Background noise

The myth of the ‘mead of poetry’ in Skáldskaparmál (‘the language of poetry’), the second part of Snorri Storluson’s Edda, illustrated in this 18th century manuscript. It is said that whoever drinks the godly potion will outperform the Internet: gain knowledge of everything and solve any query or problem (Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, SÁM 66).

Most medieval stories are lost. They were lost not because of a breakdown in storytelling, but because they weren’t written down. Or they weren’t written down in a way that resisted the undoing of time.

The medieval Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson did his best to ensure the survival of the Icelandic sagas, epic stories then circulating in the frozen North. And many did survive, though most have been preserved in manuscripts copied in the early modern period.

Even more have been lost, however. This is the fate – or the genius – of oral cultures, to escape recording, except perhaps under the most exacting forms of hyper-literacy, which presumes to record anything and everything, leaving no sound and no noise uncaptured.

The total recovery and intelligibility of ancient worlds will always escape us moderns, because most of these cultures lie beyond the microphone and have long since joined the cosmic background radiation. The noise in the background is merely the evidence of a footprint, a ghost resisting our embrace.

We’ve developed incredible tools to illuminate the past and understand the criss-crossing roads we’ve been taking. And more light is cast every day on many of these paths. But there is a test of humility as there is one of tenacity. The humility to accept that not everything will be revealed, that the background noise must be accepted and embraced – even if, like the ghost of Anchises in the Aeneid or Virgil’s ghost in Dante’s Purgatory, it proves to be a thwarted clasp.

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