Having been asked to write the final blog post for the 2018-2019 academic year, I thought I might offer a personal reflection on my own journey as an academic and medievalist, which may, at least in some small way, be indicative of many of the journeys of my friends and colleagues. At a time when the study of the arts and humanities continues to suffer—much to the detriment of democracy at large and despite the fact that these fields enrich our lives and culture—we who work in these areas often find ourselves asking ourselves—and defending to others—why we do what we do. This becomes even more keen when you study older as well as minority languages—and if you’re a medievalist, even though everyone loves the Middle Ages.
Indeed, it’s been an eventful month for medievalists and for medieval-inspired genres in general. Between Game of Thrones and its issues with portraying women and people of color, the rampant racism medievalists in general are trying to combat, and the usual rush of writing papers for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, there’s a lot to discuss. As a professor, a researcher, a fandom nerd, a mother, and a procrastinator, I find a lot of this problematic. While I don’t have any solutions, I can at least offer my thoughts on the importance of primary research, especially primary research in its original language, and why being multilingual is important for all of us.
When I was a child, I had two goals: travel to all seven continents and learn exactly why “Y maent yr mynyddoedd y canu, ac y mae’r argwyddes yn dod” meant ‘the mountains are singing, and the lady comes’ in Welsh. Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve achieved five out of seven continents, and I know enough Welsh to recognize that the grammar of “Y maent yr mynyddoedd…” is a little wonky. I’m willing to cut Susan Cooper a little slack, though, because she was the one, through her YA novel TheGrey King, that set me on my weird Welsh journey anyway. I was that strange child that wanted to read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek form because I knew that it would be the “truest” version (the benefit of being a scholar, I get how problematic that goal is now.) I wanted to speak all the languages and understand all the stories—and I still do!
I grew up in a very white, very middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, where diversity was just a couple of towns over—not that we went there because, you know, traffic and crime rates. Because of this desire to understand beyond my knowledge, as well as the limitations of my own perspective, I show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk every semester, without fail, no matter what class I’m teaching. I’ve shown it to high school freshmen for Study Skills and upper division college students in a King Arthur class. I’ve seen the video so many times that I can recite parts of it, and it still grabs me every single time.
College was what broke my belief in a single story. A trip to France in high school cemented my hardcore drive to travel EVERYWHERE and see ALL THE THINGS, but college actually pushed me out of the nest and forced me to look multiple perspectives in the face. It dropped a pile of primary sources into my lap and told me to read and digest all of them. While my undergraduate experience didn’t teach me Welsh, it at least pushed me toward the possibility of the Middle Ages, an all-encompassing knowledge of King Arthur, and the idea that I could learn the highly accurate history of it all.
(Oh, my sweet summer child.)
Twenty years later, I am a medievalist with a specialization in the King Arthur of the medieval British Isles and France. I learned Welsh—in Wales no less—to push my ability to analyze primary texts. I used more dead languages than English in my dissertation but still call myself an English major (funny how literature departments are still organized around nation-states). I now teach writing and medieval literature at every college in Buffalo, NY (fine, only three of them, or maybe four…).
I have a six-year-old who can already recite the names of Arthur’s knights as well as tell you what her favorite castle is. She voraciously devours folklore from around the world and prefers Ancient Egypt and stories of Anansi to what mama studies. Her princesses and princes come from India and China and Japan, rather than just the standard Disney European variety. And she’s conquered four out of seven continents. I’m not sure which language(s) she’ll choose when she gets older, but she takes great delight in telling people that gwely means ‘bed’ in Welsh—the apex of my attempt at raising her bilingual and studying Welsh in Wales while pregnant with her. She’s grown up with parchment and chainmail, and she loves swinging around the cloth-and-wood flail she got from a castle in France two years ago. She knows that there is more than one story, and she sees many of those stories every day in her very public, very urban elementary school.
So, why Welsh? Why did a minority language in an English-colonized country become my passion? As a medievalist and Arthurian scholar, it makes sense. Arthur was Welsh. Full stop. Even if I’m not sure I believe he ever existed—since we have little-to-no extant irrefutable historical evidence—I still believe his origins come from Wales, be those the literary origins of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh Triads), the “Mabinogion,” or Y Gododdin. If I study Arthurian literature and how the concept of chivalry changed across the English Channel between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, I should know Middle Welsh, as well as Latin, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English for good measure. Plus, it’s as good an excuse as any to realize that childhood dream of being able to translate a Welsh spell from a kids’ fantasy novel.
Why Welsh? Because there’s a dedicated movement within Wales right now working on reclaiming the heritage that the English took from them, linguistically and culturally. Because there’s a rising demand for Welsh-language schools in Wales, and the number of speakers is actually growing. But also because the ability to read the Triads and other sources of archaic knowledge in their original form ensures that this information will be remembered and kept alive. And because, as the ever-eager scholar, I am always in search of that irrefutable truth for which I longed in my childhood, the Ur-text that explains why the idea of King Arthur still persists in popularity, even when sometimes partnered with giant robots from outer space in modern sci-fi fantasy.
As a medievalist, I know how fragile our material history is. Look at how many erupted into tears as Notre Dame burned last month. Think of how often we wonder about what we lost when the library at Alexandria was demolished or when the Cotton Library burned in the fire of 1731. Think of the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII or even of what codices were lost when the Vikings raided again and again in the eighth and ninth centuries. And this still happens—think of the attack on the shrines of Timbuktu in 2012.
The physicality of history is not immortal. While we find new primary sources and discover magical new insights into the past every year with our leaps forward in technology, we still lose so much. Remember when ISIS destroyed the statues at the gates of Nimrud, or when they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, or, even earlier, when the Taliban blew up the statues of Buddha. Think of every mosque and synagogue that Christians have irrevocably altered in the past thousand years, not the least of which being the Mezquita in Córdoba or the synagogues of Toledo. Our physical artifacts are all we have to help us understand who we were and why things—socially, politically, economically, etc.—are the way they are. Our primary sources, in their original languages, can help us ensure we understand as much as possible about the past, which is the only way we can understand our present moment. Serious study and serious inquiry into the past can help prevent the co-opting of cultural narratives for nefarious purposes, the way white supremacists and the alt-right have pushed for an all-white medieval Europe and erasure of people of color. Why Welsh? Because every language and every culture have something to teach us. Because diversity—in people, in languages, in nature—makes the world richer. Also because I’m obviously a nerd. Why the desire to visit all seven continents? So that I can experience, firsthand, the different stories that each culture, each region, each country presents. So that I can prevent my daughter and my students from recognizing only one story.
Every year for the past three years, I’ve gone into my daughter’s classroom and talked to her classmates about heroes, knights, the evolution of writing, and mummies (because mummies). I’ve given them pieces of parchment to create their own illuminations. I’ve handed them chainmail, leather helms and bracers, and answered how King Arthur died (“It’s complicated…”). It’s not just public scholarship (of which we need more!); it’s also ensuring that these stories, and that consciousness of the materiality of history, are passed on.
Because when I was eleven years old, a friend gave me the Dark is Rising sequence for my birthday, and those books inspired a lifelong love of the Middle Ages and some Welsh warlord named Arthur. Because knowing the political complexities of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s era and being able to read what was said about him in Latin and in Welsh better informs me of why he may have spun Arthur in the imperial/anti-imperial way that he did. Because all we have are fragments to help us understand past cultures, and when we preserve what we have for future generations, we preserve the very diverse voices that white supremacy is trying to kill. This is why I do what I do.
Like many fans across the world—this winter—each snowfall increased my anticipation for the return and final season of HBO’s fantasy television series, Game of Thrones, the popular film adaption of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. As a medievalist who enjoys medievalism, I am especially intrigued by successful modern adaptions of medieval themes and concepts, particularly when it comes to representations of the monstrous.
In Game of Thrones, one of the most terrifying of the fantastic creatures on Westeros are the frost-bearing White Walkers (also called Others), who come with winter and bring with them an undead horde of icy zombies (called wights). The show’s opening scene masterfully features these horrifying monsters, and introduces the audience to the shadowy specters who haunt the frigid North, growing stronger every season. Martin describes his wintry revenants in the prologue, when two men of the Night’s Watch come upon a group of White Walkers:
“A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took” (Martin 7).
The White Walkers are characterized in AGame of Thrones (Martin’s first novel in the series, which HBO’s corresponding show adopted as its title) by their haunting eyes and the freezing cold that accompanies their approach:
“The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope. They emerged silently from the shadows, twins at first. Three of them…four…five…Ser Waymar [Royce] may have felt the cold that came with them, but never saw them, never heard them” (Martin 7-8).
After the White Walkers kill Ser Waymar Royce, his companion—Will—comes to investigate his corpse, and discovers yet another horror in his own captain:
“Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy. He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof….
Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine cloths were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw” (Martin 8).
These monsters (and their zombie horde) envelop the series, and the build up to the final battle for the soul of Westeros, between the living and dead, looms ever-present throughout the series and has all but come to fruition.
Like many aspects of Martin’s fantasy world, his modern monstrosities resemble medieval ones. Although also reminiscent of the monstrous Wendigo, his White Walkers share distinct characteristics with Old Norse-Icelandic depictions of revenants, generally from the fornaldarsǫgur, “sagas of olden times,” which depict a posthumous pre-Christian medieval culture that is undoubtedly the basis for Martin’s wildlings (also called free folk) and various peoples north of the Wall. Some terms for revenants in Old Norse Icelandic include haugbúi (“mound-dweller”), draugr (“revenant”) and aptrgangr (“again-walker”). The latter term explicitly describes revenants as “walkers” (gangr), corresponding directly to the second element in Martin’s own White Walkers.
Grettis saga is the saga, which most famously contains Old Norse revenants. Grettis saga is the story of a mighty warrior named Grettir, who slays a variety of monsters throughout the saga, until he becomes something of a monster himself, exiled to a cave and the object of heroic slaughter. In this saga, Grettir meets two revenants; the first is Kárr “the Old”—a haugbúi “mound-dweller” that haunts his own grave and the surrounding island (similar to the zombified Angantyr from Hervarar saga Heiðreksand Þráinn from Hrómundar saga Gripssonar). Grettir’s friend Auðunn tells him about the revenant, Kárr:
“‘Out on the headland stands a grave-mound,’ said Auðunn. ‘In it was laid Kárr the Old, Þorfinn’s father. At first, father and son owned a single farm on the island, but after Kárr died her returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here’” (Byock 51).
When Grettir enters the Kárr’s barrow he discovers both a foul reek and a terrifying image. After disturbing the treasure hoard in the barrow, the revenant rises up and attacks Grettir, only to be put to rest by decapitation:
“Grettir then descended into the mound. It was dark inside, and not altogether sweet-smelling. He had to feel around to get an idea of what was inside. He found some horse bones, and next bumped into the back-posts of a seat. He realized that a man was sitting there in the chair. There was a pile of gold and silver all mixed together. There was also a chest full of silver under the man’s feet. Grettir took all the treasure and carried it to the rope, but as he was making his way out of the mound something strong grabbed hold of him. He let go of the treasure and turned to resist. A fierce fight began, and everything in their path was broken as the mound-dweller attacked with fury. For a long time Grettir tried to give way. Finally he realized there would be no chance of winning if he continued just to shield himself. Now neither spared himself, and they shoved each other until they came to where the horse bones were. There they struggled for a long time, with each at times falling to his knee. But in the end the mound-dweller fell backwards with a great crash, and with that noise Auðunn dropped the ropes and ran away, assuming that Grettir had been killed. Grettir now drew the sword Jǫkull’s-gift and struck at the mound-dweller’s neck. He cut off the head and placed the head against Kárr’s buttocks” (Byock 52).
Kárr “the Old” is identified as a haugbúi “mound-dweller” in Grettis saga, and has a more direct influence on another fantasy author’s work, TheLord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. On Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, barrow-wights haunt certain old graves, and the hobbits stumble upon a haunted barrow in the chapter eight of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” Description of the barrow-wight (which has since become a common translation for haugbúi in English), reflects a close affinity to Old Norse-Icelandic mound-dwellers, such as Kárr. When the hobbits are in the barrow-wight’s burial mound, they are put under a spell and “round the corner a long arm was groping” (Tolkien 169), which causes Frodo at first to consider only his own escape and survival. However, eventually he decides to help his companions, put to sleep by the barrow-wight’s incantation:
“the courage that had been awoken in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark, there was a snarling noise” (Tolkien 160-161).
Kárr “the Old” is not the only revenant in Grettis saga. The second specter, Glámr, is the protagonist’s most fearsome monstrous opponent. Glámr is described as explicitly anti-Christian, and when he dies in a snowstorm, his body seems to move about, preventing him from being buried at a church and receiving last rites from the local priest. Soon Glámr starts haunting, especially in the heart of winter—at Yuletide—the winter solstice celebration often associated with Christmas:
“A little later people became aware that Glámr was not lying there quietly. He became a scourge to the local people. Many lost their senses when they saw him, some of them never recovering. Immediately after Yule, some people thought they saw Glámr inside the farmhouse. They were terribly frightened, and many of them fled the farm. Then Glámr took to riding the house in the evenings, so that the roof was nearly broken. Then he started walking about, both day and night. Men scarcely dared to go up the valley, even when they had reason to dos o. For the people in the district it seemed as if a terrible misfortune had descended upon them” (Byock 95).
Glámr is identified as a draugr “revenant” (popularized by their appropriation in the video game Skyrim), and continuities between Glámr and Grendel have long been observed by scholars. This has encouraged some critics to consider Beowulf and Grettis saga to be analogues, especially the reference to the leoht unfæger “ugly light” (Beowulf 727) in Grendel’s eyes—comparable to Glámr’s—and similar action sequences in each respective fight between the heroic protagonists and their monstrous antagonists.
In Grettis saga, when Grettir first encounters Glámr, he glimpses only the revenant’s head peeking through the door, “when the door opened, Grettir saw the creature stick its head in. It seemed to Grettir to be large and horribly deformed, with strangely oversized features” (Byock 100). Their subsequent battle is detailed in the saga:
“Glámr now wanted to get out of the house, but Grettir held onto him. Grettir braced his feet wherever he could find a footing, but still Glámr was able to drag him across the hall. They struggled violently, because the slave intended to drag Grettir from the hall. As difficult as it was to fight Glámr inside, Grettir saw that it would be worse dealing with him outside the house. For this reason he put all his strength into preventing Glámr from getting out” (Byock 101).
After an unsuspecting misdirection by Grettir, Glámr is finally able to pull Grettir out of the hall and into the night, where the fight continues:
“Outside it was bright in the moonlight, with gaps here and there in the cloud cover. On and off, the moon shone through. Just as Glámr fell, the clouds moved, revealing the moon. Glámr stared up at the light, and Grettir later said that this sight was the only one that had ever scared him. Exhaustion and the sight of Glamr’s threatening eyes now took their toll, and Grettir’s strength left him. Unable to draw his sword, he lay between life and death. Because Glámr had more evil power in himself that most of the other walking dead, he said: ‘You have shown much determination, Grettir, in finding me. And it would be expected that you would receive only ill fortune from me’” (Byock 101-102).
Glámr then places a curse up Grettir that he will become diminished and fall into outlawry and exile, saying:
“‘Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy. You will be made an outlaw, forced to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further, I lay this curse on you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone. This will drag you to your death’” (Byock 102).
As with Kárr, Grettir ends Glámr’s haunting by beheading the monster, for after his curse “the powerlessness that had gripped Grettir slid away. He drew his sword and cut off Glámr’s head, placing it against his buttocks” (Byock 102). However, Grettir’s encounter with Glámr causes him to fear the dark ever after—and a number of elements of Glámr’s characterization are reflected in the White Walkers, especially his moving corpse, terrifying eyes and preference for haunting during the dead of winter.
Although Glámr resembles Martin’s White Walkers, perhaps the closest parallel from Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature can be observed in the final battle in Hrólfs saga kraka, which serves also as the source for the “Battle of Five Armies” in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Hrólfs saga kraka, King Hrólfr and his warriors are pitted against Skuld’s monstrous horde, composed of “elves, norns and countless other vile creatures” (Byock 71). During the battle, which also occurs during Yule, the slain rise again as revenants that resemble the armies of Martin’s White Walkers and their zombie wights.
“Men fell dead across each other in front of him [Bǫðvar Bjarki], until both his shoulders were covered with blood. Corpses were heaped high all around him, and he behaved as though overcome with madness. However many of Hjǫvard’s and Skuld’s men he and Hrólfr’s champions killed, their enemies ranks, remarkably, never diminished. It was as though Hrólfr’s men were having no effect, and they thought they had never come upon so strange an occurrence. Bǫðvar said, ‘Deep are the ranks of Skuld’s army. I suspect that the dead are wandering about. They rise up again to fight against us and it becomes difficult to fight with ghosts [draugar]. As many limbs as we cleave, shield we split, helmets and mail coats as we hew apart, and war leaders we cut down, the encounters with the dead are the grimmest” (Byock 76).
The image of a zombie horde is featured somewhat regularly in modern zombie-apocalypse literature, such as George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil(2002), and AMC’s Walking Dead (2010). Nevertheless, both their terrible gaze and association with winter sets Martin’s White Walkers apart from the rest of the herd, and draws on medieval lore and legend in order to create a monster that speaks both to the past and the present.
Department of English
University of Notre Dame
Texts and Translations:
Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1998.
—. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Chadwick, Nora K. Stories and Ballads of the Far Past. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1921.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 2011.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Rings. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1954.
Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.” Folklore 57.2 (1946): 50-65.
—. “Norse Ghosts II: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.” Folklore 57.3 (1946): 106-127.
Fjalldal, Magnús. The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection between Beowulf and Grettis saga. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Jakobsson, Ármann. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis saga.” Folkore 120.3 (2009): 307-316.
—. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead.” JEGP 110.3 (2011): 281-300
Keyworth, David. “The Aetiology of Vampires and Revenants: Theological Debate and Popular Belief.” Journal of Religious History 34.2 (2010), 158-173.
—. Troublesome Corpses: Vampires & Revenants—from Antiquity to the Present. Desert Island eBooks, 2013.
Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Stern, Elizabeth. Legends of the Dead in Medieval and Modern Iceland (Supernatural). University of California, Los Angeles: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1987.
“Make Ásgarðr Great Again!”
Myth, ideology, and obscurity in troubled times
This is a story about a people who had lost their way, though they did not yet know it. They lived in fear of their neighbours, neighbours who had come to work for them, and whom they saw as primitives, troublemakers, and sexual predators. They decided to build a wall to keep them out for good – and they were damn sure that they weren’t going to be the ones to pay for it.
Obviously, I am talking about the Æsir, the race of gods who rule over Ásgarðr in Old Norse myth. The Icelandic author and politician, Snorri Sturluson (d. 1242) sets up the following little vignette in his Edda, an Old Norse mythological compendium written in the 1220s. Here, Óðinn is telling an anecdote:
Þat var snimma í ǫdverða bygð goðanna, þá er goðin ǫ hǫfðu sett Miðgarð ok gert Valhǫll, þá kom smiðr nokkvorr ok bauð at gera þeim borg á þrim misserum svá góða at trú ok ørugg væri fyrir bergrisum ok hrímþursum þótt þeir komi inn um Miðgarð. En hann mælir sér þat til kaups at hann skyldi eignask Freyju, ok hafa vildi hann sól ok mána. Þá gengu Æsirnir á tal ok réðu ráðum sínum, ok var þat kaup gert við smiðinn at hann skyldi eignask þat er hann mælir til ef hann fengi gert borginni á einum vetri, en hinn fyrsta sumars dag ef nokkvorr hlutr væri ógjǫrr at borginni þá skyldi hann af kaupinu … En er á leið vetrinn, þá sóttisk mjǫk borgargerðin ok var hon svá há ok sterk at eigi mátti á þat leita. En þá er þrír dagar váru til sumars þá var komit mjǫk at borghliði. Þá settusk guðin á dómstóla sína ok leituðu ráða ok spurði hverr annann hverr því hefði ráðit at gipta Freyju í Jǫtunheimum eða spilla loptinu ok himninum svá at taka þaðan sól ok tungl ok gefa jǫtnum…
“It was early in the first days of the settlement of the gods, when the gods had established Miðgarðr and built Valhǫll, that a certain craftsman came and offered to build for them inside of three seasons a fortress so good that it would be reliable and safe against the Mountain Giants and the Rime Giants, even if they got into Miðgarðr. And he named his price as being that he would marry Freyja, and he also wanted to have the sun and the moon. Then the Æsir had a discussion and reached their decision, and the deal was made with the craftsman that he should have what he had named if he could get the fortress built inside of one winter, and at the first day of summer if any part of the fortress was incomplete then he would forfeit his payment … But as winter wore on, the construction of the fortress went very well, and it was so tall and strong that one could not attack it. And when there were three days until summer it was very nearly up to the fortress gates. Then the gods went to their thrones of judgement and held council, and asked each other who it was who had advised marrying Freyja off to Giantland or ruining the sky and the heavens by taking away the sun and the moon and giving it to the giants … ”
If this is the first time you have ever read a piece of Old Norse literature, you will be picking up on the theme that the Æsir do not have a very good relationship with their giant neighbours. (We should quickly note that these giants might not always have been imagined as towering “fee fi fo fum” types, they are usually depicted as simply somewhat brutish, somewhat monstrous adversarial beings). According to Snorri, the civilisation of the giants precedes that of the Æsir. They emerged from the sweaty left armpit of the first anthropoid being, who was called Ymir. In the Edda, Óðinn himself says of Ymir Fyr øngan man játum vér hann guð. Hann var illr ok allir hans ættmenn “In no way can we call him a god. He was evil, as are all his descendants” (though Óðinn would say that). The Æsir are descended from a different anthropoid, called Búri, who spontaneously emerged from a block of ice at some point after the awakening of Ymir. Búri then promptly set the tone for Æsir-Giant relations by killing Ymir, and using his body parts to create the world. With Ymir’s blood the Æsir made the sea, with his flesh they made the earth, his skull became the sky and his brains the clouds. Having murdered the giants’ patriarch, the gods had one last gruesome and mocking use for his corpse. Óðinn explains that:
Hon [jǫrðin] er kringlótt útan, ok þar útan um liggr hinn djúpi sjár, ok með þeiri sjávar strǫndu gáfu þeir lǫnd til bygðar jǫtna ættum. En fyrir innan á jǫrðunni gerðu þeir borg umhverfis heim fyrir ófriði jǫtna, en til þeirar borgar hǫfðu þeir brár Ymis jǫtuns, ok kǫlluðu þá borg Miðgarð.
“It [the earth] is circular on the outside, on the outside lies the deep ocean, and by the shore of that ocean they [the Æsir] gave land for the settlement of the race of giants. But further inwards on the earth they made a fortification all around the world against the warlikeness of the giants, and for those fortifications they used the eyelashes of Ymir the giant, and they called the fortification Miðgarðr [Middle Earth].”
Although at first the idea of beachside property for the giants might not seem so bad, Snorri and later authors reveal that the reservations to which the giants are relegated are not really prime real estate. There appear to be giants living in the place known as Muspellsheimr, which is unbearably hot, and given the association between giants and ice (e.g. the subgrouping called the hrímþursar “the Rime giants”) there may also be giants living in Niflheimr, which is forebodingly dark and cold. As John Lindow points out, the term for the giants’ homelands is usually given in the plural, Jǫtunheimar, perhaps implying that there were multiple areas of mountain and forest – places which humans did not find hospitable – where giants and trolls were thought to live in medieval Scandinavian superstition. Our world, the human world, is Miðgarðr, and the realm of the gods is Ásgarðr, which in Snorri’s account is a fortification in the centre of Miðgarðr (incidentally, this prompts the question of whether humans could hypothetically just walk into Ásgarðr, or at least up to its walls, though Snorri doesn’t give us much to work with on that point). The giants are kept out with the palisades they made from Ymir’s eyelashes, with the walls they con the masterbuilder into making but never pay for, and by a dense band of forest called Járnviðr “Iron Wood”. As an aside, we might note that this is the same name of the forested peninsula which once divided Denmark from Germany, modern Danish Jernved.
That is to say, a geographical feature which was viewed as a barrier to keep two warring peoples apart.
There is little doubt that the giants, as they appear in works older than Snorri’s, such as the poems of the Poetic Edda (many of which are as old as the eleventh century, if not older still), are indeed people from whom the Æsir would understandably want to be protected. But in Snorri’s telling of Old Norse myth one finds oneself sympathising with the giants, despite Óðinn’s best attempts to slander them. It was the Æsir who cast the first stone, by killing Ymir. They then claimed the good land for themselves, driving the giants into places that are too cold, too hot, too forested or too mountainous. The Æsir enjoy technological superiority over the giants, thanks to Þórr (Thor) and his mighty hammer, Mjǫllnir … er hrímþursar ok bergrisar kenna þá er hann kemr á lopt, ok er þat eigi undarligt: hann hefir lamit margan haus á feðrum eða frændum þeira “… which the Rime-Giants and Mountain-Giants recognise when he holds it aloft, and that’s no strange thing: it has crushed the skulls of many of their fathers or their kinsmen”. There are occassionally giants who get the upper hand prior to Ragnarøkr (the apocalypse, Snorri’s spelling), e.g. the trickster Útgarðaloki. But usually any attempt at resistance does not stand a chance.
The relationship of the Æsir to the giants is fundamentally colonial. They dominate them technologically, control their land, but they also require their labour, as we have seen in the case of the duped craftsman. Moreover, the Æsir males expect to have access to giant-women, but they are consistently horrified by the thought that giant males might have access to Æsir women. When they are forced by a peace accord to let a giant-woman, Skaði, marry a male god, they trick her so that she does not pick Baldr, her preferred choice and the most attractive of the Æsir, but instead chooses Njǫrðr, who is in fact not one of the Æsir but one of the Vanir, a tribe defeated in war and assimilated by the Æsir. The giants are depicted as constantly slavering over Freyja, whom the Æsir have a responsibility to protect from their advances. It is presented as uncontroversial that the male god Freyr can have sexual relations with the giantess Gerðr (by rape, according to Skírnismál in the Poetic Edda, though Snorri somewhat romanticises the congress in his Edda). Similarly, Þórr has an extra-marital liaison with a giantess named Járnsaxa. The resultant offspring, Magni, is raised as a good Áss (the singular of Æsir – stop giggling at the back). But when the male giant Fárbauti has sex with the apparently non-giant female Laufey, the resultant offspring is Loki.
Though raised amongst the Æsir, Loki is a devious figure whose own erotic encounters with the giantess Angrboða apparently re-concentrate his giant heritage, resulting in the monstrous brood of the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jǫrmungandr, and the death-deity Hel. By way of analogy, we might observe that this is a sort of thinking which is not altogether remote from colonial sexual regimes such as those of the American south. As Ida B. Wells wrote back in 1892, “the misceg[e]nation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women”  (I am grateful to Jarvis McInnis for directing me to Wells’s work). I certainly do not intend to equate the actual historic suffering of real populations with the imaginary sufferings of mythical tribes. But I would propose that if we want to understand what is going on in the minds the Æsir, as Snorri depicts them, then such analogies can be tremendously illuminating.
Despite the ready interpretation that it is really the Æsir who victimise the giants, rather than the other way round, the Æsir themselves sometimes entertain the feeling that their world is in a state of decay, and that it is migrants from Giantland who are to blame for their supposed decline. Óðinn explains that:
Þar næst gerðu þeir þat at þeir lǫgðu afla ok þar til gerðu þeir hamar ok tǫng ok steðja ok þaðan af ǫll tól ǫnnur. Ok því næst smíðuðu þeir málm ok stein ok tré, ok svá gnógliga þann málm er gull heitir at ǫll búsgǫgn ok ǫll reiðigǫgn hǫfðu þeir af gulli, ok er sú ǫld kǫlluð gullaldr, áðr en spiltisk af tilkvámu kvennanna. Þær kómu ór Jǫtunheimum.
“Next they did so, that they made forges and so they made hammers and tongs and anvils, and from those all other tools. And next they smithed metal and stone and wood, and so abundantly [they made] that metal which is called ‘gold’ that all their fittings and utensils were made from gold, and this age was called the Golden Age, before it was spoiled by the arrival of those women. They came from Giantland.”
Following James Barr and also Lowell Handy, who were writing about the case of Canaanite myth (a body of myth which Snorri, of course, could not have known beyond the snippets preserved in the Bible) we might call this episode a “technogony”. Calling this time a gullaldr “Golden Age” is probably Snorri’s own idea, rather than a concept in Norse myth that existed in the minds of others before the 1220s. It is conceivable that gullaldr originates as a calque of Latin aetas aurea, e.g from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, although Ovid’s “Golden Age” is not so technologically advanced and more peaceful: Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo, / sponte sua, sine lege fidem rectumque colebat. “The first age is golden, where none commanded, / [and] of ones own accord, without law, [one] was faithful and did the right thing”. But I digress.
It is worth noting that, like most “Golden Ages”, things were probably not really as good as they were supposed to be. The gullaldr might have been a time when the Æsir were wealthy, but their prosperity was founded on violence. The giant patriarch Ymir had been killed, his body used to create forifications to keep his descendants out of Miðgarðr, and all the Rime-Giants apart from one named Bergelmir and his household had been drowned by the ocean of blood that flowed out of Ymir’s corpse. (Bergelmir and his wife survived by floating on a giant wooden box, and then went on to repopulate the Giantlands, this detail presumably being drawn from Genesis’s flood narrative). Perhaps the reason Óðinn tries to convince us that this was a “Golden Age” is not because he truly believes in the glory of Ásgarðr, but because he truly believes in the nefariousness of giants. The point is not that Ásgarðr was ever that great, but rather that the giants are what is standing between Ásgarðr and greatness. It is fitting that we don’t really know who exactly the three ruinous giantesses were supposed to be. It is probable that Snorri didn’t either, and he was simply backforming from an equally cryptic verse in Vǫluspá: Teflðo í túni, teitir vóro, / var þeim vættergis vant ór gulli, / unz þriár qvómo þursa meyjar, / ámátcar mioc, ór iotunheimom. “ They played chess in their settlements, they were joyful / there was never any want for gold / until three came, maidens of the giants / very strong, from the Giantlands”. By extension, Óðinn himself doesn’t really know. The leader of the Æsir knows how to propagandise in a post-truth political climate.
At the end of the world, called Ragnarǫk in the Poetic Edda and Ragnarøkr/-røkkr in Snorri’s Edda, the age-old enemies of the Æsir will finally get the upperhand. Led by Loki and the Muspellssynir “Sons of Muspell”, a force of giants will charge across the Rainbow Bridge, Bifrǫst, and vanquish the Æsir. Yet it would be a mistake to think that there is something of the Bildungsroman about this narrative, where the giants are off accumulating their forces, and finally get their revenge through their own industry. The Muspellssynir may deliver the death-blow to the Æsir, but it is actually the Æsir who undo themselves. They make a series of consistently poor decisions which leave them ill-prepared to face their foes at Ragnarøkr. Freyr trades his sword to his messenger, Skírnir, in return for Skírnir’s co-operation in threatening the giantess Gerðr into sexual relations with him. He is consequently unarmed in the final battle. Óðinn and the other Æsir refuse to kill Fenrir when they have the chance, because they do not want to defile the sacred spaces they have set up in their own honour. Óðinn himself explains that Svá mikils virðu goðin vé sín ok griðastaði at eigi vildu þau saurga þá með blóði úlfsins þótt svá segi spárnar at hann muni verða at bana Óðni “The gods so highly esteem their sacred groves and places of truce that they would not defile them with the wolf’s blood, even though the prophecies might say that he would be the death of Óðinn”. This seems like a noble enough sentiment, but it must be remembered that in Snorri’s euhemerist account the Æsir are not actually divine, and are in fact much given to deception, so it would appear that there is something Óðinn is not telling us in his explanation.
Just as Fenrir ultimately destroys Óðinn, Þórr kills the serpent Jǫrmungandr but is himself killed in the process from resulting splashes of the beast’s venom: Þórr … stígr þaðan braut níu fet. Þá fellr hann dauðr til jarðar fyrir eitri því er ormrinn blæss á hann “Þórr … takes nine steps away. Then he falls down dead to the earth because of the poison which the serpent spewed on him” The same tool/weapon that gave the Æsir supremacy over the giants also becomes their undoing; the story would have run rather differently if Þórr had picked up a bow, like the god Ullr. But he doesn’t. The hammer has always worked against the giants before, and so he steps into spitting range of the serpent with a blind confidence of a man who only has a hammer, and so sees only nails. Like Óðinn, Þórr too had a chance to eliminate his killer before Ragnarøkr during an attempt to catch Jǫrmungandr on a fishing line. However, Þórr took a giant with him on that expedition, one named Hymir, who quailed at the sight of the serpent and let it go. Óðinn tells the story as a vindication of the giants’ supposed cowardice and idiocy. Though I wonder if Hymir might be engaging in a spot of civil disobedience. After all, when you have spent a lifetime smashing the skulls of giants, and you then take a giant with you to help you pre-emptively kill the beast that will otherwise be your death, you can’t be all too surprised when that giant exhibits a lack of motivation in the workplace.
The Æsir are powerful and cunning, but they are not able to think ahead to the point where they will take decisions that hurt in the short term, in order to allow them to survive in the long term. As Christopher Abram observed in a paper delivered at Harvard’s “Old Norse Mythology in its Comparative Contexts” in 2013, the gods are not so different from us: when the world around them is ending, they are to be found sitting around having a conference. The refrain in the Eddic poem Vǫluspá goes: Þá gengu regin ǫll / á rǫkstóla,/ ginnheilǫg goð, / ok um þat gættuzk “The powers all went / to the thrones of fate / the divine gods / and this they discussed”. As Abram pointed out, this is exactly what humanity was doing during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Just like modern capitalism, the Æsir have established an order that suffers from bureaucratic inertia, and which is too short-sighted to prevent its own destruction. When it falls, it will take the rest of the world with it.
What is the value of drawing such analogies between the world depicted by Snorri and the world we find ourselves in today? Where Old Norse literature (the body of literature written in Iceland and to a lesser extent Norway from c. 1100 to c. 1500, to which Snorri’s Edda belongs) offers lessons for our own time, those lessons should be told. Of course, they will have absolutely no impact whatsoever. No politician is going to read this, buzz their secretary, and exclaim: “Pat, get in here! I’ve just found out about this thirteenth-century Icelander called Snorri Sturluson and I’ve totally rethought my policy on fracking!”. So the need for the past to teach the present is not why I offer these analogies (even if it is a strong second place). Rather, I would propose the value of the opposite possibility: that we can sometimes permit the present to teach the past. Naturally, we have to be very wary of anachronism in doing so. Medieval people did not think of things such as the environment or race in the way that we do today. Many of the key concepts around which our world is built cannot even be expressed in the vocabulary of medieval languages. But medieval people often did possess the psychological building blocks which would later go into constituting those ideas as we know them.
To my mind, the chief problem attendant to understanding Snorri’s Edda is also the chief intellectual opportunity: Snorri was more like J. R. R. Tolkien than he was like David Attenborough. His aim was not to describe and document. He was not attempting to present a rigorous, scientifically accurate account of the myths and religious traditions of his forefathers. Rather, he was cobbling together an imaginative fictional world, wonderfully eclectic in its use of sources. Snorri would borrow anything from anyone. His Edda is a composition of pre-Christian Norse poetry, folk superstitions, Latin learning, Biblical apocrypha, and a fair few generous dollops of Snorri’s own creativity. The result is one of the most enigmatic and exciting works of world literature. Snorri’s eclecticism is beautiful, but it also makes it very hard to know precisely what we are discussing when we attempt to analyse a portion of his mythological world. What bits are “authentically” pre-Christian? What bits are the intellectual achievements of the thirteenth century? Much ink has been spilled on sorting Snorri’s sources accordingly, some of the weaker smudges my own.
The principle value of the type of analogy I have suggested here is the insight it can give us into Snorri’s own thinking – and the thinking of his fictional characters. If we wanted to provide an account of the ideology of the Æsir (let’s call it “Æsirism”) how would we go about it? One way would be to attempt to pick out the bits that could be from the Viking Age, via juxtaposition with sources older than Snorri, e.g. Eddic poetry, archaeology, accounts by Adam of Bremen (fl. 1070s) and Ibn Fadlan (fl. 920s) etc. Afterwards, we could also integrate Snorri’s Edda with what we know about political thought from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as per Sverre Bagge’s work on another thirteenth-century masterpiece, Konungs skuggjsá. This would be a very worthy and enlightening project. But it would not give us a picture of Æsirism as a unified ideology. True, ideologies are always conditioned by time and place – the capitalism of seventeenth century Holland is different to the capitalism of present day Florida, the feminism of Shulamith Firestone is different to that of Sandi Toksvig – but ideologies are at their core timeless. They exist immaterially as a set of ideas, beliefs about the world, about how it works and how it could be made more just. The pre-occupations of our own world provide a useful diagnostic for exposing those beliefs, in everything from works of literature to Kinder Surprise Eggs (or so Slavoj Žižek would have us believe, anyway: http://bit.ly/2htZ8Cc). So what do Snorri’s Æsir think about the notion we now call race? About the legitimacy of power? About bureaucracy? About sex, war, and natural resources? Yes, all these questions are impositions from our own troubled times. But so long as we recognise that, and we recognise the limits of our questioning, a pinch of anachronism paradoxically allows Snorri’s Edda to exist in its own right as a rich imaginative world of subcreation much like Tolkien’s Middle-earth. We can interview the Æsir, appreciating Æsirism as Snorri’s own invention rather than as a distorted memory of the Viking Age.
In this way, being worried for the fate of the world might just make us better scholars, as we incline our ears more closely to our source texts, listening more intently for the ghosts that prefigure the monsters of our modern situation. One might protest that it is ridiculous to be pursuing Old Norse philology – an almost comically obscure topic – at a time when, like the Æsir, we face the prospect of seemingly apocalyptic ecological and political crisis. Perhaps that’s true. There may well be something Æsirist in today’s ethno-nationalist inflected capitalism, but in this regard there is also something Æsirist about those of us who would resist it, too. As the sun turns black and the earth sinks beneath the waves, we know we cannot win. We go to meet our enemies with tools that will do nothing, but which we love too much to relinquish.
Richard Cole is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He has taught Old Norse at Harvard University, University College London, and Århus Universitet. He has published on Old Norse philology in Saga-Book, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Scandinavian Studies, and other journals. This blog post is a side-project from an article currently under preparation, provisionally entitled: “’Make Ásgarðr Great Again’, or, is there an Æsir-ist ideology?”. Correspondence can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1988) p. 34 [ch. 42]
 Eyvind Fjeld Halvorsen & Anna Birgitta Rooth. “Jotner” in Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder. Vol. 7. Ed. by Allan Karker. (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1962) pp. 693-700.
 Rudolf Simek. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. by Angela Hall. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993) p. 180.
 John Lindow. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 206.
 To my knowledge, the first to point out the similarity between mythical Járnviðr and historical jernved was: Gustav Klemming. “Jernveden” in Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon. Vol. 13. Ed. by Chr. Blangstrup. (Copenhagen: J. H. Schultz Forlagsboghandel, 1922) p. 52. The concept comes under stimulating theoretical discussion in an unlikely place, namely: Frederick Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. (New York: International Publishers, 2011 ) pp. 153-154. For further comments on Old Norse myth by Engels, including his apparent familiarity with Sophus Bugge and Anton Christian Bang, see also: p. 102, pp. 147-148, 196-199. In a letter to Laura Lafargue (née Marx) written on the 23rd November 1884, Engels also writes that: “[William] Morris … was here the other night and quite delighted to find the Old Norse Edda on my table — he is an Icelandic enthusiast — Morris read a piece of his poetry (a “refonte” of the eddaic Helreid Brynhildar (the description of Brynhild burning herself with Sigurd’s corpse) … their art seems to be rather better than their literature and their poetry better than their prose”. http://bit.ly/2hhBTL6 (Last accessed, 11th December 2016).
 Indeed, it has been suggested that Skaði, with her skis and hunting prowess, is supposed to be a Finnic figure, representing the indigeneous pre-Germanic-speaking population of Scandinavia. Her husband. Njǫrðr, on the other hand, prefers to live in the coastal regions, of the sort where the majority of Norway’s Germanic-speaking population lived during the Middle Ages. See: Lois Bragg. Oedipus borealis. The Aberrant Body in Old Icelandic Myth and Saga. (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004) pp. 85-86.
 One might also cite the example of Gefjun’s giantish bulls, or Þórr taking Hymir on his fishing expedition.
 Historically the war between the Æsir and the Vanir has also been viewed as a memory of some long-lost, actual religious conflict. On this view, now outdated, see: E. O. G. Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North. The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964) esp. pp. 156-162.
 Ida B. Wells. Southern Horrors and Other Writings. The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells. Ed. by Jacqueline Jones Royster. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997 [1892-1900]) pp. 53-54.
 James Barr. “Philo of Byblos and His ‘Phoenician History’”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 57 (1974) pp. 17-68. Lowell K. Handy. Among the Host of Heaven. The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994) pp. 136-139.
 Ovid. Metamorphoses. Vol. 1. Ed. & trans. by Frank Justus Miller. Rev. by G. P. Goold. LCL 42. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1916) p. 8. [Bk 1: 89-90] My translation used.
 Edda. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Ed. by Gustav Neckel & Hans Kuhn. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1983) p. 2. [stz. 8]
 Concerning the canard that capitalism is the antithesis of bureaucracy, think of the last time you attempted to get an Xfinity internet connection set up, or changed your address with your bank, or tried to re-arrange a delivery with a courier service. The “love affair” of capitalism with bureaucracy is treated by: David Graeber. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (New York: Melville House, 2015). In fact, it ought to be protested that the political culture of the Æsir is not wholly bureaucratic – indeed, in many ways it is anti-bureaucratic because it exhibits virtually no trace of alienation in a Marxian sense. However, these are arguments for another time.
 Sverre Bagge. The Political Thought of The King’s mirror. (Odense: Odense University Press, 1987).