To Curse A King, 874 A.D. (Chiltern Open Air Museum, May 2014)

At which the Vikings used the magic of the Kingslayer to erect a potent nithing-pole inside Burhred’s favourite hunting ground, giving him another blow to his morale and unleashing powerful spirits against him.

The Nithing Pole

The start of the war season, 874. It had been a decade since the death of Ragnar Loðbrók led to his sons assembling the Great Heathen Army and attacking Britain; three years since Guthrum joined them, leading the Great Summer Host. They had won battles in every kingdom of the Englisc, and Northumbria and East Anglia had fallen, but Mercia and Wessex still remained independent. Tensions were stirring among the Vikings – some had come to these lands expecting a rapid victory and then a chance to settle in new lands, and wanted to end the fighting; others were blood-crazed and wanted to continue raiding. Even those who wanted to settle were divided, with the followers of Halfdan Ragnarsson feeling that the followers of Guthrum had not done enough to earn themselves land yet, and many arguments about who would get which land.

But Ivar ‘the Boneless’, eldest son of the slain Ragnar and the only man who could unite all the Vikings, understood that as long as any Englisc nation remained unconquered, the land would not be subdued and it was pointless to discuss dividing it and settling. And so he spoke, and the Great Heathen Army descended upon Mercia.

Ivar planned to replace the Mercian king, Burhred, with a thegn called Ceolwulf, who promised that if he were king he would make peace with the Vikings, and pay them annually without them even having to fight. To do this, King Burhred had to fall.

And so Ivar sent a group ahead of the main host, deep into the heart of Mercia, to the favoured hunting ground of King Burhred. The group included warriors from many ships (the Westmen, Holmbyggjar, and Oestvikingae), a huscarl of Halfdan called Herjólf, and also two powerful vǫlvas, Guðrún and Wulfhild, wielders of dark and powerful magics. On a dark and stormy night outside Burhred’s hunting lodge they erected a níðstang, a nithing pole, carved with runes, topped with a stag’s skull, anointed with blood poured from the Chalice of King Edwin of Northumbria, and cut with the Kingslayer. And the vǫlvas recited powerful spells and curses around it, and circled it three times, walking backwards with their heads between their legs, cackling evilly.

When Burhred next visited the woods he would find the pole, and read the runic curse:

With this Níðing Pole I Curse King Burhred, and Turn the Spirits of the Land on King Burhred
With the Skull of the King of the Forest I Curse King Burhred
With Blood from the Chalice of King Edwin I Curse King Burhred
With a Cut from the Kingslayer that Killed King Bagsecg I Curse King Burhred

His doom was coming, as the Vikings were moving on Mercia.

Herjolf Asgrimsson’s view
I am Herjolf Asgrimsson, from Ormsness in Skane before I was outlawed and came west-over-sea and joined the huskarlar of Hafdan Ragnarsson.
Halfdan bade me join a strange raid by Hauk of the Oestvikingae- not to seize silver, but to plant a curse. Halfdan wanted one of his own to see what happened.
We were a small band- a few warriors and two spaewives. We rode deep into Mercia. There, we found the hunting lodge of Burhred, king of Mercia.
It was a wild and stormy night- I could well believe that those from the other worlds were close- trolls and jotuns and svartalfar. There the volvas set up the curse-pole and worked their spells around it, and Hauk called down a curse upon Burhred. I shivered. Perhaps it was the cold wind. Perhaps.
I am glad that I am not Burhred of Mercia.

An excerpt from Hauk Ragnarsson’s Saga
Hauk took to Kingslayer to the vǫlva Guðrún, and she thought of a plan to harness its magics to make King Burhred flee Mercia, so that Ceolwulf might take his place and rule Mercia as a puppet of the Vikings. Guðrún presented her plan to Ivar Ragnarsson, and he was pleased. And so when the Great Army attacked Mercia, Guðrún went ahead of them, to the heart of that land, and she took with her Hauk and his cousin Wulfhild, who was learning the arts of seiðr from Guðrún, and other warriors. In a terrible storm Hauk erected a powerful níðstang, topped with a stag’s head, bathed in blood from the Chalice of King Edwin of Northumbria, and sliced with the Kinglayer. And the vǫlvas carved it with dark runes, and recited spells, and walked backwards around it three times with their heads between their legs, and called down the gaze of Odin on King Burhred.

The Nithing Pole

Historical Note – Níðstang & Vǫlvas
There is no evidence of nithing poles being used in England, sadly. They are used various times in the sagas though, most famously in Egil’s Saga, Ch. 60:

And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’ This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.

This really rang a bell with the way that Burhred was driven out of Mercia, so we couldn’t resist including one in our story! All of the Viking age poles that we know of used horse’s heads, but there is contemporary survival/revival of the practice in Iceland which other animals (like cows) have been used – see http://grapevine.is/news/2011/10/12/medieval-magic-employed-in-neighbour-dispute/ for examples. So we felt that the stag wasn’t entirely unbelievable.

Vǫlvas walking backwards with their heads between their legs is also attested several times in the sagas. For example here’s Vatnsdoela saga, Ch. 26:

‘What fiend is this coming towards us?” cried Högni. ‘ I can’t make it out!’ ‘It’s old Ljót on her way,’ Þórsteinn answered, ‘and what a tangle she’s in!’ She had cast her clothes up over her head and was walking backwards, and had thrust her head back between her legs; the look in her eyes was ugly as hell as she darted troll-like glances at them.

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