Composed at some point in the thirteenth century, Sólarljóð (‘The Song of the Sun’) fuses various genres of medieval literature, encompassing wisdom, exempla and visionary Christian verse. Starting with a series of moralistic stories rooted in the lived experience of medieval Icelanders, Sólarljóð eventually gives way to arresting, mystical images: apocalyptic visions of the sun cast as a fearsome deity, followed by Dantean descriptions of hell’s torments, before finally giving way to the promise of redemption in heaven. The poem is, at its heart, a warning to the living on earth, the sun acting as a familiar harbinger of both terror and revelation. And despite its zooming cosmic scope, it has a firm sense of place: from intimate vignettes of the sins of ordinary people to elemental images of the afterlife laced with ice and fire, earth and water, light and darkness. In Sólarljóð, the landscape sinners visit in death is a grim parody of the one they knew in life, a warning that bad stewardship of the soul is as much about bad stewardship of the natural order. Familiar landscape becomes the one constant that tethers the terrestial and heavenly realms.
My translation is in free verse, though I pay special attention to aural soundscape. Given that Old Norse poetry relied especially on alliteration, this is something that I aim to represent here in a looser fashion, and I am happy to use assonance, consonance and rhyme where strict adherence to alliteration might end up sounding clumsy. For the more prosaic wisdom verses that begins the poem, I have opted for plain poetic prose that maintains an alliterative texture, with each sentence roughly translating a single stanza of the original. My aim here is also to call to mind the prose of the Icelandic sagas, particularly given how this section of the poem seems to me to draw on that narrative tradition. For the visionary sections I switch to a stanzaic form, sticking (very) loosely to the four stressed syllables per line that characterise most Germanic alliterating verses.
There are very few modern English translations of this poem in general, which is one reason why I think it has been mostly overlooked in Anglophone scholarship. I hope this gives the poem at least a small lease of life with my limited audience. I’m particularly indebted to Carolyne Larrington and Peter Robinson’s excellent edition and translation for the Skaldic Poetry Project. The text presented here is from Guðni Jónsson’s edition, however, and I follow him in ignoring the final, slightly jarring stanza.
The grasping man got himself life and land from the children of men, none would cross his guarded path. He often ate alone, unsmiling, invited no-one along for grub, until a stranger walked in from the road. The weary traveller wanted a stiff drink, made out he was starved, and the host’s heart shook with fear. He gave the tired one food and drink with true intent, he heeded God, but he knew this man was monstrous. The guest got up with evil in mind, the host’s kindness knocked back: his sin was swollen, murdering the suspicious man in his slumber. He asked God in heaven to help him when he awoke butchered in his bed, and that visitor took on all his sins, he who’d betrayed his trust. Holy angels came down from the heavens and fetched up the host’s soul to live forever in purity with all-powerful God.
No man controls his own condition, his own wealth and well-being—even as his fortune improves, ill-chance comes along unexpected. No-one sets fate for themselves. Unnarr and Sævaldi thought their luck would not stumble, becoming naked and destitute whereever they went, running like wolves in the woods.
Desire’s tight hold troubles many: though almighty God made them pure, much misery comes from women, they’re harmful for fragile men. Sváfaðr and Skartheðinn were sound friends, neither would be without the other, until they clashed over a lonely girl—she brought shame to them both. They gave no heed to anything but that bright lady’s body, not gaming nor glorious summer days. Dark nights became more dismal, they didn’t sleep a single sweet hour, and feud ran rampant between those two tightest of friends. Uncommon events are cruelly recompensed: they duelled over that wise woman and ended up dead.
None should dwell upon their pride: I’ve watched with my own two eyes and seen those who hold it in their hearts turn their backs on God above. Ráðný and Véboði became strong, they sought only to do good things, now they sit and twist their wounds before the fire, first one, then the other. They believed only in themselves, thought they alone lorded over people, but God saw their lot differently. They got their kicks in many ways, had gold for past-times and pleasure, now they have just desserts as they walk between fire and frost.
Don’t ever trust your enemies, even if they offer up fine words—take their scorn as warning instead. So it was for Sörli the unworldly when he placed his plea in Vígolfr’s hands, he trusted his own brother’s butcher, but that man bluffed the whole time. He wanted peace with pure intent, and they promised gold in return; they made out they were mates, drank together, but deceit was on the table. Sure enough the next day after riding hard through the Ogresses’ Dale, they maimed that blameless man, did for him with edged blades. They lugged his corpse along a quiet path, hacked him up and heaved him into a well; they were desperate to hide it, but the Lord looked on from heaven. The true God called up the man’s soul, had it go gladly into his keeping, but I suspect his fiendish foes will be summoned late from their torment.
Ask the lord’s angelic handmaids to keep you close in their thoughts, and when a week passes by, things will go as you want. The deeds you do with a rageful heart won’t be repaid with yet more wrath, you must comfort the grieving with good, it’s said that’s the best salve for the soul. You must pray to God for great things, he who made each human alive, each of us dies who doesn’t find the Father above for themselves. It seems right to ask carefully when you want for something: all goes awry if you ask for nothing, none look out for the tight-lipped.
I was called early to the gates of the God of judgement—I want to go there, it was promised to me—those who ask taste paradise. The weight of sin makes our journey from this world heavy, none are afraid unless they trespass, it is good to travel untarnished. Those with a wayward heart seem like wolves on the heath, it goes that way for one who must tread on the blazing-hot tracks of exile.
I’ll teach seven lessons in total, friendly and woven with wisdom, don’t forget them, keep them close, all will be helpful to learn. I’ll tell you how happy I was in this world full of wonders, but also that other thing—how mankind turns to corpses. Desire and longing lay in wait for those eager for wealth, bright silver becomes dull in the end, treasure has tricked many a man. I seemed happy in my heyday, because I knew little of the life to come; the Lord made a world filled with falsity, a world filled with indulgence.
I sat crouched for a long time, I was very keen to live on, but he who was king won out and the fated man’s roads faded away. Hell’s shackles encircled me, coiled cruelly about my chest, I wanted break them, but they held fast—how easy it is to move unbound. I alone felt how agonies enfolded my entire being, every evening the maidens of hell shook the foundations of this world.
I saw the sun, true star of day, drop down to the dinning earth, elsewhere I heard the gates of hell, groaning, heavy. I saw the sun scored with bloody signs as I was waning in this world fiercer she seemed in many ways than she had before. I saw the sun and it seemed to me that I gazed on an awful god; I bowed to her, one final offering in this mortal world. I saw the sun and she flared so bright that I forgot myself, but the sea’s streams bellowed below, greatly thickened with gore. I saw the sun with trembling eyes and my spirit was conquered with fear, my heart was torn to pieces, completely split asunder I saw the sun, I was seldom sadder, as I felt myself falling from this world, it was like my tongue had turned to wood, and all about was engulfed with ice. I never saw the sun again after that sorrowful day, the waters swirled shut before me, and I went shivering from torments. A star of hope flew from my breast, (I was born then) she flew high to the farthest reaches and stayed there so she could rest.
It was on that one long night when I lay aching on the straw, that showed how God has spoken, how humankind is no different to the earth under our feet. May our most cherished God, he who made heaven and earth, know that many go without love, leaving their kin behind. Each of us benefits from upright actions, blessed is the one who does good deeds; a bed heaped up with soil and worms was meant for me, far from worldly wealth. Lusts of the flesh entrap men, many get lost to their pull, washing my sin away with holy waters was most hateful to me.
I sat on the norns’ seat for nine days, then I was hauled up onto a horse’s saddle, the suns of the ogresses shine out through that sullen cloud-cover. It seemed to me I was sent in and out of the seven victory-worlds, I looked about, both high and low, for where the way might be better. I’ll tell you what I saw there first, when I came to the planes of torment: birds with scorched feathers flew about like locusts, damned souls of the lost. From the west I saw greedy dragons gliding to a stop on Glævaldr’s road, they shook their wings so that the earth and sky seemed to shatter. I saw the hart of the sun hurtle up from the south, the two others had bridled him, his hooves stood rooted to the ground, his horns reached up into the heavens. I saw the sons of the waning moon, seven together, ride out from the north, they gulped down the fresh mead at Baugreyrir’s well from flowing horns. The wind died down, the water stilled, but then I heard a dreadful sound: faithless women pounded earth into food for their husbands. Those dreary women dragged along gore-stained stones, downcast, wearied to the bone from breathless grief, bloody hearts hung before their chests. I saw many injured men traipse down fearsomely hot paths, their faces seemed to be smeared with the lifeblood of a monstrous woman. I saw men swallowed into the earth, men who lacked the holy sacrament, heathen stars crowned their heads, scratched with gruesome signs. I saw men who had taken glee in encouraging envy of others’ business, bloody runes were etched searingly onto their breasts, marked for eternity. I saw a multitude of miserable men meandering from the way of virtue: he who is immersed in the frauds of this world buys nothing but unhappiness. I saw men who’d swindled others of their homes and sustenance go in mobs to Fégjarn’s fortress, greatly encumbered with lead weights. I saw men who’d pilfered many of their property and way of life: great poisonous dragons twisted through their chests and bellies. I saw men who’d done their best to dodge the holy days of saints, their hands pinned to hot stones, painfully nailed through the palm. I saw men who, in their arrogance, unduly puffed up their egos before all else, their lavish clothing engulfed in flames, fashionable threads deservedly singed. I saw men who, with whispered words, had maliciously slandered the lives of others, the ravens of hell swooped down to fiercely rend the eyes from their heads. You’ll never understand all the horrors those doomed to hell have to endure: sweet sin becomes sour comfort, hurt always follows earthly joy. I saw men who had given all to fulfil God’s holy laws, flickering candles burned brightly above their brows like sunlight. I saw big-hearted men who handed out gold to those without means; elsewhere angels studied holy books, the writings of heaven circling their heads. I saw men who had very much scourged their stomachs with severe thirst and hunger, all the angels of God bowed to them, acclaiming fasting as the best fare. I saw men who had taken food and placed it in their mother’s mouths, they were set to rest in comfort on the shining rays of the sun. A throng of saintly maidens washed clean the sins of those souls who every day on this earth deprived their mortal flesh of fleeting delights. I saw high wagons wend their way up to the heavens along God’s path, at the bridles were men murdered for no good reason on earth below. Oh mighty Father, Son in the highest, Holy Spirit of the heavenly kingdom, I ask you who forged us to free us all from affliction and despair. Bjúgvör and Listvör sit by an organ, perched on a stool in Heiðir’s doorway, iron blood runs from their noses, it rouses wrath among mankind. Óðinn’s wife, ignited with lust, rows on the world’s ship, her sails will be taken in late, draped on the ropes of desire.
My heir, I alone as your father, along with the sons of Sólkatla, have interpreted the hart’s antler that wise Vígdvalinn bore from the howe. Here are the notched runes which the nine daughters of Njöðr wrote, Böðveig the eldest, Kreppvör the youngest, and their seven sisters inbetween. Every evil they have engaged in, Sváfr and Sváfrlogi: they always stirred up blood and sucked at wounds in wicked ways. You must recite this poem for other people—the Song of the Sun tells the truth to all. Here we must part one another, but we will meet again on the day of joy.
May the Lord give the dead quiet and the living, kindness.
1. Fé ok fjörvi rænti fyrða kind sá hinn grimmi Greppr; yfir þá vegu, er hann varðaði, náði engi kvikr komask. 2. Einn hann át oft harðla, aldri bauð hann manni til matar, áðr enn móðr ok meginlítill Gestr af götu kom. 3. Drykks of þurfi lézk inn dæsti maðr ok vanmettr vera; hræddu hjarta hann lézk trúa, þeim er áðr hafði vályndr verit. 4. Mat ok drykk veitti hann þeim, er móðr var, allt af heilum hug; guðs hann gáði, góðu honum beindi, því hann hugðisk váligr vera. 5. Upp hinn stóð, illt hann hugði, eigi var þarfsamliga þegit; synð hans svall, sofanda myrði fróðan, fjölvaran. 6. Himna guð bað hann hjálpa sér, þá hann veginn vaknaði; en sá gat við synðum taka, er hann hafði saklausan svikit. 7. Helgir englar kómu ór himnum ofan ok tóku sál hans til sín; í hreinu lífi hon skal lifa æ með almáttkum guði. 8. Auð né heilsu ræðr engi maðr, þótt honum gangi greitt; margan þat sækir er minnst of varir, engi ræðr sættum sjálfr. 9. Ekki þeir hugðu Unnarr ok Sævaldi, at þeim myndi heill hrapa; nakðir þeir urðu ok næmðir hvívetna, ok runnu sem vargar til viðar. --------- 10. Munaðar ríki hefir margan tregat, oft verðr kvalræði af konum; meingar þær urðu, þó inn máttki guð skapaði skírliga. 11. Sáttir þeir váru Sváfaðr ok Skartheðinn, hvárrgi mátti annars án vera, fyrr enn þeir æddusk fyr einni konu: hon var þeim til lýta lagin. 12. Hvárskis þeir gáðu fyr þá hvítu mey, leiks né ljóss daga; engan hlut máttu þeir annan muna en þat ljósa lík. 13. Daprar þeim urðu inar dimmu nætr, engan máttu þeir sætan sofa; en af þeim harmi rann heift saman millum virkðavina. 14. Fádæmi verða í flestum stöðum goldin grimmliga; á hólm þeir gengu fyr it horska víf ok fengu báðir bana. 15. Ofmetnað drýgja skyldi engi maðr, þat hefik sannliga sét, því at þeir hverfa, er honum fylgja, flestir guði frá. 16. Rík þau váru Ráðný ok Véboði ok hugðusk gott eitt gera; nú þau sitja ok sárum snúa ýmsum elda til. 17. Á sik þau trúðu ok þóttusk ein vera allri þjóð yfir; en þó leizk þeira hagr annan veg almáttkum guði. 18. Munað þau drýgðu á marga vegu ok höfðu gull fyr gaman; nú er þeim goldit, er þau ganga skulu milli frosts ok funa. 19. Óvinum þínum trúðu aldregi, þó þér fagrt mæli fyrir; góðu þú heit, gott er annars víti hafa at varnaði. 20. Svá honum gafsk Sörla inum góðráða, þá er hann lagði á Vígúlfs vald; tryggliga hann trúði, - en hinn at tálum varð, - sínum bróðurbana. 21. Grið hann þeim seldi af góðum hug, en þeir hétu honum gulli í gegn; sáttir létusk, meðan saman drukku, en þó kómu flærðir fram. 22. En þá eftir á öðrum degi, er þeir höfðu í Rýgjardal riðit, sverðum þeir meiddu, þann er saklauss var ok létu hans fjörvi farit. 23. Lík hans þeir drógu á leynigötu ok brytjuðu í brunn niðr; dylja þeir vildu, en dróttinn sá heilagr himnum af. 24. Sál hans bað inn sanni guð í sinn fögnuð fara; en sökudólgar hygg ek síðla muni kallaðir frá kvölum. 25. Dísir bið þú þér dróttins mála vera hollar í hugum; viku eftir mun þér vilja þíns alt at óskum ganga. 26. Reiðiverk, þau er þú unnit hefr, bæt þú eigi illu yfir; grættan gæla skaltu með góðum hlutum, þat kveða sálu sama. 27. Á guð skal heita til góðra hluta, þann er hefir skatna skapat; mjök fyrir verðr manna hverr, er seinar finna föður. 28. Æsta dugir einkum vandliga þess er þykkir vant vera; alls á mis verðr, sá er einskis biðr; fár hyggr þegjanda þörf. 29. Síðla ek kom, snemma kallaðr, til dómvalds dyra; þangat ek ætlumk, því mér heitit var: sá hefir krás, er krefr. 30. Syndir því valda, at vér hryggvir förum ægisheimi ór; engi óttask, nema illt geri; gott er vammalausum vera. 31. Úlfum glíkir þykkja allir þeir, sem eiga hverfan hug; svá mun gefask, þeim er ganga skal þær inar glæddu götur. 32. Vinsamlig ráð ok viti bundin kenni ek þér sjau saman; görla þau mun ok glata aldregi, öll eru þau nýt at nema. 33. Frá því er at segja, hvé sæll ek var ynðisheimi í, ok hinu öðru, hvé ýta synir verða nauðgir at náum. 34. Vil ok dul tælir virða sonu, þá er fíkjask á fé; ljósir aurar verða at löngum trega; margan hefir auðr apat. 35. Glaðr at mörgu þótta ek gumnum vera, því at ek vissa fátt fyrir; dvalarheim hefr dróttinn skapat munafullan mjök. 36. Lútr ek sat, lengi ek hölluðumk, mjök var ek þá lystr at lifa; en sá réð, sem ríkr var; frammi eru feigs götur. 37. Heljar reip kómu harðliga sveigð at síðum mér; slíta ek vilda, en þau seig váru; létt er lauss at fara. 38. Einn ek vissa, hvé alla vega sullu sútir mér; Heljar meyar er mér hrolla buðu heim á hverju kveldi. 39. Sól ek sá, sanna dagstjörnu, drúpa dynheimum í; en Heljar grind heyrðak ek á annan veg þjóta þungliga. 40. Sól ek sá setta dreyrstöfum; mjök var ek þá ór heimi hallr; máttug hon leizk á marga vegu frá því sem fyrri var. 41. Sól ek sá, svá þótti mér, sem ek sæja göfgan guð; henni ek laut hinzta sinni aldaheimi í. 42. Sól ek sá, svá hon geislaði, at ek þóttumk vættki vita; en gylfar straumar grenjuðu annan veg, blandnir mjök við blóð. 43. Sól ek sá á sjónum skjálfandi, hræðslufullr ok hnipinn; því at hjarta mitt var harðla mjök runnit sundr í sega. 44. Sól ek sá sjaldan hryggvari; mjök var ek þá ór heimi hallr; tunga mín var til trés metin, ok kólnat at fyrir utan. 45. Sól ek sá síðan aldregi eftir þann dapra dag, því at fjalla vötn lukðusk fyrir mér saman, en ek hvarf kallaðr frá kvölum. 46. Vánarstjarna flaug - þá var ek fæddr, - brott frá brjósti mér; hátt-at hon fló, hvergi settisk, svá at hon mætti hvíld hafa. --------- 47. Öllum lengri var sú in eina nótt, er ek lá stirðr á stráum; þá merkir þat, er guð mælti, at maðr er moldu samr. 48. Virði þat ok viti in virki guð, sá er skóp hauðr ok himin; hversu munaðarlausir margir fara, þótt við skylda skili. 49. Sinna verka nýtr seggja hverr; sæll er sá, sem gott gerir; auði frá er mér ætluð var sandi orpin sæng. 50. Hörundar hungr tælir hölða oft, hann hefir margr til mikinn; lauga vatn er mér leiðast var eitt allra hluta. 51. Á norna stóli sat ek níu daga, þaðan var ek á hest hafinn; gýgjar sólir skinu grimmliga ór skýdrúpnis skýjum. 52. Utan ok innan þóttumk ek alla fara sigrheima sjau; upp ok niðr leitaða ek æðra vegar, hvar mér væri greiðastar göt. 53. Frá því er at segja, hvat ek fyrst of sá, þá er ek var í kvölheima kominn: sviðnir fuglar, er sálir váru, flugu svá margir sem mý. 54. Vestan sá ek fljúga Vánar dreka, ok fell á glævalds götu; vængi þeir skóku, svá víða þótti mér springa hauðr ok himinn. 55. Sólar hjört leit ek sunnan fara, hann teymðu tveir saman; fætr hans stóðu foldu á, en tóku horn til himins. 56. Norðan sá ek ríða niðja sonu, ok váru sjau saman; hornum fullum drukku þeir inn hreina mjöð ór brunni Baugregins. 57. Vindr þagði, vötn stöðvaði, þá heyrða ek grimmligan gný; sínum mönnum svipvísar konur mólu mold til matar. 58. Dreyra steina þær inar dökku konur drógu daprliga; blóðug hjörtu hengu þeim fyrir brjóst utan, mædd við miklum trega. 59. Margan mann sá ek meiddan fara á þeim glæddu götum; andlit þeira sýndusk mér öll vera rýgjar blóði roðin. 60. Marga menn sá ek moldar gengna, þá er eigi máttu þjónustu ná; heiðnar stjörnur stóðu yfir höfði þeim fáðar feiknstöfum. 61. Menn sá ek þá, er mjök ala öfund um annars hagi; blóðgar rúnar váru á brjósti þeim merkðar meinliga. 62. Menn sá ek þar marga ófegna, þeir váru villir vega; þat kaupir sá, er þessa heims apask at óheillum. 63. Menn sá ek þá, er mörgum hlutum véltu um annars eign; flokkum þeir fóru til Fégjarnsborgar ok höfðu byrðar af blýi. 64. Menn sá ek þá, er margan höfðu fé ok fjörvi rænt; brjóst í gegnum renndu brögnum þeim öflgir eitrdrekar. 65. Menn sá ek þá, er minnst vildu halda helga daga; hendr þeira váru á heitum steinum negldar nauðliga. 66. Menn sá ek þá, er af mikillæti virðusk vánum framar; klæði þeira váru kynliga eldi um slegin. 67. Menn sá ek þá, er margt höfðu orð á annan logit; heljar hrafnar ór höfði þeim harðliga sjónir slitu. 68. Allar ógnir fær þú eigi vitat, þær sem helgengnir hafa; sætar syndir verða at sárum bótum; æ koma mein eftir munuð. 69. Menn sá ek þá, er margt höfðu gefit at guðs lögum; hreinir kyndlar váru yfir höfði þeim brenndir bjartliga. 70. Menn sá ek þá, er af miklum hug veittu fátækum frama; lásu englar bækr ok ymna skrift helgar yfir höfði þeim. 71. Menn sá ek þá, er mjök höfðu hungri farit hörund; englar guðs lutu öllum þeim; þat er æðsta unað. 72. Menn sá ek þá, er móður höfðu látit mat í munn; hvílur þeira váru á himingeislum hafðar hagliga. 73. Helgar meyjar höfðu hreinliga sál af syndum þvegit manna þeira, er á mörgum degi pína sjálfa sik. 74. Hávar reiðir sá ek með himnum fara, þær eiga götur til guðs; menn þeim stýra, er myrðir eru alls fyrir engar sakir. 75. Inn máttki faðir! Inn mæzti sonr! Heilagr andi himins! Þik bið ek skilja, er skapat hefr, oss alla eymðum frá. 76. Hringvör ok Listvör sitja í Herðis dyrum organs stóli á; járn dreyri fellr ór nösum þeim, sá vekr fjón með fyrðum. 77. Óðins kván rær á jarðar skipi, móðug á munað; seglum hennar verðr síð hlaðit, þeim er á þráreipum þruma. 78. Arfi, faðir einn þér ráðit hefi ok þeir Sólkötlu synir hjartar horn, þat er ór haugi bar inn vitri Vígdvalinn. 79. Hér eru rúnar, sem ristit hafa Njarðar dætr níu: Böðveig hin elzta ok Kreppvör hin yngsta ok þeira systr sjau. 80. Bölvi hverju þeir bellt hafa Sváfr ok Sváfrlogi; blóð þeir vökðu ok benjar sugu illum ey vana. 81. Kvæði þetta, er þér kennt hefik, skaltu fyrir kvikum kveða: Sólarljóð, er sýnask munu minnst at mörgu login. 82. Hér vit skiljumk, ok hittask munum á feginsdegi fira; dróttinn minn gefi dauðum ró, en hinum líkn, er lifa.