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The Vikings

The Vikings

by Magnus Magnusson

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The Vikings hold a particular place in the history of the West, both symbolically and in the significant impact they had on Northern Europe. Magnus Magnusson's indispensable study of this great period presents a rounded and fascinating picture of a people who, in modern eyes, would seem to embody striking contradictions. They were undoubtedly pillagers, raiders and


The Vikings hold a particular place in the history of the West, both symbolically and in the significant impact they had on Northern Europe. Magnus Magnusson's indispensable study of this great period presents a rounded and fascinating picture of a people who, in modern eyes, would seem to embody striking contradictions. They were undoubtedly pillagers, raiders and terrifying warriors, but they were also great pioneers, artists and traders -- a dynamic people, whose skill and daring in their exploration of the world has left an indelible impression a thousand years on.

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The Vikings

By Magnus Magnusson

The History Press

Copyright © 2008 Magnus Magnusson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-8077-7



The mythological, literary and historical context

The so-called 'Viking Age' began around AD 800 and lasted for nearly three centuries. In the pages of history it is presented as a clearly defined period of high drama, with a theatrical opening, a long middle act of mounting power and ferocity, and a spectacular finale on a battlefield in England. The dates are clear-cut, too: 793 to 1066. And throughout that time, war correspondents in the shape of literate monks and clerics kept their goose-quill pens sharpened with alarm, their glossy inks dyed bright with indignation. The Vikings were cast in the role of Antichrist, merciless barbarians who plundered and burned their way across the known world, heedless of their own lives or the lives of others, intent only on destruction and pillage; their emblems were Thór's Hammer and Ódin's Raven, symbolising the violence and black-hearted evil of their pagan gods.

It was never quite as one-sided as that – history seldom is. But it made a good story at the time, and it makes a good story still. It is basically the story which I shall be chronicling in this book; but it was never the whole story. Today there is emerging a much fuller and rounder version, not only through modern archaeology but also with the help of other scientific and literary disciplines, which presents the Vikings in a less lurid and more objective light. It is as much a matter of emphasis as anything else: less emphasis on the raiding, more on the trading; less on the pillage, more on the poetry and the artistry; less on the terror, more on the technology of these determined and dynamic people from the northlands of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the positive impact they had on the countries they affected.

Their influence was much more constructive, more pervasive and extensive than they are generally given credit for. They dominated much of northern Europe for long periods. They brought to the British Isles vigorous new art forms, and vigorous new settlers; they founded and developed great market towns, they injected new forms of administration and justice which have left their mark to this day. (As an Icelandic-born descendant of the Vikings, I can never resist reminding my sceptical friends that it was these allegedly pitiless savages who introduced the word law into the English language!) They crisscrossed half the world in their open boats and vastly extended its known boundaries; they voyaged farther north and west than any Europeans had ever been before, founding new and lasting colonies in the Faroes and Iceland, discovering and exploring and making settlements in Greenland and even in North America. They penetrated the depths of Russia, founding city-states like Novgorod and Kiev, pioneering new trade routes along formidable rivers such as the Volga and the Dnieper, opening up the route to Asia in order to exploit the exotic markets of Persia and China. They served as hand-picked warriors in the celebrated Varangian Guard, the household troops of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. They went everywhere there was to go, they dared everything there was to dare – and they did it with a robust panache and audacity which have won the grudging admiration even of those who deplore their depredations.

But the Vikings did not happen suddenly; nor did they simply happen. Behind the Viking break-out lay centuries of Scandinavian history which archaeology has been bringing to light – a story of technological development and commercial expansion which helps to explain why the Viking Age came about in the first place.

The word 'viking' is itself a bit of a puzzle. It may be related to the Old Norse word vík, meaning 'bay' or 'creek'; so a 'Viking' meant someone who kept his ship in a bay, either for trading or raiding. Others look for a derivation in the Old English word wic, borrowed from the Latin vicus, meaning a camp or a trading-place; so a 'Viking' might mean a warrior or a trader – or both.

To the people of the time, 'Viking' meant different things, too. For the Christian communities of western Europe, a Viking was synonymous with barbarian paganism. But to the people of Scandinavia, and especially to the saga-writers of Iceland in the thirteenth century, the Vikings represented an ideal of heroism and valour: young men went on Viking expeditions to prove their mettle. The Viking life was a sort of open-air university of the manly arts, something for every youngster to aspire to:

My mother once told me
She'd buy me a longship,
A handsome-oared vessel
To go sailing with Vikings:
To stand at the stern-post
And steer a fine warship
Then head back for harbour
And hew down some foemen.

Egils Saga, Ch. 40

Egils Saga is one of the major medieval Icelandic sagas, historical narratives written in prose but often studded with verse stanzas. It is the story of a great Viking warrior-poet named Egill Skallagrímsson (cf Ch. 6), and that boyish verse was composed in his childhood in Iceland early in the tenth century. His saga, it is thought, was written by Snorri Sturluson, who lived on the manor farm of Reykholt in southern Iceland.

The Icelandic sagas, written long after the events they report, were for centuries the major documentary source for the prehistory and history of the Viking lands and the Viking Age. They rank among the finest achievements of medieval European literature, but as historical sources they cannot be taken too literally. Snorri Sturluson, one of the few saga-writers whose name we know, was the outstanding scholar of his age. As a distinguished statesman deeply embroiled in Icelandic politics of the thirteenth century, he was fascinated by the politics and people of the Viking period; as an erudite Christian intellectual he was also fascinated by the pagan mythology of the Vikings, which he helped to preserve by recording and explaining some of the most ancient Germanic myths and legends. Building his work on earlier written sources, on oral traditions and on the remembered skaldic poetry of Scandinavian court poets, he tried to create a coherent framework for the past, a context within which to understand and illuminate the Viking experience.

At Reykholt, Snorri Sturluson wrote some of the towering masterpieces of the thirteenth century. His systematic account of Norse mythology is contained in a work called the Prose Edda, or Snorri's Edda, which is in effect a handbook for poets, designed to teach the traditional techniques of the ancients and to explain the pagan literary allusions to be found in their poetry. He also wrote a monumental History of the Kings of Norway, popularly known as Heimskringla ('Orb of the World') from its opening words: 'Kringla heimsins, sú er mannfólkit byggir ...' – 'The orb of the world, which mankind inhabits ...'

What a majestic opening! I like to reflect that at the time when, out in the far east, Genghis Khan was trying to subjugate the world by the sword, up in the far north a learned Christian antiquarian was trying to subject it to the power of the pen:

The orb of the world, which mankind inhabits, is riven by many fjords, so that great seas run into the land from the Outer Ocean. Thus, it is known that a great sea goes in through Nörvasund [Straits of Gibraltar] all the way to the land of Jerusalem. From that same sea a long bight stretches towards the north-east, called the Black Sea, which divides the three continents of the earth: to the east lies Asia, to the west lies Europe (which some call Aeneas-land), but to the north of the Black Sea lies Greater Sweden or Sweden the Cold [Russia] ...

Through Greater Sweden [Russia], from the range of mountains which lie to the north beyond the edge of human habitation, there runs a river properly called the Tanaís [Don], which flows into the Black Sea. In Asia to the east of the Tanaís there was a land called Ásaland or Ásaheimur [Land of the Æsir]; its chief city was called Ásgardur [Home of the Æsir]. That city was ruled by a chieftain named Ódin, and it was a great centre for sacrifices ... Heimskringla: Ynglinga saga, Ch. 1

That was how Snorri Sturluson tried to rationalise the origin of the Norse gods, the Æsir, who lived in a heaven called Ásgardur. According to Snorri, they had been an Asiatic tribe who had migrated to Scandinavia in ancient times under the chieftain Ódin, who in Norse mythology became the chief god of the Viking pantheon, Ódin the All-Father.

The cult of Ódin was a dark and sacrificial business. Whole armies and individual enemies would be sacrificed to him. He was the god of the occult, and the god of war. From his throne in Ásgardur he could see out over all the universe. On his shoulders perched his two constant companions, two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (Mind and Memory) which kept him informed of what was happening; they were birds of carrion, the scavengers of the battlefield. In Ásgardur he had a palace called Valhöll (wrongly transliterated in English in its genetival plural form, Valhalla), where fallen warriors spent the afterlife in an orgy of feasting and fighting, preparing for the Last Battle which would spell the Doom of the Gods (Ragnarök).

Ódin was essentially the Lord of the Slain, the god of kings and chieftains; but he was also the god of poetry and wisdom. He sacrificed one of his eyes in his constant search for knowledge, and is usually portrayed as a one-eyed figure in disguise. He is also credited with the discovery of runes, the semi-magical system of writing incised on bone, wood or stone by the Norsemen before the introduction of the Roman alphabet. The runic alphabet consisted originally of sixteen twig-like letters known as the futhark from the values of its first six symbols; the full alphabet is to be found on an incised rib-bone now in the Culture History Museum in Lund, Sweden. Runes were mostly used for memorial inscriptions, but they were also used for secret charms or curses. Their magical association goes all the way back to an enigmatic myth about their discovery by Ódin after he had ritually hanged and stabbed himself:

I know that I hung
On the windswept tree
For nine whole nights,
Pierced by the spear
And given to Ódin
Myself given to myself
On that tree
No one knows.

They gave me not bread
Nor drink from the horn;
Into the depths I peered,
I grasped the runes,
Screaming I grasped them,
And then fell back.

Hávamál (Words of the High One)

The Norse pantheon was dominated by a trinity of gods. Ódin was nominally the chief god, All-Father. But another very important god was Thór, the Thunderer, who was probably the most widely venerated of all the Viking gods. Where Ódin was the aristocratic god, Thór was the patron god of seamen and farmers. He was a huge bluff figure, red-haired, red-bearded, red-eyed. He was god of the sky, the ruler of storms and tempests, wielder of thunderbolts. He rode the heavens in a chariot drawn by two sacred goats, and at his passage thunder crashed, the earth quaked and lightning cracked. He was the Lord Protector of the Universe, guarding the world with his mighty hammer Mjöllnir against the menace of the Giants who lurked just beyond the limits of civilisation. Thór's Hammer, however, was more than just a symbol of supernatural strength and violence; it was also a fertility emblem, which was used to hallow weddings and marital homes as horseshoes were to do later. Numerous Thór's Hammers have been found in the form of amulets and good-luck charms, as well as some moulds for casting them.

The third god of the Norse trinity was the fertility god, Freyr, closely associated with his twin sister, Freyja. Freyr was the paramount god of the Swedes, and the divine ancestor of their royal dynasty at Uppsala (cf Ch. 4). He is usually portrayed with a giant phallus erect, symbolising his powers of fertility and prosperous increase. Snorri Sturluson wrote of him: 'Freyr is the noblest of the gods. He controls the rain and the sunshine and therefore the natural increase of the earth, and it is good to call upon him for fruitful seasons and for peace. He also controls the good fortunes of men.' Freyja was his female mirror-image, loveliest and most lascivious of the goddesses, wanton and fecund.

There are now innumerable artefacts in museums throughout northern Europe which are thought to portray or allude to these gods: a beautiful little cast bronze figurine of a seated Thór grasping his beard and his hammer, dating from the tenth century and found in northern Iceland; an eleventh-century bronze statuette of a squatting Freyr from Rällinge in Sweden; various representations of a one-eyed man accompanied by bird motifs to suggest Ódin. But it is only in the poetry of the Edda (usually called the Poetic Edda or the Elder Edda to differentiate it from Snorri's Edda) that the old gods and heroes come to life.

The Edda is a collection of thirty-nine poems, compiled in Iceland in the thirteenth century. The poems or lays themselves are very much older, however, and have their roots deep in the pre-Viking world of Germanic legend. Ten are mythological, for the most part stories about the gods and their adventures. The others are heroic lays about the great figures of Germanic folklore – Sigurdur the Dragon-Slayer, Attila the Hun, Ermaneric the Goth.

One of the longest of the poems is a mythological lay known as Hávamál('Words of the High One'). It is a ninth-century compilation made from five or six earlier poems and consisting of gnomic advice and pragmatic sayings attributed to Ódin. Apart from the strange passage about Ódin hanging himself from a tree in search of the magic of the runes, it has nothing to do with mysticism or religion; it is a series of down-to-earth, sometimes cynical maxims for the ordinary Viking to live by – a sort of do-it-yourself? Viking handbook for survival:

Look carefully round doorways before you walk in; you never know when an enemy might be there.

There is no better load a man can carry than much common sense; no worse a load than too much drink.

Never part with your weapons when out in the fields; you never know when you will need your spear.

Be a friend to your friend, match gift with gift; meet smiles with smiles, and lies with dissimulation.

No need to give too much to a man, a little can buy much thanks; with half a loaf and a tilted jug I often won me a friend.

Confide in one, never in two; confide in three, and the whole world knows.

Praise no day until evening, no wife until buried, no sword until tested, no maid until bedded, no ice until crossed, no ale until drunk.

The halt can ride, the handless can herd, the deaf can fight with spirit; a blind man is better than a corpse on a pyre – a corpse is no good to anyone.

Wealth dies, kinsmen die, a man himself must likewise die; but word-fame never dies, for him who achieves it well.

One particular area has provided a priceless source of graphic material to supplement the literary sources, a whole portfolio of pictures on stone from the Baltic island of Gotland, off the east coast of Sweden (cf Ch. 4). Nearly four hundred of these carved and painted picture-stones have been found on Gotland, dating from the Migration Period in the fifth century to the eleventh. They have given posterity a marvellously vivid archive of the pre-Viking and Viking views of life and death in this world and the next.

One specimen, the Hunninge Stone from Klinte in Gotland, dating from the eighth century, tells the whole story of the Ages of? Viking Man. It is a sculpted saga in itself. It is a very large stone – about three metres high – and now forms part of the magnificent collection of picture-stones in Gotland's Historical Museum (Fornsalen) in Visby, the capital town of Gotland. At the bottom we see the Viking as farmer, carefully husbanding his land and livestock. In the middle section we see him on a Viking longship, skimming over the curling waves of the 'whale's-path' to augment his income with a bit of private enterprise – the less acceptable face of-Viking capitalism to medieval eyes. And at the top we see him arriving in the afterworld which welcomed all true Vikings who died in battle: free transport on Ódin's eight-legged magic steed, Sleipnir, to Valhöll, the Hall of the Slain; a welcome by a Valkyrie serving endless horns of ale; and an eternity of friendly battle in which the dead and the wounded are miraculously restored every evening.


Excerpted from The Vikings by Magnus Magnusson. Copyright © 2008 Magnus Magnusson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Magnus Magnusson (1929-2007) was an Icelandic journalist, translator, writer, and host of the BBC quiz show Mastermind. His other books include Scotland: The Story of a Nation.

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