Monday, 2 April 2018

An Encounter with a Prophet at Snorrastofa

On holiday in Iceland, and using it as an opportunity to finally read The Prose Edda, I noticed that there was a cultural and medieval centre called Snorrastofa, based around its author/compiler Snorri Sturluson at his former homestead at Reykholt. My partner, a friend and I drove there from Reykavik. Our encounter with the local Lutheran priest Geir Waage, an expert on Snorri and Icelandic history, is worth recording.

The woman staffing the centre could not have been friendlier, so we were already in good spirits when we entered the small exhibition telling the story of Snorri's life and times. As we went round, an elderly priest emerged from a room at the side of the exhibition hall. Peaking in the room later, it seemed to be a combination of study and sacristy; the priest is based at the small church a stone's throw away from the centre. The priest, whom I later learned is named Waage, emerged from this room and began speaking to us of the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down. He wondered if we, as Englishmen, knew all of the verses of the song, and of its origin. As per most of the English he encountered, we were in the dark. He theorized that its origins are in the demolition of the bridge by Viking invaders in the early years of the 11th century AD. He said that this event was told in Snorri's Heimskringla, a chronicle of the Kings of Norway. This led to a long discourse on the Chronicle. It was written in Old Norse, which was no longer the vernacular within a couple of hundred years of the composition. Geir mused on how a society which loses its language loses its roots, its culture, and becomes "stupid." He told of how the book was translated from the 16th century onward, and influenced various Nationalist movements and Northern expansionist escapades. One was never quite sure how much Waage approved on this use of the Chronicle, but he was sure of its power. He pointed to various editions and described them as "more dangerous than gunpowder." We agreed that ideas can have huge effects, as witnessed by the current Brexit events in the UK.

Waage pointed to a medieval map of the Northern territories, and to a small town which might have been Molde. He said that many Icelanders could trace their lineage back to that town, as can many of history's movers and shakers. "Your Elizabeth," he cried, "is a descendant of a fat viking from there, called Rollo. He could not sit on a horse and had to be wheeled around in a cart." Rollo invaded Normandy, and his line led to William the Conqueror, and so to the current Royal House of Windsor. Waage made much mention of genealogy, of bloodlines, of where ancestry can be traced. He spoke of the medieval slave trade and of how Norse blood was mixed through it with Celts, Asians, and Africans. He is fascinated by the ways in which genetics, and genetic defects, can help with genealogy.

Waage is a man with a full panoply of theatrical props. He carries a wooden walking stick, with which he liberally points and gesticulates. At one point in his discourse, he laid aside the stick and took out a small horn with a stopper top. He proceeded to lay a line of snuff as black and fine as dry lava across the back of his hand, and hoovered it in one swift sniff. Later, when we met him again near Snorri's grave, he was carrying a handful of Rosemary.

Across the grave, he told us the story of Snorri's end. Hiding in a cellar, hunted by opposing forces in the contemporary civil war, Snorri was killed by a reign of blows by certain kinsmen. His adopted son was blinded and castrated by his brothers a few months later. Waage noted how many of the sagas of those times are plundered by the writers of Game of Thrones. He emphasized the bloodthirsty cruelty of that civil war, and how it was caused by a concentration of power and money in a few hands. Earlier, he had blamed the delay in building a museum to house the Icelandic sagas on the concentration of money in the hands of a few. He condemned the Iceland of now as wealthy but corrupt, and with great inequality. He predicted that we would see civil war in Europe in our time, given the widespread concentration of money in the hands of the few. This felt like the climax of his talk, after which he left us to look at the remains of the cellar in which Snorri was killed.

Waage's prediction has rung in my ears ever since, as there's something about the prophecies of a man so steeped in history, lore, and the study of laws. He described the Sagas as tales of men who transgress the Law, and so bring ruin on themselves and others. Waage is the nearest to an Old Testament prophet I have ever personally encountered, and it's funny how just a few minutes in such a person's company can "seem like a couple of months".
                                         Geir Waage at Snorri's grave.

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