Skírnismál has burlesque elements, Saxo's
account of the retrieval of Gerd in Book Five of his
Gesta Danorum is pure situation
comedy and slapstick. It is not only funny, but zany. Moreover,
it shows signs that it was originally a stage play. Scholars
was acted, because of speaking parts in the manuscript indicated
next to various strophes, but Saxo's account also shows every
sign of being acted out on a stage. Saxo tells us in Book Six
that there was a stage at Uppsala where the Sons of Frey would
enact "effeminate gestures" or dances, and the "mimes" would
clap with bells and so forth at the time of the sacrifices.
Besides conjuring up imagery of Morris Men, there is every
reason to think that the Myth of Frey would be enacted in
various forms, and that which led to his wedding, his being a
God of Nuptials and Fertility, would be foremost.
filiis Frø septennio feriatus ..., quod apud Upsalam
sacrificiorum tempore constitutus effeminatos corporum
motus scaenicosque mimorum plausus ac mollia nolarum
crepitacula fastidiret. Unde patet, quam remotum a
lascivia animum habuerit, qui ne eius quidem spectator
time he took holiday amongst the sons of Frey for seven
years ... when he was stationed at Uppsala around the
time of the sacrifices, he disdained the effeminate
movements of the body on stage [or, "of the actors":
scaenicos can mean "of the theatre", "of the
stage", or just "actors"] and the mimes clapping and the
soft, effeminate rattles and bells. Hence it is clear,
how far removed from lasciviousness his spirit was, who
could not even stand to be a spectator of it."
The whole passage is important, because it sets the tone
of what was being shown on stage. It may be, as in Shakespeare's
day, that women's parts might have been played by men, and it is
traditional in such cases for women's parts to be
overexaggerated by the male actors in "swishy" kinds of ways.
Traditional festival mumming closely associated with Frey
included a stock drag-queen character as well, so this would not
be beyond the stage-activities that might have been found here.
Starkad definitely found the shows to be lascivious, which means
they must have been quite ribald -- appropriate not only for
comedy, but for a fertility god.
"Mimes" doesn't just mean pantomimers -- it also has a
connotation in Latin of an actor specifically performing in a
comedy. There must have been dancing and quite a lot of
pageantry indicated by the bells and rattles -- which could even
suggest a shamanic component.
"Rattle" found in the Oseberg Ship
grave circa 834 AD in Vestfold, Norway.
What it establishes is that theater, on a stage, with actors
geared towards comedy pieces dealing with "nuptial" matters, and
possibly with cross-dressing actors, were a part of Frey's rites
during the time of sacrifices at the temple in Uppsala.
The main comic action in Saxo's telling of Gerd's retrieval
centers around a partition in the wedding hall through which
Freya slips back and forth to fool Gymir. This partition-comedy
is what clues us into this as a stage play. It would be very
simple for a simple curtain to be drawn on stage, through which
the actor or actress playing Freya would move back and forth, as
the actor playing Gymir, perhaps in a large hairy costume or
even with some paper machie, would run back and forth between,
as he was confused that Freya and her "sister" looked identical.
Saxo's telling is all situation comedy, almost "Three Stooges".
The essence is this: Gymir (Gotar) hears that Odr has become
betrothed to Freya, but Gymir wants Freya. (There's a constant
theme of the Giants wanting Freya.) Gymir is willing to give his
daughter, Alfhild (Gerd), to Odr in exchange for Freya.
Right off the top, we begin with wife-swapping.
So the original composer of the lay, which Saxo may have seen
enacted on a stage, and drew on for this part of his History,
decided to play the shtick of the wife-swapping to the maximum
by literally having the bride swap back and forth across a
Odr decides to "agree" to this arrangement as a way of getting
Gerd/Alfhild away from Gymir. He plays a gambit -- Saxo has him
call it a "trick", and he's clearly having fun with it, because
at first, Freya (Gunwar) cries, because she thinks he's trying
to get rid of her -- and Odr plays her for a moment just to test
her loyalty then gives in and tells her the joke, reassuring her
that only death can separate them. Once she gets the comedy of
it, she plays it to the hilt. Odr includes the services of the
newlyweds Sif (Kraka) and Thor (Brac). (Of the latter
identification, we can be sure, because if Kraka is Sif, and she
is, Saxo lets us know she remarried after her first husband's
death to Brac -- who must therefore be Thor.) Thor is to wait
nearby with a band of champions for a signal from Ullr (Roller),
and then burst in and take down the giants in Gymir's hall.
Sif, on the other hand, is completely veiled, and claims to be
the sister of Freya. One can immediately see the similarities
with Þrymskviða. This is yet another "fooling of brides" at a
Giant's home that will be broken apart in the end by violence --
again, on Thor's part. Just as Thor was once veiled up, so will
his wife Sif be. And just as the Gods clearly had fun in
Þrymskviða, which just springs with jolliness from its telling,
so they do here. One of the joys of outwitting the giants is
that despite the fact that they can at times be clever,
ultimately, they're not too terribly bright, and the Gods get
great humor out of tricking them. The fact that there is so much
comedy in the Gods' approach to the giants is also an indication
to the audience the degree of their power -- they have that
level of confidence.
On another level, however, the gambit is quite risky. Odr,
Freya, and Sif are going deep into the underworld -- to an area
near the Bottom of the Ocean where Aegir's Hall is, and where
Ran collects drowned soldiers she or her evil sea-spirits have
been able to collect. They are headed, in other words, into the
Enemy's Lair. It has not been so long since Freya has been in
the hands of giants, and here she is going right back in --
albeit to a different giant's lair. Sure, this time, Thor's men
are standing by nearby at a safe location, but it's still a
risk. Yet Saxo's telling treats it like a jolly
Þrymskviða-style lay, another indication this was a festival
skit or stage comedy at the Uppsala holiday sacrifices.
We have reason to believe that Odr took no chances, however, and
that Njord was also standing by very closely, even though this
is not explicitly indicated. We will look at this shortly.
Odr agrees to Gymir's wife-swapping offer, but insists that the
wedding festivities take place simultaneously. All they need do
is have a partition in the hall, and each party can celebrate on
either side. While Gymir celebrates his nuptial-feast with
Freya, Odr will celebrate with Alfhild-Gerd.
The shtick, of course, is, that Gymir leaves Freya's
side to go over and see how his daughter is enjoying the feast
with Odr. Freya has slipped through the partition and sits next
to Odr. Gymir asks why Freya is sitting there, and how she got
there, when she was just on the other side. The farcical nature
of this comes out immediately. Audiences were already laughing.
Freya claims she is Sif -- her sister. Gymir exclaims that she
looks exactly like Freya, and she responds, why yes, people have
always thought so. Gymir is suspicious, however, so he runs
around the partition again, and as he does so, Freya slips
through again to her original seating, there smiling innocently.
The argument for this as a stage play is that this sort of
action, while it could be narrated in a poem, would not receive
its full comedic effect unless actually acted out.
Of course, Gymir is not satisfied. He's still scratching his
head, puzzling this out, and has to go see Freya's sister again.
He goes back and forth several times, and each time Freya slips
through, claiming to be Sif, with Odr and Alfhild-Gerd (who
obviously has been included in on the plan) looking nonplussed.
As these antics go on, Gymir is drinking more and more. Of
course, we know from Hymiskvida that Aegir's Hall has been
renowned as a drinking hall since the beginning of time. And as
Gymir (Aegir) drinks, the more drunk he gets, and the more
Finally, he suggests they all go to bed, each groom with his
wife. But he is so sloshed he doesn't at first notice Freya is
missing. Freya has gone, of course, to sleep with Odr. Sif is
hiding to provide cover if need be, and Gerd has been shuffled
off, probably with Ullr, who waits near the ships. When Gymir
notices Freya is missing from his bed, he orders his guards to
check Odr's room, and if she's with him, to slay them both
instantly. Here is where the action-adventure part of the story
enters in and the comedy, while still present, takes a back
seat. The guards burst in to find Freya and Odr together, sneak
up, and are about to bring down the blades of their swords when
Odr opens his eyes and calls out to Sif, who throws him his
shield. He parries their blows with his shield, grabs his sword
(the gambanteinn?), and hacks off the legs of one of them.
Meanwhile, Freya leaps up and hurls a spear, taking down the
Freya, Odr, and Sif, make their way towards where Ullr guards
the ship, and get on board with Gerd, Ullr first blowing the
horn. When Gymir hears that horn, fearing attack, he takes some
choice guards and heads towards his own ships, presumably in a
different location. At the sound of the signal, Thor and his men
burst into the hall, take down a great deal of Gymir's host, and
pillage the place, bringing many treasures to Odr's ship, and
they set sail.
By this time, Gymir has figured out that treachery has taken
place, and that Odr has fled, not only with Freya, but with his
own daughter, and so he sets out with his ship in pursuit.
This is where we must suspect the influence of Njord, for Saxo
tells us that "the weather began to be bad" and "provision
failed". Njord rules the sea, including its weather, as well as
abundance. It makes sense that he would be standing by in case
his vassal (the Ocean) proved rebellious. And Odin might have
been involved as well, because it says that Gymir and his men
began to starve on the ship in a harbor called Omi, which is a
name of Odin. That name, of course, also means a kind of howling
or noise, so it could simply refer to the sounds of the bad
weather Njord conjured up to take them off course, or it could
refer to the crying and roaring of the starving giants, or both.
The starvation set the giants against each other, and they
slaughtered themselves, Gymir getting away with a few servants
and escaping to nearby cliffs.
Meanwhile, Odr's ship sailed safely with Freya, Sif, Thor, Ullr,
and Gerd, along with whatever reinforcements they had brought,
and a great deal of booty and treasure, back home, where Frey's
wedding with Gerd was celebrated.
So, in Saxo's telling, we have:
1. A situation comedy.
2. A brawl and a plundering.
3. A naval chase scene, ending in a storm.
Shakespeare would have had a field day with this
plot. It is surprising that to this day, this extraordinarily
humorous and adventuresome plot not only remains unstaged or
treated in any way in the drama, but remains virtually without
comment by scholars.
It should be noted that, in accordance with Skírnismál
highlighting Gerd's aelfscine, she is called here "Alfhild".
"Elf" is right in her name. Moreover, she receives the "-hild"
suffix that I have consistently traced to those in Sol or
Sunna's lineage, indicating she was a dis of light. Whatever her
giant heritage, she definitely has other heritage running in her
veins as well.
What remains to be determined is whether this story is a variant
of Skírnismál, or its sequel.
We know, from Saxo's own tellings, that betrothals could precede
weddings, as Freya and Odr have a betrothal prior to their own
joining. This would suggest that the meeting in the Grove of
Barri that Odr arranged subsequent to his first visit to Gymir's
place was a betrothal ceremony. It would still remain, then, to
pick up the bride.
But apparently the father did not give permission. Instead, he
wanted an alliance with Odr by taking his wife and giving him
Saxo gives a very abbreviated account, just prior to this story,
of what we see at the beginning of Skírnismál. Saxo simply says,
"The king...added that... the daughter of Gotar had taken to his
liking. He must, therefore, have a fresh embassy, and the
business could best be done by Erik, for whose efforts nothing
seemed too hard. ... Erik approved his plans, and promised his
help to carry out his bidding." Subsequent to this, Erik
celebrates his wedding with Freya. It is after this that Erik
learns of Gotar-Gymir's wife-swapping proposal.
It's possible Saxo did not know Skírnismál, or, that it was so
traditional that the brief summary above was sufficient.
Skírnismál is necessary to account for those details, because
Frodi is still in "Denmark", and Alfhild-Gerd in "Norway", and
Frodi has taken no trip there. Thus, we are left lacking how
Alfhild "had taken to his liking". Only the narrative of
Skírnismál explains this, through the device of Hlidskialf.
Given this, we must argue the strong probability of Saxo's story
constituting a sequel to Skírnismál, although the seams between
these two accounts, how they interact, and how to bring the
details into concord, remains to be investigated.
It may be worthwhile summarizing here some points that have been
made about comedy by world-class literature critics. The
renowned Northrop Frye, in his “Comic Myth in Shakespeare”,
defines the basic formula of comedy as boy meets girl, saying,
“The obstacles to this constitute the action of the comedy, and
the overcoming of them the comic resolution. The obstacles are
usually parental, and comedy often turns on a clash between a
son’s and a father’s will.” When we consider the beginning of
Skírnismál, particularly as framed in Snorri’s telling, where
Frey’s “mighty arrogance” to usurp Odin’s all-seeing high-seat
is emphasized, we can see how this clash between the needs of
youth and the rules of the older generation play out in this
two-part comedy. This doesn’t have to be a literal father
relationship, but must approximate it in some way. “The opponent
to the hero’s wishes, when not the father, is generally someone
who partakes of the father’s closer relation to established
society.” Frye points out that in this struggle, the result is
“the triumph of youth”. “The action of comedy, therefore,
consists normally in a clash of wills having for its aim the
control of the comic society represented in the cast of
characters. At first the characters who are thwarting the hero’s
triumph are in possession of social authority… When the
obstacles are surmounted and the blocking characters reconciled
or forced to submit, a new society is born on the stage. Its
appearance is usually symbolized by some kind of party: a
wedding, a banquet, … or a dance.” (In Herbert Weil, Jr., ed.,
Discussions of Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedy, D.C. Heath and
Company, Boston, 1966.) What Frye does not make explicit here,
yet which other critics have made clear, and which Frye takes as
background, is that all of this is congruent with comedy as the
genre of Spring, a time of mating and fresh youth, in which the
quintessential traditional Battle Between Winter And Spring (or
Summer, though Spring is simply Summer as a youth) triumphs for
Spring. The “boy meets girl” enacts the mating theme, and the
struggle with an older, forbidding figure enacts the battle with
In Skírnismál, there are two implied social forces
thwarting Frey’s desires. The first, is as we said, Odin, who
while not Frey’s immediate father, functions as “All Father”.
The second is the feuding social structure of the Gods and the
Giants, which here functions as the original Montagues and
Capulets, across whose feuding boundaries, love is forbidden. In
Saxo’s play, the forbidding figure is a father, too, but this
time, it is Gerd-Alfhild’s father, Gymir-Gotar (Aegir) who will
not permit the bride and betrothed to marry, but tries to
control who she shall marry, according to his will and his
desire for social alliances. He literally is a double-thwarter,
as he tries to separate two couples, Frey and Gerd, and Freya
and Odr. But of course, if he intends to double-thwart, he will,
in turn, be comically double-thwarted, as his intended marriages
are turned into mock-weddings, mock-weddings that in all their
hilarity will only facilitate and accelerate the intended
wedding of Frey and Gerd.
Some comments by Helen Gardner in her assessment of
“As You Like It” (Herbert Weil, Jr., op cit) are relevant here.
She underlines aspects of comedy I have themed as Spring motifs.
“The great symbol of pure comedy is marriage by which the world
is renewed, and its endings are always instinct with a sense of
fresh beginnings. Its rhythm is the rhythm of the life of
mankind, which goes on and renews itself as the life of nature
does.” In this light, it is obvious why youth must triumph in
comedy, for the life of the species must go on, and thwarters
cannot be allowed to ultimately block this. But it is her
comments that follow that particularly shed light on some of the
antics in Saxo’s piece. “Comic plots are made up of changes,
chances and surprises. Coincidences…heighten comic feeling. It
is absurd to complain in poetic comedy of improbable encounters
and characters arriving pat on their cue…” When we think of all
the improbable complications in Saxo’s plot – Freya shifting
back and forth from one side of the room (or stage, as I’ve
argued) to another, and Freya and Odr getting to sleep together
after the banquet despite its riskiness, or the
just-in-the-nick-of-time arrival of the cavalry when Thor bursts
in, and so forth, her comments make a tremendous amount of
sense. And she contrasts the comedic affirmation of the life of
the species to the tragic mourning of “the rhythm of the
individual life which comes to a close, and its great symbol is
death.” This helps us place our comedy.
The weddings of Freya and Odr, Skadi and Njord, Sif and Thor,
Hanunda and Ullr, and Idunn and Bragi, are grand finales of
Spring in a literal mythic battle against Winter which is the
epic arc of the “Frost War”. Idunn and Freya return, and Spring
takes its course. It is a triumph of triumphs – but shortly
thereafter, there is a tragic interlude that arrays dark clouds
around this comedy and makes it more somber. When Skadi arrives
in Asgard and ends up betrothing Njord, Baldur is still amongst
the Gods, as her initial desire is for him. But by the time
Skirnir makes his descent to woo Gerd for Frey in Skírnismál,
Draupnir has already been burnt on Baldur’s pyre and been
brought back to the Gods by Hermodr (Svipdag-Odr-Skirnir). Thus,
the tragic “close” “of the individual life”, with “its great
symbol [of] death”, has played out in the Death of Baldr, in the
most sobering and terrible of ways. It is time for a comedy
again. Wise dramatists intersperse tragedies and comedies, and
our ancestors were no different. Frey is the perfect
protagonist, because he was left out of the previous
wedding-cycle, and has been further saddened by the death of his
kinsman Baldr, and needs something – as we all, the audience, do
– to lighten the mood and give a sense that life as a whole can
recover after its tragic dénouement on the individual level. We
can argue here that Skírnismál and Saxo’s telling constitute a
double-punch of comic infusion, doubly necessary to offset the
elegiac mood of Baldr’s tragedy.
If we consider Frey’s Bride-Winning as a two-act
play, perhaps each act enacted on different days if not the same
day, Skírnismál would constitute Act I, while Saxo's telling
would constitute Act II. Together, they both have adventure,
comedy, and burlesque, and perhaps there would have been an
interlude between the two acts celebrating the betrothal at
Barri, perhaps even with handfasting rituals of assembled
couples, or some sort of Morris Men dance that had suggestive
movements -- the kind that offended Starkad. With the details we
have, a very lovely and quite funny romantic comedy could be
constructed, one that could bear close resemblances to a
performance that Saxo may very well have either witnessed, in
skit form, or heard of from some elder who had seen it with his
own eyes. And the alternation of tragedy and comedy we have
explored above – which we traditionally associate with the masks
of Melpomene and Thalia, the stock faces of the comic grin and
the tragic grimace which have become the traditional symbol of
the theatre – fits well with the structure of sacrifice which
Saxo frames around the comic mimings on the stage of Uppsala.
Adam of Bremen has emphasized the “tragic” aspects of these
sacrifices, where every nine years, there were great slaughters
of animals, followed, of course, by feasts. In this first tragic
act, an animal is killed, and here we may see how the animal
could stand in for the death, say, of Baldur. This may even have
been accompanied by skits or rituals mourning the death. But
once this mourning aspect of the slaughter is accomplished, the
feast follows, and comedy is appropriate to the feast. Here is
where Saxo’s emphasis on the cavorting mimes and dancers comes
in. Here is where the marvelous Two-Act play of Frey’s
Bride-Winning seasons the feast and sparkles the mead with that
joyous, and even rollicking, element of festive mirth.