Tag Archives: Vikings

For your Spectation

I have a new column up at The American Spectator Online today: Slaves to Intellectual Fashion: 1619. A little more fiery and dismissive than my usual stuff, I think. This particular initiative gets my goat in a personal way. I consider it slander against a country I love and am grateful for.

The weekend was good, thanks for asking. We had a couple Viking groups at Nisswa, Minnesota for a one-day Viking event on Saturday. I took a few pictures, but they weren’t very good. Having 2 groups together made it possible to have some relatively impressive battles, with (I guess) 15 to 20 guys all together. I did not participate in those. I sat in my pavilion in Viking splendor, dispensing wisdom and information to all comers. Also selling books.

It was nice, the weather was beatiful, and I stayed with some very gracious hosts in Brainerd. All in all, pretty rewarding. The scuttlebutt is that the event will happen again next year.

Alexandria the Great

Photo credit: Chris Falteisek

For a few days I was a rock star. Granted, I was a rock star with “selective appeal,” but a couple hundred people in Alexandria, Minnesota treated me like a celebrity.

The event was the Tre Lag Stevne. The Bygdelags (as I explained last week) are organizations composed of descendants of immigrants from various Norwegian regions. The three “lags” who met for the stevne (gathering) were groups from Gudbrandsdal, Hedemark, and Trondelag. They invited me to lecture twice on Thursday – once on the Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD, and again on the book Viking Legacy (which I translated; might not have mentioned that to you before).

The audience was attentive, smart (they laughed at my jokes) and appreciative. They descended on my book table like a flock of seagulls and snatched up every copy of Viking Legacy I brought. On top of the sales, I got an honorarium which was generous by my standards.

I have no complaints.

The next day I had to be in a meeting in Fergus Falls, just a little up the road, so I stayed a second night. I had some free time – and when Walker has free time in Alexandria, he can’t resist visiting the Kensington Rune Stone Museum. I’ve been there before, but I heard they’d made some changes.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This is the stone itself. I have grave reservations about its authenticity, but you can’t deny it’s become a part of history in its own right.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This display is the main thing I came to see. They did an upgrade to the museum a few years back, and decided to include a tableau about the real Vikings (even if the stone is genuine, it’s not a Viking artifact. Its date is 14th Century, long after the Viking Age ended). The person the museum hired to make costumes for the Viking family was my friend Kelsey Patton – who also made the Viking trousers and summer tunic I’m wearing in the top picture.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

Here’s a surprise – the museum has a Viking ship, in a barn outside. It’s a ¾ scale replica of a Viking knarr (a cargo ship), which was built as a project some years ago by the American Museum of Natural History. Somehow it ended up here.

An interesting and profitable few days. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

One of the better days

Today I was a rock star. A rock star for a very small public, I’ll grant you, but I’ve rarely faced such an appreciative crowd as the people at the Lag Stevne at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Minnesota today.

The Bygdelags, as I explained yesterday, are groups of people whose ancestors came from various regions of Norway. Genealogy is one of their primary interests. So they like history, and they were primed and ready for a morning lecture on the 793 AD Lindisfarne raid, and an afternoon lecture on the book Viking Legacy and its themes.

They ate it up. They listened with rapt attention, laughed at my jokes, and asked good questions afterwards.

And then they bought up my entire stock of Viking Legacy, plus a good number of West Oversea.

I am a happier, and more prosperous, man today.

Thanks to all the Lag folks.

Reporting from the field

I write this from a motel in Glenwood, Minnesota. I’m speaking at a bygdelag meeting in Alexandria tomorrow, and I figured I’d take a room up here so I wouldn’t have to get up tomorrow before it was tomorrow. Glenwood is sufficiently close to Alex, and the rooms are a little cheaper here.

Bygdelags are an old institution among Norwegian-Americans. They started as social organizations for people who came from particular regions or neighborhoods in the old country. Nowadays (much consolidated due to falling membership) they’re largely about mutual support in genealogy. (Or so I believe; I may learn other things tomorrow.)

They asked me to do two lectures — morning and afternoon. They specified that they wanted to hear about the great 793 AD Lindisfarne raid (considered the start of the Viking Age) at 9:30 a.m. So I did some research and was happy to add to my store of knowledge. In the afternoon I’ll do my extended infomercial on Viking Legacy. My hope is to sell a lot of books.

Sorry, the lectures aren’t open to the public, as far as I know.

A Cambridge education

Photo credit: Ann Bergum Saterbak

Quite a weekend. A real Viking weekend, in the sense that a real Viking weekend consists of unloading a heavy boat, dragging it and carrying all its cargo over a Russian portage, and then loading it all up again. I’ll stipulate that the real Vikings were stronger than me and worked harder, but it was a pretty grueling time for an old man who lives by the keyboard.

The Viking Age Club and Society was invited to set up an encampment at the Isanti County Fair in Cambridge, Minnesota (not to be confused with Cambridge, England, which had its own Viking problems a thousand years ago). The local Sons of Norway lodge, known as Rumelva (Rum River) Lodge, invited us to come, bring our Viking boat, and set up for the public. They paid good money for our presence, and provided generous help in getting us set up and torn down.

They also wanted Viking fights. As it turned out, only one of the young fighters was available that weekend. Which meant that, as it takes two to tango, an old fighter had to step into the gap. And that old fighter was me.

Photo credit: Ann Bergum Saterbak

I can’t complain about the results. I won most of my matches, against a young man recently out of the military. Of course it helped that I was wearing full armor for the first set – helmet, gambeson, mail shirt, and fighting gloves. (Omitted the mail the second time around.) And he had only helmet and gloves.

But it was hot. And humid. Adrenaline took me through the fights, but afterward I was fairly well drained – literally. I’d brought a good supply of water, and I drank it all up. Added some salt too. Even begged some potato chips off the nice ladies at the food stand. And I took a little nap in the Viking bed we had in one of the tents in between bouts.

I’m too old and fat for that kind of nonsense.

On the other hand, if I’d died on the field of honor, I’d be revered by every reenactor in the world. So there’s that. No downside, really.

I sold a fair number of books. Not great, but it could have been worse. Traffic was kind of disappointing – the lodge people said they’d been promised advertising that never happened. More than one person happened by and was surprised to learn there were Vikings there at all.

Still, it was a stimulating weekend, one I won’t soon forget. I hope the Rumelva Lodge people don’t regret their investment in us. I’ll do it again next year if we’re invited.

But I hope younger men will do the fighting.

The past may change, again

Reconstructed Norse house at L’Anse Aux Meadows. My own photo. lw

There’s news in the Viking world this month. New excavations at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, have uncovered traces of occupation that suggest the Norse remained at the site for a couple hundred years, rather than just one or two seasons, as had been thought.

But it’s not a slam dunk, in spite of the sensationalist headlines you might have seen. The new stuff might not be Viking at all. This from the Canadian Broadcasting Company:

As Ledger explained, what they found is not necessarely Viking, “it’s more likely that this material relay to an Indigenous occupation on the site based on the radio carbondates from the material we got from this layer.”

But what is interesting is that this cultural horizon is where the researchers know that Norses used to be. If archaeologists find evidence that these series of layers that appear to have been trampled by humans or animals come from Vikings, this could be evidence that they stayed longer in North America than we thought.

(Who did that horrible transcription? “relay to?” “necessarely?” I have no idea where the word “Norses” comes from; the proper term is “the Norse.”) But the discoveries are very intriguing. Ever since the early excavations, we’ve been fairly certain the houses at L’Anse Aux Meadows were occupied only briefly, then abandoned. A longer occupation would suggest what a lot of us have believed for a while: that the whole Vinland enterprise was a bigger, more serious thing than Helge and Anna Stine Ingstad, the original discoverers, thought.

What exactly was the site’s function? I’ve been telling people that the best evidence suggests it was a boat repair station. However, I read in Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler that there’s actually evidence of only one boat being repaired there. She suggested it was a “staging site” for further exploration and settlement.

I’ve been to L’Anse Aux Meadows (as I never tire of telling people), and even shook the hand of Birgitta Wallace, the second chief archaeologist there (though that didn’t happen at L’Anse Aux Meadows). The picture above is one I took there. I forget the year, 2004 or so.

A while back they found a spot that looked like a second Viking site not far away, but subsequent digging proved it not to be so. Now we’ve got something fresh to hang our hopes on.

Personally, I think the real settlement – where Thorfinnn Karlsefni and Gudrid the Far-Traveler lived, exists somewhere, but may never be found. But I think it’s there.

The Tale of Roe

I’m in the “thinking it up” stage of writing my next Erling book. In the course thereof, I’m reading the Flatey Book in the handsome Norwegian translation published by Saga Bok Publishers in Norway (they were kind enough to send me the first three volumes as a goodwill gesture – a generous one). In St. Olav’s Saga I discovered an interesting story, not much known even to Viking buffs, because so few people have read Flatey. It’s called “The Tale of Roe.” The original story has several plot threads, but I’ve reduced it to the one thread I liked best. I offer my re-telling below.

There was once a merchant named Roe, who came from Denmark. He was an easy man to recognize, as his eyes were of two different colors – one was blue, the other black. He traveled to many lands, and had mixed luck with his business dealings.

One day he was in Upsala, and he met a man walking down the street. The man’s name was Tore, and he had only one eye. He stopped when he saw Roe, and said, “I know you. I saw you once in Denmark.”

Roe did not remember him, but could not deny that was possible.

“Not only that,” said Tore. “You robbed me! You got a wizard to magic my eye out of my head, and put it into yours. And there it sits! Anyone can see the blue one isn’t yours! I’m going to bring a case against you before the king when he sits in judgment tomorrow – and you should know the king and I are good friends. He trusts my word.”

Roe went on his way, troubled. After a while he met a very pretty girl, who smiled at him. He smiled back, but his smile was sad.

“What’s the matter?” the girl asked. “Why so down in the mouth?”

Roe told her about the accusation Tore the One-Eyed had made against him.

“You should talk to my father,” the girl said. “My name is Sigbjørg, and my father is Torgny Torgnisson, the lawspeaker of the Upsala Thing. They call him the wisest man in Sweden.”

“Would he help me?” Roe asked.

“Well,” said Sigbjørg, “Father doesn’t usually have much time for Danes. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Come to my house at sundown tonight, and stand outside where I tell you. I’ll go to my father’s bedchamber and ask him about your problem. You can listen through the wall and hear what he has to say.”

Roe agreed to do this. That night he met Sigbjørg at her house, and she told him where to stand under the eaves. He listened as she told her father about his problem, and asked him what he’d do in his place.

“Ah,” said Torgny. “That’s an interesting problem. He’s dealing with a treacherous man here, and treachery must be met with treachery. Here is what I’d do if I were he…”

After Torgny lay down to sleep, Sigbjørg went out to Roe and asked if what he’d heard had helped him. Roe said it had indeed helped, and he thanked her.

The next day Roe met Tore the One-Eyed at the king’s judgment seat, and Tore laid down his accusation. He demanded that his eye be returned to him, plus Roe’s entire cargo as compensation.

“This is a serious charge,” said the king. “Roe, what do you have to say in your defense?”

“I’d not be afraid to go through the iron ordeal to prove my honesty,” Roe replied. “But I have a simpler way we can learn the truth of the matter. Tore says my blue eye belongs to him. I think we can all agree that no two things are more alike than a man’s two eyes. So I suggest each of us have his blue eye removed, and you can weigh them both in a balance scale. If both eyes weigh the same, then Tore’s case is proven. If not, then I demand compensation.”

The king asked Tore the One-Eyed what he thought of the proposition, and Tore was not keen on the plan. He confessed at last that he’d lied.

The king had Tore hanged on a gallows, and gave Roe some of his property. Later on, Roe met Sigbjørg again, and he went to her father to ask for her hand. They were married, and many prominent people in Sweden are descended from them.

Festival postmortem

There and back again. Since we spoke last, I’ve been up to Moorhead, Minnesota (which is just to the right of Fargo, North Dakota if you don’t know the neighborhood) for the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Museum.

The theme this year was rain and mud. I worried about rain driving up, I worried about rain when I slept, and I spent the days sitting under my awning, worrying about rain. The usual drill is to arrive Thursday afternoon and set up, to be ready for the opening on Friday morning. But it was raining Thursday, and Friday looked to be a little better, so I went straight to the motel for the night and drove to the museum the next morning to set up then. And indeed it wasn’t raining Friday morning. It didn’t rain at all on Friday, though the skies were cloudy all day (as “Home On the Range” doesn’t say).

But it rained overnight, and it rained off and on all Saturday. The heathens were doing their weather magic, which benefited them not at all. And that’s some comfort. I prayed about the weather myself, of course, but always with the tragic understanding that God has greater concerns than my comfort.

The rain did let up for a while in the afternoon, though, so although we had to pack up our tents wet, we didn’t have to do it in the rain (mostly). Which was something.

But the festival itself actually went better than I’d have thought, considering the precipitation. Attendance wasn’t bad, and I sold out my supply of Viking Legacy, plus a fair number of West Oversea. Also, Blood and Judgment achieved a surprising popularity.

One cheerful woman wanted two Viking Legacys and one West Oversea. Then she changed her mind and asked for a third Viking Legacy.

An example to us all.

A blonde young woman came by and didn’t buy anything, but she was amazingly beautiful, and the smile she gave me packed enough wattage to dry my tent out.

I wonder what it’s like to live like that – to be so beautiful that almost everyone’s happy to see you show up. It must be like having a free pass everywhere.

Also got a chance to meet a Facebook friend and fellow reenactor I’d never met before. Nice to meet you, Einar Severinson. Not as nice as meeting the blonde, I’ll admit, but nice enough.

I had a strange encounter with an old guy who informed me that he was a “historian.” When I gave him my spiel about Viking Legacy, he interrupted me. “I always get mad when people talk about Viking democracy,” he said.

I asked him why.

“Because they weren’t all equal.”

I said, “I didn’t’ say egalitarian democracy.”

He said, “Well, that’s what most people understand by democracy.”

I said, “The Athenian democracy wasn’t egalitarian either.”

He wandered off mumbling about how I was deceiving people.

Historian, my eye.

Anyway, when all was done I got my car loaded up with wet canvas and gear (thanks to the invaluable help of the Patton boys and some of their friends. I don’t know what I’d do without the Patton boys. If they can’t attend some year, I may have to bow out myself).

And now I’m home at last, beginning to recover. I’ve got my tent drying in the basement, and some money to count.

Could have been worse.

LIndisfarne

I’ve been reading a book about Lindisfarne, the English island where (according to received wisdom) the Viking Age began with a brutal raid on the renowned monastery there. The date of the raid is generally considered to be June 8, 793, so we just passed the anniversary (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a January date, but that’s unlikely. Vikings didn’t generally raid in the winter).

I’m reading the book because I’m scheduled to do a presentation on LIndisfarne later this summer. I have a lot to learn yet — I find some disagreement in sources. The video above says the original 793 raiders stole the Lindisfarne Gospels book, but the book I’m reading says no, the monks hid it. I do believe I’ve read that the book was taken by Vikings at some point though, so I’ll have to dig a little more into that.

Anders Winroth suggests that the Viking raids were a net good to Europe, as they took wealth that had been stockpiled in church institutions and injected it back into the economy.

I’m sure that was a great comfort to the enslaved monks and nuns.

Viking alert

My renowned Viking tent (seen here a year ago) will be on display once again (God willing) at Danish Day at the Danish-American Center, 3030 W. River Parkway S., Minneapolis, this Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 or so. I’ll be there with the Viking Age Club & Society, selling books and pretending to be a bigshot. The weather looks to be OK.

You have been warned.

I have a Carl Martell moment*

The figure above, with the strange hair and the tree growing out of his head, is your humble servant. In my hand is a genuine, authentic 1,100-year-old Viking sword, from the Ewart Oakeshott collection.

As I announced, I was at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis on Sunday, as part of a Viking “encampment” in connection with their “The Vikings Begin” exhibition. Among the exhibitors was The Oakeshott Institute, also located in Minneapolis. They offered the unrefusable opportunity to actually hold a Viking sword — if you wore cotton gloves.

(Only the blade is original, by the way. Some collector in the 19th Century added the guard, hilt, and pommel. Which is why they don’t mind people picking it up. With proper protections.)

I talked to the Oakeshott representative, who told me that Oakeshott himself, an Englishman, gifted his entire collection to his friend Chris Poor, a noted swordsmith here in Minneapolis — mostly to spite the British Antiquities nazis. I need to learn more about this organization. Oakeshott was The Man when it came to medieval swords. (I’ve read his book.)

It was a good day, though a wintry rain kept us indoors. Sold a good number of books — and book sales are no longer gravy for me. They’re part of my bottom line.

But the sword is what I’ll remember.

*Obscure reference to a novel written by a forgotten author.

Viking deeds

Here’s a famous scene from the 1958 film The Vikings, where Kirk Douglas runs on top of the oars along the side of his ship.

I wonder how many people know that this scene was pulled directly from a passage in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla. Snorri writes of King Olaf Trygvesson:

King Olaf was in all bodily accomplishments the foremost of all the men in Norway of whom we are told. He was stronger and more agile than anyone else…. One of these is that he climbed the Smalsarhorn and fastened his shield on the top of the mountain; and another that he helped down one of his followers who had before him climbed the mountain, and now could get neither up nor down…. King Olaf could walk along the oars outside the Serpent [his ship] while his men rowed. He could juggle with three daggers, with one always up in the air, and he always caught them by the hilt. He wielded his sword equally well with either hand, and hurled two spears at the same time.

You may have noted that Kirk Douglas did not quite match Snorri’s account of Olaf, as he had the men hold the oars horizontal and rigid while he ran, while Olaf (reportedly) did it while they were rowing. I’m pretty sure that latter thing is impossible, though, and what we see in the movie seems more likely.

Kirk Douglas turned 102 years old last December. Whenever I see a picture of him today, I think of this scene, in which he seems the epitome of physicality and masculine vigor.

And I’m not getting any younger myself.

Viking news, and Erling’s grave

Archaeologists in Vestfold county, Norway, recently discovered what they’re pretty sure is a Viking Age ship burial.

A burial site featuring what seems to be a complete viking ship has been discovered in the Vestfold county in Norway. Many spectacular finds have been unearthed in the region over the years, including the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships now housed in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum. The latest discovery of the grave in Borreparken was announced at a press conference in the Midgard Viking Center in Horten.

“The data clearly shows the shape of a ship, and we can see weak traces of a circular depression around the vessel. This could point to the existence of a mound that was later removed,” said a spokesperson for cultural heritage in Vestfold county. Researchers will now carry out detailed investigations to assess the size of the find.

Read the rest here.

It’s interesting that the article says nothing about any plans to actually excavate the ship. All the work so far has been done by georadar. That’s cool – it’s definitely a conservative (conservative is always good) way to prevent damage to the site. But it seems to me they’ll want to actually look at possible grave goods at some point. Don’t expect to see the ship resurrected like the ones in the museum in Oslo. Those were very special cases, where the vessels were buried in anaerobic (I think that’s the right word) blue clay, which prevented rotting of the wood. Most Viking ships found in modern times are pretty much decomposed, and you recognize them from the way the iron rivets are distributed in the earth.

Vestfold has always been an important part of Norway – it has good agricultural land and it’s close to the shipping lanes. The king of Denmark generally considered himself the rightful ruler of Vestfold (and often of Norway as a whole) in Viking times. Cultural development and foreign influences were both rich in Vestland.

I hope they dig it up in time. I’m not like Native Americans; it doesn’t offend me if somebody excavates my ancestors’ graves. Especially if they find cool stuff.

In case you’ve ever wondered about Erling Skjalgsson’s grave, it’s never been identified. A history of Sola which I read related a local legend: During a period of hard times, when erosion had stripped much of the topsoil in the area, the farmer at Sola decided to dig up an ancient mound on his property, and distribute the dirt in his fields. Rumor said that he came into sudden wealth at that time. Some suspected he’d found a rich Viking grave, and sold off its treasures.

However, if the story’s true – which is questionable in itself (we had a not dissimilar legend about the farm where I grew up in Minnesota, and it was also dubious) – there’s no reason the grave would have been Erling’s. As a Christian he would have been buried in the churchyard, not in a mound, and with minimal or no grave goods. It would be more likely to be his father, Thorolf Skjalg’s – or that of any of a number of other powerful ancestors.