Helgi: The Nameless Hero in Norse Mythology


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

Norse myths abound in stories that have Valkyries, the demigoddesses, as main characters. Among the stories of human heroes who encounter the Valkyries, some of the earliest concern a hero named Helgi. His story exists in three variants, all in the Poetic Edda.

A 3D rendition of a group of Norse Warriors
The Poetic Edda has stories of countless heroes, out of which one is without a name. (Image: Drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

The Unnamed Hero

In what is probably the earliest version of his tale, he is a young man, son of a great king. The young son has never been successfully named, we are told—no name will stick to him.

He is also said to be nearly silent. One day, this silent young man is sitting on the burial mound of his ancestors where the most beautiful of the Valkyries addresses the young boy and calls him Helgi.

She instructs him to find a particular small river island, where she says 46 swords lie hidden. She tells him to find the sword decked in gold and with a snake on the blade, a sword that she says carries courage for its wielder and fear for his opponent.

Helgi’s Search for a Sword

Helgi embarks on a journey to find the sword. He finds himself at anchor in a strange harbor when the ships of his army are frozen in place by the magic of an anti-goddess named Hrimgerth.

Atli, Helgi’s first mate on his ship, gets into a strange insult exchange with her. But, finally, Hrimgerth turns her attention to Helgi, and says she’ll let his ships go if he’ll sleep with her one night.

Helgi refuses, and Hrimgerth complains that it’s because he wants the most beautiful of twenty-seven Valkyries—who she says are watching over him, and are the only thing that’s prevented her from sinking all their ships.

Helgi does not deny it, but his sidekick Atli interjects to announce that the sun is rising and that the anti-goddess Hrimgerth will now turn to stone.

Victory and Wedding

But, having defeated both the anti-goddess Hrimgerth and her father with the Valkyrie Svava’s help, Helgi returns home to be crowned king after his own father’s death.

Now, when the time comes for him to go courting a wife, he chooses to ask the Valkyrie Svava’s father for her hand. The two are happily engaged, and in the lead-up to the wedding, Helgi goes home.

Hethin’s Fateful Oath

Helgi’s half-brother, Hethin, happens to be riding on the evening before Yule when he encounters yet another supernatural female being. She is riding a wolf and using snakes for reins—a motif with evil supernatural women.

This strange woman asks Hethin to accompany her for a while, and he refuses. She says then that he will pay for this when men swear their customary oaths during the Yule feasting.

During the feasting, a drunk Hethin foolishly swears that he will take the Valkyrie Svava, the promised bride of his half-brother Helgi. But now regretting his oath, and yet unable in this culture simply to break it or else forget about it, he chooses to exile himself into the wilderness.

However, Helgi tracks him down and Hethin informs him of the oath to take his brother’s lover for his own.

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Helgi’s Guardian Spirit

In the plot-convenience playhouse that these fundamental fantasy stories can be, Helgi says that this is nothing to worry about and even pretty good news. Helgi says that in three nights, he will be meeting another man for a duel. If he dies in that duel, he’ll be happier to know that his brother took his bride than that any other man did.

Valkyrie wih a dog
The vague woman is later identified as the guardian spirit of Helgi. (Image: Viola Polikarpova/Shutterstock)

A note added by the scribe explains that Helgi thought the woman riding the wolf was his own guardian spirit, which often appears in the form of a supernatural woman when one is about to die.

Sure enough, Helgi sustains a mortal wound in his duel three nights later, and is assured by this that the wolf-riding woman was the spirit who foresaw it.

Helgi sends a messenger to Svava, and when she comes to her dying lover’s side, he asks her to love and marry his brother after he dies. She tells him that she promised to love no man but Helgi, but Helgi has died by the time she says it. Hethin asks only that she kiss him before he departs to avenge his brother.

Second Version Helgi’s Story

In another version of his story, we get a glimpse of Helgi’s fate even before he is a day old, when the Norns (the goddess-like beings who determine fate) arrive at his birth. They wind his fate while they spin threads of gold, and while mountains shatter in the distance.

They spin these golden threads down under these mountains, and under mountains farther off, assuring Helgi’s rule of these vast lands when he grows to adulthood.

In this same version, the Valkyrie, who there is named Sigrun rather than Svava, shows interest in Helgi immediately and directly encourages him to fight the man that her father has promised her.

Third Version of Helgi’s Story

In the third version of the Helgi story, Helgi not only encounters and falls in love with a Valkyrie who later becomes his bride but early in his tale, he must also disguise himself in a serving woman’s clothes to evade pursuing enemies.

While he is thus disguised, one of his pursuers does see him and wonders why this servant has eyes that seem noble and fierce. And he remarks that the serving woman’s arms seem remarkably strong.

But a friend who is helping Helgi hide in this disguise explains that the serving woman is, in fact, a kidnapped and enslaved Valkyrie, thus explaining her strength and her ferocious eyes.

Implications of the Third Version

This suggests that, in the fantasy world of these heroic stories, social class is a more limiting and unbreakable bond on a person’s roles than sex. Such classist assumptions are everywhere in the sagas, be it supernatural stories or realistic.

In this version, Helgi returns after his death to visit his wife as a kind of zombie in his grave. But he must return to Valhalla the next morning—and his wife, the former Valkyrie, must remain behind.

Common Questions about Helgi, the Nameless Hero in Norse Mythology

Q: Who was the nameless hero in Norse mythology?

The nameless hero in Norse myths is a young man, son of a great king.

Q: How many versions of Helgi’s stories are prevalent?

Helgi‘s story exists in three variants, all in the Poetic Edda.

Q: Who gives the nameless hero a name?

A Valkyrie addresses the young boy and calls him Helgi.

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