This conference took place at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston on 6-8 July 2018.
When I first heard about the conference I thought it sounded interesting but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to attend. Fortunately things worked out and I was able to attend the Saturday and Sunday aspects of the conference just missing the Friday aspects. What I missed on the Friday was some meet and greet time and the opening blot for the conference but no talks, the talks began on Saturday.
I did have some anxiety about attending the conference mainly due to worries about being in a new place, including the fears of finding the place and being on time, and meeting new people. I had no idea what size of conference this would be although I did already know a small number of people that were going to be there so that helped.
Finding the place and getting there went very smoothly helped by the excellent information provided by the conference organiser, Linda Server. I was still a bit anxious on arrival and for a little while afterwards but that faded as the first day continued. I was feeling much more relaxed by the morning of the second day. The first day continued for about 11 hours of talks, discussion and entertainment, the second day was a bit shorter but still a full day. Lunch was provided for the conference delegates on both days as well as a continual supply of tea, coffee, water and biscuits. There were also a few stalls at the conference although I didn’t buy anything myself.
I took notes on nearly all the talks, sometimes very brief notes, sometimes longer notes. My notes will not reflect the level of scholarship and research that the presenters demonstrated but will hopefully give a taste of what took place. Oh, and just to be clear, while this was organised by Heathen Women United attendance was not restricted to just women, there were a number of men there too.
Saturday began with a short welcome and opening statement from Linda Server with some announcements about last minute changes to the conference schedule. Following that was the first panel of speakers. Panel one had the title “Urd” and included three presenters. Each spoke for about twenty minutes followed by a question and answer section directed at all three panelists.
The first speaker was Solveig Wang from Scotland speaking on “Women and Ritual in Old Norse Society”. Solveig spoke about the role of women as instigators of ritual in old Norse society as evidenced by both historical and archeological records. Women of the house commonly officiated at rites with senior women in a community officiating at larger community rites. She mentioned a number of words and phrases such as “blótgyðya” which means a sacrificial priestess ( I hope I’ve written that correctly!). She spoke of the importance of the women who carried and distributed the mead cup at feasts, the women carrying the mead cup had considerable influence and while in that role were sacred. There are a number of figurines depicting cup bearing women from the archeological record and a couple of slides were shown with examples. While most of the women in these roles were part of the the home and community there were exceptions, most notably those of the wandering Volva practicing the arts of Seiðr.
The second speaker was Shani Oates from the USA. Shani’s talk was titled “The Silent Scream: Slaves, Concubines and Polygamy in Pre-Christian Norse and Icelandic Culture”. Shani spoke about the way some scholars split women appearing in the Norse and Icelandic literature into four categories. These are the warrior, the prophetess or spae-wife, the revenger and the inciter. These four types can be further simplified into the sacred (incorporating the first two) and the mundane (the latter two). She did mention the scholars behind these theories but I didn’t note the names. Women in pre-Christian Germanic and Icelandic society had the power ti raise matters for the “Thing” via their husbands. If the matters they had raised were not dealt with to their satisfaction they could use a range of shaming tactics on their husbands including divorce. Women would often be the instigator for blood feuds frequently pushing the men into action. Much of the evidence for this and other examples are evidenced in various laws. There is a composite codex of the laws from these times in Iceland known as the “Grágás”. Abuse and violence towards women was considered shameful and as a result was minimal. In instances where abuse towards women did take place no shame was held against the women involved, instead their male protectors (husbands, fathers or owners in the case of slaves) were shamed. For the pre-Christian wife loyalty was not expected to shift to her husband’s family but remained with her birth family. That was something that changed with the spread of Christianity. Married women had the right to inherit land and property in these pre-Christian societies. In these earlier societies a Skald or a Gossip was someone who shared information and gave advice in their communities, it was an important role and it was only later that the term came to imply someone that simply talked to much or was malicious. The mead cup ritual was mentioned during this presentation as well noting that the women carrying out this role could choose to give advice or ask for quests to be carried out, again this emphasized the importance of this role. Shani also spoke of how it was qualities of personality that allowed people to rise in the pre-Christian Germanic and Icelandic societies. Men and women with strength of will and intelligence could rise through their efforts.
The third talk in the first panel was from Embla Aae from Iceland and her talk was titled “A Comparative Look at Scandinavian Women’s Literacy in runes from Heathen to Christian Times”. Embla provided some background to the development of runes through history starting with the Elder Futhark which were used from late BC times to around 200 AD (if I’ve noted this down correctly). By 400 AD the Younger Futhark was in use and that remained in sole use to around 600 AD. Dotted runes were fully developed and in use by arround 800AD, new graphemes came in after that between 1000 – 1200 AD with runes use dying out after that time. Before Christianity runes stones are usually memorial and neutral in terms of faith contexts. Later a wider range of runes stones can be found but most are still memorial. Women’s names do appear in rune stones as either the carver or someone that employed the carver but not very often.
I didn’t take any notes on the questions to and responses from the panel. My next notes are from the first guest speaker but as this entry is already over a thousand words I am going to leave this here.