View Full Version : Pouring Ódinn’s Mead: An Antiquarian Theme?

Sunday, June 6th, 2004, 12:56 AM
By Alison Finlay, Birkbeck College, University of London

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Skalds both pagan and Christian repeatedly invoke the myth of Ó›inn’s mediation of poetry from the supernatural to the human world: Suttungar mjƒ› gaf Ó›inn Ásunum ok fleim mƒnnum er yrkja kunnu (Skáldskaparmál 5). The kenning of the earliest skald Bragi, drykkja Fiƒlnis fjalla ‘drink of the mountain-Fiƒlnir (Ó›inn; giant)’ follows the same pattern as that of the Christian Arnórr jarlaskáld, hrosta brim Alfƒ›ur ‘All-father’s (Ó›inn’s) mashsurf (beer)’ (Whaley, 220). The taste for cataloguing attributed to Snorri by Roberta Frank (1981) may have prompted over-elaboration in his version of the myth, but also reflects the formulaic practice of the skalds, whose intention amounts to the association of their craft – represented as a liquid of virtually any kind – with the supernatural, signified either by Ó›inn, or by the dwarfs or giants, whether named or generalized, who are given roles in Snorri’s story.

These kennings occur no more and no less in verses attributed to the poets of the poets’ sagas than those of their supposed contemporaries. The proportion of seven attributed to Kormákr to one to Bjƒrn Hítdoelakappi reflects the greater preponderance of mythological references in ninth-century poetry.

These invocations of the myth do nothing to identify the poetic persona of the speaker or to articulate beliefs about the nature of poetry and the process of composition underlying the mythic conception of poetry as a supernaturally-produced intoxicating drink.

The characterization of these poets as marginal, aggressive characters, intimidating in appearance and temperament, has been taken to derive from the association of poets with Ó›inn, but the link remains subliminal – or rather, is mediated by the much more overt interest in poetic characterization in Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar.

The stereotype of the dark and difficult poet hinted at in other poets’ sagas is fully explored in Egils saga’s portrait of a violent, obsessive, moody man who was also a creative genius. The thirteenth-century author refashioned the model of the archetypal pre-Christian poet according to his own antiquarian prepossessions, giving final shape to an evolving body of legend that had added anecdotes and verses to the core of the poet’s surviving longer poems and perhaps some occasional verses.1

If the characterization of Egill was partly shaped by conventional ideas of what poets were like, the portrait is so strikingly individualised that it must have influenced the presentation of poets of more shadowy reputation in their sagas.

‘Wolf-grey hat’s stump’

At the thematic heart of the saga are two episodes narrating acts of poetic composition and affirming, in contrasting modes, the life-giving, indeed lifesaving function of the art.

Egill’s third longer poem, Arinbjarnarkvi›a, lacks this vivid narrative placing, but incongruously devotes nine strophes, more than a third of its length, to an account of the Hƒfu›lausn episode. I suggest that the tradition of Egill’s dark ugliness owes much to the account of his dangerous encounter in York in Arinbjarnarkvi›a, which alludes to his dřkkva skƒr (3; 258-9):

drók djarfhƒtt
of dřkkva skƒr,
létk hersi
heim of sóttan.

I drew a bold hood
over my dark hair,
paid to the ruler
a visit at home.

This may be the kernel of the saga’s veritable obsession with Egill’s
appearance, which is frequently mentioned in verse and prose. If
Arinbjarnarkvi›a is Egill’s own work, it vouches for his dark colouring as a
matter of historical fact.

The literary fact of the poet’s strongly-marked looks serves a number of symbolic and practical purposes, and may have percolated from traditions about Egill into other poets’ sagas with dark, ugly or rugged-looking heroes. The emphasis on Egill’s ugly head elaborates the conceit of hƒfu›lausn. This is the name given to the twenty-strophe drápa which Egill composed overnight to save his skin at the court of his enemy, King Eiríkr bló›řx.2

The name is alluded to in Eiríkr’s ek gef flér hƒfu› flitt at sinni and in Egill’s rueful verse response which fittingly closes the ironic episode (193-4),3

Erumka leitt,
flótt ljótr séi,
hjalma klett
af hilmi fliggja;
hvar’s sás gat
af gƒfuglyndum
oe›ri gjƒf
allvalds syni.

I am not unwilling,
ugly though it be,
the helmet-crag
from the prince to accept;
where is he who has received
from the generous-minded
a greater gift
(from) a mighty king’s son?

but the word hƒfu›lausn occurs not in that poem nor the prose text, but in the account of the ‘head to head’ confrontation of Egill and Eiríkr in

Both are represented almost as disembodied heads, the king by his terrifyingly glittering gaze, and the poet more disjointedly by a collection of features combining to make up his ugly head (vv. 5-9; 259-61):

Né hamfagrt
hƒl›um flótti
skaldfé mitt
at skata húsum,
flás ulfgrátt
vi› Yggjar mi›I
hattar staup
at hilmi flák.
Vi› flví tók,
en tvau fylg›u
sřkk sámleit
si›ra brúna
ok sá mu›r,
es mína bar
fyr hilmis kné.
fiars tannfjƒl›
me› tungu flák
ok hlertjƒld
hlustum gƒfgu›,

Not fair to look at
seemed to men
my poet’s payment
in the generous man’s hall,
when a wolf-grey
in exchange for Yggr’s mead (= poetry)
hat-stump (= head)
from the prince I received.
I accepted it,
and with it went two
dark-coloured gems
of wide brows,
and that mouth
which carried my
before the king’s knee,
where a crowd of teeth
with a tongue I accepted,
and ear-tents
endowed with hearing,

en sú gjƒf
golli betri
hró›ugs konungs
of heitin vas.

but that gift better than gold of the glorious king was considered to be.

This parodies conventional poems such as the shield drápa, of which Egill is credited with two, describing precious gifts for which the donor is thanked. The head’s ugliness is rhetorically necessary to contrast with conventionally praised rings and shields. It is characteristic of the saga’s use of thematic repetition that the ‘ugly head’ motif is further developed and bound up with other themes, but the idea of Egill’s ugliness, together with the rugged appearance attributed to other poets, may be rooted in the poetic joke of Arinbjarnarkvi›a.4

Other references to Egill’s dark, ugly head indicate his individuality, his savage temperament, his poetic articulateness, his inheritance from a dark supernatural strain linking his family with Ó›inn. He is most fully described at Athelstan’s court, out of sympathy with the celebration of a battle in which his brother has died (143-4):

Egill var mikilleitr, ennibrei›r, brúnamikill, nefit ekki langt, en ákafliga digrt, granstoe›it vítt ok langt, hakan brei› fur›uliga, ok svá allt um kjálkana, hálsdigr ok her›imikill, svá at flat bar frá flví, sem a›rir menn váru, har›leitr ok grimmligr, flá er hann var rei›r; hann var vel í vexti ok hverjum manni hćri, úlfgrátt hárit ok flykkt ok var› snimma skƒllóttr; en er hann sat … flá hleyp›i hann annarri brúninni ofan á kinnina, en annarri upp í hárroetr; Egill var svarteygr ok skolbrúnn. Ekki vildi hann drekka, fló at honum vćri borit, en ‡msum hleyp›i hann brúnunum ofan e›a upp.

The detail of Egill’s grotesquely mobile brows may arise from a literal interpretation of a verse recording the easing of the hero’s mood by the king’s gifts, but perhaps originally intended as more general praise of a ruler whose generosity smoothes worry from his followers’ brows:

Knáttu hvarms af harmi
hnúpgnípur mér drúpa,
nú fann ek flanns ennis
ósléttur flćr rétti;
gramr hefr ger›ihƒmrum
grundar upp of hrundit,
sá’s til ‡gr, af augum,
armsíma, mér grímu.

With grief the jutting peaks of my eyebrows did droop; now I have found one who rightedthose unevennesses of the forehead.

The king has pushed up girdling cliffs cliffs (=eyebrows) of the mask’s ground (= face) from my eyes, he who is fierce to (= gives away) arm-rings.

Other features, ‘wolf-grey’ hair, dark eyes and wide brow, are all mentioned in Arinbjarnar-kvi›a and repeated elsewhere in the saga. This cameo of the dark and threatening hero is placed tellingly at the moment where he affirms his allegiance to the brother so unlike him in appearance and temperament.

Here the saga author accentuates for a specific purpose the theme of Egill’s remarkable appearance, which goes back to his references to his own dark and ugly looks. The ‘ugly head’ verses following the Hƒfu›lausn story were probably an earlier replication of Egill’s original conceit. The origin of this theme may be a poetic joke, in which the head is represented as a dubious poetic prize.

It is more likely, given the widespread reference to the darkness and ugliness of other poets, that Egill himself was drawing on older beliefs about the temperamental characteristics of poets and the visible signs of these reflected in their appearance.

The existence of a substantial body of pre- Christian poetry attached to Egils saga gives unique access to the kernel of tradition on which a thirteenth-century author, and earlier contributors to the development of the saga’s material, built a substantial physical portrait.
‘Very ugly and like his father’

Egill’s striking appearance contributes to the theme, based in another of his poems, of the importance of family ties. Sonatorrek locates the poet’s distress in his outrage at the breaching of his frćndgar›r, the cutting of his ćttar bƒnd.

Egill’s sense of family has a political dimension, opposed to the dangerous aspiration of service of a king which kills his uncle and brother.

This contrast is articulated by the family’s division into two strains: the dark, ugly, aggressive and individualistic, with hints of the supernatural, to which Egill belongs, and the fair, sociable and reasonable side represented by the two fiórólfrs (and Egill’s son fiorsteinn).

Whether this division originated with the saga or was already strong in tradition, it took firm hold and was generalised beyond the confines of Egils saga, as a passage in the last chapter of the saga, paraphrased in the earlier MS of Gunnlaugs saga, demonstrates (299-300):

Frá fiorsteini er mikil ćtt komin ok mart stórmenni ok skáld mƒrg, ok er flat M‡ramannakyn, ok svá allt flat, er komit er frá Skalla-Grími. Lengi helzk flat í ćtt fleiri, at menn váru sterkir ok vígamenn miklir, en sumir spakir at viti. fiat var sundrleitt mjƒk, flví at í fleiri ćtt hafa foezk fleir menn, er frí›astir hafa verit á Íslandi, sem var fiorsteinn Egilsson ok Kjartan Óláfsson, systursonr fiorsteins, ok Hallr Gu›mundarson, svá ok Helga in fagra, dóttir fiorsteins, er fleir deildu um Gunnlaugr ormstunga ok Skáld-Hrafn; en fleiri váru M‡ramenn manna ljótastir.

The names Úlfr inn óargi (‘the un-cowardly’; by litotes, ‘the ferocious’), Bjálfi (‘animal skin’), and Hallbjƒrn hálftroll sketch in these suggestions even before the more extensive accounts of the mjƒk hamrammr Kveld-Úlfr and Skalla-Grímr. Grímr is a cognomen of Ó›inn, and skalli ‘bald head’ associates him with the berserks, who are said in some sources to be bald with unusually hard bones in their heads.5

Supernatural tendencies fade with the family’s emigration to Iceland. Egill finds redress for his sons’ and brother’s death in the measures of the Sonatorrek rather than in animalistic rage. But a hint of savagery lives on, in Skalla-Grímr’s violent attack (he is said to hamask) on his twelve-year-old son, and killing of a man, in a ball game um kveldi eptir sólafall (101). Egill’s similar behaviour as a six-year-old is one of the saga’s many structural repetitions, binding his temperament into the pattern established by his forebears.

Elements of savagery in Egill’s later history are not overtly supernatural; the wolfish strain is suggested by association, as in his fight against Atli inn skammi, killed when Egill beit í sundr í honum barkann (210), a possible allusion to Sigmundr’s attack on his son/nephew in Vƒlsunga saga.

These suggestions of supernatural and wolfish family traits probably existed in oral tradition in the form of names that the author is unlikely to have invented. But he was clearly concerned to weave Egill’s personality and appearance inextricably into the legend.

The family tradition of darkness and ugliness must have fed into the poet’s creation of his own poetic persona, to be emphasised in his self-representation in the image of a grotesque, even threatening, head, which was the antithesis of the glittering prizes conventionally courted by poets, and which also embodied the mechanical means by which the poet conveyed his poetic creations. Egill and Ó›inn

The family’s wolf-like qualities suggest their affinity with Ó›inn,6 whose association with the wolf is developed in the iconography of warfare.

The berserkr ‘bear-shirt’ was identified as Ó›inn’s warrior; the term and its synonym úlfhe›inn ‘wolf-skin’ imply a belief that warriors adopted the physical forms of animals as well as their strength and ferocity. The idea of metamorphosis fits Ó›inn’s reputation as a shape-changer.

Among the legendary heroes, some divine or semi-divine in origin, represented as Ó›inn’s protégés is Starka›r, of whom there are confused accounts in Saxo and Gautreks saga. Poised uneasily between Ó›inn’s patronage and fiórr’s enmity, he invites comparison with Egill in several ways.

Of giant origin, he acquires the gift of poetry from Ó›inn, and is represented as grey-haired, wolf-like, and to his úlfú› (Bergljót S. Kristjánsdóttir 1997, 75-77). Nordal’s view of the ideological and temperamental division within the family as a conflict of the values of farmer and viking within Egill’s own character is over-simplified (1924, 154-5).

Richard North sees the progressive humanisation from Kveld-Úlfr to Egill as ‘part of the author’s image of surreptitious transformation from pagan to Christian cultures’ (1991, 148-9). From this perspective, the fair strain in the family is a ‘modern’ development, in contrast with the ancient pagan tendencies represented by the hints of wolfishness and monstrosity in their genealogy.

old (inn gamli).

Among the names of the one-eyed god are Bileygr ‘Failing-eyed’, Blindr ‘blind’, Tvíblindi ‘Double-blind’, Helblindi ‘Hell-blind’, and several Odinic heroes share the god’s blindness.

Starka›r ends his life almost blind, Haraldr hilditƒnn, another semi-legendary king with Odinic connections, completely blind. Egill’s blindness in old age may seem more like a realistic element in the physical decline of an eighty-year-old man than a reminiscence of the hero’s Odinic attributes; but then, the emphasis on the hero’s old age itself recalls the depiction of the god himself (also known as Karl ‘old man’), and of heroes like Starka›r.

Most significantly, Egill is a self-announced adherent of Ó›inn, affirming his allegiance in plain terms in Sonatorrek. He refers to his past relationship with Ó›inn and finds resolution for his grief in the present intention to offer reluctant sacrifices to the god. Jón Hnefill A›alsteinsson argues that ‘a poet with the temperament that the composer of Sonatorrek had would hardly have gone on sacrificing to a god who had let him down in times of need’ (1999, 173-4).

This misreads the bleak resignation of the poem’s resolution. The poet’s progression from reluctant sacrifice to acknowledgement of divine gifts affirms that adherence to the god implies acceptance of his nature; Ó›inn grants boetr on his own terms (Sonatorrek 24; 256):

Gƒfumk íflrótt
úlfs of bági
vígi vanr
vammi firr›a
ok flat ge›,
es ek ger›a mér
vísa fjandr
af vélƒndum.
Gave to me

the wolf’s adversary, accustomed to battle, a craft beyond reproach, and the faculty to make for myself true enemies from plotters. (af emended from MS at)

Apparently modern in its psychological analysis of the process of healing set in motion by the process of composition, the poem has also been read as a genuine manifestation of pagan ritual. Joseph Harris (1999) suggests that the poet, as devotee of Ó›inn, re-enacts the mythological ‘experience’ of to Ó›inn himself, drawing out aspects of his mourning for his son’s death which parallel Ó›inn’s loss of Baldr.

Most famously parallel is the father’s inability to avenge his son, since the ‘slayer’ was the inanimate sea; this may be alluded to in the poem’s title. The poet’s identification with Ó›inn is reinforced by the imagery of Ragnarƒk particularly at the end of the poem; Ó›inn is referred to in terms invoking that conflagration (úlfs bági, Míms vinr).

The poet represents himself as, like Ó›inn, in need of friends and supporters, and includes what Harris calls a ‘satire’ comparable to the description in Vƒluspá of the world’s decadence as the last days approach.

The parallel with Ó›inn’s mourning for Baldr probably weighed with the saga author in his firm identification of the poem with Bƒ›varr’s death, despite the plural sona- in the title and the poem’s references to the deaths of at least two sons.

The closing strophe, in which the poet, stripped of friends and kin, resignedly awaits the goddess Hel, seems so like the words of closure with which the saga should end that it is disconcerting to realise that, according to the conventional dating, Egill has another 30 years to live. Ironically, the stimulus for the series of loosely structured anecdotes about the poet’s old age with which the saga continues may have been precisely the image of old age which Egill constructed for himself in Sonatorrek.

Ó›inn and poetry

Another kind of re-enactment suggested by Harris’s account of Sonatorrek is its representation of the poetic process.

Despite its apparently modern endorsement of the therapeutic power of self-expression, a religious listener of the tenth century may have understood from the poem’s opening that the poet, finding speech weigh heavily on his tongue, is forced by an act of will to re-enact Ó›inn’s mystical fljóf of poetry. The transformation of this theft into the fagnafundr ‘joyful find’ of v.3 presages the poem’s progression towards the acknowledgement of poetry as Ó›inn’s gift.

Its drawing out from the recesses of the mind corresponds to Ó›inn’s appropriation of the mead from the giant’s cave. The link between intoxication and inspiration suggested by the metaphor of fermented drink for poetry remains subliminal; poets use it ‘with no suggestion of ecstasis’ (Dronke 1984, 55).

Dronke finds in Hávamál 13-14 a play on the special nature of Ó›inn’s drinking; whereas men lose their ge› ‘wits’ under the influence of drink, the god gained ge›, a specific poetic faculty, from his drinking in the giant’s home.

Ó›inn’s vomiting of the poetic mead may be alluded to in stories of Egill’s extravagant drinking feats: ‘Sí›an fleysti Egill upp ór sér sp‡ju mikla, ok gaus í andlit Ármó›i, í augun ok nasarnar ok í munninn’(226).7 The verb fleysa is echoed in Sonatorrek 2, where poetry era au›fleystr ‘is not easily made to rush’ from the grief-stricken poet’s mind.

The image of vomiting for the production of poetry suggests effort and pain but at the same time the involuntary spasm of intoxication. Egill has something to say about the psychological process of producing poetry, locating its raw material in the poet’s hugar fylgsni ‘hiding place of thought’, from which it must be dragged or driven.

As fluency returns, he speaks of carrying the mćr›ar timbr ‘timber of praise’ out of the or›hof ‘temple of words’, suggesting a location within the mind of a sacred store of words and emotions, the potentialities for poetry, which have to be shaped and projected by the poet’s craft. This transformation is worked by the two gifts of Ó›inn which Egill acknowledges at the end of the poem, the íflrótt vammi firr›a ‘flawless skill’ and the ge› ‘spirit’ that enables him to unmask his enemies.

The idea of poetry as an íflrótt, a skill that has to be learned, fits Egill’s metaphors of building and shaping. But vammi firr›a ‘removed from faults’ makes a more mystical claim, echoed by the reference in Arinbjarnarkvi›a to the grunlaust grepps oe›i ‘unsuspicious mind of the poet’, and lastalauss ‘blameless’ i n the corrupt Sonatorrek 3.

Ge› means passion, temperament, or aparticular mental faculty; in the context of poetry, Richard North argues for a sense like ‘poetic soul’. The inspirational mead of poetry operates on the poet’s ge›, ‘the special parts of man this poetic mead reaches and rouses’ (1991, 38-51).

This is supported by the term Ó›rerir ‘rouser of the mind’, interpreted by Snorri as one of the three vats containing the poetic mead, but most likely a name for the mead itself: ‘As Ó›inn therefore gave Ó›rerir to men (Hávamál 107), so would he give Egill (and Starcatherus) a pure art, but at the same time a passionate spirit which the art had to stir for a poem to be composed’ (North 1991, 51).

So ge› is a temperament or state of mind special to poets. Unfortunately, Egill’s definition, flat ge›, es ek ger›a mér vísa fjándr af vélƒndum ‘that temperament by which I made for myself true enemies out of deceivers’, is not illuminating.

Perhaps, together with the ‘flawless’ quality attributed to poetry and the claim to professional discernment in Arinbjarnarkvi›a, it suggests an authority based on honesty, which not only arrives at true judgements of the poet’s subjects but can detect subterfuge in all his associates.

But this claim for a poet’s spiritual authority is not supported elsewhere. Alternatively, the words may refer to the aggressiveness proper to a follower of the god of war; Egill forces those who would scheme against him into outright confrontation.

As North says, ‘It is possible that in alluding to Ó›inn as the “wolf’s foe, used to combat”, Egill shows that as a favourite, he still expected to train and fight for his god in Ragnarƒk, the Armageddon of the northern world’ (1991, 51).

‘I carve runes’ Egill uses a different divine gift, skill in runes, to uncover the treachery of Bár›r and Queen Gunnhildr, who have poisoned his drinking-horn. Egill carves runes on the suspect horn and reddens them with blood, whereupon the horn breaks (109).

The accompanying verse mentions rune-carving but not the breaking of the horn, which is probably inspired by a story told in Gregory’s dialogues of St Benedict, who broke a poisoned drinking-cup by making the sign of the cross over it (Bjarni Einarsson 1975, 176).

This could have been pressed into service by a learned author to dramatise the instructions given to Sigur›r by the valkyrie Sigrdrífa for the carving of ƒlrúnar (Sigrdrífumál 7-8). On another occasion Egill acts uncharacteristically as healer, curing a sick girl by detecting and correcting a bungled attempt to work on her with manrúnar ‘love runes’.

This story was probably not the saga author’s invention, since it is clumsily told, giving two conflicting accounts of the girl’s illness (229, 238). But it looks like antiquarian reconstruction of the occult practices of paganism, and again Bjarni Einarsson may be right to see parallels in hagiographic (this time biblical) miracle stories (1975, 260-61).

Egill’s third essay in runes is the carving of a formáli ‘spell’, which he also pronounces, on his ní›stƒng against Eiríkr and Gunnhildr (171). The runes are not mentioned in the two verses believed to paraphrase the spoken formula.

While there is evidence elsewhere that the reciting of verses accompanied the raising of ní›, the carving of runes is more doubtful.8 We may speculate that the magic power of the ní› is inherent in the horse-decked pole and the spoken curse, and that the idea of its being reinforced by a written inscription is likely to be the addition of a later, literate culture.

In the mysterious myth of Hávamál 138-45, Ó›inn hangs himself on a ‘windy tree’; he snatches up rúnar, and acquires nine mighty spells, wisdom from the ‘son of Bƒlflórr’ (a giant, apparently Ó›inn’s grandfather), and a drink of the precious mead. Here, poetry and runes are closely allied among the esoteric wisdom Ó›inn gains from the giants and the realm of the dead. Egill is the only poet of the poets’ sagas given skill in runes.

This aspect of his persona probably developed to strengthen the poet’s affinity with Ó›inn, and the mystical powers claimed for poetry itself. Egill’s exploits as rune-master are extraneous to the main themes and narrative of the saga, and the idea may be a comparatively late, antiquarian development.

Other poets

Generalized references to ‘the characteristic depiction of the skalds of [the poets’ sagas] as dark, with crooked or ugly noses, pale complexions and heavy eyebrows’ (Clunies Ross 1978, 4) are influenced by the ‘Egill effect’; the strong visual picture of Egill in his saga colours our impressions of lesser poets.

Only Kormákr (svartr á hár ok sveipr í hárinu; KS, 206) can be described as dark, though Gunnlaugr also has dark eyes, and fiormó›r Kolbrúnarskáld is svartr á hárslit (FS, 124). The others are all red- or chestnut-haired; Bjƒrn Hítdoelakappi is mikill ma›r vexti ok vćnn ok freknóttr, rau›skeggja›r, skrúfhárr (BS, 197; Hallfre›r is jarpr á hár, ok fór vel (HS, 141); Gunnlaugr ljósjarpr á hár, ok fór allvel (GS, 59).

8 Another ní›reising, including the carving of a formáli in runes, is described in Vatnsdoela saga, but may be borrowed from Egils saga.

The stereotype of the red-haired poet competes with a tendency for poets to announce themselves in verse as dark or dark-eyed, perhaps a convention established by Egill himself or in his time.9 This accounts for Gunnlaugr’s unlikely combination of light chestnut hair and black eyes, which is based on his reference in a verse to svƒrt augu mér (GS, 96).

Darkness is also a prerequisite for Gunnlaugr in a saga which is closest to Egils saga in its contrasting of dark and fair characters. Like Egill, Gunnlaugr is contrasted with a more easy-going brother; but more significantly with the father of his beloved, fiorsteinn Egilsson, already established in Egils saga as belonging to his family’s fair strain. Gunnlaugr mocks him in a verse as hƒl›r inn hvíti (GS, 90).

This is reminiscent of Bjƒrn Hítdoelakappi’s two sneering verse references to his rival fiór›r Kolbeinsson as sveinn inn hvíti (BS, 140, 144),10 and Hallfre›r’s address to his rival Gríss as halr enn hvíti (HS, 182). A jibe equating fair colouring with cowardice would hardly be effective unless spoken by a dark man; and Kormákr uses an opposing epithet of himself: sveinn enn svarti, sonr +gmundar, skáldit (206).

Kormáks saga opposes dark and fair only in a verse in which the poet boasts that despite his svƒrt augu and allfƒlr complexion, he has had as much success with women as drengr enn fagri (211). No rival in love other than this hypothetical fair man has emerged at this point, but the reference may be based on an opposition in an older version of the story between a dark poet and his fair rival.

The tradition of the dark poet underlies, and sometimes conflicts with, the superficial physical descriptions of their heroes constructed by thirteenth century saga authors. The rhetoric of contrast between dark and fair surfaces incompletely in most of the poets’ sagas, but is not realised thematically as in Egils saga.

It is impossible to say whether the theme of the dark poet originated with Egill himself, or was an early tradition about poets in general; but the fact that it is clearly articulated by Egill himself, one of the earliest of these poets, credits him with an important role in the development of the idea.

Some descriptions of poets do share with Egils saga the suggestion of striking and strongly marked appearance, which supports, better than the dark colouring she asserts, Clunies Ross’s point that the poets’ physical appearance mirrors their temperamental turbulence.

Hallfre›r is skolbrúnn11 nƒkkut ok heldr 9 Sighvatr fiór›arson refers in verses to his svƒrt skƒr and flessi augun íslenzk en svƒrtu (Heimskringla, II 62, 140); his poet nephew Óttarr is nicknamed inn svarti, as are other poets.

10 fiór›r's appearance is not described in the (incomplete) saga, but the taunt implies fair colouring, like that against fiorsteinn Egilsson (allra manna frí›astr s‡num, hvítr á hár ok bjartr álitum) in Egils saga: ‘Rennr flú nú, fiorsteinn hvíti?’ (291). In Laxdoela saga (90), Kjartan is referred to as hvítan mann ok huglausan.

11 The suggestion that skolbrúnn means ‘dark-browed’, since Egill is also svartbr‡nn (vv. 35, 49), is improbable since it often applies, as in Hallfre›ar saga, to otherwise fair men. It often goes together with the suggestion of ugliness or large, strongly marked features, occurring alongside mikilleitr, skarpleitr, ljótr and heldr ós‡niligr, and specifically with ugly or large noses in Hallfre›ar saga, Egils saga and elsewhere.

nefljótr (HS, 141); Gunnlaugr, in a description probably modelled on that of Hallfre›r, is nƒkkut nefljótr ok skapfelligr í andliti (GS, 59).12

Although no other poet’s saga characterizes its hero as purposefully as Egils saga, the heroes of all four poets’ sagas sharing the love-rivalry theme have instability or aggression or both in their make-up. Instability is built in to the overall theme in the form of tension between the hero’s love and his desire to make his reputation abroad.

In addition, all (except Bjarnar saga, the lost beginning of which probably included an introductory description of the hero) comment explicitly on the hero’s temperament. Kormákr is described as áhlaupama›r í skapi, forzma›r and órá›flćgr (206, 235).

As in Egils saga, his brother’s moderate disposition is a foil for the poet's difficult temperament (206). Beyond these explicit comments it is difficult to determine how far inconsistency is intended to be characteristic of Kormákr, since the saga’s imperfectly assembled overlapping narratives themselves create arbitrariness.

Kormákr's abrupt and complete abandonment of his wedding suggests extraordinary instability, but the saga author does not wholeheartedly attribute it to Kormákr's temperament, offering the justifications of the witch's curse and disagreements over settlements. Multiple strands in the saga's sources have not been fully reconciled.

But the mention of inconsistency as a characteristic of the hero suggests that this was the basic explanation of his behaviour; it is easy to imagine later transmitters of the material feeling the need to rationalize, adding elements such as the witch's curse which, as a supernatural phenomenon, could be seen as a metaphorical expression of irrationality.

It has been said of characterisation in the work of Snorri Sturluson that ‘a man's character is basically the sum of his acts’ (Bagge 1991, 187). In some sagas this tendency may be partly result from the author's attempt to construct a biography from traditional narratives that themselves privilege ‘acts’ over description.

A saga made up of a composite of inconsistent traditions, such as Kormáks saga, or one with a compressed, laconic style, such as Hallfre›ar saga, may give the impression of arbitrary, irresolute behaviour, and the question whether the author intended this to reflect on the hero's personality must be carefully considered.

Hallfre›r is described as margbreytinn. This is not borne out, as in Kormáks saga, by his failure to marry; he is robustly consistent in separating love from marriage in his treatment of Kolfinna. The poet’s marriage, framed by the beginning and end of his affair with Kolfinna, does suggest inconsistency.

12 Their rugged looks do not in themselves mark them out as poets; the same link between physique and temperament is made with characters who are not poets, such as Skarphe›inn in Njáls saga: Hann var jarpr á hár ok sveipr í hárinu, eyg›r vel, fƒlleitr ok skarpleitr, li›r á nefi ok lá hátt tanngar›rinn, munnljótr nƒkkut ok fló ma›r hermannligastr (Njáls saga, 70). Skarphe›inn, if not a skald, is a producer of ní› (303-315). The older Reykjabók MS (c. 1300) adds ok skáld gott (70, n.4), and some late MSS attribute verses to him.

His love is introduced in the same words as his first fancy, but leads, this time, to marriage: Hallfre›r lag›i hug á Ingibjƒrgu ok ba› hennar (176). His sorrow at his wife’s death is summarily related just before the adulterous interlude with Kolfinna (179).

This inconsistency reflects the saga's divided structure and laconic style rather than the hero's capricious temperament. The term margbreytinn probably reflects Hallfre›r’s embodiment of the conflict between Christianity and paganism.

His resistance to the new faith, defiant espousal of pagan versifying and his apostasy in Sweden demonstrate the independence of spirit commented upon by both Jarl Hákon: Líkligr ertu til at vera hƒf›ingjadjarfr ma›r; flann veg ertu í brag›i (151) and King Óláfr: fiann veg vćrir flú í brag›i, at fás myndir flú svífask ok mart láta flér sóma (153-4).

Some inconsistency is directly attributed to the Conversion theme: Hallfre›r gives up a duel with his rival Gríss because of distress at King Óláfr’s death (and under his tutelage, the king having appeared to him in a dream), and his plan to attack Jarl Eiríkr is also abandoned at Óláfr's posthumous command.

Gunnlaugr is called órá›inn because of his simultaneous ambitions to marry and to go abroad. Over and above what may be a mere fault of youth, though, the saga explicitly calls him háva›ama›r mikill í ƒllu skaplyndi ok framgjarn snimmendis ok vi› allt óvćginn ok har›r (GS, 59).

Several episodes – his precocious defiance of his father’s authority, his brawl with a shepherd, his encounter with a berserkr in England – seem designed to confirm this element in Gunnlaugr’s character, and it is likely that this saga in particular, later than the others and with obvious connections with Egill’s home at Borg, was directly influenced by Egils saga in its depiction of the turbulent hero.

No other saga develops the poet’s relationship with Ó›inn as explicitly as Egils saga. There are seven references to the myth of poetry in the 64 verses attributed to Kormákr: skald, sás orkar ásar ƒlverki (v. 68) ‘the poet who does the god’s ale-work’, hefk y›r of aukit Aurreks drykk (v. 81) ‘I have augmented the dwarf’s drink for you’, but the prose makes no suggestion of the poet’s religious attachments or identification with Ó›inn.

Bjƒrn Hítdoelakappi, chronologically the latest of the poets, his religious beliefs defined by his devotion to St Óláfr (notwithstanding the one conventional declaration vinnk bjór Háars inna (v. 32) ‘I work to produce Ó›inn’s beer’), recites a dream verse strangely mingling Christian and pagan images, in which he is invited heim by a hjalmfaldin armleggjar orma Ilmr dagleygjar hilmis ‘helmet-covered Ilmr of arm's serpents of the prince of day's fire’. The valkyrie bidding him to Ódinn’s hall is associated with dagleygjar hilmir, a kenning for the Christian God.

Animal imagery is also used of Bjƒrn in the form of puns on his name, but does not involve shape-changing or Ó›inn’s animal, the wolf. Both animal imagery and the valkyrie suggest an attachment of the hero to Ó›inn as warrior, rather than poet.

The poet’s dedication to Ó›inn is an issue in Hallfre›ar saga in the context of Conversion, the saga’s most consistent theme.

He recites a sequence of verses in which, having received baptism, he renounces his old pagan allegiance for the new religion. The renunciation grows in scope until all the major deities are rejected, but begins with the poet abandoning his initial preference for Ódinn (HS, 157):

Fyrr vas hitt, es harra
Hli›skjalfar gatk sjalfan,
skipt es á gumna giptu,
ge›skjótan vel blóta.

It used to be that to the lord
of Hli›skálfr I myself –
men’s fortune has changed –
to the quick-witted one, sacrificed.

also referring to Ó›inn as the poet's patron (flvít vel Vi›ris / vald hugna›isk skaldi ‘for Vi›rir's (Ó›inn's) rule well-pleased the poet’, and renouncing nafni hrafnblóts go›a ór hei›num dómi, fless es ól lóm vi› lof l‡›a ‘the name of the priest of raven sacrifice from the heathen religion, who produced deceit in exchange for men's praise’. The reference to Ó›inn's deceit, his demotion from god to priest, and the use of the past tense, mark the end of Hallfre›r's hankering for the old beliefs.

Margaret Clunies Ross (1978) overstates the extent to which the saturnine view of the poet's temperament developed in Egils saga is perceptible in the shorter sagas. Nevertheless, the poets share certain features. Their striking, even grotesque appearance reflects the individuality revealed in traits of aggressiveness and instability.

The sagas attain the common end of poetic individualism in varied ways, so that, although the similar descriptions of Gunnlaugr and Hallfre›r suggest influence from Hallfre›ar saga on Gunnlaugs saga, no close relationship amongst the sagas in the characterization of the poets can be shown.

Rashness or changeability of temperament is so variously interpreted that it is difficult to categorize it as a common feature, but it may ultimately derive from the association of poets with Ó›inn. It is perceptible even where, as in Bjarnar saga and Gunnlaugs saga, there is a competing impulse to mellow the hero's character.

In Bjarnar saga, this impulse arises from the inclusion of an explicitly Christian vein, at odds with much of the narrative material; in Hallfre›ar saga, the traditional relationship of poetic skill with pagan values is more directly dealt with. The idea of the dark and dangerous poet is far more consciously developed in Egils saga.

To some extent this must be the work of the antiquarian-minded saga author, who probably deepened and emphasized features such as Egill’s intimidating appearance, and may have added elements such as the hero’s skill in runes, which would have seemed appropriate to an author learned in mythological lore such as Snorri Sturluson as an extension of the poet’s indebtedness to Ó›inn. This paper has endeavoured to show, however, that the most important elements of Egill’s characterization are present in embryo in his own words, in the three long poems associated with the saga.

During the two century gestation period between the hero’s death and the ultimate writing of the saga, this model was evolved by some of the processes of repetition and accretion described here, reinforcing and adapting the themes expressed by Egill himself. In the course of this process some of the mead of inspiration would undoubtedly have spilled over and mingled with the stories of other poets which must have started evolving at the same time.

It is impossible to assess how much of the myth of poetic identity was Egill’s own invention, and how much he drew on pre-existing conceptions of the Odinic hero and the poet’s personal identification with Ó›inn, but our understanding of them is largely shaped from his articulation.

Only in the late Gunnlaugs saga are there obvious signs of direct literary influence from Egils saga, but the persona of the most famous Icelandic poet must have been influential in creating the literary model for how a skald should look and behave.

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1My working assumption is that Egill did compose the longer poems but that many lausavísur were added at a pre-literary stage, and some possibly by the author.

2 Except in W (185 n. 1). Hƒfu›lausn stories are also told of Bragi inn gamli (Egils saga 182), fiórarinn loftunga (Kn‡tlinga saga 125) and Óttarr inn svarti (Flateyjarbók). The metonymy ‘head’ for ‘life’ occurs in Ó›inn’s words in Hávamál 106, svá hćtta ek hƒf›i til; cf. hafelan beorgan (Beowulf 1372).

3 A further verse repeats the motif of the head as physical object, reporting Egill’s success in keeping his svartbrúnum sjónum ‘black-brown eyes’ and regaining control of his áttgƒfgu›um Ála hattar arfstóli (194) ‘noble hereditary seat of Áli’s hat (the helmet)’.

4 The same joke occurs in the hƒfu›lausn story told of Óttarr inn svarti in Flateyjarbók, possibly in imitation of Egils saga (Íslendingasögur III, 2201-2): ‘fiat mun rá› Óttar a› flú fliggir höfu› flitt í flessu sinni fyrir drápuna.’ Óttar svarar: ‘fiessi gjöf flykir mér allgó› herra flótt höfu›i› sé eigi fagurt.’

5 Bjarni Einarsson 1976, 47-54. Skalli occurs as a wolf heiti; the saga uses it alongside a reference

6 Despite the theory that Egill turned away from his family’s earlier devotion to fiórr (Nordal, 1924), which was recently supported by Jón Hnefill A›alsteinsson’s proposed reading of Sonatorrek 22 (1999, 173-4).

7 Egill hooks out Ármó›r’s eye, recalling an incident in Sturlu saga ch. 31, in which Hvamm-Sturla, Snorri Sturluson’s father, is attacked and explicitly labelled an Odinic figure: fiorbjörg, konu Páls … hljóp fram milli manna ok haf›i kníf í hendi ok lag›i til Sturlu ok stefndi í augat ok mćlti fletta vi›, ‘Hví skal ek eigi gera flik fleim líkastan, er flú vill líkastr vera, – en flar er Ó›inn?’ If Snorri wrote Egils saga, he must have drawn this detail, not corroborated in verse, from his own family history.


All texts cited are those of Íslenzk fornrit editions unless stated otherwise, with the following abbreviations: BS = Bjarnar saga hítdoelakappa, FS = Fóstbroe›ra saga, GS = Gunnlaugs saga, HS = Hallfre›ar saga, KS = Kormáks saga. Unspecified references are to Egils saga.

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Bergljót S. Kristjánsdóttir. 1997. ‘Primum caput: Um höfu› Egils Skalla-Grímssonar, John frá
Salisbury o.fl.’. In Skáldskaparmál, 4: 74-96.
Bjarni Einarsson. 1975. Litterćre forudsćtninger for Egils saga. Reykjavík.
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Clunies Ross, Margaret. 1978. ‘The Art of Poetry and the Figure of the Poet in Egils saga’. In Parergon 27: 3-12.
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Frank, Roberta. 1981. ‘Snorri and the mead of poetry’. In Speculum norroenum. Odense. 155-70.
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um fornar bókmenntir. Ed. Haraldur Bessason and Baldur Hafsta›.Reykjavík. 47-70.
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Íslendingasögur og flćttir, 3 vols. Reykjavík.
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North, Richard. 1991. Pagan Words and Christian Meanings. Amsterdam.
Skáldskaparmál = Anthony Faulkes, ed. 1998. Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál. 2 vols. London: Viking Society for Northern Research.
Whaley, Diana, ed. 1998. The Poetry of Arnórr jarlaskáld. An edition and study. Turnhout, Belgium.