V. THE NORTHMEN: 800—1066

1. The Kings’ Saga

Apparently the Northmen were Teutons whose ancestors had moved up through Denmark and across the Skaggerak and Kattegat into Sweden and Norway, displacing a Celtic population that had displaced a Mongolian people akin to the Laplanders and Eskimos.45 An early chieftain, Dan Mikillati, gave his name to Denmark—Dan’s march or province; the ancient tribe of Suiones, described by Tacitus as dominating the great peninsula, left their name in Sweden (Sverige), and in many kings called Sweyn; Norway (Norge) was simply the northern way. Skane, the name given to Sweden by the elder Pliny, became in Latin Scandia, and begot the Scandinavia that now covers three nations of kindred blood and mutually intelligible speech. In all three countries the fertility of women, or the imagination of men, outran the fertility of the soil; the young or discontent took to their boats and prowled about the coasts for food, slaves, wives, or gold; and their hunger acknowledged no laws and no frontiers. The Norwegians overflowed into Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland; the Swedes into Russia; the Danes into England and France.

Life’s brevity forbids the enumeration of gods or kings. Gorm (860-935) gave Denmark unity; his son Harald Bluetooth (945-85) gave it Christianity; Sweyn Forkbeard (985-1014) conquered England, and made Denmark for a generation one of the great powers of Europe. King Olaf Skottkonung (994-1022) made Sweden Christian, and Uppsala his capital. In 800 Norway was a conglomeration of thirty-one principalities, separated by mountains, rivers, or fjords, and each ruled by a warrior chief. About 850 one such leader, Halfdan the Black, from his capital at Trondheim, subdued most of the others, and became Norway’s first king. His son Harald Haarfager (860-933) was challenged by rebellious chieftains; the Gyda whom he wooed refused to marry him until he should conquer all Norway; he vowed never to clip or comb his hair till it was done; he accomplished it in ten years, married Gyda and nine other women, cut his hair, and received his distinguishing name—the Fair-haired.46 One of his many sons, Haakon the Good (935-61), ruled Norway well for twenty-seven years; “peace lasted so long,” complained a Viking warrior, “that I was afraid I might come to die of old age, within doors on a bed.”47 Another Haakon—“the Great Earl”—governed Norway ably for thirty years (965-95); but in his old age he offended the “bonders,” or free peasants, by taking their daughters as concubines, and sending them home after a week or two. The bonders called in Olaf Tryggvesson, and made him king.

Olaf, son of Tryggve, was a great grandson of Harald of the Fair Hair. He was “a very merry frolicsome man,” said Snorri of Iceland, “gay and social, very generous, and finical in his dress … stout and strong, the handsomest of men, excelling in bodily exercises every Northman that ever was heard of.”48He could run across the oars outside his ship while men were rowing; could juggle three sharp-pointed daggers, could cast two spears at once, and “could cut equally well with either hand.”49 Many a quarrel he had, and many an adventure. While in the British Isles he was converted to Christianity, and became its merciless advocate. When he was made King of Norway (995) he destroyed pagan temples, built Christian churches, and continued to live in polygamy. The bonders opposed the new religion fiercely, and demanded that Olaf should make sacrifice to Thor as in the ancient ritual; he agreed, but proposed to offer Thor the most acceptable sacrifice—the leading bonders themselves; whereupon they became Christians. When one of them, Rand, persisted in paganism, Olaf had him bound, and forced a serpent down his throat by burning the serpent’s tail; the viper made its way through Rand’s stomach and side, and Rand died.50 Olaf proposed marriage to Sigrid, Queen of Sweden; she accepted, but refused to abandon her pagan faith; Olaf struck her in the face with his glove, saying, “Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, a heathen jade?” “This may some day be thy death,” said Sigrid. Two years later the kings of Sweden and Denmark, and Earl Eric of Norway, made war against Olaf; he was defeated in a great naval battle near Rügen; he leaped full-armed into the sea, and never rose again (1000). Norway was divided among the victors.

Another Olaf, called the Saint, reunited Norway (1016), restored order, gave righteous judgment, and completed the conversion of the land to Christianity. “He was a good and very gentle man,” says Snorri, “of little speech, and openhanded, but greedy of money,” and slightly addicted to concubines.51 One bonder who preferred paganism had his tongue cut out, another his eyes.52 The bonders conspired with King Cnut of Denmark and England, who came with fifty ships and drove Olaf from Norway (1028); Olaf returned with an army and fought for his throne at Stiklestad; he was defeated, and died of his wounds (1030); on the site posterity dedicated a cathedral to him as Norway’s patron saint. His son Magnus the Good (1035-47) recaptured the kingdom, and gave it good laws and government; his grandson Harald the Stern (1047-66) ruled Norway with merciless justice until the year when William of Normandy took England.

About 860 a band of Northmen from Norway or Denmark rediscovered Iceland, and were not quite displeased to find it so similar to their own land in mists and fjords. Norwegians fretting under the new absolutism of Harald Haarfager migrated to the island in 874; and by 934 it was as thickly settled as it would ever be before the Second World War. Each of the four provinces had its thing, or assembly; in 930 an allthing, or united parliament, was established—one of the earliest institutions in the history of representative government, making Iceland then the only fully free republic in the world. But the same vigor and independence of spirit that motivated the migration and molded this parliament limited the effectiveness of the common government and laws; powerful individuals, rooted on their great estates, became the law of their lands, and soon revived in Iceland the feuds that had made Norway so difficult for her kings. In the year 1000 the allthing formally adopted Christianity; but King Olaf the Saint was scandalized to hear that the Icelanders continued to eat horseflesh and practice infanticide. Perhaps because the winter nights were long and cold, a literature of myths and sagas grew up that apparently excelled in quantity and quality the like tales told in the homelands of the Norse.

Sixteen years after the rediscovery of Iceland, a Norwegian skipper, Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, sighted Greenland. About 985 Thorwald and his son Eric the Red established a Norwegian colony there. In 986 Bjerne Herjulfsson discovered Labrador; and in the year 1000 Leif, son of Eric the Red, landed on the American continent; we do not know whether it was Labrador or Newfoundland or Cape Cod. Leif Ericsson wintered in “Vinland” (wine land), and then returned to Greenland. In 1002 his brother Thorwald, with thirty men, spent a year in Vinland. An interpolation, not later than 1395, in the “Saga of Olaf Tryggvesson,” by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), tells of five separate expeditions by Norsemen to continental America between 985 and 1011. In 1477 Christopher Columbus, by his own account, sailed to Iceland, and studied its traditions of the new world.53

2. Viking Civilization*

Social order among the Norse, as elsewhere, was based upon family discipline, economic co-operation, and religious belief. “In him who well considers,” says a passage in Beowulf, “nothing can stifle kinship.”54 Un wanted children were exposed to die; but once accepted, the child received a judicious compound of discipline and love. There were no family names; each son merely added his father’s name to his own: Olaf Haraldsson, Magnus Olafsson, Haakon Magnusson. Long before Christianity came to them, the Scandinavians, in naming a child, poured water over him as a symbol of admission into the family.

Education was practical: girls learned the arts of the home, including the brewing of ale; boys learned to swim, ski, work wood and metal, wrestle, row, skate, play hockey (from Danish hoek, hook), hunt, and fight with bow and arrow, sword or spear. Jumping was a favorite exercise. Some Norwegians, fully armed and armored, could jump above their own height, or swim for miles; some could run faster than the fleetest horse.55 Many children learned to read and write; some were trained in medicine or law. Both sexes sang lustily; a few in either sex played musical instruments, usually the harp; we read in the Elder Edda how King Gunnar could play the harp with his toes, and charm snakes with its tones.

Polygamy was practiced by the rich till the thirteenth century. Marriages were arranged by the parents, often through purchase; the free woman could veto such an arrangement,56 but if she married against the will of her parents her husband was declared an outlaw, and might legally be slain by her relatives. A man could divorce his wife at will; but unless he gave good reason he too was subject to assassination by her family. Either mate might divorce the other for dressing like the opposite sex—as when the wife wore breeches, or the man wore a shirt open at the breast. A husband might kill with impunity—i.e., without provoking a blood feud—any man whom he caught in illicit relations with his wife.57 Women worked hard, but they remained sufficiently delectable to stir men on to kill one another for their sakes; and men dominant in public life were, as everywhere, recessive at home. In general the position of woman was higher in pagan than in later Christian Scandinavia;58 she was the mother not of sin but of strong brave men; she had one-third—after twenty years of marriage one-half—right in all wealth acquired by her husband; she was consulted by him in his business arrangements, and mingled freely with men in her home.

Work was held in honor, and all classes shared in it. Fishing was a major industry, and hunting was a necessity rather than a sport. Picture the power of will and toil that cleared the forests of Sweden, and tamed to tillage the frozen slopes of Norway’s hills; the wheat fields of Minnesota are the offspring of American soil crossed with Norwegian character. Large estates were few; Scandinavia has excelled in the wide distribution of land among a free peasantry. An unwritten insurance softened disaster: if a farmer’s house burned down, his neighbors joined him in rebuilding it; if his cattle were destroyed by disease or an “act of God,” they contributed to his flocks a number of animals equal to half his loss. Nearly every Northman was a craftsman, especially skilled in wood. The Norse were backward in using iron, which came to them only in the eighth century; but then they made a variety of strong and handsome tools, weapons, and ornaments of bronze, silver, and gold;59 shields, damascened swords, rings, pins, harness were often objects of beauty and pride. Norse shipwrights built boats and warships not larger, but apparently sturdier, than those of antiquity; flat-bottomed for steadiness, sharp in the bow to ram the enemy; four to six feet deep, sixty to one hundred and eighty feet long; propelled partly by a sail, mostly by oars—ten, sixteen or sixty to a side; these simple vessels carried Norse explorers, traders, pirates, and warriors down the rivers of Russia to the Caspian and Black Seas, and over the Atlantic to Iceland and Labrador.

The Vikings divided themselves into jarls or earls, bondi or peasant proprietors, and thralls or slaves; and (like the guardians in Plato’s Republic) they sternly taught their children that each man’s class was a decree of the gods, which only the faithless would dare to change.60 Kings were chosen from royal blood, the provincial governors from the jarls. Along with this frank acceptance of monarchy and aristocracy as natural concomitants of war and agriculture, went a remarkable democracy by which the landowners acted as legislators and judges in a local hus-thing or meeting of householders, a village mot, a provincial thing or assembly, and a national allthing or parliament. It was a government of laws and not merely of men; violence was the exception, judgment the rule. Feud revenge incarnadined the sagas, but even in that Viking Age of blood and iron the wergild was replacing private vengeance, and only the sea-rovers were men with no law but victory or defeat. Harsh punishments were used to persuade to order and peace men hardened by the struggle with nature; adulterers were hanged, or trodden to death by horses; incendiaries were burned at the stake; parricides were suspended by the heels next to a live wolf similarly hung; rebels against the government were torn asunder by horses driven apart, or were dragged to death behind a wild bull;61 perhaps in these barbarities the law had not yet replaced, but only socialized, revenge. Even piracy at last gave way to law; the robbers subsided into traders, and substituted wits for force. Much of the sea law of Europe is Norse in origin, transmitted through the Hanseatic League.62 Under Magnus the Good (1035-47) the laws of Norway were inscribed on a parchment called from its color the “Grey Goose”; this still survives, and reveals enlightened edicts for the control of weights and measuses, the policing of markets and ports, the state succor of the sick and the poor.63

Religion helped law and the family to turn the animal into a citizen. The gods of the Teutonic pantheon were not mythology to the Norse, but actual divinities feared or loved, and intimately connected with mankind by a thousand miracles and amours. In the wonder and terror of primitive souls all the forces and major embodiments of nature had become personal deities; and the more powerful of these required a sedulous propitiation that did not stop short of human sacrifice. It was a crowded Valhalla: twelve gods and twelve goddesses; divers giants (Jotuns), fates (Norns), and Valkyries—messengers and ale-bearers of the gods; and a sprinkling of witches, elves, and trolls. The gods were magnified mortals, subject to birth, hunger, sleep, sickness, passion, sorrow, death; they excelled men only in size, longevity, and power. Odin (German Woden), the father of all the gods, had lived near the Sea of Azov in Caesar’s time; there he had built Asgard, or the Garden of the Gods, for his family and his counselors. Suffering from land hunger, he conquered north Europe. He was not unchallenged nor omnipotent; Loki scolded him like a fishwife,64 and Thor quite ignored him. He wandered over the earth seeking wisdom, and bartered an eye for a drink at wisdom’s well; then he invented letters, taught his people writing, poetry, and the arts, and gave them laws. Anticipating the end of his earthly life, he called an assembly of Swedes and Goths, wounded himself in nine places, died, and returned to Asgard to live as a god.

In Iceland Thor was greater than Odin. He was the god of thunder, war, labor, and law; the black clouds were his frowning brows, the thunder was his voice, the lightning was his hammer flung from the skies. The Norse poets, perhaps already as skeptical as Homer, had much fun with him, like the Greeks with Hephaestus or Heracles; they represented him in all sorts of predicaments and toils; nevertheless he was so loved that nearly every fifth Icelander usurped his name—Thorolf, Thorwald, Thorstein…

Great in legend, minor in worship, was Odin’s son Baldur, “dazzling in form and feature … mildest, wisest, and most eloquent” of the gods;65 the early missionaries were tempted to identify him with Christ. He had a terrible dream of his impending death, and told the gods of it; the goddess Frigga exacted an oath from all minerals, animals, and plants that none would injure him; his glorious body thereafter repelled all hurtful objects, so that the gods amused themselves by hurling at him stones and darts, axes and swords; all weapons were turned away, and left him scatheless. But Frigga had neglected to pry an oath of innocuousness from “a little shrub called mistletoe,” as being too feeble to hurt any man; Loki, the irreverent mischief-maker among the gods, cut off a twig of it, and persuaded a blind deity to throw it at Baldur; pierced with it, Baldur expired. His wife Nep died of a broken heart, and was burned on the same pyre with Baldur and his gorgeously caparisoned horse.66

The Valkyries—“Choosers of the Slain”—were empowered to decree the death date of each soul. Those men who died basely were thrust down into the realms of Hel, the goddess of the dead; those who died in battle were led by the Valkyries to Valhalla—“Hall of the Chosen”; there, as favorite sons of Odin, they were reincarnated in strength and beauty to spend their days in manly battle and their nights in drinking ale. But (says late Norse mythology) the time came when the Jotuns—monstrous demons of disorder anddestruction—declared war upon the gods, and fought with them to mutual extinction. In this Twilight of the Gods all the universe fell to ruin: not merely sun and planets and stars, but, at the last, Valhalla itself, and all its warriors and deities; only Hope survived—that in the movement of slow time a new earth would form, a new heaven, a better justice, and a higher god than Odin or Thor. Perhaps that mighty fable symbolized the victory of Christianity, and the hardy blows that two Olafs struck for Christ. Or had the Viking poets come to doubt—and bury—their gods?

It was a marvelous mythology, second only to the Greek in fascination. The oldest form in which it has come down to us is in those strange poems to which error has given the name of Edda.* In 1643 a bishop discovered in the Royal Library of Copenhagen a manuscript containing some old Icelandic poems; by a double mistake he called them the Edda of Saemund the Wise (c. 1056-1133), an Icelandic scholar-priest. It is now generally agreed that the poems were composed in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland by unknown authors at unknown dates between the eighth and twelfth centuries, that Saemund may have collected, but did not write, them, and that Edda was not their name. But time sanctions error as well as theft, and compromises by calling the poems the PoeticorElder Edda. Most of them are narrative ballads of the old Scandinavian or Germanic heroes or gods. Here for the first time we meet with Sigurd the Volsung and other heroes, heroines, and villains destined to take more definite form in the Volsungasaga and theNibelungenlied. The most powerful of the Edda poems is the Voluspa, wherein the prophetess Völva describes with somber and majestic imagery the creation of the world, its coming destruction, and its ultimate regeneration. In quite different style is “The High One’s Lay,” in which Odin, after meeting all sorts of conditions and men, formulates his maxims of wisdom, not always like a god:

Much too early I came to many places, or too late; the beer was not yet ready, or was already drunk.67 … The best drunkenness is when everyone after it regains his reason.68 … In a maiden’s words none should place faith, nor in a woman’s; for guile has been laid in their breasts;69 … this I experienced when I strove to seduce that discreet maiden; … nor of that damsel gained I aught.70 … At eve the day is to be praised, a sword after it is tested, a woman after she is cremated.71… Of the words that a man speaks to another he often pays the penalty72 … the tongue is the bane of the head.73 Even in three words quarrel not with a worse man; often the better man yields, when the worse strikes.74… He should rise early who covets another’s property or wife.75 … Moderately wise should a man be, not over-wise…. Let no man know his destiny beforehand; thus will his mind be most free from care…A wise man’s heart is seldom glad.76 … One’s home is best, small though it be77 … best is one’s hearth, and the sight of the sun.78

Probably the poems of the Elder Edda were preserved by word of mouth until the twelfth century, when they were put into writing. In the Viking Age letters were runes, as in north Germany and Anglo-Saxon England; these twenty-four symbols (literally, “mysteries”) constituted an alphabet roughly formed on Greek and Latin cursive scripts. Literature, however, could in that age dispense with letters; minstrel skalds composed, memorized, recited, and orally transmitted their lays of the Teutonic gods, and of that “Heroic Age” (from the fourth to the sixth century) when the Germanic peoples spread their power over Europe. Sturluson and others preserved some fragments of the lays, and the names of many skalds. The most famous of these was Sigvat Thordarsson, who served St. Olaf as court poet and candid counselor. Another, Egil Skallagrimsson (900-83), was the leading figure of his time in Iceland—a mighty warrior, an individualistic baron, a passionate poet. In his old age he lost his youngest son by drowning, and was about to kill himself with grief when his daughter persuaded him to write a poem instead. His Sonartorrek (“The Loss of the Son”) is a defiant denunciation of the god, whom he blames for the death; he regrets that he cannot find Odin and fight him as he has fought other enemies. Then a softer mood comes, as he reflects that the gods have given him not only sorrow but the gift of poesy; reconciled, he resolves to live, and resumes his high seat in the councils of his country.79

The literature of Scandinavia in this period doubtless exaggerates the violence of Viking society, as journalism and history, luring the reader with the exceptional, miss the normal flow of human life. Nevertheless the hard conditions of early Scandinavia compelled a struggle for existence in which only men of the toughest fiber could survive; and a Nietzschean ethic of unscrupulous courage rose out of ancient customs of feud and revenge and the lawless piracy of ungoverned seas. “Tell me what faith you are of,” one Viking asked of another. “I believe in my own strength,” was the reply.80 Gold Harald wanted the throne of Norway, and proposed to get it by force. His friend Haakon advised him: “Consider with thyself what thou art man enough to undertake; for to accomplish such a purpose requires a man bold and firm, who will stick at neither good nor evil to accomplish what is intended.”81Some of these men found such pleasure in battle as almost anesthetized their wounds; some went into a battle frenzy known asberserksgangr—“the berserk’s way”; the berserkers—“bear-shirters”—were champions who rushed into combat without shirts of mail, and fought and howled like animals, bit their shields in fury, and then, the battle over, fell into a coma of exhaustion.82 Only the brave would enter Valhalla; and all sins would be forgiven to him who died for his group in war.

So trained in hardship and wild games, the “men of the fjords” rowed out and conquered kingdoms for themselves in Russia, Pomerania, Frisia, Normandy, England, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Italy, and Sicily. These ventures were not invasions by masses of soldiery like the Moslem hijad or the Magyar flood; they were the reckless sallies of mere handfuls of men, who thought all weakness criminal and all strength good, who hungered for land, women, wealth, and power, and felt a divine right to share in the fruits of the earth. They began like pirates and ended like statesmen; Rollo gave a creative order to Normandy, William the Conqueror to England, Roger II to Sicily; they mingled their fresh blood of the north, like an energizing hormone, with that of peoples made torpid by rural routine. History seldom destroys that which does not deserve to die; and the burning of the tares makes for the next sowing a richer soil.

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