Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Sigvatr Þórðarson (Sigv)

11th century; volume 1; ed. Judith Jesch;

1. Víkingarvísur (Víkv) - 15

Skj info: Sigvatr Þórðarson, Islandsk skjald, o. 995-o. 1045 (AI, 223-75, BI, 213-54).

Skj poems:
1. Víkingarvísur
2. Nesjavísur
3. Austrfararvísur
4. En drape om kong Olaf
5. Vestrfararvísur
6. Et kvad om Erlingr Skjalgsson
7. Flokkr om Erlingr Skjalgsson
8. Tryggvaflokkr
9. Et digt om dronning Astrid
10. Knútsdrápa
11. Bersǫglisvísur
12. Erfidrápa Óláfs helga
13. Lausavísur
14. Et par halvvers af ubestemmelige digte

Sigvatr or Sighvatr Þórðarson (Sigv) is said (ÍF 27, 54) to have been the son of Þórðr Sigvaldaskáld ‘Poet of Sigvaldi’, an Icelander who served, in succession, Sigvaldi jarl Strút-Haraldsson, leader of the Jómsvíkingar, his brother Þorkell inn hávi ‘the Tall’, who campaigned in England, and Óláfr Haraldsson, later king of Norway (r. c. 1015-30) and saint. Þórðr is listed as one of Sigvaldi’s skalds in Skáldatal (SnE 1848-87, III, 259, 268), but none of his poetry survives. The family tradition of poetry can also be traced in Óttarr svarti ‘the Black’, said to have been Sigvatr’s sister’s son (ÍF 27, 144; ÓH 1941, I, 203). Sigvatr was brought up by a certain Þorkell, at Apavatn in south-west Iceland. When nearly fully grown he sailed to what is now Trondheim, where he met up with his father and joined King Óláfr’s retinue. According to Snorri (ÍF 27, 54-6; ÓH 1941, I, 81-3), Sigvatr recited Lv 2-3 at this time, and he interceded with the king on behalf of Icelandic merchants forced to pay a heavy tax in Norway (cf. Sigv Lv 4). It is also likely that this is when Þórðr provided Sigvatr with the material for Víkv (see Introduction to Sigv Víkv), which may be the poem referred to in the prose introduction to Sigv Lv 2 (Fidjestøl 1982, 118). There is no evidence that Sigvatr ever returned to Iceland, and according to the anecdote in which Sigv Lv 11 is preserved, he died on the island of Selja in north-western Norway and was buried at Kristskirkja (Kristkirken) in Trondheim. His poetry records his various journeys to Sweden, England and the Continent, as well as incidents in Norway. We know nothing of Sigvatr’s private life, except that he had a daughter called Tófa, who had King Óláfr himself as her godfather (Sigv Lv 19).

Sigvatr’s surviving poetic oeuvre is both large and remarkably diverse, encompassing different kinds of encomia not only on King Óláfr (Sigv Víkv, Sigv Nesv, Sigv Óldr, Sigv ErfÓl), but also on King Knútr of Denmark (Sigv Knútdr) and the Norwegian nobleman Erlingr Skjálgsson (Sigv Erl, Sigv Erlfl). Sigvatr was godfather to King Magnús inn góði ‘the Good’ Óláfsson and composed some avuncular words of advice to the boy-king (Sigv BervII). All of these patrons are recognised in Skáldatal (SnE 1848-87, III, 252-4, 258, 260-2, 269), where Sigvatr is also credited with having composed for the Swedish king Ǫnundr Óláfsson (although no such poetry survives, cf. Sigv Knútdr 4/6) and the Norwegian chieftain Ívarr inn hvíti ‘the White’ (cf. Context to Sigv Lv 8). Sigvatr also composed a poem on the Norwegian pretender Tryggvi Óláfsson (Sigv Tryggfl) and is unique in having composed in dróttkvætt in praise of a woman, Óláfr Haraldsson’s widow Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir (Sigv Ást). Several of Sigvatr’s poems are more or less loosely connected sequences of stanzas rather than more formal compositions, and encompass both travelogue (Sigv Austv) and political commentary (Sigv Vestv, Sigv BervII). The latter genre is also well represented in his lausavísur, which also include some remarkably personal stanzas expressing his grief at the death of King Óláfr (Sigv Lv 22-4). Sigvatr’s status as a hǫfuðskáld ‘chief skald’ was recognised in the twelfth century (cf. Esk Geisl 12/8VII). His versatility as a poet has clearly inspired a number of anecdotes focusing on the composition of poetry, mostly of doubtful authenticity (cf. Contexts to Sigv Lv 1, 8, 11, 27; also Introduction to Ótt Hfl). Apart from two fragments preserved in SnE (Sigv Frag 1-2III), Sigvatr’s poetry is transmitted in a wide range of texts within the tradition of the kings’ sagas and is therefore edited in this volume or (in the case of the late Sigv Berv) in SkP II. For general studies of Sigvatr’s life and works, see Paasche (1917), Hollander (1940) and Petersen (1946).

Víkingarvísur (‘Vísur about Viking Voyages’) — Sigv VíkvI

Judith Jesch 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Sigvatr Þórðarson, Víkingarvísur’ 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. 532.

 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15 

Skj: Sigvatr Þórðarson: 1. Víkingarvísur, 1014-15 (AI, 223-8, BI, 213-16)

in texts: Flat, Fsk, Hkr, ÓH, ÓHHkr, ÓHLeg

SkP info: I, 532

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


The fourteen complete stanzas and one helmingr of Sigvatr’s VíkingarvísurVísur about Viking Voyages’ (Sigv Víkv) present a numbered sequence of early campaigns fought by Óláfr inn helgi Haraldsson (later S. Óláfr, r. c. 1015-30). These can, with varying degrees of certainty, be located in Sweden (st. 1), the Baltic (sts 2-3), Denmark (st. 4), the Netherlands (st. 5), England (sts 6-9), France (st. 10), Spain (sts 11-13), and France again (st. 14), with a return to Norway in st. 15 (c. 1015). They are preserved chiefly in Snorri Sturluson’s Óláfs saga helga in the Separate (ÓH) and Hkr (ÓHHkr) versions, jointly designated ÓH-Hkr below, where they are interwoven with extracts from Óttarr svarti’s Hǫfuðlausn (Ótt Hfl).

In ÓHHkr chs 4-5 (ÍF 27, 4-6; similarly in ÓH) Snorri Sturluson describes how the twelve year old Óláfr Haraldsson sets out on his first expedition, first to Denmark (covered in Ótt Hfl 3) and then eastwards to Sweden, where he wished to punish the Swedes for having killed his father. Chapter 6 describes Óláfr’s encounter with a viking called Sóti, at a place called Sótasker which is said to be í Svíaskerjum ‘in the Swedish skerries’ (ÍF 27, 6). Stanza 1 of Sigvatr’s poem is then introduced at the end of this chapter: Sigvatr skáld segir frá þessi orrostu í því kvæði, er hann talði orrostur Óláfs konungs ‘Sigvatr the poet mentions this battle in the poem in which he enumerated King Óláfr’s battles’ (ÍF 27, 7). In the subsequent account, Snorri uses both Óttarr’s and Sigvatr’s poems to support his narrative (ÍF 27, 7-26; ÓH 1941, I, 35-50). Johnsen (1916, 3-4; also Fidjestøl 1982, 214) notes that Sigvatr’s poem is preferable as a source because it is likely to predate Óttarr’s and to be the model for it (see Introduction to Ótt Hfl). However, Snorri seems not to have made this distinction. Where both poems refer to the same events, he tends to cite Óttarr’s first (ÓHHkr chs 13, 15, 19, 30) and only once Sigvatr’s (ch. 14). He also relates (ÍF 27, 54) that Sigvatr’s father Þórðr Sigvaldaskáld spent time with Óláfr í vestrvíking ‘on viking voyages in the west’, suggesting that the father may have been the main source for the son’s poem.

There is no medieval evidence for the name of the poem. Its usual modern title, Víkingarvísur, first used by Wisén (1886-9, 38), picks up on Snorri’s implied description of Óláfr’s youthful activities as víking (f.) ‘viking voyages’, but this word does not appear in the poem. It does, however, contain several instances of víkingr (m.) ‘viking’, which might justify a title VíkingavísurVísur about Vikings’ (used by, e.g., Ashdown 1930, 221; A. Campbell 1971, 8; Campbell 1998, 76), except for the fact that these are mostly ambiguous in their reference (Jesch 2001a, 50-1; see sts 3/6, 6/6 and 10/6 below, and Notes to sts 3/6, 6/6). As Fidjestøl (1982, 117) has pointed out, the stanzas follow a fairly standard pattern in that each of them numbers and names the location of a battle, and contrasts Óláfr’s actions at that battle with the reactions of his opponents. Although there are other examples of this type of poem (discussed and listed by Fidjestøl, 1982, 213-14), none follows such a rigorously schematic structure. Sigvatr himself refers to his activity in Víkv as enumerating battles (sts 9/5-6, 11/7; cf. Snorri’s introduction, mentioned above), and the term orrostnatal ‘enumeration of battles’ used by Fidjestøl (1982, 213) for poems of this sort might be a more appropriate designation than Víkingarvísur, which, however, is retained here because of its traditional status.

There is no difficulty in reconstructing the order of sts 1-13, which mention thirteen numbered military encounters at named places. Stanzas 14 and 15 do not, however, contain a numeral, and while st. 14’s account of incursions in France suggests that it belongs in Víkv, the status of st. 15 is more uncertain, since it does not tell of a battle and is cited some way further on from st. 14, with many stanzas from other poems by Óttarr and Sigvatr embedded in the intervening prose. Stanza 15 is thus not included in this poem by Fidjestøl (1982, 118, 171); it is retained here on the grounds that it follows fairly soon after the mention of two battles (at Jungufurða and Valdi) which seem to belong to this sequence (see below).

The surviving stanzas are all cited in ÓH-Hkr (the prose contexts in ÓH and Hkr are the same, except where otherwise noted). Stanzas 6, 8/1-4 and 9/5-8 are also cited in Fsk and ÓHLeg (though the latter attributes only st. 9/5-8 to Sigvatr). Both Fsk and ÓHLeg (or their common source) select only those stanzas in which (according to them) Óláfr is said to have fought against Danes in England, bringing this aspect out in their prose introductions (see the Contexts for sts 6, 8 and 9, and Note to st. 6 [All]).

The prose texts agree that further battles followed the thirteen commemorated in Víkv 1-13, naming Karlsá or Karlsárós (possibly Cadiz), Varrandi (in France), Jungufurða and Valdi (both seemingly in England, nominative form of Valdi unknown), but of these only Varrandi is represented in Víkv, in st. 14, which does not contain a numeral. Fsk (ÍF 29, 170) says that the battle at Valdi was the seventeenth battle, which accords with the total number of battle-locations named in Hkr (ÍF 27, 6-34); the list in ÓHLeg (1982, 62) largely tallies, though with some slippage. It is possible that Sigvatr did actually compose on the three battles not represented in the poem, but (as in st. 14) failed to include ordinal numbers higher than thirteen, perhaps because of the difficulty of accommodating these longer words to the metre. Such stanzas without numerals would then more easily have been lost in the transmission of what is otherwise a tightly-organised poem.

This organisation has clearly influenced Fsk and ÓHLeg, which number most of the battles in the prose narrative even when they do not cite the relevant stanza, although there are some discrepancies. While both Fsk and ÓHLeg occasionally echo the wording of stanzas they do not cite (noted where relevant below), these echoes are not sufficiently extensive to confirm that the authors of these texts actually had a version of the poem before them.

The main ms. chosen for this edition is Kˣ, contra Fell (1981b, 106, 109), who chose Holm2, the main ms. of ÓH, on the grounds of its age and its place in the supposed stemma of Snorri’s works. However, although Kˣ is an early modern transcript, it is an excellent copy of its exemplar K (Kringla), which is dated to c. 1258-64 and thus possibly older than Holm2 (c.1250-1300). Further, Louis-Jensen (1997, 240) suggests that the K text of ÓHHkr can in fact be incorporated into the stemma of ÓH (see ‘Sources’ in Introduction to this volume). Ms. papp18ˣ, an independent copy of K, is used in stanzas where its readings are critical. For st. 15, J and J2ˣ also belong to the Hkr redaction (see Note to st. 15 [All]). The remaining mss used are: the ÓH mss Holm2, R686ˣ, J2ˣ, 78aˣ, 68, 61, 325V, Bb, Flat and Tóm for all fifteen stanzas, plus 325VI, 321ˣ, 73aˣ, 75c and 325VII for various subsets of these; the Fsk mss FskBˣ and FskAˣ for sts 6, 8/1-4, 9/5-8, and the ÓHLeg ms. DG8 for the same.

In addition to the standard editions of the poem as a whole in Skj and Skald and of individual stanzas in editions of relevant prose works, Víkv has been edited by Christine Fell (1981b) and Jón Skaptason (1983), and their editions are cited routinely below.

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