July 18th and the Myth of Harold Fairhair: Some brief reflections on national mythology

haraldshaugen.jpg

Heyrði í Hafrsfirði,
hvé hizug barðisk
konungr enn kynstóri
við Kjǫtva enn auðlagða;
knerrir kómu austan,
kapps of lystir,
með gínǫndum hǫfðum
ok grǫfnum tinglum.

 

Did you hear in Hafrsfjord
how fiercely they clashed?
The highborn king
against Kjotvi the rich,
ships came from the east,
eager to compete,
with gaping heads
and carved prows!

 

Thus spake the poet Þorbjǫrn Hornklófi in Haraldskvæði, a praise poem in honor of Norways first and unifying king. July 18th celebrates the day of king Haraldr Hárfagri's victory at the Battle of Harfsfjorð and consequently the first (but certainly not the last) unification of the Norwegian Kingdom, traditionally held to have happened in 872. This event is interesting for a number of surprising reasons.

First of all, we don't know when the battle actually happened, or even if it happened at all, so why July 18th? The mundane answer is that July 18th was chosen because this was the only vacant date in the Swedish crown-prince Oscar II's schedule when it came to unveiling of the Haraldshaugen National Monument ("Harold's Barrow") for the 1000 year anniversary of Norway's unification (we were still in union at the time). Surrounded by 28 granite stones, all sourced from the equal number of districts of Harold's conquest, Haraldshaugen's centerpiece consists of a 17 meter obelisk raised on top of king Harold's alleged burial mound. The occasion was a national holiday, and 20.000 visitors descended upon Haugesund to participate, a sizeable crowd for town of only 4000 people at the time.

A plaque at the pillar's base translates:
"Harold Fairhair was buried here in this mound, 933"

But this laconic statement is not true.

The first source to comment upon Harold's burial site is Ágrip, a short royal saga from the turn of the 13th century, whose author identifies the original unifier's barrow on the farm of Hauge by Hasseløysund. Drawing from what seems to be the same tradition, Snorri gives a detailed description of what he considered to be Harold's grave in Heimskringla. He probably visited the site during his tour of Norway in 1218, which would make him an eye-witness to a local historical tradition. The problem is that Snorri seems describe a stone cyst grave, which is not a Viking Period custom. Barring an archaeological anomaly, Snorri must be mistaken.

Snorri's description was picked up by the Icelandic historian Thormod Thorfæus in the 18th century, who was exiled to Norway after a drunken tavern slaying. Thormod, who was no wiser than Snorri in terms of archaeological theory, found no grave at Hauge, but claimed he found the lid of Harold's tomb on the neighboring farm of Gard, where it was used as a threshold, and sometimes a floor for village dances.

Later antiquarians were not so sure, and frequently argued for and against various locations of the burial, including a "Harold's Mound" on the aforementioned farm Hauge, which had been turned into a root cellar by the local peasants. Though archaeological evidence on Gard was lacking, the identification of a Medieval church site was taken to confirm Snorri's account, and a series of vague exchanges, with ample help from a popular poem by Ivar Aasen, cemented the notion that Gard was indeed the site of of Harold's burial. Among the barely discernible graves on the site, none of which fit Snorri's original description, the monument was raised in part thanks to a populist appeal by prominent local citizens, on what seems to be a Bronze Age cairn with no evidence of a secondary, Viking Age, burial.

This isn't the only scrutiny poor Harold has suffered. Many historians have questioned the narrative of national unification presented by Snorri and other Medieval chroniclers, and some have even gone so far as to question whether Harold ever lived at all, or if he is simply a figment of political propaganda. For all intents and measures, a Medieval PSYOP. This extreme reductionist stance inadvertently highlights an interesting point: What does "being real" mean in the context of a legend? Whether or not Harold lived as his saga describes, the man only set the ball rolling: the myth far outshines the human being.

In the context of myth, a narrative is true: The myth was real enough to Norse monarchs, who attached actions with very real and tangible results to the idea. As myth, Harold is the founding father of not one, but two nations: Iceland and Norway, who interpret his role divergenly as either a manifestation of Norwegian ethnolinguistic integrity, or a catalyst for an apparently innate Icelandic desire to serve no masters, and suffer no tyrants.

The transition of Harold from a man of flesh and blood into a larger than life entity began with the skaldic poetry celebrating him, and he has been a symbol and a tool ever since. It laid the foundation for a myth of origin, which Norway could cling to on the path to independence in the very far removed historical context of the nation state. In that regard, Haraldshaugen remains an anachronism, but one that demonstrates the continuity of a heroic and legendary figure whose real personality eludes us. Above all, it highlights the power of stories.


Support Brute Norse on Patreon
you can also buy a shirt

Why I refuse to give Dale Garn a single penny (and maybe you don't want to either)

dale.png

So it seems I've taken it upon myself to become a sort of cultural historical watchdog. It's a filthy job, but somebody has to do it. The latest piece of historical misery comes to us in the form of a bizarre retraction on part of Dale Garn who, among other things, designs and supplies knitting patterns used by the Norwegian Alpine Ski Team. 

You see, Dale Garn - which is not to be confused with Dale of Norway, but is owned by House of Yarn, who is our main villain - decided to pull back a specific line of sweaters for the basic non-offense of having a runic design, in light of a recent spike in activity on part of a radical neo-nazi organization called The Nordic Resistance Movement. The sweaters would have been used as representational garments for the 2018 winter Olympics. Alas, no more, as Dale stated they did not want to support or be affiliated with a far-right organization. By doing so, that is exactly what happened.

By opting for a clumsy, cowardly approach they have done more than anybody else to give credence and monopoly to the organization they claim to detest. Fleeing with their tails between their legs, abandoning the heritage they claim to protect and cherish. Mind you, the popular sweater company Dale of Norway still sell the sweater (last time I checked, this sweater was even sold at Scandinavia House in NYC), and are as previously mentioned not to be confused with their sister company. All hail Dale of Norway.

The scandal was somewhat fueled by one of our nation's tabloids, VG, from whom I snatched the picture above (thank you Gisle Oddstad, VG / Terje Pedersen, NTB Scanpix, who own all rights to it etc.). VG's editor and the journalists Kristian Aaser and Martha Holmes demonstrate a worrying lack of source criticism and literacy when they refer to the algiz/maðr rune under the recent, anachronistic name "leben". 24 extra points for incompetency, VG, one for each rune in the elder futhark. You had one job. All in all, it's amazing that this piece of journalistic garbage made it past at least three people before it was published.

Associate professor Terje Spurkland, while being praiseworthy for his excellent and lively publications on the runes, also handled this in a way that disappointed more people than myself, as he was quoted by VG saying, ahem:

These runic letters should not have been on the sweaters. The Nazis used them in an unhistorical way, and today this is associated with Nazism.

Way to piss all over his own work and legacy. I would have expected something less ignorant from such an authority.

While it is certainly true that NRM applies the tiwaz/týr rune their emblem, it fails to explain Dale's decision, unless they are of the opinion that runes overall are too filfthy to be touched. I reckon they should do what everybody else does: They should rise above. At the very least they could have redone the design. Instead they issued a drastic statement, urging customers to delete, return, or destroy any promotional materials, books, pamphlets, posters, patterns and recipes associated with the sweater.

This means that if you happen to have the pattern for Dale Garn's Tor/Tora line of sweaters, you're probably in for a decent buck on ebay. Thank me later. I happened upon a short statement form House of Yarn, the owners of Dale Garn, who had this to say when confronted by a member of the public, translated by myself:

For House of Yarn it was an important and right decision to pull this design, back in August this year. The reason is easy to understand, and we do not wish to be taken in support of the dark forces that spread across the land, Europe, and the West in general. I'm sure you wouldn't knit a swastika pattern? It's the same issue with the tyr- and leben [sic] rune. We hope you find other designs and recipes with a much more positive message. 

Well I'm glad we cleared that up. Dale Garn thinks that runes are not conductive to a positive message.

Here's a history lesson: Runes are an entirely unique epigraphic system of writing used since the 2nd century AD, which despite all odds survived in certain areas as far up as until the 19th century. Runes are a cherished cultural expression, and and invaluable keepsake of Nordic culture. Within their origins and development, there lies hidden a fascinating story of cultural innovation and adaption in our ancient past. National Socialist usage is a brief second in the history of the runes. A speck of dust, a footnote. It is also worth mentioning, because it is often overlooked, that while Hitler suckled at the teat of national revivalism, he looked to Rome, not Germania, as his favored model for the Third Reich. The Norwegian police still keep the fasces in their insignia, across New York it adorns everything from granite columns to door handles, and nobody seems to give a shit. Putting Norse heritage through this sort of scrutiny is a convenient scapegoat, and nothing else. It was always the odd man out, never quite accepted in polite society. Whoever might wish to marginalize our heritage further have a great ally in Dale Garn, who hands it to them on a silver platter.

I'm not going to tell you, dear reader, what to do or what to think in this matter. I'm an absolutist when it comes to freedom of thought. It's Dale's total lack of integrity, and disregard for heritage that bothers me. I don't even care about their tacky sweater. It's Dale's privilege to do as they please with their business, but it's our privilege to take our business elsewhere. Why not support a small, local yarn business that needs your money instead?

Dale Garn can afford to lose me as a customer. I don't even knit. What they cannot afford is their loss of reputation as an ambassador of Norwegian culture. They have demonstrated that they are undeserving of such an honor, by pissing all over the Dale legacy.

At the end of the day, Dale Garn's choice is all about making money and keeping customers. Let's see if they made the right decision.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Pledge as much or as little as you like: The more support I get, the better and more varied content I can create, and all the more give back to you. Otherwise, you can help by sharing this article or leaving feedback.