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By Neil Oliver
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Neil Oliver
All rights reserved.
BY ROCK AND ICE
'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.'
Roy Batty, Blade Runner
I imagined myself a Viking. I daydreamed wonders I might have seen during a life lived a thousand and more years ago: sea unicorns fencing with corkscrew horns in the ice of the High Arctic ... motes of incense in shafts of sunlight through windows in the dome of Hagia Sophia ... snarling, wrinkled lips on the faces of marble lions on Delos ... the aurora borealis pulsing across the dark, welcoming me home ... and best of all, no explanations for any of it.
I might have been the first of my kind to see the sun setting in the west behind the American continent, watched icebergs calving from Greenland's glaciers in a springtime long ago, or served in the private bodyguard of a Byzantine emperor. The possibilities kept coming but there was a sadness about it all—because the chance to live a life like his or gaze upon a world such as he knew was long gone.
We know the sea unicorns are only narwhals. The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God is just another museum in Istanbul. Only seven of Apollo's lions remain on their terrace at the heart of the Cyclades, smoothed and blinded by time—the rest robbed away as trophies of war—and now we understand the magical curtains of light in northern skies are no more than particles and atoms colliding in the thermosphere. Tears in the rain.
For over 200 years between the end of the eighth century and the middle of the eleventh, some of the peoples of Scandinavia became the greatest adventurers the world had yet seen. Perhaps they were the greatest there will ever be. In elegant timber long ships powered by oars or by sails, they put to sea. Mastery of simple but effective navigational techniques would grant them a territory stretching from Iceland in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south, from Newfoundland in the west to Constantinople and the Caspian Sea in the east.
In Civilisation the historian Kenneth Clark acknowledged that while the Vikings were 'brutal and rapacious' they nonetheless played a crucial part in shaping the destiny of the western world. In so doing, he said, they won for themselves a place in the greater story of European civilisation: 'It was the spirit of Columbus,' he wrote. 'The sheer technical skill of their journeys is a new achievement of the western world; and if one wants a symbol of Atlantic man that distinguishes him from Mediterranean man, a symbol to set aside the Greek temple, it is the Viking ship.'
They are still among us—ghosts and shadows, fragments and fingerprints—in all sorts of different ways and in many different places. One October evening in 2011 the top story on Britain's national news was about the discovery in Ardnamurchan, a remote peninsula on the north-west coast of Scotland, of the first undisturbed Viking boat burial ever found on mainland Britain.
A thousand years ago a revered and respected elder was laid to rest inside the hull of a timber boat, one crafted with the so-familiar sweeping prow and stern. His shield was laid upon his chest, his sword and spear by his side. He also had a knife and an axe, together with an object archaeologists believe to be a drinking horn. The boat had then been filled with stones and buried beneath a mound of earth.
Initially overlooked as nothing more than a clearance cairn—a pile of rocks gathered from the land by a farmer keen to spare his ploughshare from damage—it was not until 2011 that excavation of the mound began to reveal its secrets. The timbers of the boat had long since decayed but their lines were clearly visible, impressed into the subsoil upon which they had lain for a millennium. At just 16.5 feet long by five wide, it seems on the small side for journeys back and forth to Scandinavia. But the fact that its sole occupant was deemed worthy of such treatment in death suggests he was of the highest status—and no doubt a seasoned traveller in life. Also found alongside him were a whetstone of Norwegian origin and a bronze ring-pin fashioned by an Irish craftsman.
I try and picture the scene on that day when his family, friends and followers dispatched him on his final journey. First the sleek little craft was hauled into position out of reach of any tide. The location of the grave was no accident either, no random selection: archaeologists had already found other dead nearby, from other times. Those close to that deceased Viking had decided his mortal remains would lie for ever near both a 6,000-year-old Neolithic grave and one raised during the Bronze Age. Here was an unlikely fellowship of death. Then they placed him on board, accompanied by all they thought he might need wherever he was going, and sent him on his way.
Ardnamurchan is still a place reached more easily by boat than by road. It feels remote now but there was a time when familiarity with the water would have meant it was close to busy seaways. Whether that Viking was a permanent resident or a passing chieftain visiting his relatives may never be known—but my fascination with him lies at least in part in wondering what he really meant to those who saw fit to say their farewells that way. Did they fill the hull with ballast with a view to fixing him in place in a landscape that plainly mattered to them? We cannot ever know, and why should we? He is not ours.
In June 2008 archaeologists were called in to excavate a large swathe of land in Dorset earmarked for the building of a new road to improve access to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland. In what proved to be a mass burial pit they found the remains of 51 Vikings—all of them decapitated and butchered. Their bones revealed multiple wounds including defensive injuries to hands and arms. There were separate piles of skulls, ribcages and leg bones. Two heads were missing, prompting the archaeologists to suppose those might have been kept as trophies—perhaps displayed on spikes. Scientific analysis showed they were all men, aged from late teens to mid-twenties. Their tooth enamel proved beyond doubt they had grown to adulthood in Scandinavian countries and radiocarbon dates revealed they met their deaths sometime between AD 910 and 1030.
Taken captive by the local Anglo-Saxons, they were stripped naked and messily executed. Perhaps they were raiders caught in the act, or wouldbe settlers made unwelcome in the most extreme manner imaginable. Either way, their dismembered remains recall a time when the men from the north were often regarded more as foe than friend. These were travellers who lived and died by swords and they were not always on the winning side.
In 2006 I took part in a television project called The Face of Britain. Using samples of DNA collected from volunteers all over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a team of scientists sought to find out how much the genetic make-up of the modern population had been affected by migrations and invasions during thousands of years of history.
While people came forward claiming all manner of inheritances—Celtic, Pictish, Saxon, Huguenot, Norman and many others—the largest single group of volunteers were those believing (or at least fervently hoping) they were descended from Vikings. For many it was based on no more than a family trait of blue eyes or fair hair. Some, however, had a claim based on altogether more intriguing physical characteristics. Dupuytren's Contracture is a deformity that causes the fingers of the hand to curl towards the palm. The condition is also known as 'Viking Claw' and several people came to the trial certain their hands carried proof of ancient Scandinavian ancestry. But despite the nickname, the condition is relatively common all over northern Europe and by no means limited to those whose families hail from Denmark, Norway or Sweden. Even more interesting than the scientifically provable reality, though, was the passion with which so many people clung to their hopes that the blood coursing in their veins was that of Vikings.
There was a time too when every British child learnt the names of at least a few Viking heroes—real men once, but made so famous by their exploits they seem more like figures from bedtime stories or nursery rhymes: Eirik the Red and his settlement of Greenland ... the voyage of his son Leif Eiriksson to Vinland, presumed to be some or other part of the Newfoundland coastline ... and Cnut, King of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, and famed for an audience with the incoming tide.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—four out of our own seven days—are named for the Viking gods and goddesses Tyr, Odin, Thor and Freyja. Whole swathes of Britain's place names are Viking too. Any ending in 'by'—like Ferriby, Whitby, Grimsby, Selsby and Utterby—recall homesteads established by the incomers. Anywhere with 'thorpe' or 'thwaite' is Viking too. Then there's 'beck' for stream; 'fell' and 'how' for hill; 'holm' for island; 'kirk' for church and 'slack' for stream—the list goes on and on, marbled like fat through the flesh of Britain.
Caithness, Scotland's northern quarter, is the way Vikings described the head of the cat. The Great Orme above Llandudno remembers how they saw the headland there like a giant worm swimming out to sea, and just about every village, town, hill, headland, waterway and bay on the islands of Orkney and Shetland bears a Norse name.
Make your way along the passageway of the great burial mound of Maes Howe on Orkney Mainland and your breath will be snatched away first of all by the wonder of the Neolithic architecture in the chamber at its end. Spend a little more time inside, however, and faint lines and shapes etched into stones here and there might catch your eye: a dragon-lion, a knotted serpent, a walrus. These were cut by Vikings 4,000 years and more after the last of the monument's builders were dust on the wind.
Then there are the runes—at least 30 sets identified so far. Some are just boyish graffiti like: 'Thorni bedded Helgi', or 'Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women' (the latter beside a rough etching of a slavering hound). At least a few are more enigmatic, though, like: 'It is true what I say, that treasure was carried off in the course of three nights.' Even the runic letters themselves—all straight lines suitable for slicing into wood or stone with sharp swords and daggers—conjure images of the sort of men who made them, men who sheltered from hellish storms there from time to time, surrounded by the shadows of ancient and forgotten dead.
In the twelfth-century Orkneyinga saga—a history of the Orcadians—the scribes tell of one Earl Harald and his men travelling from Stromness when the worst of winter weather forced them to beach their boat. Reluctantly by all accounts they took shelter beneath the mound they called Orkahaugr —Maes Howe—and as flames flickered and winds howled, two of their number went insane with the terror of it all.
In Stirling, where I live with my family, the town coat of arms features a snarling wolf. It seems there were Vikings here too once, right at the heart of Scotland, or at least very nearly. The accompanying legend recalls another dark winter's night, this one in the ninth century, when a sentry tasked with guarding the sleeping town fell asleep at his post. While he snored, a war band of Vikings made their stealthy approach, no doubt bent on rapine and thievery—and, as luck would have it, disturbed a sleeping wolf. The beast howled, waking the dolt, and the town's defenders were roused in the nick of time. The Vikings were driven off and the howling wolf was granted a place in immortality.
High on a wall of one fine building in the town is a niche holding a sculpted wolf. A verse below it, in golden copperplate, reads:
Here in auld days
The wolf roam'd
In a hole of the rock
In ambush lay.
A narrow escape from Vikings, remembered for a thousand years.
In towns on Shetland the locals mark the darkest depths of winter with a party they call Up Helly Aa. By the evening of the last Tuesday in January each year the finishing touches have been put to the centrepiece and focus for the whole affair: a stunningly authentic-looking dragon-headed Viking long ship erected in a park near the centre of Lerwick, the principal town on the islands. The street lights are extinguished and all at once the place is plunged into velvet darkness. For the next hour or so the only illumination is that provided by hundreds of flaming torches carried in procession by marching, costumed Shetlanders. At the head of the line and in pride of place is a 'squad' of 60 or so men extravagantly and expensively turned out as Viking warriors, with helmets, chain mail, shields and swords and led by their 'Jarl' or Earl.
In a surreal twist all the rest of the torch-bearers are garbed not as Vikings but in all manner of fancy dress—cartoon characters, super-heroes, reality-show contestants and the like. Children squeal and adults cheer as the marchers weave their way down crowded streets, preceded always by their own long, flickering shadows. In the absence of the clinically cold, sulphur-glow of street lights, the faces of marchers and spectators alike are bathed only in the unmistakable warmth of living flames.
As a finale the whole horde gathers in a great circle around the long ship in the park. Soon the pack is 20 or 30 deep, the heat from their torches almost frighteningly intense and casting bizarre shadows through the children's swings and climbing frames nearby.
The Vikings step forward first and to deafening roars they launch their flames into the ship. An inferno rages almost at once and now the rest of the squads add their own torches. It is a stunning sight, with flames rising tens of feet into the black night, quickly devouring the mast and sail. Soon the air is thick with a veritable storm of sparks and flaming fragment—shot enough to burn holes in clothes and singe hair—and all too quickly the whole ship, the work of months of careful craftsmanship, is reduced to nothing.
Any outsider watching the spectacle would be forgiven for assuming Up Helly Aa was a thousand years old or more—that it recalls the moment when those first Viking invaders decided to burn their boats and remain on the island as landlords. In fact, the truth of the matter is altogether different. Far from an ancient tradition, it is an almost entirely modern concoction.
There are records of some fairly rowdy goings-on in wintry rural Shetland in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars there were veteran soldiers on the islands. Having seen a bit of the wider world, they had developed a taste for the wilder kind of Christmas party and there are reports from the 1820s of singing, dancing, drinking, fighting and the firing of muskets and pistols long into the night. By the middle years of the century some of them had taken to filling barrels with buckets of tar, setting them alight and dragging them through the streets of villages and towns, including Lerwick. It seems it was very much an affair of young working-class men and in time the aspirant middle classes grew tired of all the wildness—not to mention the presumed danger to life and property posed by barrels of molten, burning tar dragged through darkened streets by young men the worse for drink.
By 1870 or thereabouts a new movement had taken root in Lerwick at least, and a few of the town's residents—those with a taste for history and pageant—managed to take control of the winter festivals. Having banished the tar barrels they came up with a new name for the festivities—Up Helly Aa—and ordained that the islands' Viking past be grafted onto what had hitherto been little more than an excuse for drinking and fighting. Almost at once a tradition was born and by the later decades of the century the 'guising'—short for disguising, or dressing up—had become a key element, along with the burning of the long ship, known locally as the 'galley'. Only in the early twentieth century was the honorary role of 'Jarl' created, and now, in the twenty-first century, the festival is designed to bring together the whole community during those darkest and coldest days in the Shetland calendar.
Excerpted from The Vikings by Neil Oliver. Copyright © 2013 Neil Oliver. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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