Viking Fury - Legends of the Ravaging Norsemen.
Since Scandinavia was surrounded by the sea, the Vikings were well placed to reach the heart of neighboring countries. The name Viking, adopted in the ninth century, likely comes from the Norse word vik, meaning "bay" or "creek." In their magnificent "dragon boats," the fearsome raiders needed only one meter of draft water for their deadly forays.
The fearlessness of the Vikings was bolstered by their belief in an array of supernatural beings. They admired their gods for what they saw as virile qualities: brutality, anger, lust, and humor. The gods were also respected for their virtues: courage, strength, and guile. Norse literature depicted the gods in human form with human traits, dwelling together as a large family. Like the individuals who created them, they were violent, ardent, and passionate. They waged war, held assemblies, and ruled over the Scandinavian world with an iron hand.
Odin, the High One
Odin, the god of war, wisdom, and poetry, was their ruler. Besides dominating the gods, Odin was a skilled magician and the god of victory. Primarily a strategist, he avoided fighting; his conquests were achieved as much by trickery as by force. Yet Odin was also an astute adviser, as demonstrated by the strikingly modern sayings in the Havamal, which means "Words of the High One [Odin]." The ancient text is a testament to the Viking code of ethics, their terse humor and noble sentiment:
None is so just and generous
as not to gladden at a gift.
None so abstinent or openhanded
to refuse a just reward.
Solitude and Company
When I was young
and walked alone,
alone I lost my way.
I felt rich
when I found company.
Man delights in man.
Keeping Your Name Alive
A son is better
though late begotten
of an old and ailing father.
Only your kin
will proudly carve
a memorial at the main gate."
A strong code of ethics was needed, since the Vikings were essentially peasants. They inhabited villages in Denmark and Sweden and large, communal houses or farms in Norway and Iceland. Viking society consisted of three classes: slaves, freemen, and chieftains. Their lives were regulated by assemblies, in which laws were made and strict justice was meted out. They esteemed highly the bonds of brotherhood and the daily rhythm of toil. Above all, blood ties were sacred. To bring a stain upon one's own family was an unforgivable crime. And the fierce, often ruthless gods held Viking society firmly in place.
Odin could traverse great distances on his sleek, eight-legged horse Sleipnir. He was escorted by Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), two dutiful ravens who would report to him their findings. His faithful spear, Gungnir, was always on target, and from his ring Draupne dripped eight rings of equal magnificence every ninth night. Odin possessed only one eye. As a young man, he pawned the other to the giant Mime for the privilege of drinking from the miraculous fountain of wisdom. Though Mime was beheaded, he became one of Odin's most cherished advisers. Anointing the giant's bloody skull with healing herbs, Odin enabled its eyes to open wide and its mouth to talk.
Odin was known as the god of the bards and the master of runes. Before the Latin alphabet was introduced into Scandinavia in the year 1000, the only method of recording was the runic script. These mysterious symbols, incised on stone, were believed to have been created by Odin. Associated with sorcery, magic, and the supernatural, they inspired the men of the North with awe and fear.
Two famous verses from the Havamal reveal the pain Odin endured to receive the runes:
"I know that I hung
On the tree lashed by winds
Nine full nights,
And gave to Odin,
Myself to Myself;
On that tree
The depths of whose roots
No one knows.
No bread sustained me
I looked down.
I gathered the runes,
Screaming I gathered them;
And from there I fell again."
The Viking cosmos
In the beginning, there were two realms: Niflheim, the land of frost and mist, and Muspellsheim, a sea of violent flames. In between was Ginnungagap, a vast abyss. In this immense void, amid the ceaseless encounter between light and dark, fire and ice, lay the origin of all life. In the melting snow--shaped by the cold but brought to life by the heat--the first creature came into being, a giant named Ymir. As the ice melted further, another creature was formed, an enormous cow, Audumla.
Odin was a direct descendant of these primal forces. His parents were Bor, son of Bure, a man formed by Audumla licking salt- covered stones, and Bestla, a Jotun (or rime giant, a child of Ymir). When the number of rime giants increased, a terrible battle broke out with all of the gods, or Aesir, who were descendants of Bure. Odin and his brothers emerged victorious, and the deluge of blood from the battle was so great that all the enemies of the Aesir (except one Jotun couple) drowned. Audumla disappeared, apparently washed over a precipice.
The Aesir placed Ymir's body like a lid over Ginnungagap, creating the world. His blood became the sea, and his flesh became the land. His knuckles formed cliffs and peaks. His teeth and broken splinters of bone became stones and boulders. His hair turned into trees and grass. The gods threw the giant's brains high into the air, creating clouds, and the sky was made from his skull, which loomed like a vaulted dome over all that had been created. The gods then trapped sparks from the fiery Muspellsheim; they still sparkle brightly inside what was once Ymir's skull.
Order and reason entered the world when the gods selected four dwarfs--originally worms that had crawled out of the giant's corpse--to hold up the sky and guard the four corners of the world. They named the dwarfs North, South, East, and West.
The gods then formed the sun with sparks from Muspellsheim and set the moon on its proper trajectory. To ensure they would be on time, both were given a celestial chariot with swift horses and two children to act as drivers. As the sun and the moon sped across the sky, they were relentlessly chased by two huge, vicious wolves who snapped at their heels, trying to devour them.
Humanity was created from two wooden logs that Odin and his brothers Vilie and Ve found on a beach. Odin blew life and souls into the logs, while Vilie gave them thought and movement and Ve endowed them with speech, hearing, and sight. Infused with warmth and color, the driftwood was transformed into Ask (Man) and Embla (Woman), the ancestors of all mankind.
The gods cleared the jungle and desert to create mankind's home, named Midgard because it was situated in the middle of the world. So that men and women would not feel they had been abandoned, the gods built a stronghold for themselves in the center of Midgard. Called Asgard, this gigantic fortress could only be entered by riding over the rainbow, which was thought to be a bridge of flames.
Midgard was circular and flat. Bulwarks were erected to protect it from the giants and trolls that reigned outside in the wild, uncharted terrain of Jotunheim and Utgard. Thus the world was structured like the rings of a tree trunk, and on every side, the mighty ocean lapped at its edge.
A huge ash tree, planted by the gods in the center of Asgard, supported the universe. Several springs flowed at the foot of this tree, and Odin drew all wisdom from one of them. The gods would traverse the Milky Way to reach the mighty tree, under whose shade they would assemble. Of this tree the skalds (bards) would sing:
"I know where grows an ash,
It is called Yggdrasil,
A tall tree, speckled
With white drops;
From there comes the dew
Which falls in the valley;
It flourishes forever
Above the wells of Urd."
Ragnarok, the end times
Despite this hopeful muse, it is said, a time will come of great famine and strife, an end time called Ragnarok. The Twilight of the Gods will begin with a great conflict, in which brothers will slay brothers and sons their fathers. Following three years straight of fimbul (winter), ravenous sky wolves will devour the sun and the moon, while mountains crash and every bond is shattered. Unloosed, the ferocious Fenris Wolf will encircle the earth, his jaws agape. Loki, incorrigible troublemaker and schemer, will be released. Hex will rig Naglfar, a ghastly vessel made of dead men's nails, ragged sails, and a crew of corpses, and sail up from his daughter Hel's realm of the dead .
From the foreboding, unknown Muspellsheim a fearsome host of riders will emerge in shiny vestments, armed with flaming swords, incinerating everything as they advance. The great rainbow bridge leading to Asgard will collapse under their weight. A decisive, bloody Armageddon, fought at a place called the Plain of Vigrid, will end the old Viking order and its gods. Even the mighty Odin will meet his fate, eaten by the Fenris Wolf. Thor and the Midgard Serpent, which encircles the earth, will slay each other, as will Heimdall and Loki. On this frightening day, the entire earth, including the great world tree Yggdrasil, will be destroyed, and its charred remains will vanish into the sea:
"The sun becomes dark. Earth sinks in the sea.
The shining stars slip out of the sky.
Vapor and fire rage fiercely together,
till the leaping flame licks heaven itself."
But even after all the bitter chaos and destruction, the Viking world will not end. Out of the sea, which will have cleansed the entire world, will appear a beautiful new earth, green and fertile. Hunger will be no more; the fields will sow themselves, and there will be endless supplies of fish and game. The gods who were not slain in the last, great battle will return to the site of Asgard.
A few fortunate humans will inherit the earth: a man, Lif, and a woman, Lifthrasir, who escaped the conflagration in a place called Hoddminir's Holt. From these two mortals, a new humanity will emerge.
The last Viking
Despite the Vikings' violent nature and mythology, their conversion to Christianity would gradually halt the bloodletting. The last Viking, the warlike adventurer Harald the Ruthless, was struck down in battle in a fitting, heroic finale. Harald made a career of waging war against the Danes and the Normans in all his capacities: as a consort to the kings of Norway and the princes of Russia, in the service of the emperor of Byzantium, married to a Russian princess of Kiev, and, finally, as king of Norway. While fighting the British at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, he was hit by an arrow full in the chest. With his death, the venerable lines of Norse heroes--warriors, bandits, pirates, and usurpers--ended.
After this classic Viking, only legends of bloodthirsty pagans would remain. History would forget that the Vikings were also great poets, gifted lawmakers, and talented artists. It would forget that they explored distant lands, such as Iceland, Greenland, and North America; that they founded efficient, realistic states, such as the duchy of Normandy and the Russia of Kiev; opened productive new trade routes; and created vital new towns, such as Novgorod and Smolensk.
One lesson of the Vikings did pass on, however. Just two days after the death of Harald the Ruthless, William of Normandy set sail with his armies for England. A new page of history was about to be written, and England was about to suffer a new wave of attack in the best tradition of the Vikings.
Additional Reading:Anonymous, The Sayings of the Vikings, Gudrun Publishing, Reykjav'k, Iceland, 1992.
Yves Cohat, The Vikings: Lords of the Seas, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987.
H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books, London, 1964.
Stephen Henkin, an arts editor at The World & I, visited Oslo, Norway on press assignment. The assistance of OsloPro and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in researching this article is gratefully acknowledged.