By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
We often see bears intimately associated with Norse mythical heroes. One such is the story of a man named Bjorn (which simply means bear). He was the son of a king in a district of Norway, and was cursed to become a bear during the daytime. Bjorn’s lover is Bera (which means she-bear, bear-sow). Out of the three sons they have, one is Bothvar, the little-bear. And here is his story.
There are several warriors strongly associated with bears in the Norse mythical sagas. A prime instance of one of these is the character of the mythical hero, Bothvar. He is the protagonist of a tale included in the The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, a late medieval compilation of old stories.
The saga tells us of Bera, a farmer’s daughter. Her hard triple pregnancy comes to an end when she gives birth to Moose-Frothi, a boy from the navel up, but a moose from the navel down; Thorir Dog-foot, who looks mostly normal, but has a dog’s feet; and, finally, the third of her triplets, Bothvar, the little-bear. Bothvar is the only one who looks like a normal human baby and Bera loves this son the best.
When the three boys grew up, they went their separate ways. One day, traveling east, Bothvar comes to his brother Moose-Frothi’s hideout in the woods. He gets there before his brother is home and sits in the house with a hood drawn over his face.
Moose-Frothi and Bothvar
Moose-Frothi arrives and, true to his unsavory character, is not a willing host. He threatens the strange visitor with his short sword before wrestling him to the ground. When, finally, Bothvar’s hood falls from his face, Moose-Frothi recognizes his brother and invites him to stay the night.
As Moose-Frothi shows Bothvar out of the house the next morning, the moose-man kicks a rock with one of his moose-hooves. He tells Bothvar that he will know how he has died from looking at this hoofprint. If the hoofprint fills with water, Moose-Frothi will know that Bothvar has drowned. If it fills up with mud, Bothvar has perished of sickness. And if it fills up with blood, Bothvar has died from violence.
Moose-Frothi also shoves his brother and tells him he is not strong enough yet. He cuts open one of his moose-legs and tells Bothvar to drink some of his moose-blood. He shoves Bothvar and declares that now he was really strong enough to be threatened by no one.
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Bothvar Travels to Denmark
Next, Bothvar sails south to Denmark. After landing at a harbor, he takes the path to Hrolf Kraki’s capital. Along the way, he stays at a poor farmer’s home for one night. The farmer tells Bothvar about King Hrolf Kraki’s hall. Bothvar confirms that he is headed that way, but the man’s wife weeps whenever they speak of King Hrolf Kraki.
When Bothvar enquires why she was crying, she tells him that their little son, Hott, has been abducted by the king’s men. The men keep him in one corner of their hall and throw bones at him, and she does not even know if the boy is hurt or unhurt or even alive or dead.
The distraught mother asks Bothvar for the small favor of throwing only small bones at their little boy. Bothvar agrees. He reaches the king’s hall in the middle of the next day, when the king’s men are all out on business. In a corner, he sees a pile of bones and a small, dirty, human hand reaching out of it to arrange the bones. He dashes the bones away and pulls the small boy out of the bone-heap.
Bothvar Saves a Little Boy
Bothvar sits down and puts the farmer’s little boy, Hott, on the bench next to him. That evening, as the warriors stream in for their feasting, they begin to throw bones in Hott’s direction in accord with their usual habit. Finally, one throws the whole leg of an ox, but Bothvar catches this in mid-air and flings it back at the man who cast it at them, killing him instantly.
The warriors complained to the king about the murder of one of their own in the hall, but the king concludes that Bothvar killed him for just cause. King Hrolf offers to accept Bothvar into his following in the fallen man’s stead, which Bothvar accepts, on the condition that Hott be taken into the king’s warriors as well. The king, reluctantly, agrees.
The Monster Menace
As Yule arrives, Bothvar notices the warriors becoming less cheerful. When he asks Hott, he tells him, that, every Yule eve their hall is visited by a horrible flying monster that kills cattle and men alike.
Bothvar resolves to do something about this monster menace. Dragging the ever-reluctant Hott behind him, he goes outside that night to confront the creature before it reaches the hall. He stabs it through the heart, making Hott drink some of the dying creature’s blood.
After Hott drinks it, Bothvar wrestles him and comments that he has certainly become strong, and that he does not expect that Hott will fear the warriors of King Hrolf now. Hott reminds him, that, not only will he not fear them, he will also not fear Bothvar either.
Bear Men and Connection with Beowulf
Interestingly, this episode bears a striking resemblance to the most famous scene in the Old English poem Beowulf. In the poem, Beowulf, too, arrives in Denmark from the north—in fact, specifically from the part of Sweden called Geatland in Old English, which is also where Bothvar departs from. In both the tales, a monster menaces the hall of a Danish king.
The two stories surely have a common origin, and their respective heroes share an unusually strong connection to bears. Bothvar is known as “Bothvar Little-bear”, and his father is literally a bear (and he himself turns into a bear later in the same saga). Meanwhile, the Old English name Beowulf is a compound, “bee-wolf”, which is probably a poetic circumlocution for “bear” (the “wolf” that bothers beehives).
Common Questions about Heroic Bear Men in Norse Myths and the Tale of Bothvar
Hott was the son a farmer, who was abducted by Hrolf Kraki‘s men. He is saved by Bothvar.
Moose-Frothi tells Bothvar that he will know how he has died from looking at his hoofprint.
Every Yule eve, the hall is visited by a horrible flying monster that kills cattle and men alike.