Archive for the ‘Philology’ 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 equivalences 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 who had been 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, 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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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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A quick sketch of Tolkien as a Warrior Dane. OK, I may not have the right warrior clothes for the migration era period that the poem describes, plus I got the scabbard on the wrong side, and the pin for his cloak is too centered, and the whole thing is messy... but I did this real quick in 5 or 10 minutes and need to get back to work, so gimme a break! Also, I think it looks a bit more like Magneto as a warrior dane...

A quick sketch of Tolkien as a Warrior Dane. OK, I may not have the right warrior clothes for the migration era period that the poem describes, plus I got the scabbard on the wrong side, and the pin for his cloak is too centered, and the whole thing is messy… but I did this real quick in 5 or 10 minutes and need to get back to work, so gimme a break! Also, I think it looks a bit more like Magneto as a warrior dane…

So a bunch of announcements went up today to the effect that Tolkien’s translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, brought to light a while back, will be published this Spring. [Edit: An except can now be checked out here, side by side with Heaney’s translation] This makes it the latest of Tolkien’s posthumously published works, and the latest of his interpretations (including translations) of the heroic material he studied, which in more recent times includes his own compositions building on/emulating the Volsung material in Old Norse literature and the Arthurian tradition in Britain. When I studied Old and Middle English lit (not my major, just some fun classes) in undergrad, I wrote on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and really appreciated Tolkien’s translation as very beautiful in its own right, and since I had a rudimentary competence in Middle English, I enjoyed being able to appreciate the ways his translation differed from others in its interpretation of the original. I did not use his edition of the poem at the time, but it is still available, co-edited with EV Gordon, the author of the introduction to Old Norse that so many of us in the field first studied with. Tolkien’s poetic treatments of some stories from his own mythos are clearly related to his translations and reworkings of the heroic material he studied–we might articulate it as different layers, each at a bit more of a remove from texts like Beowulf: 1) editions (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), 2) translations, 3) interpretations/original contributions to the “old” material, 4) homages from his own original universe (which, as you will see if you read some of his son’s commentary in the posthumously published Middle Earth series, could also be understood contributions to the “universe” of the older sources, related, I would argue, to the euhemeristic reimaginings of pagan myth in the Middle Ages).

Tolkien was, of course, a respectable scholar of Beowulf, and most of his “serious” fans are familiar with his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which had a significant impact on the way we study the poem (though one might also argue that it was simply a sign of the times, as things shifted in academia–but I do think Tolkien’s sympathy with a fellow poet, even across a millennium, shows through here). He also wrote an essay introducing a translation of the poem, some of the points of which are summarized here (sorry, couldn’t find an online text at the moment). This particular translation (and, I assume, the notes that go with it) belong to Tolkien’s younger days, but I am still pretty interested in seeing this (maybe HarperCollins could send me a review copy…? Maybe?). In particular it will be interesting to see the choices he makes in contrast to Seamus Heaney’s translation–both are poets, but will Tolkien’s additional qualifications as a scholar of Old English affect his translation at all? (Incidentally, I discuss Heaney’s translation as well as some notes re: the context of the composition and content of the poem here).

Well, I need to get back to my own translation work, so I will have to save anything else I’d like to say for the release of the actual translation. Other links to the news here, here, and here.

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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).



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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File:SeamusHeaneyLowRes.jpgSeamus Heaney, Nobel Prize winning poet and a translator of Beowulf, has passed. His translation of Beowulf came out right around the time that I studied the poem and the Old English language for the first time at UCSB with Carol Pasternack (I would later go through Beowulf again with the late Nicholas Howe at Berkeley). I believe this was my first encounter with Heaney, and have enjoyed digging into his poetry every now and then over the last decade. Speaking of digging, his poem of the same name is available to be read at the Poetry Foundation. Just reread this a few minutes ago, and I love the tension as the poet contemplates the concrete bodies and practices of his family/heritage while sitting, (gun? spade?) pen in hand, in a very different field. Maybe every (aspiring) poet faces this sense of disjunction (or are there many poets whose parents and grandparents were poets?). While not made explicit, the “cool hardness” of potatoes in hand seems to find such a clear echo in the hardness of pen-in-hand. In contrast to the pervasive physicality of his father’s work, the poet has material tools, but immaterial produce–no cool, hard poem to hold in hand. Well, I don’t know whether Heaney was making that connection or not, but it stands out to me, as the poem starts and ends with the grip of the pen but is filled up in between with the “honest work” of tilling the soil. You can find a more specific analysis of the “digging” of this poem, as well as that of Heaney’s poems on the bog bodies, in the chapter “Erotic Digging” in Karin Sanders’ Bodies in the Bog (a great book by a member of my dissertation committee, which I will hopefully get around to reviewing in more detail one day).

File:Heaneys.jpgI believe the only collection of Heaney’s work that I own is Electric Light, but it seems to have been misplaced along with half of my books of poetry in the course of my move back from Minnesota, so I can’t share any favorite poems from it at the moment. Several of his poems are available online at the Poetry Foundation, along with a biographical essay and links to many other essays about him (and I expect that their publication Poetry Magazine will feature an obituary in their next issue). Being a fan of sonnets, I especially enjoyed The Glanmore Sonnets, and will point out that you can find this translator of ancient Germanic poetry making contemporary use of kennings (intentionally derivative of the Beowulf poem) in sonnet # 7.

IMG_1854Heaney’s verse translation of Beowulf is rightly praised, and I especially enjoy having the Old English text facing the verse translation in the bilingual edition. I last took a course on Beowulf in the original (well, in Klaeber) with the late Nicholas Howe, who appreciated Heaney’s translation, but felt (if I remember correctly) that it could not adequately get across the appositive style of the poem (an aspect of the poem which Howe’s own advisor had worked on). As our “crib” we instead used Howe’s edition of Donaldson’s prose translation, which may lose the poetic flavor of Heaney’s, but translates a bit more directly (but it has been a while since I’ve worked through Beowulf in the original, so I will reserve judgement myself–but it is about time I worked through my new edition of Klaeber…)–it also includes a variety of academic articles, mostly fairly accessible, at the end, so I’ve used Howe’s edition for the most part when teaching undergraduates.

IMG_1856I especially like that we have an Irish poet translating the Beowulf poem, as that poem is itself so exemplary of the centuries of cultural contact and mish-mash throughout the North Atlantic (with an early and persistent presence in Ireland) before, during, and after the Viking Age. The poem is, of course, implicitly English in the fact that it is written in Anglo-Saxon… but it starts by saying “Listen up! We’ve heard about the deeds of the Spear-Danes (=the Scandinavians).” Why do we have an English poem celebrating a Scandinavian hero of the Migration period???  The poem as we have it was written down near the end of what we label as the “Viking Age,” so we would expect folks in England to be not-OK with poetry celebrating these pirates, right? Well, the situation was a bit more complex, and exactly what Scandinavian connection you see may depend on how far back you think the poem goes (in either oral or literary history)–is some early form of the poem an inheritance from the migration period, not so distant from the Anglo-Saxon’s own continental origins? was it composed initially to cater to new Viking lords in the Danelaw, from more the middle of the Viking Age? is it a result of the pan-Scandinavian kingdom of Knut/Canute the Great? Whatever the earlier history of the poem (though I do tend to understand it in its final form/combination as a primarily literary text in emulation of oral style), I like Nicholas Howe’s interpretation, which ties well into the Cultural Memory studies that I’ve been working in lately. If I remember correctly (it’s been a while), Nick argues that the Anglo-Saxons (in their Archive, or literate production) understood/articulated their own history, in particular their passage from Paganism to Christianity, as an Exodus on the model of the Old Testament story, crossing their own Red Sea from Southern Scandinavia/Northern Germany into England, the site of their eventual conversion. The portrayal of the heroic migration-era culture of Beowulf recovers the martial heritage of the past for the Christian present (a concern common to medieval Scandinavia as well) via (in part, at least) the Noble Heathen (to appropriate Lönnroth’s term) Beowulf, who, whether we are to understand him as a role model, a tragic figure, or something else, seems at once to embody the abstract ideals of the pagan heroic period while either relying entirely on his own strength (as opposed to the strength of the gods–this repudiation of the pagan gods is common among protagonists in the sagas), or else articulating what seem at times to be very Christian thoughts (the narrator is quite explicit in his Christian commentary). OK, the main point of all this: The poem, and the main figure, can serve as a mythic-heroic representative of the (for medieval Christians) more admirable aspects of the pagan past, recovering those ideals for a late-Viking Age Anglo-Saxon elite because they understand themselves as having come from that same place–the poem is not so much representing some cultural Other, but a primordial origin for the martial aristocracy of the present, as well as a chapter in the grand narrative of their progress from pagan the christian.

Heaney of course does a similar thing with his translation, revisiting this classic to enrich the present. Our obsession with the poem, and with any ancient “classic,” is to some degree a move of Cultural Memory (Mikhael Gronas even takes the assertion that Canon is Cultural Memory so far as to emphasize the ways in which it is an actual mnemonic system)–we turn to these texts (Beowulf, Homer, Shakespeare) because we believe there is something primordial to them, something foundational in them to who we are now. I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave it there, but if you feel like listening to Heaney read his translation, it looks like a recording is (for the moment) available here.

And now I think I will go dig up some potatoes. Or something.

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Yay alliterating blog titles! OK, OK, not a big post here, just passing on some neat news and a bit of a mystery for the professionals out there. The folks at the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog have posted about the Macclesfield Alphabet book, recently acquired by the British Library, containing patterns for letters and illumination. The full manuscript can be viewed at the British Library’s website. The mystery is this page, with an image of a tree and an “R-B” emblem:



The meaning of the picture and the “R-B” is unknown, and they are hoping someone out there will have a guess. Neat, huh? We’ll see if they figure it out. Could be one of those mysteries that lingers for a long time, or perhaps it will be solved right away, now that the manuscript has come to light.The discovery of a new manuscript isn’t all that common, at least not when it comes to the texts I study–although a friend of mine did have her masters thesis screwed up when a new fragment of a Heliand manuscript showed up…

I’m afraid this sort of paleography/codicology is not my speciality, although I think it is both fascinating and essential to our work with medieval texts (although I did attend the Arnamagnaean Institute’s paleography summer seminar two years in a row, and got to work with the manuscripts and their facsimiles a bit while I was writing my dissertation–would like to do more of that).The nitty-gritty sort of work that gets done with the books themselves is pretty important both to our understanding of the culture in which they came to be, and to our interpretations of the manuscripts themselves. Speaking of common models for the art in manuscripts, in the course of my dissertation research I found out that the illustration of Gylfi interviewing High, Just as High, and Third in the Uppsala MS of Prose Edda is actually based on an illustration from one of the king’s sagas (or vice-versa–I’m afraid I don’t remember which is the case, or which MS the other illustration is found in–it was a few years back, and I didn’t do anything with this fact in my dissertation).

From the Edda DG 11 - 3 lords

Just a little detail, but fun. The fact of the illustration is itself interesting as the other medieval manuscripts of both Eddas are quite plain (and Uppsala Eddan isn’t much better). It is a stark contrast with the richly illuminated Flateyarbók (a history of the Norwegian Kings, and meant for a king) or religious texts–not that you find oodles of rich decoration through all the other medieval Icelandic manuscripts (not the ones I typically find a reason to look at, at any rate), but I would imagine that one would be less inclined to  give the same exalted treatment to the “lies” (as Snorri presents them) of pagan mythology as was given to the more elevated topics of the Norwegian throne and Sacred (Christian) texts.

Oh, and if you aren’t sure what the Eddas are, check out my last post (some of my over-simplified metrical explanations possibly to be expanded on at some point… we’ll see).

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Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the most renowned Icelandic poets of the Viking age-- also the orneriest s.o.b. in all the sagas. Well, maybe some others come close. Picture from a late manuscript. Sorry, the poem at the end of the post isn't by him. I'll probably cover him again sometime though...

Ah, I need to start finding out about these special days in advance!  Today is World Poetry Day.  Yay for poetry!  I have all sorts of things I’d love to post (with translations, of course)– Erik Gustav Geijer‘s “Vikingen” (= The Viking), Egill Skallagrímsson‘s “Sonatorrek“, and others– but I’m short on sleep and behind on grading and class prep, so this will be a less involved post.  I thought of posting the poems I did my dissertation on, but honestly, those need to be cleaned up a bit before they are readable for a casual blog-audience.  In keeping with the “Book Reviews” element of this blog, I’ll bring to your attention the relatively recent (2005) A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics by Margaret Clunies Ross (also the author of Prolonged Echoes, my favorite large-scale interpretation of the corpus of Norse mythology).  Affordable, and a nice introduction for the beginning grad student, or the ambitious undergrad or enthusiast.  I haven’t had the opportunity to teach with it yet (and I’m not sure I would teach it in an undergrad course– actually, I’m not sure I would have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in Old Norse poetics at all, though I would like to do a grad course on the subject one day), but it covers the basics as well as a wide range of pertinent issues, from questions of genre, to the transmission and recording of the poetry, to the “Poet as Craftsman” metaphor behind much of the poetic terminology (this section was helpful to me with both my dissertation and a conference paper I gave a couple years ago), to the vernacular grammatical treatises of the later Middle Ages.  One day (maybe soon, now that it is on my mind) I will put together a post on Eddic versus Skaldic poetry (and whether that is a useful distinction or not).  Meanwhile, there is wikipedia and this book.  Well, and some other books as well.  Like this book, which will also give you some short, easy-to-read (for the most part) introductions to a whole range of genres and topics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Well, I don’t want to leave you with nothing but prose, so here is some actual poetry, taken from a 13th century rune stave from Bergen, Norway (B255).  Text and translation are from A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, page 20.  I’m short on time, so I’ll just let Margaret Clunies Ross tell you what it means.

Vár kennir mér víra
Vitr úglaðan sitja;
Eir nemr opt ok stórom
Öluns grundar mik blundi.

“Intelligent Vár (goddess) of wires [goddess of wires/jewelry=woman] teaches me to remain unhappy; Eir (goddess) of the land of the mackerel (sea) [goddess of the sea = woman (?)] takes away my sleep, often and mightily.”

Or another way to put it, if you are having trouble following the kennings (I’ve got to admit, the goddess of the sea = woman doesn’t really work for me…):

First Couplet: That smart lady is schooling me in misery, but I’m still hot for teacher. 

Second Couplet: No sleep for me–that siren keeps me up, way up, every night. 

What can I say, I’m a sucker for depressing love poetry (and can certainly empathize with the lack of sleep).  Well, OK, maybe my interpretation of this runic poem is a bit on the unsubtle side [edit: actually, now that I look at it again, it could be a bit raunchier than I meant… that’s what I get for paraphrasing skaldic late at night], but if you want the full experience, you’ll just have to go and learn Old Norse.  Then you can take another year (or two… or three) to learn how to interpret Skaldic poetry.

EDIT: For more romantic runes, check out this Valentine’s Day post from Viqueen.

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This is a Viking. Look out, he is after your land and your women.

I’m busy revising an old conference paper on the terms víkingr and víking.  These are the terms from which our word “Viking” comes (yes, obvious, sorry), but the semantics of the Viking have not been completely stable through the centuries.  Since I am spending all my time reading up on the subject, I may as well share some basic info here.  After all, everybody loves Vikings.  Now that they aren’t running around taking our land and women, anyway…

The figure of the Viking has been banging around the Western world since at least the National-Romantic period, as an embodiment of the rough-n-tough piratical marauder (how romantic!) and of the primitive, “authentic” origins of the Nation State, being appropriated by various Germanic, north and otherwise, countries (how nationalistic!).  In Sweden they had the “Gothic Society” (Det Götiska Förbundet), which reacted against the neoclassical aesthetic of the literati with an emphasis on the “Viking heritage”.  Members published poetry which made use of Old Norse literature and Scandinavian Folklore (both seen as repositories of “authentic” Scandinavian ethnic and cultural identity), and when they got together they wore horned helmets (the Vikings did not have horns on their helmets, by the way– more on that later) and drank mead (an alcoholic honey beverage drunk by the Vikings– as well as everyone else from ancient Egypt to the North) out of horns.  One of the most famous poems was by Erik Gustaf Geijer: Vikingen (= The Viking.  Duh…).  The protagonist is a young boy of common stock who heads out to sea, lives a rock-star life (fast and short) and dies a romantic icon.  Not too different from Hollywood, really, appropriating Warrior types (whether Jedi or Cowboys) to give the white male bourgeoisie an illusion of a heroic journey.  Haha, that sounded pretty cynical, didn’t it.  Well, more on Joseph Campbell some other time…

In addition to the (still typically romantic) image of the Viking raider, the term “Viking” is now applied to the Nordic peoples as a whole, during the period which we label “The Viking Age” (late 700s-mid 1000s).  We talk about “Viking Culture”, meaning the culture in Scandinavia from that period.  We talk about “Viking Lore” (like the subtitle of Orchard’s new Edda translation), meaning the mythology and legendry of the Nordic peoples of that period.  We talk about “Viking women”, never mind the fact that we are not talking about women who go out on Viking raids.  The culture under discussion, however, did not use the term “Viking” to refer to itself.  In fact, ethnic self-description was fairly rare in this age before National Romanticism.  When you are the center of your world and you feel no threat to that centrality, you tend to assign ethnic markers to the peripheral Others, rather than to yourself.  That is not to say that there was no sense of what we might call a “Nordic Identity”, though the primary way this was marked out was according to native language– those who spoke “The Danish Tongue” (dǫnsk tunga) as a first language, as opposed to those who didn’t.

OK, back to the terms víkingr and víking.  The vast majority of the attestations of these words are from the Icelandic prose texts of the Middle Ages– long after anyone would have gone raiding or worshiped Thor.  The majority of the attestations are for víkingr: over a hundred of them.  Víkingr means “pirate”– in fact, it is given as a Norse translation of various Latin words for pirate (though it is also used to translate other Latin words, like those for Robber or Tyrant).  The term víking, a relatively uncommon word, denotes “Viking activities”– seaborne warfare/piracy, most likely, though it could be that these two terms are not limited to specifically maritime raiding.

Víkingr is often used to refer to one of the “bad guys” in the story, and nearly always does not refer to the main protagonist in the story, though it may refer to one of his friends, or to an enemy whose place he takes.  One of the few exceptions would be Egill Skallagrímsson, who is unusual in a few other ways as well, being descended from a werewolf and a berserk through his father’s line– quite the Medieval anti-hero, in fact (although Torfi Tulinius has given an interesting reading of Egils saga emphasizing the saga’s trajectory towards Christianity).  Other protagonists in the sagas (both the Family sagas and the Legendary sagas) may fara í víking (go a-viking), fight Vikings, and even take their place or team up with them, but they will not themselves be labeled as “Vikings”.  At least, this is what I have seen in the attestations I have looked at.  My take (which I argued for at a conference in 2006 or so) is that the figure of the Viking as a disreputable pirate was just tainted enough by the pagan past that the Christian saga writers and audiences were loth to have a viewpoint character explicitly labeled víkingr— but, similar to our use of the term, the víkingr was enough of a symbol of that past that the sagas made use of encounters with Vikings, or brief periods spent engaged in “Viking activities” (without being labeled a career Viking), as a way of mediating the pagan past, pulling it together with the Christian present by making it a part of the “Story” of the Icelanders.  This would be related to the figure of the Noble Heathen in the sagas– but again, more on that later (too many topics to cover!).  There is more to my argument this time around, but I will save that for the actual article (if I can ever get the darn thing written).

Was “Viking” terminology always applied to Others?  It is difficult to say, as the earliest attestations (in Runic inscriptions and Skaldic poetry) are difficult to interpret.  This is tied to the search for the origin of the words víkingr and víking.  Lots of ink has been spilled on this subject, and I don’t know that it will ever be resolved, but it is certainly interesting to speculate about.  One idea that has been around for a while is a derivation from the Old Norse vík, = “bay, fjord, creek”, the idea being that Vikings would lurk in fjords to ambush their prey.  One of the arguments against this etymology is the fact that the historical sources and the archaeological evidence show the Vikings making bases on islands and at river mouths, rather than holing up in fjords, etc.  I’m not completely sold on this objection, though– the sagas do have examples of encounters with Vikings in fjords (certainly there are a lot of battles in fjords, though these do not always involve “Vikings” proper), and one of the advantages of the Viking ships was their ability to make it far inland via shallow creeks.  If we are to assume that the term víkingr was primarily used about the pirates by their victims, then it makes sense to name them after the fjords where you encounter them (trolling a fjord and hiding around a bend in a river are probably great ways to find victims) or after the means by which they are able to invade your space.  In both of these cases you find the Vikings associated with liminality, and in the latter with permeability and invasion– both what you would expect in the figuration of a hostile Other.  This assumes the original use of the term víkingr carried negative connotations– but it is difficult to take that for granted, considering the problems interpreting the early evidence (Staffan Hellberg has contested many of the negative interpretations of the early uses of the the word), as well as the fact that Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavians apparently didn’t mind naming their sons Víkingr.

A related etymology would be to derive the terms from Vík, the fjord/region in Eastern Norway.  This was a throwaway suggestion for a long time, until Staffan Hellberg argued it in a very thorough 80ish page article.  His idea is that víkingr originally would have meant “person from Vík” (we’re talking way before the Viking age here), then later came to have negative connotations in England (which has the cognate term wīcing long before the attestations in Old Norse), and so ended up meaning “pirate/raider”.  The negative meaning of the term would have made it’s way into late Viking age/early Medieval Scandinavia, primarily through ecclesiastical literature, and would have led to the development of the abstract noun víking.  This would be similar to a term like “vandal”, which originally referred to a tribe during the Migration era, and now means “someone who vandalizes”– with the term “vandalize” itself coming out of the new meaning of the term “vandal”.  Hellberg’s etymology has a lot going for it, not least linguistically, but I don’t think it confirms anything beyond any doubt.  In any case, I haven’t yet caught up with all of the debate since then (there are a few Maal og Minne articles I need to get to).

There are a variety of other suggested etymologies.  Some have tried to derive it from víg (battle), others from the Old English  wīc (town, trading post, temporary settlement– ultimately derived from Latin) or from the related verb wīcian (to settle temporarily–these two would emphasize a pre-Viking age origin of the term in more peaceful contact, ie, trade), and some have tried to derive it from the Norse verb víkja (to move or turn).  The last has given rise to a few different possibilities.  The term might refer to the idea of “going away” (turning away from home, going abroad), so that víkingr means “one who goes abroad” and víking means “going abroad”.  It could also refer to the activity of traveling around in the maneuverable Viking ships, running in to harry, then turning away and escaping to move on to another place.  The term vík (bay/fjord/inlet) may also come from the verb víkja, as a part of the coastline which turns inland.

My favorite these days (and the most recent etymology I am familiar with) is Eldar Heide’s resurrection of Bertil Daggfeldt’s suggstion that the Viking terms come from víkja by way of the shifting of rowers on a sea-going voyage.  The term víking would then be related to the term vika sjóvar (shift at sea, rowing shift) and would mean “going shifting” (= going to sea).  This may sound weird at first, but it is similar to a standard substitution in some Scandinavian dialects where “going rowing” is taken to mean “going fishing”.

All these etymologies are a lot more involved, of course, but they give you a taste of the debate.  Welcome to the world of philological inquiry.  🙂  It may seem like a mess sometimes, but you will have to deal with messiness any time you try to really understand another culture, language, time, or even person.  I’m tempted to write more about that now, but I think I will save that rant for another time– stay tuned for more on philology, the humanities, translation, the Odd and the Other, and intersubjective competence.  Though I doubt I’ll get to that especially soon…

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