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"The Problem of Harbard:
An Investigation Concerning Harbardsljod"
by William P. Reaves

Ok, here goes, I'll make this as short as possible (A tip of the hat there to Jan De Vries for the title! Honor those that came before you! ): 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.

Note, 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 referring 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 immediately after Harbard reveals his name. True Odin can change his shape, but the weight of evidence in the poem itself indicates that this is not Odin, but rather his blood-brother (Lokasenna 9), and every bit the Loki of Lokasenna.

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 Fjörgynn (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 not in any of the realms ruled by the gods, but rather in enemy territory, and thus in Jotunheim. Still, he is not afraid to give 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 archaic 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 toward gods and man. 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 ("Fjörgynn 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 type of hostility toward the gods, their duties, and their charges is characteristic of Loki, not the true Harbard (Odin).

This Harbard is no run of the mill rascal either; 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 proceeded with a whole host of warriors drawn from Egil's chalet (the home of Elves) on the shores of the Elivagar river (Thorsdrapa 2). The poem refers to them as "Vikings" (str. 8) and speaks of Thjalfi "and his companions." (str. 9) 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 particularly characterized by a spear-battle, and the very words "geir a rjoda" have the ring of the name Geir-rod, "Spear-red". The
skald has made clear which battle he refers to with poetic-clarity.

The next adventure of Harbard's that bears examination is found in strophe 30. Here Harbard says that "I was east conferring with an 'einhverja.' 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 "einhverja" has a somewhat vague meaning, "a certain woman," "some woman." Thus the sentence translates to the awkward sounding, "I was east conferring with someone." This is generally how the text is translated, however there is another possibility. While Codex Regius has "einhverju," Codex Arne Magnusson has the word "einheriu." The word "einheriu" is found nowhere else and indicates 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 we have an alternate reading, that says that 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; also possibly "Tyr's" mother in Hymirskvida).

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. On the whole, this description applies to a single known myth. In Voluspa 57, 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 "einheriu," 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 adulterous relations with her. As we know that Loki cut off Sif's hair, a sign of adultery in ancient times (see Tacitus, Germania, Ch. 19), 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 surely 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. Other than the name itself, little or nothing in Harbardsljod indicates that Harbard could be Odin. Loki's use of Allfather's name is another example of the mockery and shameless cynicism which characterize this "sveinna sveinn," Harbard, throughout the poem Harbardsljod. And, if I may be so bold to suggest it, this misidentification of Harbard has led many a scholar to false conclusions in regard to the character of Odin, the highest god.


William Reaves