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They also practiced cremation, among other things. Sometimes in combination with boat and ship burials, but physically at sea? The ship was but one of many symbols associated with the afterlife in pre-Christian Scandinavia.

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And though this makes sense for a seafaring culture, boat and ship burials were still comparatively rare. In reality, Scandinavian burial practices were amazingly diverse. Some people were afforded expensive burials with lavish grave goods, and complex, laboriously constructed monuments. This was partly dependent on social status, presumably, but but there must also have been other conditions and circumstances governing how a the dead were treated in any given year or location. By the Viking Era, Scandinavians had already been building burial mounds for thousands of years, yielding innumerable burial mounds scattered across Scandinavia.

A counterpoint to the international myth of the Viking buried at sea is the popular Scandinavian misconception that barrows typified how the dead were treated in the Viking Era, forgetting that these represent an accumulation of dead aristocrats across thousands of years. In reality, burial mounds are tremendously hard work, and only few important individuals were afforded such an honor, though old burial mounds were often reused, sometimes several times across everything from a few generations to thousands of years.

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Monumental grave markers speak of power. Archaeologists assume that burial mounds followed times of conflict and political assertion. Iron Age burial mounds came with and without seafaring vessels, some were buried in wagons, or just the wagon box. Many were laid in flat ground, with or without surviving funerary monuments, while some were buried by or between standing stones.

Some were even placed in small wooden structures, or laid under cliff overhangs. Some sat upright in their burial chambers, other lay down in their coffins. Some on their back, some prone. Some graves face east-west, others north-south. Some dead were laid down whole, others burned to ashes and scooped into a serving bowl. There are instances where people have been posthumously decapitated, crushed by heavy stones, or had their jaw removed and swapped for that of an animal. Evidence suggests they could choose between a range of different cremation techniques, which finally leads us to the main focus of this article.

Before the second half of the first millennium, the dead were usually cremated before their bones deposited somewhere else, while in the Viking Age, pyre and burial are often in the very same spot. Cremation may have been a practical way of dealing with the remains of people who died abroad, but they were also commonplace locally. It could be as simple as being cremated in some designated public or ritual space before being movied to a local cemetery or appropriate burial site, sometimes only a few yards away.

In the first half of the Iron Age, they were often buried in an urn, pot or some other kind of vessel. As with all archaeological contexts, burials leave a lot to the imagination. But this is even more so the case with cremations. First and foremost because prehistoric Scandinavian cremation graves hardly contain any bones at all. What the fuck?

Note the small amount of burnt bones to the right. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger. A modern cremation yields, on average, grams of bones grams for men, grams for women , amounting to a volume of 7,8 liters before they are ground to ashes. But these are not the figures we see in archaeological contexts. In Scandinavian cremation burials, the total weight of remains usually ranges between a few grams up to One study of separate cremation contexts recovered only a handful of burials where the total mass of bones exceeded grams, which is still less than a third of the post-cremation bone weight of an average grown man.

This appears to have been fairly consistent feature of Scandinavian burial practice back to the Late Bronze Age.

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The excavation yielded a total of grams of bones, but only grams of these bones were human. In contrast to inhumations, where the complete body is buried, it must have been extremely rare to bury the full remains of any given cremated individual. That the burial formed only one symbolic piece in a bigger eschatological puzzle. In other words, something else was consistently happening in the middle phase between cremation and burial, since only a small fragment of the actual bones usually made it into the burials, so where the hell did the rest go?

To offer a possible answer to this riddle need to take a deeper look at cremation itself. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger. Who were given the task of cremating the dead in Iron Age Scandinavia, and how did they do it? There is a range of factors the budding crematory worker must consider, temperature obviously being the most important. Temperatures in the latter range are generally not possible on an open air funeral pyre due to heat loss. If a pyre burns cold and unevenly, the body may only be partially cremated.

On a pyre, fat people are harder to burn than skinny people, while the opposite is true if you are cremating in an oven, since the closed environment allows for a greater build up of temperatures to the point where an obese corpse essentially fuels itself. In an outside environment, the struggle is not only about getting the fire burning and people generally don't burn very well , but also maintaining temperature. A modern oven cremation can be over in as soon as an hour. Bones subjected to lower temperatures look different from bones treated to higher ones, and hence be qualitatively graded.

Grade 0 : Unburnt bones without visible traces of fire, but have been affected by heat. Grade 1 : Sooty bones. Grade 2 : Lightly burnt bones. Mind you, different fragments from a single cremation may yield varying grades because the temperature distribution in any given fire is never even. Remains in the scale of 3,73 would reflect a job well done, while 0,70 would probably have been very sloppy.

The grading of the bones allows us to say something about the skill and experience level of whoever performed the cremation. As you probably realize, there are many good reasons for getting professional help: During cremation, fat and flesh will be sizzling and roasting.


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Tendons and muscles contract, causing limbs to move and twist, and even make the body sit up or raise its arms and legs , and heads tend to explode with an audible bang above a certain temperature. A specialist would know how to spare onlookers from such grim displays, the family may not even be aware of the issue. But there are also reasons why a family might choose to do it themselves: They may not have the financial resources to hire a specialist, or desire to do it themselves under a sense of social obligation, and so on.

In the Indian subcontinent, many cremations are handled this way, or under the supervision of a specialist. In these cases, if we presume that the cremation is overseen by a male member of the family, such as a brother, uncle, or the oldest son, there is a limit to the experience this person will normally have when it comes to dealing with the dead.

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson. Viðtal 1992. Sp. 334.

Hindu priest specializing in cremations may oversee thousands of cremations within the first ten years of his career. Simply judging from Germanic and Old Norse social norms, we might expect that Scandinavians relied heavily on family members to perform funerals.

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Reasonably the main heir, the oldest son, might have been responsible for burying his parents, which is the case in contemporary Hindu tradition. On average, it is unusual to have any previous experience cremating people before the death of either parent. Most would certainly have witnessed more cremations before then, and be familiar with some of the more obvious principles and religious symbolism associated with building a pyre, such as its proportions and general construction, roughly how much wood is needed, and so on.

Even though some Nepalese families may choose to do much or all of the work themselves, specialist and overseers are readily available for those who can afford it. The question is, did pre-Christian Scandinavian society have local access to such specialists?


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  • There is no evidence pointing directly to the existence of a specific priestly caste in Scandinavian Germanic society. Priesthood was a role performed in specific situations, rather than a full time job, delegated in accordance with social, economical and political status. It is also probable that specific vocations opened for specialized ritual functions.

    But is there even any evidence they utilized or needed such specialists? If we can determine the quality of burnt bones in archaeological contexts, we would certainly know, and we do. So how effective were Scandinavian cremation practices, exactly? Barring a few exceptions where we might imagine a burnt lasagna sort of situation, the botched final journey as conducted by a mourning son completely without prior experience, it turns out that quite often, Scandinavian Iron Age cremation methods were extremely effective. On account of previously addressed grading system for cremated bones, the majority of bones in Scandinavian Iron Age contexts meet the grades 3 and 4, on the very top of the scale.

    The obvious candidate at this time, in this culture, is the smith. Sometimes an untouchable, impure or sacred.

    In Scandinavia he was often a dangerous, sorcerous figure who tended to an immense variety of local tasks, from shoeing horses to performing surgery, to judging local courts and, not insignificantly, tending the dead. A mediator between Earth, Heaven, and Hell. In the Iron Age, coal produced from animal bones were probably an indispensable source, and with all of the above considered, it seems more than likely that blacksmiths made use of human bones for the same purpose, a resource they would have had ample access to, allowing him to transfer not only the carbon contents — but perhaps the properties or the spirit, or identity of animals and humans into the metal itself, imbuing objects with supernatural properties.

    But there are key differences between cremating bodies and turning bones into coal. Coal is produced at lower temperatures in oxygen deprived environments. This could be achieved in ways that might yield quantities of lower grade cremated bones, which can easily be misinterpreted as badly executed cremations, some of which are possible to reinterpret as parts of a complex technological process in a workshop context.

    It is also possible that smiths dismembered the dead, cremated certain body parts, and turned the rest into coal. If cremations were just burial rituals we could have expected more complete sets of bones. While some bones might have ended up as raw materials for the mystical transformation of iron into steel in blacksmiths workshops, it seems unlikely that this fate was shared by the majority of the bones absent from prehistoric Scandinavian cremation burials.