Deep North Episode 72: Searching for Grettir

fagraskógarfjall william morris

William Morris, the Victorian poet perhaps known best for his interest in traditional crafts and revolutionary socialism, was also a keen scholar of the medieval north. He was also, in some sense, one of Iceland’s first tourists. In the latest episode of Deep North, we talk about the sagas, language, and what drove a 19th-century Englishman to travel by horse and foot over high heaths and steep mountains.

Note: We apologize for the poor audio quality of today’s episode.

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‘I take it as a threat’: Nithing Pole Erected at Local Commune

A nithing pole topped with the severed head of a horse was erected on the land of a spiritual community known as Sólsetrið in Kjalarnes in the capital area this weekend, RÚV reports. Nithing poles derive from ancient pagan tradition and are erected to curse the receiver. The residents of Sólsetrið have been involved in disputes in recent months, and believe the pole is related to these feuds—or media coverage of them.

Linda Möll runs Sólsetrið as a spiritual community whose practices include cacao ceremonies, singing, dancing, and drumming. The community also holds what have been called “tantric festivals,” and it’s these events that have recently drawn criticism and ire. “That’s the basis for all of this and I respect that,” said Linda Möll in a recent interview. “At the same time, I also respect that I’m an individual who is different, who is approaching life in a different way, is choosing a way of life that perhaps poses another worldview and maybe I can build a bridge to a better world.”

Residents avid equestrians

The underlying threat of the nithing pole did not escape the residents of Sólsetrið, who as avid equestrians, were doubly distressed by the event. “I take this as a threat,” said resident Kristjana Þórarinsdóttir. “That’s just the way it is—there’s no other way to take it. My husband Guðni is the chairman of the national chapter of equestrian associations—how else are we supposed to understand this? We’re horse people and I think if anyone knows Guðni or knows anything about him, the first thing that they’d think of is that he’s a horseman. That’s what characterizes him best and you can’t read this as anything other than a threat,” she concluded. Even so, it’s difficult to say who specifically the threat is directed at: Kristjana and her husband, or Linda Möll and the people she lives with.

After discovering the nithing pole, Kristjana said she rushed up to their stables to make sure that the horse wasn’t one of their own. Luckily, all of her animals are safe, but Kristjana says she’s afraid to return home for now. “I feel ill,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”

Well-publicized feuds

Kristjana also stated that she didn’t think that Linda Möll herself was behind the atrocity; the community’s feuds have been much-discussed of late in the media and she believes anyone could be behind it.

The residents of Sólsetrið are still trying to make sense of the event. “This can’t be because of some neighbor dispute,” Linda Möll concluded. “We could have had this conversation over a cup of cocoa. And who deserves to receive a message like this? I don’t think anyone deserves this.”

Police and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority removed the horse head around noon on Friday and the incident is under investigation.

The nithing pole in the sagas

One of the most famous uses of a nithing pole appears in Egill’s saga (ch. 60, here translated by W. C. Green in 1983):

And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’

This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.

 

Benefits of Retrieving the Manuscripts Unclear

Njáls saga manuscripts.

It is unclear how beneficial it will be for Iceland to recover more of the Icelandic manuscripts that have been kept in Denmark since the 18th century, RÚV reports. Moving them could jeopardize important scientific work in the field of Ancient and Nordic studies, according to Dr Viðar Pálsson, associate professor of History at the University of Iceland.

The Ministers of Education of Iceland and Denmark decided yesterday to establish a consulting committee on items of common cultural values between the two Nordic countries. Lilja Alfreðsdóttir and Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen discussed Lilja’s proposal to review how the manuscripts are being shared. Lilja has repeatedly expressed interest in Iceland recovering some more of the manuscripts preserved in Denmark, where there remain about seven hundred Icelandic manuscripts.

“In the past centuries, people defined what manuscripts were considered Icelandic. Many of the manuscripts would fall into a grey area, but virtually all manuscripts that we can say are mainly Icelandic have been brought back. But there are also some manuscripts that we could describe as rather Icelandic than anything else that we may nevertheless want to recover at some point. Of course, there are manuscripts in the Danish archives containing prized Icelandic sagas, but then there were manuscripts containing more prosaic legal material, royal narrative material and so on that originate in Iceland but are not necessarily Icelandic in content,” says Dr Viðar.

Unknown consequences

According to Viðar there are general ideological and cultural arguments for calling for the recovery to Iceland of all and any manuscripts that could possibly be considered Icelandic. “First of all, there’s the new University building for Icelandic studies, which means there’s improved conditions to preserve the fragile manuscripts. Secondly, budget cuts in Copenhagen have resulted in the cancellation of teaching positions in Icelandic and the humanities in general at Danish universities, a worrying trend. Third, it has been pointed out that these developments reflect a dwindling emphasis on Nordic scholarship in Denmark. Whether these are temporary circumstances or not remains to be seen. These arguments are keeping this issue alive, but it is uncertain how bringing these manuscripts to Iceland promotes international studies of old Icelandic and old Norse scholarship, for example in Denmark. Could retrieving the manuscripts hasten the development that’s already started and that we’re trying to avoid?” Says Viðar.

The Manuscript issue is sensitive by nature

In the eighteenth century, Icelandic-born archivist Árni Magnússon donated his massive collection of Icelandic manuscripts to the University of Denmark, which was considered to be a safe choice given the rudimentary nature of scholarship and conservation of artefacts and manuscripts in particular in Iceland at the time. Negotiations between Iceland and Denmark in the 1960s resulted with the Danes handing over some of the manuscripts to Iceland, the first ones delivered at a solemn ceremony in 1971. Dr Viðar emphasized that the manuscript issue is sensitive by nature. There are, it must be realized, some possible disadvantages in getting the manuscripts to Iceland.

“From a purely academic point of view, if the manuscripts go home to Iceland, I do not know in what way, if any, it would strengthen scholarship there. They are already very accessible to scholars. They are well looked after, and the University of Copenhagen is a world-class research centre in these studies. Also, in Copenhagen, there has been a long-term scientific work in the field of Ancient Icelandic and Old Norse studies. This is a very powerful and valuable job and it is a question of whether we are jeopardizing it all by raising this issue,” Dr Viðar says.

“The manuscript issue was always inherently very sensitive. In fact, a very successful outcome was reached in that matter at the time that was amenable to all involved parties. Then, however, there is a question of whether in the long-term manuscript studies in Copenhagen is losing its heft. I don’t think we need to panic or rush to conclusions. We can only keep track of how matters develop.”

Living Legends

Skálmöld.

What’s the recipe for stardom? Though the exact ingredients are greatly debated, most would agree that singing exclusively about Norse mythology, in old poetic forms, in a language spoken by a handful of people, would not be a good strategy for achieving fame. Yet for Icelandic heavy metal act Skálmöld, that’s the exact combination that catapulted them onto world stages and earned them thousands of adoring fans.

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Njáls saga Manuscripts Unite for “Family Reunion”

Njáls saga manuscripts.

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies hosted an unusual “family reunion” this week, where all three branches of Njáls saga manuscripts were united, likely for the first time, RÚV reports. Some of the manuscripts are around 700 years old.

Njáls saga is a 13th-century Icelandic saga that deals with blood feuds in the Icelandic Commonwealth. It is the longest and most developed of the Icelandic sagas, and is often considered the peak of the saga tradition. The “reunion” of sorts was organised in honour of the anniversary of Árni Magnússon’s death January 7. Research Associate Professor Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir said the event gave scholars a chance to look at the origin of Njáls saga.

According to Svanhildur, Njals saga was likely complied around 1280, though the oldest found manuscripts date from around 1300. The research of Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and others discovered that Njals saga manuscripts can be classified as belonging to one of three branches, called the X, Y, and Z branches. The January event at the institute was likely the first time that manuscripts from all three branches had been collected together, as the Reykjabók manuscript, belonging to the X branch, is currently on loan to Iceland from Denmark.

Njáls saga manuscripts.
[/media-credit] The manuscripts, as seen at the Arni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.

It’s priceless to be able to see the manuscripts together, says Svanhildur, particularly so shortly following the publication of new research on the works, titled New Studies in the Manuscript Tradition of Njáls saga.