Abstracts 2012

Following are abstracts from the conference in 2012

Anna Katarina Heiniger, PhD Candidate at Háskóli Íslands:
Space, Rooms and Topographies in Old Norse Sagas: Considerations and Observations based on Egils saga, Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga

The discussion of spaces and topographies in the three Íslendingasögur Eyrbyggja saga, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar and Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar has proven multifarious, and supports Michel de Certeau’s statement that spaces are texts which must be read and decoded in many ways. Although the notion that space and movement are closely connected has only been re-acknowledged in the course of recent work on the topic of the ‘spatial turn´, the space of the sagas has always been characterised by elements of movement. The dynamics of space are particularly evident in the numerous journeys and voyages which characterise space as open and dynamic. This suggests the presence of practically no, or only mental (so-called ‘soft’), boundaries which are easily and mostly intentionally transgressed by opposing parties. As such infractions are closely bound up with struggles for power, dominance and prosperity, they appear as triggers and flashpoints of the majority of conflicts, and result in physical violence and even killing.

Furthermore, the sagas – or rather their narrators – only open space up as far as it is essential for an episode, with the faceless and architecturally-unformed spaces gracefully fading into the background to make way for the plot. With this pragmatic formation – rather non-formation – of spaces, the sagas avoid both a psychological reading of landscape and the often criticised ‘Raumfalle’ (when actions define the place rather than vice versa). It is thus suggested that neither continental concepts nor Christian ideals influenced the presentation of space in the three sagas under consideration. Rather, it appears that the analysed texts only touch on certain such ideas and thoughts, but neither fully incorporate them nor base their concepts or structures on them.

Martina Ceolin, MA Student at Universitá Ca’ Foscari Venezia:
Beyond the limitations of saga classifications: ‘generic hybrids’

In the enchanting world of the Fornaldarsögur the subgroup labelled as Hrafnistumannasögur singles out for its concerning the progeny of illustrious people from the homonymous Norwegian island. Áns saga bogsveigis belongs to this cycle, despite being anomalous in many respects: it is demythologized and the protagonist is a non-heroic chieftain. Moreover, it is the only Fornaldarsaga having its main character as an outlaw, a trait shared on the other hand with some of the Íslendingasögur, along with most of their feud structure. Hence, by exploiting this saga, I will try to demonstrate how the notion of ‘generic hybrid’ may widen our interpretative perspective of these texts, since it casts light on how it is allowed in them to deal with themes that other ‘pure’ categories reject. Furthermore, this new ‘mental reality’ helps us better understand what fiction reveals about history, since those who composed these ‘hybrid’ narratives deliberately expressed their anti-Norwegianism. I will conclude by mentioning how this view has proved to be valid in my recent translation experience.

William H. Norman, MSc Student at the University of Edinburgh:
The Witty Remark as Characterisation in Njal’s Saga

An examination of the ways in which witty remarks are used to enhance and define characters in Njal’s Saga, particularly though by no means exclusively Skarphedin. The paper considers how these witty remarks contribute to our understanding of the characters who make them, the other shared characteristics that define this character type, and the contrast between these characters and the ‘heroes’ of the work who do not make such comments. Of particular concern is making the point that a correct interpretation of such witty remarks is vital to a proper understanding of complex and dubious characters such as Skarphedin, and to understanding their relationships with other characters. This in turn sheds light upon medieval Icelandic ideas about status, honour and the parameters that define acceptable violence, as well as their well-developed sense of humour.

Jonas Keller, PhD Candidate at the University of Zurich:
Var þá tunga ein? Mutual Intelligibility between Speakers of Old English and Old Norse

The possibility of mutual intelligibility between speakers of Old English and Old Norse has been under debate for a long time. This paper will give an overview over some more recent attempts to resolve the matter, as well as offer a new approach originally devised for dialectology and adapted for the question at hand. this method is composed of four independent sub-methods, namely 1) Ask the Informant, 2) Count Sameness, 3) Structural Status and 4) Test the Informant. The focus in this paper will be placed on the less problematic sub-methods 1 and 2. Sub-method 1 qill be exemplified by reading and interpreting passages from Gunnlaugs saga Ormstunga and the First Grammatical Treatise, contemporary sources mentioning Old English/Old Norse mutual intelligibility, as well as the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon” which some scholars think alludes so semi-communication. Sub-method 2 will be presented by comparing phonology and morphology in some selected examples, such as the paradigm of the masculine a-stems and the present tense of the class V strong verb beran. Sub-methods 3 and 4 shall be discussed in a more passing manner and with focus on their problematic nature. It is not the intention of this paper to give a definite answer to the question whether semi-communication between speakers of Old Norse and Old English was a reality, as it is part of a larger research project that will apply the methodology thoroughly to the material available.

David Nickel, MA Student at Háskóli Íslands:
The Mighty Thor: a God in Tights

Marvel Comics’ character “The Mighty Thor” celebrates his fiftieth birthday in August 2012. Since his creation by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, Thor has appeared in various publications under the Marvel Comics publishing label as well as television programs, advertisements, movies and as a toy. This paper begins by tracing the development of Thor and other “Norse” material borrowed by the creators at Marvel Comics and makes note of the source of inspiration, which is not always readily traceable. A brief analysis follows of the context in which Thor has been presented, as well as the implications of using this kind of material for uses other than the academic. Finally a look is taken towards the future of Thor and other Norse material in the comic book world(s) of popular culture.

Ryan Eric Johnson, BA Student at Háskóli Íslands:
Magic and the Manufacture of Drugs

In the hope to disseminate the Icelandic Family Sagas to the world at large we must consider modern reception and in doing so attempt to provide the most stimulating expression of this old art form into the new. What is stimulating in modern forms of art that reaches great masses? In my observations the television and film viewing audience of the world provides the basis for modern narrative dissemination. Series such as Rome, Deadwood, and Boardwalk Empire have excellent production value and provide a wonder of cultural excellence through a remarkable narrative framework. In my own reaction to both new television series and saga literature, I have found that the gap between both of these narrative traditions is not so large.

Curiously common themes appear within one saga and one television series in particular. Egils saga versus Breaking Bad. Egils saga is roughly about a man born with innate skills in poetry and deviance, while Breaking Bad is about a middle aged chemistry teacher realizing his deviance much later in life by manufacturing methamphetamine. However, when the troll must come out, the troll does. Both of these storylines revolve around dualism and wanton power and wealth. In this presentation I will direct attention towards two referential patterns in both stories. In Egils saga, Egil’s knowledge comes from the runes, whereas in Breaking Bad it is Walter White’s use of chemistry which provides the foundation for his “scientific” knowledge.

Robert Cutrer, MA Student at Háskóli Íslands:
The Wilderness of Dragons

This presentation focuses on the perception and reception of literary image of the dragon by the thirteenth century Scandinavian audience. Material analyzed includes Latin summae, Classical authors, and Biblical commentaries. The goal of this analysis is not only a better understanding of influences to the medieval authors, but also to reveal through elimination what may be a pre-Christian tradition. One of the most prevalent summae of the middle ages, Isidore of Seville’s Etymoligiae, will be analyzed with specific reference to serpents and dragons to see which of these traits have been transferred to Scandinavian literature. In addition to the Etymoligiae, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia will yield information on many aspects that seem to have been adopted in the literature. Additionally, the Classical literature offers stories and accounts that are mirrored in some of the Scandinavian material, notably the Gesta Danorum; most noticeable are the settlement accounts in Ovid, Statius, and Phaedrus. The classical influence shows many aspects and creates a very clear image which is helpful in perceiving the more unique aspects of Scandinavian dragons.

In addition to the Classical influence, an often overlooked source for potential inspiration is that of the Biblical commentaries of the Old Testament, specifically the book of Job; Gregory the Great’s Moralia contains a great deal of information regarding Behemoth and Leviathan which, in some cases, has been appropriated into the Scandinavian dragon myth. Understanding these sources and their influence on Scandinavian literature not only helps understand the reception by the audience of the stories but it can also be used to determine what traits may derive from pre-Christian, pre-literate traditions.

Ryder Patzuk-Russell, MA Student at Háskóli Íslands:
A Religion without Gods: Magic, Ritual, and Myth in the Gesta Danorum

Saxo Grammaticus’ sole work, the Gesta Danorum, has been thoroughly mined for its rich information on pre-Christian Scandinavian myth and magic. taken in the context of the narrative of the work itself, I argue that Saxo constructs a largely cohesive image of pre-Christian Scandinavia, its beliefs, and supernatural components from a huge variety of sources – Norse, classical, and Christian – in service of Saxo’s larger goal of presenting the ancient Danes as a great warrior race, once which rivaled the Romans in their own time, and provide an example of virtue to the Danes of Saxo’s time. Magic and the supernatural, while employed by the gods, exist independent of them; Saxo’s sorcerer-deities are thoroughly euhemerized. Odin, in particular, is entirely demonized when he appears on his own; when Odin interacts with his heroic figures Saxo is careful to minimize the connection, and emphasize that Odin’s influence is largely negative. These heroes are in many ways the essence of Saxo’s work, particularly its pagan portion, and provide microcosms of the moralities, beliefs, and ambiguities that Saxo wished to communicate. Magic is important here: though it is often used by his plethora of troll-like and giant antagonists, and is the primary tool of the deception of the gods, yet it also works to serve his heroes, with none of the repercussions that might be expected from a moralizing Christian perspective, as Saxo’s certainly is. After he presents the initial Christianization of Denmark, the lingering characteristics of Danish paganism change and develop, in order to provide a foil to the right actions of the Christian Danes, and an opportunity to critique the waning morality of Saxo’s contemporaries and near contemporaries.

Remigiusz Gogosz, PhD Candidate at the University of Rzeszów/Háskóli Íslands:
Horse-fights: the Brutal Entertainment of the Icelanders in the Middle Ages

Horses for the medieval Icelanders were among the most important animals. It comes as no surprise, as they were used for transport, pagan rites (divination, funerals, sacred horses), as food, and also in sports. These sports were the horse-fights (hestavígs) and horse-racing (skeið). Reading the sagas, one can find a lot of references to horse-fighting. These fights were regarded with such importance that laws were written down concerning this entertainment, but there is no exact description of the organization of such an event. Only by putting all descriptions together one may attempt to explain how the horse-fights actually looked like. In my paper, I would like to present the basis of the horse-fights. On one hand we have the terminology which is often misinterpreted, and on the other we have no standardized description of the organization of the horse-fights, which is really important to understand the meaning and role of this event for Icelanders. Horse-fights were not only entertaining brutal sport but also part of the bigger social assemblies where people from different districts put their horses to fight between each other.

Lenka Kovářová, Independent Scholar:
The Boar, Battles, and the Svíar

The boar is a mighty and ferocious animal, which makes it a fitting symbol to be used on warriors’ equipment, especially on helmets or helmet plates from the 6th and 7th century England and Sweden. In this presentation, I am going to throw more light on possible beliefs behind boar symbols on Germanic helmets like those from Vendel and Valsgärde in Sweden or those of Benty Grange and Sutton Hoo in England. These artifacts will be shown in connection with references to boar helmets in literature (Old English Beowulf as well as Old Norse literature), and especially their connection with the Svíar will be stressed. In order to trace the developing relationship between the Svíar and the boar, we have to go farther back in time and examine some influential Celtic artifacts, such as the Gundestrup cauldron, as well as the Latin writings of Tacitus regarding a tribe bearing boar symbols to war. To frame the context of boar artifact distribution among Germanic tribes, I will also give some examples of non-martial boar objects. From all this evidence we will see that the boar had not only a magico-religious function in battle but it might be a kind of “totemic” animal of the Svíar.

K. James McMullen, MA Student at Háskóli Íslands:
When is a halberd is not a halberd? The kesja and atgeirr in Egils saga and Njáls saga

The common glosses of the words atgeirr and kesja are halberd and, less frequently, bill. The problem with both translations – and in particular the use of ‘halberd’ – is that neither could possibly be applied accurately to the weapons used at the time of the action in the sagas.
The halberd, a fourteenth century Swiss weapon, would be as out of place in Egils saga or Njáls saga as an AK-47 in The Three Musketeers. The descriptions of the kesja in Egils saga, for example, hardly call to mind the combination axe-spear of the Swiss halberd, nor does the way in which Gunnar uses his atgeirr in Njáls saga suggest that it could be anything like the European bill, a weapon derived from the billhook agricultural tool and designed almost entirely for chopping and cutting, rather than thrusting.
Linguistically, neither weapon is derived from anything suggesting a halberd or bill – Cleasby and Vigfusson suggest that there is a derivation from the Celtic Latin gaesum (pl. gaesus) for kesja, while atgeirr is likely a compound of at, advancing/attacking, and geirr, spear. Archaeological finds in the last 150 years have provided plausible alternative examples of weapons which fit not only the physical descriptions of these weapons, when they have been given, but also fit the descriptions of their methods of use in the sagas.
Linguistically, neither weapon is derived from anything suggesting a halberd or bill – Cleasby and Vigfusson suggest that there is a derivation from the Celtic Latin gaesum (pl. gaesus) for kesja, while atgeirr is likely a compound of at, advancing/attacking, and geirr, spear. Archaeological finds in the last 150 years have provided plausible alternative examples of weapons which fit not only the physical descriptions of these weapons, when they have been given, but also fit the descriptions of their methods of use in the sagas.

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