VIKINGS – THE TOUGHEST WARRIORS EVER by Tyr Neilsen

 PHOTO: HÅKON NEIL

PHOTO: HÅKON NEIL

Vikings are the toughest warriors ever according to National Geographic. The cover of the March 2017 edition of National Geographic has an illustration of a fearsome Viking warrior, sword in hand, glaring out from behind a steel helmet, with the title; Vikings – what you don’t know about the toughest warriors ever.

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This 24 page article revals that not only were Viking warriors tough on the battlefield, but that they were tough explorers, seafarers and businessmen. Using information from the latest scientific discoveries, the article reveals that Vikings traveled further than earlier researchers ever suspected. Using cutting edge seafaring technology they created, Vikings journeyed to over 37 countries, from Afghanistan to Canada. On their travels they interacted with over 50 cultures, traded using Islamic silver coins, and dressed in Chinese silk and Eurasian caftans.

Vikings built thriving cities in York and Kiev, colonized large parts of Britain, France and Iceland, opened up trade routes from Russia to southern Europe, and established outposts in Greenland and North America. The article states that only Vikings do this, and that no other European seafarers of this period ventured so fearlessly from their homeland. 

According to National Geographic, the ambitions and cultural impact of the Vikings can’t be overstated. Sporadic raiding by small groups of Viking warriors evolved into total warfare as Viking armies conquered three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and impacted world history, but how the people of the north became such a fierce force lies in the 300 year period before the Age of the Vikings.

TOUGH TIMES CREATE TOUGH PEOPLE

Beginning in the year 536, the lands to the north were wracked by turmoil when a series of natural disasters struck. A combination of cataclysms such as comets or meteorites smashing into Earth and at least one volcano eruption, created a vast cloud of dust that darkened the sky and covered the sun for a whole year. For the next 14 years, summer temperature plummeted, and the cold and darkness brought death and ruin to the northern lands.

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These extreme weather events were the most severe and prolonged short-term periods of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2000 years. The effects were disastrous and caused crop failures and famine. The more than 35 petty northern kingdoms that had risen in power and territory, and had built chains of hill forts to protect them, now began to fall. In Sweden’s Uppland region, 75 percent of villages were abandoned as villagers succumbed to starvation and fighting for survival. This dire disaster is likely the inspiration to one of the darkest of world myths; Ragnarok, the end of all things and the last battle of the gods.

When the dark clouds finally dissipated and the sun was able to shine on the land, warm weather returned and the northern people rebounded. Only this time, Norse society assumed a more truculent form. Chieftains became more aggressive and their heavily armed armies began seizing and defending abandoned territories. This new warrior society celebrated the virtues of fearlessness, aggression, cunning and strength.  

In this period of weaponized growth, a new energy effected all peoples of Scandinavia. Skilled carpenters created new technologies and the sleek and deadly longships they built allowed Norse warriors to sail farther and faster than ever before. This revolutionized Norse society of newly ambitious men, wifeless young warriors, and new type of ship, created the perfect storm. Northmen who had little chance of marriage or wealth back home, began aggressively exploring new lands, raiding towns and villages, and taking home treasure, slaves and women. The success of these warriors would set Europe afire.

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VIKING TOUGH

Only the strong survived the chaos after the natural disasters that hit Scandinavia in the 6th century. The rugged wild nature and six month winters of the northern lands had for generations ensured that the people who lived there were tough, but this new Norse warrior society was even tougher. A warrior mentality was instilled in Scandinavian boys, and they were trained for combat from a young age.

Weapons became extremely important in this warrior society, and according to the Hávamál, a Northman should not be more than a few steps away from his weapons. Archeologists on the Swedish island of Gotland have found significant proof of the importance of weapons in Norse society, where nearly every man was buried with weapons.

 The remains of SCANDINAVIAN men were buried in the ship that THEY SAILED to an Estonian island a HALF century before the Viking AGE BEGAN

The remains of SCANDINAVIAN men were buried in the ship that THEY SAILED to an Estonian island a HALF century before the Viking AGE BEGAN

In around the year 750, about 50 years before the Viking Age officially started, a band of Norse warriors from Uppsala in Sweden, sailed to the island of Saaremaa, off the coast of Estonia. 40 of these warriors were killed in a battle there and buried in two longships. In 2008 this burial was discovered by accident, and the discovery caused a stir among specialists, because of all the swords buried with the warriors. Most experts had assumed that Norse raiding parties consisted of a few elite armed warriors, with the rest of the crew made up of poor farm boys with cheap spears and longbows. What the archeological discovery shows is that the burial contained more swords than men, which could mean that even the earliest expeditions consisted of many Norse warriors of high status.

At some point during this aggressive movement, the term Viking was used for warriors who went out on these voyages of exploration and conquest. The social hierarchy of the northern lands was slave, freeman, warrior, chief, noble and king, but after a while, the term «Viking» was used to describe all the peoples of Viking Age Scandinavia.

TOUGH TRAILS

The Viking Age officially started when the new breed of weaponized Northman, now called ‘Viking’, raided a monastery in Lindisfarne in the year 793. Successful early raids along the coasts of Europe provided Viking warriors with riches beyond their expectations.

In the beginning these raids were planned for the summer months with just a few longships and less than a hundred warriors. As Viking warriors grew in strength, experience and motivation, so grew their ambitions. What started as raids on small settlements with just a few longships, grew to attacks on cities like York and Paris with fleets of ships. Viking warriors sailed inland by way of rivers to overthrow kingdoms and seize large swathes of land that they colonized. In the 9th century, when Vikings raided the France, they stormed more than 120 settlements and extorted 14 percent of the entire Carolingian Empire.

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It was not only Viking men that were tough, Viking women were tough too. New discoveries show that leaders of Viking raids were not only battle hardened men, but women such as Inghen Ruaidh «Red Girl» named after the color of her hair, who led a fleet of Viking ships to Ireland in the 10th century. 

In the ancient Viking trading center of Birka in Sweden, the skeletal remains of a Viking fighter, buried with an arsenal of weapons, has been discovered to be that of a female. The way she was buried suggests she had the respect of Viking warriors.

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Archeological evidence suggests that Viking leaders wore colorful clothing, heavy jewelry and even painted around their eyes as a proclamation of their achievements and means of maintaining their power base. Each neck ring, armband, dress pin and gold and silver belt fitting had a serious purpose. They were the spoils of war and tools for promoting that way of life and recruiting young men who would swear an oath of allegiance in return for a share of the booty.

It was not only raiding that was a tough activity for Viking warriors, trading was an equally tough profession. Viking warriors known as the Rus carved out trading routes from Turkey to western Russia, and along the Black and Caspian seas. Trading outposts and Viking ships laden with luxury goods such as fur, honey, amber, walrus ivory, silver, silk and slaves, had to be protected all along these dangerous routes. 

Throughout the east and Europe, Vikings became feared and admired in equal measure. One of the earliest documents about Vikings was written by a Muslim diplomat called Ibn Fadlan, in 922 A.D, who described Vikings as “The wildest warriors I have ever seen”.

What these Viking warriors did, was no different than what people from many other countries did, Vikings were just tougher and more successful than the rest. Vikings fought for, and carved out kingdoms, around the world. They are an integral part of the world’s history and paved the way for the world as we know it today. If anyone doubts that Vikings were the toughest warriors ever, just remember that they are the only warriors that have a period of history named after them; The Viking Age!

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VIKING SCOTLAND by Tyr Neilsen

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The Age of the Vikings began with an attack on the Island of Lindisfarne in 793, which in the 8th century was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a territory that stretched from Yorkshire to Edinburgh. Over the course of hundreds of years, Vikings, mostly from Norway, extended their rule and influence across the land that would become Scotland. There were various stages from raiding to conquest, settlement, integration, and finally withdrawal, but the Viking legacy in Scotland is massive and has never ended.

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In the Viking Age, longships could sail the 300 kilometers due west of Norway, to The Northern Isles in a day. These 26 inhabited islands off the coast of mainland Scotland include Orkney and Shetland, which have experienced the first and longest lasting Norse influence of any part of Scotland. To the Norse these islands were known as the Norðreyjar.

Norðreyjar

Viking warriors played an integral part of the formation of the early Kingdoms of Scotland. As early as 839, a Norse army defeated a combined Gaelic-Pictish army somewhere in central Scotland, which allowed the MacAlpine dynasty to forge a union between Dalriada and Pictland to form Alba, which was the Scottish Gaelic name for early Scotland.

What began as Norse warriors pillaging and heading home, changed to them settling on the mainland and the islands of Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

Throughout the 9th century, so many Norsemen settled in these areas that in some cases they replaced local populations and the native languages. The Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland became fully Norse in manner, custom and law, and Vikings throughout the coastal area became known as the Norse-Gaels. In the Highlands they were known as the Gall-Ghàidheil, or the ‘foreign Gaels’.

 Kong Harald Hårfagre statue, haugesund, Norway

Kong Harald Hårfagre statue, haugesund, Norway

In Norway, King Harald Hårfagre (Finehair) consolidated the various Norwegian estates into one single kingdom, and in 875 he appropriated Orkney, Shetland and the Hebridean Islands to his crown. Orkney was prized as an important strategic location and was made a great earldom whose authority extended all the way down the west of Scotland to the Isle of Man. 

Throughout the 9th and 10th century the Norse-Gaels and their fellow Norsemen used the islands to launch attacks on Alba. By the middle of the 10th century, the Norse Earldom of Orkney included large tracts of mainland Alba. The Kingdom of Strathclyde was assaulted by Vikings and Albans alike, and was assumed into the ever growing country. By 1050 the Albans forced the Norsemen from Sutherland and Caithness, and in 1058, Malcolm III became king. Malcolm's long reign of 35 years preceded the beginning of what is called the Scoto-Norman Age.

The name Scotland comes from Scoti, the Latin name for the Gaels, and by the 11th century, Scotia was being used to refer to Gaelic-speaking Scotland. At this time many areas of northern mainland Scotland were subject to the Crown of Norway, but the home of the Norsemen was far away, and there was a constant battle against the ever expanding Kingdom of the Scots.

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Suðreyjar

To the Norse, the Southern Isles, which include Hebrides, Skye, Iona, Firth of Clyde, and the Isle of Man, were known as Suðreyjar. It was in the Suðreyjar that battles between the warlords of Gaelic Scotland and the Viking Empire would have far reaching consequences, and one particular battle would shift the balance of power in Scotland.

King Malcom’s dynasty, the Canmores, and their ambition to rule as much of Scotland as possible, put them on a collision course with the powerful Viking lords. In the summer of 1158, the rival navies of Godred, King of Man, and his brother-in-law Somerled, Lord of Argyll, faced each other across the Sea of the Hebrides. 

 Romanticised nineteenth-century depictions of Godred Crovan.

Romanticised nineteenth-century depictions of Godred Crovan.

In the Battle of Bargarran in 1164, Somerled was killed. With Somerled dead, Godred, with the aid of the king of Norway, took back control of the isles. Somerled’s descendants, the MacDonalds and MacDougalls, were granted the islands of Argyll, while Godred and his descendants governed Skye and the Outer Hebrides under the Norwegian Crown.

The MacDonalds gave their loyalty to the Scottish Crown, and launched attack after attack throughout the Hebrides until Norse authority slowly subsided. In 1262, Alexander III of Scotland laid a formal claim for Scottish territories before the Norwegian King Haakon IV, who rejected the claim and responded with a formidable invasion. In 1263 Alexander defeated Haakon in the Battle of Largs. King Haakon turned homewards, but died in Orkney on 15th December 1263. 

The Kalmar Union

In 1266, the Age of the Vikings in Scotland, which had lasted for 400 years, was over. King Magnus VI of Norway signed the Treaty of Perth, and ceded the Isle of Man and the Western Isles to Scotland in return for a monetary payment. Now only Orkney and Shetland remained. 

 PLaque of King Magnus VI of Norway

PLaque of King Magnus VI of Norway

Orkney and Shetland had been true valuable Viking assets, and the Scottish Earls still held their lands as vassals of the Norwegian crown, but influence and power was shifting. Many Scots began to settle in the islands and hold important positions of influence, and in 1379 the centralizing of power was complete with the rise of the Sinclair family.

In 1380, one year after Henry Sinclair became Earl of Orkney, Norway and Denmark created a union under one crown called The Kalmar Union, which heavily favored Denmark. 

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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, the last earl holding the title from Norway, William Sinclair, handed over control to the Scottish Crown in 1470.

In 1471, King James III granted Sinclair lands in Caithness as compensation, and made him Earl of Caithness. In 1472, the Danish Kingdom relinquished Shetland and the Earldom of Orkney, and the islands became part of the realm and crown of Scotland. After fighting for and holding these lands for over 500 years, a simple marriage debt ended Norse rule in Scotland. Never had a land been more fiercely held and given away so cheaply.

Viking Legacy

Vikings are a part of Scottish history, and although Norse rule ended in 1472, the influence of the Vikings has endured in Scotland. Viking/Scottish history makes up part of Scottish school and university curriculum. Nordic place names can still be found on Scottish territories, the etymology of place names such as Wick, Lerwick and Tinwald are Norse, and the names of Viking Kings still adorn street signs. Norse-Viking culture has left an indelible mark in other ways. Some Scottish words such as 'out' and 'house' are pronounced as 'ut' and 'hus',  as they are  in Norway, and many Scottish words are Viking, such as bairn meaning child, and even kilt is from the Old Norse verb kjalta, meaning "to fold". 

Highland games, called Høylandsleker in Norwegian, are events held in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture. Some believe that Highland Games can be traced back to a sporting event created by King Malcolm III of Scotland in the 11th century. 

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A favorite sporting event at Highland Games is Scottish Backhold wrestling. Backhold is a style of folk wrestling originating in Scotland, where wrestlers grip each other around the waist at the back, and try to throw an opponent to the ground without breaking the backhold grip. Scottish backhold wrestling is incredibly alike Hryggspenna, the name for Old Norse back-hold glima wrestling. 

Hryggspenna was a very popular form of Viking wrestling, and as many regions of Scotland were under Norwegian rule or colonization until the 15th century, it is very possible that Scottish backhold wrestling has its origins in Hryggspenna.

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The Scandinavian connection and Norse culture is still a large part of life in Orkney and the Shetlands. Every year, Up Helly Aa is celebrated in Lerwick, the northernmost town in Scotland. The name Up Helly Aa comes from the Old Norse word uppi, meaning up or above, helly, from Old Norse helgr, meaning holiday or festival, and Gaelic , meaning all. It is the biggest fire festival in Europe, and is totally Norse in character. The parade of thousands holding burning braziers is led by Guizers in Viking outfits and culminates in the burning of a Viking Longship.

When Norway became independent in 1905, the Shetland authorities sent a letter to King Haakon VII which stated: 

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"Today no 'foreign' flag is more familiar or more welcome in our voes and havens than that of Norway, and Shetlanders continue to look upon Norway as their mother-land, and recall with pride and affection the time when their forefathers were under the rule of the Kings of Norway." 

At the 2013 Viking Congress held in Shetland, the Scottish Government announced plans to strengthen Scotland’s historic links with Scandinavia. In an effort to build on this plan, agencies in Norway and Scotland are working together to get the Viking sport of Glima back in the Highlands.

                                                                                               Top and bottom - James Buchanan - photos by Cristina Buchanan, taken at Old Cambus, Scotland

                                                                                              Top and bottom - James Buchanan - photos by Cristina Buchanan, taken at Old Cambus, Scotland

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VIKING YULE by Tyr Neilsen

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The Norse people celebrated a midwinter feast which is now called Jul in Scandinavia and Yule in other countries. The Old Norse words Jól was used to describe a feast, and Jólablót was a midwinter festival associated with the rebirth of the sun. Blót or blot does not mean blood as many believe, but means ritual of sacrifice or worship. The verb blóta meant "to worship with sacrifice" or "to strengthen".

The long white-bearded Norse god Odin also had the name Jólfaðr, which in Old Norse meant "Yule father", and Jólnir, meaning "the Yule one".

In Old Norse poetry, the word Jól was often used as a synonym for 'feast', such as in the kenning Hugins jól, meaning "Huginn's Yule" (Hugin being one of Odins ravens).

During the celebration of Jól the community would take up the drinking horn, and drink mead, beer and wine. This is now called “å drikke jul” meaning to drink Yule and celebrate the Norse gods, dead friends and relatives, and peace and harmony.

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Yule is attested early in the history of the Germanic peoples from the 4th century. In the 8th century, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli (Yule) which were either modern December or December and January. 

The Old Norse name jól is mentioned in the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál. Here different names for the gods are given and one of the names provided is "Yule-beings". The skald Eyvindr Skáldaspillir uses the term which reads "again we have produced Yule-being's feast [mead of poetry], our rulers' eulogy, like a bridge of masonry".

In the Saga of Hákon the Good, King Haakon I of Norway, who was responsible for the Christianisation of Norway, rescheduled the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga describes how toasts were to be drunk, and it is also stated that King Haakon had a law passed that everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines. The Norwegians also had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.

The oldest written source of the Viking Yule celebrations is Hrafnsmál, which means "raven speech" in Old Norse. This poem was composed around the 9th century by the Norwegian skald Þorbjörn Hornklofi. Hrafnsmál is mainly about a conversation between an unnamed valkyrie and a raven, who discuss the life and martial deeds of Harald Fairhair. Because of this, the poem is sometimes referred to as Haraldskvæði.

Toast in Old Norse: Úti vill jól drekka, Ef skal einn ráða, Fylkir enn framlyndi, Ok Freys leik heyja;   (Drink out Yule, if one will advise, the fame-seeking ruler, and perform Frey's game). The first toast was to be drunk to Odin "for victory and power to the king", the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr" for good harvests and for peace", and third, a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called "minni [memorial toast]".

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The Yule tree, holly, mistletoe, Yule log and Yule tree decorations, all have Scandinavian origins. The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargöltr) reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and other such traditions, stem from Pagan Yule customs. The Yule Goat (Norwegian julebukk) is one of the oldest Scandinavian Jul symbols. Its origin is the legend about Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, who rode in the sky in a wagon pulled by two goats. 

The Yule tree, known as Jultre in Scandinavia, and Christmas tree in other lands, is usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine, or fir. The use of evergreen trees symbolized eternal life to many ancient cultures. Tree worship was common among pagan Scandinavians and Europeans, and survived their conversion to Christianity.

Scandinavians cut down trees to cut into firewood. The top of the tree used to keep the people of the cold North warm during the Yule period, was used as both decoration and sacred symbol. The Yule log was important because it kept fire in the world and helped to ensure the next harvest would be good.

The noun Yuletide is first attested from around 1475, and the Germanic and Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens began to spread in the 15th and 16th centuries. This custom blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The famous Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Jultre donated to the people of Britain by Norway each year since 1947. Every year the city of Oslo sends this gift as a token of gratitude for British support of Norway during the Second World War. The tree is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norwegian spruce, generally over 20 metres tall, and prominently displayed in Trafalgar Square from the beginning of December until 6 January.

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Gifts don’t need
To be extravagant
A little praise is often enough
Sharing food
And something to drink
Has secured many friendships

      HÁVAMÁL - verse 52

One Old Norse toast used at Yule was “til árs ok friðar", meaning for a good year and frith (peace). This toast was for fertility, good health, a good life and peace and harmony between the people and the powers. This ancient Norse toast would be drunk at the Jólablót, a feast that took place at the first full moon after the winter solstice, which occurs each year around the 21st of December.

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In Shetland, where the Viking influence was strongest, New Year is called Yules, from the Norwegian Jul (Old Norse - Jól). The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was "Hoggo-nott" which is one theory as to the derivation of the word "Hogmanay".

A new Years Eve tradition is Scotland is called "First footing". This is the name for the first foot in the house after midnight. To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should belong to a dark haired male, who should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.  The reason for a dark hair is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble. 

 

                            God Jól - Happy Yule - Happy Yules                        Til árs ok friðar - Good year and peace                                                              

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UTESITTING by Tyr Neilsen

 Utesitting tyr neilsen - photo B. Wemundstad

Utesitting tyr neilsen - photo B. Wemundstad

A way for a Viking to achieve wisdom and strengthen their spirit was through utesitting, which directly translated means ‘sitting-outside’. The modern equivalent would be meditation done out in nature. By sitting alone in nature, people of the Viking culture could seek inner wisdom and visions.

Utesitting is an ancient ritual that the Norse people used to come in contact with their spirituality. It is an ancient practice known from Norse sources such as the poem Völuspá, from the Poetic Edda, an Icelandic manuscript from the year 1270.

Utesitting was a way to build the spirit and an individual’s spirituality. It could be a calm and gentle experience, or a deeply transformative experience. After utesitting, a person was more serene, more aware, more focused in mind, body and spirit. Utesitting was a way to connect with other energies, the gods, or the universe. This was a way to undertake a vision quest to put a person in touch with themselves and the spirit world.

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It was very important that the place chosen for utesitting would be a place where a person was not disturbed. During utesitting, where a person would go, and how long they would be gone, would be decided naturally within the utesitting ritual. It would take however long it took. Sometimes such a ritual could take a short while, or an afternoon, but sometimes it could take days.

Utesitting themes could be personal questions, major issues, or life's big questions. Utesitting could be used as a spiritual cleansing process. It could be used to open a spiritual door or as a way to introduce a person to the elements and environment around them.

Utesitting, as the name suggests, is time spent in meditation in nature. This was done both for inner wisdom and as a way to lead to a higher consciousness through contact with nature. It was and is a method to find a person’s place in nature, or way back to a natural state. It makes no difference whether a person is troubled by large or small issues, or is making large or small processes regarding changes in life, utesitting was and is, a way to clarify a person’s intention and co-create with nature.  

Sacrifice was very important to the Norse people, and rituals always contained some sort of offering. A gift to nature and the nature spirits would be offered before and after utesitting. It didn't matter if a specific utesitting felt like a good or bad experience, Vikings obtained wisdom and understanding from this practice. Utesitting could be an hour, a day, a night, or weekend in the forest or mountains. This practice was helpful to Vikings who needed to withdraw from "normal life", in order to bring them to a place where they could get closer and have better contact with themselves.

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Getting in contact with ones-self and the universe became a problem with the coming of Christianity, and utesitting was perceived as so threatening for this religion that it was forbidden. The custom of sitting out in nature with a view to induce wisdom or visions was deemed dangerous in Norway and Iceland, and the church sanctioned hard against those who practiced that kind spirituality, or ‘magic’.

In 1267, King Magnus of Norway received instructions regarding this according to Gulatings-loven. Utesitting in groves or on mounds were crimes against the Holy Church. It was forbidden to sit alone in the forest or mountains and open the mind and the inner contemplation. It was prohibited to connect with nature's energy and the beings of the forest. If a person had undertaken utesitting, they had to confess to a bishop and not a regular priest, according to the scripture commands the Bishop Torlak in Skâlholdt in Iceland at the end of the 1100s.

All of this suggests that utesitting for personal wisdom and spirituality were very important activities for the Norse people.

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VEIEN - the WAY of the VIKING WARRIOR by Tyr Neilsen

 veien - the way of the viking warrior - tyr neilsen - glima 

veien - the way of the viking warrior - tyr neilsen - glima 

Veien is a Norwegian word meaning the way, path or road. My teacher used veien to describe the way of the Viking warrior. This way was based on a strict code of ethics from the Viking clan code, the Viking code for doing business, and the code of brotherhood to fellow warriors. 

Veien defines the codified Viking way of life, originating from Viking values of loyalty, honor, honesty, courage, respect, strength, perseverance, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, generosity and justice. This moral and spiritual code can be found within the 13th century Scandinavian documents of Hávamál (the sayings of the high one), the Biærköa rætter (Birka Law) and Konungs skuggsjá (Kings Mirror).

The Viking Code

During the Viking Age, there was no law against waring with other nations, just as there is no law against it today. And just as it is around the world today, Vikings had no law against piracy, as long as it was against the "enemy". 

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During the Viking Age, any Norseman who turned his hand to piracy abroad did nothing illegal according to Scandinavian law, so long as they adhered to the Viking code. So strong was this code, it created a Viking brotherhood during journeys of trading, raiding, exploring and carving out kingdoms.  

When a band of Viking warriors undertook a sea journey to another land, it was vital that each man could rely on the man next to him to protect his back in order for everyone to survive. Warriors who went ‘a-Viking’ together considered their companions as brothers, in the most literal sense, and the Viking code these ‘brothers’ held to was all important.

Loyalty was central to Viking life. Vikings had to be loyal to each other during dangerous journeys, and no Viking would desert a leader he had promised to support. A Viking would fight to the death so that his brothers, and his wife or children would be proud of him. This type of loyalty was necessary in the Viking age, as endangering a crew mate would directly affect themselves, the rest of the crew, and family back home. 

Drengskapr is the Old Norse word meaning honor. The Icelandic historian and skald Snorri Sturluson , author of the 13th century Younger Edda, wrote "Valiant men who exert a good influence are called drengr." Drengskapr was a quality of extreme importance and necessity in order for the Viking brotherhood to trust each other in dangerous situations. The word of a Viking was an oath, and once the word of a Viking was given, it had to be kept at any cost. A Vikings oath was a legal bond, and arm-rings or finger-rings were often used to seal oaths. An oath-breaker had no honor and no friends.

As every Norseman lived his life as a member of an extended family circle,  if he did something dishonorable, he could easily bring disgrace and ruin to his brothers and his entire family. A Viking's honor being ruined was considered worse than death itself. Having a good reputation after death was something that could help the family for generations.  

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It was extremely important for each Viking to have courage. Vikings despised cowards, and Hávamál states that people should be brave in conflict, as only fools think that they will have peace by avoiding conflict. Courage was not just something to have in battle, courage was a quality needed in daily life. A Viking life was not to be wasted, but to be lived to the full. According to Hávamál, the cowardly fear everything, whilst the generous and brave live best and seldom nurture sorrow. 

Respect was not given in the Viking Age, it was earned. Respect was needed in order for Vikings to live together, fight for each other and to succeed. In order for this to happen, a Viking had to respect himself first and foremost. This could only happen by making sure a person didn’t do anything to dishonor themselves.

Strength was highly regarded in Viking society. It was not something to be abused, but rather a quality to be used wisely. 

Perseverance was essential to the Vikings. Success depended on perseverance, and in the Viking Age, no man was considered useless if he persevered, even if he was injured or maimed. 

Discipline and industriousness were very important qualities for all Vikings. In the Viking Age it was vital to get up early and work hard and smart. All could be lost if this was not done. According to Hávamál, a sleeping wolf rarely gets meat, and the lazy rarely get victory.

For a Viking, self-reliance was a necessity. If a person did not own self-reliance, he or she was a burden to family and society. In order to be self-reliant, a person needed to have common sense. Hávamál mentions the need for common sense many times, and states that a person can never have a more dependable guide than good common sense. This highly valued skill was considered to be of the greatest worth when far from home.

Generosity was expected of a Viking. For a Norseman who travelled, it was important to know that in friendly territory, he would always have food, shelter and protection. 

Justice was of paramount importance to the Vikings, because without justice, their society would collapse. Justice was decided by a Lovsigemann (law-reader), by a clan leader, or a group leader. When a-Viking, if any wrong doing was done to one of the crew, it would be righted by a fellow brother, and if a crew member was murdered, his Viking brothers would get justice by avenging him

Sometimes justice meant solving a dispute by revenge, Hólmganga (Holmgang -duel), or in the form of compensation in money. If the people in Viking society felt that justice had been denied, they would feel compelled to take justice into their own hands and blood feuds could ensue, so it was extremely important that justice was fair. 

There were different rules to societies a thousand years ago, and the rugged people of the North depended on their code in order to survive in a hostile world. By following the Viking code, Vikings grew strong and successful. Through this code, each person kept to important values that created a good life for themselves and their family.

The way of the Viking warrior is not an easy path, and it can be difficult to follow such a code, but the Viking values of loyalty, honor, honesty, courage, respect, strength, perseverance, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, generosity and justice are still worthy values to aspire to. 
  

VIKING DUEL by Tyr Neilsen

 combat glima - Holmgang - viking duel - tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

combat glima - Holmgang - viking duel - tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

Disputes throughout the ages have been ‘solved’ by combat. In Viking Age Scandinavia, sometimes a dispute became an unregulated duel called Einvigi, “single combat”, other times it was solved by a regulated duel called Holmgang “small-island walk”. This meant that all Norsemen had to be ready to fight to protect their property with their life, at all times. 

In Viking Age Scandinavia, there was no regulated police force to take care of disputes. To keep peace and order, Viking society used a Viking ‘Code of honor’ system and a system of laws concerning property and crimes. In this self-regulated society, the Viking honor system was ingrained in everyone, and the concept of "honor" and of a "good name" was extremely important for the survival of the family or clan.

The Viking ‘Code of honor’ held that any apparent insult, deliberate or imagined, had to be paid for with money or blood. Honor had to be defended, or people would feel they could insult any member of any family with fear of consequences. This system left the choice of payment to the victim or victim’s family. If compensation was denied, Viking society demanded blood vengeance. This was justified revenge, which could be realized as arson or manslaughter.

Respect in the Viking community was a high priority, and any offence, in word or deed, or anything that might have hurt a person's honor, had to be dealt with in order to uphold that respect. Vengeance was not a punishment from the person whose honor was tarnished, vengeance repaired the honor of the injured person. Vengeance didn’t have to be directed against the individual who caused the offense, it could be directed at a close family member to the offender. 

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Grágás, the medieval Icelandic lawbook, permitted a man who was seriously injured, to avenge himself without penalty at any time, up until the time the case was brought to court. Sometimes, even when the law forbade vengeance, there were cases when public opinion demanded it. In Viking society, duels were an accepted way of making good in such situations. 


The main Viking laws were rules for inheriting property and describing various crimes and their punishments. Anyone who killed a man accidentally, had to pay the man’s relatives what the man was worth, which depended on the man’s status. Blood feuds could be ended with one death cancelled out another death of equal value. The worst crimes were punished by banishment.

These laws were based upon the Ting (thing) system, the Viking legislative assembly and court, created through common-meetings that dated back to at least the 7th century. Norse legalities were created and disputed in a Ting, and there were many types of Ting in Norse society. The first settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government, and the World’s oldest National Parliament is the Allting, or All-Thing, created in Þingvellir, Iceland in the year 930. 

Not only did the Norse people have laws, we know what they were like. ‘Law and Order’ comes from the Old Norse words “Lov og Orden”, were legalities memorized and argued by a "lovsigemann" (law reader man). Every free man had to respect Norse law, including chieftains and kings. The Norse law system was democratic and included everybody as citizens, except slaves and outlaws. 

If a person in Viking society was convicted of being a criminal, he or she was either fined or declared an “out-law”. Outlawry was one of the harshest penalties in the Norse legal system. Outlaws had to live outside of society and were forced to live in the wild. No one was allowed to help outlaws in any way whatsoever, and outlaws were free game for their enemies, who were free to hunt such a criminal down and kill them.

Whether it was a matter of honor, ownership, property, compensation, debt, legal disagreement, a contended fine, or to help a family member or friend, a duel could decide who was in the right. Hólmganga, the Old Norse for holmgang, was a regulated duel that was a common way of solving disputes. Anyone offended could legally challenge the other party to holmgang, regardless their difference in social status. 

                                                                                            Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870)

                                                                                           Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870)

If the duel was agreed inland, then the holmgang would take place either on a pre-specified area, or on a traditional place that was commonly used for a holmgang. If the duel was agreed near the coast, then a small islet, hulme (holme) or skerry was chosen as the place where the holmgang would occur. A duel fought on small, deserted island, prevented cowards from running away, and limited possible interference from third parties.

Many descriptions of holmgang duels in the sagas begin with a recitation of hólmgöngulög, the dueling law. This law varies from one saga to the next, but there are similarities and detailed rules. A holmgang would take place 3 to 7 days after the challenge, and it had to be agreed that the holmgang would be won by first blood or by death. All weapons were allowed, though swords and shields were favorite weapons for a holmgang. Combatants were permitted a specific number of shields they could use, usually three, which could be used if an opponent's strikes broke a shield. The challenged was allowed to strike first and then the combatants were free to strike.

The Swedish Hednalagen, (Pagan law) is a fragment from a 13th century document from Västergötland in Sweden, which stipulates the conditions for a holmgang:

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•    If someone speaks insults to another man (”You’re not the like of a man, and not a man in your chest!” – ”I’m a man like you!”), they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.

•    If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry ”Niðingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.

•    Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation. 

In Kormakssaga, it’s stated that holmgang was fought on an ox hide or cloak with sides that were three meters long. The hide or cloak was staked to the ground in a specific manner that is unknown. Then the area was marked by drawing three borders around the square hide, each about one foot from the previous one. Corners of the outermost border were marked with hazel staves, and holmgang combatants had to fight inside these borders. Stepping out of borders meant forfeiture and running away meant cowardice.

Also in the Saga of Kormak is mention of a sacrifice of a bull before the holmgang and there are many references about the sacrifice the winner made after the victory. In this saga, it’s stated that holmgang combat would normally end on the first blood and the winner would receive three marks of silver. This was intended to avoid unnecessary loss of life and excessive profiteering, and is confirmed in later Icelandic versions of holmgang. If the dispute was about a specific property, the most the winner could receive was the three marks of silver.

To begin a holmgang, the challenger had to recite the rules, traditional or those agreed upon, before the duel could begin. Rules determined the allowed weapons, who was eligible to strike first, what constituted a defeat or forfeiture. In Gunnlaugs saga, it is stated that when a man became weaponless, he was defeated, but losing a weapon did not necessarily mean defeat, as a duelist could use glima. In Egils saga, it’s said that Egill killed Atli in a duel by grappling with him and biting out his throat. 

Some holmgang duels were resolved quickly, such as the one described in Víga-Glúms saga, where Eyjólf's first blow cut off Ásgaut's foot. Ásgautur then paid his opponent to release himself from the duel, and lived the rest of his life as a cripple. Some holmgang duels went on for a long time, and Þorsteins þáttur stangarhöggs tells of a duel between Þórsteinn and Bjarni that lasted so long that they stopped multiple times to rest and refresh themselves.

In Ljósvetninga saga, another form of holmgang is mentions. Here, the duel has four men on each side. The challenge was offered by Hrólfur as either a duel one on one with his opponent Eyjólfur, or with four men on each side. It was agreed that the challenger had the privilege of choosing who the additional men would be on each side, and Hrólfr chose mercenaries and robbers to fight alongside him.


If a holmgang ended with the death or incapacitation of a combatant, it was not considered murder, and the winner could not become outlaw, or have to pay weregeld. To win a duel was regarded as proof that the winner was in the right, because the Norse gods always helped the "right" man to win. The Norse god Tyr was often called upon for in a Holmgang, as Tyr was the Viking god of dueling and justice.

If the person challenged did not turn up for the holmgang, the challenger was considered the winner. If the offended party did not turn up for the holmgang, they were deemed niðingr (nithinger), meaning a nothing-person. This was a social stigma implying the loss of honor, with the status of coward or villain, and such a person could be also sentenced to outlawry.

Because of the massive consequences of holmgang, if a person was clearly outclassed, unable or unwilling to defend their claim, a capable warrior could volunteer to fight in their place. The law also gave a person involved in a dispute the right to choose a warrior to fight in their stead. This led to Viking warriors traveling from thing to thing as professional duelers, fighting for someone who didn’t have the ability or means to fight for themselves. 

In most instances, both parties agreed to what the winner would receive, but in Norway, the winner of a holmgang could claim everything the loser owned. With such stakes, professional Viking duelists used Holmgang as a form of legalized robbery. Some claimed rights to land, women, or property, and proved their claims in a Holmgang duel, at the expense of the legitimate owner. Many sagas describe berserks who abused holmgang in this way. With this abuse of the Viking legal system, Holmgang duels began to be outlawed in the Nordic countries. 

Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, "the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue", describes the last duel to take place in Iceland, in the 11th century. This saga is about two Icelandic poets, Gunnlaugr Ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson, and their love of Helga the Fair, granddaughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. Their competition for Helga resulted in a duel of honor at the Alþing, which ended as a draw. The next day, the law council abolished duels in Iceland. Gunnlaugur and Hrafn traveled to Norway to continue their duel, in which Hrafn killed Gunnlaugur, only to die himself shortly thereafter.

Christianity changed the Holmgang to an ordeal by fire. Járnburdr is the Old Norse name of the ordeal of grabbing a hot iron from boiling water and walking 9 paces with it carrying it with both hands to prove innocence.

With the increasing popularity of Viking fighting, friendly holmgang competitions regularly take place at Viking festivals around the world. These modern Viking duels are exciting to watch and thrilling to take part in, whether it is in training, show, demonstration or competition, and although they are not fought to first blood or death, there is still the element of danger and injury from the blunt steel weapons used. 

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NORSE CULTURE

  norse culture tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

norse culture tyr neilsen - Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

For centuries, Vikings have been portrayed as savages. This is probably because it was their enemy who wrote the stories about them. Facts show that the Norse culture of the Viking Age was intricate,  sophisticated, artistic,  adventurous and creative.

Norsemen created the most technologically advanced ships of their day, and shortly after Norwegian Vikings migrated to Iceland in the late 800’s, they built up a well-functioning culture similar to the one they had in Norway. By the year 930, the Norwegian Vikings in Iceland had already formed the  world's first parliament, the Alþingi (Althing), based on the Norwegian judicial system, which included all free people. This legal system is still used in the western world today.

The culture of the Norse people  has been described as ruthless and barbaric, but Norsemen had a culture that was defined by a code of conduct based on reason, moderation and charity. The culture of the Norsemen was one of hard work, a spiritual respect for nature, and a passion for a good life. The reason that we know this, is that the Norse code of conduct was written down in the Hávamál, an Icelandic manuscript from the year 1270. 

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The Hávamál is one of the most famous wisdom poems in literature, and is one of the most important scources of what Viking Age Scandinavian culture was like. Hávamál means the sayings of "The High One", reffering to the Norse God Odin. The first 80  verses of Hávamál descibe how Norsemen and women were to deal with everyday matters as well as how to be spiritually nourished. Hávamál warns against over-indulgence, greed, idleness, ignorance and cowardice. It also tells us how important generosity, hospitality, honor, industriousness, moderation, good manners and good sense were to Viking/Norse culture. 

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Well described as the wisdom of the North, Hávamál is one of the most important documents from the Viking Age Scandinavia. Hávamál gives us insight into the honorable code and ethics of a people living in a harsh climate and and a violent world. Hávamál’s wisdom gave spiritual nourishment to the Vikings in their daily lives, their long journeys to discover new lands, and their personal journeys to discover the meaning of life and death.

I have studied the Hávamál contents for many years and am one of the very few people to have held the original manuscript. I believe that the wisdom contained in the Hávamál is as relevant today as it was for the Norse people in the Viking Age, and that there is much wisdom and inspiration to reclaim from Norse culture and our ancestors, and the era that was subsequently named after them.

People should be The generous and brave
Quiet and thoughtful Live best
And brave in conflict And rarely nourish sorrow
They should live The cowardly fear everything
Happy and friendly And the greedy
Until their last day Dread giving

HÁVAMÁL - verse 15 HÁVAMÁL - verse 48  

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THE VARANGIAN GUARD by Tyr Neilsen

 Varangian Guard.- tyr neilsen

Varangian Guard.- tyr neilsen

Viking warriors headed one of the most legendary elite fighting units in history, the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard was a specialist fighting force in the Byzantine army, when the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. Viking warriors also formed the personal bodyguard to the Emperor of Byzantium, which became Constantinople, then later Istanbul, the most populated city in Turkey. 

At a time when most Vikings were busy conquering or plundering in Europe, this unit of Scandinavian warriors was protecting Byzantine emperors, and fighting for the Byzantine Empire in the many wars it was involved in. Here, the Varangian guard often played a decisive role, as they were typically used at critical moments of a battle. These Viking warriors were tough and capable. They had weapons, armor, and organized training in order to function as the elite mercenary fighting unit in dangerous and decisive battles around the Middle East. 

From the 9th to 14th century, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic warriors were part of this exclusive guard. The Varangians were not a specific ethic group, though the Byzantines used it to indicate any Norseman. The word Varangian is from the Old Norse word ‘var’ meaning pledge, and that pledge was to each other.

Norsemen who arrived in Byzantium did not automatically enter the Imperial Guard. This was a highly prized and very exclusive unit. The Varangian Guard received higher pay, and had the privilege to be among the first to loot and plunder after a victory. For the Viking warriors, who were members of the Varangian Guard, it was a singular high honor, to be called the “emperor’s axe-bearing barbarians.” 

The first record of Vikings in Byzantium is in the year 839, when they were on their way home to Scandinavia via Germany. In 860, Byzantines faced a large Viking raiding force that terrorized Constantinople for ten days. In the year 874, Swedish warriors, called Rus, the Old Norse word for route, became the earliest members of the Varagian guard. As early as 911, the Varangian guard is mentioned in records, as mercenaries fighting for the Byzantine Emperors. 

Around the year 1000, Vikings had become the primary body guard of the Emperor Basil II, who also used the Scandinavian warriors in his battles. While the Varangian Guard comprised of about 6000 warriors, it was rarely used as a single unit. Most often, units of 500 men were used, frequently to carry out orders that were particularly brutal, destructive, or dealt with political situations.

There are two main reasons that the Varangians became the bodyguard unit to the Emperor. The first was the sense of loyalty that was the core value of Viking culture. The second was that the Varangians came from distant lands and were indifferent to the political intrigues that enveloped the Emperor. The Norsemen were especially appreciated for their loyalty, and according to , the Greek princess Anna Comnena, a major source of information regarding Byzantine history, Norsemen in the Varangian Guard passed down this loyalty from generation to generation almost like a sacred heritage. 

The connection between Byzantium and Scandinavia proved ideal for the recruitment of mercenaries. The rich empire had constant need for reliable troops, and Scandanavia’s warrior population looking to make their fortune, was the perfect match. In battle, the Varangian Guard proved itself constantly, and quickly earned a reputation for being the elite of the Byzantine army. A Byzantine chronicle tells of battles in southern Italy in 1018 against Lombards and Normans: "When the Emperor learned that brave knights had invaded his country, he sent his best soldiers against them. In the first three battles the Normans were victorious. But when they encountered the Rus, they were defeated and their army was completely destroyed." 

Except for some names on rune stones, and small passages in some Icelandic sagas, very little is known about members of the Varangian guard. The exception is Harald Sigurdsson, who became known as Harald Harðráði, which means ‘hard ruler’ in Old Norse. 

As a boy, Harald was forced to leave Norway, when his half-brother was overthrown. Harald made his way to Kiev in Russia, where his brother-in-law Yaroslav ruled. In the year 1034, Harald led 500 men to Byzantium to join the Varangian Guard, and eventually became leader of the guard.

After learning that his nephew was now on the throne of Norway, Harald decided to leave the guard and return home. In the year 1042, political turmoil overtook Byzantium, and Harald is credited with blinding the deposed Emperor Michael V. After being accused of misappropriating booty, Harald and his men had to sneak out of the city. Not long afterwards, Harald took the throne of Norway, and then tried to take the throne of England.

The Fourth Crusade that took place in the years 1202–04, all but destroyed the Varangian Guard. In a siege the Varangians defended the Balchernae Palace, until the siege ended with the flight of the Emperor Alexius III and the sacking of Constantinople. The Varangian Guard resisted little and eventually surrendered.

After the Fourth Crusade, some members of the Varangian Guard fought for Latin and Greek Emperors as they fought to regain the Empire. By the middle of the 14th century the Varangians ceased to be a military unit and were mostly employed as mercenaries before disappearing from records.

The prowess of the Varangian Guard is unquestioned and they are an exciting and interesting part of World history. 

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VIKING WISDOM - HÁVAMÁL by Tyr Neilsen

 Havamal - viking wisdom - tyr neilsen

Havamal - viking wisdom - tyr neilsen

Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia, and is well described as the Wisdom of the North. This collection of ancient sayings attributed to Odin, is to Scandinavian culture as the Tao is to China, the Vedas to India and the Iliad to Greece.

Hávamál means "the high one’s speech", or Odin's speech, and Hávamál is a collection of wisdom and guidlines for living, written as a poem and attributed to the Norse God Odin. Hávamál is both practical and supernatural in content, and expresses highly valued ideals such as wisdom, friendship, morality, caution, courage, and commonsense.

No one knows who wrote the Hávamál manuscript, or if it originated in Norway or Iceland, but Odin’s advice for living is believed to be based on a source from around the 9th century, and reference to Hávamál is found in the 10th century Hákonarmál by Eyvindr skáldaspillir.

Hávamál is the most famous poem from the Elder Edda manuscript, (also called the Poetic Edda), written around the year 1270. The Elder Edda consists of 32 poems in all, written on 45 pages of vellum, or calfskin parchment. The Elder Edda manuscript is beautifully made and stunning to look at, with ornate letters and decorated capitals to each paragraph. 

The term Edda was originally the name for Snorri Sturlason's book on poetry from around 1220, and the word Edda is believed to be related to the word meaning great-grandmother, which means stories from great-grandma's time, a derivation of óðr, which means writing. Together with Snorri's Edda, the Elder Edda is the most important surviving source on Norse mythology and heroic legends.

In the first part of the Elder Edda, there are three poems by Odin as protagonist, of which the first is Hávamál. Hávamál is presented as a single poem in the Elder Edda, but its 164 verses make Hávamál the longest of all edda poems. Hávamál itself consist of at least five independent parts:

Verses 1-80 are known as Gestaþáttr, Hávamál guidelines for living, or the ‘Hávamál proper’.

Verses 81-102 are about women, love and Odin.

Verses 103-110 are about how Odin got the mead of poetry.

Verses 111-138 are called Loddfáfnismál, a collection of gnomic verses similar to Gestaþáttr.

Verses 139-146 are called Rúnatal, an account of how Odin won the runes.

Verses 147-165 are called Ljóðatal, which is a collection of spells.

Although the Elder Edda was written in the 13th century, we know nothing about its whereabouts until it was found in Iceland in 1643 by the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson. In 1662, almost 20 years after it was found, the Bishop sent the manuscript to Denmark as a gift to King Frederik III of Denmark and Norway. The manuscript was named Codex Regius, or Konungsbók (King’s Book) in Icelandic, and was incorporated in the Danish Royal Library's Manuscript Collection.

In 1971 the Elder Edda manuscript was transported back to Iceland by ship, accompanied by a military escort, and is now kept in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The only surviving source for Hávamál is contained within the Elder Edda, and this priceless document is considered one of Iceland's most prized possessions.  

Hávamál is a reflection of its time, and the poems are as tough and resilient as the Vikings themselves. Hávamál’s insight remains timeless and as relevant today as it was in the Viking Age. It has been handed down from generation to generation, and there is still much wisdom and inspiration to find here, inherited from our powerful ancestors. 

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VIKING RUNES by Tyr Neilsen

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The Old Norse word Rún means "secret", and runes were thought of by Vikings as sacred secrets, and a way of interacting with both the living and the spirit world. 

Hávamál - verse 80

Þat er þá reynt                                          When searching for
er þú at rúnum spyrr                               Answers in the runes
inum reginkunnum                                 Which were created by the gods
þeim er gerðu ginnregin                        And written by Odin
ok fáði fimbulþulr                                    It is best to reflect
þá hefir hann bazt ef hann þegir        Over the meaning

According to legend, the Norse god Odin speared himself to a tree, in a self-sacrificial attempt to receive sacred knowledge. At the end of his ‘shamanistic journey’, hanging suspended for nine windy nights, Odin learned the mysteries of the runes, which he then passed on to his people.

Hávamál - verse 139 (as told by Odin)

Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi,       No bread was I given nor drink from a horn,
nysta ek niþr,                                               downwards I peered,
nam ek vp rvnar,                                        I took up the runes,
opandi nam,                                                screaming I took them,
fell ek aptr þaðan.                                     then I fell back.

Since the Vikings believed the runic symbols to be a gift from Odin, they treated them with great reverence. Belief in the divine origin of the runes meant that runes possessed magical powers.

The Vikings are often portrayed as illiterate and uncultured barbarians who were more interested in plunder than in wisdom. This is very far from the truth. The Vikings left behind a great culture recorded in a number of manuscripts written on vellum, which are both rich in wisdom and artistic achievement. These documents were based on the earlier Viking oral tradition and information Vikings had carved in stone, wood, bone and metal.

What was carved in these hard materials were enigmatic symbols made up of straight lines. Each symbol, called a rune, had its own unique sound that was said, or sung, to represent them. These sounds could be used singularly as a chant, or together as a chant. These chants, or rune-songs, are known as Galdr, which means spell and incantation in Old Norse, and any serious use of runes would include them.

The first collection of 'Viking runes' is called Eldri rúnaröð, the older rune-row, which had 24 runes. These were the runes used by the Norse people from the 2nd to 9th century. This changed to Yngri rúnaröðthe younger rune-row, which had 16 runes, was also called the Scandinavian runes, and was in use from about the 9th century onward.

We associate runes used for writing as letters of an alphabet. The Viking ‘alphabet’ has been recently called 'Futhark', based on the first 6 rune symbols, which look like the letters f,u,t,h,a,r, and k. The Elder Rune-row of twenty-four runes, at some point in time was arranged into three groups of eight runes called an Ætt, meaning clan. Each Ætt had 8 runes, and each Ætt were ruled over by their own particular spirit or Norse God. Respectively these are Freya’s Ætt, Hagall’s Ætt, and Tyr’s Ætt. Freya is the Norse goddess of fertility, Hagall is the connection between Freya and Tyr, the Norse god of war and justice.

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Viking rune symbols can be used to spell out words. The illustration above shows the corrolation between Viking runes and the Alphabet.

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THE SECRET OF THE RUNES

We know of the meaning of Viking rune symbols from Viking Rune Poems. These poems list the rune symbols and provide an explanatory poetic stanza for each rune symbol/word. There are three different poems that have been preserved:  

The Norwegian Rune Poem is a 17th-century copy of a destroyed 13th-century manuscript.

The Icelandic Rune Poem is recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, the oldest of the four dating from the late 15th century. This has been called the most systemized of the rune poems (including the Abecedarium Nordmannicum) and has been compared to the ljóðaháttr verse form.

The Old English rune poem is dated to the 8th or 9th century.

The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems list 16 Younger rune-row runes, but the Old English rune poem has 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. Each poem differs in poetic verse, but they contain numerous parallels between one another.  

 

The rune poems and old texts, give sets of associations for the runes, but the meanings of the runes are quite fluid. Each rune symbol has a meaning, or several meanings, connecting a variety of things including: objects, creatures and archetypal processes, feelings, experiences, and spirits.

Rune writing was a very important skill for the Vikings, and runic inscriptions are found on artifacts including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, calendars and stones. But rune symbols were not only used for writing, they were also used to tell fortunes, cast spells, provide protection and spiritual purposes.

The Poetic Edda mentions the magical significance of the runes. Verses 80, 111, 137, 143 and 158 of the Hávamál are about Odin mentioning the runes in contexts of divination.

The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) gives advice on the magical properties of runes. Some of these are:

"Victory runes" (stanza 6, referring to the Tyr rune to be carved on the sword hilt) Ølrunar "Ale-runes" (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife)                                                                                     Biargrunar "birth-runes" (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth)
Brimrunar "wave-runes" (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder)
Limrunar "branch-runes" (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees "with boughs to the eastward bent")
Malrunar "speech-runes" (stanza 11, refers to a spell to improve rhetorical ability at the thing)
Hugrunar "thought-runes" (stanza 12, discusses a spell to improve wit)

SWORD RUNES

Vikings believed that runes had magical qualities that were very valuable to a warrior, such as protecting a warrior in battle or at sea, cursing or guarding against threats, and curing illnesses. The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period.

Runes inscribed on a sword blade gave it magic power. A warrior who knew the secret of the runes could strengthen his own blade or blunt his enemy’s weapons. Viking warriors customarily carved the runic symbol for Tyr, the Norse god of war, onto their swords and shields. In the Poetic Edda, the Sigrdrífumál mentions "victory runes" which should be carved on a sword: "some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice".

  The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runes.

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runes.

RUNESTONES

Viking runes were inscribed into large freestanding rocks or boulders called Runestones. Runestones were often decorated with inscribed intricate Norse patterns and painted in black, blue, red and white paint.

Many Rune-stones served as spiritual stones for sacred ceremonies. Runestones served as spiritual commemorations for the dead. Runestones also served as memorials to honor men and women, or to document how much land the deceased Viking had owned and listing relatives who would likely inherit that person's estate.

        Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

       Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

When the seafaring Vikings traveled to faraway lands, they brought their system of writing with them, and left behind runic inscriptions in paces as distant as Greenland and Byzantium.

Wherever they went, Vikings turned to runes to express both the poetic and the plain, inscribing them on everything from great stone monuments to common household items. Rune carvings varied from "Listen, ring-bearers, while I speak of the glories in war of Harald, most wealthy" to "Rannvieg owns this box".

RUNE CARVINGS

Runes were carved into many objects, such as staves, staffs. A Rune Stave was found in the cult room of the Norwegian Oseberg burial mound, alongside the two women who were buried there in the year 834. The round birch stave is 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm at the ends. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”.

The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” which translated means “Man knows little”. Another interpretation is that it reads “litill vissm”, which translated reads “(Although) I am small I am wise”. A third interpretation is “litil vés m” meaning “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.

RUNIC CALENDAR

                                        Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

                                       Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

A Runic calendar is a calendar that correlates to the Sun and the Moon. Runic calendars were written on parchment or carved onto staves of wood, bone, or horn. The oldest known runic calendar is the Nyköping staff from Sweden, from the 13th century. Most of the several thousand which survive are wooden calendars dating from the 16th and the 17th centuries.

A primstav, prime staff, is the ancient Norwegian calendar stick, engraved with images instead of runes. The images depicted the different non-moving religious holidays. The oldest primstav is from the year 1457 and is exhibited at Norsk Folkemuseum.

BIND RUNE

A bandrún (bind rune) is a binding of two or more rune symbols. Bind runes are rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in earlier (Proto-Norse) and later (medieval) inscriptions. There are several types of bind runes: 

One type of bind rune is formed by two (or rarely three) adjacent runes being joined together to form a single conjoined symbol, (usually sharing a common vertical stroke.

Another type is called a same-stave rune, which is common in Scandinavian runic inscriptions. This type is formed by several runic letters written sequentially along a long common stem-line.

                                  The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

                                The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

Bind runes are now also being used in modern industry. The Bluetooth logo  merges the runes ᚼ (Hagall) and ᛒ(Berkanan) together, forming a bind rune. The two letters form the initials 'H B', alluding to the Danish king and Viking raider Harald Bluetooth.

Bind runes were initially used pre-Viking age on Norse gravestones. They gradually faded out of use along with all other runic writing, except in Iceland where the tradition continued. Not only were bind runes used in Iceland for the purpose of writing in general, but they were also used in protection and luck symbols called Galdrastafir.

According to the Museum of Icelandic history, the effects credited to most of the rune staves were very relevant to the average Icelanders of the time, who were mostly subsistence farmers and had to deal with harsh climatic conditions.

RUNE SPELLS

Viking poetry reads: "Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well". Many from the Viking upper classes could read and write runes, but most Vikings called in a specialist when dealing with the spiritual properties of rune symbols. These experts were called Rúnemester, rune masters, and were specially trained to bring runes into play for divination and spirituality.

One common rune-casting technique was carving runes on pieces of bark then flinging the pieces on the ground. Picking three at random, the symbols inscribed on the bark would give the answer to specific questions.

Another method of divination is using painted runes on flat pebbles, inscribed and painted runes on pebbles, and inscribed runes on pebbles. These rune pebbles are placed in a leather bag and shaken then cast onto a solid surface. Runes that land face up are used for divination.

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MAGICAL STAVES

Galdr (spell/incantation) is the name for rune songs, which are chants made up of rune sounds. Galdrastafir is the name for magical staves. Galdrastafir are named in Icelandic sagas, but there are no surviving details of how they looked visually. The earliest surviving Icelandic magical staves, some of whom have similiar names to those named in sagas, date from the 17th century. Several popular magical staves, or Galdrastafir, include Vegvsir and Ægishjalmur. 

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Vegvísir is a stave to guide people through rough weather or used as instruction to guide the way. Vegvísir in Icelandic means 'sign post'. This magical stave is intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather, as attested in the Huld Manuscript, collected by Geir Vigfusson in 1880, consisting of material of earlier origin. (Nearly all ancient/pagan manuscripts were collected in Iceland throughout the centuries).  A leaf of the manuscript provides an image of the vegvísir, gives its name, and, in prose, declares that "if this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known"

Ægishjálmur, the ‘Helm of awe’ used to induce fear and to protect against abuse of power. Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive Jötunn associated with the sea. In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir bears on his forehead the ægishjálmr "Ægir's helmet" or "Helm of terror/protection". 

Magical staves were also used in Viking combat and in glima competition. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi staves were kept in shoes. Gapaldur under the heel of the right foot and ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot.