[Ansteorra] Book review -- Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds

Christie Ward val_org at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 15 17:35:01 PDT 2011

Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds
by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar

I have been waiting for this book FOREVER, and I was really excited to get a copy. Dr. Straubhaar presents a wonderful book, sharing the actual verses composed by women in Old Norse.

There are several good books out on the sociology and material culture of women in the Viking Age, but "Old Norse Women's Poetry" gives us a rare chance to hear from those women, speaking in their own voices. Throughout the middle ages, women's poetry and writing is very limited. But the Viking Age women left us a surprising amount of poetry.

The translation of poetry is a difficult task. The translator normally has to choose between a literal translation, or a translation that preserves the form and style of the original poem. "Old Norse Women's Poetry" gives us three delights: first the Old Norse verse is presented, allowing the reader to experience the actual poem as it was written; then we are given a poetic translation that comes as close as possible to preserving the original poetical form, rhymes, and techniques; and lastly, the reader is given a literal translation for each poem.

I read through the whole book in a rush, then went back and have been reading the poetry aloud, both in Old Norse and in the poetic translation, allowing my ears to hear the cadences and sounds that make the poetry what it is. I would pay money to hear Dr. Straubhaar do a reading from this material.

I admit a long-standing fondness for Herverar saga and the famous "Awakening of Angantýr", but one poem caught at my heart. The skald is Ketilríðr Hólmkelsdóttir from Víglundar saga, and her poem is a lament for Víglundr's exile:

Skammt leidd ek skýran
skrauta-Njôrð ór garði.
Þó fylgdi hugr minn hánum
hvers kyns konar lengra;
ef land fyr lægi væri
ok ægur marr yrði
allr at grænum velli.

I walked awhile with him,
but I wanted to walk longer.
My feet just passed the fence;
My heart followed still farther.
If waves had been wide lands,
had seas been grassy pastures,
there would have been no limit
to the length of my walk with him.

I followed the bright Njôrðr-of-ornaments for a short way out of the yard; still, my heart followed him farther, in every possible way. I would have walked even farther with him if there were land instead of ocean, and the terrible sea turned entirely into a green plain.

The book is arranged in sections, starting from people we know to be historical and moving into those that are less so, and ending with the purely fictional:

I. Real People, Real Poetry - presents 9 female skalds from the historical sagas of the Norwegian kings, the Icelandic family sagas, and the 13th c. Sturlunga Saga.

II. Quasi-Historical People and Poetry - 11 lady poets. Textual anachronisms and details in the surrounding sagas cast some doubt whether these poems can confidently be attributed to historical people.

III. Visionary Women: Women's Dream-Verse - 7 poets. Women play a special role in the sagas as a sort of prophetess, transmitting omens that have come to them as dreams, and usually in poetry. These are all from Sturlunga Saga.

IV. Legendary Heroines - poems attributed to the valkyries Brynhildr and Signý, and the wonderful "Awakening of Angantýr" from the saga of Hervör.

V. Magic-Workers, Prophetesses, and Alien Maidens - This section gives us 11 more voices, from valkyries, giant-maidens, prophetesses, and "simply out-of-town girls".

VI. Troll Women - 7 poems attributed to troll-maidens.

I do highly recommend the book.



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