Rímur Through the Ages

Dr. John Tucker and Dr. Patricia Baer are to be congratulated on arranging for Guðrún Ingimundardóttir (Rúna) to give a Richard and Beck Lecture on Oct. 17 at the University of Victoria. Guðrun´s lecture and demonstration was on Icelandic traditional music.

Guðrun is the Chair of Rima, a traditional folk singers group in Iceland. She founded Stemma. This is a traditional folk music association. She is the first person to teach Icelandic traditional singing (kvesðkapur) “in an official music school in Iceland (Tónskóli Fjallabyggðar).”

It would be easy to deliver a lecture on a poetic form from the 1400s to the early 1900s and make it so dull that the audience falls asleep. Gúdrun did just the opposite. She electrified the audience. Not only was she able to tell the audience about the history of rímur and its importance for a country with a small population living on isolated farms, she was able to sing the examples of the various kinds of rímur.

The kveðskapur traveled from farm to farm like itinerant troubadors. This was before radio, telephones, film, TV, or the internet. In the evenings, after the day´s farm work was complete, people sat around the baðstofa, the main room of the farmhouse, and knitted or did various tasks such as mending horse bridals or clothes. To keep people awake and entertained, stories were read or told. If a storyteller came to a farm with new stories, he might stay for weeks or months. Many of the rímur were very long and might provide entertainment over the entire winter.

Eventually rímur were written down but for centuries they were oral poems, told and retold, changing with the different tellings and the different tellers. Many, probably most of the rímur, were based on classic stories such as the sagas and skaldic verse. Ironically, it is the survival of rímur that provides proof of the existence of sagas that have been lost.
As well, there are indications in some rímur that they were accompanied with dance. Guðrun mentioned that these might have been similar dances to those of the Faroese. I know from my own research that the Icelandic bishops were violently against dancing of any kind and, with Iceland having such a small population, they were able to supress dancing even in private homes and isolated farms. The result is that evidence of dancing has to be searched for in other activities such as the singing/chanting of rímur.
A particular treat during the lecture was when Guðrun´s husband, Gustaf Danielsson, joined her to sing a ríma.

Among many other things that Guðrun mentioned was that kennings became part of ríma. As with everything, she provided us with examples of the kennings and their meanings. Kennings alone could be the basis for a number of lectures. On my first trip to Iceland, my host was the National Librarian, Finboggi Gudmundson and I still remember his shock when he realized that I didn´t know what a kenning was. They are poetic metaphors that often make poetry so obscure as to not be understandable. For example, instead of saying blood, a poet might say battle sweat. Or so I say and Guðrun seemed to agree, although that didn´t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for them.

Time and again, as Gúðrun went through a list of rímur with their known authors and more recent tellers, she sang for us. She even gave us an example of how and why the tellers/singers chose the voice they chose. When a lecturer can perform what she is lecturing about what a difference it makes!
One surprise was that in the list of ríma writers was Hallgrimur Pétursson, the famous writer of The Passion Hymns. He lived from 1614-74. There are modern advocates such as Steindór Andersen who is “the leading rímur singer in Iceland: he often collaborates with the band Sigur Rós and has also contributed to some of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s works.”

The hour and a half went by so fast for both Guðrun and the audience that it seemed impossible that the lecture was over. Because the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust were fortunate enough to hear that Guðrun was going to be in Victoria and was able to arrange for her to give a lecture, we all benefited, hearing an Icelandic expert on a topic those of us involved in Icelandic culture would normally have to go to Iceland to hear.

To make the experience even more enjoyable, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Guðrun´s husband´s Canadian relatives and hear something of their family´s early years of homesteading in British Columbia. Virginia Guenther came from Sidney, Valerie and Shannon Brickley from 100 Mile House, Victor Lindal and Sherry Thorsteinson from Victoria. The history of Icelandic immigrants in BC is not well known so this Beck lecture didn‘t just educate us about an ancient Icelandic poetic form but brought about a sharing of our local history.

Saving Viking History


Odinn riding Sleipnir by Gerhard Munthe in the 1899 edition of Kongesagaer

Okay, here’s the deal. We don’t really know much about the Vikings. How come? Because they didn’t write things down. They told stories rather than read them. They were travelling all over the place and telling stories about their adventures but when Christianity came along the Viking stories got tossed out as a bunch of pagan bumf. More than bumf, harmful, pagan, anti-Christian bumf.

Christians weren’t ecumenical. They weren’t into sharing. They weren’t big on tolerance. It was our way or death. There was none of this turn the other cheek. The result was that people got in line, did as they were told. They knew what was good for them. They dumped all that stuff that the pagan big shots had told them was the truth and adopted all the stuff that the Christians told them was the truth. The thing that made the Christian stuff stick is that it was written down. So much for all those poems about the great deeds of the Vikings. Or their social customs. Or their history. It was quickly forgotten.

Good thing Iceland was isolated. It got to do things its own way. Given the choice of warfare, they said okay, we’ll become Christians but we get to practice our pagan religions in private. That meant the got to hang onto their past at the same time as people were appearing who could and did write things down. The agreement reached at Thingvella meant there was an extended transition period. The past was not the enemy that had to be destroyed. That was why the agreement was so important, not because someone got to drink horse blood at home, but because Viking culture got to be preserved.

The Viking age was from around 793 to 1066. After that, because of climate change and politics, Iceland became a poverty stricken province of Norway and Denmark. As harsh as this was for people in Iceland in the following centuries, that isolation and poverty helped to preserve knowledge of the Vikings. Customs and beliefs endured. In the 1800s, Iceland was still, in many ways, a medieval society.

Trish Baer said in her talk at the INL convention in Seattle that

– in the late 16th-century a Icelandic scholar named Arngrímur Jónsson remarked, while he was in Copenhagen arranging for the publication of one his books, that Icelandic manuscripts contained information on the early history of Scandinavia.
– Arngrímur remarks led to the discovery that the emigrants from Scandinavia, who settled Iceland beginning in 870 A.D., had taken their cultural heritage with them. The Icelanders never lost the tradition of composing and reciting oral poems about the Viking gods. Moreover, they had written down a collection of the poems in the early 13th-century, and along with a description of the metres and the manner of creating “kennings,” or poetic metaphors, involved in composing them.

-The first of two manuscripts written in Iceland is now known as The Prose Edda and was created by Snorri Sturluson, who was an Icelandic poet, historian, and politician. He wrote his Edda as a handbook for poets so that they could continue to compose poems in the traditional style. I will refer to The Prose Edda as Snorri’s Edda throughout my talk.

– The second manuscript was created by an unidentified Icelandic scholar and is known as The Poetic Edda which consists of 34 poems about Viking gods and heroes.

That’s how crazy life is. An entire history of a people is lost and then is re-discovered on an isolated island in the North Sea, among a people who live largely in isolation not only from the outside world but from each other on farms situated wherever they can find pasture for their sheep and cows. The Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda were written down but the oral tradition continued. Education wasn’t in schools but in the home. Numerous generations lived together and the old passed on this material to the young in the badstofa.

Strange things worked to preserve this story telling. Some bishops, one gets the impression that on the whole they were not much fun to be around, got the Danish king to pass a law banning Icelanders from frivolous pursuits. They also managed to just about stamp out dancing. Throw in poverty and one can see why sitting around in the dark during the long winter, keeping warm by all huddling together in one room, storytelling became important. Think winter in Iceland. Horizontal rain. Snow. Ice. No roaring fires because there are no stoves and hardly any fuel. No TV. No radio. No movies. No internet. Having someone tell or read a story seems a pretty good way to spend ones time as you are knitting the required amount of mittens or socks if you want your piece of dried cod or bowl of skyr the next day.

The truth is there isn’t much written material that describes Viking times. That’s why people have to go to Newfoundland and Labrador and dig and sift for fragments that might prove that the Vikings travelled there. That’s why a pin at Lans Aux Meadows is so important. That’s why charcoal remnants and bog iron are so important. We may not grasp at straws when trying to resurrect our Viking ancestors but we certainly grasp at pins and bits of wool and fire pits and post holes.

Just think, if Icelanders had not preserved The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda, the Sagas, and other bits and pieces from Viking times what would disappear? Our knowledge of the Viking gods? Our knowledge of Viking values? What would we know, outside of archeological digs, of Viking life?

Strange are the ways of history and fate. Iceland’s history is a history of suffering. Death was everywhere. Icelanders fell before epidemics, before starvation brought about by climate change, before laws that kept them from getting the items necessary for their survival. Yet, each of things, in some way, contributed to the conditions that meant the knowledge of the Viking age that had been lost everywhere else was preserved.

What a terrible cost but what a wonderful treasure was preserved.