Þjazi helps understanding who Hræsvelgr is

 

(A general presentation of Haustlöng is found HERE )

 

 

Terry Gunnell (according to an article he translated) presented a conference entitled: “Hræsvelgr, the Wind-Giant, Reinterpreted.” In this conference, he does reinterpret the name Hræsvelgr named: “corpse swallower” by the past experts, according to “hræ (corpse, carrion) and svelgr (swallower). He points out that Old Norse word hræ has another principal meaning, that of ‘shipwreck’ that was hitherto neglected. Moreover, Old Norse svelgr has also a metaphorical meaning of ‘swallower’ but its proper meaning is that of ‘sea swirl, maelstrom, water stream’. He argues that the meanings ‘shipwreck’ and ‘sea swirl’ better fit the information brought to Hræsvelgr’s persona by Eddic texts than ‘corpse swallower’.

Note in passing: [This last interpretation gave birth to a legend that assumes that giants eat corpses, which is not confirmed at all by the mythological sources and it does not even deserve a discussion: this is pure commentators’ fabrication.]

 

Gunnell’s argumentation is a somewhat too long to be reported in detail, but it is very well built and completely convincing. A fact is, however, that Gunnell, if he well exhausted all the sources relating to Hræsvelgr, neglected a capital source relative to the giants in general, the one of the kenningar used by Þjóðólfr úr Hvíni (~ 855-930) to qualify Þjazi, Íðunn’s kidnapper, in his Haustlöng poem. I do not claim at all that Þjazi and Hræsvelgr are two names of the same ‘individual’. Both nevertheless hold the role of an extremely powerful giant and it would be amazing that kenningar not directly related to the removal of Íðunn in Haustlöng were somewhat common to all the most significant giants. We will now see that indeed three of the kenningar qualifying Þjazi can be applied to Hræsvelgr.

 

Most obvious of these kenningar is in stanza 4 of the poem where a complicated Þjazi kenning contains the expression vin-grögnir to point at Þjazi. This expression is not directly translatable, but all the translators read vind-rögnir ( = wind-divinity) which is indeed very close to the original version. Besides, Vafþrúðnismál stanza 27 explicitly described Hræsvelgr as being the one whose wings create the wind which blows over humankind. This creates an indisputable relationship between Hræsvelgr and Þjazi (however with the necessary interpretation vin-grögnir).

 

Gunnell holds that Hræsvelgr is who carries away shipwrecks but it could just as easily be that he carries corpses, if we come back to the traditional meaning he rejected. In this case, the stanza 3 kenning, describing Þjazi with the word val-kastar becomes highly significant. Indeed, the word valr does not mean anything else than ‘killed one’, as opposed to hræ. The word kast indicates a casting, a meeting, a wrapping. The word val-kastar thus indicates people who took the form of, who met, who were wrapped inside a killed person. They are human corpses and not shipwrecks. The whole kenning reads margspakr már báru val-kastar (very wise seagull of corpse-shaped ones inside a wave) It does point at a lofty being (a gull) (wisely!) moving a wave made of a crowd of corpses. The word hræ having the two simultaneous meanings of corpse and shipwreck, it appears wiser to me to preserve both meanings and to agglomerate the meaning chosen by Gunnell with the one I have just proposed.

 

Lastly, stanza 11 contains a complex kenning, a part of which describes Þiazi as being hrun-sæva hræva. Word hræva is the plural genitive of hræ , a word we presently all know. Word sæva is a slightly irregular singular genitive of sær (sea) and hrun-sæva literally means: sea-collapse, that is a beachcomber. Þiazi is thus described here as a ‘beachcomber of corpses (and shipwrecks)’, which still brings it closer to Hræsvelgr.

 

Haustlöng contains many other kenningar that have nothing to do with Hræsvelgr but it is obvious that the two characters share the function of leading large amount of corpses (and/or shipwrecks) till ‘the end of the sea’, whatever it might be. Because of one of the meanings of svelgr (maelstrom) Gunnell supposes that Hræsvelgr sinks these shipwrecks. Yet another  possible meaning of svelgr is the one of a ‘sea stream’ so that stanza 11 kenning, while speaking of a beachcomber, can perfectly describe the action of carrying along the corpses-shipwrecks in order to throw them on a beach or against rocks as beachcombers usually do.

 

In conclusion, it appears logical to me to use descriptions and kenningar common to Hræsvelgr and Þiazi for better understanding the mythological role of the ‘important’ giants who play a role similar to the one of Greek Charon. Charon’s boat, in Scandinavian mythology changes to the power of the strong swells and provides a less confined and less anthropomorphic image of the realm of death than the Greek vision. A Greek influence that some will not fail to evoke appears to me too reducing to seriously hold.

 

 

Reference:   “A part of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources” (2007), p 13-34, publishes a conference on Hræsvelgr given by Terry Gunnell. It seems to be an English translation of an article published in 1990 (undoubtedly due to another author and undoubtedly in Icelandic). No other controllable detail is provided by Gunnell.