Egill, the brutal poetic puzzle

viking cross
Egill isn’t as loved as Erlendur. The audience, while a good size at today’s Beck lecture about Egill´s Saga was about half what it was for Torfi Tulinius´s first lecture on the detective novel in Iceland. Obviously, there are a lot more people reading Icelandic mystery novels than Icelandic sagas. However, this second lecture was just as good as the first. Like all good lectures, it sent me away thinking about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Many decades ago, I took a course on the sagas with Haraldur Bessason. I got to know many strange characters, characters pagan to the core, killing each other in fits of rage, because of jealousy, of honour, out of greed, but today Torfi brought a new way of looking at the sagas. Yes, I knew that the sagas were written two hundred years or so after the events they describe. By that time, Iceland was Catholic Christian. That means it was Catholic Christians who were writing the sagas or influencing the writing of the sagas. Do a little research and you will see how Catholicism dominated Iceland. But Torfi made me look at the meaning of that.

Torfi argued that Egill’s saga and others were written by educated men who knew the Bible, knew the stories of both the Old and New Testament. Many sagas follow the traditions of and are obviously influenced by European story telling. I knew that. But I hadn’t thought of looking at some of the major sagas of earlier times as having as models stories from the Bible.

Too often we think of the Vikings as being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world while at the same time saying that they went raiding, that they served in the court in Russia, that they founded Kiev. We do the Vikings a disservice. They didn’t just go on a raid, kill everyone they met, steal all their stuff and sail home. They dealt with people from many different countries not just as raiders but as traders.

There’s no direct proof but many scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egill’s saga. If that is true, then in reading the saga, we have to look not just at the society in which Egill lived but also the society in which Snorri lived.
Torfi started by mentioning his book, The Enigma of Egill, The Saga, The Viking Poet and Snorri Sturluson published by Cornell University Library in the Islendica series. It is open access and can be read on line.

Egill’s saga was written in the first half of the 13th C. It is about Egill Skalla-Grimsson who lived in the 10th C. The saga tells us about traveling, mythology, poetry, politics, ethics, Viking life and when it gathered together becomes the living memory of a past time.

Torfi talked about the Viking diaspora and once he named it, it was obvious that during Viking times there was diaspora. One has only to look at a map (he provided one) with arrows showing Viking travels: Greenland, Newfoundland, Norway, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark. Relatives and friends went to these places and some stayed.

The Vikings, of course, were able to travel as they did because of their light, shallow boats that allowed them to come ashore and up rivers. Listening to Torfi, I was immediately reminded of watching the Viking movie at the Royal British Columbia museum and seeing the Viking exhibit.

These boats allowed the Vikings to be opportunistic. Their boats allowed them to attack Lindisfarne Abbey in AD 793, a raid which is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking era. They raided Noirmoutie in AD 799, along the Atlantic coast and Galacia and Portugal, through the Mediterranean. Mythology has it that Kiev was founded by two Scandinavian brothers and their sister. The Viking effect may not have been as strong in the East as the West as was explained by a member of the audience but I said to Torfi that when I got off the train in Kiev, the person greeting me said, “Welcome, cousin.”

The Vikings went on to create petty kingdoms or domains in Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, Caithness, Helsinki, and Normandy. Finally, when they lost the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking age was considered over.
Iceland, with its separation from Europe, kept and cultivated the memory of this diaspora. At the same time, the age provided a social structure made up in part of free farmers led by chieftains or petty kings, a tradition of assemblies and a rule of some kind of law.

During all the Viking era and afterwards, Icelanders were in constant interaction with Christian Europe. They didn’t just kill the Christians and loot churches. Christianity brought cultural influences. Viking leaders, Kings, adopted their values and behaviour. So much so that by the early 12 C the Nordic countries had become part of Christian Europe.

If anyone is interested in this Viking diaspora, Torfi suggested reading The Viking Diaspora by Judith Jesch.

By the middle of the 12th C. the church was providing new organization and learning. The chieftains had political power and were judges so they had great control. They started to learn to write. It became important to write down poetry, narration and law, not just religion.

While languages changed in Europe, Icelandic remained much the same. That meant that as time passed Icelanders had the ability to read their past literature. They became the keepers of the collective memory. Icelanders traveled to European courts as skalds. They brought knowledge of the past but not just as history but also as poetry, drama and laws. It became part of the role of Icelanders to be the keepers of Scandinavian culture. That led to the development of writing techniques and to commissions to write biographies of kings.

The sagas that resulted were composed in Iceland. They were prose narratives. The main characters were Icelanders. Some, if not all the action takes place in Iceland. They cover from the settlement period to the Conversion or a short period after that.

Torfi took us through the arguments for Egill’s saga to have been written by Snorri Sturluson and then told us about Snorri. Snorri lived from 1179-1241. He was a chieftain, ruled over a large domain, a poet, a historian, a courtier (he went to Norway to live at court at times), a manipulator and became powerful because he knew how to use the resources available.

During the lecture, I wished that Joan Cadham hadn’t died last week. I would like to have emailed her and asked her what she thought of looking at Egill’s saga from the point of view of a Catholic writing it. She was an intellectual Catholic, knew her religion and history, knew a Catholic point of view.

Torfi said here we have a Christian telling the story of a pagan. Why was the writing of the story so important? Why tell a story about Egill? He’s brutal, does horrible things but is also a poet. Toward the end of his life, Snorri has gone to Norway, returned to find his domain fallen into disrepair. He’s in conflict with his older brother. He attempts to bring people together. What does his rise and fall have to do with how he sees the past and the present? Is a Christian story is being told in Egill´s saga? Perhaps, Torfi said during the question period, it was the story of King David. There are numerous parallels.

Egill, King David, the saga as a Christian tale. Perhaps as one of the audience said it is merely an attempt at revisionist history. Or, maybe that niggling problem I’ve had ever since I studied sagas with Haraldur Bessason, that problem of knowing that when the sagas were written, Iceland was Catholic and Christian and the writers were Christian and educated, that problem of wondering why they wrote them.

During the question period, Torfi recited eight lines of poetry from memory. The lines were from a long poem. The king of Norway has had a chieftain killed because he’s becoming afraid of him. The chieftain’s relatives capture and kill the king’s messengers and two royal children. The poetry tersely describes what has been done to the victims. I could imagine if that verse had not been recited in a well-lit classroom but in a baðstofa with nothing but a few weak candles as I sat on a bed and knitted mittens with the wind screeching and the rain falling and shadows everywhere. For a moment I knew the power of the old stories.

Viking Feast

headtableA Midsummer Night’s Feast

I risked attending the Viking feast in Gimli. It is the New Iceland Heritage Museum’s annual fund raiding gala. I wasn’t sure it was being held in the Lakeview Hotel but about twenty feet from the door, I could smell the Icelandic hardfish and I knew I was in the right place. Sure enough, just inside the door of the banquet room, there was a large platter of flat bread and another of dried fish. On the way to the feast, I stopped in Tergesen’s and bought a Viking helmet . I thought there would have been a forest of viking helmets but I was the only male in the audience with appropriate head gear. Good thing I didn’t go full bore and turn up with a sword, battle axe, and chain mail. I think the lack of Viking helmets was because the audience was older, respectable, could afford forty-five dollars for a ticket, five bucks for cutlery, ten bucks for the silent auction, twenty bucks for booze. That’s eighty bucks and if you are twenty years old and making minimum wage that’s more than a day’s wages. You are more likely to be serving the food than eating it.

We were told there was the danger of trolls appearing so I bought a rune stone. There also were rune stones on the tables. The stones came from the local beach. I thought back to some of the trolls I worked with over the years and wished I’d thought to paint runes on stones from Gimli beach to protect myself.

The evening began with the blowing of a horn. We had a welcome in verse to the village by the Skald (Nick Burdey), remarks by Jarl Ragnar of the Red (Dean Bjornson), toast to the Jarl by Torgeir, the Swedish right hand of the Jarl (Terry Vezina), lots of Skols,(the two best were to Tammy Axelsson and to the kitchen wenches), the Warrior Bard who was sabotaged by the musical equipment when he went do his barding (Ari Jakobson), the Spa Kona (Helga Malis) who every so often rose to pronounce wise Viking sayings. I opted to pay for a knife, fork and spoon. I guess I could have drunk my soup from the bowl, eaten my potato and carrot and ribs with my hands, which would have been more authentic, but terribly messy so I ponied up a couple of bucks to eat like the English.

As part of the entertainment, there was an airing of grievances, the funniest one being the grievance registered to the MP of the area because Edmonton has direct flights to Iceland and the trip from Winnipeg to Edmonton is too long. The request was that the MP ask Parliament to get rid of Saskatchewan to make the trip shorter. There was also a settling of accounts and the risk of having to wear the Viking helmet of shame, a helmet with large horns decorated with flowers. I must say that Bill Barlow made a great Troll even though his nose kept falling off. I couldn’t eat the dessert of Ponnukokur or the rocky troll bits that were sponsored by Gimli Super A Foods. It is obvious from the program that that the Vikings plundered many local businesses so they could have their feast. I won some of the plunder in the silent auction and now have a box full of attractive items from Amma’s Kitchen. Once the feast was over, people donned Viking costumes to wear for photographs.

Icelandic Diaspora

puffin
There’s Iceland on the map. Out there in the North Atlantic. A chunk of volcanic rock with 300,000 people clinging to it. Along with the puffins and a lot of sheep. Nobody knows why they’re there. If asked, they make various excuses but at the heart of the heart of the matter, even if it isn’t said, the reason, somewhere in the subconscious is “I’m tough.” Icelanders are sort of like punch drunk boxers, broken noses, broken facial bones, bruises, battered brains, getting back into the ring for one more round.

They fight the isolation, the economy, the volcanoes, the ice, the snow, the rain, the wind, the crazy cost of everything imported and nearly everything is imported. If they had to live off local produce, they’d be eating puffins and how many puffins (that’s puffins, not muffins) can one person eat? In the 1800s, they often ate chopped up puffin stewed with lichen or they gnawed on sheep bones softened in whey. That’s whey, not why, but it does raise the question why? Denmark and Norway weren’t that far away. As a matter of fact, Denmark, at one desperate moment, considered moving everyone off this smoking, melting, belching volcanic rock and teaching them to be farmers.

Faced with being moved to Denmark, the Icelanders loudly, vociferously, unanimously declared, “I’d rather eat puffin.”

They’re very proud of their survival skills. They love to tell the story of the fellow who was on a ship that sank and who not only swam through turbulent, freezing water but then, in his bare feet, ran for miles over sharp lava until he found a B&B that would let him stay the night even though he didn’t have a credit card with him. They’re very fond of telling that story and emphasizing the historic hospitality of Icelandic farmers who took in hapless travelers because there were no hotels, motels, pubs or inns. Or credit cards. Strangely, they never talk about the other crew members who drowned or died of hypothermia but then they were not in need of a place to stay even though they didn’t have credit cards or driver’s licences with them.

Although Icelanders give the impression of being taciturn, reserved, cool, distant, even secretive, they have warm hearts. We know that from their relationship to their sheep. While other countries report vast disasters, terrorist attacks, the Icelandic papers report that an unseasonal storm is going to sweep across the land and that farmers are girding their loins to head into to the mountains to find and protect their sheep. Then there’s a headline that the storm has struck and that there is great fear that the sheep are in danger. The next day there is a headline saying the farmers have risked their lives on the mountain slopes probing the snow for buried sheep. The day after that there is a sorrowful headline that says six sheep found dead. There is collective mourning over this loss, even by office workers in Reykjavik. There is no bond so strong as that between an Icelander and his sheep. The bond is strong even when it is someone else’s sheep. Office girls in Reykjavik have been seen crying while reading the headline about the dead sheep.

Icelanders are immensely proud of their Viking heritage. That is in spite of their being not only Christian but Lutheran. That’s probably because Christianity didn’t come as a collective vision rising over Katla in which Christ or bands of angels rose up from the volcano along with lava bombs and poisonous gases. It came about as a political deal with the agents of the Norwegian king and, as usual with political deals, some money exchanged hands. Since there was no otherworldly vision that moved men’s souls (or women’s) and since the Icelanders got to keep practicing their pagan rites if they just did them in secret, there wasn’t any overwhelming need to reject the idea of jumping in a Viking longship and going off to loot, rape, murder and take slaves if the opportunity presented itself.

As usual, major historic changes didn’t come about because of great events but because of the mundane. Icelanders quit being Vikings not because of religious conversion but because Iceland ran out of wood. It got used up for making boats, building churches, parts of houses, making charcoal, heating and since there were sheep everywhere, nothing got to regrow. Sheep are voracious eaters. Although they didn’t realize it, the Icelander’s love of sheep ended their life as Vikings. Their women might not have been able to keep their men at home to look after them but their sheep did just that.

If you are stuck on a rock that now and again spouts lava, ash, poisonous gases, destroys grazing land, kills people and animals and you declare “I love it here!” If you live in a place where the cold North Atlantic wind drives freezing cold rain horizontally and you sometimes have to wear long underwear and a rubber suit in July and you shout out, “I love it here!” If the harbours fill up with ice, the grass refuses to grow, your beloved sheep die, their heads in your lap, their eyes beseeching you for a mouthful of hay, that is before you cut their head off, singe off the wool, bake the head and eat the eyes (and the nose and the ears), and you stagger up and shout, “I love it here!” it raises certain questions about your mental state.

My father’s favorite saying was “You’ve got to be tough.” No whining, crying, blubbering, sniveling, allowed. Once, he jumped into his fish boat and landed on an upturned spike. It went through his rubber boot, through his foot, up through the top part of the boot. The boot filled up with blood. He sat down, grabbed the board holding the nail and wrenched it out. My mother wanted him to go to town and see the doctor, get his wound bandaged. Not a chance. “You’ve got to be tough,” he declared, gave the starting cord on his outboard motor a yank and raced away to lift his nets. He didn’t have any sheep to love. However, he loved his fish. He wouldn’t leave them to rot in his nets while he coddled himself.

His Icelandic relatives would have been proud of him. We might not have volcanoes and jokulls and horizontal rain in Manitoba but there are challenges and he met them head on like any descendant of a Viking would. I’m sure that as he stood at the stern of his boat, tiller in hand, his boot filing up with blood, his eye scanning the lake for the buoy poles marking his nets, he was saying to himself, “I love it here!” and his Viking ancestors were giving each other hi-fives or whatever Vikings did when life was hard enough to make it worth living.

A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

Saving Viking History

Odinn-by-Gerhard-Munthe

Odinn riding Sleipnir by Gerhard Munthe in the 1899 edition of Kongesagaer

Okay, here’s the deal. We don’t really know much about the Vikings. How come? Because they didn’t write things down. They told stories rather than read them. They were travelling all over the place and telling stories about their adventures but when Christianity came along the Viking stories got tossed out as a bunch of pagan bumf. More than bumf, harmful, pagan, anti-Christian bumf.

Christians weren’t ecumenical. They weren’t into sharing. They weren’t big on tolerance. It was our way or death. There was none of this turn the other cheek. The result was that people got in line, did as they were told. They knew what was good for them. They dumped all that stuff that the pagan big shots had told them was the truth and adopted all the stuff that the Christians told them was the truth. The thing that made the Christian stuff stick is that it was written down. So much for all those poems about the great deeds of the Vikings. Or their social customs. Or their history. It was quickly forgotten.

Good thing Iceland was isolated. It got to do things its own way. Given the choice of warfare, they said okay, we’ll become Christians but we get to practice our pagan religions in private. That meant the got to hang onto their past at the same time as people were appearing who could and did write things down. The agreement reached at Thingvella meant there was an extended transition period. The past was not the enemy that had to be destroyed. That was why the agreement was so important, not because someone got to drink horse blood at home, but because Viking culture got to be preserved.

The Viking age was from around 793 to 1066. After that, because of climate change and politics, Iceland became a poverty stricken province of Norway and Denmark. As harsh as this was for people in Iceland in the following centuries, that isolation and poverty helped to preserve knowledge of the Vikings. Customs and beliefs endured. In the 1800s, Iceland was still, in many ways, a medieval society.

Trish Baer said in her talk at the INL convention in Seattle that

– in the late 16th-century a Icelandic scholar named Arngrímur Jónsson remarked, while he was in Copenhagen arranging for the publication of one his books, that Icelandic manuscripts contained information on the early history of Scandinavia.
– Arngrímur remarks led to the discovery that the emigrants from Scandinavia, who settled Iceland beginning in 870 A.D., had taken their cultural heritage with them. The Icelanders never lost the tradition of composing and reciting oral poems about the Viking gods. Moreover, they had written down a collection of the poems in the early 13th-century, and along with a description of the metres and the manner of creating “kennings,” or poetic metaphors, involved in composing them.

-The first of two manuscripts written in Iceland is now known as The Prose Edda and was created by Snorri Sturluson, who was an Icelandic poet, historian, and politician. He wrote his Edda as a handbook for poets so that they could continue to compose poems in the traditional style. I will refer to The Prose Edda as Snorri’s Edda throughout my talk.

– The second manuscript was created by an unidentified Icelandic scholar and is known as The Poetic Edda which consists of 34 poems about Viking gods and heroes.

That’s how crazy life is. An entire history of a people is lost and then is re-discovered on an isolated island in the North Sea, among a people who live largely in isolation not only from the outside world but from each other on farms situated wherever they can find pasture for their sheep and cows. The Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda were written down but the oral tradition continued. Education wasn’t in schools but in the home. Numerous generations lived together and the old passed on this material to the young in the badstofa.

Strange things worked to preserve this story telling. Some bishops, one gets the impression that on the whole they were not much fun to be around, got the Danish king to pass a law banning Icelanders from frivolous pursuits. They also managed to just about stamp out dancing. Throw in poverty and one can see why sitting around in the dark during the long winter, keeping warm by all huddling together in one room, storytelling became important. Think winter in Iceland. Horizontal rain. Snow. Ice. No roaring fires because there are no stoves and hardly any fuel. No TV. No radio. No movies. No internet. Having someone tell or read a story seems a pretty good way to spend ones time as you are knitting the required amount of mittens or socks if you want your piece of dried cod or bowl of skyr the next day.

The truth is there isn’t much written material that describes Viking times. That’s why people have to go to Newfoundland and Labrador and dig and sift for fragments that might prove that the Vikings travelled there. That’s why a pin at Lans Aux Meadows is so important. That’s why charcoal remnants and bog iron are so important. We may not grasp at straws when trying to resurrect our Viking ancestors but we certainly grasp at pins and bits of wool and fire pits and post holes.

Just think, if Icelanders had not preserved The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda, the Sagas, and other bits and pieces from Viking times what would disappear? Our knowledge of the Viking gods? Our knowledge of Viking values? What would we know, outside of archeological digs, of Viking life?

Strange are the ways of history and fate. Iceland’s history is a history of suffering. Death was everywhere. Icelanders fell before epidemics, before starvation brought about by climate change, before laws that kept them from getting the items necessary for their survival. Yet, each of things, in some way, contributed to the conditions that meant the knowledge of the Viking age that had been lost everywhere else was preserved.

What a terrible cost but what a wonderful treasure was preserved.

Icelanders To The Rescue

Trish-INL-01

In her talk at the INL conference, Trish Baer discussed the work she has done over the last five years on images from the Eddas.

Old Scandinavian history from the time of the Vikings was lost in Europe after Christianity took over. The lack of understanding of that earlier time can be seen in many of the illustrations about the various pagan gods. We’d still have no real idea what people believed if it wasn’t for the Icelanders.

The Icelander who rediscovered, for Europe, knowledge of pagan times was Arngrimur Jonsson. He was in Denmark and mentioned that there were manuscripts in Iceland that contained information about the early history of Scandinavia. These were the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

Trish chose to study images in the Eddas with the purpose of creating an international database for scholars and others. In her years of study, she increased her knowledge of Icelandic, of the sagas, of Icelandic history and digital editing. These images, with the names of their creators and the times they were created, reveal much about the misunderstanding of people with regard to the gods and goddesses of Viking times.

Many people celebrate their Icelandic heritage by wearing Viking helmets with horns, drinking an Icelandic beer and eating a piece of hakarl. Some do all three things at once. They’re all good. However, it is people like Trish who expand our knowledge of Icelandic history and myth. The work is painstaking. It requires the development of research skills. Its rewards are few. There aren’t a lot of companies out there offering jobs for Medievalists, never mind jobs that pay like those offered to bankers.

Trish started her talk by saying that the gods belonged to a dysfunctional family. I’d never thought of them like that. When someone who actually knows the Eddas and the Sagas talks about these characters and their relationships, that’s when I realize just how little I actually know about the pagan gods.

Trish’s work on the images of the Eddas is ground breaking. It is not just that she has set up a digital website so these images can be studied from a distance but that the images reflect the ways the gods were seen, how those images changed over the centuries.

She didn’t carry her topic forward into the present day but I hope she will or that someone else will take what she has done and show how those individuals that our ancestors once worshipped have become comic book and movie heroes who still stir the imagination.

What does it mean, actually, to be called Thor? How much history, how many events, how many images are embedded in that name?

And who, actually, created these images that underpin our ideas of the Vikings? Trish dealt with this by showing the dates and the creators of various images. How exactly did all this feed into the Icelandic bankers being called Vikings?

Imagery that helps relate the stories we all know rather vaguely has been neglected. Perhaps, if we look at them more carefully, we may understand ourselves better. Like how come, I wear that plastic Viking helmet from Tergesen’s, chomp on hakarl and wash it down with brennevin? What is it that I celebrate at August the Deuce and Islendingadagurinn? What is it that I want to emulate or invoke when I buy a grandkid a Viking helmet and plastic sword?

Most of us will stick to eating vinarterta to celebrate our Viking heritage and maybe add a bit of dried fish but the more scholars like Trish (soon to be Dr.Baer)explore, understand and share the details of our heritage, the more there will be for us to know about who we are and why we are that way.

Banker Babies

 

bankerangry

Angry Viking banker who has been told he can’t have everything he wants.

bankerhappy

Happy Viking banker after he finds out he can take all he wants.

bankerunhappy

Viking banker told that he has to give back some of the money he took that wasn’t his.

satisfied banker

Viking banker satisfied when he finds out that he isn’t going to jail and can keep most of his money.

 

Boys Pretending to be Vikings

 

viking landing

At the end of Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir’s (professor of Gender Studies, University of Iceland) Beck lecture on the Viking Banksters, she included a poem by Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttur (1983).

Woman

When all has been said

When the problems of the world

Have been weighed gauged and settled

When eyes have met

And hands been pressed

In the sobriety of the moment

–some woman always comes

To clear the table

Sweep the floor and open the windows

To let out the cigar smoke.

It never fails.

Many centuries before, the role of the Icelandic housewife had been described by a German trader, Gories Peerse, who had gone to Iceland between 1554 and 1586. Peerse wrote a long poem about his stay in Iceland. This poem was translated by David Koester from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

And there no one stands up from the table [lit. dishes]

who needs to pass water, believe me about that.

The lady of the house must pass him the chamber pot,

and she doesn’t turn away,

and must take it back from him.

They are not ashamed of that.

She must then get rid of it,

that is the manner and custom of this land.

By 1983 the women aren’t passing the pot, but they’re still cleaning up after the men who indulge themselves and leave a mess. By 2008 the mess made by men is greater than it has ever been. Never before has the ability to borrow money at so little cost been possible. Now, the men can borrow recklessly, and borrowing vast sums, can buy recklessly, buy grocery chains, clothing stores, football teams, A Landsbanki employee in Gimli, Manitoba, for Íslendingadagurinn, was heard shouting into his cell phone, buy, buy, buy.

How much brains does it take to borrow money and then spend it? It works all right if it is someone else’s credit card and after paying themselves handsomely for having borrowed as much as possible and spent it by overbidding everyone else, when the bills came due and couldn‘t be paid, they then said, “Hey, this isn’t my credit card. It’s yours.” And walked away with the money they had given ourselves.

What the banksters did or tried to do was privatize profits and socialize debts. Nifty. They made the deals, they paid themselves, they gave themselves vast bonuses, they raked in the money. Woops. It all crashed. Not their problem. Let the tax payer pick up the bill. What a great system for the elite group who have been running an old boy network. Favours for favours. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We were good friends in high school and college and we know each other. Never mind merit. Never mind competence. Let’s you and me do a deal.

Bonuses are given for exceptional competence. Or that’s what they are supposed to be for. Nobody is competent who causes a financial crash. Ergo. All those bonuses should be paid back with interest. They were obtained under false pretenses.

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, in her lecture ‚“Finance Vikings,Masculinities, and the Economic Collapse in Iceland“, had an interesting thesis. The banking mess was created by a bunch of hyperactive, testosterone driven, vain, self-important men (MEN). Women such as Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, were elected to clean up the mess. Thorgerdur’s thesis includes the idea that if the exclusive little private group of men were forced to include women some of the juvenile “We’re Vikings and we know more than anyone else, we know more than the credit rating agencies, more than the Norwegian, Danish, Swedish bankers. The Vikings raided the known world and brought home loot and we’re Vikings,” would have some limits put on it. The banksters and businessmen conveniently left out the fact that most Vikings were Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. They left out the fact that Iceland’s population during Viking times and during the present is too small to have any real impact. Yup, we’re such hotshots that we’re going to sail into Hong Kong and conquer China next.

From the repeated references to the Vikings and how the banksters and businessmen were like Vikings, and the overwhelming sense of self-importance, one wonders that they didn’t take on the names of the pagan gods. I’m Thor. I’m Odin. I’m Loki. If they ran out of avatars, they could have started including fictional characters. I’m Conan. I’m Xena. Oh, wait, no. Well, maybe some of them. It’s hard to say.

Of course, some of them could have taken names from the sagas. Hmm, they probably already had names from the sagas. Maybe that’s why they had juvenile fantasies about being Vikings. When I was a boy and went to see movies (cowboy, pirate, Viking, army), I and my friends played at being cowboys, pirates, Vikings, and soldiers but we had adults around to keep us in touch with reality. “No, you may not borrow your father’s rifle and bullets to play army.” If we’d been to a movie about bankers and wanted to play at being bankers for a few days, my mother would have said, “No, you may not borrow your father’s wallet to play banker.”

Thorgerdur’s recommendations include more gender equality. No more relegating Icelandic women to holding the piss pot. No more relegating Icelandic women to cleaning up after the men make a mess.

Insist on quotas on the number of women on boards of companies.

Monitor big and important companies to keep the old boy network from packing the boards with their friends.

Demand that women be part of state administration, that information and decision making be public.

Insist on breaking down gender stereotypes in rural areas.

Given the juvenile behavior of the banksters and the business boys, it might be a good idea to place women in charge who could give them time out for bad behaviour, send them to their rooms, and take away their salaries and bonuses.

The problem, of course, is that this behaviour has been going on in Icelandic society since Gories Peerse’s time. Let’s say from 1500 to the present. That’s 513 years. The self-important group with the big egos have family histories of cosy relationships, privilege and the absolute belief they have the right to be privileged. The strange idea that North Americans of Icelandic background have had that there were no social classes in Iceland and everyone was equal left out who owned the keys to the food cupboard, who owned the land, who did the hiring. Just because the boss is poor, doesn’t mean he isn’t the boss. He still decides whether you are employed, what and how much you eat, what clothes you get to wear, how much work you have to do, how much you get paid.

Icelanders make a big thing out of genealogy. Hey, hey, my lineage leads to a bishop (got his privileged position by appointment from the Danes), a public official (got his appointment from the Danes), had a business (probably in partnership with or funded by the Danes). My ancestors were privileged and that makes us an important family and I, therefore, have the right to be privileged and the rest of you whose ancestors weren’t as important (your ancestors weren’t as good at sucking up to the Danes) as mine, have no right to make decisions, no right to all this money, no right to trophy wives.

Thorgerdur’s right, of course. Get women into the decision making process and some of the I’m- a-Viking fantasy will be shrunk. Break up and refuse to allow the old boy network to function and when it starts, have laws in place to stop it. No more attitude such as we were so impressed by these really, really important people we were supposed to be supervising that we really, really couldn’t bring ourselves to pick up the phone and insist that we have a meeting and find out what they were doing. After all, they were important.

For a long time in Iceland, people who weren’t large farm owners endured dreadful treatment. Many came to see the elite who ruled did so by a kind of divine right. The church supported the elite. It knew on which side its dried cod was buttered. That kind of situation creates an attitude among some people that says those people really are more important than us. We don’t deserve the things they deserve. They do have the right to take what they want and, if we’re lucky, they’ll throw a few dried cod heads our way. It’s the trickle-down-dried-cod-head effect.

God, if only we could bring Laxness back from the grave.

 

 

Snorri Sturluson: traitor hero

Nancy Marie Brown. Song Of The Vikings. New York: palgrave macmillan, 2012. 239 pages.

There are books I read quickly, racing through the sentences, the paragraphs, the pages. There are books I read slowly, not because the language is clumsy but because nearly every page gives me something to think about, to ponder. The Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown is one of those books that I have read slowly, that I will read again and, probably, again. I wish it had been written fifty years ago when I was a university student and was taking an evening non-credit course, the sagas in translation, with Haraldur Besseson in Winnipeg.

The sagas are wonderful stories. As Brown tells us in the preface that in the later 1920s, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were debating what the curriculum should be for English majors at Oxford University. C.S.Lewis was all for Shakespeare. Tolkien thought the students should be studying the works of Snorri Sturluson.

It is details like this that engage the reader of Brown’s book about Snorri Sturluson and the sagas and the eddas. She adds details in the introduction such as “I learned that Tolkien had read Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871-1873.”

For someone like me, who reads everything he can about foreign travelers to Iceland, particularly in the 19th C., the bait was too delicious to pass up. The hook was set, of course, and I knew I would not throw it off until the last page.

Brown tells us early in the book that “Snorri created the Viking image so prevalent today, from the heroes of sports teams to the bloodthirsty berserks of movies and video games to the chilling neo-Nazi.” Before the book is finished, she has explored them all.

While the book is focused on Snorri, on his political schemes, his ambition, his betrayal perhaps of Iceland to the Norwegian king, on the endless conflicts among the warring chieftains, it fills in details that if the reader pays attention, helps to explain Viking society.

For example, the strange idea that I heard stated more than once when I lived in Gimli, Manitoba and later, in Winnipeg, that Iceland was a democracy because it had a parliament (the Althing), is corrected in one line. “Iceland’s thirty-nine chieftains and their wives and children and followers gathered for the Althing, the general assembly of all Iceland.”

She explains about the gods, who they were, tells, in summary, some of their stories. She weaves together gods and men and the influence the stories had upon Viking society. Early on, she says, “As parents the gods were pretty dysfunctional./Snorri and his kind had odd love lives and dysfunctional families, too” and then goes on throughout book to detail the jealousies, ambitions, resentments, that led family members to plot, scheme against and kill each other. How could it be otherwise when “The gods were braggarts. They were tricksters and cheats, no good at keeping oaths, greedy, and niggling, always eyeing a bargain but always wanting the best”. The goði took them as models.

She explains Iceland’s relationship to Norway, to the struggle of the Icelanders to stay independent, the temptations for an ambitious man like Snorri (and others) who wanted all the advantages royal favour would give them. We see his rise in power and fortune as he marries off his children, creating alliances, making deals, betraying others, always wanting to be the greatest man in Iceland, its uncrowned king, and then follow its unravelling.

This is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, of his greed and ambition, of his manipulation, of his deceitfulness, of his cowardice, but also of his greatness, for in the midst of constant conflict, he put down for posterity, the tales of a past time. Those tales were lost in other places, and were nearly lost in Iceland. Some, tragically, are only known by their names or by fragments, but others have been preserved. Those stories permeate today’s society. His work affects our lives many times a day, for the concepts he preserved and created are now woven into the fabric of our lives. “In addition to the wizard, dwarves, and elves, Iceland and Icelandic literature inspired Tolkien’s dragon, shape-shifter, warrior women, rider, giant eagles and trolls, not to mention his wargs, barrow-wights, magic swords, Mount Doom, and the cursed ring of power.”

She also touches on the fact that “Snorri’s works —in fact all Icelandic literature—became so identified with Nazism that studying them became suspect in England and America. Even today there is a chilling connection of Snorri’s writing with neo-Nazi groups, as well as with anti-Christian neo-pagan cults (often quite racist themselves) and the blood-and-death-theme rock music known as Viking metal.” Little did Snorri know what his life’s work might spawn in the distant future. Although they were created many hundred years before, Snorri’s stories were co-opted by the Nazis, used to promote the idea of a master race and to justify the idea of conquering other nations.

Tolkien

However, Brown goes on to say “J. R. R. Tolkien held a grudge against Hitler, a “burning private grudge,” Tolkien wrote in 1941, for “ruining, perverting, misapplying and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light”

Snorri Sturluson was born in 1179 and was murdered in 1241. It was a long life in Viking times, 62 years, long enough to rise and fall, to create and record. He was, at the end, Brown tells us, gouty and fat, and is hiding in a cellar when he is hacked to death with a sword. His sins are many but his virtues far surpass them and, on balance, it is hard to think of any single Icelander who has given as much to the world.

People often tell me they are proud of their Icelandic heritage. If that is true, then buy this book, read it, make an effort to understand the tangled relationships, the implications of many of the things that are said, put it under our Xmas tree as a gift to yourself, sleep with it under your pillow and when you wake during the night, turn on the bedside lamp, and read another paragraph or two before going back to sleep.

Icelandic Celebration Parade

Here are a couple of Vikings guarding the entrance to the parade marshaling grounds. If the Viking ships had crew like these, they could have conquered whole armies by just sending them ashore and having them say “Follow me.”

Everyone loves a parade and the annual Íslendingadagurinn parade is no exception. It is anticipated all year. It is prepared for all year. This morning at 8:30 a.m. as I walked down Centre Street to the marshaling grounds west of town, the street was already lined on both sides with chairs, in some place, the chairs were two rows deep. The parade doesn´t start until ten a.m. People were gathered in groups visiting or sitting individually reading a book.

There were already children of all ages out and about with viking helmets with horns, the larger and more outrageous the cow horns, the better. No real viking wore a helmet with horns but it doesn´t matter. Gimli vikings do and it looks great. The vikings raised lots of cows and if they‘d have had any sense of style, they‘d have put cow horns on their helmets to terrify their enemies.

Every year I take photographs of the parade. Recently, I looked through my files and realized, the pictures are interchangeable. Here come the redcoats in their redcoats and marching behind them is the band in its kilts. So, I decided that I take a look behind the scenes, at the staging area as everyone was getting ready.

There were, of course, the real thing, the vikings from the viking village.

Unfortunately, I didn´t find a herd of Icelandic horses. I only found one having its main braided. But it was a fine horse.

There was a family reunion getting ready. They had signs and balloons, a float. They took this family reunion seriously. We had a family reunion recently, that is the Bristow side of the family did, but it never occurred to any of us to join the parade. This should become a tradition because the Icelandic Festival is a time of family reunions. It is a gathering of the clans.

The Iseleifsson reunion getting ready to march

There were, of course, utterly cute kids, with their parents getting the last minute details just right.

And here´s a photo where everything is tickety boo. Seeing Kevin and Thora Palson, with Hunter Dankochik and Aleesha Harms all dressed up in traditonal costumes made me wish my wife and I had done the same many years ago. It would have made for great memories. After this photo the four parade participants got up onto the Icelandic National League float.

And this young lady is all set for the parade with her own float.

There´s a lot of last minute detail to look to and Val Bjarnason Hilton is taking care of along with other supporters of Logberg-Heimskingla, the Icelandic newsaper.

And here´s Joan Eyolfson Cadham, the editor of LH with her viking helmet. Her husband made it for her. She used to take it everywhere with her but the airlines are convinced that it could be used as a weapon so when she flies, she now had to leave it behind. Sunna is not yet aware that she has lost her gold broach. Sunna (Pam) has created and developed, along with George Freeman, the Cousin’s Project, connecting Icelanders and North American’s of Icelandic descent. Among many other things.

Even the dogs that walk in the parade need last minute touches to look their best.

There were, of course, all those official folk. The mayor of Reykjavik, the Consul General of Iceland, the Fjallkona, there were expensive convertibles, there were marching bands, the Shriners. They are all needed to make a great parade. But, for me, it’s the intimate moments, the moments backstage, as it were, before people step out before an audience, that tells the story of the time and effort and caring that goes into our parade, this parade, the Icelandic Celebration parade, to make it something that people start setting out chairs for at 8:00 a.m., two hours before the parade begins.