Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Icelandic Witchcraft

On the way to Strandagaldur, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, I had a panic attack. Getting to our B&B at Kirkjubóll was grueling: in and out of deep fjords, sometimes a paved road, sometimes gravel, sometimes two lanes, sometimes one, wind buffeting our tiny rental car, sun glare, traffic passing, pushing, campers and cars, and a sheer, sheer drop off to the sea far below, without even a white line to mark the edge of the road. It was tiring and took concentration to keep an eye on the road and not be distracted by the striking landscape or be pulled off into the void by that sheer, unmarked edge.

Did I mention I'm afraid of heights?

At a headland I pulled over between two campers (whose drivers were peeing over the edge) and my traveling companion, Jenny, pulled out her handy bottle of Rescue Remedy, a mix of herbs and vodka. Two drops on my tongue did the trick. My hands came uncramped from the wheel. I began to breath again.

Jenny is an herbalist. In Iceland when I introduced her, my friends would nod and whisper among themselves. Suddenly their faces lit up in a smile. "Oh, she's a witch!" And she did cure a little girl of the night terrors by giving her a potion and a posey to put under her pillow. Truly. 

Jenny's also a photographer, trained to see things differently. A perfect person to take to the Westfjords to see the witchcraft museum, someone's brilliant idea to lure tourists to an incredibly bleak part of Iceland with hair-raising roads.

When we reached our night's lodging, Jenny made herb tea from some leaves she picked behind the house. We took a stroll on an arc of black beach into the teeth of the wind, the late evening sun behind a mountain--this was June--bundled up in sweaters and scarves and ear-warmers (we could have used long underwear), singing, and picking up mussel shells, orange scallops, broken conchs, driftwood, feathers, sea urchins, while the arctic terns and oystercatchers and razorbills strafed us, shrieking. Suddenly, I was ecstatic: waves and mountains with snow on them, bird cries, cold. It was magic.

The next morning we drove to the town of Hólmavík in misty low cloud, over a gravel road between banks of old snow--it really was June--and a few brave tussocks of flowering lamb's-grass and bilberry. We passed more black-sand bays littered with driftwood logs. Someone had pulled them from the tide and sorted them by size. Also ropes, nets, pallets, and flat building panels. We passed a road sign that said "I." Jenny decided it meant, not "Information," but "Isolation."

Hólmavík is a very small town, even for Iceland. There's a gas station, a bank, a health clinic, and Strandagaldur, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, which itself is very small but beautifully designed by Árni Páll Johannsson, who also designs movie sets. The exhibits are evocative, the descriptions informative, with a good mix of "wow" displays and deep scholarly stuff (reproductions of manuscript pages, maps, timelines, genealogies).

The English audio-guide took about an hour and focused mostly on who the witches were and why they were singled out. Their stories were well-told: You could draw your own conclusions about their magic powers and were sympathetic to these 20 men and 1 woman who were burned at the stake in the late 1600s for being different. Many were the victims of one rich woman, the sheriff's wife, who accused someone of witchcraft every time she got sick. In another case, the priest was awarded "compensation" for any acts of witchcraft in his parish--meaning he got to confiscate all the witch's property. Quite an incentive to accuse a neighbor of working black magic. I bought the book Angurgapi: The Witch-hunts in Iceland by Magnús Rafnsson to learn more.

Then there's the magic itself, with lots of spells written in runes. I bought a booklet of Love Spells. Here's one:

It says you are supposed to carve this design on a piece of bread and cheese and give it to your beloved to eat. A sure way to his or her heart.

Other spells will make your sheep docile or give them twin lambs, protect them from being drowned in floods or keep foxes away, make fish jump onto your hooks, keep a scythe sharp, and strengthen your rowing or wrestling or grass-mowing skill.

Still other spells will prevent theft, kill an enemy's horse, or just break its leg. To keep visitors away, according to another booklet published by the museum, carve this rune stave 

on a piece of rowan wood when the sun is at its zenith. Walk three times around the house the way the sun turns and three times widdershins (the opposite way) holding the carved rowan stick in one hand and "sharp thorn grass" in the other. Then lay both of them on the gable above your house door.

The rune stave at the head of this blog post, the Helm of Awe or Ægishjálmur, used as the museum's logo, induces fear and protects you against abuses of power--if you carve it in lead and press it on your forehead.

The grisliest (and most popular) magic item on view at the museum was the pair of corpse-skin trousers or "necropants" that promise to make you rich. You can see a video about them here on their website [click here].

Here's how to make them, according to the website--be sure to get permission first!

If  you want to make your own necropants (literally, nábrók), you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after his death. After he has been buried, you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down. As soon as you step into the pants, they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with this magical sign

written on a piece of paper. Consequently the coin will draw money into the scrotum so it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed. 

If you want to go to heaven after you die, however, you have to be sure to pass your necropants on to someone else while you're alive (and still rather flexible): That person has to step into each leg of the skin as soon as you step out of it. The necropants can thus keep a family in riches for generations.

Note that, despite what you might have read elsewhere on the internet (such as at the International Business Times, here), the necropants in the museum are plastic fakes, not "dead human skin on display," as that headline claims. The article itself is clear: "just a replica, according to The Huffington Post." (The headline at HuffPo also screams: "Necropants, Made from Dead Man's Skin…" Told you this was the most popular exhibit.)

The Sorceror's Cottage was a good second act. "Let there be mist and mischief," said a witch from these parts in the most famous of the medieval Icelandic sagas, Njal's Saga. We drove about an hour farther to see the cottage, through mist, on rocky, bumpy, scary roads, and encountered more than enough mischief in the form of a strange knocking sound from beneath our car that sounded like we were dragging a body--but when we stopped to look nothing was there. Might have been a stone in the wheel-well. We hoped so, at least.

The Sorceror's Cottage is a very rough turf-house of the poorest sort, a low-ceilinged, dirty hovel with a pen for the sheep next to two beds for the people. Again, it was very realistically recreated, stocked with 17th-century tools and rough, hooded robes. The curator wisely told us to go through the house twice: look, read the text, then look again. 

When there are more than two tourists, the curator puts on her witch's robe and acts the part. With us she simply shared the story of the three trolls who tried to separate the Westfjords from the rest of Iceland so they could escape the awful ringing of the church bells. She gave us directions to the rock stacks the trolls turned into when the sun rose and caught them at their work. 

We went to find them and had a picnic beside one troll, a tall, black slab of columnar basalt laid up sideways like a stack of firewood, the size of a house but only about 6 feet thick. It stood on a grassy lawn between the swimming pool and some guest cottages at the hamlet of Drangsnes. On the way there we had passed the other two trolls, standing at the tip of a rocky headland with their feet in the sea. 

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A 10th-century Monk in the Caliph's Court

Researching my book The Abacus and the Cross, I discovered several facets of the Viking Age that I hadn't been aware of. One was the intersection of faith and science in Islamic Spain: as I mentioned in last week's blog post, al-Andalus in the 9th and 10th centuries was an amazingly tolerant culture in which learning was prized.

The story of John of Gorze shows just how tolerant it could be.

The story begins with an embassy sent north by the Caliph Abd al-Rahmann III. The Holy Roman Emperor was pleased with the caliph's exotic gifts, but the caliph's letter confounded Otto the Great. Like his peers, the Holy Roman Emperor found Islam incomprehensible. Muslims worshipped the One God. They revered the patriarchs, the Virgin Mary—even Jesus, though they denied he was the Son of God. They “read the Hebrew prophets (or rather, those of the Christians),” noted the 11th-century chronicler Ralph the Bald, “claiming that what they foretold concerning Jesus Christ, Lord of all, is now fulfilled in the person of Muhammad, one of their people.” What could it be, the emperor and his rather narrow-minded counselors asked, but a Christian heresy?

Complicating the emperor’s response even further was the fact that Abd al-Rahman’s ambassador had died. Otto needed a messenger who was tough and expendable. John of Gorze volunteered.

The Life of John, Abbot of Gorze was written between 974 and 984 by a monk to whom he had told his stories. John’s toughness is amply illustrated, as is his narrow-mindedness. John's rich father, nearing ninety, married a young noblewoman; he begat three sons before he died. John was raised to be his father's heir and, as an adolescent, found himself in charge of vast estates.

He managed them well until one day, visiting a nunnery from which he rented a manor, he saw a beautiful girl. Her rosy skin was revealed by the fine garment she wore, but just at her bosom was an ugly tangle of something. Curious (and used to getting his own way), John slipped his hand down her dress. Touching that awful roughness, he began trembling with horror. It was a hair shirt. The girl, blushing, said, “Do you not know that we do not live for this world?”

From then on, John wanted to be a monk, the more ascetic the better. Finding a sufficiently rigorous monastery at Gorze, he donated all his wealth—beggaring his two brothers, who had to become monks as well. He outdid the other monks in depriving himself of food, clothing, baths, soft beds, or comfort of any sort. Finding he enjoyed the study of logic, he vowed to read nothing thenceforth but scripture.

As the emperor’s ambassador, John traveled to Barcelona in 953 with French slave-traders who were ferrying Slavic captives to Cordoba to be sold as eunuchs. He stayed two weeks with Count Borrell, a Christian ally of the caliph’s, who sent a warning south.

Reaching Cordoba, John was stopped two miles from the palace and escorted to a house. There he stayed as a pampered guest for three years—for the contents of Emperor Otto’s letter were known to the caliph, thanks to the count of Barcelona. Though we can only guess at what the emperor said about Islam, it was clearly offensive: According to the laws of al-Andalus, anyone repeating such things about the Prophet Muhammad must be put to death.

Rather than bring things to that extreme, the caliph sent his Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, to explain the problem to John of Gorze. “Our people attest that they have never met nor heard of a wiser man,” says The Life of John. Why not destroy the letter, Hasdai suggested, and just present the emperor's gifts? John refused to disobey the emperor, but suggested that perhaps he should send to Otto asking for new instructions.

The caliph’s Christian vizier, Bishop Racemundo, volunteered to go north. He was “a good catholic,” says The Life of John, with “an important function at court.” He was “perfectly instructed in our culture as well as in that of the Arab language.” He arrived at Gorze in six weeks and rested there until after Christmas, when he was presented to Emperor Otto at Frankfurt.

In Frankfurt, Racemundo met the nun Hrosvit of Gandersheim, then only 15 or 20 years old. She would become well known for her comedies, written in the style of Terence, in which self-confident little Christian girls make fun of the pagan fools who martyr them.

Hrosvit recorded her conversation with Racemundo in a poem about a young Christian killed for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Though her understanding of Islam was warped and her depiction of Abd al-Rahman not complimentary, she does accurately convey Cordoba’s religious tolerance. The caliph issued a pronouncement, she writes, that said: “Whoever so desired to serve the Eternal King,” meaning Christ, “and desired to honor the customs of his sires, might do so without fear of any retribution. Only a single condition he set to be observed, namely that no dweller of the aforesaid city should presume to blaspheme” the prophet Mohammed's name. This was the problem Racemundo had come to Otto’s court to solve.

Racemundo returned to Cordoba in June, bringing a “less severe” letter and instructions from Emperor Otto the Great for John of Gorze to negotiate peace. After three years of waiting, John was brought to the caliph’s palace. The Life of John describes the armed guards along the route: the knights on their fine horses, the scary-looking black soldiers. It notes the precious rugs and tapestries in the palace and, in the throne room, the “extraordinary curtains, which made the walls look sunlit.” As an Arabic writer explains, the walls were paneled with gold and in the middle of the room was a pool of quicksilver—mercury—off which the sunlight bounced. At a sign from the caliph, his slaves would vigorously stir it, setting off lightning flashes that induced vertigo in his terrified petitioners.

Abd al-Rahman, lounging on a divan, offered John a chair and apologized for not seeing him sooner. John praised the caliph for his “constant heart” and “measured wisdom.” They discussed kingship. The caliph said he thought Emperor Otto was imprudent: He gave his underlings too much power—and at that point The Life of John, Abbot of Gorze breaks off.

John returned to Gorze and conveyed these carefully reasoned descriptions of the Jewish vizier Hasdai, the Christian vizier Racemundo, and the Muslim caliph Abd al-Rahman to his biographer. John became abbot in 967 and died in 973.

To learn more about medieval al-Andalus, I recommend The Ornament of the World by Maria Menocal. The title of her book comes from Hrosvit of Gandersheim’s poem about Cordoba.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ornament of the World

Spain doesn't figure much in tales of the Vikings. In The Viking Age: A Reader, which I wrote about in an earlier post (here), you can see why. As one medieval chronicler explains, the Vikings, whom the Moors called "Madjus," "arrived in about 80 ships. One might say they had, as it were, filled the ocean with dark red birds, in the same way as they had filled the hearts of men with fear and trembling. After landing at Lisbon, they sailed to Cadiz, then to Sidona, then to Seville. They besieged this city, and took it by storm…" But their success didn't last.

"When war engines were used against them, and reinforcements had arrived from Cordoba, Madjus [the Vikings] were put to flight. They [the Moors] killed about 500 of their men, and took four of their ships with all their cargoes. Ibn-Wazim had these burnt, after selling all that was found in them. Then they [Madjus] were defeated at Talyata on the 25 Safar of this year [11 Nov 844]. Many were killed, others hanged at Seville, others hanged in the palm trees of Talyata, and 30 of their ships were burnt. Those who escaped from the bloodshed embarked. … and were no more heard of."

It's not surprising the Moors repulsed the Vikings so efficiently, for the Muslim caliphate of al-Andalus was the most technologically advanced civilization in Europe at the time. Arabic numerals, the efficient 1-2-3 that replaced the clumsy i-ii-iii, came to the West from Baghdad through al-Andalus during the Viking Age, along with many other advances in mathematics, astronomy, agriculture--even paper-making.

I learned this when writing The Abacus and the Cross, my biography of the pope who reigned when Iceland was converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Pope Sylvester II may even have corresponded with King Olaf Tryggvason, who is credited with christianizing Norway; early historians write of a letter (now lost) in which the pope told the king to quit using runes.

Born Gerbert of Aurillac in about 950, Pope Sylvester II studied mathematics and astronomy near Christian Barcelona from 967-970. (I think of them as his college years.) He learned about Arabic numerals and used them to create a new kind of abacus, or counting board, with which he later taught arithmetic in the cathedral school at Reims, France.

Curious to know more about what Spain was like when young Gerbert arrived, I turned to a book by Maria Menocal of Yale University: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown 2002). Inspired by what I read, I contacted Menocal and requested an interview. She was then in Spain—I wish I had joined her! Instead, I waited until she returned to Yale University and met her there in January of 2008. I attended a lecture she presented and accompanied her and her graduate students to dinner; the next morning I interviewed her about her work.

A year ago, Maria Menocal died of melanoma []. Remembering her insight and her generosity, I want to share a bit of what she taught me about al-Andalus.

 “Cordoba, by the beginning of the tenth century, was an astonishing place, and descriptions by both contemporaries and later historians suffer from the burden of cataloguing the wonders,” she wrote in The Ornament of the World. It was nearly half as big as Baghdad, the largest city of its day. It held hundreds—maybe thousands—of mosques. Running water from aqueducts supplied nine hundred public baths. The goldfish in the palace ponds ate 12,000 loaves of bread. The paved streets were lit all night. The postal service used carrier pigeons. The munitions factory made 20,000 arrows a month. The market held tens of thousands of shops, including bookshops: Seventy scribes worked exclusively on producing Qurans. The Royal Library in Cordoba, just west of the Great Mosque, was said to contain 400,000 books in 976. (By comparison the greatest Christian library of the time, at Bobbio, Italy, held 690 books.)

Menocal took the title of her book from a poem by the nun Hrosvit of Gandersheim, who met an ambassador from Cordoba in 955 at the German court of Otto the Great. “The brilliant ornament of the world shone in the west,” Hrosvit wrote. “Cordoba was its name and it was wealthy and famous and known for its pleasures and resplendent in all things, and especially for its seven streams of wisdom.”

Significantly, only about 50 percent of Cordoba’s 100,000 residents were Muslim. Among the caliph’s viziers, or advisors, was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was Jewish, and Bishop Racemundo (the ambassador Hrosvit met), who was Christian. The Quran teaches that, since Moses and Jesus had both been given books by God, Jews and Christians were fellow “Peoples of the Book,” and thus to be tolerated. In al-Andalus, Menocal explained, they “were dealt with under the special terms of a dhimma, a ‘pact’ or ‘covenant’ between the ruling Muslims and the other book communities living in their territories.” They were not forced to convert, but could practice their religions—as long as they did so quietly and didn’t proselytize. Other than having to pay taxes—which Muslims did not—they were not excluded from the city’s social or economic life. They could, and did, fight in the army. Depending on the ruler’s interpretation of the law, they could advance to the highest political posts, as Hasdai and Racemundo did.

Lecturing on her work in the faux-Gothic humanities center at Yale University, Menocal marveled at the fact that medieval Spain has suddenly become relevant. “We now inhabit a previously inconceivable universe, a universe in which the study of the history of medieval Spain can shed light on modern political problems. What does al-Andalus mean? It’s either about 'conviviencia' or 'reconquista,' either about how the three Abrahamic religions could coexist or how they could not.”

“The issue that’s interesting in this period,” Menocal told me the next morning, as she bustled about her office grabbing up papers to take to a departmental meeting, “is how one carves out the wherewithal to have the coexistence of three monotheistic religions that are by definition intolerant.

“Islam arises under conditions where they’re a priori already dealing with these two other monotheistic religions,” she continued. “Medina had a huge population of Jews. For whatever reasons—and they are real political reasons—Islam created the dhimma. I think it does translate into something we could call tolerance. It’s discriminatory, but pretty good, especially in comparison with the other possibilities.

“In Spain it was applied generously, and it provided the basis for much more complex forms of cultural interaction.” Arabic was the lingua franca, not just the language of religion. “To Christians, it was fascinating and very attractive to have this language that was flexible enough to write erotic poetry with and to speak to God with. There’s this whole unimaginable universe that being Arabophone gave you access to: poetry, all the scientific translations coming from Baghdad…”

Or, as she wrote in The Ornament of the World, “This was the chapter of Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance.” In al-Andalus, “men of unshakable faith saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.”

It was a powerful combination and produced a civilization to whom an attack of the Vikings was like the descent of a flock of red birds--a flock easily chased away.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Leif Eiriksson Day

Today, October 9, is officially Leif Eiriksson Day, named for the Viking explorer who discovered North America 500 years before Columbus (whose day we celebrate a symbolic three days later). 

Last year, I suggested that today should better be named "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day." Leif happened upon the land he named Vinland by chance in about 999, when he was blown off course traveling between Norway and Greenland. He never went back.

Gudrid, Leif's sister-in-law, packed up and set sail for Vinland twice--with two different husbands. Though the Vinland Sagas, the two medieval Icelandic sagas that tell her story, disagree on the particulars, Gudrid's hand in the preparations each time is clear. As is the fact that she stayed longer than Leif. With her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, Gudrid explored the New World for three winters, giving birth there to her son Snorri. 

But where in North America did Leif--or Gudrid--go? 

Georgia. Or between Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Or New York harbor. Boston, on the Charles River near Harvard University. Rhode Island or Martha’s Vineyard. Cape Cod or the coast of Maine. New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, the St. Lawrence Valley, or back in Greenland. 

All of these places have been suggested in a serious manner between 1757 and today. As the irrepressible BBC television host Magnus Magnusson said at a conference in Newfoundland in 2000, “Enthusiasts have twiddled the texts, selected from the texts, conflated the texts, and compromised the texts in endless attempts to create a coherent story that will ‘prove’ their particular hypothesis. But frankly, the sailing directions which dozens of eager researchers have tried to follow are not much more explicit than the old Icelandic adage for getting to North America: Sail south until the butter melts, and then turn right.” 

Though folklorist Gisli Sigurdsson believes the Vinland sagas hold a coherent “mental map” of Viking explorations along the coast of North America, he concedes that “perhaps the most striking feature of the attempts to locate Vinland is that each and every person to have made one has disagreed with everyone else.”

The sagas say that Vinland is southwest of Greenland. There's a prominent island thick with birds’ nests, a wide shallow bay, a sandy cape, an amazingly long beach somewhere to the north, a river with tidal flats, and a couple of lakes. 

The sagas sometimes tell how long it took to sail from one spot to another, but scholars argue viciously over how to translate “a day’s sail” into a distance. Is a “day” 24 hours? Twelve hours? The time when the sun is up? The Icelandic word (like the English one) is inexact.

A Viking ship can sail as fast as 11 to 13 knots per hour, we know from the voyages of replica ships. It can also lie becalmed and be storm-driven backward. Some scholars take the wind into account. Others note that a cautious captain in an unknown sea with no hope of rescue might care to take his time, while an explorer, by definition, should poke into every interesting cove and bay.

A note on the length of a winter day in The Saga of the Greenlanders has been similarly dissected. It has “proved” that Vinland lay at a latitude of 31 degrees North (as does Jekyll Island, Georgia)—and at 50 degrees North (nearer to L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, where Viking artifacts have been found). The saga says simply: “The length of day and night was more equal than in Greenland or Iceland,” adding that the sun could be seen “during the short days” at eyktarstaður and at dagmalastaður. No one knows if those two terms apply to the places on the horizon where the sun rises and sets, or to times of day.

With the sailing directions and the day length both inscrutable, we are left with the Vikings’ list of Vinland’s riches. The land is called “Wine Land” so often, not only in the sagas but in other sources, that there must have been some berry from which wine could be made; the question of whether wine requires grapes has bedeviled generations of scholars. Although the words usually translated as “wine wood” and “wine berries” refer to grapevines and grapes in modern Icelandic, we can’t be sure they did so in Gudrid’s day. 

A related question is whether the Vin of Vinland has a long or short “i”: vín (long “i”) means wine; vin (short “i”) means meadow. Although most scholars are convinced by linguistic arguments that Vinland is Wine Land not Meadow Land, and that the “Meadow” in the name L’Anse aux Meadows is a corruption of a French word for jellyfish, the other side of the debate still arises. 

The sagas do mention pastures “so rich that it seemed to them the sheep would need no hay all winter. There was no frost in the winter, and the grass hardly withered.” There was also some kind of wild grain that resembled wheat. Eider ducks nested on the offshore islands, whales washed up on the beaches, and fish, including large salmon, could be easily caught. There were bears and foxes and plentiful game. Finally there were mosurr trees “big enough for house timbers.” (Twenty feet would have been tall enough). 

The Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, were discovered in the 1960s. Now, after 40 years of argument and analysis, the experts agree it was a base camp where the Vikings spent the winter after exploring further south. [I wrote about visiting L'Anse aux Meadows on this blog on July 25, 2012.]

Research published in 2013 by archaeologist Kevin Smith proves that the Vikings went from there at least as far as Notre Dame Bay, 143 miles south, where they picked up a piece of jaspar--and may have encountered the Beothuck Indians. As archaeological research has shown, Newfoundland's Notre Dame Bay was home to a dense settlement of Beothuck Indians a thousand years ago. [See my blog post of July 24, 2013.]

In my book The Far Traveler [and on this blog on May 23, 2012], I presented archaeologist Birgitta Wallace's theory--based on her discovery of butternuts in the Viking Age layers of the L'Anse aux Meadows did--that one of the places described in the Vinland Sagas was the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. 

Recently I've heard from two new explorers trying to trace the Vikings' route through North America. 

First is the Fara Heim expedition [] organized by Icelandic-Canadians Johann Straumfjord Sigurdson and David Collette; their expedition's name comes from the Icelandic að fara heim, meaning "to go home." According to their website, Fara Heim will sail from Manitoba, Canada, across Hudson Bay, and through Arctic waters to Greenland and Iceland. Drawing from "historical data, verbal history, community knowledge, and analysis of modern data," they will visit "likely sites" and look for "signs of Norse presence." It's a bit like Helge Ingstad's protocol when he searched for--and found--the Viking ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows. I wish them well.

I've also heard from Donald Wiedman, who blogs at As he writes, "Though interested and intrigued by Denmark and Scandinavia, Donald was/is not on any particular mission to locate the lost Viking settlements in North America--but he’s positive he’s found them." Using Google Satellite and various old maps, he places Vinland in Laval, Quebec, which is in line with the speculations of many Old Norse scholars that any Vikings cruising the Gulf of St Lawrence would have sailed up the St Lawrence River toward what's now Quebec City. 

But, like the Fara Heim sailors, unless Wiedman finds an archeological site with demonstrably Viking artifacts (as at L'Anse aux Meadows), the debate about where the Vikings sailed will go on and on.

Which is why it excites me. Icelandic storytellers kept the knowledge of Vinland alive for 200 years before it was written down in the two Vinland Sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red. These sagas were copied and recopied and come down to us in three manuscripts. The Saga of the Greenlanders takes up two pages in Flateyjarbók, the Book of Flatey, a beautiful manuscript written between 1387 and 1394. The Saga of Eirik the Red appears in two very different versions in Hauksbók, the Book of Haukur (1299-1334), and Skálholtsbók, the Book of Skalholt (written around 1420). 

Six hundred years later, these Icelandic stories are still inspiring explorers and archaeologists. Their authors and editors and copyists should be proud. Today is their day too.

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bewilderment Is Power: S. Leonard Rubinstein (1922-2013)

"Bewilderment is power."

These are the words of S. Leonard Rubinstein, my writing teacher at Penn State University in the late 1970s, my mentor and friend until his peaceful death a few days ago at the ripe old age of 91, and one of a trio of teachers to whom I dedicated my last book, Song of the Vikings.

Bewilderment is power: These are the words that chime in my head every time, like now, I am embarking on the writing of a new book--or any major piece of writing.

Bewilderment is power: Only when you realize you do not understand will you make the effort to understand.

Paired with this powerful aphorism in my mind is another: "Writing is infinitely perfectable." To revise successfully, collaboration is essential. Without criticism from sources, editors, and readers, revision can be endless, and ultimately pointless.

All of Leonard's writing students learned this. They learned that good nonfiction writing was "the painless delivery of information" and that "anything looked at closely enough is interesting." They learned that "we earn belief," that "honesty is a skill," and that writing is "a habit of mind."

I was privileged, however, as a graduate student and employee of Penn State, to produce a half-hour radio series, "Odyssey Through Literature," with Leonard as the host. (Our logo, above, was created by artist Jeffery Mathison.)

Leonard and I recorded 260 "Odyssey Through Literature" radio shows between 1980 and 1998, interviewing writers, translators, and scholars of literature from around the world. A hallmark of the show was to read the works in their original languages (as well as in translation). I became accustomed to hearing what Leonard called "the music of the language" before I knew what the words meant.

The real impact of the show on my education as a writer came after the actual interview. As the producer, I had to listen to each tape over and over again to edit it down from the recorded 50 minutes or more to our 28-minute airtime. Doing so lodged snatches of poems and prose permanently in my brain, along with the voice of the person who read it on the air. For instance:

--The apparition of these faces in the crowd: petals on a wet black bough.
(Ezra Pound, read by Peter Schneeman)

--Who were these people? And who finished them to the last? If dust had an alphabet, I would learn.
(Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet)

--We rode the low moon out of the sky, our hooves drummed up the door.
(Rudyard Kipling, read by Jorge Luis Borges)

--I am the exile, the wanderer, the troubadour (whatever they say)
(Dennis Brutus, an exiled South African poet)

--The bud is the emblem of all things, even of those things that don’t flower. For everything flowers, from within: of self-blessing.
(Galway Kinnell)

--My ancestor, a man of Himalayan snow, came to Kashmir from Samarkand, carrying a bag of whalebones, heirlooms of sea funerals.
(Shahid, again)

--“Haere mai, mokopuna,” she would say. And I would always go with her, for I was both her keeper and her companion. I was a small boy; she was a child too, in an old woman’s body.
“Where are we going today, Nanny?” I would ask. But I always knew.
“We go down to the sea, mokopuna, to the sea…”
(Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, read by Murray Martin)

Working with Leonard on "Odyssey Through Literature" convinced me that all literature, all good writing, is meant to be read aloud: that the sound of the words is as important as their dictionary meaning and cannot be divorced from that meaning. It made me conscious in my own writing of rhythm and rhyme, alliteration and assonance. It made me punctuate musically. It made me take care that the words I chose fit both the sound and the sense of what I wanted to say.

In 2007, many years after our radio program ended and I had moved away, I received a thank-you letter from Leonard: "Slowly, in the course of transforming 'Odyssey Through Literature' cassettes into CDs, I realize how much I owe you for bringing so many accomplished people to sit across the table from me. In short, I thank you for my education."

I hope Leonard knew, when I dedicated Song of the Vikings to him in 2012 (for which he also, gracious as ever, sent me a thank-you letter), that I thanked him for my education.

Some people say writing can't be taught. I think the many students of S. Leonard Rubinstein who are now professional writers would agree with me that it can.

Click here to read Leonard's obituary. 

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