When you read history books, you often have to start at the pre-history. For instance, if you want to talk about the United States of America, you have to talk about the Native Americans, no matter how embarrassed you get. Nothing springs from nothing. There has to be a foundation that often takes centuries to build. Another example is the Cold War. To understand how it began, you have to start with the end of WWII. To understand how that war began, you have to go back to the end of WWI, which leads all the way back to the Franco-Prussian War. See where I'm getting?
The same is true when we talk about Scandinavia, or more specifically, Vikings. However, the Viking Age can be misleading, especially when you are looking at the literature. What I mean is this: The great sagas and poetry were all written in Iceland mostly in the 13th century. Those sagas and poems are simply written versions of the oral traditions that come from the Age of Migration, which is basically 5th and 6th century AD. So why, when I am studying Vikings, do I read the sagas and the poetry when the literature seems to just sort of swim through that time period. Wouldn't I be better off reading the ecclesiastical accounts of monks whom the Vikings terrorized?
This question as well as others have been puzzling me over the last couple weeks since I dived back into my research. How do the pieces fit? Thankfully, Professor Harl has come through once again to help me along the way.
In order to study the Vikings, I really have to travel back to the Bronze Age when the religion was formed. This provides sort of the basis of the ethos that would drive the later generations of Scandinavians. I plan on going back through the Prose Edda to get a firmer grasp on just how the religion was viewed and how it affected the people.
The Age of Migration brings forth the heroes and kings that we now read about in the sagas. There really did exist King Hralf Kraki and Sigmund (although, it is believed that Sigmund is a fictional character based on either Arminius or King Sigbert). These historical figures did accomplish great deeds that were later embellished and made legend. But Professor Harl does a really great job of explaining how the kingship of 5th century Scandinavia differed from our idea of kingship. The sagas never tell of battles for territories. That may be the outcome but hardly ever the cause. Usually there is a grievance, or a dishonoring of another king. He is offended and he comes to best his offender. So we see in the Saga of Hralf Kraki. And although at the end of the story, Kraki and his men retreat, he throws the stolen gold along the ground and basically buys his enemy's men. Kraki was seen as a great king not only because of his deeds but also because of the riches he obtained and then shared with his men.
What do these stories of heroes and kings have to do with the Viking age?
Harl tells us that it was mostly psychological. The Vikings were raised to honor the great ancient kings, like Hralf Kraki and Sigmund Volsung, who died in honor and our now with Odin at Valhalla. There existed the mindset that in order to be honored, one would need to emulate the deeds and the attitudes of those great kings, which instilled in the viking warriors a sense of invincibility. Not that they wouldn't die, but that there was no fear of death for to die in battle was to be greatly honored.
What is fascinating to me is how the stories survived. You don't often think of poetry and warriors going together, but the two went hand in hand in the Viking Age. A good bard, if you will, would learn the great poetry of the old kings and heroes, and recite them. Every person who grew up in that time knew the stories. And even after the conversion to Christianity, when the rest of Europe was trying to hide its pagan past, the Icelanders looked at their past with pride and interest. So, even though the Viking Age is really around 800-1100 AD, you must start much further back to understand how they got there and really wait until the 1300s when Snorri and his pals wrote everything down.
I think for my next project, after I finish The Saga of the Volsungs, I'd like to read Beowulf and The Saga of Hralf Kraki side by side to compare. Sounds like a snoozefest!