Today we take reading as something everyone does. Well, this is not a fact, and many people can't read. Want proof? Well just take a look at your average college football team. Sorry, truth hurts. What does this have to do with Viking history? Just as today, reading was very important then. Today much of the paper is made with an acid process and the paper is terminal. Vikings didn't use acid paper but the 'paper' was terminal just the same. Wood and paper rot or burn very nice, now add 1,000 years of time. Now you know why stone monuments are about all that's left.
How important was reading? Odin hung himself on a tree as a sacrifice from himself to himself, to learn the secret of the ruins. Was magic the reason or was it being able to read? The answer may be both.
Prince Modupe, of West Africa, wrote in his book 'I Was A Savage', "The one crowded space in Father Perry's house was his bookshelves. I gradually came to understand that the marks on the pages were trapped words. Anyone could learn to decipher the symbols and turn the trapped words loose again into speech. The ink of the print trapped the thoughts; they could no more get away than a doomboo could get out of a pit. When the full realization of what this meant flooded over me... I shivered with the intensity of my desire to learn to do this wondrous thing myself".
In a world filled with radios and television reading takes a back seat. No one really needs to write that well when they can pick up a telephone and call home. Take that away and communications become very basic, you can talk, you can yell and you can send a letter. Secret and mystical things could be trapped in words, like where you hide your money and that magical word you yell in battle. You can also make a code with the words that only you, or those you want, can read. The three 'R's' is very important to anyone who wants to make their way in the world. No, that last sentence is not mine but a stylized quotation from Viking times. I may credit this quotation to the wrong person but I believe it was Thomas Jefferson that said, "A Nation without a history is a Nation without a future". In one of my articles a few years ago I wrote about how important recording history was to the Icelandic people. How were they different from the rest of the Vikings? Not very much! Your personal history was very important then.
When Snorri wrote the history of the King's, how much was really word of mouth and how much from carefully protected written records? My own guess is that a two hundred years old family record was to fragile or valuable to let out of your grasp. How quick would you be to let a handed down family history walk out the door with some government type person and a vague promise that they would return it. Snorri had to have had some success at this based on his books on the Norse Kings and poetry. There are several other records that state that their quotations come from books written in the 930's by Vikings. The original books were lost a very long time ago but the reference to them, in books from the 1200's and later, is very real.
Runes were used for more than just magic.
© 2005 Gary Anderson