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.

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.