ÞÓRSDRÁPA

"In praise to Thor"

 

This poem, from the Edda, is well-known for being particularly obscure. Written by the poet Eilífr Goðrúnarson, it is supposed to have been written approximately in the year 1000. It contains many kennings that are complex images, difficult to interpret.
The poem Thorsdrapa is well known for being full of almost non-understandable kennings that have been an endless cause of dispute among scholars. Recently, a very deep attempt has been made at collecting existing interpretations, and proposing new ones in view of all the gathered knowledge. It is due to Eysteinn Björnsson (?& Hrafn Óttarsson?), here abbrevaited by EyBj, and available (with no authoship included) at

http://www.hi.is/~eybjorn/ugm/thorsd00.html

My aim in the following is to show that Eysteinn Björnsson's interpretations not only unravel the meaning of the poem, but it sheds also light on the poetry embedded in the text. Each kenning can be replaced by its final meaning, but the poet (I mean, the good poet) obviously does not choose his kennings only on reasons of rhythm, but also because they evoke a myth which is relevant to the meaning of the poem. Building on Eysteinn's learned work, I would like to propose a discussed interpretation that shows the myths called by the poet in each kenning, that explains why the kenning is interesting, and hopefully shows the beauty of the poem to a person who does not know very well the Nordic myths. All the images contained in the kennings depthen the story told by the poem, and they provide a second reading to it, a reading that is calling to the mythical knowledge of the listener, stirring unconscious memories of the time when granny was telling all these tales about the Gods and the heroes.

Each kenning can be replaced by its meaning, but a good poet doesn't choose his kennings for superficial reasons, but because they evoke a myth that is required for understanding the poem. All pictures contained in kennings provide a reading that leans on the unconscious memories of the Nordic man of the year one thousand, a time where grandma still told all these tales speaking of the Gods and heroes. I attempt, although it's impossible in principle, to provide a version that shows the beauty of the poem to someone who knows little about the Nordic myths, but who, at least, is also interested in them.

References and links

By clicking on the name of each stanza, such as Stanza 1, or Stanza 2, etc., you will go to the texts, explanations, and discussions associated to this stanza.

The discussions are better understood by remembering that the poem, cited in full in the Skaldskaparmal, is presented there with some explanations first, in the so-called prose version.

Here are some discussions you might like to have a look at directly, they bring what I believe to be new information.

An explanation of the name of the rune Thorn of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc
An explanation of the mysterious name: "elk-sedge" given to the Gyfu rune by the Anglo-Saxon runic poem.
How Thor got his magic hammer (Thorsdrapawise)
Shamanism in Thor-Geirrod's interaction
Sexuality (lack of) in Thor-Geirrod's interaction
Sexuality (probable presence of) in Thor-Giantesses interaction
A synthesis between the prose version and the poem
A discussion of the genocide of the giants' race
The question of Thor having nearly been drowned in the giantess's piss
You might want some explanations of what galdr is, since in the poem Loki is called: "arm-load of the galdr howling Goddess."

A personal version of Thórsdrápa

In praise to Thor

Here is the wonderful story telling how Thor earned his magical hammer, and how the Giants' destiny canvas was torn off.

As is often the case, Loki's deceit began it all. He succeeded in convincing Thor to face Geirrod, the giant of the seas beyond.

On his way, Thor slept at the home of a giantess, Grid, who gave him a girdle of might, iron gloves, and a magical pole, Grid's pole. Thor, joined by Thialfi, crossed the ocean, and reached the cliffs hanging over a fjord. Geirrod lives in caves dug in these cliffs. One of Geirrod's daughters caused the rise of the fjord waters - many say that she did so by a powerful jet of her urine - and nearly succeeded in drowning Thor. He barely managed to get out of it thanks to Grid's pole. I believe that this magic wand was made of rowan wood, and that is why one says that the rowan is Thor's salvation.

Then, while Thor was quietly sitting, Geirrod's two daughters crouched under his seat and pushed Thor upwards, in an attempt to crush his head on the ceiling. This is why the poem says that Thor sat on the grim hat of the giantess. The poem says also how Thor got out of it.

Geirrod and Thor finally face each other. Geirrod, as would a shaman blacksmith, tries to make a disciple out of Thor, by the classical shamanic ceremony of dismemberment. He launches a red-hot iron lump at him. If the initiation were to have followed its normal course, Geirrod would have rebuilt Thor's body after this shredding, and Thor would become Geirrod's disciple. But Thor is no one's disciple, using the iron gloves - twice saved by Grid's gifts - he catches the missile sent by Geirrod and he throws it back at Geirrod. The piece of iron is dipped in Geirrod's guts, and it becomes the head of Thor's hammer.

With his hammer, Thor, helped by Thialfi, slaughters all the remaining giants, Geirrod's mates. Hence, the canvas of the Giants' destiny is reaped off, and their race disappears.

 

Stanza 1 [remember: clicking here sends you to the texts, explanations, and discussions]

Loki, father of the belt of the world,
Buried under the ocean's depth,
Shook his hands in hot air,
Such a powerful liar he is,
And said to Thor: "You feller of the canvas of
The cliff gods' destiny, you Thor!
Follow the green paths leading
To Geirrod's home, dug in the wall
That raises above the sea."
Such were the lies of the warrior's friend,
So lied the thunderer's mind tester.

Stanza 2

In spite of Loki's stinking words,
Thor set his mind on this journey:
He had to crush that folk
Sprouting from a brutish and monstrous seed.
The tamer of the belt of the world,
Stronger than any oversea giant,
Departed towards Ymir's kin, Ymir
Whose remains made the world,
The very first thorn, the first of the Giants.
Thor left once more the third God's home.

Stanza 3

Loki, an opprobrious deceiver,
Arm-load of the galdr howling goddess,
Seemed to show little eagerness
To join the master of the army moves.
He was less eager than Thialfi,
Yet another master of the battle.
Out of my lips, stream out the words
Of the tortured God, Grimnir.
Eagles shriek on the heights
Chapped by the caves of the sea gods,
Where the Giantesses live, nothing but game
For Thor who made his feet-palms span the heath.

Stanza 4

As so many old battle Gods, Thor and Thialfi
Walked so much as to reach the ocean,
Made of the blood of the first Giant.
Thor will reduce the number of maiden
Serving that wolf who steadily chases the sun.
Quick to anger, Thor, able to mend Loki's meanness,
Wanted to fight against the girls married
To monsters, within the family of the sedge elk,
Within the monstrous wolf's family.

Stanza 5

And Thor who increases the young giantess' shame,
This Nanna living on pommels thrashed at by the waters,
Thor crossed the furious icy currents on foot
Running around the earth,
Where the lynx lives, twisting like an earthy salmon.
He went forward quickly, him a furious scatterer
Of crowds living by the stone flood,
He rushed along the sticks marking the large path
Where mighty currents spit poison.

Stanza 6

Their spears, snakes biting the foe's flesh,
They soaked them in water,
They pushed them against the trees of the sea.
They fought currents howling among seaweed.
The rounded and slippery nuggets
Never were near to sleeping down there.
Their spears were beaten by stones,
Water fell as waterfalls roaring down the cliff,
And sleet stormed down
On reefs as hammer on anvil

Stanza 7

He could but let the mightily swollen waves
Fall on him, he who clung
To Thor's belt of strength, Thialfi.
And Thor, shaker of the stone sharpened swords,
Shrinker of Morn's children number,
Himself was drenched by the waves.
That raised his anger and he threatened
To raise up his strength
Until the roof of the earth,
Unless shrunk the waters of the ocean,
Blood gushing from the throat
Of Ymir, very first Thorn, ancient Giant.

Stanza 8

The two Aesir, Vikings oath-bound
To the warrior's home, to Odin's,
As much great warriors they might be,
Waded hard through the swamp
Of swords flowing around them.
Waves rose as dunes of snow,
Winds clashed on Thor, who
Increases the woe of the dwellers
Of caves cut under the ridge,

Stanza 9

until Thialfi, friend of the friend
Of the humans, jumped out
Of the water to grip the shield-strap
Of the sky lord, Thor.
That was a mighty achievement!
Geirrod's daughters, giantesses
Ready to mate the basest ones,
Any Mimir of malignancy,
Aimed a strong stream
That rushed at the spear-ends
Of the two heroes.
Thus, the giantess's feller, Thor,
Feller of the she-porpoise of the uneven slopes,
Heavily leaned upon Grid's pole.

Stanza 10

Strong as young oaks, their hearts,
Strong at confronting evil,
Didn't miss a beat at the surge
Of the falling flows of the sea monster's home.
Thor, son of the Earth,
Such as Attila starting a battle,
Didn't flinch facing the terror of the wooden ships,
Tossed around in the fjord.
He kept a bold stony heart,
Thor, he did not give a quiver,
Neither Thialfi's heart quivered.

Stanza 11

Then these two who despise a sword's help,
The two young heroes,
Started a din, beating the boards
That are fettered to the warrior,
Aimed at the people of the slope.
So they did, before they, pool-riders,
Started fighting in earnest those of the cave,
Before they would start nodding
The headgear of Hedin, husband of the battle.

Stanza 12

The people of the hills by the sea
Scattered in fright, and took flight
Toward their shelter, their crashers
Following at their heels.
The Danes of the faraway shelter,
Nearby the jagged rib of the high tide,
Bowed their heads to the stolid
Kindred of Jolnir who wields
A high-swirling fire-made sword.

Stanza 13

The Welsh of the cylinder,
Hollowed in the cliff,
Loudly uproared when the valorous
Chief-warriors bore their way
Into the thorny giants' dwelling.
The bellicose slayer of the monstrous beasts,
Elks of the mountains of Norway
Was brought into dire straits,
When he sat on the grim giantess' hat,
On the chair under which she crouched.

Stanza 14

The nasty girls pushed up, tried to crush
On the roof beams of the shed
Thor's forehead, towering above
Flaming eyes, moons under the lashes crest.
They failed and collapsed on the scattered
Rocks on the ground of the cave.
The godly driver of the chariot hovering in thunder,
Thor, broke the two cave girls' backbones,
Breaking their chuckle beam,
Breaking the spine of their laughter-shaken hull.

Stanza 15

Thor, son of Iord, the Earth, taught there
An unusual lesson, but
In spite of it, the boys of the cave,
Settled above the reefs of the fjord,
Sustained their beer drinking feast.
The gigantic archer shot a strange arrow.
The bowman, who frightens the thread
Bound to both ends of the elm stick,
Picked a piece cooked in the fire of the forge,
Clutched it between clamps to throw it
Towards the mouth of Odin's grief thief, Thor.

Stanza 16

The forestaller of the witches' freedom,
Witches running in the darkening evening,
Thor, caught the red heavy lump
That hanged from the tongs as red seaweed.
He caught it in his opened hand,
Gaping as a gaping mouth.

Stanza 17

Thus, Thor who speeds up battle,
And a woman chaser as well, Freya's old friend,
Swallowed in the aperture of his fast hands,
The toast that was raised to him,
While the sparkling ember
Darted from the chest of Geirrod's hostile grasp:
Geirrod who is madly in love with his wife,
Thrust the missile towards Thor
Who is sorely mourning his daughter Thrud.

Stanza 18

The hall of the giant Thrasir shook
When Heidrek, the moor king, Geirrod,
As a cub finding shelter between mother's legs,
Had is huge head lowered under the cave pillar,
Large as the paws of a bear.
Ull's splendid stepfather, Thor,
Propelled back the sharp jewel,
Downwards and at full strength.
It pierced right through the belt
Of the dreadful one, dweller of sea teeth.

Stanza 19

Furiously, Thor slaughtered giants, Glaum's children,
Helped by his bloody hammer.
He won, the killer of the customer of Syn's home,
Stone goddess. Straight as an erected pole
Joining the bow butts, this bowman didn't lack help,
The triumphant God of the chariot,
And stinging was the defeat brought
To the drinking-buddies of the giant.

Stanza 20

Worthy of the worship he receives,
Thor, Hell supplier for his enemies,
Using his hammer "easy crusher," helped by the elf,
Crushed the monsters, these mountain calves
That hide in mountain caves
From the beams of the Elf world.
The Norwegians of the falcon's Norwegian realm,
Giants dwelling in the Northern mountains,
Had to give up when facing Thor's daring mate,
Who shortens the lifespan of the rock kings
Living far away beyond the ocean.

Comments and explanations

prose version

Snorri Sturluson provides a prose version of the myth told in the Thorsdrapa, probably to help the readers to understand this difficult poem. I will summarize the prominent features of this prose version, while adding in italics the differences with the poem, and signalling by "Faulkes" his version and by "EyBj" Eystein's version.

Loki is caught by the giant Geirrod and in exchange for his freedom, he promises to bring back Thor, without his hammer, and his girdle of might [this episode is not related in the poem]. Thor and Loki [Loki goes with Thor, and not Thialfi as in the poem] leave towards Geirrod's home. On his way, Thor sleeps at the giantess Grid's place and she warns him of the danger of his expedition [no mention of this episode in the poem]. To help him, she gives him a girdle of might [Thialfi clings to this belt in the poem], iron gloves [this gives a rational explanation why Thor can grab the red hot piece of iron, as in the poem], and a pole (a classical magical tool in the Nordic civilization) [EyBj: Grid's pole is eliminated by subtle emendations of the Old Norse text]. Thor crosses the Vimur river [EyBj: the Arctic ocean] where Gialp, one of Geirrod's daughters, "causes the river waters to rise" [EyBj: waves cause this violent current]. One understands that this current is due to her powerful urine jet, in which she tries to drown Thor. Thor saves himself by clinging to a bush of rowan [episode not related in the poem, or: Grid's pole is made of rowan wood]. The giantesses invite Thor in their goat-shed where there is only one seat and Thor takes it. The giantesses crouch down under the seat and try to crush Thor's head against the roof by raising the seat [same story in the poem, but in a very allusive way]. Thor pushes back and breaks the back of the giantesses, and then joins Geirrod [same story in the poem]. Geirrod throws a piece of red-hot iron at Thor, but Thor catches it in Grid's iron gloves [the poem makes clear that it is in his hand, described as a gaping mouth]. Thor sends back the missile that goes through the pillar behind which Geirrod hides, through Geirrod himself, and finally in the ground [in the poem, the missile flies in Geirrod's stomach]. End of the story [in the poem: Thor slaughters the giants with his hammer, Thialfi helps him].

back to introduction

Stanza 1

Faulkes' text

1. The sea-thread's [Midgard serpent's] father [Loki] set out to urge the feller [Thor] of flight-ledges- gods' [giant's] life-net from home. Lopt was proficient at lying. The not very trustworthy trier [Loki] of the mind of war-thunder-Gaut [Thor] said that green paths led to Geirrodr's wall-steed [house].

Old Norse

Flugstalla réð felli
fjörnets goða at hvetja
[drjúgr var Loptr at ljúga]
lögseims faðir heiman;
geðreynir kvað grœnar
Gauts herþrumu brautir
vilgi tryggr til veggjar
víggs Geirröðar liggja.

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Where the action takes place: Asgard, home of the Gods.

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Explanation of the kenning: "the sea-thread" = Jórmungandr (or Jörmungandr), the snake who surrounds the earth and who lives at the bottom of the oceans. His father is Loki.

Commentaries

Loki treacherously convinces Thor (usually written "Þórr" in Old Norse) to undertake a journey toward the home of the giant Geirrod ("Geirröðr"). This journey must take place through the Arctic ocean. Because of a kind of pun between "deadly cold" and "poisoned," the poison of Jórmungandr, the snake (or dragon) who circles the world, is described like surging from Jórmungand's mouth in the Arctic ocean as flows of icy water. Loki is the father of Jórmungandr, this is recalled in this first kenning (the sea-thread's father = Loki). It alludes to the difficulties that Thor will meet during his journey.

A large number of Nordic myths are built on the theme that the old race, the race of the Giants (also called Thurs, or Jötun, or, here, Thorns), is the irreducible enemy of the new race, the Gods (both the Aesir and the Vanir, two different divine races). The truth is subtler since the Gods spend a good part of their time attempting to seduce young giantesses who are considered as being supremely desirable. Notice that the children coming from these romps are classed as belonging to the race of the Gods, and not to the one of Giants, opposing to the usual racist attitude. Loki himself is both a God and a Giant, he is the most ambiguous person of the world, from all possible viewpoints.

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Explanation of the kenning: "the feller of flight-ledges-gods' life-net."

" flight-ledges " = cliffs or mountains.
"gods of the flight-ledges" = "gods of the cliffs or of the mountains" = giants (who live in the mountains).
"canvas" of the giants = destiny (one says that the Norns weave the destiny of the humans).
"feller of the giants' destiny" = Thor who will destroy the destiny of the giants.
Giants are called here "cliff dwellers" because Geirröðr lives close to the sea, in the cliffs hanging over a fjord.

Commentaries

Hammer

This is announcing the future: Thor will destroy the destiny of the giants. Thor is known for destroying giants, but here the kenning alludes rather to the canvas of the giants' destiny. Another famous Eddic poem, the Völuspa, tells us that every destiny, including a God's, is submitted to the will of the Norns, and Thor will be the tool of destiny. This kenning foresees the destiny of the Giants: it was still unknown at the beginning of the poem, but it turns to the worse, because of Thor. The tool of this destruction is Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, with which the Gods are going to finally win over the giants.

I would like to emphasize that experts still discuss the point of whether or not this poem describes how Thor obtained his magic hammer. Nevertheless, for me, it is obvious that this kenning announces a turn in the Giants' destiny, and this is in perfect agreement with the coming of a new weapon. Before Thor had Mjölnir, the Giants were able to keep the Gods in check, but this is utterly past: With Mjölnir, Thor becomes the Norns' tool for weaving new threads into the Giants' destiny.

more on hammer

back to introduction

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Loptr = "aerial, of the nature of air."
It is another name for Loki.

Commentaries

Loki is called Loptr, "the aerial." In fact, by pushing Thor to this dangerous journey, Loki ends up deciding the end of the Giants' race, his own race, whereas he believed he was only playing a bad joke on Thor. Loki is as powerful and dangerous as the wind, and he doesn't know it, as does the wind. He is unforeseeable, and he is mistaken in his forecasting.

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Explanation of the kenning: "trier of the mind of war-thunder-Gautr."
This kenning is more complex than it seems.
Gautr = war, and it is another name of Odin ("Óðinn").
"Gautr of the thunder " = warrior of the thunder = Thor.
"trier of the mind of Thor" = Loki because Loki is the one who can annoy Thor.

But, in Old Norse, this kenning is written as: "geðreynir Gauts herþrumu." It happens that Loki is also often called "Gauts geðreynir," which means: the friend of Odin. Thus, the author of the poem plays on an ambiguity of the word "geðreynir " that means both "friend" and "the irritating one," in order to underline that opposite relations link Loki and Odin, and Thor and Loki.

Commentaries

This kenning insists on Loki's ambiguous role in the struggles between the Giants and the Gods. Loki is obviously treacherous to the Gods' cause, but he is nevertheless the friend of Odin, and often his bad initiatives turn to best for the God. This kenning underlines the idea that Loki wants to play a dirty trick on Thor, so that he is "the trier of Thor," but since the final result is in the Gods' favour, he is therefore also "the friend of Odin."

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The kenning: "wall-steed " or "horse of the wall " is a classical kenning for "house."

Commentaries

The kenning "the horse of the wall " for a house is bound to many myths. Giants and witches of both sexes are said "to ride the wolf " and the word horse is therefore often used, instead of the word wolf. Thus, this kenning alludes to the way witches and giants journey. Thor, on his part, will cross the ocean without resorting to this kind of magic.

Besides, the wolf is often called a monster, as are the giants. Geirröðr is a giant, also called a monster, and he lives in a wall, a cliff. The "wolf of the wall " is also Geirröðr, the monster of the cliff.
back to introduction

Stanza 2

Faulkes' text

The mind-tough Thor let the vulture-way [air = lopt; Lopt is a name for Loki] urge him only a little time to go - They were eager to crush Thorn's kin [giants] - when Idi's yard-visitor [Thor], mightier than the White Sea Scots [giants], set out again from Third's [Odin's, Asgard] to the seat of Ymsi's kind [Giantland].

EyBj organize their translation a little differently and "Idi's yard-visitor" is called "the tamer of Gandvik's girdle," and the "White Sea Scots" becomes "Scots of Idi's dwelling." In my version, I keep EyBj's interpretation. Anyway, the meaning of the text is not modified by this transposition.

Old Norse

Geðstrangr of lét göngu
Gammleið Þóarr [note the spelling of Thor's name] skömmum
[fýstusk þeir at þrýsta
Þorns niðjum] sik biðja,
þá er garðvíkr Skotum ríkri,
endr til Ýmsa kindar
Iðja setrs frá Þriðja.

 

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Where the action takes place: Asgard, the home of the Gods.

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Explanation of the kenning: Loki = vulture-way
Loki is also called Loptr, the air, and air is also the path used by vultures for flying.

Commentaries

The vulture is a scavenger. One can also say that Loki opens the way of the scavenger, where now the scavenger is the wolf Fenrir, often called a scavenger (the wolf Fenrir, son of Loki, will devour Odin during the Ragnarök). In the Nordic myths the main scavengers are the eagle, the raven, and the wolf that devours the corpses of the warriors who died during battle. This kenning suggests that Loki, in fact, wants to send Thor on the way of the vulture, that is to say he hopes Thor will be killed during his expedition. This is why he lied to conceal the real difficulty of the journey, speaking of "green paths" instead of a white icy ocean.

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Explanation of the kenning: giants = thorn's kin ("Þorns niðjum ")

It seems that "thorn" is a word known for naming a giant. We will see this way of referring to giants again in stanzas 7 and 13.

In stanza 7: "Þorns svíra," i.e., the neck of the thorn, describes the place where blood flows, out of the neck of Ymir, whose blood will generate the oceans.

In stanza 13, "í þornrann" = "toward the house of the thorn" describes, obviously because of the context, the home of a giant.

Commentaries

Thorn

First of all, "giants = thorn" solves one of the classic "mysteries " of the Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) runic poem where the third rune is called "Þorn" = thorn. Experts wonder about the link between this "thorn" and the third rune of the Viking Futhark, called "thurs" = giant. The solution is extremely simple if we suppose that the authors of the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet knew of the equivalence between thorn and thurs, as we have just seen. These authors were certainly quite literate, and they must have known the Nordic myths.

Now, to call a giant thorn, is clearly not innocent. Whoever brushes on the giants gets stung, and this is exactly what Thor is going to do. This stresses again the danger of Thor's journey.

I must also say that many associate an erected male sex to the Þorn rune, because of its shape, . This is quite possible, but I must confess that I do not like this metaphor. It makes an aggressive thorn of the male sex, which is true during rape only. My view of a strong Nordic woman doesn't match at all with such a fearful interaction with the masculine sex. For example, in one of the Icelandic sagas a feminine character ridicules the small size of the sex of the hero, which implies that the Nordic woman had a friendlier relation with the male sex.

My opinion on the topic is inspired by a side story found in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. In this text, a young woman believes that a giant is asking her to marry him. She then exclaims: "Which somewhat sensible girl would like to be a Giant's harlot? … To become the wife of a devil while knowing that his seed generates monsters? … Who would sting her fingers to thorns?… When nature yells no, the sensual pleasures cannot be fully enjoyed. Women's desires are hardly fulfilled by the love of a monster "!

This text shows well that indeed the thorn can be associated to a masculine sex, but only in the case of a sexual act performed without pleasure by the woman and generating genetically deficient children.

The poem is brimming with allusions hinting at a sexual context of the meeting between Geirrod and Thor. The frequent use of the word thorn to designate a giant allows already restricts the sexual context to a contact without pleasure and one that generates monsters. I will come back to this point, but here I would just like to make my position clear: I don't believe that the poem describes, in any way, a sexual encounter, but instead a spiritual fertilization of Thor by Geirrod, a rather understandable fertilization if we put ourselves within a shamanic context. This fertilization gives birth to a kind of monster: the hammer Mjölnir that Thor uses thereafter to destroy the race of giants.

back to introduction

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Explanation of the kenning: Thor = "the tamer of Gandvik's girdle."

Gandvik is the Arctic ocean, its belt is Jórmungandr that will be first fished, and finally killed by Thor who then tames it in a way of speaking.

Commentaries

Thor crosses the Arctic ocean whose frozen streams are compared to the poisonous drool of Jórmungandr, but he will triumph over the difficulties he meets. Loki's slyness doesn't have the effect he foresaw, but the poem wants to explain that this slyness could have been successful, so dangerous was Thor's journey.

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Explanation of the kenning: giants = "Scots of Idi's dwelling."

It is common in Skaldic poetry to use one inhabitant of a particular region to designate any kind of inhabitants, and, generally, to represent one kind by one of its instances.

Idi is the name of a giant. The home of a giant is called Jötunheim. A "Scot" of Jötunheim is a giant.

Commentaries

Traits specific to the giant Idi are unknown, I suppose that they were describing exactly some of Geirrod's features.

Any other nationality besides Scottish would have been equally valid in this kenning. The choice of Scots evokes a faraway people situated beyond seas.

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Explanation of the kenning: Odin = Thridi

Thridi (= the third) is one of Odin names. "Thridi's " is his home, Asgard.

Commentaries

To call Odin the third, is to allude to certain religious practices by which Thor and Freyr are "above" Odin. Odin is then the third of the Gods even though most practices make of him the first one.

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Explanation of the kenning: giants = Ymsi's kind

Ymsi is the genitive form of Ymir, the name of the first being, a giant whose body will serve to build our universe. His kind, his children, are the giants.

Commentaries

Typically, this is a kenning that is far from innocent. On the one hand, obviously, the giants living at the time of the poem are offspring of the original giant, Mimir, but, on the other hand, the maternal grandfather of Odin, Mimir, is the son of Ymir. Ymir is therefore Odin's great-grandfather: So Odin also belongs to Ymir's family.

This stanza speaks of giants three times, and that could be certainly boring if each kennings didn't refer a different, but important feature of their personality. To call them: thorn's kin recalls their ability to rape and to generate monsters, to call them: Scots of the home of Idi (or, as Faulkes does, the Scots of the white sea) recalls that they live beyond seas, and to call them: the kind of Ymir, recalls that Odin, and eventually all of us, we are of this family as well, that is to say that we all carry in us this capacity of brutality and of monster generation.

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Supplementary explanations

- Thor is said to be "mind-tough" because he is well known for his tough mind and guts. Once he had decided to accomplish this journey, nothing could have stopped him.

- The poem says "They were eager" whereas it spoke until then of Thor and Loki only. Loki is certainly not eager to oppress giants. The poem shows that a servant, or a journey mate, an Elf named Thialfi ("Þjálfi") goes with Thor.

- The text says that "Thor set out again." This is because Thor travels often as a kind of a patrol officer of the Aesir's law.
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Stanza 3

Faulkes' text

3. Full of perjury, the cargo [Loki] of incantation-fetter's [Sygin's] was on his way sooner with the company's leader than the battle-Rognir [Thjalfi]. I recite Grimnir's [Odin's] lip-streams [mead of poetry]. The entrapper [Thor] of the shrill-crier [eagle]-hall [mountain] Endil's [giant's] girls [troll-wives] made his sole-palms [feet] span the heath [walked].

The end of the first sentence hardly has any meaning and EyBj translate, in a more understandable way: "the Rögnir of the battle[Thjalfi] was quicker to join the swift mover of armies [Thor] one the expedition."

In the last sentence they assign the genitive of Endil to heather rather than to halls. The original version, with its " Endils á mó " (see below), that is rendered immediately in English by " Endil's moor," seems to be consistent with EyBj's interpretation.

Old Norse

Görr, varð í för fyrri
farmr, meinsvárans, arma
sóknar hapts með svipti
sagna galdrs en Rögnir;
þyl ek granstrauma Grímnis;
gall- mantælendr halla
-ópnis ilja gaupum
Endils á mó spendu.

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Where the action takes place: They leave Asgard, and, according to Faulkes, they walk on the moor that separates them from the ocean, whereas according to EyBj they reach the ocean at once. I suppose that the Old Norse contains this ambiguousness.

The logic of the text leads me to think that Thor crosses a moor that lies in front of the ocean. This is why I prefer to follow Faulkes here. Note that the word moor or heather is then no longer a kenning, it is used in its usual meaning, which is after all not forbidden!

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Explanation of the kenning: battle-Rögnir battle = Thjalfi

Rögnir is a god's name that can even designate "God." The God of the battle is a war god, here Thjalfi who joined Thor.

Commentaries

This word can also designate the possessor, as in "land-rögnir," the landowner. This emphasizes Thjalfi's worth as a warrior. The poem shows him being very dependent on Thor, this kenning is here to show that he is however nonetheless a dangerous warrior.

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Explanation of the kenning: company's leader = Thor.
This kenning points to Thor as a leader.

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Explanation of the kenning: The cargo of incantation-fetter's = Loki.

Commentaries

The "burden of a woman's arms" is a classical kenning for this woman's husband. The "cargo" is the load, the one who put weight on the arms of the "incantation-fetter's." The Old Norse "galdrs hapt" is a woman who knows the galdr, the song or howling that merges with runes to express their magic.

We don't know precisely who is designated by this kenning. Loki's wife, Sygin, is not especially known for her magic powers, Loki is burdening the arms of many of his mistresses. Faulkes is wrong to suggest Sygin. In particular, Loki generated many monstrous children with giantesses who are well known for their magical powers. This kenning therefore recalls that Loki is associated to sorcery, as confirmed by the legends that speak of him.

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Explanation of the kenning: Grimnir's lip-streams = mead of poetry.

Commentaries

Grimnir is another name for Odin, and poetry flows from his lips. It recalls a famous myth by which the mead of poetry was brewed, then stolen several times, and finally earned by Odin. The poetic art of Odin comes from the possession of this magic mead.

Why name Odin Grimnir?

There is first a poetical reason: The Old Norse is "ek þyl granstrauma Grímnis" and we will see in the next stanza that giants are called "brides in the family of the sedge deer" ("brúður mága sefgrímnis"). Therefore, the word "grímnir" is used with two very different meanings. One names Odin, the other names a so-called deer of the sedge, a kenning for the wolf, a monster as the giants are. The poet wants to attract our attention on the hidden ties joining Odin and the monsters, as well as Odin and Loki. These ties are well known. On the other hand, Thor seems presented as being, on his side, free of any tie with these monsters.

He is prototypical of the modern, "solar" hero who opposes the old, earthy, "dark" strengths. The poem reminds us of Odin's ambiguity: Odin belongs partly to the old world , partly to the modern one. His links with the ancient religions are not totally cut.

The second reason seems to me to be rooted in another myth. Grimnir is the name by which Odin calls himself during one of his journeys on earth. The king he visits tortures him and Odin-Grimnir takes revenge only after being thoroughly tortured. The king's son shows him pity, and he is thus allowed to succeed his father. Here, as in other poems where Odin is called Grimnir when pointing at his poetical power, I suppose that the kenning recalls the sufferings associated with poetic creation.

The third reason is again binding with the next stanzas. The poet says that streams ("strauma") flow out of his mouth, an allusion to the streams that Thor will cross in the next stanza.

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Explanation of the kenning: The entrapper of the shrill-crier [eagle]-hall [mountain] Endil's [giant's] girls = Thor.

The shrill crier is the eagle, and the halls of Endil are caves in the cliff. Girls of caves are giantesses.

Thor will "entrap" them..

Commentaries

The Old Norse word means: seducer, woman's betrayer. There is here more than a hint at seduction. In stanza 13, we shall see that there must have been a relatively peaceful interlude taking place between Thor and the giantesses. A mutual seducing might well have been happening at this moment: the present kenning announces what will take place in stanza 13.
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Stanza 4

Faulkes' text

And the ones accustomed to the course [battle] of the battle-wolf [sword] traveled; the heaven-targe [sun-] dwelling's [sky's] blood [water] of the women [Giap and Greip] of Frid's first defiler [giant] was reached [i.e. the river Vimur], when Loki's bale-averter [Thor], guilty of hastiness, wished, deed-unsparing, to open hostilities with the bride [Gialp] of rush-Grimnir's [giant's] kinsmen.

EyBj: The battle-Vanir [warriors] walked, until the prime diminisher of the maidens of the enemy of the Frid of the heaven-shield [Thor] reached Gang's blood [ocean], when the agile, quick-tempered averter of Loki's mischief [Thor] wished to oppose the bride of the sedge-buck's kinsmen [giantess].

Old Norse

Ok, Gangs, vanir gengu
gunn, vargs himintörgu
fríðrar unz til fljóða
frumseyrir kom dreyra,
þá er bölkveitir brjóta
bragðmildr Loka vildi
bræði vændr á brúði
bág sefgrímnis mága.

 

I am afraid that Faulkes' version doesn't make much sense, so I follow EyBj for this verse.

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Where the action takes place: They reach the ocean.

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Explanation of the kenning: The battle-Vanir = warriors
The Vanir are an ancient race of Gods. God of the battle is a classical kenning for a warrior.

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Explanation of the kenning: the prime diminisher of the maidens of the enemy of the Frid of the heaven-shield = Thor.

The shield of the sky is the shield of the sun, known in other poems. Frid is the name of a goddess, and the Goddess of the shield of the sky is the sun "herself" (a feminine being in Old Norse). The enemy of the sun is the wolf that hunts it constantly and will eat it during Ragnarök.

The girls of the wolf are giantesses, and their diminisher is obviously Thor.

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Explanation of the kenning: Gang's blood = the ocean.

Gang is the name of a giant, his name is used here instead of Ymir. The ocean has been made from Ymir's blood. This kenning designates a water body more important than a river, which can be seen as confirming the hypothesis that, in this poem, Thor goes toward the ocean and not a river.

Commentaries

Faulkes organizes his sentence in order to avoid the kenning "the blood of Gang." He thus can keep the image that blood equals water.

The first important variation between EyBj's version and Faulkes-Sturluson's concerns what Thor will cross over. According to Sturluson, it is a river (the Vimur river mentioned by Faulkes in his version), and even a canyon, since one of the giantesses attempts to drown Thor in a torrent of her urine. He barely saves himself by grabbing the branch of a rowan. The poem is a lot less clear on this topic, and most kennings hint, as we shall see, at Thor crossing the Arctic ocean rather than a river. However, even if Thor crosses the ocean, it is obvious that he eventually reaches giantland, located in a fjord. A fjord shows also the canyon shape necessary for the "flow of urine anecdote." It follows that river or ocean, this anecdote can happen equally well.

On the other hand, a poem is not a descriptive narration, and the scatology of piss drowning might have been omitted by the poet, simply in order to avoid a comic component in the poem.

We find this problem again in stanza 9 where someone throws a violent stream at Thor. This someone is, as said by the poem (both translations), to be "Mischief-Mimir's widows." EyBj interprets them as being the waves of the ocean, and Faulkes as being Geirrod's two daughters, Gialp and Greip. Thus, EyBj refuse Sturluson's myth, while Faulkes accepts it. We shall see that I find EyBj's argument a bit far-fetched, and that I believe the poem is saying the same as Sturluson's myth, without being explicit about what this stream is made of.

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Explanation of the kenning: The averter of Loki's mischief = Thor
It often happens that Thor fixes Loki's mischief in a very simple way: he threatens to smash Loki's skull if he does not find a solution himself.

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Explanation of the kenning: The bride of the sedge-buck's kinsmen = a giantess
The sedge buck ("sefgrímnir") means a wolf, a monster, as are the giants. Parents of the monster are giants. The bride of giants is a giantess.

Commentaries

elk-sedge

Now another stanza of the Anglo-Saxon runic poem is better understood due to this kenning. It describes the 15th rune, called "gyfu" in this Futhorc, qualified by a mysterious word: "Eolhxsecg" translated as "elk-sedge," the reed of the elk. Thus, translating "sefgrímnis, " by " sedge-elk," teaches us that the elk of the reeds is a wolf. One can therefore translate elk-sedge by " wolf grass," or " grass of the monster " and it designates herbs and plants that could be a den to a wolf. The poem:

"Eolhxsecg (elk-sedge) usually dwells in a marsh,
growing in the water;
it gives grievous wounds,
staining with blood every man who lays a hand on it."

stresses the fact that the den of the monster is a dangerous waste. As for the giants, called "thorns " in this poem, second stanza, whoever brushes this sedge is wounded.

It is quite obvious that wolves don't normally live in swamps, and this is why this stanza has never been interpreted as I just did. The wolf is not here as a real animal, but as a mythical one, a monster.

This hypothesis is confirmed by another kenning found in stanza 13: "hreina gnípu" meaning the reindeer of the mountains, and which, yet another kenning for giants, interpreted as "the wolf, or the monster, of the mountains." Once again, a big animal of the North, the elk or the reindeer is taken as an image of the wolf, seen as a mythical monster.

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To be continued...

Kennings

A kenning is a poetic form by which one replaces an object or a being by its analogical description. As a simple example, a ship can be called "a sea horse." A horse is analogous to a ship, and the second part from the kenning gives the context where the analogy takes place, in order to make it unique. Complications come from two sources.

First, a kenning can be embedded inside another one. For example, the sea can be described by a kenning: "the path of the fishes " and the embedded kenning: "the fish-path horse" means then "ship."

Secondly, the analogy, or the context as well, can take place in the world of Nordic myths. For example, the snake Jórmungandr circles the world at the bottom of the oceans, and therefore its sky is the sea. Ship can be represented thus by the kenning: "the horse of the sky of Jórmungandr." A famous horse is Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged horse. A particularly fast ship can then be spoken of as "the Sleipnir of Jórmungandr's sky."

This poetic form can evidently be abused to the point of becoming mere virtuosity. One of my goals here is to show you that each kenning is useful to the description of the actions taking place in the poem, and contributes to its poetry. back

References and links

The best known English version of this poem is Faulkes' translation of Skaldskaparmal. A different version, with more detailed explanations of the kennings has been provided by Eysteinn Björnsson & Hrafn Óttarsson. For more linguistic and bibliographic details, refer to their site:
http://www.hi.is/~eybjorn/ugm/thorsd00.html

My goal here is to try to make the modern mind aware the beauty of this poem. Every stanza can be summarized by a very short sentence. When the poet uses some complex kennings, he does so to awaken feelings in the heart of his 11st century Nordic reader. I will give you a possible (and when I can, a probable!) version of these feelings, linked to the rather forgotten culture of the Nordic myths.

Faulkes' translation, in his edition of Skaldskaparmal, immediately follows a description of this story told in prose, by Snorri Sturluson. It happens that the poem seems to contradict the prose version, but I think it unbelievable that Sturluson could not have been aware of these contradictions. I think that he presented the complete poem just to give his reader an older version of a myth and to point at the evolution that had undergone the myth between (at least) the 11th century and what he, Sturluson, knew at his time.

I must admit that Faulkes' translation tends to follow the tale told by Snorri a bit too strictly. Inversely, Björnsson's commentaries show clearly that he doesn't grant any confidence to the version of Snorri Sturluson. Between these two extreme positions, I will try to discuss a solution that respects Snorri Sturluson, without plating Eilífr Goðrúnarson's poem on his prose version.

Poetry goes hand in hand with at least some scholarship, but I have tried to reduce the scholarship as much as possible to insist on the poetry instead.

For each stanza, I give Faulkes' translation, and its differences with Eysteinn Björnsson & Hrafn Óttarsson's (EyBj). Unfortunately, it happens sometimes that their translations are so far from each other that I had to give you sometimes EyBj's version, and the Old Norse text. The Old Norse text is available on EyBj's site, but I found it also at:
http://home.sol.no/~jonjf/div-ntext/thorsdrapa.htm
and this is the version I use here. As an aside, this site also contains many unpublished fragments of Skaldic poetry, in Old Norse, at
http://home.sol.no/~jonjf/div-ntext/di-ntext.htm
.

The explanations of the kennings that I provide follow mainly those given by EyBj and Faulkes. On the other hand, my commentaries of each kenning, in order to show its involvement in the poem, as well as my version of the poem, are mostly mine.

I thank Eysteinn Björnsson who answered some of my questions.
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