In search of Norway’s Viking heritage
I’m looking up at the smooth, dark, wooden prow of a 1,200-year-old Viking ship. Cameras flash all around me. The Viking Ship Museum, built to house three excavated ships, is one of Olso’s top tourist attractions. The ship I’m admiring is 70 feet long, sleek and imposing, with smooth curves and a coiled stempost carved with elaborate dragon and serpent motifs. Powered by burly Norwegian oarsmen and a woolen sail, axe-hewn ships like this one carried boatloads of Vikings on raiding parties to the British Isles and on colonization journeys across the Atlantic.
This vessel, known as the Oseberg Ship, was excavated in 1904 from the richest Viking burial mound ever found. In a chamber behind the ship’s mast were the remains of two women – probably a Viking queen and her servant – dressed in fine clothing and laid out on feather beds. Also found on the ship were richly ornamented sleds, a loom, cooking utensils and food – two oxen, bread dough and some apples to equip the women for their journey to the underworld.
The term Viking refers to Norse people living in the Viking Age, which began with the plundering of England’s Lindisfarne monastery in 793 and continued through the 1066 defeat of the Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England. Viking Age people were travelers, acquiring language, wealth and customs from other European cultures, and leaving an indelible cultural mark on the lands they first plundered and eventually colonized.
I am exploring Norway‘s Viking heritage with Jonathan, who is shuffling through the throngs of tourists with his camera, looking for a clear shot of the Oseberg Ship. We reached the Viking Ship Museum aboard a commuter ferry across the Oslofiord, where sightseeing ferries, fishing boats, luxury yachts and cartoon-like Viking ships (where you can “dress in costume and drink real mead”) vie for passage across the summer-warmed water. In this country of never-ending coastlines and fjords, boats are still part of everyday life.
Oslo is Norway’s capital, a bustling modern city of 500,000 people. Oslo is also promoted as the Viking capital, with many opportunities for an introduction to Viking culture. We skip the Viking theme park, with its chance to “participate in a real Viking raid” and walk to the Norwegian Folk Museum. We pass reconstructed tents used by Scandinavia‘s northern Sami people. We then enter a medieval village where, amid lanes of turf-roofed storage lofts, we find an 800-year old stave church. Its builders incorporated traditional Norse elements into this early Christian place of worship – runic inscriptions are carved into the wood and dragonhead finials look down from the rooftop.
Before Christianity reached Norway, the Norse people worshiped a pantheon of gods ruled by Odin, god of war, wisdom and poetry. As we admire the church, Thor – god of thunder – hurls his hammer across the darkening sky. Loud peals of thunder break out and rain buckets down as we run to shelter inside the church.
Oslo is new in Norwegian terms, established in the turbulent period between the Viking Age and Norway’s Catholic Middle Ages. During the Viking Age, the real action was on the southern portion of the west coast of the country. We take a “Norway in a Nutshell” scenic trip by train, bus and boat to Norway’s second city, Bergen. Four hours from Oslo, the train stops amid gentle snow-clad mountains, and we transfer to a new train on the steep Flåm railway. From an altitude of 2,887 feet, we drop to sea level over only 12 and a half miles, zigzagging our way down the side of the mountain. On one perilous corner, the train creaks to a halt beside a thunderous waterfall. Through the spray, I glimpse an old stone house on the mossy green bank. I hear an eerie wailing music coming from the waterfall, and think I must be imagining it. I’m convinced I’m hallucinating when a dark haired woman in a flowing red dress emerges from the house and seems to float down to the water. I later learn the lady in red is a huldra – a woman who lives behind waterfalls or in the ground and comes out on Midsummer Eve. This particular huldra is an actor, dressed up for our entertainment. Some 90 percent of Norwegians belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway, but the old pagan stories and traditions remain an important part of the culture.
When we arrive in Flåm, we board a ferry and travel west along the Aurlandsfjord. Six-thousand-foot snowy peaks rise straight out of the water. We’re in a world of brilliant green vegetation, blue-green water, white spray and rocky cliffs remnants of a glacier’s trawl down this valley.
At the end of our Norway in a Nutshell tour we’re in beautiful Bergen, on a sheltered harbor on Norway’s west coast. The 18th century gabled timber houses are reminders of the German Hanseatic League merchants who ran a trading post here from 1360-1754. A flurry of yachts and fishing boats line the harbor, which bustles with a fish market, restaurants and museums. Houses climb the steep surrounding hills and a quaint old funicular takes visitors to a forest park above the city.
At the Bergen fish market, strapping Norwegian men and women clad in orange PVC overalls offer us all manner of creatures, including salmon, shrimp, crab, caviar, eel and even whale. With his blonde hair and blue eyes, Jonathan has become accustomed to being addressed in Norwegian, but lucky for us everyone speaks English too. He chooses a pound of cooked shrimp and we eat them beside the shimmering water.
On the wharf in front of the fish market, we find ourselves in the middle of an annual summer Viking festival. Spying a score of men dressed in helmets, chainmail and rough-hewn tunics, we jostle our way to the front of the crowd. We flash our press passes and are allowed close to the battle to take photos, but we are warned to be careful – the swords and axes are real.
“Terrible ’angover this morning” we hear from one bearded, chainmailed fellow. They’re Englishmen – members of The Vikings, which is “the largest Dark Ages and Medieval Society in Europe,” one fellow tells us.
“Doing the battle of ’astings next week,” his mate chips in. This is these Vikings’ first visit to Norway, but they have plenty of home practice re-enacting Viking battles at York’s annual Viking festival.
The Norse-British connection is many hundreds of years old. In Viking Age Norway, overpopulation among the elite and the country‘s limited resources meant the only way of gaining wealth and power was to take it from someone else or to emigrate. The Vikings who left Norway were aristocrats who could afford to fund and provision a ship. In the 9th and 10th centuries, whole families traveled with livestock, food and possessions to colonize new homes in the British Isles, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
The notorious Eric the Red pushed even farther west. Exiled from Iceland for murder, he led a party to colonize Greenland. In the green southern fjords of this great island, he established two colonies that mysteriously died out after 300 years. His son Leif Eriksson was another adventurer, credited with being the first European to set foot in North America, in 999 A.D.
We’re not following any Viking migrations today – instead we’re traveling even farther back in time, to the home ground of many of these émigrés. From Bergen, we catch a boat south to Haugalandet, a region of peninsulas and islands known as Norway’s birthplace, and the seat of some of Norway’s most powerful landowners, chieftains and kings.
The history of “strong women” in this area is the first thing we’re told of by Anja and Annette, the modern Norwegian women who show us around. With the men out plundering, trading, raiding and fishing, the women were left alone for months at a time with responsibility for craftwork and local trading, as well as running the farms and households.
Viking Age women were celebrated by early feminists as strong, independent and equal to their men. This simplistic view was gleaned largely from the sagas, the written records of the Viking Age. A more focused study indicates that Viking society wasn’t quite so egalitarian. It is now believed that the practice of female infanticide led to a shortage of Norse women, which may have been one of the factors that incited the Viking raids. And Viking society was as socially stratified as any other – there was nothing noble or romantic in the life of a female thrall, who was little more than a slave.
But wealthy Norse women were different from other women of their time. Alone among Europeans, they had inheritance rights and many were landowners. They were also fighters. The sagas are full of stories of women joining the men in battle, and it was often left to women to seek revenge for the murder of male kin.
Anja and Annette take us to see the Five Foolish Virgins, a group of 1,700-year-old monoliths on a mainland promontory, across a strait from a medieval church at Avaldsnes.
Later, as Anja drives us across a bridge toward the island church, she tells us the story of King Harald the Fairhaired, who united Norway into a single kingdom. Anja says the king’s feat was motivated by a woman, Princess Gyda. The princess refused to “offer her virginity” to a small king, and would marry Harald only when he could declare himself King of all of Norway. It took Harald the Fairhaired ten years to defeat the lesser kings, and in 872AD he married Gyda and declared Avaldsnes, overlooking the Karmsund Strait, the seat of his kingdom. Anja chuckles at Gyda’s wily manipulations.
Harald’s choice of seat was strategic – an important sailing channel ran along the Karmsund Strait. It was known as Nordvegen, or the North Way. Through the ages, the strait was controlled by the kings at Avaldsnes, who imposed crippling tariffs on passing ships. But as ships became more sophisticated and could brave the rougher seas west of the island, the kingdom lost power.
Olav’s Church is the main landmark at Avaldsnes today. The stone church was built in 1250 on the site of an earlier wooden church. An ancient stone monument emerges from the grass and tapers to a point just inches from the church wall. No one knows why the church was built so close to the stone, but legend has it that when the monolith – Virgin Mary’s Sewing Needle – touches the church wall, doomsday is upon us.
From Olav’s Church, we walk through a grassy sheep paddock and across a bridge to the Viking Farm.
The farm aims to recreate life in the Viking Age. Chickens and geese peck at the ground around an outdoor fire, a rune stone and a wooden cart. ln the middle of the farm is a copy of a 10th century longhouse, with wooden walls and muscovite windows atop a stone base. Archaeologists have reconstructed the roof, which is shaped like an upside down Viking ship. This clever design enables the roof to store heat from the open fire without smoking out the people inside. A woman wearing a Viking Age-style tunic sits in front of the longhouse, using her thumbnail to strip the white spaghetti-like pith from the stems of a local grass. The pith is used as a wick in the fish-oil candles that provide lighting inside the house. The farm’s main purpose is education, but the longhouse is also a venue for costumed suppers and feasts.
It’s time for refreshments, and Anja and Annette take us to a café in the picturesque seaside village of Skudeneshavn to taste the local “porridge”. We are each served a huge plate of hot sour cream, topped with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon. We’re also offered slivers of dried salted pig and sheep meat and a plate of wafer-thin crackers. With lots and lots of sugar and cinnamon, the porridge is surprisingly palatable. This high fat, high protein dish was traditionally served to Norse farmers for breakfast, after they’d put in a couple of hours work in the icy sub-Arctic dawn.
Few such aspects of Viking Age culture have endured. One of the biggest catalysts for change was Christianity, which affected every aspect of Norse society.
Under the medieval church’s influence, attitudes toward women began to change. Women were seen as morally weak and subordinate to men. On the other hand, in the new Christian society a woman could no longer be forced to marry against her will. And nunneries offered women another choice as a place of work, or for women who could afford a dowry, as a vocation. Christianity also offered Norse women a new opportunity for travel, and many took part in pilgrimages. Some went as far as Jerusalem, and many others traveled northeast to the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which is also known as Saint Olav’s shrine.
We follow the northeast route to Trondheim as well, to visit the shrine. Construction of the Nidaros Cathedral began in 1070 on the gravesite of King Olav Haraldsson, who was the Viking King from 1016 until his death in a battle for his throne in 1030. King Olav campaigned to convert the pagan Norse to Christianity, using the new religion as a tool in his efforts to unite the country under his kingdom. Miracles reportedly began to occur soon alter Olav died; thus King Olav became Saint Olav, Norway’s patron saint. His gravesite attracted Norse and European pilgrims even before the Cathedral was built. The pilgrims took weeks and months to walk to Trondheim just three degrees south of the Arctic Circle. The tradition survives to this day, but modern pilgrims are more likely to arrive on package tours than by walking the distance.
The Nidaros Cathedral was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, after a series of fires destroyed many of its original Gothic features. The cathedral has a vaulted ceiling and holds 2,000 people. Carved figures of Christ and the Apostles, Norwegian saints, Old Testament kings and prophets, and numerous gargoyles look down from its ornately carved marble front. Inside it’s very dark, even now in midsummer – the intricate stained glass doesn’t let in much light. As I sit and take it all in, I’m struck by the craftsmanship of our forebears. No one today would have the patience to build – or rebuild –something like this.
Travelers who visit Norway today are on all sorts of pilgrimages – some to visit Norway‘s holy places, some in search of their Viking heritage and others to worship the mountains, fjords and islands of this spectacular country. I’ve done all three, and end my trip more than satisfied and with a new affinity for the Viking Age people who left their mark on so many European cultures.
This article was originally published in an American magazine called PASSIONFRUIT in winter 2000.