Tuesday, 17 March 2015

'The Day Did Not Achieve its Beautiful Colour'

Halfdan Egedius, 1899
Torgils og Grim fører Olavs Lig bort
Image from Wikimedia Commons
We shall find out later this week whether these words of the Icelandic poet Sigvatr Þórðarson are a good description of the effects of a solar eclipse. Those unable to travel to the Faroe Islands to view the full eclipse might like instead to contemplate his account of the eclipse associated with the killing of King Óláfr digri 'the Stout' Haraldsson (later St Óláfr) at the battle of Stiklarstaðir (modern Stiklestad) in the year 1030. Astronomers tell us that there was a solar eclipse on 31 August in that year, but how closely it coincided with the actual battle is far from clear.

Certainly Sigvatr, the king's chief poet, thought that both happened on the same day, and he may have been responsible for the association, but then he was notoriously not present to witness the momentous events. In his memorial poem (Erfidrápa) for Óláfr, Sigvatr links the king's death and the eclipse as follows (st. 15), while admitting that he only heard of them from abroad:
Undr láta þat ýtar
eigi smátt, es máttit
skæ-Njǫrðungum skorðu
skýlauss rǫðull hlýja.
Drjúg varð á því dœgri
— dagr náðit lit fǫgrum —
— orrostu frák austan
atburð — konungs furða.
 People declare that no small wonder, that the cloudless sun was not able to warm {the Njǫrðungar {of the steed of the prop}} [(lit. ‘steed-Njǫrðungar of the prop’) SHIP > MEN]. Great was the portent concerning the king during that daytime; the day did not achieve its beautiful colour; I heard of the event at the battle from the east.
The cloudless, cold sun and the day without colour certainly also represent Sigvatr's grief at the death of his lord, a grief that is expressed in several other fine stanzas by him. For commentary on this stanza, and an edition of the whole poem, as well as other poetry by Sigvatr, see Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, vol. I.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Vikings and Víkingar

Sö 197  Kolsundet
For many years now I have been thinking about the meanings of these words, and frequently trying to explain them to people. It's not a simple matter, so I get frustrated but am not surprised when I read incomprehensible, or even just wrong, statements like this one, from a press release issued by the Field Museum in Chicago, where a Viking exhibition opens today:
The word “Viking,” derives from Old Norse, and meant a trade ship or a raid.
I suppose in this case, something got lost in the translation, as the exhibition is actually one borrowed from Historiska Museet in Stockholm. But a glance at any book about Vikings will show a wide range of misunderstandings of what these words actually mean, and how best to use them.

As I said, it is a complex matter and I do not have a simple answer. I will be addressing this thorny question at some length in a forthcoming publication, and what follows is a shortened version of that, a taster if you like. Fuller discussion with further details and references will be in the publication.

There are three possible approaches to understanding the word which in modern English is ‘Viking’ (sometimes ‘viking’, without a capital letter), which unfortunately are often confused in both scholarly and popular discussions. These are (a) etymology, or the original meaning and derivation of the word, (b) historical usage, or what the word meant to those who used its earlier forms in the Viking and medieval periods and in the language(s) of the time, and (c) current usage, or what the word has come to mean in our modern world, in both English and other languages. In particular, many popular (and even some academic) works about the Vikings commit the etymological fallacy, by assuming that giving an etymology of the word is equivalent to defining it. But words change or develop in meaning, while also often crossing into other languages, and all three approaches are needed for a full understanding of how to use the word now.

There are actually two relevant words, those which appear in Old Norse as the nouns víkingr (m.), and víking (f.).  The former refers to a person, the latter to an activity. In terms of etymology, it has variously been suggested that víkingr derives from Old Norse vík  ‘bay, inlet’, or Vík  ‘the Oslofjord’, or is somehow related to Old English wīc and Latin vicus ‘dwelling place, camp’. These derivations thus posit that a víkingr is someone associated with one of these places or types of places, i.e. a pirate who lurks in bays waiting to sail out and rob passing ships, or a coastal seafarer from the Oslofjord, or a traveller making temporary camps. Other suggestions relate the term to various verbs meaning ‘withdraw, deviate, travel’, more or less plausibly related to what Vikings are thought to have done. The overall argument is complex and far from resolved. But it has to be remembered that etymology aims primarily to reconstruct the original meaning of a word. While this can shed light on possible later meanings, there is no guarantee that the original meaning still applied in the time when we actually have records of the word in use. These later meanings can only be derived from actual usage.

The actual usage of víking and víkingr  in the Viking Age and later shows that their meanings have moved on from whatever the original meanings were.  Víkingr appears in runic inscriptions from the Viking Age (as does víking), and also in skaldic poetry which is arguably from the Viking Age. Neither term is especially  common, and their connotations in context are often ambiguous. More common than either term, in memorial inscriptions on Viking Age rune-stones at least, is Víkingr used as a personal name (as in the picture above, from the splendid Kulturmiljöbild website of the Swedish National Heritage Board). Although the terms are ambiguous, what their Viking Age uses do tell us is that none of the possible etymological meanings is at the forefront of the word as it was used then. Instead, usage suggests that víkingr (pl. víkingar) refers to people (always in groups) who were engaged in some sort of military activity, often but not always piratical or sea-borne. These groups of people could be either the comrades or (more often) the opponents of the person whose point of view is represented in the text. There is no clear evidence for any ethnic or regional implication in the term. After the Viking Age, our sources in Old Norse increase and the meanings of the ‘Viking’ words are correspondingly broader. In the historical sagas of the Norwegian kings, for instance, the pejorative connotations of víkingr used of opponents are strong, while the activities described as víking are shown in a more positive light, since they generally take place in faraway lands, carried out by those very kings. Both words are most commonly used of fellow-Scandinavians. In both the kings’ sagas and other sagas, whether Vikings are viewed positively or negatively depends on context, both literary and geographical, rather than ethnicity.

The modern meanings of ‘Viking’, in English at least, begin in the early nineteenth century, with the earliest recorded instance from 1807.  This period is when the term acquires its basic modern meaning, as defined by the OED: ‘One of those Scandinavian adventurers who practised piracy at sea, and committed depredations on land, in northern and western Europe from the eighth to the eleventh century...’  The use of the word really picks up in the nineteenth century, along with a growing interest in all things Viking in the Victorian period.

The most common usage of ‘Viking’ in modern academic contexts is already broader than the OED definition – it is used to characterise peoples of Scandinavian origin who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outwith Scandinavia in a particular historical period, generally within the broad range of  750-1100.  Some scholars prefer to restrict the term to those who indulged in the ‘Viking’ activities of raiding and pillaging outside of Scandinavia, thus perpetuating the pejorative meaning of the word found already in the Viking Age. Other scholars use the term of all Scandinavians in Scandinavia and people of Scandinavian ancestry outside Scandinavia during the period in question, and most general books about ‘the Vikings’ use this more inclusive meaning. The inclusive meaning is useful because it acknowledges the complexities of the period and avoids reducing its history to one of just raiding and pillaging. In modern scholarly usage, therefore, the term ‘Viking’ is useful for a broader range of meanings than the purely military because it connotes the expansive, complex and multicultural activities of peoples who were still in touch with their Scandinavian origins, language and culture, but who were also exposed to new landscapes, new neighbours, and new ways of living.

And that is how I like to use it!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Viking Women

In my self-appointed role as Viqueen, I not unnaturally take a great interest in the doings of all my Viking sisters in this most apparently masculine or even masculinist of historical periods. But when I indulge this interest, I do sometimes feel like a still, small voice amidst all the popular (and even academic) fascination with the war and the violence, the boyish obsession with transport (horses and ships), and all the shiny, shouty stuff like bling and skaldic poetry. At a conference just over a year ago in connection with the Copenhagen leg of the great Viking exhibition (currently in its final days in Berlin), I was amused to hear from one of the curators that one topic that was firmly excluded from their exhibition concept was that of 'daily life on the farm'. (Another was Viking art, but that's perhaps another blog topic, one day). Which is a pity, because I find 'daily life on the farm' just as fascinating as all the violent and blingy stuff, and perhaps just as foreign to the modern world, if not more so. After all, we still live in a violent and blingy world but how many in the western world at least still have to produce their own food, build their own houses and make their own clothing from sheep or linseed through to garment?

If there are any budding scholars out there, there is certainly still plenty of scope to research the role of women in the Viking Age, along with children, men, animals and all the accoutrements of daily life. And there are signs of renewed interest in the roles of women, as evidenced in a book just out, Kvinner i vikingtid (Women in the Viking Age), edited by Nancy Coleman and Nanna Løkka. The book has seventeen articles, in Danish, English, Norwegian (both nynorsk and bokmål) and Swedish, on a wide range of aspects of women's experiences in the Viking Age and after. I particularly liked Pernille Pantmann's chapter on women and keys, deconstructing the hoary old chestnut that keys in female graves represent the mistress of the house (an old idea that I have been guilty of myself in the past...). I'm less convinced by Pernille's alternative explanation, but she is properly cautious about putting it forward, and her piece certainly opens up the whole question for renewed discussion. We need more work like this.

Another recent publication, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England, edited by Steve Harding, David Griffiths and Elizabeth Royles, also has a couple of papers relevant to the understanding of female roles and experiences. In particular, Christina Lee's chapter shows the range of information that can be gleaned from textiles and textile working implements. The production of clothing, and other textiles (such as sails for Viking ships) was probably the one job that took up most of most women's time in the Viking Age, and studying this evidence again opens up all kinds of interesting questions about craft production, agriculture, family life, and artistic expression, not to mention the symbolic roles of weaving and spinning in Old Norse mythology.

Which reminds me that, nowadays, the most obvious profile of Viking Age women in both the popular media and much academic research is that of the possibly more glamorous but certainly minority (and in some cases fictional) roles of sorceresses, valkyries and warrior women. Or queens. All of these have their interest, of course, and I have expressed my views about both valkyries and warrior women before. I blame Game of Thrones, myself. I have to confess I haven't read the books, but I have watched a few of the TV episodes and, from my limited watching, it is clear to me that the female characters are mostly a pretty clever, capable and attractive bunch, usually more so than the male characters. This is how we like to see women from the dark and distant past in the twenty-first century, and it is certainly an improvement on the embarrassingly almost female-free twentieth-century equivalent, the fantasy works of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

But fantasy is just that, it's fantasy. When it comes to studying the past, I always struggle, both for my own part and in my teaching, to understand and to explain the paradox that, while human beings are human beings and always have been and always will be, the past really is another country. That's what's so fascinating about studying it - in what ways were people then just like people now, and in what ways were they different? Pinning that down in detail is the fun part.

On the whole, I think it's a shame that those interested in the Viking Age find it less interesting nowadays to explore the lives of real women, both those who stayed at home to cook, clean and bring up the children, and those who went out on great adventures, as settlers in the Hebrides or Iceland, or traders in Russia, with or without their menfolk or children. Maybe these new books will bring some redress. And at least some of these questions will be addressed in The Viking Diaspora, to be published next summer. But there is still plenty to do!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Of Dragons and Longships

Erik Werenskiold, 'Slaget ved Solskjel'
Public domain image
from heimskringla.no
The media are currently reporting on the interrupted journey (because of a broken mast) of what is being touted as the 'largest replica Viking longship', the Dragon Harald Fairhair. There are so many potential misunderstandings, just in the name of the ship, let alone that description of it, that the academic in your blogstress just cannot resist putting her oar in.

First, the positive side of things. This is a fun project initiated by a wealthy Norwegian businessman, Sigurd Aase, who has a love of Vikings. It has given him some fun, other people some work, and yet other people the pleasure of rowing or sailing in an old wooden ship.

But as usual with the media and Vikings, there is a danger of hype and misrepresentation here. Despite what the captain said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the ship is in no sense a 'replica' of anything, let alone of 'Harald Fairhair's' ship. Unlike those replicas which are based on actual ship finds, this is not a reconstruction of any one particular ship. A Norwegian king known by the name of Haraldr hárfagri is most likely a historical figure, but if he was, he lived in the ninth century and we have little if any reliable evidence about him. We also do not have his ship.

The project website gives quite a lot of information which makes clear to the initiated at least that the building of the ship is based on a variety of sources, mainly from later periods, in particular sagas and laws relating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since there was enormous development in the building of ships between Haraldr's time in the ninth century and our written sources from the thirteenth, the claim that this is a 'Viking longship' is really stretching it. Undoubtedly, there is some continuity in the Norwegian boatbuilding tradition and the builders have also used their knowledge of later Norwegian boatbuilding in designing this vessel. But then it is disingenuous to describe it as a 'Viking warship'. The term 'longship' also has no real meaning. Some ships were longer than others. At 35m., the Dragon is in any case pipped to the stem-post by Roskilde 6, the genuine Viking ship that, however fragmentary, was the highlight of the recent Viking exhibition, at 37 m.

Calling it a 'dragon' is also unhistorical, if this is meant to refer to Harald's time - calling ships 'snakes' is a poetic conceit found from quite early on, but a dragon-ship is something different, not being a native animal. The word dreki really only makes its appearance in eleventh-century poetry, when it is first used to describe the large warships that emerge in that period. All in all, it is hard to see whether the people on this project see their ship as belonging to the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth century, nor do they seem to care. This is OK for a bit of fun, but no one should be led to believe that this exercise has any actual academic merit, though I am afraid some university folk, as well as the media, have been taken in.

As I pointed out two years ago, there are plenty of other and better reconstruction projects around - check those out instead!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Languages, Myths and Finds

Just wanted to give a little plug to a project I have had some involvement with. This has very much been the Year of Vikings, and in particular the splendid exhibition at the British Museum, now sadly finished, about which I have blogged before.

In connection with the exhibition, the Languages, Myths and Finds project had the aim of encouraging conversations between specialist university academics and advanced research students in Old Norse and Viking Studies, and local communities around Britain and Ireland who were interested in knowing more about their Viking heritage. The communities chosen for the project were Cleveland, Dublin, Isle of Lewis, Isle of Man and Munster. Five small teams of six academics and students were chosen to work with each community, in each case developing and researching topics most suited to that locality, as identified in dialogue with the community.

The result is now five gorgeous booklets, each very different, which can be downloaded in pdf form and for free from the project website.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Birth of Norway

Today the Norwegians celebrate the bicentenary of their constitution, and their freedom from Danish rule. Til lykke med dagen! Although they did not achieve full independence until 1905, the adoption of the constitution in 1814 marks the birth of the modern nation of Norway. But Norway as a geopolitical concept goes back at least to the Viking Age, as attested by two important runic inscriptions. Both the larger Jelling stone, from Denmark, and the Kuli stone, from Nordmøre in Norway, mention Norway in the context of the conversion to Christianity in the decades around the year 1000. The Jelling inscription also acknowledges Norway as a political entity which could be conquered by that ambitious king, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (which also gets a mention in the inscription).

Much could be (and has been) said about the earliest history of Norway. But today I celebrate my favourite country by joining its (supposedly) eponymous founding king on his first royal tour of the dominions. The beginning of Orkneyinga saga (chapters 1-4) envisages the parallel origins of Norway and its western islands in a story about two brothers, Nórr and Górr, who conquer their realms during a long search for their missing sister Gói. There is much of interest in this legend of conquest and origin (and other versions of it exist), but what I particularly like is its visualising of the geographical extent of Norway, a kind of map avant la lettre.

Górr sets off immediately to search for his sister by ship 'around the out-skerries and islands', while Nórr rather awaits the time when 'snow lay on the heath and the skiing was good'. (As in so many sagas, skiing is a quintessentially Norwegian activity in the view of the somewhat bewildered Icelanders). His journey of conquest starts in the far north-east, Kvenland, where his family originates, and then travels west across the 'Keel' (the mountain range which now separates Norway and Sweden), until 'the waters fell on the west side of the mountains'. They follow these 'waters' down to the sea, arriving in a great fjord with populous settlements and large valleys branching off it, where Nórr subdues the local population and makes himself king of the district. But by now it is summer, so Nórr being Nórr, he awaits the skiing season again. Then he heads up the valley which goes south from the fjord ('which is now called Þrándheimr', the Trondheimsfjord), while sending some of his men along the coast of Møre. Nórr follows the great valley south until he gets to the great lake of Mjǫrs (Mjøsa), from where he turns west into 'the district which they called Valdres'. From there they head to the sea, arriving at 'a long and narrow fjord, which is now called Sogn' (and probably passing through Lærdal along the way). In this western region he meets up with his brother Górr, and it is at this point that they decided to divide up their realms so that Nórr has the mainland and Górr the islands to the west.

Nórr then consolidates his eastern regions, by travelling first to the Upplǫnd (Opplandene), where 'it is now called Heiðmǫrk (Hedmark)'. There he finds his sister, who has been kidnapped by the local king, son of a giant of Dovre (shades of Peer Gynt there!). After an unsuccessful attempt to kill his newly-discovered brother-in-law, Nórr resolves the matter by marrying his brother-in-law's sister. It is at this point that he names the country Nórvegr and he rules it for the rest of his life. The saga then turns to the adventures of Górr, which are of more interest to the subsequent history of Orkney which is its prime concern. So it may not be significant that the southern part of Norway is missed out from this long-distance ski-tour. Or the story may reflect a time when southern Norway was ruled by Denmark, as Harald Bluetooth boasted on the Jelling stone. Other versions of the story (notably Hversu Nóregr byggðist in Flateyjarbók) have more geographical detail and clearly the conceptualisation of Norway shifted according to historical and political circumstances.

And then there is the name... The story of how Nórr gave his name to Nóregr is usually dismissed as a learned medieval construction and the whole story as an origin myth, which in many ways it clearly is. But I don't think the whole story of the origins of Norway's name has been told yet, a topic to which I may return in another blog sometime.

In the meantime, we congratulate modern Norway on its 200th birthday.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend

Tjørnehøj brooch
©Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
The Mega Viking Show has finally come to town, and your faithful blogstress was honoured and privileged to be present when Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, and various other dignitaries opened it last Thursday, as well as to get an early viewing of the whole thing. I don't propose to review the exhibition - there are plenty of reactions of all types to be read in the media. The exhibition is designed for the general public, rather than the expert, and I firmly believe that the outsider's view is the one to seek out. Interestingly, the reactions vary enormously - do read more than one review to get a sense of it all. Another reason I would find it hard to review is that so many of the objects are almost too familiar. This is not only because I saw a version of the same exhibition in Copenhagen last September, but also because some of them I saw last time the British Museum did a Viking exhibition, in 1980, and in other exhibitions in various places since. Yet others are familiar from the many illustrated coffee-table books about the Vikings that flood the market on a regular basis.

But some of the exhibits are relatively new and I thought I'd pick out a few of my favourites at random, for my and your delectation. My top favourite is probably the valkyrie figure discovered in 2012, but I have blogged about that before. Several other 'valkyrie' images can be seen in the exhibition, and they are a fascinating group, mostly relatively recent metal detectorist discoveries. Another recent (2007) metal detectorist find from Denmark of which I am inordinately fond is the ship-brooch pictured above and extensively used by the British Museum in its publicity for the exhibition. It is sometimes said to represent a dragon-ship, but it is quite clear to me that the two figureheads are those of horses, as indicated by their ears and manes. Although similar brooches are known, this is the only one I have come across on which the animals seem very definitely to be horses' heads, and is thus a unique representation of that figure so commonly found in skaldic poetry, by which ships are called 'horses of the sea'. I also like the little face between the horses' heads, though quite what he represents I do not know.

Oval brooches have always fascinated me because they are typical of Scandinavian women's dress, and when we find them around the world, they raise interesting questions about the role of women in Viking migrations. Many thousands of them are known, from a broad geographical and chronological range, and in a variety of styles. For me, the one that tops them all is definitely that found in 2004 in an archaeological investigation at Finglas, in Dublin. There's an interesting photo of how it looked when it first came out of the ground on the website of Icon Archaeology, but it can only truly be appreciated in its cleaned-up form, which shows very clearly its 'protruding animal ornament', as the archaeologists say. These include both whole animal figures, and animal heads, all of which strongly resemble bears. Although similar brooches with small animal figures are known, I think these are the only ones which are clearly bears. They look quite cute to us today, though the bear was of course a feared and fearsome animal, and widely significant in Viking language and culture. I haven't found a good photo of the brooch to show you, but it adorns the cover of The Viking Age: Ireland and the West (2010), edited by John Sheehan and Donnchadh Ó Corráin, shown above, and is discussed at length by Maeve Sikora in that volume.

Finally, although the exhibition is not strong on runic inscriptions, it was a real pleasure to see the Kirk Andreas III stone from the Isle of Man, with its simple (and incomplete) inscription 'Þorvaldr raised this cross'. While not the most exciting inscription, it is of interest because, along with most of its fellow Manx inscriptions, it records the earliest uses of the word kross in Old Norse, a word with a fascinating history which appears to be borrowed from Latin crux into Gaelic, from there into Old Norse (as suggested by the Manx inscriptions) and from there into English, as suggested by some place-names in the north-west of England. Oh, and the stone, which is clearly a Christian cross-slab, also has those well-known images of what appear to be Odin at Ragnarok on one side, and a Christian figure on the other (above, left). It was particularly nice to see it in London last Thursday, because on Friday I went off on another runological field trip to the Isle of Man, where we had to make do with a replica in St Andrew's church, Andreas, instead. But the display in the church did have a nice picture of the last time the stone went to the British Museum, for the 1980 exhibition (above, right).