In the year 793, a Christian scholar began to make record of the vikings. The beginnings of his record reads thus:
In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.
These heathen men were Vikings, and with the destruction of the great monastery at Lindisfarne – an act which shook Christendom – they made their first substantial impact on the Occident. For almost the next three hundred years, the Vikings were the most exciting and influential force in Europe and beyond; wherever they went, they took their beliefs in the old gods and it was their poets who forged the myths in the earliest versions that have come down to us.
The word Viking, meaning ‘bay-men’ or ‘fighting men’ or ‘settling men’, refers collectively to the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, and the ‘Viking Age’ describes the period 780–1070 during which the Norsemen made a remarkable three-prong thrust south, east and west. There were two major reasons for this expansion: Scandinavia was overpopu-lated and the system of primogeniture forced younger sons into trying their fortunes overseas; and expanding trade routes (for example the development of Frisian trade and the increasing use of the Rhine) attracted Viking merchants and pirates. But one feels that the natural disposition of the Vikings, adventurous and aggressive and scornful of death, must have given added momentum to the impulse to raid and trade, conquer and colonise.
Sea power was crucial to the success of Viking enterprise. The Vikings depended on navigational skills and superb ships – ships which were one of the great practical and artistic achievements of pre-Conquest Europe. Clinker-built (with iron rivets linking the overlapping planks) on a keel plank that swept up into a stem at either end, they were both beautiful in line and very pliable in rough waters. They were propelled by oarsmen, perhaps fifteen or sixteen on either side in a fighting ship sitting in an enclosed deck, and by a square sail. The elaborately carved prows were decorated with a figurehead, more often than not a dragon’s head, and the warriors’ coloured shields hung in a row over the railings.
Sailing south, the Vikings raided and then colonised Scotland, Ireland and half of England where they had the misfortune to run into one of the most remarkable men in world history and the only king whom the English have called Great, Alfred of Wessex. They overran and settled Friesland and France as far south as the Loire; they attacked and captured Lisbon, Cadiz and Seville; for a while they commandeered the Camargue and, moving east, left their mark on the north of Italy and sacked Pisa; and some Vikings, previously settled in Normandy, pushed on to Sicily where there are still a number of men and women with the fair skin and fair reddish hair of the Norsemen.
Heading east from the Baltic, the Vikings sailed up the River Volkhov to Novgorod. From there they humped their boats overland on pine rollers to the source of the Dnieper and so made their way to Kiev, the Black Sea and Constantinople, where the Emperor’s own guard consisted entirely of Vikings. Others worked their way from Novgorod to the Volga and sailed south to the Caspian Sea and Baghdad, carrying with them, in the words of Mohammed Mugaddosi, an Arab geographer writing in about 985, ‘sables, squirrel, ermine, black and white foxes, marten, beaver, arrows and swords, wax and birch bark, fish teeth and fish lime, amber, honey, goat skins and horse hides, hawks, acorns, hazel nuts, cattle and Slavonic slaves’. An Arab diplomat and diarist, Ibn Fadlan, described the Vikings he encountered on the Volga in 922:
I saw the Rus when they arrived on their trading mission and anchored at the River Atul [Volga]. Never had I seen people of more perfect physique; they are tall as date-palms, and reddish in colour. They wear neither coat nor mantle, but each man carries a cape which covers one half of his body, leaving one hand free…Each woman carries on her bosom a container made of iron, silver, copper or gold – its size and substance depending on her man’s wealth.
The ‘Rus’ or Swedish Vikings to whom Ibn Fadlan refers gave their name to Russia.
Sailing west, the Vikings (mainly west Norwegians) colonised Iceland in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. The manner in which a Viking decided where to settle is described on p. xxxv. From Iceland, the Vikings pushed west to Greenland which was only called ‘Green’ by its discoverer, Eric the Red, who founded a colony at Brattahlid, in order to entice others to follow him. And from there, they intrepidly sailed still further west. That Leif Ericsson reached Newfoundland and New England in the United States, and found ‘fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines’, and that his discovery quickly led to further exploration and short-lived colonisation, is not a matter of mere speculation. The Vinland Sagas and archaeological discoveries (notably at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland) have conclusively established the existence of Norse settlements there around the year 1000 – some five centuries before Columbus set sail from Portugal and ‘discovered’ America.
The Norsemen cut such a dash as gangers and, indeed, gangsters that it would be easy to get them out of focus. The truth is that most of them lived peaceful lives, hunting, fishing, and above all farming, for most of the time. Both in Scandinavia and wherever they settled, their society was based on a very clear social structure with three strata: earls or warriors, peasants, and serfs. ‘The Song of Rig’ (Myth 5) tells how Heimdall created the races of men and provides a good deal of information about their respective life styles.
As the eddaic poem Rigsthula shows, the serfs had a bad time of it. They were manual labourers and they were never free. Thrall and his wife Thir and their nineteen children would have lived in a single stinking hut, made with timber or with turf and clay, shared with such animals as they possessed – cattle certainly, perhaps sheep or goats or pigs, and maybe a cat or a dog. No patron god guarded the lives of these most luckless members of the community.
The great majority of the Norsemen, however, undoubtedly belonged to the peasant class whose patron was Thor. They were smallholders and freemen. Archaeological evidence shows that, at least towards the end of the Viking period, they lived in two or more buildings – a pair of parallel long-houses sometimes supplemented by a barn or two, making a three- or even four-sided complex with a courtyard in the middle.
The picture in Rigsthula of the peasant’s staple diet can be supplemented from references in the sagas and archaeological discoveries. Johannes Brøndsted has written:
It is fair to surmise that the Vikings’ daily diet included wholemeal bread made of rye; oat and barley porridge; fish (especially herrings); the meat of sheep, lamb, goat, horse, ox, calf, and pig; cheese, butter, and cream; and for drink, beer, mead, and (among the wealthy) wine. Whale meat, seal meat, and the meat of the polar bear were important foods particularly in Norway and Iceland. Boiled meat seems to have been preferred to roasted…Broths made from the various meats must have been a familiar dish; and the Vikings were also practised in the methods of drying meat and fish. Gamebirds, too, were an extra item in the Viking diet. The most common vegetables were cabbages and onions; and apples, berries, and hazelnuts were abundant. Honey was much in use, largely as the basis for the manufacture of sweet fermented mead…In those countries remote from the sea but well forested, much of the Viking sustenance came from hunting elk, deer, wild boar, and bear. Hares, geese, and chickens were other popular items on the menu and, in the far north, reindeer and bison.
Food was preserved for winter consumption with ice, with whey, and with salt either taken from saltpans or extracted from kelp.
Rigsthula gives an elaborate picture of the fine halls, refined lives and sophisticated activities of the aristocratic third class, the earls or warriors whose patron was Odin. They are above all distinguished by their wealth, expressed in terms of followers, treasure, ships, and estates that passed from eldest son to eldest son. Like their inferiors in the social system, the warriors were as a rule devoted and responsible family men and customarily spent the long winters at home; the attention paid in the myths to feasting in Valhalla doubtless reflects the time given over to feasting in the halls of warriors. But it was these same men who, in the summer, assembled crews bent on exploration, trade or piracy, and they who were celebrated by the scaldic poets. The immense significance of the poet, the carrier of tradition, in an oral culture, is discussed in Note 6 and elsewhere.
When the Germanic tribesmen first migrated to Europe and north into Scandinavia, they chose their leaders, according to Tacitus, for their valour and noble birth. The man who could claim divine descent made a powerful contender, and it is this kind of power struggle that underlies ‘Hyndla’s Poem’ (Myth 18) in which the goddess Freyja assists her human lover, Ottar, to establish his lineage. It was only as the monarchy accrued greater power and significance that it became hereditary (though Iceland spurned kingship altogether and was ruled from the first by a union of chieftains); ‘The Lay of Grimnir’ (Myth 12) exemplifies this more orderly tradition.
We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas, the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next, as suggested by ‘The Theft of Idun’s Apples’, ‘Thor’s Journey to Utgard’ and ‘Otter’s Ransom’; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths – a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. Conditions on the road were frequently demanding, taking the traveller over fells, round a glacier, or across a wilderness – journeys made all the more hazardous by the chance of prolonged violent snowstorms in the mountains and dust storms in the desert; for half the year, moreover, the light only lasted for a few hours each day.
Such cloistered circumstances strengthened the importance of the family unit. A family needed to be self-reliant and its members rallied to one another’s support in times of trouble. If a man was slighted or, worse, injured or killed, the offender (as the sagas so graphically describe) could not hope to get away with it. Tacitus attributed very similar principles to Germanic tribesmen in the first century:
A man is bound to take up the feuds as well as the friendships of father or kinsmen. But feuds do not continue unreconciled. Even homicide can be atoned for by a fixed number of cattle or sheep, and the satisfaction is received by the whole family. This is much to the advantage of the community, for private feuds are peculiarly dangerous side by side with liberty.
If, however, feuding families could not settle a dispute between themselves, it was brought before a court. An ordeal might be used to determine guilt and punishment consisted either of compensatory payment or, in the case of very substantial crime, outlawry or death.
Tacitus’s reference to friendship is pertinent too. A judicious Norse family cultivated friendships both for their own sake and because a large group of people loyal to one another was less vulnerable than a small one. One special relationship existed within the family itself: a maternal uncle was especially responsible for the welfare of his nephew. This bond is discussed in Note 4 and may explain why Odin learned the nine magic songs that enabled him to secure the divine mead of poetry from his uncle, the son of Bolthor.
Both within the family and in the eyes of the law, a man and a woman had equal rights, and the outspoken woman, rather more determined than the menfolk surrounding her, is a striking and familiar character in the sagas. The woman is also prominent as volva or shamaness, able to go into a trance, send her spirit on a journey to obtain hidden knowledge, and answer the practical questions about social welfare and marriage prospects of the community gathered to listen to her. Freyja in her role as shamaness, going from hall to hall teaching witchcraft to the Aesir (Myth and Note 2), clearly reflects these practices.
This superstitious, family-oriented existence is the background to ‘The Lay of Loddfafnir’ and the whole of Havamal (Myth and Note 25). This great compendium of aphorisms and advice on right conduct offers a commonsensical and sober (though sometimes witty) picture of the day to day life of the Norsemen, and it is a far cry from the heady image of Vikings on the rampage. Value life itself; censure naivete; cherish and celebrate friendships; beware of treachery; practise moderation; be hospitable (but not too hospitable); try to win the fame and good name that will outlive you: these are the leitmotifs of Havamal.
One stanza in that poem reads: ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die, I myself shall die, but there is one thing I know never dies: the reputation we leave behind at our death.’ A desire for fame, limited though it may be, was of crucial importance to the Norseman. In the absence of beliefs about a timeless afterlife, it represented his only hope of immortality. No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns who wove the fates of gods and men alike (Note 4) but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. This sentiment is perfectly expressed by Skirnir in ‘Skirnir’s Journey’: ‘Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.’
Since men who become embittered never win respect or admiration, those who sought fame did not rail at the undoubted hardship of their lives and the inevitability of death. Rather, they endured it or, even better, laughed at it. This accounts for the ironic tone in the fabric of the myths and explains, for example, the reaction of the gods when Tyr sacrificed his hand (Myth 7) in the interests of binding the wolf Fenrir. Men and women expected their share of trouble and the best of them attempted to use it, to rise above it and carve out a name for themselves through bravery and loyalty and generosity.
This fatalism, so fundamental to the Norsemen, is reflected in the myths. It was in the power of Odin and the Valkyries, not of men, to decide which slain warriors would be taken to Valhalla; the gold that Loki extracts from Andvari carries a curse with it; Odin knows that Balder’s death is fated and can do nothing to avert it; and Ragnarok itself, ‘the Destruction of the Powers’, is inescapable. The time must come when all creation will be destroyed by fire and flood.
Yet, in H. R. Ellis Davidson’s wise words:
In spite of this awareness of fate, or perhaps because of it, the picture of man’s qualities which emerges from the myths is a noble one. The gods are heroic figures, men writ large, who led dangerous, individualistic lives, yet at the same time were part of a closely-knit small group, with a firm sense of values and certain intense loyalties. They would give up their lives rather than surrender these values, but they would fight on as long as they could, since life was well worth while. Men knew that the gods whom they served could not give them freedom from danger and calamity, and they did not demand that they should. We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. The great gifts of the gods were readiness to face the world as it was, the luck that sustains men in tight places, and the opportunity to win that glory which alone can outlive death.