"Descriptive Notes." by Jennie Hall (1875-1921)
From: Viking Tales (1902) by Jennie Hall (1875-1921) New York: Rand, McNally & Co., 1902.
House. In a rich Norseman's home were many buildings. The finest and largest was the great feast hall. Next were the bower, where the women worked, and the guest house, where visitors slept. Besides these were storehouses, stables, work-shops, a kitchen, a sleeping-house for thralls. All these buildings were made of heavy, hewn logs, covered with tar to fill the cracks and to keep the wood from rotting. The ends of the logs, the door-posts, the peaks of gables, were carved into shapes of men and animals and were painted with bright colors. These gay buildings were close together, often set around the four sides of a square yard. That yard was a busy and pleasant place, with men and women running across from one bright building to another. Sometimes a high fence with one gate went around all this, and only the tall, carved peaks of roofs showed from the outside.
Names. An old Norse story says: "Most men had two names in one, and thought it likeliest to lead to long life and good luck to have double names." To be called after a god was very lucky. Here are some of those double names with their meanings: "Thorstein" means Thor's stone; "Thorkel" means Thor's fire; "Thorbiorn" means Thor's bear; "Gudbrand" means Gunnr's sword (Gunnr was one of the Valkyrias *); "Gunnbiorn" means Gunnr's bear; "Gudrid" means Gunnr's rider; "Gudrod" means Gunnr's land-clearer. (Most of the land in old Norway was covered with forests. When a man got new land he had to clear off the trees.) In those olden days a man did not have a surname that belonged to everyone in his family. Sometimes there were two or three men of the same name in a neighborhood. That caused trouble. People thought of two ways of making it easy to tell which man was being spoken of. Each was given a nickname. Suppose the name of each was Haki. One would be called Haki the Black because he had black hair. The other would be called Haki the Ship-chested because his chest was broad and strong. These nicknames were often given only for the fun of it. Most men had them,–Eric the Red, Leif the Lucky, Harald Hairfair, Rolf Go-afoot. The other way of knowing one Haki from the other was to tell his father's name. One was Haki, Eric's son. The other was Haki, Halfdan's son. If you speak these names quickly, they sound like Haki Ericsson and Haki Halfdansson. After a while they were written like that, and men handed them on to their sons and daughters. Some names that we have nowadays have come down to us in just that way–Swanson, Anderson, Peterson, Jansen. There was another reason for these last names: a man was proud to have people know who his father was.Drinking-horns. The Norsemen had few cups or goblets. They used instead the horns of cattle, polished and trimmed with gold or silver or bronze. They were often very beautiful, and a man was almost as proud of his drinking-horn as of his sword.
Tables. Before a meal thralls brought trestles into the feast hall and set them before the benches. Then they laid long boards across from trestle to trestle. These narrow tables stretched all along both sides of the hall. People sat at the outside edge only. So the thralls served from the middle of the. room. They put baskets of bread and wooden platters of meat upon these bare boards. At the end of the meal they carried out tables and all, and the drinking-horns went round in a clean room.
Beds. Around the sides of the feast hall were shut-beds. They were like big boxes with doors opening into the hall. On the floor of this box was straw with blankets thrown over it. The people got into these beds and closed the doors and so shut themselves in. Olaf's men could have set heavy things against these doors or have put props against them. Then the people could not have got out; for on the other side of the bed was the thick outside wall of the feast hall, and there were no windows in it.
Feast Hall. The feast hall was long and narrow, with a door at each end. Down the middle of the room were flat stones in the dirt floor. Here the fires burned. In the roof above these fires were holes for the smoke to go out, but some of it blew about the hall, and the walls and rafters were stained with it. But it was pleasant wood smoke, and the Norsemen did not dislike it. There were no large windows in a feast hall or in any other Norse building. High up under the eaves or in the roof itself were narrow slits that were called wind's-eyes. There was no glass in them, for the Norsemen did not know how to make it; but there were, instead, covers made of thin, oiled skin. These were put into the wind's-eyes in stormy weather. There were covers, too, for the smoke-holes. The only light came through these narrow holes, so on dark days the people needed the fire as much for light as for warmth.
Foster-father. A Norse father sent his children away from home to grow up. They went when they were three or four years old and stayed until they were grown. The father thought: "They will be better so. If they stayed at home, their mother would spoil them with much petting."
Foster-brothers. When two men loved each other very much they said, "Let us become foster-brothers."
Then they went and cut three long pieces of turf and put a spear into the ground so that it held up the strips of turf like an arch. Runes were cut on the handle of the spear, telling the duties of foster-brothers. The two men walked under this arch, and each made a little cut in his palm. They knelt and clasped hands, so that the blood of the two flowed together, and they said, "Now we are of one blood."
Then each made this vow: "I will fight for my foster-brother whenever he shall need me. If he is killed before I am, I will punish the man who did it. Whatever things I own are as much as my foster-brother's as mine. I will love this man until I die. I call Odin and Thor and all the gods to hear my vow. May they hate me if I break it!"
Ran. Ran was the wife of Aegir, who was god of the sea. They lived in a cave at the bottom of the ocean. Ran had a great net, and she caught in it all men who were shipwrecked and took them to her cave. She also caught all the gold and rich treasures that went down in ships. So her cave was filled with shining things.
Valkyrias. These were the maidens of Odin. They waited on the table in Valhalla. But whenever a battle was being fought they rode through the air on their horses and watched to see what warriors were brave enough to go to Valhalla. Sometimes during the fight a man would think that he saw the Valkyrias. Then he was glad; for he knew that he would go to Valhalla.
An old Norse story says this about the Valkyrias: "With lightning around them, with bloody shirts of mail, and with shining spears they ride through the air and the ocean. When their horses shake their manes, dew falls on the deep valleys and hail on the high forests."
Odin's Ravens. Odin had a great throne in his palace in Asgard. When he sat in it he could look all over the world. But it was so far to see that he could not tell all of the things that were happening. So he had two ravens to help him. An old Norse story tells this about them: "Two ravens sit on Odin's shoulders and whisper in his ears all that they have heard and seen. He sends them out at dawn of day to see over the whole world. They return at evening near meal time. This is why Odin knows so many things."
Reykjavik. Reykjavik means "smoky sea." Ingolf called it that because of the steaming hot-springs by the sea. The place is still called Reykjavik. A little city has grown up there, the only city in Iceland. It is the capital of the country.
Peace-bands. A Norseman always carried his sword, even at a feast; for he did not know when he might need it. But when he went somewhere on an errand of peace and had no quarrel he tied his sword into its scabbard with white bands that he called peace-bands. If all at once something happened to make him need his sword, he broke the peace-bands and drew it out.
Eskimos. Now, the Eskimos live in Greenland and Alaska and on the very northern shores of Canada. But once they lived farther south in pleasanter lands. After a while the other Indian tribes began to grow strong. Then they wanted the pleasant land of the Eskimos and the seashore that the Eskimos had. So they fought again and again with those people and won and drove them farther north and farther north. At last the Eskimos were on the very shores of the cold sea, with the Indians still pushing them on. So some of them got into their boats and rowed across the narrow water and came to Greenland and lived there. Some people think that these things happened before Eric found Greenland. In that case he found Eskimos there; and Thorfinn saw red Indians in Wineland. Other people think that this happened after Eric went to Greenland. If that is true, he found an empty land, and it was Eskimos that Thorfinn saw in Wineland.
[Page 194]* See note about Valkyrias on page 198.
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