Winter myths and magic

winter Ardivachar

The gales, ugly sons
of the Ancient Screamer,
began to send the snow.
The waves, storm loving
daughters of the sea,
nursed by the mountains’ frost,
wove and ripped against the foam.
Edda.
c.1220 – Snorri Sturiuson

This has been the coldest winter for 8 years and although we have not experienced the severe storm force winds of recent winters, we are held in winter’s icy grasp. The arrival of the arctic winds obliterates the horizon as the sky mirrors the dark grey of the winter seas and the indigo clouds conjure dark squalls to launch  fusillades of hail. This is not the soft fluffy snow of Christmas cards and an integral part of the Victorian Christmas fantasy, this is the harsh reality that once made the winter a time to be endured. This is the bone piercing cold experienced  in Eric the Red’s northern camp at Disko Bay in Greenland during the summer walrus hunt, described in a poetic quotation in the Icelandic saga the Edda.
The time of the great darkness was the season of story telling, the recounting and mythologising of oral histories and interpreting the weather in terms of the activities of the deities. In the lands of the Celts, the winter is the time of the storm hags (cailleachan) and Cailleach Bhéara, the winter goddess who rules between Samhainn (1 November) and Bealltainn (1 May). In the lands of the Norse, Skadi, the daughter of the frost giant Thiazzi is the goddess of winter, although her reputation appears to be more of a patron of winter sports than a personification of the destructive powers of nature. However, Asgard the home of the Norse deities, is richly populated and you can involve any number of its residents, with a supporting cast of giants, dwarfs and monsters, in the winter myths.
This brings me back to Snorri Sturiuson, not a character in The Saga of Noggin the Nog,  but a 12th century Icelandic poet, historian, chieftain and author of the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla. The Prose Edda,  records legends and lore of Norse mythology and may well have inspired modern works as diverse as Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I am quite certain the amongst the Nogs there would have been a bard called Snorri, after all the stories were inspired by the Lewis chessman¹ and the Norse sagas. This animated series of stories was broadcast on the BBC between 1959 and 1965 and I can still hear the narrator’s voice:

“In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale … and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog. Welcome to Northlands”

Lewis chessmen
Image © National Museums Scotland

¹ The Lewis chessmen  were discovered nearly 200 years on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in a hoard of 93 carvings: one buckle, 14 pieces of a game called tables and 78 medieval chess pieces. They were made from walrus tusks and whale teeth in around 1150-1200 in either Norway or possibly Iceland.

 

6 thoughts on “Winter myths and magic”

  1. Not having access to a television till my father bought one in advance of the 1966 World Cup, Noggin the Nog has sadly passed me by completely – but to further my education I feel duty bound to dip into YouTube and watch an episode or two, so thanks for this prompt.
    What an evocative picture of your bitter winter you have shown us, even though it is hard to imagine from the warmth of our centrally heated and homes just how chilling it must have been – well, that’s assuming you are out of the other side now, which may not be the case. How low did temperatures get? Good to read your lyrical prose again, adding substance to the wintry scene – and introducing us to the Icelandic saga of Edda as well

  2. It is interesting how some childhood images can have a long lasting effect and the Nogs may be responsible for my interest in sagas and all things northern. There could, however, be worse influences.
    day time temperatures have probably not been much lower than -1C, but when you add the wind chill, it’s time to start piling on the layers. We’re back to the wind and rain again, although it was sleaty this afternoon, look like the Celtic storm hags are paying us a visit this week. So time to get the waterproofs out again.

  3. Oh yes indeed, and yes, there could well be worse influences than Noggin the Nog although possibly not may contenders from early 60s television. You seem to be very popular amongst the Celtic storm hags this winter- perhaps your stoicism is too much of a challenge to resist…

  4. It was a more innocent age and too many delightful stories have failed the modern PC test!
    When it comes to challenging the Storm Hags, I think hiding under the duvet is a sensible strategy. Railing at the wind is likely to summon the men in white coats!

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