A Translator for the Valkyrie
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Kristin: Hi everyone, Kristin here. Welcome to the first Murder & Myths Extended Mythology Episode 1A – A Translator for the Valkyrie.
In the regular podcast episodes, I take on the role of a story teller for they myths, and I don’t want to break up the narrative with too much explanation of the characters or locations unless its necessary to the story. However, as you can imagine with mythology, unless you are already familiar with the world we are traveling in, there is a lot of deeper meaning that can be missed.
So, we’ll meet here once a month and expand the world view of our tales.
Today I want to revisit the poem that Brunhild tells Sigurd when they first meet, and hopefully explain a little better exactly what Brunhild was telling Sigurd in that part of the story.
For the podcast I used the translation by William Morris and Eirik Magnusson from their 1888 work The Story of the Volsungs. Part of the reason I choose that version was because its included in Project Gutenberg's The Story of the Volsungs, which can be reproduced and redistributed with almost no restrictions. As such I was able to include the translation as part of A Mighty Flame’s show notes on our website, as well as on our Patreon page. If you want to follow along with today’s episode head over there now and grab it.
I’ll start by reading a stanza, then we will explore what it meant. I will preface this by saying, I am not a scholar in Norse mythology, so I am not making any definitive statements about what the original authors intended, and for the sake of brevity, I won’t be going into the multitude of issues with the source material for our understanding of Norse culture except to say that a lot of it was written down after Christianity had already taken hold.
With that being said let’s join Brynhild:
Beer bring I to thee,
Fair fruit of the byrnies' clash,
Mixed is it mightily,
Mingled with fame,
Brimming with bright lays
And pitiful runes,
Wise words, sweet words,
Speech of great game.
Here Brunhild is giving Sigurd the full cup of mead. Fair Fruit of the byrnies clash. Whats a byrnie you might ask? Well, a byrnie is a type of chainmail, and this line is alternatively translated as Tree of Battle, which is a way of saying warrior. So, as she is giving Sigurd the mead, she is recognizing him for what he is, a warrior of great renown. The rest of that stanza explains that the mead has been mixed with strength and fame, full of magic, charms, and happy words. Basically, something you would want to drink.
Runes of war know thou,
If great thou wilt be!
Cut them on hilt of hardened sword,
Some on the brand's back,
Some on its shining side,
Twice name Tyr therein.
Here she is telling Sigurd, if you want to win in battle, carve victory runes on your sword. Carve them on the hilt, on the furrow, and on the blade. Tyr is a Norse God of War, and one who I’ll surely be telling more stories about on the podcast, and thus Brynhild is instructing Sigurd to invoke him to ensure victory. I also like to think there’s little a bit of a double meaning here, as the Norse rune for T is also called Tyr, so maybe we should be carving that on the sword as well.
Sea-runes good at need,
Learnt for ship's saving,
For the good health of the swimming horse;
On the stern cut them,
Cut them on the rudder-blade
And set flame to shaven oar:
Howso big be the sea-hills,
Howso blue beneath,
Hail from the main then comest thou home.
This is one of my favorite stanza’s in the poem, as I come from line of sea faring folk. The swimming horse is a clever way of referring to a ship, and if you want to keep the ship safe on the waters then carve the runes on the stern and the rudder, and burn them onto the oars, and there won’t be breaking waves that you can’t escape safely from.
Word-runes learn well
If thou wilt that no man
Pay back grief for the grief thou gavest;
Wind thou these,
Weave thou these,
Cast thou these all about thee,
At the Thing,
Where folk throng,
Unto the full doom faring.
The Thing where the folk throng unto the full doom faring. This specifically was one of the lines that made me want to cover the poem here. I mean really what could that even mean? Well this part refers to a gathering of people, the Thing, which is like a tribunal, where you could go to seek judgement. Here Brunhild is explaining, that if Sigurd learns the speech runes and casts them about himself, his adversary at the court will not seek out vengeance. Which if you know anything about the cycle of revenge killings that happen throughout the Saga of the Volsungs, you know is very sage advice for Sigurd.
Of ale-runes know the wisdom
If thou wilt that another's wife
Should not bewray thine heart that trusteth:
Cut them on the mead-horn,
On the back of each hand,
And nick an N upon thy nail.
So if Sigurd were to decide to have an affair with another man’s wife, and does not want that secret betrayed, he should learn the ale runes. Then all he needs to do is carve them on the drinking horn, and on the back of his hand, and carve the rune for N on his fingernail. The rune for N, naudr, is also the word for need. The need is for the trust to remain unbroken here.
Ale have thou heed
To sign from all harm
Leek lay thou in the liquor,
Then I know for sure
Never cometh to thee,
Mead with hurtful matters mingled.
Leek lay thou in the liquor, more than being fun to say, is referring to the belief that leeks can counteract witchcraft. So, if you don’t want to unknowingly drink mead that has been cursed just throw a leek in your ale horn, and you’re golden.
Help-runes shalt thou gather
If skill thou wouldst gain
To loosen child from low-laid mother;
Cut be they in hands hollow,
Wrapped the joints round about;
Call for the Good-folks' gainsome helping.
Here, Brynhild recommends that if Sigurd should want to save a women’s life who is having difficulty giving birth, he should learn the help runes. He should then carve them into his palms, wrap them around his joints, and ask the fates to help.
Learn the bough-runes wisdom
If leech-lore thou lovest;
And wilt wot about wounds' searching
On the bark be they scored;
On the buds of trees
Whose boughs look eastward ever.
If you want to be a healer, learn the branch runes, sometimes translated to limb runes which I think makes less sense in the context of the rest of the stanza because it goes no to say if you want to heal the wounds, carve the runes onto the bark of the tree, or a tree who boughs face eastward. It was believed that by carving the runes on to the bark, the sickness would be transferred from the ill person to the tree.
Thought-runes shalt thou deal with
If thou wilt be of all men
Fairest-souled wight, and wisest,
These first cut
These first took to heart high Hropt.
Learn the runes if you want to be the cleverest of men, plain and simple. Hropt is another name for Odin, from whom our knowledge of the runes comes from. Here we learn that Odin read them, Odin carved them, and Odin thought them up.
On the shield were they scored
That stands before the shining God,
On Early-waking's ear,
On All-knowing's hoof,
On the wheel which runneth
Under Rognir's chariot;
On Sleipnir's jaw-teeth,
On the sleigh's traces.
The shining god here is the sun. Early-waking’s ear and All-knowings hoof refer to Arvak and Alsvith, the horses that pull the cart of the sun. Rognir is one of Odin’s many, many, names. So here we see that runes were carved on the wheel of his chariot. They were also carved on the teeth of Odin’s 8 legged horse Sleipnir, who by the way is also Loki’s son, but that is a tale for another time. The runes are also on the reigns of his sled. Some translations say that it is Thor’s chariot rather than Odin’s in this stanza, but since we go from that line right into talking about Odin’s horse, and not the goats that pull Thor’s chariots, I prefer the version that summons Odin here.
On the rough bear's paws,
And on Bragi's tongue,
On the wolf's claws,
And on eagle's bill,
On bloody wings,
And bridge's end;
On loosing palms,
And pity's path:
This stanza continues telling of all the places where runes have been carved. Most are self-explanatory, but I do want to mention a couple of the lines here. Bragi is the god of poetry, and it makes sense that he would have runes carved on his tongue with how skilled he is with skaldic speech. Loosing palms refer to a helper’s hands, and pity’s path, a healer’s footprint.
On glass, and on gold,
And on goodly silver,
In wine and in wort,
And the seat of the witch-wife;
On Gungnir's point,
And Grani's bosom;
On the Norn's nail,
And the neb of the night-owl.
Just continuing the list of rune imbued items. Here we have treasures, wine, beer, and the witches chair. On Gungnir’s point, refers to Odin’s magical spear made by the dwarves and considered one of the gods greatest treasures, so it makes sense that Odin would have runes carved upon it. Grani is Sigurd’s horse, who is also a descendent of Sleipnir, and by proxy Loki. The Norn’s nail refers to the fingernails of the fates, and finally the beak of an owl.
All these so cut,
Were shaven and sheared,
And mingled in with holy mead,
And sent upon wide ways enow;
Some abide with the Elves,
Some abide with the Aesir,
Or with the wise Vanir,
Some still hold the sons of mankind.
So after Odin cut these runes into wood, he shaved the wood away and mixed the rune infused shavings into the holy mead and sent it about. He sent some to the Elves, some to the Aesir, who are the principal pantheon of the Norse religion that Odin and Thor and Tyr belong to. Some to the Vanir, who are another pantheon within the Norse religion, that was once at war with the Aesir that deities such as Freya and Njord belong to. And some of the holy mead was sent to us humans here in Midgard.
These be the book-runes,
And the runes of good help,
And all the ale-runes,
And the runes of much might;
To whomso they may avail,
They are wholesome to have:
Thrive thou with these then.
When thou hast learnt their lore,
Till the Gods end thy life-days.
Brynhild is now reiterating the types of runes, and saying that they will be helpful to those who know them. If you know them, and can use them correctly, you should, until the gods are dead.
Now shalt thou choose thee
E'en as choice is bidden,
Sharp steel's root and stem,
Choose song or silence;
See to each in thy heart,
All hurt has been heeded."
Brunhild tells Sigurd that he must now chose to speak or remain silent, to choose her, or go against fate.
So there we have it. Hopefully that helped you to understand the poem a little better, and why Sigurd was so impressed with the knowledge that Brunhild possessed that he had to vow to marry her.
I’ve included some information in the show notes about the two runes we specifically mentioned: Naudr & Tyr.
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Join us next week for Murder & Myths Episode 2 – Rub a Dub Dub, Thanks for the Grub
And as always, come for the murder and stay for the myths.