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).

Friday, 28 February 2014

Northern Lights

Last night the northern lights, or aurora borealis, were widely visible in the UK, much further south than usual. I missed out, either because of light pollution in the city centre, or perhaps because they just weren't visible here, but many others were lucky, as even a brief glance at Twitter will show.

In 793, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there were seen fyrene dracen on þam lyfte fleogende 'flaming dragons flying in the air' and it is very plausible that this is a description of the northern lights. As we all know, that description was followed by the notorious Viking raid on Lindisfarne. So it seems appropriate that we can see the aurora borealis here just a few days before the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition opens at the British Museum.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Love Stories from Oslo

The runic message 'Think of me, I think of you! Love me, I love you' that I mentioned in the Runic Valentine blog of two years ago occurs in more or less the same form in at least three inscriptions. It therefore has an off-the-shelf quality that doesn't tell us anything about the people who might have been exchanging such messages. But other inscriptions introduce us to the real people who suffered the joys and anxieties of love.

One medieval lover in Oslo's Gamlebyen wanted no one to be in doubt as to who exactly his lady-love was:
nikulos a=n ko=no= =þeiri uæl er gyriþ hei(t)er stiufdoter ÷ pit(a)srahnu
'Nikulás loves well the woman called Gýríðr, stepdaughter of Pitas-Ragna.'
One could spin many tales to explain why it was so important for Nikulás to mention his girl's stepmother, was she an important figure, or very rich?

Not all lovers were as true as they should have been; one piece of bone from medieval Oslo seems to be addressing two different women, in two contrasting inscriptions:
an sa × þer × es × risti × runa þesar × þortis þora ek kan kilia
'He who carved these runes loves you, Þordís! Þóra! I can beguile (any woman).'
But, as with many such inscriptions, we can wonder how serious the sentiments were. Perhaps it was all just an after-dinner game, as the remains of the roast were passed around and people wrote jokey messages on it.
Yet another bone inscription sounds just like what you might hear in any schoolyard:

asa × an × st- / ek × uæit
'Ása loves St... I know.'

The inscription is incomplete, so we will never know the name of Ása's boyfriend. The common name Ása occurs elsewhere in inscriptions from medieval Oslo, and she or some other woman could have been responsible for carving þut 'hum' on the spindle-whorl pictured above. Let's hope her love-life was humming like her spinning.

Note on sources: these inscriptions have not been fully published yet; the texts cited above are taken, with small modifications, from the Samnordisk runtextdatabas.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Original Biathlete

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
It may have escaped your notice that Ragnarok will apparently take place on the 22nd of February 2014, if so, consider yourself warned! The Jorvik Viking Festival will be recreating this event, and their description cleverly plays on the ambiguity in the Old Norse sources as to whether this cataclysm is in the future, and therefore to be feared and anticipated, or has already happened in the past, so that we are now living in the brave new world that arose out of the ashes of the old one. This is all a fascinating topic to which I may return in another context.

In the meantime, I am a bit gutted that Jorvik's page on the Norse gods misses out Ullr, the god of skiing and hunting. As the Winter Olympics start, it seems appropriate to give a mention to this earliest paragon of what the Guardian today described as 'One of the more bewildering of the many perplexing disciplines to be contested in Sochi', the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting. The case of Ullr, however, shows that this combination of skills is essential in the north. Snorri says of Ullr that hann er bogmaðr svá góðr ok skíðfœrr svá at engi má við hann keppast 'he is such a good archer and so good on skis that no one can compete with him'. Obviously a gold medal prospect then! His spiritual descendant is Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney, also a whizz at both skiing and shooting.

Although Ullr is not so often mentioned in the mythological texts of medieval Iceland, there is plenty of evidence that he was widely venerated in the Viking Age, particularly in Norway, where place-names like Ullern and Ullevål, both in Oslo, and Ullensvang, in Hardanger, perpetuate his name. The Norwegians have won more medals at the Winter Olympics than any other nation, so may the spirit of Ullr live on in their efforts in Sochi!

But it has to be admitted that the Swedes are also pretty good at winter sports, they are 7th in the Guardian's all-time medals table. And to prove this, I offer an image above of the Böksta rune-stone (U 855) from Uppland in Sweden, which shows Ullr himself, bottom left, with both his bow and his skis.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Ice and Fire: The Viking Condition

Some say the world will end in fire / some say in ice'. Despite his name, the American poet Robert Frost was inclined to 'favor fire' for bringing about the end of the world, but acknowledged 'that for destruction ice / is also great / and would suffice'. His thoughts were not new, as they were anticipated a millennium or so earlier by people in the Viking Age, whose myths show a full awareness of the destructive powers of both fire and ice. But the Norse myths also envisage creative possibilities in these unavoidable natural forces. In Snorri Sturluson's version, at least, the first creature in the world, Ymir, ancestor of the primeval race of frost-giants, was created in the encounter between rime and heat. These frost-giants reappear at Ragnarök, on the side of destruction, along with Surt and his flaming followers.

I was pondering these questions on a recent two-week visit to Oslo on runological business. There's nothing like some close(ish) encounters with these opposing forces to make you realise their power. For even in the twenty-first century, in the capital city of one of the richest countries on the planet, December and January are not for the faint-hearted. This year the snow was particularly late in arriving, so despite a little snow in December which melted quickly, Oslo just continued dark and cold until the day I arrived in January, when an overnight snowfall left much of the city looking like the photograph, above. It certainly felt like a blessing. At this time of year, snow makes a real difference, lightening the long dark days, muffling the sounds of the city, and generally providing great pleasure for children and skiers. I like it too. But once the snow arrives, large quantities are hard to shift, despite the multitude of devices of various sizes available for this purpose, and once packed down, the snow can become icy and treacherous to those unprepared. Both people and vehicles need to make provision - you can buy special cleats for all kinds of shoes, including trainers and high-heels (!), and the television was full of stories about foreign lorry drivers coming a cropper because their trucks weren't properly 'shod', as they charmingly put it. And to leave the house you have to factor in a lot of time to put all the requisite layers on, and then you feel a bit like the Michelin man when you do.

Ice and snow are certainly a nuisance and can be deadly but, as Frost acknowledged, fire is the more obviously destructive force. While I was in Norway, a devastating fire exacerbated by high winds destroyed thirty-odd buildings, including seventeen dwelling-houses, in the village of Lærdalsøyri. Mercifully, no lives were lost, there weren't even any serious injuries (although deaths in house fires are quite common in Norway, there was one elsewhere in the country a day or two later). But several of the buildings were historic and, apart from the seventeen families who lost everything, the character of the place (and therefore its livelihood, which depends heavily on tourism) is severely dented. It's a beautiful and charming place that I last passed through in 2010, and it was heartbreaking to watch the destruction as it unrolled. On the plus side, the inhabitants seemed all to be remarkably resilient and supporting each other to the hilt and, at this early stage, determined to rebuild in the same place. Let's hope it works out for them.

It's clear that the treacheries of both ice and fire have always been a part of the Norwegian experience, and one can only begin to imagine the vicissitudes of life at those latitudes, and lived largely in wooden houses, over the last few millennia. Human beings have always had to be heroic to survive, but different geographies demand different kinds of heroism, and it has always seemed to me that the Scandinavians have always coped particularly heroically with these ever-present dangers, and even made them into positives. After all, who else would choose to live in a place called Iceland, less icy than its name suggests, but certainly plagued by volcanic fire? Or optimistically give the name Greenland to a land mostly under ice at the time? Just surviving in northern Norway for several millennia is truly heroic.

I have always had a deep admiration for the Vikings, for many reasons, but particularly for their hardiness and courage in the face of physical extremity. In this great Year of the Viking, with excitement about the upcoming British Museum exhibition reaching fever pitch, it is wonderful to see the enthusiasm of many. Yet there is also the danger of it all being treated as a bit of a joke. Over the years I have endured many snide comments about my professional title. More recently, people have enquired as to my views on Viking gymnastics, or Viking helmet knitted hats (complete with knitted hair and beard), or the Jorvik Viking Festival's claim that Ragnarök will arrive on the 22nd February. Even the Daily Mail has written some rubbish (when does it write anything else?) about runes (I won't provide a link because I don't want people to read it!). I don't mind a bit of fun myself, and even hope this blog occasionally provides it. But, like the Vikings themselves, I am quite a serious person, and my interest in the Vikings is pretty serious too (the 'fun' of skaldic poetry is certainly an acquired taste for many). Not least of my admiration is for their bravery in the face of ice and fire. Our ultimate destruction, by whichever means, is inevitable, but we can have a jolly good fight against it first.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Little Bear

Despite my temerity in calling myself 'Viqueen', I do not take a great interest in the doings of royals, of either the monarchical or the Hollywood variety. However, it did not escape my notice that megastar Kate Winslet has recently had a little boy whom she has graced with the name 'Bear'. In the media, this is presented as 'the latest in a long line of celebrities to give their child an unusual name'. I agree that celebrity baby names are often quite hair-raising (and not only baby names, for mercifully young Bear will be spared his father's surname of RocknRoll). But on this occasion, the journos have not done their homework. As all readers of this blog will know, Björn was one of the most popular boy's names in the Viking Age. Lena Peterson's invaluable study of Scandinavian personal names in runic inscriptions (Nordiskt runnamnslexikon) is our best source for actual Viking Age naming practices. Her frequency tables show that Björn is the second-most popular male name in this material, topped only by Sveinn. The latter is probably due to the fact that there are many more inscriptions from the east Scandinavian area where this name was popular, whereas Björn was more widely used across the whole Scandinavian world. The popularity of Björn is also indicated by its second place in the frequency table of deuterothemes, that is the second element in compound names like Þorbjörn. In this frequency table, it is pipped to the post by -ulfr 'wolf', the monothematic version of which is no. 4 in the frequency table of most popular names.

One can only speculate as to why Vikings like to call their boy-children 'Bear' and 'Wolf', though it isn't too difficult to imagine. There don't appear to be any (certainly not any common) female names which are animal-words, and we may note that neither bears nor wolves are particularly nice animals. (Vikings did not call their children 'Sheep'). But they had lots of cool names, and let us hope that more Hollywood stars and other celebrities will study Lena's name-lists for some nice Viking names, rather than choosing to name their children after boroughs of New York, or fruit. And one day, they might even have a nice rune-stone, like the one pictured, for a certain Ulfr.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Viking Reading

What with the upcoming Viking exhibition next year (see previous post), there is certainly a flurry of recent and forthcoming books on relevant topics. I have been scouring the internet and am amazed at how much is imminent, which I will never, ever have time to read! (Being a slow reader as I am). But I thought I'd draw your attention to the following about which I am sufficiently knowledgeable to recommend with confidence, even if I haven't read them yet... Please note that some of these books are not out yet, but those that aren't are all planned for publication within the next six months or so, and those that are are brand new, so you can start planning your buying and reading now! If you notice a certain Nottingham slant to the list, then that's simply because we have, or have had, some great people here.

For a general introduction to The Vikings in Britain and Ireland, the super trio of Jayne Carroll, Stephen Harrison and Gareth Williams will be hard to beat. Published by the British Museum Press, their book will be illustrated with objects from the British Museum, and possibly the odd snapshot of a signpost...

For a scholarly, but accessible, introduction to runes, see Runes by Martin Findell, also published by the British Museum Press, and again illustrated with objects from their collections.

A rather different sort of book is promised by Carlton Books for The Viking Experience by our former and current doctoral candidates Marjolein Stern and Roderick Dale. Buy it and see!

While the above are intended for the general reader, I must also mention the thick and deeply scholarly tome by Sara Pons-Sanz, The Lexical Effects of Anglo-Scandinavian Linguistic Contact on Old English, 600 pages of the most thorough examination ever of this topic, which no serious scholar will be able to avoid.

So many of us come to the Viking Age through reading the Icelandic sagas. A new collection on Dating the Sagas, edited by Else Mundal and containing a paper by our alumna Slavica Ranković, will be essential reading for discovering what relationship, if any, the sagas of Icelanders have with the tales of their Viking ancestors.

Hverr sem þetta lesa, [þ]á berr hann prís (G 83 M).