Archive to live: Viking tales

Giants, a one-eyed god, and a ship made out of fingernails were just some of the fantastic elements of the Sensory Opportunities storytelling sessions at St Oswald’s Primary School, York, as children delved into the weird and wonderful world of Old Norse mythology.

Studying Vikings at St Oswald's

Throughout the last term, the three classes of children in Years 3 and 4 at St Oswald’s have been learning about the origins and culture of the Vikings. Sensory Stories Training Day participant Russell Comrie, a PhD student at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies, went into the school over the course of three days to introduce each class to Old Norse mythology, retelling three tales and answering the children’s questions along the way.

The stories were action-packed, often comical and in some places very grisly! The first told of how Thor was convinced by his fellow gods to disguise himself as Freya in order to rescue his hammer, Mjollnir, from the amorous giant Trym. The second described how Odin, the chief god, tricked his way into possessing the Mead of Poetry, which would allow anyone who drank it to become a ‘skald’ or poet, an important role in Viking culture. The third concerned Ragnarök, the series of events which were thought of in Old Norse mythology as yet to come, and which would culminate in the end of the world. The children particularly relished details about the Naglfar, the ship made from the nails of the dead, which would ferry fighters from the underworld to the final battle between the gods and their enemies, the giants.

Russell brings Viking tales to life for children at St Oswald's school

‘While I wanted to give the children an insight into Old Norse mythology, its attitudes and concerns, my most important goal was simply to allow them to be excited by the stories themselves, in the hope that they would want to pursue learning about this material under their own steam,’ explained Russell.

‘I chose the stories I did for three reasons: first, because they are so central in the extant Old Norse mythology; second, because they provide food for thought about the minds and attitudes of those who first told them, and third because they are vivid and entertaining, and focus on such major figures in the mythology.’

He was also impressed by the children’s questions, which took them from a discussion of how the myths were written down and by whom to a consideration of the differences between myths and religious beliefs. ‘Without a doubt, the most enjoyable aspect of the whole experience was to see how interested the children were, and to hear how naturally incisive and intelligent their questions showed them to be’.

Engaged for launch

Sixty PhD students from across the north of England are gearing up for their Sensory Stories training day experience this weekend. ‘Making Sense of Public Engagement’ will be held at the University of York’s Humanities Research Centre on 15 January. Philippa looks forward to our milestone event.

The excitement amongst the Sensory Stories team is really building as we approach the launch of the training day. The aim of the day is to train our fellow PhD students to think about how their research can become a sensory story, making use of appeals to the senses, objects and performance in order to engage the public with academic research in the humanities. We will also encourage people to put this into action with the launch of our Sensory Opportunities, which will give participants the chance to present their research at various public institutions, including Shandy Hall and York City Art Gallery.

Our prestigious guest speakers will show students how they can turn their research into a sensory story and communicate it to different audiences. Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall, will demonstrate the benefits of using objects to help tell stories; Stephe Harrop, professional storyteller, will give us an insight into the art of the tale, and Professor Helen Weinstein, Director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, will enhance our understanding of how to communicate with the media. Students will have the opportunity to try out some of our speakers’ methods using their own research in our workshops ‘Making Objects Speak to Research’ and ‘How to Tell Tales’.

We will also be joined by Thom Richardson from the Royal Armouries Museum, and Iona McCleery from the University of Leeds, both of whom will speak about their experiences of research and working with the public. The afternoon will include a dance performance by Holly Clarkson and Kate Prosser from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, which has been created as part of their involvement in a project to tell archaeological narratives through alternative media.

The training day is the beginning of a new chapter in our quest to bring humanities research to the public, inspiring delegates to create their own sensory story and encourage their colleagues throughout the north of England to do the same. We will be uploading reports, pictures, and videos of the training day soon.

Guest blog

The Sensory Stories blog is at the heart of communicating our progress and ideas and it is something we want to share with as many people as possible. We would like to offer delegates at the training day the opportunity to guest blog about their experiences of the day. This would involve producing a 3-400 word article on your opinion of the day, how it relates to your research, and how it has enhanced your ideas about public engagement. We would like to post the article on the site by the end of January. All those interested are encouraged to chat to our blog editor, Carolyn, during the day or contact her at cad503@york.ac.uk

Telling the Sensory Story

Pitching ideas to potential critics can be daunting, as the Sensory Stories team found in presenting their vision for the project to fellow postgraduate students and academics at the University of York. But, as Philippa reports, stating our ‘Proposition’ proved as positive as it was challenging.

It certainly wasn’t the Dragons’ Den – no stony-faced business execs ready with a withering put-down. Instead, the Sensory Stories team sat before an attentive and rather content audience, who had just enjoyed tucking into sandwiches and three kinds of cake. Teas in hand, the audience of postgraduates and academics listened as the evolution of Sensory Stories was told: the inspiration behind the project; writing the AHRC research proposal (fuelled by numerous giant mugs of coffee at the now legendary Bootham Bites café); our recent gruel tasting and our plans for the postgraduate training day, which will teach sixty postgraduates how to tell their own sensory stories.

Presenting The Proposition

This was the ‘The Proposition’: a new forum for postgraduates and academics at York’s Humanities Research Centre. The forum is designed to be a platform for groups to present new research proposals to their peers, who are on hand not just to listen but also to give groups encouragement, suggestions and constructive criticism.

Our audience gave us just that. A linguistics PhD student wondered how her research could be turned into a sensory story. The university Volunteering Project Officer, Kate Harper, suggested we test the appetite for Sensory Stories amongst different community groups. Dr Mark Jenner, an academic in the history department, cautioned against perpetuating the myth that academic work was dry and clinical, when really it is full of sensory experiences: the smell of old books, the luxurious feel of parchment or velvet, and the sight of intricate illustrations. The Proposition, and the audience’s propositions to us, really helped sharpen our aims for the project and refine our approach to delivering Sensory Stories.



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