On Working From What You Know, and a New Poem

I’m a huge fan of Amon Amarth – a Viking-themed death metal band from Sweden. Never heard of them? Check this out.

That song is “Tock’s Taunt – Loke’s Treachery Pt. II” from the album Surtr Rising. It’s an expanded recounting of the interaction between the Aesir and the giantess Tock (or Thokk or Thock or Tokk, depending on how you translate – the word means “thanks” in Norwegian) during their attempt to revive Baldr. Tock is the only creature in all of existence to refuse to cry, thus dooming Baldr to an eternity of suffering. It is later discovered that Tock is Loki, who engineered Baldr’s death in the first place.

The story appears in the Prose Edda, in Gylfaginning (page 74 – 75 of that translation), and is rather brief. The song uses imagined dialogue based on the single stanza spoken by Tock. It’s really quite good.

Being an advocate of metal, and thinking the lyrics for the song were pretty damn cool and the whole concept quite interesting, I tried to turn the lyrics as-written (with slight modifications) into a performance poetry piece in the SCA.

It totally didn’t work. I was hesitant to perform alterations to the lyrics (they’re not mine), so it wound up sounding a bit odd. A friend of mine – Zsof – watched the performance, heard my explanation, and said, “Why not change it? It’s your piece now.”

That hit something with me – it was my piece and I could change it. I’m essentially trying to create performance poetry from a death metal song that I know. Trying to stay true to the letter of the material was causing problems with the performance – so why not change the format to something period-appropriate? I set out to re-cast the lyrics as Norse poetry.

Here’s the poem that I came up with – I’ll talk a bit about how I decided to do what, in an attempt to describe the creative process one might use when trying such a thing. Every poem is a “work in progress,” so I doubt this will be its final form – but it’s the complete project.


Ill the Aesir
and the Elves fared –
their games yielded
a grim result:
The brother of Thor
by thrown sprig was
pierced in the breast –
bane of Oðin’s
son sticking in
his stone of life.

Then hied to Hel
Hermoðr the Bold,
to craft a deal
with the cairn-god:
return to life
the light-bringer;
the world would bleed
the water of eyes.

All of the world
wept for Baldr.
the men and beasts,
burning fires,
trees and stones and
the track of men –
wept as if brought
to warmth from frost.

All but for one
wept as the rest.
The Aesir found
a frost giant –
lone – in a cave;
she was called “Tokk.”
Spoke Tyr of
the spear Gungnir:

“You! Weep for Baldr,
as the world now does!
You are the last one;
jotun-tears we need.”

The giant sang –
joy in her voice:

“You come to me
carrying grief in
your eyes – a sorrowful sight –
asking a torrent
of tears to restore
to life the light of Asgarðr.

You come to me
carrying grief in
your hearts – bitter the blood
but cold is mine –
I mean to sleep
as long as the world weeps.

You come to me
carrying grief on
your tongues – words of woe;
no joy or pleasure
was poured for me
from the horn of Baldr’s bounty.

Tokk will water
no weeds with sorrow.
Go! Leave me alone!
Go! Leave him to lie!

Is blame my burden
to bear? Shame
makes no mark on my heart!
I was made glad –
gleeful the tale
of Loki’s clever craft!

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden –
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

Leave me alone!
I long to be rid
of moaning, mewling gods.
Never have I wished
well for Baldr –
no sorrow I hold in my heart!

Tokk will water
the world with hate.
Let Hel hold her hoard.
Let Surtr sear his soul.

You come to me
but cannot behold
the truth of Loki’s lies.
Hoðr is blind,
but the high ones
see the same as he!

You come to me
but cannot believe
the words I speak and spin.
Beloved of Aesir
loved no giants;
giants loved him less.

You come to me
but cannot remain –
my speech I’ve spent on you.
All these tears
to Tokk are nothing!
Go! and leave me alone!”

Then Aesir knew
the name of Tokk;
Loki’s final
falsehood was plain.
None but he could
know of malice
or spite enough
to spurn Baldr.

When tired of
tricks and deceit,
the high hunted
the harm of truth.
Bound by his sons,
burned by venom,
Loki awaits
to lead the dead,
to damn the world –
the doom of gods.


This is obviously markedly different than the original lyrics – yet it’s the same concept, the same story, and much of the specific wording is preserved. The “feel” is very different, and in many places, the re-done lyrics convey some additional layers of meaning and subtlety.

How the hell does a person start something like this? As a scientist, I tend to take an intensely analytical approach to virtually everything – so I started with a systematic analysis of the existing lyrics. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow breakdown – you’ll probably get it from everything else. If you’re really curious, here’s the Google doc I wrote to develop the piece.

Once I figured out what the lyrics were about and how the message was conveyed – I made mental and physical notes about particularly meaningful lines and passages, and made notes about particular lyrical patterns – I started the conversion process.

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that all poems have rules and form. Forcing your thoughts and feelings into a particular metrical structure – or even designing your own – guides your creative process in ways you may not even realize at the outset. We need boundaries and guidelines to help fire our creative engines; they give us direction and purpose.

Norse poetry has many different forms and styles, but very broadly speaking, there are two main “types:” eddic and skaldic. Eddic poetry is usually older, more story-oriented, and often concerns itself with mythological or super-heroic subjects. Skaldic poetry tends to be more personal (in that it is about actual people or actual events), ornate, and non-linear. There are many specific metrical forms seen in each type, and each type tends to be more highly associated with certain forms.

To start, I decided that I would write the poem using eddic forms. The lyrics concern themselves with a mythological tale, so I reasoned that would be the more “appropriate” type to write. I also decided that I wanted to sort of “hook” this poem into the existing eddic poetry – so I gave it an intro bit explaining the setup of Tokk’s reply, and an outro bit hooking it back to the mythology. That couches it in the proper context, and makes it a sort of “detour” in the eddic stories.

In analyzing the original lyrics, a few things stuck out. First and foremost, I noticed a repeated motif – “You come to me” – that formed a sort of internal refrain. Repetition is good stuff, because it helps drive a point home, and can help something sound “musical.”  I decided to keep the repetition in place, because it was such a noticeable pattern in the lyrics; repeating it helps establish continuity between the original and the re-work. It’s also a feature of the lyrics – something that sticks out and helps define it, giving it character.

The decision to keep “you come to me” as a motif in the new poem gives an additional layer of effect to the poem – one of magic and mysticism. Extreme repetition in Norse poetry is associated with magic, witchcraft, and other forms of great power. The poetry of the Lapps is intensely repetitive, and may be related to the Norse concept of “Lapp-women” – their phrase for witches. By keeping aspects of the poem repeated, I am presenting a different take on Tokk – not only is she denying the Aesir what they want, but she is also demonstrating her great and terrible sorcerous power. She is forcing the issue, showing her might to be at least equal to that of the gods. She’s saying, “Look at me! I can take away the people you love, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It takes her from defiant trickster to dangerous adversary – and because Tokk == Loki, it re-casts him in the same light as well.

Now we can see how a seemingly simple decision – “Oh yeah, I’ll just keep that in” – coupled with the right context can have a subtle but dramatic effect on a piece. I have no idea if it’s right – that is, I don’t know if that’s how the Norse thought of Loki or Tokk. It is, however, a valid take on the material, and it is an interesting and unfortunately relevant take.

The next thing I noticed was the division of the story into three distinct “phases.” Tokk introduces the rebuff, elaborates on the tragedy (“rubbing it in”), and then finishes with an aggressive dismissal/revelation. The retelling of the story in the song seems to follow a somewhat different pattern than the first verse, to the point where the second verse almost seems to break in the middle – switching from the rebuff to the taunt. That means the first and third parts are anchored by repetition, and the second part follows its own path.

Because of that flow, I decided to alter the refrains a bit. In the original, they bookend the third verse. Given that the piece was already going to be repetitive, I decided to redo the refrain as a bit of galdralag (“meter of magic spells”), and use them to separate the piece into Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. I decided to take the entire text of the refrain and break it into two smaller chunks with internal repetition – that way, the refrains stand out a bit more, and more clearly deliniate the different phases of the reply.

You can see how this kind of analysis results in a “roadmap” of sorts for the actual transition. The decision to repeat motifs, break the reply into 3 pieces separated by two refrain stanzas, and to “bookend” the entire reply in an eddic context creates an outline for me. Deciding which meter to use is almost obvious, dictated largely by convention in the eddic poems. Even without well-defined metrical forms like those in Old Norse, one could still see the need to write all the parts a bit differently, to help emphasize the distinct parts of the poem.

After that, it’s a matter of fitting words into metrical rules, rather like a puzzle. I’ve defined the outline – now I color it in. Conforming to the metrical rules will force you to make particular word choices, which can lead to additional meaning placement. For example, take this stanza:

Foolish Hoðr
felled his twin
with a hurled errant arrow.
The truth was hidden –
his hand the willing
tool of the Aesir’s enemy!

This was inspired by “Hodr the fool/Lopt’s willing tool/he held the twig/that cut Baldr’s skin/Lopt aimed the shot/that killed Hodr’s twin.” The form requires that the first two lines be linked with alliteration, and I decided to lead off with “Hodr the fool.” I liked the sound of “Foolish Hodr” more, so I changed it to that. The second line has to alliterate on the first stressed syllable – “felled” alliterates readily with “Foolish.” That first half-stanza was written almost automatically by alliterative rules.

The second half of the stanza contains an interesting reference in the last line. Since I had to convey the entire thought of the lyrics, and I’d spent the first half talking about slaying Baldr, I knew the second half had to revolve around Loki being responsible for it. After all, that’s the lyrical progression – first we say that Hodr did it, then we reveal that Loki made Hodr do it.

I wanted to use “Lopt’s willing tool,” because it’s a great insult to throw in there. That chunk is too many syllables on its own for lines 4 and 5, and doesn’t alliterate enough for line 6. However, Norse poetry makes use of kennings – substitution metaphors. So, instead of saying “Lopt,” I could come up with a kenning that refers to him indirectly.

That’s where “Aesir’s enemy” comes into play – it’s a kenning for Loki. Norse poetics say that all vowels alliterate with each other, so that took care of my need to alliterate. Because of syllable rules, I merely had to break “Aesir’s enemy’s willing tool” into two lines. Some rearranging of word order fills out my counting rules, and line 4 is easy enough to write to fill out the rest of the stanza.

However, “Aesir’s enemy” can also be used to mean “frost giants” – after all, they were enemies of the Aesir. This gives that segment a bit of extra meaning – it’s not just a recounting of events, it’s an admission of guilt. Loki, by way of Tokk, is weaving his taunting admission of his power and treachery into the reply – a puzzle for the Aesir to unravel. He’s being arrogant and haughty, reveling in his treachery and the inability of the gods to figure out what’s going on.

And all of this extra meaning came about because I needed to find an alliteration.

So the point of all of this? To point out the importance of a systematic and analytical approach when tackling complex problems or projects. I could have written this poem organically, but it wouldn’t have had as many surprises and neat things pop up. Letting your creativity wander can be a good thing, but constraints help give it form and substance.

Breaking down a complex setup into fundamental components lets you pick those pieces back up and plug them together into a new shape.

So exercise that analytical brain, and break down some complex material!


Brewing With Egil Part I: An Analysis of the Life Cycle of Barley

WARNING: Wall of text ahead

Before I embark on an explanation of the evidence in support of my hypothesis, it occurs to me that I may have a more complete understanding of barley biology than the average person, and very likely the average brewer. Since my hypothesis stands in opposition to some long-held knowledge and handling practices regarding barley and brewing, I gathered it might be prudent to start by going over some information about the development of barley, and its interaction with the malting process.

The Australian government has an excellent publication providing a fairly thorough overview of barley biology – primarily from the applied perspective of its role as a cereal crop. You can access it here. The University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension also features a fairly in-depth article.

In summary: dormant barley seeds germinate after soaking up water (a process known as imbibition), and being exposed to the right environmental conditions (temperature, oxygen, and soil pH). The early stages of germination (which we exploit during malting) don’t last terribly long when attempting to grow barley; shoot emergence can occur as rapidly as 72 hours post-imbibition, though exact time varies with variety as well as environmental conditions. Seedling development time (the point at which green leafy material is evident) varies as well, but generally, the seedling emerges from the soil in 10 days to two weeks.

Following emergence, the plant grows and develops multiple stems (tillering), which then begin to elongate. Field barley can have anywhere from 2 – 5 tillers per plant. Not all tillers develop the flowering structure called a “spike” (colloquially called an ear), but this varies with strain. Many modern barleys have been bread to have a high rate of spike development.

The spike is the flowering part of the plant. It develops, and once it flowers (releasing barley pollen), the “fruit” of the barley plant – what we know as a “berry” or “seed” – begins developing.

Barley seeds generally reach full maturity ~25 to 30 days after flowering. During maturation, the grain develops, begins to develop and store starch, and gradually dessicates. Once the seed no longer yields to fingernail pressure, it is considered ripe for harvesting. Dried barley enters a dormant phase, and when properly stored, dormant seeds can last up to 18 months.

What follows is a relatively complex analysis of the biochemistry of barley development. If you’re interested, read on. If not, skip to the end for my summary.


The dormant seed is where we start the malting process. The importance of malting barley for the production of beer is widely understood, and most people understand the story in the same way; that is, during malting, we slowly and evenly take the grains through the early stages of germination, to develop enzymes that we will later manipulate in brewing. Those enzymes include proteolytics, to denature the protein matrix (called hordeins in barley, and broadly lumped in with the gluten proteins) that contains the starch; alpha- and beta-amylases, which convert stored starch into fermentable sugars; and debranching enzymes, which help “chew” the starch up into chunks that the amylases can more easily handle.

I was under the impression – as are many brewers – that malting is absolutely essential in order to develop the enzymes necessary in order to convert the stored starch to sugar. That is, until I learned about barley maturation in more detail.

As it turns out, mature barley seeds contain some completely functional beta-amylase enzyme. The linked paper shows that roughly 40% of the beta-amylase content of resting barley can be recovered with a saline solution. A survey of other literature appears to indicate that alpha-amylase is synthesized during maturation, and is not present in dormant grains.

The remaining 60% of beta-amylase in barley is present in a “bound” form – that is, it is attached to a larger protein inhibitor. Sopanen hypothesizes that the inhibition is likely due to steric hindrance – a phenomenon in chemistry where reactions are slowed because of the actual size and conformation of the molecules involved. In other words, 60% of the beta-amylase in mature barley seeds exhibits attenuated activity because there’s stuff in the way of the active site.

The activity of so-called “bound” beta-amylase was thought to be latent; however, Sopanen demonstrates that the enzyme can be as much as 70% as active as “free” beta-amylase. However, it also appears to matter little; the “free” beta-amylase content of ungerminated barley is sufficiently to convert the entire starch content of the seed – if the starch molecules are made available to the amylases.

Alpha-amylases are also bound with endogenous inhibitors. In this case, the inhibitor reduces the activity of alpha-amylase by nearly 90%. This is likely important to barley maturation; it has been demonstrated that premature alpha-amylase production leads to a reduction in seed size and starch content. This makes sense – alpha-amylase has a greater rate of activity against larger starch molecules than does beta-amylase.

It has been known for some time that gibberellic acid plays a crucial role in barley metabolism. Work by JV Jacobsen (over many years) has led to an in-depth understanding of the role of gibberellic acid in barley; he started by demonstrating that the application of GA induced the production of multiple alpha-amylases, and went on to study the hormone extensively.

So, at first glance, it appears that germination is required for the production of gibberellic acid, which is needed for the production of alpha-amylase. But the barley kernel has sufficient beta-amylase to allow for conversion prior to germination. What’s the deal?

We have learned – thanks to advanced technology – that the maturing barley kernel prepares for germination while on the ear. It does so by switching to a sort of “preparation” mode, wherein it generates thousands of mRNA’s (messenger RNA’s, generated from genomic DNA and sent to the ribosome for translation into proteins) and stores them. In addition, the barley kernel generates and stores gibberellic acid precursors prior to full maturation.

The full sequence is actually quite complicated. Abscissic acid (ABA, produced during maturation) and gibberellic acid have antagonistic effects – that is, they each cancel each other. This creates the possibility of a biochemical “switch,” where the synthesis of one hormone takes over the other and changes gene expression. ABA is responsible for inhibiting alpha-amylase production; the synthesis of GA precursors prior to that is what enables the activation of the enzyme.

In fact, barley kernels generate mRNA’s for all sorts of proteins prior to dormancy – the full machinery for the resumption of transcription/translation duties is available in the dormant, un-germinated grain. Dessication of the grain halts the normal activity of the growing grain – in fact, the data from Sreenivasulu et al suggest that there is little effective separation between maturation and germination from a biochemical standpoint. The plant makes a smooth transition from one to the other. Dessication works as a “pause” function, and the plant prepares for this pause by storing mRNA transcripts – along with ribosomal proteins and RNA’s – that will allow for the resumption of development upon imbibition.

Most of the proteins required for the early stages of germination – those we need during malting – are not generated de novo from genomic transcription, but rather are synthesized from stored mRNA’s and ribosomal machinery. Some proteases are present, but more are produced during germination, along with ubiquitin (a universal enzyme cofactor found in all eukaryotes).

But the story these data tell is somewhat different than what is commonly understood; rather than germination being critical for the development of these enzymes, it is the existence of those enzymes (and their precursors) in the resting grain that allows germination to proceed at all.


So what does this mean for malting? Mature, un-germinated barley grains contain all the necessary mRNA transcripts, ribosomal machinery, and endogenous enzymes necessary to start and maintain germination. There is enough beta-amylase present in a mature barley grain to convert its entire starch content without further enzyme release. Why do we even need to malt barley in the first place?

It seems that the most critical stages in early germination are the production of gibberellic acid from stored mRNA, and the increased expression of proteolytic enzymes that degrade the protein matrix of the barley kernel. GA is a hormone that, among other things, removes inhibitors from alpha- and beta-amylases. The degredation of the protein matrix allows access to the starch in the kernel, which is converted by the amylases. Debranching enzymes are synthesized from stored mRNA’s during this time.

So it seems that some sort of time-centered processing is necessary in order to allow stored biochemical machinery to provide the grounds for the conversion of starch to sugar.

Does this have to be our modern method of malting? I don’t believe so. The presence of beta-amylase in those quantities indicates that the most critical need is the exposure of starch via the degredation of the protein matrix. You could accomplish this in other ways; you could, for example, perform an acid digestion of the barley, and then treat it with enzymes to convert the starches to sugars.

So again, why malt? It’s more efficient from an industrial standpoint – the division of labor means that someone else prepares the raw material for use by the brewer, who can then spend an hour mashing it to get the sugar. Alternate processing streams may affect grain flavor, or increase the total labor used to generate a beverage. Malting is a purposefully slow germination process, to allow for very even development of the grain; this ensures maximum yield from a barley harvest.

However, it doesn’t seem like that could be the only way to do it. There may exist an alternate system that allows for the generation of maltose from barley starch – but I’ll leave that for another time.

Drink up!

Brewing With Egil – An Overview

Welcome all.

If you’ve read the “About” page, you know that this blog is here to collect my various medieval research projects, primarily in the areas of brewing and poetry/stories. If you have any questions/comments/critiques about any of my work, feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment.

My goal is to present interesting information and history, as well as showcase my various projects. In doing so, and in the discussions that I hope will ensue, I also aim to expand my own understanding of these fields. One must teach in order to learn.

The first major project I’ll be documenting is a fairly in-depth attempt to research and re-create Viking-age ale. I’ll be presenting educational posts about plant physiology and the biochemistry of barley development, analytic posts regarding archaeological evidence for such beverages, analyses of documentary evidence, surveys of etymological evidence, and the results of my own experimentation.

For the curious, I do have a working hypothesis based on what I’ve researched: Viking ale was likely made from a combination of a specialty-baked sourdough barley “bread” and honey. Malting as we know it was probably not done; in its place, I propose an “acid malting” process that would accomplish a very similar end to modern malting, and would also act as a “cold mash” at the same time. I have not yet delved heavily into the possible use of hops (though we know Vikings had access to them) or any gruit that may have been used; this first phase focuses on the fermentables and the base liquid.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be laying out the research and interpretations that brought me to this hypothesis, and the experiments I will be doing to investigate the production of the beverage.

I may prove myself wrong during my research, but hey, that’s what makes science so exciting!