"To the Unknown God", Friedrich Nietzsche (1864)

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Once more, before I move on
and set my sights ahead,
in loneliness I lift my hands up to you,
you to whom I flee,
to whom I, in the deepmost depth of my heart,
solemnly consecrated altars
so that ever
your voice may summon me again.

Deeply graved into those altars
glows the phrase: To The Unknown God.
I am his, although I have, until now,
also lingered amid the unholy mob;
I am his—and I feel the snares
that pull me down in the struggle and,
if I would flee,
compel me yet into his service.

I want to know you, Unknown One,
Who reaches deep into my soul,
Who roams through my life like a storm—
You Unfathomable One, akin to me!
I want to know you, even serve you.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864

Published with kind permission from the translator, Michael Moynihan. Drawn from Alain de Benoist, On Being a Pagan. Arcana Europa, 2018.

"Wodwo", Ted Hughes (1967)

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river's edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I've no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it's no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that's touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there's all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here's the water
again very queer but I'll go on looking

 

Related:
Wild men and bearded women of the Medieval North

The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.8: The Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia pt.II

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In this part, Aksel and Eirik get into the actual timeline of Scandinavian prehistory with an emphasis on the Bronze and Iron Ages, including the Viking Age. We talk about the materiality of these periods, the language, and regional variation, before we segway drunkenly into our own snobbery.

ᛊᚢᛈᛟᚱᛏ:ᛒᚱᚢᛏᛖ:ᚾᛟᚱᛊᛖ:ᛟᚾ:ᛈᚨᛏᚱᛖᛟᚾ

Norse culture and language "irrelevant" to students, says Norwegian government agency. They are dead wrong

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The Norwegian Directorate for Education are chipping in for a shallower, more intellectually flaccid world, as a panel tasked with proposing revisions to the school curriculum recently suggested cuts to older linguistic and literary history from the Norwegian subject curriculum. This is part of the Ministry of Education and Research's newfound doctrine of renewal, intended to pave way for what they think will be a more contemplative and considerate educational platform, to the abandonment of "irrelevant" subjects.

Schools barely touch upon Old Norse in the first place, so we may rightfully ask what there is left to cut before these lifelines are entirely severed. Downsizing whatever remains of a cultural historical perspective would no doubt have the opposite effect, if the goal is to encourage the intellectual development and independence of the students.

Awareness of our linguistic heritage is essential to understand, not only the basis for the immense regional richness of our language, but also how Icelandic and Norwegian developed into two distinct languages. Such things are relevant to any society wishing to understand itself and its surroundings in a long-term perspective. Never has this been more important than today.

I am not alone in my conviction that Old Norse is doomed. I don't think Norwegian universities will teach Old Norse in 40 years. With no institutions to speak its case, recruiting students will be harder than ever. It's true that there's been some resurgent interest in vikings and Norse mythology, in part thanks to popular culture, but what good is this to an academic field that hinges on a more long-term historical awareness. If I hadn't been introduced to Norse literature at a tender age, it is very unlikely that I would have ended up pursuing my degree. That spark was, at least in part, lit by the school system. One I thought was founded on principles of encyclopedic wisdom.

Now, it's abundantly clear that the government has limited enthusiasm for people pursuing the liberal arts. But when my generation was younger, we were actively encouraged on grounds that, whichever direction we chose, the system assured it would all pay off. Now that the oil age has long since peaked, politicians want no liability for the precariat they gave birth to. But regardless of our perceived "relevance" to the Social Democratic Kingdom of Norway, the fact remains that people like us are necessary for the sake of our cultural memory, which in turn is an asset to the cultural flora of the world.

What sort of society are we aiming for, if we do not nurture our culture, alienating future generations from literature we are internationally famous and celebrated for. There is a real possibility that soon, generations will grow up entirely unaware, and consequentially uncurious, about their own native tongue. Who should introduce them, if not the schools. Old Norse is the mythic language that articulates our origins. Norse culture is popularly perceived as the ethnogenesis not only of Norway, but all of Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands. It provides context to how and why, exactly, the Nordic countries manifested in past and present. Our ups, and our downs. We are not incidental, but the result of a plastic development across generations. Here we are, a thousand years later. Politicians, of all people, should see the worth of a great myth.

The agency has expressed their desire to increase cross-cultural understanding. These chronophobes ignore the aspect of time. Whether by intent or accident, the result of their proposal is that the school system will embrace amnesia. When I thought Old Norse was threatened, they are telling me it's not threatened enough.

If the past is another country, then there is obviously a need for understanding between past and present man. History provides examples that we may seen in ourselves, and the lesson it teaches is different than what we get from observing our neighbors. Norse literature and language offers a window into a different world. It is a mirror through which we may see the other in ourselves, and reminds us that our own reality could have been much different. Because it was.

 

 

"Gilbert's Stone God", an Excerpt from Rosa by Knut Hamsun (1908)

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I peer further in towards the wall of thickets, and a chill runs down my spine. There is a stone image right in front of me, an old god. Oh how small and grim it is, lacking arms down from his shoulders, and with nothing but feeble grooves in the face for eyes, nose, and mouth. The gap between the legs is also simply a carved line, and there are no feet. To stand, the image must be propped up with stones.
Then I thought that this was what God had wanted tonight. To use me to topple this little idol man, and toss him in the pond. Yet when I moved my hand to do it there was no strength in it, but contradictory, a strange exhaustion.

I looked at my hand, what was wrong with it? It ran like a wilting across the skin. Filled with horror, I looked away from my hand, towards the little stone man again. Oh, it was a disgrace against God to be humiliated by this creature! It looked just as though it had been greater once, long ago, but now it had gone into childhood with dementia. It had become nothing, that's how shriveled it was, standing there with the supports around itself.

I raised my other hand against it, but the hand falls, the same thing repeats itself. The skin turns gray and withered on my left hand. Then I jump back across the pond, and crawl back out of the thickets. Big drops of rain begin to fall from the sky.

From «Rosa» (1908) by Knut Hamsun. Translated by Eirik Storesund, February 2018.   

The Word Cat Didn't Always Mean Cat

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What sort of philosophers are we who know absolutely nothing about the origin and destiny of cats?
— Henry David Thoreau

When we use the word cat, we tend to think that the word cat is synonymous with felines such as house cats, lions, and tigers. But it wasn't always so. Nobody knows for sure where word cat comes from, but one thing is certain: The word cat does not actually mean cat. This is evident from various compound words in which cat occurs in the Germanic languages. Modern English may tend to be more discriminate about the term, and truly most of us think of the pet variety when we use it in common speech. But there are some revealing exceptions: Pussycat, meerkat, and polecat are all distinctly different animals. Quite a few examples surivive in the Scandinavian languages, and their origins harken back to the Old Norse tongue. The Norwegian røyskatt (stoat), from Old Norse hreysikǫttr (literally "cairn cat") is one example, another is apekatt, which means monkey (literally "ape cat"). Swedish retains the ancient Nordic word for hedgehog, igelkott.

So what is the rationale behind all these unrelated critters being called cats? The only logical explanation is that cat means "small mammal", and furry animals in particular.

 Stoat (mustela erminea). Creative Commons

Stoat (mustela erminea). Creative Commons

The European wildcat died out in Scandinavia at some point during Nordic Bronze Age (between 1800 and 500 BCE). But domestic cats were present as far North as Poland by the Pre-Roman Iron Age (500 BCE until the start of the Common Era). They reached Scandinavia not long after. It's presumed that the word cat, in its then Proto-Germanic form *kattuz tagged along with the domestic cat from the Roman, Latin speaking south where it was called cattus/catta. The problem is that the select few Latin sources we have for this word are all from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, hundreds of years after cats made it to Scandinavia.

Judging by its form, the word must have come to the Nordic before the i-umlaut raged through the language, which changed the vowel i place names like Kettinge in Denmark. Likewise, it's not entirely clear whether the Latin sources exclusively refer to the house pet that meows and catches rodents, or if they also applied it to other small animals. At any rate, the similarity between the Latin and Proto-Germanic forms cattus and *kattuz is great enough to assume it is a loanword, despite the late attestation.

 Carved panel depicting feline creatures on the 9th century Oseberg Wagon. Photo: KHM, UiO

Carved panel depicting feline creatures on the 9th century Oseberg Wagon. Photo: KHM, UiO

Many things indicate that the word had been on a long journey before it arrived in Scadinavia. Nubian 'kadis' and Berber 'kadiska', words both meaning cat, hint to a possible Afro-Asiatic origin. This makes sense, because the cat was most likely first domesticated in Africa or the Middle East, and was originally unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Perhaps the Romans also changed the name of the animal from felis to cattus/catta when they were introduced to the domestic cat. 

When the cat came to Scandinavia we had other words for felines as well. In Norwegian these survive as lo and gaupe - the lynx. We will never know why didn't they use these words to describe the new, tame, miniature version, but it's doubtful that many purists will lose much sleep over it. The new animal brought economical and hygienic benefits, for example to farmers suffering from mice-infested granaries.

But what about all the other Scandinavian animals that have -katt as a suffix? Norwegian røyskatt, Swedish lekatt, and Danish lækattall denote the same animal; the stoat. Then there is the aforementioned igulkǫttr, which lives on as the Swedish word for hedgehog - igelkott. Ígull is an old Germanic name for the hedgehog, and le-/læ- may be an ancient word for stoat, while Norwegian røys-, meaning cairn, points to where the animal prefers to live. Some have also speculated that Freyja's cats in reality may have been stoats or weasels. European monkeys are comparably small, and as we know from before, monkeys are called "ape-cats" in Norwegian. Today we distinguish between apes, which are big, and monkeys which are small. What all of these animals have in common is the fact that they are small in size, and that they are mammals. Accordingly, we must assume that cat originally meant "a small mammal". Perhaps the reason why only the purring newcomer got the honor of being named cat without a prefix or suffix, is because they didn't know it by any previous name.

 Image courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Image courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

This article was originally contributed by Krister SK Vasshus, who is currently a PhD student at the University of Bergen, Norway. It was originally published on Tulen - Brute Norse's Norwegian language predecessor. Translated and re-adapted for Brute Norse by Eirik Storesund.

Further reading:

  • Wahlberg, Mats. (2012) Kattens betydelse för våra ortnamn. I: Leibring, Katharina et al. red. Namn på stort och smått. Uppsala, Institutet för språk och folkminnen, Namnarkivet i Uppsala, s. 301-315.

Wild men and bearded women of the medieval North

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Struggling to keep up with the ethnographic trends of the time, medieval Norsemen were also familiar with such creatures. Icelandic and Norwegian scholars demonstrated their access to continental thought by writing books such as Konungs skuggsjá, or "The King's Mirror" if you prefer it by its English title. Which is a 13th century Norwegian handbook in courtly customs (smile a lot, don't pull a knife on the king), street-smartness (don't get drunk, don't be a horndog, rise early), and natural wonders (there's a hot spring in Iceland that tastes like beer). Needless to say it is one of my favorite works of medieval literature.

 

Among those aforementioned wonders, we find a number of curiosities and facts both true and false from all around the North Atlantic. In a chapter dedicated to the peculiarities of Ireland, the author relates an anecdote from the apprehension of a wild man:

It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking. (1917: 110)

One should say that woolly halfwits hardly make the weirdest entry in a book that eagerly encourages its readers to rub whale sperm in their eyes, but don't mind me: Such wild men occur in various cultures across Europe under various names, such as the Old High German schrato and English "woodwose", which likely originated from Old English *wudu-wāsa, or "wood-being". This might recall the Old Norse vættir "nature spirits, trolls", as both share a common Proto-Germanic etymology: *wihtiz meaning "thing, object, essence, creature". Perhaps a euphemism, a taboo name used to avoid naming the creatures directly, as was originally the case with the huldufólk ("hidden people") and hittfolk ("those people") of Nordic folklore.

 

 Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Here as always, the world of monsters mirrors the world of men. While the author of Konungs skuggsjá did not doubt that wild men lived in the outskirts of other realms, I can't help but wonder whether he thought it possible that such a creature could be found in his own native Norway. The German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen offers answers. Adam, whose main claim to fame is his descriptions of the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden, also penned some fetching descriptions of the rest of the Nordic area in his Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. There he gave the following and rather unflattering account of the Northern Norwegian population in the 1070's:

I have heard, in the rugged mountains that exist up there, that there are women with beards, while the men live in the forests and rarely show themselves. They use the skins of wild beasts for clothing and when they speak, it supposedly resembles snarling rather than speech, so that they are hardly intelligible even to their closest neighbors. (1968: 282 [My own translation])

Interestingly, he goes on to describe the Sami next, or Stride-Finns as he calls them, who are easily the prime victims of literary dehumanization in the Nordic middle ages. Specifically he notes their inability to exist without snow - on which they rely to get around, and which also allows them to traverse the landscape "faster than the wild beasts" (read: skiing). Adam also refers to Scandinavian speech as snarling elsewhere. This could imply that he thought these bearded women belonged to Germanic Scandinavian stock, or at the very least were of some other ethnicity than the Sami, which is interesting insofar that Norse literature often refers to trolls and Sami as if they were entirely interchangeable.

 Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Pardoning their overall gullibility and hyper-violent tendencies, Adam claims Norwegians make model Christians. None the less he describes a general problem of rampant witchcraft and heathendom across Scandinavia. No wonder: Adam refers to Norway as "the remotest country on Earth" (1968: 279). He considers Scandinavians half-civilized at best, and utter barbarians at worst. They are contested only by the barely human hybrids living further North and East of the Baltic Sea, or "Barbarian Sea" as Adam likes to call it. In line with his extravagant use of the word "barbarian", which he fits wherever he can.

Finland, he asserts, is populated exclusively by amazons who mate either with passing merchants or wild beasts, and isn't too shy to provide a theory of his own either: First of all it's extremely unlikely that any sailor would have sex with strange, allegedly gorgeous women. Besides, any male specimen of the amazonian race is born with the head of a beast, while the women are all bombshells. Whether or not you accept Adam's reasoning he makes a distinction between amazons, who sire offspring through bestiality, and the hound-faced people of Russia whom he implicitly equates to the Huns, based on the rock solid science of folk-etymology (Hun and hound sound similar, ergo there must be a connection).

Wild men are to a point what most people are not. They are uncanny, and their ambiguity is often underlined in the fact that some authors cannot decide whether or not they qualify as human. Which is to ask what a human is. Surely with no lack of poetic doubt and self-questioning, an existential level to the wild men which seems strengthened by the fact that the stories about them are shrouded in hearsay, as if the possibility of their existence is compelling, yet dreaded for its implications. They are recognized partly as kin, partly as a natural counterpart to man. Something that links him to savage and untamed nature on one side, and that which is unspoiled, raw and potent on the other. In case you couldn't tell, Adam was taking any argument he could to further his claim that Scandinavia needed some more of that Christian religion. Make of that what you will, but if you come to Norway looking for our bearded women I'm afraid you'll be severely disappointed.

Sources

  • Adam Bremensis. 1968. De hamburgske ærkebispers historie og nordens beskrivelse. Translated by Carsten L. Henrichsen. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen.
  • Larson, Laurence Marcellus (tr.). 1917. The King’s Mirror[Speculum regale - Konungs skuggsjá]. Scandinavian Monographs 3. The American-Scandinavian Foundation: New York. 

Fimbulwinter 536 AD: Ragnarok, demographic collapse, and the end of Proto-Norse language

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The gods have abandoned you. The sun's rays are fainter than they used to be. Dim and barely discernible behind a misty veil that stretches across the sky in all directions, reaching far beyond the horizon. You are weak and sickly, your stomach grumbles but there is nothing eat. The pantry is empty and the crops won't grow. It should have been summer by now in this year of constant twilight, but the soil is still frozen. The year is 536, and in Byzantium the chronicler Procopius writes:

It came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

Crisis on a cosmic scale

Irish annals attest to famine, of crop failures and shortages of bread. A dense expanse of fog is described in both Europe and the Middle East. Summer snow is reported as far away as China, where witnesses claim to have heard a powerful boom emanating from the South the year before. In Scandinavia, researchers will later find evidence of severe retardation in tree growth at this point in time owing it to climactic instability, with tree rings bearing tell-tale signs of frost damage in the summer of 536. In the district of Jæren, South-West Norway – a comparatively fertile area by Norwegian standards, archaeologists see indications of agricultural collapse. There must have been famine, pestilence, social and political turmoil. Generations of accumulated power must have poured like sand between the fingers of ancient dynasties and prestigious families. Winter followed winter, without the pleasant respite of summer. Beneath the seemingly dying sun a wolf and axe age erupted. Brothers clashed against their brethren, spawning a militant reorganization of society.

 From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

We are not entirely sure what caused these terrible and cataclysmic events, or where it all started. Most scholars argue in favor of a super-volcanic eruption. Others suggest it could have been caused by a bombardment of meteorites, which would have flung dust high into the atmosphere, causing a global cooling event. There is also some evidence to suggest an unlucky combination of both. The eighteen kilometer wide Grendel crater, which lies at the bottom of the sea in Skagerrak, betwixt Norway, Sweden and Denmark, may have been created at this time. A meteorite this size would certainly have unleashed a massive tsunami as well, eradicating nearby coastal settlements. Whatever the origin, we may all agree on one single thing: This must have been a terrible time to be European.

But it didn't end there. Just when the North was getting back on its feet, Mother Nature threw another punch: Only five years later, between 541 and 542, the Justinian plague spreads across Europe, «by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated» Procopius states. Historians speculate it might have killed off just about 50% of the European population at the time. The bacterium in question was the dreaded Yersinia pestis, a pathogen of the same breed as the Black Death that swept across the world in the mid-1300's.

 

 

 J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

From the ashes came a new language

As grim as it must have been to live through these decades, it's an exciting period from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. We may identify and reconstruct ancient linguistic shifts, but we are often clueless about their exact causes. But the extreme conditions following the 536 crisis lead to one of the most prominent linguistic transitions in Scandinavian history, comparable only to the changes caused by the black death some 800 years later. The 6th century climate crisis coincides with the demise of the Proto-Norse language, which in turn gave rise to an early form of Old Norse.

Proto-Norse, originally a dialect of North Germanic, is the language of the oldest runic inscriptions, and you could say that Proto-Norse is the grandfather of all the North Germanic languages. This metaphor is striking for a somewhat bleak reason: Judging from runic inscriptions, the language developed so rapidly that the younger generation must have spoken a distinctly different language from their grandparents. But not due to an external linguistic influence. It's indicative of a demographic crisis: Vast portions of the population were dying, and they must have died young.

I'll use my name as an example: Had I been born around the middle of the 6th century, my Proto-Norse speaking parents would have known me as *Ainaríkiaʀ, or “Single Ruler” in modern English. Had I, on the other hand, been born in the second half of the 7th century, my name would have been something akin to *Ęinríkʀ, and Eiríkr not long after that. Easily recognizable in the modern variants Eirik, Erik, Eric, and so on. If I was proficient in runes, I mightstill discern the phonological content of centuries old inscriptions carved in the elder fuþark script, but their linguistic contents would have seemed as alien as any foreign language.

 From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

Ragnarok as collective trauma

1500 years later, historians would start using words like the late Antique little ice age and the crisis of the sixth century to describe these events. In Scandinavia a handful of researchers, notably the Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund, would begin to see these events in light of the Eddic poems and Norse mythology. Suddenly, the words Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok are featured in conference presentations about frost damaged growth rings, an increase in votive sacrifices in the late migration era, and extraterrestrial particles in Greenlandic ice cores.

It's been speculated that Ragnarok, the mythological end of the world, is a cultural recollection of the 6th century crisis. Sources forebode it by social conflict and ecological disaster, including three winters with no summer between them, stars falling from the heavens, societal collapse and extinction. The fact that Norse religion had such a prominent eschatological myth sets it apart from most other ethnic and polytheistic religions. Perhaps the story of Ragnarok was really a fossilized, metaphorical account of the traumatic experiences of their migration era ancestors.

I suppose we are all children of our time in one way or another, and this is mirrored in our interpretations of the sources. Many German philologists of the 1930's were obsessed with secret ocieties of ecstatic warrior-initiates, and cultic male bonding. The 1970's gave rise to eroticized readings of the myths, as well as feminist revisions that that say more about the effects of the sexual revolution, than they do about Norse religion. The study of Indo-European mythologies itself became a decidedly unsexy topic for decades in the post-war era. From this it should be clear that we always ought to stop and question the scope and agenda of current antiquarian sciences. Popular research topics may reveal as much about our own age as they may about the past. Ecology and pluralism are both strong features of public discussion today, and is inevitably reflected in archaeology and historiography. Climate change as a doomsday scenario affects our view of the world, therefore it provides a reasonable trigger of application to the soft sciences. Critics of this theory may think it a little far out, and I agree that the 536-event can't account for the entirety of Norse eschatology. Regardless, the disastrous events have left a significant mark on Scandinavian Iron Age society.

I wonder which myths will come of us.

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist

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It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.

This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.

At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.

Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.

I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.

 

 Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum


*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different

Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork. 

As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.

This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.

 Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.

The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.

They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.

 

 Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.

A multivalent symbol

While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.

It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.

 

 The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in  other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use. 

The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol. 

Conclusion

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.

I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.



Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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The Norse saga of Gautama Buddha

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Some time around the year 1250 AD, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonsson laid eyes on one of his court scribes' latest work: It was a brand new saga – or more accurately: an Old Norse retelling of a Latin story, handed down from Greek sources, describing events that happened in the distant land of India a long time ago. They named it Barlaams saga ok Jósafats.

The saga of Barlaam and Jósafat

The story begins with a conservative Indian king who fears that a hip, new spiritual trend will overthrow his authority. His paranoia grows even greater once he hears word of a prophecy foreshadowing the religious conversion of his one and only son. Hoping to secure his legacy, the king puts the young prince in a secluded fortress, hoping he will grow up totally ignorant of outside life. Meanwhile, the king does all he can to pursue hermits, holy men and other spiritual freaks in a futile attempt to drive them out of his realm. One day a hermit named Barlaam approaches the adolescent prince, whose name is Jósafat, and opens his eyes to the compassionate, anti-materialist teachings of Christianity. The prince is baptized in secret, and Barlaam returns to the desert from whence he came. The now infuriated king desperately tries to revert his heir back to the religion of their ancestors, but to no avail. Western spirituality is there to stay. Instead, Jósafat converts the king, accepting Christ on his deathbed. Finally inheriting the kingdom, Jósafat abdicates. He leaves not only his crown but his entire country behind. Preferring the simple life of an ascetic to the luxuries of a king. He wanders the desert to live with his old master Barlaam.

St. Buddha

If the story sounds familiar, it's probably because you've heard parts of it many times before, as the Buddhist story about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, whom most Westerners know simply as «The Buddha». To its Norse audience, the Saga of Barlaam and Jósafat served as a moral commentary on the vanity of material life, with the protagonist turning his back on his earthly kingdom to partake in the Kingdom of Heaven. Actually, the name Jósafat is a severe bastardization of bodhisattva – a title denoting a person who has experienced the enlightenment of Buddhahood, but has sworn to stay behind in the world in order to work for the salvation of all living things.

Nobody knows what medieval Norwegians might have thought about the saga's Buddhist roots. Their only knowledge of India came from fantastic medieval romances, where it was described as a magical place inhabited by monsters and elves. As for Buddhism, they were blissfully unaware of its existence. However, far Eastern Christianity was a staple of medieval folklore: From the Nestorian church in Asia to the legends of Prester John. It was a widely believed that the apostle Thomas had brought Christianity to India after Christ's death, which gave credence to the idea that isolated pockets of early Christians persisting throughout the uncharted East.

 The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

From Bengal to Björgvin

Before becoming available to Norwegian audiences in the 13th century, the story had already undertaken an impressive journey: It was brought into Catholic circulation via Greece, who got it through Georgia where it was first adapted to Christianity from an Arabic version in the 10th century. This version had in turn come from Persia. The legend provides an amazing example of how stories can acquire new meanings outside their original contexts as they move across cultures.

The story is not the first Buddhist creation to reach Scandinavia though. In 1956 a small bronze statuette of the Buddha was found in a viking era settlement on the isle of Helgö in Sweden. Produced in North-East India, the figurine depicts him peacefully meditating on a lotus blossom. How did it get there? As far as the vikings are purported to have traveled, it's very unlikely they had any significant contact with Buddhists, if at all. The explanation is probably more mundane, but interesting none the less: Typologically the statue is dated to the 6th century AD, a time when Scandinavians by all accounts lacked sailing technology. Their rowing capabilities allowed them to trade across the North and Baltic seas, but direct contact with the middle east is pretty much out of the question. Of course, I cannot leave this without addressing the unfortunately named «Buddha bucket» of the Oseberg burial, as well as similar examples from various viking era burials. Don't let anybody fool you: they are Irish, not Indian in origin. The Helgö Buddha is a genuine example though, but it was likely a centuries old antique by the time it reached Sweden, having made its way North on a slow journey that took it generations to complete. Which is pretty impressive in itself. I wonder what they must have thought of it! 

 Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.

Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.

Checklist: Are You Living in a Norse Heroic Legend?

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Have you ever died so hard you laughed? In the legends of proud old Skaðinawjō, gruesome death was the privilege of the stupidly heroic. But c'mon, it's the current year: Why should divine genealogies, class, and the gap between myth and ontological reality keep you from dying like a semi-divine king?

Hold your horses, some heavily earned credit is due before we go on: I would probably never have written this article [originally in Norwegian] had it not been for me Stumbling across Samantha Finley's eminent guide How to Tell if You are in an Old English Poem, which inspired me to make one of my own, though from a Norse perspective. For the sake of cultivating my readers, I chose the Old Norse heroic lays as my springboard, because not every day can be Hávamál day. However, I won't rule out the possibility of abusing other genres or poetry or prose for similar purposes at some later point in time. There's no room for democracy on this blog, unless you're part of the priviledged caste of Brute Norse patrons, but I cordially invite you to throw me a comment or ninety-three.

The heroic lays are a somewhat overlooked genre of Norse literature. One gross oversimplification could be that that they comprise, basically, of those eddic poems that don't have gods as their main characters, but rather mortal men and women of legendary, semi-mythical stature (though the gods are certainly guilty in some of the tomfoolery going on in the background). On a more general level, Norse heroic poetry is part of a pan-Germanic cycle of legends, dealing with a magical and distant past of champions and supernatural intrigue. Interestingly, this age of legends does (to some degree) overlap with the historical era known as the migration period. Because of this, they often contain a zany conglomerate of historical and mythical characters, which is enough to drive a rabid barbarophile like myself utterly mad.


I'll avoid the complicated issue of determining the age of these poems, but it's abundantly clear that they were composed in a society dedicated to a radically different ethos from what most of us are accustomed to. The heroes are generally not what common folk would consider "good people". These dudes and dudettes are entirely beyond good and evil, and largely exhibit übermensch levels of amorality and vitalistic disregard for the health and safety of pretty much anybody. This, and certain other things, add up to a series of features that distinguish them from normal people, and are invariably woven from of a certain hardened fiber, that je ne sais pas (that is French for "I don't know what") that makes a true hero. Heroes like Starkad, Helgi, Gunnar, and last by not least: Sigmund, everybody's pan-Germanic bad boy!

 Not this Sigmund.

Not this Sigmund.

None the less, superhuman strength and talent is worth nothing in the world of Germanic poetry, if the hero doesn't fulfill the one true criteria, the sine qua non (that is Latin for "without which there is nothing") of the amoral Germanic hero. Namely that he (or she) must die an impressive, spectacular, and oftentimes utterly needless death. The leaps of logic required to make this final condition come true are less important. What matters is the fact that these Norse kamikaze-by-epic-convention simply need to die, no matter how seemingly banal, brutal or ludicrous a reason it takes. The more inhumane the better, giving up the ghost with a heroic shrug.

Now that the lecture is over, I want to ask: Have you ever wondered if you are yourself the stuff of legends? Do you, or maybe your friends, or spouse, have what it takes to be part of an Old Norse heroic lay? Below I've compiled an inexhaustive checklist for you to print and put in your wallet, put on your fridge door, or hang by the toilet. Underline whichever statement fits your fate or lifestyle, and assess the results accordingly.

The result is not for you to judge, though; the gods shall have the final say:

  1. Your step-dad is a dwarf.
  2. Attila the Hun is your brother in law (or, alternately, the father of your children).
  3. You have some junk laying around that once belonged to Caesar.
  4. You're attending a party. All other guests are Huns.
  5. You're a Goth, but you don't know what a mall or eyeliner is.
  6. Your ale bowl is full of wine. An unseen narrator proclaims that is, in fact, a wine-heavy ale bowl. An unfathomable luxury.
  7. You are shocked to find that this very beer bowl is the skull of your own child.
  8. Somebody had to point this out to you, and it implies terrible things about your taste in tableware. Not to mention your parenting.
  9. You keep bumping into people from vastly different historical eras than your own.
  10. You consider dying to be the most reasonable #lifegoal.
  11. Someone is being kind to you. So kind, in fact, that you have reason to believe that they might be plotting to kill you.
  12. You confirm that there is indeed a plot to kill you. It's the opportunity of a lifetime!
  13. You consciously create a situation that increases their chance of success. 
  14. You either intend to acquire a hoard of gold, or you already possess one.
  15. You dump it in a body of water simply because you can. Only death is real.
  16. You would rather die than tell your abductors you dumped the treasure. You encourage them to torture you all they want.
  17. They offer merciful alternative, you insist that they torture you instead.
  18. You laugh as you die. Nobody can question it, because you loudly proclaim it in front of everyone within listening distance. Torturous death is but a game to you.
  19. You are too weak to see or stand upright, but your famous last words consist of a dozen or so stanzas of poetic autobiography.
  20. Your final words last longer than it took to torture you to death, but you still have a few stanzas to recite and laughing to do. Death must wait patiently.
  21. Though you are dead, your lifestyle is pretty much the same as before. You still go to parties and sleep with your girlfriend. Your only regret is that you can't die twice.
  22. When not searching for ways to die, your life/deathstyle consists of hoarding gold, impressing people with your high alcohol tolerance, and humiliating your enemies.
  23. You leave the land of the dead. You encounter a couple of living folks who believe: A) that they be tripping B) that Ragnarok is upon them. But you're just out to stretch your legs.
  24. If you're a man: You never shed as much as a single tear your entire life.
  25. If you're a woman: Inanimate objects and wild animals alike sob uncontrollably in the presence of your sadness, expressing genuine sympathy for you. Unlike every person you've ever met.
  26. Your boyfriend was a bit of a vegetable. In fact you like to compare him with some sort of allium, like a leek or onion. Those vegetables are amazing, they are to plants what gold is amongst the metals. Life without leek is tragic.
  27. Tired of life, you toss yourself in the sea. But not even the ocean wants you, you bitch.
  28. You could swear there were more warriors attending your feast yesterday, than there are ones attending your battle today.
  29. You own an incredibly ancient and beautiful sword. Sadly, a curse requires that someone must die whenever it is drawn. So much for a conversation piece.
  30. Luckily, your vanity is only contested by your pathological bloodthirstiness. If people want to see the sword, let them.
  31. If you follow the trail of clues, you'll see that this entire mess is the fault of a few incompetent fools.
  32. You know these fools simply as "the gods".
  33. The only drinking game you know consists of alternating between verbally humiliating others, and bragging about your own greatness.
  34. Uh-oh! The hostess is angry with her husband and is making a scene in front of the whole party! How embarrassing.
  35. Atli, put down that spoon. This isn't pork!
  36. That's your kids you're eating!
  37. The birds follow your life like they were watching Game of Thrones.
  38. Amazing! These birds actually talk!
  39. It's either very wise or extremely foolish to follow their advice.
  40. Follow their advice or do not follow their advice, you will regret it either way.
  41. Divorce is settled with the sword, by means of Freudian assasinations in the marital bed.
  42. Death does not hamper a healthy and active sex life. Your lover need only pass by your grave.
  43. You're in a complicated relationship with a valkyrie.
  44. She flew away, literally.
  45. Your lover uses you as a guinea pig for worrisome potions.
  46. The enemy says they've murdered your brother and tortured him in blood-curdling ways, but you don't buy what they are selling.
  47. You demand they stop messing around and do it for real.
  48. There can be no doubt that this is in fact your brother's heart, still beating as it was torn from his chest! Surely it must have trembled half as much when it lay inside him, greeting death!
  49. Having confirmed (and possibly caused) your brother's death, it's time for you to follow. They may throw you in the snake-pit now.
  50. You bring your musical instruments to play as you die the snake-venom death.
  51. Your soothing and/or boring melodies put the snakes to sleep, just so you can suffer for longer.


So, if you find yourself a true amoral hero after having checked the list above, there's little else to do but face your inescapable demise. Better to embrace it than flee the fate the Norns intended for you. But if you have to die, die cackling!

So what the flip is Old Norse anyway? A guide for the perplexed

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Most readers will have some preconceived notion about what the the terms Norse and Old Norse mean. Even if your understanding of the subject is vague, you probably know that Old Norse is famously the language of the so-called Vikings – a historically recent ethnic term that is often used interchangeably with Norse. In casual conversation this works fine, and you're not confusing anybody by using any of the two. Academically (of course) it's much more complicated. If you look in an English dictionary dating to, say, the early 1900's you are likely to see Norse defined simply as «Norwegian». Historically this is what the word meant, but the meaning has since shifted. Today it generally refers to the Germanic speaking Scandinavian population, as well as that of their overseas colonies during the Viking Era and Middle Ages. As for the term «Viking» denoting Norse peoples: This is somewhat misleading because a viking was actually a specific kind of person within Norse culture. A title, really. But owing to its prevalence, scholars frequently resort to it for convenience. For example, Norse overseas colonies in places like Ireland, Greenland, and Russia, is sometimes referred to as The Viking Diaspora. But that's a discussion for a later time. Let's stick with Norse for now.

The first Norsemen

Outside the scholarly world, the term Norse is most commonly applied to the Viking Era, which kicked off in the 8th century for reasons varied and unknown (innovations in sailing technology is commonly assumed to be one factor). The Old Norse language was more or less fully developed by the 700's, having sprung from the preceding Proto-Norse or Proto-Scandinavian tongue (pick whatever term suits you, there's no consensus!), which in turn developed from a Northern dialect of Proto-Germanic.

For Norway, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands, and Iceland, it makes sense to talk about common Old Norse all the way through the 14th century, when the Black Death unleashed a period of Mad Max-esque socioeconomic and demographic turmoil, forcing Norway into a linguistic revolution that gave birth to the Middle Norwegian language. This made mutual intelligibility with Iceland a thing of the past.

Middle Norwegian is basically the sort of grizzly post-apocalyptic linguistic change you can expect when something like three fifths of the entire population shuffles off their mortal coil, leaving their brats with nobody to correct their baby language and youthful slang. Up until then, the differences between Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic had been a matter of dialect. Specifically the Old West Norwegian dialects of the early settlers.

It wasn't a unified language

Anglophone scholars divide Old Norse language into West Norse, which I described above, and East Norse which encompasses Old Swedish, Danish, and Gutnish (spoken on Gotland). These are distinct enough to be considered languages of their own. Still, all these variants of Old Norse were mutually intelligible to the point where West Norse speakers accepted the term Danish Tongue (dǫnsk tunga) as a name for their own language. This likely originated among Anglo-Saxons to describe the language of Scandinavian settlers, traders and raiders, drawing a generalization from what seemed to them the dominant culture – namely the Danes. This isn't entirely dissimilar to how we generalize by calling them Vikings today. This common linguistic identity, and the fact that they adopted a foreign term as their own, seems to suggest a sense of cultural kinship among Viking Era Scandinavians. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can still understand each other with relative ease, which is a fantastic linguistic privilege. And still, when reading Norwegian, Danish or Swedish runic inscriptions from the Viking Era, we may enjoy the distinct and recognizable traits of each.

 The extent of Old Norse and closely related tongues in the 10th century. West Norse in red, East Norse in Orange. Gutnish in purple.

The extent of Old Norse and closely related tongues in the 10th century. West Norse in red, East Norse in Orange. Gutnish in purple.

Terms, translations, and turmoil

Despite mutual intelligibility and common heritage, Nordic scholars are not on the same page as English ones when they discuss Old Norse in their native languages. Scandinavian scholars use the term «norrønt» which overlaps with Norse. But confusingly, it does not mean exactly the same. Firstly, the term excludes Swedes and Danes, and refers exclusively to the West Norse language(s) and populations of the Viking Era and High Middle Ages (8th through 14th centuries). One can easily write entire books about why this is, as people have, but bear with me.

One obvious reason is the historical and linguistic divide between Sweden and Denmark on one side, and the entire Western Nordic world on the other. Swedish and Danish language rapidly developed away from Old Norse in the High Middle Ages: 13th century Old Danish looks a lot more like modern Danish than 13th century Old Norwegian resembles modern Norwegian. In fact, most Scandinavians would have an easier time reading 13th century Danish, than they would trying to make sense of Old Norse. This means that Old Norse is a viable term for language in Norway and the Western Nordic from the 8th through 14th centuries, while 13th and 14thcentury Swedes and Danes spoke a different language entirely, though Norwegian would soon enough make a similar turn.

 «Sven carved these runes after Uddulf» Coutersy of the Swedish National Heritage Board / Harald Faith-Ell.

«Sven carved these runes after Uddulf» Coutersy of the Swedish National Heritage Board / Harald Faith-Ell.

The Swedish dialect of East Norse, so-called Runic Swedish, appears before 800 and is gone by 1225, superseded by Old Swedish until 1526. The heavy West Norse connotations of Old Norse and «norrønt» also rest on the fact that the vast majority of surviving Norse literature comes from the Western Nordic area: Iceland, and to a far lesser extent Norway. Norway tends to mooch off Iceland, because Icelandic identity was reflexive towards Norway. They wrote a ton of historical fiction placed in Norway, and composed some great propaganda pieces for the Norwegian crown. Besides, Icelanders pretty much considered Norway the womb of the Icelandic nation, and suffered immense Norwegian cultural and political pressure.

Very few vernacular manuscripts remain from the other Nordic countries, but the literature and implications of identity permeates all Nordic scholarship on the matter to some lesser or greater extent. I will not go into the long-term political history of Scandinavia and the Nordic, but they all have in common a heritage of Norse prehistory that functions as a serving bowl of national myths of origin, which is politicized accordingly.

Norse culture and contemporary identities

The reception of Old Norse, viking, and medieval history is treated variously between the Nordic countries. Denmark and Iceland, it seems to me, are the best when it comes to popular representation of the Viking Era in particular. Denmark is rich in physical remains but short on written sources, with Iceland it's by far the other way around. And each country infuses the era with their own particular brands of plushy patriotic sentiments. Warning – stereotypes ahead. In Norway, as well as in Norse texts, the term Norse (Norwegian: norrønt. Icelandic: norræn) have strong norwegiocentric connotations. I've told Icelandic barhoppers I do Old Norse and they've corrected me to Old Icelandic, while Swedes might have no idea what I'm talking about when presented with the term. 

Such identity markers are visible even in the world of Academia, down to the spelling you see in the critical editions of Norse texts at your university library. In Iceland, as with the majority of international scholarship, Old Norse is taught with modern Icelandic orthography and pronunciation. This is what you hear in virtually every bedroom video guide to Old Norse pronunciation, which are a dime a dozen on YouTube. Norway is the only country (as far as I'm aware) where reconstructed pronunciation is taught. Orthography follows a convention called «Classical Old Norse», which intends to portray a normalized version of 13th century Norse spelling. This is the tradition I was brought into, though it appears to be rapidly disappearing. To this day, years after my indoctrination graduation, I still get A Clockwork Orange-like fits of nausea every time I hear Old Norse pronounced as if it were modern Icelandic. I'm sure the feeling is mutual.