Daily Archives: 1 January 2020

Return of the Elder Edda

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 39-41:

Beginning with Norwegian colonization in the tenth century, the art of heroic poetry flourished in Iceland. The tradition came with the invaders, and many of the sagas dwell on ancient Norwegian history, but the poetic gift seems to have been uniquely Icelandic. The earliest works were oral literature, composed by anonymous poets, and they survived from one generation to the next. These and many newly written ones began to be set down on calfskin in the thirteenth century by scholar-monks. Of the vast body of prose and poetry they produced, some 700 manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts have survived to inform students of Scandinavian history. The poetry falls into two broad categories – anonymous Eddaic poems, which relate the deeds of ancient pagan gods and mortal heroes, and the skaldic poems, told by professional skalds, or poets, and based upon Christian themes and personalities.

The most famous of the historical sagas are, perhaps, the Halljreda Saga, which deals with the days of King Olaf Trygvasson, the Saga of Eric the Red, the Saga of the Greenlanders, and the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson giving an account of the history of Norway through the semilegendary biographies of its kings, from early times up to the year 1177.

Two collections of sagas exist under the general name of Edda. About the year 1650, after Iceland had become an appendage of Denmark, an Icelandic bishop discovered an old parchment book whose text bore similarities to the known Edda but appeared to be of earlier vintage. He called it the Elder Edda. Unhappily for Iceland, the bishop’s daughter had just been seduced by a young priest, and her angry father was resolved that the girl’s honor should be properly avenged. Accordingly, he offered his precious manuscripts to the king of Denmark on the strict condition that the erring priest should be heavily punished. We are not told what happened to the poor young man, but in due time, the Elder Edda found its way to the Royal Library of Copenhagen to the great and lasting resentment of all Icelanders.

In April 1971, a Danish naval frigate dropped anchor in the harbor of Reykjavík to be greeted by most of the city’s 70,000 inhabitants. The ship brought back, at long last, the precious manuscripts to be given into the care of the Icelandic nation, and the occasion was one of deep rejoicing. For the Icelanders today still hold the world’s record as publishers and readers of books. Each year some 600 new books come off the presses in Reykjavík and most of these run into editions of from 5,000 to 7,000 copies. No other nation has so many publishers or readers per capita, although the Finns and Norwegians come close. With this 1,000-year tradition of love and respect for the written word, little wonder that the return of their precious sagas meant so much to the people of the little republic.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, language, migration, nationalism, Scandinavia

Origins of Rus

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 16-17:

While the Danes and the Norwegians were venturing southward and westward in their search for a better life, the Swedes looked toward the East. Already, Swedish Ruotsi, or rowing men, had made themselves the masters of much of the eastern coast of the Baltic and had established settlements in what would later be called Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. But the Swedes were not content to remain on the Baltic coast. They rowed their longships down the gulf which leads to modern St. Petersburg and up to Lake Ladoga, that great inland sea. Thence, the Ruotsi, or “Rus” (as the Slav tribesmen they met corrupted the name), set the prows of their vessels toward the south, down the network of rivers that run to the Black and the Caspian seas. They were led, the Russian chroniclers tell us, by Rurik and two lieutenants, Askold and Dir, who were possibly his brothers. Rurik founded a “kingdom” south of Lake Ladoga and established the city of Novgorod, while his brothers, pressing farther south, set themselves up as kings of Kiev, on the Dnieper River. By the year 900, the two Swedish colonies were united as the lusty new state of Kievan Rus. Russia owes its name and its foundation as a nation to these Swedish oarsmen.

The purpose of the Swedes was not so much conquest, though that was an essential part of their plan, as trade. Swedish ships plied the river courses in such numbers that even Constantinople was threatened by the merchant-marauders. There, at the seat of the Roman Empire, the Swedes gathered goods from the East – gold, silver, carpets, tapestries, perfumes, leatherwork, dried fruits, precious stones, and many other things never before seen in their homeland. These treasures were shipped to Gotland, a large island in the middle of the southern Baltic Sea, which developed into a rich trading entrepôt. To it came merchants from the mainland of Sweden, Denmark, and countries as far afield as France and Holland. Modern research has unearthed in Gotland hoards of coins from every part of the world known to tenth-century Europe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltics, economics, language, migration, Russia, Scandinavia