Sunday, 15 October 2017

Baby Vikings

Heimdall and his nine mothers
by W. G. Collingwood 1908
My North American correspondent has alerted me to a news item in which some 'celebrity' or other refers to her infant daughter as a 'baby Viking' because she celebrated her first birthday by 'feasting on steak'. As it happens, I am not aware that the eating or not eating of steak is one of the aspects of how we define Vikings. Nevertheless, I thought it might be of interest to see what some Old Norse texts see as the defining features of baby Vikings.

Starting with the youngest, there is the legendary hero Helgi Hundingsbani, who is celebrated in two poems of the Poetic Edda. The first of these describes his birth, and quotes this conversation between two ravens who are rejoicing at it:
Stendr í brynju / burr Sigmundar, / dœgrs eins gamall, / nú er dagr kominn; /hvessir augu / sem hildingar, / sá er varga vinr, / vit skulum teitir. (Eddukvæði II, ed. Kristjánsson & Ólason, 2014, p. 248)
'He stands in his mail-coat, the son of Sigmundr, one day old, now the day has come! He sharpens his glance as leaders do; that one is a friend of wolves, we two will be cheerful.'
The ravens are of course, anticipating the carrion that the warrior will provide for them and the wolves during his martial career. He does indeed have a varied and interesting career and eventually grows up enough to fall in love with a valkyrie. But that is another story...

Next up is Magni, son of Thor. In one of his many giant-fighting episodes, Thor manages to fell Hrungnir, but in such a way that the giant's leg lay across his neck, pinning him down. Young Magni saves the day by being the only one strong enough to remove the giant's leg, after all the other Æsir have tried and failed. Magni was three years old at the time (and his name means 'strength'). He clearly felt he could have done more:
Sé þar ljótan harm, faðir, er ek kom svá síð. Ek hygg at jötun þenna mundak hafa lostit í Hel með hnefa ef ek hefða fundit hann. (Skáldskaparmál, ed. Faulkes, 1998, p. 22)
'It is a awful shame, father, that I came so late. I think I would have struck this giant into Hel with my fist if I had encountered him.'
His father is impressed and predicts a glowing future for his son, and gives him Hrungnir's horse Gullfaxi as a reward. This irks  Odin, who thinks he, as Thor's father, should have had this gift, rather than Magni the 'son of a giantess'. Presumably it was Magni's maternal giant heritage that made him strong enough for the deed. Magni's fate is to survive Ragnarök, but that is another story...

Another precocious three-year-old is the hero of Egils saga. We meet him first in ch. 31, ugly, black-haired and clever with words, but a bit obstreperous in playing with other children. When the family sets out for a party at the grandparental home, Egil's father refuses to take him, saying that he can't be trusted to behave when there is drink being taken, indeed he is hard enough to deal with when he's sober. The toddler won't have this, grabbing a horse to follow the party. At the party, grandfather Yngvar welcomes Egil and gives him three sea-snail shells and a duck's egg as a reward for a verse he composed in a drinking game which involved competitive poetic composition:
Kominn emk enn til arna / Yngvars, þess's beð lyngva, / hann vask fúss at finna, / fránþvengjar gefr drengjum; / mun eigi þú, þægir, / þrevetran mér betra, / ljósundinna landa / linns, óðar smið finna. (Egils saga, ed. Nordal, 1933, pp. 82-3)
'Still I have come to the hearth of Yngvar, he who gives to warriors gold (the bed of the gleaming thong of the heather). I was anxious to find him. You will not, giver of the twisted, shining gold (land of the snake) find a better three-year-old craftsman of poetry than I am. [Thong of the heather is a snake, and the snake's bed, according to tradition, is gold]. (Egils saga, tr. Christine Fell, 1975, p. 182).
It's quite a sophisticated poem for a three-year-old. Egil doesn't however, kill his first man until he is in his seventh year, the victim being a boy of ten or eleven who had bested and humiliated him at a ball game. This killing led his mother to declare that Egil was a víkingsefni 'the makings of a Viking'. Indeed Egil goes on to fulfil his destiny, but that is another story...

Anyway, six is a bit beyond babyhood and nearing the age of reason. This little tour of baby Vikings does not suggest that steak played any part in their achieving that status, but then it is not recorded what they ate and only hinted at what they drank. From the legendary poetry of the Edda to Snorri's prose mythology and the historical fiction of the saga, we do find an admiration for exceptional individuals, expressed in their baby Vikinghood. But I do not expect any time soon to read articles claiming that the Vikings started training their warriors at one day old. At least I hope not.

 


 


Monday, 18 September 2017

Some Further Discussion of the Article on Bj 581

Since writing my previous blog post, I have been prevented, for a variety of personal reasons, from engaging in any way with the discussions that have raged about this matter on social and news media. I do see this as a blessing in disguise. As I said then, I do not think the complex matters raised in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology article entitled 'A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics' lend themselves to the reductions demanded by Twitter, or the selection and rewriting that are inevitable when the press come calling for quotes.

Why am I writing again?

Now that I am back in harness, I do however feel it is my duty to come with some kind of response, even if not on Twitter or in the media. This is not least because my blog post has, at the time of writing this, had some ~60K pageviews. This is exactly 15x as many pageviews as my next most viewed blog post and far exceeds any expectations I might have had when writing. Such a reach for a matter which is essentially about the academic minutiae and the conventions of academic discourse certainly deserves public acknowledgement. I will discuss some aspects of this response below.

A further reason for writing, which I would like to but cannot ignore, is that I have been publicly challenged, in the New York Times, no less, by 'Mattias Jakobsson, a geneticist at Uppsala University and a co-author of the paper, adding: “We would like to urge her to send her critique to a peer-reviewed journal.”' The second purpose of this blog post is therefore to explain why I will not be submitting my 'critique' to a peer-reviewed journal and why I think that this is an inappropriate challenge.

The worldwide response

First, the easier question. My blog post was entitled 'Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again' and this in itself reveals that my aim in writing was indeed to stimulate debate. This seems to have happened, in spades, and I am delighted that that has happened. On Twitter, and in the responses to my blog, I have generally found the debate to be thoughtful and considered, even when I thought the contributor was misguided, or hadn't really understood what I was saying. Responses have come from both layfolk and academics, from supporters and opponents (though I am sorry when the discussion does turn into a case of 'for' or 'against'). I'm pleased to say it has certainly stayed fairly polite, unlike what I gather some of the Facebook responses have been (mercifully I am not on Facebook), or some of the responses BTL in the popular press as outlined by my colleague Howard Williams on his blog recently. Many of these were perhaps responding to the original article, or how it was presented in the media, rather than to my blog post in particular and thus do not concern me here (though see below on the responsibility of academics in this age of open access). In this way, I feel I have achieved my aim in writing the blog in the first place - the debate has taken place. I am particularly proud of when I became a Twitter Moment (until this week I didn't even know what a Twitter Moment was and am still not very sure) - its headline was Prof adds a grain of salt to the 'female Viking warrior' story. A grain of salt is pretty much how I envisaged my contribution, and not a big bag of sodium chloride.

I would also point out that I have with one exception not censored the comments published on my blog, even though some of them are getting a bit repetitive and some I consider misguided. There was just one response which I chose not to publish simply because, though witty, I thought it had no real relevance to the current debate. That comment section is now closed, though I am for the moment happy to entertain comments on this post here.

The challenge

Although generally polite, many of the responses, from archaeologists and scientists in particular, have been quite firm in declaring me wrong. These commentators have made the following points, among others:
  • I am not a scientist and therefore not qualified to evaluate the science behind the article
  • other than the new scientific results presented in the article, all the information in the Am J Phys Anthropol article was 'pre-established' and therefore no longer a matter for discussion
  • they would believe a 'peer-reviewed article' over a 'blogpost' any day
  • I am out of order to complain about established reference conventions in scientific/archaeological journals
The challenge, as noted above, for me to present my 'critique' in a peer-reviewed journal is misguided and the challenger has I think not read my original blog post carefully enough. I made it pretty clear there that my concern was not with their results, but with the quality of their argument in the interpretation of those results. This poor quality that I think I have identified relates to all of the points raised above:
  • I did not claim to have any opinions about the actual scientific analyses reported in the article and would never do so. My critique was partly about (a) the foundations of and the evidence used in the scientific analyses and (b) about the historical interpretations of the scientific analyses. I think this is clear enough in the blog post and if any readers have not picked that up, they should read it again.
  • the article, despite all of its scientific apparatus, poses an essentially historical question, and frames this question using vague, unexplained and unsupported references to narratives, poetry and historical documents. This means that the article chooses to interpret its scientific results in a historical/literary framework, without having had the courtesy to understand, or correctly cite, the long-standing discussions that have taken place within that historical/literary framework.
  • on peer review, see further below. I would just point out that I was not presenting any counter-argument to the published paper, for people to 'believe', but pointing out what I considered to be deficiencies in the argument of the published paper.
  • I explained in the previous blog post why I did not think that a referencing system designed for short scientific articles was valid when citing books of several hundred pages and stand by what I said there. And is it not a fundamental principle of science that results should be reproducible? This should also apply to the thought processes behind the arguments as well as what happened in the lab.
Peer review

All academics understand that peer review is both necessary and imperfect. I find it particularly ironic that commenters are claiming the superiority of the article because it has been peer-reviewed and attacking me for daring to critique it without the benefit of peer review, because I do not believe that the peer review process at Am J Phys Anthropol has done the authors any favours at all, other than giving them a huge audience for their work.

Forgive me if I have misunderstood, but I assume that the peer reviewer(s) for Am J Phys Anthropol are not well-acquainted with Old Norse literature and Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian history and therefore are unlikely to have picked up on the deficiencies of the article in these areas. I do wonder though why they couldn't at least recognise that the article might have had more force if it had avoided straying into these areas, and simply presented its scientific results for others to interpret. Whether or not a board game indicates an 'officer' is hardly a matter that a physical anthropologist can determine.

More seriously, I am surprised that the peer reviewer did not pick up on the fact that the supposed osteological analyses which these latest genomic analyses are supposed to confirm are not properly referenced in the article. I have already pointed out the fact that the article provides no indication of where these osteological analyses can be checked. Even a Swedish archaeologist generally positive towards the article recognises that it is a bit slim in the information it provides and states the following:
The plan of the grave shows which bones were well preserved. This should be enough to counter the charge that maybe the skeleton currently labelled Bj 581 is not in fact the one found in this weapon grave. This the authors should have written a few sentences about. I take their silence to mean that having already published her arguments about this elsewhere, Kjellström considers the issue uncontroversial.
Kjellström may consider the issue uncontroversial but are we just to believe her? Why couldn't the authors have simply provided a proper reference to where the osteological analyses have been published?

Since writing my critique, I have discovered that there is still some doubt about both the bones themselves and the plan of the grave as published in the article. These doubts have been expressed in a draft response by Fedir Androshchuk. This is clearly a draft and should be taken as such, but at the very least it suggests some caveats which the authors really should have cleared up properly before doing their scientific analyses. Other highly respected Viking Age archaeologists have also expressed doubts about some aspects of the analysis and interpretation. Again, these are in some cases quite specialist doubts which were perhaps not so easily picked up by the anthropological peer reviewer.

I stated in my original blog post that I did not have a considered alternative hypothesis for Bj 581, and may never have. There is therefore nothing to submit to peer review. However, I do feel I am qualified to come with a critique (and once again I repeat myself), not of the 'results' of the investigation, but of the quality of the argument and the nature of its academic discourse. I myself am often asked to peer review articles, books or projects that are primarily in Viking Age archaeology (though usually with some interdisciplinary aspect) and there seem to be plenty of people out there who consider me able to do this. Indeed I have indirectly heard from some such authors that they have respected and appreciated my critiques. It is my strong view that, in this age of open access and public engagement, academics have an even stronger responsibility than before to present the best possible research to the general public as well as to fellow academics. Which brings me to my final point.

Academic responsibility

My colleague Howard Williams, in another one of his blogs on this issue, points out that 'this has become a story about modern identities, and perhaps also about the crisis of academics attempting to be both digital public archaeologists and public intellectuals.' The original article had a very arresting title which overstates the case made in the article itself. The article is open access and was clearly designed for maximum worldwide public impact, as indeed it proved. To my mind this indicates all the more reason for the doubts, caveats and issues of interpretation to be brought to the fore in the discussion and not brushed under the carpet. Precisely because this is an article clearly intended to have maximum public and popular impact, it is entirely appropriate for it to be critiqued, by me and others, in the public domain of social and news media, and not in some peer-reviewed article I may or may not write within the next year or two and have published within the next five or ten. In an era of open access we do a disservice to our readers by leaving out the processes by which we arrive at our conclusions and just feeding them the sensational results. Although a bit of a shot in the dark as to its potential audience, my critique was indeed aimed at those readers of the article who may not have been sufficiently well versed in Viking Studies to see that there were some holes in the argument. I am content that many lay readers (or experienced academic readers in other disciplines) have understood this, but you can't win'em all.

P.S.

The last paragraph was going to be my final point, but there is one more thing worth mentioning. Many of the discussions of the original article, whether or not influenced by or in reaction to my blogpost, have turned on questions of gender fluidity, non-binary genders and similar matters, as for instance in a recent article in the Guardian, quoting Carolyne Larrington, and much of the Twitter and other discussion has turned on this matter. I would just point out that any such assertions still rely very heavily on various kinds of literary evidence, and that these texts should be subject to the same kinds of source criticism as the archaeological evidence. Interpretations of sagas are not set in stone, but in my experience few saga specialists have wanted to engage with archaeologists enough to help them work out what interpretations of these texts are plausible as evidence in conjunction with archaeological evidence when considering the Viking Age. There are many different kinds of relevant texts in Old Norse and other languages, and each genre has its own quirks and characteristics. All this, and the evolving context of literary study, has to be understood before these texts can be automatically transferred into more general historical or archaeological arguments. It's not an easy matter, and it's something I have been thinking about for most of my career, and occasionally expressed my views in writing on. It's also the kind of detailed study that some of my former PhD students have tackled, for example Roderick Dale on the berserkir and Teva Vidal on houses and domestic life. Both have been able to demonstrate the stratigraphy of certain sagas in ways that must please any archaeologist. Let us hope there is more such work forthcoming and that interdisciplinary dialogue, to which most Viking Age archaeologists of my acquaintance pay lip service, truly happens, in contexts which demand less disciplinary constraint than the Am J Phys Anthropol.




Saturday, 9 September 2017

Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again

The Viking Twittersphere is currently alive with tweets about a new article with the arresting title of 'A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics'.* The article concerns the interpretation of a particular burial at Birka, in Sweden. Since I do not think this is a matter which can be dealt with in the space of 140 characters, even when 'threaded', and one or two have asked what I think, then I have decided to put a few thoughts down here while the matter is fresh. I would however urge you not to read this until you have read the article first - it is open access and available to all, following the link above. Don't forget to read the 'Supporting Information' as well. I would also point out that this is a preview of an article not yet fully published.

To put my cards on the table, I will say that I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires. At the same time, I also think it is interesting to debate these matters and I am happy to do so (although not with the type of people who write UTL words to the effect of 'I just KNOW there were women warriors in the Viking Age'). I try to keep an open mind, but I also get very frustrated by what I consider to be academic discourse that seems to be mostly concerned with grabbing attention in order to facilitate further funding and/or claim 'impact'. And academic discourse in which topics that have been of concern to the humanities for decades if not centuries are suddenly somehow 'confirmed' by those gods, the scientists, without giving sufficient consideration of the 'non-scientific' evidence which inevitably raised the questions in the first place. (And here I wish we used the word 'science' in the same way as the Germans do Wissenschaft, which would make all evidence 'scientific', i.e. subject to reasoned analysis and argument). What I am really interested in is the quality of academic discourse - I'm very sensitive to what I consider to be shortcuts in an argument or sloppy use of evidence. We are all guilty of these at times, but I believe it is one of the functions of academic debate to point these out to each other, which is why I am writing this, even though I know many of the authors of this article and consider them friends.

One more caveat - I am not a scientist (in the English sense) and not qualified to comment on the natural scientific experiments carried out for the article I am about to discuss and their results. But I think I am qualified to discuss the ways in which the results are interpreted, and I am certainly qualified to comment on the way the authors of the article use textual evidence, and also how they interpret more general cultural historical aspects of the period, which is something I have been thinking about for about four decades. Hence my weighing in here.

My approach below is to work through the article, picking up points that I think are relevant to the quality of the argument. I have not yet spent enough time thinking about this particular problem to be able to offer a well-reasoned, holistic counter-interpretation. I am not even sure yet that I think the authors are necessarily wrong, or that it is my job to counter their arguments if I do. But I don't think they make a good case, and I would like to take an opportunity to point out some matters which I would like people to take into consideration before jumping to accept the conclusions of the article. I'm afraid too many people will just read the title of the article and not think about it more before endlessly retweeting it (you know who you are!) or making it go viral on Facebook. So here goes.

(1) I note that while the article has ten authors, they have chosen not to involve any specialist in language or texts, in spite of the fact that the article begins with reference to early medieval 'narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men', and concludes with a quotation from an Eddic poem in translation. The impression given is that the authors consider that no special expertise is required to handle this kind of evidence unlike bones, or DNA, or archaeological finds. The authors might argue that they cite people who do have such expertise, including myself. I would just point out that their primary reference to my work is to a semi-popular book published 26 years ago. (See also point 6., below). I would have thought they could have made the slight effort required to read what I wrote on the subject of women warriors in a recent monograph (The Viking Diaspora 2015, pp. 104-7), a less popular and more considered work. There (and elsewhere when I have written about such things) I do try to show that women warriors and/or Valkyries and/or shield maidens (they are all often mixed up) are not just 'mythological phenomena' as stated by the authors, but relate to a whole complex of ideas that pervade literature, mythology and ideology, without necessarily providing any direct evidence for women warriors in 'real life', which is what I take the current authors to be interested in. I do wish the authors would engage with these more subtle and complex interpretations, rather than just unthinkingly using texts both as the starting and the finishing point of their argument, without any indication of what narratives they have in mind, or even what kind, or any explanation of why a particular quotation might be relevant. An example of their sloppy thinking is when they claim that 'the material and historical records' both suggest that 'the male sex has been associated with the gender of a warrior identity' (a statement I think I understand, but it sounds awkward). This is to elide the nature of two very different types of evidence and does, in my view, a disservice to what they call 'historical records' (which may or may not be the same as the 'narratives' or 'mythological phenomena' referred to earlier). Needless to say, they do not specify what 'historical records' suggest this (or indeed what 'material records' do the same, whatever they are).

(2) Several times in the article the authors refer to an earlier article by the second-named author (Kjellström 2016)** which appears to be of great importance to their argument because in it she apparently provided 'a full osteological and contextual analysis', 'age and sex estimation results' and 'sex identification and a proper contextualisation' for the burial in question. The scientific analyses of the current article apparently arose out of a desire to confirm (as the title of the article suggests) these earlier results by scientific means. Having followed up the article in question, I can find nothing in it which explains why this osteological and contextual analysis suggests the deceased was a female - it's a rather general article summarising the author's osteological research on a large body of material which may well have included burial Bj 581, but does not say much about this particular burial. Without specifying its details, the earlier article does refer to a 'chamber grave furnished with fine armour and sacrificed horses' for which 'three different osteological examinations all found that the individual was a woman'. I suppose this is the grave under consideration in the most recent article, but interestingly, the author concludes that 'Whether these are not the correct bones for this grave or whether it opens up reinterpretations of weapon graves in Birka, it is too early to say' (the article was originally presented at a conference in 2013, not 2014 as suggested in the current article). This is because of problems arising from the fact that the graves were mainly excavated in the 19th century and there has been a certain amount of confusion regarding where various bags of bones came from. Extraordinarily enough, this is not even mentioned in the current article. It is admittedly covered, though fairly briefly, in the 'Supporting Information' to the current article, but I do think this element of possible doubt is crucial enough to have been mentioned in the main article, which is what most people will read - many will not even be aware of the status or significance of the 'Supporting Information', which contains both tables showing the scientific results and some discursive comments about sex and gender identities in Viking Age graves.

(3) Having concluded, to their own satisfaction, that the deceased in Bj 581 was indeed a female warrior, the authors go on to conclude, with very little discussion or justification, that she was 'a high-ranking officer', based apparently on the fact that the burial contained 'a full set of gaming pieces' which apparently 'indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy'. Another factor which may have led them to this conclusion, though it is not stated explicitly, is the fact that they determined that the individual was 'at least above 30 years of age'. By the end of the article, 'the individual in grave Bj 581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking warrior', because 'the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics'. All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact.

(4) The authors also note that there were 'No pathological or traumatic injuries' observed on the skeleton. They point out that 'weapon related wounds ... are not common in the inhumation burials at Birka' and elsewhere, so apparently the 'warriors' of these graves were either so good that they were never injured, or perhaps they weren't really 'warriors' at all. According to the authors 'our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions' - they do not seem to recognise that if they take this principle to its logical conclusion, the interpretation of this and many other graves as 'warrior' graves is thereby called into question. They can't have their cake and eat it too. They also say nothing about whether there was any indication on the bones of the kinds of activities one might expect a warrior to have engaged in, as strenuous physical activity might be expected to have left some traces, particularly if they were good enough to avoid injury to themselves.

(5) Although the authors point out that 'previous arguments have ... neglected intersectional perspectives' they do not really pursue alternative explanations regarding Bj 581 either. Was it possible, for example, for a biological woman to have been buried with a full 'warrior' accoutrement, even if she had not been a warrior in life? After all, archaeologists are always cautioning us that 'the dead don't bury themselves' and they often seem not to like interpretations in which the deceased's grave goods are taken as representing their roles in life. But such perspectives do not seem to be applied here - they want the woman to be a warrior, so the scientific analysis makes her a woman and her 'archaeological context' makes her a warrior. No doubt other explanations are possible, still assuming that the bones have been correctly assigned to the grave-goods, but discussion of such alternatives would rather detract from that arresting title, and would probably have ruled out publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The authors might have been better advised to keep this article to the purely scientific data, and leave the interpretation of it to other contexts which might have given them more space to reason more carefully.

(6) Finally, a bit of a rant against the prevalence of short name+date references in scientific and archaeological articles. Reference to an article in a scientific journal in this way is OK when the article is only a few pages long, as they often are. But referring to a 230+-page book as Name Date is cheating. The interested reader who may want to follow up the point being 'supported' by such a reference is faced with having possibly to read the whole book, or to work out from the index which of several possible sections of the book contain the information on which the referring authors rely. And one does sometimes get the impression that authors using such a reference system have not really read the work in question, at least not carefully or thoughtfully.

These are some of my caveats which I would dearly love people to take into account before tweeting all over the world about women warriors in the Viking Age. It's too easy to take the title of an article at face value and send it round the Twittersphere without further thought. I do know I'm banging my head against a brick wall, since I have blogged, spoken and written about these matters before and have come to realise that the emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument.

Nevertheless, I am still happy to engage in this debate. And just in case there is any doubt, although this blog is ostensibly anonymous, my name is Judith Jesch and I am happy to acknowledge what I have written above - with this kind of direct critique of an article by people I know well, anonymity would be completely unethical. I did consider sending this piece to https://theconversation.com/uk so as not to be anonymous, but previous experience with them suggests that long and complex pieces don't really work there. Taking complex research to the general public inevitably involves a loss of complexity. But it shouldn't do in an academic journal, and it is in the end the academic arguments I am most concerned with. I do also like trying to explain complex academic arguments to those who don't normally engage with them, but that's another story.

* Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, et al. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2017;00:1-8. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308.

**Kjellström A, (2016) People in transition: Life in the Malaren Vallye from an Osteological Perspectve. In V. Turner (Ed.), Shetland and the Viking World. Papers from the Proceedings of the 17th Viking Congress 2013 (pp. 197-202). Lerwick: Shetland Amenity Trust.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear II

Polar bear in the Svalbard Museum,
Longyearbyen
I promised to return to the topic of polar bears and my memory was jogged by the news, a few days ago, that a polar bear was shot in Newfoundland after being deemed 'a public safety risk'. In times of ecological crisis these magnificent animals are driven towards human habitation in search of food and it usually does not end well for them, as a hungry bear is a real danger to humans and it is not always easy or even possible to tranquilise and remove them. These latter options were not really available to people in former times and when polar bears drifted over to Iceland, it could go either way. The Icelandic annals record that, in 1321 a hvítabjörn came on the ice to Strandir in the north-west of Iceland, killing eight people and causing much destruction before he was finally killed on Straumnes. Another annal records that, in 1275, no less than 27 polar bears were killed in Iceland. Presumably, this was not all on one occasion (the bears tend to be quite solitary), but a result of the fact that, in that winter, kringdi hafíss nær um allt Ísland 'sea-ice encircled almost all of Iceland'. That this was an unusual event is suggested by the law in the Christian Laws Section of Grágás which stipulates that, while people are not supposed to hunt and fish on holy days, they can go out to catch a polar pear if one turns up. Another exception to usual practice in this law is that the bear belongs to 'whoever gives it a death wound', rather than whoever owns the land on which it is killed, which is otherwise when, for example, whales are stranded. The owner was then left with a nice pelt, for it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to eat a polar bear (though see below).

Mural in Thon Hotel Polar, Tromsø
Curiously it seems that people did have tame polar bears, most likely caught as cubs (either in Greenland, or having sailed to Iceland on an ice floe) since taming an adult bear is surely an impossibility. Grágás stipulates that a tame polar bear is to be treated like a dog, namely that its owner needs to pay for any damage it does. While such a bear has no immunity if it harms people, if it is itself harmed, then the person who harmed it pays a fine and compensation for the damage to the owner.

Available from the
world's most
northerly chocolatier.
Humans' curious love-hate relationship with bears of all kinds is suggested by the popularity of the name Bjorn, or names with -björn as the second element, then as now, and many stories turn on the human-like qualities of bears. There is a curious reciprocity in a story recorded in Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlements) about a certain Arngeirr, a settler in the north-east of Iceland and his son Þorgils. When they didn't return from looking for their livestock in a snow-storm, the younger son Oddr goes to search for them and finds them 'lying as food' for a polar bear, as Sturlubók puts it (Hauksbók at this point has a vivid image of the bear sucking the blood out of them). Oddr kills the bear and is said to have eaten it all. In fact, the saying was that he avenged his father in killing the bear, and his brother in eating it. But as a result he becomes evil and unruly, and shape-shifts at night so that the neighbours wanted to stone him to death for being a sorcerer. It's hard to imagine that eating a whole polar bear was very tasty so, while doing this was quite heroic, it does seem to have been in general quite a bad idea.

Another interesting aspect of polar bears in Old Norse texts is how frequently they turn up in dreams. But that is a matter I will leave to another blog.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

One Day Without Vikings?

I am a serial migrant. Twice in my life I have made the move to a new country (not including shorter stays of a few years in yet other countries), in both cases becoming a citizen and intending to stay. It looks like the second one is my forever home - I have now been a UK citizen for a quarter of a century and have no plans to move. In my first adopted country, I was schooled from a young age in the slogan 'No taxation without representation!' and that motivated me to become a citizen in my second adopted country - I was by then paying taxes and wanted to take a full part in the life of the country that was now home. I therefore naturally have an interest in tomorrow's National Day of Action on Feb 20th to Celebrate the Contributions of Migrants to the UK, or @1daywithoutus / #1daywithoutus.

But I also have a professional interest in the contributions of migrants, at least those in the past. If we take the long view historically, then of course everyone in these islands is a migrant, at least since the last Ice Age covered them, and I do think everyone should reflect on that simple fact, as well as on the contributions of migrants, whether over the last 10,000 years, or the last 10 years. Among the many identifiable groups who have made an enormous contribution to the life of these islands are the people of Scandinavian origin we call 'Vikings', who settled here between the ninth and eleventh centuries. To some they are best known for raiding and pillaging, as if they were the only people in the Early Middle Ages who did these things (they weren't). But most people also know that they moved into large swathes of eastern and northern England, into large parts of Scotland, and that they founded towns and other settlements in Ireland. These immigrants were not raiders and warriors, but farmers and traders, and families with women and children as well as men.

What was their contribution? Well, by farming the land and engaging in local, national and international trade, they made the contribution to the economy that we normally expect of immigrants (and the indigenous inhabitants, too?), and they paid their taxes. They came in sufficient numbers for their language and culture to become an indelible part of the language and culture of these islands. Even the first word in the previous sentence comes from Old Norse, this infiltration of some of the most basic features of the language (in this case a pronoun) being unprecedented in any other migration other than that of the Anglo-Saxons before them. At the other extreme, the English word 'law' comes from Old Norse - the Vikings gave us the very foundation of this nation's existence. It is not possible to have one day without Vikings, even now in the twenty-first century.

Words and place-names of Old Norse origin are around you, everywhere, everyday. You can find out more about the Vikings' contribution to the English language through the Gersum project. You can learn more about English place-names of Old Norse origin at the Key to English Place-Names. You can also find out about physical objects from the Viking period through for example the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. And this year is the Year of the Viking, when you can come to Nottingham for a special British Museum / York Museums Trust exhibition opening in November. As well as the exhibition, there will be a lot of different events dedicated to explaining the contributions of those migrants, the Vikings, branded as 'Bringing the Vikings Back to the East Midlands'. These will be advertised on the website of the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age at the University of Nottingham, so keep your eye out there! Or just follow Viking Midlands on Twitter - the project is currently in its infancy but more information will follow soon.

In the meantime, remember the migrants, not just tomorrow, but every day!





Sunday, 5 February 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear I

My excellent friend the Snow Queen (I call her that for reasons you may or may not be able to work out) has written about our arctic adventures, so I don't have to. Thanks! But since the polar bear was such a leitmotif of our travels, particularly in Svalbard, I thought I'd follow up with a little footnote rounding up some of the polar bears in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. But just before that, if you think there is something funny about the franked stamp to the left (a genuine one on a postcard that I sent), you're right. There aren't 52 days in January. I'm assuming that's a typo for 25 (the day after we left), but I'm wondering how it came about... Do they still use hand stamps with those rotating numbers for setting up the date?

Anyway, back to ice bears. Of course everyone's favourite and the best known example is from that staple of beginners' Old Norse courses, the Tale of Audun from the West Fjords, as it has most recently been translated. I don't want to spoil the story for those who have not read it yet - it's a short tale that will give you great pleasure and also food for thought! But basically it concerns a young Icelander who makes his way in the world by working for a travelling merchant in Norway and Greenland. In Greenland he gives all he has for a bear. Then, through a really risky series of voyages, involving treacherous stewards, encounters and delicate negotiations with the kings of Norway and Denmark, and a tough pilgrimage to Rome, he returns to Iceland a wealthy and respected person. The bear disappears partway through the story and we never really find out what happened to the creature. I guess its real role in the story is to illustrate both Audun's risk-taking and his cleverness. Having given all he had for a bear, a bear from Greenland, and therefore a rarity and a 'treasure' (as the story calls it), it takes real guts and wits to transform that bear into a fortunate outcome for himself, indeed an outcome that is not at all certain until the end. I haven't spoiled the story for you because it's how he does it that is the real interest of the tale. Indeed, the American professor of law William Ian Miller has written a whole book about the intricacies of this jewel of Old Icelandic narrative (though beware, students, there are two versions of the tale, with some interesting differences).

Tethered polar bear cub in Svalbard
Museum, Longyearbyen
Given the long sea-voyages involved, and the nature of polar bears, one has to assume that when Audun first acquired it in Greenland, the bear was a cub (compare the stuffed version we saw in the museum, right). Audun was not himself a hunter, the story makes clear that he paid for it. The story also makes clear that things got a bit tricky when he couldn't afford to feed it any more, as it must have grown faster than he anticipated and a hungry polar bear is a fearsome sight to behold.

Audun's tale is set in the middle of the eleventh century. Giving polar bears to important people seems to have been quite the fashion back in those days, though we're never really told what these VIPs did with them. Presumably, they died an early death, but their skins would still have made a nice decoration for the royal hall. Iceland's first bishop, Ísleifr Gizurarson, took a hvítabjörn 'white bear' with him to the emperor Heinrich III in Saxony on his inaugural voyage in around 1056, which did the trick as Heinrich gave him his protection for the rest of his journey throughout the empire, according to Hungrvaka (ch. 2). But Ísleifr did not go to Greenland for the bear, rather the text explicitly says the bear was kominn...af Grœnlandi 'come from Greenland'. Perhaps someone else brought it, or the bear might have come floating to Iceland on an ice floe, something which still happens nowadays, most recently last summer. Nowadays it does not generally end well for the bear because they are a real danger to both humans and livestock. And I wonder if Ísleifr's bear may not rather have ended up as a rug than as a real, living animal in Saxony....

Map from Nordic Adventure
Travel, nat.is
Similarly, the hero of Vatnsdœla saga, Ingimundr inn gamli, having only recently arrived in Iceland, sails back to Norway to get some timber to build himself a splendid dwelling, and takes with him no less than three bears (a she-bear and her two cubs) as a gift for his patron King Haraldr Finehair, which he graciously accepts (chs 15-16). No doubt the bears played their part in the king's extremely generous return gift of a ship loaded with timber, but then Ingimundr was one of the few settlers of Iceland who was in good odour with that king. The other interest of the anecdote is that Ingimundr and his men found the bears on the ice during the winter, when there was a lot of ice around. In the north of Iceland, a bay (Húnaflói), a fjord (Húnafjörðr) and a lake (Húnavatn) are all supposedly named after the bear cubs they found (húnn being the word for a bear-cub), as can be seen from the map above. Well, it's a nice story, though probably apocryphal.

In Grœnlendinga þáttr, a short tale set rather later, in the twelfth century, the inhabitants of Greenland twice try to use bears to ingratiate themselves with important people, only once successfully. In the very first chapter, we meet the important and well-respected Sokki, who feels the community is not complete without a bishop, and sends his son Einarr to Norway to arrange this, with gifts of walrus ivory and hides. Once the bishop thing is sorted (bishops didn't really like the Greenland gig), Einarr gives King Sigurðr Jórsalafari a bear which he happened to have brought with him from Greenland, in return for which he gets praise and honour from the king. Later in the tale, things didn't go so well with the Norwegian troublemaker Kolbeinn, who had killed Einarr and pleads his cause with King Haraldr gilli in Norway with the aid of the gift of a polar bear. But the king gathers that Kolbeinn is not telling the truth and kómu eigi laun fyrir dýrit 'no reward was forthcoming for the animal'. Soon afterwards, Kolbeinn gets his comeuppance and drowns.

These are just some of the most well-known instances of polar bears in Icelandic texts. Having started to look into it, I've realised there are many, many more, far too many to squeeze into one blog post. So I'll save some of them for another occasion.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Towering Goddess

The Viqueen, I can report, is beyond excited at her upcoming trip to extremely northern latitudes in Norway in a couple of days' time. Heading north in January means that there are two desiderata above all, snow and the northern lights. It is true that the Viqueen has seen quite a lot of snow in her lifetime, and she even finally achieved one of her all-time goals when she saw the aurora borealis on a trip to Iceland last November (as proven by the rather murky photo, right). But global warming means snow is not as reliable as it once was, while one glimpse of some rather faint northern lights can only whet a Viqueen's appetite for even more, and perhaps even more spectacular, displays.

So what does a Viqueen do? Well she knows to pray to Skaði for snow, for the skiing goddess/giantess just cannot do her thing without it. But what about the northern lights? The Viqueen duly consulted her friend the Snowqueen on this important matter, and the oracle suggested that an appropriate deity to propitiate would be the otherwise not very well known goddess Gná. This sent the Viqueen back to her books to remind herself about this rather obscure figure, and what she found there is rather interesting.

Like many other obscure goddesses, Gná occurs a few times in kennings, where she is mostly just a synonym for 'goddess', in those woman-kennings where a goddess, any goddess, depending on the requirements of rhyme or alliteration, forms the base-word. Still, it is interesting that Gná appears in kennings in both very early poetry (Ölvir hnúfa, one of the poets of Haraldr Finehair in the 9th century) and quite late poetry (in the Jómsvíkingadrápa by the Orcadian bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, in the late 12th or early 13th century), suggesting a longevity in the minds of those who cared about these things.

Another bit of evidence that she was better-known in those days than she is now is the way in which she is mentioned in Snorri's Edda. There, she appears as no. 14 in the list of goddesses and her main characteristic seems to be as a kind of errand-girl for the top goddess Frigg (aka Mrs Óðinn). But then Snorri tells us a bit more, that she has a horse, called Hófvarfnir, that can run on both the sky and the sea. Snorri also goes on to quote a couple of stanzas from a poem occasioned by her riding through the air. On being seen by 'certain Vanir' doing this, one of them asked:
'Hvat þar flýgr? / Hvar þar ferr / eða at lopti líðr?'
What flies there? What goes there, or travels in the air?
to which the goddess herself answers:
'Né ek flýg / þó ek fer / ok at lopti líðk / á Hófvarfni / þeim er Hamskerpir / gat við Garðrofu.'
' I do not fly, though I go and travel in the air on Hófvarfnir, whom Hamskerpir conceived on Garðrofa.'
  (quoted from Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning, ed. Anthony Faulkes, 1982, p. 30, my translation)
Just a little snippet of mythological knowledge there, not unlike the many names, of mythological horses as well as many other things, that we find in Grímnismál. But what is perhaps more interesting than that is the fact that these two stanzas are among the very few Eddic, mythological stanzas in Snorri that must derive from longer poems that do not otherwise survive, again suggesting that this goddess was once better known than she is now.

Snorri then goes on to add, in some guesswork etymology, that 'From the name of Gná, a thing which goes up high is said to tower (gnæfa)'. So, indeed, an appropriate deity for the northern lights up there in the sky. The Viqueen can only hope that she recognises this humble approach and arranges things accordingly next week.

P.S. If you want to read a much more learned disquisition on the possible significance of Gná and other flying females in Norse myth and superstition, then do have a look at Stephen Mitchell, 'Gudinnan Gná', Saga och Sed (2014), 23-41.