Vikings in ‘A Viking Moon’

In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark.  The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe.  The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah.  For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings.  There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.

Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone.  There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface.  Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings.  Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went.  They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.

rune-stone
An example of a rune stone.

During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship.  Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both.  Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown.  By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family.  It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.

denmark-map
Map of Viking Denmark.

Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain.  A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle.  He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack.   But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family.  A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.

The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time.  One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea.  It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat.  Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia.  In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated.  Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.

Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading.  It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord.  Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.

Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land.  A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed.  The second tier of society belonged to the karls.  They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners.  In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants.  Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men.  The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers.  At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property.  Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.

viking_woman_spinning_the_drop_spindle
Reconstruction of a Viking woman spinning using a drop spindle. Photo by P van der Sluijis via wikimedia commons.

Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth.  However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society.  Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker.  When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence.  A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.

800px-on_viking_expeditions_of_highborn_maids_olaus_magnus
A depiction of two female warriors of royal birth participating in a sea battle. From Olaus Magnus’ History of 1555.

Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers.  There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies.  Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.

 

Messing about in Boats

Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time.  They were essential to the Viking way of life.  They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes.   In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark.  There was a ‘knarr’  an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men.  The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.

viking-ship-al22101

The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings).  If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips.  Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’.  The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness.  The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.

The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships.  They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built.  A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.

The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position.  They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.

 

The Gods

There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly.   Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir.  They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin.  The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.

The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace.  She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death.  Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population.  In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted.  Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber).  To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings.  In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool.  Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life.  But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.

 

freya_queen_of_the_northern_gods_a_book_of_myths
Freya and her spindle – from ‘A Book of Myths’ by Helen Stratton (1915).

Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers.  These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future.  During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance.  It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight.  The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.

In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of).  Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him.  He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops.  As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside.  His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found.  He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw.  Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir.  It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…

A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).thors-hammer

 

On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common.  The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted.  They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle.  It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.

 

 

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