THOR'S BURDEN
The Trouble with Translating
minn ögur— in Hárbarðsljóð 13
by William P. Reaves © 2014
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The Trouble with Translating
In an increasingly heated exchange of words between Thor and a belligerent ferryman calling himself Harbard, Thor makes the following threat in Hárbarðsljóð 13:

Þórr kvað:


"Harm ljótan
mér þykkir í því
at vaða um váginn til þín
ok væta ögur minn;
skylda ek launa
kögursveini þínum
kanginyrði,
ef ek kæmumk yfir sundit."

This verse has been notoriously difficulty to translate, primarily because of the phrase "ok væta ögur minn", "and wet my ögur," in line 3. The word ögur is a hapax legomenon, a word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to interpret. Over the years various definitions and emendations have been suggested, and thus translators have rendered it in a number of different ways.

Most recently, two English language translators, Carolyne Larrington and Andy Orchard, have interpreted its use in this verse as a reference to Thor's genitalia:

Carolyne Larrington, Harbard's Song (1996):

13. "It seems to me that it'd be an unpleasant labor
to wade over the water to you, and wet my balls.
I'll pay you back, you babe in arms,
for your jeering words, if I get over the water."

Andy Orchard, Hárbarðsljóð (2011):

13. "It seems a dreadful pain to me,
to wade over the water to you, and wet my balls:
I'll get you back you dribbling git,
for your smarmy words, if I get over the straits."

In her revised translation of 2014, Larrington, changes Thor's words in the opening lines of Hárbarðsljóð 13 to read:

"It seems to me that it'd be an unpleasant labor
to wade over the water to you, and wet my prick.*"

She qualifes the change in word-choice from balls to prick with the note:

"what Thor declines to wet is unclear, but etymologically it seems to be something staff-shaped (and thus phallic)."

A review of the available scholarship on this verse, however, demonstrates that neither of these interpretations, balls or prick, is supported by previous international scholarship or the etymological arguments.  A concise summary of these arguments was published in the German Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda Vol. II (1997), which we will examine shortly.

On the face of it, the very notion that Thor is unwilling to confront a foe because he doesn't want to get his private parts wet is comic.  In the known myths, Thor wades across rivers on numerous occasions; getting any part of his body wet has never been a concern for him before. In Þórsdrapa, Thor crosses the Elivagar rivers on his way to Geirröd's lair, despite one of Geirröd's daughters standing astride the stream and urinating into it. In Hymiskviða, Thor's feet penetrate the bottom of the giant Hymir's boat and he stands on the ocean floor as he struggles to land the Midgard serpent which writhes at the end of his fishing line. In Skáldskaparmál, Thor carries his friend Aurvandill in a basket on his back over the freezing cold Elivagar rivers, when he returns home after his fight with Hrungnir. Furthermore, Grímnismál 29 informs us that Thor wades through no less than four rivers daily to sit in judgment by Urd's well. Thus there can be no doubt that Thor is well-accustomed to wading in deep waters. Presumably, on each of these occasions, he got his "balls" wet.  As it hasn't been a concern of Thor's before, it is highly unlikely to be a concern of his here in Hárbarðsljóð 13.

So what do the scholars say? What might ögur actually mean? One thing is certain, the word has long troubled the translators.


Ögurr: the Dictionary Definitions

The Old Icelandic dictionaries produced by Eddic scholars in the last 150 years are of limited help. Since the word ögurr only appears once, its meaning is debatable— more often than not, the purposed definitions in these dictionaries for ögurr are based on the context of the verse and applied logic. Overall, the German Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda Vol. II (1997) categorizes these proposals under three headings:
1) an object that Thor carries with him
2) a piece of clothing
3) a body part.
Faced with a difficult to define hapax legomenon, many early scholars simply chose to change or 'emend' the authentic wording of the manuscript. The authors of the Cleasby-Vigfusson Dictionary of Old Icelandic (p. 762) for example choose to emend the word ögurr to kögur, "a quilt with fringe." In the same volume, they define kögurr as:
"kögurr, m., dat. kögri, pl. kögrar:-- a quilt with fringe, a counterpane;  ...a bed-cover, hann bjó þegar rekkju ok yfir breiddi einn kagur, str. 45; ...kögur ok handklæði, Vm. 92: of dress, vaða ok væta kögur minn, Hárbarðsljóð 13: in mod. usage of fringe or fringed cloth."
In his own translation of Hárbarðsljóð 13, Gudbrand Vigfusson takes a similar approach:
"Tis a bad job to have to wade through the water to thee and wet my quiver; I should pay thee, thou quiver-boy (wee boy), for thy mockery, if I were to cross the Sound."
The same emendation was used by later scholars to derive the meaning a piece of clothing, such as a drape or mantle; supported by Harbard's condescending statement in v. 6, that Thor isn't wearing any breeches (þatki, at þú hafir brækr þínar).

In the Addenda found on p. 776, however, Cleasby-Vigfusson break away from this reading, refining their understanding of the word:
"kögurr, m., as to the reference Hárbarðsljóð 13, add, —the vellum has augur, but the emendation into kögur is received by Editors; and is made certain by kögur-sveinn in the same verse; but the sense and origin of kögurr in this place have been missed by the interpreters. It is indeed a well-known Teutonic word: Anglo-Saxon cocur, O.H.G. chochar, German kocher, Dutch koker; the Danish kogger is probably borrowed from the German as is the Icelandic koffur from Luther's Bible; once upon a time it was also a Scandinavian word, which was since displaced by the compounded örva-malr or ör-malr, q.v.; this passage being the only place where it occurs in an uncompounded form, but it remains in kögur-sveinn, a quiver-boy, who carried the hunter's quiver(?); and in kögur-barn, Norse kogge-barn."
     "Professor Frederich Bergmann has, with his usual insight in Eddic matters, divined the sense when he says, p. 123, 'über den Sund zu schwimmen und dabei seinen feurigen Donner-und blitz-keil, ... im Wasser zu netzen und abzukühlen.' ['To swim across the sound and thereby quench and cool-off his Thunder and Lightning-quiver in the water."] The fact is, Thor is here represented carrying a quiver full of thunder-bolts on his back, and so the poet makes the mighty thunder-god stop at the Sound, embarrassed, and begging to be ferried over, as he could not wade over from fear of wetting his quiver and quenching the fire, for he must 'keep his powder dry:' although in Grímnismál and Þrymskviða Thor is not much afraid of the water. Whether kögurr, a quilt, be any relation to kögurr, a quiver, we cannot tell, probably not; if so, this word should be placed under a separate head."
Emending the word, one can read into it whatever he or she wishes.  In his turn, the famous Norwegian philologist Sophus Bugge proposed the emendation dögurð, "breakfast", by cleverly adding a letter to front and back of ögur, which he too believed made perfect sense in the context of the poem, as justified by  Hárbarðsljóð 3, where Thor states that he is carrying leftovers from his breakfast in the basket on his back.

ALL EMENDATIONS ASIDE:
GOING SOLELY WITH WHAT'S IN THE MANUSCRIPT

When the word ögurr is not emended, meaning that it is taken exactly as it appears in the manuscript, only two categories of meanings have ever been proposed: an object Thor carries and a body part. Within these two categories, only three of the possible definitions proposed by scholars over the last two centuries have gained broad support. None of these however is "balls" or "prick" which makes the recent translations cited above all the more troubling!

Most telling, only two of the three proposed definitions of ögurr are widely cited: those being the definitions purposed by Hjalmer Falk (1888) and M.B. Richert (1877), which I will present in detail further down. 

Over the years, the Eddic dictionaries have defined the unique word ögurr in various ways:

Hans Kuhn in his Kurzes Wörterbuch to Die Lieder des Codex Regius (1928) lists the word
ögurr in Hárbarðsljóð 13 as "unerklärt", undefined.

Beatrice LaFarge in her Glossary to the Poetic Edda (1992), which is based on Kuhn's Kurzes Wörterbuch, defines the word
ögurr as "burden (Richert) or penis (? —Hrbl 13, see Simmons-Gering)." As they are not in Kuhn's edition, these must be LaFarge's additions. Following her lead then and turning to her source for  the secondary meaning,  penis, an uncertain hypothetical definition (as indicated by the use of the question mark), we note that Hugo Gering in his Vollständiges Wörterbuch zu den Liedern der Edda (1903) translates ögorr, as penis (membrum virile), based on Hjalmer Falk's etymological observations in Arkiv för nordisk filologi 3, 341, (see below).

Broadening the scope of the search, the latest edition of Sveinbjörn Egilsson's
Lexicon Poeticum (1932, p. 660) states that the word ögurr is "of uncertain meaning" [af usikker betydning], and offers two possible solutions, stating:
1. den rimeligste er Richerts opfattelse, = byrde (madkurven som Tor bar); 2. Falks forklaring 'membrum virile' ...er næppe rigtig, jfr følg.

ögurstund, Völ. 41: sótum við Völundr saman í holmi eina ö., af uvis betydning, den rimeligste forklaring er, at det ...betyder 'en ulvkkesstund', måske egl. 'byrde-fuld, trykkende stund' (jfr ögurr). Jfr Falk, Arkiv II 339 f.
which reads,
"1. The most reasonable is Richert's conception, = burden (the meal-basket that Thor bears); 2. Falk's explanation 'penis' ...is hardly correct, cf. the following:

"ögurstund, Völunðarkviða 41: sótum við Völundr saman í holmi eina ö., of uncertain meaning, the most reasonable explanation is that it ...signifies 'a difficult time' i.e. 'burden-filled, a trying time' (cf. ögurr). Cf. Falk, Archives II 339 f."
So while the latest redactor of Egilsson's Lexicon proposes that Falk's translation of ögurstund in Völundarkviða 41 is correct, he does not accept Falk's interpretation of Thor's ögur in Hárbarðsljóð 13. A closer look at Falk's argument regarding ögurr reveals why.

TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT 
I.
Hjalmar Falk
Old Norse Etymologies (1888) 

The citation of a small portion of Hjalmer Falk's etymological observations regarding the word ögurr in
Arkiv för nordisk filologi 3, 341, is sufficient to demonstrate that his argument is based largely on speculation concerning an unattested word-form, indicated by an asterix (*). He writes:
Det ovennævnte substantiv ögurr (el. augurr) i Hárbarðsljóð faar ved det her udviklede sin fulde belysning; det forholder sig til *arga som fjöturr til fet (opr. fod, af samme stamme som ποδ-, ped-). Dets betydning er, som ogsaa contexten synes at godtgjøre, membran virile, penis.
which reads,
"From this development, the above-mentioned noun ögurr (or augurr) in Hárbarðsljóð 13, receives its full illumination; it is related to [the unattested form] *arga as fjöturr, fetter to fet, step (orig. fod, of the same strain as ποδ-, ped-). Its meaning, as the context also makes clear is membrum virile, penis."
Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, Vol 2 (1997) confirms this in summarizing Falk's argument stating that:
"Falk (1886, 341) postuliert einen etymologischen Zusammenhang mit argr ("pervers") and ergi ("Unzucht"); er interpretiert ögurr als "(männliches) Glied"....Falk postulierte Ableitung von einum Fem. *arga *argurr (vgl fet "Schritt"> fjöturr "Fessel") > ögurr philogisch bedenklich (dies deuten Holthausen [1920, 88]).
which reads:
"Falk (1886, 341) postulated an etymological connection with argr ("perverse") and ergi ("fornication"); he interpreted as ögurr "(male) member" ...Falk postulated a derivation from (an unattested) feminine *arga *argurr (cf. fet "step"> fjöturr "fetter")> ögurr which is philogically questionable."
So, as the final editor of Egilsson's Poeticum Lexicon concludes, Falk's translation of ögurr as penis — which depends on a "philologically questionable" derivation from an unattested word form, "is hardly correct."

In 1948, Stefán Einarsson proposed a similar interpretation of the word ögurr suggesting that it was a variant of the word ögur (ögr), which Cleasby-Vigfusson defines as "an inlet, a small bay or creek ... 2. a local name in western Iceland."

Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, Vol. II (1997) summarizes this argument in the following fashion:
Stefán Einarsson (1948, 144) dagegen schlägt die interpretation "spalte (zwischen den Beinen)" vor. Er stützt sich einerseits auf die nisl. Redewendung vaða upp í klof "bis zu den hüften ins wasser gehen" (vgl. Blöndal, s.v. klof) andererseits auf die bezeichnung der 'bein-Gabelung" als skarð ("Scharte, Spalte") in Ölkofra þáttr k. 4: skarðit, sem er í milli þjóa þér "die Kluft, die zwischen deinen Oberschenkeln ist" (IF 11, 94) Da skarð auch eine topographische Bezeichnung ("Einschnitt in einem Bergrücken, Gebirgspass") ist, sieht Stéfan Einarsson in ögurr (Hrbl 13) dasselbe Wort wie ögur (Ntr.) "enge Bucht oder Sund zwischen Klippen", das auch als Ortsname belegt ist ...Der Unterscheid zwischen dem Mask. ögurr und dem Ntr ögur is für ihn unproblematisch, da es andrere Wörter gibt, die in zwei Varianten mit unterschiedlichem grammatischen Geschlecht belegt sind.
which reads,
"Stéfan Einarsson (1948, 144) on the other hand, suggests the interpretation "gap (between the legs)". This is based partly on the modern Icelandic phrase "go up to the hips in the water" vaða upp í klof, lit. 'wade in up to the cleft' (See Blöndal, s.v. klof) on the other hand, the designation of "fork in the legs"as skarð ("notch, gap") in Ölkofra þáttr ch. 4 skarðit, sem er í milli þjóa þér "the gap that is between your thighs" (IF 11, 94) Since skarð is also a topographical name ("notch in a ridge, mountain pass"), Stéfan Einarsson sees ögurr (Hrbl 13) as the same word as ögr (neuter) "narrow bay or sound between cliffs", which also occurs as a place name ... the difference between the masculine ögurr and the neuter ögr is unproblematic for him, because there are other words which occur in two variants with different grammatical gender."

By this argument, Stefán Einarsson suggests that Thor refuses to wade across the river to Harbard so as not to "wet the cleft between [his] legs". When evaluating this theory, it's important to note that the word ögr (ögur), which means "inlet, a small bay" in Old Icelandic is never attested anywhere in this sense. Rather Einarsson attempts to derive the meaning "cleft between the legs" from ögr through a comparison with a modern idiomatic use of a different word with a similar meaning!

While it's entirely possible that Larrington and Orchard derived the sense "balls" from either this argument or Falk's, neither Einarsson nor Falk draw that conclusion. As shown above, Falk argues that ögurr refers to Thor's male member, while Einarsson's theory merely concludes that ögur might mean the "cleft" between Thor's legs. Besides the improbable and unnecessarily complex linguistic arguments, both theories provide an unlikely solution. Thor who, according to Grímnismál 29, goes wading "every day" (hvern dag) doesn't seem to have an issue with getting his private parts wet. It has never been a concern of his before or since. Therefore, this much is clear, based on the available evidence, the word ögurr does not refer to Thor's 'nether regions'.

Thus, we have eliminated two of the three possibilities. With a high degree of probability, the word ögurr does not refer to a piece of Thor's clothing or one of his body parts. That leaves us with one option. Fortunately for Harbard, on this occasion, Thor appears to be carrying something he would rather not get wet. With this in mind, lets examine the most viable solution, M.B. Richert's interpretation of ögurr, which the Lexicon Poeticum calls "most reasonable" and which LaFarge's Glossary to the Poetic Edda thus endorses without reservation.

In light of this, Carolyne Larrington's recent comment that the word ögurr in Harbarðsljoð 13 while of unclear meaning, "etymologically", "seems to be something staff-shaped (and thus phallic)" is puzzling.  The etymological arguments that resulted in the meanings penis or crotch in general were actually based on an otherwise unattested relationship to the words argr ("perverse") and ergi ("fornication"), or in a more round about way, with ögr (ögur), meaning inlet, narrow bay, or cleft, ergo the cleft between one's legs, i.e. crotch. Staff-shaped and phallic did not enter the historical argument.
II.
M.B. Richert

'Attempt to Illuminate the Dark and Obscure
Passages in the Poetic Edda'
(1877)

In an article titled "Försök till belysning afmörkare och oförstådda ställeni den poetiska eddan" published in Uppsalas Universitets Ársskrift 1877, Mårtin Berger Richert makes the following argument concerning the phrase ok væta ögur minn found in Harbarðsljoð 13, 3:
För de från olika håll framstälda förslagen till ändring af det oförstådda ordet ögur redogör Holtzmann S. 232. Bugges skarpsinniga gissning dögurð (upptagen af Grundtvig) är utan all jämförelse den mest beaktansvärda. Stället synes oss dock kunna godt förklaras utan ändring af handskriftens ögur. Enligt Bugge är detta ord “ellers ukjend”, men, så vidt vi kunna förstå, förekommer det på ännu ett annat ställe i eddan nämligen Völ.kv. 41 i sammansättningen ögurstund. Den germ. ordroten ag = indoeurop. agh, gr. άχ (eller med nasalljud άγχ, motsvarad af den germ. formen ang), har till hufvudbetydelse klämma, prässa, trycka. Däraf i skilda indoeuropeiska språk en mängd ordbildningar, som utmärka tryck, börda dels i yttre, fysisk mening, dels ock i inre, andlig (=beklämning, ängslan, fruktan). Enligt vår mening är ögur i sammansättningen ögurstund att fatta i den senare betydelsen, under det att den mera ursprungliga fysiska bemärkelsen tyngd, börda tillkommer ordet i Hårbardsljóð ögur minn utmärker således min börda, hvad jag har att bära på, ett uttryck som finner sin förklaring af v. 3.

which reads,

"Holtzmann p. 232 describes the proposals put forth from different directions for the emendation of the misunderstood word ögur. Bugge’s astute guess dögurð (adopted by Grundtvig) is without comparison the most noteworthy. The passage seems to me, however, to be explainable without emending the ögur of the manuscript. According to Bugge the word is "otherwise unknown" but, as far as I know, it appears in another place in the Edda, namely Völundarkviða 41 as part of the compound ögurstund. The German word root ag = indoeurop. agh, gr. άχ (or with nasal sound άγχ, parallel with the German ang, shape), has as its primary meaning “clamp, press, put pressure on”. Thus in various Indo-European languages we find a variety of word formations, which denote pressure, burden —partially in an outer, physical sense, but also in an inner, spiritual sense (= oppression, anxiety, fear). In my opinion ögur in ögurstund can be taken in the latter (inner, spiritual) sense, while the more original physical sense of weight, burden explains the word in Harbardsljod: ögur minn therefore denotes my burden, what I carry, an expression that finds its explanation in v. 3:

-----
meis hef ek á baki,
verðr-a matr in betri;

etc.
-----
I have a basket on my back
No food could be better
etc."
Richert's theory has the advantage of being the simplest. Moreover, it agrees with the etymological history of the word, and naturally explains its only other known usage as part of the compound word ögurstund in Völundarkvida 41. Thus, in agreement with Egilsson's Poeticum Lexicon (1932), I must conclude:

The most reasonable explanation of the phrase minn ögur is Richert's. The phrase found in Hárbarðsljóð 13 most likely refers to Thor's burden, i.e the meal-basket that he carries on his back, as stated in v. 3.


The Burden Lifted

In light of the foregoing scholarly arguments, the best translation of Hárbarðsljóð 13 appears to be the one suggested by M.B. Richert's astute analysis:
Þórr kvað:

"Harm ljótan
mér þykkir í því
at vaða um váginn til þín
ok væta ögur minn;
skylda ek launa
kögursveini þínum
kanginyrði,
ef ek kæmumk yfir sundit."
Thor said:

"Sore grief
it seems to me
to wade over the waves to you
and wet my burden;
I'll duly reward,
swaddled boy, your
wounding words
if I come over the sound."

by William P. Reaves
for Carla O'Harris on her Birthday
      

For additional insight on Thor's wading, see
Ásmegin: Thor's Might
and the Belt of Strength
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