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.

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).

10 November 2013

Exhibiting the Vikings

Back in September I had a great trip to Denmark, where I got a chance to visit the Viking exhibition, which has started off in Copenhagen, and will be coming to London in March, also the new 'conceptualisation' of Royal Jelling, and a re-visit to Trelleborg, which still defies belief with its sheer size and enigmatic purpose. I never did get round to blogging about that particular trip, though I am looking forward to comparing the Copenhagen version of the exhibition with its London cousin next year. We got all kinds of hints about the different interpretations, and different technologies to be used in London. I suppose one of the main differences will be that the London one will cost, while the Danes had the wherewithal to put the exhibition on for free (good old Danes!). It's interesting that the two museums are clearly also appealing to different constituencies, but more on that when I've seen the London one and can comment on both.

In the meantime, do read this blog by my colleague Nanette Nielsen, a 'descendant of the Vikings', who has clearly been inspired by her fabulous ancestors and especially their ships (the presentation of Roskilde 6 is undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition).

07 October 2013

Viking Minds

Just a quick blog today to draw everyone's attention to a splendid new initiative by a Nottingham student (soon to be ex-, as he has submitted his thesis, well done John!), a company called Viking Minds. They produce gorgeous t-shirts, jewellery and postcards with designs based on Viking art from the north-west of England. Regular readers of this blog who read the Viking Minds website carefully may well notice some similarities between the enthusiasms displayed there and previous blogs here about the annual MA field trip to Cumbria!

28 September 2013

Broch Weddings

One of the highlights of my recent visit to Shetland was an evening trip to Mousa, an island location that, like Eynhallow or Skellig Michael, is often difficult of access because of tides, winds or weather. However, we chugged over a very calm sea on the delightful Solan IV with lovely views in the evening sun of the broch, an Iron Age structure of indeterminate function that has two particular points of interest. One is that, though like all brochs it no longer stands to its full height, it nevertheless stands higher than any of its fellows. The other is that it is mentioned in two of my favourite sagas, in both cases in connection with interesting anecdotes. There is no doubt that this was a major landmark for the Vikings, on the sea route along the east coast of Shetland and thus on the way to all points south.

Egils saga (chs 32-5) tells of a young man from Sogn in western Norway, Björn, described as a great traveller, 'sometimes on Viking raids, and sometimes on trading voyages', and a very capable man. He falls in love at a party, as one does, with a beautiful girl, Þóra Lace-sleeve, and abducts her from her home while her brother is away. His father, who is friends with her brother, ensures that the two live like brother and sister, but does not insist on sending her back home. In the end, with the connivance of Björn's mother, the young couple elope. On their voyage south, they are shipwrecked on Mousa. They get to hear that the king of Norway wants Björn killed, so they quickly get married then and there, and spend the winter in the broch. They then make off to Iceland, where they end up at Borg, at the farm of Egill's father Skalla-Grímr. The story ends happily enough for the young couple, though there are many further ramifications for the plot, which you'll have to read the saga to find out, if you haven't already!

Strangely enough, the other reference to Mousa in saga-literature also involves an elopement. In ch. 93 of Orkneyinga saga the jarl Haraldr Maddaðarson sets off from Caithness to Shetland, intending to kill a certain Erlendr ungi who had proposed to Haraldr's mother Margrét, and been refused by her son. Erlendr takes Margrét to Mousa, where Haraldr attempts to ambush them, but finds it impossible to attack the broch. In the end, the two men are reconciled and become allies, and the couple get married. Having played her part in Northern Isles politics, Margrét is then out of the saga.

Although the Orkneyinga saga anecdote is set in a chronologically later period than the Egils saga story, I can't help wondering if the latter is modelled on the former. Orkneyinga saga is an earlier text than Egils saga, and we know that Snorri Sturluson read it (because it is mentioned in Heimskringla). So if he also wrote Egils saga (a big 'if', but certainly not impossible), then he might well have modelled his story of a romantic young couple on that of the slightly less romantic middle-aged couple. Or is it just that Mousa is such a romantic place that it spawned more than one fanciful tale of people's adventures there?

01 August 2013

Mountain Celebrates Icelandic Heritage

I came across this headline reading, as one does, the Grand Forks Herald, and immediately thought of the mountain in ch. 6 of Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka, a mountain which spouts poetry. If a mountain can speak verse, why could it not also celebrate its Icelandic heritage? Of course, the answer was rather prosaic - Mountain is a place in North Dakota where an Icelandic celebration will happen tomorrow.

The Hálfs saga anecdote, however, is splendidly bizarre, among several strange things that happen in this saga, with mermen and ogres also speaking poetry. What is particularly baroque about the speaking mountain is that it emerges from the Jutland Sea, and has the shape of a man (I suppose it would have to, to be able to speak poetry). Denmark is not noted for its mountains, but this one does emerge in the north, where Norway is, so I suppose there is some logic to it. Or the Icelandic author is having a joke with some old traditions. The poem spouted by the mountain prophesies the various fates of several characters - the whole story is highly compressed and doubtless the author struggled to write a convincing narrative around some old poems.

But the idea of speaking, and now celebrating, mountains always makes me smile.

29 July 2013

Valkyries Revisited

Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog, Gotland.
Wikimedia Commons
Martin Rundkvist's recent blog on shield maidens has inspired me to air in a little more detail my views on women warriors by looking first a bit more closely at their close cousins, the Valkyries.
The valkyrie is a mythological being with widespread currency, since she appears in art, archaeology and a wide range of literary texts. Valkyries (valkyrjur lit. ‘choosers of the slain’) were defined by Snorri Sturluson as figures:
whose job is to serve in Valhall, bringing drink and looking after the tableware and the drinking vessels ... These are called valkyries. Óðinn sends them to every battle, they choose who is to die and allot victory. (my translation)

Snorri does not specify that they bear arms, though this might be deduced from the second aspect of their role. The figure is further developed in Old Norse literature, often with a strong romantic angle involving love between a valkyrie and a male warrior, and Snorri himself testifies to the enduring popularity of this figure in the thirteenth century. But the two functions of valkyries identified by Snorri have their origins in the Viking Age, where they can be traced in the material culture, as well as in both Eddic and skaldic poetry.

The first of the functions identified by Snorri is most easily identified in pictorial representations. Some of the earliest examples are scenes on several Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries) picture stones from the Baltic island of Gotland, which show female figures proferring drinking horns to warriors about to enter a building that can be interpreted as Valhall, the mythological hall of the slain, as in the Tjängvide stone shown above. This image is repeated in art, particularly metalwork, but also sculpture, from across the Viking world. Even the scene of Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion on the tenth-century Gosforth cross in Cumbria has been seen by most scholars as owing something to this visual tradition.

Images of armed female figures are less common. However, the exciting metal detectorist discovery from Hårby on the island of Fyn in Denmark in 2012 appears to represent just such a figure, as discussed here some months ago. This is a very rare, perhaps unique, visual representation of a female figure with a sword. When valkyries are represented in literary texts as being armed, their weapons of choice tend to be a spear and protective armour, but not swords, as in stanza 15 of the Eddic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana I. There, the valkyrie Sigrún arrives with some of her mates in the middle of Helgi's battle with Hundingr, and they are said to have helmets, blood-spattered mailcoats, and shiny spears. The figurine from Hårby has none of these attributes.

However, a closer study of skaldic poetry does show an occasional association of valkyries with swords, though mostly indirectly, in kennings. In a large number of kennings, battle is figured as a storm, or tumult, or din, or meeting, which is further determined by a term for weapons, or for a valkyrie, either her name, or a further kenning for her. Using examples from vol. I of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, there are simple kennings which call battle þing hrings ‘assembly of the sword’ or gný Gunnar ‘din of Gunnr’, with Gunnr a valkyrie-name. A more complex battle-kenning such as snerra geirvífa ‘onslaught of the spear-women’ incorporates a valkyrie-kenning with her traditional attribute of the spear. Occasionally, such valkyrie-kennings do associate them with swords, though most often embedded in more complex kennings where the direct association of valkyries and swords is less clear. Thus, a kenning for ravens or eagles figures them as the gjóðir dísar dolgeisu ‘ospreys of the woman of battle-fire’, in which ‘battle-fire’ is an embedded kenning for sword. But in the same way, valkyries can be associated with other weapons such as bows, or just with weapon-points in general. Thus, the skaldic evidence suggests the possibility that any female figure associated with weapons of any kind can be interpreted as a valkyrie.

In themselves, though, these figures from art and literature do not yet prove the case for warrior women, or for any association between women and the weapons of war other than as an aspect of myth and ideology. It would be difficult in any case to pin down any such association in real life, though burials, despite their heavily symbolic nature, might give a clue. We know that warriors were men, and we know that many men were buried with weapons. This does not make every man buried with weapons into a warrior, but the association is widespread and consistent. There are a few examples of women buried with weapons, though their number is not great. Most of these burials are problematic in some way, many of them antiquarian finds with inadequate contexts. Nevertheless, it seems likely that occasionally people could be buried with items more commonly associated with the opposite gender (and of course there are many grave-goods that are gender-neutral). The reasons for these very occasional deviations from the norm are difficult to discern from this distance, and could be various, including the items belonging to someone else in a double or mass burial, or the finds from two adjacent burials becoming mixed, or even people being buried with items belonging to their (deceased?) partner. But that the very few women buried with weapons were warrior women in life seems the least likely explanation of all.

24 June 2013

From Another Place I Take My Name

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I met a fellow student who rejoiced in the glorious name of Kjartan Poskitt. Kjartan pronounced 'Ka-djartan', by the way, rather than 'Kyartan' (excuse my phonetics). I remember coming fresh from an Old Norse class and somewhat disingenuously asking him where he got his name from; his reply was that his mother had been reading 'some old book' when he was born, and he seemed to know no more about it, and I don't think I enlightened him. I see now that he is a successful author for children (there can only be one of him, surely), and have no doubt whatsoever that his fine name, however pronounced, has contributed to that success.

Why have I suddenly thought of him again after all these years? Well, I read in yesterday's Observer that no. 2 among the top 5 currently popular names for girls is Freya. Now I've been aware that Freya is quite popular, as I know a few myself, and often ask students if they know someone of that name, and many of them do. Most of these though are lasses in their late teens or twenties, so it's interesting that the name has continued to climb the popularity ladder. Of course it has always been around - the bestselling author Freya North is a wee bit older than 30, I believe, and of course there was the redoubtable Dame Freya Stark, explorer and author, who was born in 1893 and lived to be 100. Doubtless they were all named after the Norse goddess Freyja, quite frequently mentioned in this blog, though occasionally I have asked bearers of the name where their name came from and they professed not to know (a sure sign that the name has been fully adopted into the anthroponymicon).

Are Norse names becoming more popular in this country? Orkney and Shetland have had their fair share of Thorfinns, Erlends, Sigurds and Magnuses in the last century or so, the phenomenon interestingly manifesting itself mainly in boys' names. Also, the Victorian fascination with all things Norse and Viking has lived on until the present day and spawned the occasional outlandish name elsewhere in the country, viz. Mr Poskitt, but I do wonder if the trend is increasing? If so, it is quite the opposite in the Scandinavian countries. Statistics of the most popular baby names there show that none of the top names is actually a Scandinavian name, instead they prefer international, often anglicised, names such as Emma and Victor (Denmark), Eva and Lukas (the Faroes), Emelía/Emilía and Aron (Iceland), Nora and Lucas (Norway), and Alice and William (Sweden) (I've taken this information from a splendid Wiki called Nordic Names, by the way, well worth a browse if you are interested).

The history of personal names in Scandinavia has always been very interesting. Many 'pagan' Norse names survived the conversion and lived alongside the Europe-wide 'Christian' names, some of them in continuous use until the present day, often in much changed form. Nationalist movements, e.g. in nineteenth-century Norway, led to a revival of the Old Norse names, which have been pretty popular throughout the twentieth century, too. But new names always creep in. I remember when I lived in Norway in the 1980s and some friends of mine had a baby they called Carina, I was both horrified that they were naming her after a Japanese car, but also reassured that this was really just an updated version of that very popular Scandinavian name Karin (made exotic with that 'c'), ultimately of course from the international name Katherine (and all its variants). In fact, names can often be hard to pin down to a particular language or culture, and often develop peculiar local forms even when originally imported. Thus, we mustn't forget that Kjartan is a Scandinavianisation of a name that was originally Irish. Imported names have a habit of becoming acclimatised (cf. Freya, above) and have curiously different distributions - just compare the top names in the Scandinavian countries cited above - all 'foreign' names, but different ones in each country. I know that my own given name is much more common in the country in which I was born than in any other country with which I am familiar, even though it is an 'international' name with biblical origins.

A little bit of crowd-sourcing here, just for fun: if you are not Scandinavian, but have a name that is linguistically of Scandinavian origin, I'd be interested to hear why you were given that name!

19 May 2013

That Fishy Place

A recent ramble took me further north than I had ever been before, to the Lofoten Islands. We were staying at the splendid Nyvågar Rorbuhotell on Austvågøy, at more than 68° N (even Iceland only just scrapes 66° N by virtue of the offshore island of Grímsey). Obviously the seminar included the obligatory excursion to the fabulous site of Borg on Vestvågøy, where we enjoyed the exhibition and indulged our inner Vikings with mead and a nice thick lamb soup inside the reconstructed chieftain's hall.
Many other beautiful sights were seen, the weather was kind (except for the day we were supposed to have a boat trip into Trollfjorden, which caused some real disappointment) and interesting discussions were had. But what particularly piqued my curiosity was all the stockfish drying (see picture above), and my realisation that the very district of Vågan where we were staying is quite widely mentioned in Old Norse texts, where it is known as Vágar ('Bays').
Accounts of the renowned battle of Hjǫrungavágr (c. 985) mention that one of the supporters of Hákon jarl was a chieftain called Þórir hjǫrtr (‘Hart’) from Vágar. Hákon was a noted pagan, and his followers were too, and when Hákon had been killed and Norway was ruled by the Christian missionary king Óláfr Tryggvason, Þórir reappeared as one of the northern chieftains who attempted to resist Óláfr’s Christian mission and political ambitions, though they were ultimately unsuccessful and Þórir was killed by Óláfr.
 The religious history of the region is then obscure until over a century later when the Norwegian king Eysteinn Magnússon (d. 1122) is said to have built many churches in different parts of Norway, including one at Vágar. The fact that he bothered suggests the importance of the place already then, if not before. The same king was also responsible for revising the laws  regulating the economic activities, including fishing and the fur trade, of the people of Hálogaland. The enactment mentions that ‘every man who catches fish in Vágar’ must give five fishes to the king. A  royal order of 1384 names Vágar as one of the three most important trading centres of western and northern Norway, alongside Bergen and Trondheim.
The importance of this district as fishing station and trading centre resonates through several sagas of Icelanders, where it is presented as having had that status already in the ninth and tenth centuries, including Egils saga, Hallfreðar saga and Grettis saga. The question is whether this represents what Icelanders thought of Vágar in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, or whether the stockfish trade could have been older. I will discuss this question at greater length in something I am working on at the moment, so watch this space!

There is also a glimpse of Vágar in Konungs skuggsjá (‘The King’s Mirror’), an instructional text for ambitious young men by a thirteenth-century Norwegian, for whom Vágar is characterised not by paganism or by fishing but by its latitude. To this up-to-date and scientifically-minded observer, instructing the future seafarer, Vágar is the land of midday stars in winter and the midnight sun in summer. In early May, when I was there, it was a bit too early for the midnight sun, but it certainly did not get completely dark at night and sleep was difficult. But who could sleep in such a beautiful place?

28 April 2013

Gather Ye Groaties

The work of the Kirkwall draper, conchologist and poet Robert Rendall (1898-1967) may not be to everyone's taste - the poetry is traditional in style and often about God. But he really has a way with words, in my view, and it's nice to see that there is now an edition of his Collected Poems (ed. John Flett Brown and Brian Murray, 2012). In addition to his four published collections, this includes poetry never published or published only in newspapers or other ephemera. As with most Orkney poets, there is always an undercurrent of fascination with the islands' Norse heritage in Rendall's poetry. Here is a snippet from the rather fine and stately 'King Hakon's Dirge', published in Orkney Variants (1951, pictured):

Death comes, alas,
On raven wings,
And even kings
Like shadows pass
From mortal things.

But some of his most delightful writing comes in the autobiographical prose pieces collected in Orkney Shore (1973), mainly about his development as a naturalist, but with some nice poetical snippets, too, here musing on the vernacular names of the sea-shells that were his life's work, in particular the 'shell names from farm animals [which] have a northern provenance':
The common mussel with its outline of folded wings and up-turned neb was soon transformed into a 'kraa' with blue-black plumage. The finely corrugated ribs of a cockle, which in Norway became a sheep's fleece, was with us replaced by similar ribs on a scallop shell, and so recognized as the mark of a gimmer-shell. A cat's face could be seen in the obtuse 'cattibuckie' and that of a dog in the neb of a spired winkle ...' (Orkney Shore, pp. 19-20).
A 'gimmer' is a year-old ewe, according to the Dictionary of the Scots Language and comes from Old Norse, though the word is not just Orcadian but is quite widespread in both Scottish and northern English dialects. The picture shows some scallop shells I found on the beach between Grit Ness and the Sands of Evie last week.

As a conchologist, Rendall of course picked up (Orkney Shore, p. 18) on the fact that the three-year old Egill Skallagrímsson (in ch. 31 of his saga), refers to the 'three silent dogs of the surf swell' that the juvenile poet got from his grandfather as payment for his first poem. The saga prose interprets this kenning as referring to kúfungar, or sea-snails, a term used for a large and diverse group of animals - it's a pity the Orcadian poet-conchologist didn't speculate a little more on just what shells these were, though he was fascinated by spiral shells:
The mind rests on its sheer loveliness, content, it may be, with the harmony of aesthetic values; or if so disposed, wanders in the dangerous but delightful labyrinth of speculative thought. This wonderfully contrived object, so specialised as to differ from all others in its class, yet not excelling in any intricacy of design, each in its own way being unique, what is it? (Orkney Shore, p. 122).

13 April 2013

Material for a Poem

Here I am back in the Orcades on another busman's holiday. Next week it will be all business (though very pleasurable business, of course), but I came up a few days early to revisit old haunts and discover new ones. First off was Sanday, which was beautiful and fascinating in snow, rain, hail, sleet, wind and sun (or indeed all of those at the same time). But today I'm in a poetical mood and minded to blog about Wyre, which I visited yesterday in the most glorious spring sunshine (the photos show more cloud than I saw for most of the day).

Wyre was something of a pilgrimage for me. Since my last visit in 1989, I have come to know a lot more about its most famous inhabitants Kolbeinn hruga, who built the castle (pictured above), and especially his son, Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson. Bjarni was of course the well-travelled bishop who spent a lot of time in Norway (where his father probably came from). He may have built the lovely little chapel next to the castle pictured below. Bjarni is also the author of a fascinating narrative poem about the Jómsvíkingar, of all things, and their heroic defeat at the battle of Hjörungavágr - his literary activity was probably the last gasp of Orkney's twelfth-century renaissance. Having once translated his poem for a general readership, and having also written more academically about both the saga (some time ago), and various poems about the Jómsvíkingar (in a forthcoming article), I couldn't miss an opportunity to visit the place this learned man came from, though perhaps he, too, like his successor Edwin Muir, many centuries later, had to leave it to reach his full literary potential. Still, the castle (probably the oldest stone castle in Scotland) suggests that Wyre in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was not then the rather modest place of eighteen inhabitants it is today. But they still appreciate their poets, and the small heritage centre has a display about 'Wyre's Poets', mentioning not only Bjarni Kolbeinsson and Edwin Muir, but also a descendant of Rögnvaldr's called Snækollr Gunnason, who is mentioned in Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar and probably also had a connection with Wyre, though his surviving poetic output is a bit meagre, to say the least.

On returning from Wyre, I went to a lecture in the splendid Pier Arts Centre in Stromness about Margaret Tait, previously known to me as an experimental film maker. She gets a mention here partly because she made a film 'The Driftback' in the 1950s about farmers returning to live in Wyre, against the tide which then was all about leaving small islands, and partly because it turns out she was a poet, too. The lecture (by Sarah Neely of the University of Stirling) was about the importance of poetry to Tait's films, and the development of her films into what could be described as 'film-poems', but she also published quite a few poems on the page. Many of both her films and poems are about Orkney and it turns out that no Orkney poet can avoid turning their hand to Norse and Viking themes now and again. Here's a snippet from what I think is one of her better ones, originally published in the Orkney Herald in 1959 (and now in Sarah Neely, ed., Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings, Carcanet 2012, p. 113):

The equinox excited the Vikings out of their winter stupor,
Made other lands seem desirable,
Made the roving sea and the turning world all a prod, a birch upon them, an unknown waiting welcoming motion to receive them,
And in they went
With the prows of their vessels high and proud,
Their weapons clanging against their shields,
With the swift sides of their long ships entering between two lips of water
And at speed rushing -
Yelling off to fight the Irish.

Yesterday was just such a spring day, soon after the equinox, which would have excited the Vikings. Bjarni Kolbeinsson said, slíkt eru yrkisefni 'such matters are material for a poem', and, as a chronicler of similar deeds himself, I'm sure he would have approved.

20 March 2013

Coursing Through the Deepest Snow

It's nearly the end of the cross-country skiing season. I used to indulge in this wonderful sport but lack of time, snow and other things have intervened these last few years. Nevertheless, frequent visits over the last few months to my family where they have Eurosport on the telly have enabled me to indulge vicariously by watching the racers, whose technique is lightyears ahead of anything I could once produce. I particularly enjoyed the many successes of the Norwegians, with their fetching red outfits and stars like Therese 'Duracell Bunny' Johaug, with her amazing performance in the Holmenkollen 30 km last weekend. That did make me nostalgic, since many years ago I lived up on Holmenkollveien and skied around those same tracks myself.

Of course the Norwegians should be best at skiing since they seem to have invented it, as suggested by Stone and Bronze Age rock carvings. Adam of Bremen, from whom the title quotation comes, associated skiing with the Scritefingi, the northern neighbours of the Norwegians and Swedes, or Saami as we might call them. He doesn't seem to have associated the Norwegians themselves with skiing, but then what do you expect, as his information mostly came from the King of the Danes, and when were they ever any good at skiing? (See my comments on Danish eminences in one of last year's blogs, and they don't get that much snow, either.)

Another non-skiing nation appears to have been the Icelanders. Clearly, they were familiar with the concept of skiing, from their regular trips to Norway, but they don't seem to have indulged in it themselves. Skiing gets a mention in ch. 163 of Sverris saga when King Sverrir sends a company of lads from eastern Norway to spy on his opponents because 'there was a lot of snow and good skiing conditions, while walking conditions were so bad that one would sink into deep snowdrifts as soon as one left the track' - an exact description of why skiing is necessary in some places, possibly written by an Icelander who, lacking skiing skills, had tried the walking in the snow lark. A slightly odd skier is Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney who famously boasts in his poetry of his nine skills, one of which is skiing. Orkney doesn't get that much snow and when it does, it mostly blows away! But of course Rögnvaldr grew up in southern Norway, near the mountains of Agder, perhaps even in Telemark, that real home of skiing.

My favourite skiing anecdote is from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, where he has a  bit of a cheerful dig at his own countrymen. In ch. 141 of the saga of St Óláfr, we're told of an Icelander called Þóroddr Snorrason who, along with a companion, comes across an archetypal Norwegian backwoodsman, Arnljótr gellini, who helps them to escape after many adventures on a tax-collecting expedition to Jämtland. Trouble is, it's winter, and he's hoping to help them escape by skiing, but they just can't do it. So in the end he puts both Icelanders on the back of his own skis and, we're told, 'glided as fast as if he were unburdened', as wonderfully illustrated in Halfdan Egedius' woodcut interpretation (pictured) for the 1899 Norwegian edition of Snorres kongesagaer.

11 March 2013

Location, Location, Location

Today's Guardian review of BBC 1's Shetland, based on Ann Cleeves' Red Bones, concludes that 'Sometimes ... a place is as compelling as a plot'. Which is pretty much what I said on this blog some time ago.

I suppose it was the need to establish the place more obviously that led the producers to introduce an Up-Helly-Aa subplot, making it all somewhat incongruous, since the story revolves around an archaeological dig (hardly likely in Shetland in January). Still, let's not get too fussy. This also gives the producers a chance to introduce various Norse mythology references that weren't in the original book. Shetland is, after all, as Viking as they come.

05 March 2013


©Trustees of the British Museum
As was recently pointed out on Twitter by Dave Gray, star presenter of Radio Orkney, 'Folk under the age of 50 are reading Walrus tweets containing the phrase "Coo-coo-ca-choo" and wondering what's going on'. Has John Lennon been reincarnated? I refer of course to the young male walrus that had a brief holiday on North Ronaldsay in Orkney the other day, just as I did almost a year ago.

Walruses are iconic in Norse and Viking culture. My esteemed colleague in Aarhus Else Roesdahl has written extensively about the export of ivory from their tusks from Greenland and across medieval Europe, and of course this ivory is the material of the Uig playing pieces or everyone's favourite 'Lewis chessmen'. But walruses are iconic in early medieval texts, too, such as the account of Ohthere, a Norwegian at King Alfred's court in the late ninth century, who said he travelled north for þæm horshwælum because they had such excellent bone in their teeth. Walruses rarely appear in Iceland (let alone North Ronaldsay), but the place-name Rosmhvalanes in the south-west of the country confirms some archaeological finds which suggest that the early Icelandic immigrants found and exploited breeding colonies.

There seem to be three different words for this creature in Old Norse. Rosmhvalr is an old word which survives mainly in the place-name and in legal provisions, in which it is sometimes confused with hrosshvalr. The Old English horshwæl mentioned above seems to be a calque on Old Norse hrosshvalr, which does occur in some texts, though there wasn't always a clear distinction between walruses and whales, and the Old English loan is perhaps the best evidence for this word meaning 'walrus' in Old Norse. Snorri, in his Edda (trans. Faulkes, p. 162), lists 27 different creatures which include various kinds of whales, including both hrosshvalr, which Faulkes translates as 'horse-whale' and rostungr, the more common term for walrus. The thirteenth-century Norwegian author of Konungs skuggsjá 'King's Mirror' is aware of the problem - he notes that the Greenlanders consider the rostungr to be like a whale, while he considers it more to be like a seal. And some Icelandic legal provisions also make a clear distinction between whale, which can be eaten along with fish on meat-free days, and walrus (and seal), which cannot. Rostungr is also a common nickname, and one can easily imagine the corpulent, buck-toothed or mustachioed chaps who would deserve such a nickname!

29 January 2013


Most Vikingologists will already be aware of the small metal figurine (apparently it's silver) found by a detectorist last year on the island of Fyn in Denmark, and depicted on Martin Rundkvist's Aardvarchaeology blog earlier this month (from where I have 'borrowed' the photo, taken by Jan Hein). It is there described as a 'valkyrie' and indeed the figure, as far as I can tell from the photo, has long hair and is wearing a long dress with an apron (?), while carrying a shield in its left hand and holding a drawn sword in its right. I say 'its' because I do think we always have to reserve judgement, and I was amused to see that the first comment on Martin's blog post asks whether we are sure it isn't a man. Good question. Having said that, it looks fairly female to me, so let's go with the idea that it does indeed represent a valkyrie, that enigmatic figure who plays a wide variety of roles in Old Norse literature and mythology. The interesting question is, how to link the various material 'valkyries' found in recent years with their literary sisters. Now there's a fruitful topic for some aspiring student...
One thing that struck me about the Hårby figure is that it is holding a sword, as is the one on another, rather indistinct, brooch from Jutland also pictured in Martin's blog (where I do think there is a greater chance the figure is intended to be male). For some reason, I had always had it stuck in my head that swords were very much a male weapon, and that valkyries, when armed, were armed with shields and spears (the latter a weapon particularly associated with Odin), as well as protective armour, but not swords. I'm not sure where I got this idea from, though probably from st. 15 of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I. There, the valkyrie Sigrún arrives with some of her mates in the middle of Helgi's battle with Hundingr, and they are said to have helmets, blood-spattered mailcoats, and shiny spears. Later on, in st. 54, the valkyries are said to be 'helmet-creatures'.
But clearly I wasn't paying that much attention, since there is in fact a valkyrie-kenning sverðman 'sword-girl' in a poem I once wrote an article about. Oops. The poem is Hallvarðr háreksblesi's Knútsdrápa (to be published next month, edited by Matt Townend in vol. I of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages). There, the valkyrie-kenning is embedded in a raven/eagle kenning ('gull of the sword-girl'), but the sword is clearly there. There is at least one other valkyrie kenning with a sword-word as a determinant in a Viking Age poem, so the connection exists, even if it is not especially common.
Finally, I did wonder whether this detectorist find was genuine - it's almost too good to be true. But archaeologists I have asked seem to have no doubts. It will be great to read a detailed analysis of it some time. In the meantime, it provides lots of food for thought in the emerging discipline of valkyrieology.