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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif)

13th century; volume 8; ed. Russell Poole;

VIII. 1. Merlínusspá I (Merl I) - 103

Skj info: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Islandsk munk, d. 1218 (AII, 10-36, BII, 10-45).

Skj poems:
Merlínússpá I
Merlínússpá II

Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif, d. 1218 or 1219) was a monk at the Benedictine house of Þingeyrar, a monastery near the shores of Húnaflói, in northern Iceland, that maintained close relations with the seat of the bishop at Hólar (Turville-Petre 1953, 135). Nothing is known concerning Gunnlaugr’s place of birth, upbringing or social origins. He was regarded in his own time as a man of singular Latin learning (LH II, 394-5) and worked in a distinguished historiographic and hagiographic milieu (de Vries 1964-7, II, 246). In a rare personal anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, Arngrímr Brandsson, a Benedictine monk and abbot at Þingeyrar (d. 1361 or 1362), tells that Gunnlaugr attempted to recite his new history of Saint Ambrose at the church at Hólar but was rebuffed by Bishop Guðmundr Arason (LH II, 394-5; Ciklamini 2008, 1). The two men were evidently on good terms at an earlier stage, however (Ciklamini 2004, 66), and, while bishop at Hólar, Guðmundr commissioned Gunnlaugr to prepare a life of Jón helgi ‘the Saint’ Ǫgmundarson and an account of portents and miracles pertaining to Þorlákr Þórhallsson, both in Latin (LH II, 394-5). 

Works ascribed to Gunnlaugr that survive in one form or other include the Latin life of Jón helgi, represented by a close Icelandic translation; the account of Þorlákr’s miracles; a Latin expansion of Gunnlaugr’s Þingeyrar colleague Oddr Snorrason’s life of King Óláfr Tryggvason, extant in the shape of excerpts translated into Icelandic; an Icelandic original version of Þorvalds þáttr víðfǫrla ‘The Tale of Þorvaldr the Far-traveller’ that may at one time have formed part of the life of Óláfr; and a now entirely lost life of Saint Ambrose (LH II, 394-403; Turville-Petre 1953, 194-200; Bekker-Nielsen 1958; de Vries 1964-7, II, 245-7; Würth 1998, 205-6; Ciklamini 2004, 66; Katrín Axelsdóttir 2005). The only work ascribed to Gunnlaugr that appears to survive in a relatively complete state is Merlínusspá ‘The Prophecies of Merlin’ (Merl I and II). It is also the sole medieval instance of a direct verse translation into Icelandic from Latin prose (Würth 1998, 206).

no FJ abbr

Merlínusspá I (‘The Prophecies of Merlin I’) — GunnLeif Merl IVIII (Bret)

Russell Poole 2017, ‘ Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38. <> (accessed 5 August 2021)

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Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá II (AII, 22-36, BII, 24-45)

SkP info: VIII, 59

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

16 — GunnLeif Merl I 16VIII (Bret 84)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 84 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 16)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 59.

Gerisk sókn mikil         snáka tveggja;
gapa grimmliga         grundar belti.
Hǫggvask hœknir         hauðrs gyrðingar,
blásask eitri á         ok blôm eldi.

Mikil sókn snáka tveggja gerisk; {belti grundar} gapa grimmliga. {Hœknir gyrðingar hauðrs} hǫggvask, blásask eitri ok blôm eldi á.

A great fight commences between the two snakes; {the belts of the ground} [SNAKES] gape savagely. {The vicious girdles of the earth} [SNAKES] strike each other, blow venom and blue fire on each other.

Mss: Hb(51r) (Bret)

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 16: AII, 24, BII, 27, Skald II, 17; Bret 1848-9, II, 44 (Bret st. 84); Hb 1892-6, 278; Merl 2012, 140.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 111 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 145.27-8): commiserunt diram pugnam et ignem anhelitu procreabant ‘they fought a terrible battle and created fire with their breath’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 144). Gunnlaugr goes beyond DGB in specifying the emission of venom and the colour of the flame (on the latter see Note to l. 8 below). — [5] hœknir ‘vicious’: A hap. leg., whose meaning and origin are uncertain but whose core sense has been stated as ‘greedy’ (LP: hœkinn; cf. CVC: hækinn). Finnur Jónsson translates with a query as kraftig ‘powerfully’ in Skj B; Merl 2012 has heftig ‘violently’. But if the etymological connection with hákr conjectured in LP is correct, the meaning might rather be ‘vicious, relentless’; cf. the ONP citation (ÍF 12, 303): Var hann því kallaðr Þorkell hákr, at hann eirði hvárki í orðum né verkum, við hvern sem hann átti ‘He was called Þorkell hákr because he never spared anyone in words or deeds with whom he had dealings’. The word hákr is attested only in nicknames; for (inconclusive) conjectures as to its core meaning and etymology see AEW: hákr. — [8] blôm eldi ‘blue fire’: The reference is probably to the blue flame emitted on combustion of sulphur. In a fragment of Barth extant in the mid-C13th Norwegian ms. AM 237 b fol (Loth 1969, 233), the phrase blár loge ‘blue flame’ is used to translate Lat. flamma sulphurea ‘sulphurous flame’ (cf. ONP: blár 3; Loth 1969, 221).

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