3. Magical Wolves: Giantesses and Witches

Both giantesses and witches used wolves as their steeds; a sign of their ability to control wild and dangerous forces. The wolf-riding woman could do what others could not.

Hyrrokkin and Thor, by Emil Doepler. Wkimedia.

The most famous wolf-riding giantess is Hyrrokin, who pushes Baldr’s funeral ship out to sea when no one else, even Thor, could:

The Æsir then took the dead body and bore it to the seashore, where stood Baldur’s ship Hringhorn, which passed for the largest in the world. But when they wanted to launch it in order to make Baldur’s funeral pile on it, they were unable to make it stir. In this conjuncture they sent to Jotunheim for a certain giantess named Hyrrokkin, who came mounted on a wolf, having twisted serpents for a bridle. As soon as she alighted, Oðin ordered four Berserkir to hold her steed fast, who were, however, obliged to throw the animal on the ground ere they could effect their purpose.
(Blackwell, Gylf. 59)

The motif of Hyrrokkin and her strange ride also appears in the older poem Húsdrápa, by Úlf Uggason:

The very powerful Hild of the mountains [giantess] caused the sea-Slepnir to trudge forward; but the wielders of the helmet flames [warriors] of Hropt [Oðin] felled her mount.
(Lindow, Húsdrápa 12)

While Hyrrokkin is a well-known example of a giantess on wolfback, Stephanie Straubhaar points out,

In early poetic diction, trollwomen (troll, flagð) seem to have been specifically imaged as grotesque and giantish women riding on the backs of wolves, yielding kennings such as “trollwoman’s-horse” for “wolf.” Confusingly enough, though, trollwomen are seldom, if ever, found on wolfback in the narratives in which they appear.1

This isn’t strictly true, as I hope to show here, but considering how commonly it turns up as a kenning, there are only a few examples in the Eddas and sagas.

Wolf-Riding Giantesses

After Hyrrokkin, the most prominent example is from Hyndluljóð, when Freyja goes to stir up the giantess Hyndla, and tries to convince her to come along on a journey to help Freyja’s protegé, Ottar:

‘Now take one of your wolves out of the stable,
let him race beside my boar!’
(Larrington, Hynd. 5)

Hyndla is an interesting case because she recites Óttar’s genealogy, along with the poem known as the Shorter Völuspá, a title which comes from Snorri, who quotes from it in Gylf. 33.2 This puts her in the same tradition as the seeress who recites for Odin, and who is often assumed to be a giant as well.

As Lindow points out, this puts Freyja in the Odin role, both in the sense of calling for the prophecy to begin with and verbally triumphing over a giant, as in Völuspá itself and Vafþrudnismal.3 It is only at the end of the poem, when Hyndla tries to poison Ottar’s “memory-beer”, that we learn for certain that Hyndla is a giant, when Freyja tells the “giant-bride” that she has neutralized the poison. (Hynd. 45) Hyndla’s name means “Bitch”, and we have to assume that she is a wolf-bitch, given her connection to them.

Another wolf-riding giantess turns up in the Eddic heroic poem Helgakviða Hjorvardssönar, which calls her a fylgja.She appears first to Hedin, on yule-tide eve, riding the usual wolf with snakes for reins. She offers herself for company to Hedin, but he refuses, and she prophecies that he’ll pay for this.

He later vows during the feast that he will have the woman betrothed to his brother, and immediately regrets it. When he encounters Helgi later, Helgi tells him that his fetch, or fylgia, had visited Hedrin, and Helgi suspected he was doomed. Sure enough, Helgi has to fight in a duel, and dies:

‘She rode on a wolf, as it grew dusk,
a woman, who offered him company,
she knew that Sigrlinn’s son [Helgi] would be killed
there at Sigar’s Plains.’
(Helgakviða Hördvardssonar, 35, Orchard)

Kvilhaug thinks that this shape, a wolf-riding giantess, is an omen of death generally – think of Hyrrokkin at Baldr’s funeral. She suggests that Hyrrokkin and Hyndla are associated with Hel.

There are, further, several kennings involving wolf-steeds. The first appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbani: “the troll-wife’s steed [wolf] ate Hugin’s food [carrion]”. (HH 54, Orchard). Another appears in Helgakvida Hundisbana önnur, “The troll-wife’s grey stud-horse often gets corpses…” (HHO 25, Orchard). Also, Hallfređar saga has troll-marr, “troll’s mare”.4 Snorri quotes the poet Einar: “He reddened with gore the chops of the dark-looking steed of Iarsaxa [wolf].” (Skaldskarparmal 60)

Another kenning appears on the Rök runestone, of a Valkyrie riding a wolf-steed:

That we tell the twelfth, where the horse of the Valkyrie [literally “the horse of Gunn”] sees food on the battlefield, where twenty kings are lying’.

Witches on Wolf-Back

Apparently sorceresses (or völvas) rode wolves just as they rode broomsticks or distaffs. This was part of the power of gandr, or chant, and the ride was presumably a shamanistic journey of some kind. McKinnell says that gandr could be translated as ‘wolf’ or ‘magic spirit’.5

In Fóstbrœdra saga ch. 23, Thordis says she has run far and wide on gandr at night, probably meaning ‘spirits in wolf shape’. She is presumably one of the myrkviða (night-riders) and kveldriður (evening-riders). In Hávamál and Hárbardsljóð Odin refers to enchanting and seducing myrkviður.

It is tempting to see Freyja’s ride on Óttar as a similar “riding out”, in which she uses her power of seiðr to compel Hynðla to speak. Óttar may have taken the shape of a boar, but the motif of a ride to the otherworld (on an unlikely steed) remains.

Rune stone from the Hunnestad Monument. Photo by Hedning.

Rune stone from the Hunnestad Monument. Photo by Hedning.

The other entry in the wolf-steed category is a very well-known image from the Hunnestad monument, which includes several rune-stones and image-stones. One of the images is presumed to be the giantess Hyrrokkin, as it shows a woman riding a wolf, with a serpent for a rein. The giantess herself has a snake for a tongue, which ties in with the generally grotesque depictions of troll-wives.6

So what do witches and giantesses have in common, that they would both ride wolves? Both are female forces outside of male control (which explains Oðin’s boasting about seducing or otherwise manipulating them). They control chaotic, wild forces, unlike the more controlled forms of ritual magic or spell-formulas.

The giants were always seen as out-dwellers; the wall around Miðgarðr was intended to keep them out, as well as those around Ásgarðr. Wolves, too, were outsiders, such that a common term for outlaw was warg, wolf. It was perhaps inevitable that these two symbols of outsiderdom should come together.

Taking the Name

Just as with the giants, there were giantesses who took this commonality far enough to have wolf-names. One is Úlfrún, who is one of Heimdall’s nine giant mothers. (Yes, you read that correctly. There is a lot about Heimdall that we would all like to have explained, and how anyone has nine mothers is one of them.) Úlfrún also crops up as a personal name.

Another is Vargeisa, whose name is derived from vargr “wolf” and at eisa, “to rush”, so the “rushing wolf”, evoking Hyrrokkin’s steed.7 She appears in Hjálmthés saga ok Olvis, where she encounters the hero, Hjálmþér:

Astounded, Hjalmper addresses the creature in a fornyrdislag stanza. He makes what presumably is a comical understatement, “Olik pykki mer pu odrum vifum” [You do not seem much like other women to me]. This is a much politer response to the Other than the pugnacious one assumed in the anecdotes above. Transfixed by something not human, he almost exhibits Motzian awe: who might this anomaly be? Her poetic reply can be paraphrased as follows: My name is Vargeisa (Wolf-fire). Listen, Prince’s son, do you want me to live with you? I think you may well have need of all the true friends you can get. This is much less a confrontation of equals, than a fortunate opportunity for the human man.8

He then asks for the sword she is carrying, which is the finest he has ever seen. She tells him that he has to kiss her to get it, and, further, that while he is kissing her she will throw the sword in the air, and he must catch it. This goes off without a hitch, and Vargeisa gives him the sword. Then she tells him to trust his liege man Olvir, and he asks her advice as to which servant he should choose from among his father’s men. She appears to him later in the story, to confirm that he made the right choice in following her advice.

This is a very interesting story, because it combines several different ideas about giantesses in one figure. She is described as a “Finngalkin”, a Finn-creature, which ties in with the idea that the giants and the Finns were overlapping categories.

She begins as a hideous sight, with a horse’s tail, hooves and mane, but after Hjálmþér kisses her she is transformed into a beautiful maiden, which touches on both the duality of giantesses and the story of the transformed hag, which also appears in Ireland as the story of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the only one brave enough to sleep with a hideous woman, who then makes him king.

Davidson thinks that Vargeisa is a Valkyrie-type, since she gives Hjálmþér a sword and advice, like the Valkyrie in Helgakviða Hjorvardssönar.9 (Of course, there are many sagas where giantesses do much the same thing, usually in the context of a sexual relationship.)

Skadi and Wolf-Riding

It’s hard to leave this topic without mentioning the most famous giantess of all, Skaði. We know that Skaði was associated with wolves, because it was their howling that made Þrymheim unbearable for Njörð. In the Saga of Harald Hardrade one of the characters has a dream of a “huge witch-wife upon a wolf” who sings a song about how “Skade’s eagle eyes” see the king’s doom.

So while Skaði may never have ridden a wolf, she is associated with those who do. You could maybe link Skaði’s role in Skírnismál to the advice Vergeisa gives and Hyndla’s less-than-willing assistance to Ottar. Skaði also prophesies when she threatens Loki during their verbal duel in Lokasenna. What the others will not spell out, only Skadi the giantess is bold enough to say.

To bring this around to the theme of my first wolf-post, Skaði and Loki are travelling in opposite directions, and in some ways sum up this wolf dichotomy: Skaði has gone from threatening outsider (wolf and wolf-rider) to being “tamed”, considering herself one of the Æsir, while Loki, who was blood-brother with the chief god, has become the ultimate outsider and enemy, turning on his own.

1. Struabhaar, 2001: 109.
2. Lindow 2001: 195.
3. Lindow 2001: 195.
4. Motz 1984: 183.
5. McKinnell 2005: 151.
6. Price: 2006: 181.
7. Friðriksdóttir 2013: 64.
8. Straubhaar, 2001: 120.
9. Ibid.


The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.

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Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif 2001: “Nasty, Brutish, and Large: Cultural Difference and Otherness in the Figuration of the Trollwomen of the “Fornaldar sögur”, Scandinavian Studies 73, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 105-124. (pdf here)

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4 thoughts on “3. Magical Wolves: Giantesses and Witches

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