Archive for March, 2013


Sigurd on the Ramsund stone.

My goodness, is it really World Poetry Day again? Can’t believe a whole year has gone by since my last WPD post. Note that the WPD announcement from UNESCO (linked to above) features a picture of a manuscript of the Nibelungenlied, the epic account of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer, his death, and the aftermath. This traditional material is quite prominent in Norse sources as well. I often refer to it as the Volsung tradition or legend, after Völsungasaga, a fornaldarsaga (saga of ancient times, or legendary saga) written in 13th century Iceland. The saga itself has always felt a bit disjointed to me, as the complier is clearly struggling to turn all the disparate traditions at his disposal into one coherent account, but that in itself makes it interesting as a window into the transition from oral discourse to literary discourse. Manuscript production was still characterized by “variance,” so we aren’t hitting the extreme textual fixity of print culture yet, but it is kind of neat, in this saga and elsewhere, to see the wake of a still living tradition, whether through the cracks of the manuscript version, or explicitly referenced (as when the author of Grettis saga notes the different accounts of certain episodes).

The Völsungs show up in both of the Eddas as well, which gives me a nice “in” to briefly discuss the difference between Eddic and Skaldic poetry for my World Poetry Day post. The Eddas themselves give us a nice starting point, as they are each primarily associated with one or the other.

File:Snorre Sturluson-Christian Krohg.jpg

Snorri the chieftain (not the 8th dwarf)

Prose Edda, aka Snorra Edda or Younger Edda, was written around 1220/1230 by the Icelandic Chieftain Snorri Sturluson as a poetics (in fact, one etymology for “Edda” would derive it from Latin edo/edere (I compose/to compose), even if we often use it for its accounts of Norse mythology. The name “Edda” comes from this work, as it is referred to as “Edda” (and attributed to Snorri) in the Uppsala manuscript. We now call the type of poetry discussed here “Skaldic,” after the Old Norse word for poet, “Skald.” While it is not primarily determined by meter (well, depending on who is doing the defining), the “poster child” for so-called “Skaldic” poetry is dróttkvætt, “court-meter,” a very demanding form which, unlike eddic, has a set number of syllables per line (OK, “set number of syllables” is not the best way to put it, as at least two linguist friends have reminded me, but this is a common way to describe the difference between dróttkvætt and eddic in introductory books), as well as relatively demanding rules for alliteration and internal rhyme. “Skaldic” poetry also involves especially prominent use of kennings. These poetic circumlocutions are common elsewhere (for example, “whale road” for “ocean” in Beowulf), including Eddic Poetry, but they are taken to a whole new level (several new levels, maybe) in Skaldic poetry. Many of these kennings depend on mythological allusions, hence Snorri’s thorough treatment of mythology in his Edda. It has been argued that he wrote the sections of his treatise in reverse order, starting with Háttatal (Tally of meters, a relatively straightforward presentation of examples of various meters), Skáldskaparmál (Poetic Diction, which explains kennings and heiti [poetic names] by giving the relevant stories behind them, or, in the latter part, just listing the terms), Gylfaginning (The Deluding of Gylfi, an account of major myths from the beginning of the world up to the end via a frame narrative, which allows the stories to be passed off as “lies” while still laid out for our examination), and a prologue which may or may not have been written by Snorri (scholars disagree), but which, with the frame narrative of Gylf., highlights the fictionality of the myths in juxtaposition with official Christian history. The Völsungs don’t come into Snorra Edda all that much–just a 5 page summary or so, plus some references in examples of skaldic poetry (for example, Bragi’s Ragnarsdrápa).

Poetic Edda, aka Elder Edda or Saemundar Edda, refers primarily to the Codex Regius manuscript written sometime around 1270, although larger and smaller portions may be found elsewhere (including quotations in Gylfaginning). The manuscript was discovered by Icelandic Bishop Brynjólfr Sveinsson in the 17th century. The bishop decided this was another Edda and attributed it to the learned Sæmundr Sigfusson, who lived slightly over a century before Snorri. However, we only know Sæmundr to have written in Latin, and the text as we have it is from much later, so I prefer to call it Poetic Edda. The age of the poems themselves varies. Some are widely believed to come from the Viking Age, but there certainly would have been a good amount of change over the years (this is the rule with oral tradition–not to say that there cannot be exceptions, as we will discuss below). Others are much more contested, and it looks like the collection of the poems itself grew from many smaller collections. The text of Codex Regius moves from an overview of mythic history in Völuspá, to poems about the gods (possibly chosen to represent the “Big Three,” Odin, Frey, and Thor), to poems about minor supernatural beings (the elf Völund and the dwarf “All-Wise”), and then heroic poems about the Völsungs–first three Helgi poems (themselves fascinating as examples of the plurality of traditions) and then on to the story of Sigurd, and the eventual disintegration of the aristocratic family at the heart of the story. We get several different meters in the collection, but in contrast with dróttkvætt they are not as strict, still alliterating, but counting “beats” instead of syllables and leaving off the regular internal rhyme. Generally speaking, it runs in the tradition of other early medieval Germanic poetry, the so-called “long-line.” There is of course a lot more to say about this, but until I have time to expand this (or write a new post), I suggest you check out the metrical notes on pp xxviff of Carolyne Larrington‘s translation of Poetic Edda and Andy Orchard‘s introduction to his translation, pp xxx and following (both are excellent resources, btw–and as far as Prose Edda goes, I recommend Anthony Faulkes‘ translation).

It has been pointed out before that meter is insufficient to distinguish between what we label as “Skaldic” and “Eddic,” as some key examples of what we consider “Skaldic” have been written in an Eddic meter (and Snorri himself gives examples of “Eddic” meters in his Háttatal). We could argue that skaldic is primarily encomium, composed in praise of someone, while eddic is primarily narrative, but that doesn’t work so well either, as the examples of skaldic in the sagas are put to such a wide range of uses–in particular, the earliest and most canonical examples of skaldic perform their praise of their subject by telling mythic and heroic stories, obliquely praising the patron by juxtaposing him with the deeds of the gods (the idea of oblique praise coming from Margaret Clunies Ross, who also has a great introduction to Old Norse poetry and poetics, as I mentioned in my poetry post last year).

I feel that the best way to differentiate between the two, both in terms of contemporary scholarship’s “instinct” for identifying the two, as well as the way they are treated in the Old Norse texts, is in terms of the text’s perceived relationship to an original composer and performance. The so-called eddic poems tend to be treated as the products of tradition–they are received, and while modified for the needs of particular performances (as Lars Lönnroth has noted re: Hjálmar’s Death Song), the “work” as such does not seem to be understood as explicitly the creation of a Poet. Skaldic poetry, on the other hand, carries its perceived origin with it (I say “perceived” because there are plenty of stanzas we don’t think are “genuine,” but which are presented as the work of a particular person in a particular time and place). Stanzas and entire poems are attributed to a specific skald, and often are explicitly placed in historical time and space. This may simply be a feature of the tradition/prose text accompanying the poem in its transmission, but it also works its way into the poem itself quite often, as the skalds would not only tell a story, but would reflexively articulate the performance situation, asking the patron and audience to listen, explaining (often via the mythic frame of the myth of the mead of poetry) that he (the skald) has been asked to, or is about to, present a poetic gift. We find similar reflexivity at the end of the poem, while the middle sections for the most part tell the “story,” with further reflexive intrusions in the refrain. We might argue that the severe metrical restrictions of dróttkvætt give the text of skaldic a greater degree of fixity than, say, eddic (or most other traditions of oral poetry), but in addition we can suggest that the relationship of later performers to the skaldic text would also contribute to a relative degree of fixity–the text gets its value, after all, from its origin, as a canonical performance located within the history of the Scandinavian aristocratic class. With skaldic, the authenticity (and subsequent capital) of the text is derived from an originary moment (ie, it is valuable as “the words said at that moment”), whereas the authenticity of eddic is derived from its relationship to tradition–the story is the inheritance, the specific performance is incidental.

Well, hope that made some sense–I’ve been picking away at ways to articulate this for a while, in my entries on the Eddas for The Literary Encyclopedia as well as in the final chapter of my dissertation (where I threw in a bit more theory from work in folkloristics and oral performance). In any case, have a very happy World Poetry Day! I’ve also been picking away at editing some poems of my own (both from visits to Iceland–one in 2005, the other near the end of my dissertation research in 2009), will see if I can get them in good enough shape to send them off anywhere…

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feersum_viking_waryur_by_callego-d4bbn33[Note: Introductory Secondary Sources on the Viking Age are listed and discussed at the end of the post–scroll down if that’s the part you are interested in!] 

Finally got around to watching the first episode of the new History channel miniseries “The Vikings.” Considering how poorly the Vikings typically fare in film (I’m looking at you, awkward Vikings-in-the-New-World “Pathfinder” remake), I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. There are some neat things taken from our knowledge of late Viking Age/Medieval Iceland (or rather, what sources from the latter tell us about the former–it was ‘history’ for them as well)–for example, they make the distinction between illegal secret murder and a legal killing, in which you announce what you’ve done (though the relation to feud seems a little tangled–the latter serves to enable open, reciprocal feud, rather than prevent it, as the earl’s words seem to suggest, though an anti-feud posture is arguably taken by certain Norwegian jarls and kings in the sagas). And generally, when we look this far back there is a LOT we have to speculate about, so it’s fine to guess a bit about what the religion would have looked like, etc (though let me note, the visit to the prophet doesn’t look like anything from the sources, as Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog has pointed out). Still, here are some points that bothered me (keep in mind I haven’t seen the second episode yet–it is out, right?  Also, points 1 and 4 are inspired by points made by friends on facebook… nice to know so many people who study this sort of thing…). Note also that we really know very very little about the early Viking Age, and this movie is set RIGHT in the year our history books have (slightly arbitrarily) chosen as the “start” of the Viking Age (a detail I return to below).

1) Ragnar and Rollo? Two famous Vikings happen to be brothers?  Not to mention chronological issues, though the miniseries doesn’t seem too concerned with that…  Well, even if “Rollo” is not the famous founder of Normandy, let’s at least keep both of their names in the same language. “Rollo” is the name given to Hrolf (Hrólfr) on the continent.  They would have called each other Hrólfr and Ragnarr (the -r endings mark the nominative case–would have changed depending on function in the sentence), though I imagine Hrolf and Ragnar would be OK too. Or, you know, Rob and Reggie…

2) I’m a little bothered by the hall they feast in, which looks a bit like a church gym decked out for a potluck (except for the throne…) with rows of tables, and the earl sitting above everyone before eating in a separate room entirely. I might be off here (would like to be Indiana Jones [=more archaeologically savvy], but I’m just a plain ol’ bookworm).  I have in mind the medieval Icelandic farmhouse/hall, which I believe is similar to what you would find throughout Scandinavia pre-Viking age through the early Viking age: the “high seat” was not literally a separate, higher seat, but rather the spot reserved for the chieftain/jarl/king, whoever was Big Man, in the central position on one of the benches that lined the hall (and where everyone sat relative to him was a BIG DEAL).  So, two benches, each along the walls, used as seats during gatherings, but broad and used for sleeping as well, with a long fireplace down the middle. Well, I’ll have to check with some of my archaeologist friends re: the halls of very early Viking age rulers. Still, I recommend the Icelandic film “The Outlaw” (Útlaginn) for an alternate vision of the Viking Age hall (in relatively poor Iceland, however).

3) These accents… feel a bit hokey. That’s all…  Not sure whether or not any of the actors are actually Scandinavian, but many of the accents felt a little stilted or exaggerated. But maybe I am just a jerk…

4) They treat “The West” (not the new world, but Western Europe) as though it had not been “discovered” by Norse folks yet.  While pre-Vikings didn’t drop by Heathrow all that often, they weren’t completely ignorant of the world beyond the Baltic. The Viking age itself got at least some of its momentum from the earlier rise of towns when trade shifted from routes through Frankia to routes through the Baltic (creating wealth, and the demand for more wealth), Denmark was/is/and probably will be for a long time actually ATTACHED to the rest of Europe (duh), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who settled England came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany long before the Viking Age. The series seems more interested in staging the barbaric here, the usual 13th Warrior, Hollywood, timber mud n chkns (+ swords) standard primitive early-Medieval schtick. OK, OK, there are some good references to what we actually “know” (as I mentioned above), but I still think “The Outlaw” gives a nicer (=less Hollywood) feel for the Viking Age. Whoops, I just looped back to a previous topic, didn’t I…

5) “I would never insult you–you’re too great a warrior. But perhaps not so great a man…”  Um… do they really think virility, virtue (note the virin both), and martial competence were understood as separate back then? (or now…)  Womanliness and cowardliness were essentially equivalent in the insults of the time. Penetration in battle was sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly equivalent to penetration in a sexual encounter, and the same for turning one’s back in battle (to run away) and turning one’s back so as to be… um, well… See Preben Meulengracht Sørensen’s The Unmanly Man and Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” for more…

6)  Ragnar is married to a shield maiden–OK, nice reference to the romantic liaisons between human warriors and valkyries in the Eddic poetry and elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Sigurd…and, well, at Ragnar too… look to Saxo Grammaticus for the account of his relationship w/ Lagertha). I am reluctant to admit the historical existence of warrior women in the Viking Age (excepting… well, exceptions–women may have been able to transgress gender boundaries more easily than in other places and times, though we just don’t have good access to information from that period), but hey, could be. I wouldn’t give too much credence to the sagas and heroic legends on this though–I consider those more fantasies about powerful women than survivals of actual socially acceptable roles. Doesn’t make them any less interesting to me, though. For more on this topic, see Karl Siegfried’s discussion of Éowyn in LOTR and Old Norse warrior women (he is a bit more positive about the historical likelihood of warrior women than I), and check out (again) Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” (and… well, a lot of other articles…), Jenny Jochens’ Women in Old Norse Society and Images of Old Norse Women and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. I’ll try to get to a dedicated post on the topic one of these days.

7) From the setting (fjords), I assume they are somewhere in Norway–meaning in the west, meaning closer to the apparently imaginary England than to the eastern Baltic. Norwegians and Dane typically went westward during the Viking Age, while the Swedes went east. So, the whole “we know the east, we dare not try the unknown west!” seems a bit off to me too… (OK, OK, see #4… I probably could have condensed these, huh…).

8) Feels like a whole lot that made the Vikings Vikings (according to our modern imagination) is finding its origin story here–not only two famous Viking names shoe-horned into the year we traditionally call the start of the “Viking Age” (it was no different than any other year to ‘them,’ incidentally), but the ability to sail in the open ocean (represented in three inventions all smashed into a single episode: sunboard, sunstone, and clinker built ship).  Well, less about history, more about the idea of history–par for the course. And hey, it’s not like they’re killing puppies…

Hm, pretty sure I’m forgetting some… and there is probably a lot I just didn’t think of, so oh well.  But hey, I can be a bit of a crank when it comes to… well, lots of things, so enjoy the series, just don’t take it as particularly educational! (par for the course for non-PBS ‘documentary’ TV…)

Dress Like A Viking copyRemember also to check out my brief notes on how Vikings dress (I’m not looking to argue with the series about that–again, not an archaeologist, and I really am not familiar with the full range of variation across the North and throughout the period), and remember that “Viking” literally means “Pirate,” even if nowadays people tend to treat it as a blanket term for everyone who lived in Scandinavia between 793 and 1066. Also check out this interview, and note that the historian in question has a book on the history of the Viking Age coming out next year!  Cool!  Been a long time since Gwyn Jones’ History of the Vikings.

And while my expertise lies more with the vernacular Norse literature of Medieval Iceland (which is what a lot of this is based on anyway), I have been meaning to share some general resources for the study of the Viking Age. Here are the books I used when I taught an upper division course on Viking and Medieval Scandinavia at Berkeley:

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings.  Great chapters on various aspects of the Viking Age (history-wise rather than culture-wise) and its later reception.

Medieval Scandinavia. Goes well beyond the Viking Age, but includes plenty of material on the earlier period as well. (The book Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia is also a great resource, but you will have to find it at a library).

The Vikings. Roesdahl’s introduction is still a great one (plus I modeled my illustrations for Viking clothes, shown above, on the illustrations in her book). Much more of an archaeological focus.

Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. A nice overview-source, but I did not feel like it was of the same caliber as some of the other sources–or maybe it’s just that I disagreed with the author’s take on the debate over the historical authenticity of the so-called blood-eagle ritual. Whatever. It has PICTURES!!! (Seriously though, it’s alright).

We were also going to use The World of the Vikings, but for some reason it was listed as out of print at the time–still, I found it handy to refer to occasionally (also, PICTURES!). Looks like it is available in paperback now!

I also recommend Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited in part by my friend and colleague Elisabeth Ward, as well as The Viking World (not the same as above). The latter is GINORMOUS and oriented towards more of an academic audience, but I think the Kindle version is relatively inexpensive, and the articles are still very introductory (I go to it for general points on Viking Age and Medieval archaeology). Peter Foote’s The Viking Achievement is still great as well, but I believe out of print (for a while now). If you really just want something short and quick, try The Very Short Introduction to the Vikings. I haven’t read this one, but I do like the series–in fact, I hope to talk about some of their other books (Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, etc) some other time! It is short though, so if you want anything more substantial, you will have to dig into some of the other books mentioned above. I’ll try to get around to separate posts for things like Viking Age Religion or Viking/Medieval Iceland one of these days.

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