Tag Archives: Vikings

‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

The Long Ships

Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death, so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered.

Sometime last week it occurred to me that, although I’ve been praising the book to people most of my life, it’s actually been decades since I read Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. My old copy, printed in the 1960s, with a cover that doesn’t even appear on Amazon, is pretty much going to pieces, but it’s not terribly expensive to get a Kindle copy.

I’m happy to report that the book is as good as I remembered. Better. I still nominate it for the best Viking novel ever written – though a lot of Viking novels have been written in the last few years, and I haven’t read most of them. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could do it better than this. (Pay no attention to the 1964 movie starring Richard Widmark. It’s a travesty.)

The Long Ships (Swedish title, Röde Orm), is the story of Red Orm Tostesson, younger son of a chieftain in Scania, which is part of Sweden today but was Danish back in the Viking Age. Early in the story he’s kidnapped by a Viking crew, who take him away into the Baltic and then south to Spain. There they, more or less by happenstance, “rescue” a Jewish slave from another Viking crew. He directs them to a rich city they can plunder, which eventually leads to their enslavement by the Moors, slavery in a galley, and then military service under the caliph of Cordoba. Further adventures bring them back to Denmark, into the favor of King Harald Bluetooth (the guy your wireless device was named after), and then home again. Followed by participation in Thorkel the Tall’s invasion of England, and an epic voyage into Russia in search of a hoard of gold. Continue reading ‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

A Rosee outlook for Vikings in America

Viking house at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, photo by Lars Walker
My photo of a reconstructed Viking house at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

It’s been some time since I did my public duty by updating our erudite audience on the latest news from the world of Viking studies.

This story has been making the rounds lately, and to be honest it’s got my ears standing up. Archaeologists have used satellite imagery to identify a site in southwest Newfoundland that looks very much like a Viking Age Norse settlement.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” says Parcak. “Typically in archaeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books, but what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.

“This new site could unravel more secrets about the Vikings, whether they were the first Europeans to ‘occupy’ briefly in North America, and reveal that the Vikings dared to explore much further into the New World than we ever thought.”

It’s too early to know for sure yet, of course. When the Ingstad group excavated the one known Viking site in North America, L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, it took quite a lot of digging before they found something indisputably Norse – a ring-headed bronze pin, used for fastening a cloak. There’s a difference between finding a sod building, however much it might resemble the houses in Greenland, and finding something that couldn’t possibly have been left by Native Americans or English or Portuguese fishermen. That’s what they’ll be looking for now.

A lot of us have been waiting for something like this for some time. Prof. Helge Ingstad, having discovered his Vinland site in the 1960s, planted his metaphorical flag there and declared, “This is Vinland. This is all of Vinland there ever was. There’s no point for looking for any more traces of the Norse on this continent.” Everyone respects Ingstad immensely, and almost nobody agrees with that contention anymore. Ingstad thought that many of the saga descriptions, especially those speaking of grapes, were just folklore accretions to the story, because grapes have never grown at that latitude. Nowadays we take those descriptions more seriously – especially since butternuts were found in the excavations. Butternuts have also never grown at that latitude, but they do grow where grapes grow. This new site, further south along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, leads in the direction most scholars have been thinking of.

So this is exciting. We’ll be watching for more news.

‘The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok’

As you know, I’m not exactly a fan of the “History” Channel’s Vikings series. However, this book, which seems to have been produced in order to capitalize on the show’s popularity, was actually worth the money to me.

The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok is a compendium of sagas, poems, and ancient annals, providing pretty much all we know of Ragnar’s legend out of the middle ages. The stories have very little credibility as historical sources – other than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is sparse on details, and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, which is a hopeless mess assembled with little historical or critical sense.

But it’s not often that I run into material on the Viking Age that I’ve never read before, and most of this was new to me. The saga story of Ragnar “Hairy Breeches” was written down long after the original events, and these sagas contradict one another in details and are generally unreliable. But they also contain many agreements, and the kernel of a true story seems to be here.

Only one section, the poem Krákumál, shows evidence of bad OCR reading, including a number of misprints. The rest of the book is well edited, and the scholarly notes are of high quality.

Worth reading, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

No Bull

It may come as a surprise to many, but most Norwegians were never particularly proud of their Norse ancestry. The little knowledge they had of the Viking Age and our common ethnic and cultural heritage was usually horribly outdated. Until recently, in popular culture the Vikings were almost always portrayed as dumb, brutal rapists and villains. Also, Norse mythology was a subject of parody and not to be taken as anything more than naive stories told by our stupid ancestors. Those of us who thought differently, those of us who had already connected with our Norse ancestry, were ridiculed.

Aside from its praise for the awful History Channel “Vikings” TV series, I was pleased but not especially surprised by this article “How the Americans Taught Us Norwegians to Love Our Viking Heritage.”
One thing I learned in my translation work for Prof. Torgrim Titlestad (they tell me our book’s coming out this spring at last. We’ll see. Watch for it in any case; it’ll be called The Viking Heritage), is that for several decades now the Norwegian school system has taught almost nothing about the Viking Age. The main reason was a higher critical view of the Icelandic sagas, our main source of information about Norwegian politics in that time. The same kind of destructive skepticism that scholars have applied to the Bible, they also applied to the sagas. Since the sagas were written a century or more after the events described (much longer than is the case for the gospels), they argued that no information of value could be derived from them.

Scholarly views are changing, though. Sociological studies have shown that substantial useful information can be preserved by oral (non-literate or semi-literate) cultures for much longer than is the case in cultures which rely on books for their records.

Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen, the writer, is a novelist, screenwriter and blogger living in Norway. A brief perusal of his site indicates that he’s not crazy, which is generally a good thing.

Viking stuff on a winter night

Andrew Lawler, at National Geographic, writes what I consider a very fine article about slavery in the Viking Age. For years I’ve been arguing against the current fashion for portraying the Vikings as peaceable but misunderstood businessmen. That’s both historically obtuse and insulting to a culture that took pride in its prowess with arms. I’m particularly annoyed by the trope that says, “Well, you know, most of them weren’t warriors but peaceable tradesmen.” I suppose you could say that, if you consider the slave trade a peaceable occupation.

“This was a slave economy,” said Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who spoke at a recent meeting that brought together archaeologists who study slavery and colonization. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”

Of course the Vikings were hardly alone in trading and keeping slaves. Other cultures that did much the same thing were… pretty much everybody.

I just get annoyed by the “peaceable tradesmen” line.

In other Viking news, there’s new Russian film that looks very intriguing:

This is an epic about Vladimir the Great, who made the Russians Christian. Like all great historical epics it’s probably stuffed with baloney, but it sure looks good. I can find some fault with the costumes, but this trailer just sings. It could be the good Viking movie we’ve waited for so long. Hope it comes out soon with English subtitles.

Blasphemy, Prayer, and Vikings

  1. Why you never question Allah: Islam’s trouble with blasphemy. This points out the shallowness of Islamic teaching. Their god supposedly knows everything, but if you don’t keep your nice face on, he’ll hammer you. Of course, it appears he will hammer you for just about anything, which is a theological perspective not unique to Islam.
  2. In the United Kingdom, an video intended to play among the trailers in front of the new Star Wars movie encourages viewers to seek the Lord in prayer using The Lord’s Prayer specifically. It has been pulled from the schedule because it could offend someone, which Andrew Wilson says is precisely what it should be doing. There is, after all, only one true God.
  3. St Helen’s Church in Eston, Middlesbrough, has suffered vandalism for years. It’s now being rebuilt, brick by brick, forty miles north in County Durham.
  4. Twenty-five things we’ve forgotten about vikings.
    (Last two links via Medieval News)

Democratic Vikings

I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.

How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.

Spur of the moment Vikings

It’s a strange sensation. I have no homework to do tonight. I submitted my final paper for this semester today, and now I’m done with all that. If I keep a “sufficient to the day” attitude, I have nothing to worry about until my first summer class starts, which happens to be before the end of the month.

But. Today I’m free. I’m 2/3 done with my graduate classes, and I can do anything I want this evening. I can loaf. Or I can tell you about my weekend.

In my youth (you’ll probably be surprised to learn) I had a reputation as a guy who had no problem dropping everything and driving off to a distant town with friends, on a moment’s notice. Saturday was like that, sort of. I think it was Thursday I got a call from Ragnar, who said that we had a Viking gig nobody had planned on, scheduled for Saturday. The hosts thought they’d confirmed with us, and they were planning on us, and had advertised us. We didn’t know about it.

I said sure, I’d go. Rather to my own surprise, I’d worked far enough ahead on my final class work that I was kind of coasting through the last couple weeks. I could take Saturday off without repercussions.

So Saturday morning I rose early, loaded Miss Ingebretsen, my PT Cruiser, with almost my full Viking load, and set out for Litchfield, Minnesota.

Litchfield is located in the west central part of the state, near Hutchinson. The local Sons of Norway lodge, in association with the congregation of historic Ness Church, Acton Township, were holding a Scandinavian festival. Continue reading Spur of the moment Vikings

‘Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen,’ by Kirsten Wolf

[Personal note: I apologize for my continued absence from this blog. I thought I’d be doing more blogging while I had a few weeks of winter break, but I scheduled myself a number of projects, and they’ve taken more time than I expected. And now I’m just a week away from classes again. lw]

I approached Kirsten Wolf’s book, Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen, with anticipation. For years a book with a similar job description, Jacqueline Simpson’s Everyday Life in the Viking Age, has been a standard for Viking buffs and reenactors. It’s well-researched, readable, and useful. But it’s old now, and we’ve learned a lot since Simpson wrote. We need a new book in that vein.

This book is not it.

That’s not to say it’s worthless. I’ll admit I learned some things reading it. But I’m not as sure of those things as I’d like to be, because the book contains too many “facts” that are just plain wrong.

The author states twice that the Battle of Svold took place in Norway (it took place in the Baltic). She states that Olaf Tryggvason was the great-grandson of Harald Fairhair (historians aren’t sure nowadays). She says that Olaf Tryggvason made the Greenlanders accept Christianity (no historian believes that anymore).

Most of the gross mistakes seem to be associated with King Olaf Tryggvason’s career. Perhaps the author’s reading has been deficient in that area. Prof. Wolf teaches Old Norse literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I hesitate to criticize a professor in a university system in which I am a student, but she seems weak on material outside her specialty. I suspect the book was a rush job, probably done under deadline.

A special weakness of this volume is the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated, but most of those illustrations are worse than useless, except to fill up pages. The publishers opted for copyright-free pictures whenever possible, which means we are treated to a feast of 19th Century engravings, with horned and winged helmets and classical poses. In a book which fails to even mention the Cardinal Truth — “No horned helmets!” — this is inexcusable. Newcomers to the field will come away with a bundle of misconceptions.

Jacqueline Simpson’s book was illustrated with simple and useful line drawings that depicted actual archaeological finds. But hiring artists to do that sort of thing costs money, which the publishers of Wolf’s book were apparently unwilling to spend.

Not recommended.

No, the Vikings weren’t gender-neutral

Had to post about this, before there’s further confusion.

This article from Tor. com has been making the rounds.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided to revamp the way they studied Viking remains. Previously, researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords and shields. (Female remains were identified by their oval brooches, and not much else.) By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons

It didn’t take long for a rebuttal to come from what looks like a somewhat more credible source, Stuff You Missed in History.

But, this paper essentially uses the presence of six female migrants and seven male as evidence that women and children most likely accompanied the Norse armies with the intent of settling the land once it was conquered, rather than migrating in a second wave once the fighting was over. It is, sadly, not at all about female Viking warriors, and not some Earth-shattering evidence that Norse armies were evenly split among women and men.

They’ll still have to prove to me that there were any female Viking warriors at all, but the point is made. The Tor article drew unwarranted and exaggerated conclusions from a study that examined a mere 13 graves.

Hey, Tor Books rejected my novel Wolf Time (soon to be re-released in e-book form) with disparaging comments, about 30 years ago. That should tell you all you need to know about them.

Not my usual Halloween

If I’d known what I was getting into when I agreed to be one of the Vikings present last night at the American Swedish Institute’s annual “Loki’s Bash” Halloween party, I might not have done it. It was only after agreeing that I learned that one of the event’s sponsors was a local paranormal society, and that divination would be performed as part of the festivities.

But I’d given my word, so I set off. As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad. No doubt I was surrounded by people who would have considered me a Nazi if I’d shared any of my views, but that’s a less and less infrequent experience for me. And I don’t think anything went on, in terms of the occult, that didn’t also happen at the Science Fiction cons I attended. In any case, all of that was out of my sight.

What I did see was an endless parade of (mostly) young adults (total attendance, I’m told, was 1,600) adorned in costumes of varying degrees of quality, cleverness, and good taste. A fair number were dressed as they imagined Vikings would be, in keeping with the event theme. Many were identifiable characters from movies and TV shows. Many others, no doubt, were identifiable characters from movies and TV shows I’ve never heard of. Others were puzzles. Some were meant to be puzzles.

Take for instance, my favorite. There was a young woman there dressed in a black dress with white collar and cuffs. She wore a gray wig plaited in two pigtails. And she had an eyepatch and two toy ravens perched on her shoulders.

I finally had to ask. “Schoolgirl Odin?” I asked.

“No,” she laughed. “I knew it was too complicated. I’m Wednesday Addams. But Wednesday is Odin’s day.”

Makes perfect sense when you think about it.

I got home after midnight, and to bed after 1:00 a.m. My alarm clock picked this morning, of all mornings, to lose its bearings and set off its alarm about forty minutes early.

I blame witches.

Viking Warfare, by I. P. Stephenson

A few years back, an author named Paddy Griffith wrote a book called The Viking Art of War, which has since been cordially disliked by Viking reenactors all over the world. Griffith held an essentially low opinion of Viking tactics and strategies, and (as I recall) of Viking intelligence in general.

Now I. P. Stephenson has written a new book on the subject, Viking Warfare. Paddy Griffith ought to welcome its appearance, since it will provide a new target for the hate. Reenactors will hate this book just as much, but for different reasons.

Stephenson’s first sin (in my view) is to utterly reject the Icelandic sagas as a source of historical information. If he has read Prof. Torgrim Titlestad’s defense of saga reliabiliity, he dismisses it out of hand. The sagas were written centuries after the events, he says, for the purpose of glamorizing the authors’ ancestors. For that reason they cannot be trusted at any point.

But he nevertheless maintains that we have enough information to provide material for a book. Unfortunately, he fails to demonstrate that contention. He analyzes the history of Viking activities, their battle strategies, and their equipment, and all the way through he ends almost every discussion with the equivalent of, “But we don’t really know for sure.” If you enjoy seeing an author admit his ignorance over and over, this is the book for you.

He also makes a number of summary judgments which I, as a reenactor myself, find doubtful. Shield walls were only loose formations, he tells us, not solid lines of overlapped shields. The “swine” formation was a simple column, not a wedge. Leather helmets are purely fictional. Scramasaxes were seldom carried. Hundreds of reenactors around the world, me among them, will disagree on several of these points, not on the basis of academic research, but through experience on the field.

It’s only at the very end, where he examines the Battle of Maldon, that Stephenson breaks out and actually makes an interesting contribution to the historical discussion. He does his best to rehabilitate Byrhtnoth Byhrthelmsson, the English commander at the poetically immortalized battle, whose leadership was condemned by no less a scholar than J. R. R. Tolkien. Stephenson argues – persuasively – that if you consider the battle from the perspective of Byhrtnoth’s primary objective – to prevent the Vikings’ escape – everything he did makes good sense. He just had the bad luck to get killed.

Scholarly types will want to read Viking Warfare just for its unconventional arguments, but I don’t think it has much useful to offer the average reader.

The Vikings: A History, by Robert Ferguson

But, while all of these [various morally relative assessments of the Viking Age] are entirely valid perspectives, the pendulum may have swung too far: as one modern historian puts it, the revisionist view has come close to giving us an image of the Vikings as a group of ‘long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit.’ Among the aims of this book is to restore the violence to the Viking Age, and to try to show why our understanding is incomplete without it.

I’ve already referred to Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History twice on this blog, here and here, having found it an informative and instructive book. If I’d been disappointed or offended, I’d have more to say. As it is, I’ll offer a short review of quite a good general history of the Viking Age.

Why a new history of the Vikings? Because we keep learning stuff. You’ve got to run to keep pace with our knowledge of the early middle ages nowadays. People like me, especially, who take it upon ourselves to lecture on the subject, need to take the initiative to keep our reading up. I thought what I learned about the Oseberg ship, linked above, was worth the price in itself.

Author Ferguson makes the considerable contribution of including something I’ve written about here before, and which was perhaps introduced in English-language history books by my friend Prof. Torgrim Titlestad, in a work that didn’t get the attention it should have – the new (actually old) theory that the Viking raids were initially sparked by Charlemagne’s brutalities against the Saxons. Having shared that useful idea, Ferguson does little more with it, which I think is appropriate. It seems to me that, even if the original spark was religious, the Viking raids continued for plain reasons of profit. There are no images of peace-loving, put-upon Viking victims here, and that suits me just fine.

Ferguson spends what seems to me adequate time, within the limits of a single (if long) volume, following the activities of the Norse through all their major fields of activity around the world, and through the three centuries of that activity. I caught one or two small errors of fact, ones I knew to be fact, but that’s inevitable in a work of this scope.

Highly recommended for all who are interested in the subject, and especially for curious newcomers.

Still waters

Vikings feast at Ravensborg, Knox City, Mo.

I’ve already savaged the History Channel Vikings TV series in this space, but I have something new to say about it today. I think I may have found the source of one of its (many) errors.

Watching the two episodes I endured, I got the impression that the script writers had blocked out their story first of all, based on their preconceptions of what Viking life was like, and then went hunting through history books for authentic details to sprinkle around, sometimes without any understanding of context.

One of the many moments I disliked in the series was when, on the eve of a voyage, the Vikings brought out a ceremonial bowl of water and passed it around, splashing it on their faces and blowing their noses into it, as a sort of corporate team building exercise.

I knew where this idea came from – the 921 AD account of Norsemen in Russia by the Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan (whose account formed the basis for Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, on which the movie The Thirteenth Warrior was based). Ibn Fadlan describes, with palpable disgust, how the Viking company washed up this way in the morning. There’s no suggestion of any greater purpose; it’s just the northerners’ culturally inferior standard of hygiene.

I’m still reading Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History (almost half way through; enjoying it), and I found there the following passage:

With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group identity and strengthened its internal loyalty.

It would appear that Ferguson’s book was one of the sources the TV writers skimmed, and they grabbed up this bit of speculation as just the kind of gross-out detail they were looking for. But Ferguson doesn’t footnote the sentence. It’s just a guess.

My own guess, based on a conversation with author Michael Z. Williamson, who’s a Middle East war veteran and has some familiarity with Islamic customs, is that what offended Ibn Fadlan was simply the fact that the Norsemen washed in still water in a bowl. Under Islamic law, true washing always requires running water. Still water is unclean. Even if the thralls refilled the bowl for each man, it would still be a pollution in Ibn Fadlan’s eyes.

He was also, in the opinion of most historians, not beyond exaggerating from time to time.