Poetic Edda


About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The Song of Rig

Introductory Note

The Rigsthula is found in neither of the principal codices. The only manuscript containing it is the so-called Codex Wormanius, a manuscript of Snorri’s Prose Edda. The poem appears on the last sheet of this manuscript, which unluckily is incomplete, and thus the end of the poem is lacking. In the Codex Wormanius itself the poem has no title, but a fragmentary parchment included with it calls the poem the Rigsthula. Some late paper manuscripts give it the title of Rigsmol.

The Rigsthula is essentially unlike anything else which editors have agreed to include in the so-called Edda. It is a definitely cultural poem, explaining, on a mythological basis, the origin of the different castes of early society: the thralls, the peasants, and the warriors. From the warriors, finally, springs one who is destined to become a king, and thus the whole poem is a song in praise of the royal estate. This fact in itself would suffice to indicate that the Rigsthula was not composed in Iceland, where for centuries kings were regarded with profound disapproval.

Not only does the Rigsthula praise royalty, but it has many of the earmarks of a poem composed in praise of a particular king. The manuscript breaks off at a most exasperating point, just as the connection between the mythical “Young Kon” (Konr ungr, konungr, “king”; but cf. stanza 44, note) and the monarch in question is about to be established. Owing to the character of the Norse settlements in Iceland, Ireland, and the western islands generally, search for a specific king leads back to either Norway or Denmark; despite the arguments advanced by Edzardi, Vigfusson, Powell, and others, it seems most improbable that such a poem should have been produced elsewhere than on the Continent, the region where Scandinavian royalty most flourished. Finnur Jonsson’s claim for Norway, with Harald the Fair-Haired as the probable king in question, is much less impressive than Mogk’s ingenious demonstration that the poem was in all probability composed in Denmark, in honor of either Gorm the Old or Harald Blue-Tooth. His proof is based chiefly on the evidence provided by stanza 49, and is summarized in the note to that stanza.

The poet, however, was certainly not a Dane, but probably a wandering Norse singer, who may have had a dozen homes, and who clearly had spent much time in some part of the western island world chiefly inhabited by Celts. The extent of Celtic influence on the Eddic poems in general is a matter of sharp dispute. Powell, for example, claims almost all the poems for the “Western Isles,” and attributes nearly all their good qualities to Celtic influence. Without here attempting to enter into the details of the argument, it may be said that the weight of authoritative opinion, while clearly recognizing the marks of Celtic influence in the poems, is against this view; contact between the roving Norsemen of Norway and Iceland and the Celts of Ireland and the “Western Isles,” and particularly the Orkneys, was so extensive as to make the presumption of an actual Celtic home for the poems seem quite unnecessary.

In the case of the Rigsthula the poet unquestionably had not only picked up bits of the Celtic speech (the name Rig itself is almost certainly of Celtic origin, and there are various other Celtic words employed), but also had caught something of the Celtic literary spirit. This explains the cultural nature of the poem, quite foreign to Norse poetry in general. On the other hand, the style as a whole is vigorously Norse, and thus the explanation that the poem was composed by an itinerant Norse poet who had lived for some time in the Celtic islands, and who was on a visit to the court of a Danish king, fits the ascertainable facts exceedingly well. As Christianity was introduced into Denmark around 960, the Rigsthula is not likely to have been composed much after that date, and probably belongs to the first half of the tenth century. Gorm the Old died about the year 935, and was succeeded by Harald Blue-Tooth, who died about 985.

The fourteenth (or late thirteenth) century annotator identifies Rig with Heimdall, but there is nothing in the poem itself, and very little anywhere else, to warrant this, and it seems likely that the poet had Othin, and not Heimdall, in mind, his purpose being to trace the origin of the royal estate to the chief of the gods. The evidence bearing on this identification is briefly summed up in the note on the introductory prose passage, but the question involves complex and baffling problems in mythology, and from very early times the status of Heimdall was unquestionably confusing to the Norse mind.

They tell in old stories that one of the gods, whose name was Heimdall, went on his way along a certain seashore, and came to a dwelling, where he called himself Rig. According to these stories is the following poem:[1]

Men say there went by ways so green
Of old the god, the aged and wise,
Mighty and strong did Rig go striding.
. . . . . . . .

Forward he went on the midmost way,
He came to a dwelling, a door on its posts;
In did he fare, on the floor was a fire,
Two hoary ones by the hearth there sat,
Ai and Edda, in olden dress.

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst of the room he sat,
And on either side the others were.

A loaf of bread did Edda bring,
Heavy and thick and swollen with husks;
Forth on the table she set the fare,
And broth for the meal in a bowl there was.
(Calf’s flesh boiled was the best of the dainties.)

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
Thence did he rise, made ready to sleep;
Soon in the bed himself did he lay,
And on either side the others were.

Thus was he there for three nights long,
Then forward he went on the midmost way,
And so nine months were soon passed by.

A son bore Edda, with water they sprinkled him,
With a cloth his hair so black they covered;
Thræll they named him, . . . . . . . .

The skin was wrinkled and rough on his hands,
Knotted his knuckles, . . . . . . . .
Thick his fingers, and ugly his face,
Twisted his back, and big his heels.

He began to grow, and to gain in strength,
Soon of his might good use he made;
With bast he bound, and burdens carried,
Home bore faggots the whole day long.

One came to their home, crooked her legs,
Stained were her feet, and sunburned her arms,
Flat was her nose; her name was Thir.

Soon in the midst of the room she sat,
By her side there sat the son of the house;
They whispered both, and the bed made ready,
Thræll and Thir, till the day was through.

Children they had, they lived and were happy,
Fjosnir and Klur they were called, methinks,
Hreim and Kleggi, Kefsir, Fulnir,
Drumb, Digraldi, Drott and Leggjaldi,
Lut and Hosvir; the house they cared for,
Ground they dunged, and swine they guarded,
Goats they tended, and turf they dug.

Daughters had they, Drumba and Kumba,
Ökkvinkalfa, Arinnefla,
Ysja and Ambott, Eikintjasna,
Totrughypja and Tronubeina;
And thence has risen the race of thralls.

Forward went Rig, his road was straight,
To a hall he came, and a door there hung;
In did he fare, on the floor was a fire:
Afi and Amma owned the house.

There sat the twain, and worked at their tasks:
The man hewed wood for the weaver’s beam;
His beard was trimmed, o’er his brow a curl,
His clothes fitted close; in the corner a chest.

The woman sat and the distaff wielded,
At the weaving with arms outstretched she worked;
On her head was a band, on her breast a smock;
On her shoulders a kerchief with clasps there was.

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst of the room he sat,
And on either side the others were.

Then took Amma . . . . . . . .
The vessels full with the fare she set,
Calf’s flesh boiled was the best of the dainties.

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
He rose from the board, made ready to sleep;
Soon in the bed himself did he lay,
And on either side the others were.

Thus was he there for three nights long,
Then forward he went on the midmost way,
And so nine months were soon passed by.

A son bore Amma, with water they sprinkled him,
Karl they named him; in a cloth she wrapped him,
He was ruddy of face, and flashing his eyes.

He began to grow, and to gain in strength,
Oxen he ruled, and plows made ready,
Houses he built, and barns he fashioned,
Carts he made, and the plow he managed.

Home did they bring the bride for Karl,
In goatskins clad, and keys she bore;
Snör was her name, ’neath the veil she sat;
A home they made ready, and rings exchanged,
The bed they decked, and a dwelling made.

Sons they had, they lived and were happy:
Hal and Dreng, Holth, Thegn and Smith,
Breith and Bondi, Bundinskeggi,
Bui and Boddi, Brattskegg and Segg.

Daughters they had, and their names are here:
Snot, Bruth, Svanni, Svarri, Sprakki,
Fljoth, Sprund and Vif, Feima, Ristil:
And thence has risen the yeomen’s race.

Thence went Rig, his road was straight,
A hall he saw, the doors faced south;
The portal stood wide, on the posts was a ring,
Then in he fared; the floor was strewn.

Within two gazed in each other’s eyes,
Fathir and Mothir, and played with their fingers;
There sat the house-lord, wound strings for the bow,
Shafts he fashioned, and bows he shaped.

The lady sat, at her arms she looked,
She smoothed the cloth, and fitted the sleeves;
Gay was her cap, on her breast were clasps,
Broad was her train, of blue was her gown,
Her brows were bright, her breast was shining,
Whiter her neck than new-fallen snow.

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst of the room he sat,
And on either side the others were.

Then Mothir brought a broidered cloth,
Of linen bright, and the board she covered;
And then she took the loaves so thin,
And laid them, white from the wheat, on the cloth.

Then forth she brought the vessels full,
With silver covered, and set before them,
Meat all browned, and well-cooked birds;
In the pitcher was wine, of plate were the cups,
So drank they and talked till the day was gone.

Rig knew well wise words to speak,
Soon did he rise, made ready to sleep;
So in the bed himself did he lay,
And on either side the others were.

Thus was he there for three nights long,
Then forward he went on the midmost way,
And so nine months were soon passed by.

A son had Mothir, in silk they wrapped him,
With water they sprinkled him, Jarl he was;
Blond was his hair, and bright his cheeks,
Grim as a snake’s were his glowing eyes.

To grow in the house did Jarl begin,
Shields he brandished, and bow-strings wound,
Bows he shot, and shafts he fashioned,
Arrows he loosened, and lances wielded,
Horses he rode, and hounds unleashed,
Swords he handled, and sounds he swam.

Straight from the grove came striding Rig,
Rig came striding, and runes he taught him;
By his name he called him, as son he claimed him,
And bade him hold his heritage wide,
His heritage wide, the ancient homes.

. . . . . . . .
Forward he rode through the forest dark,
O’er the frosty crags, till a hall he found.

His spear he shook, his shield he brandished,
His horse he spurred, with his sword he hewed;
Wars he raised, and reddened the field,
Warriors slew he, and land he won.

Eighteen halls ere long did he hold,
Wealth did he get, and gave to all,
Stones and jewels and slim-flanked steeds,
Rings he offered, and arm-rings shared.

His messengers went by the ways so wet,
And came to the hall where Hersir dwelt;
His daughter was fair and slender-fingered,
Erna the wise the maiden was.

Her hand they sought, and home they brought her,
Wedded to Jarl the veil she wore;
Together they dwelt, their joy was great,
Children they had, and happy they lived.

Bur was the eldest, and Barn the next,
Joth and Athal, Arfi, Mog,
Nith and Svein, soon they began-
Sun and Nithjung— to play and swim;
Kund was one, and the youngest Kon.

Soon grew up the sons of Jarl,
Beasts they tamed, and bucklers rounded,
Shafts they fashioned, and spears they shook.

But Kon the Young learned runes to use,
Runes everlasting, the runes of life;
Soon could he well the warriors shield,
Dull the swordblade, and still the seas.

Bird-chatter learned he, flames could he lessen.,
Minds could quiet, and sorrows calm;
. . . . . . . .
The might and strength of twice four men.

With Rig-Jarl soon the runes he shared,
More crafty he was, and greater his wisdom;
The right he sought, and soon he won it,
Rig to be called, and runes to know.

Young Kon rode forth through forest and grove,
Shafts let loose, and birds he lured;
There spake a crow on a bough that sat:
“Why lurest thou, Kon, the birds to come?

“’Twere better forth on thy steed to fare,
. . . . . . . . and the host to slay.

“The halls of Dan and Danp are noble,
Greater their wealth than thou bast gained;
Good are they at guiding the keel,
Trying of weapons, and giving of wounds.