Saving Viking History

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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

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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.