Ingrid Leonard discovers the Vikings ahead of our Viking Sagas event this week.
Visitors prepared to devote more time than a quick whirl round ‘The Vikings: Life and Legend’ exhibition at the British Museum can expect both an education and a feast for the imagination. Through an exhibit spread that covers swords, settlers, sailing, mythology and (of course) battle, we learn that, far from being solely pirates and raiders (the original Old Norse meaning of ‘viking’ and tag by which they are often remembered in British history) here we have a people who spread their culture and beliefs into a network of trading contacts which spanned 4 continents, from the Americas to Afghanistan, taking in Constantinople, the poetically- named Miklagard, on the way.
The Vikings shared their ideas on economic systems, religious thought and artistic skills, peacefully or otherwise, wherever they travelled and this can be seen in jewellery and coins, some of which are outstanding, which mark the beginning of the exhibition, often set alongside similar artefacts from Baltic and Slavic cultures of the same period.
The real meat of the exhibition, however, lies in those old Viking favourites of raiding, battle and wordy exaltation of fierce gods, as told through excerpts from the Nordic and Icelandic literary saga traditions which accompany the visitor on their tour. Indeed, the magnificent 37-metre ‘Sea Wolf’ warship, otherwise known as Roskilde 6 and excavated from the fjord of the same name could not be more accurately depicted than by the Icelandic Skald/poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson:
‘Men will quake with terror before the seventy sea-oars are given deserved respite from the labours of the ocean, Norwegian arms are driving this iron-studded dragon down the storm-tossed river like an eagle with wings flapping’.
Other bloody highlights include axes and spear-heads, an enormous wooden shield, skeletons from a mass grave of 50-odd Viking raiders who were hacked to pieces mid-raid on the rolling hills of Dorset and a fabulous helmet and (we hope) berserker’s jaw, complete with filed teeth, both to inspire fear in the onlooker and as a warrior testament to the ability to withstand pain. Add to this the fact that these warriors adorned themselves with tattoos and eye make-up and we have a picture which meets and exceeds all pre-conceived expectations.
Yet there is another side to this ancient people of the North. Belief in the human power to shape-shift was widespread among the Vikings, with men taking the form of bears and wolves and women sea creatures or birds. Magic was practised overwhelmingly by women in the form of ‘völva’ (‘staff bearer’) a kind of shamanic sorceress and burials of such women often contained amulets, animal remains, hallucinogens and, of course, their metal staffs. Reference is also made to ‘norns’, female beings who controlled the fate of the world and no Viking exhibition would be complete without an appearance, if fleeting, from the Valkyries, those ‘choosers of the slain’.
Odin and Thor also make an appearance in the shape of diminutive amulets and (take note, fans of the Marvel Studios films) Mjölnir is also on hand as a symbol of the gods’ power to control storms and as a fearsome weapon in battle.
A number of kennings – metaphors used in Skaldic verse – lighten the mood of the exhibition:
‘A man shall clutch at his cup, but moderately drink his mead; he should be sparing of speech or shut up; no man will blame you for bad behaviour if you go early to bed.’ A snippet of wisdom which we can only assume is born of experience, even if it sits at odds with a gallon-sized ale-feasting bucket from the 10th century exhibited nearby.
The Vikings Exhibition tells us that much of what we know about Viking mythology was first written in Iceland. What better motivation then for Poet in the City to host the ‘Viking Sagas’ event, an evening of Icelandic sagas and poems, with contributions from experts on Viking literature and heritage, held in the heart of the British Museum on Friday 30th May.
Taking part in Poet in the City’s event is Gerður Kristný, an acclaimed Icelandic poet and author of Blóðhófnir -‘Bloodhoof’. Written as a modern response to the story of Freyr, Norse god of virility and prosperity, who falls in love with the female giantess Gerður, Bloodhoof retells this story for the first time through the eyes of a woman, Gerður, using the anonymous poem ‘Skírnismál’ (‘Words of Skírnir’) and Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century Prose Edda as source material.
Having stolen into Odin’s throne and gained the ability to gaze out over all worlds, Freyr spots the beautiful maiden Gerður in her native Giantland and immediately falls irrevocably in love. Having given him his horse and magic sword, Freyr sends his servant Skírnir, who woos Gerður on his master’s behalf, first with finery but, when she refuses, with threats of death and plague. In the words of Gerður: ‘Love had indeed come armed to the teeth’.
Gerður then agrees to meet Freyr in nine nights’ time, a message which is delivered to Freyr by Skírnir. It is here that the Icelandic sagas end their tale and where Kristný continues hers, with all of Gerður’s fear of violence, coercion and lamenting of her lot contrasted with her love for her mother, her brothers and the raw beauty of her home: ‘There is my country wrapped in calm of night, steeped in steel-cold ice’.
No more is the threat of violence clearer than in the title of this vivid piece of work, the hooves of Skírnir’s horse wet with the promise of fresh blood that will be spilt if Gerður rejects Freyr’s advances.
This wonderful poem can be read in English translation from Rory McTurk, published by Arc Press.
The British Museum’s Vikings exhibition runs til 22nd June.