From the land of Norsemen

The remains of the Viking age reveal remarkable levels of sophistication in their art and artefacts, writes B. N. Goswamy

"There are nine skills known to me/ At tables I play ably; / Rarely I run out of runes; / Reading, smith-craft, both come ready; / I can skim the ground on skis, / Wield a bow, do well in rowing; / To both arts I can bend my mind: Poet’s lay and harper’s playing."

A weathervane from a Viking ship. Halsingland. Sweden. 10th century
A weathervane from a Viking ship. Halsingland. Sweden. 10th century

There is a refinement of thought in these twelfth century verses by a Viking poet, and the evocation of a whole culture. But it is difficult to reconcile it with the image most of us carry in our minds of the Vikings — literally, ‘pirates’ — those adventurers who set out from the freezing lands of Sweden, Norway and Denmark and seemed to be everywhere between the eighth and 11th centuries of European history. For that image is often made up of what we read in accounts of them in early English records, which speak of their pillage and bloodshed, or what we see and read in that perennially popular comic strip: Hagar the Horrible. In that strip, Hagar, scraggy and un-bathed, wears the horned helmet, looks like a fierce warrior, always carries his sword and shield ready to set off on another plundering campaign, even as he remains, in private life, utterly devoted to alcohol and unable to withstand the sallies of his formidable wife.

Clearly, the two images cited above are at odds with each other. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles paint one kind of picture. According to it, the year 793 brought with it terrifying omens — lightning, high winds, flying dragons, and famine — followed soon after by "the ravages of the heathen men (who) destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter". Or again, as Irish annals of the year 820 put it: "The sea spewed forth floods of foreigners over Erin, so that no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of Vikings and pirates." On the other hand, the archaeological remains of the Viking age reveal remarkable levels of sophistication in the sleek longships that they built, the beautiful rune-stones they raised as memorials, and the artefacts they made or collected: gold and silver jewellery, coins, combs, glass-ware, heraldic figures, intricate ornamentation on objects of daily use.

So, what, one wonders, is the truth? Or is it possible that these ‘barbaric’ and ‘unprincipled’ people — oddly, they put one in mind of the Mongols in some ways — who struck terror in European hearts whenever they appeared had the ability to reconcile these opposites in their culture? Clearly, there is need to cast another look at these remarkable people, as museums and scholarly publications seem to be doing now, with increasing interest. The achievements of the Vikings, apart from their exploits, are being vigorously re-assessed. As the catalogue of a relatively recent exhibition in Sweden states, somewhat simply: "`85the history of the Viking Age is a story that will constantly be re-written."

No one built better ships than the Vikings in the early medieval age, it seems. Powered by squarish sails, the wooden vessels of these highly skilled seamen showed remarkable ingenuity and effectiveness. Fast, flexible, light and manoeuvrable as they were, they were ideal for ‘hit and run’ raids, for they could be simply beached and quickly launched, rowed by oarsmen or sailed in any wind. Scandinavian sagas — I remember at this point an old friend, Otto Zitzelsberger from the Rutgers University of New Jersey, who, having worked on them, spoke to me first about these remarkable accounts — record the long voyages they undertook. One might have doubted the evidence once, but one knows now that the Vikings sailed from Norway to Iceland, claimed territory in France and England, made deep inroads into Russian territories, even reached as far as Baghdad. And they seem to have been the first Europeans to land in north America — long before the ‘discovery’ of that continent by Columbus — for they reached a land called ‘Vinland’ which scholars now believe is eastern Canada, in and around Newfoundland. Little wonder that many of their chiefs in Norway were buried in wooden ships, together with a host of finely ornamented burial objects like swords, axes, sleighs, beds, each carved with exquisitely drawn animal figures. At the same time, other things are being discovered about the Vikings, like a recently found cache of large, polished lenses, leading to the speculation that they might have built a version of telescopes some 500 years before they were ‘invented’ in Holland.

All in all, the Vikings are now beginning to be seen ‘archaeologically’ not simply as raiders and pillagers, but as entrepreneurs, traders, people opening up new avenues of commerce, bringing new materials into Scandinavia, spreading Scandinavian ideas into Europe. Their role seems to have been, as one authority on them has put it, that of "reconnecting humanity, making the world a smaller place by travelling huge distances, connecting peoples from Baghdad to Scandinavia to southern Europe to the north Atlantic to the mainland of North America."

The Viking period was, in this view, "a kind of hinge in European history". Clearly, a sea change seems to have come about the manner in which the Vikings are being viewed today. They are being referred to as "the origin of (a new) kind of human endeavour to find new horizons, go new places, use new technology, meet new people, think new thoughts".

Meanwhile, the art of these Norsemen is also being looked at again. For in it there is a heady combination of delicacy and vigour. Three different styles have been identified in the Viking art, each inspired by a different kind of foliage as it were. Heaps of finely carved objects have been discovered, marked by long sinuous curves and intertwining geometric designs. In all, those braided necklaces and pendants, brooches and medallions, even in keys to monumental locks, one can see an elegance that soars and compels. And when it comes to design, the Vikings seem to have developed a wonderfully light but complex vocabulary. To view some of these objects is to get a feeling of spun silver wires ceaselessly curling and twisting as if eager to throw out tendrils for caressing the air around themselves.