My last posting dealt with nationalism and how it manifests Pagan values, and coincidentally the news lately has been dominated by happenings relevant to that topic. There’s the French Presidential election, wherein the choice between globalization and nationalism has been presented in the starkest terms. Also, Trump has started to unveil his promised tax plan, which plainly reveals the strength of his plutocratic instincts and the hollowness of his nationalistic pretentions.
So, naturally, I’m going to say something about Iceland.
Nationalists and Pagans alike believe in the importance of human diversity – that a world of many different cultures, creeds, and attitudes is better than a world of dull uniformity. Both believe in custom, ancestral wisdom, and the sacred land. And they think that modes of worship and ways of life that have defined a people for as far back as anyone can remember should be cherished and maintained.
For purposes of cultural preservation, nothing is more important than language. The words people use to express their thoughts – the sounds, accents, tones, gestures, idioms, grammar, styles of poetry and of storytelling – these will convey something of a people’s essence that can’t be told in translation. In the words of the Emperor Charles V, “when I learn a new language I feel as though I’ve acquired a new soul.” As a class, Emperors aren’t known for wise sayings, but that’s one.
Which brings me to Iceland. An article in the New York Times of April 23, 2017, recounts the decline of the Icelandic language, a dialect of Old Norse. We can blame the usual suspects – globalization, tourism, the ubiquity of English – the latest culprit being voice-activated appliances that won’t bother to learn a tongue spoken by a mere 400,000 people worldwide. The computer geeks may not think it’s a problem that their golems are telling human beings what language to speak.
I do, however.
What would we lose if we lost the literature of Iceland? First and foremost, we’d lose most of what we know of the ancient Gods of the Nordic peoples – Odin, all-father, who sacrificed an eye to gain wisdom and knowledge; Thor, the thunder-God, wielder of Mjollnir, his mighty hammer; Frigga, Odin’s wife, spinner of golden threads of secret import; Loki, scheming and treacherous. We wouldn’t know of Yggdrasil, the ash-tree holding up the universe; or of Valhalla, Hall of the Slain, where the souls of heroes are taken after death; or of Ragnarok, the final fray, when all the cosmos will come crashing down. In short, we’d be deprived of this mythological reminder that men and women must be brave and strong, and fight the battle of life to the end.
We’d also lose a bunch of sagas – of the deeds of kings and conquerors; of loves, feuds, and betrayals; of voyages to distant places, like Vinland. Some of this material is historical, all is interesting. And we’d lose much homespun wisdom on good manners and prudent conduct – like the injunction to scrutinize a room before entering it, to note where your foes are sitting – which illustrates the times, if nothing else.
This literature, and the world-view that underlies it, is the basis of the modern Pagan religion of Ásatrú, practiced widely in Iceland and in the Heathen community in the United States. It has also inspired much contemporary artistic output. The world would be immeasurably poorer without it.
Of course, this lore wouldn’t completely die out if the people of Iceland stopped using Icelandic in their daily lives and took up Norwegian or English. Old Norse still would survive as an object of scholarly study. A few experts would learn to speak it in an academic sort of way. The manuscripts would be preserved. The myths and sagas would be available in translation. And all of this would be good – but a poor substitute for a living tongue. There’s a vibrant contemporary literature in Icelandic. Indeed, as the Times article notes, an Icelandic author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Living writers are using the speech of Vikings – of Odin and Thor – to explore current topics from angles informed by their unique cultural heritage, and this creative activity wouldn’t be possible, if the language became a museum piece.
Nationalistic politics goes hand in hand with protection of the language. This has certainly been the case in Iceland, as the Times article indicates. But it’s been more or less true everywhere – in the United States, Webster’s Dictionary was motivated by a desire to document a characteristic American style of English, as opposed to the British variety. The Icelandic nation-state has a vested interest in upholding the distinctiveness of the Icelandic language, and it’s not easy to see how the idiom could possibly survive the tides of globalization without government support. We might note that one of the concerned politicians quoted in the Times is a member of the Left-Green Movement. It’s often presumed that nationalism is an inherently right-wing political stance, but this is quite wrong, as I’ll be pointing out in future postings.
We should note that there are 7,000 known languages in the world, and they’re going extinct at the rate of one every two weeks. How many other supurb mythologies are we losing because of this?
Next time, I’ll get to the French elections and Trump’s tax cut.
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