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Those feet of a wench in her wimple...
November 28, 2009 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Viking love poems (not to be confused with Vogon poetry). 200 years before medieval troubadours "created" romantic poetry, skalds such as Gunnlaug Snaketongue, Hallfred the Troublesome Poet and Kormak Ogmundarson told of their hearts' ecstasies and despairs.

Other Viking poets such as the mighty Egil Skallagrimsson (prev 1 2) cover more predictable subjects, such as killing ("the ugly music of the spears" -- "I carved the wolf's carrion/And killed them all") and vomiting ("Many a guest's gift/Is even more gushing;/Now the ale has ended up/All over Armod"). Here's a poem he wrote at age 6 about killing a playmate with an axe after a ball game. (SMI audio file, in Old Norse).

Eddaic Norse poetry is simpler in language and meter; Skaldic verse is distinguished by alliteration and kenning, the use of riddle-like indirect allusions. Meters used.
posted by msalt (46 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's a poem he wrote at age 6 about killing a playmate with an axe after a ball game.

If anything, this is at least proof that people can change. 1000 years ago, my ancestors were like this. Today we have universal healthcare, IKEA and nude volleyball.

Still way too much drinking, of course, but murder and rape is almost unheard of. If we can change, anybody can.
posted by Avenger at 4:22 PM on November 28, 2009 [8 favorites]


vikings did not wear horned helmets, wall street journal, and the cliche is actually not based in any kind of truth unless one considers Wagner to be historically accurate.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:27 PM on November 28, 2009


oh, and Ikea is actually run by Nazi's. But nude volleyball, as far as I know, is still pure goodness.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:30 PM on November 28, 2009


vikings did not wear horned helmets, wall street journal

Does anyone else perceive a drop in WSJ quality since Murdoch bought them? It may be confirmation bias, since I dropped my subscription when he did expecting this, but whenever I pick it up I'm struck by increased tabloidity and political axe-grinding.
posted by msalt at 4:31 PM on November 28, 2009


Alliterative verse always sounds a little goofy to me, at least when the alliteration holds up in modern English translation. A is for ALE which is ALL over ARMOD. W is for WENCH who is WEARING a WIMPLE. You wind up with this Dick And Jane Overthrow the Khazars sort of vibe.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:35 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Was I the only one bothered by the usage of the word "heathen"* in the WSJ article? The whole thing seemed like a backhanded compliment. "Amazingly, despite being so backwards and barbaric, they managed to have emotions".

* the word means "not belonging to an Abrahamic religion" and the antonyms are "cultured, sophisticated, civilized"
posted by idiopath at 4:39 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Poetry in Scandinavia and the North from The Viking Answer Lady
posted by netbros at 4:39 PM on November 28, 2009


You wind up with this Dick And Jane Overthrow the Khazars sort of vibe.

Dr. Snus?
posted by msalt at 4:40 PM on November 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


Hallfred the Troublesome Poet.

Del tha Funkee Homosapien.

Coincidence? I think NOT!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:45 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Those feet of a wench in her wimple

God, I love that line.

but... what's a wimple?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:49 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wimple
posted by Jahaza at 4:55 PM on November 28, 2009


His book "The Vikings: A History," was published by Viking this week.

..but of course
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 4:57 PM on November 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


vikings did not wear horned helmets, wall street journal, and the cliche is actually not based in any kind of truth

I learned this in 6th grade when writing about vikings, and made a note to clarify this fact when I used a Far Side comic (one of my few graphics in the report) that featured horned helmets. One point for junior filthy light thief!

Sidenote: do people really associate vikings with blood eagles? Who really thinks of blood eagles all that often?

Back to the topic of viking poetry: I approve.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:57 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


... what's a wimple?

The odd thing is that a wimple is worn around one's head. Making me wonder, just where were her ankles?
posted by olgaps at 4:57 PM on November 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Still way too much drinking, of course, but murder and rape is almost unheard of. If we can change, anybody can.

C'mon Avenger, deep down in your bones, don;t you just wanna ransack an Irishman? I mean village. Ransack an Irish village.

whew, close one there, keep it TOGETHER McMillan
posted by The Whelk at 4:58 PM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


The Vikings were a nasty bunch, though growing up in Sweden you won't hear that. Mostly what you'll hear is how the Vikings were primarily traders, and their long travels were purely for trading purposes, but they also as an aside formed the state of Russia, discovered America and Greenland, and were quite sophisticated craftsmen etc. Not much about the rapes and pillaging up and down the coasts of Europe. Doesn't every nation emphasize the positives and downplay the negatives? Sure there was poetry, but there was a lot of nasty stuff too, and I think for people living in those times the nasty aspects were a much more prominent part of their lives than poetry. There has always been the tricky question of whether Christianity did in fact somewhat "civilize" these natives (i.e. Vikings), or whether Christianity was a net negative in that it eradicated the aboriginal culture, and so we have much less of what might have been of Viking culture, including poetry.
posted by VikingSword at 4:59 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


If anything, this is at least proof that people can change. 1000 years ago, my ancestors were like this. Today we have universal healthcare, IKEA and nude volleyball.


That's because the ones with gumption emigrated to the new world -- the Vikings left behind were lazy slackers who preferred nude volleyball over schoolyard violence. Decline of a civilization, indeed.
posted by Forktine at 5:12 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


That Hallfreðr Óttarsson - so troublesome! He was the Viking Marmaduke.
posted by Iridic at 5:12 PM on November 28, 2009


whether Christianity did in fact somewhat "civilize"

Agh, that word. One look at the history of the Crusades, Inquisition, or conquest of the New World will serve to reveal how sadly ironic this persistent myth is.

or whether Christianity was a net negative in that it eradicated the aboriginal culture

Eradicated might be too strong a word; it was a syncretic process, and Christianity absorbed certain pagan customs, adopted key holidays, and took in a fair amount of European aboriginal culture throughout the middle ages (see design, folklore, etc.).

It's not necessarily an either/or scenario.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 5:19 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Vikings were a nasty bunch, though growing up in Sweden you won't hear that.

That's not my experience, people are aware of it, but you are right about people not feeling ashamed of their villainous heritage. Not that I think anyone have any reason to derive either pleasure or pain from the behavior of ancestors, but those who do care about that kind of stuff, seem to feel pride if anything. I think the notion that they were so powerful is such an attractive attribute that people will look the other way when it comes to the other stuff. You can see the same thing in other cultures. There are a lot of places where jinghis khan is looked up to. Even Vlad the impaler is revered in his native country.
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 5:20 PM on November 28, 2009


The odd thing is that a wimple is worn around one's head. Making me wonder, just where were her ankles?

That pose is the wench-y part.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:31 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hallfred the Troublesome Poet. Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Coincidence? I think NOT!

My name is Hallfred and I'm here to say
I'm a troublesome poet, ain't goin' away
I pen rhymes, then I blood-eagle saints
Sometimes I'm horny, but my helmet ain't!
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 5:41 PM on November 28, 2009 [13 favorites]


C'mon Avenger, deep down in your bones, don;t you just wanna ransack an Irishman? I mean village.

I'd be one of the vikings who wanted an Irishman to bone his ransack.

Wait, what were we talking about?
posted by Avenger at 5:42 PM on November 28, 2009


That's not Del tha Funkee Homosapien, that's Chiquita Banana. No horns because they'd get in the way of the fruit, I guess.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:49 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


200 years before medieval troubadours "created" romantic poetry

Romantic poetry existed in the classical world, such as Ovid's "Art of Love". I think you mean the idea of Courtly Love, which was new to Christian Europe the 11th century. It was probably Arabic in origin, Moorish 9th and 10th century, crossing north into Provence with the wandering troubadours.
posted by stbalbach at 5:52 PM on November 28, 2009


Denmark was "Christianized" by the the early 11th century, well before end of the "Viking era", so it's pretty hard to argue that it was a civilizing influence. When the Normans (i.e., the French Vikings) conquered England, they had the blessing of Pope Alexander II for their cause.

The Vikings were no more or less civilized that the other Europeans of the time.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:54 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I took a class on the sagas once. The kennings are what make a lot of Icelandic poetry difficult to understand. To know that "destroyers of eagle’s hunger" == "warriors", you must know that the eagles were carrion birds and recognize that to destroy their hunger, or feed them, meant killing. And those are the easy ones.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:00 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hallfred the Troublesome Poet

I'm sure I've got some of his chapbooks lying around, although I don't think they've gotten any better over the years.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:06 PM on November 28, 2009


From the article:
documenting the ecstasies and despairs of romantic love as early as the late 10th century, some 200 years before the medieval troubadours we typically credit as being the world's first true Romantic poets.
This is factually wrong, in a big way. I'm surprised a scholar who just published a book could get it so wrong, yet it certainly makes his book seem more important. In fact "love poems" (of the Courtly Love tradition) were being written by the Moors in the 8th and 9th century, with cross cultural transmission northward into southern France - it's generally recognized the 11th century is the start (not the 13th) although one could make a case to push it back further. As well since the Vikings were such long distance traders they could have been exposed to Arabic literature and/or southern France bringing it back northward, just as they brought other bits of southern culture north (it's the very story of European history, a south to north cultural transmission).
posted by stbalbach at 6:09 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


These Viking poems are surprisingly metaphorical for such literal people.
posted by chrchr at 6:38 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


whether Christianity did in fact somewhat "civilize"

Consider Norway's King Olaf I (Olaf Tryggvasson), one of the great Christian prosletizers:
By destroying temples and torturing and killing pagan resisters he succeeded in making every part of Norway at least nominally Christian. (wiki)

When Norse chieftain Raud the Strong refused to convert, Olaf put a metal horn down his throat, filled it with a poisonous snake and heated the far end to drive the snake down. He also killed Eyvind Kinnrifi for not converting by putting a metal brazier full of burning coals on his chest. Another time he inivited several local socerers to a party, then burned down the house.

Encyclopedia Romana: Even in proposing to the mysterious queen of Sweden, Sigrid the Haughty, Olaf insisted that she be baptized. But when she demurred, saying that "'I must not part from the faith which I have held, and my forefathers before me; and, on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the god that pleases you best,'" Olaf was so incensed that he struck her with his glove, declaring, "'Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, and a heathen bitch?'" To this insult, she ominously replied that "This may well be thy death."

She then formed the naval alliance that killed him in battle.
posted by msalt at 7:17 PM on November 28, 2009 [9 favorites]


Hah, I had in fact been considering making an FPP about the kenning. It started out as an explanation of my nickname* to be put in my profile, but this post is very similar to what I'd have put together so I'll let it be.

*It's a kenning for "death."
posted by aldurtregi at 7:36 PM on November 28, 2009


the mysterious queen of Sweden, Sigrid the Haughty

And from eight tiny words let a thousand fantasy novels bloom.
posted by The Whelk at 8:14 PM on November 28, 2009


You should make an FPP on kenning, Aldurtregi. I've heard (but can't document) that Beowulf was a kenning for bear. Beowulf=bee+wolf, wolf=thief, bears steal honey from bees, ergo...
posted by olgaps at 8:14 PM on November 28, 2009


I took a class on the sagas once. The kennings are what make a lot of Icelandic poetry difficult to understand. To know that "destroyers of eagle’s hunger" == "warriors", you must know that the eagles were carrion birds and recognize that to destroy their hunger, or feed them, meant killing. And those are the easy ones.

I am now racking my brain trying to think of the sci-fi or some other such genre short story where they used dense, metaphorical and obscure poetry references as encryption for battle messages.
posted by The Whelk at 8:17 PM on November 28, 2009


though growing up in Sweden you won't hear that.

Not my experience either. I remember in middle school, running around with my fellow classmates, playing violent vikings and being fiercly proud of "From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord" and stuff like that. It's just very badass when you're a certain age. The fact that Swedish vikings were quite wussy compared to Danish and Norwegian vikings didn't stop us.

Nowadays I've left the "badass aspect" behind (as you should) and stuff like viking poetry is much more appealing to me. So I really appreciate this post, despite some shortcomings in the WSJ article!
posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:37 AM on November 29, 2009


In fact "love poems" (of the Courtly Love tradition) were being written by the Moors in the 8th and 9th century, with cross cultural transmission northward into southern France - it's generally recognized the 11th century is the start (not the 13th) although one could make a case to push it back further.

Mefi's own Kattullus, for instance! I mean, Catullus. Or Sappho etc.

Even Vlad the impaler is revered in his native country.

He also fought to retain its independence when not busy staking people, drinking blood and sparkling in the sun. Sorry.
posted by ersatz at 4:30 AM on November 29, 2009


Yup, love poems go back a long way. I am particularly fond of a Middle Kingdom Egyptian poem that reads in part : "with you I am happy, even without beer." Ah, how little love has changed...
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:35 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Viking Answer Lady website has a lot of good general information on the real Vikings, and some good links, such as the section on armor/helmets (and the lack of horns). Also, this website for an exhibit from a few years ago has good info. on the Vikings and North America.

Ah, aldurtregi, I would love a FPP on kennings!

Beowulf in Old English is full of kennings, for example, with many kennings for ships and the sea (one of my favorites being "whale road"). This is one of the reasons Beowulf in modern English translation loses so much of its poetry.
posted by gudrun at 11:37 AM on November 29, 2009


olgaps: You should make an FPP on kenning, Aldurtregi. I've heard (but can't document) that Beowulf was a kenning for bear. Beowulf=bee+wolf, wolf=thief, bears steal honey from bees, ergo...

This is very similar to the form in Russian: bear = medved (m,ed-v,ed; read the comma as a softening of the previous consonant, halfway to a y). Med = honey, ved = seeker.

I'm not sure if, in this particular case, it is a kenning. In many of the older northern religions, bears were sacred and dangerous spirit-animals, and saying their true names would bring on their wrath. Much as Plouton, the wealthy one, was used in greek to denote Hades, and thence became the name of the ruler of underworld for the Romans.
posted by Araucaria at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Araucaria: bears were sacred and dangerous spirit-animals, and saying their true names would bring on their wrath

So kenning is not about "He-Whose-Name-Must-Not-Be-Spoken"? I guess I assumed that was the motivation.
posted by msalt at 1:05 PM on November 29, 2009


The Whelk: the mysterious queen of Sweden, Sigrid the Haughty

Until the gloomy winter day when Lobdur the Unbridled One stormed into her castle with his magnificent steed...
posted by msalt at 1:09 PM on November 29, 2009


Arab poetry was certainly heard by the Norse in the 9th Century when al-Ghazal led a diplomatic mission from Andalusia to the majus and flirted with the mysterious Queen Aud. W.E.D. Allen investigated this event in 1960 and came up with the notion that Aud was Queen of Turgeis' Ireland: The Poet and the Spae-Wife (PDF). Others think she was Danish and her husband Hrorik. Some party-poopers say (PDF, page 5) that Aud never existed but they can be ignored. (Because it's such a great story!)
These articles are from Sagabook, the journal of The Viking Society for Northern Research. The Viking Society is putting all of its publications (over a century's worth!) on-line. You can find essays on scaldic poetry, the sagas of Cormac the Skald and Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, (all PDFs) and much more here.
posted by CCBC at 3:11 PM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I guess I assumed that was the motivation.

Well, any theory* about kennings will be mostly guesswork but in some instances they seem to have been a kind of bonus for the knowledgeable listener. For instance, if I were to tell you a story about Odin but only refer to him with a kenning such as "One-eye," you would have had to know the story of him trading his eye for a drink from Mímir's Well in order to know who I was talking about. Used in that way maybe the hope was the kennings would encourage the listener to seek out more stories to enhance their understanding.

Another idea I've heard told is that the more metaphorical kennings were brain-teasers or puzzles to engage the audience and include them in the storytelling process.

I can just imagine a family gathered around the baðstofa listening to a favourite uncle tell a story most have never heard before and being stumped when he mentions something like the "destroyers of eagle’s hunger" that CheeseDigestsAll mentioned before and then their joy when they manage to figure it out between them. In the deep of winter this was the only entertainment to be had for most people so the audience must have been enthusiastic.

*Sidenote: the modern Icelandic word for "theory" is "kenning."
posted by aldurtregi at 4:03 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


In many of the older northern religions, bears were sacred and dangerous spirit-animals, and saying their true names would bring on their wrath.

Apparently the word for bear in several Slavic languages ("medved" in Russian, for example) started as such an euphemism, meaning "eater of honey". The true primal word for "bear" has been lost.

I heard the same thing about wolves as well.
posted by acb at 6:46 AM on November 30, 2009


"Ha, ha, ha! Sweet Aud! Your logic is insane and happenstance, like that of a troll. It is no wonder that the bar matrons talk of you!"

Oh wait. That's this one and not that one.

My dad and boyfriend put on our Viking helmets and wigs at Thanksgiving and pounded the table with their cutlery. Not poetry, but very very funny. I've been on a saga-reading kick of late (hurrah for the Kindle!).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:54 AM on December 1, 2009


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