"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.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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.
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
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?
Friday, December 6, 2013
Welcome back, History Fans. We last saw King CNUT as he was attempting to improve his status as not just the King of England, but as an emperor that could carry his weight alongside any other European ruler. Let's see what kind of wacky adventures he gets into today!
During the early part of the 1020s, we see CNUT doing what he does best: ruling shrewdly. He expelled Thorkell from England only to be reconciled with him two years later. He was sending a message. Throkell couldn’t be trusted because he had served Ethelred and betrayed him. Thorkell may have been one of the lucky ones. Some who served both kings saw their lives end either in death or in exile. But CNUT proved how cunning he really was during this time when he embraced not only the English culture but more importantly the English Church. The church was a huge part of the way of life in England. Being a part of the Roman Empire helped them develop that wonderful bureaucratic system that the Christian church filled out so nicely. Denmark, however, was just outside the reach of the Romans. There was no central church the way there was in England. The priests, bishops, and monks served more than a spiritual purpose: they helped run the country. CNUT was quick to recognize this and also that it would be impossible for him to replace these members of societies with Danish men of his choosing. Instead, he swore to be a good Christian king, to fight for the church, and to keep most of the Anglo-Saxons in their positions.
Something happened at the end of the decade that flared up that natural opportunistic Viking feeling inside of King CNUT. I mentioned above that CNUT’s father had for a time put Norway in his empire and under the rule of Eric of Lade. Well, Eric shows up in England in 1016 as one of CNUT’s earls. Eric left the country’s fate in his brother’s hands, who was quickly disposed of by Olaf Haraldson (another Olaf!). Olaf of Norway teamed up with the King of Sweden, Anund Jacob, and attacked a CNUT-less Denmark in 1027. In 1028, CNUT sailed to Norway with 50 ships. Before any battle was fought, CNUT bought off a large part of Olaf’s army. Once again, we see CNUT’s shrewdness: he takes Ethelred’s defense of tribute and turns it into an offensive. Olaf offered little resistance and CNUT took Norway back and even claimed a part of Sweden as his own, thus regaining, for the moment, the North Atlantic Empire that his father Svein had worked so hard to get. He left Hakon, nephew of Eric of Lade, in charge in Norway and returned to England as an emperor. But, like everything in CNUT’s life, this position would soon be gone.
CNUT continued to be the king he swore to be. He traveled to Rome in 1030, and there he asked for the dues of the English churches to be lowered. He also secured a lower toll for trading vessels in Italy. He probably got a glimpse of the emperor’s life there in Rome and thought he would love to have that kind of power. But that same year, Hakon passed away in Norway. Olaf tried to return but was actually killed by his own people! CNUT put one his oldest sons, Svein, back in power in Norway until he was run out in 1034. So the empire already started to crumble before CNUT’s death in 1035. His death caused one of the craziest chain reactions in all of history. This is where it gets real good!
Here was CNUT’s plan of succession. His son Svein was supposed to inherit Norway, Harthacnut to stay in Denmark, and Harold Harefoot to take the English throne. Svein’s reign was cut short before CNUT’s death by Olaf’s son, Magnus. The rest of the plan may have worked if it weren’t for the fact that Harold Harefoot was the son of CNUT’s first wife, while Harthacnut was the son of Emma of Normandy. So after King CNUT’s death, his son Harold Harefoot wanted to succeed him, but had a weak claim to the throne. To make matters worse, Ethelred’s younger sons, seeing their opportunity, return from exile to try and reclaim the throne from the Danes.
The story of Ethelred’s exiled children is fascinating. Remember: when Ethelred had to flee England during the invasion, he took with him two sons, Edward and Alfred, who, had they had a force behind them, could have made a very real threat to the throne. Before CNUT’s death, Duke Robert of Normandy had asked the king to return the children to England and restore their property. He backed up this request by raising a fleet. CNUT went to meet him, but Duke Robert decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead. Probably a good call, but whatever deal CNUT had with Normandy through his wife Emma died with him. Alfred wastes no time returning, but immediately is captured by Earl Godwin. Edward, however, buys his time. In 1037 Harold Harefoot was sworn in as king. He ruled for three years before his untimely death. Harthacnut came over from Denmark and took his rightful place as King of England. His reign was even shorter than his brother’s. In 1042, the last of CNUT’s sons died, putting Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred, champion of the Anglo-Saxons, back on the throne.
Edward the Confessor had some big shoes to fill. His father earned the nickname “the Unready” because of his failure to defend the country. By the time of Edward’s ascension, England probably looked just as vulnerable as it did back in 1013 when Svein Forkbeard conquered it. His enemies are the Scandinavian men who found a role in Anglo-Saxon England. The powerful Earl Godwin wanted a shot at the throne and threatened to take it from Edward. In 1051, Edward showed that he meant business. He stopped paying the tribute to the Danes and he also outlawed Godwin and his son who were making trouble. Over the next ten years, Edward ran all over the country, from town to ports, trying to defend England from the Scandinavian armies who were supported by Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. To keep this brief, I won’t go into detail as to the inner workings of England at this time. It is fascinating and difficult to follow, but our focus is on 1066. In that year, King Edward died. Godwin’s son, Harold, who had inherited his father’s earldom, lays claim to the English throne. And here’s where things get really crazy: Harold’s brother, Tostig, decided to support a different Harald. This was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. He too threw his name into the hat for future kings of England. He and Tostig had earlier campaign in Wales. His return to England was anticipated by Harold Godwinsson, who went to go meet him at Sandwich.
Here we see some of the difficulties of Ethelred echoed in King Harold’s reign. While waiting at Sandwich, he realized that he could not afford to keep his whole army together. Harald Hardrada finally does show up to join with Tostig, but not at Sandwich. King Harold rides hard to meet the invading force. Before he reached them, two earls from Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, try to take the force head on. These men replaced Tostig when he was expelled from Northumbria. The Norwegians defeat the earls and their force and continue on to York. There they are met by King Harold and the rest of his forces. King Harold wins decisively at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Tostig and Harald Hardrada are killed. And things are finally looking up for the Anglo-Saxons!
Yet while Harold was busy fighting off the Norwegians, an unseen foe crossed the English Channel and landed at Hastings: Duke William. William the goddamn Bastard! Did his Viking roots kick in when he saw the turmoil in England? The perfect opportunist, the duke got wind of Harold Godwinsson heading north to fight off a large invading force. He took his chance. Landing in Hastings on September 29, 1066, he quickly built a classic Norman castle and prepared his defenses. He knew Harold would come to meet him. Indeed, Harold meets his end at the Battle of Hastings and William becomes the Conqueror.
Now, William’s claim to the throne was shaky at best. The story is that while Edward the Confessor grew up in Normandy, he and William became buddies. An agreement was made. If Edward could regain the throne, William would be his successor. The validity of this rumor is suspect, but William defended the realm with a ferocity that had not been seen England for many years. He chased off multiple invaders. Prince Edgar, a distant relative of Edmund Ironside, tried to stir up a rebellion that was quickly put down by William.
So why do we remember and celebrate William’s victory in 1066 and not Svein’s in 1013, or CNUT’s in 1016? The simple reason: longevity. CNUT’s early death led to the tumultuous environment within his empire. Instead of leaving everything in the hands of one capable heir, he split up his kingdoms. This may have worked if any of his sons had any of the charisma and skill that CNUT displayed in winning over the English people, going from enemy to beloved king in a matter of decades. But none of CNUT’s sons lived past the age of 30. Without a proper heir to rule the empire, each country fell to its enemies, including England. William on the other hand secured an heir (Henry I) and protected England in a way that CNUT’s successors could not. William also had an advantage over CNUT. In Normandy, there was a central church, which meant that William could indeed replace English priests and bishops and administrators with his own. In the end, William may have proved to be shrewder than CNUT, but the Danish king brought England into the circle of European powers. His daughter married a Roman emperor and he attended the coronation of another emperor. An English king had never enjoyed these privileges. Beyond that, CNUT displayed an incredible talent of recognizing strengths and weaknesses and adapting to the throne of England, rather than forcing his Danish touch on England. This, I think, is what makes his story so compelling and why the invasion of 1013 is worth learning about. Accepting his role as the head of Church, CNUT really put his whole self into it, working with the clergy, keeping the English in their administrative roles, and even going to the Pope for a break on tributes.
Pleasing the church wasn’t his only accomplishment as king. He became committed to justice, even though he was behind some of the worst crimes against the English people. He fought off his Scandinavian contemporaries and put back together the North Atlantic Empire that had once been held by his father. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an amazing piece of writing that does a wonderful job of spelling out just how everything fell into place for CNUT, and how everything eventually slipped from his grasp. And while Lawson’s book is mostly speculation, it still put into perspective just how daunting of a task it was for CNUT to do what he did.
The moral of the story, History Fans, is to keep your children healthy. Who knows when they could become emperor!