OREN FALK: So good afternoon, everybody. Welcome back to unfortunately the last of these three messenger lectures. All good things must come to an end.
It is a pleasure, again, to have Neil Price, Professor of Archeology from Aberdeen University with us. It's a pleasure to see so many people in the audience.
Neil will conclude this discussion with us of The Viking Mind today. But as many of you know, he's a man of many talents and many interests. He goes well beyond just Vikings and their material culture and their mental culture.
He has worked-- I'm just throwing out examples, this is an exhaustive list-- he has worked, for instance, on the archeology of the Holocaust, on Southern African rock art in various places. He has worked excavating-- or whatever you want to call that-- World War II battlefields in the Pacific. He has worked on or is working on the history of piracy, more broadly than just the vikings. And quite appropriately, you'll be happy to learn that International Speak Like a Pirate Day last week-- I think it was-- was also his wedding anniversary.
So without too much further ado, Neil, I'll turn things over to you.
NEIL PRICE: Thank you, Oren. First, can you hear me OK? Is that right? Jolly good.
Well as you know, we explored the complex world of the dead as articulated by the living in their funeral rituals. And what I want to do today in this last of the three lectures is to bring that progressively back through into the world of the living, and finally to the level of the individual. The individual Viking and the individual Viking mind, to try to get to the essence of this topic that's the theme for the three lectures.
And once again, I'm going to be looking at stories in all kinds of settings and circumstances, playing out in different ways that combine-- I think-- to give us a deeper understanding of that Viking mental world.
And I'm going to begin with where I left off yesterday, with those intricate tableau of graves and burial rituals. And you might remember my closing suggestion, which was that the archaeological evidence for these things might represent what's left of stories that have been dramatized and acted out. Effectively, a kind mortuary plays.
In order to explain what I mean by that, I'm going to begin with an example that might at first hearing sound a little bit odd, but do bear with me. I want you to imagine the stage at the end of a production of Hamlet. What does it look like?
Well, it's a Shakespeare tragedy, so you've got a heap of bodies together with their clothes and their dress accessories and their weapons and equipment and things like that. And then beyond that, you've got all the other props-- the furniture and what have you-- the stage set itself.
It's quite a complicated scene if you imagine it in that way, and especially if you imagine it as an archaeological site. Imagine excavating the stage at the end of Hamlet, providing of course nobody moves.
Think of the graves we looked at as exactly that, the stage at the end of a play. Where all the dead people and the animals and the objects-- all those things placed so very, very carefully as we saw are where they've ended up at the end of the roles that they've played out. Do you see what I mean? That these things are kind of a fossilized stage set.
And then of course going back to Hamlet-- of for that matter, any other drama-- think of all the action, all the dialogue, all the very, very complex aspects of the story that are not present right at the end at that final curtain. But that nonetheless are very much a part of everything that's led up to that. All the people who aren't even on the stage at that point, who've come and gone. In the case of Hamlet, you've got a good three, maybe even four hours of drama.
What about Ibn Fadlan the Arab traveler that we saw yesterday with his description of 10 days of people doing all those kinds of things? That's what I mean by this kind of funerary drama.
What actually, then, were they doing? At this point I'm just going to suggest a few of the things that those stories might have been about, and then these are themes I'm going to follow up in the rest of the talk.
I think we might be fairly safe in assuming that those kinds of dramatized stories might've had something to do with the dead person or the dead people. Probably also something to do with the mourners, if that's what we want to call them. The people who are actually doing all this-- making the grave, conducting the funeral. The dead person's family and the family of the mourners, perhaps the same thing.
Perhaps there's stories of land and place, the environment in which all of this is taking place. And then add some time depth to that, the history of those places and those people.
And then if you go back a bit further still, into legend and mythology, a different kind of history. And if you remember some of the points I made in the first lecture, a different kind of reality. Stories of gods and other supernatural beings.
But all of them narrated within a wide social framework, the community and the larger society. But as we've seen in that infinite variety of burial ritual, with specific elements for this person, for this grave, today to do those things.
And I can't resist explaining this-- or not explaining, but just telling you a bit about this rather peculiar grave you see on the left there. This is one that was excavated only a couple of years ago. It's a good example of how much information you can get out of these burials, in terms of sequence for example.
At the foot of the grave, inside the grave itself is a standing stone. You have a dog here, which the artist has sanitized very slightly.
Remember, I apologized yesterday for getting a bit gross with Viking burials. Here we go again. You have a standing stone, and then they've sort of squashed a dog down over the standing stone. And you've got a sequence in there.
And you've got the dead woman lying there-- as you can see-- and a horse in a grave that's so small the horse is actually on top of her. It's very difficult to arrange a dead horse to look like this. I think it was alive when it was driven down into the grave, and then probably its throat was cut or something like that. So it's actually standing on the dead person, and then you have all the other objects as well.
So think of what's there and what isn't and the sequence of actions. This is the kind of detail that you can get out.
But it may be-- and I completely understand if it's the case-- that you doubt that these could be stories. It's just an idea, after all. So what I want to do now to support that a little bit is to turn to a rather different area and a different medium-- although also connected with the dead-- that can give us some hints about what these stories are and what they're for.
And we're going to look at a special kind of monument on a special place, the Baltic island of Gotland. In the Viking Age, Gotland is essentially a separate country. It's an island community at the center of the Baltic-- at the center of all the movement through the Baltic-- and everything on Gotland is just a little bit different. Very similar to the rest of Scandinavia, but the way they dress, the kinds of things they used, the houses they build, the graves they create-- they're just a little bit different from everywhere else, even beyond that idea of variation.
And I want to look particularly at a special class of burial monument, they're known as picture stands. I showed you one of these briefly the other day, but what they are is large, flat slabs of limestone. The smallest are about this big, and the biggest come up to the top of the screen.
So they can vary quite widely. The kind you see here are the top of the screen variety, so they're bigger than you can see them on the screen itself. Very large monuments.
And as you can see, they're carved with lots and lots of pictures. And they generally appear in two forms, either divided into parallel bands-- a bit like a comic strip here-- or with more jumbled images just heaped up. But in all of them, a ship is a very prominent part of the lower field of the stone.
It's tempting to read a sequence into the ones in the horizontal panels, but even in the more jumbled ones there may be structure in that image nonetheless. We also don't know, for example, if there's perspective in it. You might effectively see something in three dimensions flipped vertically, it's hard to tell. But lots and lots of information.
There are several hundreds of these stones, with thousands and thousands of images collectively. Very difficult to understand, but a fascinating visual record coming to us from the Viking Age.
We know that these things are memorials to the dead, effectively they're a kind of tombstone. Sometimes they're set up on burial mounds in the cemeteries, sometimes they're on the farms, but they're connected with the dead. You find burials at the foot of many of these stones.
The first suggestion I want to make to you-- and I should say it's not my work, this is the work of a man called [INAUDIBLE]-- concerns the fact that rather strangely for an island dependent on an entirely Maritime economy, Gotland has no ship or boat burials of any kind. It's one of the few places in the Viking world that has none of this, there are no ships or boats in the graves.
And if you look at a ship burial from the mainland-- this is one from Vendel in Sweden-- think about all those objects laid out on the deck, and the dead person in the middle there and the animals and all the rest-- think of them as ideas. Think of them as a potential part of the story-- part of a play, as I've described-- and then imagine how you would draw that. Can it be that the picture stones are effectively pictorial ship burials, hence the boat in the lower part of the field?
There's something else that adds to this. This professor that I mentioned, [INAUDIBLE] works in Stockholm. He looked at a number of these stones in great detail and he managed to identify some of the stories that we have from Norse mythology.
You have the overall motif, as I've said, of the ship at the bottom. But if you start in the lower field and read up, you can actually make sense of these pictures in line with stories from Norse mythology. Especially in this case, the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer. If you like your Wagner, this is one of the main stories behind his Ring cycle.
And the really exciting thing is that when you look at the location of these stones out in the countryside, they're spaced around the edges of property boundaries, around the edges of estates. So you have one stone like this standing up in the countryside, and then you go around the property boundary to the next stone and you find that the top panel on one stone is repeated as the bottom panel of the next. And then the story goes on. So these monuments to the dead are very definitely stories.
This is what they look like when they're out in the countryside. This one's been eroded by the wind and the weather so it's largely bank to the eye now. But if you go close to it, you can see that there are pictures on it.
So what you have are memorials to the dead which we can also see as claims to land, because they're marking out the boundary of territory. And because they are memorials to the dead, they're also making a link between the ancestors-- all the people who've died there-- and that land. This is my land because that's my father's burial, and that's my grandfather's, and that's his father's marking out literally the boundaries of the land.
And most importantly, that statement is expressed through a kind of story. I think we can say a family story, because it's linked to the land owned by a particular group. And it's told in sequential-- I can call them-- chapters, added from one generation to the next. Because there's a time interval between these burials.
So that's quite a package of things, really. There's also one other tantalizing element here, you may've noticed that all of these stones are shaped like key holes. That characteristic shape is also found as the doors on stave churches. These are the earliest kinds of wooden churches that we have in the north, and there's an idea that these things are doors-- doors into somewhere else, another world.
Just to remind you of two things here, when I was talking about Ibn Fadlan's description of the ship burial, remember the slave who was lifted up to look over a door into somewhere else? The same idea.
And then remember in the very first story yesterday, that complicated boat with lots of people in it that was buried on top of someone who'd been buried 50 years before. Think of that time interval, the fact that they know they're going to do that in advance. They bury someone and they know that a few decades later they're going to add to that sequence. Just as they do when they start setting these stones out in the countryside.
So we have people living on their farms, marking their possession with memorials to the landowners of the family. Each one merging as they die, as they're buried, with a family story as the property is gradually ringed-- perhaps with points of entry into another world. That's quite a sequence, I think.
I've mentioned the same kind of idea in that boat burial from Norway. You can find this notion of referencing between one grave and another-- referencing, I would say, between stories-- when you go back to the graves themselves. I'll just give you one example from the mainland.
This is a rather magnificent woman's grave from a place called c in Norway. And you see, she's buried in a coffin surrounded by big stones with various things in the grave. A very high status grave, indeed.
From the same cemetery just a few meters away is a rather magnificent boat burial. Quite a large boat, a man in the middle here surrounded by weapons. Lots and lots of weapons, you can see four shields, a sword, all kinds of things-- two swords, in fact.
At first glance you might not think there was much similar between these burials, they're clearly a very different type of monument. Except if you look, both of them contain the severed head of a horse with a bridle on it-- a very rich bridle, a bridle made of gold actually. And you find these horses' heads in several of the other graves on that cemetery, graves that are separated by several decades-- in some cases, over a century.
Again, they're referencing between one grave and the next. And I would argue, you could probably see this same idea of a sequential chapter in a story being added. In this case, through the medium of a burial and all its contents as opposed to pictorially on those stones from Gotland.
Can we decode those stories? What are they about? I think we can do so up to a point.
On the picture stones of Gotland, the stories are tales of heroes. They're stories from the mythology, at least the ones that we can identify pretty clearly when you have a very clear motif that you can recognize from the text. Most of them we don't know what they're about.
If we can use a narrative convention, I think we can probably come quite close to the topic of conversation. I think we might, one day, be able to find the grammar and the syntax of what they're doing. But a translation, I think, is probably going to be beyond us. For now, I think we have to be satisfied with understanding more or less what is going on.
Well, I've been talking about the dead. What I want to do now is take this much more into the world of the living, to see how these stories play out in more everyday life-- the life as lived rather than as lived in the grave.
And I'm going to follow this idea of ship burials-- here's two more, you've seen lots of them now-- and give you another way of looking at them. A comparison between the hall-- the central place of the Viking world-- and the grave. Because one thing that's been identified in a lot-- not all, but a lot-- of these ship burials is that the disposition of objects in the grave, objects that you might be able to relate to a particular set of activities.
And by that I mean cooking equipment representing cooking or weapons representing weapons. Things like gaming sets or drinking vessels representing the place where you do those things, the center of the hall.
The relative spatial distribution of those kinds of objects matches the spatial distribution of where you do those things in the hall. So you have all the kitchen equipment at one end of the boats, the same end as you have the kitchen in the hall. You have the weapons in the part of the boat which matches the part of the hall where you leave your weapons-- because you don't go into a house fully armed.
The central part, the main public area of the hall here, is where you find the gaming sets and the things that you do public in the hall. And then right at the other end of the ship, you find the more private objects associated with the dead person, just as the private quarters of the hall further at that end.
Is there a sense in which the grave, the ship, is the hall of the dead person? That you have this idea-- that I've mentioned before-- of living in the grave actually played out in the disposition of the objects as well. Which, of course, doesn't rule out that this is a play, because you could be acting in the hall in the grave-- moving around in it, putting the different objects down as you act out in the hall itself.
This could also be a stage-- if we think of it that way-- for a play that can go on for a very long time. This is where I show you that image that you've seen lots of times as the title card for these lectures. This is our best current shot at reconstructing the ship burial at Oseberg in Norway.
This is the most spectacular ship grave we have from the Viking Age, and its recently been discovered that instead of covering it with a mound as we might expect-- as is the case today, it's now a very big mound-- they started by building half a mound that the ship stuck out of. And this triangular cross-section thing here is the grave chamber. Remember those things, like a tent made of wood in the middle of the ship? And as you can see, one end of it is open.
And if you look at the environmental record-- all the pollens and the preserved grasses and things like that-- the Oseberg ship was open in the grave certainly for months, and perhaps for years. And we know from the very detailed archaeological deposits inside that people are moving things around.
So it's not just a grave where, for example, for 10 days you do this and put things there. You go back to it, you add to that, you interact with the dead and the living community in which they're set. So really, quite a long-lasting funeral.
That's a contrast with Ibn Fadlan's description, where they finally build a mound and go away. But remember, these are merchants on the move, this is where they live.
So let's now look at the real versions of those buildings, the hall. These are tremendously important structures, they are the literal heart of the community. Central places with central functions.
These are the residences of the leaders. As you go progressively out the social hierarchy, they get more and more impressive. The residences of local leaders, of petty kings and higher kings.
Residences with public profiles, these are public spaces, you do things in these halls. Remember how important I said that hospitality was? This is where you receive your guests, it's where you give out all these material bribes to keep you in the manner you'd like to become accustomed to. You bribe your retainers with rings and gold and swords and so on.
And most important for what I'm saying today, they're the setting for storytelling.
I mentioned, I think, that at the beginning of the Viking Age, Scandinavia was divided up into lots of little tribes. There were no nation states. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark-- as we know them-- did not exist.
But the rulers of those little tribes, those little kingdoms had big ambitions. And they were projecting those ambitions into their community and beyond.
And what happens during the Viking Age is that those small tribes gradually expand-- partly as a result of all that raiding, actually. Because the money that's coming back into Scandinavia-- the loot-- is fueling that process of expansion. And some people are getting very good at it, and some people are less good at it, and their kingdoms are being absorbed into the others. And the medium through which that's happening-- the location where those ideas are being negotiated-- are halls like these.
So a very visible agenda to what's going on in there, and I do mean visible. These are very shiny kings indeed. They like their gold, their flashy clothes. This is a reconstruction of one of these kings. Lots of gold thread on his costume, a very rare red used for the color, and lots and lots of glinting metalwork.
You have to kind of see this to understand it, but when you go inside these halls-- which are very dark places, very few windows, if any-- they're lit by the light of the fire, the light of the torches. And in that shifting, flickering, dark light, all this gold glints. You see it as constant flashes and sparks of light. So these are very visible people, you see them glittering there in the dark.
And if you like that image and have the time and the interest, do come to this lecture tomorrow. Because I'm going to be talking about exactly that process and what happens inside those halls.
But for now, I want to emphasize that one of the ways in which they made those epic aspirations manifest was through epics, stories. You've probably heard of Beowulf, one of the greatest epics of the North. There are others as well.
The hall is the setting for reciting those stories. It's the setting for that Skaldic poetry, that boasting poetry that I mentioned. These are very lively oral narrative places.
And epic tales demand an epic. Stage some of these halls, the ones belonging to the winners in that process of state formation, are very magnificent indeed. Someone in the audience asked me yesterday about the use of timber. This is a reconstructed one of these buildings at Fyrkat in Denmark.
You've got half a forest in this. These are not cut timbers. These are tree trunks that make up the walls. Rounded off, and trimmed, and so on, but they're basically tree trunks.
And inside this are further wooden plank walls, the roof made-- you can just about see them here-- of wooden shingles, each one carved. And to produce this, you have to have the forest management behind it to keep this process going. Some of these things are very, very large.
This one, which I hope you can see in the field here, marked out in the post halls is a hall from Lejre in Denmark. This group of blobs here are people. It's 150 feet long. Really very large indeed.
If you look at it in plan, it's the one I showed you with the grave earlier. Lots of different areas. You have entrances here, here, and here, so you could divide it into different zones just like in those graves.
But this site in particular, I put this one on the screen because Lejre is actually the setting for Beowulf. I don't have time to go into the Beowulf poem in any detail. But just in case you're interested, Lejre is the seat of the historical Danish king, Hrothgar, and the halls on this site have been excavated in a continuous sequence, going back to the fifth and sixth centuries. And the great hall that's the center of the Beowulf poem, Heorot, might well be one of them. It's quite a creepy feeling to think we may possibly have identified the hall that features in Beowulf.
Some of them are even bigger. This is the largest known one from Viking-age Scandinavia at a place called Borg, up in the Lofoten islands. Very far north in Norway-- you can see the terrain here. It's 240 feet long.
This picture of the reconstructed version of it is taken at a distance. But in the picture I'll show you now, when I say epic space, just let me emphasize how epic these things really are. I'm sure some of you have traveled in Europe. You've probably been to some of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe.
And if you haven't been there, I'm sure you've been to American cathedrals. You know how big these buildings are. Well the next image shows the hall from Lejre and this hall from Borg with Trondheim Cathedral, and the scale is the same. So think of yourself in a cathedral, and then think of one of those halls that big. Very, very large indeed.
If we go back to the written sources, it's also clear that there's a type of place called the Hof, or a hov, depending which language you use. That, in addition to being the residents of the Lord with all these functions I've been describing, also has a ritual and religious function. That these halls are effectively temples as well.
All of those offerings to the elves and the dwarves and all of these little creatures that I mentioned take place in these special Hof halls. So this brings us back into that ritual world, that alternative reality of the cosmology that I began with, and how it filters back into the places where people are telling stories. And remember that all of these are then encircled by those symmetries full of mounds where all these other stories are taking place.
We've got some superb archaeological sources for this. This is a reconstruction, a hypothetical one, of the interior of these things. You can see how dark they are. One of these offering ceremonies taking place, perhaps to an idol set up in the place of the high seat where the Lord of the Hall would otherwise sit. This again is detailed in some of the written sources.
And archeology most recently from this place, Hofstadir, it means the place of the Hof, in Iceland up in the north. A big hall like this up in the top there. Very carefully excavated.
And around the walls are the skulls of cattle that have been sacrificed with a blow through the forehead and also a very specific kind of cut to the neck designed to cut the artery and make as much blood as possible. Remember all that spectacle, that rather unpleasant spectacle, that I mentioned yesterday surrounding the ship burials. This gives us an indication of what they're actually doing in those offering rituals in their halls.
What I want to do now is make another link, not just to the stories of the gods, but to the homes of the gods. I've mentioned Valhalla a few times in these lectures. Or, Valholl, as it's really called. The Hall of the Slain. This is the home of Odin.
There are some marvelous descriptions in the sources of what it looked like. A very martial place, as you can see here, its roof was made of shields. It has spears around the walls. It's kind of a hall of weapons, full of warriors.
And I think I mentioned in one of the questions yesterday, there's an idea that the Colosseum might be a model for this, even though it doesn't look very much the same. But this sort of big building with lots of doors full of warriors. We should also remember that all of Asgard, that home of the gods, is full of other halls.
Everyone's heard of Valhalla. Hardly anybody has heard of the rest of them. One for each of the gods. Sometimes the gods have more than one.
So the first names are the names of the halls, and in brackets are the names of the gods who owned them. Most of these we know absolutely nothing about, other than their names. But think about them as a landscape of halls and the things that go on in halls, just like in the real world.
And to emphasize that this is not just a metaphorical link, I think it's a highly literal one, I want to also present to you another new excavation-- in fact, it's ongoing now-- at one of the archetypes for the central places, Gamla Uppsala. Gamla means old, this is old Uppsala in Uppland, in Sweden. This is just down the road from where I live, actually.
It's mentioned in many sources-- but particularly Adam of Bremen, a German cleric writing at the end of the 11th century-- as one of the most important ritual and secular power centers in early Sweden. Particularly he describes a whole series of sacred places in this landscape. As you can see, it focuses on a central ridge with massive burial mounds.
And according to the sources, these are the burial mounds of some of the kings named in Beowulf. All around it, there's a sacred grove, various kinds of evidence for cultic activity and offering things. But at one end of the ridge up here are a series of terraces which excavation has shown to be the site of these halls, the halls of the kings of central Sweden. One of these excavations
The results I'm going to show you are from last year, but they're continuing now. Last year they got half of this hall. You can see it here, cut off at the end of the trench on this terrace. So it's not just these enormous buildings that I talked about. If you raise them about 40 feet off the ground, they get even more impressive. And the finds from this building are really remarkable.
Its doorway is 15 feet wide with double doors, with a massive ramp leading up to it, up the side of the terrace. I should say that the preservation here is extraordinary. So they have the door posts. They the hinges, the bolts, all the fittings that were on the doors. Imagine it is as extraordinarily visually rich building, covered in carvings as well, I think.
Less than half the structure has been excavated. But if it goes on the way it's going, it's bigger than the hall at Lejre. And this is where we start to get really interesting-- the hinges of the doors are made of spears. They're literal spears, not things that look like spears. They are spears that have been hammered out to make the hinges of the doors.
And there are spears fitted onto the doors as well. And then all over the hall, there are ion spirals like this driven into the walls, into the posts, into the doors in vertical lines, in horizontal lines. The smallest ones are about this size, about the size of your hand. The biggest ones like this one the screen are like this. So it's a hall that's absolutely bristling with sharp points and spears.
And bear in mind its location at Gamla Uppsala. I think we might be justified in seeing this as a secular or a real Valholl on Midgard itself. Appropriately, as the seat of a king. Really quite an extraordinary discovery.
And we find these things going together in the landscape. So this is an example from Tisso, in Denmark-- you have these big enclosures with walls around them. In the center you have the hall that you've seen. In some of them, they have those offerings in little buildings next to them. Sometimes they're in the hall itself.
And very, very often, you find a body of water nearby into which offerings have been placed. And this idea of the lake, or the bog, the marsh, as a point of communication to the other world is something that you find again and again throughout Scandinavia. And excavations of these places, many of which are now land, or a swampy kind of land, have produced thousands and thousands of objects that have been deposited into these water courses.
Several of them being reconstructed-- I hope you won't find this distressing-- there's some bits of animals here in living color. This is a reconstruction from Denmark where you have animal body parts on posts in the marsh, pottery, and all kinds of objects thrown out into the swamp, some of them landing on the surface, others of them sinking into it. And around the edges of these, you find scaffolds set up with the skins of animals.
This is something you can identify archaeologically, because what you have is the skull and the hoofs, the extremity of the animal, which is what you find in the archeology. But actually they're attached to the skin. So the bone and the flesh has been removed, so it's just the skin but with the skull and the hooves attached on these scaffolds. And we find lots of these in the archeology.
And as I am going through these connections between the halls and the landscape and so on, I'm trying to move to a progressively more personal level. And when you get to places like this, these are not the rituals of the kings, the rituals in those magnificent buildings. These are personal rituals.
People are making offerings. At night or in the daytime, you pass by the swamp, throw something in. These are the kinds of places where you interact with the elves, and the dwarves, and the spirits-- the spirits of places like this, in that world of stories that I've been mentioning. Excuse me while I take a drink.
We also find this in some really remarkable little snapshots. So you can see what happens in these offerings, one of which is in a very spectacular and very beautiful place called Froso in northern Sweden. The place name is interesting. Swedish has lots of one-letter words, so this-- the O with the two dots over it-- is the word for island. And this, FR, Fr, is the name of the god Freyr, the god of fertility, amongst others.
So this is the island of Freyr. So it's a sacred place name. As you can see, it's set amid the lakes of [INAUDIBLE] in northern Sweden. You've got the mountains in the background.
And at the very highest point of the island, up on a hill here-- and you can see the kind of view you have-- is a place called Hof. And this is one of those Hof temple halls that I mentioned. What's there today is a church. And it's not uncommon to find medieval churches set up in the places where the place named tells us there was once one of these pre-Christian, non-Christian, temple halls.
So when the conversion to Christianity comes, they take over those existing cult sites, and convert the place as well as the people to Christianity. What makes this one so interesting is that when they were installing some lighting and electricity in this church, they dug up the floor. And underneath the altar itself, buried quite far down was the remarkably preserved stump of a birch tree.
The stump itself was preserved. You could even see the axe marks where it had been cut down. And all around the roots were hundreds and hundreds of bones. And what it looks as if has happened is there's been some kind of sacred tree at this Hof site, the highest point of the island-- in the middle, by the way, of a cemetery, this is now a Christian churchyard-- but in it, even now, are a number of burial mounds. I'll show you one in a second.
So you have this tree at the highest point of the island. And there appeared to be animal offerings either around the tree or perhaps hanging from it, as we find in the text. To get an idea of what this might have looked like-- and I showed you some of those images of those bog sacrifices just now-- this is what it comes out to. From the 10th century, five whole bears-- and these are big bears-- six elk heads, two heads of stags. And then, these are things when you find the skulls, the legs, and the feet, in other words, those skins that I showed you earlier.
You might wonder what a sheep slash goat is. You can't tell the difference, osteologically, looking at the bones. So, sheep or goats, 11 pigs, and two cows. There's also bones from reindeer, squirrel, and teeth from horses and dogs.
And when you put that is those animals together, not all of them, but most of them match the animals that run up and down the World's Tree, Yggdrasil. There's an idea perhaps this is the World Tree as well. And not on this slide, I'll spare you that, but also human remains-- there are people in this tree as well.
So it's under the high altar of the church. And here you can see one of the pre-Christian burial mounds in the churchyard. Another one there. So the highest point to the island, a tree full of offerings, perhaps the World Tree itself, in symbolic terms, surrounded by graves on the site of a Hof temple hall, and on, and on. And when you start adding those stories of the graves and the stories in the halls, you can see the kind of environment in which this is happening.
Finally, I want to go from community rituals to highly personal ones. How do you, yourself, get in touch with the powers, with the beings that inhabit that different reality around you? And you do it through magic. This is something I spent quite a long time studying.
Essentially, lots of different kinds of techniques and practices that you can combine in different ways, using the services of lots of different people. So there's lots of different kinds of magic, and lots of different specialists who perform it. It's used by both gods and humans in the textual sources. And interestingly, and this comes back to a question I was asked yesterday, it's primarily the province of women.
The proper performance of magic should be done by women. Men certainly do perform it, but in so doing, they take upon themselves a whole range of very negative things-- different connotations of unmanliness, essentially. Something you don't want to be as a man in the Viking Age. You might reasonably ask why men do this anyway, and it seems to be because there's a particularly terrible kind of power that comes with that transgression, the idea of going across borders of different kinds, including between the worlds-- which is what Odin does-- is something that's intimately bound up with this.
So, many forms of magic, and forms of magical people. There are special places where you do this. Under the bodies of the hanged, like in those trees. On burial mounds at night, where you're in contact with the dead and in a different kind of world, a dark world.
We have lots of really very, very many sources describing the kinds of spells and charms that were used. It's problematic to date them. The sources are from after the Viking Age, as I've talked about. But there's a very, very high degree of consistency in these magical functions.
So there's spells to see the future, to heal the sick, to influence the emotions in various ways, to make someone fall in love with you-- or the opposite, or whatever-- to control the weather, to influence the movements of game, to bring fish into your lake, things like that, to communicate with the supernatural in lots and lots of different kinds of ways, and to make war. And if you think back to all those funerary rituals, you find a very similar emphasis on sexuality and aggression in the sorcery as well.
So this idea of violence being an end in itself-- think how violent some of those funerals are. And the sexual elements-- think of [INAUDIBLE]-- also come through in the magic. This isn't just a textual world, it's an archaeological world as well, because we've been able to excavate more than 50 women's graves from the Viking Age-- very securely dated, most of them from the 10th century-- containing things that we can recognize from the sources as having to do with magic. Especially, a kind of metal staff that's the main attribute of the sorceress, charms of various kinds, made of the body parts of animals, the kinds of things you'd recognize from medieval witchcraft, even drugs-- hallucinogens, like cannabis and henbane-- to take you out of yourself, to send you on these spiritual journeys.
And these women are buried in special costumes, things like silver headbands, nasal piercings, dresses which I showed you a couple of these, yes, actually-- dresses woven with gold and silver thread that meant they would've glittered as they moved, especially inside those halls. This is the kind of staff-- looks a bit tatty now-- a metal rod with various kinds of decoration on it. This example has a hall, a little metal hall, at one end of it. You see the roof and the walls, even those supporting posts around the side. And at the corners of it are animals biting into the roof.
So again you have these different connections going through all the time. And originally this object would have looked absolutely magnificent. It's only made of iron, but with bronze details on it. And if you think how that sort of matte black you get of polished iron and add bronze that would have shone like gold against that, really quite spectacular objects.
I can just you quickly how special some of these rituals are to do with the sorceresses. This is a most peculiar grave, one of these chamber graves where you have two people, a woman and a man, on top of each other on the same chair. If you wonder how you do this, the answer is you tie them on with a chain. And leaning up against the back wall of the grave is one of those sorceresses staffs.
And again this woman has all kinds of special costumes and things. So you can see how very particular the rituals associated with these graves are. If you look at it in cross-section, here they are, you might wonder what this is. It's a lance that's been thrown with great force into the revetment at the front of this little panel where the dead horses are.
And there are several textual accounts that say the way you send something to Odin is to throw a spear over it. And I think what's happened here, the last thing before they closed the grave, is somebody has thrown a spear over those two people. And we know where they're going.
There's one other example which has been examined in some detail recently. Another one of these sorceresses' graves from Fyrkat in Denmark, where a remarkable battery of scientific analyses have been thrown at this grave that have enabled us to reconstruct the appearance of one of these people, these intermediaries between the worlds, with remarkable clarity. She had a translucent blue gown, very finely made, a long veil that covered her face and almost down to her feet. She wore silver rings on her toes. She had an iron staff like we've seen.
She was wearing a kind of makeup made from white lead. This would've been a real sort of pancake makeup. Think of a Japanese geisha, that kind of makeup, on her face. She had pouches full of animal body parts, another bag full of henbane seeds-- this is a very powerful hallucinogen.
And at the end of the list there-- this is particularly gross-- in her stomach, she had lots of little balls made off fat and hair and ash. Someone has sort of rubbed them together to make little pellets, and we think these are from the remains of cremation pyres. She's eating the dead. So really quite a remarkable picture.
And the last thing of all, I said I wanted to get to the personal level, the individual Viking. Here's a question for you. What was inside a Viking apart from horrible things like this?
What did the Vikings believe about the shape of the soul? What was inside each person, each of us, if you like? Well to go from the written sources, which continue very late into folklore, and indeed into modern belief on Iceland, each person has four components. I'll just go through them very quickly to get us down at the end to the most personal level of all.
The first aspect of a person was something called the hamr. It's hard to translate these words, but it means something like the shape or the shell. It's the thing that contains you. It's essentially your physical body. In the Iron Age north, the Viking Age north, there are lots of beliefs about shape-changing, people can change into wolves, or bears, or seals, or whales, and things like that. And the thing that changes. the thing that shifts from one form to another, is this, the hamr.
So it's your outer form. It's not the body, as we would say. It's something more fluid and flexible than that. It's the thing that contains all the other things.
And then, this is something I particularly enjoy about the Vikings, the hamingja. The hamingja is your luck personified. Your luck is a being inside you. And it could be, to some extent, separate from, and independent of you. It can wander about and do things while you're not there.
You've heard about the idea of your luck running out on you. That phrase is from the Viking Age, because it did. To be lucky is very, very important. There are very many sources of talk about he or she is lucky, a lucky man. You should go with him on that Viking expedition because he always has lots of luck.
There's a wonderful accountant but the moments before a fight when in one party, there's a man who has the Sight, who can see things that others can't see. And he says, I can see these guys' luck spirits, and there's a lot of them, and I'm off. So it's a very important part of what you are.
And then there's the hugr. The hugr is your essence. It's what you really are, deep down inside. If I can give you an example, a popular character in Viking Age stories was the King of the Huns, Attila. You might have heard of him. Someone from many centuries before the Viking Age, but he was a character that pops up in their tales quite a lot.
And I'm sure you know, Attila the Hun, not a terribly nice man. And one of the things that was said about him was that he had an ulfshugr, a wolf's hugr. He might have looked like a man, but really he was a wolf. That was what he was like inside. That's what the hugr means.
And the last component of the Vikings and of us, perhaps, is the fylgja. It means, the follower. And this is a being separate from you, always female, even for men, that appears to you in dreams or in trances and helps you. It's a kind of a guardian angel, effectively, who gives you advice, tells you not to do things or to do things, that watches out for you.
And these things are inherited. They pass through families. So you have as sort of guardian spirit of the family. And these may be the things that are represented by these silver pendants that we have here.
Well we're almost at the end of today's lecture and these three lectures. What I've tried to give you from different perspectives and the different contexts is the Viking Age as a world of lost stories. Many of them unfortunately are lost. Lost stories, and lost storytellers.
What I've been saying is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, because this lost world of the Viking mind goes on, and on, and on. If you're interested in exploring it more, I certainly advise reading the myths of the Norse. Read the sagas and explore the archeology as well.
I think that this is one of the richest scenes of intellectual inquiry I've ever encountered. I hope you've gathered I'm very enthusiastic about this. And I think, really, that we're only beginning to explore this Viking mind.
But right at the end now, there's one thing I haven't touched on, which is, how did those stories end? And we know that they end in something called the Ragnarok, the battle at the end of everything. Its name, according to the latest research, apparently really does mean, the twilight of the gods. This was an interpretation that had been discredited for a very long time and is now coming back. The destruction of all worlds forever.
And incidentally, this picture doesn't show what you might think it shows. This is a volcanic eruption in Alaska, actually. But volcanoes and the volcanic world is very much a part of living on Iceland, where these stories were written down.
Very briefly, what happens at the Ragnarok is that everything is destroyed in a huge battle. The gods fight the giants and the forces of evil, all the different kinds of beings that I've talked about. All the gods, all the giants, all the spirits, the elves, the dwarves, all the people-- absolutely everything-- dies in this enormous cataclysm. There are some myths that imply a sort of new world coming afterwards, but some scholars, including myself, think this is an addition filtered through Christianity, effectively making a myth of resurrection. But we don't know that for sure.
But it seems to be but the Vikings are one of the very few world cultures without a permanent afterlife. We've seen this afterlife that people can go into, can die into and then live through. But it's only a respite before the final battle of the Ragnarok.
So if your future is fixed-- someone asked me about morality yesterday-- one of the things the matters most is facing that future in the right way. Your conduct on the way to meet it, even though it won't alter what happens, the dignity of your conduct is important. And that also tells us something about the Viking mind.
So is this the last story of the Children of Ash I talked about before? What I've been talking about, of course, relates to the world of the Vikings specifically. But I think it's also inevitably, through the medium of this particular culture, a meditation on the human condition. These people are wrestling with the same problems as everyone else-- the question of mortality, what we're doing here, where we're going, and so on. The right way to live.
The Vikings had an essentially fatalistic outlook. They focused on the brevity of life and the importance of living in a certain way without regard for what is coming after. You might find that to be a very alien way of looking at things. You might find it very familiar, or comforting. I think that it has a lot to say to us today from different perspectives.
I think the Vikings still matter. And I think their unique view of the world can genuinely give us some deeper perspectives on the fundamentals of life and the fears of mortality that confronted them as they still confront us. I think their stories are still going on. And after all, Ragnarok hasn't happened yet. Thank you.
You asked whether in the Norse world the ancestors speak to you and give you advice. Yes, in two ways. You remember the fylgja, the follower I mentioned right at the end? That seems to be some kind of ancestral spirit, maybe the embodiment of all your ancestors put together-- the part of your family that follows you all the time. And they appear to you in dreams.
There are also some saga accounts and poetic accounts of people waking up the dead. Not just seeing them or thinking of them in their graves, but really waking them up and interrogating them, and asking them for things. One of the areas of Viking ritual behavior that we know least about, actually, is offerings to the ancestors. And I can tell you there are two PhD students working on this at the moment, and I'm sure many more. So I think we need to report back on that in a few years' time-- but they are important, certainly.
AUDIENCE: Regarding the burial of the sorceress whose stomach contents included cremation remains, is there any reason to think that the consumption of such remains would have been a regular practice for her, or is that the remains were some sort of ritual meal associated with whatever her final illness was, or something like that? Like, is this a once-off or something regular [INAUDIBLE]?
NEIL PRICE: You are asking about the Fyrkat sorceress with the ingested remains of cremations, and whether this was a regular thing or a one-off. I've often wondered whether it killed her, actually. The only reason we know about this at all is because of a project funded by the Danish state, which has taken one person, one grave, from each time period of Danish history and thrown as much expensive science at it as possible to try and reconstruct this person. So that's the reason why we know this.
We don't have that information from any other grave. Which doesn't mean, say, that it is not there. We're also fortunate that these things have survived at all, because they are organic.
The bit about its ingestion, its location is in her stomach-- I don't think there's much doubt that she has been eating them. What it really means, we don't know. There hasn't been an identification of whether this is human remains or not, because to get that, they'd actually have to destroy the objects. And at the moment, they don't want to do that. So we don't know whether it's human or animal.
AUDIENCE: Did her stomach have any other contents? Or, was this the only type of food that she seemed to have [INAUDIBLE]?
NEIL PRICE: You asked whether her stomach had any other contents. None that would register. But I think it's the very unusual composition of these things that's meant that they survive at all. You don't normally find food remains. So we don't know.
You asked why the excavations at Gamla Uppsala are so recent when the monuments has been known for so long. The area of the monument is absolutely huge, as you remember. I don't know exactly, but the ridge is more than a kilometer long, if you take its extensions, and it stretches out into the fields.
There's been a lot of excavations over the years in different places in that landscape. One of the reasons why those terraces have not been looked at too much is precisely because they are so prominent. The same kind of reason why there's not often excavations at Stonehenge, for example-- because it's such a dignity of monument that it's very difficult to get permission to do it, apart from anything else. What's happening at the moment is-- I shudder to tell you this, but they're building a railway very, very close to the mounds, which has entailed a massive program of archeology. And this is a research excavation that's been added on to that.
This sacred landscape, this ritual landscape, stretches very far to the sides of the ridge.
You're asking whether the water offerings are a matter of appeasing the nisse and the tomte. These are little sort of sprites that live in the landscape who might drown you and things like that. If we go with folklore, which is very late-- this is going into post-medieval, early modern times-- there are many different reasons for offering things for luck, as you suggested, to appease the spirits. But there's nothing consistent about it.
In terms of Viking Age offerings, we don't really know. There is a the suggestion in Snorri Sturluson's Edda that when you die and you go into the next world, you can take with you things that you yourself have put in the ground while you're alive-- a sort of spiritual bank, if you like. And we wonder whether some of the stuff in the water courses, and the bogs, and so on, is that kind of thing.
You also sometimes find very large collections of things, lots and lots of weapons. And they seem to be sacrifices of the equipment of a defeated enemy. That's one of the explanations. You also find regular rituals at these places, particularly involving the sacrifice of animals, which implies it's a place that you come to often to do these things, either at specific times of the year or for specific reasons when they crop up. But the actual detail of it, we don't really know.
You talked about the elements of action in Beowulf, and other sources as well, where first, something is retrieved and brought back, and then used in these actions of dismemberment in different forms, with the head and so on. And you had examples from Beowulf with Grendel's arm, and Grendel's mother's head, and whether this can match up with the kind of thing I've been talking about. Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. I think that's exactly the kind of thing we're talking about.
It's very hard to prove it, of course. But the idea of retrieving things, and things that are old, this time dimension, is very important. Often the things we find in graves are well over 100 years old when they went into the ground.
So these things are things that people have kept. And I can't give you an answer, but you have to wonder, at which point do they decide that now it goes into the ground? Has it lived out its purpose?
There are also this time depth in the rituals themselves. I mentioned the burial at [INAUDIBLE], the one with the guy under the ship. This is the same symmetry, by the way, that you might remember from yesterday with the fingers and toes on the boat. Most of the boats in that burial, in that grave field, have people under them. There's about a 40, 50 year gap between the people under the boats and the boat.
And in some cases, one of those sequences of person plus boat has been completed at the time of the burial, over there, of someone else who, 50 years later, will get a boat on top of him. They know that they're going to do that. They know that's what you do here.
And just as with the picture stones, adding a chapter each generation over time, think of how they do that. They're not using writing. This is an oral culture. The idea of doing this must be transmitted, I'd like to say, through stories, but certainly through description and memory and an oral culture.
And I think, if you follow this idea of stories in the graves, you've seen all the kinds of dreadful things that they do to animals and each other and so on, these are very extreme acts. And especially, they concern dismemberment and moving body parts around. I'm giving a long answer, but it was a long question, so there you are. But the other aspect of this is when you find parts of animals in the graves, say a head-- the horse's head for example-- what happens to the rest of it that isn't in the grave?
So you get not only an arena of action beyond the grave that you might excavate, but a whole arena of behavior. They're doing something with the rest of that horse. They might be eating it, or do they save it up and put bits of it in another grave? We don't know. But you can see how these things filter out into society, but still linking between these different events and different meanings.
You're contrasting the home-oriented elements of these burials and their location, and the objects, and so on, with the fact that an awful lot of people in the Viking Age died somewhere else. What's done about commemorating them, and what can that tell us-- this is the part I thought was really interesting-- about one of the really important things to do? You'll appreciate part of this, he's arguing for a lack of evidence-- because if they're not there, then they're not there.
We find, certainly, some things that have traditionally been described as graves, but they don't actually have bodies in them. They look like graves, but there's no people there. So maybe they're doing all these things in the absence of the dead person, and it's the act and the thought that counts, so to speak.
One category of monuments, which is spatially quite distinct-- you only find it in certain areas of Scandinavia-- are the runestones. I showed you one on the screen. Now I haven't talked about them very much, because they are overwhelmingly Christian, though there are pre-Christian ones as well.
And they quite often talk about people who died somewhere else, specifically. They say, this is to commemorate so and so who died in the east, or who died while fighting the somebody or others. What's important with those-- and this is late Viking Age, but we may be able to read the sensibilities into it-- first, you find a lot more space is devoted to the people doing the memorializing than the person being remembered.
The formula you often find on these runestones, is this person, this person, this person, this person, raise the stone to that person. You often find it also put in a social context of where this is happening or which piece of land the person owned. Some people think they're kind of inheritance documents.
There's also context of behavior. My favorite runic inscription, actually, has a list of four names. It's four men's names. One, two, three, four, raise this stone to the memory of-- his name means ugly, actually-- to the memory of Ugly, their comrade-in-arms-- and this is the bit that really sets the scene-- who died when kings were fighting. So that's a good way to go. And he's clearly not there. He's presumably on the battlefield somewhere.
So you find this combination of overwhelming emphasizing the people doing it the commemorating and the context. Just lastly, I'd say there are a very few runestones put up by people to themselves, usually with a lot of hyperbole about how wonderful they are. So that gives an idea of preoccupations as well.
You're asking about the content of the stories and how they would work. One thing to demonstrate a sequence, but how does this work as a larger structure of logic or causality? I tend to see these things as very local. I think it's the process that is generalized, but the form that it takes is local.
One idea that I've been working with-- and I don't really know how I can possibly prove this-- is that if you look at the stories that have come down to us as Norse mythology, as I was saying yesterday, I think, things that we've effectively made into Norse mythology-- because we've codified them, and so on-- at some point, they must have had an origin. A not so discrete origin, because they're organic things that have been built up over time, and there's contradictory versions, and all the rest of it. And even if you want to relate them to the larger trajectories of Indo-European tales and things that, still at some point, somebody bluntly made up the idea of Odin giving up his eye, or Thor losing his hammer, or whatever it is.
And I wonder if part of the origin process of those tales is funerary tales. I've struggled a bit with, when I've been publishing things like this, in finding a term. I've settled on story in the end. You notice I use narrative as well.
A meaningful sequence of narrated events that have a time dimension beyond an evening, for example, something that you remember. Something that you tell. That's the sense in which I'd use it. I don't think there is any Viking Age, or Swedish, or Norwegian, or whatever, overarching structure to these things. I think they're living in an oral culture that sustains itself through talking.
And we have that idea of the importance of talking, especially you talking when they're not talking, that kind of making your voice heard in the hall and so on, as something that really sustains their way of life. And if you look at some of the epitaphs in some of the poems, like "Havamal," the idea of being remembered properly, having done something that makes you memorable, that makes you talked about and perhaps, I think, in the graves, acted about, is important. The one thing I think is quite difficult is, I mentioned yesterday that Ibn Fadlan, for example, is describing the burial of an elite. And that's what we find in the ship burials, and all these kinds of spectacular graves that are easier to interpret.
Can there really be stories in the little graves where you find just a heap of cremated ash and a couple of knives, or something like that. It's harder to get the detail and sequence, and things like that. But I think the kinds of tales that we know are present in some of the monuments, like the story of Sigurd on the picture stones, are actually highly populated stories. We focus on the hero and the people that they interact with, but every time Sigurd goes to a village or moves through a landscape, it's implicit that the landscape is lived in. And I think that most people are probably the bit part players in those stories.
But they still have a role to play. Just as someone in the farming community would not expect to, and probably wouldn't try to, give themselves a ship burial, because of how it would be thought of, they're still within that social world. I'm sorry, this is another long answer. But I think these are stories with a purpose. They're sending out messages, perhaps for different audiences.
At the same time, I use the example of Hamlet, where you think of the tragedies punctuated by dirty jokes, and things that were in-jokes at the time-- for particular, political context, and so on-- I'm sure things like that are going on. We also have to ask whether these burials actually do what they're intended to do.
I think some of them may not work. So when we have say, [INAUDIBLE], that massive ship burial where they're sacrificing 15 horses, I do wonder whether this is a sign of status, and just simply getting rid of 15 horses is an enormous thing to do. I wonder whether there are people standing there saying, have you seen 15 horses? Oh, good grief! And it might not work, or it might work for different people in different contexts.
You asked me about the contrast between the warrior image of the Viking and the evidence of the female burials for high status, and prominence, and so on. I think the idea of the warrior Viking as a stereotype is a stereotype. It's something that's come out of the 19th century, very largely. It's come out of a time of the last centuries, and back a bit, decades, which tended to take an immediately androcentric view of history anyway. I think that's where that emphasis comes from.
It's also something that derives from, as I said right at the beginning, the emphasis that's been placed on the accounts of the peoples the Vikings attacked. And the people doing that attacking were overwhelmingly male, although I think some of them were women, actually. I think there are women fighting. But that's a different question.
The graves in themselves undoubtedly show that women have very high status, or some women, just a some men, could have very high status. We know that they can inherit land. I mentioned these runic inscriptions. There's a remarkable one, a very long one, which commemorates the relatives of a particular woman.
It's a woman who's commissioning the inscription. And it appears that she has outlived all of her husbands-- she's been married several times-- all of her children, all of her sons, all of the husbands of her daughters, and even some of her grandchildren. She's outlived them all. And through the inheritance system, everything has eventually come back to her, and she's the richest landowner in the district. So she narrates this sequence of shifts of power.
With regard to the graves, I think I mentioned that one of the big enigmas of the Viking afterlife is that we don't know what happens to women. And if you look at, for example, [INAUDIBLE] that massive ship burial, it's the burial of two women. The most spectacular burial we have at all from the Viking age is a woman's burial. Which tells us something.
I don't want to make too much about this, but I think it's a comparatively more equal society than the societies that succeed it into the Middle Ages. So I think that certainly comes through in the material here. I'd also say, just quickly, that there's a very clearly prominent role played by women in all kinds of access to this other world, whether it's sorceresses, or the people presiding over cultic ceremonies and offerings, and so on. Women are very, I'd say, preeminent in that.
OREN FALK: I think we're gonna call it a day. Thank you very much.
NEIL PRICE: Thank you very much. Thank you.
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Professor Neil Price (Archaeology, University of Aberdeen) delivers three lectures focusing on the fundamental role that narrative, storytelling and dramatisation played in the mindset of the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries), occupying a crucial place not only in the cycles of life but particularly in the ritual responses to dying and the dead.
Early medieval Scandinavians' attitudes to death provide a window on the Viking mind, and they were monumentalised in some of the most spectacular burials known to archaeology. A study of these complex and spectacular funeral rituals is not only fascinating in its own right, but is inevitably also a meditation on this particular culture's responses to the human condition. The Vikings' unique view of the world can provide genuinely deep perspectives on the fundamentals of life, on the fears of mortality that confronted them as they still confront us.
This event is part of the 2012 Messenger Lecture Series.