Verbal Magic, Pagansim, and the New Christian Order
In medieval Ireland the composers of satirical and defamatory poetry (cáinti) were associated with institutions that were condemned by the church, e.g., the fíana, bands of well-born unmarried young men who lived semi-delinquent lives on society’s fringes before coming into property and status. The fíana are romanticized in the narrative cycle associated with Finn Mac Cumail but do seem to have had a historical existence. Ecclesiastical condemnation of satire, in Ireland as in Iceland, would have been in part due to its threat to social order but also, although our available evidence is much less explicit in this respect, to its supposed reliance on word magic. Belief in the power of words for good and, more importantly, ill is widespread and we have seen that the line between satire and curse is easily crossed, the descriptive words judged able to effect a change in reality.
The conversion of Iceland to Christianity had far-reaching consequences for poetry, including courting and defamatory verse, which was already legally marginalized. The entire apparatus of mythological allusions that was also an important constituent in kennings was lost, as was the rarified lexical register and disjointed syntax. “It is the ambiguous and recondite nature of skaldic diction that will sound discordantly for clerical poets of the ... [fourteenth] century.” One can imagine that name encryption would fall early before the need for Christian clarity, as expressed, for example, in the poem Lilja. Theorists and anthologists of traditional skaldic forms like Snorri and Óláfr are silent on the subject of the possible christianization of the poetic agenda but there is a telling scene between the missionary king Óláfr Tryggvason and the Icelandic poet Hallfreðr, who has joined his retinue. The king has him compose verse and then criticizes it for its residual pagan content and style. With his stanzas getting more and more plain and straighforward, Hallfreðr works his way through neutrality to a statement of Christian faith, to the king’s satisfaction. But such evidence is rare. There is, however, one scene in Njáls saga that would seem to have at least the potential to inform us, in symbolic fashion, of pagan poetry’s stand against the encroaching new faith.
Missionary efforts in Iceland were led by Þangbrandr, likely a Saxon cleric. The name is not Norse but so recast could be etymologized as þang + brandr. Such a ‘sword of the seaweed’ would be a kenning for ‘fish,’ an initially cryptic christological symbol. Opposition to the proselytizing, according to the saga, came pre-eminently from sorcerers and poets, but was put down with un-Christian force. Þorvaldr inn veili, ‘the Ailing,’ gathered a troop to stand against the missionary and his new allies, and sent a verse to the poet Úlfr Uggason inviting him to join him. Þorvaldr contrasts the wolf (Úlfr), who is his addressee, with the cleric, argr goðvargr ‘effeminate/sodomitic wolf to the (pagan) gods.’ This second wolf-word has overtones of the outlaw and it is Christian opposition to the revered heathen deities that is addressed. But Úlfr is wary of being drawn into the fray, especially on the losing side, and characterizes himself, in a return stanza, as a canny fish that will not take the fly. He and Þangbrandr are wolves in Þorvaldr’s verse, but he joins the ‘sword of the tang’ in his own verse, and swims with the school. Yet, it should be noted that neither Þangbrandr’s nor Úlfr’s name seems to be encoded in the first stanza and in the second the poet’s fish image may be fortuitous rather than reflective of an awareness of a poetic etymology for the name of the foreigner. This same narrative context has both scurrilous verse rejecting the old gods, Óðinn and Freyja, and conventional verses by a female sorcerer attributing the loss at sea of Þangbrandr’s ship to the intervention of Þórr, otherwise the tutelary deity of pagan sea-farers.