Asgard March: A Nordic Christmas Story
The time of the year that’s marked by Christmas wasn’t always just a time of feasting and joy. In the Nordic part of the world, this was a time when lost souls descended onto our realm and marched from house to house. They were to be feared, as they were the March of Asgard. In this article, I discuss a traditional Norwegian story that takes place on Christmas and is rooted in early Germanic mythology.
Brief History of Christmas
Christmas as a holiday goes hand in hand with Christian culture and tradition. Its English name, after all, stems from the Old English expression Cristes Maesse which literally means ‘Christ’s Mass’. The Catholic Encyclopedia (Martindale 1908: 724-728) notes that the term is first attested in 1038 A.D. as an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Anglo-Saxon annals initiated in the 9th century A.D.
However, the origins of Christmas go much further back. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (Martindale ibid.), the first attested celebration of Christmas occurred in the 4th century A.D. in Rome. As is well known, non-Christian cultures also marked this time of the year, though with differently named holidays. In the Germanic world, the Yuletide was celebrated, as noted in the Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (Orchard 1997: 187), among other sources.
A Great Source of Information on Germanic Mythology
In the 19th century, the German linguist and explorer of mythology, Jacob Grimm, published a fabulous three-volume book collection with the title Teutonic Mythology. It was originally published in German, but soon got translated into English by James Steven Stallybrass, in 1883, i.e. Grimm (1883). This collection of writings is a wealth of information on Germanic mythology. Each section on mythology is accompanied by linguistic data from different Germanic languages that give the reader extra information on the topic at hand, or support a hypothesis that Grimm develops. In the third volume of this fantastic work, Grimm reports on a Norwegian story that takes place on Christmas. This is a relatively unknown but great story that sheds some light on the mediaeval Germanic celebration of Christmas time, or rather, the Yuletide.
The Story: Asgard March
Grimm (1883: 945-946) explains that according to an old Norwegian story, lost souls of men can be seen wandering the Earth at Yuletide. These are men that committed various sins in their lives, but no major crime. As a result they didn’t qualify to go neither to ‘heaven’ nor ‘hell’, as he phrases it, which bears some distant resemblance to the Christian purgatory. These were the souls of drunks and petty thieves. They roamed the Earth in a procession of sorts, the head of which was Gudrun Horsetail — this is the character that appears in the early Germanic legend surrounding the hero Sigurd as attested in the Old Norse Völsung Saga. According to Grimm, Gudrun was leading this procession on horseback, but all sorts of men and women followed behind her. They rode around and caused a great racket wherever they went.
This procession of riders also appears to have been endowed with magical abilities. Grimm reports that they were able to ride on the surface of the water, as if it weren’t water at all.
As this crowd approached a house, they sometimes chucked a horse-saddle on its roof. If this happened, it signified that somebody in that house would soon die. In addition, if they expected that a crime would be committed at a certain house, they would wait in front of that house and give a great resounding laugh when this happened.
Grimm reports that if anyone encountered this mob, they weren’t in any actual danger, but they could be spat on, or sometimes the mob could drag them along their way. If this occurred, the individual had to spit out, in order to prevent anything bad from happening. For this reason, it was supposedly best to lie on the ground and pretend to be asleep. In addition, the story urged people to make the sign of a cross on their stables: if there was no such sign, the so called procession of lost souls would take people’s horses for the night and ride them, so that they would appear tired and sweaty in the morning.
What the story is rooted in: Two Interpretations
According to Grimm, the procession of lost souls is called aaskereida in Norwegian. He hypothesizes that this must stem from Asgard-reida, a compound consisting of two nouns, Asgard ‘Asgard’ and reida ‘march’, which literally translates to Asgard March. Since Asgard is the home of the Norse gods, Grimm speculates that this story may be originally rooted either in a representation of souls passing to the otherworld, or perhaps the manifestation of gods or valkyries on Earth.
Another very interesting explanation that Grimm pursues involves interpreting aaskereida as the result of historically combining the nouns åska, which denotes ‘lightning’ and reid, which in turn denotes ‘thunder’. Grimm explains that this could actually point to a manifestation of the Nordic god Thor, since he was traditionally associated with thunder. He doesn’t decide which of the two analyses is more correct. However, in the standard dictionary of Old Icelandic (An Icelandic-English Dictionary) Cleasby & Vigfusson (1874: 45), note that the ‘mod.[ern] Norse aasgaardsreid’ is a ‘corruption of the Swed.[ish] åska’, denoting ‘thunder’. They give no arguments for this, but it seems that some connection with the god Thor may be implied here, as Grimm suggested. Either way we decide to interpret the matter, it seems that this Yuletide procession of lost souls is connected to some mythological, pre-Christian aspect of the Germanic world.
This story is fascinating, because it connects Christmas-time, once called Yuletide, to a vestigial Germanic tradition in the Nordic part of Europe. For this reason, I think it makes for a fascinating narration in the festive season, and to top that off it allows us to consider the broader multicultural aspects of this time of the year.
Cleasby, R. and Vigfusson, G. (1874). An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jacob, G. (1883). Teutonic Mythology, Vol. 3. Translated by J. S. Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Garden.
Martindale, C.C. (1908). Christmas. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 724-728.
Orchard, A. (1997). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell.