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The Legendary History of Norway

By Minjie Su

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Founding a city is already hard enough, the hardship of building a nation is beyond imaginable. It could mean a lot of bloodshed and sacrifice, numerous wars and truces, and ceaseless destruction and rebuilding. It certainly takes generations and generations until a country is fully shaped and comes into its own; sometimes it even takes more than what lies within human power.

The founding legend of Norway is only preserved in two texts: an ættartölur (tallies of genealogy) recorded in Flateyjabók (Book of Flatey) and a partial account at the beginning chapters of Orkneyinga saga (History of the Earls of Orkney). The ættartölur is now included in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda (Legendary sagas of the North), under the rubric Hversu Noregr byggðist – How Norway was founded.

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In the Beginning…There was Fornjótr

Norway’s beginnings can be traced back all the way to a mythical being called Fornjótr, possibly a corrupted form of Forn-jötunn, ‘ancient giant’. Fornjótr has three sons: Hlér (sea), Logi (fire), and Kári (wind). From Kári comes Jökull (glacier) and Snær (Snow). Snær has four sons, whose names (unsurprisingly) are: Þorri (frost), Fönn (heap of snow), Drífa (drifting snow or sleet), and Mjöll (fresh powdery snow). Among them, Þorri makes his name into the Old Norse calendar; nowadays, the Icelanders still use the word þorri to refer the period between mid-January-ish to mid-February.

So far, all the mythical early rulers of Norway have the names of natural elements, but from Þorri onwards, the names become more Norway-related: Þorri have two sons, Nórr and Górr, and a daughter named Gói. One day, Gói mysteriously disappears and Nórr embarks on a journey to find her. On the way, he somehow manages to conquer the vast area between Jötunheimr and Álfheimr – the location is somewhat confusing, especially if you compare it to Snorri Sturluson’s world division in the Prose Edda, where Álfheimr locates in Ásgarðr and Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, in Miðgarðr. Nórr and Górr divide the realm between them. Nórr becomes a land-king, while Górr becomes a seaking, ruling over all the islands surrounding the mainland. Later, Nórr finds out that his sister Gói is taken by King Hrólf of Heiðmörk (Hedmark) in marriage; with Gói’s persuasion, Hrólf bends knee and adds Heiðmörk to Nórr’s territory.

Gradually, this land under Nórr’s sovereignty comes to be known as Noregr, Norway. Nórr’s line is both long and prosperous; many of his descendants give their names to famous areas of Norway, including Thrandheim, Hordaland, Rogaland, and Haðaland.

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What’s in a Name?

That the legendary forefathers of Norway are named after elements of nature (and winter) is interesting. It immediately calls to mind the primordial deities in Classical mythology, and the naming of Norway after Nórr sounds like the same trick of Romulus’s naming of Rome. A history that traces back to Fornjótr also distances Norway from Sweden and Denmark, which are believed to have their origins in Óðinn. Here is but a euhemerised version of the one-eyed god: in both the Prose Edda and Ynglinga saga, Óðinn is a king from Asia – hence the Asgardians are also known as the Æsir; he is so well-versed in magic that he is worshipped like a god. In the Prose Edda, in particular, Óðinn is descended from Priam through a Trojan princess, thus bridging the founding of the Danish and Swedish royal houses to the Fall of Troy, as Geoffrey of Monmouth did in Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), where the first king of Britain is Brutus, son of Aeneas. This is, however, not how the author Hversu Noregr byggðist wished his country to be founded.

Yet he still knowledges Troy and Óðinn’s role in the founding myth of Norway. In the second half of Hversu Noregr byggðist, the author lists the descendants from Nórr and Górr all the way down to Hálfdan Gamli (‘the Old’), from whom we have Hálfdan svarta (‘the Black’) and, finally, Haraldur hárfagri (‘the Fairhair’), the first ruler over ‘all of Norway’. In doing so, the author takes care to include all the other legendary royal houses in Scandinavia, including the Völsungs and the Skjöldungs.

All genealogies lead to Haraldr hárfagri one way or another. Haraldur is a direct descendant of Óðinn through the Yngling branch. His ancestry can also be traced back to the dragon-slayer Sigurðr the Völsung through Hálfdan gamli, one of whose sons is Buðli, father to Brynhildr and grandfather to Áslaug. Áslaug is later married to Ragnarr loðbrók – those who have been following History Channel’s Vikings should recognise the story quite well.

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But just having links to all those houses and dynasties is not enough, Haraldur hárfagri has to be shown as a direct descendant of Adam as well. He is, in one word, is the destined ruler of a unified Norway in every possible way; the impeccable lineage of the Fairhair dynasty makes the heirs not only legitimate rulers over Norway, but also over Denmark and Sweden, all the way from mythical times to the author’s present day.

The account, of course, smells of propaganda on the Norwegians’ part, but overall it is an interesting effort of myth-making. Covering as much ground as possible, the author of Hversu Noregr byggðist just manages to bring together different traditions – both native and foreign – yet still with a touch of originality. To be honest, what more proper (and romantic) names can you think of for the primordial founders of Norway than wind, snow, and more snow?

Click here to read more from Minjie Su

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: A panoramic view from a ridge located between Segla and Hesten mountain summits in the island of Senja, Troms, Norway. Photo by Ximonic (Simo Räsänen) / Wikimedia Commons

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