Today is Old Yule Eve, and I have quite the story to share with you all tonight! A wanderer by the name of paganoldsoul requested that I tell stories about Odin and Yule, and so I have found one worthy of a retelling. While it may not be exactly what they had in mind, it is quite close to the mark! It comes from a saga written in the late fourteenth century in Iceland called The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm. This saga takes place in Iceland and abroad between the years 940 and 980 and follows an Icelandic outlaw by the name of Hord Grimkelsson. Tonight, however, I only wish to share a part of his story. But even this small portion contains magic, mysterious wanderers, and foes from beyond the grave! So, gather around the hearth, my good friends! Let us all enjoy a brief tale with food, drink, and good company as we prepare for the Yule festivities that await us!
One spring, Hord and his foster-brother Geir travelled east to Gotland to see Jarl Harald at the advice of a man named Thorbjorn. He gave them tokens to show the jarl so that he would welcome them into his company. When they arrived, they were received well once they showed the jarl their tokens from Thorbjorn. Jarl Harald had a son named Hroar and a daughter named Helga. Hroar was out raiding that summer, and Helga was a very beautiful woman. Jarl Harald had Hord seated next to him in his son Hroar’s place, which was a tremendous honor. They remained there throughout the summer.
When autumn came, Hroar returned from raiding and was welcomed joyously by all. Hord moved from his place at the table, and a strong friendship quickly grew between them. Time now passed until Yule.
On the first evening of Yule, people gathered together around the table. During their festivities, Hroar stood up and spoke: “I step here onto the bench and make this solemn vow, that I will have broken into the burial mound of Soti the Viking before another Yule comes.”
The jarl looked at his son and spoke with a serious tone, “That is a big vow to make, and you will need help if you wish to see it fulfilled. Soti was a great troll in his life, and I am sure that this is more true now that he has passed.”
Without hesitation, Hord stood up at once and declared, “Then I make this vow, that I shall go with you to Soti’s mound and not leave before you do.”
Geir stood as well and vowed to follow Hord whether he went there or somewhere else, and that he would not dare to part from him unless Hord wished for it. A man named Helgi was there as well, and he vowed that he would follow Hord and Geir wherever they went, and that no one would be considered their superior while they both lived. He too was from Iceland and travelled with Hord and Geir, but he was not liked by Hord. He had caused them great trouble in Iceland prior to their journey abroad.
Hord looked towards Helgi grudgingly and responded, “It is not certain that there will be a long time between our deaths. But try to not be the cause of our’s, nor the deaths of others besides us.”
“I will occupy myself with that,” replied Helgi, keeping his attitude positive.
The jarl thought very highly of Hord for his actions that Yule evening. He even said that he thought better of Hroar’s prospects while Hord was involved. His expectations were high that evening.
When spring came, Hroar prepared to go to Soti’s mound with a party of twelve men. They rode through a dense forest, and while traveling, Hord saw a little path that lay hidden from their sight. Moving away from the forest road, Hord split off from the company to explore this path, riding along it until he came to a clearing in the woods. In this clearing was a building, large and ornamented. As the light shone upon its roof, it glittered like gold. Hord paused there for a moment in awe, but soon something else caught his eye. Outside of this building stood a man wearing a black striped hooded tunic. He greeted Hord by name.
Puzzled by the man’s knowledge of his name, Hord quickly recovered and offered a friendly greeting in return. But Hord swiftly followed up by asking what this man’s name was, since he did not know him, despite this man knowing who he was.
“My named is Bjorn,” replied the man, “and I recognized you as soon as I saw you, although I have never seen you before. I was a friend of your kinsmen and you shall benefit from that. I know that you intend to break open the mound of Soti the Viking, but that will not work unless you manage to do it on your own. And if things go as I expect them to, that you do not succeed in breaking into this mound, come visit me.”
At this they parted, and Hord rode to meet with Hroar. They arrived at the mound early in the day and did not hesitate to begin their efforts to break into it. By that evening, they had reached wood — a good sign! But when the next day came, the mound was as it was before; their progress was lost! They gave it another try despite this, but their work was unravelled yet again the next day. At this, Hord knew that he had to visit Bjorn once more, and so he rode to meet with him.
Seeing Hord approaching, Bjorn spoke with a long exhale, “So it happened just as I thought it would, but I was not ignorant of what a monstrous troll Soti was.” Bjorn paused for a moment and grabbed a sword that he had set aside in anticipation. “This sword,” he began, “is my gift to you, Hord. Drive it into the hole of the mound and then see whether it closes up again or not.”
Hord rode back to the mound.
Hroar, exhausted and frustrated, said that he wanted to leave and have no more to do with this fiend named Soti. Others urged this too.
But Hord answered with a confident voice, “It is no good to leave our vows unfulfilled. I may have our solution, so let’s keep trying!”
It was their third day trying to break into the mound now. Again they reached the wood as they had before, but this time Hord drove the sword that Bjorn had given him into the opening. They went to sleep that night and, when morning came, nothing had changed. Their efforts had remained intact! On this fourth day, they quickly returned to work and broke through all of the long timbers that remained. And on the fifth day they opened the door. But when they opened it, a gust of foul wind blew out from the mound. Hord advised the men to stand behind the door as the foul energy escaped, but two men, captured by their curiosity, did not heed Hord’s words. They were killed instantly.
Hord looked to Hroar and spoke to the company, “Now, who wants to go into the mound? It seems to me that he who swore the vow to take on Soti should enter the mound.”
Silence was all that followed. Hroar, knowing well that Hord’ words were meant for him, did not dare to speak now. He was unsettled by the mound and its foul stench, as was everyone else.
Hord, taking note of this, drove two rope pegs into the mound and continued to speak, “Seeing that everyone in our company is so eager to greet Soti, I will go into the mound, but only if I can have three objects from there of my choosing.”
Everyone agreed that this would be fair.
Hord prepared himself and looked to Geir and said, “I want you to hold the rope, Geir, because I have the most faith in you.”
After that, Hord went into the mound while Geir held onto the rope for him. Hord could not find any treasure, and so he asked Geir to get bring him fire and wax, for they each have great powers. Geir did this while Hroar and Helgi held the rope. He went down into the mound too bring these things to Hord, and soon after Hord found another door, breaking it down. But as soon as he had done this, a great earthquake rushed through the mound and their light was taken from them. A terrible stench quickly filled the air then, but Hord could see a faint glimmering in the side of the mound. It was a ship filled with great treasure! But a figure sat on the prow that was horrible to look at. They knew at once that it was Soti the Viking. Geir stood in the doorway as Hord approached the ship.
As Hord moved, Soti whispered this verse:
“Why so eager, Hord,
to break into the
though Hroar asked it?
I have never done you,
in my life.”
Hord confidently spoke a verse in return:
“To find the denizen I did it,
and from the ghost
to snatch old riches.
that there is probably not,
in the whole world,
a worse man
who wields a weapon.”
At this, Soti sprang up and ran at Hord. There was a fierce fight between then, from which Hord was seriously weakened. Such was Soti’s power that when he grabbed Hord’s flesh, it burned together in knots. Hord, fighting of the pains of these burns, shouted to Geir to light the wax candle that he had brought. Geir lit the candle and its light filled the room. When its light touched Soti, a great pain surged through him until he grew weak and fell down. Hord then pulled a gold ring from Soti’s arm, which people said was of such value that never had a gold ring its equal come to Iceland before.
When Soti realized that his ring was lost, he looked up to Hord and struggled to speak this verse:
“Hord robbed me
of the good ring.
Half as willingly
would I lose it
as all the gold
borne by Grani.
It shall become your killer
and all of theirs
who own it.”
As this curse left his throat, Hord responded with a verse of his own:
“Even if I knew
that all the words
of this villain
would come true,
still he should,
the ancient coward,
no longer enjoy
the golden sea-fire.”
Soti, still clinging to what little power remained within him, spoke his final warning to Hord: “You shall certainly learn that this ring shall be the death of you and all who open it, except for a woman.”
Hord, ignoring this message once more, replied by asking Geir to shine light on him again, which would reveal just how friendly he was. As soon as the Hord spoke this, Soti plunged down into the depths of the earth, unwilling to wait for the light. Hord and Geir then helped themselves to all the chests and valuables they could find. Hord took a sword and helmet that Soti had owned, which were the greatest of treasures. They pulled on the rope and realized that the men had left the mound, and so Hord hauled himself up instead. Geir then tied the treasure to the rope and Hord pulled it out.
It seemed that, when the earthquake hit, everyone became frantic except for Hroar and Helgi, who had to restrain the others and calm them all down again. And so, when Hroar and Helgi were reunited with Hord and Geir, they were rejoiced. They both agreed that it seemed as though Hord and Geir had just returned from Hel.
Hroar asked Hord what had happened, and he spoke this verse in reply:
“I opposed not a man who
was easy or cowardly.
It was hard to put down
this heathen monster.
I know when the light shone
Soti’s face turned ugly,
the cruel magician wanted
to dive into the earth.”
After this, they prepared to set off for home with their newly aqueired treasures. As they left, Hord went to look for Bjorn, but he was nowhere to be found; they all agreed that he had probably been Odin. Nevertheless, all the men agreed that Hord achieved a great accomplishment by going into the mound.
Hord looked to Hroar as they rode back through the woods, and with a grin and a nudge he said to him, “I think I’ve earned those three objects of my choice, don’t you?”
Hroar said that this was true and that he was certainly the most deserving of them.
Hord replied, “Then I shall choose the sword, the arm ring, and the helmet.”
The rest of the treasure was divided later on, and everyone was satisfied with their rewards. The jarl, however, would not accept the treasure they offered him, saying that Hord was the most deserving to have it. Hord and Geir remained there in great honor for a year, their Yuletide vows having been fulfilled.
So ends my telling of Hord and the mound of Soti the Viking. It seemed to me a suitable tale to tell this Old Yule Eve, for it recounts the adventure of a great hero who sought to uphold his Yuletide vows. He even had help from Odin himself! But let’s not dwell! I shall leave the rewards of this tale to your own discussions and contemplations later on. For now, let us return once more to merriment and festivity, for the winter solstice approaches us! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that our days will once again grow long.
- This passage was retold from Robert Kellogg’s trans., The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. II, edited by Viðar Hreinsson, 193-236 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 207-11 (chapters 13-15).