Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Viking Art of Poetry

One thing I love about Iceland is how alive the medieval world remains. City streets, candy bars, and beers are named for Norse gods and saga heroes. Ordinary Icelanders--in this case a civil engineer--can teach an expert in Old Norse literature (me) something about Viking poetry.

What are the "songs" in Song of the Vikings? When I talk about the book, I try to explain that Vikings were not only fierce warriors, they were very subtle poets. Because of the work of Snorri Sturluson and his followers, we know the names of over 200 Viking skálds. We can read hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill 1,000 two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking Age. 

The big surprise is how much they adored poetry--and how hard they worked at it.

I burned seaweed on the beach. 
I flung kelp to the red flame. 
Strong, thick smoke began to reek. 
That was a short time ago. 
--an anonymous 11th-century verse translated freely by Roberta Frank.

Skaldic poetry is a sophisticated art. The rules are more convoluted than those for a sonnet or haiku. In the most common form, a stanza had eight lines. Each line had six syllables and three stresses. The rhythm was fixed, as were the patterns of rhyme and alliteration. 

The music of a line was of utmost importance--these poems really were "songs," even though we don't know if they were "sung" or chanted or just recited. A skaldic poem was designed to please the ear. It was first a sound-picture, though in a great poem sound and meaning were inseparable. 

The steed runs in the gloaming,
famished, over long paths.
The hoof can wear out the ground
that leads to houses--we have little daylight.
Now the black horse carries me over streams,
distant from Danes.
My swift one caught his leg
in a ditch--day and night converge.
--by Sighvatr Þórðarson, c. 1035, translated by Peter Foote and David M. Wilson.

A skaldic poem was a cross between a riddle and a trivia quiz. Each half-stanza of a poem contained at least two thoughts. These could be braided together so that the listener had to pay close attention to the grammar (not the word order) to disentangle subject, object, and verb. The riddle entailed disentangling the interlaced phrases so that they formed two grammatical sentences. 

The quiz part was the kennings. Nothing was stated plainly. Why call a ship a ship when it could be “the otter of the ocean"? Snorri Sturluson defined kennings in his Edda, which he wrote as a handbook on Viking poetry. “Otter of the ocean” is a very easy one. As Snorri explained, there are three kinds of kennings: “It is a simple kenning to call battle ‘spear clash’ and it is a double kenning to call a sword ‘fire of the spear-clash,’ and it is extended if there are more elements.” 

The king gives currents of yeast
--that is what I judge ale to be--to men
Men’s silence is dispelled by surf
--that is old beer--of horns.
The prince knows how speech’s salvation
--that is what mead is called--is to be given.
In the choicest of cups comes
--this is what I call wine--dignity’s destruction.
--Snorri Sturluson, c. 1220-41, translated by Anthony Faulkes.

Kennings are rarely so easy to decipher as these. Most kennings refer—quite obscurely—to pagan myths, which is why Snorri filled his Edda with stories of gods and giants. He knew that once these stories were forgotten, Viking poetry would die.

When I lecture on Song of the Vikings, I like to use an example from the book Snorri Sturluson and the "Edda" by Kevin Wanner, a professor at Western Michigan University. Wanner gives this literal prose translation of one of Snorri’s own verses: 

The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the steep brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the worm; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.

Who is the hater of the fire of the sea? Who is the enemy of the wolf? Who is the friend of Mimir? What does it all mean? As Wanner notes, you need to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or the poem is nonsense. Take away all the kennings, and the poem means simply, “A good king defends and keeps his land.” But then you lose all the poetry.

Kennings were the soul of skaldic poetry. Roberta Frank, in her book Old Norse Court Poetry, speaks of the “sudden unaccountable surge of power” that comes when she finally perceives in the stream of images the story they represent.

For example, here is "the enemy of the wolf": Odin, fighting the giant wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok, in an illustration by Deborah Hardy from 1909.

Kennings also make the music--the song--of skaldic poetry. With infinite ways of saying the same thing--"A good king defends and keeps his land."--the rules for rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration become, not restrictions, but spurs or challenges. They are the medium of the poet's art. 

They are also what's first lost when a skaldic poem is translated. There are no songs, no music in Song of the Vikings because I wrote only in English, not in Old Norse. And there is no music (or at least a very different, modern music) in the translations of skaldic poems I've included here. Unless you hear the poem read in Old Norse, you're not hearing a Viking song.

Last May, I learned in the usual serendipitous way how to explain what was missing. I had gone to a symposium at Oddi, site of the school where Snorri Sturluson studied skaldic poetry and began collecting it. On the way home I shared a two-hour car ride with the civil engineer and former member of parliament Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, his son, and two friends, one of whom was a retired economist. To pass the time, the civil engineer and the economist engaged in a verse-capping contest: One recited the first lines of a poem, the other had to finish, or cap, it by reciting the next lines. (Icelanders from all walks of life still enjoy poetry.) 

So that I would not feel left out, Guðmundur attempted the same game with me, using lines from Shakespeare. He knew a lot more Shakespeare by heart than I did. 

Seeing that this attempt to entertain me had failed, and knowing that I had written about Snorri Sturluson, Guðmundur turned the conversation to skaldic verse. He wrote out on the back of an envelope some English poems composed by an Icelander, Sigurður Norland, to explain the complicated verse structure. Here is one of them:

Free your heart where fountains boil
from the dart of sorrow
Long apart from loathful toil
Live for art tomorrow.

Guðmundur read it aloud, accentuating the stresses: FREE your HEART … He circled every "f" in the first two lines and every "l" in the second two to explain the pattern of alliteration. He underlined the end rhymes (boil, toil) and internal rhymes (heart, dart, apart, art). 

As poetry, it was insipid--all sound, no sense, no kennings (unless you can count "dart of sorrow"). But as a lesson in poesy it was sublime. I took the envelope home as a souvenir.

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Einar Kárason's Skáld

In May I had lunch with the Icelandic novelist Einar Kárason. His uncle introduced us, knowing we both had published books about the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, mine nonfiction (Song of the Vikings) and Einar's fiction (Skáld).

I'd heard about Einar's book. You won't like it, my Icelandic friends had warned. His Snorri is not your Snorri. Snorri Sturluson is not the main character in Skáld, but much in the shadow of his nephew, Sturla Thordarson. If you've read Song of the Vikings, you'll know I never much cared for that nephew.

Sturla wrote part of Sturlunga Saga and The Saga of King Hakon, our only direct sources of information about Snorri's life. As I wrote in Song of the Vikings, "In neither book does Snorri come off well; no one knows what grudge the nephew held to portray his uncle so poorly. Unhelpfully, Sturla’s two sagas also contradict each other."

It's the mark of a great novelist that he or she can change your mind. Having now read Einar's Skáld, I feel quite differently about Sturla. Think of what Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell's reputation in Wolf Hall. Einar Kárason's Skáld does the same for Sturla Thordarson.

I'm not ready to call Sturla a better writer than Snorri Sturluson. And I still feel Sturla (and Einar) portrayed Snorri poorly. But now I understand why Sturla wrote the way he did. I understand the conflicts he was dealing with, the encroachments of the world, the desires and threats, the yearning for peace and quiet and an unending supply of parchment, the loves and hates and little acts of friendship that motivated him, his ambition, his ego, his inadequacies, his grudge. In Skáld, Snorri's nephew becomes real.

It's fiction. Don't forget that. Einar, as a novelist, has a license I did not when writing Song of the Vikings. Einar can--and does--stretch the facts, make leaps of interpretation, draw conclusions that don't hold up to scholarly investigation. It's fiction.

And yet…

The Saturday after our lunch date, I heard Einar give a lecture. I could not follow all of it--I understand written Icelandic much better than spoken. But Einar also gave me a copy of an article he had written in Skirnir, the journal of the Icelandic Literary Society.

He was arguing that Sturla Thordarson also wrote Njal's Saga, the best of the Icelandic sagas, widely acknowledged a masterpiece of world literature, the first saga I had read and the one that (along with Snorri's Edda) had inspired me to devote my life to Icelandic literature.

In Skirnir, Einar goes to great pains to point out that other people have had this idea before him. Other scholars have pointed out the many similarities between Njal's Saga and those in Sturlunga Saga: similarities in names, in the way characters are introduced, in whole scenes (the burning of Njal, the burning of Flugumyri). To these Einar added similarities in style, in pacing and structure, and most of all, in voice.

Lecturing, Einar is very dramatic. His expressions are exaggerated, his gestures wide. He stamps back and forth before the podium in his motorcycle boots. He runs his fingers through his long, graying hair. He's a big man. His voice booms. Writing in the journal Skirnir, he borrows some of that bombast.

In Skáld, he is very subtle. The story builds slowly, told through many different voices. It's not a long book. But no one knows better than a novelist that by making it real, by bringing Sturla Thordarson to life as the author of all these works, Einar has made his case.

Once you have fully imagined Sturla engaged in composing Njal's Saga--by reading Einar Kárason's Skáld--it's hard to go back to thinking it's only a theory.

Skáld, I'm sorry to say, is currently available only in Icelandic. You can order it from the publisher, Forlagid, here:

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Purple Parchment and the Cave of Smoo

In the year 997, the excommunicated archbishop of Reims sent the Holy Roman Emperor a kingly gift: a copy of Boethius's On Arithmetic written in gold and silver inks on purple parchment. It had the desired effect. As I wrote in The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, my biography of that archbishop, the 17-year-old emperor summoned Gerbert of Aurillac to court with the plea, "Pray explain to us the book on arithmetic." Archbishop Gerbert became the emperor's tutor, friend, counselor--and ultimately, through the emperor's influence, Pope Sylvester II, the pope of the Year 1000.

Earlier in this blog, I described how parchment and ink were made in the Middle Ages. (See "How to Make a Medieval Book, Part I" and "How to Make a Medieval Book, Part II.")

But purple parchment? How did they color the parchment purple? I hadn't given that much thought.

Then the other day, researching something quite unrelated--the Viking settlements in northern Scotland--I stumbled upon the answer.

In 1992, a team of archaeologists led by Tony Pollard excavated four neighboring caves in a narrow inlet in Sutherland, one being the famous Smoo Cave. (See the great website, from which these photos of the cave were taken, at In 2005, Pollard posted their report online at

"Smoo" comes from the Old Norse word smuga, which Cleasby-Vigfusson, the classic Old Icelandic dictionary, defines as "a narrow cleft to creep through, a hole." The related verb is smjúga, "to creep through a hole" of which the past tense is smaug. Bells are now going off in the heads of all Tolkien readers--but I won't be following that digression any farther.

Back to Smoo Cave. Surprisingly, I had visited the cave in 1995. Two balding Scotsmen with rat tails and earrings took me on a river raft under a low stone arch, across a pool into which a sun-sparkled waterfall fell. In the dark cave, it was a real surprise. We disembarked in the dry inner reaches of the cave and had a geology lesson. The outer, larger cavern was made by the sea: the hole, wider at the bottom than the top, is a blowhole. The inner caverns were made by an underground river that feeds from a large lake. The waterfall only runs when there’s been rain—today’s fall is last night’s rain.

As Pollard points out, Smoo Cave has been a tourist attraction since at least the early 1700s. One practical-minded traveler described it as "stretching pretty far underground with a natural vault above." Inside, "there is room enough for 500 men to exercise their arms." (I'm imagining jumping jacks here--but maybe he means to practice their shooting?) There's "a harbor for big boats" at the cave's mouth, a pool full of trout, and "a spring of excellent water."

Earlier visitors also valued the cave for its usefulness--not its surprising bright waterfall. Pollard and his crew of archeologists found signs that Vikings had used Smoo Cave as a fishing camp, as well as a place to sit out a storm and repair a boat. They may have stopped here on their way from the Orkney Islands to Dublin. They butchered animals and cooked them. They ate dried fish they'd brought with them. They ground grain. They carved pins and knife handles and other useful objects out of antler and bone.

But the most interesting thing the Vikings did at Smoo and its neighboring caves was collect and crack open whelks. These were not just any whelks, but Nucella lapillus, also known as Purpura lapillus, the source since antiquity of a purple dye. These whelks are not edible, and they were not used as fish bait, Pollard says. "It is clear that purple dye was being extracted from the shells recovered from the cave."

The whelks, Pollard writes, "had been split from the second and third whorl and also split from the shoulder to the base.... This would have facilitated the removal of the animal from its shell to extract the ink."

In 1895, archaeologists found "Purpura-mounds" in Connemara, Ireland. The shells in the mounds had been broken exactly like those in Smoo Cave, though in Ireland there were many more of them. One heap measured 165 by 45 feet. In one square foot, the researchers counted two hundred whelks. Purpura-mounds have also been found in Cornwall, England, but Smoo Cave is the first record from Scotland, although the whelk is common there.

To learn how to make the dye known as Tyrean purple, Pollard refers the reader to the 1919 book, Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture by J.W. Jackson. Like Pollard's own report, Jackson's book is available online. (Historical research is so easy these days!)

Jackson, in turn, cites the first-century Roman writer Pliny to explain that "the precious liquid was obtained from a transparent branching vessel behind the neck of the animal and that at first the material was of the colour and consistency of thick cream."

Several kinds of whelks produced purple dye. Small ones were smashed together in a mortar; if large, "the animal was taken out entire, usually by breaking a hole in the side of the shell, and the sac containing the colouring matter was taken out, either while the animal was still alive, or as soon as possible after death, as otherwise the quality of the dye was impaired." The sacs were salted, allowed to sit for three days, then boiled and frequently skimmed. Exposed to the sun, the fluid (smelling like garlic) slowly changed color, from creamy to yellow, green, blue, and finally a purplish red. After ten days, the dye was ready to use.

To dye wool, a clean fleece was dunked into the boiling dye pot and left to soak for five hours. It was taken out, cooled, and the wool plucked off and carded, only to be "thrown in again, until it had fully imbibed the colour" (still smelling like garlic--one reason the wearers of royal purple robes wore so much perfume, suggests Jackson). It took between one and two pounds of liquid dye to color a half-pound of yarn.

To turn parchment purple, Jackson says, the dye was used as a paint, applied with a brush. The "magnificent and expensive style of writing" on purple parchment with gold and silver inks was mostly confined to sacred texts. Jackson cites an English Bible and a Gospel book, another book of the Gospels commissioned by Louis the Pious, king of France from 814 to 840, and a Book of Prayers, "bound in ivory and studded with gems" owned by his son, King Charles the Bald.

It's significant that Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become "The Scientist Pope," owned a mathematical treatise made in this "magnificent" style. The book still exists in the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg in Germany, where it is catalogued as MS Bamberg Class. 5 (HJ.IV.12), but we don't know how it came into Gerbert's possession. Like the gem-studded prayer book, On Arithmetic was commissioned by King Charles the Bald in about 832. But the dedicatory verses apply equally to the young emperor Otto III as to King Charles, and scholars long thought Gerbert (known as a poet) had written them. Otto III may have thought so too, for he answered the gift with a verse.

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Gift of Kindness

Kindness is the name of my mare, Gaeska in Icelandic. In my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I wrote about going to Iceland and buying her and my gelding, Birkir, in 1997, but I didn't write about the surprise Gaeska brought home: a foal.

The day my two horses were to be released from quarantine, I got a phone call from Gaeska's breeder. It was early in the morning, and we spoke Icelandic, as she and I mostly had with each other. But now I was out of practice and found it a lot harder to understand. She was asking something about Gaeska. "Yes," I said, "she made it to New York. She gets out of quarantine today."

"You must have her checked. You should have them sprauta her at the quarantine center if you can."

"Oh yes, I'm sure they check her for everything." I didn't know what sprauta meant, so I ignored it.

"Well she can be fine and have a foal in her at the same time! We're very sorry about it. We'll pay what it costs to have it done, but you have to do it soon or it's bad for Gaeska. We were so surprised when the vet called and asked if we still needed that appointment. We'd completely forgotten Gaeska was one of those mares."

She rattled on and on. I was taking deep breaths and trying to calm down. I'd never owned a horse before and was still working out the details of barn design and hay delivery and vets and shoeing. Now I had to learn to raise a foal?

Photo by Gerald Lang and Jennifer Anne Tucker

A week before I came to Skagafjord, the breeder said, there'd been a big horse show a few miles away from the farm. The family had ridden to the show, one of them taking Gaeska. She'd been pastured with the other mares. One night, a stallion broke loose and jumped the fence. He spent the night with the mares. "It was all a terrible accident," the breeder said. The vet was checking all 20 mares that had been in the pasture and would sprauta any that were pregnant in order to abort the foals.

"Who was the stallion?" I asked. "Why do you need to abort the foals?" This was Skagafjord, after all. I began thinking about the famous stallions that could have been at that horse show.

"It was not a good stallion," she said, "not an evaluated stallion, just some farmer's riding horse." There was nothing wrong with the stallion. He was pretty, a chestnut, five-gaited, five years old. But horse breeding in Iceland is highly scientific. Breeding horses are evaluated on 10 points of conformation and 10 tests of ability under saddle. A stallion who scores less than a total of 8 out of 10 is gelded--he has no future as a stud in a land with hundreds of "first prize" stallions.

Not to mention that raising a foal is expensive. Icelandic horses aren't trained to ride until they are four or five years old--which means you pay to feed them for four years before you even know if you have a good riding horse. Gaeska's breeder sounded astonished that I would even consider raising what she called "a worthless foal" by an unrated stallion.

The vet where I boarded the mare when she came out of quarantine made the decision for me. "I don't do that," she said, with extreme distaste. She refused to even do a pregnancy test when she knew I was considering aborting the foal.

I conferred with Anne Elwell, a longtime breeder of Icelandic horses in New York, who assured me it was "not a problem." She doubted the pregnancy would take, the mare was under such stress--taken from her farm, put on an airplane, hustled through quarantine--all within three weeks of being bred. It's hard to bring foals over in utero when you want to, she said. And, in any case, Icelandics don't generally need any help foaling, so if she was pregnant I needn't worry. "Feed the mare well, she'll take care of the foal. You can ride her until she waddles."

Two months later, when I brought Gaeska closer to my home, I had my own vet check her. "She's about three months," she said. She looked surprised at the expression on my face. "You were expecting me to say that, weren't you?" She laughed as I told her the story. "Had a little fling, eh girl?" she said, petting the mare. "You were mad they were going to sell you, weren't you? You said, 'I'll show them. I'll take a little bit of Iceland with me!' "

Sometimes, even in horsebreeding, you get lucky. Gaeska foaled with no problem. Her colt, Elvar, was as we say "a pistol." The first thing he did was stick his head in the water bucket and shake all the water onto the floor. At a week old, he began to snort and whinny back to his mother. He also discovered the canter, and began rocketing around the paddock. When I scrubbed algae out of the water tub, he came over and stuck his nose in the bucket of soap suds. He did the same when I held a halter under his nose, and let me slip it on him with no effort.

I knew I couldn't keep him. Icelandics need to grow up in a herd. So when he was weaned, I found Elvar a foster-home in Canada. Soon after that, the herd was broken up; Elvar (with my approval) and several other horses were sold to someone who wanted to start an Icelandic horse farm of their own, and I lost touch with Gaeska's foal for several years. I often wondered how he was doing--if he was "worthless" after all.

Enter Facebook. Early in 2012, browsing among Icelandic horse friends and friends-of-friends, I saw a photo of a very shaggy, dark-bay Icelandic horse being ridden in the snow. It looked amazingly like Gaeska. The caption read, "Another beautiful day to ride! Me and Elvar, better known as 'the big comfy couch.'" The rider was Wendy Sheppard-Horas. I checked the transfer papers--yes, I had sold Elvar to Wendy Horas, now the proud owner of OnIce Horse Farm (Ontario Icelandic Horse Farm). I contacted her and was delighted to learn that Elvar was "the best horse in the world. You can ask him to do anything and he will! He is the most respectful horse I know. I wish I had a dozen of him… He is a very big part of our farm."

More photos of Elvar appear on the OnIce Horse Farm Facebook page: One shows Elvar lying down in the snow with a young girl sitting on him--no saddle, no bridle, she's not riding him, just sitting on him like he was a couch. A big comfy couch, indeed! The caption: "Sydney on Elvar. It really doesn't matter to him … he is so easy going."

It gets better. This week Sydney Horas is representing Canada as a youth rider in the Icelandic Horse World Championships in Berlin, Germany. I like to think that having a horse like Elvar to grow up riding had something to do with Sydney's success as an equestrienne. Please pardon me if I root for Canada when she is on the track.

You can follow the Icelandic Horse World Championships on Facebook at Islandpferde-WM 2013 or on the web at or find results on the FEIF website.

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