Nordic Magic Healing:
runes, charms, incantations, and galdr


by G. Dumézil, Flammarion, 1986, ISBN : 2-08-081342-0


The original is in French, and not translated into English, as far as I know. It contains an excellent argument that gives credit back to Snorri’s version of the Nordic myths. This argument, which I found fascinating in itself, is why I decided to write a summary of Dumézil’s book. I will give first, very briefly and with huge oversimplifications, the part that does not directly relate to this ground argument. It relies on the discovery of legends from a people called " Ossets" a group of people living in the middle of the Caucasian mountains, who kept their Pagan legends very late. Some of the legends are shared by their neighbors, namely the Cherkess people.



Chap . 1 The documents

A very complete bibliography of stories into which Loki plays some role, including sayings that mention Loki’s name, from all the over the Nordic world.

Chapter titles: Loki and ţjazi. Loki and Sleipnir. Loki, ţórr, and giant ţrymr. Loki and Andvrari’s gold. Loki and the God’s treasure. Is Loki responsible for ţórr’s goat accident ? Loki and Logi. Loki and the stealing of the necklace. Loki and Baldr’s murder. Loki’s punishment. Loki and Ragnarök. Various. Surviving legends from the Faroes islands, Iceland, England, the Shetlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. [personal comment : I knew most of these myths, but it was very interesting to find them gathered, and some legends or hypotheses about a possible survival of Loki’s name in surviving customs, that I had ignored].


Chapter 2 : critics and counter critics

1 - Snorri’s rehabilitation

Until the 20’s, Snorri had been considered as an indisputable witness of the Nordic myths. In 1923, Eugen Mogk published a pamphlet that denied any kind of authority to Snorri’s works. Dumézil says covertly that even De Vries is " tinted " by Mogk’s theory, despite the fact that De Vries criticizes some of his excesses. This theory claims that the myths that are only found in Snorri are not reliable because Snorri did not simply report them, he created his own mythology. [personal comment : still nowadays, I have heard the term " snorrism " to describe some believed unreliable invention of Snorri]. The myths that are submitted to this skepticism are:

- Tyr losing his hand. This tale (which Mogk does not oppose very strongly) is only supported by two stanzas of the Lokasenna and the runic poem calling Tyr " the one-handed " of the Aesir.
- Kvasir’s birth and murder. Mogk claims that " the creation of a human being from spit ", otherwise unrelated in any other mythology, is born from Snorri’s fertile imagination. [personal comment : Dumézil later cites a myth whose hero is born precisely in this way. He does not stress the point, but I find it interesting to note that using the Gods’ spit to create a human also belongs to a tradition that describes characters similar to Loki and Baldr. Note also that, in the Kalevala, not a human, but the " dragon of the waters " is born from a Goddess’s spit warmed up by the sun, which confirms at least a Nordic belief in the generative power of divine spit].
- Baldr’s murder which will constitute the main argument Dumézil uses to oppose Mogk’s school, as the following will show.


2 - The excesses of the " science of the tales "

Dumézil criticizes the excessive use of the comparisons of tales of various origins, the main topic of the original myth is possibly lost in those tales.


3 - Miscellaneous discussions

Dumézil discusses some of the contradictions met in the different versions of ţjazi’s story, and he argues that they are relatively natural in their context.

Next, he recalls and discusses, in detail, the myths of Baldr’s murder and Loki’s punishment. They are the myths that have been mainly criticized by Snorri’s opponents, thus I’ll report these discussions in detail.



Baldr’s murder

Mogk argues that this story is not a " primitive " one on five grounds.

Mogk’s arguments and Dumézil’s answers :

1.Snorri’s account makes Loki responsible for Baldr’s death, while the other sources attribute his death to Hödr/Hotherus only, namely: Völuspa, Baldrs draumar, Hyndlujóđ (" small Völuspa "), Saxo Grammaticus.

Dumézil : These texts do not mention Loki, and give full responsibility to Hödr, but this does not preclude some influence of Loki. Both Hödr and Loki can be fully guilty of the murder, one physically, the second one, morally. The last interpretation (both of them fully responsible) follows Nordic uses well.

As for Saxo, Mogk’s argument can be reversed. Saxo never speaks of Loki (thus, you can’t make an argument of it). Besides, when telling the story of Balderus, Saxo reports that Hotherus kills Balderus with a magical sword, but he needs to receive the advice of another character, named Gevarus, who tells Hotherus how to kill Balderus. This apparently meaningless detail in Saxo becomes clear when compared to Snorri’s report of Loki’s role.

2. In the Lokasenna, stanzas 27-28 don’t speak of murdering Baldr. Mogk argues that, in these stanzas, Loki boasts, not of helping Hödr, but that, under the form a giantess, he refused, to cry on Baldr’s death, thus keeping him in Hel. This is why Loki has been saying that he is the reason why Baldr no longer rides to the meeting hall.

Dumézil : It is indeed possible to interpret the Lokasenna as Mogk does, but there is really no particular ground for this division of responsibilities. Surely " Why not ? " , but then why at all?


3. No kenning alludes to Loki’s participation in Baldr’s murder.

Dumézil : The kennings might well be silent about this myth because they belong to those things that are "better left unsaid". The Lokasenna contains two examples calling for discretion. One is about Odin being " argr " for performing seidr (then Frigg says it is better not to speak of these things), and the second one for the murder of Baldr (then Freya says to stay silent). A good reason for this could be some kind of respect for Frigg’s distress at losing her son.


4. Snorri is the only one to say that Hödr might be blind. He does not speak of Hödr’s punishment, while several other sources do.

Dumézil : These might be relatively insignificant details.


5. The end of the Lokasenna does not explain Loki’s punishment for his alleged participation to Baldr’s murder.

Dumézil : Yes, there is here a kind of contradiction, but this is not worse that the one with the myths of the Gods’ treasure, where Loki’s lips are sewn together (which should prevent him from speaking in the Lokasenna, for instance!).


Loki’s punishment & Ragnarök

Dumézil criticizes Olrik’s hypothesis that these myths originated in the Caucasian mountains. [personal comment : if this could be accepted, then why not accept that Baldr’s murder myth also comes from the Caucasian mountains? This would kill Dumézil’s position that those myths come form a common, more ancient, root, that he believes to be Indo-European. He discusses that later.]


4 - Loki

A summary of Loki’s features.

Chap 3 : Syrdon

There is a body of tales among the Ossets that involve mythical people (they are not gods), called the Narts. Two characters will be of importance in the following discussion. One is Soslan, beautiful, shining, he cannot be wounded except at his knees (or his hips). He is the positive hero that will fall by treachery as we shall see. The other one is Syrdon, the negative hero who will oppose Soslan.

1 - Syrdon the Nart

He is capable of mutations (swallow, young girl, old woman, old man, even a worn out cap!), he is very clever and always trying to understand things. Because of this cleverness, the Narts call him for counseling, especially when fighting the stupid giants. Nevertheless, he is without honor, often called " the Nart’s doom ".


2 - The documents

In this section, Dumézil provides a collection of documents in which the characters Syrdon and Soslan are described. [I can’t summarize them all, the following is a summary of two very significant ones. There is also some variation on the names, that I will not report.]

In one of them, Syrdon manages to trick Soslan and kills a young boy who helped Soslan. In the other one, Syrdon is the indirect cause of Soslan’s death.

a. The death of Soslan’s young ally

The enemy possesses three arrows that never miss. A young boy offers to expose himself and get an arrow through his foot. Soslan has to catch him before he touches ground, and to carry him over seven creeks, and he will live again. If the young boy does not sacrifice himself in this way, the enemy will win.

Soslan accepts the boy’s sacrifice, and the boy severely damages the enemy but he is shot by an arrow, and everything proceeds as announced by the boy. After three creeks, Syrdon, under the form of an old man tries to convince Soslan to give him the wounded boy, but Soslan does not believe him. When he is about to cross the seventh creek, Syrdon now comes under the form of an old hag, and Soslan believes the woman, and gives " her " the wounded boy. Syrdon at once throws some " corpse’s earth " on the boy who dies.

b. Soslan’s murder

[Dumézil provides five documented Osset variants to this tale.]

All versions describe a wheel, which seems to be living since it can take counsel from Syrdon. This wheel wishes to kill Soslan, for unknown reasons (one of the variants says it is because Soslan refused to make love to the sun’s daughter). The wheel chases Soslan, but cannot kill him (for instance, it bounces off his forehead). Syrdon tells the wheel that it should try to cut Soslan’s fingers/legs/knees/knees/knees to succeed, and that is what happens.

[Cherkess’ variants]

There is no Syrdon in these variants, but an old hag who plays the same role. During some Nart’s games, they ritually play with a special wheel. The wheel always bounces off Soslan. A hag says that he can be killed only by striking his hips, and Soslan is goaded into using his hips to strike the wheel, and he breaks his hips and dies.

There are variants with Soslan’s thighs/hips/leg/leg.


Chap 4 : Comparisons

Games associated with wheels are a kind of classical folklore impediment: this has been reported innumerable times in our civilization. [personal comment: in a part of Austria named Styria, they still roll burning wheels down the hill  at summer solstice time !]

The " feast " part matches the fun the Aesir have in throwing so many things at Baldr [personal comment : I always found this part of Snorri’s report strange. Why would the Aesir be so childish ? In the context of a ritualistic feast, it now makes a lot of sense].

Soslan’s unique body weakness matches Baldr’s unique weakness to the elements.

Loki’s hate for Soslan matches the one of Syrdon/old-hag. There is a kind of secret to be discovered in order to harm Soslan/Baldr and Loki/Syrdon/old-hag find it. They do not kill Soslan/Baldr themselves but provide counseling to someone else to kill Soslan/Baldr.

Soslan’s young ally is prevented from reviving by Syrdon, as Baldr is prevented from reviving by Loki.

What’s striking here, is not so much a correspondence in the details of the stories, but a deep correspondence between Syrdon’s and Loki’s psychological features. Both are nasty characters that, for a long time, keep their nastiness in check by performing relatively small harm, even being useful sometimes, until it happens that they cross a threshold of acceptability in mischieviousness. Then they perform the unbearable crime of killing the bright hero. Their common way from nastiness to crime is absolutely striking.

There is very little possible ground to speak of an influence, one way or the other, this is why both myths can be said to stem from a common, more ancient, Indo-European root.

Such a nasty character is obviously to be compared to the North-American trickster, but the American character never shows these features common to Loki and Syrdon. Remarkably, the nearest character to them is the Celtic Bicriu who is also a bit too clever, nasty, who finds hidden secrets, who is sometimes ridiculous, and who is finally killed. However, the kind of slow increase in infamy, common to Loki and Syrdon, is missing in Bicriu’s character.


Conclusion : this shows that Snorri did not " invent " the myth he is reporting. On the contrary, it is a myth which is very primitive in the Indo-European civilization, and quite unique to it.

Chapter 5 : Baldr, Loki, Höđr, and the Mahabharata

This chapter contains some extension to the Indo-European mythology that is somewhat outside Loki’s myth.



copyright © 1998 Yves Kodratoff

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