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Norway - Myths and Mortals

So what has Norway given the world, you ask? It turns out plenty. Trolls, valkyries, Valhalla, Hell, Grieg, fjords, Ibsen, aquavit, Trygve Lie, pickled herrings, Munch, dried cod, Odin, Vikings, Amundsen, Quisling, North America, Thor Hyerdahl, Normandy, the Kon-tiki, ‘berserk’, Thursday and Hagar the Horrible.

Myths and legends are centre stage in Norway. Odin – the God of warrior ethic, provided the philosophical glue that made the Vikings so formidable. Odin ruled the Valkyries – the choosers of the slain. Contrary to the Disneyesque perception – i.e., that they were beautiful blonde maidens riding winged horses and equipped with spears, helmets and shields – the real story is they rode on the backs of wolves, vulturing the corpses of dead soldiers.

The Valkyries selected the most heroic warriors, those who’d died valiantly in battle, and sent them to Valhalla -the Hall of the Slain – Odin’s paradise – where they’d spend their eternal days in the military training ground and their evenings being serviced by beautiful maidens. So the prospect of being killed in battle was just as attractive as being victorious and escaping with worldly loot. Fantastic marketing.

Those chappies in the fighting squad who were rejected by the Valkyries slid down the chute to Hel – a shivering hall, the roof of which was made from the spines of serpents leaking poison onto those below who were wading in rivers of blood – fill of undead beings nourished only by goat excrement. Clearly, there was great incentive to be fearsome and fearless in battle.

Odin married Frigga, the goddess of home and family, and, of their offspring, Thor was favourite  – god of thunder, lightning as well as being the enemy of giants, and he gave us his name for ‘Thursday’.

But King Olav the Holy put paid to the power of the Gods when he brought the glad news of the White Christ (aka ‘our’ Baby Jesus) over the mountains of Trollindene in 1028. The trolls did their best to stop Olav but he was the stronger and turned the trolls to stone. It’s a  well known fact that trolls can’t tolerate the sun’s rays, so Olav probably had some intra-galactic help. Kaiser Willhelm II used to spend hours sitting here looking at the mountains on his annual Norwegian sojourn.

It wasn’t only the trolls that Olav had to contend with – there was a huge rock barrier that had always been impassable, but Olav put 400 men to work, plus he enlisted 100 farmers and their horses. To no avail. So Olav took off his coat and said they should all come and try again, and twenty men cleared the path before the evening meal, with passage for men and packhorses ‘as good as if the land had been flat’. In 1936, King Haakon VII opened the road that follows Olav’s track.

The jagged peaks of Trollindene form a range of pinnacles and crags, created, as legend has it, when the trolls were having a wedding feast and celebrated too well. Before they knew it, the sun came up and the whole wedding party was turned to stone -the Bride, Bridegroom and Best Man are still there (the three Troll- mountains).

Moving on to the Arts, Grieg collaborated with Ibsen, setting Ibsen’s novel Peer Gynt to music. They died within a year of each other in 1906/07. Ibsen seems to have spent most of his time scribbling maudlin stuff about the trauma of facing one’s own soul, while Grieg’s self-assessment was “I’m sure my music has the taste of codfish in it”. Munch was another tortured soul. Both his mother and sister died of TB and Edvard’s cocktail of alcohol and emotional instability, iced by a tragic love affair with Tulla, a wealthy bohemian, resulted in him having an accident with a revolver, permanently buggering a finger on his left hand. Even so, he wasn’t short on self-belief: “people shall be made to understand the greatness of my art; when facing it, they shall learn to remove their hats, as if in a cathedral’. Maybe delusions of grandeur was closer to the mark.

Then there was Sonja Henie, who put on her skates and won gold medals in the 1928/’32/’36 Olympics. She then toured with skating shows in the US before some bright spark at 20th Century Fox decided that twirling around on ice was ample qualification for acting in light comedies. By ’39 her movies’ box office takings were only surpassed by those of Shirley Temple and Clarke Gable. When she dropped off the twig, she was one of the world’s 10 wealthiest women.

Back to the Vikings. Harald the Fair-Hair, son of Halvdan the Black, united the Viking tribes into a single ‘country’ in 872. A population explosion resulted from overindulgence in horizontal folk dancing, so the Vikings had to look further afield for resources. Being clever Viks, they had fast and manoeuvreable longboats (30m) that could travel at 12 knots (24kph) and they used cordierite, a rock with polarising qualities, as a navigational tool.

They then set about raiding Britain, Ireland and France (one architectural feature of the Chateau de Castelnaud on the Dordogne was specifically designed for pouring boiling oil down on Viking ships). They moved on to Moorish Spain, Iraq, Russia to the Volga but failed to take Istanbul. Scanning eastward, they hit Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, all before 1000AD. Harald’s son Erik eliminated all his brothers except Hakon, whom Harald had sent to England to be reared in court of King Athelstan. Hakon returned home to clean up Erik’s mess, so Erik jumped ship for England & took over the throne of York to become King Erik Blood-Axe. ‘Berserk’ comes from the Norwegian for bare shirt (Vikings fought bare-chested).

The Vikings fighting power was based on both tradition and innovation. Their disregard of death made them ferocious, and they were skilled with weapons. In their targeted foreign lands, the populace’s most common prayer was ‘God save us from the Vikings’. Apart from material booty, the Vikings also brought home slaves, so-called ‘thrall’. Gives new meaning to being ‘enthralled’, no?

A final word on myths. In line with the universal male fear of being tricked into having sex with women against their will, Norway has a fearsome seductress called a ‘huldre’ – a beautiful seductress with a cow’s tail, which she tucks into her knickers and then weaves her magic until it’s too late for the chap to save his honour (as if)! The only way she can rid herself of her caudal appendage is to marry a man in church.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and Norway’s Crown Princess Mette-Marit, who had a child out of wedlock during her relationship with a convicted cocaine supplier. The pair were well known on Oslo’s dance’n’drugs house party scene before Mette-Marit met and married Crown Prince Haakon. Say no more!

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