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The Vikings: Seafarers who hated Fish

Published
October 25, 2021
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THE VIKINGS were probably the most notorious folk to have inhabited the Scandinavian realm. The word conjures up images of warriors sailing forth to wreak havoc on the world. There is a lot that remains from that time: I've seen old Viking longboats in museums across Scandinavia.

As I’ve mentioned, the Vikings weren’t a people as such, so much as old-time Norse or Scandinavians engaged in a mixture of raiding and trading. All the same, historians speak of a Viking Age and a Viking culture, when these practices were more prevalent than either before, when the Scandinavians only paddled about in their home waters, or afterward, when they became Christianised and somewhat less warlike.

The Viking Age is said to have begun with a raid on a monastery on the offshore British island of Lindisfarne in 793 CE. The Viking Age ran, thereafter, through to the 11th century.

Raiding and trading apart, another reason the Vikings set sail over long distances was to find better farming lands. The areas they originally occupied were harsh and the snows and long winters made farming difficult. It is believed that the Vikings were the first Europeans to settle in Canada.

On the positive side, the Vikings really were very good at exploring — they went as far as Canada and Russia and there is evidence that they were in Baghdad. The Vikings sailed right around Europe by way of the internal waterways of Russia, which connected the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. They were, as such, a common sight on the streets of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, who reigned in Constantinople, even employed a bodyguard of Vikings known as the Varangian Guard. Anyone who wanted to harm the emperor had to take on the Vikings first. That must have foiled a few plots!

In their early days the Vikings specialised in plundering wealthy monasteries and churches, so that the Christians thought they were the agents of the Devil. Christianity didn’t become widespread among the Norse until the 11th century, though some parts of Scandinavia began converting to Christianity as early as the 8th century.

Because they penetrated so far south and established regular trade routes, the Vikings also brought a measure of Arab and Middle Eastern influence into the heart of Europe. This was mostly a matter of peaceable commerce, with certain northern products such as amber being taken south, and vice versa. One result is that coins bearing Arabic writing continue to be dug up all over Europe to this day, sometimes in large amounts.

The 1999 film The 13th Warrior, which stars Antonio Banderas as an Arab scholar attached to a band of Vikings, is loosely based on the reverse penetration of Europe by Middle Eastern traders along Viking routes.

(The Finns were not part of the mainstream of Viking culture. Like the British, they tended to on the receiving end of Viking raids instead.)

As I mentioned in Chapter Two, Viking is really a verb form, denoting the activity of seeking out faraway bays. The old Norse used to say that they were off viking, not that they were Vikings as such. Some also got to go berserk (another Viking word), like this Rook-figure in a chess set discovered on the Scottish Isle of Lewis who is chewing his shield, so keen is he get into the fray.

Berserk comes from the Norse for ‘bear shirt’; such elite warriors would sometimes wear a bearskin. The people of the North were chronically afraid of bears, with good reason of course, given the size of the two main species of bear that inhabited the polar regions, the brown or grizzly bear, and the polar bear. Imagine living in some remote collection of huts and having a gigantic bear invade your settlement, intent on eating pretty much whatever it sees. Indeed, so great were these fears that bears and those named after them were often referred to by euphemisms such as bee-wolf (Beowulf, in Anglo-Saxon) and honey-eater (Medved, in Russian) lest speaking the word for bear somehow magically caused one to appear.

So, wearing a bearskin signified fearlessness, not least because some incredibly brave soul had had to get it off the bear in the first place. Remember, guns had not yet been invented. Everything was up close and personal, and even if you shot so large a bear with an arrow from what you thought was a safe distance, most probably all that would do would be to make it come looking for its tormentor.

The Isle of Lewis Berserker, who also seems to sport an early version of Saint Andrew’s Cross on his shield, looks comical now. But I don’t think that was the intended effect at the time.

To stick with their modern name, the Vikings sailed in distinctive longships with snake- or dragon-headed prows, ships light in weight and with shallow draughts to enable them to penetrate up rivers and estuaries. They bore square sails made of the hairy wool of semi-wild sheep, made windproof with a mixture of fir pitch and grease. The Vikings are also believed to have used ingenious navigation methods ranging from knowledge of currents and the behaviour of birds (who also signified land to the Polynesians) through to proto-scientific instruments and even, most remarkably of all, something called the sólarsteinn or sunstone which gave the navigator the power to look through thick cloud to see where the sun was.

This sounds far-fetched, but in fact there are transparent minerals that do have this property. It is to do with the direction of the polarisation of the sun’s light. These minerals allow light to pass through selectively, by means of the same principle whereby polarising sunglasses and camera filters screen out the glare that is otherwise reflected from water. Likewise, the transparent sunstone lets different amounts of light through as the sky is scanned, depending on where the sun is hiding.

Unlike the Polynesians, whose most scientific navigation methods were based on knowledge of the stars and their relationship to the seasons and to latitude, the Vikings relied heavily on solar navigation, as polar nights were short in summer, the only time of year when it was reasonably safe or comfortable to go on long sea voyages from places like Norway and Iceland. The sunstone was necessary because, even in summer, the sun was often hidden by full cloud for days on end in that part of the world.

The Vikings also had a symbol or a logo which was as distinctive as the pirates’ Jolly Roger of later centuries. This symbol was the raven, carried on a flag or pennant known as the Hrafnsmerki, which literally meant Raven’s Mark as in the sense of trademark, although the word merki had a broad meaning that included flags and even borders on the map. ‘Raven Banner’ is the usual English translation nowadays.

Often, though presumably not always, the Raven Banner seems to have had two straight sides and a third side forming a quarter of a circle, creating a larger ground on which to represent the raven than a simple triangle would allow, with tassels flying from the curved side and the two straight sides stiffened with poles at right angles. Thus, the Raven Banner was intended to be as conspicuous as possible even in still air, tassels and all.

The raven was connected to the Norse high god Odin, in the sense that two ravens called Huginn and Munnin continually brought him information. Thus, it bore the totemic power of Odin. Ravens were also notorious for feeding on the corpses of the executed and those slain in battle. As such, the Raven Banner really was the Jolly Roger of its day.

As late as 1066, William the Conqueror’s Normans, though they now spoke French, sailed in original-looking Viking longships and flew a version of the Raven Banner, as did the troops of the Norwegian invader Harald Hardrada (‘Harold Hard-Advice’ or more freely, ‘Harold the Hardass’), whom the English under Harold Godwinson defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only to fall to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings shortly afterward. All this is depictedin the famous Bayeux Tapestry, from which two scenes are shown below.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 39. Note the Normans’ Viking-type longships. Public domain image from the Tapestry shown more fully on the website of Ulrich Harsch at the Hochschule Augsburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

Raven Banner carried by a Norman in the service of William the Conqueror, Bayeux Tapestry. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

To this day, ravens are common in the coats of arms, flags and badges of any place or organisation with some kind of descent from the Norse or Viking world, such as military regiments, units of local government, commemorative organisations, and so on.

As for the Vikings, war and raiding was only one side of their character. In reality, they were farmers to begin with and, in many places that they came to, they eventually settled down and became traders, or farmers once again.

The Vikings sold slaves, and also kept many themselves. It seems that a large and overlooked part of the effort of creating Viking longships was the growing of the wool and the rather monotonous work that was required to make the sails. Viking sheep-farms and sail-making establishments appear to have been operated by slaves, and rather a lot of slaves too.

Viking slaves were often sacrificed to the gods, especially if their master died.

On the other hand, mainly because there was no colour bar and plenty of intermarriage, the barrier between master and slave was often porous over time. Slaves who were skilled could rise through the ranks, gain respect, and eventually win freedom, just as in ancient Rome. However, as Andrew Lawler writes in a National Geographic article that I cite at the end of this chapter, we can’t polish Viking slavery up all that much.

Though it no longer exists in the original sense, the prejudice that linked the consumption of fish to an allegedly backward or low-status way of life, as opposed to respectable people who lived on the proceeds of sheep, beef and dairy farms, survives in the English language in the sense that we say of anything we don’t like that it’s ‘a bit fishy’. Fishy like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, for example.

Fishing was a big industry in Norway by the 1400s. And later on, of course, we discovered the health benefits of cod liver oil and Omega-3s. But in the meantime, the old prejudice against fish seems to have lingered on in Greenland, where it probably also served to uphold a social distinction between Norse and Inuit. Norse Greenland, which could have prospered hugely from fishing but didn’t, may thus have ended its days as a backwater clinging to the old, prejudiced ways while the rest of the world moved on, in ways that ultimately contributed to the colony’s demise.

There was a similar situation in Iceland, though it didn’t actually doom the colony. According to the Icelandic economist Þráinn (Thráinn) Eggertsson, in an article which I also cite at the end of this chapter, while the island’s seas and fiords teemed with fish, post-Viking Icelandic society was dominated by its farmers. The Alþingi was dominated by farmers and passed new laws, after the emancipation of the thralls, to force labour to work on farms and not to do other things such as fishing, save on a small and amateur scale.

Farming was a bit less marginal in Iceland than in Greenland, and so the Icelanders managed to survive; though the country stagnated for several centuries, as did its population, which for an equivalent length of time did not greatly exceed fifty thousand. From the late Middle Ages on, other countries fished Icelandic waters on a commercial scale. The main harvesters of the fish were Iceland’s more economically developed Norwegian and Danish overlords, of whom the last ruled the island as a dependency until the twentieth century.

Not until the nineteenth century did Iceland get serious about developing its own fishing industry despite the abundance of fish in its waters. By the time that independence came, Iceland had already become more economically diversified, no longer economically in thrall to its farmers, and thus ready for independence.

References

Andrew Lawler, ‘Kinder, Gentler Vikings? Not According to Their Slaves’, National Geographic website, 28 December 2015, URL https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151228-vikings-slaves-thralls-norse-scandinavia-archaeology/

Thráinn Eggertsson, ‘No experiments, monumental disasters: Why it took a thousand years to develop a specialized fishing industry in Iceland’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 30, Issue 1, 1996, pp. 1–23.

(There is also a very good entry on the Viking Age in Wikipedia as of the time of writing, and on the Vikings on History.com as well.)

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website a-maverick.com.

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