Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Songs of the Vikings

"I know giants of ages past, … I know how nine roots form nine worlds / below the Earth where the Ash Tree rises..."

Last week I heard the "Song of the Sibyl" for the first time. I'd read this classic Old Icelandic poem, this witch's vision of the creation and destruction of the world many times in both English and the original language. I'd written about it in my book Song of the Vikings: “What troubles the gods? What troubles the elves?”

But never before had I heard someone recite it. In Old Icelandic, spontaneously, spouting off a few stanzas to make his point.

I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the yearly conference of 5,000 or so of my fellow wizards, um, medieval scholars. One I'd particularly hoped to meet was Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland. I knew him for his translations of Icelandic folklore, but Gunnell is most interested in drama--old drama, like that of the Poetic Edda, which to me was never drama before but just a bunch of poems on a page. Some, like "Song of the Sibyl," I found quite moving. Others I thought were silly.

Then I listened to Gunnell speak on "Performance and the Study of Old Norse Religions."

When we read an oral poem silently, we "necessarily" take it out of context, Gunnell said, quoting the great scholar of oral literature John Miles Foley.

Added Gunnell, "We ignore the 'happening.'" The two poems he was talking about, Eiriksmál and Hákonarmál (loosely, "the Lay of Eirik" and "the Lay of Hakon"), "were not intended as written texts. They were meant as soundscapes presented to an audience who brought knowledge to them. They demand movement in space and gesture."

Think of a mead hall like the one in Beowulf,  or our Hollywood image of Valhalla, or Beorn's hall in Tolkien's The Hobbit: a great wood-ceilinged hall with tree trunks for pillars, a long fire bisecting it, benches full of boisterous Vikings (or dwarves in Tolkien's version) brandishing their drinking horns. Someone stands up and starts reciting Hákonarmal.

"The room is dark and smoky," said Gunnell. "The long fire is raising shadows. Impure alcohol has been imbibed. The performer is saying I. He's using the words in here. He's putting himself into the role of Odin, and the audience finds itself playing a role as well: We are the dead heroes of Valhalla and Ragnarok is about to become…

"We need to get away from seeing these poems as literature and to think of them more like music," Gunnell said in the Q&A afterwards. "Listen to the music of Völuspá"--it's here he started reciting it, the syllables crashing and clashing. It wasn't at all like the version on YouTube by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, which is all smooth and lilting and frankly puts me to sleep:

Gunnell's version was more like the concert I saw in Boston a few months ago by Sigur Rós: hammering, pulsing, the sound cracking open the mind.

"Listen," said Gunnell. He only gave us two stanzas. "It starts slow and open, then boom-boom-boom-boom, there's this little punk routine in the middle. Think of the smoke, the light, the booze. It's a PowerPoint in your head. The poet creates images in your head, helped by the alcohol and the next morning you say, What the hell was that?"

After the lecture I went up to Gunnell. "How much beer do I have to buy you to hear you recite the whole poem?" He laughed, but I was serious. I hope to meet him again in Iceland and be transported to the mead hall. I'll never just read the songs of the Vikings again.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. So true! I had a friend who had memorized the Iliad in Homeric Greek (we tested him--frequently!). Hearing him recite parts of it in Greek theaters in Sicily changed the whole poem for me.

  2. I have been meaning to get a bow for my guitar. In his later years my Norwegian accented father was a volunteer reader to school children. He had a very expressive voice good for carrying on the oral traditions.

  3. You're making me want to learn Icelandic.

    1. There are so many more resources available today for doing that, Pamela. I'll write about some in a future post.

  4. I would'be loved to be there to hear that...and the trip to Iceland too. I think one of the reasons I love Vikings & that era is they elt and experienced so much.

  5. I would love to have heard that! Describing the poems as music rather than literature is such a great distinction. It will definitely create a shift in how I approach the old stories from now on.

    This is also where the art of translation comes into play. Those of us who don't read or speak the original language rely on the translator to translate the feel and flow of the poem, not just the words.