Monday, 7 July 2014

Of Dragons and Longships

Erik Werenskiold, 'Slaget ved Solskjel'
Public domain image
The media are currently reporting on the interrupted journey (because of a broken mast) of what is being touted as the 'largest replica Viking longship', the Dragon Harald Fairhair. There are so many potential misunderstandings, just in the name of the ship, let alone that description of it, that the academic in your blogstress just cannot resist putting her oar in.

First, the positive side of things. This is a fun project initiated by a wealthy Norwegian businessman, Sigurd Aase, who has a love of Vikings. It has given him some fun, other people some work, and yet other people the pleasure of rowing or sailing in an old wooden ship.

But as usual with the media and Vikings, there is a danger of hype and misrepresentation here. Despite what the captain said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the ship is in no sense a 'replica' of anything, let alone of 'Harald Fairhair's' ship. Unlike those replicas which are based on actual ship finds, this is not a reconstruction of any one particular ship. A Norwegian king known by the name of Haraldr hárfagri is most likely a historical figure, but if he was, he lived in the ninth century and we have little if any reliable evidence about him. We also do not have his ship.

The project website gives quite a lot of information which makes clear to the initiated at least that the building of the ship is based on a variety of sources, mainly from later periods, in particular sagas and laws relating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since there was enormous development in the building of ships between Haraldr's time in the ninth century and our written sources from the thirteenth, the claim that this is a 'Viking longship' is really stretching it. Undoubtedly, there is some continuity in the Norwegian boatbuilding tradition and the builders have also used their knowledge of later Norwegian boatbuilding in designing this vessel. But then it is disingenuous to describe it as a 'Viking warship'. The term 'longship' also has no real meaning. Some ships were longer than others. At 35m., the Dragon is in any case pipped to the stem-post by Roskilde 6, the genuine Viking ship that, however fragmentary, was the highlight of the recent Viking exhibition, at 37 m.

Calling it a 'dragon' is also unhistorical, if this is meant to refer to Harald's time - calling ships 'snakes' is a poetic conceit found from quite early on, but a dragon-ship is something different, not being a native animal. The word dreki really only makes its appearance in eleventh-century poetry, when it is first used to describe the large warships that emerge in that period. All in all, it is hard to see whether the people on this project see their ship as belonging to the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth century, nor do they seem to care. This is OK for a bit of fun, but no one should be led to believe that this exercise has any actual academic merit, though I am afraid some university folk, as well as the media, have been taken in.

As I pointed out two years ago, there are plenty of other and better reconstruction projects around - check those out instead!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Languages, Myths and Finds

Just wanted to give a little plug to a project I have had some involvement with. This has very much been the Year of Vikings, and in particular the splendid exhibition at the British Museum, now sadly finished, about which I have blogged before.

In connection with the exhibition, the Languages, Myths and Finds project had the aim of encouraging conversations between specialist university academics and advanced research students in Old Norse and Viking Studies, and local communities around Britain and Ireland who were interested in knowing more about their Viking heritage. The communities chosen for the project were Cleveland, Dublin, Isle of Lewis, Isle of Man and Munster. Five small teams of six academics and students were chosen to work with each community, in each case developing and researching topics most suited to that locality, as identified in dialogue with the community.

The result is now five gorgeous booklets, each very different, which can be downloaded in pdf form and for free from the project website.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Birth of Norway

Today the Norwegians celebrate the bicentenary of their constitution, and their freedom from Danish rule. Til lykke med dagen! Although they did not achieve full independence until 1905, the adoption of the constitution in 1814 marks the birth of the modern nation of Norway. But Norway as a geopolitical concept goes back at least to the Viking Age, as attested by two important runic inscriptions. Both the larger Jelling stone, from Denmark, and the Kuli stone, from Nordmøre in Norway, mention Norway in the context of the conversion to Christianity in the decades around the year 1000. The Jelling inscription also acknowledges Norway as a political entity which could be conquered by that ambitious king, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (which also gets a mention in the inscription).

Much could be (and has been) said about the earliest history of Norway. But today I celebrate my favourite country by joining its (supposedly) eponymous founding king on his first royal tour of the dominions. The beginning of Orkneyinga saga (chapters 1-4) envisages the parallel origins of Norway and its western islands in a story about two brothers, Nórr and Górr, who conquer their realms during a long search for their missing sister Gói. There is much of interest in this legend of conquest and origin (and other versions of it exist), but what I particularly like is its visualising of the geographical extent of Norway, a kind of map avant la lettre.

Górr sets off immediately to search for his sister by ship 'around the out-skerries and islands', while Nórr rather awaits the time when 'snow lay on the heath and the skiing was good'. (As in so many sagas, skiing is a quintessentially Norwegian activity in the view of the somewhat bewildered Icelanders). His journey of conquest starts in the far north-east, Kvenland, where his family originates, and then travels west across the 'Keel' (the mountain range which now separates Norway and Sweden), until 'the waters fell on the west side of the mountains'. They follow these 'waters' down to the sea, arriving in a great fjord with populous settlements and large valleys branching off it, where Nórr subdues the local population and makes himself king of the district. But by now it is summer, so Nórr being Nórr, he awaits the skiing season again. Then he heads up the valley which goes south from the fjord ('which is now called Þrándheimr', the Trondheimsfjord), while sending some of his men along the coast of Møre. Nórr follows the great valley south until he gets to the great lake of Mjǫrs (Mjøsa), from where he turns west into 'the district which they called Valdres'. From there they head to the sea, arriving at 'a long and narrow fjord, which is now called Sogn' (and probably passing through Lærdal along the way). In this western region he meets up with his brother Górr, and it is at this point that they decided to divide up their realms so that Nórr has the mainland and Górr the islands to the west.

Nórr then consolidates his eastern regions, by travelling first to the Upplǫnd (Opplandene), where 'it is now called Heiðmǫrk (Hedmark)'. There he finds his sister, who has been kidnapped by the local king, son of a giant of Dovre (shades of Peer Gynt there!). After an unsuccessful attempt to kill his newly-discovered brother-in-law, Nórr resolves the matter by marrying his brother-in-law's sister. It is at this point that he names the country Nórvegr and he rules it for the rest of his life. The saga then turns to the adventures of Górr, which are of more interest to the subsequent history of Orkney which is its prime concern. So it may not be significant that the southern part of Norway is missed out from this long-distance ski-tour. Or the story may reflect a time when southern Norway was ruled by Denmark, as Harald Bluetooth boasted on the Jelling stone. Other versions of the story (notably Hversu Nóregr byggðist in Flateyjarbók) have more geographical detail and clearly the conceptualisation of Norway shifted according to historical and political circumstances.

And then there is the name... The story of how Nórr gave his name to Nóregr is usually dismissed as a learned medieval construction and the whole story as an origin myth, which in many ways it clearly is. But I don't think the whole story of the origins of Norway's name has been told yet, a topic to which I may return in another blog sometime.

In the meantime, we congratulate modern Norway on its 200th birthday.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend

Tjørnehøj brooch
©Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
The Mega Viking Show has finally come to town, and your faithful blogstress was honoured and privileged to be present when Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, and various other dignitaries opened it last Thursday, as well as to get an early viewing of the whole thing. I don't propose to review the exhibition - there are plenty of reactions of all types to be read in the media. The exhibition is designed for the general public, rather than the expert, and I firmly believe that the outsider's view is the one to seek out. Interestingly, the reactions vary enormously - do read more than one review to get a sense of it all. Another reason I would find it hard to review is that so many of the objects are almost too familiar. This is not only because I saw a version of the same exhibition in Copenhagen last September, but also because some of them I saw last time the British Museum did a Viking exhibition, in 1980, and in other exhibitions in various places since. Yet others are familiar from the many illustrated coffee-table books about the Vikings that flood the market on a regular basis.

But some of the exhibits are relatively new and I thought I'd pick out a few of my favourites at random, for my and your delectation. My top favourite is probably the valkyrie figure discovered in 2012, but I have blogged about that before. Several other 'valkyrie' images can be seen in the exhibition, and they are a fascinating group, mostly relatively recent metal detectorist discoveries. Another recent (2007) metal detectorist find from Denmark of which I am inordinately fond is the ship-brooch pictured above and extensively used by the British Museum in its publicity for the exhibition. It is sometimes said to represent a dragon-ship, but it is quite clear to me that the two figureheads are those of horses, as indicated by their ears and manes. Although similar brooches are known, this is the only one I have come across on which the animals seem very definitely to be horses' heads, and is thus a unique representation of that figure so commonly found in skaldic poetry, by which ships are called 'horses of the sea'. I also like the little face between the horses' heads, though quite what he represents I do not know.

Oval brooches have always fascinated me because they are typical of Scandinavian women's dress, and when we find them around the world, they raise interesting questions about the role of women in Viking migrations. Many thousands of them are known, from a broad geographical and chronological range, and in a variety of styles. For me, the one that tops them all is definitely that found in 2004 in an archaeological investigation at Finglas, in Dublin. There's an interesting photo of how it looked when it first came out of the ground on the website of Icon Archaeology, but it can only truly be appreciated in its cleaned-up form, which shows very clearly its 'protruding animal ornament', as the archaeologists say. These include both whole animal figures, and animal heads, all of which strongly resemble bears. Although similar brooches with small animal figures are known, I think these are the only ones which are clearly bears. They look quite cute to us today, though the bear was of course a feared and fearsome animal, and widely significant in Viking language and culture. I haven't found a good photo of the brooch to show you, but it adorns the cover of The Viking Age: Ireland and the West (2010), edited by John Sheehan and Donnchadh Ó Corráin, shown above, and is discussed at length by Maeve Sikora in that volume.

Finally, although the exhibition is not strong on runic inscriptions, it was a real pleasure to see the Kirk Andreas III stone from the Isle of Man, with its simple (and incomplete) inscription 'Þorvaldr raised this cross'. While not the most exciting inscription, it is of interest because, along with most of its fellow Manx inscriptions, it records the earliest uses of the word kross in Old Norse, a word with a fascinating history which appears to be borrowed from Latin crux into Gaelic, from there into Old Norse (as suggested by the Manx inscriptions) and from there into English, as suggested by some place-names in the north-west of England. Oh, and the stone, which is clearly a Christian cross-slab, also has those well-known images of what appear to be Odin at Ragnarok on one side, and a Christian figure on the other (above, left). It was particularly nice to see it in London last Thursday, because on Friday I went off on another runological field trip to the Isle of Man, where we had to make do with a replica in St Andrew's church, Andreas, instead. But the display in the church did have a nice picture of the last time the stone went to the British Museum, for the 1980 exhibition (above, right).

Friday, 28 February 2014

Northern Lights

Last night the northern lights, or aurora borealis, were widely visible in the UK, much further south than usual. I missed out, either because of light pollution in the city centre, or perhaps because they just weren't visible here, but many others were lucky, as even a brief glance at Twitter will show.

In 793, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there were seen fyrene dracen on þam lyfte fleogende 'flaming dragons flying in the air' and it is very plausible that this is a description of the northern lights. As we all know, that description was followed by the notorious Viking raid on Lindisfarne. So it seems appropriate that we can see the aurora borealis here just a few days before the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition opens at the British Museum.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Love Stories from Oslo

The runic message 'Think of me, I think of you! Love me, I love you' that I mentioned in the Runic Valentine blog of two years ago occurs in more or less the same form in at least three inscriptions. It therefore has an off-the-shelf quality that doesn't tell us anything about the people who might have been exchanging such messages. But other inscriptions introduce us to the real people who suffered the joys and anxieties of love.

One medieval lover in Oslo's Gamlebyen wanted no one to be in doubt as to who exactly his lady-love was:
nikulos a=n ko=no= =þeiri uæl er gyriþ hei(t)er stiufdoter ÷ pit(a)srahnu
'Nikulás loves well the woman called Gýríðr, stepdaughter of Pitas-Ragna.'
One could spin many tales to explain why it was so important for Nikulás to mention his girl's stepmother, was she an important figure, or very rich?

Not all lovers were as true as they should have been; one piece of bone from medieval Oslo seems to be addressing two different women, in two contrasting inscriptions:
an sa × þer × es × risti × runa þesar × þortis þora ek kan kilia
'He who carved these runes loves you, Þordís! Þóra! I can beguile (any woman).'
But, as with many such inscriptions, we can wonder how serious the sentiments were. Perhaps it was all just an after-dinner game, as the remains of the roast were passed around and people wrote jokey messages on it.
Yet another bone inscription sounds just like what you might hear in any schoolyard:

asa × an × st- / ek × uæit
'Ása loves St... I know.'

The inscription is incomplete, so we will never know the name of Ása's boyfriend. The common name Ása occurs elsewhere in inscriptions from medieval Oslo, and she or some other woman could have been responsible for carving þut 'hum' on the spindle-whorl pictured above. Let's hope her love-life was humming like her spinning.

Note on sources: these inscriptions have not been fully published yet; the texts cited above are taken, with small modifications, from the Samnordisk runtextdatabas.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Original Biathlete

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
It may have escaped your notice that Ragnarok will apparently take place on the 22nd of February 2014, if so, consider yourself warned! The Jorvik Viking Festival will be recreating this event, and their description cleverly plays on the ambiguity in the Old Norse sources as to whether this cataclysm is in the future, and therefore to be feared and anticipated, or has already happened in the past, so that we are now living in the brave new world that arose out of the ashes of the old one. This is all a fascinating topic to which I may return in another context.

In the meantime, I am a bit gutted that Jorvik's page on the Norse gods misses out Ullr, the god of skiing and hunting. As the Winter Olympics start, it seems appropriate to give a mention to this earliest paragon of what the Guardian today described as 'One of the more bewildering of the many perplexing disciplines to be contested in Sochi', the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting. The case of Ullr, however, shows that this combination of skills is essential in the north. Snorri says of Ullr that hann er bogmaðr svá góðr ok skíðfœrr svá at engi má við hann keppast 'he is such a good archer and so good on skis that no one can compete with him'. Obviously a gold medal prospect then! His spiritual descendant is Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney, also a whizz at both skiing and shooting.

Although Ullr is not so often mentioned in the mythological texts of medieval Iceland, there is plenty of evidence that he was widely venerated in the Viking Age, particularly in Norway, where place-names like Ullern and Ullevål, both in Oslo, and Ullensvang, in Hardanger, perpetuate his name. The Norwegians have won more medals at the Winter Olympics than any other nation, so may the spirit of Ullr live on in their efforts in Sochi!

But it has to be admitted that the Swedes are also pretty good at winter sports, they are 7th in the Guardian's all-time medals table. And to prove this, I offer an image above of the Böksta rune-stone (U 855) from Uppland in Sweden, which shows Ullr himself, bottom left, with both his bow and his skis.