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Þing goða—The Mythological Assembly Site
Nanna Løkka

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 5 (2013): 18–27

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N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 18 Introduction In this article, I will examine the assembly and the assembly site as portrayed in the mythological sources (cf. Riisøy 2013 [this volume]). The primary question I set out to explore is: What do the descriptions of things in mythological sources tell us about the position of the thing within the pre-Christian culture of the Viking period?1 It seems natural to assume the existence of some sort of ideological relationship between the historical assembly site and the depictions of its mythological counterpart. It is a traditional assumption that during the Viking age, the thing fulfilled a whole range of functions within the specific geographic area with which it was associated (whether this was local or regional). It was not only a social gathering—where individuals drank, traded, and played games—and a key institution for maintaining peace and the social order, but also had crucial functions in terms of the community’s relations to the outside world, such as the creation of alliances, declaring war, and making peace. There was also a socioeconomic side to the activities performed at the assembly site: agreements could be made about marriage and inheritance, and markets were also probably arranged to coincide with the meetings held there (e.g., Brink 2004; Helle 2001:81–83; Sigurdsson 2008:28,64; Roesdahl 2012:67). The mythological thing site, as we shall see, was ascribed several of these functions in its various portrayals in the mythological sources. Furthermore, the Old Norse word þing seem to have had a range of meanings, sometimes referring to the large-scale assembly, sometimes to meetings of smaller groups of men to decide on matters of law, and sometimes to more informal meetings. It is not always possible to pin down the exact sense in which the term is being used in individual cases. In relation to the actual society of the period, the ON term þing is used to refer both to the assembly of free men within a particular area—that is, the body that met to resolve conflicts and to discuss matters of common interest—and to the physical place where the assembly met (Beck et al. 1999:Ding, Miller 1990:ch. 7, Sigurðsson 2008:60–65, Steinsland 2005:370). The same dual meaning is also found within the mythological sources. Accordingly, the distinction between the assembly as a place and the assembly as the practices or institutions associated with that place will to a certain degree be in flux throughout this article’s examination of the mythological motif of the thing. Within the mythological sources I will be examining, the motif of the assembly site is constructed not just in terms of the physical place itself, but also through references to the distinctive functions performed at that location—that is, meetings of the local council to discuss pressing social matters, or to decide on legal questions and pass judgment on specific cases. As a result, I will look not just at those sources that refer to the assembly site per se, but also at others that document the types of actions that were likely to take place at the thing. The mythological sources tell us little about the actual physical shape of the thing site. These sources deal more with functional matters than with physical arrangements. Grimnir’s Sayings (Grímnismál) contains a somewhat stylized description of topographical aspects of the assembly site, but in the eddic poems in general the thing site is mostly linked to particular actions and types of behavior. This emphasis is also reflected in the associated lexicography: the poems refer as much to actions and events as they do to the physical place itself when dealing with the theme of the assembly site.2 Þing goða—The Mythological Assembly Site Nanna Løkka* Abstract - The question of whether and how the legal and the religious domains may have interacted within pre-Christian Norse society has been treated in various ways by scholars from a range of different fields; still, much remains opaque regarding the links between the two in the Viking period. With this article, I hope to contribute to the study of this aspect of the Viking period by focussing on assembly and the assembly site as portrayed in the mythological eddic poems. The primary question I set out to explore is: What do the descriptions of things in mythological sources tell us about the position of the thing within the pre-Christian culture of the Viking period? I account for the various occurrences of the assembly-site motif, and examine how they are constructed. While examining these occurrences, I discuss how they can be interpreted in a larger religious context. Debating the Thing in the North I: The Assembly Project Journal of the North Atlantic *Høgskolen i Telemark, Halvard Eikas plass, 3800 Bø i Telemark, Norway; Nanna.lokka@hit.no. 2013 Special Volume 5:18–27 N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 19 Method In what follows, I will account for the various occurrences of the assembly-place motif within the mythological poems. Closer analysis of these poems has revealed that the assembly site plays an important part in their narrative structuring (Løkka 2010:ch. 4, Thorvaldsen 2006:95–96). A significant part of the activities of the gods is taken up with meetings at the assembly site, and the thing site accordingly figures as a central mythological motif within the source material. In the following, I will analyze the motifs as they appear in the mythological poems and discuss the different elements they involve. References to the thing site in particular and to the institution of the thing in general can be found in a number of poems. Compared to the other places in Asgard—in terms of both its function within the narratives and the frequency of its occurrence—the motif of the thing site holds an extraordinary position (Løkka 2010). In spite of its relative prominence within the poems, however, the mythological thing site has so far received little critical attention among researchers. Indeed, as far as I have been able to discover, prior to the exploration of the topic in my 2010 doctoral dissertation, the thing remained unexamined as a mythological motif. The literary functions of meetings held at the thing, on the other hand, have been thoroughly examined by Bernt Øyvind Thorvaldsen (2006:94–96), who has shown how thing meetings have a clear function within the narrative structures of several of the eddic poems. These meetings seem to create breaks in the various narratives, serving to indicate the seriousness of a particular situation. Meetings at the thing constitute both peaks and critical turning points within the narrative structures of the poems. Significantly, Thorvaldsen (2006:95) argues that “the thing of the gods marks the transition from a critical situation to a re-establishing of order” (my translation). The assembly site is mentioned once in Hymir’s Poem (Hymiskviða) and Baldr’s Dreams (Baldrs draumar), and twice in Thrym’s Poem (Þrymskviða), and I will look more closely at the relevant stanzas later in the article.3 I will also take a closer look at The Seeress’s Prophecy (Völuspá), where the meetings of the gods at the thing make up a recurring theme. The Seeress’s Prophecy includes seven references to meetings at the thing, although four of them are a repeated refrain. The thing is also mentioned three times in Grimnir’s Sayings, where the thing site forms part of the topographical descriptions of Asgard. For its part, Sayings of the High One (Hávamál) advises of conduct for humans gatherings at the thing site. It thus seems safe to conclude that the mythological thing has a prominent place in the eddic poems: it appears in numerous stanzas and is the location in Asgard that is mentioned most frequently. Indeed, in some of the poems, it is even difficult to distinguish between Asgard and the thing site (Løkka 2010:121). The Old Norse word þing is used when reference is made to the actual physical site of the assembly site. At other times, however, it is first and foremost the expressions dómr/dæma and gengo á röcstóla that are used in the poetic/mythological language in relation to the thing (see Table 1).4 Grimnir’s Sayings Let us begin by taking a closer look at how the thing is depicted in Grimnir’s Sayings. Here, the focus is not on the thing as a physical location; rather, it is the act of passing judgement—dæma—that is mentioned. In other words, it is a functional aspect of the thing site that is highlighted in the relevant stanzas. However, a key element of Grimnir’s Sayings consists of various attempts to describe the landscape of Asgard, and in stanzas 29–30 the thing is depicted in the context of its relationship to this landscape.5 Körmt oc Örmt / oc Kerlaugar tvær / þeir scal Þórr vaða / hverian dag / er hann dæma ferr / at asci Yggdrasils / þvíat ásbrú / brenn öll loga / heilog vötn hlóa. Table 1. References to the thing in eddic poems. Poem Reference to thing The Seeress’s Prophecy (Völuspá) gengo á röcstóla (stanzas 6, 9, 23, 26), þing (stanza 48) Sayings of the High One (Hávamál) þing (stanza 25, 61, 114) Hymir’s Poem (Hymiskviða) þing (stanza 39) Baldr’s Dreams (Baldrs Draumar) þing (stanza 1) Thrym’s Poem (Þrymskviða) þing (stanza 14) Grimnir’s Sayings (Grímnismál) dæma (stanzas 29, 30), þing (stanza 49) In the heroic poems, there are six references to the thing: The Lay of Sigrdrifa (Sigrdrífumál) stanzas 12 and 24, A Short Poem about Sigurd (Sigurðarkviða in skamma) stanza 27, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (Atlamál) stanza 101, The Second Lay of Gudrun (Guðrúnarkviða II) stanza 4, and Heiðreksgátur stanza 31. N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 20 Körmt and Örmt / and the two Kettle-baths / Thor must wade through these / each day / when he journeys to judgement / close by the ash Yggdrasil / since the Æsir-bridge / burns all aflame / the hallowed waters seethe. Glaðr oc Gylli / , Glær oc Sceiðbrimir / Silfrintoppr oc Sinir / Gísl oc Falhófnir / Gulltoppr oc Léttfeti / þeim ríða æsir ióm / dag hvern / er þeir dæma fara / at asci Yggdrasils. Glad and Golden / Glær and Skeidbrimir / Silvertop and Sinir / Gísl og Falhófnir / Gold-top and Light-foot / these are the horses the Æsir ride / each day / when they journey to judgement / close by the ash Yggdrasil. In the above stanzas, the motif identified is the meeting of the gods’ every day under Yggdrasil to pass judgement. In both stanzas, references to the judging function is juxtaposed with lists of mythological names. Stanzas 27–29 contain a list of river names. In stanza 29, links are made between the judgements carried out in the vicinity of Yggdrasil and a number of other elements: a bridge, flames, and water. The details of the connections are unclear, however, and the relationship between the thing and Yggdrasil is also somewhat hazy. A further list in stanza 30 concerns horses. Thematically, however, stanza 29 is linked both to stanzas 27–28 and to stanza 30, thus forming a transition between three different elements: rivers, the thing site, and horses. Reference to the thing is made through the use of almost the same phrase in both stanzas. In stanza 29, the text reads “Hverian dag / er hann dæma ferr / at asci Yggdrasils”, while in stanza 30 we read “dag hvern / er þeir dæma fara / at asci Yggdrasils”. Both stanzas consist of a þula, that is a list, and what might have been a fixed formula. My purpose, however, is not to discuss how fixed formulae are used in the poems, but rather to explore how motifs are created and how the mythological language that is used to do this can be interpreted. And, in the two stanzas examined here, alongside the above-mentioned element of action (judging or dæma), the motif is composed of two fixed and two variable elements. In addition to identifying the geographic location of the motif—in the vicinity of Yggdrasil—the fixed elements establish a particular sense of time. Use of the expression hvern dag—“every day”—endows the actions to which it refers with something of an institutional form and a ritual character. Through the use of this expression, it is emphasized that these are collective, planned activities related to the socioreligious dimensions of the society described. The thing is located close to Yggdrasil in both stanzas, a positioning that is also emphasized in Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning 15). The thing is accordingly given an explicit physical link to the cosmic tree. Locating the thing within the mythological landscape in this manner may be an allusion to the central position of the thing within Norse religion and culture. Indeed, given what is often regarded as Yggdrasil’s central importance as an overarching cosmic symbol, locating the thing in such close physical proximity to it may be viewed as an indication of the significance both of the thing and of law, and of how this dimension of the culture acts as a key concept for the entire world order. There are also variable elements in these two stanzas from Grimnir’s Sayings. In the first verse, these are rivers—in other words, water—and in the second, horses—or, more precisely, the domesticated riding horses used by the gods. There seems to be a deliberate element of contrast in the ways in which the names of the rivers and those of the horses are constructed. Whereas the names of the rivers seem to have negative connotations, the horses have positive names related to wealth and control. From this, we might deduce that the motif of the thing site, in the way in which it is constructed and used here, signifies a contrast between the wild and untamed and the controlled and tamed (cf. Hale 1983). The water and the horses used for riding can be interpreted in terms of the classical opposition between nature and culture. The water is untamed and impossible to control, whereas the horses have been domesticated and brought under divine control. Yet, free-flowing water and domesticated horses might also be interpreted as parallel symbols within a wider cosmological symbol system, since both can be used to symbolize nature and the natural in the sense of its potential for being cultivated, harnessed or transformed into useful and important elements of a given culture. From this perspective, both elements might also be understood as symbols of culture. In other words, the symbols are potentially multivalent, not simple. Not surprisingly, rivers seem to divide up the mythological landscape and function as borders within it (Løkka 2010:141–145, Wellendorf 2006). In these particular stanzas, allusion is made to how the rivers mentioned function in such a way. Since Thor must wade across rivers to get to the assembly site, we may assume that the rivers act as a physical barrier to entry into this sacred area. The description, of course, may be intended purely symbolically—the enclosure of the area may simply mean that access to the place is not available for everyone. However, N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 21 it is also important to remember that waterways also acted as vital means of communication within Norse society. Even so, rivers may have functioned as borders for particular places, while they were also important means of communication. Accordingly, perhaps the simplest explanation of the linking of horses and rivers in this passage is that the thing was a central meeting-place associated both with travelling and with different means of transport. Another variable element in these stanzas is the actor: Thor is the protagonist in stanza 29, whereas in stanza 30 it is the Æsir taken as a whole. In other words, it is the gods in general and Thor in particular that are linked to the passing of judgements and the thing site within Grimnir’s Sayings. However, if we look at the actor issue in the context of the atmosphere created by the names of the rivers and horses in these stanzas, we may catch a glimpse of a possible underlying meaning. Acting alone, Thor is juxtapositioned with names of rivers that suggest wildness and untamed nature, while acting as a collective, the gods are juxtaposed with horses whose names evoke an atmosphere of control, power, and wealth. Such a reading suggests that what is being promoted in the eddic poems is an ethos of community, a collective ideal (Løkka 2010: e.g., 209–210, 258, 264). Taken together, these two stanzas from Grimnir’s Sayings provide a somewhat schematic description of the motif of the assembly site. It seems natural to assume that this linking of the thing and Yggdrasil is of some significance. Furthermore, even though the symbolic language employed here may be interpreted in a number of different ways, there seems to be an underlying contrast between nature and culture, between the untamed and the tamed, and between the individual and the collective. Baldr’s Dreams In another of the mythological poems, Baldr’s Dream, the story opens with all of the gods assembled at the thing—“á þingi”. Stanza 1 declares: Senn vóro æsir / allir á þingi / oc ásynior / allar á máli / oc um þat réðo / ríkir tívar / hví væri Baldri / ballir draumar. All at once / the gods were gathered / and all the goddesses / came to speak / the mighty deities had a discussion / why Baldr’s dreams / were foreboding. Since Baldr’s Dreams is an epic poem and since the opening of the story is localized at the thing site, this specific location can be seen as forming a key part of the poem’s spatial structure (similar structures can be found in several poems; Løkka 2010:ch. 5). However, besides functioning as a physical scene in this story, the thing site also has a function in the narrative as such: the assembly meeting functions as a warning of Baldr’s imminent death. As we will see, this can be compared to how the various assembly meetings function in the literary construction of The Seeress’s Prophecy, where meetings at the thing site signal the seriousness of the situation and point to the inevitable apocalypse that has already been determined by destiny. In Baldr’s Dreams, the meeting at the thing site leads to a journey to the underworld. We are not told what was decided at the meeting, but the result is that Odin travels to Hel in search of knowledge about Baldr’s destiny and most probably in an effort to prevent the disastrous event of Baldr’s death from occurring. According to Snorri’s Edda, Odin does not succeed in preventing Baldr’s demise, but the journey he makes grants him insight into hidden wisdom related to fate and the future. The poem thus highlights what might be described as a characteristic trait of Old Norse religion: even the gods are subordinate to fate. No specific details of the physical features of the thing site are provided in this account. Rather, it is the functional aspect of the thing site as a location for collective strategic discussions that is accentuated in Baldr’s Dreams.6 In addition to its role as the place where counsel is sought and decisions are taken, the thing’s functions also seem to be related to actions that lead to insights into hidden wisdom—in other words, ritual. In the opening scene of Baldr’s Dreams, all of the gods are gathered at the thing—that is, it is emphasized that both the gods and the goddesses are present. In this way, it is intimated that the thing was also connected with feminine powers. As becomes clearer later on, this meeting involves a dynamic interplay between the individual and the collective. It is Baldr as an individual who is troubled by bad dreams, but his personal challenge is laid before the assembly—the collective meeting—for discussion. Accordingly, it is clear that Baldr’s personal problem—the bad dreams he has been having—is regarded as something that concerns the whole community. The dynamic at play here is similar to the one that exists between the pantheon at the thing site and Odin’s individual journey to Hel, where Odin acts on behalf of the community in a strategic and planned performance. Along with the collective aspects of the events that take place at the thing, emphasis is placed on N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 22 the relationship between the thing site and destiny. Though the gods strive to prevent Baldr’s predicted fate from materializing, they do not succeed. The mythical narrative clearly illustrates how fate is both prior to and more powerful than the will of the gods. The gods use the most powerful means they have at their disposal—the meeting at the thing site, their collective assembly, followed by ritual travel—but Baldr’s fate is ineluctable. The myth thus explores the hierarchy of power that exists within the cosmos: fate is superior to the gods, whose best tool for controlling external events is their assembly meetings. Fate is thus above the law. Thrym’s Poem In Thrym’s Poem, the thing provides the physical frame for an entire passage, and as in Baldr’s Dreams, the thing site forms part of the narrative’s spatial structure. All of the events in stanzas 14–21 occur at the thing site. However, since most of the stanzas involve dialogue, not all of them are important here. The thing site as a motif is first and foremost established in stanzas 14: Senn vóro æsir / allir á þingi / oc ásynior / allar á máli / oc um þat réðo / ríkir tívar / hvé þeir Hlórriða / hamar um sætti. At once all the gods / were gathered / and all the goddesses / came to speak / the mighty deities / made a plan / as to how they might restore / Hlórridi’s hammer. A catastrophe is occurring in the realm of the gods, and the Æsir meet to discuss how to resolve it. As we saw in Baldr’s Dreams, the gods then hold their meeting at the thing, and this results in one of them being sent on a journey. Note how the first long line is identical with the first long line in the first stanza of Baldr’s Dreams. Whereas the meeting in Baldr’s Dreams was connected to the bad dreams Baldr had been having, this time it is Thor’s hammer that has gone missing and must be returned to Asgard. Additional similarities between the narrative structures of the two poems can also be seen further on (Thorvaldsen 2006:95). But, where it is Odin that will undertake the journey in Baldr’s Dreams, it is Thor and Loki who will do the travelling in Thrym’s Poem. As in Baldr’s Dreams, it is emphasized that the gods act as a collective, as a community. It is Thor’s hammer that has been stolen, but the crisis is addressed by the entire pantheon, and it is the gods acting together that will find a solution to the disaster. They resolve the crisis through cooperation, agreeing upon a strategy that will be clearly detrimental for one individual, Thor—who is obliged to dress as a woman, which is damaging for his honor—but obviously necessary for the community as a whole and actually empowering for him too (McKinnell 2000). Thus, the dynamics of the relationship between the individual and the collective are also a key theme in this poem. Clear emphasis seems to be placed on the ideal of the collective. One particular god, Heimdall, plays an important role during the assembly meeting in Thrym’s Poem. His position is described in stanza 15: Þá qvað þat Heimdallr / hvítastr ása / vissi hann vel fram / sem vanir aðrir / ’Bindo vér Þór þá / brúðar líni / hafi hann iþ micla / men Brísinga. Then Heimdall spoke / most sparkling of gods: / he saw far ahead / like the other Vanir / “Let us put Thor / in the bridal veil / let him wear the great / Brísings’ neck-ring”. It may be significant that it is Heimdall who comes up with a solution to the challenging situation. Heimdall seems to have been associated with the social order (Thorvaldsen 2002:94), and it may be that his authority on such matters gives him the requisite legitimacy to lift the taboo related to switching gender roles, as Thor is compelled to do. These stanzas add another functional dimension to our understanding of the thing. On the one hand, the thing is associated with the act of seeking counsel or giving advice—an activity we might expect to see in this context. However, it is also linked here to a very special event of quite an unexpected character: Thor dressing up as a woman. During the two stanzas cited, the assembly site is related to events that are both conventional and predictable, on the one hand, and extraordinary and unexpected, on the other— but both sets seem to be essential for maintaining the cosmic balance. The fact that the decision that Thor should dress up as a woman is taken during a meeting of the thing probably also gives the act of lifting the taboo’s judicial aspect. Norse society had very rigid gender-role definitions with clear rules on what was accepted behavior from the sexes (Meulengracht Sørensen 1983). Since Thor’s acting as a woman is rooted in a decision taken by the thing, a paradox becomes clear. The link between Thor’s indecent behavior and society’s most prominent institution is highlighted, which may indicate that crossing the borders between the sexes was taboo, but also a powerful tool that might be necessary under certain circumstances in order to maintain the cosmological balance. Indeed, numerous examples N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 23 formulation refers instead to a more informal meeting held at Ægir’s hall. In these two stanzas, the thing site is linked to two different props, hverr m., a cauldron, and teinn m., sticks or branches. Both of these may be associated with ritual activity. The cauldron may have had considerable significance within the socio-religious sphere of Norse society (Løkka 2010:150), while the branches are linked to rituals involving foresight and prophecies (Näsström 2001:56–58). Thus, the references to the thing in Hymir’s Poem reveal a connection between the assembly site and various types of ritual activity, including ritual feasting. The Seeress’s Prophecy The motif of the thing is also found in five stanzas of The Seeress’s Prophecy. Four of these begin with identical phrasing, and the repetition of the long line that introduces them creates a certain effect, whereby the meetings at the assembly site form a sort of refrain throughout the first section of the poem, and an internal link is established between the relevant stanzas. Here, it is the term rökstóll that is used to refer to the thing, the term þing occurring only once in The Seeress’s Prophecy (in stanza 48). It is generally agreed that rökstóll means the assembly (site) (Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1999). The word is composed of rök n. pl., which in this context often is translated as “destiny” or “judgement”, and stóll m., which means “chair” or “seat”, especially in the context of positions of prestige and status (Heggstad et.al. 2008:rökstólar, Steinsland and Meulengracht Sørensen 1999). Translated literally, then, rökstóll means “the chair of destiny”—in other words, a place where decisions are made. In The Seeress’s Prophecy, the word appears in the accusative plural, indicating that each of the gods had his own chair. Through the use of the term rök, “destiny”, the author also alludes to the poem’s eschatological theme. The expression may hint at a possible secret teaching according to which the gods are instruments of the norns. In any case, it is clear that the author of The Seeress’s Prophecy, both in this way and through other motives, seeks to emphasize destiny’s role as a principal power in the cosmos. These four instances all occur within the poem’s first refrain, which is used to mark out what is now past. The style of The Seeress’s Prophecy is more learned than that of any of the other mythological poems, and its composition seems to be more in accordance with Christian ideas. Particularly here, then, there are good reasons for being cautious in of similar mechanisms may be observed in various religions throughout the world. Hymir’s Poem In Hymir’s Poem, meetings at the thing site establish a frame for the entire poem, since both the first and the last stanzas (i.e., no 1 and 39) appear to be situated there—though it is only in the last stanza that this explicit location is specified: Ár valtívar / veiðar námo / oc sumblsamir / áðr saðir yrði / hristo teina / oc á hlaut sá / fundo þeir at Ægis / ørkost hvera . Long ago / the slaughter-gods were eating / their hunting-prey / in the mood for a drink / before they were full / they shook the sticks / and looked at the lots: / they learned that at Ægir’s / was a fine crop of cauldrons. Þróttöflugr kom / á þing goða / oc hafði hver / þannz Hymir átti / enn véar hverian / vel scolo drecca / ölðr at Ægis / eitt hörmeitið. The strength-mighty one / came to the gods’ assembly / bringing the cauldron / that Hymir had owned / and the sacred ones / shall drink well / ale-feasts at Ægir’s / at flax-cutting time. As was the case both in Baldr’s Dreams and Thrym’s Poem, it is first and foremost specific activities that are highlighted in the construction of the assembly site motif in Hymir’s Poem. In the first verse, the gods—“valtívar”—meet up after a hunt. They meet to “hristo teina oc á hlaut sá”, shake sticks and look at lots. Both the timing of the meeting—after a hunt—and the specific act with the sticks indicates that these acts are ritual activities. The need for feasting and drinking clearly lies behind the gods’ decision to engage in ritual activity, and through this they find out that they need to visit the giant known as Ægir. When a certain act is repeated ever year, it may be understood as ritual activity. This is what we find in stanza 39, where the expression “hverian eitt hörmeitið”—“every winter”—is used.7 The beer cauldron or kettle, which the gods succeeding in capturing earlier in the mythical narrative, is brought to the thing site in the last verse. By bringing this kettle into their dominions, the gods ensure that they are able to hold their feast every winter. The use of the expression “þing goða” in this verse, I would argue, indicates that an assembly meeting was held before the gods resolved to return to Ægir, though we cannot completely rule out the possibility that the N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 24 This stanza leaves us with several unanswered questions. For one thing, the link between the different motives is unclear. The line of events is as follows: The gods have more than enough gold; the feminine powers “þursa meyiar”, possibly giantesses, appear; the gods then create the dwarves following a council meeting at the thing site. The link between the arrival of the giantesses in stanza 8 and the subsequent assembly meeting in stanza 9, where the main topic of discussion is who will create the dwarves, is far from clear. The connection between the giantesses and the dwarves, which we must assume exists within the mythological/symbolical logic that underlies the poem, is not provided here; nor does it seem that any of the other sources can shed light on this connection. Researchers have usually understood the reference to gold in these stanzas as providing a key to the interpretation. It seems plausible to assume that the giantesses in one way or another deprive the gods of their gold, and that this is why the gods must create the dwarves—so that the latter can produce more gold (Mundal 2001, Steinsland and Meulengracht Sørensen 1999:46 but cf Mundal 2001:196).8 In any event, although the reason for this is unclear, a link seems to be made between the thing and the creation of the dwarves. The next reference to the thing occurs in stanza 23. Here, too, the mythical narrative is unfamiliar: Þá gengo regin öll / á röcstóla / ginnheilog goð / oc um þat gættuz / hvárt scyldo æsir / afráð gialda / eða scyldo goðin öll / gildi eiga, Then all the powers went / to their thrones / of destiny / high-holy gods / and deliberated this / whether the Æsir were obliged / to render tribute / and all the gods were obliged / to pay the price. This time, the gods meet at the thing site to discuss what seems to be whether or not they should demand a fee in a particular circumstance, though the details surrounding the need for such a decision are not made clear. Both the structure and the mythological content of this part of the poem is uncertain, still, it is clear that this particular thing meeting concerns social and judicial arrangements linked to honor and revenge, or to war and peace—in other words, classic matters for the council’s attention. In the next stanza that refers to a meeting at the thing, stanza 25, the gods have assembled to find out who promised Frøya to the giants—a question of betrayal and disloyalty: Þá gengo regin öll / á röcstóla/ ginnheilog goð / oc um þat gættuz / hverir hefði lopt alt / lævi blandit / eða ætt iotuns / Óðs mey gefna, our attempts to draw conclusions about Norse mythology from literary sources (Steinsland 2006). However, since the author is communicating the mythological stories only through fragmentary information, not full stories, we may assume that the whole myth would have been familiar to the audience. The tale told in The Seeress’s Prophecy is structured in terms of a linear, cosmic timeline, with the meetings that occur at the thing site being portrayed as part of this cosmic sequence of events. This contrasts strongly with the other mythological poems, where the main frame of the narrative is spatial rather than temporal. In The Seeress’s Prophecy, the thing meetings are therefore linked to particular events that occur in mythical time, and what is being emphasized is the importance of the assembly’s role within the unfolding cosmic process. In stanza 6, the gods are depicted as meeting at the thing for what is in fact the first time not just in the poem but also in history: Þá gengo regin öll / á röcstóla / ginnheilog goð / oc um þat gættuz / nótt oc niðiom / nöfn um gáfo / morgin héto / oc miðian dag / undorn oc aptan/ árom at telia. Then all the powers went / to their thrones / of destiny / high-holy gods / and deliberated this / to Night and her children / they gave their names: / Morning they called one / another Mid-day / Afternoon and Evening / to tally up the years. This time, the outcome of the meeting is the division of time, which must be understood as a vital event within the process of creation and the establishment of the cosmos. The thing apparently exists before time, which signals just how essential an institution the assembly was seen as being within Norse society. The gods must have established the thing early on in the cosmogonic process, and the thing thereby forms a foundation upon which later developments may rest. In stanza 9, which is also part of the opening cosmogonic pericope, the gods hold another meeting at the thing. From the content, we learn that the dwarves are to be brought into being, and the gods meet to decide upon whom will create them: Þá gengo regin öll / á röcstóla / ginnheilog goð / oc um þat gættuz / hverr scyldi dverga / dróttin scepia / ór Brimis blóði / oc ór Bláins leggiom. Then all the powers went / to their / thrones of destiny / high-holy gods / and deliberated this / who should shape / the troops of dwarfs / from Brimir’s blood / from Bláin’s limbs. N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 25 Then all the powers / went to their thrones / of destiny / high-holy gods / and deliberated this / who had mixed / the whole sky with mischief / or given Ód’s girl / to giants’ kin Though we are not told in The Seeress’s Prophecy who is to blame for this mischief, Snorri points the finger at Loki. Whether Loki’s part in this myth is anchored in the pre-Christian tradition or an interpretation made by Snorri himself is difficult to ascertain. In the next line, stanza 26, it becomes clear that Thor’s wrath leads to the breaking of an oath. It may be that Thor violates the sanctity of the thing site. Though the mythical referent of these stanzas is unknown, it is clear that the agenda for the meeting is once more relatively conventional: an emergency exists in the realm of the gods, who accordingly gather to find a solution to the problem. Stanza 48 almost seems to declare openly that the systematic references to the thing may be no more than a literary means for signalling the seriousness of the situation: Hvat er með ásom / hvat er með álfom / gnýr allr iötunheimr / æsir ro á þingi / stynia dvergar / fyr steindurom / veggbergs vísir/ –vitoð ér enn, eða hvat? What’s with the Æsir? / What’s with the elves? / All Giants’ Domain groans / the Æsir hold council / the dwarfs murmur / before their stone doors / lords of the cliff-wall: /— do you know yet, or what? The meeting of the gods at the assembly site is one of several indications that Ragnarök is drawing nearer. The meeting at the assembly site is juxtaposed with groaning from the realm of the giants and dwarves murmuring in front of the rocks. Through the inclusion of the thing meetings in this context, the poet seems to be indicating that the motif has a certain function in the poem: it signifies that the situation is critical. From the above, we may conclude that also in The Seeress’s Prophecy it is the collective dimension of the thing meetings that is being emphasized. No single god is highlighted in the description of the meeting of the council. And, as we have seen before, it is primarily the functional aspect of the place that is stressed, while the thing site is clearly related to fundamental processes with the cosmic scheme. The thing site is therefore depicted as an institution of utmost importance for the development of the cosmic order. If we view the internal relationships between the different events of The Seeress’s Prophecy as pre-Christian, the thing is created very early on in the development of the cosmos since it is present from the very beginning of time. The institution of the thing is thus a primary social institution that provides the foundation for all later activity. Conclusion To sum up, then, we can see that the thing comprises a central motif within the mythological poems of the Elder Edda. Most of these poems contain descriptions of events that take place at the thing, and the assembly site stands in a clear relationship to numerous mythological motifs and key mythological events. It is at the assembly site that the gods make their decisions and from there that various mythological events originate. I have argued elsewhere that the thing site is perhaps the most important location of all within Asgard (Løkka 2010:210–211). In Hymir’s Poem, Thrym’s Poem, and Baldr’s Dream, the thing actually represents the domain of the gods as a whole; the assembly site corresponds to Asgard (Løkka 2010:121). The analysis presented here reveals that several of the mythological poems explore the thing, and if we accept the poems as older than the manuscripts, they reveal the thing’s position within the pre-Christian world view. The assembly site is by definition a location for collective decision making. This collective dimension seems also to be a key point in terms of understanding the meaning of the thing. In the mythological poems, it is not law as such that plays the key role in the motifs. Rather, it is the counseling and the cooperation between the gods. When a problematic situation arises, the pantheon gathers at the thing to discuss the matter. There are no mentions of the law, while the meetings of the thing represent a collective activity where collaboration and strategy are the most important qualities, rather than individual wishes or needs. This collective aspect of the institution of the thing is an essential element of creation, of the way in which the gods lead their lives, and of their position in the cosmic hierarchy. Even though the law itself is barely mentioned in the mythological poems, attention is nevertheless directed towards it through the centrality of the place given to the thing and the events that take place there. The assembly site brings the law into the landscape, so to speak. According to Danish historian Ole Fenger (1991), a common feature of the legal systems of various Germanic societies was that they consisted of judicial arrangements N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 26 Literature Cited Beck H., D. Geuenich, and H. Steuer ( Ed.) (1999) Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Band 5, 2nd Edition. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, Germany. 605 pp. Brink, S. 2004. Legal assembly sites in early Scandinavia. Pp. 205–216, In A. Pantos and S. Semple (Eds.). Assembly Sites and Practices in Medieval Europe. Four Courts Press, Cornwall, UK. 251 pp. Fenger, O. 1991. Germansk retsorden med særligt henblik på det 7. århundrede. Pp. 155–164, In P. Mortensen and B. Rasmussen (Eds.). Fra Stamme til Stat i Danmark, 2. Høvdingesamfund og kongemagt. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskabs Skrifter XXII: 2, Århus, Denmark. 298 pp. Gurevich, A. Ya. 1969. Space and time in the Weltmodell of the Old Scandinavian peoples. Medieval Scandinavia 2:42–53. Hale, C. 1983. The river names in Grímnismál 27–29. Pp.165–186, In R.J. Glendinning and H. Bessason (Eds.). Edda: A Collection of Essays. University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, MB, Canada. 332 pp. Harris, J. 2005. Eddic Poetry. Pp. 68–156, In C.J. Clover and J. Lindow (Eds.). Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, Canada. 387 pp. Hastrup, K. 1990. Island of Anthropology—Studies in Past and Present Iceland. Odense University Press, Odense, Denmark. 339 pp. Heggstad, L., F. Hødnebø, and E. Simensen 2008. Norrøn ordbok. 5. Utg. Det norske Samlaget, Oslo, Norway. 755 pp. Helle, K. 2001. Gulatinget og gulatingslova. Skald forlag, Leikanger, Norway. 240 pp. Jónsson, F. 1931. Lexicon Poeticum. Ordbog over det norsk-islandske skjaldesprog. 2. Utg. S.L. Møllers bogtrykkeri, København, Denmark. 668 pp. Løkka, N. 2010. Steder og landskap i norrøn mytologi. En analyse av topografi og kosmologi i gudediktene av Den eldre Edda. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. 280 pp. McKinnell, J. 2000 Myth as therapy: The usefulness of Þrymskviða. Medium Ævum 69:1–20. Meulengracht Sørensen P. 1983. The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society. The Viking Collection. Studies in Northern Civilization Vol. 1. Odense University Press, Odense, Denmark. 115 pp. Miller, W.I. 1990. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA. 415 pp. Mundal, E. 2001. Skaping og undergang i Völuspá. Pp. 195–207, In Á. Egilsdottir and R. Simek (Eds.). Sagnaheimur. Studies in Honour of Hermann Pálsson on his 80th Birthday, 26th May 2001. Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia Bd 6, Fassbaender, Wien, Austria. 322 pp. Näsström, B.M. 2001. Blot. Tro og offer i det førkristne Norden. Pax forlag A/S, Oslo, Norway. 229 pp. based on feuding and solving conflicts. Fenger also emphasized how a given society’s legal system primarily applied only to members of that society, and not necessarily to people from outside the community that happened to be on its territory. Fenger’s understanding of the Germanic legal system accords well with what a number of historians have suggested—that the social system and power structure of the Norse society was dependent on feuds and war (see e.g., Miller 1990, Sigurðsson 2008:ch. 7). Chieftains required a minimum level of conflict if they were to maintain their power and position. Such interpretations fit well with what we have been able to read out of the mythological sources. The thing site is primarily related to situations of conflict with “the other”—that is, the giants. The gods represent a community of common law, but in order for this community to function, feuds, conflicts, and enemies are required. The giants thus become a decisive part in the existing social order, for the simple reason that the whole judicial and social system seems to be grounded on the existence of external enemies. Earlier, both Aron I. Gurevich (1969) and Kirsten Hastrup (1990) had come to the conclusion that law had a very central role within the pre-Christian cosmology. Significantly, it should also be noted that the thing is only found in the realm of the gods in the eddic poetry. There is no mention of the assembly site in relation to the realm of the giants, in other words, the thing is an institutional arrangement that is closely linked with the gods and their society. Within the eddic poems, contrasts between the community of the gods and the families of giants make up a recurrent theme, and the presence or absence of social institutions such as the thing is one of the most visible differences between the two domains (Løkka 2010:121). The assembly site is a cornerstone for the realm of the gods and the cosmos. And because of just this key position of the thing, the world of the gods is portrayed as a social and institutional system. I would thus argue that the role of the thing and the thing site within the mythological texts reflects the position of law within Norse society, and that through their emphasis on the thing site, the mythological texts communicate an ethical framework within which ideals of collectivity predominate. Many outstanding questions remain regarding the ideological position of myth in the Old Norse religion, but in the case of the thing there are many indications that suggest that the society’s mythology fulfilled an important ideological function. N. Løkka 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 27 2The quotes from the eddic poems are based on the edition by Neckel and Kuhn (1968). English translations of stanzas from the eddic poems have been included for the reader’s convenience. It should be borne in mind, however, that these have been taken from Andy Orchard’s (2011) translation of the poems, which is not always literal or in line with the actual wording of the Old Norse text. 3The expression á þingi can also be found in Skirnir's Journey (Skirnismál) stanza 38, but there it has the sense of an informal meeting between Gerd and Frey rather than an assembly (Von See et al. 1997:141). A similar use can also be noted in Harbard’s Song (Hárbardslióð) stanza 30, where launþing should be read as a secret meeting and has nothing to do with the assembly as such. 4The verb dæma can have a range of different meanings. I have made a selection from the total number of incidences in an attempt to identify those that are related to the thing. 5The thing is also mentioned in stanza 49 of Grimnir’s Saying, a stanza that lists Odin’s many names. 6Note how ríkir tívar m. pl. is used as the term for the gods in this verse. Týr means god, but it is also the name of a specific deity, and there may be a link between the meaning of this term, on the one hand, and the god Tyr and his supposed functions in relation to law and order, on the other. 7This is an uncertain interpretation based on the kenning hörmeitid, not known from elsewhere (Jónsson 1931). 8Other possible interpretations have been put forward (Mundal 2001:196). Neckel, G., and H. Kuhn (1968) Edda. Text. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Band I. 5. Revised Edition of Hans Kuhn 1983. Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg, Germany. Orchard, A. 2011. The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore. Penguin Books, London, UK. 432 pp. Riisoy, A.I. 2013. Sacred legal places in eddic poetry: Reflected in real life? Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5:28–42. Roesdahl, E. 2012. Vikingernes verden. 8. Utg. Gyldendal Forlag, København, Denmark. 324 pp. Sigurðsson, J.V. 2008. Det norrøne samfunnet—vikingen, kongen, erkebiskopen og bonden. Pax Forlag A/S, Oslo, Norway. 486 pp. Steinsland, G. 2005. Norrøn religion. Myter, riter og samfunn. Pax Forlag A/S, Oslo, Norway. 488 pp. Steinsland, G. 2006. Myten om fremtiden og den nordiske sibyllen. Pp. 93–130, In G. Steinsland (Ed.). Transformasjoner i vikingtid og norrøn middelalder. Unipub forlag, Oslo, Norway. 262 pp. Steinsland, G., and P. Meulengracht Sørensen. 1999. Voluspå. Pax Forlag A/S, Oslo, Norway. 121 pp. Thorvaldsen, B.Ø. 2002. Mögr átta módra ok einnar. Mytane om Heimdallr i lys av forestellingar om slektskap. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway. 109 pp. Thorvaldsen, B.Ø. 2006. Svá er sagt í fornum vísindum: Tekstualiseringen av de mytologiske eddadikt. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway. 296 pp. Von See, K., B. La Farge, E. Picard, I. Priebe, and K. Schulz 1997. Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda. Bd. 2: Götterlieder. Universitätsverlag Carl Winter, Heidelberg, Germany. 575 pp. Wellendorf, J. 2006. Homogeneity and heterogeneity in Old Norse cosmology. Pp. 50–54 , In A. Andrén, K. Jennbert, and C. Raudvere (Eds.). Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives. Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Nordic Academic Press, Lund, Sweden. 416 pp. Endnotes 1The discussion on the source value of the eddic poems has been long and involved, and there is still no consensus among scholars on the issue. There are good reasons to believe that the poems stem from oral tradition, there are also indications of Christian influence. For an overview of some of the relevant literature, see Harris (2005). My own views on this question have been set out in my doctoral thesis (Løkka 2010). And, as a result of the analysis set out in that thesis, I also conclude that the mythological poems are constructed around an understanding of the world that is very different from medieval Christian doctrine, with The Seeress’s Prophecy being the exception to this (Løkka 2010:265). In the present article, the hypothesis that the poems represent an older oral tradition will be followed.