31 December 2015

Runic Yule

Before we completely let go of the Christmas season and turn our thoughts to the New Year, I thought I'd mention a few runic inscriptions where the festive season makes an appearance. The harvest of examples is not as rich or varied as in skaldic verse (as discussed in my previous post), but still has its interest. In addition to the splendid depiction of the Nativity on the Dynna rune-stone from Norway, pictured in that previous post, there are I think only two references to jól in the inscriptions themselves, neither of them especially Christmassy!

Both are graffiti from the walls of Norwegian stave churches, both are probably from the twelfth century, and both state that they were carved on the Sunday after Christmas (the texts below are taken from the Scandinavian runic database, with some necessary modifications). One is from Borgund, in Sogn og Fjordane (pictured), everyone's favourite stave church, and the most 'runic' of all the runic stave churches, and this one says:

klemetr · ræist ru(^n)ar þesar sunutah þan er nestr e^r æpt(e)r iol guþ gæte (h)ans o^k in hælka m(æ)r
Klemetr reist rúnar þessar sunnudag þann, er næstr er eptir jól. Guð gæti hans ok hinn helga mær.
Klemetr cut these runes on the Sunday which is next after Christmas. May God and the holy maiden protect him.

The other inscription is from the church in Atrå, in Telemark, and it has a very similar message:

þostæin bengæir ræit runar þessar sutah þan er nesr net iolom
Þorsteinn Bengeirr reit rúnar þessar sunnudag þann, er næstr ... jólum.
Þorsteinn bengeirr wrote these runes on the Sunday which is closest ... Christmas.

One can only speculate why Klemetr and Þorsteinn felt the need to write these banal statements on the walls of what was presumably their local church. Were they just bored? Were they suffering the after-effects of Christmas eating and drinking? We don't know where the plank with Þorsteinn's runes was originally placed in the church, but Klemetr's graffito is in the covered walkway that surrounds the church, so perhaps he was just waiting to go in, or hanging about after church while his wife indulged in gossip with the neighbours. As Annette Jones once wrote, 'Before or after services was a likely time for people to have written runes'.

At least Klemetr followed his signature with a prayer, and that is in line with most stave church graffiti, which tend to the pious. One of his s-runes has a little cross on it, making it look a bit like the IHS monogram (rune 22 in the drawing below, taken from volume 4 of Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer 1957):

Þorsteinn, on the other hand, not only didn't have much to say apart from documenting his vandalism, but also struggled a bit with his orthography. More interesting than his banalities is his by-name, which means 'wound-spear' and was perhaps intended to suggest his warlike nature. Or perhaps it was just a joke, as so many by- and nicknames were. Although bengeirr is not recorded elsewhere as a byname, it does occur once as a given name for one of the followers of King Sverrir, a man called Bengeirr langi 'the tall'. Since the name is so rare, Magnus Olsen speculated (in volume 2 of Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer) that our runic Þorsteinn bengeirr was the father of Bengeirr langi, since it was not unknown for the father's byname to become the given name of his son or a later descendant.

The pious, the mundane, the violent and family feeling, it's all there in runic inscriptions.... 

28 December 2015

Skaldic Yule

Christmas is traditionally a time for overindulging in food and drink, and things were no different a thousand years ago. The Old Norse word jól can refer either to the midwinter feast of pre-Christian times, or to the Christian celebration of the Nativity, as depicted on the 11th-century rune-stone from Dynna, in Norway (left). Both festivals involved extensive feasting. In the mid-12th century, the crusader and poet Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney remembered the Christmas feasts he and his best friend used to organise together in their youth (all texts and translations below are taken from vol. 1, ed. Diana Whaley 2013, and vol. 2, ed. Kari Ellen Gade 2009, of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages):

Muna munk jól, þaus ólum
austr gjaldkera hraustum,
Ullr, at Egða fjǫllum,
undleygs, með Sǫlmundi.
Nú gerik enn of ǫnnur
jafnglaðr, sem vask þaðra,
sverðs at sunnanverðum
svarm kastala barmi.

{Ullr {of the wound-flame}} [SWORD > WARRIOR], I will remember the Christmases when we entertained in the east beside Agder’s mountains with Sǫlmundr, the valorous steward. Now, just as glad as I was there, I make, once again, throughout another [Christmas], {a swarm of the sword} [BATTLE] at the southern perimeter of the castle.

Here the poet draws an explicit comparison between the peaceful joyous feasting of Christmas back home in Norway, and the Christmas he is spending equally joyously attacking a castle in Galicia, on his way to the Holy Land. In the next stanza, he refers to making 'the eagle replete again'. Being largely a military genre, skaldic poetry often figures Christmas as a feast for the beasts of battle (carrion-eaters the raven, the eagle and the wolf), with the underlying image a comparison with the more peaceful feasting the warriors themselves indulged in at Christmastime. In this rather baroque imagining by a poet called Grani the beasts of battle's Christmas feast also includes their family and children, as indeed do Christmas feasts for humans:

Dǫglingr fekk at drekka
danskt blóð ara jóði;
hirð hykk hilmi gerðu
Hugins jól við nes Þjólar.
Ætt spornaði arnar
allvítt við valfalli;
hold át vargr, sem vildi,
— vel njóti þess — Jóta.

The lord gave the brood of eagles Danish blood to drink; I believe the ruler prepared a yule-feast {for the retinue of Huginn } [RAVENS] by Þjólarnes. Far and wide the kin of the eagle trod on the fallen carrion; the wolf ate the flesh of the Jótar as it pleased; may it truly enjoy that.

That was King Haraldr harðráði 'Hard-Ruler' bashing the Danes in the mid-11th century. But skaldic Christmas is also a time for reflection and remembering those we have lost during the year, as the newspapers do today. In this stanza by Sigvatr, even as he is drinking he remembers, and is saddened by, how his lord and patron, King (later Saint) Óláfr was treacherously responsible for the death of his friend, the powerful Norwegian chieftain Erlingr Skjalgsson:

 Drakk eigi ek drykkju
dag þann, es mér sǫgðu
Erlings tál, at jólum
allglaðr, þess’s réð Jaðri.
Hans mun dráp of drúpa
dýrmennis mér kenna;
hǫfuð bôrum vér hæra
— hart morð vas þat — forðum.

I did not drink my drink very happily [lit. happy] at Christmas on the day when they told me of the betrayal of Erlingr, the one who ruled Jæren. The killing of him, the splendid person, will cause me to droop; we [I] carried our head higher before; that was a harsh murder.

Skaldic poetry had the function of recording history as well as of celebrating and remembering military prowess, and in this function Christmas becomes a useful chronological marker along with other Christian festivals. In this stanza Oddr rehearses the battles of King Magnús góði 'The Good' in both the Baltic and Denmark in the early 11th century:

Vas fyr Míkjálsmessu
malmgrimm háið rimma;
fellu Vinðr, en vǫnðusk
vápnhljóði mjǫk þjóðir.
Enn fyr jól vas ǫnnur
óhlítulig lítlu
— upp hófsk grimm með gumnum
gunnr — fyr Árós sunnan.

 A sword-grim battle was waged before Michaelmas; Wends fell, and people became much accustomed to weapon-sound. And shortly before Christmas there was another [battle], by no means trivial, south of Århus; grim fighting erupted among men.

This poet was not interested in comparing battle to the culinary pleasures of  Christmas, he prefers instead to emphasise the grim significance of it - the festivals are just points on the calendar. That is not to say that Vikings were either pacifists or vegetarians...but as this survey of Yuletide references has shown, skaldic poetry could still be used to express a range of attitudes. And so we can reflect that Christmas in our time is also a marker of time passing, and both still a time of war and of feasting, and of remembering those who have gone. And also the celebration of a birth which can be taken as a symbol of hope for better things in the coming year.

All the best for 2016, everyone.


30 August 2015

Norse Mythology Skis into Nottingham

As summer fades, more quickly than we would like, our thoughts naturally turn to winter. While many find winter irksome, those of us of a northern disposition rather like snow and ice, and all that goes with them, such as skiing, and especially those deities of skiing, the god Ullr, and the giantess Skaði, who qualifies as a goddess through her marriage to the sea-god Njörðr. I've written about Ullr here before, though I don't believe I have had cause to mention Skaði yet, though she was enthusiastically name-checked in my first book, several aeons ago.

So, naturally, I am delighted to read in the local rag, the Nottingham Post, that a new Nottingham-based fashion company has named itself 'Ullr & Skade' after these mostly-neglected members of the Norse pantheon. It's hardly surprising, though, since they specialise in ski wear. Their inspiration from Norse mythology is explicitly acknowledged on their website and it's great to see them raising the profile of these deities in my home town.

Admittedly, their grasp of the etymologies and spellings of their patron deities, of runes, and of Norse myth generally, is a wee bit wonky, but hey, they're fashion designers, not Old Norse specialists. But next time, guys, give your friendly local Viking specialists at the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age a call! In the meantime, I do hope business goes well for them.

30 July 2015

Kennings Continued

Desert Camel by Sherbaz Jamaldini
from Wikimedia Commons
When I tell students about Old Norse poetry and try to explain how kennings work, I turn to that old chestnut, the 'ship of the desert', though recently I have noticed that students respond with a slightly puzzled look to what I thought was a well-known expression. But I plough on, explaining that it's rather a good kenning because we all know that what characterises the desert is that it is drier than anywhere else on the planet, and so the last place you would expect to find a ship. But if you start thinking about it, the sand dunes are not unlike waves and the camel is after all a mode of transport. So, we start by imagining a ship (the base word), but then the addition of the word 'desert' (the determinant) turns our thoughts to sand dunes, rocking motions and transport, and we eventually arrive at the correct solution, which is 'camel'.

The other reason this is a useful example is that it is in many ways the exact opposite of that very common Old Norse kenning, the 'horse of the sea'. Horses can't travel  on water, but they are a sturdy and trusty mode of transport on land, over the hills and heaths, just like your Viking ship is on the ocean. Thus, both the camel-kenning and the ship-kenning conform to the definition offered by Margaret Clunies Ross in A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics (2005, pp. 107-8):
... a noun phrase comprising two nouns in a genitival relationship (or a compound noun with an implicit genitival relationship between two distinct elements) ... used ... as a substitute for a noun referent. ... the three essential elements of the kenning [are] the base word, the determinant, which is usually in the genitive case or implicitly so, and the referent, which is unnamed.
I shall leave aside the complexities of how kennings really work in Old Norse poetry, and how they might have been understood by the Old Norse poets, and the medieval scholars who wrote about them, as much has been written on this and it is all a bit heavy for this light-hearted blog. Rather, I wanted to speculate a bit on modern kennings.

Now modern poetry inspired by or imitative of Old Norse poetry often makes use of kennings and kenning-like constructions, as you can see for example on the excellent Kennings in the Community website. But these are all made by people with at least some acquaintance with the Old Norse tradition and, in their quest to write good modern poetry, they do not always conform to the relatively strict definition cited above.

I'm more interested in kennings that are used less knowingly, in the poetry of the everyday, as in the Icelandic mousetrap I once blogged about. So when I come across something that seems suitable I make a note, and now have a small collection, which I am always eager to expand. My students sometimes come up with kennings, some of which are unprintable in a family blog. One clever student reminded me that both 'sea-lion' and 'hippopotamus' are kennings. Indeed the latter appears as a 'water-horse' or words to that effect in some languages (cf. Hungarian 'viziló'), though I am not very clear where the 'horse' idea comes into it, and it's a very different animal from the 'horse of the sea' I mentioned above.

The Old Norse 'horse of the sea' is popular in modern times, as I pointed out when this blog was still in its infancy, as 'steed of the waves' on Robert Calvert's 1975 album Lucky Leif and the Longships. But perhaps that is all a bit obvious - so what else is out there? My trusty notebook offers the following:

Observing tree surgeons working round about the place, I notice that they often use a machine called the Timberwolf to mash up the wood after they have properly pruned the branches.

On a natural history programme on the radio I heard about a North American salamander that is known as a 'snot-otter' (which has a bit of skaldic internal rhyme, too). This is apparently because it excretes mucus when you pick it up and it lives in rivers. Charming.

In the Observer magazine, I saw a photographic feature on a well-known fashion model that eschewed the word 'bra' and spoke instead of her 'tit-pants'.

Better known kennings include phrases like 'couch potato' and the similar 'porch monkey' I found on www.urbandictionary.com. Doubtless there are more to be found there if I could be bothered to search, but I prefer the surprise of serendipity.

All of these thoughts were sparked off by a letter in today's Guardian. In a series of recent letters about seagulls, one Glyn Reed wrote in to inform us that:
In the Royal Navy in the late 70s, any and all seagull-type birds were collectively known as “shitehawks”.
I guess this only really works if hawks don't normally defecate, or at least do so less than seagulls...who knows?

Of course these are all simple two-element kennings, such as you also find in Old English with its swan-roads and whatnot. To really understand the glory of kennings, you do have to study Old Norse poetry, firstly to find how many ways simple phrases like 'horse of the sea' can be varied, and secondly to discover the baroque delights of three-(or more)element kennings and kennings within kennings.

04 May 2015

All Over the Place

Inspired by the news that that stupid organisation Facebook apparently has located the lovely Baltic island of Gotland (see the view of Visby to the right) in the equally lovely country of Norway, I turned to that monumental mine of information on Norwegian farm-names, Oluf Rygh's Norske Gaardnavne, published 1897-1936, but available on the internet since 1999, thanks in part to Norway's special arrangements for conscientious objectors to military service....

There I did indeed discover that there are at least three farms called Gotland in Norway, two of them in Hedmark, which is I believe where Facebook located the Baltic island. There are also four occurrences of Danmark, for one of which Rygh notes that the names of foreign countries were often used in more recent farm-names, and indeed there is even a Sverige in the north of Norway. The Finlands are more complicated, since there the first element might be the word Finnr, meaning a 'Lapp, Sami'. Other explanations are also possible.

Moving over to the British Isles, it gets interesting. There are four Englands in Norway - which could be named after the country, or could contain the first element eng meaning 'meadow, pasture'. How do you tell the difference? Well the tones (pitch contours) of spoken Norwegian help! With Tone 1, the meaning is the country England, with Tone 2, it is the meadow-word. Similarly, the two examples of Skotland are pronounced differently, so only one of them is likely to be named after the country. Ireland, however, does not appear in this collection of farm-names.

And moving across the North Atlantic, we find four examples of Island. The etymologies (based on the earliest recorded forms) of all of these are quite complicated, but at least one of them seems to be named after the country, at least according to Rygh. And of course anyone who has been to Oslo knows about Grønland near the central railway station...once upon a time it was a farm, of course. All five of the Norwegian occurrences have Tone 1 and so appear to be named after the country.

Who says Old Norse is a useless subject? I do think those good folks at Facebook should study that and onomastics as well!

17 March 2015

'The Day Did Not Achieve its Beautiful Colour'

Halfdan Egedius, 1899
Torgils og Grim fører Olavs Lig bort
Image from Wikimedia Commons
We shall find out later this week whether these words of the Icelandic poet Sigvatr Þórðarson are a good description of the effects of a solar eclipse. Those unable to travel to the Faroe Islands to view the full eclipse might like instead to contemplate his account of the eclipse associated with the killing of King Óláfr digri 'the Stout' Haraldsson (later St Óláfr) at the battle of Stiklarstaðir (modern Stiklestad) in the year 1030. Astronomers tell us that there was a solar eclipse on 31 August in that year, but how closely it coincided with the actual battle is far from clear.

Certainly Sigvatr, the king's chief poet, thought that both happened on the same day, and he may have been responsible for the association, but then he was notoriously not present to witness the momentous events. In his memorial poem (Erfidrápa) for Óláfr, Sigvatr links the king's death and the eclipse as follows (st. 15), while admitting that he only heard of them from abroad:
Undr láta þat ýtar
eigi smátt, es máttit
skæ-Njǫrðungum skorðu
skýlauss rǫðull hlýja.
Drjúg varð á því dœgri
— dagr náðit lit fǫgrum —
— orrostu frák austan
atburð — konungs furða.
 People declare that no small wonder, that the cloudless sun was not able to warm {the Njǫrðungar {of the steed of the prop}} [(lit. ‘steed-Njǫrðungar of the prop’) SHIP > MEN]. Great was the portent concerning the king during that daytime; the day did not achieve its beautiful colour; I heard of the event at the battle from the east.
The cloudless, cold sun and the day without colour certainly also represent Sigvatr's grief at the death of his lord, a grief that is expressed in several other fine stanzas by him. For commentary on this stanza, and an edition of the whole poem, as well as other poetry by Sigvatr, see Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, vol. I.

27 February 2015

Vikings and Víkingar

Sö 197  Kolsundet
For many years now I have been thinking about the meanings of these words, and frequently trying to explain them to people. It's not a simple matter, so I get frustrated but am not surprised when I read incomprehensible, or even just wrong, statements like this one, from a press release issued by the Field Museum in Chicago, where a Viking exhibition opens today:
The word “Viking,” derives from Old Norse, and meant a trade ship or a raid.
I suppose in this case, something got lost in the translation, as the exhibition is actually one borrowed from Historiska Museet in Stockholm. But a glance at any book about Vikings will show a wide range of misunderstandings of what these words actually mean, and how best to use them.

As I said, it is a complex matter and I do not have a simple answer. I will be addressing this thorny question at some length in a forthcoming publication, and what follows is a shortened version of that, a taster if you like. Fuller discussion with further details and references will be in the publication.

There are three possible approaches to understanding the word which in modern English is ‘Viking’ (sometimes ‘viking’, without a capital letter), which unfortunately are often confused in both scholarly and popular discussions. These are (a) etymology, or the original meaning and derivation of the word, (b) historical usage, or what the word meant to those who used its earlier forms in the Viking and medieval periods and in the language(s) of the time, and (c) current usage, or what the word has come to mean in our modern world, in both English and other languages. In particular, many popular (and even some academic) works about the Vikings commit the etymological fallacy, by assuming that giving an etymology of the word is equivalent to defining it. But words change or develop in meaning, while also often crossing into other languages, and all three approaches are needed for a full understanding of how to use the word now.

There are actually two relevant words, those which appear in Old Norse as the nouns víkingr (m.), and víking (f.).  The former refers to a person, the latter to an activity. In terms of etymology, it has variously been suggested that víkingr derives from Old Norse vík  ‘bay, inlet’, or Vík  ‘the Oslofjord’, or is somehow related to Old English wīc and Latin vicus ‘dwelling place, camp’. These derivations thus posit that a víkingr is someone associated with one of these places or types of places, i.e. a pirate who lurks in bays waiting to sail out and rob passing ships, or a coastal seafarer from the Oslofjord, or a traveller making temporary camps. Other suggestions relate the term to various verbs meaning ‘withdraw, deviate, travel’, more or less plausibly related to what Vikings are thought to have done. The overall argument is complex and far from resolved. But it has to be remembered that etymology aims primarily to reconstruct the original meaning of a word. While this can shed light on possible later meanings, there is no guarantee that the original meaning still applied in the time when we actually have records of the word in use. These later meanings can only be derived from actual usage.

The actual usage of víking and víkingr  in the Viking Age and later shows that their meanings have moved on from whatever the original meanings were.  Víkingr appears in runic inscriptions from the Viking Age (as does víking), and also in skaldic poetry which is arguably from the Viking Age. Neither term is especially  common, and their connotations in context are often ambiguous. More common than either term, in memorial inscriptions on Viking Age rune-stones at least, is Víkingr used as a personal name (as in the picture above, from the splendid Kulturmiljöbild website of the Swedish National Heritage Board). Although the terms are ambiguous, what their Viking Age uses do tell us is that none of the possible etymological meanings is at the forefront of the word as it was used then. Instead, usage suggests that víkingr (pl. víkingar) refers to people (always in groups) who were engaged in some sort of military activity, often but not always piratical or sea-borne. These groups of people could be either the comrades or (more often) the opponents of the person whose point of view is represented in the text. There is no clear evidence for any ethnic or regional implication in the term. After the Viking Age, our sources in Old Norse increase and the meanings of the ‘Viking’ words are correspondingly broader. In the historical sagas of the Norwegian kings, for instance, the pejorative connotations of víkingr used of opponents are strong, while the activities described as víking are shown in a more positive light, since they generally take place in faraway lands, carried out by those very kings. Both words are most commonly used of fellow-Scandinavians. In both the kings’ sagas and other sagas, whether Vikings are viewed positively or negatively depends on context, both literary and geographical, rather than ethnicity.

The modern meanings of ‘Viking’, in English at least, begin in the early nineteenth century, with the earliest recorded instance from 1807.  This period is when the term acquires its basic modern meaning, as defined by the OED: ‘One of those Scandinavian adventurers who practised piracy at sea, and committed depredations on land, in northern and western Europe from the eighth to the eleventh century...’  The use of the word really picks up in the nineteenth century, along with a growing interest in all things Viking in the Victorian period.

The most common usage of ‘Viking’ in modern academic contexts is already broader than the OED definition – it is used to characterise peoples of Scandinavian origin who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outwith Scandinavia in a particular historical period, generally within the broad range of  750-1100.  Some scholars prefer to restrict the term to those who indulged in the ‘Viking’ activities of raiding and pillaging outside of Scandinavia, thus perpetuating the pejorative meaning of the word found already in the Viking Age. Other scholars use the term of all Scandinavians in Scandinavia and people of Scandinavian ancestry outside Scandinavia during the period in question, and most general books about ‘the Vikings’ use this more inclusive meaning. The inclusive meaning is useful because it acknowledges the complexities of the period and avoids reducing its history to one of just raiding and pillaging. In modern scholarly usage, therefore, the term ‘Viking’ is useful for a broader range of meanings than the purely military because it connotes the expansive, complex and multicultural activities of peoples who were still in touch with their Scandinavian origins, language and culture, but who were also exposed to new landscapes, new neighbours, and new ways of living.

And that is how I like to use it!