Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapter 3 (1865)

Illustration by Willy Pogany from Children od Odin: The Book of Northern Myths (1917)
Illustration by Willy Pogany from Children of Odin: The Book of Northern Myths (1917)

Having covered the lycanthropes of ancient Greece, Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves heads to the lands of the Vikings. The third chapter is entitled “The Were-Wolf in the North” and opens with the following description of folkloric transformations:

In Norway and Iceland certain men were said to be eigi einhamir, not of one skin, an idea which had its roots in paganism. The full form of this strange superstition was, that men could take upon them other bodies, and the natures of those beings whose bodies they assumed. The second adopted shape was called by the same name as the original shape, hamr, and the expression made use of to designate the transition from one body to another, was at skipta hömum, or at hamaz; whilst the expedition made in the second form, was the hamför. By this transfiguration extraordinary powers were acquired; the natural strength of the individual was doubled, or quadrupled; he acquired the strength of the beast in whose body he travelled, in addition to his own, and a man thus invigorated was called hamrammr.

This phenomenon, the author tells us, applies to many species of animal, not just wolves. He cites the Norse myth of Freyja and Frigg transforming into birds with the aid of falcon dresses, a power gained by Loki when he stole these garments. Similarly, the Vælundar kviða speaks of Svanhwit and the other swan-maidens.

Just as these characters turned into birds by wearing feathered garments, the Saga of the Völsungs relates how Sigmund and his son Sinfjötli were transformed into wolves by wearing enchanted wolf-pelts. Baring-Gould excerpts this story at length, providing the likely inspiration for Eugene Field’s 1896 story “The Werewolf”, which incorporated elements from this legend.

Baring-Gould then points to another incident from the same saga, one in which Sigmund slays a troublesome she-wolf. “It is the opinion of some men,” says the saga’s narrator, “that this was the mother of King Siggeir, and that she had taken this form upon her through devilry and witchcraft.”

Next comes an excerpt from the Hrolfs Saga Kraka. Here, King Kring sends men to find a suitable wife for him; the men return with Hvit, beautiful daughter of the Finn king’s lover Ingibjorg. The king’s son Björn takes poorly to his new stepmother and hits her during an argument; she responds by striking him with a wolf-skin glove and cursing him to become a bear. In a gruesome conclusion, the bear-form Björn is killed by the king’s men, and the queen tries to feed him to his lover Bera.

After citing some brief references to werewolfery in the song of Finnur hin friði and the second Kviða of Helga Hundingsbana , Baring Gould moves on to “instances in which the person who is changed has a double shape, and the soul animates one after the other.” The first of these comes from the Ynglinga Saga, which says of Idin that “he changed form; the bodies lay as though sleeping or dead, but he was a bird or a beast, a fish, or a woman”. This is followed by legends of individuals sending their souls into the bodies of whales and bears, along with a sequence from the Vatnsdæla Saga in which no animals are involved — this incident is what would now be called an out-of-body experience. Again, I have to suspect that Eugene Field was familiar with Baring-Gould’s book, as his werewolf story implied that the lycanthrope somehow projected his soul into the body of a wolf while remaining physically at home.

The third form of transformation, continues Baring-Gould, is one carried out through illusion. The most curious such account, he tells us, comes from the Eyrbyggja Saga, and concerns a search for a man named Odd:

‘Be it so,’ replied Katla, and she ordered a girl to carry a light before them, and unlock the different parts of the house. All they saw was Katla spinning yarn off her distaff. Now they search the house, but find no Odd, so they depart. But when they had gone a little way from the garth, Arnkell stood still and said: ‘How know we but that Katla has hoodwinked us, and that the distaff in her hand was nothing more than Odd.’ ‘Not impossible!’ said Thorarinn; ‘let us turn back.’ They did so; and when those at Holt raw that they were returning, Katla said to her maids, ‘Sit still in your places, Odd and I shall go out.’

“Now as they approached the door, she went into the porch, and began to comb and clip the hair of her son Odd. Arnkell came to the door and saw where Katla was, and she seemed to be stroking her goat, and disentangling its mane and beard and smoothing its wool. So he and his men went into the house, but found not Odd. Katla’s distaff lay against the bench, so they thought that it could not have been Odd, and they went away. However, when they had come near the spot where they had turned before, Arnkell said, ‘Think you not that Odd may have been in the goat’s form?’

As with Baring-Gould’s chapter on Greek lycanthropy, it has to be said that this chapter is really a general survey of animalistic transformations in Northern-European legend. It includes werewolves, yes, but only amongst were-falcons, were-bears, were-swans and even a were-distaff.

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