Wednesday, April 6, 2022

How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth

Icelanders believe in elves. Does that make you laugh?

I used to find it funny too. I used to think Icelanders who spoke of elves were playing tricks, poking fun, talking tongue-in-cheek, telling tall tales.

Then I met Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a well-known elf-seer. We took a walk in a lava field she and her elf friends had protected from destruction when a new road was built nearby. We didn't talk much about elves or the Hidden Folk as we walked. Instead, we photographed lava crags and stacks and pillars, pillows of silver-green moss, caves and clefts and individual lichen-splashed rocks.
It was by turns warm and sunny and cloudy and cool, a fine summer’s day. The breeze was light—just enough to keep the gnats at bay. The land smelled of peat, with hints of salt and sea.

We wandered about pointing out plants. I didn’t keep a list, but two hours later, back at my hotel when I wrote up my recollections, I remembered blueberry, crowberry, stone bramble, violet, dandelion, mountain avens, buttercup, butterwort, wood geranium, wild thyme, willow shrubs with pale fluffy catkins, and several kinds of grass, including sheep’s sorrel, which we tasted—it was sour as limes. Elves’ cup moss was the only sign of elves I saw.

We listened to the wind sighing in the knee-high willows and the incessant cries of seabirds: black-backed gulls barking now! now! now! and arctic terns, many terns, with their piercing kree-yah cries.

We talked about art and inspiration. What is inspiration? Why do some places attract artists and spark creative thought? Why are some places beautiful—and how do you define beauty?

And we shared an experience I still can't explain.

Said Ragnhildur, as we left the lava field, "Now do you believe in elves?"
In my next book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, I explore Iceland's "elf question." My quest took me wandering through history, religion, folklore, and art, circling back to explore theology, literary criticism, mythology, and philosophy, stopping along the way to dip my toes into cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, biology, volcanology, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. Each discipline, I found, defines and redefines what is real and unreal, natural and supernatural, demonstrated and theoretical, alive and inert. Each has its own way of perceiving and valuing (or not) the world around us. Each admits its own sort of elf.

Illuminated by my encounters with Iceland's Otherworld over the last 35 years—in ancient lava fields, on a holy mountain, beside a glacier and an erupting volcano, crossing the cold desert at the island's heart on horseback—Looking for the Hidden Folk offers an intimate conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. It reveals how the words we use and the stories we tell shape the world we see. It argues that our beliefs about the Earth will preserve, or destroy, it.

Scientists name our time the Anthropocene, the Human Age: Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of species unless we humans change course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the Earth, one that to me offers hope. Icelanders believe in elves, and you should too.

Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth will be published on October 4 by Pegasus Books. It is now available for pre-order through Simon and Schuster distributors or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I'm currently putting together my book tour, scheduling both online talks and (let's hope) in-person appearances. Let me know at if you'd like to organize an event to help get the word out about Looking for the Hidden Folk.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Sami Tales Told "By the Fire"

The Sami of northern Sweden "felt such a personal connection to the trees whose wood they burned, mostly birch and pine, that they chopped 'eyes' in the firewood, so the pieces of wood 'could see they were burning well.'"

I learned this in a delightful book called By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends. Collected and illustrated by Emilie Demant Hatt, and translated by Barbara Sjoholm, it includes 70-some tales, along with Demant Hatt's introduction, selections from her fieldnotes, and an essay by Sjoholm.

The nomadic reindeer-herding Sami of the far north often appear in the medieval Icelandic sagas, which provide the source material for most of my own books. The Vikings traded with the Sami for skins, furs, feathers, and walrus ivory, and several Norwegian kings and chieftains forced them to pay tribute--that is, protection money. Sami men and women also appear in the Icelandic sagas as sorcerors and shamans, able to shift their shapes, foretell the future, and find lost things.

As a student of comparative literature, I am intrigued by how similar some of Demant Hatt's Sami tales are with other folklore I’m familiar with. For example, Cinderella-type stories are found among the Sami, with evil stepmothers, handsome princes, too-small-slippers that require the chopping off of heels or toes, and all.

As in Icelandic folktales, the Sami speak of Hidden Folk or elves, here called the Haldes. In one story, for example, the evil stepmother tells the girl to spin yarn "at the edge of a gorge, at the bottom of which there was a deep spring. The ball of yarn rolled away from the girl, and when she tried to snatch it, she fell into the spring. But down there she met the good Haldes." The Haldes hire the girl to tend their cows, and eventually let her return home, carrying her wages in gold and silver.

But what I really enjoy reading folktales for are the differences—the things I have not heard before and would not have thought of myself.

Along with the Sami chopping "eyes" in their firewood, for example, in By the Fire I learned about the evil Stallo. A kind of people-eating troll, Stallo "goes around whistling all the time so one can hear when he is in the vicinity. All whistling is taboo among the Sami: the sound of it is absolutely connected with the Evil One and with sorcery."

In Sami language, you can be deaf as Stallo, large as Stallo, or have Stallo's skinny legs. If you had a large head--a small, round head was key to the Sami concept of beauty--you had a Stallo head. If you ate alone, you ate like Stallo. If you had a child with a man you didn't care to marry, that child was Stallo's child.

Stallo also explains the landscape: A single standing stone marks a Stallo grave. A ring of stones is a ruined Stallo tent.

And while Stallo is usually presented as evil, his belt is decorated with a silver star bearing three faces; if you find (or steal) a Stallo-star, you can cure many diseases.

Unlike most folktale collections from the north, as translator Barbara Sjoholm points out, By the Fire contains stories told to Emilie Demant Hatt "as part of other conversations, ethnographic and social, that took place 'by the fire' in tents or turf huts or out in the open air."

Demant Hatt was the first ("and for a long time the only," Sjoholm adds) Scandinavian anthropologist to take an interest in the lives of women and children. Most of the stories she recorded were those that women told among themselves as they worked--sometimes answering Demant Hatt's questions, more often giving conscious performances to entertain the group. In these stories, girls outfox their attackers, girls save their people--and murdered babies come back to haunt their parents.

By the Fire is beautifully illustrated with Demant Hatt's bold and eerie linocuts. Trained as an artist, Demant Hatt first went to northern Sweden in 1904 as a tourist. Inspired by Sami culture, she returned to live with them for many months in 1907. She studied Sami language at the University of Copenhagen, soon becoming fluent, and taught herself ethnography. From 1910 through 1916 she spent her summers with the Sami, first by herself, then bringing along her husband, a graduate student in cultural geography, who sometimes took notes for her while she conducted interviews. Her field notes fill 500 typed pages.

Demant Hatt wrote a memoir of her early adventures, With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman among the Sami, 1907-1908, which has been edited and translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Sjoholm also wrote her biography, Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer. Two more books to add to my reading list!

For more book recommendations, see my lists at Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Dark Queens Brunhild and Fredegund

The legend of Brynhild, the warrior woman who was betrayed by the man she loved, was one of the most popular stories in the Viking North. As I note in my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, it was told and retold for hundreds of years. Episodes were woven into tapestries. They were carved on memorial stones and doorposts and cast as metal amulets. They were alluded to in poetry and prose and worked into myths and genealogies.

But the later the version, the more romantic it becomes.

"I am a shield-maid," Brynhild cries in an early account. "I wear a helmet among the warrior-kings, and I wish to remain in their warband. I was in battle with the King of Gardariki and our weapons were red with blood. This is what I desire. I want to fight."

But she is forced to marry.

She swears to marry only a man who knew no fear. But she is tricked.

Later storytellers focus not on her ambition or the sanctity of her oath, but on passion; her crisis of honor becomes a case of jealousy. At the same time, the hero who betrayed her becomes fused with the famous Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer.

This is the version most familiar to modern audiences, thanks mostly to Richard Wagner’s reworking of the tale in his opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs. Wagner’s Brünnhilde "quickly became opera’s most recognizable figure: a busty woman in braids and a horned helmet, hefting a shield and spear," notes Shelley Puhak in her wonderful history of sixth-century Europe, The Dark Queens.

Brünnhilde's final aria, Puhak points out, gave rise to the expression "It ain't over til the fat lady sings." Her character "has become yet another way to casually ridicule women’s bodies, and their stories."

But the real Queen Brunhild and her nemesis, Queen Fredegund, the two Dark Age queens of Puhak's book, were much more powerful. Together, they reshaped Europe.

Brunhild was celebrated as a princess and an efficient bureaucrat; Fredegund was despised as slave-born and feared as an assassin. Both were ruthless politicians in courts teeming with secrets, spies, and hidden lusts, alongside high culture and progressive lawmaking.

Both queens devised war strategies and even led their troops in battle. Poised and powerful, these two real valkyries played a “game of thrones” even richer than legend would remember.

That we don't all know about them, Puhak writes, is no accident. The historians of Charlemagne's time organized a smear campaign. The Carolingians "systematically rewrote history" to make it seem that "giving women power would lead only to chaos, war, and death."

But some sources remain: Accounts by the "naive and credulous" Bishop Gregory of Tours, who knew both women. Some of the queens' own letters. Enough written information to let Puhak break down the doors of history to reveal a Dark Ages we’ve been told to forget: when queens ruled Europe, with wisdom, piety—and poisoned daggers.

"I don’t know what it would have meant for me, and for other little girls," Puhak concludes in an epilogue, "to have found Queen Fredegund’s and Queen Brunhild’s stories collected in the books I read. To discover that even in the darkest and most tumultuous of times, women can, and did, lead."

She continues, "The misogynistic logic of patriarchy is curiously circular: women cannot govern because they never have. But this big lie rests upon a bed of induced historical amnesia, the work of numberless erasures and omissions, collectively sending the message that the women who have ruled haven’t earned the right to be remembered."

Read The Dark Queens and regain your history.

For more book recommendations, see my lists at Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

For more on my latest book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Is Freydis Real?

Freydis Eiriksdottir is set to become America's favorite "real valkyrie," thanks to Netflix's "Vikings: Valhalla." But is she real? That is, is she a historical figure?

I don't think so.

I've written a book on warrior women in the Viking Age: The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women.

I've also written a book on the two Icelandic sagas in which Freydis appears: The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

In The Real Valkyrie, I argue that Freydis's predecessor as America's favorite valkyrie--Lagertha in the History Channel's "Vikings" series--was based on a real historical figure. Her story is told by Saxo Grammaticus in his history of the Danes. It's hyped. It's co-opted to make a political point about the inappropriateness of women in battle. But if you accept that the men named by Saxo are real--men like Ragnar Lothbrok, whose feats are also hyped--you have to accept that Lagertha is real too.

The writers of the Icelandic sagas didn't follow the same rules as Saxo, however. They were not writing history.

"Saga" derives from the Icelandic verb "to say." It implies neither fact nor fiction. Some sagas could be shelved as history, others as fantasy: over 140 medieval Icelandic texts are named "sagas."

Compared to some, the two that mention Freydis--The Saga of Eirik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders (known collectively as the Vinland Sagas)--are bare-bones. As I wrote in The Far Traveler, their plots don’t hang together. Their settings and characters are weak. Their use of folk-tale motifs--fortune-telling, belligerent ghosts, one-footed humanoids--is clumsy and repetitious. They read like sketches from a writer’s notebook, not finished works.

Both sagas tell of the Viking voyages to North America around the year 1000. Both highlight the feats of men like Leif Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, though the real explorer, as I've argued elsewhere (here,here,and here), was a woman named Gudrid, known today as "the Far Traveler." Despite the fact that the sagas say hardly anything at all directly about her, Gudrid is at the heart of both tales.

As Richard Perkins suggests in "Medieval Norse Visits to America" (Saga-Book 28 (2004): 26-69), the stories about Gudrid were likely collected by her great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the late 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red may have been commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid’s many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

Gudrid was a Christian--one of Iceland's first nuns. Her life story was meant to be "a guide for noble women" and "appropriate reading matter" for nuns.

Which, given the nature of one of the famous stories told about the Vinland expeditions, was a problem.

Gudrid and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni led an expedition of three ships to North America. They stayed three winters, exploring Newfoundland and around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It was in the Miramichi River valley, archaeologist Birgitta Wallace thinks, that they met the native people they called "Skraelings," or "skin-wearers."

At first, they successfully traded with Skraelings. Then Karlsefni made a diplomatic mistake. The next time the Skraelings arrived at the Viking settlement, they came in overwhelming numbers, girded for war.

At this point in The Saga of Eirik the Red, Gudrid disappears, and another woman—strong-minded, adaptable, brave, and pregnant—conveniently shows up. She is called Freydis and is said to be Leif Eiriksson's illegitimate sister.

Freydis appears in only one scene in this saga, here, as the Vikings flee:
"Freydis ran after them but fell behind because she was pregnant. She was following them into the woods when the Skraelings reached her. She saw a dead man in front of her…. His sword lay beside him. She picked it up and got ready to defend herself. When the Skraelings came at her, she drew her clothing away from her breast and slapped it with the sword. At this the Skraelings grew afraid and ran back to their boats and rowed away."

As I wrote in The Far Traveler, this fighting technique has a long history in Celtic lore—one that Gudrid could have heard of from her Scottish grandfather. In the ancient Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, when the hero Cuchulainn attacked the fortress of Emain Macha, the women “stripped their breasts at him.” Said the queen, “These are the warriors you must struggle with today.” Cuchulainn, shamed, “hid his countenance” and was captured.

Such an action is in character for the Gudrid we have come to know by then in The Saga of Eirik the Red. It might be too racy, though, for a role model in a saga written for young nuns. I can see a squirming churchman attributing it to another, lesser woman, the fictional Freydis.

The two women were easily switched: “Some people say that Bjarni and Freydis stayed behind,” one manuscript copy of the saga says, while Karlsefni explored to the south and met the Skraelings. A different copy of the same saga puts it: “Some people say that Bjarni and Gudrid stayed behind.”

Providing another clue that Karlsefni would not have left Gudrid behind and taken Freydis, the saga is clear that the only child born in Vinland was Gudrid and Karlsefni's son Snorri. Just before his birth, the saga notes: “The men were now constantly at odds, and all the quarrels were over women.” The lonesome bachelors were pestering their few married friends to share their wives. Would Karlsefni leave Gudrid in another man’s arms for a year? Would Gudrid stand for it?

It seems clear to me that Gudrid, not Freydis, was the woman with Karlsefni when he scouted to the south. It was Gudrid, not Freydis, who revealed herself to be a woman in hopes of surviving the Skraelings' attack.

But churchmen, like Saxo, have long had a problem with women bearing swords. By doing so, he bemoaned, they "were forgetful of their true selves." When they "desired not the couch but the kill," they "unsexed themselves."

Sometime in the 100 to 300 years between Gudrid's death and the writing down of her sagas, this sword-wielding Freydis becomes the main actor in another story of exploration, told in The Saga of the Greenlanders.

While in The Saga of Eirik the Red you have to read between the lines to realize Gudrid organized an expedition to Vinland--and owned one of the three ships--The Saga of the Greenlanders clearly says that Freydis did so.

Her expedition is a disaster. She breaks her agreement with her Icelandic partners, accuses them falsely of having abused her, and has them all murdered. When her weak-willed husband refuses to kill the women in the Norwegian's crew, Freydis does it herself: "Give me an axe," she famously says.

Freydis is "the epitome of evil," says scholar Robert Kellogg; "a woman of treacherous deceit," adds Judy Quinn. Her wickedness is unmotivated--except by her greed. "She stands for the other great anxiety: the disruptive power of sex," notes Michael Pye. She "represents the bad old days, the heathen past," writes Judith Jesch, "that, according to the author, is now mercifully replaced by the light of Christianity."

She is "an entirely fictional figure invented to act as a foil to the pious Gudrid," concludes Perkins.

How Perkins reached that conclusion--with which I wholeheartedly agree--is a good lesson in how to tell fact from fiction in an Icelandic saga.

First, look at the genealogies: Unlike Gudrid, Freydis has no long list of descendants in the vast saga genealogies. If she truly was the sword-wielding pregnant woman who fled from the Skraelings, her child is never named or mentioned again. We know nothing about the family she married into, either.

Second, look at geography: The account of Freydis's voyage to Vinland adds nothing to our understanding of where exactly Vinland is or how to get to it. Instead, it seems to be based on a different disastrous voyage to Greenland that ended in murder and feud.

Third, look at the repercussions: For Freydis and her husband, there are none. No revenge is taken for the murders; no feud arises. Her actions have no effect. After she returns to Greenland, we hear only that Leif Eiriksson was displeased and "no one thought anything but ill of her." She certainly didn't accompany Leif to England, as in the "Vikings: Valhalla" show.

Says Perkins, "On the whole, then, it seems unlikely that either Freydis Eiriksdotttir or [her husband] Thorvardr ever existed in reality and it is therefore equally unlikely that they took part in any expeditions to North America."

Which does not mean that this lusty, greedy, haughty, adventurous woman with an axe--and maybe a sword--has not continued to inspire readers and writers for a thousand years. Why do we so like Vikings--even the evil ones? As Sofie Vanherpen writes, "Now, more than ever, we need heroes. We need fearless men and women, who are larger than life."

For more on my latest book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.