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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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ÚlfrU Húsdr 3III

Edith Marold (ed.) 2017, ‘Úlfr Uggason, Húsdrápa 3’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 412.

Úlfr UggasonHúsdrápa


The following four stanzas (ÚlfrU Húsdr 3-6) deal with one of the best known and, apparently, most popular myths of the tenth century: the story of Þórr fishing for the World Serpent (Miðgarðsormr). We know the myth as represented in Gylf (SnE 2005, 44-5) and, in a somewhat different version, in Hym sts 16-27. Common to both versions is that Þórr and the giant Hymir go out to sea to fish, and that Þórr uses an ox-head as bait. In both versions, the climax comes as the god of thunder and the World Serpent, hanging from the hook, find themselves staring at one another. Several skalds besides Úlfr treat this scene: Bragi (Bragi Þórr), Ǫlvir hnufa (Ǫlv Þórr), Eysteinn Valdason (EVald Þórr) and Gamli gnævaðarskáld (Ggnæv Þórr). We find the myth represented in images on the stones of Altuna (Sweden, Uppland, first half of the eleventh century) and Hørdum (northern Jutland, from sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries) as well as on the picture stones at the church in Gosforth, England (around 1000), and Ardre VIII (Sweden, Gotland, 750-800). On the pictorial scenes, see Lindqvist (1941, 121), Brøndsted (1955, 102), Buisson (1976) and Marold (1998b).

After this climactic scene depicting the physical and mental struggle between the thunder-god and Miðgarðsormr, the narratives diverge. As is told in Bragi Þórr and Gylf, the giant Hymir becomes afraid and cuts the fishing-line. Hym lacks this detail, but there is a one-line gap where it may have been mentioned. Nor does Húsdr mention the cutting. However, a corresponding stanza could have been lost, because the giant is punished with a powerful blow in this section’s final stanza (st. 6). Gylf also tells of Hymir’s punishment. Sources differ as to the fate of Miðgarðsormr. In Hym the serpent sinks into the sea. In Gylf, Hár, the narrator of the myth, mentions that there are divergent opinions about whether Miðgarðsormr is killed or not. In his own narrative, the serpent survives, as indeed it must: Hár renders the myths as a continuous chain of events, and the World Serpent has a later role to play in the eschatological final battle at Ragnarǫk. Bragi Þórr lacks any corresponding passages. The other poems, Húsdr and Ggnæv Þórr, attest to a version of the myth in which the World Serpent is killed by Þórr.

The myth is generally seen as an expression of an ancient motif in the history of religion, namely, that of a god’s struggle against a sea monster or dragon. Parallels are found in Greek mythology (Apollo slaying the Python) and in the ancient Indian Rigveda (as in Indra’s struggle against Vritra). Schröder (1955) describes it as the battle of a saviour god against the forces of chaos or disorder. The origins of its special rendering as a fishing expedition are disputed. The Biblical Leviathan may have been one inspiration (Bugge 1889a, 10-11; most recently Kabell 1976, 125-6), as may the myths of the raising of the Earth (Schröder 1955, 33-6). Contrary to interpretations of the fishing expedition as a victory over threatening forces, Meulengracht Sørensen (1986, 271-2) saw it as an ‘attempt to dissolve the cosmic order’ and Þórr’s failure to kill the serpent as a ‘confirmation of that order’. That would go against Þórr’s characteristic role as one who delivers the world from threatening forces such as giants, however, and, moreover, not all the preserved texts portray Þórr as failing in the first place.

Something is probably missing from the version of the story told in Húsdr. The cutting of the fishing-line could have been part of the second helmingr of st. 5, and it is unclear whether st. 3 was preceded by additional introductory stanzas similar to those in Bragi Þórr. The poet, basing his version of the story on pictorial representations, may simply have begun his narrative by looking at a carving of the climactic scene.

text and translation

Innmáni skein ennis
ǫndótts vinar banda;
ôss skaut œgigeislum
orðsæll á men storðar.

{Innmáni ennis} {ǫndótts vinar banda} skein; orðsæll ôss skaut œgigeislum á {men storðar}.
‘The interior-moon of the forehead [EYE] of the hostile friend of the gods [= Þórr] shone; the praise-blessed god shot terror-beams at the necklace of the earth [= Miðgarðsormr].

notes and context

The helmingr is cited in Skm (SnE) exemplifying a kenning for ‘eye’, and l. 1 is also cited in LaufE for the same purpose, although there it is attributed to Óláfr Leggsson (probably erroneously so; see Introduction to the poem above).

This helmingr strongly resembles Egill Arkv 5/5-8V (Eg 101) þás ormfránn ennimáni allvalds skein œgigeislum ‘as the snake-gleaming forehead-moon [EYE] of the mighty ruler shone with terror-beams’, where the menacing look with which King Eiríkr blóðøx ‘Blood-axe’ regards his prisoner Egill Skallagrímsson is represented as a powerful threat.


Text is based on reconstruction from the base text and variant apparatus and may contain alternative spellings and other normalisations not visible in the manuscript text. Transcriptions may not have been checked and should not be cited.

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