Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003
Snorri Sturluson (1178—1241)
In 2002, a tourist could sign up for a “Snorri Sturlusson Saga Tour—History and Horses,” described in seductive terms as “a mix of history and natural wonder on a ride through an area that is also important to the ancient arts of Icelandic writing.” (His name appears variously as Snorri or Snorre, Sturluson, Sturlusson, or Sturlason.)
Snorri is the most valuable personage in Old Icelandic literature, and it is thanks to him that many texts were preserved. He was a conscientious historian and antiquarian. The Prose Edda includes the “Skáldskaparmál” (on poetic diction, especially as applied to divine beings) and the “Háttatal” (on meter). Medieval documents illuminate the practice and status of poets in all old Germanic cultures, since they all used the same devices and materials in their poetry. Old English poetry robustly participates in the medieval Germanic traditions represented by Snorri’s writings. Iceland, remote and conservative, preserved many traits of medieval language and literature long after they had been outgrown or abandoned by Germanic peoples in Britain and on the continent. A kinship with Iceland persisted from the Middle Ages through the work of William Morris in the nineteenth century and W. H. Auden in the twentieth. An acquaintance with medieval Germanic poetry—with its runes, charms, riddles, and fabulous stories of heroes, monsters, and so forth—helps the modern reader to appreciate the roots of modern fictions by J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, to say nothing of science fiction, much of which has looked into the future and found mostly medieval stories of saberswinging knights and blood feuds. Another modern repository of recycled medieval lore is the group of musical dramas by Richard Wagner, many of which are based on legends from Iceland and elsewhere. Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung even employs an alliterative style that Snorri would probably have found congenial.
SKÁLDSKAPARMÁL (POETIC DICTION; CA. A.D. 1225)
Adapted from Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916).
ÆGIR PLAYS HOST TO THE ÆSIR
There was a man called Ægir or Hlér, who lived on the island now known as Hlésey [or Læsö]. He was very skilled in magic. He went on an expedition to Asgarð to visit the Æsir, who foresaw his journey and made him welcome, although they also worked a good many spells for him. When drinking-time in the evening came round, Óðin had swords brought into the hall and they were so bright that they illuminated it, and no other lights were used while the drinking went on.
Then the Æsir held festival, and twelve, that is those Æsir who had to be judges, sat down in their high seats. Their names are as follows: Thór, Njörð, Frey, Tÿr, Heimdall, Bragi, Víðar, Válí, Ull, Hœnir, Forseti, Loki; the goddesses who did likewise were Frigg, Freyja, Gefjon, Idunn, Gerð, Sigyn, Fulla, Nanna. Everything he saw there seemed splendidly lavish to Ægir. All the paneling was covered with fine shields. Moreover the mead was heady and a great deal of it was drunk. Bragi sat next Ægir and they occupied themselves in drinking and exchanging stories. Bragi told Ægir many tales about the doings of the gods.
THJAZI THE GIANT KIDNAPS IDUNN
He began relating how once three Æsir, Óðin, Loki and Hœnir, had left home and traveled over mountains and desert places without any provisions. Coming down into a valley they saw a herd of oxen and took one and set about cooking it. When they thought it was ready and scattered the fire, it was not done.
Some time later when they scattered the fire for a second time and it was [still] uncooked, they began to discuss amongst themselves what could be the cause. Then they heard a voice from an oak tree above them say that what was sitting up there was preventing their meat from being done. They looked up and saw an eagle sitting there, and it wasn’t a small one.
The eagle said: “If you give me my fill of the ox, then your meat will get done.”
They agreed to this. Then it sailed down from the tree and settling on the meat snatched up at once, without any hesitation, two of the thighs and both the shoulders of the ox.
At that Loki grew angry and catching up a great stick and thrusting with all his might he drove it into the eagle’s body. The eagle recoiled from the blow and flew up into the air with one end of the stick stuck firmly in its back and Loki clinging to the other. The eagle was flying only just high enough for Loki’s feet to be dragging along stones and scree and bushes, and he thought his arms would be pulled from their sockets. He called out imploring the eagle for mercy but it replied that it would not let Loki go unless he swore an oath to bring it Idunn and her apples out of Asgarð. Loki was willing so he was released and went back to his companions, and no more is told of their journey on this occasion until they came home.
At the time agreed on, Loki enticed Idunn out from Asgarð into a wood, telling her that he had found some apples she would prize greatly and asking her to bring her own with her for comparison. Then the giant Thjazi came there in the form of an eagle, and seizing Idunn flew away with her to his house in Thrymheim.
LOKI TRICKS IDUNN AND HELPS THJAZI
The Æsir, however, were much dismayed at Idunn’s disappearance, and they soon grew old and gray-haired. They held an assembly and asked one another when Idunn had last been heard of, and realized that the last time she had been seen she was going out of Asgarð with Loki. Then Loki was captured and brought to the assembly and threatened with death or torture. He grew so frightened that he said he would go after Idunn into Giantland, if Freyja would lend him her falcon coat.
When he got the falcon coat, he flew north to Giantland. Loki arrived at the giant Thjazi’s on a day when he had gone out rowing on the sea and Idunn was at home alone. Loki changed her into the form of a nut, and holding her in his claws flew off at top speed. When Thjazi came home, however, and saw that Idunn was missing, he assumed the shape of an eagle and flew after Loki, with a tremendous rush of air in his wake. The Æsir, seeing the falcon flying with the nut and the eagle in pursuit, went out under the walls of Asgarð carrying bundles of plane shavings. When the falcon reached the stronghold, he dropped plumb down at the fortress wall and then the Æsir set fire to the plane shavings. The eagle, however, was unable to check his course when he lost the falcon and his feathers caught fire and then he did stop. The Æsir were hard by then and they killed the giant Thjazi inside the gates, and that slaying is very famous.
Now giant Thjazi’s daughter Skaði took helmet, coat-of-mail and a complete outfit of weapons and went to Asgarð to avenge her father. The Æsir, however, offered her compensation and damages, and first that she should choose a husband from amongst the Æsir and choose him by his feet without seeing any more of him.
Then she saw a very beautiful pair of feet and said: “I choose this one; there’s not much that’s ugly about Baldr!”
But that was Njörð of Nóatún.
A further condition was that the Æsir should make her laugh—which she thought would be impossible. When Loki, however, by his tricks succeeded in doing this their reconciliation was complete… .
We are told that (Óðin [further] compensated her by taking Thjazi’s eyes and throwing them up into the sky, making of them two stars.
Then Ægir said: “It seems to me that Thjazi was very powerful. What family did he come from?”
Bragi replied: “His father was called Ölvaldi and you would find it interesting if I told you about him. He possessed a great deal of gold and when he died and his sons were going to divide the inheritance, they allotted the gold they were sharing between them in this way: each was to take the same-sized mouthfuls of it. Thjazi was one of them, Iði the second, and Gang the third. So now we have the expression by which we call gold the mouthful of these giants, and we conceal it in runes or poetry by calling it their speech or words or reckoning.”
Ægir asked again: “Where did the accomplishment known as poetry come from?”
Bragi answered: “The beginning of it was that the gods were at war with the people known as the Vanir and they arranged for a peace-meeting between them and made a truce in this way: they both went up to a crock and spat into it. When they were going away, the gods took the truce token and would not allow it to be lost, and made of it a man. He was called Kvasir. He is so wise that nobody asks him any question he is unable to answer.
“He traveled far and wide over the world to teach men wisdom and came once to feast with some dwarfs, Fjalar and Galar. These called him aside for a word in private and killed him, letting his blood run into two crocks and one kettle. The kettle was called Óðrörir, but the crocks were known as Són and Boðn. They mixed his blood with honey, and it became the mead which makes whoever drinks of it a poet or scholar. The dwarfs told the Æsir that Kvasir had choked with learning, because there was no one sufficiently well informed to compete with him in knowledge.
“Then the dwarfs invited a giant called Gilling to their home with his wife, and they asked him to go out rowing on the sea with them. When they were far out, however, the dwarfs rowed on to a rock and upset the boat. Gilling could not swim and was drowned, but the dwarfs righted their craft and rowed ashore. They told his wife about this accident and she was very distressed and wept aloud. Fjalar asked her if she would be easier in her mind about it if she looked out to sea in the direction of where he had been drowned. She wanted to do this. Then he spoke with his brother Galar, telling him to climb up above the door when she was going out and let a millstone fall on to her head; he said he was tired of her wailing. Galar did so.
“When Gilling’s son, Suttung, heard of this, he went to the dwarfs and seized them and took them out to sea and put them on to a skerry covered by the tide.1 They begged Suttung to spare their lives offering him as compensation for his father the precious mead, and that brought about their reconciliation. Suttung took the mead home and hid it in a place called Hnitbjörg and he appointed his daughter Gunnlöð as its guardian. This is why we call poetry Kvasir’s blood, or dwarfs’ drink: or intoxication, or some sort of liquid of Óðrörir or Boðn or Són, or dwarfs’ ship, because it was that mead which ransomed them from death on the skerry, or Suttung’s mead or Hnitibjörg’s sea.”
Then Ægir spoke: “It seems to me that to call poetry by these names obscures things. How did the Æsir acquire Suttung’s mead?”
HOW ODIN WON THE MEAD
Bragi answered: “The story goes that Óðin left home once and came across nine serfs mowing hay. He asked if they would like him to sharpen their scythes and they said they would. So he took a hone from his belt and put an edge on their tools and they all thought they cut much better and wanted to buy the hone. He stipulated that the would-be purchaser should pay for it by giving a banquet. They replied they were all willing to do this and asked him to hand it over to them. He threw the hone up into the air, however, and as they all wanted to catch it, it ended with them all cutting one another’s throats with their scythes.
“Óðin sought lodgings for the night with Suttung’s brother, a giant called Baugi. Baugi said that his affairs were in a bad way; he told him that nine of his serfs had been killed and said that he had no hope of finding any other laborers. Óðin, giving his name as Bölverk, offered to do the work of nine men for Baugi, and asked as wages one drink of Suttung’s mead. Baugi told him that he had nothing to do with the mead, adding that Suttung was anxious to keep it under his sole control, but he professed himself willing to go along with Bölverk to try to get hold of it.
“That summer Bölverk did the work of nine men for Baugi, and when winter came he asked Baugi for his wages. Then they both went to Suttung. Baugi told his brother Suttung of his bargain with Bölverk, but Suttung flatly refused them a single drop of mead. Then Bölverk said to Baugi that they must try to get hold of the mead by some kind of trick. Baugi said that that was a good idea. Bölverk then brought out the auger called Rati and said that if the auger would pierce it, Baugi was to bore a hole through the mountain. He did so. When Baugi said that the mountain had been pierced through, Bölverk blew into the hole left by the auger but chips flew up into his face. He realized then that Baugi wanted to cheat him, and told him to bore right through. Baugi bored again, and when Bölverk blew into the hole for the second time the chips were blown [all the way] through. Then Bölverk changed himself into a serpent and crawled into the auger-hole. Baugi stabbed at him with the auger but missed him.
“Bölverk came to where Gunrlöð was, and slept with her for three nights, and then she promised him three drinks of the mead. At his first drink he drank up all that was in Óðrörir, at his second, Boðn, and at his third, Són—and then he had finished all the mead. Then he changed himself into an eagle and flew away at top speed.
“When Suttung saw the eagle in flight, however, he also took on eagle shape and flew after him. Now when the Æsir saw where Óðin was flying, they put their crocks out in the courtyard, and when Óðin came inside Asgarð he spat the mead into the crocks. It was such a close shave that Suttung did not catch him, however, that he let some fall, but no one bothered about that. Anyone who wanted could have it; we call it the poetasters’ share. Óðin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and those men who can compose poetry. So we call poetry Óðin’s catch, Óðin’s discovery, his drink and his gift, and the drink: of the Æsir.”
1. Skerry [a Scandinavian word surviving in parts of Scotland once under Scandinavian domination]: “A rugged insulated sea-rock or stretch of rocks, covered by the sea at high water or in stormy weather; a reef” (OED).