Old Norse-Icelandic at the Taylor Institution Library

by Katarzyna Anna Kapitan

This blog post and book display in the Voltaire Room between 3 and 10 May is a showcase of the excellent range of books on Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature held at the Taylorian. The display accompanies the launch of new digital editions of three versions of an Old Norse-Icelandic saga, Hrómundar saga Greipssonar, in the Taylor Editions series, and the release of an open access study of the saga’s transmission history, Lost but not forgotten: The saga of Hrómundur and its manuscript transmission, by Katarzyna Anna Kapitan.

To limit the number of books on physical display, the exhibit was structured around three themes: Icelandic Language and Literature in Oxford, The Story of Hrómundur, and Legendary Sagas. All items on display are from the holdings of the Taylor Institution Library, unless otherwise specified on the label. 

Panel 1: Icelandic Language and Literature in Oxford

A photograph of a display case with books in the Voltaire Room at the Taylorian.

The first book on the Icelandic language published in Oxford appeared in 1688. It was a reprint of the 1651 Copenhagen edition of the first early modern grammar of Icelandic by Runólfur Jónsson (d. 1654), an Icelander educated at the University of Copenhagen.
At Oxford, the first formal lectureship in Old Icelandic was established in 1884, to which Guðbrandur Vigfússon (1827–1889) was appointed. Guðbrandur, born and raised in Iceland moved to the UK to supervise the completion of the Icelandic–English dictionary, initiated by Richard Cleasby (1797–1847). He was awarded an honorary M.A. degree by Christ Church in 1871. In Guðbrandur’s memory, the Vigfusson Readership in Ancient Icelandic Literature and Antiquities was established at Oxford, and in 1976 the first woman was elected to this readership, Ursula Dronke, née Brown (1920–2012). Ursula held a professorial fellowship at Linacre College and is best known for her work on the Poetic Edda. In her early days, she was a fellow at Somerville College, where she wrote her B.Litt. thesis on The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi (Ice. Þorgils saga og Hafliða), the published version of which is on display here along with some of Guðbrandur’s most important works.

  • Recentissima antiquissimæ linguæ septentrionalis incunabula [The Most Recent Cradle of the Most Ancient Northern Language] by Runólfur Jónsson
    Language: Latin
    Publication place and date: Oxford, 1688
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library 9.E.9.B(2)
  • An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon
    Language: Icelandic and English
    Publication place and date: Oxford, 1874
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library REP.M.113
  • An Icelandic Prose Reader by Guðbrandur Vigfússon and Frederick York Powell
    Language: Icelandic and English
    Publication place and date: Oxford, 1879
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library RHO 053 r.9

Panel 2. The Story of Hrómundur

The story of Hrómundur existed already in the Middle Ages. According to an Old Norse-Icelandic saga, The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi (Ice. Þorgils saga og Hafliða), which is a part of the thirteenth-century Sturlunga compilation, the story of Hrómundur was recited for entertainment at a wedding feast at Reykhólar in the year 1119.

The famous passage reads as follows: Hrólfur from Skálmarnes told a story about Hröngviður the Viking and King Ólafur and the mound-breaking of Þráinn the berserk and Hrómundur Gripsson, with many verses in it. This story was used to entertain King Sverrir, and he declared that such lying sagas were most amusing. Although men can trace their genealogies to Hrómundur Gripsson, Hrólfur himself had composed this saga.

On display are two Oxford editions of the saga: the 1878 edition of Sturlunga saga by Guðbrandur Vigfússon and the 1952 edition of Þorgils saga og Hafliða by Ursula Dronke (née Brown).

  • 2.1 The first volume of Sturlunga saga, edited by Guðbrandur Vigfússon
    Language: English and Icelandic
    Publication place and date: Oxford, 1878
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library (RHO) 053 r. 35
  • 2.2 The edition of Þorgils saga og Hafliða by Ursula Brown
    Language: English and Icelandic
    Publication place and date: Oxford, 1952
    Shelfmark: Bodleian Library 27855 e.57

The medieval Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi (Ice. Þorgils saga og Hafliða) mentions that some Icelanders could trace their genealogies to Hrómundur. This refers to the account in The Book of Settlements (Ice. Landnámabók), the medieval work describing the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century.

In Landnámabók, Hrómundur is presented as a native of Telemark in Norway and a great-grandfather of Ingólfur and Leifur, the first settlers of Iceland.

Despite the references to Hrómundur and his saga in medieval sources, no known manuscript of the medieval saga has survived. The story, as we know it today, is a seventeenth-century adaptation of a medieval poem. In scholarship, it is classified as one of the legendary sagas, a group of entertaining narratives describing the legendary past of Scandinavia.
Early modern historians, such as the Icelander employed at the Danish court, Thormodus Torfæus (1636–1719), were interested in the contents of legendary sagas as historical sources. Therefore, Torfæus included Hrómundar saga in his list of ancient Icelandic monuments of literature published in his Succession of Rulers and Kings of Denmark (Lat. Series dynastarum et regum Daniæ) from 1702.

  • 2.3 The book of the settlement of Iceland, translated by Thomas Ellwood
    Publication place and date: Kendal, 1898
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library ICE.2.D.THO.1
  • 2.4 The map of Iceland published as a part of Thomas Ellwood’s translation
    Publication place and date: Kendal, 1898
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library ICE.2.D.THO.1
  • 2.5 The facsimile edition of the Landnámabók manuscripts, with an introduction by Jakob Benediktsson
    Publication place and date: Reykjavík, 1974Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library M94.L35
  • 2.6 Series dynastarum et regum Daniæ [Succession of rulers and kings of Denmark] by Thormodus Torfæus.
    Language: Latin
    Publication place and date: Copenhagen, 1702
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library 110.D.3(I)

Panel 3. Legendary Sagas

Legendary sagas (Ice. fornaldarsögur) are a group of Old Norse-Icelandic prose narratives dealing with the early history of mainland Scandinavia, before the unification of Norway and the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century.
Among the best-known examples of legendary sagas is The Saga of the Völsungs (Ice. Völsunga saga), which has a famous counterpart in the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied; The Saga of Rolf Kraki (Ice. Hrólfs saga kraka), which narrates material related to the Old English poems Beowulf and Widsith; and The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ice. Ragnars saga loðbrókar), which gained international fame thanks to the TV series Vikings.
The Icelandic name fornaldarsögur, assigned to this group of texts, is derived from Fornaldar sögur Nordrlanda, the title of the 1829–1830 edition of select Icelandic sagas by the Danish philologist Carl Christian Rafn (1795–1864). The composition of Rafn’s work was highly indebted to the work conducted by his predecessors, especially the Swedish philologist Erik Julius Björner (1696–1750) and the Danish linguist Peter Erasmus Müller (1776–1834). On display here are important volumes of legendary sagas edited by all three of them.

  • 3.1 Nordiska kämpa dater [Deeds of Nordic Heroes], edited by Erik Julius Björner
    Language: Icelandic, Swedish, and Latin
    Publication place and date: Stockholm 1737
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library 108.I.14
  • 3.2 The second volume of Sagabibliothek [Saga Library] by Peter Erasmus Müller
    Language: Danish
    Publication place and date: Copenhagen 1818
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library 106.D.6
  • 3.3 The second volume of Fornaldar sögur Nordrlanda [Ancient Sagas of the Northern Lands], edited by Carl Christian Rafn
    Language: Icelandic
    Publication place and date: Copenhagen 1829
    Shelfmark: Taylor Institution Library N.S.12.ADDS.F.24

The digital editions of Hrómundar saga are available here:
The 17th-cent version: https://editions.mml.ox.ac.uk/editions/hromundar_A601/
The 18th-cent version: https://editions.mml.ox.ac.uk/editions/hromundar_J634/
The 19th-cent version: https://editions.mml.ox.ac.uk/editions/hromundar_B11109/

Below a short video from the opening of the exhibition.

Völuspá: a performative journey

To herald the new year, poet and DPhil student, Clare Mulley, recounts her experience of interpreting, translating and performing one of the most famous poems in the Old Norse canon for the Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023.

When I walk, barefoot, to centre stage from the shadowed doorway, the silence of the wood-panelled room is an excruciatingly loud one; loud in a way that can only come from a lot of bodies keeping themselves deliberately suppressed, but still shifting and audibly breathing. Under the lip of my hood, I can just make out the shadowy faces of the front rows, many of whom are friends and colleagues. They know there will be a performance of sorts, and many of them know more than I do the poem I am interpreting, but it is in these couple of seconds where anything could happen. This is, perhaps, the most exciting part of all.

I wait just long enough to feel their anticipation – the space between us is electric, humming with charge and stretched to full tension. A metre away, someone else is waiting: my co-performer, Norwegian musician and sound engineer Kjell Braaten, is poised over his sound system and various gorgeous wooden instruments, completely attuned to my every movement. Aside from his work for film and television, he has been performing at festivals and concert venues for years, and knows exactly what he is doing in building an atmosphere. In a few seconds, the pure gut surge of sound he is about to create will reverberate off the walls like echoes in a cave, and make itself felt in the bellies of all present. 

In the darkness, I can practically see the poem stretching out in front of me, a long, luminous thread whose tail-end I must grasp, or a path I must follow without stumbling, treading down to make the way clearer for future walkers. But first, I have to step into the shoes of the seeress (or völva, as she is known in Old Norse) using the words that have identified her for centuries.

I grip the staff in my hand and begin, reciting the first and foremost line in Old Norse: ‘Hljóðs bið ek allar helgar kindir…’ Give me a hearing.

For the next half hour, I will exist in another space outside of time: the space of ritual time.


Völuspá, the opening poem of the Poetic Edda,was my introduction to Old Norse poetry, and from the first time I read it (on a train journey between Manchester and Bradford) I was spellbound. Everything about it – its combination of slow-building tension and fast-moving scenery, mystic tonality and hypnotic refrains – suggested a vast, echoing space, evocative in turn of the mythical Ginnungagap in which the Old Norse cosmos has its origin story. Within that space, the female narrative voice itself remains an enigma, and is a presence which commands absolute attention. Interpreted sometimes as a resurrected völva or elemental being, sometimes as a human woman performing seiðr who has become a mouthpiece for an older consciousness, her voice not only hovers somewhere between the corporeal and supernatural, but speaks to an audience (the so-called helgar kindir ‘holy kindred’) which is itself situated in a poetic present that spans generations. Any audience experiencing the poem may automatically count themselves as part of the crowd she addresses, adding to its immediacy in effect.

A year after first reading the poem, I arrived in Oxford to begin another journey into the study of Old Norse receptions, but all the time I was settling into my studies, Völuspá stayed on the margins of my consciousness. It was an insistent, probing voice that would not go away. Each time I read or heard later translations and performances, I couldn’t help fixating on what I would have done differently, or on how certain word choices might sit in various settings. Eventually, I gave in to the urge to play with it: I sat down very late one night and began a poetic translation, which allowed for some leeway in expression and for some opening up of the mythology for audiences who did not have contextual knowledge. After some time working on the piece, and especially after studying Terry Gunnell’s work on performance archaeology, I finally realised that I was writing according to how my own speaking voice worked, and that I was saying phrases aloud as part of the selective process. Clearly writing the poem down wasn’t enough for the storyteller bone in the back of my skull; I wanted to work my way through a performance. 

I have always been fascinated by the idea of oral poetry as a cross-temporal process, or moving body; one made up of performance, memory (both living and cultural) and textual records, spanning generations with some level of consistency and yet inevitably received in and affected by what Carolyn Dinshaw aptly terms the ‘hermeneutic now.’ Drawing a venn diagram between the spheres of textual study and practical experience, I reasoned, would not only help me to investigate how certain textual material can have performative implications, and how those might practically play out on a stage, but, on another level, would also allow me to experiment with the blank margins outside the text that depend upon personal interpretation (such as tone of voice, settings, speed, musical accompaniment or other voices etc). While certain questions around how Medieval Scandinavians might have worked with or presented the poem will always remain unsolved, having to tackle certain practicalities would perhaps provide further insight into what might have been possible for readers or performers in a medieval context. Icelanders had always been famed and sought out in Medieval Scandinavian courts for their incredible narrative memories; could I now recreate something of the process by which they remembered longer works and captured their audiences? The upcoming Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023 provided the perfect setting (and excuse) for the experiment, and my storyteller bone thrilled at the thought.

One key decision I made was to do with setting; when performed with one voice, the poem is so unrelenting in its intensity that there seemed a real risk of not being able to sustain its energy unsupported for more than half an hour without boring an audience (I often wonder, incidentally, if any medieval performers might have been faced with the same dilemma, or if this might strengthen any theoretical arguments for multiple voices.) Music seemed the natural answer in my case, as I find it far easier to hold space with accompaniment, and this was where Kjell came in. I had watched him perform his new album Blóta the previous summer at Midgardsblót, a festival held among the burial mounds in Børre, and had seen nearly the whole room cry in response to his music. Some internet searches revealed that he had also participated in sound work on The Northman – one of my favourite ever film soundtracks, and a pleasing aesthetic match to what I considered Völuspá’s naturally dark quality. Luckily for me, Kjell loved my idea and generously consented to take part in the experiment, accordingly transporting several cases’ worth of nordic instruments from Bergen and risking his spine in the process. 


It would require a great deal more space than I presently have to detail all the theory, planning and sources that went into the project in full, and, as I intend to write more formally about those in future, I’m not going to do that here. Suffice to say that, after two performances, performing any oral medieval work (even a more loosely-interpreted one)teaches you a lot more than you bargained for, and is an absolutely terrifying and sublime experience all by itself. The intensity magnifies tenfold when done in the dark, in proper stage lighting and with body-shuddering music at your back. It didn’t take much effort to evoke ritual time, or pretend that my memories went back to the creation of the world – while the text on its own makes you feel like you are seeing creation happen, I felt like I was actively making creation happen.

 Perhaps the most intense part of the experience, however (aside from worrying about forgetting your lines, or about which academic interpretations you tend towards in your writing), is the sheer viscerality of the onstage experience due to energy exchange, and how quickly this affects what you considered fixed or rehearsed. What Ursula Le Guin terms ‘primary orality’ – in other words, the unique and powerful symbiotic relationship between a live performer and their audience that has no equivalent in other media – is blank margins territory; something that is almost impossible to communicate in a regular poetic structure, although the sense of the narrator commanding rapt attention is, again, palpable in the text. Onstage, this energy is practically solid, and rushes to meet you in staggering fashion. As though you had two, parallel brains, you are aware throughout of the delicate balance between holding onto deep memory while existing in the sharp, present consciousness of the room. If there is the slightest flicker of a face within your eyeline, the slightest sigh, jump or intake of breath, you are immediately aware of it and seeking to react in a way compatible with the energy directed at you. This weird dual consciousness can cause the most surprising changes to vocabulary you have rehearsed for hours, and to smaller actions to do with movement, volume and even facial expression.

In the second performance Kjell and I did at the Aarhus Old Norse Mythology Conference in November 2023, I decided to increase my involvement in the soundscape, and played a bone rattle and a skin drum at key moments in the narrative. The drum especially can be felt throughout the body as you play it and inspires an almost trancelike state, giving weight to your words and transmitting a physical sensation to your listeners; considering its history in Sami shamanistic practices, and the taboo surrounding it in the time of witch hunts, its cultural weight and physical effects added another, holistic layer to the work. From these experiences, I now have fresh awareness that no two performances can ever be the same, as every new context and audience forces a different synergy, and that in itself bears thinking about in an academic context; while we are left with the ‘bones’ of the poem in manuscript form, and the idea that a consistent memory of the structure is definitely there, how many forms might have been laid across similar skeletons in an oral context? How many people worked with the consistencies we know today to make their own work? The possibilities are endless. 

To me, one thing is for certain. As simplistic as it sounds, whatever the end result of a performance on a received text, there is nothing quite like the deafening silence at the end of it all, right before the applause hits, to remind you why such texts were probably written down in the first place: because someone, somewhere, had exactly the same reaction to something they heard, and wanted to capture the moment. Putting that text back into the voice felt like completing a circle.

For a review of the performance, see: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/30-june/comment/columnists/paul-vallely-voice-of-prophetess-speaks-to-the-soul

For a poem on the Old Norse cosmos by the author, see: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/ginnungagap-clare-mulley/

ETC Research Seminar on Anthropology and Religion (HT23)

The Early Text Cultures Research Seminar for Hilary Term 2023 will be on the theme of Anthropology and Religion. We hope that the seminar will enable us to explore ways in which traditional anthropological questions can (or cannot) help us elucidate key literary texts as sources for ancient religion. Speakers will address Old Norse, Classical Latin, Early Greek, ancient Near Eastern, Old Babylonian and Vedic contexts. After a ca. 20-min presentation, there will be ample opportunity for cross-disciplinary discussion.

The seminar will be held in the Corpus Christi College Seminar Room, on Wednesdays of even weeks at 2–3pm UK time.
To join remotely, please register here: https://forms.gle/UQuoUbjSzDAP6Zo67
Abstracts can be found here: https://www.earlytextcultures.org/events/current-events


§ Session 1
Week 2, 25 January

James Parkhouse: Old Norse
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines: Analogical and Anthropological Perspectives on the Legends of Wayland and Daedalus

§ Session 2
Week 4, 8 February

Joe Barber (Balliol College, Oxford): Classics
Disappearing and Dying Gods in the Ancient Near East and Early Greece

§ Session 3
Week 6, 22 February

Christie Carr (Wolfson College, Oxford): Assyriology
The Sumerian Sacred Marriage Ritual

§ Session 4
Week 8, 8 March

Barbora Sojkova (All Souls College/Balliol College, Oxford): Sanskrit
On Ancient Animals: Vedic Literature and Multispecies Anthropology

Everyone is extremely welcome!

ETC Board