Thursday, July 4, 2019

Looking for Walrus in Iceland's Westfjords

The last time I drove through Iceland's mountainous West Fjords, I had a friend with me, an herbalist whom my Icelandic hosts gleefully referred to as my personal witch, and she'd brought a bottle of Rescue Remedy.

I needed it.

The roads were narrow and precipitous, and the view from the cliffs' edge down, down, down to the sparkling sea was mesmerizing, as if inviting me to soar and assuring me my rental car was capable of it. Swoop--the road rose and banked left, leaving a view of only sky, and I, well, I could keep going straight, couldn't I? And fly? I began to hyperventilate.

My fear of heights is not a fear of falling so much as the desire to fly.

Jenny, spying one of the rare pullouts on this route, urged me to stop and squeezed an eye-dropperful of Rescue Remedy onto my tongue. Whether the herb-and-alcohol mixture worked I can't say. But stopping, stretching, having a snack--these brought me back to sense. I handed her the keys. Jenny had not driven a stick for 20 years, but she agreed it was safer than letting me continue. We made it to our destination--the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft--and I promptly forgot my crisis on the cliff.

Six years and several trips to Iceland later, when I heard that a walrus had been spotted in the West Fjords, I didn't hesitate. I was researching the importance of walrus ivory in the Viking Age for my book about the Lewis chessmen, Ivory VikingsI rented a Yaris and drove off to see it--or at least the bay it was sporting in, named "Bay of the Walrus Breeding Grounds."

Walruses are rare visitors to Iceland today, but these elephantine relatives of seals may have been what drew the first Viking settlers to this inhospitable island in the 9th century. Walrus ivory was the Vikings' gold. Light and long-lasting, walrus tusks made the perfect cargo for a Viking ship. Viking raids were bankrolled with walrus ivory. Viking trade routes were built on them.

The medieval Icelandic sagas, written some 300 years after the settlement of the country, say the founding fathers were fleeing tyranny, that they refused to kowtow to King Harald of Norway.

But ancient names of Icelandic headlands, islands, beaches, and bays refer to walrus. Tusks and bones—of adults and neonates—have been found at archaeological sites dating to Iceland's first settlement, in about AD 871.

After a hundred-some years, Iceland's walrus were extinct. The Viking hunters found new sources in Greenland's far north. By the Saga Age, a walrus in Iceland was an oddity. Only one saga tells of a walrus hunt, a flotilla of boats pursuing one lone beast on the south side of the peninsula for which I was heading.

On the ferry to the West Fjords I bumped into a friend. That "Bay of the Walrus Breeding Grounds" lay on the north side of a high, sheer cliff famous for its colonies of seabirds. At least one tourist has plunged to his death trying to photograph a cute puffin, Gugga reminded me. She, being afraid of heights, did not enjoy her visit.

Another tourist attraction was nearby: the Red Sands, a long golden beach that looked perfect (from the pictures I'd seen) for walruses to breed and bask on.

What kind of car are you driving? Gugga asked. A Yaris? You won’t make it. The road is very steep, and there's a hairpin turn, and, well, if you don't meet any other cars you might be okay on the way down, but your engine isn't big enough to make it back up.

I'd booked an expensive room in a secluded hotel in a broad bay just to the north. It had a red sand beach as well. I revised my itinerary.

But not, as it happened, enough.

The roads were washboard gravel. No shoulders or break-down lanes. Guard rails were rare, as were lane markings--which was just as well, since these roads would be classified as single-track anywhere else in the developed world. It was a beautiful, sunny, windless day (it could have been much worse) and I was hyperventilating as the road swooped and soared and clung to the cliff edge. I stopped at every pull-out or picnic table I saw (at one stop I saw 14 camper vans in a caravan going the other way; thank heavens I was not sharing the road with them!), but there was no one to take the keys.

And no Rescue Remedy.

I began singing. "Hear me, smith of Heaven," goes a famous Icelandic hymn, "your poet begs for mercy." Ave Maria, gracia plena. "She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes." I ran through my entire repertoire. At least it kept me breathing. I made it to the hotel, sank onto a soft bed with a view of the blissfully empty golden sand beach, and took the next 24 hours to recuperate.

I’d drive to the "Bay of the Walrus Breeding Grounds" before I turned for home, I told myself. It was less than 10 kilometers up the road.

That morning when I pulled back the drapes I saw a bank of fog rolling at freight-train speed across the gray ocean and rushing up the bluff. As I watched it blotted out the headland. I began to panic. The first mountain pass on my way home was the worse. So narrow it had designated passing spots--the edges of which were crumbling down the cliffside.

I drove as fast as I could, but failed to beat the fog. At the pass, sky and road were a uniform gray. I inched down the road, sweating, heart pounding, singing my lungs out. And Mary or Heaven’s maker or maybe the six white horses heard, and I met no other cars. I made it down and out of the fog.

I did not see a walrus in the West Fjords. I did not see the beaches they basked or bred on. And I am not driving back.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Iceland and the Vikings

Each year I lead a week-long tour to West Iceland called "Sagas & Vikings." So I took it personally when an article on Iceland Monitor, the English language website of Iceland's newspaper Morgunblaðið, called it "exaggerated or distorted" to speak about Vikings in Iceland.

I disagree. Iceland, to me, is the best place in the world to learn about Vikings. I've been going there for the past 30 years for that very purpose.

What does "Viking" mean? "Raider" or "plunderer" are medieval synonyms for Viking; some translators use the term "pirate," which tends to make my head spin. (Think Captain Hook, eye-patch, aargh.)

But I use "Viking," like many other modern scholars, to describe any Norse-speaker during the Viking Age, which is traditionally dated from 783 to 1066.

And raiding was not the sole defining characteristic of the age: Exploration was just as significant.

I feel quite justified, for instance, in calling my book about the Norse explorations of North America The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. In fact, one of my goals in that book was to redefine the word "Viking" to include the role of women.

Few people have trouble imagining Leif Eiriksson, who discovered America in around the year 1000, as a Viking. Every representation of him that I have ever seen includes a spear or large axe--like this one in front of Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. But why does Leif get all the credit? After his first sight of the New World, he never went back Gudrid, Leif's sister-in-law, was the real explorer. She tried to settle there twice, with two different husbands. If you want to learn about Viking explorers, put Gudrid the Far-Traveler at the top of your list.

Gudrid's voyages appear in two of the medieval Icelandic sagas, written a hundred or more years after her death. The article in Iceland Monitor suggests the importance of the Icelandic sagas is "exaggerated or distorted" too, and again, I disagree. As I point out in Ivory Vikings, more medieval literature exists in Icelandic than in any other European language except Latin.

If you want to learn about Vikings and the Viking Age, medieval Icelandic literature is your best--and often your only--source. Without the works of Snorri Sturluson alone, as I wrote in Song of the Vikings, we would know next to nothing about Viking Age culture.

Because of Snorri’s Edda, tiny Iceland has had an enormous impact on our modern world. All the stories we know of the Vikings’ pagan religion, the Norse myths of Valhalla and the valkyries, of one-eyed Odin and the well of wisdom, of red-bearded Thor and his hammer of might, of two-faced Loki and the death of beautiful Baldur, of lovesick Freyr and lovely Freyja, the rainbow bridge, the great ash tree Yggdrasil, the world-wrapping Midgard Serpent, Heimdall’s horn, the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, Ragnarok or the Twilight of the Gods…

All the stories we know of the gods whom we still honor with the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—for all of these stories Snorri is our main, and sometimes our only, source.

Snorri wrote his Edda originally to teach the young King Hakon (here on the left) the ins and outs of Viking poetry. For the Vikings were not only fierce warriors, they were very subtle artists. Because of the work of Snorri and his followers, we know the names of over 200 Viking skálds. We can read hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill 1,000 two-column pages. 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.

We also know the history of Scandinavia in the Viking Age almost entirely through Snorri. His second book, Heimskringla, is a set of sixteen sagas about Norse kings and earls, both pagan and Christian, from the ancient days of Odin the Wizard-King through King Magnus, who was deposed in 1177, the year before Snorri’s birth. Through his vivid portraits of kings and sea-kings, raiders and traders in these sagas, Snorri created the Viking image so prevalent today.

In his third book, Egil’s Saga, Snorri expanded the archetype, creating the two competing heroic types who would give Norse culture its lasting appeal. The perfect Viking is tall, blond, and blue-eyed, a stellar athlete, a courageous fighter, an independent, honorable man who laughs in the face of danger, dying with a poem or quip on his lips. He is like Egil’s brother and uncle in this saga. Or he is like Egil, his father, and his grandfather: dark and ugly, a werewolf, a wizard, a poet, a crafty schemer who knows every promise is contingent—in fact, somewhat like Snorri himself, as he is portrayed in a saga written by his nephew.

On my "Sagas & Vikings" tour, we visit many of the places Snorri lived and wrote about, as well as the site of Gudrid's birth. We discuss the two competing stories of Iceland's settlement by Vikings--explorers and raiders both--and learn how they negotiated a society with no king. We see saga manuscripts and archaeological sites and talk about what that word "Viking" really means in the landscape that inspired our best--and often only--descriptions of Viking life. I hope you'll join me.

For more information on this year's "Sagas & Vikings" tour, see The tour is limited to 12 people. Horseback riding is optional.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Stern High World

"Icelandic studies may be more than a mere cultural discipline; they may contribute to the positive exaltation of those who pass through them into that stern high world where our forefathers lived and died with fearless eyes and undefeated hearts." – Watson Kirkconnell, OC FRSC (1895–1977)

When the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper Lögberg-Heimskringla sent that snippet of wisdom out over its Facebook page last November, it struck a chord--though one with a bit of dissonance.

I do rather like the idea that my many years of studying Icelandic sagas have resulted in my "positive exaltation," and I think I know what Kirkconnell means by "that stern high world."

It's rather like what J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis characterized by the term "Northernness." As I wrote in Song of the Vikings, these writers of high fantasy were not only drawn to the Norse mythology's dragons and dwarves, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone, but to their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of Right and Good even when there was no hope at all.

According to Tolkien, this theory of courage was "the great contribution of early Northern literature." It is a "creed of unyielding will," the heroes refusing to give up even when they know the monsters will win.

For that is the big difference between the Norse Ragnarok and the Christian Doomsday. Odin and the human army of Valhalla do not win. They have no hope of winning. They are doomed and they know it.

There's a "shadow of despair" about these heroes, Tolkien noted, an "intense emotion of regret" as in his own fantasy world. For even if Middle-earth is saved from the evil forces of Sauron, the elves must leave; magic will dwindle. Still men and elves, dwarves, wizards, and hobbits fight and die for the Good and the Right.

But there's a big gap--a Ginnungagap--between Kirkconnell's "fearless eyes and undefeated hearts" and Tolkien's despair and regret.

In the introduction to his new translation of the poems of the Poetic Edda (Hackett Publishing, 2015), Jackson Crawford attempts to bridge that gap, pointing out that many of these heroic and mythological poems allude to "the belief that each person has an inevitable, fixed date of death, decided by the shadowy goddesses of fate called the Norns."

Sigurd is not afraid of fighting the dragon Fafnir because nothing he can do (or not do) will change the date of his death. If he kills the dragon, it was fated to be so. If the dragon kills him, ditto. All he can do is "manage his own wealth / till his fated death-day"--with all the good things in life wrapped up in that one word "wealth."

Likewise Sorli can shrug off losing the battle by saying, "But we fought well, /... We earned honor here, / though we are fated to die today-- / a man will not live one day longer / than the Norns have decided."

Writes Crawford, "The characters in these myths are marching toward their doom, unable to change course or to step off their predetermined path even if they fight it the entire way." But are they hopeless? despairing? We, the readers of these myths, may despair for them, but "the gods and heroes alike are actively engaged in courageously combating the inevitable," Crawford writes. "This code of boldness and the defiance of fate must have stirred something in the Norse audience in their barren farmsteads ... just as it may stir a modern audience faced with the seemingly hopeless circumstances of life in the crowded, postindustrial world of today."

We may no longer believe in the Norns, but it's still true that each one of us is fated to die. It does no good to live in fear of it. Why not instead spend our days earning honor? Our methods may be a little different than Sorli's or Sigurd's or Frodo's, but it's still a stern high world out there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Can you camp in a church in Iceland?

 "Locals in Reykhólar village baffled to discover travellers think they can camp out inside the church," I read on the other day.

Quoting the Icelandic news site, the magazine reported, "A Canadian couple was thrown out of a church in the village of Reykhólar in the Southern Westfjords, West Iceland on Friday morning when a local resident discovered the travellers had camped out inside the church overnight. This is not the first time foreign travellers have camped out inside the church, spending the night and even cooking their dinner inside the old wooden building. Locals are baffled by this inexplicable behaviour," and have decided they will have to keep the church doors locked from now on, "a step the community finds regrettable, since the church is the centre of the small village. 'It's ridiculous that you have to formally ban things which any sensible person should realize you cannot do,'" said one resident.

But is it ridiculous? Is camping in a church in Iceland baffling and inexplicable behavior?

There's been lots in the news in the last two years about Iceland's tidal wave of tourism--and the country's inability to provide the basic services these tourists require. This year Iceland's 330,000 residents are expecting over 1.5 million visitors.

They're not all happy about it. Learning that I am leading guided tours for the company America2Iceland, one of my longtime friends admonished me over Facebook, "Please don't bring more people over here, Nancy!!!"

There's a shortage of hotel rooms. There's a shortage of parking. There's a shortage of public toilets--and stories of mothers letting their toddlers defecate on the city streets, of travelers pissing on the graves of famous poets.

Friends of mine who own a farm on which there is a historical landmark must put up with a constant stream of foot traffic past their porch, in spite of the new path that routes the crowds away from the house, or the signs that clearly mark out what is private and what parts of the farm may be publicly enjoyed.

Iceland's sudden popularity as a tourist destination is changing the country. Granted, tourist dollars revived the country's economy after the crash of 2008, but traveling there now is not the same otherworldly experience it was when I first went in 1986.

But should camping in churches be included in the long list of negatives that modern tourism has inflicted on Iceland?

No. It's an idea with a long history--one the Icelanders themselves seem to have thought of.

The Canadian couple who were ousted from Reykhólar church may have simply been more aware of the history of tourism in Iceland than are the town residents.

Read almost any book by an 18th- or 19th-century traveler to Iceland--and most of them are available free online--and you will hear about camping in churches.

Here, for example, is a description by the Austrian explorer and world traveler Ida Pfeiffer, who came to Iceland in 1845 and published A Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North in 1852. On page 108 of the 1853 English translation, she writes:

"Churches are in this country not only used for purposes of public worship, but also serve as magazines for provisions, clothes, etc., and as inns for travellers."

She did not approve, saying:

"I do not suppose that a parallel instance of desecration could be met with even among the most uncivilized nations. I was assured, indeed, that these abuses were about to be remedied. A reform of this kind ought to have been carried out long ago; and even now the matter seems to remain an open point; for wherever I came the church was placed at my disposal for the night, and everywhere I found a store of fish, tallow, and other equally odoriferous substances."

She describes one evening in particular:

"The little chapel at Krisuvik is only 22 feet long by 10 broad; on my arrival it was hastily prepared for my reception. Saddles, ropes, clothes, hats, and other articles which lay scattered about, were hastily flung into a corner; mattresses and some nice soft pillows soon appeared, and a very tolerable bed was prepared for me on a large chest in which the vestments of the priest, the coverings of the altar, etc., were deposited. I would willingly have locked myself in, eaten my frugal super, and afterwards written a few pages of my diary before retiring to rest; but this was out of the question. The entire population of the village turned out to see me, old and young hastened to the church, and stood round in a circle and gazed at me…. so I began quietly to unpack my little portmanteau, and proceeded to boil my coffee over a spirit-lamp. A whispering consultation immediately began; they seemed particularly struck by my mode of preparing coffee … My frugal meal dispatched, I resolved to try the patience of my audience, and, taking out my journal, began to write. For a few minutes they remained quiet, then they began to whisper one to another, “She writes, she writes,” and this was repeated numberless times. … At length, after this scene had lasted a full hour, I could stand it no longer and was fain to request my amiable visitors to retire, as I wished to go to bed."

Ida Pfeiffer was then 48 years old. She was quite a remarkable woman, and one most Icelanders I know would have enjoyed talking to.

She had already visited Palestine and Egypt (twice), along with Istanbul and Italy. She took two world tours. Between 1846 and 1848 she visited South America, China, India, Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece; from 1851 to 1854 she saw England, South Africa, Borneo and Sumatra, Australia, the West Coast and Great Lakes areas of the United States, Peru, and Ecuador. In 1857 she went to Madagascar, where she got involved in a coup and was kicked out of the country; she died of complications of malaria in 1858.

She published five popular travel books that were translated into seven languages. All of them are now available as free downloads in various formats through Google Books. You can find A Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North here.

Of course, times have changed since 1845. Instead of staying in a church, Madame Pfeiffer's descendants can now book a room through AirBnB in nearly any little town in Iceland. The company lists 37 rentals within a short drive of the Reykhólar church (though none in the village itself).

There's no excuse for camping in a church uninvited.

But Icelanders, too, have to realize that "sensible people" in their country once thought it quite normal to use a church as an inn.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"Vikings Unearthed" in Iceland

One of the joys of writing my book The Far Traveler was joining an archaeological crew in northern Iceland for six weeks in 2005. There I worked with Doug Bolender, who is featured on the NOVA TV program "Vikings Unearthed" airing tonight (April 6, 2016) on PBS.

The summer I joined them, Doug and his colleague John Steinberg, both now at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, were testing a new protocol that has since proved to be a very powerful way to locate ancient structures buried beneath the soil--without having to dig. Their method centered on a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) device: a sealed plastic box full of electronics, which sent pulses of microwaves into the ground and picked up their echoes; these were then read by sophisticated computer algorithms and compiled into detailed maps of the density and other characteristics of the earth at certain depths. The archaeologists spent weeks dragging the GPR box over the ground above a suspected Viking Age house. My contribution was to hold one end of a 100-meter tape measure so they would walk in a straight line.

John Steinberg and team doing GPR in Iceland in 2005.
Paired with this high-tech gadget was a more primitive tool: a soil-corer, a steel T made of tubing, with a narrow opening the length of the shaft. But the method, as I learned one day, was just as precise and equally tedious.

Following a mental grid Doug had set over the field using GPS, we took a sample every 50 meters (165 feet) along a certain north-south line, then turned east and took another line. For each core, we chose a place between þúfur—the knee-high grassy hummocks caused by frost-heaving. Þúfur is one of the first Icelandic words you learn out on the farms. They make walking through an Icelandic pasture an obstacle course, taxing the ankles and straining the knees. Once I misstepped, my attention caught by a pretty palomino stallion in the next field, and fell full-length on top of a þúfa—it was like a belly-flop onto a medicine ball.

While I floundered, Doug had found a grid-point between two thufur and plucked away the grass. Once I’d found my feet, he handed me the coring tube with a flourish. Attempting to regain my dignity as well, I punched it through the turf and pulled out and discarded the root-plug, as he had instructed. Then I pushed the instrument straight down, stomping on the foot pedal, which, like usual, slipped from its groove, leaving me stomping air and jarring my back. Doug laughed and took over: He had a special wiggle that made the pedal work.

Archaeologist Doug Bolender working in Iceland in 2015.
When the corer was fully buried, he stepped aside again to let me redeem myself. “Don’t twist it,” he warned. I crouched, set my feet well under the handle, hooked my elbows under the cross-bar, and lifted up with my thighs, not my (already tender) back. The tube slowly slid from the earth, full of soil. Doug sliced his pocketknife across the narrow opening to reveal the strata of that 50-centimeter (20-inch) sample: layers of deep red, black, shiny white, then brown, rust-red, tan, and honey-yellow. Some of the strata had been swirled around, either by flooding or by what Doug called “cryoturbation”: freeze-thawing, the same process that makes the þúfur, which inspired one member of the team to rename it thufurization.

The core was beautiful. “You could make upholstery out of that one,” Doug said.

A sample soil core from the SCASS blog.
I took up the clipboard to log in the color and depth of each soil layer and measure the location of the volcanic tephra lines. The honey-yellow line near the bottom of the core was tephra from an eruption of Mount Hekla nearly 3,000 years ago. It marked prehistoric soil, telling us we’d drilled deep enough. The shiny white tephra was more interesting: the distinctive marker left by Hekla’s eruption in 1104. In between there should have been—but I couldn’t see it—a thin dark gray layer. This tephra has been dated, by comparing its chemistry to dust found in the Greenland ice cores, to 871 (plus or minus two years). The date is remarkably close to when Iceland’s first historian, Ari the Learned, says Iceland was settled: 874. Archaeologists call this tephra the Landnám or Settlement Layer. Another, lighter greenish-gray tephra—also, unfortunately, not visible in this core—dates to the year 1000. Layers from 1300 and 1766, likewise conveniently color-coded, can also be found in Skagafjord cores.

Tephra line in a turf wall in Iceland.
The volcanoes from which this tephra spewed are clear across Iceland, near the south coast. The wind direction during the eruption, and the ground cover where the tephra landed, determined if a core will have a tephra line or not: bushes and thick grass trapped tephra, while on bare gravel and rock it washed away. Skagafjord is a good spot for archaeologists because the wind generally did bring tephra from these historically important eruptions north.

Using this handy vulcanological dating method, if you take enough soil samples (and for his Ph.D. dissertation on medieval farming practices, Doug collected approximately 16,000), you can see a “massive jump” in phosphorous levels, due to animal manure, in farmers’ fields between 870 and 1100. You can also, if your grid is tight enough, find and date the farmers’ houses and garbage middens by the position in the soil cores of charcoal, bone, peat ash, or chunks of turf.

It's not an easy job to get 16,000 soil cores. There are surprising dangers.

One day, two members of our team, Susan and Tara, were coring in a fenced field. The farmer had told them it contained a herd of “calves.” One came over and pissed on the leather corer bag. The next day, it came up to them and let them scratch its nose. It stood beside them, grazing, while they recorded the last soil core.

Skagafjörður, Iceland, where we were coring.
When they were ready to leave, they decided it wasn’t a good idea to get between him and the rest of the herd, so they walked directly away from the "calf." He snorted and champed and charged after them, suddenly morphed into a raging bull. They ran, dodging thufur, clutching their instruments.

Up ahead Tara saw a drainage ditch—This way!—she leaped into the ditch and sank up to her thighs in muck. Susan followed. The bull tried to get under the fence and into the ditch. He went under head and shoulders. They dropped the corers on the bank and slogged up the ditch away from him until they could get up the bank and under the far fence.  Leaping up the bank out of the ditch, Tara cradled the $300 GPS monitor, Susan the soil-coring data sheet. They waited until the bull lost interest and went away before going back into the ditch to retrieve the rest of their equipment.

Watch the PBS special "Vikings Unearthed" online here: For more on my book The Far Traveler, see my website at: For more on Doug Bolender's work at UMass-Boston, see the blog of the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey here:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Viking Women Were "Very Stirring"

What were Viking women like? Were they really as tough and macho as Lathgertha in the History Channel's "Vikings" series?

The Icelandic sagas, although written hundreds of years after the Viking Age people and events they describe, can give us some hints--especially if we examine their descriptions word for word.

Gudrun the Fair, heroine of Laxdaela Saga, for example, is one of many saga women described as a skörungr. It's a word translators have serious trouble with--although the saga-writer clearly thinks it's a compliment. In modern Icelandic, the word means a fireplace poker. Concentrating on what a fireplace poker does, William Morris in the 1890s came up with "a very stirring woman." And Gudrun does stir things up, mostly trouble.

Yet a man labeled a skörungr Morris called "a shaper" or "a leader." Other early translators turned a female "poker" into "brave-hearted," "high-spirited," "noble," "of high mettle," "fine," "superior," "of great magnificence," and "a paragon of a woman." They might have done better to think what a poker looks like. For skörungr does, in the end, have to do with manhood. The root skör means an edge, like the edge of a sword.

Let's look more closely at Gudrun the Fair. The female characters in Laxdaela Saga are so strong and admirable that some readers suspect the story was written by a woman in response to some of the other, more male-oriented, sagas. We read of Unn the Deep-Minded, who emigrated from Scotland with all her kin, claimed a chunk of land "as big as a man's," parceled it out to her followers, and lived out her life as a chieftain in all but name, marrying off her grandchildren to make alliances. There is Melkorka, who comes to Iceland as a sex-slave: Melkorka pretended to be a deaf-mute, revealing nothing. Not until she was caught speaking Irish to her son, Olaf the Peacock, did she admit she was the daughter of an Irish king. After her status as a princess came out, her owner bought her a farm and set her up as an independent woman. Olaf married well and had five sons and three daughters. He offered to raise his half-brother's son, Bolli, to mend fences in the family, and with that we come to the crux of the saga.

Bolli was handsome and talented-second only to Olaf's own son, Kjartan. The two boys were best friends. Both fell in love with Gudrun the Fair, who had already been widowed twice when she met them. Gudrun loved Kjartan. Like every Icelandic boy his age, he decided to go to Norway to make a name for himself, and asked her to wait the usual three years for him. She suggested he take her abroad instead. He refused. She refused to promise to wait. Three years passed, and he didn't come home. But Bolli did, full of tales of the impression Kjartan had made on the king's beautiful sister.

Bolli was not lying; his crime was more on the order of wishful thinking. Still, while Kjartan was "talking" with the king of Norway's sister, Bolli wooed and wed Gudrun. Then Kjartan returned home. His sister counseled him to "do the right thing" and make peace with his friend and cousin Bolli. She introduced Kjartan to a fine woman of good family, and Kjartan was soon happily married.

Gudrun became insanely jealous. Sometimes she thought Bolli had tricked her into marrying him. Other times she believed Kjartan had spurned her and, when he had come home and made light of her marriage, had insulted her. And indeed, he did insult her after a golden headdress he had given his wife (a gift from the princess intended for Gudrun) was stolen. Kjartan gathered his men and surrounded Gudrun's house, forcing everyone to go to the bathroom inside for several days with no indoor privy. Gudrun arranged his death and then deeply regretted it. As she told her son many years later, "I was worst to the one I loved best."

But for none of these deeds is Gudrun called a skörungr. That comes on the occasion of her fourth marriage. At the urging of her staunch supporter, the chieftain Snorri of Helgafell, and with the agreement of her young sons, Gudrun betrothed herself to Thorkel Eyjolfsson, a wealthy trader and friend of the king of Norway. Gudrun had extensive landholdings and the backing of many men who had been loyal to her recently deceased father. Since her brothers were all exiled after killing Kjartan, Gudrun's husband would wield the influence of a chieftain.

As a mark of her power in the relationship, Gudrun insisted on holding the wedding at her own farm, bearing the cost herself. Among the 160 wedding guests, however, her bridegroom Thorkel recognized a man who had killed one of his friends. Thorkel grabbed the criminal and was about to put him to death when Gudrun stood up from her place at the women's table, brushed her fancy linen headdress out of her eyes, and called to her men, "Rescue my friend Gunnar and let nothing stand in your way!"

As the saga so nicely understates it, "Gudrun had a much bigger force. Things turned out differently than expected."

Before anyone could draw a sword, Snorri of Helgafell stood up and laughed. "Now you can see what a skörungr Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us."

What quality is Chieftain Snorri admiring? Translators from 1960 to 2002 have called Gudrun and her saga sisters "exceptional," "outstanding," "remarkable," "determined," "forceful," "capable," "brave," "of strong character," "one to be reckoned with," and a woman "with a will very much her own." These are better than the nineteenth century's "high-mettled" and "very stirring," but they're still not quite right.

Historian Jenny Jochens turns skörungr into "manly," and the best equivalent is indeed man. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Gudrun spotted the killer of her friend on Thorkel's side of the hall. Thorkel had the bigger fighting force. Chieftain Snorri, eager to make peace and see the wedding proceed (and it does), stepped in, laughed, and said to Gudrun, "Now you can see what a man you're marrying, when he gets the better of both of us."

A Viking's character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to weak, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser or, in the Old Norse terms, hvatr to blauðr. Hvatr, always a compliment, means "bold, active, vigorous." It appears to be related to the verb hvetja, a cognomen for our verb "to whet"--to sharpen (a sword), to put a good, sharp skör (or edge) on it. Its opposite, blauðr, always an insult, means "soft, weak." It is, says the standard dictionary, "no doubt a variant of blautr," which means "moist." Hard, sharp, and vigorous versus soft, yielding, and moist. Think dirty and you've got it.

When the beautiful skörungr Hallgerd Long-legs called Njal, the hero of Njal's Saga, "Old Beardless," she was not saying he was funny-looking: She was saying he was blauðr--weak, cowardly, powerless, and craven. A loser.

And when Chieftain Snorri praised Gudrun the Fair as a skörungr, and a better one than both himself and Thorkel Eyjolfsson, he was locating her far out on the male end of the power spectrum. He was calling her a winner.

"This is a world," writes Old Norse scholar Carol Clover, "in which 'masculinity' always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman." There was only one standard, only one way to judge a person adequate or inadequate. "The frantic machismo" of the men in the Icelandic sagas, Clover concludes, suggests "a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which  distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others."

The women who are mentioned in the sagas, the ones who are admired as skörungr, are the ones who have acquired that distinction. Among them is Gudrid the Far-Traveler, about whom I have written two books: the young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), and the nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (2007), from which this discussion of skörungr was taken.

Read more about Viking women on my blog here:

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Cook Like a Viking

What did the Vikings eat? We imagine them gorging on roast leg of lamb and buckets of ale. In Valhalla, according to Snorri Sturluson, the heroes eat boiled pork and drink bottomless horns of mead. When Odin and Loki dine out, in one myth, they spit-roast an ox (though Odin is said elsewhere to subsist only on wine).

But is all that meat and alcohol realistic?

Daniel Serra, one of the authors (with Hanna Tunberg) of An Early Meal: A Viking Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, thinks not.

Serra is an archaeology student--the book is based on his Ph.D. dissertation--and a Viking re-enactor who was hired to "reconstruct Viking Age food" by the Lofotr Viking Museum in Lofoten, site of the largest Viking longhouse ever discovered, in the far north of Norway.

There's nothing like having to actually do it to make you figure out how something was done.

His book concentrates on Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Beginning at Lofoten, he takes the reader (or cook) on a "culinary odyssey," sailing to important archaeological sites at Kaupang, Lejre, Hedeby, Uppåkra, and Birka, with a side trip to Jorvik in England. For each site, he describes the archaeological evidence for what people in Viking times ate and how they prepared it.

We can learn a lot from bones, seeds, utensils, pots, and, yes, feces.

Serra also explores the Icelandic sagas and other post-Viking Age written sources for hints on food and cooking, such as the stories of yogurt-like skyr being stored in leather bags, vats of whey big enough for a man to hide in, cheeses made in round cheese forms, porridge served with a large ladle, and leek or onion soup fed to a wounded man to determine (by the smell) if his intestines had been pierced.

Serra and Tunberg then create a few recipes that plausibly could be connected with each archaeological site, being careful to only mix foods that were available and in season. This is the ultimate in seasonal, locavore cooking--with a very few luxury items thrown in, where the archaeological record warrants it.

Don't expect a lot of spice. The Vikings used mustard seeds (both black and yellow), thyme, dill, caraway, coriander, and lots of onions, leeks, and garlic. Salt was expensive to buy or, if home-made (by burning seaweed), labor-intensive and inefficient to make.

Sweets were scarce: The main sources were dried or frost-bitten berries and fruits, honey (expensive, as bees could only survive in some parts of Scandinavia), and malt (which was mostly used for making ale).

The most common taste was sour: Turnips and kale, as well as sausages and joints of meat, were pickled in whey, the leftover fluid from cheese-making. Whey was also the drink of choice, when ale wasn't available--and sometimes the two were mixed (ugh).

And that roast leg of lamb? It was more likely to be smoked or dried, then cut up and cooked as a stew with onions and turnips.

Valhalla's boiled pork doesn't sound nearly so tasteless, though, when you read Serra and Tunberg's recipe for Boar Stew: It contains leeks, butter, bacon, boar's meat, mustard, kale, wheat seeds, and thyme, along with the boiled pork. The photograph makes it look actually appetizing.

The recipes throughout An Early Meal are, in fact, beautifully illustrated. The instructions are clear and easy--according to my friend Linda, an excellent cook who reads cookbooks for pleasure--and the book's paper and binding are sturdy enough to survive heavy kitchen use.

Still, I only found a few meals I'd want to try. (Linda, more adventurous in her eating, found more.) For me, the value of the book is for re-enacting--in fiction--what Viking life was really like.

I learned, for instance, how to make a cooking pit to roast a goat. Did you know that you should put the layer of stones under the firewood if you plan to use the pit more than once, but lay them over the firewood if the ground is cold? And how do you keep the meat from charring? Serra suggests several medieval replacements for aluminum foil.

Did you know that to make dried cod tasty, you should beat it with a wooden mallet for "well over an hour," then soak it in hot water for at least 12 hours?

Or that Vikings ate lots of hazelnuts? Mixed with honey, says a medieval Scandinavian herbal, they are good for a cough.

Or that the best way to cook the mash and boil the wort, when making large quantities of ale, was to heat stones in the longfire, then drop them one by one into a large tub of mash or wort until it reached the required temperature? (Your thermometer in this case was your finger.) If making a smaller quantity of ale, you use smaller tubs and smaller stones--these stones are called "pot-boilers." How often have I used that term to refer to a formulaic mystery novel without knowing what it really meant?

Then there's the question of bread. I knew grain was hard to grown in Iceland, but I assumed bread was common throughout the rest of Scandinavia. Archaeologists have found signs of bread in burials and funeral pyres. They could tell it was unleavened, cooked on a griddle or a hot stone (rarely baked in an oven), and made of some mixture, depending on the location, of barley, oats, wheat, rye, pea, and broad-bean flours.

I never gave a thought to how hard it was to grind the flour. That's why I love experimental archaeology. When Daniel Serra made bread at the Lofotr Viking Museum, he started with grain (seeds) and a hand quern.

He describes the quern as "two stone discs on top of each other." The stone is mica-schist with small hard garnets in it. The larger stone, on the bottom, "is fixed by nothing else but its weight." The upper stone has a handle; sometimes that handle extends to the roof of the building to get better torque. "In order to get the best result," Serra writes, "the cereals must be fed to the quern constantly so that friction is kept low and the two discs suffer less wear."

And you don't just feed the cereals in once. "Grinding with a hand quern is hard work." In his experiment, Serra ground half a kilogram (18 ounces) of grain; a bread recipe he includes in An Early Meal uses about that much barley flour for a loaf meant to feed four (modern) people as part of a larger meal.

"The experiment showed that the seeds had to be ground several times and sieved in order to achieve a flour that was fine enough with which to bake. After two grindings, the grains were fine enough to be used for a porridge. After another four or five more sessions, and half an hour, the seeds were fine enough to bake with. With experience and the right conditions, the time could probably be halved. The time and effort needed suggests that one would produce only enough flour to cover the needs of the day."

Making flour for bread "was a rather strenuous activity," he concludes, adding that "Milling seems to have been mainly considered a female chore, and some skeletal remains have a tear in the shoulder joints which may stem from constantly working with a hand quern."

Don't assume, though, that Viking women did all the cooking. "In Norwegian burials," Serra points out, "certain cooking implements have been almost equally distributed between men and women--e.g., frying pans, spits, and soapstone vessels."

It's for these sorts of insight that An Early Meal deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey, by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg, was published in Sweden in 2013 by ChronoCopia Publishing. I purchased my copy over

For more about food in Norse mythology, see these earlier blog posts:

For more on Snorri Sturluson and the making of Norse mythology, see my book Song of the Vikings:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Sunstone, or how did Vikings navigate?

Elise Skalwold graciously calls it a typo. In her article "Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence", she explains in scientific detail how the Vikings could use a crystal called a "sunstone" to navigate when out of sight of land. At the end of the article, she calls out my book:

"That ancient Viking mariners made such voyages sans modern instrumentation inspires awe in many, not least of all me, as I have traveled in those waters in more modern craft, as well as been out on a replica of a cabinless sea-faring longboat. For a glimpse into the Viking sea-faring world, the authors recommend The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown, but in regards to the sunstone, beware the typo which identifies it as 'Icelandic feldspar.'"

It should be "Iceland spar."

I'm not the only one to make this mistake, Elise told me when we met last October at Cornell University. The name "sunstone" is commonly used in English to refer to completely different minerals in the feldspar family, particularly a translucent type known as "aventurescent feldspar." This feldspar is sunny because it contains tiny, flat mineral inclusions that, when the stone is turned the right way toward the light, give off a bright flash.

This sunstone is not the Viking sunstone. The Viking sunstone is more bizarre even than that.

Elise came to listen to me lecture on my latest book, Ivory Vikings, but also to give me a quick lesson in mineral identification. For Elise is a consulting gemologist. In her backpack, she had samples of Iceland spar and a copy of the book Secrets of the Viking Navigators, by Leif K. Karlsen, which she generously gave to me.

My reaction to the crystal she set in my palm that afternoon was very much like Karlsen's. He writes, "In a natural world that is filled with rare and exquisite examples of incredible uniqueness, sunstones defy the rational mind."

It is ice-clear. But worse, it looks machined. Living in a modern world I simply can't look at it properly. My eyes tell me it has been cut, that it's manmade, that it's fake.

And it's not. No wonder the Icelandic Saga of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson considers the gift of a sunstone equal to that of a pair of fine stallions.

"Sunstones," Karlsen writes, "are roughly the shape of a three-dimensional parallelogram. All sunstones, without exception, have the same geometric shape and the same angularity. Take a large sunstone and break it into smaller pieces and you will have pieces with the exact same angles and geometry as the original. Additionally, every face of the stone has a tilt of 11.5 degrees."

Imagine finding something like that on an Icelandic mountainside. Just looking at it, you'd know it was magical.

And the Vikings did find sunstones there. Karlsen names three places in Iceland where the crystals are readily found. He even visited one, the site of an old mine. "In the days before synthetics," he notes, "this mineral was also used for various types of scientific optical equipment such as microscope lenses." Karlsen met an old man named Gisli who had worked at the mine in 1937 and offered to take him there.

"After some rough driving on gravel roads with several unbridged rivers and streams and then cross-country where there were no roads, we arrived safely at our destination," Karlsen writes. "We climbed up to a plateau about 400 feet up the mountain. ... Gisli pointed out numerous pieces of Iceland spar that had washed out of the vein higher in the mountain and then tumbled down the mountain in the scree. Some of the stones were clear and shiny where they had broken along the facets of the crystal as they fell. Others had an opaque surface due to weathering and abrasion. Many of the pieces we saw were at least 1.5 x 2 x 1 inches ... large and clear enough to be used for navigation."

How did the sunstone work? If you want the technical answer, read "Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence."

But if you just want the gist of it, Karlsen presents it as a short story in his book, Secrets of the Viking Navigators. During a fictional Viking voyage, the navigator teaches his younger brother "the secrets of the sunstone."

"To use the sunstone," he says, "you must place a small spot of pine tar on top of the stone, on the side which faces towards the sky. When you are using the crystal for the first time, place a small wooden pointer along either one of the longest sides. This will be a guide for which side to point toward the brightest part of the sky. Then you must hold the stone overhead and view the stone from underneath. Notice the double image of the black dot? ... When you rotate the stone slightly back and forth, holding it flat, you will see that one spot fades and the other becomes darker. When the two images appear to be equal in value, note the position of the stone and the direction of the pointer. This is the true bearing to the sun."

Karlsen tried it out on a replica Viking ship sailing the coast of Norway in 1996. Playing the part of the navigator, he was able to teach each of his crew members how to use the sunstone--and confirmed their results with modern instruments.

Its optical magic is most impressive under conditions of "Arctic sea smoke," when very cold air moves over warmer water and the ship is wrapped in fog almost to the top of its mast. "When the light from the rising or setting sun was lost in the fog bank, but the zenith was clear," he writes, "the navigator could tell the exact position of the sun by using the sunstone, even though the sun itself was unseen."

I'll remember that the next time I imagine a Viking voyage.

"Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence," by Elise A. Skalwold and William Bassett, was published in late 2015 by the Mineralogical Society of American and is available online here:

Leif K. Karlsen's Secrets of the Viking Navigators was published in Seattle by One Earth Press in 2003.

For more on The Far Traveler, see my website at: