translated from the Norse (Icelandic and Faroese) with Introductions and Notes
(A collection of Norse sagas, including Nornagest, translated from Icelandic and Faroese)

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