Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Now in Paperback!

Thanks to my publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, for my best Christmas present: the paperback edition of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths.
No gift wrap necessary. 

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Music for Saint Thorlak's Day

Last November, I spent a few days at Skalholt, the medieval capital of Iceland and site of its first cathedral. While there, I began understanding the Icelanders' fondness for their patron saint, Thorlak Thorhallsson, who was bishop of Skalholt from 1178 to 1193 and declared a saint in 1198.

November days are very short in Iceland. Through a fluke of scheduling, I was completely alone in the cathedral guesthouse. It was eerie, walking around the grounds at night--even before the storm came--and I soon imagined I heard voices in the babbling of the brook and the whinny of a distance horse. There could, indeed, be a lot of ghosts at Skalholt: I knew its history. Though not a "believer" I found I had Saint Thorlak's name on my lips and rushed back inside, where a gift from the current bishop of Skalholt awaited me.

Since December 23rd is Saint Thorlak's Day, I thought I'd share that gift. But first, a bit about Thorlak, whom I met while researching Song of the Vikings, my biography of Snorri Sturluson.

Thorlak was a well-educated man: He studied at Paris, France and Lincoln, England. After that he returned to Iceland and "was ever at writing," his saga says. He dressed plainly, ate and drank like an ascetic (no meat, only water), and was rather dull company, the saga implies, noting that it "was a great misfortune that his speech was hard and slow." On the other hand, "he was so lucky in his brewing that the ale never burst that he had blessed."

Soon after Thorlak died, people began reporting miracles that occurred when they called on him for aid. These miracles provide a digest of the common Icelander's woes in the 12th century: Saint Thorlak cured stiff hands, sore throats, burning eyes, and gassy stomachs. He found lost hobbles, lost sheep, a sledgehammer, and a ring. He healed a horse ridden "unwarily where there was volcanic heat"; its legs "got so burned that people thought it would die." He healed a woman who "fell into a hot spring in Reykholt and got so severely burned that her flesh and skin came off with her clothes." He stemmed the flow of blood when a chieftain, soaking in his hot-tub, cut himself with a razor. He calmed storms and floods, resuscitated a drowned boy, quenched a house fire, and mesmerized a seal so a starving mother could kill it.

In Song of the Vikings I describe these miracles, along with the glorious translation of Bishop Thorlak—the ceremony by which he was officially recognized as Iceland's first saint in 1198.

The bishop's coffin, buried for five years, was dug up, dusted off, and carried into Skalholt Cathedral. Saint Thorlak's holy relics (his bones) were taken from the coffin, washed, and encased in a golden shrine. The priest Gudmund the Good, then 38, was a coffin-bearer; he chanted the Te Deum in his unforgettable voice. Twenty-year-old Snorri probably accompanied his foster-brothers Saemund and Orm, whom the saga says attended the ceremony. During the Mass which followed, Snorri would have marveled at the 230 expensive beeswax candles twinkling on the altar (all imported, since honeybees did not live in Iceland).

But what I didn't know when I wrote Song of the Vikings was that the music written for the ceremony still survives. On my recent trip to Skalholt, Bishop Kristjan Valur Ingolfsson lent me a recording of it by the early-music ensemble Voces Thules.

You can listen to part of it here:

As explained in the CD's liner notes, "Liturgical chants are a kind of soothing incantation, in which flow has an all-important role to play, like sailing effortlessly on the crest of the wave toward a nevertheless clear destination. The singing of music of this kind is the most intimate form of worship and meditation still to be preserved within the sanctuary of the Christian Church."

The six members of Voces Thules depended on the doctoral thesis of Robert Ottosson (1912-74) to understand how to reconstruct this chant from the 24 pages of manuscript in the archives. These manuscript pages are also online; you can see them at the Icelandic music website Click on "Handrit og prent," then on manuscript number "AM 241a fol. Þorlákstíðir," then on "Síður (24)" and the pages of manuscript will appear and you can scroll down through them.

The "Office of Saint Thorlak" was performed in 1998, for the first time in centuries, to mark the 800th anniversary of Bishop Thorlak's death. It was part of the Reykjavik Arts Festival that year, stretching over a day and a half and culminating in a High Mass, at which Kristjan Valur and another priest also sang.

I listened to Saint Thorlak's music at Skalholt on that dark November night, while the wind howled and the rain lashed against the windows and I was the only person in the entire guesthouse.

"The darkness flees, the light illuminates the mind, a devoted nation dances," the Office begins. "Let us prepare for the festival of jubilation and offer praise, cast out the darkness at the world's extreme."

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

News of the terrible stormsurge that almost washed away the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, earlier this month, brought up memories of my visit there in 2006, when I was researching my book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

Before then, when I imagined a Viking ship, I thought of the Gokstad ship, which I'm gazing at here in a photo from 1984. Found in the late 1800s in a burial mound in southern Norway, the Gokstad ship has the spareness and elegance of line that seem to me the epitome of a Viking ship. I’m not alone: closeups of its hull, head on, are reproduced on everything from magazine covers to Christmas ornaments as the emblem of the Vikings.

So I was disappointed at first to learn that the ship Gudrid the Far-Traveler sailed on to Vinland in North America did not look like this. Hers was a knarr, a cargo ship, like the replica Saga Siglar that sailed with copies of the Gokstad and Oseberg ships down the coast of North America in 1991. From the Ellis Island ferry, I had watched the three Viking ships sail into New York Harbor, side by side. In my notebook I wrote:  "Saga Siglar is so squat and tubby compared to the others. It’s as if someone cut her too short."

Saga Siglar (the name means "Saga Sailor") was based on a ship recovered from the seabottom near Skuldelev, Denmark, by Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, whom I met in 2006 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Tall, fair, white-haired, and smartly dressed in sailor's white, Crumlin-Pedersen had recently retired from the museum that housed his accomplishments: scraps of five Viking ships in five different styles, from a fishing boat to a dragonship, and a dock full of replicas made to their patterns. Nine more ships—found sunk in the museum's own harbor when they were expanding their exhibit space—were then in various stages of processing. One, the largest by far, a slim dragonship that carried up to 40 pairs of oars, is now the centerpiece of the Viking exhibition that just closed in Copenhagen and will be opening in London in the spring.
Photo by Katrin Driscoll
With a childlike smile and a courtly bashfulness, Crumlin-Pedersen explained to me how he knew that the tubby model was what the sagas meant by a knarr. "It’s because of the nickname for women in the Icelandic sagas: Knarrarbringu. 'Knarr breast.' Look at it from the front. It comes right up like this—" He pantomimed a woman's tight waist and heavy breasts.

"The replica ships going to Vinland should not be based on Gokstad," he continued, more seriously, "they should be based on this knarr, on Skuldelev 1. Gokstad is a combined sailing and rowing vessel, for a large crew. Skuldelev 1 is definitely a cargo ship. There's only a few oars for turning the ship in the wind or in harbor—it's a pure sailing vessel. Six men, working day and night, could handle it. On the other hand, you could have any number of people on board. You could move a farm with livestock and goods—but you wouldn't take more than one farm. Maybe to go to Vinland you would have wanted a vessel slightly larger than Skuldelev 1, but it would have been this same type of vessel."

The five Skuldelev ships had been scuttled at the head of the fjord to keep raiders from the Danish royal residence at Roskilde. Legend had it that they dated from Queen Margarethe's reign in the 1400s. But when parts of the barricade were removed by fishermen in the 1950s, to clear a deeper passage for their motorboats, Crumlin-Pedersen thought the bits he saw were Viking work. Trained as a maritime engineer, he signed on as a deep-sea diver to map out the wrecks, then, after a stint in the Navy, was hired by the Danish National Museum as a ship archaeologist. The Skuldelev site would be his training ground.

"Underwater archaeology was only just starting then," he told me as we toured the docks and warehouses and hands-on exhibits outside of the museum proper. "I went to the first conferences in Italy and London, and my colleagues tried to convince me that I should come to the warm, clear water of the Mediterranean, not stay in the cold, muddy water here. I insisted in exploring the potential here. It turned out to be very rich.

Photo by Katrin Driscoll

"We had thought the site was so damaged we could do no harm," he continued. "We had no experience. We could start there and continue on to more important sites. The first year we cleared the passage and found not one, but two ships. The next year, it was not two but four. The next year it was not four but six." (Later they would learn that ships number 4 and 6 were parts of a single widely-scattered vessel.)

"So we built a coffer dam. Sometimes it's a good thing to come from another education. As an engineer, I could come up with ideas and principles for the retrieving of ships that have become standards all over the world."

The coffer dam drained the fjord around the site. Then the problem was to lift the shattered wood out of the mud, while keeping it from drying out and disintegrating. "You keep the wood in water all the time until it can be treated with polyethylene glycol," Crumlin-Pedersen explained. A type of plastic, polyethelene glycol crystallizes within the wood cells. This plasticized wood can then be heated and gently pressed back into shape. "That brings out the lines of the boat."

Those lines are so various, just among the replica ships afloat in Roskilde harbor, that it's hard to say they’re all "Viking ships." The tubby knarr, 52 feet long and a buxom 16 feet wide, is docked beside the dragonship Havhingsten ("The Sea Stallion"), 98 feet long but a slender 12 feet wide. A smaller cargo ship, a byrding of more "elegant" proportions, carried only four-and-a-half tons of cargo to the bigger knarr's 24 tons, while a smaller warship, called a snekke or "snake," could only handle 30 warriors to Sea Stallion's 80.

Photo by Katrin Driscoll

And then there's the toy-sized fishing boat, 37 feet long by 8 feet wide, on which Crumlin-Pedersen signed me up as an oarsman when a German TV personality wanted to take a Sunday-morning ride. Nicely maneuverable in the narrow harbor (even with a raw crew brand-new to the oars), it seemed precariously low to the waves once the sail was up. Yet when they compared the pattern of the tree-rings in the original ship's pine timbers to wood samples from throughout the Viking world, they found a perfect match with the wood of the Urnes Stave Church in Sognefjord, Norway; the ship had been built there and had sailed the 500 miles to Roskilde at least once. By the time it was sunk to blockade the fjord, it had been patched in several places and refitted to be a small cargo ship, the rowlocks taken off and an extra strake added to give it a little more height.

All five Skuldelev ship types, Crumlin-Pedersen believes, developed after 900 out of the basic Gokstad style. "The development of cargo vessels seems to be a very late one in Scandinavia," he explained over a lunch of pickled herring and brown bread in the museum’s dockside restaurant (right under which, he pointed out, another longship had been found, 20 feet longer than Sea Stallion). "They didn’t have proper cargo vessels until the 10th century. I think that's because it was too dangerous to go out with a load of valuable cargo without a sufficient number of people to protect your goods. The Gokstad ship was capable of carrying eight to 10 tons of cargo, but also a sufficient crew to defend it. Then in the 10th to 11th centuries, we have the development of cargo ships and the transformation of warships into ships that couldn't carry cargo. I see that as a sign of royal control of the sea. It was one of the main jobs of the king, to keep trade safe."

The cargo ships got tubbier (and more practical), the warships got longer and sleeker and swifter; the principal of their design, according to Crumlin-Pedersen, being the "sporting element": fierce competition among royal Viking crews. One of these late longships is 11 times longer than it is wide and made from enormous oak trees, each thin plank over 32 feet long. "For the really royal ships, the shipbuilder had access to trees no one else could touch," Crumlin-Pedersen told me. "Such a ship as this is an amazing machine!" Racing such a royal ship, he said, must have been the sporting experience of a lifetime.

To read about the Viking Ship Museum's battle with the stormsurge, and see some spectacular photos, go to the museum's website, here:

There's also a film about the storm, here:

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Good Horse

This morning, first thing, I went out to feed my horses, as I have done nearly every day for the past 16 years. And as he has done every day for the same period, Birkir from Hallkelsstadahlid was waiting at the tackroom door to greet me, rather impatiently, tugging on the string I use instead of a doorknob so that, as soon as I unlocked the door, it flew open.

He grudgingly let me hug him and press my cheek against his warm face. Grudgingly stepped aside to let me unchain the gate to the hay storage. Tentatively followed me in to snatch a bite of hay and, shamefacedly, backed up to let me carry a few flakes out into the paddock to spread for him and the other horses.

He is always the same, Birkir: his great, brown, kind eye, his carefulness in keeping as close to me as possible without jostling me or stepping on my toes.

I remembered the day I bought him, in the summer of 1997, my first horse. I wrote about it in my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color, published in 2001 and just out this year in paperback.

I had ridden Birkir for 15 minutes, in the rain. I bought him from Sigrun of Hallkellstadahlid in western Iceland on the advice of a farmer friend known to have "an eye for horses." I have never regretted it. An Icelandic horse trainer once told me, "If I had a stable of horses like Birkir, I would be a rich woman."

I have only one, and I am a rich woman.

Here is what I wrote, so many years ago:

The rain was still steady, but inside the barn it was warm and brightly lit and comforting. A raised center aisle separated two large pens full of horses, each haltered and clipped to a rail. They stirred and stamped when we entered, and I looked along their orderly ranks for Birkir. Amazingly, I picked him out at once, the light bay with a star, and walked down the aisle toward him feeling as if he were already mine. Sigrun approached him from the rear, and the horses parted, leaving room for me to step into the pen and join her. We stood at his flank, looking him over, and he turned his head to watch us, his neck arced high, his ears pricked with curiosity. He had a dark, liquid, inquisitive eye, soft and friendly. Unlike Elfa, he was completely at ease around us. He did not sidle away when I reached to pat him--on the contrary, he poked his nose forward, doglike, to the limits of his rope, as if looking for attention. I scratched behind his ears and ran my hand down his neck and along his smooth wide back. His mane and tail were thick and dark, his black stockings neat, his hooves well-shaped, his coat a glowing red. He seemed larger and sturdier than most Icelandics I'd seen, and it was clear he was in excellent health.

"He's beautiful," I said, and meant it. I was filled with desire, suddenly, to own this beast--filled with awe that it was possible to own a creature so fine, so alive--surprised that anyone would actually let me take him away...

Photo of Birkir by Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang

In May 2014, the trekking company America2Iceland is organizing a riding tour in Iceland for people who want to buy--or just learn how to buy--an Icelandic horse. They're calling it the "Good Horse Has No Color" tour and have invited me along to share how I chose Birkir and Gaeska, the two stars of the book, in 1997. I'm not entirely sure what they want me to do--we have the winter to work it out. Or how to explain what it was that I saw in Birkir, at five years old, and see now that he is 21, every morning when I come down to the barn and he's tugging on that string to let me in.

A wise Icelandic friend told me once that it's best when the horse chooses you. I'm grateful that Birkir did.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.