To write c. 1500 words because one is not satisfied with the usual translation of an Old Norse word, a poetic kenning to be precise, is probably a sign of being bored by the view from the room of one’s own in the ivory tower (Humanities Tower No 60 in the lates World Ranking), so bored in fact that leaving room, let alone tower, is no alternative.

Nevertheless, Old Norse verse is interesting because it is complex and sometimes difficult to understand. We gather that the opaque meaning is important and this has led us to translate the strophes. First we start by translating the words. In this case it is a strophe of Þjóðólfr of Hvinir’s (c. 855-930 CE) i.e. Thjodolf.

text 00

When we know the words that Thjodolf used to convey his message we may start to condense and reduce its metaphors and kennings (a kenning is a metaphoric paraphrase). We do so because we think that some clarity may be needed. Reducing Thjodolf’s poetic expressions we draw on a scholarly textual tradition and start to simplify Thjodolf’s metaphors and paraphrases. And when we are at it why not bring the series of events described by Thjodolf into some sort of chronological order.

text 01

At this stage in the condensation, arinkjól, which is a relatively difficult kenning, is always translated ‘house’ (i.e. reduced to house) because Snorri Sturluson in Ynlinga Saga informs us in plain words that Visbur perished when the building where he lived was set on fire. True to his method Snorri backs up his own simplicity in Ynglinga Saga by quoting Thjodolf’s complexity in one of the strophes from Ynglingatal – and we become confident that arinkjól means ‘house’.

And we proceed:

text 02

And we may continue to clarifyi the strophe a bit more:

text 03

But we may as well stop here because we have already proved beyond doubt to ourselves that Thjodolf’s complexity covers something commonplace and seemingly an obsession with fire and repetition.

Nevertheless, it is a good rule of the thumb to ask ourselves, when we have reduced the past to the commonplace and its verses to art for fart’s sake, whether this can really be true. Did Thjodolf perhaps have an agenda when he chose his kennings and metaphors? Do they mean more than simply fire, son, body and house? Perhaps there are kennings and metaphors to explain, and a choice of poetic expression to discuss in relation to the material culture of the past and its reality.

In the strophe, kennings and metaphors come in pairs, but it will nevertheless be rewarding to begin by seeing them as two parallel series.

Vísburs vilja byrgi = Vilbur’s will fence /will’s fence  is the place where his mind and soul is enclosed and thus his body. But it must not be forgotten that archaeologically speaking the fence is also typical of the farm –  surrounding its buildings and yards. Around manors or a King’s residence fences are impressive and protective in a definite rather than formal way.

meinþjóf markar = the forest’s mean thief. This is fire. Mark means the wood, but not any wood. Rather it is the wood that delimits the settled area (the forested borderlands, i.e. the ‘mark’ we know from Den-mark – the border lands of the Danes). This kind of wood makes up the borders of the human landscape and since it borders on the foreign it is a little beyond our control. The fire in question is a fatal devastating event leaving but a few the black trunks standing in the smoke — long after the fire has died away.

í arinkjóli = in the hold of the hearth. In the Carolingian Iron Age, the hall with its slightly arched central ridge and convex long walls looks like a boat turned upside down. And there are similarities also in the way house and boat building were perceived. Since the hearth is placed on the floor, enlightening the hall room and its open roof construction, as if the floor was the deck of the upside down boat, it is possible to see the sloping inner roof of the hall as the hold of the ship. The word kjól means keel, but since ‘sailing on a loose keel’ means sailing with an empty ship, and since the preposition used here is ‘í’, i.e. ‘in’, kjól is also a metaphor for the space below the deck, i.e. the hold. Since the hall room may at times be empty or filled by (a cargo of) guests  arinkjól is a befittting kenning. In the manor, the hearth, moreover, is the centre of the hall, which means that this kenning brings us into Virbur’s hall, where he would be sitting in the high seat – Royal and content.

sævar niðr, the brother of the sea. The giant of the sea/water was Hle (Ægir). His brother, who was in charge of fire, was called Loge, i.e. Flame. Describing the fire in this way makes the verb ‘swallow‘ very appropriate because similar to water the fire as an element can be seen to swallow people when they disappear in the flames – in ‘a sea of fire’ – similar to people disappearing in the waves.

setrs verjendr, the defenders of the (high)seat (‘seat’ being a metaphor also for the residence). In this case the defenders are Visbur’s sons, Gisl and Åndur. Visbur left them and his wife their mother, when they were small children. She went back to her wealthy father with her sons and they were brought up abroad (i.e. not in Old Uppsala where Visbur is supposed to live). It is thus from the outside that these brothers return to defend their throne, which they suppose will be occupied or usurped by their junior half-brother Domnald. Since Gisl and Åndur are the heirs closest to the throne they defend it when necessary. The reason why they settle for ‘arson defence’ is not crystal clear – i.e. not sanctioned by the Security Council and the UN. Thus, by choosing this kenning Thjodolf gives us a glimpse of Gisl and Åndur’s rhetoric. Their foreignness is also implied by their names which means ‘ski pole’ and ‘ski’.

Gisl and Åndur

glóða garmr, the glow hound. Because dogs and hounds may be aggressive and dangerous attackers, the glow hound may well be a metaphor for the aggressive fire. However, when the magnate is sitting in his hall his dog is there too on the floor in the side aisle next to the hearth, and usually and ideally, but not in this case, the Master’s control of the beast is total.


If we are not aware of the way kenning and metaphor interact, mirror and develop the poetic understanding of Visbur’s fate, we miss something important and run the risk of making the past as simple minded as our translation of it. This is a mistake and one such is the usual translation of arinkjól ashouse’ rather than ‘hall’ or ‘hallroom’. Seen from the ivory tower, this is a grave mistake sabotaging Thjodolf’s careful poetic construction, its kennings and metaphors.

The three kenning+metaphor pairs, become more difficult and important to understand when Thjodolf zooms in on the very spot where Visbur, content in his high seat and hall behind his fence, understands that he has lost control and realizes that he will soon be swallowed by the fire. Thjodolf takes us from (1) the common fact that people can be burnt in fires when at home, i.e. behind their fences, over (2) the specific historical situation – i.e. the fateful retaliation brought about from abroad by the wronged sons that he once abandoned to (3) Visbur in his hall. The sons employ a foreign and brutal method befitting their father and worthy of their revenge. The contrast between Visbur and the dog — disturbed in their fenced hall content, and the inflated rhetoric of the seat-defending sons attacking from the woods, brings us in close contact with the attitudes of the antagonists and their character.

It has been pointed out before, but deserves to be repeated: conventional translations of skaldic verse belittle poets such as Thjodolf of Hvin. He may be accused of being too intellectual and perhaps he introduced setrs verjendr too bluntly, and perhaps this kenning is too ironic, but he is a better poet than most of his translators. And arinkjól doesn’t mean ‘House’.


Seneca on Benefits

2 September, 2013

Some weeks ago I read a review by Peter Thonemann of some books on Roman economy. In a good-humoured way it was witty and ironic – and critical. Thonemann pointed out that so called formalist views on past economies are back in business. Large ancient market spheres and exchange are once again popular, driven by the – overruling, ever-present, always-rational – laws of economic behavior.

The return of the Roman market economy is a typical, if slightly belated, backlash triggered by a critique starting in the 1990s. This was a critique of the deconstruction once launched by the ‘post’-methodologies. These deconstructions targeted structuralism and modernism and indeed naïve dichotomies or binary oppositions such as the one between formalist and substantivist views on past or for that matter modern economies.

Wikipedia will explain the almost outdated terms formalist and substantivist.

The reviewer says that this divide and the study of past economies is no longer a hot topic. And he is right. In fact the main reason for the paired labels and the field to be outdated was the criticism developed in the 1980 when past and present economies became many and varied as well as more or less popular, dominant and long-lived, rather than an ordered series from the past to the present, emblematic of civilization, rational economic choice and progress. Economies became difficult and simple strategies and analyses dangerous.

Economies as it happens are contextual, they may be technically difficult to grasp, e.g. when they are encapsulated in systems deliberately playing with variables such as real value vs. nominal value, as well as parameters such as trust, transaction time, obligation and speed, to name but a few. As intellectual constructions, nevertheless, forms of economic behaviour are simple enough – especially the popular ones such as gift giving, market exchange, monopoly, redistribution, cooperation or acquisition, which are easily combined to bring out unexpected results.

One of the books reviewed, The Roman Market Economy, pleaded so fervently for a formalist position that it convinced the reviewer of the significant shortcomings of this perspective on past economies. Most researchers during the last decades have experienced that any proof or indication of ancient market-based economies comes with severe restrictions to the idea the free market. In fact, if we want to argue for something market-like we must start by restricting the context in which such a market works, i.e. start by contradicting the very idea. Ancient markets do not combine large demographic and geographic entities, they don’t striving to be free, they aren’t expanding and not models of rational behavior. Moreover, a very large number of sources, which ought to have helped us elucidating the market concept, are few and far apart and they become spurious during the critical process when we try to judge their representativity.

The reviewer points to the fact that Seneca’s essay On Benefits, which might very well have discussed economic matters in terms of market exchange, doesn’t do so. This is true also of Petronius’ Satyricon although the freedman Trimalchio is very much connected to the way Romans as merchants became rich. This ridiculed protagonist, as well as the whole story about him, conjures up the antithesis of Seneca and the way he argues in On Benefits. It has since long been observed that part of the irony in the chapter Trimalchio’s Dinner becomes funnier if we imagine the surreal but historically speaking possible conversation between a Trimalchio and a Seneca on the value of profit and benefit.

Spain and sailing routes

Turning to archaeology rather than satire or philosophy, there are examples that indicate irrational market situations in the 1st c. CE, even in connection with a popular commodity such as lead in the form of so called lead pigs. In a number of shipwrecks from the glorious 1st c. CE when the exploding imperial commerce tought merchants’ ships to sail the Mediterranean the hard way, the cargo consisted among other goods of lead pigs on their way from Spain to Rome. There are two very different kinds (1).

Lavezzi 2

First there is the unusual wreck Lavezzi 2. It consisted of 95 ingots weighing c. 144 mina each (all in all c. 5 ton lead). These ingots were all produced by the lead founder Minuciorus, who sold them to the merchant Iunius Appius Zethus, i.e. a freedman, the former slave of Caius Appius Iunius Silanus, who was married to the Emperor Claudius’ mother-in-law and killed by Messalina 42 CE. The investment, ship and cargo, suggests close ties between the aristocrat and his former slave. The aristocrat may well have financed Zethus’ operations. Be this as it may, the example demonstrates a simple economic context – one producer, one merchant, a large cargo on its way to Ostia and Rome where lead was needed e.g. for water pipes – i.e. in profitable public and semi-public construction work sponsored by the aristocracy.

Cabrera 5

But most examples are far from this paragon. A cargo half the size, c. 40 ingots, may typically involve five named merchants and perhaps some anonymous dealers. As it happens some ingots have been stamped by three different merchants and since there are also some blanks with no merchant’s stamp at all, we may expect that a fourth and perhaps a fifth anonymous merchant was involved such as the captain or the owner of the ship. We don’t know how many owners were involved in a cargo such as the one from the wreck Cabrera 5, but its composition is so complex that we must conclude that the lead market in Baetica (Southern Spain) was in a very bad state despite the enormous demand for lead in Rome. Needless to say, the weight of the individual lead pig in the small cargoes is light and varied compared to the more uniform ones in Lavezzi 2.

These two cases suffice to demonstrate that there was a market, several in fact, and that some worked badly, which in formalist theory they ought not to have done in a period when the century old demand for lead rocketed. If the market had worked well, i.e. as it is supposed to work after a couple of centuries, then the wrecks would have contained Lavezzi 2 cargos, preferably with only one stamp. Since this is not the case, we must conclude that even though the aristocrats who sponsored their freedmen, understood the point in bypassing the Spanish market, they didn’t invest in lead mines and foundries in Spain in order to export directly to Rome. There was no lack of slaves to run the business, so why not use forced labour to create one large and fair lead market? The answer is probably that they had read Petronius or Seneca or both.

Seneca who writes about benefits has nothing to say about The Lead Market or indeed any market other than the local market place, which he mentions twice. But he writes a lot that can explain why the immensely rich upper classes, to which he himself belonged, looked upon the difference between profit and benefit in such a way that it kept them back.

As pointed out by Griffin and Inwood in the introduction to their translation of On Benefits (2011:loc283 on a Kindle), Seneca makes a clear distinction between profit and benefit. When profit is involved, as in the agreed exchange at the market Place, no bonds or obligations are necessarily involved. But in very many situations, which also concern money, benefit and obligation are integral. And this, Seneca argues, is normal because we are humans. Not surprisingly, On Benefits is not referred to in The Roman Market Economy (TRoMEc) of which there is an easily checked Kindle edition.

Seneca mentions market only a two times, but On Benefits is full of references to economic concepts such as ‘cost’, ‘price’, ‘money’ or ‘profit’ not to speak of ‘benefit’, i.e. concepts frequently figuring also in TRoMEc.

In Griffin and Inwood’s translation the first ‘market’ quotation runs: One man paid out a sum of money on behalf of a convicted debtor, but to do so he drew on private resources; someone else made the same payment, but took out a loan to do so or pled to get the money and submitted to being under a major obligation for the favor. Do you think the fellow who had to borrow in order to give is in the same position as the man who effortless provided the financial benefit (8.3) Sometimes it is the circumstances that make the benefit large rather than the money. The gift of an estate so productive that it could depress the price of grain at market – that is a benefit.

Seneca’s point is ‘circumstance’ – important in his treatise, unimportant in TRoMEc – and the way it links-in with financing and benefit and obligation. Financing creates split, complex and stressed situations, while a productive estate is a benefit to the local market and to its owner and to his donor and to society because it secures and supports regular subsistence. Locally, the estate makes the extended household economy rather than market economy beneficial.

In Griffin and Inwood’s translation the second ‘market’ quotation runs: And indeed the price of a thing varies after all with circumstances; though you have touted your wares well, they are worth only the highest price for which they can be sold. A person who buys them at a good price owes nothing extra to the seller. (15.5) Then again, even if they are worth more, no generosity on your part involved, since the price is determined not by their usefulness and efficacy but by the customary market price.

Again circumstance is the point and the market and its money problematic because it makes the price decisive although price cannot determine the usefulness and efficacy of the commodity, i.e. its value. Moreover, the market situation takes away the bonds and obligations between seller and buyer. Seneca understands how markets work, but he is not impressed.

The two quotations fit the lead pig examples. Zethus, ultimately financed by an aristocrat, bypassed the Spanish market and saved time and money. Consequently he made good quality lead cheaper in Rome for the common good. Five ton high quality lead equals 353 m 10-digit water pipe. Zethus’ bonds and obligations to his former master or the lead founder as well as his benefits and profits are easy to imagine and so are the risks he took, although similarly to Trimalchio he may have taken them with his master’s money. The owners of the small cargoes on the other hand were trapped by the inefficient and time-consuming Spanish market trying to put together a cargo from lead pigs circulating in Baetica.

When the rich think about benefits the way Seneca does, benefit linked to benevolence and obligation will invade their minds and ruin their formalist economic senses. It may well be that the rich in Rome were quite pleased with making money bypassing the market feeling the obligation to develop their society, but it didn’t set the market free. There is no point in trying to describe Roman economy as generally speaking a market economy. One must, however, not forget that if humanities had been better financed scholars would have would have continued to write about the problems of simplified economic analyses all the way into the present financial crisis pointing out that the benefits of financing is a matter of circumstances – as Seneca use to say.


(1) Since past economies are difficult but not impossible to study, the article on these cargoes is a somewhat technical and indeed quite old. Herschend, Frands 1995. Friends of Trimalchio’s. A study of Spanish lead ingots from three Roman wrecks. Tor 27:269-310. 1995. (ISSN 0495-8772).