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No mercy from the poet" ch. Later he gouged out Armod's eye with his finger, leaving it hanging on his cheek ch. And so on. Egil confirms that the Vikings wanted to present themselves much as they were remembered by those they traumatized. But they also wanted to be remembered for other things, too. This is where our picture begins to get complex and therefore interesting. So far I have been mainly referring to Egil's poems about himself. As anticipated by his 3-year-old efforts, however, he also developed into a wonderful composer of praise poetry.

On one famous occasion his skill at such composition saved him from execution by his archenemy Eirik Bloodaxe, now King in northern England--egged on, of course, by Bad Queen Gunnhild. Overnight, Egil composed a long poem praising Eirik's exploits--and only occasionally getting at him--in a completely new meter.

It stunned King Eirik, causing him, grudgingly, to give Egil his life: King Eirik sat bolt upright, his eyes fixed on Egil while he recited his poem. When it was finished the King spoke. Let me quote its beginning and end it consists of 16 stanzas, with refrains articulating it into a beginning, middle and end to give you an idea of how it works: By sun and moon I journeyed west, My sea-borne tune From Odin's breast, My song-ship packed With poet's art: Its word-keel cracked The frozen heart. On his gold arm The bright shield swings: To his foes, harm: To his friends, rings; His fame's a feast Of glorious war, His name sounds east, From shore to shore.

And now my lord, You've listened long As word on word I built this song: Your source is war, Your streams are blood, But my springs pour Great Odin's flood. To praise my lord This tight mouth broke, The word-floods poured, The still tongue spoke, From my poet's breast These words took wing: Now all the rest May learn to sing. The "Head-Ransom" poem is surely not a particularly "felt" poem. Elsewhere, however, we find Egil movingly honoring his friends, and especially his great friend Arinbjorn, and not just for being successful Vikings.

He honors them for qualities we too would admire--generosity, openness, concern for others--all qualities, therefore, that he and his peers must have wanted to be remembered for. He is also very aware of the importance of his own gift of poetry in ensuring that those he loved indeed be remembered. Here are the last lines of his poem in praise of Arinbjorn: Sadly I'll have served him If the seed he has given me Should be wasted, not winnowed, And blow in the wind.

So I rise up early To erect my rhyme, My tongue toils, A servant at his task; I pile the praise-stones, The poem rises, My labor is not lost, Long may my words live.

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More than any other work, it takes us into the mind of one of the Viking Age's most paradigmatic characters. The story of the poem's composition ch. When his drowned son's body was washed up, Egil laid it in Skallagrim's mound. He then locked himself in his bed-closet, refusing to eat or drink, fully intending to die. On the third day his wife summoned their daughter, Thorgerd.

Episode 29a – Egil’s Saga (Part 1)

She arrives, and asks her father to let her into the bed-closet because she wants to go the same road as he. He lets her in. She is chewing something. He asks her what it is. She gets thirsty. She calls for water, and when it comes she asks him if he would like to have some. He grabs the drinking horn and drinks great gulps--of milk. He bites off the bottom of the horn and throws it down.

Egil the Mean | Lapham’s Quarterly

Perhaps you should compose a poem in honor of your son--it is, after all, his only chance of being remembered. Why not do this and then we can still die if we want to? Egil then composes what most people agree is the finest poem of its period, one describing how Odin has stolen his son and yet provided him with some small compensation in the form of his poetic skill.

Here, again, I'll quote the beginning and end of the stanza poem, though this time I'll also give you some of the middle. Believe me when I say the translation comes nowhere near doing the poem justice: My mouth strains To move the tongue, To weigh and wing The choice word: Not easy to breathe Odin's inspiration In my heart's hinterland, Little hope there. My sorrow the source Of the sluggard stream Mind-meandering, This heavy word-mead, Poet's power Gold-praised, that Odin from ogres tore In ancient time.

Could my sword stroke take Vengeance on the sea-surge, Bitter ale brewer None can bend or break, Could my hand kill The crushing wave, With god and goddess I should grapple. But I've no strength to subdue The slayer of my son Nor the boldness to beat Down my boy's killer: Obvious to all, An old man, unaided, Helpless, unhappy, Can hold out no hope.

The rough storm has robbed me Of my best riches, It's cruel to recall The loss of that kinsman, The safeguard, the shield Of the house has sailed Out in death's darkness To a dearer place. The spear-god shared Spoil with me, My oath was to Odin, He gave me aid: Now that maker of mystic Runes only mocks me, Voids all my victories, That breaker of vows.

Saga and honour – earlier research

I'll make offerings to Odin, Though not in eagerness, I'll make my soul's sacrifice, Not suffer silently: Though this friend has failed me, Fellow of gods, To his credit he comforts me With compensation. That wolf-killer, that warrior God, well seasoned in war Bestowed a bounty Not to be bettered: To my art he added One other gift, A heart that held Not craft only: hatred! The end is all. Even now High on the headland Hel stands and waits, Life fades, I must fall And face my own end Not in misery and morning, But with a man's heart.

There is so much more I could say about Egil's wonderful and wonderfully drawn character--that he was a healer ch. But I will have to leave such further discovery to you. You will find in Egil, I believe, someone who illustrates better than any other the strange combination of ferocity and artistry that the Vikings themselves saw as their legacy.

Browse the Archive Search by Keyword. Egil Skallagrimsson and the Viking Ideal by Christina von Nolcken ow did the Vikings want to be perceived--by other members of their own culture, and by posterity? What many commentaries fail to reflect is that axe heads of the Viking age were of composite manufacture.

A blade section of steel with a higher carbon content, involving repeated reworking with fire and sledge, was welded to the blank head in order to give it a stronger, sharper edge Pedersen , Tylecote, The passage may be translated as follows: [The axe sprang down onto the stone, with the result that the edge of the blade broke completely loose and cracks ran up into the tempered part.

It lay there over the winter. The fancy axe is disfigured and useless but not broken into pieces. According to the saga, he looked at the edge ON-I egg , as a smith well might, but said nothing about it. In the understated narrative economy of the saga, this is the first mention of the term egg but this is really what the episode is all about, although the principal will not admit to this in words, nor will the author.

The axe, after performing the single demeaning service of slaughtering cattle unless this is a ritual act but being rendered useless in the process, is relegated to the rafters of the fire room off the hall, a typical storage area by an outer door—moved from the fire of the forge to the smoke of the under-roof of the kitchen. Is this wit intentional or simply in the mind of the modern, overly close reader? Word-play or paronomasia in skaldic verse is most evident in the riddling concealment of the personal names of intimates, a friend or woman being courted.

Punning capabilities were clearly present in the culture.

Egil's Saga (Penguin Classics)

Its taste for word-play, not least with satirical intent, may have been enhanced by contact with Celtic culture and language in Ireland and Scotland. One might even venture that Norway and Iceland, in the fictionalized world of the sagas, stand in the same relationship to each other as the elements of a pun. We can imagine the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor the subject to which attributes are ascribed and the object whose attributes are borrowed in a more fanciful, antagonistic relationship.

The cultures, like the phonetic element in word-play, are close but the values, ambitions, competencies, as semantics, differ markedly. The more populous, stronger, and richer kingdom sets the topic and context and is in the mainstream, while the island commonwealth, with its feuders, farmers, and traders, repeatedly injects incongruity into the situation, destabilizes assumptions and judgments. More may follow. Egill, still a lad, has been engaged in a rough ballgame and has been thrown to the ground by a bigger and older opponent, after Egill had swatted him with the bat.

Egill runs after him, takes a small axe carried by a bystander both as a status symbol and for personal security, and buries it in the skull of his opponent. Here the axe is a simple practical expedient for Egill, carrying no symbolic value, not even subject to ownership by the principal actor. But there is the slightest tie to the earlier episode in the beard or extended lower horn on the axe head. The haft was blackened by smoke and the axe head had become rusty. No silver now shows on the sooty haft but rather according to the prose rust on the blade a return to the boggy origins.

Until the recital of the poem, the axe has been viewed only externally, although all the action has tended toward revealing internal properties. In this, it parallels the stance of the farmer-smith, whose silence has been maintained until the crucial test of the axe has been completed, and nearly forgotten. The poem and the return to silence following it affect the closure of the episode and the realignment of the saga narrative. On this occasion and at this point in the narrative it is only with the shift from impersonal prose to poetry that anything essential about the gift axe is stated, and then in the subjective voice of the extemporizing poet Clunies Ross This makes the Icelandic specialty of skaldic verse the only reliable medium for the communication of accurate information on this instance of material reality.

It is not that the author is ingenuous. Rather, he states only what anyone would see on first viewing the axe. Once at sea, he throws the axe overboard. Marine imagery, although in the background, is present to the end. Since there is a strongly advanced scholarly opinion that Snorri Sturluson is the likely author of Egils saga , 16 it is relevant to see how he treats axes in other works. People call axes by names of troll-wives, and refer to them in terms of blood or wounds or forest or tree.

Egill Skallagrímsson: The Warrior Poet (Viking History Explained)

In the section in which Snorri lists heiti , i. Then there is soft-horned: this is considered the highest of names for axe. To return to Egils saga , chapter sequence is important in tracking the axe motif. In the subsequent chapters of the saga—once The Axe is out of the picture, so to speak—the adult Egill is never shown fighting with a hand or pole axe. Egils saga , Ch. The blade was two ells long at least 36 inches and was forged toward the end spike with a rectangular cross-section; and the blade was broad at its upper end and the socket was both long and stout; the shaft was no thicker around than a hand span up to the socket but was extremely strong.

There was also an iron prong on the socket and the shaft was wound around with iron strips. Only in the following generation, after Egill has all but retired from public life, does an axe recur. The law is clearly on his side, and his claim to the riverside land is sound. But his neighbour Steinarr continues to graze his cattle there.

Coolness, self-reliance, and a small axe win the day over bluster, coercion through enslavement , and an axe outsized for its purpose. This may well have a practical motivation but also seems a detail so trivial as, inversely, be a signal for something greater about to happen. Axes receive a final mention in Egils saga , at its very end, after Egill has died and been buried, first in a grave-mound and then by his step-daughter in a Christian cemetery. His bones are now being transferrred to new ground in connection with the relocation of the church.

While the great hall measured almost feet in length, it was built in driftwood from Siberia.


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Black-smithing operations were limited to repair work, in which various metal scraps were resmelted and reforged. On the subject of natural resources, the Icelander would nonetheless have experienced his superiority in the non-depletable resource of language, the ore of art, and doubtless also in character. Like many other points of detail in the sagas and Egils saga in particular, the symbolic values attached to smithing and weapons ownership flatter the charter narrative of the settlement of Iceland but are also relevant to the thirteenth century, in which the Norwegian throne posed a renewed threat to the island.

In the end, actions speak louder than objects, and, at times, silence louder than words. Saga scenes involving medieval Norse technology traditional pursuits such as hunting, fishing, agriculture, the crafts, warfare, etc. Experimental archaeology is providing new sources of insight and facilitating the recovery of lost techniques.

The detection of intentional word-play, both in skaldic verse and in saga prose, poses a comparable problem, since even the accumulated weight of evidence cannot determine definitively that a key word also makes a subtle and subversive allusion to another. As historians and critics we should work from the premise that the sagas are as intricately and rigorously constructed as skaldic verse and share many of the same stylistic devices and aesthetic objectives. In light of the cultural affinities of Norway and Iceland, despite early differences in socio-political organization and the authorial interest in word-play that the episode of the royal gift evidences, a last image that we may take from Egils saga is of a double-bitted axe.

The Age of the Sturlungs fulfills the prophecy of an axe-age that pits kinsman against kinsman. Shattered, Icelandic society will be reforged and incorporated in the Norwegian kingdom and its expanding role in European politics and trade. On examples of weapons as quasi-agents in the sagas, see Perkins; Kristjansson.


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On this aspect of saga compositional practices see Sayers ; Fichtner; Tulinius Unless otherwise stated, translations are my own. See Sayers for the Celtic-Norse parallels. For the ground-breaking investigation of this limited but effective female empowerment in the sagas, see Clover.

The richness of reference and allusion in the verse, however, continues to challenge and delight. The Skaldic Editing Project has not yet dealt with this alleged poet. For a recent theoretical discusson of the performance context of skaldic verse and in particular lausavisur , with their potential for absent listeners and addressees, see Osborne. Saga conventions appear to be less closely followed when the force of the central agon is weaker.

There is no evidence for a headsman function in these early states. Three axe-related events, implicating the first three family members, occur about mid-way through the first half of the saga. See Jesch for a contemporary posing of the problem. This is admittedly anachronistic, although there is a greater likelihood of double-bladed halberds. But for another, less concrete artifact, the skaldic poem, most of these conditions and attributions are reversed, with the taste for decorative effect now on the side of the Icelanders.

Byock, Jesse. January, 82— Clover, Carol J. Edited by Sarah M.

Putting the Sagas of the Icelanders on trial

Anderson and Karen Swenson, 15— New York: Routledge. Clunies Ross, Margaret. Edited by Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge, — Tulinius, 75— Toronto: University of Toronto Press. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Edited by Geir T. Oxford: Clarendon. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning.

Snorri Sturluson. Edited by Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. Egils Saga: Die Saga von Egil. Translated by Kurt Schier. Translated by Christine E. London: Dent. London: Penguin.