How Much Viking Lore Is True?

January 30, 2017

In TV series from Vikings to Game of Thrones, the icy wastes of the north provide the backdrop to dramatic, often violent, stories of kings and warriors, dragons and trolls.

The source for many of these dramas is the Icelandic sagas. In her new book, Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explores the world of the sagas, teasing fact from fiction to show that there was much more to the Norse peoples than rape and pillage. (Find out whether the Vikings deserved their terrible reputation.)

Speaking from her home in Durham, England, she explains how the United States should really celebrate Leif the Lucky, not Columbus, why the Soviets hated the idea that Russia had been founded by the Vikings, and how the gruesome Viking torture known as the Blood Eagle may have been more poetic conceit than historical practice.

You write, “The Vikings have always had a reputation as the bad boys of the medieval world.” Is it time to rethink this prejudice?

The idea of the Vikings being the bad boys in the medieval world goes right back to the medieval world. The first big Viking raid took place around A.D. 793 on the island of Lindisfarne, home of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But it’s important to think about how we know of this raid—from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written a hundred years later, in the time of King Alfred, who we know as a Viking basher. At about the same time, a strongly devout Anglo-Saxon cleric at the court of King Charlemagne, named Alcuin, writes a letter to the abbot of Lindisfarne, saying “Never before has a terror appeared on our shores like this. Remember the words of the prophets, from the north, evil breaks forth.” So from the start we have the idea of the Viking raiders somehow being God’s punishment for sins committed.

When we say “Vikings,” we think of any inhabitant of the medieval Nordic world. But Viking literally means raider; it’s a job title. The people living in the Nordic world during the Viking age did raid and pillage. But there was much more to them than that. They were far travelers. They colonized the North Atlantic, parts of the Scottish Isles, Iceland. They’re in Arctic Scandinavia and on the Russian waterways. They founded a colony in Greenland that lasted 500 years and got all the way to the edge of North America.

Columbus is celebrated as the person who “discovered” America. But the Vinland Saga suggests that Americans should really celebrate Erik the Red day.

[Laughs] Well, maybe Leif the Lucky day, who is Erik the Red’s son. Greenland was settled from around [A.D.] 985, initially by Erik the Red. We know this partly because of the Vinland Sagas, two Icelandic sagas called Saga of Erik the Red, and Saga of the Greenlanders. These same sagas are our main written accounts of how Norse Greenlanders, a generation after Erik the Red, set out from Greenland and reached the edge of North America. First Baffin Island, then Labrador—which they called Markland, “forest land”— and finally Newfoundland.

But until the 1960s, the Vinland Sagas were our only source of information for these voyages. People weren’t even sure if they’d actually happened. Then, in the ’60s excavations on the tip of Newfoundland at L’Ans-Aux-Meadows showed clear evidence that there had been Norse visitors. I wouldn’t say settlers. There are long houses but they seem to be more overwintering sites, where they could mend their ships, then carry on farther south. There were women on these voyages, too. In one saga, a woman is said to have had a child out there, making her the first European woman to give birth on the North American continent.

What’s interesting is that, in the past, even before the archaeological evidence, Americans were very keen on this Viking heritage. Toward the end of the 19th century, there were lots of paintings showing big, romantic Norse coming across in their boats. But you also find lots of forgeries and fakes because if you can’t find a past, then you create it. There were fake rune stones dug up in a Minnesota field, fake weapons, and, of course, the famous Vinland Map forgery.

You call the sagas “Medieval Iceland’s unparalleled storytelling legacy to the world.” Are they fact—or fiction?

The sagas were written in 13th-century Iceland and continued to be written and copied in manuscripts. In some ways, the medieval period didn’t end in Iceland until the 20th century. Saga comes from the Norse word sayer, which means “to say.” That gives a clue to the origins of these sagas. They weren’t just conjured up out of some scribe’s head in the 13th century and then written down. They had a long oral history going back centuries.

These are stories told and retold, passed down through the generations. But that doesn’t make them pure fact. Stories change, they adapt, they’re embellished, facts drop out of them, pieces of information are added. So by the time they are written down, it’s very hard to separate the facts from the fiction.

One of the surprises in your book is that the Vikings also voyaged east— and overland—to what is now Russia. Tell us about these journeys—and why the Soviets downplayed the Viking connection.

The initial impetus to go into Russia from the Norse world came from the people facing east: in particular, the Swedes. They crossed the Baltic then headed down the Russian waterways. If you want to know where the Norse go, follow the money.

[Laughs] There are enormous amounts of Islamic silver flowing up and down the waterways during the Middle Ages, and the Norse are following those. They also are bringing things of their own to trade, like furs and skins, which fetched a very high price. And they’re bringing slaves, which is another reason we have all these raids and violence.

The word “Russia” seems to be derived from the term Rus, which, in origin at least, seems to have come from Sweden or some part of the Nordic world. These Norse tribes founded Kiev and created the polity that becomes known as Kievan Rus, the foundation of modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. But during the Soviet era, it wasn’t a good thing to go around saying that your founding nation was built by Europeans. You wanted it to be built by Slavs, your own people, in opposition to Europe. But if you look at the first archaeological layers of trading towns, such as Staraya Ladoga in the far north, there are clearly Norse elements.

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