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Viking - 39: Rigsthula, the Tale of Heimdall's Deeds on Midgard as 'Rig'

Updated on May 10, 2019

"When I was young and walked alone, alone I lost my way. I felt wealthy when I found others. Mankind welcomes the company of fellows".


Heimdall guards Bifroest, the three-stranded rainbow bridge that spans the void between Asgard, the home of the gods, and Midgard realm of mankind
Heimdall guards Bifroest, the three-stranded rainbow bridge that spans the void between Asgard, the home of the gods, and Midgard realm of mankind | Source

Hear me now, good folk. Who hears the grass as it grows (even under rocks or horses' hooves)?

Indeed, who hears how the wool grows on a ewe's back, and who needs less sleep than a bird in the long daylight hours of the short northlands midsummer?

Who is the god so sharp-eyed that by night or day nothing escapes him that happens on Midgard and beyond to the lairs of the dark elves or frost giants?

Who else but Heimdall? Aye, Heimdall - Heimdall! (By the look you gave I thought you had gone deaf there. Very well I shall go on...)

Who would have known the shadowy fellow on the strand to be Heimdall? Guardian of the gods, keeper of the horn Gjall and watcher over Bifroest that he was, Heimdall had gone over the rainbow bridge to Midgard, leaving Gjall safe in Mimir's gill, left his golden-maned stallion Gulltop in the stable and strode over the three-stranded Bifroest to take on the being of Rig.

It was the fore-year. The earth had softened in the thaw and time for Heimdall to sow his seed. Heimdall left behind him the rainbow bridge. He strode over soft green grass and soon came to earth's rim. Through the day, as the sun fled westward from the wolf he made his lone way along the foreshore, where the land meets Njord's kingdom.

As night crept up on him Heimdall neared a low-roofed hovel. The evening was mild, not even a breeze blew. Yet the hovel seemed so feebly built that one flap of the eagle giant Hraesvelg's wings would blow it over. He rapped on the rough-hewn door and pushed it open, stooped to walk under the low lintel, over a heap of sacking to the foot-buffed marl floor. The rank, smoky gloom took him aback and smoke from a slow-burning peat fire made his eyes smart. It was all he could do to stop himself retching with the smell. Through the smoke he saw a trestle table and beside it a short bench. More sacking lay heaped in a far corner. A shelf of sorts leaned against an uneven, crumbling wall. In the middle of the small room crouched Ai and Edda, Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother, seated looking at one another across the fire.

'Am I welcome?' Heimdall asked.

'Who are you?' asked Ai.

'I am.Rig', Heimdall lied.

'You are welcome', Edda told him wearily.

So it was Ai and Edda were joined in their grim lives by the god. Honey-sweet words ran from his tongue, as well he knew they would soften at fine talk that gained him the best seat in the one room. Now and then he peered into the pot that hung over the fire. By and by Edda rose, shuffled to a far corner, stirred bags and thumped a loaf of coarse bread onto the table. When Edda unhooked the bubbling pot from the fire and set it on the table the three of them sat heavily on the one bench and ate what there was.

One of them was not sated. After eating Ai and Edda were ready for sleep. Heimdall again let loose the honey-sweet words, and before long had won himself the best part of the bed. He lay in the middle of the bed with Ai and Edda on either side of him. Three days this went on and he bade them farewell, thanking his hosts and set out again.

Daily the stallions Arvak - Early Waker - and Alsvid - All Swift - pulled the sun chariot across the heavens. Day rode lazily around the heavens, his stallion Skinfaxi, Shining Mane, lit earth and heaven. Night rode with tightened reins of Hrimfaxi, rimy mane, and early on every morning the earth was dew-laden with the spittle from his bit. Summer's strength waned and the days shortened. Grimly winter clenched his fist, bringing frost and thick snow, then ice when the winds threw themselves across the land.

Nine months hastened by and Edda brought a son into the world.

Water was spinkled on him and his mother wrapped him in swaddling. The child's hair was raven black, and Ai and Edda named him Thrall. Less than good-looking Thrall might have been, he was a sight to behold. Chapped were his hands, fingers stubby, knuckles knotted. He was ugly to say the least. His back was bowed and his feet seemed big for his size. Yet Thrall was strong. He made good use of his strength, day after day sweating through toil in the woods gathering kindling for the fire. Bundle on bundle was humped home.

When Thrall was old enough a young woman who in every way matched him found her way to his hovel. Bow-legged, the soles of her feet were damp and blotchy. Her sun-burnt arms peeled and her nose was squashed like a prize fighter. Her name was Thir, Drudge. Thrall felt at one with Thir, and she was happy enough with the way he looked. Could she afford to be fussy?. Before long they sat side by side before the fire, eyeing one another. It took little longer for them to ready a bed - head bolster and rough blanket - and spent the evening whispering. That night was the first of many Thrall and Thir spent together and they brought forth a clutch of happy offspring. Their sons' names were Fjosnir the cattle-herder, Rough Klur, Hreim and Kreggi - the bellower and the horse-fly. There was Kefsir the whore-keeper and Reeking Fulnir. Another two were Drumb the idiot and Gross Digraldi, and more the sluggish Drott and Leggjaldi with legs as thick as tree trunks. Lut was hunchbacked and the youngest was pale Hoevir. These ten sons helped keep the hovel in shape. They spread dung over the land around their home, took turns at herding their goats and swine. Peat was dug daily.

Thrall and Thir had daughters too, oafish Drumba, chubby Kumba, thick-thighed Okkvinkalfa. Arinefja's nose was homely at least, and Ysja was the nosy one. Ambott the kitchen maid and Eikintjasna's looks made you think of an oak peg. Totrughypja was always ragged and Tronubeina looked like one of the cranes they saw in the shallows, looking for frogs.

These were the grandchildren of Ai and Edda, and from them come the thralls that worked hard and long for little or nothing.

Heimdall - Rig to Ai and Edda - rests in their hovel for three nights. He leaves when Edda is with child.
Heimdall - Rig to Ai and Edda - rests in their hovel for three nights. He leaves when Edda is with child. | Source

Heimdall carried on further -

He went the quickest way to the next dwelling, striding up to the door in the twilight, the blue hour. Rapping on the carved wood door, he opened it and stepped inside. At the heart of the room a fire burned. Seated by it were Afi and Amma, Grandfather and Grandmother.

Across his lap Afi had a length of wood at which he chipped away with a sharp knife. He was making a weaver's beam. The blade and a shallow pile of pale shavings glowed in the light of the fire. Afi's hair was combed and curled over his brow, his beard was neatly trimmed and his clothing was as well cut as his hair.

Amma unwound flax from a distaff, spinning thread. Her arms stretched and reached, always moving, her thoughts too taken up with her work to see the outsider standing there in the fire's now dim glow. Afi would have to put some more wood on the fire or it would die! Amma wore a narrow band around her silver-white hair that she wore in a tight bun. A shawl was draped over her frock, fastened by a handsome clasp.

'Am I welcome?' Heimdall asked.

'Who are you?' Afi asked, taken aback that he had not seen the tall outsider.

'I am Rig', Heimdall lied again.

'Welcome Rig', Amma bade him sit by the fire with them.

Heimdall's honey-sweet words poured forth again and before long he had the best seat by the fire again. He looked hopefully into the pot that hung over the fire. Amma rose and put down her work to pad across the room and took out a loaf of rye bread from a stout oak chest. Butter was brought out from a far corner, and knives and spoons came from a cupboard. Everything was set out on the table near the fire. A ewer was dipped into a vat of ale by the door and set in the middle of the table for all to help themselves. Lastly the pot was taken off the iron hook over the fire and boiled veal was shared out. They then sat to eat.

After eating Afi and Amma were ready for a night's rest. Heimdall spoke sweet words again and once again he rested between them in the bed. Three nights he stayed with them and bade them farewell, thanking Afi and Amma for the food and rest.

Daily the two stallions pulled the chariot, Day rode at ease and Night gathered the reins to whip his stallion into a fury. By morning the spittle from his bit lay as dew. Summer waned and winter waxed, frosty, cold and snow piled high around the dwelling, chased by the bustling wind.

Nine months went by and Amma had a son. Water was sprinkled on his forehead and his mother swaddled him warm. The child's eyes were bright, cheeks ruddy. His mother and father named him Karl. The lad grew quickly, sturdy and strong. He learned to drive oxen, fasten the share and coulter to a plough. He was taught to put up outbildings and barns, digging foundations and building timber frames. He saw how to pitch the roof and lay turf on it, and he became a skilful cartwright.

When Karl was old enough Afi and Amma found him a wife, as much to their liking as his. She was the fair offspring of a nearby freeman. Came the day, the bridal company brought her in a wagon to Karl's own steading. She wore a goatskin coat and a veil, and keys jinked at her waist. Afi and Amma now had a daughter-in-law whose name was Snoer. Karl and Snoer set up the farm to their liking, exchanged rings an and she lay a colourful bedspread on the bridal bed. This was now their home.

Karl and Snoer had a clutch of happy children. The first-born was Hal, the man, the second was Dreng the Warrior. The other sons were Hold the Landowner, the freeman Thegn, Smid was the master of all crafts, Breid was broad-shouldered and Bondi was a yeoman. When he grew up Brattskegg had a clipped beard like his father and grandfather and eldest brother. Segg was manly. Karl and Snoer had ten daughters too, the eldest Snota the Serving Wench, Brud the Bride, Svanni was lithe and slender and proud Svarri, fair Sprakki, womanly Fljod. Sprund was as matronly as her sister Svarri, Vif was to become a good wife, Feima was shy and the youngest, Ristil was a graceful as any woman could be.

These were Karl and Snoer's offspring, and from them came the peasant stock, the land holders and craftsmen.

Skilled blacksmith at work
Skilled blacksmith at work | Source
A landholder's home, suitable for a craftsman, farmer or weaver - this is in the Ribe Viking Centre
A landholder's home, suitable for a craftsman, farmer or weaver - this is in the Ribe Viking Centre | Source

Classless society?

This is a tale about how the classes came about. Do you think you live in a classless society?

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Heimdall went further on his walk around Midgard

He found a quick way to a hall close by and strode up to it in the late afternoon, as the sun began to lose its warmth. Broad doors opened southward and on one post hung a large carved wooden ring. Knocking, Heimdall walked slowly in, through a long gangway to a great hall where the floor was freshly strewn with clean rushes. Here he saw Fathir and Mothir sat gazing into one another's eyes. Only their fingertips touched, unaware of the newcomer watching. Fathir broke off eye contact and busied himself with a bowstring, sharpened arrows and worked on the curve of his hunting bow.

Mothir sat and stretched out her arms, looked at her slender fingers and flattened creases on her dress. She drew down the sleeves of her long dress with its train and pulled tight a long blue cape over her shoulders. Across her breasts two oval brooches kept the cape together. The woman herself was wan, her brow fair and smooth, breasts shimmering in the dim light of the fire that crackled in its hearth, her neck whiter than freshly fallen snow.

'Am I welcome?' Heimdall strode forth, a hand outstretched to take Fathir's.

'What is your name?' Fathir asked before taking his hand.

'I am Rig', Heimdall lied once again.

'You are welcome', Mothir reached out a hand for Rig to kiss the gold ring.

Heimdall took a seat, spoke the sweet words only he knew and before long - you are right, he had the best seat by the hearth. Mothir took a finely stitched linen cloth for the table. She took white loaves of finely ground wheat, bowls edged with finely worked silver, brimful with cheeses, onion and cabbage. Well-browned boar meat, lamb and beef was served, cooked fowl. A pitcher was full of wine and the cups set out to drink from were finest silver. They sat to eat. The three of them sat and talked well after dark.

After the meal Fathir and Mothir withdrew with their guest to sleep. Again Heimdall spoke sweetly, as well he knew how and before long he lay between them. Three nights this went on and on the fourth morning after taking the morning meal he went on his way again, thanking them at the doorway for the food and hospitality.

The sun was pulled across the sky, Day taking his time, and when Night came her stallion felt the bit between his teeth, leaving the foam across the earth. Summer went, Winter blew cold and harsh, shaking his icy fist in the blizzards.

Nine months went by again and Mothir brought forth a son to be sprinkled with water and wrapped in fine silks and wool. The little lad was fair-skinned, pink cheeked. The gleam in his eyes was snake-like. He was given the name Jarl and he was quick to learn the skills he would need in years to come. He learned to raise and clench a shining shield, thrust a spear. As Fathir did he twisted bow strings, shaped hunting and war-bows. He rode behind hounds, learned how to fight with a sword and he was a strong swimmer.

The rainbow bridge Bifroest with Asgard, the home of the gods, the Aesir and the Vanir
The rainbow bridge Bifroest with Asgard, the home of the gods, the Aesir and the Vanir | Source

The gods being what they were, fickle and fancy free,

they please themselves what they do.

There is no work, often there are no tasks they need to catch up with, unlike mankind. Folk of Midgard must strive, there are kingdoms to be won, ships to build for the jarls and kings, wood must be cut, the men fed who cut and build, fight and rule. Every man, every woman has a task in life, a role to follow.

Rigsthula, the Song of Rig was put together by a skald on behalf of a Danish king, to show men their standing in life, where they fit in, above all to show the origins of the Danish kings before Harald Gormsson ('Blue-tooth'), who Christianised Denmark in the late 10th Century.

'Rig' can be pronounced 'reyh' with the 'h' stressed, 'Rigsthula' comes out as 'reyhstoola' with a 'thick t' (tongue on the teeth). The word 'Rig' is Danish for kingdom.

A skald is a hall poet, employed by kings, jarls and chieftains - even merchants of note - to tell of their feats, their generosity, their lineage, and perhaps what they hope to achieve in the months or years to come. A good skald earned himself a place at the top table, a seat near the jarl or king etc., and could thrive. He was also expected to go into battle with his paymaster. Two famed poets who fought beside their king were Egil Skallagrimsson and Kormak, both Icelanders and both highly prized poets. Egil managed to cross one of his paymasters, Eirik Haraldsson 'Blood-axe' and his queen Gunnhild, and Eirik sent out assassins to kill Egil, who escaped and lived to be honoured by Eirik's rival Olaf.

Man and wife. The Hersir were landowners, lower nobility who oversaw their land and ensured the taxes were paid, saw to the safety of those below them
Man and wife. The Hersir were landowners, lower nobility who oversaw their land and ensured the taxes were paid, saw to the safety of those below them

One day, without warning, Heimdall strode forth from the birch wood,

down to the hall and found Jarl sitting by himself outside on a tree trunk earmarked for building work.

'Jarl', Heimdall stretched out a hand and took the young man's.

'Welcome', Jarl greeted him.

'I have a gift for you', Heimdall told him, showing a bundle of carved and red painted staves.

Jarl stared at them without understanding what they were.

'These are the runes, the magic learned by the Allfather when he hung from the tree called Yggdrasil'.

Jarl looked askance at Heimdall, at the runes and back at the keeper of Bifroest. Heimdall asked Jarl,

'Do you know the words that keep away pain in the head, in the heart, in the chest?'

Jarl shook his head, wondering what would come next.

'Do you know', Heimdall asked further, 'the words that douse the fire, the words that send the sea to sleep?' For the rest of the day Heimdall spoke of the meaning of the runes to Jarl who began to realise here was something powerful. All his life led to this time.

' There is something else I must speak to you about', Heimdall told him as the dusk drew nigh.

'What would that be?' Jarl was so far away in his thoughts that the god no longer seemed to be there.'My son, for such as you are', he gave Jarl a strong bear-like hug. He told how he had paid a visit to Fathir and Mothir many years before. 'You are my son and as I am Rig the King, so will you also be Rig the King. The day is here to win land, to win great halls and lead a great army'.

Heimdall fixed Jarl with his eagle-sharp eyes and left, away from the shining hall into the night.

Inside a jarl's mead hall. Only the king was above a jarl - how many he had varied - who saw to his part of the realm, the rewards depending on how well he did against enemies or insurgents
Inside a jarl's mead hall. Only the king was above a jarl - how many he had varied - who saw to his part of the realm, the rewards depending on how well he did against enemies or insurgents | Source

Jarl did not need telling again.

He took his father - Rig's - words at their worth, what he had always thought but could never put his finger on. He felt released, a new aim filled him.

Jarl left Fathir's hall where he had lived since he was born. He rode through the wild-wood, over passes amongst frosty, threatening cliffs, to where no man thought of going. This is where he built his hall, gathered loyal followers. He shook his spear, brandished his spear, dealt death with his sword. He brought his followers to fight, to stain the earth red, slaying warriors and winning land. Soon Jarl owned eighteen halls, won great wealth and was a great ring-giver to his followers. He gave them treasures and horses that were fleet of foot.

Jarl sent word over the boggy land to the hall of Hersir the chieftain. On his behalf his riders asked for the hand of Hersir's daughter Erna, fair-haired and slender-fingered, adept at whatever task she set out to do. Hersir was overjoyed. After Erna had readied herself and put on her bridal veil the riders took her to Jarl's hall. She and Jarl lived happily together.

They brought forth many good children, the first-born being Bur the son, the second Barn the Child. They had Jod the young, Athal the Offspring, Arvi was an Heir, another son was Mog, Nid and Nidjung the Descendants followed, Svein the Lad and Kinsman Kund. The youngest was Kon, nobly-born. It was not long before their sons learned to play and swim. Growing older they tamed beasts, made round shields, carved shafts and shook spears.

Kon the Young learned the runes from his father, understood their age-old meanings. In time he could blunt a sword blade, still the sea, understand the wildfowl, douse flames and soothe the worried. He had the strength of eight men. Kon and Rig-Jarl shared their understanding of the runes. Kon was deeper and wiser than his father, believed hisin right to be known as Rig-King.

One day Kon rode in the dark wild-wood. Here and there he reined in his mount and loosed off an arrow at an unlucky bird. Other birds he lured from their branches and listened to them. A crow sat on a branch above Kon's head and croaked,

'Kon, why do you waste your time charming the birds into talking to you? You would do better setting out on your stallion showing your skills in battle'.

Kon listened to the crow's counsel. The gloom seemed to fade away from the thwait where he stood.

'Who has a hall more worthy than yours?' the crow went on. 'Who has won riches greater than yours, gold and treasure?'

Kon gave the crow no answer and clenched his fist out of sight of the bird.

'Who is more skilled than you are at steering a ship beyond the reach of the sea and the sharp salt spray.

Kon still gave no answer.

'Dan and Danp, Dan and Danp, Dan and Danp!' the crow cawed, looking aside at Kon. 'They know the meaning of tempering their weapons with the blood of foes!'

*The original manuscript broke off at this point. The lay is likely to have gone on to show the Danish kings' lineage linked to the old gods. The names Rigr, Danr and Danpr appear in early royal Danish genealogies, maybe to praise one king in particular.

© 2014 Alan R Lancaster


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