by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiđson
Copyright © William Reaves

I shall begin by saying that my understanding of the Elder Eddic poem Harbardsljod comes from Viktor Rydberg's Undersökingar i Germansk Mythologi, andre delen, page 296 onward. This argument contains references both by him and myself.

As noted before, the poet is quick to point out that Thor sees a young man standing across the sound from him. Even before the ferryman reveals his name, Thor asks who is the "sveinn sveinna," the "lad of lads" (as Vigfusson translates it). To which the ferryman replies, "Who is that "karl karla," churl of churls, shouting across the waves?" Rydberg notes that both Sveinn and Karl are old servant designations, respectively refering to a boy and a man, thus emphasizing the point, that Thor sees a beardless youth before him. Hardly a Harbard, "Gray-beard" (I knew Harbard, and you sir are no Harbard!) This point is again underscored when Thor calls harbard a "kögursveinn," a trifling boy, in strophe 13 almost imediately after Harbard reveals his name.

Indeed as was pointed out, Thor is returning from battle, he "travels along eastern-ways" a stock phrase for his traveling in Giant-land (see Lokasenna 60 and Harbardsljod 23). Thus Harbard is standing in Midgard and Thor is standing in Jotunheim across the Elivagar. Strophe 56 makes this plain. Thor is not in Verland, where Forgynn (Jord) shall meet her son (i.e. Midgard) or in Odin's Land (i.e. Asgard). In strophe 9, Thor says that he and his whole family are outlaws, were he now stands, emphasizing the point that he is in Jotunheim. Yet, he gives a full account of his name and lineage, again showing his simple and true-hearted manner when dealing with this deceptive "kögursveinn."

Harbard's purpose is expressly stated in strophe 51, he has intentionally delayed Thor, Midgard's Veor, Earth's defender. In strophe 58, Harbard says that Thor shall reach Midgard as the sun rises "thana," a difficult word which Vigfusson, and many after him alter to "tha na." Thus this is translated as "when the sun rises, or there abouts." While this is a possible translation, Egilsson, Bugge and Finnar Jonsson all observe that "thana" is an archiac formation of "theyja," "thainn," to thaw out, and metaphorically "to melt away." Harbard here suggests that Thor's delay will cause the sun to rise, melting Earth with its rays. The suggestion is that the thunderclouds which Thor controls are needed to cool the Earth. Harbard delays Thor from his appointed duty, thus showing his hostility. Earlier, he tells Thor that his mother, the Earth, is dead (str. 4). Thor is obviously touched by this thought for himself and mankind. Yet, Harbard's own words in Strophe 56 show plainly that he has lied ("Forgynn shall meet her son").

Thus Harbard begins and ends with a lie and a curse toward Earth and her greatest defender, and in between takes every opportunity to mock and insult him. It should seem obvious that this ferryman who calls himself by one of Odin's epithets is an enemy of Asgard and it's mortal charge, but seemingly it is not.

This Harbard is no run of the mill rascal; his own words indicate that he has previously appeared as an enemy of the gods. All of these references point to known adventures of Loki, the insolent foe of Asgard, but I shall limit myself to two, by which this character may best be identified. In strophes 37-39, Thor speaks of a time that he battled violent giant women alongside Thjalfi. Thor asks Harbard what he did in the meantime. Harbard replies "I was with the host that marched hither, raised the war-standard and reddened spears ("geir at rjoda").

We know of one famous instance in which Thor and Thjalfi faced giant women, Snorri tells us that on the way to Geirrod's abode, Thor fought the giant's daughters Greip and Gjalp. They nearly drowned Thjalfi in a stream. Thorsdrapa tells us that Thor proceded with a whole host of warriors drawn from Egil's chalet (the home of Elves) on the shores of the Elivagar river. The poem refers to them as "vik-ings" and speaks of Thjalfi "and his companions." Harbard says that he was "among the host that marched hither." In other words, he marched here to giant-land, in the host led by Thor. Thor acknowledges this by asking in the next line, "Do you mean to say that thou meant us harm?" Harbard offers to pay a fine, thus admitting his guilt. In Snorri's tale, Loki has lied about the conditions of the road leading to Geirrod's house and convinces Thor to leave his weapons behind. Indeed, he meant Thor harm.

And just in case which adventure they are talking about is not clear, the skald gives you a clue. He says that they "geir a rjoda," reddened spears. Thorsdrapa 6 says that when crossing the river raging with Grep's urine, that Thjalfi and his men "leaned on heavy spears." Thorsdrapa 11 states that when the giants of Geirrod's gard, "the haters of the host of champions," attacked, that their spears dinned against their shields." This war with Geirrod is particularily characterized by a spear-battle, and the very words "geir a rjoda" have the ring of the name Geir-rod, "Spear-red". The poet has crafted a clever double-entrendre!

The next adventure of Harbard's that bears examination is found in strophe 30. Here Harbard says that "I was east conferring with an 'einherja.' I played with the linen-white one and held a secret meeting. I gladdened the gold-bright one. The maid was pleased." He goes on to say that he could have used Thor's help when he "held" that linen-white maid.

The word Einherja is found nowhere else and is a feminine form of Einherje, a hero in Valhalla. The descriptions "linen-white" and "gold-bright" are often used of goddesses and beautiful women. Thus Harbard held a secret meeting with a goddess or maiden associated with the Einherjar in Valhal. However, this meeting did not occur in Valhal or Asgard, but "in the east." Goddesses in giant-land are rare finds indeed, only Freyja and Idunn have been held by giants in the known myths (Freyja in Voluspa 25, and Idunn in Haustlaung).

The poets use of words is seemingly vague and thus we may look for double-meanings here as well. He says that Harbard "lek vid," played with, the maiden and that he was especially in need of Thor's help when he "held" her. This describes a single known myth. In Voluspa, the flames of Ragnarok are said to "play against" heaven. Here Harbard too "plays" as he "holds" the maid. In Haustlaung, Loki flies in the form of a falcon with Idunn in the shape of a nut, clutched in his claws. He secretly meets Idunn in Thjazi's home, and steals her away. As he "holds" her, "playing" against heaven with his wings, Thjazi chases after him in Eagle guise. Then indeed is he in need of Thor's help, which he fortunately receives. Thjazi is slain on Asgard's wall and Idunn is returned safely to the gods (Skaldskaparsmal 1 and Haustlaung 1-13). The goddesses pour mead in Valhal, so she rightly can be characterized as an "Einherja," a female among the Einherjar.

Throughout Harbardsljod, Harbard brags of his conquest of women, even as Loki does in Lokasenna. Both poems accuse Thor's wife, Sif of adultery, a sin presumably known only to herself and her lover. The implication here is that Loki himself has had her. As we know that Loki cut off Sif's hair, a sign of adultery in ancient times, most likely his claim is true. Harbard is every bit, Loki of Lokasenna. To drive home the point Harbardsljod 26 and Lokasenna 60 contain identical half-strophes: "ok dottiska du da Thor vera," Thou hardly remembered thou wast Thor! This would have been perceived in a culture which held the oral skaldic art in such high esteem.

The thought that Harbard could be Odin, which is based solely on the list of Odin's epithets in Grimnirsmal which includes the name Harbard, is one of the many examples of how a mere surface reading of such high art can lead the scholar astray. Loki's use of Allfather's name is another example of the mockery and shameless cynacism which characterize this "sveinna sveinn," Harbard, throughout the poem Harbardsljod.

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