Late Iron Age Prejudice – Acts I and III

1 October, 2012

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.


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