The Wolf and the Serpent in Saxo

by Bill White

In Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danes there are a series of Euhemerisms of divine characters – two of which are the serpent and wolf gods, represented in the Eddas by the Midgard Serpent and the Fenris Wolf. Similar deities include Nidhogg – the corpse-dog, corpse-eating serpent, and corpse-eating eagle, and the watchdog Garm. As this author has previously argued, they correspond roughly to the Syriac Molech and Dagon, Baal, the Egyptian Amemet (or Ammit) and Roman Consus, and the Saxon Beowulf (the last being widely accepted), respectively.

This essay is not intended as a detailed examination of these themes, but as an overview and introduction for further study.

We have previously discussed the character of “the radiant one”, and how two separate characters seem represented. In particular, there are characters described as having a powerful gaze – they intersect with the “radiant and comely” character. One not mentioned in the previous essay is Siward Snake-eye. As his name implies, the pupils of his eyes are like a snake’s. This is similar to the defect alleged in Ole’s eyes, which is linked to the gaze-power. This character associates most closely to the Helgis of Saxo – Helgi Hundingsbani, Helgi the Norwegian and Hedin of Hedin and Hogni. Of them, only Ole himself has “radiant and comely locks” – Helgi travels on a golden ship; Hedin “is comely” – both may be bleed-overs from another archetype. One is reminded of the bearded, golden island dwelling serpents with lapis lazuli eyes of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. This could also describe snake-worshipping Nordic invaders.

Another related character is Harald Hyldetand, Ole’s partner. Several characteristics we expect from Ole, if he is the “Goldsmith” archetype, are embodied in Harald Hyldetand – particularly the “defect in the teeth” attributed to Helgi. Hundingsbani, and the “speared in the buttocks” motif of Hildigisl and the Goldsmith. The two missing teeth could be canine incisors – or serpent fangs. Like Siward, Harald dedicates the souls of all he slays to Odin. And like Siward, he is cruel.

“Hairy” characters hardly need a mention – Hadding (lit: “hairy”), Ragnar Lodbrog (or Lodbrok) and Alf jump to mind.

More important, though, may be the Ubbe and Ulfhild motif discussed earlier. “Hild” means “battle”, but is often used to mean “wife”. Ulf means “wolf”. Ulfhild, the traitoress who incites her husband to rebel, is the “wolf-wife”. Ubbe, who is chained, and breaks his chains, like the Fenris Wolf, may be that “ulf”. Guthorm is also described as a “wolf” in the dream Ragnhild brings Hadding – and Ulfhild is described as a “swan”.

No definite relationship with the “Uffe” character has been established, but Uffe is short for “Olaf” – as in “Olaf the Gentle” – and may be an interpretation of the word “Ulf” as well. Olaf could also be Ol-ulf, or “meadwolf” – Loki.

In this context, the wolf-deceit of Harald II and Halfdan II should be mentioned. As will be discussed in greater detail in an upcoming discussion of “the evil uncle”, these two are part of a series of stories linked to the character of Ragnar – and involve a swan maid protecting the two from evil sorcery while their father burns. Their hiding in a tree is reminiscent of Lif and Lifthrasir’s shelter in Yggdrasil at Ragnarok – where the earth burns as their uncle does. Ragnar’s name itself may come from a misunderstanding of the two sheltered in a tree on the day of Ragnarok, which can also be understood as the smoking or burning of the gods, instead of the dusk.

This story should also be compared to its nearest kin – that of Jarmerik and Gunn, who hid a dog in a wicker-basket – instead of hiding in a tree and pretending to be dogs.

The last major wolf motif is the obvious one of the berserking and roaring sorcerers – the seven, nine, or twelve brothers. But an interesting related theme is that of a head on the stick – whether the horse head of Grep’s sorcerers or the head of Esbern mounted on the prow of Ragnar’s ship. One’s first thought is for the myth of Mimir’s head – but one is reminded of the myth of Pentheus’ head – torn by the Dionysian revels of his mother. A deeper meaning to the “head-standard” is likely buried here.

One should also note the resemblance between the means of slaying the “two serpents” in the myths of Jora, Alfhild, and Ladgerda, and the slaying of the Chimera by Bellerophon. As noted, like Pegasus, Baldur’s horse causes wells to spring at its feet.

These are some of the initial impressions of the snake-wolf theme in Saxo. As work continues, this will likely develop further.