A cautionary tale: Reading the runic message in Atlamál in grœnlenzko

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Birkett, Thomas
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Of the many references to runes in the Poetic Edda, the depiction of the runic communication between Guðrún and Kostbera in the poem Atlamál in grœnlenzko is one of the most intriguing. This is due in part to certain authentic-sounding details, which have prompted a number of misguided attempts to reconstruct the message itself. In this article, I offer a reading of this much-discussed episode in light of the runic tradition in medieval Scandinavia and the treatment of the script elsewhere in the Edda, suggesting that rather than representing a realistic depiction of runic correspondence, it is best read as a poetic expression of contemporary concerns about long-distance communication within the North Atlantic littoral. In particular, I address the question of the conventional identification of this poem with Greenland, and examine the historical circumstances that may have occasioned the introduction of the runic subplot. I argue that the episode partakes in a sophisticated discourse about the possibilities and limitations of the written word, which can serve not only as a warning against the misreading of the runic message, but also against imprudent interpretations of literary texts.
Eddic , Greenland , Old Norse , Viking , Runes , Atlamál , Atlakviða
Birkett, T. (2013) 'A Cautionary Tale: Reading the Runic Message in Atlamál in grœnlenzko', Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 9, pp. 1-18. doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.103874
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