Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Vikings Page 1 of 2

On Those Muslim Vikings

Last week headlines rocked around the Internet with an amazing discovery by Annika Larsson of Uppsala University. Apparently in a Viking-era grave, there was Islamic writing showing the name of Allah in gold thread. The Independent wrote a very lengthy article describing the news. Even the Drudge Report linked to the story. It was a Big Deal – there were Muslims in Viking-era Scandinavia, and that meant their views of the afterlife – their very religious and cultural identity – was influenced by, and beholden to, Muslims:

“It is a staggering thought that the bands, just like the costumes, [were] made west of the Muslim heartland. Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death.”

Needless to say, there was a certain crowd of the regressive left that absofuckinglutely loved this news. Enter the Pathetic Nonreligious channel, with the blaring clickbaity headline, Some Vikings Were Likely Muslims, and White Supremacists Hate It:

This is welcome news to historians and people who enjoy learning new things. But white supremacists — who have leached on to Vikings and their symbols as representative of pure white power — are not happy.

If learning new information offends you so much that you have to write off archaeological evidence as fake news, you might have a problem.

This isn’t a cut-and-dry declaration that all Vikings were actually Muslims, but it is evidence that some likely were. At the very least, it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own. They shared ideas, instead of blindly hating Muslims. And that’s something white supremacists just can’t handle.

Wow, an atheist putting up a straw man argument? Who’dathunkit? Well here we have two, plus an enormous leap of illogic that would make Benny Hinn blush.

First, the idea that the only people who met this news with skepticism are “white supremacists.” As if it were not possible to be a perfectly mainstream academic and find the evidence and/or reasoning questionable.

Second, the idea that those who find fault with the theory think that it means “all Vikings were actually Muslims…”. Nobody said that. That’s not at all the point of the criticisms. It’s a meaningless straw man, and a channel that prides itself on its logic and reasoning should be ashamed to have included that.

Third, and most damning (if I can be permitted to apply that word to an atheist), we have this gem:

“…it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Really? A single scrap of tunic-trim that one person (who has been known to make unwarranted and discredited claims in the past) says something, so that counts as “proof”? The Vikings did their best to imitate … Islam???

Are you out of your mind? 

Now, I’m no expert on medieval Islamic burial customs. But I do claim some familiarity with Norse concepts of the afterlife. I’m trying to think of this “eternal paradise” of which she speaks. It’s not Hel, which is more of a quiet, misty resting place. It’s not Valhalla, since entry is extremely limited (and has a very different set of criteria), and while it possibly comports to a Viking warrior’s view of paradise, with the fighting and the feasting, it doesn’t seem very much like the Muslim Jannah:

“… They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade.  They will recline therein on raised thrones.  How good [is] the recompense!  How beautiful a couch [is there] to recline on!” (Quran 18:31)

But most of all, because it’s not eternal. Even the afterlife in the Germanic conception has an end. At Ragnarok. Nothing remotely like the Muslim idea.

Nobody is saying the Vikings didn’t have contact with the Muslim world. Of course they did, for centuries, as traders, raiders, and explorers, in both directions. But that’s a far cry from the claim that one scrap of cloth is, in this jackass’s mind, “proof that these Vikings… did their best to imitate [the culture of Islam] and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Which beliefs are those, exactly?

The Islamic paranoia about idolatry? That would be odd, considering the Viking penchant for carved idols, graven images, runestones, representational art, and all the rest.

It would also be odd considering the Vikings’ polytheism. (Hint for the moron: Islam tends to frown on that.) The Muslims freaked out at the Christians’ concept of the Trinity. You think that having dozens of gods, and landwights, and giants, and all the rest, counts as “doing their best to imitate the culture of Islam”?

Are you really that stupid, or just so blinded by your reflexive “white supremacists oppose it, so I have to support it” ideology?

Which is especially dunderheaded, considering that the people who have come out to criticize this theory aren’t white supremacists at all. They’re experts and mainstream academics.

First we have A String Geek’s Stash, whose author knows a lot more about the technical aspects of weaving than I do, apparently from personal experience. This is what we call experimental archaeology, and she completely destroys the notion that this is what Larsson claims it is:

Larsson’s “discovery” is predicated on unfounded extensions of pattern, not on existing pattern. 

She then goes into (very technical ) detail why this is significant, and why the underside of the weaving pretty much makes this a non-issue. At the same time, she goes out of her way to say she has no problem with the idea that the design is kufic (a form of Islamic writing), because that’s not her specialty.
Well, guess what? It is the specialty of others.
Stephanie Mulder, who is indeed a specialist in medieval Islamic writing, makes the case quite definitively that the kufic writing that Larsson claims to see in the cloth is, in fact, 500 years later than the cloth itself.
Ouch.
So the weaving itself undermines the claim, the pattern she bases her idea on is her own invention, and the script itself cannot possibly be what Larsson says it is without re-writing pretty much all of Islamic script history. But it’s not like she’s ever come out with some radical crackpot theory that’s been discredited before, right?
Well, yes, she has.
About ten years ago, she tried to make the claim that the brooches that are well-known adornments for woman’s clothing in the Viking Era were, in fact, worn way lower than anyone previously thought, and dresses were worn differently than everyone else ever thought, all in a feminist “lookit me I’m sexy” thing. Groundbreaking! Exciting! But, unfortunately, dead wrong. Her theory was laughed out of academia for lack of any evidence other than her own desire to be in the news.
And that, I think is the heart of this. We have someone desperate to have a Big Insight attached to her name in the field of Norse clothing. If nipple-brooches didn’t do it, maybe Muslim Vikings would. 
And of course the regressive left loves the idea because of the well-documented problems in Scandinavia because of Muslim integration. If the ancient Vikings had a place for Islam, and even based their whole religious beliefs on Islam, well, then, it makes sense that the modern-day Scandinavians should, too.
Except it’s all horseshit.

The Heron of Forgetfulness: Drink and Moderation in Germanic Religion

The ale of the sons of men 
is not as good, 
as they say; 
since about his own mind 
a man knows less, 
the more he drinks.
That is called the heron of forgetfulness, 
which hovers over ale-parties, 
it robs a man of his mind; 
with this bird’s feathers 
I was fettered 
in Gunnlath’s garden.
-Hávamál, verses 12 & 13

The stereotypical scene of the Viking feast is one of drunken revelry. Influenced, perhaps, by the iconic scene in the 1958 film The Vikings, we picture in our mind’s eye a wild and raucous scene with food being flung about, beautiful blonde women serving mead in enormous drinking-horns drawn from even more enormous vats, both songs and fights breaking out, and Ernest Borgnine-like figures bellowing loud toasts to “ODINNNNN!!”

The reality was (and is) somewhat different.

As quoted at the beginning of this article, the Hávamál– one of the poems of the Poetic Edda that concerns itself, among other things, with offering down-to-earth bits of wisdom– councils against over-indulging in alcohol. This may be contrasted with the importance of ritualized drinking in Germanic religion. In fact, one of the most significant ceremonies in modern Heathen practice is the sumbel (AS symbel), which is built around the ritualized drinking of toasts. How to reconcile these two extremes?

The answer lies in the nature of the sumbel itself.

Sumbel is a ritual wherein a sacramental beverage (usually mead, but cider, wine, beer, or non-alcoholic beverages are often used in modern practice) is used to make toasts of several different kinds. The ritual is described in great detail in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (lines 607-641), where Queen Wealhtheow herself serves the holy mead, “through the hall… to younger and older everywhere.” That Wealhtheow was a woman is in itself significant in the context of the offered drink, as many modern Heathens, particularly those of Theodish stripe, believe that it is unlucky to take a drink in sumbel from a man. That she is of high rank is also significant, as the serving of the mead at sumbel is not drudgery to be left to servants, but a high honor, jealously guarded. It is also recalled in the tradition of the valkyries in Odin’s hall Valhalla bearing cups of mead to the assembled heroes who dwell there.

Once begun, the participants of the sumbel are taken, metaphorically and metaphysically, to another place. The words spoken and actions performed during sumbel are of critical significance, as the horn is a symbolic representation of the Well of Wyrd, and words spoken into the Well impact the fate of both speaker and listeners in a very real and literal sense. Oaths, for example, sworn over a horn during sumbel are of particular import. It is not simply the case that, having sworn an oath, one should do one’s best to fulfill it. Having done so over a horn, over the Well of Wyrd itself, means that the oath-maker has literally changed the nature of reality, setting the universe on a course leading to the fulfillment of that oath. It is possible for such an oath to be broken, of course, but doing so upsets the balance of the universe. One’s own fate is rocked by such failure, and the consequences extend to all those who were present in the hall when the oath was sworn, as well as to those whose Luck is intertwined with the oath-maker.

While there are many instances in the literature which demonstrate the ill effects that can come from over-indulgence in drink, the Saga of the Jómsvikings does so with great clarity, serving as a cautionary tale that brings the warnings of the Hávamál into sharp focus. King Sveinn of Denmark gave a great feast in honor of the dead father of several of the Jómsvikings (an independent band of mercenaries). Plying them with the strongest drink available, he goaded them into swearing dangerous and ill-advised oaths. This several of them did, swearing to attack and overthrow the powerful Jarl Hákon of Norway. The next morning, they did not even remember swearing the oaths, but that, in the Germanic conception of the sacred nature of oaths, was immaterial. They had said they would do a thing, and would do it or die trying. The expedition was a colossal defeat.

Most modern sumbels are structured with three rounds of toasts. The first is a toast to the Gods; as a rule, this is limited to Germanic Gods, but different groups have different customs on this count, and guests may or may not be permitted to offer toasts to foreign deities. Some groups place further limits on such toasts, frequently disallowing toasts in honor of Loki, Fenrir, and other figures from Norse mythology who are seen as being enemies of the Gods and humanity. Again, different groups will have different rules, and if you find yourself in a sumbel and have a question about the appropriateness of a toast you intend to make, proper etiquette says that you should ask first. In some cases the horn is passed from person to person, and each makes their own toast. Other groups will do a “group toast”, with everyone assembled drinking at once. There are few hard-and-fast universal rules as far as the details go, as long as the general outline is followed (for example, some groups have a taboo about food being present, or that the sumbel must be held indoors; other groups do not share these restrictions, but might have others of their own).

After the Gods have received their honor, the second round of toasts is usually devoted to personal heroes and ancestors. The third is usually the broadest round of toasts, as it can involve anything from a boast about an accomplishment or one’s worth and/or ancestry or an oath to do some deed in the future. Gifts are often given during this round, and those with musical ability will often take this opportunity to showcase their talents. But it is in the swearing of oaths– the béot (an Anglo-Saxon word, pronounced “beawt”)– where the deepest mysteries of the sumbel are discovered.

Because, in Germanic society, “ill luck” from an unfulfilled oath could taint not only the oath-maker, but those others assembled in the hall as well, the office of the thule was established (ON ÞulR, AS Þyle). One of the thule’s roles during sumbel is to ensure that no ill-considered oaths are sworn during the ceremony, nor any unlucky words said or actions taken. In many ways the thule acts as the “master of ceremonies”, ensuring that the sumbel flows smoothly, and that it does not degenerate into silliness or unseemliness. This should not, however, be taken to mean that the sumbel is not a joyous time; humor and wit are welcomed during the rite, as long as the general decorum is maintained.

While the examples above, from the Hávamál and the Saga of the Jómsvikings, come from Scandinavia, the imprecations against excess in drinking were not limited to the Norse. One of the riddles in the (Anglo-Saxon) Exeter Book calls mead “scourge of men”, and says that it leaves men “Flush on the ground, robbed of strength, reckless of speech.” But this is not to say that drunkenness was unknown in Germanic culture by any means! Tacitus, for example, states in his book Germania that “To pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one” and “If you indulge their love of drinking by supplying them [the Germans] with as much as they desire, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.” And, perhaps most famously, when describing the Germans’ habit of discussing weighty matters while drunk, and then again while sober, “They deliberate when they have no power to dissemble; they resolve when error is impossible.” Egil Skallagrimson, perhaps the most famous character from the Icelandic Sagas, is sad to have been well drunk more than once, even to the point of throwing up on his host. Critically, this is never seen to have happened at a formal sumbel; the descriptions in the saga are of more ordinary feasts and ale-fests.

Thus we see that, while there is a great history of drunkenness as being the norm in Germanic culture, there was a tradition of moderation as an ideal. This tradition was directly expressed in the literature with which most in a Germanic culture would be familiar, such as the Hávamál and riddles, as well as in cautionary tales such as those found in the Saga of the Jómsvikings. However, in the modern context this ideal is more often expressed and enforced in the ritual of sumbel, that the feathers of the heron of forgetfulness not bind those who are speaking their words into the Well of Wyrd.

On Hervör / Hervarðr

Hervör getting the sword Tyrfing from her dead father

In Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), we read of Hervör, a woman who spent much of her time living as a man.

Hervör is the daughter of Angantýr, who was one of twelve berserker brothers, and had in his possession the magical and cursed sword Tyrfing. At her birth, it was noted that she wasn’t like other girls:

Bjarmar’s daughter was with child. That was an exceptionally fair lass. She was sprinkled with water and given a name and called Hervör, but it was the opinion of most that she should be left outside, and they said she wouldn’t be too ladylike if she took after her father’s kin.

Needless to say, Hervör does indeed take after her father’s berserker-brothers.

She was brought up with the Jarl and was as strong as the boys. And as soon as she could do anything for herself, she trained more with shot and shield and sword than sewing or embroidery. She did more bad than good too. And when these things were forbidden to her, she ran into the woods and killed men for their money. And when the Jarl hears of this highwayman, he went there with his troops and caught Hervor and brought her home, and then she stayed at home for a bit.

Note that there’s no reference here to any specific gender role expectations that were being broken. Rather, the strong implication is that she is forbidden to be manly because “she did more bad than good.”

And note also that when she was captured after her adventure in the woods killing people and taking their stuff, she wasn’t executed, but merely brought into the Jarl’s home again.

She discovers the truth about her parentage, and of the magic sword owned by her father, and assumes the (male) name Hervarðr:

Then she got ready to leave alone with the gear and weapons of a man and made her way to where some vikings were and sailed with them for a while and called herself Hervard.

A little later, the captain died and this ‘Hervard’ took command of the crew. And when they came to the island of Samsey, ‘Hervard’ told them to stop there so he could go up onto the island and said there’d be a good chance of treasure in the mound. But all the crewmen speak against it and say that such evil things walk there night and day that it’s worse there in the daytime than most places are at night. In the end, they agree to drop anchor, and ‘Hervard’ climbed into the boat and rowed ashore and landed in Munway just as the sun was setting.

She then proceeds to challenge her dead father’s ghost for possession of the magic sword Tyrfing, and wins it through her boldness and courage in a famous episode often called Hervararkviða. She then goes on with her life as Hervarðr for many years:

Then she went to the ships. But when it got light, she saw that the ships were gone. The vikings had taken fright at the thunders and fires on the island. She gets herself passage from there but nothing is known of her journey till she comes to Godmund in Glasisvellir, and she stayed there over winter and still called herself Hervard.

… 

One day, as Godmund [a king of Jotunheim] was playing chess and was on the verge of losing, he asked if anyone could help him. Then ‘Hervard’ went up and advised for a little while until things were looking better for Godmund. Then a man picked up Tyrfing and drew it. ‘Hervard’ saw that and snatched the sword off him and killed him, then went out. The men wanted to run after him.

But Godmund said, “Settle down, there won’t be as much vengeance in that one as you think, because you don’t know who it is. This woman will cost you dear before you take her life.”

Note here that the king knows well that ‘Hervard’ is really a biological woman, but doesn’t begrudge her the male persona she has adopted. But her return to female life is presented as a conscious choice:

Then Hervor spent a long time in warfare and raiding, and had great success. And when she tired of that, she returned home to the jarl, her mother’s father. From then on, she went along like other girls, weaving and doing embroidery.

Now, it is important to note that this is one of the fornaldarsögur (“legendary sagas”), presumably dating from around the 13th century, with the oldest manuscript copy coming from the late 14th/early 15th centuries. Fornaldarsögur are not generally noted for their historicity (as compared to the Family Sagas), but rather reflect what an author 200 years after the Conversion imagined pre-Conversion society to be like.

However, it’s also important to note that this actually works in favor of the story of Hervor, at least in the general sense, reflecting reality. The oldest existing Icelandic law book, called Grágás (“Grey Goose”) specifically bans women dressing and acting as men almost exactly in terms that could describe Hervör:

Staðarhólsbók, one of the existing versions of Grágás, prohibits a woman from wearing male clothing, from cutting her hair like a man, bearing arms, or in general behaving like a man (chapters 155 and 254), however it does not mention behaving sexually in the male role.

But here’s the kicker. Staðarhólsbók was written about 1280 CE. That’s the late 13th century. Around the same time that the saga itself was composed, and nearly 300 years after the official conversion to Christianity. I believe the inclusion of those prohibitions are Christian, rather than Heathen, in nature. It would make a lot of sense; if the Christian author of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks wanted to portray life as it was in pre-Christian times, he would naturally have characters doing things that were anathema to Christians, in order to play up their nature as Heathens.

Hervör’s granddaughter, also named Hervör, dies as her
namesake lived, fighting as a man against the Huns

Just as the early law codes and penitentials guide us to pre-Christian practices through their prohibitions, so too does Staðarhólsbók, written well into the Christian era, and which specifically prohibits the practice of women living as men. What we in our modern world label as transgender.

That said, I am by no means trying to overstate the case and claim that this is something that was normative in Norse or broader pre-Christian Germanic society. It was doubtless a rarity, given the sparse sources that reference it outside of this late but detailed case. But neither was it something specifically banned or viewed as “unnatural”; gender and sexuality in Germanic society prior to the coming of Christianity was a much more complex thing than the reductionist Christians (and, much later, the very puritanical and sexually repressed Victorians who inform our ideas of sexuality to this day) might insist.

Historical pre-Christian Germanic society viewed sex and gender very differently than we do today. They didn’t share our Victorian squeamishness about the subject, and almost certainly didn’t view the so-called “traditional family” of a man, wife, and kids (the modern “nuclear family”) as normative, either. Families were extended, and the interrelationships between family members were very different than they are today (how many boys have the sorts of intense relationships with their uncles that are constantly described in the Sagas, for instance?).

I don’t say it was, or is, normative. I don’t say it’s something that was, or should be, embraced as a widespread thing. But it seems clear that at the very least women assuming male roles for a lengthy part of their life wasn’t completely unknown, and wasn’t banned (unless the specific individual was a complete jackass) until Christianity came along with its ingrained hangups about sexuality that we’re still dealing with today.

About that Skraeling DNA in Iceland…

There’s a story kicking around since 2010 about some results of a DNA survey of Icelanders that purports to show an Amerindian came to Iceland around the year 1000 CE (presumably with some Norse explorers) and interbred. “AH-HA!” the Usual Suspects cry – proof positive that our ancestors didn’t care about “racial purity”.

Rather than just taking such people at their word, it’s worth reading the actual article, and the report upon which it is based. As can be imagined, it’s not quite the slam-dunk that folks who tout the article seem to think it is.

What’s most often cited is the National Geographic article reporting on the study. The language used is incredibly wishy-washy, and goes out of its way to hedge on any sort of definitive conclusions:

“The study authors themselves admit the case is far from closed.”

“Despite the evidence, for now it’s nearly impossible to prove a direct, thousand-year-old genetic link between Native Americans and Icelanders. For starters, no living Native American group carries the exact genetic variation found in the Icelandic families.”

“It’s possible, he added, that the DNA variation actually came from mainland Europe, which had infrequent contact with Iceland in the centuries preceding 1700.”

“Complicating matters, the historical record contains no evidence that Icelandic Vikings might have taken a Native American woman back home to their European island, scholars say. “It makes no sense to me,” said archaeologist and historian Hans Gulløv of the Greenland Research Centre in Copenhagen.”

Not exactly a rousing endorsement of the theory. Just a lot of assumptions and wishful thinking. But some people are willfully ignoring those caveats and running with a very dodgy conclusion because it suits their preconceptions and political narrative.

There’s also the question of the dating of the DNA admixture. According to the article, the DNA evidence points to an earliest date of around 1700 CE:

Through genealogical research, the study team concluded that the Icelanders who carry the Native American variation are all from four specific lineages, descended from four women born in the early 1700s.

The genealogical records for the four lineages are incomplete before about 1700, but history and genetics suggest the Native American DNA arrived on the European island centuries before then, study co-author Helgason said.

He pointed out that Iceland was very isolated from the outside world in the centuries leading up to 1700, so it’s unlikely that a Native American got to the island during that period.

As further evidence, he noted that—though the Icelanders share a distinct version of the variation—at least one lineage’s variation has mutated in a way that would likely have taken centuries to occur, the researchers say.

So the actual DNA evidence points to a date of 1700 CE. But because Iceland was “very isolated” at that time, the researches push back the date seven hundred years for no real reason. Iceland was pretty isolated in the year 1000, too; voyages between Iceland and North America were so extraordinary that entire sagas were written about them. Meticulous records were kept concerning who married whom, and who was descended from whom. But the researchers for some reason feel that a secret, unrecorded Viking-era voyage to Vinland that brought back a skraeling wife was less of a stretch than the idea that an Amerindian could have made their way to Iceland in the age of sailing ships. Why is the one more credible than the other? It’s not, of course.

As for the variation to the DNA that’s noted above, there’s absolutely nothing to say whether the mutation happened before or after the Amerindian blood (if that’s even what it is) entered the Icelandic gene pool. It’s precisely as likely that the variation occurred within a now-extinct Amerindian population (say, for example, the Beothuk, who went extinct in 1829) and was carried to Iceland by way of Denmark (which had a trade monopoly with the island) in the late 17th century.

If Pocahontas could be brought to London a hundred years earlier, there’s certainly nothing to say that a Beothuk woman couldn’t be brought to Copenhagen, and then maybe made her way to Iceland (trying to get home?) around the start of the 18th century.

So when someone gets all breathless and tells you that DNA proves that the Norse interbred with Amerindians in the year 1000, calm them down and explain:

  • The DNA evidence only goes back to 1700
  • The 1000 year date comes from a supposition that makes no more sense than a 1700 date
  • It’s entirely possible that the DNA sequence in question isn’t even Amerindian in origin
  • The study itself goes out of its way to downplay any concrete conclusions, despite what news reports say
Facts is facts, after all. And the conclusions a lot of people are drawing don’t seem to line up with the facts. Certainly they’re not the only interpretations, and not the only conclusions, that can be drawn. The original study itself even says so.

Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings

Medievalists.Net brings us a golden oldie from the Proceedings of the Sixth Viking Congress, 1969, entitled Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings by Bertil Almgren. The thesis seems to be that the success of the Vikings was due to the shallow draft of their ships, which allowed them to travel farther up river inlets and over a wider range than other contemporary vessels. While that’s certainly true as far as it goes, I’m not sure that would be one vital factor I would choose.

Bonus; you can download the entire Proceedings book from Scribd at the link above. Lots of good stuff in there by some names that should sound familiar, including Gabriel Turville-Petre.

Viking Winter Camps

From  the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University on May 8, 2014.

 

(h/t to Medievalists.net)

Review of the “Viking” museum exhibit

Just when you thought the reputation of the Norsemen was getting rehabilitated, along comes this article from Smithsonian, giving a good overview of what sounds like an awesome museum exhibit, “Vikings,” opening next month in London and then moving on to Berlin. The article has a pretty silly tone, but the exhibit itself sounds first-rate. (Much more at the link.)

By focusing on the violence of Viking society, the new exhibition revives the traditional image of Vikings as Dark Age bad boys—Pillage People, if you will, who bullied Britain and France, and even made it as far as Baghdad.

The showstopper is a Viking warship whose surviving timbers are on display for the first time. One hundred twenty-one feet from prow to stern, the boat was capable of carrying 100 troops at speed. It was discovered by chance in 1996, about a lance throw from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. “Warships of this kind are comparatively rare finds, and this is the largest known,” says Neil Price, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It serves as a symbol of the Viking raids, and also an indicator of the sophistication of the societies that launched them.”

With the publication of Peter Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings in 1962, a cuddly makeover began to change the popular perception of the Nordic voyagers. “We Danes call that softening stueren,” says Anne Sorensen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum. “The expression means ‘to clean something up enough so that it is appropriate to discuss in your living room.’” The reboot coincided with what Pedersen terms “a great investment in settlement excavations.” Suddenly, the Vikings were peaceful farmers, shrewd traders, artists and craftsmen of considerable subtlety and sophistication, early multiculturalists.

Norse poetry—the “waves on the shore of the mind-sea,” as the Vikings described it—was reclaimed as some of the most carefully constructed and beautifully rendered of any ancient civilization. “This attempt to present ‘new’ Vikings to the world was quite successful,” allows Price, “but it also tended to act as a kind of replacement—the old violent Vikings had become instead caring, sharing ones.” What Williams dismisses as a “fluff-bunny” rehabilitation reached its reductio ad absurdum in the Monty Python sketch in which fun-loving Vikings at a café in the London suburbs chorus “Spam, Spammity Spam, wonderful Spam.”

How the Vikings enhanced British life

From The Big Issue (much more at the link):

Scandinavian settlers also made a very positive contribution to the development of England, which is overlooked by contemporary chroniclers. From archaeology we know that they played a key role in the massive growth of urban life in the 9th and 10th centuries. In towns such as York, London and Chester they established major trading settlements, importing exotic goods including wines and silks.

The Vikings, or the craftsmen they brought with them from the continent, developed mass production of affordable pottery and jewellery; indeed they provided a catalyst if not the engine for what has been described as the first Industrial Revolution.

In the countryside they contributed to the break-up of the massive estates held by royal and ecclesiastical landowners and accelerated the market in the buying and selling of land, leading to a great privatisation in land ownership. In places like York they appear to have opened up access to rural products, previously limited by the system of tribute, improving access to a wide range of foodstuffs.

They also left their mark on the countryside in the naming of hundreds of villages, such as those ending in the suffix –by, the Danish word for village, which also gives us the term by-law. The Anglo-Saxons also adopted Scandinavian personal names, so that by the last quarter of the 11th century, half the names in Nottinghamshire and Cheshire were of a Scandinavian type. They also gave us many everyday words which entered English, such as happy, husband, window and plough. 

In summary, like many immigrant groups, the Vikings did not have access to the media of the day, and consequently often suffered from a bad press. Due to the Victorian elevation of King Alfred of Wessex into a Boy’s Own comic book hero, we tend to see the Anglo-Saxons as the ancestral ‘us’ whilst the Vikings were the ‘others’, although the Anglo-Saxons were of course simply a previous generation of immigrants from North Germany and Denmark.

Rare Viking brooch found in Lincolnshire

From the Sleaford Standard (more at the link):

Among the artefacts, a rare complete Viking brooch, dating back to 850-950 AD, was found near Sleaford.

Most objects found copy Viking styles, but this one is likely to have originated from Scandinavia. It is feasible that the brooch arrived via the ancient port of Saltfleetby, near Louth. It is decorated with ring and dot markings and on each wing is a leaf motif, which may symbolise the tree of 
life.

More than 5,000 artefacts were discovered in the county in 2012, a figure just revealed under the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, supported by Lincolnshire County Council, to help build an understanding of the past.

Major exhibit on the Vikings comes to the British Museum in 2014

From Medievalists.net:

In March 2014 the British Museum will be unveiling a new exhibition on The Vikings: Life and Legend. Created with the help of the National Museum of Denmark and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, it focuses on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th century to the early 11th century. … The exhibition will capitalise on new research and thousands of recent discoveries by both archaeologists and metal-detectorists, to set the developments of the Viking Age in context. These new finds have changed our understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade, magic and belief and the role of the warrior in Viking society. Above all, it was the maritime character of Viking society and their extraordinary shipbuilding skills that were key to their achievements.

I really hope this exhibition makes it to the United States at some point. I like the way it seems to emphasize how all those swords and cups were relevant to culture and beliefs.

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