“A SHORT HISTORY OF ICELANDIC MUSIC TO THE BEGINNING OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY”
by Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
The Old Icelandic literature contains a number of indirect references to the musical culture of the Vikings and settlers of Iceland. Much of this literature is believed to have been transmitted orally from one generation to another until it was written down during the 12th and 13th centuries. The historical information conveyed is therefore secondary evidence but nonetheless it is historically valuable.
In Snorri Sturlusons Edda (which he in some extent based on the old eddaic poems) it says that the earth was made of the body of the giant Ýmir. Some people think that the name Ýmir means “the sounding” and accordingly earthly existence began with “sound”.
Heimdallur was the god of singing and divine sound. He could hear the grass grow in the fields and the wool grow on sheep. Heimdallur owned Gjallarhorn, i.e. the “high sounding horn”.
In the eddaic poem Völuspá the shepherd Eggþér is described as playing the harp.
In Hávamál the dwarf Þjóðrerir is a sorcerous singer.
The heroic poems of the Elder-Edda contain a number of references to harp playing, e.g. Atlamál, Atlakviða and Oddrúnargrátur. In Oddrúnargrátur there is furthermore a reference to sorcerous singing.
In Ynglingasaga, which most likely was written by Snorri Sturluson, the legendary Swedish king Hugleikr is described as having various instrumentalists at his court.
There are almost no references in the Icelandic Sagas to instrumental playing but on the other hand the skalds are described as performing their poetry and having good voices. To what degree the Icelandic poetry was sung when performed is uncertain but most likely the degree of singing depended on the nature of the poetry. The skaldic poetry was presumably recited half singingly and without instrumental accompaniment.
Saga Sverris konungs tells about a competition between the Icelandic skald Máni and two buffoons who entertained with instrumental playing and low jesting. This happened at the court of King Magnús Erlingsson (d. 1184) of Norway. The king asks the skald to make verses about the buffoonery. Without hesitation the poet recites two derogatory verses in which he mocks the buffoons and demands their removal from the court. In this particular instance the skald was victorious but in the course of time the jugglers became more popular and in the late 13th century they had completely taken over at the courts.
References to charms are plentiful in old Icelandic literature. The Icelandic word for charms are “galdur” and “seiður”. The former pertains usually to a rather sophisticated kind of magic while the latter pertains to the magic of the common people. The word “galdur” is associated with the verb “gala”, i.e. to “chant” or “sing” and the word “seiður” is associated with the verb “seiða”, i.e. to “attract”. Óðinn was the god of both magic and poetry and in Hávamál he is said to know eighteen different charms.
Charms were most likely sung or chanted, and in e.g. Þorfinns saga karlsefnis an enchantress is described to have performed the rite with a voice of unique beauty. In most cases the magical ceremonies were performed by a single woman, but it may be possible that in some instances a group of people participated in the chanting.
Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, written for the most part in the 14th century, is a collection of fantasy stories dealing with legendary heroes of the distant past. These stories contain a number of references to music, frequently to playing the harp (Völsungasaga, Norna-Gests þáttur, and Bósa saga og Herrauðs). The description in Bósa saga og Herrauðs relates harp playing to magic; this association is also common in legendary tales of other countries.
In addition to the singing of charms and the half-singing of skaldic poetry there were other songs such as working songs, e.g. Grottasöngur in Snorra-Edda and Darraðarljóð in Njálssaga and love songs, but evidence of the musical performance of these songs is very limited and not conclusive.
This article first appeared as an introductory chapter in a two-part thesis presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University in partial fulfillment for the degree of Master of Fine Arts (January 1980)