The Hell Runners

Image from Wikipedia: Information |Description=finds from the grave of a pagan priestess on Öland.  Credit: Berig

Image from Wikipedia: Information |Description=finds from the grave of a pagan priestess on Öland. Credit: Berig

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.




20 thoughts on “The Hell Runners

  1. Not your charming knitting-circle-type old ladies, by all accounts. One should, indeed, steer clear of implements used for a spell in striking or spiking by a Viking.

    1. 😀 They were important, wise and by all accounts deadly, Col. Anyone who has read the account of the Viking burial will know the lengths they went to as part of their occupation.

  2. What a great story! These old women were scary fierce! How I would love to touch one of the wands – just one little finger tip…

  3. So envious of you getting to the Viking exhibition— when I do get there eventually I’ll look out for these wands. Not something you’d pick up in Diagon Alley, clearly…

    1. You’re going to love it, Chris. Beside so many exhibits are snatches from the old tales and sagas, putting each artefact in context. And the magic with which they have been put together. It is enchanting.

  4. Rover says – use the “these are not the droids you are looking for” incantation – works every time 🙂
    The viking exhibition is on the list – but I think it’s just moved up a bit

  5. love all this viking stuff – ever since Michael had to do his viking assignment this term (I’ve learned a lot – I was definitely deficit in the old viking knowledge department) – great post Kate 😀

    1. Judith, my friend and I wondered the vey same thing as we stood in front of the wands at the museum. I’m not sure….it would make sense though, wouldn’t it?

  6. About your bold-face comment: ” remember the account of the Viking ship burial, when an old woman stabs the young woman chosen to burn with the dead nobleman.” Wouldn’t this be considered a mercy killing? The young woman would have died a horrible death by fire. Intriguing story, Kate.

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