Archives For Scandinavia

vik
The initial Viking incursions into England were violent, but they left a colorful linguistic legacy in their wake.

Victims of the onslaught, like the unfortunate monks of Lindisfarne, paid a steep price, but the Norse eventually became farmers and craftsmen like the people they initially displaced.

Their contribution to the British gene pool was small, as was their donation to the English language, but it was not insignificant.

Some of the words fit the Viking mystique. Klubba becomes club (as in the weapon, not the association). Rannsaka may have initially meant searching the house for something like your missing keys, but the English experienced it as ransack. And slatra transfers into slaughter. The original word means “to butcher,” and one wonders if it originally applied to meal preparation. It so, the decades of Norse raids modified that focus.

Other adopted words arose from the more peaceful pursuits of the Scandinavians. Bylög meant the laws of the village and became bylaw. Law itself comes from the Norse lag. Husband, skill, thrift, litmus and loan have Viking roots. Those who enjoy a great slice of beef can thank them for their “steak” as well, since steik was their term for frying meat.

The Inkling Affection for the Sagas

J.R.R. Tolkien was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He founded a society devoted to the study of Icelandic and Norse sagas called Kolbitar (Coalbiters).* C.S. Lewis joined him in the group, which preceded the development of the Inklings fellowship.

As a young student, Lewis was attracted to Norse myth and experimented with writing his contribution to the tales. He penned over 800 lines of a massive epic he entitled “Loki Bound.” Only fragments have survived, but the following passage is especially intriguing. In it, Loki criticizes Odin for the manner in which he created humanity.

Odin! And who art thou to make a soul

And force it into being? Who art thou

To bring forth men to suffer in the world

Without their own desire? Remember this,

In all the universe the harshest law,

No soul must ever die: it can but change

Its form and thro’ the myriad years

Must still drag on for aye its weary course,

Enduring dreadful things for thy caprice.

The echoes of teenaged angst are clear in this tirade. The words describe (well, I believe) the fatalistic despair of many people. Fortunately, this young man eventually encountered the One who rescues us from “harshest law” and “dreadful things” that are the lot of fallen mortals.

A Few More Norse>English Words

Here are some more of the seven score words that are identified as having a Scandinavian origin.

An interesting collection of verbs include: bark, blunder, choose, crawl, glitter, race, scare, stagger, stammer and whirl.

The following words associated with people: Guest, kid, lad, oaf, foot, leg, skin, freckles, ill, and weak.

The gamut of emotions: anger, awe, and happy.

And, without their Norse contribution, who knows what we would call these articles today.

axle   ~   window   ~   cake   ~   bag

glove   ~   mug   ~   plow   ~   link

they   ~   trust   ~   same   ~   gift

and even Hell

One final example, as quoted in the source of the comprehensive list of Norse words.

Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildr: gunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle.” Only truly [ferocious] Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle.”

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*You can read a bit more about Kolbitar here. I have also mentioned Kolbitar in this column.

 

Lemming Legends

July 8, 2014 — 17 Comments

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.

Civilized Savages

June 24, 2014 — 13 Comments

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).

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An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.

scandinavians

Worshiping Thor

November 25, 2013 — 20 Comments

thorI have a confession to make. One that is particularly awkward for a pastor.

The current success of the recent films about the Norse god of thunder have reminded me of one of the “errors” of my youth.

As a young boy I discovered great delight in reading comic books. And among all of the countless Marvel and DC titles I read during my youth, none was more precious to me than Thor. I never really “worshiped” him, of course, but I was enraptured by his saga.

I loved the comic, and it was difficult to wait each long, long month for the next issue to be published. I followed Thor’s adventures with intense devotion. An intense loyalty that was probably inappropriate since it was directed towards a pagan deity.

To make matters worse, the part of the magazine that appealed most to me was not the contemporary escapades of the otherworldly hero. The feature that most captivated my imagination was a smaller story included in each issue and entitled “Tales of Asgard.”

These stories were terribly brief, only five short pages, and didn’t introduce contemporary terrestrial or interstellar villains. Instead, they recounted the historic tales of Norse myth and religion. Their very earthiness—their historical authenticity—impressed me far more profoundly than did the 1960s superhero fare so commonplace during that era.

In fact, in Thor’s two cinematic blockbusters, I find the same to hold true. I find the mythological elements, the portions of the story set in Asgard far more captivating than the familiar, run of the mill heroic landscape of Midgard (Earth).*

I doubt  I am alone in my appreciation of the mythical over the scientific or magical elements. In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about the power of myth. Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, Lewis brought myth to life in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1944, Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he explores the notion that in a sense Christianity too, is a myth—with one distinction from all of the rest.

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.

We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

I began by saying I was making a confession of sorts. In truth, fascination with myth is nothing to be ashamed of. Lewis describes how it was precisely his own interest in such matters that played a primary role in his conversion to Christianity. In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he describes the incipient process. These words foreshadow the message of the essay referred to above.

Now what [Hugo] Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.” Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

The awareness that a mind so brilliant (and sanctified) as Lewis’ recognized the value of myth comforts me. I guess, in retrospect, that my youth was not entirely misspent reading those amazing stories. Thor still occupies a special place in my life journey, albeit not in a pantheon.

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* There are nine worlds in Norse cosmology. Midgard lies between the noble worlds of Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim . . . and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants, Svartalfheim, realm of the Dark Elves, and Muspelheim, abode of the Fire Giants and demons.