Wednesday, November 11, 2020


A Cultural Imperative

Tom Shippey, Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (London: Reaktion Books, 2018), pp. 87-88, with notes on p. 319:
The characteristics of the northern death song, seen as a genre, have in fact been noted by Professor Joseph Harris of Harvard.9 He counts as many as fifteen Old Norse examples, though that includes some marginal cases like the death song of Starkad, found only (like most of Bjarkamál) in Saxo's verbose Latin rendering. He also lists some eight or nine motifs found repeatedly, but the most striking one is this: the very last words of a death song were (should be? Or were expected to be?) about as emotionally flat as could be managed. Several are quoted in what follows, but a good one is Thorir Jokul's, as he was led to execution in 1238: Eitt sinn skal hver deyja 'Everyone must die one day'.10 They are the correlative of the poker face that the hero is expected to display in moments of stress or disaster. Both the flat words and the poker face surely exist to express a cultural imperative — one that our more sentimental modern world is (on the whole, and with exceptions) ill-suited to appreciate.

9 Joseph Harris, 'Beowulf's Last Words', Speculum, lxvii (1992), pp. 1–32.

10 Quoted in Guðni Jónsson, ed., Sturlunga saga, 3 vols (Reykvavik, 1951), vol. ii, p. 352. The late date means that Thorir's poem could well have been recorded by someone actually present

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