Rígsþula – About

Rígsþula – About

Index: Poetic Edda ¦ Rígsþula – (The Lay of Ríg) Full English Translation

Rígsþula or Rígsmál (“Lay of Ríg”) is an Eddic poem in which a Norse god named Ríg or Rígr, described as “old and wise, mighty and strong”, fathers the classes of mankind. The prose introduction states that Rígr is another name for Heimdall, who is also called the father of mankind in Völuspá.

In Rígsþula, Rig wanders through the world and fathers the progenitors of the three classes of human beings as conceived by the poet. The youngest of these sons inherits the name or title “Ríg” and so in turn does his youngest son, Kon the Young or Kon ungr (Old Norse: konungr, king). This third Ríg was the first true king and the ultimate founder of the state of royalty as appears in the Rígsþula and in two other associated works. In all three sources he is connected with two primordial Danish rulers named Dan and Danþír.

The poem Rígsþula is preserved incomplete on the last surviving sheet in the 14th-century Codex Wormianus, following Snorri Sturluson‘s Prose Edda. A short prose introduction explains that the god in question was Heimdall, who wandered along the seashore until he came to a farm where he called himself Ríg. The name Rígr appears to be the oblique case of Old Irish , ríg “king”, cognate to Latin rex, Sanskrit rajan. and Gothic reiks.

The identification of Rígr with Heimdall is supported by his characterization as an ancestor, or kinsman, of humankind in the first two lines of the Eddic poem Völuspá:’

I ask for a hearing
of all the holy races
Greater and lesser
kinsmen of Heimdall

However, some scholars, including Finnur Jónsson and Rudolf Simek, have suggested this is a role more appropriate to Óðinn and that the Eddic tradition has thus transferred the name Rígr from him to Heimdall. Since Rígsþula is only preserved in a 14th-century manuscript, it is also plausible that the prose introduction was added by the compiler to conform it to the opening of Völuspá.

Rigsthula Wiki
“Rig in Great-grandfather’s Cottage” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood


Rígr was walking along the shore and came to a farm-hut owned by Ái (great-grandfather) and Edda (great-grandmother). They offered him shelter and poor, rough food for a meal. That night Rígr slept between the pair in their bed and then departed. Nine months later, Edda gave birth to a son who was svartan (dark). They named him Þræll (thrall, serf, or slave). Þræll grew up strong but ugly. He married a woman named Thír (slave girl or bondswoman), and they had twelve sons and nine daughters with names mostly suggesting ugliness and squatness. They became the race of serfs.

Traveling further, Rígr came across a pleasant house where a farmer/craftsman, Afi (grandfather), lived with his wife Amma (grandmother). This couple gave him good food and also let him sleep between them. Nine months later, a son, Karl (churl or freeman), was born, who had red hair and a ruddy complexion. Karl married a woman named Snör or Snœr (daughter-in-law; sometimes anglicized as Snor), and they had twelve sons and ten daughters with names mostly suggesting a neat appearance or being of good quality. One of the names is smiðr (smith). These became the ancestors of free farmers, craftsmen and herdsmen.

Rigsthula Wiki
“Heimdall in Rig’s shape” by Carl Larsson

Traveling further, Rígr came to a mansion inhabited by Faðir (Father) and Móðir (Mother). They gave him excellent food served splendidly and, nine months later, Móðir gave birth to a beautiful baby named Jarl (earl or noble), whose hair was blond and who was bleikr (bright white in color). When Jarl grew up and began to handle weapons and to use hawks, hounds, and horses, Rígr reappeared, claimed him as his son, gave him his own name of Rígr, made him his heir, taught him runes, and advised him to seek lordship.

Through warfare Jarl became lord of eighteen homesteads with much wealth besides. He also gained the hand of Erna (Brisk), daughter of Hersir (lord). Erna bore twelve sons to Ríg-Jarl but no daughters. All the sons were given high-sounding names, mostly meaning “son”. They became the ancestors of the warrior nobility.

The youngest son, named Konr, was the best of them. He alone learned rune-craft as well as other magic and was able to understand the speech of birds, to quench fire, and to heal minds. He also had the strength of eight normal men. His name was Kon the young (Konr ungr in Old Norse), the name and title to be understood as the origin of the Norse word konungr (king) (although this is a false etymology). Konr, like his father, also acquired the name or title of Rígr.

One day, when Konr the young was riding through the forest hunting and snaring birds, a crow spoke to him and suggested he would win more if he stopped hunting mere birds and rode to battle against foemen, that he should seek the halls of Dan and Danp, who were wealthier than he. At that point the poem abruptly cuts off.

Rígsþula Rigsthula Rig old wise mighty strong
“The Crow warns Kon” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood

Historical significance

A key aspect of historical scholarship on this poem is that theories of date and provenance range from the tenth to the thirteenth century and from the Old Norse-Icelandic-speaking areas of the British Isles to Norway. Initially it was viewed as an ancient poem; later research postulated that it came from the thirteenth century, but some modern scholars continue to place it as early as the Viking Age. Additionally, the dating problem is complicated by the poem’s history of oral transmission, which tends to warp pieces as long as the Rígsþula as they are recited numerous times. In terms of provenance, although there has been some speculation in the past as to Celtic authorship of the poem, the modern consensus is to ascribe Icelandic authorship to it.

The historical significance of the poem would necessarily change based on where in history the text itself is situated. However, the general consensus is that the poem is from Viking times and can be read as descriptive of those times: “The political setting of the poem has already drawn it out of the realms of fancy upon historical ground; and in its details, the description of the customs and manner of life among the different classes, it is most valuable.” There is of course a need to remember the literary nature of the poem when reading it as a historical source as certain aspects do not translate literally and must be read allegorically and stereotypically. For example, despite the explicit and detailed physical differences between the classes in the poem, slaves, freeman, and aristocrats did not necessarily look different. Thus although qualitative aspects of the social classes are difficult to determine from the text, there is broader understanding that can be gained.

Firstly, the poem presents a view of Þræll in line with certain slave tropes found throughout Old Norse literature, as dark, short, stupid, gloomy and ugly. Þræll and his aged parents live as tenants in one farmhouse and he and his sons engage largely in menial labor such as keeping the household in firewood and cutting turf. Although his working status is indeterminate, the field work in particular is fairly typical of the kind of services that slaves would render to a master in the Old Norse world. Thus, the use of slave tropes and the focus on labor can be read as descriptive of the typical lifestyle of the lower class, whether slaves or simply lower-class laborers.

The middle class of freemen, who are descended from Karl, are less easy to pin down, but the scholarly consensus seems to be that Karl ″represents the class of free-born peasant proprietor called ′bondi′ or ′bui,′ … a kind of hereditary aristocracy, self-governed, and absolutely independent.″ Specifically, Karl is described as fairly prosperous, given that he and his family are landed proprietors or freeholders who own the farm building on the land they work. Additional details reveal the relative comfort of his life: his mother, Amma’s stylish shoulder ornaments and the free distribution of gold rings to the guests at his wedding. Karl therefore represents a class who, while they are farmers, are able to maintain a comfortable life with material pleasures and luxuries.

Finally we are presented with the class of Jarl or earl, who represents ″the idle aristocrat … whose sole occupations are raiding, hunting, and swimming.″ Born to parents who live in even more luxury than those of Karl, Jarl has bright eyes and shining hair and he lives a life of success, able to conquer and distribute his spoils to his dependents very much in the style of ancient Viking heroes.

The poem also presents Konr as representative of the special class of kings and in examining what his character represents, scholar Thomas Hill’s view was:

Although the poem is concerned with the origins of kingship, it seems to reflect a specifically aristocratic rather than royalist view, in that the king who begins to emerge in the final stanzas of the poem is not set apart by birth from the other sons of Jarl, and is in fact the youngest son.

In fact, Konr gets his power directly from Ríg, and the idea of a king is therefore of a man who is blessed by the gods, though not necessarily descended from them in the strict patrilineal fashion typical of Western monarchies.

Given the very different ways in which these three classes are represented both physically and in terms of their activities, the etiological myth of Rígsþula can be seen as implying that the three classes are essentially different species. A second interpretation, however, is that ″the names of the three couples – great-grandfather and great-grandmother, grandfather and grandmother, and finally father and mother – might seem to imply that the various classes of mankind share a common heritage.″ The poem has been viewed as suggestive of social progress over time, so that one class may aspire to move up. According to Hill, however, most agree that this second view is too benevolent and that in fact the poem reveals that for the Vikings:

The different orders of mankind are indeed fixed and unchangeable, but in the very beginning there was a certain kinship between the different orders of mankind, a kinship suggested by the fixed and yet linked sequence of the genealogical chain.