Monday, 14 March 2016
Folklore snippets: The Slimy Lindworm
Pictured above is one of the 'head posts' from the famous Oseberg ship, which may well have been how the Vikings imagined the Lindorm or Lindworm, a slimy, poisonous and usually wingless Northern dragon. Ormr means snake, serpent, worm. Miðgarðsormr, the Midgard Worm, which lies beneath the sea and is so large it encircles the earth, is the largest and most famous of the breed. Norse and even Northern English legends include many lesser Lindorms. Here are a few of them. First is a tale from Aarhus, Denmark, which may well be the only story ever to feature a heroic glazier. (I feel a bit sorry for the lindworm though.)
The Lindorm and the Glazier
It happened once many generations ago, that the bodies which were laid in Aarhus Cathedral disappeared time after time, without anyone knowing what the cause of this could be. It was then discovered that a lindorm had its hole under the church, and went in by night and ate the bodies. It was also found out that it was undermining the church, so that it would soon be liable to fall into ruins, and against this danger help was sought for in vain. At last there came a wandering glazier to Aarhus, who on learning the straits into which the town had come, gave his promise that he would help them. He made for himself a chest of mirror-glass, with only a single opening in it, and that only large enough for him to thrust out his sword through it. He had the chest placed on the floor of the church during the day time, and when midnight came, he kindled four wax candles, one of which he placed at each corner. The lindorm now came creeping through the choir-passage, and on seeing the chest and beholding its own image in the glass, it believed it to be its mate, but the glazier thrust his sword through its neck, and killed it at once. The poison and blood, however, which flowed from the wound, were so deadly, that the glazier perished in his chest.
From: Scandinavian Folk-Lore, ed. William Craigie, 1896
Folklore is full of stories about people who find and raise baby lindworms, which then proceed to grow until they menace the entire countryside. In County Durham there's the Lambton Worm which young John Lambton caught in the River Wear and - disgusted with its looks - carelessly tossed into a well before heading off to the Holy Land on crusade. In his absence the creature grew and grew, first poisoning the well, then crawling out and wrapping itself around an entire nearby hilltop, where it spent its days gobbling up livestock and unlucky passers-by. The Lord of Lambton Castle, John's father, attempted to keep the creature quiet by feeding it enormous quantities of milk daily, in a stone trough. When John finally returned from the crusades he tackled the worm, covering his armour with spikes on the advice of a Wise Woman. There was one proviso:
"If thou slay the Worm, swear that thou wilt put to death the first thing that meets thee as thou crossest again the threshold of Lambton Hall. Do this, and all will be well with thee and thine. Fulfil not thy vow, and none of the Lambtons, for generations three times three, shall die in his bed. Swear, and fail not."
The ruse worked: as the slimy worm cast its coils around young John and squeezed, the spikes pierced its sides and it fell writhing into the river and died. However, the first thing to meet the hero as he returned home was not his hunting dog, as he had planned, but his own aged father. As he was now clearly unable to fulfill the condition of the Wise Woman, the curse descended on the Lambtons as she had foretold.
I once read an entertaining book, 'The Great Orm of Loch Ness' by F.W. Holiday (1968), which claimed that the Loch Ness Monster not only exists, but is an enormous mollusc. The author pointed out that many accounts of sea-serpents and lake monsters describe them as possessing hairy manes: 'Virgil had never heard of the Loch Ness Orm, yet he wrote: "Look, from Tenedos there come down through the quiet sea two serpents in enormous coils, moving through the sea, and together they direct themselves to the strand, their chests held up between the waves and their blood-red manes are held up above the waves." ' Holliday suggests the revulsion which people who've 'seen' the LNM claim to have felt could be explained if the creature were in fact a giant mollusc. He continues, 'Some sea-slugs do in fact have a substance resembling hair or fur. It is known as cerata.' Be that as it may, I do love the idea of 'Nessie' as perhaps our last surviving slimy Lindworm. Here's another Danish tale, featuring a maned serpent.
The King of the Vipers
A man in the district of Silkeborg once found a viper-king. It was a tremendously big serpent, with a mane like a horse. He killed it, and took it home with him, and boiled the fat out of it. This he put into a bowl and set aside in a cupboard, as he knew that the first person who tasted it would become so clear-sighted that they would be able to see much that was hid from other people; but just then he had to go out to the field, and thought that he could taste it another time. He had however a daughter who found this bowl with the fat in it, while her father was out in the field. She thought it was ordinary fat, which she was very fond of, so she spread some of it on a piece of bread, and ate it. When the man came home, he also spread a piece of bread with it, and ate it, but he could not discover that he could see any more than he did before. In the evening when the cows were being driven home, the girl came out and said, ‘Look, father, there’s a big red-speckled bull-calf in the black-faced cow.’ He could see well enough then that she had tasted the fat of the viper-king before him, and had thus got all the wisdom, in place of himself.
Scandinavian Folk-Lore, ed. William Craigie, 1896
Headpost from Oseberg Ship: Wikipedia
Lindworm from Swedish runestone: Wikipedia
The Lambton Worm: John Batten
Sea Serpent: Andreas Alciati, c. 1583 - Wikimedia Commons