Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Uncertainty of Christian Evidence and the Benefits of Inclusion

           The conversion to Christianity is considered one of the most important turning points in Scandinavian history, but tracking the religion’s progression through the north is a tricky task that must be studied delicately using certain methods ascribed to by scholars like Alexandra Sanmark. The main ways by which Christianity is measured are grave and burial customs, church sites, coins, rune stones, written sources and laws. Using these methods, the Christianization of Scandinavia can, to an extent, be measured in degrees of belief, attitudes, values, behavior, and social institutions (Sanmark 2004). However, the conversion can be only nominally traced throughout Scandinavian history. When attempting to measure how “Christian” a country or kingdom was, the results can be murky if not entirely misleading (Shepherd 1996). In order to better understand and follow the conversion process, Sanmark breaks it down into two phases (2004). The first phase consists of the scattered network of independent missionary efforts while the second phase begins when the secular rulers take over the spread of Christianity (Sanmark 2004). Applying the aforementioned methods to both phases of the conversion unearths evidence, and in many cases a lack of evidence or consistency, that dismisses any certainty that Christianity can be measured.

            Contrary to popular belief, the conversion of the Scandinavian kingdoms was relatively peaceful, especially during the second phase (Sanmark 2004). Aside from Norway, the rest of the Viking world converted if not willingly, then mostly, without bloodshed from either an internal decision or at the behest or political threats of contemporary rulers (Roesdahl 2008). Violence in the first phase, according to the few sources available, appears to be minimal (Robinson 1921). One could make an argument suggesting that the missionaries intentionally put themselves in harm’s way owing to how potent a martyr’s cult could be (Brink 2008). Certainly a number of Vikings fought against the oncoming Christian tide, but the resistance that did arise can often be attributed to the political turmoil of the time period. For instance, the bloody interactions in Norway were less about religious change and more about the loss of power during the unification process (Hollander 1964).

            Having raided all over Christendom, the Vikings were familiar at least with some aspects of Christianity (Melnikova 2011). Some of the original Icelandic settlers claimed to be believers (Palsson and Edwards 1972). Birka was home to a diverse community that most likely included a small collection of Christians (Sanmark 2004). The religion may not have embraced but it certainly appears to have been tolerated. Even the proclaimed pagan leader Svein Forkbeard seemed utterly indifferent to Christianity—not promoting but not fighting against it either (Derry 1979).

            This lack of resistance and indeed indifference makes using methods like archaeology and written sources to measure the conversion confusing and difficult. Some of the confusion can be alleviated by understanding how Scandinavia was targeted by missionaries. Pope Gregory had centuries ago instructed missionaries to implant Christian meanings into existing pagan religious and cultural traditions instead of eliminating them (Melnikova 2011). The Vikings may have viewed a religious conversion as a cultural defeat, but through Gregory’s method, they not only held onto their identity but also made Christianity distinctly Scandinavian (Graslund and Lager 2008).
"Uh, yeah, whatever you want - just slap a cross on it and we'll make it Christian."
Pope Gregory's great plan

            The gap between the Norse pagan religion and Christianity may not have been as wide as once believed. In his introduction to Njal’s Saga, Robert Cook suggests that Christianity functioned not as antithetical to pagan values but as complementary (2001). Perhaps the best example comes from the Icelandic hreppr law in which the farmers, in line with Christ’s teachings, worked together to make sure none of their neighbors went hungry (Byock 2001). The meek and suffering Christ, however, would not have registered with the Vikings. They would have picked up instead on his more authoritarian traits that were more in tune with their power and honor driven culture (Melnikova 2011). In fact, Christ was often incorporated into the Norse pantheon right next to Odin and Thor (Melnikova 2011). This acceptance of Christ as a god on par with the traditional deities might have been viewed as a victory for Christian missionaries, but, with no evidence of immediate change, there were no milestones for missionaries to celebrate (Brink 2008). At this point Christianity in Scandinavia was a slow and creeping stream of muddle and mixed cultural preferences, and Christ may have been seen as little more than just another idol.

            This hybrid union of a chaotic paganism and the infant disorganized Christianity left Norse burials in disarray. Even before the Viking Age, burial customs in Norway were at best inconsistent (Saebjorg 2007). Inhumation and cremation graves coexisted in different parts of Norway before and during the conversion period (Saebjorg 2007). While inhumation graves in churchyards eventually won out, certain pagan burial customs continued to thrive in parts of Scandinavia well after the conversion (Shepherd 1996). Even churchyard burials cannot be trusted due to later generations re-burying their unbaptized kin, just as Harald with his father at Jelling (Roesdhal 2008).

            The way a body faced and the goods with which it was buried are two other ways scholars attempt to identify Christian graves (Tolochko 2011). The direction a body was buried can be misleading because many early Christian graves were positioned southwest to northeast instead of the official west to east direction. Every pagan Viking grave found at Luistari holds a body facing southwest to northeast (Shepherd 1996). With such a variety of behaviors and values present in Norse graves, many burials are left to guess work. A more dependable indication of religion in burials is the grave goods (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). Traditional Viking graves included tools, weapons, jewelry, and other goods for use in the afterlife (Price 2008). Christian graves included similar dress, food, and containers, but lacked those individualized items that went on to define Viking graves (Graslund 2008). The importance laid upon grave goods may be misplaced. Many Viking graves were empty, while some graves boasted signs of Christianity, as well as traditional grave goods (Shepherd 1996). Even the cross pendants found in the female graves at Birka do not hold concrete evidence that they were in fact Christ-worshippers (Graslund 2008). As an international trading town, Birka would have hosted travelers from every type of background (Sanmark 2004). The crosses could just as realistically been gifts from Christian pilgrims or an aesthetically appealing piece of fashion purchased from a European merchant.

Great model of what Birka may have looked like

            A more flimsy method of measuring Christian beliefs and institutions is the study of church sites, which some scholars believe to have been built upon or near former pagan worship sites (Graslund 2008). Tacitus, however, claimed that the Germanic people worshipped their gods out in the open or in sacred groves (Mattingly 1970). The lack of evidence for pagan structures, such as Adam of Bremen’s extravagant temple in Uppsala, seems to agree with Tacitus. The early church relied heavily upon urban areas the thrive (Shepherd 1996). Outside of hubs like Birka and Hedeby, towns were virtually nonexistent in Scandinavia (Skre 2008). Without the Roman governmental structure, a church would have failed in the vast rural Scandinavian communities and were therefore unlikely to have been built upon pre-existing pagan sites (Shepherd 1996).

            The two religions do merge, however, on coins and on rune stones. In Norway and Sweden, the earliest minted coins coincided with the rise of Christianity (Bragge and Nordeide 2004). The coins that originated from these kingdoms, as well as from Denmark, all seemed to be copied after Anglo-Saxon coins (Geltig 2004). Olaf Skotkonung, almost immediately following his conversion, began minting coins in Sweden (Sanmark 2004). Christianization would not have suddenly boosted Sweden’s economy, nor had any resemblance of an ecclesiastical system been propped up yet, so why would the king immediately begin producing coinage in a kingdom that was not fully converted or unified? Olaf’s reaction is but one of many indications that the Viking leaders were trying to take advantage of the rising power and wealth of Christianity.
Are you really a Christian?

            The mixing of both religions is most evident on rune stones, many of which can be dated to the 11th century or later (Graslund and Lager 2008). They appear to increase in number after the conversion, and many are thought to be public displays of Christian messages (Sanmark 2004). Some stones simultaneously depict biblical scenes and messages alongside mythological images (Shepherd 1996). It would appear that the carvers of the stones saw no reason for Christ and Odin not to coexist side by side. The tapestry of Skog, though not a rune stone, is another example of the two religions blending almost harmoniously (Graslund 2008). Eventually, rune stones were replaced by ink and paper, but even in the written word, measuring the degrees of belief is difficult.

            The written sources that describe the conversion period are few and riddled with problems. Perhaps the most famous is Adam of Bremen’s clumsy history of Angsar’s missions into Scandinavia. Aside from bungling a number of facts, Adam, like his contemporary ecclesiastical authors, buries the truth under exaggerations (Tschan 2002). Snorri Sturluson’s HeimskringlaI may be more organized than Adam’s account but it is no less problematic due to its being written centuries after the conversion period and through the lens of a Christian worldview (Hollander 1964). That is not to say that the sources cannot be useful. On the contrary, texts like the Royal Frankish Annals provide invaluable information regarding the spread of Christianity, in particular Harald Klak’s groundbreaking baptism in 826 (Scholz 1970). It is essential to read these sources carefully as they carry outsider biases, or, as what happens in most hagiographies, are written to make a certain saint look much holier in retrospect (Sanmark 2004).

            The laws, while a more concrete source, also survive in manuscripts that were put together centuries after they were put into effect (Geltig 2004). Christian laws, such as the banning of certain pagan practices, appear to have been implemented almost immediately following a state’s official conversion (Gronlie 2006). The earliest Christian laws started to take hold around 1020 and are concerned with practical issues that did not require a priest’s supervision, such as feast days or burying bodies in churchyards (Sanmark 2005). The Icelandic sagas are the only source that can shed light on how these laws were actually enforced, and even these are inconclusive (Miller 1990).

            To give better context to Scandinavia’s Christianization, Sanmark uses the conversions of Saxony, Frisia, and Anglo-Saxon England as a comparison (2004). Even though there are similarities, like the 150-year conversion time frame, it is an unfair comparison because of the political disadvantages in Scandinavia, which lay outside of the Roman periphery (Shepherd 1996). When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity stepped into the void it left behind. The church then took over the bureaucratic system the Romans had created and developed a strong ecclesiastical network that would define the Catholic Church for centuries to come. At this time to be Roman was to essentially be Christian (Read 1999). The Roman structure that was in place in Britain and Frisia made their conversions much easier—both had been part of the Roman world, and both contained towns to support ecclesiastical centers (Shepherd 1996). This may explain why the top-down conversion method worked in the fragmented Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Saxony, on the other hand, was a forced conversion (Scholz 1970). Against its will, the kingdom was enveloped into the already established Christian Carolingian Empire who wasted no time in setting up diocese to maintain the ecclesiastical order (Roesdahl 2008).

            Without the Roman institution in place, the missionaries, followed by the secular rulers, had to adapt in order to Christianize. For instance, Norway and Sweden lacked sovereign kings and had yet to be unified near the end of the 10th century (Hollander 1964). Churches had become major assets to the Christian rulers of Europe, and they needed towns and cities to thrive (Downham 2012). Inspired, Scandinavian kings developed some of the first urban areas in order for Christianity to flourish (Androshchuk 2011). This may not have been unique, but the Vikings appear in many cases to have converted on their own terms.

Romans were the first Christian punx.

            The Vikings also seemed to take Gregory’s message to heart. The Scandinavian church for centuries took on its own independent nature, especially in Greenland and Iceland (Byock 2001). The geographical isolation surely played a part in Icelandic secular laws influencing the church more effectively than the papacy (Byock 2001). In both island communities, churches were built on private land, in direct opposition of Roman tradition (Arnborg 2008). The mainland Scandinavian churches may have operated more within the European norm, but Christianity existed for many years with the Norse pagan paradigm (Graslund and Lager 2008). For instance, bishops served in the king’s royal hird, rather than in a more ecclesiastical position (Krag 2008). The lack of conformity to the global church begs the same question that inspired Melnikova’s article: just how Christian were the Vikings?

            The blurred lines of Scandinavia’s brand of Christianity and the lack of hard evidence of beliefs and attitudes could be the result of the opportunistic Vikings using Christianity as just another stage on which to operate. When Vladamir raided in Constantinople, he became all too aware of the benefits that accompanied monotheism (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000). Vikings were known to feign Christianity simply to trade with the Muslim Caliphate (Mikkelson 2008). The Rus likewise were baptized in order to serve the Byzantine Emperor (Tolochko 2011). The Vikings appear to be taking advantage of the benefits that Christianity presented, just as they had taken advantage of splintered kingdoms or defenseless monasteries.

            The benefits of inclusion came from an internal desire to convert to Christianity, not because of missionary work, but because the secular leaders acknowledged what they as individuals and their kingdoms stood to gain by joining the Christian community. Political pressure was certainly a factor, particularly in Denmark, but there is more to the conversion than external threats (Sanmark 2004). No evidence of forced baptism has been found in either Denmark or Sweden, and both kingdoms seemed to have been more than willing to allow missionaries to serve within their boundaries (Sanmark 2004). Iceland’s conversion, though tumultuous during the first phase of missionary work, came to a peaceful and pragmatic head at the Althing (Gronlie 2002). Only the Orkneys and Norway showed substantial resistance to Christianity, and in both cases wealthy earls and petty kings found their independence being wiped out by Olaf Tryggvason who was a powerful and Christian warrior (Crawford 2013). Norway, at least on the surface, seems to be the odd one out.

            Norway’s conversion was violent, but the reasons behind the resistance, like in the Orkney Islands, are often misinterpreted (Sanmark 2004). The Norwegian farmers were not fighting against Christ; they were fighting against tyrannical kings who were unabashedly breaking traditional laws and doing away with the local jarls (Hollander 1964). Both Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf had spent time raiding in Christian kingdoms overseas and both were baptized at the courts of different Christian kings (Derry 1979). They would have seen firsthand the wealth and organization that Christianity could bring to a kingdom, not to mention how the religion could bolster and strengthen their own kingships (Somerville and McDonald 2010). The man who fully realized the potential of what Christianity could do for a Viking king was Cnut. He watched his father wring out thousands of pounds from England before eventually taking the throne himself (Lawson 2004). Cnut seemed determined to be a player on the European stage, and in order to act the part, had to fashion himself after the rulers on the continent. He brought the ecclesiastical organization from England to Denmark, attended coronations on the continent, and even made a pilgrimage to Rome (Lawson 2004). Cnut was the ultimate Viking opportunist, carrying on the spirit of the heroes before him but within a new and organized context.

Cnut trying very hard to fit in

            Could the Christianization of Scandinavia be an extension of Viking opportunism? The Rus equated serving in Christian Byzantium with a degree of wealth and prestige (Tolochko 2011). The Scandinavians modeled their coins after the Anglo-Saxon mints, impressed more by their power and wealth than any religious affiliation (Geltig 2004). The lack of opposition to the religion and what appears to be welcoming invitations to missionaries stand in stark contrast to popular depictions of Vikings (Downham 2012). The fact is that Vikings took what they could get wherever they could get it: an outpost in Greenland, a duchy in Normandy, a town in Ireland, an earldom in Orkney. Yet they also knew when to give in. When confronted by the formidable Alfred the Great, the Vikings retreated behind the Danelaw (Garmonsway 1972). The aggressive Native Americans and the intense winters of North America gave the Vikings enough trouble that they abandoned their Vinland camp (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000).

            With a history of preying on pressure points and striking while the iron was hot, there is no reason to think that the Vikings did not see Christianity as one last opportunity to achieve that power, prestige, and wealth they sought throughout the Viking Age. Of course, the riches that could be gained as part of a Christian kingdom outweighed what could be stolen from churches and monasteries and with much less personal risk! In fact, there is evidence that they were well aware of this fact, choosing to take part in pre-baptism rituals but refusing to be actually baptized (Sanmark 2004). By performing these rituals, Vikings, like Harald Klak, were able to leave the door to Christianity open in case they needed it (Robinson 1921). The evidence suggests that Christianity in the north was chaotic and that the Viking rulers seemed to pick and choose what religious customs they would adhere to and made them their own.

            If this was indeed the case, it is no wonder why measuring the Christianization of Scandinavia is so ineffectual. Because of the geography, the lack of towns, and the lack of Roman institutions, the first phase of the conversion was not seen as all that successful (Sanmark 2004). Angsar and Rimbert had to lower their expectations and just try to convey the essentials of Christ as a god rather than embark on any theology (Melnikova 2011). Some Vikings took these teachings gladly and incorporated them into their own existing beliefs. Ambitious contenders dominated the second phase of the conversion, whose goals were not to convert for the sake of Christ but for their own political ends, which culminated in King Cnut shamelessly advertising his desire to be on the same level as his European contemporaries. There can be no doubt that Christianity’s movement throughout Scandinavia can be marked and followed, but the evidence tells us very little about common attitudes and behaviors. The Vikings were aware of Christianity and its beliefs, but how much this actually affected the lives of those brilliant opportunists is impossible to tell.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Grass is Deader on Every Side

In the wake of the recent tragedy, I attempted to contact an officer that I had met in order to get his take on the whole ordeal. To offset his side, Jeff Grunewald, who specializes in the study of hate crime, had agreed to answer some questions. Unfortunately, the officer never responded and History Books never took on the Ferguson case.

With the non-indictments of both officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I felt that I needed to write something down, say something out loud. Nothing said here will change anything, but at least for my peace of mind, I want to be able say it.

I don't necessarily have a unique view, but because of my occupation I am able to see certain sides that I think some people cannot see. Let me start with a few things.

Unless you are a police officer, you have no idea how terrifying and difficult that job can be. I have taken some 911 phone calls that have scared the shit out of me, and I cannot imagine actually being there and dealing with those people and those situations in person. I won't say it is a thankless job because they tend to pat each other on the back and there are many out there who respect what they do. I consider myself included. They put themselves at risk every day to ensure order and maintain peace.

However. . .

I have met some officers who actively seek conflict. I have watched officers who thrive off of the adrenaline rush, who create games and contests at the expense of citizens. Short tempered and abrasive, some officers demand respect, and when it is not given, things get out of hand. I have never witnessed any officer I have worked with ever display what I thought was excessive force. But I heard the stories they told and picked up on their attitudes. It's a tough job and quite possibly the only way to cope is to become tougher.

On the other hand, I met plenty of officers who truly cared about their communities, who strove to be a positive force. One explained to me that he never liked pulling over people without a good reason because he knew it was scary. I couldn't believe my ears! At one agency, the traffic stops increased when the officers got bored. I'm sure there are plenty of statistics involved and perhaps some quotas to fill. But in the end, it seemed to me, and this has been acknowledged by other dispatchers, that there are two types of officers: those who do their job and those who live their job.

Which type of officers killed those two men?

The answer is irrelevant. The fact is that both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo took another person's life.

Whether they were good at their jobs or were bullies in uniforms does not matter at this point. There HAS to be repercussions for killing another human being.

There have been unfortunate whispers in the discussion as to why no one cares about black on black crime, or stories of a black officer killing a white citizen.These tangents do not take away the amount of black lives that have been erased by law enforcement. And shame on any of you who tried those antics. You were belittling two lives.

The "what about this?" argument accomplishes nothing. When an Indianapolis police officer passed away in the line of duty, the community mourned his loss. When people were run down in Broad Ripple, the community mourned their loss. The majority of this country does not delight in violence and whether you or the Facebook posts you read are aware of it, THERE ARE PEOPLE TRYING TO DO THINGS ABOUT IT.

Cure Violence
Force Change
Peace Over Violence

...just to name a few.

And, again unfortunately, officers are always going to back each other. It's a brotherhood that seems to ignore certain moralities and says, "I'm here for you no matter what." An admiral sentiment, and even an understandable one. No one but fellow officers can understand the hardships they face. Blind support, however, has its snags. What happens when their brothers are wrong? Neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner had a brotherhood to lean on. The police community will rally around fallen officers or endangered officers, for good reasons. But the community has to be able to acknowledge its mistakes because these facts cannot be denied:

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner. Neither were held accountable for their actions. Part of me thinks that the reason they were not indicted was to save Ferguson from further harm, but does the grand jury and the police force understand the message they are sending to us? Neither man's life was worthy enough to be looked at in a court of justice. Think about that. It would be one thing if the facts showed in court that there was a shadow of doubt, that there was some truth to Officer Wilson's story, and they were acquitted by a jury. But the families do not even get that.

In both cases, at least from a 911 dispatcher's point of view, protocol was broken. Speaking to a couple dispatchers, one of whom used to be an officer and another who is a veteran, provided their thoughts on the matter: If Wilson's account is true, they said, they would have fired 20 more times. But even then, they should have gone to trial to present a defense, to at least give some dignity to Michael Brown who was shot multiple times and left in the street to rot.

What do we do now? Are we to be terrified or defiant? The backlash against protesting, both peaceful and violent, has been huge. But what do we do? Our country just told us twice in a brief period of time that these two citizens, these two black men, did not matter enough to receive a fair trial by a jury of their peers. What if the only way to be heard is through destruction?

I heard this question often: why would you destroy your own community?
Because your own community just told you that your life isn't worth a god damn.

I do not hate cops. I am thankful for the service they provide and I do my best to follow the laws that they were hired to enforce.

But black lives DO matter. Criminal lives DO matter. Homeless, deadbeat, white trash, immigrant lives DO matter. Police officers' lives DO matter.

Whatever Michael Brown did that day does not matter. A confrontation occurred between an unarmed man and an officer who sat in a running vehicle with multiple non-lethal options at his fingertips, one of which he did not take with him that day because it was cumbersome. Whatever Eric Garner did that day does not matter. According to the video, he was nonviolent. And even if he said the worst possible thing a man can say to another man, Officer Pantaleo had a fucking duty to serve and protect that man. If a law was in fact broken, then there is protocol in place so that officers would not have to resort to a choke-hold--a tactic that had since been disbanded.

Now the grass is deader on every side. Black men will be more defiant, demanding to be treated as equals, to not be hassled. And officers, who are already on edge, will respond with their continued history of aggression. I can't tell you how many calls I've received saying that there were suspicious black men in the area. One time, we caught a thief! Another time, two men were sitting in their car on their lunch break. Another time, a man was stopped while walking home from work. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, the officers are RESPONDING TO A CITIZEN'S CALL. Very rarely does an officer self-initiate a suspicious activity. We are the ones asking them to see what those black men are up to.

On the other side, officers have one goal at the end of the day: to make it home. They are going to shoot you before you shoot them. And can you honestly blame them, with the shit they have to see? That badge gives you a right to carry a gun, and I think most of the general public puts their trust in you to make the right decision. You won't always make the right decision. And when you don't, you have to admit it.

Would anything have changed if Officer Wilson had come out immediately and said, "Yes, I shot and killed Michael Brown. I wish that I hadn't, but my life was in danger and it was the decision I made"? I don't know. It certainly would have been better than the PR circus that followed, slandering the deceased Brown's name and ultimately attempting to justify those shots fired.

The ends do not justify the means. Criminals are put into prison, not fired upon. And unarmed citizens should not shot multiple times or choked until they die. Again, any past transgressions are irrelevant now. Even if Mike Brown stole some cigarillos, does that justify his murder? How can a terrorist or school shooter or theater shooter be kept alive to stand trial when a man minding his own business on the streets of New York City is murdered without a second thought given to his killer?

A precedent hasn't been set--it has been fortified. Two unarmed, black citizens were murdered by police officers and not one god damn thing has been done about it.

There is an impasse: officers will not want to give up their guns. The minute they follow non-lethal protocol, an officer will be killed and we will have another controversial tragedy on our hands. But I guarantee you the man who kills him, regardless of his skin color, will see the inside of a courtroom. Here is the only point I am making: Michael Brown's life was worth just as much as Darren Wilson's life and should be treated that way. Eric Garner's life was worth the same amount as any officer. His passing should be mourned by the country. An officer understands and accepts the risks and responsibilities when he puts on that uniform--he chose this profession. What choice does a black man have? Dress the way white people want him to so that he doesn't look like a thug? What about a poor man? Mexican immigrant?

I am in NO WAY down-playing what law enforcement has to face and the demons that probably torment them for the decisions they have to make. I can almost guarantee that both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo made a thousand good and right choices that helped citizens and their communities, decisions that hurt no one, decisions that caused them to quietly and thanklessly sacrifice certain things and we should be grateful for that duty. But they both made just one terrible decision, whether or not you think it was warranted. The bottom line is that these officers killed two black men, to add on to the growing list, and walked away without anyone in the judicial system even saying, "Wait a second, let's at least give this a once over." Both officers could have been exonerated, but at least they would have stood trial and held accountable. But they weren't, and our country sent a message loud and clear: black lives do not matter.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dark Wings, Dark Words: Old Norse Imagery in A Song Of Ice and Fire

The popular fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has become one of the most important staples in its genre, thanks in part to the television show that shares the title of the first book, Game of Thrones. With its popularity, as well as the author’s patient delivery on the next installment, have come many questions and theories from fans as to how the creator George R. R. Martin got his inspiration. Martin has publicly claimed that the story within the ASOIAF universe is derived from England’s War of the Roses (Webchat 2014). In fact, the names of the feuding families, Lannister and Stark, resemble England’s own Lancaster and York (Ingham 1996). Martin’s website also mentions a handful of sources that he utilized in his descriptions of Westeros, all of which deal with the Middle Ages (FAQ 2014). Missing from that list is any source that indicates that he purposefully drew inspiration from the Vikings. Yet there are many references, both overt and subtle, not only to Viking culture but also to the mythology that helped build the Viking world.

                Martin’s work is influenced by Viking culture in two major ways. A practical approach can be seen in the characteristics of the men of the Iron Islands and in the men of the North. The iron-born from Pyke are a marine-based culture that reflects the Viking dependence and dominance of the sea (Martin 1999). They sport long ships and have been known to terrorize the coast of the mainland in passages that sound as if they were pulled out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Martin 2010). The men who serve the Starks in Winterfell share, among other characteristics, the affectionate name of ‘Northmen.’ More than anything else, the geography and climate give them the resemblance of Scandinavians who battle the brutal cold of the North Atlantic (Martin 1996).

                Although many things could be dissected using this first approach, it is Martin’s second use of Viking culture that I will be focusing on. His use of magic and his descriptions of magical beings, especially of those who live beyond the wall, can arguably be derived from sources like Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the Viking Age sagas (Byock 2005). Without any commitment from Martin himself it is difficult to say whether or not this imagery is intentional. However, there can be no denying that the Vikings and in particular the Norse mythology, helped to shape Westeros.

                The Starks and their banner men had more in common with Vikings than just living in a cold climate. Their relationship with the weather, however, is aptly similar. “Winter is coming,” the Starks’ words of warning, would not be out of place in Scandinavia. Of course any setting that experiences harsh winters would appreciate that sentiment, but the sagas suggest the Vikings had more than a healthy respect for winter. In Grettir’s Saga, the apparition that haunted Thorhallstead lessened its attacks during the warm months while wreaking havoc on the farm during autumn and winter (Somerville and McDonald 2010). Is the author attempting to portray a fear of winter and the hardships it brings? The Starks also seem to fear the long winter, as seasons last for years in that universe. This too has its roots in the Viking mythos. In his Edda, Snorri mentions Fimbulvetr, or the Great Winter, that signals the onset of Ragnorok and the end of the world (Byock 2005).

                Along with their respect for the cold, the men of the north shared with their Norse counterparts an adherence to the “old gods” (Martin 1996). Neither the Starks’ gods in the weirwoods nor the Seven who reside in the sept satisfactorily portray the familiar traits of the Old Norse gods, yet both the men of the North and the Vikings saw their belief system diminished by a competing religion (Martin 1999). The Vikings were the last of the barbarians, the heathens at the edge of the world (Tschan 2002: 38-39). Sweden clung to the old religion well into the 12th century while the rest of Europe had been Christianized for centuries (Leiren 2012). Likewise, the adherence to the old gods of Westeros gradually gave way to the more popular and organized worship of the Seven, which spread from the south. The geography and the stubborn devotion to their traditional gods mirrors Scandinavia’s tumultuous conversion (Hollander 1964).

                In stride with the preservation of the old gods, Martin’s mythological approach becomes more tangible in the north, particularly beyond the wall. There are a handful of magical creatures that live in the northern territories, including giants, mammoths, the Children of the Forest, the Others, and the elusive grumkins (Martin 1996). The wall—itself a magical structure—serves as a barrier between the natural and supernatural. Beyond the wall is Martin’s version of Utgerdr, the land of the giants and the supernatural world beyond Midgard. The wall represents a more concrete version of the Midgard serpent or the Bifrost Bridge—a structure that not only divides cultures but also protects the inhabitants (Byock 2005).
This is what archaeologists believe the Midgard serpent may have looked like
                Giants play a substantial role in the Norse mythology and their influence in ASOIAF can clearly be seen (Lindow 2001). Other references are a little more difficult to unearth. Mance Rayder seems to have found the Horn of Joramun, a magical horn that supposedly wakes the giants and destroys the wall (Martin 2000). The name Joramun sounds very similar to Jörmungand, which is another name of the MIdgard serpent (Lindow 59). The horn also seems to be an inverted version of Heimdell’s horn, Gjallarhorn. Heimdell is stationed on the Bifrost Bridge as a lookout, and he blows his horn in warning at the approach of any giant who might threaten Midgard (Byock 2005).

                What about the wights, the Wildings, and the Children of the Forest? The walking dead were not unusual according to the sagas. Grettir battled the deceased Glam in Grettir’s Saga, and Gunnar is glimpsed having a wonderful time in his tomb in Njal’s Saga (78:129). The sagas can also shed light on the Wildings and the Children of the Forest, collectively represent the Sámi people. The Sámi were neighbors to the Vikings, residing in the extreme northern regions of Scandinavia (Schnurbein 2003). The Norse had mixed feelings about the Sámi, considering them second class while at the same time revering them for their magic (Zachrisson 2008:3). Even though they were a real culture, the Norse believed them to exist, or at least originate from Utgerdr (Zachrisson 2008:3). The simultaneous respect and disdain coincides with the view of both the Wildings and the Children of the Forest within Westeros (Martin 1996).

                The Sámi co-existed for years within the larger Norse community, even fighting alongside the Vikings against the influence of Christianity (Zachrisson 2008:3). Yet with the onset of the Christian Age in Scandinavia, the magic of the Sámi was frowned upon and they were driven, like the Wildings and the Children of the Forest, to the margins of society (Martin 1996). Martin seems to have split the characteristics, with the Wildings maintaining the familiar, if not suspect, appearance of the Sámi, while the Children of the Forest took on the infamous magical properties for which the Sámi were known (Schnurbein 2003). No connection can be made for the Others, and are therefore simply a terrifying creation from the mind of George R. R. Martin!

                Most mythological references concentrate on the north, but the legend of Valyria and the Targaryen conquest are gleaned from Muspell. There is some disagreement about whether Muspell is a place or a group of people (Lindow 2001). Snorri describes it as a southern region that is “bright and hot,” and that it “flames and burns and is impassible for foreigners” (Ch 13). The description sounds eerily like the ruin of Valyria where no one dares to venture (Martin 1996). Though Muspell is involved in the creation of the cosmos, Martin uses the sons of Muspell and their role in Ragnorok as inspiration for the Targaryen conquest. According to Snorri, “the sky splits apart and in ride the sons of Muspell. Surt comes first, riding with fires burning both before and behind him (Byock 2005). Surt, which means black, could easily be interpreted as one of Aegon’s dragons, or even Daenerys’s own Drogon. Some fans have suggested that Martin is actually copying the events of Ragnorok in his novels, but that is stretching the similarities to breaking point (Dorian 2013).

                The most startling representations of Norse mythology within Martin’s universe are the frequent references to Odin, including his appearance, his magical abilities, and his interactions with the the supernatural world. One of Odin’s most notorious symbols is the raven. The use of birds as messengers may have been borrowed from a different source, but the fact that ravens carry news in Westeros is a direct reference to Odin’s ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) (Lindow 2001). Hugin and Munin fly off each day to gather information for Odin, and in this way he increases his wisdom (Byock 2005). Odin is not known for being a particularly benevolent god and would assuredly approve of the Westerosi proverb, “Dark wings, dark words.”
Odin liked a healthy breeze, apparently

                Martin splatters the pages of his novels with images of crows and ravens. From the Crows of the Nightswatch to Euron Crow’s Eye, the images and names of characters are Odin-inspired. By far the most intriguing of these characters is the Three-Eyed Crow, who reveals numerous traits that he shares with Odin. In the eddic poem Griminsmal, Odin says that after his birds leave him for the day, he is more concerned about Munin’s return than Hugin’s (Hollander 1962). The poem states that Odin cherishes memory over thought, which might explain the Three-Eyed Crow’s incessant demands for Bran Stark to remember his fall (Martin 1996). The power of memory was very important in passing on the poems and sagas in an illiterate society (Rowlands 1993).

                The Three-Eyed Crow, before his transformation, was Brendyn Rivers, an albino man whose red birthmark in the shape of a bird earned him the nickname, “The Bloodraven” (Martin 2010). During the Blackfyre Rebellion, he lost an eye, which is another traditional characteristic of Odin (Byock 1990). Around that time, Rivers was elevated to Hand of the King under Aerys (Martin 2010). How he ended up beyond the wall with the Children of the Forest is a mystery. The state in which Bran finds him, however, is another indication that The Bloodraven was modeled after Odin. Hanging from the roots of an enormous tree, Rivers, now dubbed the Three-Eyed Crow, is suspended somewhere between life and death. He is dramatically reenacting Odin’s hanging from the tree Yggdrasil in order to acquire wisdom (Crossley-Holland 1980). It is unclear how The Bloodraven became entangled in the roots of the great weirwood, but his enticements to Bran give a similar impression of acquiring a secret skill or magic (Martin 2011).
Lord Rivers has a history of "enticing" children

                The Three-Eyed Crow also performed a type of magic associated with Odin. Changing skin or shape-shifting is a common occurrence in ASOIAF and one that Odin was known to practice (Hollander 1964). His body would remain stationary as he transferred his consciousness to other creatures. This same behavior can be noted in Bran, Varamyr, and other wargs who share this ability (Martin 2011). The display of this magic is the closest Martin gets to seidr, something contemporary writer Robert Jordan greatly exploits (Jordan 1990). Seidr is roughly translated as ‘magic’ but represents more of a communication with the supernatural, in particular Odin’s gift of prophecy (Lindow 2001). Eldar Heide makes a strong case that seidr is a reference to spinning threads, which can be backed by the Valkaryies threading men’s intestines to determine their destinies in Njal’s Saga (2002). Heide’s thread or rope theory rings true for the shape-shifting magic of Westeros, both in Jojen’s fear for Bran getting lost inside his wolf and with the great weirwood weaving its roots in and out of the body of the Three-Eyed Crow.

                It is highly doubtful that Martin intended to produce such an Odin-heavy culture. The mythology is so embedded in the fantasy genre that many authors are unaware that their creative works are influenced by the Old Norse belief system. Judging by Martin’s practical approach, he was not oblivious to Viking culture and could realistically have meant to include that much imagery. Regardless, the fact that an author could produce such a huge work with numerous unintentional or even intentional references is a testament to the power and the legacy of Norse mythology.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Big Whiff: Contemplating What Never Happened

Playing the "what if" game as a historian is dangerous. It is all fun and games until someone starts dribbling out conspiracy theories (which, of course, we love here at History Books), or until someone begins reshaping historical viewpoints based on heresy. There is a thin line between infuriatingly inaccurate theories and game-changing revelations.

So what do we do with the term "non-event"? Can we look at a moment in history and say, "such and such didn't happen and it didn't change a god damn thing...which is important." Now we aren't playing a what-if game. We aren't asking, "What if Hitler had learned a lesson from Napoleon and hadn't stormed into Russia?" No, instead we are looking at a critical moment in which a history was on course for a certain destination and was interrupted by decision not to act.

A good flimsy example is America's involvement in the first Gulf War. The American forces got Hussein out of Kuwait, but instead of cutting off the head of the aggressor, the military wiped their hands, patted themselves on the back, and went back home. This decision not to pursue the Iraqi dictator weighed heavily on those involved. They felt cheated, especially Dick Cheney who spent eight, long Clinton years scheming and eating tubs of potato salad in his underground lair. As soon as the opportunity arose (9/11), Cheney and his band of orcs put all of their energies into their unfinished business in Iraq, leading to one of the most confusing wars and allocating of military resources the U.S. has ever seen....since Vietnam!

Dick Cheney chomping on a delicious plate of revenge

But this post isn't about Napoleon, or Hitler, or Cheney (but it's fun to think about those three hanging out and swapping stories, huh?). This post is guessed it...VIKINGS!

One of my professors used the term "non event" to describe a decision not to act that (possibly) changed the course of Scottish history. My question here is this: do we honor a non-event as something worth noting in history?

The non-event that didn't take place happened in the late 9th century. In 853, Olaf, the son of a certain Gudrod, left Norway to wreak havoc in Ireland. According to the Irish Annals, Olaf and his brother Ivar were a nearly unstoppable force in the British Isles. In the 860s the annals record Olaf diving into Scotland and taking many hostages for either ransom or slaves. Then, in 870, we see a curious move at the fort of Dumbarton. Instead of the typical Viking hit and run, Olaf and his forces lay siege to the fortress. This speaks volumes to not only the size of Olaf's force and resources but also in the ability for the Viking forces to adapt.

At the peak of his power in Ireland and Scotland Olaf is summoned by his father Gudrod to assist him in Norway. The mighty Harald Finehair was making his moves for king of a consolidated Norway. Gudrod, a king in his own right, planned on fighting Harald and requested the sizable force of his son to lend a hand. Olaf agrees, leaving what could have been a vast Scottish/Irish empire to disappear in the legendary battle of Hefrsfjord (probably).

The idea is this: Olaf was on a roll and would have more than likely created something that reflecting the Danelaw within the Scottish interior. Instead, he let himself be dragged into Norway's drama, leaving Scotland to its own devices. Of course, in a few years, The Great Army arrived and began raids anew in and around Scotland. But what if upon arrival they found an already established Viking kingdom? Shit, that was a what-if, wasn't it?

The professor's argument is that Olaf's decision not to stay in the British Isles and continue riding his wave of success was one of the biggest non-events in Scotland's history. Can we validate this claim? Is Olaf's inaction something we can say changed history? Or do we simply remark that Olaf blew it, giving up what could have been a great dynasty for a most certain death in Norway?

I am not sure if there is a right or wrong answer. Historians are going to talk about whatever they damn well please, be it an actual event or non-event. Close calls are fun to discuss, but I am just not sure we can give any academic credit to something that never happened.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Been Hangin' Around: The Unlikely Legacy of the Orkney Earldom

Greetings, history fans!

Classes started last week, and while I feel slightly overwhelmed and entirely out of touch here in the United States, I am giddy beyond belief to be participating in the Viking Studies Program through the University of the Highlands.

I have been reading through The Northern Earldoms: Orkney and Caithness from AD 870-1470 by Barbara Crawford as sort of pre-homework because I have no idea where to find my reading assignments. So I just figured I'd read all my books immediately (my god, I'm gonna fail these courses)! The book is on the reading list for the course History of Vikings in the Scottish Islands and the Irish Sea Region, and it focuses on the unique situation the developed across the Pentland Firth. An Earldom, supposedly set up during the reign of King Harald Fairhair (872-930), somehow withstood the violence of the Viking Age and even flourished into the early Middle Ages.

There are a number of reasons to look into the unique history of the Orkney earldom. Its beginnings impeded by myth, its location divided by more than just a waterway, its surprising autonomy, and its longevity are just a few reasons the earldom stands out. Stranded between two cultures, two kings, two landmasses, the Orkney earldom served specific purposes for both northern Scotland and Western Norway. According to Crawford, the island served Norway as a springboard to the west, while giving mainland Scotland a buffer zone from the Vikings who were pouring in from the east.

A look across the Pentland Firth

The beginnings of the earldom is disputed, but one fact is agreed upon: the earls of More (south western Norway) took on the new position out west. The story in the sagas is that Harald decided he would lead an expedition to the Orkney islands after some accounts had reached him of some Vikings terrorizing the area. Keep in mind that Harald was the first person to attempt to "unify" Norway and he probably saw the North Atlantic islands as an extension of his domain. The powerful earl of More, Rognvald, and his son Ivar followed the king and gave the Vikings the ol' what-for. Ivar died during the campaign and as compensation, Harald set up Rognvald as his "earl" there to protect the Orkney islands from future trouble-makers.

I wonder if there is more to Harald's gesture. Crawford explains how the earls from More could already have had a presence in the Orkneys. Harald's trip could have been to thump some skulls and get those earls in line under his throne. If this theory is true, it contributes a more palpable power to Harald Fairhair. If the saga version is true, however, could it be possible that Harald was attempting to shake off a rival? Unifying Norway was a big job. The earls from Lade started to fade and perhaps Harald saw Rognvald as more of a threat than an asset. The plan, if indeed there was one, backfired. Rognvald passed on the new position, handing it his brother Sigurd (with the king's blessing of course). Harald, who thought he was a bad ass with his beautiful hair, probably was kicking himself. Now he had a powerful earl at home AND in Orkney. Both answered to him nominally, but as we will see the Orkney earls had quite a bit of freedom.

Earl Sigurd was cut off from Harald the newly patched-together Norwegian kingdom by a significant stretch of the north Atlantic and was pretty much on his own. He turned his eyes across the Pentland Firth to Caithness, the north western peninsula of Scotland. Using the classic Viking Age economic policy--take whatever isn't nailed down--Sigurd began raiding across the firth into Scotland and slowly conquering lands for his and his men's financial gain. He soon joined up with Thorsteinn the Red who was ripping apart the Scottish realm. He claimed Catihness as his own but died not long after. Sigurd, seeing his chance, filled the hole left by Thorsteinn, thus "bridging" the firth under Sigurd's umbrella.

Sigurd now had control of both banks of narrow straight that separated the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland, which meant the earl controlled the traffic to and from the area. This was a big deal. Over the next few centuries, the earls could be friend or foe to the Norse invaders or the Scottish natives to the south. At the time however, the earldom that stretched across the water served the Norse kingdom in not only taxation and tribute money but also as a refueling station for forays into the British Isles.

The movements of Sigurd and his descendants went largely unchecked by the Norwegian kings. In fact, as the Christian kingdoms in Scandinavia solidified, the title of jarl became virtually non-existent. In the late Iron-Age and into the early Viking Age the seas were filled with jarls claiming some small pocket of dominance. One by one, the jarls were eliminated, run off, or succumbed to mightier kings. Except in the Orkneys. When all their contemporaries were going the way of the buffalo, they stayed strong all the way through the mid-15th century. Was it necessary? Did Norway really have that much to lose? Did the Orkney earls wield that much power that the kings across the sea couldn't flex their power enough to do away with the title?

After Sigurd's death the earldom passed to Rognvald's son Torf-Einar. There is little doubt that Torf-Einar served as an earl, yet his story is a common literary device in the saga corpus. The son of an earl and a concubine, Torf-Einar had to prove himself and overcome the stereotypes that plagued such a low status. This back story is in itself a foreshadowing: the only reason it exists in the literature is because you know that the character is bound to do impressive things that throws the weight of his past off of his shoulders. Torf-Einar indeed takes the empty seat in the earldom and defies Harald and his sons, albeit eventually making peace. Still, he put up a fight!

Torf-Einar's title was passed down to a son with the most bad ass name: THORFINN SKULLSPLITTER!! Unfortunately, the Skullsplitter does not get much attention in Crawford's book, and it is his children we have to focus on, none of whom have a nickname anywhere near as cool as their father's. In the unfathomable Norse tradition, Thorfinn left the entire earldom to all of his sons, each of whom wanted the entire earldom for himself. Skuli and Liot fought each other over the territory, both pulling resources and manpower from the Scottish mainland. What is significant about these battles is that they illuminated how the sons of Thorfinn saw Orkney and Caithness as one entity and not separate domains.

Thorfinn lives on in morning after hangovers

After a brief interruption by the infamous Eirik Blood-Axe and his unruly sons, the title of earl finally fell upon Sigurd II, or Sigurd the Stout. This second Sigurd aggressively defended Caithness from the Scots who wanted to incorporate it into the rest of the northern kingdom. Not only did he secure the Scottish half of the realm, he pushed further into Scotland than any earl had before, stretching the boundaries down to Ross and even pushing into the Hebrides. Earl Sigurd is remembered in multiple sagas which attests to his prowess as a warrior and ruler in the Orkneys and Scotland. The sagas also attribute Olaf Tryggvasson as forcing Sigurd to convert, not only displaying his power over Orkney as its rightful king but also essentially putting an end to the traditional Viking way of ruling in the Orkney. As Crawford puts it, "Sigurd's death, and the succeeding years of rivalry among his sons, marks an end of the Viking era in the northern earldoms, in which raiding was the predominant lifestyle of the earls, and their main means of amassing wealth."

Is it fair to blame Olaf Tryggvasson for the end of this era? Probably not. However, he flexed his muscles in Orkney in a way that no Norse king had done so far. And his successor, St. Olaf, would follow in his footsteps. The days of the strongly independent earls were over. The rulers still enjoyed a small amount of freedom from Norway because of the long distance, but as we have said before, the earldom began leaning more heavily toward is Scottish neighbors as they grew more organized.

Upon Sigurd the Stout's death there followed a very interesting period in which three sons tried to rule the earldom together: Brusi, Einar, and Thorfinn the Mighty. The latter was the ambitious brother who wanted to rule as one earl. Einar died early on but Brusi refused to give up the lands left to him by Sigurd. Thorfinn busied himself by fighting off certain Scottish kings who wanted to take back the lands his father had won. Then Thorfinn caught a lucky break. His co-earl Brusi and the great King CNUT passed away around the same time (1030-1035-ish) and left a power vacuum that Thorfinn gladly filled. With all of his threats eliminated, Thorfinn enjoyed a brief period as the sole earl of Orkney. Even the arrival of Brusi's son who took back the lands of his father did not bother him all that much. Everything seemed peachy until the arrival of the unlucky, the disgraceful, the old Viking snake-in-the-grass KALF FUCKING ARNASSON!

If you follow History Books (which I am not sure anyone actually does), then you will remember our extensive coverage of Kalf Arnasson when we were reading through The Saga of St. Olaf. Kalf had betrayed his brothers and his king, more than likely gave St. Olaf his mortal wound, stayed on for some reason in the court of Magnus Olafsson until things got too weird and he high-tailed it to Orkney where he had a relative (Thorfinn) off of whom he could mooch.

Kalf's arrival is stunning. He already fucked things up in Norway. And then he fucked things up in Orkney! The sagas say that Kalf showed up with a large following and really put a financial strain on Throfinn. The earl's solution to his money problems was to take back the land from his nephew Rognvald with whom he had a relatively decent relationship. The two sides met at sea, Kalf choosing to fight with Thorfinn and ultimately deciding the battle. Both earls survived the battle but they remained hostile toward one another which eventually led to the separation of the earldom. While it existed as one entity it was ruled separately by two different men. Thanks for everything, Kalf! You really know how to fuck up the entire North Atlantic!

We will leave the Orkneys right here and hopefully pick back up as we continue through Crawford's excellent book. If we learned anything today it is don't be anything like Kalf Arnason. And I hope you found the history of the earls as interesting as I do. Hello? Is this thing on?

I am hoping to post more as I continue doing research for the Viking program. Until then, History Fans, keep your noses clean and don't mooch off your relatives!

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Women Want: A Deeper Look at Women, Law, and Violence in Njal's Saga

Welcome back, History Fans!

The last couple months have been a whirlwind! I am officially a resident of Indianapolis, and I begin my new career as a 911 call taker at 5:00am tomorrow morning. Moving, recording, and training have been taking up much of my time so I haven't been as astute in my studies as I'd like. In fact, I had to do homework so I could be certified to help keep people alive over the phone! However, I've been crawling my way through Njal's Saga during lunch breaks and evening deck hangs (until the wasps show up and drive me back inside). A curious passage in the saga took me back to William Ian Miller's book, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking. If you remember, we discussed his book earlier here on History Books. Mr. Miller took us into the subtle and complex world of Icelandic law. In his book, he breaks down the same curious passage from the saga, which is what I want to discuss today: the social limits of the law.

In Njal's Saga, we have a formidable and respected warrior, Gunnar, who is married to the trouble-making Hallgerd. Prior to this point in the saga, Gunnar's buddy Njal has helped him out of a few tight spots, but the wives of both men have carried on a relentless blood-feud, trading bodies. On one side a slave is killed, on the other side, a servant has his brains bashed in by an axe. Gunnar and Njal politely exchange the money due for the compensation of each man. While the blood-feud escalates, both men chastise their wives but without much conviction and the killings climb the social ladder so that the compensations get more and more expensive. The men maintain their friendship and even manage to have relatively normal (at least what we can see) relationships with their wives, even though they are picking off  each others' households one by one.

A famine is ravaging through Iceland at this time. As you might recall from our previous discussions, the early settlers really destroyed Iceland's ecosystem and while farming continued normally for centuries, there was a period of adjustment where famines like this were not uncommon. Gunnar is a friendly fella, so he is sharing his wares to all his buddies and kin who are hit hard by the lack of food. What a nice guy! But soon the famine catches up with him and he is in a tight pinch. Rumor has it that a man named Otkel up in Kirkjubaer has PLENTY of butter and cheese, so Gunnar decides to ride over to this guy's farm to ask him to sell his food. This is highly unusual and against common custom in Iceland. First of all, Gunnar is not invited. It's seen as pretty rude to just show up unannounced. Secondly, Gunnar doesn't allow Otkel to invite the traveler in for a meal and conversation. Instead, Gunnar asks his would-be host at his doorstep if he would sell him some of the excess food he's heard so much about.

William Ian Miller breaks down the context of the conversation that takes place thereafter between Gunnar and Otkel. The three conventional modes of commerce are discussed, which include a purchase of the goods, a gift to be compensated for in the future, or a raid, suggested by Thrain Sigfusson, which meant that the goods would be taken by force right then and there only to be settled later through a lawsuit or arbitration. Our focus in this study, however, is not on the different way Icelanders purchased their goods. Instead, we went on between Gunnar and his wife after this failed quest to buy food.

With Otkel refusing to sell, and quite within the social right to do so, offers to sell Gunnar a slave. Gunnar accepts, already having taken a hit to his honor decides he doesn't want to leave empty handed and buys the slave. Some time after his return, Gunnar's wife decides to get back to her old tricks again. She decides to send that same slave back to Kirkjubaer to steal the butter and cheese he wouldn't sell. She threatens to kill the slave if he doesn't obey. The slave, Melkolf, tracks back to his master's farm, steals the food, and kills the fucking dog! Why, Melkolf?! He was just a cute little doggy! Anyway, Gunnar returns from the Althing and finds his wife Hallgerd serving a tremendous feast. He realizes at once that the food did not come from by acceptable means. And here is where we want to focus our attention. When Hallgerd proudly confesses she stole the food, Gunnar loses his temper and strikes her.

Now, I don't know how acceptable it was to hit a woman in medieval Iceland. Probably at this point in history, like today's NFL, it's totally acceptable. YOWZA! We want to look past (but certainly not belittle!) the domestic violence for now and point out a couple things that make this interaction so interesting. First of all we need to explore Hallgerd's back story. She had been married twice before. Her first husband had struck her and she had him killed almost immediately. Her second husband's brother struck her and she had him killed, too. She later divorced from her second husband only to marry Gunnar. Yet Gunnar lives on through the saga for quite some time. I haven't finished it yet so I am not certain if Hallgerd's wrath catches up to him or not, but the pattern is disrupted. She is not avenged immediately for reasons I will discuss in more detail below. The second peculiarity is that Hallgerd has been making Gunnar's life miserable for a long time. She's been picking off the Njal's household and servants. Njal is a man that Gunnar greatly respects and whose friendship he relies upon. Yet when his wife openly has three different people who are attached to Njal killed, Gunnar hardly tells her off. He meekly goes to Njal and pays him the compensation for each person. Yet when she steals some food from a neighbor, his wrath is such that he strikes her in the face.

 Here is a blurry photo an acceptable medieval domestic violence. 
I am sure glad we're past that point in history!

After going back through some of William Ian Miller's book, it became clear why this passage played out the way it did. In Iceland, you were expected to announce your misdeeds before you did them. For example, in every case where someone was killed in the blood feud between Hallgerd and Njal's wife, the women hinted that someone would end up dead, the men who killed for the women announced their intentions to the men they killed and allowed the victims a chance to fight. In each case, the killings were settled out of court because Gunnar and Njal were friends. However, an unannounced killing was considered murder. Does that sound like a thin line? You were a rotten scoundrel if you killed someone without owning up to it. Secrecy in Iceland was extremely taboo. And the same concept can be applied to the transfer of goods. It would have been completely acceptable for Gunnar and his men to steal Otkel's food when they visited him. They would have told him their intentions, Otkel would have had a chance defend himself, the men would have taken the goods, and Otkel would then sue for compensation later on at one of the Things.

What Melkolf does is completely unacceptable on a couple different levels. Neither he nor Hallgerd announces their intentions. They did not work within the social guidelines that made taking someone's goods permissible. Secondly, Melkolf goes at night in secret. A man who works in secret is not to be trusted. And perhaps worst of all, stealing from a man during a drought or famine could not have brought any honor to your name. Gunnar knows this. When he realizes the food at his table was obtained by such despised means, he has it taken away to be replaced by his own meat.

Hallgerd's actions up to the point of the theft were completely acceptable although a little eccentric. Blood-feuds were certainly common, although not the norm. And everything was done within the boundaries of not only the law but more importantly the social and cultural expectations and rules. She crossed a line when she sent Melkolf the Dogkiller off and, Gunnar knew he had been shamed in a serious way. He lost his cool and dealt his wife a mean blow to the head. Hallgerd's response is that Gunnar will wish he hadn't done that. Yet Hallgerd does not act in the way she had when she was previously beaten by other males. On one hand, the man the typically did her killing for her had been a part of her blood-feud. So maybe she didn't have the means to avenge the violence against her. Or perhaps she knew how huge her crime had been. We certainly are not excusing Gunnar for his actions. And knowing Hallgerd like we do, it will probably come back and bite him in the end. But taking into consideration all the subtleties that live within people's words and actions, I think that Hallgerd knew she had crossed the line and quite literally took one on the chin. She does not immediately retaliate because she knew she was in the wrong.

Melkolf's handy work

Women were not totally without power. We discussed in one post the importance of goading in Icelandic society. Even within the saga we see a stark contrast to Hallgerd in a woman named Unn. While Hallgerd acts on her own volition, Unn, who was also in an unhappy marriage, seeks the counsel of others. Once again, we see the importance of consulting out in the open. And while Unn does not announce it to the world, she follows her kinsman's advice and legally divorces her husband. She does it without disgracing herself and while maintaining a hold on her wealth and property. Her husband certainly loses face, particularly because her grounds for divorce were that he couldn't satisfy her in bed, but she does so within the social confines. I guess you could say he was a little UNN-happy with the outcome.

Njal's Saga is a goldmine of information, especially on the cultural landscape and the law. I am hoping that one of my classes, Gender Studies in the Viking Age, may illuminate our research a little more. What we can tell is that women could act on their own to an extent. Yet they could not participate in the law. What protection did they have? Could they also face sentences if they were not allow to defend themselves or make a lawsuit on their own? Unn makes certain moves that lead us to believe that she is an independent woman, while her counterpart Hallgerd is exposed as being a malicious person who crosses the cultural line and seems to be somewhat helpless in the end. As scholars we also have to keep in mind that this saga was written centuries after the Viking Age and that the gender roles may very well reflect the culture in which the manuscripts were written down. But we don't let that discourage us! Onward, History Fans, and keep your hands to yourselves!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Beginning is Nigh

My interest in Viking history began over five years ago in the form of a lecture series by Professor Kenneth Harl. I downloaded the lectures as a way to pass the time while I packed up and shipped out wonderfully hand-built guitar speakers at Weber. As Harl approached the Battle of Hastings my attention was pulled from my job to the action of King Cnut and the mess England was in during and after Aethelred's reign (Sorry, TA!). I stopped working completely to draw up a rough flow chart of the action of each character leading up to William's decisive win at the Battle of Hastings. It was then, when I should have been working, that I knew the Viking Age was the place for me.

Many of you might have been curious to know what my plans were. I'd been talking about the University of Iceland since I started reading about Vikings, and many people know that I was accepted to the University of Nottingham. I've been quiet about my plans because they were so uncertain. In April, I received my rejection letter from the University of Iceland. It was a crushing blow, but it did not deter me. Nottingham had always been more of a back-up plan, so I began to research it more thoroughly. When I confirmed that the tuition alone (not to mention plane tickets, living expenses, rent, books, etc) was over $20,000 for a one-year masters program, I decided Nottingham was not the right place for me. 

Back to square one, I contacted the wonderful Torfi Tulinius at the University of Iceland to ask him what could I do to improve my chances of getting accepted next year. His response was that because I had had such little contact with the language of Old Norse, I would struggle to keep up with the other students. Sure! No problem! I'm sure every school in the Midwest offers an Old Norse course! I began to panic as the already small list of institutions that offered the language began to shrink, as Old Norse is not taught regularly. It's offered here at Indiana University! But, I inherited that good, ol' Melton luck and the professor is going on sabbatical next year.

My searches, however, were not in vain. I discovered a school in the Orkney's and Scotland with the delightful name of University of the Highlands and Islands. They offer all kinds of degrees, including Viking history.... ONLINE! I quickly applied for a certificate program. Three courses (Old Norse/runes, Gender studies in the Viking Ages, and History of the Vikings in the Irish Sea) and I receive a certificate, which is not as good as a degree, but will prove that I mean business. There is the Old Norse that Iceland needs, plus some other actually tight classes that sound incredible. 

I spoke to Donna Heddle this morning and blew her nug when I started dropping names like Jesse Byock and David Dumville, and that I had written a song about Adam of Bremen. She informed me that if I continue with the master's program, they offer a Viking music class where they study black metal! 

She accepted me into the school over the phone. I start in September. While staying in Indiana is not as romantic as Iceland or England, I can still work full-time and save up. In December I will apply to the University of Iceland again, this time with a chip on my shoulder. But if they make the mistake of denying me again, Donna assured me that I will have a place at the University of Highlands and Islands and will finish up my master's degree online.

I can't adequately express how excited I am to finally be taking the first step towards this dream I've had for the last five years. I also can't thank my friends and family and especially my band enough for the support and the forced grins and nods when I start nerding out on them. 

In the words of Kevin McCallister: This is it. Don't get scared now.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Beyond the Mythology

Welcome back, History Fans. We’ve had some major setbacks here at History Books, which will explain our long absence. Unfortunately the folks at the University of Iceland didn’t seem to think I had what it takes! Maybe they thought they could kill my spirit, quell my passion, and smother my desire. They thought wrong. After taking a couple months off to finish Mockingjay (kinda sucked) and to start my second trip through LOST (what a dumb idea), I really just bummed around. Once May came around, however, I decided that was enough moping and that it was time to get back to work. I promptly ordered the wonderfully comprehensive book, The Viking World, edited by Stefan Brink, which is on the preparatory reading list for the University of Iceland (suck it). The book contains a lot of fascinating information, but for today, we are going to focus on our old favorite subject: religion.

I am going to skip over the mythology. The stories of the gods are extremely fun and highly instructive when it comes to understanding the Viking worldview. But we’ve dealt with the mythology, and today we are more interested in the particulars. The how and why, the when and where. Loki tricking Baldr then killing the poor guy doesn’t really provide much instruction for everyday life. The mythology was well known, spoken orally, and is probably much more metaphorical than we give it credit for, including a wonderful theory from Gro Steinsland about the mythology of pagan rulership in relation to gods and giants. But we want to stick to the framework of how the religion might have functioned.

                The religion of the Vikings is difficult to reconstruct. For one, the archaeological record is sparse. Besides a handful of objects, place names, and a couple of runes, there is virtually nothing left from the Viking Age or pre-Viking Age religious rituals. Instead, we are forced to rely on written sources, most of which were written during the Christian era in Iceland. These of course bring up many questions. How did the Christian beliefs of the writers like Snorri Sturluson affect their retrospective views of their ancestral religion? Can we trust them to cover certain things up, or worse, exaggerate in order to make Christianity that much better? This is almost certainly the case with Adam of Bremen (though probably not intentional) and with Snorri’s Ynglinga Saga. Enough nuggets seep through the sources and the sagas that can be checked by the archaeology record so that we can build enough of an idea of what the pagan religion may have looked like.

                It is important to note here that the Old Norse language did not have a word for “religion.” In this culture, their religious actions and beliefs existed side by side with their social lives. In fact one probably did not exist without the other. Their religion was part of their everyday lives. Which is not to say that they were fanatics or extremists within their religion. Instead, I think that the religion relied heavily upon the societal norms, which in turn were probably born out of religious beliefs. A good example from the etymology is the word “godi.” In Iceland, this word referred to a chieftain, which was a social occupation. However, the word also implies a religious affiliation. There is strong evidence that before the conversion to Christianity, the chieftains also had religious responsibilities, whether in holding celebration feasts or even overlooking specific ceremonies and rituals.

                This idea of the higher status society members performing religious rites is consistent through the sagas. A very good example that Snorri gives us is of King Hakon Sigurdsson who, at a banquet, is expected to take part in the ceremonial rituals which include toasts to the gods and serving his men out of a specific beaker. Because there are no specific references to priests or any other specific religious figures, it is widely accepted that the rulers (kings, earls, chieftains) as well as prominent farmers took on religious roles on top of their everyday occupations. There does not seem to be any Viking Age equivalent to the Christian clergy. This is mainly due to how well organized Christianity is and how loose the Norse belief system seems to have been. There is evidence from Iceland that churches built on farmers’ land were taken care of by those who owned it. Likewise, certain people might accrue titles such as “protector of the sanctuary.” Again, the line between social and religious is very blurred.

                The gods that were worshipped are well known, at least by name. Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, all topped the pantheon of the Norse gods. And yet many more gods are mentioned within the mythology but have little to no significance in the archaeological record. On the other hand, there are almost certainly place names and references to deities otherwise unknown to the written records. What is truly amazing is that no god seems to have been worshipped in abundance over another. Preference seemed to rely heavily upon geography and class. Odin was certainly more of the cerebral god, whose expertise including war tactics and poetry. The higher class of chieftains and warriors might have been more inclined to attach themselves to Odin, while the farmers and sailors might lean more towards Thor who controlled the weather and worked more with his muscles than with his brain. Still in other places, the fertility god Frey might be preferential, asking for his blessings upon a harvest. Without an institution like that of Christianity, the pagan religion appears widely dispersed, disorganized, and more like separate cults than a unified belief system. I believe that the entire thing seems pretty circumstantial. While many individuals and families probably attached themselves to a cult of a specific god, there is no evidence that they didn’t refer to another god when a different need presented itself. This is backed up by the opportunistic Viking activity in England and Europe, as well as the burial patterns which will be discussed below.

                So what did worship look like? We have a couple vivid descriptions from Adam of Bremen and from Ibn Fadlan, both of which are suspect. Adam paints us the famous bloody scene of the temple in Uppsala where there are hundreds of dead animals and humans hanging from trees. With inconclusive evidence that there was ever a temple like that in Uppsala, Adam’s account has to be taken with a grain of salt. Were there ever temples? Could Adam have heard a story and reconstructed a familiar Christian church but with pagan properties? Who knows! Ibn Fadlan gives us a more realistic story of some Swedish merchants building a sort of idol on a pole and offering food at the base with the request of good trading. After they were done at a market, they would return and offer a thanks offering. Many small idols have been found throughout Scandinavia, including some of my favorites of Frey with a giant dong (he was a fertility god)! To further affirm Ibn Fadlan’s story are the many “cult sites” where there have been large deposits of goods, jewelry and weapons, most likely sacrifices.

                                                  Frey full torqued (Kooks at the Pagan Family)

                Earlier I mentioned that there wasn’t a word for religion in Old Norse. The closest term that could be used is forn sidr which means “ancient custom” or seidr, which is translated as spell or other words MAGIC! And for those of you who enjoy the Wheel of Time series, the saidar used by Aes Sedai is very similar and more than likely this is where Robert Jordan got some of his ideas. Odin was known as a sorcerer, and there are many accounts of sorcery and magic throughout the myths and the sagas. Interestingly, and in line with Robert Jordan’s novels, men who used seidr were usually looked up as being shameful. Women used it often, and many were seers and fortune tellers. One theory as to why men were mocked for using magic is that there was a belief that you had to receive a certain amount of magic in order to communicate. Magic, religion and sexuality were all interconnected. A woman could receive sexually and therefore in the context of seidr. Men were to give, i.e. their ding dongs, and so using seidr gave off connotations of homosexuality which was a huge no-no back in the Viking Age.

                Burial sites have given us the most information pertaining to the Viking Age religion, at least when it comes to death and the afterlife. A very telling passage from Snorri at the beginning of Ynglinga Saga explains that a person should be buried with whatever he or she might want or need for the afterlife. In fact, you can just bury stuff in the ground before you die, and it will be yours when you get to Valhalla! Some people use this passage to explain the many hoards of silver and coins found across Scandinavia. But there must be some truth to Snorri’s claim. The graves excavated have found everything from tools and money to executed slaves and horses to ships and wagons. Yet while this theme of being buried with one’s goods and possessions is consistent not only in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden but also the Viking graves found across their sphere of influence, the nature of the graves vary widely. Cremation was the norm for the pre-Viking age and continued throughout many areas, but many inhumation graves are found in so many different ways. Some are buried in ships, some buried sitting in chairs. Some were facing north, some dressed for a journey in their sleds, while others had riches and silks occupying their graves. Some had chambers, others were set in crude boxes. The wide variety of burial rites again confirms that religious beliefs were just as varied. Some island cultures had their own burial customs which probably reflected their own unique religion under the umbrella of the Norse mythology. Even the famous Osberg ship was a highly unique case! Originally a burial mound was built over the middle of ship while the front stuck out and was accessible for the community at large! It was later completely covered, but it leaves a certain spooky doubt: what role did these graves and burial sites play within the community where there is evidence of use and intrusion?

                                              Here is a goofy reenactment of a Viking burial (Lore and Saga)

                There are so many questions that will never be addressed about the religion of the Viking Age. For instance, there is a reference to a ceremony or sacrifice to the elves. Were these merely seen as spirits? Did the Norse actually believe in little woodland creatures? We can only speculate, though it is difficult now that elves, trolls, and the magic itself have been adopted by popular literature and have probably lost their true meaning. Not that I’m complaining. I love that stuff!

                And so we keep researching, History Fans. Maybe one of the sagas will mention a place or an event that can open up a whole new perspective of how the Vikings worshipped or lived out their beliefs. And then those jerks in Iceland will be sorry they crossed us!!