Glossary of Terms

Listed below are some potentially unfamiliar words and terms you will encounter in this series of books.
B = Brythonic (Dumnonian). L = Latin. ME = Middle (medieval) English. OE = Old English (Anglo-Saxon). ON = Old Norse.

Addlepate

A foolish or dim-witted person (addle = confused; pate = head)

Aegir

The ill-tempered Lord of the Ocean, God of the sea. Married to the Goddess Ran and father to the Nine Daughters (who are in turn representations of different aspects of the sea). The bringer of storms and big seas, Aegir lives in an underwater hall and from time to time rises to the surface to wreck ships and drag their crews back down to the bottom. Captains and crews make offerings to Aegir prior to a voyage to ensure a safe passage. On some Viking raids, a human sacrifice in the form of a captive might be offered. As with so much of Norse Mythology, Aegir’s negative forces are balanced by another Sea God, Njord, the bringer of good weather and calm seas. ON.

Aesir

The collective name for many of the principal Norse gods and goddesses, including Odin, Thor, Frigg, Tyr, Loki, Baldur, Heimdall, Idun, and Bragi. The Aesir live in their heavenly domain, Asgard. ON.

Ætheling

Saxon title of nobility, meaning “crown prince” or heir to the throne. OE.

Althing

Also ‘Thing’. The annual assembly of free men in the fjordlands (and indeed all of Scandinavia), presided over by a Lawspeaker. One of the principal functions of the assembly was to provide a forum in which disputes of law could be aired and settled, political and commercial deals made, and where laws and rules themselves were created and amended by a majority vote of the freemen. It also tended to be the most important social event of the Norse calendar, when all the farmers, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travellers of the region congregated at the ‘Thingvoll’ (the ‘assembly fields’). They usually ran for many days, and often included contests, games and sometimes quite punishing initiation ceremonies for boys who had declared themselves ready to make the passage into manhood. The Icelandic parliament, founded in 930AD, is still known as the Althing, and as such claims to be the oldest continuously functioning parliament in the world. ON.

Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an ancient collection of annals written in Old English that recount the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, most probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899). The Chronicle is arguably one of the most important source documents for scholars studying the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods in British history. It is especially important because (from Alfred’s time at least) it was a mostly contemporary account of the major political and religious events of the day.

Asgard

One of the nine Norse realms, Asgard is located in the highest, sunniest branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil. It is home to the Aesir community of Gods. Valhalla, the ‘hall of the slain’ is located here. It lies on a plane above Midgard (realm of the mortal humans), and the two are connected by a magical rainbow bridge called Bifrost. ON.

Baedling

An effeminate man. OE.

Bairn

‘Baby.’ This is actually the Scottish spelling, from the original ON ‘barn.’

Baldur

(Also ‘Baldr’, ‘Balder’) Norse God of light, joy, purity, and the summer sun. Baldur is the son of the god Odin and goddess Frigg. He has numerous brothers, including Thor. He is known for his exceptional beauty in both spirit and body, being handsome, strong, gracious, cheerful and just. The perfect man, some might say. ON.

Beck

Norse word for stream. Still commonly found in the names of watercourses in the north of England. From ON, bekkr.

Beserker

Berserkers (or Berserks) were much-feared champion Norse warriors who are said to have fought in a trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk. They would charge into battle with no armour (‘bare-chested’), sometimes wearing animal pelts (bear and wolf being common). There is therefore some debate about the literal Norse meaning: either ‘bare-skin’, ‘bare of shield’, or ‘bear-skin.’ ON.

biċċe

OE profanity: ‘bitch.’

Brazier

A container, usually fashioned from iron and often with legs, intended to hold a fire. Normally found in large spaces such as halls, they are designed to provide both heat and light. They were used by all peoples across Europe during the Viking age and beyond (you will find them in beer gardens even today) and come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. The braziers used on Sigvald’s ship were about the size of a large bucket, made from iron and standing at about hip height on three legs. Being fashioned in such a way that heat could escape from the sides as well as the top, they were not particularly safe, as burning wood and embers could fall onto the floor or deck.

Breiddjame

ON profanity: ‘son of a whore.’

Burh/Burg

OE word meaning fortified place or fort. Also spelt ‘Burg’ in some sources. A modern town name that contains the element burg, burgh, bury or borough hints at a fortified past.

By/Byr

ON word meaning ‘farmstead,’ ‘hamlet,’ or ‘village,’ but can also be applied to larger settlements. In virtually all cases it appears as a suffix to a name, such as ‘Sigvaldsby,’ meaning: ‘Sigvald’s place.’ In England, there are thousands of place names ending in ‘by’ which indicates a Scandinavian origin or influence.

Byre

Not to be confused with the Norse word ‘byr’, a byre is a building in which farm animals are housed, particularly cattle. Strictly speaking it is actually a British term, meaning ‘cowshed.’ An equivalent Norse word is ‘hlaða,’ meaning barn.

Charcoal-eater

A disparaging term used by the Vikings to describe a person who prefers the safety of home life rather than choosing the more glorious (and manly) path to raiding and fighting. The charcoal refers to the coals of the hearthfire to which the coward is unhealthily attached. A home-boy. ON.

Ceorl/Churl/Carl

All variations on a term meaning an Anglo-Saxon freeman of the lowest class, ranking below a thegn. OE.

Commixtion

The act of sexual intercourse. L

Dalcop

Saxon word meaning ‘numbskull.’ OE.

Dale

From Norse 'dalr', meaning valley. ON. A commonly-found term in Northern England (e.g. Yorkshire Dales, Emmerdale).

Daufi

ON slang meaning ‘stupid.’

Drakkar

ON meaning ‘dragon ship’ (a posh longship).

Draug

ON name for a monster of the night; an undead creature possessing superhuman strength, often guarding a treasure hoard. Plural = draugar.

Dreng

ON meaning ‘dragon ship’ (a posh longship).

Drittsekk

Old Norse slang, literally meaning ‘bag of shit.’ Our equivalent is ‘scumbag.’

Ealdorman

Anglo-Saxon term. An Ealdorman was a high-status individual in Saxon times, appointed by the king as his representative. They were originally drawn mostly from ancient and powerful families and commanded armies on behalf of the king. Thegns (a lower rank) served the Ealdormen.

Easter heresy

Also known these days by the less-divisive term ‘Easter Controversy,’ this refers to the ever-moving event that is Easter Sunday. This important day in the Christian Calendar generally falls on a different date every year, and in the case of some branches of Christianity, even a different date in the same year. I won’t go into detail here, other than to say that arguments between different Christian denominations about how to calculate the date of Easter Sunday have been ongoing for more than 1,700 years and remain unresolved to this day. In the context of the Wolves saga, the Celtic Church (followed by the Dumnonians) disagrees with their Saxon (Roman) Church counterparts on the setting of the date, and the West Saxons (who of course believe they are right) claim that their British counterparts are therefore heretics. These are sufficient grounds for war and invasion.

Equerry

An officer of the household of a prince or noble who has charge over the stables. Actually a medieval French term, probably derived from Latin ‘Equus’ (horse). ME.

Ergi

Norse word (definitely a slur) describing the recipient of a homosexual act. Homosexuality was at best frowned upon in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age, but one thing we do know from the writings preserved in the sagas is that being the recipient of a homosexual act was a cause for severe derision; not because it was seen as perverted, but because it was regarded as the ultimate act of submission. That Viking raiders earned a reputation in history for raping and pillaging was for good reason: according to the sagas it was perfectly acceptable for a Viking man to rape both women and men during a raid, as this was considered a powerful demonstration to their victims that they had been well and truly vanquished. (A number of coarse phrases still used today are derived from this act). Such sexual humiliation of enemies was one of the less pleasant characteristics of Norse culture, so any man who chose to be humiliated in such a way by another man was seen as cowardly, submissive, unfit to be a leader, and likely to be easily subverted by an enemy.


However, it does appear to have been acceptable or at least tolerable for a gay Viking to have kept male slaves for sexual gratification, provided two requirements were met: (1) the slaves were the recipients of their master’s bidding (and not the other way around); and (2) the man nevertheless married and had children; the latter being very important in Norse society. ON.

Fæn ta deg

ON profanity, literally meaning ‘the devil take you!’, or more crudely, ‘f*ck you!’ ON.

Færing

ON word for an open rowing boat with two pairs of oars, sometimes carrying a removable mast and sail. (ON = ‘Four-oared’).

Feilan

Wolf cub. ON.

Fell

Norse word for ‘mountain.’ Still used today by Cumbrians to describe the mountains in the English Lake District. From ON ‘fjall’.

Fenrir

The most fearsome of the Norse wolven monsters, father of the wolves Sköll and Hati. He is the ‘great devourer,’ who, at the commencement of Ragnarök, breaks free of his bonds and runs throughout the world with his lower jaw against the ground and his upper jaw in the sky, consuming everything in his path. He kills the god Odin before finally being killed himself by one of Odin’s avenging sons, Víðarr. ON = “Fen-dweller.”

Fjordlands

In this series of novels, the area that comprises the southwestern edge of Norway, stretching from modern-day Stavanger north up to Trondheim. In Rathulf’s day, anything beyond Trondheim was so cold, remote and full of monsters that no one with any sense would venture there.

Fostri/Fostra

ON word for Foster-father and foster-mother respectively. Fostering of teenagers was very common in the Viking Age.

Geri and Freki

Two wolven companions of the great Norse God Odin. (ON, meaning ‘greedy one’ and ‘ravenous one’ respectively). Generally good omens, and called upon in battle to lend a Viking warrior strength and vigour.

Gryphon

Also spelt Griffin or Griffon. A mythical beast: half-lion, half eagle. Commonly seen in medieval coats of arms, including Sherborne’s.

Hávamál

ON word meaning “sayings of the high one.” Attributed to Odin, the Hávamál is a collection of Norse poems from Viking Age Iceland. They are effectively Norse proverbs, providing advice about good living, proper conduct and other general wisdom about how to be a good Viking.

Hel

The Goddess of death who presides over a realm of the same name; the place where people who die of old age and sickness go. Her face and upper body are those of a living woman’s, but her thighs and legs are those of a corpse’s, mottled and mouldering or rotting away. Hence the curse ‘may you rot between Hel’s thighs.’ ON.

Hnefatafl

Probably the most popular Viking board game of Rathulf’s time, ‘hnefatafl,’ or just ‘tafl,’ was a strategy game played on a latticed board which featured two opposing armies of warriors, in which the king and his guard start in the centre of the board, and the opposing army–who outnumber his force by 2 to 1–surround him. The king’s objective is to escape to one of the board’s corners, whilst the surrounding army’s aim is to capture him. The name ‘hnefatafl’ possibly derives from “board game of the fist”, from hnefi (“fist”) + tafl (“board game”) where “fist” refers to the central king-piece. ON.

Jötunn

In Norse mythology, a race of giant, nature spirits with superhuman strength. Trolls belong to the Jötunn race. Their name means “devourer”. ON.

Liðasblot

Viking late summer (harvest) festival, giving thanks to Urda (Ertha) for her bounty. A “Blot” represents an offering made to the gods. It can take the form of an animal, food, or other goods. In Norse rituals, the people accept and eat the offering. Therefore, a feast is usually associated with a Blot. ON.

Midgard

‘Middle Earth’: the place where mortal humans live. The Norse believed that the universe was comprised of nine worlds or realms, of which Midgard was one. ON.

Muspelheim

One of the two primordial Norse realms, Muspelheim is the Realm of Fire, land of the fire giants. Not a very nice place. The embers from the fires of Muspelheim formed the stars in the night sky. ON.

Mynster or mynstre

In the 9th century, a mynster was a monastic settlement, centred around a church, in which the community devoted their life to Christian observance. A mynster may have been either a community of monks (male) or nuns (female). Over time, these monastic settlements often grew into towns in their own right, as the monasteries grew in wealth and stature. Scirburne (Sherborne) is one such example. The modern term ‘Minster’ to describe a very important church (e.g. Westminster) is derived from this term. OE.

Náströnd

In Norse mythology, Náströnd (“The Shore of Corpses”) is part of the underworld of Hel where perjurers, murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers are punished. ON.

Niflheim

One of the two primordial Norse realms, Niflheim is the realm of ice and cold, with the frozen river of Elivágar and the well of Hvergelmir, from which come all the rivers. It is the abode of the Goddess Hel, who presides over those poor Viking souls who are unfortunate enough not to die a heroic or notable death (and thus were refused entry into Valhalla). ON.

Nisean

Now-extinct breed of warhorse from the middle-east (Persia). They were highly sought after in the ancient world, and the Nisean was the mount of the nobility in ancient Persia. The closest living relative is thought to be the Akhal-Teke breed from Turkmenistan. The Persian heavy cavalry used these armoured horses to great effect, and Sigvald really did sail all the way to Constantinople to purchase the beast (along with his Persian stablemaster Myran) for Rathulf.

Northman

One of the many names used by the medieval historians to describe the Viking raiders from the North. Also ‘Norseman’ and ‘Norman.’ Latinized as ‘Nortmannus’ (recorded in Medieval Latin, 9th century).

Odin

In Norse mythology, Odin is the father of all Gods and men. He is associated with wisdom, healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet, and is the husband of the goddess Frigg. His two ravens, Huginn and Munin (Norse, meaning ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ respectively) fly over the world daily and return to tell him everything that has happened in Midgard. He is also accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki (Norse, meaning ‘greedy one’ and ‘ravenous one’ respectively).

Ragnarök/Ragnarøkkr

The Norse “Fate of the Gods” or “Twilight of the Gods” respectively, culminating in a final great battle between the forces of good and evil, and in which the world is destroyed, and a new world order is born. ON.

Saxon/Anglo-Saxon

Following the departure of the Romans from British shores in 410AD, a new group of invaders began to harry the island, sailing across the channel from what is now Germany and Denmark. They were the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and it is after the Angles that England is named. These ‘Anglo-Saxons’ gradually conquered the Romano-British tribes over the following two centuries, so that by the time Rathulf was born in 807AD, most of southern Britain was under Anglo-Saxon control. Only the far western corner remained in British hands, but it would not be long before this remnant kingdom of Britons–known as Dumnonia–would face the Anglo-Saxons’ wrath. In Rathulf’s day, the Anglo-Saxons were more commonly referred to collectively as ‘the Saxons.’ (Much as the Viking invaders from Norway and Denmark were collectively labelled ‘The Danes’ by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers.) There remains considerable debate amongst academics as to whether the broad-brush term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is an appropriate label to apply to the diverse peoples who raided and settled the British Isles at this time, and who subsequently went on to establish independent kingdoms across the land. Most likely those people would have referred to themselves by their kingdom name, such as “I am Mercian,” or, in the case of Wessex, “Wesseaxna.” It was the Wessex King Alfred the Great who began to collectively call the Anglo Saxons ‘the anglcyn’ (a precursor to ‘the English’).

Sköll and Hati

Sköll (ON = “One Who Mocks”) and Hati (ON = “One Who Hates”) are two wolves who daily pursue Sol and Mani, the sun and moon, through the sky in the hope of devouring them. At Ragnarök, the end of the world, they catch their prey and the sky and earth darken as a result.

Sōlmōnath

The Month of February (approximate) in the Saxon calendar. OE.

Thegn

The Anglo-Saxon term, meaning “servant, attendant, retainer.” It generally referred to an aristocratic retainer of a king or nobleman in Saxon England.

Thor

One of the Aesir – the principal Norse Gods – Thor is considered to be the protector of all Midgard. Thor is strength personified, and he wields the mighty hammer Mjöllnir. His battle chariot is drawn by two goats (named Tanngrisnir or “teeth-barer/snarler” and Tanngnjóstr or “teeth-grinder”), and his hammer Mjöllnir causes the thunder and lightning that rumbles and flashes across the sky.

Thrall

ON word for ‘slave.’ Slavery was an everyday norm in Viking times, with all cultures and kingdoms maintaining an active trade in people as saleable commodities. Slaves were seen as little better than cattle – advanced domestic animals at best – who typically lived in the darkest end of the longhouse with the other domestic beasts. If slaves did not behave properly then they were beaten. An owner could punish his slaves as much as he wanted. Slaves’ bodies were also available for sexual exploitation. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the Vikings were not particularly kind to their slaves, but that could also be said of their Saxon and British counterparts.

Valhalla

Hall of the fallen heroes, located in Asgard. All good Viking warriors desired entry to Valhalla when they died, for there they would fight and feast into glorious eternity.

Valkyries

Valkyries are the warrior maidens who attended Odin, ruler of the gods. The Valkyries rode through the air in brilliant armour, directed battles, distributed death lots among the warriors, and conducted the souls of slain heroes to Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Their leader was Brunhilde.

Varangian Guard

The name of the fabled force of Viking bodyguards to the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, based in Konstantinoupolis, who were sworn to protect the emperor in return for fame and fortune (i.e. they were mercenaries). The name comes from the ON word ‘Væringi,’ which itself is probably derived from the ON word ‘vār’, meaning ‘pledge’. The Varangians were predominantly drawn from the ‘Rus’ Vikings (who originally came from Sweden).

Viking

Strictly speaking, a person from Scandinavia (modern Sweden, Norway and Denmark) who partook in ship-borne raids and piracy (to ‘go a-Viking’). However, we tend to use the catch-all term ‘Viking’ to mean anyone from that part of the world during a particular period in history known as the Viking Age. There were three main groups of Vikings: the Norse, Rus and Danes. Rathulf was raised by Norse Vikings, i.e. folk who lived in the fjordlands of present-day Norway. The Norse tended to raid, and ultimately settle in, the western coastal parts of Britain (such as the Hebrides and the Lake District) and eastern coast of Ireland. By contrast, the people from what is mostly present-day Sweden were known as the Rus, and it is after these people that Russia is named; for these intrepid explorers tended to head east and inland over the great rivers like the Volga, eventually reaching Konstantinoupolis by that route. Meanwhile the Danes (from their namesake country) raided the eastern and southern coasts of Britain and also the land now occupied by Germany, France and Spain, sometimes venturing far inland in Europe where the rivers would allow it. In many of the early Saxon and English texts the Viking raiders are all referred to as ‘the Danes,’ regardless of their actual origin (they all looked terrifyingly similar to the poor monks who were often subject to the raids).

Viking Age

The period of European history generally defined as beginning in 793 with an attack by Vikings on the monastery of Lindisfarne in present-day Northumbria, and ending in 1066, with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. The Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of the Norman period of British history; Norman referring to William’s Viking (‘Northman’) ancestry.

Weala/Wealas/Wealh

‘Weala’ (and its variant spellings) is a somewhat derogatory Saxon word meaning ‘slaves, foreigners or strangers.’ Wealas, or Wales as we know it today, was the term many Saxons used to describe native Britons, which is why, unsurprisingly, folks from this country prefer the original British term Cymru (pronounced ‘cum-ree’) to describe themselves today.

Fjándinn

ON word meaning ‘foe’, or ‘the enemy’

Fjord

ON word describing a long, deep, narrow seawater inlet with steep sides or cliffs, originally created by a glacier scouring a pathway through the landscape to the sea. When the ice melted and the glaciers retreated, the gouges filled with seawater to create the fjords. The entire west coast of Norway is deeply cut by fjords (many of which pierce scores of kilometres inland), resulting in a unique and spectacular landscape. Sognefjorden, where Rathulf and the main players in this book live, is exceedingly deep at 1,308m (4,291 feet), and stretches just over 200 kilometres inland from its mouth. On the other side of the world, the South Island of New Zealand also boasts a smaller number of similarly impressive fjords, as does Chile.