My weekend reading: Inside the Viking mind and world

What I’m reading: Neil’s Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm”

The Vikings are a people both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Familiar through all manner of popular representations on television (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Norsemen), in the movies (The 13th Warrior, The Vikings, Outlander, Valhalla Rising), and fiction (The Hammer and the Cross, The Golden Wolf Saga).

But unfamiliar in terms of our knowing of their minds, how they understood themselves, and how they understood the worlds through which they moved. Worlds both seen and unseen. This is where Neil Price’s new history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, truly astonishes, opening an inner window into a people whose minds are in many ways deeply alien to our own.

As Price, distinguished professor and chair of archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden, explains in an early chapter:

[V]ery different worlds were being built inside the Norse mind. Here is another distinction between appearance and reality, between the surface and what it conceals. From the problematic medieval written sources, and occasional mentions in Eddic and skaldic poetry, emerges one of the most remarkable aspects of the Vikings: the fourfold division of being and an extremely complex notion of what might loosely be called the soul.

This fourfold division begins with their hamr – literally their shell or shape – what you would see if you met a Viking on the street. But this shape, or physical appearance, was not fixed. It could alter, allowing shape-changing into a wolf or bear, or other bird or beast. Not everyone could do this, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary, and whether this ability was thought a blessing or a curse is unclear. What is certain, as Price points out, is that Vikings absolutely knew this happened. It was just another aspect of life:

[I]t is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had a fine singing voice, and your neighbor could become a bear when irritated.

Inside a person’s shape was the second aspect of their being, the hugr, a concept which seems to combine elements of personality, character, temperament, and mind. This was who a person really was, “the absolute essence of you,” distinct and separate from their mutable physical shell.

In the Viking mind, somewhere inside each of us, was a third element, a hamingja, the personification of a person’s luck. Fascinatingly, a hamingja could leave the body and walk around, mostly invisible except to those with the special sight to see them. In extreme circumstances the hamingja could abandon its person:

The English saying that someone’s luck has ‘run out’ is actually using a Norse proverb – except the Vikings meant it literally.

The final element of the fourfold Viking soul is perhaps the most interesting of all, a fully separate being that lived inside every human, inseparable but distinct. Most fascinating of all, given the extremely patriarchal hypermasculinity of Viking society, this separate being, the fylgja, was a female spirit – always a female spirit – even for a man. As Price puts it, “every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.” This spirit-woman was a guardian in life and then at death moved on down the family line, a literal embodiment of ancestral connection.

Summing up this discussion, Price writes:

This sense of something utterly alien beneath the skin, occasionally manifesting itself in actions or words, may have been one of the most significant differences between the Vikings and the people they encountered. Certainly for a European Christian, the composite soul with its shapes and shells would have been deeply unnerving.

Simply put, this book is a treasure. Rebecca Onion writes, in her review at Slate, “Price has a talent for evoking the Vikings’ physical surroundings as they might have been—a gift for recreation that’s probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to eking significance from the smallest bit of disturbed dirt.” She’s absolutely right, and I didn’t even touch on that aspect of the book here.

I’m only half way through at this point, just at the beginning of Price’s discussion of the Viking Age history we think we know best, their trading, raiding, and expansion from Eurasia to the shores of North America. Every page I turn brings a new revelation. This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

Trump is Putin’s “free chicken”

(Credit: New York Times)

In an article posted this morning at The Atlantic’s website, former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, rejected the idea that the Russians are blackmailing or otherwise using leverage to get President Trump to toe the Russian line. Why? Because they don’t have to.

“In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”

Trump, Vindman says, needs no incentive to praise Vladimir Putin or to shape US policy in pro-Kremlin ways. It comes naturally to him.

He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.

Vindman, who left the Army in July in the wake of professional bullying, intimidation, and retaliation, was asked why he’s speaking out publicly now. Here’s his answer:

I was drawn into this by the president, who politicized me. I think it’s important for the American people to know that this could happen to any honorable service member, any government official. I think it’s important for me to tell people that I think the president has made this country weaker. We’re mocked by our adversaries and by our allies, and we’re heading for more disaster.

The whole interview, with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, is well worth your time.

Nothing is normal and everything is bad

Someone more clever than I am made this meme.

Shakespeare had it wrong when he suggested that “our winter of discontent” could be “made glorious summer” whether by Richard III or anything else. At least that’s the way I’ve been feeling about things.

So here we are nearing summer’s end, the discontents of winter turned into the miseries of COVID spring, the angers and unrests of summer, and a numb stumble into a fall of tension, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Blacks keep dying at the hands of mostly white police. American cities are roiled by 100+ days of protest, mostly but certainly not entirely peaceful. California burns.

Millions — 13.6 million as of August — are jobless. Millions more have contracted a dangerously virulent virus. COVID deaths in the United States now top 190,000, more than any other country on earth.

And we learn today that the president knowingly and purposefully lied to the American people about how dangerous this virus really is. He admitted it on the record in a taped interview. And he could still win re-election in November.

Boats keep sinking at Trump boat parades. OK, that one may be a bright spot.

So yeah, I haven’t been writing much. But I’m working on changing that, not because I think anyone has been hungering for my perspective, but because I need to do it to get myself back onto something that feels like a normal track.

Let’s face it. Nothing is normal now. Certainly not in my personal or professional life. Maybe your situation is different.

Anyway, to get back to normal I need to do some normal things. Writing is one of them.

‘You have to dominate …’

National Guard on the streets of Minneapolis (Credit: Start Tribune)

President Trump, in a 45-minute conference call with the nation’s governors today, told them how to handle the waves of protests, some violent, that have swept more than 50 cities across the country over the last several days and nights:

Get a lot of men. We have all the men and women that you need, but people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate and you have to arrest people and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.

Six minutes into the call, after recounting scenes he apparently saw on television, and then passing along to the governors rumors his friends have told him, Trump, who spent part of Friday night cowering in the White House bunker while protesters rallied outside, returned to his main theme:

There’s no retribution. So I say that, and the word is dominated. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington and DC. And we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before, but you’re going to have total domination.

Before turning it over for questions, Trump again berated the governors for he called their “weakness,” and their failure to call up even more than the 17,000 National Guard troops already deployed in 29 states to confront these disturbances.

I don’t know what it is, politically, when you don’t want to call up people. They’re ready, willing, and able. They want to fight for the country. I don’t know what it is. Someday you’ll have to explain it to me, but it takes so long to call them up. We’re waiting for you. We’re shocked at certain areas. L.A., we’re shocked that you’re not using the greatest resource you can use, and they’re trained for this stuff, and they’re incredible, but you’re not calling them up. I don’t know, but you’re making a mistake because you’re making yourself look like fools.

And some have done a great job. A lot of you. It’s not good. It’s very bad for our country. Other countries watch this. They’re watching us and they say, “Boy, they’re really a pushover.” And we can’t be a pushover. And you have all the resources. It’s not like you don’t have the resources. So I don’t know what you’re doing.

For Trump, strength means putting soldiers on the streets of American cities, to dominate fellow Americans into silence and acquiescence.

But this is far from the first time we have heard Trump speak this way, disparaging those who fail to meet popular dissent with maximum force and praising those who crush protest with cold ruthlessness. In fact, I wrote about it right after election day in 2016:

In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump was asked about his impressions of the Soviet Union after an unsuccessful trip to Moscow to try to make a hotel deal:

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; The signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

The interviewer pressed him: “You mean firm hand as in China?”

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.

Read that again. “Put it down with strength.” That’s what the Chinese did in 1989, and thousands died. And that’s what Trump is telling America’s governors to do in 2020. Dominate.

President Trump wants occupying armies on American streets, and he doesn’t understand why America’s governors balk at the idea. This exchange, between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Trump, lays it bare:

Tim Walz: (24:21)
If I’m still on, the one thing I would say, I spent 24 years in the guard. So one thing I would say is you could do is, a lot of people don’t understand what the National Guard is. And you need to get out there from a PR perspective and make sure that it’s not seen as an occupying force, but it’s their neighbors, school teachers, business owners, those types of things. That’s a really effective message.

Donald Trump: (24:39)
Okay, good. I think that’s a good idea. I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago, that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force. I wish we had an occupying force in that. But for some reason, I don’t know what it is, governors don’t like calling up the guard. 

For some reason …