Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear II

Polar bear in the Svalbard Museum,
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.

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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 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
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.