Frozen lake in Buskerud County, Norway
GOING A VIKING by Tyr Neilsen
Only by doing something yourself can you fully know and understand it, otherwise it is simply theory. So, on December 31st 2010, I decided to do something that no one has done for a thousand years. I would ‘go a Víking’ for a whole year.
In the sagas, the phrase "to go a Víking" meant to go on a voyage of discovery. Part-time farmer/hunter/warriors from Norway who went ‘a Viking’ and traveled to other countries to trade, raid, explore or carve out new kingdoms, became known as Vikings and had a historical period of 300 years named after them; The Viking Age.
In the Viking Age, going a Viking was a chance to gain wealth. This wealth could mean material wealth such as valuable objects, land, property or a wife, but it could also mean spiritual wealth gained from being tested physically and emotionally, and gaining experience and knowledge. My main objective was to gain spiritual wealth from this journey, but I was not opposed to the material wealth if it should appear. Going a Viking was a life changing experience for Norsemen in the Viking Age. I imagined it would be the same for me.
For decades I had been fascinated by the Vikings, by what they accomplished, their culture, philosophy, mythology, and not least their fighting arts. I had been teaching the Viking martial art of Glima since the early 90’s, and established the Academy of Viking Martial Arts in 2009. Now I felt the call to realize my long held dream of going a Viking.
At the age of 51, my New Year’s resolution was to ‘go a Viking’. Not just for a week or two, but for long enough for me to fully understand what it was to be a Viking. A serious back injury in 1997 had made such a trip pretty much impossible, but after 13 years of chronic neck and back pain, rheumatism and problems with joints, I realized it was now or never. So, equipped with a camera and a Viking sword, I traveled 15,000 km to 9 countries and several islands, and discovered how it was to live as a Viking for a whole year.
People should be
Quiet and thoughtful
And brave in conflict
They should live
Happy and friendly
Until their last day
HÁVAMÁL – verse 15
THE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION - Til árs ok friðar
My adventure of a lifetime started on New Year’s Eve, in Drammen city, Norway, watching a show about the local Viking Age story of St. Hallvard. Little did I know it at the time, but my adventure would end in the same place exactly one year later, in a Viking swordfight and with thousands applauding.
At this time of year in the Viking Age, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called minni, meaning memorial toast. One Old Norse toast was: “Til árs ok friðar", which translates literally to " for a good year and peace". It was a toast for fertility, good health, a good life, peace and harmony. Under a clear night sky I raised a glass of mead and made this my New Year's toast.
I started planning my Viking journey on the 1st of January 2011. Traveling by car, boat, train and plane, I would go from the extremes of the snow-capped Norwegian mountains, to historical battlegrounds and cities in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Poland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and the Shetland Islands.
During the course of the year I would attend the biggest Viking festivals, Viking markets and Viking battles in Europe and Scandinavia. I would explore the latest archaeological discoveries and research findings, and discuss theories with a wide range of experts, historians, archaeologists and modern Vikings. For me, this journey would be a significant undertaking and possibly the most important year of my life.
I just hoped my back would hold out.
You should know
What you need
For good days
And bad days
For the short term
And in the long term
HÁVAMÁL – verse 60
JANUARY - Þorri - Frost and Fire
The year began with snow, ice, freezing temperatures, and a heady excitement. I spent the first days of January checking out what Viking arrangements and festivals would be happening throughout Scandinavia and Europe, then tried to figure out a plan of how I would get to each country and how much it would cost. Going a Viking was a life changing experience for Norsemen in the Viking Age. I imagined it would be the same for me.
My son Håkon had just turned 17, so I felt this was a good time to do this journey. I've always wanted my son to understand that he has to do his thing in life, and have tried to lead by example. We had a talk about the year and he was very positive and excited for me. We usually worked out with glima and weight training a couple of times a week, and planned to continue doing this when I was home. He said he was interested on going with me on a couple of trips during his summer holidays. I was thrilled at the thought of both of us going a Viking together.
I trained armed and unarmed glima almost daily, and went for trips out in the local forests and mountain area as much as possible. At first I used modern equipment when out in the forest, but the more I got into it, the more I wanted to use historically correct equipment. I already had some general Viking tools such as Viking knife, sax, and axe, but now I started making my own equipment and hunting clothing.
I started with linen and wool clothing, but in just one day out in the wild, scrambling over rocks and forest area, the clothing was torn in several places. I got tired of patching over the torn parts of my clothing, so I made leather Viking pants and leather jacket, which gave me good protection against the elements and rough terrain. I also made a pair of leather winter boots which I covered in fur. This clothing was tough, durable, and what Viking hunters would have used.
I love modern conveniences and technology, but I also have a love of being out in nature. I appreciate fresh air on my face and the four Norwegian seasons - 2 months of spring, 2 months of summer, 2 months of fall, and 6 months of winter. I love the terrain where I live in Buskerud County, a place full of rolling hills, forests and mountains. I love living half way up a hill on the outskirts of town, and the fact that the forest starts where my garden ends.
Winter here is cold, often minus 30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) cold. It can snow for an hour or it can snow for days on end. Sometimes I have had to clear snow from my front door to the drive a couple of times a day. Somedays I can't open the front door because it has snowed so much overnight. It can snow lightly or heavily, with dry snow or wet snow. It usually snows downwards, but it can also snow sideways if there is a wind. Several times I have been forced to drive between 5 km - 10 per hour on the highway because of snowstorms.
When it snows for months, you don't let it get you down, you go skiing. I used to love skiing and snowboarding. Speeding down slopes was thrilling, but after the accident, I wasn't able to ski that way anymore. It was too much stress on my back. I have spent several weeks in hospital almost every year since the accident, and have been treated by the best back specialists in Norway, without any big or lasting improvement. Most days I can live with the chronic pain, but sometimes, it's not possible. There are times when I can't walk or even crawl because of the back pain. Sometimes I just get a muscle spasm that drops me to the floor. As if that wasn't enough, I've been having trouble with my knees the last few years.
I've kept in general good health by eating a sensible diet, walking, daily exercise (if possible) with weights or body weight and Draga, a type of Viking yoga. After New Year, I started having more physiotherapy than usual, stretched more and ate a stricter diet. I wanted to do everything I could to make sure I could get through the year. This journey would take most of my life's savings, and I didn't want to jeapardize it in any way.
I have kept in fighting form by teaching armed and unarmed glima. I started training in the martial arts in 1973, when I was 13 years old, then for the next 15 years studied in several countries with many of the world's most prominent martial artists. I married into a family that held the Norwegian martial art alive, studied with a master of balance, my father in-law Odd Svendsen.
I received a thorough knowledge of Norse mythology, culture and philosophy from my mother in-law Gudlaug. Together we discussed the many nuances of Hávamál, and I have continually made small changes to my translation of Hávamál. Well described as the wisdom of the North, Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia. Hávamál means Sayings of the High One, the high one being Odin, the Allfather of the Norse Gods. Probably written in Iceland in the year 1270, Hávamál's content provides a clear picture of the philosophy of the Vikings, and captures their beliefs about how life should be lived. It is the philosophy that resonates most in me, and is something I will have with me in my travels throughout the year.
I bought a Land Rover specifically for this journey. Apart from the fact that I needed a Four-wheel-drive just to get up to my house in winter, it was cool that the emblem for Rover was a Viking Longship. In my mind, this was the best vehicle to Go a Viking in the 21st Century. It got me to all the difficult locations in the mountain area where I live, and to my first Viking/Norse arrangement of the year, a Norse Full moon ceremony.
My mother-law’s maiden name was Gudlaug Foss. Gudlaug means divine water, and Foss means waterfall. She came from a farm rich family in Vestfossen, which means west waterfall in Norwegian. Her family kept old northern folk traditions alive, and Gudlaug kept Old Norse traditions alive. Gudlaug told me that the Viking year was made up of summer and winter, and that the Old Norse calendar was calculated from full moon to full moon. She pointed out the obvious, which is that we, like our ancestors, use the moon to register the passage of time and keep count of the course of the year. Gudlaug celebrated full moons with an Old Norse ceremony, and she showed me how to make a campfire sacred in preparation for the full moon. She designated East, South, West and North, recited ancient Norse texts, read verses from Hávamál, and made full moon oaths. Gudlaug told me that the full moon was used to keep a person on course. At such a ceremony she would make oaths, or new vows and plans, which she could keep track of and celebrate with the next full moon.
Since then I have held sporadic full moon ceremonies, but for the course of this special year, I vowed to have a Norse full moon ceremony each month, starting with the January full moon. According to the Vikings, this moon was called Þorri månen (Frost moon) which lasted from January 13th until Februar 11th. After driving up to a local mountain area, I walked under a bright full moon to a secluded area in the forest. I started a campfire and made it sacred as Gudlaug had shown me. I read some Old Norse verses and selected at random verse 10 from Hávamál:
Is the best luggage
For those who travel
Common sense is worth
More than gold
When you are far from home
Þorri månen is the fourth winter month, and according to saga literature, this month had a special feast called the Þorrablot (Thorrablot). Blót is the Old Norse term for feast or sacrifice, and the first Viking/Norse arrangement of the year is a blót that has celebrated the Norse God of thunder, Thor, since the 19th century. Dressed in my finest Viking clothing, I met up with some Norwegians and Icelanders, on a snowy winter’s night near the Drammen Fjord. We celebrated with traditional Icelandic dishes of sheep's head, lamb, herring and home-made mead, evenly interrupted with speeches, Viking poems and shouts of Skål! I read a verse I had translated from the Hávamál, which someone repeated in Icelandic, making it sound much more melodious and nostalgic, and the evening concluded with dancing, singing and heavy drinking. It was a good blót.
The first Viking/Norse festival of the year was Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. From the year 839, until Norse rule ended in the Shetlands in 1472, the influence of the Vikings has endured in Scotland, and Norse-Viking culture has left an indelible mark there.
Up Helly Aa, which started in 1876, is Europe's largest fire festival, and something I had wanted to attend for years. Up derives from the Old Norse word uppi, meaning at the end, Helly is derived from the Old Norse helgr, meaning holiday or festival, and Aa represents a', meaning "all".
This event, held on the last Tuesday in January each year, celebrates the end of the Yule season. Tuesday comes from the Old English word Tiwesdæg, meaning ‘Tiw’s day’. This is the day of Týr, the Norse God of single combat, victory, justice and heroic glory. My favorite day of the week.
It was snowing as I flew from Norway to Scotland and the North wind let itself be known as I took a small plane to the Shetland Islands. As the plane shook, I re-read the history of the Shetlands. It turned out that in 1468 the Scottish king, James III, married Margaret of Denmark, daughter of King Christian I of Denmark. As part of the marriage agreement, King Christian handed Orkney and Shetland over to James as a goodwill gesture in expectation of the usual dowry payment, which was never paid. Because no dowry was paid, William Sinclair, the last earl holding the title from Norway, handed over control to the Scottish Crown in 1470. After fighting for, and holding Scottish lands for over 500 years, a simple marriage debt ended Norse rule in Scotland.
At the small Lerwick airport, I was greeted with warm smiles and curiosity by the locals working there. When they found out I was from Norway they asked me when Norway was going to pay the dowry so the Shetlands could belong to Norway once more.
As a cold wind whipped across the landscape, I enjoyed a bus ride through the meandering roads to Lerwick town. With its wilderness and almost arctic temperatures, the Shetlands is an area considered highly remote, even according to Scottish standards but I was greeted by a friendliness and warmth that was to pervade my stay in Lerwick.
After throwing my gear into my motel room, I attended a meet and greet between the arrangers of the fire festival and international journalists. Here I got to talk with the Jarl (Earl) who would be heading the parade and see the Viking longship they had created over the last year. Many who have never attended Up Helly Aa don’t understand the relevance of this festival, as ‘historical’ clothing isn’t a feature, but Shetlanders take this very serious. Each member of the Viking group that will lead the parade has been in their group for 15 years, and they each use around £4000 and a whole year to create their Norse/Viking inspired armor and costume.
The next morning, as the North Sea wind whipped through streets, I walked around Britain's northernmost town and was amazed at how much the people of Lerwick appreciate their Norse heritage. Everywhere are places with names such as King Haakon street, King Harald street and St. Olaf street, as well as plaques and wrought iron gates that bear Old Norse inscriptions. Beside an ancient fortification, I met up with thousands of people who had gathered there. With cheers and blaring horns, they followed the Lerwick longship and a thousand men and children dressed in amazing Viking/Norse attire, to a seafront area where the media swarmed the longship.
That evening I was allowed to film from the front of the Up Helly Aa parade. The dark night was illuminated by thousands of burning torches, carried through the streets by Vikings, Shetlanders in costumes and citizens. I filmed the longship and its mile long fiery snake, as they wound their way past me and continued through the streets of Lerwick towards the town's central park. It seemed like every inhabitant of the Shetland Islands gathered around the park. The atmosphere was electrifying and there was complete quiet as the Vikings cast their torches onto the Viking longship, then as it burned, they sang their traditional song, "The Norsemans Home".
At the end of a massive firework display, as the last embers from the longship flew into the sky, everyone left in different directions to visit halls around town. Guests gathered at the halls to dance and drink and be entertained by the Vikings and costumed Shetlanders until 8 o'clock the next morning, which was fortunately a local day off. As visiting Norwegian, I was invited to join the main Viking group at several halls, where I was continually met with amazing hospitality and warmth. After partying with Vikings and locals all night, I had to grab my gear and meet up at the appropriately named Viking bus station, in order to get to the airport and my 6 am flight.
At the airport I was stopped by a woman checking tickets at the terminal, who asks me if it was possible for Norway to take back the Shetland Islands. "We were Vikings longer than we've been Scottish, you know !" she told me. "Six hundred years we were Vikings. We've only been Scottish for 500 !". I promised I would let the Norwegians know this and promised to visit again and have a glima demonstration in Lerwick. As a red sun rose over the North Sea I reluctantly left the Shetlands and headed to Scotland.
With a short stop in Edinburgh, I bought a kilt, sporran, McNeil family knife, and had lunch consisting of local salmon followed by local whiskey at Edinburgh Castle. According to my plan, I would be coming back to Scotland later in the year. I looked forward to it.
On the flight back to Norway, my thoughts turned to the rest of my Viking voyage. I wondered if any of it would compare to this fantastic start. I re-read my year-long plans, and felt assured that the rest of the year would be continually exciting.
FEBRUARY - Gói - Jakt and Jorvik
Jakt, pronounced yakt, is the Norwegian word for hunting. Jorvik, pronounced Yorvik, is the Old Norse name for the city of York, England, which was ruled by Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. During my second month of this venture I would walk around in Norway in deep snow and freezing temperatures, and walk around York needing only summer clothes.
“To go a Viking” was the phrase used to describe hunter/farmer/warriors that went on voyages of discovery. I had helped on a farm many years ago, and I felt there was nothing outside of the physical attributes gained from hard and heavy working that was absolutely necessary to go a Viking. Hunting and being able to fight on the other hand were an absolute necessity and skills that needed to be continually maintained.
Luckily for me, I had developed similar skills to make me self-sufficient since my youth. I had worked as a carpenter for 15 years, building and repairing houses and cabins. For almost 40 years I had trained in various martial arts, and for over 20 years I had taught armed and unarmed Viking combat. I had also been a keen outdoorsman, especially in mountainous and forested countryside. With these skills behind me, I felt I could defend myself and build or fix anything I needed, just as a Viking could. What I felt I needed to work on were hunting and wilderness survival skills, in order to fully understand how it was to live as a Viking.
I used the internet to find information about historical Norwegian survival skills, and someone who had competence in this field. I wanted to gather as much knowledge about how Vikings lived out in the wild as I could. It was extremely difficult to find information on this subject, and after over a month of searching, I still hadn’t found any sources or any expert. As far as I knew, I was the only person doing this.
Each season in Norway is beautiful, and when the forests and mountains are covered in deep white snow, as they are in February, it is simply magnificent. It is also as cold as it is beautiful. It is difficult enough coping with every modern convenience but it’s incredibly difficult using only what Vikings Age Northmen had. I know because I spent a lot of time in the mountains in Buskerud County doing exactly that.
Up in the hills, my Viking knife and small axe became my new best friends as I worked on my forestry skills. I walked around this glorious countryside, built campfires, cooked and ate meals on hilltops, and made temporary shelters using the raw materials found in nature. I enjoyed these days immensely whether it was blue skies or gray, but I always kept updated on weather reports. Snow storms could happen at any time here in the winter, and many Norwegians had been found dead just meters away from the safety of a cabin. They just couldn’t find it in the storm.
When stopping someplace in the hills, the first job was always to make a campfire. I started carrying enough dry wood in my backpack to get a small fire going. Using my axe, I would first cut a log of wood into thin sticks, make shavings from one of them, and place them over some wool brushed from a sheep that still had oil in it. A few sparks usually created a small fire, and it never took me too long before I had a good fire going.
After making a fire, my thoughts usually turned to making food. I always carried enough food with me to get me through a day or two. It was usually a combination of dried/processed food, raw steaks, beans and eggs. I also carried a frying pan in my backpack, as well as a wooden plate and some utensils. I loved cooking outdoors, and results were always delicious.
In the Viking Age, there was little good hunting in this period of the year, so Vikings became experts at storing dried meat and other food sources to get them through the long winter. I often found animal tracks up in the hills, and every now and then saw deer. Unlike Viking Age hunters, I wasn’t allowed to kill any. In Norway you need a hunting license and midwinter isn’t hunting season for big animals, only rabbit and grouse.
On a cold clear night up in the hills, I celebrated the February full moon. According to the Old Norse calendar, the period between February 12th and March 13th was the month called Gói, the fifth winter month. According to ancient Icelandic sources, Gói is described as daughter of Thorri, and Vikings would have had a Gói blot. For this full moon, I made my campfire sacred, drank some mead, sacrificed a little, and made an oath.
An oath is called ed in Norwegian and eiðr in Old Norse. In the Viking Age, such an oath was a serious commitment. Once a Viking had given his oath, it had to be kept at any cost. My eiðr was to complete this year long journey, no matter what. After giving my oath, I read a random verse from Hávamál:
Get up early and fight
For what you want
Before others take it
A lazy wolf
Gets no meat
The sleeping get no victory
HÁVAMÁL – verse 58
Winter can be tough, but for someone with chronic pain, it’s the pits. Chronic pain is excruciating, ruthless and unrelenting. As tough as you are, chronic pain is tougher. It wears you down and sticks it to you.
Winter always makes my physical situation worse. Cold weather, months of snow and ice and lack of sunlight, seriously aggravate the problem, and getting a cold or flu can be a serious situation. A cough or sneeze can send me into spasms of pain and even lead to being bedridden. I took all the precautions I could, but in February I still got a cold. It knocked me out for over a week. A regular cold can drain your energy and make you feel like you have been beaten up. With chronic back pain and rheumatism, the dial gets turned up to 11.
I was drained and in a lot of pain, and needed the maximum dosage of painkillers every day to get by. Some days I just wasn’t able to do anything constructive because of the pain. From the large windows in my living room I could see the beautiful forest and hills that lay tantalizingly 30 meters away. I watched in envy at kids skiing or sledding down the street to school.
I used all kinds of modern medicine, as well as traditional natural remedies. When I started feeling a little better I got some much needed physiotherapy. In addition to my regular physiotherapy, I began Zone therapy, also known as reflexology. The idea is that this system stimulates the body’s own healing process. Reflexology gave some temporary relief, though nothing lasting. After being treated for years by the best back and neck specialists in Norway, who eventually told me there was nothing more they could do, I have been so desperate that I have tried all kinds of treatment, none of which ever gave lasting relief to the symptoms or cured the problem. When pain is chronic and overwhelming, there is no relief, no sleep, just constant pain. At this point a little relief, wherever it comes from, is very welcome.
When I was in form, I instructed sport glima and combat glima at the Academy twice a week. When I was unable, one of my students took over as instructor. I had asked if any of the students were interested in learning reenactment sword fighting. As usual, no one was interested. They only wanted to learn real combat techniques with and without weapons they might encounter in real life.
Reenactment is the name for an educational or entertainment activity where people recreate aspects of a historical period. Reenactors recreate clothes and equipment from the time period, then meet up and do things that the people of that time period would have done. Some do this for fun, others take it very seriously. Viking reenactment is the fastest growing historical reenactment in the world, and there are hundreds of Viking groups in Scandinavia, Europe and the USA.
One of the highlights of a Viking market or festival is the battle where reenactors have a choreographed or non-choreographed show fight with blunted steel weapons. This type of battle is called Hærkamp, a regulated form of fighting where specific places, such as shoulder, arm, torso and outer thigh, can be touched with a blunted weapon. Hærkamp is not based on the Viking martial art of glima, but was developed in England in the 1980’s, pieced together from different forms of fighting with weapons from different countries and historical time periods.
In 2005 I co-founded Norway’s first Hærkamp group. We called the group Víkverir, and it was based in Drammen, in Buskerud County. In the Viking Age, Viken was an area around the Oslo fjord, which includes Buskerud. According to historical sources, people from the Viken area were referred to as Víkverir, not as Vikings. Víkverir was created as a group for reenactors who were mainly interested in training with historical Viking weapons for shows and demonstrations at Viking markets and festivals. I was the group’s weapon instructor at the beginning, and tried to get the members interested in glima, but they were more interested in show fighting. I’ve never been a reenactor, but training in Hærkamp was fun, and at the time was the only way for me to train against others with Viking weapons.
When I moved to the hills in Krokstadelva, a 15 minute drive from Drammen, John Sætrang, a co-founder of Víkverir, asked if I would start a Hærkamp group in the area I had moved to. He gave me the paperwork I would need to register such a group, and his plan was that Víkverir would have a group to train with and against, for markets and festivals. Things didn’t turn out as we planned, because just as none from Víkverir wanted to train in authentic Viking fighting, no one from Krokstadelva wanted to fight in non-authentic Viking fighting.
In order for me to participate in battles at Viking festivals or other such arrangements, I would have to fight in accordance to the Hærkamp rules and regulations, so I started to train using Hærkamp rules with sword, axe, spear, sax and knife. My son Håkon helped out, but wasn’t very engaged. This training did however give us the opportunity to talk about Jorvik Viking Festival, which would be held in York, England, on the last weekend of the month.
Jorvik Viking Festival is the largest of its kind in Europe, and the festival is a city-wide celebration of its Norse heritage. Jórvik in Old Norse means ‘Horse-bay’, and was the Viking name for the city of York. It was first captured in November 866, by the Viking Ivar the Boneless, and from the late 9th century to the middle of the 10th century, Jorvik was dominated by Norse warrior-kings. It was a powerful city in the north of England during this period, and its trading connections reached to the Byzantine Empire and beyond. Vikings fought several battles in order to keep control of Jorvik, but in the year 954, Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of Jorvik, was expelled from the city, and Jorvik became part of the newly combined Anglo-Saxon state that would become England.
After flying to Liverpool Airport, Håkon and I took the train to York. For most of this 2 hour train journey Håkon had his earphones on listening to music. With no distractions I started rereading the book 'The Vikings' by Robert Ferguson. Of all books on the Viking Age, this one covered complex historical and cultural themes, not only in an understandable way, but also as an exciting read.
At York station, Håkon and I immediately noticed the difference in weather between Norway and York, which was remarkably warm. My 17 year old son was quite happy with this, as many of the girls were walking around in short skirts and T-shirts. A big difference from the the girls at home who were barely visible under the mass of clothing protecting them from snow storms and below zero temperatures.
After registering in at the luxurious Royal Hotel in the center of the city, and dropping our luggage in our room, Håkon and I went to explore the city. The first thing we encountered was a massive stone wall right outside the hotel. Since Roman times, York has been defended by walls, and to this day, large portions of these walls still encircle the city. Together, the walls are 2 miles long (3.4 km), range from 8 feet to 10 feet tall, (2.4 m to 3 m), have very impressive gateways and 39 interval towers.
Once inside the wall, there were small streets full of old buildings that looked like something out of a Harry Potter novel, the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, which was once the richest abbey in the north of England, and the massive York Minster Cathedral, whose foundation has been there from the year 627. Several Christian churches were built in Jorvik, including St. Olave’s, which is dedicated to St. Olaf King of Norway.
Håkon and I saw Viking influence everywhere, and there were plenty of banners around the town with names like Coppergate and Micklegate emblazoned on them. In Norwegian, Gate means street. We stopped under the ‘Fossgate’ banner and took a photo of Håkon underneath the banner as Foss is Håkon’s middle name, from his grandmother’s family name.
The city was packed with modern tourists and visiting Vikings, and most gathered around the Viking market at the center of town. Inside the largest tent were traders from several countries dressed in their finest Viking garb, selling everything from the smallest trinket, to the largest weapon and piece of armor. Many of the tables in the tent sold Viking jewelry, most of which was based on historical artefacts. Håkon spent a good deal of time at these tables and eventually bought an iron bracelet which had runes inscribed in it.
I had decided to buy a piece of Viking equipment at each market I attended throughout the year, both as something I would need and as a memento of the journey. When I enquired about a good steel Viking helmet, I was told by a flamboyant Glaswegian Viking trader called Donagh O'Riordan, that there was only one true Viking helmet, the Gjermundbu hjelm, which was found in Buskerud County. Another trader told me over and over that Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets, because such a helmet would be ridiculous and useless in a battle. After checking several makes, I bought a good handmade 18 gauge steel Gjermundbu helmet.
That night Håkon wanted to explore the city on his own, so I went to the King’s Arms, a pub located on the waterfront beside Micklegate Bridge, one of the many ancient bridges in York. This was where most of the Norwegians from Viking groups in Norway met up each year for the festival. It was good to see people I had met at Viking markets in past years, and get to know others from Norwegian Viking groups. After a few beers and Norwegian drinking songs, I want back to the hotel for a good sound sleep.
Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep so well because of back pain. In the morning I took a few painkillers and went for a nice easy walk to see if the pain would ease up. As I walked around the park and ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, I used every technique I could think of to reduce the pain. I did breathing exercises, slow movements, and a little meditation. Thankfully the pain lessened after a couple of hours and I could function pretty normally.
I took things very easy in the daytime, and in the evening, Håkon and I took a taxi to a large park at York racecourse, where there would be a mock Viking battle, the burning of a Viking longship and a firework display. At the park I met Andy Mckie, the larger than life Jarl (Earl) of the Volsung Viking Group from York. Andy was busy organizing several groups of Viking reenactors for the big battle that would take place that night. There would be about 200 Viking reenactors taking part, and there was a lot of coordinating to be done. When Andy heard me talking with some of the reenactors, and heard my accent, he asked me where I was from. On hearing I was Norway, Andy smiled and said “You fight, right?” As soon as I said that I ran the Academy of Viking Martial Arts in Norway, Andy said “I want a Norwegian Viking on that field tonight!” and made it his mission to get me into the battle.
For Håkon’s 14th birthday, I presented him with a Paul Chen Viking sword. This is a good sword for a beginner, and is perfectly good for training, shows and demonstrations. Håkon started training with the Víkverir group, and became so good he was usually the last one standing in the regular knockout part of training. I asked Håkon if he wanted to take part in the Jorvik Viking battle, but he didn’t want to.
I paid a membership fee and Andy made me a part of the Volsung Viking group. He then introduced me to members of his group, and borrowed enough Viking clothes, armor and equipment for me to take part in the big event. He rushed me through a security test where I had to show my skills with axe and sax. After passing the test, Andy positioned me beside other Viking reenactors, and readied himself for the event.
As the night grew dark a sense of excitement filled the air. Amid much fanfare, about 200 Vikings emerged onto the cordoned off field carrying weapons and burning torches, separated into two groups, then stood silent in front of thousands of visitors. After a big introduction, the two groups ran at each other and had un-choreographed battles. They used the Hærkamp rules of light touches with the weapons on designated areas, but did it with great energy and the crowd loved it.
After the back problems I had earlier in the day, I didn’t want to work too hard and risk more problems, so I took it easy and had fun. It seemed like everyone on the field enjoyed the battles, but I don’t think anyone enjoyed them as much as Andy. After the battles, Andy slapped me on my shoulder, and with a big grin, said that I was probably the first Norwegian to take part in a Viking battle in York since the 10th century. At first I thought it was amusing, but after a little while it had an impact. After delivering the equipment and clothing back to the Volsung Viking group, Andy asked me to join him and his group for other festivals, and when I told him of my plan for the year, we agreed that we would keep in contact and meet up at several Viking events that year.
Håkon and I watched the burning of a massive Viking longship and the firework display then returned to the hotel. I took a few painkillers and slept pretty good. The next morning we took a train ride to Liverpool, a taxi ride to the airport, a plane ride to snow covered Norway, and a car ride back home in freezing temperatures.
After dropping Håkon off at his mom’s, I drove home with a feeling of euphoria. Up until this year, I had never witnessed the burning of a Viking longship, now I had seen two in as many months. I had had a great trip with my son, and he had enjoyed it so much he wanted to join me on another trip that year. Håkon’s grandparents would have loved that we were having this Viking adventure. I certainly was, and I looked forward eagerly to the rest of my Viking journey.
March - Einmánuður - Longbows and Longships
March was gradually getting warmer and there was more sunlight during the day. I wanted to visit local historical Viking areas such as burial grounds, but there was point doing that yet as everything was still covered in snow. For the last months I had been checking the internet, but as there didn’t seem to be any Viking arrangements in Scandinavia or Europe at this time of year, I started looking towards visiting a major Viking attraction that I would have to travel a fair ways to see.
In addition to regular sport and combat glima classes at the Academy, I worked with historical Viking weapons out in the forest. Using a 2 meter length of trunk from a tree that my neighbor had cut down, I made a wooden dummy for cutting practice. I tried to go for a walk in the forest every day and never walked the same trail more than once a week. I found some interesting areas in the forest where I could train, including handmade obstacle courses with ropes and wooden beams that local groups had built. It felt really good doing pull ups, rope climbs and other exercises outdoors.
I also started working on my archery technique. This was a skill that was vital to a Viking. Being able to use a bow and arrow was a necessity for Viking Age hunters. For them, it was more than simply standing in front of a target and trying to hit a bullseye, it was about hitting an animal in such a way that it would drop where it was hit and not run. No archer wanted to lose his arrow or his meal.
Although Vikings used bows primarily for hunting, they also used them in battle, where arrows could hit targets from a long distance. Few wooden Viking Age relics exist, but a complete Viking longbow was found at Hedeby, in Denmark, that is made of yew and is 76 inches long (193 cm). Typical Viking longbows measured about 60 to 80 inches in length (1.5 to 2 meters) and were made from ash, yew or elm wood.
Since I was working on my archery skills, I decided to make my own Viking longbow. Yew was the most popular wood for modern bow makers, so I got a 2 meter length of Yew wood from a friend and started to form the bow. Using simple tools I cut the basic shape, then using a Viking knife, a small hand plane, and sandpaper, I smoothed out the lines until it was as good as I could get it. I bought some bow string and handmade longbow arrows from a friend, who gave me some good tips. One was that the ideal length of string was critical to performance and was determined by the full length of the longbow.
Now that I had my own Viking longbow and some arrows, I let loose at targets. I could use a bow, but I wasn’t great at it, so I started working on my archery skills up at a firing range in the mountains not far from my home. Archery put a strain in my back and I was careful not to do too much. Very slowly my technique improved and I was able to hit a target most of the time.
A day before the full moon, I packed my backpack and headed out for a trip to a hunting cabin up in the hills surrounding Lake Eikeren, in Buskerud County. Eikeren is not far from where I live and is my favorite place in the whole of Norway. The lake is the largest and deepest in the area, and is encircled by rolling forested hills. At this time of the year, all was covered in fresh snow and curtains of ice covered the rocky walls at the base of the forest. The winding drive alongside the lake is great in any season, but right now it was majestic.
After parking the Land Rover, I made my way on foot towards the cabin. It had been snowing for days, which made the trek up the side of a hill that was covered in over a meter of untouched snow, very difficult. I was sweating after just minutes of this exhausting hike and was struggling after 15 minutes. I had to lift each foot high, lift it over the snow, and place it as far as I could in front of me in order to make progress. If I lost my balance and fell, it was a workout just to get to my feet again. This gave me a very good idea of what Vikings had to do on a regular basis in winter.
At the top of the hill I found the old wooden hunting cabin I was heading for. I had planned to make a shelter near the cabin, and spend a couple of days and at least a night there. It all depended on the weather. Weather in Norway can be extreme, and people have died just meters from the safety of a cabin during a snow storm. I knew that the cabin had only the bare essentials, meaning wooden floor, walls and roof, and a single window. It had no electricity or insulation, but it did have a gas lamp, an old iron fireplace, a table and a couple of chairs. If anything went wrong, I would find safety in the cabin. Outside the cabin was a small wooden outhouse. This had a bench with a hole cut in it. 2 meters below was the accumulation of shit from every hunter that had stopped here. Before I left, it would have a deposit from me too.
My first job was to get a fire going. I usually carried enough dry wood with me to get a small fire going, and using a small axe I always had with me in the hills, I cut a log of wood into thin sticks, made shavings from one of them, and placed them over some wool brushed from a sheep that still had oil in it, just as Vikings would have done. One spark created a small fire, and it didn’t take long before I had a good fire going near the hut.
After making a fire I was starving and ready to eat. As there is little hunting in this period of the year, Vikings were experts at storing dried meat and other food sources to get them through the long winter. I hadn’t done, this, but I had taken enough food with me to get me through a few days. I placed some stones around the fire then took one of the pans I always had in my hiking backpack, set it over the fire, and melted snow in it. I took my bag of food from the backpack and placed a premixed chicken and rice stew in the pan. The result was delicious.
Using only a Viking knife and axe, I cut and gathered the materials I needed then made a rough shelter out of the natural materials in the forest. Once that was done, I dug a few holes in the ground under the shelter. It was tough going because the ground was hard, but I managed it. Now that all the essentials were taken care of, I turned my attention to the full moon ceremony. I realized that I was looking forward more and more to each ceremony. I noticed the passage of each month more clearly and with each full moon I was clearer in my intentions of where I was, what I wanted, what I wanted to get rid of, and what I was doing.
It was a beautiful evening up in the hills around Eikeren, seen very clearly under this March full moon. According to the Old Norse calendar the period from March 14th to April 13th was called Einmánuður. Einmánuður is the sixth winter month and the name simply means one month. After making the campfire sacred, I drank some mead, sacrificed a little, and made an oath. Using the month’s name, Einmánuður, as inspiration, I made an oath to make the most out of every day. On doing all this, I took out my book of translations and read a random verse from Hávamál. It was verse 59:
Get up early
If you have a job to do
Much is lost
To those who sleep late
Wealth is within reach
For those who take the initiative
Last month I had chosen verse 58 at random. Now I had chosen the very next verse, and one that confirmed my oath. Satisfied with the day and the ceremony, I placed some glowing hot stones from the fire in the holes I had dug in the ground under the shelter and covered them up. They would keep me warm through the night. I placed an insulated underlay over the area where I had buried the hot stones, took some painkillers, got into my winter sleeping bag and slept like a baby.
I woke early after a good night’s sleep, and felt pretty good. My back was letting me know it was time for more pain killers, but otherwise I was ok. After a cooked breakfast, I went out and took a look around the area. From this vantage point, I could see over most of Eikeren. It was breathtaking this early in the morning.
These days out in the forest had been fun and educational. My back had held out and I felt refreshed. After packing up my equipment, I trekked down the hill through thick snow to where I had parked the Land Rover. It wasn’t easy, but it was much easier than the trek uphill. During the glorious drive home on the road that ran alongside the lake, I resolved to learn a lot more about the qualities a Viking would have needed when going a Viking. I also knew my next destination.
To be continued
GOING a VIKING Tyr Neilsen