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Runic Dictionary

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Þorleifr jarlsskáld Rauðfeldarson (Þjsk)

10th century; volume 1; ed. Kate Heslop;

I. 1. Poem about Hákon (Hák) - 2

Þorleifr jarlsskáld ‘Jarl’s poet’ (Þjsk), son of Ásgeirr rauðfeldr ‘Red-cloak’, was born at Brekka in Svarfaðardalur in northern Iceland in the mid to late tenth century, and must have been alive c. 970-c. 995. It is impossible to be more definite about his dates as neither Svarfdœla saga nor Þorleifs þáttr jarlaskálds (ÞorlJ) in Flat, the only narrative sources, has a consistent chronology (ÍF 9, xcii, xcvii). Many sources mention Þorleifr as a skald: Ldn (ÍF 1, 254), both versions of Skáldatal (SnE 1848-87, III, 256, 266), Sneglu-Halla þáttr (ÍF 9, 285-6), ÓTOdd (ÍF 25, 191), and HaukrV Ísldr 18IV. Some stanzas are attributed to Þorleifr in Hkr, ÓT, TGT and FoGT, but the bulk of the poetry attributed to him and almost all the biographical information about him is preserved only in ÞorlJ (ÍF 9, 312-29).

According to ÞorlJ, Þorleifr flees Iceland for Norway as a young man, but soon leaves for Denmark after a dispute over trading rights ends with Hákon jarl Sigurðarson burning his ship and executing his crew (Lv 5). He is said to have composed a forty-stanza encomium for King Sveinn tjúguskegg ‘Fork-beard’ of Denmark (Drápa about Sveinn tjúguskegg; Sveindr), but only the stef ‘refrain’ is extant. While staying with Sveinn, he visits Norway and gets his revenge on Hákon by performing a níð poem (Jarlsníð; Jarl) which causes the jarl’s hair to fall out; one stanza is cited in ÞorlJ. After this Sveinn gives Þorleifr his byname, jarlaskáld ‘Jarls’ poet’ and speaks a stanza about the níð (Svtjúg Lv). However, the þáttr’s use of the genitive plural jarla ‘of jarls’ may be incorrect, for TGT calls him jarlsskáld ‘Jarl’s poet’, Skáldatal lists him as a skald of Hákon but not Eiríkr (and the U version calls him ‘Hákonarskáld’), and Þorleifr is not known to have composed poetry about any other jarl (Nj 1875-8, II, 283-4; ÍF 9, xcvii n. 1; see Almqvist 1965-74, I, 197 for a contrary view). The names of poet and þáttr therefore appear with alternation of jarls- and jarla- in printed sources, and the present edition uses jarls- for the poet and jarla- for the þáttr. Þorleifr subsequently returns to Iceland and settles at Höfðabrekka in Myrdalur in the south of the country. He is, according to ÞorlJ, assassinated at the Alþingi by an enchanted wooden golem, a trémaðr with a man’s heart which Hákon has created with the help of his tutelary goddesses, Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr and Irpa (cf. Lv 6). Þorleifr’s burial mound at Þingvellir is said to have still been visible at the time the þáttr was composed, probably in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century (Harris 1993, 672). Much of this narrative is clearly fictional, and there is reason to suspect the genuineness of most of the stanzas attributed to Þorleifr in ÞorlJ (see Notes to Sveindr and Lv 5 and 6). However, widespread references in reliable sources put Þorleifr’s activity as a skald, his association with Hákon, and his composition of níð about the jarl beyond doubt.

Poem about Hákon — Þjsk HákI

Kate Heslop 2012, ‘ Þorleifr jarlsskáld Rauðfeldarson, Poem about Hákon’ 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. 369. <> (accessed 1 July 2022)

stanzas:  1   2 

Skj: Þórleifr jarlsskáld Rauðfeldarson: 1. Hákonardrápa, o. 986 (AI, 141, BI, 132)

in texts: Flat, FoGT, Gramm, Hkr, ÓT, ÓTC, TGT

SkP info: I, 369

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


One whole stanza and one helmingr (Þjsk Hák) address conventionally hyperbolic praise to Hákon jarl Sigurðarson (r. c. 970- c. 995) for his military successes, and are attributed to Þorleifr in various texts. They have been assigned by editors to an otherwise lost poem for Hákon, dated to the late tenth century, and this arrangement (though not the editorial title Hákonardrápa) has been retained here since Þorleifr is clearly listed as Hákon’s skald in Skáldatal (see Biography of Þorleifr). However, the fragments are puzzling given the bitter enmity which characterises their relationship in ÞorlJ. Earlier editors have therefore posited (a) that two sets of Þorleifr skalds and Hákon jarls have been confused (Guðbrandur Vigfússon 1856, 391-2; this idea has not found favour); (b) that good relations initially existed between the two but later broke down (Nj 1875-8, II, 283-4 n. 253; Finnur Jónsson, LH I, 538, though the visit to Norway in the 980s described by Finnur is pure speculation); or (c) that these stanzas should instead be assigned to the first part of Þorleifr’s níð against Hákon (Þjsk Jarl). The last suggestion, made by Almqvist (1965-74, I, 197), is based on the account of ÞorlJ (ÍF 9, 222), which says about Þorleifr’s níð: Þá hefr karl upp kvæðit ok kveðr framan til miðs, ok þykkir jarli lof í hverri vísu ok finnr, at þar er getit ok í framaverka Eiríks, sonar hans ‘Then the old man [Þorleifr in disguise] begins the poem and recites it up to the halfway point, and there seems to the jarl to be praise in every stanza, and he feels that the outstanding deeds of his son Eiríkr are mentioned there too’.

Some scholars (SnE 1848-87, III, 711; Ohlmarks 1958, 398-9) have claimed that the poem is about Hákon’s battle against the Jómsvíkingar at Hjǫrungavágr (Liavågen, c. 985); but see Megaard (1999, 49).

Stanza 1 is preserved in Hkr (Kˣ as main ms., F, J1ˣ, J2ˣ) and its first helmingr is in ÓT (61, 53, 54, Bb, Flat); st. 2 is only in TGT (A as main ms., W) and FoGT (W).

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