Sagas and space (2): constructing mythological space

Week 2 was on constructing mythological space and the Eddic cosmography:

We will start with the ‘beginning’ – the creation myths of the Eddas and how, in Old Norse-Icelandic mythology, the universe was imagined before the creation of earth and heaven. This will lead us to the question how the cosmology of the pagan myths was structured with regard to creating, shaping, changing space. Our recommendations for reading material include some of the most important texts of the whole medieval literature, such as the Eddic ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’, or ‘Völuspá’, and the first parts of the Prose Edda. These are stories that are absolutely essential for the understanding of the Old Norse-Icelandic world and its culture, and we will come back to them again and again.

I think not…the glossary tells me that the term Edda refers to two works from the Icelandic Middle Ages: the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda consists of c30 poems in Old Icelandic, assumed to be based on stories from the 9th to 13th centuries passed down orally and written down in the 13th century. The Prose Edda, supposed to be a handbook for the tradition of skaldic poetry, was presumably put together in the second quarter of the 13th century and was at least partially written by Snorri Sturluson (1178/79-1241). Blimey.

Skaldic poetry is a corpus of poems and single verses composed between the 9th and 16th centuries, mostly found in the sagas and the Prose Edda. Significant characteristics are alliteration, complex syntax and a high amount of metaphors.

While we’re here, some basics:

  • Viking Age – the word ‘Viking’ has come to be used in a general sense to describe the Scandinavian world and peoples in the period 800-1100 AD; several etymologies have been suggested: derived from the region Viken in southern Norway; from the substantive vík, ie people lurking in a cove or fjord; from wic or vicus, giving people attacking (or frequenting) ports of trade, and so on; “the Viking Age began when Scandinavians first attacked western Europe and it ended when those attacks ceased”; but see The Viking age began in Denmark
  • Medieval Scandinavia – in Scandinavia the beginning of the Middle Ages is generally dated around 1050/1100 AD, when Christianity had fully overtaken and the first states had been founded; characterised by a rising level of textualisation; elsewhere the Middle Ages are usually considered to be the time period between classical antiquity and the early modern period, starting after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) and ending in the 15th/16th century (the Reformation, discovering the Americas, the invention of the printing press)

The wrap up states that there have been “critical voices in some of the less enthusiastic posts”, but haven’t been able to zero in on them, which as a MOOC watcher is a shame. Discussions highlighted:

  • the understanding of Old Norse mythology in general – are the Eddic narratives of an ultimately pagan, pre-Christian, pre-medieval, Germanic, popular origin, or should they be studied as a body of texts situated in a later Christian, medieval, learned, written, Scandinavian culture? evidence for both, and the answer is dependent on individual fields and approaches; eg comparative religion, medieval literary/cultural history, archaeology, linguistics, philology, history… see the parallels between Classical and Norse mythology and creation myths, the role of medieval etymology in explaining historical connections, the structure of the eddic universe etc
  • from the Movements and Borders thread – the essentially mediating function of mythical narratives (which according to the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is one of the main tasks of the myth); the important aspect of (spatial, mental, physical) liminality will be taken up again in Week 3, hurra!
  • the interrelation between space and time in Eddic mythology – see scene in the beginning of Gylfaginning: Gangleri spoke: “What was the beginning? And how did things start? And what was there before?” Gangleri’s question about the beginning and origin of times is answered by High, Just-as-high and Third by referring to very concrete and spatial phenomena. Time, it seems, cannot be expressed without recourse to space – a fact that reminds us of Mikhail Bahktin’s chronotope.

So, that’s the mythical basis and origins of spatial thinking in Viking Age Scandinavia done with.

Here’s some related material from my Faroes notes:

  • the Faroese language evolved from Old Norse, came with the first settlers around 800 – in 1380 Danish became the official language, and the language used in churches, ie written language, from 1538 (first Faroese text published in 1823, recognised as national language in 1948)
  • St Olav is patron saint, celebrated on Olavsøka, 28-29 July; he was a Norwegian king who fell at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and helped Faroese hunk Sigmundur Brestisson overthrow his heathen rival
  • Færeyinga saga (c1200) – earliest known literature about the Faroes, published in 1832


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