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Serendipity: Vikings in Black and White

Skarphedinn the Viking Warrior from Njal’s Saga

Skarphedinn the Viking Warrior from Njal’s Saga

It took a blind poet to note something very interesting about Nordic literature at the time of the Vikings. On October 21, 1966, the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges gave a class on Anglo-Saxon literature at the University of Buenos Aires. The book consists of notes recorded by the lecturer’s students and translated and published by New Directions in a volume entitled Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. When the I read the following this morning at Los Angeles’s Central Library, I had chills up and down my spine:

And further south is what the Norse historians called Blaland, “blue land,” “land of blue men,” or rather Negroes, because they mixed the colors up a little. Besides one word, sölr, which means “yellowed” and is used to describe fallow fields and the sea, they have no colors. The snow is often spoken of, but they never say the snow is white. Blood is spoken of, but they never say it is red. They talk about the fields, but they never say they are green. We don’t know if this is the result of some kind of colorblindness or if it was simply a poetic convention. The Homeric Greeks said “the color of wine.” But we don’t know what color wine was for the Greeks; they don’t talk about colors, either. On the other hand, Celtic poetry that is contemporaneous or prior to Germanic poetry, contains an abundance of colors—it’s full of colors. There, every time a women is mentioned, they speak about her white body, her hair the color of gold or fire, her red lips. They also talk about green fields, and specify the colors of fruits, etcetera. In other words, the Celts lived in a visual world; the Norse did not.

At the time Borges gave this literature, his blindness was almost complete, though he was able to detect the color yellow.

4 thoughts on “Serendipity: Vikings in Black and White

  1. fascinating; i’ve read quite a bit of Borges but never his views on Norse culture; i’ll have to get that publication. tx…

  2. Borges gave several lectures on Anglo-Saxon (and Norse) literature in his course … but then he skipped Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton and went straight to the 18th century.

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