Kolbeinn the Poet (KH)


Katharina Hauptmann's picture

While surfing the internet the other day I came across a video I really liked when it first appeared online a couple of years ago so now, when it appeared on my newsfeed, I took the chance of sharing it. In the YouTube video we can see Icelandic band Árstiðir (“Seasons”) singing an a-cappella version of an old Icelandic hymn in a German train station, attracting a small crowd. Their spontaneous concert even attracted international media coverage.

It’s actually quite lovely listening to it as the voices of the six men resonate beautifully in the station concourse and create serene acoustics.

Until now I never really knew what song those guys were actually singing. It turns out it is a poem from the Middle Ages.

Heyr himna smiður ("Hear, Smith of heavens”) was written by Kolbeinn Tumason (1173–1208) who must have been quite the guy. He was a member of the powerful and influential Ásbirningar family clan which ruled over Skagafjörður on the North coast of Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Ásbirningar were well-known warriors and politicians.

Our Kolbeinn was not only that but also a poet and a very powerful goði (“chieftain”) and used his influence to make sure that men in his favor received positions of power, just like a good politician does. Some things obviously never change.

Among his favorites was a bishop called Guðmundur Arason; after some time, a dispute arose between Guðmundur and our poet which led to battle in 1208: Kolbeinn and his followers attacked the disagreeable bishop and his men in Hjaltadalur by Víðines. The battle is known as Víðinesbardagi (“The Battle of Víðines”). Kolbeinn died in the conflict, having his head bashed in with a rock.

Legend has it that Kolbeinn wrote his famous hymn Heyr himna smiður on his deathbed. I’m not sure how this is possible if he got his head bashed in with a rock on the battlefield, but fine, never ruin a good story with the truth.

The melody was composed centuries later by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938–2013).

Heyr, himna smiður,
hvers skáldið biður.
Komi mjúk til mín
miskunnin þín.
Því heit eg á þig,
þú hefur skaptan mig.
Eg er þrællinn þinn,
þú ert drottinn minn.
Guð, heit eg á þig,
að þú græðir mig.
Minnst þú, mildingur, mín,
mest þurfum þín.
Ryð þú, röðla gramur,
ríklyndur og framur,
hölds hverri sorg
úr hjartaborg.
Gæt þú, mildingur, mín,
mest þurfum þín,
helzt hverja stund
á hölda grund.
Send þú, meyjar mögur,
málsefnin fögur,
öll er hjálp af þér,
í hjarta mér.

And in English:

Hear, smith of heavens.
The poet seeketh.
In thy still small voice
Mayest thou show grace.
As I call on thee,
Thou my creator.
I am thy servant,
Thou art my true Lord.
God, I call on thee;
For thee to heal me.
Bid me, prince of peace,
Thou my supreme need.
Ever I need thee,
Generous and great,
O’er all human woe,
City of thy heart.
Guard me, my savior.
Ever I need thee,
Through ev’ry moment
In this world so wide.
Virgin–born, send me
Noble motives now.
Aid cometh from thee,
To my deepest heart.

Katharina Hauptmann - [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.