Thursday, December 9, 2010


'Thus counselled my mother,/ For me should they purchase/ A galley and good oars/ To go forth a-roving.’
--Egill Skalla-Grímsson, Egils saga
[December 9 marks a Day of Remembrance in the Ásatrú tradition honoring 10th century Icelandic hero Egill Skalla-Grímsson, whose exploits are told in the Eddas (sagas). One scholar has described Egill as

[f]ierce, self-willed, and violent... also a fine poet and a man with a sense of ethics. A wanderer, Egill epitomizes the Viking urge to travel out into the unknown world seeking adventure and fortune. With a combination of Courage, Brawn, and Intelligence, this first-generation Icelander survives war and treachery as he journeys through Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, England, Saxony, and Friesland. [caps mine]

Storytellers often note Egill’s unusual appearance: dark, with thickened facial features and a misshapen skull “like a helm’s rock.” Modern medical experts, examining his bones, concluded he suffered from Paget’s Disease, which can cause the face to take on a “lion-like appearance” (a condition called Leontiasis ossea), accompanied by headaches, deafness, and blindness. Though some cite the condition as a cause for Egill’s famous beserker rages, the stories show even as a child--when the disease was probably asymptomatic--he had a violent temper. Despite this illness, Egill survived his violent times and died of natural causes in his 90s. He seemed the perfect personage to ask about the Ásatrú runic virtue of Mannaz (Daring).
*    *    *
Ten Thousand Virtues: Hail, Egill Skalla-Grímsson! We bid you welcome and greet you with mead. [Produces a drinking horn.]
Egill Skalla-Grímsson [a bit warily]: Hail, stranger. I receive your gift of mjaðar gladly, but... Have you any bjórr?
TTV  [flummoxed]: Ehr... Hold on. [Though the magic of Imagination, produces a larger horn full of bjórr.] How’s that?
ESK [receiving the horn]: Ah, yes. Makes my heart glad. We have no need for mjaðar, you see, for I, as skald [poet] bring the Suttungmjaðar, Suttungr’s Draft. But the Mead of Poetry cannot flow until we ride the Dwarf’s Ship [“ride the Dwarf’s  Ship”=kenning or poetic expression for “intoxication”-ed.].
TTV [a bit surprised]: Oh! Um, okay. [Gestures to conveniently materializing hearthfire behind him.] Have a seat. I understand you enjoyed resting by the fire in your later years.  
ESK [gratified]: Ahhhh, yes.... I sang a stave on it once, when the rude young maidens who tended the hearth fires complained that I, a mighty hero, who deserved their honor, was getting in the way of their ash-sweeping! [Closes eyes and recites:]
'Blind near the blaze I wander,
Beg of the fire-maid pardon,
Crave for a seat. Such sorrow
From sightless eyes I bear.
Yet England's mighty monarch
Me whilom greatly honoured:
And princes once with pleasure
The poet's accents heard.'
TTV: Yes, your exploits are still remembered in our day, more than a thousand years after you passed, including your battles as a knight of King Athelstan of England... Egill, you are known as a master of the Runes, and Runic magic. I wonder if you can tell us about the Runic virtue of Mannaz?
ESK [considering]: Ah, Mannaz. Well, remember, young stranger, that those Nine Noble Virtues your modern Folk honor was not a notion familiar to men of the olden times. The ways of them be ours, however. I deem it fitting to use Rune names for them.
TTV [prompting]: Some say Mannaz means Vigor, or Daring, or Energy.  
ESK: Yes, those all have a piece of the sense of it. Mannaz is the way of a leader, a warrior. To be ahead of the pack, not one of the pack--that is Mannaz. Boldness.
TTV: Would you say your life is an example of Mannaz? I understand you showed Daring even at a young age. Your surprising Strength in childhood fights, which included slaying a boy who cheated at a game; your feud with the family of Queen Gunnhildr and King Eirik Bloodaxe; your adventures across foreign lands... What would you say was the moment of your greatest Mannaz?
ESK: Well, there be many of those. But as skald, perhaps my greatest was not in a battle of blood, but a battle of wits. One time during my travels, I shipwrecked in Northumbria, where my mortal enemies Eirik Bloodaxe and Gunnhildr ruled in exile from what you now call Norway. You see, I had cast a Runic curse called a níð against Eirik, using a horse’s head raised on a pole. It’s why he had to flee Norway. Once he got me in his clutches, he planned to chop off my head.
TTV [horrified] What did you do?
ESK: Over the night, while under house arrest at the home of my friend Arinbjorn, I composed a drápa I called Höfuðlausn ["Head's Ransom"]. The next morning, I recited it before Eirik.
TTV: How did he react?
ESK: He didn’t really want to, but he had to let me go. It would have dishonored him to kill a skald who immortalized him in song, you see.
TTV: Ah... So that suggests that Mannaz is not just about brute Will, but Wit as well?
ESK: That’s the truth of it.
TTV: Thank you very much, Egill. I wonder, would you honor us, in closing, by reciting the last part of your Höfuðlausn?
ESK: A righteous way to close, young stranger. [Stands, with difficulty, and raises his large, heavy head, to recite with Ferocity:]
'Silence I have broken,
A sovereign's glory spoken:
Words I knew well-fitting
Warrior-council sitting.
Praise from heart I bring,
Praise to honoured king:
Plain I sang and clear
Song that all could hear.'
*    *    *
May we see the gates of Mannaz, and perhaps make a home there.

No comments:

Post a Comment