History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Viking Grief

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

One of the most moving poems by the Viking poet/magician/farmer Egil Skallagrimsson was one he wrote lamenting the death of his favourite son Böðvarr who drowned at sea, and his son Gunnar who died of fever. In skaldic form the twenty-five verses give voice to his sorrow with passion and beauty. Normally Vikings assuaged loss with revenge but there is no one to attack for these deaths.

Egil composes the poem after vowing to kill himself by starvation, unwilling to live in a world without his son. His daughter Þorgerður tells him she will die with him, but tricks him into drinking some milk and spoiling his hunger strike. She then suggests that the best way to memorialise her brother is to compose a suitable poem in his honour so that he will live forever.

The striking opening has been copied in many manuscripts:

Mjǫk erum tregt
tungu at hrœra
eða loptvætt
esa nú vænligt
of Viðurs þýfi
né hógdrœgt
ór hugar fylgsni.

Anne Riddler's elegant translation of the stanza captures the mood well:

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.

Grief's tongue can be hard to find, but choosing the right words brings Odin's inspiration (poetry) to its greatest flowering -- assuaging our suffering by capturing the truth of the feeling like a fly in amber or a name carved in stone. Happiness may be too fleeting to capture so vividly, but we don't have the same need to share it with others. Grief is a weight that needs other hands to lift it -- even if those others are long dead.

The poem in Old Norse; a modern English translation. The video below offers a modern poet's adaptation and filmmaker's revisioning:



[image of viking victim's skull in the National Museum of Ireland - Archeology, Dublin ©K. A. Laity]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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