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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Úlfr Uggason (ÚlfrU)

10th century; volume 3; ed. Edith Marold;

Húsdrápa (Húsdr) - 12

Skj info: Ulfr Uggason, Islandsk digter, o. 1000. (AI, 136-9, BI, 128-30).

Skj poems:
1. Húsdrápa
2. Lausavísa

The skald Úlfr Uggason (ÚlfrU) lived around the year 1000 in Western Iceland. Little is known about his life. According to Ldn (S 76, H 64, ÍF 1, 111) he was married to Járngerðr, the daughter of Þórarinn Grímkelsson. Njáls saga (ch. 60, ÍF 12, 152) mentions his losing a lawsuit against Ásgrímr Elliða-Grímsson. The episode told in Njáls saga (ch. 102, ÍF 12, 261-4) about Úlfr refusing a request by Þorvaldr veili ‘the Miserable’ to use force against the missionary Þangbrandr, portrays him as a cautious man. That request and Úlfr’s dismissal of it are recounted there in two lausavísur (Þveil LvV, ÚlfrU LvV; see also Kristni saga ch. 9, ÍF 15, 2, 20-1). According to Laxdœla saga (ch. 29, ÍF 5, 79-80), he must have been on good terms with Óláfr pái ‘Peacock’ and his family, for whom he composed Húsdrápa ‘House-drápa’ (c. 980), a poem celebrating the myths depicted in images within their hall at Hjarðarholt.

my abbr

Húsdrápa — ÚlfrU HúsdrIII

Edith Marold with the assistance of Vivian Busch, Jana Krüger, Ann-Dörte Kyas and Katharina Seidel, translated from German by John Foulks 2017, ‘ Úlfr Uggason, Húsdrápa’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 402. <> (accessed 28 June 2022)

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Skj: Ulfr Uggason: 1. Húsdrápa, 983 (AI, 136-8, BI, 128-30); stanzas (if different): 3 | 4 | 5 | 8 | 9 | 10

in texts: LaufE, LaufE, Skm, SnE, SnEW

SkP info: III, 402

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


Twelve stanzas of this dróttkvætt poem by Úlfr Uggason called Húsdrápa ‘House-drápa’ (ÚlfrU Húsdr) have been preserved in SnE (Skm) and LaufE. The name of the poem is attested in Skm and Laxdœla saga (SnE 1998, I, 17-19; ÍF 5, 80). The stanzas are likely to be the remains of a longer poem, but it is impossible to determine its full extent. Aside from an introductory and a concluding stanza, the stanzas can be assigned to three mythic episodes: a quarrel between Loki and Heimdallr (see Introduction to st. 2), Þórr’s fishing expedition (see Introduction to sts 3-6) and the funeral of Baldr (see Introduction to sts 7‑11).

The circumstances surrounding the composition of the poem are described in Laxd (ch. 29, ÍF 5, 79-80). The Icelander Óláfr pái ‘Peacock’ Hǫskuldsson had built an impressive hall for himself at Hjarðarholt. The walls and ceiling were richly decorated with mythological imagery: Váru þar markaðar ágætligar sǫgur á þilviðinum ok svá á ræfrinu; var þat svá vel smíðat, at þá þótti miklu skrautligra, er eigi váru tjǫldin uppi ‘Excellent stories were depicted there on the panelling and on the roof beam as well; it was so well done that it seemed much more splendid when the tapestries were not up’. Úlfr Uggason, a guest at the wedding of Óláfr’s daughter Þuríðr, recited a poem that he had composed about Óláfr and the images in the hall (hence the poem’s name, Húsdrápa). Based on this anecdote the poem has been dated to c. 983 or 985 (cf. Skj; LH I, 504); Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (ÍF 5, lix) dates the wedding to c. 978.

Húsdrápa, like Bragi’s Ragnarsdrápa (Bragi Rdr), Þjóðólfr’s Haustlǫng (Þjóð Haustl) and a fragment of a shield-poem by Egill Skallagrímsson (Egill SkjalddrV (Eg 126)), is an early example of ekphrasis (see Clunies Ross 2007). These are poems honouring a patron with descriptions of mythological or legendary scenes found on shields or, in this case, on a building’s interior. Possible precursors of such poems are known from antiquity (Lie 1956b; Clunies Ross 1981, 282; Clunies Ross 2007, 162-3). From the early Middle Ages, a poem by Ermoldus Nigellus is preserved which praises Emperor Ludwig and describes the wall paintings in the imperial palace in Ingelheim and in St Alban’s Cathedral (Dümmler 1881, 5‑79).

While it has been assumed that shield-poems describe painted shields, the description of the episode in Laxd (see above), and particularly the phrase váru markaðar ‘were depicted’ leaves it uncertain as to whether paintings or carvings are meant. It is generally assumed that the hall was adorned with carvings or perhaps painted carvings (Neckel 1920, 46; Lie 1962b, 122). Shetelig (1931b, 219-20) calls attention to Viking-age textile designs, whose style and composition he assumes were similar to those of contemporary paintings. According to him, the imagery in the hall at Hjarðarholt must have resembled that of the Oseberg tapestries. The remnants of these tapestries consist of 25-30 fragments found in the ship-burial mound of Oseberg, near Tønsberg in Vestfold, Norway, which is dated to 834 AD. The tapestries had been used to decorate the wall of the burial chamber, and the middle section depicts a number of figures (horses, chariots, human beings, birds etc.). It is assumed that most of the motifs are taken from Norse myth and legend (Nockert 2007, 620). The carved wall panels of Flatatunga, a farm at Bjarnastaðahlíð in North Iceland, where they were found, have also been mentioned as a possible instance of similar interior ornamentation (Schier 1976b, 431-2). These wall panels in Ringerike style from the latter half of the eleventh century depict scenes from the apocalypse. Most of the panels perished when the farm burned in 1898; remnants are now in Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, Reykjavík. Although the panels were found at the farm, they are likely from the west wall of the Hólar Cathedral. A closer parallel to the Húsdrápa situation – yet only regarding the use in domestic architecture – could be the wood carvings by Þórðr Þórðarson hreða, a wood-carver and builder of halls in the tenth century, mentioned in Arngrímur Jónsson’s Crymogæa 1609 (ÍF 14, 250): Huius sculpturæ vestigia, quibus domuum contignationes vel parietes ornaverat, etiamnum in Islandia visuntur, post annos plusquam sexcentos ‘The remnants of his [Þórðr Þórðarson’s] sculptures, with which he had decorated the beams and walls of houses, are still visible in Iceland after more than 600 years’.

All stanzas are found in SnE (Skm) and four of them are transmitted in LaufE. The mss preserve different combinations of the stanzas: Ms. R has all stanzas except st. 3 and is therefore chosen as the main ms. for the present edition; st. 3 is fully preserved only in Orms-Eddu-brot (ms. W), but the first line also appears in LaufE, where the stanza is mistakenly attributed to Óláfr Leggsson. Ms. W preserves all stanzas except st. 12, all except sts 3 and 5, U all except sts 2, 3 and 10. Ms. A preserves sts 4, 11 and 12, B has sts 1, 9 and 10, and C has sts 4, 11 and 12. The LaufE mss have sts 3 (mss 164ˣ, 2368ˣ), 4 (ms. 2368ˣ), 9 (mss 743ˣ, 2368ˣ) and 11 (mss 743ˣ, 2368ˣ).

The poem must have consisted of more stanzas than those that have been preserved, but it is impossible to ascertain how many. Two of the extant stanzas (6 and 10) end in a one-line stef. Because this stef is syntactically incomplete (see Note to st. 6/8), the poem might have had a klofastef ‘split refrain’ (SnE 1998, II, 313), which would mean that large parts of it are now missing.

The stanzas appear in various places in Skm, and their correct sequence is, aside from the opening and closing stanzas, not clear. An introductory stanza addresses and dedicates the poem to Óláfr pái ‘Peacock’. This stanza is followed by the bulk of the poem (sts 2-11), consisting of three sections whose sequence and internal ordering cannot be determined with any certainty. Based on their content, they can be assigned to one of three mythic episodes. The order of the episodes in this edition follows that of previous editions, while within the sections stanzas have been reordered (for details see below). The first section, which now consists of only one stanza that has been subject to a variety of interpretations (see Introduction to st. 2), portrays a conflict between Loki and Heimdallr. There must have been more stanzas describing this episode, but they are now lost. The second section (sts 3-6) describes the culmination of Þórr’s fishing for the World Serpent, Miðgarðsormr. This edition has changed the traditional order of Skj and Skald insofar as the section now begins with sts 3 and 4, where Þórr and the Miðgarðsormr stare at each other; st. 5 (formerly 3), where Þórr derides the anxious giant, is placed just before st. 6, where the giant receives a blow from Þórr’s fist, whereas earlier editions place it at the beginning of this section. The stef in st. 6 marks the end of this part. The third and last narrative section (sts 7-11) is about Baldr’s funeral (see Introduction to sts 7-11), apparently portrayed in two parts. Stanzas 7-10 describe the procession of gods (Freyr, Heimdallr, Óðinn) and other mythical beings (valkyries and ravens) to Baldr’s funeral pyre. In this section it is difficult to establish a secure sequence of the stanzas. This edition assumes that the stanza containing the stef (st. 10) must be the last one. It tells about the valkyries who accompany Óðinn and therefore clearly ought to follow the stanza which is about Óðinn (our st. 9). It is impossible to decide whether the stanza about Heimdallr (our st. 8) or the one about Freyr (our st. 7) is the first one. This edition differs from former arrangements of the stanzas (Skj; Skald; Neckel 1920, 45), which place the stanza with the stef in the third position (hence Freyr, Hroptatýr, valkyries (stef), Heimdallr). In doing so, the stanza about Heimdallr, however, is separated from the other stanzas depicting the procession of the gods without good reason. Stanza 11, which tells of a giantess pushing a ship forward and of Óðinn’s warriors killing a horse, must refer to a different episode that took place during the funeral. The remaining stanza (12) announces the end of the poem in honour of the chieftain at Hjarðarholt.

Stanzas from Húsdr have also been edited by Gísli Brynjúlfsson (1858), Wisén (1886-9, I, 29-30), CPB II, 22-4 and Hollander (1945, 52-4), but none of these have been used in the present edition.

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