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!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Golden Circle (Not As Good As The Golden Arches)

Hello again! We don't have much in the way of updates. Classes are getting tough, especially when you have to remember all 32 different ways an adjective can be spelled in Old Norse. But I took a wonderful trip with the Spanish crew and some friends from the Guesthouse around the Golden Circle. It was a lot of great tourist sites, including some places I've already visited. But I got some great photos and had a wonderful time not doing my homework.

It was a beautiful day. We got to see some waterfalls, including the stunning Gullfoss. We also saw some geysers, a glacier off in the distance, and a sheep roundup along the road!


Saturday, September 5, 2015

All Things to Those Who Wait: My Visit to Þingvellir

Hello again, History fans!

I have finished my first week of classes, and who would have guessed that I would have loved it?!

But let's get to the good stuff. Yesterday, my classmates and I took a trip to Þingvellir, along with our professors and a couple of the PhD students. For those of you who don't know, Þingvellir is the site where the medieval Icelanders held their national assembly, the Alþing.

I've dreamed about being able to walk through this place, where laws were passed, marriage contracts were made, court was held and disrupted--basically the venue for nearly all social interaction in Iceland during the Commonwealth era. But beyond that, the site is where two tectonic plates meet each other. Every year, these plates create enough uproar that Iceland grows by two centimeters. During our trip we crossed from the North Atlantic plate to the Eurasian plate.

Apart from being an incredibly beautiful and geologically unique place, it also hit me really hard how long I've been waiting for this opportunity. I certainly wasn't patient as I griped and complained about getting rejected from the school and had to wait and wait and wait to hear back from the school and government. But I persevered and it was overwhelming yesterday to walk in the footsteps of the characters from the sagas, to know that I worked very hard to be here, and it felt very right. I don't know if anything is different but it felt like something slid into place at Þingvellir. 

I'm reminded of the words of the late Jason Molina: Why put a new address on the same old loneliness? I certainly don't think being in Iceland has fixed anything for me, or changed me as a person yet. It's been only one week! But for the first time, I'm not waiting on the next step. I've taken one. Finally it felt like I was right where I belong, and I could not have picked a more perfect place to thank my lucky stars.

And of course, when we are feeling thankful, we have to listen to Jets to Brazil:

All things to those who wait. 

Stick with it, History Fans. Not everything is possible, but sometimes, when you work for it, a dream can come true.