28 December 2015

Skaldic Yule

Christmas is traditionally a time for overindulging in food and drink, and things were no different a thousand years ago. The Old Norse word jól can refer either to the midwinter feast of pre-Christian times, or to the Christian celebration of the Nativity, as depicted on the 11th-century rune-stone from Dynna, in Norway (left). Both festivals involved extensive feasting. In the mid-12th century, the crusader and poet Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney remembered the Christmas feasts he and his best friend used to organise together in their youth (all texts and translations below are taken from vol. 1, ed. Diana Whaley 2013, and vol. 2, ed. Kari Ellen Gade 2009, of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages):

Muna munk jól, þaus ólum
austr gjaldkera hraustum,
Ullr, at Egða fjǫllum,
undleygs, með Sǫlmundi.
Nú gerik enn of ǫnnur
jafnglaðr, sem vask þaðra,
sverðs at sunnanverðum
svarm kastala barmi.

{Ullr {of the wound-flame}} [SWORD > WARRIOR], I will remember the Christmases when we entertained in the east beside Agder’s mountains with Sǫlmundr, the valorous steward. Now, just as glad as I was there, I make, once again, throughout another [Christmas], {a swarm of the sword} [BATTLE] at the southern perimeter of the castle.

Here the poet draws an explicit comparison between the peaceful joyous feasting of Christmas back home in Norway, and the Christmas he is spending equally joyously attacking a castle in Galicia, on his way to the Holy Land. In the next stanza, he refers to making 'the eagle replete again'. Being largely a military genre, skaldic poetry often figures Christmas as a feast for the beasts of battle (carrion-eaters the raven, the eagle and the wolf), with the underlying image a comparison with the more peaceful feasting the warriors themselves indulged in at Christmastime. In this rather baroque imagining by a poet called Grani the beasts of battle's Christmas feast also includes their family and children, as indeed do Christmas feasts for humans:

Dǫglingr fekk at drekka
danskt blóð ara jóði;
hirð hykk hilmi gerðu
Hugins jól við nes Þjólar.
Ætt spornaði arnar
allvítt við valfalli;
hold át vargr, sem vildi,
— vel njóti þess — Jóta.

The lord gave the brood of eagles Danish blood to drink; I believe the ruler prepared a yule-feast {for the retinue of Huginn } [RAVENS] by Þjólarnes. Far and wide the kin of the eagle trod on the fallen carrion; the wolf ate the flesh of the Jótar as it pleased; may it truly enjoy that.

That was King Haraldr harðráði 'Hard-Ruler' bashing the Danes in the mid-11th century. But skaldic Christmas is also a time for reflection and remembering those we have lost during the year, as the newspapers do today. In this stanza by Sigvatr, even as he is drinking he remembers, and is saddened by, how his lord and patron, King (later Saint) Óláfr was treacherously responsible for the death of his friend, the powerful Norwegian chieftain Erlingr Skjalgsson:

 Drakk eigi ek drykkju
dag þann, es mér sǫgðu
Erlings tál, at jólum
allglaðr, þess’s réð Jaðri.
Hans mun dráp of drúpa
dýrmennis mér kenna;
hǫfuð bôrum vér hæra
— hart morð vas þat — forðum.

I did not drink my drink very happily [lit. happy] at Christmas on the day when they told me of the betrayal of Erlingr, the one who ruled Jæren. The killing of him, the splendid person, will cause me to droop; we [I] carried our head higher before; that was a harsh murder.

Skaldic poetry had the function of recording history as well as of celebrating and remembering military prowess, and in this function Christmas becomes a useful chronological marker along with other Christian festivals. In this stanza Oddr rehearses the battles of King Magnús góði 'The Good' in both the Baltic and Denmark in the early 11th century:

Vas fyr Míkjálsmessu
malmgrimm háið rimma;
fellu Vinðr, en vǫnðusk
vápnhljóði mjǫk þjóðir.
Enn fyr jól vas ǫnnur
óhlítulig lítlu
— upp hófsk grimm með gumnum
gunnr — fyr Árós sunnan.

 A sword-grim battle was waged before Michaelmas; Wends fell, and people became much accustomed to weapon-sound. And shortly before Christmas there was another [battle], by no means trivial, south of Århus; grim fighting erupted among men.

This poet was not interested in comparing battle to the culinary pleasures of  Christmas, he prefers instead to emphasise the grim significance of it - the festivals are just points on the calendar. That is not to say that Vikings were either pacifists or vegetarians...but as this survey of Yuletide references has shown, skaldic poetry could still be used to express a range of attitudes. And so we can reflect that Christmas in our time is also a marker of time passing, and both still a time of war and of feasting, and of remembering those who have gone. And also the celebration of a birth which can be taken as a symbol of hope for better things in the coming year.

All the best for 2016, everyone.


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