This week On the Reading Rest I have a book from which I have taken a general approach to the central part of the poem Skírnismál, i.e. Act II (0).

Brook, Peter. 2011. The Enigmas of Identity. Princeton University Press.

From Peter Brook I borrow two concepts that bracket his analysis and discussion – the initial concepts of ‘Identity’ and ‘identification’ introduced in To Begin and the concluding concepts ‘the Identity paradigm’ and ‘the identificatory paradigm’ introduce in Epilogue: the Identity Paradigm. Peter Brook sees these concepts as emblematic of modern human beings and the ways they experience protagonists, and themselves, through novels, biographies, plays or electoral campaigns. Since Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is a first identity case, ‘modern’ refers to the common post Enlightenment-, not least ‘today’-sense, of the term.

It may seem odd to apply such a concept when reading an Old Norse poem, but I allow myself to do just that because I think that ‘modern’, rather than signifying the last 250 years of European and North American reality, mirrors an attitude in which the analysis of the present and presence, rather than the past, guides our understanding and manipulation of the future. There is no absolute chronology of ‘the modern’, because the need for modernity is relative.

More importantly, I allow myself to adapt Peter Brooks’ view on identity as a notion that evades traditional definition: contrary to being delimited and fixed, identity is a social psychological concept, as basic as the ‘I’, insisting on being changed according to context. When we interrogate individuals trying to define their identity and when we interact with significant others, the identity of all those involved is changed. Despite these insights, our social norms often presuppose the definite identification of someone, and the problem of identity, therefore, stems from the fact that although it is a historical concept, changing during a time series of contexts, it is nevertheless forced now and again to become modern and nothing but present.

Furthermore, I allow myself to think of Peter Brooks’ paradigm turn as the introduction of a non-Kuhnean grammar-like structure that we apply when we want to relate to ourselves and others through fiction.

Analyzing Skírnir in Skínismál, the Identity Paradigm becomes important because it prompts the question: who is he and for whom does he woo? And since the poem is critical of the upper classes and their identities it also asks: who are they, the upper classes? The time depth in Skírnismál is ‘a present’, and the possibility that it is set in the present of a once-upon-a-time past, signifies that in itself such a past has nothing to teach us, since it is no more than a present anchored in time. Modernity happens to complicate identity and identification.

As we read Act II (1) our concerns for Skírnir grows and we wonder about his personal identity, his class identity and whether he can be identified. In act I & II the dialogue technique, using a two- or three-stanza pattern, and the minor characters Skaði, Horse, Shepherd and Maid, are needed to develop the competent character of the protagonist. But when that has been accomplished by the end of verse 16, his personal qualities become a backdrop for his growing incompetence and puzzling identity. And because of his monologue and the way he behaves in Act II, his identity becomes a question that must be resolved.

If we try to find an answer to Who is he? it will lead us into an infinite regression, structured by a series of Why-is-he? question in pursuit of a non-existent essence in his overpowering present.

When the poet can avail himself of roles and dialogues, i.e. of interaction, the identity of the protagonist, i.e. his complexity, benefits from the scene as a context reflecting identity, and from speech – from expressions related to precise concepts as well as to intentions, norms and structural meaning.

Act I and the beginning of Act II presented us with the role of the competent go-between and we get the impression that Skírnir’s mission is diplomatic. He has come to buy friðr (peace verging on love) and his offer to Gerðr is simple: 11 golden apples! flattering, but essentially ‘Gold’, in return for a straightforward statement from Gerðr saying that to her Freyr is the most un-hated among the living (frið at kaupa, at þú þér Frey kveðir óleiðstan lifa.) – as opposed to the hatred in which gods and giants normally embrace. In effect this means that if Gerðr accepts the offer she is also prepared to let Freyr have his way. Well, she is not, because she detests Freyr and his lot. Gold she has already enough and she’s not afraid to die by Skínir’s sword and besides, what good is a dead Gerðr to Freyr? Friðr, however, is a bit out of place since Freyr is not interested in politics and diplomacy; he is more interested in trafficking. The choice of the diplomatic role is thus wrong and Skírnir’s first fault.

Having come this far into a mock wooing situation we may wonder what’s going on in Skírnir’s mind, and having posed this identity-related question, we might as well go back to the beginning of act II to look for an answer. In so doing we shouldn’t forget that there was a flaw in Skírni’s character visible already in Act I when he called Freyr folkvaldi goða.

The situation is not new to us and we know what the model situation ought to be because Venantius Fortunanus has described it when he wrote a series of poems in connection with the marriage of King Sigebert and Princess Brunhild in Metz 567 CE. Sigebert’s successful Skírnir, in Venantius’ word the ‘serene’ (i.e. Old Norse skír) image of the King, is called Duke Gogo and he brings Brunhild with him back to Metz and Sigebert. We also know from Hêliand (c. 830 CE) that a go-between such as Gabriel may be asked to explain himself well enough for the girl, in his case Mary, to be sure that he is not a fraud. He must prove that God sent him and show his ability to describe the technique and quality of the intercourse, the childbirth and the child. When Gabriel has explained these matters Mary says: ‘after these errends’ meaning now that you have proved yourself as God’s go-between, I am happy to obey. She already knows that she is  the ‘maid servant (ambótt) of the folk god’ and her master is obviously entitled to have his his way with her.

The first scene of Act II is an indoor and outdoor situation. It starts outside the farm, goes on to incorporate those indoors and ends up bringing together Gredr and Skírnis when Gerðr tells her maid to invite him into the hall. Gerðr is thus just about to show her good manners offering Skírnir something to drink now that he has come to visit her. Like Mary she is alone.

In the first dialogue, verses 11 to 13, Skírnir addresses the Shepherd asking him relatively politely whether he can speak to Gerðr. But despite his good manners, he also indicates that the Shepherd, instead of sitting on his mound keeping watch in all directions, ought to keep the dogs at bay. In principle the shepherd answers: No you can’t! but in practice being a servant or thrall at an Iron Age manor he is not just rude, he also expresses himself pointlessly and badly. He drops a line in the meter and produces the following full line: annspillis vanr   þú skalt æ vera, in which we hear an irregular too stressed and well-sounding alliteration between vanr and vera, i.e. between the second and the fourth (sic!) accent. I his first line, moreover, the shepherd repeats ertu unnecessarily: Hvárt ertu feigr, eða ertu framgenginn? Thus creating no less than four unaccented syllables in two similar trochaic words – e’ða e’rtu. This is an exaggeration in the poetic style of the poem. Moreover, ertu feigr and  ertu fremgenginn means the same: Are you dead? To answer the question ‘can I speak to your mistress?’ with ‘are you dead or are you dead?’ is not very sophisticated, not least because Skírnir, who started the conversation, is entitled to get the last word. It may well be that the shepperd is genuinly surprised that Skírnir has mananged to travel to Jotunheimen, but even in that case the shepperd is naïve. As Skírnir is upper-class he doesn’t bother to discuss with the shepherd. Instead he indulges in a small homily: ‘For those who have set out on a journey there are better thing to try than being wretched: Down to a day, my time is meted out and the whole of my life determined’. Here endeth the lesson telling the shepherd that to the Late Iron Age upper class male, the journey is the way of fulfilling a task as well as finding an identity and a destiny. Sitting on the mound like a wretched shepherd keeping watch is pointless. This type of conversation is standard, but here it backfires as soon as we understand that the shepherd’s mood is comparable to Freyr’s – the opposite of a folkvaldi goða. Is the Shepherd the wretched Freyr waiting for Skírnir to arrive? Is Freyr Skírnir’s shadow falling upon the shepherd, and Skírnir the serene side of Freyr?

Obviously the Late Iron Age upper classes, represented by Skírnir, treat the lower classes in an appalling way, unable to seeing them as peers and unable to grasp that the feelings of shepherds are on par with their own.

In an equally typical way we understand that two different things are going on when we listen to the dialogue between Gerðr and her maid. They are indoors, but instead of hearing the Shepherd and Skírnir talking to each other, Gerðr hears a ground- and house-shaking noise. Her maid on the other hand tells her about Skírnir and his horse. Similar to the beginning of the Finnsburg fragment, what sounds straightforward to common people is something exceptional to the upper classes. This is when Gerðr sends out the maid to invite Skírnir into the hall and it stands to reason that in his homily Gerðr heard the conviction of the man who asks to see her. She draws the conclusion that she is visited by a super natural Iron Age being and by trouble. But she invites him in, meets him at the door, asks if he is one of the Elfs, Vanir or Æsir and why he has come alone (She doesn’t give a pompous speech about fate and life and she asks because she is Mary-like, she wants to know more, while he is Gabriel-like). Skírnir says that he is neither, but nevertheless coming alone. Perhaps he is just a man, but since he represents the divine, and keeps his identity a secret, he is not completely truthful and we may wonder because he is falling out of the Gogo-Gabriel part. When Gabriel met Mary in Hêliand (in the 830s CE) he was in the same situation, but he revealed his identity and persuaded Mary that he was trustworthy. And duke Gogo who was sent out by King Sigebert to Brunhild in Toledo as his wooer played with open cards in Venantius Fortunatus poems about the marriage of Sigebert and Brunhild (567 CE). Although modelled on the holy wedding, the hieros gamos, theirs was completely a worldly one. Perhaps there is too much Freyr present in Skírnir.

In the next scene we are given some insight into the way the upper classes quarrel. They do it in a progressive Strindbergian fashion starting from a preunderstanding of the situation – not by saying: Are you dead or are you dead?

Since Skírnir turned Gerðr’s greeting and question into his own enigmatic and negative answer (vv 17 & 18), Gerðr repeats his offers to her in the negative (vv 19&20; 21&22), but each time she develops her response with her own arguments. This obviously irritates Skírnir, who starts threatening to kill her and Gerðr answers that she thinks that her father will anyway fight with Skírnir if they meet (vv 23&24). She could of course have said: Down to a day, my time is meted out … …, but she doesn’t. To the brave, such as Gerðr, death in itself is not a problem as longs as there’s someone to avenge you.

To underscore her disinterest in the matter Gerðr doesn’t end her strophe with a full line which brings things to a close. Instead she prefers the openness of long line when she expresses her presumption. Skírnir doesn’t hesitate to tell her that he will kill her father (v 25) and that brings the dialogue (vv23-25) to a hiatus. Predictably, since killing Gerðr and her father doesn’t solve his problems, Skírnir’s rage grows and his character and thus his identity takes yet a turn. This is the immediate reason why he starts to describe the fate of emancipated and stubborn girls who oppose the way marriage is arranged and negotiated among the LIA upper classes. Shrews lose their identity.

This scene, vv 26 to 31, is also the one in which Skírnir loses his grip on the meter and starts to fill-up the strophes with free-standing repetitive half lines. Modern translators and editors, but not good old Neckel, foolishly indicate some missing lines trying to save Skírnir’s poetical reputation. But in vain. It cannot be helped: unpolished shepherd’s poesy (his Freyr side?) is forcing its way out of his mouth when he projects Freyr’s  sentiments on Gerðr’s fate.

The scene is cunningly constructed. Once again there are two scenes in one – the quarrelling couple in front of us and Gerðr’s future life subsiding in the quarrel. To make is possible for both to see both realities at one and the same time Skírnir uses a staff, a light one, which intimidates Gerðr. He ‘tames’ her and it pleases him to force her into silence.

The future described in this and the next scene is a decade in the life of a young woman, i.e. Gerðr’s next ten years. Skírnir starts by depicting the not too uncommon teenage girl who turns her back to the world and stops eating because food is disgusting. Naturally she sits looking towards Hell, as worthless people do. Others start staring at her as if she was a lunatic and she becomes famous for being what she has become. Since she is stubborn she is captured by the trolls and starts to live a horrible life for a while before she must choose between one with three heads or never marry. Indirectly we understand that she refuses and that gives the author the possibility to make use of a metaphor from the life of the housewife that she refuses to become to show us how Gerðr, refusing to marry the three-headed troll, is thrown out of society: ver þú sem þistill, sá er var þrunginn i onn ofvanverða—be you like the thistle that which was crowded together in the worthless harvest. The scene refers to the indoor cleansing of the harvest, a daily occupation in the Iron Age household supervised by the housewife. The cleansing divides harvest into three: food for humans, food for animals and waste. The point is that Gerðr, refusing to begome the housewife, is thrown out as the most worthless part of the harvest, the thistles that not even the animals should eat. Being thistle-minded Gerðr has sorted out herself.

Because of her refusal to abate, Skírnir goes on in the next two scenes vv.32-37 to describe her as an exploited woman haunted by her multiple and conflicting identity. His method to achieve this future will be a new staff, which he will use three times on her. To find this staff he shall have to go to the woods and before he leaves Gerðr alone he therefore tells everybody that inasmush as Gerðr has offended the Æsir, Freyr will hate her and Oðinn is angry. Skírnir speaks on his behalf, having twisted his identity once again. To show her the powers invested in him, Skírnir tells Gerðr that with his staff he can force salaciousness, furiousness and impatience, ergi, œði and óþola, upon her as best he pleases. This means that her eventual owner Rimgrimmir doesn’t need to force himself upon her, Gerðr will  disgrace herself. Since Skírnir hob nobs with the divine echelons of the LIA society, this is no more than we expect from human beings loyally serving the upper classes.

At this moment Gerðr interrupts Skírnir. She does so because Skírnir has revealed his errand and identity – in reality he is the spokesman of the Æsir and Oðinn. Skírnir’s behavior proves that he is the Æsir’s errand boy. Similar to the way Mary was turned into obedience in Hêliand when Gabriel proved to her that it was the Lord, to whom she was but a servant, who wanted to overcome her with his wonderful shadow from the meadows of Heaven and have some sort of intercourse with her, Gerðr doesn’t object to Oðinn’s will. Gerðr and Mary are not the kind of women who object to the supreme authority, but well to pointless men. As Mary puts it: ‘Now that I know his will, I am his servant’, and so is Gerðr. If the Æsir, i.e. Oðinn, wants her to have intercourse with Freyr then that is OK with Gerðr, and she proposes the rendezvous at Barri. This satisfies Skírnir and perhaps Oðinn, but obviously not Freyr.

In verse 37 Gerðr interrupts Skírnir in a friendly and humorous way. Technically speaking she interrupts his never-ending monologue by greeting him the way she would have done in verse 19, if Skírnir hadn’t lost it: ‘Now you better be welcome young man and take a cup full of old mead’, and then she goes on joking about her situation: ‘That I had thought, though, that I would never make love to the off-spring of Vanir’. Since Skírnir’s mind is still exercising staffs of ergi, œði and óþola she baffles him and he loses face, but manages to be pompously formal: ‘Concerning my mission I want to know, before I leave and ride home, when and where you will give yourself to Njarðr’s dilating son’—nær þú á þingi / munt inom þroska // nenna Njarðar syni‘. If Skírnir had read Hêliand he would have known that part of his role was to describe the quality of the intercourse, albeit in less direct words. He should also have told Gerðr about Oðinn from the very beginning (and said something about the child). But then again, it is difficult to be involved with the divine. This too shows in a subtle way in the verses. In his last demand, Skírnir happens to put þroska in the wrong place, alliterating þingi – þroska on the second and fourth accent. This is odd, but it may of course happen if you are a stressed civil servant and a human being, however clever, among gods and giants. In Corpus Poeticum Boreale (1883) the editors were so embarrassed that they felt the need to ‘corrected’ the line: nær þú á þingi munt / inom þroskamikla.

Since the matter at stake is sanctioned by Oðinn, Gerðr tells Skírnir about Barri and since they both know the place, she incorporates a well-known and simple future into Skírnir’s troubled present. This fools him. She closes the case probably as a modern mariage case rather than a case of old-fashioned fertility cult, and Skírnir forgets that he was supposed to bring her home to Ásgard. He could have waited nine days and escorted Gerðr, but didn’t. The fact that the traficking wasn’t successful explains Freyr’s question about the errand.

In the end there is no much left of the competent valet; in fact so is little left that paraphrasing Philip Larkin is the only way to describe Skírnir’s situation:

They fuck you up, your giant gods.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they have
And add some extra, just for you.

But the again he got the sword, and perhaps the horse, didn’t he?

Having read Skírnismál we are able to judge the representatives of any semi-divine LIA King or lord and criticize the inflated and rotten hall-governed upper-class LIA society.


(0) Since the text is more important when dealing with Skírnismál Act II, Gudni Jonsson’s commented edtion from 1949 may be of some help. See:

(1) Terry Gunnell in his book The origins of drama in Scandinavia (1995) argued that Skírnismál and other Eddic dialogue poems were plays. I follow in his foot steps.


This week on the Reading Rest I have a dissertation from Stockholm University. It’s about non-invasive archaeological methods, and 160 years ago Worsaae, quoted in the heading, would have advocated them.

Viberg, Andreas. 2012. Remnant echoes of the past. Archaeological geophysical prospectiation in Sweden. Theses and Papers in Scientific Archaeology 13. Stockholm University. Stockholm.

Andreas Viberg’s (AV’s) dissertation consists of a synthesis corroborated by five articles that deepen its perspectives. I comment on the third article a case study of the Oelandic ring fort Sandby borg and the technical report behind the article(1).

Making conversation, archaeologists and astrophysicists will sometimes point out that their disciplines attract the most mono-thetic oddballs to whom the meaning as well as the rise and fall of practically the lot has become obvious. Whatever their quest, the success of their endeavour is guaranteed by our limited knowledge about the remote past. Archaeology is their obvious field of interest because its past, judged by present standards, must have contained a lot of oddballs driven by belief rather than proof. Since we know but a little, there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot to understand that isn’t self-evident, i.e. not possible to see as meaningful. And if we do see it as indeed possibly meaningful and worthwhile, should we look for a rational or irrational meaning and see normal or deviant behavior behind the material patterns – or both? Is the odd and deviant less important than the commonplace?

Since archaeologists must themselves lay bare the rare and unknown patterns they are looking for, most of what we perceive or could possibly perceive is overlooked and uninteresting. Indirectly this is the reason why imagination and new ways to see, are crucial to archaeology – they teach us the leap from becoming aware of to understanding. At the same time, seeing and believing sets the oddball rolling.

In his dissertation, AV’s discusses new ways of perceiving patterns as well as the reluctancy among archaeologists to accept geophysical methods. These methods are threatening because they might easily contradict the usual, highly selective, archaeological method of excavation and autopsy. Furthermore, they questions the social role of the archaeologist in today’s society – Sherlock Holmes at the crime scene explaining to the unseeing and apprenticed Watsons what happened here in the past. Therefore, only when the methods confirm what we as Archaeologists are prepared to see, will we accept them.

Theoretically speaking, we understand that the quality of these methods is their ability to perceive differently, but in practice we are cautious because we fear the oddball’s imagination seeing things that aren’t there. Nevertheless, when praising our cautiousness and traditional excavation styles, we shouldn’t forget that 40 years ago in the most excavated part of Sweden, the Stockholm area, hardly any archaeologist was able to detect and excavate the remains of Iron Age houses and farms. We needed a turn in excavation techniques and another way of looking for patterns in the ground to see these farms and understand that in the 50s, 60, and 70s, during the development of modern Stockholm, the remains thousands of Iron Age farms disappeared unnoticed.

AG has conducted a number of successful case studies not least to support his idea of how to organize a suitable and prolific Swedish subdiscipline of geophysical archaeology. One of these cases, in which the correspondence between Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) and archaeological autopsy is very good, opens up a window towards imaginative interpretations of empirical patterns that may be completely wrong or in some way right – a worthwhile case of oddball archaeology highlighting the fact that in archaeology a lot of possibilities must be taken into account although they may turn out not to be true.

In South Scandinavia, settlement planning becomes more and more important during the Iron Age (IA). Initially, planning was needed because members of small autonomous communities shared a limited subsistence area. In some ways, the way they shared had to be balanced against the right of those admitted into society have to sustain and reproduce themselves. Since the agricultural systems changed little during the period, despite the growing population, the right to form a household and a farm was eventually restricted. Restrictions had to do with the fact that the earliest IA farms consisted of a one-house farm occupied by a nuclear family farming the land surrounding it during one house-generation only. The farm house was never rebuilt and after some 30 years it was pulled down because its inhabitants had moved out to new farms or died. Since there were no radical agricultural reforms to implement, it became reasonable to reform the household. Farms became larger and fewer, but also more stable and fenced. Communities organized themselves as villages, and similar to the farm houses the number of farms became more and more stable. Even if a farm was not occupied its plot and thus the farm as an estate would still be maintained.

The apotheosis of prehistoric settlement planning is a number of ring forts created during the reign of Harold Bluetooth in the late 10th c. CE. Judging from their mostly short-lived existence it seems fair to conclude that as monuments, rather than being cherished, they were left to deteriorate as soon as the King’s power diminished and he died. There was nothing wrong with their planning, except perhaps that is was too strict and formal – rigid as it were – with very little room for adaptation to local or future needs. They are fine examples, nevertheless, of what a master builder with access to a pair of compasses and rulers can do if he is invested with power and principles (2).

Since we know what these houses looked like we are able especially to appreciate how the postholes in the corners where two houses met were set out. Since the outer posts support the walls at an oblique angle there are limitations to their position and thus a great demand for precision when figuring out where one should dig their postholes. In real life setting out all the small differently marked staffs indicating postholes of different dimension and slope, such as outer postholes, long wall postholes, roof support postholes, short end wall post holes, partition wall postholes, and so on, isn’t always easy.

This is why it makes one sad to see that in one of the forts, which actually housed a number of people for quite a while, there is a blemish on the plan – a house squeezed into an empty space as best it could, destroying the master builder’s beautiful plan. Some may have hoped that those, who spoiled this geometric monumentality, were punished, but probably the house only shows that day-to-day practice got the better of the powerful message of formal rules and order in the architectural display. One may even suggest that King Sven, who ousted his father Harold Bluetooth, maliciously applauded the extra house.

If we go back 500 years to 6th c. Öland in the Baltic, we find planned settlements, once again ring forts, that share an element with one of Harold’s. Harold’s trelleborgs (‘thrall burgs’) were completely planned fortified spaces, but in the fort that bears the name Trelleborg there is an additional fan of houses outside the rampart, planned along a periphery, a segment of a circle, in such a way that each short end occupies a certain number of foot along the circumference although the axes do not point towards the centre of the circle.

This kind of planning along a curve, known from the southernmost Oelandic ring fort Eketorps borg, can be found it also in the contemporary Pre Carolingian Iron Age (PCIA) fort Sandy borg, because of AV’s geophysical survey — in Eketorp it took years of excavations before the planning was understood. AV’s survey has in other words made it possible for us in advance to test interpretations that ought to be kept in mind before one starts traditional excavations.

When Sandby borg was mapped in the 1930s, it became apparent that the inner periphery of its stout lime stone wall was an ellipse, more or less. Later in the 1970s aerial photos suggested that there had been houses in the fort because the grass would seem to ripe and wither above the concealed remains of the lime stone house walls a little earlier than above the earthen house floors. The settlement plan, nevertheless, was flimsy.

When AV made his survey a number of structures were detected among others precise wall lines, which were singled out. With access to this precise plan we can advance the discussion of the planning of the ring fort.

The GPR suggests a central East-West axis and a perpendicular axis defining the centre of the ring fort where the two axes intersect. Since AV has mapped the centre of the settlement plan we can define the end point of the perpendicular axis as the distance from the intersection to the inner corner of the northern gate. Since an ell on Öland is one and a half East Roman foot or 47.03 cm the distance is c. 70 ells.

We may then proceed to construct two reasonable foci on the central axis. In all probability prehistoric man would have been guided by a wish to create a circumference of a certain recognizable length based on simple numbers. If we chose to place the foci 75 ells from the centre point then the circumference of the ellipse will be c. 564 ells or indeed 94 rods (1 rod is 6 ells or 282.2 cm). Instead of figuring out all this, the planners on Öland probably had a rule of the thumb which said that if you make an ellipse based on two foci, 150 measuring units apart, by means of a closed robe measuring 205 units, then the circumference will be 564 units.

Probably the planning needed yet another ellipse to solve part of the planning namely the need to define the façades of the radial houses and thus their length. There seems to be one such ellipse, which fits the central houses. This smaller ellipse can be constructed using the following rule: if you make an ellipse base on two foci, 80 measuring units apart, by means of a closed robe measuring 110 units, then the length of its perpendicular axis will be 75 ½ units. This ellipse would seem to fit the central part of the ring fort, but eventually, in practice, the houses become too long and the façades are set back.

Sanby borg is odd because the master builders contemplated planning an oval settlement, and executed their plans, although the procedure is bound to face a number of problems that may turn planning and execution into chaos. But if you succeed c. 400 CE on Öland, the elegance of the Roman amphitheatre will spring to the educated mind. We may find this comic, but in the Eketorp ring fort they actually built a portcullis gate (and did it work?) as a small tribute to their Romano-Oelandic mentality. We may find that comic too.

Both Eketorps borg and Sandby borg are examples of a geometrical idea that wasn’t carried out completely, and probably the planning was never intended to be strict. Instead, planning echoing a military Roman experience gave some guidelines as to how the space, if necessary, could be filled with houses. We wouldn’t like to think that they planned the way they did just because they could, and as we have seen, the radial planning of house façades surfaced again in one of Harold’s fort. It may not have been forgotten and Harold was probably in the habit of borrow historical elements and incorporating them into his monuments (3).

If we go back another 500 years to the first c. BCE we find an even earlier example of settlement planning at Hodde in Southern Jutland. Hodde was a fenced farm later expanding into a village and its perimeter seems difficult to explain if its purpose was fencing one or a small number of farms. When the settlement developed the new farms were aligned to the fence to keep the center free of houses. A possible way of explaining the settlement layout may be found in a reference to the landscape surrounding the village, inasmuch as it would seem that its outline is modeled on the outline of its topographical surroundings or subsistence area. Linking the settlement to its surrounding is not exceptional, but designing the settlement as a 1:10 map of the landscape is hardly necessary or rational. It is just odd – so odd in fact that we may wonder whether it is true.

Not surprisingly, there are no other examples of a simple correspondence between settlement and surrounding. The Oelandic ring forts are deviant to say the least. Harold’s fortifications were failures. But nevertheless, the will to plan according to a formal model, signifying order, popped up now and then during the IA and that makes the examples significant – significant of a preconception or miniature utopia that wouldn’t go away although it failed. Perhaps we should believe the patterns and see them as a sign of a slowly growing wish to manifest order in a formal way, despite some examples being weirder than others. Perhaps the development of the strictly formal is the most significant thing that happened in during the IA. Perhaps the fact that none of the examples discussed here were successful should be seen as the result of a resistance to accept this kind of development. Perhaps we are still caught between a quest for and a protest against a similar kind of social engineering.

(0). Næsten alle Høie og Dysser under Høfdinggaard ere, ligesom de omtalte, udgravede og ødelagte af Skovrider Bang og Lieutnant Vilstrup—Nearly all mounds and megaliths belonging to Høfdinggaard have, like the ones mentioned, been excavated and destroyed by Forester Bang and Lieutenant Vilstrup. This is a quotation from the Danish archaeologist Worsaae in the middle of the 19th century when the development of standard archaeological methods was still problematic. In those days, as pointed out by Michel Notelid (2000 Det andra påseendet, Part I. En studie av övergångar i den arkeologiska disciplinens historia. Occasional papers in archaeology, ISSN 1100-6358; 22. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala), Worsaae, fighting the unscientific, was always keen to turn archaeology into a discipline governed by objective methods and sensible norms. Thus, when he noticed questionable excavations he didn’t hesitate to hint destruction.

(1). The dissertation can be found at DIVA: And the report, in Swedish, is: Viberg, Andreas., 2012. Sandbyborg: Teknisk rapport. Magnetometerprospektering av Sandbyborg, Raä 45:1, Öland, Sverige. Rapporter från arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet 19. Archaeological Research Laboratory. Stockholm University. Stockholm.

(2) During later years the geometric and monumental oddities of Harold Bluetooth have caught the interest of Danish Archaeology. The Jelling Project and its sub-projects give some insights into the way Harold furnished the country with his geometrical monument: straight dykes and bridges, circular ring forts, monumental ship settings and enormous court yards.

(3) This kind of borrowing has been pointed out by Dagfinn Skre referring to the monumental IA context excavated at Avaldsnes in Norway and its affinities with Harold’s Monuments at Jelling. An update of the project results so far (in Norwegian) can be found at

or in print in the journal Frá Haug og Heidni 2011:4:3-7 Dafinn Skre: Noen resultater fra utgravningene på Avaldsnes 2011.

This week On the Reading Rest I have the Edda. It’s Gustav Neckel’s edition and I am reading For Skírnis – Skine’s Passage or Skírnismál – Skirne’s Speech.

Neckel, Gustav. 1927. Edda. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Vol. 1:Text. Vol. 2:Kommentierendes Glossar. 2. Aufl. Heidelberg. Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandel.

Skírnismál and Neckel’s Edda in front of some of Gerðr’s unlucky sisters in Sao Paulo.

It’s a very good edition, perhaps still the standard one in German. In several ways, moreover, Neckel was an alibi for Germanic Studies in a period of racism, propaganda and fabrication — not that he is without ideological bias himself. Nevertheless, his attitude recommends his comments to the vocabulary.

In reality I suspect that the reason I stick to this edition is because I know it and need the penciled comments and glosses I have jotted between the lines. For similar reasons I like Frederick Klaeber (Beowulf).

In the preface to the second edition, penned in September 1926 more than a decade after the first one written in April 1914, Neckel says that only during these years has the difference between ‘munda’ and ‘mynda’ become clear to him – this is the difference between I will, i.e., I am about to (the indicative mood) and I would if only … (the optative mood). Surely Neckel had his faults, but there can be little doubt that the way his was treated in the 20s, when as a professor of Germanic Studies he was forced to leave his chair in Berlin, must indeed have made the difference between ‘munda’ and ‘mynda’ very ‘clear to him’. Not surprisingly, his, non-optative, main antagonist in Berlin headed for the NSDAP (Member No 87.841) and the SA already in 1928.

In the manuscript Codex Regius where most of the Eddic poems can be found, several are critical of the society they allegedly describe – Lokasenna being model. But even Skírnismál or For Skírnis (Skír) is critical (1). The critique centers on the hall-governed society and the aristocracy that lived in these halls. In some details, therefore, poems may go back to the 5th-6th century CE, but the point being criticism, we would expect that on purpose such detail was put into compositions much younger than the alleged period. The halls themselves and the petty-ruler societies are not the primary target. What matters is attitudes and norms characterizing a proto Icelandic society in Scandinavia and Northwest Europe. In the event, the poems comment upon something that supposedly took place c. 500-800 CE and criticize the rotten ideology and morals of the upper classes of the Pre Carolingian Iron Age.

In the 13th c., when Christianity was not questioned, Snorri Sturluson, who consequently wasn’t overtly against pre-Christian society, felt the need to explain why Freyr used an antler to kill Bele. This may seem a minor point, but nevertheless, Snorri referred to Skír in order to explain why Freyr had no sword. Snorri, in a classical deconstruction of a primitive god, is critical of Freyr because Freyr is foolish. And foolish he is because once upon a time he was stupid enough to sneak away and sit in Oðinns’s heigh seat. It takes a god like Oðinn to sit there without losing one’s mind and Freyr simply wasn’t up to it. A young and inexperienced fertility god, he couldn’t control himself and the love he fell in with Gerðr when the high seat allowed him to look the whole world over. According to Snorri, Gerðr, because she was so fair, immediately made Freyr so lovesick that without much ado he gave away his sword to his valet Skírne when the latter agreed to go off to Jotunheimen and woo on Freyr’s behalf. Skírne asked for the sword and Freyr gave it to him seemingly unconcerned about his loss. Skírne was successful, but when he came back and told Freyr that Gerðr had promised to come to Barey (the Isle of Berra in the Hebrides) and marry him in nine days, this delay, which some of us would have thought was a short time, stood out as equivalent to at least nine month to Freyr. Lover boy was evidently more than reasonably lovesick.

Since Snorri quotes the crucial last strophe of the poem, he evidently knew a poem similar to the one we read today,although he chose to insist that the poem was about a successful wooing, which the one we know is not. Freyr doesn’t want to marry Gerðr, he wants to make love to her because she is attractive. Gerðr doesn’t want to marry Freyr, because she detests the gods. Eventually she agrees to have intercourse with him in a ‘lognfor’, i.e. ‘quiet-passage’ grove called Barri, which may mean ‘barley field’ or more likely ‘pine-grove’– but not the neutral Isle of Berra. Whatever Barri means the grove is well-known to those involved. And since it is a quiet grove, accessible, but not on a main road, it is also a reasonably sacred place to have intercourse with the fertility god. Obviously Freyr and Gerðr were not the first to withdraw to a grove to make love and not the last ones either. Since groves have sacred qualities, Nerthus for one liked being dragged there in her cart, meeting Freyr in a grove, accessible by road, sounds reasonable. If found out, Gerðr can in other words explain her behaviour and that is probably the reason for her choice, to which Skírnir doesn’t object. Some have it that Fjölnir, the first king in Uppsala, was the son of Gerðr and Freyr. The actual reproduction has no place in the poem; it is irrelevant because the poem is about social distortion brought about by the needs and mentality of a girl-spotting fertility god. But the poem is also a work of art, a well-structured composition.

Skírnismál is a small play in three acts and seven scenes (2). In order of appearance the roles are the following:

Skaði, Freyr’s worried mother, married to Njorðr, a giantess.
Skírnir, Freyr’s skósveinn – valet, and friend.
Freyr, lovesick fertility god, c. 20 years old.
Shepherd, a féherðir at Gymir’s manor.
Gerðr, Gymir’s daughter. c. 18 years old, a giantess.
Maid, an ambótt at Gymir’s manor.
Skaði, the shepherd and the maid are extras reciting only one strophe each. Gerðr takes part in dialogues, one strophe at a time, but Freyr and Skírnir in addition to taking part in dialogues speak in monologues too. Freyr’s is just a small two-strophe dialogue. Skírnir’s is the central one spanning 13 strophes.

The first act is set indoors at Noatun, Njordr’s manor and Freyr’s home in Asgard: vv 1-10.
The second act is set at Gymir’s manor in Jotunheim: vv 11-39.
The third act is set outdoors at Noatun: vv 40-43.

The scenes are composed mainly of dialogues. If a dialogue consists of two or four strophes, then it reaches no conclusion — it is word against word so to speak. If it consists of three, five or more strophes, then it also comes to a conclusion inasmuch as one of the persons gets the last word. The dominant speaker is defined by having the last word and if you don’t get it you disappear.

Skírnir takes part in all the dialogues expect the one between Gerðr and the maid.  He wins them all except the two last ones with Gerðr and Freyr respectively. When the poem comes to an end, therefore, only Gerðr and Freyr are left. Primarily, the dialogues reflect the main characters – and sometimes a strophe from one of the extras is needed to create reflection. The monologues in their turn reflect certain situations or inescapable realities.

Skírnir is analytical and clear-sighted, the powerful non-lovesick part of Freyr’s personality. Initially friendly, Skírnir is nevertheless a hardliner – serene as his name tells us, but with semi-divine powers and divine backing. Freyr is an immature god, who must be respected because he is just that. Gerðr is the attractive teenage giantess, who must be made to understand the life of a young woman coming of age in a hierarchical, male, world where she and her kin are subordinate.

The structure of the play is outlined in the below diagram:

As usual when we read a poem in Codex Regius we detect edition, but cannot judge its precise effects. Seemingly, the Medieval editor has preserved Act II, the scenes from Jotunheim, but cut away dialogues or scenes from the Act I and III, the frame story. In the beginning we have probably lost dialogue between Skaði and Njorðr and perhaps also some strophes spoken by Freyr. In the end Skírnir and Freyr could have said more, and what about a Barri scene? As the acts stand they nevertheless inform us about Freyr and introduce Skírnir in Act I. Act III adds nothing new to the description of Freyr, it only confirms what we suspected already in Act I. The poem could in other words have been more of the story described by Snorri, but it isn’t.

The settings of the scenes in Act I and Act III fit a large Norwegian farm and its main buildning e.g. Borg in Lofoten. If we suggest that Skaði and Skírnir talk to each other in the kitchen dwelling at one end of the house, then Skírnir goes into the hall, sits down and talks to Freyr. When they have finished, Skírnir continues into the stable to fetch Freyr’s horse and begin his passage to Jotunheim. The horse stays with Skírnir as his helper on this passage between different worlds and before they start Skírnir tells it that either they succeed or they die together. A typical Iron Age journey of civilisation, going into Jotunheim is difficult, but once his mission has been accomplished going back becomes unproblematic. Going back happens without further ado or poetry between Act II and III. In the latter Skírnir is simply returning to Noatun where he meets Freyr outside the stables — precisely where he left him. Freyr interrupts him as Skírnir is about to take the horse into the stables, and the journey therefore doesn’t come to an end.

In Act I Skírnir starts by calling Freyr ‘folkvaldi goða’ i.e. ‘a capable (goðr) man who holds power (valdi) over a group of people (folk)’. It is a worldly title indicating an outstanding executive leader. In his lovesick condition Freyr is anything but that. Since the expression is ironic it belittles Freyr as well as the unctuous courtier Skírnir and his empty flattering.

What Freyr feels for Greðr is the sexual lust of a young man, who has seen a girl more attractive (mær er mér tiðari—the girl is more enciting) than any young man has ever seen before. This miserable narcissistic sentiment is incompatible with a ‘folkvaldi goða’ and we are still sensitive to ministers spending time in bed with unmarried teenagers. The most telling example of his narcissism is Freyr’s inflated belief that his relation with Gerðr is something the aesir and álfa , who fill up his social environment, will dislike. Skírnir and his employers, Skaði and the other gods, understand that accepting Freyr’s troubles and giving-in to his sexual desires, is society’s simplest solution to the problem.

Cunningly pointing to their mutual upbringing Skírnir succeeds, and Freyr starts to talk because he cannot resist confessing his pathetic self-pity and obsession with Gerðr. The result is the expected, but the way Skírnir acts shows his social capacity and competence. The dialogues are there not least to reflect Skírnir.

By means of his animal helper and insignia, his horse and his sword, Freyr transfers the qualities of a folkvaldi goða to Skírnir. Whatever Snorri may have thought, Freyr doesn’t ask Skírnir to woo for him, and why should he? he doesn’t want to marry Gerðr. He is looking for a nookie, and that is why in Act III he thinks that 9 days and nights of distress (hýnótt—a night of distress) is a long time waiting for a girl. Freyr is in a huff because Gerðr has managed to negotiate some kind of semi-ritual, semi-sacred, semi-cultic, semi-marital or whatever situation after a period that stands out as a period of betrothal. Convincingly, Olof Sundqvist (3) has argued that the nine days signify a passage rite that would e.g. prepare women for marriage. In that case Gerðr has managed to negotiate a marrige contract and that is not what Freyr wanted. He wanted the girl. In the end, therefore, when Freyr is still in a huff we understand that he has not yet been able to focus upon anything but his immature self. Symbolically, this situation is emphasized in the last dialogue. Freyr interrupts Skírnir’s journey and starts a dialogue in which he, and for the second time not Skírnir, is able to get the last word. After Skírnir’s tour to Jotunheim his role has come to a not completely successful end and because of his shortcomings the leading parts are taken over by Gerðr and Freyr, but that’s another story. After all Skírnir is just a human tool in the hands of the LIA upper classes.

Several miniature gold foils depicting the three involved and often found in halls, suggests that the myth about Gerdr and Freyr was a happy-end Romeo and Juliet tale.

The myth in general was almost certainly about male fantasies developing, maturing into love, marriage, children and happiness, but the poem is not about that. It has an appalling class perspective: Freyr, a young man of the upper classes (half giant half vanr), desires a young and pretty girl (sexy to his mind) from a less civilized kin (giants). A proto Romeo, he thinks that this may be criticized and feels enormously sorry for himself. In fact the grown-ups too are worried about his reactions, but they understand that it is a narcissistic teen-age problem, caused by an eye-opening experience. Consequently, they ask his friend and foster-brother Skírnir to talk to Freyr. Since the two ‘soul brothers’ metaphorically speaking are one, Skírnir takes on the powerful leadership side of Freyr – his grown-up qualities so to speak. Being half-Freyr, the serene part, Skírnir doesn’t need to ask what Freyr wants and Freyr need not tell him. The situation is troublesome, whether or not it was caused by Freyr’s foolishness when he sat down in Oðinn’s high seat. Nevertheless, the social stratum that Freyr belongs to thinks that if he has his way with the girl, then he will go on with his life and grow up being able to balance his appetite for sex against his obligations as a ruler. Readers will ask: what about the girl? and the folkvaldi, the civilized Late Iron Age male will answer with the counter-question: what about her? Since the poem in its present form echoes these questions, the Icelandic Old Norse poetry preserves a critique of the Late Iron Age society.

And what about Skírnir? Well, that’s an other story.


(1) There are many translations of Slírnismál on the net e.g.

(2) Terry Gunnell in his book The origins of drama in Scandinavia (1995) argued that Skírnismál and other Eddic dialogue poems were plays. I follow in his foot steps.

(3) Sundqvist, Olof. 2010:77. Om hängningen, de nio nätterna och den dyrköpta kunskapen i Hávamál 138-45. Scripta Islandica 61:68-97.