Saturday, November 24, 2018

Heathen Dublin I: Landscape

This was originally written for a general public audience for the Friends of Medieval Dublin lecture series hosted in Dublin City Council’s Wood Quay Venue. As such, there are many important points of contention leapt over in the name of public outreach! Further sources on Norse Dublin and conversion in northern Europe are available that treat the issues raised here with far more sophistication. This is an introductory essay rather than an academic publication.


Part I: Landscape

When the Norse settled in Ireland from the beginning of the ninth century onwards, they came from a region of Europe that had not been previously been part of Roman imperial administration. As such, there was a lack of social institutions that were found in other areas on the Continent that had been maintained, if not by the Roman Church directly, then by local Christians in a desire to emulate and stay connected with the trade, status, wealth, and security that Christianity provided to medieval Europe after the Roman Empire. Far northern Europe, including today’s Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, functioned in a social order described as ‘pre-Christian’. 

The Late Roman Latin term for this way of life was paganus, meaning ‘of the countryside’ and therefore also ‘rustic’ or perhaps ‘culchie’; it also had connotations of a civilian, versus a self-labelled soldier of Christ. Medieval writers codified ‘pagan’ and other terms to denote non-Christians in history and literature, both about prior conversion efforts and contemporary non-Christians. 

The term used for this concept in Germanic medieval literature was heiðinn, most likely a calque or direct translation of ‘pagan’: a heath- or countryside-dweller. ‘Germanic’ here refers to cultures speaking a language from the Germanic family, languages that include today’s English, Dutch, Swedish, and German; as well as ancient languages such as Old Norse, Saxon, and Gothic. While ‘heathens’ did not have a name for themselves, Germanic Christian writers gave them one that has endured to the present day. 

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of any attempt to study or understand heathenism: it was an oral culture for which recording theological or even legal material was alien. So far I’ve used ‘pre-Christian’ and ‘heathen’ to describe the religion of the Norse who came to Dublin, but what was it exactly? Unfortunately as it was a pre-literate culture - indeed, one that prized oral memory and recitation - we have nothing about heathenism that was written down by a heathen. Apart from a handful of quasi-magical carvings called runes, all literature from Germanic Northern Europe came firmly after conversion, from the hands of Christian authors. 

However, the editorial weight of these writers varied, and we believe that we have fairly substantial hints at pre-Christian beliefs encoded in poetry, literature, and even law texts. We also have archaeology: objects from homes and workspaces, inhumations or burials, and sometimes entire landscapes from pre-Christian Europe. Marrying medieval literature with archeological discoveries, and applying anthropological principles to these analyses, yields glimpses at a fairly comprehensive heathen theological system. 

Germanic Northern Europe was polytheistic; that is, its religion included multiple gods. These are household names due to popular films as well as the days of the week - Tiw’s Day, Thor’s Day, and so on. While these gods mostly came from the same family - Thor was Odin’s son, for instance - polytheism can accommodate different cultures, and medieval literature tells of people who worshipped Christ alongside other Norse deities. Heathenism also involved veneration of ancestors and the dead, as well as landscapes and spirits of nature. It appears that reputation and honour were key motivations in heathen theology. 

However, calling this a ‘religion’ is imposing a standardised system onto an ill-defined and highly localised world-view. Heathens did not set up a pantheon of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gods, or compose holy books about what to believe, or insist that there was a single ‘truth’ about the world that only some people held. They performed their local customs in the belief that they were the right way to go about things. And the ‘right way’ may have varied from valley to fjord, or even from one farmstead to another. 

Not until institutionalised Christianity appeared, that is, an organised religion that required communal faith and worship, did heathens even start to think of their practices as a philosophy. We’ll see some evidence of this concept in the archaeology later on.
An interesting thing about heathenism is that, while tied into nature and the landscape, it apparently travels well. Iceland was essentially unpopulated before Norse settlers arrived in the late ninth century, and then functioned as a majority-heathen society for over a century, including the establishment of sacred areas in previously uninhabited land. The famous Eiríkr rauði or Eric the Red was a heathen, to his Christian wife’s chagrin, and the two lived separately in their preferred ways in Greenland. Centuries earlier, the Angles and Saxons brought their heathen practices to Britain and instituted Germanic holy sites and place-names. Where heathens went, their practices followed. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that heathenism came to Dublin along with its Norse inhabitants.

Extract from IHTA no. 11, Dublin, part I, to 1610 by Howard B. Clarke, Map 4, Medieval Dublin: c. 840 to c. 1540. (Courtesy Royal Irish Academy)

This is evident in the set-up of the Norse town, elements of which persisted through the early modern period or even to the present day. The precise layout and limits of the pre-Norman town are still under consideration, but we know it was in this general area where this lecture was originally given. 

I draw your attention eastward to what would have been mostly open space during the Norse development. There are three areas of interest: the Long Stone, Hoggen Green, and the area between the Green and the town.

The Long Stone or Langstein, a man-made standing stone or monolith, was 12 to 14 feet high and stood until removed in the early 18th century. Its site is now commemorated with a much smaller sculpture. While this site is now several hundred metres from the quay, it would have been a fixed navigation aide for sailors in Dublin Bay in the ninth and tenth centuries, and likely marked the edge of navigable passage in the tidal Liffey. 
There is not necessarily a religious dimension to this practical guide; however, the amount of effort to erect such a monolith indicates an interest in broadcasting power. It may also have had other functions, such as a marker of the space between the town and the bay.

More likely to be a symbol of specifically Norse power, however, is the burial mound or mounds that occupied what was once called Hoggen Green. It is now called College Green thanks to its next door neighbour of Trinity. There was a convent in the area founded 1146 called St. Mary de Hogges, and sometimes historians presume that the green was named after the convent. However, the Hoggen Green was named for its original function as a visible burial ground, ‘Hoggen’ coming from Old Norse haugr (nominative + definite article hauginn, ‘the mound’). Dramatic interment of the dead is a universal human phenomenon, from ancient monuments like Newgrange and the Pyramids of Giza to modern mausolea like that of Elvis in Graceland. 

In addition to statements about the afterlife, prominent tombs announce prestige in the effort expended to create them, as well as indicate a claim on the land by virtue of kinship - real or fictitious - with the deceased. The mound at the Hogges, possibly the hauginn, which made it all the way to the late 17th century before being demolished, is shown on the map in orange. Consider that this would have been highly visible to incoming sailors, particularly as they navigated utilising the Langstein, and think as to how the Norse manipulation of the landscape signalled their conquest and occupation. Then imagine that there may have been a whole field of these impressive mounds on display! 

Unfortunately with its demolishment, the Hogges and anything else in the area are unavailable for archaeological investigation. In fact, it is possible that the fill from the mound was utilised in the elevation of nearby Nassau Street which occurred soon afterwards! 

Oseberg ship (Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that the Hogges was the site of a ship burial similar to that of the Oseberg or Gokstad sites in Norway, where a wealthy individual or family was interred on a ship laden with goods for the afterlife, and a mound raised around the remains. The treatment of human remains are a good indicator of religious practice in medieval northern Europe. Inhumations or burials without grave goods, especially in churchyards buried with their heads to the west and feet to the east, are generally Christian. Meanwhile the presence of grave goods, and cremation, are signs of a non-Christian burial; but this is how the people who buried the body chose to depose their dead, not necessarily what the living person believed.

A site of definite heathen interest lies between Hoggen Green and the Norse town: this space between where people lived in the west, and died in the east. This area was known as the Thingmotte in later medieval Dublin, the first half of which comes from the Norse term for a proto-parliament ‘thing’. This survives in other countries of Norse settlement in name, such as Iceland’s Þingvellir, Norway’s Gulatinget, Tingwall in the Orkneys, and Tynwald Hill in the Isle of Man. These are the areas that were specially used for administration and legal cases. 

In the absence of a state or overarching structure such as the Roman Church, self-imposed law assumed a religious component. Criminals did not just harm their victims and victims’ families, but society as a whole, and made restitution by returning to the ‘old’ and ‘proper’ ways of existence. Therefore the thing was held sacred throughout the Norse world as a site where gods and ancestors could receive proper deference by the establishment and resumption of an orderly society. The power of the thing continued after Christianisation but in a secular fashion, and even today several Nordic countries and territories use thing-related words for their parliamentary bodies. 

For centuries, confusion over the -motte ending which looks like ‘-mount’ led historians and amateurs alike to assume that the Hogges mound was the Thingmotte. But in a 2005 article Seán Duffy deftly identified that the Thingmotte was a distinct region ‘just outside the city’s eastern gate, straddling [modern] Dame Street, and lying to the west of Hoggen Green’ (358). Duffy explains that -motte is actually from the archaic English word moot, related to our modern English word ‘meeting’. The Thingmotte was still in use as a site of judicial administration by the time Henry II visited Dublin, which he used for his own law court in the winter of 1171-2. Its position just outside the town, but not within it, and linking the town to its burial ground, indicates the power and prestige of the Thing in Norse Dublin.

Another site of specific importance for heathenism in Dublin is a site mentioned in literary sources but whose location is not well-defined. This is Caill Tomair or the Wood of Thor, which I’ve reconstructed into Old Norse as *Þorsviðr

This grove appears several times in the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaib, which is a Munster text written in the first quarter of the twelfth century that purports to give the history of the Norse in Ireland culminating in the celebrated Battle of Clontarf. Brian Boru is the star of this text as it was composed for his great-grandson, Muirchertach Ua Briain; the overarching theme of the Cogadh is the prestige that Brian, and therefore his descendants, deserve for his subjugation of Norse and Gael alike. As a result, whether the historical Brian actually did so or not, the author of the text depicts him destroying sacred sites and royal symbols of his rivals all over Ireland. Therefore, when Brian’s forces capture Dublin in 1000, they make firewood out of Caill Tomair as part of the city’s subjugation. 

This was apparently such a massive undertaking that fourteen years later, when an attendant describes the Battle of Clontarf to the elderly Brian, he compares the noise and confusion to the sound and sight of chopping down Caill Tomair and setting it ablaze. Because of this, and the fact that presumably fourteen years wasn’t enough time for the grove to recover, it is unlikely that Caill Tomair was the same wood northeast of Dublin that trapped many of the Norse fleeing from Clontarf in the rising tide. In his 2014 book on Brian and the battle, Duffy suggests that Caill Tomair was near Dublin although well outside of the town, and may have been in the area of modern Phoenix Park (214-5). 


Works Cited & Select Further Reading
Abrams, Lesley. 'The Conversion of the Scandinavians of Dublin.' In Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 20, 1998, pp. 1-29.
Brady, Joseph, and Anngret Simms, eds. Dublin Through the Ages (c. 900--1900). Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2001.
Bradley, J., A. J. Fletcher, and A. Simms, eds., Dublin in the Medieval World. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2009.
Clarke, Howard B., and Ruth Johnson, eds. The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015.
Downham, Clare. ‘Religious and Cultural Boundaries between Vikings and Irish: The Evidence of Conversion.’ In Ní Ghrádaigh, Jenifer, and Emmett O’Byrne, eds., The March in the Islands of the Medieval West, Brill, 2012.
Duffy, Seán, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf. Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 2014.
Duffy, Seán, 'A reconsideration of the site of Dublin's Thing-mót.' Condit, Tom, and Christiaan Corlett, eds., Above and Beyond: Essays in Memory of Leo Swan, Wordwell, 2005, pp. 351-60.
Holm, Poul. ‘The naval power of Norse Dublin.’ In Purcell, Emer, et alia, eds., Clerics, Vikings, and High-Kings. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015, pp. 67-78.
Price, Neil. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Uppsala, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 2002.  
Todd, James Henthorn, ed. and trans. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, or, The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and Other Norsemen. Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London, 1867.
Valante, Mary. The Vikings in Ireland: settlement, trade and urbanization. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008. 

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