Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Vikings Part I: Free Jazz

After my great bamboozle, I strapped in to take on Nicola Tesla head on. I was graciously interrupted by a handful of history sources all at once. First, the Michael Heckenberger book came in from the library. I was so stoked. It is some heavy reading, but awfully interesting. There will be more on this later, which will probably much more academic in style. It's that serious. Secondly, I came across two pieces of audio literature that I could not ignore. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is sitting on my ipod, patiently waiting for me to finish the lecture series on Vikings.
Yes, Vikings. What is so interesting about them? Well, I knew a little bit going into it. Those Scandinavians were essential in building a unified England as well as shaping the English language. We discussed them at length in History of England and even in the History of the English Language, two courses I loved (and excelled in) at school. Of course, the only thing I really remember was the idea of going "berzerk." The Vikings would get trashed then go raiding and pillaging. How awesome is that?
This lecture series can be found here:

The Vikings had their day between around 800 AD - 1100 AD. There are a few reasons why they dominated Europe and Russia. First, they had surpassed everyone in ship building. At this point, people were still using very small vessels that could not handle rough waters. The Scandinavians figured out how to build longships, using technology they borrowed from both the Celts and the Romans, and could successfully navigate rivers. Eventually they tamed the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. No one else had come to terms with the water like the Norsemen. So they had the upper hand in naval skills.
Not only did they have boats, but they had weapons and armor, too. Once again, borrowing ideas from Rome, the Scandinavians put their own personal spin on things (no, they never wore hats with horns). The would make fierce chain armor and tough helmets as many of them were expert smiths and metal workers. They were a hunting people, not an agricultural, so they knew how to use bows and arrows well. Their main income came from their timber trade, so they weren't too bad with an axe.
Another reason for their success was their sheer strength, especially when it came to survival. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are home to some of the harshest winters anyone can imagine. Living that close to the arctic requires every bit of cleverness, strength, and wisdom you can muster. You must know how much food to stock up for the winter. You must know how to get across the land to trade. These people were experts at exploiting the northern climate for their advantage. And they became all the stronger for it.
The most intriguing advantage was the way that they were raised. Their belief system was all based on venerating and honoring their ancestors. They eventually came to enjoy the myths and stories of famous warriors who spent eternity in Valhalla, the Great Hall of the afterlife. Every viking was raised to believe in this, which meant that every male viking was bound to be a warrior of some type. They went into battle without fear of death, without cause or thirst for justice. While their Christian neighbors fought over beliefs and boundaries, these men showed up to fight simply to honor those who fought before them. The rest of the world found this terrifying. For three hundred years, no one could stop them or slow them. And even then it was a meager compromise that involved paying the vikings to leave England alone. With this attitude, their superior weapons and will to survive, as well as their knowledge of the waterways, the vikings traveling through western Europe and up into Russia, raiding villages, fighting anyone who dared.

The Scandinavians, like most civilizations, had oral traditions that passed down through generations. Many of these oral traditions were finally written down when our idiot ancestors finally figured out how to write. You may remember the Iliad or Beowulf or any other really long, boring story you had to reading in 11th grade English. These were memorized and recited and passed down. The vikings, however, had a super interesting way of using the oral traditions. There was the basic shell of the stories that people knew. Then, there was the meter and the form of the poetry in which it was to be recited. So you had the story and the form. But the way it was told was never word for word. The lecturer compared to jazz musicians. They have a song and style and a key, but each musician may put their own spin on a solo they give or take a classic song like "When the Saints" and put something a little different into it to spice it up. This is the way the vikings passed along their myths and stories until some idiot wrote it down. I love that. I've never thought of language in such beautiful terms.

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