26 December 2014

Viking Women

In my self-appointed role as Viqueen, I not unnaturally take a great interest in the doings of all my Viking sisters in this most apparently masculine or even masculinist of historical periods. But when I indulge this interest, I do sometimes feel like a still, small voice amidst all the popular (and even academic) fascination with the war and the violence, the boyish obsession with transport (horses and ships), and all the shiny, shouty stuff like bling and skaldic poetry. At a conference just over a year ago in connection with the Copenhagen leg of the great Viking exhibition (currently in its final days in Berlin), I was amused to hear from one of the curators that one topic that was firmly excluded from their exhibition concept was that of 'daily life on the farm'. (Another was Viking art, but that's perhaps another blog topic, one day). Which is a pity, because I find 'daily life on the farm' just as fascinating as all the violent and blingy stuff, and perhaps just as foreign to the modern world, if not more so. After all, we still live in a violent and blingy world but how many in the western world at least still have to produce their own food, build their own houses and make their own clothing from sheep or linseed through to garment?

If there are any budding scholars out there, there is certainly still plenty of scope to research the role of women in the Viking Age, along with children, men, animals and all the accoutrements of daily life. And there are signs of renewed interest in the roles of women, as evidenced in a book just out, Kvinner i vikingtid (Women in the Viking Age), edited by Nancy Coleman and Nanna Løkka. The book has seventeen articles, in Danish, English, Norwegian (both nynorsk and bokmål) and Swedish, on a wide range of aspects of women's experiences in the Viking Age and after. I particularly liked Pernille Pantmann's chapter on women and keys, deconstructing the hoary old chestnut that keys in female graves represent the mistress of the house (an old idea that I have been guilty of myself in the past...). I'm less convinced by Pernille's alternative explanation, but she is properly cautious about putting it forward, and her piece certainly opens up the whole question for renewed discussion. We need more work like this.

Another recent publication, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England, edited by Steve Harding, David Griffiths and Elizabeth Royles, also has a couple of papers relevant to the understanding of female roles and experiences. In particular, Christina Lee's chapter shows the range of information that can be gleaned from textiles and textile working implements. The production of clothing, and other textiles (such as sails for Viking ships) was probably the one job that took up most of most women's time in the Viking Age, and studying this evidence again opens up all kinds of interesting questions about craft production, agriculture, family life, and artistic expression, not to mention the symbolic roles of weaving and spinning in Old Norse mythology.

Which reminds me that, nowadays, the most obvious profile of Viking Age women in both the popular media and much academic research is that of the possibly more glamorous but certainly minority (and in some cases fictional) roles of sorceresses, valkyries and warrior women. Or queens. All of these have their interest, of course, and I have expressed my views about both valkyries and warrior women before. I blame Game of Thrones, myself. I have to confess I haven't read the books, but I have watched a few of the TV episodes and, from my limited watching, it is clear to me that the female characters are mostly a pretty clever, capable and attractive bunch, usually more so than the male characters. This is how we like to see women from the dark and distant past in the twenty-first century, and it is certainly an improvement on the embarrassingly almost female-free twentieth-century equivalent, the fantasy works of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

But fantasy is just that, it's fantasy. When it comes to studying the past, I always struggle, both for my own part and in my teaching, to understand and to explain the paradox that, while human beings are human beings and always have been and always will be, the past really is another country. That's what's so fascinating about studying it - in what ways were people then just like people now, and in what ways were they different? Pinning that down in detail is the fun part.

On the whole, I think it's a shame that those interested in the Viking Age find it less interesting nowadays to explore the lives of real women, both those who stayed at home to cook, clean and bring up the children, and those who went out on great adventures, as settlers in the Hebrides or Iceland, or traders in Russia, with or without their menfolk or children. Maybe these new books will bring some redress. And at least some of these questions will be addressed in The Viking Diaspora, to be published next summer. But there is still plenty to do!

07 July 2014

Of Dragons and Longships

Erik Werenskiold, 'Slaget ved Solskjel'
Public domain image
from heimskringla.no
The media are currently reporting on the interrupted journey (because of a broken mast) of what is being touted as the 'largest replica Viking longship', the Dragon Harald Fairhair. There are so many potential misunderstandings, just in the name of the ship, let alone that description of it, that the academic in your blogstress just cannot resist putting her oar in.

First, the positive side of things. This is a fun project initiated by a wealthy Norwegian businessman, Sigurd Aase, who has a love of Vikings. It has given him some fun, other people some work, and yet other people the pleasure of rowing or sailing in an old wooden ship.

But as usual with the media and Vikings, there is a danger of hype and misrepresentation here. Despite what the captain said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the ship is in no sense a 'replica' of anything, let alone of 'Harald Fairhair's' ship. Unlike those replicas which are based on actual ship finds, this is not a reconstruction of any one particular ship. A Norwegian king known by the name of Haraldr hárfagri is most likely a historical figure, but if he was, he lived in the ninth century and we have little if any reliable evidence about him. We also do not have his ship.

The project website gives quite a lot of information which makes clear to the initiated at least that the building of the ship is based on a variety of sources, mainly from later periods, in particular sagas and laws relating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since there was enormous development in the building of ships between Haraldr's time in the ninth century and our written sources from the thirteenth, the claim that this is a 'Viking longship' is really stretching it. Undoubtedly, there is some continuity in the Norwegian boatbuilding tradition and the builders have also used their knowledge of later Norwegian boatbuilding in designing this vessel. But then it is disingenuous to describe it as a 'Viking warship'. The term 'longship' also has no real meaning. Some ships were longer than others. At 35m., the Dragon is in any case pipped to the stem-post by Roskilde 6, the genuine Viking ship that, however fragmentary, was the highlight of the recent Viking exhibition, at 37 m.

Calling it a 'dragon' is also unhistorical, if this is meant to refer to Harald's time - calling ships 'snakes' is a poetic conceit found from quite early on, but a dragon-ship is something different, not being a native animal. The word dreki really only makes its appearance in eleventh-century poetry, when it is first used to describe the large warships that emerge in that period. All in all, it is hard to see whether the people on this project see their ship as belonging to the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth century, nor do they seem to care. This is OK for a bit of fun, but no one should be led to believe that this exercise has any actual academic merit, though I am afraid some university folk, as well as the media, have been taken in.

As I pointed out two years ago, there are plenty of other and better reconstruction projects around - check those out instead!

27 June 2014

Languages, Myths and Finds

Just wanted to give a little plug to a project I have had some involvement with. This has very much been the Year of Vikings, and in particular the splendid exhibition at the British Museum, now sadly finished, about which I have blogged before.

In connection with the exhibition, the Languages, Myths and Finds project had the aim of encouraging conversations between specialist university academics and advanced research students in Old Norse and Viking Studies, and local communities around Britain and Ireland who were interested in knowing more about their Viking heritage. The communities chosen for the project were Cleveland, Dublin, Isle of Lewis, Isle of Man and Munster. Five small teams of six academics and students were chosen to work with each community, in each case developing and researching topics most suited to that locality, as identified in dialogue with the community.

The result is now five gorgeous booklets, each very different, which can be downloaded in pdf form and for free from the project website.


17 May 2014

The Birth of Norway

Today the Norwegians celebrate the bicentenary of their constitution, and their freedom from Danish rule. Til lykke med dagen! Although they did not achieve full independence until 1905, the adoption of the constitution in 1814 marks the birth of the modern nation of Norway. But Norway as a geopolitical concept goes back at least to the Viking Age, as attested by two important runic inscriptions. Both the larger Jelling stone, from Denmark, and the Kuli stone, from Nordmøre in Norway, mention Norway in the context of the conversion to Christianity in the decades around the year 1000. The Jelling inscription also acknowledges Norway as a political entity which could be conquered by that ambitious king, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (which also gets a mention in the inscription).

Much could be (and has been) said about the earliest history of Norway. But today I celebrate my favourite country by joining its (supposedly) eponymous founding king on his first royal tour of the dominions. The beginning of Orkneyinga saga (chapters 1-4) envisages the parallel origins of Norway and its western islands in a story about two brothers, Nórr and Górr, who conquer their realms during a long search for their missing sister Gói. There is much of interest in this legend of conquest and origin (and other versions of it exist), but what I particularly like is its visualising of the geographical extent of Norway, a kind of map avant la lettre.

Górr sets off immediately to search for his sister by ship 'around the out-skerries and islands', while Nórr rather awaits the time when 'snow lay on the heath and the skiing was good'. (As in so many sagas, skiing is a quintessentially Norwegian activity in the view of the somewhat bewildered Icelanders). His journey of conquest starts in the far north-east, Kvenland, where his family originates, and then travels west across the 'Keel' (the mountain range which now separates Norway and Sweden), until 'the waters fell on the west side of the mountains'. They follow these 'waters' down to the sea, arriving in a great fjord with populous settlements and large valleys branching off it, where Nórr subdues the local population and makes himself king of the district. But by now it is summer, so Nórr being Nórr, he awaits the skiing season again. Then he heads up the valley which goes south from the fjord ('which is now called Þrándheimr', the Trondheimsfjord), while sending some of his men along the coast of Møre. Nórr follows the great valley south until he gets to the great lake of Mjǫrs (Mjøsa), from where he turns west into 'the district which they called Valdres'. From there they head to the sea, arriving at 'a long and narrow fjord, which is now called Sogn' (and probably passing through Lærdal along the way). In this western region he meets up with his brother Górr, and it is at this point that they decided to divide up their realms so that Nórr has the mainland and Górr the islands to the west.

Nórr then consolidates his eastern regions, by travelling first to the Upplǫnd (Opplandene), where 'it is now called Heiðmǫrk (Hedmark)'. There he finds his sister, who has been kidnapped by the local king, son of a giant of Dovre (shades of Peer Gynt there!). After an unsuccessful attempt to kill his newly-discovered brother-in-law, Nórr resolves the matter by marrying his brother-in-law's sister. It is at this point that he names the country Nórvegr and he rules it for the rest of his life. The saga then turns to the adventures of Górr, which are of more interest to the subsequent history of Orkney which is its prime concern. So it may not be significant that the southern part of Norway is missed out from this long-distance ski-tour. Or the story may reflect a time when southern Norway was ruled by Denmark, as Harald Bluetooth boasted on the Jelling stone. Other versions of the story (notably Hversu Nóregr byggðist in Flateyjarbók) have more geographical detail and clearly the conceptualisation of Norway shifted according to historical and political circumstances.

And then there is the name... The story of how Nórr gave his name to Nóregr is usually dismissed as a learned medieval construction and the whole story as an origin myth, which in many ways it clearly is. But I don't think the whole story of the origins of Norway's name has been told yet, a topic to which I may return in another blog sometime.

In the meantime, we congratulate modern Norway on its 200th birthday.

10 March 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend

Tjørnehøj brooch
©Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
The Mega Viking Show has finally come to town, and your faithful blogstress was honoured and privileged to be present when Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, and various other dignitaries opened it last Thursday, as well as to get an early viewing of the whole thing. I don't propose to review the exhibition - there are plenty of reactions of all types to be read in the media. The exhibition is designed for the general public, rather than the expert, and I firmly believe that the outsider's view is the one to seek out. Interestingly, the reactions vary enormously - do read more than one review to get a sense of it all. Another reason I would find it hard to review is that so many of the objects are almost too familiar. This is not only because I saw a version of the same exhibition in Copenhagen last September, but also because some of them I saw last time the British Museum did a Viking exhibition, in 1980, and in other exhibitions in various places since. Yet others are familiar from the many illustrated coffee-table books about the Vikings that flood the market on a regular basis.

But some of the exhibits are relatively new and I thought I'd pick out a few of my favourites at random, for my and your delectation. My top favourite is probably the valkyrie figure discovered in 2012, but I have blogged about that before. Several other 'valkyrie' images can be seen in the exhibition, and they are a fascinating group, mostly relatively recent metal detectorist discoveries. Another recent (2007) metal detectorist find from Denmark of which I am inordinately fond is the ship-brooch pictured above and extensively used by the British Museum in its publicity for the exhibition. It is sometimes said to represent a dragon-ship, but it is quite clear to me that the two figureheads are those of horses, as indicated by their ears and manes. Although similar brooches are known, this is the only one I have come across on which the animals seem very definitely to be horses' heads, and is thus a unique representation of that figure so commonly found in skaldic poetry, by which ships are called 'horses of the sea'. I also like the little face between the horses' heads, though quite what he represents I do not know.

Oval brooches have always fascinated me because they are typical of Scandinavian women's dress, and when we find them around the world, they raise interesting questions about the role of women in Viking migrations. Many thousands of them are known, from a broad geographical and chronological range, and in a variety of styles. For me, the one that tops them all is definitely that found in 2004 in an archaeological investigation at Finglas, in Dublin. There's an interesting photo of how it looked when it first came out of the ground on the website of Icon Archaeology, but it can only truly be appreciated in its cleaned-up form, which shows very clearly its 'protruding animal ornament', as the archaeologists say. These include both whole animal figures, and animal heads, all of which strongly resemble bears. Although similar brooches with small animal figures are known, I think these are the only ones which are clearly bears. They look quite cute to us today, though the bear was of course a feared and fearsome animal, and widely significant in Viking language and culture. I haven't found a good photo of the brooch to show you, but it adorns the cover of The Viking Age: Ireland and the West (2010), edited by John Sheehan and Donnchadh Ó Corráin, shown above, and is discussed at length by Maeve Sikora in that volume.

Finally, although the exhibition is not strong on runic inscriptions, it was a real pleasure to see the Kirk Andreas III stone from the Isle of Man, with its simple (and incomplete) inscription 'Þorvaldr raised this cross'. While not the most exciting inscription, it is of interest because, along with most of its fellow Manx inscriptions, it records the earliest uses of the word kross in Old Norse, a word with a fascinating history which appears to be borrowed from Latin crux into Gaelic, from there into Old Norse (as suggested by the Manx inscriptions) and from there into English, as suggested by some place-names in the north-west of England. Oh, and the stone, which is clearly a Christian cross-slab, also has those well-known images of what appear to be Odin at Ragnarok on one side, and a Christian figure on the other (above, left). It was particularly nice to see it in London last Thursday, because on Friday I went off on another runological field trip to the Isle of Man, where we had to make do with a replica in St Andrew's church, Andreas, instead. But the display in the church did have a nice picture of the last time the stone went to the British Museum, for the 1980 exhibition (above, right).

28 February 2014

Northern Lights

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

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

14 February 2014

Love Stories from Oslo

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

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

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

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

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

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


08 February 2014

The Original Biathlete

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

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

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

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

24 January 2014

Ice and Fire: The Viking Condition

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

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

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

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

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