Cosmology and Skaldic Poetry
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Cosmology and Skaldic Poetry


It is well known that medieval Norwegians and Icelanders were interested in cosmology and in the movements of the heavenly bodies, including the sun, moon, planets, and stars. This interest is evident both from traditional sources, as presented in eddic poems such as Voluspá 5-6 and Vafþrúðnismál 22-25 were translations of or influenced by Latin encyclopedic literature, from which medieval Europeans gained most of their knowledge of the natural sciences before the works of Aristotle and other Greek and Arab scholars became available in the period 1125-1230.2 Many of the encyclopedic sources to be found in Old Norse manuscripts were gathered together in the three volumes of Alfræði Íslenzk and more recently discussed by Rudolf Simek.3 Works such as Konungs skuggsjá indicate that medieval Scandinavians also had a practical interest in the application of cosmology to their daily lives.4 In the fictional discussion in that work between a father and his son, for example, the father makes it clear to the son that someone who ventures out to sea on trading voyages needs to know about the courses of the sun, moon, and stars, and the influence of the moon on the tides.

Less well known than the general Old Norse interest in cosmology indicated by the sources mentioned above, which are mostly in prose, is the fact that skaldic poets were occasionally moved to compose stanzas on such [End Page 199] subjects. In this article we discuss two examples in which we consider the skald is presenting material inspired by a knowledge of medieval natural science and, in one case, of the science of computus (ON rím), the system of calculating astronomical phenomena and the movable dates of the Christian calendar, especially Easter, which was essential to the practical operation of the Church.5 The first of these skalds, though the later in date, is the thirteenth-century Icelandic poet Óláfr svartaskáld (Black Skald) Leggsson, and the second is the much more famous and prolific Icelander Einarr Skúlason (born c. 1090), who is best known for his composition of the encomium Geisli (Light-beam) in honor of St. Óláfr.6

It is arguably significant that the two examples discussed here have been transmitted only in the grammatical literature of medieval Iceland and its early modern Nachlaß, significant because the stanzas' subjects would have been taught in the medieval schoolroom alongside elementary grammar and rhetoric as essential knowledge for school pupils, many of whom were or would become priests. We know that Einarr Skúlason was a priest, because he is designated prestr in some sources,7 and is mentioned in a catalogue of priests from western Iceland who were alive in 1143.8 On the other hand, there is no indication that Óláfr Leggsson was in orders, and what little we know of his life suggests otherwise.9 However, the level of cosmological knowledge his stanza displays is fairly elementary and is of an order that an intelligent layman would have known, just as the merchant of Konungs skuggsjá is represented as doing.

Most of the poetry attributed to Óláfr Leggsson is fragmentary. Among the fragments are two half-stanzas (helmingar) transmitted consecutively in two manuscripts of the Y redaction of the Laufás Edda of Magnús Ólafsson, an early seventeenth-century Icelandic treatise on skaldic poetics based [End Page 200] on medieval sources but including some material from sources that are now lost, including in all probability lost leaves of the Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol. of c. 1350).10 In standard editions of skaldic poetry, these two helmingar have been regarded as part of a longer poem and given a modern title.11 Finnur Jónsson called them part of En drape om Kristus (?) (A drápa about Christ [?]), but there is no evidence available on whether they formed part of a longer poem and, if so, what its name was, if it had one.

The subject of the first of these half-stanzas is Christ's crucifixion and its significance for humanity. The second is addressed...