Ancient Norway

The Norwegian Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in North America many centuries before Columbus, and were known as perhaps the greatest seafarers of the Ancient World.

The Ancient Norse World

Face on Oseberg Cart; Slagen, Vestfold, 820 AD

Ancient Norway was at the far fringes of Europe, a difficult land to settle, yet the Norse people made a substantial settlement along the varied valleys and Fjords that dot the Norwegian coastline. These natural harbors proved excellent places to hide their ships, and became a base form which they were able to fan out all over the north Atlantic. Although they initially came as raiders, by the end of the first millennium they were settling lands as far west as Iceland and Greenland, eventually even reaching the shores of the new world in Newfoundland. The Norse world was a tough and brutal existence, punctuated by warfare and periods of difficult sustenance during the cold winter months. Regardless they believed the world was a magical place populated by gnomes and fairies, and where brave warriors who died on the battlefield were quickly whisked away to eternal happiness in Valhalla, the sacred hall of warriors.

The Early Norwegian Vikings

The Ringerike Viking Helmet, circa 10th century

Some historians try to explain the Travels of the Vikings as a result of some sort of overpopulation. Some French and British literature states that the Nordic people practiced polygamy which caused a huge birthrate and thus overpopulating the areas in which they lived. Every free man, according to them, had as many wives as he could possibly afford. This view is met with skepticism by Scandinavian historians. Nothing whatsoever gives any evidence that there would have been any overpopulation in the villages. It is more likely that the laws regarding the inheritance of the farms had something to do with it.

In Scandinavia the custom was that eldest son in the family inherited the farm. This meant that there were a lot of people which had to choose between being workers on their brothers farm or going abroad in search of fame and fortune. The rumors about how easy it was to get rich on such expeditions spread like wild fire over the Scandinavian peninsula.

One of the dragon mast heads from the Osberg ship burials

One of the dragon mast heads from the Osberg ship burials

In Scandinavia there were not yet any uniform states; Sweden, Denmark and Norway didn’t exist. All the Nordic people spoke the same language and the differences between the people were not as great as they are today. Everyone had the same religion where the proud and brave warrior had a central place. Cowards went to Hel’s kingdom of the dead, and the ones who died a brave death in combat went to Paradise (Valhall) where they could drink mead, fight and hunt women all day long.

Quite naturally, the Vikings who lived on the coast of Norway mostly went westward to the British Isles, Ireland, the Faeroe Islands, Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides. England was called Bretland. From Norway it is about 350 kilometers to Shetland and from there you can see the next island, Orkney, and so on.

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Vikings Reach Iceland

A full view of the very well preserved Osberg ships

According to Landnamabok, The Icelandic book of Icelandic history, it was a Swede with the name Gardard Svarvarsson who discovered Iceland. But the one who colonized the island was a Norwegian called Folke Vilgerdsson.

Folke got to Iceland in the year of 815 as a refugee, expelled by the Norwegian king Harald Herfagre. Harald Herfagre was the first real king of Norway. He was a very ruthless king who did everything he could to prevent anyone else from taking power. Among other things he condemned many hundreds of the noblest families to exile. In Iceland they saw the chance to start all over again. According to old Icelandic tales the first major colony of Norwegians and Swedes in exile arrived in Iceland in 874. They were about 400 and they brought with them poets and writers (some of them where Irish slaves) who were ordered to write down the family histories. It is these people that we have to thank for the rich literature that originates from Iceland.

The newcomers lived in small, free communities grouped around their different chiefs. As early as in 982 the first Allthing was held, a sort of Parliament and court of law. In a sense Iceland can be called the oldest still living democracy. It was here that the chiefs decided, in a democratic spirit (in 1000 AD), to accept the new Christian religion.

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The Settlement of Greenland

A reconstruction of an early Norse village

Norwegian Vikings still had the drive to discover new land for themselves. And in 982 Erik Röde and his son discovered Greenland. They had heard rum ours about new land only a couple of days’ sailing from Iceland. They arrived at Kap Farvel, turned north and discovered valleys covered with grass. Here they stayed the winter. The next spring they returned to Iceland to try to bring some more people with them to this new country. Erik got over 500 new settlers which followed him to the new country. In 896 the settlers left for Greenland in 25 ships, but a storm hit them on the way and only 14 ships survived the journey. More settlers followed in their path and soon the population on Greenland rose to about 3000 people.

The Osberg Cart, one of the few surviving examples of it's kind

The Osberg Cart, one of the few surviving examples of it’s kind

The colony on Greenland came under Norwegian rule during the 13th century, but the contact with Norway slowly faded away. At the same time the climate changed for the worse. Still they clung to the colony for over 500 hundred years before they had to leave it because of the worsening living conditions. In the 15th century the colony died and left only ruins of some lonely houses. The last colonists are believed to have been killed by the plague, but no one really knows what happened. Perhaps they were killed by the Inuit.

Pretty soon after their arrival in Greenland the Vikings’ wandering spirit led them even further west and they soon discovered what was to be called America. The first one who is believed to have come so far west that he saw the new country and could still return to tell about it was a man by the name of Bjarni Hjerolfsson. He said that the new land was only about four days sailing away. New expeditions were formed and they were soon on their way. The expedition that succeeded was led by a man called Leif Eriksson (Son of Erik Röde). He reached the coast of America around 1000 A.D. He baptized the country ‘Helluland’ (‘flat rock’). Then he continued south along a beautiful shore and came to a land covered with forest which he called ‘skogslandet’.

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The Discovery of North America

Viking raids were very often on the waterways and coasts of France, 9th century manuscript

Even farther south he reached land which he called Vinland (‘vin’ is a very old Nordic word for ‘grass’). Today it is believed that this the first organized Viking expedition to America, reached the northernmost tip of the cape of Newfoundland at St Lawrence Bay outside Canada’s North eastern coast.

A year later Leif Eriksson (Erickson in English) returned with three ships which contained the immigrants to this new land. They found their way south and stayed the winter on the coast. However, the Vikings on the three ships started to argue about where they should settle down. One of the ships returned north and the other ones continued south. There something happened which they didn’t expect – they found other people (which they called for ‘skrälingar’). The new people weren’t friendly to the invaders from the north and there was a fight between them. Skrälingarna tried to get rid of the Vikings who returned to Vinland where they stayed yet another winter, probably at a place called Cape Bauld. There archeologists have found eight houses built in the typical way of the Scandinavian Vikings, in the form of long halls with roofs made of peat and timber. They also found a smithy which was dated using the C14 method and states to have been built in the 11th century. This is said to have been the first colony in the new land in the west.

The Gokstad ship

The Gokstad ship

In any case this first colony didn’t last long due to different kinds of difficulties. Leif Eriksson’s brother was shot with an Indian arrow, and internally the Vikings started to quarrel over their women. Cut off from the rest of the world they knew that they had no one to turn to with their trouble. After some years they decided that they should return to Greenland or Iceland. In the year 1003 a ship commanded by Torfinn Karlsevens finally reached Greenland to tell the sad tale. Several more immigrants tried their luck in America during the next few years. A bishop called Erik Gnupsson arrived in Vinland in 1121 to visit the Christian people. In 1347 the Icelandic Edda tells the tales of a ship with 17 men which arrived in Iceland from Markland. Probably the Viking made routine travels back and forth between America and Iceland/Greenland as it was here they could find the timber they needed to build boats, houses and anything else they needed. It was far closer to go to America than all the way back to Norway to get it.

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Old Norse Mythology

A classical sculpture depicting Odin, the head of the Aesir

A classical sculpture depicting Odin, the head of the Aesir


The Old Norse Mythology is rather fascinating. The ones acquainted with the world of Tolkien can to some extent recognize themselves when dealing with this mythology. According to the old tales a man with the name of Gylfe, king of Svithiod, once entered the home of the gods and there he was told how the world begun. He met with three beings which had the names: Hög (High), Tredje (Third) and jämnhög (Even Height.

They told him how the world had been created and how everything was done. In the beginning there was the abyss (Ginnungagapet), North of this there was Nifelheim, the world of cold where Cold and Darkness rules. Frosty mists rose from the cold well of Hvergelmer. In the south there was the hot Muspelheim, a place where the being Surte ruled with a flaming sword. The mists from Hvergelmer formed the frozen stream of Elivågor which flowed in to the Ginnungagap and filled it with ice. But at the same time flares from Muspelheim fell into the abyss and the falling drops which became the result of the mix of flares and ice formed two giant beings: A cow with the name ‘Audhumbla’ and a giant named ‘Ymir’. Ymir got his food from the cow by means of four mouths which he used to milk the cows four nipples. Audhumbla in turn lived on the white frost on the rocks.

Her warm breath created a man called Bure which by some mysterious way managed to get hold of a wife (it is not described how) and they where the first of the Asa dynasty of which Oden, Vile and Ve would be the greatest. Ymir on his side created several different creatures. From his left arm a lovely couple sprung, from which the three fates Urd, Verdandi, Skuld (Guilt) and the wise Mimir came. His feet on the other hand created a three headed monster which became the ancestor of the Rimtusarnas evil giant family.

Odin, which destiny had chosen to become the one who would fulfill the creation, killed the giant Ymir, with help from his two brothers, and used his body as a ground for the new world. His blood became the sea (Where all the Rimtusarnas but one drowned). His skull became the sky. The bones in his skeleton became mountains, his brain the clouds and his tissues were ground in the great mill ‘Grottekvarnen’, around whose main axis the universe turned, to become the dirt. The mill was driven by the giantesses Fenja and Menja. Ymir’s Eyebrows became a wall against the inhabitable surroundings. This new world was called Midgård.

The world down under was divided into three kingdoms each one with its own well. Hvergelmer, Mimir’s well and Urda’s well. From the Ginnungagap a large ash with the name ‘Ygdrasil’ the world tree had grown. The branches of Ygdrasil covered all the then known world.In Hvergelmer the dragon Nidhog lies and gnaws on the rots of the tree. Mimir’s well on the other hand is the well of wisdom, guarded by Mimer, Odin once gave his right eye for a drink of the water in this well.

At Urdawell which is guarded by the three fates the gods have their conferences each day. They ride daily over the bridge Bifrost, a bridge which shimmers in all the colors of the rainbow and is watched by the god Heimdal (also called Rig), nine mothers and nine sisters son and beholder of Gjallarhornet which is Nordic tales last trump . Heimdal sleeps lighter than the bird, sees one hundred travel days in each direction from his castle Himinbjorg and has such sharp hearing that he can hear the grass and the wool grow.

Once when Odin and his brothers where out taking a walk at the shore of the sea in Midgård, he found two trees with the names Ask (Ash) and Embla (Alder). They set them free from the earth and gave them blood, power of motion, intelligence, will, fantasy and spirit. They where formed after their own appearance. From this couple the whole humanity evolved. The fate Urd gives every human a being called Fylgia at birth . This being are to follow her throughout their life.

Odin’s wife is called Frigg, and his sons were called Tor and Balder. Tor is the strongest of the gods and is always in war with the giants. He is armed with his ‘strength belt’ Megingjord and the hammer ‘Mjölner’ which like a boomerang always return to his hand after a throw. He is traveling through space in a wagon which is pulled by the goats ‘Tandgniostr’ and ‘Tandgrisner’. About his fights with the giants there is a lot of fascinating stories which have the character of folklore tales and which most certainly never have been accepted by the believing. As the god of thunder he enjoyed respectful worshiping from the believers which can be proved by among other things the surviving names on villages (Thorsvik) and in other words like ‘tordön’ (The sound of lightning), torsdag (Thursday).

The Norse raiding Ireland's monasteries

The Norse raiding Ireland’s monasteries

Balder on the other hand was the god of battle but got some of the characteristics of Christ when the christian faith became known in the Nordic countries. There is no certain proof that he really was the focus for some serious worshiping. Any way, the story about Balder is rather fascinating. In Snorre Sturlasson’s Edda he was portrayed as Balder the kind. He was residing in his stronghold Breidablick. He was the kindest and the most just of the gods. He was therefore loved of all the living beings in the world. Therefore his mother took a promise from all the living not to hurt him and cause of this Balder was invulnerable. The gods therefore used him for target practicing, the arrows they used just bounced of him. But there where one plant which his mother had forgotten to ask and that was the mistletoe. One of the creatures in the ‘inner circle’ around the gods was the devious Loki, who really was of a Jotun family although he had been taken up by the gods, who when he realized the mistake made by Balder’s mother, quickly made an arrow of the mistletoe and instructed Balder’s blind brother, Höder, to shot it in a certain direction. The arrow hit Balder and he was promptly killed. The following story reminds a bit of the Greek story where ‘Persephone’ and ‘Prometheus’ get’s in more or less the same situation. The chocked gods tried to get Balder back from the kingdom of death. But failed due to the sly Loki which had disguised himself as an old woman with the name Töck. Loki got his punishment, he was caught in the river when he was trying to escape in the shape as a salmon. He was chained with his sons (Nares) Bowels to a rock just under a jut where a viper constantly drips his venom on the poor fellows face. Sigyn, his beloved, stays with him and tries to ease the pain by collecting the venom in a bowl but when the bowl is full and she i away to empty it Loki gets the poison in his face and he trembles in his agony, and with him the rest of the world.

Some of the creatures which stems from Loki is Fenrisulven (The Fenris Wolf) and Midgårdsormen (the Midgard Serpent). Midgårdsormen was thrown in to the sea where he grew so rapidly so that he eventually encircled the earth and bit himself in the tail. Fenrisulven on the other hand was adopted by the gods, which proved to be a big mistake. The playful puppy soon grew into a monster which strength and hostility threatened the other gods. Therefore they tried to bind him with a chain (with name Gleipner) made of iron which he promptly ripped apart. They made a new leash made of, among other things, the beard from women, the roots of the mountains, the sound of steps from a cat, the spit from the bird and other equally rare materials. This very soft and thin rope was shown to Fenrisulven and he was offered to rip it apart. Fenrisulven, which suspected foul play, was rather reluctant to take the offer. Only when the god Tyr put his hand in to his mouth did he allow the rope to be pulled over the head. When he found out that he was tricked he thus in anger bit the hand of Tyr and thus is how Tyr lost his right hand.

There are other gods in the family, Like Brage (The god with the long beard) which sits at home in his fathers stronghold and uses his time to drink beer and write poems. There is ‘Forsete’, son of Balder, who is the god of justice and lives in the heavenly hall Glitner. The silent Vidar which rules over the lower regions where the last battle will be held.

Njord, son of a allegory daughter to Mimir with the name Natt (Night) and brother to Odens wife Frigg, belongs to a different breed called vanerna and is in the beginning in Asgård as hostage. He is the god of richness and the protector of sailors. He commands the weather. His wife the skiing Skade is born in the mountains. Therefore she doesn’t like being in Njords Stronghold ‘Noatun’ as she can’t stand the screaming of the sea gulls. On the other hand Njord can’t stand the howling from the wolfs in Skades mountains. Therefore they are living separately. Njords son is named Frej (or frö), and he rules over the fertility on earth. Frey’s sister, Freya (or Fröja) which resides in the castle Folkvang, most fittingly rules over love.

The Viking Long ship, the unique Norse vessel able to navigate long distances

The Viking Long ship, the unique Norse vessel able to navigate long distances

These brothers and sisters have rather complicated marriage relations. But Freya’s husband seems to be Svipdag or Hermod while Frej after some persuasion managed to get a fair looking giantess with the name Gerd. Of the dynasty of the vanerna was furthermore Nanna, which became wife to Balder, she got a crushed heart when he was killed.

Other gods and goddesses comes from the dynasty of elfs which in turn can be divided in to black elves and light elves. Only the light elfs are of any importance in this matter. To this dynasty belongs, among other, the fair headed Siv, wife of Tor in the wooden castle Bilskirnir (the greatest of all timebered houses) int the land of Trudvang. They had sons with the name of: Magne and Mode. Idun, wife of Brage, which made the magic apples which gave the gods their eternal youth. Ivalde, which in the beginning of time was the guardian against the Rumtusarerna at Elivågor. He had a son , Valand (or as he also was called: Limping Valand or Völand), which was a blacksmith an whom one of the saddest Edda stories is about. The sea god Ägir which is related to the giants but nevertheless has good relations to the gods and his wife the unfaithful Ran which brings unhappiness to the humans.

To the gods one also counts, Billing and Delling, which is the morning glow and the sunset. The young maid Geifon, the literary Saga which guards the mead of wisdom which comes from the river of Sökvabäck and fills the horn of the moon.

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