The World’s Only Viking Helmet (and Other Objects)

Still ongoing in Oslo is the “Vikingr” exhibition at the Museum of Cultural History. On display is the most extensive collection of Viking swank assembled in Norway, including the world’s only intact Viking helmet (sans horns, if there was still any doubt).

Of particular interest to us is silver hoard from the 10th Century, found on the Teisen farm in Oslo in 1844. Among the items here are several Arabian and Persian coins from present day Iran and Iraq. There are also armrings, probably made from melted-down silver coins, which could both be worn and used as currency, sort of like a portable mini-bank. Finally, there are cut-down pieces of silver which must also have been used to buy stuff with and weighed according to price.

As if this wasn’t enough proof that 10th Century Norway was interconnected with large parts of the world, the next display case shows a treasure unearthed at a farm in Buskerud in 1834. While the Vikings mainly used silver, usually originating in the Caliphate, as currency, this hoard contains gold rings including one from England, multi-coloured pearls, Roman jewellery repurposed in the Viking Age, Frankish ornaments, as well as the omnipresent Arabian coins.

At the exhibit there are also finds from a female grave, which includes weapons. This could indicate that the roughly 19-year-old girl was a warrior, but little is known for sure. The still-intact skull will soon be DNA analysed, which may yield further information.

The museum is connected to the Viking Ship House on Bygdö Island, a short ferry trip away. A ticket for one is a ticket for both and can be used on different days. However, the Viking Ship Museum will soon be closed for renovation and will only reopen, vastly expanded, in 2025. Vikingr will run for a few more years. Even if you are not passing through Oslo Norway, you can take a virtual tour here:

https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=KLqd8Ur9Uuf

There is also an introductory video with English subtitles here:

https://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/historical-museum/exhibitions/vikingr/index.html

Bildet kan inneholde: lokk, personlig verneutstyr, sirkel, skrift, metall.

 

 

 

From Byzantium to the Orkneys in the Comics

Between 2007 and 2012, Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, published a series called Northlanders by Brian Wood. It was comprised of various stories set in the Viking Age spanning the attack on Lindisfarne to the battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014. Some stories spanned multiple issues while others were one-offs.

The first story arc, later collected in one volume, is called “Sven the Returned.” It tells the story of the not very originally named Sven who goes from Mikligarður, or Constantinople, to claim his inheritance in the Orkneys. His father has recently died and the place has been taken over by his evil uncle.

The story is rather pedestrian, a simple tale of coming back for revenge better done in Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s movie The Raven Flies and hopefully in the upcoming Northman by Robert Eggers. The characters are rather one dimensional and a Saxon invasion of the Orkneys at this time seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, the story does show the Viking World as a whole, reaching from Mikligarður in the east and all the way to the Faroes in the west. The fact that Sven has served in the Varangian Guard marks him out as tougher than his opponents, in much the same way that having served the Eastern Empire was seen as a mark of honour in the Icelandic Sagas.

Sven, having seen the world and met Muslims and Orthodox Christians, sees himself as culturally superior and less superstitious than his contemporaries who stayed at home, which probably would have been the case. A whole series set in Byzantium would probably have been more interesting, but at least the Orkneys finally get their due as an integral part of the Viking Age.

Northlanders was cancelled in 2012. Perhaps Wood’s previous series, DMZ set during the second American Civil War, may yet prove to be more historically accurate.

 

Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography

A new paper is now available in our dissertations segment. Written by your humble editor while on location in Kyiv and having to prolong his stay because of covid, 2020 turned into a very productive period. The stay formed the backdrop to the nr. 1 best-selling non-fiction book Bjarmalönd, now back in the Icelandic charts. The dissertation, which was part of my master’s degree, can be found below. The opening reads:

“The Russians and the Ukrainians, and indeed the Belarusians too, share an origin myth which reaches back to the legendary Rurik’s founding of the kingdom of the Kyivan Rus However, rather than reaching fruition in the early 20th century, as was the case in much of Central Europe, the origin story was subsumed into the Soviet experiment, and only remerged after 1991. It is still very much a work in progress.
Here we will look at how the founding myth of the Rus has been used in the Ukrainian
nation building project, which will unavoidably lead to comparisons with Russia and, to a
lesser extent, other neighbouring countries such as Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. From the Normanist debate of the mid-18th century to the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the use of the Rus in the the Soviet Union, we turn to the present with its all its historical complexity and political ramifications regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Russia.”

Lokaverkefni: “Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography” | Skemman

 

Visiting the Gjellestad site

The dig at Gjellestad, the most significant Viking find in Norway for over a century, is proceeding apace. The buried Viking ship was discovered two years ago and the excavation is expected to be completed this summer.

As I arrive, there is already a French documentary crew in place. Most Viking ship remains are found at the bottom of the sea, but this is a rare case of burial remains which makes it that much more interesting. Head archaeologist Camilla Wenn tells me that bones have been found belonging to animals, and possibly to humans, but this will have to be verified with DNA.

It’s hard to draw any conclusions at this point, but it seems that the Gjellestad ship did not have a mast. This may indicate that the ship is from before the the time when the old Norse started using sails. It could also just be a different design, or development, a coastal ship perhaps. No one knows.

But it does seem that Östfold, on the eastern side of the Oslo fjord, may have been more equal in power and wealth to Vestfold on the western side. The famous Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship are both from Vestfold. However, the sandy terrain there does not lend itself well to preservation, so further finds are unlikely. The clay ground in Ostfold has preserved artefacts far better. Among the objects found at Gjellestad are a part of the stem and a large amber bulb. The latter may indicate contact with the eastern Baltic, but amber is quite often found in Viking graves so trade was conducted between the areas in any case.

Here you can see the finds in 3D at the University of Oslo.

Kulturhistorisk museum: 3D-modeller (uiocloud.no)

Are Viking Computer Games Too Violent?

Some people have criticised the Assassins Creed: Valhalla computer game which came out last year for being excessively violent. Long and bloody execution scenes are common, with no option to skip. Even by the standards of the Assassins Creed series, this is taking things a step further.

Jane Skjoldli, a self-professed gamer, is part of the Back to Blood Research Project at the University of Stavanger in Norway which aims to look at Viking representations in popular culture. She says that the game is based on a specific view of the Vikings, which sees them simultaneously as brutal warriors and traditionally masculine but also with progressive views on gender. The series has sometimes been praised for historical accuracy but this time we get a mythologized Viking World which combines the old religion and stave churches and various epochs of the Viking era. The game seems more inspired by The Vikings TV series than history.

At least they didn’t have horns in the show. That particular trope was invented by Carl Emil Doepler who was tasked with producing Wagner’s Niebelungenlied in 1876. A century of misconceptions in popular culture followed. Perhaps the History Channel take is the Doepler effect of our day?

Meanwhile, the game has been changed and you can now skip the gore. If you like.

The Viking version of Assassin’s Creed is surprisingly violent, according to researcher (sciencenorway.no)

Assassin's Creed Valhalla review: cloudy with a chance of mead halls |  Adventure games | The Guardian

Vikings for Kids

There are several mentions of children in the Icelandic Sagas. One tells of two Vikings who play a game of tossing an infant between their spearpoints. A third Viking, who does not want to take part, is ridiculed and accused of liking children too much.

Another more joyful story tells of Egill Skallagrímsson, perhaps the most Viking-like Viking of them all who, who sneaks into a party at the age of three, gets drunk for the first time, and composes his first poem. It would take another four years until his first manslaughter.

Sadly, neither of these stories is likely to be represented in Lana Longbeard, a new cartWickeoon set to debut in 2023. The show will consist of 52 eleven minute episodes and is a Canadian, French and German co-production. To German speakers and Japanese, the most famous Viking is Wickie who had is own cartoon series in the 1970s and more recent live-actions films and shows. Many Germans erroneously think him to be based on an Icelandic story, but the original book is actually by Swedish Runer Jonsson.

Lana is a tween who sets out on her father’s ship to become a great adventurer. We will see if she heads east, or west, or both.

Vicky the Viking (TV Series) (1974) - Filmaffinity

Do the Sagas Belong in Iceland or Denmark?

This year marks 50 years since the Danes returned many of the Saga manuscripts, including the famed Flateyjarbók, to Iceland. Surprisingly, it also marks the first time in 50 years that possession of the manuscripts has come up for debate.

On June 3rd, the Historian’s Association of Iceland held a conference about the manuscripts in Reykjavik. The tone was set at the beginning when Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir stated that discussions were being held with the Danes for the return of further manuscripts. This is partly because the Danes are felt not to be honouring the spirit of the agreement from 1971 regarding manuscript scholarship. As an example, they no longer pay the wages of the one Icelandic chair at the University of Copenhagen, this burden now being shouldered by the Icelandic government.

It is true that much has changed since in 50 years. At the time, the study of Saga manuscripts was centred on Copenhagen but has now almost entirely moved to Iceland which, thanks to new transport and technology, is no longer the outpost it once was. Meanwhile, research in the field in Denmark has lapsed due to decreased interest. In addition, the long-awaited House of Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik is nearing completion, which means that the country will finally have the appropriate showcase for the Sagas.

Perhaps surprisingly, all the Icelandic scholars present agreed that the remaining manuscripts should remain in Copenhagen. And yet, there was considerable dispute among them. Some felt that the debate was settled long ago and therefore it was meaningless to bring it up again. Furthermore, it is in the interest of scholarship to have Saga manuscripts available in other countries. Sweden and Britain have their own Icelandic manuscript collections and others can be found further afield.

Others felt that dialogue with the Danes was all for the good. Even if the results would be the same, with the collection remaining divided between Reykjavik and Copenhagen, the debate was likely to rekindle interest in the Sagas. As Saga scholar Gísli Sigurðsson said, in 1971 people took interest in the Sagas for granted as they had been kept in the public eye partially because of the debate with the Danes. These days, more effort must be made to attract public attention.

And public attention was truly attracted, as the debate continued that evening on the much-watched daily newsmagazine Kastljós on Icelandic public television.

The Icelandic Sagas are some of the best available sources on the Eastern Vikings in existence, as well as the Viking Age in general. The Saga collection in Árnastofnun encompasses some 1.666 manuscripts and manuscript parts, whereas the Danes have retained 700 manuscripts, including the famous Heimskringla, the story of the Norwegian Kings, by Snorri Sturluson.

For the broadcast in Icelandic:

https://www.ruv.is/sjonvarp/spila/kastljos/27725/95ersb

For the manuscript collection (Icelandic, English, Danish):

https://handrit.is/en/

 

Were the Estonians Vikings?

When one visits Estonia (thank god we should soon be able to travel again), one can’t help but notice refrigerator magnets and other souvenirs celebrating Estonian Vikings. But were they?

Perhaps inspired by more recent history as well as Egil’s Saga, it is easy to see the Estonians as on the receiving end of Vikingdom. After all, Egill is captured by Estonians but manages to escape with a fair bit of loot, only to turn back and murder his captor and his family, as robbing a sleeping man would be an insult to said man. Even so, the story tells us two things. The Estonians were able to capture such as ferocious warrior as Egill. And he did, in fact, respect them.

It seems that on more than one occasion the proto-Estonians gave as well as they got. In Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson relates how the Swedish King Yngvi patrols his shores for Estonian pirates in the 7th century. Eventually, he invades Estonia but is killed in battle and hastily buried there by the sea. In a later chapter, Queen Astrid of Norway escapes with her son, the future king Olaf Tryggvason, from Norway to Novgorod where her brother Sigurd holds high position at the court of the great prince Vladimir (or Volodymir or Valdimar). On their way, they are raided by Estonian Vikings, here being called Vikings in the proper sense of the word as hostile raiders and taken captive. Later, as queen brother Sigurd is collecting taxes on behalf of Valdimar, he finds Olaf being auctioned at the local market and buys him free. This latter story is set in 967 and five years later, a battle between Estonian and Icelandic Vikings off Saaremaa is described in Njál’s Saga.

Archaeological evidence also suggests plentiful contact between Norse and Estonian, reaching to before the Viking Age proper. Probably the Norse navigated along Baltic Coasts and islands before braving the more unpredictable North Atlantic. In 2008, two Viking ships full of slain warriors were discovered on Saaremaa and may have been buried their in a hurry after a fierce battle at around the year 700 CE. If these are the remains of Yngvi and his men remains a matter of conjecture, but it shows that Snorri’s tale is at least historically plausible.

So were the Estonians Vikings? Well, sort of, but that would depend on definition. It seems that to the old Norse societies, they were.

https://www.archaeology.org/issues/95-1307/features/941-vikings-saaremaa-estonia-salme-vendel-oseberg

https://books.google.is/books?id=4M1BAAAAcAAJ&dq=eysysla+adalsysla+virland&q=adalsysla&redir_esc=y&hl=is#v=snippet&q=adalsysla&f=false

Björk’s Viking Film Cometh

So the good news is that the Norseman, Robert Eggers’ 10th Century Icelandic=set epic starring Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, and Björk, of course, has got a release date. The bad news is that we have to wait almost a whole other year, as it won’t be out until April 8 next year. Well, at least the cinemas should be open by then and one should no longer have to navigate the rigours of eating popcorn with a mask. And seeing Björk play a Slavic shaman will surely be worth any wait.

From Iceland — A Conversation With Björk

Icelandic Fans of the Eastern Romans

Among the many interesting points raised in Sverrir Jakobsson’s recent podcast on the Varangians is how they have been viewed by posterity. The Varangian Guard was know for its loyalty to the Eastern Emperor, who was not always on good terms with the West, not least after the sacking of Constantinople by Western crusaders in 1204.

In the Icelandic Sagas, however, the view on the Byzantine Empire seems overwhelmingly positive, despite the Great Schism having taken place a couple of centuries earlier, in 1054. In a previous paper entitled “The Schism That Never Was.” (see link below), Sverrir says, as the title implies, that the Schism may not have had as great an effect on contemporaries as often supposed, the real break coming in 1204.

For the Saga heroes, to have served the Byzantines always engenders respect. In fact, to have done so means that the hero is not called upon to prove himself further with great deeds, this seen to already having been done. This view is in opposition to other contemporary Western literature, which tends to have a negative view of the Eastern Romans. In Nordic sources, this only becomes apparent in Sweden in the 14th century. In that sense, he says, Icelanders were more Catholic than the pope, seeing all Christians as belonging to the same group.

It was only centuries later that the Varangians Swedish roots were emphasised in Russia. The Empress Catherine the Great, herself of Germanic stock, even wrote a paly about them and found obvious allusions to herself in noble foreigners ruling Russia. The Scottish poet Walter Scott sees them as English heroes, as later on the Varangian Guard were mainly composed of Englishmen, whereas the Icelandic poet Einar Benediktsson sees them as modernisers and proto-businessmen, an image of Viking-bankers that Icelandic oligarchs would attempt to project. As Sverrir says, the view of the Varangians is usually based on present needs rather than medieval sources.

(article in English)

The Schism that never was: Old Norse views on Byzantium and Russia – Medievalists.net

(podcast in Icelandic)

https://anchor.fm/sguflag/episodes/11-Sverrir-Jakobsson-um-Vringja-e1004ts