Not of One Skin
One of my many obsessions is werewolves. I’ve been mulling them over of late because I’ve been writing a book ‘The Ice King’ which involves my riff on the idea of shapeshifting and wolves.
One of the things I’ve discovered in my researches is that there aren’t any werewolves in Iceland. Fact. Well, I know that there are lots of people who would say there aren’t any werewolves anyway but stick with me. There aren’t any werewolves in Iceland because there aren’t any wolves. They are not indigenous to the country as there are no forests. A nation’s were-creatures are born out of the wildlife that lives there, hence were-tigers in India.
There are elves in Iceland and you have to ask them for planning permission should you wish to knock up a cabin. Hm, I see doubt furrowing your brow, trust me and Google it.
Despite not having werewolves, the Icelanders do still have the notion of shapeshifting. In old Icelandic the phrase for being a werewolf or shapeshifter is eigi einhamr, which means ‘not of one skin’ and is used for those of a more feral persuasion shall we say. Shapeshifting, taking on the attributes of a particular animal or having a totem animal is as old as time. I don’t doubt that the first hunters took the skins from bulls and antelope and sabre tooth tigers and dressed themselves in them, at first to keep warm, but then, there would be a moment when they’d feel different in the skin, maybe balance the beast’s head on their head and looking out through the jaws they’d pretend to be that creature. Pretend to roar, or howl. It would feel good. We’ve all done it ( the roaring bit, not the skinning bit, I live in a townie bit of Wiltshire) and we all know how primal that feels. Roaring is good.
The Icelandic term means to adopt the sensibility of another creature, to reach for or replicate qualities that might be attributed to another animal, to be, in essence, not of one skin, not simply human. So, the first hunters find their hunting ground, their home territory under threat from some other tribe and, when they have to fight to defend it and they are all scared they discover it gives them strength to wear an animal skin, to wear animal teeth, to hide themselves within the power of the beast. The Berserkers did this, under the guise of the bear skin they wore they could forget themselves and disappear into bearkind, become a bear, a crazed and powerful fighter.
Nowadays some guru somewhere has cleaned up the language and we call it visualisation of course. I prefer Berserker, but that’s clearly why I’m not a guru. I think I might have liked to be in on a Norse Self-Help course and, frankly, just imagining how that might be; sword wielding, shield shoving, ale drinking; makes me feel much better. Stronger. I won’t be picking up a few bits in Tesco later, I will be pulling on that faux wolf fur throw that’s on the sofa and raiding the store, plundering possibly. The idea is one we can adopt for ourselves and we can find strength in being a badger perhaps. Although after the roadkill I saw this morning I don’t think I’m going to be taking on the mantle of a hedgehog anytime soon.
Of late, I’ve been thinking that what we need, in this mad world, is to remember that we can be werewolves, we need to look away from the computer screen and stop tapping at the phone and remember the moon and the stars. Remember the sky. Listen to the birds; that’s especially good at four o’clock in the morning at the moment, a proper chorus that Gareth Malone would give his eye teeth for. Woodpeckers for percussion anyone?
If I suggest you go skinny dipping however, choose a mountain pool or some brackish bog surrounded by purpled heather and golden gorse. Don’t do what I did and try the local boating lake because it’s no joke having to walk the long way through town because you’ve been banned from The People’s Park.
As a little present, I’d like to send you The Ice King for free – you just need to tell me where to send it…