Legacy, Legend and Storytelling

In addition to mythology and lore, the theme for these final two weeks of Norsevember is legacy and storytelling. Week 3 is called The Skald’s Hearth, afterall. As we near the end of week 3 and enter the final week (it’s actually a 9 day week to end with, so still plenty of features to go yet) I’m going to have a quick look at something particularly interwoven in and important to Norse culture – storytelling and the idea of legacy.

I could sum up this whole Norse mindset with one quote:

Deyr fę,

deyia frǫndr,

deyr sialfr it sama;

ec veit einn

at aldri deýr:

domr vm dꜹþan hvern

77th stanza of the Gestaþáttr, the first section of the Hávamál

The English translation?

Cattle die,
friends die,
and the same with you;
but I know of something that never dies
and that’s the reputation you leave behind at our death

People in the Viking era had a very admirable way of accepting fate without complaint. They believed the Norns had already woven their fates and that all they could do was live well with the time they had remaining, and striving to do so without fear or anxiety about the future.

Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.

Skirnir in ‘Skirnir’s Journey’

The future that mattered, was the reputation they left behind to be spoken about by loved ones and friends. Hopefully, if they left behind a particularly colourful legacy, they may even be talked about on longships and campfires for decades or even centuries to come. With even the Gods themselves meeting fated ends, legacy was the only thing that could truly live forever.

How would Erik the Red, Harald Hardrada, Leif Eriksson, Freydís Eiríksdóttir or Ivarr the Boneless feel about their lasting legacy? Could they have imagined they’d still be talked about and studied around 1000 years later?

We can see in the Norse cosmology and stories of myth the value they had for this outlook on life.

Since men who become embittered never win respect or admiration, those who sought fame did not rail at the undoubted hardship of their lives and the inevitability of death. Rather, they endured it or, even better, laughed at it.

Kevin Crossley-Holland

Can Frīgg prevent treasured Baldur’s death, despite being able to see the future?

Can the Gods subdue Fenriswolf, with the most unbreakable bonds in all of the 9 worlds?

Can Odin, the wisest being in existence, prevent Ragnarök and his own end?

Norse mythology shows us that even though the Gods might try to change fate, the humans who followed them believed it was set in place, unchanging.

In spite of this awareness of fate, or perhaps because of it, the picture of man’s qualities which emerges from the myths is a noble one. The gods are heroic figures, men writ large, who led dangerous, individualistic lives, yet at the same time were part of a closely-knit small group, with a firm sense of values and certain intense loyalties. They would give up their lives rather than surrender these values, but they would fight on as long as they could, since life was well worth while.

H. R. Ellis. Davidson

We know there are the many sagas and the Eddas, with stories passed down through the centuries (and undoubtedly changing somewhat during this time) by the nature of their delivery; by Icelandic Christian Snorri Sturluson 200 years after the Viking age. The fact that most of what we know was recounted so long after the Viking age also makes it extremely likely there were so many well known stories to the Norsemen that simply have not survived to the modern day, or even to the middle ages.

The ones we know, and of course many others then, were recounted by many during this era, in particular the Skalds.

What was a Norse skald?

A skald was basically a Norse poet or storyteller – a professional one. They memorised the histories, lore and literature of Norse culture and recounted the stories of famous Norsemen and the Gods whenever they met with groups of people.

Tragically we might surmise, none of these stories were ever written down (until recounted later as mentioned above) and so we only have the very most well known sagas and stories of the gods.

Skalds were both honoured and feared. The fear of a skald comes from their ability to compose sarcastic poetry about people that could harm a king’s standing or reputation for example.

Skalds were also teachers, historians and advisors to their lords, their people and children. Skalds conveyed essential information about how to behave in society through their poems and stories. Some say skalds were also musicians, playing the harp or lute while reciting poetry or sagas, although there is no conclusive evidence of it.

From a skald’s poems and stories, children learned Viking history, literature and mythology. They picked up clues about the gods, honour, courage, initiative and other Viking virtues from the skalds.

Hopefully you’ve learnt a little about storytelling and legacy in the Viking age. Stay tuned for an excellent post coming soon from Rowdy Geirsson about the Eddas!


2 thoughts on “Legacy, Legend and Storytelling

  1. Great piece – informative and really well written.

    Interesting to note difference between their acceptance of fate vs our contemporary views that the future is of our own making.

    There’s something quite liberating about both perspectives in different ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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