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Preservation and Immortatlity: the Transition From Oral to Written Culture in Iceland

Preservation and Immortatlity: the Transition From Oral to Written Culture in Iceland

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"Preservation and Immortatlity: the Transition From Oral to Written Culture in Iceland" by Joseph Knitt, appearing in Oshkosh Scholar, Volume 2 (2007)
"Preservation and Immortatlity: the Transition From Oral to Written Culture in Iceland" by Joseph Knitt, appearing in Oshkosh Scholar, Volume 2 (2007)

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Preservation and Immortality: The Transition From Oral to Written Culturein Iceland.Joseph Knitt, author.
pp. 63-69Oshkosh Scholar, Volume II, April 2007Copyright © 2007 University of Wisconsin Board of RegentsAll rights reserved. No part of this journal may be reproduced in any formwithout the permission of University of Wisconsin OshkoshUniversity of Wisconsin OshkoshOffice of Grants and Faculty Development800 Algoma Blvd.Oshkosh, WI 54901(920) 424-3215www.uwosh.edu/grants
 
Page62
Oshkosh Scholar
Page63
Oshkosh Scholar
Preservation and Immortality: The Transition From Oralto Written Culture in Iceland
Joseph Knitt
,author
Dr.BarbaraCrass,ReligiousStudies/Anthropology,facultyadviser
 Abstract 
ThefollowingarticlecomesfromDr.BarbaraCrass’s
 Anthropology 300: TheViking World 
classduringtheSpring2006semesteratUWOshkosh.Itisintendedto
provideinsightonthetransitionfromanoraltoawrittencultureinIceland.Asetofnecessaryachievementsappeartohavebeeninplacethatwereconsistentwithotherculturesthathaveestablishedwrittencultures.Whenthesepieceswereputtogetheraroundtheturnofthelastmillennium(circa1100
 – 
1200CE)theyallowedthetransitiontooccur.ThemainitemsofthischangewereIceland’sexcellenthistoryornarrativestorytelling,anexceptionalcastofstorytellersandpoets,andtheintroductionofthewrittenwordtotheIcelandersbyChristianmissionaries.
Arecracklesasitthrowsasoft,orangeandyellowglowontothosewhositaroundit.Someofthekinsmensit,spinningandcombingwool,otherstendtomending
theirtoolsandweapons,whilesomesimplysitandpayattentiontotheelderwhospeakstothem.Theoldmanrecountsthetaleofhisancestorswhofoughtvaliantly
againsttheCeltictribesinIreland;ofhowtheyinteractedwiththegodsinattempttosealtheirvictoryinbattle;ofhowtheydrankeverynightwithOdininthehallsofValhalla.Thestorytellerisanimated,throwinghisarmsthroughtheairlikeesh-
boundspecters.Heuseshispolytonousvoicetoaddemphasistothepartsofthestoryhewantshisaudiencetorememberthemost.Heisthelivingandbreathinghistoryof
hiskinsmen;heistheirlinktothepastandtheirhopeforthefuture.Thewrinkledand
tiredoldmanisastoryteller.
SuchisascenefromVikinghousesorcampsfromdaysgoneby.ItisnosecretthattheNorthmenwereofanoralculture.Theirstorieswerenotrecordedin
anyconcreteform,butpreservedinthemindsofthosewhotoldstoriesaroundthe
re.EventhelawsoftheVikingswerestoredintheconsciousnessofthosedeemedworthytomemorizethemandproclaimthematthepseudo-governmentalgatherings
oftheThing.Eventually,though,therewasatransitionfromtheiroraltraditionstothe“modern”traditionsofthewrittenword.Howwassuchatransitionfacilitatedand
why?TheScandinavianpeopleshadsurvivedforhundredsofyearswithouttheadvent
ofthewrittenword,sowhatmadethemchange?Inaword,Christianity.
Tounderstandthistransition,itispertinenttorstobservetheoraltraditions
oftheVikings.Theparadox,though,comesfromthefactthatanoralcultureleavesnotraceasitdiesoff.Inquisitionmustthencomefromeitheracontinuingoraltraditionpasseddownoverthegenerations,orwrittenaccountsofaliteraryculture’spastasanoralculture.InthecaseoftheVikings,itistheformerthatprovidesus
withourknowledge;thesearethesagas.Fromwhatweknow,theNorthmenwereanoralcultureuntilroughly1000CE,butwasthatculturesufcient?Inhisbook
 Homo Narrans
,JohnNiles(1999)states,“whenconsideredasaspecialkindofritualperformance,oralnarrativehasastrongcapacitytosustainsocialmemory.Storytelling
 
Page64
Oshkosh Scholar
Page65
Oshkosh Scholar
Speakeratthetime,“tossedhisimagesoftheoldgodsoverthebeautifulfallsinthenorthstillcalledGodafoss,waterfallofthegods,”saysLacy(1998,p.101).JackGoodyin
The Power of the Written Tradition
(2000)statesthat,“even
cultureswithoutwritingmaybeinuencedbytheproductsofwrittencultures—forexample,bytheirreligionsofconversion.Featuresassociatedwiththeexistenceofa
textmaybetransmittedtoindividualsandculturesthatdonotposseswriting”(p.48–49).ThiswascertainlythecaseinlateVikingAgeIceland.Theintroductionof
Christianityandsubsequentliteraturehadsetthewheelsinmotion.Nolongerwould
onehavetorememberandrecounteitherthepeople’sstoriesortheirlaws.Intheessay
“EddasandSagasinMedievalIceland,”GisliSigurdsson(2000)proclaims:
Lawtextswereamongthe
rstsecularmaterialstobeputinwrit-
ingintheearlytwelfthcentury.AlittlemorethanacenturyafterthecomingofChristianity,theprofessionalstatusoftheorallytrained
 Loegsoegumathu
rhadbeenundermined;hecouldnolongerdecide
whichlawwasapplicablebuthadtoconsultabookoflawthatwaskeptbythebishop.Thedirecttransferofpowerfromthesecularchieftaintothechurchisevidentinthistransitionaswellastheevo
-
lutionfromoraltowrittenculture,andfromthepaganheritagetotheChristianworldwherethebookhadacentralfunction.(p.186)TheapparentshiftinpowertothechurchlookstobedishearteningtotheidentityofIcelandicnatives.Theywould,however,maintaintheirsenseofidentitybytakingtheLatinalphabetandadaptingittosuittheirownneeds.Lacy(1998)explains,“theimportantthingisthatalmostalltheextantbooksarewritteninIcelandic,notLatin”
(p.34),towhichSigurdsson(2000)adds,“thefactthatLatinwasnotusedforthis
literaryproductionputstheseworksinthesameclassastheIrishsagas,theonlyothersecularheroicproseliteratureinthispartoftheworldthatwaswritteninthevernacular”(p.186).Itseems,then,thatwhilethestorytellerandthelawgiverwerebeingphasedoutofIcelandicculture,authors,historians,andamoremodernformofthelawyer(drawingtheirinformationfrombooksratherthanfrommemory)took
theirplace.Sigurdssonexplainsthatsecularchieftainsof12thcenturyIcelandalso
maintainedtheirhistoricalidentitybycompilingthe
 Book of Settlements
,anaccountof
Icelandicsettlement.Sigurdsson(2000)alsostatesthatIcelandicpoetsbecamesought-aftercommoditiesandtraveledtothenoblecourtsofScandinaviaandtheBritishIsles
tospintheirtalesorwritenewonesfortheirpatrons.Theseworkswerethencompiled
byIcelandicpoliticianSnorriSturlusoninthe13thcenturyintoasingular
Prose Edda
(a.k.a.
Snorra
or
Younger Edda
).The
Poetic Edda
of1270thenpreservedother
mythsofbothScandinaviaandGermany(p.186–187).In“LiteraryBackgroundsoftheScandinavianBallad,”VesteinnOlason(1991)recallsanotherwaytheseIcelandic
peopleheldontotheiridentity:LiteracyseemstohavebeenmorewidespreadthereintheMiddle
AgesandinthefollowingcenturiesthanintherestofScandina-via.Fromthefourteenthcenturyonmanysagas—narrativeprosegenrescomposedorwrittendownchieybeginninginthethirteenth
century—wereretoldintheuniquelyIcelandicrhymedmetricalformknownas
rimur. Rimur
,whichareclearlytobedistinguishedfromballadsoftheinternationaltype,werenodoubtcomposedandhelpsmembersofagroupmaintainanawarenessofhowthepresentistheresultofpastaction”(p.54).Itwouldseemthen,thatanoraltraditionallowedtheVikingstokeep,intheirminds,asenseofidentityaswellastheirlawsandcustoms.However,the
Vikingsseemedtohaveacontingencyplan;theirrunes.
RunesconstitutedaverybasicVikingalphabet.Thisalphabet,though,wasinactiveintheculture’snarrativehistoryandlaws.As
Vikings
:
The North Atlantic Saga
(2000)shows,“Theprimaryfunctionofrunestoneswasformemorialpurposes,buttheirusetorecordmissionaryworkordocumentinheritancehasalsobeensuggested”(p.67).Itappearsthen,thatruneswerenotinvolvedinthemoreconsistentoruniversallyimportantaspectsofVikingsociety.Thisisnotsurprisingthough,asTonyAllanin
The Vikings: Life, Myth, & Art 
(2004)addsthatruneswereperceivedbytheVikingstohavemagicalpowers.Thisbeliefpossiblystemsfromtheirstoryoforiginin
whichOdinhimselfattainedthesecretofwritingbyhanginghimselfonYggdrasiland
gashinghissidewithhisownspear(p.26
 – 
27).In
 Ring of Seasons
,TerryLacy(1998)
addstotherunes’mysticism;aftertheywerecarvedintowoodorstone,“therunes
werethenaccentuatedwithdyeorbloodandaformulaspokenoverthemtoempowerthem.Therunestickcouldthenbecarriedforprotection”(p.105).Itbecomesclearthatruneswerenotviewedasapredecessorofanoverarchingwrittenlanguage,butsomethingclosertosorcery.Lacy(1998)continues:Inadayandagewhenrelativelyfewcouldwrite,themereuseofrunesorletters,evenfornormalcommunication,wasmagical,andtheLatinofthechurchwassimilarlyamagicalcodetotheuniniti
-
ated.ThusmanyofthosereputedtobesorcerersinIcelandichistorywerechurchmen.(p.106)Evenastheynearedawrittenculture,Vikingsapparentlyviewedliterature(orthewrittenword)asmoremagicthanscience.OtheraspectsoftheVikings’oraltraditionsweretheorationsoftheirmythsandthepracticesoftheirreligion.Thesetoo,however,canonlybeviewedclearlyincorrelationtotheintroductionofthesociety’sliteracy.ItisnosecretthatthisintroductionwenthandinhandwiththeadoptionofChristianity.Most(ifnotall)oftheVikingswrittenworkshavecomefromIceland.Itisthenimportanttostudytheisland’scontributionsandaccesstoliterature.Inlightofthis,Lacy(1998)states:WiththeadventofChristianityin1000asIceland’sreligion,thechurchbroughttheconceptofschools,theLatinalphabet,and
Gregorianchantsaspartofthemass...literacyandtheabilitytowrite
becamewidespread.Chieftainsandotherswereauthorsandfarm
-houseswerecentersforproducingandcopyingmanuscripts.(p.34)
CommonknowledgeproposesthattheacceptanceofChristianitywasnotan
instantaneousevent.TherearefamiliarstoriesofhowtheVikingswouldpraytoGod
onland,butsettheirfatesinthehandsofThoratsea.Thetransitionalpagansalsowore
two-sidedamulets;onesidebeingaChristiancross,theotherThor’shammer.Allan
(2004)adds,“theeffectsoftheswitchweregradualbutprofound,affectingallaspects
ofNorseculture.Conversionwasaccompaniedbyashift...fromanoralculturetoonebasedonwriting”(p.113).Eventually(aspreviouslystated)thenationofIceland
adoptedChristianityasawhole.EvenThorgeirThorkelsson,awellrespectedLaw

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