Daring Hervör visits her fathers’ burial mound
This tale is the one of a young woman, Hervör, who paid a visit to her dead father, Angantýr. He is ‘living’ his ghostly life in a burial mound as we shall see. A popular belief of the time was that some corpses may show signs of being still partly alive, and the tale illustrates this belief.
Her father died before her birth and she wishes they meet each other, even in such a gloomy environment, because she wishes also to ask him his magic sword “forged by the dwarves” which has been buried with him. She could simply have plundered the mound as so many people did, but her hidden goal is to confirm the bond with her father that does not really exists yet.
All that is odd… but we will see how it was possible at a time when the Heathen gods were still honored in Scandinavia.
During her girlhood, Hervör liked to fight, to handle weapons as much as boys. She became an itinerant bandit and her parents had to capture her to force her back home. You can imagine what kind of aggressive youth she had become. The saga telling her life criticizes her terrible temper. Once, as she had been displaying the last, one of the servants got angry and delivered her an insulting comment relative to her father’s contemptible lineage. This servant obviously did not know him as being famous hero Angantýr and Hervör seems to have been also unaware of it.
Hervör is furious at this insult and complains to her grandfather and his mother, who at last tell the prestigious truth: her father and many heroes died during a battle and they are all in a hillock placed in the middle of marshes lying south of Samsey, a Danish island.
As the poem says:
“Of Angantýr rises,
of mud sprinkled,
the hall in Samsey:
it faces South.”
That is: Angantýr’s burial mound is ‘sprinkled’ by the mud of the marshes that exist in the southern part of the island. Learning this, she at once reacts and embarks for Samsey island, wearing her full battle-gear. When her ship nears the island, all sailors, in spite of being ‘fearless’ Vikings, refuse to touch land because they are too afraid of the ghosts populating it. Hervör thus takes a small boat and ventures alone on the island. At sunset, she finally reaches a peopled place.
The first person she meets is a shepherd whom she asks where are the hillocks of the heroes died in combat. The shepherd is as much courageous as the Vikings and he refuses to inform her.
That, truly, you should not ask,
are you fully alive
you, friendly to Vikings?
Very questionable is your quest;
let us quickly flee to safety
at large steps if possible,
because all here is out of norm
and too enormous are these people.
She then proposes to the shepherd a precious necklace if he helps her but he answers that no wealth will deter him from his way. She then tries to stimulate his courage by showing that she is fully conscious and aware of the dangers around them.
Do not give way to fear
in front of these shrilling flames
even though, in the whole island,
fires gush out;
mostly, let us avoid being
frightened to look at
such heroes, them we have
to cheerfully consult.
The shepherd answers:
Foolishly unwise I believe
who ventures over there,
as a lonely human
and a twice dark one;
the flaming embers fly
off the opening mounds
fields and marshes burn
let us move far away!
The shepherd flees far from Hervör’s words but she is still decided to continue her search. After a good amount of wading in the marshes mud and of evading flames, she is able to join the barrow where her father and his brothers lie. Driven by her unshakeable will, she reaches the hillock opening and addresses her father and uncles.
Wake up Angantýr,
Hervör wakes you up,
her, your only daughter
with your beloved conceived.
you all I wake up
under the trees roots.
At first, nothing stirs inside the hillock and she goes on insulting and cursing her father and of her uncles if they do not want to give her the sword she claims. At last, her father reacts and says:
Hervör, daughter mine,
what are you thus requesting
by foreseeing runes of power?
you bring misfortune upon you;
foolish you became
and also insanely furious,
it is false wisdom
to wake up the dead ones.
We understand that Angantýr is disturbed by Hervör though he also fears for her. All the examples of such Scandinavian ghosts in sagas might possibly massacre their neighbors, but they will carefully protect their descendants.
Hervör ends up claiming that her father simply refuses to entrust her with the sword she wishes. We, as outsiders, will certainly think this accusation well deserved. So does Angantýr since he turns up, and the hillock opens. It looks as filled up with flames and fires.
Angantýr then explains to his daughter that her stubbornness succeeded in opening the doors of Hel, the hell of Heathen Scandinavians. These doors are carefully closed and supervised to prevent what is now happening, namely that a living one enters Hel. Such daring deserves a terrible punishment and Angantýr tries to prevent her daughter from such a fate.
Shattered is the gate of Hel,
hillocks open up,
set on fire we see
this island beaches;
everything is horrendous outside
everywhere to look at;
hasten, my daughter, if you may,
towards your ships.
But Hervör declares that all these horrors do not move her. Angantýr then gives her a good reason why he is reluctant to entrust her the sword: She will have a son who will be killed because of this sword. Hervör’s answer is to threaten and curse all the hillock dwellers if she does not receive the sword. Angantýr answers that she is really a person different from any other human. Hervör agrees and specifies:
I thought myself human,
human among human ones,
until in your hall,
I could some time stay.
As a matter of fact, she declares that she lost her status of true human being because of her travel to a hillock belonging to the country of the dead ones. She feels herself as a ghost of a human, half dead and half alive.
Angantýr finally realizes that he cannot resist this relentless daughter. He acknowledges that the sword “is lying under his shoulders” but he will nevertheless yield it to her and she will be able to leave the hillock out. Another possibility would have been that he gives the sword, provided she stays inside the hillock with them! He allows her to go away because even if he is already mourning his future grandson’s death, he obviously makes a point of ensuring at all costs his family line.
I rather will yield to you
the sword out of the hillock,
very young girl,
I cannot deny it to you.
You will own
and long time enjoy it,
if you keep it secret (carefully)
Hjálmar’s death (the sword that killed Hjálmar)
do not touch it by its edges,
both are poisoned,
it is of someone’s mjötuðr (death, fate or measurer)
by malignant wound.
Father and daughter then bid their farewell. Angantýr tells her
Farewell, daughter (more or less implying ‘dear daughter’)
quite quickly I gave you
of twelve men’s vitality,
if faith you meet
strength and energy,
all that (was) good,
(that) Arngrím’s son (Arngrím is Angantýr’s father)
left as inheritance.
Quite unexpectedly, she then wishes a ‘good health’ to the ghosts:
I wish being outside of here
but you all who dwell here
stay healthy in your howe.
Hervör leaves Samsey, but does not immediately go back to her family.
She initially does a long stay in a country named Giants-Dwelling where giants and human ones live together in good agreement. Some are half-giants since some giants marry human women, and some giants give their giant daughters to men. Many ‘half-giants’ can thus be met at this place.
Since she has become a half-human woman and half-ghost one, it seems that she needs a transition time by living with another type of half-human ones before coming back to the world of “full mankind humans.”
She will later come back to family but she will not be able to find a companion. She will end up marrying the son of the king of Giants-Dwelling. They will have two sons and she will give the sword to one of them. This last one will become famous king Heiðrekr who will try to kill Óðinn with the magic sword. For his punishment, it will be shamefully assassinated by one of his slaves who wished to steal the sword and his wealth.
For the heroes of this time, to die shamefully is the worst punishment since, “shaming death” meant “no hillock,” thus no hope of a ghostly life after human death.