The Viking Age
To many folk, "Northern tradition" means "the religion of the Vikings". While, as we have seen, that is a long way from the whole truth, the Viking Age nevertheless plays a special part in the memory and rebirth of the elder Troth. It was during this time that the Heathen Scandinavians swept down on christian Europe, raiding and conquering; during this time that the monks prayed for deliverance from "the fury of the Norsemen". The word "Viking" itself, literally "bay-goer", was used to mean "raider" or "pirate"; and this is the image which has fastened itself to the Northern folk. The dragon-prowed Viking longship is thought of by many folk as the very sign of Northern culture - fitting in more ways than one. Not only does the longship show forth the warrior soul of the North, which is what folk usually think of first when they see the dragon-prow raised, but it is also one of the most advanced technological developments of Western Europe at this time, and the exquisite wood-carving of the ship from the Oseberg burial show that our folk were as skilled in the ways of fine art as in the ways of war and invention.
The Viking Age is also the chief source of our surviving myths, recorded by the skaldic and Eddic poets. This, and the following efforts of Icelandic antiquarians such as Snorri Sturluson to preserve their country's heritage, is the reason why most folk learn about the Germanic god/esses by their Old Norse names, against the background of Viking Age culture. Again, it should be noted that the elaborate word-hoard of our forebears shows us a great degree of cultural development: the poetry of the skalds was more complex in form and content, and called for a greater level of lore and wit to understand it, than any poetry being composed in "civilized" Western Europe at that time. These Northern "barbarians", in fact, believed that one of the greatest and most impressive gifts a man could possess was the ability to make poems as fast as he could speak. Perhaps the ultimate Viking, showing most of the traits which characterized our forebears, was Egill Skalla-Grímsson - a huge warrior with a furious temper and frightening appearance, who was also one of the most skilled and subtle poets of his age, a runic magician, and a prosperous farmer.
The dreaded "horned helmet" associated with the Vikings in popular culture was, as most true folk know by now, not actually worn in the Viking Age - and certainly never in battle. No horned helmet from the Viking Age has ever been found. There is a small core of reality behind the fictional "Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo" helms, however. Ritual horned helms were used in Denmark in the Bronze Age (though the bronze horns were shaped far more like lurs than like cow-horns) and archæologists have found several Viking Age male figurines (including one from Kungsängen and one from Ribe) wearing what at first glance appear to be horned helmets. However, a close look at the earlier versions of the figure which appear on items such as the Torslunda helm-plate matrices (Vendel Age) shows that the "horns" are actually tipped with bird-heads; and those on the Ribe figure appear to be whole birds. The heads are hardly recognisable on the Kungsängen figurine, but if one has the other images to compare it with, it can be seen that the slightly forked tips of the "horns" are probably meant to show open beaks. In fact, it is likely that these images may originally have shown either Óðinn himself, with his two ravens flanking his head, or else an Óðinn-warrior ritually decked out to resemble the god - a far cry from Hägar the Horrible and his cow-horn headgear!
In general, the keyword to the Viking Age is dynamism. The Northerners were continuously reaching out in every direction, striving to fare farther and win more - more land, more gold, more lore, more glory. The Viking Age is thought to have officially opened with the raid on the christian monastery of Lindisfarne, off the coast of England. This took place sometime in late 792 or early 793 (there are various readings of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's dates). The next fifty years saw an explosion of Viking activity: the ships of the Northmen sailed up the rivers of France (Ragnar loðbrók sacked Paris in 845 C.E.) and were feared as far south as Moorish Spain. At the same time, the Swedish Rus were trekking east to Miklagarðr (Constantinople). Some of them stayed in the city as the Emperor's Varangian guard, others simply conquered and settled their way along the Volga, building cities there (the Rus founded Novgorod and Kiev in the 860's) and, in time, giving their tribal name to Russia. In Ireland, where only small local fort-settlements had been known before the Vikings introduced the very concept of large towns and cities: Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, and Wicklow were all founded as Viking settlements in the 840s.
The British Isles were the main target for Viking attacks, however, and in 850 C.E. the Danish warriors began not only to strike and raid England, but also to winter there overnight and to conquer land for themselves to hold. By the end of the third quarter of the ninth century, the northern and eastern parts of England (the area known as the Danelaw) was almost wholly under Scandinavian control; only the efforts of King Alfred (best-known for the burning of fictional cakes) kept the Danes from taking over the whole country. Alfred turned the tide of invasion in 878, defeating the Danish leader Guthrum and forcing him and his folk to accept baptism as part of the settlement which established the borders of their lands.
While the Danes were turning their attention to conquering other lands, Haraldr hárfagri (Hairfair) was in the process of uniting all the small kingdoms of Norway under himself as ruler, something which hardly sat well with many Norwegians. Some were inspired by Haraldr's example to go win lands elsewhere; others began to move to the newly-discovered Iceland (the settlement of which started ca. 870).
When the Norse came to Iceland, they found it uninhabited except for a few Irish monks, who hastily packed up and left, and a great horde of land-wights and trolls. Although the land itself was of varied character, including glaciers, volcanoes, and lava-fields, parts of it were green and fruitful, the general climate relatively mild, and the waters teeming with fish. The country was also said to have been largely covered with forest - or rather, scrub birches of the sort that still grow there in patches. The new settlers quickly established themselves in the farmland all around the coast; the interior of the country was then, as it is today, totally uninhabitable. The full story of the settlement is told in Íslendingabók and Landnámabók; many of the better-known sagas (such as Laxdæla saga, Eyrbyggja saga, and Egils saga) tell how certain clans came to the country and took their lands there. This was often guided by the gods or forebears: one settler, Raven-Floki, was shown the way by a pair of ravens which he had blessed (blótaði) in Norway (Landnámabók); the Þórsgoði, Þórólfr Mosturskeggi, cast house-pillars carved with his god's image into the water and settled where they came ashore; and Egill's father Skalla-Grímr did the same thing with the coffin of his father Kveld-Úlfr, who had died during the voyage (Egils saga).
As well as explorers, settlers, warriors, artisans, and poets, the Viking Age Scandinavians were also merchants, trading all the way down to the north of Lapland and up to North Africa. Their chief items of export were furs, walrus ivory, and slaves; many items of extreme rarity came into the Scandinavian countries, such as the peacock found in the Gokstad ship-burial (Erikson and Löfman, A Scandinavian Saga, p. 203) and the lizard-skin purse from Birka (Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 195), but more common were such things as silk, wine, and glass. A great deal of cash also flowed Northward; Arabic silver coins are not uncommon items in Viking hoards. The major towns of the Viking Age were large merchant centres such as York, Dublin, and Birka, where goods both local and imported seem to have changed hands at a great rate. The Scandinavian traders of the Viking Age, in fact, probably had a greater effect on the West than the Northern raiders: as far-faring and ambitious merchants, they can be seen to have brought a new and exciting life to the economy of Europe.
The tenth century was marked by the consolidation of Northern gains and the integration of Scandinavian settlers into the lands they had claimed. In 911/12, the whole area of Normandy was given to the Northmen from whom it gets its name; more and more Scandinavians were migrating either eastward into Russia and the Byzantine Empire, or westward to the British Isles and Iceland. Greenland was discovered by Eiríkr inn rauði in 982, and settlement there began a few years later. Bjarni Herjólfsson (after whom the "Bjarni Herjólfsson Icelandic Navigation Memorial Award" is named - see "Word-Hoard"), getting lost while trying to find Greenland in 985, was likely the first European to see America, unless one believes that the Irish St. Brendan really did cross the Atlantic and return in a leather boat (not impossible, as proven by Tim Severin's "Brendan Voyage", but perhaps somewhat dubious). Attempts were made to settle "Vinland" between 1000-1005, led by Leifr Eiríksson and Freydís Eiríksdóttir, but these proved unsuccessful, and for some time the authenticity of the saga accounts was doubted. However, the excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, which turned up, among other items, a Norse soapstone spindle-whorl, a ring-headed bronze pin, and foundations of a sort typical of Scandinavian settlement, have proven definitively that the sagas which speak of Vinland are based on reasonably solid fact.
On a religious level, many other changes were taking place during the Viking Age. Thonar, or Þórr, seems to have been rising to greater and greater prominence; the Norse rulers of Ireland, for instance, were spoken of as the "tribe of Þórr" (Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, p. 94), and the most common item which we can definitely identify as a Viking Age religious symbol is the Hammer of Þórr, which often appeared as a pendant and/or grave-amulet at this time, perhaps in response to the christian habit of wearing a cross. One Danish jewelry-mould, in fact, shows Hammers and crosses being cast together (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, p. 191). The most famous "mixed piece", however - the dragon-headed pendant from Iceland which has often been seen as a crosslike Hammer with the christian cross cut into it - is sometimes suspected to be simply a rather strangely shaped cross (Graham-Campbell, The Viking World, p. 187). In any event, Þórr seems to have been the chief god of the Viking Age, closely followed by Freyr. Óðinn, as the patron of poets and especially the god of battle from whose names most war-kennings were formed, is far more prominent in skaldic poetry than other forms of evidence suggest was the case in general worship. The skaldic influence also seems to have led to the (probably late tenth-century) formulation of Óðinn's hall as largely or exclusively a warriors' afterlife.
A growing interest in the end of the world and the doom of the gods also seems to have made itself felt in the last half of the tenth century. Part of this may have stemmed from the millenarian hysteria which was gripping christian Europe at this time; part of it probably came from the encroachment of christianity on the Northern countries, as well as the series of disastrous battles ravaging them. Both Hákonarmál and Eiríksmál, the memorial poems of Hákon the Good and Eiríkr Blood-Axe, link the deaths of these kings with the threat of the doom of the gods. Völuspá, which tells of the last battle in chilling terms shaped by both Heathenism and christianity, is generally accepted as having been written around the year 1000.
It was in the tenth century that the influence of christianity first began to really spread into the Northern lands. In 965, King Haraldr Blue-tooth of Denmark was converted, and he in turn (as the runestone of Jelling with its bizarre tendrilled crucifix proclaimed) christianized the Danes. Several of the Norwegian kings were converted during their sojourns in England. This was the case with Hákon the Good, but upon his return to Norway, thanks to the guidance of his friend Sigurðr, jarl of Hlaðir, he returned to the Heathen ways which were necessary for him to keep the support of his folk, and upon his death (961), the great Heathen skald Eyvindr skáldaspillr praised him for protecting the holy steads and spoke of his welcome by the gods and einherjar (Hákonarmál). The sons of Eiríkr Blood-Axe, who came after Hákon the Good, were christians who destroyed the holy places; Eyvindr speaks of how their reign was attended by bad weather and famine. However, they were succeeded by Hákon the Great (son of Sigurðr jarl), whose reign Einar skálaglamm describes in the most glowing terms in Vellekla, telling how the earth became fruitful again when Hákon restored the hofs and wih-steads.
The next source of christian influence on Norway was Óláfr Tryggvason (Óláfr the Traitor - not to be confused with Óláfr inn digri or "St. Óláfr"), who was likewise converted while abroad and who, with the support of Haraldr Blue-Tooth, found it politically expedient not only to stay christian, but to use his faith as a pretext for rewinning the sole rule of Norway which had been won by Haraldr inn hárfagri. Óláfr promoted christianity by bribery and, when that failed, sword and torture. A general example of his methods was seen in the story of Eyvindr kinnrifi, one of the most notable folk who resisted conversion. The king tried to convince him "with blithe words", then with gifts and great banquets, then with threats of death. At last Óláfr had a brazier of glowing coals set upon Eyvindr's belly, which burst from the heat; Eyvindr then spoke his last words of defiance against the christian king and died (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 76, Heimskringla). Óláfr also sent missionaries to Iceland, with variable success. He was killed in the year 1000 C.E., brought down by an alliance gathered by Queen Sigríðr (whom he had understandably angered during their unsuccessful courtship by striking her in the face and calling her a "Heathen bitch" when she refused to convert for him).
The southern faith had found some interest in Iceland, however, leading to much strife. In the year 1000, the conflict had become serious enough that it was decided that all folk should live under one troth and one law, and that the person who should choose would be Þórgeirr the Lawspeaker. He went "under the cloak" for a day and a night, a description which may hint at a shamanic ritual of communication with the gods and ghosts (Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Under the Cloak). When he came forth again, he decreed that all the folk of Iceland should become christian, but that Heathen practice (including the eating of horsemeat and the exposure of deformed infants) should still be allowed in private. Upon his return home, Þórgeirr cast his god-images into the falls called Goðafoss. It is thought by many Heathens now that Þórgeirr's decision actually made it possible for Icelanders to preserve the tales and poetry of Heathenism, protecting them against the economic stranglehold which the mainland could have exerted upon them (and would have in later years) had they officially held to the elder Troth, and thus leading to the rebirth of our ways in the fullness of time. Þórgeirr's act of casting the god-images into the falls is especially interesting since, as we know, this was a usual means of making sacrifices, and earlier holy images were likewise hidden for Heathen purposes. We may perhaps guess that these deeds were guided by whatever Þórgeirr learned while he was "under the cloak" - maybe, with an eye towards what should become in the age when the gods should rise from the waters of Wyrd and take their high seats once more?
Shortly after Óláfr the Traitor, Norway was plagued by a second christian Óláfr - Óláfr inn digri (the Fat or Big-Mouthed), a great tyrant and destroyer of Heathen ways. Óláfr was more hated by the folk of his country than any king before him; in the version of his story given in Heimskringla, Snorri tells us that "He investigated the christianity of men, and when it seemed lacking to him, he made known the right customs to them, and he laid so much upon it that if there was anyone who did not wish to leave Heathenism, he drove some out of the land; some he let have their feet or hands hewn off or their eyes gouged out; some he let be hanged or hewn down, but he let no one go unpunished who did not wish to serve (the christian) god" (ch. 73). For these charming activities, he became the patron saint of Norway, whose feast day is still celebrated there today. Before his death, even the christian Norwegians were less enthusiastic about him: when the Danish king Knút came to Norway, there was no one who did not support him against Óláfr, so that he won the country without shedding a drop of blood. Óláfr then fled the country, and when he tried to come back, the folk rose against him, so that "they had there such a great host, that there was no one who had ever seen such a great army come together in Norway...There were many landed men and many very powerful farmers, but the great mass was made up of cotters and workmen...That host was greatly raised to foeship against the king" (ch. 216). Óláfr inn digri was slain at the battle of Stiklarstaðir in 1030.
The Viking Age is thought to have come to its official end with the death of Haraldr hardraði at the Battle of Stamford in 1066 - the last direct Scandinavian attempt to conquer another land. Haraldr himself, who had previously served in the Varangian guard in Byzantium (among other adventures) and was known as a vicious and subtle strategist as well as a mighty warrior, is sometimes spoken of as "the Last Viking"; certainly he was not followed by any kings with great ambitions outside their own countries, so his death may well stand as the end of the age. Ironically, after the English king Harold Godwinsson had defeated Haraldr hardraði, he was called at once to march his weary army back south to Pevensey - where the Viking-descended, but French-speaking and totally assimilated Norman, William the Bastard, had just landed with his own host. Harold Godwinsson fell in that battle; the Normans took England, imposing their own system of feudalism and, to a degree, the French language upon the Saxons.
Heathenism, however, survived longer in Sweden; it was not until 1100 that the great hof at Uppsala was broken. Sweden had always been the most conservative and the most religious of the Northern nations; and since its contacts tended to reach eastward rather than westward and the other lands bordering the Baltic still by and large kept their native traditions, there was less pressure on the Swedes until the end of the eleventh century. Today, Old Uppsala - the heart of Swedish rule and religious activity in the old days - is still thought of as the holiest stead of Northern Heathendom by many true folk.
With the suppression of Heathenism, Scandinavian artistic culture, which had been so largely based on the Northern religious beliefs, eventually ceased to be productive. The last phase of the highly developed native art, the "Urnes style", had effectively died out by 1200, to be replaced by rather inferior attempts at imitating Romanesque art; Norse poetry lasted longer, but was already beginning to go into decline by the time Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda (about 1220). The last bastion of native Germanic creativity was Iceland, where the antiquarian interest of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries led to the writing of the sagas and the preservation of the older poetic lore; but eventually the Icelanders ran out of material and, having no productive/evolving religion to support further literary development, went into a decline similar to that of their mainland cousins.