Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Jan A. Kozák

Body Parts and Metaphors

The Logic of Transformations in Old Norse Mythology

Tuesday, November 19, 2019, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Jan A. Kozák

The talk will offer an answer to the question “Why are myths so weird?” that is: why are myths articulated in the form of surreal images and stories and not in “plain speech.” The Old Norse mythology contains a number of especially surreal motifs of body transformation that serve as crucial points of cosmogony: gods or other anthropomorphic beings are dissected or wounded in various ways and these acts translate directly to the establishment of the Cosmos and its various features (e.g. Mímir’s head, Kvasir’s blood, Týr’s hand, Óðinn’s eye, Ymir’s whole body, Þjazi’s eyes, Aurvandill’s toe, etc.). I will show, however, that these mutilations and body transformations follow a specific logic which can be described and understood with the help of new insights provided by cognitive linguistics and semiotics of religion.

Recent studies into conceptual metaphors and other basic tropes (metonymy, synecdoche, irony) reveal their constitutive role in our cognition and in the construction of cultural codes. Mythology as a code is special in this respect, because it applies conceptual metaphors much more ‘boldly’ and in much wider scale than everyday speech or realistic genres — building whole myths out of them, hence the surreal nature of the narratives. We will go through the various myths where body symbolism is prominent and establish a ‘typology of tropes’. This system will be then put in the wider context and we will review the same principles of association based on conceptual metaphors using the examples of magical practices, visual symbolism, sacred and secular art. One of the goals of the talk is to show how even the weird and fantastic motifs that we find in myths and magical practices are built on concepts that have their roots in our bodily experience (mediated through culture). This theoretical framework is especially useful for systematic comparison of various eras or neighbouring cultures.

Jan A. Kozák (MA, PhD) is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Bergen, researching body symbolism in Old Norse myth. He holds a Ph.D. in History of Religions from the Charles University of Prague. His publications include a bilingual edition of Hervarar saga and articles on initiatory structure in myth and heroic legend.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.

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