NAGLFAR.

The genesis of this entry goes back almost six years, to April 29, 1999 (I can tell you the date because I kept the sales slip to use as a bookmark, as is my wont), when at one of my periodic visits to the sale cart on the third (foreign-language) floor of the Donnell I found a book by Boris Khazanov called Нагльфар в океане времен (Nagl’far v okeane vremen, ‘Naglfar in the ocean of time’). I’d never heard of Khazanov (it turns out his real name is Gennadii Moiseevich Faibusovich, he was born in 1928, did some time in the Gulag, studied medicine, and emigrated to Germany in 1982, where he’s written a bunch of stories and novels), but the book was part of the Альфа – фантастика [Alpha-Fantasy] series and had an attractive Chagall-ripoff cover… and there was that mysterious word “Naglfar.” I flipped through the book but couldn’t find out what it meant or if it was someone’s name (in fact, I couldn’t find any reference to it at all), but it clearly wasn’t Russian and it had a certain consonantal grandeur whose pull I couldn’t deny, sort of like the Georgian words (t’k’bili, gmadlobt) I always enjoy startling people with. I figured the book was easily worth the 25 cents they were asking and added it to my stack.
Fast-forward to this weekend. I was reading Nicholson Baker to assuage the misery of my wife (who’s picked up, alas, the cold I had just put down); halfway through “Clip Art” (an essay about nail clippers and clipped nails that originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 1994 New Yorker) I reached the following paragraph:

But the most troubling feature of Stephen King’s assessment of my alleged “nail paring” of a novel is his apparent belief that a bookish toe- or fingernail scrap can be justifiably brushed off as meaningless. Last September, Allen Ginsberg sold a bag of his beard hair to Stanford. Surely Mr. King ought to be saving for the ages whatever gnarled relics he clips or pares? And the Master Spellbinder, of all people, should be able to detect the secret terrors, the moans of the severed but unquiet soul, that reside in these disjecta. Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Naglfar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun—”a warning,” in Brian Branston’s retelling, “that if a man dies with his nails unshorn he is adding greatly to the materials for Naglfar (a thing both gods and men would be slow to do).” Gertrude Jobes’s mythological dictionary cites a related Finno-Ugric tradition in which the Evil One collects any Sunday nail parings and “with them builds the boat for transporting the dead.” Lithuanian folklore contends (per Stith Thompson) that “from the parings of man’s nails devils make little caps for themselves.”…

Well before I got to Gertrude Jobes and Stith Thompson, I broke off my reading and startled my sleepy wife with the outcry (as mysterious to her as the name had previously been to me) “Naglfar!” I explained to her the background, and after I finished the essay and she drifted off to sleep I dashed to my study, where the chaos of unboxing has subsided to the point that I can actually find many of the books I want, and I dug out the Khazanov novel from behind a volume of Dovlatov. This time I discovered what I had missed in my original hasty ruffling of the pages: at the very start, among the epigraphs (between Tacitus and “Россия – игра природы, а не ума,” attributed to Бесы [Besy, Dostoevsky’s The Devils] but slightly misquoted if this text‘s “Россия есть игра природы, но не ума” a third of the way through Chapter II is to be trusted), is a longish quote from the Younger Edda, the very passage summarized by Baker in the above paragraph! And—Урла-лап! Курла-ла!—I’ve found an online bilingual (Old Norse/Russian) version of the Edda! [No longer extant as of July 2012.] It’s a different Russian translation than the one Khazanov uses, so I won’t bother quoting it, but here’s the original (from Chapter 51, “Frá ragnarökum”):

Þá mælti Gangleri: ‘Hver tíðendi eru at segja frá um ragnarökr? Þess hef ek eigi fyrr heyrt getit.’
Hárr segir: ‘Mikil tíðendi eru þaðan at segja ok mörg, þau in fyrstu, at vetr sá kemr, er kallaðr er fimbulvetr. Þá drífr snær ór öllum áttum. Frost eru þá mikil ok vindar hvassir. Ekki nýtr sólar. Þeir vetr fara þrír saman ok ekki sumar milli, en áðr ganga svá aðrir þrír vetr, at þá er um alla veröld orrostur miklar…
Þá verðr þat, er mikil tíðendi þykkja, at úlfrinn gleypir sólina, ok þykkir mönnum þat mikit mein. Þá tekr annarr úlfrinn tunglit, ok gerir sá ok mikit ógagn. Stjörnurnar hverfa af himninum. Þá er ok þat til tíðenda, at svá skelfr jörð öll ok björg, at viðir losna ór jörðu upp, en björgin hrynja, en fjötrar allir ok bönd brotna ok slitna. Þá verðr Fenrisúlfr lauss. Þá geysist hafit á löndin, fyrir því at þá snýst Miðgarðsormr í jötunmóð ok sækir upp á landit. Þá verðr ok þat, at Naglfar losnar, skip þat, er svá heitr. Þat er gert af nöglum dauðra manna, ok er þat fyrir því varnanar vert, ef maðr deyr með óskornum nöglum, at sá maðr eykr mikit efni til skipsins Naglfars, er goðin ok menn vildi seint, at gert yrði. En í þessum sævargang flýtur Naglfar.
[LI. Then said Gangleri: “What tidings are to be told concerning the Weird of the Gods? Never before have I heard aught said of this.” Hárr answered: “Great tidings are to be told of it, and much. The first is this, that there shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: in that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles…
Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loose; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land. Then that too shall happen, that Naglfar shall be loosened, the ship which is so named. (It is made of dead men’s nails; wherefore a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to have finished late.) Yet in this sea-flood Naglfar shall float…
—A.G. Brodeur’s 1916 translation]

The oldest reference to the story, however, is in the Elder Edda’s first section, Völuspá (probably 10th century); here‘s a bilingual (Norse/English this time) version of stanza 50:

Hrymr ekr austan,
hefisk lind fyrir,
snýsk Jörmungandr
í jötunmóði.
Ormr knýr unnir,
en ari hlakkar,
slítr nái Niðfölr,
Naglfar losnar.
Hrym travels from the east,
he holds a shield,
Jörmungand writhes
in an huge rage.
The serpent beats the waves,
and the eagle shrieks,
pale-beaked it tears the corpses,
and Naglfar breaks loose.

So that’s more than you ever wanted to know about any number of things. And my wife says that if we ever get the dog we’ve been wanting and he turns out to be difficult and bad-tempered, we should name him Naglfar.

Comments

  1. Wasn’t there a Poe story – some enigmatic word torturing the narrator for years? And sudden resolution became the end of him? Gods don’t share…or something along these lines?
    Beware!
    Or,
    this thorn of a word reminds me of another memory thorn, of “Klavdia Zaremba” @Kataev trilogy.
    In any case, in kanine club of my childhood I was told the easiest to remember names for dogs have an “R” (or, rather, “rrrrrrrrrrrrr”) in it – Rex, Mukhtar, Bars. So your wife is absolutely right (as if there were any doubts in it, ever)…

  2. If you only had written about this before, any educated Scandinavian would have clued you in… 😉

  3. “Naglfar” could also, at a bit of a stretch, mean ‘a mark left by a nail’, or a scratch, so for a bad-tempered dog that might be appropriate in more than one way.
    (Or, if it’s particularly vicious, “Tannfar” ;))

  4. Or maybe Garmr? Geri? Freki? I’m trying to imagine a dog responding to the rather whispery call of -Naglfar-, and I have my doubts.
    But is the book any good, I want to know, and is it translated into a non-slavic language?

  5. Is the g in Naglfar pronounced in the Old Norse? I see that it made its way into Нагльфар, but I have a hunch that it would probably be silent in modern Norwegian.

  6. I happened to have my Haugen dictionary handy and learned from it that the Bokmål word negl (which does mean fingernail or toenail) is prounounced, g-less, as “nei′l”. I’m not sure about the Nynorsk form, which is in fact nagl.
    I was also intrigued to learn that of two similar words: nagle, which means rivet, nail, or peg; and naglefare, a verb meaning “inspect minutely.”

  7. The Swedish modern day cognate is nagel, pronounced with a hard g, so the Nynorsk one is most certainly also with a hard g. I assume the bokmål pronunciation is pure Danish.

  8. Oh, and the Old Norse g would most certainly be hard, of course.

  9. Takk, Johan. Jek kan litt norsk (bare bokmål) men jeg kan ikke gammelnorsk.

  10. Hard Old Norse g? I would expect a velar fricative there. Not that I’m a native speaker of Old Norse, but who is these days?

  11. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s fricative there.

  12. I’m pretty useless at old norse phonetics, but at least in modern Icelandic this would be a hard g, followed by an unvoiced l.

  13. Well I’ll be. Looking at Tungan by Stefán Karlsson, that g did harden up before l, probably sometime in the 13th or 14th century. As usual, I am the last to know.

  14. No, I am the last to know. Thanks for looking that up! But the 13th or 14th century is pretty late in the development of Old Norse; I think we can safely use a fricative when reading the Edda.

  15. Patrick Hall says:

    Language Hat, you rule.
    =)

  16. Thanks that was great. I was looking for the meaning of Naglfar. Nice work 🙂

  17. I’m here because a starship named Naglfar figures in the backstory of John C. Wright’s The Golden Age.

  18. Since this thread has been linked to again, I thought I would share this bit that I wrote, alluding to Naglfar:

    On Yarec’s slated departure date, the old aircraft carrier had a scheduled rendezvous with a much smaller craft. The schedule of daily events, posted on several display screens mounted in the wardroom and at various points throughout the hangar deck, listed a mid-morning cargo transfer to a three-person courier boat. The boat, jocularly referred to as the “nail ferry,” carried some of the products that were produced at the small factory facilities that were part of the ship. The carrier housed Yarec’s allies’ best medical services and also their best facilities for biological compound manufacturing.

    A number of organic materials were considered extremely precious. While any compound could be manufactured from its raw elements, given sufficient time, space, and perseverance, it was frequently advantageous to take a shortcut, by extracting a precursor from living, or recently dead, tissue. That had been the destiny of the complex biological molecules in Yarec’s old body. Neurotransmitters were harvested and modified with extra methyl and amine groups to make powerful psychoactive drugs. Muscle proteins would be reprocessed as a food source for microbes. Even lipids might become industrial lubricants.

    It’s a grim reality, Yarec throught, that today my old body and some day the body I’m wearing now will be recycled to make food and medicine. As he climbed on board the nail ferry, crewmen were loading up vacuum-sealed cases filled with the output of the ship’s factories. Some of the containers would hold sludges derived from floating kelp and jellyfish. However, some of them probably held the residua from his own lungs and central nervous system. He tried not to think too much about that fact, as he helped stow the cases in the refrigerated hold.

  19. I certainly remember the name Naglfar (along with Fimbulwinter) from D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants, which I spent a lot of time with as a kid.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    My son thinks Naglfari is the moon imagined as a ship sailing the night sky, and that when its moorings to the earth are broken, tides will no longer be regular and “the sea shall gush forth upon the land”. He also points to the likeness of the moon crescent and nail clippings. There’s a personified Naglfari who fathered Auðr “Prosperity” with Nótt “Night”. That strengthens the connection to the night sky, but I can’t immediately see how the moon and the night is imagined to father prosperity, Maybe it’s the passing of time — months and nights. Or maybe it’s those extra hours of work done in the moonlight — moonlighting!

    I don’t think we should see these mytho-geneological names as cult objects or gods in any theological sense, but rather as philosophical entities — in moral as well as natural philosophy. A point about the results of personal virtues or natural phenomena could be expressed as a parent-child relationship. If Naglfari is not the moon, then the question is which virtue or force of nature that brings prosperity when coupled with the night. Songdog’s find of Nynorsk naglefare “inspect minutely”, a variant (and quite likely older) form of saumfare “id.” is interesting. It may suggest that what brings prosperity is those extra hours spent on assuring the quality of your work. But it’s hard to imagine “thorough inspection” unleashed as part of the acopalypse. Well, not for anyone familiar with the practical implications of a QA system, but hard to imagine as a moral statement.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Either that, or Auðr has been folk-etymologized at some point.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    Might well be! Óðr “rage, inspiration” is a more likely result of the moon and the night, and Óðinn is the kind of entity that would be concieved (ha!) as the child of the basic elements. Conversely, a folk-etymological identification with auðr may explain why Óðr and Freyja begot the daughters Hnoss “jewel” and Gersemi “piece of jewellery”.

  23. Lars (the original one) says:

    nagelfara exists in Swedish too, and denotes a sort of antagonistic inspection where finding a flaw is in the inspector’s interest. However, the Dictionary of the Swedish Academy adduces it to the sort of nail used in construction, as in going though all the nails in a ship or a tool to see if any has come loose. And indeed in the contexts where I’ve seen it there was no hint of ships going to hell, and such an allusion would be very long-sought for a modern Swede.

    That is not to say that the same sense didn’t exist in Old Norse, and the poet who came up with the name for Hel’s ship thought he made the pun of the century. We will never know 🙂

  24. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Looking at Tungan by Stefán Karlsson
    Aside from the author’s great name, the book itself looks interesting. I believe it’s been translated into English.

  25. Not only that, but the translation is available online here. Among with other things that may be of interest—going up a level, I read: «The Viking Society for Northern Research is making virtually all its publications (and some other related items) from inception in 1893 to the present freely available on this website, though recent titles may not be released until three years from the date of publication.»

  26. Very nice!

  27. Trond Engen says:

    Brett: I thought I would share this bit that I wrote, alluding to Naglfar:

    I meant to say something before, but I’ve been on limited access for a few weeks. Is it an excerpt? I like your use of Naglfar very much, both the name and the reprocessing technology. I suppose the story could take many directions from here. I first imagined it as a post-technological decay story, steampunk style, with the nail ferry’s self-sufficient system built on reprocessing of biological material slowly degrading for lack of renewal while also being increasingly alone in the world. But it could also be a story of the nail ferry accumulating more and more material and slowly devouring all fundamentals of life from its host planet, reinterpreting the whole Ragnarök.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Lars: That is not to say that the same sense didn’t exist in Old Norse, and the poet who came up with the name for Hel’s ship thought he made the pun of the century. We will never know

    Both nagelfara and saumfare do indeed denote “close inspection of the nails in a ship” and by extension “close inspection to eliminate errors”. But I was struck by another possibility. The word far also means “track, trace” as in fotefar “footprints”. When a wooden ship rots and the nails rust up, all that’s left are the brown spots of rust. What material could be more suiting for a ghost ship than naglfar?

  29. @Trond: That is an excerpt from a hard science fiction novel that I’ve been working on for several years. It’s about three quarters finished, but I’m having trouble with the ending. I know what is going to happen, but I am having difficulty drawing together the themes in the way that I want.

    Both of your suggestions for where to with the story sound cooler to me than the actual plot (although the first one is closer to what I’m actually writing). If you are interested in reading more, much of it is posted on one of my blogs, Doom That Came. It’s serialized in posts titled “Hollowed Memories, Chapter X, Part Y”; or if you wish I could e-mail the incomplete manuscript.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks. I’ll look at your blog first. But I’m neither a writer nor a connoisseur of science fiction, so I don’t think my comments would be much worth.

    About the coolness, thanks, but not at all. First, it’s easy to come up with something cool-sounding, and something completely different to devise a plot for a novel. Second, having worked with your story for so long,, you can’t judge it by gut anymore, and anything that is different will sound cooler to you.

  31. Brett: I am a reader (I won’t say connoisseur) of sf, and I would like to read your manuscript. You can send it to cowan@ccil.org (no secret about that).

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Well, then. Please send it to me too!
    (Testing if the href link works for mailto:)

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