Inside the Viking mind: the view of the Vikings’ world from 5 perspectives

Beyond the stereotype of the rampaging, blood-spattered raiders lay a sophisticated culture with highly developed ideas on identity, the supernatural and what it meant to be alive. Neil Price explores the Vikings’ view of the world from five perspectives

A helmet from a chieftain's grave in 10th-century Norway

“I have gone with bloody blade where the ravens followed, and with screaming spear; Vikings fought fiercely. Raging we gave battle, fire ran through men’s houses, I let bloody bodies sleep in town gateways.” Thus we see the celebrated 10th-century Icelandic warrior-poet Egill Skalla-Grímsson attempting to impress a woman at a feast (as related in his eponymous saga, here in Christine Fell’s translation). There are ample reasons why the Viking Age (c750–1050 AD) earned the terrible but somehow stirring reputation that has engaged the public and academic imagination for centuries. But the truth is more complex.

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Throughout the later 20th century, Viking scholars opened up the world of the early medieval Scandinavians beyond the violence. Academics embraced trade and travel, migration and colonisation, along with the sophistication of Viking art, poetry and material culture. (In fact, it could be argued that this almost went too far, until the Vikings’ aggressive side all but disappeared from our histories). New archaeological discoveries have broadened the picture further still.

Over the past 20 years, yet another dimension of Vikings’ lives has come into focus: the mind. As the five following examples demonstrate, the Viking psyche can be explored in many directions – encompassing their beliefs on the creation of the universe, their concept of the body and soul, how they defined gender, and their relationships with magic and religion. Even warfare, the key component of the Viking stereotype, had special qualities that set it apart. Violence and raiding remain very much a part of the picture, but they were strands alongside many others. It was but one element in a rich, multi-faceted tapestry of what it meant to be a person in the Viking Age.


1

The sense of self

How life began on a beach

Perhaps the most profound shift in our understanding of the Vikings is at the most personal level of all: who, even what, they understood themselves to be. Any world-view presupposes a world to look out on, and for the Vikings that began with the creation of the universe.

The roots of Viking identity lay here, literally so, at the foot of Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that connected the nine worlds of gods, giants, the powers of darkness and the dead. Central to it all was Midgard, their name for our home and incidentally the inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Norse myths tell of how the first human couple were created by the gods from stumps of driftwood found on the beach of the ocean that encircled Midgard. Odin and his brothers gave life, breath, sight, speech, hearing and, finally, intelligence and movement to a man, Askr (Ash), and a woman, Embla (Elm), who then ventured out into their shiny new world. For all the confusion that the Vikings sometimes inspired in those they encountered, the Scandinavians themselves were never in any doubt: they were the children of Ash and Elm. This is a vital starting point if we are to recover the Vikings’ own viewpoint, the place from which they began.

Another major shift has come in the way researchers themselves view the Viking world, especially in the decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain, which acted as a near-impermeable barrier to scholarship. The notion of distinct ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ Viking Ages is now a thing of the past, and we can recognise a coherent, integrated world of travel and contact that ultimately stretched from the Asian steppe to the eastern American seaboard.

At the same time, what was once characterised as a Viking ‘expansion’ – the process by which large numbers of Scandinavians began to pour into the wider world from the late eighth century onwards – is now better understood as a ‘diaspora’, something much more haphazard, which unfolded in different ways in different times and places. In illuminating their motives, this too enlarges our understanding of the Viking mind.

Part of this new perspective is the realisation that not all ‘Vikings’ were even from Scandinavia, as people from all around the Baltic and further afield have been found in the burial grounds of settlements and army camps. Like the diasporas of later centuries, that of the Vikings drew on a broad catchment. Anyone walking the streets of their towns would have been immersed in a cosmopolitan babble of foreign accents and local dialects.

2

The body and soul

Why every man contained a woman

If you met a Viking Age Scandinavian in the flesh, what you would have seen, literally, was their hamr, their ‘shell’ or ‘shape’, what for us is the body. This was one of four components – described by several of the Icelandic sagas and Old Norse poems – of what we might loosely call the soul.

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 not for everyone, only for the special few: those unusual men could become bears or wolves, while their female counterparts shifted into birds or water creatures.

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 and temperament, the hugr was who someone really was, the absolute essence of you, free of all artifice or surface affect.

Vikings believed their bodies contained a ‘hugr’, which was the essence of what they were, free of artifice

Somewhere inside every Viking was also a hamingja, the embodiment of a person’s luck. A hamingja could move independently from its host, and could be perceived by some gifted individuals. There are saga accounts of men retreating from a coming battle because their opponents had too many luck spirits with them, and nobody in their right mind would go against such odds. Curiously, a hamingja also had free will, and in extreme situations might even choose to leave its person.

The last part of the fourfold soul was something else entirely, a separate being that somehow dwelled inside every human, both inseparable from them but also distinct. The fylgja (literally ‘follower’) was a female spirit – always female, even for a man – and accompanied a person everywhere throughout life. She was a guardian, a protector, but also a physical link to one’s ancestors. When a Viking died, their fylgja moved on, continuing down the family line.

Everyone carried with them – through them – the spirit of their kin, watching over them and guiding their steps. How marvellous, and how utterly subversive of tedious male-focused stereotypes, that every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.

3

Gender

Crossing the boundaries of sex

There’s no getting away from it: Viking society was a patriarchy. Men held sway over politics, they passed laws, they went to war. And – given that a recent study of adult burials in central Sweden found that almost 40 per cent of women were malnourished as children, compared to just 7 per cent of men – it seems they were also given better food.

Until recently, any mention of Viking gender automatically led to discussions of women’s lives, as if the world of men was somehow the norm to which everything else was an alternative. We owe our understanding of the Viking Age female experience to this ground-breaking work, but it was also unfairly reduced to a category rather than representing half of humanity.

New research seeks a more inclusive view, sensitive not only to the distinctions between sex and gender but also pushing back against the caricature of masculinity that has come to symbolise the Vikings and their time.

The social pressures laid upon men and women were undoubtedly very real. But the Vikings were also familiar with what would today be called queer identities. These extended across a broad spectrum that went far beyond the binaries of biological sex, and even – as we’ve seen with the shape-changers – across the frontiers of what we would call human.

While the majority of male and female-bodied individuals certainly presented respectively as men and women, we know that some people signalled their identity differently. For example, we find a very small number of male bodies dressed in what we would otherwise see as feminine attire, with the classic oval brooches and bead necklaces.

There is a saga reference to women who dressed as men, and there were actually legal codes prohibiting people from adopting the clothes or hairstyles of another gender (which surely implies that some were doing just that).

Nor can we rely on conventional assumptions that link activity and gender – in Norway, for example, more men than women were buried with cooking equipment. Meanwhile, the now-famous ‘female warrior’ of Birka in Sweden is perhaps the most prominent demonstration of how modern stereotypes should not be foisted onto a Viking Age that may have thought and acted very differently.

 

4

The supernatural

Bogs, elves and trolls

One of the most significant transformations of the Viking Age was the gradual suppression of the Scandinavians’ traditional beliefs and their replacement with Christianity. A key tension between the new book-based faith and what it opposed was that a ‘pagan’ Viking would not have recognised the concept of ‘religion’ at all – instead moving through a complex set of customs and rituals that were simply an extension of everyday life.

For everyone, regardless of their status, daily life was a process of negotiation, a bargaining with the beings of the other worlds in order to prosper or simply to be left alone. The leaders of society, and several classes of ritual specialists (the term archaeologists use instead of ‘priests’), made offerings to the gods and goddesses at open-air shrines, in the bogs and sacred groves, on platforms of stone, and inside their feasting halls. However, most Vikings’ interactions were far more likely to be with the invisible population of elves, dwarves and spirits that made the natural world around them hum with numinous power.

To do this, intermediaries were needed, individuals with particular skills who felt at home in the margins, who knew the seams where the worlds joined. Some 40 specific terms are known for male and female sorcerers, each with their talents and tools. They were engineers of the supernatural who could be enlisted to cajole, coerce or bribe the Vikings’ otherworldly neighbours.

Magic, and magicians, also saturate the Icelandic sagas of the Middle Ages, and sorcery is much more of a presence there than the gods. These everyday folk-rituals also lasted longest and, even as late as the 13th century, the Icelandic law codes show that such beliefs had not entirely died out: “If it is discovered that a man or woman has performed sorcery, or raised a great troll to ride people or animals… then they shall be driven out beyond the parish bounds, and forfeit all their property to the king and bishop,” decreed one.

In the cults of the gods and the sorcerous performances alike, the most powerful practitioners of these arts were women, and it is clear that a special kind of access to the other worlds lay in the female realm. The goddesses, too, were beings of immense power, including Freyja, Frigg and Idun. Once relegated to the catch-all stereotypes of ‘fertility’, beings of ‘fecundity’ and ‘plenty’, they have emerged in new research as the arbiters of sex, fate, immortality and, not least, war.

5

Warfare

Bands of brothers – and sisters

Not so long ago, the great fleets and armies that devastated western Europe in the ninth century tended to be seen as homogeneous groups. The Vikings were a faceless horde of barbarians intent on nothing more than looting and destruction. Thanks to excavations of their winter camps in England and Ireland, isotopic analyses of army mass graves, and new work on metal detector finds, an entirely different picture has emerged in recent years.

Perhaps most importantly, the sheer scale of the camps at Torksey (the Lincolnshire base of the ‘Great Heathen Army’) and elsewhere confirms the huge size of these Viking forces; they numbered many thousands. This supports the ship counts given in the contemporary written sources, previously thought to be wild exaggerations.

The sheer scale of the camps at Torksey and elsewhere confirms the huge size of these Viking forces

Significantly, it is clear that the camps were occupied not only by men but also by women and children – in other words, by families. The enclosures also supported trade and rudimentary manufacturing, with connections to the surrounding territories and probably a modicum of self-sufficiency. Studies of Scandinavian jewellery types found in the Danelaw (the area of eastern England under Viking control in the ninth century), combined with DNA analyses, suggest that Scandinavian women may have migrated in their thousands.

The basic unit of the Viking armies seems to have been something called lið in Old Norse, a kind of war-band attaching to a prominent leader and bound by oaths of loyalty, ranging in size from a shipload to a couple of hundred. The larger Viking forces were conglomerates of these smaller parties, each with their own agendas and objectives, and liable to divide or recombine according to circumstance. At least some of these bands may have been based on kinship. An eighth-century boat burial from the Estonian island of Saaremaa – apparently the aftermath of a Swedish raid – contained 41 dead warriors, four of whom were brothers. Raiding was a family business.

The great Viking ‘armies’ were effectively mobile, militarised, migratory communities made up not only of warriors but also of non-combatants and settlers.

In following the Viking mind onto the decks of their ships and across the seas, the all-encompassing nature of their world-view becomes apparent. ‘Viking’, it seems, was a lifestyle, a mindset, a ritual calling and, above all, a choice.

Neil Price is distinguished professor of archaeology at Uppsala University in Sweden. His book The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings was published by Allen Lane in August. You can listen to him discuss the Vikings on our podcast

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This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine