Talking heads The mediality of Mimir

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Talking heads The mediality of Mimir
Persönliches Ex. der Hg.
© Chronos Verlag
Medienwandel – Medienwechsel – Medienwissen
Veröffentlichungen des Nationalen Forschungsschwerpunkts
»Medienwandel – Medienwechsel – Medienwissen.
Historische Perspektiven«
Herausgegeben von CHRISTIAN KIENING und MARTINA STERCKEN
in Verbindung mit JÜRG GLAUSER, BARBARA NAUMANN,
ANDREAS THIER und MARGRIT TRÖHLER
Band 29
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KATE HESLOP, JÜRG GLAUSER (EDS.)
RE:writing
Medial perspectives on textual culture
in the Icelandic Middle Ages
With editoral assistance from Isabelle Ravizza
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Contents
KATE HESLOP AND JÜRG GLAUSER
Introduction: Medial perspectives on textual culture
in the Icelandic Middle Ages
9
Mediums
KATE HESLOP
Talking heads: the mediality of Mímir
63
JUDY QUINN
Looking ahead to what is long past:
the mediality of Jóreiðr’s dreaming in Sturlunga saga
85
Media
ELSE MUNDAL
To what degree did written texts change oral performance?
109
KARL G. JOHANSSON
Compilations, collections and composite manuscripts.
Some notes on the manuscript Hauksbók
121
KEVIN MÜLLER
The terminology of reading and writing in Sturlunga saga
143
LENA ROHRBACH
The written legacy of the Sturlung age – Reflections on a media change
165
SVANHILDUR ÓSKARSDÓTTIR
Saints and sinners. Aspects of the production and use of manuscripts
in Iceland in the period 1300-1600
181
GUÐVARÐUR MÁR GUNNLAUGSSON
The speed of the scribes: how fast could Flateyjarbók have been written?
195
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Mediality
MARGARET CLUNIES ROSS
The Fourth Grammatical Treatise as medial poetics
227
JONAS WELLENDORF
Virtues and vices: The Fourth Grammatical Treatise
243
RUSSELL POOLE
Conspicuous mediality in a medieval poem: the case of Merlínusspá
265
GÍSLI SIGURÐSSON
Njáls saga and its listeners’ assumed knowledge:
applying notions of mediality to a medieval text
285
ELLEN E. PETERS
Íslendingasaga – couple romance – exemplum:
Víglundar saga and the mediality of the söguöld
295
Authors
326
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KATE HESLOP
Talking heads: the mediality of Mímir
‘When a discourse is in crisis, a severed head is likely to turn
up’
– Regina Janes, Losing Our Heads
1. Introduction
Mímir, Mímr or Mimi leads a shadowy existence, mainly in the genitive case,
in Old Norse texts. Data-mining yields the beginnings of a profile, including friends (Óðinn), family (Míms synir, ‘Mímr’s sons’ seem to be giants, and
he has ekkjur ‘widows’ who are giantesses), address (Mímis brunnr, ‘Mímir’s
well’, where Óðinn visits his friend and deposits one of his eyes, and a second
residence at Mimameiðr, ‘Mimi’s pole’, a tree at the centre of the world), his
favourite drink (Dreccr miǫð Mímir/morgin hverian, ‘Mímir drinks mead every
morning’), and his nicknames (geir- ‘spear-‘, hodd- ‘treasure-‘, sǫk- ‘strife-‘,
søkk- ‘deeps-’, hrekk- ‘mischief-’, hregg- ‘storm-’ and vet- ‘?winter-’ Mímir); he
also has (or is) a head, Mím(i)s hǫfuð.
Although references to Mímir (etc.) are widespread, occurring in skaldic verse,
a number of eddic poems (Vǫluspá, Grímnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Helgakviða
Hundingsbana I, Sigrdrífumál, and Fjǫlsvinnsmál), the Prose Edda, and Ynglinga
saga, only the last, and perhaps oddest, of these details, that of Mímir as a severed
head, receives narrative elaboration in the surviving texts. Ch. 4 of Ynglinga saga
describes the exchange of hostages that concludes the first war in the world.
The Æsir send the handsome Hœnir and the clever Mímir to their enemies the
Vanir, and suggest they make Hœnir their king. The Vanir do so, but when they
realise Hœnir is entirely dependent on Mímir’s advice, they decapitate Mímir
and return his head. Odin, leader of the Æsir, pickles and enchants the head, so
that he can carry it with him and consult its knowledge of hidden things. This
narrative is usually interpreted, following Georges Dumézil, as representing the
incorporation of deities with various functions into a single religious system.1 In
this interpretation, the Vanir’s decapitation of Mímir is a manifestation of their
inability to make his wisdom useful. Only once the head has been severed and
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enchanted by Óðinn is Mímir’s wisdom ‘free’2 or ‘pure’3 and able to be made use
of. Mímir’s head is one of the resources Óðinn uses on behalf of the society of
the gods to find out information about other, especially chthonic, realms, in the
attempt to forestall the catastrophe of ragna rǫk.
The figure of the disembodied head also awakens many other associations,
however, traced by the burgeoning field of ‘beheading studies’,4 such as the
idea of the head as pars pro toto for the person, and folk and literary narratives
of Orpheus, the Brazen Head, Celtic prophetic heads in wells, automata and
talking machines. The narrative in Ynglinga saga has a special status in the Mímir
complex, as it gives Mímis hǫfuð a prehistory. Elsewhere in the transmission,
Mímir is characterised by his attributes or in relation to other figures, and he
himself remains elusive – it is not even certain whether he is a giant or a god.
Notwithstanding these scanty and contradictory sources, mythographers of the
last two centuries have seized upon Mímir, producing a massive literature which
attempts to resolve his contradictions and draw parallels with other traditions,
especially Celtic and Indic; a book-length study of him is currently in progress.5
Shorn of its body and preserved in encapsulated form as a vital accessory of the
chief of the gods, Mímis hǫfuð has struck many commentators as a compelling
metaphor for intellectual capacities such as wisdom or memory. This interpretation may already be subterraneanly present in the narrative in Ynglinga saga,
supported by an etymology connecting his name with Latin memor. Although
this etymological connection is ultimately implausible, as I will show, it seems to
have been as tempting to medieval mythographers as it is to modern ones. Mímir
is thus explained as the embodiment of ‘pure intellect’6 or, most commonly,
memory, and as such a valuable property of the Æsir, in particular, of the chief
god, Óðinn.
In what follows, rather than further pursuing the ‘data-mining’ approach, I will
present a thick description of the Mímir/s who appear in the textual environments of skaldic verse, eddic poetry and prose. Not only the underappreciated
complexities of the Ynglinga saga narrative, but also the other contexts where
Mímir appears, suggest that to understand the functions of this figure in Old
Norse textual culture, we need to go beyond a static structuralist conception
of Mímir as embodiment of a certain position in a system and think about the
processes of mediation in which he participates. Mímir’s medial role comes into
sharp relief in Ynglinga saga, where he is ‘in the middle’ as hostage, as clandestine counsellor of Hœnir, and communicator of secret knowledge from the
world of the dead to Óðinn. My focus will therefore not be on Mímir as embodiment of memory – an idea I will return to at the end of this essay – but rather
on how Mímir/Mímr acts as a medium, and is important not for what he is but
rather for what he does. While in skaldic verse Mímir is little more than a eupho64
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nious token in the kenning’s system of differences, the narratives about Mímir as
severed head in the eddic and prose corpora mark the ‘crisis’ of these discourses,
in Regina Janes’ words, as crises of mediation.
2. Míms vinr
Mímir appears in skaldic verse in two distinct environments: as a simplex in the
Óðinn-kenning Míms vinr ‘Mímr’s friend’, attested three times in the corpus,
and as the second element of compounds of the form x-Mímir, for example
hrekkmímir ‘mischief-Mímir’. An initial problem for the interpretation of the
Mímir figure is thus the form of his name, varying as it does between monosyllabic Mímr and disyllabic Mímir; a third form, Mimi, occurs only in Fjǫlsvinnsmál.7 Jan de Vries found a clear division between the name-forms: ‘[s]o
haben wir, nebeneinander und deutlich verschieden: das Haupt von Mímr, den
Baum von Mimi und die Quelle von Mímir’, but examination of the manuscript
witnesses reveals this clarity as an illusion.8 Contrary to De Vries’ assertion, the
distribution has little to do with semantics – Ynglinga saga, for instance, refers to
Mímis hǫfuð. The prose witnesses undoubtedly prefer the disyllabic form (nom.
Mímir or gen. Mímis), with 15 instances of the disyllable and only one of the
monosyllable, while eddic and skaldic texts have both monosyllabic Mímr and
disyllabic Mímir. The distribution of these forms in poetry suggests that they are
semantically equivalent but metrically distinct alternatives.
The three extant instances of the kenning Míms vinr are transmitted only as
citations in the Prose Edda. Sonatorrek 23/5, þó hefir Míms vinr, is an odd
kviðuháttr line with neutralisation in position 1, and so cannot accommodate
disyllabic Mímis.9 The second instance of the kenning Míms vinr is in VǫluSteinn’s Ǫgmundardrápa 1/1.10 The line runs Heyr Míms vinar mína, a Type
C line where an extra syllable in position 2, as would be required by disyllabic
Mímis, is forbidden. Vǫlu-Steinn’s most recent editor argues that this verse borrows from Sonatorrek 23.11 Háttatal 3, with the third instance of the Míms vinr
kenning (in the line brún Míms vinar rúnu), is also notorious for drawing on
earlier poetry, especially that cited in the Prose Edda.12 Two forms of acoustic
constraint typical of skaldic verse thus converge in these examples of monosyllabic Mímr. One is way that meters such as kviðuháttr and dróttkvætt regulate
syllabic-syntactic patterns across the line.13 The other is the repetitive nature of
the skaldic poetic, so that these patterns echo one another across the corpus.14
Similarly, the eddic instances of Míms occur where the disyllable would spoil the
meter, for instance in Vǫluspá 46/8, við Míms hǫfuð, where Mímis would yield
an A-line with anacrusis, a pattern that most analyses conclude is unmetrical in
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fornyrðislag.15 The coexistence of lexical variants, such as so-called hiatus words
(e.g. bláar), or variant forms of proper names (e.g. Áleifr/Ólafr), is a well-known
feature of skaldic prosody. In the case of the hiatus words and the name variants,
the alternative form is a (re-)activation of an archaic form. In the case of Mímr/
Mímir, the wide distribution of Mímir, preferred in prose and common in both
eddic and skaldic poetry, suggests that it is the standard realisation of the name,
and Mímr an optional variant.16 A last point in support of this hypothesis is the
fact that the scribe of Codex Upsaliensis ‘corrects’ all but one of the instances
of Mímr in Skáldskaparmál to the disyllable, in keeping with his independent-minded approach to proper names.17
Other than the three instances of Míms vinr, all skaldic references to Mímir are
in compounds. Ynglingatal 2 has Sǫkmímir in a kenning for the rock that swallows King Sveigðir, jǫtunbyggðr salr þeira Sǫkmímis ‘bright giant-inhabited hall
of Sǫkmímir and his followers’,18 and hrekkmímis ekkjur ‘mischief-Mímir’s widows’ make the river Vimur rise against Þórr in Þórsdrápa 9.19 The compounds
with -Mímir are most richly attested in the þulur. They offer, alongside plain
Mímir (Jǫtna heiti I 1), hold/hild/hoddmímir (Sverða heiti 5), søkk/sǫk/soknmímir (Jǫtna heiti I 6), hreggmímir and vetmímir (both Himins heiti I 1).20 These
names, with their plethora of variant readings, illustrate the continuing productivity of skaldic poetics not only in the þulur themselves, but also in the fourteenth-century textual transmission. The variant readings for the first element of
the entry in Sverða heiti in the various manuscripts, ‘flesh/battle/hoard-Mímir’,
for instance, fall within semantic fields closely associated with the concept
‘sword’ and are typical instances of the production of new heiti by the addition
of ‘substantive epithets’.21 The eddic corpus also has three instances of these
x-Mímir compounds. Geirmímir ‘spear-Mímir’ in Helgakviða Hundingsbana
I refers to the sons of Hundingr (ætt geirmímis).22 Sǫccmímir in Grímnismál is
the name of ‘an old giant’ whom Óðinn kills.23 And Vafþrúðnismál mentions
how Líf and Lífðrasir hide themselves í holti Hoddmímis ‘in Hoddmímir’s
wood’.24 The eddic instances reinforce the impression given by Ynglingatal
and Þórsdrápa that Mímir is a giant, although Ynglingatal’s additional epithet,
jǫtunbyggðr, suggests that the name Mímir would not necessarily be taken as a
giant’s. The mention of him in the þula of Jǫtna heiti is inconclusive, too, thanks
to the þulur’s tendency to add names on the basis of euphony and local semantic
patterning rather than systematic categorisation, leading to considerable overlap
between Jǫtna heiti and other name-lists, for example those of names of Óðinn.25
Grímnismál and Vafþrúðnismál offer the only hints of narrative elaboration of
the name of Mímir. Of course, it is not uncommon for Norse poetry, especially
skaldic poetry, to refer to narratives rather than recount them, offering us ‘tips
of narrative icebergs’ or ‘mini-myths’, in the words of Margaret Clunies Ross
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and Jürg Glauser respectively, but these myths are very mini indeed, and resist
reconstruction.
The baseword of the Óðinn-kennings, vinr, is common in skaldic verse, both in
kennings and otherwise. Skáldskaparmál gives a list of heiti for vinr which suggest – intriguingly, in light of Ynglinga saga’s story about Mímir – that counsel
and intimacy are markers of the vinr relationship: Heitr ok vinr ok ráðunautr,
ráðgjafi, máli, rúni, spjalli, aldaþopti, einkili, sessi, sessunautr ‘A friend is also
called counsel-sharer, counsel-giver, gossip, confidant, crony, old bunkie, shipmate, bench-mate, bench-partner’.26 Skaldic instances of vinr encompass a wider
range of relationships than those of Skáldskaparmál’s list of heiti, however: a
prince and his companions are vinir, as are kings and their subjects, saints and
God, men and their mistresses, and Loki and Hœnir; Óðinn is also stalla fúrs vinr
‘friend of the altar-fire’ and Þórr banda vinr ‘friend of the bonds (i.e. gods)’.27 If
Mímir was thought of as a giant, Míms vinr would be the sole kenning asserting
vinskapr between a giant and a god. The immediate environment of the kenning
Míms vinr in Sonatorrek and Vǫlu-Steinn’s Ǫgmundardrápa is also suggestive
but not conclusive. In both cases Óðinn, Míms vinr, appears as bringer of poetry,
called íþrótt vammi firðr ‘skill without blemish’ in Sonatorrek (vv. 23-24) and
strauma Míms vinar glaumbergs ‘streams of Mim’s friend’s joy-hill’ in Ǫgmundardrápa. This association between Óðinn in his capacity as Mímr’s associate and
poetry is in agreement with Mímir’s eddic associations with liquid as a medium
of numinous knowledge, as we shall see, and with Ynglinga saga’s pairing of him
in the hostage exchange with Kvasir, also intimately associated with the mead of
poetry. Absent from the skaldic sources, on the other hand, is any indication that
Mímir is a severed head. For this we must turn to the Poetic Edda.
3. Þá mælti Míms hǫfuð
In the course of one of Gylfaginning’s mythological Q&A sessions, Gylfi asks,
Hvar er helgistaðrinn eða hǫfuðstaðrinn goðanna?, ‘Where is the chief centre or
holy place of the gods?’ In response Jafnhár tells him, among other things, about
Mímisbrunnr, Mímir’s well, which is under the world tree Yggdrasill. This well
is full of wisdom and intelligence (spekð ok mannvit). Mímir is wise, because he
drinks from his well, as is Óðinn, who deposited his eye in exchange for a drink
from it. Jafnhár then quotes from the eddic poem Vǫluspá:
Allt veit ek Óðinn
hvar þú auga falt,
í þeim inum mæra
Mímis brunni.
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Drekkr mjǫð Mímir
morgun hverjan
af veði Valfǫðrs.
Vituð þér enn eða hvat?28
(I know it all, Odin, where you deposited your eye, in that renowned well of
Mimir. Mimir drinks mead every morning from Val-father’s [Odin’s] pledge.
Know you yet, or what?).29
This seminal passage supplies narrative background for the skaldic associations
of Mímir with a numinous liquid and the god Óðinn, and has played an important role in the interpretive tradition of Mímir as the personification of wisdom.
Another key element, that of Mímir as disembodied head, is referred to later in
Vǫluspá, as ragna rǫk approaches: Mælir Óðinn við Míms hǫfuð ‘Óðinn speaks
with Mim’s head’ (Vsp 46). The acquisition of knowledge, often of a supernatural
kind, from a disembodied head is an extremely widespread motif, paralleled in
Greek, Latin, Irish, Welsh, Hebrew, Indian and Arabic textual traditions – to
name only a selection – over a period stretching from late antiquity to modern
times.30 Links between Mímir and the so-called Celtic cult of the head have
been proposed before,31 and here Mímir’s association with a well is especially
significant. Joseph Nagy, in a study of the severed head motif,32 notes the verbal
potency of these heads, and suggests that they signify the oral tradition as guarantor of a ‘continuity of verbal discourse’, for instance in the myth of Orpheus.33
There are also, however, he notes,
[…] some instances in Indo-European mythologies where the work of the severed
head and the act of writing are contrasted or connected […] the symbolic baggage
of the severed head […] can lend itself to an evaluation of the relationship between
written and oral communication in those Indo-European cultures where literacy
was culturally important enough for there to develop the need for an ideological
reckoning of the relationship.34
Sigrdrífumál, in the other major Mímir narrative in the eddic corpus, describes
how the young hero Sigurðr releases the valkyrie Sigrdrífa from an enchanted
sleep and asks her to teach him wisdom (kenna sér speki).35 The ensuing instruction involves no less than three magical drinks: the minnisveig Sigrdrífa offers
Sigurðr before beginning her recitation, a beer-based drink containing lióða,
lícnstafa, galdra and gamanrúna ‘songs’, ‘letters’, ‘charms’ and ‘runes’ that he
receives in v. 5, and a cocktail of mead and hugrúnar ‘mind-runes’ in v. 18. There
is also a numinous liquid dripping from a skull and a horn (v. 13), an extensive
catalogue of magical runes, and an oral performance from Míms hǫfuð – a veritable inventory of premodern media. The passage in which Mímir appears runs
as follows:
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13. Hugrúnar scaltu kunna
ef þú vilt hveriom vera
geðsvinnari guma;
þær of réð,
þær of reist,
þær um hugði Hroptr,
af þeim legi,
er lekið hafði
ór hausi Heiddraupnis
oc ór horni Hoddrofnis.
14. Á biargi stóð
með Brimis eggiar
hafði sér á hǫfði hiálm.
Þá mælti Míms hǫfuð
fróðlict iþ fyrsta orð,
oc sagði sanna stafi.
(Mind-runes you must know if you want to be
wiser-minded than every other man;
Hropt interpreted them,
cut them, thought them out,
from that liquid which had leaked
from Heiddraupnir’s skull
and from Hoddrofnir’s horn.
On a cliff he stood with Brimir’s sword,
a helmet he had on his head;
then Mim’s head spoke
wisely the first word
and told the true letters.)36
The discourse of Míms hǫfuð follows in vv. 15-17, as the head lists the places,
many of them mythological, where the powerful runes should be cut. This runic
origin-story, tale of iþ fyrsta orð ‘the first word’, wraps up with the following
verse, in which knowledge is disseminated as a cocktail of mead and runic
wood-shavings:
18. Allar vóro af scafnar,
þaer er vóro á ristnar,
oc hverfðar við inn helga miǫð,
oc sendar á víða vega.
Þær ro með ásom
þær ro með alfom,
sumar með vísom vǫnom,
sumar hafa menzcir menn.
(All were shaved off, those which were carved on,
and stirred it into the sacred mead
and sent on wandering ways;
they are among the Æsir, they are among the elves,
some are with the wise Vanir,
some with humankind.)37
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This passage is one of the few instances of the topos of the origin of writing
in Old Norse, the other major one being Óðinn’s acquisition of the runes in
Hávamál 138-45, with which the present passage shares many thematic and lexical features. This subject seems to have been of only marginal interest in Scandinavia, for when set against such inventors of writing as Theuth, Ganesh, or Cang
Jie, whose invention of Chinese script ‘caused Heaven to rain millet and ghosts
to wail in the night’,38 Mímir seems an insignificant figure to entrust with communicating such a momentous discovery to humans. It is perhaps for this reason
that Vǫlsunga saga’s text of Sigrdrífumál omits vv. 13/7-10 and 14 and elides the
verb qvað in the first line of v. 15, thereby cutting out the middleman Mímir, and
making Óðinn’s invention of the hugrúnar in v. 13 the prelude to the catalogue of
numinously powerful runes in v. 15.39 Comparison with the Vǫlsunga saga text
of the poem makes apparent that Mímir is invoked at the point when the question of origins arises, and the runic knowledge being communicated shifts from
the domain of vardagens ritualer ‘everyday rituals’ such as battle, seduction, and
aid for women in childbirth to den mytologiska/ideologiska överbyggnad ‘the
mythological/ideological superstructure’ of vv. 15-17, replete with mythological names.40 In Sigrdrífumál, then, Míms hǫfuð mediates between the mundane
world and the divine.
The circuit runs as follows. Hroptr, or Óðinn, transforms the liquid – which
disconcertingly combines the characteristics of a bodily exudate (ór hausi Heiddraupnis) with those of a drink (ór horni Heiddraupnis) – into text; how exactly
he does so remains unclear. Three verbs in apposition, of réð […] of reist […]
um hugði, denote writing’s potential for interpretation, manual manipulation
and cogitation, qualities foreign to the liquid of knowledge but proverbial in
accounts of runes; a lausavísa attributed to Egill runs:
Skalat maðr rúnar rísta,
nema ráða vel kunni;
þat verðr mǫrgum manni,
es of myrkvan staf villisk.41
(No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well;
many a man goes astray
around those dark letters.)
In contrast to Hroptr’s placeless, timeless writing operations, Míms hǫfuð’s
speech is marked by a deictic Þá ‘then’ and features both a location (Á biargi) and
an auditor, a mysterious helmet-clad and sword-bearing figure who is usually
identified as Óðinn. With Mímir, the runes enter, perhaps violently,42 into human
settings and histories. This scene is the locus of another transformation, from
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writing to speech, as the head sagði sanna stafi. What exactly is to be understood
by sanna stafi, here translated as ‘true letters’, is rather a puzzle.43 Stafr occurs
often in the Poetic Edda, and its referent ranges from the clearly material ‘signs,
runes, letters’44 to a more abstract sense, especially in the plural, translatable as
‘words, lore’.45 Even the more abstract sense often strongly implies materiality,
though,46 and the Edda-Kommentar notes that the performative element in eddic
-stafir compounds suggests that ‘die Ausgangsbedeutung “Runen” unterschwellig mitschwingt’.47 The ambiguity of stafir fits well here, as Míms hǫfuð and
Sigrdrífa are engaging in the intermedial, not to mention impractical, activity of
orally imparting information about a writing system – how are we to imagine
the deixis of Þat ero bócrúnar þat ero biargrúnar ‘Those are book-runes, those
are helping-runes’ in v. 19? By having a talking head mediate the knowledge of
writing, Sigrdrífumál suggests that writing is closely linked to the oral tradition,
while at the same time imbuing its origins with magic and the uncanny. The narrative as a whole emphasises the processes of transformation and dissemination,
and ends as it began with a liquid, the holy mead.
Sigrdrífa’s address to Sigurðr in v. 19 underscores the distinctiveness of writing:
the runes are hveim er þær kná óviltar oc óspiltar / sér at heillom hafa ‘for those
who can, without confusing them, without destroying them / possess them for
good’. The rhyming and alliterating pair óviltar, óspiltar continues the evaluation
of writing begun in v. 13 (of réð […] of reist […] um hugði), its negations bringing
the kinds of infelicity peculiar to the written medium sharply into view; the corresponding verb villa appears in the half-stanza by Egill already quoted above.48
But the verse also touches on the value of writing: it is something that one can
sér at heillom hafa ‘possess for good’, that is, for one’s own good. The aspect of
ownership comes more clearly into focus in Ynglinga saga, where we at last find
out how Mímir became Mímis hǫfuð.
4. Þá tóku þeir Mími ok hálshjoggu…
Óðinn fór með her á hendr Vǫnum, en þeir urðu vel við ok vǫrðu land sitt, ok
hǫfðu ýmsir sigr; herjuðu hvárir land annarra ok gerðu skaða. En er þat leiddisk
hvárum tveggjum, lǫgðu þeir milli sín sættar-stefnu ok gerðu frið ok seldusk
gíslar; fengu Vanir sína ina ágæztu menn, Njǫrð inn auðga ok son hans Frey, en
Æsir þar í mót þann, er Hœnir hét, ok kǫlluðu hann allvel til hǫfðingja fallinn;
hann var mikill maðr ok inn vænsti; með honum sendu Æsir þann, er Mímir hét,
inn vitrasti maðr, en Vanir fengu þar í mót þann, er spakastr var í þeira flokki; sá
hét Kvasir.
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En er Hœnir kom í Vanaheim, þá var hann þegar hǫfðingi gǫrr; Mímir kenndi
honum ráð ǫll. En er Hœnir var staddr á þingum eða stefnum, svá at Mímir var
eigi nær, ok kœmi nǫkkur vanda-mál fyrir hann, þá svaraði hann æ inu sama –
“ráði aðrir” kvað hann. Þá grunaði Vani, at Æsir myndi hafa falsat þá í mannaskiptinu; þá tóku þeir Mími ok hálshjoggu ok sendu hǫfuðit Ásum; Óðinn tók
hǫfuðit ok smurði urtum þeim, er eigi mátti fúna, ok kvað þar yfir galdra ok
magnaði svá, at þat mælti við hann ok sagði honum marga leynda hluti.49
(Óðinn went with an army against the Vanir, but they put up a good fight and
defended their land, and victory went alternately to both sides. They each raided
the other’s land and did damage. But when both sides grew weary of this, they
arranged a meeting of reconciliation between them and made peace and gave each
other hostages. The Vanir put forward their noblest men, Njǫrðr the Wealthy and
his son Freyr, and the Æsir in return the one called Hœnir, and they claimed that
he was very suitable to be a ruler. He was a large and most handsome man. With
him the Æsir sent the one called Mímir, a very clever man, and in return the Vanir
put forward the wisest in their company. He was called Kvasir.
But when Hœnir came to Vanaheimr he was at once made a lord. Mímir always
told him what to do. But when Hœnir was present at councils or meetings
where Mímir was not nearby, and any probem came before him, then he always
answered the same way: “Let others decide”. Then the Vanir suspected that the
Æsir must have cheated them in the exchange of men. Then they took Mímir and
beheaded him and sent his head to the Æsir. Óðinn took the head and smeared it
with herbs that prevented it from decaying, and recited spells over it and imbued
it with magic power so that it spoke to him and told him many secret things.)50
The ‘first war in the world’, as Vǫluspá calls it, ends with an exchange of hostages
that rapidly goes sour. It is not clear how the transfer of ráð between Mímir
and Hœnir takes place, but the fact that the two have to be close for it to work
suggests vocal communication is involved rather than telepathy; problems first
crop up when Mímir var eigi nær. Hœnir’s communication with the Vanir takes
place in the canonically oral, face-to-face setting of the þing eða stefna ‘þing or
meeting’, an impression reinforced by the verbs used to describe his participation, svara and kveða. However, it cannot be a matter of Hœnir openly seeking
Mímir’s advice, in king-counsellor fashion, or else why would the Vanir feel
they had been tricked? Their communication must be clandestine, and when
Hœnir is not supplied with words by Mímir, he repeats a single empty phrase,
ráði aðrir (a fair description of what has been happening all along, ráði Mímir).
Lois Bragg hits the nail on the head in describing Mímir’s communication with
Hœnir as ‘ventriloquist-like’.51 Mímir’s speech before decapitation satisfies a
crucial condition of orally mediated communication, that of proximity, but paradoxically does not conform to the norms of bodily integrity that demand this
very proximity, namely the spatial limitations of the human organs of speech and
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perception. Mímir’s words originate within his body, but emerge from Hœnir’s
mouth. Nor are they public, as oral communication usually is. The Vanir’s reaction shows that they are disturbed by this speech that, by being both estranged
from the body it originates from, and secret, casually dispenses with the conditions that would guarantee its trustworthiness.
The stress on the how of Mímir’s communication in this narrative means that
it is reductive to read the Æsir-Vanir war episode in Ynglinga saga as merely a
Snorronian contrivance to produce Mímis hǫfuð as distilled essence of intellectual capacity, as ‘a poor story [that] may well be a fabrication of Snorri’s own’.52
Rather, the narrative presents a rich exploration of the question of representation: how something can stand for something else. Mímir as hostage is a representative in a basic sense, standing in for the group to which he belongs simply
by virtue of his vulnerable body. He guarantees the Æsir’s side of the agreement,
with physical injury or permanent deprivation of liberty as consequences for
him if they fail to perform. The wily Æsir double down with the suggestion that
Mímir’s counterpart Hœnir is suited to the more complex representative task of
political representation. The Æsir’s suggestion can be read in the high medieval
cultural context as one of the ‘potentially ambiguous acts […] such as oaths,
baptism, fictive kinship, homage, and the use of writing’ typical of cross-cultural
peacemaking in the Middle Ages. Adam Kosto writes further that ‘differing
interpretations are precisely what make short-term agreement possible, but they
lay the groundwork for future disputes’.53 The Æsir’s deceptiveness, giving a
hostage whose actual social status is lower than advertised, can also be paralleled in accounts of historical hostage exchanges. The ventriloquist double act
of Mímir and Hœnir represents an absent, authoritative voice by a physically
present, automaton-like body, as Hœnir becomes nothing more than a resounding vessel.54 This system of discursive and power-relations was a familiar feature
of medieval political life, in the form of the nuntius or legatus, who ‘wie ein
Besessener spricht […] in der Person seines Herrn, niemals in seiner eigenen’,
displaying the presence of the sovereign in a verbal pars pro toto.55 Hœnir’s
speech makes manifest not his invisible inner thoughts, but the steering off-stage
presence of Mímir. The roles of king and ambassador have thus been reversed,
and when the Vanir cut off Mímir’s head, they decapitate this little polity.56 The
doubling Mímir: Hœnir having collapsed, it is succeeded by a split: Mímir’s
trunk is silently disposed of and the pars pro toto relationship reasserted in the
fully material, nonmetaphorical form of a severed head.57
The Mímir episode in Ynglinga saga can, therefore, be read as a political parable. As part of the saga’s narrative of origins of the Norwegian royal house, the
Mímir story tells how the proto-king and magician Óðinn fought a war and
made an advantageous peace, in a way recognisable from historical accounts of
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medieval warfare. Óðinn in Ynglinga saga is a foreign founder and culture hero,
bringer of pagan Scandinavian medieval culture to the North.58 Peacemaking
with culturally other neighbours, information-gathering, and taking advice from
sagacious counsellors are all exemplary activities for the Yngling kings whom the
saga presents as Óðinn’s descendants. Mímir’s supernaturally wise and authoritative counsel, both before and after decapitation, manifests itself as a magically
heightened orality, oddly reminiscent of writing. Produced by the exercise of
Óðinn’s dark arts, albeit less thoroughly ‘processed’ than Kvasir, Mímis hǫfuð is
an Odinic accessory; we are told in the general report on Óðinn’s activities in ch.
7 of Ynglinga saga that Óðinn hafði með sér hǫfuð Mímis (p. 18) ‘had Mímir’s
head with him’ (p. 10). As a severed head is portable and cannot get away, Óðinn
can avoid Hœnir’s misfortune of being caught without an advisor. In addition
to spatial extension, Mímir’s head has temporal durability, thanks to the treatment with herbs that keeps it from rotting. And once he has become a severed
head, Mímir only speaks to Óðinn, telling him marga leynda hluti ‘many secret
things’.
At first glance, this phrase appears to advert simply to the supernatural sources
of Mímir’s knowledge. Mímis hǫfuð mediates communication with the most
distant realm of all, that of the dead. This aspect is underscored in the second
mention of Mímis hǫfuð in ch. 7: sagði þat honum [Óðinn] mǫrg tíðendi ór ǫðrum
heimum (p. 18) ‘it told him much news from other worlds’ (p. 10). However,
the phrase marga leynda hluti is also used in later in Heimskringla, in Haralds
saga gráfeldar to refer to the – unsupernatural – state secrets to which Grjótgarðr is flatteringly made privy as part of Gunnhildr konungamóðir’s effort to
persuade him to betray his brother Jarl Sigurðr (p. 233). It also, then, portrays
Mímir as a king’s confidant and adviser of the kind we meet with in later sagas in
Heimskringla (in the genre of ‘king-and-Icelander’ þættir, where such figures are
common, they are often skalds). Within the historical narrative of origins, then,
Mímis hǫfuð represents an aspirational monopoly over information, originating
in violence and deception, exclusive and jealously-guarded tool of the king. The
Ynglinga saga narrative is careful, here as elsewhere, to keep alive the possibility
of a historicised reading of Óðinn and the Æsir. The non-Kringla manuscript
tradition is a particularly strong representative of this reading. In the passage
from ch. 7 cited above, one of the Jöfraskinna manuscripts has mǫrg tíðendi ór
ǫðrum lǫndum eða heimum, ‘much news from many countries or regions’ which,
by treating heimr as synonymous with land ‘country’,59 removes the reference to
the Otherworld and makes Mímir into the equivalent of Óðinn’s ravens Huginn
and Muninn, who fly víða um lǫnd and bring Óðinn news. As has repeatedly
been pointed out,60 Ynglinga saga presents Óðinn not as a god, but as a (magic-working) king, and the Fríssbók manuscript insists upon this designation
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in its rubrics, which invariably suffix konungr to his name, and makes other
alterations (hǫfðingjar ‘chieftains’ for hofgoðar ‘temple priests’ in ch. 2; hofgoða
‘temple priests’ for blótgoða ‘sacrificial priests’ in ch. 4) that dampen the cultic
resonances of the text.
On a narrative metalevel, though, Ynglinga saga is a text concerned with its
own facture, as the Prologue indicates with its stratigraphy of the gappy, only
partly overlapping sources from which the continuous history of Heimskringla
is cobbled together. One of the major conditions of possibility for the text is
the existence of a body of pagan mythological narrative. From this perspective,
the story of Mímis hǫfuð – one of a surprisingly small number of Óðinn myths
transmitted in Ynglinga saga, which generally prefers gelehrte Urgeschichte or,
for supernatural matters, simple lists – can be read as an instance where the text
points outside Ynglinga saga’s catalogue of the doings of the powerful Asian
immigrants and their magician-king, to this pre-existing corpus. The major locus
for this gesture is the Æsir’s religion. Religious observance takes pride of place
in the list of cultural goods that the Æsir bring to Scandinavia. The first thing we
are told about Ásgarðr is that it is a centre for sacrificial activities, and there are
frequent references to the díar and goðar (both probably meaning ‘priests’) who
staff it, among them Njǫrðr and Freyr. Óðinn is the object of worship, probably
already in the mention of his men calling on his name in battle in ch. 2, as Lindow observes, and certainly after his death, when his cult really takes off: Hófsk
þá af nýju átrúnaðr við Óðin ok áheit (p. 22), ‘Then belief in Odin and invocation of him were renewed’ (p. 13). So, Ynglinga saga suggests, does a magician
come to be worshipped as a god. Presumably he also worships, or else there
would be no need for blótgoðar and the rest of it: he is, as culture hero, founder
of the pagan Scandinavian religion. The oddest aspect of Óðinn’s religious activities is the way the text portrays him as simultaneously worshipping subject and
object of worship, in what Kimberly Patton has called ‘divine reflexivity’. This
‘intimate involvement of the deity with his or her own cult’61 is discernable, for
example, when Óðinn has himself marked with a spear on his death-bed (p. 21),
in a quintessentially Odinic ritual: to whom is he then dedicated? Such reflexivity is attested quite often in Old Norse as well as in many other religions, and has
been suggested to have very ancient origins.62 Whatever its origins, the effect of
divine reflexivity in the euhemeristic and historicising context of Ynglinga saga
is vertiginous – who does the deified human Óðinn worship? Himself, in what
we might call auto-euhemerism? Or does he worship the Óðinn of the mythic
narratives, that is, the figure whom the very text of Ynglinga saga has rendered
fictional?63
Mímir’s pickled head crops up out of the euhemeristic narrative, then, as part of
the mythological substrate that Ynglinga saga otherwise so persistently denies.64
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Like the bautasteinar and barrows of the Prologue, or the bizarre death-dealing
instruments of Ynglingatal, described in unique and riddling kennings (slǫnguþref verðar Sleipnis, ‘flung grasper of the meal of Sleipnir’, a pitchfork, or
leif hǫðnu Hagbarðs, ‘remnant of the kid of Hagbarðr’, a noose),65 he unites
semiotic capacity and conspicuous material form in a startling memory-figure.
As a re-animated head telling secrets from the underworld and the realm of the
dead, he personifies the multifarious acts of mediation undertaken by the text
and embodies its wish for the past to speak. Flagrantly, elaborately, overdeterminedly medial, he turns our attention to questions of representation, and of
whose voices we hear in the text.
5. What about memory?
What of the idea that Mímir symbolizes memory in the mythology? Speculations to this effect find support in an etymology connecting his name with Latin
memor. Karl Müllenhoff seems to have been the first to propose that Mímir
is a reduplicated form of the Proto-Indo-European verb *(s)mer- ‘to think,
reflect, recall’, and is therefore cognate with Latin memor ‘memory’.66 Some
evidence from comparative mythology supports this, such as the name of the
Celtic goddess of memory, Rosmerta. But the main reason for the popularity of
this etymology – against the linguistic evidence – must be how neatly Mímir as
personification of memory fits into the standard reconstruction of the myth in
which he plays a minor part, summarised by John Lindow in his Handbook of
Norse Mythology as follows: ‘Memory is something valued and especially understood by Odin, but misunderstood and undervalued by the vanir. It stands at the
very centre of the Odinic universe’.67
The etymology connecting Mímir to memor appears in the standard etymological dictionaries and handbooks of mythology,68 and is almost always cited when
Mímir is mentioned,69 although often with some circumspection.70 In fact, eleven
years after Müllenhoff published his etymology, Ferdinand Detter had already
expressed reservations, and suggested instead a connection with words meaning
‘measure’: OE mámrian ‘cogitate’, meotod ‘God’, Norw. meima ‘measure’.71
As the –r ending of Mímir is an inflectional ending, not part of the root (as de
Vries points out in his dictionary entry), it cannot provide any support for the
hypothesis of derivation from *(s)mer-. Indeed, Lat. memor is no longer thought
to derive from *(s)mer- either, and the currently-accepted derivation of memor,
as an old perfect participle of *men- ‘think’, allows of no connection to Mímir.72
Although the idea of a link to memor should, then, be abandoned once and for
all, there is nothing definite to take its place, and the question of the etymology
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of the name Mímir remains open.73 Jean Haudry rejects the derivation from
*(s)mer- in favour of Detter’s suggestion, and proposes that Mímir is derived
from the IE root *meH1 ‘measure of time’, being thereby linked not only with
meotod, an Old English name for the Christian God, but also with the tree mjǫtviðr ‘tree of measure’ in verse 2 of Vǫluspá.74 His arguments are more convincing
than those for *(s)mer-, but reduplication of a syllable containing í, as required
by his theory, would be unusual.75 The most recent Icelandic etymological
dictionary expresses reservations about the link with memor and tentatively
connects Mímir with the Old Norse verb meina ‘mean, believe, say’.76 Given
that Mímir sometimes appears to be a giant-name, this suggestion could perhaps
be pushed further by proposing a connection with what Elena Gurevic calls
‘the frequently used ‘noise-maker’-pattern in giant-names, e.g. Hrungnir (Jǫtna
heiti, 1/5), Herkir (st. 2/3), Þrymr (st. 2/7), as well as the other name for Ymir,
Aurgelmir (st. 5/5)’.77 Could Mímir then be connected with the modern Swedish
and Norwegian dialect words mimsa and mimra ‘to move the lips’, ME momelen, Dutch mummelen, Ger. mummeln ‘mumble, mutter’?78
In Old Norse oral poetic genres, noise-words seem to have been a key element
of depictions of violent, turbulent events or persons: battles, giants, the god
Þórr and his journeys. Medieval learned etymology may perhaps have led to an
association of Mímir with memory via Latin memor, but this could only have
been a late development, after other patterns (such as his mode of existence as
a severed head) were already well-established. The medial signature of skaldic
performance embedded in the name of Mímir/Mímr is, rather, its status as a
sonorous token in a system of differences,79 sensual rather than meaningful and
lacking narrative elaboration. It is symptomatic of this situation that Mímr does
not occur: the word only appears in the genitive case, as a kenning component.
Whatever Mímir means, he does so relationally, not absolutely or essentially.
6. Conclusion: Mímir in medial perspective
In the foregoing I have explored how the figure of Mímir both reflects the medial
conditions dominant when the various texts about him were produced and, in
Sigrdrífumál and Ynglinga saga, becomes the medium of self-reflection on these
conditions. In the poetic corpus, monosyllabic Mímr and disyllabic Mímir are
alternative forms that slot into different positions in the poetic line. The kenning
Mims vinr occurs in lexical-metrical contexts that, typically for the echoing,
repetitive skaldic poetic, are borrowed from text to text, while the various
compounds with -mímir as second element reflect the productivity of the heiti
system. In late medieval redactions of the poetological material, this productiv77
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ity leads to the generation of new names according to norms of euphony and
local semantic variation, rendering precise categorisation on semantic grounds,
as in the question ‘is Mímir a god or a giant?’, impossible. Sigrdrífumál embeds
Mímir into a poetic narrative of the origins of runic writing, piling up signifiers
of wisdom and magical efficacy – drinks, runes, speeches, songs – in a medially-overdetermined scene where the interchanges between media and the risks
and rewards of writing are stressed. As a talking head, Mímir is uniquely suited
to represent the power of the oral within the text, while at the same time being
a resonant metaphor for speech split from its bodily origins. This paradoxical
side of Mímir is emphasised in the complex narrative of Ynglinga saga, with
its doublings, reversals, and deceptions. Here Mímir, or rather his head, is a
telecommunications expert, both supernatural Odinic accessory and precursor
of the wise counsellors (often skalds) of the kings of Heimskringla’s historical
sagas, performer of a magically heightened orality which the text imagines as a
kind of writing.
The question ‘myth or history?’ is a classic one for Ynglinga saga,80 and as I show,
the text takes some care to maintain its readability in both modes, as euhemeristic
narrative of the origins of Norse paganism, and as image of the original king of
Scandinavia. As a mythography based on the euhemeristic premise that the figures
it describes predate the elaboration of myths about them, and religious belief in
them, the question of ‘the religion of the gods’ and the status of mythological narrative are both problematic for Ynglinga saga, giving rise to a sense of vertigo as
the chronological layers of the narrative fold back upon themselves.81 Míms hǫfuð,
a nubby remnant of mythic narrative, survives into the time when myth becomes
history as Óðinn dies, launching his cult. As pickled talking head, he is an excellent
figure for how memory speaks in the texts of the Icelandic high Middle Ages.
The medium concept here provides a frame for apparently various phenomena.
In a stimulating recent article, Judy Quinn discusses the metaphor, widespread
in Old Norse literature, of ‘liquid knowledge’. This is the idea that liquids such
as mead, vomit, spittle and blood, the best-known of them being the mead of
poetry, transmit meaning and have transformative powers.82 She suggests that
this metaphor, with its contingent and performative valences, was particularly
appropriate to a society ‘not dependent on writing – or the metaphors of written
culture – for the transmission of learning’ (p. 183), and argues that ‘although the
technology of runic inscription is accorded considerable importance […] the
materiality of writing does not alter the dominant metaphor of knowledge as
a liquid’ (p. 223). The trope of knowledge as a liquid, whose textual instances
Quinn explores in fascinating detail, could also be described more abstractly as a
conception of liquid as a medium, in other words, as a way of thinking about the
materialisation, transfer and transformation of meaning.
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This shift to a more abstract analytical level reveals that, although the ‘liquid
knowledge’ metaphor boasts an especially elaborate mediology, it shares a lot
with other media described in Old Norse texts and images. Birds, for instance,
appear from very early on in the visual arts, and the textual transmission suggests they have a medial function, for example Óðinn’s ravens Huginn and
Muninn, Sigurðr fáfnisbani’s igður ‘nuthatches’, and the óminnis hegri ‘heron of
forgetfulness’ of Hávamál 13. Later skaldic poetry continues to make use of the
liquid metaphor, and also draws on Christian traditions whereby God’s grace
is mediated to humans by saintly intercession, holy writings, beams of light,
stigmatisation and so on. All these media share the traits of in-between-ness,
and making something that is absent (whether because it is physically distant
or numinously transcendent) materially present, hallmarks of pre-modern ideas
of the medium. Sensual perception, another semantic prime of the premodern
medium, appears in heightened, uncanny form in these figurations of the medial:
the taste of the various liquids of knowledge, the sound of the bird’s voice, or
the bloody wounds of the stigmata. Finally, re-framing ‘liquid knowledge’ as a
medium reveals how writing, in Quinn’s account the determining outside of the
trope, also appears inside, as an object of reflection in the text itself. The medial
perspective on Old Norse literature thus encourages us to explore interferences
between the ‘crisis’ of media change – as an oral poetic mytho-religious discourse
meets a written, mythographic and poetological one – and medial self-reflection,
manifested in literary phantasms such as magical liquids and talking heads.
Notes
1 In his Les Dieux des Germains, essai sur la formation de la religion scandinave (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1959), trans. as Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1973).
2 M. Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society. 1. The
Myths, Viking Collection 7 (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1994), p. 213.
3 J. P Schjødt, Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion, Viking Collection 17 (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark,
2008), p. 128.
4 Cf. for example Paul-Henri Stahl, Histoire de la décapitation (Paris: Presses Universitaires de
France, 1986); Julia Kristeva, Visions Capitales: Arts et Rituels de la Décapitation (Paris: Éditions de la Martinière, 1998); Regina Janes, Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and
Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2005); Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and
Early Modern Imagination, ed. by Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, ed. by Catrien Santing, Barbara Baert
and Anita Traninger (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
5 Cf. F.-X. Dillmann, ‘Mímir’, Reallexikon für germanische Altertumskunde, 37 vols (Berlin: De
Gruyter, 1968-2008), XX (2002), pp. 38-43, n. 23.
6 Schjødt, p. 169.
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7 The reference to Mima/Mímameiðr (the vowel length is uncertain) occurs in answer to the
question, hvat þat barr heitir, / er breiðask um lönd öll limar? ‘What call they the tree, that
casts abroad its limbs o’er every land?’ Fjǫlsvinnr replies:
Mímameiðr hann heitir,
Mimameith its name, and no man knows
en þat manngi veit,
What root beneath it runs;
af hverjum rótum renn;
And few can guess what shall fell the tree,
við þat hann fellr,
For fire nor iron shall fell it.
er fæstan varir,
flær-at hann eld né járn.
v. 20; Eddukvæði, ed. Guðni Jónsson, Bellows, Henry Adams, The Poetic Edda.
2 vols (Reykjavík: Íslendingasagnaútg- (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation,
áfan, 1959), II, p. 339.
1923), p. 242.
8 ‘So we have, juxtaposed and distinct: the head of Mímr, the tree of Mimi and the well of Mímir’.
Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1956), II, p. 246.
9 Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál, ed. by A. Faulkes, 2 vols (London: Viking Society,
1998), I, p. 9. Neutralisation from þó hefir to þó ‘fr, cf. Kari Ellen Gade, The Structure of Old
Norse Dróttkvætt Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 61.
10 Edda: Skáldskaparmál (1998), p. 13.
11 Edith Marold (ed.), ‘Vǫlu-Steinn, Ǫgmundardrápa’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold
(eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3
(Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), pp. 427-28.
12 Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Háttatal, ed. by Anthony Faulkes, 2nd edn (London: Viking Society,
2007), p. 5.
13 Cf. Gade, p. 217.
14 Cf. Gade, pp. 101, 218.
15 Edda, ed. by Gustav Neckel, 4th rev. ed. by Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg: Winter, 1962), p. 11. Cf.
Haukur Þorgeirsson, ‘The Origins of Anacrusis in Fornyrðislag’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der
deutschen Sprache und Literatur, 134 (2012), pp. 25-38.
16 Dillmann (p. 41) suggests it is a matter of alternative genitive forms of Mímir, as nom. Mímr
does not occur, but as the only witnesses which transmit the name as an unabbreviated nominative singular are prose texts, which avoid the monosyllabic form anyway, this is a moot
point.
17 Cf. Maja Bäckvall, ‘Skriva fel och läsa rätt?: Eddiska dikter i Uppsalaeddan ur ett avsändaroch mottagarperspektiv’ (Dissertation, Uppsala University, 2013).
18 Edith Marold (ed.), ‘Þjóðólfr ór Hvini, Ynglingatal 2’ in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From
Mythical Times to c. 1035, ed. by Diana Whaley, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle
Ages 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), p. 10.
19 Edda: Skáldskaparmál (1998), p. 27; Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1987), p. 84.
20 All references here are to Elena Gurevich (ed.), ‘Anonymous, Þulur’ in Poetry from Treatises
on Poetics, ed. by Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), pp. 669-1000.
21 Elena Gurevich, ‘Þulur in Skáldskaparmál: an attempt at skaldic lexicology’, Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi, 107 (1992), pp. 35-52.
22 HHI, v. 14. Edda (1962), p. 132.
23 Grím, v. 50. Edda (1962), p. 67.
24 Vafþ, v. 45. Edda (1962), p. 53. There is considerable variation here: Codex Upsaliensis has í
Mímis holdi ‘in Mímir’s flesh’ and AM 748 I a 4to, í holdi Hoddmímis.
25 Cf. Elena Gurevich, ‘Zur Genealogie der þula’, Alvíssmál, 1 (1993 [1992]), pp. 65-98.
26 Edda: Skáldskaparmál (1998), p. 107; Edda (1987), p. 152.
27 Cf. Finnur Jónsson, Lexicon Poeticum Antiquae Linguae Septentrionalis / Ordbog Over Det
Norsk-Islandske Skjaldesprog, 2nd edn (Copenhagen: s.n., 1931), s.v. vinr.
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28 Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, trans. by Anthony Faulkes, 2nd edn
(London: Viking Society, 2005), p. 17
29 Edda (1987), p. 17.
30 The literature is vast, cf. George Lyman Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916); Arthur Dickson, Valentine and Orson:
A Study in Late Medieval Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), pp. 191216; Hanns Bächtold-Stäubli and Eduard Hoffmann-Krayer, Handwörterbuch des deutschen
Aberglaubens, 10 vols (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1927-42), V, cols. 201-14; A. W. Smith, ‘The Luck
in the Head: Some Further Observations’, Folklore, 74 (1963), pp. 396-98; Kevin LaGrandeur,
‘The Talking Brass Head as a Symbol of Dangerous Knowledge in Friar Bacon and in Alphonsus, King of Aragon’, English Studies, 5 (1999), pp. 408-22. The parallels between the Mímir
and the brazen head tradition are explored in Annette Lassen, Odin på kristent pergament
(Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2011), pp. 254-58.
31 Cf. Anne Ross, ‘The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion’, Proceedings of the Society
of Antiquities of Scotland, 91 (1957), pp.10-43; Anne Ross, Severed Heads in Wells: An Aspect
of the Well Cult (School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1962), Jacqueline Simpson, ‘Mímir: Two Myths or One?’, Saga-Book, 16 (1962), pp. 41-53.
32 J. F. Nagy, ‘Hierarchy, Heroes, and Heads: Indo-European Structures in Greek Myth’, in
Approaches to Greek myth, ed. by Lowell Edmunds (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990),
pp. 200-38, p. 214.
33 Cf. also the Middle Irish prose preface to the Reicne Fothaid Canainne, which tells how Fothaid Canainne’s severed head performs the much older poem; the severed head mediates oral
tradition in a textual milieu (Reicne Fothaid Canainne in Kuno Meyer, ed., Fianaigecht (Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1910), pp. 1-17). I am
grateful to Geraldine Parsons and Helen Imhoff for this reference.
34 Nagy, p. 221.
35 Edda (1962), pp. 189-97. All subsequent parenthetical references are to verse numbers in this
edition.
36 The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, rev. edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2014), p. 164. Subsequent parenthetical references to page numbers in this edition.
37 The Poetic Edda (1996), p. 169.
38 Lydia Liu, ‘Writing’, in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed by W. T. J. Mitchell and Mark B.
Hansen, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp. 310-26, p. 312.
39 Vǫlsunga saga: the saga of the Volsungs, ed. and trans. by Kaaren Grimstad (Saarbrücken: AQ,
2000), pp. 148-53.
40 Catharina Raudvere, ‘Sigrdrivas råd. Erøvring av kunskap i den norrøna eddadiktningen’,
Svensk religionshistorisk årsskrift (1998), pp. 128-46, p. 139.
41 Finnur Jónsson, ed., Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning, 4 vols (Copenhagen: Gyldendal,
1915), IB, p. 51. Translation from ‘Egil’s saga’, Bernard Scudder trans., in Complete Sagas of
Icelanders, ed. by Viðar Hreinsson et al., 5 vols (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997), I, p. 143.
Cf. also Hávamál v. 144/1-2.
42 Detter-Heinzel’s suggestion that Óðinn is the one who has decapitated Mímir is generally
deprecated, although Hávamál vv. 138-45 shows that violence is by no means unexpected in
runic origin-stories; alternatively, Óðinn’s weapons may suggest that he is in a state of high
alert comparable to that in which he consults Míms hǫfuð in Vǫluspá 46 (Kommentar zu den
Liedern der Edda, Klaus von See et al., vol. 5: Heldenlieder (Heidelberg: Winter, 2006), p. 577),
or perhaps that there is an element of coercion to Mímir’s performance.
43 Cf. Federico Albano Leoni, ‘Rúnar munt þú finna oc ráðna stafi (su Háv. 142 e altri luoghi eddici)’, Studi germanici n.s. 26 (1972), pp. 99-120.
44 E.g. Þurs rist ec þér oc þría stafi ‘“Ogre” I carve for you and three runes’, Skírnismál 36, cf.
Sólarljóð 61, blóðgar rúnir váru á brjósti þeim / merkðar meinliga ‘bloody runes were painfully
marked on their breasts’, where the runes are evidently imagined as being cut into the skin.
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45 E.g. mælta ec forna stafi ‘I’ve spoken my ancient lore’, Vafþrúðnismál 55.
46 E.g. Alvíssmál 35, Í eino briósti ec sác aldregi / fleiri forna stafi ‘In one breast I’ve never seen
/ more ancient knowledge’ [emph. K. H.].
47 Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, V, p. 527.
48 Cf. Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, V, p. 591. The same half-stanza also appears on a
runestick from Trondheim, suggesting that discourses on the hazards of writing had quite a
tradition, cf. James Knirk, ‘Runes from Trondheim and a Stanza by Egill Skallagrímsson’, in
Studien zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Heinrich Beck, ed. by H. Uecker (Berlin: De
Gruyter, 1994), pp. 411-20.
49 Heimskringla: Nóregs konunga sǫgur af Snorri Sturluson, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, 4 vols,
SUGNL, 23 (Copenhagen: Møller, 1893-1901), I, pp. 12-13. Subsequent parenthetical references to page numbers in this edition.
50 Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla. Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, trans. by
Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (Viking Society: London, 2011), pp. 7-8. Subsequent parenthetical references to page numbers in this edition.
51 Lois Bragg, Oedipus Borealis: The Aberrant Body in Old Icelandic Myth and Saga (Cranbury,
NJ: Associated University Presses, 2004), p. 66.
52 Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda. Volume 2: Mythological Poems (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997),
p. 136.
53 Adam J. Kosto, Hostages in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012),
pp. 42-43, 48.
54 For further discussion of this theme, see my ‘Hearing voices. Uncanny moments in the
Íslendingasögur’, Gripla 19 (2008), pp. 93-122.
55 Bernhard Siegert, ‘Vögel, Engel und Gesandte. Alteuropas Übertragungsmedien’, in Gespräche–Boten–Briefe. Körpergedächtnis im Mittelalter (Berlin: Schmidt, 1997), pp. 45-62, p. 48.
56 On the ideology of the king as the head of his polity, cf. John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (1159):
‘The state is a body […] Within that state, the prince occupies the place of the head’ (quoted
in Jacques Le Goff, ‘Head or heart? The political use of body metaphors in the Middle Ages’,
in Fragments for a history of the human body, ed. by M. Feher et al., 3 vols (New York: Zone,
1989), III, p. 17).
57 See Alison Finlay, ‘Risking One’s Head: Vafþrúðnismál and the Mythic Power of Poetry’, in
Myths, legends, and heroes: essays on Old Norse and Old English literature in honour of John
McKinnell, by Daniel Anlezark (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), pp. 91-108, for
a discussion of the metaphorics of severed heads and the ‘head-ransom’ in skaldic poetry.
58 Cf. Heinz Klingenberg, ‘Odin und die Seinen. Altisländischer Gelehrter Urgeschichte anderer
Teil’, Alvíssmál, 2 (1993), pp. 31-80, 45-50.
59 ‘Region of the world’ is a well-attested meaning of heimr, cf. Cleasby, Richard, Gudbrand
Vigfusson and W. A. Craigie, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon,
1957), s.v. ‘heimr’.
60 Andreas Heusler, Die gelehrte Urgeschichte im altisländischen Schrifttum, Abhandlungen der
Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-Hist. Kl. 1908, 3 (Berlin: Reimer, 1908); J.
Lindow, ‘Myth Read as History: Odin in Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga’, in Myth: a new
symposium, ed. by Gregory Schrempp and William Hansen (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2002), pp. 107-23; Lassen, Odin på kristent pergament.
61 Kimberley Patton, Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2009), p. 236.
62 Dronke, p. 119; for some other instances of ‘divine reflexivity’ in Old Norse, cf. Vǫluspá 7,
Hávamál 138-45.
63 Cf. Klaus von See, Mythos und Theologie im skandinavischen Hochmittelalter (Heidelberg:
Winter, 1988), p. 41: ‘Was die frühen Asen der Yngl. saga verehren, das sind die Götter, von
denen sie in der Gylfaginning erzählen und mit denen sie sich anschließend identifizieren.’
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64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
Von See does not note the element of reflexivity, and its paradoxical quality in the euhemeristic
context, however.
In his Die gelehrte Urgeschichte im altisländischen Schrifttum, Andreas Heusler comments on
the mode of narrative distancing in Ynglinga saga as compared to the Prose Edda: ‘Die Götter
waren zu geschichtlichen Menschen gemacht. Wie waren nun die Göttermythen zu behandeln? Für die Ynglinga saga bestand diese Frage kaum; denn hier handelte es sich nur darum,
die Götter als Reichsbegründer und als Stammväter der nachmaligen Könige vorzuführen.
[…] Die Gylfaginning dagegen sollte die bunte Masse der Mythen erzählen: wie hatte man als
Euhemerist dies zu bewerkstelligen? […] die Götter, so sagt er sich, waren zwar Menschen
[…] die Göttermythen jedoch, die waren nicht die wirklichen Taten und Leiden dieser Menschen, sie waren nur Fabeleien, die die Ankömmlinge ihrem Ausfrager Gylfi auftischten. Die
Ankömmlinge erzählen diese Dinge nicht einmal von sich in der ersten Person: sie unterscheiden die Odin, Thor usw., die Helden der Fabeleien, von sich selber.’ (pp. 89-90). As Heusler
observes, ‘ein gewisses Schwanken [ist] bei Snorri zu bemerken’, for example when Jafnhár,
Hár and Þriði tell Gylfi about the gods they themselves worship.
From Marold (ed.), ‘Þjóðólfr ór Hvini, Ynglingatal’.
Karl Müllenhoff, Deutsche Altertumskunde, 5 vols (Berlin: Weidmann, 1870-1900), IV,
pp. 105-06.
John Lindow, Handbook of Norse Mythology (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2001), p. 232.
Jan de Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 2ndedn (Leiden: Brill, 1962), s.v.
‘Mímir’; Lindow 2001, p. 232; Rudolf Simek, Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie (Stuttgart:
Kröner, 1995), p. 274. Dillmann, p. 42, rejects the link with memor, preferring Detter’s
suggestion (see below).
Dumézil, p. 228 n.101a, Clunies Ross, p. 214, Dronke, p. 137, Lassen, p. 99, Schjødt, p. 113,
Nagy, p. 217, Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, V, p. 579.
Bruce Lincoln, ‘Waters of memory, waters of forgetfulness’, Fabula, 23 (1982), 19-34, is especially sceptical, saying of the *(s)mer- etymology ‘there are serious difficulties that make ready
acceptance impossible’ (p. 27).
Ferdinand Detter, ‘Zur Ynglingasaga’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (PBB), 1894 (1894), pp. 72-105, 75 n. 1.
I am indebted to Professor Karin Stüber, Indogermanisches Seminar, University of Zurich, for
advice on these matters.
Adolfo Zavaroni, ‘Mead and Aqua Vitae: Functions of Mimir, Oethinn, Viethofnir and Svipdagr’, Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik, 61 (2006), pp. 65-86, proposes connecting Mímir with Goth. mimz ‘flesh, meat’ and so to ‘cutter’ (cf. the sword-name Mímungr),
and further to ‘craftsman’ or ‘slice’, but the sequence of argument is unclear and not altogether
convincing.
Jean Haudry, ‘Mimir, Mimingus et Visnu’, in Kontinuitäten und Brüche in der Religionsgeschichte: Festschrift für Anders Hultgård zu seinem 65. Geburtstag am 23.12. 2001, ed. by Michael Stausberg et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001), pp. 296-325.
Karin Stüber, pers. comm.
Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon, Íslensk orðsifjabók (Reykjavík: Orðabók Háskólans, 1989), s.v.
‘Mímir’.
Elena Gurevich (ed.), ‘Anonymous Þulur, Jǫtna heiti I 1’ in Poetry from Treatises on Poetics,
ed. by Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3
(Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), p. 707; cf. Lotte Motz, ‘Old Icelandic Giants and Their Names’,
Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 21 (1987), pp. 295-317, 305-06.
Cf. De Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, s.v. ‘mims’.
The best treatment of skaldic verse in these essentially structuralist terms is Bjarne Fidjestøl, ‘Kenningsystemet: Forsøk på ein lingvistik analyse’, Maal og Minne, 1974, p. 5-50. [English trans. in Bjarne Fidjestøl, Selected Papers, ed. by Odd Einar Haugen and Else Mundal
(Odense: Odense University Press, 1997), pp. 16-67].
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80 Cf. Heusler; Marlene Ciklamini, ‘Ynglinga Saga: Its Function and Its Appeal’, Mediaeval
Scandinavia, 8 (1975), pp. 86-99; Lindow, ‘Myth read as history’; Bruce Lincoln, Gods and
Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), ch. 6.
81 Cf. Jürg Glauser, ‘Unheilige Bücher. Zur Implosion mythischen Erzählens in der Prosa Edda’,
Das Mittelalter, 18 (2013), pp. 106-21.
82 Judy Quinn, ‘Liquid Knowledge. Traditional Conceptualisations of Learning in Eddic Poetry’, in Along the oral-written continuum. Types of texts, relations and their implications, ed.
by Slavica Ranković et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 183-226.
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