Rule Number Three

I can’t bring people back from the dead. It’s not a pretty picture, I DON’T LIKE DOING IT!

– The Genie, Disney’s Aladdin, voiced by the incomparable Robin Williams

 

One of my big worldbuilding challenges was reconciling the multiple “realms of the dead” in Norse myth:

  • Odin, Valhol and the Einherjar: These are the humans who die in battle (often b/c Odin betrays them), are chosen by his valkyrie and are then taken to Valhol to “train” every day in preparation for Ragnarok.
  • Freyja: Half of those who fall in battle go to her, half to Odin. No explanation in the myths as to why. Her chosen dead reside in Folkvangr and comprise her own army. The Vanir fight with the Aesir in Ragnarok.
  • Thor: Accepts the dead “peasants” into his “realm of the dead” (the name of which escapes me, atm)
  • Beneath the Waves: Those who die at sea can sink into Rán’s cold embrace. She’s a goddess of the sea and is married to Aegir, also a god of the sea. I’ve transformed these two (Rán and Aegir) in my fictional mythology and made them fundamental deities.
    • As an aside, and according to the History of English podcast, the words soul and sea derive from a common Germanic root word “siwas” meaning lake or inland sea.
    • In later Germanic (southern & eastern Germanic) the word became “siwelo” meaning something belonging to lake; deriving from a lake. And that word eventually became our word “soul.”
    • I don’t know why, but this etymology makes me think of mist swirling above a lake.
  • Helheim (Home/Realm of Hel): Hel is Loki’s daughter by Angrboda. Odin kicks her out of Asgard along with her two brothers (Jormungandr and Fenrir). Snorri says that she rules over the place where the “dishonored” dead go. Snorri describes her as half flesh color; half blue (blor) but according to Dr. Jackson Crawford, it’s not clear that Snorri means she’s split down the middle half & half blue-/flesh-colored.
    • As another aside, Dr. Crawford and the History of English of podcast, both (separately) discuss the origin of the word “hel.” It comes from the Indo-European root “kel” meaning to hide or cover. Our words cellar, conceal, helmet, holster, hole, hollow all trace back to “kel.” But since I’m not a linguist (yet?) I’ll stop there.
    • “Hel,” then, started out as a covered place — graves, barrows, under mountains, etc. Over time, this concept became “Helheim” which Snorri describes in the Prose Edda.
    • Crawford says that the Old English Bible used “hell(e)” to translate “infernus” in Latin; while the the Gothic Bible used “halja” to translate Hades.

So with all these different types of “realms of the dead” I had to figure out how I’d use them. And, as always, my goal was to remain as faithful to the myths as possible.

My first step was to give myself some elbow room. My entire fictional world is an alternate version of our Earth and its history.

Next, I made my world “pre-human” meaning that my Aesir, Vanir, Jotunn, Alvar and Svartalvar have yet to encounter us — regular humans. This opened up some really cool (imo) possibilities.

We also meet my major characters (Odin, Hel, etc.) at different places in their mythological lives (ie, our myths). So, my Hel is not yet Queen of Helheim. But, my Odin has sacrificed “himself to himself” upon Yggdrasil. At the start of BK1 he’s maybe half of the Odin we know. He develops fully into “our” Odin by the end of BK3.

With respect to reconciling the realms of the dead, the major stopping point for me was that Odin and Hel are enemies. I had to figure out why and how Odin would cede power over the dead to her. I think I’ve figured out a pretty good rationale there which, for spoiler reasons, I won’t go into here.

In BK1 it was sufficient to hand-wave at the relationship between Odin and Hel because it doesn’t really matter and she doesn’t appear on stage. But in BK2 she does. And the antipathy between her and the Aesir (and Odin in particular) becomes a big deal.

Another aspect to the whole consistent realms of the dead dealio involved integrating that afterlife into the magic system. I needed reasons for why Hel and Odin could do things. And I needed a system for what happens when people die.

Some of the questions I had to answer include:

  • Do the inhabitants of my world believe in souls/spirits?
  • What happens to the spirits of dead people? What happens to the physical body?
    • The Norse believed in the hugr (spirit) and the hamr (body/flesh). This belief is integral to my magic system.
  • Are there differences in what happens to the spirits of the dead Aesir, Jotunn and Vanir? What about humans?
  • Why is Odin able to summon and interrogate the dead?
  • Why does Hel gather to her the spirits of those who have not died in battle? How is she able to do that?
  • Why does Odin send the valkyrie to gather (human) souls? How do the valkyrie do that?
  • Why do Odin and Freyja divide those human souls between them?
  • We know all this from the myths — or some of it, at least — but I needed solid narrative reasons. I also don’t have all the answers yet.

And speaking of bringing the dead back to life, I’m having some fun with the Einherjar. In BK1 they are all living men and women. So, that’s one thing I’m hoping is going to set off alarm bells for all readers who Norse myth — i.e., wtf, these Einherjar are supposed to be dead zomg!? And for those who don’t know who/what the Einherjar are, I’m hoping that what develops is a big, inevitable surprise.

But hang on tight, ’cause I don’t deliver on any of that till BK3.

Spears, shields and spells

This week I’ve finished developing a Norse-sounding military hierarchy for my books. It’s  loosely based on very early (BC) armies — Roman, Greek, Etruscan, and what little we know about how the Norse / Vikings fought. I also made a lot up 🙂

My base military unit is a pair of warriors: a shieldbearer (front line) and a spear-wielder (second line). Two pairs of these warriors are the next biggest “formation.” There are 10 pairs of warriors in a shieldwall (if they’re making a square). The length of the line varies by terrain/tactics as does its depth. Every warrior also carries hand-to-hand weapons: mostly axes and long knives (seaxes), but there a few swords here and there (mostly used by Jarls).

Pure archers are a part of each Aesir (and Jotunn) warband, but about half of my “spears” are proficient enough with bows that they can switch if necessary. Each warband also has at least one healer who has been trained at Baldr’s academy (my invention).

The Aesir also have baresarkers (berserkers) but they are very few in number — these are elite, magically empowered warriors who report directly to the Alfather or Almother. Several baresarkers figure prominently in my first book.

I’ve organized my armies into warbands. Currently, each one is ~105 people strong. It is led by a Hersir and there is a short chain of command down to the warrior who’s in charge of each wall. I’ve tried to account for all the other duties that must exist — signals/comms, cooks, guards, latrine, smiths, etc. There are no independent/pure archer or cavalry warbands (among the Aesir and Jotunn).

To make things easier (for me and my readers), I’ve assumed that the basic military structure is the same for Jotunn and Aesir — despite a few key differences. The Vanir and Alvar fight differently, though, as do the Svartalvar.

The Aesir have three basic military groups:

  • Garrisons: Comprised of older men and women along with those young boys & girls who are learning about military life before they are compulsorily enrolled in the army. In my fictional culture, everybody learns how to fight. Most don’t end up doing that professionally, though.
  • Army: The largest fighting body of Aesir, led by Tyr and Ullr. It is comprised of multiple warbands. Their main job is border protection and internal security along the roads. These warbands are on their way to becoming more specialized (e.g.,. cavalry only, archers only, etc.).
  • Einherjar “Those who fight alone”: This is my elite fighting force — and are an important part of the story. To become Einherjar a warrior has to distinguish him/herself on the battlefield. Over time, and particularly since Odin went wandering in my book’s backstory, the Einherjar have grown large and begun to sprawl. (My Einherjar are not (yet) those you know from myth.)

All three of the above groups use horses (everyone knows how to ride) to get from one place to another, but they typically dismount to fight. They will also use ships to get from place to place, when possible.

Jotunn warbands are called “vegr.” That’s the Old Norse word for “road” or “way.” When speaking of death, the Old Norse would often say “he/she is on the road to Hel.” That phrase translates to Helvegr — which I thought  would be a cool name for a military group. So, all the Jotunn warbands are called XYZ-vegr. Helvegr is the best of them all and it is led by Beli.

The vegr are roughly the same size as Aesir warbands (about 105 warriors), with a few important differences. Namely:

  • The Jotunn use shaman who double as healers. The Aesir don’t have the same level of access to magic as the Jotunn do. For reasons.
  • Jotunn shaman also picked up a couple tricks from the Alvar and Svartalvar and the magic they use which allows the Jotunn to control wildlife.
  • And since the Jotunn don’t have access to horses, their shaman have figured out another way to move about Utgard’s vast desolation.

The people in my books refer to magic as “seidr.” In actuality, seidr is a sub-type of magic, but it’s the most common type. Seidr is what Odin learned from Freyja. But, Odin knows other types of magic: galdr, necromancy, runes & shapeshifting to name a few.

Each type of magic allows the practitioner to do certain things, assuming they have a power source. I show that power source being used in multiple different ways and I show the POV running out of that power source. Acquiring more is an involved process that I show Odin engaged in about mid-way through the book.

Note: Odin and others, including the Jotunn, use one type of power source, but Freyja (and the Svartalvar) have figured out other ways to power their magic. This becomes a thing in future books.

Certain practitioners only use certain types of magic — e.g., Freyja only uses seidr — but Odin uses them all (he is the Father of Enchanters, after all). Some don’t have any magic at all, like Frigg, but she uses items created from seidr. Thor is a hybrid (over which I’ll pull mystery’s shroud), but the visible source of his power are three Svartalvar-crafted implements: hammer, gloves and belt.

Overall, my magic system has rules and my characters use magic to do things important to the plot. In my initial books, the characters all take magic for granted so I don’t spend much narrative time explaining it — just enough to make sure the reader knows what’s happening and what the rules are.

There’s a lot more I could write about the magic system & how I developed it, but I think I’ll wait on that until I get some commentary back from beta readers of the line-edited book. Gamers are really good at figuring out what works and what’s broken.

The Magic of Limitations

Limitations are more important than Powers, Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic.

Say one thing for Brandon Sanderson, say he’s unparalleled in creating hard magic systems. (Some of you may have caught what I did there*; 50 DKP Minus if you didn’t.)

One of the key Aesir is Heimdall who “requires less sleep than a bird, can see 100 leagues, and can hear grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep.” In the myths, Heimdall guards the Bilrost (Snorri calls it the Bifrost) and watches for Asgard’s enemies. In my books, he’s not quite that Aesir. Not yet.

These are the limits I put on Heimdall’s powers of sight and hearing:

  • He can’t see through solid objects, clouds, fog, etc.
  • Just like we have to focus to hear in a loud pub, so too does Heimdall have to focus to hear certain things. I also thought of his hearing as a keyword search. Listening to everything all the time might drive a man mad.
  • And, what might someone do to cripple Heimdall’s capabilities? Someone who maybe has a vicious streak and a deep hatred of the Aesir. 😉

Consider, too, that the Jotunn know that Heimdall has these abilities. So, in my world they developed a sign language to keep their secrets. And, they moved underground not only to escape Utgard’s unforgiving climate, but also to shelter what words they did speak. Maybe that’s not particularly inventive, but these actions do seem like logical responses to an enemy’s advantage.

Not only do the Jotunn have to deal with Heimdall’s prying eyes and ears, but Odin sends his ravens (Huginn and Muninn) out in the morning to fly around the whole world. When they return, they whisper all the news they saw and heard into his ear. Odin also has two wolves, Freki and Geri. I have them act in a similar capacity to the ravens — except they mostly travel at night. And, Odin’s Hlidskjalf…his High Seat…lets him see out over all the worlds.

Sucks to be a Jotunn, eh? But wait, there’s more!

In the Hovamol, stanzas 147-165, Odin lists all the “songs he [knows] | that king’s wives know not, nor men that are sons of men.” Beyond those songs Odin knows many other types of magic. He learned one type from Freyja and other magics from his time upon the tree.

In all, I found six sufficiently different types of magic in Norse myth: gandr, galdr, necromancy, rune magic, shapeshifting and what I loosely call “proto-familiar spirit” magic (disir/fylgja).

That’s a huge amount of different magic to deal with in a series let alone a single book. In his third law, Sanderson suggests that writers expand what they already have before adding something new. Given my goal (faithfully retelling Norse myth) I couldn’t cut magic types — they’re all used at different points.

Instead, I tied them all back to a single power source which practitioners would have to harvest, refine and then use.

At various points in the narrative, then, practitioners use up all the magic they have. That’s all they get until they put some work into getting more. I have an entire scene dedicated to Odin harvesting and refining “magic.” Beyond that, once the magic is consumed, there are consequences. Vidar experiences that firsthand.

Additionally, I further limited the magic by sticking to what the sources said that magic could do (with some conservative, logical, interpretative leeway :)). As an example, I have two different ways for the characters to shapeshift — greater and lesser. The lesser is really freakin’ creepy & is based entirely on an account in an Icelandic saga.

That said, those who know multiple types of magic can do the most things. Odin knows all types of magic; Freyja knows almost as many as Odin. Vafthrudnir knows almost as many as Freyja. Loki only knows one type. Vidar knows one, is learning a second and will, eventually, learn more.

What I ended up with were enormously powerful characters. Since I didn’t want them a-whompin’ and a whoopin’ every living thing to within an inch of its life, I pitted my Aesir against opponents who were equally powerful. And then I showed the strongest Aesir (Odin) getting the crap kicked out of him — while also showing normal folk getting their asses kicked by the beasties that Odin, Vidar, etc., can easily dispatch.

So, long post, right? And I haven’t even hinted at how magic is used by the Alvar, Svartalvar and Jotunn. Maybe in the future. Oh yeah, that reminds me, prophecy is a huge part of Norse myth. I guess I didn’t discuss that, either.

 

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*This is what I did there. 🙂