Gore jewels and otter payment

I started Snorri Sturluson's Edda expecting rip-roaring Norse mythology. And there's some of that. But mostly, it's a thirteenth-century poetry course.

After recounting some Norse pagan myths, Sturluson turns to explaining rhyme schemes and allusive language. Norse poets were fond of kennings, indirect ways of referring to things, and the second and third sections of Edda (also known as the Younger Edda or the Prose Edda) are happy to explain them all for you. "Corpse-heap-wave" means "blood", so "corpse-heap-wave-gull" is "eagle". A sword is an "adder of battle" or a "gore jewel"; blood is "corpse dew"; ravens are "wound goslings"; a woman is a "beer plank" (because women served beer to guests). It's like the world's rowdiest cryptic crossword.

"Otter payment" means "gold", because, Sturluson tells us, Loki killed an otter who turned out to be the son of a local wizard ("a person of great power ... skilled in magic", in translator Anthony Faulkes's words). Odin and the other Æsir agreed to pay for the crime with as much gold as would cover the otter's hide, but even after they piled it up, one whisker could still be seen. Odin was forced to cover the whisker with a magical ring that Loki had seized from a dwarven smith, and while he hated to relinquish it, he did have the consolation that the ring was said to bring destruction to its owner.

In other words, this is a variant of the myth that Richard Wagner turned into Das Rheingold, with the goddess of beauty replaced by an otter. Think how different the world of opera would be if Wagner had gone with the Edda version.

Written on April 9, 2016