17 March 2015

'The Day Did Not Achieve its Beautiful Colour'

Halfdan Egedius, 1899
Torgils og Grim fører Olavs Lig bort
Image from Wikimedia Commons
We shall find out later this week whether these words of the Icelandic poet Sigvatr Þórðarson are a good description of the effects of a solar eclipse. Those unable to travel to the Faroe Islands to view the full eclipse might like instead to contemplate his account of the eclipse associated with the killing of King Óláfr digri 'the Stout' Haraldsson (later St Óláfr) at the battle of Stiklarstaðir (modern Stiklestad) in the year 1030. Astronomers tell us that there was a solar eclipse on 31 August in that year, but how closely it coincided with the actual battle is far from clear.

Certainly Sigvatr, the king's chief poet, thought that both happened on the same day, and he may have been responsible for the association, but then he was notoriously not present to witness the momentous events. In his memorial poem (Erfidrápa) for Óláfr, Sigvatr links the king's death and the eclipse as follows (st. 15), while admitting that he only heard of them from abroad:
Undr láta þat ýtar
eigi smátt, es máttit
skæ-Njǫrðungum skorðu
skýlauss rǫðull hlýja.
Drjúg varð á því dœgri
— dagr náðit lit fǫgrum —
— orrostu frák austan
atburð — konungs furða.
 People declare that no small wonder, that the cloudless sun was not able to warm {the Njǫrðungar {of the steed of the prop}} [(lit. ‘steed-Njǫrðungar of the prop’) SHIP > MEN]. Great was the portent concerning the king during that daytime; the day did not achieve its beautiful colour; I heard of the event at the battle from the east.
The cloudless, cold sun and the day without colour certainly also represent Sigvatr's grief at the death of his lord, a grief that is expressed in several other fine stanzas by him. For commentary on this stanza, and an edition of the whole poem, as well as other poetry by Sigvatr, see Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, vol. I.