The Hel Runes

XXIV (121)But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza,–and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe,--found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. (122) There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps,-

Jordanes, Getica

In the Blade Honer series, a group of unordinary women called “the Hel Runes” feature with increasing prominence. From barely being mentioned in Book One, “The Hammer of Greatness“, they appear as mysterious figures acting behind the scenes in Book Two, “My Enemy´s Head“, before they make their first public appearance in Book Three, “The Hel Rune´s Claim“. However, only in Book Four, “A Twisted Mirror“, do we really learn who they are – priestesses of death and human sacrifice whose primary function is to deal with burials and dead bodies, taking the appearance of morbid witches and living like incarnations of the Norns on earth – in charge of the final Judgment, known in Old Norse sources as Nórna Dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”.

On what historical sources have I built the Hel Runes?

Well, take a look at the quote above first. Jordanes wrote his Getica in Constantinople around the year 551 A.D. Here he wrote about the history of the tribe he had emerged from, the Goths, about how a large retinue of Götar (a tribal people from Götaland in south Sweden) moved south across the sea into the European continent from where they spread out during the Age of Migrations. Once in Europe, these northerners changed some of their customs as well as parts of their ancestral religion. Among them, says Jordanes, there were women called “Haliurunnae“, a title that includes the name Hel (the goddess of the dead/the world of the dead) and the word “rune”, meaning symbol, letter, secret, whisper or mystery. Obviously, these women were aquainted with the deeper mysteries of death.

Such a coven of women who specialized in the mysteries of death, a female priesthood, perhaps, was obviously brought from the homelands at the time of departure from Scandinavia – but once on the continent, one of the first Gothic kings, Filimer, had them expelled from the tribe. And this, concludes Jordanes, was the reason why the Goths were later invaded and subjected to the rule of the cruel Huns from the east – such was the revenge of the Hel Runes.

Searching for more knowledge about these women, I found another, even earlier source describing priestesses of human sacrifice among the migrating tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutones and the Ambrones who were the first migrating Iron Age Scandinavians to clash with the Roman Empire back in 113-101 B.C. What turned out to be the most shocking revelation to the Romans about these barbarian tribes, was the way their women and children accompanied their men on their military expeditions, and not the least the way some of these women acted after having won a battle:

“Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.”

(Strabo: Geogr. 7.2.3, trans. H.L. Jones)

Scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron, Iron Age Denmark: A supersized woman accompanied by a dog (Hel-hound) throws warriors down into her cauldron.

Scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron, Iron Age Denmark: A supersized woman accompanied by a dog (Hel-hound) throws warriors down into her cauldron.

There is absolutely no reason to dismiss Strabo´s account, as what he describes only serves to explain a lot of archaeological evidence for exactly this sort of custom. The grim image of the priestesses of human sacrifice as an ancient and integral part of old Scandinavian culture only keeps repeating itself both in mythology, legendary material, as well as in a much later historical source by the Arab emissary Ibn Fadlan, who visited the Volga Rus vikings back i 921 A.D. and describes whiteclad priestesses who are, indeed, in charge of human sacrifice:

“When that man whom I have mentioned earlier died, they said to his slave-girls, “Who will die with him?” and one of them said; “I shall”. So they placed two slave girls in charge of her to take care of her and accompnay her wherever she went, even to the point of occassionally washing her feet with their own hands (…)

When the time had arrived for cremation, they pulled his longship ashore and put it on a platform of wood, and they made a bed for the dead chieftain on the ship. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his body sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old. (…) 

Thereafter, the thrall girl was taken away to the ship. She removed her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. Thereafter she removed her finger rings and gave them to the two slave-girls who had waited upon her, they were the old woman’s daughters. Then they took her aboard the ship, but they did not allow her to enter the tent where the dead chieftain lay. The girl received several vessels of intoxicating drinks and she sang and bade her friends farewell. (…)

The crone called the “Angel of Death” placed a rope around her neck in such a way that the eds crossed one another and handed it to two to pull on it. She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs, now here, now there, while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.”

Hel Rune

Thanks to Misha Noga for her interpretations of the Hel Rune

Dealing with death, human sacrifice, taking care of dead bodies (Ibn Fadlan noticed, for example, that the “Angel of Death” knew how to preserve a body for ten days and the body was still not stinking at all), and making prophecies based on the blood and entrails of victims – none of that leaves us with a very favorable impression of these ladies, and yet their gruesome image was vital to Old Norse religion both before and during the Viking Age. In many ways they resembled the grimmest aspects of Fate itself.

Death is the ultimate Fate, so it is not surprising that concepts of fate and death go hand in hand in Norse lore. In the Edda poem Fafnismál, Sigurd declares that all men must one day reach the shore of Hel and deal with nórna dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”. In the Edda poem Sólarljód, we learn that the dead must sit for nine days in the “Chair of the Norns” where judgment on one´s life is passed before the soul may pass on to Heaven or wherever else.

We also learn that there are nine norns waiting for us in Hel:

Here are runes
that have been carved
by the nine daughters of Njǫrðr :
Ráðveig the oldest
and Kreppvǫr the youngest
and their seven sisters.

(SÓLARLJÓÐ – The Song of the Sun, st. 79)

Such imagery of frightful death-women abounds in Norse myths, and the myths often also reveals that such women are more powerful than any other powers in the universe, and that they are in possession of great and sacred knowledge. They may be courted for this knowledge if one has the courage to seek them – and only gods and heroes sometimes take that path. That these death-women are related both to Fate and Death is beyond doubt. They usually appear in a partiular number: 2, 3, 6, 9 or 12, or sometimes “three by nine” or similar variations. They may be described as norns, as valkyries, or as terrible ogresses. Whether they will be beneficial or not is up to the seeker – that they are dangerous is evident, sought only by the bravest.

I finish here with a quotation of the famous poem Darraðarljóð, where twelve valkyries weave a web of war out of human entrails, a symbolic reference to the Hall of Hel.


Blood rains    from the cloudy web
On the broad loom    of slaughter.
The web of man    grey as armor
Is now being woven;    the Valkyries
Will cross it    with a crimson weft.

The warp is made    of human entrails;
Human heads    are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods    are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound    and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave    this web of battle.

The Valkyries go weaving    with drawn swords,
Hild and Hjorthrimul,    Sanngrid and Svipul.
Spears will shatter    shields will splinter,
Swords will gnaw    like wolves through armor.

Let us now wind    the web of war
Which the young king    once waged. 
Let us advance    and wade through the ranks,
Where friends of ours    are exchanging blows.

Let us now wind    the web of war
And then follow    the king to battle
Gunn and Gondul    can see there
The blood-spattered shields    that guarded the king.

Let us now wind    the web of war
Where the warrior banners    are forging forward
Let his life    not be taken;
Only the Valkyries    can choose the slain.

Lands will be ruled    by new peoples
Who once inhabited    outlying headlands.
We pronounce a great king    destined to die;
Now an earl    is felled by spears.

The men of Ireland    will suffer a grief
That will never grow old    in the minds of men.
The web is now woven    and the battlefield reddened;
The news of disaster    will spread through lands.

It is horrible now    to look around
As a blood-red cloud    darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained    with the blood of men,
As the Valyries    sing their song.

We sang well    victory songs
For the young king;    hail to our singing!
Let him who listens    to our Valkyrie song
Learn it well    and tell it to others.

Let us ride our horses    hard on bare backs,
With swords unsheathed    away from here!

And then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands… The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.






Saxo Grammaticus, born around 1150 AD and dead by about 1220 AD, was a Danish contemporary to Snorri Sturluson and many other Icelandic authors of the 12th century who wrote in their own, Old Norse language.

Like his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo set out to chronicle the pre-Christian legendary history of his people, the Danes. Unlike his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo wrote his chronicle, Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes”), in Latin. Adding to his neglect of his native language, Saxo was not that much of a writer, partly because he was a zealous prude who did not actually like the culture whose history he was recording, and partly because  he wrote in a language that was not his native language and which was hardly spoken by anyone, but only used by the clergy.  Another negative influence was his obsessive need to interrupt his stories with preaching and laments about the immorality of pagans and especially about pagan women´s failure to be feminine enough for the new, Christian culture that was just about to be established.

Preaching laments aside, Saxo still appears to have recorded legendary material to the best of his ability, and provides in many way a good written source to ancient customs and beliefs, even when he morally denounces them, and even if his accounts were colored by his own interpretations. Had it not been for him, we would never have even heard of Lagertha.

There is also hardly a source to Old Norse times where the presence of warrior women is more prominent, for example, and today I want to provide you with one of his many stories about shield maidens, beginning with the now famous Lagertha, wife to Ragnarr Lóðbrok.



The name Lagertha/Ladgerda is a Latinized version of the original Old Norse Hlaðgerð. The only source to her life is found in Saxo. The story begins with her future husband, Ragnarr Lóðbrok, in Gesta Danorum chapter 9.

Ragnarr is the heir of a king called Ring, by all other accounts this would be the once famed Sígurð Hring who ruled Denmark during the age of Charlemagne.

Sígurð Hring was an historical king, known to the Franks as Sigfred or Anulo (Latin for “ring”), who appears to have sought peace with his neighbors, entertaining both Charlemagne and Widukind at his court during the Saxon wars. Being pagan and also offering asylum to Saxons who fled from Frankish oppression and force baptisms, he still managed to ward off any Frankish aggression until his death in 804 AD.

After Ring´s death, his relative “Gotrik” (Gudröd/Godofrid/Gudfred) assumed power. The Frankish Annals describe how “Gudfred” began launching a Viking fleet against the Franks. But just as the Franks panicked, observing hundreds of Danish ships at their shores, the fleet turned back because Gudfred had been murdered in the night. Gudfred may be identical to the king of Vestfold at the time, Gudröd Hunter King, who was also murdered in the night, and whose Norwegian realm was closely associated with Danevelde (Empire of the Danes).

tribes of Scandinavia

After Gudfred´s death in 810 AD, a son of Ring, Hemming, won the throne of Denmark, but the throne was also challenged by several surrounding men of power, and when Hemming died, the great Danevelde (Danelaw) of the time (pre-dating the Viking hold on Britain) was divided. We know from Frankish sources that Hemming died in 812 AD.

This is where our story begins.

Saxo explains how Ragnarr Lóðbrok, another son of Ring, was extremely young when he first proved his cleverness and wisdom to the Danish parliament. After Hemming´s death, he was elected king by the Zealanders, although Jutland had other noblemen to rule them. The Frankish Annals do not refer to Ragnarr at this time, but to other Danish chiefs fighting for power and seeking the Franks for alliances against their own. Since it is likely that Ragnarr was a historical person, it is more than likely that the Franks were simply not aware of him since they were dealing with Jutlanders, not Zealanders.

Whether the “real” Ragnarr was already engaged in foreign politics we do not know, but Saxo describes Ragnarr solely within a Scandinavian context, where he was a very young, democratically elected king from Zealand who, apparently, needed to start his career by proving his worth.

The opportunity to prove himself was raised when he heard of an outrage. Ragnar´s mother Alfhild was Norwegian, and Ragnar had relatives in Norway. At the time described, Norway had many different kingdoms and tribal lands, but Saxo gladly ignores that historical fact and speaks of “the king of Norway” as if there was only one. We do not know exactly what kingdom this king belonged to if he ever existed in real life, but in Saxos account, “the king of Norway” was called Siward. He was, apparently, a grandfather (or older relative) to Ragnarr on his maternal side.

Siward, the Norwegian king, was attacked by “Fro”, the king of the Swedes. Calling him Fro was probably a way of saying Freyr, since the kings of Sweden were supposedly descended from, and through inauguration they also became incarnations of the god Freyr.

This particular “Freyr” attacked Siward and slayed him (for unexplained reasons), and then proceeded to publicly humiliate and sexually abuse his kinswomen:

“(Freyr) put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their persons or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage. Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge. Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

Lagertha by Meredith Williams, 1913

Lagertha by Meredith Williams, 1913

Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might of one woman. Learning that she was of noble birth among the barbarians, he steadfastly wooed her by means of messengers. She spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. Giving false answers, she made her panting wooer confident that he would gain his desires; but ordered that a bear and a dog should be set at the porch of her dwelling, thinking to guard her own room against all the ardor of a lover by means of the beasts that blocked the way.

Ragnar, comforted by the good news, embarked, crossed the sea, and, telling his men to stop in Gaulardale, as the valley is called, went to the dwelling of the maiden alone. Here the beasts met him, and he thrust one through with a spear, and caught the other by the throat, wrung its neck, and choked it. Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome. By this marriage he had two daughters, whose names have not come down to us, and a son Fríðleif. Then he lived three years at peace.

The Jutlanders, a presumptuous race, thinking that because of his recent marriage he would never return, took the Scanians into alliance, and tried to attack the Zealanders, who preserved the most zealous and affectionate loyalty towards Ragnar. He, when he heard of it, equipped thirty ships, and, the winds favoring his voyage, crushed the Scanians, who ventured to fight, near the stead of Whiteby, and when the winter was over he fought successfully with the Jutlanders who dwelt near the Liim-fjord in that region. A third and a fourth time he conquered the Scanians and the Hallanders triumphantly.”

According to Saxo, Ragnarr “changed his love; and desiring Thora, the daughter of king Herrauð, to wife, Ragnarr divorced himself from Ladgerda; for he thought ill of her trustworthiness, remembering that she had long ago set the most savage beasts to destroy him.”

(Speculations: In his assessment of their relationship, Saxo assumes that Ragnarr, like any good medieval Christian, must have felt humiliated and bitter because of his wife´s initial reluctance and aggressive response to his advances (after having been force-prostituted before), and perhaps also because she failed to be submissive and feminine. However, Saxo appears to forget that his own story proceeds by describing how Ragnarr has to go through equally severe trials against vicious beasts in order to win his new bride, Thora Borgarhjört, and seems perfectly happy about that, never blaming his new wife for this.

Unlike Snorri, Saxo does not seem to have any idea of the mythical/religious context where having to go through severe trials and prove his worth was essential for a young prince if he was ever to win a royal bride. Saxo also forgets (or willfully ignore) the fact that Norse kings would often marry several wives at once, because they practiced polygamy in cases where marriages were equal to tribal alliances. If he had to divorce Ladgerda in order to marry a Swedish princess, this may have been a term set by the royal father and could probably only happen because Ladgerda was a commoner, and the princess would not accept equal rank with another wife of common origins.)

Later on in the story, Ladgerda reappears, however. The Jutes (from Jutland) and the Scanians once more tried to overthrow Ragnarr from his seat of power in Zealand.

“Meanwhile, the Jutes and Skanians were kindled with an unquenchable fire of sedition; they disallowed the title of Ragnar, and gave a certain Harald the sovereign power. Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men; and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.

And he, thinking himself destitute of all resources, took to borrowing help from folk of every age, crowded the strong and the feeble all together, and was not ashamed to insert some old men and boys among the wedges of the strong. So he first tried to crush the power of the Scanians in the field which in Latin is called Laneus (Woolly); here he had a hard fight with the rebels. Here, too, Iwar, who was in his seventh year, fought splendidly, and showed the strength of a man in the body of a boy.

But Siward, while attacking the enemy face to face, fell forward upon the ground wounded. When his men saw this, it made them look round most anxiously for means of flight; and this brought low not only Siward, but almost the whole army on the side of Ragnar. But Ragnar by his manly deeds and exhortations comforted their amazed and sunken spirits, and, just when they were ready to be conquered, spurred them on to try and conquer.

“Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy. At last the lines of HARALD became slack, and HARALD himself was routed with a great slaughter of his men. LADGERDA, when she had gone home after the battle, murdered her husband…. in the night with a spear-head, which she had hid in her gown. Then she usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

This is the last we hear of Lagertha, and all we actually know about her from old sources.

According to some scholars, the Lagertha character, by being a resident of Gaulardale, is a fictional character based on the Follower goddess, Thorgerd Holgabrud, of whom there are many more sources and accounts.


Historical Events and Characters Remembered in the Poetic Edda


Did Norsemen of the Viking Age remember their Iron Age history? To a certain extent, yes.

That Medieval Norsemen were extremely aware of, and concerned with, their own history is no secret – few other cultures of their time did such a great job recording the clan-, lineage- and tribal histories as Scandinavians did – in their own language – during the 12th- 14th centuries. I have already written an article about historical consciousness among Medieval Scandinavians here.

A lot of their history had already been transmitted orally for centuries, and in some cases we are even able to verify the stories. For example, “Sverris Saga” gives an account of how a warrior was killed and his body thrown into a well. A few years ago, the well – with the body – was found at exactly the location mentioned in the saga, with the exact dating.

Another saga tells the tale of how one Icelandic settler, Geirmund Heljarskinn, was the child of a Rogaland king and a “black” (dark-skinned) Siberian woman, and that he went to find another dark-skinned Siberian woman for himself before they both moved to Iceland. Modern DNA studies have shown that certain Icelanders today, who are able to trace their lineage back to this Geirmund and his Siberian wife, indeed do descend from Siberia through the maternal line.

Snorri Sturlusson´s 13th century Ynglinga Saga was based on a far older Scaldic poem known as Ynglingatál, composed by the Skald Thióðolf the Wise of Kvinir, who lived during the late 9th and early 10th centuries. That poem recounts the lives and deaths of the Ynglinga kings going back 30 generations. That great lineages traced their family histories back to mythical origins in a far past were a common tradition, and whereas the historical accuracies may be questioned, the importance of recording ones history was certainly there.

As stories were transmitted orally, they changed into legends with many mythical and fantastical elements. And yet, from what was left to us, we do keep finding traces of real history even in these ancient legends, some reaching back into the Roman Iron Age, or the so-called Age of Migration.

Attila the Hun

attilaIn the Poetic Edda, there are several heroic poems referring to events which took place and people who lived during the 3rd– 5th centuries A.D. One of the most famous persons who has been granted a position of importance in Edda poetry is Attila the Hun (406-453 A.D). In the Poetic Edda, his name has become Atli, a relatively common Norse name, and he is said to be the son of “Budli”, which is derived from the name of Attila´s father and brother; Bleda. He is said to be the king of the powerful and influential Huns, who lived to the east.

“The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia between the 1st century AD and the 7th century AD. As per European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of a Scythian people, the Alans. In 91 AD, the Huns were said to be living near the Caspian Sea and by about 150 had migrated southeast into the Caucasus. By 370, the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe. (…)

The Huns may have stimulated the Great Migration, a contributing factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. They formed a unified empire under Attila the Hun, who died in 453; their empire broke up the next year. Their descendants, or successors with similar names, are recorded by neighbouring populations to the south, east and west as having occupied parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia approximately from the 4th century to the 6th century. Variants of the Hun name are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century.” [1]

“Attila, frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in March 453. He was also the leader of a tribal empire consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, and Alans among others, on the territory of Central and Eastern Europe.

During his reign, he was one of the most feared enemies of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. He crossed the Danube twice and plundered the Balkans, but was unable to take Constantinople. His unsuccessful campaign in Persia was followed in 441 by an invasion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the success of which emboldened Attila to invade the West. He also attempted to conquer Roman Gaul (modern France), crossing the Rhine in 451 and marching as far as Aurelianum (Orléans) before being defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

He subsequently invaded Italy, devastating the northern provinces, but was unable to take Rome. He planned for further campaigns against the Romans but died in 453. After Attila’s death his close adviser Ardaric of the Gepids led a Germanic revolt against Hunnic rule, after which the Hunnic Empire quickly collapsed.”[2]

The Huns and the Burgunds


The events of the Edda in which Atli and the Huns feature have to do with an event which actually happened before the real Attila became king. In the Poetic Edda, Gunnarr is the king of the Burgunds, a Germanic tribe that may once have originated on the island of Bornholm (then “Burgundarholm”) south of Sweden, but which migrated until it reached the Rhinelands during the early Iron Ages. Gunnarr is described as earnest and passionate but somewhat weak of character. He is married to a Hunnish woman called Brynhild, a sister to Atli the Hun.

When Brynhild comes to live among the Burgunds, she discovers that her husband, Gunnarr, is not the actual ruling king of the Burgunds. That honor has obviously gone to his sister, Gudrún, and her husband, a Danish prince called Sigurd. Traces of matrilinear descent are frequent in the Edda heroic poetry, where princes must always move to other tribes and seek marriages with a female heiress in order to become kings, rather than inheriting the thrones of their fathers.  This could very well be a reflection of ancient practices which had changed by the time of the Viking Age. In fact, the Edda legend almost appears to explain exactly how this tradition changed:

Brynhild, loath to discover that her marriage with Gunnarr does not make her the queen of the Burgunds, because his sister, by matrilinear descent, is already the queen of the Burgunds, threatens to divorce Gunnarr unless he takes the throne himself, thus demanding that he betrays both his king and his own sister.

It appears that Gunnarr and his family are afraid of this divorce, because it could mean enmity with the powerful Huns. They move behind the back of the ruling queen and her ruling husband in order to kill him and usurp the throne. The dethroned queen, Gudrun, curses her brothers for their betrayal, and Brynhild is then so upset about her part in the betrayal and the slaying of a great man that she commits suicide, leaving the Burgunds to deal with her powerful brother alone after all.

The Burgunds find themselves in exactly the same dreadful position as they would have if Brynhild had divorced Gunnarr; they are now enemies to the all-powerful Huns, because Atli feels that they have caused his sister´s death. They seek the forgiveness of Gudrun, who has taken refuge in the wilderness after their betrayal and learned the arts of sorcery. Reluctantly, Gudrun agrees to offer herself up in marriage to Atli the Hun in order to save the peace and her people.

However, Atli the Hun is not content with this. He expected his new Burgund wife to come with a lot of treasure, but this treasure has been hidden. Inviting his brothers-in-law for a banquet, he slays them and all the Burgund warriors with them. Gunnar is the last to die – thrown into a pit of snakes where he plays the harp for them until he is finally killed.

If not necessarily accurate, the Edda story of the massacre of the Burgunds has its historical counterpart:

“In 406 the Alans, Vandals, the Suevi, and possibly the Burgundians crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul. In 411 AD, the Burgundian king Gundahar or Gundicar [“Gunnarr”] set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar, king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallic emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left or western (i.e., Roman) bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe, seizing Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. Apparently as part of a truce, the Emperor Honorius later officially “granted” them the land. Olympiodorus of Thebes also mentions a Guntiarios who was called “commander of the Burgundians” in the context of the 411 usurping of Germania Secunda by Jovinus.

Despite their new status as foederati, Burgundian raids into Roman upper Gallia Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Flavius Aetius called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus, now called Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting, reportedly along with the majority of the Burgundian tribe.”[3]

The Death of Attila

Attila, Ruler of the Hunnic Empire 434 - 453, scene, his death in the wedding night with Ildico, wood engraving, 19th century, h

In the Poetic Edda, Gudrun of the Burgunds extracts a terrible vengeance. Beneath the guise of submission, she arranges for a funeral banquet for her brothers in which she serves the flesh of her her own two small sons with Atli to him and to all his men, and makes him eat their hearts and drink their blood unknowingly. Then she confronts him with his cannibalism. Due to her sorcery, the entire hall of the Huns falls asleep, and Atli, recognizing his defeat, goes to his bed where he lies passively awaiting as she picks up his sword and kills him with it. As he dies, he declares that he knew that Gudrun was a fierce woman, and now he has the proof of that.

In the Edda, Gudrun´s vengeance is celebrated. She is called “the last bride in armor”, as in, the last warrior woman to ever avenge her brothers with such ferocity. She is able to escape the Hunnish encampment and finds marriage again elsewhere. In real history, the death of Attila actually meant the end of the Hunnish empire and the liberation of the Germanic tribes after more than a century of subservience to the Huns, so this celebration of the woman who, according to legend actually slayed him and liberated her people, is understandable.

In the historical records, Attila´s death is described somewhat differently, but with clear parallels:

“The conventional account from Priscus says that Attila was at a feast celebrating his latest marriage, this time to the beautiful young Ildico [Hildigunde](the name suggests Gothic or Ostrogoth origins ). In the midst of the revels, however, he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. An alternative theory is that he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking, possibly a condition called esophageal varices, where dilated veins in the lower part of the esophagus rupture leading to death by hemorrhage.

Another account of his death was first recorded 80 years after the events by Roman chronicler Marcellinus Comes. It reports that “Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife”. The Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda claim that King Atli (Attila) died at the hands of his wife Gudrun. Most scholars reject these accounts as no more than hearsay, preferring instead the account given by Attila’s contemporary Priscus. Priscus’ version, however, has recently come under renewed scrutiny by Michael A. Babcock.Based on detailed philological analysis, Babcock concludes that the account of natural death given by Priscus was an ecclesiastical “cover story”, and that Emperor Marcian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 450 to 457) was the political force behind Attila’s death.”[4]

The Death of Svanhild

In the Poetic Edda, Svanhild is the beautiful daughter of Sigurd and Gudrun, whose grisly death at the hands of her jealous royal husband Iörmunrekkr (Ermanaric) was told in many northern European stories, including the Poetic Edda (Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt), Prose Edda and the Volsunga Saga; the Norwegian Ragnarsdrápa; the Danish Gesta Danorum; and the German Nibelungenlied and Annals of Quedlinburg.

She was “the most beautiful of all women,” and was married to Ermanaric (Jörmunrekkr) the king of the Goths. She was accused of infidelity with the king’s son, Randver. Because of this Ermanaric had her trampled to death under horses. Her mother made her half-brothers Hamdir and Sörli exact revenge on her death, a story which is retold in Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt, Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa, in the Völsunga saga and in Gesta Danorum.

This legend also had its historical counterparts:

“Jordanes wrote in 551 AD that Ermanaric, king of the Gothic Greuthungi, was upset with the attack of a subordinate king and had his young wife Sunilda (i.e. Svanhild) torn apart by four horses. As revenge Ermanaric was pierced with spears by her brothers Ammius (Hamdir) and Sarus (Sörli) and died from the wounds. The Annals of Quedlinburg (end of the 10th century) relates that the brothers Hemidus (Hamdir), Serila (Sörli) and Adaccar (Erp/Odoacer) had cut off the hands of Ermanaric.”[5]

attila svanhild.jpg






The Oseberg Grave Contents

The Oseberg Grave Contents – Interpretations

Summary/Article by Maria Kvilhaug


Gunhild Røthe: «Osebergfunnet – en religionshistorisk tolkning» (The Oseberg Find – an Interpretation from the Perspective of the History of Religion) 1994, Hovedfagsoppgave i religionshistorie, Avdeling for Religionshistorie, Institutt for Kultur og Samfunnsfag, Universitetet I Oslo.

Short presentation of the Oseberg Find

The Oseberg ship burial was excavated during the summer of 1904 at the farm Oseberg close to Tønsberg in the county of Vestfold, Norway. Beneath a mound that originally had been six meters tall and 44 square meters, archaeologists found Norway´s to this date richest burial site. The mound had been built with grass turfs packed tightly together and disguised a ship with a burial chamber in the stern. The timber has revealed that the grave must have been constructed in 834 AD, concurring with the styles of art that fit with the era between 800-850 AD.

In the grave was found many wooden objects, the skeletal remains of two women, and bones from many different animals. There were at least 20 horses, 4 hounds, as well as cows, an ox and pigs. The animals had been beheaded and their remains were found both within and outside of the ship. The human remains were scattered close to an entrance made by grave robbers, made through the ship´s stem and into the burial chamber. There was a large bed at the prow in which the head of an ox had been placed. In the stem (burial chamber) there was a lot of kitchen equipment, among which were many containers, such as the famous “Buddha-bucket”, probably of British origin. There was also farming equipment and a practical kind of sledge. At the prom were found many driving vessels, such as the famous wagon and the two sledges, all richly decorated and probably used for ritual or other ceremonious occasions. There were also two tents, and many staves with carved symbols animal heads, many of which may have been used for framing the tents. The largest tent was 5,3×4,5 meters in diameter and 3,5 meters tall. There were also five decorated animal-headed pillars and several rattles.

For the most part, objects found in the stem/burial chamber appear to be personal items while objects in the prow appear to be ritual objects, but two of the animal-headed pillars were placed in the stem/burial chamber. In the stem/chamber were found 5-6 beds, 4 bed-stands, a chair, 3 chests, and tools for textile work. The remains of 4 weave-stools, 2 band-weaves, 2 brick-weaves, spindles, wooden planks for beating laundry, two nails of wood, clubs for beating linen, an iron scissors and fragments of other tools used for textile work. Along with the personal items were found combs, shoes, a wooden saddle, a small staff with a carved dog´s head, feathers from thick sleeping blankets and pillows, and parts of tapestries.


History of Interpreting the Oseberg Ship Burial


The Oseberg ship was excavated in 1904, only the year before Norway was finally released from its union with Sweden and became a nation with its own king. Since 1814, Norway had been sharing a king with Sweden and was the less powerful part of the Union. Before that, Norway had been a vassal to Denmark for more than four hundred years. The Oseberg ship therefore became a symbol of Norway as an independent national state with the dissolving of the Union in 1905. This naturally influenced early attitudes to the splendid find. It was as if Norway´s former glory, when it still had its own royal lineage, had been restored. As such, the Oseberg find became a national monument.

The Oseberg burial is different from other graves from the period in that the buried were two women. In other cases where we have found more than one body in a grave, it has always been a man and a woman together. Such double burials are known from Norwegian areas since the Roman Iron Age and may point to a Norwegian form of Suttee, where the widow is sacrificed to follow her husband into the next world. When we are speaking of Suttee, we will find grave-goods from both the masculine and the feminine spheres in equal measure, and the contents will show that both man and woman belonged to the same social class. In the cases where the grave only contains masculine equipment, we are likely seeing that a slave woman has followed her master into the grave.

In the Oseberg find, the opposite is the case; this is an all-female grave, and both the skeletons are female. The most common interpretation has been that the grave belongs to a powerful woman, the “queen” and her slave-woman. For a long the time, the only discussion of this matter was who of the women was queen and who was slave.

The remains of the women were found scattered around the break-in (grave-robber´s) entrance, but were put together by the archaeologists to reveal the remains of one woman aged between 60 and 70, strongly suffering from arthritis (leddgikt) and a spinal dysfunction that must have made her back crooked, and she stood no taller than 1.50 meters. Her skeleton is the best preserved of them all.

The second woman´s remains are not as complete as the other. She was aged between 30 and 40 years old. Her collar bone had been crushed and her skull had been smashed before she died.

Kristian Emil Schreiner argued already in 1909 that the youngest woman must have been the “queen” exactly because most of her skeleton is missing. This may be due to the grave robbers having robbed the jewelry that may have been fastened to the woman´s skeleton. Besides, the teeth of the younger woman shows sign of the use of a tooth-pick which according to Schreiner was used only by the higher social classes.

Other archaeologists believed that the older woman was the “queen” because the skeleton of the younger woman bear traces of violence, which could mean that she was sacrificed.

Gustav Gulberg suggested a third possible interpretation, namely that the two women were of equal social standing, but left it there, thinking it unlikely.

As Gunhild Røthe points out in 1994, the question these first interpreters discussed was who “she” was, and not who “they” were. The other question discussed was whether they could connect the burial to the Ynglinga lineage in Vestfold, as it was described by Snorri and before him Thióðolf Skald. Since the 1990s, new perspectives have been fronted, discussing the women (both of them) as members of a religious community of some kind.

The Oseberg Find as Queen Ása´s Mound – an Ynglinga Heritage

The fact that ships and boats were used for burials may have to do with an idea that the dead could travel across the sea to the other side of death. Håkon Shetelig was the first to analyze the Oseberg burial in light of other ship burials found in Vestfold, Karmay and Namdalen. Typical for all these finds is the way the mound has been built, the ship as a burial chamber, and the large amount of grave goods. He sees this custom in relation to the customs of high-standing families and which may be traced to the large king-burial mounds in Uppsala. He believes that the ship-burials in Norway are inherited from the Swedes through the influence of the Ynglinga kings in Norway and suggests that this kind of burial is to a great extent the burial custom of the Vestfold-kings.

The focus on ancient royalty led to a particular interpretation of the grave contents. The finery of everything was proof of the “queen´s” exquisite and noble taste, a refined woman taken out of an early 20th century salon culture who would keep a number of great artists and craftsmen in her court. The ship and its contents were used when the “queen” went for little trips much like rich people today do when they go yachting. The dog remains show that she liked to have dogs as pets, much like Queen Victoria. The Oseberg “queen” fitted right into contemporary high society.

In 1917, Anton Wilhelm Brøgger suggested that the grave had belonged to the very powerful Queen Ása of Agder, daughter of Harald Granraudi (Red Beard).

The Ynglinga saga gives us the story of Ása and her importance in the rise of a Norwegian nation:

The Vestfold king, Gudröd of the Ynglinga lineage, wanted to marry Ása of Agder, but was refused. Then he killed her father and brother, abducted fifteen year old Ása, raped her and forced her to marry him. Resourceful young Ása was not the kind of woman who would submit to such atrocities. First, she made Gudröds life so miserable he became an alcoholic who never dared return to his own house. When their son, Halfdan the Black, was about a year old, Ása had Gudröd killed, making her personal slave do the deed (which was a way of showing how lowly she regarded him). Now 18 years old, Ása returned to Agder and ruled there herself, raising her son Halfdan the Black until he was 18 and ready to take over.

Halfdan claimed his part of the Vestfold kingdom from his half-brother Ólaf, who was later known as Ólad Geirstad-Elf, said to hear the prayers of people who went to sit out on his grave. Halfdan the Black claimed many Norwegian kingdoms (there were some thirty of them) during his life and fathered the famous Harald Hair-Fair, who became king of all Norway.

Brøgger argued that the name of the place, Oseberg, derived from ON Ásasbergr – “Ása´s Mound”, and that the grave belonged to Queen Ása. This would prove that the Ynglinga saga is historically quite accurate. Thus the many burial mounds of Vestfold became monuments marking the beginning of the Norwegian kingdom, and all the mounds have been attempted analyzed in light of the saga, trying to show which kings had been buried where.

Other Interpretations – The Mound of the Gods

Sophus Bugge suggested that the name Oseberg would more likely be derived from ON Ásabergr – “The Mound of the Gods” (ása is genitive plural of áss, “god”). It is by no means certain one of the women in the grave is Ása, but a connection to the Ynglinga lineage is likely.

In 1943, the archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing analyzed the burial from an art- and religion-historical perspective. He showed that the horse played an important symbolic role in art and in religious life such as sacrifice. He believed the horse was connected to a Sun cult and drew connections to older Danish cults from the Bronze Age, and this cult again could be connected to a fertility cult where the horse symbolized the divine power that secured fertility in people and in the land. He regarded the Oseberg ship burial as one of the most important examples of a horse-cult in heathen times.

The horse is clearly associated with the god Freyr, who was also the most important god of the Ynglinga lineage. He pictures the Slagen valley (where Oseberg is situated) as a cultic center with the farm Bø as a royal seat, where the buried woman lived. He suggests that she was a Gyðja, a pagan priestess devoted to Freyr, and links to various written sources suggesting that the god Freyr was served on Earth by a high priestess (such as the story of Gunnarr Helming in Flateyiarbók, where the Freyr-priestess drove the image of the god around in a wagon, making a procession through the countryside. Such processions are also shown in the tapestries.

Gjessing was the first to front the objects of the Oseberg burial as parts of a religious cult. He thus agrees with Bugge that the correct interpretation of the name Oseberg is Ásabergr – The Mound of the Gods. Thus the most important question is not to ask WHO the woman is, but WHAT she was – or they were. According to Gjessing, she was a priestess of the horse-cult associated with the Freyr-cult.

Freyia´s Representative on Earth – Ingstad´s Interpretation

The archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad proposed a new thesis in 1982. She sticks to the interpretation “Mound of the Gods” and also to the notion that the burial was connected to the Ynglinga lineage. The royal connection is among other things proved by the fact that the clothes of one of the women were red and of very fine quality. Such clothes are always found in the clothes of people of very high standing. Literary sources suggest that red was used by royalty and clergy. Ingstad suggested that the woman was Queen Alfhild, Gudröd´s first wife and mother to Ólaf Geirstad-Elf, since she believed that Ása of Agder must have been despised as a murderer by the Vestfoldings. Queen Alfhild must have been the youngest woman in the grave.

Ingstad also asks whether the Queen might have been more than just a Queen. The taptestries must have been woven by the Queen herself and her handmaidens. The motifs may be connected to people and events in the Queen´s life. They also appear to show scenes of ritual suggesting a Freyia-cult, including a scene where nine men are hanged in a serpent grove, which Ingstad interprets as a sacrifice to Freyia. She describes the sacrifice as a sacred marriage or more precisely a death-wedding where the sacrificed are men and the recipient is a goddess. The presence of a man´s saddle in the grave is interpreted as the symbolic presence of King Gudröd.

The hollow, bamboo-like staff in the grave is also connected to heathen cult, perhaps symbolizing fertility. It appears that the staff has been winded with linen threads, and Ingstad points out that linen was associated with Freyia, one of whose names was Hærn (“Linen”). She sees the staff as a phallic symbol and the linen as a symbol of Freyia, the combination of these is a symbol of the death-marriage. The cult-wagon has many images of cats, and in Freyia mythology, her wagon is drawn by cats. The travel equipment and the sacred objects prove that these were objects used in a traveling Freyia-cult. Ingstad concludes that the woman of Oseberg was an incarnation of Freyia and that the Queen, Alfhild, and the priestess were one and the same. The divine status of the woman was explained with several unusual traits in the grave. The very place of the burial in a flat, bog-like place, all the beheaded animals and all the stones that had been thrown over the grave goods are connected to typical sacrifice more than to typical burials. Only the cultic function of the grave may explain why the burial took the shape of a sacrifice. As Ingstad herself concludes:

“There they (the women) should lie for all eternity, close to the sanctuary they had served in life, so that they may continue to influence peace and fertility in the valley. As in life, so in death.”

Sacred Marriage – Gunhild Røthe´s Interpretation

Gunhild Røthe begins her analysis by comparing the Oseberg find with a written description of a Rus/Norse burial at Volga from the year 921 AD by the Arab emissary Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan. There are some similarities and some differences between the two sources.

  1. Similarities

In both the Oseberg and the Rus cases, a ship has been drawn inland, on which a burial chamber is prepared. In the Oseberg burial, the burial chamber is a tent-like wooden construction. In the Rus burial, there is an actual tent serving as a burial chamber. Blue-berries, apples, grains, walnuts, hazel nuts and other plant seeds and 54 wild apples picked in the month of September (which must have been the month of the burial) are found in Oseberg, all contents paralleled in the Rus burial. The way the animals have been sacrificed with axe-blows to their top neck as well as the types of animals sacrificed are also identical in the two sources. Ibn-Fadlan´s description shows that the beheading of the animals was important to the purpose of reading omens. The wealth of clothes and decorative equipment is another parallel. The textiles were treated with beeswax and the dead were put to rest amidst great luxury in both cases. In Ibn-Fadlan´s description, the dead man lay in another grave for ten days while they prepared the funeral, and suggests that he was buried in a wooden coffin, where there was also a deal of grave goods. The Oseberg find similarly shows that the dead may have been preserved for months while the burial was prepared. The sacrifice of a slave woman is another very relevant similarity. The Rus burial describes a violent death to the (volunteering) slave woman, and the skeleton of the younger woman at Oseberg shows sign of violent impact as well. Only very high status people were buried with sacrificed servants.

  1. Differences – the burning

The greatest difference between the two graves is that the Rus grave is burned after the burial procedures. The Oseberg burial was not. Both burial customs existed side by side in Norway at the time. The Oseberg burial is a lot bigger and richer than the Rus burial, and the buried are women.

  1. Ibn-Fadlan´s description of the Rus as relevant to the Norse

Ibn-Fadlan is being told by his interpreter why they burn the dead and his ship: It is to enable the chief to enter “Paradise”, possibly a way of liberating the soul from the body, which is how Ibn-Fadlan understands it.

Ibn-Fadlan also describes how the slave-woman looks into the next world and describes it as fair and green, a similarity to how Valhall is described in Hákonarmál as græna heima goda – “The Green Abode of the Gods”. Her way of achieving the vision is similar to other descriptions from Norse sources – drinking, singing, dancing and finally being lifted up to look above a “gate-hinge” and into the other world. A gate hinge was very much a symbol of the entry into the afterlife in Norse sources.

The Rus slave woman is treated like a high-standing woman before she dies and drinks heavily before she has intercourse with the friends of the dead man. The theme of a death-wedding is very much present. Ingstad had already pointed out sacred marriage symbolism in the Oseberg grave. Professor Gro Steinsland has shown since the 1990s that the sacred marriage was a very important part of Norse “king ideology” where death and erotic alliances are very much interconnected.

Cult Objects listed by Røthe

  • The Rune Stave. A round birch stave, 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm in the end, broken in one end. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”. The ornament is identical to a Thor´s hammer symbol, used in Iceland as a magical sign. The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” – “Man knows little” or else “litill vissm” – “(Although) I am small I am wise”, or “litil vés m” – “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.
  • The Ship. The ship was built more delicately than traditional Viking ships and probably meant for calm journeys inside the relative safety of the fiords. Myths show that the ship symbolized both death and fertility. We also know from other sources both written and archaeological (rock carvings etc) that ships could have a cultic function. Tacitus described a German “Isis-cult” where the goddess stood at the prow of a ship, and the temple of the goddess Nehalennia in Domburg, dating back the the 2nd century AD shows images of the goddess at the prow or stern of ships, or at the steer. In Solarljod, Frigg is said to steer the Ship of Earth, and there are many images of ships from the Bronze Age where rituals are being performed on these, particularly dedicated to the Sun goddess.
  • The Wagon. The Oseberg Wagon is the only wagon found from archaeological digs in Norway. It is 5 meters long, 2,5 meters broad and 1,2 meters tall. It was clearly not a practical wagon, and it was decorated with mythical scenes. It must have been a cult-wagon, a part of the processions shown in the Oseberg tapestries. The cat symbols suggest a link to Freyia, but there are several goddesses and gods who are described as wagon-driving. In Brennunjálssaga we are told that The image of Thor was placed in a wagon, a similar description is found about Thor´s image in Flateyiarbók, and also about Freyr. The image of the goddess Nerthus was drawn in a wagon according to Tacitus. In the Oseberg tapestries, wagons in the processions are often covered by a cloth, or else there are objects in the wagons that are covered. In Tacitus description, the goddess is covered by a cloth when she is drawn around during the ceremony.
  • The Large Bed. This bed was situated at the prow. The head of an ox had been placed in the middle. It was a double bed, made for two people. Røthe interprets the bed as made for a wedding, the sacred marriage ritual. A pagan wedding was only completed when witnesses observed the couple actually copulating in the bed, before which the marriage oaths and the agreements between the two clans were made “at the bedstand”. Røthe connects the bed to the ritual of the Sacred Marriage connected to a death wedding. References to making a bed or copulating in the grave are many in Norse sources.
  • Animal Head staffs.
  •  oseberg-viking-bed persian-blanket oseberg-woman oseberg_ship_head_post bronze-vessel-oseberg-ship-burial-mound-vestfold-norway 862ebebc03a453f604d6b9764736ce0f 14237765_1084029508299601_3496196795900851025_n 0eb0371afdc3ad805cc570c80a63a223_original oseberg-decoration-on-wagon oseberg-valknutr
    ca. 850 A.D. --- Oseberg Cart Carving --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

    ca. 850 A.D. — Oseberg Cart Carving — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

    q50%20cong2 oseberg_buddha_suncross chest 4793707496_cdac28a101 220px-oseberg_tapestry_ii









The Bearded Woman of Oseberg


The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.

Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Witch) st. 57, Poetic Edda

536 AD: A volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused a global catastrophe. Even in Scandinavia did people experience the full blow of its aftermaths; the sun vanished from sight for three years – in its place were clouds of ash, a small Ice Age, famine and darkness, a winter lasting for three years. All this seems recognizable from Old Norse mythology, and it happened for real.

How did the people respond, asks the archaeologist Lena Fahre, whose lecture I went to see, what gave me some further inspiration for my books about the Oseberg women. Fahre emphasized the eruption and its consequences for Scandinavian culture; Just after this three year long winter – what the Norse referred to as “The Great Winter” (Fimbulvettr), Scandinavians, who had been used to a more pleasant and temperate climate than what now followed, began to perform large sacrifices and the building of great mounds.

The Oseberg Mound in Vestfold

The Oseberg Mound in Vestfold

Fast forward to 1904, when the great mound at Oseberg in Vestfold, Norway, was excavated. The archaeologists soon began to realize that they were about to dig out the Scandinavian equivalent of the grave of Tut Anch Amon – the greatest burial of the Viking Age. Grave robbers had removed the precious metals and jewelry, but even without these it was obvious that the grave belonged to a person so highly esteemed that one had to expect a great king, partly divine!

Great was the surprise, then, when the remains in the grave turned out to be two tiny old women. Quickly enough, the people back then decided that the burial must belong to that of Ása Haraldsdaughter of Agder, and her sacrificed handmaiden. This myth has lived on and is, despite thirty years of studies  showing that it could not be, still represented as fact at the Vikingship museum in Oslo, where the Oseberg ship is at display.

excavation_oseberg_ship_1904 excavation_oseberg_ship_2






Ása Queen was the daughter of Harald Granraudi (“Red Beard”), the king of Agder in western Norway. The king of Vestfold, Gudröd Hunter King, who also seems to have been a king or general of Denmark during the age of Charlemagne, launching an attack on the Franks in about 810 AD, wanted Ása for a wife, but her father refused his proposal. Then Gudröd came with an army, killed Harald and his son, and forcefully took Ása for a wife. She gave birth to Halfdan the Black around the year 810. Then she had her shoe-boy (an errand boy) murder her husband Gudröd, thus avenging her father and brother. According to the Frankish annals, Gudröd (Godofred) was murdered just as he arrived at the Frankish shores, and the Danish fleet saw this as a bad sign and did not attack that year. Ása returned to Agder where she ruled as queen and raised her son Halfdan. At the age of 18, Halfdan returned to Vestfold for his legacy, and came to father Harald Hair-Fair. The first archaeologists saw this as a national symbol: The grandmother of the man who united all the tribes of Norway in one kingdom for the first time ever had been given a great memorial.

Halfdan and Ása would have been contemporaries to the women who were buried at Oseberg, but all accounts show that Ása could not have died before 850 AD, and the Oseberg burial happened in the early autumn of 834 AD. Adding to that, it appears more and more obvious that both women held a high rank and that the second woman could not have been a simple servant maid. The rich contents of the grave lean more toward a religious cult than towards just royalty.

The grave consisted of a beautifully decorated oak-ship and a timbered burial chamber, one precious wagon, four sledges, picture tapestries, Persian blankets, 15 sacrificed horses, four dogs, one ox, and a lot of other items both practical and religious, and musical instruments. The ship itself had been constructed in the year 820 AD on the west coast of Norway, probably transported to Vestfold for the burial in 834 AD.

Persian blanket in the Oseberg burial

Persian blanket in the Oseberg burial

Oseberg tapestry replica

Oseberg Tapestry Replica

There are lots of things which could be said about this amazing, royal/religious/divine burial – but for now we shall focus on the two women who were laid there to rest, since DNA and other techniques now have been used to give us a far more detailed picture of their lives than we had before.

Who were they?


The matrimonial bed Oseberg

The oldest Oseberg woman skeleton with the pieces of the youngest woman at her feet

The oldest Oseberg woman skeleton with the pieces of the youngest woman at her feet

The two women, one aged between 70 and 80, the second about 50 years old, appear to have been originally placed together in the large matrimonial bed. Six single beds were also present in the grave, and it is entirely possible that these beds were also occupied by bodies. But during a grave robbery which we know happened 130 years later, in the 960s, these bodies, if they were there, may have been removed. Attempts to remove the two remaining skeletons somehow failed; several pieces of the youngest woman were left behind with the oldest woman, whose remains are almost complete. All jewelry was removed, possibly accounting for the mess in which the remaining pieces of the youngest woman´s skeleton was found.

We know, now, that both women were strong and that they had worked hard physically. But the way they had maintained very healthy teeth, used toothpicks, and eaten well, we may guess that they had a high rank in their lives. They ate mostly meat and very little fish. The most recent studies are even able to place the women; we know now that they must have spent a lot of time living in the eastern parts of Agder, the same kingdom that was ruled by Ása Queen, and where we know that the Oseberg ship was built.

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One name we do have. On one of the precious buckets from Oseberg there is a runic inscription; “Sigrid owns (this bucket)”. Sigrid was a woman´s name and may have belonged to one of the women in the grave – whether it was one of the two we know of, or perhaps one of those who may have shared the grave, laid to rest in one of the single beds. This we do not know.

The Witch who Magically Transformed into a Man


A Bearded Woman? Oseberg prow


The oldest woman in the grave, and the only one whose remains were almost complete, turned out to have been between 70 and 80 years old. She had suffered serious illness during her childhood and early youth. Then she may have moved on quite normally – but before reaching middle age, she began transforming.

She had a condition that we know as Morgagni Syndrome. It was a hormonal disease which caused some physical discomfort, which turned her bone structure very thick, probably she developed an indenture in her forehead, her jaws became broad, her shoulders massive, drowning her neck. Her voice became deeper, and her body hair grew – in fact she turned into a bearded woman. Her level of testosterone would have been as in a very masculine man.

Whatever inclinations she may have had before the condition changed her, she may very well have turned masculine in more ways than just appearance. Having been placed in a matrimonial bed together with another woman, archaeologists today must admit that they cannot outrule the possibility that the two women were a couple, although their relationship is completely unknown to us and could of course have many other possible explanations.

Archaeologists like Britt Solli have earlier pointed out the way this burial seems to belong to both the masculine and the feminine sphere, despite belonging to two women – a very unusual thing in Old Norse burials, although not unknown. Whenever the goods in a grave point to gender ambiguity, magic is usually involved.

There is also the issue of the possibility that at least six other people may have been buried with them. If they were women, they would have counted the magical number of eight, the exact number of main goddesses in Old Norse mythology.

Apart from being just 153 cm high, in an age where Scandinavian men could easily reach 180 cm, she would appear convincingly as if she was a woman who suddenly changed sex by some divine or magical decree.

To her contemporaries, the transformation must have seemed magical, even divine, and may actually account for her extreme importance. She may have already been a highly regarded person, a witch or a priestess, but this visible, apparent sex-change must have blown the minds of her contemporaries.

The oldest woman may have been the main character in this burial, the very heart of the ritual. She lived to a very old age for her time, and died of cancer – either ovarian or breast cancer, possibly a late result of her hormonal condition. Her back was crooked by the time of death, and she had suffered from a knee injury ten years before her death.

The Youngest Woman

Oseberg tapestry

Detail from Oseberg tapestry, a procession of women surrounded by serpents, floating above a Fly Agaric, carrying different items

The youngest woman in the grave was about 50 years old when she died. She had very healthy teeth and appears to have been healthy all over. A blow to her collar bone was for a long time considered evidence for how she may have been sacrificed. But now we know that this injury had begunto heal a long time before she died. The lack of skeleton pieces means that we do not know how she died. Since the oldest woman died of natural causes, it is very possible that the other(s) was (were) sacrificed as well, but we do not know.

The youngest woman was about 155 cm tall, quite short, but not uncommon for women of the Viking Age. The most interesting find about her, apart from having lived most of her adult life in east Agder, eating meat rather than fish, was that she had a maternal ancestry that was foreign. By mithocondrial descent, one of her direct maternal ancestors belonged to haplogroup U7. This maternal ancestry originated in the Black Sea area some 30 000 years ago and spread out – some came as far west as Germany, but most of the U7 descendants nowadays will be found in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka and western Siberia. This woman´s mother, or mother´s mother, or perhaps even far before that, would have been a foreigner from the east.

This fits well with my character Thordís, whose Baltic mother had a maternal ancestry from the Black Sea area.

Oseberg Burial

The Oseberg Burial

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ca. 850 A.D. --- Oseberg Cart Carving --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

ca. 850 A.D. — Oseberg Cart Carving — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s --- Viking Oseberg Cart --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s — Viking Oseberg Cart — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s --- Viking Oseberg Cart --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s — Viking Oseberg Cart — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS




This post is not an article, but consists only of quotes from two important historical written sources, contemporary to the events described: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) and The Royal Frankish Annals (RFA)

The Saxon Wars

775 (RFA): «While the king spent the winter at the villa of Quierzy, he decided to attack the treachereous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely terminated

776 (RFA): «In great terror all the Saxons came to the source of the River Lippe, converging there from every point they surrendered their land to the Franks, put up security, promised to become Christians, and submitted to the rule of the Lord King Charles and the Franks (…) The Saxons came there with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King demanded.»

777 (RFA): «All the Franks gathered there and from every part of Saxony came the Saxons, with the exception of Widukind, who was in revolt along with a few others. He fled with his companions into Nordmannia (…) Many Saxons were baptised and according to their custom pledged to the king their whole freedom and property if they should change their minds again in that detestable manner of theirs and not keep the Christian faith and their fealty to the Lord King Charles…»

778 (RFA): «When the Saxons heard that the Lord King Charles and the Franks were so far away in Spain, they followed their detestable custom and again revolted, spurred on by Widukind and his compaions (…) With the help of God the Fraks had the victory. A great number of Saxons were slain, and those who escaped returned to Saxony in utter disgrace.

779 (RFA): «…a campaign was launched into Saxony.»

782 (RFA): (THE MASSACRE AT VERDEN): «As soon as he (Charlemagne) returned (to Francia), the Saxons, persuaded by Widukind, promptly rebelled as usual (…) Then all the Saxons came together again, submitted to the authority of the Lord King, and surrendered the evildoers who were chiefly responsible for this revolt to be put to death – four thousand five hundred of them. This sentence was carried out. Widukind was not among them since he had fled into Nordmannia.»

783 (RFA): «Since the Saxons had revolted again, the Lord King Charles conducted a campaign into Saxony (…) An immense number of Saxons were slain at this place so that only a few escaped from flight.»

784 (RFA): «The Saxons rebelled as usual and some Frisians along with them (…) (Charlemagne) entered Saxony and went here and there devastating the countryside (…)»

785 (RFA): «(Charlemagne) routed the Saxons who had rebelled, captured their castles, broke through their fortifications, and held the roads open until the right hour struck. Then he (…) marched through all of Saxony wherever he wished, on open roads and with nobody putting up any resistance (…) he sent for Widukind and Abbi and had both brought before him (…)There Widukind and Abbi were baptized with their companions. The whole of Saxony was then subjugated



A.D. 787 (ASC): This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife.  And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers.  The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain.  These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.


A.D. 793 (ASC): (LINDISFARNE) This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.  Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.

793 (RFA): «At that point a messenger brought the news that the Saxos had again broken faith»



A.D. 794 (ASC): This year died Pope Adrian; and also Offa, King of Mercia, on the fourth day before the ides of August, after he had reigned forty winters.  Ethelred, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by his own people, on the thirteenth day before the calends of May; in consequence of which, Bishops Ceolwulf and Eadbald retired from the land.  Everth took to the government of Mercia, and died the same year.  Eadbert, whose other name was Pryn, obtained the kingdom of Kent; and Alderman Ethelherd died on the calends of August.  In the meantime, the heathen armies spread devastation among the Northumbrians, and plundered the monastery of King Everth at the mouth of the Wear. There, however, some of their leaders were slain; and some of their ships also were shattered to pieces by the violence of the weather; many of the crew were drowned; and some, who escaped alive to the shore, were soon dispatched at the mouth of the river.

794 (RFA): «The Saxons gathered in the plain called Sindfeld and prepared for battle. But when they heard that they were surrounded on both sides, God frustrated their intentions, and they promised, with no such thing in mind, to become Christians and be loyal to the Lord King.»


More Saxon Rebellions

A.D. 795 (ASC): This year was the moon eclipsed, between cock-crowing and dawn, on the fifth day before the calends of April….

795 (RFA): «The Saxons gave hostages in the preceding summer and swore oaths, as they were ordered to, but the king did not forget their treachery (…) When (Charlemagne) heard that the Saxons had, as usual, broken their promise to accept Christianity and keep faith with the king, he entered Saxony with an army (…) Once the Saxons had been soundly beaten, their country laid waste, and their hostages received, the king returned to Gaul…»


796 (RFA): «The Lord King marched through Saxony with his entire host and then returned to Gaul»

797 (RFA): «A campaign was launched into Saxony and pursued beyond swamps and pathless places as far as the ocean (…) the king accepted the submission of the whole Saxon people….»

A.D. 797 (ASC): This year the Romans cut out the tongue of Pope Leo, put out his eyes, and drove him from his see; but soon after, by the assistance of God, he could see and speak, and became pope as he was before.  Eanbald also received the pall on the sixth day before the ides of September, and Bishop Ethelherd died on the third before the calends of November.


798 (RFA): «….at the very time of Easter the Nordliudi («Northern Tribes» of Saxons) who live beyond the Elbe rose in rebellion and took prisoner the royal envoys who had gone to obtain satisfaction from them. They executed some of the Franks on the spot and held the others for ransom…. With the others they also put to death Godescal, the king´s envoy, whom the king (Charlemagne) a few days before had sent to Sigifrid, king of the Danes (Sigurd Ring, Ragnar Lódbrok´s father). (…) (Charlemagne) laid waste the whole of Saxony (…) I this year the star called Mars could not be seen anywhere in the entire sky from July of the preceding year to July of this year.»

800 (RFA): «(Charlemagne) built a fleet on this sea, which was then infested with pirates» (Vikings and Saracens)

804 (RFA): «At the same time Godofrid, king of the Danes (Gudröd the Hunter King), came with his fleet and the entire cavalry of his kingdom to Schleswig on the border of his kingdom and Saxony. He promised to show up for a conference with the emperor (Charlemagne was now Holy Roman Emperor), but was made wary by the counsel of his men and did not venture any closer. Instead, he communicated through his envoys whatever he wanted to say. The emperor (…) sent an embassy to Godofrid to discuss the return of fugitives» (Saxon refugees had found asylum in Denmark along with sympathy and displays of support, such as the rising aggression of Danes and Viking fleets).


A.D. 807 (ASC): This year was the sun eclipsed, precisely at eleven in the morning, on the seventeenth day before the calends of August.

808 (RFA): «…Godofrid, the king of the Dabes, with his army had crossed into the land of the Obodrites, he (Charlemagne) sent his son Charles with a strong host of Franks and Saxons to the Elbe, with orders to resist the mad king if he should attempt to attack the borders of Saxony.

Godofrid set up quarters on the shore for some days and attacked….

809 (RFA): «A conference was held with Danish nobles beyound the Elbe…»


A.D. 812 (ASC):  This year died the Emperor Charlemagne, after a reign of five and forty winters; and Archbishop Wulfred, accompanied by Wigbert, Bishop of Wessex, undertook a journey to Rome


A.D. 832 (ASC): This year heathen men overran the Isle of Shepey.

A.D. 833 (ASC): This year fought King Egbert with thirty-five pirates at Charmouth, where a great slaughter was made, and the Danes remained masters of the field.


Consciousness of the Importance of Recording Historical Events

«It is many men´s opinion that to write about the settling of land in Iceland is knowledge of little importance, but we (the editors) believe that if we know with certainty the truth about our ancestors, then we may more easily counter the mockery of foreigners who claim that we descend from slaves and bandits.

And for those who wish to know ancient transmissions and how to trace clan lineages, it is better to start with the beginning than to enter in the middle.

In any case, all civilized nations wish to know about the origin of their own society and about the creation of their own clan.»


The Historical Consciousness of the Heathen ancestors


About the historical consciousness of the Heathen ancestors, Saxo Grammaticus wrote:

«And I would not have it forgotten that the more ancient of the Danes, when any notable deeds of mettle had been done, were filled with emulation of glory, and imitated the Roman style; not only by relating in a choice kind of composition, which might be called a poetical work, the roll of their lordly deeds; but also by having graven upon rocks and cliffs, in the characters of their own language, the works of their forefathers, which were commonly known in poems in the mother tongue (…)

Moreover, how many histories must we suppose that men of such genius would have written, could they have had skill in Latin and so slaked their thirst for writing!

Men who though they lacked acquaintance with, the speech of Rome, were yet seized with such a passion for bequeathing some record of their history, that they encompassed huge boulders instead of scrolls, borrowing rocks for the usage of books.

runer 2 runer 3

Nor may the pains of the men of Thule be blotted in oblivion; for though they lack all that can foster luxury (so naturally barren is the soil), yet they make up for their neediness by their wit, by keeping continually every observance of soberness, and devoting every instant of their lives to perfecting our knowledge of the deeds of foreigners. Indeed, they account it a delight to learn and to consign to remembrance the history of all nations, deeming it as great a glory to set forth the excellences of others as to display their own. (…)»


About the historical consciousness of the Heathen ancestors, Snorri Sturluson wrote:

«Thjodolf of Hvin was the skald of Harald Harfager, and he composed a poem for King Rognvald the Mountain-high, which is called “Ynglingatal.” This Rognvald was a son of Olaf Geirstadaalf, the brother of King Halfdan the Black. In this poem thirty of his forefathers are [2] reckoned up, and the death and burial-place of each are given. He begins with Fjolner, a son of Yngvefrey, whom the Swedes, long after his time, worshipped and sacrificed to, and from whom the race or family of the Ynglings take their name.

Eyvind Skaldaspiller also reckoned up the ancestors of Earl Hakon the Great in a poem called “Haleygjatal,” composed about Hakon; and therein he mentions Sæming, a son of Yngvefrey, and he likewise tells of the death and funeral rites of each. The lives and times of the Yngling race were written from Thjodolf’s relation enlarged afterwards by the accounts of intelligent people.

As to funeral rites, the earliest age is called the Age of Burning; because all the dead were consumed by fire, and over their ashes were raised standing stones. But after Frey was buried under a cairn at Upsala, many chiefs raised cairns, as commonly as stones, to the memory of their relatives.

The Age of Cairns began properly in Denmark after Dan Milkillate had raised for himself a burial-cairn, and ordered that he should be buried in it on his death, with his royal ornaments and armour, his horse and saddle-furniture, and other valuable goods; and many of his descendants followed his example. But the burning of the dead continued, long after that time, to be the custom of the Swedes and Northmen. Iceland was occupied in the time that Harald Harfager was the King of Norway.


Ale's Stones, a megalithic monument in southern Sweden, resembles a stone ship built of 59 large sandstone boulders, weighing up to 1.8 tons each.

Ale’s Stones, a megalithic monument in southern Sweden, resembles a stone ship built of 59 large sandstone boulders, weighing up to 1.8 tons each.

There were skalds in Harald’s court whose poems the people know by heart even at the present day, together with all the songs about the kings who have [3] ruled in Norway since his time; and we rest the foundations of our story principally upon the songs which were sung in the presence of the chiefs themselves or of their sons, and take all to be true that is found in such poems about their feats and battles: for although it be the fashion with skalds to praise most those in whose presence they are standing, yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he, and all those who heard it, knew to be a false and imaginary, not a true account of his deeds; because that would be mockery, not praise.»

The Medieval Self-Conscious Approach

About his own contemporary (early 13th century) approach as a chronicler, Saxo writes:

«In the footsteps of these poems, being as it were classic books of antiquity, I have trod; and keeping true step with them as I translated, in the endeavour to preserve their drift, I have taken care to render verses by verses; so that the chronicle of what I shall have to write, being founded upon these, may thus be known, not for a modern fabrication, but for the utterance of antiquity; since this present work promises not a trumpery dazzle of language, but faithful information concerning times past. (…)

Their stories, which are stocked with attestations of historical events, I have examined somewhat closely, and have woven together no small portion of the present work by following their narrative, not despising the judgment of men whom I know to be so well versed in the knowledge of antiquity. And I have taken equal care to follow the statements of Absalon, and with obedient mind and pen to include both his own doings and other men’s doings of which he learnt; treasuring the witness of his August narrative as though it were some teaching from the skies.»


About the historical approach of recent or contemporary Icelandic chroniclers and their sources, Snorri wrote:

«In this book I have had old stories written down, as I have heard them told by intelligent people, concerning chiefs who have held dominion in the northern countries, and who spoke the Danish tongue; and also concerning some of their family branches, according to what has been told me. Some of this is found in ancient family registers, in which the pedigrees of kings and other personages of high birth are reckoned up, and part is written down after old songs and ballads which our forefathers had for their amusement. Now, although we cannot just say what truth there may be in these, yet we have the certainty that old and wise men held them to be true.(…)

The priest Are Frode (the learned), a son of Thorgils the son of Geller, was the first man in this country who wrote down in the Norse language narratives of events both old and new. In the beginning of his book he wrote principally about the first settlements in Iceland, the laws and government, and next of the lagmen, and how long each had administered the law; and he reckoned the years at first, until the time when Christianity was introduced into Iceland, and afterwards reckoned from that to his own times.

To this he added many other subjects, such as the lives and times of kings of Norway and Denmark, and also of England; besides accounts of great events which have taken place in this country itself. His narratives are considered by many men of knowledge to be the most remarkable of all; because he was a man of good understanding, and so old that his birth was as far back as the year after Harald [4] Sigurdson’s fall. He wrote, as he himself says, the lives and times of the kings of Norway from the report of Od Kolson, a grandson of Hal of Sida.

Od again took his information from Thorgeir Afradskol, who was an intelligent man, and so old that when Earl Hakon the Great was killed he was dwelling at Nidarnes—the same place at which King Olaf Trygvason afterwards laid the foundation of the merchant town of Nidaros (i. e. Throndhjem) which is now there.

The priest Are came, when seven years old, to Haukadal to Hal Thorarinson, and was there fourteen years. Hal was a man of great knowledge and of excellent memory; and he could even remember being baptized, when he was three years old, by the priest Thangbrand, the year before Christianity was established by law in Iceland.

Are was twelve years of age when Bishop Isleif died, and at his death eighty years had elapsed since the fall of Olaf Trygvason. Hal died nine years later than Bishop Isleif, and had attained nearly the age of ninety-four years. Hal had traded between the two countries, and had enjoyed intercourse with King Olaf the Saint, by which he had gained greatly in reputation, and he had become well acquainted with the kingdom of Norway. He had fixed his residence in Haukadal when he was thirty years of age, and he had dwelt there sixty-four years, as Are tells us.

Teit, a son of Bishop Isleif, was fostered in the house of Hal at Haukadal, and afterwards dwelt there himself. He taught Are the priest, and gave him information about many circumstances which Are afterwards wrote down.

Are also got many a piece of information from Thurid, [5] a daughter of the gode Snorre. She was wise and intelligent, and remembered her father Snorre, who was nearly thirty-five years of age when Christianity was introduced into Iceland, and died a year after King Olaf the Saint’s fall. So it is not wonderful that Are the priest had good information about ancient events both here in Iceland, and abroad, being a man anxious for information, intelligent and of excellent memory, and having besides learned much from old intelligent persons. But the songs seem to me most reliable if they are sung correctly, and judiciously interpreted.»


Saxo Grammaticus – Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes), the Preface, dating to ca. AD 1200 (For online text see: )

Snorri Sturluson – Heimskringla (The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings), dating to ca. AD 1225 (For online text see: )

Landnámabók (unknown authors)

The Rus – Vikings in Excile

Europe 9th century

When we think of the Viking Age, we usually think of a time between the 10th and 13th century in Scandinavia and mostly we think of the Viking raids against the shores of England, Ireland and France. As such, the first known raids in Western Europe happened around 787 AD and 793 AD.

But Vikings had existed a long time before that. Vikings, as in “pirates”.

The word víkingr is derived from Old Norse vík, “bay”, and the suffix –ingr, meaning “descendants” or “inhabitants”. The Vikings were inhabitants of the bays, where they would dwell with their ships having no land to live on, and from where they could launch attacks on their victims. (The word could also be used for people who were inhabitants of Víkin, roughly the area of the Oslo fjord, where various tribes dwelled that may have been more lawless than others, such as Alfheim and Ránríki; named after the goddess of the ocean, Rán, whose name means “Robbery”. A tribe of Ranii are described in Classical sources.)

Snorri´s Ynglinga saga describes the presence of Viking fleets ruled by so-called Sea-Kings even as early as the 5th century AD, as well as Viking raids commited by chiefs and kings in Scandinavia against other tribes. One of these early Iron Age legends of Viking raids provided inspiration for my description in book one, The Hammer of Greatness, of how Thordis at age seven was able to secure her position among hostile Viking slavers by acting in an outstanding way:

“Adils King came with his army to Saxland, there ruled a king known as Geirthiof, his wife was Alof the Powerful, and it is not mentioned that they had any children. The king was not in the country. Adils King and his men ran up to the king´s farm and raided there, some took the cattle and chased it down for the beach-cut, and there had been unfree folks (already slaves), men and women, for the herding of cattle, and they took all of them.

Among the slaves there was a girl who was so marvelously lovely, and she called herself Yrsa. Then Adils sailed home with the goods. Yrsa was not placed among the slave women, for it was soon observed that she was intelligent, spoke well, and in all respects was well behaved. All people thought well of her, and particularly the king; and at last it came to so far that the king celebrated his wedding with her, and Yrsa became queen of Svithiod, and was considered an excellent woman.

Helgi Halfdansson King then ruled at Lejre (Zealand in Denmark), he came to Svithiod with an army so great that Adils King could do nothing but flee. Helgi King went ashore with the army and harried, and took great booty, he captured Yrsa Queen and brought her to Lejre and took her for a wife; their son was Hrolfr Kraki.

When Hrolfr was three years old, Alof Queen the Powerful came to Denmark and told Yrsa that her new husband, Helgi King, was her father and that she, Alof, was her mother. Then Yrsa returned to Svithiod to Adils King and was Queen there for as long as she lived. Helgi King fell in Battle. Hrolf Kraki was eight years old then, and he was made king in Lejre.”

(Ynglinga saga 32-33)

 More reliable, contemporary sources also indicate that Scandinavian pirates operated as early as this, sometimes even led by tribal chiefs or kings. Gregor of Tours (AD. 538-594), who wrote actual contemporary history in his AD. 590 Frankish Chronicles, refers to a Danish king, “Chochilaicus” (Hugleikr in Norse), who raided the Frankish coasts in AD. 515. The many references to early piracy prior to the official “Viking Age” coincide with the many wars for supremacy that plagued the Swedish tribes, especially since the time of Ingjaldr Illráða (“Bad Ruler”), the last Ynglinga king to rule from Uppsala.

Erik Werenskiold Ynglinga saga battleEirik Werenskold birkebeinerne inntar Sverresborg

For centuries, an age of unrest led a steady stream of young and landless men from various Swedish tribes onto the path of piracy. Prevented from forming lawful and stable bonds with the lords of the land, these young warriors had been seeking their fortunes with Sea-Kings, rulers of whole fleets of Viking ships, some with pirate armies so great that they could challenge the more traditional land-kings.

According to Snorri, a “Sea-King” (sækonungr) was a man who owned great armies but no land, and who “…never slept beneath sooty roof and never drank at the hearth´s corner.”

For centuries, the Viking fleets harassed the shores of their own homelands as well as the shores of Finland, the Baltic, and Poland. At the beginning of the 8th century, some Vikings discovered river ways to the rich lands of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Khazar Khaganate.

And they found that the rich men from these civilized, southern lands would pay handsomely for young and pretty slaves from the northern lands. And so the Vikings of the east became professional slavers…


Zivah regained her balance, closed her eyes for a moment and drew her breath. Then she watched. She saw the people of her tribe being paraded around, naked and paralyzed with fear, while all sorts of strange-looking men walked around them, touched them, made them open their mouths, checked out every inch of them, and began to bargain in loud barking voices. Arnulf and a few other men were there bargaining right back, looking quite large and frightful compared to most of the other foreigners, and then deal after deal was being made for a whole eternity as one after the other of her people were being sold away like goats. Zivah saw her doting friends stand there, trembling from terror, while men pinched at their bellies and their breasts and most parts of their bodies, and then they were sold off too and they were led away in shackles or ropes. Tears began to stream down her face. Princes and heroes and dresses made of silk; that was what they had talked about. She felt as if she had lied to them for years” (From The Hammer of Greatness – BLADE HONER Book One)

We often know these eastern Norsemen as Varangians, and from the early 10th century onwards, we hear descriptions of them from Arab Sources. Yet, the Viking Rus had lived in Russia for centuries already – and we know hardly anything about them at all. But we do know that one of the first Norse settlements in Russia was Aldeigjuborg, just south of the lake Ladoga (Aldeigja in Norse), and that it was settled by at least 753 AD.

For a hundred years, Aldegjuborg was the primary Norse settlement until the more famous Holmgard (Novgorod) was established. Whereas Rurik, Novgorod and the “Varangian Guards” are well-known to most who have taken a peek into Norse history, these hundred years of pre-Rurik Norsemen in Russia-to-be are shaded in mystery.

However, the Slavic “Primary Chronicle” offers a small glimpse into historical events that came before Rurik (who ruled Russia from the 860s), even if the glimpse appears to be very much biased in favor of Rurik and the Rus.  We hear of an early, invading Rus nation with base in Aldeigjuborg, that had forced four native tribes of both Finnish and Slavic origin to pay tribute to themselves. The four tribes united against the Rus and forced them back to Scandinavia where they came from:

“The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians — Tschudes, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves.”

However, according to the Primary Chronicle, once the Scandinavian settlers had left Russia (some time between 800-850), the remaining native tribes found that they were incapable of ruling themselves:

“But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other.”

And then, according to the Chronicle, the native tribes, incredibly enough, INVITED the Scandinavian invaders back!

“They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom”. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gutes, for they were thus named. The Tschudes, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us”. Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated.”

Now, this ancient text, which is all we have got for a source, is most certainly an example of how history is written by the victors, but the story certainly served to legitimize the fact that a foreign, Norse prince became the first to rule all the tribes of Russia and besides establish an actual, multicultural Russian nation.

Thordis MAP FINAL 2014

These early Rus lived in a very different sort of society than what they later did. King Rurik assembled the many warring tribes during the late 9th century and created the Russian nation, and their culture was clearly already strongly influenced by many foreign cultures. But who were the first Vikings in Russia? Yes, I use the word Viking and not Norsemen in this case because these men actually were Vikings, as in pirates, and as in slavers.

Having settled by the lake Aldeigja (Ladoga) by the 750s, Scandinavian colonists played an important role in the early ethno-genesis of the Rus’ people and in the formation of the early 9th century Rus’ Khaganate .  The Varangians left a number of rune stones in their native Sweden that tell of their journeys to what is today Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Belarus. Most of these rune stones can be seen today, and are a telling piece of historical evidence. The Varangian runestones tell of many notable Varangian expeditions, and even account for the fates of individual warriors and travelers.

While many may have heard of the Rus at a later stage in history, the events in the BLADE HONER book series date back more than fourty years before their first known king, Rurik, was born in 830 A.D. In this story we are returning to the age of Charlemagne, Harun al Rashid and Empress Irene; to the very dawn of the Viking Age as we know it.

Events, real or fictional, will refer to events happening and archaic cultural traits that may have been common more than eight decades before the first written reports of the Rus that we know of appeared. Scandinavian and Norse cultures underwent dramatic and deep cultural and religious changes during the Viking Age and 10th century sources such as Ibn Fadlan and the Primary Chronicles may not adequately cover the culture of 8th century Rus Vikings, and Icelandic sagas may show a retrospective approach to the pagan past. For this reason I have looked for older as well as more contemporary sources, looking for signs that customs described may have been widespread across time and space.

I have made an effort to look beyond the veil of the outsider´s view and into the yet-to-be-Viking Age Norse culture as it might have been on an archaic stage of cultural and religious development, when the lands of the Norsemen were still largely tribal, and deeply pagan, and described by all outsiders at very, very savage and terribly immoral.


Here follows a few relevant Arab quotes on the Rus, even if they are post-Rurik (mainly the 10th Century):

“As for the Rus, they live on an island … that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy…. They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and…sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav’s lands…

When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, ‘I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.’

“They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade. They have many towns. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.”

Ahmad Ibn Rustah

Rus viking Kim Hjardar Vegard Vetle Vikinger i Krig 

“I saw the Rūsiyyah when they had arrived on their trading expedition and had disembarked at the River Ātil. I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs—they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the qurṭaq or the caftan. The man wears a cloak with which he covers one half of his body, leaving one of his arms uncovered. Every one of them carries an axe, a sword and a dagger and is never without all of that which we have mentioned. Their swords are of the Frankish variety, with broad, ridged blades. Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures and such like.”

(…) “Each woman has, on her breast, a small disc, tied around her neck, made of either iron, silver, copper or gold, in relation to her husband’s financial and social worth. Each disc has a ring to which a dagger is attached, also lying on her breast.”(…)

Every day the slave-girl arrives in the morning with a large basin containing water, which she hands to her owner. He washes his hands and his face and his hair in the water, then he dips his comb in the water and brushes his hair, blows his nose and spits in the basin (…)

They are accompanied by beautiful slave girls for trading. One man will have intercourse with his slave-girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes a group of them comes together to do this, each in front of the other. Sometimes indeed the merchant will come in to buy a slave-girl from one of them and he will chance upon him having intercourse with her, but the Rūs will not leave her alone until he has satisfied his urge (…)”

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan


From Barbarianism to Civilization?

Notes with comments from secondary source research by Maria Kvilhaug

From Barbarianism to Civilization?

It has long been assumed that the Conversion, which happened during the Viking Age, that is, between AD 800-1030, marked a change from Heathen barbarianism to Christian civilization in the northern countries. Gro Steinsland[1] asks the question at last; is this view really accurate? Is it true?

Law and Order in the Heathen World

Germanic thing, drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (AD 193)

The society of the Viking Age was regulated by law and order, but it was a very different order than that which came with Christianity. The parliamentary system was early and firmly established in Norway. Every free person was subject to the law, and this was true also for kings and chiefs and earls. Since each free person had to be able to stand up for their legal rights at parliament, we may assume that the common man and woman had a good grip on legal knowledge.

The pre-Christian society was all-imbued in religion, but it is also significant that the Old Norse language has no particular word for religion in the way we do – the religion was referred to as siðr, that is, “ritual custom”. The parliament and the law were partly based on religious beliefs (we see how the myths reveal that even the gods ruled by democratic parliament in the sight of the norns). One opened the parliament´s legal negotiations with the oath formula: Hjálpi mér svá Freyr ok Njörðr ok inn almáttki Áss – “So help me Njörðr and Freyr and the almighty God.”

The laws themselves were also up for revision and discussion at the parliaments. All free people could speak at parliament, and all land-owners (sometimes these were also women who, being widows, could speak for themselves) had the vote. In pre-Christian times, the laws were not written down, and society was therefore dependent of learned people with good memories. It was said that the Icelandic law-sayer-man should recite the entire list of laws for the people at the All-Parliament over the course of three years.

(Conclusion 1 to Steinsland´s question: It is safe to say that the Heathen legal system was based on a traditional democratic consensus that in no way appears any less civilized than the system which was later introduced – with less power to the traditional democratic parliaments in favour of a new, centralized royal power and its medieval Christian religion).

Honor and Vengeance– Heathen Ethics

Eirik Werenskold birkebeinerne inntar Sverresborg

The moral codex in the Heathen society, the ethics, was, on the contrary, not so directly linked to religious beliefs as the case is in Christianity. The social order was based on an unwritten system of honor (Some Norse words for honor are; heiður, æra, sómi and sæmd.). Right and wrong, gender roles and sexual mores, daily life and holy days – in all aspects was the free person´s actions regulated and judged after the concepts of honour.[2]

The honourable person was lawful, righteous, modest, hospitable and generous, a support to his or her friends and an enemy to the not-friends. The honourable man was courteous to the “soft”, did not use violence against women, and avenged slights and insults against his own. The honourable woman was loyal to her own birth-clan and made sure that her kinsmen defended the clan´s honor.

The opposite of honor was shame (skömm, ergi). Apart from committing shameful acts, one could also be shamed by the actions of others, in form of insults and humiliation or crimes against one´s own. A single individual´s shame could cast shame on the entire clan. A free person could not live with shame, and shame had to be avenged. Vengeance was therefore a necessary result of a social system based on the need to maintain honour.

(Conclusion 2 to Steinsland´s question: The Christian ethical system versus the Heathen ethical system show significant differences when it comes to certain types of values, especially regarding sexuality (the Heathen had a more liberal and woman-friendly view on these matters than the Christian). Apart from that, they functioned much the same: As guidelines to proper conduct and respectful behavior towards other people. They both also functioned as a warner as to what could happen if you failed to mind your manners, or committed, in the case of Christians; sinful acts, or, in the case of Heathens; dishonourable and shameful acts.

One side does not seem particularly more (or less) “civilized” than the other. However, it was Christianity, which, gradually, solved the great social problem of hereditary blood feuds; The Church and the King assumed the role of sole persecutors regarding legal issues and it was no longer lawful for men to be their own avenging vigilantes. Since then, the concept of the vigilante has been generally regarded as a rather barbarian take on legal issues. On the other hand, centralized bureaucratic, impersonal persecution sometimes propose problems of corruption and injustice as well.

The greatest problem with the barbarian take on things would be that no matter who was righteous in the first place, the clans would avenge their own, and so the blood feuds could go on for generations. On the other hand, in the sagas, we do see many (failed) attempts to solve feuds at parliament, realizing that even the Heathens were trying to avoid such feuds by using legal and “civilized” means. The fact that so many attempts to solve such legal issues fail in the sagas may not say much about how successful or not these democratic parliaments were– we may hear of failed attempts simply because only the unsuccessful attempts would actually produce such dramatic results that the legends of which would eventually become, well, sagas.)

The Heathen Cult versus the Christian Cult – Bliss versus Salvation

The Heathen world was one of countless different powers that all influence human life to some extent or other. Most of these powers were dealt with during the great religious holidays. The greatest holidays were the three annual sacrifices; The autumn, midwinter and spring celebrations. The sacrifice was central – the animal was slaughtered to the gods, who received the blood, and then humans shared the meat as a sacred meal in large family/clan get-togethers. The most important goal for the sacrifice was to achieve fríðr.

The word translates as “peace”, but means a lot more than the modern word for peace. Fríðr was the condition that exists when everything worked after god-given laws, when there was order in cosmos, when there was balance in the social order, and when men and women met with love. The word fríðr could also refer to love and blissful sexual pleasure.[3] (I would probably use the word “bliss” as a better interpretation of the word).

This is an important difference between the Christian and the Heathen cultic life; the pre-Christian religion was more of a fertility religion than a salvation religion. They had no concept of hereditary sin, individual guilt or “the fall of man”. They did not consider this life as little more than a path towards a transcendental afterlife, nor did they know of eternal damnation. When the Heathens came together to celebrate fertility and pray for bliss, they were sanctifying existence itself, this world, our life on Earth, and for the good of the generations to come, that they may thrive and be happy and live their lives in accordance with divine law.

Even if the Heathens did not seem particularly concerned with salvation, they certainly had concepts of an afterlife. The clan involved both the living and the dead – the dead were buried close to the farm where they could be close to their descendants. To keep the burial mound close gave safety to the clan, and a burial mound was a monument that signified that the clan had owned a land for a long time. A great mound indicated that the land had been inhabited by a clan for many generations and was thus an important status symbol. The dead relatives would take good care of their descendants.

The fertility cult would be recognizable in rituals and symbols that were deeply sexual in character, and in this way there was also a great difference between Heathenism and Christianity. This must be understood in connection to the pre-Christian society´s concepts of sex and gender: There were no concepts of shame or impurity in connection to the body, or to sexuality as such (for as long as you were entitled to your partner). As we have seen from both language and cult, sexual pleasure was equalled to law and order, peace and justice, love and abundance.

Gro Steinsland´s conclusion is that there was nothing barbarian about the Old Norse world view, cult life or social order compared to the new religion and political system.




The Source apart from my own comments are taken from Steinsland in: Fra hammer til kors – 1000 år med kristendom – Brytningstid i Viken; Jan Ingar Hansen (ed.) and Knut G. Bjerva (ed.) Authors: Gro Steinsland, Anne Pedersen, Bjørn Myhre, Jan Schumacher, Gro B. Jerpåsen, Christian Keller, Jan Brendalsmo, Jan E.G. Eriksson, Anne Erikse, Jan Ingar Hansen, Erla Bergendahl Hohler, Elin Graabæk, Asbjørn Bakken, Botolv Helleland.  Schibsted 1994

[1] Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p.17-27(«Fra hedendom til kristendom»).

[2] Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p. 20

[3] Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p. 23