Tag Archives: norse poetry

Street Taggers Mailbox in Reykjavik

I present this image as an example of the current state of traditional Norse skaldic shield poetry — a traditional form of defensive armour, to verbally accompany intricate, interwoven carvings on shields, which told truth to a chieftain; if told intricately and wittily enough, it could change a chieftain’s path without forfeiting the skald’s head. It’s good to see the tradition continue, and with disposable beer glasses for all, too.p1330410


Skjald, Poet and Dichter: the Three Smiths

Poet: A smith who works with words and the spirit that attaches to them and flows through them between humans and the world. Often, poets approach this work from a book tradition. When they do, their real audience is either the book they write for and which readers read to see how the completion of this book is getting along or the readers who approach the intersection of the book and its society with the same reverence. Within such cultures, a poet is often seen romantically, as a worker with one of the decorative arts.

p1390640A Poetic Interpretation of Egil Writing His First Verses at Age Three

Borgarnes, Iceland

By book, I mean the book that duplicates the world. Some cultures call that the Bible. Some the Koran. Others the Periodic Table of the Elements. Some might call it a Doppelgänger, a mysterious double. It is so powerful, it can even look like these birch twigs. In this manner of thinking, they are considered to be natural and living in a state called “nature”. This state is the book.

p1390739Yes, You Too Can Read These Twigs

Dichter: a smith who works with Dicht, the thickening of the world into densities of intelligence, distinct from poet by a desire to create unified points of power rather than large tapestries. This is an art form in the German-speaking world, and represents the grammatical structure of the German language, which looks for unity where English looks for precise difference. Where a poet, in service of the Book, might look for a world of nature, that came before the book, and called it a (primary) world, with the emphasis on an abstract category, a dichter would look for an Urwelt, a root-world, which is distinct from a world but contains the time that opened up into a world. This slight difference is profound, and leads to the image below being seen complete in all the time in the world, and before language. It is a thickening, a dicht, out of which language evolves, right now, in all of its time:

p1390754Skjald: a smith who works with social relationships within the world that contains both poets and dichters, and for whom the world is one of the social players. This is a northern concept, from the old iron age cultures of Scandinavia. Typically, a skjald (as the name suggests) is a shield, a scold, a scalder (the contemporary expression is a roast-er, one who sends up a revered figure in an honouring ceremony that doesn’t hold its punches), a kind of Nordic court jester who praised a god, king or chieftain in rhymed, witty verses several layers deep in riddles or riddle-like tricks of language as ornate as the intertwined patterns of serpents on a viking shield or the infolded edges of language in a viking curse. The result: a scolded, or scalded, king, chieftain or god, as red in the face as a lobster or a berserker about to do battle — except with anger deflected by wit and turned instead to social good. The contemporary translation for skjald is “poet.”  I think it’s better to keep the triad of terms alive: poet, dichter, and skjald. They do similar but different work, and it’s useful to keep them clear. Neither the work of the poet or the dichter precisely describes the work of a skjald. The image below, however, is close. The image shows the spirits of a small waterfall in Iceland.

p1390972This is skjald work, because it is deeply layered, in ways which combine the world and the acts of men and gods into a tapestry of the mind, which can’t be unravelled, nor should be. Instead, the connections, especially the complexity, duplication and patterning of the connections, and the challenge it proposes to the human ego, is exactly the point: connections rather than distinctions. Is that a red demon in the centre?  Is it the god Oðin, with his missing eye wandering off to his left? Is the red figure behind the ice to the left of the image man or beast? Or the white ones in the ice? They are all imaginary, of course, but this imaginary projection, woven with history, society, science, the earth, psychology and spirit, and the challenge it proposes to dominant world views, is exactly the work of a skjald. Now, let me show you something a little closer to poetry, to help draw this discussion closer to its centre. In the first image below, the trinity is represented in some contemporary norse knotwork. Note the interwined, yet closed nature of the flowering of the pattern as it moves through the world. A skjald wrote verses as interlocked as this.

new-triquetra-trinity-a-knot-pagan-norse-viking-silver-pewter-pendant-amuletIn my second example (in the image below) a contemporary Icelandic charm or curse, based on a medieval model displays interwining ropes, knots and lines of energy tied to the world with many different lines of approach, all of which are closed off to entry from outside spirits by crosses, or curses. This is the other side of a skjald’s work: a skjald helped to direct the king’s policy, but he had to be sly about it.

norse-viking-nautical-compass-talisman-fine-silver-esprit-mystiqueTraditionally, a skjald could say things that would lead to the death of anyone else, and so guide a king, when he was not in the mood for counsel, or deflect the build-up of violence in a court disagreement by leading it into laughter or finding layers of pride within layers of shame, or any other complex, interwoven knot. All in all, a skjald was a shield for the king, and so had the rights of a shield: to be first in battle and to always be at the king’s side, with an honour matched only by the sword or the hammer, the weapons of the king’s other hand. Gunnar Gunnarsson, who wrote two early books of poems and many novels, made it clear that he was a skjald. Note his clenched lips. He’s not talking.

P1530057It would be a mistake to read him as an epic poet, or even a novelist, even though he wrote few poems and many novels. Those novels are strange, though, and that’s the thing: they are deeply layered, deeply entangled with history, and challenged standard ways of thinking about identity and politics by talking in the code we recognize today as poetry. What’s more, most of these novels were published in huge editions by the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich. Many, with their tales of idealized, heroic farmers in Iceland were sent to the Russian Front to stiffen up the resolve of young men to fight the Russians and to prepare them to bring Scandinavia into the Reich. As the war progressed and the Scandinavian program and victory became impossible, dissidents working in the Propaganda Ministry continued to publish these novels, to show young men how to come back home after violence. Those are pretty amazingly contradictory roles for any set of novels, or for any writer. Only a skjald could pull that off. Unfortunately, this story has largely been missed in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s work, because the literary culture that received these books read them as literary works. They’re not. Put it this way: in the spirit of Gunnar, the following image is neither art nor nature:

p1390934What it is, exactly, apart from grass, moss and birch twigs in the spray from a waterfall, is the question we must all answer as we work towards coming home. There is, however, one clue in the world:

p1370751The world has pattern, it is physical, and it contains pairs of males and females, who come together to form something else: a family, as with the swans above, or, what this family expresses, a coming together that forms a centre to the world. When those young swans leave this birth family to form families of their own, it’s not the leaving that is central to them, but the reforming. In a culture with its roots in the iron age, this reforming is done in fire, heat and violence, beaten into linked shape by the skjald’s word-forge. In skjald work, that dynamism, and the relationship between its parts, is what it is to be human. Poetry and dicht come later to a skjald, just as dicht and skjald work come later to a poet and poetry and skjalding come later to a dichter. All three together, however, provide a full picture of the vital work they can do. Confusing the terms just muddies the waters.


Trolls and House Building: A Field Guide

Well, not trolls exactly. And not exactly a house. It’s a bit of a riddle, but poets love riddles. Why, you could even say that on the northern shores of the world, poetry developed out of riddles, or that skaldic poetry did, at any rate. Here’s a famous Icelandic skald:

Egil Skallagrímsson, Skald

Ready to do battle with, what’s that, a rusty sword? More like a cleaver, I think. I have used things like that to pick cabbages. Poet farmers unite! (17th Century Manuscript from the Árni Magnússon Institute).

A scaldic poem is a ceremonial poem, given as a gift by a poet (a skald) to his patron, written in praise (or at times rousing criticism — very scalding, very scolding criticism). Scaldic poetry was worked through in intricate design and was intended as a verbal form of the intertwined patterning on a shield — a kind of protective magic. (The contemporary equivalent might be depleted uranium.) At times, skaldic poems were even recited before battle. They were part of the battle. An important part, too, that preceded the bloodiness.


The Karlevi Stone, Vickleby, Sweden

Photo by Berig.

Note the vertical columns of the scaldic poem above. As Gunnar Gunnarsson pointed out in Unser Land (the speech he read from during his 1940 literary tour of Germany), they are not much different than this:


Basalt Columns, Vík í Mýrdal

A tightly-linked protective shield poem against the encroaching sea, written in the land itself. (Note: studies from Hawaii have shown that black basalt beaches like this form in hours, not centuries.)

Isn’t that cool? A poem that is the land? That is the riddle Gunnarsson was speaking from: his house is Iceland; Iceland is his house. If that sounds a little unusual, do recall: he’s a poet; he’s not really thinking in metaphor. Mostly, metaphor is for people who are not poets. It’s a useful way, for sure, of describing the work of poets, but it does do so without really accepting the poem as the reality of the world, which is the poet’s way. In the case of Gunnarsson’s house and island, that work is performed in skaldic poetry, which makes his house a shield as well — and not just a shield, but an ornament, too, like this, maybe:


Viking Broach, Sweden

Men might have wanted shields, to protect their bodies in battle, but, perhaps, just perhaps, women wanted something to hold their garments together at the shoulder, something that was as protective as a shield, something with an island in the centre and the four points of the compass around them, something that would set them at the middle of the world. In Sweden’s case, that would have been North for the Trail to the North (Nor’way), South for Denmark and the trails down the Rhine, East for Finland, and West for the Orkneys — and if you just kept going, going, going, going (whew) … aha! In the middle of the ocean… Iceland.

Once people arrived in the middle of the North Atlantic, the compass shifted. Iceland was now at the centre of the world. The other points of the compass were adjusted accordingly, to reference it. Since all directions led to water, however, Iceland became the entire earth, floating in the universe  (which was a big, cold sea). The country is still roughly divided into these quadrants.


Iceland, the Compass Version

The shield and compass pattern extends beyond maps. For example, if you really wanted to get into the whole magical side of things, and weren’t squeamish about a little darkness in your life, you could play around with something like the following (You could even write it in your own blood):



An Icelandic magical stave. Staves come in many shapes and were drawn for many different purposes.This one is a compass written in magical symbols, and was used to find one’s way in bad weather.

For such a stave to work (if it did), such navigation would not be done by the physical properties of the land, but by spiritual ones — and we’re not talking Christian-spiritual. In the high days of the Christian Church in Iceland, the possession of such staves could have had you condemned as a witch and beheaded at Þingvellir. That might have been awfully un-Christian, too, but, still, even today, this kind of magic is not advisable. When the Germans tried this kind of thing in the 1930s, for one thing, they invented the 1940s, which turned out to be a really bad idea.


Dresden, February 1944

Among the 20,000 people killed in the Allied bombing of Dresden and the millions of German refugees who streamed through it shortly afterwards on their way south and west from the Baltic, were untold numbers of readers of Gunnar Gunnarsson’s books about Iceland.

The pattern of land-as-compass-as-shield continues further, into practical applications of gentler spiritual principles. This time, they are placed in the interests of nationalism, where it’s not black magicians in the West Fjords or Ancient Viking ancestors or ultra-Nationalist Germans trained in the killing fields of The Chemins des Dames who are leading the way to a nation, but young women, quietly fitting their minds to the old patterns, to create a little beauty and order out of the blank, snow-white flaxen cloth woven out of the country’s fields. Think of these as self portraits…


Icelandic Needlepoint Pattern

Flowers, yes, but also a hand-held mirror lifted from a dressing table, as well as the old compass, the old shield, the old broach, and the old skaldic poetry, too. Not to mention Gunnarsson’s house. Yes, the house.  Such a pretty thing. Such devotion.

If you think I’m stretching this, consider that five centuries ago in the cloister below Gunnarsson’s house at Skriðuklaustur illiterate young women would have made embroidery of the flowers of the fields. It was a form of prayer, practiced between caring for the sick. Such devotion was the unique Icelandic contribution to prayerful attention and worship, in the way that the repetitive painting of icons of saints was an essential contribution to worship in Russia.


Christ Pantokrator

6th century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. The power comes from about fifty coats of paint and the deliberately non-representational nature of the image. God, after all, can’t be reproduced in an image, so trying would be arrogance. Accordingly, such images aren’t representations of God. They are God’s presence, revealed when people devote themselves to old patterns.

The repetition and patterning were key. For example, just down the valley from Gunnarsson’s house at Skriðuklaustur, the old girls’ school at Hallormsstaður trained girls in Icelandic embroidery, as one part of a project to create a culture in Iceland independent from Danish influence. If the home was the heart of the country, and women were at the heart of the home, and the country was its children, then Icelandifying young women would, it seems, pay future dividends. Politification (My, aren’t I inventing words today) of national identity could follow at its own pace.


Icelandic Nationalist Embroidery, 1930s, Hallormsstaður.

The doors of the rooms in the school dormitory bear the names of trees, instead of numbers, and are set within a somewhat overgrown botanical garden. Such gardens were decorative in mainland Europe. In Iceland, they are a more practical magic. 

The embroidery above is much like a map of Iceland. When you get down to ground level, after all, and experience the map that is Iceland on a human scale rather than an international or global one of contours, nation states, trade patterns, colonies, weather isobars and even corporate banking, Iceland does look like this:


Iceland at Ground Level, Neskaupstaður

The embroidery of summer!

This beautiful meadow, may I remind you, is still our shield and still our skaldic poem. It’s also Gunnarsson’s house, his novels, and the workings of his subconscious and conscious minds. Skaldic poems are full of doubling like that. We’re back to this:

His house is Iceland.

Iceland is his house.

Very skaldic, indeed. Of course, in physical terms, when this skaldic play comes to Gunnarsson’s house, the whole thing does look awfully German.



The German architect, the Icelandic stone, the grass roof…why, it’s an island itself. An island in itself. An island. Itself. German….German? That’s the riddle within the riddle. 

The poems are our key. The first form of doubling in a skaldic poem is a kenning. Kennings are natural word forms inherent in Germanic languages (Frisian, Icelandic, Norse, English, Danish, and so on). Speakers of these languages use words like that all the time. Some English examples are: butternut, windowsill, firefly, and doublespeak. In kennings, this tendency is made artful. Each kenning is a miniature poem in itself. Take the land, for instance, such as that forming Iceland. Take a look at the series of kenning’s below. The earth is cleverly hidden with them, or perhaps cleverly revealed. The delight in recognition is part of the magic of the poem. Can you find the earth there, in its sea? (The translation [mine] is loose, to try to catch some of the music, but it’s not wildly off track, or at least not enough to hide the earth any more than it already is.)


Skaldic Poem Made Out of Kennings

The earth is “The sun’s stronghold”. The others? Well, hey, it’s a riddle, right? Source.

So, that’s the first doubling: words are given multiple meanings by being joined together. In the example above, the earth is both rock and stone as well as “The sun’s stronghold” (as opposed, seemingly, to the darkness of death, underground, and the land of the salmon, or water).  The other doubling comes about because the rhyme schemes of these poems were so intricate that the poem often had to be split in two columns, one representing each of its two speakers. Two speakers? Yes, that is another old Nordic style of poetry. Here’s what it looked like in its Finnish variant…

These two Finns are singing the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland

Finnish Folk Singers, Telling a Song Together

Each singer pulls the other towards himself to speak, then follows the other to listen, to pull again. It’s like rowing, or weaving.

Such poems looked like this, sometimes (the first line in each rhyming pair was given by one speaker; the second by the other… a pleasant game, for sure):


The Kalevala, Canto 27 (Opening)

Finnish is related to Pictish (and nothing else), the language of Scotland before the Vikings took the place for their own.

Here it is again, in English from the time of Gunnarsson’s youth. This time, the rhyming pairs are bound on single lines (to draw parallels with Homer, by the sounds of it):

27The Kalevala, Canto 27 (Opening)

Finnish folk poetry, compiled and massaged into a narrative by Elias Lönnrot. Translated by Frances Peabody Magoun, Jr. Homer was extensively read in literary circles at the time.

Two speakers. That’s the key here. But who are they? Ah, they are many things, many of which I have already hinted at here: Iceland and Germany, Gunnarsson and Denmark, Elves and the Church, earth and language, men and women, peace and war, individual and state, man and God. It looks like many things, but that’s just a linguistic convention. It’s really all part of the same conversation — if those words could be brought together into one tightly compressed thing, we would have Gunnarsson’s house. Let’s not forget that Gunnarsson was an Icelander. For a man like him, the word ‘thing’ has special significance, and looks like this:


þingvellir, the Thing Place

Iceland’s first thing, or speaking (In Icelandic, Alþingi. In Norman English parliament), took place here in the Mid-Atlantic Rift in 930. In 1000, the country chose Christianity here, for practical reasons to do with unity, self-determination and self defense.

Below the Icelandic flag above, there is a church, and a curious collection of houses…


þingvellir Church, 1850

The earliest church on this site dates from the early 11th century. The row of five houses to the right of the church represent the Icelandic state. Each time the constitution has been rebuilt from the ground up, a new house has been added to the row. The one house that is not represented here, is the one in Fljotsðalur to the North East. That’s right: Gunnarsson’s. Hey, no one said he was particularly modest. The volcano, Thor’s Shield, rises faintly in the background, from the earth’s core.

I was standing down by the church, looking up at the Alþingi site and wondering why it was placed here, of all places. Official documents point out that it was on a list of four possible sites, and was chosen because of the four it was the one situated conveniently on the country’s major trade routes (horse paths), and had sufficient pasture, water and wood (for fires) to sustain a large crowd. Makes sense. But why was it on the list in the first place? I wondered, then I got to daydreaming, as poets sometimes do, and thought about being a kid back then, attending the Thing with my family, and I looked up at the cliffs and they came into focus.


A troll!

P1190612_2 Another troll!

P1190621Yet Another!

Trolls Everywhere!

And all of them are looking down over the people. You could say that the land is taking part in the discussion that is taking part in the Thing. You could say that now the past is watching the present, and looking down over the house that is Iceland, which is embedded in that past. Time and space are unique here. They are a language. Since that’s an unusual language, at least for the contemporary, novel-driven world, it’s useful to walk through its halls a bit, to see how they’re constructed and where they lead. I’ll do that in the next post. We’ll walk among elves and dwarves and trolls. They are not part of fairy tale. They are something completely different, and provide clues to the mind of Gunnar Gunnarsson in 1940. It’ll be fun. I hope you’ll come along.