Cattle die, kinsmen die,
And so each one will die;
But fame never dies
For him that has well earned it.
– the Hávamál
THE popular image of the Vikings as perpetrators of little else than murder, rape and pillage, is one that has descended not from the Vikings but from their opponents. As H. G. Wells stated: "Most of our information about these wars and invasions of the pagan Vikings is derived from Christian sources, and so we have abundant information of the massacres and atrocities of their raids and very little about the cruelties inflicted upon their pagan brethren, the Saxons, at the hands of Charlemagne." (p. 641, The Outline of History, Cassell, 1930 edition).
Christian clerics, who provided all the chroniclers of the time, implored their Hebrew God to save them from the scourge of the pagan Norsemen. The cleric Alcuin wrote of how he and his English forefathers had never experienced "such terrors". Some two hundred and fifty years earlier the British monk, Gildas, had likened the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to a pestilence.
The Viking image has been the victim of a prejudice which persists to this day. A columnist for a London newspaper, Ferdinand Mount, recently described the Vikings as "a gang of primitive thugs" who were only a bit civilized by their "conversion to Christianity". (Evening News, 26.2.80).
In contrast to the Vikings Mr. Mount classed himself as one of "us natives", thereby ignoring the important contribution which the Vikings made to the British gene pool and to the ancestry of today's Britons
The perpetuation of such views is a denigration of the Northern European peoples, and of those other great countries with Viking ancestry. Such denigration would ― if applied to non-Europeans ― no doubt provoke accusations of incitement to racial hatred.
While not seeking to promote a naive view of the Vikings, their rehabilitation through the acceptance of a more objective understanding is one of those little campaigns which form part of the war to re-establish confidence and pride in our ethnic heritage.
Alfred's navy battles with Viking raiders.
Despite holding Wessex, he could not prevent widespread Viking settlement.
As the late Johannes Brǿndsted concluded: "Early monastic historians, in their records of the Vikings, emphasized the cunning, cruelty and treachery of this warlike people. The sagas, on the other hand, show them in a different light; telling of the boldness, generosity, frankness, and self-discipline of these famous warriors. No doubt in the aggregate they possessed all the qualities, complimentary or otherwise, which were ascribed to them: the Vikings were not all alike. But one thing they did all have in common: a daring resoluteness that made their period the greatest in the history of the North." (The Vikings, Penguin 1965).
The subject of the Vikings is a vast one, and we can in this article only indicate some of the peaks of interest.
Modern historians still debate the exact origin and meaning of the term 'Viking', but they are generally agreed in applying it to the Scandinavians who went "on expedition" during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries.
For their contemporaries, the term 'Viking' was interchangeable with 'Northmen' or 'Norsemen'. They comprised the Norse (or Norwegians), Danes and Swedes. The Viking raids and settlements in Britain were predominantly Danish and Norse, but there was also a Swedish element.
Like the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavian Vikings were Nordids. Again like the Anglo-Saxons their language was Germanic, and many of those who settled in Britain came from the same areas as those who had come to Britain in the fifth century.
The attack on Lindisfarne in 793 marked the beginning of the raids on Britain by Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Vikings. The first major attack on Southern England was not until 835, and it was another thirty years before the 'great army' of Danish Vikings landed in East Anglia.
The great army was led by the sons of the famous Viking, Ragnar Lodbrok, and within fifteen years it had taken most of eastern England. King Alfred held Wessex for the English, however, while the Vikings established the 'Danelaw'. There followed a long struggle between the English and the Danes which was further complicated by the arrival of Norwegian Vikings who established their rule at Dublin (which they founded) and at York.
The Danes were overcome by Alfred the Great's grandson, Aethelstan (who reigned from 924-939), and the Norse (Norwegian) hold on England was smashed with the defeat and killing of Eric Bloodaxe in 954. The struggle was renewed, however, by a later full-scale invasion under Sveinn Fork-beard, and it was not until 1016 that the English and Danes were finally reconciled under the kingship of Sveinn's son, Knut.
While ruled by Knut, England formed part of a Viking empire which included Denmark from 1019 and Norway from 1028. Knut died in 1035 and with the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042 the throne was regained by the English Wessex dynasty.
The last phase of 'Anglo-Saxon' England was effectively an Anglo-Scandinavian political, ethnic, cultural and social hybrid. It was brought to a rapid and dramatic conclusion within months of Edward's death.
Edward's successor. Harold Godwinsson, was faced with two invasions in what was to be the first and last year of his reign. One was the new Viking invasion led by King Harald Hardradi of Norway, who ― despite initial success ― was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The other, which soon culminated in the defeat and death of Harold Godwinsson at Hastings, was of course that of the Normans: a people who were themselves of Viking descent and who form the subject of the next article in this series.
How significant was the Viking settlement and its contribution to the development of the British population? Some guide to its pattern and concentration can be gleaned from place-names in England. Danish names are concentrated in a broad belt immediately behind the line held by the Danish army along the old Roman road of Watling Street. To the north, around York, was an area of mixed Danish and Norse settlement.
The Norse also settled along the west coast of England from what is now the Welsh border to what is now the Scottish border; in Scotland, along the northern and parts of the western coasts, and in the Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides; in Wales, along the southern coast; in Ireland, in Waterford, Wexford and of course Dublin; and in the Isle of Man.
Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, Viking exploration and colonization was not confined to the British Isles, but reached out to the extremities of the known world and beyond. The richest perspective of our Viking ancestors is thus best gleaned by studying them in a world context, and drawing on the full variety of sources at our disposal.
In their home environment, and in those areas where they established themselves as colonists, the Vikings were primarily farmers. Their expansion, though, was based on their talents as traders, sailors and warriors.
The key to their success in all these endeavours was their possession of superior technology in the form of the graceful Viking longship, described by C. D. Darlington as one of those inventions which "promoted the breeding and multiplication of the people who were a little more skilful or intelligent, persevering or enterprising, than their neighbours." (Pg. 34, The Evolution of Man and Society, George Allen and Unwin, 1969).
Their inspired ship-building provided them with a fast, seaworthy and manoeuvrable vessel, whose shallow draft enabled it to be beached and taken far up river. This weapon of war, a product of technical skill and inventive genius, facilitated the Viking expansion, and thus the spreading of a valuable genetic inheritance to the British Isles and far beyond.
The graceful Viking longship: its superior technology made it the catalyst of the Viking age.
What did the Vikings look like? Contemporary descriptions relate a classic Nordic appearance. A tenth century Arab writer, Ibn Fadlan, stated:
"I saw the Rus when they arrived on their trading mission and anchored at the River Atul. Never had I seen people of more perfect physique; they are as tall as date-palms, and reddish in colour. . ."
All adult Viking males wore beards which they regarded as an important sign of manhood.
As in Anglo-Saxon society, there were three principal social classes ― nobles, peasants and slaves ― with the peasants again forming the backbone. The Old Icelandic poem Rigspula (the Song of Rig) equates the highest social class with the purest Nordic appearance.
It is difficult to generalize about the specific organization of Viking society, as it differed in different places and at different times. On one hand we have the image of the Vikings as fiercely individualistic, with a form of personal pride that refused obeissance to man or god, and which found expression in an anarchic egalitarianism seemingly reminiscent of the 'Wild West'.
This was typically the case with the frontier society of Iceland, a Norwegian colony founded as a haven by 'dissidents' fleeing the kingship of Harald Finehair. Iceland functioned as a democratic republic but without any State apparatus of enforcement.
"When the Franks on the River Eure asked the Vikings who their leader was, they answered in the famous words 'We are all equals!' " (p. 35).
This must be put in careful perspective.
In comparison with the rigid feudal social structure of the Carolingians, Viking society was more egalitarian ― or at least more flexible ― for even societies that reject formal kingship cannot prevent the emergence of natural and organic leadership.
Secondly, if there were elements of 'egalitarianism', this was not of the modern type which seeks to pursue and enforce an impossible equality by a tyrannous collec-tivist levelling, but was ― as we have said ― born of a rugged individualism that reflected the pride and independence of men who valued their personal freedom and honour.
Thirdly, the Viking populations were racially homogeneous and hence relatively more equal in the only true sense: the biological one.
Fourthly, as conquerors ― rather than the conquered ― the Vikings were not subjected from outside to the imposition of feudalism which is characteristically associated with conquest by a foreign military elite. It is not, however, always the case. Feudalism was developing in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly in Wessex, before the Norman Conquest. Feudalism and kingship, along with Christianity, were also eventually to develop in the Viking homelands, bringing the Viking era to a close.
Although Viking society was male dominated, formidable women could certainly make their mark. One such woman was Freydis, daughter of Eirik the Red and sister of Leif Eiriksson. She features in the Vinland Sagas (the Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga) which tell of her participation in the Norse exploration of America. On one occasion the Vikings were attacked by Red Indians, whom the Norsemen referred to as Skraelings ― meaning "wretches". When the male Vikings retreated in the face of overwhelming odds, Freydis could not keep up with them because she was pregnant. Picking up the sword of a fallen comrade she prepared to defend herself. When the Skraelings closed in she pulled out one of her breasts and slapped it with the sword. Amazed by this sight, the Skraelings fled in terror!
Another woman who looms large in the Sagas is Hallgerd, the wife of Gunnar Hamundarsson of Hlidarend. Njal's Saga, the longest and most famous Icelandic saga, relates Gunnar's last stand against his enemies. Gunnar manages to wound eight and kill two of them, with axe and bow, but his bow string is cut. He asks his wife for two locks of her hair to plait into a new string. She asks: "Does anything depend on it?"
"My life depends on it," he answers, "for they will never overcome me as long as I can use my bow."
"In that case," says Hallgerd, "I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not."
"To each his own way of earning fame," says Gunnar. "You shall not be asked again."
The Vikings were intrepid adventurers, explorers and colonists, who not only colonized the British Isles and Normandy, but Iceland, Greenland and North America. In North America the Vikings may have settled in the area that later became known as New England, but the only firm evidence for a Viking presence is that at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. In any case, the settlement had to be abandoned because of Red Indian attacks. Christian Europe, of course, only 'discovered' America with Christopher Columbus's voyage of exploration five centuries later.
In Greenland, a community of Viking origin fared better, but the climatic conditions ― now ideal for Eskimos ― became unsuited to Europeans. The last ship from Greenland came to Iceland in 1410. The Vikings also penetrated down through Russia, the land of the Rus ― the Finnish word for Swedes. They traded as far as Byzantium, where the emperors employed Viking axemen as imperial household troops known as the Varangian Guard.
The Vikings' main peaceful occupations were hunting, fishing, agriculture, cattle breeding and trading. Perhaps the most important but least commendable form of trade was that in people. The institution of slavery has little to recommend it, whether one takes a moral, social, economic or genetic point of view. The absorption of alien genes of slave origin has been the graveyard of many imperialist peoples.
Most Viking slaves seem to have been women, the Rus obtaining their stock by raids on their Slav neighbours. There is evidence from graves of a higher incidence of mesocephalicism amongst female skulls, supporting the suggestion of a foreign origin for some Viking women.
Countries which are well wooded naturally encourage building (and the production and carving of artefacts) in wood, a medium which bequeaths little to posterity.
For secular use the Vikings had 'impressive 'long-houses', while Christian stave churches, such as the one at Urnes in Norway, may be some guide to the style of the pagan temples which preceded them. If so, then the stone architecture of the great mediaeval Gothic cathedrals may have been foreshadowed in the skyward thrust of wooden Scandinavian structures.
One of the best guides to Viking town life has been given by the recent archaeological excavations in York. York (then known as Jorvik) boomed under the Vikings, becoming one of the key trading centres in Europe.
It is to the Vikings that we may owe the origin of our twelve-man jury system. The Vikings had a developed, if uncodified, legal system based on customary law.
The most important legal institution was the gathering of freemen able to bear arms known as the Thing, the most famous of which was the national assembly in Iceland known as the Althing. The Thing, common to all the Viking lands, put the law into effect, pronounced judgements, and discussed any other matters of concern.
The Anglo-Saxon and Danish tongues were closely related. There are a large number of quite basic modern English words of Danish origin because English is descended from a Midlands dialect in which Anglo-Saxon and Danish speech are mingled.
The Vikings were not literate in the sense of having a written language, but they did use runes for magical purposes and for inscribing their own names. They did, however, enjoy an oral tradition of a highly complex skaldic poetry, which may be compared with earlier Germanic poetry such as the eighth century English Beowulf, which was chanted or sung to the accompaniment of a harp.
A mention must here be made of the later sagas, for a good deal of our knowledge of Viking society comes from these (mainly Icelandic) early mediaeval works. Although their authorship postdated the Viking period, many are set in or deal with the Viking age.
They take the form of 'docudramas' ― stories woven around historical facts, and hovering between pure history and pure fiction. They were written to be read aloud as a form of popular entertainment, and their oral recital (now via the radio) still survives as a living tradition in Iceland.
The Vikings had a vigorous art based on animal forms, typified by the brilliant interlacing of birds, snakes and dragons. A good specimen is provided by the animal carvings, now at the Urnes church, which were executed around 1070 for an earlier building at the site.
We have already had cause to mention the Viking longship as a decisive technological achievement: it ought also to be cited as an example of sublime artistry.
Outdoor entertainment included sports such as running, jumping, wrestling matches, ball games and horse fighting. Indoor pursuits included carving, composing and reciting poetry, and playing board games such as chess, draughts and fox-and-geese. These board games were widely popular.
At the beginning of the Viking period around 800 the whole of Scandinavia was pagan. Christianity took one and a half centuries to conquer Denmark, two centuries to conquer Norway, and three centuries to conquer Sweden. It is perhaps no accident that it took longest to overcome Sweden with its well organized pagan priesthood at Old Uppsala: an historical lesson with wide implications...
Our knowledge of Nordic mythology is derived principally from two Icelandic sources: the Elder Edda ― a collection of poems said to have been brought together by Saemundr the Wise (1056-1133); and the Prose Edda ― written by the Christian scholar Snorri Sturluson about 1220.
The Elder Edda (also known as the Poetic or Verse Edda) dates from the Viking era itself and consists of mythological poems and heroic lays. Included amongst these is the Hávamál (the 'Sayings of the High One', i.e. Odin) from which our heading quotation is taken. The Hávamál combines a philosophical attitude to life with practical common-sense hints, such as:
A wayfarer should not walk unarmed
But have his weapons to hand:
He never knows when he may need a spear.
Or what menace meet on the road.
(The Elder Edda, trans, by Taylor and Auden, Faber and Faber. 1973).
The Prose Edda was written as a handbook for skalds, and contains an account, inter alia, of Northern myths based on oral tradition.
The three main gods of the Nordic pantheon were Odin, Thor and Frey.
The savagery and deceitfulness associated with Odin have led scholars to believe that certain non-Indo-European characteristics have been incorporated into the image presented of him in Edda mythology. Professor Hans F. K. Günther stated that: "Odin... is undoubtedly no longer the ideal example of an Indo-European or Teutonic God..." (p. 11, The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans, Clair Press. 1966).
Brǿndsted cites the theory that Odin's savagery is derived from: "... the proximity of the East Germanic peoples to those wild Asiatic hordes which poured into Europe during the migration period. This Mongolian type of Odin may have travelled first to Sweden, and then to the rest of Scandinavia with the Gothic cultural connexions that linked the Black Sea to the Baltic." (pp. 276-277).
Odin appealed to princes and skalds, but the most popular and more truly Indo-European figure was that of Thor. Famous for his red beard and mighty hammer, Mjöllnir, Thor combined qualities of strength and power with very human and humorous characteristics.
Early Viking raids were a summer past-time for Viking farmers, but kings and jarls soon established full-time retainers and mercenaries who came to form the nucleus and, indeed, the bulk of Viking raiding armies. Like the semi-legendary Jomsvikings, these housecarls were housed in fortified military camps built with Roman precision. Four of these ringforts have been found in Denmark, the most famous being Trelleborg. They are now believed to have been built by Harold Bluetooth and their construction represented an important consolidation of royal power.
The housecarls were supplemented by freemen, especially for national home defence, and also by a peculiar group of psychopaths known as berserks. When consumed by battle-fever they fought like wild animals, unarmoured and oblivious to injuries. At other times they sank into lethargy. They were useful, but dangerous, men.
Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings fought on foot though cavalry was known and horses were commonly used for transport thus providing a mobile mounted infantry arm which augmented Viking naval flexibility. With both horses and ships at their disposal the Vikings were able not only to switch their attacks from region to region, but from country to country.
One reason why they did not produce proper shock cavalry was that their horses ― whose descendants can still be seen in Iceland ― were really only ponies.
Besides swords the principal Viking weapons included the spear, which ranged from a large and heavy thrusting variety to a light javelin. It is the Viking axe, however, that has captivated the imagination of later generations. Types included the single-handed bearded axe, and the two-handed broad axe which could have a blade of up to 12 inches.
For distant effect the Vikings used a bow whose proportions would qualify it as what modern historians would describe as a 'long-bow'.
For defence the Vikings had lime-wood shields, often painted red and halved or quartered. These were invariably round throughout the greater part of the Viking era, but tear-shaped shields (like those shown in the Bayeux tapestry) became common towards the end of the period.
Authorities vary on the availability of body armour. Leather jackets, often quilted and padded, were more common than mail shirts, and helmets ― whether conical or rounded ― often took the form of simple leather caps. (Horned or winged helmets, incidentally, were Celtic ― not Viking).
As with other aspects of the late Anglo-Saxon England, the 'Anglo-Saxon' army which met the Normans at Hastings was really an Anglo-Danish one. In typical Viking fashion its nucleus was provided by the Danish Viking housecarls ― mailed axemen who sped south by pony after their victory at Stamford Bridge.
Like the Celts and 'Anglo-Saxons' the Scandinavian Vikings were typically Nordid. Their impact on the British gene pool thus continued the long process of 'Nordidization' that was imposed on Britain's, original Mediterranids and Mediterranid-Beaker Folk hybrids. And yet, there was more to it than that...
The Vikings were men of enormous courage and energy, sleeted by the rigors of their calling for toughness, fearlessness and strength. Those qualities destined them to enrich Britain's genetic pool, helping to endow it with that spirit of adventurousness which was to stimulate the future expansion of the British People as conquerors and colonizers, and thus transport those self-same Viking genes into America, Africa and Australasia.
Scenes from the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason ―
Top: the Battle of Svold.
Middle and lower: the return of the victors.
These illustrations by Halfdan Egedius from an American edition of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York, 1964) are amongst the more realistic representations of Vikings which have appeared in recent years.