Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Until Death Takes Me, or the World Ends: What the Hell Happened in Greenland?

We are continuing through our study of the North Atlantic Viking settlements. Today, I want to discuss the mysterious disappearance of the Greenland settlement. As I mentioned in our last post, the Norse settlers had abandoned Greenland by 1450. Fitzhugh and company explore a few different possibilities as to exactly why and how this happened. The disappearance of the Greenlanders is fascinating to me for a few different reasons. First, any disappearance of a group of peoples is wildly entertaining. The Norse in Greenland represent perhaps the furthest advancement of the Viking push across the globe. What is more, the abandonment seems to have been deliberate and organized. What would cause a substantial group of people to pick up and leave, never to resurface in history again?

We first must dispel a few of the rumors as to why the Norse left. These ideas may have contributed to the disappearance of the Norse communities but were not the sole reason of the abandonment. Most prominent among the false theories is that the Inuit (ancestors of the Eskimos) challenged and pushed out the Norse. There is no evidence in the archaeological records that any prolonged violence occurred between these two groups. In fact, the parties seemed to work well together, trading occasionally and sharing certain resources. Unlike their kin on the shores of North America, the Inuit may have even traded ideas with the Norse, picking up certain iron working ideas. There is some speculation that intermarriage and sexual relations took place but the evidence on that is pretty slim. 

The Inuit, however, may have indirectly driven out the northern Western Settlement. When conditions grew colder, the Inuit followed the seals and caribou south along the coast, perching the natives just outside the Norse settlements. While it is unlikely that the Inuit stormed the farms with knives and spears, as some historians had ascertained, they did offer competition on the northern hunting grounds. Anthropologists have determined that seal consisted a large part of the Greenlanders’ diet. Sharing such an important staple could have put a major dent in structured lives of the Norse. But this raises a number of questions. Why would it seem that even in the absence of major violence, the Inuit societies flourished, while the Norse slowly diminished? Did the Inuit have something the Norse did not? Perhaps sheer numbers were enough to shake the Norse loose. 

Another unfounded theory is that the Norse died off from malnutrition. They just couldn’t sustain life on the northern island that was TEEMING with edible marine life. An abundant amount of birds, eggs, seals, walrus, caribou, and fish surrounded them. And yet, the Norse saw themselves first and foremost as farmers, raising crops and cattle. Could this pride in maintaining their statuses as agriculturists keep them from survival? Certainly not. The excavations have not produced enough human remains to suggest that the entire settlement died at once. In fact, the bone samples provide ample evidence that the Greenland Norse were incredibly healthy, right up to the time of their disappearance. No malnutrition could be found, outside of a couple of isolated illnesses. 


 (Lynda D'Amico)

So if their neighbors didn’t push them out and they had the resources to stay healthy, perhaps it was the weather that got the Norse moving. The climate in the early Middle Ages was relatively mild, making places like Iceland and Greenland seem like really tight places to settle down. Around 1300, the Little Ice Age began and the weather worsened in the far reaching Norse Settlements. This climactic change certainly had an effect on Greenland’s agriculture and ultimately led to the abandonment of the more northern Western Settlement. The oddly named Eastern Settlement, which sat on the south-west corner of Greenland, struggled on with the help of a warmer ocean current keeping their neck of the woods livable. The worsening weather definitely had a part to play but was not the main reason the Eastern Settlement was left.

The culprit may reside in that most evil of all medieval villains: The Black Death. The plague decimated Medieval Europe, claiming between 30%-50% of a kingdom’s population. There is no evidence, written or physical, that the plague crossed the Atlantic to Greenland. If it did, we’d certainly have our answer ready. A small and fragile community who at its peak probably held 1200 people between the two main settlements could not have continued after losing 50% of its people. Sustainability would have been out of the question and the survivors would have had to pack up and head back to Iceland or the continent. If the plague did not reach Greenland, as most historians believe, it still could have destroyed Greenland economically. 

Another theory is based on a simple change in artistic taste. For first two hundred years of the Greenland colonies, Europe pined for ivory. The Norse found themselves with an abundance of walrus tusks in their backyard. With relations between Europe and Asia souring at the onset of the crusades, the European market was thrilled to find that ivory could be bought from those remote Greenlanders. The only downside was that merchants had to travel to Greenland through the dangerous and ice-filled North Atlantic waters. An easy price to pay for those tusks! However, once the Christians had taken Jerusalem, they found the market to elephant tusks re-opened. Soon, the demand for Greenland ivory began to wane. The dangerous journey didn’t seem worth it after all. And by the fifteenth century, ivory art had gone out of style on the continent and Greenland saw fewer and fewer European ships as the decades dragged on.

Viking game pieces carved out of walrus tusk. (British Museum)

In truth, a combination of all of these theories can be attributed to the failure of the Norse settlements in Greenland. Yet, one has to wonder if extinction could be avoided. The colder climate didn’t seem to bother their northerly Inuit neighbors. The other European kingdoms recovered in time from the plague, which didn’t even seem to reach Greenland! Was there a stubbornness and a refusal to change? The Norse seemed so set on their traditional agricultural ways that they seemingly refused to adapt. Learning to harpoon seals from the Inuit in the place of their clumsy netting and clubbing could have done wonders for their economy. When the rest of the North Atlantic communities turned to fisheries rather than farms, the Greenland Norse could have dominated the global economy. And yet, they allowed English and Icelandic fishing boats to push as far west as the coast of Newfoundland. In retrospect, a hubris seems to hang over the Western and Eastern settlements that all but doomed the Norse.

So where did they go?

A ludicrous but possible theory holds that the Norse simply crossed the Davis Strait and resumed a life in North America. There is absolutely no evidence that the Vikings had a homestead in anywhere other than L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. And why would the Greenlanders think they could survive the pressures of North American life in the fifteenth century when they had given up on it nearly 500 years earlier? Having made many trips to the Canadian Arctic, the Viking descendants knew what lay in wait for them across the bay: endless timber, plenty of wild game, wild grapes and rice, and natives with whom they were familiar. Could they have developed decent relationships with the Thule Inuit, centuries after their ancestors had clashed? I highly doubt it. And this theory will remain a conspiracy until evidence is uncovered that the Norse somehow made a life for themselves in the west, which would be utterly incredible. This would imply that not only did Europeans successfully live on the continent at the same time Columbus and his predecessors were killing everyone with their fancy germs but also that they had disappeared into oblivion, either through intermarriage with natives or wiped out by rival neighbors. Again, there is no evidence as to an American Norse settlement outside of the short-lived L’anse aux Meadows from approximately 1000-1003. There is no evidence…yet! 

The theory of the indirect effects of The Black Death provides the simplest answer, especially when one considers the land that opened up in Iceland. After so many people died, their farmsteads and lands were left unattended. Surely, some of the Greenlanders at the edge of the world took notice and said, “Fuck it, I’m going home.” Understanding how important lineage was to the Icelanders, I bet a few of the Greenland Norse could trace their families back to certain lands in Iceland, causing little strife as they piled back in and filled out the population in the mid-fifteenth century. 

Wouldn’t a migration like this be noted? A movement of hundreds of “refugees” either to Iceland or to Norway or Denmark would have surely been noted in the later sagas or the royal annals. And yet no such report exists. The leading theory suggests that it was a slow and steady migration to Iceland, such that it would go unnoticed. Still, even if the rate was supremely slow, perhaps 10 people per year, one would think that the pencil-wielding nerds in Iceland would have scribbled down such hot gossip as the Greenlanders giving up on their settlement. Maybe they snuck in under the distraction of the plague itself. No one really paid attention because everyone they knew and loved had just died a gruesome death. Who cares if a bunch of backwoods relatives just moved in next door?!

And yet, when the reality hit that the ancestors of the Danish and Norwegians had set foot on North American soil centuries before any other Europeans, a craze swept through the nations. Several attempts were made to contact their distant Greenland relatives in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sailors sent by the Scandinavian kings searched in vain upon the shores where they believed the old settlements had been. They had no idea that the sites had been abandoned. They wanted to claim Greenland as part of a larger Dano-Norwegian commonwealth, or at least make contact with their brave cousins who had accomplished the unthinkable. The migration from Greenland to Iceland (or wherever) either went completely unnoticed by the wider world or was forgotten entirely as a moot point in North Atlantic society. 

This ignorance of the abandoned Greenland settlements is a little troubling. Not much time seems to have passed between the last Icelandic documentation of a ship coming from Greenland in 1410, and when Pope Alexander recommended a bishop be reinstated at the end of the fifteenth century. Mystery surrounded the Norse Greenlanders the Norse and Danish tried to make contact. Not until 1721, when Denmark wanted to re-incorporate Greenland back into its realm, was it confirmed by Hans Egede found the old abandoned farm houses crumbling, overrun by animals, or in use by the Inuit. Greenland was no doubt remote; but even in the 15th century, they maintained fashion and trends enjoyed by the continent. How did we lose track of an entire group of people? 

"Where's all the people?!" - Hans Egede (Kanneggard and Skeel)

If the Norse refused to change and adapt to these conditions, this theory is highly unlikely. Still, the disappearance of the Norse is eerie. The abandonment was deliberate, with the occupants taking their valuables. In order for their emigration to go unnoticed, it must have been a very slow and steady process. Yet no mention is made of it, and it only seems like Greenland fell off the map for a brief 80 years during the 15th century. The mystery may be solved with a simple oath from medieval period that tells us how pride could very well have been their demise: 

Until Death Takes Me, or the World Ends.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

How the West was Lost: Vikings in North America

Greetings, History Fans! I have been spending the last few months in a constant anxiety, waiting to hear back from the University of Iceland. In the meantime I have been tearing through some of the books on the preparatory reading list, including Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William W. Fitzbugh. The book is a compilation of essays that follow the Vikings as they explore the North Atlantic islands, from Norway to North America. At this point, I am familiar with the stories of the Viking presence in Iceland and England, as well as the Faroes, Shetlands, and the other British islands. But this book takes us further into the heart of the Viking settlements in Greenland and Vinland. This piece of Viking history is quite possibly the most fun to explore but it also creates a handful of burning unanswered questions.

By 930, most of the available and arable land in Iceland had been gobbled up. There was a direct correlation between the wealthy families of Iceland and the first settlers. So when Erik the Red was banished around 982 and heard the stories of more free land to the west, he probably assumed the same rule would apply. Being the first settler of Greenland would ensure he would be one of the more prominent men there. The legend says that Erik named the landmass "Greenland" in order to entice or even trick other Icelanders and Norse to settle in the arctic. In reality, the land that Erik explored was probably very green in the warmer climate of the early middle ages. And so some adventurers decided to follow a murderous outlaw into the wild white north.

 Erik the Red, right after killing someone

When the Vikings began to settle Greenland, it was completely uninhabited. Unlike Iceland, no annoying Irish monks were around to boot out. Greenland was no paradise. The land offered very little space in which humans could live and survive. Between the Western Settlement and the much smaller Eastern Settlement, Greenland boasted a population of around 400-500 people. Around the year 1000, stories of a Bjarni blown of course to a rich wooded land started to circulate. This led to Leif Erikkson's venture to the west, to North America.

Our evidence on the Norse presence in North America is extremely limited. Between Erik the Red's Saga and Greenlander's Saga and the small amount of archaeological discoveries we are left with only a few pieces to an enormous and tantalizing puzzle. For decades, archaeologists searched in vain for Leif's camp and the short-lived Viking settlement. The leading theories pointed south down the Atlantic coast, possibly as far as New York. It wasn't until the 1960s when a couple discovered some remains at the most northern tip of Newfoundland at what is now known as L'anse aux Meadows. An excavation revealed the foundations of multiple buildings, including a large hall. Multiple artifacts were found, all carbon-dated to around 1000-1050.

Was this Leif's camp? The evidence didn't quite stack up. The sagas referred to a Vinland, which, one would think, suggested that the vines of grapes the Vikings observed in the sagas grew there. They did not. Wild grapes grew much further south, in the area of New Brunswick. The sagas described three different lands to the west of Greenland: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. The site at L'anse aux Meadows did not seem to match any of these locations. Historians and archaeologists have determined that the site at the tip of Newfoundland was a base camp, a gateway to the lands of North America and the Canadian Arctic. They determined, through the archaeological evidence and using the descriptions in the sagas, that Helluland is modern day Baffin Island, Markland was the term for the Labrador coast, and Vinland was a general term for the lands surrounding the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Viking explorers would sail from Greenland to North America, using the camp at L'anse aux Meadows as a base before heading west, north, and south. This is partly determined because butternuts were found in Newfoundland in excavations. Butternuts are not native that far north. The Vikings must have travelled south and collected butternuts, as well as those wild grapes, and brought them back north.

After all we have learned about the ambitious sailors and explorers of the Viking Age, one would expect the settlements in North America to last longer than a few seasons. Why did this venture fail, when Iceland, and to some extent, Greenland, succeeded? The easy answer is the natives. Evidence exists of contact between the Norse and the native Dorset and Thule (Inuit) peoples of the Canadian Arctic. Imagining these meetings in my head is hilarious. It's not so funny when people die. Still, the ruthless warrior Vikings coming face to face with ancestors of the Eskimos! How strange! The sagas tell us of both trading ventures and hostile skirmishes. The archaeology too supports both peaceful and violent encounters. In the sagas, the Greenalnders give up on the North American settlement as a bad job, citing the hostile natives as the main purpose for their fleeing.

I think another important reason for the failure in North America is sheer numbers. While the Vikings pushed quickly across the Atlantic, their numbers dwindled the further west they went. This is due mostly to the climate and the amount of land available. The emigration to Iceland from Norway was a huge outpouring of thousands of families. The move from Iceland to Greenland was more a trickle. And from Greendland there was just a sprinkling of people who set foot on American soil. The quality of life also seemed to diminish the further one got from the homeland in Scandinavia. Iceland was an obvious step down in quality, supporting a basic class of farmers. Greenland had an even shorter growing season, causing the farms to barely scrape by. By the fourteenth century, the Norse had given up on Greenland as the climate worsened. It can be assumed, then, that the camps in Newfoundland and elsewhere in the New World were not much to envy. Exploration and settlement is an expensive business, something Greenland would be hard pressed to support. The evidence at L'anse aux Meadows reveals that around 90-100 people lived there at one time. That's one-fifth of the population of Greenland!

The colonies on Iceland and Greenland started out much the same as the failed American venture: explorers set up base camps, sailed around the coast, and explored inland for a handful of years before the first permanent settlers arrived. The biggest difference was that both Iceland and Greenland were virtually empty. No one was around to put up a fight. When they first arrived in Vinland, it was largely unoccupied. Most of area frequented by the Vikings were inhabited by small groups of Dorset, whose temperament and limited numbers posed no threat the Norse explorers. However, there soon came a new group of natives who really rubbed the Vikings the wrong way. At the same time the Norse were pushing further and further west, the Thule peoples, who had settled in Alaska 4,000 years ago, were pushing further and further east. They soon displaced the quiet Dorset people and eventually pushed as far as Northwestern Greenland. A remarkable migration in its own right, the Thule movement threatened the Norse camps, hunting and trading sites.

After the North American settlement was abandoned, the Norse Greenlanders continued to sail back and forth in order to gather timber and other supplies. Over the next three centuries, they traded with and battled with the Thules and other native groups. They finally gave it up altogether in Greenland in the fifteenth century, packing up and heading back to Iceland and the British Isles. It is a lot of fun to think about this time period and speculating on the untold interactions between the Norse and the Native peoples of the Canadian Arctic. One question still bothers me, though: If there was detailed descriptions of Vinland, and the Greenlanders kept in some-what regular contact with the Thules and later Inuits, why did it take until Columbus for another European to "discover" North America? In 1477, Christopher Columbus took a trip to England, and on his way back, stopped in Iceland where he no doubt got wind of the sagas that described the land beyond the sea. It was there for the taking! Surely the rumors had travelled throughout Europe. Heck, the Greenlanders were still visiting the areas surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence less than 100 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Were the natives that gruesome to give up entirely on an American settlement? Was the worsening climate a deterrent? Or were the men and the money just not available from the failing economies and turbulent societies of Greenland and Iceland?

I guess we'll just have to keep on digging.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Turbulent Life of Kalf Arnason

"Brother against brother." A classic description of the American Civil War. It's an adage that we in modern day find astonishing. How could a man try and kill a relative? In our Civil War, the answer is complex yet brief: both sides believed so strongly in their cause. The North aimed to keep this nation from tearing apart. The South believed it had every right to take its business elsewhere and govern a new country all to themselves. Yet, if the belief wasn't there, would we still wonder at the violence? If, instead, it was a politically strategic move carried out by an ambitious individual, we'd be left scratching our heads instead of marveling at the violence with eager interest. Before there Civil War, before even the Europeans came to America, we find a man in Norway perpetrating just such a scheme. His name was Kalf Arnason.

Kalf's story really begins with an Icelandic poet named Stein. Olaf the Stout, later known as St. Olaf, was the king of Norway. He wanted his greedy little paws in every body's cookie pot, so he invited some of the leading men of Iceland to visit him. Those men showed up, and King Olaf decided that until all of Iceland converted to Christianity, as well as pay him some cool taxes, no one was leaving. As a result, Stein was on edge. He longed for home and couldn't quite shake the feeling that he was a hostage. One day, he got in a tussle and killed one of King Olaf's bailiffs. Seeing his end sight, Stein ran for it. He came to the house of Thorberg Arnason, but found home alone the woman of the house, Ragnhild. She took in the terrified poet and promised him help.

When Thorberg found out that his wife had taken in a murderer, not to mention a murderer of a royal servant, he was none too pleased. The couple argued over Stein's future, but it becomes obvious that Ragnhild wore the tunic in this relationship. So Stein stayed. And soon, Thorberg received an ominous summons from King Olaf to join him at his court. Thorberg did what any man in his situation would do: he begged his family for help. He approached three of his brothers for advice and assistance. Both Finn Arnason and Arni Arnason chided their brother for marrying such a heard-headed woman and refused to help. His brother Kalf Arnason, however, required no explanations. He left at once to aid in his brother's case against the king. And so our first glimpse of Kalf is that he is a loyal family man. And even though Finn and Arni show up in the end, Kalf has no hesitation in supporting his brother...or opposing the king.

The Brothers Arnasons gather a large force and go with Thorberg to meet King Olaf. Think about this: These brothers are sticking their necks out for some Icelandic poet none of them even know, just because their sister-in-law wouldn't shut up! They were risking treason! Olaf was not happy to see the brothers up in arms. Finn offered compensation for the bailiff that Stein killed, as well as compensation for Thorberg for harboring a criminal. Olaf agreed, only if the brothers swore oaths of allegiance to him. Finn, Arni, and Thorberg all gave themselves over to the king's service. Kalf did not. He did not like the idea of swearing allegiance to anyone and went his own way.

Now at this time, our favorite bad-ass was stirring up trouble across the sea in England. King CNUT remained a constant threat throughout King Olaf's reign. If someone was dissatisfied with Olaf's rule, he would often times threaten to leave for England and serve CNUT the POWERFUL. And indeed, many of those who ran afoul of King Olaf did just that. CNUT wasn't idle however. He had his eye on Norway and slyly began formulating his plan for conquest. His first order of business was to plant some of his men in Olaf's circle, or, better yet, bribe some of Olaf's men to side with him. One of these traitors was Thorir, former foster son and later step-son of Kalf Arnason. CNUT put a golden ring on Thorir's arm in exchange for his service. When Olaf found out, both Thorir and his brother were put to death.

Kalf took the death of Thorir to heart. He had raised the boy as his own, had tried to offer compensation to the king, and had to watch as the king's men took Thorir's life. Thorir's biological father, Olivr of Egg, had also been killed by Olaf's men years ago for refusing to give up his heathen religion. All around Kalf was death at the hands of King Olaf, and it ate away at him. The rest of Norway was shaken up by Thorir's death. A popular and promising youth, Thorir had been taken in haste. This death was a turning point for many Norwegians. They went from being annoyed with their king to being furious with him. Thorir was a rallying point if not quite a martyr. There just wasn't yet any place for them to put their anger.

King Olaf began losing steam. Rumors of an invasion by King CNUT had him on edge. Soon those rumors turned into a massive Danish and English fleet waiting at Norway's doorstep. Between CNUT's huge force and the turned backs of his angry subjects, Olaf had no choice but to flee. CNUT was accepted as the King of Norway while his predecessor ran for his life. Chasing after him was a man named Erling Skjalgsson, the father-in-law of Kalf Arnason. Olaf pulled off a great maneuver and challenged Erling, even though he was outnumbered. Erling was killed at the end of the battle, against the will of King Olaf. And we are told just after the battle that the Brothers Arnason were with the king up this point. And while Erling probably meant little to Finn, Arni, or Thorberg, he was another kinsmen of Kalf's. Did Kalf fight against his father-in-law? Did this man who came unquestioning to the aid of his brother throw relations out of the window to fight for a king who had already killed three friends and to whom he swore no allegiance? What kind of turmoil was Kalf Arnason going through at this point?

He seems lost, caught in the ebb and flow of unlucky circumstances. But I think that Kalf was biding his time, unwilling to commit to Olaf because there was nothing in it for him. His true colors came out just after the battle with Erling. Kalf urged the king to sail back up to Norway to take on Earl Hakon, the man left in charge by King CNUT who had gone back to England. Olaf didn't have the numbers and instead fled to Sweden. Kalf then returns home where he finds his wife in a terrible temper. She lost her father, her first husband, and two sons to King Olaf, and she demanded that Kalf do something about. So Kalf turns a 180, sailed up to where Earl Hakon was a swore fealty. Then, he sailed to England to offer himself to King CNUT. What the fuck, Kalf? Was his wife's goading really that bad? Was he just a bumbling idiot who did whatever anyone told him? No, I think Kalf had a plan, and that plan was to stay on the winning side, even if that meant serving different kings. CNUT also made him a promise. If Kalf defended Norway from Olaf, the earldom would be his. Kalf would rule Norway in the name of CNUT.

King CNUT made this same promise to another prominent man from Norway. His name was Einar. But he, unlike Kalf did not trust King CNUT. First of all, Earl Hakon already filled that position. Secondly, CNUT had a baboon of a son named Svein, sitting in Denmark, just hankering to really fuck something up. Kalf left England and quickly returned to Norway to prepare the people against an invasion by Olaf. Einar, however, took his time. This move would prove to pay off ten-fold. 

Soon after Kalf's meeting with CNUT, Earl Hakon drowned at sea, which left Norway extremely vulnerable. Kalf waited for word from England that the position was his, but no word came. Instead, a rumbling from the east told him that Olaf was indeed returning. The death of Hakon was like an open invitation. Olaf began gathering followers while Kalf began whipping the farmers into shape. Without a legit leader, Kalf took it upon himself to incite the Norwegians. He would remind them all of the hardships Olaf had caused, would rant about the grievances they all held against their old king. Olaf, on the other hand, was collecting highway robbers, criminals, and a borrowed force from Sweden. And by the time he got back to Norway, three brothers joined his ranks: Finn, Arni, and Thorberg.

The forces faced off at Stiklarstath. Kalf on one side with Thorir the Hound, Harek, and the farmers. King Olaf stood on the other side with Kalf's brothers and the band of misfits who wanted to restore the rightful king back to the throne. Olaf stood no chance. His force was greatly outnumbered. Kalf not only fought against his brothers but quite possibly was the man who dealt King Olaf his death blow. After the battle, Kalf sought out his kin. He found all three brothers wounded but alive. Finn threw his sword at Kalf and swore he would kill him. But Kalf bore them all off the battlefield and nursed them back to health. What kind of man were you, Kalf?!

After the fall of King Olaf, Kalf watched his plans and his promises crumble as CNUT's son Svein took control of Norway. He watched as Svein imposed heavy taxes and harsh new laws that broke the farmers' spirits. He watched too as Einar sailed back to Norway, also holding onto CNUT's broken promises but blameless in expelling and defeating his own king. In fact, Einar became very popular as he pushed the church to recognize the sanctity of the late Olaf. Kalf seemed more lost than ever. His brothers hated him. The people blamed him. It was he after all who pushed them to expel Olaf in favor of CNUT. So Kalf does the only thing he can think of to repair some of the damage he did. He, along with Einar, sails to Germany to where Olaf's son Magnus is hiding and swears an oath of loyalty to the son of the king he killed.

The wonder of brother on brother violence is lost in the story of Kalf Arnason. There is no clear, strong belief available for us to accept that type of treachery. Instead, we get a glimpse of a wonderfully broken and struggling human being in the midst of the medieval warrior facade. So often a Viking is portrayed as tall, handsome, skilled. Seldom do we see this type of internal struggle, this back and forth, this thirst for power yet unmistakable regret. Kalf Arnason is a small character in the overall Saga of St. Olaf, but it is one that I found more fascinating than Olaf himself. These sagas truly are wonderful works of prose, and I'm excited to see where Magnus the Good takes us. Stay true, History Fans.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Seriously Cool Life of Olaf Tryggvason

Today, History Fans, we are going to look at the amazing life of Olaf Tryggvason. His story can be found in Snorri Sturluson’s masterpiece, Heimskringla, or, The History of the Kings of Norway. The lovable Snorri traces the lineage of kings, starting the Ynglings and all the way down through the last of the Magnuses. You might remember this book when I used it to illustrate Snorri’s bizarre urge to convince us all that the gods were really great kings who hoodwinked the old Scandinavians into believing they were more than men. Once he excuses his ancestors, however, Snorri rekindles his excellent story-telling demeanor and trudges through the lives of the men who held the Norwegian throne, including the fascinating tale of Olaf Tryggvason.

In order to understand the craziness of Olaf’s life, we need to understand the shape of Norway at the time of his birth. Harald Fairahair had “unified” Norway around 872. He had defeated all of the petty kingdoms that had come to define Norway for years. This made him a lot of enemies, many of which fled to Iceland as we saw in The Book of Settlements. On the eve of Harald’s death, however, he split up his kingdom like a moron. Instead of just handing over his life’s work to one heir, he divided it up between his twenty-some sons. Each son was dissatisfied with his lot and wanted more than what their father hand left them. Too many cocks in the hen house, right? Erik Bloodaxe was Harald’s favorite, but since he was a cuckoo, blood-thirsty Viking, he did not win the popular vote with the farmers. Instead, Hakon the Good, one of Harald’s sons, took up the crown. However, since Harald botched the whole thing, there now existed other “kings” in Norway. Probably more like earls, these powerful men maintained certain districts with a decent amount of autonomy. Hakon the Good set up his pal Tryggvi as a “king” in the Vik district. Tryggvi enjoyed all the benefits of being a lesser king in the Vik. That is, until Hakon’s death.

After Hakon died, the sons of Erik Bloodaxe scrambled for power in Norway. One of his sons, Harald Graycloak took the throne, but it was Erik’s widow, Gunnhild, who really called the shots. She and her sons attempted to do away with the earls and the kings, like Tryggvi, so that the sons of Erik could enjoy the tributes and the power that was meant for the sons of Harald. Guthroth, another of Erik’s brood, cut down Tryggvi in order to take the important Vik district. And that is where the story of Olaf Tryggvason really begins. 

Scared for her life and for the life of her unborn child, Tryggvi’s wife Astrith makes a run for it. She is accompanied by her foster-father as she runs through the countryside. She eventually makes it to a small island where she gives birth Olaf Tryggvason. At this point, Gunnhild discovers that Tryggvi might have a son. She sends the terrible sons of Erik after Astrith. The last thing they need is someone to challenge their royal claims, especially someone who would have vengeance on the brain! Astrith finds her way into Sweden, where Hakon the Old takes her in. The horrible and disgusting sons of Erik follow her to Sweden and even get permission from the King of Sweden to take Astrith and her son Olaf back to Norway. When they get to Hakon the Old’s farmstead, the old man hides the woman and child and refuses to hand them over to the stinking, snarling, no-good sons of Erik. 

Astrith knew she couldn’t stay with Hakon the Old with her enemies so close at hand. She decides to travel east at the invitation of her brother, Sigurth, who has been in the service of Vladamir the Great in Russia for a number of years. Hakon the Old sends her off with a decent company and a small skiff. And just when you think she and young Olaf are safe, they are captured by Vikings in the Baltic! Then, they are sold into slavery! Olaf was first bought by a man in exchange for a goat, then another by a good cloak. Separated from his mother, Olaf grew up a lonely slave on a farm in Estonia. 

Then one day, Olaf’s luck finally changed. His maternal uncle, Sigurth, who was Astrith’s intended destination, happened to be in Estonia on official business for Vladamir the Great. Sigurth spotted Olaf, an obvious foreigner who towered above the other boys. He questioned the young Olaf about who he was and where he came from. Learning that this was indeed his nephew, not to mention a possible future king of Norway, Sigurth bought the boy from his owner and took him back to Novgorod. But his troubles didn’t end there! At one point, Olaf saw and recognized the Viking who had captured himself and his mother and killed him on the spot. At the request of Sigurth, Olaf was then kept under the protection of King Vladamir and his bride, Queen Allogia of Garthariki. 

Stop! We need to now go back and look at what’s been happening in Norway since Olaf’s exile. The last we saw, the sniveling, wretched, butt-munching sons of Erik were carving up the country and getting rid of the powerful men like Olaf’s father. One such powerful man put up a much stronger fight, though. Earl Hakon had taken over for his father as the ruler in the important Trondheim district. He had kept the evil sons of Erik at bay and even maintained his autonomy within his district. However, he eventually buckled and fled to Denmark, where he thrived in the court of King Harald of Denmark. This dude was cunning. He devised a genius plan that involved three Haralds. See if you can hang on here: King Harald of Denmark, King Harald Graycloack of Norway (stupid son of Erik), and Gold-Harald, the ambitious nephew of the Danish King, who believed he had a pretty good claim to his uncle’s throne. Gold-Harald was getting restless and confessed to Hakon that he wanted to challenge his uncle. King Harald, too, confessed to Hakon that his nephew was growing too big for his britches and asked his friend for advice. So Hakon hatched this devious plan: Gold-Harald wanted to rule a country, but King Harald did not want to give up any of his domain. Hakon invited the King of Norway, Harald Graycloak, to Denmark on the pretense that they owed him some tribute. Harald Graycloak was wary, but Norway was in bad shape at the time and he needed the extra money. Gold-Harald would be waiting for Harald Graycloak with the men and the blessing of the King of Denmark. Instead of giving him a piece of his own country, the king would give his nephew a whole different country to rule! So, Gold-Harald attacked Harald Graycloak on his way to Denmark and was victorious. But Hakon was deceitful. Not long after the victory, he found Gold-Harald, beat him in battle, and hanged him. Hakon had used Gold-Harald to get rid of his enemy and then double crossed Gold-Harald in order to eliminate a rival claim to the throne. He then sailed to Norway, with King Harald of Denmark’s blessing, and became the accepted ruler, an earl somewhat in service to the Danish crown.

Crazy, right?

Back to Olaf: Things were getting pretty hairy in the court of King Vladamir. He became the commander of the king’s army, as well as a member of the queen’s personal bodyguard. Rumors started flying about his relationship with the queen, who was very fond of Olaf. Seeing the mess he was about to be in, Olaf joined a ship crew and went Viking in the Baltic. Olaf eventually found himself in Wendland, which is in Northern Germany, present day Pomerania. The King of Wendland, Boreslav I, had a daughter, Geira, who took Olaf’s eye and eventually his hand in marriage. He made his home in Wendland but continued to raid throughout the Baltic.

Then, worlds start to collide. Otto II of Germany threatened King Harald of Denmark that if he didn’t accept Christ and get religion, he would invade and force him to be baptized at sword point. Just like Jesus intended! Well, King Harald wasn’t going to let go of his heathen ways that easily. He called upon his sort-of-vassal, Earl Hakon of Norway to come back him up in case of a fight. On the other side, Otto requested assistance from his neighbor Boreslav and his wonderful son-in-law… Olaf Tryggvason! Worlds colliding! 

After a few battles, Otto II is victorious. According to the deal, the heathens were to be baptized. King Harald was unconvinced until Bishop Poppo grabbed smoldering hot iron in the name of the Lord and showed his unburned, uninjured hands to Harald. So, the King of Denmark was baptized, as was his sidekick, Earl Hakon of Norway. Otto II gave Harald and Hakon some clerics, priests, and learn-ed men to help them set up their new Christian nations. Harald seemed to be sincere in his conversion, while Hakon, as soon as he was out of sight of the others, dropped off all the Christians on his way home and made them walk to shore. What a bad ass!

Olaf returned to Wendland after the battle to find his beloved Geira had passed away. With nothing left for him in the Baltic, Olaf returned to the Viking life, wreaking havoc upon England, Ireland, and the Northern Atlantic. In fact, he probably joined forces with Svein Forkbeard, son of King Harald of Denmark, at some point in the tormenting of England, which eventually led to Svein conquering the country, and, of course, our favorite dude: King CNUT!

Olaf married Gytha, a daughter of an Irish King, and settled down in northern England. Earl Hakon catches wind that Olaf Tryggvason is indeed alive and not too far away. Old, cunning Hakon devises a plan to lure Olaf back to Norway in order to have him killed. But the plan doesn’t come to fruition.  Hakon has a major flaw: women. He has slept with so many of the farmers’ wives that the country has turned against him. By the time Olaf returns to Norway, Hakon has been murdered and the throne left wide open. Talk about your all-time backfires!

So, finally, the scared little former slave returns to his home and becomes king! Hooray! Wait a second…the scared little former slave has turned into a religious nut and is converting Norway the way God intended: through violence! An interesting side note: those dastardly, sons-of-bitches, rude dudes with attitudes, rotten-to-the-core sons of Erik had tried years earlier to convert the farmers. So had Hakon the Good! They were absolutely appalled at the idea that they had to stop working on Sundays. They thought for sure that the kings were trying to starve them, keep them in the dark, or pull a fast one on them. But there had at least been a discussion. King Olaf used his sword for talking. Only when he met substantial resistance would he stop to listen. The people Rogaland said that they would become Christians if the king’s sister would marry their kinsmen, Erling. His sister refuses because Erling is just a commoner. So King Olaf gives Erling an earldom and forces his sister to marry the guy. 

Again, he meets resistance with the Trondheim farmers. They refuse to convert and instead demand that the king sacrifice with them to the old gods. Olaf says he will make the ultimate sacrifices to Odin: human sacrifices. He then reads off a list of the names of the most prominent chieftains and leaders of the Trondheim district. These men, he says, will have the honor of being sacrificed. Seeing the trap, the farmers have no choice but to bend the knee and be baptized. More than anything, though, we see the farmers from both districts are less concerned with losing their old faith and more upset that their king is breaking laws. It was Hakon the Good who had really helped develop the Gulathing and the laws that came to define medieval Norway and later medieval Iceland. And their king was trouncing upon those laws as if they meant nothing. These Scandinavians of the Viking Age cared more about their freedom and their liberty than they did about religion. I can relate.

As Olaf grew older, he was mainly concerned with forcing those around him to convert to Christianity. He had already spread the good news to the Orkney's and the surrounding islands, and he was also meddling in Iceland’s affairs, sending the awful Thangbrand, as well as Gizur the White, to help in the conversion process there. But Olaf had one last adventure up his sleeve that involved his old buddy, Svein Forkbeard, and his former father-in-law, King Boreslav.

Years ago, Svein had been captured by the Wends. He wriggled out of trouble by marrying Boreslav’s daughter, Gunnhild, and by promising Boreslav his own sister’s hand in marriage. Svein’s sister, Thyri, had no desire to be a Boreslav’s wife. And the first chance she got, she fled from Wendland. She couldn’t go to Denmark for fear that her brother, now the king, would ship her straight back. So she went to Norway to seek Olaf’s protection. King Olaf liked what he saw and asked Thyri to marry him when she was supposed to marry his ex-father-in-law! What the heck, Olaf?! Thyri agreed, but soon proved to be much more trouble than she was worth. She complained about life in Norway and finally goaded Olaf into challenging Boreslav for her property and lands in Wendland. 

Refusing to be challenged by a woman, Olaf sets sail for Wendland. But there is a secret alliance waiting for him. Svein Forkbeard has had enough of Olaf. He and the King of Sweden, also named Olaf, joined forces to take down King Olaf once and for all. They were joined by Earl Erik the son of the insatiable ladies-man, Earl Hakon. A huge battle ensues. Snorri is incredibly descriptive about the battle tactics and the carnage. Svein and Olaf of Sweden are no match for Olaf Tryggvason. But it is his fellow Norwegian, Earl Erik, who proves to be too much. Olaf is wounded during the fight and jumps overboard. Some say he drowned. Others say he swam to shore. Sightings of him start popping up around the Viking world but none are confirmed. It’s a mystery!

Norway is then divided between the victors. Earl Erik gets his hands on the Trondheim, Svein Forkbeard takes the Vik, and Olaf of Sweden gets a small share that he puts in the hands of another son of Hakon, Svein! The sons of Hakon were both baptized, but they allow both Christianity and the old religion to exist in their Norway. And so ends the saga of Olaf Tryggvason. There is plenty to learn from Olaf and his crazy life, but in the end, it is simply a very good story. A troubled past that invokes sympathy. A tortured and insane future that makes you hate him. He’s like John Locke! I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. It will be a while until our next update as I attempt to swallow Snorri’s next treat: The Saga of St. Olaf. We also learned what kind of nutballs religion can turn us into. Until next time, History Fans. Keep the faith and force it on your neighbors.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Oh Magog: Ibn Fadlan, the Land of Darkness, and the Mystery of Gog and Magog

Happy New Year, History Fans! Welcome to 2014! How the hell are we still here?! Why hasn’t the earth imploded yet? What gives?! Well, until it does, we here at History Books will continue to solve mysteries and explore histories. And when things look really grim, we’ll probably take part in all kinds of end-time debauchery. 

This post is about just that: the end times! With maybe a little debauchery thrown in. But first: let’s talk about Vikings, baby!

For Christmas this year, my wonderful mother bought me a very nice and warm coat. The old H&M pile of rags just wasn’t cutting it anymore. This left little room for other, more scholarly gifts. My mom, however, believes in the Christmas spirit so much, she bought me a delightful book about Arab travelers in Northern Europe during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. Most important among these is Ibn Fadlan’s chronicle of his trip up to the mouth of the Volga where he came in contact with the Vikings. 

Ibn Fadlan’s observations on the Vikings are invaluable, but they are but a small piece of his greater story. Fadlan was sent by the caliph of Baghdad to the ruler of the Bulghars who recently converted to Islam. The ruler of the Bulghars, who we will call Yiltawar because he has a very long name indeed, wrote to the Caliph after his conversion and requested that someone come show them how to be Muslims. This is incredibly telling because it probably meant that Yiltawar’s conversion was more political than religious. With barbaric and pagan tribes on all sides, including the Oguz Turks, an alliance with the powerful caliphate meant not only protection from their enemies but also a connection to the wealth and learning that streamed from the capital. So, Fadlan was sent to help Yiltawar understand the rules and traditions of Islam. 

The kingdom of the Bulghars was in eastern Russia and sat between the Volga and the Kama rivers. This map will give you some idea of just how far Fadlan had to travel: http://www.face-music.ch/nomads/map_bulgarkhanat.jpg

The envoy consisted of Fadlan and about three or four other representatives. And here is where the story gets interesting: There was a vizier who fell out of favor with the caliphate. His name was Ibn al-Furat. The caliphate commanded that al-Furat was to hand over a huge amount of money to his agent, Ahmad ibn Musa, who was supposed to meet up with Fadlan and his companions. The revenue was to help the King of the Bulghars to build a new fortress. This was to be a main part of the envoy’s duty. However, Ibn al-Furat had some of his cronies arrest Ahmad ibn Musa on false charges. Therefore the money was never collected and the fellowship left on their journey without Musa and the funds needed for the fortress. 

Fadlan wrote detailed notes on everything he encountered on the journey to the Bulghars. And even though his notes on the Vikings are what he is known best for, he also gives us great insights into the kingdom of the Khazars, the Bulghars rival neighbors. Fadlan is almost comical, gawking at their lack of hygiene and their barbaric ways. When he finally arrives at his destination, he is received warmly by the fat King Yiltawar. But things do not go well. After they observe the niceties, the king demands the money that was promised him. Fadlan tries to explain the circumstances to the king but was met with cold resistance. Fadlan instructs the king on how and what to pray, but the king, in rebellion, changes prays his own way to show his disdain for Fadlan and his broken promise. From Fadlan’s writing, there is no indication that things were patched up between he and the king. We have only later documents that allude to a healthy relationship between the Baghdad caliphate and that same area. The real treasure comes from when Fadlan visits the Viking trading post located on the Volga.

The accounts of Ibn Fadlan and his contemporary writers, as well as the writers who followed after, are incredibly helpful on two accounts. First, it is easy to forget about the Swedish Vikings who trickled into Russia and Eastern Europe. They get lost in the furious and well documented attacks on Western Europe. The assimilation and conquering of England is romantic and brutal. The Danish and Norse Vikings who pushed west were much easier to document with the Christian writers scared out of their wits throughout Europe. The Arab journals are helpful to recount just how much of an impact the Vikings had in the east as well. The east-faring Vikings, or the Rus as they were known, set up a small trading post in the Slavic areas of Eastern Europe that soon flourished. As it grew, it developed into one of the leading cities of that area and is known today as Kiev. Did you get that?! The Vikings planted the city of Kiev!! What can’t these guys do?!

The second reason these accounts are great is how much they differ from the exaggerated and terrifying accounts by the Christian chroniclers. In England, 30 ships turned into 80 ships. And the handful of citizens that were killed turned into piles of bodies that clogged the streets. That’s not to say that the Vikings were not violent. The Arabs, though, take a much more annoyed outsider approach. Fadlan is both intrigued and disturbed by the Rus. The other Arab chroniclers seem frustrated with the Vikings. Any time they mention the Rus –God destroy them all!—they use awesome asides just like that. The observations are much more objective, much cleaner and to the point. These rascals from up north are bothering everybody and we won’t put up with it!

The most important piece of Ibn Fadlan’s writing is his description of the Viking funeral. In modern culture, the term Viking funeral usually brings to mind a deceased body being set onto a ship, setting the ship on fire, and letting it out to sea. That whole idea can be traced straight back to Fadlan. Nowhere else do we see as vivid a description of a funeral, nor do we see the details that Fadlan provides. It is really quite harrowing, and quite beautiful in a somber sort of way. The Vikings, saying goodbye to a leader, will kill his horses, his slave girls, even some of them could volunteer to follow his master into the afterlife. And then they set it all on fire. Fuckin’ A.

In the midst of Fadlan’s story, and scattered throughout the other Arab accounts, were references to a strange people or place: Gog and Magog. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what exactly Gog and Magog were, other than fun words to say. But I’ve been doing some digging, and with the help of some brilliant minds and old books, I think I’ve kind of figured it out.

Gog and Magog pop up in both the Koran and the Bible. That in itself is interesting but not unheard of. The two texts share quite a few of the same names and stories. While the Christian references seemed aloof, the Islam references were explained by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone in the Introduction to Ibn Fadlan’s text. According to the Koran, the Muslim belief or “myth” of the end of time involves the people of Gog and Magog breaching a wall and laying destruction to the earth. The wall, or barrier, is commonly called Alexander’s Wall, in reference to some great piece of masonry that Alexander the Great built in order to keep some dangerous tribe at bay. This wall was never built, which makes me want to place this story into the “myth” category. But it is mentioned in the Koran, which, just like the Bible, is mysterious and infallible.
Why did these names or names of places, keep popping up in this book about the Arab travels in northern Europe? Were they referring to the Vikings? From what I’ve gathered, the people or place attributed to Gog and Magog is very vague. Alexander’s wall was thought to be near the Caucus area. But the names have come to define any number of peoples that live to the north of the original Muslim empire. The Turks, Chinese, Slavs, all of which could be considered Gog and Magog. 

Gog and Magog came to exemplify any tribe or group of peoples that posed a threat to the Muslim world and was built into the end of the world scenario. The references in the Bible seem to have come from a similar thought process. Magog is first mentioned in Genesis as a son of Japheth, who was a son of Noah. This could just be a coincidental name. Later, in Ezekiel and again in Revelations (The Bible’s own version of the end times), Gog is mentioned as the ruler of a place called Magog. In this prophecy, Gog is to gather up his forces, as well as his neighbors, which included Persia and surrounding nations, for an attack on Israel. Not too far off from the Muslim idea, huh? In both end-time accounts the Jewish nation and the Muslim nation, respectively, are to be attacked by Gog and Magog. 

With the help of Pastor Marc Buwalda, Ashley Sullivan, and Eastern Orthodox expert Brian Whirledge, I got some idea of where exactly the nation of Magog could have been. The great historian Josephus connects Gog and Magog to the Scythians. He too agrees that Alexander the Great had holed up these people behind a barrier in the mountains throughout the Caucus. There is also a reference in classical works that Magog was within the Armenian kingdom, which would place it right around the modern-day Iraq and Turkey borders. But a question remained: Could Gog and Magog be a reference to the Vikings? There was at least one line of thinking that was spelled out by Shaykh Dr. Ridhwan Saleem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY9s5956spk

Now, after watching Dr. Saleem talk, it became pretty clear that he was stretching some of the Koran’s verses to fit his theory. But I thought that he had some pretty interesting points. According to him, the Vikings more or less ushered in the “end times.” As the Viking age ends, around 1000-1100 AD, what begins? The CRUSADES! Why, he asks, did Europe suddenly become obsessed with taking Jerusalem? Why, after years of relatively safe passage into the Holy City, did the Christians demand that the city be handed over to them? Many of the Crusades can be traced back to Normandy, which, of course, is a Viking settlement. It’s a stretch. And it’s an even bigger stretch when he claims that the mountains in Norway must have been the barrier described in the Koran. The patriarch of the Scandinavian Normandy, Rollo, could very well have been Danish, totally debunking Saleem’s theory. His origin is unknown. Another reason I have trouble with Saleem's theory is that if the Vikings did in fact usher in the end of the time, the last days sure have been going on for a while, huh?!

So, could the prophecies about Gog and Magog in both the Bible and the Koran mean the attacks of the Vikings? Sure! It could also have referred to a dozen other peoples throughout eastern and northern Europe. And, if you read your classical and Arabic histories, you will find out that often times it did! In the end, we find a pretty anit-climatic answer—we don’t really know who Gog or Magog really was or where it was. Scholars and researchers like Dr. Saleem have used the Koran, the Bible, and other texts to fit their theories as to who Gog and Magog really were. As Pastor Marc Buwalda so eloquently stated, “. . . nobody seems to know.  Gog was probably a ruler; Magog was likely where he was from.  Your idea that Magog could refer to Europeans in general may have some merit, but only because generally speaking, modern Europe is north of Israel.”

Was it all for nothing? Did we end up at square one? Did we wine her and dine her, only to discover she is saving herself for marriage? I don’t think so. The mystery of Gog and Magog is intriguing. I had a lot of fun snooping through Ashley’s Bible land books and watching kooky Muslim YouTube videos. Plus, I think there is some research to be done, some connection to be made, not in who Gog and Magog really were, but how the Bible and the Koran ended up with a common enemy when our time on earth runs out. And so we keep digging, History Fans. The truth is out there. And who says we can’t enjoy the bumps and obstacles along the way?