Myth Study: The Lay of Harbard

Thor was traveling back from the East and came upon a body of water he needed to cross. He spotted a ferryman on the other side and called out to him. “Who is this knave of knaves (Larrington says pipsqueak) who stand at the other side of the inlet?”. The ferryman (who was Odin in disguise) called back to him, “Who is that peasant calling from over the gulf?”. Thor yells back to the ferryman that he has a basket of food that he would give him in exchange for taking him across the water, and then goes on to say that it was some of the best food and he had already had his fill of a great breakfast of oats and herring before starting his journey. At this, Odin says “you brag about your breakfast but what you don’t know is I believe your mother is dead”. Thor said it would be sad news for many if that were true, and ask again for the ferryman to come give him a ride. But then Odin mocks Thor’s appearance saying that Thor looks like he doesn’t own three farms or dwellings, is dressed like a beggar and doesn’t even have real pants. So Thor tells him to bring the boat on over and he’ll show him the landing of his home, and proceeded to ask who owned the boat the ferryman was driving. Odin says Hildolf is the one who owns the boat and that he had been told not to ferry anyone who was a robber, horse-thief, or who he didn’t know. Then he added “tell me your name if you want to cross the water”. Thor said he would tell him his name. Thorpe translation says “although I am an outlaw along with my family”, and Larrington says “even if I was an outlaw and also my family”. Either way, Thor tells his name regardless of whether he is wanted or not. He goes on to say he is Odin’s son, Meili’s brother, and father of Magni, the god’s leader. Odin says his name is Harbard (or gray-beard), and that he rarely hid his name. Thor ask why one would ever hide their name at all unless they had committed some crime. Odin then takes another shot of wits at Thor saying “criminal or not I would still defend my life against someone like you unless it was my fated death day”. Thor responds “it will be very unpleasant to have to get myself wet coming after. I’ll pay you back for your words if I have to come over there you infant!”. Here, Odin taunts Thor saying “I’ll wait for you. And I’ll be the strongest opponent you’ve had since you killed Hrungir”. “You speak of my killing that stone-headed giant?”, Thor asked. “I fell him with no trouble. But what were you doing meanwhile, Harbard?”. Odin says he was fighting a battle five winters long, slaughtered many, faced many perils, and laid with many women. Thor asked how the had gotten that many women to take him. Odin then says he used his cunning with them and laid with seven sisters. And follows with the ongoing refrain of “What were you doing?”. Thor tells how he killed Thiassi and cast the old giant’s eyes into heaven as stars that still can be seen today, “What did you do then Harbard?”. Here Odin tells how he used magic and cunning to entice the witches from their husbands and how the Jotun Hlebard gave him a magic staff that he then used it against Hlebard to bewitch him. Thor called him out on this saying “you repaid him evil for the good gift he gave you”. Odin’s response was basically “every man has to look out for himself. What were you doing then?”. Thor tells him he was in the east slaying giants and that they would have multiplied to greatly and would have left none of mankind alive in Midgard if he hadn’t. So Odin then boast of how he was in Valland and followed war and excited princes to war never to be reconciled. Then he says “Odin has the nobles who fall, but Thor gets only their servants”. Thor here points out, somewhat like Gangleri did in the Prose Edda, “you would divide them among the Aesir unequally if you had that power”. Odin then mocked Thor about the time he hid in the glove on the journey to Utgard. So Thor, again trying to prove his bravery and strength, tells of the time he was in the east and the sons of Svarang attacked him with rocks but they didn’t win and had to “sue for “peace”. Again he asked Odin, “What about you?”. Odin tells him he was in the east with a certain woman he calls “gold-bright” having long conversations. Then, in Thorpe’s translation he says he delighted her and “the game amused her”. But Larrington’s translation says he made her happy and “the girl gave me pleasure”. Whichever the case, when Thor asked if the lady was good to Harbard, Odin says he could have used Thor’s help to hold her down and Thor agrees he would have helped with that for him had he been there. Thor then said he fought Berserker’s wives who had bewitched everyone. Odin said it was shameful to fight women, but Thor told him they were she-wolves “scarcely women” and they had threatened him and chased Thialfi. The two continue to go back and forth like this for quite some time. Odin tells Thor he was being part of battle sent to raise banners. Thor says that seems to be a threat of war against him and the Aesir. Odin tells him he’ll give him a gold arm band if he agrees to a settlement between them. This angers Thor and he ask “where did you learn such talk?” Odin says he learned it from “ancient men who live in the woods at home”. Thor says “That’s giving a good name to burial mounds if that’s what you call them”. Odin’s reply here is simply “That’s how I think of them”. Thor then got more upset and tells Odin that his words will get him hurt if he makes it across the water and says “you’ll howl louder than a wolf if you get a blow from my hammer”. So Odin tells Thor “you’re wife, Sif, is has a lover at home. He’s the one you should get that blow from your hammer”. Thor accuses the old man of lying but Odin quickly tells him again that it’s true. Then he says “You’re slow on your journey, you’d be much father along if you had managed to get in the boat”. Thor tells Odin “you’ve held me up too long”, only to have the old man reply “I would never have believed that mighty Thor would let a ferryman make a fool out of him”. Thor yells back the old man saying “I’ll give you some advice. Row over here now. Come and meet the father of Magni!”. “Go around it”, Odin said. Thor asked how and Odin told him the way to go around to a particular tree, and a particular stone, and then Thor’s mother would meet him and guide him the rest of the way home. Thor asked him if he would be able to make it today, and was told he would make it if he quit talking and stay steady going. Thor then tells Odin, still unaware it is Odin he’s speaking to, “I’ll conversation will be short now since you only answer me in jeers. But I will pay back for refusing to ferry me if I ever see you again”. At this, Odin tells him “Go where the fiends will find you”. And the poem ends here.

Discussion:

  1. We have here yet another case of Thor coming back from the East. We know that Jotunheim is in the East and Thor very often goes out hunting giants. Is this yet him coming back from yet another one of his trips of “thrashing trolls”?
  2. It seems a bit rude to meet someone and instantly insult them. But it is also not uncommon for Thor to spout off when he’s annoyed. Some people say this is just another case of a flyting. However, someone still has to start a flyting, and especially when its between strangers. But, we see quite a few times Thor seems shocked that the man is responding the way he is, and even says at the end how wrong it was to only respond to him with jeers. So was Thor wanting to start a little battle of wits? Or was he just being insulting and not expecting a mere ferryman to shoot back so well? In either case, why was Odin doing it? With him putting such importance on wit and wisdom, was he trying to test his simply trying to test his son in this area?
  3. When Odin says his name is Harbard and that he rarely hid his name, we know this isn’t necessarily true. He very frequently went about giving false names to hide his identity just as he did here with Thor. Is this more testing on his part? Or is it some safety precaution he takes in case he comes across an enemy who may mean him harm?
  4. We know from anthropology and archaeology that women were much more equal in Norse society than we had once been taught. So why is it that Thor and Odin both discussed holding down the woman he wanted as if it were okay yet Odin called it shameful to fight women? Is it because of an outdated way of thinking about men being the macho stronger gender and getting what they want? Or are these examples such as having their way with women simply a christianized and patriarchal injection into the lore? IF it is the idea that men are better and women are “less than”, then why is it that the thing that made Thor finally give up was being told that his wife was having an affair? For him to give up so quickly, would seem that he did actually love her not simply owning her.

That’s all I have for the moment. As always, feel free to comment and discuss your thoughts, and I will respond as quickly as able. See you soon. Blessings to you all.

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