12 March 2016

Darkness and Light at Midsummer

Nikolai Astrup
St. Hansbål ved Jølstervatnet
Wikimedia Commons
In London on Norse and Viking business yesterday, I took a bit of time to go to the splendid Dulwich Picture Gallery and check out their Nikolai Astrup exhibition. Publicity for the exhibition has tended to stress how little known he is outside of his native Norway, but those of us who have lived in Norway couldn't possibly have escaped being fascinated by his paintings. Apart from a few short visits to the capital or abroad to study, Astrup spent most of his life in the same place, the farming communities in the district of Jølster in Sunnfjord, and his motifs all derive from the landscape and the people around him. The paintings and prints look pretty good on the page, or the screen, but there is nothing like seeing them in the flesh.  Seeing a large number of his works together really brings home how careful and subtle his use of paint is - there are so many different shades of blue and grey for the water and the sky, and of green for the foliage. Almost every painting has a little luminescent glimmer in it somewhere, be it the summer night's reflections on the lake, or a full moon, or the warm light of a house window shining through the trees. These effects can only be appreciated by seeing the actual paintings.

One of Astrup's best-known and -loved motifs is found in his several works (such as the one pictured above) on the theme of Sankthansaften, or Jonsok, the pan-Scandinavian custom of big midsummer bonfire parties, on the 23rd of June, the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist. Growing up in a country parsonage, Astrup wasn't allowed by his strict father to participate in such 'pagan' practices, and clearly made up for this by painting the scene many times later in life (often with a wistful figure looking on from the edge of the scene). Which raises the question of just how 'pagan' these celebrations were.

Well it does not stretch the imagination to accept that northern countries, with their great contrasts of darkness and light, would mark the time of year when the days were at their longest, but starting to get short again, just as they celebrated the time of year when the days were at their shortest and getting longer again. But actual evidence for such celebrations is hard to find. One of the labels at the Astrup exhibition suggested that the St John's Eve bonfires went back to pagan times and were a recreation of the funeral of the god Baldr. But I don't think this idea is much older than 1858 when it was suggested by the Norwegian language reformer Ivar Aasen, who grew up a little north of Astrup, in Sunnmøre. The basis for this suggestion is not clear, though it is true that Baldr is 'so bright that light shines from him' (according to Snorri), and it is easy to equate his death with the turning of the sun.

The main medieval evidence for the festival comes from ch. 19 of Ágrip, a historical work written in Norway in the late twelfth century, where it says of the missionary king Óláfr Tryggvason that he (edition and translation by Matthew Driscoll):
felldi blót ok blótdrykkjur, ok lét í stað koma í vild við lýðinn hátíðardrykkjur jól ok páskar, Jóansmessu mungát, ok haustöl at Mikjálsmessu.
abolished pagan feasts and sacrifices, in place of which, as a favour to the people, he ordained the holiday feasts Yule and Easter, St John's Mass ale, and an autumn-ale at Michaelmas.
This suggests, though not definitively, that these new Christian feasts took place more or less at the same time as the traditional celebrations, but it says nothing about the traditional midsummer feast being a celebration or recreation of Baldr's funeral. So that must remain a rather speculative hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it is quite likely that Astrup shared Aasen's romantic viewpoint, and the picture above does seem to echo the myth. Unlike most of Astrup's other Sankthans paintings, this one has no dancing couples and the mood seems to be quite sombre. According to Snorri, Baldr's funeral took place by the sea, on a ship which was launched and then burned. It is not I think too fanciful to see the bonfire, the boat on the shore, and the lone figure sitting by it, as echoes of this story, at least in Astrup's mind.

06 March 2016

The Poetry of the Shipping Forecast

Britannia Designs, Dartmouth
Despite being the world's greatest landlubber, I have always loved the Met Office shipping forecast, especially when broadcast late at night on Radio 4, and I know I am not alone. Undoubtedly my own reason for this lifelong devotion is partly its splendid litany of place-names, beginning with that most evocative word of all, Viking, followed by North and South Utsire, named after Norway's smallest municipality Utsira. The forecast then ends its ramblings round the rocks and waters of the northwest European archipelago (and some nautically nearby places) in suitably Norse and Viking fashion with Fair Isle, Faeroes and South-East Iceland.

But it's not just this abundance of Norse and Viking references that I love. I would go so far as to argue that the shipping forecast follows some rules that make it into a kind of poetry, the kind of poetry I like.

(1) It is formulaic. The basic structure of the shipping forecast is the same every time, and it makes use of a pre-determined and traditional vocabulary and phrases with which both author and listeners are familiar. Occasionally moderate. Showers. Good. Cyclonic. 6 or 7 at first in west.

(2) But like all good formulaic poetry it rings the changes through variation. Moderate or rough. Rain or showers. Poor. Variable 4 becoming northwesterly for a time.

(3) It has a fixed structure, each part introduced by a formula to keep the listener orientated: 'The shipping forecast is issued...', 'The general synopsis at midday', 'The area forecasts for the next 24 hours'. Within each part the content is formulaic and always in the same order, though making use of variation as described above.

(4) Its formulaic nature gives it a regular, fairly predictable, if somewhat staccato, rhythm.

(5) It is primarily oral, though you can also read it on the page.

(6) It has a function (even if not for me). I like poetry that has a function other than that of being poetry. Because of its important function the shipping forecast has to be read in clear and unemotional tones, which thereby emphasise the drama of 'rough or very rough', or 'severe gale 9'.

As you snuggle in your warm bed tonight, just spare a thought for those in peril on the sea.

P.S. I'm not the only lover of the shipping forecast who owns the charming little dish pictured above. Thanks to my ever-vigilant other half who found it for me.

26 February 2016

Horses of the Sea

Norse and Viking ramblings took me to Denmark earlier this week, specifically to north-east Fyn and the small but picturesque town of Kerteminde. Highlight of the trip for me was my first-ever visit to Vikingemuseet Ladby, home of Denmark's only known ship-burial. This was discovered in the 1930s and excavated, as one sometimes did in those days, by the local amateur enthusiast, one Poul Helweg Mikkelsen, a chemist in Odense. But he did a splendid job and also had unusual foresight for those times to insist that the partially-excavated grave be left in situ in its mound. So there it is today (pictured left), you can still see the impression of the planks of wood and the many nails in their original position. You can also see the skeletal remains of eleven horses (their teeth are massive!) and probably four dogs. This custom of including horses and dogs in the burial is well-known and widely attested. We can speculate endlessly about the mindset that went in for this kind of mass slaughter to accompany one who was undoubtedly a wealthy and powerful local or regional chieftain. It's also rather graphically illustrated in the reconstruction of the burial (pictured below) in the small museum on the site.

Both the horses and the ship were of course the expected accoutrements of a great chieftain like the one buried at Ladby. The burial mound is on the coast and, while he may not have lived at Ladby itself (the name means 'loading settlement'), he certainly lived nearby and would have used both means of transport to get around. But there is more to this connection between ships and horses and we can get some insight into that by considering the poetry.

Much surviving Old Norse poetry, particularly in the skaldic genre, deals with ships, sailing and sea-battles, and the poets deploy a rich and surprisingly realistic vocabulary when dealing with such matters. But when it comes to the ships themselves, they also allowed themselves all kinds of flights of fancy, particularly in their use of kennings. As I touched on in a post last year, one of the most common kenning types is that which figures a ship as the 'horse of the sea'. Oddly enough, the kenning does not work the other way  round - in the whole of the skaldic corpus there is, I believe, only one example in which a horse is said to be the 'ship of the land' (parallel to the classic kenning-example of the camel as a 'ship of the desert'), and that is a bit obscure. Nor is there that much realistic description of riding in the poetry. But the number and range of kennings which vary the 'horse of the sea' concept is quite astonishing and the examples below are just a selection.

The 'horse' can be a drasill, a fákr, a faxi, a hestr, a marr or a viggr, all of which are just different words for 'horse'. Or it could be called by a typical horse-name, such as Blakkr 'Dusky', Hrafn 'Raven', Sóti 'Sooty' or Valr 'Falcon' (notice how the idea of substitution, so common to kennings, creeps into these horse-names, two of which are actually other animals, in fact birds). The 'sea', on the other hand, could be expressed through words that mean 'wave', such as bára, hrönn, unnr or vágr, or other words such as sundr 'channel', sær 'sea', or haf or lög 'ocean'. Again, the idea of substitution can make things more complex, with the 'sea' being replaced by a sea-kenning such as eybaugr 'island-ring' or hvaljörð 'whale-land'. You have to be pretty well-schooled in this way of thinking immediately to conjure up a picture of a ship when you hear of a 'steed of the island-ring' and kennings can often get even more complicated than that.

Not all ship-kennings involve horses, there are examples in which the base-words are bears, boars, elks, rams, reindeer and even swine. And just as horses sometimes had bird-names, so these kennings are reminiscent of the way in which ships were sometimes named after animals. Examples of such names from both the Viking Age and the medieval period include Ormr 'Snake', Trani 'Crane', Vísundr 'Bison', Hreinn 'Reindeer', Gammr 'Vulture', Elptr 'Swan' and Uxi 'Ox'. There's even a nice parallelism in the way that both horses and ships can be named after birds, though why anyone would have thought a vulture was a fine thing to name your ship after, we will never know.

Despite this maritime menagerie, the strongest association of the ship is still with the horse. Mastering a ship is rather a different skill from riding a horse, but the successful Viking Age chieftain, particularly in a landscape like that around Ladby, needed to be good at both. A ship was undoubtedly more expensive, and more difficult to replace, than a horse, so he would have had more of the latter. But both enabled him to cover more ground than the pedestrians he ruled over and, with one ship and several horses, he could also take a group of followers to support him in his endeavours. While almost anyone could have one horse, the chieftain had a lot of horses and at least one ship, perhaps precisely in the ratio of 11:1, as in the Ladby burial. This superiority in prestige of the ship over the horse may explain the kenning pattern mentioned above: while a ship could be figured as a horse, no horse could ever aspire to be a ship.

These associations are deep and complex, and fundamental to Viking Age concepts of leadership and masculinity. Much more could be said about them, perhaps drawing in those dogs that were also buried with the Ladby chieftain, and indeed his sword, another essential accoutrement of the well-accessorised Viking leader. And we mustn't forget that women were also buried in ships, accompanied by horses, though
these associations are more difficult to untangle - was it only certain kinds of women and if so which kinds? The symbolism of both burials and poetry is endlessly fascinating and a real key to the Viking mind, if only we knew what it all really meant.

14 February 2016

Love Denied

Christian Krogh 1899
Dronning Astrid taler på tinget
Wikimedia Commons
The hopeful runic valentines and love messages I have mentioned in previous posts may not always have worked out as the writer expected. As Mariella Frostrup said in today's Observer magazine, 'Valentine's day is a lottery and winning tickets are rare'. It could even happen to a king. In the early eleventh century, King (later Saint) Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway wanted to marry the Swedish princess Ingigerðr, but the arrangement broke down and she went off to marry the Russian prince Jaroslav instead. As so often, a broken heart leads to poetry, and he composed this about the moment when she set off on her journey east. The text is as edited by Russell Poole in volume 1 of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, the translation is my own attempt to be slightly poetic:
Fagr stóðk, meðan bar brúði
blakkr, ok sák á sprakka
— oss lét ynðis missa
augfǫgr kona — af haugi.
Keyrði Gefn ór garði
góðlôt vala slóðar
eyk, en ein glǫp sœkir
jarl hvern, kona snarlig.

I stood on a mound, watching
a fair mount bear the woman,
the beautiful-eyed wife
caused me to lose pleasure.
Friendly woman, goddess of the
hawk’s ground, quickly drove the horse
out of the yard; each man is
haunted by one mistake.
Of course, he got over it, as almost everyone does, eventually. Indeed things turned out quite well for him because he ended up marrying Ingigerðr's sister, the splendid Queen Ástríðr, pictured above arguing the case for her stepson, later King Magnús the Good, at the Swedish assembly, an event later celebrated in poetry by the innovative Sigvatr.

Although a lot of Viking Age poetry is about war, the poets occasionally also addressed the finer (and not so fine) emotions. If you are interested, there are a few more examples in the British Museum publication Viking Poetry of Love and War.

01 January 2016

Nordic Noir Yule

Writing in yesterday's post about Þorsteinn 'Wound-Spear' reminded me that Scandinavians have been killing each other since long before Nordic Noir hit our bookshelves and our television screens, and that Christmas was a prime time for such things. Chapter 66 of Orkneyinga saga tells in some detail of the Christmas feast at the earldom estate of Orphir (the remains of which are pictured left) and the killing there of Sveinn 'Breast-Rope', in the context of quite a lot of seasonal drinking, in 1136.

In Norway, it appears, such things happened quite often and documents about the legal proceedings following such killings survive. A number of these were discussed a few years ago in a fascinating book by Olav Solberg, Forteljingar om drap. These and many other medieval documents, published in the multi-volume Diplomatarium Norvegicum, were most usefully digitised some years ago in an initiative to make work for those who objected on grounds of conscience to taking part in Norway's compulsory military service (!). These documents are a fascinating and inexhaustible resource for all kinds of historical enquiries. In my search for things that happened at jól I found the following intriguing but sorry tale.

The document concerned is a report by a royal official, a sort of Saga Norén of the 15th century, writing in January 1465 to tell the king of his investigations into a killing that took place on the farm of Hattrem in Lesja, Gudbrandsdalen (pictured right), on the 28th of December in 1464. His main investigation methods involved interrogating a number of witnesses in order to establish what had happened.

The first witnesses were a couple who swore a solemn oath on the Bible that the perpetrator had announced to them that he, Tore Håvardsson, had stabbed Tore Stavn at Hattrem. This is more like the Icelandic sagas than our modern detective stories, since there is no question about who the perpetrator is. It was important to announce yourself as the killer since then it was drap 'killing' and not the much more serious crime of morð 'murder'. Indeed, the investigator makes clear from the beginning that the death was 'unintended'. Other witnesses then swore solemn oaths as to what had happened. Apparently a group of men had started their drinking at the farm of Hågå on the evening of Christmas Day, and had been to another farm as well, before they ended up at Hattrem, where they would have been well plastered by the 28th. There is an amusing interlude during which the victim lay down in bed, fully clothed, and refused to go when the perpetrator wanted them all to go back home. Tore Håvardsson may have become a bit tetchy as a result and then for reasons not explained got into a fight with another person present. Tore Stavn got himself stabbed when he woke from his drunken slumber and tried to intervene.

Another document from a few years later tells what the result of these official investigations was. Because the crime was unintentional, Tore Håvardsson got off with the usual pair of fines, known as tegn oc fridkiøp, both payments to the king, the first for having killed one of his subjects and the second to buy his freedom. He probably also had to make a payment to the victim's family, though no document survives recording this.