Tag Archives: Vikings

Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.

Viking Trail

History is a powerful elixir, capable of transforming sinners to saints with the mere passage of time. Well, calling Vikings saints may be a bit of a stretch, but still, they have become some of the sexy bad boys of the Middle Ages, and with the finding of a Viking horde in Scotland last month, they are in the news once again. Vikings and monks were kind of like medieval dogs and cats. Monasteries, located in lonely regions, often amassed wealth and Vikings, looking for loot and less scrupulous about bloodshed, were eager to take it. The give and take (literally) of this violent lifestyle involving seafaring, battles, and churches, makes for good ancient drama and much of it took place along the coasts of Scotland. Our Scandinavian scourge, however, didn’t stop there. It is well established that the Vikings made it to North America well before Columbus. Those who don’t dismiss the Kensington Rune Stone also claim that the Vikings reached Minnesota long before football ever did. Whatever the reason, we are fascinated with Vikings.

Wikinger

Perhaps they are the ultimate autonomous self-promoters. We all would secretly, at least, enjoy being able to set our own standards so that they favored us and our loved ones. The Vikings represent the flaunting of the rule of law, traveling far to take what they want by force. And, perchance, leaving a bit of treasure behind as well. The Vikings became Christianized and the slave trade (long before the New World caught hold of the idea) was effaced to the point of becoming uneconomical to them. Nobody is certain why, but the Vikings, probably for a variety of causes, ceased to be the terror of the seas. Now the Scandinavians are considered among some of the most literate peoples of the world.

Along with the decline of the Vikings, however, also came the fading of the monastic cultural hegemony. To be sure, there are monks and nuns still today, but the force with which they gripped the medieval imagination began to decline with the Protestant Reformation and the recognition that vast wealth, even if cloaked in poverty, is still vast wealth. Now the finds from both monasteries and Viking sites constitute historical treasure. Information about a world long gone. The underlying idea, however, is never very far from the surface. We may lay claim to post-colonialism, but powerful economies have a way of getting what they want in the way of trade treaties and tariffs in any case. When a Scot finds a Viking these days, it is a cause for celebration as we let bygones be bygones and cut the humanities curricula nevertheless. The Vikings never really disappeared.

The Best Gift

Standing outside the footprint of a circular chapel next to the ancient ruins of a drinking hall in Ophir, the Orkney Islands, with friends. We’re quoting from the memorable scene in the Orkneyinga Saga where Svein Asleifarson leapt out and killed Svein “Breast-Rope” as drunken vikings staggered back and forth from the Earl’s Bu to the chapel one Christmas season some nine centuries ago. The Orkneys used to belong to Norway and had a close connection with Iceland, which, all things considered, is not that far off. While working on my doctorate in ancient Syrian mythology, I experienced a fascination with Icelandic viking sagas and read several of them (in translation, of course). Traveling to the Orkney Islands was about as close to Iceland as we’d hope to get on a student’s budget, and the atmosphere of these historic islands does not disappoint. We were standing on the actual site of this historical incident one violent Christmas long ago.

VikingsImagining, however, is not the same as condoning. Nearing a millennium later, Iceland celebrates Christmas with “Jolabokaflod,” the Christmas book flood. Armed with books rather than broadswords, the folks of Iceland have built a considerable literary reputation. According to an NPR story my wife and traveling partner sent me, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, and giving books at Christmas is a national tradition. Reykjavík is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature. Unlike the United States, a large proportion of the population of Iceland buys books, according to the story, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t related to two other Icelandic phenomena as well. Iceland has very little gun violence and it is one of the most ecofriendly countries on the planet. While it is only a feeling, I believe that widespread reading makes a better society.

I remember the experience of growing up and hearing other kids complaining bitterly about assigned reading. Here in this wild west corner of the world, we’re too full of dreams of action to spend quiet hours improving our minds. Guns are easy to acquire and too easy to use against the innocent. We could sure use a Jolabokaflod, it sounds like to me. Towards the end of each year I like to tally up an approximation of how many books I read in the previous twelve months. Although some are definitely better than others, each one is its own gift, a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. And such glimpsing aids in understanding. I may not agree with you, but I know where you’re coming from. And as we enter that long, cold stretch of January and February I feel ill-prepared if I don’t have a stockpile of books to get me through the darkness of this time of year. And one of my fantasies will be a world that can see from the blood-stained ground of Ophir all the way to Reykjavik.

Return of the Frost Giants

We have ceased believing in the gods, but we still feel their wrath. The recent winter storms encompassing much of the nation demonstrate our arrogance in the face of the uncontrollable. It has long been my contention that the chief god is a personification of the weather. No matter how many HAARPs we put into place or how many satellites we hurl over our heads, the atmosphere remains a chaotic system. Global warming triggers unpredictable weather and extreme conditions. Yet people claim the moderate level of snow in the northeast is proof against the facts. I say the gods are laughing. How quickly we forget the ice ages.

As a child Norse mythology was among my favorite pagan religious systems. Obviously those responsible for naming our weekdays felt the same. The struggles and weaknesses of Odin, Thor, and Loki are far more honest than claims of pristine intention on the part of the majority of gods. The most captivating aspect was the eventual victory of the frost giants at a kind of Ragnarök. In Scotland, so close to the landfall of many a Viking, I took advantage of indulging in Viking sagas and myths. My understanding remains that of a curious layman, but I sense a deep wisdom at work here.

A recent email from a university dean on a particularly treacherous weather morning admonished all instructors that classroom presence was a commodity that paying students have a right to expect. Deans, with their six-figure salaries, are not accustomed to not getting their own way. How hard it is to admit that the gods have bested us! There are those who’ve not bothered to study global warming but nevertheless like to make pronouncements about it. They claim such weather disproves that the world is heating up, despite the global warming models that predict erratic and localized colder weather. We have released the frost giants. The more we mess with them the more dangerous they become. So, what is my solution to the dilemma of too much weather? Well, I’m morally obligated not to say until I receive my six-figure salary.

The little wolf laughed to see such sport