Ullr and Skadi: on skis and skates

Skiing and skating were two early solutions to the problem of getting around in winter. The Norse deities Skadi and Ullr were famed for their skiing, and Ullr may have been an early snowboarder.

The Prose Edda tells us that Ullr was “such a skier that none can contend with him”, and that Öndurás was a kenning for Ullr. As for Skadi, she “is called ski-god or ski-goddess,” heitir öndurgoð eða öndurdís. After she left Njord, she “went up on a mountain and lived in Thrymheim, and she often goes on skis with a bow and shoots deer.”

History of Skiing

The use of skis among the Scandinavians goes back a long ways. It is not clear who first used skis, but there are two competing theories:

The first, accepted most generally by ski historians today, maintains that it emerged in northern Scandinavia. Two ski-like sledge runners have been found near Heinola, Finland ,that date from the eighth millennium B.C.10 This proves only that the concept of movement over snow by artificial meansis indeed very ancient. The ski itself, however, has now been dated definitely from the Paleolithic Age in northern Europe, as we shall see. The second theory, now seemingly discredited,asserts that the ski is north Asiatic in origin. Lack of evidence has hindered any definitive conclusion… (Dresbeck: 467)

Still, the first evidence that we have is in the form of petroglyphs from Scandinavia and Russia, although there is controversy over how exactly the carvings should be interpreted. (Dresbeck: 470)

Helleristning fra Rødøy. FOTO JAN GREVE; SCANPIX
The Rødøy Skiier. Photo by JAN GREVE; SCANPIX

The oldest is the Rodoy petroglyph from Norway, although its strange appearance has led some to doubt that it even shows a ski. At first glance it seems to show a man clutching a stick shaped like a capital L, who is standing on what look like two very long snakes or Nessie-type monsters. He has what look like rabbit ears growing out of his head. The fact that the front of the skis look like snake-heads has led to some controversy over what exactly they are.

Among other things, the two skis would seem to negate the fact that the figure is in profile. (Of course, you could also argue that the artist wanted to emphasize the two skis, which is why they’re so large.) Other petroglyphs found at Vyg and Lake Onega in Russia, clearly showed skis, and that seemed to resolve the matter. The second one one shows men on skis being pulled by reindeer with others following them freely. (Dresbeck: 470)

Skating and the Finns

There is no literary evidence, however, until the sixth century CE, when both Jordanes and Procopius mention a Scandinavian people assumed to be the Finns: Jordanes calls them Screrefennae, and Procopius the Scrithiphini (Skrithfinoi), or the skating/gliding Finns. Similarly, Pope Gregory IV mentioned the Scrideuinem in a bull c. 832. (Dresbeck: 471)

This is probably related to the Scandinvian verb “skriða (to slide) which can refer to a number of activities involving a smooth gliding motion” (Thurber: 198.) Skriða is a generic verb, meaning “to glide, to creep, to stride”, and in modern Swedish skrida means ‘slide, glide […] proceed’, while in Norwegian skri means ‘1. slide, slip. 2. glide, run (on skates or skis).’ (Thurber: 206-7.)

Just sliding across the ice on shoes, an activity that can be seen at any NHL game where the coach has to go on the ice, is also described as skriða. It is mentioned in Njal’s saga, among others. Thurber notes that the expression ‘birds of a feather flock togther” is translated saman niđingar skriða (lit. ‘shameful men glide together’). (Thurber: 208)

The same verb also could refer to a ship sailing, probably a reference to their smooth gliding. In Grettis saga Hafr bans a truce-breaker from all places where “a ship slides… a Finn slides”, among others.1 Kennings in skaldic poems also make the comparison between ships and skiers.

Ullr as Skier and Skater

When we come to Ullr, there is the quote from Saxo about how Ollerus (as he calls him), that he could cross water on a bone engraved with charms, instead of a ship. It is generally thought that Saxo was giving a confused account of the bone skates that were used in those days. (It has been suggested that he was using a very early form of the snowboard.)

Olaus Magnusson's illustration of Holler on his magic bone.
Olaus Magnus’ illustration of Holler on his magic bone.

An illustrated version of Saxo from 1555 has a woodcut image of Holler on his magic bone, which looks like a cross between a ski and the runner on a sled. It seems fitting that Ullr would be good at both, since both would give a serious advantage to a winter traveller.

In fact, early skating would have looked quite different from the way we do it now. Often skaters used a pole to push themselves along, as pictured in the same edition of Saxo, which suggests that the artist, Olaus Magnus, was more familiar with these activities than Saxo was.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken. Bok 4 - Kapitel 17 - Om barnadop bland skogsbygdens folk. - Utgivningsår 1555.
Two Lapps skiing to a christening. Olaus Magnus.

Skating would seem to have resembled a strange combination of skiing and punting, but apparently it works, and the pole is useful for turning and stopping. (The skaters are wearing what look like mini-skis, by the way, which they seem to have shoved their feet into like very skinny, pointy clogs.)

The skiier can use a single pole, and carries his burden over the other shoulder, and there are descriptions in the sagas (e.g. Olafs saga helga ch. 141) of the same technique:

After that Þórir gave skis to each of the two of them. Arnljótr joined them on their journey. He put on skis. They were both broad and long. And when Arnljótr pushed with his ski poles, then he was far, far ahead of them. So he waited for them and said they would get nowhere like that, telling them to step onto his skis with him. They did so. Þóroddr went close to him and held under Arnljótr’s belt, while Þóroddr’s companion held onto him. Arnljótr then slid along as fast as if he were travelling unencumbered. (Faulkes/Finlay: 174-5)

The uni-pole method was not unusual for skiiers in medieval and early modern times. and Norwegians used a single pole up into modern times. (Thurber: 203) The similarity perceived between skiing and skating extended to the techniques used in each case. (The two-pole method dates from 1741, according to Wikipedia, and allowed its users to push themselves through the snow more easily, with better balance.)

Both Gylfaginning and Skaldskarpamal mention that Ullr was good on skis as well as bone skates, so we have a picture of an all-round winter deity, especially when we add in the kenning “Ullr’s ship” for a shield, which suggests snowboarding or a toboggan.

Kennings for Ullr call him the gods of skis, bows, hunting and shields, which ties up with Skadi, the ski-dis. No doubt both of them were remembered both in the use of the bow, which extended the ability of humans to hunt, and in skis and skates, which extended their range and made hunting in winter much less laborious.

ullr with bow and skis
Ullr with bow and skis.

The ski gave people in the mountain areas the ability to cross deep snow, which otherwise would have cut them off completely, gave them a better chance against avalanches, and made them less suceptible to cold and fatigue. Add to that the ability to chase animals into deep snow, where they would flounder and tire, while the bow allowed you to kill them from a distance.

No wonder that these early technologies had not one, but two deities of their own.

1. The full text can be found in chap. 73, but as the saga itself warns, “a wordy man was Hafr”.


References:

Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson, ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay, Viking Society Publications, 2014. (pdf of Olafs saga helga)
Dresbeck, LeRoy J. 1967: ” The Ski: Its History and Historiography
”, Technology and Culture, 8: 4 (Oct., 1967): 467-479.
Thurber, B.A. 2013: “The Similarity of Bone Skates and Skis,” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 9: 197-214.

If you like the image at the top, click here.

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4 thoughts on “Ullr and Skadi: on skis and skates

    • That wasn’t supposed to be published until Wednesday, but I hit publish instead of save. It’ll be reader-ready then. Thanks for letting me know.

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