Friday, April 20, 2012

I've been reading the Icelandic Sagas in preparation for my trip, in my usual way. They're extra interesting in that they're the very prosiest of prose--when I think Medieval literature I think of all the poems, all the Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain. In the sagas the poets are still the most important, placed highest of the warriors (everyone in Iceland was a warrior, apparently), but the stories themselves are plain and matter-of-fact even when dealing with the most mythical of subject matter. From what I can tell no one seems to know why that is, why they're written in prose when poetry was overwhelmingly the convention of the time, although it seems consistent with everything I've heard about the ways and spirit of the Icelandic people.

Anyway, as a result I've been thinking a lot about nithing poles, the old Viking way of cursing an enemy. It's a pretty straightforward process--I don't think Vikings were really ones for subtlety. To raise a nithing pole all you have to do is carve a pole with runes of curses and stick it in the yard of your enemy with a freshly cut horse head on the top. In one of the early sagas Egil sets one up to make sure that the guardian spirits of a place can't find their home until they drive out his enemies, but the truth is that the tradition is still kept up today. Just a handful of years ago a farmer set up a nithing pole for his neighbor after the neighbor ran over his puppy, cursing him to be haunted until he was either outlawed or dead. (To be fair, puppies are really cute.)

Things keep going wrong around here, and I've been fighting down a rising wave of superstition. It's hard to not see omens and signs in everything when you're struggling against a tide that refuses to turn, especially when you naturally tread on the side of magical thinking. As a result Iceland is starting to loom in my head almost as a refuge, a whole land of people keeping up their old traditions and believing in the old ways, decapitated livestock and magic and all. Maybe there are answers to be found there.

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