The Medieval Review 11.11.21

Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif. Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of the Female Skalds. The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 146. $99. ISBN 978-1-84384-271-2. . .

Reviewed by:

Else Mundal
University of Bergen
Else.Mundal@cms.uib.no

Straubhaars book consists of a short foreword, an introductory chapter, the edited poetry of the book divided into six chapters, a glossary of personal names, and a bibliography. The author opens the introduction by saying that the "book is an attempt to present, in one volume, a selection of notable Old Norse (Old Icelandic) poetry in which the voice of the speaking poet (skald, Icelandic skáld) is female" (1). It turns out that this not only includes skaldic poetry composed by female skalds, but also other types of poetry that has been put into the mouth of a woman, and in some cases, also poetry that has been put into the mouth of a man.

Straubhaar divides the poetry on which she is focusing into six sections. The stanzas of the first section are found under the heading of "Real People, Real Poetry." Here we find stanzas preserved in certain sagas of kings by the Norwegian skalds Hildr Hrólfsdóttir and Jórunn skádmær, together with a stanza attributed to the Norwegian queen Gunnhildr, stanzas attributed to women mentioned in certain sagas of Icelanders, such as Kormáks saga, Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga, and Heiðarvíga saga, and finally a stanza attributed to an old woman in the contemporary saga, Þórðar saga kakala. All these women may have been real people, and the poetry is real enough, but whether all these stanzas are rightly attributed is another question. Many scholars doubt, for instance, that Queen Gunnhildr really was a skald, and if the stanza attributed to her was composed by someone else, it is more likely that it was composed by a man than a woman.

The second section consists of poetry attributed to quasi-historical women and is entitled "Quasi-Historical People and Poetry." Among the stanzas in this group we find the stanzas spoken by the women in the short story Vǫlsa þáttr (Flateyjarbók) and stanzas attributed to women in some of the very late sagas of Icelanders that are commonly held to be fictional, such as Harðar saga ok Hólmverja, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss and Víglundar saga. Straubhaar has, however, also included in this section stanzas attributed to women who appear in Eyrbyggja saga, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, Njáls saga, and Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar. She holds these stanzas from the sagas of Icelanders to be less likely to have been composed by the person they are attributed to than those of the first section. Within this section, the stanzas are, according to Straubhaar, given roughly in order of historical likelihood, with the most likely first. Straubhaar thus finds the stanzas attributed to Þórddrs old foster-mother in Eyrbyggja saga the most likely to be genuine. Thereafter follow the stanzas attributed to the daughter of Arnfinn jarl and the daughter of Ármóðr skeggr in Egils saga and the stanzas attributed to Unnr Marðardóttir in Njáls saga, while the stanza attributed to Grettirs mother in Grettis saga is seen as less likely to be correctly attributed than those stanzas spoken by the women in Vǫlsa þáttr. This reviewer finds this preference to be strange, but nonetheless agrees that most of the stanzas in this section are unlikely to be correctly attributed; the majority of them were probably composed by someone other than the women to whom they are attributed, perhaps by the author of the saga or þáttr in which they appear. What should be noted is that if this is indeed the case, it is not very likely that these stanzas were composed by female skalds at all.

The so-called dream-verses that have been attributed to women constitute the third section of the work, with all the stanzas found in the Íslendinga saga section of Sturlunga saga. All of the stanzas quoted in this section are said to have been dreamed by women. In a dream, a dream-messenger comes to a woman and speaks one or more stanzas to her. All of these dream-stanzas are spoken by men, with the exception of a number of stanzas spoken by the legendary figure Guðrún Gjukadóttir. When the woman who has heard these stanzas wakes up, she remembers them and is able to recite them. The reason why Straubhaar includes these stanzas, given that they are in most cases put into the mouth of a man, is that she considers them to be composed by the women whom the saga recounts as having heard them in a dream. To support this view she refers to scholarly literature in which this has been argued earlier. It is not absolutely unlikely that some of these stanzas can be attributed to the women who dreamed them. It is also possible that they were composed--by someone, man or woman--as part of the oral stories that probably developed shortly after the Ǫrlygstaðir battle and the burning at Flugumýrr to which all these stanzas are connected. It is, however, worth noting that all these dream-stanzas are found in the same saga, namely in Íslendinga saga by Sturla Þórðarson. He was not only a famous author but also a capable skald who no doubt would be able to compose stanzas and include them in his written text when he found it useful to do so; and the dream-stanzas that are used to predict events in the future certainly have a literary function in the saga, which would normally indicate that the author of the saga was the most likely originator.

In the three first sections of stanzas, there are stanzas that perhaps--or perhaps not--are rightly attributed to female skalds. The stanzas of the three last sections are mostly of the Eddic type, put into the mouths of fictional characters, and found in the Codex Regius, in Snorris Edda, and in sagas, mostly fornaldarsǫgur, as well as in þættir (short stories), in certain sagas of Icelanders and in Icelandic romances. In the first of these sections (section four), which is entitled "Legendary Heroines", we find the Eddic poem Helreið Brynhildar, one stanza from Hrólfs saga kraka that has been put in the mouth of Signý Hálfdansdóttir, and the poem Hervararkviða from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks konungs. Straubhaar offers no explanation as to why stanzas by these three fictional female characters are included and not poetry of the same type spoken by other female characters known from Eddic poetry and legendary sagas. Straubhaar claims in her introduction that, "this book represents the first published collection (that I know of) of all the poetry attributed to Old Norse women skalds" (1). It may be that she is referring to real female skalds and not to poetry that has been put into the mouth of all types of fictional female figures; but if the last category is included, it should be noted that there is far more material in the sources than what Straubhaar has published in her book.

In chapter five, under the heading "Magic-Workers, Prophetesses, and Alien Maidens", we find one stanza from the Eddic poem Vǫluspá put into the mouth of the vǫlva Heiðr, the poem Darraðarljóð preserved in Njáls saga, and the Eddic poem Grottasǫngr, together with stanzas put into the mouth of vǫlur and sorceresses in the fornaldarsǫgur Ǫrvar-Odds saga and Bósa saga, the short story Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar, and the romance Hjálmþés saga ok Ǫlvis.

The last section of stanzas, which has the heading "Trollwomen", consists of stanzas from different sources, namely Snorris Edda, the fornaldarsǫgur Ketils saga hœngs, Gríms saga loðinkinna and Ǫrvar-Odds saga; the romance Hjálmþés saga and Ǫlvis; and the young saga of Icelanders, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. All of these stanzas are grouped together by the fact that they are put into the mouths of trollwomen.

When discussing poetry by Old Norse female skalds it is, of course, interesting to note that in addition to the few stanzas that we are able to attribute with some certainty to real female skalds, there also exist many stanzas put into the mouths of fictional women in many different Old Norse genres. Together with saga texts showing that women were sometimes the addressees of skaldic poetry and that they were supposed to understand complicated skaldic stanzas and remember them, stanzas attributed to fictional women may indicate that the part of women in the composition and transmission of Old Norse poetry was perhaps larger than the low number of stanzas attributed to real female skalds would suggest. Whether women may have taken a special interest in Eddic poetry that either featured female figures, or was put into the mouths of women, is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of Old Norse sources alone. However, parallels in other cultures in which more is known about the bearers of tradition could perhaps shed more light on this issue. Such questions, however, are not asked by Straubhaar, and her reasons for choosing to deal with poetry by real female skalds and poetry put into the mouth of all types of fictional female characters as if this difference is unimportant are never explained.

Each section of the book opens with a short introduction containing general information about the poetry of the section in question, and each stanza is introduced by first mentioning the name of the skald or the name of the woman who speaks or dreams the stanza, followed by the time and place of composition (or the setting in the case of legendary sagas). The source for the stanza or poem is then given, with reference to where it can be found both in the editions of Finnur Jónsson and E. A. Kock and online in the new edition of skaldic poetry. For Eddic poems of the Codex Regius there are references to the commentaries of Klaus von See or Neckel/Kuhn. After this, Straubhaar provides a short introduction to the stanza giving the context and perhaps a few comments followed by the stanza--or stanzas--in Old Norse, and an English translation into both verse and prose.

As Straubhaar mentions herself in her introduction, it is extremely difficult to translate skaldic poetry. She has chosen to translate both into poetry and into prose. However, the most characteristic qualities of the skaldic art, for example the associations caused by the kennings as well as the fantastic pictures that they create, are nearly untranslatable. It is therefore a pity that Straubhaar has not tried to disseminate her knowledge about the artistic quality of this very special art form to her readers. The kennings are sometimes translated and not replaced with the noun for which they stand, as when borðhestr is called "plank-horse" (16) and not "ship"; but a few paragraphs drawing the readers' attention to the artistic effect of the skaldic language and style would have been appropriate.

There are also a lot of interesting questions connected to the poetry of female skalds. For example: were the female skalds as few as the sources indicate, or do the many verses put into the mouths of fictional women imply that a lower proportion of stanzas attributed to women were put into writing than of those attributed to men? Did poetry that was composed by women differ in any way from poetry composed by men? Would skill in the skaldic art add to a womans social status in society in the same way as it would for men? These and many other questions are hardly touched upon, nor has the author tried to give her readers an insight into the culture that produced the skaldic poetry and the situation of women in general in Old Norse society. The bibliography, which is very short, is not very helpful in this respect either. The topic of the book is very interesting, but it is a pity that the author has not chosen to go deeper into the material.