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Posts Tagged ‘Old Norse Mythology’

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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Snorra Edda

The medieval copies of the Eddas are generally not illustrated (after all, shouldn’t a good Christian save the expensive pictures for the Bible or Kingly exploits?)–but here we have the frame of Gylfaginning (which, incidentally, highlights the nature of the myths recounted as “lies,” in case the medieval audience were to be tempted from orthodoxy), in the Codex Upsaliensis manuscript (c. 1300, if I remember correctly). I like this illustration as an example of the problems of Christian remembering of Pagan material in Medieval Iceland.

I recently had my review of Mikhael Gronas’ Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory published in Cultural Analysis, a journal on culture and folklore (in a fairly broad sense), covering all sorts of “expressive and everyday culture” (I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary efforts like this, and even more a fan of the fact that the journal is available for free online, and is supplied for free in print form to academic institutions–those of us who write the material for these journals don’t make any money, after all…)  You can find the review here, but you will have to scroll down a bit, as all the book reviews are on the same page (a PDF of the page can be downloaded here). The book takes Russian literature as its case-in-point for its larger theoretical argument, so I got to enjoy learning a bit about Russian lit and history while working through the theoretical material (the latter being my main interest in the book).

Cultural Memory‘s relevance as a theoretical framework for the study of Old Norse literature and Religion has been my main research interest (though not my only one) since filing my dissertation (if you want something more than the wikipedia explanation, check out the introduction to this book; I’ve also found this book to be an easy to read exercise in Cultural Memory studies). I mostly take the term Cultural Memory from the work of Jan and Aleida Assmann (especially this book), where it is roughly equated with concepts such as Derrida’s Archive, among others, and in particular is associated with the sort of collective remembering made possible by the technology of literacy, where, in contrast to oral cultures, the “out of the way” and peripheral (like, say, pagan myths in Christian society) may still be preserved (but yes, things are still a bit more complicated with the Old Norse myths, given that we have an apparent gap of 200+ years after the conversion before the pagan material was written down). I gave a paper with some of my thoughts on the relevance of Cultural Memory theory for the study of Old Norse lit (esp. the mythology) at the 2012 conference of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies, but there has been plenty of work by other (senior) scholars on related topics, so if you are interested in reading up on the topic (I still have some more reading to do myself), here are some of the works I referenced in my paper (or have found otherwise pertinent to my research–this is just a selection though, so please don’t treat it as a comprehensive bibliography!):

Assmann, Jan and John Czaplicka 1995: “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique 65, 125-133.

Assmann, Jan 2006: Religion and Cultural Memory. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bauman, Richard and Charles Briggs 1990: “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19, 59-88.

Byock, Jesse 2004: “Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of ‘Egils Saga.'” Scandinavian Studies 76:3, 299-316.

Derrida, Jacques 1998: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Fortier, Ted and Jeanette Rodríguez 2007: Cultural memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gísli Sigurðsson 2004: The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature no. 2. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Glauser, Jürg 2000: “Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) and þættir as the literary representation of a new social space.” Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Ed. Margaret Clunies Ross. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 42. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 203-20.

Glauser, Jürg 2007: “The Speaking Bodies of Saga Texts.” Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World. Ed. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe vol. 18. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 13-26.

Gronas, Mikhail 2010: Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory: Russian Literary Mnemonics. New York: Routledge.

Halbwachs, Maurice 1992: On Collective Memory. New York: Harper.

Hastrup, Kirsten 1985: Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An anthropological analysis of structure and change. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten 1990: Island of Anthropology: Studies in past and present Iceland. Viborg: Odense University Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten 2009: “Northern Barbarians: Icelandic Canons of Civilization.” Gripla 20, 109-136.

Hermann, Pernille 2010: “Founding Narratives and the Representation of Memory in Saga Literature.” ARV Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 66, 69-87.

Jesch, Judith 2008: “Myth and Cultural Memory in the Viking Diaspora.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 4, 221-226.

Kaplan, Merrill 2000: “Prefiguration and the Writing of History in ‘Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls.'” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99:3, 379-394.

McKinnell, John 2007: “Why Did Christians Continue to Find Pagan Myths Useful?” Reflections on Old Norse Myths Ed. Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen. Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1, 33-52.

Torfi Tulinius 2009: “The Self as Other: Iceland and the Culture of Southern Europe in the Middle Ages.” Gripla 20, 199-216.

Viðar Pálsson 2008: “Pagan Mythology in Christian Society.” Gripla 19, 123-159.

Ward, Elisabeth 2012: “Nested Narrative:Þórðar Saga Hreðu and Material Engagement.” UC Berkeley (dissertation)

Wellendorf, Jonas 2010: “The Interplay of Pagan and Christian Traditions in Icelandic Settlement Myths.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 109:1, 1-21.

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