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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Ormr Steinþórsson (Ormr)

11th century; volume 3; ed. Russell Poole;

1. Poem about a woman (Woman) - 7

Skj info: Ormr Steinþórsson, Islandsk skjald, 11. årh.(?) (AI, 415-416, BI, 385-386).

Skj poems:
1. Af et digt om en kvinde (?)
2. Af et ubestemmeligt digt

Nothing is known about Ormr Steinþórsson (Ormr). The patronymic indicates that he was probably an Icelander rather than a Norwegian (Ólafur Halldórsson 1969b, 156). Finnur Jónsson (Skj AI, 415) places him in the eleventh century, with a query, but commonalities between his work and certain other poems, noted below, make a floruit in the late twelfth century, perhaps even the turn of the thirteenth, more probable. He appears from the internal evidence of poetic fragments attributed to him to have composed for both male and female patrons; one of the male recipients was evidently blind (see Introduction to Ormr Frag below).

Poem about a woman — Ormr WomanIII

Russell Poole 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Ormr Steinþórsson, Poem about a woman’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 323.

 1   2   3   4   5   6 

for reference only:  1x 

Skj: Ormr Steinþórsson: 1. Af et digt om en kvinde (?) (AI, 415-416, BI, 385); stanzas (if different): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

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

SkP info: III, 323

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


The stanzas considered to originate in a putative ‘Poem about a Woman’ (Ormr Woman) are in hálfhnept ‘half-curtailed’ metre, in which the final foot in each line is a monosyllable (see ‘Skaldic metres’ in General Introduction, SkP I, lxiii). Stanzas 1-5 (each a helmingr) are preserved in Skm (SnE) (mss R (main ms.), and W). Ms. W includes st. 4 twice, once in Skm and once in TGT (the latter ll. 1-2 only). Ms. U has all stanzas except st. 3. Mss A and C have sts 2, 3 and 4. Ms. B has sts 1, 3 and 5; the text of 3/3-4 in this ms. is only partially legible, however, and here reference is made to 744ˣ. Stanzas 2 and 4 also appear in LaufE (mss 2368ˣ and 743ˣ). Ms. 761bˣ contains sts 1-5, apparently transcribed from W with marginal variant readings from other mss, all of which are extant, and therefore it is not included in the critical apparatus.

Stanza 6 (also a helmingr) is attested uniquely in LaufE (mss 2368ˣ, 1496ˣ and 738ˣ) and is thought to derive from a now lost section of ms. W of SnE (Jón Helgason 1966a, 175). Lines 2-4 of st. 6 are also quoted separately in copies of LaufE, having possibly been added by Björn á Skarðsá (LaufE 1979, 152). Stanza 6 is attributed to Ormr in Lbs 1116ˣ but is anonymous in other mss (ibid.).

Attribution of sts 1-5 to Ormr (Steinþórsson) is strongly attested in the mss and is accepted in modern scholarship (see below). So too is the proposition that all six fragments belong to a single poem, though the sources give no explicit indication to that effect. Guðbrandur Vigfússon (CPB II, 322-3) placed sts 1, 2, 5, 4, and 6 together in that order as fragments of a ‘dirge’ for a lady. Skj, followed by Skald, groups five stanzas in what is tentatively termed Af et digt om en kvinde(?) ‘From a poem about a woman(?)’; st. 6 is omitted from Skj (and Skald), though Finnur Jónsson’s intention to include it is evident, as noted by Jón Helgason (1966a, 177), from the entries for 2. Fríðr and 2. gustr in LP, which cite ‘Ormr 6 (AM 738)’; the fragment is not cited in LP (1860). The ordering in Skj (and hence Skald) – (our) sts 5, 1, 4, 2, 3 – adheres to the sequence of citation in SnE.

The present edition accepts that the stanzas stem from a single poem and an attempt is made to order them according to their inner logic. Stanza 1 contains an assurance about the propriety of the poem’s theme, a topic that could have followed the customary call for a hearing in the upphaf ‘introduction’. Stanza 2 can be read as continuing directly from st. 1. It alludes to the delivery of the poem in the present tense (not the past, as would be natural at the conclusion of a poem); the perfect tense of ‘I have placed the mark’ could refer forward to a feature of the poem that the audience has as yet not heard, the disclosure of the lady’s name via ofljóst ‘too transparent’ in st. 6. Ólafur Halldórsson (1990, 231) has instead proposed placing st. 2 after st. 6, where the ‘mark’ occurs, possibly as the second helmingr of one stanza, but this is less likely, since the present tense of berk ‘I deliver’ would clash with the preterite of mærðak ‘I honoured’ (a probable emendation: see Note to st. 6/2). Stanza 3 contains a description of a lady that, as Faulkes (SnE 1998, I, 216) remarks, better fits the recipient of the poem than the subject of its inset narrative, Snæfríðr (on whom, see below). It can be read as further justifying the assurances in the previous fragments: the lady is beyond reproach, which ought to act as guarantee for a poem composed in her honour. As noted by Faulkes (SnE 1998, I, 161), it might have served as a stef ‘refrain’. Stanza 4, describing the dressing of a deceased woman in burial clothing, most probably contains an episode from the inset narrative. Stanza 5 shows a speaker apparently within this narrative expressing a wish to be interred with the woman once they are both dead (but see Note to st. 5/3). Stanza 6 is a natural component in the poem’s slœmr ‘conclusion’ in that it contains good wishes for the female dedicatee (Jón Helgason 1966a, 177), with a form of the verb njóta ‘enjoy’, which characteristically features in such conclusions (Poole 1985b, 275-6).

On this logic, sts 1, 2, 3 and 6 belong to a narrative frame and sts 4 and 5 to the story within the frame. For the suggestion that this story was that of King Haraldr hárfagri’s ‘Fair-hair’s’ deluded love for the Saami woman Snæfríðr (lit. ‘Snow-fair One’) and that all the extant stanzas in hálfhnept attributed to Ormr, along with Hhárf Snædr 1I (also in hálfhnept metre), originally formed parts of a Snæfríðardrápa, see Ólafur Halldórsson (1969b) and (1990), Poole (1982) and Hhárf SnædrI (cf. also Bjarni Einarsson 1961, 35). The story of Haraldr hárfagri and Snæfríðr is told in Ágr (ÍF 29, 5-6), Hkr (ÍF 26, 125-7) and Flat (1860-8, I, 582). Haraldr is enticed by one Svási, who according to Flat is a dwarf, into meeting his daughter Snæfríðr. He feels burning desire for her and becomes so infatuated that he never leaves her side so long as she lives. At her death, a sheet or shroud (blæja) called Svásanautr ‘Svási’s gift’ is draped over her. Through its magical properties, her complexion remains unaltered, leading the king to imagine that she might revive. He remains with her for three years and will not allow her body to be buried. Haraldr recites a poem about her called Snæfríðardrápa, from which the upphaf ‘beginning’ is cited in Flat. Eventually, a wise counsellor persuades the king to allow the shroud to be removed. When the true, corrupt state of the corpse is revealed, the king comes to his senses and allows it to be buried. For verbal resemblances between Ormr Woman and Hhárf Snædr 1I, see Notes to sts 1/1, 1/4 and 5/3-4 below.

If the hypothesis that Ormr is telling the story of Haraldr and Snæfríðr can be sustained, the overall schema of the drápa would have much in common with that of Bjbp JómsI: like Bjarni Kolbeinsson in his treatment of Vagn Ákason, Ormr appears to focus on a great Viking-Age hero and to offset the hero’s legendary love with the poet’s own ‘fine amour’ for a lady of distinction (Poole 1982, 133-4). For the place of such a poem in the late twelfth-century literary milieu see Introduction to Bjbp JómsI. The stef of the evidently contemporary Anon Mhkv (sts 11/5-8, 17/5-8, 20/5-8) also refers to the crazed love of Haraldr for Snæfríðr.

The woman of the narrative frame has been tentatively identified by Ólafur Halldórsson (1990, 231) with one Unnr húsfreyja ‘House-wife’, who is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga (Orkn ch. 61, ÍF 34, 133-4) as hostess to Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson and Jón Pétrsson at an inn in Bergen, Norway, a little before 1130, but the name Unnr is common and unless we assume the bearer of it to have been long-lived, this linkage would push the date of the poem back further than seems plausible on other grounds (cf. Ólafur Halldórsson 1969b, 156-7)

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