Thursday, August 14, 2008

Egil: the poet as sociopath

The hero, or whatever he is, of the Icelandic Egil's Saga (1230?), is a poet, of improvised pieces, mostly. Here's how the muse strikes Egil after one of his many pointless revenge killings:

Now the bitter bearer
Of the blazing war-blade
Has taken ten
Of my trusted followers:
But my salmon-spear
Settled the score
When I cast it through
The curved ribs of Ketil.

Yes, I know, it's difficult to tear oneself away from the formal beauty and stirring sentiments found in this poem. Please, wipe away your tears so I can continue.

Egil is violent even for a Viking. He commits his first murder when he is six years old, because he lost a wrestling match. Yet he is also a poet. Egil even saves his life at one point by writing a long praise-song for a King who plans to execute him:

The ravens dinned
At this red fare,
Blood on the wind,
Death in the air;
The Scotsmen's foes
Fed wolves their meat,
Death ends their woes
As eagles eat.

That's just a little taste of a poem that runs four pages. The King - obviously - gives Egil his freedom.

Ah, poetry, beautiful poetry. I may be exaggerating certain propensities of Egil's poetry through selective quotation, but just barely.

These admirable translations are from the Penguin edition, Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards the translators.


  1. "dinned"? Trying to decide if they were noisy (ravens often are) or whether it was a type for "dined."

    He was definitely one scary dude! Did you ever read the Scientific American article that claimed that Egil had Paget's disease, based on the description of his appearance and health in old age?

  2. It is not a typo, actually. So I assume noise, although one wonders if some twisting was done for the sake of the rhyme with "wind."

    I had not known about Egil and Paget's disease. That is fascinating. The symptoms are so specific. I can see how they would seem troll-like to other people.

  3. Here's the old norse text, via

    Rauð hilmir hjör.
    Þar vas hrafna gjör.
    Fleinn hitti fjör.
    Flugu dreyrug spjör.
    Ól flagðs gota
    fárbjóðr Skota.
    Trað nift Nara
    náttverð ara.

    I can't really read this language, but the first two lines seem to me to literally say something like
    The king's sword is red
    There was a flock of ravens (well, at least the icelandic dictionary at tells me "gör" means a flock of birds of prey.)

    So I guess neither dined nor dinned are really in the original. The ravens are just *around*. Or I'm missing something. That's not unlikely.

    The part about blood on the wind etc seems fairly different — there's some stabbing of vital organs with pikes & flying spears instead.

    Most interesting to me is the "náttverð", which the dictionary tells me simply means dined. In Norwegian, "nattverd" is communion.

  4. I knew it! I'm getting good at this.

    Thanks for the actual work and knowledge!