New Russia/Ukraine Book at Number 1 in Iceland

The latest work by your humble editor, Bjarmalönd, which is about Russia, Ukraine and surrounding countries, is now out. Written over a 20 year period starting as a Russian Studies student at the University of Helsinki and concluding in Chernobyl during Covid, it is part travelogue, part bildungsroman with a lot of history thrown in for good measure. While the book primarily deals with the post-Soviet sphere in the 21st century, it does go back to the 9th to explore the common origins of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. And perhaps how different takes on the origin story still influences people today.

Bjarmalönd is currently at number 1 on the Icelandic non-fiction charts and can be bought here in ebook and hardcopy (Icelandic only).

Bjarmalönd – Forlagið bókabúð (forlagid.is)

Second Day of Summer

Today is World Book Day (almost) everywhere except in Britain, which feels it must go its own way and celebrate books on March 4th. Ironic, considering that the day was chosen since it was the day that Shakespeare died, as well as the Spanish Miguel Cervantes.

More interesting for Norse scholars is the fact that yesterday marked the first day of summer in Iceland, this then being the second. The first day of summer is the first Thursday after April 18th, this year landing on the 22nd. True, it does not always feel very summery on this day, and has been known to snow. In fact, if there was frost the night before as did sometimes happen, it was said that summer and winter froze together, and this would auger a good summer for farming.

Choosing this day as the official start of summer (and it is in fact a public holiday in Iceland since 1971) makes sense if one keeps in mind that the year was divided in two equal halves. At this time, Harpa would begin, the first of the summer months. The tradition of the first day of summer has been documented as early as the 12th Century in Iceland. In Norway and Sweden, summer was said to begin on April 14th and lasting until October 14th.

We do not know if the old Rus celebrated the first day of summer or when. Present day Russians, like many nations, divide the year into four seasons. This then puts the beginning of spring on March 1st, a day when it is distinctly un-summery in most of Russia. And yet people congratulate each other on the onset of a new spring and, perhaps, on having survived another winter.

Vísindavefurinn: Hvenær er sumardagurinn fyrsti og er hann vel valinn sem upphaf sumarsins? (visindavefur.is)

Why the first day of Russian spring doesn’t feel like spring at all – Russia Beyond (rbth.com)

Viking Fashion. What Did They Wear?

With the days now longer than the nights, it’s time to start wondering what this year’s spring fashions will bring. Of course, no one will ever be as fashionable as the Vikings, as is obvious from the website of the Danish National Museum.

It may come as little surprise that your average Viking gentleman would wear a simple tunic and trousers combo, while the ladies would go for strap dresses worn over undergarments. The materials used would depend on what was available, usually wool and flax. However, the more stylish (and probably more wealthy) Viking would be seen sporting the latest fashion from that hub of haute couture, the Eastern Roman Empire.

While the riff-raff might be reduced to simple wool, for the better off silk was everything. After all, weren’t the routes that moved product from the Mandarins to the Mediterranean known as Silk Roads? Justinian the Great of Byzantium had used it to display his power in the mid-6th century and the Byzantines would maintain a monopoly on Silk production in Europe for the next 600 years.

But not all silk was equal. Particularly sought after were bright blue and red, as these were seen to signal wealth and power. In Denmark, no one (at least no one we know of) was more stylish than the Mammen man. Discovered by a farmer in 1868 in a mound in Mammen dating back to ca. 971, the man was discovered with the following:

“The buried man lay upon a bed of down cushions in a coffin placed in a wooden chamber – a so-called chamber-grave. At his feet lay two axes. On the coffin lid a bronze bucket, two wooden buckets and a large wax candle had been placed. The man wore costly clothing decorated with purple and red silk, as well as embroideries in red and blue. It is not known whether the deceased was Christian or pagan. The motifs on the one axe can be interpreted as both of these, but the large candle is probably a Christian symbol. The fine quality of the furnishings shows that the deceased presumably belonged to the circle around King Harald Bluetooth.”

Now who wouldn’t want to be seen with such a Ma(mme)n?

The grave from Mammen (natmus.dk)

Clothes and jewellery (natmus.dk)

Clothes and jewellery

 

 

 

The Old Germanic Easter

Easter is, of course, a Christian holiday celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The timing was borrowed from Judaism, as Jesus was said to be crucified during Passover, originally meant to celebrate the first lambs of spring and later the first crops. The Christians borrowed much of the spring motif for their own celebration, which was transported to the north with the advent of Christianity after the year 1000.

But some scholars maintain that Germanic tribes previously had their own Easter traditions. Eostre was the goddess of spring, of morning, of rebirth and of children. This spring goddess once changed her pet bird into a rabbit who would then give children multi-coloured eggs as a symbol of life. Both Easter in English and Ostern in German take their name from Eostre. Both are related to east or ost, which is where the sun rises, symbolising the dawn and a new beginning. Spring is also connected to other goddesses, such as the Slavic Lada and the Nordic Freyja.

The rabbit symbolises fertility but otherwise seems unconnected to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eostre was first mentioned by the English monk Bede around the year 700 and some scholars claim her to be his invention. However, Germanic-Romano inscriptions were discovered in 1958 near Morken-Harff, Germany which seem to substantiate the venerable Bede.

In Nordic languages, the festival derives from the Romano-Greek Pascha and it is now known as påske or páskar. Eggs were not supposed to be eaten during Lent, and in Eastern Europe pancake week is celebrated at the end of February when the last eggs before Easter are consumed.

Easter happily coincides with the laying of eggs and taxes were even collected in eggs at this time of year. This led to a surplus of eggs which were sometimes redistributed to the poor. In Norway, girls of marriage age would put an egg next to their breast and hand it to their chosen suitor. In some cases, the suitor would even be allowed to retrieve it himself.

Chocolate eggs first became known in Iceland in the early 20th Century, a custom imported from Denmark. The custom is still upheld, the eggs being filled with sweets as well as a proverb, the latter a custom going back to the 17th Century.

The Icelandic Asatru association does not commemorate Easter but will be celebrating the beginning of summer on April 22nd, which is a school holiday. This is the first day of Harpa, the first month of summer, harking back to the time when there were six summer months and six winter months. Neither is very descriptive of Icelandic seasons.

Sources: Vísindavefurinn: Hvaðan koma páskasiðirnir um kanínur, hænur, egg og annað slíkt? (visindavefur.is)

Ēostre – Wikipedia

 

A Real Shield-Maiden?

A Viking grave discovered in Birka in 19th century Sweden continues to generate attention. In the 1970s, it was suggested that the grave, bedecked with weapons and other warrior garb, may in fact have belonged to a woman. A DNA test from 2017 revealed this to be the case.

While the person in question was most decidedly female and was certainly armed to the teeth, being buried with a sheathed sword, an ax, a fighting knife, two spears, two shields, a quiver of 25 armour-piercing arrows and a small iron knife. many questions persist. Does this prove that she was, in fact, a warrior or were the items in some way ceremonial? Might it even suggest gender fluidity among Vikings, with roles in some cases being chosen irrespective of sex?

Scholars, of course, disagree, although surely we all like the idea of shield-maidens. Less celebrated, however, are the eastern aspects of the grave. Was the woman even Viking at all? And if so, in what sense? Her clothing seems to be of a more eastern design, even coming all the way from Central Asia. This may indicate that she had been there, certainly had access to goods from there, or may even have been from there.

A new short BBC video shows what her headgear may have looked like in full colour:

Hidden Histories – BBC Reel

Meanwhile, you can read more about the 2019 study, led by Neil Price, here:

Yes, That Viking Warrior Buried with Weapons Really Was a Woman | Live Science

The Volcano Erupts!

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you volcano news, as we have just had one in Iceland. The current eruption started on the evening of March 19th in Geldingadalur, which roughly translates to Eunuch Valley, although it probably refers to horses rather than people. The Reykjanes peninsula is the youngest part of Iceland and it has five live volcano zones. At one end is the international airport and at the other is the capital city of Reykjavik.

The eruption may have little to do with Eastern Vikings, but it does actually connect to Viking history. The last series of eruptions here began in around 950 CE, so roughly a century after settlement of Iceland began. It lasted for around 300 years. Among the largest eruptions was one that took place at around the year 1000 and is called the “Christianisation Eruption,” as it happened at the same time that Iceland was becoming Christian. Some pagans took this as proof that the gods did not approve of the new custom, as it was called, but the Christians pointed out that many eruptions had taken place before, and so could hardly be traced to the anger of the gods.

The largest eruption took place in 1226, six years after the Saga writer Snorri Sturluson returned from Norway and so is mentioned in annals. It is said that the there was a winter of sand falling from the sky. The eruptions finally ended in around 1240, the year before Snorri died. Since that year also marked the end of the Kyivan Rus with the Mongols sacking Kyiv, as well as the last Viking raids around Scotland, one can say that the Viking Age was bookended by volcanic eruptions.

There has not been another eruption on the peninsula for 781 years, that is, until last night. Time will tell if we will get another sandfall winter or 300 years of eruptions, but as for now, it doesn’t look too bad.

If you want to see the eruption live, it is being streamed by Icelandic National Television: https://www.ruv.is/frett/2021/03/20/beint-vefstreymi-fra-eldstodvunum

Rus Family Dramas

The Rus may not have looked upon themselves as Russians, Ukrainians or Swedes, but how did they self-identify? And perhaps more importantly, to whom did they owe allegiance. Our podcast with dr. Þórir Hraundal (see under the podcast section) we discussed how various groups of Rus may have competed, fought and even enslaved one another rather than forming one cohesive group that saw themselves as distinct from the locals. When the different groups of Rus formed kingdoms centred on Novgorod and later Kyiv, did they see themselves as a tribe or a proto-nation of sorts? Or were different dynasties competing? What held the kingdoms together, and why did they so often tear themselves apart?

Dr. Daniel Ostrowski and Christian Raffensberger of the Ukrainian Studies department at Harvard University claims that the people who mattered most to the Rus were in fact the immediate family rather than larger dynasties. In a description of their forthcoming book, they say:

“If dynasties are difficult to discuss in the medieval world, where does this leave us? The answer is with families. Families are the building blocks of dynasties and it is through studying families – fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and spouses of both – that we are able to better understand the human face of history. Families, in turn, are part of more extended kin entities that we call clans, which themselves can comprise multiple families which may, or may not, always share the same overarching objectives.”

They will be discussing this further at a live zoom session on Wednesday, March 24th, at 16.00 UTC (Greenwich Mean Time)

To register, click the following link. Registration required. Also available on youtube.
The Ruling Families of Rus’ | Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University

 

Did the Viking Age Begin Because of a Volcano?

Why did the Viking Age begin? Surely, it must be the most enticing mystery of many regarding the Vikings. They seem to appear, fully formed, in the historical record with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. And yet much must have taken place earlier for these remote people to suddenly emerge out of Scandinavia and ransack the known world, as well as parts unknown.

This is one of the subjects renowned archaeologist Neil Price addresses in Children of Ash and Elm, recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. He traces the story back to the fifth and sixth centuries and the power vacuum and general instability after the end of the Western Roman Empire. This might seem intuitive, but Price goes farther and says that two volcanic eruptions in the sixth century led to winters lasting for years, dust blotting out the sun and the population of Scandinavia perhaps being halved. Due to all this, violence became common and those who wielded it most successfully created competing kingdoms. These were then exported to the outside world, with trade in iron and animal skins but also with raids and conquest.

According to this, it might seem that Ragnarök had already taken place by the time of the Vikings, the old Gods were dead and the new ones emerging in Iðavellir turned out to be just as fierce, if not more so. Dr. Price might not agree with the latter analogy but his thesis is interesting, not least for the times we find ourselves in as we in Iceland await a volcanic eruption and the world in general is starting to feel the effects of climate change. Hopefully that doesn’t mean we have to start going all Viking again.

The review by Jane Kershaw is available to read here: A reassessment of the Vikings and their world | The TLS (the-tls.co.uk)

The book is available here: The Children of Ash and Elm (penguin.co.uk)

Kings of the River, Lords of the Sea

So, it turns out that the Vikings not only traversed on the high seas but also went overland along rivers, not least in eastern Europe. These are among the conclusions in Dr Cat Jarman’s new book River Kings. Her riveting story starts with the Great Viking Army, depicted recently in popular TV shows such as The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, as they pummelled their way across eastern England. Left behind in Derbyshire during the rampage was a small orange bead. This was unearthed in 1982 and came into Dr. Jarman’s possession about ten years ago.

With the aid of the latest technology, she traces the origin of the bead through the rivers of present-day Russia and Ukraine and all the way back to Baghdad. It’s origin place seems to be across the Silk Roads in Gurajat in India. Using bioarchaeology, Jarman conclusively proves that the 9th Century world was in many ways interconnected and brought people as well as goods (many of whom were, in fact, people) from parts of Asia to Northern Europe and vice-versa, all written in an accessible and informative manner.

Dr. Jarman is currently involved with creating the eagerly anticipated new Viking museum in Oslo which is set to open in 2025. She also hosted the Real Vikings TV series on the History Channel. We can only hope than an Eastern Vikings museum will open some day. And perhaps a proper TV series is also overdue?

For more about the River Kings, see here:

River Kings by Cat Jarman review — the Vikings’ quest for the exotic east | Saturday Review | The Times

And here:

River Kings, Cat Jarman | Get History

Archaeology Show Premiers on BBC

Raiders of the Lost Past is not, as it turns out, the anticipated 5th Indiana Jones film but rather a BBC Two archaeology show which premiered last week. Hosted by Oxford scholar Dr. Janina Ramirez, the first season showcased finds from Suffolk, England, Mexico and even a 40.000 year old work of art discovered in Nazi Germany in 1939.

While neither Anglo-Saxons (Sutton who?), Olmecs or Upper Paleolithic cultures are of particular interest to Eastern Viking enthusiasts, the show is well-worthwhile, offering as it does a different take on history than usually presented. In the second and current season, Dr. Ramirez begins with the Palace of Knossos in Crete, which is here seen to be a Minoan administrative centre rather than a royal dwelling.

The next couple of episodes features two subjects dear to our hearts, Vikings and Turkey. The second episode, which premieres this weekend, sees Dr. Ramirez going to Norway, navigating the various hurdles arising from the pandemic, to explore a Viking ship. This is probably the Gjellestad ship previously discussed on these pages, or else an earlier find such as the Oseberg ship.

The third and final show of the season takes us to modern day Turkey, not to explore the Byzantines, sadly, but a 9000 year old city. No doubt this will turn out to the the Neolithic Çatalhöyük, but there is in fact a small Byzantine settlement nearby. Fingers crossed it gets a mention.

For those who want to check out the Janina Ramirez take on the Vikings, you can have a look at BBC Two – Raiders of the Lost Past with Janina Ramirez, Series 2, The Viking Ship

Sadly, the iPlayer only works in the UK.