How would Kol and Thorbrand celebrate Yule?


Gleðileg Jól

Though the earliest recorded feast celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th dates back to the fourth century A.D., the celebration of Christmas didn’t really take hold until the Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age in Europe.  However, at the time Seidman takes place (995 A.D. – 1000 A.D.), Viking Age Iceland had been celebrating the tradition of Yule or Jól for several centuries.  Nobody knows how far back the tradition goes, but certainly it dates back to before the 6th century.  (Not in Iceland specifically — Iceland wasn’t settled until 870 A.D — but it was brought there by settlers.)  Also, there are various speculations about the meaning of the word Jól (and it’s variants), but nobody really knows what it meant.  Some people say it’s derived from a word meaning “wheel,” as in the “wheel of the year,” though I don’t think there’s any real proof of that.

It is from the Norse cultures that we get the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Yule lasted from the winter solstice (roughly the 21st of December) through the beginning of January.  In modern Iceland, it goes from Christmas to January 6th, but I believe that’s more modern.*

During this time, the Icelanders feasted and drank — a lot.  In the Sagas, there are several mentions of “drinking Yule.”  And yes, Kol and Thorbrand would have been able to drink alcohol.  In a country and time when it wasn’t uncommon to be married by 15 or 16, nobody stopped a teenager from quaffing ale along with the rest of the family.  Bees are not native to Iceland, so honey would have been imported.  Likewise, the honey-based mead popular in other Norse regions (though generally among the wealthy) would have been imported, so the most common alcoholic beverage would have been ale, made from fermented grain.

The most common meats would have been mutton and pork, with a bit of beef thrown in.  During Yule, a boar would be sacrificed to the god, Freyr, for prosperity over the coming year.  Norsemen would place their hands on the boar before the sacrifice and make solemn pledges about what they intended to accomplish over the next year, so that the animal’s spirit could take their promises up to the god when it was slain.  These were very serious oaths and to break them would offend the god.  The animal would then have its head carried into the hall ceremoniously, and the rest of it would be carved up or stewed for the feast.

There would of course also be plenty of singing.  The Icelanders cherished good singers and good storytellers, who made those long, dark winter nights more bearable.  At this time of year, the sun rises around 11:30 a.m. and sets just a few hours later.

The tradition of wassailing — going door-to-door and singing for free food and drink — began at least a few hundred years before Kol’s time, but it probably wouldn’t have been popular in a country where the farmsteads were fairly isolated in the winter.  I grew up in New England and we had cars, but we were still disinclined to travel very far in midwinter.  People did visit, of course (we’re back in Iceland now), and when they did they probably stayed a few days.  Another tradition that may have been around in Kol’s time would have been that of the Yule Goat, a straw figure of a goat made from the last sheaves of the harvest and possibly derived from Thor’s goats, Tanngrisnir (“Teeth-barer”) and Tanngnjóstr (“Teeth-grinder”).  It was brought from house to house to bless the people who lived there.  But as with wassailing, I’m skeptical about this “house to house” thing in the dead of winter.

Thorbrand’s family might very well have had a Yule Log, though.  Trees didn’t grow very tall in Iceland, but there certainly were trees.  So the custom of bringing one into the longhouse, more or less whole, to keep feeding into the hearth fire for as long as it would burn may have been part of the Yule celebration.

One Icelandic Yule tradition that was most likely not part of Kol and Thorbrand’s Yule, because it doesn’t date back before the 17th century, is that of the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar).  I mention them because they’re such an interesting Icelandic tradition.  The Yuletide Lads are the sons of two ogres, Grýla and Leppalúði, who appear in folklore as far back as the 13th century.  These two ogres devoured bad children, so Icelandic parents used them to frighten their kids into behaving.  The Yuletide Lads were similarly used to frighten children in the old days, but by now they’ve come to be known as fairly harmless pranksters, causing mischief but not doing any real harm.

They each arrive on a different day of the Yule season and hang around the household for about twelve days.  They are often accompanied by the Yuletide Cat, a large beast who has the odd habit of devouring children and servants who haven’t received a new set of clothes for Yule — because if they were good, they would have gotten a present of new clothes from their parents or masters.

I’ve taken the liberty of swiping this handy table from a Wikipedia article with only slight modifications.  It lists the most common names of the Yuletide Lads (taken from a popular poem called Jólasveinarnir, written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum):

Icelandic Name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjastaur Sheep-Cote Clod Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. December 12 December 25
Giljagaur Gully Gawk Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. December 13 December 26
Stúfur Stubby Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them. December 14 December 27
Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker Steals Þvörur (wooden spoons with long handles) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition. December 15 December 28
Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper Steals leftovers from pots. December 16 December 29
Askasleikir Bowl-Licker Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. December 17 December 30
Hurðaskellir Door-Slammer Likes to slam doors, especially during the night. December 18 December 31
Skyrgámur Skyr-Gobbler A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr (an Icelandic food similar to yogurt.  I wrote more about it here). December 19 January 1
Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked. December 20 January 2
Gluggagægir Window-Peeper A voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal. December 21 January 3
Gáttaþefur Doorway-Sniffer Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (“leaf bread”). December 22 January 4
Ketkrókur Meat-Hook Uses a hook to steal meat. December 23 January 5
Kertasníkir Candle-Stealer Follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days was made of tallow and thus edible). December 24 January 6

So, as they say in Iceland:  Gleðileg Jól (“Happy Yule!”)

*NOTE:  If you’re getting the impression that I’m winging it…well, let’s just say I didn’t have time to dig up too many sources, so this article is mostly from memory, with tidbits from a few easily accessible websites thrown in.  If you find any inaccuracies, feel free to send me a note.  🙂

Some interesting links:

An Icelandic article about the Yuletide Lads

A nice informal Icelandic website about Yule

Recipes for Icelandic Yule foods from the site above

A more detailed recipe for laufabrauð

Great review for “Seidman”!

Jessica Chambers over at Rainbow Book Reviews has written a wonderful review for Seidman!

The thing that struck me as particularly good about this novel was how we get to see Kol and Thorbrand grow up, following their progress from carefree boys interested only in each other, to mature young men with their own responsibilities. Though the story does have a strong fantasy element, the developing relationship between the heroes is incredibly realistic, taking into account the attitudes towards homosexuality at the time, and is in fact one of the most poignant I’ve come across in a while.

Read the whole review here!

How to Insult Your Friends Like a Viking!

One of the criticisms I’ve received about Seidman is that the dialog between Kol and Thorbrand felt a little too “modern.”  This is a perfectly valid criticism, if it brings the reader out of the story.  But it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part, so I’d like to explain my reasoning.

I’ve read a bunch of books on Vikings, in which everyone speaks like Conan the Barbarian or a character from The Lord of the Rings — rather stilted and formal, and using the exclamation “Fool!” quite a bit.  Now, I’m a big fan of Conan and LOTR, but I don’t think people ever really talked that way.  Like the fact that all films about Vikings are scored with heavy kettle drums, low brass that didn’t even exist before the Renaissance and chorsuses of men shouting, “Huh!”, this is simply a modern shorthand for historical dialog.

I suspect the thing that seems the most jarring to some readers are the insults Kol and Thorbrand toss around.  In several places, they use the word, “dummy” or “stupid” and these can break the illusion of the book being a historical novel.  Perhaps words like “dullard” or “fool” or “simpleton” would be more in keeping with the tone of a historical.  (And in fact the adult characters in Seidman do tend to talk a bit more like that.)

But in reality, Kol would not say “dullard” or “fool” or “dummy” in any context.  He doesn’t speak English.  He would say fífl, which translates to…wait for it…”dullard” or “simpleton” or “dummy”.  Maybe “idiot.”  But to Kol and Thorbrand, the way they speak to one another would be perfectly natural and easy to their ears.  Teenagers, no matter what the time period, don’t speak formally to one another.  (Well, unless they’re raised in high society, perhaps.)  So why translate it formally?  Why not just make it colloquial and informal, as it would sound to them?  That was my reasoning for making Kol and Thorbrand talk the way they do in the novel.

But at this point you may be wondering, just how did the Norse insult each other?  This is important to know, if you ever find yourself sucked back through a time portal.  So, leaving out some inappropriately vulgar ones, here are a few common insults in Old Icelandic:

dunga (DOON-gah) — a useless fellow
eldhúsfífl (EHLD-hoos-feef-uhl) — “hearthfire idiot”, an idiot who sits by the fire all day, a good-for-nothing
fífl (FEEF-uhl) — fool, idiot
gløggvingr (GLOHG-ving-uhr) — stingy person
hraumi (HROWM-ee) — braggart
níðingr (NEETH-ing-uhr) — villain, vile person
slápr (SLAHP-uhr) — a good-for-nothing, lazy person
vámr (VAHM-uhr) — loathsome person
vargdropi (VAHRG-drohp-ee) — son of an outlaw* 
veslingr (VEHS-ling-uhr) — puny wretch

*NOTE: vagr (“outlaw”) also means “wolf”.  The Norse weren’t fond of wolves.

It was also popular to call people after various animals, such as dogs or sows, or to say that they were the sons or daughters of these animals.

But beware!  If you start throwing these insults around in Viking Age Scandinavia, you’d better hope the button on your time portal wristband isn’t broken!

(My gratitude to the members of the Old Norse Yahoo! group norse_course for their posts on this subject.)

My first YA novel will be published soon!

I’ve just received a contract for my first YA novel!

Seiðman is the story of a boy in Viking Age Iceland who studies an ancient form of magic called seiðr, while struggling with his love for another young man with a very different destiny.  Here is the unofficial blurb I put in the cover letter, when I submitted it:

In Viking Age Iceland, where boys are expected to grow into strong farmers and skilled fighters, there is little place for a sickly 12-year-old boy like Kol.  That is, until he catches the eye of a seið-woman — a sorceress — and the old woman takes him on as an apprentice.  Kol’s journey to become a sorceror takes him from Iceland to Norway and eventually to Sweden, and along the way he discovers something else about himself that is different:  he has fallen in love with another boy, Thorbrand, the grandson of his mentor.

But the world is changing in ways that threaten those who practice the ancient arts.  A new religion is sweeping through the Norse lands and King Olaf Tryggvason is hunting down and executing sorcerors.  A decades-old feud forces Thorbrand to choose between Kol and his duty to his kinsman, and Kol finds himself cast adrift with only the cryptic messages of an ancient goddess to guide him to his destiny — and possibly to his death.

Seiðman depicts the vast upheaval in the northern lands at the end of the Viking era, as seen through the eyes of a boy who is not only struggling with homosexuality in a culture which places an extremely high value on manliness, but whose chosen trade throws him directly into the path of a king who will stop at nothing in his quest for power.

I spent three years writing Seiðman and researching the time period and culture.  I was also lucky enough to have people who lived in Iceland and Norway critique it for me, as well as a friend who is a medieval scholar and several others.  I won’t claim the historical information is perfect, but it’s as close to perfect as I could get, and it explores aspects of Viking Age culture that I’ve never seen covered in much detail in fiction.

The story itself intersects with events in Icelandic sagas, focusing on Olaf Tryggvason conquering Norway, and follows Kol’s adventures for five years, ending with him as a 17-year-old.

Seiðman will be released under the YA imprint, Harmony Ink, and although I haven’t yet been informed of a release date, I think it will be late this year, or at most early in 2013.  I’ll keep everyone updated on its progress.

But today I received the paperwork to fill out for the cover blurb!