Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Lewis Chess Queen

What is she thinking? Let me know at and I'll put the best responses in my next book. If you give me your real name, I'll also include you in the acknowledgments.

As I announced in January, my new book-in-progress is a biography of a set of objects, the Lewis chessmen. These seventy-eight walrus-ivory figures, each under four inches tall, are the most famous chessmen in the world. Found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the Lewis chessmen are the most valuable archaeological treasure ever found in Scotland. At the British Museum in London, where most of the chessmen reside, they are one of the most popular exhibits. Several of them feature prominently in the current Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the museum--even though scholars agree they were made well after the Viking Age (between 1150 and 1200).

One reason they are so popular is the expressiveness of their faces--and how hard those expressions are to interpret. The queens, particularly, mesmerize me. All have one hand pressed to their cheeks. There's a beautiful 360-degree interactive video from the British Museum in which you can turn one of the Lewis queens all the way around as if holding her in your hand. [Click here to access the video.]

The caption says, "This chess queen resting her face on her hand in an expression of gloom was probably left on Lewis by a merchant sailing to Dublin, a Viking colony. Why's she so sad? Is she contemplating the vast Atlantic?"

I never thought this queen's expression was sad or gloomy.

I asked a friend of mine to look at the British Museum video. She commented, "I'm not sure I think the expression on the queen's face is sadness. Both the king and queen seem pensive, as if the weight of their responsibilities is paramount."

Sad, gloomy, pensive…

There are eight Lewis queens extant. When I used a photograph of this one as an illustration in Song of the Vikings, I called her expression "aghast."

What do you think?

The Ivory Vikings will be published in New York and London by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2015. My writing deadline is September 2014--which gives me six months. Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), are going to be very busy with this new project, so they may not be visiting this blog as frequently as in the past. They'll stop in now and then, however--always on a Wednesday--at

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Viking Ship at Midnight

I first saw the Viking ship replica Gaia on September 18, 1991, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, as I wrote in my previous post. I was researching my book The Far Traveler and wanting to know everything I could about Viking ships, so I caught up with it a second time the next day at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island.

We drove in past a rounded hill covered with kite flyers. It was hot and sunny. My three-year-old was asleep in his carseat, so I scurried alone toward the harbor to find the ship, leaving my husband to babysit. Behind a squat brick building that said “Vinland Revisited,” I passed a tall, blond, sunglassed man with large ears. I know those ears, I thought. “Ulfur?” I called. Ulfur had some position in the Icelandic government. I had met him recently at a party at an Icelandic friend’s house. I could not remember his last name.

He turned and, recognizing me, grabbed me by the elbows and began shouting in Icelandic. Registering my blank stare, he repeated in English, “Run! Run to Gaia. Ask for the captain, Gunnar. Tell him you can go on the ship in my place. Run! For an hour’s cruise.” I ran.

Down the hill, cutting across the beach, all out of breath, I pushed through the crowd. The boat was full of people. “Gunnar!” I called in Icelandic, “I just met Ulfur and he says I can go instead of him!”

“Hah?” I had his attention, but he didn’t comprehend my babbling.

I persevered, shouting out my fractured grammar.

He smiled, “Okay! Come on board!”

One of the crew straddled from the cabin to a two-inch outrigger of the mast and grabbed my arm firmly. I swung aboard.

Standing on the raised steering deck, grasping the carved tiller of the side rudder, Gunnar was distant, majesterial. I stood at his feet. He bent his head to listen to my questions, but kept his eyes on the water ahead.

“Aren’t we going under sail?”

“No. The wind is wrong.”

After a few minutes, “Are we just going to motor?”

“No, no. We will sail.”

Getting out of dock, even under diesel power, was tricky. The boat veered too  close to the breakwater—three crewmembers pushed it away with their feet, balancing on Gaia’s gunwale. The stern grated against the concrete. Gunnar’s head snapped around and he left the tiller hastily, shoving at the wall until she was clear.

Then we were out in the bay, a slew of smaller boats jockeying around us. The Norwegian consul and his family were ferried out in a rubber Zodiac: three darling blond-headed kids, the oldest a very sober nine-year-old in a coat and tie. The consul’s wife wore pumps. Looking around, I suddenly realized that my jeans and sneakers were breaking the dresscode; of the 30 people on the boat, all were formal but the crew.

There was Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the president of Iceland, in high heels and a lacy shirt, sporting a wide-brimmed hat with a ribbon. And Knut Kloster, the Viking Cruise tycoon who had bankrolled the ship, in a blue business suit. An old gent in a blazer and his wife, dolled up in ruffles and beads, came aft. He carried a video camera. He shoved me out of the way and began filming Gunnar—“our captain on the Gaia, Gunnar Sigurdsson—no, Eggertsson, a good man.”

I, in turn, backed into President Vigdis. There was nowhere else to go. With 30 people on board, the ship had the feel of a crowded cocktail party where someone’s elbow is always threatening your wineglass.

“Excuse me,” I said to President Vigdis, in Icelandic.

“Are you Icelandic?” she asked.

“No,” I answered, “I am a friend of Ulfur’s brother’s son’s wife.”

She laughed. It was a typical way a person would be introduced in the sagas. “And you are learning Icelandic,” she said, with obvious approval.

She drifted away, and I found myself facing one of the crew, Eggert Sigurdsson, who also wanted to know if I was Icelandic. All the Icelanders who crewed any of the four ships, he explained, were on Gaia today to honor President Vigdis. They had heard me speaking Icelandic and wanted to know why. We settled in for a nice talk about the sagas. Eggert had grown up near Borg, the farm established by the saga hero Skallagrim (literally, Bald Grim), son of Kveldulf (Evening Wolf). Eggert had run away from home when he was sixteen to join the Merchant Marines. He tried to teach me to pronounce his name correctly.

“You’re saying ekkert, not Eggert.”

Ekkert is the Icelandic for “nothing.” I couldn’t hear the difference.

“It’s a very small distinction from me to ‘nothing.’” He pouted.

Gunnar bellowed from the tiller. Eggert leaped on top of the cabin and began unfurling the sail. There would have been no enclosed cabin on a real Viking ship; like the diesel engine, it was a concession to modernity. But where the cabin was on Gaia, the Vikings would have put their cows and bull—both Vinland sagas are clear that they had livestock with them. Watching Eggert on the cabin, I couldn’t imagine him handling the sail from the back of a bull.

And how they did work around 50-plus passengers? Gaia’s best crew size, Gunnar had told me, was 10. Today, the dignitaries trying to help were just tangling the ropes. Those staying out of the way, like the cruise-line tycoon, found themselves in exactly the wrong place. Kloster was ensconced in the bow talking to the Norwegian consul. Two of the crew carefully pulled a rope out so they could shorten it without hitting him or asking him to move, but as they hauled it in, it dragged through the sea, and he ended up with that dripping rope rushing over his shoulder. He started up, surprised.

Up, the sail was enormous. It filled the sky, heaving, breathing. It cut the boat in half—the crew in the bow could hardly see Captain Gunnar and vice versa.

Now all was quiet but for the sibilant hiss and rush of water past the boat and the soft chatter of the passengers. Gunnar stood with one hand on the steering oar, one on a sail-rope, playing it like a kite-string to hold the breeze. The boat suddenly felt twice as large, its motion steady and sure. I leaned against the cabin and stared out at the wide-open sea.

Eggert came back and picked up the conversation where he had left off. “I let them call me ‘nothing’ for eight years in the Merchant Marines,” he said. He now worked with troubled adolescents in Reykjavik and was finishing a degree in psychology. He was married to a lawyer, and had a nine-year-old daughter.

“Will it be a step down coming home from your Viking expedition?” I asked.

“No. I love what I do at home. Coming home is always a step up for me no matter where I am.”

That was nice of him to say, but I didn’t believe him. I had asked the same question to Gunnar when I interviewed him at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Gunnar had no plans for his future once he left Gaia. “You have to go down a little bit, think the whole thing over,” he said. “I’m going to need two or three weeks just to get into ordinary life.” (Later I learned that he had immediately started building his own Viking ship and, to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of Leif Eiriksson’s discovery, had made the crossing from Iceland to America again in the year 2000. This boat, Islendingar, now has its own museum outside of Keflavik in Iceland. See

When he had first heard of Gaia, Gunnar had been laid up with a broken arm from an accident on a fishing trawler. The next day he wrote the organizers a letter stating his qualifications: on fishing boats since he was 14, skilled as a boatbuilder, experienced as a diver and ocean rescue-squad member. As he told me, “I can do a few things.” He was interviewed, then flown to Norway to join the team building the boat. When time came to choose a captain, the expedition leader appointed Gunnar.

“It was strange,” Gunnar had said. “In the beginning, when I first started to sail this ship, it was like I knew how to do it already. It was a kind of feeling, from the wind, how to do it right.”

Now another member of the crew joined me and Eggert in the quiet sunlight beneath the great white sail, a slim, young Norwegian named Odd Kvamme.

“Do you like sailing on days like this, or on rough days?” I asked Odd.

“A little rougher,” he said. “You feel the pulse of the ship.”

“Do you trust her?”

“Oh, yes. I didn’t at first, but I do now.”

And then Gunnar bellowed again. Odd and Eggert ran to their posts, Eggert on top of the cabin, beating the huge sail off himself as it came down—it enclosed him like the wings of a big bird, a beautiful, mythic image, embracing him again each time he hauled it off.

At the end of the trip, Odd helped me disembark with a strong arm on my elbow.

“Would you notice if I stayed on the ship?” I asked.

His face lit with a sideways gleam and a flirtatious, conspiratorial smile. “I think so,” he said.

I called out to Gunnar, “When are you sailing out tonight?”

“Between midnight and two a.m. Why?”

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My First Viking Ship

 The first time I saw a Viking ship in the water, as I wrote in The Far Traveler, I was struck with the desire to stow away on it.

My first Viking ship was not under sail. It was motoring down the Cape Cod Canal under diesel power. Saddled with the silly name Gaia, it had the inexplicable mission of spreading environmental awareness by arriving in America in 1991, one year before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery.”

From the west coast of Norway, where the boat was built and financed by the Norwegian owner of the Viking cruiseship line, Gaia and her diesel-powered chase boat had followed the Viking route to the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland, then over the ice-filled seas to Labrador and Newfoundland—or Markland and Vinland, as the Vikings had named them. In Nova Scotia, Gaia met up with two other Viking ship replicas, Oseberg and Saga Siglar (these had been crated and shipped by common carrier across the Atlantic). The convoy headed south, stopping for speechifying at Boston, Newport, New York, and Washington, D.C.

I caught up with the ships on September 18 at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where the crews would enjoy a much-needed hot shower and shore leave before the festivities in Newport. A dozen people watched from the quay as Gaia chugged gracelessly up to the dock; the other boats had arrived before her. There were no public events planned here. The Gaia crew tied up and, greeting the tourists politely but with an air of acute boredom, tried to slip past us into the building.

I had other plans in mind. I wanted to get onto a Viking ship, and I had a pretty good idea how to do so. There was only one Icelander on Gaia—the captain, Gunnar Marel Eggertsson—and I had learned everything I could about him.

I mingled with the crowd, listening. Ingolf, an elderly Norwegian I had spoken with while waiting for the ship, addressed one of the blond-headed sailors.

“Good day,” the young man replied, and held out his hand.

Ingolf’s wife clasped it in both of hers. “Will you give a message to our first cousin, Finn, in Oslo?”

She continued, giving great detail on Finn’s upbringing and qualities, until the young man interjected, “But, you see, I am from Iceland. I will tell one of the Norwegians.”

It was my cue. Casually, I said—in Icelandic: “Are you Gunnar? Gunnar á Viðivöllum?”

His head snapped toward me. His childhood nickname had not been published in any of the press releases. He moved aside so that the other crew members could pass by and let loose a stream of unintelligible Icelandic that ended, to my relief, with a simple question: “Are you Icelandic?”

“No,” I said. I had prepared this conversation ahead of time and knew my Icelandic was understandable, if not precisely correct, and, in its childish inflections, charming. “I have an Icelandic friend who grew up on Heimaey. She sends her greetings.”

My friend’s name meant nothing to Gunnar. Heimaey, which the press releases had reported as the captain’s home, is a small island south of mainland Iceland, small enough that every family knows every other. But my friend had warned me that she didn’t know Gunnar well. They had been in different grades in elementary school, and then she had gone to the mainland for high school. Her family had left the island permanently soon after that, when a volcanic eruption dumped several feet of ash on the only town. When I quizzed her about the Icelandic captain of the Gaia, all she could remember was his nickname.

“Her father ran the bakery?” I prompted.

“Oh, yes—”

A crewmate called to him, motioning urgently toward the building where lunch with the academy students was waiting. Gunnar answered him in a Scandinavian creole and turned to go.

“Bless, Gunnar!” I called, using the Icelandic form of goodbye. “It was nice to meet you.”

He spun around, remembering his manners, and, walking backwards, said, “When can I talk to you again?”

“I will be in Newport,” I said. “I can meet you there.”

But, seeing his answering smile, I decided Newport might be too far in the future. I waited until he was out of sight before rejoining my husband, who was minding our three-year-old son. I convinced them that a dock beside a diesel-powered Viking ship was an excellent place for a picnic. Well used to my fixation with all things Icelandic, my husband quietly agreed, asking only, “Didn’t you get an interview?”

“No,” I said, “but I will when he comes back from lunch.”

Lunch, however, was over quicker than I had thought. I had my son on my hip when I saw Gunnar hurrying back to the ship.

“Gun-nar!” I hollered, emphasizing the second syllable, Icelandic-style.

He pivoted, stared, then, recognizing me, waved. I handed my son off to my husband’s patient arms and quickly crossed to where Gunnar waited. “I am a writer,” I said. “I’m writing a book about the Icelandic sagas. May I ask you some questions?”

Gunnar sized me up. From a fellow Icelander—or at least the friend of a fellow Icelander—I had transformed into a journalist, dozens of whom he had already met. But perhaps an interesting journalist to pass an hour with, one who speaks his language—a little clumsily—and knows his country’s literature. And was giving him her undivided attention.

“Yes,” he said, “now.”

Before we could begin, he was called away by an academy student to check one of the ropes on Gaia’s bow. Running down the ship’s ladder, he pulled up a floorboard and tugged to get a new rope out. It was stuck. Beside him another crewman lifted another board, poked around to free the rope, then took it away, leaving Gunnar alone on the deck. He looked up to find me watching. “Do you want to come down?” he said.

“I can’t,” I answered. I pointed at the sign which said so quite clearly.

“Yes, come down,” he said.

As I stepped over the rail, trying to manage the ladder gracefully, the academy student scurried over to shoo me away, pointing, in his turn, at the sign.

“She is interviewing me,” Gunnar said, peremptorily, captain-like, in English. The student held the ladder for me.

I scrambled down and was suddenly breathless. I was on a Viking ship!

Although I knew it had been built only the year before, the ship felt old, well broken in. I ran my hand around an oarhole, fingered the shield rail. The wood was soft, smooth, and golden. Gunnar perched on the gunwale above me. I had to squint into the sun to see him, the light making his blond curls into a corona. Under his several days’ beard, he was very tanned, the blue eyes startling in the brown face. He was not tall, but stocky and solid, as if hard to push over. He wore a white Gaia T-shirt, jeans, and soft leather oxfords. Around his neck was a gold amulet showing a ship under sail, heeled over. Although we had a nice, hour-long talk about sailing a Viking ship, I knew it wasn’t enough.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Row a Viking Ship

 Writing about the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition at the British Museum last week, and the dragonship at its center, I recalled one of my adventures while researching my book The Far Traveler: I got to row a Viking ship. A very little Viking ship. A Viking fishing boat, perhaps we should call it. Its name was Kraka Fyr.

I had made arrangements to interview Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, the former curator of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Checking my email the day before, I saw an urgent message from him: "Meet Anton Engler at the Dutch Bridge at 9:30 and you can go out in the ship."

At the Dutch Bridge at 9:30 the next morning, I learned that Engler was being interviewed by German TV for a series about Germans in other countries who had interesting jobs. What could be more interesting than being a builder of Viking ships? He was taking the TV crew out on the smallest of the museum's Viking ship replicas--and there was room for one more rower. I got a blue Vikingeskibenemuseet smock and a black life vest from the racks and climbed down the ladder onto the ship.

There were 10 of us in the boat: six rowers, including Engler, the TV show host, and me; a cameraman and a sound man; the captain at the steering oar; and one extra hand. Engler stationed me on the bench behind him and went over the technique and the terms: Ready, row, scull (row backwards), rest—or something like that. The rowing is in-sweep-out-pause, in-sweep-out-pause. “It’s not a circular motion,” he said. Could he tell I'd never rowed a boat before?

The TV personality was a small blonde. She rowed opposite Engler. I could understand enough German to hear that she wanted to know when the Viking age was and where the Vikings went in their boats.

It was difficult to keep in time (though we were only three oars to a side). I also seemed to bump into Engler's back quite often—maybe I was leaning too far forward, trying to put some force into my stroke. Rowing forward (we faced backwards) was fairly easy, but rowing backwards was much more difficult and I never really got the hang of it. Setting the oars in the water to hold the boat was also hard—you could feel the tide tugging the oar.

When I put my oar out the first time, I got the oar string twisted and it was hard for me to keep the oar in the right place—the oar locks are just like crooked fingers, with a twist of twine to hold the oar in the crook. If the string is loose, it’s harder to row. After Anton reknotted it tighter, it was much easier going, until the knot loosened itself again. I noticed his knot was loose too, but his oar never left its slot. He could row and be interviewed and never miss a beat.

Engler and the others put up the sail and took it down again several times so the TV crew could get a good shot. Sometimes the ropes got tangled, and they had to force the yard vertical and push it behind the stays. Once when the sail was going up, the rope broke (or someone let go of it). Yard and sail came crashing down--right on top of me.

Anton thought I’d been hit on the head. He practically dove under the sail, “Are you okay!”

“Yes," I said, "can I come out?”

He laughed in relief. When the yard started down, I slipped backwards off my bench and onto the floor of the boat so it wouldn't whack me. Still, I was smothered in heavy sailcloth. It was hard to wriggle out from under it all.

Finally the sail was up: We went skimming along. We all lay back, when the boat threatened to dip low enough to take on water. I went up into the bow with Jorge, who had been sailing Kraka Fyr for three years. We agreed it was a splendid boat.

As we came into the harbor, Crumlin-Pedersen was on the end of the dock in a white fisherman’s hat. I thanked him profusely for the ride, and he seemed very pleased. He had already introduced himself to my friend Kate--who took pictures from the dock while I was out in Kraka Fyr--and he took us to lunch in the fancy restaurant beside the Viking Ship Museum. We talked for about three hours.

Kraka Fyr, he told me, is a replica of Skuldelev 6, one of six Viking Age ships recovered from the sea floor at Skuldelev, Denmark. According to tree-ring analysis, it was made in Sognefjord, Norway in about 1030. A sturdy little ship, it was probably designed for fishing or for hunting seals and small whales; later, it was reworked into a small freight vessel and sailed here to Denmark, where it was purposely sunk to blockade the harbor at Skuldelev in the early Middle Ages.

It was so very small. With 10 of us on board, there wasn’t much room—hardly enough room to put up the sail. But the tree-rings don't lie. At least once this little Viking ship made it the 500 miles from Sognefjord to Skuldelev. I hope they didn't have to row the whole way.

Read more about Kraka Fyr on the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum's site.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Vikings Come to London

It's time for a field trip to London to see the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the British Museum. At its center is the biggest Viking ship in the world: a true dragonship.

I was lucky enough to see the ship last November at the "Vikings!" exhibition of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Named Roskilde 6, the dragonship was discovered when the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark dredged its harbor area to build a restaurant and more exhibition space. I remember going to lunch with Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, former curator of the museum, when I was researching my book The Far Traveler in 2006. "Right under this restaurant we found another longship!" he exclaimed. "It stretched from this bush, almost to the edge of that building."

It was sleek and predatory, seven meters longer than the longest longship they had found in the 1950s, in the nearby Skuldelev harbor, for which the Viking Ship Museum was created. Those ships are now conserved and displayed in the museum's exhibition galleries, while replicas float at the dock outside. The biggest is named Havhingsten, or Sea Stallion, the replica of a 30-meter-long dragonship built in Glendalough, Ireland in 1042.

Roskilde 6 is 37 meters long. It was built near Oslo Fjord in 1025, according to tree-ring analysis, and carried 80 to 100 rowers. At one point, it traveled into the Baltic Sea, where it saw hard usage: A hole in the hull had to be patched. It was a king's ship, said Crumlin-Pedersen. "It’s of a very fine quality of craftmanship.

"It’s interesting," he continued. "Through these ship finds you can distinguish between different status levels, from ships of discount quality, to the Irish ship of standard quality, to the Roskilde ship of highest quality."

When it was made, King Olaf II (later known as Olaf the Saint) and Canute the Great, king of England and Denmark, were contesting the Norwegian throne. Roskilde 6 could have been built for either king.

"Ship finds," Crumlin-Pedersen added, "may lead you many places. I like to use the ship find as a lens through which to study the society. For years I’ve been in contact with sport divers, telling them the importance of protecting what’s lying on the seabed, trying to tell them that the great stories lie in the rotten timbers, not the gold coins."

Only 20 percent of Roskilde 6 is left--enough to make out its length and width (one tenth its length, of 3.7 meters). To preserve it took 15 years, according to the catalogue for the "Vikings!" exhibit at the National Museum of Denmark, "including 48 hours of vacuum freeze-drying in nine processes and more than 8,000 working hours in the conservation laboratory."

First the pieces were photographed and recorded, and all the parts numbered, while the "rotten timbers" lay on the harbor floor. Next the wreckage was transfered to water tanks at Roskilde and kept wet during cleaning "with water and paint brushes," to reveal traces of tool marks or carvings. Then it went to the National Museum's laboratories in Brede, north of Copenhagen, where the water in the wood was replaced with polyethylene glycol through the combination of freeze-drying and vacuum-processing.

Kristiane Straetkvern, who led the conservation team, writes, "The surviving parts of the wreck consisted of around 200 pieces and most of them were broken in many places. … The final part of the conservation process was to glue the broken pieces together." Then to design the support structure. "All the planks were provided with individual stainless steel supports. To ensure a safe move from one exhibition to the next, the timbers are packed in 35 boxes with individually designed crates."

The stand--looking like the silver skeleton of a Viking ship--snaps together like a children's toy. Says Tom Williams of the British Museum, "This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right."

In Copenhagen, Roskilde 6 filled the hall from end to end, with the rest of the "Vikings!" exhibition organized around it. A wall-sized screen projected a slow-moving fjord scene. Standing on the raised "dock" beside the ship, you watched the scenery pass as if you were rowing on the ship. A thunderstorm approached; lightning struck. I expected to see Vikings frantically bailing--but it wasn't that real.

In January, Roskilde 6 "sailed" again to London, where it is the centerpiece of the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition, running March 6 to June 22 at the British Museum. Photos courtesy of the British Museum, The National Museum of Denmark, and Kate Driscoll (of Crumlin-Pedersen).

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ragnar Lothbrok's Viking Style

Tomorrow the sexy Viking Ragnar Lothbrok returns to the TV screen in Season Two of the History Channel's series, "The Vikings." I hope he still has his fancy hairstyle.

At first it didn't say "Viking" to me. I wanted shaggy, "Thor"-style hair and a forked and braided beard. But as I've been rereading the historical texts from the Viking Age, as research for my next book The Ivory Vikings, I keep stumbling upon the sources the History Channel's writers must have used.

Ragnar Lothbrok's hairstyle seems to me to have been modeled on that of Sviatoslav, the prince of Kiev, whom the Byzantine historian Leo Diakonus met in about 950 on the banks of the Danube. As quoted by Robert Ferguson in The Vikings: A History (Viking Penguin, 2009):

"He manned the oars just as his followers did…. He was of medium height, neither too big nor too small. He had thick eyebrows, blue eyes, and a short nose. He was not bearded, but wore a long, drooping mustache."(Ragnar Lothbrok needs one of these.) "His head was shaven apart from a single lock of hair on one side of his head, this being a sign of his aristocratic status. His neck was thick, his shoulders broad, and all in all he looked quite magnificent. There was something wild and bleak about him."

That's the History Channel's Ragnar Lothbrok to a "T"--except for the mustache and the fact that Ragnar's single lock is down the back, not off to one side, and is braided, but those are minor points. He certainly is "wild and bleak" and "magnificent."

Leo Diakonis also says Sviatoslav wore a large earring in one ear: It was a gold hoop with three gems set into it, the middle one a red ruby. Perhaps Ragnar will acquire one on his next raid.

Other than this Byzantine description of a Viking on the "East Way" from Russia to Byzantium, we have few descriptions of Viking men's hairstyles. The 13th-century English chronicler John of Wallingford complained that Vikings were always combing their hair to look pretty to the women, and considering the number of combs archaeologists find in Viking settlements and graves, he was probably right. (Another reason to comb hair was to pick out the lice.)

A silk hairnet was found in Viking Dublin, but that probably belonged to a woman. Depictions on Viking artifacts show that both men and women favored long hair, according to the 1994 Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. Some men "wore theirs tightly rolled into a bun at the nape of the neck, others had their hair shaved, while the women sometimes arranged their long flowing locks in rather complicated styles knotted on the crown of the head."

There's a famous saga episode that centers around a man's "long flowing locks." As told by Snorri Sturluson in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (in Lee Hollander's translation), the famous Viking band that haunted the Baltic, the Jomsvikings, were defeated and captured. Thirty of them were forced to sit on a log, their feet tied to each other but their hands free. They are to be beheaded. Each Viking wants to die memorably.

"Then one of them said, 'Here I have a dagger in my hand, and I shall stick it in the ground if I am conscious when my head is chopped off.' He was beheaded, and the dagger dropped from his hand."

So much for experimental science in the Viking Age.

Snorri continues: "Next to him sat a handsome man with long and fine hair. He swept his hair forward over his head and stretched out his neck, saying, 'Don't sully my hair with blood.' A man took hold of his hair with a firm grip. Thorkel swung his axe, but the viking swiftly jerked his head back, so the man holding his hair was forced forward, and the axe fell on both hands, shearing them off so that the axe struck the ground.

"Then Earl Eirik came up and asked, 'Who is this handsome man?'
"'They call me Sigurth,' he said, 'and I am said to be the son of Bui. Not yet are all Jomsvikings dead.'

"Eirik said, 'You are truly likely to be the son of Bui. Would you have quarter?'

"'That depends on who offers it,' said Sigurth.

"'He offers,' said the earl, 'who has the authority to do so--Earl Eirik.'

"'Then I accept,' said he. Thereupon he was released from the rope."

Ah, for Viking braggadoccio.

Then there's the eye-makeup and the tattoos. All the Vikings in the History Channel's series seem to have tattoos, while some, like Floki and the seer are remarkable for their gobs of black eye-shadow. Both of these were singled out for attention by Arab travelers.

The Arabic sources on the Vikings are collected and translated in a handy volume by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness (Penguin, 2012). The 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who described the Viking funeral I wrote about two weeks ago [2-12], is our only source for the idea that Vikings liked tattoos. He met a party of Viking (or "Rus") traders by the Volga River and wrote, "From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth."

The eye-makeup comes from a different source. In 965, Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub traveled through northern Europe. He came to Schleswig--the Danish Hedeby--which he described as "a very large city on the coast of the ocean." It was "poor in grain and the climate was bad. The inhabitants mostly eat fish." Then he mentions the make-up: "Both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes." That pretty much leaves it up to interpretation how much make-up they used and where they applied it.

Floki's big black eyes might or might not be accurate, but it's certainly effective. He might not be "wild and bleak" and "magnificent," but in many ways he's my favorite character. I've always loved a trickster.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Earl

To get ready for Season Two of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD, as I mentioned in last week's post [here]. And I've been reminded of some of the things that bothered me.

I'm glad that Earl Haraldsson died--much as I like the actor Gabriel Byrne--because that name drove me nuts. Haraldsson? If you know anything about Old Norse, the Viking language, you know that "Haraldsson" literally means "Harald's son," and no self-respecting Viking chieftain is going to live his life in his father's shadow. For a while, I thought his first name was "Earl." Odd, but not impossible. (I know a horse named "Earl.") But no, "Earl" is a title, as we learned when Ragnar Lothbrok became earl.

Some people in the Icelandic sagas are referred to by their patronymics (or matronymics). There are the Hildaridarsons, for example, in Egil's Saga, named for their mother Hildirid. 

In the far north of Norway, we read in Chapter 7 of the Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, "there was a man called Bjorgolf, farming on Torg Island. He was a land-holder, rich and powerful, though he was a hill-giant on one side of his family, as you could tell from his size and strength. He had a son called Brynjolf, very much like his father."

One autumn, when Bjorgolf was getting on in years, he was invited to a feast. "As was the custom, lots were cast every evening to decide which pairs were to sit at the same drinking horn." A beautiful young girl named Hildirid was paired with the old half-troll. "They had plenty to talk about all evening and he thought her a fine-looking girl."

A few weeks later, Bjorgolf sets off in his Viking ship with a crew of 30. He walks up to Hildirid's house and announces to her father that "I'm taking your daughter back home with me and mean to tie a loose marriage-knot here and now." He pays the father an ounce of gold (a good bride-price: an ounce of gold is worth eight ounces of silver, and you could buy a slave girl for one ounce of silver) "and off they went to bed."

Hildirid soon has two sons--and then old Bjorgolf dies. "No sooner had he been carried to the grave, than Brynjolf"--Bjorgolf's older son--"told Hildirid to take her sons and clear out, so she wet back to her father on Leka Island, where her sons grew up." The boys got none of their father's inheritance (though their mother's father left them pretty well-off), and turned into spiteful, sly, manipulative sneakers generally referred to as that "pair of bastards" or "the Hildaridarsons." They didn't deserve names.

Soon the Hildaridarsons had wheedled their way into King Harald's confidence. They began slandering the great warrior Thorolf, son of Kveld-Ulf ("Evening-Wolf"--not only do we have hill-trolls in this saga, we have werewolves). The king had asked Thorolf to collect the tribute of furs that the Finns owed each year. It was a lucrative position, even if the tax-collector didn't skim off the best for himself, as the Hildaridarsons claimed Thorolf did.

"The King would never believe such a pack of lies," said Thorolf, when his friends told him of the slander. "There's not a scrap of evidence here that I'd betray him."

Yet King Harald did believe it. In Chapter 22, he sails north with 300 men in six ships. They catch Thorolf unaware in the middle of a feast, surround his great hall and set fire to it. The women and children, old people, slaves, and servants are allowed out. Thorolf and his warriors break down a wall and burst from the burning hall.

"Fighting broke out at once and for a time Thorolf and his men used the house to shield their backs, but as it blazed up the fire started threatening them and soon many had been killed. Thorolf ran forward towards the King's banner striking out to left and right.… Thorolf came right up to the thick wall of shields and ran the standard-bearer through with his sword.
"'I'm just three paces short,' Thorolf said.
"He had been pierced with spears and swords, but it was the King who gave him his death-wound and Thorolf dropped down at his feet."

When Kveld-Ulf heard the news he had only one question: Did his son die on his face or on his back? "Old men used to say that anyone who fell face down would be avenged, and that the retribution would come as close to the killer as the victim's fall was close to him."

And so the saga begins.

Back to the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings." Are we, as viewers, supposed to know all this? Are we supposed to know that someone referred to only by his mother's or father's name is a coward and a conniver? Does Earl Haraldsson--or his wife--ever refer to him by his real name? Or are we supposed to accept the idea that he thinks of himself as too poor an example of manhood to deserve a name? What were the writers thinking?

The Icelandic poem called Hávamál, or "Words of the High One," presents the closest thing we have to a Viking code. The most famous verse runs like this:

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
Every man must die.
But one thing only never dies:
A name with honor earned.

From what I saw of Gabriel Byrne's Earl Haraldsson, in Season One of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings," I think he earned a name. Shall we give him one?

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you want to learn what happened next in Egil's Saga, join me on the Song of the Vikings tour from, where we'll ride through the landscape of Part Two of the saga.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Funeral

Looking forward to Season Two of the History Channel's series, "Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD. One of the things I've enjoyed about this series is seeing how they've brought to life some of the most famous historical documents about the Vikings.

The funeral of Earl Haraldsson in Episode 6, "Burial of the Dead," with the Angel of Death strangling a slave girl to accompany her master on the burning ship to Valhalla, is a good example. It is closely based on the report of a 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.

On June 21, 921, Ibn Fadlan left Baghdad with a large caravan of camels. He was part of a delegation from the Caliph Al-Muqtadir to the Volga Bulghars, who lived thousands of miles north at the meeting of the Volga and Kama rivers in what is now Russia. The Bulghar king had asked the caliph to send him people to "acquaint him with the religious codes of Islam" and to construct a mosque. Ibn Fadlan went along in some official role--exactly what, we don't know.

The embassy was a failure--"the 'correction' of the Bulghar practice of Islam did not go over smoothly," writes Thorir Jonsson Hraundal, who wrote his 2013 Ph.D dissertation for the University of Bergen on "The Rus in Arabic Sources." (You can find it online here:

But that didn't stop Ibn Fadlan from writing wonderful traveler's tales, which you can read in the book Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness in translations by Paul Lund and Caroline Stone: "We saw a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us," Ibn Fadlan writes. His beard, after a bath, became a block of ice. His cheek at night froze to his pillow. "In this country, when a man wishes to make a nice gesture to a friend and show his generosity, he says: 'Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there.'"

For the history of the Vikings, the most important of Ibn Fadlan's tales are the ones about the "Rus," a people scholars have connected with Vikings from Scandinavia who traded and raided from what is now Russia (named for the "Rus") south to Baghdad.

In the 10th century, the Volga Bulghars, whom Ibn Fadlan visited, were one of four powers that controlled the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian. South of the Caucasus Mountains was the Islamic Empire. To the west was the Christian Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople. North of the mountains were the Khazars, whose king was Jewish, but whose people were of all faiths: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans of several varieties lived side-by-side, though some had to pay higher taxes than others. The Volga Bulghars were farther north--technically Muslim, but apparently not firm in the faith--and again, their culture accommodated many religions.

Ibn Fadlan's tale is the longest of 30 Arabic sources that mention the Rus--some just a sentence, others several pages long. The other main source on the Rus is the Russian Primary Chronicle, which describes the trade route from Russia to Constantinople and the founding of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Arab writers, says Hraundal, "provide us with a significantly different version of Rus, reporting them not only in a different geography to that of the Primary Chronicle, but also as having different social structures and roles in relationship with their neighbors. Importantly, too, these Rus seem to have no ambition either to found a state or to become Christian, two subjects that have especially occupied scholars of early Rus history."

The Rus the Arabs met were traders and raiders and mercenaries--and by the 10th century, they were well on their way to being integrated into the local cultures, which were Turkish and Altaic. Analyzing Ibn Fadlan's funeral scene, for example, Hraundal finds several similarities to the pagan rituals of the western Eurasian steppes, including the strangling of the slave girl. He concludes, "At the very least it seems that comparing various Turkic or Altaic elements cannot reasonably be deemed more implausible than doing so with the Scandinavian elements. On the whole, it is perhaps more prudent to assume that the ritual is attributable to the traditions and customs of not one culture, but two or several."

Judith Jesch in her classic book, Women in the Viking Age, Hraundal notes, "warns of generalising from Ibn Fadlan's account about practices elsewhere in the Viking world. Everywhere the Scandinavians went, she maintains, 'they developed new ways of living which owed something both to the culture of the immigrant Vikings and to that of the country in which they found themselves, so that no two areas colonised by Scandinavians were alike.'" The people Ibn Fadlan meant "are likely to have been a select band of merchant-warriors," Jesch adds, "who, like other touring professionals, may not have behaved the same way when abroad as they did at home."

Which brings us back to the History Channel's "Vikings." The funeral in "The Burial of the Dead" is closely based on a historical document, but it's not exactly a "Viking" funeral from around 800, the era in which the TV series is set. It's a "Rus" funeral from 921--and no one knows how a chieftain's funeral in Scandinavia a hundred and some years earlier might have been different.

Snorri Sturluson, writing in about 1220, does say that the god Baldur was burned in his ship. Snorri also tells us that Baldur's wife, Nanna, was burned along with her husband--though she wasn't strangled. Instead, her death was an accident: She died of grief when she saw his dead body. What does this tell us about Viking funerals? Alas, nothing. Snorri was writing 400 years later than the era in which the History Channel series is set, and his Edda cannot in any way be considered "history." (I discuss Snorri's myth of Baldur's Death in my book, Song of the Vikings, as well as on this blog, in the series "Seven Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri.")

Archaeological research tells us a little more. We've found Viking graves with the remains of burned ships--a famous one is at Île de Groix in France. But we've also found Viking graves from around 800 in which chieftains were buried inside their ships, not burned with them--most famously, the Gokstad burial.

Recent studies of rich Viking graves containing two bodies have confirmed that one of the dead ate less well than the other, meaning that one body could have been a chieftain and the other a slave. But these slaves who accompanied their masters in death were not strangled: They were beheaded. [For more on this research, see]

To create a dramatic TV series about the Vikings, the writers for the History Channel have to walk a fine line between making use of the historical sources we have and filling in the gaps with their own imaginations. In this case, I think they've done an excellent job bringing Ibn Fadlan's account to life. But viewers need to keep in mind that Ibn Fadlan's account was just one report from one place (Russia) in one time (921) and not really applicable to the lives of people a hundred years earlier and many thousands of miles away. Not to mention that Ibn Fadlan, like all travelers, was prone to exaggerating. Did his cheek really freeze to the pillow?

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer (and acquire a few travelers' tales of your own), check out the tours at