From Letter 3: River Gods and Revenant Warriors

Franklin, Massachusetts. I just spent two straight days lecturing all day (ten lessons!) on statistics and machine learning. Exhausting. Now I’m curled up in my hotel wishing I had some hot cocoa to go with the snow, and the artificial gas fireplace in my room. Oh well.

As promised (or threatened?):Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Here, Scott traces how early belief systems of the Celts, Germans and Nordic peoples contributed to the demonology of the subsquent Christian-dominated culture in Scotland and other parts of Great Britain. This is much like the inversion theory we’ve talked about before, with respect to aswang (manananggal) or penanggalan.

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, 13th Century. Image: Wikipedia

Scott lists a number of examples. I’ll mention one: “Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic”. I think the Nixas that Scott mentions is the same as Nikkar, or Nichus, the Scandinavian ocean god. Nikkar is apparently the incarnation of the destructive aspects of Odin (see Harland, below, as well as the “Note by Karl Haupt” beneath this Polish folktale about Nixes). According to John Harland, in Lancashire Folklore (1867), Nikkar metamorphized by the Middle Ages into St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. From Nikkar probably also came “Old Nick”, by way of the water monsters known as Necks. And “Old Nick”, of course, is slang for the devil.

But I really want to talk about something else: two of the Nordic folktales that Scott mentions. Not because they fit in the inversion thesis, but just because they’re cool. I’ll do one today, and one (hopefully) tomorrow.

 …it was a favourite fancy of [the Norsemen] that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.

This leads us to the story of Asmund and Assueit, two Norse chieftains and brothers-in-arms. The two were so devoted to each other that they took a vow that when one of them died, the survivor would go down into the sepulchre, or burial mound, and be buried alive with his friend. How very Egyptian of them. In fact, the burial mound also  contained (by tradition I assume) the dead man’s arms, swords, and war trophies.

This image was first published in the 1 st (18...

Image via Wikipedia

Assueit died first, killed in battle. Asmund kept his promise. Their soldiers buried them both, along with their war horses. And that was the end of it, for about a century, until a Swedish rover and his men wandered through the region. The locals told him the story of Asmund and Assueit (including the part about the arms and trophies). The rover decided to liberate the buried treasure, and ordered his men to open the sepulchre.

But when they did, they heard the sounds of battle coming from inside: yelling, the clang of swords hitting swords, swords crashing against armor. They lowered one of their men down into the tomb by a rope to investigate. When they pulled the rope back up, rather than their man, they recovered — Asmund, battered and scratched and mangled.

Asmund fell on his knees before the Swedes and recited —  in verse, apparently — his life for the past one hundred years. No sooner did their soldiers close up the tomb when Assuiet rose up, reanimated by some ghoul or demon. A hungry one, it seems, because the first thin Assueit did was devour both the war horses. Then he tried to eat Asmund. Asmund picked up a sword to defend himself, and the struggle lasted the entire century — I guess until just after the Swedes opened the tomb. Finally Asmund subdued the demon and drove a stake through the body, destroying him.

After finishing his story, Asmund fell down dead at their feet. The Swedes recovered Assueit’s body, burned it, and scattered the ashes. Then they reburied Asmund in the tomb.

I assume they took all the arms and trophies before they left.