Archive for October, 2013

Forest Moon Viking

Well shoot, costumes can be complicated (and no, not just because “liberals” try to make things complicated). A friend asked me the other day whether it was cultural appropriation for someone to dress as a Viking. This came (whether coincidentally or intentionally) in the wake of several discussions on Facebook that I either witnessed or participated in about, for example, the furor over the names of sports teams (“Redskins”, “Indians”) and the (really unbelievable…) blackface costumes that have shown up online in the last week (I mean REALLY??? Not just blackface, but TRAYVON MARTIN??? How anyone thinks we are post-racial, I’ll never know…). I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about the history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in our country/Western civ. (check here for an overview of colonialism and postcolonial theory), but I’ll note a few points that I think are fairly obivous (and yet overlooked), even if yes, things tend to be pretty complicated in the real world (and since Heritage Studies is something I dig into every now and then, I may revisit this topic one of these days).

For one, there IS a history of oppression that our society is built on, and however much you believe we are “past that,” our literature, cultural semiotics, tropes, etc, are all built up on the layers of everything that has come before, and YES, in a literate culture with the “long memory” that we have (a necessary element of what we call civilization), you ARE responsible for being aware of the history of representation that you draw on (and sure, we can change things despite this baggage–but not by ignoring the baggage). So no, you don’t get to make jokes about monkeys and lynching when you are criticizing prominent black figures (and holy smokes, I DID see this on facebook–still blows me away)–nor do you get to wear blackface.  To continue on to the parallel, or lack thereof, between dressing as a Viking and dressing as, say, an Indian: a community which is reasonably well established as or within the dominant group, which then creates a totemic icon (or a costume) from a barbaric figure associated with its own past, is NOT the same as the dominant culture creating a totemic icon based on a historically subjugated group–whatever other complicating factors there may be (I believe I’ve heard that the Redskins were named out of affection for a native american coach)–let’s keep the inherent difference between the two situations in mind. And while my family (for example) loves telling “swedish jokes” about our own heritage, let’s keep in mind that the Scandinavian American heritage is not something that is a disadvantage anymore–sure, go far enough back and you find a time when jokes about dumb, thieving (!) Swedes were told–and not by the Swedes themselves. And I’ve even found a letter quoted from over a century ago in which a “WASP” foreman complained that it was only him and a couple other “white men,” plus a dozen or so Swedes (!!!) out in the forest working (no joke–I knew about the Irish, but apparently Swedes were not “white” during the immigration before the turn of the century). But you know, we tell “ethnic” jokes about ourselves now because there IS no threat to (or rather, threat perceived in) our ethnicity. That said, in one discussion I followed online, a latina woman complained about how hypersensitive white people will make a big fuss when people like her would rather not stress out over something she perceives as not a big deal–and while I don’t agree wholeheartedly with her (I know folks with the same claim on the problem that she has who WOULD be offended, so who do I listen to?), her point was driven home by the fact that a “white liberal” (sorry for the scare quotes) initially talked over her a bit… until she noted that she was latina (the “white liberal” had been treating her as another white person till then), the (totally valid) implication being that she had more of a right to comment in that situation.

So yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s still worth thinking about–better to navigate this conscientiously, even if no absolute, self-evident ethical solution is available in all cases (but dang, it’s pretty obvious that you DON’T dress in blackface and mock the death of a young black teenager, whatever you think of the trial). I mean, dressing like a ninja, an indian, a cowboy, or a viking for halloween–to a certain extent the fact that all of those are equally “cool” and valid costumes for kids these days can certainly give us hope that, when we are at our best, we can both embrace the Otherness of our varied ethnic heritages as well as understand ourselves as all part of the same community, enjoying the cool stuff that comes out of our various pasts. That said, dressing in thick glasses, a bowl cut, putting in big fake front teeth and squinting is still a way of mocking “Asian-ness” that we would “get” (meaning, we would understand that someone who is not asian is dressing up in a way that turns asians into stock, stereotyped, comic figures)–there is no equivalent for Scandinavian Americans. OK, in my family, and the church I grew up in, we would “get it” if someone dressed up as Ole or Lena, and spoke with a cheesy Swedish accent–but that is not a stereotype available to (and used by) the culture at large. So no, it isn’t the same, and it won’t be for a long time. And liberals pointing these things out is not what keeps these stereotypes around. OK, off my soapbox…  (No wait, one more point: Really, wouldn’t we comment on it if an asian or black or hispanic kid dressed as a Viking? Like “Why are you doing that, kid?” Whereas we take it for granted that a white kid might dress as a ninja…or star as one in a movie, for that matter. Maybe I’m wrong here, esp. now that Thor is not just for comic book geeks any more…)

And finally, I hope you enjoy my illustration for today! The colonial subaltern in a galaxy both temporally and spatially distant (a long time ago and far away, in case that is not clear), oppressed by the (mostly white, now that I think about it…) humans, and seen as funny, stupid, cuddly, comic, and primitive in culture, religion, and technology (in other words, culturally invalid relative to us civilized, but certainly more interesting and spectacle-worthy because of it) even by their human allies–but the table is turned here! This speculative and creative fuzzy-wuzzy has hit on a new mode of narrative, one which creates entire universes with histories totally unlike the Real World, and so he (or she? I don’t know how to tell…) has come up with a universe (and an entire franchise, I’m sure) in which there is a human galaxy, both temporally and spatially distant, with a whole history, coming down to one blue-green planet, on which there is a largish peninsula far to the north, where humans lived in a barbaric warrior society, clothed in primitive metal armor, hacking each other to pieces, raiding the weak, and sailing the world in flimsy yet fearsome wooden ships… and for halloween, this fuzzy-wuzzy has decided to dress up as one of these fictional “Vikings.” Movies, toys, novels, and comic books to follow, I bet.

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Göte Göransson

Well, this is pretty cool news (though I’m a bit late posting about it, so my apologies!) They’ve found two really really long rows of pillars at Gamla Uppsala  dating to the 5th century (= Old Uppsala, seeing as the city has since been moved south a bit–but it is still a really lovely walk, which I have missed since last being in Sweden 5-6 years back). Obviously the posts mark a Migration-era pathway to the restaurant Odinsborg, which, incidentally, has the most delicious meatballs I have ever tasted (yes, I am a connoisseur), and which offers mead made according to a medieval recipe (the best I have ever tasted, except a homebrew by a food-science friend of mine). OK, just kidding (but not about the quality of the food and drink). But it does look like it marks a path to and from this very significant cult center of ancient Scandinavia.  Further info here, here, here, and here.

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The Migration-era grave mounds at Gamla Uppsala.

The latter two links are a bit longer, if you are up for more reading (beyond my own post here, of course…). The examiner article has a neat quote from Dagens Nyheter re: Gamla Uppsala as a “centralized location” rather than a village/town/city. I think it was first in an article by Lotte Hedeager (not this article, but this one is a neat foray into bringing together pre-Viking archaeology with the study of Norse myth, preserved in Medieval documents–always a problematic approach, but still worthwhile and intriguing imho) that I was introduced to the term “central places” (vs city, town, etc), and I think it’s a great way to highlight the difference between significant communal locations in such an extremely rural society as ancient Scandinavia versus our usual presuppositions about urbanization, or even the formation of towns (maybe more on the significance of towns and markets for the rise of the Viking age some other time…). I’m not sure why the author of the Examiner article also notes the significance of the number 144 (the number of pillars uncovered) in the book of Revelation, and I think their claim that the ancient Scandinavians had a pantheon of 12 is problematic (I am inclined to take the “pantheon” as for the most part later efforts to systematize a non-systematic religion by people like Snorri or later scholars), but otherwise lots of neat info here (and for some brief comments on the problem with projecting our ideas of orthodoxy on pagan Scandinavia, see my interview at Paper Tape).

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The temple at Uppsala, according to Olaus Magnus, following Adam of Bremen

The Daily Kos post is a bit more of a gushy “Isn’t Viking history cool???” post (I have no problem with that, of course) with some great quotes from the sources about Gamla Uppsala, including a description of the supposed Uppsala temple from Adam of Bremen. We might be skeptical of the idea of a ginormous pagan temple at Uppsala (or elsewhere in Scandinavia)–for one, we don’t think he actually visited Uppsala himself, and for two, we think that ancient Scandinavian religion was not especially associated with specialized cult-buildings (we have lots of connections to outdoor locations and landscape, though). It wouldn’t be too out of the way to suggest that the idea of a “temple” had more to do with the Christian imagination, setting up this heathen site as a sort of anti-Christianity, with an anti-Church. That said, Uppsala WAS an incredibly significant cult location in Scandinavia, and, as we noted above, was a central place to which a lot of wealth would have flowed–so if there were to be any sort of gargantuan hall reserved solely for cult practice in Scandinavia, it would be here. More likely there was a hall belonging to those in power which was then also used for official cult practice, as this seems to have been how aristocratic cult worked at the time. As for the gargantuan aspect of it (although I won’t speak for the golden chain that Adam imagined), I suppose the newly discovered pillars would give new hope to the idea that truly remarkable projects were quite plausible in the northern corner of the Mälaren basin during the Migration period (pre-Viking). At the moment, sadly, there does not seem to be evidence of anything especially huge, apart from this roadway… but who knows, maybe these enormous pillars will turn out to be part of/terminate in/(whatever) some super-cool giant structure! We can dream… So anyway, support your local archaeologist! And all the others too.

And one final note–I think it is cool that what seems to be a means of marking a very significant route from Gamla Uppsala to the south was discovered because that same potential route was still relevant when the powers-that-be decided to set up a new rail track. I can’t map the route of the proposed track to my own memory of the landscape b/c it has been WAY too long, but at the very least the idea that the landscape offers similar paths/solutions/possibilities to us now as it did to our ancestors is something pretty neat. It’s a much more concrete and homey way of finding a connection to the past than, say, visiting a museum. The landscape is, in a sense, as much an agent as we are (OK, I said “in a sense”), and in certain places and ways that agency has not changed too much–or to put it in a more poetic (or cheesy) way, the landscape still speaks roughly the same language, while our own languages have changed so much (there is of course a degree of cultural conditioning when it comes to the semantics of space and place–but there is also a good amount of continuity stemming from the concreteness of the world and our embodiment in it).

You find a high degree of consciousness of this sharing of space across time in Iceland, where locals are very aware of the way the sagas write the landscape, or are written in the landscape that surrounds them. This point is made by a few of the Icelanders interviewed near the end of this BBC documentary on the sagas. The documentary is basically a retelling of Laxdæla saga, though I think it is way too bare-bones a presentation, and the woman doing the interviewing looks bored or condescending a lot of the time (sorry lady…)–that said, there is some good stuff in there, especially the interviews with the Icelanders (including many authors and scholars–such as Gísli Sigurðsson, a top-class scholar and a very friendly guy, who wrote the introduction to this translation of the Vinland sagas WHICH YOU MUST BUY NOW). And if you are down for some more intense academic reading, check out my friend Lissi’s dissertation, which touches on this topic.

Well, there is another long-winded blog post, but I hope there is something interesting in here for everyone! To my friends who are archaeologists, mythologists, etc in Scandinavian Studies (or related fields)–what are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you all. And for my readers, I have stuck mostly to things I know off-hand for this post, but if you would like a more thorough presentation on any of these issues, let me know! I may find time to do a bit more research and prepare something more in-depth… but no promises.

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Apologies for going so long without an update–I’ve had a few ideas for posts in my head, but in September we had a pretty big medical emergency in our family, and this blog (and pretty much everything else) were the furthest things from my mind. I’m grateful for such a close-knit and supportive family, and I was very glad to be available to be with my family when they needed me.

IMG_2134Just before that event I ordered a Pentel Pocket Pen Brush, and was just starting to figure out how to use it (here is a short video intro to the pen). I was pretty grateful to have it, an imitation moleskin, and a TON of ink refills for all those hours I was in the waiting room outside Stanford cardiology. Some of you may have seen these in my DeviantArt gallery already, but I’m posting two of my “sketch dumps” from this pen brush below–the long narrow one from when I first got it, the larger one all from the blue imitation-moleskin that I would sketch in at the hospital (and elsewhere). Didn’t scan them–I found it easiest to just take pics using my digital camera, do a little editing (and I admit that I did clean up maybe 2-3 sketches in photoshop before stitching them in with the others), and then put them into one photoshop document. I really enjoy the feeling of drawing with this pen–I just love brushes, and this is one that I don’t need to keep filling up! I struggle a bit with controlling the width and cleanness of the line. I have shaky hands (have for a long time), so carefully drawing a thin line can be a bit difficult, but a quick stroke often ends up too thick. I found myself playing with negative space a lot (contrasting light and shadow, rather than just lining contour), as you can see in some of these sketches. The landscapes were fun, but I need more gradations than just black and white to do that–so apologies if the forest floor at Henry Cowell State Park is a bit difficult to make out. 😛

IMG_2131Sketching can be a very nice, cathartic, brainless activity for me (well, not brainless, but more… um, organic??), especially in those moments when the picture just seems to draw itself–most of the pics in these sketch dumps that I’m posting here just developed as they went. Any picture will do that to some degree, however concrete an idea you have–it’s an emergent process, rather than a transcription of a vision. I think we can compare sketching, or other informal, just-for-fun creative moments (noodling around on guitar is another for me) to sleeping/dreaming–by backing out of our conscious engagement with the things that are looming large in our life and working with a different corner of our brain, we actually give our mind space to process things at a different level, or in a different way. Sometimes our cognitive engagement with the world just needs to be re-calibrated a bit, and we need to back off enough to give it the space to do that. Not to endorse whole-hearted escapism, or to deny that we often just need to “face things,” but it’s not an either-or situation. And especially in those times when there is nothing practical that we can do, because everything has been done, or we are not the ones with the skills to do it, or whatever other reason, in those times distraction, especially creative, is healthy and necessary self-care.

Anyway, here are my sketches. I think you can see some definite improvement from the first bunch of sketches to the second, but I won’t claim to have anything polished here. I hope some of them capture your imagination or are beautiful or interesting to you. I think I am mostly going to stick to digital art for anything polished that I do, but who knows, maybe I’ll try inking a pencil sketch one of these days…

Sketch Dump First Pen Brush copyBlue Moleskin 2012 Sketchdump copy

And new posts to follow soon, I hope. Have got a big translation job coming up (fingers crossed–haven’t signed a contract yet), but I would really like to put some more time into my art and my non-academic writing.

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