The Kraftaskalds: Available Article Translation and an Update on My PhD Studies

My PhD studies are nearly done—I submitted my dissertation back in February, and I’m only waiting for the final evaluation and then the defense. My dissertation is titled: “Chanting Up the Kraftaskalds: An Investigation into Their Image, Roles, and Magic.”

And what are the kraftaskalds? They are poets from Icelandic folktales who do magic through their improvised poetry. They use this magic for a wide variety of purposes: cursing enemies, blessing those who treat them well, chanting down walking corpses (draugar), changing the weather, managing animals, and much more. Folklore about kraftaskalds is mostly post-medieval, with the bulk of the sources having been recorded in the 19th century. But the phenomenon goes back into the medieval period—Egill Skallagrímsson and Þorleifr jarlsskáld are the prime examples. The magic poetry of kraftaskalds is generally in the rímur forms that dominated Iceland throughout the post-medieval period. The tradition of Icelandic folklore is rich and complex, and just as worthy of translation and scholarship as the more famous saga tradition. Yet while the sagas are widely studied and translated, Icelandic folklore is still largely obscure in comparison. And I’m happy to say that I’ve been working on one of the most fascinating and uniquely Icelandic parts of the Icelandic folklore tradition—for instance, trolls and similar creatures are quite widespread in European folklore, but this sort of magical poet, not so much.

Once my dissertation is defended, I plan to revise it into a monograph for publication through a scholarly press. For that reason, my dissertation will likely be closed access and thus not publicly available on a website, although I will have some printed copies, of course. I know that many of you are eager to see what I’ve been working on, but it’ll be a while before the monograph is finally in print.

However, there is something I can share now! In 1961, Bo Almqvist, a renowned folklorist, published an article in Icelandic, “Um ákvæðaskáld,” about the kraftaskalds, at roughly 8200 words in length. It is a superb and unbeatable short introduction to the phenomenon, even after 60 years. And so I made a translation (with Teresa Dröfn Njarðvík) of it, and that was published as “Concerning the Icelandic Spell-Poets” in the middle of last July by the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. I haven’t said much about it until now, since it’s published under what is called “Green Open Access,” which means that it is kept with the journal (which is behind a paywall for most people) for an embargo period (in their case, one year) before the author may make it open-access available on a public website. So now that it’s been a year, I’ve posted it on my page, where you can read a short introduction to the really cool topic that I’ve been writing a book about.


Háskólavísur 15: Saga’s End

With the work of his MA/MPhil finished, it was left to the Skald to relax and enjoy early summer and the outdoor life in Oslo with his lady. Many hills, forests, lakes, sea shores, and islands were explored. But his time to leave Europe finally arrived, and after another tearful goodbye, the Skald finally departed Oslo to visit Iceland once more on his way home to Vinland. There, the Skald rejoiced in seeing many happy and familiar sights once more, such as Háskóli Íslands, Gullfoss, Geysir, Þingvellir (including the Ásatruarfélagið’s midsummer Þingblót), and Bláa Lónið. Finally, the Skald attended his graduation on June 25. After nearly eleven months abroad, the Skald returned to Vinland on June 30. Though his future directions were as yet uncertain, it was a time to celebrate further and enjoy the company of family and friends. With his time in the Viking and Medieval Norse Studies program finally finished, the Skald composed this verse:

Sweet celebrations sealed my triumph,
a victory won in Viking Studies.
Then Norway’s nature was a needed break:
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Háskólavísur 09: The Heart of the Slain

The spring semester had attacked with a greater force than the fall semester, but Eirik skald had read the runes aright and was even more prepared this time around. In late March, the semester’s elite vanguard, a particular long essay, had fallen like Hrungnir, leaving the rest of its forces utterly demoralized. The Skald proceeded to easily strike down the rest one by one, until the semester had only two champions remaining, at which point the Skald celebrated a brief rest with rum and cigars. As the Skald prepared to face those last two champions, he reflected on the most Sacred Heart that he won from the slain essay and composed this verse:

I sought the Grail, that sacred Stone,
in tales time-tested of the Trú Norræn
and found my goal in those famed kernels,
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Háskólavísur 08: Climb the Mountain

On a fine February day in Iceland, the intrepid students of Viking Studies walked the lands once tread by Njáll, Gunnar, and others from Njáls saga, and climbed the steep hill known as Stóra-Dímon near Hlíðarendi. Eirik skald was with them. Many weeks later, after some reflection, with respect to spiritual pursuits, on the metaphor of the climb and the magnificence of the view from the top compared to that of the bottom, he composed this verse:

Clear cold crisp air: it cuts sharply,
but victory’s view from ‘vantaged point
above the abyss is the best of sights.
Below on land, we lumber around,
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Háskólavísur 07: Nýtt Ár Ríma (New Year Rhyme)

Having reached at last the end of 2014, the skald and his lady enjoyed two Icelandic New Year’s traditions — the bonfires and fireworks. Then Eirik composed this ríma in the ferskeytt meter:

Mighty bonfire, burning fierce
brightly will shine, searing.
Deep it will the darkness pierce,
undimmed things appearing.

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Háskólavísur 06: The Battles of Sæmundargata

The onslaught of work spewed forth by the semester grew greater and greater, and it seemed to Eirik that attempts to get ahead of it were succeeding less than they had before. But the semester was mortally wounded, and the brave skald knew that he had only to fight a little bit longer. On December 12, final victory was gained. The skald had conquered, and the semester lay dead at last. Then Eirik composed this verse:

Black Knight’s challenge at bridge was first.
Though “none shall pass,” a knowledge contest,
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Háskólavísur 05: First Snow in Reykjavík

On October 20, the first snow accumulation of the season fell on Reykjavik. Then Eirik composed this verse:

Reykjavik’s snow rested on ground
an October morning autumnal delight.
Its fair flurries had fallen at night
on the sleeping city at sea-shore’s edge.
But the winter wonder, welcomed too soon,
had melted down in muddled drizzle,
with a likeness of memory left in waters
that the well of wyrd had away taken.

Snow In Reykjavík

Copyright © 2014 Eirik Westcoat.
All rights reserved.

Háskólavísur 04: Imagine Peace Tower

On October 9, I got to see the annual lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower, an outdoor work of art by Yoko Ono, located on Viðey Island just off the coast of Reykjavík here in Iceland. Its name in Icelandic, Friðarsúlan (lit., ‘the pillar of peace’), immediately reminded me of the ancient heathen toast, “til árs ok friðar” (lit., ‘for abundance and peace’). From there, I wondered if perhaps a second tower is needed, a hypothetical Árssúlan (lit. ‘the pillar of year’ in Modern Icelandic, but in Old Norse, “ár” also has meanings of plenty, abundance, and fruitfulness). Thus I wrote this verse:

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Háskólavísur 03: My Heathen Hof

“Hof” is my room: a heathen temple
to higher learning, where a horn is raised
to the elder gods of the Medieval North.
Repeating paradigms, I practice Old Norse,
and runes are written for raising consciousness.
The tales of knights by Chrétien I read,
and grails are sought for gain in my soul.
Of a Corpus of Lit, I acquire knowledge,
and mead is made for many to enjoy.

Copyright © 2014 Eirik Westcoat.
All rights reserved.