Edda. Myths from medieval Iceland / Sequentia
Heimir Pálsson. An Introduction to the Poetic Edda


The Settlement and Culture of Iceland

The early medieval manuscripts containing the Eddic poems recorded on this disc, were found in Iceland, an island first settled by people from Norway and the other Scandinavian countries during the years 870-930. The unique Icelandic settlement was part of a general movement that is best known for the Viking raids and the settlement of the Scandinavians in other parts of the world.

The establishment of the Icelandic parliament (the Alþingi) in 930 gave shape to the pagan society of Iceland in which most people bore allegiance to the old Scandinavian (or Germanic) gods. The most famous of these gods are Óðinn (often called Odin) and Frigg, Þórr (Thor) and Sif, Freyr (Frey) and Freyja. It is important, however, to understand that the pagan religion of the Scandinavians was not institutionalised; people were not duty-bound to have the same beliefs. This religion did not evolve in a centralised society, but in conditions that make it natural for us to expect wide variations in beliefs and religious practice between one area and another, if not between individual family "clans".

The Pagan Religion of the Scandinavians

Any understanding of the Eddic poems demands some knowledge of the Old Nordic religion. The belief in the Nordic Æsir and Vanir gods is commonly discussed as if there was some form of standardised state religion that was followed by all the Scandinavian countries during the time prior to the Conversion. As mentioned above, this was far from the case. The gods that were most respected in each area probably varied. In some places, the highest in rank were the fertility gods, Freyr and Freyja. There is some evidence to suggest that their main area of influence was in the eastern part of pagan Scandinavia, possibly mainly on the fertile plains of Sweden, like Uppland for example. In many other places, people clearly declared most loyalty to Þórr, the guardian of the land, who was continuously defending Cosmos, the dwelling place of human kind and the gods, against the chaotic powers of Jötunheimr. It is thought by most scholars that the prudent farmers of Norway in particular placed their trust in this thunder god. Others, however, were more attracted by the cunning, worldly appearance of Óðinn, the god of poetry who had control over magic and other forms of knowledge. It is naturally tempting to connect this belief with the Viking explorers and adventurers, and first and foremost with the poets.

The moral code of the pagan Scandinavians was not based on any demands or laws that had been set by the gods. On the contrary, the individual bore total responsibility for himself, and in the clan system, this responsibility extended to include closest relatives, and eventually went farther and farther. In this way, people gradually began to place certain controls on human behaviour and set rules that should be followed.

Religious Practice

It seems clear that special festivals were held in which the gods were praised or given some reminder of the needs of their charges, and that at these festivals they were offered sacrifices. Some of the texts of the Eddic poems appear to be well-suited for performance at religious ceremonies such as these under discussion here, where they might even have involved some complex staging. Recent research has given strong support to the idea that the dialogic poem Skírnismál (The Lay of Skírnir), for example, is actually a form of play that was designed for performance at a fertility or sun festival (probably close to the mid-winter sacrifice). As will be noted further below, it is easy to imagine conditions in which the other dialogic poems might have been performed at religious festivals.

A central part of religious practice seems to have been played by incantation and magic, but it must never be forgotten that at this time magic was used as much to aid people as it was employed for vengeful purposes. And magical incantations certainly appear to have been sung in a special way if we consider the Icelandic expression gala galdr ("to 'crow' magic"). There are very few descriptions of the commonly-referred-to magic ritual known as seiðr, and certainly none as striking as that given in Eríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eiríkr the Red) which tells of a woman called Þorbjörg who was known as lítilvölva (the Little Prophetess). This account is particularly detailed and surprisingly free of prejudice. It was recorded a long time after the Conversion of Iceland (the oldest manuscript of the saga is from the fourteenth century), but ideas were obviously still current about the special role of the so-called seiðkonur (prophetesses). It is clear that the act of seiðr was regarded as a religious rite in which people attempted to gain knowledge about the times to come. There is little question that the Eddic poem Vǫluspá should be viewed in the context of this rite.

The Prose Edda and the Eddic Poems

In the early thirteenth century, the Icelanders gained a new author and scholar among their ranks, a man who is still regarded as being one of the greatest Scandinavian writers. His name was Snorri Sturluson (1178/79—1241), and he was not only one of the most powerful leaders in his country, but also the cleverest of historians; a poet and a scholar of poetry, in addition to being an expert on Old Nordic mythology. His masterpieces in the field of history and mythology, known respectively as Heimskringla and Edda (generally referred to as The Prose Edda), are central works for anyone trying to understand medieval Scandinavia. The latter work, in particular, is a key to understanding the pagan beliefs of Scandinavia.

Snorri's Prose Edda is actually a kind of handbook designed to teach people about the poetic arts of Scandinavia, which, as was mentioned above, had very ancient roots. In order to understand this poetry, it was necessary to learn about the pagan beliefs. Snorri therefore relates a number of myths for his readers, almost all of which seem to be old. He also cites many ancient poems that have been passed down for generations in the oral tradition as evidence to support the things he is saying. Many centuries later, when people eventually discovered a near contemporary manuscript containing many of the poems Snorri quotes, they also named this manuscript Edda. That was a misunderstanding, but the name has stuck, and even today people refer to these Eddic poems as being a special type of ancient Scandinavian poetry.

At root, some of these poems are probably much older than the time of the settlement of Iceland, and it is logical to assume that the settlers must therefore have brought them to Iceland from Norway or some other area populated by Scandinavians. As will be stressed further below, it is pointless trying to make a guess about the moment at which some poet decided to make the "first draft" of this or that poem. We have to be satisfied with a different approach. Nonetheless, these poems were clearly so unique in their subject matter and form that people found reason to preserve them, and chant them for the coming generations in order to give some idea of how people used to think and speak, of how their ancestors understood the world.

The Eddic poems, though, often give very little detail about events of great consequence, and often help is needed to fill in the gaps. The information provided by Snorri is often our only key to understanding the wording of these poems and those myths that they only briefly touch on. Even though it is difficult to be certain that Snorri is always telling the complete truth, we would be in a far worse position if his work did not exist. This applies not only to The Prose Edda, but also to Ynglinga saga, which forms the first part of Snorri's work about the Norwegian kings, Heimskringla. Ynglinga saga tells of the earliest kings of Sweden in prehistoric times, linking them euhemeristically with the gods, and especially with Óðinn's who thus becomes the forefather of all the Scandinavian kings.

The Subject Matter and Classification of the Eddie Poems

In terms of subject matter, the Eddic poems can be divided into two groups: on one hand, heroic poems, and on the other, mythological poems about the gods. The former group is a collection of relatively short historical works dealing with people who are, to some extent, recognisable from other early Germanic sources. Sigurðr, killer of the serpent Fáfnir, for example, is really the same figure as the Siegfried who appears in the Nibelungenlied. Other recognisable figures from the same geographical area are Guðrun (Kudrun) and Brynhildr (Brynilde). From elsewhere we recognise Atli the King of the Huns (Attila), and Jǫrmunrekr, the King of the East-Goths (Ermanaric). Even though these earthly heroes are all tragic, emotive figures, they are characterised by a realism that has few contemporary parallels.

The gods of the poems, on the other hand, are in many ways more ordinary individuals, and in fact, much more down to earth. The main figures in this regard are Óðinn and Þórr, although many other gods make appearances here and there.

The mythological poems can also be divided into two general groups. First of all, there are the poems of wisdom, which are gnomic, didactic, even mnemonic pieces. Then there are the narrative works, which are short accounts dealing with the adventures of the gods. However, cutting straight across this broad subject classification we find yet another more stylistic division in which some poems take the form of pure dialogues, while others have a single speaker.

To some extent this stylistic classification is reminiscent of that defining the difference between plays and novels. The dialogic works, like Skírnismál (The Lay of Skírnir), Lokasenna (The Flyting of Loki), Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbardr) and Baldrs draumar (Baldr's Dreams) all involve more than one speaker. People address each other, the speaker divisions are clear, and we even find the speakers displaying individual characteristics. The staging of these dialogues could have been both simple and powerful, as the recent dramatic performances of Skírnismál and Lokasenna in Iceland and elsewhere have shown. These works contain dramatic tension and little imagination is required to see some connection with holy rituals or sacrifical ceremonies.

The poems involving a single speaker are somewhat different. Depending on the circumstances, the speaker recounts events or gives shocking news to his/her listeners. Once again, as mentioned above, it is possible to imagine a religious context for the performance of these poems. This seems particularly obvious in the case of Voluspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress), for example. The speaker of the monologue in this case is a woman. She is apparently addressing Óðinn and her audience in general, the "greater and lesser descendants of the god Heimdallr", an expression believed by scholars to refer to all humankind. The woman tells her listeners a story to which she adds conviction because she is wiser than others, and has knowledge that is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. In dim light and flickering shadows (like that which would have existed in any ancient Icelandic farmhouse in wintertime) the performance of the poem would have been transformed into a kind of mysterious religious ritual in which the listeners would have found themselves faced with insight into ancient and holy mysteries. It can be no coincidence that the poem should issue from the lips of a woman, the völva (seeress) herself, who has access to all secret knowledge, has come to visit, and even has the power to threaten Óðinn by revealing the most sacred mysteries known to him.

The Preservation of the Eddic Poems

Most of the Eddic poems have been preserved in the early thirteenth-century manuscript mentioned earlier, which is called the Codex Regius (The King's Book: Gl. kgl. sml. 2365 4to) now in the care of the Arnamagnean Institute in Reykjavík. This is the text that Sequentia has used for the performances of Vǫluspá, Hávamál and Þrymskviða. Grottasǫngr (The Song of Grotti), is found only in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda; and Baldrs draumar is found along with several other Eddic poems in the AM 748 I, 4to manuscript which is slightly more recent than the Codex Regius.

The Performance of the Eddic Poems

We know relatively little about how the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda were performed during the Middle Ages. The account from Eiríks saga rauda about Þorbjörg the Little Prophetess, noted earlier, gives a highly tempting picture, but we can never be totally certain about whether it is wholly trustworthy. It is natural to conclude that this might have been one form of performance.

Nonetheless, it seems certain that the text of these poems in performance was far from fixed. Concerning the text, it is naturally pointless trying to guess the actual degree of freedom that the original performers would have allowed themselves. It is clear, however, that once the poems were written down, they probably gradually gained a kind of stability, a clear shape, meaning that the usual freedom, originally granted by the oral tradition, was no longer valid. Nonetheless, we are lucky enough to be able to attain some insight into the methods employed by the oral performer, partly because of the three differing versions of Vǫluspá that came to be recorded on parchment. Each of these versions of the poem must at some time have been recorded on the basis of an oral performance. Partly for this reason, there is little point in attempting to use the usual literary comparative methods in order to try and establish an "original" text for the poem. Each editor has to choose the version that he/she thinks best, and most agree that the version contained in the Codex Regius is more poetic, and to some extent older than that found in Hauksbók. That is the reason why Sequentia chose to use the  version of Vǫluspá for this disc.

Scattered examples telling of the recital of poems give a clear indication that the performance of the poetry was different from that of prose. The poems might not have been "sung" literally, but people certainly regarded poetry as being a holier form of language than prose, and felt that the performance should be appropriate for both the form and its contents.

The language in which the poems have been preserved is Icelandic. Since Icelandic was originally a western Norwegian dialect, this alone tells us little about the origin of the poems. However, the conditions in Iceland are so unusual that changes in the language and thereby also the declension system between the Middle Ages and our own time have been relatively limited both as regards prose and poetry. In other words what was recorded in the Middle Ages might be regarded as being comparatively easy to read for any relatively literate, intelligent Icelander in our own time. The actual pronunciation of Icelandic, on the other hand, has changed greatly since the thirteenth century, not only with regard to the vowel and consonant systems, but also the rules governing lengths of vowels which have altered radically. Even though our source material on these changes is comparatively extensive, a great deal still remains uncertain. No one alive today could recreate with any certainty the pronunciation or the poetic rhythm that was used for the Eddic poems during the first centuries of the Icelandic settlement.

When considering the performance of the Eddic poems, as Sequentia have done for this disk, many things need to be borne in mind. The recreation of probable medieval music and song is one aspect of this and naturally demands some form of recreated pronunciation. Even though Icelanders in our own time are used to reading the poems with a modern Icelandic pronunciation, it would be ridiculous to use a modern pronunciation for an attempted recreation of the original sound of poetry. The route chosen was of course just one of many. An attempt was made to avoid all linguistic changes that are known to have taken place since the thirteenth century, but for logical reasons, no attempt was made to guess at the pronunciation and rhythm of the ninth or tenth century. The basis for the performance is the recorded manuscript-text, and that is no earlier than from the thirteenth century. It is therefore totally pointless to try and take the pronunciation of these poems back beyond that point.

Heimir Pálsson, Iceland, 1998; English translation by Terry Gunnell

Edda. Myths from medieval Iceland / Sequentia
Benjamin Bagby. The Reconstruction of Eddic Performance


The Reconstruction of Eddic Performance

Although we know that medieval epic poetry was the domain of bards and singers, no written musical sources of the Eddic poems dating from the Middle Ages are known to exist; indeed, we would have no reason to expect such sources to have been written at all. The milieu in which these poems were originally transmitted, sung, and acted out was that of a uniquely oral culture, and professional minstrels (leikari) passed on repertoires and techniques from generation to generation without the hindrance and expense of writing. As is almost always the case with medieval song, the use of musical notation is linked to the world of the scriptorium and the noble or ecclesiastical collector, not to the world of the practicing musician.

We can assume that the performing traditions of the Edda were probably already in decline by the time the main text manuscript, Codex Regius, was copied in the late thirteenth century. Given this situation, how can we possibly reconstruct sung performances of Eddic poems as they would have been known before the time of Snorri Sturluson in twelfth-century Iceland?

The earliest witness which we possess to musical settings of poems from the Edda is an account found in Benjamin de la Bordes Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne, published in 1780. Among other examples (collected by a musician at the Danish Royal Court, Johann Ernst Hartmann), we find a strophe from the Vǫluspá set to a simple melody. Unfortunately, we will never know if this melody represents part of an unrelated Icelandic folk tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries, or if it indeed survived in this form from its origins as an oral formula for the vocalization of Eddic poetry.

In searching for paths to the vocalization of these texts, it was obvious to me that more musical information would be needed than this scrap of melodic material from the late 18th century, and I decided to make use of the techniques of "modal language" which Sequentia has developed over the years in work with medieval song. Briefly, we identify a mode not as a musical scale, but rather as a collection of gestures and signs which can be interiorized, varied, combined and used as a font to create musical "texts" which can be completely new while possessing the authentic integrity of the original material. But like the magic mead which gives Óðinn the gift of poetry, this "modal mead" is a concoction which is both inspiring and dangerous. We need a strong knowledge of the practice of singing epic poetry as it still exists in various world cultures to show us how such performances must be given a form and a soul, to temper the limitless freedom of modal intoxication.

Having temporarily put aside Monsieur de la Borde, where did I turn first for the basic ingredients of this modal brew? Iceland, of course. To give one example: in the sung oral poetry known as rímur—which in itself is a tradition dating from the late middle ages, but whose roots may touch much earlier skaldic poetry—I found a vast repertoire of modal material, which clearly could be grouped into several types. During our research residency in Reykjavik in May, 1995, I was graciously permitted to work in the tape archives of the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, where I listened to hundreds of recorded performances of rímur and related song-types, making notes and analyses of the types and uses of modal materials. The result of this process of digestion (which included a weeding-out of obviously later melodic types) was a series of modal vocabularies grouped by structural "signals", which could then be taught to the other singers and applied to the metrics of the Eddic texts as taught to us by the philologist Heimir Pálsson. Everything was learned in a process very much resembling oral tradition: we have only worked with our Edda texts and our memories; there were never any musical scores. And in light of this knowledge, even the melody found in de la Borde began to make sense. However one chooses to see its transmission, the fact is that this melody demonstrates characteristics which point to the use of a specific modal vocabulary consisting of a few limited elements which are repeated and varied. And so, the attentive listener might hear its "genetic code" echoed in these performances, just as an experienced Icelandic rímur-singer hearing these poems might find at times that some undefinable element makes him feel he knows the unknown piece being sung.

In cases where two or three singers declaim the same text, different versions of the modal gestures may sometimes be heard simultaneously, resulting in a kind of heterophonic texture (verging on improvised polyphony) typical of traditional musical cultures. We still hear a vestige of such ancient practices in the traditional two-voiced tvisöngur sung in Iceland today.

Other aspects of the reconstructive work include a study of Icelandic sources besides rímur, as well as a study of the ancient dance-song melodies of the Faroe Islands. As the Edda project continues in years to come, the research will certainly expand to include sources from the entire Viking world, with particular emphasis on Finland and other Baltic countries, as well as Saami lands. Equally important in these musical reconstructions are the instruments which play independant pieces and sometimes accompany the vocalists. In the twelfth century, the two most important European instruments for courtly entertainment were certainly the fiddle and the harp, although other types of instruments (for instance, wind and percussion) were certainly known in popular culture. Elizabeth Gaver explains in a separate essay about her reconstructions of fiddle music. The harps which I use in this production are copies from remains of instruments found in seventh-century germanic burial sites, researched and reconstructed by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, Germany).

This type of "lyre" would have been known throughout the northern world, together with the related triangular cithara which we recognize as the most common harp form. These instruments have very few strings (the lyre, for instance, has six gut strings), and the tuning systems, based on medieval theories of consonance, yield a series of basic intervals which in turn can inform the text being accompanied. The tuning system of the instrument is closely related to the mode which the singer has chosen, so that the instrument must be re-tuned to accompany in a new mode. Regarding playing technique, it hardly needs stating that an instrument of six strings is not suited to playing chords and elaborate melodies. Instead, we have here a harp type (such as is still known in several non-European musical cultures) which has as its means of expression the use of pattern and variation, and on the "playing out" of modal vocabularies. Just as the singers rely on a small repertoire of potent modal gestures for the vocalization of their texts, the harp makes a virtue of its seeming limitations and, like an interlaced Viking design, brings a richness of articulation to the expression of the mode.

Imagining the context of performance

Although it is certain that in ancient oral traditions such as the Edda represents, pieces were always "vocalized" and even acted out before gatherings of knowledgable listeners, we are obliged to imagine performance contexts which were never specifically described by contemporaries. In our performances, we represent a performing tradition as it might have existed in both Iceland and Norway (and perhaps as far afield as the Continent) during the time of Snorri Sturluson (ca. 1200). The performers themselves are not local farmers, but rather professional minstrels (Icelandic: leikari), possibly joined by other Nordic, Celtic or Saxon minstrels who travel widely in northern lands (which would also account for the use of the fiddle); and the performance itself could be taking place either in the dwelling of a powerful Icelandic chieftain or the hall of a Norwegian lord.

The music and texts they sing represent last vestiges of the ancient oral traditions of the pre-Christian north, now performed by specialists in a nominally Christian society which still has strong links to the archaic world of the myths and the worship of the old gods.

And so, in this recording, the voices can be heard alone, as in parts of the long visionary tale of the Völva; or the fiddle, playing solo, can conjure up a world of mythological beings; or the fiddle accompanies the singers who re-enact the story of Óðinn's ride into the realm of the dead to question the seeress about Baldur's death. There are ritualistic moments of mystery: the singer with his lyre speaking in the voice of Óðinn, retelling the myth of the runes; or hilarious storytelling, as in the famous tale—half-spoken and half-sung to lyre accompaniment—of Thor's vengeful transvestite voyage to the realm of his enemies, the giants, to recover his stolen hammer. In the story of Grotti's mill and the two giant slave-girls, the fiddle provides both the modal fundament as well as the relentless turning of the millstone; and in the final description of the end of the gods, Ragnarǫk, all three voices join with the fiddle in a homophonic texture of visionary terror.

Edda. Myths from medieval Iceland / Sequentia
Elizabeth Gaver. The Reconstruction of Instrumental Music for the Edda


As there are no extant medieval manuscripts containing Nordic instrumental music, in order to create the fiddle music for this Edda production I turned to the flourishing folk music tradition in Norway, both for information and inspiration. It has been my aim to find the particular aspects in the current folk violin tradition that are idiomatic to the medieval fiddle as well.

During two research trips to Norway, I was able to explore the hardingfele tradition, by listening to countless hours of field recordings in the Norsk Folkemusikk-samling of the University of Oslo, and by meeting with several well-known performers and teachers, in Oslo, Valdres, and the Ole Bull Akademie in Voss.

The hardingfele is essentially a violin with the addition of four or five resonance strings running under the fingerboard. The body of the hardingfele is highly arched, and the bridge is nearly flat, allowing the player to easily bow two or even three strings at once. The characteristic sound of the instrument depends on its resonance, which is enhanced by the use of open tunings similar to those used on medieval fiddles. Although the hardingfele originates in the seventeenth century, there are aspects of the music itself that could be part of a much older tradition. Many dance tunes, or slatter, are clearly Baroque in nature, with triadic melodies and regular phrase structures. Other slatter, however, have characteristics in common with much earlier musical forms. They are constructed from short melodic motives that are varied and repeated during the tune, often resulting in uneven phrase lengths and a certain ambiguity in the beginnings and endings of phrases. Although these tunes are passed from teacher to student through generations, remaining unchanged in essence, there is also room for improvisation according to the style of each player. There is often an interaction between the player and dancers, and the dance gains in intensity and excitement as phrases spin out endlessly, strong bow articulations are used, and upper and lower bourdons are added.

The hardingfele is also used occasionally to accompany songs, or to play an ornamented version of a song alone. It is in this repertoire that one hears quite clearly the use of unfamiliar scales with various neutral tones. Most commonly, the placement of the third and seventh tones of the scale results in intervals that are between major and minor, giving a very particular coloration to the melody.

The three medieval fiddles used in this production are typical instruments of twelfth-and thirteenth-century Europe. Unlike instruments of the modern violin family, the bodies and necks of these fiddles are carved from single blocks of wood. This simple construction, often with no additional soundpost, results in a clear, highly resonant tone quality. The tunings of the gut strings used here are characteristic of the medieval period with open intervals of fourths and fifths resulting in a resonant tone quality enhanced by the frequent use of bourdon strings.

The fiddle pieces created for this production incorporate many aspects of hardingfele repertoire and playing style. Some are rhythmic and dance-like in character, while others are meditative and lyrical. The melodic motives are derived from the Icelandic rímur tradition, from the ballad tradition of the Faroe Islands, or are simply idiomatic to the instruments themselves.