Did the Scandinavian skalds lose their status because they did not convert to Christianity? Here are some tidbits I discovered while trying to find the answer to that question.*
The skaldic poets weren’t into adjectives or even verbs, it was all about nouns and nesting one kenning inside another. A kenning is a phrase that substitutes for a noun, like “ship of the desert” for camel. There were also very strict rules for how many syllables in a stanza and which consonants and vowels had to match. The normal alliterative line is a four beat measure–every long line, as it is called, divides into two half-lines.
Apparently Lee Hollander’s The Skalds that everybody references is now out of print. Looking through Hollander’s introduction, here are some interesting points in no particular order:
- The skalds did not read or write; they were warriors. This was a oral form and the complex rules for structure probably helped in memorizing the poems so they were transmitted for centuries.
- In Old West Germanic Poetry the format of the four beat measure with alliteration falling on two or three of the beats was popular into the middle ages, when it was gradually replaced by “end-rimed verse”.
- Nothing is known about the development of the form. It appears fully developed with Bragi Boddason the Old in the first half of the ninth century
- The poems were preserved by religious clerics (in Iceland at least) trained in reading and writing or by people they had trained.
- “Far from the eye of watchful and jealous eye of Rome there was no hostility to native traditions.”
- The number of mythologic kennings dropped during the period of Christianization (“well-known use for magic purposes, was essentially a heathen art to be shunned”), but had a renaissance in the 13th century when they were considered innocuous.
- Encomiastic poems became less important for historical documentation after the 11th century.
- West Germanic and Eddic poetry uses kennings sparingly, but Skaldic poetry has “extravagant, unlimited use of the kenning in every conceivable variety and complexity…the result is characteristic baroque, frequently grotesque, overornamentation.”… “Or from another angle, in the kenning a hackneyed, faded term or names is avoided in favor of a circumlocution exhibiting the object in a new, unwonted light.” The complexity of the kennings decreases in the Christian era.
- The greatest Christian poem of the Scandinavian middle ages is Eystein Asgrimssons’s “Lilja”–celebrating the Virgin Mary in Skaldic meter but entirely in un-Skaldic style” (text in Old Norse here, here, (Skaldic database) and here)
- “Expressing as they do the general Catholic religious sentiments of Europe at the time, the Christian skaldic poems are of decidedly less interest to students of Old Germanic poetry than those of the earlier period. And most have no literary value.”
- Icelandic nobles depended on good relationships with Norwegian nobles for continued trade of homespun wool for wood and other commodities not available in Iceland. Traditionally an Icelandic youth was sent abroad to visit in a Norwegian court and had already memorized a poem in praise of the king when he arrived.
Some other interesting links:
Translation of Odens Korpgalder (The Lay of Odin’s Corpse or The Lay of Odin’s Ravens)
Galdr of Óðinn’s raven: HRAFNAGALDUR ÓÐINS (also called Forspjallsljóð) translation, apparently by an academically inclined practicing heathen. If you want to see examples of what the Old Norse looks like with translations in English, go here first. In spite of its heathenness, or maybe because of it, has some links to the academic skald database. There are some other interersting links to various translations.
List of skalds in Hollander’s book
Examples of translations of skaldic poetry–has the Hollander translation of Egil Skallagrímsson Sonatorrek (literally, “the difficult vengeance of sons”), written after the death of his son, after he emerged from locking himself inside his bedcloset. Egil Skallagrímsson (ca. 910-1000) was skald to Eirík Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of York.
Here are some examples of various Norse meters. (scroll down)
Wikipedia on Ulfr Uggason’s poem Húsdrápa with links to test, English translation, and comparison of text from preserved fragments.
*Answer: probably not. The conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian countries was relatively bloodless (with the exception of the rule of Saint Olaf) and there was a long period of “dual faiths,” especially in Iceland, although pagan witchcraft was still believed in and the effects very much feared. There was also a provisional type of mass baptism available for those who wanted to trade in areas limited to Christians. One Viking in antiquity complained about the quality of the clothing provided for a particular mass baptism, claiming he had received better from a different king.