27 August 2010

Medieval Viking Burial Practices

The burial of a Viking warrior was detailed in a fictional sense in the first book of the Axe of Iron series, Axe of Iron: The Settlers beginning on P - 110.  The following research article alludes to similar findings of what must have been an important event to the Norse people.
The Vikings' burning question: some decent graveside theatre

Magnus Linklater

From The Times
October 26, 2008

The average Viking lived a life in which spirituality and thoughts of immortality played a far more important part than the rape and pillage more usually associated with his violent race, according to new research. A study of thousands of excavated Viking graves suggests that rituals were performed at the graveside in which stories about life and death were presented as theatre, with live performances designed to help the passage of the deceased from this world into the next.

Neil Price, Chair of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, who will be presenting his findings at a lecture at the university tonight, believes that these rituals may have been the early beginnings of the Norse sagas, which told stories about men and gods in the pagan world. He said that close study of the graves and the artefacts they contained, as well as contemporary accounts of Viking funerals, presented a far more complex picture of their lives than the simple myth of the Viking raider.

Detailed analysis of the burials revealed a remarkable variety of objects found alongside the bodies - from everyday items to great longships, wagons and sledges, together with animals of many different species and even human sacrifices.

Professor Price said: “Close analysis of Viking burials not only gives us an insight into the workings of their minds, but most importantly how slim they perceived the boundaries to be between life and death, and between humans and animals.”

He said that the burial rituals suggested the Vikings had no defined religion, but instead made up a set of spiritual beliefs, which were then acted out at the graveside. These became a form of theatre that predates the sagas and may have contained the origins of Norse mythology - the inspiration for Wagner's operas.

Professor Price said: “There seem to have been something like stage directions dictating how these rituals were to be enacted. Eyewitness accounts suggest that there were as many as ten days of ritual, with enormous time and effort put into the performances.”

The artefacts buried with the dead varied enormously. “No two graves were the same,” he said. Some bore evidence of a military career, with whole ships containing the corpse left open. Other graves were found to have had animal remains - one had no fewer than 20 decapitated horses - and occasionally there were human remains as well. Some Vikings were buried with their wives and families, others were laid to rest in more simple single graves.

Professor Price said: “What emerges from these studies is that these were an immensely sophisticated people, with a complex set of beliefs, and a strong interest in poetry. It was an utterly different world from ours. They were aggressively pagan, and strongly anti-Christian, perhaps as a reaction to the Christian missionaries. But there is great richness in this non-Christian world.”

Most of the existing records on Norse mythology date from the 11th to 18th centuries, having gone through more than two centuries of oral tradition that is thought to carry the seeds of Germanic legends such as the Valkyrie, the Niebelungen and Siegfried. Hundreds of place names in Scandinavia are named after the gods.

“The research focused on the examination of excavated material and Old Norse texts, combined with eyewitness descriptions of Viking burial ceremonies found in contemporary literature,” said Professor Price. “The study demonstrated the significant role that storytelling and dramatisation played in the Viking disposal of the dead. It seems clear that public enactments took place on these occasions, intended to provide the deceased with a poetic passage into the next life.

“The work suggests that Vikings used these funeral stories as a way of connecting the world of the living and the worlds of the dead. It is likely that these dramas, which were created and acted out using objects that were placed with the body in the grave or on the cremation pyre, form the beginnings of what we know today as Norse mythology.”

20 August 2010

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13 August 2010

Thor’s Hammer Found in Viking Graves

National Geographic News
August, 11 2010

Norse warriors saw "thunderstones" as protection against lightning.

Long dismissed as accidental additions to Viking graves, prehistoric "thunderstones"- fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor's hammerhead- were actually purposely placed as good-luck talismans, archaeologists say.

Using fire-starting rock such as flint, Stone Age people originally created the stones to serve as axes. But the Vikings, whose Iron Age heyday lasted from about A.D. 800 to 1050, saw the primitive tools as lightning repellent.

Because the axes predate the Viking age by thousands of years, archaeologists have long seen the stones as random artifacts, perhaps stirred up from earlier, lower burials or dropped in centuries after the Viking era.

But now "we have made enough discoveries of Stone Age artifacts in younger graves to say that they make a clear pattern," archaeologist Eva Thäte, of the University of Chester in the U.K., said in a statement.

Vikings Superstitious?

To solve the thunderstone mystery, Thäte and fellow archaeologist Olle Hemdorff excavated Viking graves in Scandinavia and trawled through catalogs of grave goods from hundreds of Viking burials- all dating to the Iron Age (about 600 A.D. to 1000 A.D.).

For example, in Scandinavia the researchers found about ten Viking burials that held thunderstones up to 5,000 years older than the graves themselves- including a thunderstone in a previously untouched, fifth-century A.D. stone coffin.

In addition, what might be called miniature thunderstones- small, rounded-off flint "eggs"- have been found in Viking graves in Iceland, where flint doesn't occur naturally.

"These people must have gone to all the effort of bringing these goods over from Norway, on an exceedingly dangerous boat journey," Hemdorff, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, told National Geographic News.

"There is no rational explanation as to why they should appear in the graves- the pebbles were far too small to be useful in any way," Hemdorff said. "It shows that these stones had very special significance and suggests that these people were highly superstitious."

Mighty Thor Connection

The prehistoric stones' "special significance" to Vikings may have derived from legends of Thor, the Norse thunder god said to create lightning with his battle hammer, Mjöllnir.

To the Vikings, "three things seem to be important when choosing thunderstones," Hemdorff said.

"The form had to be similar to an ax or a hammer- that is, a ground stone or flint. The stone had to have 'flaming' properties, which flint and quartz have. And all the stones were damaged with the edge chipped off- 'proof' that they fell from the sky," he added.

"Thor's mission was to protect gods and people against evil and chaos," he said in a statement. "It was therefore believed that Thor's rocks protected houses and people."

Now the new grave survey suggests the rocks were believed to protect souls too, the archaeologists say.

Far-Flung Phenomenon?

Similar discoveries in United Kingdom graves suggest that Vikings weren't the only ancient Europeans who saw millennia-old tools as accoutrements for the afterlife.

"In southeast Britain the Lexden Tumulus- a wealthy late Iron Age burial dating to just before the Roman conquest- included within it not only rich contemporary imports from the classical world but also a Bronze [ax] dating to the Bronze age," said John Creighton, an Iron Age expert from the University of Reading in the U.K.

When such out-of-date artifacts are found randomly at archaeological sites, "it is easy to explain them away as residual objects," Creighton said. But when they're found "sealed in graves, as they occasionally are, they are clearly treasured objects."

Archaeologist Tim Champion thinks Iron Age people ritually buried prehistoric tools to commemorate more than just deaths.

In southern England grinding stones and Stone Age stone axes have been found in Iron Age ritual pits that aren't associated with burial but instead may have been used, for example, to mark the end of an occupation of a site, said Champion, of the University of Southampton in the U.K.

"They are a real oddity and were certainly placed there deliberately, but we're not sure why," he said. "I suspect that these people were not so very different from us, and they would have had superstitious folk beliefs."

Posted by J. A. Hunsinger 13 August 2010

06 August 2010

Medieval Vikings--a Discussion

I wrote the following to the editor of Scandinavian Press after the release of the Summer 2010 edition of the magazine in response to errors I perceived in a featured article and a vitriolic bombast of the film industry's efforts to depict medieval Vikings.
We have much information about the weapons of the period, the extent of their depredations throughout what is now western Europe, their ships, crafts, and so forth, but little about the people themselves, given that all save the nobility were illiterate, without a written language, and more than 1000-years have transpired since they lived.
I thought perhaps my readers, or those who follow the medieval Vikings, might find the topics of interest.
Dear Editor,

The following is in response to two Letters to the Editor in your excellent Summer 2010 edition of Scandinavian Press, Summer 2010.
It’s the Viking Team, Ellen Boryen:
while realizing that your letter is a paraphrased summation of Dr. Hale’s presentation, there are a couple points I feel compelled to make on your conclusions. I will assume that your reference to the Swedish Vikings burning their ships as the reason we have no examples of those ships, to be a reference to the 10th century writings of Ibn Fadlan, specifically his portrayal of the funeral pyre of a Rus chieftain. The Rus are thought to be Swedish Norsemen. Rus may also be the term used by the Swedish Vikings to describe the locals of present day Eastern Europe. Either contention is argumentative in some circles. Like almost everything regarding these people, we do not know for certain. Actually, several Swedish ships and boats have been found, one 20 meter example as recently as last year at the bottom of Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. To say that ‘Swedish Vikings burned their ships in burial rituals’ may not be the whole story. As you write, there are many examples of ships that have been recovered throughout Scandinavia. Every large museum that I have visited has examples of these magnificent ships. The 98’ Sea Stallion, Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DE, is a computer scale copy of one of them and at this writing the largest extant. From Sea Stallion’s voyages we now know that the square rigged Viking ship was fast and capable in all seas. You are correct in saying that the medieval Viking ships lacked a traditional keel, however; the huge steerboard, mounted on the right aft side of the ship, performed that function admirably and pivoted up and out the way to beach the ship, or row it up a shallow river. The Vikings never felt the need of a keel and as a result no ship that we are aware of constructed by them ever had a keel. The function of a traditional keel is to balance the thrust of the sail when sailing close hauled to the wind, otherwise the ship or boat would be pushed away, to leeward, from the desired course by the wind’s force, making little or no progress along the desired track. You correctly point out that the shallow, keel less hull design allowed them to sail or row over many of the rivers they encountered—that was not accidental. Their ships were also hauled overland, something that would be impossible with a keeled ship.
The Subject of the Vikings, a letter by John Houle:
The Vikings, 1958, MGM, is actually a classic film and the best contemporary rendering of the Viking era that we have. Certainly artistic license was taken with the script, it was a movie, you know, for entertainment. I would say to John, the author of the negative rant on the film, “do some research the next time your dander is up.” The movie locations were authentic: Brittany, Fort La Latte, Côtes d'Armor, France, Germany, Hardangerfjord, Norway, and Lim Fjord, Croatia, to name a few. You missed the entire reason for the axe throwing scene involving the ‘beautiful Scandinavian girl.’ It wasn’t a savage game; it was a test of fidelity, or the lack thereof. The medieval Vikings were a savage people, living in a savage time. To make contemporary comparisons is ludicrous. The nationalities of the actors are of no consequence--although the Norwegian people were well represented--they are portraying the elements of the script. To those of us who have enjoyed the film, they became Vikings for a time. And John, the Vikings were not cowering in the ship during a storm, rather they were fogbound, and unable to see their surroundings, or the way ahead. It was a terrifying event for them. Have you ever been at sea, blind in the fog, or ‘cowering’ during a storm, John? Well, I have. The crash of the surf against an unseen rocky shore gives pause to anyone. The film makers were not portraying ‘we Scandinavians’ in a bad way, they were not portraying us as a people at all. Rather, they were trying to depict an era--they did an admirable job--about which we know little or nothing.
So John, sometimes it is best if we keep our lack of knowledge on a particular subject private rather than formalize it with a public letter.

J. A. Hunsinger
Author--Axe of Iron novel series