31 July 2014

Viking Canada

The following article is another excellent heads-up from Medievalists. This presentation, by Megan Arnott, was actually one given by the author at Academia.edu.
For those readers wishing to delve further into what may have happened on Newfoundland more than 1000-years ago, Arnott's presentation will provide you with a great deal of insight into the subject. I also suggest you check my website at Vinland Publishing which will provide you with additional information on the same subject as well as past posts on this Axe of Iron blog.
Links have also been provided to the author's website and the original presentation to the International Congress on Medieval Studies. With the exception of the first slide - showing a re-creation of the Viking settlement of Leif Eiricksson at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, CA - of the presentation I was unable to view all 21-slides of Arnott's presentation, even though I downloaded her presentation from Academia.edu. Perhaps you, the reader, will have better luck. (ED.)


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Viking Canada (Presentation)

Paper given at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (2010)

First, an anecdote. (Slide 2) This sign marks the entrance to the very edge of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. It has been positioned along highway 430, also known as the Viking Trail, which provides the only real access to, among other places, St. Anthony, St. Lunaire-Griquet (affectionately called Griquet) and of course L’Anse aux Meadows. The sign was a result of recommendations made by an outside tourism consultant. As the story goes, this is actually not quite what the consultant had in mind. Having reviewed the details the consultant proposed putting a sign there that said ‘Is this Vinland?’ The Northern Peninsula Tourism association really liked the idea of putting a sign there, since people must pass through there to reach anywhere at the edge of the Northern Peninsula, but they rejected the idea of a question. Questions were for the 1960s, and they were no longer marketing the possibility that it was Vinland, instead they were marketing Newfoundland’s very tangible and real connection with the Vikings, and in particular the special relationship that the Northern Peninsula had with North America’s Viking history. That is the story as it was told to me. And hence the very brazen sign, unequivocally stating that the edge of Newfoundland is the Vinland from the Icelandic sagas.
(Slide 3) Newfoundland is at the heart of what we may consider to be ‘Viking Canada.’ In 1960 Helge Ingstad arrived on the shore of L’Anse aux Meadows, and along with the help of locals, including local patriarch George Decker, and Helge’s archaeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, proceeded to uncover what remains the only verifiable Viking settlement in North America to date. Uncover it and publicize it. (Slide 4) Since then the Newfoundland shore has offered proof of a direct connection between Canadian geography and the history of the European Middle Ages. It has also offered the best proof that the Vinland Sagas, the two Icelandic texts derived from an earlier oral tradition, were based on what we would consider to be facts and that some of the historical events described within those texts probably not only happened, but happened within the boundaries of what we now consider to be Canada.
(Slide 5) Let us look at how scholars and tourism associations have created this ‘Viking Canada.’ I will look first at the evidence employed to interpret the Viking voyages and then examine how the Viking arrival to North America has been interpreted. It is this interpretation, this scholarly medievalism, which has been used to interpret and reimagine the landscape in terms of the “tourist gaze.”[i] The landscape has been used to maximize the tourists understanding of the ‘medieval’ past. When we examine the evidence we do find that this medieval connection was not a subject that intrigued settlers on the North American “frontier,” for instance the people who were settling and building early London Ontario. The Viking voyages were of interest to those, both scholars and heritage industry workers, who were long settled since they were the ones interested in understanding and propagating their national past and helping to create a national myth.
(Slide 6) The so-called Vinland Sagas recount the voyages to a place called Vinland. There are two: Grœnlendinga saga (The Greenlanders Saga) and Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eirik the Red). Both tell of the Vinland voyages of Leifr Eiríksson and his successors, Thorfinnr Karlsefni and his wife Guðriðr Þorbjarnardóttir. Despite the fact that both sagas cover the same subject they are two very different sagas, telling vastly different tales. In Grœnlendinga saga there are at least four “successful” expeditions to the new lands, while in Eiríks saga rauða the details of these voyages are condensed into the two major voyages.[ii] Both sagas are based on oral tradition. The Grœnlendinga saga states that (quote) “it was Karlsefni who gave the most extensive reports of anyone of all of these voyages, some of which have now been set down in writing,” (unquote) though this could have been included because this saga in particular was trying to promote the deeds of both Guðriðr and Karlsefni.[iii] Both sagas take a great deal of time to describe the geography and landscape of the new lands.[iv] There is so much detail and instruction that discusses the land that this information looks very much like an oral map of the area. While scholars have been interested in many different aspects of the sagas, it is this description of the geography which has held the most fascination, because embedded within it there seem to be enough details to locate the oral map upon our modern map. For example, here is part of the description of Karlsefni’s journey in Eiríks saga rauða (Slide 7):
They sailed along the coast to the western settlement, then to the Bear islands and from there with a northerly wind. After two days at sea they sighted land and rowed over in boats to explore it. There they found many flat slabs of stone, so large that two men could lie foot-to-foot across them. There were many foxes there. They gave the land the name Helluland. …After that they sailed with a northerly wind for two days, and again sighted land, with large forests and many animals. An island lay to the south-east, off the coast, where they discovered a bear, and they called it Bjarney, and the forested land itself Markland. … After another two days passed they again sighted land and approached the shore where a peninsula jutted out. They sailed upwind along the coast, keeping the land on the starboard. The country was wild with a long shoreline and sand flats. They rowed ashore in boats and, discovering the keel of a ship there, named this point Kjalarnes. They also gave the beaches the name Furfustrandir for their surprising length. After this the coastline was indented with numerous inlets which they skirted in their ships…Karlsefni headed south around the coast … they sailed a long time, until they came to a river which flowed into a lake and from there into the sea. There were wide sandbars beyond the mouth of the river, and they could only sail into the river at high tide.[v]

Of course the most discussed, and most distinguishing feature of Vinland were the grapes that supposedly grew there. In Grœnlendinga saga it says that (quote)“Leif named the land for its natural features and called it Vinland (Wineland).” (unquote)[vi]
Some scholars, like W.A. Munn, have tried to interpret all the geographical features as descriptions of, or misunderstandings on the part of the Vikings of, actual characteristics of the new land, though most scholars accept that some of the details are inventions that have been added to the text at some point during the many stages of transmission from events to text.[vii]
The most likely scenario is that some of the details in the sagas include facts as we understand them, while some of them are absolute fabrications, and that most of them are somewhere in between. The trouble is figuring out which are which. The fact that the sagas represent some sort of real occurrence has been helped by the mention of Vinland in other textual sources. (Slide 8) The first time Vinland was ever mentioned in writing was in Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hamburgensis (The History of the Archbishopric of Hamburg) in 1075.[viii] There is also a mention of these new lands in Ari Þorgilsson froði’s Íslendingabók in 1120, and then in the Icelandic Annals of 1121 and 1347.[ix] There is also a short description in the Icelandic geographical treatises of the fourteenth century, Landafræði and Grípla.[x] However, these only support the fact that the Vikings were in Vinland, and that Vinland may have been real. Beyond that, they do not really support any interpretations concerning the specific location of Vinland.
There is not really enough evidence to solidly connect the descriptions in the texts to specific points along the coastline, even taking into account the places that have been linked to the past via archaeology, but there certainly is enough evidence for many well-founded arguments. (Slide 9) This helps explain why scholars are so divided in their opinions. Graeme Davis, in 2009, stated that there is enough evidence in the texts to connect Vinland with North America, even without the archaeology.[xi] However,  in 2000 at the Viking Millennium International symposium, staged a supposed 1000 years after Leifr landed in Vinland, Magnus Magnusson stated that what the archaeology shows is that the Vikings did make it to North America. This does not necessarily mean that North America is the location of Vinland. In his words, (quote) “the Vinland that we are celebrating so rapturously this year may not have existed at all in the strictly physical, geographical sense – … it was essentially an intellectual concept, not a place on the map.” (unquote) [xii]
(Slide 10) Many scholars have taken the mental map provided by the sagas and superimposed their own geography onto it. Some of the arguments have been very convincing, and some have not, but there certainly has been a lot of speculation. Halldór Hermansson’s 1909 Vinland bibliography was ninety pages in length and contained 750 entries. By 1997 Robert Bergersen’s Vinland bibliography, Writings Relating to the Norse in Greenland and America, comprised 400 closely printed pages.[xiii] Using the map provided by the “medievals” to actually map where the “medievals” were in North America has been a favourite pastime of scholars for nearly 200 years. However, as Richard Perkins points out, most analyses, (quote) “have led to unseemly disputes fuelled more by nineteenth- and twentieth- century-style nationalism than by scholarly debate based on any mature, long-term view.” (unquote)[xiv] The sheer amount of literature written on the subject speaks to the role that interpretation of the Vikings in North America has played. People feel a connection to, or a passion about, the subject. Part of this comes from the fact that because the information can be interpreted fairly successfully in a number of ways, people have vested interests in making certain locales synonymous with Vinland. However, what has really affected the scholarly discourse is that these tales purportedly describe a European voyage to North America. Because most of the nation comes from a settler-invader background, the history of Europeans in North America becomes a part of the romantic national myth, the public understanding of where we come from. Because scholars approach it from this direction, this nationalistic discourse frames our understanding of the Viking voyages to North America. Even the more scholarly publications, related to the philology of the sagas or to aspects other than the Helluland, Markland, and Vinland geography, are framed by our understanding of the Vikings as part of a colonial discourse.
(Slide 11) It is the scholarly obsession with Columbus as a foil for Leifr Eiríksson which really demonstrates where the scholarly focus is. The reference to Columbus in some way in most of the literature places the Vikings ideologically as the first step in the exploration and eventual colonization of North America. To understand the literature about Vinland, one has to understand the special place Columbus holds in North American mythology. A great number of treatises on the Vinland and the Vikings in North America were produced in the late 1880s and the 1890s in anticipation of the Columbus celebrations of 1892, because his anniversary brought the idea of the European exploration of North America to the forefront. In the last thirty years many scholars who work on the Vinland Sagas, and even those who work both with the sagas and with the archaeology, have tried to distance themselves from such nationalistic discussions. However, if one refers to the corpus of recent publications on Vinland it is evident that about as many analyses were published in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus, as there were in 2000, the supposed 1000th anniversary of Leifr’s settlement. Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir talks about how the juxtaposition of Leifr and Columbus is politically charged because of the importance of both to the chronology of the North American founding myth, and also because of the importance of having a symbol of unity representative of the Anglo-Saxon race and not of Catholic origin.[xv]
(Slide 12) In 1965 the Yale Library came across a map, purportedly from 1470, that depicted the location of Vinland. News about this map was released only a few days before Columbus Day; the map was supposed to show that Columbus’s discovery was not all that important.[xvi] While the provenance and legitimacy of the map have been questioned, so that now it is largely considered to be a fake, it is no longer important to scholarly debate as to whether the location of Vinland was known before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.[xvii] We do know that the Icelandic sagas were known, at least in Iceland, and that an oral map already existed in the sagas. The existence of a physical map would add little really to the debate about whether or not Columbus knew about Vinland. While there is evidence that Vinland was never entirely forgotten by Europeans, it is hard to argue for a uniform knowledge throughout Europe.[xviii] The obsession with Columbus, both as a villainous foil and as a point of reference in these texts speaks more to a romantic nationalism about origins—origins that include the first arrival, and not just settlement.
(Slide 13) Within the texts there is a correlation between where the author is from and where he/she believes Vinland is, calling this scholarship into question.[xix] W. A. Munn wrote that Vinland was Newfoundland, and that is where he was from. Similarly, the people of New England are quick to find Vinland in New England. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, who has been in charge of the archaeology at L’Anse aux Meadows for over thirty years, has written perhaps the most convincing identification of places in the sagas with real-life locations. She makes a convincing argument that the Leifsbúðir and Straumfjörðr of the sagas are synonymous with the site at L’Anse aux Meadows.[xx] However, even this interpretation could be called into question because Wallace’s identification is partly based on the fact that she is intimately familiar with that area, and so can see the details in the geography around her. A close knowledge of the landscape is essential to making a good guess as to the location of Vinland, but with this kind of knowledge comes an inextricable bias. And in part, this is why the quest to put Vinland on the modern map must be tied with nationalism, because it has to be written by people who know the landscape.
So a ‘real’ Viking Canada is reconstructed by scholars in terms of their own understanding of the evidence and the Canadian landscape. This scholarly construction of what Viking Canada may have looked like precedes the heritage/tourist construction of a Viking Canada that is accessible to all.
(Slide 14) Heritage, or tourist, medievalism is preceded by the scholarly Middle Ages. Once scholars have decided where on the map the “medievals” have been, they can then begin the process of making the modern map reflect that interpretation. This process is also tied to a sense of romantic nationalism, because it is both finding and commemorating one’s collective roots as a nation.
Many tourist destinations have been formed around the locations of Viking artefacts, both real and forged. Newfoundlanders have the best, and most scholarly accepted, proof of Viking settlement and, they are not shy about capitalizing on it. The reconstruction of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows was completed in 1979-80.[xxi] Now this entire area has been reimagined in terms of its connection to the medieval. The tourist road along the Gros Morne area has been re-christened the Viking Trail. The province of Newfoundland frames itself in terms of its connection with the “Vikings.” Newfoundlanders have reconstructed themselves with this medievalism in mind, and in this way have put the Vikings very literally on the map.
 (Slide 15) This year there was an article published in the Boston Globe by Carlo Rotella,  director of American Studies at Boston College and regular columnist, entitled “The ruins of Viking Boston: How one man's obsession jumped the truth and became history.” In it he talks about how one man, Ebenezer Norton Horsford, obsessed with the notion that the Vikings arrived in Boston created a Viking Boston. It can not be proved that the Vikings came there, just as it can not be proved that they didn’t. Not an historian, but a well-known chemist, Horsford followed the evidence and used it to create a scholarly justification for why the Vikings came there. But it was not only the ‘finding’ of a Viking past it was the creation of a Viking present and future that allows us to walk through a Viking Boston of Horsford’s creation. He left both his re-created reality and his commemorations of that reality. He re-imagined the city in terms of the medieval, and then spearheaded projects like the erection of the Anne Whitney' Leifr Eiriksson statue and a stone "Viking tower" by the Charles in Weston. His efforts initiated a fashion for further Viking theme décor that can now be found throughout the city.
(Slide 16) Most of us have seen the advertisements that Newfoundland and Labrador have put out over the last year. One thing I noticed this summer was that so had most of the tourists arriving at L’Anse aux Meadows. The advertisements capitalise on the claim that the Vikings landed there and that is why that location is something to see. This year the site reached 30,000 visitors, a number it reached only once before, during the special 1000 year celebrations in the year 2000. (Slide 17) And if you look at the map, L’Anse aux Meadows is not on the way to anything. Granted, part of that traffic was made up of cruise ships and bus tours who were taking in several sites, but most of it was from regular visitation, people who made it a point to come there. (Slide 18) There were some special events this year, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Helge Ingstad’s discovery of the mounds, but I can not think that these made much difference in the statistics since they were not well advertised. (Slide 19) The Northern Peninsula’s re-interpretation in reference to its medieval past has been effective and profitable and is now inextricably linked with the local culture, especially since the Cod moratorium in the 1990s made tourism the area’s most viable business. All the signs mention a relationship to the Viking site. The sign saying that you are in Griquet tells you that the special thing about that town is that it is the gateway to the Viking site. And the mall in St. Anthony is called the Viking Mall. This is interesting, since, as a place of business hoping to draw in the massive amount of tourist dollars that come through the area, Viking Mall is a good name as it markets itself in conjunction with why people have come to the area. So it may have been deliberate. But, people would have come to the mall anyway, it is the only shopping centre on the whole peninsula. And the mall is also largely for local people as opposed to tourists, containing essentials like the only clothes/shoes stores for quite a distance and the local chain grocery store. In many ways it is an expression of the altered identity of the Northern peninsula, which now imagines itself in reference to the ‘Viking site.’ The creation of this Viking Canada, or specifically a Viking Newfoundland says a lot about the society. It is interesting to compare it with Horsford’s Boston. The creation of the layers of Viking Boston was very much tied to the nationalistic/political impulse to emphasize the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage of the country. So I would argue it is very much a heritage medievalism, but the motivations seem to be less about promoting tourism in Boston than simply stating Boston’s importance in the WASP national narrative. This is the Boston of the late nineteenth century. Compare that with the Newfoundland of the second half of the twentieth century, and the resulting heritage medievalism, which involves no less commemoration but whose tourism elements are much more emphasized. Both are marketing their connection to the medieval, but one’s message is political and the other’s is economical. This is understandable considering the difference not only in the locations but in the times. The Northern Peninsula’s development has been very recent, and some of it took shape taking into consideration the presence of the Viking history that was there. And as we have seen, marketing the medieval has really worked for Newfoundland.
(Slide 20) The Vikings, have been positioned and understood in Canada’s colonial context for two centuries, and will continue in this vein, because they now form part of the national myth. This is unlikely to change because places like Newfoundland, and even Canada and North America at large, will continue to reimagine themselves with the Vikings, or the Middle Ages, in mind. And yet, as our understanding of our history as a settler-invader nation continues to evolve, the place that the Vikings hold in that myth will surely evolve with it. One day Columbus may not even be included in the discussion. Scholarly medievalism and the heritage/tourist medievalism engendered by it, will continue to be evoked by Canadians as they attempt to understand, interpret, and promote their own history.
Just as a final note, in this presentation I have opted to use the word Viking instead of the word Norse, despite the fact that Norse is a more scholarly acceptable term for that culture and Viking being too dependent on the idea of raiding. I have chosen to do this because Viking is still a correct term, and has been kept in the scholarly vocabulary because of the weight it carries in popular culture, and hence in the heritage industry and because of its importance in historiography. Many of the scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth century were recreating a ‘Viking’ North America, because that is how they understood it. And now when we commemorate that Viking North America by creating Viking monuments we use terminology that both they used and that the visiting public is consequently already aware of. (Slide 21)



[1] For a more thorough discussion as to what is meant by medievalism refer to Defining Medievalism, Studies in Medievalism 17, ed. Karl Fugelso (London: Boydell & Brewer, 2009).  In particular Elizabeth Emery’s essay, “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” 77-86, had a profound influence on this paper.
[1] In this case successful means they landed in the new land and returned to Greenland to talk about it. In particular, it is the voyages of Leifr Eiríksson, Thorvaldr Eiríksson, Thorfinnr Karlsefni, and Freydis Eiríksdóttir.
[1] The Saga of the Greenlanders, 652; “Ok hefir Karlsefni gørst sagt allra manna atburði um farar þessar allar, er nú er nǫkkut orði á komit.” Hermannsson, The Vinland Sagas , 61. 
[1] There are many of other elements which tell us about the oral tradition, and a great deal has been written on the evidence for the transition from oral to written sagas.
[1] Eirik the Red’s Saga, 666-7; “Er þeir sigldu til Vestribyggðar og þaðan til Bjarneyjar. Þaðan sigldu þeir tvau dœgr í suðr. Þá sá þeir land ok skutu báti ok kǫnnuðu landit ok fundu þar hellur stórar ok margar tólf álna víðar/ Fjǫlði var þar melrakka. Þeir gáfu þar nafn ok kǫlluðu Helluland. Þaðan sigldu þeir tvau dœgr, ok brá til landsuðrs ór suðri, ok fundu land skógvaxit ok mǫrg dýr á. Ey lá þar undan í landsuðr; þar í drápu þeir einn bjǫrn ok kǫlluðu þar síðan Bjarney, en landit Markland. Þaðan sigldu þeir suðr með landinu langa stund ok komu at nesi einu; lá landit á stjórn; váru þar strandir langar ok sandar. Þeir reru til lands ok fundu þar á nesinu kjǫl af skipi ok kǫlluðu þar Kjalarnes. Þeir kǫlluðu ok strandirnar Furðustrandir, því at langt [þótti fyrir] at sigla. Þá gerðisk landit vágskorit … Nú er [at] segja af Karlsefni, at hann fór suðr fyrir landit … Þeir fóru lengi ok [allt þar til, er þeir komu at á einni, er fell af landi ofan ok í vatn eitt til sjávar. Eyrar váru þar miklar ok mátti eigi komask í ána utan at hátflœðum.” Hermansson, The Vinland Sagas , 22-4.
[1] The Saga of the Greenlanders, 641; “gaf Leifr nafm landinu eptir landkostum ok kallaði Vínland.” Hermansson, The Vinland Sagas, 51.
[1] Munn, Wineland Voyages, 28.
[1] Wallace, Westward Vikings, 20.
[1] Halldórsson., “The Vineland Sagas,” 45.
[1] Wallace, Westward Vikings, 20.
[1] Graeme Davis, Vikings in America (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 2009),  178.
[1] Magnus Magnusson. “Vinland: the Ultimate Outpost,” Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. Shannon Lewis-Simpson (St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), 83.
[1] Perkins, “Medieval Norse Visits,” 32.
[1] Ibid., 30.
[1] Björnsdóttir, “Leifr Eiríksson,” 220.
[1] Max Vinner, “The Mysterious Vinland Map (“The Map that Spoiled Columbus Day”),” Viking Voyages to North America. ed. Birthe L. Clausen (Denmark: Kannike Tryk A/S, 1993), 77.
[1] Perkins, “Medieval Norse Visits,” 31.
[1] A. Davis, Antiquities of America, 5. Anderson, America not Discovered, 9.
[1] Perkins, “Medieval Norse Visits,” 31.
[1] Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. Shannon Lewis-Simpson (St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), 377.
[1] Wallace, Westward Vikings, 109.

13 July 2014

From Old Norse to Modern Icelandic

Following, is an interesting article on the Old Norse language by the Icelander, Ólöf Pétursdóttir, that appeared on Medievalists.net, 1 July 2014.

As you may know, modern Icelandic is similar enough to this ancient language that Iceland's people have no difficulty reading it today.

I maintain that no documents originating in medieval Greenland have come down to us because the people there, who originally came from the area that would become Scandinavia, that immigrated from Iceland in about 986, were illiterate. Nothing in this article refutes that contention, but it is interesting nonetheless. (ED.)

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BY 
 – JULY 1, 2014 POSTED IN: ARTICLES



From Old Norse to Modern Icelandic
By Ólöf Pétursdóttir


What is modern Icelandic? It is the official language of the Republic of Iceland, with some 315,000 native speakers. It is the tongue that is the closest to what has been called Old Norse, spoken in Scandinavia and, to some extent, in the British Isles during the early Middle Ages; from the twelfth century, it is the written language in Iceland, and it has been kept ‘pure’ on purpose: in modern Icelandic, there are none of the internationally used words of Greek or Latin extraction, such as television, telephone, satellite, etc. All new terms are coined and customized on the basis of Icelandic derivatives. Thus the language spoken and written in Iceland today is quite close to what has been called Old Norse, such as it appears in the medieval texts. The linguistic territory is Iceland, a rugged, volcanic isle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Sea. A huge rock in the middle of the ocean, covered with glaciers, tall mountains, wide lava-fields, long dark winters and midnight suns. Sturdy, horned sheep graze in the sparse meadows, and the small Icelandic horse runs wild across the wasted lands.
Indeed, Icelandic as it was written in the twelfth century is a gold mine for those looking for evidence in the archaeology of knowledge and of language, following Michel Foucault’s example, for instance in his Folie et déraison, where he studies what is said while also taking a long, hard look at what is left unsaid. (Foucault 1961)
A bit of archaeology
Several places in Iceland bear names with a Celtic ring to them, and recent archaeological findings point to settlements older than the ones officially recognized. The archaeology of language also yields several words that are obviously loanwords from Celtic languages, and a great many of those do not figure prominently in other Scandinavian languages. The oral tradition in Iceland still carries motifs and patterns that have a distinct Celtic feel to them. The unique literary tradition in Iceland springs from such an oral tradition; a saga’s plot is more often than not embedded in a cunningly wrought dróttkvæði at its center, a piece of compactly rhymed text containing linguistically archaic forms. The rhymes and rhythm served to help memorize the text, and such texts apparently managed to survive in the Icelandic oral tradition for up to three hundred years, although a great many epic poems, of which we only know the headings or stray quotations, have been lost.
It must be borne in mind that the ancient manuscripts are written in a language that remains understandable to the modern Icelandic reader. It is also worth mentioning that grammatical treaties were also written in Iceland in the course of twelfth century. The first such grammatical treaty sets forth an alphabet for written Icelandic, and it also deals with the phonology of Icelandic, vowel length, etc., using minimal pairs. This is paramount to a sound recording, and thus we know that the pronunciation has changed considerably, while the text of The First Grammatical Treatise remains easy enough for a modern Icelander to read.
So, according to the written records, adventurous seamen arrived to the rugged shores of Iceland some twelve centuries ago, some from came from the British Isles, and some from Norway. The settlement records were written two centuries after the fact they relate, and they have always been considered irrefutable in Iceland. In recent years, however, new archaeological findings have been made. They bear witness to settlements in Iceland well before the official date of 870, but such findings are still regarded as sensitive and they have been brushed aside for the time being (Theodórsson 2011). However, we can safely assert that in the course of the ninth century, there was indeed a rush of settlers hailing from Europe to seek new lands. The sagas of the Icelanders are largely accounts of how the settlers fared in their new surroundings. They founded a parliamentary assembly, gathering every year to deal with current affairs and to recite the law. These Icelanders seem to have travelled extensively, founding settlements on the east coast of Greenland and sailing to a new continent they called Vínland, later to be known as America. They also kept in touch with their countries of origin, and they visited Scandinavian settlements in the British Isles, viewing the Atlantic as a highway to any destination. The sagas contain accounts of battles and raids, but some of the expeditions recorded therein were peaceful commercial endeavors.
Christianity and the written word

In due course, the inhabitants of Iceland took up a new religion, in order to maintain trade and friendly relations with Christian nations across the sea. This marks a turning point, and the shift from the oral tradition to a written one, with a strong emphasis on the recording of history:
Christianity, it has been said, is ‘a religion of historians’, both because its sacred books are works of history and because it provides a historical framework—between creation and judgement—within which all human history unfolds.
For the Icelanders, as for the other Germanic peoples of early medieval Europe, Christianity was also a religion that made possible, for the first time, the writing down of oral history: it was the advent of Christianity to Iceland in the year 999/1000 which brought writing to that country and perhaps it is not surprising that, when the Icelanders began to write themselves, one of the first subjects they chose was their own conversion to Christianity. Ari’s Íslendingabók is the oldest and most famous account of the moment of conversion in Iceland, accompanied by a brief description of the much longer process of Christianization that followed it. (2006) p. vii
Those early Icelanders, officially converted, spoke Norse, or Old Icelandic, and most of them must have been fluent in Gaelic as well. Iceland’s toponymy indicates a strong Celtic trend, and there are several surreal accounts in Landnámabók, where the writer endeavors to explain Celtic place names by creating a Norse context for them. It is remarkable that one of the first known written texts in Icelandic is the account of the settlement of Iceland. It might be argued that the rewriting of history seems to have moved many an Icelandic settler to put the records in writing in order to legitimate the settlements. The stories untold are worth analyzing.
The first Nordic settlers in Iceland were rebels hailing from Norway. They were not happy with the efforts of Haraldr to unify that huge country, and levy taxes on all and sundry On that subject, Jean Renaud points out, (Renaud 1992) that there is a slight problem with the chronology: Haraldr could hardly have become king of all Norway following the battle of Hafrsfjörðr, leading tothe travels and settlements of these Norsemen to Iceland as recorded in Íslendingabók – The Book of Icelanders – and Landnámabók – The Book of Settlement. This is what a nineteenth-century English translator had to say about that latter book:
The very earliest record of the Settlement, and History of Iceland, is contained in the Landnama Book. This book, at once the Domesday and Golden Book of Iceland, is worthy to be ranked with the Bible of Ulphilas ; the Saxon Chronicle, and the Norman Survey, amongst foremost monuments of the history of our race. Opening with a brief sketch of the Settlement, it proceeds to give a notice of each settler (some 400 in all), his pedigree and descendants, and his claim in geographical order, beginning with the south firths and going completely round the island from west to east. (Ellwood 1894) p. viii
This is, in other words, the founding of a nation in writing. In the last chapter of Landnámabók, the author feels compelled to mention that a few of the original settlers had already been Christianized when they came to Iceland:
Svo segja vitrir menn, að nokkurir landnámsmenn hafi skírðir verið, þeir er byggt hafa Ísland, flestir þeir, er komu vestan um haf. Er til þess nefndur Helgi magri og Örlygur hinn gamli, Helgi bjóla, Jörundur kristni, Auður djúpauðga, Ketill hinn fíflski og enn fleiri menn, er komu vestan um haf, og heldu þeir sumir vel kristni til dauðadags. En það gekk óvíða í ættir, því að synir þeirra sumra reistu hof og blótuðu, en land var alheiðið nær hundraði vetra. (1978) 102. kafli
Or, in the English translation published by Elwood in 1894:
So have wise men said that some of the settlers who come from the west by sea (er komu vestan um haf) and colonized Iceland had been baptized, these were named Helgi the Lean, and Orlygi and Helgi, and Jorundr the Christian, and Aud the Deep-eyed, and Ketil-Flatnose, and more men who came from the west by sea. Some of these retained Christianity to the day of their death, but that became extinguished in the course of generations so that some of their sons raised a heathen temple and sacrificed, and the land was altogether heathen for nearly one hundred otherwise one hundred and twenty winters.
The above-mentioned Christian settlers came from the West, i.e. from Ireland and the British Isles. Their brand of Christianity was different from the continental kind, and it was not transmitted to the next generation. The Christian settlers did not bother to embrace the religious customs of their neighbors, and there was apparently a great deal of toleration in Icelandic society before 1000 A.D.
From then on, the Icelanders gradually took up writing as a trade, copying manuscripts for exportation to other Nordic countries, as the language barrier was virtually non-existent at the time.
Icelandic and the road to independence
Since the thirteenth century, other Scandinavian languages (save Finnish, which is unrelated to the others) have taken on different courses, away from the Old Norse, mingling with German and/or French, a fashionable language which was spoken at the royal courts of Denmark and Sweden, whereas Iceland kept the old tongue, became an overseas territory under the Norwegian crown, and later, to make a long story short, it became part of the kingdom of Denmark, finally becoming an independent republic in 1944. During the centuries of Danish rule, the influence of Danish language was strongly felt, especially in Reykjavík and other places of trade and of administration. The Danes did not ban the Icelandic language. On the contrary, they respected its history and saved many an Icelandic manuscript from being lost. As for the Icelanders, their leaders among men of letters, poets, and philologists, welded their language as an argument for autonomy and independency. One of them was poet and scientist Jónas Hallgrímsson (19807-1845), who coined Icelandic words for such sophisticated terms as ether (ljósvaki/”light awakener”), a term still used to indicate radio waves. A few more examples of scientific terms coined by Jónas, a random list published by Guðmundur Finnbogason, and their translation in Danish where the meaning is not obvious:
Eg hefl til gamans skrifað hjá mér hátt á annað hundrað þessara nýyrða. Hér eru nokkur þeirra, gripin af handahófl: sjónarhom, sólkyndlar, sverðbjarmi, ljósvaki, sjónauki, sjónfœri, sjónarsvið, sjónarmunur (parallaxe), samhliði, breiðhorn, mjóhorn, klofalínur, sporbaugur, sporbaugsgeiri, fleygbogi (parabole), breiðbogi (hyberbole), sólnánd, sólfjœrð, Ijósvilla (aberration), rugg (nutation), hringskekkja (excentricitet), viðvik (vibration), staðvindar, eldvarp, sjálfbjartur. (Finnbogason 1907)
In the course of the 19th century, the Icelandic language and the cultural heritage attached to it became a cause worth struggling for. The inter-comprehension between Icelandic speakers and continental Scandinavians was a thing of the past, and the influence of Danish vocabulary was regarded as a sign of interference, to be avoided and prevented. The modern Icelandic speakers are not generally fluent in Danish anymore, but most of them do speak and read English as a second language.
Icelandic today
Still alive and kicking, with a renewal of creativity in poetry and literature, but a bit muddled as regards science, since there has not been a common consensus regarding several branches of terminology in Icelandic. In some instances, the working language tends to be English, in order to keep things simple. New Icelandic novels are now being widely translated, and this is a very encouraging fact. During the 20th century, several Icelandic authors chose to write in Danish in order to reach a broader public. This is not an issue anymore.
Bibliography
(1978). Landnámabók, Netútgáfan.
(2006). Íslendingabók Kristni saga Landnáma – The Book of the Icelanders The Story of the Conversion. London, Viking Society for Northern Research – Unversity College.
Ellwood, M. A., Rector of Torver (1894). Landnama book of Iceland as it illustrates the dialect, place names, folk lore, & antiquities of Cumberland, Westmorland,and North Lancashire. Highgate, Kendal [Eng.] : T. Wilson, Printer.
Finnbogason, G. (1907). Johnas Hallgrímsson. Reykjavík 10.
Foucault, M. (1961). Folie et déraison.
Renaud, J. (1992). Les Vikings et les Celtes. Rennes, Editions Ouest-Frabce.
Theodórsson, P. (2011). Upphaf landnáms á Íslandi. Reykjavík, Raunvísindastofnun Háskólans.

We thank ​Ólöf Pétursdóttir for this submission. You can visit her website where she offers translation services.

07 July 2014

Medieval Viking Human Sacrifices and Reality

Those of you that have enjoyed The Vikings from the History Channel may have viewed the human sacrifices depicted in a recent episode with disbelief, I know I did. There were human sacrifices during the burial of a chieftain, as indicated in the article's reference to the tale of the Arab, Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century; however, nothing on the scale of the History Channel series.

I have been a student of the medieval Vikings most of my life and I have never read anything approaching the complete fabrication depicted by the originator of the series, Michael Hirst.

This is the same guy that has his Viking ships built with the steerboard on the port aft side. I wrote to him and informed him that no Viking ship had ever been found with the steerboard on the port (left) side and I explained the whole thing about steerboard as the origination of our word starboard. Surprise, he did not respond.

His series bears little resemblance to the actual culture of the Vikings; rather his Hollywood Vikings are more like Celts, not Vikings. But, if you are reading this missive, and have seen the series you already know that the content is a falsification. For example, his characters are heavily tattooed; there is no documented proof that the actual Vikings covered themselves with tattoos, especially considering that 1000-year old corpses preserve few identifying marks.

Like all of Hollywood, or wherever he hatched his series the content is suspect from the outset, but hey, it is entertaining, even if the characters bear zero resemblance to the real article as understood by archaeology and those of us that follow the hard work that has been done by generations of archaeologists since they, the Vikings, walked the earth.

The following article, from my friends at Medievalists, presents the views of man who knows the subject of one of our favorite topics, medieval Vikings. (ED.)
***

BY 
MEDIEVALISTS.NET
 
 JULY 6, 2014
POSTED IN: FILMS, NEWS, TV SHOWS

Movies and television love the Vikings – the TV series Vikings will start its third season in 2015, and one can expect a Viking-themed movie every year or so. However, on both the large and small screen, the portrayal of the Vikings often deviates from the historical truth. In his article, ‘Plastic Pagans: Viking Human Sacrifice in Film and Television’, Harry Brown notes a very key difference between how it is being portrayed and how it was in reality.
Brown’s article appears in Studies in Medievalism XXIII: Ethics and Medievalism, which was published earlier this year by Boydell and Brewer. It focuses on three sacrifice scenes – one from an episode of Vikings, and the others from the films The 13th Warrior and Valhalla Rising.
The early parts of The 13th Warrior are based on the writings of Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century envoy from the Abbasid Caliphate who journeyed into the Volga River region. In the movie his character watches as a Viking slave girl sacrifices herself to join her recently deceased lord – a choice that she makes willingly. When we actually see the scene of her death, Brown finds that it “may calm rather than disturb the viewer.” Amidst the ceremony, the girl cries out “I can see my master. He is in Valhalla. He calls me. Let me join him, then.” She is killed quickly and with little pain, and afterwards she is gently laid on the funeral pyre.
A similar scene is depicted in Vikings, when Ragnar and Lagertha decide that a human sacrifice is needed so they can placate the gods and have more children. They first choose their former Anglo-Saxon slave Athelstan to do be the person to die, but after they reach the Temple of Uppsala and Athelstan learns what is being asked of him, he declines – and the Viking priests note that the sacrifice must be made voluntarily. In the end, Leif, another of Ragnar’s followers, joyfully accepts the task.
While the scenes depicted give an air of civility to Viking religious practices, in reality the human sacrifices were a far more brutal affair. In Ibn Fadlan’s account, the slave girl starts out by volunteering for the death, but she soon decides against going through with it. However, the other Vikings did not accept that – she is dragged into a death chamber, where six men gang rape her. Afterwards, while two men strangle her with a cord, another person repeatedly stabs her chest with a dagger in order to kill her. However, this part of the Ibn Fadlan’s account doesn’t make it into The 13th Warrior.
Brown notes that in all our historical sources on the Vikings we never have an episode where a person voluntarily accepts being sacrificed. While Christian and Arabic writers might not even be willing to mention this, even Scandinavian sources like the sagas always depict human sacrifices as being done through force or trickery. The Ynglinga Saga, for example, tells how: King Olaf did not sacrifice much, and this displeased the Swedes, who believed that the famine was caused by the king’s laxity. So they mustered an army and marched against him. Taking him by surprise, they burned him alive in his house and gave him to Odin as a sacrifice for a good year.
If Viking human sacrifices were not done with volunteers, why does film and television shows depict it otherwise? Brown believes that the script writers and directors choose this route because they don’t want their audiences have the ‘hero’ characters  to be associated with such vile practices. He writes:
This sanitization illustrates the plasticity of medieval pagans in film and television, particularly as we adapt them to the role of medievalist action-heroes. Although they might look like relics of the past, fit for the Museum of National Antiquities, they appear fair and humane, unwilling to accept a sacrifice that it not freely offered. Depicting Viking ritual killings as consensual resolves the paradox that human sacrifice presents to modern moral sensibility, allowing us to tolerate it as a prerogative of pagan beliefs while still allowing the victims their freedom and dignity. Dying, as well as killing, seems ethically defensible, because all parties enter the fatal bargain by choice. Brown laments this however, believing that these scenes represent an opportunity lost. He explains: By muting the most dissonant notes of paganism with shadings of Christianity, The 13th Warrior, Vikings, and Valhalla Rising avoid putting the viewer in the position of having to make an ethical judgment against paganism or the past, easing our commercial consumption of Vikings with a kind of moral suasion. The films let us gawk at pre-Christian beliefs without challenging us to face them on their own terms, or not to understand the long historical process of conflict and reconciliation between Christianity and paganism. In this respect, recent portrayals of the Vikings miss the chance to explore the similarities and differences in the ways that these two religious visions understand the fundamental categories of existence – life and death, sacrifice and regeneration, god and nature – that structure all ethical perspectives.
The article, ‘Plastic Pagans: Viking Human Sacrifice in Film and Television’ is one of fourteen papers included in this issue of Studies in Medievalism XXIII. Other articles are movies that deal with Beowulf, the video game Elder Scrolls IV, and even the historical fiction of Margaret Frazer.

Harry Brown is an Associate Professor of English at DePauw University. Click here to visit his faculty page.