Friday, September 23, 2011

Saga of the Volsungs (II)

The women in the Saga of the Volsungs are incredibly insightful across the board. Not only does Brynhild know-- well, almost everything. But the women in Sigurd's line are all very aware of what is to come. You'd think that knowing this is an inherited trait, the men would pay more attention to it. Then again, it seems the men who do not pay attention to it end up dying off before they can pass along that particular piece of wisdom. Like Signy's father and brothers (several generations before Sigurd's birth).
Then Signy spoke to her father: "I do not wish to go away with Siggeir, nor do my thoughts laugh with him. I know through my foresight and that special ability found in our family that if the marriage contract is not quickly dissolved this union will bring us much misery." "You should not say such things, daughter," he replied, "for it would be shameful both for him and for us to break the agreement without cause. And if it is broken we could neither have his trust nor bind him in a friendly alliance. He would repay us with as much ill as he could. the only honorable thing is to hold to our side of the bargain" (Byock, 1990).

This is usually how it goes. Daughter foretells some terrible event if she is married to some upstart, and father hushes her and send her on her way anyway, and because she is honorable and dutiful and all things virtuous, with concern for her family name, she goes. Then pretty much everyone dies because they didn't listen, and the woman is left to struggle on and avenge all, through her children. It must've been pretty hard on the kids, raised on all that spite and hatred.

But I'm maybe more fascinated by what Signy says about her new husband-- "Nor do my thoughts laugh with him." The translation presents this as: "I have no will to go away with Seggeir, neither does my heart smile upon him," and the sacred-texts version is, it looks like, the same translation. But the word used in Icelandic for the same passage, is definitely hlæja, meaning laugh, and hugr, which according to my Old Norse dictionary, translates as courage. So where exactly does courage reside, friends? In the heart, or in the mind? Or perhaps the better question is, where did it reside according to the Vikings?

It makes me itch to learn Icelandic, because there is definitely something very interesting going on there, and I really want to know what it is.


  1. I love that expression, "my thoughts laugh with his." Such a beautiful way to convey that mysterious way it happens sometimes, when two people's thoughts flow together. I picture a couple standing in opposite ends of a crowded room, but they can communicate just by the looks they give each other.

  2. My Old Norse dictionary has a whole page dedicated to hugr. It can mean: soul, mind, heart, thought, cast of mind; but also 'inner voice', premonition. The author may well have deliberately picked a word with so many shades of meaning. One of the phrases connected with the word translates as 'be in good courage' and that's probably where your translation comes from.

    Heh, I had to blow some dust from the dictionary, which shows I haven't used it for ages which is a pity, somehow. I should read more Old Norse again. ;)

  3. Di: me too!

    Gabriele C: What dictionary do you have and where can I get a copy? :)

  4. It's an Old Norse / German one. :)

    I think the most cohesive, and probably also the most expensive one is the 2 volume Old Norse / English dictionary by Cleasby-Vigfusson. When I didn't find something in mine during my MA thesis, I used that one in our library.

  5. Ahh Old Norse to German would not do me any good, I fear. I'll check out the other one you suggested though! Thanks!

    I wonder if hugr is one of those words that just can't be translated precisely because we don't have the right cultural context. There are some words like that in Latin, where there are a couple of meanings but English doesn't quite capture it.

  6. Yes, like virtus and such. Hugr could definitely fall into that category.

  7. Exactly what I was thinking of! ha.

    Thanks so much for your comments!


Comments are Love!

(Nota Bene: During #NAMEthatBUTT season, all comments are moderated and your guesses are hidden until after the butt is revealed!)