Sunday, 19 February 2017

One Day Without Vikings?

I am a serial migrant. Twice in my life I have made the move to a new country (not including shorter stays of a few years in yet other countries), in both cases becoming a citizen and intending to stay. It looks like the second one is my forever home - I have now been a UK citizen for a quarter of a century and have no plans to move. In my first adopted country, I was schooled from a young age in the slogan 'No taxation without representation!' and that motivated me to become a citizen in my second adopted country - I was by then paying taxes and wanted to take a full part in the life of the country that was now home. I therefore naturally have an interest in tomorrow's National Day of Action on Feb 20th to Celebrate the Contributions of Migrants to the UK, or @1daywithoutus / #1daywithoutus.

But I also have a professional interest in the contributions of migrants, at least those in the past. If we take the long view historically, then of course everyone in these islands is a migrant, at least since the last Ice Age covered them, and I do think everyone should reflect on that simple fact, as well as on the contributions of migrants, whether over the last 10,000 years, or the last 10 years. Among the many identifiable groups who have made an enormous contribution to the life of these islands are the people of Scandinavian origin we call 'Vikings', who settled here between the ninth and eleventh centuries. To some they are best known for raiding and pillaging, as if they were the only people in the Early Middle Ages who did these things (they weren't). But most people also know that they moved into large swathes of eastern and northern England, into large parts of Scotland, and that they founded towns and other settlements in Ireland. These immigrants were not raiders and warriors, but farmers and traders, and families with women and children as well as men.

What was their contribution? Well, by farming the land and engaging in local, national and international trade, they made the contribution to the economy that we normally expect of immigrants (and the indigenous inhabitants, too?), and they paid their taxes. They came in sufficient numbers for their language and culture to become an indelible part of the language and culture of these islands. Even the first word in the previous sentence comes from Old Norse, this infiltration of some of the most basic features of the language (in this case a pronoun) being unprecedented in any other migration other than that of the Anglo-Saxons before them. At the other extreme, the English word 'law' comes from Old Norse - the Vikings gave us the very foundation of this nation's existence. It is not possible to have one day without Vikings, even now in the twenty-first century.

Words and place-names of Old Norse origin are around you, everywhere, everyday. You can find out more about the Vikings' contribution to the English language through the Gersum project. You can learn more about English place-names of Old Norse origin at the Key to English Place-Names. You can also find out about physical objects from the Viking period through for example the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. And this year is the Year of the Viking, when you can come to Nottingham for a special British Museum / York Museums Trust exhibition opening in November. As well as the exhibition, there will be a lot of different events dedicated to explaining the contributions of those migrants, the Vikings, branded as 'Bringing the Vikings Back to the East Midlands'. These will be advertised on the website of the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age at the University of Nottingham, so keep your eye out there! Or just follow Viking Midlands on Twitter - the project is currently in its infancy but more information will follow soon.

In the meantime, remember the migrants, not just tomorrow, but every day!





Sunday, 5 February 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear I

My excellent friend the Snow Queen (I call her that for reasons you may or may not be able to work out) has written about our arctic adventures, so I don't have to. Thanks! But since the polar bear was such a leitmotif of our travels, particularly in Svalbard, I thought I'd follow up with a little footnote rounding up some of the polar bears in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. But just before that, if you think there is something funny about the franked stamp to the left (a genuine one on a postcard that I sent), you're right. There aren't 52 days in January. I'm assuming that's a typo for 25 (the day after we left), but I'm wondering how it came about... Do they still use hand stamps with those rotating numbers for setting up the date?

Anyway, back to ice bears. Of course everyone's favourite and the best known example is from that staple of beginners' Old Norse courses, the Tale of Audun from the West Fjords, as it has most recently been translated. I don't want to spoil the story for those who have not read it yet - it's a short tale that will give you great pleasure and also food for thought! But basically it concerns a young Icelander who makes his way in the world by working for a travelling merchant in Norway and Greenland. In Greenland he gives all he has for a bear. Then, through a really risky series of voyages, involving treacherous stewards, encounters and delicate negotiations with the kings of Norway and Denmark, and a tough pilgrimage to Rome, he returns to Iceland a wealthy and respected person. The bear disappears partway through the story and we never really find out what happened to the creature. I guess its real role in the story is to illustrate both Audun's risk-taking and his cleverness. Having given all he had for a bear, a bear from Greenland, and therefore a rarity and a 'treasure' (as the story calls it), it takes real guts and wits to transform that bear into a fortunate outcome for himself, indeed an outcome that is not at all certain until the end. I haven't spoiled the story for you because it's how he does it that is the real interest of the tale. Indeed, the American professor of law William Ian Miller has written a whole book about the intricacies of this jewel of Old Icelandic narrative (though beware, students, there are two versions of the tale, with some interesting differences).

Tethered polar bear cub in Svalbard
Museum, Longyearbyen
Given the long sea-voyages involved, and the nature of polar bears, one has to assume that when Audun first acquired it in Greenland, the bear was a cub (compare the stuffed version we saw in the museum, right). Audun was not himself a hunter, the story makes clear that he paid for it. The story also makes clear that things got a bit tricky when he couldn't afford to feed it any more, as it must have grown faster than he anticipated and a hungry polar bear is a fearsome sight to behold.

Audun's tale is set in the middle of the eleventh century. Giving polar bears to important people seems to have been quite the fashion back in those days, though we're never really told what these VIPs did with them. Presumably, they died an early death, but their skins would still have made a nice decoration for the royal hall. Iceland's first bishop, Ísleifr Gizurarson, took a hvítabjörn 'white bear' with him to the emperor Heinrich III in Saxony on his inaugural voyage in around 1056, which did the trick as Heinrich gave him his protection for the rest of his journey throughout the empire, according to Hungrvaka (ch. 2). But Ísleifr did not go to Greenland for the bear, rather the text explicitly says the bear was kominn...af Grœnlandi 'come from Greenland'. Perhaps someone else brought it, or the bear might have come to floating to Iceland on an ice floe, something which still happens nowadays, most recently last summer. Nowadays it does not generally end well for the bear because they are a real danger to both humans and livestock. And I wonder if Ísleifr's bear may not rather have ended up as a rug than as a real, living animal in Saxony....

Map from Nordic Adventure
Travel, nat.is
Similarly, the hero of Vatnsdœla saga, Ingimundr inn gamli, having only recently arrived in Iceland, sails back to Norway to get some timber to build himself a splendid dwelling, and takes with him no less than three bears (a she-bear and her two cubs) as a gift for his patron King Haraldr Finehair, which he graciously accepts (chs 15-16). No doubt the bears played their part in the king's extremely generous return gift of a ship loaded with timber, but then Ingimundr was one of the few settlers of Iceland who was in good odour with that king. The other interest of the anecdote is that Ingimundr and his men found the bears on the ice during the winter, when there was a lot of ice around. In the north of Iceland, a bay (Húnaflói), a fjord (Húnafjörðr) and a lake (Húnavatn) are all supposedly named after the bear cubs they found (húnn being the word for a bear-cub), as can be seen from the map above. Well, it's a nice story, though probably apocryphal.

In Grœnlendinga þáttr, a short tale set rather later, in the twelfth century, the inhabitants of Greenland twice try to use bears to ingratiate themselves with important people, only once successfully. In the very first chapter, we meet the important and well-respected Sokki, who feels the community is not complete without a bishop, and sends his son Einarr to Norway to arrange this, with gifts of walrus ivory and hides. Once the bishop thing is sorted (bishops didn't really like the Greenland gig), Einarr gives King Sigurðr Jórsalafari a bear which he happened to have brought with him from Greenland, in return for which he gets praise and honour from the king. Later in the tale, things didn't go so well with the Norwegian troublemaker Kolbeinn, who had killed Einarr and pleads his cause with King Haraldr gilli in Norway with the aid of the gift of a polar bear. But the king gathers that Kolbeinn is not telling the truth and kómu eigi laun fyrir dýrit 'no reward was forthcoming for the animal'. Soon afterwards, Kolbeinn gets his comeuppance and drowns.

These are just some of the most well-known instances of polar bears in Icelandic texts. Having started to look into it, I've realised there are many, many more, far too many to squeeze into one blog post. So I'll save some of them for another occasion.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Towering Goddess

The Viqueen, I can report, is beyond excited at her upcoming trip to extremely northern latitudes in Norway in a couple of days' time. Heading north in January means that there are two desiderata above all, snow and the northern lights. It is true that the Viqueen has seen quite a lot of snow in her lifetime, and she even finally achieved one of her all-time goals when she saw the aurora borealis on a trip to Iceland last November (as proven by the rather murky photo, right). But global warming means snow is not as reliable as it once was, while one glimpse of some rather faint northern lights can only whet a Viqueen's appetite for even more, and perhaps even more spectacular, displays.

So what does a Viqueen do? Well she knows to pray to Skaði for snow, for the skiing goddess/giantess just cannot do her thing without it. But what about the northern lights? The Viqueen duly consulted her friend the Snowqueen on this important matter, and the oracle suggested that an appropriate deity to propitiate would be the otherwise not very well known goddess Gná. This sent the Viqueen back to her books to remind herself about this rather obscure figure, and what she found there is rather interesting.

Like many other obscure goddesses, Gná occurs a few times in kennings, where she is mostly just a synonym for 'goddess', in those woman-kennings where a goddess, any goddess, depending on the requirements of rhyme or alliteration, forms the base-word. Still, it is interesting that Gná appears in kennings in both very early poetry (Ölvir hnúfa, one of the poets of Haraldr Finehair in the 9th century) and quite late poetry (in the Jómsvíkingadrápa by the Orcadian bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, in the late 12th or early 13th century), suggesting a longevity in the minds of those who cared about these things.

Another bit of evidence that she was better-known in those days than she is now is the way in which she is mentioned in Snorri's Edda. There, she appears as no. 14 in the list of goddesses and her main characteristic seems to be as a kind of errand-girl for the top goddess Frigg (aka Mrs Óðinn). But then Snorri tells us a bit more, that she has a horse, called Hófvarfnir, that can run on both the sky and the sea. Snorri also goes on to quote a couple of stanzas from a poem occasioned by her riding through the air. On being seen by 'certain Vanir' doing this, one of them asked:
'Hvat þar flýgr? / Hvar þar ferr / eða at lopti líðr?'
What flies there? What goes there, or travels in the air?
to which the goddess herself answers:
'Né ek flýg / þó ek fer / ok at lopti líðk / á Hófvarfni / þeim er Hamskerpir / gat við Garðrofu.'
' I do not fly, though I go and travel in the air on Hófvarfnir, whom Hamskerpir conceived on Garðrofa.'
  (quoted from Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning, ed. Anthony Faulkes, 1982, p. 30, my translation)
Just a little snippet of mythological knowledge there, not unlike the many names, of mythological horses as well as many other things, that we find in Grímnismál. But what is perhaps more interesting than that is the fact that these two stanzas are among the very few Eddic, mythological stanzas in Snorri that must derive from longer poems that do not otherwise survive, again suggesting that this goddess was once better known than she is now.

Snorri then goes on to add, in some guesswork etymology, that 'From the name of Gná, a thing which goes up high is said to tower (gnæfa)'. So, indeed, an appropriate deity for the northern lights up there in the sky. The Viqueen can only hope that she recognises this humble approach and arranges things accordingly next week.

P.S. If you want to read a much more learned disquisition on the possible significance of Gná and other flying females in Norse myth and superstition, then do have a look at Stephen Mitchell, 'Gudinnan Gná', Saga och Sed (2014), 23-41.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Darkness and Light at Midsummer

Nikolai Astrup
St. Hansbål ved Jølstervatnet
Wikimedia Commons
In London on Norse and Viking business yesterday, I took a bit of time to go to the splendid Dulwich Picture Gallery and check out their Nikolai Astrup exhibition. Publicity for the exhibition has tended to stress how little known he is outside of his native Norway, but those of us who have lived in Norway couldn't possibly have escaped being fascinated by his paintings. Apart from a few short visits to the capital or abroad to study, Astrup spent most of his life in the same place, the farming communities in the district of Jølster in Sunnfjord, and his motifs all derive from the landscape and the people around him. The paintings and prints look pretty good on the page, or the screen, but there is nothing like seeing them in the flesh.  Seeing a large number of his works together really brings home how careful and subtle his use of paint is - there are so many different shades of blue and grey for the water and the sky, and of green for the foliage. Almost every painting has a little luminescent glimmer in it somewhere, be it the summer night's reflections on the lake, or a full moon, or the warm light of a house window shining through the trees. These effects can only be appreciated by seeing the actual paintings.

One of Astrup's best-known and -loved motifs is found in his several works (such as the one pictured above) on the theme of Sankthansaften, or Jonsok, the pan-Scandinavian custom of big midsummer bonfire parties, on the 23rd of June, the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist. Growing up in a country parsonage, Astrup wasn't allowed by his strict father to participate in such 'pagan' practices, and clearly made up for this by painting the scene many times later in life (often with a wistful figure looking on from the edge of the scene). Which raises the question of just how 'pagan' these celebrations were.

Well it does not stretch the imagination to accept that northern countries, with their great contrasts of darkness and light, would mark the time of year when the days were at their longest, but starting to get short again, just as they celebrated the time of year when the days were at their shortest and getting longer again. But actual evidence for such celebrations is hard to find. One of the labels at the Astrup exhibition suggested that the St John's Eve bonfires went back to pagan times and were a recreation of the funeral of the god Baldr. But I don't think this idea is much older than 1858 when it was suggested by the Norwegian language reformer Ivar Aasen, who grew up a little north of Astrup, in Sunnmøre. The basis for this suggestion is not clear, though it is true that Baldr is 'so bright that light shines from him' (according to Snorri), and it is easy to equate his death with the turning of the sun.

The main medieval evidence for the festival comes from ch. 19 of Ágrip, a historical work written in Norway in the late twelfth century, where it says of the missionary king Óláfr Tryggvason that he (edition and translation by Matthew Driscoll):
felldi blót ok blótdrykkjur, ok lét í stað koma í vild við lýðinn hátíðardrykkjur jól ok páskar, Jóansmessu mungát, ok haustöl at Mikjálsmessu.
abolished pagan feasts and sacrifices, in place of which, as a favour to the people, he ordained the holiday feasts Yule and Easter, St John's Mass ale, and an autumn-ale at Michaelmas.
This suggests, though not definitively, that these new Christian feasts took place more or less at the same time as the traditional celebrations, but it says nothing about the traditional midsummer feast being a celebration or recreation of Baldr's funeral. So that must remain a rather speculative hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it is quite likely that Astrup shared Aasen's romantic viewpoint, and the picture above does seem to echo the myth. Unlike most of Astrup's other Sankthans paintings, this one has no dancing couples and the mood seems to be quite sombre. According to Snorri, Baldr's funeral took place by the sea, on a ship which was launched and then burned. It is not I think too fanciful to see the bonfire, the boat on the shore, and the lone figure sitting by it, as echoes of this story, at least in Astrup's mind.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Poetry of the Shipping Forecast


Britannia Designs, Dartmouth
Despite being the world's greatest landlubber, I have always loved the Met Office shipping forecast, especially when broadcast late at night on Radio 4, and I know I am not alone. Undoubtedly my own reason for this lifelong devotion is partly its splendid litany of place-names, beginning with that most evocative word of all, Viking, followed by North and South Utsire, named after Norway's smallest municipality Utsira. The forecast then ends its ramblings round the rocks and waters of the northwest European archipelago (and some nautically nearby places) in suitably Norse and Viking fashion with Fair Isle, Faeroes and South-East Iceland.

But it's not just this abundance of Norse and Viking references that I love. I would go so far as to argue that the shipping forecast follows some rules that make it into a kind of poetry, the kind of poetry I like.

(1) It is formulaic. The basic structure of the shipping forecast is the same every time, and it makes use of a pre-determined and traditional vocabulary and phrases with which both author and listeners are familiar. Occasionally moderate. Showers. Good. Cyclonic. 6 or 7 at first in west.

(2) But like all good formulaic poetry it rings the changes through variation. Moderate or rough. Rain or showers. Poor. Variable 4 becoming northwesterly for a time.

(3) It has a fixed structure, each part introduced by a formula to keep the listener orientated: 'The shipping forecast is issued...', 'The general synopsis at midday', 'The area forecasts for the next 24 hours'. Within each part the content is formulaic and always in the same order, though making use of variation as described above.

(4) Its formulaic nature gives it a regular, fairly predictable, if somewhat staccato, rhythm.

(5) It is primarily oral, though you can also read it on the page.

(6) It has a function (even if not for me). I like poetry that has a function other than that of being poetry. Because of its important function the shipping forecast has to be read in clear and unemotional tones, which thereby emphasise the drama of 'rough or very rough', or 'severe gale 9'.

As you snuggle in your warm bed tonight, just spare a thought for those in peril on the sea.

P.S. I'm not the only lover of the shipping forecast who owns the charming little dish pictured above. Thanks to my ever-vigilant other half who found it for me.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Horses of the Sea

Norse and Viking ramblings took me to Denmark earlier this week, specifically to north-east Fyn and the small but picturesque town of Kerteminde. Highlight of the trip for me was my first-ever visit to Vikingemuseet Ladby, home of Denmark's only known ship-burial. This was discovered in the 1930s and excavated, as one sometimes did in those days, by the local amateur enthusiast, one Poul Helweg Mikkelsen, a chemist in Odense. But he did a splendid job and also had unusual foresight for those times to insist that the partially-excavated grave be left in situ in its mound. So there it is today (pictured left), you can still see the impression of the planks of wood and the many nails in their original position. You can also see the skeletal remains of eleven horses (their teeth are massive!) and probably four dogs. This custom of including horses and dogs in the burial is well-known and widely attested. We can speculate endlessly about the mindset that went in for this kind of mass slaughter to accompany one who was undoubtedly a wealthy and powerful local or regional chieftain. It's also rather graphically illustrated in the reconstruction of the burial (pictured below) in the small museum on the site.

Both the horses and the ship were of course the expected accoutrements of a great chieftain like the one buried at Ladby. The burial mound is on the coast and, while he may not have lived at Ladby itself (the name means 'loading settlement'), he certainly lived nearby and would have used both means of transport to get around. But there is more to this connection between ships and horses and we can get some insight into that by considering the poetry.

Much surviving Old Norse poetry, particularly in the skaldic genre, deals with ships, sailing and sea-battles, and the poets deploy a rich and surprisingly realistic vocabulary when dealing with such matters. But when it comes to the ships themselves, they also allowed themselves all kinds of flights of fancy, particularly in their use of kennings. As I touched on in a post last year, one of the most common kenning types is that which figures a ship as the 'horse of the sea'. Oddly enough, the kenning does not work the other way  round - in the whole of the skaldic corpus there is, I believe, only one example in which a horse is said to be the 'ship of the land' (parallel to the classic kenning-example of the camel as a 'ship of the desert'), and that is a bit obscure. Nor is there that much realistic description of riding in the poetry. But the number and range of kennings which vary the 'horse of the sea' concept is quite astonishing and the examples below are just a selection.

The 'horse' can be a drasill, a fákr, a faxi, a hestr, a marr or a viggr, all of which are just different words for 'horse'. Or it could be called by a typical horse-name, such as Blakkr 'Dusky', Hrafn 'Raven', Sóti 'Sooty' or Valr 'Falcon' (notice how the idea of substitution, so common to kennings, creeps into these horse-names, two of which are actually other animals, in fact birds). The 'sea', on the other hand, could be expressed through words that mean 'wave', such as bára, hrönn, unnr or vágr, or other words such as sundr 'channel', sær 'sea', or haf or lög 'ocean'. Again, the idea of substitution can make things more complex, with the 'sea' being replaced by a sea-kenning such as eybaugr 'island-ring' or hvaljörð 'whale-land'. You have to be pretty well-schooled in this way of thinking immediately to conjure up a picture of a ship when you hear of a 'steed of the island-ring' and kennings can often get even more complicated than that.

Not all ship-kennings involve horses, there are examples in which the base-words are bears, boars, elks, rams, reindeer and even swine. And just as horses sometimes had bird-names, so these kennings are reminiscent of the way in which ships were sometimes named after animals. Examples of such names from both the Viking Age and the medieval period include Ormr 'Snake', Trani 'Crane', Vísundr 'Bison', Hreinn 'Reindeer', Gammr 'Vulture', Elptr 'Swan' and Uxi 'Ox'. There's even a nice parallelism in the way that both horses and ships can be named after birds, though why anyone would have thought a vulture was a fine thing to name your ship after, we will never know.

Despite this maritime menagerie, the strongest association of the ship is still with the horse. Mastering a ship is rather a different skill from riding a horse, but the successful Viking Age chieftain, particularly in a landscape like that around Ladby, needed to be good at both. A ship was undoubtedly more expensive, and more difficult to replace, than a horse, so he would have had more of the latter. But both enabled him to cover more ground than the pedestrians he ruled over and, with one ship and several horses, he could also take a group of followers to support him in his endeavours. While almost anyone could have one horse, the chieftain had a lot of horses and at least one ship, perhaps precisely in the ratio of 11:1, as in the Ladby burial. This superiority in prestige of the ship over the horse may explain the kenning pattern mentioned above: while a ship could be figured as a horse, no horse could ever aspire to be a ship.

These associations are deep and complex, and fundamental to Viking Age concepts of leadership and masculinity. Much more could be said about them, perhaps drawing in those dogs that were also buried with the Ladby chieftain, and indeed his sword, another essential accoutrement of the well-accessorised Viking leader. And we mustn't forget that women were also buried in ships, accompanied by horses, though
these associations are more difficult to untangle - was it only certain kinds of women and if so which kinds? The symbolism of both burials and poetry is endlessly fascinating and a real key to the Viking mind, if only we knew what it all really meant.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Love Denied

Christian Krogh 1899
Dronning Astrid taler på tinget
Wikimedia Commons
The hopeful runic valentines and love messages I have mentioned in previous posts may not always have worked out as the writer expected. As Mariella Frostrup said in today's Observer magazine, 'Valentine's day is a lottery and winning tickets are rare'. It could even happen to a king. In the early eleventh century, King (later Saint) Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway wanted to marry the Swedish princess Ingigerðr, but the arrangement broke down and she went off to marry the Russian prince Jaroslav instead. As so often, a broken heart leads to poetry, and he composed this about the moment when she set off on her journey east. The text is as edited by Russell Poole in volume 1 of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, the translation is my own attempt to be slightly poetic:
Fagr stóðk, meðan bar brúði
blakkr, ok sák á sprakka
— oss lét ynðis missa
augfǫgr kona — af haugi.
Keyrði Gefn ór garði
góðlôt vala slóðar
eyk, en ein glǫp sœkir
jarl hvern, kona snarlig.

I stood on a mound, watching
a fair mount bear the woman,
the beautiful-eyed wife
caused me to lose pleasure.
Friendly woman, goddess of the
hawk’s ground, quickly drove the horse
out of the yard; each man is
haunted by one mistake.
Of course, he got over it, as almost everyone does, eventually. Indeed things turned out quite well for him because he ended up marrying Ingigerðr's sister, the splendid Queen Ástríðr, pictured above arguing the case for her stepson, later King Magnús the Good, at the Swedish assembly, an event later celebrated in poetry by the innovative Sigvatr.

Although a lot of Viking Age poetry is about war, the poets occasionally also addressed the finer (and not so fine) emotions. If you are interested, there are a few more examples in the British Museum publication Viking Poetry of Love and War.