On Lokasenna – Part Two, Roles and Characters from Provincial Life
6 January, 2014
This week On the Reading Rest I still have the Poetic Edda. It’s Gustav Neckel’s edition and I continue to read Lokasenna – the Loki Quarrel.
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.
The structure of the Lokasenna dialogue suggests that it is a play about life in the hall, performed in the hall itself in front of the hall guests (OtRR 23 Dec 2013). Since it features the mature Æsir referring to their adolescence and hinting at their future destiny, the dialogue refers to a historical situation when gods and their human extension, the upper classes, lived their ‘civilized’ lives in halls. In the day and age of the dialogue, the gods are paragons and mythic characters, but contrary to Trinity and Church, they are present and their characters easy to grasp in a tense hall situation.
The strophes 1-10 cover two scenes: Loki outside the hall in a conversation with Ægir’s servant Eldir (strophes 1-5) and the scene which results in Loki getting a seat at the party. (strophes 6-10). It seems that Loki knows Eldir, but perhaps he instinctively calls him Eldir, giving him a typical serf’s name recognizing his duties from his looks and doings.
The conversation between Eldir and Loki serves three purposes:
(1) As a prologue, it tells the audience that they are guests sitting in Ægir’s hall with the victorious Æsir. Since the wars are over the winners are having a sumbl – a feast, drinking beer, bragging about their glory, talking about the war they won, praising themselves and blaming others. The victorious Æsir, Óðinn with his entourage, are in effect touring their realm visiting one of their vassals. To use the Norse term, they are on a veizla. Contrary to what Sigrun in the First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, st. 17, emphatically suggests to Helgi after the battle is won: “I think that the two of us have other things to do than drinking beer with the ring breaker (HH 1 St 17:2) – the Æsir in Lokasenna have nothing better to do than just that with their ring breaker or leader, Óðinn. A simple pleasure, bragging may nevertheless come with a price as it did for the East Saxons at Maldon when it became apparent to those involved that many a bold and boastful hall speech would not endure the stress of the battle (Battle of Maldon vv 199-200).
(2) As a dialogue the strophes demonstrate the conflicts underlying the situation, i.e. the Æsir’s oppressive self-indulgence demanding the degraded to forget about being wronged and to behave themselves in accordance with the code of the hall and civilized life. In strophe four, therefore, Eldir says: ‘be sensible!’ because Loki in strophe three has announced that – having no real power – he will poison the beer with words. Eldir being Ægir’s thrall and waiting upon the victorious Æsir is well-aware of the situation.
(3) Technically speaking the strophes build up to Loki’s entering the stage giving his two-strophe speech a striking but also revealing background – we know that mischief is his aim, but may still find his way of introducing himself cunning inasmuch as he immediately appeals to the norms of the civilized hall life to invite a man who comes from afar to take a seat. Knowingly he comments upon the fact that the Æsir felt silent as he entered and when Bragi cannot hold back his anger demonstrating that he doesn’t always adhere to the norms of the hall norm, Loki immediately turns to the ruler (Óðinn, i.e. Bragi’s father) reminding him of their common past. Similar to what happens in Beowulf when the hero gains permission to enter the hall because King Hrothgar knew him as a child, Óðinn acknowledges the overarching principle of a shared past, and grants Loki a seat – that of his son Vidar as it were – and thus not a low-ranking seat. It would seem significant, therefore, that everybody has a past.
Well in his seat Loki hails gods and goddesses, but points the finger at Bragi, St 11. The first part of the quarrel (St. 11 to 28) commences and it is obvious that to begin with the female gods/guests try to mediate reconciliation between the males, but little by little everyone is drawn into the quarrel. The male gods may start their conversation in a civilized way, but Loki’s verbal abuse provokes them and they pay back his slander. In this first quarrel, the insidiousness is mainly related to the past when the gods now involved in the quarrel were young or younger. There is no future in the quarrel just the past view in the light of the present. Furor grows among the guests in the hall, and Loki’s frenzy gets out of hand. He begins the quarrel by ridiculing Bragi in a malicious way and accuses the female gods of salacity and nymphomania. In the end he has worked himself up and brags of having brought about Balder’s death in order to hurt Frigg, who has followed up on the quarrel between Loki and Óðinn, i.e.Frigg’s husband. Since Loki’s method is provocation he depends on the guests: if they don’t talk or reproach him, he cannot respond because he needs stimulation in order to turn the screw. He doesn’t argue, he points out. That is why he has not said anything to Vidar or Sif (the last member of the leading family) and would indeed have had nothing further to say, if Freyja had not addressed him from the other side of the room.
The second quarrel scene (st. 29 to 56) has a different attitude to quarrelling because Loki is already furious and unable to stop abusing the gods. The gods argue that since the present is very awarding what happened in the past is of little importance because the intentions were good. In the opinion of the gods, Loki, instead of revealing his mischievous behavior, ought to worry about his future.
Three of the gods explicitly mentions the future: Freyia, Freyr and Skaði – and they do it in the beginning in the middle and in the end of the quarrel repeating and escalating their threats.
The gods, moreover, are reasoning, taking facts into consideration and making arguments. They explain situations. Loki on the other hand continues to indicate, remind and reveal what he considers to be facts that happened in an unspecified past. Only later does he speak of the future; when speaking to Freyr he draws a conclusion concerning his antagonist. A little later answering Skaði he admits to his own future. Similar to the first scene, the second also comes to an end when Loki cannot refrain from pointing out that he has killed someone – in this case Skaði’s father.
The two old couples, Óðinn & Frigg and Niǫrðr & Skaði, have similar and complementary parts to act. They are a little above the basest wrangle and Loki’s favorite accusations. Their strophes (st. 21&23 and 33&35) reflect their character, and neither Óðinn nor Niǫrðr denies or regret the past (st. 23 and 35). There is progression in self-confidence from Óðinn to Niǫrðr. Moreover, and contrary to Loki, they evaluate their life and find their masculine faults and shortcomings minor compared to Loki’s generic subordinate femininity and birth giving, in effect his bisexuality. They radiate liberal fairness befitting the head of a successful family (st. 21 and 33), nevertheless, they point out the absolute social limits and Loki does not object (st. 23 and 33). Taken together their strophes portray the mature and successful hall owner.
Frigg as well as Skaði, interrupts and summarizes the gods’ main point in each their part of the quarrel and comparing the strophes reveals how the wrangle has progressed and shifted its emphasis: ‘Let bygone be bygone’ says Frigg in st. 25 and ‘You will soon be punished’ says Skaði in st. 49. In fact punishment is suggested by Frigg in st. 27 and later on described by Skaði in st. 51. In their last two strophes they both speak hypothetically, consequently drawing on the reality of the present and on their own independent analytical gifts.
Loki’s insults fall in two groups sexual deviance and personal wretchedness. Gradually the insults add up to an impressive set. Loki seeks to demonstrate that Niǫrðr’s family is depraved and that his followers are wretched.
The future, to begin with a theme pursued by the gods rather than Loki, becomes more pregnant in the quarrel and it is obvious that Loki is not as specific in his description of the future as the gods.
The gods deny some of the facts presented by Loki and base their arguments on others. Although they answer Loki in their second strophe quarrelling with him, they also address the other hall guests, because the audience must also be exposed to some common-sense hall arguments similar to the sense some of the women of the first part of the quarrel tried to talk into Loki and Bragi.
The strophes 53 to 65 make up two scenes (st. 53 to 56 and 57-65) staging the dénouement of the drama. Similar to the strophes 6 to 10, strophes 53 to 56 form a transition.
Since tense situations are not uncommon in halls, the function of the lady with the mead cup is to be a mediator – Sif, the cup and the mead being irresistible. Understanding the importance of this point in the dialogue, the prose informs us that Loki drinks from the cup. In the performance this commonplace and silent response to the offer takes time and we can imagine the audience waiting to see whether Sif’s gesture will affect Loki’s behavior. It does and does not, but he loses his frenzy and soon brute force in the form of Þórr enters the scene and threatens to kill him. Loki, who hasn’t employed fate and future destiny as consequently as the Æsir, tries too late to do so, but cannot intimidate Þórr, and has to leave. From time to time, for all its civilization, life in the hall needs brute force and executive power to solve its problems – in Lokasenna as well as Beowulf.
Before Loki leaves the hall he recites the poem’s last strophe turning to the silent Ægir – the man who complies with the Æsirs’ rule – and tells him what his fate will be: “Ægir, you who brewed the beer, you shall never again arrange a drinking bout (sumbl); everything that you own in here, the flames will play with and burn you in the back.” This is a horrible prophecy inasmuch as archaeologically speaking we know of many destroyed Pre Carolinginan Iron Age halls, but not of anyone burnt down. Setting fire to PCIA halls would seem to be as morally difficult as later on setting fire to a church. It stands to reason that it their role as ritual buildings saved halls from being set fire to. We may not immediately recognize the sumbl in Lokasenna a ritual gathering (the verb sumbla means to gather), but toasting and beer drinking, nevertheless, had ritual components. Sabotaging a traditional sumbl may thus be significant misconduct befitting Loki’s character. Telling someone that his hall will be burnt down and he himself forced to flee the burning building, is in other words outrageous and will in all probability silence the audience, because in this case it implies to the subdued that hobnobbing with the Æsir will end in that kind of catastrophe. The play therefore runs from silence to silence – from embarrassment to embarrassment. If we are into post-colonial theory, the Æsir represent the colonial power, Loki the colonized people, and Ægir the go-between.
Not surprisingly, all roles except Loki’s are conventional hall characters for better or for worse. The allegations and the vice, although not pure phantasy, is mostly Loki’s making and his role as an early mad provocative prince is the only one that needs interpretation.
Lokasenna is a hall critical poem performed in a hall by gods who express mundane, sometimes deplorable, but none the less, and given the setting, hall-typical sentiments in an undignified manner. By implication, therefore, what happened in Ægir’s hall might as well have happened in the very hall where the play happened to be performed. In this, potentially conflicting setting, the historical dimension becomes important, for the simple reason that anchoring the drama in the past, i.e. the mid-millennium period of social transformation – in times Beowulfian and Pre-Carolingian – is what makes the play possible. The hall as such is a mundane phenomenon surviving the Late Roman Iron Age until this very day. It has developed over the centuries before the play was staged and in tandem the gods, being the gods of the present, added to their original character. We cannot be sure how, but given the many opaque references to the early life of the Æsir, it would seem that a number of mythological references have lost their importance making the dialogue and its allegations as difficult to understand for the uneducated reader as a play by Shakespeare. Be this as it may, adding up all the mythological clues present in the poetic Edda and associated poems, medieval sagas and comments, to a sum representing the coherent mythology of Loki, Óðinn, Niǫrðr etc. seems an idle occupation. It is much more important to understand that although the dialogue was tailored to fit a hall that existed in 9-10th century Norway, but didn’t survive in Iceland, the core of the criticism in the play – deconstructing the discrete charm of the Pre Carolingian Iron Age aristocracy – would have had an Early Medieval audience in Iceland despite orthodox Christian criticism of this kind of entertainment.
Exposing the double standard applied to life in the hall and life outside it, is Loki’s main pursuit. He fields verbal abuse to confront the hall guests with the stained sexual moral and lost sense of honour in men as well as in women because it makes the double standard evident. The moral high grounds of hall life, represented by way life unfolds itself on the benches in the side aisles and on the hall owner’s dais cannot lift the guests or the alleged hall owner Óðinn/ Ægir above the dishonest and immoral ways in which they pursue power where and whenever they think they can get away with it.
Loki is not a reformer; he aims only to expose the vice. And since PCIA life in the hall goes on every day in the same high-flown and hollow way, he has only to enter what happens to be a sumbl and ask for a seat and a something to drink, which he knows the temporary hall owner is obliged to give him, in order to expose the hall guests’ double moral standard and prove that they do not adhere to any ‘claims of the ideal’.
If we stick to the dialogue itself it would seem that Loki’s sentiments reflect his conviction that Óðinn, contrary to what he ought to have done, has given the victory to people who didn´t deserve it. If cowards such as his son Bragi can come out on top, then your warrior ideal is rotten. Óðinn, however, considers his granting the victory to the lesser men a minor problem compared Loki’s shortcomings (st. 22-23). Loki brings this theme into the next quarrel where he makes a point of exposing the lack of martial capability that signify the younger members of the second family – Niǫrðr similar to Óðinn being too old to fit the category ‘fighting men’. Looking at the ‘victorious’ men in the hall, it becomes apparent that Óðinn has given the victory to the unworthy warriors and consequently to himself. To themselves these physically and mentally unable or inferior men have the great advantage of being peaceful and able to profit from their power position and thrive in civilized hall life.
If fighting in Loki’s Eddic world is one way of interacting with each other especially involving men, intercourse is another. If bravery is supposed to characterize the first, hetero-normative decency is meant to guide the other. Fighting tests the individual in an open and complex social context difficult to escape. Intercourse tests the individual in an intimate sphere where secrecy and cover is often an immoral option.
Ideally, the hall is intended to be the interface between public and the private spheres and meant to exhibit and idealize the intimate sphere of the hall owner’s family life, as well as the open context in which the he rules his land and people, in ideal settings and terms. Things and thing assemblies obviously changed the importance of the hall. A paragon of society, deconstructing bravery and decency in the hall by pointing out cowardice and vice is a model way to criticize society and the ruling classes of any hall-governed realm. This at least was the case in the PCIA. But when the hall becomes commonplace as rulers become fewer, things assemblies more important and hall life mundane when its sacred sphere moved into a building of its own in the CIA (cf. OtRR 5 March, 2012), halls became less important. Since the hall was no longer a paragon of society it eventually became the dwelling space of the idle. Loki is right, but the society he criticizes has already seized to exist.
When he analyzed bravery in Ægir’s hall he considered himself a better man than the others prominent guests, but when it comes to the intimate sphere and sexual behavior, he must eventually point out that ‘this (vice) we must mention if in a precise way we shall speak about our sins’. (St. 52). He hasn’t denied or covered up his own moral shortcomings and crimes in the intimate world, and we may thus extract from the strophes all that must be confessed, against the backdrop of old man Niǫrðr’s patronizing ideas about women, expressed in a period of his life when he was in all probability more often attracted to beer and sumbl than to women: ‘It is of little importance what women do with men – whoring or otherwise.’ (St. 33). Niǫrðr obviously speaks like a ‘modern’ hall owner with no sacred or ritual obligations, and indeed, being a guest and a member of a kin that has lost its autonomy, his obligations are few.
When it comes to erotic pleasures, grey zones and deviance in the intimate sphere of human interaction there seems to be no progression in the dialogue other than the fact that Loki draws, and wants himself and his sins to be drawn into this sphere. The actual cases make up a series of examples with no inner logic or progression, but the descriptions, aided by the performance, appeal to the imagination of the audience and they mirror Loki. When Iðunn’s man-hunting nymphomania is said to be so great that she desired to make love to her brother’s murderer, Loki has a case, but the description on the other hand, what Loki says, is crucial: ‘When I saw that you embraced your brother’s murderer with your shining (i.e. naked) arms, I knew that you were the most ‘man-demanding’ of women’, St. 17. Likewise when we need an example of someone who is not the virgin she professes to be, Gefjon in an example, but the voyeuristic descriptions is equally important and yet an indication of how Loki got his first insight into (female) sexuality – that is by spying: ‘The white young man who gave you the jewelry made your fall and you laid your thighs around him.’, St 20. It may have looked as if Gefjon ‘fell on her back’ and Loki obviously know that, having got the jewelry, she ‘fell’ most voluntarily, but when he saw it, it looked to him as if the young ‘white’, i.e. fair-skinned and thus naked, man made her fall. To begin with, therefore, Loki describes what he has seen. Later on he mostly tells us what he has heard, relating what is commonly known, for instance that every man in the halls has been Freyja’s lover, St. 30. Shutting up Heimdallr, Loki paints the soaked guard forever keeping watch in the rain: ‘your repugnant life was arranged from the beginning time: you were meant to become the gods’ watchman with your back drenched, St. 48. The audience will understand that Heimdallr’s situation had but a little room for a sex life. In the end Loki simply states the fact that Skaði was happy to make love to him (although she was, perhaps, unaware of his character).
In the end Loki’s sexuality and that of the two other gods of his generation, Óðinn and Niǫrðr stand out as traumatic and part of the explanation has to do with the life they led when they were young. Something Frigg, who knows all, thinks it best not to dwell upon.
In strophe 52, when we have acquainted ourselves with the sins of the hall guests, the play needs a break and Sif appears on the scene offering Loki a cup of beer. This is a normal thing for the young leading lady with the mead cup to do during a sumbl, but in the context Sif seems to come from another world. Loki suggests quite vaguely that she has been unfaithful to Þórr and because of the logic of the play, this accusation, which the audience may well have believed to be untrue, is what calls back Þórr driving Loki out of the hall, as he should have been driven out in the first place had Þórr, the not-so-fantastically-tender new hall owner, been at home. There is no room for old gods in the new halls of the CIA—a fact demonstrated not least by the performance we have just seen in the hall itself. The modern CIA hall is a mundane place where PCIA trauma can be no more than the stuff of dramatic dialogue – entertaining and perhaps thought-provoking.
Loki is a traumatized and mentally damaged person who destroys himself almost losing his senses, but in so doing he manages to point out the double standard of the hall dwellers. All the things unthinkable in Beowulf, at best vaguely hinted, are spelled out in Lokasenna. And although the hall-governed society in Beowulf has its problem it solves them because of loyal heroes such as Beowulf and chaste women such as Wealhtheow. The Beowulfian society brakes down because its heroes are not Christians, not because there is something fundamentally wrong with their moral. In Lokasenna on the other hand we see all its faults.
Writing down Beowulf would seem to happen in a society interested in defending the moral values of newly Christianized kings – probably a concern of the Church in view of future cooperation. Lokasenna would seem to criticize this society from a pagan perspective having not yet replaced the pagan society with a Christian one. Performing Beowulf, reciting it in the hall, is thus a very controlled situation. Performing Skírnismál or Lokasenna is a vibrant situation full of innuendo mirroring local rather than central attitudes to social life. The dialogue use characters and performance that have not yet been recast to fit a new ideological model. Compared to Beowulf, which is marked by an Early Medieval Christian attitude to the past, the dialogues are genuinely pre-Medieval and marked by pagan revision. From the point of view of cultural history Skírnismál and Lokasenna, contrary to Beowulf, are untouched by the approaching Christian Cultural Revolution.
It takes quite a number of actors to perform the dialogue and few guests would agree to be associated with most of the roles. Sif and Þórr, however, could be performed by amateurs or the actual hall owner and his wife, and Eldir could be himself, but the rest would benefit from being professionals or at least not guests. Serfs could do the silent roles and most of the small speaking parts. Loki, nevertheless, must be a professional because there are several quarrels going on at the same time and because his personality consists of many conflicting characters, which must be performed. If you had access to more professionals, one and the same person could act several roles, one man more men and one woman more women, or one actor could play both Eldir and Loki and Eldir be silent. Such a practice would turn the dialogue towards the burlesque. Nevertheless, the balance between the satirical and the serious is an issue and eventually silent reading became the prevailing practice.
There is a great point in having the local poet laureate compose the dialogue and the real hall owner and his wife take part in the performance because it will legitimize the dialogue and convince us about the historical setting and its distance to the present. If most of the actors were not guests, they could be seated in the hall to begin with and occupy the most prominent seats making the real guests wonder what was going on. When the performance was over, the actors would leave their seats and the actual guests, who would have guessed that some sort of entertainment was being planned when the front benches were already taken, would move into the empty seats and indulge in commenting on Loki’s part, performance, the dark ages, rulers and finer mythological points. If Lokasenna is staged in the hall its intellectual and artistic facets multiply, and staging it is a very good way of beginning a sumbl not least because the dialogue anticipates what might happen at a sumbl. ‘You are drunk’ is a popular statement in the poem.
It goes without saying that this kind of integrated theater is an art from in its own right especially suited for small rural population dispersed in niches far between, however, with easy communications. It is genuinely pre-Church and thus pre-Medieval.