A Kenning from the Lost Edda
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In Midgard, the world of men, the world of women, summer comes soft and gentle to the Norselands. Coming between the spring planting and the autumn harvest, it is a time of warmth and comfort for the Norsefolk, a time to enjoy life. It is a time for hunting in the forests that spread cool green over the land and up the mountains, a time for fishing in lakes, rivers, and the bottomless fjords. It is a time of sweetness, a time for the gathering of honey and of berries. It is a time to make use of winter's repairs, a time to launch the long ships, to sail out of the sheltering fjords and bays, to follow the trade routes or, for the rougher sorts, the Vikings' path. It is a time so pleasant that even the sun comes north, climbing ever higher in the sky and filling the land with so much light that the days themselves grow fat and lazy.
It is the sun that knows, before anyone else knows, of the summer's end. Guided by the silent whisperings of the purest animal instinct, the sun anticipates the seasons. Thus it is that, even before the warmth in the land has begun to cool, the northward rise of the sun's daily path slows, pauses, and then reverses. The sun goes south again to pass away the winter near Muspellheim, the land of fire.
On the day before the sun begins its long journey to the south, on the longest day of the year, on midsummer's eve, magic springs forth and pours out over the land. It blows in the wind like the perfume of spring flowers. It flows in the murmuring brooks and the rushing streams and the thrashing rivers. Doors into the spooky worlds, well hidden from mortal eyes, open wide and ghost ships float on the breeze, seeking landfall in once familiar harbors. Ghosts walk among the living and those mortals who have the knack can obtain from them wisdom or the knowledge of things not yet happened.
Midsummer's eve had come to the little village of Nyvik. On a wide promontory that reached out from the north side of the bay's entrance as though to close the bay, in the lee of the long hill at the end of the promontory, there sat Nyvik. Five longhouses with their barns and other outbuildings clustered loosely at the base of the hill. All were empty when the sun set behind the island far off the coast.
All of Nyvik's people had gone to the top of the hill. The clan of Thorvald Asleifarson and of Signi Einarsdottir was gathered at the ship-setting of their ancestors to celebrate as the Norsefolk had done for longer than anyone could remember. Slabs of stone, rune-carved and set upright in the ground, formed the outline of a large ship and a stone dragon stood at one end of the outline, looking out over the bay. No one knew when the ship-setting had been built. No stories told who had built it. It was simply assumed by all that it had been built by the remotest ancestors of the clan for the purpose of burying their ancestors. In the center of that sacred ground, in which the bones of those far remote ancestors were buried, a hole twice as wide as a man's foot is long yawned empty: the mast that it had held for a year had been removed, chopped to pieces, and the pieces piled up outside the grave ship with the village's other discards. Alongside the grave ship, on the side closer to the village, four trestle tables sagged under piles of food, the weight of the food bending the thick planks, presenting a sight to gladden the heart of mighty Thor could he but see it.
Bathed in the sun's last lingering rays, the men of Nyvik stepped the grave ship's new mast. Tall and straight, well-chosen and finely cut, the new mast had been among the finest trees in the forest when Thorvald Asleifarson chose it. Now, with its bark and branches removed, it carried a spar from which banners, garlands, and charms hung. Guided by Thorvald, the strong men of Nyvik lifted the great Maypole and, with Fridtjof Thorvaldson in the lead, carried it onto the grave ship, put its base into the hole prepared for it, and raised it upright until it slid all the way into the hole. Fridtjof and his teenaged son Sturla then held the Maypole straight upright in the hole while Thorvald slipped wedges into the hole around it and pounded them securely in place. A gentle breeze caught the banners, garlands and, charms and fluttered them, inviting the ghosts of the ancestors to bring to this spectral landfall whatever cargo of favors from the spirit world they might see fit to bestow upon their descendants. Thorvald accepted a horn of mead from his wife, Signi Einarsdottir, took a draught from it, poured the remainder into the hole, and then said, as he held up the empty drinking horn, "Let's eat!"
The pile of discards was set ablaze and other fires were lit as well. Rising up and dancing to a music only they can hear, the flames cast their quivering light over the feast and its celebrants. Now and again the flames threw offerings of sparks up into the darkness, up toward where Odin's Spears, shimmering curtains of pale light, floated high in the night air. In the small pool that the fires filled with their light the people feasted. They went to the tables to fill their bowls with food and then went to sit around the large fire to eat, the elders sitting in chairs that had been brought up the hill for the occasion and the others sitting on logs and stones. Drinking horns were filled from cauldrons full of mead and ale. Talk and laughter punctuated the eating and drinking, the pace of all four activities slowing as the people sated their appetites.
Among the guests who had been invited to share midsummer's eve with the people of Nyvik was Thiodolf Ulfsson, an old skald who was widely known for his abundant knowledge of the Eddas, the sacred poetry of the Norsefolk. He had been given a chair near the other elders, but enough space had been left open that most of Nyvik's children could sit close to him. As the tabletalk faded to silence and as the mead lubricated his tongue, he began to chant short kennings from the Eddas, ones that everyone knew, ones that even the small children found familiar.
"Who can say why the clouds are called 'Speech-of-the-Gods?'" Thiodolf said.
"I know," a little girl said. "The clouds are called Speech-of-the-Gods because they are like the little clouds that come from our mouths when we speak in the winter. But the clouds on the Wind Roof of the World are bigger than the ones we make, so they must come from the Gods."
"Excellent, Vigdis," Thiodolf said with a smile. "Well spoken and true. Now, who knows what 'Odin's Wink' is?"
"I know," one of the boys said. "Odin's Wink is a month, because the waning and the waxing of the moon are the closing and opening of the All-Father's missing eye."
Thiodolf beamed with pride as much as if the boy had been his own son. He then offered more kennings, new ones that the children of Nyvik had not heard before this night, and he told the short little stories that explained them. Their appetites for Edda thus whetted, the children called for more.
"A long kenning," one girl asked. "Give us a long kenning?"
"A long kenning?" Thiodolf mused. "I know many long kennings. Which of them do you wish to hear?"
Sturla Fridtjofson stood up. "I know," he said. "I know the kenning that we all wish to hear."
Thiodolf smiled. "Please," he said, "tell me what it is?"
Sturla stood taller. "My father's knarr seats thirty rowers," he said. "It is the largest knarr in this part of all the Norselands; for that reason it is called 'Earl of Ships'.
"It treads upon the whales' path as lightly as the clouds float upon the wind; for that reason it is called 'Sea Cloud'.
"Under sail it is the fastest of knerrir; for that reason it is called 'Sleipnir's Colt'.
"In trade it brings our family and friends a harvest of great wealth; for that reason it is called 'Plow of the Waters'.
"The sight of it leading our neighbors' fleet sends arrows of terror plunging into our enemies' hearts; for that reason it is called 'Spawn of Jormungand'.
"But there is another name people call my father's knarr. It is a name they call all knerrir. Tell us, Thiodolf! You are wise and know many hidden things: what is the reason that every knarr is also called 'Freyja's Gift'?"
Thiodolf looked from the boy to the boy's father, who was looking on with an expression of wonder and delight on his face. "Fridtjof Thorvaldson is a proud man tonight," the skald announced. "And Gudrun Sturlasdottir is a proud woman. Their son has spoken well and true on a profound matter and the thrusting spear of his question has gone straight to the heart of the thing." To Sturla he said, "A question well asked must be well answered. Therefore, I shall recall the past and make it present. I shall reveal to you, as in a dream, the reason why the sea-going knarr is called 'Freyja's Gift'."
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