I'm not surprised.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
My young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, will be published in Spring 2015 by namelos. I look forward to sharing the process with you.
To read my earlier posts about Leif Eiriksson Day, see:
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Eruptions are a fact of life for Icelanders. A big one happened in 871 (plus or minus two years): The dark layer of ash it sprinkled over much of the country now helps archaeologists date the time of the first settlement of Iceland to just about that time, using a technique called tephrachronology. Another big eruption in 1104 laid down a layer of ash in a conveniently lighter color, which helps archaeologists bracket the Viking Age.
Geologists estimate ten volcanic eruptions per century took place between Iceland’s founding in the 870s and when the Icelandic sagas began to be written in the early 1200s. Then the frequency increased to about fifteen per century.
So why are eruptions essentially missing from the sagas?
“It is no wonder. The gods are angry at such talk,” people muttered.
“And what were the gods angry about,” said one chieftain, gesturing to the black, ropy lava all around, “when they burned the wasteland we’re standing on now?”
The annalist knew what caused that darkness. The Saga of Bishop Gudmund, written in the mid-1200s, contains this explanation (translated here by my friend Oren Falk of Cornell University):
“There are mountains in this land, which emit awful fire with the most violent hurling of stones, so that the crack and crash are heard throughout the country.… Such great darkness can follow downwind from this terror that, on midsummer at midday, one cannot make out one’s own hand.”
But Snorri’s contemporaries were aware that active volcanoes lurked beneath the ice. A thirteenth-century poet told how “glaciers blaze,” “coal-black crags burst,” “fire unleashes storms,” and “a marvelous mud begins to flow from the ground.” (Again, in Oren’s translation.)
Lava also spouted from the sea in Snorri’s lifetime, forming rugged black islands that rose above the waves only long enough for a few intrepid souls to row out and give them a name, the Fire Islands.
It is not surprising, then, that volcanoes also informed Snorri’s version of the creation of the world.
Then came the giant Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron-maker’s forge, then froze to ice.
The ice-rime grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap.
Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt’s home in the south, it thawed and dripped. Like an icicle it formed the first frost-giant, Ymir, and his cow.
Ymir drank the cow’s abundant milk. The cow licked the ice-rime, which was salty. It licked free a handsome man and his wife. They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-father.
Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. From his giant body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds.
From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from an ash tree and an elm they found on the seashore.
This part of the myth cannot be ancient. The Scandinavian homelands--Norway, Sweden, and Denmark--are not volcanic. But there is nothing so characteristic of Iceland as the clash between fire and ice.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
When the Vikings settled Iceland in the late 800s, they brought sheep, cows, horses, goats, pigs, hens, geese, dogs, cats, mice, lice, fleas, beetles … Archaeologists have found signs of all these in the detritus of a Viking Age house.
Go to Iceland today and you can ride a Viking horse. You can buy a sweater made from Viking sheep's wool. You can eat cheese from the milk of Viking cows and--if you hurry--Viking goats.
We could also talk about Viking dogs and Viking chickens, but it's the goats I'm worried about.
There's only one farm left in Iceland that specializes in raising Icelandic goats, and it's going on the auction block next month. Háafell in Borgarfjord--aka the Icelandic Goat Conservation Center, www.geitur.is--is in foreclosure. Unless they can raise $90,000 in a month, their 400 goats will go to the slaughterhouse. That's about half the total population of Icelandic goats in the world.
If Háafell fails, we'll lose an important link to the Viking world.
Thor the Thunder god will not be happy.
Goat is what Thor eats for dinner, according to Snorri's Edda. The two goats that pull Thor's chariot allow him to butcher and boil them every night. Provided that he saves every bone and wraps them up in the skins, unbroken, the goats will come back to life in the morning.
The heroes in Valhalla will also not be happy. There, a magic goat produces endless vats of mead instead of milk for them to drink.
And what, without goats, would make the goddess Skadi laugh?
In one of Snorri's funniest tales, Loki was caught by a giant eagle who dragged him through treetops and bounced him on stony ground. "Stop!" cried Loki, "and I'll give you the goddess Idunn and her golden apples, source of the gods’ immortal youth."
The gods began to grow old and gray. Forced to confess, Loki was ordered to retrieve Idunn. He borrowed Freyja’s falcon cloak and flew to Giantland. Learning the giant was out, Loki turned Idunn into a nut, clasped her in his talons, and took off for Asgard. When the giant came home to find his prize missing, he transformed into giant-eagle shape and went after Loki, "and he caused a storm-wind by his flying."
The gods stacked a great pile of wood in the yard of Asgard. As soon as Loki the falcon flew over the wall, they torched the stack. The giant eagle's feathers caught fire. He fell to earth, in giant form, and Thor killed him with one whack of his hammer.
It's to compensate for this killing that the giant’s daughter Skadi was allowed to marry one of the gods. She also demanded they make her laugh; she considered it quite impossible. "Then Loki did as follows: he tied a cord round the beard of a certain nanny-goat and the other end round his own testicles, and they drew each other back and forth and both squealed loudly. Then Loki let himself drop in Skadi’s lap, and she laughed."
If that's not a reason to save the Icelandic goat from extinction, I don't know what is. Click here to go to the IndieGoGo site and get yourself a coffee mug:
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Have you ever wondered why Hump Day was named “Wednesday”? Or where the names Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday come from? These days of the week were named for the ancient gods Woden (or Odin), Tyr, and Thor, and the goddess Frigg or Freyja.
If it weren’t for that 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t know much about these old gods. In about 1220, to impress a teenage Norwegian king—the same king who, 20 years later, ordered him killed—Snorri wrote a book of Norse myths called the Edda. Along with a collection of mythological poems (also confusingly called the Edda), Snorri’s book contains almost everything we know about the gods we still honor each week with the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Tuesday is named for Tyr, the one-handed god of war. According to Snorri, Tyr stuck his hand in the mouth of a giant wolf. He was guaranteeing the gods wouldn’t double-cross the wolf when they bound him with a leash made from six things: “the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” Of course, the gods were lying to the wolf. They had no intention of freeing him again. So he bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr “is not called a peace-maker” now, says Snorri, in the translation by Jean Young.
Wednesday is named for Odin, "the highest and oldest of the gods," the one with the most names and the most stories. Odin owns the hall Valhalla. He directs the Valkyries, who chose the slain on the field of battle. He is the god of poets and storytellers, the god of beer and brewing. He has two ravens, Thought and Memory, that keep him apprised of the news. I've written about the God of Wednesday (obviously) a number of times on this blog.
See, for example, the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, here: http://nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2012/11/seven-norse-myths-we-wouldnt-have_21.html
Or the story of the mead of poetry, here: http://nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2012/12/seven-norse-myths-we-wouldnt-have.html
As Snorri says, "It will be impossible for you to be called a well-informed person if you cannot relate some of these great events."
Friday is named for Freyja (or maybe for Frigg, but Snorri doesn’t tell us much about Frigg). Freyja is "the most renowned of the goddesses." She drives a chariot drawn by two cats and enjoys love poems. She cries golden tears, wears expensive jewelry, and is not particularly faithful to her husband. "It is good to call on her for help in love affairs," Snorri says.
Why should we care about these old stories? In 1909, a translator called the two Eddas “the wellspring of Western culture.” That may be an exaggeration, but the Eddas are the source of much of our modern popular culture.
The Marvel comic character Thor—and the blockbuster movies about him—are obviously based on the Eddas.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by the Eddas—and so, of course, were Peter Jackson’s films, not to mention all the fantasy-themed movies, books, and games that feature wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, valkyrie-like women, magic swords and talismans, talking dragons and dwarf smiths, heroes that understand the speech of birds, or trolls that turn into stone.
The Gothic novel, too, has been traced back to the Eddas.
Their influence is even felt in “high” culture, stretching from Thomas Gray (better known for “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”) in the 1750s to our latest Nobel prizewinner, Alice Munro.
And, of course, the names of these gods are on our lips four days out of every week.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
So where did the Lewis chessmen come from? We can all agree they came from Uig. Maybe we should start calling them the Uig chessmen.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
I'm there now, wandering about in the fog and drizzle and occasional brief patches of brightness, and looking down more often than around at the mountains for the basic reason that I'm not wearing my Wellington boots and it takes a lot of concentration to hop through the marsh and mire and along the waterline without getting my feet wet.
So, of course, I came home with wet feet. But also with a hundred photos of what I saw while attempting to pay attention to my feet.
Here are a few of my favorites.