Dating Eddic poems the archaeological way—Skírnismál and Vafþruðnismál

20 January, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have a number of hall plans and the Hofstaðir publication.

Omslag HofstadirLucas, Gavin. 2009. Gavin Lucas (ed.) with numerous contributors. Hofstadir: excavations of a Viking Age feasting hall in north-eastern Iceland. Institute of Archaeology Reykjavik Monograph 1, xxiv+440 pages, 226 illustrations, 150 tables. Reykjavik. Fornleifastofnun Íslands—the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology, ISBN 978-9979-9946-0-2

platser på Island

Since the dramatic dialogues, Skírnismál, Lokasenna and Vafþruðnismál, edited in the Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius, could be performed in the hall at Borg in Lofoten in Hålogaland (Northern Norway) one wonders whether there were halls in Iceland where such a performance could also take place. Moreover, since these Eddic dialogues were eventually edited to facilitate silent reading one goes on wondering whether this way of editing the plays as annotated poems meant that they had lost the stage where they were once performed.

Did the scenography befitting the dialogues continue to exist in Iceland – or was it never there?

Lokasenna could be performed in any room with an entrance linked to the front door (cf. OtRR 23 December, 2013 & 6 January, 2014). Nevertheless, it is to be preferred that the house has a hall room as well as an entrance room since that explains why Loki and Eldir are indoors at the entrance although the audience in the hall is not able to see them.

Skírnismál on the other hand, depends upon a more elaborate scenographic design (cf. OtRR 1and 29 October, 2012) and so does Vafþruðnismál. In order successfully to perform these two dialogues in the hall room, there needs be an upper door, which is private and mainly used as an exit door, as well as a lower door, which is public and mainly used as an entrance door. When an actor leaves by the upper door and reappears, entering through the lower, it signifies that he enters another hall than the one he left – the stage is flipped and yet the room, its props and audience remain unchanged.

Using the upper and the lower doors in this way calls for the small albeit characteristic exit and entrance dialogues. The exit dialogues tell the audience from where the protagonist is leaving and the entrance dialogues hint where the protagonist has have arrived. Both actors engaged in an exit dialogue have to leave by the upper door, because they have both been spotted by the audience. One of them stays at the farm outside the hall room as far as the audience knows, but the protagonist proceeds to the new hall walking on the outside of the main building – from its upper entrance to its lower where he (it seems always to be a ‘he’) takes up the dialogue with a new character. The entrance dialogues are constructed in such a way that only one of the two actors, i.e. the protagonist, but not the servant he meets at the new hall, enters the scene. This technique allows the protagonist to catch the attention of the audience making it aware of the change of halls.

The contrast created by the use of overheard vs. watched dialogues is in other words essential to the logic of the performance. The logic is a theatrical trick fictitiously switching halls, props and audiences from one location to another without actually moving or changing anything.

ComminucationlThe motion is circular and so is its argument: because this hall when leaving it was defined by the first dialogue as a specific hall, the second dialogue at the entrance door will redefine the hall. Halls are interchangeable not least because they are nodes in social networks.

This trick cannot be done in the main building of small farm, such as Isleifsstaðir i Borgarfjarðersýsla (Stenberger 1943) because there is no upper exit door and sometimes no entrance room either.

Ialeifsstadir

Full of rationality and void of ceremony the people at Isleifsstaðir cross in and out of their dwelling on their practical diagonal flagstones.

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But it can be done at Mosfell (Byork) where the actor moves 20 odd metres between his departure from the upper hall and his arrival at the lower door:

Mosfell01.

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Mosfell is a model early Icelandic hall farm

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The first question can in other words be answered in the affirmative and that is not surprising given that Mosfell is a large early farm designed with a hall room and reminiscent of, but far from identical to hall rooms such as the one at Borg in Lofoten. The farm Mosfell, moreover has its own habour which makes contacts with the rest of the world relatively speaking more frequent. It is worth mentioning that the religious functions of this hall room may already have been lifted out of the main building to a building that was later replaced by the farm church (cf. OtRR 5 March, 2012: From Pagan Temple to Christian Church – a Practical Acculturation). This means that c. 900 CE, the time of the Mosfell hall, dramatic dialogical episodes may conveniently have been staged in the hall as well as composed for it.

Looking for other halls where drama could be staged, we soon encounter the well preserved farm Stöng in Þjórsárdalur. At this farm it is obvious that the doors in and out of the hall are similar to those at Mosfell, but instead of leading in and out of the building all doors but one lead to other buildings that are adjoined to the main building. It meets the eye, moreover, that the hall room has been divided into two with a hearth only in the outer part. In a longer time perspective Stöng is a step towards the later passage-house.

StöngStöng is an elegantly designed farm with a hall and adjoining buildings.
The shape of the curved wooden inner walls in the hall is the result of
intentional measurement and staking.

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Since the layout at Stöng reflects the way this farm was planned and not the way it developed, and since Stöng was a farm that stood when tephra fell in 1104 CE., we may suggest that sometime between c. 900 (Mosfell) and c. 1100 CE (Stöng) hall rooms lost the design that allowed them to become the scene of dramatic dialogues such as Skírnismál and Vafþruðnismál. A comparison between Skallakot and Stöng both in Þjórsárdalur suggests a similar chronological shift some time in the 10th century CE.

Skallakot.

Skallakot is a slightly earlier farm than Stöng and its layout allows the owner to stage a dramatic dialogical episode.

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Old hall design may of course have been employed next to new solutions, but, notwithstanding, there is a point in trying to data the shift from one hall design to another. This is where the excavation of Hofstaðir by Mývatn in Northern Iceland comes into focus. These excavations are a bit of an archaeological triumph because they reinvestigate a classical site, excavate for the first time already in 1908, successfully bringing it into a modern archaeological discussion. For the present problem – dating a shift in hall design – the tephra chronology defines a narrow time span largely corresponding to the 14C-dates. The settlement, as excavated, started just after 940 CE, but some 14C-dates indicate earlier activities on the site, albeit mainly outside the excavations. The farm was boosting during the volcanic activities c. 980 and had come to an end before Hekla’s eruption in 1104 CE. The 14C-dates suggest the beginning of the 11th century.

This means that the first phase of the main farm house must be dated to c. 940 CE. The second phase, i.e. the enlargement and addition of the buildings, seems to have been taken place in the 980s. In effect, this means that the first main house stood one house generation, but also that the farm was such a success that it was significantly enlarged instead of repaired and rebuilt when it needed a makeover c. 980. We are entitled therefore to compare the first house c. 940 to the second prolonged phase, which was built c. 980 CE.

Hofstadir analys

The 14 C-dates from the Hofstaðir
excavations and a general comparison of the first and second Hofstaðir main building as hall theaters. The first phase works well with dramatic dialogical
episodes, the second doesn’t work at all. Based on the Hofstaðir publication.

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If we compare the first and second phase of main building it seems straightforward to stage Skírnismál during Phase 1, when the situation is similar to Mosfell or Skallakot, but impossible to stage it during Phase 2 when rooms and houses were added to the main house in a manner similar to the Stöng plan. Especially the outside-situation when Gerðr and the audience hear the dogs, and Skírnir talks to the shepherd is impossible to perform (vv 11 to 14). Consequently, the archaeological record tells us that in just 40 years or less a genre once befitting a Norwegian situation lost its raison d’être in Iceland.

Although Skírnismál couldn’t be staged Vafþruðnismál could, not least because the small entrance dialogue when Óðinn enters Vafþruðnis’ hall, has been summarized in one descriptive strophe. Since the strophe is composed in ljóðahattr it is spoken by an actor a neutral narrator who tells us, the audience, what is happening just before it happens (sic!) i.e. just before the actor who plays Óðinn enters the lower part of the hall changing it to Vafþruðnis’. Given the poem’s formal attitude to drama and its didactic qualities rewriting it and modifying it turning the dramatic performance to a minimum writing an anticlimax into the play would seem to be consistent with the change in hall design: Vafþruðnismál stands out as a rewritten or un-dramatized episode befitting the changed hall. The fact that there is no prose accompanying the strophes in Vafþruðnismál speaks in favour of a rewritten poem and so does the Ragnarök theme, which together with a low-key performance will appeal to a Christian audience.

Even the Lokasenna episode may have been staged in Phase 2 because there is no need for change of halls. The episode starts with Loki speaking to Eldir in the entrance room just outside Ægir’s hall room. We may speculate that Lokasenna has lost an opening scene taking place in another hall signalling to the audience that the play is commencing, but that is impossible to prove and the dialogue in the entrance room may have been long enough to attract the interest of the hall guests. Moreover, the prose added to the dialogues in Codex Regius stand out as learned footnotes to the drama and one must always advice against reconstructing a play on the basis of footnotes.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that some dramatic episodes were adjusted to fit new conditions while others were considered impossible to adapt. Thus it stands to reason that there is not much point in changing Skírnismál after c. 975 CE – the dialogue is complex and it alludes to the hieros gamos theme, i.e. the myth of the holy wedding as well as the Annunciation in a way befitting acculturation rather than orthodox Christianity.

Owing to archaeology, the words, i.e. the actual strophes, have got something as uncommon as an independent terminus ante quem date c. 975 CE as a consequence of a general change in the layout of the main house on the Icelandic farm. By the same standard we gather that Vafþruðnismál has a terminus post quem date c. 975 CE. Archaeologically dated Eddic poems are unexpected, but it seems important to note that when Icelandic hall owners were drifting towards Christianity in the late 10th c. CE, they ditched some plays belonging to a dramatic tradition with non-Christian roots and changed others to agree with a Christian taste. Eventually scholars edited these partly lost, partly changed dramatic dialogues for the benefit of the silent Codex Regius reader.

Given the chronological step between 940 and 980 CE we can point to no less than four layers in a cognitive history that we can relate to the Eddic texts in question:
(1) The ‘Beowulfian ideal’ of the mid sixth century, the Early Pre Carolingian Iron Age, EPCIA ideal. This ideal is a backdrop to
!2) The double standard of the Æsir/LPCIA elite. In theory they to adhere to PCIA ideals, in practice they don’t.
(3) The ECIA criticism of these Æsir: a deconstructing critique, inasmuch as it points to the fate of Loki and Skírnir – an emancipatory or triumphant one when Gerðr, the giantess, demonstrates her faith in the supreme god, i.e. Óðinn (her answer in v 37 when she has heard that Óðinn will be enraged).
(4) The LCIA deconstruction of the pagan ECIA critique and the rewriting of its texts as exemplified by Vafþruðnismál, which announces the end of the old Pagan world and the birth of the new liberated world (v. 45). Codex Regius itself belongs to the Christian and confident medieval development of this tradition.

These points are not categories; they are parameters based on elitist Iron Age mentality; they structure some of the Eddic texts in a historical perspective.

One Response to “Dating Eddic poems the archaeological way—Skírnismál and Vafþruðnismál”

  1. The Stöng plan above is the situation in the 13th century. When the eruption of 1104 took place the dwelling unit at Stöng consisted of a long house, with no west annex, which is a post 1104 addition. Please consider my point of view, since I am the archaeologist who conducted the re-excavations at Stöng in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The results are published in number of places. Numerous Radiocarbon dates, as well as stratigraphic studies and artefact studies support the latest date of use for Stöng in the mid-1200s. Recent geological and radiocarbon datings from other archaeological material in Þjórsárdalur confirm a settlement in Þjórsárdalur until the 13th century.

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