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Runic Dictionary

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Óttarr svarti (Ótt)

11th century; volume 1; ed. Matthew Townend;

1. Hǫfuðlausn (Hfl) - 20

The Icelandic poet Óttarr svarti ‘the Black’ (Ótt) was remembered in the twelfth century (ESk Geisl 12) as one of the hǫfuðskǫld ‘chief skalds’ of the late Viking Age. His nickname would seem to locate him within the tradition of poets being ‘dark’ in either appearance or temperament (see Clunies Ross 1978b; Finlay 2000). According to Styrmir Kárason (ÓH 1941, II, 688), the poet Sigvatr Þórðarson (Sigv) was a mikill vinr ‘great friend’ of Óttarr, and indeed Óttarr’s Hǫfuðlausn (Ótt Hfl) is greatly indebted to Sigvatr’s Víkingarvísur (Sigv Víkv, see Introduction to Hfl). Snorri Sturluson (ÍF 27, 144; ÓH 1941, I, 203) further describes Óttarr as Sigvatr’s maternal nephew, and if this is correct he would have been the grandson of Þórðr Sigvaldaskáld ‘Poet of Sigvaldi’ (see Biography of Sigvatr Þórðarson). Óttarr features in the various sagas of Óláfr Haraldsson, but the only major anecdote about him is the story surrounding his Hfl (see Introduction).

Skáldatal, in one or both of its recensions (SnE 1848-87, III, 252, 253, 258, 260, 261, 267, 269), lists Óttarr as having composed for six patrons: the Danes Sveinn tjúguskegg ‘Fork-beard’ Haraldsson and his son Knútr inn ríki Sveinsson (Cnut the Great); Óláfr sœnski ‘the Swede’ Eiríksson and his son Ǫnundr Óláfsson; and the Norwegian King Óláfr inn helgi Haraldsson (S. Óláfr), and the Norwegian magnate Dala-Guðbrandr (‘Guðbrandr of the Dales’, on whom, see ÍF 27, 183-90; ÓH 1941, I, 271-82). For Sveinn and Dala-Guðbrandr, Óttarr is the only poet listed in Skáldatal. Panegyric poetry by Óttarr is certainly extant for three of these patrons: Óláfsdrápa (ÓldrIII) for Óláfr Eiríksson (preserved only in SnE and therefore edited in SkP III), Hfl for Óláfr Haraldsson, and Knútsdrápa (Knútdr) and Lv 2 for Knútr. It has, moreover, been suggested that one stanza in Knútdr may have been misplaced from an earlier poem for Sveinn (see Note to st. 9 [All]). No poetry survives for Ǫnundr or Dala-Guðbrandr. From all the evidence, it is likely that Óttarr visited, and composed, for, his patrons in this order: Sveinn until his death in 1014; Óláfr Eiríksson until his death c. 1021 (though ÓHLeg 1982, 130-1, has Óttarr, a young man fresh from Iceland, approaching him as his first patron), then his son Ǫnundr; Óláfr Haraldsson in the early 1020s, and Dala-Guðbrandr in the same period; Knútr by c. 1027 for an unknown period (Knútr died in 1035). For previous discussions of Óttarr’s career, see SnE 1848-87, III, 326-33, LH I, 574-7 and Poole (1993b).

Hǫfuðlausn (‘Head-ransom’) — Ótt HflI

Matthew Townend 2012, ‘ Óttarr svarti, Hǫfuðlausn’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 739. <> (accessed 30 June 2022)

stanzas:  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20 

Skj: Óttarr svarti: 2. Hǫfuðlausn, o. 1023 (AI, 290-6, BI, 268-72); stanzas (if different): 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20

in texts: FGT, Flat, Fsk, Gramm, Hkr, Knýtl, Orkn, ÓH, ÓHHkr, ÓHLeg, ÓHÆ, Skm, SnE

SkP info: I, 739

notes: incomplete list of mss

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


Óttarr svarti’s Hǫfuðlausn ‘Head-ransom’ (Ótt Hfl), in honour of King Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway (r. c. 1015-30), is predominantly preserved in Snorri Sturluson’s Óláfs saga helga in both the Separate version (ÓH) and Hkr version (ÓHHkr). A few stanzas or helmingar are also preserved in ÓHÆ, ÓHLeg, Fsk, Knýtl, Orkn, SnE and FGT; indeed, st. 8/5-8 comprise four out of only six lines cited in FGT. The poem’s preservation in such a wide variety of sources suggests it was Óttarr’s best-known work. There seems little reason to question the traditional assumption that all the twenty stanzas now extant belong to one and the same poem by Óttarr for Óláfr. They are all in standard dróttkvætt metre, and some (e.g. sts 1/7-8, 2/3-4, 3/7-8, 4/3-4) show the use of dunhent or dunhenda ‘echoing-rhymed’, in which the stem of the last word of the odd line is repeated as the first word of the following even line (cf. SnSt Ht 24III; see further Hollander 1946, 906-7), or of similar effects. However, sts 17-19 lack the use of dunhent found in the earlier stanzas, as well as having a somewhat different focus, as does st. 20, and so it is at least conceivable that they do not belong in Hfl.

There are relatively few problems in terms of establishing the sequence of stanzas, with the principal exception of st. 5, which is preserved without narrative context in SnE. Skj (followed by Skald) places this at the end of the poem, but clearly it must belong with one of the sections concerned with Óláfr’s sea-voyages. Its position in this edition as st. 5 must inevitably be hypothetical, though its description of a storm-tossed voyage fits well with the preceding st. 4; an alternative position might be between sts 14 and 15. Fidjestøl (1982, 124) alternatively suggests the two stray helmingar 5 and 6 might have formed a stanza together. The place of st. 13 in Óláfr’s career and in the poem can be established on historical grounds despite discrepant placing in sagas and in modern editions: see Note to st. 13 [All].

All the stanzas printed here are attributed to Óttarr, except that st. 20 is attributed to ‘Arnórr’ in U. As to the title, although all but one of the stanzas are preserved in works by Snorri (st. 1 is the exception), it is striking that Snorri never calls the poem Hǫfuðlausn, but simply (ÍF 27, 172) drápu þeiri, er hann orti um Óláf konung ‘the drápa which he [Óttarr] composed about King Óláfr’. As for their personal relations, Snorri (ÍF 27, 191) reports that, following the death of his patron King Óláfr Eiríksson of Sweden (c. 1021), Óttarr came to Óláfr Haraldsson at the Sóleyjar (Solør) islands and asked to enter into his service. Óttarr’s uncle Sigvatr Þórðarson was already a member of Óláfr’s court, and Óttarr seems to have joined him there; Skáldatal (SnE 1848-87, III, 253, 261) lists Óttarr among Óláfr’s poets. For the entire ‘head-ransom’ dimension, we have to turn to sources other than Snorri, to the Óláfr tradition represented by ÓHÆ, ÓHLeg and Styrmir Kárason’s Lífssaga, which is also the body of tradition that preserves the three lausavísur attributed to Óttarr (Ótt Lv 1-3). Styrmir’s Article 7 in Flat (printed as Article 10 in ÓH 1941, II, 688-9) tells that Óttarr composed a mansǫngsdrápa ‘love-song drápa’ about Ástríðr, the daughter of Óláfr Eiríksson and the wife of Óláfr Haraldsson. This greatly displeased Óláfr Haraldsson, and when Óttarr came to Norway Óláfr had him placed in a dungeon, with the intention of killing him. However, Sigvatr (here presented only as Óttarr’s friend, not his relative) encouraged Óttarr to compose a praise-poem for Óláfr, which Óttarr did within three nights, and the recitation of this poem before Óláfr and the court effected the necessary reconciliation between the poet and the king: sia drapa er kollud Hofudlausn er Ottar orti vm Olaf konung fyrir þui at Ottar þa hofud sitt fra bana at kuædis launum ‘that poem is called Head-ransom which Óttarr composed about King Óláfr because Óttarr saved his head as a reward for the poem’ (ÓH 1941, II, 689; also in Flat 1860-8, III, 243). Versions of this story are also told in the redactions of ÓH in Bæb, Bb, and Tóm (printed in ÓH 1941, II, 702-6), and Tóm (uniquely) quotes the whole of st. 1 in the process, while briefer accounts, together with st. 1/1, occur in ÓHÆ and ÓHLeg. The ‘head-ransom’ story is a widespread narrative pattern (Nordland 1956), and two other skaldic poems with the title Hǫfuðlausn survive, by Egill Skallagrímsson (Egill HflV) and Þórarinn loftunga (Þloft Hfl, only one couplet extant).

On Óttarr’s narrative technique see Jesch (2006b). In composing this poem (which is here referred to as Hǫfuðlausn, in spite of Snorri’s silence) Óttarr clearly drew extensively on Sigvatr’s Víkingarvísur (Sigv Víkv), which celebrate the young Óláfr’s viking expeditions overseas (see Grove 2009); the greater part of Óttarr’s poem is accordingly concerned with Óláfr’s youthful campaigns (on which see Johnsen 1916). After a call for a hearing (sts 1-2), Óttarr details Óláfr’s adventures in Denmark, Sweden, and the Baltic (sts 3-7, cf. Víkv 1-3, with a return west in sts 4, 5), England (sts 8-11, cf. Víkv 6-9), France (st. 12, cf. Víkv 10-14, set in France and Spain), and England again (st. 13), before turning to his conquest of Norway (sts 14-18, cf. Víkv 15) and his present pre-eminence (sts 19-20); cf. Notes to sts 8, 12 and 13 [All] for comment on historical content. In the account of Óláfr’s early campaigns, especially in England, Óttarr no doubt exaggerates the importance of his role enormously; where we have other (non-Scandinavian) sources to compare for these events, only one mentions Óláfr at all (see Note to st. 12 [All]). What Óttarr’s Hfl offers us, then, is a lengthy praise-poem in honour of Óláfr from the time of his most secure rule in Norway, and it thus has much to tell us about Óláfr’s position, reputation, and self-perception in the early 1020s, as well as about his early career.

Since the majority of stanzas are preserved in ÓH and Hkr, the leading Hkr ms. has been selected here as the main ms. (for sts 3, 4, 6-20), though for certain stanzas (sts 4, 10, 15 and 17) a slightly better reading is preserved in Holm2 (the leading ms. of the A class of ÓH mss). For the stanzas preserved only in SnE (sts 2 and 5) R has been selected as main ms., and Tóm, unusually, for st. 1 since it has the only complete text; this is supplemented by 761bˣ (see Note to st. 1 [All]). The ÓH mss used are: Holm2, 325V, Flat, Tóm for sts 3, 4, 6, 7, 8/1-4, 9-20, plus J, J1ˣ, J2ˣ, 325VI, 75a, 321ˣ, 73aˣ, 78aˣ, 68, 61, Holm4, 75c, 325VII and 325XI 2 i for subsets of these. The Óláfs saga helga text in the Jöfraskinna transcripts J1ˣ, J2ˣ belongs to the ÓH rather than Hkr redaction, except that for sts 18/8 and 19, J2ˣ and the vellum fragment J have text belonging to the Hkr redaction; see Note to st. 19 [All]. The Bb text of Hfl belongs to the ÓH redaction except that for sts 17-20 it follows a Hkr ms.; see Note to st. 17 [All]. The remaining mss used are: the ÓHÆ ms. NRA52 for st. 1/1 only; the ÓHLeg ms. DG8 for sts 1/1 and 20; the Fsk mss FskAˣ, FskBˣ for sts 13, 20; JÓ (the 1741 edition of Knýtl) and the Knýtl mss 20dˣ, 873ˣ for st. 13; the Orkn mss 332ˣ, Flat for st. 20; the SnE mss R, , A, B, C for sts 2 (twice in R, , W), 5, 20/5-8, plus U, W for subsets of these and 744ˣ to supplement B where it is badly damaged in sts 5 and 20/5-8; and finally the FGT ms. W for st. 8/5-8.

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