The anonymous Orkneyinga Saga (written approximately c. 1200) began with an interesting story that offered a mythological explanation as to how Norway received its name. The saga opens with a special family in Finland that traced its lineage to a certain King Fornjot. This being, however, was not a typical king—Fornjot was known as “the Ancient Giant” and his name is often thought to be an alternative title of Ymir, the father of the race of giants.
Whatever the case, King Fornjot was supposedly an incredibly powerful being and he gave birth to children who were personifications of elemental forces. The saga names three sons of Fornjot: Ægir (sea), Logi (flame) and Kari (storm). The last brother, Kari, had a son named Frosti (frost) and Frosti, in turn, fathered a son named Snær (snow) and, finally, Thorri (another personification of frost) was born to Snær. By the time Thorri had a family of his own, the great giant, Ymir, had been murdered by the Norse gods, and the earth was fashioned from his corpse.
As was hinted earlier, the family of Thorri eventually settled in Finland. Thorri had two sons, called Nor and Gor, as well as a daughter named Goi. As the story goes, Thorri was extremely religious and held sacrifices every year at midwinter. According to the myth, Thorri’s sacrifices left such a cultural impact that a month was named after him—it began in the third week of January. The month of Thorri was followed by the month of Goe, which was said to have received its name from an incident when Thorri’s daughter mysteriously went missing.
After waiting three years for Goi to return, the brothers Nor and Gor decided to travel the land in search of their sister. Gor took to the sea and searched for his sister on the islands scattered around the coastline of Scandinavia. While Gor sailed the seas, his brother, Nor, wandered on foot across the land. He traveled into Finnmark, the northernmost region of the Norwegian mainland. From there, he continued down the land to the region of Trondheim.
Although Nor and Gor had originally begun their journeys to search for their sister, they quickly were distracted by the idea of conquest. As descendants of giants and elemental beings, Nor and Gor were said to wield great magical power, and they used their abilities to subjugate any communities they encountered during their travels. By the time Nor reached Trondheim Fjord, a large army of followers were drawn to the wanderer’s strength. Nor sent these followers out to scout for his sister—if these spies faced resistance from a settlement, Nor would conquer the obstinate region and expand his domain.
According to the myth, Nor eventually found his sister. Goi had apparently been kidnapped by a certain Hrolf and was living with her captor in Heidemark. Nor mobilized his forces and set out to free his sister. Yet, Nor quickly discovered that Hrolf was no pushover. Hrolf, too, had mythological ancestry—his father was a powerful giant. The two superhuman beings, challenged each other to a duel, and in the ensuing clash of mythical strength and spells, Nor and Hrolf found that they were evenly matched. In the end, Nor could not free his sister from Hrolf. Instead, balance was achieved when Nor married Hrolf’s sister (who was left unnamed).
Having found their sister, Nor and Gor decided to make their homes in the lands where they had traveled. Gor claimed the coastal islands and his descendants became the Sea-Kings. Nor similarly claimed the mainland and generations of his descendants divided the land into small independent kingdoms. Despite the disunity in the land, the kingdoms were linked by being geographically located in Nor’s way during his search for his sister. That is why, at least according to this myth from the Orkneyinga Saga, the region was called Norway.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (An image of Odin from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript (NKS 1867 4to) now in the care of the Danish Royal Library. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.