Author Snorri Kristjansson asks, what have the Vikings ever done for us?
With the release of his book Swords Of Good Men upon us, we've invited author Snorri Kristjansson to share a guest blog about those horned funsters, the Vikings:(opens in new tab)
The year is 793. In Lindisfarne, a monk peers out of a narrow stone window at the thunderclouds roiling across the sky. The night is black as sin and twice as cold, and he is worried but it is all right – the fire is burning and he is warmed by the safety of the monastery walls.
Lightning strikes, flashing a ghostly negative of the beach below. A host of shallow-keeled ships has just run aground and bearded men are leaping overboard, charging up towards the buildings, brandishing spears, axes and big, round shields. They holler in fierce joy at the crackling white lines in the sky. Soon there are more screams, but from other throats.
The Viking Age has begun.
These days we generally frown upon going over to someone else and taking all their stuff, burning their houses and carrying away their women, and rightly so. It is no basis for stability or longevity, and doesn’t really improve our quality of life. However, in our minds an echo of the past still reverberates. It whispers on the edges of our lizard brains, it tickles our barbarian sensibilities and it makes us sneer just a little at all this "civilization" we have to put up with on a daily basis, and if we could put its whispers into words, those words would say "You know what? Vikings are cool."
And the echo would be right.
For one, they were technologically advanced. In the History Channel’s excellent series Vikings , Ragnar Lothbrok has a "sun stone", allowing him to navigate across open waters in ships that really shouldn’t, with neither sun nor stars to help him. This is essentially Viking GPS – a Global Positioning Stone – and can, for an added bonus, be used to bludgeon your enemies when you find them. Viking ships were another amazing technological advance. Fast as you like because of their sleek hulls, they were also built to sail up rivers – the citizens of Paris were very surprised when they woke up to find that some enterprising raiders had sailed up the Seine and then proceeded to do what they did best, which somewhat decreased property value in the area.
Back in the day the mighty city of Constantinople was a world hub, receiving traders from all over the world and facilitating an awful lot of gold and goods changing hands. Being wise to the ways of their era, they’d erected impenetrable defences to protect against attack from sea. Imagine their surprise when 200 Viking ships attacked Constantinople – from behind. I'll give you some time to get your atlas out and ponder that one. Sailing down the river Dnepr, the Rus Vikings fell on the poor and defenceless like lions on a lame beast. Sadly it didn’t go so well for them the second time they tried, but that is another story that involves many wooden ships, some Greek fire and lots of painful death.
And speaking of painful death – worried about going into battle? Not quite feeling bloodlusty enough? Don’t worry – religion has got you covered! Norse mythology caters for the fighting man by sending heroes who die in battle to Valhalla, where you can drink all the mead you can stomach and eat your fill of meat every day, end the day on a lot of fighting where you all die – and then wake up to do it again!
Recently popularized in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Marvel’s hammer-wielding hunk Thor , the pantheon of the Vikings involves some fantastic characters. First and foremost is One-eyed Odin the All-father. This article is not long enough to detail his exploits, but in order to receive divine wisdom he went to Yggdrasill, the ever-living tree, and gave his life to the almighty power of the universe. For those of you still keeping track, he sacrificed himself to himself. How meta is that?
Rounding out the trio at the core of the stories is, of course, Loki. The trickster god is a source of mischief and trouble that space does not permit me to recount, but the bit that always sticks in my mind is from Skáldskaparmál, where the goddess Skaði is somewhat annoyed with the gods for having killed her father. As she is a goddess of bow-hunting and mountains (both of which can definitely kill you quite a lot), the gods wish to atone. One of her terms is that the gods make her laugh, which no-one had managed. Cue Loki, who ties his, ahem, sensitive god-parts to the beard of a nanny goat. The goat pulls – and Loki pulls back. Hilarity ensues, with an awful lot of screaming from both parties.
Further tasty bits from mythology include the fact that up north "hell" was considered to be most likely freezing cold – for them, eternity next to an open flame sounded quite pleasant – but on the other hand, Naglfar didn’t sound pleasant at all. It was a full-sized Viking ship, made out of the finger-and toenails of dead people. The Vikings believed that it was being built, and that when it was completed it would bring hordes of monsters, demons and giants to do battle with the gods. Fun times.
So far we have established that the Vikings were very clever and believed some pretty crazy stuff, but one important part remains.
In short, Vikings were made from the very fabric of cool. They were big, brash, loud and wild, but with a sideline in technology, culture and trade that gave them a deserved place at the forefront of history for a good 300 years. Of course emperors rise, cultures crumble, borders change and empires stumble. But some experiences can stick with the human animal for a long time, and if you should happen to be in a castle on a stormy night, a tiny bit of you will be worried when you look out to sea and wait to see what the lightning reveals.