Mythical Court Poems


There are two Bragis; with one, a mythical divine being (originally perhaps Woden himself, in his character as the arch-poet), we have nothing to do here; but the other, Bragi, the son of Boddi, surnamed the old (Gamli) to distinguish him from a son or younger kinsman possibly, is a real historical personage. He is mentioned in Landnama-bok, Snorri's Edda, Skaldatal, Ynglinga, Egil's Saga, etc. We must base our views of his date and position in Northern poetry upon what we can gather from the poems ascribed to him by Snorri, and from Ari's genealogy of his family in Landnama-bok. The more important of the poems is a Shield-Song (Ragnars-drdpa) upon a shield sent by King Ragnarr (Rcginhere), son of Sigrod (Sigfred), to Bragi by the hand of Hrafnketill (Ravenkettle). The genealogy runs thus—

Bragi Bodda son, m. Lopthaena daughter of Erp lutandi Astrid Slaekidreing, m. Arinbiorn the elder (of the Fiords)

Arnthrudr, m. Thori Hersi Lopthaena, m. Thorstein Arinbiorn Hersi, d. 976 Hrosskel of Acreness, a settler


Twd, c. 990-1010 Illugi Swarti

Thorwald Gunnlaug Ormstunga,


Gisl, 1100

The two Arinbiorns and Thori were nobles of the district of the Friths in Western Norway. The date of Bragi has been hitherto thrown too far back. Counting from Arinbiorn, Egil's friend, and remembering that the two generations between, being of women, are probably short, we might safely make Bragi's life to lie between c. 835 and 900. This date does not forbid our identifying the Ragnar Sigrod's son, Bragi's patron, with the famous Ragnar Lodbrok. Snorri says, 1 Bragi the old spoke of Sorli and Hamtheow in the Encomium he made in Ragnar Lodbrok;' and again, in reference to the Everlasting Fight,

' According to this story Bragi the poet made his verse in his Encomium of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnars drdpa lo¥br6kar)/

The legend as preserved in the North tells of a king Ragnar, Sigrod's son [Reginhere Sigfredsson], surnamed Lodbrok [probably eagle, as hdbrok means hawk], coming to England, where he was slain by a king Ella. Lodbrok's sons then invaded England and conquered part of it. The first ships of the Northmen from Harethaland are noted in the English Chronicles, and seem, according to Mr. Howorth's hypothesis, to have come in 793. A king Ella of Northumberland is known to the English authorities, and dated c. 867.

In the poem itself we find that the shield is sent to Bragi, which implies, one would fancy, a distance between the king's seat and the poet's homestead. This agrees with tradition and the genealogies, which place Bragi on the N.W. coast in the Friths and make Ragnar reign in the Wick and Westfold, near Drammen. See Introduction to Book ix, § 1. Consistent with this are the two or three mentions of Bragi as connected with Eystein Beli, king of the Swedes, a foe of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons (see Skaldatal), and the incident alluded to by Arinbiorn in Egil's Saga, when he advises Egil to calm Eric's anger by a poem of praise,1 for so did Bragi, my kinsman [the true reading is 1 minn']. When he had drawn down on him the wrath of Biorn o* Howe, king of the Swedes, he made an Encomium [dr£pa] of twenty stanzas upon him, in one night, and so ransomed his head.' A story which, by the by, seems the nucleus of the legend that has descended upon Egil, and is given as the ground for the title Head-Ransom of his rhymed Encomium on Eric Bloodaxe. However this be, we may safely take it that all chronological requirements will be satisfied by taking Bragi to have been a poet famous in the last generation of the Norwegian polyarchy and living into the days of Harold Fairhair.

Bragi has left a great name behind, and his poems, if we had them in their original form, would be a most precious monument of the speech and thought of a famous age in the North. But it is not so. It cannot be too often insisted on, that the remains of his verse that have reached us have been so completely metamorphosed, that save for a line here and there <we cannot rely upon ¡word, metre, or meaning; and any version which may be given of them must be more or less different from what Bragi composed. No amount of critical ingenuity can possibly do more than recover a genuine phrase here and there in these old poems.

Nor are the reasons of this metamorphosis far to seek. Bragi composed at a time when, under some foreign influence, a new school of poetry was rising in the North. The common old four-measured alliterative metre was changed into a more regular six-measured line. A new ornament—consonantic correspondence (consonance as we may call it)—was brought into the line, the poetical synonyms were developed to a very extraordinary degree, the wide field of mythology being ransacked for apt and ingenious allusions, and lastly the loose varying periods of the old poetry were replaced by a new unit—the four-lined stanza (itself a doubling of the two-lined couplet), and these stanzas were combined into regular strophes. Bragi himself probably took no mean part in introducing these new forms, which were gradually perfected by successive generations of court poets, till in St. Olave's and Harold Hardreda's time we see the court metre in perfection, with strict six-measured lines (sometimes even eight-measured), consonance, full line-rhyme, fill-gaps (st£l), strict syntactic arrangement, and elaborate 5trophic form.

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