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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Bragi inn gamli Boddason (Bragi)

9th century; volume 3; ed. Margaret Clunies Ross;

1. Ragnarsdrápa (Rdr) - 12

Skj info: Bragi enn gamli, Norsk skjald, omkr. 800-850. (AI, 1-5, BI, 1-5).

Skj poems:
1. Ragnarsdrápa
2. Ubestemmelige vers
3. Lausavísur

It is not possible to be precise about either the dates of Bragi Boddason’s (Bragi) floruit or about the details of his life. Some of the latter are almost certainly legendary (e.g. the narratives associated with Bragi Lv 1abIV, VIII and Bragi Troll), while his sobriquet inn gamli ‘the Old’ places him almost in prehistory, seen from an Icelandic viewpoint. Landnámabók (Ldn, ÍF 1, 82) mentions him as being associated by marriage with the family of Arinbjǫrn hersir from Firðir (Fjordane) in Western Norway, and Egils saga (Eg, ÍF 2, 182) places him in the same context. Ldn tells that Bragi’s wife was Lopthœna, daughter of another poet, Erpr lútandi ‘the Stooping’. Bragi seems to have been active as a poet in Norway one or two generations before the settlement of Iceland, hence c. 850-70. In Skáldatal’s list of poets (SnE 1848-87, III, 251, 259, 270), Bragi is the first named skald whose works have survived, at least in part. There he is associated with three patrons: Bjǫrn at Haugi, probably a Norwegian ruler, though some sources consider him Swedish (see Jón Jóhannesson 1940), Eysteinn beli and Ragnarr loðbrók ‘Shaggy-breeches’, there said to be a Danish king who himself composed poetry. Snorri Sturluson (SnE 1998, I, 72-3) associates Bragi’s poem Ragnarsdrápa (Rdr) with Ragnarr loðbrók, and he may be one and the same as the Ragnarr mentioned in Rdr’s refrain and ‘the son of Sigurðr’ referred to in Rdr 2/4. If Bragi’s patron Ragnarr is to be identified with the Viking leader who led an attack on Paris in 845, supposedly died in a snake-pit at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, and was the father of the Ingware and Ubba that the F version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims led raids on England in the 860s and 70s (de Vries 1928a; McTurk 1991a), then their association is just possible chronologically and geographically, as Ragnarr’s connections within Scandinavia were with Norway as well as with Denmark (Smyth 1977, 17-20).

Alongside information about Bragi the poet, Icelandic traditions also mention a god or supernatural being of this name (Grí 44/7, Lok, Sigrdr 16/2, SnE 2005, 25). In the frame narrative of Skm, Snorri Sturluson represents Bragi as the god who informs a curious sea-giant Ægir about the nature of skaldic diction. The connection between Bragi the poet and Bragi the god is uncertain, but it seems likely that Bragi Boddason’s iconic status as the first skald whose poetry survived into historical times contributed to the formation of the concept of a deity closely associated with the practice of skaldic verse in a courtly context (cf. Anon EirmI, Eyv HákI). Some scholars have linked Bragi and the origin of dróttkvætt with the influence of Irish poetry and culture, but their arguments are inconclusive (cf. Turville-Petre 1971; Kuhn 1983, 272-5; Sayers 1992).

Ragnarsdrápa (‘Drápa about Ragnarr’) — Bragi RdrIII

Margaret Clunies Ross 2017, ‘ Bragi inn gamli Boddason, Ragnarsdrápa’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 27. <> (accessed 7 July 2022)

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Skj: Bragi enn gamli: 1. Ragnarsdrápa (AI, 1-4, BI, 1-4); stanzas (if different): 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20

in texts: FoGT, Gramm, LaufE, Skm, SnE

SkP info: III, 27

notes: in SnE and Hkr (verse 13)

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


A majority of scholars, going back to Gísli Brynjúlfsson (1860), have considered all but a small number of the stanzas (extant mainly in mss of SnE) ascribed to Bragi Boddason (see his Biography above) to belong to a single dróttkvætt drápa, named Ragnarsdrápa ‘Drápa about Ragnarr’ (Bragi Rdr), describing mythic and legendary scenes on a decorated shield. It has been assumed that Rdr comprised some introductory stanzas (of which two helmingar remain), four full stanzas and a stef ‘refrain’ on the subject of the legendary Hamðir’s and Sǫrli’s killing of the Gothic tyrant Jǫrmunrekkr, another group of four full stanzas and stef about the valkyrie Hildr and the Hjaðningar, a single stanza (presumed to be the remains of another group of four stanzas and stef) about Gefjun’s acquisition of the island of Sjælland (Zealand) from the Swedish king Gylfi, and a group of six helmingar on the god Þórr’s fight with the World Serpent, Miðgarðsormr. Skj, followed by Skald, adds to this number a helmingr (numbered 20) on another of Þórr’s deeds, his throwing of the giant Þjazi’s eyes up into the sky where they became stars. Thus twenty full or half-stanzas have conventionally been ascribed to Rdr, based on the assumption, following Gísli Brynjúlfsson, that the kind of ornate shield Bragi describes as having been presented to him by his patron, Ragnarr, would have had four sections and four legendary or mythological subjects. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis; the only extant near-complete skaldic ekphrasis, Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s Haustlǫng ‘Autumn-long’ (Þjóð Haustl), has two subjects, while the incomplete Úlfr Uggason’s Húsdrápa ‘House-drápa’ (ÚlfrU Húsdr) has three surviving subjects.

However, there is no doubt that what survives of Rdr is an ekphrasis, a poem that describes in words what the poet can see in a visual medium, usually on a precious object or on a splendid building (see further Clunies Ross 2006b; 2007; Fuglesang 2007). Along with Þjóð Haustl (c. 900) and ÚlfrU Húsdr (c. 980), Rdr is one of only three known ekphraseis in early Norse poetry, although other surviving fragments of poems on mythological subjects may also have belonged to this genre. Húsdrápa describes wood-carvings (or possibly paintings) of mythological narratives on the walls of a splendid hall in Iceland (see ÚlfrU Húsdr Introduction). Like Haustl, Rdr describes scenes painted on an ornate shield, presented to the poet by his patron. In each case the stef or refrain reminds the audience of that connection, naming the patron (Ragnarr, Þorleifr) and the shield, the latter by means of elaborate kennings. Many characteristics of the diction of Rdr indicate its status as ekphrasis: the use of direct address to an audience, the many references to the shield itself, and the compressed but vivid narrative detail of the main section of the poem.

Although SnE is the main source for Bragi’s stanzas, Snorri only identifies the Jǫrmunrekkr (3-8) and Hildr stanzas (9-12) as specifically belonging to Rdr. In the first case (SnE 1998, I, 50-1), the stanzas are quoted as a block, and introduced by the explanatory statement Bragi hinn gamli orti um fall Sǫrla ok Hamðis í drápu þeiri er hann orti um Ragnar loðbrók ‘Bragi the Old composed about the death of Sǫrli and Hamðir in the drápa (poem with a refrain) that he composed about Ragnarr loðbrók’. In the second case (SnE 1998, I, 72-3) sts 9-12, also quoted as a sequence, are introduced thus: Eptir þessi sǫgu orti Bragi skáld í Ragna<r>sdrápu loðbrókar ‘Based on this story [the battle of the Hjaðningar] Bragi the poet composed [poetry] in Ragnarsdrápa loðbrókar’. Each of these sequences has a stef that mentions a Ragnarr and his gift of a shield together with a multitude of stories depicted on it. Thus both internal and external evidence confirms that sts 3-12 belong to Rdr.

Indications that the two introductory helmingar belonged to Rdr are by no means as strong as those for sts 3-12. The evidence is circumstantial and (in the case of st. 2) internal and is discussed in the Notes. Two other fragments (here edited as Bragi Frag 5 and 6) attributed to Bragi celebrating generous patrons are cited in SnE, but are not conventionally associated with Rdr.

The remainder of Bragi’s stanzas are attributed to him in SnE and (in a few cases) in other sources but are not specifically associated there with Rdr. Of these, this edition only acknowledges sts 1-2, the two introductory helmingar, as reasonably likely to belong to Rdr. The stanza on Gefjun, given as Rdr 13 in Skj and Skald, is here treated more conservatively as Bragi Frag 1. The six helmingar on Þórr’s fishing expedition are treated as parts of a separate poem, Bragi Þórr, possibly part of a shield-poem or a poem descriptive of some other pictorial representation of the myth, while the helmingr on Þjazi (Skj’s Rdr 20) appears here as Bragi Frag 2.

Most scholars have accepted that Rdr and Bragi’s poetry generally are of ninth-century date and pointed to such features as the sporadic observance of hendingar, especially aðalhending in the even lines, and the relatively straightforward word order, while acknowledging that both diction and metre show the dróttkvætt stanza to be already fully operational by his time (cf. de Vries 1957). However, Marold (1986b), following the earlier views of Sophus Bugge (1894), has associated Rdr with the reconquest of Northumberland by the Danes 980-1015 and thus disputes its early date.

The normalised text of Rdr is here based on the Codex Regius of SnE, R, the basis for most modern editions of SnE. This ms. contains all stanzas ascribed to Rdr in this edition. In addition, the following mss of SnE contain all or some of the stanzas of Rdr: (all stanzas); W (sts 1-3, 8-12); U (sts 1-2); A (sts 1-2); C (sts 1-7). It should be noted that W’s text of st. 3 is cited, not in SnE, but in FoGT.

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