Post-classical history

1

SONGS OF THE VALKYRIES

MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF SCANDINAVIA

The Vikings appear in the accounts of their enemies as fearsome invaders, devoid of culture or conscience, prepared to commit the outrageous sin of killing Christian monks. They were the savage heathens that Christianity sought to convert, symbols of the Other and the Devil. Such accounts may present a realistic vision of the terror the Vikings could instil, but reveal little about them personally. Of the Vikings’ own literature, we have a rich inheritance of saga narratives, but most date from the later Middle Ages, when the distant descendants of the original Vikings huddled around a fireplace in an Icelandic winter, and told and retold tales of the glory days.

Before the modern age, the most important man in the transmission of Viking culture was arguably Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), a wealthy Icelandic politician who committed many such oral traditions to paper for the first time, accompanied by remarkably astute editorial observations and criticisms. Snorri’s work preserves the mythical Edda, and the Heimskringla, a long cycle of biographies of Norwegian kings. Both works are crucial to any study of the Vikings, although they present many methodological problems of their own, since even the original material was ‘spun’ in a way designed to please crowds. Snorri collated kingly biographies sung by skalds, the court entertainers of the Vikings – to draw modern parallels, one might imagine Hollywood film-makers, commissioned by modern dictators to tell the story of their lives, supposedly without fear or favour but in reality with an armed focus group who had recently set fire to a church in the vicinity. Snorri himself was able to present a mitigating argument, that since the recitations were often before crowds that comprised the people mentioned and their colleagues, this would itself serve as some form of editorial rein on hyperbole. That, however, cannot save us from the kenning, the Viking habit of replacing solid terms with poetic metaphors in the purplest of vocabulary.

If there is a ‘solid’ form of evidence for our studies of the Vikings, it lies in archaeology. But even then, we are hostages to chance – a single find can transform our previous understanding of Viking culture and deeds, and even scientists cannot agree on all of the evidence presented. Accordingly, there are several parts of this book that deal in some detail with the history of our history of the Vikings, outlining some of the controversies that continue to this day. One of them concerns the subject of this chapter – what the Vikings believed.

During the twentieth century, the Jungian tradition encouraged attempts at universality, with its sense that human beings share common traumas and psychological experiences, relived through their gods and beliefs. However, linguistic evidence from other cultures, and confusions within Scandinavian mythology itself, present a very different picture of the Norse world. The Norse myths are trying to tell us something, and much of it may be astronomical. The priceless missing piece of the Viking puzzle is a quantifiable knowledge of their astronomy. They did not use the Babylonian constellations common to western European culture, but certainly still paid attention to the stars. To the proto-Vikings, they might have been of relatively small consequence, but as the population spread out across the western hemisphere, on long voyages with few means of reliable navigation, the stars above must have gained vital importance. Vikings from Vinland to Baghdad would have looked up and seen the same stars in the sky, the same five visible planets, the same recurring phenomena, and some of this must have rubbed off on to their mythology. All that we have today are occasional mentions in myths of entities ‘thrown into the sky’, and a few contradictory stories associated with the evening star. Other sources, particularly the Grimnismal in Snorri’s Poetic Edda, are strange enough to be garbled references to cycles of the heavens, but until such time as a physical representation can be matched with a poetic one, we are left with little but conjecture.

If only we knew the constellations of the Vikings, or which of their rock carvings might not be mere pictures, but star maps, then we should understand much more about their myths, many of which may be mnemonic devices designed to fix the patterns in the sky. Some names may have changed over time, such as which gods were great enough to be identified with a planet, but others may have remained constant throughout the Viking Age. Somewhere in the night sky, the Vikings saw a World Tree, three sisters, a one-armed god, a god with one bright eye, perhaps in a chariot, perhaps hanging from a tree, a hound, twin brothers, a pair of goats, a squirrel, an eagle, a small snake, a much bigger serpent and many other figures familiar from the sagas. If any researcher can crack thiscode, then it could become the Rosetta Stone of the Viking mind.1 The answer lies somewhere on an obscure rune stone, or drawn on the shamanic drumskin of a Sámi sorcerer. Until the day it is found, we are left with confusions, dead ends and folklore, retold chiefly by non-believers. Snorri, a leading source for many of the tales of Viking mythology, seemed keen to force some order on the chaotic world of his forefathers, introducing quaint notions of a family of twelve gods and goddesses, seemingly modelled on the pantheons of ancient Greece and Rome. Such a council of twelve may have been inspired by Indo-European religion, or perhaps its ultimate root, the houses of the zodiac. Snorri may, however, have simply superimposed Iceland’s traditional assembly-quorum of twelve on to his ancestors’ beliefs.

Snorri was also a Christian author. Heimskringla reports the deeds of those who worship the Norse gods, but Snorri has no time for their supposed divine status. Instead, he is ready to suggest that Odin, the leader of the Viking gods, was once a great chieftain, who arrived in the Scandinavian region and carved out a kingdom for himself. His tribe, if he ever existed, was the Aesir, a name that gives itself to the chief family of Norse gods. The Aesir, a name that Snorri equates with an Asian origin, supplanted the Vanir, a weaker tribe whose origin Snorri placed at the Vana Fork, close to the place where the River Don meets the Black Sea.2 The elders of the Aesir, and a smattering of Vanir survivors, formed the ancestors of the Scandinavians, and, so Snorri concluded, the models for their gods.

Odin is presented as the leader of the gods, his wife Frigg at his side. As in other cultures, lesser deities have their domains and responsibilities – Thor, the god of thunder; Frey and Freya, the twin gods of fertility; Heimdall the Watchman; Aegir, the ruler of the sea; Njord, another god of the sea; Bragi, god of poetry; Loki the god of fire and Hel, his daughter, the queen of the underworld; Tyr the god of war, and Ull, the god of archery. This list is not exhaustive, but covers the main bases – writers on Norse religion have often tried to herd the disparate elements into a unified whole deserving of the term ‘religion’, itself an invention of later times. As to how much of Snorri’s late medieval depiction would have made sense to a Viking audience, that would rather depend on where the audience was from. Study of place names tells us that ancient peoples in what is now Denmark were more likely to worship Tyr. Worshippers of Ull, the archer, were once paramount in southern and central Sweden. Thor-worship became common all over Scandinavia, with the notable exception of the Trondheim region, whereas place names in honour of Odin are far more widespread in Denmark and Sweden than in Norway or Iceland.

The relative ranks and powers of the Norse ‘pantheon’, as defined by Snorri, were based on legends swapped by the descendants of only a couple of these contending strains of belief. However, since the ancestors of Snorri’s informants presumably comprised a large number of people with access to ships rather than farmers left behind in the old country, it is likely that in his compendium of myths there are many tales that would have been recognized by the Vikings of old. There is also a possibility that, as a higher-class god, Odin attracted the attention of social climbers – would-be rulers and their warrior cronies.3

We get a sense of the savagery and bleakness of the life of the proto-Vikings from Snorri’s myth of creation. For them, the nascent universe had but two elements, the searing heat of the south and the bitter cold of the north, separated by Ginnungagap, the great void. Life began in the middle, where these two elements met, thawing Ymir, a titan from whom sprang the first of gods, men and giants. Ymir is fed by suckling on a cow, Audhumla, which has somehow also appeared out of the ice. The cow licks nearby ice for its salt content, and thereby releases another man, Buri, whose grandchildren (he somehow reproduces) are Odin, Vili and Ve. The myth is confused, certainly, but in the sense that it appears to combine several origins – quite possibly the origin-stories of several tribes, some of whose descendants would eventually become the Vikings. In a primal tragedy, Odin, Vili and Ve killed Ymir, his body forming the earth and his skull the dome of the sky above it. The realm of men, Midgard, is shielded from the realm of the giants by a wall or mountain range, made of one of Ymir’s eyebrows. The world of men is inhabited by the descendants of two trees on the shore (not descendants of the men already created from Ymir, another possible remnant of ancient rivalries?). The gods, suddenly invested with the power to create things, go on to make the Sun (a female) and the Moon (a male), who pelt across the sky in chariots pursued by wolves.

In accordance with a world-view informed by fjords and islands, separated by seas and mountains, the Viking universe is a series of self-contained domains, reachable only by prolonged effort. At the centre of everything is the giant ash tree Yggdrasill. A tree, of course, forms the centre of the Garden of Eden in Christianity, but Yggdrasill owes its origin to something much earlier, perhaps a prehistoric religion of sky worship, in which heaven was held up by a giant column. If this is the case, then it may have a symbolic cousin in Irminsul, a pillar in ancient Saxony, held to keep the sky from falling, and the Sampo of Finno-Ugric myth, thought originally to be a pillar that held up heaven.4 Snorri did know of the myths of the Finns and Saxons when he wrote his work.

The tree has three main roots, one in the world of the dead, one in the realm of the frost-giants, and the third in the land of the Aesir, the Norse gods themselves. Near the base of this third root is the Well of Fate, and Fate herself, Urd, dwells nearby with her two sisters Verdandi (Being) andSkuld (Necessity). These traditional translations of their names are misleading, as they represent three Norse concepts of tense, that which should happen, that which has happened, and that which ought to happen – the goddesses, in linguistic terms, of the Subjunctive, Indicative and Optative. These three sisters are the Norns, who weave a tapestry of the world’s fate, presumably with Urd and Skuld providing the possible warp and weft, and Verdandi embroidering the way things actually come about. Their knowledge of where things have been, and sense of where things are going, makes them powerful prophetesses and they are consulted often by the gods. Eastern traditions of the Finno-Ugric peoples also posit a World Tree but dispense with the Norns, instead using the tree as an analogy of life itself, with the souls of children stored in its seeds, and the fate of men engraved on its leaves. The fall of each leaf equates with the death of someone in our world.

The Norns thus appear to be a later European addition to an Asian concept. As divine oracles and repositories of knowledge, the Norns bear some resemblance to other European triple goddesses, most notably the Graiae of ancient Greece, although the Graiae were depicted as old women, far less easy on the eye than the maidenly Norns. The Norns, like other women of the Vikings, we may assume, are kept busy. They must water the tree, and cake it in rich mud to keep it young, and also shoo away the animals that feed on its leaves and bark. They may be seen as an allegory of the daily round for many early Scandinavian women – limited animal husbandry and tending of plants, and occasional encounters with forest animals – the most impressive of which are the eagle in thebranches of the tree and the snake at its roots, who constantly jostle for position, and trade insults via a squirrel messenger who scurries up and down the trunk.

The myths of the Vikings are those of a people who have travelled far. They begin with wanderings in snow and ice, and end with forestry, goat-herding on mountainsides and simple farm life. They present a view of several different bloodlines and traditions, coming together sometimes in friendship but also in bloodshed. At the end of it all, one god is paramount, but his fellow deities are fractious and argumentative, forced to meet each day at the base of the World Tree to argue out the issues at hand in council. There is talk among the gods of affairs and intrigue, there is jealousy among the goddesses when their husbands take lovers from other races, which they do with great regularity.

What can we gather from the legends Snorri recorded? The Nordic region was untouched territory, almost endless tracts of virgin forests and lakes, which first attracted wandering nomads. In the beginning, there was plenty of space to go round, and the inhabitants were mobile. We may look upon the Sámi in Lapland, who migrate alongside the reindeer herds that are their main resource, as a living example of this lifestyle. There are two routes into Scandinavia proper – one from Asia, through Finland and around the top of the Baltic Sea. The other is from Europe, up through Germany and across the islands that link Denmark to southern Sweden. In earlier times, southern Sweden was itself an island, and then barely a peninsula, connected to Scandinavia by bogs and marshes amid perilous forests. But this region is also the most habitable area – the bulk of the arable land in Scandinavia is clustered in Denmark and southern Sweden. Here arose a people who found the land to be worthy of settlement, transforming from wanderers to farmers, worshipping a fertility god they called Frey or Yngvie – his sons, the Ynglings, were the ancestors of the kings of Sweden.

Frey might have been a harvest god, but he was also savage. He bestowed a mandate on the early Swedish kings that entitled them to rule so long as he was kept appeased. When crops failed or winters grew too long, Frey required additional encouragement, with animal sacrifice. The horse, in particular, was sacred to him, and there are several saga mentions of Freyfaxi, a horse named for a particular kind or colour of mane (we don’t actually know), that destined it for the god’s altar. From clues and hints in Viking sources, it would seem that in particularly lean times, the king would be expected to sacrifice himself, submitting to a ceremonial blood-letting that may, in the earliest times, not have been all that ceremonial.5 Frey’s cult was also associated with the worship of the boar, which may link the Swedes back to Eastern Europe, since a similar cult existed among the Aesti (proto-Estonians), and may also have existed among the Cimbri in north Germany.

Somewhere during the sixth century AD, the Swedish region of Uppland gained a ruler called Angantyr (to the English, Ongentheow) – it also had an increase in population. The Iron Age had given the locals sturdier axes, suddenly making it possible to clear far wider areas for farmland and settlement. But large parts of Scandinavia are mountainous, and space in Sweden may have already been tight. It was, notably, not Angantyr himself, but instead his unruly ‘sons’ who, the legends tell us, preyed upon the neighbouring Goths, inviting retaliation and tit-for-tat raids that escalated into a war. The Goths were put to flight, and their leader Hygelac perished somewhere in an undetermined place called Ravenwood. But strife continued among the Swedes, with the sons of Angantyr fighting over their birthright. Despite being only a legend, elements of the story ring true from what we know of the Vikings’ later modus operandi. In a pattern that would be repeated throughout the Viking Age to come, disaffected claimants sought aid overseas, leading to further wars between Swedes and Swedish pretenders with foreign backing.6

Uppsala, the region just north of modern Stockholm, is a nexus of ancient Scandinavian culture, surrounded by burial mounds of ancient kings and their successors. Between the sixth and the ninth centuries, the Swedes buried their kings with horses, dogs and other animals, weaponry, grave-goods including everyday objects and rare treasures such as glass goblets. The pattern of exploration and conquest repeats itself to the south and east, where Dan, a son of a king of Uppsala, is supposed to have travelled in search of new lands. He found the islands of Zealand, Lolland and Funen, and from there the peninsula itself, all of which would eventually come to take his name, as Dan’s Land – Danemark. His brother Angul ventured even further south into the European mainland in an attempt to establish an Angul’s Land, thereby foreshadowing links between historical Danes and the Angles. This, at least, is how the story is framed in the History of the Danes, a work by the late-medieval author Saxo Grammaticus, who was determined to give Denmark a national origin myth to match those of other countries. Much of Saxo’s own source material came from writers in Iceland, and this calls into question many of his assumptions.7

Archaeology confirms at least the general thrust of Saxo’s claims, although it also tells us that Denmark was already occupied by the time it was supposedly ‘discovered’. By the sixth century, Denmark had become almost as strong a kingdom as the Swedish Uppland that supposedly spawned it. The largest Danish island of Zealand is littered with burial sites, some dating back to the Stone Age. The most impressive are around the town of Roskilde (Hrors-kilde – the sacred springs of Hror), a few miles west of modern Copenhagen, where Dark-Age peoples once dwelt on the banks of the river Lejre, long since dried up. This, perhaps, is the Heorot of legend, the gabled hall of King Hrothgar, who features in the old English poem Beowulf. And here, according to the tenth century Saxon chronicler Thietmar, the ruler of Heorot would maintain his power by sacrificial rights. Every nine years, 99 cocks, 99 dogs, 99 horses and 99 men would be slain to preserve the king’s power. When Beowulf saves Heorot from the regular attacks by Grendel, we may perhaps be seeing a mangled account of an attempt to put an end to the human sacrifice.

The Gotlanders, particularly the Gotlanders who travelled beyond the island of their birth to trade around the Baltic coasts, favoured a different god to the Swedes’ Frey. ‘Trade’ is a misnomer – much of their activities probably involved something closer to extortion, as they accepted tribute in pelts, eiderdown, amber and other goods. Before the Viking Age had begun, men were already taking what did not belong to them, and some did so in the name of a god of battle. Odin to the Scandinavians, Woden or Wotan further to the south, was the paramount god to the group of men whose predations are the main subject of this book. Other peoples in Scandinavia may have had their own deities of preference, but Odin was beloved of the raiders, with his only real rival in their affections being Thor. He also came to be particularly revered in Gotland and Hordaland, two regions of Scandinavia that were important centres of seaborne trade, and entrepôts for many of the traders who would become raiders in lean times.8 Odin was a god of battle, but also of poetry, so was regularly cited in the verses of skalds hoping to impress their kings. As the king of the gods, he may have also enjoyed more mentions in the royal verses that have survived down the ages, simply by way of association with the lords and earls at whose dinners his exploits were recounted – praise of the chief god was also a backhanded means of praising one’s host.

Odin has at least 177 names and kennings,9 which allow us to see those areas where he was thought to exercise his power. As a leader of the gods, he is known as the Father of Men or All-Father, the Mighty God or simply the Chief. Later saga writers even refer to him as one-of-three, perhaps in analogy to the Christian trinity. He is also renowned for his wisdom – he did, after all, give his eye for it, sacrificing half his vision in order to take one sip from a spring of knowledge. He is called the Mighty Poet and Mighty Speaker (a ‘speaker’ being the chief councillor at an Icelandic assembly – and therefore perhaps an anachronism from Snorri’s time, not a term from the Viking Age).

Odin’s wisdom was of secondary concern to his worshippers. He was far more popular with the Vikings for his main stock-in-trade, which was battle. For Odin, on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, was the Charging Rider, the Spear Lord, the Army Father, the Battle Blind or the Author of Victory. Odin was also the patron of the war-band’s fearsome elite – or rather, the brawlers who could be persuaded that standing at the front was a good idea. In Viking tradition they were shape-changers, men with the ability to take on animalistic characteristics. In recognition of their shaman-like animal-pelt costumes, they were often known as ‘wolf-skins’ and ‘bear-shirts’ – ulfhednar and, more famously, berserkir. One is tempted to suggest that such men, dangerous and unpredictable as they were, were liable to attract cautious flattery from any skald who wanted to stay on their good side – they may have been glorified because when those songs were first sung they were standing right next to the singer. Later sagas, written by no-nonsense Icelanders without wars to fight, regard berserkers as dim, oafish nuisances.10

Death in battle in the name of Odin was not a bad thing, at least in the eyes of the devout follower. For Odin was also the Chooser of the Slain, the valkojósandi. He had female assistants who bore the same name in the feminine form, valkyrjur, or valkyries, the terrifying furies of the Viking world. On several occasions in the sagas, there are comedic moments when Viking men seem meekly accepting of a situation, only to have a woman goad them into action – a woman’s worth was heavily reliant on that of her man, and the Viking wives could be fierce in their attempts to preserve it. The last bastion of Viking machismo, it often seems, lay not with themselves, but in their wish to appease their women. The Valkyries were this furious nature personified, betraying a surprising terror and reification of female power. Their names are a catalogue of the things prized most by the belligerent Vikings, the famous Brynhildr is Bright Battle, but there are 51 others in extant sources.11 As with the Inuit and their apocryphal twenty words for snow, the Vikings had many terms for discussing conflict. There was a Valkyrie of drunken brawling, Ale-Rune, and another of Taunts. To the Viking mind Battle herself was a woman, as were War, Tumult, Chaos, Devastation and Clash. The names of other Valkyries invoke images of war-goddesses to be appeased, or moments of belligerence personified: Extreme Cruelty, Sword-Time, or simply Killer. The most ominous is the Valkyrie that invokes that moment just before all hell breaks loose, Silence. Even Skuld, the Norn of Necessity, is numbered among the Valkyries on three occasions, her name perhaps better translated there as Blame. More prosaic misogyny may be found in others: Unstable, and the minor but still influential figure of Bossy.

Odin and his Valkyries would lead wild hunts across the sky, seen from the ground as the haunting silent light displays of the aurora borealis. They would observe the bravest warriors in battle in the quotidian world, and bear the noblest warriors back to Odin’s domain, Valholl or Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. There, deceased Vikings would hunt, drink and fornicate (the Valkyries having a dual purpose) until the end of the world, when they would go into battle at the final conflict between the Viking gods and their enemies. The appeal of this to a war-band is obvious, but Odin is also presented as the ultimate host; to those who praised him at banquets and celebrations, he was the leader to end all leaders, and an example for the kings and earls to follow. The lifestyle of Valhalla seems to be an idealized representation of the way the Vikings saw their lives – an endless round of feasting and fighting, topped, they hoped, by a glorious death in battle. It contains elements of the terrorist who expects luxurious debauchery in paradise, but also of impoverished men with nothing more to lose.

The attitude of Odinic followers coloured many aspects of Viking life. Female corpses from the period are generally found with grave-goods increasing in direct relation to their age; the older a woman at death, the richer the goods sent with her into the afterlife by her family. But it was quite the opposite with the male followers of Odin – as if it was expected of a man that he die relatively young in the midst of battle. The graves of young Viking men are often cluttered with wealth of objects and finery, whereas older men are found with little, if anything. Dying of old age was, among the most fanatical of the Vikings, regarded as something of a failure. It was believed by Odin’s followers that men were welcomed at Valhalla with the goods placed in their graves – a death in battle required outfitting for the long haul, but death from old age required no such honours.12

Odin himself could be an old man, ravaged by time. He is depicted with a spear, or sometimes a staff, one-eyed or occasionally blind. He is Jolnir, the Yule-Figure invited into pagan homes at winter as a form of sympathetic magic, as if making friends with the spirit of winter offers some protection from its cold and deprivation. Through many centuries of confusion and alteration, Odin may even be a precursor to the Christian Santa Claus.13

Like many divine figures, Odin is a symbol of knowledge and wealth. In the legends, he bestows weapons upon his loyal followers, and their acceptance of the sword implies service to the death – in an age when metalwork was an expensive operation often likened to magic, weaponry did not come cheap. Many Vikings were limited to axes and spears, which used less iron. A sword, such as that bestowed upon Sigmund the Volsung by Odin, was a valuable item.14

Odin appears in sagas offering advice and protection, and even makes his way into supposed histories – Saxo’s History of the Danes mentions an Odinic vision by the legendary King Harald Wartooth, in which Odin appears as an old man of imposing height, and offers Harald invulnerability in the battle to come. Harald, in return, offers Odin the souls of all the enemies he kills with his sword, a somewhat Faustian pact that must have chilled the blood of Saxo’s Christian readership.15

Odin’s love of battle included a desire to remember. It was not enough that the Vikings fight; they wanted people to talk about it. Whether this is a natural human desire, or an attempt by skalds to increase their own relative importance it is difficult to say, but Odin, as already mentioned, was the god of battle and poetry. Mastery of words made him a master of knowledge, and this in itself had implications of sorcerous capabilities. Singing Odin’s songs kept the rowers in time and brought them extra strength (singing any song would have done that, but Odin took the credit), and it is Odin who introduces new concepts of battle to his followers. By knowing words and poetry, or even the art of writing, since Odin was also the master of the runes, warriors were able to preserve new ideas instead of letting them die. Perhaps, in the Scandinavia the Vikings left behind them as they sailed off to plunder, Odin was originally more peaceful, a god whose runes preserved knowledge of blacksmithing, crop rotation or animal husbandry, but such things were of no use to the Vikings. The Odin exported into European consciousness by the Vikings was a lord of conflict. Strategy and tactics, the concepts of battle formation and signals on the field, were couched for the Vikings in terms of Odin’s battle religion. Symbols of Odin had practical advantages in battle, functioning as modern signals and codes do today, allowing armies to act as one, while their enemies remained in confusion.

But Odin’s religion also demanded secrecy. We may only guess at the meaning implicit in the tale of Harald Wartooth’s demise. Odin took his secrets of battle and gave them instead to Harald’s rival, Hring. As their armies prepared for battle, Hring’s took up a wedge formation – ideal to force its way through the chaotic opposing forces. Harald charged nonetheless, only then realizing that his regular charioteer was absent. Instead, Odin himself drove Harald’s horses ever onward, and as Harald begged him for one last victory, he was instead plunged into the midst of enemy forces, fell from his chariot, and was killed.

Poetic licence, of course, must be taken into account, as nobody was around to see Harald’s final conversation with his supernatural patron. Perhaps, in the death of Harald War-tooth, there is a warning against telling too much about the secrets Odin imparted. The war-band was to remain close-knit. The leader’s service to Odin was to be mirrored in the services of his men. He was to keep them in plunder and resources, and they were to fight on until the end of the world.

Reading between the lines of Norse religion, we may see several distinct strands. One aims to explain natural phenomena – thunder in the distance, sounding like the rumbling of Thor’s giant chariot wheels; the mysterious appearance of a rainbow in the sky; the reason for the turn of the seasons or the eclipses of the sun. Tales about such occurrences become conflated with others, fragments of myth about half-remembered battles, disasters or events. As with legends and folktales all around the world, chance puns or misunderstandings contribute to the sources. As early as the twelfth century, armed with a modicum of critical distance, Snorri Sturluson was able to consider the possibility that the mythical god Odin was a genuine figure from prehistory, whose tribe enjoyed a considerable degree of success in the real world. Odin, the grandfather, entered local mythology as Odin the father-god.

But whose locality was this? Scandinavia is not a unified whole. Borders are fluid – the Norwegians of the Trondheim region have a long tradition of ignoring the supposed rule of the Norwegians of the Vik. The land and people of southern Sweden have more in common with the arable regions of northern Denmark, and indeed, were sometimes part of that kingdom until 1657. Other regions and peoples are now assumed not to be part of Scandinavia at all, and yet have formed parts of the area’s sphere of influence for centuries. The name Keel, which describes the central mountain range dividing Norway and Sweden, does not refer to the ‘ship’s keel’ as a modern English speaker might guess. It literally means ‘waste’. Early maps of Scandinavia put Vikings on the coastline and mark as ‘waste ground’ the mountains of the hinterland, but the land was not empty at all. Throughout the Viking era, the Vikings were in constant contact and uneasy miscegenation with a very different people from a different linguistic and genetic group, not in distant lands but on their very doorstep. The natives of Lapland, the Sámi, occupy all of arctic Scandinavia, and also dwelt far to the south in Viking times, along the spine of Scandinavia’s central mountains. Linguistic archaeology, in place names for example, tells us that much of the inland regions of Norway and Sweden were Sámi territory. There are 3,000 Norse loanwords in the Sámi language, and 200 of them pre-date the beginning of the Viking Age, implying continuous and prolonged contact.16 Similarly, the Suomi, Karelians and Kainuans of Finland had so much contact with Vikings that they would later spend several hundred years as a province of Sweden, while the Baltic states have often had periods of Norse rule. Viking gods were once worshipped in what is now modern Russia.

Throughout the period under discussion, there was no central religious authority. The old Viking religions held no conclaves like the Christian councils of Ephesus, Whitby or Nicaea, to argue over points of doctrine and establish articles of faith and belief. There was no Viking pope or organized Viking clergy. Sacred spaces were established following the usual animist procedures, accidentally, haphazardly, in places of natural beauty or in prominent sites. Temples came later, after a deity was presumed to have offered aid to the people in return for worship. It seems possible to have picked ten different places in Scandinavia and to receive a different answer each time to the same question: ‘Who is your god?’

Odin, alleged chief of the gods in Viking times, may not have been as powerful in earlier times. Roman accounts of ‘German’ tribes detailed sacrificial rituals to Odin (or his German equivalent Woden/Wotan), but tellingly compared him to Mercury, a lesser god in the classical pantheon.17Several centuries before the Viking Age, the most powerful Norse deity appears to have been a sky-god or sun-god, Tiwaz. Tiwaz was equated with Mars, the Roman god of war. He survived in later times as Tyr or Tiw, a one-handed deity of battle somehow subordinate to Odin. As Odin has lost an eye, Tyr has lost a hand, bitten off by a savage hound when he was the only god brave enough to bind it. Tyr may have been successful, but he was also wounded; perhaps it was this vague reference to diminished powers that allowed the followers of another god to seize control.

If Tyr was once the Sun, then perhaps Heimdall was once the Moon. This guardian god, possibly another remnant of the supplanted Vanir, was said to never need sleep, and to function as well during the day as others did at night. His job, according to Snorri, was to keep constant watch over the rainbow bridge Bifrost, bearing a horn to blow in case of attack. Heimdall’s senses were greatly heightened – he was able to hear smaller sounds farther away than might be expected. He could hear grass growing, and even the noise made by follicles extruding hair. As a lunar deity, he may also have been associated with childbirth and menstruation; he was said by Snorri to be the ‘son of nine mothers.’18

Heimdall is also associated with the ram, heimdali – a headbutt in Viking days might be described as the ‘sword of Heimdall’. We have no way of telling whether the god took his name from the ram, or vice versa, or even if the names are a chance pun in differing dialects, given added colour by later skalds. But if Heimdall is a ram-god, then his time, at least in eastern Scandinavia and Finland, is the end of the year. To this day, in Baltic countries, some villages maintain the tradition of a ram effigy in fir or wicker, the kekripukki, assembled in the autumn months and dragged in a parade, before its destruction in a spectacular November conflagration. Santa Claus in Finland is still joulupukki – the Yule-goat.

Whichever of these gods may have been the most powerful, they survive in the names of the days of the week in many European countries. The week as we know it contains reference to the seven heavenly bodies (i.e. Roman gods) most easily visible from Earth: the Sun and Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. In northern European countries the names have retained their pagan equivalents, Sun and the Moon remain so, but so, too, do Tyr (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday) and either Frey or Frigg (Friday).

The Roman author Tacitus recorded twin fertility gods among the Germans, the Alcis, a pair of heavenly brothers whose priests dressed as women.19 Myths of such twin deities can be found in as many northern European religions as in the south, and seem to have extended into many Baltic areas. There are references in Norse sagas to the mother of Thor, Fjorgynn, whose name also exists in an unexplained male variant, Fjorgyn. In the far north where Norway meets Finland, they were twin girls, Thorgerda and Irpa, or male and female skiers, Ull and Ullin. In farming regions (particularly in Sweden) they are a brother and sister, Frey and Freya, occasionally incestuous but always associated with fertility. South in Germany there are references to a Voll and Volla, possibly cognate. A different kind of fertility god could be found closer to the coast, where Tacitus recorded a German fertility goddess called Nerthus, possibly cognate with the Viking sea-god Njord, and if so, originally worshipped on Zealand, Denmark’s largest island and the location of modern Copenhagen.

Njord and Nerthus, Frey and Freya are known collectively as the Vanir, a race of gods that was supplanted and largely replaced by a stronger, more warlike family of deities – perhaps earth-worshipping farmers overrun by sky-worshipping nomads, not once, but several times. Such an assumption may also help to explain the number of ungodlike enemies with which the Viking deities found themselves in conflict. A major group of rivals, for example, are the Jotnar, or Giants, a race whose names often contain elements of shifty duplicity, cunning and braggadocio. If the Jotnar were a race supplanted by proto-Scandinavians, then we might even guess at their original home, Jotunheim, in south central Norway.20 The Jotnar are despicable to Norse eyes, violent and uncontrollable, creatures of the mountains, formidable foes, yet whose females are often regarded as desirable brides – a conqueror’s view of the conquered. A leading adversary of the Jotnar is Thor himself, whose legends contain many hints that associate him as an unwelcome guest in the Jotunheim region. His mother, for a start, is a giantess herself, Fjorgynn, a mistress of Odin. In an area where goat-herding is a paramount local industry, we find that Thor quarrels with his neighbours over deaths of his flock. He rides in a chariot pulled by goats, and is sometimes referred to as Oku-thorr, the Charioteer – in both Old Norse and Sámi, the words for thunder and a wheeled vehicle are punningly similar.21

In Lapland, some shamanic drums show a male figure bearing a hammer in one hand and a swastika (thunderbolt) in the other, said to be Horagalles, the Norse Thor-Karl, or ‘old man Thor’.22 One of the most famous stories of Thor tells of his fight with a giant who leaves a piece of stone permanently embedded in his head. This may be a reference to a ritual at sacred sites of Thor, involving the striking of flint. In other words, with his red hair and beard, and his mastery of lightning, Thor may have been a fire-god, whose trials in myth are allegories of the kindling of sacred fires, and the smiting of foes.

Other races in the Viking mythos can be seen as similarly conquered peoples, associated in the Viking mind with a native mastery of the local woodlands and hills. Such peoples are the huldufólk, the ‘hidden folk’ identified in different parts of Scandinavia by different names, and ultimately combined by later writers to form a menagerie of supernatural creatures.23 The álfar or elves, for example, and their dark cousins the dvergar, or dwarves. Both are occasional allies of the gods, the dwarves renowned for their skills in metalwork, the elves as occasional bedmates and tormentors. At no point during the Viking Age was there any implication of diminutive size in either of these races – their role as the ‘little people’ of later centuries is thought to have been a function of the suppression of old religions with the onset of Christianity.

Bad dreams were brought by mara, a creature often associated with the image of the horse, and surviving today in our ‘nightmare’. Other creatures seem to have been personifications of nature, bogeymen like the thyrs (ogre) or troll. Places of note gained their own guardian spirits, thelandvoettir, while the ether was thought to crawl with other beings: nymph-like dísir, and the ghostly gandir and verdir. Verdir were often described as the spirits of the dead, able to communicate with the living or cause difficulties from beyond the grave. Other spirits said to interact with humans (or at least with their shamans) included the fylgjur (‘fetches’), shadows or familiars of a human who watch over entire bloodlines, and hamingjur, guardian totem-spirits. Many sub-categories of the supernatural seem to have two names, possibly implying two traditions, that of the Aesir and Vanir, married together in an uneasy and often confused meeting of cultures.

Whatever the origins of these categories and distinctions, many only known to us through asides in sagas or other accounts, the basic belief structure of the Viking world is not too different from that of other pagan religions. It asks the same questions about life and death – what is the difference between a dead body and a living one? If there is a difference, and let us call it the absence of breath or a soul, then what happens to that soul when the body dies? Where did it come from? Can souls survive outside the body? Do animals have souls? Do trees and rocks have souls? If such souls have power, can we communicate with them? Can we appease them? Can we make them angry? In all such cases, who is it among us who can best communicate with them? Such questions are common to the origins of all religions, and Viking beliefs share, at their basic level, assumptions about the natural and supernatural world cognate with beliefs all across Eurasia, as far afield as Japan. It is only in the last decade that scholarly opinion has truly begun to accept the implications of this – that Asian shamanism may have as much to teach us about Viking religion as European paganism. This is particularly notable in the case of the Vikings, when we appreciate that many of the Vikings’ shamans were not Indo-Europeans at all, but Finno-Ugric tribespeople of Lapland.24

Here, again, is a sign of opposing traditions struggling together in some way, with each enjoying greater prominence in different places. Norse sagas are riddled with reference to Lappish sorcery, and particularly to the mysterious spell-casting abilities of Finnish women. Old Norse even has a verb, finnvitka, which means ‘to practise magic in a distinctly Finnish manner.’25

It would appear, from Norse sources, that when the Vikings wanted magic, they would ‘pay a visit to the Finns’, a term that survives in modern Swedish as a euphemism for visiting a fortune-teller. Hints of such sorcerous capabilities survive in several sections of Snorri’s sagas, a Christian writing much later who wished to disassociate his true religion from the witchcraft of another race. Gunnhild Kingsmother, later to become the wife of Erik Bloodaxe, was supposedly sent among the Sámi to learn the ways of sorcery. As a mark of how she was hated by certain skalds, she was accused of seducing her teachers, using sexual favours to gain additional, secret magical knowledge from them. Much like witches or gipsies in other European traditions, Sámi women are rolled out by poets and skalds as the prophetic instigators of quests and missions. There are references in two sagas to a fateful party in Norway, visited by a sorceress who predicts that the host will soon leave his fatherland to settle in Iceland. Unwilling to leave his old life behind, the protagonist Ingjaldr instead hires three more Finnish seers to undertake a spirit-journey and verify the witch’s prophecy. This they do, voyaging from their bodies in a locked house (a drug-induced trance, perhaps?), waking after three days to give a detailed account of the area that would become known as Vatnsdale in Iceland. Another settler in Iceland, so say the sagas, refused to leave Norway until he had sent a Finnish sorcerer to scout the coast, transformed into a whale to make the journey easier.26

Perhaps the greatest transformer of all is another of the Norse gods, all the more mysterious for not having any particular area of influence. Loki is a divine trickster, an unwelcome interloper in the hall of the gods, the instigator of childlike mischief that may have endeared him to younger audience members, even if his comedic misdeeds were later punished by the gods in loco parentis. Unlike other gods, Loki does not live on in place names in Scandinavia or Iceland. He is as unpredictable as fire (an element with which he is sometimes associated), and like Thor is the offspring of a union between an Aesir (one of Us) and a Jotnar (one of Them); his mother Fárbauti was a giantess. He may also be cognate with Louhi, the Finno-Ugric goddess of the underworld, whose sacred island lay at the south-westernmost tip of Finland, on the Viking trade route with Russia.

By the time Snorri compiled his sources, Loki had perhaps been influenced by several centuries of Christian lore, and was now seen as a far more devilish figure than he may originally have been. But even in his original tales, he appears to have been cunning. Loki works his way into many of the stories of the Vikings, appearing in cameo roles in tales of Odin, Thor and many other gods. But ultimately, it is he who is the cause of many of the gods’ troubles. If something goes missing or is stolen in Asgard, it is Loki who gets the blame, and usually with justification. Loki is the jester of Odin’s court, a figure of chaos in opposition to Odin’s law, constantly taunting the other gods and meddling in their schemes with schemes of his own.

Loki was a great shape-shifter, although his transformations often brought him even more strife. When he wished to interfere with the building of the halls of Asgard, he transformed himself into a mare in order to distract the builder’s stallion. The offspring of that union was Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed. It is Loki who can transform into a fly to distract dwarven smiths, or a flea in an attempt to divest the goddess Freya of her precious necklace. He evades pursuit by transforming into a salmon, and even ‘borrows’ a bird-form from Freya (the sagas report this as if he is simply taking her car for a spin). Loki is the progenitor of all disasters, and the father of both the fearsome Fenris wolf, and Hel, the ruler of the underworld.

There are two disasters for which Loki is most famed. One is better known to Western civilization through its modern retellings. While wandering with Odin by a riverbank, Loki sees an otter eating a salmon, and flings a rock at it, hoping thereby to obtain two kills with one stone. Later, they discover that the otter was the shape-shifted form of their host’s son, and that Loki has accidentally instigated a blood feud between the gods and the otter’s brothers, Fafnir and Regin. There are elements here, perhaps, of ownership and hunting rituals – an animist need to somehow gain permission from a higher authority before hunting in the forests. Viking culture recognized that feuds and vendettas might arise, but also that the injured parties might be bought off with ransom or manngjöld – ‘man-gold’ or blood money. Hreidmar, father of the deceased, determines that the otter skin should be filled with gold, and then piled with further gold, until it is completely covered. Already in this tale we see history shining through the cracks – how might a skin be filled with gold? For the tale to make logistic sense, the gold would need to be in a readily usable form, anachronistic coins perhaps.

True to Viking form, Loki agrees to pay the manngjöld, and then sets off to steal it. Why? Surely he is a god, can’t he do what he likes? Not if he is a ‘god’ in a story by an Icelander who would expect social retribution for misdeeds. Just as Loki seems peculiarly shifty for a divinity, he is also suspiciously poor. It would seem that the Viking gods might be able to transform themselves into animal figures, but lack any alchemical abilities to make wealth. As gods they seem rather impoverished, but this again may be a feature of the late telling of the tale. By the time of Snorri’s compilation, the Norse gods had already been relegated to secondary status in the eyes of Christians. Although they may have been mighty in the eyes of their surviving followers, to the majority of the Icelandic audience their powers were in doubt.27

Loki realizes that the only way to gain that much gold is to steal it from the dwarf Andvari. Here, perhaps, we see a shaky justification for the persecution of a nearby rival tribe – necessity dictates that the gods, Our people, must appropriate resources from the dwarves, Their people. Andvari himself is able to change shape, and almost manages to hide from Loki by transforming himself into a fish. But Loki finally catches him, and pries every last piece of gold from him, including a golden ring to which Andvari clings desperately. The ring, says Andvari is the most precious artefact of all, for with it comes the power to gain a new hoard of treasure. Loki will hear none of it, which is fortunate, for when the skin of the otter is filled and covered as Hreidmar dictates, a single whisker can be seen poking through the top of the pile. Andvari’s ring is vital to plug the final gap, and the ransom is paid.

The ring, however, is cursed, and Hreidmar’s family eventually squabble over the hoard. Hreidmar is killed by his sons, and Fafnir transforms into a dragon to guard the gold. In what may be another reference to sibling rivalries over power in the Scandinavian region, Fafnir’s brother Regin enlists the help of the young hero Sigurd, who kills the dragon, but steals the cursed ring for himself, ushering in another cycle of betrayal and revenge.

Thanks to the operas of Richard Wagner, the story of Andvari’s ring is the most familiar to contemporary audiences, albeit in altered form. At the time of Snorri, however, greater resonance would have been felt among his audience for another tale of Loki – that of his greatest misdeed. As with many Viking myths, the story of Loki’s betrayal of the god Balder presents an intriguing mess. There are elements of the story of Christ, and of Achilles, both tales that would have been known to the Icelandic audience, that would have muddied the original tale, whatever it may have been. It may even have had its origins as little more than a historical accident, for which a trickster god got the blame – Beowulf mentions a prince Herebeald, accidentally shot and killed by his brother Haethcyn.28 The story also exists in two forms, one from Snorri and a partly contradictory one by Saxo, serving to remind us just how much of the rest of our knowledge of Viking lore issues from the pen of a single, uncontested writer.

Balder is an enigmatic god among the Vikings – if he had tribal worshippers at any time, they must have died out, perhaps in a genocidal massacre of which his mythological death is a dim recollection. His name is cognate with ‘Bright Day’, leading some to believe that he was a sun- or sky-god after the fashion of Tiwaz, once highly regarded in Scandinavia, but supplanted by Odin- and Thor-worshippers before the commencement of the Viking Age. In both variants of the tale, Balder’s story is one of supposed invincibility laid low. Snorri claims Balder to be Odin’s most cherished son (shades here of the Biblical Joseph story) – unlike the bastard Thor, he is a child of Odin’s true wife Frigg, who secures a promise from all birds, beasts and plants not to harm him. He is therefore invulnerable to all weapons, save mistletoe, a parasitic growth that escaped Frigg’s notice. Consequently, Loki is able to find a loophole, fashioning a dart from the forgotten plant and enlisting the unwitting aid of Hoder, a blind god, whose functions in the saga seems solely to play Loki’s patsy on this fateful occasion.29 Hoder hurls the dart at Balder, who proves to be not so invulnerable after all, and is sent to the underworld, where further intrigues by Loki keep him.

The Saxo story is palpably different, and gives a much more prosaic interpretation. Saxo still spins a yarn, but one that seems much closer to the allegorical tribal feuds that inform so many other Norse tales. In Saxo’s version, Balder is a warrior, raised by a race of amazons not named as valkyries per se, but with equivalent powers to choose the slain. He is rendered invulnerable by a peculiar diet of food drenched in snake poison, building a gradual immunity both to that and other sorts of danger. Balder is a god, hence one of Us, and keen to win the hand of the fair maiden Nanna. She, however, is also desired by Hoder, a human warrior (one of Them). Hoder realizes that he must fight Balder in order to gain Nanna, but to defeat him he will require a magic sword, guarded by the satyr Mimingus.30 Saxo describes several battles between the forces of Balder and those of Hoder (suddenly, armies and fleets are involved, inflating the tale from simple argument to some sort of war). At the end of the prolonged conflict, Balder lies dying, wounded by the charmed sword. Hoder marries Nanna, but is later slain by Boe, a child of Odin conceived with the deliberate purpose of avenging Balder’s death.

Both versions of the story also include a section in which a god (Odin in Snorri, Hermod in Saxo) must journey into the underworld, accounts whose origins could be anything from outright steals from the Odyssey or Aeneid, to allegories of spirit-trances, to poetic allusions to mundane hostage-taking and negotiations. Saxo’s account is most notable for its lodging of the Balder myth firmly in the real world. Although elements of the tale are undeniably fantastical, Saxo includes details of Balder’s tomb, and even the account of one Harald, a tomb-robber who broke into the burial mound in the twelfth century, only to be thwarted in his quest for treasure by subterranean floodwater.31

While slightly more believeable and rooted in reality, Saxo’s tale lacks the big pay-off of Snorri’s, for Snorri’s version holds that the death of Balder will ultimately lead to the end of all things. Loki was held responsible both for Balder’s death and for the technicalities that kept him in the underworld – Loki, it is assumed, transformed himself into a woman of the Jotnar who refused to weep for Balder, perhaps a reference to botched funereal rites. Rightly fearful of the fate that lay in store for him, Loki transformed himself into a salmon. Inventing the net in order to catch him (an idea the gods appear to have while staring drunkenly at the crossed charcoal twigs in the remains of a fire), the gods tie him to flat stones in the entrails of one of his sons. In an echo of the legend of Prometheus, he is left bound, beneath the mouth of a snake that drops poison on to his face. His wife holds a bowl to catch the poison, but each time she goes to empty it, Loki is left unprotected for a few moments, and his agonized writhing causes earthquakes.

While such an imprisonment represents the end of the road for Loki’s troublemaking, it also marks his expulsion from Asgard and his feeling a new hatred for the gods that have treated him so. Next time he appears in Viking myth, it is in the apocalypse, as an agent of the enemies of the gods.

By the time a written record was made of the myths of Viking End Times, it is possible that the mythology had been seeded with ideas and concepts from Christian stories of the apocalypse. But the Viking world-view seems curiously terminal, with many elements aimed not at avoiding disaster, but at meeting it head-on. This may partly relate to a cycle of death and rebirth, a wheel of the seasons repeated on an annual basis. It may also have certain roots in climactic conditions in the Middle Ages. As the long summer of the Little Climactic Optimum began to tail off, the descendants of the Vikings lived amid palpable signs of declining temperature. Particularly in Iceland, where Snorri compiled his sagas, the seas were filling with pack ice at earlier times each year, and to a greater extent. This, then, might have had some influence on Snorri’s concept of thefimbulvetr, a long period of great cold, in which the world inexorably became locked in ice – if this is the case, then his elaborate apocalypse owes more to his time than that of the Vikings whose myths he hoped to record.

As the climate cooled, the sagas claimed, there would be other signs of the End Times. Three cocks crow, one at the place of execution, another in the halls of the dead, a third in hell – the similarities with St Peter’s infamous denial of Christ are too obvious. The world is engulfed in far-ranging wars, brother fights brother and rapes sister. The Fenris wolf either breaks free of its chains or is set free by an evildoer, and rampages through the earth and sky, eventually eating the sun. All chained beasts and monsters somehow escape their cages, and Naglfar, a ship made of the nails of corpses, puts out to sea, crewed by angry Jotnar, and helmed by Loki himself, the trickster god finally showing his true colours and defecting to the enemy. Other giants charge across the rainbow bridge of Bifrost, overwhelming Heimdall the faithful watchman, although he is able to blow his horn in warning – there are shades here of Gabriel’s trumpet, or the Song of Roland, which would have entered popular consciousness a generation before Snorri compiled hisEdda, but not necessarily of actual Viking myth. The weight of the fire giants causes the rainbow to collapse, and they fall to Earth, ready to join their ice giant cousins in a final battle on Vigrid, the plain of ice.

This, then, is Ragnarok, the doom of the gods to which Snorri claimed Norse mythology would strive, as each god meets his diametric opposite in a fight to the death. Odin, the Lord of Hosts, leads his undead warriors out of Valhalla – this is where the Vikings saw themselves on that fateful day, charging towards the hordes of giants with their fellow warriors at their side, amid an unearthly army of screaming Valkyries. Heimdall fights Loki (so much for the ship, and Heimdall’s post at Bifrost). Thor fights his nemesis, the mighty World Serpent, smiting it with his hammer but drowning in its poison. Tyr faces Garm, the hound of hell he once bound. Or was it Fenris? No, it cannot be, because Fenris is fighting Odin himself. The wolf kills and eats the ruler of the gods, but Odin’s son Vidar has a magical iron shoe, with which he stamps on Fenris’s jaw, lifting up with all his strength to tear the wolf asunder. Frey fights Surt, the lord of the fire giants, and seems easily bested by him. But at the end, after the battle to end all battles, only Surt stands, flinging flames to all quarters, consuming the world in a terrible fire, itself only quenched when everything that was once the world of men is engulfed by the sea.

Once again, such an image could owe something to Christian iconography, but the images of fire and water as recorded by an Icelandic scribe offer another explanation. Of all the places in the Viking realm, Snorri’s native Iceland was the place where the precarious nature of human existence was most obvious. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that such revelations of the apocalypse should issue from a place where geysers of steam shoot from the ground, and volcanoes push forth molten rock from the earth. As recently as 1965, when charged to come up with a name for a new volcanic island that had suddenly boiled forth from the sea two years previously, the Icelandic government settled on Surtsey – ‘Surt’s Isle’.

But the terrifying end of the Viking world was not complete. As with winter giving way to spring, it offered hope of redemption. Odin and the old gods might all be dead, but Ragnarok, we are told, does not mean the end for all life on Earth. Somehow, a handful of the younger gods have survived – particularly the god Balder, who was thought slain by an earlier trickery of Loki’s, but who has now come back from the dead. In the shade of Yggdrasill, the World Tree, a man and a woman come forth, revealing that they have somehow weathered the fire and the flood that followed. In the sky, there is a daughter of the Sun, brighter still than the star that fell. Life begins again, in what could be an analogy of the changing of the seasons, or a faint apprehension that an old way had passed, and now was replaced with a new religion. That was certainly the case in Snorri’s Iceland, which had set aside the old gods by vote in AD 1,000. Although pagan elements persisted for several generations, particularly among fortune-tellers and seers, Iceland had become Christian, and Snorri wrote of his ancestors’ beliefs only after refracting them through the critical lens of Christianity. There is a certain symmetry in this, since it was through Christian eyes that the Vikings first appeared in chronicles of the west 500 years earlier. However, in AD 793 when they are first mentioned, they are far from the quaint forefathers of Snorri’s compilations. To the people of Christendom, they were themselves a sign that the end of the world was nigh.

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