Column: Heathen Tongues

Eric O. Scott —  June 13, 2014 — 48 Comments

The Minneapolis Runestone. Located outside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, it was a gift from the City of Uppsala. Photo by your devoted author.

The page looks like something out of The Shining: line after line of the same eight words repeating endlessly, with errors as the only variation. Hestur. Hest. Hesti. Hests. That’s the singular. Hestar. Hesta. Hestum. Hesta. That’s the plural. This is the paradigm for Icelandic masculine singular indefinite nouns. If we add the definite article, we get hesturinn, hestinn, hestinum, hestsins, hestarnir, hestana, hestunum, hestanna. Sixteen ways to say “horse.”

I am on my third consecutive page of inscribing hestur, the first of six major noun paradigms, into a yellow single-subject notebook, hoping that by the sheer force of repetition I will work these forms into memory. There may be some other way of doing this that doesn’t kill so many trees, but I haven’t found it. The only way I know how to memorize these words is to carve their names into the pulped flesh of trees, like runes, hoping their magical formula will unfold onto me given enough diligence.

This is my third week of an intensive summer course in the modern Icelandic language that I am taking at the University of Minnesota. I spent the last three weeks in Minneapolis, but the class will be flying to Reykjavik on Friday evening, just a few hours after this is published. We will spend another three weeks in Iceland practicing the language in its natural context among native speakers. I can’t help but be nervous – I never studied abroad in college, could never afford it. My feet have never left North American soil for more than five days at a time before. The prospect of learning to operate in this new language, even for just a few weeks, is intimidating; I haven’t studied a living language in almost a decade, not since I took my last semester of French in 2004 and promptly forgot everything about it. I’ve stuck to dead languages since then, Old English and Old Norse, tongues whose precise intonations are unknown and largely unimportant. I haven’t spoken a language besides English on a regular basis since I was 18 years old.

Mynd now – “picture,” the paradigm for the strong feminine nouns. With the definite article, that’s myndin, myndina, myndinni, myndarinnar…

As I lay out the paradigms in their places on the grid of lined paper, I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had with my friend Christian a few months ago. We were at a meeting for Hearthfires, the local Pagan meetup group back home in Columbia, and we were talking about languages; I believe I had just sent in my application for the Icelandic course, which may have been the genesis of the conversation. Christian, who is a Romano-Celtic polytheist, mentioned that he wished he knew Latin better. “My prayers would be better received in Latin,” he said. That sentence has stuck with me for the past few months. I suspect it’s because I can’t decide whether or not I agree with him.

The idea – as I understand it, anyway – behind the sentiment is that, since Christian’s gods were historically worshipped by speakers of Latin, Latin is the natural language with which to address those deities. I know many reconstructionist Pagans feel the same way; not long ago, I helped my family friend Alaric Albertsson – whom I still instinctively refer to as “Uncle Alaric” – proofread some sentences in Old English that an acquaintance of his was producing for his ADF training. Since they are Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Old English is the language they feel is most appropriate for their rituals.

Now, it doesn’t matter to me how any individual performs their rituals – there is something beautiful in giving new voice to a dead language in such a context, and in any case, everyone has the right to practice their religion in the way that makes the most sense to them. But I do have problems with the line of thinking that suggests the old languages are the “correct” languages with which to address the gods; to me, that romanticizes the past and discounts the legitimacy of present-day worship. After all, referring to my own Heathen inclinations, the Icelanders spoke of their gods in the same language they used for courtship, commerce, and craftwork. They didn’t restrict themselves to Proto-Germanic (or, gods help us, Proto-Indo-European), even though those were the languages in use when the Norse gods came into knowledge. The medieval Icelanders addressed Thor in their native tongue – why would it be any different for me to address him in mine?

Of course, I write this while in the middle of a difficult language course that I am taking only because of my religious yearning. Icelandic is not a very practical foreign language to study; its grammar is dense and finicky, its community of native speakers is quite small, and most Icelanders have an excellent grasp of English. Icelandic has some practical uses for me, of course – last fall, I came across an article that looked like a brilliant resource for a seminar paper I was writing, but, because it was in Icelandic, I couldn’t read it. But those are, if I am honest, secondary concerns. I am learning Icelandic because the language appeals to me as a Heathen; I am studying it, whether I want to admit it or not, because I feel like it will lead to my prayers being better received.

Borð, now. “Table.” Strong neuter paradigm. Same form in the singular and plural…

I am aware that modern Icelandic is hardly the language of the Aesir; for the past thousand years, its speakers have been overwhelmingly Christian. Even Old Norse, which Icelandic still closely resembles, was the tongue of a long-converted nation by the time the golden age of medieval Icelandic literature came about. And there’s hardly anything religious about learning how to say, “On Saturday, I will wake up at nine o’clock.” (“Á laugurdaginn ætla ég að vakna um klukkan níu,” if you were wondering – or at least that’s what my notes say.) I can’t say, really, why this language has a hold on me, any more than I can say why I have dreamed of visiting Iceland itself for years. Unlike some of my classmates, I have no Icelandic grandparents or distant cousins waiting for me in Reykjavik; I have been possessed by a nostalgia for a place my ancestors have never walked, a longing for a language nobody in my family has ever spoken.

I don’t know why these things have such a hold on me, but they do. In less than 24 hours, I will be taking my first steps into Iceland, breathing in my first breath of Reykjavik air. I will be hungry and bone-tired after the red-eye flight from Minneapolis. What will I feel in that moment?

I don’t know, but I am about to find out.

Valhalla, ég er koma. Valhalla, I am coming.

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."