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Archive for the ‘Norse Mythology’ Category

Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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Gosh, it’s been way way too long since I’ve actually written about Norse mythology here, hasn’t it? Well, why not take on one of my favorites: Óðinn’s acquisition of the Mead of Poetry. Loosely based on a version of a talk I prepared but never gave relating to my recent research on the figure of the home and interior in the sagas (I’ve spoken twice, not including academic conferences, on the subject since, but this portion got edited out both times). Watch out, this turned into a super long post.

idunn_and_loki__midwinter_meander_by_callego-d6xmuid

The abduction, as I illustrated it for the contest at the Norse Mythology blog.

In our approach to this particular narrative, I think it is helpful to point out the obvious comparison to (and contrast with) the story of the abduction of Iðunn, which I have previously illustrated and discussed. Both stories, after all, involve a Viking raid of sorts, the penetration of a rival community to acquire or reacquire a resource, sexual access to a woman of the rival group, shapeshifting into eagle form (among others), and a dramatic chase scene through the air back to the home of the gods–and both show up in approximately the same section of Prose Edda. Both poems are also set in the so-called “mythic present”, as opposed to the “mythic past” (the prehistory, creation, and ordering of the world) and the “mythic future” (the fall of the gods, disintegration of the world, and the coming of a new world). The mythic present is primarily about the gods attempting to maintain the status quo, meaning, doing their best to assert and maintain their superiority over the giants. Margaret Clunies Ross (whose book Prolonged Echoes informs a lot of this post and my other posts) has called this situation “negative reciprocity”, in that, rather than a reciprocal relationship between gods and giants (ie, fair exchange of goods, marriage alliances, etc, or on the other hand hostilities, whether theft, sexual access to women, or killing, like in a feud or war), the situation is instead one-sided, with the gods, by and large in the mythic present, having their way with the giants while rebuffing the giants’ attempts in the other direction (for example, giants die right and left throughout the mythic present, but the gods are mostly untouched–until Baldr’s death). We might think of it as an attempt to project and enforce a vertical relationship, such as you would have in the hierarchical relationships within the space of the Icelandic farmstead (from the landed family down to the lowest slave), onto the level of horizontal relationships between different groups–but again (or even in parallel with this), it also works well enough to read these as, say, “viking raids”, or as a mythic prototype for the relationship to the Saami, from whom the Germanic Scandinavians extracted tribute–certainly the myths serve to set up a properly demonic straw-man, justifying the aggression of the POV of the mythology.

jord__earth__and_thor_for_earth_day_by_callego-d7fkzv5

Thor’s mother is the giantess “Earth”. There are several giantesses in the matrilines of the gods, even going back to Odin (who essentially creates the world by murdering his maternal great-grandfather). We may take the entry of several giantesses into the community of the gods as either wives or mistresses as a reinforcement of negative reciprocity in the myths, which tends to involve denying the giants sexual access to goddesses while the gods have their way with the giantesses. More on that another time, probably… And incidentally, my comic here is not intended as an accurate portrayal of the giantess Earth–when giantesses play the role of object of desire in the myths, they tend to look the part as well.

From the perspective of the gods (and the aristocratic Icelanders whose interests they may be taken to represent in the Eddas) the proper direction for action is outward from Ásgarðr (“Asgard”, “farm/enclosure of the gods”) towards the land of the giants–as with what we call “acquisition narratives”, such as the origin of the mead of poetry, in which the gods go to the giants and come back with something that is, in the mythic ideology of medieval Iceland, associated with the gods as representatives of Culture, with humanity, etc. When the opposite is the case–the action is directed against the gods, with the giants threatening either their women or their stuff (or just their assumption of superiority, as I can think of at least two instances where giantesses attempt to insist on a more reciprocal standing–more on that another time)–it is a crisis, the natural order of things is inverted (represented in one myth by Þórr getting dressed up as a bride) and (again, in the myths of the mythic present) the myth ends with the restoration of the status quo. The abduction of Iðunn is this latter sort of myth, while the story of the Mead of Poetry is of the former type–one of the most prototypical of the acquisition narratives to my mind.

I would say “welcome to the militant world of Viking mythology”, but keep in mind that the versions of the myths that we have were written down by Christian Icelanders two hundred years after the conversion. In fact, a possible interpretation of the significance of the myths in an Iceland that was Christian but still managed conflicts via bloodfeud (as well as more mundane settlements) is that they functioned as fantasies in which one’s rivals could be completely dominated and demonized–more on that another time, probably, esp. given that the situation isn’t too different in so many of our own stories…

Throughout the myths we find a prominent anxiety over the vulnerable interior at two symbolically conflated levels–that of the community (the home of the gods is marked out by a great wall, whose origin story is itself pretty interesting) and that of the body. One could in fact read the arc of the mythology as a whole (as preserved in the medieval Eddas) in terms of the anxiety of the gods over the threat of penetration, bodily, sexually (generally manifested either as threats to the women of a community or as threats to the virility/masculinity of a man), strategically, etc (all the while, of course, they constantly penetrate away when it comes to the land of the giants). Relevant here are several seminal studies on insults and gender in Old Norse lit (not too far off from us when we flip the bird or say “screw you”, or less bowdlerized forms, but you could be outlawed for such things in Medieval Iceland), but I think I’ll have to save that for another time.

IMG_4664

Possibly Odin in eagle form, on Gotlandic picture stone Stora Hammars III. My own photo, so alas not adjusted to let the image show up more clearly…

The conflation of home/community and body with each other is not unique to the sagas and myths, of course, in particular in terms of the permeability of the body. It is an understandable and, I imagine, universal tendency to think of the home as what keeps the outside out and the inside in, and this concern over boundaries of course maps onto our concerns over our bodies as well, which we also think of in terms of inside/outside, and the integrity of which is often dependent on the integrity of our various shelters. This inside/outside symbolism is of course useful when constructing communal identity (“insiders” vs “outsiders”, to be “in” on something, etc), the perceived unity of the human body being rhetorically mobilized in the articulation of a cooperative unity of many bodies. We find this at play in the larger story of the mead of poetry.

The story begins with one version of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir (we might tentatively locate this at the end of the mythic past, but generally let’s think of the larger myth as representative of the mythic present). In their truce, they exchange hostages—not “hostages” like we are used to thinking, but representative members of one community go to live with the other community—since members of each community now live in the same spaces, they now constitute one community (at some level of signification anyway–arguably the Vanir members are still treated differently, as represented in the Eddas). In addition, and more pertinent to my point here, both sides spit in a big puddle. Wouldn’t it be great if we settled conflicts this way now…. The idea being, their bodily fluids—their insides—are now mixed, and so they are one. Óðinn doesn’t stop there, of course, and he turns this puddle of spit into a person, because mythology. The metaphor of shared bodies equating to communal unity is made concrete as the bodily fluids of both communities are now contained within one literal body.

The person created from the spit is called Kvasir. He turns out to be the wisest being in the world, and he goes around telling folks wise stuff. But then he runs into some dwarves who think he is a smartass, and they kill him (they excuse themselves, saying, essentially, that he choked on his own wisdom)—and of course, they take his blood and mix it with honey to make mead, an alcoholic beverage associated with the aristocratic male community in ancient Scandinavia, because mythology, again, though we will probably get tired of this explanation. These dwarves get into a feud with a giant, who takes the mead in compensation for their killing of his parents, and this giant, Suttungr, hides it in the middle of a mountain, guarded by his daughter Gunnlöð, because duh, that’s what you do when you have magical mead made from the blood of the wisest person in the universe, and before that from the spit of the gods (I know “Drunk History” is a thing–“Drunk Mythology” would be good, but you would have to do this myth in poetic form…).

800px-Processed_SAM_mjodr

The origin of the “rhymster’s share” (aka Odin loses his shit). Image from wikicommons.

So Óðinn finds out and he thinks “Well, that’s not a good way to use my spit, we don’t want the giants to have it”, so he disguises himself, which is typical enough for Óðinn, and goes to seduce Gunnlöð—also quite typical for Óðinn. Well, it’s kind of complicated getting there, as he has to trick Suttungr’s brother into helping him, but in the end he drills a hole into the mountain, turns into a snake, and penetrates the chamber where Gunnlöð is guarding the mead—and if that wasn’t Freudian enough for you all, then he sleeps with her for three nights. In return she lets him drink up all the mead, and he turns into an eagle and flies away, because (again) mythology. Well, Suttungr doesn’t like this, so he turns into an eagle as well and chases Óðinn back to Ásgarðr. When Óðinn gets there he pukes the mead into containers, making the mead of poetry, now refined a final time with this return to and from Óðinn’s gut, available for gods and humanity—so this is where poetic skill comes from. But Suttungr was so close behind him that Óðinn peed himself a bit, and that’s where bad pop songs come from. Read the story in full in Prose Edda (for which, as usual, I recommend Faulkes’ translation–I’m a fan of his edition of the book as well).

The anxiety over penetration (again, of various sorts, both metaphorical and less so) in the state of negative reciprocity that I discussed above is hopefully illustrated well enough between the “Mead” and “Abduction” myths (oh, and please don’t assume the “screw you” ideology noted in passing here is all there is to say about gender in the sagas–it’s true that we tend to consider the sagas written by aristocratic men for aristocratic men, but there is a lot more to women in medieval Iceland beyond saga anxiety over their potential for penetration…). Beyond that, there is a lot more to reading this myth in terms of an implicit symbolic conflation of body, hall, and community. The mead of poetry is an origin myth for a specific type of poetry, Skaldic poetry. The form of skaldic is interesting in itself, but that’s a bit of a complex topic to get into here. In practice, skaldic was a commodity of the aristocratic male (again, this is the general, but not universal, picture we get through the sagas). Poems were composed in honor of chieftains, kings, wealthy men, and the prototypical performance would involve poetry performed in honor of the patron in his hall, with all the other retainers there as well. The communal identity of this boys-club of warriors is both symbolically and concretely reinforced by the fact that they are all together in this hall, “their” hall, that they are drinking alcoholic beverages together, a standard warrior-band practice marked by aristocratic exclusivity (a potential reason for the difficulty of the form), and the fact that they are all participants in this oral poetic performance—in fact, ears are referred as mouths in one kenning, showing us that the appropriateness of the conflation of mead and poetry was not lost on them. They all take in the poetic mead together, symbolizing their communal identity, just like the Aesir and the Vanir become one by sharing their own bodily fluids–we emphasize our communal sense of belonging by symbolically constructing shared bodily insides (think of the blood-brother ceremony, for example, which actually shows up in the sagas as well). OK, OK, kinda gross, but you know, at least I’m not telling you the story of Loki and the goat…

This was a bit of a rambly and long commentary on this myth (sorry), but if you made it this far I hope you will check it out yourself–it is early in the Skáldskaparmál section of Prose Edda. We should note that it is contested how much of this myth actually goes back to the Viking age–I expect that at best Snorri (author of Prose Edda, fyi) misunderstood a bit here or there (as has been suggested for the containers involved), while at worst he invented things wholesale based off of obscure references to the poetic mead in early skaldic poetry. That said, that there was some idea of a mead of poetry that came from Óðinn is indeed clear from some of this earliest poetry, as even then the skalds would articulate their own poetic act as a sort of regurgitation of Óðinn’s gift, so I feel like it is fair enough to apply my interpretation from the previous paragraph to the Viking age court. And while we are certainly interested (from an academic perspective) in sorting out how much is “heathen” and how much is Christian reception of the myth, we should also remember that Viking age religion did not involve the sort of aggressive orthodoxy you find in, for example, Christianity–myths were certainly expressions of religious faith, but there was no fixed text to refer back to, and variance would have been the rule, even, potentially, from fjord to fjord and farm to farm.

And last but not least, for a bonus visualization of the myth check out Drachenseele’s illustration here, done for me as my reward for getting second in an art contest on deviantart! 😀

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Jacksons EddaOr I suppose we should say Edda Jacksonar? Anyway, I got a(n advance?) copy of Jackson Crawford’s The Poetic Edda in the mail today, and while I don’t have time for a full review (and probably won’t for a while–way way too much to do) I wanted to give some initial impressions and put it on everyone’s radar! And OK, Jackson is an acquaintance of mine (another young scholar in my field and the guy who taught a couple of my current UCLA courses before I got here–he is a linguist though, unlike myself, but that is OK too I guess), and I am kind of a softy when it comes to people I know, so don’t expect any sort of a hyper-critical dissection here–there will be plenty of those I’m sure, as no translation is going to please everyone.

And at this point we should also note (as Jackson himself has) that this is meant to be a translation for the casual reader. He has unpacked many of the kennings, has not attempted to reproduce the original meters (no argument from me there–my favorite translation of the Beowulf poem is entirely in prose), and has left out many of the heiti (alternate names for gods and such)–and tries to avoid any verbal gymnastics, keeping things nicely pithy. You can get a feel for the difference if we contrast some of the first stanzas from Völuspá, the first poem in Poetic Edda, as translated in Andy Orchard’s recent translation and Jackson’s new one (and check out the original here if you want):

Orchard:

A hearing I ask of all holy offspring,

the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.

Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well

ancient tales of folk, from the first I recall?

I recall those giants, born early on,

who long ago brought me up;

nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,

the famed tree of fate down under the earth.

It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,

there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;

no earth to be found, nor heaven above:

a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.

Jackson:

Heed my words,

all classes of men,

you greater and lesser

children of Heimdall.

You summoned me, Odin,

to tell what I recall

of the oldest deeds

of gods and men.

I remember the giants

born so long ago;

in those ancient days

they raised me.

I remember nine worlds,

nine giantesses,

and the seed

from which Yggdrasil sprang.

It was at the very beginning,

it was Ymir’s time,

there was no sand, no sea,

no cooling waves,

no earth,

no sky,

no grass,

just Ginnungagap.

The latter certainly reads a bit easier, doesn’t it? The former, on the other hand, preserves a bit more data (or noise, depending on what you are reading for) from the original. Sorry I don’t have Larrington’s recent revision of her translation available–I’ve heard good things about it though. If you are wondering which translation to go for, I would say 1) Jackson if you want it made easy for you, do not typically read ancient lit (translated or otherwise), and/or are just “checking it out”, or if you are teaching Norse mythology to more of a High School age crowd, 2) Orchard or Larrington if you are more interested in getting more “data” on the original text, even if it makes the reading awkward at times, want more thorough notes (Jackson has an introduction to each poem, while Larrington and Orchard have more thorough endnotes–still aimed more at the undergrad though), and/or are taking/teaching a college level course on Norse mythology, and 3) if you are engaging at a post-undergrad level with the material, well, go learn Old Norse! These translations could be helpful “cribs” while you are starting out, and of course it is always handy to see how someone else has parsed a line, whether they are going for a looser or more direct translation.

One interesting bit about this translation–Baldrs draumar and a few of the “Eddic Appendix” poems are inserted following the poems of “Gods and Elves” (though I kind of wish it was “Gods and minor supernatural creatures”, as that lets us keep the descending momentum of “Gods>Elves>Dwarves in this section, rather than having good old Völundr sandwiched between Thor poems [the story of the smart-ass dwarf All-Wise does involve Thor, though], rather than after the Codex Regius poems (meaning, the full run of poems from the most complete medieval manuscript).

I’m not going to try to go into the relative accuracy of any translation right now, since I don’t have time to hunt down anything I disagree with and since pretty much any translation is going to have bits that scholars disagree with, and even mistakes and misreadings to be corrected in later editions. The point here: Jackson’s translation offers a lighter, more accessible alternative to the other translations out there (or: it is what it is). Even if you have one of the other translations, this is a nice one to pick up as a foil to the others, or just for a nice, quick read on a rainy evening while sitting by the fire in your… um, mead-hall, I guess.

Thanks for a great book, Jackson, and I look forward to reading more!

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Readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a Tolkien buff–not saying I’m great with the trivia, but JRRT has definitely inspired and shaped the goals and arc of my life quite a bit since I was a wee lad. I read and loved the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at an early age (fourth grade… I may have read the Hobbit in third, can’t remember), but it wasn’t too long before I moved on to the Silmarillion, and after that discovered Christopher Tolkien’s editions of his father’s earlier drafts of the Silmarillion and other unpublished work. While I’d already decided that I wanted to “be” Tolkien, I suppose it was these posthumous bits and all their accompanying learned notes that first gave me a taste for any sort of scholarly approach to texts.

I don’t remember how old I was when I read the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales–I may have been in Jr Hi or High School when I finally got to volume two–but at some point early on (probably in one of the non-authorized biographies, now that I think about it) I learned that the start of JRRT’s mythos was a poem about Eärendel the half-elven mariner who… um, shoot, you should probably at least read the Silmarillion before I spoil that for you. Here’s a hint, he comes into the family line of both Elrond and Aragorn in a big way…

Eärendel is derived from Éarendel the “day star,” “brightest of angels” in the Old English poem Crist by Cynewulf (there is a prose translation here), but the name is attested elsewhere in the Germanic languages as well. I don’t have time to write much on this (as much as I would like to dig into this more for myself as well)–classes start Thursday–but in my own particular field (Old Norse mythology) we know him as Aurvandil, whose toe was turned into a star by Thor (and in Saxo’s version he is Hamlet’s/Amleth’s father–will the connections never cease). And of course the Old Norse scholar Peter Foote just had to name one of his collections of essays Aurvandilstá (A’s toe)…

The occasion for this post is the fact that, the day after it was relevant, I ran across this article on the centenary of Tolkien’s Eärendel poem, and so the centenary of Middle Earth. I won’t comment on it (again, lack of time), but it’s pretty interesting, not least with its notes re: a suggested bit of intertextuality with reference to one of Shelley’s poems (said interpretation makes Tolkien come off as a sort of belated English version of the Swedish Gothic Society, I think, in that they also consciously replaced the Classical fetish of earlier Romanticism and Neo-Classicism with a more “Germanic” National Romantic fetish).

And of course I’m posting on this rather late, but that’s because I felt like I just HAD to have some sort of illustration of my own for it, being a rabid Tolkienite and all. My pen brush sketch is pretty rough, but I hope to redo it in photoshop eventually (like I did with my pic of the Valkyrie Mist). More inspired-by than an illustration-of. The poem (or the final version) you can find in volume 2 of The Book of Lost Tales, but I will post the first stanza here (the original version of the first stanza you can find in the article I link to in the previous paragraph):

Éarendel arose where the shadow flows

At Ocean’s silent brim;

Through the mouth of night as a ray of light

Where the shores are sheer and dim

He launched his bark like a silver spark

From the last and lonely sand;

Then on sunlit breath of day’s fiery death

He sailed from Westerland.

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IMG_2833This is sort of a belated review, but John Lindow’s book Trolls: An Unnatural History is out now, and EVERYONE SHOULD BUY IT!!! OK OK, I’ll try to quit the salesperson schtick. This book is  a solid overview of the topic from a leading scholar in the field of Norse mythology and Scandinavian Folklore,  but is also super accessible (well, as much so as a book can be while still remaining academic in nature). John has always been very at home with both the super-erudite discourse of academic journals (OK, that’s a given for a professor in the field…) as well as with articulating the state of the field in a readable and understandable way for those not in the field–note, for example, his Norse Mythology Handbook. Take this and the two Eddas and you’re well on your way to being a super-duper Norse mythologist.

The book is a slim one, at 154 pp, so it is not like this is a comprehensive book of everything about trolls–but it is an excellent overview, and is the only text I can think of that follows the term/concept “troll” all the way from its earliest attestations through it dissemination and transformation in international culture. Chapter one covers the earliest Norse attestations, chapter two the slightly later Medieval attestations (well, this is a slightly problematic distinction, as the Viking age texts were themselves written down in the Middle Ages, but it still works), chapter three covers the trolls of folklore, chapter four the transformation of the troll in the early printings of popular collections of folklore (and the illustrations are great in this chapter for showing the progression towards the more sensational, big-nosed, distinct-species of troll that we are more familiar with now), chapter five covers “trolls in literature,” inclusive of one of my favorite movies, while chapter six gets into trolls in children’s lit and marketing–and then there is the epilogue, which gets into the slang use of the word “troll” in contemporary society, from patent-trolling to the trolls who haunt the internet.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer's trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow's book is also a Bauer illustration.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer’s trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow’s book is also a Bauer illustration.

Legend Trolls vs Fairy Tale Trolls

The first two chapters were mostly a review of trollology I’d learned (from John, of course) early in grad school, but I really appreciated the overview of the later reception of the idea of the troll the latter chapters, in particular in terms of the history of the visualization of the troll (seeing how I am slowly venturing into illustration myself, and have a few troll pics, or trollish-pics, which I’ve put below). I also appreciated the observation (which I believe I’d heard before, but had forgotten) that trolls, in the more general sense of supernatural beings, are more ambiguously colored in the legend tradition (i. e., tales that are ostensibly true and less about narrative entertainment), where, for example, it is open to debate whether these Others are subject to the same salvation that the Christian, human, insiders claim, while in the fairy tale tradition (more explicitly ludic, fictional, and escapist, and often told by the rural proletariat) trolls are more explicitly Bad, playing the role of Villain, and, according to Bengt Holbek’s interpretation (which John does not get into in this book, though he does have a very thorough review of in a 1989 or 1990 issue of Scandinavian Studies), the negative symbolic embodiment of authority figures like landowners, employers, or parents (in-law).

A trollish portrayal of Thor's mother Earth.

A trollish portrayal of Thor’s mother Earth.

Trolls, Fantasy, and Good and Evil

This got me thinking about the priority of the escapist function in Fairy Tales, especially since I’d just been reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories–while the rural proletariat may be more aware than most of the potential for moral ambiguity and abuse among those who are supposed to be “in the right” (as of course those in charge would think), or so my left-leaning sympathies had me thinking, the fact that it was primarily the poorest of the poor who tell fairy stories certainly highlights the importance of escape in their situation (a point Tolkien makes about all of us–it is the jailers who argue against escape–but let’s keep in mind the fact that some are more jailed than others), and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that one aspect of escapism is the isolation of Good and Evil, at least in certain places within a story. As horrible as it is when someone gets so bad that they are Just Bad, it is also a bit of a relief, isn’t it? To just say “THEY ARE BAD” and “THEY ARE GOOD.” But maybe a more nuanced take is possible as well–let’s keep in mind a key aspect of Tolkien’s celebration of the human ability to create coherent things which do not actually exist–green suns and the like. If I remember correctly, one of his points is that this linguistic ability to see green grass as both green and grass is at the root of the sort of work we do when we create fantasy worlds which are simultaneously coherent and yet impossible. Fantasy draws its power from the way in which it dances with the real world–if iron is ennobled by the forging of the sword Gram (as the Big T says), then our real world experiences of Good and Evil are legitimated, enhanced, sharpened, and affirmed by our fictional manipulations of these things (our reification of them, our treatment of them AS things) in a fantasy world. Green is greener by our ability to separate it from the grass that we perceive it on, and similar things could be said about Good and Evil. (gooder ? eviler ?  Hm, maybe I’ll work on this idea…) Of course, that is not to deny the great evil that has been done by the various fantasies of… well, of evil, that have been transferred into the real world and used to justify everything from rape to genocide–there needs to be a sufficient about of reflexivity if our fantasy is not going to just drive a two-dimensional ideology of us versus them.

Trolls trolls trolls

One last note–while John does not pursue a very developed thesis in this regard, he certainly does touch on the ambiguity of the world “Troll” itself (troll as magical, troll as extraordinary (if still maybe human), troll as generic supernatural creature, troll as giant, troll as a specific sort of monster, etc…). I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but just don’t have time at the moment–but well, now you can read his book! You can also read this article by Ármann Jakobsson on the topic (starts p 39, I think), which also reviews the academic literature a bit–but be warned, the article is written for those who are already “in” the academic conversation about trolls, so it won’t be quite the same sort of experience. I have to run now, but may revise/expand this review a bit… we’ll see.

Meanwhile, here are some more troll pics! (FYI–these are just for fun pics. Like, let’s pretend we are making up new creatures for a video-game type fun. Not authentic at all. You’ve been warned.)

Troll Sketch 1 14_edited-1

Lava Troll_edited-1

Ice Troll Sketch_edited-1

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My entry "People Watching"

My entry “People Watching”

Well shucks, I finally got first place in one of the art contests at Karl Siegfried’s Norse Mythology blog! This is particularly gratifying, as I’d been a bit frustrated trying to pull the different elements of this picture together. I really like the concept I hit on, so I’m glad that was able to come through! I’ll be putting a version up for sale on Redbubble soon (but right now I have to run to a baseball game…)

My idea here was to show a typical Scandinavian midsummer scene with the maypole (midsommarstång or majstång in Swedish, though I believe the “maj” in the latter doesn’t refer to the month “May”) up and people milling around, while in the foreground some of the Æsir and Vanir chill out under Yggdrasill, both viewing the human scene and constituting a mythic prototype for that scene. In particular I thought it would be fun to try to visualize the connection between mundane world and mythic world in a way I hadn’t seen before, with the connection between the two worlds fairly ambiguous here, but still clearly there with the roots of the world tree running through the human world like tree roots through an ant hill. I didn’t decide absolutely on what the roster of gods would be here, but going from right to left, I think maybe we’ve got Loki, Thor, Freyja (or Sif, originally I made her hair much more golden), and Freyr. But I’m open to other interpretations.

Karl’s blog is a great resource on Norse myth, in particular its reception among contemporary heathen practitioners, an area that tends to be overlooked in academia (well, not as much any more) despite being a pretty interesting phenomenon (and one in which the practitioners can actually tell us what it all means to them–my position is more like that of Snorri, or JRRT, a Christian writing with fascination in a pagan past but not participating). Karl also has a lot of great celebrity connections when it comes to the contemporary world of Norse-themed culture, as witnessed by the judges he gets for these contests, so his blog is definitely one to follow, whether you’re interested in Viking Metal or Marvel comics!

My previous contest entries are posted below–first is my third place winner from last years midsummer contest, and next is my runner up from the midwinter contest more recently. After that is my other relatively polished Norse mythology picture, though unfortunately it wasn’t really fitting for any of these contests…

Late Sun Tomte Fox Dragon copy

Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1

Volund and Hervor Smaller version Post Correction of Streak

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Phew, I managed to throw together a pic for Earth day! Would have liked to put some more time and details into it, but I put this off as a reward to myself after meeting my minimum translation goal for the day–will probably try to get another page or two done as well.

Jörð, or “Earth,” giantess, mistress of the All-father, and mother of Þórr, with her son, probably dropping him off at school or something. As fun as it was to portray her like this, she wouldn’t necessarily have looked extraordinary to the gods (except that she might have been insanely beautiful… but hey, no reason this fecund form couldn’t be beautiful too), as whether or not the giants were portrayed as monstrous depends on the role they play in the particular story they show up in (in the Old Norse texts they are apparently not necessarily associated with gigantic size). Jörð seems to have been won over fairly thoroughly to the side of the gods (whether by seduction, force, or magic, we don’t know, but see the poem Skirnir’s Journey to see Frey’s shoe-boy attempt all three), as Snorri tells us in Prose Edda that she is numbered among them. I’m afraid she doesn’t really show up much in the myths, and for fertility deities you have to go to the wonder twins Freyr and Freyja… and, incidentally, Jörð’s son with his association with fertility through (presumably) the weather. 

Would love to go into some sort of eco-critical perspective on the relationship of the Vikings to the natural environment and how can be tied in to the relationship between the gods and the giants and gender and all that, but I should get back to work.

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