They called them Aliorumnas: the Hell Runners.
And they were all, as far as I can ascertain, women.
Old women, dressed in white.
They went by other names: the most common of which was the Völva. They were the Viking sorceresses, shamans of the Norse world. Each carried a staff made of iron; and some of those staffs still exist to this very day.
Though the wands are behind glass these days. Things to gawp at. But knowing what these staffs may have achieved in the dark ages as Rome dissipated: perhaps they are safest there.
Who knows what might happen if you let the staffs out to enchant another day.
The women were given the title of Hell Runners – Halju-runnos- by the Goths, that race that finally got the better of the Romans, and other folks besides. When the Goths had settled in what is now the Ukraine, they sent the Aliorumnas away. But when you scorn them, you take a gamble. It is said the exiled Hell Runners begat the Huns.
A sixth century Roman writer relates how Völvas were literally called: “runners to the realm of the dead.” And they took no prisoners. Not even their own: remember the account of the Viking ship burial, when an old woman stabs the young woman chosen to burn with the dead nobleman? A Völva. Who sacrificed prisoners of war and used their blood to prophesy the future? A Völva.
And then there’s the staff which found its way to the British Museum. They found it more than a century ago in 1894 in Romsdal, Norway: a 90cm iron rod with a knobble at one end, a deadly point at the other.
For years archaeologists thought it was something used to skewer fish or roast meat; but why was its sharpest end bent round in a u-shape?
And then they realised: it wasn’t a roasting implement. It was a wand. A rather terrible, enchanted wand; and one interpretation is that those who put it owner in the ground bent the wand round, to prevent it ever again casting a spell with its owner dead and buried beside it.
Enchantments can be powerful strong.
There are two of these things at the British Museum, in a new exhibition about the Vikings.
When you pass them: my advice?
Look straight ahead. And walk away.
Vikings: Life and Legend runs at the British Museum until 22nd June 2014. To find out more look here.