Matti Bunzl's Blog

Viking Myths, Then and Now

Greenland, Iceland

For a small, remote island uncomfortably close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a remarkable place on the map of global culture. This is due to its fascinating tradition of literature and folklore, a body of texts – the Eddas and Sagas – that serves as a veritable repository of Scandinavia’s rich mythological and historical corpus. Having been settled by Norse seafarers in the 9th century, Iceland’s location aided in the preservation and eventual collection of these stories which, in turn, became source material for many cultural projects of the modern age.

 
Richard Wagner

Nothing is more striking in this regard that Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring of the Nibelung. The operatic tetralogy, created between 1848 and 1876, ranks among the greatest achievements in the musical repertoire; and it drew heavily on Iceland’s Norse mythology, which Wagner regarded as a particularly pure articulation of Germanic cultural genius (needless to say, the political assumptions underlying such notions were deeply problematic).


Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde and Bernd Aldenhoff as Siegfried

Brünnhilde and Siegfried, the heroes of the second, third, and fourth installments of the Ring, for example, are based on Brynhildr and Sigurðr, both figures in theVölsunga saga. There, the valkyrie Brynhildr intervenes in a fight between two kings, leading Odin (Wotan) to imprison her, in deep sleep, within a ring of fire until the arrival of a man who would rescue and marry her. That hero is Sigurðr, who, having slain the dragon Fafnir, awakens Brynhildr to an experience of connubial bliss, only to leave her, at which point he is bewitched and the inevitable tragedy ensues. Wagner played with some of the characters, but, yes – basically, it’s the exact plot of his masterpiece.

 
Otto Donner von Richter, "Siegfried Awakens Brünnhilde"

But Wagner has not been alone among modern artists in his fascination for the world of Icelandic mythology. J.R.R. Tolkin’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were directly influenced by Norse texts as were aspects of the world imagined in Harry Potter. And let’s not forget Thor, one of the most enduringly popular Marvel superheroes and the star of the upcoming movie directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Recently, Italy’s great Teatro di Piazza D'Occasione (or TPO for short) caught the Icelandic vibe. In Kindur, which means "sheep" in Icelandic, the company, renowned for its immersive multi-media performances, conjures three brave and curious creatures and follows them through the cycle of Iceland’s seasons. Through them, we explore the country’s Arctic landscape and forbidding settings, the very scenery that animates the great stories of Norse mythology. It is a truly innovative approach to theater and has taken an important place in the rich tapestry of modern culture connected to and inspired by the Nordic countries.

To help us appreciate the cultural universe entered by TPO, we enlisted the help of Marianne Kalinke, one of the world’s leading authorities on Norse mythology. A professor emerita at the University of Illinois, where she is also a Trowbridge Chair in Literary Studies and a member of the Center for Advanced Study, Marianne has published many of the definitive editions of Icelandic literature and undertaken the crucial scholarly work that set it in the context of other European literary traditions.

 
Marianne Kalinke

We were absolutely thrilled when Marianne agreed to present a lecture on the state-of-the-art of scholarship on Norse mythology. Her presentation will be anchored in an account of the material basis of the texts (yes, we’re talking animal hides) along with the complex history of their repatriation. It’s an amazing story that will illuminate Iceland’s great place in global culture and put us in the ideal Nordic mood to enjoy TPO’s Kindur.

UPCOMING EVENT

Lecture

Stories on Skins
Animal Hides and Iceland's Heritage

#205: Sat, May. 7 5:00 - 6:00 PM

Tags: norse, mythology, iceland, tpo, kalinke, folklore, wagner, ring

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