Poetry: Words of the Gods

Words have power. This seems to be a universal truth that transcends culture and time. George the Poet said in his podcast that “nothing is ever said without reason, even if it’s a lie”. Words are important and they convey meaning, not just meaning intended. This is particularly evident in what we know of the various Germanic, Teutonic, and Nordic cultures. In his account of the Volga Vikings Ahmad ibn Fahlan reported being asked to show a warrior chieftain that he could draw sounds and speak them back again. The act was witnessed with a great and almost fearful reverence as if the Iranians literacy was akin to the highest magic. 

The earliest representations we have of Wotan, the chief of Germanic Gods, in other places and times known as Odin, associated with poetry. It is difficult determine how this connection began.  Our two best sources are Tacitus and Snorri Sturluson. Tacitus who very briefly mentioned the father of the Gods. However, in true Roman fashion he pulled a lot of comparative detail across from Jupiter, so it proves challenging to tell what is true observation and what is abject xenophobia. Over a millennium later, Snorri Sturluson codified the Eddas, providing the most complete written accounts of Nordic mythology. It is important to stress that both men were writing with very specific agendas. Tacitus was trying to restore the glory of Rome, to achieve this he wrote to degrade the non-Roman “Barbarians”. Snorri was a politician with varied and complex agendas, including a failed attempt to unify Iceland and Norway, both of which had been heavily Christianised for over a century. He seems to have largely selected traditions and tales that furthered this agenda without pissing off the Church.

Some texts do survive prior to Snorri Sturluson’s Skáldskaparmál however this is the first narrative we have linking Odin and Poetry. There are some depictions from Germanic tribes pre-dating the Roman conquest of Europe that show Wotan as the God of Skalds, the storytellers and history keepers of a tribe. Modern analysis indicates that it is unlikely the Skald was a specific and exclusive role; more it is likely it was an additional role delegated to a member of the chieftains warband.

We know these tribes practiced oral tradition more than written both due to Tacitus account and the fact, so little remains. It is however possible that written accounts were kept on highly perishable (organic) materials that simply didn’t survive. Though this is unlikely. This would place a huge amount of power and responsibility in the hands of the Skald who held the entire history and belief structure of the people in their heads. We believe that there was a very specific legal system in early Germanic cultures, it’s possible the precedent that determined this legal code was also held in the head of the Skald.

We should remember as well that these people lived in a world where the Gods were tangible and real and walked amongst them. They were watching you, and judging your actions, interacting with the physical world in a way that is difficult to comprehend with a modern mindset. There is no physical barrier between our world and the world of the Gods. You don’t have to die to pass from our world to theirs.

Dr Simon Nygaard has written an article (which I will reference below) in which he describes the importance of Poetry in Norse culture from a spiritual and moral perspective. He made reference to the helmet found at Sutton Hoo, which reminded me of an excellent talk given by the curator of the Sutton Hoo exhibit at the British Museum. She noted that the structure of the helmet would cause resonance in the voice of the wearer, giving their speech an almost otherworldly quality. Gold leaf was set behind one of the jewels representing eyes in the helmet which would have caused it to pick up the firelight and shine. If this helmet was worn by a Skald it would have appeared as if Odin himself was sat by the fire, his deep voice retelling one of the great sagas. It’s believed the helmet belonged to a great king, we know it wasn’t intended or used for battle, the shape and materials didn’t lend themselves to combat and there is no damage consistent with battle. It’s reasonable to believe the intention of the helmet was presentation. Who’s to say this wasn’t the Skalds helmet, passed down through any number of tribal storytellers. Alternatively, who’s the say the king himself couldn’t be a Skald.

Sat in a smoke-filled hall, the cold night air currents through the heat of the fire. The Skald, sat by the fire, starts speaking. The rhyme and meter feel more like a chant. The crowded hall falls silent and men and women come to sit around the hooded man, with his entranced gaze fixed on the fire, chanting with a contrast of sibilant and plosive sounds. Those watching can feel movement from an invisible force, the Gods have entered the hall.           

Rhyme and Meter of course appear in almost all world oral traditions from the epic works attributed to Homer, to the border ballads of Northern England. They allow long and complex stories to be committed to memory however they may also add to the ritualistic element of the retelling. Every few words or syllables being stressed or relaxed, like the tonal beating of a sami drum, reaching deep into each of the listeners and drawing out something ancient and primal to connect them all. This may be something incredibly personal or universal, very little fires my blood like the beating of a drum around an open fire.  

Terry Gunnell has referred to the study of oral traditions in this context as Performance Archaeology. He has received some criticism for this term as some have considered it dismissive of its full host of nuances. Dr Nygaard who appears to be in agreement with the majority of Gunnells conclusions however he seems to take exception to the word “performance”.  Dr Nygaard argues that to these people the retelling wasn’t a performance developed by an actor. The Skald is a ritual specialist who embodies the Gods he is speaking of, summoning them, and inviting them into his body to speak to the room.  Nygaard and several other scholars go out of their way to point out this isn’t a shamanistic practice. The Norse did engage in Shamanistic practices, usually associated with the ingestion of lots of psychotropics, however with the exception of alcohol there are generally no drugs here. The Skald is more of a spiritual technician than a priest or Volva.

If we travelled South, half a world away at the same time, there may have been tribes in Africa experiencing their Gods and spirits in the same way, around a fire, with a professional costumed story-keeper. What about to the west, over the vast Atlantic to the tribes of North America. And then west again to the seafarers of Polynesia. And west again to the early Steppe tribes of Russia and Siberia. A way of experiencing the Gods that connects all of these peoples who had never met.  

It is worth mentioning that you could end any sentence in this post with the caveat “we think”. Interpreting theological fundamentals from a culture that has been dead for hundreds of years requires more than a little supposition. A challenge that increases to the near impossible when you realise that all surviving written accounts were either composed by outsiders to Norse culture or written so long after the Christianisation of the Nordic world that its value is significantly diminished. Modern scholars do an amazing job with what they have but ultimately, we end up drawing a lot of rough conclusions from some very biased secondary sources.

The article to which I refer
Nygaard, S. (2019). Being Óðinn Bursson: The Creation of Social and Moral Obligation in Viking Age Warrior-Bands through the Ritualized, Oral Performance of Poetry—The Case of Grímnismál. In J. Morawiec, A. Jochymek, & G. Bartusik (Eds.), Social Norms in Medieval Scandinavia (pp. 51-74). Amsterdam University Press. doi:10.1017/9781641892414.005

Snorri Sturlusons Prose Edda
You can read this free from Project Gutenberg.

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