19.02.08 Egeler, Islands in the West

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William Sayers

The Medieval Review 19.02.08

Egeler, Matthias. Islands in the West: Classical Myth and the Medieval Norse and Irish Geographical Imagination. Medieval Voyaging (MV 4). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. pp. xii, 355. ISBN: 978-2-503-56938-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Sayers
Cornell University

The aim of this thorough study is "to illuminate the history of...places of the imagination which the hopes and fears of the Norse of the Viking Age located in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic: the "Wine-Land," Vinland; the "Land of White Men," Hvitramannaland; and, especially, the "Shining Fields" and the "Field of Immortality," the Glæsisvellir and the Ódáinsakr (1-2). The history of the motifs that characterize these mythic locations is traced from Scandinavia via Ireland to Roman and Greek antiquity, and thence to Egypt, Israel, and Mesopotamia. Thus, the study moves backward in time through chapters roughly centered on each of these cultural ports of call. For this belief in a transmarine paradise, the focus is less on roots or a single pedigree than on "the complex stratigraphy of intercultural processes of exchange and adaptation" (8). The author generally eschews theory in favor of answering specific historical questions, although he is also at some pains to develop a hermeneutics, typology, and terminology to describe accurately different forms of religious contact.

Chapter 1, "North-Western Europe: Scandinavia, Ireland, and the Land of the Living," reviews the otherworld islands of precocious medieval Irish literature, e.g.The Voyage of Bran, with due consideration of the influence of the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, which was seamlessly conjoined with native tradition. Some claims here may seem too bold, for instance, that "all the basic elements of the description of the Paradise in the sea in the Voyage of Saint Brendan...are derived from the two biblical accounts of Paradise" (46). Egeler convincingly shows how the medieval Norse drew on these conceptions in their own view of the Western Ocean, its challenges and promises. Inherent in the elaboration of his argument is the understanding of Vinland as "Wine-Land" but this is the sea-dark wine of antiquity, not the product of New Brunswick's wild (and eventually sour) grapes. In this discussion Egeler usefully recalls to our attention lesser known Norse texts from the "sagas of olden times" (fornaldarsögur) and folk traditions that feature fields of the undead, far in register from the sagas of Icelanders.

Chapter 2, "The Classical Mediterranean: Rome, Greece, and the Islands of the Blessed," leapfrogs eastward back to the Homeric epics. The juxtaposition of Connlae and Calypso comes abruptly. Egeler traces the most celebrated Mediterranean paradise islands up to Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with a welcome inclusion of Etruscan evidence, however difficult of interpretation. Here the association with religious belief and ritual praxis is most convincingly established, although to a great extent in the sphere of funeral culture. In Chapter 3, "Eastern Roots?," source material becomes fragmentary but Greek thought is, in its turn, represented as fertilized by more archaic cultures such as the Minoan, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian. Here, the book's entry into debate over a range of scholarly text-specific questions rather loosens the tie to the imagined isles of the Atlantic. Chapter 4, "Continuity, Interaction--and Westward Expansion?" addresses the vital question of whether all that has been studied before can be put under the rubric of continuity. Here the author is concerned with the types and mechanisms of religious contact, although we should expand the latter to include less fraught, more simple story-telling. The inquiry, with perhaps too many flashbacks to, and summaries of, previous chapters, quickens with a consideration of the possible movement from imagination to action: whether speculation on the fabled Isles of the West actually stimulated Norse expansion westward into the North Atlantic. Or were these traditions simply a source for Erik the Red's promotion of real estate development in Greenland? This said, the chapter could well stand alone as the cautious reader's introduction to the book as a whole. In a concluding appendix Egeler addresses the spatiality of geographical myth and observes how mythological places become localized in real-world landscapes, as residents co-opt mythological tradition to enhance their own lives and habitats. Michel Foucault's conception of heterotopias has prompted a search for literary manifestations of homotopias, what one might call "just so" communities. On a broad scale Iceland's self-construction and promotion vis à vis Scandinavia and Europe, warts and all, certainly qualifies.

Despite its backward progression, Egeler's disarticulated historical argument is so well documented and executed that there can be little doubt of the movement of successive notions of insular paradises from east to west in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. One might even call this movement heliotactic. Egeler provides detailed accounts of a great number of literary works but in the examination of these sources--complete with overly long plot summaries--much of the vitality of individual works is lost as considerations of individual themes are forgone in favor of the detail of motif, the islands in the west. More attention to what seems a very fundamental human attraction to the insular, a self-contained, amnesiac world capable of providing both security and fortune, would have enhanced this study. Certainly, the elusive goal of the insulated utopia has a long-life in western tradition.

Some points of detail. The miraculous Atlantic islands of Irish tradition have a native antecedent in the Netherworld, to which the defeated Túatha dé Danann were relegated after their war with the invading Milesians. After an act of eminent domain, the subterranean realm was appropriated for the Christian Hell and the defeated race of sorcerers was moved into the Otherworld of hills and tumuli as síd-dwellers, later to lacustrine islands and eventually to the ocean islands, which are then overtaken in turn by Christian ideological expansionism and invested with a symbolisn compatible with Christian doctrine. In the discussion of islands known to Irish and Norse traditions, e.g., the Land of Women, Land of the White(-Robed) Men, Egeler does not explore the interplay of the near-homophones, Irish ban "woman" and bán "white," in particular as this might register in the ear of a viking resident in Ireland. The author fails to note that the "islands of the living" off the Cornish coast on the Hereford map (307-308) occupy the real-world situation of the Scilly Islands. Can the idea of silly ( Old English sǣlig, "blessed") have been active here? More generally, some discussion of sex roles, more explicitly, what women signify in the Fortunate Isles, would have been welcome.

Some observations on valence may be ventured. The prestige associated with early or neighboring cultures can also have been a factor in the assumption of their notions of blessed isles. Yet a concept borrowed or inherited from the religious beliefs of one culture need not have entered a new community as expressly religious, although it might acquire such status when fully incorporated in the recipient culture. Thus, while we may well speak of continuity, for any one motif we must imagine the possibility of an oscillating movement on the scale of importance, as the paradise isles move among cultures, and cultures among them.

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