I spent 9th to 15th August in Zurich at the 16th International Saga Conference. Contrary to what most of my friends have to say on the topic, this is not a conference about holidays for retired people. Instead it is an entire week spent geeking out about Vikings, Old Norse literature and related topics. The week was brilliant, despite the heat. The team of organisers and volunteer staff pulled all the stops out to make sure everything ran like clockwork and did a great job. They all deserve hearty congratulations for their work
I was particularly pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response I received for my paper on generic naming practices in the sagas. Although my main conclusion was negative, it appears to have been appreciated by the audience who provided some useful feedback and ideas, and many of whom approached me afterwards to discuss the paper in more detail. This has left me feeling very positive about the article I am working on that the paper summarised.
There were a lot of very interesting papers presented at the conference: more than I could physically attend, and many of which were on at the same time. Some of those that particularly inspired me were:
Tsukusu ‘Jinn’ Ito’s paper on Viking themes in manga. He emphasised the popularity of Vikings in Japan, highlighting the idea that what we in the West might consider mainstream is perceived as ‘other’ and ‘exotic’ in Japan. Interestingly, there is sufficient knowledge of the Vikings in Japan for the authors of Viking manga not to have to explain details, thus permitting them to dive straight into the story. It is always interesting to get alternative perspectives, and really helps stop us from taking particular ideas for granted.
Sean Lawing gave a great and grisly paper on the disposal of severed body parts as legislated for in Grágás. This was clearly a thing in Iceland at the time the laws were codified, because they legislated for being able to recognise individual body parts and treating them as if they were the whole body, as well as how to dispose of the bits of people that you cannot recognise.
Heidi Støa’s paper on golem constructs in Old Norse literature highlighted the social effects of the artificial people and led to an interesting discussion on why they were made of wood in particular. One area of the discussion that intrigued me was the idea that ON draugr also means ‘dead wood’. Given that Askr (ash) and Embla (elm) were the first people according to Old Norse mythology, I am keen to have a deeper look at this concept of the undead as dead wood.
Andrea Whitacre, Marie Novotná and Gwendolyne Knight Kempeima all presented in a session on shape-changing where their papers neatly dove-tailed together to form a coherent discussion about shape-changing, the skin as a liminal area (thin veneer of humanity?), and notions of the integrity of the individual. Given that they were all so neatly related, this session might have benefited from the round-table format instead but I really enjoyed it anyway, and felt inspired by it. I look forward to seeing how all three sets of research progress.
One final shout-out goes to Sirpa Aalto’s paper on the construction of space between Sámi and Norwegians in the sagas. She examined a range of sagas to see where interaction took place and considered how the Sámi and the Norwegians interacted in those sagas. I have a strong interest in such cross-cultural relations so it was fascinating to hear such a good analysis of how the social space was constructed. I hope Sirpa publishes more on this soon, because I want to read it.
There were many other good papers, but space precludes mentioning them all, so I apologise to those I missed out. There were many more papers that I would have liked to attend but could not. I hope they all appear as articles soon, so that I can catch up on what I missed.
Overall, the Saga Conference was brilliant, despite the excessive heat in Zurich this week. Note to future conference organisers: I study Vikings because I like cooler climes! I took something positive from every paper I attended, and from all the discussions I had over the week. I met up with old friends and made new ones. I got to see Bede’s death Song, the Isruna tract, Notker the Stammerer and the Nibelungenlied, as well as several books of law codes that were over a thousand years old, all at St Gallen. Talk about blissing out! All this means that the 2018 Saga Conference in Reykjavik has a lot to live up to. I’m starting saving for it now just to make sure I can go.