Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Poetic Eddas: First Impression

I finished reading both translations of the Poetic Eddas, but I am by no means finished with them. They are friggin' fascinating.

I went into them expecting warrior elite tales along the line of Beowulf and Y Gododdin, but they are nothing like that. Well, they are like that...I mean...much flashing of swords and spilling of blood, hearts on platters and honor and revenge and so forth, but the Eddas are all about...duhn duhn duhn...women. Women are prime movers and shapers of events. Females, whether goddess, valkyrie or mortal, share the role of prophecy and the knowledge of runes. Women act as advisors, the sages. Even Odin, their equal in this respect, says, "Advise me now, Frigg, I intend to journey...."* It's a seeress who reveals the nature of the beginning and the end of the world to Odin. In all these tales, women control wealth, lands, and men.

There is a difference between the role of goddesses and mortal women. Goddesses are powerful and wise, but the divine tales are primarily of the actions of gods, Thor and Odin and Loki. Gods often act on their own motives, independent of the will of a goddess. In the mortal tales, on the other hand, men do much of the slaying but they do it for and/or because of women—although women are not above killing. Women are sometimes in love, loving, ambitious, angry, vengeful, prophetic, sorcerous, betrayed, traitorous, wise, etc. These human qualities, embodied in women, provide the impetus of the storylines.

Notably, it's women who suffer. Although women possess power, they are also victims. In the Lay of Volund, for example, one of the strangest of the Eddas I thought (a mix of magic, semi-divine beings, craft and mortal regret), Bodvild is raped by Volund (Weland the Smith). "He overcame her with beer, because he was more experienced." She laments the event and the child with which he leaves her, "I did not know how to strive against him, I was not able to strive against him!"

In another tragedy as gut wrenching and sorrowful as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, Brynhild, too, suffers. This time, from betrayal. She arranges the death of the lover whom she was denied, Sigurd, in revenge against him. Brynhild's reaction is as tragic as the circumstance. She wakes in the night, Sigurd's death heavy on her mind.

little could they understand the behaviour of women,
now that, weeping, she began to speak of
that which, laughing, she'd asked the men for.

In the end, Brynhild takes her own life upon a sword.

Gudrun (Guthrun), especially, suffers within the Sigurd stories, yet she is also vengeful and, at one point, fights as a shield-maiden. At another, she kills her two sons in revenge against her second husband. All her children are eventually killed before her death. Her laments are excruciating.

Three fires have I known, three hearths have I known
to three husbands' houses I was brought.
Sigurd alone for me was better than all others,
whom my brothers did to death.

The men come off as brave, yet somewhat simple-minded; Atli (Attila), for example, in the Greenlandic Poem of Atli;

The prince's credulity was enough for him to believe this,
her treachery was clear if he had looked out for it.

The Lay of Fafnir, the simplest of the Eddas to my mind is, also, without a direct feminine presence. A tale of manly arms and battle with a dragon, it is most like Beowulf. The following stanza, spoken by Sigurth, is not unlike something Beowulf might speak.

My courage whetted me, my hands assisted me
and my sharp sword;
few are brave when they become old,
if they are cowardly in childhood.

Unlike Beowulf, though, it doesn't end without reference to a greater cycle of stories, all which prominently figure women. In fact, the gold which Sigurth wins from the dragon, Fafnir, whom he kills, becomes, in a way, the basis of all subsequent strife. Near the end, the nuthatches** tell Sigurth, "I know a girl, the fairest by far, endowed with gold, yet you could win her," and thus begin the saga.

These are my brief, general impressions at first reading, but there are a lot of stories, composed in different centuries, in different languages, collected from a wide region, transmitted by various means, poem, prose, song, written and oral. So far, all I really know is that on opening the box, I've discovered "resounding gold and glowing red treasure," and I have gold-lust for the "fire of the serpent's bed." With the Edda's words, stories, history and culture, I'm in love.

*translations by Carolyne Larrington
**While I write, I hear nuthatches outside my window. I wonder what they're saying.

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