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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
As previously mentioned, I will be lecturing in the Barefoot Student Union Building, Union University, Jackson, Tennessee, Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. My subject will be, “When Christianity Came to the Vikings.”
More information here, if you’re in the neighborhood.
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 Oseberg, Gokstad, 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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Dr. Jackson Crawford, a list of introductory books for those interested in Viking studies. The list is deficient, of course, as it doesn’t mention my novels or Viking Legacy. Nevertheless it is not without value.