Day 8 – Volsung Saga and Vita Merlini

stone3906We started with a recent NY Times editorial, “Why Nothing is Truly Alive.” Illustrating his point with Strandbeest, Ferris Jabr argues:

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life —
metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.”

Now, it’s one thing to say that there’s no one precise definition of life, and it’s another to say that this lack of a precise definition means that it’s “all in our head” and “futile.” The former is obviously correct, while the later is the kind of mistake one makes only by assuming that concepts must be completely airtight to function at all. But, as pragmatism observes, no one actually lives their life that way. And all concepts, being of this world, are necessarily impure and shifting. So, while the life/nonlife distinction works a lot of different ways, so there’s no ONE boundary, it still works, necessarily in a variety of ways, as we’ll see in Gerald of Wales.

I also directed our attention to this excellent blog post on good conference behavior: the short version is be mutually supportive, but the longer post is well worth reading.

I pointed out some medieval Sigurd art: the Sigurd portal, and especially the Sigurd Runestone. This recent article mentions a fifteenth-century account that features Sigurd’s enormous sword as a relic at what might be Aachen. I also pointed out material that I had found mostly from Mary Gerstein’s “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf,” whose richness I can’t do justice to. Some observations are that Odin, being a god of frenzyand oath breaking (among other things), seems to be a version of Loki and Fenris, and that the wolf outlaw seems to be at its root a grave robber or cannibal, at least if we go by these early Germanic laws (onetwo). I have texts like these in mind, which use archaeology, philology, and comparative folklore to discover the deep roots in, say, the concept of the hanging god, or of the antlered woodgod, or of the dragon-fighting hero (present in seventh-century English box, and pictured on page 410 here, pdf), when I ask: how can we read these kinds of works? If animals are key to “early” or “prehistoric” mythology, if there’s a universal (?) tendency not to take much account of human/animal differences, then are works like the Volsung Saga and the Vita Merlini somehow representative of an earlier stage in human thinking? The simple answer is of course not, but the better answer complicates things further.

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