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  Darraðarljoð - The Battle Poem of the Valkyries

the Clontarf link

In 1814, after a visit to Orkney, Sir Walter Scott wrote of a minister in North Ronaldsay:

"Following the publication of Thomas Gray’s poem “The Fatal Sisters”, the minister thought he would introduce it to some of his older parishioners. To his surprise, after hearing the first few verses, the islanders informed him that they knew the song well “in the Norse language” – so much so that they had often sung it to him when he asked them for an old song.

In North Ronaldsay, they knew it as “The Enchantresses”.

Gray’s version was based on a poem found in the Icelandic Njal’s Saga – a poem known as Darraðarljoð, or The Lay of Dörruðr.

The traditional explanation for the poem’s name revolves around a saga character known as Dörruðr.

Njal’s Saga relates how Dörruðr, after seeing 12 people enter a bower, peered through the window and saw a group of women at work on a grisly loom – a loom made up of the entrails of men and weighted by severed heads.

But was the character of Dörruðr “tacked on” to the story in an attempt to explain the poem’s name? In a lecture in Orkney as part of the Orkney Science Festival, Dr Karen Bek-Pederson thinks it is possible.

She was of the opinion that although it is possible that a man named Dörruðr existed, the name is not found anywhere else in Icelandic literature. Instead, she suggested an alternative derivation for the title – a title incorporating an archaic term that had perhaps been lost, or misunderstood, by the time the saga was written. A term that perhaps linked the poem to Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson and his Raven Banner?

The word Darraðar has been long thought to be the genitive of the personal name Dörruðr. But the word actually appears within the poem’s original text – “vefr darraðr”. Here it has been linked to the Anglo-Saxon word “daroþ”, meaning “spear”, so the term “vefr darraðr” translated as “web of spears” and indirectly to “web of war”.

But an alternative, suggested Dr Bek-Pederson, could be “darraðr” – a “pennant” or “banner”.

So “vefr darraðr” could actually be “the web (or weaving) of the banner”, making the poem’s title “The Lay of the Banner”.

This forgotten, archaic, term could explain the folk etymology that grew around the poem, and in particular the “creation” of a man linked to the poem.

Although it remains a possibility that Dörruðr was a historical person, Dr Bek-Pedersen was of the opinion that “we must regard it as the least likely option.”

Which battle?

So, if the title is a misunderstanding, or mistranslation, could its connection to the Battle of Clontarf also be questionable?

The poem appears in Njal’s Saga in a section of prose relating to the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin, in Ireland, in 1014 – a conflict that saw Earl Sigurd, who fought alongside King Sigtrygg Silk-Beard, fall in battle while carrying his enchanted, but cursed, banner.

But the prose sections of the saga and the contents of the poem do not seem to match.

The poem, for example, relates how a young Norse king is victorious in battle over an Irish king, who perishes, before going on to predict how the Norse will rule Ireland.

But as any historian knows, at Clontarf, the Norse were soundly defeated and King Sigtrygg forced to flee. Hardly a decisive victory!

The discrepancies continue.

The prose account has king battling king, while the poem has a Norse force face an Irish king. As mentioned above, the king in the poem is killed in the encounter, which is also at odds to the prose, which has the Irish king Brian Boru victorious - although he is later slain.

So do the poem and the prose relate to the same battle? Dr Bek-Pederson thought not.

Instead, she was of the opinion that the Darraðarljoð refers to a battle fought sometime between 916 and 919AD. Also fought near Dublin, this battle involved a character called Siggtryggr (or Sitric) Caech.

Sitric’s was involved in what is described as Ireland’s “second Viking Age”.  One of the clashes in this campaign resulted in a heavy defeat for the Irish, and saw Sitric go on to take possession of Dublin – thus restoring the Viking kingdom.

During this battle, recorded as taking place at a place called Cenn Fuait, the losses inflicted on the Irish side included the king and bishop of Leinster.

So it would appear that the “glorious” Viking victory, the death of an Irish king and the dawn of a Viking era in Ireland fits perfectly with the events portrayed in Darraðarljoð. However, the poem also does mention the fall of an earl – of which there is no record in the early battle.

So, although it cannot be said with complete certainly that the poem relates to an earlier conflict – a battle fought almost 100 years before the Battle of Clontarf.  But it remains possible, and that the poem was then incorporated into Njal’s Saga because of confusion between the battles.

But if there was a mix-up with the battles, what could have inspired the author of Njal’s Saga to incorporate the Darraðarljoð in his text?

The answer is probably Earl Sigurd’s infamous Raven Banner – especially considering the poem’s subject matter of banner weaving and the gruesome work being carried out by the Valkyries.

This weaving was influencing the outcome of the battle – the Valkyries were creating a spell. As Odin’s “Choosers of the Slain” their actions were affecting the fates of the men on the battlefield.

Or were they focused on a single man?

Perhaps the object on the loom symbolised an individual? Earl Sigurd perhaps?

In the Saga of the Volsungs, the valkyrie Brynhildr is found weaving a tapestry depicting the heroic exploits of her betrothed Sigurd. After Sigurd’s deception, however, she tears the tapestry to pieces – a symbolic destruction of his life.

Regarding the Darraðarljoð, at the end of their work, Njal’s Saga explains that the Valkyries tear the weaving down and rip it apart, each woman holding on to a piece of their creation.

That which the Valkyrie creates, so can they destroy.