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Inverallochy, Week 11: 12 March

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I have all the discrimination of a magpie when it comes to Caithness history—if it’s shiny, glitters in the sunlight and grabs my attention, I scoop it up to line my metaphorical nest, along with a quantity of twigs and some rather unsavoury half-eaten bits of (soya protein-imitation) rabbit.

But today we leave history behind and enter the murky world of myth. There is a famous reference to Caithness in Njal’s Saga, the great Viking epic full of betrayal, blood feuds and vengeance (a sort of 13th century Icelandic Lion King). Tucked inside the saga is the Darraðarljóð, or “Song of Dorrud”, and it’s a weird and creepy and rather wonderful poem.

Snow in the Cairngorms

In 1014 the Earl of Orkney took a force of men from Orkney and Caithness to go and fight in Ireland, as you do. But the Battle of Clontarf was a defeat and most of them were killed, including the earl. The poem describes how the Valkyries, the warrior handmaidens of Odin, selected who would die in the battle. Did they cast lots? Throw dice? Did they draw up a list, set up a subcommittee and have a debate? No, no, no, no (and no). The verses say that a man called Dorrud saw them enter a house in Caithness; when he followed and looked inside, he discovered that they had set up a loom with a view:

The warp is made/ Of human entrails/ Human heads/ Are used as weights/ The heddle-rods/ Are blood-wet spears/ The shafts are iron-bound/ And arrows are the shuttles/ With swords we will weave/ This web of battle.”

Dunnet Head and Castletown harbour from Dunnet Beach

Isn’t that great? (Batshit crazy for sure, but great.) Though it seems a little impractical; not to mention a tad messy. (I wouldn’t have thought entrails would make great warp threads either, given their elastic nature; tennis rackets or banjo strings, yes—though the thought of Valkyries taking a break to play mixed doubles, or sing close harmony Appalachian folksongs, is perhaps something of a stretch.)

Anyway, the warrior maidens finished their song, broke up their loom, took their strands and went away to claim the souls of the dead. And we’re left with a glimpse of a worldview utterly alien to us. (Though I sometimes think if cats wrote bardic poetry they might produce something close to the Viking sagas—albeit with epic heroes called Tippytoes and Mr Fluffy instead of Erik Bloodaxe or Thorfinn Skull-Splitter.) We can reenact historical events; but the minds of the people who lived them are ultimately, I think, as unknowable as yours or mine.

In gansey news, it’s time to celebrate another landmark: I have finished the front, and joined the shoulders with a traditional ridge and furrow shoulder strap. In keeping with the extra large size of the jumper I have knitted eight ridges per shoulder (plus bind-off ridge) instead of my usual six. Next step is the collar, and then it’ll be time to think about picking up stitches around the (*gulp*) 12/13-inch armhole…

6 comments to Inverallochy, Week 11: 12 March

  • Lois

    Hmm, wonder what they used for knitting needles? On second thought, I don’t really want to know.

    You have my sympathy regarding those sleeves, having knit a gansey for our baby boy. Six feet, six inches tall and accordingly broad. I still groan at the recollection of those sleeves.

    Guess we know where all that food went that he demolished when he was in his teens.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, I wonder if the Vikings have the weirdest, most disturbing mythology of all? The Klingons of the middle ages, I like to think of them, with better haircuts.

      I keep reminding myself that I am effectively two thirds of the way through. Then i remember the final third…

  • Mmmm – love that poem! Gives me the same chills as – say – the witches in Macbeth.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lillemor, I came to Norse mythology more or less through Wagner, and the more I read of it the more I realise just how perfectly suitable his music is for the subject matter. Not just the wild bombast of the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”, but other, quieter scenes, like the mystical, magical music he writes for Brunnhilde coming to claim the soul of Siegfried before his final battle.

      It’s a shame that modern productions of Macbeth downplay the supernatural otherness of the witches in favour of a military dictatorship angle. “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. No, wait, sorry, it’s just a hangnail. As you were…”

  • =Tamar

    We forget how visceral life was before the days of shrink-wrapped ground beef. The growth of cities only compressed it. In the 18th century, London streets literally ran with animal blood in the slaughterhouse district; no doubt it was the same in other cities. All the author of the Marseillaise did was change it to the blood of aristocrats.

    Even the later 19th century wasn’t all that tame. The early to mid 20th century seems to have been the least bloodthirsty in peacetime, though I’m probably ignoring something obvious.

    Anyway, I agree with you that Macbeth productions need to emphasize the magical element: witches, the ghost story, the prophecy… today it would be a fantasy movie, complete with full-scale battle scenes. Oh, of course – that’s what I was ignoring: The development of the horror movie, and the romanticized war movie – all rolled into one in Macbeth.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, walking round the artisan shops for tourists in The Shambles in York, it’s hard to imagine that the word originally meant a meat market, or “scene of blood”. (Actually I just looked it up—originally it seems to have meant a bench or stool, then a table or counter, then a counter where meat was sold, then a meat market. Aren’t words fascinating?)

      The trouble with Macbeth is that the play is full of violence, which gives contemporary directors the chance to go the full Tarantino and make it as violent and horrific as possible. I read a review of one production where the front row audience were offered rain capes to shield them from the sprays of fake blood!

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