Scandinavian Sources to Harps and Harp Playing
There is no period in
Scandinavian history that has such a magical sound to its name as
the Viking era (ca 800-1050 AD). Its myths, runes, gods and Vikings
going berserk on raids are all part of the mythology and magic.
Harps and harp playing have a part in these myths and may be a part
of the reality during this era. Texts, pictures and archaeological
finds of stringed instruments tell us fragments of the music-making
of the early Scandinavians. Some of the sources presented in this
article are as late as the 13th
century, but have or may have a connection with mythology and
legends of past periods.
The oldest preserved image
of a stringed instrument from a Nordic country is on a stone from
Gotland, an island situated east of Sweden. It was carved in the 6th
century and probably represents a
lyre. The context of the lyre on this stone is unknown: it
might portray a real instrument, it might be an illustration for a
myth or story, or maybe it had a magical purpose. (Picture 1).
Picture 1, A picture of a lyre.
Lärbro, Källstäde, Gotland, Sweden 6th century
About 1150 A.D. scholars in
Iceland began recording pre-Christian myths and religion. Iceland
had been officially Christian since the year 1000 (or 999) but pagan
rites continued to be practiced parallel with Christian rites. The
scholars who collected the myths were Christian, but the reasons to
collect the myths were not just to preserve them, as we would today,
but also were political, to show that Iceland had a mythological
history as old and interesting as Greece’s or Rome’s, and to create
an Icelandic identity separate from Norway, the country from which
Iceland was colonized. However, it must be
noted that when this oral tradition was recorded it had already been
influenced by Christianity; therefore the Icelandic sagas and myths
are an unreliable source to pre-Christian mythology.
Poetic Edda; Voluspa
In the first part of the
book called the Poetic Edda, the oldest preserved writing is
from the end of the 13th century. In it myths from oral
tradition are collected, some of which may have origins from the 9th
century or even earlier. The very first song, Voluspa, the
prophecy of the seeress, describes the creation of the world and how
it will end in ragnarök, (in English called the twilight
of the gods or maybe better known as the German
Götterdämmerung). In this song one verse tells us about Eggder,
the shepherd of the giantess. “Sitting on the mound striking his
harp was the gladsome Eggder, the giantess’ shepherd. Above him in a
tree a beautiful red cockerel crowed, whose name was Fjalar”.
This is all symbolic, as Eggder is no ordinary shepherd; the mound
is a burial mound; he is not guarding sheep but wolves who will
fight at the final battle at ragnarök; and the cockerel that
crows in the gallow tree is one of the signs of the approaching
Gunnar in the
The second part of the
Poetic Edda tells the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer, a
legend that exists in different versions and sources in areas that
speak Germanic languages. Besides several Icelandic versions, one of
the main texts is the Germanic Nibelungenlied. The harp
appears in some of the Icelandic versions of the legend, and in the
Germanic Nibelungenlied the fiddle has the role of a magic
instrument. Another difference is that the Nibelungenlied is
set at a Christian court while the Icelandic versions has a pagan
The harp is mentioned in
four different versions, by different authors, of the execution of
the hero Gunnar in the Poetic Edda. Three are poems and one
tells the story in prose.
A condensed version of the
main event: Gunnar is punished by Atli, better known as Attila the
Hun, by being thrown in a snake pit. Gunnar plays his harp in the
pit but is bitten by a snake and dies.
1. In the probably oldest
version, Atlakviða, that might originate from the 10th
century, Gunnar strikes the harp angrily in the snake pit.
Atlamál in grænlenzku
Gunnar plays the harp with his toes since
his hands are tied. Women cry and men moan and complain when they
hear his playing.
3. In Oddrúnarkviða, we are told the story a bit differently.
Oddrun, who is Atli’s sister, loves Gunnar. She is visiting another
court to help with a delivery of a child. She hears at a distance
Gunnar playing his harp and understands that he is asking for her
help. She arrives too late to save him. In Oddrun’s lament, the
snake that kills Gunnar is Atli’s mother in disguise.
4. The version in prose is
probably the latest version in the Poetic Edda. Maybe it was
written when the collection of songs was put together. In this
version, the snakes are lulled to sleep by Gunnar’s harp playing.
Possibly this part was written by Snorri Sturlasson in the beginning
of the 13th century.
5. Snorri has a similar
version in his book called Snorris Edda. In the last version
of this story of the Völsunga saga, probably from the 14th
century, the harp is thrown into the pit by Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister
and Atli’s wife. It also tells that Gunnar played the harp more
beautifully with his toes than others play with their fingers.
Picture 2. Gunnar
playing a harp with his toes.
Uvdal kirke, Numedal, Norway. 13th or
early 14th century
There are eight pictures of
Gunnar playing harp in the snake pit in areas that now are Norway
and Sweden. The oldest of these is on the outer side of a baptismal
font and originates from the 12th century, the instrument
shown is what we today would call a lyre. Several of these pictures
are from the doorframes to churches and are dated to the 13th
century. Some of them show Gunnar playing a lyre-like instrument and
some a harp. The word “harp” probably could be used for different
stringed instruments, and the lyre was probably more common than the
harp in the Nordic countries.
There are different theories
why this pre-Christian motif is presented on churches and fonts. One
is that it represents the pagan world outside the church or the
font; another that the legend could be used theologically to explain
Christian beliefs with local myths. It is also possible that the
motif had no theological connections at all: maybe the reasons were
political, to strengthen the power of a king who was considered
related to these mythical heroes in the legends, or perhaps they
were just contemporary fashionable artistic expressions. (Picture
Picture 3. Gunnar
playing a harp with his toes.
Näs kyrka, Jämtland, Sweden. 13th or
Orfeus and David
Parallels with other players
of stringed instruments, such as Orfeus and David, are difficult;
this definitely sounds more…pagan. The Voluspa has been dated to the
11th century, but might be older. It is not known how old
the verse containing Eggder is.
A stone carving on the Isle
of Man, situated between Ireland and Great Britain, shows a man
playing the harp. It is dated to the 11th century and probably
portrays King David. Isle of Man was Danish territory during that
time and the stone pictures have Scandinavian influences and
Scandinavian pagan designs. Other influences are also possible, as
contemporary and older Pictish and Irish stones show harps and other
stringed instruments. (Picture 4).
Picture 4, a lyre
from a picture stone called
Mal Lumkun cross or Kirk Michael 104.
Isle of Man, 11th century.
of Sigurd the Dragonslayer
One of the sources of the
legend about Sigurd, the Völsunga saga, contains the sequel
Ragnar Lodbroks saga. In this the story is told about Aslaug,
daughter of Brunhild the Valkyre and Sigurd the dragonslayer. To
prevent Aslaug’s being killed by enemies, the old king, Heimer,
flees with her to Norway. He keeps her hidden inside a harp, and
when there is no longer danger he lets her out. When she cries he
plays the harp for her. This is the earliest part of an Icelandic
saga in which an instrument we would call a harp is described, and
it has to be big enough to hide a three-year- old child.
Several other Icelandic
sagas tell us about harp playing. Some contain a lot of magic like
the amazing Bósa och Herrauðs saga,
others just give everyday information that, for example, a harpist
played at a party. A saga from the 14th century, Bárðar saga snæfellsáss,
describes the first female harpist, Helga. She plays the harp at
night when she cannot sleep.
There are several other
texts with possible connections to Nordic harp playing like the
old-English Beowulf and the description of a burial written by the
Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan.
The problem with written and
iconographical sources is that it is difficult to know if they have
any connection with actual real instruments or music-making at the
time. They can have other purposes, for example magical, political,
Comparisons with other
sources, especially archaeological finds, are possible. Some
instruments or fragments of instruments have been found in graves.
Other discoveries are items that were lost, broken or not finished.
A comparison between remains of harps and lyres shows that lyres
have more parts that easily can be preserved and identified like
bridges and string holders. Most parts of harps are made of wood.
The parts that are possibly made of metal or bone such as rivets or
tuning pins are difficult to identify solely as harp parts.
There are a few
archaeological finds from Scandinavia and areas connected to
Scandinavia. All of these probably are fragments of lyres. Also a
lyre from the 14th century is preserved in Norway, the
Kravik lyre. An interesting find from Sigtuna, in Sweden, was made a
few years ago: a tuning key decorated with runes. The text reads
“Erri made this harp with wholesome hands”. This is the earliest
find of a medieval tuning key and may originate from the 12th
century, and is also the oldest Scandinavian source to the word “harp”.
Picture 5. Tuning key
decorated with runes. Sigtuna, Sweden12th century.
It appears that the word
“harp” could be used for different plucked instruments during the
Viking and medieval era in the Nordic countries. The lyre seems to
be the oldest instrument. The first source to identify a triangular
harp is a manuscript from the 14th century but probably
it is a copy of an older manuscript. Pictures and texts often
present harps and harp playing in a magical context. It is possible
that the instruments in the sources are mostly mythological and have
very little to do with contemporary instruments. Archaeological
finds present traces of stringed instruments being played, but the
finds are so few that it is hard to build theories of who played the
harp, when they played and what the instrument looked like.
If you read
Swedish you might want to see Harpan i ormgropen – om källor till
vikingatida stränginstrument ["The Harp in the Snakepit - on the
Sources of Viking Stringed Instruments"] by Lia Lonnert, 2006. To
obtain it, please write to Lia at
There are several
translations of Icelandic sagas available on the net. For example,
Cajsa Lund: Fornnordiska klanger booklet, page 23. Musica Sveciae.
Musiken i Sverige. Ed Leif Jonsson. page 53. Fisher & Co.
P M C Kermode: Manx crosses. 1994, 104A. Pinkfoot Press.
Roar Hauglid:Norske stavkirker, dekor och utstyr. Dreyers forlag.
1973, plate 211.
Helmer Gustavsson: Runristade föremål från Sigtuna. Nytt om runer.
2001, page 27.