Ex Libris Kirkland

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Subtitle A History of the Vikings
First Written 2020
Genre Nonfiction
Origin US
Publisher Basic Books
ISBN-10 0465096980
ISBN-13 978-0465096985
My Copy library copy
First Read September 11, 2020

Children of Ash and Elm

Matt, do you want to read a semi-scholarly history of the Vikings? Hell yes. Full of individual facts that are fascinating, but also broad concepts about the Vikings themselves that are very different from what I've been exposed to.

Noted on October 17, 2020

While little physical evidence for the Scandinavian presence in Constantinople is evident today, some striking examples have survived in the Ayasofya, or Hagia Sophia, cathedral. Originally built as an Orthodox basilica in the sixth century, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453; today it serves as a museum. In the Viking Age, it was the main place of worship for the imperial family. Several runic inscriptions have been found there, scratched into column bases and the like, including many etched into the balustrades of the upper gallery. This is where the imperial family were seated when attending public ceremonies, and they would have been accompanied by the Varangians. One imagines guard members standing on watch-bored by yet another interminable service in a language they didn't understand using a palmed blade to surreptitiously carve their names for posterity.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

The dead proverbially do not bury themselves, and the objects laid in a grave do not necessarily reflect the possessions of the deceased in life. New post-mortem identities can be created through the association of artefacts and the corpse. How can one tell? Is it possible to read an individual's life from the material repertoire of their funeral? Caution is vital; each case should be examined contextually and on equal terms, working towards a balance of probabilities.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

All this activity churned up the ground, so regular pathways in the settlements were strewn with brushwood, planks over the worst parts, and in some market emporia even crushed stone. Everything was also covered in wood chips from all the timberwork. Once, in the Russian urban centre of Novgorod, where the waterlogged soil preserves such things well, I breathed in the scent of fresh pine a thousand years old, the whole site just saturated in the fragrance from all the woodworking waste lying where the Viking-Age carpenters had left it.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

The consumption of food and drink was in due course followed by other needs (except perhaps in Valholl). In the countryside, nature provided its own open-air lavatories, but on settlements, latrines were usually dug as deep pits in the vicinity of the dwelling structures. In urban settings, they were in the backyards. Often lined with wickerwork for stability, they sometimes had a stick or -the grand option- even a holed plank over the top to sit on. When almost full, the pits were simply filled in and sealed, and a new one was dug nearby. They are among the most unpleasant elements of early medieval life to excavate, especially if the ground is waterlogged, thus preserving everything inside the latrines in pristine condition, still moist and with its original bouquet; I once spent a nasty week trying to hold my breath while digging to the base of one in York. Inside are the clumps of moss used as toilet paper, the scraps of cloth that were the Viking equivalent of sanitary towels, and, occasionally, all manner of other objects that people had dropped while otherwise engaged but sensibly decided not to retrieve.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

In the Viking mind, somewhere inside each of us is also a hamingjd, a remarkable being that is the personification of a person's luck. This was a very important attribute for the people of the North in the late Iron Age, as everyone's path in life was determined by fate but rode on a wave of luck. A woman or man who was lucky, and seen to be so by their contemporaries as a result of their success, was a fortunate and respected person indeed. It is no accident that Leif Eiriksson, allegedly the first European to land in North America, was also known as the Lucky. Interestingly, the hamingjur (in their plural form) could leave the body and walk about, mostly invisible except to those with the right kind of sight. There are saga accounts of men retreating from a coming battle because their opponents clearly had too many luck spirits with them, and nobody in their right mind would go against such odds. Curiously, a hamingja also had independent will and in extreme situations might even choose to leave its person. The English saying that someone's luck has 'run out' is actually using a Norse proverb except that the Vikings meant it literally.

The last part of the fourfold soul was something else entirely: a separate being that somehow dwelled inside every human, inseparable from them but also distinct. The fylgja was a female spirit--always female, even for a man-and accompanied a person everywhere throughout life. How marvellous, and how utterly subversive of the male-focussed stereotype, that every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.

The word fylgja means 'follower', although sometimes it is translated fetch' and equated with similar beings from neighbouring cultures. The fylgja was a guardian a protector but also the embodied link to one's ancestors (in some texts, they are strongly reminiscent of the disir, and at times the two beings appear to be the same). She moved on at death, continuing down the family line (although exactly how is unknown did the fylgja wait for the next to be born, or could a person inherit one long after birth?). In any event, everyone carried with them through them- the spirit of their family, watching over them and guiding their steps. The fylgjur could not be seen other than in dreams, where they appeared with warnings and advice. Of all the Viking-Age spiritbeings, these have proved the most tenacious. Modern Icelanders roll their eyes at being asked by visitors, again, if they believe in elves but question them about their fylgjur and you may be met with a level stare and perhaps a change of subject.

This sense of something utterly alien beneath the skin, occasionally manifesting itself in action or words, may have been one of the most significant differences between the Vikings and the people they encountered. Certainly for a European Christian, the composite soul with its shapes and shells would have been deeply unnerving. It may also have felt unnervingly familiar because pre-Christian Europe held many such beliefs, and they were deep-rooted enough to survive the coming of the new faith, buried in memory and folklore.

By now it should be apparent that the Vikings were decidedly not the unsophisticated barbarians of stereotype.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

If you met a Viking-Age Scandinavian in the street, you would have seen their hamr--her or his 'shell' or 'shape' essentially what for us is the body. Conceived as a container for other aspects of the person, the hamr was the physical manifestation of what somebody was, but, crucially, it could alter. This is where the concept of shape-changing comes from, in the sense that the actual structures of the body were believed to flow and shift. But this was not true for everyone, only for the gifted (or, perhaps, the cursed). Most people stayed as they appeared, but some, in special circumstances-on certain nights, when stressed or frightened, in anger, or at times of extreme relaxation- could become something else.

For men with these abilities, the alternative form was most often a large predator, such as a bear or wolf (one of the most famous Vikings of all, the warrior-poet Egil Skalla-Grimsson had a grandfather named Kveldulf, 'Evening-Wolf', with all this implied). Women seem to have borne a special affinity with water creatures, particularly seals, as we learn in tales of sea-wives and selkies that have parallels in many Northern cultures. Some women could change into birds. Whatever the form of these shifters, their eyes always stayed human.

Such individuals crossed the borders between people and animals. We do not know how they were really perceived by their contemporaries, but in our terms, they perhaps formed a very special kind of gender. Our own happily expanding spectrum includes many variations of the self, but they are all bounded by the human; the Vikings may have gone beyond even that, into what we now call posthumanism (but they got there first). However, it is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had fine singing voice, and your neighbour could become a bear when irritated.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

However, it is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had a fine singing voice, and your neighbour could become a bear when irritated.

Inside the 'shape' of a person was the second part of their being, the hugr, for which no modern translation really suffices. Combining elements of personality, temperament, character, and especially mind, the hugr was who someone really was, the absolute essence of you, free of all artifice or surface affect. It is the closest thing the Vikings had to the independent soul found in later world faiths, because it could leave the physical body behind. The afterlife beliefs of the Vikings, which they certainly had in elaborate variety, will be considered in due course, but it is less clear what part of a person 'moved on' after death. As far as one can tell, it was probably the hugr.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

The Vikings were not alone, but very much shared their world with a multitude of 'Others' not just other humans, but other things altogether. The most obvious were the gods, and the plural form in itself set them apart from the monotheistic cultures of the great Continent to the south. They were also familiar with those divinities' servants (some of them utterly terrifying) and a whole host of other beings, spirits, and creatures that have survived under the comforting label of folklore' but at the time were very real.

This question of reality is important because the Vikings did not believe in these things any more than someone today 'believes in' the sea. Instead they knew about them: all this was as much a natural part of the world as trees and rocks. That these beings could not be seen need not have been significant.

Quoted on October 17, 2020

Ex Libris Kirkland is a super-self-absorbed reading journal made by Matt Kirkland. Copyright © 2001 - .
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