Vikings - Not Only Merciless Warriors
Lecture presented in Prague February 9, 2009, for The Scandinavian House
Hello! My name is Kenneth Eriksson, and I am a member of a group of scholars, named The Fellowship of Kvasir. We are a think tank in Gothenburg, Sweden, who studies the intellectual aspects of what Vikings really were. One of us is an expert on skaldic poetry, all of us know a thing or two about the Norse mythology, although one of us is an expert in the field, another one in our group is occupied with trying to reach into the music of the Viking Age, and my own main responsibility within Kvasir is the runes.
So – what was going on inside the head of a Viking? How did the Vikings look upon the world?
Your place in the world; your family and relatives; your Æettr – Your honour – The Norse Way
Firstly, maybe I should state that the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the other Nordic regions during the period ranging from the 790s to the 1160s did not walk around, calling themselves Vikings. To the Norsemen of their time, a Viking was a pirate, more or less. He was a person who went out to sea to plunder and ravage in foreign countries, or maybe simply in a foreign region. Most of the Norsemen in those days did what their ancestors had done for the most part in all times: they cultivated their land, they exchanged merchandise, they gathered for law settlements and they performed their religious ceremonies. And, please note, the religious cult was not a separate sector of life, no, the religious cult was an integrated part of life. Therefore, the Viking Age Nordic person called his or her relationship with the cosmos The Way, and The Norse Way was a natural component of everything you were doing. The Way was the natural and self-evident way of interacting with the world around you, with gods and powers, and with yourself.
In the history of religions, there are three different ways of approaching a god. In the ancient Egyptian religion you achieved something as a human being, and with this achievement in the bargain you demanded that the god did something in return. You more or less commanded the god to provide and give. This approach is the one nearest to the approach towards the Divine, which can be found in the magical way of thinking.
The second approach before the Divine is the Jewish-Christian-Islamic approach: You put yourself flat on the stomach before the god and become a slave to the god. A pitiful worm at the feet of the Great God.
The people of the Norse Way belonged to the Indo-European, third way of approaching their god – or their gods, since they were polytheists. They regarded their gods as being like older siblings or something along that line, and a Norseman or a Norsewoman would preferably regard a certain god as a close friend, to whom he or she would confide himself or herself. In this case he or she would consider the ’fulltrúi’, which this god would be called, to be like his or her older brother or sister. To a Norseman it was extremely unworthy to throw himself before the feet of the god. Such conduct would embarrass both man and god.
The thing that kept the Norse society together was the family, your kin, and your kin implied even more than any Scottish clan. Your kin, your ættr, was not only all your living relatives, but also all the relatives that had lived before you, now in the realms of the dead, and also all the relatives that will be born into your family and all your kin in the future. And, when for example you come home after a fortunate Viking raid, all the loot that you have brought home was not considered to be your own personal property, but the property of your kin, your family, and it was merely in your care for a while, your responsibility. You yourself were nothing without your kin, and whatever happened to your kin, or was inflicted upon your kin, was definitely your own concern.
The situation and status of the thralls (the slaves), and their connection to the Ættr.
The thralls, or the slaves, were not members of the ættir, the kin, but they were the property of the kin. But, then again, it normally happened, that a slave who became a free person, became a member of the kin to which he or she had belonged as property during the days of bondage. But it is worth noting, that the number of slaves in the Nordic countries was comparably small.
There was a balance and a sense of decency in the Norse society, a sense of equality which still can be seen in the Nordic countries. Therefore the slaves were treated reasonably well. It was a disgrace to a chieftain if his slaves were dressed too poorly or if they were treated too harshly.
What happened when Christianity came?
When Christianity came, it shattered the ættir society. At first, the missionaries took advantage of the Norse sense of kin by converting the head of a family, and thus all the family followed into Christianity. But once established, the Christian church stressed the individual person’s lonely, personal responsibility before God. Thus kin and family became irrelevant, and old practiced society structures were dissolved and replaced by the Catholic European Community. Much to the benefit for the Hanseatic League that would be formed in the near future, and for trade. And much to the benefit for Christian Europe’s security politics. Europe and the Church at last controlled the savage and menacing North.
The World View – Cosmology – The Myths
The fine sense of balance.
Æsir – Vanir (fertility gods) – Gnomes, Elves, Dwarves and so on
The World Tree Lärad, by some called Yggdrasil
The Nine Worlds
So – what did the Old Norse concept of the world look like?
The Norsemen believed there were nine worlds. The human beings lived in Manheim, whose centre was the stronghold called Midgard. The other worlds were Muspellheim, the realm of fire in the south; Vanaheim, the realm of the fertility gods in the west, with plenty of water, the realm of the Vanir gods; Nifelheim in the north, the land of icy mist and frost giants; and in the east lay Jotunheim, the land of the giants. Below them was Svartalvheim, the realms of dwarves, hob-goblins, gnomes and elves; and under those regions was the realm of the death goddess Hel, bearing the same name as its sovereign, namely Helheim. Up in the sky Ljusalvheim was situated, the realm of the bright and shining elves among the clouds, and far above them Glansheim was situated, the realm of the Æsir gods, who lived in a stronghold bearing the name Asgard at its centre.
Another way of regarding the cosmos was to think of all the nine worlds resting upon the branches of a huge world tree, bearing the name Lärad, a name which means that it nourishes and gives shelter to all the worlds.
The Cult of Odin as a Contrast to The Norse Way
In the Indo-European cultures, small exclusive congregations of warriors have formed from time to time, worshiping a certain god, representing the rage of battle. This god was believed to provide certain benefits to his worshipers. In the beginning this god was a minor entity, dancing in ecstasy on the corpses where the great thunder god had been driving his chariot across the battlefield, fighting the demons of chaos, which the gods were fighting. This little deity was mostly a messenger for the other gods, and thus he brought the dead to the realm of death. This made him into a death god, and also the god of healing and medicine, and, due to this, the god of magic. All this made him grow in status and power during certain periods of time. In ancient India his name was Rudra, and today he has merged with Shiva, in ancient Greece he was called Hermes and during the late classical era he had turned into the ”Three Times Mighty Hermes”, Hermes Tresmegistos. The corresponding entity in Roman mythology became Mercurius, or Mercury. In Scandinavia this god is Odin, the raging one.
It seems to appear that the Odinic cult grew strong and spread from southern Denmark northwards from the 6th century A. D. and just as the Viking Age started, you can find that cult sites bearing characteristic signs of Odinic rites, such as giant mead halls, obvious stratification in the society and a dominance of huge grave mounds for male chieftains and upper class people at the expense of women’s graves, suddenly seem to be annihilated and abandoned. Simultaneously, the rune alphabet of 24 runes goes out of use, and everyone seems to begin using the typical Viking Age rune alphabet of 16 runes. The cult of Odin must have been abandoned by the majority of Scandinavians and Norsemen, but it seems to survive among certain aristocratic families, kings, earls, scalds (poets) and such people.
Snorre Sturlasson, who in the 13th century wrote his book on how to create good skaldic poetry in an Iceland, which by that time had been Christianized since 200 years, calls the World Tree Yggdrasil, which is the Odinic name of the World Tree. Ygg means ”The Horrible One”, and Drasil means ”a jade”, a beast of burden, to be ridden, a poor exhausted animal merely to be used without care, a tool which you use and then throw away. You draw the last ounce of power out of the animal before it gets slaughtered. The name Yggdrasil illustrates how Odin, according to the myth, hung himself in the World Tree in order to obtain the wisdom of the runes, almost a complete shamanic self-sacrifice in order to obtain the highest knowledge and wisdom. And this is exactly typical of Odin as a deity: he shuns not the most shameful measures to augment his wisdom.
The other Norse gods, be they Æsir or Vanir deities, are part of the balancing of the worlds. Nothing is quite evil or good in the Christian sense. The Æsir created the cosmic laws, and they provide structure to the universe. Thor protects the world of gods and humans against giants and other entities of chaos that try to invade. Heimdall is standing as a sentinel against the fire giant Surt who threatens from the south. Tyr is most probably the original highest sky god, although there remain but a few myths about him in the surviving Norse mythology. One can see that he is the original highest god in the sky by corresponding deities in other Indo-European cultures. In ancient Greece, his name was Zeus. In Rome they called him Jupiter, father Ju, Ju-pater. Among the original ancient Indo-Europeans his name seems to have been Dyaus Pitar.
The Vanir deities represent fertility, the sap rising in the trees, the seeds in the field, the game to be hunted in the woods, the fish in the sea. They encourage and support sexual joy and children in the house. And the Elves are also in a sense fertility deities, but more at a local level. One of them is the house gnome, keeping a watchful eye over the farm. Once, in the Viking Age, he was regarded as the first inhabitant of the farm, he who established the dwelling site. In the same manner, the elves in the woods, in the folklore of later times often individually connected with the trees in the forest, were during the Viking Age conceived as spirits of the ancestors. But in the myth which tells about the creation of the world they were the worms that crept out of Ymir’s rotting flesh, that which was going to become earth, the soil, that would nourish everything that was going to grow in it. According to the myth, the gods killed the first giant, Ymir, using his body as material to create the world. The inside of his skull became the sky, his bones were turned into rocks, stones and mountains, his brains became the clouds in the sky, and his blood became the water which floats everywhere.
Nothing is quite evil, and the Utgard entities, the giants, are only an earlier, cruder version of gods. As the island Surtsey was created off the coast of Iceland a couple of decades ago, it was the wild, destructive volcanic powers that created the island. But now, as plants and animals cautiously are colonizing the island, it would be a disaster if there were a volcanic eruption there. One can say that the Vikings and the gods cooperated in order to protect the delicate Midgard world against the savage and crude powers of Utgard. Balance must be maintained, and the human beings lived according to the Norse Way in order for that to happen. Odin’s and his foster-brother Loke’s deeds contributed in disturbing this balance, and eventually Ragnarok would come, the fall of the Gods. But after this a new earth was going to rise. So the Norsemen did not think of time as being linear, as we do now, but time was running in a circle. What has been will happen again, be it perhaps in a different way. But life and existence went in a cycle. After life there was death. After death there was life. And your honour was more important than death. More important than life was how people spoke about you once you had died. You needed to take good care of your honour. Your honour was your capital of credibility.
The Web of Wyrd, or the Web of the Norns
Another way of regarding the world, the unity of the worlds, was the image of the web passing through everything. And the web is created this very moment. And the way it is woven will affect everything that comes after. What happens in one end of the web will affect the whole web. The web is called The Web of Wyrd, or The Web of the Norns. The myth tells of three Norns, Urd (Wyrd), Verdandi and Skuld, sitting at the foot of the World Tree, by one of its three roots. Each of all the roots of the tree has a spring next to it, and here, with thee Norns, it is called the well of Wyrd. Here they sit, weaving the great web, which is going through all the nine worlds. Every human being has a thread in that web, and the Norns decide when the thread is to be cut off. The moment your thread is cut off is the moment of your death. And you cannot change your destiny. But still it is of great importance for your honour how you deal with your destiny. If you meet your fate as a hero, those who remain to remember you, will remember you as a hero.
The runes, the Norse system of writing, appears in the archaeological finds around 150 A. D. At this time it consists of 24 runes or letters, each one with a symbolic meaning, the way it was with any early alphabet, since the written symbols in the earliest of days were not representing sounds, but concepts.
A philologist in southern Sweden saw towards the end of the 1920s a correspondence between the symbolic meanings of the runes and the symbols in 24 fields on a divination device that was found as archaeologists were excavating the Greek temple at Pergamum. He also found that the mystical interpretation of numbers made sense if you followed the order of the runes – and the order of the symbols in the little square fields on the surface of the Pergamum divination device. But the runes only made sense if you took the first rune, Fehu, and put it last. Then all the numbers and their symbolic meanings made sense. Apparently there is a correspondence between the order of the runes and cosmology. The man’s name was Sigurd Agrell, and he assumed that the rune alphabet had been created by Germanic warriors who were in the service of the Roman army, where they had got into contact with the mystery religions of the late Classical period, which were so popular in the Roman Empire during the first centuries A. D, and in this process the Persian Mithras cult had had a pivotal influence upon the runic alphabet.
Towards the end of the 8th Century the Vikings were employing a reduced runic alphabet of 16 runes, appearing in a few different variants. Why this happened has to this day not been fully explained, but we in the Fellowship of Kvasir regard it as a possibility that this change is another sign of a desire to part with the Odinic rites in order to return to the Norse Way. Within the myths, the runes have close connections to the myths about Odin, although also other gods have connections to them, as for instance Brage.
Eventually the Latin alphabet gained influence in the Nordic countries, together with Christianity, and during a period of time, stung runes appeared, which towards the end of the runic period were even lined up in the same order as the Latin alphabet. When priests and bishops could no longer read the runes, they were banned, and were considered as being pagan symbols of black magic.
Thus, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Nordic societies of the Vikings were inhabited by intelligent people of distinction rather than by crude hooligans. Another evidence of the refinement of the Norse people is their advanced technology and their taste for influences from abroad. The people of the Viking Age societies travelled farther out into the world than any other people ever did in those days. They had been in North Africa and America; they were in contact with the Silk Road and the Muslim world as well as with Eskimos and American Indians. And this was possible mainly because of their fantastic ships, which were strong, flexible, fast, seaworthy and at the same time able to still float in shallow water. Their arms, especially their swords were advanced products of smithwork from different qualities of softer and harder steel of various toughness. Their most frequent weapons, though, were the spear, the bow and arrow, and the axe. Very typical was the long-shafted Dane-axe or combat axe, which was a common weapon with the Norsemen who served in Konstantinopel, Istanbul of today, as the royal bodyguard.
In their own society they gathered for law councils on certain regular occasions. Then the lawman, who knew the law by heart, pronounced appropriate paragraphs of the law, and according to his recital of the law sentences were delivered and justice was administered. Fines were defined, disagreements settled. Sometimes somebody was sentenced to be outlawed. This meant that you no longer were protected by your membership in family, you were expelled from all social circumstances, and anyone had the right to kill you without risking any consequences, as far as the law was concerned. Not until one realizes the significance of kin and family in the Viking society can one understand what a tremendous blow it was to a person to be outlawed according to the law.