Scandinavia–East of the Sun

And now the part of the program you have all been waiting for…Vikings!

oddfrostgiantsVikings have a reputation for destroying culture–not contributing to it. When most people think of Vikings they think of longships filled with barbarian raiders who burn monasteries and plunder churches. But there is far more to this culture and people than the inciting incident in a medieval film.

The driving force behind Viking culture was the need for new lands to colonize. Being a fiercely warlike and territorial people, they needed their space, and they were always running out of it. When Eric the Red was banished for murder in 982 he went out and discovered first Iceland, and the Greenland. His son, Lief Ericson, discovered North America–or Vinland to the ancient Norsemen. When the Vikings raided the coast of Scotland and Ireland they often settled, or tried to. In later years a heated dispute arose over whether the Isle of Man belonged to Scotland, or Norway, because it was people by citizens of both kingdoms.

The Vikings were as fierce of poets as they were warriors. Being able to compose and recite drapas, a complex form of alliterative poetry, was considered just as praiseworthy, if not more so, than battle skills. Prior to the arrival of missionaries bringing the Latin script with them, the only writing system used in Scandinavia was a rough rune system. The Runic alphabet was designed to be carved on stone or wood, giving it its distinct straight edges. Many Vikings were literate, and given to carving graffiti wherever they went, but they  never kept records or wrote down their poetry or literature. This is mostly likely due to the lack of practical writing tools, rather than any illiteracy in the population.

volsungThe Scandinavian poets therefore, skalds in their own tongue, passed down their material orally. By the time they were written down in the late eleventh century much had been lost, and anything not transcribed is now gone forever. However, we do have a great number of sagas and mythology, many of them thanks to the work of scholars in 12th century Iceland.

So what do we owe to Viking culture and literature? The names of the days of the week, to begin with. The Lord of the Rings would not be what it is if it weren’t for Scandinavian mythology. Most of Wagner’s operas draw on Norse traditions in some way or another. The English language was born when England was conquered by William the Conqueror in 1066, bringing the Norman tongue to mingle with the Saxon, and William himself was the product of a Nordic colony in France–a compromise between Viking raiders and the French nobility. So go forth–read Scandinavian sagas such as the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, or the Volsung Saga–and if you find yourself overwhelmed with the urge to go to sea and raid a monastery, put your feelings into poetry and song and do some good for the world instead.

Reading List

Breath – Donna Jo Napoli
Od and the Frost Giants – Neil Gaiman
The Brotherband Chronicles – John Flanagan
The Sword of Summer – Rick Riordan

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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