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Bósa saga (Bós)

Skaldic vol. 8; ed. Wilhelm Heizmann

verse introduction manuscripts contents

Buslubœn ‘Busla’s Curse’ (Busl), transmitted within Bósa saga ok Herrauðs konungs ‘The Saga of Bósi and King Herrauðr’ (Bós), consists of nine stanzas in fornyrðislag, arranged into three unevenly distributed groups (7:1:1). Bósi’s foster-mother, Busla, speaks the stanzas and directs them at King Hringr of East Götaland (ON Gautland) in Sweden, who wishes to execute both Bósi and his own legitimate son, Herrauðr, because Bósi had killed the king’s preferred bastard son, Sjóðr ‘Purse’.

Contrary to the conventions of the ‘saga of adventure’ (ModGer. Abenteuersaga) genre (see Introduction, Section 2 for this and other sub-generic distinctions), where one usually finds no poetry, Buslubœn is initially transmitted within mss containing Bós, a saga probably composed in the fourteenth century. Only in the post-medieval period is Busl recorded separately. Unlike the poetry in heroic and viking sagas (ModGer. Helden- and Wikingersagas), the Busl stanzas do not function to legitimise the narrative with metrically bound ancient lore, but operate as curse stanzas. Even though the saga and the poem (Busl 2/1) apply the euphemistic term bœn ‘boon, plea, prayer’ to the stanzas, this noun should be considered synonymous with forbœnir ‘maledictions’ or ‘curses’.

Bós is transmitted in two versions which differ from one another so extensively that they could be classified as belonging to separate genres. While the earlier Bós may be spoken of as an Abenteuersaga, the younger version (which survives only in paper mss from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards and probably came into existence during post-Reformation times) falls into the Märchensaga genre of fabulous and legendary kind. However, the younger Bós displays some characteristics which are likely to be based on a more original version of the saga (Bós 1893, lxxiii-lxxv). Two rímur cycles exist alongside the two versions of the saga. The content of each has been recast according to the tastes of the time. The younger Bósa rímur stem from the Icelandic poet, Guðmundur Bergþórsson (1657-1705). The older rímur are transmitted only as fragments in just two sixteenth- or seventeenth-century mss and may well have been composed around the turn of the sixteenth century. The older rímur follow the older Bós to a great extent, though they do share some traits with the younger Bós, which was influenced by the rímur (cf. Bós 1893, lxvi-lxx).

Bósa saga attracted scholarly attention rather early. It was utilised as a putative source for the glory of early Swedish history during the acrimonious conflict between Sweden and Denmark over primacy in the North. The 1666 editio princeps (Bós 1666) published in Uppsala by the Swedish Royal Antiquarian, Olaus Verelius, is among the earliest editions of Old Norse literature. Its scholarly worth is insignificant though, as it is based on a textually irrelevant paper ms. in the possession of Verelius’ Icelandic assistant, Jón Rugman. The first, and up to now only, edition that meets modern critical standards (with some reservations), stems from Otto Luitpold Jiriczek, who in 1893 published both versions of the saga as well as excerpts from the older rímur. The latter were published by him in their entirety in 1894 (for a new edition of the older Bósa rímur cf. Ólafur Halldórsson 1974). The saga also appears in the FSN and FSGJ collected editions of fornaldarsögur, as well as in that of Valdimar Ásmundarson (1885-9), while Bós 1996 is a Modern Icelandic edition by Sverrir Tómasson with a useful and extensive Afterword and partial glossary (Bós 1996, 48-79).

Jiriczek’s edition of the older version of Bós (Bós 1893) accounts for all four extant vellum mss as well as two paper mss. The vellum mss in question are the following: AM 586 4° (586, Jiriczek’s A, of c. 1450-1500), AM 343 a 4° (343a, Jiriczek’s B, of c. 1450-75), AM 510 4° (510, Jiriczek’s C, of c. 1550) and AM 577 4° (577, Jiriczek’s D, of c. 1450-1500). Of these, 343a includes only two leaves of Bós, neither of which include stanzas of Busl, while there is one leaf missing from 577. The two paper mss, which fill in the gaps in the fragments, are AM 340 4°ˣ (340ˣ, Jiriczek’s b, of c. 1600-1700) and AM 361 4°ˣ fols 10r-15v (361ˣ, Jiriczek’s d, of c. 1600-1700). Beyond these, Jiriczek documents further paper mss, which in his opinion possess no critical value and therefore remain unconsidered. Unknown to him was a large group of paper mss of the saga located in various Icelandic and other collections. To this day these mss have not even been examined to see which version they contain. They are: AM 361 4°ˣ fols 1r-9v (c. 1600-1700), AM 591 f 4°ˣ (c. 1600-1700), AM 1039 4°ˣ (c. 1600-1700; olim Addit 89 c 4°ˣ), BLAdd 11108ˣ (c. 1700-1800), GKS 1006 folˣ (c. 1600-1700), Holm 13 4°ˣ (c. 1600-1700), Lbs 272 folˣ (c. 1700), Lbs 423 folˣ (c. 1700-1800), Lbs 1491 4°ˣ (1880-1905), Lbs 1767 4°ˣ (1857-63), Lbs 1943 4°ˣ (1877-8), UppsUB R 715 8°ˣ (R715ˣ, of c. 1650).

A critical edition of Busl from the older Bós was published separately by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in their edition of the Eddica Minora from 1903 (Edd. Min. 126-8). Like Jiriczek, they elected to use 586 as their base ms. The same goes for the present edition; however, for the variant apparatus all mss known to the editor were inspected, although they are not reproduced in their entirety here. Only the vellum mss and the paper mss which descend from them have received comprehensive treatment.

The prose narrative in which Busl is embedded divides the order of stanzas into three sections of unequal size. The saga itself makes reference to this tripartition (Bós 1893, 18): Busla lét þá frammi annan þriðjung bænarinnar ‘Busla uttered the second third of the plea.’ Comparable to this is the threefold structure named in Þórleifs þáttr jarlsskáld ‘The Tale of Þórleifr the Jarl’s Poet’ (ÞórlJ). ÞórlJ transmits only a single helmingr of the abusive stanzas, called JarlsníðNíð against the jarl’, imbued with magical force, that the Icelandic skald, Þórleifr jarlsskáld Rauðfeldarson, directed at the Norwegian Hákon jarl Sigurðarson (see Þjsk JarlI; Flat 1860-8, I, 212; cf. Almqvist 1965-74, I, 186-205). Here the second section of that poem has its own name, Þokuvísur ‘Fog-vísur’, while in Busl it is the final stanza that is called Syrpuvísa ‘Syrpa-vísa’. For the sense of the term Syrpa, we find documented meanings of both ‘whore, ugly old woman,’ and ‘document of mixed contents, potpourri’ (AEW: syrpa; Sigfús Blöndal 1920-4, 699). The first explanation is preferable in the present instance. The designation ‘Syrpa-vísa’ is likewise attested in the Filipórímur (Wisén 1881, I, 21, 3), in an Icelandic marriage poem from the second half of the eighteenth century (Ólafur Davíðsson 1894, 89), and in the form Syrpuvers hið forna ‘the ancient Syrpa-vísa’ in two paper mss from the second half of the nineteenth century beside two young versions of Busl dubbed ‘apocryphal’ by Jiriczek (Bós 1893, 141-4). These instances do not, however, throw any light on the exact meaning of the term (Edd. Min. c).

The saga repeatedly suggests that the extant stanzas constitute only a portion of a longer original poem. At the start of the first two thirds, the prose text states that they are only a beginning (Bós 1893, 15, cf. 18): en þó er þetta upphaf á henni, and the prose introduction to the final stanza hints at a larger context (Bós 1893, 19): ok er þetta þar í nærri endanum ‘and near the end it is said as follows’. The extent to which this assertion actually applies cannot be verified. We do not know if we are dealing with the fragmentary transmission of stanzas which were once more numerous than they are now. However we should not overlook places where the saga contradicts itself. On the one hand, it verbosely advises that the stanzas are not suitable for Christians on account of mörg orð ok ill ‘many vile words’ (Bós 1893, 15), but the stanzas are then immediately conveyed anyway.

An additional point of significance in the transmission of Busl is the fact that immediately after the end of Busl 9 a series of runes is presented in the mss. Runes are frequently mentioned in other literary texts (cf. Björn Magnússon Ólsen 1883; Finnur Jónsson 1910; Dillmann 1996), but runic characters themselves are never employed in the ms. transmission. Here, however, Busl 9 states that the king has to guess the names of six warriors ‘unbound’ (óbundin), i.e. unconcealed, which are apparently hidden within a row of runes, consisting of six groups of six runic characters, and these runes are depicted in detail in the mss, albeit with some variation (images in Bæksted 1942, 217-19). For a discussion of their likely meaning, see Busl 9 Note to [All].

In spite of its obscurity, the runic riddle of Bos possesses considerable importance. It requires the medium of script, as the runic formula cannot be recited in its ‘bound’ form. Moreover, the final stanza of Busl also states that Busla will ‘show’ (sýna) six warriors to the king. This suggests that Busl may have had at least a certain form of half-literacy, since the runes that accompanied it required the runic script, and may have been followed by some kind of instructions for carving magical runes.

Speculation over an original form of Busl seems to have little purpose, as it ultimately gets lost in the anonymity of the genre, which has produced numerous similar curse formulae (cf. Edd. Min. ic-c). In the extant form of the riddle stanza some of its terminology, such as sál ‘soul’ (9/9) and víti ‘punishment’ (9/10), is identifiable as Christian. Likewise, words such as fortala ‘discuss, curse’ (2/8) and klárr ‘nag’ (6/4) suggest a relatively young age. Finally, a series of analogous scenes from diverse eddic poems, and especially the similarity to curse stanzas transmitted by Saxo (Saxo 2015, I, i. 8. 11, pp. 62-3), speak to this dating. In the words of Heusler and Ranisch (Edd. Min. c), Busl is described most saliently as ausweitende und steigernde Nachbildung volkstümlicher Verwünschungsformeln (incantationes haereticae) ‘extended and augmented emulation of popular curse formulas’ or rather freie Variation über ein Thema des praktischen Aberglaubens, ausgeführt mit Hilfe alter Gedichtstellen ‘free variation on a theme of practical superstition accomplished with the aid of ancient poetry’.

Runic data from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, unless otherwise stated