Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to Make a Níðstöng, Part One

Usually translated as “scorn-pole,” the níðstöng is a strange object with an ancient history – perhaps even more ancient than is usually thought. In this article, I will trace the history and use of the níðstöng from the first century to the twenty-first century in Denmark, Germany, Iceland and Norway.

Egil Skallagrímsson raises a níðstöng – Sculpture by Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943)

In order to understand the significance of the níðstöng, we first need to understand the concept of níð. In “Níð, Ergi and Old Norse Moral Attitudes” (1973, now available as a free download in The Norse Mythology Online Library), Folke Ström summarizes Johan Fritzner’s definition of níð as “a form of ridicule whereby a person is represented as worthy of universal contempt, is given the label of hvers manns níðingr. The laws distinguished between tunguníð, verbal níð (literally ‘níð of the tongue’), and tréníð, carved níð (‘wood-shame’).” Whether through verbal insult or the setting-up of a carved object, níð is shame that is put upon another person. This shaming is done publicly, in order to bring down societal censure on the object of scorn.

In his Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1984), Rudolf Simek suggests that the roots of the níðstöng “could have been the setting up of wooden poles with carved human faces in order to curse particular people, in which the intention was probably less to curse than to mock the person.” This sort of ridiculing “wood-shame” can be seen in Gisli Sursson’s Saga, which takes place between 940 and 980 and was written down in Iceland between 1270 and 1320.

The saga begins in Norway, where Skeggi challenges Kolbjorn to a duel over the hand of the beautiful Thordis. Personal relationships in the story are very complicated, as they are in all the Sagas of Icelanders. Skeggi is a close relative of Bard; Bard had an illicit affair with Thordis and was killed by her brother Gisli for his actions. Skeggi wants to marry Thordis, and Kolbjorn is her new lover. Following so far?

After Kolbjorn loses his courage and refuses to go to the duel, Skeggi announces his intention to mock Kolbjorn with “wood-shame.”
Skeggi had already arrived at the spot where the duel was to be fought. He announced the rules and marked out where Kolbjorn was to stand, but he could not see his opponent nor anyone to replace him. 
There was a man named Ref, who worked for Skeggi as a carpenter. Skeggi asked him to make wooden effigies in the likenesses of Gisli and Kolbjorn. 
“And one will stand behind the other,” he said, “and these figures of níð will remain like that forever to mock them.”
The suggested suggestive carving is meant to shame the cowardly Kolbjorn for his behavior by portraying him in a subservient sexual position. This rhetoric of shaming is related to ergi, another complicated concept that encompasses “unmanly” behavior of all sorts and often includes insulting sexual implications.

Cover art for The Saga of Gisli by Eric Fraser (1963)

Discussion of the obscene carving inspires Gisli to leave his hiding place in the woods and take Kolbjorn’s place in the duel. He cuts off Skeggi’s leg, and Skeggi then “bought his way out of the duel, and from that time he walked with a wooden leg.”

The saga’s author underscores the irony of the failed níð. The wooden carving is not completed and does not bring harm to the object of shame; instead, a wooden leg is carved for Skeggi, who is himself shamed by buying his way out of a duel that is not going his way. Examples below will show that “wood-shame,” if not created with proper care, can redound to the harm of the carver.

Even though the níð goes awry, what is important about this example is that the carving is aimed at someone who has broken the social contract. Although no hero, Skeggi is seeking to avenge the killing of his kinsman and to legally marry Thordis. Kolbjorn is engaged in an affair with Thordis, makes no declaration that he intends to marry her, and backs out of a duel he has publicly accepted. The role of the carving is to bring níð upon someone who has broken the behavioral codes of the society.

A similar situation occurs in the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, which takes place between 875 and 1000 and was written between 1270 and 1320. At the Hunavatn Assembly in northwest Iceland, a double duel is arranged. After Finbbogi challenges Thorstein to a duel and Berg challenges Jokul to a duel, Jokul says:
“You must now turn up to the duel if you have a man’s heart rather than a mare’s. And if anyone fails to turn up, then a níð will be raised against him with this curse – that he will be a coward in the eyes of all men, and will never again share the fellowship of good folk, and will endure the wrath of the gods, and bear the name of a truce-breaker.”
The first line above will remind Norse mythology readers of Mokkurkálfi, the clay giant with the heart of a mare who wets himself at his first sight of Thor. Jokul is using the rhetoric of ergi as he threatens to erect a níðstöng against his opponents. As in Gisli Sursson’s Saga, the mere threat of making a carving carries weight.

Abandoned Vatnsdalur farm where a boat burial was found with bones of four
men and three women, along with grave goods including a silver Thor's hammer

It is important to note that this threatened carving has more meaning attached to it than the simple ridicule of the earlier example. Jokul’s pole will not merely brand his enemy as a coward and a truce-breaker (the charges implicit in Skeggi’s carving), but it will curse him as an outlaw from the world of men and bring down the anger of the Æsir.

On the morning of the duel, Jokul and Thorstein (along with their friend Faxi-Brand) brave bad weather to go to the site of the fight. Finnbogi and Berg decide not to go out in the snow and stay inside at Borg.
The brothers [Jokul and Thorstein] waited until mid-afternoon, and at that time Jokul and Faxi-Brand went to Finnbogi’s sheep-shed, which was right by the yard, and they took a post and set it on the ground by the wall. There were also horses there, which had gone to shelter during the storm. Jokul carved a man’s head on the end of the post, and wrote in runes the opening words of the curse, spoken of earlier. Jokul then killed a mare, and they cut it open at the breast, and set it on the pole, and had it face towards Borg. They then set off home and stayed at Faxi-Brand’s overnight. They were in good humour during the evening.
Now we see the classic form of the níðstöng. A caricature of the object of scorn is carved into the head of a pole. The words of a spoken curse are inscribed on the pole with runes. An animal’s head – here, an entire horse – is placed on top of the finished pole, and the completed níðstöng is aimed at the home of the enemy.

The animal head is not necessarily intrinsic to the níð, but seems to bring an added magical potency. Simek suggests that “the setting up of a níðstöng with a horse’s skull on top of it and carved runes recorded in the Egils saga 57 [discussed below] should be considered to have clear magical significance.” On the other hand, Ström sees the horse as merely adding another level of insult: the addition of the dead mare insinuates that Berg is as cowardly as a female horse, reflecting the rhetoric used by Jokul in his initial statement at the assembly.

Rudolf Simek's German Lexicon, released in
English as Dictionary of Northern Mythology

The original offense of Berg that had started this entire kerfuffle is significant.
One day they [Thorstein’s workers] noticed ten men grazing their horses in the meadow, and there was a woman with them; they were all in coloured clothing. One of the men was wearing a cloak and a long gown of fine quality cloth. They watched what this man did. He drew his sword and cut off the bottom of the cloak which had become dirty during his riding, and he threw the strip of cloth away – it was the width of a hand – and, speaking so they could hear, said that he had no wish to go around covered in muck. Thorstein’s men had no contact with these people but felt that it was unseemly to graze horses in other men’s meadows. A servant woman picked up the piece of cloth which the man had cut off, and said that this fellow could well be called an outrageous show-off.
The well-dressed man is Berg, and he is simultaneously making two transgressions against the codes of proper behavior: he is grazing his horses in another farmer’s fields without permission, and he is making a grand show of conspicuous consumption in a society where many live at the mercy of nature’s vicissitudes. This improper conduct is contrasted with Thorstein’s generosity, described in the preceding paragraph:
Thorstein from Hof was generous to his neighbors with the goods from his estate. There was free food for everyone and a change of horses and every other kind of help for a journey, and all men from other areas felt duty bound to go first and visit Thorstein and tell him what had been going on in the regions, and anything else that was new.
In direct contrast to Berg, Thorstein lives the life of a proper Icelandic farmer. He follows the code of generosity outlined in the Eddic poem Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One") and is rewarded with the respect of his neighbors. Again, the raising of the níðstöng is directed against the person who has repeatedly broken the society’s rules of behavior.

In her commentary on the Peter Fisher translation of Saxo Grammaticus’ The History of the Danes, Books I-IX (published 1979/1980), Hilda Ellis Davidson brings together elements of the níðstöng discussed above – threat, magic, shame, and censure of social transgression: “To raise the head or the skull of a dead horse on a pole was a means of threatening an opponent, felt to possess magic potency. In the sagas this rite was known as ‘raising a níðstöng,’ (insult pole, scorn pole); this could be done against a man who was a coward, or guilty of any type of anti-social behaviour.”

Title page to 1514 edition of History of the Danes 

The most famous níðstöng appears in Egil’s Saga, written in Iceland between 1220 and 1240 but taking place between 850 and 1000. Embroiled in a bitter conflict with the Norwegian King Eirik and his wife Gunnhild, Egil Skallagrímsson erects a níðstöng on the island of Herdla and directs it at his enemies on Norway’s mainland.
He took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland. Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole. 
Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, “Here I set up this níðstöng and turn its níð upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild” – then turned the horse’s head to face land – “and I turn its níð upon the landvættir that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land.” 
Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole. 
After that, Egil went to his ship. They hoisted the sail and put out to sea. The wind began to get up and a strong, favourable wind came.
Egil’s níðstöng has the same core elements as that of Jokul. Although no carved caricature is mentioned, Egil includes the runic inscription of a spoken curse and an animal’s head then aims the device at the home of his enemy.

Vigeland's statue of Egil raising the níðstöng

In this case, the magical element clearly takes precedence over shaming. Egil erects the níðstöng alone on an island – as opposed to the two earlier examples, both of which were meant to be seen and discussed by the public. Egil’s magical use of runes throughout the saga leads the reader to see his níðstöng-raising as a magical act. The fact that Egil threatens the landvættir (land wights, land spirits) to turn them against Eirik underscores the supernatural nature of his curse.

However, the idea of using the níðstöng against someone who transgresses social boundaries is constant between the preceding examples. Egil is asserting his independence from the overbearing Norwegian king, and the níðstöng is a manifestation of that assertion through the use of magic. Our following examples will show similar uses of the níðstöng as a means of declaring resistance to a more powerful enemy.

In his classic Myth and Religion of the North (1964), E.O.G. Turville-Petre discusses the landvættir that Egil calls upon in his curse:
The land-spirits or landvættir were even more closely attached to the soil than the elves; the welfare of the land, and thus of its inhabitants, depended largely upon them. 
It is laid down in the first clause of the pagan law of Iceland, introduced about AD 930, that no one may approach the country in ships furnished with gaping heads and yawning snouts, i.e. dragon-heads. If they had them they must remove them before they came in sight of land, for otherwise the landvaættir would take fright.
Turville-Petre goes on to connect the role of the horse-head on the níðstöng to that of the dragon-head on the ship’s prow. This is an important idea, because it provides a magical rationale for the use of the animal head atop the níðstöng – a reason aside from the social accusation of mare-like ergi. The terrifying sight of the bloody horse-head is meant to frighten the land-wights so that they will turn against the person targeted.

To be continued in Part Two.

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