Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Freyfaxi the Saga Horse

Traveling about Iceland, it's impossible not to stop and take some pictures of the horses and, of course, to remember all the stories of horses in the Icelandic sagas. One of the most famous Icelandic horses appears in Hrafnkel’s Saga, which is set early in Iceland’s history. I first read the saga, and fell in love with the stallion Freyfaxi, while learning Old Norse at Penn State University in the early 1980s. In my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I write about riding a real Freyfaxi: smooth and powerful and unfortunately not for sale.

Iceland was settled between 870 and 930 and became Christian through a decision by the Althing, the yearly meeting of the chieftains, in the year 1000. Before that time Icelanders worshiped the gods Odin, Thor, and Freyr (among others).

The chieftain Hrafnkel owned a dun-colored horse, a fine stallion with a black mane. He dedicated the horse to the god Freyr and named it Freyfaxi, fax meaning “mane.” Although Hrafnkel was well-off, Freyfaxi was the “one treasured possession which he held dearer than anything else he owned,” the saga says. “Hrafnkel loved this horse so passionately that he swore a solemn oath to kill anyone who rode the stallion without his permission.” In the sagas, such an oath is usually regretted.

Hrafnkel hired his poor neighbor’s son, Einar, a promising young man, as his shepherd and warned him not to ride Freyfaxi. All went well until midsummer, when Einar lost track of 30 of Hrafnkel’s sheep. They went missing for a week, and finally he took a bridle and saddlecloth and went to catch a horse to help him search. “But when he came closer, all the mares bolted away from him, and he chased them without success. They had never been so shy before. Only Freyfaxi remained behind; he was as still as if he were anchored to the ground.”

Foolishly, Einar rode Freyfaxi “from dawn to mid-evening, traveling fast and far, for this was an outstanding horse.” By the time they found the lost sheep, “Freyfaxi was all running with sweat; and every hair on his body was dripping. He was covered in mud and panting from exhaustion.” As soon as Einar loosed him, “he rolled over a dozen times, and the neighed loudly and started to race down the path.” He ran right to the farmhouse, “came up to the door and neighed loudly.”

Hrafnkel, who was just sitting down to dinner, recognized the neighing and went out. “It grieves me to see how you have been treated,” he said. “You had your wits about you when you came to me, and this shall be avenged. Go back to your herd.”

The next morning Hrafnkel rode up to the sheep pens and killed Einar. But, regretting his oath, he offered to provide Einar’s father with all the milk and meat his household needed from then on and to give Einar’s younger brothers and sisters “a good start in life.”

Einar’s father refused. With the backing of some powerful men from another part of Iceland, he and a kinsman managed to strip Hrafnkel of his authority and possessions, even stringing him up by his heels to torture and humiliate him before chasing him out of the district. They led Freyfaxi up to a steep cliff beside a waterfall, put a bag over his head, tied a stone around his neck, and used heavy poles to push him over, saying sarcastically that they were sacrificing him to the god Freyr.

Clearly they had overstepped the bounds of justice. As the saga tells it, Hrafnkel worked his way back to prosperity and popularity until finally he resumed his place as leader of the district and “enjoyed great prestige” before dying peacefully in his bed, while his enemies were punished by being reduced to the status of servants.

But that didn’t bring back Freyfaxi. I’ve often longed to rewrite that story—and change the ending.

Hrafnkel’s Saga was translated by Hermann Palsson (Penguin Books, 1971). You can read more about this and other sagas on my friend Emily Lethbridge’s blog, Sagasteads of Iceland (

The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, where I first published this story in 1998, is the official breed publication of the Icelandic Horse Congress. Visit the congress’s website ( to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, and Life with Horses (

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Viking Language

 Viking Language 1 by Jesse Byock is the book I was looking for 30 years ago when I decided I had to learn to read the Icelandic sagas in the original.

As I wrote in my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, I'd been introduced to the sagas in my second year of college by a professor of folklore, Sam Bayard, an impish man, small, bald, rotund, and hunched like a wise turtle walking upright. He had an impressive nose, which he periodically aroused with snuff taken from one of the half-dozen boxes secreted in his pockets. He would courteously offer me some, smile when I declined, then, snuffling up a liberal pinch, harrumph into a large handkerchief which he subsequently used to brush the dust off his breast. His snuff boxes were antiques, portable works of art carved of horn, cast in silver or brass with ancient scenes of hunts or warfare, shaped of handsome woods. Another pocket held a tin whistle, which he'd occasionally demonstrate. A fiddle hid in his filing cabinet. A narrow bookshelf along one wall was crammed with Icelandic sagas, which he loaned to me, one after the next.

When the translations proved stilted or old-fashioned or, worse, non-existent, I decided I needed to learn Old Norse. The professor who taught me the language, Ernst Ebbinghaus, was an icon of his occupation—high forehead, aquiline nose, a halo of silky white hair. He wore French cuffs and ascots. I found him inordinately distant and stiff, traits I linked to his European training. He was Old School, German-educated. He even knew Sanskrit. We translated bits of sagas into our notebooks, puzzling over the three genders and four cases, singular and plural, into which the grammar slotted the words, memorizing the 24 different forms of such essentials as "the" or "this" or "who." Ebbinghaus stood above us and explicated such words as ójafnaðarmaðr: the unjust, overbearing man, the man who upsets the balance of the world. He refused to hazard pronunciation. No one knew how to pronounce Old Norse, he said. The language was dead. Like Latin. I found that vastly disappointing.

Fortunately, before much longer, I went to Iceland for the first time and learned that Old Norse wasn't "dead" after all. It had just shifted into Icelandic, changing about as much as English has since Shakespeare's day. Neither are the sagas of only antiquarian interest in Iceland. They are alive, part of—and preserved by—the landscape. Icelandic schoolchildren study the sagas in history class. Modern Icelanders trace their family trees to heroes in the old tales. The medieval past is remembered in the name of every hill and farmstead. There is a saga everywhere you turn.

Jesse Byock's book Viking Language 1 takes all this into consideration. The full title is Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas, but the back cover blurb clearly describes the book as "an introduction to Old Norse and Icelandic. The beginner has everything in one book: graded lessons, vocabulary, grammar, exercises, pronunciation, culture sections, and maps. The book follows an innovative method that speeds learning. Because the grammar of Modern Icelandic has changed little from Old Norse, the learner is well on the way to mastering Modern Icelandic" (my emphasis).

That said, Byock's book has also solved a mystery for me. I've spent 30 years reading Old Norse. I can sit down and read a saga and enjoy it. I can even translate it. But I've been trying to learn Modern Icelandic for the same length of time, and every time I return to Iceland (and I'm currently on trip number 17), I feel like I'm starting over. I'm grasping for words, entirely unable to express myself. I feel like an infant just learning to talk. I'm proud when children will converse with me. To write a simple letter I have to surround myself with dictionaries.

Why? Byock has the answer. He's structured his book around it: "The total vocabulary of the sagas is surprisingly small," he writes. "Excluding names, there are only 12,400 different words in the corpus of the family sagas out of a total word count of almost 750,000. The 70 most frequently used words account for nearly 450,000 or 60% of the total word count. As one might expect this 70 contains the most frequently repeated prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, verbs, and adjectives. The greatest benefit is found in learning the 246 most frequent words…"

His Appendix B gives helpful lists of them--and I'm happy to say, I know all 246 words. But just a glance at the list of 50 most common nouns explains why I'm able to read the sagas but not converse with my friends. The most common noun, maðr or "man," is still useful. But next come "king," "ship," and "speech (or lawsuit)." "Wealth" is number 7. "Sword" is 29, "slaying" is 35, "weapon" is 41, "spear" is 45, "shield" is 50 … you get the point. Lucky for me that "journey" is number 17, "horse" is 22, and "friend" is 36.

For information on Jesse Byock's Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas go to There you can even hear someone read Old Norse aloud.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Songs of the Vikings

"I know giants of ages past, … I know how nine roots form nine worlds / below the Earth where the Ash Tree rises..."

Last week I heard the "Song of the Sibyl" for the first time. I'd read this classic Old Icelandic poem, this witch's vision of the creation and destruction of the world many times in both English and the original language. I'd written about it in my book Song of the Vikings: “What troubles the gods? What troubles the elves?”

But never before had I heard someone recite it. In Old Icelandic, spontaneously, spouting off a few stanzas to make his point.

I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the yearly conference of 5,000 or so of my fellow wizards, um, medieval scholars. One I'd particularly hoped to meet was Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland. I knew him for his translations of Icelandic folklore, but Gunnell is most interested in drama--old drama, like that of the Poetic Edda, which to me was never drama before but just a bunch of poems on a page. Some, like "Song of the Sibyl," I found quite moving. Others I thought were silly.

Then I listened to Gunnell speak on "Performance and the Study of Old Norse Religions."

When we read an oral poem silently, we "necessarily" take it out of context, Gunnell said, quoting the great scholar of oral literature John Miles Foley.

Added Gunnell, "We ignore the 'happening.'" The two poems he was talking about, Eiriksmál and Hákonarmál (loosely, "the Lay of Eirik" and "the Lay of Hakon"), "were not intended as written texts. They were meant as soundscapes presented to an audience who brought knowledge to them. They demand movement in space and gesture."

Think of a mead hall like the one in Beowulf,  or our Hollywood image of Valhalla, or Beorn's hall in Tolkien's The Hobbit: a great wood-ceilinged hall with tree trunks for pillars, a long fire bisecting it, benches full of boisterous Vikings (or dwarves in Tolkien's version) brandishing their drinking horns. Someone stands up and starts reciting Hákonarmal.

"The room is dark and smoky," said Gunnell. "The long fire is raising shadows. Impure alcohol has been imbibed. The performer is saying I. He's using the words in here. He's putting himself into the role of Odin, and the audience finds itself playing a role as well: We are the dead heroes of Valhalla and Ragnarok is about to become…

"We need to get away from seeing these poems as literature and to think of them more like music," Gunnell said in the Q&A afterwards. "Listen to the music of Völuspá"--it's here he started reciting it, the syllables crashing and clashing. It wasn't at all like the version on YouTube by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, which is all smooth and lilting and frankly puts me to sleep:

Gunnell's version was more like the concert I saw in Boston a few months ago by Sigur Rós: hammering, pulsing, the sound cracking open the mind.

"Listen," said Gunnell. He only gave us two stanzas. "It starts slow and open, then boom-boom-boom-boom, there's this little punk routine in the middle. Think of the smoke, the light, the booze. It's a PowerPoint in your head. The poet creates images in your head, helped by the alcohol and the next morning you say, What the hell was that?"

After the lecture I went up to Gunnell. "How much beer do I have to buy you to hear you recite the whole poem?" He laughed, but I was serious. I hope to meet him again in Iceland and be transported to the mead hall. I'll never just read the songs of the Vikings again.

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Remembering the Scientist Pope

“See those towers?” Costantino Sigismondi points to the two square Romanesque towers crowning Saint John Lateran. “We can imagine Gerbert up there looking at the stars.”

In 2008, while researching my biography of Gerbert of Aurillac, the French mathematician who became Pope Sylvester II, I visited Rome. I met my guide to the city, Costantino Sigismondi, through his website, where he had posted all of Gerbert’s known works. This year, on May 10, Sigismondi has organized a full day of lectures devoted to Pope Sylvester II at Rome’s Sapienza University. On May 12, a mass will celebrate the 1010th anniversary of Gerbert’s death. I wish I could join Sigismondi for the festivities. He's one of those rare people who brings light to the Dark Ages.

Sigismondi, an astrophysicist, teaches the history of astronomy at the University of Rome. In 2000, a friend reading Sky & Telescope chanced upon an article about “Y1K’s Science Guy,” Gerbert of Aurillac. She sent it to Sigismondi, who was astonished. Why hadn’t he known about The Scientist Pope? Sigismondi immediately contacted the Vatican and, with the pope’s support, began planning a series of lectures and events to commemorate the millennium of Gerbert’s pontificate (999-1003), including a grand requiem mass in the cathedral of Saint John Lateran in 2003.

Now we were in the square on the north side of the basilica; we turned to see an obelisk covered with hieroglyphics. “That wasn’t there when Gerbert was pope. We need to go to the Campo Marzio, close to the Pantheon. Ten years before Christ, Augustus put an obelisk there to make a sundial. One of the legends of Gerbert, you remember—William of Malmesbury tells it—is the story of Gerbert and a servant walking through the Campo Marzio, and Gerbert suddenly understands the Augustine obelisk. This is the story of the buried treasure.”

William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s, describes not an obelisk but “a statue … pointing with the forefinger of the right hand, and on its head were the words ‘Strike here.’” It was all battered with blows from men who had done the obvious. Gerbert found “quite another answer to the riddle. At midday with the sun high overhead, he observed the spot reached by the shadow of the pointing finger, and marked it with a stake.” He returned at night with a servant and, presumably a shovel. They quickly found themselves in “a vast palace, gold walls, gold ceilings, everything gold; gold knights seemed to be passing the time with golden dice, and a king and queen, all of the precious metal, sitting at dinner with their meat before them and servants in attendance; the dishes of great weight and price.” The palace was magically lit by a sparkling jewel; a golden boy stood opposite it, “holding a bow at full stretch with an arrow at the ready.” Gerbert’s servant, overcome with greed, snatched a golden knife. At once the figures came alive with a roar. The boy loosed his arrow and put out the light. And “had not the servant, at a warning word from his master, instantly thrown back the knife, they would both have paid a grievous penalty.” They covered their tracks and said no more about it.

If this story were set in Reims, I could pooh-pooh it as utter fantasy. But Rome? In 2005, archaeologists were using a coring drill to survey the foundations of Caesar Augustus’s palace on the Palatine Hill. Fifty feet down, the drill plunged into a void. Sending down a camera, the crew discovered a sacred grotto—a round, domed room about twenty-five feet high and twenty-five feet across, covered with mosaics of marble and seashell. In the soft light of the remote-sensing probe, they glittered like gold.

Whether or not Gerbert found buried treasure, if he understood how an obelisk worked as a sundial, he would have understood the Clementine Sundial in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Sigismondi had demonstrated it to me that noon. The church is an architectural pastiche, the interior by Michelango, the exterior a ruined Roman bath. The meridian line of the sundial is not squared with the church—it was added later, the church being chosen for the purpose because of its stable Roman walls and suitable dimensions. The pinhole that lets in the sunlight was set into a great bronze sculpture of the arms of Pope Clement XI (1700-1721) that cuts into one of Michelangelo’s ornate arches. New marble mosaics were set into the floor to create the zodiac images that flank the line, which is made of brass.

“The meridian occurs in this line,” Sigismondi said, putting a blank sheet of white paper near the line so that the faint sun on this cloudy day was more visible. “It’s different for every day. It goes to 12:24 in February, comes back to 12:20 now in March. And back to 12 in October. This is the so-called equation of time. If you take this and put it to local noon time, noon”—when the image of the sun crosses the line—“equals halfway between dawn and sunset.

“If mass is at noon,” he added, “sometimes the transit will happen during mass. If mass is at 12:30, then the faithful can attend mass, the astronomer can do his work, and the faithful astronomer can do both. The priests here are very open. They moved the mass to 12:30 for this reason.” And every day that he works in the cathedral, Sigismondi also takes part in the 12:30 mass, volunteering to read the scripture and take the offerings.

“I am practically the resident astronomer of Santa Maria degli Angeli,” he said. He has held conferences and astronomy classes in the church; on a side table, surrounded by sacred literature for sale, is a one-euro pamphlet he wrote called “Astronomy in the Church.” The pamphlet gives his email address if anyone would like further information on this partnership between religion and science.

Sigismondi has also used the sundial for original scientific research. “I measure this meridian line with video cameras to take scientific information as accurate as possible.  Looking at the sun, it is possible to measure all the parameters of the solar orbit with a precision difficult to achieve with a normal telescope. You can measure the angles of the sun with greater precision because there is no lens—there is no border effect. The border effect of a lens is remarkable. The pinhole, on the other hand, is aberrationless. The only abberation is due to the atmosphere.

“What’s the link between this meridian line and our Gerbert? There’s no real link, because this line was built seven centuries later.

“But it was built by a pope, by a successor of his, Clement XI. He became pope on November 23, 1700. By the first of January, the astronomers were already building this line for him. Only seventy years after the Galileo affair, the pope was building this scientific instrument in the church—and this instrument can distinguish between the Copernican system, with the earth going around the sun, and the Ptolemaic system, with the sun going around the earth. With this instrument of the pope’s, you can prove that the earth goes around the sun.

“And this was possible in Gerbert’s time. If you use only the duration of the seasons, then Ptolemy works. If you can see the image of the sun—as you can with this sundial—then Ptolemy fails.”

Sigismondi speculates that this kind of sundial was the sensational object that Gerbert made for Otto III in Magdeburg—what Thietmar of Merseburg called an horologium, a “time-keeper,” translated variously as an astrolabe, a nocturlabe, a clepsydra, a celestial sphere, or a sundial. “This kind of clock is very easily made by someone like Gerbert,” Sigismondi said, “someone brilliant who understood the idea of using a tube to observe the stars, someone who could make his spheres. A sighting tube is not so different from the type of camera obscura you have here. The function of the church is just to make a dark space so that the light coming through the pinhole can be seen.

“We can’t say that this is what Gerbert made at Magdeburg, but there is room to dream in the history of science. We can’t say he didn’t. And it’s something he could have done. It’s plausible. Gerbert was about four hundred years  ahead of the contemporary people, scientists and scholars included. Many of them understood that he was really outstanding. He was very respected as pope. I would like to see him sainted, or at least blessed. Abbo was sainted, and Gerbert was better than Abbo.”

If anyone could do it, Sigismondi could. A self-proclaimed “faithful astronomer,” he is equally at home in his astrophysics laboratory and in the Vatican; his university website features a photo of him kneeling before the pope. An eager teacher, he had led me on an enthusiastic all-day tour of Rome, highlighting the priest who was carving a new sun to reconstruct a medieval armillary sphere much like the one Gerbert had made; the Jesuit who had originated the field of astrophysics; the pope who had studied the dimensions of the sun.

The more time I spent with him, the more he seemed like Gerbert himself—Equally in leisure and in work we both teach what we know, and learn what we do not know. Or, perhaps like Gerbert’s beloved friend, the sweet solace of his labor, a man with the same first name: Costantino Sigismondi was Gerbert’s twenty-first century Constantine, who would keep the story of The Scientist Pope alive.

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Song of the Vikings Raffle Winner!

In my March 1 post I offered to raffle off an autographed copy of my book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. To enter, you had to answer the question, Who is the god of Wednesday and what does he have to do with this blog? Explain me to myself, I pleaded. I promised to print the best answers.

Yesterday the names went into a hat and … Congratulations to Scott Isebrand! Scott is a most deserving winner, as you'll see when you read his answer below. There were some other great answers, too. Here are some of my favorites:

"I think you named it God of Wednesday because Odin was the wise, lonely wanderer."

"A storyteller with a wonderful horse... Gotten by quite different means, but I'm sure your horse is no less wonderful."

"You have found a kindred soul in Odin the Wanderer, as you have wandered far to pursue your craft, aided by Thought and Memory."

"I am fairly sure that you would also approve of the label 'the Odinic wanderer,' as you must surely have felt a tie to both Odin and Gandalf while making your treks through Iceland, walking in the here and now of today while seeing and feeling the spirit of northernness and ages long past all around you."

"I think any historian of Iceland and Norse literature is a kindred spirit to Odin, and willing to make sacrifices to gain knowledge."

"While perhaps best known as a battle god, Odin is also a god of inspiration, of poetry, of the bardic arts. It is he who inspires writers, musicians, and poets."

"Your blog is probably named God of Wednesday because you like Odin's attributes. You are a writer of stories that cause us to pause and think deeper about the true knowledge of the past and how it shouldn't be lost for the sake of our future."

"The god of Wednesday is Odin. The best publicist of the god of Wednesday is Snorri. And the best publicist of Snorri is Nancy Marie Brown."

"Odin lives on in western consciousness thanks to Snorri. On Wednesdays, thanks to your efforts, we are all able to channel his wit and bravery."

"Without Snorri, we would know next to nothing about the god for whom Wednesday was named."

"Snorri ensured that the people of the north would inherit a rich tapestry that gives an insight into the minds of our predecessors--treasure worth much more than gold and silver."

"What I didn't know was that Snorri Sturluson was such an influence, if not the outright inventor, of the myths and stories surrounding the Norse gods. You have shown that this is some serious influence. Here is the most fantastic (and totally true) range of his influence. I traded a camera last week to a young Malaysian journalist working in Minnesota. I sent him a link to a story about me and my horse, Draugen. He knew what the name Draugen meant from playing video games. Being a bit older than you, I hadn't thought about the influence of Snorri's writing on this form of entertainment. Can you imagine what Snorri would think of that!"

"The irony that is not lost on me is that what we think we know about what the ancient Norse believed is evidently from the fervent imagination of Snorri Sturluson. Your critical analysis of the debt that western literature in general and Icelandic lore in particular owe to Snorri is well-stated in an entertaining manner. Your blog is the highlight of my Odin's Day!"

And finally, here is Scott Isebrand's tour-de-force:
"The god of Wednesday is Odin;
The Allfather;
Lord of the Æsir;
Foe of frost giants;
Co-killer of Ymir;
Co-maker of Midgard;
Son of Borr and Bestla;
Father of Thor
Bereft of Thor's brother, Baldr;
The avenged by Baldr's brother, Víðar;
First husband of Frigg;
Rider of eight-legged Sleipnir and wielder of straight-shafted Gungnir;
Lord of the golden ring and the far-seeing severed head of Mimir;
Shoulderer of Thought and Memories that fly away, pitch-plumed Hugin and Munin, his two ravens;
Feeder of Greed that flanks him, fiercely fanged Geri and Freki, his two wolves;
The willfully-one-eyed god;
Vegtam the Wanderer;
Hangtyr, god of the hanged;
God of the battle-slain and lord of the flying Valkyries who bear half of them to Valhalla;
Gamer of Gunnlöð;
Sly thief of the blood-born Skalds' Mead that makes men and women into poets;
Wōden of the Angles, Wôdan of the Saxons, Wôtan of the Germans; and, finally, Fenrir's feast.
What does the God of Wednesday have to do with the blogspot-born 'God of Wednesday'?
For without him, there would be no Wednesdays!"

Thanks Scott. Hope you enjoy Song of the Vikings. You made my Wednesday.

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