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Viking Saga - Newsletters by Donald Hansen

Vol. 3 No. 1

Vol. 3 No. 2

Vol. 3 No. 3

Vol. 3 No. 1

 

In the 19th century, Du Chaillu and other eminent Vikingologists declared that all the important artifacts of the Viking Age had been found. Actually, 90% of them have been found since the early 1900’s. And they continue to be discovered almost daily in the Viking world, especially in England and Gotland Island, Sweden. In 2008, one of the largest Viking treasure sites ever found was unearthed at a farm near Harrogate, England. A father-son team dug up a silver bowl, which they gave to state experts (by UK law) who discovered that the 9th century artifact contained coins and jewelry probably from a raided monastery. Over 600 coins of both Christian and pagan images were found, together with a gold arm ring and silver objects in and near the bowl. Vikings often buried their treasures when danger was imminent; this was probably hidden sometime after the defeat of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria in 927.

 

Now here is a hot subject for a cold day! In 1898 on a farm in Kensington, Minnesota, the 10-year old son of Olof Öhman found a stone with strange markings. No one knew what it was until 9 years later when Hjalmer Holand, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, translated and eventually bought it (supposedly for $10). We use the 2001 translation of Richard Nielsen in a medieval context: “ 8 Geats (Goths) & 22 Norwegians on acquisition expedition from Vinland far west. We had traps by 2 shelters one day’s travel to the north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red with blood and dead. Ave Maria Deliver us from evils… Year of our lord 1362.”  Many runologists and linguists judge the runestone to be a hoax. Others claim that scientific evidence supports its authenticity. Significantly, in 2008, respected Forensic Investigator Scott Wolter presented his evidence that the stone is authentic (see Scandinavian Magazine interview, Winter 2008 issue). Choose your side. Will we know the truth in our lifetimes?

 

1007 - 1013: Unlike the 9th century Viking invasions of England which promoted settlement, Svein’s campaigns in England were to enlarge royal power & prestige and changed from extortion of Danegeld to outright conquest.  After internal dissension, the English fleet broke up. Thorkell the Tall then raided Hampshire, Sussex & Berkshire unopposed. In 1010, Thorkell raided East Anglia & Mercia. Svein became king of most of England in 1013. These events and the earlier settlement forever changed England.

 

By special arrangement with the authors, we are very pleased to offer 2 novels of the Viking Age. Both exhibit deep knowledge of Viking culture and both will appeal to Viking enthusiasts or to those who just want a good read:

 

Axe of Iron: The Settlers by Jerry Hunsinger. This is the 1st in a 5-book series about Viking Age people whose lives are surprisingly like ours. They share the same basic desires for happiness, love, food & shelter that have dominated the activities of generations & cultures worldwide. These character-driven historical fiction books tell of the adventures of Greenland Vikings as they struggle to establish a settlement in North America in the face of hostile native opposition. (Could this explain how Vikings might have assimilated with various tribes in North America – and even created the Kensington Runestone?)

 

Forced Blood: The Norseman by the husband-wife writing team, Christopher Perry & Linda Newton-Perry. They have forged a bold dramatic story of the Viking Age. The Perrys have done their homework and present a believable tale of Viking folk going about their daily lives – and deaths! You will become involved in the thoughts, deeds and interactions of the many vivid characters. This enthralling story of the conflict between good & evil characterized much of Viking Age culture.

 

 “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond & ruddy. They wear neither tunics nor caftans, but each man wears a cape that covers one side of the body, leaving one hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword & a knife, & keeps them by him at all times…. They are the filthiest of God’s creatures.”

 

– The Arab merchant Ibn Fadlan meets Rus traders at Itil, in the Kiev region, 922 AD

 

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Vol. 3 No 2

 

Danes & Norwegians dominated Viking expansion in the West but Swedes controlled the lucrative trading in the East. Other Vikings traveled to join the Byzantine emperor’s elite Varangian Guard. These Northmen were known as “Væringjar” or the “Rus folk” and gave Russia its name. They eventually adopted the Slavic language, Greek Orthodox religion & culture. Varangian is derived from the Old Norse varár, which means “men of the pledge.” Rus might be from “Ruotsi,” the Finnish name for Swedes, deriving from ro∂r, a rowing crew.

 

Turning to Russia, Rurik, the Swedish chieftain, became ruler of Novgorod in 862 and all the northwest of what is now Ukraine & Russia.  John Haywood, in his Historical Atlas of The Vikings, states that the most important cultural influence on Russia (Kiev) was not Scandinavian but the powerful civilizing impact of the Byzantine Empire. This, Haywood says, ensured that the country would develop a cultural identity distinct from the Latin-influenced West. Russia’s alphabet, literature, architecture, music, art, law & political ideologies were fundamentally Byzantine. Thus, the Scandinavians assimilated, becoming a minor factor in Kievan Russian development.

 

Seamus Heany, translator or Beowulf, says of the sagas, “Here is the poetry of the North Atlantic, a working out of the primary laws of our nature, a testimony to the human spirit’s ability not only to endure what fate may send it but to be renewed by the experience.” And Milan Kundera emphasizes that the literary influence of the sagas “if they had been written in the language of one of the major nations; we would have regarded (them) as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”

 

The sagas were written 150 – 200 years after the Viking Age and, we believe, testify to the enduring accuracy of the oral tradition (with room for exaggeration and dramatic fiction).

 

We have just re-read many sagas and find recurring themes, together with daily life routines:

 

  • Frequent mention of sorcery, witchcraft, magic and heathen rituals

  •  Odin had special magic skills such as giving courage, confusing
     opposing warriors, causing bodies to stop working, protecting
     Vikings in battle, reviving dead warriors.

  • The stories speak often of magical healing of the sick, controlling
     the weather, attracting the opposite sex, attracting game animals and fish,
     communicating with the dead – and much more.

 

If you’re looking for a good read, we suggest the sagas, specifically two of our favorites that read like novels: Egil’s Saga (Egil Skallagrimsson, poet, farmer, warrior, who successfully defied Norwegian kings) and Gisli Sursson’s Saga (firmly committed to ancient heroic values).

 

Eighth Century Europe was a time of relative peace and prosperity, but was shattered by a terrifying threat from the sea --- the ferocious Vikings had arrived. The first Viking raid, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was in 789 when 3 Norwegian pirate ships attacked Portland in Wessex, SE England – an easy and profitable target as were many others to follow.

 

And please take special note that Leif Erickson Day is 9 October! Appropriately, it comes 3 days before Columbus Day on 12 October. Leif landed in North America about 500 years before Christopher. We always remind our Italian friends of this (and so should you) but as Antonio told us, “we Italians have better PR than you Scandinavians.” Contact your governor to ask for the proclamation, which we hope will develop in Washington and as Norman Arentz informs us is now officially proclaimed in Connecticut.

 

The end of the Viking Age is sometimes conveniently shown as 1066 AD, though some Viking activities lingered on. But Duke William’s successful invasion of England, defeat of a Nordic king and a Viking invader, and his assumption of the kingship, have great meaning for the West and the world. It brought unique justice and real property systems to England and eventually to the US plus other important social and cultural institutions (not to mention the strong influence of the French language). Regrettably, 1066 AD and its impact are not generally taught in US primary schools.

 

 

 

No need to give

Too much to a man –

A little can buy many thanks;

With half a loaf

And a half-drained jug

I often won me a friend

 

– From the Hávamál (words of the High One, attributed to Odin)

 

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Vol. 3 No 3

 

About 8,000 years ago, bands of hunters/gatherers populated Scandinavia as the ice sheets retreated. Many came from the Asian East. In south Scandinavia, most were farmers as early as 4000 BC; bronze workers by 2000 BC and iron workers in AD 1 – 400. We know little of Scandinavians in the Iron Age. A few settlements have been uncovered; most important finds are well-preserved sacrificial bodies found in bogs, mostly in Denmark. In the latter Iron Age, dwellings, richly furnished burials and weapon hoards appeared in Southern Scandinavia. These tell of an emerging warrior aristocracy and political centralization, probably to compete for wealth generated by contact with the Roman Empire. Findings of votive offerings, a ship and weapons suggest that sea-raiding was then common. Finally, in the last of the Iron Ages was the Vendel period (AD 600-800) in which a great rampart, the Danevirke, was built to protect Denmark from the south. Lavish ship burials were found and regional kingdoms developed as the Vikings came in the 8th Century.

 

As John Haywood states, “Most Vikings were pagans and the old gods Odin, Thor and Frey lived on in Scandinavia long after much of Europe was Christianized.”  They probably did not have a systematic theology nor full time priests. Myths told of the earth’s creation and ultimate destruction at Ragnarøk. Vikings believed that the dead would live on in the grave and placed many objects, weapons, tools, and even horses predicting that the afterlife would resemble this life and would be useful. Sometimes, maids were killed and put into a noblewoman’s grave. And, contrary to urban myth and Hollywood, no burned Viking ship with remains of a nobleman has been found (except one, which is inconclusive as to a common practice). Grave goods may have been intended to impress the living with the wealth and status of the surviving family rather than help the dead. Whatever the beliefs, these furnished graves have been a major source of information about society in the Viking Age.

 

Before the Vikings, cremation was usual for disposing of the dead. The remains were gathered and sometimes marked by a pile of ship-shaped stones as at Lindholm Høje in Denmark. Burial was the Viking custom: with the advent of Christianity burial without grave goods became the practice in Scandinavia around 1000 AD.

 

Between AD 900 and 978 Norsemen found Greenland, a barren glaciated coast. Erik the Red, an early real estate promoter, gave the name Greenland to this island having found ice-free regions and sheltered fjords. He persuaded some Icelanders to emigrate and they set out with 25 ships. At first the settlements flourished as the climate was then milder than today. Soon after 1300 the climate deteriorated and sea ice isolated them for years at a time. Excavations show that some contacts continued, but in 1540 a visit found deserted farms. That Greenland adventure was finished until more modern times.

 

The part we enjoy greatly is The Seeress’s Prophecy recited by a seeress who can remember before the beginning of the world and can see as far ahead as after Ragnarøk, the doom of the gods. It is usually dated to the late 10th century when the pagan religion was superseded by Christianity. A scholar said the poem is a sort of sacred text of the Scandinavian religion. We recommend it for your reading list. Here’s a typical poem in the spirit of the season from Sayings of the High One in the Edda:

 

You know, if you’ve a friend whom you really trust

And from whom you want nothing but good,

You should mix your soul with his and exchange gifts,

Go and see him often.

 

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