Category Archives: Vikings
Vikings are often seen as heathen marauders mercilessly targeting Christian churches and killing defenceless monks. But this is only part of their story. The Vikings played a key role in spreading Christianity, too.
Norse mythology has long captured the popular imagination and many today have heard stories about the pagan gods, particularly Odin, Thor and Loki, recently reimagined in Marvel’s comic books and movies. Some now even follow reconstructed versions of these beliefs, known as Ásatrú (the religion of the Aesir).
Our main source for this mythology, the Prose Edda, was written by a 13th-century Christian, the Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson. Scandinavia converted to Christianity later than many parts of Europe, but this process is still an important part of the Vikings’ real story. Indeed, there are fascinating works of Norse literature with a Christian theme, including sagas of bishops and saints.
It would be wrong to minimise Viking violence, but raiding – hit and run attacks for plunder – in the medieval period was not confined to these Scandinavian seafarers. The Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster, record far more attacks by Irishmen on other Irishmen, including the raiding and burning of churches, than attacks by Scandinavians.
An ideological clash is one suggested cause of the “Viking Age”. This line of thinking suggests that pagan Scandinavians sought to avenge Christian attacks, such as the Frankish emperor Charlemagne’s invasion of Saxony from 772AD to 804AD. This 30-year conflict involved forced mass baptism, the death penalty for “heathen practices” and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon rebels at Verden in 782AD.
It seems more likely, however, that Christian monasteries were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.
The rise of Christianity
The conversion of Scandinavia was gradual with Christian missionaries preaching intermittently in Scandinavia from the eighth century. While there was some resistance, Christianity and Norse paganism were not always fundamentally opposed. A 10th-century soapstone mould from Trendgården in Jutland, Denmark, allowed the casting of metal Thor’s hammer amulets alongside crosses. The same craftsman clearly catered for both pagans and Christians.
The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak. He was baptised in 826AD with the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious as his sponsor, in exchange for imperial support for an (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to regain his throne.
Guthrum, a king from the Viking Great Army which attacked England in the ninth century, was also baptised as part of his agreement following defeat by the West Saxon king Alfred “the Great” in 878AD. Indeed, coming into contact with Christian kingdoms which were more politically centralised arguably led to greater unification of the Scandinavian realms.
One of the most significant turning points in the Christianisation of Scandinavia was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s. Bluetooth technology is named after Harald because he united disparate parts of Denmark, while the technology unites communication devices.
Harald proudly proclaimed on the now iconic Jelling stone, an impressive monument with a runic inscription, that he “made the Danes Christian”. And this connection between kingship and Christianity continued.
Norway was converted largely due to two of its kings: Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson. The latter was canonised shortly after his death in battle in 1030AD, becoming Scandinavia’s first native saint.
Future Norwegian kings benefited from their association with Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway’s patron saint. Other royal Scandinavian saints would follow, notably Erik of Sweden and Knud the Holy of Denmark. The Norse earldom of Orkney also produced a martyr from its ruling family: St Magnus, who was killed in around 1116 in a dynastic squabble.
The 2018 Danish Eurovision entry (Rasmussen’s song Higher Ground) portrays Magnus as a pacifist viking refusing to fight. Saga sources do suggest that Magnus refused on one occasion to raid with the Norwegian king and fled from the fleet, but his career was not without violence.
Scandinavians who settled abroad in Christian lands were also converted to the dominant religion. While Scandinavian settlers initially buried their dead in traditional pagan ways, they soon adopted the customs of those living around them. And their settlements became part of the political and cultural makeup of their host societies.
Some of the most celebrated pieces of medieval Irish ecclesiastical art were likely made by Hiberno-Scandinavian craftsmen from Viking-founded towns like Dublin. These objects also feature stylistic elements which had spread from the Scandinavian homelands.
For example, the 11th-century Clonmacnoise crozier is decorated in the Scandinavian art style of Ringerike, with snake-like animals in figure-of-eight patterns. Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, associated with the sixth-century St Ciaran, is one of Ireland’s oldest and most important ecclesiastical sites. And the ancestors of these craftsmen might have been the very raiders who had attacked Irish churches.
Soldiers of God
Even Scandinavian settlers in the remote islands of the North Atlantic joined the European mainstream with some enthusiasm. Partly due to pressure from Norway, Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Following consultation at their national assembly (the Alþing) it was decided that the country would convert but that some pagan practices would still be tolerated.
The settlements on Greenland eventually failed in the 14th and 15th centuries, but even when the inhabitants were starving they still devoted precious resources to importing luxury goods for the church, including wine and vestments.
Scandinavians also joined the Crusades; now they were the Christians attacking the so-called heathens. The Norwegian king Sigurd “Jerusalem-farer” – named for his visit to the Holy Land – was, in fact, the first European king to participate in the Crusades personally, making a journey from 1108 to 1111, a short while after the First Crusade culminated in the Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem in 1099.
Crusading was, after all, not so different from Viking raiding, but this time the killing and looting had Christian backing. Instead of an afterlife of feasting in Valhalla as a reward for dying in battle, those who died on Crusade would go straight to Heaven.
Indeed, the Viking world was as much populated by missionary kings, bishops and saints as it was by raiders, gods and giants.
The link below is to an article that looks at the discovery of a Viking drinking hall in Orkney.
The Vikings are more popular than ever. TV shows such as Last Kingdom and Vikings have added dramatic license to particular historical accounts, while new archaeological finds are guaranteed to make headlines. Recent coverage includes the discovery of a new Viking ship burial, and the possibility of Viking women participating in warfare. But when we talk about the Vikings we often repeat familiar narratives of warriors, ships and battles. Certain activities and spaces – often those traditionally associated with men — are seen as shaping the course of history. The home – traditionally associated with women – is seen as mundane and politically insignificant.
But the Viking house was not an apolitical, neutral space. It was a primary stage for legitimising hierarchies in which some people were enslaved and left to dwell with cattle in the byre, while others presided in a high seat. It was a foreign world – we have rare, but repeated evidence for infants being buried by hearths, magical artefacts placed by doorways, and women lifted over thresholds so they could speak with the dead.
I want to radically shift our approach to this pivotal period of European history. What happens if we see the Viking Age from the point of view of the house?
Houses as political spaces
For all their visibility in pop culture, everyday life for the Vikings is rarely seen, and settlements are often approached as familiar, harmonious — and perhaps a bit trivial. Now a wave of research is raising new questions about the everyday social and ritual lives of the Vikings.
Gathering together the archaeological remains of longhouses from Norway in research for my book, Architecture, Society and Ritual in the Viking Age. Doors, Dwellings, and Domestic Space, revealed something stranger and more powerful than traditional narratives may suggest.
The Viking household, while varied, did not conform to the idealised nuclear family of Western modernity. The largest households could be composed of a couple, concubines, subordinates, farmhands and warriors, animals, itinerant workers, guests, and a range of “mine, yours, and our” children. Although they lived under one roof, everyday tasks and the architecture itself created thresholds between groups and made people different from each other.
“Slavery” is a complex institution, and a universal definition is difficult. But there was an unfree population among the Viking household (“thralls”) who had no legal rights, whose children were owned by the household leaders, who it was not a crime to kill, and who could be sexually exploited by their owners.
Scholars have argued that the thralls dwelled in an extra room with a hearth in the byre (cowshed) end of the longhouse, spatially and socially belonging with the animals. Indeed, one of the known thrall names is Fjosnir, “of the byre”.
In these ways and more, Viking houses generated contrasts between owners, free people and thralls – and such differences formed Viking society.
Dwelling with the dead
The Viking house was not exclusively the domain of the living. In the sagas of the Icelanders, we encounter the malicious man Hrapp. On his deathbed, Hrapp demands to be buried in the doorway to the fire hall: “Have me placed in the ground upright, so I’ll be able to keep a watchful eye over my home.” The agency of the dead did not necessarily dissipate at death and the sagas are full of tales of people receiving prophecy from the dead, the dead singing in burial mounds, or haunting their old houses.
Archaeological material supports the idea that the dead had a presence in Iron and Viking Age houses. Throughout the first millennium, human bones were sometimes embedded within the house, including infants buried in hearths and postholes. It must have been meaningful for people to place body parts of their dead under the threshold or in the postholes of the longhouse, or to inter the dead in the house when they abandoned the settlement.
There is a clear ambiguity to dwelling with the dead. On the one hand, people sometimes kept the dead close, embedding them in the living space. Infants and ancestors may have helped protect the house, anchor it in local histories or empower its residents. On the other hand, Hrapp’s story and other sources suggest that the dead could be objects of anxiety. If they became malevolent, they could threaten the household – and so the threshold to their world needed to be controlled.
Portals to the otherworld
Different parts of the house likely served as points of contact between living and dead, perhaps also among the past, present and future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the foremost was the actual threshold to the house.
Two written sources tell the narrative of a woman being lifted over a door to see into a different realm. One is an eyewitness account of a ship burial on the Volga River, where a slave woman is lifted above a freestanding portal (much like a doorframe). This allows her to speak with the dead chieftain. The other is an obscure text about a ritual gone wrong, where the lady of the house asks to be lifted “over hinges and door-beams, to see if she can save the sacrifice” — perhaps to see into another realm or into the future. The door could thus be a portal to other powers and beings. Perhaps for this reason, freestanding portals were sometimes erected at Viking burial grounds.
Archaeologists also find things – such as pots, knives, and iron rings – buried in or near doorways. Perhaps these objects guarded the house from powers and beings from outside. And the depositing of artefacts simultaneously forged and embedded a link between people’s daily lives and their houses. It is even possible that artefacts would come with new inhabitants from older houses, for example when they were married. These would be placed in doorways or postholes to empower the house and tie people and houses together across time and space.
Viewing the Viking Age from the house
Taking everyday life seriously opens up new possibilities to understand how and where history happens: it is not only on the battlefield. Architecture and the house mirror, as well as shape, social and spatial order. In Viking Age Norway, people were made to be different – owners and thralls, men and women, with different kinds of power and different things to fear or hope – through byres and high seats, feasts and rituals, doorways and deposited items.
Viking houses were spaces of politics, and also social worlds that were very different from our own. When the Vikings engaged with the wider world through raids, trade, and settlement, their understanding of the world was anchored in their everyday experience in the home from childhood onwards. The time is ripe to broaden the topics we associate with the Viking Age, and to discuss the unfamiliarity and strangeness, as well as the role of inequality, in this pivotal period of European history.
The Vikings are in Melbourne. It is hard to see anything “Vikings” without thoughts of the seafaring thugs who invaded or raided much of coastal Europe and beyond. As Viking scholar Judith Jesch has reminded us, that is essential to what the word originally meant: Norse-speaking people who got into surprisingly small ships and went in search of adventure, very often violent.
However, this is not the full story. A new exhibition at the Melbourne Museum is at pains to demonstrate this other side.
What does the word ‘Viking’ really mean?
The television series Vikings goes out of its way to show how its characters did some pretty amazing things in their rovings – just surviving those sea voyages must rate high on the list – but mostly we know about them because they plundered far from home, to great effect. From 793 until 1066, or thereabouts, many people feared a visit from the Vikings more intensely than they feared their own rulers.
Jesch has also explained how the word broadened its meaning, even at the same time as Vikings became increasingly caricatured in poplar knowledge (think the Terry Jones movie Erik the Viking). “Vikings” can now mean all people from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and many other colonies across the North Atlantic who lived during “the Viking Age”.
The Melbourne Museum’s exhibition takes this broader sense of the word and uses it against that other, narrower one. Brought to Melbourne by the Swedish History Museum, which owns the collection, it explores the lives of the Vikings as much more holistic than just the adventures of those Norsemen who went a-viking.
The approach will disappoint some people. There are weapons on show, some of them remarkably elegant for all the ravages of time, but none are better preserved than the bent sword from a burial mound in Sweden. Archaeologists reckon it was bent precisely to render it useless for violence – to prevent its misuse in the afterlife.
There are boats, both original and reconstructed. Compared to the palpably seaworthy wonders of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, though, the standout here is a half-ship plotted in the abstract by its rivets — the planks have all perished in the boat’s burial site, but the rivets that once fastened them have been suspended in their true positions in mid-air. It offers a haunting impression of the boat that once was.
Still, these are not displays to get the adrenalin pumping. The interactives will not push you to imagine yourself in armour, screaming from behind a wall of shields on some stricken hillside, mead in one hand and great axe in the other.
Instead, this exhibition focuses on domestic life, economy, religion and technology. Nobody should imagine that any visiting show at a museum can do comprehensive justice to even one of those four, but this one gives us plenty of concrete evidence if we wanted to imagine Swedish and similar communities in the Viking Age.
It shows us the basics of Scandinavian clothing, for example, which is so essential for imagining the people in those countries. Its displays of jewellery remind just how fine the silver and gold smithing traditions of Germanic Europe were — for example, a filigreed pendant depicting Mjölnir (“Mealgrinder”), Thor’s hammer.
The Mjölnir pendant is also an example of how this exhibition explores the religious and spiritual dispositions of the Vikings. The gradual progression of Christian conversion through Scandinavia and Iceland meant that some southern communities were converted long before the recognised Viking Age began. Others in the north held to their faith in the Aesir (one of two tribes of Norse gods) until well into the 12th century.
What we miss in that story of incremental northwards progression, though, is how varied and often contradictory the local beliefs were. There may have been as many different schools of Aesir worship as there were settlements across the Norse-speaking lands. Certainly, during the period of Christian conversion, many people practised a dual worship — keeping the old gods alive, even though the new God forbade it.
There is a wealth of riches in the exhibition, as you might expect, which could be chaos if it lacked a strong logic of curation. Importantly, then, elements of the curation speak with great depth. The collectors have clear points to make, and they use the exhibits to make them.
A case in point is the questioning, rather than definitive, discussion of hair combs. Archaeologists have curiously found such apparently mundane items in most of the Scandinavian burial sites. Were they for carrying into the next world, for a final grooming of the dead person before burial, or something else entirely? If we cannot understand those combs, how can we understand the worlds they joined?
This emphasis on the social and everyday is quite different from many other Viking exhibitions – in English-speaking countries at least – which have tended to focus on the martial vigour of those people who repeatedly invaded “us”. A recent example was the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, which cast them as fighting fanatics for their religion, a medieval precursor of Daesh or ISIS.
Here, the curators are trying first and foremost to redirect our attentions. War was only a part of the Viking life, and only for a segment of Viking society at that. Anyone who wears a horned helmet to see this exhibition may feel an urge to take it off.
Vikings: Beyond the Legend is showing at the Melbourne Museum until August 26 2018.
The word “Viking” entered the Modern English language in 1807, at a time of growing nationalism and empire building. In the decades that followed, enduring stereotypes about Vikings developed, such as wearing horned helmets and belonging to a society where only men wielded high status.
During the 19th century, Vikings were praised as prototypes and ancestor figures for European colonists. The idea took root of a Germanic master race, fed by crude scientific theories and nurtured by Nazi ideology in the 1930s. These theories have long been debunked, although the notion of the ethnic purity of the Vikings still seems to have popular appeal – and it is embraced by white supremacists.
In contemporary culture, the word Viking is generally synonymous with Scandinavians from the ninth to the 11th centuries. We often hear terms such as “Viking blood”, “Viking DNA” and “Viking ancestors” – but the medieval term meant something quite different to modern usage. Instead it defined an activity: “Going a-Viking”. Akin to the modern word pirate, Vikings were defined by their mobility and this did not include the bulk of the Scandinavian population who stayed at home.
While the modern word Viking came to light in an era of nationalism, the ninth century – when Viking raids ranged beyond the boundaries of modern Europe – was different. The modern nation states of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were still undergoing formation. Local and familial identity were more prized than national allegiances. The terms used to describe Vikings by contemporaries: “wicing”, “rus”, “magi”, “gennti”, “pagani”, “pirati” tend to be non-ethnic. When a term akin to Danes, “danar” is first used in English, it appears as a political label describing a mix of peoples under Viking control.
The mobility of Vikings led to a fusion of cultures within their ranks and their trade routes would extend from Canada to Afghanistan. A striking feature of the early Vikings’ success was their ability to embrace and adapt from a wide range of cultures, whether that be the Christian Irish in the west or the Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east.
Blending of cultures
Developments in archaeology in recent decades have highlighted how people and goods could move over wider distances in the early Middle Ages than we have tended to think. In the eighth century, (before the main period of Viking raiding began), the Baltic was a place where Scandinavians, Frisians, Slavs and Arabic merchants were in frequent contact. It is too simplistic to think of early Viking raids, too, as hit-and-run affairs with ships coming directly from Scandinavia and immediately rushing home again.
Recent archaeological and textual work indicates that Vikings stopped off at numerous places during campaigns (this might be to rest, restock, gather tribute and ransoms, repair equipment and gather intelligence). This allowed more sustained interaction with different peoples. Alliances between Vikings and local peoples are recorded from the 830s and 840s in Britain and Ireland. By the 850s, mixed groups of Gaelic (Gaedhil) and foreign culture (Gaill) were plaguing the Irish countryside.
Written accounts survive from Britain and Ireland condemning or seeking to prevent people from joining the Vikings. And they show Viking war bands were not ethnically exclusive. As with later pirate groups (for example the early modern pirates of the Caribbean), Viking crews would frequently lose members and pick up new recruits as they travelled, combining dissident elements from different backgrounds and cultures.
The cultural and ethnic diversity of the Viking Age is highlighted by finds in furnished graves and silver hoards from the ninth and tenth centuries. In Britain and Ireland only a small percentage of goods handled by Vikings are Scandinavian in origin or style.
The Galloway hoard, discovered in south-west Scotland in 2014, includes components from Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland, Continental Europe and Turkey. Cultural eclecticism is a feature of Viking finds. An analysis of skeletons at sites linked to Vikings using the latest scientific techniques points to a mix of Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian peoples without clear ethnic distinctions in rank or gender.
The Viking Age was a key period in state formation processes in Northern Europe, and certainly by the 11th and 12th centuries there was a growing interest in defining national identities and developing appropriate origin myths to explain them. This led to a retrospective development in areas settled by Vikings to celebrate their links to Scandinavia and downplay non-Scandinavian elements.
The fact that these myths, when committed to writing, were not accurate accounts is suggested by self-contradictory stories and folklore motifs. For example, medieval legends concerning the foundation of Dublin (Ireland) suggest either a Danish or Norwegian origin to the town (a lot of ink has been spilt over this matter over the years) – and there is a story of three brothers bringing three ships which bears comparison with other origin legends. Ironically, it was the growth of nation states in Europe which would eventually herald the end of the Viking Age.
In the early Viking Age, modern notions of nationalism and ethnicity would have been unrecognisable. Viking culture was eclectic, but there were common features across large areas, including use of Old Norse speech, similar shipping and military technologies, domestic architecture and fashions that combined Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian inspirations.
It can be argued that these markers of identity were more about status and affiliation to long-range trading networks than ethnic symbols. A lot of social display and identity is non-ethnic in character. One might compare this to contemporary international business culture which has adopted English language, the latest computing technologies, common layouts for boardrooms and the donning of Western suits. This is a culture expressed in nearly any country of the world but independently of ethnic identity.
Similarly, Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries may be better defined more by what they did than by their place of origin or DNA. By dropping the simplistic equation of Scandinavian with Viking, we may better understand what the early Viking Age was about and how Vikings reshaped the foundations of medieval Europe by adapting to different cultures, rather than trying to segregate them.
It has been suggested that Donald Trump “may get his assertive rather than passive manner from his alleged Viking ancestors”. Or so says Russian genealogist Aleksey Nilogov, who has been finding some traction for his beliefs on nationalistic eastern European news sites such as the Estonian World Review.
Leaving aside the issue of genetic predispositions, as a scholar of Viking-Age Scandinavia, I take issue with this claim. The Vikings were a product of their time and – in that context – were a much less objectionable bunch than these suggestions imply. Delving into the Old Norse language helps us to better understand some of the ways that medieval Scandinavians might have viewed the overbearing and isolationist rhetoric dominating the international stage of late. In fact, just such an analysis suggests that Trump would probably not have had a great time navigating the political intrigue presented in the Icelandic Sagas.
Despite popular depictions of medieval Scandinavians as gruff, aggressive raiders, the sources from medieval Scandinavia reveal a complex society possessed of nuanced understandings of morality, law and honour.
An overbearing man
The key to understanding these concepts in their contemporary context lies in the language of the early Scandinavian sources that survive to us. Sometimes, a single word can unlock a cluster of semantic and conceptual understandings.
Take, for example, the Old Norse word ójafnaðarmaðr. Broken into its constituent parts, the word could be rendered in English as “un-even-person”. But in the contexts of Eyrbyggja saga, one of the Sagas of Icelanders focusing on a locality in the north-west of the island, it’s clear that the unevenness being described is a disregard for fairness, equality, justice and the rights of others. This has led scholars to render the word as “an overbearing man”. An ójafnaðarmaðr, such as Styrr Þórgrímsson in Eyrbyggja saga, is fundamentally a social bully of the type who uses force and cunning to better their own position at the expense of those around them, save for a small group of loyal supporters drawn to their ruthless approach and success.
This certainly sounds like Trump’s infamous tactics: from his Twitter tirades, to his promises to bully Mexico into paying for a border wall, even to his ludicrously alpha handshake. His myopic focus on building himself up and cutting others down, even his vision of “America first”, certainly bear the hallmarks of the conduct of an ójafnaðarmaðr.
The problem is that the ójafnaðarmaðr was not someone to emulate or even admire in early Icelandic society, but someone to bring to heel. In the harsh, isolated climes of medieval Iceland, mutual aid from community and kinship were relied upon to rise to the challenges of the day. With no respect for reciprocity or the honour and rights of others, the ójafnaðarmaðr was fundamentally destructive to the fabric of their society – and their antisocial tactics, described in the sagas, tended to cut them off from their communities.
This most often ended up leaving them with precious few friends or allies to help when they inevitably got in over their head. This is certainly the case with Styrr, who needed to marry his daughter, who he loved more than anything, off to an old rival to help him get out of trouble with two berserkers (fierce Norse warriors).
Don’t bark at your guests
The condemnation of tactics used by ójafnaðarmaðr characters is also mirrored in the Old Norse poem Hávamál, “Sayings of the High One” (Carolyne Larrington’s translation quoted below). These verses conclusively deride such things as being disrespectful, overly aggressive, and lack of social engagement, even to those you might distrust.
In fact, Hávamál contains rebuttals for several of Trump’s early executive actions. As just one example, consider stanza 135 in the context of Trump’s adamant support of a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. The poem warns: “Don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, treat the indigent well!” This seems to stand in stark opposition to Trump’s closed-door vision on immigration.
In a medieval Scandinavian context, this bullying bravado and disregard for hospitality and reciprocity was inherently isolating on a social level. And it is in relation to isolationism and responsible engagement with wider society that Hávamál takes a very clear stance. Stanza 50 says it best:
The fir-tree withers that stands on the farmstead,
Neither bark nor needles protect it;
So it is with the man whom no one loves,
How should he live for long?
Clearly antisocial tendencies such as isolationism or bullying were recognised as wholly unsuitable in the societies of the medieval Scandinavian milieu. Active social engagement was incredibly important. In no place is this clearer than in the early laws of Scandinavia, where outlawry – legally imposed exclusion from the community – was considered one of the gravest punishments a criminal could endure.
As the world continues to shrink thanks to modern technology, these old points of wisdom are worth revisiting in the global village of today to remind us of the importance of mutual respect, collaboration, conciliation and strong social bonds with all those around us.
One thing is clear. Any “Viking” ancestor that might be responsible for Trump’s personality would likely not have done that well in his own time.
Vikings are pretty trendy of late. Marvel’s Thor films, for example, gave Viking mythology the Hollywood treatment and plonked its characters in contemporary America. There have been multiple Viking exhibitions, and the new season of the History channel’s show Vikings, loosely based on the legendary Icelandic sagas, is about to hit the small screen, too.
So you may find it hard to avoid overhearing details of the adventures of Vikings’ King Ragnar Lothbrok and his fellows in coming weeks. Undeniably, the names of the television show’s characters, such as Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ivar the Boneless, stand out jarringly from the usual linguistic landscape, and with the confirmation of new characters being added to the cast, this horde of oddball Norse names is sure only to get weirder.
High time, I think, for a masterclass on Viking names.
In all societies names are important linguistic signifiers of identity. They also carry historical information in various ways. In the modern English-speaking world, for example, people are familiar with the convention of given names paired with a surname – e.g. Joseph Henry Bloggs.
But the names of Viking-Age Scandinavians typically consisted of single given names combined with patronymics marking paternal descent. As an example, let’s take the legendary hero Ragnar himself. Written in Old Norse, the sagas describe Ragnarr Sigurðsson (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd). This convention is particularly useful for tracing genealogies. Rather than following the tangled branches of a surname’s family tree, these names more clearly convey genealogical information and can be linked together to neatly unpack family histories.
For example, using the sagas, Ragnar’s name could be expanded further to Ragnarr Sigurðsson, Randvéssonar (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd, the son of Randvér). This structure, still in use in Iceland today, has allowed modern Icelanders to reliably trace their family histories for a millennium.
But if he was born Ragnarr Sigurðsson, where does Lothbrok come from, and what does it mean? The third common component of Viking-Age Scandinavian names was a nickname, Ragnar’s being Lothbrok, or loðbrók in Old Norse. So his full name is Ragnarr loðbrók Sigurðsson. Nicknames were especially important to Viking-Age Scandinavians, as evidence suggests that their stock of given names was extremely thin. Apart from introductions, sagas tend to describe their characters solely by their first and nickname for easier identification. This is why we most often hear about Ragnarr loðbrók, rather than his full name.
An individual’s nickname could even become so ubiquitous that it replaced a given name, as pointed out by Diana Whaley. She highlights examples from the sagas, such as a Thorgrim, named after his father (Þorgrímr Þorgrímsson), who was renamed Snorri, a nickname describing his tempestuous nature.
Though Viking-Age Scandinavians placed greater importance on nicknames than many of us do today, their nicknames functioned in the same way we’re used to: each described a particular aspect of an individual’s nature or life that carried particular resonance. This was not always desirable: names such as Ulf the Squint-Eyed, Eirik Ale-Lover, Eystein Foul-Fart and some that are even worse demonstrate that people rarely had a say in the nicknames they carried.
The makers of the Vikings TV series have attempted to address the idea of Viking nicknames and where they come from, particularly those of Ragnar’s sons, but Ragnar’s nickname – Lothbrok – has gone unexplored and has even been used almost like a surname in the series. This is probably because it means “shaggy trousers”. At first this hardly seems a nickname befitting a Viking warrior king, but then again, neither does Finehair, the nickname of one of the confirmed new characters being introduced to the show, Haraldr Hárfagri.
But while some nicknames are downright slanderous, Ragnar’s and Harald’s are in no way belittling. In fact, they actually contain information about the heroic exploits of their bearers. The sagas tell us that Ragnar earned his nickname from his use of shaggy garments to protect against the bites of a giant serpent he killed, while Harald earned his by swearing never to cut nor comb his hair until he had conquered the whole of Norway.
Other names convey something about the physical attributes of their bearers: such as Walking Hrolf, who apparently was too big to be borne by a horse, or Thorsteinn Dromund, who purportedly moved as slowly as a great warship. Some can even reveal something about the way the individual dressed or their international outlook: such as Bare-legged Magnus, who is recorded in one source as having adopted a more Gaelic fashion sense, and Olaf Sandal, who seems to have taken to wearing contemporary Irish footwear – when he is named in sources, his nickname even usually appears in its Irish form.
These nicknames are essential to historical or fictional portrayals of these characters. Whether used in a medieval saga, or a modern television series, they connect characters to complex webs of allusions, involving family histories, personal back stories, and even more distantly related tales. They were vital in driving the narratives of the sagas and today are an under-utilised resource for reimaginings of these stories.