The Old Norse word saga means ‘story’, ‘tale’ or ‘history’ and normally refers specifically to the epic prose narratives written mainly in Iceland between the 12th- and 15th centuries CE, covering the country’s history as well as Scandinavia’s legendary past. A few sagas were also written in Norway but in either country their usually anonymous writers shaped their stories in high-quality, nuanced prose, leading the saga to now be considered one of the prime vernacular literary genres of Medieval Europe. Poetry is generally included, too, which helps point out the influence older, oral traditions of storytelling are thought to have had on the saga’s development.
Although the heyday of Old Norse saga composition lay in the 13th century CE, the tales often dive back through the ages into the times of ancestors, heroes and legendary kings, spanning from prehistory through the Viking Age (c. 790-1100 CE) – including the settlement of Iceland – to the writers’ own times. History and fiction are often mixed in a sort of Gordian knot that is hard to disentangle, and the stories have as their playground not just Iceland but also Scandinavia, the British Isles, the North Atlantic (including Greenland and North America), the Mediterranean, Russia and the Middle East.
A new Viking ship burial has been discovered in Norway. Using ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists recently found one of the world’s largest Viking ship graves, resting a mere 0.5 meters beneath a farmer’s field. That’s just 1.5 feet!
The digital visualization reveals a large, possibly well-preserved ship, 20 meters long. And it appears to be embedded in a complex of at least eight other burial mounds, and underneath that lay five longhouses. This is not just one find, but a treasure trove of finds.
But back to the ship. Only three well-preserved Viking ships have been found previously in Norway. And they were all excavated long ago, with the techniques available at the time. That makes this find precious: an intact, very large ship burial found at a time when we have techniques like ground-penetrating radar, soil geochemistry, and radiometric dating. As of right now, no excavations are planned. Archaeologists are concerned about what exposure to the air could do to the site.
GODS AND GODDESSES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: Freyr (Fertility god in Norse Mythology)
FREYR (Old Norse for ‘Lord’, sometimes anglicised as Frey) is the main fertility god in Norse mythology, his connection with harvests, sun and rain, virility, weddings, and his rule over wealth securing him an important position within the predominantly agricultural Viking Age Scandinavian society (c. 790-1100 CE). This makes him the most prominent god of the Vanir family (the other family being the Æsir). Freyr’s link with fertility is not just of a personal nature but is very much connected to the land and its produce, too, which helps explain why there is such ample evidence of a cult of Freyr. Son of Njord and twin brother of Freyja, Freyr overshadows both of these fellow Vanir gods when it comes to evidence of active worship; many place names bear his mark, and sacrifices and devotion ring out loud and clear from both the literature and the archaeological record, especially pertaining to Sweden. With his alternate name Yngvi-Freyr, he was even seen as the mythical ancestor of the Swedish royal dynasty of the Ynglings.
Freyr, who is married to the giant-daughter Gerðr whom he has a son, Fjölnir, with, is famously accompanied by a boar (sometimes depicted with golden bristles and named Gullinborsti) and also owns the highly useful ship Skíðblaðnir. A more versatile god than he would seem at first glance, Freyr’s abilities also reach beyond the domain of fertility and extend to the battlefield; myths describe his military prowess, and his death comes in battlewith the giant Surtr during the Ragnarök, the final destiny of the gods in which the known world is destroyed.
Women during the Viking Age were living in a male-dominated society. But that didn’t mean they were not appreciated. The inscription found on a stone in Hassmyra, Sweden – the only verse found on a Swedish inscribed stone that commemorates a woman – certainly seems to show that “women’s work” was essential and valued:
The good farmer Holmgaut had this raised in memory of his wife Odindis.
A better housewife
will never come
who arranges the estate.
Red Balli carved
She was a good sister
Both Old English and Old Norse were part of a Northwest Germanic language group. The languages were similar until the 400s CE, when the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England made English part of the West Germanic language group – like German instead of like Norwegian. But Old English and Old Norse followed the same phonological rules. Which meant they changed in predictable, and similar, ways.
Which means that during the Viking Age in England, Old English and Old Norse were mutually intelligible. Not only were the English being raided, invaded, and occupied, but the warriors who were doing so could be understood, speaking a strange version of their own tongue.
Probably just made the Great Dane Army’s job easier. Isn’t it nice for threats to make people quake in fear, instead of just making them confused.
VIKING AGE GREENLAND:
GREENLAND was drawn into the Viking Age and settled by Norse Vikings in the late 980s CE, their presence there lasting into the 15th century CE. Despite its ice-riddled geography, the Norse managed to carve out a living for themselves in these unforgiving lands by seeking out verdant pockets along the south-western coast, founding both the so-called Eastern Settlement (which is located, confusingly, in the south of West-Greenland) and the Western Settlement, some 650 km further north along the west coast in the present-day Nuuk region.
Around 75% of Greenland’s immense surface – which totals around 1,350,000 square km, making it the world’s largest island – is covered by inland ice, which gangs up with slabs of drift ice floating along the coasts to make any sane person think twice about moving there just for fun. Glaciers and mountains function as natural boundaries, making inland travel far from straight-forward. With a mostly arctic climate boasting mean temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius in the warmest months with only some of its areas poking above this, Greenland is not exactly ideal for growing such staples as grain, and there are few trees.
PEOPLE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: Bardr Mac Imair (Viking King of Dublin)
BARDR mac Imair (c. 873-881 CE, also known as Barid mac Imair, Barith, Baraid) was a Viking king of Dublin, son of the Viking king Imair (Imar, Ivan) who founded the Ui Imair Dynasty in Ireland. Bardr became king in Dublin after Imair’s death. He engaged in military campaigns against the Irish monasteries and other religious institutions and is best known for his raids on various communities for plunder which was brought back to Dublin. He is known as a Viking sea-king based on his 873 CE raid on the Kingdom of Munster.
He died in 881 CE after one such raid on the oratory of St. Cianan or St. Ciaran, depending on different sources, in Dunleek, Meath. His death was attributed to an act of God and the saint in punishing Bardr for desecrating sacred sites for plunder. Bardr was succeeded by an unnamed king and then by his brother Sichfrith mac Imair (c. 883-888 CE) who continued his basic policies.
Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”) are a pair of ravens that fly over the world of men, and report everything they see to the god Odin. The appear on Viking coinage, brooches, tapestries, and even a helmet!
Moral of the story: don’t do anything shady if you see a crow nearby.
The one you may have heard about, that is pretty widely agreed to be Viking, is L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. But what I didn’t know is there is a second potential colony mentioned in the Icelandic saga of Erik the Red. Intrepid explorer Thorfinn Karlsefn travels to a land called Hóp, where he finds grapes, plentiful supplies of salmon, barrier sandbars and natives who use animal-hide canoes. But not one has ever found Hóp. Unfortunately, the Icelandic sagas were not big on directions.
Now, an archaeologist is speculating that Hóp is in New Brunswick, south of L’Anse aux Meadows. The only area on the Atlantic seaboard that accommodates all the saga criteria is northeastern New Brunswick, the archaeologist argues, and particularly the Miramichi-Chaleur bay area.
Northeastern New Brunswick is the northern limit of grapes. It has plentiful salmon, unlike more southern candidates like Maine or Massachusetts. It has barrier sandbars. And hide canoes were used by the Mi’kmaq people in the Miramichi-Chaleur bay area. Some evidence for Hóp’s proposed site also comes from L’Anse aux Meadows, where the remains of butternuts and parts of linden trees have been found – species which are native only to New Brunswick.