Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sagas for Valhalla

A common Viking custom during the interminable nights of Arctic winter was the hosting of gatherings in the mead hall, where families and guests would congregate to finish their day's work, conduct their lord's official affairs, pool resources for meals, or simply wait for the coming of daylight (which in winter is only a few hours long, or in Arctic regions not at all). Frequently, to help pass the time, they would recite the Viking sagas.

Sagas were a peculiar tradition of Norse culture, and consisted of a mixture of poetry and prose of epic scope. Originating in the oral histories of ancient Norse society, they evolved into transcribed accounts of the past, imagined or real, passed on from one generation to the next. Sagas fell into several categories with varying degrees of truth depending on their purpose: Konungasögur, which gave the histories of kings (such as the Heimskringla), Íslendingasögur , which were the histories of major families (famous ones are the Saga of Erik the Red, who brought settlers to Greenland and whose son Leif Erickson reached North America, or the Greenlander's Saga, which tells of the creation and ultimate doom of the Viking Greenland colony); and Fornaldarsaga, which were historical legends (such as the Volsunga saga, which is tied closely to the Germanic Niebelungen story).

The latter were the most enduring, since they reached beyond simple recounts of the past to encompass the ideals of Norse culture. With complex plots and relationships that engaged listeners through long winter nights over the course of several months, the historical legends told stories of characters that--like their audiences--had to tread amoral, ambiguous lines between good and evil, and who invariably had to struggle with their own limitations even as they vied heroically against the awesome powers of gods and monsters.

On-line, there are several succinct introductory references to sagas:
In the modern era, sagas have largely faded into artifacts of history. While seen as works of art reflecting the Viking culture that produced them, sagas are still frequently discounted as quasi-factual, quasi-fanciful constructions of less civilized peoples. Moreover, they are generally held at a cautionary distance by critics, who point out the sagas' obsession with violence and brutality, and their ingrained outdated and quixotic notions of glory, honor, and divine luck.

Despite this, sagas should be seen with some relevance for the modern world. Filtering out the layers of the past and the imprints of ancient society, sagas reveal at their core a number of values still holding universal significance across the gulf of cultures and times:
  • Actions, not words: Sagas were spare in their language, following the use of objective narrative with little space for descriptive commentary. As part of this, audiences were left to judge characters by the nature of their actions, and the consequences those actions had upon their lives. The implication given to listeners was that people were to be evaluated by what they did and not by what they said. In life, it does not matter what you say, it only matters what you do. Because only actions can change the world.
  • Tenacity against the odds: Heroes in sagas did not abandon their missions. Even in the face of discomfort, suffering, or overwhelming odds, they did not turn away, but instead persisted, undaunted and resolute. This was not because their challenges were temporary, nor to suggest to audiences that persistence always results in victory. Indeed, sometimes the foes triumphed, resulting in the hero's death. Rather, heroes persisted because of who they were. For them, their actions were statements of their character...character that was in many ways more important than life, because it would be known even after their death.
  • Courage against the unknown: Sagas frequently had characters encountering gods, monsters, and supernatural forces. Almost always, these challenges were awesome in their power, and greater than the hero, who in contrast was often shown as an individual of personal foibles and all-to-human limitations. None the less, characters demonstrated courage in facing their challenges, rising to meet them even though the outcome was uncertain or even doomed.
For ancient Vikings, the message was that how you lived was a statement of who you were. Hence, your actions and your character defined your life. Ostensibly, for the ancient Norse, a person's deeds and behavior while living were taken towards earning a place among the gods in Valhalla. But the undercurrent was still clear: even as your life was short, and could end at any time in any manner of ways, the way in which you lived your life would be remembered long after your death by the world you left behind...a world ultimately made of nothing more than the countless lives that have passed through it; a world that reflects you.

This was, and is, important.

In modern society, the world is beset by challenges. Problems of complexity defying description. Issues of scale and scope beyond comprehension. Horrors of magnitude exceeding imagination. The temptation is apathy, inactivity, surrender. To give in to the weakness of our own humanity in the face of the awesome darkness that surrounds us.

It was no less than in the Viking era. But then, as the ancient Norse huddled in the low firelight of their mead halls through the bitter cold of the encroaching winter, besieged by a world of harsh brutality and violence and ignorance and cruelty and mystery and fear, they still recited the sagas that told of people who rose to stand against the night and the terrors all around them...people who struggled against gods and monsters, who strove against the supernatural and unknown, even in the face of their own death, despite the assurance of their own suffering, through the utter desolation of winter, across uncharted frozen seas, and unto the ends of the earth. People who dared to become heroes.

The sagas told people how to live, even if there seemed no hope. They told people that they could change the world, although it was beset by dangers seemingly insurmountable. The sagas told people that the manner in which they struggled against the impossible would speak of who they were and what it meant to be alive, and that because of this each person should strive to make of their own life their own saga, worthy of the gods in Valhalla, worthy of having daylight upon the earth, and worthy of all the later generations that are yet to come.

In short, against the onslaught of night, the sagas told people to face the darkness, and to continue living.

And they do still.

The race may seem impossible, the distance may be daunting, but the sagas tell us otherwise, and they bid us to do our utmost to the very end of the finish.

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