15. Water Music (Skuggabaldur úti einn)

Color lithograph of Icelandic horse, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Icelandic horse.

Water Music

Skuggabaldur úti einn

Shadow Baldur, by my tent,
bursts with reeking juices.
Thor throws in his increment,
opening heaven's sluices.

Skuggabaldur úti einn
öli daufu rennir,
skrugguvaldur hvurgi seinn
himinraufar glennir.

Date:16 August 1841 (see below).
Form:Sléttubönd. The original consists of a single stanza that can be read both forward and backward.1 When it is read forward, it contains alternating four-stress and three-stress lines rhyming aBaB and with the alliteration pattern 22 (but with faulty alliteration — only one stuðull — in the third line).
Manuscript:KG 31 a III, where it has no title (facsimile KJH89; image).
First published:1847 (A198; image) under the title "Rigning" ("Rain") as the seventh in a group of "Veðurvísur" ("Weather Songs").

Commentary:        Lying in his tent one rainy morning, Jónas heard his horse Baldur making water outside. This was followed by a cloudburst.

The poem was composed during Jónas's trip around Snæfellsnes and is found in an undated letter to Konráð Gíslason that begins: "In Hrauk ['The Heap,' Jónas's name for his tent], near Bjarnarhöfn, sometime in August 1841." After transcribing the poem Jónas continues: "What would you expect but a poem of this kind when I woke this morning in my sleeping bag to find the reindeer skin rotting from days of continuous downpour so that hair was shedding all over me (its hair, you understand, not mine). Outdoors things are — as you can well imagine — gloomy etc. But I can't stay in the farmhouse because the sýslumaður's wife is continually giving birth. To one and the same baby, of course. God help her, poor thing!" (2E90-1)

The sýslumaður in question was Sigfús Skúlason (Schulesen) (1801-1862) and it was his wife Ingibjörg who was having such a hard time delivering their son (Hans Árni). Later in Jónas's letter we are treated to a news flash and told that the baby has now been born. Since the baby's birth is known to have taken place on 16 August (see 2D365), it is evident that Jónas began the letter that same morning. It was the fourth consecutive day of "continuous heavy rain" (2E385) which made it impossible for Jónas to continue his travels and confined him to his tent. He was bored and irritated and there was nothing better to do than lie in his damp sleeping bag and construct complex sléttubönd verse in his head.

Here is a literal translation of Jónas's original:

Shadow-Baldur, outside alone,
pours forth vapid beer,
thunder-wielder, by no means slow,
opens heaven's sluices.

Jónas may have called the horse Skuggabaldur ("Shadow-Baldur") because it is outside the tent, therefore not directly visible.2 But he is also making a pun: in ordinary usage, skuggabaldur was the name for a well-known folklore creature, the offspring of a male cat and a female fox (or dog).3

Jónas calls the subject of lines 3-4 skrugguvaldur ("thunder-wielder"). Konráð Gíslason and Brynjólfur Pétursson took this as a reference to "Jupiter, god of thunder" (A198), but it seems equally likely that Jónas has Thor in mind.4 At least this interpretation has the merit of keeping the poem's mythological allusions confined to one pantheon.


1Backward it reads:

Glennir himinraufar seinn
hvurgi skrugguvaldur,
rennir daufu öli einn
úti Skuggabaldur.

2 If Baldur had been a dark-colored horse, one might imagine that Jónas called him "Shadow-Baldur" here in order to draw a witty distinction between him and his namesake, the god Baldur, whose most outstanding feature was his radiance ("He is so bright and beautiful in appearance that light shines from him," Snorri Sturluson says in the Prose Edda). But Jónas's Baldur appears to have been a light grey (ljósgrár) or light-colored piebald (ljósskjóttur) horse; see 1D346 and n.

3 See 1Íþs610. The skuggabaldur was a savage beast who preyed on sheep and could only be killed by stabbing since any gun aimed at him misfired.

A skuggabaldur once caused enormous damage among the sheep in Húnavatnssýsla. Finally a large party of men tracked him to his lair along the gorge of the River Blanda and killed him. As the skuggabaldur was being stabbed to death he cried out: "Tell the cat at Bollastaðir that little skuggabaldur was killed today in the gorge." Everyone thought this quite remarkable.

Afterward the man who had done the actual stabbing went to Bollastaðir to stay the night. In the evening he lay in his bed recounting the events of the day. An ancient tomcat was sitting on one of the rafters in the baðstofa. When the man mimicked the skuggabaldur's dying words, the cat leaped down on him, sank its claws and teeth into his neck, and could not be pried loose until its head was cut off. By then the man was dead (ibid.).

4In "Lofsöngur" ("Song of Praise"), his youthful translation of the Norwegian poet Claus Frimann's "Lovsang," Jónas wrote: "the harmful thunder swings its resounding hammer" ("skruggan skæð skekur dunandi hamar," translating Frimann's "Tordenen løfter sin dundrende Hammer" [AS134]). The reference to the hammer shows that both Frimann and Jónas are personifying thunder as the god Thor.

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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