Hands across the void
When Vikings ranged the northern seas, an island called Samsey off the coast of Jutland provided a haven for their long ships and, for some of the Scandinavian warriors, a final resting place. On the south shore of the island was a burial ground, a rocky heath dotted with funeral mounds. It was a lonely place, silent save for the deep breathing of the sea and the moan of the winter winds. Within the stone - and dirt-covered mounds, in chambers crowded with gilded daggers and heavy swords, fallen Vikings slept on, moldering in the dark. At night, flames - the mysterious 'hovering fires' of the other world that shielded tombs from robbery - flickered over the mounds and upon the heath around them, and in the light of the fires moved the black and twisted shapes of barrow-wights, the restless dead who haunted burial sites. Few of the living ever went to that heath - and those who did went only by day and to consign brave comrades to the earth. Once, however, a woman went there to seek out the dead.
She was an unusual woman for those times. Her name was Hervor, and she had been reared in the hall of her mother's father, a powerful jarl, a Norse chieftain, because her mother had no husband to care for her family. Fatherless, her heritage a mystery, Hervor grew up to be beautiful but wild and combative. Disdaining the skirts of women and women's work at the loom and the embroidery frame, she dressed in the woolen trousers and tunic of a man. When she was old enough, she took to robbing wayfarers who crossed her grandfather's land. When he discovered this, he ordered her into women's clothes and had her sequestered in his hall, where the house slaves, whom Hervor mistreated as she did everyone around her, whispered that she was no more than a serf's bastard, the daughter of a swineherd who had seduced her mother.
But Hervor was a hero's daughter, and her grandfather told her so when she confronted him with the house slaves' gossip. Her father, said the old jarl, was Angantyr, one of the twelfe sons of the great Viking Arngrim, all of whom had died in battle before Hervor's birth. Their burial mound was on the island of Samsey, and with them was buried Angantyr's invincible sword, which was named Tyrfing. A magic weapon made by dwarfs, the sword was a treasure to be claimed only by Angantyr's rightful heir.
Then Hervor left the hall to seek her inheritance from the father she had never known. She dressed again as a man and, taking a man's weapons, traveled alone until she met a band of Vikings. In their long ship, she sailed to Samsey.
The warriors she journeyed with refused to venture near the south side of the island. All of them knew that barrow-wights dealt savagely with anyone who would disturb the tombs. They were prepared to fight any living man, they said, but not to risk doing battle with the dead, even in the cause of a rightful claimant. Hervor argued with them for hours at the anchorage offshore, until at last they had her taken to the beach in a small boat. The oarsmen left her there and sped back to the long ship, with never a glance at the island.
Dusk had already begun to settle over the heath, and the barrow fires were burning brightly. As Hervor crossed the harsh terrain, she met a lone shepherd who was gathering his flock for the night. When she told him her mission, he stared and said that she was a fool to go to that place. The grave mounds were opening at this hour, he said, and deadly beings were abroad. He hobbled away with his sheep, and soon their anxious bleating and the dull clapping of their bells had faded out of hearing.
But the shepherd had said nothing about the burial place that Hervor did not already know, and so she went on, guided by the firelight. Soon enough, she was among the shadowed grave mounds, and tounges of flame sprang up on either side of her path. As she advanced into the field of the dead, she heard rumblings and rustlings; at the edges of her vision, black figures rose from the ground and moved in the flames, but when she turned to look at them directly, she saw only the fire. She had the sensation that something was stalking behind her, but again, when she turned, there was no sign of another presence among the mounds. Yet the feeling of deep malignity in the air intensified with every step she took.
At length Hervor came to a burial mound marked with a rune she recognized. She had found the funeral barrow of her father and his brothers. Hervor stood before the entrance stone and examined it carvings. Presently, she cried;
"Wake Angantyr! Your daughter Hervor calls you."
The echo died and was not answered. All was quiet, except for the crackle of the barrow flames nearby - greenish flames that seemed to drain the color from the world and shed cold rather than heat.
Hervor called her father's name again and charged him to deliver the sword Tyrfing. Again, silence was her own reply. She called a third time and bade her father answer, threatening him with a curse:
"If you do not fetch the sword, may you feel maggots gnawing you forever as you molder."
Moments passed, and then a voice spoke from within the mound, a muffled and chill voice with nothing in it of mortal mouth or throat or lungs.
"Why do you call me, Hervor? Daughter, you are mad to wake the dead." Around the stone, flames danced more brightly. Undaunted, Hervor again demanded her inheritance and added with the defiance of the young:
"It does not become a ghost to bear costly arms."
There was a movement and a scraping noise at the tomb entrance then, and the dark line that defined the edge of the entrance stone grew wider. The stone had shifted, and a dank breath of air, heavy with the stench of decay, swept forth. Hervor flinched but stood her ground.
The cold voice spoke again, more clearly. It warned Hervor of the sword's power and of its poisoned edges. In ringing tones, it told the woman that no one would defeat her while she carried the sword but that Tyrfing would be the doom of her descendants. Hervor cared nothing for this and said so. She demanded her inheritance, as before. The crack at the edge of the entrance stone widened suddenly. Something white flashed in the opening - an arm perharps, although it moved too quickly for Hervor to be sure. An object whirled through the air, glinting. The sword Tyrfing, bright with silver filigree and glowing with jewels, clattered to the ground in front of her. She picked it up and sang a blessing over the tomb over her father. Then she walked back across the shadowed landscape to the world of the living.
Armed with her Tyrfing, Hervor grew calmer as she grew older. She married a powerful jarl and bore him two sons, and they were fierce warriors, as their grandfather had been. But the sword of the dead carried with it a curse. As Angantyr had foretold, the possession of it was the bane of Hervor's descendants, for their history was one of kin slaying.
Hervor's sons grew to be handsome, strong men, the elder, Angantyr, was good-hearted and well-loved, but the younger, Heidrek, had an evil nature. Heidrek murdered his brother at a feast - some say with a stone, others say with the sword Tyrfing. In any case, Heidrek was sent into exile for the crime, and he took the sword and its curse with him.
With the aid of the sword, Heidrek acquired power, lands and men enough to be called a King. He married the daughter of another King, a man who ruled great lands in Russia, and gained sole possession of the lands by killing his father-in-law. In her grief at this kin murder, Heidrek's wife hanged herself. Heidrek himself eventually died ignominiously at the hands of slaves he had captured in one of his many battles. He left two sons, Hervor's grandchildren. One of them slew the other with Tyrfing in a dispute over the inheritence. After this deed, the cursed weapon vanished from history.
Hervor's tale is a complex one, but in its central event - the summoning of her father's spirit - it is far from unique. Throughout history (although far more often in the past than the present day), people have called the dead from their rest. Sometimes they did so inadvertently, releasing, through ignorance or carelessness, beings that should have been kept bound in their inimical world. But whether accidental or deliberate, such a disruption of the natural order of things was a serious business indeed.