Tag Archives: Vikings

“Christianity Comes to the Vikings”

Below, my lecture at Union University, Jackson, TN — in case you’ve been longing to spend an hour with me. It opens with a short introduction by none other than Dr. Hunter Baker.

I was a little disappointed that my PowerPoint slides are out of shot; on the other hand, I didn’t always synch them well (my remote clicker didn’t always get through for some reason).

Probably best for me not to comment on the short portion I’ve personally viewed. I’m generally incapable of objective self-assessment. So judge for yourself.

And then make it viral.

My Tennessee Waltz

Photo credit: Ray Van Neste

My first order of business is to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Hunter Baker, Dr. Ray Van Neste, and all the wonderful people at Union University, Jackson, Tennessee, for making me so extremely welcome for the last couple days. It was a tremendous experience for me. I hope it was enjoyable for innocent bystanders as well.

I flew in to Memphis, courtesy of the school, on Monday. Dr. Hunter Baker met me, in two senses. He’s one of those people I’ve known online for years, but we’d never actually been in the same physical space before. He took me out for pizza (very good), and then back to the school for a short tour. That’s when I also got to meet Dr. Ray Van Neste, another online friend and the co-conspirator in my invitation.

They’re both deans. When you’re a dean, you can get away with spending institutional funds on marginal literary figures.

Tuesday was the most intense day I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s hard to describe. Hunter told me I wasn’t like he expected, based on my self-descriptions on this blog. And he was right. I was in a different reality on Tuesday. I was “on,” as in performing. Like when I used to act.

In retrospect, I’m not at all sure why I decided it would be a good idea to wear my frock coat, vest, and tie when I visited classes on Tuesday. Especially when I pulled out my monocle for reading, it must have made me look distinctly bizarre. But it somehow made sense to me in my altered state of consciousness. I sat in on Hunter’s Modern Political Thought class that morning, discussing medieval political thought. Seemed to go OK. In the afternoon I joined a writing class, and that was quite a bit of fun – or at least the alien intelligence possessing my consciousness thought so.

All day I was in performance mode, and people enabled me by asking me questions on subjects about which I had something to say. These elements combined to make me appear to be an extrovert. The real me just hung on for the ride.

Lunch that day was one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, at a local place, and for dinner we joined another dean (whose name I’ve forgotten, I fear) for a memorable meal at the nicest place in town. My alien possessor handled this well, I believe.

Then in the evening, I did my big presentation on “When Christianity Came To the Vikings.” I am pretty much unable to tell you how it went, because my grandiose half thinks it was awesome, and my neurotic half thinks I messed it up completely. The truth, no doubt, falls somewhere in between, but where on a scale from one to ten, I can’t tell you. They inform me the video will be posted, and I’ll share it with you. But I will never have the nerve to watch it.

I do know I knocked my water bottle off the podium. Could have used that water.

There were a number of questions afterward (always a good sign), and one fan who wasn’t a student or faculty member drove a distance to be there (nice to meet you, Steve).

Then I returned to my guest room and crashed, feeling as if I’d gone nine rounds with a prizefighter.

And Wednesday I flew home. It was a perfect spring day in Tennessee, and in Minneapolis we were having a snowstorm.

And that’s my latest adventure.

It’s good to be a celebrity.

New Viking Exhibition in Oslo

It’s pretty much all Vikings, all the time for me this week. A family member sent me a link to the following video, about a brand new Viking exhibition in Oslo:

You can read more about the exhibition in this article from medieval.eu.

Due to unforeseen reparations being carried out at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the opening of a new Viking exhibition has been rescheduled. End of March – hopefully – visitors will be able to enjoy a bonanza of the more spectacular archaeological finds from the last ten years; add to this a selection of some of the highlights from an earlier time, and visitors may expect an enjoyable tour of the Norwegian Viking past. Later in 2025, when the new museum opens at Bygdøy, the treasures will be transferred there, supplementing the finds from OsebergGokstad, and Tune. Perhaps finds from the newly discovered Viking boat in Østfold – as yet not excavated – will join the older treasures

Lots of cool stuff here. I’m pleased that the video maker, who rejoices in the extremely Norwegian name, Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen, is not entirely convinced that women warriors existed, like me. I think I’ve been in this museum, if it’s the one I’m thinking of.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, by M. & H. Whittock

The voluntary nature of the Scandinavian conversion – in Denmark and Sweden at least – seems to have led to communities feeling that they did not need to significantly alter their artistic communication or abandon their traditional culture in order to be good Christians.

C. S. Lewis writes somewhere that one of the best methods of evangelism would be for Christians, not to produce more “Christian” work, but to simply do better work as Christians. From my perspective as an amateur historian, I would say that Martyn and Hannah Whittock (father and daughter) have produced superior historical work in producing The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, published by Lion Books, a Christian publisher.

It’s weird for a guy like me, a promoter of the historical value of the Icelandic sagas, to say, but there’s good reason to believe that the story of the conversion of the Vikings, as presented in the sagas, may be misleading. The Whittocks point out – and somehow I’d missed this – that there is little report of violence in the conversions of Denmark and Sweden. Only in Norway, where saga writers had political motivation to glamorize Olaf Haraldsson as Norway’s national hero and saint, do we have stories of torture and threats of death.

It may be true that Olaf was a bloody-handed tyrant (I believe that). But his work may not have been as influential in the conversion as the sagas suggest. There’s good reason to think that the earlier Christian king, Haakon the Good, who gets short shrift in the sagas, may have been a far more effective missionary than history remembers.

This harmonizes with things I’ve been saying in my lectures for some time. Now, having read the Whittocks’ book, I have more ammunition for those arguments.

I’m also delighted that the Whittocks have very clearly read Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolf Vintrer Hadde Kristendommen Vært i Norge (which Anders Winroth, for all his expertise, overlooks entirely in his book on the conversion of Scandinavia). I’m delighted that Birkeli’s important ideas, largely unknown to English readers till now, are being conveyed through this book.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ covers a lot more than the conversion of Norway, of course. We start with a historical overview, then examine each Scandinavian country in turn, followed by various regions that the Vikings colonized. I have a couple minor quibbles – at one point they suggest St. Olaf’s opposition was motivated by heathenry, but they correct that later on.

I haven’t found a history book a page-turner in a long time. The Vikings: From Odin to Christ kept me turning the pages. I recommend it highly.

Your Viking news update

My reading pace is a little slow just now. Had some translation to do on Monday, and now I’m working hard on preparing for my lecture at Union University in TN next Tuesday.

So here’s some Viking news, courtesy of HisTecho:

While Norwegian archeologists in Trondheim’s city, excavated the market area, they stumbled upon a curious discovery.

It was 13 feet long, and while the wood had been destroyed over time, evidence such as nails and rusty lumps indicated that it was a boat. The boat dates from the 7th to the 10th century, a time when Vikings wandered the seas, raided and explored, according to the initial analysis.

Inside the boat, burial goods such as bronze, a piece of a spoon, and a key to a small box were discovered, alongside 2 long bones.

The DNA testing is yet to prove if the bones are human or provide any details that might bring more information about the person possibly buried in the boat.

The article indicates that scholars are surprised by the age of the find, but I don’t find it surprising that there would be human habitation, and burials, in Trondheim before the turn of the millennium. Trondheim didn’t become really important until Olaf Trygvesson’s time (around 1000), but we’re talking about arable land in a soil-poor country. Trondheim is a nice spot, with a good port. I’d be surprised if somebody wasn’t living there.

A short pause for the Long Ships

Today I got a little translation work to do. Not a lot, but there are reasons to hope things may pick up a bit.

And I did a little housework.

And I have nothing to write about. I’m blank. In lieu of an actual intellectual contribution to the world wide web, I offer the opening titles from a truly mediocre Viking movie, The Long Ships, with Richard Widmark.

This film, beyond its general inaccuracy and implausibility, commits the great sin of being unworthy of its source material — the fine novel The Long Ships, by Fran Gunnar Bengtsson.

You may note that the ship’s rudder is (properly) on the starboard side in some shots, and occasionally on the port side. This is the result of a cheat on the film editors’ parts. They just reversed the print. For some reason.

I owned a 45 rpm vinyl disc of this song — a cousin had it and didn’t want it, and she gave it to me. I think I listened to it once — somehow I left it sitting a car window and it melted.

Only the first of many disappointments connected with this movie.

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

The finished product

And here’s the final poster produced by the 99th Infantry folks. I’m quite happy with it. No, that’s not true. I’m delighted.

What you can’t see in the original picture (below) is that I’m surrounded by snow. Lots and lots of snow. And it’s snowed a few inches since the picture was taken. I mentioned to someone that it’s kind of like living in the trenches in WWI (except for minor details like automatic weapons fire). We have trenches to walk in, and trenches to drive in. We generally don’t go anywhere without a trench.

The gas company sent an announcement that we should check that the vent pipes around our gas meters are clear. If they’re blocked, we could suffocate. But to get to mine, I’d have to plow through two or three feet of snow — more where the snow shoveling piles are. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do that. From a distance, it looks as if the snow isn’t drifted very high just at that point.

“Uncle Lars Wants you”

Sorry to post another picture of myself.

No, I’m not. I love it.

Anyway, you may recall my small involvement with the group devoted to memorializing the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the commando battalion recruited from Norwegian expatriates and Norwegian-Americans during World War II.

I was recently asked to be their “spokesviking,” and they asked for some pictures of me in my kit, in the James Montgomery Flagg “I WANT YOU” style. I meant to get photos taken during our reenactment group’s Viking feast last week, but the forces of nature made that impossible, as is their wont in these parts.

So I got a friend over to take some yesterday. Here’s one. I sent several off to the 99th people, and I’ve seen a preliminary mock-up of what they’re going to do with it. It’s pretty cool. I look forward to sharing the finished product.

Alert the Media: Walker could be wrong

A while back, I blogged about a recent article declaring that a Swedish Viking warrior’s grave, long assumed to be male, was probably that of a woman. I cited Judith Jesch’s critiques of the article, which she considered over the top and under-authenticated.

A recent article in in the Journal Antiquity has addressed those objections. Researchers insist that the body in the grave was indeed that of a woman.

The barrage of questions from the public and other scientists was unrelenting: Were the researchers sure they had analyzed the right bones? Was there more than one body in the burial, of which one was surely a man? And if the warrior’s sex was indeed female, is it possible they were a transgender man? [See Images of the Viking Woman Warrior’s Burial]

Now, in a new study published online yesterday (Feb. 19) in the journal Antiquity, the researchers of the original study have reaffirmed their conclusion that this mighty individual was a woman. The new study addresses all the questions people raised, and more.

Living Science reports on it here.

I have to eat a small amount of crow in this case, but all in all I’ve decided to dig my heels in. I’m suspicious of this story. It doesn’t fit the textual accounts — either the contemporary chronicles or the Icelandic sagas.

I keep coming back to my “dog in the nighttime” argument. If Viking armies were full of fighting females, why are the monastic chroniclers silent about it? How could they resist denouncing “unnatural females” and “monstrous witches” in such a situation?

So I’m waiting for more information. Ms. Jesch seems not entirely satisfied as well.

However, I’ll admit I’m prejudiced.

‘The Vikings on Film,’ by Kevin J. Harty

You know this film has a reputation of being a very bloody film, lots of blood, lots of fighting, and it’s just not true; there is in fact no blood shown in this picture except in this one shot where Kirk has his hand up holding the hawk and you see a small stream of blood trickling down between his fingers … but everybody talks about how bloody it was because of the impression you get. (Director Richard Fleischer on the 1958 film, “The Vikings.”)

The world of Viking reenactment is not without its controversies. I’ve seen many a dispute over subjects like acceptable levels of authenticity, whether heathenism should be compulsory, or the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone.

But one subject that almost always yields agreement is Viking movies.

We hate them all.

Some of them we hate fondly, and we enjoy watching them even as we scoff at them.

Some we consider insults to our intelligence.

But we pretty generally agree that we’re still waiting to see a good one.

So I was curious to read Kevin J. Harty’s collection of critical essays, The Vikings on Film.

My verdict: Not as enlightening as I hoped, and way too much Film Studies jargon.

There was a certain degree of the sort of thing I wanted most – stories about how the various films came to be, and evaluations of how they worked – or didn’t. As I should have expected, there were numerous critical lamentations over the levels of “problematic” masculinity in the stories.

I was surprised by some of the evaluations. The reviewer who writes on “The 13th Warrior,” doesn’t think it works very well. I think it works quite well as a story – it’s the costumes and armor that appall me. Another reviewer thought “Outlander” (the Sci-Fi version of Beowulf with Jim Caviezel) was generally successful – not my impression at all.

And some movies, like “Beowulf and Grendel” (which I hated, but which had good costumes), are barely touched on.

I didn’t read all the reviews, because they concerned movies I haven’t seen, or that don’t interest me – such as the animated “Asterix and the Vikings.”

All in all, I didn’t regret reading The Vikings on Film, but I wasn’t much enlightened by it either.

A little tour of Avaldsnes

From time to time I talk to you about the parish of Avaldsnes in Norway, where my great-grandfather was born, and where one of the most dramatic events in Erling Skjalgsson’s career occurred.

They’re very aware of their Viking heritage at Avaldsnes, as you can see by viewing the short video below. This is the Viking farm they’ve built on the nearby island of Bukkoy. I’m not sure why they identify the naust (boathouse) as a great hall — except that that’s how it’s used in the TV series Northmen, which is filmed there. But still, this video will give you some idea of the place.

Saga tropes

I found a list on (of all places) a site called “TV Tropes,” describing common tropes in the sagas. I haven’t studied it exhaustively, but I find nothing here to disagree with . And some of them are amusing:

Color-Coded for Your Convenience: When colorful clothes are mentioned, it’s a hint of what is about to happen for the Genre Savvy. Character wears blue: Character is intent on killing another one. Character wears red: Character will probably get killed soon

Determined Homesteader’s Wife: Norse women worked hard — frequently harder than the men. Side note: While women in Norse society had certain rights that they typically did not have in medieval Christian societies (such as the right to divorce her husband or the right to inherit), by and large Norse society was sexist — women could, for example, not vote in the assembly or hold chieftaincies. In legal affairs, they were usually represented by male relatives.

  • The idea was that, the man is “lord” outside the house, and the wife is “lord” inside the house. As such, she didn’t have much influence in public. Still, she was the one with the “keys”, and it was a socially accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it necessary.
  • Lost in Translation: The most obvious example is the key Icelandic social position of godi, which is so impossible to translate into a single English (or most other languages) word that most modern translations simply describe it in detail in the introduction or a footnote and then use it untranslated. Also atgeir, the Weapon of Choice of many saga characters, is often translated as “halberd” despite the fact that nobody is certain whether that’s what it actually was and no actual halberds dating from the saga era have ever been found. Finally, Old Norse poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into other languages thanks to its reliance on wordplay and complex metaphor. In particular, wordplay in poems based on people’s names is often just explained in a footnote.
  • The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: The view of the 13th and 14th century Icelanders on the viking expeditions of the past was decidedly ambivalent. Horror and moral contempt at these barbaric practices was mixed with pride in the adventurous endeavours of one’s ancestors, bold and daring gentlemen of fortune that they were. As a result, many sagas dealing with viking episodes struggle noticeably with the problem of making protagonists who spend time as sea-raiders look heroic, not horrible. One way to do this is to cover viking expeditions only summarily, generously glossing over the questionable details; another way is to have the heroes get into a clash with other, more villainous vikings, in which the latter are soundly defeated. Thus, the good guys have not only opportunity to prove their bravery against villainous mooks who deserve no better, but also end up with a lot of loot, without the stigma of having it robbed from innocent people. Of course, they never think of giving it back. — The big exception to this rule is, of course, Egil’s Saga, whose eponymous protagonist loots and kills unapologetically for his own enrichment.