Tag Archives: Old Norse

History Undusted: A Small Treatise on the Viking Age, began at Lindisfarne

Viking ship

In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain.  The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history.  Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.

I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages.  They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions:  The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.

“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)

This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne.  Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points:  “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807.  The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.”  The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa.  Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.

Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.

I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries:  Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art.  Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world.  Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.

Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves.  It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port.  So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom?  The answer might actually be found in Rome.

Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier.  It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope.  Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.

In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology.  In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)].  Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.

“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed.  Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798….  Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]

The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea;  Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.

The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants.  They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea.  The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.

Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld.  But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim.  One might say that what goes around comes around.  It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries.  And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.

Originally posted on History Undusted on 14 July 2013
Image Credit: Origin Unknown, Pinterest
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The Eddic Poems (Poetic Edda)

Poetic EddaIn the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems.  What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down.  The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were.  For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.

I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript.  These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia.  Enjoy!

EP17:  “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”

EP20:  “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”

EP30:  “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”

EP31:  “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”

EP35:  “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”

EP36:  “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”

EP36:  “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”

EP39:  “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”

EP41:  “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”

EP44:  “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”

EP45:  “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”

EP45:  “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”

EP48:  “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”

EP71:  “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”

EP167:  “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”

EP250:  “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”

“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”

EP277:  “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)

EP296:  A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.

EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”

EP300:  Raising a red shield was a signal for war.

EP304:  “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”

“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”

EP305:  “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)

“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships:  Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.

EP349:  “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.”  “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”

EP368:  “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

EP369:  the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.

EP373:  “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”

EP374:  “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.

EP378:  “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”

EP379:  “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”

“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”

EP382:  “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.”  This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

EP398:  “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”

EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.”  “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”

EP400:  “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”

“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”

EP405:  Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.

EP409:  The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.

EP418:  “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”.  A proverb.

“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.

EP452:  “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”

EP455:  “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”

EP457:  “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”

EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake

EP468:  The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.

EP513:  “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.”  = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”

EP524:  “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.”  In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).

EP546:  “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).

 

Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.

 

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The Etymology of February and Wednesday

 

February & Wednesday

We can blame both spellings on the Romans!  February is fairly clear:  Februa is thought to be a Sabine word (maybe we could blame them for italics, too), meaning “purifications”; Februarius mensis was the month of purification.  Before 450 BC this was actually the last month in the ancient calendar and referred to the feast of purification celebrated on the ides of that month throughout the Roman Empire.  Ides was the term used for approximately mid-month, being the 13th or 15th, depending on whether that particular month had 29 or 31 days.  Interestingly, in English it replaced the Old English solmonað (“mud month”… very appropriate, that) sometime in the 12th century when they began using the Old French term Feverier.

Wednesday accumulated slightly more pedigree before landing in our agendas:  It started off as the “day of (the god) Mercury,” the Latin dies Mercurii.  It was confiscated by the Scandinavians for their own religious version for Odin, Oðinsdagr (Old Norse) or Onsdag in Swedish.  This came with them over the Channel and was adopted by their English counterparts as wodnesdæg, or “Woden’s day.”  Old Frisian came fairly close to modern English with Wonsdei (I’ve probably seen that spelling on Facebook from people who can’t type with their i-phones properly…).  By the mid- 400 AD period, the Germanic Goths had been converted from Paganism to Christianity by Greek missionaries, and their language began to reflect the changes:  The astrological or religious terms gave way to ecclesiastical (or at least neutral) ones.  This difference is reflected in words like Mittwoch (German for Wednesday, meaning literally “mid-week”), sreda (Russian), or środa (Polish), both meaning literally “middle.”

So there you have it:  Blame it on the Romans, or the Vikings; but whoever you blame, just remember to spell them in correct modern English.

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