The High-Headed King

Hey, Toli here with another of Toli’s Tall Tales. But first, Crimson says I’ve to apologise for taking so long. See, what might seem like procrastination was me being lost in double indecision. The one was mine: which of the tales next to tell, to look east or to west. The other was Gudeta’s (the priest’s wine-lipped daughter): whether to allow me to chase her, or to remain chaste. Well, in short, the chase being on, what to expect; a youth’s not a youth for long. But here I am again, ready to tell – and in the meantime I’ve had me what Gudeta’s godly father called ‘a modicum of hedge-you-cashun’. So . . .

The High-Headed King

Now this tale begins a long time ago, in a land beyond the German Sea, in a land beyond the Germanic kings, in a land beyond the dark and wide Murk Wood – even beyond the great river Tanaquisl – there, between the solid-deep frost of the north and the south-fringing high mountains, lay a land of marvels. They say there dwelt a great many races of men, each with their own Babel-twisted tongue that no other could understand, each with their own king, with their king’s own domain. They say there dwelt tall hefty giants, and dainty dwarfs, and, ay, even blue men. They say there dwelt all manner of strange creatures, including plenty of dragons.

So what was the name of this marvel-filled place?

It best is known to us here in the west by the name the Vanir used of it. They, the Vanir, dwelt along the banks of the great river Tanaquisl. They called this land of marvels, Asaland, and its chief city was Asgard. Ay, you might have heard tell of it.

At that time, the city of Asgard was ruled by the Drotner, they being twelve temple priests who hourly sacrificed a hapless beast. And all people served them and all people obeyed (the Drotner, not the sacrificed beasts). For they were the judges of the people.

But, though ruled first by priests, there soon arose in Asaland a warrior, great and far-travelled. So many battles he’d won and kingdoms conquered that his name became like a by-word for victory. A charm, they say, to be uttered by warriors to ensure success on the blood-field. They believed that, when calling his name, the great warrior himself would mount a cloud-horse and race to his aid! And it wasn’t only victory his name would give them, but even without it, it gave them protection. I suppose those folks hadn’t yet heard of the Church God.

But what was his name, this greatest of warriors?

It was At-Rider and Battle-Enhancer; it was Helmet-Bearer and Hawk-Protector; it was Spear-Shaker, -Inviter, -Charger, and –Master; it was Blusterer, Roarer and Yeller; it was Horse-wolf, and Bear; it was Wide-Famed and Victory-Giver. It was the Great Woden.

Now, while the Drotner continued their rule of Asgard, the city, Woden the Splendid took the rule of elsewhere in Asaland – and none complained of it. But he didn’t govern his kingdom alone. Na, his brothers, Ve and Vili, acted as regents when Woden must go a great distance, and be a long while away. Though, once, when Woden was particularly long absent, and the people of Asaland feared he’d not return, his brothers were over-fast in acting. They divided their brother’s domain between them and even took turns to act the husband to Woden’s libidinous wife – she named Frigg. But Woden swiftly retrieved her upon his return. I don’t have the tale of what he did to his brothers. It is, anyway, a side-turn.

Then came a day when news reached Woden, brought him by his ravens. The Roman chiefs, who’d arisen in the south, now were tramping the lands and subduing the people. This had set the lands in turmoil, and many were the chiefs that fled their domains. This surely was an invitation for Woden to enter and replace them. But first he’d a problem. Those emptying lands lay west of Murk Wood. And between Asaland and Murk Wood lurked the Vanir on the banks of Tanaquisl, as solid a barrier to his plans as . . . as a chain of great Norman castles. If Woden was to take the lands beyond Murk Wood, first he must defeat the Vanir.

And so Woden gathered a great army about him and set out to the west. He thought it’d be easy, what with his might. Ah, but the Vanir already knew all Woden’s plannings – told them, likely, by Freya’s hawk-birds. And so they, too, had gathered a fierce armed host, for defence of their Vanaland.

Now, you’d expect, what with Woden being the greatest warrior, the victory-ensurer, the mighty spear-shaker and wielder, that the Æsir would easily have the field. But it weren’t so. See, the Vanir had a trick or two, too, they being renowned as sorcerers, skilled in magic arts. So the days ended with the field this way and that, with neither side long-holding the title.

But, as you can imagine, great was the damage along the border-rims of both the Vana- and the Asa-lands – as ever is in a long-sweated battle. And Woden, Wise Ruler, cared for his people. He feared soon they’d have no cattle, no sheep nor goats, no rye, oats or wheat, no huts to hide-out in, nothing at all, so great the war-ravage. So he called a halt to hostilities, he called for a truce. The Vanir did not complain.

They agreed a day for a meeting, when both Æsir and Vanir would give voice to their thoughts and give their suggestions of how a peace could be held, once made.

From sunrise to sunset this meeting lasted. But at the last, an answer was found and all agreed it. It was this: to establish good peace and to ensure it was held, both Æsir and Vanir must surrender two, three or four of their best and most valued, to be held as hostage by the other against good behaviour.

So the Vanir sent Njord the Rich to Asaland, and with him his son and daughter, Frey and Freya. Then, for good measure, they sent Kvasir, too – for Kvasir was deemed the wisest of men. For their part, the Æsir sent Hoenir to Vanaland. But Hoenir, though a man handsome and stout, was not so heavy in wits. And so they sent with him Mimir, Woden’s own wise counsel. Now that was sacrifice made, indeed.

Impressed with his strength and handsome face, the Vanir made Hoenir a chief. At first this caused him no problem for Hoenir knew he must seek counsel from Mimir. But the time came when he must attend certain meetings alone, with no Mimir beside him. Oh, alack, alas, what was he to do when a difficult matter was laid before him? But, long had he lived with his lack of wits, he knew how to answer. Each time he said, and always the same, “Now let others give their advice.” And thus he avoided the need to answer on matters beyond his own ken.

But . . . were the Vanir stupid? Na, they were not. They soon noticed this chief’s constant evasions and whispered of his prevarication. They cast suspicious looks at the Æsir of Asaland and muttered of deception in this exchange of men. Well, they declared, if the Æsir thought thus to achieve victory over them, they’d best think again. With ire risen to sheer mountain-heights, they seized the companion, wise man Mimir, and sliced off his head – which they then sent promptly back to Woden.

Oh, in woe did Woden cradle the head. But he’d not lose this wise man’s wisdom – he would not! He smeared the head with holding-herbs to stop it from rotting. Then over it he sang incantations to give to the head the power of speech. And, wow, did Mimir’s head speak! It told to Woden a good many secrets. And that’s how Woden came by the names of Woden High-Headed, and Woden the Wise.

Meanwhile Woden had sent the Vanir hostages, Njord and Frey, to be as the Drotner in the city of Asgard, to be priests of the sacrifices. Well, so aptly given was this appointment that father and son soon became Drotner for all the Æsir of Asaland. And that wasn’t all. Before her arrival in Asaland, Njord’s daughter Freya had been a priestess of Vanaland, knowing all of the hidden magic arts. Now she taught them throughout Asaland.

Many more tales are here to tell, but they’re not my thrust and, as any will tell you, you don’t reach a climax by allowing unneeded distractions. So enough to say that all wasn’t well, what with the Vanir having beheaded Mimir, and the folk of Asaland in mute disapproval of these Vanir Drotner – ‘cause Njord, so it’s said, had married his sister, and the same with his children, Frey and Freya, and the Æsir were forbidden to marry close kin. Well, you can imagine their consternation.

Yet, despite it, Woden now had free passage through Vanaland, and so could begin his conquest of Saxland.

Again, he set his brothers, Ve and Vili, to govern over Asgard and Asaland, and with his gods and a great many people, Woden set out westward, first to Gardarike, and then south to Saxland. Many are the tales told of that conquest. But they, like the others, are but an aside. Enough to say that he had many sons, and these he left to rule over each of the lands – including my own ancestral Angeln.

So, Saxland conquered, Woden moved on northwards, across the sea, to set his abode on an island now named for him. From there he sent out his men to conquer all the lands all around him, those of the Geats, the Northmen and Easterlings.

Ha! The marvels these folks do tell of Chief Woden. For myself, before that adventure with my lord Sir Guy I’d not have believed them. I then was devout and secure in the Church. But now . . .? Though Gudeta’s pater did try to change me, now I’d say that Woden likely was Bellinn: one of those tricksters who are long-living.

See, listen to what the Norsemen say of this Woden – or Odin as they call him:—

He was a shape-shifter, He would lie as if dead or asleep, while he himself took the form of a fish, or a worm, or a bird, and off he’d be in an instant to any far-distant land.

And this:—

By his word alone he could quench a fire, could still a tempestuous ocean, could turn the wind to whichever quarter he pleased.

Now those things I’d maybe believe, but not this:—

That he sailed in a ship which, when not in use, he rolled up like a cloth!

Nor that he could call the dead out of the earth.

And they say of the Hibernians!

But the one thing I know for certain is true, is that wherever Woden went, with him he carried the Wise Head of Mimir. And that Head told him the news from all lands – as did his two ravens.

Woden was mighty in every direction. But to behave like the Easterlings and the Norse-folk and . . . and those across the sea, and even some in this land too, and to sacrifice to him – they even sacrifice, too, to the twelve Drotner of Asgard, and call them their gods! Na, that doesn’t seem right and proper to me. But this is.

See, Woden was a mighty lawgiver. In every land where his sons held rule, they applied the same law as they’d had in Asaland. And that was a tax. It was set at so much a head, and was to provide for the warriors needed to defend the lands. That tax still carries in this land, too, though we folk do groan of it. Of course we do, ‘cause the Bastard’s taxes are the heaviest ever. And, as everyone knows, they’re to fatten his belly and not pay for defences. But, digressions, digressions.

One law of Woden the Church has forbidden, and that’s that all dead men should be burned, their belongings laid with them, the ashes cast into the sea, else earth-buried. Thus, as Woden said, when arriving in Valhalla – or whatever part of the Afterlife a man’s destined for – a man brings his own riches with him. He also enjoys whatever he himself has buried in the earth. And that is a thing that should be noted, since it now seems forgotten. For how many times when digging the shit-pits, or the ditches and dykes raised for defences, has a man come upon a wondrous pot full of gold and other manner of riches. And, eyes a-bulge and lips a-licking, off he runs with it. But stop ye and think. That treasure belongs to a dead man. And now deprived of it, his spirit is likely to come seeking revenge. So, you think twice before robbing the dead, and if ever you find such a rich treasure, you’d best leave it be.

celts - hochdorf bronze container, greek lion,...

celts – hochdorf bronze container, greek lion, detail (Photo credit: Cåsbr)

Example of buried treasure best left alone, untouched in the soil.

Woden, they say, died in his bed – in Asaland beyond the great Tanaquisl, beyond the wide Murk Wood. And when near to his death he had himself marked with the point of a spear, and told those around him he was off to God’s Land. And he said, once he was there he’d welcome his friends, and all brave warriors who’d been dedicated to him. So there.

~ ~ ~

Crimson’s Note:

Although Toli has given this tale his personal twist, it can also be found as the opening lines of the Ynglinga Saga. There, Tanaquisl is also given as Vanaquisl, and Tanais; described as a river which falls into the Black Sea, this could be any of the steppes’ rivers: Dniester, Dnieper, the Don. 

In the original (in translation), the word Drotner, for priest, is given as Diar as well. While I would translate Diar as ‘one who acts for the gods’, like Toli, I prefer the use of Drotner, for its echoes of the Celtic word, druid. Did Woden originate with the Celts? In Welsh mythology is found a magician-god named Gwydion. That name, and his profile, equates perfectly with Woden.

Moreover, the runic script, both in its letter-form and the way it is written in winding ribbons, upon stone, is found in the Italian Alps . . . where Celts, in alliance with the Etruscans, were harrying the Romans as early as 390 BC. 

Runic Script


This example uses what is probably the Lepontic variant of the Etruscan alphabet. See Wikipedia’s article, Etruscan alphabet, for illustrations of others; the Camunic being closest to the early Danish runes. 

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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6 Responses to The High-Headed King

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Such an appropriate story to be reading, right after my review of Mitchell’s book. I REALLY have to do more reading in Norse mythology. The versions I know are far too brief and G-rated.


    • crimsonprose says:

      I’m not happy with how I expressed my interest in Mitchell. As you might guess from various short stories and what’s occurring in the blogged books, I have a deep and abiding interest in the processes of religion (at all levels, from e.g. pagan shamanism thro’ modern religions): what makes us want to see supernatural agencies, how priests, throughout history, have used that to manipulate the masses, knowingly or otherwise. Thus, as you described his book, it was immediately No. 1 on my ‘must have’ list. And I thank you for that.


      • Brian Bixby says:

        And the dynamic is something Mitchell is trying to capture, which makes the fragmentary evidence alll that more frustrating for him, because he can’t pretend it’s a static system.


      • crimsonprose says:

        You might find yesterday’s ‘Toli Tall Tale’ blog relevant here: Mauror the Sorcerer. In Crimson’s Note I give links to the Icelandic-English Dictionary I so rave about. But as I’ve said in that editor’s comment, it’s more than a dictionary; it contains so much of the Nordic culture, not only in Iceland, but also in the earliest records from Denmark – which being in contact with the Frankish empire had acquired Christian monks who kept chronicles.


      • Brian Bixby says:

        Well, I might get to it today. I have not been feeling well of late, for complicated reasons, and today is dedicated to reading. So expect a few more comments then usual.


      • crimsonprose says:

        Warning appreciated; I shall endeavour to stay up late.


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