From Olafir Thick-Legged to Ragnar Fur-Pants, Viking nicknames were colorful, descriptive and fascinating

Artist’s depiction of a Viking King

19 OCTOBER, 2015 – 00:41 MARK MILLER

An American scholar did both his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation on old Norse nicknames as recorded in medieval literature to reveal a world of people with monikers like Wise of Dreams, Harm-Fart, Autumn Darkness, Toil-Skull, Grimacer and The Ridiculer. A nickname in Scandinavia during Viking times could be insulting or laudatory, derived from body parts or mythology, from places or accomplishments or from a number of other inspirations.

Aside from boxing’s Ray Boom Boom Mancini, Carl The Truth Williams, and Smokin Joe Frazier, modern nicknames such as Al or Annie seem prosaic compared to some of the monikers Vikings came up with to describe their contemporaries.

While modern people may use nicknames out of affection, in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia that wasn’t always the case. Take Eysteinn Harm-Fart, Hergils Button Ass Thrándarson, or Authun Coward, for example. One might wonder if Mr. Eysteinn, a settler in Iceland, was given to drinking copious amounts of beer.

A woodcut of Erik the Red from a 1688 book

A woodcut of Erik the Red from a 1688 book (Wikimedia Commons)

“Nicknames are universal, every human society has had or has them,” Paul Peterson, an expert on Scandinavia, wrote to Ancient Origins in e-mail. “Most other medieval societies had, or recorded, fewer nicknames, even though the practice of adopting family names or surnames is a bit late in the game (late medieval continental practice),” Dr. Peterson wrote. “Nicknames must have been everywhere, but only a tiny sample of them survives in writing.”

A table of Norse nickname sources from Dr. Peterson’s doctoral dissertation

A table of Norse nickname sources from Dr. Peterson’s doctoral dissertation

Though some nicknames were insulting, there are many examples of poetic or laudatory nicknames in old Norse literature. There are The Fair or The Handsome, Snowdrift, The Wise of Dreams or Dream Interpreter, Little Bear, The Learned and Autumn Darkness. Other poetic nicknames include Widow of the Heath, Traveler to Limerick, Sun of the Islands, The Quiet, The Amorous.

While world monarchs often had an informal appellation applied to them, such as “the Good,” “the Great,” “the Terrible” or “the Short,” some of the most expressive Norse nicknames were reserved for non-royalty.

Dr. Peterson did his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, which is available to read in its entirety here, specifically on old Norse nicknames. He received his doctorate in Medieval Germanic Studies from the University of Minnesota and is now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois. He is a member of the International Council of Onomastic Sciences. Onomastics is the study of names.

In the 11th century, King Olaf II of Norway was known as The Holy; this image is from Trondheim Cathedral.

In the 11th century, King Olaf II of Norway was known as The Holy; this image is from Trondheim Cathedral. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Peterson wrote in his thesis:

Nicknames, which occur in all cultures and across all time periods, play a vital role in understanding and highlighting identity. They also provide a unique window into slang and popular culture less accessible through personal names alone. Their study encompasses wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship, including onomastics (name studies), historical linguistics, anthropology, history, and narratology. Old Norse nicknames themselves represent diverse forms of cultural expression from the lower levels of discourse, history, religion, and popular entertainment. They have left remnants across Northern Europe in place names, runic inscriptions, and the names of individuals in the saga corpus.

One of the best sources for Icelandic settlers’ nicknames is the 12th century Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements). Many of the nicknames listed in this article (but not all) are from this source.

Ivan the Terrible, an 1897 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov; other cultures had nicknames, but American scholar Paul Peterson says they are not as well-recorded as old Norse nicknames.

Ivan the Terrible, an 1897 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov; other cultures had nicknames, but American scholar Paul Peterson says they are not as well-recorded as old Norse nicknames. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nicknames that Dr. Peterson recorded in his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation include King Eirkr Blood-Ax, Olafir Thick-Legged, Ragnar Fur-Pants or Hairy Breeches and Bjorn the Wealthy. Still others include Thorbjorn Sour-Drink and Ketill the Silent or Ketill Creaking Noise.

Those nicknames were not necessarily insulting, but many old Norse nicknames were scathing.

“Negative nicknames are rather common, ranging from sexually-charged insults to unflattering physical characteristics, and several nicknames referring to private parts, perhaps the most sensitive areas in terms of insults and otherwise, are found in the corpus. Finnur Jónsson provides a list of these in the second section of his nickname list under the categories ‘penis, cunnus”’ and ‘anus,”’ Dr. Peterson wrote in this thesis. These nicknames include:

  • Arni Harm-Penis
  • Kolbeinn Butter-Penis
  • Herjolfr Shriveled-Testicle
  • Sperm Bjalfi
  • Butt-[Copulate] Bjarni
  • Helgi Seal’s Testicle
  • Ivarr Procreation Member
  • Jon Silky [Vulva]
  • Asni Ship Chest
  • Ass Bersi
  • Herjolfr Squatted Ass

Other nicknames that Dr. Peterson identified in his thesis that weren’t necessarily sexual but some of which were still insulting included:

  • Prince Fortress
  • Little Wolf
  • Little Blackbird
  • Halfdan Sigurdsonn Hook Nose
  • King Magnus Barefoot
  • Sigurd “Sow”
  • King Haraldr Sigurrdson Hard Rule
  • King Ólafr Tryggvason Thin-Legged (krakabein)

“The nickname krakabein, most famously held by King Ólafr Tryggvason, appears to have had some currency among earlier Scandinavians who raided and settled the British Isles where it is found in Old English as Cracabam, and it also appears in a 15th century Irish source called The Annals of Ulster as Graggabai. It is unlikely that the nickname refers to Óláfr Tryggvason,” Dr. Peterson wrote. Others include Iron-Knee, Wild Dog and Black Head.

“The use of the nicknames in the literature and how it shaped narratives or demonstrated medieval customs or values is also something that I am fascinated by,” Dr Peterson told Ancient Origins. “Quite a large number of the linguistic forms are rare and ‘frozen’ from older forms of the language, and that is interesting in and of itself, but the meaning of the words also gives modern people a window into the mindset of a medieval Scandinavian. Nicknames are often formed in a familiar context, that is, a small community of people who know each other well, so the references of nicknames are mostly local and personal. A huge number of them must go back to an inside joke or reference to an event lost to us, and because we cannot always know the origin of a nickname, it gives a modern reader room to speculate or guess the real origin.”

Featured image: Artist’s depiction of a Viking King. Image source.

By Mark Miller

The scariest monsters and demons from Celtic mythology

Banshee – the Irish wailing ghost

Banshee – the Irish wailing ghostPhoto by: Getty

Some of the Celtic “monsters” were originally gods, but were later demonized as pagan creatures when many of the Celts became Christians.

IrishCentral has hunted down the 10 most frightening of these Celtic and Irish demons and monsters.

1. Dearg Due – the Irish vampire

Yes, Dracula himself is an Irish creation (Irishman Bram Stoker created the monster in his masterpiece novel), but there’s also a vampire that resides right smack in the middle of Ireland.

Dearg-due, an Irish name meaning “red blood sucker,” is a female demon that seduces men and then drains them of their blood.

According to the Celtic legend, an Irish woman who was known throughout the country for her beauty, fell in love with a local peasant, which was unacceptable to her father.

Dad forced her into an arranged marriage with a rich man who treated her terribly, and eventually she commit suicide.

She was buried near Strongbow’s Tree in Waterford, and one night, she rose from her grave to seek revenge on her father and husband, sucking their blood until they dropped dead.

Now known as Dearg-due, the vampire rises once a year, using her beauty to lure men to their deaths.

Not to worry, though – there is one way to defeat Dearg-due.

To prevent the undead from rising from the grave, simply build a pile of stones over her grave. No, it won’t kill her, but at least you’ll hold her off until next year!

2. The Dullahan – the Irish headless horseman

Another legendary Irish monster is the Dullahan, a name that can be translated to “dark man.”

Often portrayed in contemporary fantasy fiction and video games, this foreteller of death is the Irish version of the headless horseman.

The Dullahan rides a headless black horse with flaming eyes, carrying his head under one arm. When he stops riding, a human dies.

Some versions of this legend say that the Dullahan throws buckets of blood at people he passes, while other say he simply calls out the name of the mortal that will soon die.

As with most evil forces, the Dullahan has a weakness – gold.

The creature is scared of the substance, so any lonely travelers this Halloween night would be wise to have some on him in case they have a run-in with this headless horror!

3. Banshee – the Irish wailing ghost

A famous Irish creature that some say teams up with the Dullahan is the Banshee.

One of the most recognizable Celtic creatures, having made a guest appearance in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and all, the Banshee is a female spirit whose wail, if heard outside of a house, foretells the death of one of its inhabitants.

Several versions of the Banshee legend say the feared ghost rode alongside the Dullahan in a black cart drawn by six black horses. The pair is said to whip the horses with a human spinal cord.

But most legends say the Banshee was terrifying enough on her own.

Descriptions of her appearance vary, from an ugly old hag to a beautiful young woman, but all agree that the creature’s blood curdling wail will be heard three times before someone dies.

4. Balor – the Celtic demon king

Balor is the demonic God of Death in Celtic mythology.

Sporting one eye and a single gigantic leg, the evil creature was King of the Fomori, demons who lived in the dark depths of lakes and seas.

Balor can kill someone just by staring at them with his evil eye, so he kept it closed most of the time, so as not to constantly be tripping over dead bodies.

The God of Death would provide his Fomori with victims, but the evil race was left to their own devices when Balor was killed by his son Lug, who shot him with a slingshot.

Now the Fomori have returned to their waters and transformed into sea monsters who prey on humans.

Perhaps it’d be a good idea to stay away from any bodies of water this Halloween!

5. Sluagh – the dead Irish sinners

Though they’re not so much “demons,” Sluagh are scary creatures that hunt down souls.

According to Irish folklore, Sluagh are dead sinners that come back as malicious spirits.

These spirits come from the west, flying in groups like flocks of birds, and try to enter a house where someone is dying to take away that person’s soul.

Some Irish families would keep their west-facing windows shut at all times to keep the Sluagh out of their homes.

Some say the Sluagh is the Irish version of the Wild Hunt, a European folktale about ghostly hounds or spirits traveling around in packs foretelling of death and disaster.

6. Carman – the Celtic witch

Carman is the Celtic goddess of evil magic.

This destructive witch roamed around with her three evil sons: Dub (“darkness” in Irish), Dother (“evil”) and Dain (“violence”), destroying anything or anyone in their path.

Carman put a blight on Ireland’s crops and terrorized the Irish until the Tuatha De Danann, the “peoples of the goddess Danu,” used their magic to fight and defeat her, and drove her sons across the sea.

Guess this is one demon you can check off your list of scary creatures to worry about this Halloween.

7. Kelpie – the Celtic sea monster

The kelpie is a monster right out of Celtic myth. The creature can take on multiple shapes, but usually it appears in the form of a horse.

The kelpie galloped around Ireland, looking like a lost pony, attempting to trick women and children into riding on it. But the strange thing about this pony is that its mane would always be dripping with water.

If a woman hopped on, the monster would then run into the water, drowning its victim, and then would take her to its lair to eat her.

The Irish demon would sometimes transform into a handsome man to lure women to its trap, but a telltale sign that it was a kelpie was if that “man” had kelp in its hair.

Ladies, take note – meet a guy with seaweed on his head on Halloween night, don’t go home with him!

8. Caorthannach – the Celtic fire-spitter

Caorthannach, thought by some to be the devil’s mother, is a demon that was fought off by St. Patrick when he banished the snakes out of Ireland.

The saint is said to have stood on the mountain now known as Croagh Patrick and expelled all the serpents and demons out of the Emerald Isle into the sea to drown.

One monster, however, managed to escape – Caorthannach, the fire-spitter. The demon slid down a mountain away from the saint, but Patrick spotted her, and chased her down upon the fastest horse in Ireland, which was brought to him.

The pursuit was a long one, and Caorthannach knew St. Patrick would need water to quench his thirst along the way, so she spit fire as she fled, and poisoned every well she passed.

Though the saint was desperately thirsty, he refused to drink from the poisoned wells and prayed for guidance.

Patrick eventually made it to the Hawk’s Rock, where he waited for Caorthannach. As the demon approached, he jumped out from his hiding spot and banished her from Ireland with a single word.

The evil fire-spitter drowned in the ocean, leaving a swell behind that created the famous Hawk’s Well.

9. Leanan Sidhe – the evil Irish fairy-muse

Both a muse and a demon, Leanan Sidhe is another one of Ireland’s mythological vampires.

The fairy was a beautiful woman who was said to give inspiration to poets and musicians – but at the price of their lives.

She would make the artist her lover, sharing with them her intelligence, creativity and magic, but when she left, the men would be so depressed, they’d die.

Leanan Sidhe would then take her dead lovers back to her lair.

Rather than directly suck the blood of her victims, Leanan Sidhe got creative, and collected their blood in a giant red cauldron, which was the source of her beauty and artistic inspiration.

As with Dearg-due, to prevent the undead Leanan Sidhe from rising, one must put a cairn of stones over her resting place.

A tip to artists: perhaps you should look elsewhere for inspiration, rather than risking falling into the evil hands of the Leanan Sidhe!

10. Questing Beast – the Celtic hybrid monster

Another snake-like evil Celtic creature is the Questing Beast, a monster with the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the backside of a lion and the hooves of a deer.

The beast’s constant cry was said to sound like the bark of 30 dogs.

The Questing Beast, known to be quick, was hunted down by many a knight, and in Celtic myth was chased by King Pellinore, an Arthurian character.

This beast appears not only in the legends of King Arhtur, but also in Edmund Spenser’s epic tale “The Faerie Queene,” which in part, tackles the troubled relationship between England and Ireland in the 16th century.

This is one scary creature you don’t have to worry about this Halloween – unless you dress up as a knight.

The Organisation of the Belfast IRA from 1917 to 1970

The Organisation of the Belfast IRA from 1917 to 1970

Posted by John O’Neill on October 6, 2015
On formation of the IRA in 1919-20, the existing Irish Volunteer Companies of the Belfast Battalion simply became A and B Company of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion, with a C Company and D Company added in early 1919. It isn’t clear now whether each Company had strict catchment areas. The city’s IRA units were re-organised, beginning in September 1920 when the companies were divided into a 1st and 2nd Battalion and by March 1921, officers and experienced members from the four existing Companies had been used to staff Companies in each of the two Battalions, which now formed part of the 1st (Belfast) Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. The 1st Battalion had Companies A to E and an Engineering Company. While C Company was centred on Carrickhill, the other Companies covered the Falls Road (again demarcation lines appear vague). The Companies of the 2nd Battalion each had a geographic focus, with A Company in Ardoyne and the Bone, B Company in Ballymacarrett, C Company in the Markets and D Company in North Queen Street. By April 1921, Na Fianna and Cumann na mBán structures were been aligned onto the IRA’s Divisional command structure.

In August 1921, two additional Battalions were created under the 1st (Belfast) Brigade, as 3rd and 4th Battalion and the Engineering Company of 1st Battalion effectively became a distinct Engineering Battalion in its own right. The new Battalions were created from the existing companies, such as the 3rd Battalion’s B Company which was based on the New Lodge Road. Many of those who joined the 3rd and 4th Battalions enlisted after the Truce and were derided as Trucileers by pre-July 1921 veterans.

The status of the 1st Belfast Brigade from 1922 is complex. As it mounted an offensive against the northern government from May 1922, it continued to remain in contact with both the Army Executive and Free State government until formal liaison with Headquarters ended around October 1922. It also appears that most of the 2nd Battalion and all the 3rd and 4th Battalion Companies did not recognise the authority of the Free State government by July 1922.

The 1st (Belfast) Brigade command structures were, effectively, autonomous until the end of 1924 when the re-interment of Joe McKelvey’s remains in Belfast became the catalyst for the Belfast command to re-establish formal links to the IRA’s GHQ in Dublin. It was apparent, by this time, that the obsolete Divisional structure that had been put in place in 1920 needed to be replaced with something more suitable for the post-Civil War IRA.

The newly created Belfast Battalion had a staff with elected representatives of the Falls, Ardoyne, Bone, Carrick Hill, North Queen Street, Greencastle, Markets and Ballymacarret. It reported directly to GHQ in Dublin through a Communications Officer, in the absence of a middle-ranking regional command structure although it is often formally referred to as Ulster No. 1 Divisional Area. The Belfast Battalion was now organised into two Companies, both located on the Falls Road and an independent unit that covered Ardoyne, the Bone and North Queen Street. Volunteers from Greencastle joined the independent unit, while those from the Markets and Ballymacarret joined the Falls Road unit that covered the city centre.

Following the De Valera split, there was a further consolidation with Cumann na mBán, the IRA, Na Fianna and Sinn Féin that took place before the middle of 1928. The Belfast Battalion now undertook an expansion programme including a renewed focus on Na Fianna as a source of recruits. District-based Companies were formally re-established beginning with Ballymacarrett. In the short term, there was a decline in strength between 1926 and 1930, from 242 to 177. Ulster No. 1 Area now had Companies A to G, with A Company covering North Queen Street, Carrickhill and the Docks, B Company covering Ballymacarrett and the Markets, C Company based in Ardoyne and the Bone, D Company on the Falls and F Company centred on the Pound. The other companies (E and G) covered from Clonard out to the Whiterock, Hannahstown and Andersonstown. The throughput of recruits from Na Fianna saw the Belfast IRA Companies expand in size to 564 members by 1932.

The Belfast IRA retained this structure through the 1930s, reporting directly to GHQ, until the beginning of the English Campaign in 1939, at which time regional commands were created as a response to pressures restricting the ability of GHQ to exercise control on activity in other districts. This was particularly the case in the north, where a Northern Command that was set up and then re-organised under Charlie McGlade in the summer of 1939 to include Donegal. The Northern Command included representatives from each local IRA unit, with the likes of the officer commanding (O/C) of the Belfast IRA concurrently holding a staff position on Northern Command (often the Adjutant of the Northern Command was O/C Belfast). By 1941, the internees and sentenced prisoners in the jails in Belfast, the Al Rawdah, Derry and Armagh also reported directly to the Northern Command via the Adjutant, with the internees in D wing in Belfast organised as Battalion No. 1 and the sentenced prisoners as Battalion No. 2.

A H Company was added secretly to the Belfast Battalion during 1941, which was a special section of mainly Protestant IRA volunteers which carried out particular tasks and roles. By the start of 1942, arrests and internment had led to a complete re-organisation of the Battalion back into four Companies (once again labelled A-D). For the remainder of the mid-1940s, these survived in a skeletal form.

By the time the internees and sentenced prisoners had been released, the Belfast Battalion was effectively reduced to a single company. This remained the case until 1956 when, as part of the pre-amble to the Border Campaign, the Belfast Battalion was re-organised into two Companies. One was made up of veterans and others who were likely to be known to the RUC. The other was made up of younger, unknown Volunteers who were unknown to the RUC (and possibly also an informer who was believed to be active among the Belfast Battalion staff). Despite the widespread belief that Belfast was to play no part in the Border Campaign, Paddy Doyle, the Belfast Battalion O/C was fully aware of plans and operations to be carried out in Belfast (such as cutting the cable to Britain on the night of December 11th /12th 1956). As he had kept all the operational details to himself, the Belfast Battalion wasn’t able to re-organise in time after Doyle’s arrest to carry out the action.

The Belfast IRA was decimated by internment in 1956 and 1957 and was rebuilt by Billy McKee after his release. It was to remain small until the changes that occurred in 1969-70.

The Treason Felony Blog

On formation of the IRA in 1919-20, the existing Irish Volunteer Companies of the Belfast Battalion simply became A and B Company of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion, with a C Company and D Company added in early 1919. It isn’t clear now whether each Company had strict catchment areas. The city’s IRA units were re-organised, beginning in September 1920 when the companies were divided into a 1st and 2nd Battalion and by March 1921, officers and experienced members from the four existing Companies had been used to staff Companies in each of the two Battalions, which now formed part of the 1st (Belfast) Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division. The 1st Battalion had Companies A to E and an Engineering Company. While C Company was centred on Carrickhill, the other Companies covered the Falls Road (again demarcation lines appear vague). The Companies of the 2nd

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