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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to stanza

3. Úlfr Uggason, Húsdrápa, 10 [Vol. 3, 420]

[2, 3] sylgs heilags tafns ‘to the drink of the holy sacrifice’: A variety of different explanations have been suggested for this phrase. The present edn takes the words heilags tafns in their denotative meaning as ‘the holy sacrifice’. Although tafn in skaldic poetry usually refers to corpses that have been left for wolves and ravens (LP: tafn 1), in one case the word in fact occurs in the sense ‘sacrifice’ (LP: tafn 3). Beyond this singular attestation there is evidence for the use of tafn both in Christian and in heathen sacrificial contexts in (mostly Christian) prose texts (Fritzner: tafn). Heilagt tafn ‘holy sacrifice’ has often been explained as a term for Baldr’s corpse (so Skj B; Skald; Neckel 1920, 45-6), but the traditions surrounding Baldr’s funeral give no indication that he was sacrificed; he is shot, his death is mourned by the gods and they try to bring him back. Neckel (1920, 46) adduced the influence of Christian thought in an attempt to explain why Baldr was referred to as tafn, but this is unlikely, because in the early days of Christianity in the North Christ was rather seen as a mighty conqueror of death and of Satan. Likewise, Krause’s (1934, 119) theory that the ‘holy sacrifice’ was Kvasir, whose blood was used to make the mead of poetry, cannot be correct, because there is no evidence that Kvasir was sacrificed. Since there are no known myths that connect heilagt tafn with either Baldr or Kvasir, the best explanation is that the phrase refers to a ‘holy sacrifice’ in connection with Baldr’s funeral. Unfortunately, there are almost no written accounts of sacrifices at heathen funerals, but there are many finds in mounds of animal skeletons that can be interpreted as sacrifices. Steuer (2003a, 90) points to numerous horse funerals in connection with warrior graves all over Scandinavia (for Iceland, see Müller-Wille 1970-1, 163-9). In all these cases the horses could be funeral gifts intended for the dead, but they could also be the remains of sacrifices that had taken place during the funeral ceremonies (Steuer 2003a, 54). Even more telling are finds of unburned horse bones near or in cremation burials in Birka, Sweden. Gräslund (1980, 60) regarded these as possible remains of horse sacrifices. These interpretations of archaeological finds are corroborated by the early C10th account of Ibn Fadlān, an Arab who wrote a detailed report on his journey as an ambassador of Caliph al-Muqtadir (908-20). He describes a funeral feast for a Rusj (?) chieftain on the shores of the river Volga in Russia. The dead chieftain was seated, magnificently dressed, in a ship which had been dragged ashore and placed on big wooden blocks. Then a dog, a cow, a cock and a hen were slaughtered and cast into the ship, likewise two horses, cut into pieces (Charles-Dominique 1995, 62; for the reliability of this source see Bæk Simonsen 1981, 46-51). This is especially interesting as it accords with the evidence of the Icelandic horse burials where it seems that sometimes only legs or other pieces were buried (Müller-Wille 1970-1, 165). In the light of the cumulative force of all this evidence, the present edn takes tafn to refer to a heathen funeral sacrifice, possibly of a horse. In this context it should also be mentioned that st. 11/5-8, as it is interpreted in this edn, refers to the slaying of a horse. There are several interpretations of sylgr ‘gulp, drink’. (a) If tafn refers to an animal sacrifice (see above), sylgr could refer to a drink administered in connection with the sacrifice itself. In HákgóðHkr (ch. 17, ÍF 26, 171), for example, King Hákon is forced to participate in a heathen ceremony, and he has to eat parts of a sacrificial horse (hrossaslátr) and drink a broth (soðit). Such a broth could be what is meant by sylgs heilags tafns ‘drink of the holy sacrifice’. This interpretation could be contradicted by another tradition attested in connection with Baldr’s horse being burnt at the funeral: After listing the hesta heiti in Gylf (SnE 2005, 17), Snorri says: Baldrs hestr var brendr með honum ‘Baldrs horse was burned with him’. Further, in connection with Baldrs funeral it is said that Baldr’s horse was led to the funeral pyre (Gylf SnE 2005, 47): Óðinn lagði á báli gullhring þann er Draupnir heitir … Hestr Baldrs var leiddr á bálit með ǫllu reiði ‘Óðinn laid the gold ring called Draupnir on the pyre … Baldr’s horse was led to the pyre together with all its tackle’. This context suggests that Baldr’s horse was thought of as a funeral gift and not as a sacrifice, and it was possibly not identical with the horse of st. 11/5-8. (b) Most previous scholars have taken sylgs heilags tafns to mean ‘blood’, either of the sacrificed Baldr (Skj B), of something sacrificed to Óðinn (Hofmann 1984, 319) or of Kvasir (Krause 1934, 119). But an interpretation of heilagt tafn as Baldr or Kvasir is not possible (see above). (c) Kock (NN §1891) offers an entirely different explanation of sylgr, which he connects with heilags tafns and takes to mean ‘guzzler, devourer’ (‘devourer of the holy sacrifice’) as a reference to the funeral pyre. However, sylgr is a noun denoting the action of the strong verb svelga ‘swallow, drink’, and it is not an agent noun as Kock translates it (cf. Hofmann 1984, 315, Krause 1934, 117 and Turville-Petre 1976, 69). However one interprets the phrase sylgs heilags tafns, the question remains how the gen. sylgs ought to be understood. Finnur Jónsson (Skj B; LP: sylgr) takes it as an absolute gen. used adverbially, meaning ‘toward, in the direction of’ (cf. NS §141), and the present edn follows him. No attempt to conjoin sylgs heilags tafns and sigrunni has so far yielded a convincing explanation. Krause (1934, 119-20) interprets sigrunni sylgs heilags tafns as a kenning for Óðinn, ‘victory-tree [WARRIOR] of the drink of the holy sacrifice [= Kvasir > POETRY > = Óðinn]’. This interpretation is contradicted by the fact that Kvasir cannot be the ‘holy sacrifice’ (see above). Likewise, Hofmann’s (1984, 319-20) attempt to solve the problem by emending sigrunni to sigrenni is unconvincing. He suggests the interpretation svinnum sigrenni sylgs heilags tafns ‘to the wise (god) who lets the blood of the holy sacrifice flow’.


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