Ullr – The Norse Bow God

By Anthony Roe

In the story of the bow and arrow there is other evidence of its sacred use and supernatural associations. The bow appears occasionally in the hand of an archer on gold bracteates of the Migration period, and also on the Gallehus horns from fifth century Denmark. In one scene an archer is aiming at a horse which seems to be marked out for sacrifice and in another at a hind with her fawn. The archer who appears on the Franks Casket, Northumbrian work in whalebone of the late seventh century, and again on Gotland stones of the Viking age, likely represents a figure of mythological importance, and the scholar Schneider associated him with the Balder myth. Whether the name given in runes on the Franks Casket is that of the archer Egill, who according to later sources was the brother of Wayland the Smith and a skillful archer, is not certain; possibly here is a supernatural figure with the bow whose story was all but forgotten by the time of the written sources.

The bow-god in later Scandinavia was Ullr, whose name occurs commonly in place-names in a broad belt from Uppland to southern Norway, and whose cult must therefore have been an important one at one time. Unfortunately his personality appears to have been already partly forgotten at the time from which our earliest literary evidence derives, and we have to make do with rather sparse hints. It seems fairly clear that he was in some way connected with winter, if only because he was known to travel on skis or skates, and this might just be linked with an earlier role in which he was the opponent of springtime regeneration. If he could be represented as trying to intervene with the sacred marriage, the same line of thought might show him menacing the ritual opening of the ploughing season. It seems to fit quite well; the most obvious objection is that the connection with winter does not exhaust even the little that is known about Ullr’s personality.

As the Norse god connected with the bow, Ullr was believed to have been an early Germanic deity of the sky because his name is related to a Gothic word meaning “majesty” or “glory”. Places called after him in Norway and Sweden are often in the neighbourhood of those named after Freyr and other Vanir deities, so that he may be one of them. He is called “god of the bow”, and “god of the shield”, and the shield was called his ship. This puzzling image has not been satisfactorily explained, and prompts the question whether he was originally connected with the shield-like disc associated with the sun in the Bronze Age. He is also said to cross the sea on a magic bone, which has been interpreted as him moving on skates over the ice, and, according to Snorri Sturluson, wore snow shoes. By the time of the written sources, Ullr is little more than a name, but he seems at one time to hav been a deity of some importance, judging from the number of places named after him. These names are based on two forms of his name, “Ullr” and “Ullin”, which suggests that there may originally have been a pair of archer deities.

The bow is also found in association with some minor goddesses, who appear to be fertility deities connected with the Vanir, but about whom we know little. Skadi, daughter of a giant and wife of Njord of the Vanir, parted from her husband because she came from the mountains and he wished to dwell by the sea. After she returned home, she was said to wear snow shoes and carry a bow. Some have thought that Skadi was originally a male deity, perhaps representing winter, or that she had some association with the Lapps, who used the bow in hunting.

Two goddesses associated with Jarl Hakon were also skilled in the use of the bow: Thorgerd, a mysterious supernatural figure worshipped with great devotion by the Jark, and her sister Irpa, about whom we know almost nothign. When these sisters once aided the Jarl in battle, they appeared as giantesses, shooting arrows so swiftly that it was as if one flew from each finger. There is some reason to think that Hakon’s family came from Sweden and that this cult was connected with the Vanir. This scattered evidence about the bow does suggest links with the Vanir and with the deities of fertility.

Ullr, or Uller, as winter-god, was the son of Sif and step-son of Thor. His father was one of the dreaded frost giants and he delighted in the chase. As god of hunting and archery, he is represented with a quiver full of arrows and a huge bow. As the yew furnishes the best wood for the manufacture of these weapons, it is said to have been his favoured tree.

Ullr was also considered a god of death, and was supposed to rid in the Wild Hunt, at time even to lead it. As the ice with which he yearly enveloped the earth acts as a shield to protect it from harm during the winter, Ullr was surnamed the shield-god, and he was specially invoked by all persons about to engage in a duel or in a desperate fight. In Christian times, his place in popular worship was taken by St Hubert, the hunter, who, also, was made patron of the first month of the year, which began on 22nd November, and was dedicated to him as the sun passed through the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. To the Anglo-Saxons he was known as Vulder, but in some parts of Germany he was called Holler and considered to be the husband of the fair goddess Holda.

Ullr remains a mysterious and shadowy figure, one of many Northern deities and cults which had fallen into oblivion by the time that Snorri wrote his account of the gods. Ullr, the winter-god, resembles Apollo and Orion in his love of the chase, which he pursues with ardour under all circumstances. He is the Northern bowman, and his skill is quite as unerring as theirs.

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