Viking Christmas

Odin
You know Oðin, the one-eyed god in Norse mythology. He’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the CEO of Asgard, the home of the gods. He’s always fighting frost giants, involved in battles, wandering in search of wisdom, preparing for the end of the world, Ragnarok. At least that’s the Oðin, I´ve known. Feasting, fighting, wenching, wandering, drinking.

However, I´ve stumbled on another aspect of Oðin. Some people say Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Other people say Santa Claus started when the Vikings invaded England and brought with them the idea of Oðin, the wanderer in the blue hooded cloak who carried a bag of bread in one hand and a staff in the other. The Saxons, the guys already in England, had as one of their customs the welcoming of King Frost or King Winter. It wasn´t hard to join together King Winter and Oðin. It wasn´t unusual for pagan beliefs to be joined with Christian beliefs. At my recent visit to the Royal Museum to see the Viking exhibit, there was a Thor´s hammer that was also a cross. It´s not surpring then that even after the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Vikings lost their power in England, when people made oaths, they sometimes still used the phrase “To God and Oðin.” The mysteries of the past that come down to us are many layered.

The Vikings didn´t just bring swords and shields. They brought their beliefs; they brought Oðin. Vikings believed that Oðin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.

The Oðin described in histories of Christmas is a man who joined people sitting around fires, not participating but listening and observing, seeing if the people were all right and, sometimes, if things were not all right, he would take bread from his sack and leave it for those who were poor and hungry.

It is easy to see the image of Santa Claus beginning to form. A man on a steed. The blue hooded cloak, the unobserved man coming to see if all was well, the leaving of gifts for those in need.

When the Normans came they brought St. Nicholas. For a long time, the image of a benevolent person who came at Christmas time was saintly, stern, lecturing and judging. In a number of countries, he asked questions and decided if you had been naughty and nice and if you had been naughty, you got a lump of coal, or some hay or a potato instead of a desired gift.

Oðin wasn´t the only Nordic god drawn into Christmas. One account says that Frigg, Oðin´s wife, would check to make certain that the entrances to each house were clean. Imagine if you were a housewife and you believed that Odin´s wife was going to come by to check on your housekeeping. What better way to make sure that people kept their places organized and tidy? Although the Viking age ended in 1066, nine hundred years later, my mother always worked hard at making sure our house was tidy and clean for Christmas. I always thought that was because we were going to have relatives coming to visit. But it also may have been part of a tradition started many centuries before with the original tradition forgotten but the need to get organized and keep chaos from descending still at work. If I had said to my mother will you be ready when Frigg checks the house, she wouldn´t have known what I was talking about. She would have said, “Your grandparents are coming. I have to have the house spotless for Christmas.”

Before they became Christian, the Germanic people celebrated Yule. When people became Christian they didn´t automatically give up their traditions and beliefs. Yule celebrations became part of Christmas. For people of Icelandic descent, this keeping of old traditions in spite of the new religion is easy to understand. After all, when a political deal was made for Iceland to become Christian, part of the deal was that people could keep practicing the old religion as long as they did it in private.

If you know your Norse mythology, you’ll know about one of these traditions, The Wild Hunt. When the Wild Hunt takes place, there is a ghostly procession of hunters led by Oðin riding across the sky. When I think about this ghostly procession I remember the Northern Lights on cold clear nights in Gimli, Manitoba. When Oðin leads the procession, he is called Jólnir or Jule figure. He is also referred to as Langbarðr which means long beard. So, we have a long bearded figure in a hooded cloak, riding an eight legged horse across the sky. It´s not too hard to see Oðin turn into Santa Claus and Sleipnir with his eight legs turn into eight reindeer. There are even some traditions of Oðin coming down chimneys. Although, that couldn´t have been an Icelandic tradition since turf houses didn´t have chimneys. There were no stoves or fireplaces, just a fire on the stone floor and a hole in the roof. In Reykjavik today, Oðin or Santa Claus would still have a hard time finding chimneys to climb down because most of the heating is from hot water piped from volcanic areas. No chimneys for a fat man in a red suit with a large bag of toys to scurry down. For that trick, he needs the chimneys of large stone fireplaces.

A lot of people got into the act before we moved from Oðin to our present day image of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas and Sinterklass and Father Christmas plus others. The result is that we no longer have the all-knowing Oðin, no longer the stern saints, no longer the demanding Santa Clauses in shopping malls insisting on knowing if you have been good or bad. Instead, we have a jolly old elf. A gift giver who makes no demands, asks no awkward questions, does his best to meet extravagent requests even if it means maxing out a credit card.

I used to be terrified when I heard the song that said, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you´re awake, he knows when you´ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” I prefer the jolly old elf, an elf filled with kindness at the darkest time of the year. Yet, yet, in the winter months, especially around Christmas, if I’m lucky enough to be where there are Northern Lights, I am transfixed by the pulsating colors, red, green, blue, traveling across the sky. Watching them I think I see this figure in his blue cloak, riding his eight legged horse over the arc of the world, leading his wildly riding huntsmen. Although I am in awe of these spectral figures, of the shimmering lights, of the majesty of the sky, I have not yet been given a gift of gold. At the same time, I haven´t mocked these huntsmen and so haven´t been taken away with them never to be seen again.

All of this, along with the multiple layers of tradition over the centuries, have often led me along a snowy path to a quiet church service, some joyful singing of hymns and carols, a crèche scene with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. To Oðin, to Frigg, to all their companions, to Father Christmas, to Saint Nicholas, to the Frost King, to all the Santa Clauses in the malls of the world, to mothers and fathers decorating the sacred Christmas tree, the lovers kissing under the magic Christmas bow, to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, Merry Christmas to all.

Odin’s Eagle

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For a very long time in Iceland there was little art. It wasn’t because Icelanders were not creative or artistic but grinding poverty where people lay in bed because there was nothing to eat, did not allow for money to be spent on art supplies.

There was very little silver coin. Financial transactions were mostly done in trade. The Icelandic land owners would trade their wool, meat, fish, feathers, skins, knitting, sheep, horses, with Danish traders and the Danish traders would, in return, provide all those necessities Iceland could not provide such as nails, horseshoes, European cloth rather than wadmal, needles, brandy, tobacco, sugar, rice, rye flour. The list of items needed from Europe was large, seemingly endless. The traders set the prices for both buying and selling.

There was woodcarving because there was driftwood available. It can be seen in askar, bed headboards, trunks. Therefore, it seems particularly appropriate at this INL convention that the two artists who have their work on display are both sculptors working in wood.

One is Tryggvi Thorlief Laram. His sculpture, one cannot really call it carving, is based around Germanic and Icelandic history and myths.

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His piece called “Beast of Prey” is derived from an archeological find in Upsalla, Sweden. The original was a small limestone carving used for a mold to make decorated dress pins. It is believed to date from the 9th to 10th C. His notes with the sculpture say that “To date no full sale dragon heads carved for a Viking prow have been unearthed” and that “the dragon heads were meant to transform war ships into writhing dragons or sea steeds but were not permanently fixed to the war ship prows.”

A second piece called “The Horsemen” is based on a picture from the Europen migration period. Although the original is not a Viking artifact, it looks similar to images from Viking timesl

A three dimensional piece from Icelandic arctic birch with a base made from American black granite is called Odin’s Eagle.

Tryggvi informs the viewer that a Scandinavian name for an eagle was corpse-gulper and, it was believed, that at the birth of a prominent hero, an eagle would scream. That same eagle would later feast on the bodies of the enemies of the hero.

Tryggvi’s biography says that he was born in 1956 in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland to a Norwegian-American father and Icelandic mother and at three years of age he immigrated to California. .

In 1975, following in his father’s footsteps, he served as an American soldier in Northern Italy. Then, in the 1980’s, he returned to Iceland to retrace his ancestry while serving aboard Icelandic fishing trawlers.

Currently, he lives in California.

His work is impressive because there is a solidity about it that evokes the ages. It is not just that his subject matter is taken from ancient times  but also the way he treats the medium. The solidity of the wood gives a sense of age and permanence and quickly draws a viewer’s attention.

His art work has brought him recognition and awards. Further examples can be viewed at www.nordicart.net

 

 

Song of the Vikings: poetry

When I was reading and commenting on Wakeful Nights, Vidar Hreinsson’s biography of Stephan G. Stephanson, I was puzzled by the importance that the Icelandic North American and Icelandic communities put onto poetry. Today, with a population of 33,000,000 in Canada, books of poetry are published in issues of 200 copies or 500 copies. Even these few copies seldom are put onto book store shelves and, usually, only because some staff member or the book store owner, is a poet or keen on poetry.

How many books of poems, dear reader, have you purchased in the past twelve months? Twenty? Ten? One? Zero? I expect the answer for the vast majority of people is zero.

Does this mean that the quality of poetry has fallen so drastically that it isn’t worth reading? Is it that the illiterate writers can’t find an audience among the illiterate readers? That is quite possible. However, there are still fine writers writing poetry in Canada and, occasionally, having it published. Why then so small an audience?

Amazingly, in Iceland, with no formal school system, with people living on isolated farms, literacy during the 19th C. was quite high. The practice of reading aloud in the evening as people worked at knitting, spinning, or repairing small equipment, meant everyone was familiar with religious texts, the sagas and translated literature.

However, today, reading in the baðstofa exists no more. It has been replaced by computer games, television shows, radio, movies, constant communication on Facebook, Twitter, Skype.

Rhymed poetry, a device for remembering long and complicated histories, isn’t needed anymore. It’s all there on the web. If you want to know about Christian IX, look him up on the web. The family crowded around the reader has disappeared. The family crowded around the radio has disappeared. The family eating their TV dinners in front of the TV has disappeared. The house I recently purchased has a TV outlet in every room except the bathrooms. Watching shows has changed from a communal, participatory event to one of isolation.

So, it’s not hard to understand that when a new book of poems is published, no matter how good, it’s hard to find five hundred people who are interested.

This change started a long time ago. We are just on the tail end of it.

In Song of the Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown tells us “A skald you must have.Throughout Heimskringla it is a point Snorri stresses. Who would remember a king’s name if no poems were composed about him? In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse provided a king’s immortality.”

The change from the skald being critical to kings to no longer being important came with King Hakon. “But King Hakon didn’t acknowledge the poems Snorri composed for him—he may have declined to hear them. The sixteen-year-old king didn’t like skaldic poetry. He didn’t’ understand it. Worse, it was old-fashioned.”

“Chivalry came to Norway during Hakon’s long reign, 1217 to 1263. He had clerics translate for him the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table”.

And yet, in Iceland, poetry remained powerful. It was still used for entertainment, news and politics. It survived the printing press, was, in some ways, enhanced by it. But even in the early 1900s poetry still had a place of honour. We know that because of the high regard Stephan G was held in Iceland. We know that because of the large number of books of poetry published in many places, including places you’d not expect a printing pressto be churning out literature, places such as Gimli andRiverton, Mantioba, small poor fishing villages.

Gylfaginning” (“The Tricking of Gylfi”) outlines the whole history of the Viking gods, from the creation of the world in fire and ice to is destruction.” However, it is locked away in Icelandic. Even more problematic, it is locked away in highly complicated verse forms and traditions that make it difficult, if not impossible, in some places, to understand.

“Viking court poetry,” Brown says,  “or skaldic poetry, was a sophisticated art form. The rules are more convoluted than those for a sonnet or a haiku art form. In the most common form for a praise poem, a stanza had eight lines. Each line had six syllables and three stresses. The rhythm was fixed, as were the patterns of assonance and alliteration….Each four line stanza contained at least two thought—and these could be braided together so that the listener had to pay close attention to the grammar (not the word order) to disentangle subject, object, and verb. Especially since nothing was stated plainly. Why call a ship a ship when it could be “the otter of the ocean”?”

When I first went to Iceland, Finnbogi Gudmundsson was my host. He was highly educated, knew his history and literature, and was politely appalled at my not knowing anything of kennings. I wasn’t up on “otter of the ocean”. I’d do better now.

Poetry was, all through time in Iceland, highly political, used to praise and attack, to make one’s case, to insult. It was frequently highly personal. People even had insulting contests in poetry. That means that Stephan G, writing from Markerville, Alberta, in Iceland, was right in a tradition that went back to Viking times.

Song of the Vikings is helping me to understand some of this, I, who live in a society where poetry is ignored, published only when it is subsidized, supported by competitions and prizes by people who know little about poetry’s history or importance. It has become, like amma’s spinning wheel, something to point out to people as a part of our Icelandic heritage.The spinning wheel goes unused and the books go unread. There is no need, anymore, to know how to spin wool. There is no longer, anymore, any need in Canada to know how to read Icelandic. With the loss of the language and its tradition, there’s been little, if any transfer of tradition to the Icelandic population in Canada.  Even though there are still some writers producing poetry, it cannot compete for people’s time against hockey or football or soap opera or cartoons or a movie on the TV. Poetry has always been demanding, requiring not just the ability to read but the intelligence and knowledge required to understand. It’s a shame that we have become a society where poets are no longer read and honored, where language is reduced to a few characters on a hand held device.

Only those of us with an Icelandic background will care about this chapter on the history of poetry within our miniscule culture but for those of us who do care, Nancy Marie Brown has done a good job of helping us understand who we have been and why we have changed.