I had a great idea for today’s post. I remember thinking about it as I heated the water for my tea at lunchtime. I think it had something to do with some correlation between storytelling and Christian theology. It would have been great.
But it flew out of my head, leaving no trace behind.
So instead of that, let’s meditate upon the aforementioned figure of speech, “It flew out of my head.”
I’ve read that in some cultures, people don’t think of themselves as using their heads for thinking. They believe that they think in their chests or their stomachs or something.
I don’t get that at all. As long as I can remember, I’ve “lived in my head,” and have been quite sure where the Brain-work Department is located. Top floor, the one with the view.
Does everyone feel the same way, though? Sometimes I wonder if those guys I’ve envied all my life—the big, athletic ones with the lightning reflexes and fast-twitch muscles—feel differently about their thinking. Maybe they rub their stomachs when they’re working out a problem.
A noted literary example of uncertainty concerning the seat of reason is a passage from Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Kings of Norway, by Snorri Sturlusson. I’ve mentioned this book often before. This particular story is found in other sources, but I have a copy of Heimskringla in the room here, so I’ll use it.
The story is the aftermath of the Battle of Hjorungavaag. This battle was the climax of an attempt to invade Norway by a group of free-lance Vikings called the Jomsvikings. Historians are uncertain whether the Jomsvikings ever actually existed, and if they did, how important they were. But they loom large in the sagas. They were an international brotherhood of warriors who operated out of a fortress of their own, probably someplace in northern Poland (yes, there were some Polish Vikings. “Viking” was a job description, not an ethnic designation, in those days).
The Jomsvikings had attended a feast given by King Svein of Denmark, in which they made a classic mistake—they allowed themselves to get in a bragging contest leading to competitive oaths after drinking too much. When they woke up (hung over) the next morning, they discovered that their leader had made a vow to conquer Norway. Their honor code left them no choice but to try to fulfill it.
After some initial success, they were met by a formidable Norwegian fleet at Hjorungavaag. The Norwegians, needless to say, cleaned their hourglasses. (Chances are Erling Skjalgsson was in that fleet, though he’s not mentioned in the text.)
It’s at this point that the famous scene occurs. The Jomsvikings are made to sit on some logs, with their legs tied to keep them from escaping. Then a man comes with an axe and begins to behead them, one at a time.
At this point, we join the text in progress:
Then one of them said, “Here I have a dagger in my hand, and I shall stick it in the ground if I am conscious when my head is chopped off.” He was beheaded, and the dagger dropped from his hand.
I suppose it helps, at moments like that, to have a scientific goal to distract you.
All right, all right. I’ll tell you how it ends.
One of the men, who has long, beautiful hair, expresses his concern that his ’do will get all bloody. So one of the Norwegians wraps his hands in the hair and holds it away from his head. When the axe comes down, the Jomsviking pulls himself back sharply, so that the Norwegian’s hands are severed.
Jarl Erik Haakonsson, the leader of the Norwegian army, is so delighted with this trick that he spares the Jomsviking’s life (you’ve got to admit he was a man who could take a joke. We aren’t told how the guy who lost his hands felt about it. I have to figure he was one of my ancestors).
Seeing this, the headsman, who has a personal grudge against a Jomsviking further down the line, runs toward that man, in order to kill him before any more pardons slip through. But another Jomsviking trips him, and his intended victim grabs the axe and kills him with it. This bit of performance art pleases Jarl Erik so much that he lets all the rest of them live.
And they dined out on the story, no doubt, for the rest of their lives.
Except for the guy with no hands. I suppose he just thought about it a lot.
And he couldn’t even rub his stomach to help him think.