Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poet-Maidens and Shield-Maidens

Songs of the Vikings--Viking poetry--has been the topic of this blog a number of times. Poetry was the gift of Odin, according to the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson (you can read that story from an earlier blog post here), and Vikings loved their poems as much as they loved drinking mead.

Poets, or skalds, as I've written in my book Song of the Vikings (just out in paperback!), were a fixture at the Norwegian court for over 400 years. They were swordsmen, occasionally. But more often they were a king’s ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were time-binders, weaving the past into the present.

In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse made a man immortal. Or a woman.

I recently discovered a book by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar called Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds, published by D.S. Brewer in 2011. It contains nearly 50 poems, some long, some short, by women, real or imagined, from Viking Age Norway through the time of Snorri Sturluson's Iceland (and a little beyond). In Straubhaar's translations, these medieval women are valkyries of verse, with tongues as sharp as swords.

One of them was a king's skald--and possibly a shield-maiden. Jorunn skáldmær ("Poet-maiden") composed a poem congratulating her fellow king's skald for negotiating peace between two princes, both sons of Harald Fairhair, the ninth-century king who unified Norway. Snorri quotes her poem in his Saga of King Olaf the Saint. Notes Straubhaar: "The Flateyjarbok manuscript of Olafs saga helga uniquely calls Jorunn not skáldmær ('poet-maiden') but skjáldmær (‘shield-maiden’). Given that Olafr … was known to station his male warrior-poets around him in the shield-wall for the better subsequent recording of great battle-deeds, it is tempting to think of Jorunn playing such a role for Haraldr."

Another women poet Straubhaar introduces us to was well able to handle a sword. When the 10th-century Icelander Breeches-Aud is divorced by her husband--ostensibly because she dresses like a man, in breeches--she not only spits out a poem, she gets on her horse (yes, wearing breeches) and rides off to avenge herself. Finding her husband asleep, Straubhaar writes, Aud "draws her sword on him, striking not to kill, but only to cripple. She gashes him across the nipples, successfully puts his sword-arm out of commission, and leaves him pinned in the bed with the blade. Then she rides away, presumably feeling the score to be now even."

In two of my favorite poems in Straubhaar's collection, the woman poet has a tongue every bit as sharp and precise as Aud's sword.

In Iceland in 999 a woman named Steinunn makes fun of a Christian missionary in a poem that is "metrically near-flawless," Straubhaar says. "It has a fine, aggressive rhythm, echoing its sea-going topic, and lively kennings."

I explained the complexity of skaldic verse in an earlier post on the mechanics of Viking poetry (read it here). Straubhaar handles that complexity by translating each poem twice: once in verse (to capture the form) and once in prose (to give the literal meaning). "In the poetry translations," she explains, "I have tried to maintain at least some of the following features of the originals, in this order of precedence:
--Tone (e.g., heroic, comic, serious, frightening)
--Alliteration (at least sets of two, ideally sets of three…)
--Syllable count (six per line, in dróttkvætt) and/or stress count
--Internal rhyme (perfect and slant); also occasional end-rhyme
--Circumlocutions for nouns, both complex and simple: kenningar (e.g., ‘goddess of gold’ for ‘woman’) and heiti (e.g., ‘ski’ for ‘ship’).

The mocking tone, especially, of Steinunn's poem comes through brilliantly:
Thorr snatched Thangbrandr’s longboat,
thwacked it, smashed it, wrecked it,
shook the prow-steed, plowed it 
precisely, nicely under.
So sad! No more sliding
of ski upon the sea-foam:
god-gales grabbed the sail-horse,
god-winds chewed its splinters.

The tone, again, is perfect in Straubhaar's translation of another mocking poem. Here, the daughter of Earl Arnfinn, somewhere in 10th-century Denmark, rebuffs the advances of an untried warrior:
Who said this seat was yours, boy?
Seldom have you drawn sword.
From you the wolf gets no flesh.
My flesh likes sitting solo.
You’ve never seen the crow caw
on corpses slain at harvest;
when shell-sharp swords came slashing
you shied away, and stayed home.

Many of the verses Straubhaar translates are said, in the sagas that contain them, to be spoken by witches, trolls, wise-women, and valkyries. Who would not shiver at this witch's curse?
May wights wander free, 
and wonders be seen;
may cliffs crash, 
and plains quake;
may the weather worsen…

I curse your ears 
so they cannot hear.
I curse your eyes 
to turn inside out…

When you set sail, 
the riggings will slit,
the rudder will rip 
free from its frame,
the sails will rot 
and fall free from the mast,
the sheets will split 
and fly free in the wind…

In your bed, 
burning straw;
in your privy 
queasy unease;
and after that 
worse things…

And then there is the poignant set of verses by a 16-year-old in the south of Iceland in 1255, eight stanzas that constitute "the largest body of poetry by a single historically attestable woman that survives in Old Norse literature," Straubhaar says. Knowing her kinsmen are caught up in a great battle in the north, Jorunn speaks a poem she heard in a dream:
By his house-door he bides,
byrnied for battle.
Fiends wait with fire,
false dogs that they are.
False dogs that they are!
The snare is snapped;
fate has them trapped.
These men I would tell
to go straight to Hel,
to go straight to Hel.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at


  1. Argh, I wrote a comment that disappeared when I hit "Publish." Hope this doesn't show up twice:
    My research interest was medieval women writers and I always had a hard time finding women from the Viking era, so I can't wait to read this book (which I just ordered). It sounds fabulous, and I *love* the idea of two translations!

  2. ¡Que pena! para nosotros los latinos el precio en € es imposible...
    What a pity! for us Latinos the price in € is impossible ...