The Vikings

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Ran, a stormy spirit of the sea, reflected the shifting moods of the ocean, sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. She gathered sailors in her drowning net and dragged them down to the depths of the sea. There, with her husband Aegir, she entertained her victims in her gleaming coral caves, which were lit by the shimmering gold of the sea. Ran loved gold, named the Flame of the Sea, after the fluorescent quality of Nordic waves. Sailor's seeking Ran's favor wisely pocketed some gold for the trip.

--- The Myths and Legends of the Nordic Gods

We continue our salty tales with some of the most ruthless sailors that ever lived. Yet of all the people who ever lived on our planet, the Vikings epitomized man's connection to the sea. Spawned between fire and ice in the farthest reaches of our planet, these sailors commanded the seas with cunning, grace and respect. The fabric of their very lives was woven with the sea and many of their folklores and traditions survive to this day.

The Vikings, a tribe of people who inhabited modern-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark, otherwise known as Scandinavia, burst upon Europe in the last decade of the 8th Century. While the term Viking refers to "those who plunder", it was generally applied to all Scandinavians in the Viking Age, between 789  to 1100  A.D., more than  300 years.

Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain the sudden expansion of what otherwise were largely farmers and fishermen. Sure, they engaged in occasional warfaring, royal combat and games of violence, but they pretty much kept at home previously. Perhaps unusually harsh climate conditions, the lure of a better life, struggles for power, dreams of riches and trade or some other reasons played a part in their appearance.

Whatever the causes (which we are not going to examine here), the Vikings descended upon Europe like a black plague. Once popular middle age prayer of the time reads: "From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us." While history has a way of creating larger-than-life legends, the Viking practices of human sacrifice, battle-enhancing drugs (they were particularly fond of a blood-red psychedelic mushroom that gave them superhuman power and, presumably, wicked-ass visions), pagan rituals and wanton acts of violence and terror were very real. Scandinavian accounts describe the Viking practice of the "blood eagle", where a victim's ribs were hacked on both sides of his spine and his lungs torn out so that he resembled an eagle. This sacrifice to Odin, the one-eyed god of the warriors, was designed to inspire soldiers and terrorize victims and it demonstrates the sophisticated and systematic methods used by these warriors.

Despite these incidents, some historians believe it was only a special class of warriors who carried out such violence. Modern interpretations also point to a climate of violence inherent in all people of this time. The Christian leader Charlemagne executed 4500 Saxons at Verden in 782, so violence was a common way to deal with problems. And because many of the Viking raids were directed against the booty-rich Christian churches, the descriptions of these "pagans" by monks, from whose writings much of middle-age history is taken, were understandably harsh.

Viking Shjp.gif (30053 bytes)Their violence nothwitstanding, what gave the Vikings their overpowering ability to rain terror upon medieval Europeans were their extraordinary ships. The Viking longship, as they were known, has been described as the "perfect mating of design, structure and material." The culmination of more than 6000 years of field testing under the harshest sea conditions known to man, these ships could travel long distances over the open ocean and maneuver in shallow coastal environments as well. Their speed, seaworthiness and versatility made them potent weapons in the Viking raids against coastal peoples.

The earliest archaeological evidence of Scandinavian water craft dates from 5000 B.C. at sites in Denmark. These simple dugout canoes, reaching lengths of 30 feet, are reminiscent of canoes built by indigenous peoples across the world. They appeared to be used for fishing, whaling and general marauding. The importance of these craft for early Scandinavians is reflected in their burial rituals: chieftains and important people were often placed in their ships and buried or stones were placed around their graves in the shape of a longship. Viking burial rituals in ships were even more elaborate, as we'll learn below.

John Hale's excellent Scientific American article on Viking longships traces the evolution of these phenomenal craft and the Vikings themselves:

About 3000 B.C., Denmark began to bore a row of holes along the upper edges of their dugout canoes. They could then secure the lower edge of a the top of the dugout with cords of sinew or fiber. The resulting overlap marked the birth of the distinctive northern European construction technique known as lapstrake...

During the Bronze Age (2000 to 500 B.C.), the watercraft of Scandinavia took on some of the appearance of the future Viking ship, including high posts at each end crowned with spirals or animal heads. Some of these heads are certainly serpents or dragons, and dragons are depicted hovering over boats in Bronze Age art. The warriors manning these boats often wore the horned helmets that have come to symbolize the caricature Viking of opera or cartoons. In fact, such headgear was quite out of fashion by the true Viking Age.

Hale describes the longships used in Viking raids as part oceangoing troop carrier and part amphibious craft. The longships were capable of delivering sixty men "over the low side of the hull within a few strides of land." Estimates of the numbers of craft and men vary, although reports of tens to hundreds of ships and upwards of ten thousand men or more are probably reliable. Whatever the number, a fleet of Viking longships off the coast warranted considerable attention.

0298hale_invaders.gif (103766 bytes)The first Viking raids were directed against England. Small numbers of ships conducted hit-and-run along the coasts of England, Ireland and France. Ireland, whose people were largely disorganized and anarchic, suffered considerably from Viking attack. In fact, if you are of Irish descent, it's possible that one of your ancestors was a Viking. The first Viking raiders in Ireland were largely Nordic and Irish-Norse towns proliferated during this period. Dublin, the capital of Ireland, was once ruled by the son of a Norwegian king, Olaf the White. By the late 10th century, the Norse settlers had lost their Viking identity through intermarriage, conversion to Christianity and adoption of the Gaelic language. I've always felt a certain connection to Norwegian peoples and their customs, especially their habits of drinking. Perhaps my half-Irish genes are trying to tell me something!

Viking speed and mobility as result of the longship gave the Vikings a considerable advantage in these early raids. Surprise attacks enabled them to plunder and run before opposing troops could be gathered to resist them. Yet, in the early 9th century, political dissary in Europe offered an opportunity for extended campaigns and the Vikings mounted a more serious offensive in 830 A.D. With fleets approaching the hundreds, Viking warriors attacked points far inland along the Rhine, Seine, Loire and Shannon rivers. It was during this period that the Vikings raided Spain and other settlements in the Mediterranean, but these were not hugely successful. The distinguishing feature of this second phase of Viking raids was the development of permanent settlements and overwintering in western Europe. Scotland and Ireland came under the rule of Vikings during this period. From these strongholds, raiding could start earlier in the year, as winter broke and better weather prevailed in the more southerly climates.

A new phase in Viking activity followed, characterized by conquest and settlement. As Viking raiders acquired land and riches, many of them returned to their farming lives. It most certainly offered a better life than that aboard a longship with the possible risk of death in battle. During this third phase, which lasted from 865 to 954 A.D., with the death of Eric the Bloodaxe, Viking raids intensified on many fronts, including England, Ireland, France and Germany. While Viking activity continued until around 1100 A.D., it became characterized by defensive postures, deal-making and eventually, assimilation.

The defining mark of Viking success was their mobility. Not only did it provide the element of surprise but it also led them beyond the far reaches of the known world. As Viking ships raided southwards to the Mediterranean and eastwards into Germany, another group of Viking people, primarily Norwegians, moved eastward. These Viking settlements occurred less violently than their European ones and Scandinavians quickly colonized Iceland, Greenland and even North America.

Sir David Wilson, the former Director of the British Museum, once wrote:

Their devastating raids in the eighth and ninth centuries gave the Vikings an enduring reputation for piracy and destructiveness - and yet their culture was in many ways as sophisticated as the cultures of the lands, which they ravaged.

In Dark Age Europe they stand out for the scale of their exploits, for they conquered large areas of Britain, Normandy, Sicily and Russia; they traded with Byzantium, Persia and India; they discovered and colonized Iceland and Greenland and reached the coast of North America. And, in the end, far from destroying Western civilization, they enriched it. Parts of their legal system, their tradition of individual freedom, their zest for exploration, and the great Icelandic sagas which reflect their heroic age - these have all become part of our northern European heritage.

Another distortion of Viking history is the one presented to many of us in our early school years paints Christopher Columbus as the man who discovered America (notwithstanding the fact that people were already here.) In fact, a Norwegian explorer, Leif Eiriksson, explored extensively along the coast of Nova Scotia and possibly as far south as Cape Cod around 1000 A.D. A Norse settlement in Newfoundland, L'Anse aux Meadows, may have accommodated up to 90 people, and was most probably used as a base for explorations southwards. Artifacts at the site indicate an occupation between 1000 and 1020 A.D.; butternut squash remains at the site indicate trade and or exploration to the south, as butternuts do not grow that far north. In any case, Leif Eiriksson's expeditions within North America certainly deserve as much recognition as Columbus' expeditions to the West Indies; heck, Columbus never even set foot on the continent!

But where the sagas of Leif Eiriksson faded away modern times, the sagas of Viking warriors and Norse mythology remain strong as ever. Consider this account of the Norse god of the sea, Aegir, whose sister-wife, Ran, is described above:

Aegir - the god of the sea, seashore and ocean and a son of Mistarblindi. He was a personification of the ocean, both good and bad. He caused storms with his anger and the skalds said a ship went into "Aegir's wide jaws" when it wrecked. Aegir was crowned with seaweed and always surrounded by nixies and mermaids while in his hall. Aegir's wife was Ran and they lived under the sea by the island Hlesey. Ran and Aegir had nine daughters who were the waves. Aegir brewed ale for the gods after Thor brought him a big enough kettle. Every winter the gods would drink beer at Aegir's home. He was, therefore, famed for his hospitality. Gold was put onto the floor of the hall to provide light, instead of having a fire. Gold is therefore called Aegir's fire. The cups in Aegir's hall were always full, magically refilling themselves. Aegir had two servants in his hall, Fimafeng and Eldir. Sailors feared Aegir, and thought he would sometimes surface to destroy ships. Early Saxons made human sacrifices to a god of the sea, possibly connected with Aegir.

While other gods perhaps had more power than Aegir, the sphere of his influence, the sea, certainly ranked him high among warriors who spent a good deal of their time at sea. Sailors, a superstitious lot anyway, carefully observed many traditions so as not to offend the god of the sea.

vikingfuneralth.gif (6075 bytes)Commanding officers who died in a sea battle were buried in their ships. As with most male graves of the time, a large number of weapons were buried alongside the warrior. The Vikings believed that dead warriors went to Valhalla, the "hall of heroes", where they ate and drank freely and kept in fighting form through battle. Typical weapons included a double-edged longsword (better for hacking than thrusting!), a wooden shield with an iron centerpiece "to protect the hand", richly decorated spears, a battle axe (a cheaper alternative to the sword),and "a bow with up to 24 arrows." The ridiculous head gear often associated with Vikings was not preferred, the true warriors preferring a toughened leather cap instead.

Here's an account from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway describing the burial ritual:

At the time of burial, the ship was drawn up on land and placed in a pit. A burial chamber was constructed behind the mast, where the deceased was placed to rest in a bed, dressed in finery. Copious provisions were placed in the ship, dogs and horses were sacrificed, and a large burial mound was piled on top of the vessel.

An Arab travelling in Russia at the end of the 9th Century happened upon a group of Vikings who were in the process of burying a chieftain in this manner. Ibn Fadlan made note of his observations, and his journal has survived. The deceased chieftain's ship was pulled ashore, and valuables were placed aboard. The corpse was dressed in fine clothing and placed on board in a bed. A slave woman, who had chosen to follow her master in death was sacrificed along with a horse and a hunting dog. The ship with its contents was burned, and a burial mound was constructed over the ashes. We have finds of cremated ships graves in the Nordic countries and in Western European Viking sites, but the large graves along the Oslofjord were not put to the torch. In the Gokstad ship a man was found, and the Tune ship probably carried a man a well. However, two women were buried with the Oseberg ship. The skeletons are of a 50-60 year-old and a 20-30 year-old. We can only speculate as to which was the companion and which was the noblewoman.

While Scandinavian people have given up the ritual of burying sailors in their ships, strong seafaring traditions persist to this day. The family of a sailor who dies aboard a Norwegian ship receives a large sum of money from the Norwegian government. People who make their living at sea, including Norwegian oceanographers, are well-respected and treated accordingly.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this personal account of the degree to which Viking tradition plays a part among modern Norwegian sailors. This story was told to me by a Norwegian scientist while sipping Mök Ül (Mac's Ale) in a tiny pub in the northern coastal city of Tromso, Norway. Preparing for a scientific expedition to the Barent's Sea (north of Norway, West of Svalbard), two female technicians were spotted boarding the vessel wearing rucksacks, the Norwegian equivalent of a backpack. Aboard Norwegian vessels, as in Viking times, any articles, like rucksacks, used in land-based activities, like hiking, were considered bad luck. So entrenched is this tradition that it is considered bad manners (and bad luck) to mention barnyard animals, especially horses. The Norwegians, like the Vikings, feel that these terrestrial trappings will offend the gods of the sea and make for a bad journey at sea. Upon seeing the rucksacks, several of the crew grumbled to the Captain, but he ignored their complaints and made the ship ready to sail. A few days out of port, the ship was entrenched in horrendous seas and a ferocious storm. The winds raged for more than two days and the mood of the crew grew ever worse. Finally, unable to tolerate the bad weather any longer, the crew demanded that the Captain "do something about those rucksacks." The Captain, a wise and diplomatic man, approached the women and politely confiscated their rucksacks. Realizing that some show of respect for the gods was required (and wishing to placate his crew), the Captain had the rucksacks hauled up the mast. There they flapped in the howling wind, a sign of acquiescence to Aegir and his legions. Within a few hours, the wind began to abate, the seas began to calm and finally, after nearly three days in the tempest, the sun broke through the clouds and all was well.

Whether the Captain had some idea that the weather would break or whether the legends of the sea have some salt of truth to them, we may never know. Yet this tale illustrates the power and influence that Viking traditions still hold on the people of Norway today. Of course, you won't find me carrying a rucksack on board a Norwegian vessel.

Web Links

The Viking Longships: Scientific American, great reading on the development of the Viking longship.February 1998

Timeline of Scandinavian History centering on the Viking Age

The Viking Network Web

The Viking Home Page

The World of the Vikings

Scandinavian Mythology and Folklore

Myths and Legends

The Viking History Web

Viking Discoverers

The Viking Legacy of Europe

Leif Erickson's Viking Ship

Killian's Chronicle: the first story of America
Fictional film account of Vikings in North America

Earth Station1: Nordic Prints

Larry Elmore's Fantasy Art Gallery

Cool Books

Norse Mythology: The Myths and Legends of the Nordic Gods, 1997, by Arthur Cotterell,   Annes Publishing Limited.
Encyclopedic illustrated index of Norse gods, goddesses and myths. Beautifully illustrated. I found this one in Bergen, Norway.

The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, 1995, John Haywood, Penguin Books