Preservation and Immortatlity: The Transition From Oral to Written Culture in Iceland
By Joseph Knitt
Oshkosh Scholar, Volume 2 (2007)
Introduction: A fire crackles as it throws a soft, orange and yellow glow onto those who sit around it. Some of the kinsmen sit, spinning and combing wool, others tend to mending their tools and weapons, while some simply sit and pay attention to the elder who speaks to them. The old man recounts the tale of his ancestors who fought valiantly against the Celtic tribes in Ireland; of how they interacted with the gods in attempt to seal their victory in battle; of how they drank every night with Odin in the halls of Valhalla. The storyteller is animated, throwing his arms through the air like fleshbound specters. He uses his polytonous voice to add emphasis to the parts of the story he wants his audience to remember the most. He is the living and breathing history of his kinsmen; he is their link to the past and their hope for the future. The wrinkled and tired old man is a storyteller.
Such is a scene from Viking houses or camps from days gone by. It is no secret that the Northmen were of an oral culture. Their stories were not recorded in any concrete form, but preserved in the minds of those who told stories around the fire. Even the laws of the Vikings were stored in the consciousness of those deemed worthy to memorize them and proclaim them at the pseudo-governmental gatherings of the Thing. Eventually, though, there was a transition from their oral traditions to the “modern” traditions of the written word. How was such a transition facilitated and why? The Scandinavian peoples had survived for hundreds of years without the advent of the written word, so what made them change? In a word, Christianity.