Rígsðula: Racial Purity and the Caste System in Pre-Christian Nordic Society

Rígsðula is a poem from the Poetic Eddas compiled by Snorri Stirlusson in the 13th century, containing poetry prior transmitted orally. It primarily concerns the origin of the Nordic caste system and its mythical beginnings.

In Norse societies, there were three castes: Thralls (slaves), Karls (free men) and Jarls (nobleman/twice born), all of varying levels of perceived purity. The thralls were typically prisoners of war from foreign lands, incurrers of debt from Norse backgrounds or otherwise inferior individuals who had had their higher status revoked by the ðing, the Norse court of law. There were typically one or two Thralls per household who did the work deemed beneath that of a Karl: shovelling dung or turf, heavy labour, simpler building work and mining amongst other tasks.

The Karls comprised the primary stock of Norse society. They were not considered genetically exceptional, but good enough to keep land and manage it, be craftsmen, bards or millitary men.

The Jarls were the top tier, considered to be of the best blood. The strongest, the most intelligent and the most courageous of all the castes. Jarls were the kings, commanders, priests and scholars of the age and only married within their caste.

There were phenotypal traits associate with each caste, some of which are environmental, others genetic:

Thralls: Short stature, comparatively dark skin (swarthy), typically dark haired (as many Thralls were of Slavic and Celtic descent), rough hands, arched backs, poorly groomed and ugly faces.

Karls: Ruddy (red/burnt) complexion, moderate stature, brown and red hair, well-kempt appeance, broad shoulders,

Jarls: Blonde hair, eyes like a snake, bright cheeks, tall stature, wise with knowledge of the runes, animal husbandry and warfare strategy.

1. Men say there went | by ways so green
Of old the god, | the aged and wise,
Mighty and strong | did Rig go striding.


2. Forward he went | on the midmost way,
He came to a dwelling, | a door on its posts;
In did he fare, | on the floor was a fire,
Two hoary ones | by the hearth there sat,
Ai and Edda, | in olden dress.


3. Rig knew well | wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst | of the room he sat,
And on either side | the others were.


4. A loaf of bread | did Edda bring,
Heavy and thick | and swollen with husks;
Forth on the table | she set the fare,
And broth for the meal | in a bowl there was.
(Calf’s flesh boiled | was the best of the dainties.)


5. Rig knew well | wise words to speak,
Thence did he rise, | made ready to sleep;
Soon in the bed | himself did he lay,
And on either side | the others were.


6. Thus was he there | for three nights long,
Then forward he went | on the midmost way,
And so nine months | were soon passed by.


7. A son bore Edda, | with water they sprinkled him,
With a cloth his hair | so black they covered;
Thræll they named him, |     .    .    .    .    .


8. The skin was wrinkled | and rough on his hands,
Knotted his knuckles, |     .    .    .    .    .
Thick his fingers, | and ugly his face,
Twisted his back, | and big his heels.


9. He began to grow, | and to gain in strength,
Soon of his might | good use he made;

With bast he bound, | and burdens carried,
Home bore faggots | the whole day long.


10. One came to their home, | crooked her legs,
Stained were her feet, | and sunburned her arms,
Flat was her nose; | her name was Thir.


11. Soon in the midst | of the room she sat,
By her side there sat | the son of the house;
They whispered both, | and the bed made ready,
Thræll and Thir, | till the day was through.


12. Children they had, | they lived and were happy,
Fjosnir and Klur | they were called, methinks,
Hreim and Kleggi, | Kefsir, Fulnir,
Drumb, Digraldi, | Drott and Leggjaldi,
Lut and Hosvir; | the house they cared for,
Ground they dunged, | and swine they guarded,
Goats they tended, | and turf they dug.


13. Daughters had they, | Drumba and Kumba,
Ökkvinkalfa, | Arinnefla,
Ysja and Ambott, | Eikintjasna,
Totrughypja | and Tronubeina;
And thence has risen | the race of thralls.


14. Forward went Rig, | his road was straight,
To a hall he came, | and a door there hung;
In did he fare, | on the floor was a fire:
Afi and Amma | owned the house.


15. There sat the twain, | and worked at their tasks:
The man hewed wood | for the weaver’s beam;
His beard was trimmed, | o’er his brow a curl,
His clothes fitted close; | in the corner a chest.


16. The woman sat | and the distaff wielded,
At the weaving with arms | outstretched she worked;
On her head was a band, | on her breast a smock;
On her shoulders a kerchief | with clasps there was.


17. Rig knew well | wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst | of the room he sat,
And on either side | the others were.


18. Then took Amma |     .    .    .    .    .
The vessels full | with the fare she set,
Calf’s flesh boiled | was the best of the dainties.


19. Rig knew well | wise words to speak,
He rose from the board, | made ready to sleep;
Soon in the bed | himself did he lay,
And on either side | the others were.


20. Thus was he there | for three nights long,
Then forward he went | on the midmost way,
And so nine months | were soon passed by.


21. A son bore Amma, | with water they sprinkled him,
Karl they named him; | in a cloth she wrapped him,
He was ruddy of face, | and flashing his eyes.


22. He began to grow, | and to gain in strength,
Oxen he ruled, | and plows made ready,
Houses he built, | and barns he fashioned,
Carts he made, | and the plow he managed.


23. Home did they bring | the bride for Karl,
In goatskins clad, | and keys she bore;
Snör was her name, | ‘neath the veil she sat;
A home they made ready, | and rings exchanged,
The bed they decked, | and a dwelling made.


24. Sons they had, | they lived and were happy:
Hal and Dreng, | Holth, Thegn and Smith,
Breith and Bondi, | Bundinskeggi,
Bui and Boddi, | Brattskegg and Segg.


25. Daughters they had, | and their names are here:
Snot, Bruth, Svanni, | Svarri, Sprakki,
Fljoth, Sprund and Vif, | Feima, Ristil:
And thence has risen | the yeomen’s race.


26. Thence went Rig, | his road was straight,
A hall he saw, | the doors faced south;
The portal stood wide, | on the posts was a ring,
Then in he fared; | the floor was strewn.


27. Within two gazed | in each other’s eyes,
Fathir and Mothir, | and played with their fingers;
There sat the house-lord, | wound strings for the bow,
Shafts he fashioned, | and bows he shaped.


28. The lady sat, | at her arms she looked,
She smoothed the cloth, | and fitted the sleeves;
Gay was her cap, | on her breast were clasps,
Broad was her train, | of blue was her gown,

Her brows were bright, | her breast was shining,
Whiter her neck | than new-fallen snow.


29. Rig knew | well wise words to speak,
Soon in the midst | of the room he sat,
And on either side | the others were.


30. Then Mothir brought | a broidered cloth,
Of linen bright, | and the board she covered;
And then she took | the loaves so thin,
And laid them, white | from the wheat, on the cloth.


31. Then forth she brought | the vessels full,
With silver covered, | and set before them,
Meat all browned, | and well-cooked birds;
In the pitcher was wine, | of plate were the cups,
So drank they and talked | till the day was gone.


32. Rig knew well | wise words to speak,
Soon did he rise, | made ready to sleep;
So in the bed | himself did he lay,
And on either side | the others were.


33. Thus was he there | for three nights long,
Then forward he went | on the midmost way,
And so nine months | were soon passed by.


34. A son had Mothir, | in silk they wrapped him,
With water they sprinkled him, | Jarl he was;
Blond was his hair, | and bright his cheeks,
Grim as a snake’s | were his glowing eyes.


35. To grow in the house | 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.


36. Straight from the grove | came striding Rig,
Rig came striding, | and runes he taught him;
By his name he called him, | as son he claimed him,

And bade him hold | his heritage wide,
His heritage wide, | the ancient homes.


37. .    .    .    .    .        .    .    .    .    .
Forward he rode | through the forest dark,
O’er the frosty crags, | till a hall he found.


38. His spear he shook, | his shield he brandished,
His horse he spurred, | with his sword he hewed;
Wars he raised, | and reddened the field,
Warriors slew he, | and land he won.


39. Eighteen halls | ere long did he hold,
Wealth did he get, | and gave to all,
Stones and jewels | and slim-flanked steeds,
Rings he offered, | and arm-rings shared.


40. His messengers went | by the ways so wet,
And came to the hall | where Hersir dwelt;
His daughter was fair | and slender-fingered,
Erna the wise | the maiden was.


41. Her hand they sought, | and home they brought her,
Wedded to Jarl | the veil she wore;
Together they dwelt, | their joy was great,
Children they had, | and happy they lived.


42. Bur was the eldest, | and Barn the next,
Joth and Athal, | Arfi, Mog,
Nith and Svein, | soon they began-
Sun and Nithjung– | to play and swim;
Kund was one, | and the youngest Kon.


43. Soon grew up | the sons of Jarl,
Beasts they tamed, | and bucklers rounded,
Shafts they fashioned, | and spears they shook.


44. But Kon the Young | learned runes to use,
Runes everlasting, | the runes of life;

Soon could he well | the warriors shield,
Dull the swordblade, | and still the seas.


45. Bird-chatter learned he, | flames could he lessen.,
Minds could quiet, | and sorrows calm;
.    .    .    .    .        .    .    .    .    .
The might and strength | of twice four men.


46. With Rig-Jarl soon | the runes he shared,
More crafty he was, | and greater his wisdom;
The right he sought, | and soon he won it,
Rig to be called, | and runes to know.


47. Young Kon rode forth | through forest and grove,
Shafts let loose, | and birds he lured;
There spake a crow | on a bough that sat:
“Why lurest thou, Kon, | the birds to come?


48. ” ‘Twere better forth | on thy steed to fare,
    .    .    .    .    . | and the host to slay.


49. “The halls of Dan | and Danp are noble,
Greater their wealth | than thou bast gained;
Good are they | at guiding the keel,
Trying of weapons, | and giving of wounds.


POEM IS ABRUPTLY CUT OFF

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