Nordic Spirit Symposium celebrates sagas

Role of art, Viking women highlighted

By Judith Gabriel Vinje
Norwegian American Weekly

The links between the pagan Viking Age and the Christianization of the Nordic countries continues to fascinate historians, as well as Scandinavian Americans and other members of the general public.

Gathering in Viking Age garb at the recent Nordic Spirit Symposium at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. From Left: Howard Rockstad, symposium founder and director, Terje Andreassen and Marit Vea of the Avaldsnes Project. Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje

Gathering in Viking Age garb at the recent Nordic Spirit Symposium at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. From Left: Howard Rockstad, symposium founder and director, Terje Andreassen and Marit Vea of the Avaldsnes Project. Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje

Despite the rare rainstorm that hit Thousand Oaks, California, more than 200 attended the two-day Nordic Spirit Symposium at California Lutheran University Feb. 6-7, as noted scholars wove their interconnecting accounts of the days when both the cross and the hammer figured prominently in the life of the Scandinavian people.

Sponsored by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation, this year’s symposium, the 10th in the annual series, revolved around the Icelandic Sagas, the richest legacy of the Viking Age, hailed and studied throughout the world, according to Howard K. Rockstad, Nordic Spirit founder and director.

Wearing bright, authentic Viking Age garb, Marit Synnøve Vea, project manager of the Avaldsnes Project in Avaldsnes, Norway, brought the role of Viking women into the picture, with her special interest in Norse Saga literature, which has much to say about the role of women in the Viking Age.  While most women were primarily connected with the home and the farm, women could also be shield maidens, warriors or priestesses.  And some were very powerful and wealthy.

Women were also well-represented among the gods.  While Frigg was the protector of the home, and the carrier of maternal love, Freya was the goddess of erotic love.  But were they originally just one goddess, Nerthus, the original Nordic “Mother Earth”? Vea suggested that “the early Christian chroniclers may have deliberately or mistakenly described Frigg and Freya as two different fertility goddesses.”

Asked if she wished she had lived during the Viking Age, Vea said on the contrary,  “I feel lucky that I live today because life was very hard then.”

Merrill Kaplan of Ohio State University, delved further into the relevance of the Icelandic sagas, which are considered a national treasure in Iceland, where the original manuscripts have resided since the 1960s after Denmark released them.  “All people in the past have been interested in their own past,” she noted, pointing out that the 14th century Christian writers of the sagas were interested in their pagan Viking Age past.  That interest is still alive as modern audiences are increasingly fascinated by the sagas.

Indeed, as acclaimed poet Bill Holm noted, “Iceland is a culture that has stayed alive because of words – their stories and sagas.” Holm, who divides his time between Minnesota and an Iceland fjord, is the grandson of Icelandic immigrants.  All the Icelandic Sagas have been translated into English now.  And it is a “literature that is still alive in the national consciousness.

Norwegian chronicles and Icelandic sagas give a polished and rounded image of the Christian conversion of Norway.  But as Anders Winroth of Yale University told the Symposium audience, the conversion to Christianity had been a slow, piecemeal process.  “It’s unusual that anyone abruptly changes all their religious beliefs and practices,” he said.  The use of the cross spread long before the Scandinavians were Christianized, he said, noting that 50 miniature crosses have been found dating to the Viking Age.

It is a seeming paradox to find runestones with both crosses and pagan animals, and both Thor’s hammer and the Christian cross on the same artefacts.  Nancy Wicker of the University of Minnesota, said that the animal style was even used on churches, notably the Urnes church in Norway.

While the sagas were all written by men, women did have a medium through which to tell their stories. Lena Norrman of the University of Minnesota says that women in the Viking Age communicated their lore in their weaving and embroidery.

Calling on the lore of the Norse goddess Freya, Finnish-born singer and flutist Ulla Suokko led the audience in a rune-chant, accompanied by flamenco guitarist Carlos Revollar, as part of a “Musical-Magical Journey into the World of the Valkyries.” The two New York-based musical storytellers also entertained at the Saturday evening dinner celebration, which was attended by Kirsti Westphalen, consul-general of Finland in Los Angeles.

The Nordic Spirit Symposium is sponsored by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation and California Lutheran University, and is made possible by grants from the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, the Royal Norwegian Consulate in San Francisco and the Swedish Consulate in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly in the issue of February 20, 2009. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly and to subscribe, email us at naw@norway.com or call (800) 305-0217.

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