Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index Previous
WITH THIS curious poem we are in another world—that of medieval Christian thought, morality, symbols. Yet, strangely, there is in it far more of the old and heathen than would appear at first blush. Indeed, nothing shows more strikingly the saturation and penetration of the North with the traditional “heathen,” alliterative art than that such an arch-Catholic poem as Sólarlióth is composed in one of the time-honored forms, lióthaháttr or “chant meter”1—the measure which is firmly associated with that arch-heathen collection, Hóvamól. Moreover, there is little doubt that the author consciously patterned his poem—more specially, the first part of it—on the general plan of that unique collection of saws in the Germanic spirit. The heathen tradition is seen no less clearly in numerous stylistic and phraseological reminiscences from the older collection; so that it would seem that the author, some pious Icelandic cleric of, say, the thirteenth century, was steeped in the gnomic lore of his forefathers before even conceiving his poem. Still further, there are certain similarities with Hugsvinnsmól,2 the translation, (also in lióthaháttr, and possibly by the same person) of the Dicta Catonis, a Latin collection of wise saws in distichs which was very popular in the Middle Ages. Like the Sun Song, it is addressed by a father to his son. Neither is the substance of our poem, with its inculcation of Christian ethics, by parable and precept, of any great originality, familiar as that subject was through a multitudinous literature of homilies, visions, books of devotion. The great interest, aye, fascination, of the poem lies, rather, in the remarkable blending and interpenetration of all these elements to form something individually new which, once read, is not easily forgotten. It has been aptly called a Christian Eddic lay, a Christian Hóvamól; though it is hardly p. 102 open to debate that, both as a whole and in its parts, it is greatly inferior to its prototype.
The beginning seems abrupt, suggesting the loss of some introductory stanza or stanzas, to conform with those of the conclusion (81-82). But for the rest, it appears now, thanks to the searching investigations, during recent years, of a number of scholars, that the poem forms a fairly comprehensible and reasonably logical whole; especially when bearing in mind the visionary character of the latter part and the nature of its literary sources. They serve to explain a certain general looseness of structure and a baffling incoherence of thought which has led some students to doubt the unity of the poem.
As stated, the poem deals with the Christian way of life, by examples (1-24) and precepts (the seven Christian counsels, 25-32); but chiefly by impressive personal experience of death, and of life in the Beyond, the sight of the punishments and rewards meted out to sinner and saint (33-75). This scheme leaves as obscure in bearing (and detail) only stanzas 76-80.3
The name of the poem, revealed in 81, seems to have reference, not so much to the famous initial burthen of the central portion: “The sun I saw,” as to the Sun as the well-known symbol of Christ.
We are dependent for our knowledge of the poem on Paper MSS of the seventeenth century which may all be referred to one and the same original.
|1||Of life and goods did the grim warrior4|
rob men wrongfully;
by the way which was watched by him,
no quick wight ever came.
|2||By himself (most often)5 he ate alone,|
nor e’er bade men to his meals;
p. 103 till once, weary and weak of strength
a wayfarer he welcomed.
|3||Of meat and drink he6 seemed much in need,|
and faint without food;
now, frightened, he must fain trust him
who ere had been hard of heart.
|4||Gave he meat and drink to the drooping man,|
and whole-heartedly, withal;
good fare he gave him, of God mindful,
for well he wished the man.7
|5||Up he got, on ill deeds bent,|
nor gratefully took what was given:
his sin swelled,8 he the sleeping man murdered
who wise and wary was else.
|6||To Heavens’ God for help he prayed|
when waking, wounded to death;
but on him fell the heavy sin:
who had dastardly done him to death.
|7||Came holy angels from Heaven above,|
and swiftly seized his soul;
A sinless life will it lead thereafter,
aye with almighty God.
|* * *|
|8||Nor health nor wealth— though all go well with him9—|
may a man ever master;
misfortune befalls him who feared it least:
by himself, no one settles the issue.
|9||Neither Unnar nor Sævaldi10 would e’er have thought|
that fortune would fail them at last;
naked they both were banished from men,11
and ran as “wolves”12 to the woods.
|* * *|
|10||The might of love hath brought many to grief:|
oft cometh woe of women:
they grew evil though God almighty
had created them clean.13
|11||Sworn friends they were, Sváfath and Skart-hethin,|
nor would one be without the other;
till by one woman bewitched they were:
was she born to undo them both.
|12||Listless of all, for love of the girl—|
of games and gatherings—
no other thing could they think about,
for love of the lily-white maid.
|13||Were dreary for them the darksome nights,|
nor could they slumber or sleep;
till out of that grief there grew up hate
’twixt men who were friends before.
|14||Of monstrous things, as is mostly the case,|
the outcome was seen full soon:
on the holm they went14 for the winsome maid,
and did each other to death.
|* * *|
|15||let man beware of o’erweening pride—|
that have I seen in sooth;
p. 105 for away from God they wander all
who keep them not clean of it.
|16||Were mighty and rich Ráthný and Vébothi,15|
and deemed they did but good;
now16 near the fire they nurse their wounds,
warming now one now the other.
|17||Their strength they trusted, and strove to be|
more mighty than all the others;
their deserts, however, seemed to God
to merit a different mead.
|18||A life of lust they lived, many-wise,|
and of gold and jewels had joy:
their reward now have they as walk they must
between the frost and the fire.17
|* * *|
|19||In sworn foes put thy faith never,|
though they woo thee with winsome words;
speak fair to them, but others’ fate
’tis well to take as a warning.18
|20||Found it Sorli so, the simple-hearted,19|
when he left the award20 to Vígolf;
he blindly trusted his brother’s banesman,21
who soon betrayed his trust.
|21||Grith he gave them,22 good-heartedly,|
and they pledged them to give him gold;
p. 106 all seemed well agreed while together they sate;
yet soon was seen how they lied.
|22||On the following day befell it then:|
when riding to Rýgiar-dale,
they did to death who had done them naught,
and left his body lifeless,
|23||his hacked corse hauled by hidden path,|
and dropped it down a well:
from the light would hide it; but the Lord did see,
the holy one, from his heaven.
|24||The true God then bade the good one’s soul|
to enter into his bliss;
but his evil foes will not early be
relieved from e’erlasting pain.
|* * *|
|25||Pray the “disar,”23 the dear Lord’s friends,|
be gracious and grant thee their favor:
a week after will everything
go as well as thou couldst wish.
|26||What rashly thou wrought’st in anger—|
do not add more ill to it,
but with good deeds soothe who was grieved by you;
that, say they, is good for the soul.
|27||To God shalt ever for good things pray,—|
to him who hath made all men;
woefully ill fares every one
who does not find his father.
|28||Above all, beg that boon of him|
of which thou know’st most need;
p. 107 he misses all who asks for naught:
heeds no one the silent one’s needs.
|29||Tardily came I, though called early,|
to the threshold of the throne.
Thither will I, for that was the pledge:
gets the prize24 who pleadeth most.
|30||Our sins cause it that with sorrow we fare|
out of this world of woe;
need no one dread25 who did no ill:
’t is well to be without blemish.
|31||Like unto wolves I ween they be|
who have a fickle heart;26
will they find it thus whose feet will have
to fare on fiery paths.
|32||Friendly redes shrewd, tied in a sheaf,|
sage counsels seven27 I teach thee;
heed thou give them, nor forget them ever:
in good stead will they stand thee.
|* * *|
|3328||It behooves me tell how happy I was|
and prized this world of pleasure;29
and this also, how the sons of men
dread to die from this world.
|34||Pride and lust overpower those men|
who wish for worldly goods:
p. 108 the shining gold brings grief e’erlasting—
hath wealth mocked full many.
|35||Aye fond of much men found me here,|
for little had I learned:30
this life below31 the Lord hath made
full of lust and feasting.
|36||Full long I sate, in sickness drooping—|
much then me listed to live;
but he32 prevailed who had more power:
was I doomed to suffer death.
|37||The ropes of hell33 held me fast,|
when slung about my sides;
tear them would I, but tough they were;
unbound, one freely fares.
|38||I alone knew in all ways how|
sorrows were heaped on my head:
a world of horror those maids of hell
did show me every eve.34
|39||The sun I saw, the day-star in sooth,|
droop in the world of din;35
but Hel’s gate36 heard I on the other hand
grate with grinding.
|40||The sun I saw, setting blood-red,|
when ready to wend from this world;
p. 109 mighty he seemed in many ways—
far more than before.
|41||The sun I saw: it seemed to me|
as on God Almighty I gazed;
lowly before him37 the last time I bowed,
in this world of living wights.
|42||The sun I saw, and so he shone|
that bereft of my senses I seemed;
but over against him Gylfi’s stream38 roared
in its bed, all mixed with blood.39
|43||The sun I saw with trembling sight,|
affrighted and faint I was;
for most woefully was my heart
rent and torn in twain.40
|44||The sun I saw, sadder never,|
when ready to wend from this world;
like to wood my tongue did feel;
grew my corpse all cold without.
|45||The sun I saw, and since never,|
after that dreary day;
far away the waters vanished:41
cold, I parted from care.
|46||From my breast did fly,— then born I was—|
and hence, my star of hope:42
high it hovered, hastening on,
never ceased it to soar.
|47||Longer than any lasted that night43|
when, stiff, I lay on the straw;
which soothly shows, as saith our Lord,
that man is made of the mould.44
|48||Knoweth, alas! the loving God,|
He who made heaven and earth,
unloved how many must leave this world,
though kith and kin they had.45
|49||Of his works, every one the reward reapeth:|
happy he who does good:
away from wealth, was I given
a grave, dug in the gravel.46
|50||The lust of the flesh oft lures on men—|
have many too much of that;
the water of cleansing47 was to me
aye the most hateful of all.
|51||On the norns’ settle48 sate I nine days;|
to the loftiest was I then lifted;
out of clouded sky cruelly shone
the sun that lights dead souls.49
|52||Meseemed, through seven seats of victory50|
I fared, without and within;
below and above I sought better ways,
where most easily I could fare.
|53||Now sooth I say of what first I saw|
as I passed to the world of pain:51
with singed wings,52 birds— souls they were—
flew there as many as midges.
|54||From the West saw I the Water-dragon53 fly—|
he lighted on Lucifer’s path;54
his wings he shook so that far and wide
were heaved up heaven and hell.
|55||The Sun-stag55 saw I, from the South faring—|
he tethered the two together;
with his feet standing steadfast on earth,
his horns touching very heaven.
|56||From the North there came kinsmen56 riding—|
seven saw I of them:
out of full beakers pure beer they quaffed
from out of Baugregin’s burn.
|57||The wind ceased, the water stopped;|
then heard I dreadful din:
unfaithful wives for their wicked lovers
ground there mould for meat.57
|58||The dark women in dreary wise|
ground with the gory stones;58
p. 112 their bloody hearts, heavy with sorrow,
about their breasts did hang.
|59||Many a man maimed59 I saw,|
walking the glowing ways.
Methought their faces befouled all were
with the gore of women beguiled.
|60||Many a man to mould had grown|
who sacred supper60 ne had;
did heathen stars stand above them,
blazing with baleful runes.
|61||Men saw I there who much did feel|
envy of other men’s lot:
about their breasts were bloody runes
marked with evil malice.
|62||Men saw I there, many, cheerless,|
faring wilding ways:
is rewarded thus in this world who
fell a prey to follies.61
|63||Men saw I there who in many ways|
had stolen what others owned;
in flocks they fared to Fégiarn’s62 castle,
laden with burdens of lead.63
|64||Men saw I then who many a one|
had robbed of riches and life;
poison-fanged snakes pierced these knaves,
thrusting through their breasts.64
|65||Men saw I then unmindful, in life,|
to hold dear the holy days:
p. 113 were their hands65 now nailed on hot stones,
as painful punishment.
|66||Men saw I then of mighty pride,|
who held their heads too high:
were their weeds66 all wondrously
lined with living fire.
|67||Men saw I then who many times|
had falsely lied on their fellows.
Now Hell’s ravens hacked felly
their eyes out of their heads.
|68||Thou canst not ever know all the pangs|
which the damned have in hell;
their sweet sins turn to sore anguish:
is pleasure e’er followed by pain.
|69||Men saw I then, with merciful heart|
who had helped the humble;
heavenly angels sang hymns above,
and read holy books,67 over their heads.
|70||Men saw I then who had mortified|
with much fasting their flesh:
the angels of God bowed to all of them,
which is highest bliss in heaven.
|71||Men saw I then who had meted out|
meat for the weary ones’68 mouths:
was their resting place on rays of heaven,
forever at ease and in bliss.
|72||Had holy maidens wholly cleansed and|
washed the souls of sin,
p. 114 of those men who on many days
had scourged and scathed themselves.
|73||Men saw I then in much who had|
heeded the laws of the Lord;
were clean candles kindled over them
which shone, burning brightly.
|74||Saw I high wains fare the heavens along69—|
their ways led to the Lord;
those men steered them who were murdered,
though sinless themselves.
|75||Oh mighty Father, oh matchless Son,|
oh Holy Ghost of Heaven:
hearken to our prayer who hast made us,
to free us all from evil!
|7670||Hringvor and Listvor sit at Herthi’s71 door,|
singing their siren strains:
the Norn’s blood from their noses drips,
which whetteth hate among men.
|77||Óthin’s wife72 on earth’s ship73 rows,|
lusting after love;
’twill be late, ere that she lowers her sails,
which are fastened by fleshly lusts.
|78||Of thy heirloom, father, had I the care—|
I and Sólkatla’s sons;74
p. 115 of the horn of that hart out of howe which bore
|79||Here are runes which written have|
the nine daughters of Niorth:75
Baugveig76 the eldest, Kreppvor the youngest,
and their seven sisters.
|80||Every mortal sin committed they,|
Sváfr and Sváfrlogi;
made well out the blood and sucked the wounds—
ever ill in their ways.77
|81||The lay which now learned thou78 hast|
thou shalt speak and spread ’mongst the quick:
the Sun Song, which in sooth will be
found to be lying least.
|82||Now must we part, but shall meet again|
when we rise again in gladness;79
may our dear Lord grant their rest to the dead,80
and eke his love to the living.
Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index
1 With frequently only three syllables in the half-lines.
2 Also, with the Eddic poem Fiolsvinnsmól.
3 These have, somewhat unconvincingly, been compared to the Rune Poem of Hóvamól (139 f.); as, with better reason, the first portion to the “Óthin Ensamples” (ibid., 91-100), and the second, to Loddfáfnismól (ibid., 111-137).
4 This unnamed person is to be imagined as one of the bold solitary robbers who infested the forest and mountain fastnesses of Scandinavia.
6 I.e., the famished wayfarer. In the following, the personal pronoun applies, now to the one, now to the other.
7 Following B. M. Olsen’s interpretation. The meaning seems to be that the grim outlaw, for once, takes pity on the frightened wayfarer; who afterwards ill requites him.
8 I.e., overwelled.
9 At the moment. The stanza reminds one of the many platitudes of Hugsvinnsmól (see the Introduction): “man proposes, God disposes.”
10 These names, as well as most others occurring in the poem, are evidently made to order.
11 The passage is not certain.
12 I.e., as outlaws.
13 The first woman—or else, Adam and Eve—came sinless out of the hands of the Creator.
14 Duels were fought out on islands (holms); hence the expression “to go on the holm” for “to fight a duel.”
15 Evidently a married couple, since Ráthný is a woman’s name.
16 I.e., in hell.
17 The damned are tortured both by heat and cold.
18 This very worldly, and certainly un-Christian, advice corresponds to Hóvamól, 89 f.
19 The term in the original may mean either one who gives good counsel or one who is easily deceived.
20 In certain cases, northern law allowed the award to be made by the fair-mindedness of one of the parties to a suit.
21 Cf. the warning Sigrdrífumól, 37.
22 The security is given by Sorli to his enemies.
23 Here, it seems, the chorus virginum that bear up the prayers of men to God. The following, rather prosy, stanzas are an elaboration on the theme of “pray and ye shall be given,” somewhat in the form of the arch-heathen Loddfáfnismál (Hóvamól, 134 ff.), especially 32.
24 The crown of life.
25 Viz., the Judgment.
26 I.e., are unsteady in the faith. To the medieval Christian, “doubt” is a mortal sin.
27 These counsels concerning the Deadly Sins—Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth—seem to refer, in a loose fashion, rather to the preceding stanzas.
28 The following passage is the kernel of the poem. It deals with life and death, and life in the Beyond.
29 It is one of pleasure for those living, but one of terror for those suffering for their sins in hell.
30 That is, of what was to come.
31 Literally, this place for dwelling in (for a short while).
33 I.e., death.
34 The meaning of the stanza is doubtful. Possibly, the maids of hell are the diseases sent by Satan to torment the dying man.
35 It seems that this world below is meant, with its tumult and confusion, which reaches the speaker’s ear as he lies on his deathbed, between this life and the Beyond.
36 The entrance to the realm of the dead, not necessarily the gates of the Christian hell; cf. the Short Lay of Sigurth, stanza 67.
37 I.e., the sun, which is feminine in Old Norse. According to Ólson, this passage shows that the sun is not here to be taken as a symbol (of Christ), but physically.
38 Kenning for “the sea.” (?).
39 I.e., reflecting the bloody red of sunset.
40 Viz., by contrition, knowing that his last hour has struck.
41 Accepting Ólsen’s interpretation: As the eyes of the dying man close, both sun and sea vanish to him.
42 The “star of hope” has been interpreted as the soul, departing from the body at the time of birth, viz., into another life: there is an intimate connection between each human life and its “star.”
43 The night of the “wake.”
44 Cf. Genesis 3:19, “Dust thou art,” etc.
45 The poet seems to complain that the nearest of kin often do not show loving care for the dying.
46 Separated from his wealth by death, every man’s destiny is the same.
47 That is, from sin.
48 According to Ólson, whose text I follow here, this is the Hill of Purgatory (cf. Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory) where the soul dwells nine days, to be cleansed from nine deadly sins, then to be lifted up to the highest pinnacle.
49 A difficult passage, but there is no doubt reference to the light of another world.
50 In this obscure stanza, the “seats of victory” seem to signify the stations on the way from Hell to Paradise. According to medieval tradition there are seven worlds obedient to Christ.
51 I.e., hell.
52 Because coming out of the fire of cleansing.
54 The glowing Pool (?). The stanza as a whole is obscure.
55 Very likely, Christ, who in such legends as those of Placitus, Hubertus, etc., appears as a stag with the cross between his antlers. He comes to bind together Leviathan and Lucifer (?).
56 According to Ólson, the seven Wise Men of the old dispensation, who (like Dante’s poets and sages of antiquity) are placed at the very entrance, in a limbus patrum, where they indulge in their earthly habits not subjected to torture. But, more convincingly, Paasche points out that in the homilies, baugr, “ring,” signifies God’s mercy. Hence the-burn-of-the-god(regin)-of-the-ring is a kenning for Christ, who is the “fountain of mercy” (fons misericordiæ) which refreshes the angels.
57 Evidently, as punishment for adultery. The following stanzas refer to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the pious.
58 I.e., millstones.
59 Emasculated? The stanza evidently refers to the punishment of lecherers.
60 Holy Communion. It is, doubtfully, suggested that, without it, man is threatened by signs foreboding hell-torment.
61 The stanza seems to refer to the punishment of Vanity.
62 “Greedy for Money,” i.e.. Mammon.
63 Instead of the gold they had craved.
64 As they had run others through with their swords.
65 The Sabbath-breakers are punished in the member by which they offended.
66 The sin of Pride was exhibited chiefly ir their garments.
67 The “Book of Life,” probably, in which the names of the blessed are recorded. In the following stanzas the reward of the “virtuous” is pictured.
68 Meant are the pilgrims.
69 Scholars have suggested that the poet was thinking of the wain of Elijah.
70 In the following, exceedingly difficult stanzas, the poet seems to return to the punishment of the wicked. So emended by Ólsen; if correctly, Hringvor refers to the sin of Slander, as Listvor does to Treason. both personified as women in the guise of sirens. Their emanations spread strife among men.
71 As Ólsen ingeniously suggests, possibly corrupted from (H)Erebi, genitive of Erebus, the lower world.
72 Apparently, here Venus (Freya).
73 The earth viewed as a ship (?). Or can the poet here possibly refer to Venus in her shell drifting on the main?
74 Paasche suggests that Sólkatla is the Heavenly Jerusalem; her sons, therefore, the company of Saints. But none of the conjectures so far offered seem to clear up this obscure stanza, whose translation, therefore, mildly put, is uncertain.
75 Hardly the god Niorth.
76 Possibly, this name refers to the sin of Avarice, “the oldest of the sins,” as Kreppvor to Pride. Their sisters are the other mortal sins.
77 It has been suggested that the meaning is: once men surrender to the deadly sins they become “wolves,” i.e., commit even unnatural sins.
78 Viz., the son, from his departed father.
79 Dies Lætitiæ.
80 The Requiem æternum dona eis of Catholic prayer.