Monday, March 25, 2013

Valkyrie or Shield-Maiden?

Last December, a man named Morten Skovsby found a small face peering up at him from a lump of frozen dirt. He'd been working with a group of amateur archaeologists using a metal detector near the village of Hårby in Denmark. His find, cleaned up, was an intricately detailed amulet made of gilded silver, about an inch tall, in the shape of a beautiful woman with long hair twisted into a ponytail. She carried a sword and shield.

She was immediately dubbed a "valkyrie." Why?

Because Snorri Sturluson, writing between 1220 and 1241, described valkyries as semi-goddesses with shield and sword (or spear) who accompanied dead heroes to Odin's feast-hall,Valhalla, and there served them mead.

In Heimskringla, Snorri quoted a poem by Eyvind Skald-spoiler (his nickname might mean "plagiarist") about the death of King Hakon the Good in 960. Although Hakon was a Christian king, the poet pictures him, not meeting St Peter at the Pearly Gates, but being carried off by valkyries to Valhalla. In Erling Monsen's translation, it reads:

Gauta-Tyr sent the Valkyries / Gondul and Skogul / To choose amonst the kings / Which of Yngvi’s race / Should go to Odin / And be in Valhalla …
Gondul said / As she took a spear shaft, / “The Aesir’s following grows, / When Hakon the High / Goes with so great an army / To the burg of the gods.”
The king heard / What the battlemaids said, / Those quick horsewomen, / They were ready to strike, / As they sat helmeted, / With shields by their side….
Said the rich Skogul, / “Gondul and I shall ride / To the gods’ green home / To tell Odin / That quickly the prince / Comes himself to see him.”
“Hermod and Bragi,” / Said the war father Odin, / “Go forth to meet Hakon, / For that warrior king / Is called hither to the hall.”…

Note that Eyvind doesn't call these battlemaids beautiful. Snorri doesn't either, in so many words. But by making being served mead by a valkyrie one of the perks of dying in battle, as Snorri does when describing Valhalla in his Edda, he makes it pretty easy for later readers to make that assumption. 

It's not the only possibility. Eyvind, in fact, is in the minority when he makes the valkyries dignified horsewomen.

Poems and sagas written before--and after--Snorri's time describe the valkyries as monsters. They are troll women of gigantic size who ride wolves and pour troughs of blood over a battlefield. They row a boat through the sky, trailing a rain of blood. They are known by their “evil smell.” 

In the part of Sturlunga Saga written by Snorri's nephew Saga-Sturla in the 1270s, and in which Snorri plays a major role, we learn of the dream of a man named Haflidi Hoskuldsson. According to Julia McGrew's translation: 

"In the winter after Christmas he dreamed … he was in Fagraskogar and seemed to be looking up along Hitardal, where he saw a group of men riding down from inland. A woman rode at the head of their company, large and evil-looking, in her hand a cloth which hung down in tatters and dripped blood. Another group was coming against them from Svarfhol; they met one another west of Hraun, and fought. The woman then brandished the cloth over each man’s head, and when the ragged ends touched a man’s neck she jerked off his head. She said:

I move with bloody cloth, 
I strike men into fire, 
I laugh when I see them go 
To that loathly place I know."

Snorri didn’t care for that kind of monstrous valkyrie. I think it's a reflection of the popularity of his works--over those of his nephew, among others--that the image of the valkyrie we hold in our heads today so closely matches that of the little gilded silver amulet  Morten Skovsky found in Hårby last December.

But there's another assumption we make when calling this amulet a valkyrie. Valkyries, all the poets and saga-writers agree, are not human. They are semi-goddesses--or trolls--but not real women. Why could this little amulet not depict a real woman? A true shield-maiden? 

There are examples of women warriors in the sagas, too. The most famous is Hervor who, in an extremely spooky poem known as "The Waking of Angantyr," travels to the isle of Samsey to conjure her dead father up from his grave and get his sword, Tyrfing, which was made by the dwarfs. In Patricia Terry's translation, it says:

Now she saw the fire from the grave mounds and the living dead standing outside. She went toward then and was not frightened, passing through the fire as if it were smoke until she came to the berserks' graves. Then she said: … "May you writhe within your ribs, your barrow an anthill where you rot, unless you let me wield Dvalin's weapon--why should dead hands hold that sword?"

Replies her father,
"You are not at all like other people if you go to grave-mounds at night, helmed, in ring-mail, spear in hand, to stand here, warlike, and wake us in our halls."

Says Hervor, 
"Men always thought me human enough before I set out to seek you here."

Before this amulet was found at Hårby, as Christopher Abram points out in his 2011 book, Myths of the Pagan North, other images have been labeled "valkyries." Writes Abram, "there has been a tendency to identify any female figure on an artefact found in a grave as a valkyrie: it is supposed that these objects were supposed to symbolize the dead person’s passage to Valhalla, or helped ensure it. Yet these so-called valkyries are most often found in women’s graves—the graves of people who would not go to Valhalla, which was reserved for the bravest and mightiest of (male) fighters. These female figures are sometimes depicted holding a cup. From the myths we know that one of the roles played by the valkyries was to serve mead or beer in Valhalla; but high-status women were also expected to honor their guests with drink here on earth. This depiction could, in other words, relate to a perfectly ordinary aspect of a woman’s life, rather than to the hyper-masculine cult of Odin."

Could it not also be true that carrying a sword and shield was "a perfectly ordinary aspect of a woman's life" in the Viking Age, and we've just been too biased against the idea of real women warriors to accept it? 

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Thin Place in Iceland

“For me Iceland is holy earth. This memory is background for everything I do. Iceland is the sun which colours the mountains without being there and gone over the horizon.”

In 1937, the American poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice went to Iceland. They wrote about it in Letters from Iceland, a collection of poems, prose, photographs, charts, graphs, you name it. Auden also took time to chat with Matthias Johannessen and provided the Icelandic poet and newspaper editor with those three sentences, sentences that have echoed in my head ever since I read them in the magazine Iceland Review in 1987, the year after my first visit to Iceland.

In a March 2012 essay in the Sunday New York Times that I clipped out and saved, writer Eric Weiner evokes “thin places”—“places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again…. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.”

It's obviously a hard topic to put into words, but I think I know what Weiner is getting at. He traces the phrase “thin places” to Celtic Christianity. George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community on the Scottish island of that name, is generally credited with bringing the concept into modern times—to the extent that you can now take “thin places tours” to catch glimpses of a divine that is decidedly Christian. (See the blog “Thin Places” at

I’m more interested in “the Infinite Whatever.” I catch glimpses of it regularly in Iceland, most often beside the hill named Helgafell, or Holy Mountain, by the first settler on the peninsula. According to the medieval Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga, “Thorolf gave the name Thor’s Ness to the region between Vigra Fjord and Hofsvag. On this headland there is a mountain held so sacred by Thorolf that no-one was allowed even to look at it without first having washed himself, and no living creatures on this mountain, neither man or beasts, were to be harmed unless they left it of their own accord. Thorolf called that mountain Helga Fell and believed that he and his kinsmen would go into it when they died.”

The first time I went to Iceland, in 1986, I went to see Helgafell. I was drawn to it, like many visitors, by the sagas. And I have gone back to Helgafell every time I’ve been in Iceland since. I’ve met four generations of the family who farms beneath the hill. I’ve grieved with them over deaths and rejoiced over births. I’ve written them numerous letters, never receiving a reply until Facebook was invented. Now we’re in touch nearly every day.

Helgafell is to me, as Iceland was to Auden, “holy earth.” In Weiner’s term, it is my “thin place.”

I recently stumbled upon a 2010 paper in the online academic journal Limina that helped me understand just why it is so. The author, Carol Hoggart, a saga scholar and (if I can trust Google) a Romance writer, discourses on “three ways in which the family sagas inscribed cognitive maps over Iceland.” (You can find her paper, "A Layered Landscape," at Hoggart takes as her starting point, she says, “a notion that humans cannot understand their environment until it is cast in human terms.” The sagas, she continues, “portray a gradual filling up of landscape with human meaning” and “saga and land act to magnify each other’s impact.”

She seems a little dismissive of the idea, pointing out that, “So convincing has this process been that people still look to find a medieval saga-landscape in modern Iceland, despite evidence in the Íslendingasögur [the medieval texts] themselves of change since the tenth century.” Some farmsteads, she notes, were given new names even in saga times.

I think she’s missed the point—though she makes it herself when she adds, again a little dismissively, “The terrain is seen positively to glow with an identity sourced from medieval texts.”

It does. I’ve seen Helgafell glow. It glows with the long, slanting, midnight sun, of course. But it also glows with meaning. Helgafell is a thin place to me not because the first settler, Thorolf, saw its immanent holiness, as Hoggart puts it. Helgafell is a thin place to me because it connects me to an otherworld of story.

Stories from the tenth century drew me there: the time the north side of Helgafell opened up like doors, and the shepherd saw the god Thor feasting inside the hill. The time when 14-year-old Snorri tricked his uncle into selling him the farm cheap. When the same Snorri traded the farm to Gudrun the Fair to make peace. When Gudrun saw the ghost of her drowned husband in front of the church, or when she dug up the sorceress’s grave.

But stories from the last thirty years keep me coming back: the time we sat around the coffee table telling stories from the sagas. The time we went to Flatey together. When we put up the hay, went horseback riding, gathered eiderdown, found the raven’s nest. The time I came back from a walk with my pockets filled with sparkling stones and my hair braided with seagull and raven feathers. The time I wrote a story about it.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. For the details on how to enter, click here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Choosing a Pope in the Viking Age

As ABC News reported, "The Italian media is portraying the Vatican political culture as being equally depraved, drenched in ambition, wine and pheromones [as Italian president Sylvio Berlusconi's reelection campaign]. … The Rome papers are full of reports that sound like the plot of Dan Brown novel, starting with a shadowy Vatican dossier supposedly detailing a gay sex and blackmail scandal involving the curia."

All I can say is that it was worse a thousand years ago. Much worse. I wrote The Abacus and the Cross because I wanted to know what popes were like in the Viking Age, especially around the year 1000. What I learned surprised me. In addition to all the positive things I chronicle in the book, I found enough depravity, ambition, and pheromones circling around the representative of Saint Peter to support the Italian media's current view. I also found astonishing brutality, and violence equal to anything the Vikings are said to have done.

Tenth-century popes were not the powerful religious leaders of today. They were political pawns, not elected (there was no college of cardinals in those days) so much as backed by the biggest army. For much of the century the papacy was influenced by the mercurial Roman noblewoman Marozia. She was mistress of Pope Sergius III (904-11), murderer of John X (914-28), and mother of John XI (931-35).

Her grandson, John XII (955-63), was both pope and Prince of Rome until he double-crossed Otto I, whom he had just crowned Emperor. At a synod in Rome, John XII was accused of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest, and deposed. He excommunicated the members of the synod, and when he caught three of them, he flogged one, cut off another’s right hand and the third’s nose and ears. Otto I's army marched on Rome, but before they arrived John was “stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery” and died.

Otto’s candidate to be the next pope, Leo, wasn’t even a priest. The Romans chose Benedict, a deacon, who was well qualified. He was “attacked by Leo, aided by the emperor,” a contemporary wrote. “Besieged, made prisoner, and deposed, he was sent in exile to Germany,” and Otto appointed John XIII, a bishop and, incidentally, Marozia’s nephew. He was captured by a rival faction, but escaped. The emperor hanged the conspirators, and John XIII went on to have a successful papacy and a natural death.

His successor, chosen by Emperor Otto II, was strangled by supporters of his rival, Boniface VII. When Otto invaded the city, Boniface fled (first robbing the Vatican treasury), and Otto oversaw the appointment of John XIV. He lasted only until Emperor Otto II died in 983. Then Boniface returned from exile and and threw John XIV into the Castel Sant’Angelo where, according to one report, he starved to death. When Boniface VII himself died a year later, his body was dragged through the streets of Rome by a mob.

The nobles of Rome replaced him with a Roman nobleman. This John XV reigned 11 years by carefully balancing the desires of Crescentius of the Marble Horse, Prince of Rome, with those of the empresses Theophanu and Adelaide, then regents for the child-emperor Otto III.

John XV died suddenly (though naturally) while the teenaged Otto III was on his way to Rome to be crowned Emperor. Otto quickly nominated his cousin to become Gregory V in 996. Four months after Otto III took his army back to Germany, Gregory was chased out of Rome by a mob.

The antipope who replaced him was John Philagathos, abbot of Nonantola, archbishop of Piacenza, and chancellor of Italy.

Philagathos’s fate was the one that made me wonder why the Vikings got the reputation for being bloody barbarians. They were no bloodier or brutal than their peers in Rome or throughout the Holy Roman Empire in those days.

Philagathos had joined the imperial court before Otto’s birth. Some sources say he was Otto’s godfather, others that he tutored the boy in Greek. In 994, Otto sent him to Constantinople to find him a royal Byzantine bride, and so he was not at hand in 996 when John XV died and Otto appointed his cousin as pope.

Returning less than a year later, Philagathos felt unjustly overlooked. His traveling companion, Leo of Synada, whom the Byzantine emperor had sent to continue the marriage negotiations, agreed. Meeting in Rome with Crescentius of the Marble Horse, the two ambassadors urged him to appoint a new pope. So he did. Gregory was chased out of town in September 996. Philagathos was acclaimed John XVI by the citizens and senate of Rome  and anointed in February 997. He would last until Otto III arrived.

The emperor's army, led by Gregory V’s father, cowed Rome into surrender after one skirmish. Philagathos fled. Crescentius walled himself up in the Castel Sant’Angelo and held out for two months, until Otto’s siege engines broke through. Crescentius was beheaded and hanged by the feet from the castle walls alongside twelve of his companions.

Philagathos was captured by Berthold, count of Breisgau. “Fearing that if they sent him to the emperor, he might depart unpunished,” say the Annals of Quedlinburg, Gregory V’s German partisans took matters into their own hands. 

Leo of Synada gleefully tells the story: “Now you are going to laugh, a big, broad laugh, my dear heart and soul,” he begins. Philagathos, whom Leo clearly never liked, has fallen:

And why shouldn’t I tell you, brother, openly how he fell? Well, first, the Church of the West dealt him anathema; then his eyes were gouged out; third, his nose, and fourth, his lip, and fifth, that tongue of his which prattled so many and such unspeakable words, one by one, were all cut from his face. Item six: He rode like a conqueror in procession, grave and solemn on a miserable little donkey, hanging on to its tail.… Finally, for his refreshment, they threw him into prison.

I think of this every time someone says the Vikings were brutal.

Pope Gregory V was reinstated, but died of malaria in 999, at the age of 28. Then Emperor Otto III nominated as pope his own tutor, the leading mathematician and astronomer of his age, Gerbert of Aurillac, subject of my book The Abacus and the Cross.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. Details are in last week's post or click here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The History Channel "Vikings"

Did you see episode 1 of "The Vikings" on the History Channel last Sunday? If I had a TV I would have watched it--I've been besotted with Vikings since at least 1984, when I stood in awe of the Gokstad ship (at left). But what I read in the February 24 New York Times about the TV program made me wonder, How much of the History Channel's "Vikings" will be true to history?

"For the elaborate History project," wrote the Times reporter, script-writer Michael Hirst "immersed himself in what had been written about Viking culture--basically documentation by outside observers since theirs was an illiterate society. He found the material limited and biased. 'They're always the guys who break in through the door, slash up your house and rape and pillage for no good reason, except that they enjoy the violence,' he said. 'I wanted to tell the story from the Vikings' point of view, because their history was written by Christian monks, basically, whose job it was to exaggerate their violence.'"

Continued the Times reporter, "Despite History's mantle of preserving and purveying an accurate picture of the past, hewing to the letter of historical accuracy wasn't possible in the case of a dramatic series based on fragmented documentation, hence a large degree of dramatic license was employed. 'I especially had to take liberties with "Vikings" because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages,' Mr. Hirst said. 'Very little was written then.'"

Sigh. What Hirst said is literally true: "Very little was written then," and all of it by the Vikings' enemies. Nothing that I know of was written down in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, roughly 793 to 1066. As I argue in Song of the Vikings, the sagas that have done the most to establish our current image of the Vikings were written in the early 1200s by the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson: Egil's Saga and the kings' sagas in Heimskringla. 

I argue, as well, that Snorri was a creative artist, not what we'd think of as a historian. He made things up. Most modern readers recognize that when the great Viking warrior Egil Skallagrimsson says, "I'll give it a try, if you like, but I never expected to make a praise-song for King Eirik," the quote was made up. Egil died nearly 200 years before Snorri was born. No one in York, England in 948 had a voice recorder. There was no one taking dictation. Egil didn't write any letters home.

And yet, Egil (at left) did make that praise-song. It was memorized and passed down through the generations, only becoming "written" when it appeared in a manuscript of Egil's Saga. The same is true of Egil's response, when the king accepted the poem as a suitable apology for Egil's crimes and rewarded him with the gift of his own ugly head:

Ugly as I, Egil, am
I'm not in the way
Of refusing from a ruler
My rock-helm of a head:
Was there ever an enemy
Won such an elegant
Gift from a great-hearted
Gallant like Eirik?

"Very little was written then" in the Viking Age, but much was composed. As I've mentioned here before [link], we know the names of dozens of Viking poets, or skalds. We can read (or, at least, experts can) hundreds of their verses. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking age, what they loved, what they despised. 

Snorri Sturluson depended on the words of the skalds to write his sagas. Few poems had been written down before his lifetime, so Snorri learned them the way skalds had for hundreds of years, by ear. He loved poetry and memorized a great deal of it. Egil's Saga contains three major poems, like "Head Ransom," and many minor ones. Heimskringla, Snorri's history of the kings of Norway, includes nearly 600 poems. In his Edda, which is about the art of poetry, Snorri quotes 373 verses by more than 60 poets--nor is that all the poetry Snorri knew: in the Edda, he quotes only single lines or half-stanzas, not whole poems. 

Snorri himself discussed the relationship between poetry and history in the beginning of Heimskringla. Poems are more trustworthy than prose, he argued, if “correctly composed and judiciously interpreted.” The intricate rules of skaldic poems make them easy to memorize--change a word and the poem simply won’t work. (The rules also make skaldic poems impossible to translate well.) As Snorri wrote, “The words which stand in verse are the same as they were originally, if the verse is composed correctly, even though they have passed from man to man.” For this reason they were considered trustworthy historical sources even if hundreds of years old.

Often the poets were eyewitnesses to events. King Harald Fairhair, who united Norway and prompted the settlement of Iceland in the late 800s, for example, kept several poets at court. More than 300 years later, Snorri noted, “Men still remember their poems and the poems about all the kings who have since his time ruled in Norway.” 

King Olaf the Saint (in the illumination at left) made sure the three poets in his retinue were safe behind the shield wall at his last battle in 1030, so they could record his courageous death-scene for posterity. (In spite of his efforts, all three died; the poet who composed Olaf's elegy was in Rome when the battle was fought.)

To write his kings’ sagas, Snorri said, he sought out poems that were recited before the kings themselves or their sons, even though he was well aware that court poetry was propaganda. Poets always “give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are,” Snorri admitted. “But no one would have dared to tell them to their faces,” he argued, “about deeds which all who listened, as well as the prince himself, knew were only falsehoods and fabrications.” That, he said, would be mockery, not praise. 

With a budget "reported at $40 million" for the History Channel series, you'd think Michael Hirst might have stumbled upon the works of Snorri Sturluson and, through him, the poetry of the Viking skalds. It's not "documentation." But through skaldic poems, we can still hear the voice of the Vikings. We can get inside their heads and shed a little light on those Dark Ages. We don't have to make it all up.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. Details are in last week's post or click here.