Visual puns (rebuses) encoding personal names are well known from the Middle Ages, portraiture and heraldry providing excellent media. A combination of staged puns mediated by a kind of ekphrasis (literary comment on an objet d’art) may be recoverable from an anecdote early in the career of Egill, as recounted in Ch. 31 of Egils saga. The three-year-old Egill has followed his father and kinsmen to a feast, from which he had earlier been debarred because of his fractiousness when in drink (!). He reaches the hall of his maternal grandfather Yngvarr and is well received at the high table, where he participates in the impromptu versifying of his seniors by addressing a praise poem to the host, highlighting his generosity and claiming that Yngvarr will never find a better three-year-old poem-smith. Egill’s verse draws on dragon imagery, since dragons guarded hoards, hoards consisted of gold, and gold was a suitable recompense for a poet. Yngvarr commits the verse instantly to memory, repeats it, then waits until the next day to reward the young poet with a gift.
The poet’s reward is drawn from a rather different realm than that of dragons, hoards, or even simple gold. Egill receives three sea-snail-shells (kúfunga þrjá) and a duck’s egg (andaregg). A multitude of correspondences and associations are implicated here. The curiosities from the natural world might be thought to interest a child as playthings but have no real value; as with a poem--mere sound--value must assigned. The two kinds of fragile object have ambiguous aquatic associations: the sea-snail is not quite a fish, the duck functions in all three spheres of sky, sea, and earth. The egg is an elliptical sphere; the shells display spirals. To move to a different level, both are containers for something of value, often edible, and this and the maritime association in this context necessarily recall the myth of the mead of poetry, its initial fermentation in a cauldron, its sequestration among dwarves on a skerry, its hoarding in a cave, its transport by Óðinn in eagle-form. Önd (genitive andar) is the word for ‘duck’ but a homophone önd ‘spirit, breath,’ which figured in compounds such as andagift ‘inspiration,’ recalls us in a different way to the myth of the sources of poetic inspiration. And another and-, serving as a prefix meaning ‘against,’ figured in the compound andfang ‘reception, hospitality’ (and not ‘duck-catching’!), further tying the complex of references to the immediate circumstances of the hall and poem. Thus, what seems a somewhat simple, even patronizing gift to a precocious poet is fraught with multiple allusions.
Egill does not name himself in his stanza but simply equates ek ‘I’ with smiðr óðar ‘poem smith.’ In the absence of the onomastic punning that we might expect in such verse, the host Yngvarr engages in a bit of oneupmanship by concrete puns that work as follows. The andaregg, whether a prosaic duck’s egg or an egg of inspiration, is obvious enough and gives us the first component of the name Egill. We could even entertain the compound *egg-gildi ‘egg-recompense.’ The snail-shells allude to the second half of the name since their interiors resemble the constricted way called a geil, a narrow, twisting glen as a topographical feature or a lane enclosed by buildings in a settlement. That Egill should receive three spiral objects may be a reference to his completion of three annual cycles. If this reading of the circumstances of Egill’s first poem should seem to strain the evidence, it should be recalled that, after his last poem and his death and burial, his body is exhumed and his skull–the voice-box of the poet--is seen to be corrugated on the outside like a scallop-shell (haussinn var allr báróttr útan svá sem hörpuskel). Here it is the author who is manipulating the imagery for a nice closure effect, and not the wily Yngvarr. And we recall the poem with the cuckoo, best known for its song and its egg, that figures at the thematic mid-point of the saga.
The poem and its reward should be homologous. A verse praising battle prowess should be rewarded with a weapon, the tool of battle, or gold, its product. But a verse praising generosity and calling attention to poetic composition is here rewarded with objects that allude to poetry, situate the poet socially, and even encode his name. The skaldic poem is a challenge to understanding and Yngvarr at once shows that he is well on his way when he is able to repeat it. By the next day he will have thoroughly explored its intricacies –none too challenging in this early poem. His reward is a challenge in return.
Egill perfectly well understands the multiple significance of his gifts. But a puzzle once solved is not redeployed. What was implicit in the gifts–the encoded name--is made explicit in Egill’s follow-up verse, in which he names himself twice. Instead of further allusions to the origins of poetic inspiration we have conventional allusions to the patron as potential donor of weapons and sea-farer. The aquatic reference is retained but the four gifts are now seen as natural objects, yet still subject to metaphorical elaboration. The shells are called the ever-silent dogs of the smashing surf, the egg is the favored bed of the stream-partridge. Here kúfungr ‘snail shell’ seems to have prompted Egill to think of kofarn ‘pet’ or ‘lap dog.’ Unlike real dogs, these are “ever silent,” since, when listened to, repeat only the sound of the sea–unlike the vocal poet. But even the conventional images are chosen with care. The sword hardened and given by the patron is called a ‘wound-gosling,’ consonant with the reference to the duck. And where Egill had been the poem-smith in the first stanza, Yngvarr is the sword-smith in the second. Finally, the two helmingar state that the one gift was made in recompense for eulogy, the other in order to please the youngster.