The reading rest will be collapsed until Monday the 3rd of August.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a report from a road section excavated by archaeologists before the road was built.

Skeke framsidaLarsson, Fredrik et al. 2014. Skeke – gudar, människor och gjutare. Rituella komplex från bronsålder och äldre järnålder samt en höjdbosättning från yngre järnålder med gjuteriverkstad. Utbyggnad av väg 288, sträckan Jälla–Hov, Uppsala län; Uppland; Uppsala kommun; Rasbo socken; Skeke 1:3, 2:6; Rasbo 55:1–2, 654, 655, 669, 695, 696, 697, 626:1–627:1, 682–688 samt delar av Rasbo 628:1 och 629:1 UV rapport 2014:53 Riksantikvarieämbetet. Stockholm.



Skeke översiktIt is difficult to know what the place name Skeke means, but it could in principle refer to a landscape element characterized by oak trees or less likely contain a word meaning ‘to spread’ (Larsson et al., p. 42 with references). In this entry I shall use the very unlikely but at least pronounceable Spread-Oaks or Spreado for short.

All kinds of things are dated at Spreado. 14 C-wise ‘everything’ gives rise to a number of questions and looks like this:

Illu All dates with questionsHowever, if we disregard questions about continuity and discontinuity and filter the dates according to categories some patterns arise.

ILLU dating of groupsSpreado is inaugurated with a grave indicated by the earliest date of cremated human bones. This monument is probably a pre-settlement manifestation although there may of course be some kind of settlement outside the excavated road corridor. For 400 years one burial seems to suffice, but c. 1000 BCE graves start to become more common. Sometime during the 3rd c. BCE this grave period comes to an end. As expected in this kind of ‘cemetery monument’ there are structures that did not contain any burial remains. Perhaps, and in that case typically, there is a small burial-revival during the Carolingian Iron Age (Spreado:55; 65).

The first dwelling house, House 16 doesn’t convince the reader although on can naturally build something makeshift on a random distribution of post holes. Not until the late Bronze Age are there any typical dwelling houses at Spreado. They are just two but in all probability there were many more in the environment owing to the temporary character of the one-house farms of the period. Nevertheless, grains, animal bones and houses covariate although many of the grain finds are intrusions in much later houses build on top of the earlier temporary farms. Spreado is a good example of the Early Iron Age habit of resettling a place that has already been settled albeit hundreds of years earlier.

The situation at Spreado reflects the fact that Late Bronze Age and Early Pro Roman Iron Age living produced a lot garbage that wasn’t moved out of the settlement as well as holes and layers in which to trap garbage and ecofacts. Later settlements at Spreado are not characterized in the same way.

The dates of the dwelling houses at Spreado reveal the expected pattern: a few short dwelling periods during a millennium and then the establishment of a more stable settlement during several hundred years. This often happens before or the beginning of the Common Era, but in Spreado it happens late. The farm, which may at times have had two households, is eventually characterized by a small hall, House 2. The precise date is difficult to give owing to contaminations, but c. 400 CE is a plausible date. The farm on which House 2 is the emblem doesn’t survive the turbulent 6th century. Exactly when House 2 was rebuilt as House 21 is difficult to know since it is dated by an animal bone in a layer. The bone has little precise linkage to the house.

The interesting thing about House 2 is its measures. they are formalized in a way that is characteristic of the end of the Early Iron Age. Although the house may not have been an elegant or well-proportioned building – it was, however, a well-measured edifice, which shares some common South Scandinavian traits and perhaps some sort of architectural norms emphasizing measure and structure rather then function, in a way that would not have suited the general functionalistic norms of the Early Iron Age.

Skeke proportioner

Lika hallar

At the same time there are some local characteristics in the post setting and wall height and in the fact that the building was erected on a terrace on top of a small hill in order to be seen from afar. This landscape statement was deemed important because older graves had to be removed in order to give room for the building (Spreado Fig2:6 p:25; p:61ff.).

Roof and walls at Skeke

As an ideological statement, the hall at Spreado is older than the middle of the 6th century and the 536-45 CE dust veil, that is earlier then the new large halls characteristic of Lejre and Tissø. It is in other word a manifestation of the old upper classes, their inter-Scandinavian hall-designing network as well as their wish to prove themselves locally.

The contrast between Gilltuna (On the Reading Rest: 6 October, 2014: 536 and all that – the Gilltuna case) and Skeke is in other words model: Gilltuna, a traditional village closing down in the 6th century, happened to become one of the new large estates of the Late Iron Age characterized by its large 27-metre hall; Skeke, a traditional village formed in the 3rd century, developed into a 5th-6th century estate with a 20-metre hall. Both sites are exceptional: Skeke because it survived long enough to become a hall farm giving us a glimpse of an Early Iron Age success that came to nothing; Gilltuna because it was Late Iron Age success that came to nothing. The two farms happen to mirror something significant: the social change among the well-to-do in the 6th century.

ILLU Skeke hall fasad02

Since the fate of the Spreado hall and events central to Beowulf or Codex Regius as a synopsis (cf. On the Reading Rest 9 March, 2015) exemplify the way real-time archaeological past on a hillock in Uppland link-in with the fictional pan-European alleged time perspective in Beowulf and Codex Regius, it stands to reason that the Spreado hall, like many other halls, was the home of local real-life Hrothgar, Unferth and Beowulf as well as Sigurðr, Guðrún, Gunnarr and Brynhildr loving and hating each other. Although Spreado was a small place — the spiral gold ring buried outside the hall (house 2/21) (Spreado:241, A26) was actually made of gilded copper — there is nevertheless a chance that when Guðrún from Spreado left for Denmark and married Jonakr she went to Dejbjerg on Jutland.

Today, little by little archaeology in Scandinavia excavates both the large halls where the heroic epics were recited as well as the small ones in which the historical events that formed the backbone of the epics took place.



16 June, 2014

The reading rest will rest until 11 August 2014.

This week On the Reading Rest I have no less than three excavation reports, two larger ones each with their summary in English (0):

ILLU 00Fagerlund, Dan. 2013. Äldre järnåldersbebyggelse vid Söderhällby. Inför byggnation av bussdepå. [An Early Iron Age Settlement at Söderhällby. In view of building a bus depot]. Upplandsmuseets rapporter 2013:03. Uppsala.

Lucas, Malin and Lucas, Robin. 2013. Gårdar och hästoffer. Järnålder och tidig medeltid I Fyrislund. [Farms and Horse Scarifice. Iron Age and Early Middle Ages in Fyrislund]. Upplandsmuseets rapporter 2013:02. Uppsala.

and a small one with no summary in English:

Hennius, Andreas. 2013. Fyrislund 6:14 Fornlämning nr 388 Vaksala socken Uppland. Upplandsmuseets rapporter 2013:01. Uppsala.

This latter excavation concerned three large hearths and a four postholes c. 300 m south of the Hellby excavations. Fyrislund 6:14 was a small site, c. 200 m2, in the outfields or commons where activities, sometimes including fire and a hearth, evidently took place. These features may have been used in connection with husbandry (Hennius 2013:16), but strictly speaking we do not know what activities they represent, just that whatever happened took place in two periods: in the 4th-5th century at least and c. 300 years later in 8th century at least once. The site is interesting because it suggests that there were small places in the landscape that were remembered as specific for centuries. They are also interesting because the activities that they indicate were open-air outfield occupations suggesting an extensive land use and a certain pressure on resources.

The new eastern part of Uppsala, called Fyrislund, is growing up because it has become beneficial to exploit the arable land between the old and the new E4 highway, for urban purposes. The three excavations reported here, among many other ones, are situated in this new part of town. The E4 traffic corridor runs east of cnetral Uppsala serving North-South as well as East-West communications. In addition the E4 has become a ring road for Uppsala. There are in other words many profitable reasons for investing in the area. The resulting loss of an old human landscape giving way to a new one filled with outlets, fire stations, factories, service stations, bus depots, business parks, sports arenas and the odd hotel, demands documentation before the old one is erased. Despite the economic crisis, exploitation does happen and little by little a picture of the development of this 3 km2 area, which became dry land only c. 3.000 years ago, is building up. Understanding the development of the settlement is based on modern archaeological excavations. Because of all this, the area has already been commented upon On the Reading Rest (OtRR 10 December, 2012 and 18 March, 2013).

Indirectly the new excavations in Fyrislund fill-in part of the prehistoric settlement picture and they highlight the methodological peculiarities of contract archaeology. The archaeological excavation costs are part of the investment costs in the area, which became an area because of public investments in roads and archaeology. Archaeologically speaking a road further east through the woods would have been cheaper, but it would no doubt have enclosed too much land and made exploitation a visionary hazard doubling the size of Uppsala in an economic area where the willingness to invest was limited. The area that was actually enclosed was suitable and it attracted investors that may well think that archaeology could jeopardize investments.


Lucas & Lucas 2013 report two excavations where this was felt. As procedures with reference to the anatomy of the human landscape where adjustment is always in focus the trench at Övergnista is a ‘circumcision’, at Hellby it is a ‘cutterage’. Both aim to compromise. Together with the excavations at Fyrislund 6:14, the removal of a site more difficult than interesting to interpret, Övergnista and Hellby are excavations on the edge. Primarily, they represent expansion in the villages and their hinterland.

ILLU 02 & 03

The excavations at Söderhällby are brought into the discussion because Söderhällby is a ‘pure’ Early Iron Age villages and the one closest to Hellby. The chronological distribution of the 14C-dates is most similar to the Säby area in general.


This doesn’t come as a surprise given that the Säby area and the Hellby/Söderhällby areas abut, that the expansion in the whole area is late, starting in the beginning of the Common Era, and that all the sites were abandoned in the middle of the first millennium. The plateau just before 200 CE and the decline in the 4th century in Säby as well as Söderhällby, nevertheless meet the eye as rather specific similarities.

This means that we have three different kinds of excavations: two touching upon expansion areas, i.e., the margins of villages that survive the EIA, one that doesn’t, and in addition Fyrislund 14:6, which could be expected to represent expansion or pressure on the human landscape. This means that the discussion concerns settlement expansion and contraction.

As always in modern excavations dating rests with the 14C dates and among them the excavations have added 58 dates to stock of dates.

The dates from Säby or Söderhällby constitute a pattern that we would expect also from other sites in the area, but this is a pattern we don’t find when the sites are known as historical villages – Hellby since 1376 CE. (Över)Gnista since (1540) and 1334 CE. (Lucas & Lucas 2013:7-8).


Even when a site is too peripheral to have been settled as in Fyrislund 6:14), the dates differ from the normal pattern.

Although both Övergnista and Hellby were used in the Roman Iron Age (RIA) thus linking-in with the expected primary period of expansion, the decline in the 4th c. doesn’t exist and there is a small peak c. 600 CE. There were a few 7th c. dates in the Säby area too and the by chance the Söderhällby pattern may well overemphasize the small peak c. 600 CE, but it may also be a characteristic fact. Most importantly, however, are the two peaks in the Carolingian Iron Age, in the 9th c. CE and c. 1100 CE.

In these diagrams a peak means that the villagers were compelled to use peripheral village areas. There might be all kinds of reason for this, but generally speaking expansion — the need for more farmhouses – must be seen as the most acceptable. What we see in the diagrams is the pulsation of the village settlement— expansion and contraction – during a 1000 year period. Moreover, having surveyed and excavated large areas in Fyrislund – ancient monuments as well as empty areas – we may draw the conclusion that expansion in the EIA resulted in many new often short-lived farm sites. In the LIA this was not the case. Instead there was expansion in existing settlements or the successful establishment of new villages that lived-on into historical times

Indirect therefore the diagram can be describe the following way: Since there is presence on the sites there is probably also farms in the central part of the settlement sometimes during the RIA although occupation is nearly always preceded by presence. Since peaks indicate expansion and settlement pressure, lack of dates indicates the opposite. This suggests that the odd expansion in the 6th century may be a result of people moving-in from some of all the abandoned settlements. Contraction nevertheless is the hall mark of the 6th to 8th c., i.e. the PCIA, before the settlement pressure rebounds in the CIA and becomes visible in the village periphery in the 9th century. Contraction sets in again but c. 1100 CE the settlement rebounds once again.

The open site Fyrislund 6:14 fits the greater pattern inasmuch as it catches the general RIA expansion as well as the 9th c. expansion. The dates are few and may be insignificant, but patterns are nevertheless patterns.

In theory one might of course argue that that Övergnista and Hellby were established and reestablished at every peak, but it is more likely that although many RIA settlements were abandoned some were reduced and surviving the successive depressions of the 5th and the 6th centuries. Not least because there are other historical village tofts with house remains belonging to the period Roman to Carolingian Iron Age (1). Needles to say we should expect new villages to be established during the CIA peaks

If we look at settlements in terms of expansion and contraction, it is a sign of the depth of the mid-millennium depressions that not until the 9th century do the villages expand beyond their EIA boundaries.

Although we may find this interpretation convincing one could, nevertheless, come up with other interpretations and as long as none of the historical village tofts have been completely excavated, doubts as to the interpretation of the settlement development in the mid-millennium will continue to puzzle us. Contract archaeology as a methodology will not takes us into the village tofts because it is too expensive – not even if it would make it much easier to understand why EIA farms hamlets and villages look the way they do and thus lower the cost for their excavation and making it possible to prioritize in a more reasonable way.

If society finds it interesting to invest in roads and road-building techniques to facilitate development and profitable investments, then it is difficult to understand why society doesn’t invest in problem-solving excavations that would also contribute to making it more profitable to develop society. Historical village tofts will still be expensive to excavate, but EIA sites – and they are very many –  would become less expensive to excavate because knowledge about historical villages tofts would solve problems that are presently slowing down the retrieval of archaeological knowledge about settlements that were given up in the middle of the first millennium CE.


(0) A summary of the excavations at Söderhällby. In August and September of 2010, and March of 2011, Upplandsmuseet conducted an archaeological investigation of an Early Iron Age settlement at Söderhällby (Vaksala 397), on the eastern outskirts of Uppsala. The investigation was one of four major excavation projects undertaken due to the construction of a bus depot. Another settlement (Vaksala 386), located adjacent to the site of a historic village (Vaksala 383) was investigated within Söderhällby. Within Gnista parts of the historic village (Uppsala 678) were excavated as well. Finally, a burial ground (Vaksala 155) known colloquially as Inhåleskullen (‘The Devil’s Hill’) was investigated. The area is dominated by a flat agricultural landscape with hillocks comprising infields to the villages of Övre (‘Upper’) and Nedre (‘Lower’) Gnista, Över– (‘Upper’) and Neder– (‘Lower’) Kumla, as well as Norrby and Söderhällby (incl. Löt). Prominent ancient monuments include the sites of historic villages, single graves, burial grounds and prehistoric settlements. A Late Iron Age – Early Medieval burial ground, severely damaged by agriculture, in the western part of the area contains some high-status graves such as a damaged mound and a weapon grave. High-status graves were also found at Inhåleskullen, which according to the oldest cadastral maps strategically is situated in the middle of the area, on the boundaries between Gnista and Norrby. The burial ground was in use from the Bronze Age to the Viking Age. The settlement was situated on a low moraine hillock surrounded by tilled fields. Settlement remains were discovered north, east and south of the hillock. Out of a total of 630 archaeological features, 455 were postholes. The majority of these could be linked to the 17 houses or a few fences. House types included 14 larger or smaller three-aisle longhouses, four corner-post houses and one two-aisle house. About 25 postholes and hearths were discovered during construction work north of the investigated area. Other features included 92 hearths, five ovens, three cooking pits, two tar making pits and a small number of pits, dark patches and stone features which were difficult to interpret. The find material was very limited and dominated by about 1 kg of animal bones. These represented the most common domesticated species. The horse remains were interpreted as remains of sacrificial feasts. Another interesting find was a quern stone recovered from a posthole in a house situated on the hillock, probably a trace of local cult by way of a sacrificial offering. The houses have been in use on two co-existing farms, one situated in the north, the other in the south and southeast. A row of postholes on the hillock may have functioned as a boundary between the two farms. Radiocarbon samples were mainly collected from preserved wood, predominately pine, in postholes. Through dating of all the houses, a chronological development has been outlined (house numbers within brackets): Phase 1: At the onset of the Early Roman Iron Age, the settlement consisted of a single farm, represented by a multifunctional dwelling (3). Phase 2: Later on in the Early Roman Iron Age, house 3 was replaced by a very substantial house (16), situated further to the south, on the crest of the moraine hillock. At the same time, another farm was established south of the hillock, with a dwelling (4) and a large storage building (10) at right angles to each other. A row of postholes on the hillock may have formed part of a boundary between the farms. The elevated position of house 16 may indicate a certain measure of influence emanating from the north farm. Phase 3: Early on in the Late Roman Iron Age, another house (2) was added to the north farm, possibly replacing house 16. In the southeast a dwelling (7), was erected, probably along with a smaller outbuilding (9). Phase 4a: The period of most intense settlement activity, dating from the latter part of the Early Roman Iron Age. To the north, house 2 was replaced (1). Also, in the south a dwelling (13) was erected, probably along with a storage building (5). Evidence suggests that the south farm was home to two households during the Later Roman Iron Age, with houses 13 and 7 coexisting with house 1 to the north. House 13 was very similar to the earlier house 16, partially situated on the crest of the southern edge of the hillock. Phase 4b: House 7 was replaced by or converted (8), while another was erected in the southeast (6). There seems to have been a continued presence of two households in the southeast at the close of the Late Roman Iron Age, while the settlement to the north seems to have been abandoned and replaced by a two-aisle house (14) of unclear interpretation. It probably represents an outbuilding to the two farms or households to the southeast, indicating a clear reorganisation of the settlement. Phase 5: Only one farm and one household seem to have remained during the Migration Period. Its main building (12) replaced house 8 on exactly the same location. Other parts of the settlement were used for other activities, judging from the presence of a corner-post structure (15) on the site of the north farm, and a simple three-aisle house (11) in the south. Probably, the remaining farm had access to the entire settlement for various activities. The smaller houses could also have been outbuildings located on the old farm site and used by its former inhabitants. There is no dated activity whatsoever after the transition from the Migration to the Vendel Periods. The Söderhällby settlement seems simple and well-defined, based mainly on selfsufficient agrarian means of subsistence. On the other hand, the settlement is one of many in a landscape of complex ownership structure, judging from the cadastral maps. Also, material from some graves in the area indicates the presence of a local elite, possibly linked to some form of manor, or large estate. This layout is echoed in many parts of Uppland around the same time. For instance, seven excavated settlements in Säby, Danmark parish, seem to form part of a village community which may be subject to a local authority. A central manor as described above can hardly have existed on the Söderhällby settlement which was abandoned after the Migration Period. Around the same time the village known from historical sources emerged on a new site and at Övergnista. A stricter management of the landscape may be the reason for the changes and an underlying social organisation can be discerned. Later on, during the Viking Age, stricter property boundaries may have emerged, and new status graves were erected on a burial ground to the west, on land belonging to Kumla, Söderhällby and Norrby. The burial ground was used until the Medieval Period, and some graves had Christian attributes. It is possible that the divided ownership structure evidenced by the cadastral maps can be traced to a second reorganization during the Medieval Period, linked to the abandonment of the burial ground.


A summary of the excavations at Över Gnista and Hellby. From early September to mid-November 2010 Upplandsmuseet conducted a series of archaeological investigations in Fyrislund, a rapidly growing industrial estate on the eastern outskirts of Uppsala. The investigations were necessitated by the Uppsala City Council’s plans to build an access road and extend amenities to the new development. An initial evaluation of the sites in September unearthed prehistoric settlement remains adjacent to two small hillocks where the historical villages of Hellby and Övergnista had been situated. Övergnista had no recorded settlement after the mid-17th century whereas Hellby (later known as Söderhällby) was inhabited until the 1950s. In October and November major investigations were undertaken on both sites. The Hellby and Övergnista sites were designated as Raä Vaksala 386 and Raä Uppsala 678 respectively in the Swedish National Heritage Board database for archaeological sites and monuments (FMIS). At Hellby a total of 189 features were found and these included postholes, hearths, ovens and various pits. A total of ten houses were found, including seven one-aisle, two three-aisle and one simple corner-post structure, as well as parts of an enclosure system. The site’s earliest activity dated to the Roman Iron Age, when a couple of hearths and an oven seemed to have been in use. The houses were erected later in two separate phases, the first from the first centuries of the Viking Age (c. 8th – 10th cent. AD), the second from the late Viking and Early Middle Ages (c. 9th – 12th cent. AD). Small amounts of animal bones, mainly cattle, horse, sheep and pig, but also very small amounts of canine bones were found, some of which may have constituted ritual offerings deposited in postholes. Other finds included a few ceramic shards and a clay mouthpiece from a bloomery furnace, possibly also deposited in a posthole as an offering. Iron objects included a ring from a bridle and a ship rivet. These, and other more latter-day metal objects were found in the topsoil during the initial metal detector sweep of the area. At Övergnista a total of 179 features were found and these included postholes, hearths, various pits and areas with cultural layers. A total of eight houses were found, five one-aisle, one three-aisle and two corner-post structures, as well as parts of two enclosures. The site’s earliest activity dated from the Roman Iron Age, when a couple of hearths were in use. The houses were erected later in three separate phases, the first dating from the Vendel Period (c. 5th – 7th cent. AD) the second from the Viking Age (c. 7th – 10th cent. AD), and the final phases from the late Viking and Early Middle Ages (c. 11th – 12th cent. AD). Finds included bones of cattle, sheep, pig, as well as some canine bones. Other finds included ceramic shards from a complete but fragmented vessel and a fossil, possibly a sacrificial offering. Iron artefacts included hob nails, knives, chisels and ship rivets, and an amulet in the shape of a strike-a-light. Also a bronze weight was found. Most metal objects were discovered in the topsoil during the initial metal detector sweep of the area. The most spectacular find on the site was the almost intact skeleton of an adult and healthy horse, dating from the early Middle Ages, which been deposited on its back in a Late Viking Age house, presumably while this structure was still standing. The horse was interpreted as an offering, possibly a closure rite, commemorating the abandonment of the house or even the abandonment of animal sacrifice itself following the advent of Christianity. The excavations at Hellby and Övergnista increased the number of known Late Iron Age houses in the Uppsala area by 20-30 percent, placing them among of the largest known settlements from the period in the area. Compared to other historic villages in the area, Hellby and Övergnista were situated on relatively low elevations, and not adjacent to any prehistoric grave fields, which can be viewed as an indication that they were somewhat later settlements, established on old grazing land, only recently made dry and habitable by shore displacement. Another unusual feature of these villages as well as a few others in the area is that they had two separate village tofts, as evidenced by cadastral maps and medieval documents. Also, the cadastral maps show that there was much intermingled ownership of land among these villages, suggesting that they might once have been part of a much larger unit, possibly a manor or another form of settlement belonging to the upper ranks of Late Iron Age society.

(1) Ros et al. 2008.  Jonas Ros, Pierre Vogel & Tony Engström. Mörby: Järnåldersboplats, historisk bytomt och skålgropslokal Förundersökning och särskild arkeologisk undersökning RAÄ 246, 255, 459 och 473, Mörby 5:1, Turinge socken, Nykvarns kommun, Stockholms län, Södermanland SAU Rapport 2008:12. Uppsala.

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.


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







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:



Mosfell is a model early Icelandic hall farm






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.





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







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.














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.


1 June, 2013

The reading rest will rest in June and July. Probably it will be well-rested on 5 August 2013.

A Christmas Gospel

24 December, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have a chapter or ‘fit’ from the Old Saxon poem Hêliand that tells us the story about the life of Jesus. I read:
Heyne, Moritz. 1866. Hêliand. Mit ausführlichem Glossar herausgegeben von Motitz Heyne. Paderborn. Verlag von Ferdinand Schöningh.
In prep school, one of the Saint Joseph sisters told us about the life of Jesus and while we listened to her oral gospel harmony we colorized line drawings,24 scenes as it were, illustrating the passage from Manger to Calvary. Selective gospel harmonies have these wonderful didactic qualities made up to make the gospels understandable and to catch the attention of the not-yet-educated – the sheep of shepherds. We continued with the Acts of the Apostles before illustrations, tales and a number of sheep disappeared.

The holy family colorized

The holy Saxonian family colorized, uncolorized

Hêliand (c. 830 CE) is composed in order to render the gospels reasonable to the newly conquered Saxons, when they needed to become Christians. Given Hêliand’s dubious agenda and its once strikingly 19th c Germanic qualities, there are a number of horrible editions with dubious illustrations to match the introductions and analytical epilogues. The illustrations are just waiting to be colorized and the poem’s attitude is worth a comment. The fact that my copy was published in Paderborn, a town not far from the monastery where Hêliand was probably composed, rings a bell to schoolboys reminding them of the joke about the comparison of the German adjective ‘black’ (referring to the frocks of clerics as in The Red and the Black) goes: Schwartz – Münster – Paderborn.
I read the fifth song or ‘fit’ of the poem – the Christmas gospel.
The Hêliand author (THA) was commissioned to rewrite the Gospels in a politically correct way holding in balance Carolingian political ambition and the loyalty of newly defeated Saxon leaders. To some, doing this, indicates a Christian theologian selling his pass. To others less naïve the author seems to be the first in a North European line of preachers eventually flogging their gospel to any congregation. Betraying one’s religious cause for another (in effect. taking steps to reform others) is often the beginning of their career. THA is interesting because his commission is political, his agenda radical, and his task delicate. That the poem might have had some dissonant qualities is implied by the fact that Hêliand was soon followed by Otfied’s Evangelienbuch, a much more orthodox and harmonic albeit less interesting harmony. Instead of translating Otfried we may simply compare Hêliand V to the familiar modern version of the Christmas Gospel.Heliand 01

THA tells us about the birth of Jesus, but adds some basic insights into the social order of the Christian society and the way Jesus fits into this construction to be sure that we understand. The Christmas Gospel is a suitable story because it starts at the top of the construction, with the emperor, and ends at its bottom with the shepherds. The biblical society is somewhat simple, but THA knows how to upgrade the description of a suitable social hierarchy. He starts
by expanding upon Luke 2:1-5. Luke gives us some seemingly innocent initial facts, coincidence it would seem, but of course we suspect the Lord in mysterious ways to have arranged the taxation, in order to let ancient prophecies to become true. But if so, he works in his New Testament style, i.e.  without direct interference the way he used to employ  in the Old Testament.

THA takes the opportunity to explain in some detail how taxation works and the reason why it is difficult to evade. Many have pointed out that his model is Carolingian taxation with the emperor’s emissaries send out to keep track of people who were forced to go back to their birth place, family and assembly places (in effect their traditional thing place. It has also be observed that since a Carolingian emperor would refer to himself as Augustus, THA has chosen Otavian (Augustus before Augustus) to impose taxation. Many Saxon chieftains may be expected to oppose Carolingian taxes, as nine hundred years earlier Roman taxation made Germans unite behind Arminius, and THA knows. To be completely sure that no one can accuse Carolingian emperors of having invented taxation, THA eventually tells us that God (i.e. Jesus’ father) is behind this – ‘Joseph … … went too, as the mighty God had ruled’.

Heliand 02

To Luke, Joseph and Mary are humble people, but to THA it is unthinkable that a King such as Christ could belong to anything but the upper classes. Joseph therefore goes with his household to his hall and Manor in Bethlehem. We are not told whence he came since that may have indicated that he was permanently living at Nazareth, and why should he? THA has already explained to us that Joseph kept a low political profile during the reign of Herod.


Bethlehem in Saxony

In the first section we are introduced to God, the heavenly ruler, the emperor the worldly ruler, petty kings and chieftains such as Joseph, emissaries and warriors with a seat in the assembly. This is almost the whole social order yet we haven’t reached Luke’s Joseph and Mary.

In his matter-of-fact style Luke sees to it that Mary give birth already in verse 7. But THA is in no hurry. He has a hall, a heritage and a social situation to describe. On this journey therefore
Mary is to give birth and it is Jesus as well as God who thinks this is convenient. Actually Christ is born because he want to come out since he is ‘strong’, ‘great’, ‘king’, ‘splendid’ and ‘mighty’ as soon as he enters this world – ‘the light of men’. Luke’s commonplace reference to the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, doesn’t bother THA. Gods are born when they want to be born. We have all reason to believe that Joseph is sitting in David’s high seat overlooking the world the way Late Iron Age kings used to. Needless to say there is no reference to Mary being great with child. The state of pregnancy is nothing the upper classes bother about or discuss.

Heliand 03

Before Luke has reached the cowshed and the end of verse 7, THA has marched off in the opposite direction. The whole scene with the manger has become impossible and fully booked inns not much to bother about if you are giving birth at home in your hall. Swaddling clothes are not used in halls either.

To THA, the amazing thing, well worth to point out, is the care with which this upper class mother takes of her child. She is actually doing things herself. The jewelry and laying the ‘lord of mankind’ with ‘God’s power’ in a crib is perhaps overdoing it, but Mary, who in Hêliand is an emancipated woman,  wanted to do so and her loving affection was spoken of.

Heliand 04

Even when they are on duty, it is prudent to inform one’s housecarls, i.e. one’s bodyguard, when the lady of the household has been delivered, since the housecarls come second in rank in their lordship’s household. This opens a window of opportunity for THA – he can get out of the hall, put the shepherds on hold for a while, and use God’s housecarls, the angels, an awe-inspiring troop coming directly from God’s manor in Meadow of Heaven, to convey the message to Joseph’s housecarls who are out looking after the horses in the fields around Joseph’s manor. Having hooked up with the Gospel by means of his excursion into the fields and the manorial use of household troops, THA is ready to follow the gospel praise the Lord and point to the child in the crib.

Heliand 05


Saxon ‘Horse shepherds’

Political and power based theology, is be it 9th century Catholic or 21st century Muslim Brotherhood is always appalling and its interpretations doubtful. Nevertheless, interpreting and harmonizing the Scriptures gives us a clear picture of politics and society.  If these insights concerns 9th c. Saxony, they become interesting because their affinities with Carolingian and Pre Carolingian Iron Age in Northwest Germany and among Scandinavia become obvious. And we know little about that, and don’t want to embrace what we think we  know.

It has often been suggested that Christianity was an upper class religion, strongly defending the upper strata of society leading the lower ones as flocks of sheep behind a member of the brotherhood, but it is revealing that the ideological consciousness of these upper classes as they are represented e.g. by THA, was so well developed and conceptualized. If one reads all the songs of Hêliand, tends to about the authors ulterior motives, because he emerges as a good poet in addition to being a cleaver propagandist. That was probably why he was chosen or volunteered to do the job, but then again many dictatorial regimes have engaged good authors to write the right epics.

Be this as I may just don’t forget that the comparison of the Egyptian word for black’ (referring to beards of the clerics) goes: Suda  – Brotherhood – Salafist.


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.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a companion to an exhibition at Villa Schildt in Ekenäs, Finland ( ).

Häggman, Sofia. 2012. Travellers on the Nile. Exhibition 15.6-9.9.2012. Ekenäs. Villa Schildt. A pdf-file of the book can be found and downloaded at the above address or at: the file utstallning_2012_resenarer_pa_nilen.pdf6.28 MB

Travelling up the Nile is a certain kind of journey. Irrespective of our doing it in the mid 19th century, the mid 20th or in the beginning of the 21th, if we chose to stop for a day in Qulusna or spend an evening in mujaheddin, Assiut, looking around, drinking tea and making friends is what we do; as well as listening to good stories about the Roman (and Early Byzantine says the guest) antiquities that will come out of a decent cellar project in that part of town.

But when we pass by a village in Manfalut, a landing place by the Nile that has been there for quite a while, the water front is concrete and pre-Aswan High Dam, the houses mostly old and the satellite dishes modern.

Since the days of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th century, things have been constantly changing in the Nile Valley as they often changed in earlier days too. Yet there is something more than these insights, stopping by drinking tea and making friends that travellers share.

To begin with there is the going up and going down again. Even if we travel by car, rather than by boat, the stops we make going up are new to us as every kilometre is, but going down we detour familiar check points passing through well-known lands, villages and towns. This is not really true, but true enough to make us feel that going up we add the Nile to our personal journey of civilization and going down we travel through our own experience adding a little something here and there.

Before the dams, not least the Aswan High Dam, going up was sailing against currents and fighting the cataracts, impossible some parts of the year, while going down was effortless floating enjoying a victory approaching the beginning as an end in itself – at least in principle – some parts of the year. As Sofia Häggman (SH) points out it is sometimes a bit disappointing when everything comes to en end in Fum al Khalig or a Yacht Club (as well as an AVIS office) in Cairo.

If you are an Egyptian, the Nile is a spine and travelling up and down something one has to do to keep the country going. But to outsiders coming from the North it has often be impossible to understand that Egyptians can be so forgetful of the mind-broadening way of coming to terms with oneself that is travelling on the Nile.


If up-and-down comes first, one might suppose that Pharaonic antiquities, uniting western travellers, comes next. But that is not true. As it happens, one of the great advantages with the old Nile Hilton was its roof-top terrace where the good-humoured Nubian waiters (emblematic of The Nubian) would chat with the late afternoon visitor, when on a less exhaust-smoggy late afternoon the pyramids were visible in a crack in the skyline, and the bar provided a reason not to go there — having already seen them.

What comes second is the fact that travellers are definite about the monuments before they start.

The two travellers that SH writes about turn out to be model Nile travellers. The first, Georg August Wallin (1), in the 1840s, belonged to the minority who went to modern Muhammad Ali Egypt, totally uninterested in Pharaohs, mummies, temples or hieroglyphs. He was there because he could melt in and learn Arabic well enough later on to go to Mecca and pass for a native speaker and a muslim – as indeed he did. The second, Göran Schildt came sailing from Beirut in the beginning of the 1950s specifically to look for Ancient Egypt. Incidently, both Wallin and Schildt had Greece as a backdrop to Egypt – Schildt to find the Egyptian influence on the all-important Greece and individuality – Wallin to have a superior antiquity to hold on to when being not-impressed. Wallin went up the Nile more or less by chance, Schildt on purpose.

Wallin’s nameless dahabiya and Schildt’s motor sailboat Daphne

The sailing united them and it probably convinced Wallin that the trip was a good or at least tolerable idea. From two different attitudes to a changing Egypt they went up to see what would happened in a small adventure intending to come down again with an overview of things. Supported by adventure, therefore, they travelled not least for the benefit of themselves hoping to prove themselves right. And they both wrote about their experience – Wallin for family and eventually newspapers, Schildt planned a book. Wallin was in the company of a painter and Schildt and his wife took pictures.

As SH points out, the Nile, the Egyptians, and their monuments changed both of them. Wallin saw a link between the peasants, the fellahin, of his day and age and the Egyptians behind the ancient monuments. His was a view that disappeared with Orientalism and Schildt, because of Oriantalism and thus not surprisingly, started out being uninterested in moderns Egypt – as it were he preferred to visit the Egyptian Museum rather than accepting an invitation to meet with Gamal Abdel Nasser. But the Nile changed him too when his curiosity made him seen the people, the fellahin, and understand their life – the contrast between the canals and green fields of the Nile Valley, dug and cultivated for thousands of years, and the standing monuments of civilisation – modern, historic or ancient.

Still today, speeding on the tarmac, small green and fertile fields worked by hand and water lifted into canals by donkeys are profitable. As always, the Nile valley is an enormous palimpsest on which the fellahin work to match themselves and the water of the Nile. As soon as it stopped raining in the Nile Valley, sometime in the 6th millennium BCE when water became manageable because it became dependent on a predictable year cycle in Central East Africa, the first canals were dug, fields drained and watered. Promptly, the fellahin began to develop, adjust and enhance their agriculture supplying the surplus that pays for the rest. The third element of the travel, the fellahin changes us.


Successfully travelling on or along the Nile come about for three reasons:

(1) We travel up the Nile as an adventure of our own. We don’t need to explore anything original or new, just something we didn’t know.

It suffice to see the living saint cult in Upper Egypt (buy a book at Gaddis in Luxor to learn more if we wish (2)) and visit graves and shrines on our way back, now that we know what they are.

Brighter hieroglyphs

It suffice to see the bright colours of the nowadays rarely visited graves on the shores of Lake Nasser and have a look at the fading colours in the Valley of the Kings on our way back, now that we can imaging what they looked like.

(2) If we are lucky we travel with a definite foreign idea about Egypt or the Nile Valley. One of the best, i.e. most popular and prejudiced views, is the opinion that there is no connection between pharaonic and modern Egyptians. This prejudice is the best because it is most likely to change.

(3) As it happens, we change our mind by means of talking to the fellahin and to people in the small towns.

And back in Cairo debriefing ourselves sitting in a garden on Zamalek for a couple of days, we are sadly ready once again to become satisfied, but changed Europeans — staying if we could going home as we must.

(1) If Swedish is an option you may read more about his time in Egypt in Sofia Häggman’s book Alldeles hemlikt. Helsingfors. Atlantis. 2011.

(2) If you must know in advance, you can buy Nicholas Hopkins and Saad Reem (eds). Upper Egypt – identity and change. American University in Cairo Press. Cairo 2004.