Tuesday, October 20, 2015

While On Strike: Some Photos from a Quick Adventure and Other Leftovers

Hello, History Fans!

Well it has been an interesting week in Reykjavik! We were given last week off as a "study week." And study I did! I finished one project, read a lot, translated an entire story about Loki, read a lot, developed an outline for a paper, read a lot. AND GOT A JOB! 

My pal Moeen with whom I play basketball got me hired at Nonnabiti, a local eatery. We are flipping burgers, making subs, and generally taking care of drunk people. But it's a pretty good time! I get a free meal when I work and endless coffee!

But, classes have been interrupted for the last two days! There is a public workers strike going on right now, which means my classmates, professors and I are locked out of the public school buildings and cannot attend classes. It is simultaneously frustrating and welcomed. I have been able to catch up on some work with this extended study week, but I need to get back into class, especially with our mid-terms quickly approaching! For more information on the strike, you can read about it here.

So, in order to reward my hard work, I took most of the day off and let Fraser drive me around to some waterfalls and to a lukewarm pool in the middle of what looked like Middle Earth. While we are at it, here are some other photos, some from around Reykjavik, some from Reykholt when we visited Snorri's house, and from our trip to ViĆ°ey to see Yoko Ono & the Peace Light Tower. 



Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Based on a True Story: Ynglinga Saga and How Creativity Has Devalued the "Truth"

Welcome back, History Fans!

Things have been incredibly busy here in Reykjavik. I hope you enjoyed all those beautiful photos because now it is dark and gloomy and rainy and I don't have any money to travel any more anyway!

It's been difficult to find time to update because I have been reading nonstop and working on my Old Norse paradigms. And yes, today I finally made a joke involving two dimes. 

But back to business!

We have been "reading" Heimskringla in one of our classes. And by reading I mean we are reading articles on how Snorri Sturluson may have known Latin or what kind of sources he had when he wrote this masterpiece or whether or not Snorri would have liked "The Princess Bride." And while I am sure all this literary theory is buffing up my prowess as a scholar, it is incredibly dry, difficult to read, and even more difficult to apply. 

But that has never stopped us here at History Books! In fact, I am pretty sure our motto is "Incredibly Dry and Difficult to Read."

For those of you unfamiliar with Heimskringla, it is an enormous account of the lives of Norwegian Kings, beginning in the 8th century and going to about mid-to-late 12th century. You get all the fun kings like Harald Finehair, Saint Olaf, Magnus Barelegs, Wade Boggs, etc. 

Wade Boggs - Norwegian king famous for his crusade against sobriety

Snorri, however, reaches way, way back into pre-history to deliver us an interesting dose of euhemerism, something we have discussed here before. The book begins with Ynglinga Saga, in which Snorri connects the legendary kings to some pretty cool humans that were mistaken for gods because of how cool they were. These guys came from Asia and had names like Odin, Thor, and Frey. These men (and women) were SO COOL! And maybe magical! Snorri's account can be attributed to two ideas: the first is excusing his ancestors for putting their faith in the wrong god(s). The second is connecting kingship with power. If modern kings could trace their ancestry back far enough, they may claim to actually be Odin's offspring. That probably didn't happen but it's politics, baby! Anything goes!

This story is obviously fabricated. If the gods were real (they weren't) then they probably wouldn't have been humans that died. If they were humans (they weren't), they probably would not have been worshipped as gods. Because of this, Ynglinga Saga has been largely ignored by scholars such as Sverre Bagge as "little more than an extended genealogy." This sentiment can be understood. There is no way it is true. It's just a story!

However, why dismiss it? Does the fact that Snorri filled in the holes of a most likely unknown pre-history make it worthless? Does his creativity in recounting the origins of the Scandinavian kings devalue the "truth?" 

We know it is not fact. YES, WE SEE RIGHT THROUGH YOU, SNORRI! However, besides Saxo's convoluted and long-winded Latin account, this is pretty much the only source available to us about such things. If anything, we can acknowledge that it was important for Snorri and his generation to excuse the older pagan generations. That tells us something right there. Not necessarily fact but it is certainly a truth! 

As historians, we can spend our lifetime slamming the Heimskringla into our foreheads and get no closer to the answers of pre-history. However, as humans, we can stand back and admire Snorri's creativity and enjoy the story. So what if it's not exactly like the book?! SO WHAT IF IT WAS DOBBY WHO GAVE HARRY THE GILLYWEED AND NOT THE WITLESS WONDER LONGBOTTOM?? Snorri could very well have given us what he and his contemporaries knew or thought they knew. He could also have been painting a fun picture just to make things interesting since nobody knew the beginnings. That creativity should be valued, and Ynglinga Saga should not be ignored completely but looked at through the same lens as all the other sagas: Not necessarily the truth but certainly contains a Truth or two. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

I Really Love Reading the Dictionary: A Wild Week of Scholarship, Meeting Idols, and Turning 30

Welcome back, History Fans!

What a wild week it has been!

Classes are great but a lot of work. I've spent the better part of my Saturday reading parts of the Poetic Edda, trying to keep up with paradigms, and trying to swallow as much information as I can about the medieval Scandinavian state-formation!

But let's recap: On Tuesday, I organized a little sit-down with Anders Winroth. He happened to be in Iceland doing some research while on sabbatical, and, not wanting a chance to meet him, he agreed to answer a few questions that some of my classmates and I had about his book, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Really I just wanted to geek out and tell him how much I liked his writings!
Anders signing Jason's copy. Yes, we are all nerds

On Wednesday I turned the big 3-0. Everyone said that I looked a lot younger, but I showed them by yelling at kids to stay off our lawn and by going to bed at 8:30. 

Actually, my wonderful new friends threw me a wonderful party, complete with pizza, beer, flamenco dancing, and quite a few birthday cakes!

In spite of getting lots of attention and gifts, the real treat arrived on Friday with two lectures from some serious scholars, both of whom teach and work in Iceland right now.

Our first guest was Emily Lethbridge, a professor here at the University of Iceland. Some of her MANY expertise lay in manuscripts and the sagas themselves, the authorship, acceptance, etc. But most impressive was how creative she was in her studies. Working on a dairy farm, she explored many local places that are mentioned in the sagas. In 2011, she bought an old ambulance and journeyed across Iceland to visit all the different landscapes mentioned in the Icelandic family sagas. Her work can be read about here.

Perhaps even more impressive is the digital map that she helped develop that not only shows you the different places mentioned in individual sagas, but the website also features a cross-reference system that can show you how the different sagas overlap! Truly incredible! 

You can check out the map here!

Again, aside from being blown away by the amount of knowledge that Emily threw at us in just under an hour, I was totally inspired by her creativity in finding new and interesting ways to study a field that has been thoroughly picked over.

Right after Emily's presentation, I received another birthday gift. The prolific  Jesse Byock came to our class to discuss his Mosfell project. If you have followed us here on History Books (who am I kidding?), you will know that Jesse Byock is one of the most prominent names in medieval Icelandic scholarship. We have discussed his book Viking Age Iceland here on the blog, not to mention that he translated our copies of The Prose Edda and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, as well as many others. And he wrote my Viking Language book that helped me get an early start on Old Norse! 

Here is a creepy photo I took of him from the back of the class:

Professor Byock has been digging in Iceland for a long time. He has focused a lot of his current efforts on the valley of Mosfell. Probably the most incredible part of his research is the possible confirmation of a story in Egils saga.

Listen: Sagas, as you will know from our research here on History Books, occupy a very strange gray area between history and fiction. So they cannot be considered reliable historical sources. However, they cannot be altogether ignored either. Jesse Byock found what he thought was a prominent longhouse attached to Egils saga. According to the text, Egil had been buried a ways away from the longhouse. Then, after Iceland converted to Christianity, his daughter had his bones moved and buried near the church, which was very close to the longhouse. The text continues and says that many years later, when the bishop wanted to move the church, they dug up some enormous bones from beneath the alter. They were thought to be Egil's and were buried at the new church in Mosfell. 

After some searching, Byock and his crew found what looked to be the foundation of a church. And sure enough, the found beneath what would have been the altar. . .ONE EMPTY GRAVE!

Could this be Egil's second grave site? It sure seems that way. Aside from being an exciting archaeological find, the grave confirms that at least SOME of the saga is true. Rather than answering any questions, however, we are left scratching our heads here in Iceland wondering who and what we can trust! 

You can check out Jesse's work here!


Until next time, History Fans, trust no one!