What do you think?
Rate this book
343 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1270
Middling wise every man should be:
beware of being too wise;
happiest in life most likely he
who knows not more than is needful.
You should be
only a little wise,
never too wise.
The happiest people
throughout their lives
are the moderately wise.
Don’t git too goddamned smart, now,
there’s a measure for ever’thing.
And don’t think it’s for nothing
that the stupid people
tend to be the happier ones, too.
The twenty-nine poems (and various prose pieces) [...] deal with a common stock of inherited stories that together speak of gods and heroes from an ancient era. They are projections back into the pagan past, yet evidently preserved over the years and in many manuscripts by the skill of Christian scribes long after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in 999–1000. Some of these pagan gods survive into English in the names of the days of the week (in so far as Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday can still be claimed to commemorate Týr the war-god, Odin the psychopomp and god of frenzy, Thor the thunder-god and Freyja the goddess of love and sex)...Well, Iceland was infiltrated by Christianity much earlier than that, and became “Christianised” by the eighth century, so I am unsure where those numbers are from. Further, I would like to introduce a fascinating little phenomenon known as interpretatio germanica (pace Rudolf Simek), the practice by the Germanic peoples of identifying Roman gods with the names of Germanic deities. This cultural appropriation went both ways, and in fact similar syncretistic phenomena sprung up in all eras and locations, but the relevant example took place in the first century CE, long before what is commonly identified as the Viking age.
In the mythological world of the Codex Regius, women are largely scheming and suspect, when they are not simply victims or the objects of unwanted sexual attention. Indeed, even giant-women can be threatened with giant lust, as Gerd is as the unwilling object of Frey’s passion in För Skírnis. In the course of threatening Gerd he condemns her to ergi (here translated as ‘cock-craving’), an insatiable yearning to be sexually penetrated that is beyond the pale. When used, as in För Skírnis 36, of a female, it connotes a wanton lasciviousness that is greatly frowned upon (see further headnote to Lokasenna). By contrast, the heroic poems of the Codex Regius quite regularly present the female perspective, and often with great sympathy and a deep acknowledgement of feminine authority; one can hardly argue that heroines such as Gudrún, Grímhild or Brynhild lack authority, even as they endure deep suffering. Such a contrast underlines a chief concern of the heroic poems of the Codex Regius: the tensions between the family ties of blood and marriage.I do not think the statement that “women are largely scheming and suspect” can be reasonably considered an objective scholarly observation. (Also, “giants” in Norse mythology are not necessarily “giant” in size; the term refers to a specific species and/or culture.) His translation of ergi is also highly questionable. The word referred to “lust, lewdness” or “wickedness,” and was derived from the adjective argr, (“unmanly, effeminate; cowardly”); i.e., argr (“effeminate”) + -i (“state of”). When Freyr condemns Gerðr he condemns her to the worst possible quality someone could embody: being a woman.
The twin fatal flaws of Norse pagan belief were that it was fragmented and that it had an uncertain future: such a disparate set of locally dissimilar and varied versions of what was never a unified creed, and such a combination of geographically distinct cults, none of which seems to have sought to proselytize or crave converts, was surely no match for the well-defined, written doctrine of muscular Christianity that perhaps inevitably replaced it. As a best hope, paganism is depicted as offering an ill-defined afterlife of feasting and fighting for the few, to be terminated in an apocalyptic battle at Ragnarök (‘The doom of the powers’), where many of the gods themselves will be slain; it will be left to others to see further ahead, and literally to pick up the playing-pieces again.Addressing these points in order, I’d first draw attention to the fact that the positioning of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology as “lesser” due to its non-Christian format is... well, rather problematic,² to say the least. While I personally fully subscribe to the idea that there never was a pre-Christian Norse pantheon per se, I’m not naïve enough to fall into the trap of claiming that certain mythologies were more “well-defined” than others, or “no match for” another mythology. Much in the same that claiming a certain language or culture is less-developed than another is, apart from being sociologically inaccurate, an open invitation to dangerous cultural supremacy, positioning the systematic erasure of native mythologies by a concentrated campaign to convert pagans to Christianity as “inevitable” is nothing short of wildly unprofessional. Furthermore, the interpretation of the Scandinavian afterlife myth (ON Valhǫll, “Valhalla” in this context) and apocalypse myth (ON Ragnarǫk, “Ragnarök”) as “ill-defined” is further evidence of a rather biased slant overall. Christianity also has an apocalypse myth, as do the majority of religions; so-called “muscular” Christianity also has an afterlife myth that is perhaps less than desirable (i.e., Hell); Orchard also fails to mention Helheim and Fólkvangr. The Norse myth of Ragnarök is functionally no different than the Christian myth of Noah and the Great Flood, complete with “literally [having] to pick up the playing-pieces again.” Nor are these elements unique to Norse and Christian mythologies: the flood myth dates back to the earliest examples of written literature in Sumer with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and similar flood myths appeared globally, such as the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. As surprising as it may seem, the concept of a devastating natural disaster caused by flooding was a very real and present danger throughout the majority of history. And FURTHERMORE, glossing “Ragnarök” as meaning “the doom of the powers” is a depressingly simplistic and inaccurate definition of the term. The etymology of ON ragnarǫk is regin (“gods”) + rǫk (“fate, destiny; course; judgement”), i.e., the fate of the gods; for example, from the Völuspá:
Fram sé ek lengra,The word regin, pluralia tantum, referred to the gods.
fjǫld kann ek segja
I have also taken various more-or-less arbitrary decisions with regard to the translation of more-or-less transparent names, acutely conscious of the fact that such random judgement-calls are often both unappealing and wide open to appeal. I have tried to mitigate this frankly indefensible position by making full use of an Index of Names that aims to be both comprehensive and comprehensible; I suspect that for many of the poems of the Codex Regius, collected, compiled and perhaps even composed by antiquarians, the confusing array of shared names of apparently different entities, of multiple names for the same individual and of seemingly transparent names that define specific attributes has contributed greatly to muddying the waters of understanding, and it seems only honest to reproduce, at least in part, that opacity here.Honestly, I don’t know why this was even included. Orchard plainly states that his “decisions with regard to the translation of ... names” were “more-or-less arbitrary,” describing them both as “random judgement-calls” and as a “frankly indefensible position” to hold. I don’t know why anyone would admit this. This is supposed to be a scholarly text, not a vanity project for one’s own amusement! Translating proper names is generally bad form in translation, doubly so if the meaning of the names in question is unknown or uncertain. What this “frankly indefensible position” means practically is that proper names such as Gullveig are, instead of being left as so, rendered as Orchard’s personal interpretation, such as “Gold-draught” for Gullveig, despite the fact that the etymology of the latter half of the name, -veig, remains unknown (the gull does indeed refer to gold). The suffix -veig, also found in various other personal names (Rannveig, Sölveig, Thórveig, etc.), could mean anything from “power, strength” (cf. Icelandic veigur) to “strong alcoholic drink” (cf. Icelandic veig), to “lady” to “bright” (cf. Heiðr, presumably the same figure) to “gold; gold thread.” (The name Heiðr is similarly turned into “Brightness.”) To put it simply: we don’t have any clue, and such foolhardy commitment to translating proper names is akin to referring to Malory’s King Bear-Man or Fleming’s Heel Bond.