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Lesson 4

Old North, Viking Age, Iceland and Icelandic literature

Old North split into separate dialects after the 9th c. in the famous Viking Age , when the Scandinavians started their raids because of the overpopulation of the fjord areas. The linguistic division into separate languages was due to the political division into Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
The earliest written records in Old Danish, Old Norwegian and Old Swedish date from the 13th c. In addition to the three languages on the mainland, the North Germanic subgroup includes two more languages: Icelandic and Faroese, whose origin goes back to the Viking Age.

In the Faroe Islands the West Norwegian dialects brought by the Scandinavians developed into separate language called Faroese, which nowadays is spoken by 30000 people.

Iceland was practically uninhabited at the time of the first settlements. (9th c.) Norwegian dialects grew into an independed language, Icelandic. As compared with other North Germanic languages Icelandic has retained a more archaic system, that is why the study of Old Icelandic literature takes a central place for philologists. Modern Icelandic is very much like Old Icelandic and Old North. At present it is spoken by 200000 people. Old Icelandic written records date from the 12th and 13th c., of which the most important are:

Younger Edda – a textbook for young poets written by Snorri Sturluson,

Elder Edda – a collection of heroic songs of the 12th c., and

Old Icelandic sagas – the retellings of Scandinavian history and folktales in narrative form.

Jafnan er hálfsögð saga, ef einn segir.
A tale is but half told, when only one person tells it.
(Grettis saga)

All Old Icelandic texts are written in the Icelandic alphabet which of course has its origins in the common Roman-type alphabet used throughout most of the western world, but the Futhark Runes have also had their considerable influence on its appearance. All those accents over the vowels and the "Þþ", the "Ðð" and the "Ææ" have a profound influence on how Icelandic text looks like. First text written in Old Icelandic date back to XII c. In XIIIc. Skaldic poetry – the collection of poems by the poets some of whom lived in IX c. was written down. These poems came down to us as quotations in the textbook of skaldic art called Younger Edda and composed by Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was a famous Icelandic scholar, poet and politician. The book has three parts. The first part gives the description of the mythological world. The second contains the commentary on the use of the poetic language and its devices.

One of the most representative devices is kenning

In the song in honour of konnung Harald kennings help to create a specific poetic code which is hard to decipher without the knowledge of the clues:

Hilmir reð a heiði
Hjaldrseiðs, þrimu, galdra
Oðr við æskimeiða
Ey vebrautar, heyja,
Aðr gnapsolar Gripnis
Gnystærandi færi
Rausnarsamr til rimmu
Riðviggs lagar skiðum.
Князь решил на пустоши
Битвы трески в сражение заклинания
Непримеримый к жаждущему древу
Всегда священного пути вступить;
До того как возвышающегося солнца Грипнира
Шума укрепитель повел
Великолепный в битву
Верхового жеребца моря лыжи
( line-to-line translation)

If we decipher all the kennings the meaning will be as following:
Конунг, всегда непримиримый к мужу (т.е. врагу), сражался на пустоши, до того как муж (т.е. он сам) повел, великолепный, корабли в бой.

Hjadrseiðs vebrautar galdra æskimeiðr – жаждущее древо заклинания священного пути трески битвы

Треска битвы+дорога+заклинание+жаждущее древо

Thus we have: Треска битвы>меч, дорога меча>щит, заклинание щита>битва, жаждущее древо битвы>муж

Gripnis riðsviggs gnapsolar gnystærandi – укрепитель шума возвышающегося солнца верхового жеребца Грипнира

Жеребец Грипнира+возвышаюшееся солнце+укрепитель шума

Which again stands for: верховой жеребец Грипнира>корабль, возвышающееся солнце корабля> щит, шум щита>битва, укрепитель битвы>муж.

Elder Edda called Poetic Edda is a collection of songs which root deep into oral folkloric past. These songs had been composed and recomposed many times before they were written down, that is why we can’t speak about the authorship of this or that particular song. All these songs are written in the meter called “fornyrðislag”( from ‘forn’-old, ‘orð’-word, ‘lag’-lay). The comparison of poetic texts written in different Germanic languages shows the similarity of poetic meters which proves that all Teutonic peoples followed common poetic tradition. That tradition going back into prehistoric times was past orally from one generation to another.

The Younger Edda (completed by Snorri Sturluson in 1223) is also known as the prose Edda or Snorri’s Edda. The first part is a survey of Norse mythology, taking the form of a dialogue between a Swedish king (Gylfi) and the gods (the three High Ones); mythological accounts are found elsewhere in the work, in Snorri’s discussion of poetic diction and figures of speech. Snorri’s work is a creative adaptation of the Elder Edda and other (mostly lost) sources. Whereas some of the stories of the gods in the Elder Edda were composed by pagan poets, Snorri’s work is a post-Christian retelling, of particular interest in revealing his attitude to the pagan past.

The comparison of poetic lines from the texts written in Runic, Old English, Old Germanic, and Old Icelandic languages shows the inner similarities of this tradition.

Ek HlewagastiR HoltijaR / horna tawido.(Gallehus Horn inscription. 375 A.D.) (more about the Horn)
Я, Хлевагаст, сын Хольта / сделал этот рог
Old English:
Scyldes eafera / Scadelandum in. (Beowulf 7c AD)
Слава Скильдова сына / в датской стране
Old German:
Helidos, ubar hringe, / do sie to dero hiltiu ritun.(Hildebrandeslied.13c AD)
Смелые, поверх кольчуги / стремясь в сечу броситься
Old Icelandic:
At skips borði / ok at skialdar rond (Edda.13c AD)
Клянись кораблем / и краем щита

In conclusion we can sum up the main features of the Old Germanic Poetry:
- Tonic (4 stresses)
- Alliterative (no rhyme, halflines)

Sources and links to the lesson

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