Migratory Meditations: Leaving a Homeland in the Hard Iron Age

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"It is sad to leave your homeland", an Afghan woman told me. Over the last nine months, I have had countless conversations with people about my intended migration from Norway to America. It is one of those things you can't help but mention. When every day is filled with soul-sucking bureaucracy, forms to fill, and the grueling uncertainty of the wait, the sum of obsession with all possible outcomes becomes an inevitable subject of conversation. You dream about it, and every waking hour it walks in on your trail of thought.

To her it seemed like an odd choice to make, that I would leave Norway. If she could, she would gladly sacrifice the saline shores of Norway to live with her loved ones in the valleys of Afghanistan.  War and persecution ruled that possibility out for the time being. No bombs have fallen over Norway since 1945, no mines haunt my childhood trails. The sad and happy difference, of course, is that I have a choice. My migration is a luxury, but that's not what she said. She said: It is sad to leave your homeland.

And I agree. Her statement stuck with me, not due to the contrast of our respective situations, but due to the skin in the game she displayed within it. She knew what she was talking about. Among the countless people who either cheered me on enthusiastically, or questioned my choice based on a general suspicion towards the American model, this comment came across as most sincere.

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Landscape is a core element of our identities. People are born, live, and die without ever leaving New York state. Many Americans have never seen the ocean. The landscape and traditions I was born into differ, sometimes drastically, from that of the big city in the New World. I was born in an ancestral homeland, with an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic affinity stretching back thousands of years. The single recorded instance of my line of descent ever migrating to or from Norway was a temporary stint in North Dakota that only lasted a generation, before my "squarehead" forebears - ethnic Norwegians both - married and decided, in spite of any promise of opportunity, to return to the old country.

Whenever I looked out the window, I have always felt backed up by countless generations of ancestors. People who changed only as slowly as the landscape, whose looks and traits I carry with me from cradle to grave, and that I may give to prospective children in the future. My paternal line of descent has not, at least to my knowledge, made any drastic choices in terms of landscape and identity since the Bronze Age. The Hindus place us in the dark Kali Yuga, the age of darkness and confusion. Hesiod might say we still live in the hard Iron Age of fuss and misery. To most Westerners it suffices to say the word "modernism" to conjure what seems to be an odd mix of alienation and prosperity. There is no shortage of either, but I believe it that even if all of the above is true, our age of cyberfuss is raised by the girders of some sardonic fate beyond direct control. The gods delight as much as they fear.

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My childhood landscape was filled with mysteries, vernacular traditions, and ancient sites, but if there is any truth and merit to what I have done in my work so far, the recipe should work also here. The Norse Vinland colony collapsed due to understimulation, starvation, and exposure. The cosmos they created in the wake of Leifr Eiríksson's landing collapsed under its own weight, and the Vinland landscape I look upon from my apartment is different. This is a strange world, and nobody really knows what the hell I am talking about if I mention my background. But then again, not everybody did in Norway either. I don't think I have ever been closer to what I believe to be the logical conclusions of the cosmology of the Eddas. When cosmogenitors of the legendary sagas break from society, it is never to live within nature itself, but to lay flat the forests, and to timber houses. Nowhere is the inevitable imbalance of the battle of culture versus nature better exemplified than in a metropolis like New York, a city with a population greater than the entirety of my home country. In a nation whose Norwegian diaspora outnumber the Norwegians of Norway itself.

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People talk about the lightning speed of the proverbial New York minute. Before I decided to move to New York I lived in a marshland cabin off the municipal water supply, often isolated during heavy snowfall or storms. It was fantastic, and I hope to live like that again. Time moves slow in that sort of scenery. A maturing experience for certain, but a life without hustle soon grows stale. In this swamplike landscape I was quite literally wallowing, waiting for the wind to blow in my direction, and it took some time for me to realize that nobody was waiting for me to be ready. I found my Will, and found my way. It only took me a while to realize.

It took only four days between my landing and my marriage to my wife, which was the object of my migration. Things move quickly when the ball starts rolling. Now I wake up in a landscape where every tree is planted by a human hand. Where the surface is peeled down to its granite bedrock, skyscrapers soar so high they go unnoticed on street level, and unsuspecting pedestrians walk on levels of surfaces hundreds of meters above the deepest tunnels and recesses of this Swiss cheese city. Trees are kept behind fences, like cages, and not even the wildlife behaves naturally, but in perfect accordance with the human compulsion towards order. Though the disorder of nature - naturally - oozes through the woodwork. Cruel Mother Nature always will. This is Moondog's city, the blind and visionary artist who never quite belonged in any urban center, yet could never have developed anywhere else. Where thousands like myself passed through, who walked up and down the old Brooklyn ghetto they affectionately called "Lapskaus Boulevard", where the psychic advised Johannes Hansen to return home to Oseberg, resulting in that famous ship find.

I don't know how this process will affect Brute Norse, but I will not be the first writer to leave that homeland.

These are speedy days, but so is the hard Iron Age.

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.