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Old Norse Women's Poetry

Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds

Sandra Ballif Straubhaar
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81tbg
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  • Book Info
    Old Norse Women's Poetry
    Book Description:

    The rich and compelling corpus of Old Norse poetry is one of the most important and influential areas of medieval European literature. What is less well known, however, is the quantity of the material which can be attributed to women skalds. This book, intended for a broad audience, presents a bilingual edition (Old Norse and English) of this material, from the ninth to the thirteenth century and beyond, with commentary and notes. The poems here reflect the dramatic and often violent nature of the sagas: their subject matter features Viking Age shipboard adventures and shipwrecks; prophecies; curses; declarations of love and of revenge; duels, feuds and battles; encounters with ghosts; marital and family discord; and religious insults, among many other topics. Their authors fall into four main categories: pre-Christian Norwegian and Icelandic skáldkonur of the Viking Age; Icelandic skáldkonur of the Sturlung Age (thirteenth century); additional early skáldkonur from the ‘Islendingasögur’ and related material, not as historically verifiable as the first group; and mythical figures cited as reciting verse in the legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur). Sandra Ballif Straubhaar is Senior Lecturer in Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-780-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)

    In chapter 32 of Laxdœla saga, a thirteenth-century Icelandic narrative purporting to retell to us events from several centuries earlier, we are introduced to one Auðr of Hóll in Saurbœr (Breiðafjǫrðr), a farmer in Viking-Age Iceland. Her very name means Treasure, or Wealth; perhaps this is not an accident, since she is that rare thing in early-medieval Europe, namely, a woman owning land in her own right. She is introduced not in the traditional way as ‘the fairest of women’ (‘allra kvenna vænst’), but uniquely as ‘neither good-looking nor hard-working’ (‘ekki væn né gǫrvilig’). But we readers are expected to...

  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book is an attempt to present, in one volume, a selection of notable Old Norse (Old Icelandic) poetry in which the voice of the speaking poet (skald, Icelandic skáld) is female. This poetry is attributed, in the manuscripts, to skalds from the ninth to the thirteenth century, as well as to numerous legendary figures impossible to verify or date. The poems are generally presented in the manuscripts within a prose narrative matrix, as speech acts performed by named women characters within that narrative. (This is in marked contrast to such conventions as those, common in some other European medieval...

  6. I. Real People, Real Poetry
    (pp. 11-22)

    This first section contains poetry found in the historical sagas of the Norwegian kings, the Icelandic family sagas, and the thirteenth-century saga of contemporary events, Sturlunga saga. The ordering of the entries is based on the chronological sequence of the recounted events, irrespective of saga dating.

    With the exception of the thirteenth-century ‘Kerling í Tungu,’ the skáldkonur (women poets) of this section date from the ‘Viking Age,’ the early days of Iceland’s settlement. Three are Norwegians and the rest Icelanders. All nine of these poets use the traditional and complex dróttkvætt (court meter) form (see Introduction), with the possible exception...

  7. II. Quasi-Historical People and Poetry
    (pp. 23-38)

    This second section contains material generically similar to that in the first section, largely culled from the more or less realistic narratives of the Icelandic family sagas. The following fragments, however, are less likely than those in Section I to be what they claim to be. Textual anachronisms, or tell-tale elements in the poems’ prose environments, make it less likely that these compositions can be attributed to historically attestable persons. The poems appear roughly in order of historical likelihood (most likely first).

    Ostensibly early eleventh century, Iceland

    Eyrbyggja saga is known for its numerous hauntings, of which the bull Glæsir...

  8. III. Visionary Women: Women’s Dream-Verse
    (pp. 39-48)

    This section contains poetry heard by women in dreams, and later repeated to listeners as the dream is retold. Like Guðrún P. Helgadóttir,¹ I have chosen to count these stanzas as the compositions of the dreamers.

    Although there are scattered examples of dream-poetry and portents throughout the family sagas and kings’ sagas, it is in Sturlunga saga, the thirteenth-century contemporary chronicle of Icelandic civil war and the last days of the Icelandic republic, that this narrative trope really comes into its own. All of the entries in the following section are from Sturlunga saga. In the visionary dreams of Sturlunga...

  9. IV. Legendary Heroines
    (pp. 49-70)

    The three speaking poets in the following section come from the paradoxical world of the legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur) – written down relatively late (typically in the thirteenth or fourteenth century) in terms of saga-writing, but assembled from very early narrative material, going back to the time of the early tribal migrations in northern Europe (ca. 350–600). Historical events, locations and persons from the Migration Age appear in the fornaldarsögur in altered but recognizable form, with little importance given to historical chronology, just as they do in analogous narratives from other northern European literatures – e.g., Beowulf, although Beowulf is five or...

  10. V. Magic-Workers, Prophetesses, and Alien Maidens
    (pp. 71-100)

    What many of the legendary skalds in this diverse section have in common with the equally loquacious (but more inhuman¹) trollwomen in Section VI is that their primary purpose in a given narrative is to serve as a speaking foil or a bearer of news to a male listener. The attitude of these legendary women skalds toward the said legendary heroes varies widely, from mild and flirtatious to pugnacious and hostile.

    Some of the skalds in this section are valkyries or air-riding spirits, and some are giant-maidens, and thus only marginally human; these tend also to be foresighted prophetesses. Others...

  11. VI. Trollwomen
    (pp. 101-114)

    The trollwomen who haunt a certain subtype of the fornaldarsögur (legendary sagas) are almost always hostile towards the human men they encounter, usually in remote places far away from human settlements. There are often ownership disputes over fishing-grounds, boats and fishermen’s huts. Verbal violence, often in verse, usually escalates into physical violence. Since trolls are often said to live in the north and to have alien facial features, clothing, and manners, it is no great leap to conclude that many troll-encounter stories have had their roots in real-world meetings and misunderstandings between Norse-speakers and Sámi-speakers.

    Of course there are exceptions...

  12. Old Norse Literature Time Line
    (pp. 115-116)
  13. Glossary of Personal Names
    (pp. 117-128)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 129-134)
  15. Index of Names
    (pp. 135-145)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 146-147)