There was a time when history was split between the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages; when the pagan religions still had a place in the world, before their inevitable downfall to Christianity. People still believed that monstrous races roamed the hills and swam the seas. They believed magic was something to fear, and other worlds lay beyond our own in the thick shrouded mists that formed just on the edge reality. This was the age of the noble barbarian. The age of the Northmen who gripped the world in fear, and brought it to bear as cunning tradesmen, fearless mariners and savage warriors. Men who dared sail toward the edge of the world, and lived to share their sagas of discovery. This was the Viking Age!
If the above paragraph does not seize your imagination, and scream out as a setting that has limitless sword & sorcery potential, then I am afraid you have landed on the wrong blog, and should perhaps seek another. If however, you are like me, then you realize that the Viking Age offers a tremendous amount of opportunity to bring sword & sorcery adventure tinged with eldritch cosmic horror to the game table, in a genre that I call sword & sanity.
This article will illustrate how history, real world mythology and the Lovecraftian myth-cycle can intersect if you look close enough. I assume the reader has a working knowledge of both the Cthulhu Mythos and Norse mythology. The purpose of this article is not to serve as a history lesson on the Viking Age, but to present a group of observations on a specific place, during a specific historical age, which is the Orkney Island and northern Scotland during the Viking Age. I will need to present some minimal historical information to begin with, just to lay the initial groundwork. I would suggest using Wikipedia to obtain additional historical materials on the time period and the places discussed. I will also provide a series of links to reading materials at the end of this article, for those interested.
The Orkney Islands
The Orkneys are a series of around 70 islands off the northern coast of Scotland. In 875 AD Norway claimed this archipelago, naming it Orkneyjar, which meant “the seal islands” in Old Norse. They in turn used the islands as a strategic location for a base of operations for their raiding and buccaneering expeditions. Orkney and northern Scotland were ruled by a series of jarls (Norse earls), who reported directly to the king of Norway.
It is speculated that the claiming of these lands was initially a bloody affair, but soon turned amicable, as Norse settlers lived among, and in many cases, married into the tribes of Picts and Scots who inhabited the Orkneys and northern Scotland. The culmination of the Norse and the Scots tribes would produce a language that is now extinct, known as Norn. History tells us that the mysterious race of Picts would soon disappear after the arrival of the Northmen, as they were absorbed by other invading tribes, which as a whole would come to be known as the Scots.
If we are to believe historians, the tribes of the Picts, who ruled over the north-eastern regions of the British Isles for over five hundred years, were slowly absorbed into invading Gaelic tribes, with the combination eventually being called the Scots. The reasoning behind this assumption is sound and is most likely very true. But as with all history that is considered “hazy” we can manipulate and bend it to our own needs…
It is widely believed the Picts were a tribal people that had very strong shamanic connections with the spirit world. Taking this into consideration, and also looking at it from a gaming point of view, we can cast on the disappearance of the Pictish people a more mysterious light. What if, just as in Robert Howard’s writings, the Picts were a race of people that were extremely hard to extinguish? They were able to survive cataclysm and adversity, somehow reemerging from one age to another, and reestablishing their place in history time and time again. In Howard’s timeline the Picts had survived the collapse of Atlantis, and later brought about the end of the Hyborian Age. What if we follow this same line of thinking, and consider for a moment that the Picts may not have been bred out by other tribes, but they chose to fade out of history all together.
Using this line of thinking we can reimagine the disappearance of the Picts in a number of ways:
Exodus Beyond the Veil: this is perhaps the most fantastic of all the proposed reimaginings, and as such may not fit into some low-magic games. The basic Idea is that the Picts used their knowledge of sacred sites and their command over the spirit realm to slip from this world into another. Lovecraft often used the idea of extradimensional beings and parallel worlds in his writings, so this hypothesis lends itself well to the Cthulhu Mythos. In Norse cosmology there are nine worlds, including the world of men, which is Midgard (middle earth). Another of the nine worlds is Niflheim, which is the land of ice and mist, is considered to be the Norse spirit realm, and could very well be the land into which the Pictish tribes fled.
Relocated to Forgotten Islands: the Picts lived and traveled the lands of northern Scotland and Orkney for centuries before the Vikings ever landed on their shores. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to presume that they were privy to secrets locales that were never discovered or charted by the northern invaders. Orkney legend speaks of lost islands that would mysteriously rise from the waves, while others that would sink into the sea never to be seen again. For game purposes, it can be assumed that the Picts fled to a series of uncharted islands and established new colonies for themselves.
Tainted Bloodline: lastly, we can take the hypothesis of the Picts being absorbed into other invading tribes, and add a darker spin. Just as in Lovecraft’s stories, in Orkney legend there was a race of beings (see the Finfolk below) who lived in the ocean and enjoyed copulating with unsuspecting humans. What if the Picts not only were absorbed into invading tribal populations, but also many were absorbed into the Finfolk population as well. Going further with this line of thinking, then the question must be asked if the Picts willingly gave themselves to this insidious take over, or were they tricked into submission through dark sorcery?
It would be impossible to discuss Norse mythology along side the Cthulhu Mythos without taking a closer look at the pantheon of gods from each myth-cycle, and finding areas in which they overlap. Once I started looking at the two it became clear that the similarities were many, and they were not forced. Both myth-cycles meshed together effortlessly, and to my delight offered a lot of great gaming material.
Nyarlathotep / Loki: a shape shifting trickster whose destiny is to herald in the end of the world… sound familiar? It is obvious that Loki and Nyarlathotep are interchangeable, and for our gaming purposes it is encouraged. Do not hesitate to have Loki be at the center of chaos and confusion, just as Nyarlathotep often is. Even if you never actually have him make an appearance in the game world it would be easy to still introduce his chaos mongering nature into the story. There is no actual proof that Loki had a cult during antiquity, but this is something that is easily adjusted for gaming purposes. If Loki cannot make an appearance then surly his cult can act in his stead.
Odin: the All Father, and master of the runes. Odin was also something of a trickster himself, and learned the art of shape changing from Loki. Though Odin was king of Asgard it cannot be assumed that he was a wholly benevolent being – on the contrary. Odin wielded dark magic, and resorted to necromancy. In grand occult tradition, Odin sacrificed himself on the World Tree and he rose from the dead illuminated with arcane knowledge. His lust for forbidden knowledge is well documented, and should be used accordingly. Odin followers would also lust for this forbidden knowledge, and his cult would go to great lengths to obtain it. Once they had mastery over dark arcane forces it would be hard for them to control the desire not to see it in use…
Jörmungandr: the World Serpent, son of Loki, which lies at the bottom of the ocean and sleeps till the time it will rise to help destroy the world. This being is so monstrously huge that it encircles the world, and can still swallow its own tail. It is said that when Jörmungandr releases his tail it will usher forth Ragnarök, and the world as we know it will end. A correlation between Jörmungandr and Cthulhu is easy to see, so it would be an easy thing to make them interchangeable in many ways. Being the son of Loki also provides some interesting possibilities as well, as his cult would hold this being in high regard, and possibly venerate it as a god itself.
Nodens: Nodens has made an appearance in a couple of Lovecraft’s stories, and by comparison to other entities in the Cthulhu Mythos Nodens seems almost like a benevolent figure through his actions. It should also be mentioned that Nodens is the arch rival to Nyarlathotep.
The Romans brought the worship of Nodens with them when they conquered the British Isles, and the Celts would have referred to him as Nuada or Nudd “of the Silver Hand”, due to the fact that he had a missing hand which was replaced by a magical one. In Norse mythology it was Tyr whose hand (arm) was lost, but not in combat as Nuadda, but it was bitten off by Fenris the wolf, who also happens to be a son of Loki.
Another interesting point that has been suggested about Nodens is that he was associated with the Greek god Pan, hence his appearance in Arthur Machen’s weird tale, The Great God Pan. Scholars have put forth that the Greek word “pan” means “all”, so they speculate that by associating Nodens with Pan was not to say that he as a goat legged nature deity, but they theorize that he was an “all god”. This would essentially make him Zeus, Poseidon and Pluto all wrapped up into one god. Inscriptions found at Roman sacred sites dedicated to Nodens seem to verify this theory.
If Nodens can be associated with Zeus, Poseidon and Pluto all at the same time, then it can be speculated that the Norse invaders would have made the same associations, and saw within him aspects of Thor, Njord (Norse god of the oceans) and Hel (daughter of Loki, queen of the underworld). Also, Nodens was seen as the master of the hunt, and in Norse mythology Odin (Wōden to the Anglo-Saxons) was the master of the Wild Hunt.
Cthulhu: in "The Call of Cthulhu" H.P. Lovecraft provides an obvious connection between the Norse people and the cult of Cthulhu when it describes a tribe of “degenerate Eskimos” on the west coast of Greenland. This tribe practiced dark bloodthirsty rites, and even had in its possession a hideous bas-relief of Cthulhu himself. It is thought that Norse / Icelandic Vikings did not discover Greenland until the 10th century, but this can easily be altered to fit the timeline of your game. Who’s to say that an expedition from Norway was not blown way off course, and happened upon this tribe of Eskimos much earlier than history records, and in doing so was exposed to the cult practices of the Great Old One?
Ithaqua: the Wind-Walker who prowls the Arctic wastes. The northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland are within what is considered the Arctic Circle, so it is easy to see how these lands would come under the dominion of Ithaqua. He is described as a giant with glowing red eyes. This description could also be given to a typical Norse ice giant. In Norse mythology Ymir was the first being to be formed from the primeval chaos known as Ginnungagap (Azathoth...?), and he was the father of the ice giants. For game purposes we should consider Ithaqua and Ymir one and the same. Those travelling into the deep north should pay homage to the Wind-Walker by offering up sacrifices, or risk bringing his icy wrath down upon them.
By the time the Vikings invaded there were Christian monasteries and churches already established in northern Scotland. For centuries the old pagan ways and the Christian church lived side by side, and in many cases the peasantry practiced both religions.
Orkney was formally Christianized in 995, and jarl Sigurd the Stout was ordered to be baptized, or face “fire and steel”. It is interesting to note that he was the son of a known witch, and carried a magical raven emblazoned banner into battle. The old ways did not die easily…
Creatures from the Outer Dark
Here is a quick selection of possible foes that can be introduced into a Viking Age sword & sanity game:
Draug: the draug were undead creatures from Norse mythology. It is said they linger in the graves of dead warriors, and are extremely hard to kill. There are tales of draug rising again to attack, even after being decapitated. There is a type of draug that lives in the sea, and is associated with fallen sailors.
Finfolk: in Orkney folklore there is a race of shapeshifters who live in the sea, and are powerful dark sorcerers. Their home is called Finfolkheem, which lies at the bottom of the ocean. During the warm months of the year the Finfolk emerge from their watery home to abduct humans. Driven by carnal lust, the men (Finmen) and women (Finwife) take their captives, and force them to become their mates. Legend says if the Finfolk breed with each other their beauty and sorcerous powers are lost forever.
Jötnar: giants from Norse mythology. It can be assumed that the size of these giants has diminished quite a bit from those of the ancient tales. Obviously, the placement of these creatures will need to be far from human eyes, and in extremely remote locations.
Orm: the Norse referred to their dragons as orm, or sometimes wyrm. They were legless and wingless creatures of huge proportions that could take flight, and spit forth clouds of flame, acid and poison. An interesting tie in here is that Ithaqua is served by a race of beings that have been described as "dragon-like".
Trow: this is an Orkney version of a troll, and should be treated as such on all accounts. They are a devious race, only travel at night, live underground in earth mounds and some say they have a fondness for music.