Some Facts About the Vikings

gleaned from a quick perusal of the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum

The Vikings were here, pillaging and minting coins.

The Vikings expanded in all directions when nobody was looking.

The Vikings were fond of bright colors and the whisper of silk against their hairy skins.

The Vikings steered their longships with special oars shaped like butter churns.

The Vikings filed their teeth for maximum impact when they gnawed on their shields like crazed Norway rats.

The Vikings invented tribal tattoos, gang signs, campfire sing-alongs and theoretical physics.

The Vikings’ chief deity had one eye and walked with a limp.

The Vikings were misunderstood loners who acted out violent fantasies of power.

The Vikings gave names to their swords and their shields, their boots and their favorite underwear.

The Vikings had female shamans whose magic staffs symbolically unwound the threads of fate.

The Vikings drank beer from wooden buckets and water—when they had to—from their pointy little helmets.

The Vikings dated yo’ mama before she got fat.

The Vikings selflessly contributed their DNA to the British gene pool.

The Vikings taught us how to say bleak and anger, glitter, ransack and egg.

The Vikings didn’t call themselves Vikings, but activist shareholders.

The Vikings were vertically integrated, and operated in all areas of the pillaging and slaving industry.

The Vikings exploited penalty charges on credit accounts held by most major northern European rulers.

The Vikings were directly involved in several major environmental and safety incidents, as well as numerous violations of human rights and good taste.

The Vikings were exceedingly fond of bling.

The Vikings employed poets to burnish their images and shape public expectations.

The Vikings disappeared in the 11th century at the height of their power, as the result of a leveraged buyout from Christendom Incorporated.

I wrote this today especially for an open-mike reading at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. It seemed to go over pretty well. It occurred to me later that presenting a freshly minted poem to a roomful of strangers is pretty much what I do here every day (except that some of you aren’t strangers, of course). It was an extremely well-moderated reading, with time limits strictly but humorously enforced and a great diversity of readers — an interesting counterpoint to a much more staid reading by professional, establishment poets I’d attended several days before.

Dim-witted gods and the importance of poetry

God of Wednesday:

I think the brilliant character of the giant Utgard-Loki, with his wry attitude toward that little fellow Thor who “must be bigger than he looks,” is a stand-in for Snorri [Sturluson] himself. They share the same humorous tolerance of the gods. There is very little sense throughout the Edda that these were gods to be feared or worshipped, especially not the childish, naïve, blustering, weak-witted, and fallible Thor who is so easily deluded by Utgard-Loki’s wizardry of words. What god in his right mind would wrestle with a crone named “Old Age”? Or expect his servant-boy to outrun “Thought”?

It also fits with why Snorri wrote the Edda: to teach the 14-year-old king of Norway about Viking poetry. This story has a moral: See how foolish you would look, Snorri is saying to young King Hakon, if you didn’t understand that words can have more than one meaning, or that names can be taken literally? The story of Utgard-loki is, at heart, a story about why poetry matters.

The end of the world as they knew it

Before this farce of an apocalypse spiritual awakening passes from memory, I’d like to take a little more time to think about what the end of the world means for a civilization. One of the odd things about the New Age obsession with misinterpreted Mayan “prophecies” is the unwillingness to actually learn from the Maya themselves, who are not only still with us but who have managed to preserve an impressive amount of their traditional knowledge, and have not been especially shy about sharing it with curious anthropologists. New Agers like to see themselves as freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian thinking, and love to pay lip service to indigenous wisdom. But reading books like Time and the Highland Maya, by an anthropologist who apprenticed herself to K’iche’ Maya priests, or the Popol Vuh, translated by her husband with the same priests as consultants, might challenge one’s preconceptions, and definitely requires sustained grappling with a very different worldview.

This unwillingness to learn from other cultures is deeply rooted in Western Christian culture. There’s a good Christian/Greek word for that sort of willfully ignorant pride: hubris. And for at least one outpost of Western civilization, such hubris — along with rigid conservatism, extreme religiosity, environmental degradation and a changing climate — brought about the end of the world as they knew it. I’m talking about the Norse settlements on Greenland.

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (which I don’t necessarily recommend — it’s full of facile argumentation and poor scholarship), you already know the outlines of this story. But this documentary, produced for the PBS series Secrets of the Dead back in the millennial year, does an excellent job telling the story in the words of the scientists who finally pieced it together. And it was great to hear from the Greenland Inuit, who arrived a little later than the Norse but survived the Little Ice Age just fine. “Apocalypse? What apocalypse?” Which, come to think of it, is probably also what the Mayan peasants were saying when their parasitic city-states were collapsing 1000 years ago.

(By the way, if you’re interested in documentaries about the vikings, there are a number of other good ones collected on the new sagalicious page over at Twisted Rib.)

Reading the Icelandic Sagas

This entry is part 21 of 29 in the series Conversari


The difficult syllables clash
in my mouth. Your knitting
needles make short
work of the yarn,
like the dream-woman
who gave An Twig-Belly
his nickname, filling
his disemboweled gut
with a tangle of twigs
until his intestines could
be put back where
they belonged, in all
their tortuous windings.
We puzzle through
the genealogies, struggle
to picture the raw land
rising behind the words,
yet somehow these grim stories
bring us closer together.
Young men described
as promising will end up
wallowing in each other’s gore—
we know this.
Beautiful women will goad
their thin-skinned mates
into horrific acts.
A shepherd boy is smashed
against the ground so hard
his spine snaps, & two years
after his miraculous rescue
An Twig-Belly dies
a quick & needless death,
split by an unheroic sword.
You frown at your knitting
& decide it too needs
to be unraveled. I watch
the dark garment which was
to have been mine dissolve
in your expert fingers.
You smile.
I feel light as air.

See Rachel’s photographic response: “Seed.”