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?