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22.03.02 Glauser/Hermann (eds.), Myth, Magic, and Memory in Early Scandinavian Narrative Culture

22.03.02 Glauser/Hermann (eds.), Myth, Magic, and Memory in Early Scandinavian Narrative Culture

The 26 studies collected in this volume are an international tribute to the honorand’s wide range of contributions to the study of Viking, medieval and early modern Scandinavian cultural traditions, both their continuity through time and their continuous creativity. The essays are organized into four interlinked subsections on myth and legend, magic and folklore, memory and reception, and influence and interaction, concluding with a select bibliography of Steve Mitchell’s own publications and a Tabula Gratulatoria of 109 personal and institutional admirers. There are 36 illustrations, 5 tables, no general index to the volume’s contents, but readers should find it fairly easy to locate discussion of particular texts and topics in the Table of Contents.

In Part I on Myth and Legend, John Lindow considers “Same Place, Different Time: Temporal Aspects of Imagined Landscapes in Some Northern Contexts.” He begins and ends with the creation of the world in one version of the eddic poem Völuspá ‘The Sibyl’s Vision’, in which we learn that there was a giant in “the world before the world,” one whose aboriginal murder by the gods can still be seen in the “lived landscape” before our very eyes (29). The earth is his flesh, his skull the sky, his brains the clouds, his hair the trees and grass; rivers and seas are his flowing blood. This our home, a place from the ancient past where we still live out our lives in an endless round of day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, creation and destruction.

Jens Peter Schødt writes on “Jarl, Konr, and Óðinn in Rígsþula [‘The List of Rígr’],” an eddic poem of uncertain date, provenance and even completeness. He argues for an identification of its protagonist not as the watchman god Heimdallr, as in the headnote to the sole manuscript version, but as the All-Father Óðinn who was known in pre-Christian times as the physical progenitor not only of noble and royal families, but also (apparently) of all orders of human society as well.

Carolyne Larrington and Judy Quinn contribute, “‘I remember giants’: Mythological Remembering through Völuspá.” Here, the völva ‘seeress’, an ancient giantess conjured to consciousness by Óðinn, offers the All-Father an unsettling vision of the end of days. Her timeless feminist epistemology subverts the cosmic patriarch’s presentist desire for masculine control, “for just as she memorializes the distant past, she remembers the future” (61).

In “On Rereading Oddrúnargrátr [‘Lament of Oddrún’],” Joseph Harris writes on another eddic poem voiced by a female character in which he appreciates, but qualifies the “sociological” interpretation of the poem offered by Judy Quinn. The speaker’s plight, comparable to that expressed in the Old English “Wife’s Lament,” is lightened at the end in Harris’s “sub-reading” (66) by the potent midwifery with which the miserable Oddrún manages to unblock Borgny’s birth of twin children.

Lukas Rösli offers “The Agency in För Scírnis [‘Skírnir’s Journey’]--Subjects, Objects, and Différance: A Subversive Reading.” He concludes that the giantess Gerðr, who seems to succumb to Skírnir’s bullying “hate speech” as a victimized “object” of his master Freyr’s sexual importunity, actually emerges as the true “subject and even a superior character in the poem” (82). Rösli bases this reading on the abbreviated remarks and final silence of Skírnir in the oldest known manuscript, suggesting the male messenger’s increasing insecurity and desperation, and revealing by contrast the reserved dignity and quiet authority of the giantess who gets the very “last word in this conversation” (88).

Richard Cole returns to the same poem under its other title in “The Threat of Induced Desire in Skírnismál [‘Lay of Skírnir’],” finding Gerðr indeed to be a victim “on the sharp end of a hegemony” (105), but one who contemplates her choices in a self-aware cost-benefit analysis: “She does not make the small part of her that wants the taste of honey into something extraneous to herself, even while she prioritizes her other desires” (104). Yet Skírnir’s intensifying threats change her calculus, inducing Gerðr to choose not the lesser of two evils, but the lesser of two goods, biding her time until the giants avenge her at Ragnarök.

Part II on Magic and Folklore begins with Maria Tatar’s “Enchantments, Spells, and Curses: The Sorcery of Stories and the Magic in Them,” a warm evocation of the world-shaping potency of oral-traditional tales.

Merrill Kaplan offers “Trolls in the Mill: The Supernatural Stakes of Waterpower” in Norwegian and Swedish folklore, noting that there are two types of haunting in these old mills, the first reflecting their economic function, requiring “reciprocal relationships within the workplace” for their resolution (139); the second reveals the mill as an interface between the human world and “the wild” (138), manifesting the “extra-social forces” of nature (139).

Joseph Falaky Nagy follows “A Prophylactic Pig, a Long-Lost Hunter, and the Recording of Oral Tradition” in medieval Irish and Welsh narratives. He finds that the ferocious wild boar or mucc shláng(h)a ‘pig of health’ figures a greedy or sinful king in these archaic Celtic tales. The true king must obtain from this monster the roast pork required for feasting the followers that he liberates during course of the hunt or recover from between its ears the sharp implements necessary to cut their hair in a bonding ceremony that will confirm both his “loyalty down” and their trusting entry into mature adulthood under his leadership.

Sarah Künzler contemplates “A Male Cinderella and a Sea-Serpent’s Teeth: Scandinavian Echoes in an Orkney Folk-Tale.” This is the story of Assipattle, who manages to overcome “the muckle mester stoor worm [very big huge serpent]” (159). The dirty, unpromising “runt of the litter” is comparable to the Grimm brothers’ female Aschenputtel; the “stoor worm” is modeled on the Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology. In its death agony, the giant dragon drops its teeth into the sea, the first set becoming the Orkney Islands, the next the Shetlands, then the Faroes, with its dead body falling as Iceland “with the liver still blazing beneath its burning mountains” (168).

Terry Gunnell interprets an “Axe on the Water: A Unique Magical Ritual in Ljósvetningasaga.” This account involves, like other performances of sympathetic magic, the ritual inversion or disruption of the natural order of things, designed to split open ordinary relations of time and space, thus provoking special effects, whether protective, hostile or, as in this case, prophetic.

Ane Ohrvik contributes, “‘In the Name of the 7 fatherless devils…’: Pain, Fear, Anger and Revenge in Magical Practice,” explaining magic as an emotional reaction to extremely trying circumstances, “responses to challenges that people met in their everyday life” (189). She draws her evidence from Norwegian “Black Books” or manuals of occult instruction from the early modern period. Many of these remedies are simply to relieve physical pain, like toothache, but theft seems to motivate the strongest and most elaborate prescriptions, including the imprecation quoted in her title, calling upon all the devils in Hell by name to retrieve the stolen goods and punish the perpetrator.

Thomas A. Dubois offers “Lessons in Magic: Making Use of Early Twentieth-Century Accounts of Magical Procedures in the Folklore Classroom.” He uses these materials primarily to “shed light on the worldview of a community” and so to “celebrate the creativity of ordinary people in their performance of daily life” (203) and “in those crisis moments in which they seek to receive medical or magical help” (213). Dubois strives to counteract an initial tendency on the part of some students “to denigrate belief in magical procedures as somehow backward, laughable, or mentally unsound” (208) and especially to protect the privacy of contemporary informants whose secret practices might cause them embarrassment or worse.

Timothy R. Tangherlini explores the downside of popular belief in magic, in particular, the growing public acceptance of “A Conspiracy of Witches” in post-Reformation Scandinavia, a “totalizing narrative” that demonized magical responses to the dangers and emergencies of country life, resulting in thousands of legal executions, mainly of women. Laws against trolddom ‘sorcery’ remained on the books until 1866 in Denmark and this “conspiracy theory” faded only with the progressive alleviation of “rural female poverty,” among other complex modernizing factors (231).

In Part III on Memory and Reception, Kate Heslop examines “Metaphors for Forgetting and Forgetting as Metaphor in Old Norse Poetics,” taking Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Eddanot as a comprehensive “archive” of obsolescent poetic lore, but “as an attempt at canon formation,” demonstrating a “gap” between that work’s account of skaldic verse “and what we know of it from other sources” (250). Snorri’s handbook is thus as much about forgetting as remembering, a process figured allegorically in his myth of Thjazi and Skaði, a giantess who is induced to forget her anger at her father’s slaying by the selective elevation--memorialization--of his eyes as stars in the sky.

In “Olavifications: Spatial and Temporal Formations of Trondheim as a Memory Place,”

Lena Rohrbach surveys the ways in which the death in battle of the Norwegian king Óláfr Haraldsson (995-1030) ramped up the space of Nidaros as a pilgrimage site through the thirteenth century, one which has only recently been revived or “semantified” as a kraftsentrum ‘power center’ for Norwegian national identity in an annual summer Olavsfest(267).

Arne Bugge Amundsen reviews “The Middle Ages in the Construction of Nineteenth-Century Norway,” noting that the history of the early medieval kingdom under its own independent rulers not only fed a growing sense of national resentment at foreign domination, a feeling epitomized by Henrik Ibsen in his Peer Gynt (1867); it provided heroic role models for more self-confident political action (282).

Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir writes on “History and Cultural Memory in the Icelandic Annals 1400-1800,” observing that these manuscripts functioned as kind of “floating gap,” to borrow Lena Rohrbach’s term, between a continuously reimagined oral-tradition and a not dissimilar attempt by learned humanist scholars selectively to recruit information from that fluid oral memory and adapt it as “applicable to the contemporary situation” in which they were writing (292).

Shaun F. D. Hughes considers “Assembling Memory: The Questionnaire of 1817 from Den kongelige Commission til Oldsagers Opbevaring [‘The Royal Commission on the Conservation of Antiquities’] and the Origins of Icelandic Romantic Nationalism.” This Danish survey distributed in Icelandic, was only imperfectly successful at the time, but nonetheless softened the ground for a later revival of Icelanders’ interest and pride in their own language and national heritage.

Kimberley C. Patton reflects on “The ‘Asgard’ Superphylum and Lokiarchaeota: Mythic Relapse in Evolutionary Biology.” In 2008 Norwegian researchers discovered the traces of ancient marine microorganisms in a set of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Arctic Sea, which they named Lokeslottet ‘Loki’s Castle’ after the elusive, fiery god. Subsequent geneticists proposed classifying these as belonging to four phyla of Archaea, single-celled organisms lacking nuclei, which they named after the gods Loki, Thor, Odin and Heimdall. Patton finds our endless human recursion to primal myths, even in “data-driven” scientific research, moving and significant: as with “Mitochondrial Eve,” the likely ancestress of the human race discovered in Ethiopia, “we seem to insist on naming [our world’s] newly revealed dwellers with ancient and holy names” (334).

In Part IV on Influence and Interaction, Stefan Brink writes on “OGu vergildi and Välde in Etelhem, Gotland.” The former term is a hapax legomenon in the medieval Guta Lag, comparable to Old Low German wergildi ‘man-payment’ or restitution for manslaughter. The usual word for this form of legal compensation in Old Gutnish is vereldi. Brink postulates a borrowing from Old Low German into Old Gutnish during the later Middle Ages when there was a large community of German Hansa merchants in Visby. He supports this possibility by adducing the modern name of the meadow Välde, which would be a regular development from OGu vergildi and may once have served as payment of the same.

Anders Andrén studies “The Judensau [‘Jews’ Sow] in Uppsala.” This anti-Jewish motif in the Gothic cathedral at Uppsala was carved about 1300-10 by a German stonemason. It depicts four men with pointed Jewish hats: two sucking a sow, one feeding her acorns and a fourth (the apparent leader or high priest) holding her tail. The precise satirical thrust of this image is unclear, but Martin Luther later castigated Jewish devotion to the Old Law as addiction to the feces of a sow, referring explicitly to the Judensau in the Stadtkirche at Wittenberg where he preached.

Louise Nyholm Kallestrup contributes “The Devil is Awake: Pre-Reformation Church Murals in Post-Reformation Danish Churches.” She describes how the late medieval addition of vaults to churches around the high altar and pulpit offered an opportunity to foreground the Last Judgment with colorful murals of the two possible human destinies after death, an emphasis warmly embraced by Evangelical Lutheranism that prioritized fear of God’s wrath in preaching from the pulpit and elevated the Eucharist to being the only saving sacrament besides baptism.

Pernille Hermann considers “A Female Job and a Witch: High and Low in Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s Jammers minde [‘A Memory of Suffering’].” The author of this seventeenth-century literary autobiography was daughter of a Danish king (but not a princess), imprisoned for almost 22 years in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle, accused of conspiracy. She took a sardonic, almost carnivalesque view of her unhappy circumstances, making fun of almost everyone, including herself, to portray a world of “ignorant human beings and shaky hierarchies” (406).

Jürg Glauser writes on “O’Brazile: The Short Textual Life of a Floating Island in Seventeenth-Century Scandinavian Book History.” This ephemeral island to the west of Ireland appears on medieval and early modern maps, as well as in a number of early modern narratives. In most it is hard to find, cloaked in mist except for a single day every seven years, when it becomes visible. Glauser finds in these tales a piquing allegory of the relationship between these narratives and reality:

“When the island of O’Brazile is discovered, entered by the mariners, and thus made accessible to the outside world, it strangely enough begins to disappear first from the memory and successively from the maps of early modern imagination...Like all other imaginings floating islands leave their traces but once they have sunk the water washes the traces away and they can only be found in texts and maps” (426-27).

This analysis recalls that of Jacques Derrida who postulates that meaning can only be surmised insecurely from the fugitive traces of an absent sign, becoming ever more elusive the closer one gets to it.

Lars Lönnroth concludes the collection with an essay in Swedish, “Geijer och Eddornas ‘sinnebildsspråk’ [Geijer and Symbolic Language of the Eddas’],” on the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century interest in creating a poetic vocabulary in modern Germanic languages based upon that of Old Norse eddic poetry as a common ancestral idiom. The Romantic poet and polymath Erik Gustaf Geijer experimented with this idea in Idunas äpplen ‘The Apples of Iðunn’ (1811).

The honorand should be truly gratified by this fine set of studies and their deep, meticulous, and pointed scholarship.