Skírnismál as Ritual Drama: A Summary of Scholarship this Century

Rick McGregor
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)

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Commentators who have written on the Eddic poem Skírnismál this century have generally seen it as depicting fertility rites, and many have seen in it signs of a possible ritual drama. Either the poem as it stands formed the script for a drama, or it reflects in literary form an earlier version which was actually performed. Some later philologists have considered that it should be interpreted as a quite worldly love poem, with closer links with more modern genres such as the ballad, or be treated as the reflection of a myth rather than a rite. However it is the folkloric aspects of Skírnismál that have continued to dominate the discussion.

The poem is a love story in dramatic, dialogue form. Freyr sends his servant Skírnir to woo for him the maiden Gerdr, daughter of the giant Gymir. After promises of gifts fail, Skírnir uses threats to convince Gerdr; she agrees to meet Freyr in the grove called Barri. The poem 'cannot be of great age . . . but it appears to contain some very ancient elements', according to Gabriel Turville-Petre.[1]

The first study I wish to look at is that of Magnus Olsen, from 1909.[2] Olsen reads the whole poem as reflecting a ritual marriage connected with a fertility cult, basing much of his argument on his interpretation of the names of the various characters. Freyr as folkvaldi go da is 'gudafolkets härskare' [ruler of the gods], or 'Herren' [The Lord]; Skírnir is 'den strålande' [the shining one], one of Freyr's own characteristics (compare the use of the adjective skírr, 'brilliant', of Freyr in Grímnismál); Gymir is 'jordmanden' [the earth man], and thus indicates that Skírnir's journey takes him to the underworld; and Gerdr is another name for the goddess who represents 'vegetationskraften' [the vegetation forces] in and on the earth, and who builds a pair with 'himmellysets gud' [the god of heavenly light] (Freyr).[3] He compares her with the Old Germanic god Nerthus (Njördr), but of the opposite sex. Her name has of course been changed here to alliterate with her father's, but while Olsen discusses this aspect, he fails to fully explain it (pp. 21-22).

Among Olsen's various dubious interpretations of proper names which later scholars have been unwilling to accept is his reading of Barri as dative barri of barr, "korn" [barley], and he exclaims happily 'I kornet skall alltså Frej og Gerd mötes' [So Freyr and Gerdr will meet in the barley] (pp. 24-29. It takes him five pages to explain how he arrived at this interpretation). Olsen concludes: 'Med god grund har man i Skírnismál fundet en nordisk vårmyte om vegetationsdæmonens tilbakevenden, når de første spirer på marken viser sig. Da hentes Gerd, kornakerens gudinna, upp fra jordens djup; hon möter Frej uppe i ljuset -- i Barri' [It is with good grounds that Skírnismál has been interpreted as a Nordic spring myth about the return of the vegetation god, when the first shoots show themselves in the soil. Then Gerdr, the goddess of the barley fields, is fetched up from the depths of the earth; she meets Freyr up in the light -- in Barri].

This theory is such a delightful one that it is almost a shame to shoot it down, but this is what Jöran Sahlgren did quite convincingly with a series of articles commencing in 1928.[4] While other parts of his argument have not been accepted by later scholars, he deals some fatal blows to Olsen's thesis on philological grounds. To summarise these briefly: Sahlgren disagrees with Olsen's translation of fölkvaldi go da as 'gudafolkets härskare'. He prefers 'härförare' [military leader], thus leaving Odinn and Frigg unchallenged as the gods who are permitted to sit on Hlidskjálf. He claims that Gerdr can not be a goddess, and his interpretation of her name is that the initial letter was in fact determined by her father's name (Gymir), which Erik Noreen had explained as 'slukaren, sväljaren' [the devourer or swallower] and related to 'havets svalg' [the ocean's throat], or lord of the sea. Sahlgren also points to the introduction to Lokasenna: Aegir, er ö dro nafni hét Gymir [Aegir, whose other name is Gymir]. He translates Gerdr's name as 'vågen som sköljer in mot stranden' [the wave that washes in on the beach] (although I do not find this very convincing either). Barri he sees as quite simply being a pine-grove, and points to Skáldskaparmál in Snorri's Edda, in which one of the kennings given for gold is barr e da lauf Glasis [needles or leaves of Glasir] (Glasir is the grove in Asgard at the entrance to Valhalla).

Sahlgren prefers to compare the story of Skírnismál with that of Scottish and Celtic sagas in which the lord of the sea is the father of the woman in a love story, and he sees many points of contact between this poem and Celtic mythology (pp. 12-18). He concludes, then: 'jag anser mig sålunda ha visat att Skírnismál intet har att berätta om fruktbarhetskult. Den är en folksaga, spunnen av kända sagomotiv' [I thus consider that I have shown that Skírnismál has nothing to do with fertility cults. It is a folk saga, woven from known saga motifs] (p. 18).

In her book The Elder Edda and ancient Scandinavian drama (1920), Bertha Phillpotts had advanced the theory that Skírnismál was a ritual drama. Phillpotts felt that the reason that the narrative poems in the Elder Edda were all "to a greater or lesser extent hampered by the conventions of dialogic or monologic verse" was because of their origins:

. . . they were the remains of a flourishing ritual drama from pre-christian times in Scandinavia. [Phillpotts] suggested that effigies of the gods were used for this, while two or three actors took the speaking and moving parts, and a chorus, possibly wearing bird or animal masks, assisted in the production. She believed that the purpose of the plays, performed in sacred places or perhaps in the temples of the gods, was to present myths at the yearly festivals.[5]

As Lars Lönnroth points out, however, both Magnus Olsen and Phillpotts build their argument on now out-dated theories about the function of myths in primitive societies.[6] Her theories were in accordance with research at the time, inspired by James Frazer's The Golden Bough. Frazer saw myths as dealing with humans beings' relationship with the forces of nature, and believed that they were always closely linked with rituals and cult customs aimed at guaranteeing a successful harvest and so on (Lönnroth, p. 159). But Bronislaw Malinowski introduced the idea of myths as "charters for social action", with the purpose of legitimising reigning norms and institutions, and Claude Lévi-Strauss contributed a structural model for interpreting 'mytens socialisationsförlopp' [the socialisation process of myth] (ibid., p. 160). According to Lévi-Strauss, a myth develops as a gradual mediation between what are basically irreconcilable opposites.

Lars Lönnroth adopts this more up-to-date view of myths, and adapts it for application to a number of poems in the Elder Edda,with particular emphasis on Skírnismál. Thus one can see the poem as concerning sexual taboos: 'hjälten får överskrida tabut, men på ett sådant sätt att han likväl till slut inser dess naturnödvändighet och anpassar sig därefter' [the hero may break the taboo, but in such a way that he still finally sees its true necessity and adapts to it] (pp. 160-161). Expressed in more concrete terms, Lönnroth's thesis is that 'Skírnismál som myt söker att mediera mellan det fornisländska samhällets officiella äktenskapsnorm och den förträngda, oppositionella "anti-norm" som tog sig uttryck i kärleksmagi och mansögr' [Skírnismál as myth seeks to mediate between the Old Norse society's official marriage norm and the suppressed, oppositional "anti-norm" which was expressed through love magic and mansögr] (p. 165).[7]

Much of Lönnroth's analysis of Icelandic marriage conventions depends on material from the Íslendingasögur, and my objection would be that the latter date from the 13th century, and purport to describe the 10th and 11th centuries, whereas the Eddic poems may very well have first been composed in Norway prior to the settlement of Iceland, and probably reflect myths from Northern Europe which date back even further. This is not to say, however, that treatment of the poem as a mythic quest is not a profitable one; the comparison with thrymskvi da is also useful.[8]

With regard to the question of whether Skírnismál shows signs of being a drama, as opposed to a ritual drama, Lönnroth answers in the affirmative. After giving a number of examples from the poem (pp. 166, 170 and 171), he concludes, concerning not only Skírnismál but also other similar eddic poems: 'Möjligen är det här fråga om kultiska texter. Men de kan också ha framförts som vanlig underhållning, och de synes mig ha mer med lek och spel än med religiös ritual att göra' [Possibly these are cult texts. But they may also have been performed as ordinary entertainment, and they seem to me to have more to do with play-acting than with religious ritual] (p. 178).

Ursula Dronke sees the marriage of Freyr, 'who, like the sun, governs the seasons', as repeating 'the ancient pattern of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of Sky and Earth . . . which recurs in so many mythologies'.[9] After dismissing Sahlgren's Celtic parallels as 'not very convincing', Dronke says that the poem undoubtedly describes a sacred marriage, but wonders is it 'a splendid piece of antiquarian reconstruction on the part of the poet himself', or is the poem based, however freely, upon native mythological tradition (p. 254). Dronke plumps for the latter. She concludes:

. . . the heterogeneous narrative elements of Skírnismál show remarkable affinity: all relate, in one way or another, to the known mythology of deities of sun and fruitfulness, deities such as Freyr. No doubt that is why they have accumulated together in this legend of Freyr (p. 268).

After discussing Sahlgren's contributions to the topic, Anne Holtsmark, in her article on the poem in Kulturhistorisk lexikon för nordisk medeltid, comments: 'Å motbevise at et norrønt dikt om fruktbarhetsguden Frøy ikke har noe med fruktbarhetskultus å gjøre er heller ikke lett' [Nor is it easy to disprove that a nordic poem about the fertility god Freyr does not have anything to do with a fertility cult].[10] But she continues 'en annan sak er at vi i Skírnismál ikke tør se en dramatisk komposisjon, beregnet på å "spilles" i et rituelt drama' [on the other hand we should not see in Skírnismál a dramatic composition, intended to be "played" in a ritual drama]. In her opinion it is a poetical interpretation of the sacred marriage or hieros gamos which belonged to the Freyr rites, built up of genuine mythological motifs such as we find parallels to in other religions.

Lotte Motz, writing in 1981, devotes a long philological discussion to the name Gerdr and dismisses Sahlgren's Irish analogues, but also touches on the ritual element in the poem. She sees a possible parallel between Skírnismál and a Shrovetime play of Nuremberg, but concludes:

. . . the folk traditions which celebrate and enact the defeat of winter and return of spring are observed only in isolated instances in the Scandinavian countryside and belong mainly to the provinces of Continental Europe. It seems that the practice did not form part of the Northern tradition in pre-Christian time.[11]

Another recent contribution to the discussion is by Annelise Talbot, who favours the fertility cult idea, and disagrees with Sahlgren's conclusion that Skírnismál was just a folk-legend composed of well-known fairytale motifs.[12] She dredges up a myth of a sleeping fertility god, and wanders off into a discussion of Irish analogues of her own in which she equates Frey with Oengus (pp. 36ff.). After listing a number of similar traditions about fertility gods who withdraw for emotional reasons, she concludes that 'they are all seasonal myths inspired by man's fear of starvation, and a "sacred wedding" between the powers who protected his fields and made his corn grow was the means by which he hoped to ensure a good harvest' (p. 44).

I will close with two recent votes for and against Skírnismál as ritual drama. Regarding the collection as a whole, Einar Haugen observes that most of the poems consist of direct speech, either in monologue or dialogue form: 'It is this high degree of performance-orientated quality about the poems that has convinced me that we are very close to having something like a text for cultic occasions in the poems of the Elder Edda'.[13] Haugen supports Phillpotts' view of Skírnismál: 'It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the poem could be the scenario of a ritual drama in which the fertility of the fields in spring was promoted by this little love play between a god and his mistress' (p. 5). He admits that other recent commentators have taken a more cautious view, 'preferring to regard Skírnismál as a literary treatment of an older cult myth' (p. 22, footnote), but concludes of the Edda poems as a whole: 'I am convinced that the texts as we have them are very close to the cultic rituals which were enacted among [the Germanic tribes] as among most other archaic peoples (p. 21).

Against this one can set John Lindow's evaluation:

We have no indication of how, when, or by whom mythological eddic poems may have been used. . . . There is no proof that they were ever used in any sacral, ritual context by followers of the æsir, and it is very unlikely that they could have been used in this way after the conversion.[14]


  1. E.O.G. Turville-Petre, "Fertility of Beast and Soil in Old Norse Literature", in Edgar C. Polomé (ed.), Old Norse Literature and Mythology: A Symposium (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1969), p. 253. The dates suggested for the composition of the poem range from 900 to the twelfth century: see Joseph Harris, "Eddic Poetry", in Carol J. Clover and John Lindow (eds.), Old Norse-Icelandic literature: a critical guide (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 100. [Back]
  2. Magnus Olsen, "Fra gammelnorsk myte og kultus", Maal og minne (1909): 17-36. [Back]
  3. See also Turville-Petre, pp. 252-253. [Back]
  4. See for example Jöran Sahlgren, "Sagan om Frö och Gärd", Namn och bygd 16 (1928): 1-19. [Back]
  5. Phillpotts, as summarised by H.R. Ellis Davidson, "Insults and Riddles in the Edda poems", in Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason (eds), Edda: a collection of essays (Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1983), p. 25. [Back]
  6. Lars Lönnroth, "Skírnismál och den fornisländska äktenskapsnormen", in Bent Chr. Jacobsen et al. (eds.), Opuscula Septentrionalia: festskrift til Ole Widding (København: Reitzels, 1977), p. 159. [Back]
  7. Such as we encounter in Egils saga for example. [Back]
  8. Compare John Lindow, "Mythology and mythography", in Clover and Lindow (see above), p. 48; for another structural analysis, see Stephen A. Mitchell, "För Scírnis as Mythological Model: fri d at kaupa", Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 98 (1983): 108- 122. [Back]
  9. Ursula Dronke, "Art and tradition in Skírnismál", in Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn (eds.), English and Medieval studies presented to J. R. R. Tolkien . . . (London: Allen & Unwin, 1962), p. 253. [Back]
  10. Anne Holtsmark, "Skírnismál", Kulturhistorisk lexikon för nordisk medeltid. Vol. 15 (Malmö: Allheims, 1970), column 571. [Back]
  11. Lotte Motz, "Gerdr: A New Interpretation of the Lay of Skírnir", Maal og Minne (1981): 127, 129 and 130. [Back]
  12. Annelise Talbot, "The withdrawal of the fertility god", Folklore 93 (1982): 31-46. [Back]
  13. Einar Haugen, "The Edda as ritual: Odin and his masks", in Edda: a collection of essays (see above), p. 5. [Back]
  14. Lindow, p. 32. For further scholarship on this and other aspects of Skírnismál, see Clover and Lindow, p. 152. The following references should also be added: Gro Steinsland, "Myte og ideologi -- Bryllupsmyten i eddadiktning og hos Snorri -- Om det mytologiske grunnlaget for norrøn kongeideologi", in Úlfar Bragason (ed.), Snorrastefna 25. - 27. júlí 1990 (Reykjavík: Stofnun Sigurdar Nordals, 1992), pp. 226-240; and Paul Babire, "Freyr and Gerdr: The Story and its Myths", in Sagnaskemmtun: Studies in Honour of Hermann Pálsson (Vienna: Hermann Böhlaus, 1986), pp. 19-40. The following reference has also just come to my attention: Klaus von See, Beatrice La Faye, Eve Picard and Maria-Claudia Hess, Skírnismál: Modell eines Edda-Kommentars (Heidelberg:Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1993), with full bibliographical references to Skírnismál, pp. 24-36. [Back]

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