29 October 2012

Three Daughters Deprive Me of Sleep

Although my recent visits to Norway (see the previous post for more on these) were not made in a particularly runological frame of mind, I kept coming across interesting runic inscriptions, in particular several involving women. So here's a quick tour of some of these, in the order of their chronology, rather than the order in which I saw them. Most obscure was probably the Tune stone (side B pictured right), well-lit and displayed in the Prehistoric Norway section of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, which basically includes everything up to and including the Viking Age. The inscribed stone itself contradicts the OED definition of 'prehistoric' as 'Of, relating to, dating from, or designating the time before written historical records', though I suppose you could argue about what was or was not a 'historical record'. Anyway, pedantry aside, it is a lovely stone with an intriguing inscription. I quote the English translation from Terje Spurkland's Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (now available in paperback, by the way):
(A) I, WiwaR, in memory of WoduridaR the master of the household, made these runes. (B) I entrusted the stone to WoduridaR. Three daughters arranged the funeral feast, the dearest / most devoted / most divine of the heirs.
Much of the detail is obscure, so do read Terje's discussion of this 'extraordinary piece of writing' to find out what it might all mean.  But there are two particular points of interest. Sometime around 400 AD, daughters could inherit property (Terje suggests that WoduridaR was the father of the three daughters, but had no son, and that WiwaR was his grandson). Secondly, the inscription is metrical, in something not unlike the ljóðaháttr of the Eddic poems. Both the supposed inheritance patterns and the verse form of the Tune inscription have their counterparts in the Viking Age and even later (since the laws and the poems were not written down until after the Viking Age). This means that either we have important evidence for an astounding longevity of certain cultural patterns in Scandinavia, or some odd coincidences.

Skipping the Viking Age, for once, it's interesting to note the presence of women in the medieval churches of Norway, both as the subject and object of the statements made in the inscriptions. A wooden pillar now in the Historical Museum in Bergen was originally in Stedje church in Sogndal. Stedje was one of those stave churches that did not survive the rebuilding craze of the nineteenth century, but the pillar at least was saved, along with a finely carved portal, also in the museum. The inscription records that 'Sigríðr of Hváll gave this staff for mercy towards the souls of Arnþórr and herself.' Arnþórr was presumably her husband, and Hváll is the farm Kvåle near the church. A man of that name at that place is mentioned in Sverris saga in the winter of 1183-4, and the saga also mentions the burning of Stedje by Sverrir's Birkibeinar, though the church itself was saved. How all this fits with the runic inscription, if it does, is impossible to tell. Magnus Olsen came to the conclusion that  Sigríðr and Arnþórr were the grandparents of the saga's Arnþórr and dates the inscription to c. 1175. The runes were at about head height and are deeply carved - Sigríðr clearly wanted the world to know about her gift to the church.

Much less obvious, and only discovered in 1966, is a more casual inscription in Bø gamle kyrkje, on the wooden panel of a repositorium, a kind of nook in the south wall of the chancel. The inscription puzzled many learned minds, though eventually Jonna Louis-Jensen arrived at the very ingenious solution. The Old Norse text reads:
Svefn bannar mér, sótt er barna,
fjón svinkanda, fjalls íbúi,
hests erfaði, ok heys víti,
þræls vansæla. Þat skulu ráða.
which can roughly be translated as 'It deprives me of sleep, it is a children's disease, the enemy of the worker, inhabitant of the mountain, toil of the horse and danger to hay, the bad luck of the slave; people need to work it out.' The simple alliterative stanza poses a question, 'what deprives me of sleep?' and gives the answer in riddling form. Each of the following phrases works out as a word which is also the name of a particular rune, so the 'inhabitant of the mountain' is an ogre, or Old Norse þurs - the name of the third rune. The six phrases give the runes k u þ r u n giving, of course, the female name Guðrún. So that is clear enough. But who was she and who was she depriving of sleep? Normally, only priests went into the chancel... Was he in love, or is it just an intellectual exercise? Is it the effort of working out the riddles that keeps the writer awake? If only we could tell... The inscription is dated to around 1200, when love poetry certainly was in fashion.

My last inscription comes from this fine pair of wrist-warmers I purchased in Heddal and knitted by a local lady who does other runic knits, too. Unfortunately, the runes don't say anything intelligible, which might be because they are based on an inscription in the gallery of Heddal stave church, which also does not say anything intelligible. Despite unconvincing attempts to make out that the runes represent the date 1242, all we can say for certain is that the runes say either -m-rn or mmrn (by interpreting the last, and possibly the first and third, runes as cryptic runes). Which could, I suppose be a cack-handed attempt to write Maria, to whom the church is in fact dedicated, or, more charitably, an abbreviation for some kind of phrase involving her name. I append a picture of the runic inscription, too, so you can compare, though it was hard to photograph through the protective glass.

26 October 2012

A Church is Made of Many Assembled Parts

Twice in October conference invitations drew me to Norway and I can resist anything except temptation. One conference was in Bergen, where my cool Søs Jensen raincoat (bought quite cheaply in Nottingham) made a return visit to its birthplace and came in very handy indeed. Bergen is lovely, but I have been there quite a lot over the years. Bø i Telemark, on the other hand, is a place I hadn't been to for around twenty years, so it was a real pleasure to go there, and to think about Viking women, a topic I similarly hadn't thought much about in twenty or so years. Both trips were full of visual delights, despite the gloomy autumnal weather, and I saw so many lovely things, I might try to get more than one blog out of them. So today's blog is about churches, and its title is a quotation from the sermon In dedicatione tempeli, popularly known as the 'Stave Church Homily', and found in a manuscript written around 1200 in Bergen, no less.
Norwegian churches and church art are special, partly because of their very abundance. Stave churches are nowadays thought to be typically Norwegian, but there were probably many such elsewhere in the world (or in Northern Europe) which have not survived. Even in Norway, only 26 remain out of originally many hundreds. But the stone churches are wonderful too (more on this below), and the church furniture, altar frontals and statues from the 12th to 14th centuries combine spirituality and aesthetics in a most pleasing way. A good place to see a lot of this stuff is the Historical Museum in Bergen, very well worth a visit if you're ever there. Its medieval exhibition is beautifully presented and awash with painted altar frontals, statues of saints, including several wonderful St Óláfrs, carved portals and much else. But probably my favourite object is the model of a church pictured above - they don't know what its function or purpose was, though it might have been a reliquary. I like to think it had no real function except to be lovely.
The event in Bø  was one of those in which the organisers properly recognised that the key to a successful conference lies in some good excursions. So the very first item on the programme was a visit to Bø gamle kyrkje (follow the link for some nice pictures of it in winter), a stone church from the 12th century dedicated to our favourite St Óláfr. The church is lovely in itself, sitting on a very prominent hill with views all around, and was particularly atmospheric in the gloaming, illuminated inside only by candlelight. Most of the surviving furniture is 17th-century, but medieval pieces included a splendid candelabra, a crucifix, some fascinating runic inscriptions (more on this in a future blog), and a painted altar frontal just as good as those in the museum in Bergen. It's a bit damaged (see picture above), but it was wonderful to see this one in its original location rather than a museum.
The high point was the second day of the conference when we were all bussed to Heddal, one of Norway's largest surviving stave churches, though much rebuilt. We had some of the lectures in the church itself, then some in the nearby former parsonage barn, now transformed into a 'barn church' where most religious activity now takes place. Sitting in the church was very atmospheric again, even though illuminated by electric light rather than candles this time. I guess they can't risk candles in wooden churches (!), though they must have done in the Middle Ages. No doubt that's why 1000 got reduced to fewer than 30... The best thing in Heddal was not so much the church itself, fine though that is, nor its one measly runic inscription (more on this in future), but the amazing episcopal chair still kept in the church. There are several of these around the country, mostly in museums, so again it was good to see this one in its original location. It is beautifully carved all over, and includes a scene (pictured above) which has plausibly been related to the Sigurðr legend. The figure in the middle seems to be Brynhildr, welcoming either Sigurðr or Gunnar, depending on which one you think she thinks is riding the encircling flame to spend the night with her, and ignoring the other one.
What's fascinating is that the Sigurðr legend was so popular in this part of Norway (Agder and Telemark) in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is, as is well known, depicted on several of the famous carved stave church portals, as well as on various bits of church furniture, somewhat less well known. Although it is usual to link these objects with other depictions of this legend, such as the 10th-century carvings from the British Isles, or the 11th-century Swedish runestones, it was argued, recently and plausibly, by Gunnar Nordanskog that the Norwegian examples of this phenomenon served a rather different cultural purpose and came from rather a different cultural context than those earlier representations. By this time, of course, we are well within chronological reach of known written versions of the story. Thinking about Sigurðr brings me back to Bergen, and one of my favourite sights there, now a bit faded, this advertisement for Per O. Moe's machine-tool shop, wittily based on the Hylestad portal.