The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers

3. PLACE OF THE HELGI LAYS

Hlaðnir vóro þeir hælða oc hvítra skialda,
Vigra Vestrœnna oc Valscra suerða.

In the Corpus Poeticum arguments were brought forward to show the western origin of certain groups of the Eddic songs. At the time these were urged, it was rather with the northern islands of the great British group that we were dealing, the Hebrides, Orkneys, Man, and the like; but it cannot be denied that there are in one section of the Eddic Lays certain romantic sunny characteristics, which seem alien to those northern latitudes; and we have lately hit upon an explanation, which, we hope, will enable us to fix the geography of just this section.

In the preceding paper (I) it has been shown that traditions of Old Saxony of the Cheruscans and Hessians have been transplanted into Northern Lays, snatches of old South Teutonic song thus being preserved by Scandinavian poets of the Wickingtide. How this was may be accounted for by the mixed crews and wandering career of the great Wicking fleets, which plundered and settled along the coasts from Iom to Limerick. The word 'Edda' of a Genealogic Lay, occurring precisely where in Old Teutonic continental tradition we find Mother Earth, 'Erda,' has been noticed in the Corpus Poeticum (ii. 514-15).

But we get traces of the more western wandering of the great fleets in the phrases of Hoarbeard's Lay ---


                        I was in Gaul warring,

and in the mention of 'the sons of Hlodwy' (Corp. Poet. i. 153, l. 32), Hlodwih being a Frank name.

The group of poems, which of all others is most distinctly southern in character, and marked off from the rest by peculiar forms of thought and incident, is that which we have called, by the name of the heroes it celebrates, the Helgi Lays. (Corp. Poet. Bk. III.) Are there any traces by which we can fix their locale?

We think so. In their 'Warinsey' we see Guernsey. In Warinswick (p. 153, l. 42), Warinsfiord (p. 134, l. 103), the first part of the name is repeated and emphasized as it were. It has long been known that the nomenclature of the Channel Islands is largely Northern. The very shoals and rocks bear Norse names. That Warinsey itself is merely a 'Normannization' of an older local name is very likely, but the termination '-ey' is distinctly Norse, and the whole name as it stands is Northern in form.

The roll of islands in the great naval expeditions of the Wickingtide is immense. The Orkneys, from Man, from the Holms, from Thanet, they used as their depots, their magazines, their advance posts whence they could dash out when they pleased upon the defenceless mainlands. It was from the Channel Islands, we doubt not, that Normandy was conquered by the Northmen; as it was from Sheppey, Thanet, and these same islands, that the earlier Wickingtide of the Saxons flowed upon Britain and Gaul. The Saxon settlement at Bayeux is the clear result of these earlier Teutonic armadas, the history of which is repeated in the Scandinavian invasions.

The Warins-firth of the poems we should take to be the Sound between the Islands, and Warins-wick to be the great gulf or bay which lies between the Cotentin and the Brittany coast. In a wider sense, Warins-firth might even stand for the whole Channel. Channels are a characteristic feature of the British Isles. The Northern Wicking, in lack of a better word, designated them by fiords (firths); thus they call Petland's firth, i.e. the firth of Pictland, Friðareyiar-fiord or Fairhill-firth, i.e. the channel between the northern and southern group of the Orkneys; Scotlands-fiord the Minch. So the Channel appears in the Irish tales as the Sea of Wight, the Iccian Sea.

Hata-fiord (Hate's firth) unidentified elsewhere, should probably be looked for in this quarter. It may mean the narrow seas between Dover and Calais. Iorua-sound again is a suspicious-looking name, rather too like the better known Niorua-sound (Gibraltar Straits) to be quite safe.

The sudden furious gale described in the Lay (ll. 80-122, 198-207) would well befit the 'chops of the Channel,' as an old sailor once told the writer, 'a sou'wester there is the worst of all gales.' The sudden storm that fell upon the invading fleet of the 'King of the World' in this very place in the Irish tale of the Battle of Ventry, is curiously analogous to the storm in our Helgi Lay. (1)

The isle of Warinsey occurs only in these poems, (2) there is no other place bears the name; and this is noteworthy. There are not wanting slight traces of what look to be other place-names in the Channel Archipelago. Ships lie out in 'Sogn.' (l. 204). Saigne Bay in Sark would be the natural identification (rather than the river Seine). Twice too in corrupt lines we light on the syllable 'Herm':


                        Með hermadar hug her könnuðu (l. 122).


and        


                        Hui es hermdar litr a Hniflungum (l. 197).

In neither lines is there any right sense; we suspect a place-name to be hidden beneath, and should not be surprised if the lines originally ran somewhat in this way: --- Af Hermðar haug her könnudu, i.e. They mustered the fleet from the hummock (howe) of Herm: and perhaps, though diffidently --- Hui es Hermd hult af Hniflungum, i.e. Why is (the isle of) Herm all alive with men? which would then be the speech of one in the fleet, spying the host on shore.

The vivid picture in the Helgi Lays of the muster of the mighty fleet, fragmentary as it is, admirably suits these islands, which no doubt must have witnessed again and again in the Wicking days great gatherings of heathen armadas about to set forth to the Seine, the Thames, and the Shannon. No place in the whole Western Geography is better fitted for such a purpose than the sound, 'Iorua-sound,' between Guernsey and the islets of Herm and Sark. On the high hummocks above the present St. Peter's port the kings may have stood and watched the vessels sail by in order, precisely as in the poem. That such musters should form an incident in a Wicking poem was but to be expected.

There is in the famous and beautiful scene at Swold in king Olaf Tryggwason's Saga, told in Snorri's finest way (3) (a scene which we cannot but feel is epic not historical), an echo of such a poem as our Helgi Lay. Nay, it may even be that this scene was taken from this very poem we have in so maimed a condition, the adapter knowing the original in its complete form. In it we are shown the three kings standing on an island and watching their foeman's ships pass one by one, each more stately and splendid than its foregoer, before the battle that they had plotted and planned for. The lustre that is shed over King Tryggwason just before his tragic fate, the words of wonder and scorn that are spoken, all these are epic material, drawn from an epic source, and admirably fitted to the subject the historian was treating.

One interesting point may be noted in this connection. The Islands off the Celtic lands were the haunt of the wise men and women of the old, probably præ-aryan, druidic religion, the lair of the medicine-men and witches, who are spoken of by the Roman historians and in the Irish legends. There are many megalithic remains in the Channel Islands. Heathendom died hard there; not the British saints, not the Frankish emissaries of the great Charles himself could have entirely uprooted the older belief. The Kaiser had no fleet. We might expect to find in these Helgi Lays, if anywhere, a mention or two of the strange superstitions, new to the sturdy Northern pirates, who like the Elizabethan sailors of a later day, half mocked, half believed in the unhallowed rites of the new nations they came across.


                Thou wert a sibyl in Guernsey
                Deceitful hag, setting lies together,

says Sinfitela in his flyting (4) ---and the allusion would fit a half-heathen witch-wife such as 'set lies together' on the blasted heath and lured Macbeth to murder and death. She would have sold winds and given oracles to the Wickings, whom she would certainly be as ready to deal with as with her Christian countrymen.

Mela, the Spanish-Roman geographer, writing twenty-five years after Strabo, exactly at the time Claudius was in Britain, (5) gives a passage which has, we believe, a very direct bearing upon the poems of the Wickingtide, and the connection of certain of these poems with the coast of Gaul.

Insula Sena, he says, in Brittannico mari, Osismicis aduersa litoribus, Gallici numinis oraculo insignis est, cuius antistites, perpetua uirginitate sanctae, numero nouem esse traduntur. Barigenas (or Bargenas) uocant, putantque ingeniis singularibus praeditas, mari ac uentos concitare carminibus, seque in quae uelint animalia uertere, sanare quae apud alios insanabilia sunt, scire uentura et praedicare: sed non nisi deditas nauigantibus, et in id tantum, ut se consulerent, profectis.

With this passage it is worth comparing several of the more striking verses of the Helgi Lays, and of these poems which (for reasons given elsewhere) we have ascribed to a 'Western Aristophanes,' relating to mysterious half-human half-supernatural Walcyries, riding through the air in groups of nine, acting as guardian angels to sailors, who come to heal wounded wickings, and who have the knowledge of dreams, the power of stilling as well as of raising tempests.

In the Lay of Atli and Rimegerd (58-61), for instance, one notes the lines,


                        Hina viltu heldr, Helgi, es réð hafnir scoða
                                fyrri nótt 'med firom'
                        'margollin' mær mer þótti afli bera,
                                her sté hon land af legi
                                oc festi sú yðarn flota:
                        Hon ein því veldr.........


which we may render, 'Thou wouldst rather haveher, Helgi, who was watching on the haven last night ...... maid, who overbore me; she landed here from the water, and moored your fleet. It is her power alone withholds me from killing the king's crew.' And the hero answers,


                        Vas sú ein vættr es barg æðlings scipom,
                                eða fóro þær fleiri saman?


'Was it one being alone that took care of my ships, or were they more together?'
                        Þrennar niundir meyja: þó reið ein fyrir
                                hvít und hialmi mær,
                        marir hristosc: stóð af mænom þeirra
                                dægg í diúpa dala
                                hagl í háva viðo,
                                þaðan coemr með ældom ár

Notes:

1. There are many Northern    sea-words in this part of the tale. K. Meyer notes beirling, but there are also bord, ás, stagh, tili (þiljor), and others. [Back]

2. Helgi Lay, l. 154. [Back]

3. See Icel. Reader, p. 164. [Back]

4. Helgi Lay, 154-55. [Back]

5. Mela, iii. 6; Dio, lx. 23. [Back]

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