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Archive for the ‘Norse Mythology’ Category

Jackson's take on the poem is that of the Old West--mine is more that of David the Gnome, I guess...

Jackson has his cowboy-take on the Gnomic poem–mine is more David the Gnome, I guess…

Well, three current English translations anyway, now that Jackson Crawford has his translation of Poetic Edda for the general reader tapped for publication with Hackett Publishing Company in the (hopefully near) future. I’ve been meaning to post about this news, plus a rehash of my previous notes on Edda translations, but after finding out that this is apparently Cowboy Poetry week, I figured this would be a good opportunity to mention both Jackson’s upcoming Edda and his “Cowboy Hávamál,” a really cool rendering of the long poem of wisdom and Odinic escapades from Poetic Edda (his new translation will not be cowboy-style–which may relieve some and disappoint others, I suppose). I have a brief introductory post to the Old Norse Hávamál from way back at the start of this blog, if you are unfamiliar with this somewhat unwieldy but super interesting poem (Jackson’s translation is of the “Gnomic Poem” section, the title of which led to my possibly ill-advised comic to the upper right…), though if you want a more thorough introduction and Old Norse text oriented towards scholars in the field, David Evan’s edition is available online. An older non-cowboy translation is available here, though I recommend the current translations instead. Speaking of which…

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

A (finally completed) depiction of a moment that was left unrendered (but I think implicit) in Völundarkviða, one of my favorite poems in Poetic Edda.

I have a general and short introduction to Poetic Edda in my post on the difference between Skaldic and Eddic poetry, though if you have a subscription to The Literary Encyclopedia I did the entries on Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Jackson’s translation will join two other current English versions, Larrington’s Poetic Edda and Orchard’s Elder Edda (both translations of the same book, despite the difference in titles). The selling point for Jackson’s translation, according to Jackson’s own blog, is that it in a “truly readable, contemporary style,” written for casual readers outside the classroom. Not that Larrington or Orchard are intentionally trying to obfuscate the material, but I think that scholars who are used to teaching the material in the classroom (since I have noticed this myself–though of course Jackson teaches these things in the classroom as well) have a tendency to allow the “Oddness” of the material to shine through in translation. Personally, I think this is productive, at least in a classroom setting. As has been noted by scholars in a variety of disciplines (for example, archaeologist of the North Neil Price discusses this in his book The Viking Way, citing a scholar in Classic, if I remember correctly), while we might notice the “Other” (the explicitly different or monstrous relative to the culture of the text we are studying) or the “Queer” (that which “queers” or subverts the norm of the culture of the text), we often miss the “Odd,” the ways in which the text itself, a product of a different culture and semantic world than our own, resists our own attempts to “get it”–or, we may have the illusion that we “get it,” interpreting what we see in terms of our own horizon of expectations, until we hit a knot of indecipherability, where we come up against the alienness of the text, or our own alienness relative to the world the text comes out of and once spoke within. A translation which preserves some of this ambiguity and “Oddness” helps signal the student that it will take some effort to come to terms with the text, as well as reminding us that we can never wholly “master” it–it always speaks to use from another world, to some degree (actually, another lit-crit person and I recently had a bit of an argument with a linguist about just this topic with reference to biblical translation–I suspect that there might be a bit of a divide values-wise in this matter between those who study ancient texts primarily and those who study Language primarily…).

None of this to say that I disagree with Jackson’s project–I’m really excited, actually, and curious to see how he handles the denser and weirder portions. My students have always struggled through the Helgi poems, for example, and the opening Völuspá can be super frustrating for neophytes (or anyone) with its allusiveness (an allusion is more frustrating than effective when we no longer know the reference). Meanwhile I hear Larrington’s translation is being reworked, so I’ll look forward to looking over all three eventually. 

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Valkyrie Valentine 1 fixedHappy V-day everyone! (Viking-day? Valkyrie-day? Well, close enough)  For those of us who like our women strong and deadly, here’s to those ladies of the air and battlefield, the Valkyries! (valkyrja, “chooser of the slain”, or less poetically, “corpse-chooser”) OK, while some of the Old Norse stories of valkryies or other strong women (eg the Maiden Kings) may edge towards (or dive straight into) more of a taming-of-the-shrew sort of narrative (to put it mildly), there are others in which these warrior women seem to make it through with their self-respect intact, even if a love story ensues. In Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi Hjorvardsson), the valkyrie Svava not only names the hero (while she rides by in splendor in the sky) and tells him where to find his sword (normally things that would be done by his father), after she marries him we are told that she remains a valkyrie as before, rather than losing her heroic status after finding a man “strong enough to make her a woman” or whatever. Not that the three Helgi poems in Poetic Edda are an unmixed bag–we have two versions of Helgakviða Hundingsbana (Helgi the Bane of Hunding), the first of which is short and triumphant, entirely focused on the hero as a supermasculine awesome warrior dude, and in which he kills the valkyrie’s family-approved suitor and everyone else, to which she replies… yay, now I can marry you, versus the second version, which seems to represent a female perspective a bit more, as she finds herself caught between her lover and her family, the former killing the latter (in order to be able to marry her, true…um…), and then being killed by her surviving brother. Like the women in Beowulf (especially the digressions), she (normally a force of nature in her professional role) is caught in the web woven by the martial patriarchy and suffers for it. Not the most empowering representation of a valkyrie, but one which gives more of a voice to a female perspective on the patriarchal Viking age comitatus than the teenaged-angsty-wishfulfillment of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I.

Mist Valkyria Black BackdropThe Helgi poems mentioned above are all in Poetic Edda (available in two excellent translations, here and here–but I must warn you that the Helgi texts are especially hard to follow for a beginner), at the start of the “Heroic Poems”, following the stories of the gods and supernatural beings, but they are not the only valkyrie love stories in PEIn fact, the Sigurðr-Brynhildr-Guðrún triangle, famous throughout the Heathen/early Christian North and down into our day through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is central to the entire second half of PE. At the end of the “Mythological Poems” we have an abortive valkryie love story in Völundarkviða, another story which subverts, to some degree, masculine agency by having the swan-maiden valkyries (apropos of their usual function?) choosing their mates (I gather this from the wording in the first few stanzas of the poem, which portrays the women as active and the men as passive) rather than the other way around, as is typical in Swan Maiden stories, and then leaving their men because they feel drawn back to war. OK, that part made me sad, I confess, and we maybe have this female agency countered later in the poem in Völund’s seduction/rape (?) of the human princess Böðvildr, but I feel like there are enough Iserian gaps re: the significance of the valkyries in some of these stories that we can celebrate them as the awesome supernatural warrior women that they are. Hurrah for valkyries!! But if you choose me, please be careful what exactly you are choosing me for, Ms. Corpse-chooser…

PS, in case you are in need of some sappy, V-day poetry of the more depressing sort, remember my short verse here! And yeah, the rating is pretty low now–it used to be a lot higher, but someone went through ALL the poems from that time (not just mine) and lowered everybody’s score, so let’s just hope that jerk learns the true meaning of V-day… or whatever.

Also, will try to get around to posting about the coded runic love messages that have been in the news lately!

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Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1

[UPDATE: I got 3rd runner up, plus some really nice comments from not only K Siegfried and the artist of a graphic novel, but from the artist who designed the famous Faroese Norse Mythology stamps! Check out the contest results here (and buy copies of my pic here!!!!!). You can also find my pic alongside a bunch of other illustrations of the myth on this Myths and Legends blog.]

[If you want the summary of the myth, just skip to the bottom!] I like “Abduction of Idun” much better than the usual “Rape of…”, though it has been suggested that there was a sexual element to the possession of this fertility goddess by first the gods, then the giants (then the gods again). Anyway, here is my picture! I first sketched the idea back 2 years ago when a student in my mythology course requested a pic of Iðunn, but ended up never finishing it (did this quick anime-esque portrait instead). I decided to resurrect it finally for the Midwinter Art Contest at the Norse Mythology Blog. Well, OK, this is potentially problematic, as I presented this paper on one version of the myth as a harvest poem (not a winter poem), but all the reasons that the skald Þjóðólfr found the myth productive for a harvest poem also recommend it for a Midwinter poem, as the theft of the fertility goddess Iðunn brings youth and springtime bounty to the giants, while the gods are left to grow old and grey. Given that, I decided that my Midwinter picture would also draw on the myth of the abduction of Iðunn as a way of dramatizing the coming of winter–the land of the giants, behind our giant-transmographied-to-eagle, is cold and snowy, typical given the association of the giants with inhospitable rocks and mountains in many of the myths, but the cold of those mountain tops (a giantish association that is hit on a few times in the poem) will soon be transferred to the land of the gods, behind their imposing wall (shown on the right with Loki in the shadows), as Iðunn’s powers and her life-giving apples (here shown golden[-ish], as seems to be indicated elsewhere in the mythic corpus) transform those wintry mountaintops into eternal Spring. It’s not difficult to see parallels to the Persephone myth, though of course we should be cautious about assuming the two goddesses play exactly the same role. Within Snorra Edda, I think the myth makes the most sense taken in the context of the competition between the gods and the giants, as a threat to the dominance of the gods. As Margaret Clunies Ross has pointed out in Prolonged Echoes v 1, during the “Mythological Present” we find a state of negative reciprocity between the gods and giants, as it is seen as appropriate and good from the POV of the myths for the gods to appropriate goods from giantland and for the male gods to sleep with giantesses (or marry them, in the case of the Vanir), while it is a threat to the cosmic order for a giant to appropriate anything from the gods or to seek sexual access to any of the goddesses (this is apparently behind the inherent threat of Loki’s existence according to at least one version of his origins, where his father is a giant [Fárbauti] and his mother is a goddess [Laufey–yes Marvel, you got that VERY wrong…]). The abduction of Iðunn is a great example of this sort of myth, where the community of the gods is penetrated (and yes, there is a productive overlap with sexual penetration there, highlighted in the fact that it is a goddess that is abducted) and their source of prosperity is taken–but since this is a myth in the mythic present, she is recovered (spoiler alert) and everything is returned to normal by the end. As I argue in my paper, this can be described in terms of the “Image of Limited Good” theory from anthropology–but you will have to read my paper for that.  😛

I’ve got a few of the early steps in the making of this pic on my tumblr, as well as the finished product. And as always, you can (AND SHOULD) buy copies at DeviantArt and Redbubble!

Snorri Sturluson’s prose version of this myth is the first given in Skáldskaparmál, the middle section in Snorra Edda (aka Prose Edda, Younger Edda), and the section of the poem Haustlöng that covers the myth is found a bit later in that same section (you should be able to find free versions of Snorri’s Edda online, but they are all pretty old–I recommend you pick up Anthony Faulkes’ translation instead). I wrote a paper on Haustlöng as a harvest poem a few years back (based on a section from my dissertation), so feel free to read that on Academia.edu (if you can’t read it on there w/o being a member, maybe I’ll put together a version for this blog). In the meantime, find my summary of the relevant part of the poem below (cut and pasted from my paper–sorry, not much time today).

Haustlöng, as preserved, consists of two myths, both also given in prose narratives in Snorra Edda—the Rape of the goddess Iðunn, whose apples grant the gods eternal youth, and Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. For the sake of time, I will focus on the Iðunn stanzas, where the connection to harvest time is clearest.

“We begin with a reference to the performance situation as Þjoðólfr wonders aloud how he shall repay the gift of a shield from Þorleifr, then tells us that he can see the journey of the famous gods on the shield. The giant Þjazi, diguised as an eagle, flies to where Óðinn, Loki and Hœnir are attempting to cook an ox. Said cooking goes poorly, and it is hinted that something (the eagle, in Snorri’s account), is responsible for this. Then the eagle speaks up from its perch in an ancient tree and asks for a share in the meal. They agree, and the ox, now cooked, is swiftly gobbled up by the eagle. Loki strikes the ravenous eagle with a pole. This pole sticks to the eagle, as well as to Loki’s hands, and the eagle flies off so violently that Loki is forced to sue for peace. Þjazi has him bring Iðunn to the home of the giants, and all the gods grow old and ugly, due to the lack of Iðunn’s apples, as Snorri explains for us. The gods find Loki and force him to bring Iðunn back. He does, and while chasing them Þjazi is caught and roasted alive in a fire prepared by the gods.”

Idunn takes a walk in the snow

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IMG_2353I’m still ashamed that I never got around to writing a blog post about the first Thor movie–but now the second one is out, and I’ve got stuff to say! First, let me get my griping about pronunciation out of the way. The Shakespearean language bothered me, as it always did in the comic books as well (which I never read much, since I was more of a X-Men and Spiderman fan as a kid), but I figure this is a product of the awkwardly archaized English of the saga and Edda translations available in the first half of the twentieth century (incidentally, these are the versions that are in public domain now–you can find some on Northvegr). If you encountered the Norse gods in those versions, then of course you think they speak like they belong in a poor Shakespeare knock-off. But what really bothered me was the pronunciation of the names– “YOTE-un-hime” for “Jotunheim”, which should be “Jötunheim,” which is more like “YUTunhaim” (or “Jötunheimr”/”YUTunhaimur” if you want the nominative form that you would see in a Norse or Icelandic dictionary). OK, OK, I’m really not giving especially accurate guidance here, but it’s a bit more in the right ballpark–the beginning of the New Introduction to Old Norse has a great section on pronunciation in both Old Norse (which is reconstructed–meaning, it’s an educated and scientific guess) and modern Icelandic (which is the pronunciation I’ve usually found used in academia when we read portions of the sagas aloud). A New Introduction used to be available for free online as a PDF, but that does not seem to be the case anymore–I guess they came out with a new edition and want folks to actually buy it. The wikipedia article on the Icelandic alphabet can also give you some pronunciation tips.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I realize American audiences are not familiar with the o-umlaut, but the sounds aren’t difficult, and I feel like a proper name ought to stick at least somewhat to the original (and the fact that they used the German pronunciation of “-ei” instead of the Scandinavian is unforgivable. >:[ )  Also unforgivable–Laufey is Loki’s (goddess) mother in the myths, but becomes his giant father in the first movie (his giant father is Fárbauti in the myths), and Loki is bloodbrother to Odin, rather than adopted brother of Thor. Look, it just gets silly after a while… But I will get into Loki’s family and relationships another time. It’s complicated.

OK, that’s off my chest. Whew. Let me also confess that I just didn’t like the first movie as much. The romance, which is apparently supposed to be central to Thor’s redemption, just does not feel convincing, and the final fight felt pretty lame to me too. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) seemed to be in the movie primarily to make Thor look good (by falling for him and going wide-eyed in anticipation at appropriate moments)–but OK, I’ve seen several blog posts that argue that the movie actually passes the Bechdel test, so I’m willing to step back and let people make up their own mind about that. I’m still skeptical, but it seemed like they made a decent case (alas, not sure exactly which blog post it was that started it for me…).

The new movie is more of an unabashed space-fantasy, which I think is more fun. Well, OK, I think the first movie would have been a lot more interesting (maybe not necessarily better) if they had taken out all the space-stuff (that legitimates Thor’s story) until that moment at the end (spoiler alert) when he gets his hammer back and Jane et al. all see that he WAS telling the truth and is a super-being from space. But for Dark World, I really enjoyed just sitting back and watching the spaceships and stuff zoom around. Pretty fun. I like space stuff. Also, there are a few fun twists (at least one that really got me), and the dynamic between Thor and Loki is really played up a lot more, I assume partly in response to reception of the two characters among the fans and partly as a result of the ways the actors have filled out these roles so well. And I really like how the Thor franchise doesn’t take itself too seriously (not all the time anyway)–I really enjoy the humor at times.

IMG_2273Still have some issues though, so I will hit them one by one here. Spoiler alert, but oh well, you probably new that.

The Vanir are Asian? Kinda but not really, according to Snorri Sturluson, who derived the name Æsir (whom Odin and Thor belong to) from “Asians” (for him, that would be Asia Minor–he was interested in convincing us that the gods were originally Trojans). The Vanir are another group of the gods who joined the Æsir (after fighting with them), and Snorri’s etymology is BS but interesting in terms of how he worked it into his grand narrative deriving Norse poetics from Classical poetics. Once version of the truce that brought them together also covers the origin of poetry, but that is a tale for another day…

Minorities and Others. To continue on the above topic, race is a pretty interesting topic to get into w/ these movies. OK, you might say that race is not at all prominent as an “issue” here, so why bother stirring it up? But it is precisely the unintentional, taken-for-granted ways that race manifests itself in this movie that are telling (and interesting). There was a huge furor online (much of it blatantly racist, and much of the rest racist at the same time that its purveyors protested “I’m not racist, but…”) when it was revealed that Heimdall would be black in the movie version of the comics. Never mind that these are aliens anyway, and that they may as well be green (like the Æsir in StarGate… which I still haven’t watched). Personally, I am more troubled by the way in which the overwhelming whiteness of these “aliens” (especially those ruling the 9 worlds) serves as an “as above, so below” justification for the situation here on earth the last 500 or so years, the imperialist and colonial programs of the West now written in the heavens and in the primordial past. As was pointed out by Karl Siegfried at the conference we met at, even Idris Elba’s version of Heimdallr becomes a liminal figure, a bodyguard who protects those on the inside from those on the outside, without being on the inside himself. With this new movie, we realize that the token Asian of the first movie is not really “from” the ruling community of the gods, but from the Vanir. I would assume that this also means that Elba’s character is from another community, although I believe I did see a token black person or two in the background among the other guards. The “earthly” varieties of “race” or ethnicity then, based on skin color and accent, stand in as “model minorities” (peripheral and not in charge, but apparently not bothered by that), while the monsters, whether the primordial Dark Elves or the barbaric looking figures with horns and stuff in the opening battle in Vanaheim, or the giants, stand in for the threatening aspect of the ethnic/racial Other (maybe not too different than in the Norse myths themselves–despite the name, the “giants” of the early texts are not necessarily gigantic, and whether they appear “normal” or “monstrous” will depend to a degree on just how much their Otherness needs to be emphasized in that particular story). The correlation between the celestial world order and that on earth becomes a bit eery and disturbing when we have Odin talking about Asgard’s peacekeeping role across the 9 worlds and the need to show these worlds that they are “strong.” The politics of power don’t differ too much across the 9 worlds, I guess. Anyway, this is not to make any of these actors feel bad for playing these roles, or to say that there is some nefarious purpose behind it all–but all this is still there, it is part of the movie, and it is better to be able to see these things (and to try to subvert them rather than reinforce them) than to be blind to them.

The Dark Elves. Not going to say much here, except that we really hardly know ANYTHING about the elves in Norse mythology, and the “dark elf/light elf” division may be an invention of Snorri, that incurable systematizer. I like the suggestion that “dark elf” or “black elf” is just a kenning for “dwarf.”

Women and power. So, Jane is great, and I appreciate that they’ve tried to portray her as a genuine scientist who really is interested in SCIENCE and not just muscles–but it seems to me that her thunder (haha) is really stolen by Thor’s arrival as one of those who really “possesses” the tech and science she is trying to just get a glimpse of. I mean, how can she ever pass the Bechdel test now if the subject she is a specialist in (SCIENCE… OK, more specific than that…) is now meaningful in the narrative only in so far as it relates to the main male character? OK, her tech is what finally defeats the bad guy, but that was just too silly for me (I mean, human home-grown tech… which her male colleague built, now that I think about it–against super-being apocalyptic tech. Not going to work). And one thing that I noticed here, and then saw paralleled in the X-men material (thinking of Jean Grey as Phoenix here)–power in these cases (the Aether for Jane) is something that possesses these women, rather than something that they possess, as is the case w/ their male counterparts. Haven’t thought further on this, but I’m curious how many other parallels there are in the comics world… Also, Jane’s impotence is really highlighted a LOT. Not just in her possession by this power, or in her out-of-placeness in Asgard (which is more of a legitimate plot-point that could have been explored more), but in the silliness of her physical violence–hitting Thor when he comes back after ages is kinda funny, sure, and we all laughed when she hit Loki, but the latter case really turns ridiculous when we really look and see her hit this man and say “That’s for New York.” Maybe it’s just me (and sure, we have Sif in this movie too, and she’s pretty bad-ass), but taken with the rest it just felt like a picture of the helpless woman juxtaposed with the competent male. And Sif or not, that is really the central relational image in this film (and of course, Sif’s place in the story is defined largely by the fact that she does NOT have the relationship with Thor that the weaker Jane has).

The Aether. OK, just going to point out that it isn’t really a Norse thing, but that’s fine. I didn’t really find it all that compelling (or well explained) a novum (or plot device) in this movie though.

Pectoral and boob plates. Yeah, just silly (always is–even if its Batman). Armor does not need to articulate that which it protects (and any articulation would just weaken it). That said, it’s nice that they don’t go for gratuitous chain-mail bikinis and the like, and really, the armor in this film is a step up from the stereotypically exploitive fantasy armor. Also check out this blog.

Mayans and Stonehenge and Ancient Conspiracies. OK, I just hate that stuff. Too many people buy into it. For a book that discusses WHY people buy into ridiculous conspiracies, ancient or otherwise, there is a handy chapter in this book (which I hope to review soon). At least it wasn’t a prominent theme in this movie.

The sneak-peak at the end. OK, who’s excited for a Infinity Gauntlet movie crossover?? ME!!!!!! I hope this means they are bringing back Silver Surfer. Honestly, I don’t know how they will do it though. The Marvel movie franchise may be big, but not THAT big. Still, I’ve been excited about this ever since the Thanos appearance at the end of the first Avengers movie. I haven’t kept up with comics for 20 years though, so who knows, maybe that whole storyline has been redone since “my time”…

I think I am missing some things, but oh well. Also check out Karl Siegfried’s interview about the movie at his blog. Karl’s interview is a lot more thorough and systematic in dealing with the connections between the “old” myths and their appropriation in the movies and comics.

And since it is that time of year, here is my pic of Thor and Loki from Christmas a couple years ago. Now available as greeting cards and posters on Redbubble, as well as on DeviantArt (where you can also get it on a mug!). The pen brush sketches from above are also on my DA acct, as well as on my tumblr.

Thor Santa Loki Rudolph God Jul_edited-1

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CopenhagenArni_Magnusson_portraitHappy 350th Árni Magnússon! (You can supplement the wikipedia link w/ this more official bio). Thanks to Árni, I have a profession. We owe a lot to this guy who gathered the bulk of the Old Norse-Icelandic manuscripts that we have today. The institute where I did my dissertation research, and where I took a seminar in Old Norse paleography, is named after him: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum (The Arnamagnaean Institute for the Study of Icelandic Studies). Árni’s collection was severely damaged in the Copenhagen fire of 1728. He died a bit over a year later. 😦  File:University of Iceland-Arnagardur.jpgThe collection was divided in the 20th century between Árna Stofnun in Reykjavík (Iceland) and Árna Stofnun in Copenhagen (Denmark–in fact, the Queen of Denmark is visiting Iceland right now to commemorate Árni’s b-day).

File:Snæfellsjökull-kfk-1.jpg

Snæfell

Árni has inspired a few fictional variants (which you can find listed on the wikipedia page)–my favorite is Arne Saknussem in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, with his ridiculous and clearly non-Scandinavian name (in his attempt [or in spite of it] to mimic the sound of an Icelandic name, Verne ended up completely losing the patronymic -son). I read Journey right as I was leaving for my own studies in Iceland (and I enjoyed checking out Snaefell, the mountain through which the adventurers supposedly clamber down into the earth. Fun book, and a neat example of how “exotic” Iceland was to the rest of Europe at the time.

In honor of his birthday, I did a quick sketch of Árni as a Viking, posted below for your enjoyment (as well as on my tumblr and on deviantart). If folks like it, I will put together a cleaned-up version of the picture to sell as a tshirt or print on my new Redbubble store. And as always, check out my post on the term “Viking” in Medieval Iceland if you want more info about just what the word means. Sorry for such a quick post today, but things are finally getting rolling on this translation job (a book on the theology of the body), plus my cousin and his family are in town, so no time for anything thorough…

Árni as a Viking.

Árni as a Viking.

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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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