Vegetables in Norse culture

Foreword

Norsemen, as contemporary Scandinavians, particullary loved nature, love especially made clear by respect of plants and animals. Even though (despite as one can think because the cold climate) Scandinavia itself is rich of vegetation varieties, despite this, Norsemen also associated their gods to foreign plants (e.g., linen). Because of their importance, vegetables were sacrified as well as other living beings, for the gods would appreciate them exactly as a horse, a pig, or a human.

Ash (Askr) (Fraxinus)

Is perhaps the most important vegetable in Norse culture. Yggdrasill, the Cosmic Tree, is an ash; and to it, Óðinn was hanged to learn the knowledge then shared with us livings. The first born man is named Askr (precisely, “ash”); the importance of this tree is also made clear by the fact that “askr” itself is a common synonym for “tree” (“tréð”). Many people use ash for ritual weapons, house buildings, wearing goods and so on, and Norsemen used it for many ilnesses, from fever to painful pregnancy. (Yggdrassill is deepened in another post). 

Elm (Álmr) (Ulmus)

The warriors’ tree. Very common as kenningr for might, strength and manhood. This tree is almost famous as the ash, as the first born woman is called “Embla”, another word for “álmr”. It was used in Norse medicine as remedy for sexual impotence and to stimulate masculinity in young boys. It was also used for ritual weapons (especially for sacrifies for wars). This tree is associated with Týr, God of War, but also with Óðinn, Protector of Warriors.

Yew (Ýr) (Taxus)

Another very important tree, which Norsemen believed to be able to purify and fight evilness because of its poisonousness. It is associated with Ullr, God of Hunt, as it is very useful to create bowls, darts, arrows and ax handle; thus Ullr lives in Ýrdalir, “valleys of the yew”. Its importance is also made clear by the name for the Y rune, Ýr indeed. It was never used as medicine but rather as a poison to kill, even if there are no proofs of poisonous arrows used by the Vikings.

Oak (Eikr) (Quercus)

Tree used as kenningr for longevity and resistance, associated with Þórr becuse of its high resistance to lightnings. Very often it were created whole oak groves consecrated to Þórr. To symbolise the end of mortal life but the begins of the immortal one, because of the millenary resistence of the oak, funeral pyres were (and are still) made fully by oakwoods. It was also used in medicine to reinforce old men and women.

Apple tree (Apaldr) (Malus)

Tree associated b Norsemen to femininity and fertility. Actually it was not important as the forementioned trees, but the fruits of eternal youth are (golden) apples, fruit which the gods eat to remain young and which are guarded by Iðunn. There are many examples of the utilise of apple tree as a remedy against infertility, the most famous being the case of Vǫlsungr, who was conceived thanks the fertility given to his mother by some apples donated her by Frigg. Frigg herself is considered the goddess associated with this tree, amongst with Iðunn and – sometimes – Freyja.

Mistletoe (Mistilteinn) (Viscum)

It is of a great importance because it was the only element to not swore to Frigg to not hurt Baldr and those the dart (or arrow) who killed Baldr was mad of mistletoe (see: Baldr’s Dreams). Actually it wasn’t the mistletoe twig’s fault, but the Frigg’s one, because it was too little to be noticed, or rather, was hidden by the plant it was parasitasing, so, she passed over it without even asking for its loyalty. Loki had knew this, and gave a dart made of mistletoe to Hǫðr in order to him thrown it against Baldr. After this myth, mistletoe gained a negative reputation, even because it is (most of time) a parassite which lives with the lymph of the trees which host it.

Linen tree (Lín) (Linum)

Non-native plant of Norse lands but well integrated in Norse culture because of its value and brightness of its derivatives. Of linen is made the bride’s wedding dress (brúðarlín, literally “bride’s linen”); of linen are made valkyries’ dresses and of linen are made all the “good” dresses in mythology. The richest Norsemen were burnt in linen dress after their deaths. As the apple tree, it was used as remedy for infertility, but because of its price, it was generally used only by nobles. It is associated, more than only the valkyries, also with Freyja and Freyr, Gods of Fertility.

Garlic and leek (Laukr) (Allium)

Norsemen didn’t distingued garlic and leek, in fact, the wordi for them is the same (laukr). Their properties is similar to the one associated with every European culture: they fight against evil, they give divine protection and are rich of healing properties. In fact, especially garlic, is one of the most effective ancient antibacterial remedy; but Norsemen didn’t know bacteria, so, believed that garlic and leek were a kind of magic. They are associated with Gefjǫn and Sifjǫn, who are Goddesses of Medicine, because of their healing properties.

Grain (Korn) (Triticum)

Another plant non-native to Scandinavia but perfectly integrated in Norse culture. Norsemen thought it a variety of barley, more valuable but less curative; it was often used as a gift in sacrifices for the well farming. The classic blót (sacrifice) to Freyr was made with white grain ears (the one with pig(s) was less common because the value of pigs). Of grain was the first bjórr (an alcoholic similar to beer, forefather of cider), probably because of a barley harvest fucked up or for an experiment. It is associated with foreign deities from the South, and utilised in many rituals imported from the Valland, the lands of non-Germanic people.

Barley (Bygg) (Hordeum)

Very important plant because it is necessary for beer, it is associated with resurrection because of the fermentation. To barley is dedicated a Moon’s name, the Bygsmáni (Barley’s Moon). The barley which survived winter was often sacrified at the Sigrblót, a very important blót to Óðinn for asking him his protection or victory. Barley was also used to make hrǫkkbrauðr, the Viking bread, predecessor of the modern knäckebröd.

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