Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Little Karin

Here comes a short post about a ballad that was recently relatively widely known in Sweden (as Liten Karin) as it was printed in many school songbooks and other songbooks. It is a bit of a grisly one, and has not been widely recorded by modern artists, though there are some recordings.


The story goes something like this: Little Karin is serving at the young king's court. The  king notices her, and asks her to be his. Quite a few verses of the ballad are spent with the king offering Karin various fancy gifts: a grey horse with a gold saddle, a gold crown, half of his kingdom, and so on. Each time, Karin refuses, saying that the king should give those things to the queen instead, and leave her (Karin) alone, with her honour intact.

The king then tells Karin that he will lock her in the tower. She replies that God will know whether or not she deserves that.

Next, the king tells her that he will put her in a nail-barrel. The nail-barrel (spiketunnan) we may understand is a torture device consisting of a barrel pierced by nails that may be rolled around with someone inside (apparently not widely attested outside of folklore). The king puts Karin in the nail-barrel and rolls it around ... you may understand she did not survive this. At the end of the ballad, two white doves come down from heaven and take Karin away, and then two black crows arrive from hell to take away the king.

This ballad is one of those that is classified as a legend ballad, as it tells a version of a legend of one of the saints. In this case, it is St Catherine. St Catherine is famous for her martyrdom involving a wheel (after she had upset a certain emperor). The Catherine wheel fireworks and the wheel emblem used as a symbol of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges that are named after her are a couple of examples of where how this wheel may be seen and remembered. The unusual nail-barrel rolling torture device that the king uses in the ballad to kill Karin is also a manifestation of this Catherine wheel ....

St Catherine (Gualenghi-d'Este Hours)

Geijer and Afzelius wrote that the Little Karin ballad was sung almost everywhere in Sweden, and that it was rare to hear the same version in more than one place. They printed two versions of the ballad in their collection (full text here). According to S-B Jansson, one of these was reprinted many times after that as a broadside, so that version of the ballad came to dominate. This ballad is also known in Denmark (as Liden Karen) and Norway.


There is one Swedish melody for Liten Karin in Berggreen (No. 15) and Ahlström (No. 49). It is quite unusual in that it does not have chorus (omkväde) lines, but every line in the ballad is sung twice.


Rosenbergs Sjua is a band started by the Swedish folk musician Susanne Rosenberg. Their take on Liten Karin was included on their only album release: R7 (1999).

Øyonn Groven Myhren is a Norwegian folk singer. Here his her version of Liten Karin from the album Gullveven (2008)

Finally I will post a couple of live recordings: here Jan Hammarlund plays his one man and a guitar version of Liten Karin live at the Visklubben in Västervik (2013).

And a bigger band rather drum heavy version of Liten Karin from Slingerbult live in Gävle.


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878, Nr 49, Liten Karin
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, Nr 15, Liten Karin
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 3, Liten Karin

Sven-Bertil Jansson, Liten Karin, Musikverket

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Valraven / Valravnen

Ravens hold a special place in the oldest Scandinavian legends ... raven imagery often features in viking-age artwork, ravens are famous as a battlefield bird associated with death, and ravens named thought and memory are strongly associated with the god Odin. And as we can see here, there are raven stories in more recent Scandinavian folklore as well!

The Danish ballad I am writing about here tells a story of shapeshifting into the form of a raven (and another bird), and what must be done to escape from this curse and regain human form.

The ballad is called Valravnen, or The Valraven. The word valravn seems to come from this ballad, and it is used to mean a raven that is actually a human in raven form. (One of the tales in Winther's Danske Folkeeventyr tells a similar story, and is also called Valravn, but Grundtvig supposes that this tale could be based on the ballad.) The second part of the name, ravn, means raven. This much is clear. The first part, val, is sometimes taken to mean "of the slain", in a similar way to the Old Norse names Valhalla and Valkyrie. But this part of the name is very inconstant across the different versions of the ballad, and it seems to have been misunderstood and distorted. I won't list all of the variations here. Grundtvig speculates about various alternative interpretations of the name to do with shapeshifting, including var-ravn (were-raven, cf varulv, werewolf).

The ballad is pretty gruesome ... but carry on reading, I'm sure it'll all be all right in the end. Remember, in a world where you accept that people are transformed into birds, other far-out magical things are also going to happen.

The Boy and the Raven by John Bauer


The ballad begins with a verse about the raven before the action proper starts: The raven flies in the evening, he may not fly by day, and he will have bad luck if he cannot have good. And this thought of the sinister raven is remembered throughout the ballad as the repeated chorus (omkväde) line is just the same as the first line: But the raven flies in the evening.

The action starts with a maiden, Ermeline, standing in the high loft, looking out wide across the land, and seeing the valraven flying. She calls the valraven to her, promising to tell him her secret sorrows. She then explains what has happened (you will understand that the valraven was surely aware of at least some of this already!).

She tells of how her father remarried. Unfortunately the stepmother turned out to be an evil troll who turned Ermeline's brother into the valraven, and how he must remain unhappily in that shape until Ermeline has a daughter and until the girl can talk. Not only this, the stepmother also turned Ermeline's lover into another bird, silver and golden, and he must remain in that shape until he has drunk Ermeline's heart-blood. Not only that, but the stepmother also sent Ermeline away to an island to marry the stepmother's sister's son ... not a very attractive prospect.

The valraven then tells Ermeline that if she gives him the first child that she has, then he will take her to the land where her lover is. She agrees. So Ermeline gets onto the valraven's back, and they fly far away until they reach the land where her lover is flying in the sky like a bird.

As soon as the lover (a bird, remember) sees Ermeline, he strikes her with both his legs, and tears her into two pieces. He then drinks her heart-blood, and is at once transformed into a big strong knight.

Well ... the valraven puts the girl onto his back, and flies to a certain spring. He dips her into the water there, and Ermeline stands up, all healthy once again. So again she gets onto the valraven's back, and again he flies off across the wild sea. And he lands on a mountain top where Ermeline's lover is waiting. Ermeline and the knight apparently get on well, despite what has just happened. She thanks the valraven, and tells him to fly away, and that she will keep her promise.

Not long after that, Ermeline has a baby girl, and she gives it to the valraven. The valraven wishes that the baby girl could talk, and she does speak ... and at that, the valraven is at once transformed into a good strong knight.

So things finish off well for Ermeline in the end: she gets her brother, her child, and her lover.

Other versions of this ballad have some significant variations of the plot: typically, it is only the brother who is transformed into the valraven – the lover remains in human form and is merely sent away by the stepmother to a faraway land. (So the episode in which Ermeline is killed is absent.) The valraven again demands the firstborn child as payment for carrying the maiden to her lover. But now rather than waiting for the child to talk, the valraven must drink the baby's heart-blood to be transformed back into a man. The valraven does this (after pecking out the baby's eye!), and is duly transformed, and the baby is brought back to life again, so things all turn out all right again ...

Full texts for two versions of the ballad from old Danish manuscripts are given here and here.

A very famous illustration by Arthur Rackham of another ballad. The Two Corbies.
Veering off topic somewhat, but that ballad was actually translated into Danish by Grundtvig (as Ravnene)


A Danish melody for the ballad is given: Valravnen, Berggreen (Danish), No. 24.


These four renditions all use basically the same melody (very close to the one given above), but showcase rather diverse musical styles. As is typical, the ballad texts are all rather abbreviated from the versions found in the early manuscripts, but where it is possible to discern, they seem to be based on versions of the story with only one bird transformation ...

Gny - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish medieval music group Gny

Sorten Muld - Ravnen. Sorten Muld have a rather original approach to traditional ballads (the name of the band means black soil, and is one of those phrases that shows up often in ballads ... for example as a suitable place for burying dead bodies). The style is called folktronica. Ravnen was something of a hit for this band, and versions appeared on both of their first two albums. If this traditional dance tune deserves a modern dance rendition then it has found it here!

Krauka - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish viking folk music group Krauka

Dronningens Livstykke – Valravnen: from Dronningens Livstykke's album Katten i Sækken.


S. Grundtvig, Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser, vol. 2, Copenhagen, 1856, No. 60.
A. P. Berggreen, Danske Folke-sange og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, No. 24.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Sir Olof and the Elves II

Following on from the first post on this ballad blog, about Sir Olof and the Elves (Herr Olof och Älvorna), I have posted a recording on YouTube of me singing a version of this ballad in translation. It's just 20 verses, so there are bits missing, but hopefully you can follow what's going on. Hope you like it ...

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Agneta and the Merman

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman tells one version of what can happen if you fall in love with a supernatural sea creature.

An unusual feature of this ballad is that it was (indirectly) illustrated by the Swedish artist John Bauer. Bauer's illustrations were actualy produced to accompany a fairytale based on the ballad story written by Helena Nyblom for Bland Tomtar och Troll.

The ballad is known in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Typically, it is called Agneta och Havsmannen (or Agnete og Havmanden, etc). But sometimes the merman is called the sea-king (Havskonungen or Sjökonungen).

Agneta meeting the Sea King, by John Bauer


Agneta was out walking by the seashore, when a merman appeared from the depths. This merman was quite good-looking, we may understand. He asked Agneta to go with him to the bottom of the sea, and she replied that she would be very happy to do that if he would take her there. So the merman blocked up her ears and mouth, and took her down to the bottom of the sea.

After some time, about 8 years, Agneta heard the church bells ringing, and she asked the merman whether she might go to church. The merman replied that yes she could go, but that she must come back to her children afterwards. Also, he told her that she must not let her hair down, she must not speak to her mother, and she must not kneel in church. The merman then blocked her ears and mouth, and took her out of the sea.

Well, when Agneta came to the church, you may know that she did let her hair down, she spoke to her mother, and she knelt down. When her mother asked her where she had been, Agneta told her that she had been with the merman, and that she had had 7 (or so) children with him. She also told her mother that the merman had given her a gold ring (and sometimes some other gifts).

At that, the merman appeared in the church, and all the pictures of the saints turned around. The merman was very upset. He told Agneta that the children were crying for her, and he urged her to come back to them.

But the ballad ends with Agneta telling the merman that she doesn't care that they are crying. She doesn't think about them at all, even the little one in the cradle. In some versions of the ballad, she says that she has already forgotten all about the children.

Agneta and the Sea King, by John Bauer

Although this ballad was known in Sweden (more than 50 variants are given in the Sveriges Medeltida Ballader list), it was not included in either Geijer & Afzelius's or Arwidsson's collections. No tunes for the ballad are included in Swedish songbooks.

The three Swedish texts that I have seen, one from Wikström's Folkdiktning (Asmundtorp, Skåne; full text here), and two from the Södermanland collection, are all very similar. They are also all very similar to Danish versions of the ballad, albeit slightly abbreviated.

In Denmark, the ballad was certainly popular. It also inspired a number of literary retellings, including those by Baggesen, Oehlenschläger, and H.C. Andersen, which spread the story more widely. As recently as 1992, a bronze sculpture (partly underwater) by Suste Bonnen celebrating this story was installed at the Slotsholms Canal in Copenhagen.

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman is reminiscent of the ballad of Little Kerstin and the Mountain King (Den Bergtagna / Liti Kjersti / Marit Hjukse). In both ballads, a girl runs away with a supernatural creature, lives with him for many years, has several children, and then returns to see her mother. But the differences lie not only in the fact that in one ballad the girl runs away with a mountain spirit, and in the other a sea creature. The endings of the two ballads can be quite different. In the Swedish and Danish versions of the ballad I have seen, Agneta refuses to return to her children at the bottom of the sea. In one Danish version, the ballad ends with her standing on the shore, laughing at the merman: the omkväde line hå hå hå perhaps comes from this final verse! In contrast, Little Kerstin is forced to return to the mountain, and only lives happily ever after after she has drunk a forgetfullness drink to forget her former life. Quite different. I will write about this Little Kerstin ballad soon ... I know, though, that there are Norwegian versions of the Agneta ballad where she too is forced to return and to drink.

The idea that church bells may be rung to disrupt the activities of trolls and other supernatural creatures, and to summon back those who have been abducted by them, can also be seen in Norwegian folk tales. Church bells tend not to appear in versions of the Little Kerstin ballad that I am familiar with.

Agnete og Havmanden by Vilhelm Kyhn


I am not aware of any modern recordings of Swedish versions of the ballad, but it has been recently recorded in Danish and Norwegian.

Virelai are a group from Denmark. They play medieval music and Danish folk music. They have recorded many Scandinavian ballads, and are definitely worth checking out! Here they are playing Agnete og Havmanden live:

And a studio version from their album Fra Bølger og Bjerge (2011):

Mynsterland are also a Danish group, a young big-band folk group. Their recording of Agnete og Havmanden is on their eponymous EP (2017). The melody is the same as the one used by Virelai, but the song is rather longer.

A Norwegian version of Agneta og Havmannen by Lajla Renate Buer Storli and Kim André Rysstad with harp accompaniment from Lajla Storli's album Møya som Drøymde (2013).

An unaccompanied song in Norwegian by Halvor Håkanes from Eg Heiter Halvor (1999). Quite a short version (Agneta og Havmannen).

Another unaccompanied version in Norwegian by Agnes Buen Garnås, Halvor Håkanes, and Eli Storbekken (Agneta og Havmannen) ...


E. Wigström, Folkdiktning, Copenhagen, 1880, No. 1.

Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol III, 1882, No. 25, p 43 and p 46.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Staffansvisan / Staffan Stalledräng

Staffansvisan (Staffan's song), also known as Staffan Stalledräng (Staffan the Stable boy) is a likely candidate for being the best known in Sweden of all the Swedish ballads. It is still sung every year, usually as part of the Lucia celebrations on 13th December. So most people in Sweden will probably know some verses and at least one melody.

In Sweden, Lucia is a mid-December holiday with traditions of singing (luciasångar), eating buns (lussebullar), drinking (e.g., glögg), lighting candles (ljus; even more than usual), and not doing any work. The Lucia celebration seems to be a festival of light, celebrated on the date that was the actual Winter solstice, the shortest day, according to the old Julian calendar. The name Lucia comes from an Italian saint (whose name means light). But the old folkloric name for this shortest day (or longest night), Lussinatt (Lussi night), is obviously similar to the name Lucia. Lussinatt is named for Lussi, a certain evil supernatural being who would fly with her accomplices through the night, and who seems to have little in common with St Lucia apart from a similar sounding name.

Christmas and Lucia fall very close to one another, both traditionally involve a lot of singing, and there is typically a lot of overlap in songs: Songs that are specifically about either Lucia or Christmas could easily be sung on either occasion. The Staffansvisan (Staffan's song) was once more associated with St Stephen's day (boxing day), but nowadays it is usually sung on Lucia.

The Staffansvisan is sometimes associated with a Swedish St Staffan (or Stenfinn), who was a Christian missionary in 11th century Sweden (and Hälsingland in particular). But the stories of stables, horses, and hunting seen in the ballad don't seem to fit with this historical figure.

Some versions of the Staffansvisan are to do with the birth of Jesus, with King Herod, and with St Stephen as one of his stable boys. The legend of St Stephen and Herod seems to be based on a version of the story of Herod and the wise men, with the martyr Stephen added in place of the wise men. The biblical St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death after the death of Jesus, and doesn't belong at Herod's court at all.

The legend of St Staffan, the stable boy, illustrated by a 13th century ceiling painting at Dädesjö church in Småland, Sweden. Note the drinking horse and the star ... (Photo: Tor Svensson)


The versions of the ballad that are most commonly sung do not have a lot of action. Basically, it is told that Staffan is a stable boy, and that he gives water to his five horses. We hear brief descriptions of each of the horses. The fifth horse, a dapple-grey, is the one that Staffan rides himself. Usually at this point, the action stops, and there are one or two verses celebrating Christmas traditions to finish off the ballad. For example: Now there is fire in every hearth, with Christmas porridge and Christmas ham.

Traditionally, this song was used to beg for food and/or drink, and additional verses could be added to encourage donations! Geijer and Afzelius explain that in the huge number of recorded variations of this song, the differences usually come in these last verses. These verses could significantly extend the ballad as well: in Svenska Folkvisor från Forntiden a 30-verse version of the ballad is given. It can also be traditional for the singers to add comic verses at the end of the song proper.

This encouragement can take different forms: we're standing here freezing; coffee is good; we came here for your daughter; we're going to smash your windows ... these are just a few examples.

But there is more ballad action, even if these verses are more rarely sung nowadays: in an extended form, the ballad tells of what happens after Staffan has watered his horses. He goes out hunting, and kills various creatures: a wolf, fox, hare, and so on. And then he returns home again.

In other versions of the Swedish ballad, the song tells the legend of Stephen and Herod. Such versions of the ballad are often also called Staffansvisan, or sometimes Staffan och Herodes (Staffan and Herod). It may be that this form of the ballad was more similar to how the ballad first looked, but beyond the opening lines (also here Staffan is a stable boy, leading his horses to water), this form of the ballad and the form discussed above have evolved into two rather different songs.

When Staffan goes out to give water to his horses, he sees a star in the east. He tells Herod the meaning: that a king has been born. Herod says that he will only believe it if the newly cooked chicken on his table flaps its wings. It happens.

The English-language Child ballad St Stephen and Herod (Child 22) tells the same story as the Swedish Staffan och Herodes ballad, with the rooster coming back to life to crow Christus Natus Est (Christ is born).

In the Staffan and Herod versions of the ballad, the star of Bethlehem obviously plays a very significant part in the plot. But even in the versions of the ballad discussed first, where Herod and the birth of Jesus are not mentioned in the song proper, stars twinkling in the sky often appear somewhere in the omkväde (chorus) lines.

Staffan Stalledräng by Märta Måås-Fjetterström (1909)

Melodies and Performances

There are various melodies for this ballad in common use in Sweden. Rather than typing out scores from the many variations, I have just linked performances of probably the top two or three melodies, plus some other notable performances.

First, the version of Staffansvisan that seems to be the one (melody and omkväde) that most people in Sweden are most familiar with. This is not actually the version I learned when I was first in Sweden, in Lund.

[omkvädeVi tackom nu så gärna // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. Ingen dagar synes än, stjärnorna på himmelen, de blänkar. (We thank you very much // Before the bright star. Day cannot be seen yet, the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Here is a performance of this version of Staffansvisan at a Jul i Folkton concert, live at Cassels in Grängesberg: Ale Möller (vocals, mandola, pipe), Lena Willemark (vocals, violin), Sofia Karlsson (vocals, flute), Lisa Rydberg (vocals, violin), Esbjörn Hazelius (vocals, cittern), Roger Tallroth (vocals, guitar), and Olle Linder (vocals, percussion).

Fans of obscure musical instruments should note that Ale Möller is one of the inventors of the Swedish / Nordic mandola (låtmandola --- meaning tune mandola). It's a five-course mandola. But what makes it special is that the strings can be individually capoed by screwing small single-string screw-like capos into holes in the neck. As a result it is easy to get into open tunings that allow drone strings and so on. Ale Möller is playing his låtmandola in this video.

You may see that she tells the audience what omkväde means (it's the refräng) just as I feel I have to every time I write it for you ...

I first came across Staffansvisan when I was living in Skåne, in Sweden's deep south. Now I don't see a huge number of recordings on YouTube of this version of the song that I know best. But this simple demo shows you the melody.
[omkväde: repeats // stjärnorna de tindrar så klara, gossar låt oss lustiga vara, en gång blott om året så, en fröjdefull jul vi får. (the stars are sparkling so clearly, boys let us be merry, just once a year, we get a happy christmas.)]

This is the Lund nations choirs' version of Staffansvisan. The nations at the two old Swedish universities of Lund and Uppsala are modelled on the nations at the old University of Paris. From the time the universities were founded, these nations were societies formed by  students who had travelled to study from different parts of the country. So the nations are named after different regions of Sweden, but nowadays there tends to be no geographical membership requirement. The nations mainly organise social activities, like singing and so on.

The melody and omkväde pattern are obviously somehow related to the version above. This melody is sometimes called the ira ira melody, after some lines in the omkväde. If I am not wrong, this one is originally from Norrland.
[omkväde: repeats // I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hejsan, låt oss lustiga vara. En gång jul om året bara, sjung, falle dudeliga dulan lej. (I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hey,  let us be merry, just christmas once a year, sing falle dudeliga dulan ley.)].

and live (worse sound, better picture):

a performance with only four voices:

Here is the Skåne choir singing live with Christer Lundh at Brekillegård. Some Skåne sounds for you ...
[omkväde: I ra i ra i kjom faralala, gossar låtom oss lustiga vara, en gång om året julen bara, hej sjung hopp falle julen nu. (I ra, i ra, i kjom faralala, boys, let us be merry, just christmas once a year, hey sing hopp falla julen nu -- or christmas now)].

But how about the great Folk och Rackare, regular performers of the traditional ballads? Well, their album Stjärnhästen (1981, meaning star horse) has several different versions of Staffansvisan. Here is one.
[omkväde: Håll dig väl fålen min // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. (Be good, my horse // all before the bright star.); occasional extra omkväde: Ingen dagen synes än, men stjärnorna de blinkar i himmelen. (Day cannot yet be seen, but the stars are twinkling in the sky.)]

Here is another version from Folk och Rackare's Stjärnhästen. It is called För Redeliga Män (for honest men), and perhaps the link to Staffansvisan is not obvious at first: of course there is no mention of Herod, but neither is there even any mention of Staffan or his horses! In fact the whole song is a series of verses of the type traditionally sung at the end of Staffansvisan where the singers are demanding food, drink, etc. The title of the song comes from one of the omkväde lines. The twinkling stars in the sky are recognisable from the omkväde though. I think this one may be from Orust (an island in Bohuslän).
[omkväde: För redeliga män // Det är ingen dager än. Ingen dagen synes än, ingen måne lyser än, för stjärnorna på himmelen de blänker. (For honest men // It is not yet day. Day cannot yet be seen, the moon is not yet shining, but the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Scandinavian medieval ballads are often covered by more metal-oriented bands. Here is such a take on Staffansvisan. This is Utmarken.

Finally, here is a version of the Staffan and Herod ballad.
[omkväde: Vaka med oss julenatt // Vaka med oss för oss alla. (Hold watch with us on Christmas night // hold watch with us for us all.)]


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 99, Sankt Staffans Visa
Sven-Bertil Jansson, Staffansvisan, Musikverket

Monday, 25 September 2017

Deor and The Saga of Didrik of Bern

I will venture outside the usual area of this blog today to write a little bit about the Old English poem Deor, and how it relates to the Saga of Didrik of Bern.

Maybe you are familiar with this poem. A reading of the poem in Old English is here; readings of a couple of the many different translations are here and here. The narrator is a singer by the name of Deor. The poem briefly mentions a series of stories. Each of these stories concerns a person or people who find themselves in a bad situation. And at the end of each of these, the poet includes a repeated refrain line:

That passed, this also may (or perhaps more like: it passed for that, it also may for this).

Finally, he talks about himself: I once had a good job with a great boss ... then they decided to give my job to someone else. Things are not so great now. But that passed, and this also may ...

So it seems that the poem is optimistic ... these bad things will not last forever. Just as things improved for each of the people mentioned in the poem, the singer hopes that things will also improve for him, and indeed things may get better for those in his audience who find themselves in a bad place.

Anglo Saxon picture of a singer songwriter (Vespasian Psalter)

The audience for this poem would presumably have been familiar with each of the stories mentioned by the poet. If they were not familiar with them, then the poem would lose a lot of its effect. Nowadays of course, these old stories are less well known.

But if we look at the people and stories that are so briefly mentioned in Deor's poem, we may find that most of them seem to relate to episodes from the Saga of Didrik of Bern.

Welund: This is Weland the smith, who had his sinews cut by King Nidung (Nithad) to keep him prisoner. There is no doubt that in the story told in the Didrik Saga that Weland was very badly done by. But things did get better for Weland after that.

Beadohilde: King Nidung's daughter is not named in the Saga of Didrik, but she is called Bodvildr in the version of the story told in the Poetic Edda, and there should be no doubt that this refers to her. In the story told in the saga, her brothers were killed, and she was pregnant, and all of it done by Weland the smith. But I think things did get better for her after that.

Theodric: It is possible that this Theodric is Didrik himself, and we may speculate that the thirty years refers to the time he was away in exile. In the story told in the saga, things did get better for Didrik after that.

Eormanric's people: The cruel king Eormanric could well be the same as the Saga's Ermentrik, who killed a good number of his own kinsmen. And in the saga, things did get better for Ermentrik's people after his demise.

I skipped over Geat and Maedhilde (or Maed Hilde): These two lovers do not have as obvious a connection to the Saga of Didrik.

But as this is a ballad blog really, I must surely mention the fact that it has been suggested before (K. Malone, and discussed by F. Norman) that these two are remembered as Gauti and Magnhild in the Norwegian version of the ballad Harpans Kraft / The Power of the Harp. There is not a lot to back this idea up beyond the names, and the names of these characters are not always the same: for example in the equivalent Swedish ballad they are more commonly Peter and Kerstin. Having said that, these two do get into a pretty dark place (she drowns), and then things do get better for them (he is able to bring her back by playing the harp). Of course if this theory were true, then it must be stressed that it would not be the ballad itself that influenced Deor --- even the most optimistic dates for the old age of ballads in general, let alone this one, do not place them close to the age of this poem --- rather, there would be some old story, known in England and Scandinavia at the relevant times, that influenced both. It is not impossible, but it does seem quite unlikely.

But if the girl's name is not Maedhilde at all, but Hilde (as it is written in the manuscript), we may speculate that this could possibly refer to one of the pairs of lovers with similar names who are found in the Didrik Saga: Samson and Hillesvid, Walter and Hillegunna, or Herbert and Hilda. Again, there is not a great deal to back this up however.

At any rate, the stories that were taken to Scandinavia, probably from Germany, when the Saga of Didrik of Bern was written down seem also to have been familiar in Anglo Saxon era England.

Even beyond Deor, The Saga of Didrik of Bern tells stories about characters who are mentioned briefly in other surviving Old English works. For example, Egil the archer appears, named in runes (Ægili), on the Franks casket. He appears in the saga as Weland's brother, and much is made of his archery skills. Also, Hama and Wudga are named together in Widsith, and Hama is also mentioned in Beowulf. They appear in the saga as Heym and Wideke, and, together with Hillebrand, they are Didrik's main men throughout the saga.

Link to The Saga of Didrik of Bern, translation.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Lindworm

A lindworm (lindorm in Swedish) is a legendary monster in northern European folklore. It is a kind of dragon or giant snake, sometimes appearing with a long mane. The lindworms of Swedish folklore may have either good or bad intentions, and a bad lindworm is not good to meet. One unusual way that some lindworms were said to move about was to bite their own tail to form a circle, and then roll forward like a wheel. Such a lindworm was called a hjulorm or wheel serpent.

A boy attacking a giant serpent ... painting by John Bauer for Harald Östensen's story. Not what happens in this ballad!

But often, lindworms were thought of as benevolent creatures, and to meet one was thought of as rare and lucky. Geijer and Afzelius tell the story of how a boy in Sweden caught hold of a lindworm one time, but the lindworm shed its skin and escaped, leaving the old skin in the boy's hand. When the boy went home, he put the skin in his stew and ate it. After that he became very wise, and was able to use minerals, plants, and animals as medicines.

There are also romantic stories told of princes who have been bewitched and transformed into terrifying lindworms, and who are freed from the spell by the love and fearlessness of a maiden. The ballad I am writing about today tells one such story.


The girl in this story is called little Signe, and she was serving at the king's court. One day, when Signe was walking out in the woods, she met a huge lindworm. The lindworm asked Signe whether she would come away with him. And Signe said that she would, provided the lindworm would not betray her while she was asleep. With that, they went off: the girl rode on horseback while the lindworm ran alongside.

Before long, they came to a town, and there they met Signe's father. Her father asked her what she was doing with that lindworm. Signe replied that he should let her have her way, as this had been foretold when she was a child. A little later, in a grove, they met Signe's brothers, who again asked her what she was doing with that lindworm. They got the same answer.

So Signe rode, and the lindworm ran alongside, and before long they came to a green flowery meadow with a bed in it. The lindworm suggested that they stop for a rest, and Signe agreed. The maiden sat on the bed and was upset, but at last she lay down, and the lindworm lay close beside her.

When Signe woke up and looked around, she saw that the lindworm had been transformed into a king's son. So everything was changed, and everything was good, and they got their own castle after that.

by HJ Ford

A full text of the ballad (from Arwidsson) is linked here.

Of course as with all ballads there is some variation between different versions. It is quite common that the maiden needs a little more convincing before she initially agrees to go off with the lindworm.

The Scandinavian fairy tale King Lindworm tells a story that is related to this ballad. The English ballads Kemp Owen and the Laidly Worm also have a similar theme, but in these it is a princess who has been hexed into the form of a serpent, and a knight who rescues her.

by HJ Ford


Here are three Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Lindormen (Arwidsson No. 139 / Ahlström No. 292 / Berggreen No. 13b).

(2) Lindormen (Arwidsson No. 139 variant).

(3) Lindormen (Ahlström No. 164 / Berggreen No. 13a), from Småland and Östergötland.

All three of these melodies use basically the same omkväde (chorus) lines: och de lekte / och de lekte både nätter och i alla sina dagar: And they played / And they played both at night and for all their days. And you may see the first two melodies are pretty similar to one another.


Trio Fri are Ida Hellsten, Jonas Jansson, and Lisa Hellsten from Östergötland. Here they are playing a must-listen interpretation of Lindormen, which is the opening track on the Källan i Slaka record from the Slaka ballad forum.

There are also a number of live performances of this ballad on Youtube.

Fridens Liljor are Kristin Borgehed och Rasmus Krohn. Here is a live performance of Lindormen from the Backafestivalen in 2013. The melody is the same as the one above.

Here is a live performance (in Helsinki) by Marianne Maans and Maija Karhinen-Ilo of a Finland-Swedish version of the ballad.

And here you can watch a version of the Lindormen ballad with ballad dance in Sweden.

And here is a Danish take on the ballad, from Fairy Masque.


A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887, Nr 139, Lindormen
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 88, Lindormen
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878, Nr 164 and 292, Lindormen
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, Nr 13, Lindormen