Within the stav tradition there is a poem handed down; the poem is basically a description of the content and knowledge within the tradition. The poem is written in an old Norse alterative form of metric verse. This form of verse was used in most of the poems of the Edda, and there are runestones in Sweden written with these types of verses.
I would identify the specific form of verse in the stav poem as Fornyrðislag;
which consists of eight lines of text, each line has two emphasized syllables,
and the lines are grouped in pairs by alliteration. It is not easy to express
what you want to say in this form of verse, and good poets were highly regarded
in the pre Norse society. It was a great honor if a poet wrote a verse about your
achievements and character; perhaps comparable to someone commissioning an
expensive painting of them self today.
The ancient poets of Scandinavia travelled around from king to king and recited poems about the gods, heroes and kings. The king of the gods Oden, was regarded as the god of the poets, which indicates what a high status they had. Some of the most revered heroes of the Viking age even made poems as they were dying; one example is Ragnar Lodbrok- who´s legend has been capitalized by the popular television show “Vikings”.
I have really tried my best to make a good translation of the stav poem from Norwegian to English. I have tried to stay true to the meaning, but still tried to keep as much as the alliteration as possible. The poem has only been handed down to the modern stav community as eight lines of text, with absolutely no separations; so I barrowed the separations from Erik Brates Swedish translation of the Edda poem Vǫluspá.
This is my English translation of the stav poem:
upon skis fare,
staves are done,
by Heimdall´s sons.
The poem describes seven skills and knowledges. If one reads the Edda poem of Rigstula one will notice that knowledge and skill is what separates the classes; the further up on the social ladder, more skills are demanded. Being able to describe these skills in alliterated verse is a statement in itself. Since stav has been a closed tradition it should be seen as an internal statement and an internal definition of belonging to the top levels of society.
I will describe the poem two lines at the time, since this is the way Fornyrðislag is constructed.
The two first lines are “Hounds bait, horses tame”.
“Hound bait” refers to hunting with dogs, the traditional way of hunting with dogs in Scandinavia is by using dogs that keeps the pray at bay until the hunter could come forth and kill the animal. The method of hunting is very similar to the way the hunting with cur dogs is conducted in the USA, except that we usually do not hunt dogs in packs in Scandinavia.
The Scandinavian spitz type of breeds used for hunting is very common and amongst the oldest breeds in Scandinavia; an example of such a breed is the Norwegian Elkhound. This type of dog is even found in Viking age burials.
Within the stav tradition it is said that they used to breed a large mastiff type of dog. The indigenous mastiff´s of Scandinavia is more or less extinct, there were not much use of them after the wolfs temporary disappeared about a hundred years ago. There is just one breed left, the reconstructed Danish Broholmer.
Horses tame refers to the knowledge of being able to tame and ride horses; a greatly revered knowledge in ancient Scandinavia; it is not a coincidence that Oden is associated with an eight legged steed.
In premodern Scandinavia one would need to know more than just how to handle the horse. The horseman would have to be able to manufacture, or at least maintain, the equipment needed; which needs skills in leather work. They would also need to be able to attend the horse if it became ill or injured.
The pre-Christian Scandinavians are reputed for their ability to use boats to travel long distances; people seldom think of the fact that they also were a horse culture. Some scholars say that the Vikings probably gathered horses when they attacked the coastal areas; and then used the horses to swiftly move inland to attack settlements there.
The next two lines say “falcons fly; upon skis fare”. To fly falcons refers to falconry, in pre-Christian Scandinavia it was regarded to be a skill of the nobility; in many ways it was seen as a magical skill to be able to get a wild bird of prey to work on your command. It would take me a long time to explain it in detail, but anyone that flew falcons had great respect.
Falconry was introduced in Scandinavia during the migration period, and it seems that it to a large extent disappeared during the middle ages. Today falconry is forbidden in all three Scandinavian countries.
The falconry within the stav tradition is quite different compared with the continental and the English falconry. There were two types of birds that were used, goshawks and the Eurasian eagle-owl; the owl was not a bird used traditionally on the continent. Within the stav version of falconry the birds were flown from baskets that were carried on the back by the falconer. The birds were trained to return to these baskets after the hunt; instead of returning to the hand that is the common method within falconry. This enabled to fly the birds without jesses and bells; which gives stav-falconry totally different conditions compared to continental and English falconry.
The main prey within the tradition were foxes that were hunted for their fur, which was a great income. As soon as the winter came the traditional stav practitioners used to freeze fish to the ground on a meadow behind their house; and waited for the foxes to try to come and try to eat the fish. They watched the spot from their window with the help of the moonlight; as soon as a fox would appear they sent their bird off right out of the window. Eagle-owls are nocturnal hunters, and they fly completely silent, the prey will not even know what hit them. Fox fur were one of the items traded at the winter thing market; which I have already covered on the blog.
In the 1980´s scientists analyzed the bones within fourteen graves of Viking age chieftains; the graves were mainly located in the proveniences of Uppland and Sörmland in Sweden. Twelve of these graves contained bones originating from birds of prey. There were about 24 birds found in the graves; the predominant species were Eurasian eagle-owls and northern goshawks.
Again; to be able to fly falcons would require more than just flying the bird. The falconer needs to know how to capture the bird; and how to imprint it and how to train it. He also needs to be able to manufacture the equipment needed.
“Upon skis fare”, simply means that one can use skis; and could move about in nature to hunt and support the family during the winter. Oddly enough most stav practitioners today seems to come from countries were there hardly is any snow, so perhaps it is hard to relate to this aspect. But in Scandinavia there is occasionally rough winters. Before there were modern roads and snowploughs; people would more or less be trapped in their house during the winter, unless they could ski.
The deity associated with skiing is Ull; which is also apparent when it comes to the jarl version of his rune stance. The stance is still taught children in Scandinavia when they are learning to ski; it is referred to as ploughing. It is amongst the first skiing techniques learned; since it is used to slow down when going downhill. Of course none of the parents teaching their kids have a clue that they are teaching what we in stav regard to be a runic posture.
“bending bows, billows ride”
Bending bows refers to the art of shooting with bows, or archery; both as a martial art and for hunting. It connects with the previous line; Ull is also the god of archery. The name of Ulls rune is “Yr” which linguistically relates to the yew tree; traditionally the preferred tree of making bows. According to Norse myths the domain of Ull is called Ydalar, the valley of the yew. This is one of the instances were the connection between a deity and rune as it is described within stav can be confirmed. By using a logical approach to the preserved knowledge, it is possible to reverse some of these connections; especially when we already have the key as we do in stav.
The oral stav tradition tells that the stav bow was a quite odd creation; it was a combination of a spear and a bow, it had a spearhead attached at one end. Another interesting thing in the oral myths of stav is that the bow could be used as an improvised shield; redirecting the attack by having the attackers axe bounce back of the string. It is said that the recoil when the weapon hits the string is quite powerful and the attackers own weapon could potentially harm himself on return.
“To ride the billows” means to ride the waves by using a boat, the word billows imply that this refers to the ocean and not a small lake. To be able to travel on a boat would traditionally demand skills; especially to be able to cross the ocean. Being able to travel over the sea shows that the traditional stav practitioners did not see themselves as confined by their geography.
Traveling by boat was a venture that demanded resources, and it is a statement on where the traditional stav practitioners would see themselves in society. A farmer (the karl class) would perhaps never be able to cross an ocean by boat, and if a farmer were able to travel on a boat it would be because he was accepted there by the owner of the boat; therefor he would probably not make a bold statement that he was able to ride the billows.
“staves are done, by Heimdall´s sons” – ties the whole poem together. Staves are done is the seventh knowledge described within the poem- seven is a key number within stav. Staves refer to the staves that constructs the runes, and doing staves refers to performing the rune stances; which is the most essential practise within the stav tradition. This is essentially where the name stav derives from.
To be able to do all the varieties of the stances demands a lot of knowledge about the runes and how the galders within the tradition is performed. Knowing the runes out of a stav perspective demands knowledge beyond using the runes as letters.
“By Heimdall´s sons”; stav is in essence an intellectual spiritual tradition devoted to Heimdall. Heimdall is seen as the god of knowledge and education, and this poem is about the expected knowledge of the traditional stav practitioner.
The traditional stav practitioners claimed to be descendants of Heimdall, which can come across as somewhat strange to a modern person. But it was quite common that Scandinavian nobility claimed to descend from Norse deities, this was an important aspect of the pre-Christian cult. During the middle ages they actually had to make up how the deities related to Jesus; since people did not want to abandon their claim to be related to Norse gods.
This does not exclude anyone; out of a stav perspective we all descend from the deities; it does not matter if we are aware of it or not. Anyone that follows the teachings within stav will honour their relation to Heimdall; and strengthen their bond to him. As a devoted student of stav I consider myself to be a son of Heimdall; both spiritually and philosophically. Working with this tradition will change you; it is just your ego that set the boundaries on how much you are able to change.
To sum it all up; the stav poem is a statement or a declaration. The poem describes people that would be able to live and prosper in all the natural elements; they would be able to utilize dogs, horses and falcons in the open landscape and in the forests. They would be able to ski during the winters and hunt with an arrow and a bow. They were able to travel the oceans. They had an intellectual and spiritual approach to the myths through their connection to Heimdall.
Since I always like to work with the methods within the tradition, I constructed a bind rune that visualises the information in the poem. This bind rune was very helpful when I memorized the content of the poem. This bind rune shows how specifically you can use the runes within the stav tradition when you are aware of their associations.
The way that we work with bind runes within the stav tradition is really similar to the way that Snorri Sturluson describes how to work with verse in his Edda. This part is amongst the most beneficial portions of Snorris work; out of a spiritual perspective, yet most people seem to ignore these chapters.
When we work with bind runes, we utilize the associations of the runes, and the mythological relations and connections around the rune. Sometimes we also use counterparts and opposites, very similar to how Snorri describes kennings. The Eddas work with words, stav uses graphical methods to illustrate the mythology; but when I have worked with it intensively I have noticed that it often enough ends up in the same place.
The purpose with both the poetry and the stav bind runes is to develop a very different way to use our brain compared to how most modern people seems to think. It essentially develops a very esoteric and spiritual way of thinking. Those who is trained in this art will become aware of patterns and under laying information. The student will be able to see things that is hidden to most people. The only negative thing that I have experienced is; that the more I develop this way of using my brain- the harder I find it to relate to modern people.
How old is the poem?
It is basically impossible to date this poem with certainty; the poem consists of fairly modern Norwegian words. Perhaps the poem has been linguistically updated? Perhaps the poem is a newer construction following the old Norse traditions of poetry?
But there are parallels to this poem, and to find them we need to go far back; to the preserved Norse literature. Within the poem Rigstula we find something very similar when we come to Jarl, the personification of the jarl class. Just as stav; Rigstula centres around Heimdall. Rigstula describes how Heimdall created and educated all the classes except the herse class. According to stavs philosophy Heimdall is still mainly the patron of the jarl class, since he is a bearer and transferor of knowledge.
Rigstula, stanza 35:
To grow in
did Jarl begin;
Shields he brandished,
and bow-strings wound;
bows he shot,
and shafts he fashioned;
Arrows he loosened, and lances wielded,
Horses he rode, and hounds unleashed;
Swords he handled, and sounds he swam.
Rigstula describes almost the same skills as described by the stav poem. There are two references to spears and three to archery; if we regard these as redundant information this poem actually describes seven skills just as the stav poem. But this verse does not mention runes, it is addressed in the next stanza of Rigstula.
In the Orkneyingers' Saga, who describes the history of the jarls of Orkney; there is a poem accredited to Kale Kolsson. He describes that he knows nine skills, amongst them knowledge of the runes:
I play with open hand,
games and feats so skilful nine;
writing runes to me comes ready;
books I read and smith's work furnish;
I can glide on snow-shoon swift;
doughtily I shoot and row;
Either stands at my behest,
sweep of harp or burst of song."
This poem is also very similar to the stav poem. Kale can play draught, which refers to the ancient board game Tafl, similar to chess. Kale knows the runes, he reads books, he can do smiting and ski. He can shoot a bow and he can row a boat. He can play the harp and knows how to make poetry.
Altogether Kale gives the impression of being a culturally achieved person. Which is expected, he comes from the top level of society. Kale is one of the jarls of Orkney, and he descended from the mythical jarls of Møre in Norway. The oral history of stav connects stavs origin partly to the jarls of Møre.
No matter if the stav poem is ancient or a more recent expression of someone’s creativity; it shows how well stav follows Norse tradition. The poem is written in an ancient form of verse that most modern people of Scandinavia have never heard of. Most of the skills mentioned would not be seen as more than trivia to a modern person; but to anyone living in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago it would have been seen a statement of belonging to the nobility.
The stav poem in Norwegian:
på ski farer,