In preparation for our new large-scale collaboration ‘The Nine Realms’ inspired by the Norse Sagas starting this October, I’ve pulled together this post- a basic overview of the history, myth and culture of The Vikings. I’ve done this to put what we will be doing in the Autumn into a broad context for the Viking participants involved and anyone else who is interested.
FYI. In this collaboration 40 poets, artists, musicians and sculptors will be working together over 9 months responding to the nine realms through contemporary eyes.
An Overview of The Vikings
Between the 8th to mid 11th centuries Vikings transformed Europe. Iceland created the foundation of Russia, Norwegian settlers founded Icelandic cities and in Constantinople Swedes provided military support to the Byzantine emperor. As the Vikings traveled they spread their culture, stories, beliefs and myths along with them.
The Vikings were seafaring people, and the actual word itself means ‘raiding’. They came from what is now Denmark, Sweden and Norway. They were brought up on a culture of courage, strength and loyalty, and had a reputation for confronting death fearlessly. The Vikings shared a knowledge of Old Norse and their religion was underpinned by the worship of Odin, Thor and other gods.
They wrote with the runic alphabet, which was not only useful and clear but was also imbued with an element of magic. There are very few runic remains thanks to the coming of Christianity. The god Odin fights for the mastery of writing in the Poetic Edda, by undergoing a near death experience:
‘I know that I hung/On the windswept tree/For nine whole nights/
Pierced by the spear/And given to Odin/ Myself to myself/
On that tree/Whose roots/ Nobody knows//
They gave me no bread/Nor drink from the horn/ I peered into the depths/
I grasped the runes/ Screaming I grasped them/And then fell back’
(Taken from the Poetic Edda, Allan: 27)
The Vikings venerate gods in their own image. Stories of the gods were passed down from generation to generation, sitting by firesides: Odin, the omnipotent schemer and leader in battle; Thor, the fighter and Freya, the Goddess of fertility. Also tales of spirits, giants, elves and trolls were passed down.
Overarching these stories and the mindsets of The Vikings was a feeling of catastrophe and apocalypse, in which the world ends through a confrontation between the forces of good and evil. This conflict the Vikings called Ragnorok (see below).
The world grew out of a gigantic chasm called Ginnungagap, the yawning void. This void was bordered by Muspell, the abode from where Surt, the giant stood guard. To the North lay the land of Nifelheim (the land of the dead). where 12 rivers bubble up from a cauldron called Hvergelmir.
The world Tree Yggdrasil– is the pivot around which the worlds of the Norse span. Three main roots rise from the middle of Asgard and stretch down to Nifelheim and Hvergelmir. The roots are nourished by the well of Knowledge. The tree is the symbol of life itself.
Aesir and Vanir
The gods are divided up into two families which are always in conflict with each other. The Aesir, gods, based in Asgard, with their leaders Odin, Thor, Baldar, Heimdall, Tyr and the goddesses Frigg, Sif, Nanna and Iduna. The Vanir, Freya, the goddess of love and promiscuity and Njord who were broadly linked to agriculture and fertility.
Serpents and Dragons
Snakes, in the Viking culture, always had negative connotations. Dragons engendered even greater fear as they lived underground and would emerge at sunset. Dragon’s in German and Scandinavian culture were the guardians of buried treasure. They were also founts of knowledge. The World Serpent, the Jormungand, is one of the most famous as it was one of the 3 horrific children born to Loki and the giant Angrboda.
The doom of the gods had a profound effect on the Viking’s world view, which fed their overwhelming feeling of fatalism. It told of of a world where both men and gods were swept away. However, from this destruction did arise a new earth. New beginnings.
From this catastrophe also came VALHALLA (the feasting hall of the dead Vikings who had given up their lives for war).
Ritual and Belief
The Viking world did not separate religion from the secular. Sacrifice was central to the Norse Religions, and was governed by seasonal turning points.
Magic and Metamorphoses
Particular gods regularly changed shape and could alter other peoples’ shape too. They could also bring the dead back to life, and giants could take on animal form. There was a a particular word ‘Seid’– malicious intent’ attached to the form of magic the Vanir practiced, specifically in relation to Freya.
The Poetic and Prose Eddas
The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems primarily preserved in a thirteenth century Icelandic medieval manuscript called the Codex Regius. Alongside the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson the Poetic Edda is the most important surviving source of Norse mythology and Germanic legend.
Both the poetic and prose sagas were based on an oral tradition that had its roots in a pre-Viking age (800-1100). They were written in the native language and were meant to be read aloud which allowed all those literate and otherwise to understand. The text and verse delved into the lives and exploits of both men and the gods.
Our project, The Nine Realms, will be using both Eddas, amongst other texts as a point of inspiration for the creatives involved. The project will start in October after Transformations. Watch out for more posts about our next collaborative project.
Allan, Tony (2010) Vikings: The Battle At the End of Time, Watkins Publishing
Sturluson, Snorri, (2005) The Prose Edda, translated by Jesse. L. Byock