Well, it has been sometime since I sat down and wrote out what I usually refer to as “unpopular opinion” posts. I’m up to my eyeballs in my books, so, I felt like broaching the subject would be fun. Yes, this is the shit I do for fun. First, if you do not happen to have a copy of the Gisla Saga- here. Gisla Saga. Now, you do. I’m going to be breaking this down into a series- and first, we have to have an introduction because frankly, there’s a bit of misunderstanding among people I talk to about just what the heck a saga is. There isn’t much confusion about the glossary of terms I’m going into in the next post: and I’ll refrain from speculation in terms of why that would be. Maybe they’re a little Thor from reaching too hard. I dunno.
Oh lookie- now, some of you youngin’s may not remember those old school days when the projector or the little cart would wheel into class: but, hey, I can do that, too. I give you- Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli. Absolute cheese, but awesome, nonetheless.
Definite amusing side note.
One of the first things you will note is that there is a definite cultural norms influence here and were I a reenactor, rather than a reconstructionalist: this would matter a great deal. But, here’s the thing: it is widely believed that the events in the saga took place somewhere between the years 860-980 AD and handed down via oral traditions until it was recorded sometime in the early 13th century. It’s fucking 2018. Though, yes, I recently had someone online challenge me to holmganga over my correcting his etymology- c’mon. This is not where we are. Chicken shit owes me some weregild, now, and I’ll never see it. (There is a tremendous eyeball roll here.)
As we get into this, this distinction will become very, very important for a number of reasons.
So, for those of you in North America or otherwise above the equator, let me ask you something- how many hours of Netflix or Amazon Prime videos have you logged this winter?
If you haven’t, but you understand the temptation even slightly- you understand what the sagas actually were. The word saga itself actually stems from either Icelandic or Old Norse and is a cognate of the English word say. Icelandic’s a weird language that tends to get mighty colorful so it might mean “story” or the longer- a narrative in prose. As it has evolved in the Nordic linguistic style- it’s been given a bit more heft and meaning. More modern recognition of the defining features would liken it to what you might know as a “tall tale”.
When reading the sagas, then, it’s probably best you think about them similarly to a blockbuster movie based on something historical. If you’re a history buff: Braveheart is a good example. Much as I loved that movie: truth about William Wallace isn’t quite that fantastical- but, it’s entertaining, and this is what the sagas were originally intended to be. Sort of.
Lost in Translation
Some of you who may be familiar with some of the sagas might have already noticed some startling parallels to say, Christianity. I’m not going to go all the way back to King Olaf or anything here- but, let’s take a look at where the key elements for most heathen hearts’ comes from: Snorri Sturluson. Now, remember up there where I said they’re pretty sure much of these orally handed down tales were then written in the 13th century? Guess who was one of the most instrumental in doing that? That’d be him.
Of course, most of the American heathens I know readily talk about the Prose Edda- but, you’ll also find quite a lot of cultural love for the Heimskringla. There is good reason for this: They’re Kings’ Sagas- and the exploits are fascinating and amazing- in fact, here is where we find the tale of how Odin, at the time a mortal man more or less initiates the Norwegian royal dynasty. This is a book of sagas about the legendary Norwegian Kings, starting with the Ynglings. Though we don’t really see much discourse about it here- this book is a really big deal. I’m trying to think of something we love in the states that compares- but coming up short. American as Apple Pie, Norwegian as the Heimskringla seems to fall pretty flat- because, for a very long time, they taught history in the schools based on these sagas.
The Prose Edda, or Younger Edda, is a gorgeous body of work that was originally created to be a textbook that would help the reader and Icelandic poets to better get a handle on alliterative verse and how to understand skaldic poetry- specifically the compounds, or kenningar contained within. The euhemerized prologue gives us our first taste of Nordic mythology, really- except, as I mentioned: bit of a Christian spin to it. Gods originating as men having been warriors and become divine kings and so forth. Then, it breaks down into separate books detailing the destruction and creation of the world by said gods, further fleshing out some of the mythos. My favorite part- the Skaldskaparmal really is just an exploration of how the myth, poetry and song combine- and how those things are used, as well as the kinningar for a number of different things or occasions. And so far, all of this is more or less compiled by Sturluson- drawing on a number of different sources. However, when you get to the last part, you get a bit of a caveat from him: he points out the old poets didn’t follow his rules. The ones he lays out within this part of the book.
I won’t go into either of these too much, for now: but, here you have an interesting juxtaposition of oral tradition, history and modern politics of the time. Of course, there are many more sagas out there- king’s sagas, to boot: but, this is what people are most familiar with.
What they appear to be unfamiliar with is what Sturluson was. He was a poet, yes. Also a historian. But he was also a politician during a time of a considerable societal change. Iceland began to be settled right around 860 AD- and yes, by predominantly Norwegian settlers. This would amp up in around 870 and continue til about 930. But it wouldn’t be until about 1262 that Iceland was brought to heel by Norway- and this was not going over so well.
Snorri wasn’t exactly just some schmuck who happened to know a lot about history. There’s a reason he was able to become a learned man- and that reason was, well, his family was aristocracy. Thing was, his mother had pretty much blown every dime they had by the time he reached adulthood- but because his fosterage was with the Oddaverjas, which at that time was the most powerful in the country and ruled most of Southern Iceland- he was doing alright. This meant he had access to pretty much all the studies and learning you could possibly want. The family also had ties to Norway’s royal family. More than that, he winds up marrying a rich lady and this gave him the resources he needed. So, he gets into this position and starts sort of bringing together chieftains and churches. It’s a process of consolidating power, really and he’s moving up the ranks in other ways. At this point, though- he starts to clash with his foster: because his kindred becomes more powerful than theirs, has greater influence. From about 1218 until 1220, he goes to Norway, makes big connections there and promises that he’ll do what he can to promote unity between Norway and Iceland.
Spoiler alert: he was actually a pretty shitty politician to boot, who winds up dead as a result. He was, however, incredibly gifted with analysis and exploiting the things he saw.
This is less about the Christianization and more about how it was a vehicle by which power could be consolidated and changes could be made: and Snorri had that motivation.
So, the problem then becomes- how much literary device was utilized in order to further that end? Turns out, quite a bit. If you get into comparative studies, making use of Bede, Tacitus, Grammaticus, and others as well as delving into archaeology and work done by religious historians like Price and Dumezeil- or even Ranke- well, you begin to look at these things with a bit more of a critical eye.
In my next post on this, I am going to go into some of the basic concepts, which is why it was kind of essential I lay this groundwork here: you have to understand the point isn’t in doing things just the way they did. For one thing: nobody really knows exactly what that even means. For another, if you don’t understand nuance and you don’t understand alliterative verse: you’re probably gonna have a tough time of it.