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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Hear, smith of the heavens, what the poet asks": the story of Kolbeinn Tumason and Heyr Himna smiður

Born between 1171 and 1173, Kolbeinn Tumason of the Ásbirningar family, was one of the most powerful chieftains in Iceland at the turn of the 12th century. Kolbeinn used his power to get his own men into positions of power in the church - one of them was Gudmund Arasson, who had served as a priest for himself, and the uncle of his wife Gyðríði Þorvarðardóttur. In 1203, Arasson was elected bishop, and was expected to be a devoted and pious such; instead he worked actively to increase the church's power in society, and raised objections to the secular powers of the chieftains. This development Kolbeinn had not foreseen, and a conflict arose between the two men, steadily increasing during the next few years.

Already in 1205 the plot thickened, when Kolbeinn intervened as a judge in a criminal case against a priest. Gudmund refused to accept this verdict, believing that ecclesiastical affairs should remain at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Simultaneously, he forbade all his priests to be of any service to Kolbein.

In 1208, the dispute escalated to a maximum when Kolbeinn and his men arrested a priest in suspicion of abusing a woman. Near Hólar, the seat of the bishop, a final, lethal conflict ensued between Kolbeinn Tumason’s men, and the supporters of bishop Arasson. September 8th, 1208, in what posterity would come to know as the battle of Víðines, Kolbeinn lost his life, his head bashed in with a large rock.

Nowadays however, the once powerful chieftain is perhaps most known as a poet. Written the evening before the battle of Víðines, the hymn, Heyra Himna smiður (eng. "Hear, smith of the heavens"), ultimately became Kolbeinn’s swan song. The melody, which accompanies the text, was composed by Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938–2013), over 700 years later. 

What was initially written as a prayer for strength and the mercy of God, Heyra Himna smiður remains as the oldest hymn still in use in Iceland. The following version, performed by the exquisite Eivør Pálsdóttir from the Farao Islands, underlines the peaceful and evocative spirit of this hymn, as a stark contrast to its dramatic backdrop

Hear, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
thy mercy.
So I call on thee,
for thou hast created me.
I am thy slave,
thou art my Lord.
God, I call on thee
to heal me.
Remember me, mild one,
Most we need thee.
Drive out, O king of suns,
generous and great,
human every sorrow
from the city of the heart.

Watch over me, mild one,
Most we need thee,
truly every moment
in the world of men.
send us, son of the virgin,
good causes,
all aid is from thee,
in my heart. 


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