Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Myth as Therapy: The Usefulness of Prymskvida

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Myth as Therapy: The Usefulness of Prymskvida

Article excerpt

One of the major embarrassments of discussing the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda has always been the lack of a clear consensus on the date of many poems. Not only can we not agree about whether some poems date from the tenth century or the early thirteenth, but we cannot even decide whether they were composed by heathens who genuinely believed in the myths they related, or by medieval Catholic Christians to whom they were at best amusing fictions (if not lies devised by the devil). This obviously affects not only the background culture within which they were composed, but the basic interpretation of their subject matter.

The arguments about the date of Prymsrkvida are a good example. Among modern scholars, Einar (Olafur Sveinsson1 and Jonas Kristjansson2 have argued for a pre-Christian origin for the poem, and this view has been strengthened by Bjarne Fidjestol's statistical study of the frequency of the filler-particle of/ um in eddic and skaldic verse.3 He demonstrates that in skaldic verse, much of which can be approximately dated, most early poets use the particle heavily, while it becomes progressively rarer in later poetry. Furthermore, while there are some early skaldic poets who make less than average use of it, there are no poets after the early eleventh century in whose work its frequency is above the average for the whole corpus. Prymskvida shows heavier use of it than any other eddic poem, and by a long margin; this would seem to suggest a very early date.

At the other extreme, Jan de Vries,4 Hallberg, Mageroy, Kvillerud, and Jakobsen have all dated Prymskvida to the first half of the thirteenth century, though for different reasons. Four main arguments for this dating have been advanced:

1. Its use of end-rhyme and repetition, and the virtual absence of anything resembling a kenning, seem reminiscent of later Scandinavian ballads.'

2. Its apparently erratic patterns of alliteration might suggest a late loosening of the traditional rules of eddic verse.'

3. It narrates a myth which is found nowhere else, and is not quoted in Snorra Edda.7

4. It has been argued to contain echoes from a variety of earlier poems.8

I think it is possible to resolve this problem, though not with a simple decision in favour of one view or the other. A number of details of the vocabulary, metre, and cultural background of the poem suggest Anglo--Scandinavian origins: the words 'flaorhamr' 'coat of feathers' (.prymskvida 3,6; 5,2; 9,2), 'prudugr' 'courageous'Prymskvida 17,2), and 'scillinga' probably 'metal decorations on jewellery' (Prymskvioa 32,6) are all unique in ON verse but appear in verse in OE; the phrase 'men Brisinga' (cf. 'Brosinga mene', Beowulf I 199)9 is not found elsewhere in ON, while 'Brosinga mene' appears only in Snorra Edda.10

The metrical pattern of bgmskvida 1,4, 'um sacnaoi '(horr) found (his hammer) missing' is of a characteristically OE type, of which there are eighteen examples in the poems of Cynewulf alone.11 In ON eddic verse, this is one of only two examples of it (the other being Volundarkvida 28,4, in another poem which shows strong OE influences).12 The loose alliteration of the poem, and its occasional tendency to use extra, decorative alliteration, are also reminiscent of later OE verse, in which the same tendencies are also common.

The idea of the fjaorhamr as a flying suit which can be tied on to someone without transformation into bird-form can also be paralleled, so far as I know, only in sources derived from authors and artists associated with the British Isles13 or the Angevin empire.14 It is also possible that the whole story of prymskvida, which is unknown elsewhere in ON mythology, should be related to the Wooing Ceremony folk plays of the Anglo-Scandinavian east Midlands,15 which show many motifs which are very similar to our poem and occur only in an area (centred on Lincolnshire and east Nottinghamshire) in which Scandinavian settlement seems from the place-name evidence to have been intense. …

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