01 October 2012

Inside the Viking Mind: Cosmology, the After-life, and the Self

Mr. Chaisson has penned an excellent article here. If your interest lies in Viking Mythology or Viking mysticism involving sorcerers and shamans, beliefs regarding the final battle, Ragnarök, the afterlife in general, or underlying reasons for the Viking Age in the first place, you will find some titillation herein. (Ed.)
Inside the Viking Mind...
By Bill Chaisson
Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:00 am

This is the full text; a shortened version appeared in print. The full transcript of the interview is also available.
This year’s Messenger Lectures will be delivered next week on September 25, 26, and 27 by Prof. Neil Price of the department of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. (Translator A.E. Stallings will give an additional Messenger Lecture on October18.) Price’s research focuses on Viking culture and is notable for using material evidence to draw conclusions about the Viking state of mind. His first lecture will address their cosmology; the second will explore their ideas about the afterlife; and the last will outline the place of the individual in Viking society. All events will take place in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall at 4:30 p.m.

In 1913 Cornell received a bequest from alumnus Hiram J. Messenger, a professor and insurance company actuary, to begin a series that would “provide a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business and social life”

How does Price’s work address moral standards? “My research is essentially concerned with the human condition,” wrote Price from his home in Uppsala, Sweden, where he lives and holds a second appointment at the university, “the familiar age-old questions about life and its meaning that we all ask ourselves at some point – but placing this in a specific historical context and trying to recapture the Vikings’ own perspective on mortality. Every culture seeks its own answers to the eternal questions, including matters of morality, and I think we can always learn from reflecting on others’ attitudes to these same things that we still puzzle over today.”

Price has been studying Viking culture since his undergraduate years over 30 years ago. At that time the view of medieval Scandinavians as barbarians was fading. Price himself found both the archaeological record and literature of Northern peoples to be sophisticated, full of complex ideas and symbolism.

A basic question about medieval Scandinavia is “Why did they go ‘viking’ in the first place?”

“For nearly 200 years now,” wrote Price, “scholars have tried to find reasons why the Viking raids began, looking for an explanation as to why Scandinavians started to leave their homelands in significant numbers around the end of the eighth century. Over-population and climate change have been suggested, as have restrictive inheritance laws that left large numbers of young men landless and without prospects. Some scholars think that developments in Viking ship design, the creation of the perfect fast raiding vessel, made such activity inevitable; others argue that the Vikings’ alleged pagan mindset of aggressive violence was a contributory factor. It is obvious that there was no single cause, but simple opportunism played a part, and over time the rewards became ever more attractive in relation to the relatively minimal risks.”

The Norse believed in predetermination; one’s path through life toward any one of several after-life destinations could not be changed. Their emphasis was on meeting that end with dignity. It is one of the few cultures with no idea of an eternal afterlife. Everything – the living, the dead, the gods and all matter – will vanish into a void in the fire and ice of Ragnarök, the final battle.

Written records make it clear that shamanic practice of communicating with the spirit world, so central to pagan Norse religion, was primarily the realm of women.

“Foremost among these sorceresses,” wrote Price, were the völur, which means ‘staff-bearers’, who used their skills mainly to see the future. It has proved possible to tentatively identify many graves of such women in the archaeological record, buried with their metal staffs, unusual clothes and a variety of charms, amulets and even hallucinogenic drugs.”

Since the 19th century the interpretation of Viking sagas has swung from acceptance of them as literal history to treating them as historical fiction to a nuanced view that mines them for information that corroborates what is known from contemporary written sources (Arab accounts being among the more reliable) and archaeological evidence.

“Archaeology brings us close to the Vikings,” wrote the archaeologist, “telling us how they dressed, what they ate, where they lived, and how they embellished their environment with decoration, symbols and magnificent art over almost every surface: their world was intensely visual. Perhaps the most unexpected side of the Vikings is their poetry, of which much has been preserved, painting their ideas and aspirations in imagery of astonishing beauty and complexity – different Vikings indeed.”

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