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Norse glossary

We owe at least half our language to the Norse – more than 900 of the most common English words come from the Vikings, including the sky, skin, scrape, skirt, husband (husbonde) and even window (vindue – literally, wind-hole, so double-glazing was not on the Viking DIY agenda).

There are over 600 village names in England which can be directly related to the Vikings. Grimsby, Thoresby, Brimtoft, Langtoft and so on. Any place ending in "thwaite" is Norse – it means a clearing. There are English counties where three quarters of the village names derive from the Vikings. In the Shetland Islands that goes up to about all of them.

In the North East of England the Nordic languages were spoken until as late as the 12th century, and on the Isle Of Man until the middle of the 15th.


AESIR: The family of Norse gods which includes Thor and Odin.

ALDEIGJUBORG: Starya Ladoga, a town near the eventual site of St Petersburg and a trading port at the entrance to the first of the rivers leading south into Russia.

ALFAR: The elves of later myth. In Norse times, they were far from the Tolkien idea, being unseen spirits which existed only at the edge of vision, or in the glitter on water. But they could and did interfere with the world of Men – stealing babies and leaving their own changelings, and shooting elf-arrows. Elf-shot livestock took ill and died and elf-shot people were similarly affected. Not to be confused with SVARTALFAR, ‘dark elves’.

ASIL: The word means ‘pure’ and, when applied to the horse, refers to the particularly strain of Arab which can be traced back to 4BC. It is considered by the Bedouin to be a gift from God. Keeping a pure mare brings bounty, happiness and the pardoning of a number of sins, and is marked as good deeds on the Day of Reckoning. As a result, the status enjoyed by the Asil is one that no other horse has ever had. The Asil becomes a part of the family. Indeed, in Islamic Law the neglect of a mare brings the same penalty as the neglect of a wife or child.

ASGARD: Home of the gods, built by Odin and his sons.

AUDHUMLA: Meaning 'Great Nurse', she is the great cow from which giant Ymir took his nourishment – and made the first god by licking out his shape from the ice.

BEITASS: Stretching pole, a wooden spar fitted to a pocket in the lower corner of the sail to stiffen and hold the edge of the sail when tacking close to the wind.

BIFROST: Also called the Rainbow Bridge, it is a single span fashioned by the gods between ASGARD and MIDGARD. It is guarded by Heimdall

BIRKA: Main trading port of the Baltic in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was also noted for being the site of the first Christian congregation in Sweden, founded by Angsar (see Hammaburg, below). After 972AD, Birka vanished from historical record and it is thought that a combination of silting harbours and a failure in the flow of silver from the east killed it off. Gotland, further east, rose in its stead.

BJORNSHAFEN: Orm’s home – fictional, it is based on archaeological evidence in many farm sites, such as Ribblehead in Yorkshire.

BLOT: Sacrifice – the word is almost certainly taken from the Norse for ‘blood’, since ceremonial sacrifice usually involved a lot of it.

DRAKKAR: The true Viking longship, the Dragon Ship. There are others, of varying sizes, but the drakkar was commonly crewed by upwards of 60. The largest drakkar known was that of Olaf Trygvasson, called the Long Serpent, which had 68 rowers on 34 benches per side, plus about the same amount of warriors.

DRAUPA: Norse poetry often seems odd and stilted to the modern English speaker. Many put that down to translation from the Old Norse somehow losing the original beauty, but the truth is that poetic skalds used techniques radically different from modern ways. The draupa is one of these techniques – essentially an eight-line verse, with each line broken into two half-lines, each containing one or two stressed syllables and a number of unstressed ones. Each line-pair was further tied together with alliteration and at least three of the four half-lines in each couplet would have the same sound at the start of a stressed syllable. What is more astonishing is that the skalds did this off the cuff, extemporising verses like the Japanese do with haiku.

DYFFLIN:  ‘Dubh Linn’ (Black Pool) was established in the 10th century and became a favoured trading place for the Norse.

FENRIR: A giant wolf and one of Loki's children, it is ordained that at the end of the world he will devour Odin and cause mass destruction and chaos. Bound by the persistence of the gods and the bravery of TYR.

FREYJA: Norse goddess of magic, fertility and love. Wife of Frey, who is the male equivalent and frequently portrayed with a huge phallus.

GARDARIKI: Norse name for early Russia, the kingdoms of Novgorod and Kiev. Usually translated as ‘kingdom of cities’.

GINNUNGAGAP: A yawning void that extended in every direction. It existed before everything and is the birthplace of all living things.

GLEIPNIR: The magic fetter used to chain FENRIR the Wolf, it was as soft as silk but stronger than any metal chain. Dwarves made it from all the things that should be in the world but are not – such as the roots of a mountain, the sound a cat’s paw makes, the breath of fish etc.

GODI: More properly written as goði and pronounced 'gothi' and usually described as a priest, which is not quite accurate – there is no firm evidence that the Norse religion had a hierarchy or priestly caste, or fixed places of worship.  A godi was someone popularly acknowledged as wise and with the ear of the gods – usually a specific one and usually Thor – who was called on to judge disputes, speak at Thing meetings on behalf of someone (and usually for pay or the promise of service). Usually, but not always, a godi was also the JARL.

HAFSKIP: Smaller version of the longship, with a deeper draft; a compromise between raiding vessel and trading cargo-carrier. Iceland’s major shipping concern took this name – which wasn’t exactly lucky for it as it went spectacularly bust in the 1980s amid charges of corruption and worse.

HAMMABURG: Early name for Hamburg, seat of Bishop Angskar, whose missionary zeal drove Christian priests out to convert the north. In reply, Vikings sacked the place in 845AD and the bishop barely escaped with his life.

HEDEBY: One of the best-known centres for commerce and industry, situated at the bottom of the Danish peninsula of Jutland; the territory at that time was part of Denmark but it now belongs to Germany. This thriving 'town on the heather' was destroyed in 1066.

HNEFATAFL: A popular board game in which one player attempts to lead the king to escape while the other tries to capture the king. Find out more.

HEL: Queen of the underworld, one of Loki's children who was banished to NASTRAND but was given power over those who die of illness and old age. She is portrayed as half dead, half beautiful goddess, so that her face is at once lovely one one side and a rotting corpse on the other.

HOLMGARD: ‘Island town’, the Viking name for Novgorod, which was originally the chief town of GARDARIKI until the capture of KONUGARD (Kiev), further south.

HOV: Pronounced as close to ‘howf’ as makes no differences, this means household and home equally. Scots will know it still, since a ‘howf’ still means the same, albeit with connotations of rough and ready.

ITIL: Capital of the Khazarian Empire - moved to this city in 750AD from Balanjar – Itil was also the Khazar name for the Volga River. Destroyed circa 965AD by Sviatoslav of Kiev.

JARL: Pronounced 'yarl', it is the name of a Norse chief. Jarls could be of varying degrees of power and influence, from those with only a few followers to those with hundreds. A Rig-Jarl was one who had achieved control of such an area that he was acknowledged as a king – Rig means ‘high’ and is similarly to Ard-Righ, the High King, in Ireland.

JORVIK: The pre-eminent city of Norse Britain from 866AD, better known as York.

JORSALIR: Jerusalem. In the 10th century, it was the city of the People of the Book – Jews, Muslims and Christians – and, despite warfare outside it, maintained a religious peace inside. The baptised Norse, newest and most-travelled pilgrims, made a point of visiting it.

JOTUNHEIM: A piece of land allocated to the giants by the gods.

JUL: Winter feats lasting 12 days, later Christianised into Christmas and called Yule from the later Middle Ages.

KNARR: The workhorse Norse ship – small, fat-bellied cargo ship, typically 16m long, 5m wide, 2m high and with a draft of 1m. Square-rigged and clinker-built, it could not navigate the shallows as well as the drakkar longships, but handled better in rough seas. Since it was usually laden and so heavy, plus the high freeboard, rowing was not a primary means of transport and, in fact typically had only two oars per side. Rowing had to be done standing up and walking two strides for every stroke. America was discovered and visited several times by Norsemen in a knarr.

KHAZAR KHANATE: The Khazar empire extended (8th–10th cent.) from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to the Urals and as far westward as Kiev. In the 8th century this essentially Turkic people adopted Judaism.

KONUGARD: Kiev – ‘city of the king’. Eventual capital of the Rus/Slav kingdoms which became modern Russia, the city was established by Turkic tribes and ‘liberated’ by Swedish Vikings Askold and Dir, traditionally in the year 860AD.

LANGABARDALAND: Norse name for Italy, which was gradually transmuted into ‘Lombardy’.

LIF and LITHRASIR: The two humans destined to restart the human race after RAGNAROK.

LOKI: The Mischeif Maker, first father of Lies, he is the shame of gods and mortals alike. In the end, the other gods chained him to a rock and allow a serpent drip venom on his face. His wife, Sigyn, catches it in a basin to save his pain – but when she has to empty it and the venom drips on Loki, his writhings cause earthquakes. He will only be freed at RAGNAROK.

MEAD: An alcoholic drink made of fermented honey and water. We have a legacy of it today thanks to its use in Norse weddings, where tradition had the bride and groom enjoy a month of holiday, with no work and plenty of mead. They called this the honey-month as a result – hence our own term, 'honeymoon'.

MIDGARD: This world. An Anglicised version of Miðgarðr, with those funny ‘ð’ things which actually stand in for the ‘th’ sound. Pictured as placed somewhere in the middle of Yggdrasil, The WORLD TREE, Midgard is surrounded by an impassable area of water inhabited by the great MIDGARD SERRPENT Jormungand. In Norse mythology, Miðgarðr became applied to the wall around the world that the gods constructed from the eyebrows of the giant YMIR as a defence against their enemies, the Jotun giants. It is depicted as an intermediate world between ASGARD and NIFLHEIM, part of a triad with Asgard at the top, Midgard in the centre and Niflheim beneath, with Midgard connected to Asgard by BIFROST, the Rainbow Bridge. Commonly referred to as Middle Earth – so now you know where Tolkien got it from.

MIDGARD SERPENT: Also known as the World Serpent, a dragon so vast that it circles the world biting its own tail. One of Loki's offspring that was thrown into the ocean by the gods.

MIKLAGARD: Constantinople, also known as The Great City. The place to be in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Big Apple of its age and capital of the Byzantine Empire.

MJOLLNIR: Thor's mighty hammer, whose powers include always returning to his hand when thrown. The Hammer became the single most-worn symbol of the Norse religion and, because of its close resemblance to the cross, later versions of the Hammer could be used for both during the transition from pagan to Christian belief. The sign of the Hammer, too, was similar to the way you cross yourself – with a clenched fist touch your forehead, just below the beastbone, under the left breast, then under the right breast. Conversely, the Norse warding against the evil eye, the clenched fist with fist and little fingers extended as horns, was later transmuted to the sign for the Devil and those who made it were clearly heretic.

MUSPELHEIM: A region of ‘seething fire’ in the southern part of Ginnungagap, where all life began. Interestingly, the name means: 'Home of the destroyers of the world.'

NABIDH: Drink made from dates, permissible to Muslims providing it had not fermented, a stricture which was not always firmly observed. The usual form was brewed for two or three days, but six or ten-day nabidh was fimly alcoholic and, in addition, was often laced with henbane, cannabis and opium. Small wonder the Norse loved it.

NASTRAND: The worst region of Hel’s domains, a hall whose roof and doors were wattled with hissing snakes which ejected constant streams of poison. Through them, oath-breakers and murderers were forced to wade. Not to be confused with Naastrand, a black metal rock band who fell out of Satan’s bottom, apparently.

NIFLHEIM: A region of ‘burning ice’ and snow that exists in the northern part of Ginnungagap and later became the abode of Hel. Between here and Muspelheim is where all life was created. Not to be confused with Nifelheim, a black metal band which, apparently, fell out of Satan’s back passage shortly after Naastrand and a bad curry from Hel’s Kebab Shoppe. You will find that a lot of Norse stuff has been hijacked by bad metal bands and even worse white supremacists. Don’t let it put you off.

NIORD: Leader of the VANIR, the second group of Norse gods. God of the oceans and seas.

NORVASUND: The Straits of Gibraltar.

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ODIN: Known as the All-Father, One-Eye (because he sacrificed it to the giant Mimir, in return for a draught from the Well of Wisdom) Frenzy and other names, he is the leader of the gods and has more eke-names (secret names) than any other - around 170.

PEREGRINATI: God’s off-roaders, wandering for the love of God, visiting all the sites of religious significance mentioned in the Gospels. As popular today as it was in medieval times.

RANN-SAK: The Old Norse term for searching for plunder which, of course, exists in our time as much the same thing – ransack.

RAGNAROK: More properly termed Ragna Rokk, ‘ragna’ meaning gods and ‘rokk’ meaning fate. An alternative word is rokkr, meaning twilight – hence the whole Twilight Of The Gods theme. In Norse mythology, it was a prophesy of the ‘doom of all powers’ when the world is ripped apart and reborn. Unique in any culture in that it acknowledged that the gods of the Norse knew that one day they would die and that the Norse people themselves accepted that their entire religious belief would, one day, pass into history and be replaced with something else.

RUMMAN: Pomegranate.

RUNES: The Norse written language, a series of symbols for passing information, divination and magic, in use from circa 100BC until around 1600AD. Known properly as ‘futhark’ in the way that our alphabet is popularly called ‘ABC’; the first six letters of the runic alphabet spell ‘futhark’. Originally, the runic alphabet contained 24 symbols – this is the Elder Futhark - but 8 were lost or altered to form a 16-symbol alphabet,  Between 400-600AD, Jutes and other invades of Britain added 9 symbols to the original 24 and altered others, notably the ones for A/O, C/K, H, J, S and Ng. This 33-symbol alphabet became known as the Anglo-Saxon futhark. The word ‘rune’ translates variously as ‘secret’ ‘whisper’ or ‘mystery’ and Norse mythology has it that Odin hung nine nights on the World Tree, having stabbed himself in the side with his spear, in order to gain the ‘whispered mystery’ of runes (yes, it IS very like the crucifixion. Imagine that). Odin then passed the secret to Freya, who taught him SEIDR in return. Heimdall, guardian of BIFROST later passed the secret to humans.

RUS:  Term for the dominant people of the Kiev and Novgorod region of what would become Russia and the origin of that name. The origin of ‘rhus’ or ‘rus’ is described as Finnish, from ‘ruotsi’, or Estonian (rootsi) which means ‘rowers’ as a description of the Scandinavians from what would become Sweden who arrived to trade and eventually take over. Another theory is that it is from Roslagen, the coastal areas of Uppland province in Sweden and yet again from the Iranian name for the Volga River.  The Arab/Turkic steppe tribes used the term Rusiyyah. It is more accurate to describe it as Kievan Rus and, by the 10th century, Scandinavians and Slavs had intermingled bloodlines to become a distinct state.

SARKEL: Byzantine-engineered fortress of the Khazars on the Don river, which controlled the trade routes to the east so successfully that the Rus of Kiev eventually decided that it had to be captured.

SCRIPILITA: Chickpea flour made into a thin, cursty bread, wrapped in broadleaves and thickly peppered, this is the early form of pizza.

SEIDR: More properly written as ‘seiðr’ with the Norse symbol for ‘th’ which looks like a modern ‘d’ this is pronounced ‘say-thurr’. A shamanistic system of working magic through trance and out-of-body experiences. It was thought practitioners could leave their human form and enter that of animals, could work mischief or aid at a distance, commune with the dead and travel vast distances in their animal forms through a twilight world, where they could see what was happening in their own. The province of the goddess Freyja it was primarily the province of women and, though they were prized for it within communities, they were also feared, while men distrusted them. Evidence now points to this being something to do with the woman – known as a VOLVA – also being involved in sex magic and considered as one gripped by un-natural lust or passion, the inference being that she was so affected that she would suffer perverted sex, ie being the passive recipient of anal sex. Consequently, men who indulged in seidr were doubly feared, since it was believed they were capable of the same. This does not mean that the Norse were homophobic – it is now generally believed that they did not care much about same-sex practices save that giving was better, as it were, than receiving, since the former was ‘manly’ and the latter was ‘playing the woman’s part’. The insult ‘playing the woman every ninth night’ was actually banned from being uttered in Iceland. Odin himself was considered a seidr wizard (see RUNES above) and shapechanger and even his fiercest adherents did not fully trust the god as a result.

SERKLAND: Baghdad. Also the generic name for the Middle East. So called because, it seemed to the Norse, the people there only ever wore underwear - a ‘serk; or white undershirt).

SHERBET: Not the fizzy lemon-flavoured rubbish you get here, this is the Arab/Turkish version, a cold drink with rose hips, cornelian cherries, liquorice and a variety of spices. The offering of such a drink was an affirmation that a guest was now under the protection of a household and would not be harmed, or allowed to be placed in harm.

SIF: Thor's wife, goddess of cornfields. Her long hair is made of pure gold.

SKIRRINGSAAL: Once a Norse Baltic seasonal trade fair, called ‘Kaupang’ by foreigners - a Viking joke, since that’s what they told them it was called when asked. Kaupang simply means ‘A Market’.

SVARTALFAR: ‘Dark elves’, also described as Duergar, who lived underground and crafted magical items. JRR Tolkien created his Dwarves from this race.

THOR: God of thunder and lightning, one of the most popular of the Norse gods, certainly among males.

TYR: Known as Leavings Of The Wolf, Tyr is the god of war, justice and law, while being a byword for courage and daring. He got his by-name for offering his right hand to the wolf FENRIR as surety that the other gods, who were desperate to bind and secure the monstrous son of LOKI, would release the beast if a suitable chain was found. One was, the gods did not release Fenrir and Tyr suffered the loss of his hand as a sacrifice.

VALASKJALF: The Shelf of the Slain, a great hall roofed with silver in which stands Hlidskalf, the high seat where Odin can watch over the entire universe.

VANIR: The second grouping of Norse gods, who include Frey, FREJYA and NIORD. There was a struggle between the AESIR and the Vanir once which was settled by an exchange of hostages and a sort of peace. Some scholars associate the Vanir with the Sami (Finnish) people and equate the saga of the war between Aesir and Vanir as the battle for dominance of Norse and Sami for the Scandinavian lands. This has resulted in some strange ‘division of spoils’, since the Vanir god, Niord, was acknowledged as overall lord of the seas, while the Aesir god Aegir and his wife, Ran, had to be content with the coastal shallows and rivers; with their daughters, the Billow Maidens, seen as the surf.

VARJAZI: The Slav/Rus name for the Scandinavian traders who crossed over and travelled down through Novgorod to Kiev and Byzantium. Typically in small bands of a ship or two ships’ crews, they agreed to abide by certain agreements regarding conduct, profit-sharing and mutual defence, since solidarity was the only sure way of surviving in a hostile environment. Tough, oath-bound and skilled, they achieved a reputation for loyalty to their given word and fierce fighting, so much so that the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire knew them by the Greek version of the Slav name and called them ‘varangi’. In the end, they were employed as the Byzantine Empire’s personal guard, loyal only to him and above palace politics – the Varangian Guard became as elite a unit as the Praetorians or Napoleon’s Old Guard.

VE: Also known as Lothur, one of Odin's brothers.

VILI: Also known as Hoenir, one of Odin's brothers.

VOLVA: More properly writtten as 'Völva', they practiced SEIDR, spá and galdr, which encompassed shamanism, sorcery, prophecy and other forms of indigenous magic. Seiðr in particular had connotations of unmanliness, although there were male practitioners called seiðmaðr (or Wicca in Old English). Spákona is an Old Norse term for a woman who practices spæ or spá, meaning prophesy or "fore-telling". Their persecution during the Christian conversion led to the whole 'women as witches' stigma, which persists - and to the Scottish speywife, who still tells fortunes.

WADMAL: Mainly Icelandic in origin, a wool cloth woven on warp-weighted looms by women. Influenced by the long waves of European markets, Icelandic women succeeded in creating up to twenty ells (ell, from elbow, was traditionally the length from shoulder to wrist, but in medieval English measures this was doubled to about 45 inches). It was of such importance it became a currency, with length, width, thread-count etc fixed by law.

YMIR: The first and greatest giant to be born, he spawned the Jotuns, the first frost giants and arch-enemies of the gods of the

AESIR. He was later killed by ODIN and his brothers and so vast was he that his body parts were used to create the earth – the great vault of the sky is the inside of Ymir’s skull. Which, if you live in the north like I do, perfectly explains 99.9 per cent of the rain-clouded days we get here.

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