On Lokasenna – Part One, Scenes and Structures from Provincial Life

23 December, 2013

Illu00This week On the Reading Rest I have an edition of the Eddic poem Lokasenna, but most importantly:
Gunnell, Terry. 1995. The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
I abbreviate the book title TOoDiS [too´dis]

Hárbarðsljóð, Fáfnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Skírnismál and Lokasenna make up the five dialogical poems singled out by Terry Gunnel in his analysis of The Eddic Poems and Drama (TOoDiS:182 ff.). All five dialogues may be staged in a hall, but the three last ones, Vafþrúðnismál, Skírnismál and Lokasenna, are the most obvious hall dialogues since in my opinion they can easily, but not necessarily, make active use of the hall room itself as a scene upon which part of the plot depends. Similar to Beowulf these poems are about life in the hall in which they may also take place. Skírnismál has already figured On the Reading Rest, 1 & 29 October, 2012, and the only thing added to the analysis compared to Terry Gunnell’s is an emphasis on the scene, i.e. the archaeological Norwegian hall of the Carolingian Iron Age – Borg in Lofoten being a case in point. Looking at the poems as plays putting them into a wider context, obviously change their meaning – nevertheless there is a point in analyzing their structure (0).

In his analysis Terry Gunnell shows that in Lokasenna the prose sections – the introduction and the conclusion as well as the few lines inserted between the strophes  – are extraneous(TOoDiS:229) or indeed superfluous and even confusing because the prose sometimes contradicts what we are told in the strophes.

Illu00bSimilarly, the speaker indications in the margins (often cut away from the sheets) once added for the benefit of the silent reader (TOoDiS:212), are problematic because they sabotage the oral performance of the poem making it unnecessary to imagine the characters involved in the narrative, i.e. the wrangle among the Æsir. The poem has been called Loka-senna, ‘Loki’s verbal duel’, but might as well be termed Loki’s wrangling or ‘the Loki kerfuffle’ because in the strophes Loki stands out at a first glance as no more than a dystopian drunk who has taken it upon him to expose the faults of his peers and annoy them. The scene is a genuine beer bash hubbub, Loki is a model of bad behaviour and the whole scene an embarrassing, albeit hardly unknown, hall situation. The format of talk is not to be expected in better halls, such as the Beowulfian King Hrothgar’s Heorot, but nonetheless imaginable. If we cut away the prose, the strophes stand out as a coherent dialogic composition, a mundane critique of the hall-governed society in the shape of a travesty.

Instead of the comic dimension and the irony, which may easily be heard when the strophes are recited, the prose emphasizes a sapient and general approach to and criticism of the pagan mythology and pantheon, rather than the character of the Æsir, and the trauma, and the attitudes they air. The speaker indications punctuate the flow of the narrative enabling the reader to pinpoint a specific utterance deconstructing the dialogue rather than elucidating the general structure of a dialogue that “lends itself particularly well to dramatic production” (cf. TOoDiS:245&247).Terry Gunnell concludes that the  editor of Codex Regius and the manuscript AM 748, in which Lokasenna is included, and those who produced the manuscripts, were aware of the dramatic and performative character of the dialogue (TOoDiS:281). Let’s read the strophes as they stand in the vein of TOoDiS – as a play write’s manuscript – without taking the prose into consideration.

To perform Lokasenna as a play takes no less than 19 actors – 17 speaking parts and two silent ones. Ordered in a table after the length of the roles in strophes and first appearance of the character the cast looks like this:
Illu00a

Since Loki is the only actor to recite two strophes in a row – two times as it were – he actually has half the lines. ‘Shut up’—þigi þú is his favorite imperative when he can think of no better way to begin an answer.

Although most of the party takes place in Ægir’s hall and although Ægir brewed the beer for the beer bash, i.e. the Norse sumbl, his role in the party is minimal and silent. Instead Oðinn presides over the hall and the sumbl as the host. We must conclude therefore that Oðinn in his capacity as the supreme ruler is visiting one of his vassals, automatically becoming the principle hall owner and overlord. We are in other words visiting a hall somewhere in the provincial outskirts of a realm.

There are three acts or parts in the play: to begin with we hear Loki and Eldir talking to each other just outside the hall room. Then Loki enters, and probably the servant Eldir too because, given his name, he looks after the fire. Eldir is one of Ægir´s thralls and consequently not verbally abused by Loki, who is content mildly to reprove him. When Loki enters the hall he starts speaking politely, but then he points out to the guests that have all felt silent and wonders why. Questioning their awkward silence is enough to provoke the self-assured Bragi starting a quarrel that goes on until strophe 57. IN STROPHE 58 Þórr enters the hall room threatening, four times, to kill Loki, who finds is wise to leave the hall given Þórr’s propensity eventually to use his hammer and batter him.

When Loki enters, he interacts first with the most prominent guests and they disclose themselves as an extended leading family consisting of Oðinn, Frigg, Vidar, Gefion, Bragi, and Iðunn. In the end when Sif performs her duties as the lady with the mead cup offering it to Loki just before Þórr enters, we understand that this leading family frames the kerfuffle and solves the problems as indeed it ought to, given its status.

Between Frigg in strophe 27 and Sif in strophe 53 we find the members of the second extended family: Niǫrðr, Skaði, Freyr, Freyia,Týr, Heimdallr, Byggvir and eventually Beyla. If we look at the families in a generational perspective then we can talk of a parent generation consisting of Oðinn & Frigg as well as Niǫrðr & Skaði. Their children are represented by Sif & Þórr as well as Freyr & Freyia. We may venture to consider Vidar less important or younger than the other children because his is silent and ordered about by Oðinn. At the lower part of the ranking, therefore, we find Vidar as well as Gefion, Bragi, & Iðunn on the one side, and on the other Týr & Heimdallr together with Byggvir & Beyla. Since the latter pair is Freyr’s servants they are low ranking on par with Eldir. Their low status is indicated in two ways: Loki pretend not to recognize Byggvir, and Beyla is the first to hear that Þórr approaches the hall room. She is able to hear this and tell the others because she is placed at the entrance, i.e. in the lower hall. Contrary to Eldir’s duties, Beyla’s do not require her to leave the hall; she is in other words a guest.

There are 8 members in each family, and owing to our understanding of their rank and the structure of the hall room, as well as clues in the strophes, we can reconstruct where the actors/guests are seated and how they move

The first scene is the hall before Loki enters. It seems that Oðinn with his entourage is travelling his dominions on a veizla, i.e. a touring his realm visiting his vassals, in this case Ægir, who is obliged to serve the ‘King’ and his court. For the time being, Oðinn has taken over Ægir´s hall and put himself in the hall owner’s position. And since his son Þórr is not present, it stands to reason that on the dais in the uppermost part of the hall Oðinn & Frigg as well as Sif & Ægir have taken their seats presiding over the party. In the side ailes the couples are arranged according to rank and family or household. In Asgard both Oðinn and Niǫrðr are hall owners, but being on veizla they observe their separate household spheres occupying each their side of the hall as guests arranging their followers in pairs. All in all 18 persons in 9 pairs are arranged in the hall in a Norse symposium or sumbl situation — drinking beer. It is the way the guests are arranged that reminds one of Roman ways of dining and that should no come as a surprise given that the Scandinavian hall had affinities with the Aula Sacra.

Illu01If we look at the guests as a worldly court, there are parents, children, kings, princes and consorts as well as specialists like Bragi the scald and capable executives such as Týr & Heimdallr and Þórr, who is not far off. They are matched by rural champions such as the ploughing virgin Gefion as well as the loyal servants Byggvir & Beyla, and Eldir. Into this room, filled with the discreet charm of the Iron Age aristocracy, enters Loki as a Grendel character or a mad prince. And there is method in the play and its seven scenes.

Illu02The first scene, strophes 1-5, Eldir and Loki are speaking to each other just outside the hall room, and the guests, who have been bad-mouthing Loki, fall silent as they hear the conversation.

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In the next scene Loki enters the hall and asks the hospitality of host and guests and to sit down and drink beer with them since he has travelled far. This standard request is difficult not to grant in a hall – i.e. the building which represents the interface between the private and the public and a space in which the hall owner shows his qualities as a good host and just ruler.

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In the third scene Bragi starts to reproach Loki, but the well-behaved Oðinn acts fast and honourably, asking his son Vidar to give room for Loki.

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In the fourth scene, Loki who has got a seat amidst the members of the leading family, lets loose his bad temper abusing Bragi, who sitting closer to the high seat than Loki and having observed Oðinn‘s behaviour tries to come to terms with him. One by one Loki insults the members of leading family to his left and right when they try to talk some sense into him. His audience consists of the members of the second family, the frontbenchers sitting in the other side of the hall.

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The fifth scene begins when Freya interrupts Loki’s wrangling with the first family. she criticizes his bad and foolish manners. Following up on this Loki begins abusing her, and thus provoked the other members of the second family continues the quarrelling.

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The sixth scene starts when Sif interrupts Loki’s quarrel with the second family. She does this in her capacity as the lady with the mead cup offering Loki something to drink in a good-humoured way. Sif has not yet been abused by Loki, but now he seizes the opportunity. While doing so, Beyla, Freyr’s servant in the lower part of the hall thinks she hears Þórr coming back and tells everybody in the hall. Since Loki has not yet told her to shut up he does so now. This means that he has succeeded in abusing all the guests that have spoken.

Illu08The last scene commences when Þórr enters the hall and starts quarrelling with Loki. Four times he shouts: ‘shut up, pervert!’ (þegi þú, rǫg vættr!) and threatening to bash, destroy and kill him with his hammer Mjǫllnir. Loki finds it wise to take his leave and in so doing he offers Ægir some prophetic Wrath piyting him rather than scolding him.

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NOTES
(0)
.  In a number of articles Terry Gunnell has developed his analysis of dialogical poems as staged plays in different spatial settings, stressing the interplay between actors and audience as well as mythology. He points to the theatrical qualities of the poems linking them to indoor and outdoor scenes as well as sacred and liminal situtuations  (cf. Gunnell, T 2006, ‘“Til holts ek gekk . . .” The performance demands of Skírnismál, Fáfnismál and Sigrdrífumál in liminal time and sacred space’. In Andrén et al (eds). Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives, Lund: Nordic Academic Press:238–42; or Gunnell, T 2008, ‘The performance of the Poetic Edda’. In Brink and Price (eds), The Viking World. London and New York: Routledge:299–303.).

Putting the performance of poems such as Skírnismál or Lokasenna into a more mundane hall setting suggests no more than different readings and interpretations of the dialogues, for instance with an emphasis on travesty or irony in a historical setting, rather than mythological drama. This is unproblematic – the one does not exclude the other — inasmuch as it a quality inherent to the theatrical performance that it may fit several interpretation. Indeed the edited versions we read in the Older Edda, strophes framed and interlaced with prose as well as structured by speaker indications, are interpretations befitting the silent 13th c reader.

The performative and dramatic qualities of Eddic poems was pointed out already by Phillpotts, B. 1920. The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Recently, Neil Price (Price, N. 2010. Passing into Poetry: Viking-Age Mortuary Drama and the Origins of Norse Mythology. Medieval Archaeology, 54:23-56.) has discussed Scandinavian drama in the Carolingian Iron Age and linked it firmly to the ritual scenes of mortuary practice.

 

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