Sunday, 30 August 2015

Norse Mythology Skis into Nottingham

As summer fades, more quickly than we would like, our thoughts naturally turn to winter. While many find winter irksome, those of us of a northern disposition rather like snow and ice, and all that goes with them, such as skiing, and especially those deities of skiing, the god Ullr, and the giantess Skaði, who qualifies as a goddess through her marriage to the sea-god Njörðr. I've written about Ullr here before, though I don't believe I have had cause to mention Skaði yet, though she was enthusiastically name-checked in my first book, several aeons ago.

So, naturally, I am delighted to read in the local rag, the Nottingham Post, that a new Nottingham-based fashion company has named itself 'Ullr & Skade' after these mostly-neglected members of the Norse pantheon. It's hardly surprising, though, since they specialise in ski wear. Their inspiration from Norse mythology is explicitly acknowledged on their website and it's great to see them raising the profile of these deities in my home town.

Admittedly, their grasp of the etymologies and spellings of their patron deities, of runes, and of Norse myth generally, is a wee bit wonky, but hey, they're fashion designers, not Old Norse specialists. But next time, guys, give your friendly local Viking specialists at the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age a call! In the meantime, I do hope business goes well for them.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Kennings Continued

Desert Camel by Sherbaz Jamaldini
from Wikimedia Commons
When I tell students about Old Norse poetry and try to explain how kennings work, I turn to that old chestnut, the 'ship of the desert', though recently I have noticed that students respond with a slightly puzzled look to what I thought was a well-known expression. But I plough on, explaining that it's rather a good kenning because we all know that what characterises the desert is that it is drier than anywhere else on the planet, and so the last place you would expect to find a ship. But if you start thinking about it, the sand dunes are not unlike waves and the camel is after all a mode of transport. So, we start by imagining a ship (the base word), but then the addition of the word 'desert' (the determinant) turns our thoughts to sand dunes, rocking motions and transport, and we eventually arrive at the correct solution, which is 'camel'.

The other reason this is a useful example is that it is in many ways the exact opposite of that very common Old Norse kenning, the 'horse of the sea'. Horses can't travel  on water, but they are a sturdy and trusty mode of transport on land, over the hills and heaths, just like your Viking ship is on the ocean. Thus, both the camel-kenning and the ship-kenning conform to the definition offered by Margaret Clunies Ross in A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics (2005, pp. 107-8):
... a noun phrase comprising two nouns in a genitival relationship (or a compound noun with an implicit genitival relationship between two distinct elements) ... used ... as a substitute for a noun referent. ... the three essential elements of the kenning [are] the base word, the determinant, which is usually in the genitive case or implicitly so, and the referent, which is unnamed.
I shall leave aside the complexities of how kennings really work in Old Norse poetry, and how they might have been understood by the Old Norse poets, and the medieval scholars who wrote about them, as much has been written on this and it is all a bit heavy for this light-hearted blog. Rather, I wanted to speculate a bit on modern kennings.

Now modern poetry inspired by or imitative of Old Norse poetry often makes use of kennings and kenning-like constructions, as you can see for example on the excellent Kennings in the Community website. But these are all made by people with at least some acquaintance with the Old Norse tradition and, in their quest to write good modern poetry, they do not always conform to the relatively strict definition cited above.

I'm more interested in kennings that are used less knowingly, in the poetry of the everyday, as in the Icelandic mousetrap I once blogged about. So when I come across something that seems suitable I make a note, and now have a small collection, which I am always eager to expand. My students sometimes come up with kennings, some of which are unprintable in a family blog. One clever student reminded me that both 'sea-lion' and 'hippopotamus' are kennings. Indeed the latter appears as a 'water-horse' or words to that effect in some languages (cf. Hungarian 'viziló'), though I am not very clear where the 'horse' idea comes into it, and it's a very different animal from the 'horse of the sea' I mentioned above.

The Old Norse 'horse of the sea' is popular in modern times, as I pointed out when this blog was still in its infancy, as 'steed of the waves' on Robert Calvert's 1975 album Lucky Leif and the Longships. But perhaps that is all a bit obvious - so what else is out there? My trusty notebook offers the following:

Observing tree surgeons working round about the place, I notice that they often use a machine called the Timberwolf to mash up the wood after they have properly pruned the branches.

On a natural history programme on the radio I heard about a North American salamander that is known as a 'snot-otter' (which has a bit of skaldic internal rhyme, too). This is apparently because it excretes mucus when you pick it up and it lives in rivers. Charming.

In the Observer magazine, I saw a photographic feature on a well-known fashion model that eschewed the word 'bra' and spoke instead of her 'tit-pants'.

Better known kennings include phrases like 'couch potato' and the similar 'porch moneky' I found on Doubtless there are more to be found there if I could be bothered to search, but I prefer the surprise of serendipity.

All of these thoughts were sparked off by a letter in today's Guardian. In a series of recent letters about seagulls, one Glyn Reed wrote in to inform us that:
In the Royal Navy in the late 70s, any and all seagull-type birds were collectively known as “shitehawks”.
I guess this only really works if hawks don't normally defecate, or at least do so less than seagulls...who knows?

Of course these are all simple two-element kennings, such as you also find in Old English with its swan-roads and whatnot. To really understand the glory of kennings, you do have to study Old Norse poetry, firstly to find how many ways simple phrases like 'horse of the sea' can be varied, and secondly to discover the baroque delights of three-(or more)element kennings and kennings within kennings.

Monday, 4 May 2015

All Over the Place

Inspired by the news that that stupid organisation Facebook apparently has located the lovely Baltic island of Gotland (see the view of Visby to the right) in the equally lovely country of Norway, I turned to that monumental mine of information on Norwegian farm-names, Oluf Rygh's Norske Gaardnavne, published 1897-1936, but available on the internet since 1999, thanks in part to Norway's special arrangements for conscientious objectors to military service....

There I did indeed discover that there are at least three farms called Gotland in Norway, two of them in Hedmark, which is I believe where Facebook located the Baltic island. There are also four occurrences of Danmark, for one of which Rygh notes that the names of foreign countries were often used in more recent farm-names, and indeed there is even a Sverige in the north of Norway. The Finlands are more complicated, since there the first element might be the word Finnr, meaning a 'Lapp, Sami'. Other explanations are also possible.

Moving over to the British Isles, it gets interesting. There are four Englands in Norway - which could be named after the country, or could contain the first element eng meaning 'meadow, pasture'. How do you tell the difference? Well the tones (pitch contours) of spoken Norwegian help! With Tone 1, the meaning is the country England, with Tone 2, it is the meadow-word. Similarly, the two examples of Skotland are pronounced differently, so only one of them is likely to be named after the country. Ireland, however, does not appear in this collection of farm-names.

And moving across the North Atlantic, we find four examples of Island. The etymologies (based on the earliest recorded forms) of all of these are quite complicated, but at least one of them seems to be named after the country, at least according to Rygh. And of course anyone who has been to Oslo knows about Grønland near the central railway station...once upon a time it was a farm, of course. All five of the Norwegian occurrences have Tone 1 and so appear to be named after the country.

Who says Old Norse is a useless subject? I do think those good folks at Facebook should study that and onomastics as well!

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
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!