Monday, July 9, 2012

Vikings and tattoos, vanity, table manners and sexual mores


The word 'heath' is defined as barren land, wasteland, uncultivated land.  It refers to land found in Northern Europe.  'Heathen' is the name for those who lived on the heath - the Heath-men.  These were the Vikings who, unable to survive from cultivating this barren terrain, crossed the sea to pillage the cultivated lands of others.

Today the word 'Heathen' is a derogatory term used by Christians to describe their enemies, opponents etc., and though it's been a thousand years since the Vikings terrorized the Christian nations of Europe, their depradations and the fear they aroused must have been extraordinary to have left such a mark on the psyche of Christianity that the term 'Heathen' exists to this day to denote all that is the antithesis of Christian thought and belief.  Jews for example call their enemies anti-semites, not 'Romans' despite the fact that Rome destroyed Israel, burned the temple, and caused a diaspora of almost 2000 years.


A book called 'The Vikings' by Robert Ferguson gives some insight into what the Vikings were all about.  Like this example of the inhumanity of the Vikings:

In the year 1014 in a sermon, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, abominated the shameful Viking practice of men banding together to buy a female slave to use for their sexual gratification before returning her to the auction block to sell her on down the line.

Here's his vivid description of captives being herded, probably to ships, to be transported to a life of slavery - "Often two seamen, or maybe three, drive the droves of Christian men from sea to sea, out through this people, huddled together, as a public shame to us all" - a vivid picture of a demoralized English populace.  Two or three Viking guards - all it takes to control a crowd of Anglo-Saxon Christians; like SS guards in Auschwitz.


Slave trading was by far the greatest source of income for the vikings.  The source of the slaves was the British Isles in the west and the lands of the Slavs in the east.  But such was the volume of human trafficking in captives taken from among the Slavs that the term "Slav" became, via the mediaeval Latin sclavus, our word for all humans held in bondage - "slave".


Ibn Rustah tells of The Rus as covered even to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and various designs.  Alcuin writing around 780 describes the Heathens' fashion for 'blinded eyes', probably black eye shadow - "..once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased".


Arab travellers have described their impressions of Vikings. Ibn Fadlan describes a band of Rus traders that were travelling down the Volga - I have never seen more perfect specimens, tall as date palms and ruddy complexioned", but he's quite disgusted at their lack of hygiene - a pitcher of water was passed among the menbers of the group in which each washed his hands, face and hair and then cleared his nose and spat. The process was repeated until all had used the same water in the same fashion". Probably a bonding ritual bcause their was plenty of cleaner water in the river Volga. In the movie "The Thirteenth Warrior, Tony Banderas' character is proffered a bowl of water by his new Viking friends in which they have carried out similar ablutions, but he declines to wash in it.


Ibn Dihya, in a poem/play has a Viking female speak of the liberated sexual mores of her sex - "Our women stay with their men of their own free will; a woman stays with her man as long as it pleases her, and leaves him when she wearies of their life together." The independence of women from the heathen north was a source of great surprise to Arab travellers.  One noted that "among them women have the right to divorce.  A woman can herself initiate divorce whenever she pleases."


In the Saga of the Jomsvikings: following their defeat, the Jomsvikings are being executed one by one.  Among them is a seventeen year old whose hair is "long and golden yellow like silk". Asked about the prospect of his imminent death, he replies that he has lived the best part of his life and has no desire to survive his companions.  He asks that his hair be held away from his head so that his it will not become bloodstained.  Someone comes forward and twines the long blonde hair around his hands as requested.  As the axe come down the youth jerks his head away and the assistants hands are cut off.  "Whose hands are these in my hair?", the youth coolly asks.  He is reprieved and invited to become  a member of Earl Erik's 'hird'.  He has shown the essential qualities of the heroic Viking: youth, sharp wit, bravery, and vanity.  The family of the Viking who has just bled to death with no hands might not agree.

The Vikings were very vain about their hair, as evidenced by the fact that when a Viking burial trove is uncovered it invariably includes a comb.


The vikings had a 'one for all, all for one' attitude.  Ibn Fadlan observes: "If one group of them is challenged to war, they all join forces.  They stand firm as one man against their enemies."
He also writes: "They treat their servants well and dress exquisitely....They are generous to each other, honor their guests and treat well those who seek refuge with them, and all who come to visit them.  They do not allow anyone to annoy or harm these.  And whenever anyone dares to treat them unfairly they help and defend them".


Trousers discovered in Danish and German bogs suggest that squatting was the position of choice when it came time to rest weary legs.  The trousers have narrow legs widening out across the buttocks, and with no central seam down the rear that would have had a tendency to split from prolonged squatting.  So let's not visualize Vikings lounging around on some chair-equivalent of our lawn chairs.


Norse warriors are reported in Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury.  They would charge their enemies in a mind-numbed rage, feeling no fear and no pain.  Individuals also were capable of going berserk.  Mediaeval scholars no longer regard Berserk madness to be a form of collective insanity; it was deliberately induced, they now believe, by the eating of fly-amanite mushrooms.

This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color.  With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down every thing they net without discriminating between friend or foe.  When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.

Remember the movie Jacobs Ladder.  In it the US army is testing a new drug to enhance the fighting abilities of its soldiers. The horror is that the soldiers on whom the drug had been tested had attacked, killed and mutilated their fellow soldiers.


The Norse Berserks were magicians and sages, and seem to have used the scarlet amanita muscaria (fly-amanite) for inducing prophecies. They were called Berserks (Bear-shirts) because they worshipped the Bear goddess, which accounts for our Great Bear constellation, and wore bear skins in her honour. Their cult was suppressed by royal proclamation - in AD 1015 (Norway) and AD 1123 (Iceland).

Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga saga:
His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.

In 1015 King Erik outlawed berserks, along with 'holmganga' or duels.  It had become a common practice for a berserker to challenge men of property to holmgang, and upon slaying the unfortunate victim, to take possession of his goods, wealth, and women. This was a difficult tactic to counter, since a man so challenged had to appear, have a champion fight for him, or else be named 'ni(dh)ingr' and coward.

Check out the Popthems about the Fly-Amanite mushroom for its association with the Berserkers  and its influence on our civilization.


Cnut (he of the legend of the tide) was driven out of England by King Ethelred. According to Adam of Bremen, he returned in 1015 with a fleet of over 1000 large ships. Undoubtedly an exaggeration. Wikipedia quotes 200 ships and 10,000 men. The invasion was successful and in 1016 Cnut, at the age of about 20, became the king of England.


Compare to other invasions:

The Spanish Armada of 1588 consisted of 132 ships, amomg them some of the largest ever built till that time; 3000 cannon and 30,000 men.

Harald Hardrada of Norway in 1066.  300 ships.  Resoundingly defeated at the battle of Stamford Bridge by the new Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, a mere 25 ships sufficed to take what was left of the Viking army back to Norway.

Two days later William the Conqueror arrived in England.  He had between 600 and 700 transport ships to carry 7000 men (including 3000 cavalry.)

Julius Caesar had 800 ships 5 legions (25,000 men)and 2000 cavalry.  54 BC.


The period of fifty years from Cnut to William The Conqueror is perhaps the pivotal period of English history, not just because of the Norman conquest of 1066, but because of what might have been but was not.  Consider the possibilities:

Cnut died in 1035.  His two sons ruled for a brief period dying respectively in 1040 and 1042.  Had either of them lived longer, William the Conqueror would probably not have invaded in 1066, and England would have been a Scandinavian nation; the English language would have been a mix of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon.

The battle of Hastings was a very closely fought battle that could have gone either way, even despite the weariness of King Harold's army which had just defeated Hardrada's Vikings and endured a forced march from the north of England.  If Harold had been victorious, England would have remained Anglo-Saxon and the English language would not be this glorious amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and French.


The Normans (Norse-men) were the descendants of Vikings who settled in what became Normandy.  Their leader was Rollo who, in about 911, became baptized and married the daughter of King Charles the Simple.


In the Heathen calender, the midwinter feast was called Jol. In the three scandinavian languages of today Jul is the term for Christmas, and in the English language we have Yuletide.


According to the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), Odin promised his followers that each man who came to him in Valhalla would have the use of "what he himself had buried in the earth". This would go a long way toward explaining the treasure troves that farmers sometimes dig up, such as the Silverdale hoard, or the Spillings hoard discovered in 1999.


From about 800 to about 1200 there occured the Mediaeval Warm Period (also known as the Little Optimum) which producd some of the warmest centuries of the past 8000 years. Previously inhospitable regions now became destinations for Viking settlers, who now had the incentive to make the long journey westward toward a desirable end, and were thus induced to travel ever further, to Iceland, on to Greenland and finally to America. Iceland for example was covered with woods from the mountains to the seashore, and whereas now only 20% of the land is suitable for pasture, then the figure was between 45 and 70%.

In 1495 Pope Alexander VI (that would be Alexander Borgia) found time amidst his intrigues to express concern in a papal letter about the spiritual life of Greenlanders noting that "no vessel has touched there during the past eighty years".


Charlemagne's forced Christianization of the Saxons in the 780's included sanctions that were far divorced from any intimation of brotherly love - death for eating meat during lent, death for cremating the dead in accordance with Heaten rites, death for any who hid themselves unbaptised. But for a Christian to kill a Heathen earned no penance because the Heathen were considered less than human.


The Vikings were not always victorious.  In 844 a fleet of 80 Viking ships appeared off Lisbon, "covering the sea like dark birds". The city was captured and the fleet continued down the Spanish coast to Seville, at this time part of the Muslim empire.  The city was also taken and occupied.  A Muslim army with the use of siege catapults drove the Vikings out.  A few months later the Vikings suffered another defeat with the loss of thirty ships.  The corpses of Viking captives hung from the palm trees of Seville and Talyata - an incongruous picture of Norsemen amid the palm trees.

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