This post is basically a slightly revised version of a post I wrote on tumblr but I want it here and to have reviewed it for my own purposes.
And first the reminder that when discussing elk in Norse mythology, we aren’t discussing the animal Cervus canadensis
but the animal Alces alces
This is important because of key distinctions in the biology of these two animals. Alces alces is known for its solitary nature, affinity for wetlands, and potential aggression. These traits strongly influenced how the elk was viewed by the Old Norse peoples.
We begin with the rune known as algiz. While there’s a lot of debate surrounding the meaning of this rune’s name, a common interpretation is that it means ‘elk.’ This might be supported by the Anglo-Saxon rune poem for algiz which is as follows:
Eolh-secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð beorna gehwylcne ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ.
The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
Normally, the word “Eohl” (sometimes written “eolhx”) is translated as “elk” taken to be a corruption of the plural “eolces”. Many debate this translation. As Redbond explains there was no concrete evidence that the plant “sedge” was connected at all to elk and the compound “elk-sedge” isn’t even found in Old Norse so it is just a convenient assumption people have made. His conclusion is that instead the word comes from an evolution of the Latin word helix. However, this is an older paper and though I couldn’t find any others on the topic of the meaning of the word “eohl”, there is a verse from the skaldic poem Þórsdrápa where a very similar phrase is used in stanza 4:
Ok, Gangs, vanir gingu
gunn, vargs himintǫrgu
fríðrar unz til fljóða
frumseyrir kom dreyra,
þás bǫlkveitir brjóta
bragðmildr Loka vildi
bræði vændr á brúði
bág sefgrímnis mága.
It is usually translated as so:
And the battle-Vanir walked,
until the prime diminisher
of the wolf-maidens maidens of the enemy
of the peace of the heaven-shield
reached Gangr’s blood,
when the agile, quick-tempered averter
of Loki’s mischief wished to oppose
the bride of the sedge-buck’s kinsmen.
While clearly not exact, sedge-buck and elk-sedge bear a lot of similarity to make one wonder, especially when the kenning “the bride of the sedge-buck’s kinsmen” is referring to giantesses. In fact, sedge-buck might simply be a kenning for elk making this a kenning within a kenning. In addition, the “peace of the heaven-shield” means the sun and these giantesses are wolf-maidens who serve the enemy of the sun, a wolf, be it Skoll or Fenrir himself. Therefore, these giantesses may be in the shape of wolves making this a kenning using elk to evoke wolves. Later on in Þórsdrápa another relevant phrase occurs in stanza 13:
Þars í þróttar hersar
þornrann hugum bornir,
hlymr varð hellis Kumra
hringbalkar, framm gingu;
Lista vas fœrðr í fasta
friðsein vas þar hreina
gnípu hlǫðr á greypan
(grôn) hǫtt risa kvánar.
Which is translated as so:
When the warriors, endowed with minds of valour,
entered the house of Þorn,
there was a great din among the Cymry (Welsh)
of the cave of the circular wall.
The peace-reluctant slayer
of the reindeer-dwellers of the district of the peak
was put in a fix there,
on the dire, grim hat of the giantess.
“Hreina” means “reindeer” which again, is not an elk but is a very similar animal in appearance at least. The kenning “hreina Lista gnípu” is a kenning for jötnar. Lista is a mountainous district in Norway. This kenning means that the reindeer-dwellers of the mountain being referred to are jötnar. We now have two kennings dealing with elk-like creatures dwelling in dangerous locations equaling horrifying and deadly monstrous jötnar. Many translate these specifically as being a double poetic device: sedge-buck and reindeer of the mountains meaning wolf which in turn means jötun. So this leads me to be inclined to agree with the translation of the word eolh meaning “elk” and in turn, the rune poem meaning “elk-sedge” is referring to something relating to the jötnar. Which isn’t surprising if one considers the rune poems for the rune most strongly associated with the jötnar, thurisaz.
Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp;
ðegna gehwylcumanfeng ys yfyl,
ungemetum reþe manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.
which translates to
The thorn is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.
The parallels between the thorn and the ‘elk-sedge’ of causing grievous damage when touched are clear. Therefore, it makes sense that there’d be strong connections between the ‘elk-sedge’ and the jötnar as well.
As I mentioned above, Alces alces is well known for its aggression. It’s also a very formidable creature, capable of growing to stand over six feet tall at the shoulder and weigh over a ton with antlers spreading over five feet from tip to tip. These are enormous creatures and with their aggression, they become deadly. This is illustrated by the elk being used in kennings for jötnar and wolves. While they were a “prey” animal, they were deadly enough to be considered evocative of monsters. Their great strength is also noted in the skaldic poem Lidsmannaflokkr stanza 7:
Knutr decided, and commanded the Danes all to wait – the mighty warrior went bravely into battle – the army fought alongside the moat: lady, where we engaged the enemy forces, with helmets and mailcoats, it was almost as if a man held a maddened elk.
As Poole notes in his analysis of the poem,
“The fierce fighting around the circumvallation (‘diki’) is being compared with the wild tussle between an elk and its captor. Elk-hunting was a time-honoured pursuit in medieval Norway and Swedenand the object was sometimes to capture the animal alive. A related simile occurs in Grettis saga chapter 15, where, after the hero’s fight with Auctunn, the two combatants are forcibly separated: Grettir kvact ekki jDurfa at halda a ser sem olmum hundi: Grettir said that there was no need to hold on to him as though he were a wild dog.”
Dogs are not wolves but many have written upon and speculated that dogs and their bones were used in symbolic place of wolves, so I find this comparison especially noteworthy considering the discussion above about sedge-bucks being used in a kenning for wolfish jötnar. Regardless, this passage is again speaking of the strength and dangerous nature of the elk despite it being a “prey” animal.
Now it’s time to depart from the literary evidence referring to elk and turn towards the archaeological records, specifically rock art. Elk are an incredibly common motif in Scandinavian rock art dating back to 4200 BCE. They show up in hunting scenes as well as apparently magical scenes of transforming from human to animal. For the purpose of this particular post though, I’m focusing on the motif noted by Ylva Sjöstrand of “stable” versus “mobile” elk motifs in Scandinavian rock art. As she explains, elk can be drawn with straight legs to portray a standing animal or with angular legs in an attempt to portray movement. In her study, she notes that one theme they convey is the theme of stability vs chaos. In addition, she believes that they convey thoughts about the concept of civilizations being sedentary vs more mobile. The elk, as an animal used for meat and one known for strength and traveling great distances, was strongly tied to survival. Here, the elk was being used as a symbol to discuss the concepts of what was best for a civilization’s survival.
One place where the elk appeared in conjunction with archaeological material in readings I’ve done in the past was in Hedeager’s discussion of ‘shamanic’ magic. She notes that “bracteates” (medallions) bear iconography that depict mythic scenes:
Special attention has been paid to those bracteates where several of the scenes depicted appear to be an illustration of central myths in Nordic mythology; for example, Balder’s death, or the sacrifice of Tyr, who, in order to save the world, placed his right hand in the mouth of the Fenris wolf. The majority of bracteates (‘C-bracteates’) reflect he who has been interpreted as the ‘king’ of the Asir, Odin, in his most powerful position, that is, as magician and boundary crosser in the guise of a bird ‘riding’ a large animal – a hybrid between a horse and a moose [elk] (it has antlers and a beard, it is a pacesetter as it is always shown in movement). It is not uncommon to see traces of breath coming from its mouth, that is, the animal is animate.
She later muses upon this “hybrid-animal” as being a shamanic vehicle of Odin’s.
Now, one thing I noticed when looking at the rock art in Sjöstrand’s paper was the striking similarities between these elk and the “hybrid creatures” on the bracteates. See for yourself:
Furthermore, considering the elk rock art is much older than the styles used on the bracteates, I’d personally argue that the “angular-legged” elk strongly resembles the “hybrid-creature.” Headeager calls it such because in addition to the beard (dewlap) and antlers it is a “pacesetter shown in movement”. I’d argue that the hybrid-animal is actually just an elk or possibly a reindeer that is running.
To strengthen this connection of the elk acting as a vehicle to the other side, I again return to Sjöstrand’s paper where she notes that footsole markings carved into the rocks occur near elk figures more than half the time. According to her. the commonly accepted interpretation of these marks is tied to initiation rites. However, archaeologist Richard Bradley theorizes that these represent “the soles of the dead’, directing and commemorating the road from the grave to the sea of the dead.” Seidr, the main ‘shamanic’ magic of the Old Norse peoples, is concerned in part with crossing over to the realm of the dead. And as i mentioned above, elk are commonly found in aquatic environments. Though not the sea, the link to water is there. And the connection of wetlands to death is visible in the numerous bog bodies found throughout Northern Europe. The connection to the land of the dead is also emphasized by the link to the jötnar. Furthermore, the “stability” and “chaos” dichotomy also plays into this. It gets even stronger looking at Sjöstrand’s statement that, “Elk figures with angled legs are more distinct from depictions of humans than those animals that have straight legs. On panels in which these elks are numerically dominant human figures are usually excluded. At the same time, elks with straight legs are usually to be found on panels that contain many anthropomorphic figures.”
“Stable” elk are found alongside humans and civilization. “Chaotic” elk are found without many human figures, aka are asocietal or antisocietal, and are related to jotnar and monstrous wolves. The jötnar are strongly associated with forces of chaos and destruction. In addition, elk and jötnar both have a clear link to magic and the liminal realms of death and the wilderness. Elk are incredibly powerful and though frequently hunted, also seen as huge forces to overcome possibly as initiation rites. The slaying of monstrous trolls and jötnar is a common form of initiation rite in Old Norse literature. There are strong parallels between the possible “elk-rune” algiz and the “jötun-rune” thurisaz. Altogether, this makes a compelling argument for the elk being strongly associated with the jötnar.
- Die Thórsdrápa des Eilífr Godrúnarson: Text interpretation by Konstantin Reichardt
- Iron Age Myth and Materiality by Lotte Hedeager
- Notes on the Word “Eolhx” by Wm. J. Redbond
- ‘Should I stay or should I go’: On the Meaning of Variations Among Mobile and Stable Elk Motifs at Nämforsen, Sweden by Ylva Sjöstrand
- Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia by Phillip Pulsiano, Kirsten Wolf
- Karelian Petroglyphs: Problems of Protection and Reasonable Use by Nadezha Lobanova
- Dead Soles by Richard Bradley
- CARVED FOOTPRINTS AND PREHISTORIC BELIEFS: EXAMPLES OF SYMBOL AND MYTH PRACTICE AND IDEOLOGY by Ulf Bertilsson
- ‘Lidsmannaflokkr’: The Campaigns of Knútr and Porkell in England by R.G. POOLE