Originally published in Idunna #65, Fall, 2005. This article also available as a PDF, with all its original pictures intact.

The Nerd-Dís’s Niðstöng

–by Lorrie Wood

Egil went ashore onto the island, picked up a branch of hazel and then went to a certain cliff that faced the mainland. Then he took a horse head, set it up on the pole and spoke these formal words:

“Here I set up a pole of insult against King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild.” Then, turning the horsehead towards the mainland:

And I direct this insult against the guardian spirits of this land, so that every one of them shall go astray, neither to figure nor to find their dwelling places until they have driven King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from this country.”

Next, he jammed the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it standing there with the horsehead facing towards the mainland, and cut runes on the pole declaiming the words of his formal speech.

— Palsson & Paul Edwards, trans. Egil’s Saga.
New York: Penguin. 1976. p. 148

Egil’s erection of a niðstöng is one of the more disturbing accounts of heathen magical practice. Admittedly, Eirik and Gunnhild had it coming: from poor hospitality, and a poison attempt to the confiscation of Egil’s hereditary lands, Eirik had made Egil his enemy. Egil’s is also not the only niðstöng found in the body of our lore, but it’s certainly the one with the most complete account.

Did the curse work? Well, the King and Queen soon fled Norway for the Orkney Islands, although it can be argued that confiscating all that land didn’t make him popular. On the other hand, Egil didn’t know until after he shipwrecked on the English coast that Eirik now had a whole new kingdom to call his own.

A niðstöng touches the point where rune-magic overlaps with seið in its most negative sense. To give this a modern perspective, Egil wants the royal couple’s life turn into a bad country and western song until they pack it in and leave the country.

Heathen practice, magical practice inclusive, involves a subtle system (a network, if you like) of action, reaction, choice, and consequence. Unless you already have a reasonable understanding of how a curse, whether well or poorly flung, is going entangle your wyrd, you’ve got no business messing about with niðstöngs. Your choices and actions are your own, no matter what you read in Idunna. Now, if you do find someone who’s really got it coming and you understand what you’re getting yourself in for… Well, who’s to say that your curse won’t be the straw atop a bundle of your enemy’s other bad decisions that will break his (or her) back? Just remember that you may well find him lying in wait for you another few turns up the road.

My “day job” is as a systems administrator, the one who “makes computers go,” among them, a small server that hosts some three dozen domains. One day, despite all my efforts, we got hacked. The access the attacker had wouldn’t let them read any data they shouldn’t (or, thankfully, delete anything crucial), but they were still about as welcome as locusts in a wheat field. What they were doing was to use my system to send the gods-know-what all over the world! I spent long hours poring over the tracks they’d left all over my system, pointing everywhere from Poughkeepsie to Poland. They’d not stolen anything of monetary value, so the police couldn’t help. Once I’d plugged the holes they’d used to gain access to my server, what could I do?

When we talk about performing seið-craft in a modern context, we often take a moment to state that there are things that our ancestors would have done with it that are done much more easily, and more reliably, with technology. There’s no need to call in a seeress to see when the current blizzard will pass when you have satellite imagery, after all!

Here we had an enemy who had struck with stealth and under cover of darkness, had stolen my bandwidth and besmirched my reputation. This was, clearly, an act worthy of saga-style action, and I was in an position to hand some out.

My server’s physical chassis is located in a closet in my apartment, and real animal heads have a way of stinking up the place, not to mention dripping on my expensive equipment.

But a skull! That had nice, clean lines, wouldn’t smell, and was a good size to perch on top of a computer. Perhaps a mouse skull, as the connection to computers should be obvious. It should point facing the rear of the machine, therefore out of my network port, as that was the way from which the invaders had come.

A mouse skull proved too small, so I used a rat instead. But a plain skull is rather boring; it needed a paint-job. This was a scorn-pole for the Internet, so I painted the skull a bright, kelly green, and outlined its major features in a metallic gold paint, adding a few runes and bindrunes. Integrated circuits, after all, are gold-inlaid patterns etched into green silicon waferboard: small runestones written in very archaic tongues indeed.

As the server is my virtual home, and not a lump of rock off the coast of my exiled homeland, neither the pole nor the charm to power it should be strictly negative. I was not only flinging a curse at my enemies, but inviting a wight into this construct to defend against further incursions and to protect my system and aid any who visited with goodwill. This would all be in conjunction with the server’s own wight, that of my home network, and so on.

So, with a bottle of good spirits, and in my own good spirits, I wrote the following staves:

Vefara fared forth, ftp’d five files,
Sought she script-kiddies, service-stealers.
Craven crackers, callous cowards!
Woe they’d wrought, woe their thought–woe they’d reap!
She wove stranded cables, wove, and sang:

First file finding–ftp foiling
Phisherman failing, fouled on firewalls.

Second song singing–seek shell no more
Script-kiddies silenced–suckers, sign off!

Calms she third the raucous thurs-chat,
Crackers’ calls crumble, servers net-split
Winding ‘round fourth wily word-spears
Willing worms to wander witless, westward to water

Fifth, singing a daemon, singing to her Sharptooth
Skull-mounted stang, to safeguard the server.

Vefara weaves the cables,
sets Sharptooth to searching
Working woe to woe-wishers, woe to woe-workers,
Frith-finding to friends, fond of the frithful
Working only weal when well is wished.

An annotated version of the charm, explaining the more computer-specific references, will be available on the Hrafnar website, along with a somewhat longer version of this article (which doesn’t hurt the spell, either).

[Author Note: I no longer have a longer version of the article, and won’t be translating the charm out of its native Geek. — lwood, 18 June 2012]

Seeking appropriate materials for a computer-related spell, I used the stylus from an old Palm Pilot as the stang on which to mount the pole. This was obviously far narrower than Egil’s hazel-pole, leaving me no place to inscribe the charm! But this had to be done if I was going to tie the verbal and material components of the niðstöng together. While some kind of base was obviously necessary if the whole thing was to stand upright, clefts between stones aren’t often found in my closet, either..

To this end, I took some stone-grained blue polymer clay, and mashed it into a somewhat irregular disk. I scribed the last strophe of the charm into the base with a sraight pin, used the stylus/stang to write the invited wight’s name in somewhat larger runes, and baked the whole thing in my oven. Reddening, a key component of any powerful rune-spell, happened after this picture was taken.

This, of course, isn’t the only modern niðstöng in existence–I’ve heard of wholly virtual ones erected against terrorists, and even one or two against unpopular governmental leaders. Still, if you’re willing to accept the cost and its consequences, and you feel this is an appropriate level of retaliation for a wrong done, they can be powerful tools.

[Further Author Note: Yes, Sharptooth is still on the job. Good boy! — lwood, 18 June 2012]

Previous: Up: Next:
You Can't Keep a Dead Man Down: Draugar in Lore and Life »