23 December 2011

Kick-starting 2012

What with the weather wet and temperatures into double figures, we won't be doing winter sports here in Britain, that's for sure. This time of year always brings back happy memories of snowy times in Norway. Being a bit of a retromaniac in many things, I have a small collection of old-fashioned seasonal greetings cards. Not sure about the date of this one, probably early 1960s? Anyway, I append it here by way of seasonal greetings to all my loyal readers!

Thinking of Norwegian winters reminds me there was an article in the Guardian a week or so ago, on that most excellent means of locomotion, the 'sparkstøtting', or 'spark' for short. Apparently, the official English term is 'kicksled(ge)', though that's the first time I've heard it. I've seen a lot of them in Norway, and I suppose they must be used in other Scandinavian countries, as suggested by the 1890 Swedish drawing below, but I've never seen them anywhere else. But then where else has enough snow? I wonder if they were ever exported to Minnesota?

15 December 2011

Hardy Hoards

The Viking Age hoards that keep being discovered in northern, especially north-western, England, are coming in so thick and fast in recent years that I can't be bother to log every one in this blog. But I thought I'd give a quick mention to the latest, found at Silverdale in north Lancashire, and reported today in the Guardian and on the BBC in connection with the publication of the annual reports for treasure and portable antiquities (though found in September). The PAS website also has a detailed article on the hoard.

I find this one particularly interesting because there is one previously unknown coin type in it (pictured above), apparently issued by an unknown king called AIRDECONUT. The jury is still out on whether or not this really represents the name 'Harthacnut', as currently suggested, but it will keep numismatists and onomasts happy for some time to come. In case you were wondering, the date of the hoard (c. 900-910) precludes that well-known Harthacnut, son of Cnut.

26 November 2011

Look North More Often

A sentiment with which all readers of this blog will concur, I hope. It comes from a piece by Kevin Crossley-Holland in 'The Week in Books' column in the Guardian (it's apparently not on their website, so you'll just have to go out and buy the paper!). He is a spokesperson for the Norwegian Christmas tree project in Trafalgar Square ('Look North More Often' being their motto), and writes evocatively of going deep into the forest to select and remove the big tree, and the 'death-in-life, life-in-death' feeling you get at such a moment, when the tree of life is felled but comes to a kind of new life with its lights for the festive season. At such moments, we think of the dreadful year the Norwegians have had, and how bravely they have borne it.

And just to cheer things up, though it is a bit early for the festive season, I append a photo of a delightful tree-bearer I picked up in the Sally Army shop in Majorstua, on my most recent visit to Oslo.

11 November 2011

Vatnsdœla Saga

After a lightning trip to Oslo on academic business last week, your intrepid blogstress was off on her rambles again, this time the annual postgraduate field trip to the north-west of England with some enthusiastic students. The cultural high point, as ever, was the Gosforth Cross, though all the familiar old hogbacks, runes and place-names we visited were also wonderful. But for a stunning landscape, the undoubted gem was, as ever, our overnight stay in Wasdale.

Although Wasdale in Cumberland is not so very like Vatnsdalr in Iceland (about which I blogged recently), it is after all the same name, and since my return I have amused myself by seeking out some parallels between the two. It had always struck me that the account in ch. 15 of Vatnsdœla saga of Ingimundr's arrival in Vatnsdalr must represent the reactions of many a Viking settler to their new homeland, wherever that may have been. As Ingimundr said:
'... ek sé nú ok land at víðleika með vexti, ok ef þar fylgja kosti, þá má þat vera, at hér sé vel byggjanda.'

'... I now see a land expansive in its spaciousness, and if the conditions are as good as the size, then it may be that this is a good place to settle.'
After a brief interlude in which Ingimundr's wife gives birth to a daughter by the riverside, they proceed in their explorations:
Síðan sótti liðit upp í dalinn ok sá þar góða landakosti at grösum ok skógum; var fagrt um at litask; lypti þá mjök brúnum manna.

Then the party made their way up into the valley and saw good agricultural conditions with respect to pastures and woods; it was beautiful to look at; people's brows unfurrowed.
Driving from Gosforth to Wasdale Head reveals both woods and pastures, the latter populated by large numbers of sheep (pictured above). Ingimundr, too, had lots of sheep, indeed a valley called Sauðadalr is said to have taken its name from some of his sheep which disappeared but were then found later on in the woods having spent the winter out of doors. The Herdwick sheep of Cumbria, too, are famous for their hardiness and for knowing their way around their patch. Ingimundr also had some problematic swine, and the Lake District is awash with Swin(e)dales and Grisedales. Natural resources are good too. In ch. 22 of the saga, we're told that there was veiðr mikil ... í Vatnsdalsá, bæði laxa ok annarra fiska 'much fishing ... in Vatnsdalsá, of both salmon and other kinds of fish'. Near Wasdale is Waberthwaite, the first element of which seems to come from an ON veiði-búð or 'fishing hut'.

When he died, Ingimundr was given a boat burial, presumably with a mound (ON haugr) over it. The EPNS volume for Cumberland lists some 17 minor names with 'how' in Wasdale alone, though, as Diana Whaley points out in A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names, the element is prolific and can be used for both natural and artificial features, the latter including burial mounds. Disappointingly, the first element in the evocative Boat How was nothing to do with a burial but is from búð 'booth, hut' again.

Not that any of this proves anything at all, only that Viking settlers sought out similar landscapes, and used their well-established vocabulary to name those landscapes. But it's fun, and it's no wonder that those 19th-century antiquarians found themselves inspired by the links between Iceland and Lakeland.

23 October 2011

The Vikings are Coming!

That was the headline in my copy of this morning's Observer which has quite a large feature on the cultural invasion of Britain by a number of forthcoming 'TV sagas, epic novels and a major exhibition' which 'testify to a fascination with all things Norse'. All of that is excellent news. But OK, dear Observer, if only you'd been reading this blog, you'd have known that they never really went away!

20 October 2011

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme Dat Ding

Some years ago, on one of my rambles to Orkney, I stopped off in Dingwall, Ross-shire. As all Viking aficionados know, the place-name comes from an Old Norse word for an assembly site, found most notably at Þingvellir in Iceland, but also at several places in these islands, the two Thingwalls on either side of the Mersey, or Tynwald on the Isle of Man, plus a few scattered about the Scottish islands. On that brief visit to Dingwall, I wandered into the museum, and saw a few signs of Viking awareness, but not many. Otherwise, it was a charming place.

Now I read in The North Star that the very town centre car park in which I parked my car on that day is reported to be the site of the Viking Age assembly mound, according to some rather vaguely unspecified archaeological investigations (though not yet excavations) carried out last month. The various worthy persons interviewed in the article all foresee a great future for Dingwall as a Viking tourist hotspot. How things change in a few years...

While searching for a suitable image for this post, I came across the above golden bull on a handsome black plinth. If you look carefully, there is an attempt to render the name Dingwall in both Old Norse and runes, but, oh so sadly, such a dismal attempt, especially the runes. They are really neither one thing nor tother, and I'm not even that sure what exactly they are meant to spell. I predict a rash of dodgy 'runic' inscriptions in Viking tourist spots around the country, each one feebler than the last. Please, please, please guys, if you want to do something like that, get in touch with a real runologist, like those splendid chaps at Hotell Svava and Kirkwall Airport did.

19 October 2011

Ships and Men

The exciting recent discovery of an intact Viking Age male weapon burial in a 5m. boat on the Ardnamurchan peninsula has been widely reported in the media today, for instance The Guardian. Apparently, the artefacts are fantastic - the electronic version of the Guardian article has a nice short film of an axehead being dug up. We all await further details. And luckily, a few of the guy's teeth have been preserved, so we will soon know what he ate and where he grew up, once Janet Montgomery has done her work of stable isotope analysis. Ardnamurchan, though isolated today, is of course on the main seaway from Norway, through the Northern and Western Isles, and down to the Irish Sea, so it is not at all surprising to find such a burial there, rather than on the islands, which is where all previous ones have been found.

The excitement is tinged with sadness at the almost simultaneous announcement of the death of Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, the nestor of Viking boat and ship studies. He's the third eminent Viking to die (all of them far too young) within the last six weeks or so, following hard on the heels of Mark Blackburn and Richard Hall. May they all have a splendid feast in Valhalla together, while the surf pounds outside, as Ormr Barreyjarskáld might have said at the Ardnamurchan funeral:
Útan gnýr á eyri
Ymis blóð fara góðra.
Ymir's blood [the sea] crashes out there on to the sand-bank of good vessels.

10 October 2011

The Wasdale Web

By a happy coincidence, I have just been (re-)reading Vatnsdœla saga today, on the very same day that fellow blogger Emily, over on Saga-steads, is travelling through Vatnsdalur itself (its northern reaches pictured right). Her blog is its usual readable self, with interesting observations about the afterlife of the sagas in present-day Iceland, and some beautiful photos (she seems to have had better weather than I did!). But the best nugget in her blog is that the inhabitants of the valley are currently working on a tapestry version of the saga, à la Bayeux. So far, all they seem to have is a drawing of chapter 26 of the saga, on which they are embroidering away, but it looks really good - you can recognise the events of the chapter quite easily.

Even my favourite bit of chapter 26 is there, though it is hard to represent visually (see if you can find it...). The hero Thorstein sends his shepherd off to find out what is going on at a neighbouring farm he is in dispute with. He tells him to recite poetry while he waits for them to answer his knock. When the shepherd returns and tells Thorstein that he had recited twelve verses before they admitted him, then Thorstein knows for sure that skulduggery is afoot. Presumably, it can be worked out by timing a standard dróttkvætt stanza and multiplying it by twelve - I make it about six minutes. An interesting thought that poetry can be used as a measure of time...

The title of this post, by the way, refers to Vatnsdalur's English namesake, Wasdale in the Lake District, and its WWW presence. Just thought I'd get that in, since I'm going thither again soon - but it also seemed appropriate. W.G. Collingwood thought Vatnsdalur one of the most beautiful valleys in Iceland, and the same could be said of Wasdale. Now they just lack a tapestry (and a saga).

26 September 2011

Runic Tourism

Your intrepid Norse and Viking rambler has just returned from a runic ramble in Sweden, where perfect weather and congenial and learned company enhanced the already delightful process of the close study of runic inscriptions in a variety of media and with a variety of more or less comprehensible texts. Among many other delights, I offer you (left) a photo of what might be the only memorial inscription on a rune stone commemorating the commissioner's aunt. Fathers and sons, yes frequently; mothers and daughters, not so common but still quite a few; sisters and uncles are rare but there. But I think this is the only auntie, or father's sister in this case (if indeed that is what the text says - half the fun of runic inscriptions is that we are not always 100% sure), in the Swedish Viking Age corpus. Hurrah for aunties everywhere!

The runic theme of this short trip was enhanced by the only partially deliberate decision to stay in the Hotel Svava in Uppsala, possibly the world's only runic-themed hotel. As you can see from the photo to the right, every bedstead in the place is enhanced by a runic inscription - the runes are proper, but the message is in modern Swedish (I leave you to spell out the advertising message for yourself). A very distinguished runologist on the ramble admitted to me that she had devised the inscription many years ago when the hotel opened - despite the occasional ribbing she has received, I think it's splendid. It did make me wonder about other runic hotels. I do remember seeing a splendid runic banner at the Kettletoft Hotel in Sanday, Orkney, when I was there in I think 2000. I wonder if it's still there?

But the best bit of runic tourism is surely the airport at Kirkwall. Not only are the runes proper Viking Age ones, the spelling is pretty good (the place was called Grimsetter when the RAF built an airfield there in 1940), written in pretty good runic orthography as krimsitir (though in Old Norse it would ideally be krimsitr, or setr with a dotted i-rune). I haven't found out which runologist, if any, was responsible for this one, though. Now why can't the baggage tags be in runes when you fly to KOI-Kirkwall?

17 September 2011

Digging for Vikings

At last, a TV programme on the Vikings that was coherent, and had both interesting and new information. Well done, BBC2 and Alice Roberts, and the Digging for Britain series. The only downside is the title - 'Invaders' - but otherwise the programme is highly recommended and can be viewed by readers in the UK for another 22 days on BBC iPlayer, if you haven't seen it already.

Dedicated readers of this blog will recognise many of my favourite Norse and Viking things on the programme. It managed to pack in many of several places (Lewis/Harris, Orkney), things (the Lewis chessmen) and finds (the St John's College skeletons) already mentioned here, some of them more than once. Place-names got a very brief mention (well, only Horgabost, really), as did runes.

There were in fact glimpses of two recent runic finds, one from the Brough of Deerness which has, alas, not yet revealed its linguistic meaning, and (unacknowledged, but clearly visible for a brief moment) a spindle-whorl from Lincolnshire. The latter could have deserved some more discussion for, as John Hines has noted, while 'there's quite an essay to be written over the uncertainties of translation and identification here; what are clear, and very important, are the names of two of the Norse gods on the side, Odin and Heimdallr...' Unusual enough in an Anglo-Scandinavian context, but especially so given the object seems to be from the eleventh century and made locally.

All in all, an excellent programme, though I do think these recent finds have some way to go before they match up to some of those from earlier years. Some grubby steatite from Horgabost, or a wonky gaming-board from Deerness, despite the cooings of Alice Roberts, don't quite set the pulse racing as do the fabulous finds from Scar (excavated in 1991) or even the delicate bone pins found at the Udal on North Uist, some made from bird-bones. The Udal was excavated between 1963 and 1995 and now looks like it will get a proper publication. So it's not surprising that the programme ended with these blasts from the past.

09 September 2011


Björk is back! I heard the Icelandic songstress this morning on Radio 4, of all things, plugging her new album. The thing that struck me most about the interview was when she said that 'the Icelandic people LOVE volcanoes, that's the most beautiful thing they can think of'. This coincided with my coming across another form of montanic effusion today, a 'poetry-spouting mountain' (thanks to MCR for putting me on the right track!). It occurs in ch. 6 of Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka - the plot is far too complicated to explain here, suffice to say that a Norwegian king sailing in the Jutland Sea suddenly sees a mountain rise up in the north and speak a verse prophesying various deaths arising out of the death of a Danish king's daughter he has just married. Is this the only mountain in world literature that speaks poetry? If so, it's no wonder the Icelanders loved it so much, just like their volcanoes....(the saga goes on to tell us that the Reyknesingar, of south-west Iceland, are descended from that Norwegian king, and there are further connections later on in the saga). Or is it just a load of hot air?

03 September 2011

Viking Cats and Kittens II

Two of the most famous references to cats in Old Norse literature are to the fact that the goddess Freyja drove a chariot drawn by two cats, and to the catskin trim of the hood and gloves of the travelling Greenland prophetess in Eiríks saga rauða. At first glance, these seem fairly straightforward. As the expression 'it's like herding cats' reveals, it's pretty hard to get cats to do anything at all, let alone pull a chariot containing a well-upholstered goddess, so the implication is that only someone with supernatural abilities could possibly have a cat-powered wagon. And as for the Greenland prophetess, it's obvious she is just weird, and you would be well-advised to keep your pet kitties away from her for their own safety. But there may be more to both of these references than meets the eye. And yes, the photo is of a stoat, not a cat.

In that still-indispensible reference work Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder, Johan Bernström argued that, in both of these instances, the word köttr refers not to the domestic cat, felis catus, but rather to the stoat, mustela erminea, and I think this suggestion has much to recommend it, though I do not often see it cited. The white coat of the stoat in winter (pictured below) is the source of that highly-desirable fur known as ermine, and the Eiríks saga reference explicitly states that the prophetess's kattskinnsglófar were hvítir innan ok loðnir 'white and furry on the inside'. She also had a hood lined with kattskinn hvít 'white catskin'. White cats are not that common, and it seems to me much more likely that the extraordinary outfit of the prophetess was made even more spectacular by the addition of ermine.

Similarly, though the other case is much less clear, it seems to me more likely, given the status of ermine, that Freyja's wagon would be said to be pulled by the animals that provide such a noble fur.

The archaeological evidence for when exactly cats were introduced into Norway and Iceland is not very clear, and a recent MA dissertation on the subject has not to my mind fully clarified the matter (it's also pretty wonky on the literary sources). There is plenty of scope here for further study. But it seems clear enough that cats were introduced to Norway before the Viking Age, and that they followed the migrants to Iceland in due course - as confirmed by the recent discovery of a cat's jaw in a burial at Ingiríðarstaðir - and presumably to Greenland. Stoats, however, did not cross the Atlantic, at least not alive, though their furs must have done.

The odd thing is that the modern Norwegian for stoat is 'røyskatt', ON hreysiköttr, a secondary formation based on the comparison with a cat. This doesn't necessarily mean cats came first, just that stoats must also have had another, earlier name which we now don't know. But there is an interesting reference in Orkneyinga saga, when Earl Þorfinnr persuades Kálfr Árnason to fight on his side against Rögnvaldr Brúsason by saying that he doesn't want to be skulking sem köttr í hreysi while Þorfinnr fights for their freedom. What does this mean?  A hreysi is either a 'cairn, heap of stones' or a 'cave' of some sort, in general a rocky place. And stoats are known to live in rocky clefts and crevices (though they have a whole range of habitats). Stoats are not native to Orkney, indeed the first intruders had to be forcibly removed from there only last year, but the expression could derive from Norway and be proverbial. So I do think there is a stoat allusion there, even though the Penguin translation of Orkneyinga saga gives 'like a cat in a cave'. Have you ever seen a cat in a cave?

Finally, on stoats, it is sometimes claimed that the animals pictured left, carved on the processional wagon from the Oseberg ship burial, are cats. It seems to me they could equally be stoats.

22 August 2011

Vikings in Canterbury

I see from a BBC report that the city of Canterbury will be commemorating the Viking attacks of 1000 years ago, with services in the Cathedral (pictured), presumably to 'honour those that were killed trying to defend the city', as the city's head of culture has it.

No doubt the Vikings were 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', and committed all kinds of atrocities, although recent archaeological discoveries have shown that it didn't all go one way. Without wishing to defend any atrocities, I sometimes wish that, at this distance of 1000 years, we could be magnanimous enough to look at the evidence from both sides. Which is of course just my way of plugging the forthcoming editions, by myself and my esteemed colleague Matthew Townend, of the skaldic poems that record these events (both out next year in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I). Skaldic poetry is much ignored, but it is just as contemporary, and just as biased, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

17 August 2011

Viking Cats and Kittens I

As the proud slave of two Siamese (one pictured left), and general lover of all moggies, I have often wondered about the Vikings and their relationship (if any) with felis catus, the domestic cat. This is a complex topic which will involve archaeology and art history, as well as texts, and I'll leave the difficult bits, as well as some of the more obvious references, to another post. In fact, I'm thinking of making this an occasional series. But today I'll start gently with two very minor, but I think illuminating, feline felicities.

The Old Norse translation of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus compares Satan, crushed by the falling cross, to a mouse in a mousetrap, except that it doesn't say that, it says mús undir tréketti, literally 'mouse underneath a wooden cat'. There has been much learned discussion of whether this interpolation is native or patristic in origin, and Thor, the World Serpent, Leviathan and much else get dragged in. But who cares about all that - it's the word itself that I like, for 'wooden cat' is of course a simple kenning. Trust those Vikings to make poetry out of an everyday object.

My other reference concerns an anecdote about Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon, an early 12th-century king of Norway who, according to an anecdote in Morkinskinna, was spending time on a farm in Iceland (eh?), when he helps a fellow-Norwegian beat an Icelandic farmhand at a board game with the following trick (quoted from Andersson and Gade's translation, pp. 369-70):
The man who was playing with the Norwegian had a sore foot, with a toe that was swollen and oozing matter. Sigurðr sat down on a bench and drew a straw along the floor. There were kittens scampering about the floor, and he kept drawing the straw ahead of them until it got to the man's foot. Then the kittens ran up and took ahold of the foot. He jumped up with an exclamation, and the board was upset.
Really quite a pointless anecdote, as the learned translators note, but at least it shows that kitten behaviour is as it ever was. (Funny thing about sore toes, too, remember Hrafnkels saga?).

But enough serious textual analysis. If you want to laugh (or at least smile) at something even more frivolous, I suggest you google 'viking kittens led zeppelin' and enjoy the video.

16 August 2011

Tales From the Elder Days

I finally got around to reading Justin Hill's Shieldwall, as previously reported. I can't say it has converted me to historical novels set in the Early Middle Ages (but that's my problem and not the author's, since there is clearly a huge market for this sort of thing). Hill loves writing about battles and politics, and that's pretty much what the book boils down to. He also has the Anglo-Saxon(ist)'s somewhat stereotypical but also ambivalent view of the Vikings:
Someone - a red-haired Dane with three fingers missing on his sword hand - thrust a beer at Godwin and Godwin took it and found himself rather enjoying this Danish way of doing things (p. 390, the occasion is a hanging...).
This doesn't of course prevent Hill from frequently using Old Norse names and stories derived from Old Norse texts in purely Anglo-Saxon contexts, not unlike the ways in which many academic Anglo-Saxonists appropriate Old Norse material when it suits them, without ever really having a broader understanding of the subject. So in many ways it is the usual early medieval mishmosh. But I can forgive Hill a lot for his exciting use of the English language. Without descending into pastiche, Hill manages a plain but highly effective style that successfully evokes the past without parodying it. You can open the book at random and find gems like
His eyes gleamed as he lifted the blade and laughed. That laughter came from long ago and it brought back a lightness and a joy that he had not felt for many winters (p. 153).
 He also has a bit of a skaldic go with this 'quick poem' by Ottar the Black (though I don't think King Knut would have paid very much for just half a stanza):
Great king you grappled
On the green Sorestone fields
Bloodshedder of Swedes,
You laid waste the English (p. 293).
You can read more about the book, and about Justin Hill's recent book tour in England (including his visit to Nottingham) on his blog.

06 August 2011

Ragnarök Revisited

There were hints of an interest in Norse mythology already in her 1990 novel Possession. Now the distinguished novelist Dame A.S. Byatt is giving it her full attention, in Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, apparently already available as an e-book (what they?), but to be published as a real book on 1 September. In a long article in today's Guardian Review, she explains why she chose this myth when asked by publisher Canongate to contribute to their myth series. She sees it as 'a myth of destruction for our times', which shows how 'the world ends because neither the all-too-human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker [that's Loki!] know how to save it.' I particularly like the bit where she refers to her childhood experience of reading the Norse myths: 'I didn't "believe in" the Norse gods, and indeed used my sense of their world to come to the conclusion that the Christian story was another myth, the same kind of story about the nature of things, but less interesting and less exciting.' Sounds like a book to look forward to, then.

31 July 2011

Rerunning the Real Vikings

In case you missed it when it was first on last autumn, the Time Team Special slightly archly named 'The Real Vikings' was shown again last Wednesday on More4, and readers in the United Kingdom therefore still have nearly four weeks to watch it again on 4oD on the web. Despite the title (note the absence of a question mark!), it is not really the last word on the Vikings. Your blogstress, dear reader, plays a very small part in the show, so had better not comment further.... But I can assure you it has some interesting stuff (including my favourite chessmen...), and at least one blogger colleague (another 'rambler'), seems to have liked it, back when it was first shown.

06 July 2011

Barrett's Back on the Brough

My favourite archaeological excavation, led by Dr James Barrett, on the Brough of Deerness in Orkney, has started up again, after a break in 2010. The site is still a bit mysterious and interpretations have changed, from an early Christian site, to a Viking Age chieftain's site, with the latter the current favoured one, but extending into later times when there is a Norse-period church, the remains of which can still be seen above ground (and you can just make it out in the picture).
The site now has a blog, which it is promised will be updated weekly. There, you can read about the most recent finds, including, very excitingly, a stone gaming board. Readers who know of my love for the Lewis playing-pieces (and who doesn't love them?), will know that this sets the imagination racing!

18 June 2011

Walls and Houses

The march of historical novelists continues. Back in March, I reported on a visit by Kevin Crossley-Holland, promoting his new children's novel, Bracelet of Bones. On the same occasion, one of the panellists had been Ian Mortimer (the time-traveller's guide), who has just reviewed the latest novel by another of our recent visitors, Shieldwall by Justin Hill, which is set in England at the time of Svein Forkbeard and King Knut. I have to confess I am not a huge fan of historical novels, but it is interesting to find out what draws novelists to the period I, in a rather different way, am interested in. It is, paradoxically, often the very same things. A review of Bracelet of Bones in the Guardian a few weeks ago noted that its author 'brought a poet's love of words to this Viking adventure'. Something of the same came across in Justin Hill's talk, and is also evident in Ian Mortimer's review, in which he picks out some historical inaccuracies, notes the relentless preoccupation with blood and gore, but praises the 'wonderful, poetic passages'. So it all comes down to poetry in the end. Hurrah. I look forward to reading it, and possibly the rest of the trilogy too.

Speaking of trilogies, I have just discovered the first volume of a projected Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, by Peter May. Its only Viking connection is that it is set in Lewis (the author revelling in the Norse place-names, possibly unbeknown to himself), but readers will know of my addiction to 'Viking crime', which I define as any murder mystery set in a part of the world that us true Norse and Viking ramblers like to visit, whether or not it has a Viking theme. It's a very dark, psychological thriller, and I'm not sure what island reactions to it would be (the Stornoway Gazette has not reviewed it yet), but the descriptions of Lewis are well done, even if the plot is a bit lurid.

28 May 2011

More Flying Vikings

Many years ago, I read the novels A Town Like Alice and On the Beach by Nevil Shute - not that I remember much about them. He was very popular in the middle of the last century, but is not widely read now. For some reason, he came to my attention again recently, because of his interest in Vikings, and I have caught up with his 1940 novel An Old Captivity. I enjoyed it because it is partly set in Greenland, especially in Qaqortoq and Qassiarsuq (or Brattahlíð), places of which I have fond memories from my one and only visit to Greenland in 2008 (though I singularly failed to blog about them then). The story concerns an implausible attempt to do aerial photography in Greenland to demonstrate the existence of a Celtic (i.e. pre-Norse) monastery there, but involves some runic discoveries and a rather closer encounter with Leifr Eiríksson than one might expect.
Apart from the Greenland episodes, which are brief and awfully slow in coming, the novel is mainly of interest if you like aviation history and are particularly keen to know the mechanics of flying in difficult climates in the 1930s. There are certainly a lot of valves that need cleaning and complicated calculations involving the fuel mixture to ensure the flight will reach its destination, not to mention hooking the seaplane onto its buoy, which the girl gets to do. And the author never explains how people could sit in an aeroplane for 12 hours, dressed in a one-piece flying suit, without going to the loo. The author's views of women, or indeed anyone not a white European male, are also pretty antediluvian, even for 1940. But it's a rollicking enough tale, and passes the time nicely if you like that sort of thing. I am now ploughing through Shute's screenplay Vinland the Good (1946), on a similar theme, but even less exciting. I'm not surprised Hollywood never took it up.
Well, I don't exactly seem to be recommending the book, but at least it gives me an excuse to show you a photo of what many of us on that 2008 trip eventually began to call an 'AFI' ('another effing iceberg'; that's how blasé we got after several days of sailing up and down the fjords). And at least I discovered that Nevil Shute was really called Nevil Shute Norway, which seems appropriate somehow.

13 May 2011

Viking Week

It's been a good week for Norse and Viking stuff. I've been to see Thor, which was certainly more Marvel comic than Norse myth, but that was predictable. Then, after a very long wait, British television finally gave us a programme on the Icelandic sagas - what took them so long? It was part of a Scandinavian week on BBC 4, involving a very mixed bag of  Jar City, Night Shift, bits of Noggin the Nog, and various other things I didn't see. For those not in the know, Noggin the Nog (that's a picture of him) is a classic series of very simple animated films for children, in which the characters are loosely based on the Lewis chess-pieces, and the stories set in the 'Northlands'. Jar City is a film made some years ago of Arnaldur Indriðason's detective novel Mýrin, and Night Shift is a wonderfully wacky and pretty surreal Icelandic sitcom set in a petrol station (highly recommended).

But back to the sagas. It's great to have a TV programme on sagas, after many many years of waiting, and I am happy to admit that there were several things I liked about The Viking Sagas. The landscapes were great, and beautifully photographed. My esteemed colleague Heather O'Donoghue was earnestly enthusiastic about the literature. I liked the fact that saga-extracts were read out in Modern Icelandic. I also thought it was a good idea to focus on just one saga (Laxdœla saga): that allowed more depth than would otherwise have been possible. But the trouble with watching a programme on a subject about which you are knowledgeable is that it's hard to resist the urge to nitpick... Sorry guys, here goes.

I could just about put up with the title, and the fact that the programme had to end with Tolkien (who may have been influenced by Norse myth, but not so much by the sagas set in Iceland). However I do think neither is worthy of BBC4, though they might have been OK on BBC3. I wasn't impressed by Dr Janina Ramirez (not clear what she is a 'Dr' of) in any way, and was especially irritated by her overdone reaction shots. I didn't like the various errors (the statement that the genetic results showing a large proportion of Icelanders descended from females from the British Isles came from the DNA analysis of old bones, the related misleading statement that 'Aud the Deepminded' was 'British', the strong implication that the days of the week in modern English are derived from the Norse gods, and the strong implication that modern-day practitioners of the Ásatrú are somehow 'remnants'  of the old pre-Christian belief (rather than a modern reinvention). In general there was a bit too much mythology for a programme supposed to be about the sagas and their landscape. And I was completely mystified by the many hanging and revolving names and books... All in all, a curate's egg of a programme which I couldn't help feeling was not fully worthy of BBC4.

The days of the week also cropped up briefly in Thor, in the library scene, and continue to be peddled as evidence for Norse influence on English by the uninformed. The days of the week are complicated and not simply to be reduced in this way, nor do they necessarily all derive from a common Germanic pre-Christian origin. And a programme about Iceland should at the very least mention the fact that Icelandic doesn't have theophoric days of the week... Those who would like to know more are encouraged to read Philip A. Shaw's ‘The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages’, Early Medieval Europe, 15 (2007), 386-401.

Well, dear reader, forgive me my rant. In the end, though, I feel positive about it all - it's great that there is so much interest.

07 May 2011

Here a Thor, There a Thor, Everywhere a Thor

I mentioned in my previous post that I had been on various other Norse and Viking rambles, one was to an academic conference in Copenhagen on molecular views of colonisation which, being a serious academic topic, I'll slide by here in this frivolous blog. The conference took place on the old Carlsberg brewery site where, I'm told, beer is no longer brewed except for a few very special barrels. But it's a glorious place which, I confess, I had never been to before, despite numerous visits to Copenhagen over the years. Among the eclectic architectural marvels there, I spotted Thor in his goat chariot on top of the old brewhouse. So I picture him here since it's his week, with the new film just out.

04 May 2011

'Seekan Back Tae Rackwick'

Several weeks ago, now, I promised a second blog inspired by my recent rambling to Orkney. The unfortunate delay has been caused by my indulgence in even more Norse and Viking ramblings in the meantime, on which I may report when (if) I get a moment... But I did want to do a second Orkney blog, this time about poetry, which is, in my view, one of those essential aspects of life which get far too little airing here (care to suggest some others?).

Various things conspired to make me think about Old Norse influence on modern poetry in English. Now there are plenty of books and articles that will tell you about poets from the sixteenth century onwards who have written on Norse and Viking themes of one sort or another. But there is relatively written about those brave poets who have tried to write, in English (or some form of English), in that most demanding of metres known as dróttkvætt or, to the uninitiated, simply as 'skaldic' verse. There aren't that many, here I'd like to present three.

That great 'lover of islands' and fan of Iceland in particular, W.H. Auden, once tried his hand, published in Secondary Worlds (1968):
Hushed is the lake of hawks,
Bright with our excitement,
And all the sky of skulls,
Glows with scarlet roses;
It sounds quite good, and even manages to follow some of the rules, though those who have mugged up on their skaldic metres will straightaway see that the alliteration is not quite perfect. But what does it mean? (The second half stanza is even less comprehensible.) That, by the way, was a rhetorical question, so please spare me your literary analyses; over the years I have quite convinced myself it means nothing at all, and that the great WHA only did it so that he could write the following sentence, a memorable piece of literary criticism:
It is clear that in such verse it would be absolutely impossible to tell a story. Sagas, if composed at all, would have to be written in prose.
My next poet is a much more obscure one, the Kirkwall draper and conchologist, Robert Rendall. An excellent poet, in my view, though you do have to have a taste for the kind of poetry that was already well out of date by the time he wrote. His poems are little known, and I am quite proud of my small but perfectly-formed collection of his works, many of them published in Kirkwall and therefore quite hard to get hold of. When not draping, or collecting shells (on which he was an acknowledged scientific expert), he wrote pious sonnets, or dialect verse. Once, though, he had a go at what he called 'An experiment in Scaldic metre' in the poem 'Shore Tullye', published in Orkney Variants and Other Poems (1951). Rendall doesn't gloss 'tullye', but according to Hugh Marwick's Orkney Norn (1929) a 'tully' is 'a large kind of knife with a blade fixed in the haft; used chiefly for splitting fish or cutting up meat'. It seems appropriate, though I'm not absolutely sure it's right, but then I haven't found anything else it could be. Apart from (or perhaps because of) the dialect words, Rendall's poem at least makes sense:
Stretched the battle beachward;
Bravely back we drave them.
But he too fails in the proper alliteration of the last two lines:
Never kam sea-rovers
Seekan back tae Rackwick.
But of course real poets find their inspiration where they can and don't generally let themselves be trammelled by metrical pedantries. While in Orkney I met the Scottish poet Ian Crockatt, who is currently doing a PhD on how to 'translate' skaldic poetry, from the point of view of a creative writer rather than an academic like me (interesting for me, since we work on the same poet). He has published a chapbook called Skald: Viking Poems (2009) - the title says it all. In this collection he 'tried to keep to original features like the strict syllable count and the patterns of alliteration, internal rhyme and half-rhyme' while making no attempt to reproduce the kennings. Here he is, also on some raiders, from 'His Ring':
Not gold - gilt silver that
glowed like those gleam-haloed
stone-encrusted crosses
grabbed from Christ-cold abbeys
So there you have it, three poets, three approaches, but what they have in common is that their poems foreground the sounds. And good for them.

20 April 2011

'The Lover of Islands May See at Last...'

Yours truly is now back from her most recent septentrional excursion, to Orkney this time, a perennial favourite (see my 'About Me' photo). I think I'll devote two blogs to this particular rambling!
The occasion, as so often for me, was another academic conference, the splendid Inaugural St Magnus Conference, organised by the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall. Another stimulating event, packed with facts and interest, lots of interesting people, and well worth the trip in itself. But it wasn't all hard speaking and listening - it seemed crazy to go all that way for just three days, so I tacked on a few extra days and did some visiting of locations, sites and antiquities.
First stop was Hoy, the High Island, site of the Everlasting Battle between the father and the abductor of Hildr, a valkyrie-like female figure who resurrected the dead each night so they could fight again the next day  - though it's not at all clear why (for the full story, see Snorri Sturluson's Edda). The 'dark hills of Hoy' certainly conjure up macabre thoughts, even on a nice sunny day, and I think that particular story found its ideal location on it. I walked to Rackwick (a lovely south-facing bay much celebrated by Orcadian author George Mackay Brown) and back. That was around 11 miles, I reckon, including my detour (see below), not too bad when you are the Viqueen's age, I can tell you, and fighting against a fierce Orcadian wind for half of the way.
The main goal was, however, the Dwarfie Stane, a Neolithic rock-cut tomb (pictured above) which I have discussed in a recently-completed (but not yet published) article. What, you may ask, has a Neolithic rock-cut tomb to do with Norse and Viking stuff? Those in the know already know, of course, the rest of you can do some research, or await my forthcoming article. But I'll give you a clue - it's all to do with giants...
I have been to Hoy before, but every trip to Orkney I try to make it to another island that I have not yet visited (I think I am still only about halfway through the inhabited islands). This time, the destination was Papa Westray, or Papay as it is known both in Orkneyinga saga (Papey in meiri) and by the locals. Getting there is half the fun (on an eight-seater plane, pictured above), but this small island (roughly four miles long by one mile wide) has many attractions in its own right. How about the oldest standing dwelling in Europe at the Knap of Howar, ca. 5000 years old? Or a clearly-defined, though eroding, Norse naust? Or the delightfully-situated St Boniface Kirk, with its gravestones from many periods but also a late example of a Norse hogback memorial? And right in the middle, a fabulous large Orkney farm, Holland, with buildings going back to the 17th century, and a fine little local museum. Despite all the much older antiquities, I have chosen to illustrate this with something that really caught my eye, a golden version of the Maeshowe dragon painted on one of their large green tanks (containing I know not what, city girl that I am). All in all, a place with plenty to explore and enjoy on a sunny (if windy) day.

03 April 2011

Happy Mothers' Day from Heimdallr

As the opening of the Kenneth Branagh/Marvel Thor film on the 27 April approaches, the publicity campaign is winding up. Today's Observer Magazine has an interview with Idris Elba, the actor who plays Heimdallr in the film. Once again, his blackness is brought up, though the interviewer has a nice line on this. 'As a black person who was born in Norway, I tell Elba I personally don't see what all the fuss is about', says Afua Hirsch, and quite right too. I merely repeat what I have observed before, that Heimdallr is described as 'the whitest of gods', and that the Vikings would absolutely have understood the casting of a black actor as just the sort of joke they practised in their own nicknames. (By the way, for any budding students out there, Norse and Viking nicknames are very much an underresearched topic...).
Heimdallr is obscure and fascinating. According to Snorri, in his Edda, Heimdallr was 'great and holy', not least because he seems to have had nine mothers (all at once!), who were also sisters (his father was Odin, of course). He has gold teeth (and hence the alias Gullintanni) and a horse called Gulltopp ('Gold-mane'). As appropriate to a watchman, he has excellent sight and hearing, and of course the trumpet called Giallarhorn which will warn of the coming of Ragnarök (see the picture above, from the Gosforth cross). His house is called Himinbjörg (hard to translate but either 'Heaven Rescue' or 'Heaven Sustenance'), and sounds an altogether wonderful place, pleasant, merry and serving good mead. No wonder Heimdallr is such a cheerful chappie. There's even a (mostly) lost poem about him, Heimdalargaldr, about which we had an interesting talk at the Viking Society the other day. About time this interesting god got some wider exposure - I wonder how much will actually get into the film?

13 March 2011

Valhalla Bound

A friend sent me a link to this fun animated film, The Saga of Biorn, a few weeks ago - I like it better each time I see it. It is technically accomplished for a student film, which is apparently what it is. It eschews clichés successfully and has some good visual jokes. I would even venture to say that its insights into Viking concepts of death and the afterlife for warriors are not entirely to be sniffed at. Well done to those at Animation Studio in Denmark who made it.

12 March 2011

Working Towards Vikings

The big Viking exhibition of 2013-14, about which I have blogged before, is now being prepared in earnest. First out will be the National Museum of Denmark, after that it will travel to Berlin and then here to the British Museum in 2014, I believe, from Deep Throat in the British Museum. The group preparing the Copenhagen exhibition now has a blog, where you can follow their work as they travel round getting inspiration from other displays. The blog's in Danish, but no doubt my readers can cope with that, especially after all those episodes of The Killing? There's a nice photo here of Gareth Williams at work among his coins in the British Museum  Your blogstress and a small group of her students had an excellent day in London last Monday looking at various runic objects and coins, with the kind assistance of the very same Gareth.

09 March 2011

Burning Ice, Biting Flame, and a Bracelet of Bones

All the b-words above are quotations from the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland. The man himself ventured into Viqueen territory earlier today, to take part in a round table of writers of popular books about the Middle Ages, organised by a most estimable colleague of mine. A good time was had by all, the speakers were all engaging, the audience all engaged, and I'm told that the subsequent workshops fairly zinged with excitement. The day was tinged with some nostalgia for me, since K.C-H. and I have a long-ago connection (strictly professional of course, but hugely important to me) that goes back some twenty years or more - the interested reader can certainly discover it by diligent research - and it was the first time I had seen him since then.
More importantly, Kevin is a prolific and successful poet, prize-winning author of works for children, and skilful interpreter of Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures. For his views on burning ice and biting flame, see this guest blog on Norse mythology for one of his publishers. As for the bracelet of bones, that is in fact the title of Kevin's forthcoming children's novel on a Viking theme, to be published within the next month or so. Definitely something to look forward to.

04 March 2011

Runestone Red

There is a danger that this blog is just turning into free advertising for variously more or less vaguely Norse and Viking-related products. I'll try to get more serious next time...promise. But I can't resist providing a link to this article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, celebrating their local Claiborne and Churchill winery. The Tribune is not my regular rag, I have to confess, but clearly a noteworthy organ in the Californian media landscape.
Claiborne Thompson was once upon a time a runologist in Michigan, but gave it all up 30 years ago to become a vintner in California (quite a choice, eh?). At the Seventh International Runic Symposium in Oslo last year, we all had the pleasure, not only of meeting Clay and Federicka, but of drinking their fine 'Runestone Red' (actually a Pinot Noir) at the final banquet. Many persons younger and more susceptible than I had very sore heads the next day (they know who they are), pretty much as if a rune stone had fallen on them (it's a 13.9% wine).
As for myself, I do hope one day to drink another bottle, and to be able to keep the empty bottle in my special Viking wine holder.

28 February 2011

Scandi Woollies

Those of us who know and love the Norse and Viking world also love their woollies. The most recent high-profile item of such clothing is the jumper (or jumpers, I think there are at least two), worn by cool detective Sarah Lund in The Killing (currently on BBC4). The programme is, of course, utterly absorbing, not just for those who love stretched-out Scandinavian crime over 20 episodes (Saturday evenings are cancelled for the foreseeable future), but for all who love fabulous camerawork, subtle acting and an amazing, deeply dark atmosphere. The programme has been receiving high praise in the papers for all of these things (just Google BBC4 The Killing and see). UK readers who have missed out so far can catch up on the BBC4 website. One thing I don't quite understand, however, is the English translation of the title. The original Danish is Forbrydelsen, which in my understanding means 'The Crime' (or 'The Felony'), which seems to open up all kinds of interpretative options not available from the English version of the title.
But the real burning question is where Sarah gets her jumpers from. Diligent research on my part has revealed that they can be purchased from Faroese firm Guðrun & Guðrun, though for a little more money than I would currently want to give for such an item (given that the poor old UK is just not cold enough to wear it that often). Still, I thought I'd give them a little plug, since the Faroes in general haven't had much of a look-in on this blog yet, even though I love the place. I found the islands fascinating and wonderful both times I visited, but it's now been a decade since the last time - I'm feeling the urge...

19 February 2011

Woods and Trees in the North?

I just caught the last few minutes of a programme on Radio 4 which sounded interesting, Woods and Trees - Iceland and the Scottish IslandsI went to Listen Again, to find out what they could say about trees in the largely treeless landscapes of Iceland and the Scottish islands! It turned out to be a composite programme, one bit about woods and trees and the other bit about Iceland and the Scottish Islands. Pity, it would have been interesting to hear a bit more about trees in these landscapes.
The second part of the programme was an interview with Sarah Moss, whose book Cold Earth I read a while ago. It's a thriller set in an archaeological dig in Greenland, with lots of strange happenings, in many ways not unlike the atmosphere conjured up by the Icelandic sagas that are set in Greenland. The archaeology bits are not especially credible, but it's an effective story all the same.
It turns out that Sarah Moss has lived in Iceland (which was what she was being interviewed about) and is currently writing a book about it. On following her up I see she just has a new novel out, Night Waking, set in the Hebrides, and on the programme she recalled her childhood holidays in Orkney. She is clearly a lady who likes all the right places! I shall check out this new novel and see what I think.

13 February 2011

Myths of the Pagan North

The title is a bit lurid (the publisher's idea, perhaps?) and the subtitle (The gods of the Norsemen) not much better (didn't Norsewomen have gods?). But one can ignore all that and appreciate Christopher Abram's new book. There is no shortage out there of books on Norse mythology, from the high academic, to the execrable popularisers, and everything in between. But this one is a bit different, it takes an interesting historical approach to the topic and has lots of stimulating ideas which, while they might not always be right, are well worth thinking about. And it has a welcome focus on skaldic poetry. There's a review of it in the February BBC History Magazine.

19 January 2011

Flying Vikings

That wonderful compendium of the informative and the bizarre, the Guardian's 'Notes and Queries' section, today raised the curious question 'Why didn't the Vikings learn to fly?', in view of their undoubted skills in the sailing department. While it's true that they didn't actually come up with 'sail planes or hang gliders', the Vikings certainly spent a lot of time imagining flight, and indeed imagining the devices that might make it possible - their mythology is full of flight.
Freyja's feather suit (fjaðrhamr), is mentioned in Þrymskviða as a device which is borrowed by Loki in order to search among the giants for Thor's missing hammer. A similar falcon suit (valshamr), also owned by Freyja, is mentioned by Snorri in his Edda. This time Loki (again) is searching for the goddess Idunn of the golden apples, who has been abducted by the giant Thjassi. But things get complicated, because Thjassi, too, has his own flying suit, this time in the form of an eagle (arnarhamr).
Similarly, the maidens at the beginning of Völundarkviða flew in from the south wearing swan-feathers (svanfjaðrar). Later in the poem, Völundr himself rises into the air using something called fitjar, perhaps best imagined as flippers of some sort. He is however not really flying, just trying to raise himself up after the evil King Nidud had hamstrung him.
Others, too, have wanted the sailing Vikings to fly. A wonderful children's book, The Ship that Flew, by Nottingham author Hilda Lewis (1939), derives its central conceit from the god Freyr's magic ship Skidbladnir. According to Snorri's account, this ship can accommodate all the Æsir fully armed, and immediately raise a wind whenever the sail is hoisted, but can also be folded up into one's pocket when not required. In Snorri, the ship only sails, but Hilda Lewis imagined it flying and taking the children of her book on all sorts of magical adventures. I vaguely remember a TV adaptation of this some 15 or 20 years ago (has anyone got the details?) which rather boringly turned the central conveyance into a flying carpet, so much so that the story was hardly recognisable, yet I am sure it was the same story.

15 January 2011


In a philosophical mood today, and reflecting, as I often do, why these Norse and Viking Ramblings are so important to me. Many wonder why I like cold and windswept places rather than the olive groves of, say Crete - not that I don't like those, quite the opposite, I love them. But warm and soft places just don't inspire me. So I'm really pleased to see some of my favourite places mentioned in today's Guardian, in a feature  in which the great and the good (professors, librarians, artists, authors) write about their 'Inspiring Views'. Greenland, North Yorkshire (Ribblehead), the Outer Hebrides (Harris) and the Lake District (Wasdale) all get a mention. Greenland is certainly much in the media these days, what with Stephen Leonard's reports from there in the Guardian, and Bruce Parry's BBC programmes on the Arctic, and I've noticed it's lately become a very popular topic with PhD students in Norse and Viking Studies. Greenland is certainly majestic, awesome and endlessly fascinating. But the wild, but quieter, places are perhaps the ones that really inspire, me at least. As Robert Rowland Smith says of Wasdale, 'there's the Viking church reminding you that you might at some point need mercy from all those towering forces gathered round'. Quite so. He's a philosopher, too, so perhaps excused not realising it isn't really a Viking church.

02 January 2011

Happy Thor Year

There's a lot of Thor to look forward to in the coming year. Firstly, what today's Observer calls 'Kenneth Branagh's unlikely first foray into Marvel comic book heroics', the film Thor, due in May (and already much hyped, see my previous posts on this topic from April and May last year), or possibly even the 29th of April (will people be queuing for the film to get away from the Royal Wedding?). Never having been a reader of Marvel comics (is this something to do with my gender?), I'm not quite sure what to expect, and whether the film will just be a version of the comic, or whether it will have recourse to older sources. But the recent publicity suggests this is one that will be more for comic fans than Old Norse mythology fans.
What actually looks like much more fun is Legends of Valhalla: Thor, an animated film being produced in Iceland (based on some Icelandic children's books) and to be released in the autumn. The film has a cool website, where among other delights you can see interviews with the splendid Terry Gunnell, explaining about Norse mythology (though I rather wish they hadn't used the term 'Asatru' for this).