Are the Mysterious Figurines Valkyries?

“Mysterious, ancient female figurines have been found by the dozens all over Denmark, and as far afield as England and Russia.” Thus begins an article in a recent issue of National Geographic Magazine. What are these mysterious figurines?

A find in Ribe, Denmark, which was a major trading port in the 9th century, may shed some light on the subject. Here, an “assembly line” of pedants was discovered in 2017. By making moulds out of clay, hundreds of pedants could be made at a time. These represent a variety of figurines similar to the ones seen on the tapestry found in the Oseberg ship, buried in a mound in Norway in 834 and discovered in 1904.

Some of the figurines portray women bearing swords and shields. These have usually been taken to be Valkyries, but a recent study by Pieterjan Deckers, archaeologist at the Free University of Brussels, suggests otherwise. He claims that these represent actual women fulfilling ceremonial roles, as they are wearing dresses that would be highly impractical in combat. Hence, the women are wilfully shown taking on male attributes. Similarly, other figurines show a man tearing at his hair, which is a traditionally feminine gesture.

Leszek Gardela, archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, says: “They steer away from a simplistic interpretation of women and weapons, where they’re all Valkyries and warriors, and argue for something else. It’s good to remember there’s no one fixed way of interpreting this material.”

Valkyrie - Wikipedia

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:

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

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 (

Clothes and jewellery (

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? (

Ēostre – Wikipedia


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 book is available here: The Children of Ash and Elm (

The Return of The Vikings

2020 is about to leave us and no one will be sad to see it go. Of course, it’s been 10 days since the solstice and so technically a new year has already begun. The day grows longer by a few minutes each day and soon it will be time to plant the crops again. But for the Vikings (probably) the equinox was the first day of a 12 day feast and when the party’s over, a new year begins. And so it is to this day, more or less.

More importantly, today marks the premiere of the final series of The Vikings, the History Channel series that has been running since 2013. Although increasingly anachronistic, this is as close to history as the History Channel gets these days.

The series begins with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. This is led by the probably mythological Ragnar Lothbrok, though even the myths don’t credit him with the raid, as he is said to have lived somewhat later. By the present and 6th series Ragnar is dead but his sons have come into conflict with Oleg of Novgorod, thought to have reigned from 879 to 912, although inevitably scholars dispute the chronology and some put him a few decades later. In any case, both Ragnar and his sons seem to have reached Old Testament ages, according to the show.

The first part of the 6th season ended with Oleg invading Scandinavia, which is not only historically but also geographically inaccurate. A Rus invasion of the Nordic countries would probably have been as unthinkable militarily as it was politically, although longships certainly did sail back and forth. The Slavic steampunk look with hot air balloons and all does little for authenticity.

Still, Eastern Vikings scholars can have some fun spotting other famous Rus figures, such as Igor and Askold, but the greatest fun to be had is in pointing out the inaccuracies to non-specialists. If they will have as much fun is another matter, but if not, they are advising us to spend New Year’s Eve alone anyway.

Happy New Year.

Vikings Season 6B | Official Trailer | Prime Video – YouTube

What Happened to the Heruls?

The Heruls were a tribe from southern Scandinavia, known to be capable seamen and raided in Spain and France. A group migrated to present-day Ukraine in the 3rd century and from there raided around the Black Sea and Eastern Med. The ones that remained in Scandinavia were conquered by the Danes in the 6th century and disappeared from history. (John Haywood, Northmen, p. 28. Head of Zeus, London, 2016)

Until, that is, they were resurrected by head of the Icelandic National Library Barði Guðmundsson in his 1959 book Uppruni Íslendinga (the Origin of the Icelanders). Here, he claims that the Heruls, after having moved to Norway where they stayed for four centuries, ultimately colonised Iceland. His evidence was largely that the Icelanders wrote the Sagas instead of the Norwegians, and hence must have been of different stock.

The theory has been noted from time to time, most amusingly in 1999 when an Icelandic supreme court lawyer wrote an article where he tried to show that since the Icelanders were not descendants of the Norwegians, the Norwegians could make no claim to having discovered America at the 1000 year anniversary of that event (links can be found here: Herúlar. (

While it has never been firmly established why the Icelanders proved to be more adept writers than the Norwegians, the disappearance of the Heruls is not much of a mystery. As UCLA professor Patrick J. Geary has shown in The Myth of Nations, tribes disappearing into one another during the migration era, being conquered or willingly merging, was rather the norm.

New DNA research which has shown that Icelanders were rather regular Norwegians (if with a large infusion of Celtic blood) should finally put the Herul theory to bed. And yet they seem to have resurfaced again, now in Lithuania, where some claim them as distant ancestors. Where are the Herul? Here are the Herul!    herulii | Huns | Ancient Germanic Peoples (

Viking Soup, or What Did They Really Eat?

“The Soup Wars” are currently raging over who owns the beetroot soup, or borscht, Russia or Ukraine. In some papers it’s called The Battle of the Borscht, while one said that the knives where out, which seems like an unhandy way to eat soup.

But the question that concerns us here is: Did the Vikings in the east eat borscht? Probably not, as the first documented mention of borscht is in Domostroy, a 16th century Russian cookbook with some handy moral advice thrown in.

But people largely agree that borscht originated in what is now Ukraine, so it may have been eaten there much earlier. In fact, the soup reference in the Domostroy is an entirely different soup, here also called borscht, with wild hogweed grass and a light beer made from fermented bread.

So what did the Vikings actually eat? This will be discussed in some detail on a webinar next week hosted by culinary archaeologist Daniel Serra.

Click here if you wish to attend:

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about the Soup Wars, you can follow this link to the New York Times article:

Did the Vikings Have Standardized Godhouses?

IKEA is a popular, if not always beloved, Scandinavian indoor furnishing company know for the standardisation of its furniture. A recent archaeological discovery in Norway suggests that Vikings may also have had standardised temples of sorts.

In the village of Ose in southwestern Norway, the remains of a 8th century “godhouse” have recently been unearthed. While being the first such find in Norway, it closely resembles similar structures excavated in Tissö, Denmark and  Uppåkra, Sweden. This is seen as the best example of such a place yet.

The godhouse is thought to have been used for midsummer and midwinter solstice ceremonies in honour of the gods. Remnants of meat cooked for Odin, Thor and Freyr, thought to have been represented by figurines while the feast was eaten by the human participants, have been unearthed. The figurines are still missing, but in 1928 a phallus stone was found in the same spot.

If the standard godhouse design reached to the lands of the Rus awaits further discoveries. Meanwhile, the first functioning hof, or pagan temple, to be constructed since the Viking Age awaits completion in Reykjavik. Land has been donated to the Asatru society by the city of Reykjavik on the Öskjuhlíð Hill and a design by architect Magnús Jensson was selected, looking a little like an upturned longship. The sun’s path and the number 9, representing the 9 worlds of the old religion, are will be reflected in the structure. However, the project has had various delays, including the banking collapse of 2008 and the refusal of a bank loan in 2019. Construction began in 2015 and was planned to take a year but little progress has been made. Perhaps it will take 9 years, all in all, for the new hof to the old gods to rise.

For more on the Ose find, see here:

For more on the Hof, here is an article from 2015:

Viking Lecture with Neil Price Online

The inimitable Neil Price will be giving an online lecture on Wednesday, October 7th, at 13.30 Co-ordinated Universal Time, which is happily also Iceland time (although for some reason the atom clock is set by Greenwich and not Reykjavik). The lecture is hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.

Dr. Price will base his lecture on Children of Ash and Elm: A New Look at the Vikings, which is his latest work. Price is also associated with the Legends of the Eastern Vikings program, for further information see his profile on “The Project and Its Participants” page. For residents in Iceland, the book is available in the University book store (Bóksala stúdenta), which remains open although the University library and most of the premises are closed due to Covid.

The lecture will take an hour and a half and is free of charge. If you want to join, please sign up here.