Hárbarðsljóð: the Oedipus myth of the North? CONFERENCE: MEMORIES, EXPERIENCES, PERSPECTIVES The 40th Anniversary of Scandinavian Studies in Gdansk


Myth – as conceptualized by Mircea Eliade – „is thought to express the absolute truth, because it narrates a sacred history; that is, a transhuman revelation which took place at the dawn of the Great Time, in the holy time of the beginnings (in Illo Tempore)” (Eliade, 1967).

The said „truth” of the mythological narrative resides in its psychological function. When people were recounting mythological stories – which in itself belong to the realm of the divine – at the same time they were associating them with the occurrences in the reality that surrounded them, and the „sole existence of the gods was associated with the existence of a storm, the sea, rivers and powerful human emotions”(Armstrong, 2004). In this sense a mythical event happened once but it is also happening again and again. It is a model story in which a psychological process is represented by the existence of the gods; a psychological process re-enacted continuously inside of every one of us – as well as between people – in social processes, in which we all participate.

Across the years the Norse myths have been analyzed by experts from various fields – such as archaeology, history or philology to name just a few – yet psychologists rarely have paid them any attention, which becomes even more surprising if we consider the amount of effort they’ve been putting into investigations of Greek mythology. I believe that it is time to finally make up for this omission and see what contribution we – as psychologists – have to offer.

My paper will discuss Hárbarðsljóð, which tells a story about a verbal duel between thunder god Thor and enigmatic ferryman, who introduces himself as Harbard but is no other than Odinn in disguise. In that sense, the Norse myth is a retelling of a world-known narrative about competition between father and son. The first psychologist to acknowledge the significance of this motive was Sigmund Freud, who studied Greek mythology and the story about Oedipus. I will start from summarizing briefly his findings and then move on to the work of one of his successors, namely Loewald, who analyzed Freud’s theory in detail and his musings added much to its depth.

In the second part of my essay I’m going to shift attention back to the Hárbarðsljóð and take a closer look at its structure: at this point I must mention the great inspiration that comes from the work of Carol Clover, whose article on Hárbarðsljóð presents an entirely new perspective on the subject and provided me with scaffolding for my work.

My aim is to show how through intentional play with formal requirements of the genre the artists exposes the true subject of the poem, that is, the succession of generations and also the question about the stance we adopt in relation to our ancestors and legacy we inherit after them.

Oedipus myth and Oedipus complex: Freud

Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychology and psychoanalysis, received a thorough, classical education meaning he was well-versed in ancient Greek literature. He was especially fascinated with the story of Oedipus, which he considered to be the most important myth of all the stories the mankind has ever created.

According to one of the variant of the myth, Oedipus was a child of king Laius and his wife, Jocaste. Yet before he was born, an oracle of Delfi foretold that one day the son would kill his father and marry his own mother. To prevent the fulfilment of the ominous prophecy, the parents ordered servants to abandon the child in the mountains; however, they didn’t carry out the order and eventually Oedipus was raised at the court of the king of Corinth. After many years, Oedipus – who was by that time a full grown man – found out about his wait and, to ward it off, he left the palace which he thought to be his home. On his way, at the crossroads, he was stopped by a carriage and had a quarrel with a man who drove it and who turned out to be his biological father, Laius. Without knowing it Oedipus killed Laius and married widowed Jocaste, his true mother.

Freud used this mythological story to explain a developmental conflict, which emerges in early childhood and sets a frame for psychological growth throughout our lives. In classical psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus conflict surfaces between third and sixth year of life, that is, when children gradually become aware of their body together with its physical attributes; they also develop the concept of sex and start to notice the difference between the two sexes. What seems most characteristic of this phase is a wish to have a parent for our own: “because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father”[1] (Freud, 1924).

Parricide as a loving murder: Loewald

Oedipus myth is a myth about a rebel against one’s parents. Early in life, when child is totally dependent upon their caregivers, the two are inseparable; they function as a whole, meaning that a newborn has no sense of separate self: both bodily as well as psychologically. The most pressing task of every individual is to establish and maintain barriers which guard our identity. First, one needs to differentiate oneself physically: “this is me” (i.e. “this is my hand”), “and that, that is not me” (i.e. “here is where the tips of my fingers end”), “this is my personal space” (i.e. “this is how much room I need to feel comfortable”). Stable identity enables individual to make evaluations of one’s own needs and feelings – and tell them apart from needs and feelings of others; to make conscious decisions and create healthy relationships.

Loewald distinguished few principal elements of the Oedipus complex, yet let me adduce the two which seem most relevant to the present analysis: “1) the idea that the tension between the pressures of parental influence and the child’s innate need to establish his own capacities for originality […]; 2) the notion that oedipal parricide is driven, most fundamentally, by the child’s ‘urge for emancipation.’ Parricide involves a revolt against, and an appropriation of, parental authority”(Ogden, 2006).

The word authority, as Loewald points out, is cognate to “author” and “authorship”; in fact, two of them share the same root, Latin auctoritas which „invention, influence, command”. In this sense succession of generations is not a peaceful procession in which children gradually replace their parents. Rather, the position must be won in a fight which ends with a murder, described as both passionate and loving, as it needs conviction on the part of the child and good-will on the part of the parent; oedipal father has to challenge his son and, at the same time, be ready to accept defeat.

Hárbarðsljóð as a generic farce: Clover

The scene in which a father challenges his son opens Hárbarðsljóð. The song of tells the story of how Thor, returning from one of his eastern journey, arrives at the shore of a certain bay. On the other side he sees a man with a boat and asks him to be ferried across the water. Harbard refuses, and then the quarrel ensues. It is a typical departure point of the literary form known as mannjafnaðr. Mannjafnaðr, or “comparison of men” is a type of a verbal duel which probably originated as a type of play that entertained guests at the feasts; the form are based on the ritualized exchange conventional insults, boasts and threats. Usually, the circumstances in which the  duel takes place makes it impossible for the opponents to engage in a real, physical fight.

However, as many critiques have pointed out, in Hárbarðsljóð many of the formal norms are being violated. On the textual level the poem combines lines of various metre, including basic song metre (fornyrðislag), metre of the magical song (galdralag) together with parts written in prose. Also, as Clover notices, rules governing narrative structure of the song are also neglected. Oral contest, as every kind of competition, has its own requirements. Witty comments and biting words serve as a metaphor for thrusts and punches; poetical talent together with gift of refined speech serve as a weapon in the battle where “eloquence is an attribute both losers and winners”, because a match between unequal opponents – physical or intellectual – was considered an undignified spectacle. Meanwhile, in the Song of Harbard – whom the researchers identify with either Odin, associated with shamanic trance and poetry, or with a sly and well spoken Loki – the title character will compete with Thor, completely inept in dealing with words.

Second rule which is constantly neglected in Hárbarðsljóð at the same time is the one that constitutes an axis of the majority of allegations put forward in the exchange of accusations: it is the opposition between difficult and rough life of a warrior and comfortable life of those who prefer to stay at home and who only seek to satisfy lowly needs for delicious food, fun and sexual pleasures. When Thor adresses the ferryman for the first time he offers him food in exchange for being ferried across the water. He says that in his backpack he carries herrings – of which he ate his fill in the morning, and it is Harbard who ridicules him by saying, „as your morning’s work you praise your breakfast!” but soon enough this pattern is reversed. After the central point of the plot is established each of the characters gets a chance to properly introduce himself and Harbard denies Thor help, the thundergod formulates his first conventional stanza, which serves as an invitation quarrel: „15. (…) I fought with Hrungnir, the great-spirited giant whose head was made of stone: and yet I brought him down and made him fall before me. What were you doing meanwhile, Harbard?” This phrase is typical of its genre: it contains a boast about a duel with giant – an undoubtedly manly activity – used to build the image of Thor as a fierce warrior; also, it ends with a defiant but equally formulaic inquiry „what were you doing at that time …?” To such an advance, Harbard replies in a truly peculiar manner. He says:

I was with Fiolvar five winters long on that Island called All-green. We fought there and wreaked slaughter; we tried out many things, had our choice of girls.”

Structurally, the stanza does not differ from the one delivered by Thor: it is composed of statement and provocation, however, considering it kontent, it is an outright mockery. Harbard compares his sexual conquests – activities of playboys and idlers – with Thor’s duel with Hrungnir – a giant with head and  heart of stone – and considers their exploits equal. His confidence throws Thor off balance. “With this lame rejoinder the form collapses. What the audience expects is not a single line, but a full stanza; not a question (the form precludes ingenous questions) but a declarative statement (Denial and Counterclaim); and, of course, poetry and not prose”(Clover, 1979): “How did it turn out with your women?”

Thor’s words betray his curiosity and a certain amount of admiration for Harbard. Harbard, now gloating, utters another verse; this time, additionally, he employs the rhythm of the magical song, typical for spells:


“We had frisky women, if only they were well-disposed to us; we had clever women, if only they were faithful to us; they wound rope out of sand and from deep valley they dug out the ground; only I was superior to them all with my shrewdness; I slept with all seven sisters, and I got all their hearts, and pleasure from them. What were you doing meanwhile, Thor?”

Seven sisters, who dig up sand from the valleys of course serve as the personification of seven Norwegian rivers. Tone of Harbard’s reply is full of pathos, more suitable for the stories about war than amorous exploits; even though the stanza meets all of the formal requirements and ends with the customary phrase, „What were you doing at that time, Thor?”, it is mocking. However, understanding and use of irony seems to rest beyond Thor’s capabilities.  Although he is the one who initiated the quarrel, it is Harbard who schedules the conversation; he shapes its form. Every time the ferryman catches Thor by surprise with an unexpected answer, he is unable to come up with more than threats or curses, which also does not seem to be particularly sophisticated. Even the conventional challenge, „what were you doing at that time” in his mouth sound ridiculously unimaginative and repeatable. “On the verbal and structural level, Thor plays off the convention, while Harbard plays off Thor”, says Clover: “What Thor tries to construct, Harbard effectively dismantles. Thor wants to play by the rules by can’t, and Harbard can but won’t. Harbard transcends the genre, whereas Thor doesn’t even rise to its minimal level. Harbard conducts a parody in which Thor unwittingly plays the role of straight man (as Liliencorn notes: “the best joke in this Thor myth is that Thor himself doesn’t get the joke”).”

Thor’s misery lies in the fact that he chose to fight with an inadequate opponent. Self-efficacy is the chief attribute of the All-Father, who emerges victorious from each wager and confrontation. Similar situation occurs in Vafþrúðnismál, a poem in which Odin – this time under the name Gagnráðr – faces powerful giant, Vafþrúðnir. Generically the poem is a wisdom contest, a form akin to oratory duel. The action flows swiftly as the participants exchange puzzles, and at first it seems difficult to decide the winner but then the All-Father asks the crucial question: „what Odin whispered in Baldr’s ear as he lay on a funeral pyre?” Of course, no one but Odin himself could have known the answer and some researchers have even suggested that the puzzle cannot be solved at all, simply because such an event had never taken place. The trick wins victory for Odin, however, dishonesty lies not only in the content of the questions, but also in the suggested answers. It is at this point Odin reveals the dwarf his true identity, and in the mythological world, no one can defeat Odin.

If we apply this train of thought to the myth of Thor and Harbard we can extend this assertion and say that – in a way – no son can compete with his father. The author of Hárbarðsljóð neglects the rules of genre, yet he does so not out of whim or simply for the use of entertainment but to tell a story about oedipal rivalry, which can be traced on both textual as well as formal level of the poem. Thor’s ascent into manhood is marked in the very first stanzas:

Harbard said: “(…) Sad is your household, I think your mother is dead.”

Thor said: „What you say now would seem great news to most people, that my mother is dead.”

Thor symbolically gets away from under maternal care, he confronts his father. Odin challenges him, and Thor accepts an invitation to unfair fight in which two opponents are separated by years of life experience. Thor is here a child who only learns how to speak: Harbard mastered the rules of poetic duel to perfection. He plays with form, exceeds its limits, improvises while Thor can only make attempts to imitate him, and Harbard deliberately misleads him in pursuit.

Thor brags about the victories he had won over giants. Like a little boy, he believes only in black-and-white narrative of monsters and brave warriors. At some point the thunderer even tries to surprise Harbard and in response to ferryman’s story about his dealings with women, he says that he has similar experience: he met some berserkr women, and when they tried to destroy his ship, he killed all of them. Of course Odin laughs at him. Any kind of ambiguity, irony, but also sexual undertones, employed by Odin exceed limits of Thor’s comprehension. Unintelligible words arouse fear and stir admiration, but the ferryman deals one blow after another. Harbard said:“Sif has a lover at home, he’s the one you want to meet”

Odin manifests sexual domination, he is a personification of power. While the Oedipus myth tells a story about forceful appropriation of paternal agency, Hárbarðsljóð is a tale about fear and a failed attempt at emancipation. It is only natural that – when we are still young and vulnerable – our parent’s agency may intimidate us; our father and mother are not perceived as gentle caregiver but they resemble distant and sinister, akin to malevolent sorcerers, witches or giants with whom we must fight.

However, in reality our parents do not wish us ill, and by challenging us they only fulfill their function as guardians and teachers. We are defeated again and again in a safe confrontation, so that later, when we become adults and part with our mothers and fathers – we are prepared to win in a real fights with a more realistic dangers. Harbard, in his farewell with Thor announces this confrontation:

Thor said: “Short will our conversation be now, since you answer me only with jeers. I’ll reward you for refusing to ferry me, if we meet another time.”

Harbard said: “Go where the monsters will get you!”


Short bibliography:

Armstrong, K. (2004). A short history of myth (Vol. 1). Canongate Books.

Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment (pp. 27-27). London: Penguin.

Bly, R. (1993). Żelazny Jan. Rzecz o mężczyznach.Clover, C. J. (1979). Hárbarðsljóð as generic farce. Scandinavian Studies, 124-145.

Clover, C. J. (1979). Hárbarðsljóð as generic farce. Scandinavian   Studies, 124-145.

Dronke, U. (1997). The Poetic Edda. Vol. II.

Dronke, U. (2009). The Poetic Edda. Vol. III.

Eliade, M. (1967). Myths, dreams, and mysteries: The encounter    between contemporary faiths and archaic realities (Vol. 1320). Harper & Row.

Freud, S. (1924). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard edition, 19, 173-179.

Gunnell, T. (1995). The origins of drama in Scandinavia. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

Harris, J. (1979). The senna: From description to literary theory. Michigan Germanic Studies, 5(1), 65-74.

Loewald, H. W. (1979). The waning of the Oedipus complex.       Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Bax and T. Padmos, „Two Types of Verbal Dueling in OI: the Interactional Structure of the Senna and the mannjafnadr in Hárbardzljód„, Scandinavian Studies 55 (1983): 149-74.

Ogden, T. H. (2006). Reading Loewald: Oedipus reconceived. The          International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87(3), 651-666.

Orange, D. M. (2014). What kind of ethics? Loewald on responsibility and atonement. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(4), 560.

Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter V „The       Material and Sources of Dreams” (New York: Avon   Books)            p. 296.

Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter V „The Material and Sources of Dreams” (New York: Avon Books) p. 296.

Simek, R. (1993). Dictionary of northern mythology (p. 424). Cambridge, UK: DS Brewer.




[1] The issue of incestuous desire and relationship with mother was left out for the sake of clarity. As Thomas Ogden notes: „the incestuous component of the Oedipus complex, in health, the creation of a transitional incestuous object relationship, which, over the course of one’s life, mediates the interplay between the undifferentiated and differentiated aspects of self and relatedness to others” (Ogden, 2006).


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