Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Snorri Sturluson, the Homer of the North

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths has reached that delightful stage called “advance reader copies,” or ARCs—delightful for the writer because I get to see the final cover design, read my publisher’s description of the book, and (best of all) relish the first readers’ comments, or blurbs.

How Palgrave Macmillan describes Song of the Vikings:
“Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth-century Icelandic chieftain who gave us Odin, Loki, and Thor, was as unruly as the Norse gods he created.

“Much like Greek and Roman mythology, Norse myths are still with us. Famous storytellers from JRR Tolkien to Neil Gaiman have drawn their inspiration from tales of the long-haired, mead-drinking, marauding and pillaging Vikings. Their creator is a thirteenth-century Icelandic chieftain by the name of Snorri Sturluson. Like Homer, Snorri was a bard, collecting and embellishing the folklore and pagan legends of medieval Scandinavia. Unlike Homer, Snorri was a man of the world—a wily political power player. One of the richest men in Iceland, he came close to ruling it and even closer to betraying it… In Song of the Vikings, author Nancy Marie Brown brings Snorri Sturluson’s story to life.”

Snorri by Gustav Vigeland. 
At Reykholt.
The first blurbs:
Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne, wrote:
“For readers who’ve long sensed that older winds blow through the works of their beloved Tolkien, Song of the Vikings is a fitting refresher on Norse mythology. Without stripping these dark tales of their magic, Nancy Marie Brown shows how mere humans shape myths that resonate for centuries—and how one brilliant scoundrel became, for all time, the Homer of the North.”

Scott Weidensaul, author of The First Frontier, said:
“In medieval Iceland, one of the most remote corners of the known Earth, a very un-Viking Norseman named Snorri Sturluson crafted the heroic mythology on which rests everything from Wagner’s Ring cycle and the Brothers Grimm to Tolkien (who considered Snorri’s work more central to English literature than Shakespeare’s) and even the evils of Nazism. In Song of the Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown brings to vivid life this age of poetic Viking skalds, of blood feuds and vengeance raids, of royal intrigue and fierce independence, when the barren, beautiful landscape of the North was haunted by trolls, giants, and dragons—all of which Snorri, the most important writer the world ever forgot, captured for eternity.”

Why are ARCs delightful?
Because they got it. “Unruly” is the perfect word to describe Snorri Sturluson and his creations—and I didn’t think of it. “How mere humans shape myths” is an excellent summary of my theme—again, I wish I’d written it. A medieval Icelander influenced Wagner, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Tolkien, the Nazis—yes, that’s the point I was making, that and the importance of not forgetting a great and influential (if unruly) writer.

Song of the Vikings won’t be in bookstores until October, but I’ll be sharing more about it in posts throughout the summer and early fall. Meanwhile, I’m planning my book tour. If you’d like me to visit your library, local bookstore, bookclub, or school, please let me know.

And if you’re lucky enough to attend Book Expo America in New York next week, stop by the Palgrave Macmillan booth and pick up an ARC of Song of the Vikings

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Case of the Butternuts

Where Was the Viking’s Vinland?

The climax of my book The Far Traveler is the story of the Viking expedition to North America led by 19-year-old Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Leif Eiriksson discovered the land he named Vinland, or “Wine Land,” in about 999, when he was blown off course on his way home to Greenland after visiting the king of Norway. But Leif never returned to explore this fabulous new land.

His sister-in-law did. Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her first husband, Leif’s younger brother Thorstein, tried to sail to Vinland soon after Leif came home. They ran into storms and were forced back to Greenland. Thorsteinn died, and Gudrid gave up her dream for a while.

Then Thorfinn Karlsefni came to Greenland. Karlsefni was a merchant from Iceland. He wanted to trade for walrus tusks, white falcons, and polar bear skins. Instead, he met Gudrid and fell in love. Gudrid convinced him to go to Vinland. She owned one ship; she hired a crew of Greenlanders. The other two ships were manned by Icelanders, led by Karlsefni.

A Viking Colony
They crossed the North Atlantic. They sailed south along shore, past mountains and marvelous beaches. They spent the first winter beside a fjord with fierce currents.

Next summer, they sailed south to a wide tidal lagoon. They named it Hóp (pronounced “Hope”), which means “Lagoon.” There Gudrun gave birth to her son Snorri. Hóp had tall trees and a river full of fish. Wild grapes grew abundantly there. It was a richer land than Greenland or Iceland—a good place for a Viking colony.

But soon strangers came to the Vikings’ camp. They were delighted by the taste of milk. They traded furs for strips of red wool cloth. They had never seen an axe—and they wanted one. A fight broke out. The strangers fought with stone-tipped arrows. The Vikings had axes and swords, but they were vastly outnumbered. They abandoned Hóp. 

Only one of their ships made it back to Greenland. Gudrid, Karlsefni, and little Snorri sailed on to Iceland, where they built a new home.

Where Was Vinland?
Their story was written down about 200 years later in the Icelandic sagas. One version was written by Gudrid’s great-great grandson. Another is linked to her seven-greats granddaughter. 

Two hundred years is a long time. Some of the story was exaggerated. Some was forgotten. But some of it is true. 

In the 1960s, archaeologists found three Viking longhouses on the tip of Newfoundland, at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. Each house is big enough for one ship’s crew. Fire-starters made of jasper rock show the Vikings came from both Iceland and Greenland. A spindle whorl proves a Viking woman was with them. Spinning wool into yarn was women’s work in Viking times. 

But grapes have never grown in Newfoundland. Why would Leif name this place Wine Land? And where was Hóp, the lagoon with tall trees, fish, grapes, and fierce natives? 

The Clue of the Butternuts
Three butternuts gave archaeologist Birgitta Wallace the answer.

Wallace was in charge of the dig at L’Anse aux Meadows from 1975 to 2000. Her workers dug a five-foot-deep trench 200 feet into the bog beside the Viking houses. She sent all the wood and seeds they found to a botanist. She said, “Look for what doesn’t belong here, what’s not here now.” 
The botanist told her, “It’s all what you’d imagine. Except what are those butternuts doing there?”

In three different spots the workers had turned up butternuts. The nuts were in the same layer of soil as rusty nails and chips of wood from a repaired Viking ship.

Butternuts have never grown in Newfoundland. The closest trees are 800 miles south. The nuts couldn’t have floated north. The shore currents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence run the other direction. The only way they could have reached the bog when they did is by Viking ship. The Vikings could have collected butternuts in New Brunswick, New England, or near Quebec. Wallace thinks the Miramichi River valley in New Brunswick has the best claim to being the place Gudrid and Karlsefni named Hóp.

The river’s mouth forms a great tidal lagoon. Its banks are lush with tall butternut trees. Where butternuts grow, grapes are also found. A thousand years ago, the Miramichi River had the richest salmon run in eastern North America. And, because of the fish, the valley was home to the largest population of Native Americans in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Could the Vikings have explored farther south? Yes. A replica Viking ship sailed all the way to the Amazon in the summer of 1991. But until we find another longhouse or lost spindle whorl—or clue like the butternuts—we can’t say exactly where Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband went when they came to America a thousand years ago.

Links & Photos:
The picture of the butternut and of archaeologists excavating the bog at L'Anse aux Meadows come from the website, Canadian Mysteries, 

The other photos were taken by Charles Fergus in 2006 while I was researching The Far Traveler.

You can also learn more about the Viking archaeological site on the official Parks Canada L'Anse aux Meadows website,

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Icelandic Horse Named “Doubt”

To write The Far Traveler, I volunteered on an archaeological dig in Skagafjörður in northern Iceland. The site was very close to the farm of Syðra-Skörðugil, where in 1997 I bought my first Icelandic horse, Gæska (“Kindness”), one of the stars of my book A Good Horse Has No Color. I’d remained friends with Elvar and Fjóla, Gæska’s breeders, and so one evening, after eight hours on my knees with a trowel, I accepted their invitation for a horseback ride.

Our task was to herd a hundred horses up to their summer pastures, where the sheep had been taken two weeks before. Eighteen people gathered at the farm of Syðra-Skörðugil, most of them, like me, just along for the ride. Fjóla had two horses ready for me. The white one, she said, was “a really fine mountain horse.” His name was Vafi, or “Doubt.” The bay was her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite horse. She suggested I start out riding little Ásdís’s horse and leading the white, then switch when we came to the hills.

Riding With the Herd
To gather up the herd and funnel it through the fences, we rode over fields frost-heaved into knee-high grassy hummocks, up steep moss-covered slopes, through thickets of birch and blueberries, over rushing creeks with stony beds. Our pace seemed terrifically fast on such grueling terrain, but no one else seemed to notice.

Our leader, Eyþór, Elvar’s younger brother, rode point to keep the loose horses from going the wrong way. He sat with his legs stretched long, his back straight but soft, as if out for a pleasant amble. His rust-colored jacket and riding cap complemented both his reddish-blond hair and his two bright bay horses, a high-stepping, athletic pair, relaxed on a loose rein, alert to his every thought.

I rode with the herd, horses of all colors around me: some young and gangly, still growing into their legs, others sleek and fit, a few with ugly heads and big Roman noses, others with pretty little dished faces. All were the short, stocky Icelandic breed, the only horse in Iceland since the Viking Age. I could not fix on any one for long, they blurred and flowed and mixed together. Their hooves kicked up dust as they strung out in a line. Their long manes and tails rippled in the wind.

Loose Horse!
We changed horses once we entered the mountains, and I was just settling down to enjoy the white horse’s smooth, rolling gait, full of energy—when my mount fell into a mudhole beside a little brook. As he leaped and struggled to get out of the bog (with me hanging on for dear life), my handhorse, little Asdis’s horse, decided to jump the brook. He broke free of my grip, eluded the rider ahead of me, and tore off with the loose herd, his reins dangling. Of course we were beyond the last fence. Ahead stretched only acres of grassland.

At the point where we should have had a rest and returned home, leaving the loose horses to wander further if they wished, Eyþór picked out three people to help me catch little Asdis’s horse. We took off like cowboys, and I realized our earlier pace had not, in fact, been fast.

We jumped across, into, and out of the stream, leaping up steep banks and sliding down off them. We flew across the frost-heaved hummocks at a hand gallop. We followed a narrow sheep track along the side of a hill of scree tumbling toward a cliff at the angle of repose—at a fast trot. We got off to lead the horses through a bog, the red-tinted water glistening between the grass tufts, and though I tried to step on the firmest tussocks I sank well above my ankle boots. We scrambled up one very steep hill to where a group of ten or so horses had stopped to graze, but little Asdis’s horse, unfortunately, was not with them.

We needed to ride faster, Eyþór decided, to get in front of the herd. He could see that the white horse (and I) had had enough by then. The fifth rider had taken a tumble, and his horse had scraped its nose on a rock—a flap of bloody skin was hanging loose, looking awful. Eyþór sent us back, and he and his posse continued on.

Midnight Sunset
It was an hour before we reached our friends, sitting on the grass by the bend of the river, drinking cognac from hipflasks and trying to ignore the biting flies. As we headed home, the midnight sunset painted the tops of the hills blush pink, turning to blood orange, then crimson, like the colors of the peat-ash dumped on the Viking Age house I’d spent the day helping to uncover. A full, pale rainbow arced over the sunlit mountains behind us.

At the first fence we could see all the way down the valley to the fjord, the island of Drangey like a blue block floating between an orange sea and a pink sky, the green fields gone gray in the dusk. One of the riders pulled a cellphone from his pocket and called Eyþór —his posse was just behind us, having snagged little Asdis’s horse easily once they circled ahead of the herd. Except for the cellphone, I could imagine Gudrid the Far-Traveler, the adventurous Viking woman I was writing about, taking part in just this sort of excursion one long summer night a thousand years ago.

A Good Horse
When we reached the barn at about 2 a.m., Elvar was there, waiting to take care of the horse with the injured nose. “I guess we know the name of your next book.” He grinned: “A Good Horse Lost in the Mountains.

The next morning John Steinberg, the leader of the archaeological project, kindly gave me a zombie’s job, helping to re-survey the excavation on the farm of Glaumbær, to the centimeter, in five-meter squares. I was to stand still and hold steady the stadia rod, a six-foot pole with a mirror at the top, the target for the Total Station, a glorified surveyor’s transit that measured the distance with laser-beam accuracy and keyed our grid to GPS coordinates.

At noon, Sirri Sigurðardóttir, the curator of the museum on the grounds of Glaumbær, invited us all to celebrate her birthday with a lunch of chowder, rye bread, and cheesecake.

“Did you enjoy your ride last night?” she asked, with a teasing inflection. Apparently the story that I had almost lost “little Ásdís’s favorite horse” was all over Skagafjörður already.

Photos and Links:
On the Syðra-Skörðugil website ( you can read all about the amazing horsewoman little Ásdís has grown up to be (if you read Icelandic, that is). All of the photos in this post come from that website.

To learn about Icelandic horses in general, go to The Icelandic Horse Congress at or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson's video blog,

The Archaeological Settlement Survey project led by John Steinberg at the University of Massachusetts-Boston has its own blog ( where you can learn about what they’ve been up to since I volunteered in 2006.

For updates on Glaumbær, the last home of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, see the website of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum (

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Pope’s Abacus

When were Arabic numerals introduced into Western Europe? We used to think it was in the 1100s. But scholars studying the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in 999, have pushed that date back nearly two centuries.

People usually think of a Chinese abacus when they hear the title of my biography of Gerbert, The Abacus and the Cross: colored beads strung on wires set in a frame. Gerbert’s abacus was nothing like that.

It was a counting board: a grid of 27 columns, painted on a flat surface. Later, merchants found having a counting board like this so useful that they drew them on tabletops, which they called “counters.” That is why we now do business “over the counter.”

Arabic Roots
To learn about Gerbert’s abacus, I visited Charles Burnett, Professor of the History of Islamic Influences in Europe at the Warburg Institute in London. In 2001, Burnett discovered a copy of Gerbert’s abacus. It was a stiff poster-sized sheet of parchment that had been trimmed down and reused in the binding of the Giant Bible made for the abbot of Echternach between 1051 and 1081.

The Bible is owned by the National Library of Luxembourg, which had unbound it in 1940 in order to photograph the pages. The abacus was taken out of the binding and, Burnett told me, “It got put in a box. It got lost in the library for several years. My friend, the librarian of rare books, was tidying up and found the original of the abacus sheet.” Noticing the Arabic numerals along the top, the librarian immediately thought of Burnett, who has been writing about the Arabic roots of mathematics since the 1970s.

Shortly after Burnett announced his find, a librarian at the State Archives of Trier called with word of a matching copy “written in the same bold capital letters,” Burnett says. It was also made at Echternach.
This second abacus was bound into a manuscript along with notes on multiplication and division, the use of fractions, the etymology of the word digit, and a poem on the names of the nine Arabic numerals and zero. These notes can be dated to 993. Burnett writes, “They appear to be written by a single scholar, at different times, who has made frequent erasures and corrections.” Burnett thinks he was one of Gerbert’s students.

How to Calculate
To use his abacus, Gerbert had 1000 apices or markers made out of cow’s horn. They looked something like modern checkers. Each one was marked with an Arabic numeral. To calculate, Gerbert placed the markers on the counting board and shuffled them around. He could get the answer, one of his contemporaries wrote, quicker than you could say it in words.

Using these new Arabic numerals, Gerbert’s abacus introduced the “place-value” method of calculating: The place, or column, where the marker sat determined the value of the number written on it, whether it meant 5 or 50 or 500.

In 2003, Burnett was a visiting professor at the University of California. “When I was teaching in Berkeley, I actually reconstructed Gerbert’s abacus,” he told me. “I found a shop that specialized in games for children. I bought one of these big rolls of paper and these lovely large numbers—they could substitute very well for the apices, I thought. I drew the columns on this paper—not 27 of them. I didn’t get as complicated as all that. It’s perfectly possible to work out how the procedure worked.”

Did Gerbert Use Zero?
A zero marker was not strictly necessary—to make 50, you put a 5 in the tens column and leave the ones column blank. But the poem in the Trier manuscript does include a zero, looking like a spoked wheel, so Gerbert may have used it as a placeholder. The idea that zero was an actual number would not arrive until much later.

“In the 1120s,” Burnett explained, “there was a change-over from the abacus to the algorithm. The big change is using pen and paper. Also the sign for zero. So the main difference between the look of Gerbert’s abacus and look of the algorithm is, with the algorithm you don’t actually draw the lines for the columns and you have a zero instead of an empty column.”

For a thousand years, we have added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided essentially the same way Gerbert taught his students at the cathedral of Reims.

Photos & Links:
Arabic numerals appear on two pages from the notebook of  one of Gerbert’s students, which Burnett dates to c. 993. The second page shown here is a copy of Gerbert's abacus board. (From MS Trier, Stadtbibliothek 1093/1694 fol.)

One of the frescoes by Gabor Szinte in the Church of St Simon near Aurillac shows a young Gerbert learning about Arabic numerals in Islamic Spain. You can learn about the frescoes on the Aurillac tourism website, here.

Read more about Professor Charles Burnett and his work at the website of the Warburg Institute, London, here.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Troll’s Tale from Iceland

A few years ago, I rode a marvelous blue-dun horse across Iceland. Nearing the end of our six-day trek, we stopped for lunch at the church of Haukadalur, near the famous geysers. To entertain us while we ate, our trekking guide, Svandis, told the story of the church and its resident troll.

Bergthor of Blafell was unlike other trolls: He liked the sound of church bells. He was further unusual, in Icelandic folklore, for having a human best friend. One day Bergthor (whose name means Mountain Thor, or God of the Mountain), asked his friend to do him a favor. “When I die, will you bury me beside the church?”

His friend agreed. “But how will I know you are dead?”

“I will prop my walking stick outside my cave the night I die, and I will leave a chest of gold beside my bed to pay for the funeral.”

All happened as the troll said. The friend saw the walking stick propped against the cave door. He got a party together to fetch the huge corpse. He found a little chest—but it was full of dry, yellow leaves.

Heaving a sigh (What do you expect from a troll?), he fulfilled his side of the bargain and brought the corpse to church. They dug a grave just outside the churchyard and buried Bergthor beneath a red stone. It’s still there—“You can go see it,” Svandis said.

We dutifully traipsed through the churchyard, peeking into the windows of the little wooden church with its four pews and blue-painted ceiling. There was the stone, “Bergthor” carved in a suspiciously modern font.

“But that’s not the end of the story,” Svandis said.

One of the gravediggers suddenly felt his pants slipping down. He had filled his pockets with dead leaves from the chest, and the leaves had turned to solid gold.

The troll’s friend hurried back to the cave to fetch the forgotten chest of gold—but it was too late. It was gone.

“He should have trusted Bergthor’s word,” Svandis said, “even if he was a troll.” He should have trusted the God of the Mountain.

You can read another version of this story in the book A Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales by Jón R. Hjálmarsson. For a review of the book from the newspaper, The Reykjavík Grapevine, click here.

If you're inspired to ride across Iceland like I did, I recommend Íshestar's Highland tour named Kjölur. The photo above comes from their website, which has many other inspiring shots of Iceland's interior highlands, the haunt of trolls.

Join me again next Wednesday for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world at