08 February 2014

The Original Biathlete

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
It may have escaped your notice that Ragnarok will apparently take place on the 22nd of February 2014, if so, consider yourself warned! The Jorvik Viking Festival will be recreating this event, and their description cleverly plays on the ambiguity in the Old Norse sources as to whether this cataclysm is in the future, and therefore to be feared and anticipated, or has already happened in the past, so that we are now living in the brave new world that arose out of the ashes of the old one. This is all a fascinating topic to which I may return in another context.

In the meantime, I am a bit gutted that Jorvik's page on the Norse gods misses out Ullr, the god of skiing and hunting. As the Winter Olympics start, it seems appropriate to give a mention to this earliest paragon of what the Guardian today described as 'One of the more bewildering of the many perplexing disciplines to be contested in Sochi', the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting. The case of Ullr, however, shows that this combination of skills is essential in the north. Snorri says of Ullr that hann er bogmaðr svá góðr ok skíðfœrr svá at engi má við hann keppast 'he is such a good archer and so good on skis that no one can compete with him'. Obviously a gold medal prospect then! His spiritual descendant is Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney, also a whizz at both skiing and shooting.

Although Ullr is not so often mentioned in the mythological texts of medieval Iceland, there is plenty of evidence that he was widely venerated in the Viking Age, particularly in Norway, where place-names like Ullern and Ullevål, both in Oslo, and Ullensvang, in Hardanger, perpetuate his name. The Norwegians have won more medals at the Winter Olympics than any other nation, so may the spirit of Ullr live on in their efforts in Sochi!

But it has to be admitted that the Swedes are also pretty good at winter sports, they are 7th in the Guardian's all-time medals table. And to prove this, I offer an image above of the Böksta rune-stone (U 855) from Uppland in Sweden, which shows Ullr himself, bottom left, with both his bow and his skis.

1 comment:

  1. For the promised comments on Ragnarok, check out http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/wordsforwords/2014/02/19/the-meaning-of-ragnarok/