WHAT´S IN A NAME? EVERYTHING! Trump and Ragnar Lothbrok
When someone has a given a strange name to their child my mother use say: “It is of no importance at all, the child will put its mark on the name, it changes and will suit her/him well in the end.” Sure, she's right. When we hear the name Beethoven it carries with it all the impressions and meanings his music have. The name is a stamp on Beethoven's complete works. In his case it is a quality seal, or what we in our commercially devastated world would call his brand. A name beyond good and evil. For me, Beethoven's music is a magnificent experience with no trace of evil. But for an evil sociopath like Alex in Anthony Burgess´s Clockwork Orange the music of “Lovely Ludwig Van” becomes an inspiration for his outbursts of “ultraviolence” or as he puts it in Stanley Kubrick's movie:
Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!
Thankfully, masterpieces like such divine music and unforgettable novels are actually not tarnished by their creators´ human shortcomings, though we are often tempted to assume it. However, the case is quite different when it comes to policies and acts inspired by power-mad people's narcissism. In that case individuals´ names become brands for either good or evil. It´s enough to think about names like Hitler or Stalin. It is probably like an ad for The Walt Disney Company declares: "What's in a name? Everything!"
As I write this, I am listening to Donald John Trump while he speaks with the awful Patrick Sean Hannity, his most boundless admirer who spreads his poison on the Fox Channel in a manner described by CNN as:
Hannity frequently cites areas where he agrees with Trump, or where he thinks Trump was right about something, then asks him to expand on it. Many questions function as a set-up for Trump to discuss anything he wants.
A sickening approach where Trump's pathological narcissism is allowed to flow freely and his repulsive platitudes are encouraged by an unbridled enthusiasm, thus illustrating Sean Hannity´s unconcealed favouritism, completely in accordance with his own description of his act: "I'm not a journalist. I'm a talk show host." I listen to the idiocies with disgust and fear. What worries me the most is all those who sloppily swallow the poisoned bait. Listen to Primo Levi, the most accurate observer of the horrors of the Holocaust:
Information today is the “fourth estate.” In an authoritarian state it is not like this. There is only one Truth, proclaimed from above. The newspapers are all alike; they all repeat the same one truth. Propaganda is substituted for information. It is clear that under these conditions it becomes possible (though not always easy: it is never quite easy to do deep violence to human nature) to erase quite large chunks of reality.
Unfortunately, it seems the media under Donald Trump's government, and with the support of liars like Sean Hannity, will be sacrificed on the altar of unhealthy populism. Primo Levi warns us not to believe in the dangerous lie that there are individuals with less value than others and implores us to be on our guard against autocratic power madness:
Understanding a proposal or a form of human behavior means containing it, containing its author, putting oneself in his place, identifying with him. No normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and the endless others. This dismays us, but at the same time it provides a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words and their deeds cannot be comprehensible to us. They are nonhuman words and deeds, really counter-human, without historic precedents, difficult to compare even with the cruellest events of the biological struggle for existence.
Due to his own gruesome experiences Primo Levi is permitted to underscore our duty to reflect on what happened during humanity's darkest hour, with its multitude of lies and wanton mass murder. It is our duty to be thoroughly informed about and make a determined effort to remember what men like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini really said and did. That they in their own time were deeply trusted men, applauded and boundlessly admired. Hailed as a "charismatic leaders". According to Levi, such men had the power and the ability to deceive most of us. Their motivation was not to be credible, they were not motivated by any truth. Crucial to their means of expression was the way in which it was done, it was a form of repugnant entertainment. It was that which made them so incredibly admired, so they could savour the warmth of fame, constantly increasing their own well-being. Most of all, we ought to realize that:
that their faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
Trump is a monster in the word's original meaning as an omen, a sign from the gods, from the Latin monstrum originating from monere, to warn, remind. Consciously Trump has transformed himself into a brand, a sign to hide himself behind. Accordingly, he has transformed himself into a showcase, a cartoon character. The Trump Organization is a business corporation and its logo illustrates its structure and operations.
A labyrinth; vague, abstract and inhuman - this despite the fact that the enterprise bears a specific individual´s name and its image is largely based on this person's self-imposed role as a symbol of celebrity, glitz, glamour, wealth and power. Sure, Trump's business is far from the only company carrying an individual's name and thus obtaining its allure from his charisma. However, such a fascination is generally instigated from an individual's creative capacity - like the names of big fashion houses, or from inventors and innovators:
Friedrich Bayer, John Cadbury, André-Gustave Citroën, Gaspare Campari, William Colgate, Henry Ford, King Camp Gillette, Charles Goodyear, Soichiro Honda, Will Keith Kellogg, Charles Goodyear, Max Factor, Henri Nestlé, Paul Reuter, Sakichi Toyoda, Werner von Siemens, Henry E. Steinway, Andreas Stihl, etc.,etc.
And Donald John Trump? What do we find behind that name? An inventor, a pioneer? The name Trump seems to be a product in line with what the company offers - fame, glitz, glamour, wealth and power. And Donald John Trump? Who is he? Fame, glitz, glamour, wealth and power?
When a US presidential name adorns skyscrapers and casinos all over the world, their success or downfall are probably to a high decree dependent on the brand and the president's prestige. Is this not a case of an alarming conflict of interest? Upset and exhausted by the TV´s brain dead spectacle around this idiotic president I turn it off to deliver my brain from the misery and make it think about other things.
A name creates presence. In most cultures naming is an indispensable ritual, something which make a baby into a real human being, a member of society, someone to reckon with. A naming ceremony is usually carried out in front of a group of witnesses who may confirm the transformation to others.
Knowing a person's name gives you a certain power over her/him. To reveal your name to someone may be considered as an act of confidence. To reveal the name of someone can mean that you either provide it as a sign of trust, or that you have been forced to do so, or even that you act out of own personal gain, that you have become an informer.
Names can be regarded as holy, from the Old English hal, meaning “health, happiness, good luck” and thus something that has to be protected. Holy came to mean inviolable, something that could not be allowed to be damaged. Holiest of all names is the name of God, a fact emphasized by the Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."
If someone forgets your name, it could mean that you have not made any significant impression on that person. This is something that has plagued me in my role as a teacher. I am ashamed to have been unable to properly learn the names of all my students. I have a much better visual memory than memory for names and figures. With not too much effort I am able visualize faces, but to my despair I am generally unable to connect them with any names.
To deny someone a name does in many cultures indicate that you intend to harm, condemn or even destroy the one who carries the name. A nameless individual becomes disengaged from society - an outcast, but s/he may also hide behind an apparent non-existence and accordingly become dangerous. Anonymity may serve as a protection for those with bad intentions, but lack of identity may also make them fearless and unrestricted, like Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's movies -The Man with No Name.
An interesting Italian comic strip from the seventies spin on a similar theme - Lo Sconosciuto, the Stranger, written and designed by Roberto Raviola. The Stranger is a name-less former mercenary, a middle-aged man who appears to be something between a secret agent and a bodyguard. It is likely that at some time in the past he was actively involved in various wars and rebellions, perhaps as a government soldier, or maybe as a member of some guerrilla unit, but the actual facts are never disclosed. Lo Sconosciuto´s past occasionally haunts him in the form of obscure hallucinations, or nightmares. The plots generally consists of Lo Sconosciuto being hired to perform various, seemingly innocuous tasks, but he eventually becomes helplessly embroiled in dangerous entanglements.
The cartoon series was born when homespun Italian and international terrorism ravaged Europe and Lo Sconosciuto becomes entangled in political warfare within the Arab world, is drawn into drug trafficking, mafia dealings, illicit arms trafficking, or ends up in Latin American and African nations on the brink of civil war, or embroiled in bloody conflicts between different interest groups. No one knows neither the real identity of Lo Sconosciuto, nor what he wants to achieve, not even himself.
However, these are romanticized depictions of a harsh and complicated reality. Names were removed from concentration camp prisoners, they became things and as things they could be exploited and destroyed, ending up as human waste, whose disposal did not merit any mourning. The Imperial Japanese Army's Unit 731 was devoted to research on biological and chemical warfare. The researchers busied themselves with applied science, carrying out vivisections, or congealing living people. They tested the effects of lethal drugs on them, pathogenic microbes, gas and a variety of weapons, starved them to death, contaminating them with venereal diseases and subjected them to a host of other atrocities, which in every single case ended up with the death of the victims, either as a result of the experiments, or to keep the operations secret.
The prisoners were designated with numbers from 101 to 1,500, when the executioners had killed all 1,500 they restarted the count from 101. Accordingly, the exact number of victims is not known, a common estimate is 250 000 men, women and children. The Unit's central facility was in Pingfang, outside the big city of Harbin in Northeast China and it was more or less the same size as Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Officially, the death camp was designated as a saw mill, after the prisoners had been stripped of their names and identities they were known as "logs", maruta. Deaths were reported as the number of "felled logs".
Pronouncing a name might be considered as a desire to meet someone, the establishment of a relation with the creature that bears the name. Pronouncing the names of evil entities could thus be considered as a crime, or as a dangerous and irresponsible act. As in the Harry Potter books, where the great fear of the evil wizard Voldemort means that no one dares to pronounce his name and he is thus referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
The word “name” has an Indo-European origin and is evident in most languages spoken in Europe. In Sanskrit “name” is naman and in Latin nomen. Early on the ancient Romans pondered about the similarity between the word nomen and a phenomenon called numen.
Living in Italy is like being enclosed by a schoolbook. When an earthquake a few months ago razed the city of Amatrice, Rieti was also seriously shaken, this is a small but ancient town by the foot of the Sabine Hills, a few miles north of Rome.
Rieti, with its medieval centre, ring wall, ancient Roman ruins and a small river running through the town, is a typical example of the charming and strange places that are to be found all over Italy. Small towns and villages I never have heard of until I by some chance end up in them.
Like so many other Italian communities, Rieti contains thick layers of intriguing history. It was from Rieti the first Romans abducted the Sabine women, who they believed to be necessary for expanding their predominantly male community. It was in Rieti that the powerful Flavian dynasty, with emperors like Vespasian and Titus, found its origins. None of this would have been known to me, if I on a chilly autumn afternoon, several years ago, had not gone astray with our car and ended up in Rieti.
After taking a cup of coffee in the piazza, in front of the medieval cathedral that is a customary feature in most ancient Italian towns, I wandered around in the midday sleepy Rieti and ended up in front of a statue of Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC), a man until then completely unknown to me. Of course, I googled him as soon I came back home again. He had been a warrior with Pompey the Great, fighting against pirates in the Mediterranean and also against Julius Caesar in the civil war. Varro ended up on the losing side and was sentenced to death. However, he was pardoned and by Caesar ordered to establish and organize Rome's first Public Library. A fitting task for someone who the church father St Augustine more than three hundred years later praised and quoted almost a hundred times in his massive The City of God declaring that Varro had been:
a man of pre-eminent, of unparalleled erudition, succinctly and neatly described in one line of Terentian, ´Varro, that man of universal science´; a man who read so much that we marvel that he had any time for writing; who wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all.
Varro's literary output was obviously huge and included everything from science and history, to novels and poems, all written with an astonishing stylistic variety. He had a great influence on the whole of the ancient world, but only one of his 600 books has been preserved, though fragments of his writings appear in several ancient authors' works.
That I now came to think about Varro was not only due to the earthquakes, which sometimes continue to shake Rome, but because there is a preserved fragment of Varro in which he reflects on the word "name".
The Romans were extremely careful to address their gods by their right and proper names. By accidentally directing oneself to a wrong god, one who did not have the power over what you wanted to be helped with, or even worse, if you on purpose or mistakenly distorted a deity's name, it would have dire consequences. Order had to prevail in universe and everything had to have a proper name. A name designated the power inherited in every object. The divine power, the life force that animated the entire creation, was by the ancient Romans called numen. A word originally meaning “to nod”, i.e. to declare that something was true.
Varro wrote that this is precisely why the words nomen (name) and numen are so closely linked. Varro assumed that they both descended from the verb nosco, to recognize. Naming something was an act of confirming that it was endowed with an inherent power, a numen: "When new things had come into use they added names by which they might know them.” To give someone or something a name means we recognize that something/someone has an intrinsic force, which we may use for our own purposes. Maybe this was why God, according to the Bible, brought all the animals to Adam and asked him to name them.
In Egypt and throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, numerous pottery shards or fragments of papyrus have been found, inscribed with a great variety of nasty curses, always naming the person they were directed against. If a doctor prayed for healing, or sang a curative chant over his patient, he was very careful to indicate her/his name, otherwise the cure would have been worthless.
Researchers have until recently assumed that strange, hitherto unknown names occurring on curse fragments and in healing spells have been invented magical words, though now most of them agree that these were actually secret names of gods and demons. Each deity had several names and each name was a way to "recognize" and evoke the god's power. Most powerful were names that the gods concealed from the uninitiated. Only specific priests and magicians knew these names and thus the gods listened to them even more carefully than names evoked on an everyday basis. Both the Bible and the Qur´an declare that God has many names and several of them are unknown to us mere mortals.
To condemn memory - damnatio memoriae – was by ancient Romans considered to be a punishment worse than death. It meant that the Senate officially forbade the mentioning of a traitor's name and that any inscription or text where his name was visible had to be obliterated. A custom that prevailed in ancient Egypt as well, where images and names of condemned pharaohs were hacked away and wiped out. In Judaism it was common that a condemned person's name was followed by the phrase yimach shmo vezichro, “may his name and memory be erased”. Nowadays, the practice of removing and destroying statues and images of hated politicians and rulers continues unabated.
If, as my mother use to say, a person put her/his stamp on names, it can also be the opposite. That a name impacts it bearer. Probably one reason to why we might choose beloved relatives´ or admired persons' names for our children. We may also name them after after beautiful people, or objects (flowers, natural phenomena), protective beings (saints and angels) or symbols of strength (like Bear Björn, Wolf Ulf or Stone Sten).
I am grateful for the names my parents chose for me - Jan Erik Ragnar. They have helped me to create an identity, an affiliation. Jan is my own name, Erik and Ragnar are family names. Jan is a Christian name, probably originating from the Hebrew יְהוֹחָנָן Yəhōḥānān “God is gracious” and I actually believe that God has been kind to me. My grandfather´s name was Erik, while Ragnar was one of my father's names. They are pagan “strength names”. Erik means "sole ruler" and was among the Vikings a common royal name. However, I am most attached to the name Ragnar. It originates from the word regin, meaning “divine power”, combined with the ending -arr a foreshortening for harjar - warrior. This fascinating and powerful name attracted me to a large and striking book in my grandfather's bookcase. Its cover was black and red, the title written in gold and framed by runslingor, runic bands – The Saga of Ragnar Loðbrókar and his Sons retold by Peter August Gödecke.
It was not a literary masterpiece, but accounted for exciting reading, while August Malmström´s artwork was quite magnificent. I read the book several times and made countless versions of the illustrations, all have now vanished, except for one. Finally Grandpa gave me the book and I have it in front of me on my desk here in Rome. The language is archaic and somewhat too grandiloquent for my taste, though I can easily understand the fascination I once felt about Tora Borgarhjort´s lindorm, pet snake, which eventually became so huge that it could not be contained in the house, but coiled around its palisade and every day was fed with an entire ox.
The Danish king Sigurd Ring was originally a Swede but had after his victory in the mighty battle of Bråvalla become the most powerful king of the Northern lands, settling in the fertile Denmark. The victory was actually not entirely Sigurd Ring´s achievement but more so the feat of his mighty warrior Starkodder. He had mowed down all opposition, though he
was already bleeding from a hundred wounds and had his jaw cut off, but he kept it in place by sinking his teeth into his own beard and continued to deliver his deadly axe blows.
Sigurd Ring´s eldest son was Ragnar Lothbrok. The tale recounts how he got that name. Tora Borgarhjort´s father, the Swedish earl Härröd, had promised his fair daughter's hand to anyone who could free his kingdom from the monstrous serpent. Not only could it squeeze an assailant to death, its bite was so toxic that it flushed skin and flesh from the body. Ragnar made himself "shaggy pants and a hairy coat", which he boiled in pitch until they became hard like armour. Dressed in his "pitch outfit", he went into battle with the raging snake, which bite and venom could not hurt him, though the figthing was hard and Ragnar broke his spear in the snake's body. While the snake writhed in death agony and while its toxic blood sprayed over him "Ragnar turned and walked away."
He got his beautiful sköldmö, shield maiden, in marriage only after his rune marked spearhead was found in the body of the dead monster. Tora and Ragnar lived happily together until she died in sotdöd "from sickness". Grief made Ragnar senseless and he ravaged in the west, east and south, indifferent to whether he lived or died. Rumours of the mighty Ragnar Lothbrok spread far and wide. It was after his battle with the snake that Ragnar got his name, loðbrókar meaning leather pants coated with pitch.
The Saga continues to tell how Ragnar got the beautiful and valiant Aslög as his wife. She was the daughter of no less than the mighty dragon slayer Sigurd and Brynhild Budlesdotter, the famous Valkyrie. Aslög sings her sad tale to Ragnar. After Sigurd Fafnersbane had been slayed and Brynhild voluntarily had placed herself on her husband's funeral pyre, the little, orphaned Aslög was looked after by the good King Heime, who to protect her pretended to be a simple bard wandering around in the Northern lands, while he had the little girl hidden in the sound box of his big harp. Besides the girl, Heime concealed gold and silk in the sound box. However, one night he was murdered by an evil couple. The wicked old hag Grima had glimpsed a flap of precious silk by the sound box's edge and suspected that it contained great riches.
The killers crushed the sound box with an axe and found the stunning little Aslög, they could not bring themselves to kill such a beautiful creature, but raised her as their daughter. All the time she lived with the terrifying couple Aslög pretended to be deaf-mute. Her foster parents gave her the name Kråka and she grew up to be a gorgeous and strong maiden. Finally, Ragnar Lothbrok appeared with his fleet of sea raiders, after meeting with him Kråka bid farewell to the nasty old couple with the words:
- I know you slayed my foster father Heime and no one could have any better reason than I to avenge herself on you for the crime you committed, but since I've lived with you for some time I myself will not bring you any harm. Though I wish that fate will make every single day even worse for you than the one that preceded it.
Aslög and Ragnar lived happily together and had many sons. According to Viking custom Ragnar, and later his sons, used to sail away after harvest to fight, trade and plunder in England and the "countries of the South." They were also battling the Swedish king Östen Illråde, magician and blotare, sacrificial priest, whose people worshiped a mighty cow named Sibilja, which they led in front of their armies. Then Sibilja bellowed it caused panic and chaos among Östen´s foes and in their confusion they began to kill each other. Due to the magical powers of Sibilja Ragnar could not defeat Östen, but was seduced by the Swedish king's beautiful daughter, Ingeborg. Blinded by lust, Ragnar Lothbrok made peace with King Östen and promised to come back to Uppsala and marry his daughter after he had divorced Aslög.
Nevertheless, when Ragnar came back home he fathomed his folly. He realized he had been under a powerful spell and understood he could not live without his beloved Aslög, an emotion far stronger than his lust for the coveted maiden Ingeborg. Aslög was obviously furious at her spouse. With great difficulty she forgave him, but refused to send Ragnar into battle against Östen, who had killed the two sons that Thora Borgarhjort had borne to Ragnar and whom Aslög had loved as her own. She sent her four sons against Östen. They were led by Ivar Boneless, who could not walk, but was far stronger in his arms than his brothers and moreover was wiser than other man.
When Östen´s men and women, the Viking armies included bloodthirsty shield maidens fighting alongside the male warriors, went into battle against Ragnar´s sons they brought forth the huge cow Sibilja. However, even before she could emit her deadening bellow Ivar Boneless, whose stretcher had been placed in front of Ragnar´s hird, warriors, he shot an arrow straight into one of the cow's eyes. Bawling in pain and panic the huge animal thundered straight towards Ivar Boneless, goring men to death along its path, trampling them in the mud. To drown Sibiljas ominous roar Ivar gave orders to his warriors that they had to scream at the top of their voices and beat swords and axes against their iron-bound shields. Then the raging cow with lowered horns came rushing towards Ivar Boneless, he bade his brothers to lift him high in the wolf skin that covered his stretcher and with its help they hurled Ivar through the air towards Sibilja. Ivar ended up on Sibilja´s back, which was crushed by his weight and thus the battle was decided.
The tale of Ragnar Lothbrok is available in several versions. It was probably written down sometime in the 13th century. The Icelandic version that Gödecke mainly used is missing the stories about how Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons looted Paris, something that apparently happened in reality. However, the Icelanders told how Ragnar met his fate in a battle against the Anglo Saxon King Aella of Northumbria.
When Ragnar left for his last raid, Aslög had given him a tunic that made Ragnar invulnerable to blows and stabs. On the battle field he appeared to be invincible:
This day he pushed his way across his enemies´ fylkings [wedge-shaped battle formations], stabbing and crushing shields, armour and helmets. His force was so immense that nothing that had life in it could withstand him. No blow, stab or shot gave him any wound, though he slew scores of King Aella's men. Nevertheless, they were numerous and all of Ragnar´s men fell. He was finally cornered between shield walls and taken prisoner.
As Ragnar refused to speak, Aella doubted whether he could really be the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. To torture him and possibly get him to talk Aella ordered that Ragnar should be thrown into a pit filled with vipers. However, the magical tunic protected Ragnar from the poisonous snake bites and Aella gave the order to pull him out of the snake pit, tearing the tunic to pieces and once again threw Ragnar into the pit. This time, the naked Ragnar was defenceless and while the vipers crawled all over him, inflicting one poisonous bite after another the tormented old Viking cried out:
- How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!
King Aella understood that Ragnar was dying and feared to be avenged by his sons, who indeed after their father's death furiously attacked Aella, cut his army to pieces and killed Aella by carving Blood Eagle on his back. An extremely barbaric method of execution, which involved cutting the ribs loose along the spine, prying them out and pull out the lungs on top of them, so they lay like wings over the victims back. After I had read about the Vikings cutting blood eagles I asked Grandpa what that meant and his explanation provided me with several horrible nightmares.
More than anything else I had read up until then The Saga of Ragnar Loðbrókar haunted me and I even staged a version I wrote on my father´s typewriter and copied on stencils, which I distributed to my classmates, most of whom were going to participate in a play we premiered on the Funny Hour, a regular feature in Swedish schools at the end of each week during which a student was expected to present something fun and interesting. Of course I reserved the leading role for myself, while Maud would be Aslög. It was my intention to make the play as realistic as possible and to that end I advised my warriors to carry plastic or wooden swords and helmets. We made tunics of burlap potato sacks, girded with belts. We voted against false beards, it would make us look like Santa Claus, but some of us had wigs with braids that we had borrowed from our sisters. I made a big snake from paper, which was manoeuvred by strings and a broomstick and we rehearsed for several weeks in Torbjörn´s basement. At the premiere, parallel classes were invited as audience since almost my entire class was involved in my mammoth production. I do not remember if the play was a success, or not. I think the performance was followed by silence, but if I remember correctly it was performed more than once. Several years later I met some schoolmates who laughingly told me that my play had been the strangest and most incomprehensible performance they had ever seen.
When my daughters a few years ago travelled to Iceland and came back with their stories from this strange country, I reread Njál´s Saga where virtually every page is filled with names in an abundance and variety that make efforts to get a grip on the confusing names in a nineteenth-century Russian novel seem like child's play. The Icelandic names function like some kind of incantation, anchoring the tale in specific places and a definite time, thus providing a strong sense of authenticity. The reader forgets that Njál´s Saga, written in the 13th century actually was created several hundred years after the events it describes.
With its terse language Njál´s Saga succeeds to create genuine, multi-dimensional characters, recreate credible conflicts and conjure up a harsh reality within an inhospitable landscape. The reader is carried along by the narrative and marvels at Gunnar Hámundarson´s steadfast loyalty to his treacherous, domineering and obstinate wife Hallgerður, his firmly-rooted friendship with the lawyer Njál þorgerirsson and how conflicts are resolved or exacerbated by disputes at the Alþingi, the Icelandic governing assembly, or through extremely violent clashes between neighbours, caused by vendettas and ownership disputes.
Njál´s Saga contradicts a commonly occurring perception that small, independent communities, lacking a centralized government, favour peace and cooperation. Like the Mafia families in The Godfather, we follow the tussle and unexpected conflicts within tightly unified families, as well as how warring factions can unite in brigandage against other groups or organize over-sea forays to remote locations, arranged as profit-making enterprises. Most thrilling and richly detailed are the descriptions of bloody clashes and, like in The Godfather, precise descriptions of judicial processes, corruption and broken agreements between warring factions.
Landscape and religion constitute an ever present backdrop, affecting the course of events. We are for example witnessing the Christianization of Iceland, but the implementation of the gospel is far from being carried out by some mild, unassertive priests and monks preaching tolerance and kindness, but rather spread by hard-line fighters ready to enter into single combat with their pagan opponents, using the same brutal methods as their adversaries, meaning bloody duels during which their axes cleave skulls and shields, cut off legs and arms, all in the name of the mighty Vite Krist, White Christ.
We are not provided with any detailed descriptions of neither Christian nor Pagan rituals, but bloody sacrifices and Christian masses are part of the setting. Beliefs in ghosts and interventions from “the other side” by undefeated pagan gods are common. Like when Gunnar Hámundarson after his violent death becomes a draug, a ghost, who during moonlit nights leaves his tomb and sits alone on a hill to meditate. Njál´s Saga ends with the Battle of Clontarf on Ireland, 1014, when the Vikings were finally defeated and the casualties amounted to more than 8,000 warriors.
The night before the battle a man called Dorrud suffered a sleepless night in his cottage in Katanäs on Iceland and went out into the night. Then he saw twelve imposing ladies riding up to a frustuga, women´s cottage. Dorrud sneaked after them and when the door had shut behind them he spied on them through a loophole, witnessing how the women put up a loom and while they weaved they sang a song:
The warp is woven
with warriors´ guts
and heavily weighted
with the heads of men.
Spears serve as heddle rods,
spattered with blood;
and arrows are the pin bearers;
we will beat with swords
our battle web.
Now it is gruesome
to gaze around,
as blood-red clouds
cover the sky;
the heavens will be garish
with the gore of men
while the slaughter-wardens
sing their song
The last stanza does not really describe how “blood-red clouds cover the sky” but more accurately “the air is coloured red by the blood of the fallen”, thus referring to a gruesome phenomenon often described in Viking sagas, namely that if a battlefield was cold and frozen the victims´ warm blood evaporated and rose up as a red mist among the fighters. What Dorrud had witnessed was how Odin's Valkyries, those who retrieved fallen fighters from the battle fields to bring them to Valhalla, was preparing for a battle that would mean the end of the Vikings´ rule in Ireland.
My Christmas present from my youngest daughter was a box with Vikings, Michael Hirst's version of the stories about Ragnar Lothbrok produced for History Channel. I feared the worst, especially when I saw how Lothbrok´s Viking community was called Kattegat, which actually is a sea area between Sweden and Denmark, the two countries where most of the action takes place and which lack the huge mountains and impressive waterfalls of the landscape where the TV series is set. However, I soon could not help becoming quite obsessed with the series. The episodes actually breathe a similar fiery, humane and unrestrained violent mood as Njál´s Saga. It is dramatic, intense and not entirely unreliable. Names and conflicts admittedly differ, to some degree, from the Ragnar Lothbrok story, but the atmosphere is accurate and there are many similarities between the stories. In short, the TV series is an enjoyable reminder of the pleasure I felt when I read Grandpa´s book as a child, a fascination that has proved to be unbroken for more than fifty years.
The fascination I have with my name Ragnar lingers and to some extent I am inclined to disagree with Romeo's beautiful statement in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.
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