Friday, August 29, 2008


In my post, Summer Goes On...a Little While , I mentioned that a sword is sometimes called a leek in the Poetic Eddas. Never was there a more reserved statement!

Leek is just one of the many referents to a sword in the Eddas. In fact, there's an entire convention of word usage found in Norse literature of which the leek/sword metaphor is only a simple example. For those not up on their Norse lit, this device is called a kenning, and it provides fascinating, sometimes confusing, reading. Fortunately, great translators do much of the hard work for me, and I'm left with mostly the fascination as I read in modern English. Here's an example from the Poetic Edda, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, stanza 7 as translated by Carolyn Larrington. I'm reading two translations simultaneously, so below that is Henry Adams Bellows' version of the same stanza.

To the men it seemed that he was a prince,
they said to one another that a good year had come;
the noble lord himself came from the tumult of battle
to bring a shining leek to the young nobleman.

The warrior throng a ruler thought him,
Good times, they said, mankind should see;
The king himself from battle-press came,
To give the prince a leek full proud.

Kennings, though, are often much more complex than a simple substitution such as leek for sword. After reading a while, it gets easier to recognize and then to appreciate kennings. I can only imagine what it must have been like to listen to the complicated, prose example (below) given in the Wiki article and understand it without the research I require to do the same.

Ulls of war-leek! We carried the seed of Fyrisvellir on the mountains of hawks during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden the flour of Frodi's hapless slaves in the flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantess.

The mental process of decryption must have been an integral part of the tale's effect. I'm fortunate to have gotten to the point that friend of the wolves means to me a warrior who slays many (thereby leaving much carrion for the wolves). As my familiarity with kennings and the mythology and the customs of these people grows, I am curious to return to earlier reading, especially Y Gododdin, in which I anticipate new worlds to open, both in meaning and in effect.

I'm also beginning to appreciate this literature (read in a deceptive form in high school) as the general expression of a larger culture. Kennings are at their most complex, their height, in Norse and Icelandic literature, but only a peek into the Northern European literatures and pre-Christian culture. I'm getting a feel for the immigrations of Germanic people to the north and west. I also see how once the Celts had migrated to Ireland, Wales and northward to western Scotland, there was a great deal of traffic between the Celts and the Norse. There are loan words from English and Irish in the Poetic Eddas, for example. If only we had literature of the Picts, we'd likely see the same pre-Christian exchanges with northern and eastern Scotland. The Orkneys and Shetland, Isle of Man, the Western Isles, of course, were occupied by Scandinavians, and their footprints are all over that region.

The kennings, by painting images, by engaging me in the riddle, by invoking my knowledge of myths and customs, have the power of putting me in the seat of the native listener nearby the great fire at the middle of the mead-hall. Often, as a consequence of all this, I have, as I'm reading, an irresistible urge come over me, that is, to drink a lager!

For a last taste of this engaging literature, here are six stanzas (from Larrington) near the end of Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, Poetic Eddas. This scene in which the valkyrie Sigrun sleeps with her dead lover must be one of the most poignant in literature. Briefly, Sigrun has returned to the burial mound of Helgi, and she says to him:

First I want to kiss the lifeless king,
before you throw off your bloody mail-coat;
your hair, Helgi, is thick with hoar-frost,
the prince is all soaked in slaughter-dew,
Hogni's son-in-law has clammy hands.
How, lord, can I find a remedy for this?

You alone, Sigrun, from Sefafell,
cause Helgi to be soaked in sorrow-dew;
you weep, gold-adorned lady, bitter tears,
sun-bright southern girl, before you go to sleep;
each falls bloody on the breast of the prince,
cold as dew, burning hot, thick with grief.

We ought to drink this precious liquid,
though we have lost our love and our lands;
no man should sing a lament for me,
though on my breast wounds can be seen;
now the lady is enclosed in the mound,
a human woman with us, the departed.

Sigrun made up a bed in the mound.

Here I've made you, Helgi, a bed all ready;
descendant of the Ylfings, now free from care
in your arms, lord, I'll sleep,
as I would with the prince, when he was living.

I say that nothing could be less expected,
neither early nor late at Sefafell,
that you should sleep in the arms of a dead man,
white lady, in the tomb, Hogni's daughter,
and you alive, and royally born.

It is time for me to ride along the blood-red roads,
to set the pale horse to tread the path in the sky;
I must cross the bridge in the sky-vault,
before Salgofnir awakens the victorious people.

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