OREN FALK: It's my very pleasant duty to welcome Neil Price here and to welcome all of you. We've been trying to get Neil over to Cornell for a number of years, now. So I'm delighted that this has finally worked out and very excited to hear what he will have to say to us in a few minutes.
And I wanted to make sure to thank, first of all, the people who have made it possible for Neil to be here. So first of all, the University Lectures Committee, who has extended the invitation. And also-- I won't read out all of the individual names. But just to give you a sense of the range of units that would be involved here, both faculty, students, and non-academic staff, from English, classics medieval studies, history, comparative literature, the Fiske Icelandic Collection, religious studies, and archaeology all got behind this invitation and finally managed to secure this guest for us.
So thank you to all who have contributed in various ways. And especially thank you to Neil for agreeing to come.
Neil seems to be one of those people whom God put on this Earth to make slobs like me look lazy and feel bad. He's been active for about 20 years now or so. And he's published more in half of that time than I will in twice that time.
He has, to his name, three books. The first, he published before he even earned his doctorate, if I remember correctly. Three sole-authored books, including the dissertation he wrote in Uppsala University, The Viking Way, which is widely regarded as one of the most important books on pre-Christian Norse religion published in the last few decades.
He is also responsible for many edited projects, including some real doorstoppers, encyclopedias, and over 60 articles, and field reports, and so forth. Neil earned his BA in Archaeology from the University of London-- from University College If I have all of my wits about me here-- and then went on to do postgraduate work, both in York and in Uppsala, where he earned his doctorate in 2002.
He's been working or hopping between Sweden, Norway, and Britain ever since. Since 2007, he's been Chair of Archaeology at Aberdeen University, where he founded the new archaeology department.
And just looking at the places on the globe where he's actually done field work or done various kinds of works, it ranges from Micronesia and South Africa-- he's associated with the University of Witwatersrand there-- Russia, France, Germany, the US. You name it, he's been there.
He has a very broad range of interests, including the archaeology of the opium trade, recently. I'm sure he doesn't actually try this on his own but an academic interest in opium, in piracy, no less, in witchcraft, shamanism. But most of his very well-earned fame comes from work on medieval Scandinavia and on Vikings.
And since you don't want to hear me talk more about Neil, but you came here to hear this fellow, I think I'll turn things over to him.
Let me just to remind you that there will be Q&A at the end. So Neil has agreed to take some questions. We'll have time for that.
And once everything is wrapped up here, there's a reception happening over in the Art History Gallery over at that end of the building on the same floor. So you're welcome to join us there later and meet him face-to-face. Over to you.
NEIL PRICE: Thank you very much, Oren.
And thank you, all. I'd like to begin by echoing Oren's thanks and say what a very great pleasure it is for me and my wife to be here at Cornell and in Ithaca. It's my first visit. I'm quite certain it won't be my last.
I'd also like to thank everyone involved in your very kind invitation to present the Messenger Lectures this fall. I was deeply honored by that invitation. So thank you very much to everyone involved in that. And I'd particularly like to thank everyone who's been so warm in their hospitality to my wife and I over the past few days.
As you know, the topic for my lectures is the Viking mind. But in fact, I'm not the first Messenger Scholar to present these lectures on the subject of the Vikings. All the way back in the fall of 1980, Professor-- now Dame-- Rosemary Cramp delivered a series of talks on the Viking achievement, which is a theme that dovetails rather nicely with what I want to talk about over the next three afternoons.
And by coincidence, I met Dame Rosemary a couple of weeks ago and mentioned I was coming out here. And she asked me to pass on her very, very warm greetings to you all. She has very special memories of Cornell. She said she was quite envious of me tasting the local wines and walking up and down the gorges, preferably not at the same time.
Now, 30 years ago, the focus was very much on the material world of the early North. Whereas I'm going to be talking much more about the intangible life of the Vikings, the life of the mind, the human condition. And what I'm really going to be talking about throughout these lectures is stories, the power of stories, and the role that narrative played in the life of the Vikings, its influence on their perception of the world in which they understood themselves to move.
Now, I imagine that you've already heard some stories of the Vikings. You'll have an image of them of some kind in your heads. And I think it's true to say that, as a culture, the Vikings enjoy a kind of popular name recognition common to very few others.
And the image you have in your heads might be something like this. This is the most familiar image of the Vikings, the Viking raider, pillaging the towns and countrysides of Europe, chasing the English, frightening the clergy, doing all those kinds of dreadful things. You've probably heard of their paganism, their worship of the gods, like Odin and Thor. You might have heard of their sacred groves, and sacrifices, and their berserk rage when they went into battle, and all of those things.
Well, probably the first thing to say is that that's not entirely a stereotype. There's a lot of truth in that image. This is not so very far from reality.
And the only bit of that I'm going to give you today is this map, which shows you what a very, very bad idea was to live in what's now France in the ninth century. This is Viking raids on the Frankish empire-- what's now France. Every place name, which you can't read-- but don't worry about that. Every name, every date on that map is a raid, in the course of about 80 years.
And if you get away from the image on the screen, which is how we normally communicate these things, and replace each name, each date, with a burning village, and bodies by the roadside, and refugees walking away, and women and children sold off into slavery, that is also the reality of the Viking Age. And it was very brutal, indeed. So in all the rest of what I say over the next three talks, don't forget that.
You may have heard of the Viking Expansion, now most often referred to as the Viking Diaspora. Between about 750 and 1100 AD, this enormous population movement out of Scandinavia did so many things. It transformed the whole of the northern world. And not least, it created the modern nation-states of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
And it's worth remembering just how very, very many places the Vikings got to. They travel the extent of the then-known world. Throughout Europe, in the West, in the center of Europe, in the East, in the Mediterranean-- all of these modern countries on the left there, the Vikings reached, and many more besides.
They walked the streets of what's now Baghdad. They were in Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, possibly even in India and China. And they traveled the whole width of the North Atlantic. And as I'm sure you know, they were the first Europeans to reach North America.
And of course those travels also meant that they encountered a very wide range of peoples who lived in all of those places. So you look at all of those different cultures and think of them in terms of encounters, of exchanges of ideas and experiences. This Viking world was very, very broad indeed.
While I've talked about that transformation, over the last half-century or so, archaeology and its related disciplines have also transformed the way we look at the Viking world. From material and textual sources, we now see a very cosmopolitan environment of travelers, and traders, crafts workers, poets, warriors, settlers, colonists. All of that set against small-scale, rural, tribal communities on a path to eventually becoming urbanized monarchies, who were very firmly in place by the end of the Viking Age on the literate stage of Christian Europe. It's quite a transformation.
But more or less everything I've just said-- although I think it's broadly accurate-- is very much a kings and battles view of the Viking period. It's also rather an androcentric view. This is a very male view of the Viking Age. And it also focuses on the Vikings as seen from outside, largely in the record left by their victims, which to put it mildly, is a rather biased record, as you might expect.
And what interests me is what animated that extraordinary cultural expansion. How did the early medieval Norse see themselves and see the world that they lived in? So what we need to do is take that stereotype, in which there's a very large degree of truth, and start to pull it apart and deconstruct it a little bit.
And to some extent, we can do that by adding the people who aren't normally part of that stereotype, what feminist scholars quite rightly call, add women and stir, which doesn't tend to get us very far, actually, in reconstructing a whole world. I think we need to do an awful lot more. And I think we need to look at different Vikings, all the different aspects of Viking civilization and Viking communities.
Put them together and use archeology and text to try and enter that Viking mind, which is a rather difficult thing to do. Let's face it. It's very different from studying pottery, or the typologies of weapons, and things like that. It's a difficult thing to enter this Viking mind. But if you'll follow me along that journey over the next three lectures, we'll see how we do.
But before we start, you might reasonably ask how we can possibly know any of this. What sources do we have for that Viking mind? Principally-- you know I'm an archaeologist-- principally, archaeological evidence, because this comes from the time of the Vikings. We can date it very securely. And we can put it together to reconstruct their symbolic world, their world of ideas, all of these things.
There's also, as I'm sure you know, a vast range of textual sources about the Vikings, though many of them come from around 200 years after the Viking Age. They're from the Middle Ages, many of them produced in Iceland as a look back at a kind of heroic, golden age of the Vikings that was in their past. And there's lots of different categories of this.
You'll see there's Eddic poetry here and Eddic prose. The Eddas, between them, are documents that bring together a series of compositions about mythology and about the heroic age, partly as a kind of handbook for poets. If you want to be a proper poet, these are the themes you need to deal with and this is how you construct poems. Both in terms of a guide to doing that-- that's the prose that you see there-- and the poems themselves.
Many of these things almost certainly date back to the Viking Age. But they're problematic sources to use. Though they are very rich, indeed.
Then we have, third on that list, Skaldic poetry. This is the praise poetry, delivered at the courts of kings. Effectively, it's 1,000 different ways to say, oh, what a good king you are. I do hope you'll be generous after you've heard my wonderful poem, and so on.
But the way to put those poems together is to use mythology, very largely, as a set of images with which to praise kings, to set them in that heroic context. So for our purposes, Skaldic poetry is very useful.
And then there are the sagas, the famous Icelandic sagas, the stories of Icelandic families over many generations and also a more legendary genre of saga storytelling, putting that in rather a romantic tradition of adventures with monsters and all these kinds of things-- again, lots and lots of information about the Viking view of the world.
And then we come to a very different category of source material, the law codes. You might wonder what that has to do with mythology. But even quite late in the Viking period, especially after the transition to Christianity, there are laws which prohibit you from doing very specific things.
Don't wear masks when you go into the graveyard. Don't sing those special songs to the dead. Don't talk to trees. What have we told you? Which implies that people are actually doing this, if it's serious enough to require a law forbidding it. So you can use the law codes, as well, to reconstruct this world of stories.
And then there are the documents, as I mentioned before, from the Vikings' victims, the Anglo-Saxons, the peoples of continental Europe, the Byzantine, Empire-- this is the successor to the Roman Empire-- all these different ways of approaching these foreigners from the north, doing, largely, very bad things, though sometimes trading and being peaceful, as well.
And lastly, a very interesting category of sources, these are documents left by Arab travelers, a lot of geographers and diplomats. And they've left us some really extraordinary eyewitness accounts of their encounters with Scandinavians. And I'm going to be talking about one of those in particular tomorrow.
So this is, broadly speaking, how we know the kinds of things I'm going to be talking about.
And I told you this would be about stories. I'm going to begin with one, the story of cosmology, the origins of the Viking universe, as you see there. And I'm going to begin with the earliest story, the creation story as the Vikings saw it.
And in Norse mythology, this begins with something called Ginnungagap. It's rather a difficult word to translate. It means something like the yawning void, the great emptiness.
And it's filled, as well, with a sort of potential for magic. It's an emptiness that nonetheless contains something. Something is going to emerge from that nothingness.
And on either side of it are two contradictory realms. One is very cold. It's called Niflheimr. It means the mist world, a great expanse of clouds, and vapor, and frost, and ice.
And at the opposite extreme is Muspellsheimr, very hard to translate this-- something like the home of the fiery end. But we can argue about that. Never mind. It's very hot is what you need to know.
So if this, by the way, sounds contradictory or hard to explain, you're completely right. One of the problems with Norse mythology is that our sources for it are contradictory. They're very confused.
Lots of things don't make sense. They appear to cancel each other out sometimes. And that will become very apparent as I go on. But just bear with me.
So you have this great emptiness, the great void. We've, on one side of it, a cold place, on the other side of it, a hot place. And the mixture of those two things creates a great vapor, a sort of swirling mist and chaos in the middle of Ginnungagap.
And that's added to by a number of rivers that flow from somewhere vague that we don't quite understand, also out into that void, a very strange place. An out of all that churning emptiness, that mist and vapor, steps the very first being. And he's a giant. His name is Ymir.
He may already be there from the start. We don't know. But he's the first being we have a name for.
At this point, you'll also have realized how very hard it is to illustrate this. The Vikings did not leave us pictures of their view of cosmogony, of the creation of the universe. So what I'm going to do, instead, is use a number of images that can perhaps tell you a little bit about how people have taken up these stories and used them in different cultural contexts. We'll see how we go with that. And we'll also come back a little bit later on to the giants. I'm going to say more about them.
So here we have him, the first being, Ymir, in the swirling emptiness. And then he's joined by the second being of Norse mythology. And this is, I think, almost my favorite character from all of these stories. It's the cosmic cow. Her name is Audhumbla. It means the hornless one, rich in milk.
This is an illustration from an early-modern Icelandic text, where they've got the horns wrong for a start. But never mind. Here she is, wandering about in the void.
And her milk provides food for Ymir, the giant. And she also-- as cows do-- she likes to lick the salty rhime that's formed in the void. There are blocks of ice covered with salt. And Audhumbla wanders about licking these salty blocks of ice.
And of course-- don't try this at home. But if you go around licking blocks of ice, eventually the blocks of ice get smaller. And they diminish under Audhumbla's tongue.
And as that happens, things inside the ice start to become apparent. There are shapes inside it. There are forms gradually taking shape under Audhumbla's tongue.
And in the end, these forms start to move. And as the ice melts and melts, they step out of it. And that's the beginning of the gods. They're licked out to the ice by the great cow.
And the first one is called Buri. We know very little about him. But that's his name. And he's the first of the family of gods called the Aesir.
Somehow, Buri produces a son. That's one of the things we don't understand. And this son gets together with a giantess. And we don't know where she comes from either, but as I said, bear with me.
And from their union comes the first of the great gods. This is the birth of Odin. And very soon, he's joined by two brothers, called Vili and Ve.
And together with Odin, they ambush Ymir one day and kill him. It's a very violent beginning of the world. And they start to create the world from his flesh. Bear in mind, they're still in the middle of this swirling emptiness.
The seas come from his blood. The bowl of the heavens is the inside of his skull and so on. Some of the poems talk how the clouds are fashioned from his brain. His hair becomes the trees and so on.
And now we come to the point, which is the first of the main points that I want to make to you. In this new world, very young, the gods, Odin and his siblings, are strolling about on the seashore. And washed up on the seashore, they find two big blocks of driftwood.
And just like the ice, they see something inside the driftwood, inside these wooden stumps. They have a potential, something inside them. And the gods start to bring it out.
They start to mold these blocks of wood with their hands. They start to carve them. And gradually, two forms emerge, a man and a woman. And these are the first people.
The woman is named Embla. And I wish I could tell you what that means, but we don't know. The man is called Askr, ash. This is the name of the tree, the wood.
So when scholars ask who the Vikings really were, where they came from, and so on, in one sense, we've always known the answer. I think we've been ignoring it. Because we know how they perceived themselves.
In their own minds-- and that's perspective I'm trying to take in these lectures, the perspective that I think is quite often neglected-- the Vikings were all the children of Ash and the children of Embla. They knew exactly who they were.
Now at this time, the other worlds start to be formed as well. We don't know exactly how many there were. But there are lots of them. There are worlds under the ground, and worlds up in the sky, perhaps other ones under the sea as well, lots and lots of them.
We know that the gods lived in Asgardhr, Asgard. It means the place of the Aesir-- the Aesir is one of these divine families-- a broad landscape dotted with mountains and lowlands, with buildings and fields.
Each god and goddess had their own magnificent homestead, a great hall shining with silver, and gold, and other ornament, set in its own landscape, a little-- oops. Can you hear me, by the way? Yes? Jolly good. You've all been sitting here, listening to me mumble.
Each hall named and described, one for each god. And here is one of the elements that is most baffling with Norse mythology. In this landscape of Asgard, there were also cult buildings and temples, because the gods of the Vikings were some of the very, very few in human history to have also worshiped something themselves. It's just we don't know what it was-- how very strange. So Asgard, the home of the gods, has temples to something else as well.
And humans, that's us. We lived nearby, in Midhgardhr, Midgard, the middle place. And you may know that this is the inspiration behind Tolkien's Middle Earth.
And Midgard seems very much to be a kind of mundane reflection of Asgard-- pretty much the same kind of landscape, with little settlements, ranging from halls without buildings, just like those homes of the gods, to the more ordinary villages for ordinary people. This is a replica one that's been built up in Denmark. And Midgard was connected to Asgard, the home of the gods, by the bridge of the rainbow, called Bifrost. So every time you see a rainbow, that's the connection between our world and the world of the gods.
But there are also other worlds, as well. Jotunheimar, the giant's world-- this rather abstract place out in the north, where the giants lived. I'll talk a bit more about giants later on. But I'll just note that there is, in modern Norway-- and it's an old place name- a place called Jotunheim, giant-home. This is it on the screen.
And it tells us a little bit, I think, about how this place was conceived. It looked like that-- cold, mountainous, rugged, inhospitable, a good place for giants to live.
Out in the east-- that's so clear, isn't it-- was Utgardhr, Out-guard, the outer world, a dark, shadowy, horrible place, full of horrible things-- lots of demonic powers, trolls, other kinds of nastiness. So you've got this zoning of the worlds. Different kinds of things live in different kinds of place.
And underneath Midgard was hell, Hel, the worlds of the dead. We don't know to what degree that word is related to the Christian hell. It may be connected to it. It may not.
It was ruled by a goddess of the same name. I've written here that she was goddess of the dead. She was one of the goddesses of the dead. Lots of people meet the dead. She's described as being sort of split down the middle-- on one side a woman, on the other a black corpse, suitable to her role.
And below Hel is Niflhel, mist-Hel, the nine levels of the underworld, going down nine leagues into the ground, rather a strange place.
And connecting all of these places is something you may have heard of, the World Tree, the great ash, Yggdrasil. Now, you've got two pictures of it here. One is from an old manuscript. The other is a sort of new-age fantasy. You can guess which is which.
And I've put them on the screen here, because scholars have entertained themselves for generations trying to work out how all this that I've talked about fits together. And the simple answer is we have no idea. Some people think that the worlds are sort of concentric discs, enclosing each other, rather as you see here, with the tree in the middle.
Other people think that the worlds are stacked vertically along the trunk of the tree, rather like members of vinyl singles on an old turntable, rather like that. Other people like to propose something like this, with worlds floating as rather entertaining blobs somewhere around. And we don't really know.
The Vikings themselves seem to have conceptualized the World Tree as being inside everything, rather a metaphorical view, Yggdrasil as a part of nature, a part of everything. This picture is part of a wall hanging from the Viking Age. And as you can see down here, you have some kind of horned animal, a deer perhaps. And its antlers get bigger, and bigger, and turn into a sort of tree.
And at the top is a bird, which is one of the features of Yggdrasil. There are all kinds of animals all over it, living in its branches. There's a squirrel that runs up and down the trunk, carrying insults between the animals. It's quite strange. Maybe this is the closest we have to a Viking Age depiction of that tree.
And I have to say the best image of it that I've come across is very recent, perhaps from a surprising source. Some of you may have come across it. It's the film Thor that came out last year, in which the World Tree, I think, is really marvelously depicted as something in interstellar space. The camera's eye pans out, and out, and out, from the world, through to the solar system, to all the clouds of stellar gas, and the constellations, and the galaxies, bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until it starts to resolve into a trunk and the branches of the World Tree, spreading out across the universe. Perfect, I think.
That gives you an idea of the worlds within which the Vikings located themselves. And as I hope you've seen, their reality-- because that's what we're talking about-- their reality was very, very different from ours.
I also want to stress that this is not really a matter of belief. Today, we might ask, do you believe in God. That's an irrelevant question in this context. It's a matter of knowledge.
They would no more question this than they'd question the existence of the sea. This is simply how it was. And that's something to really bear in mind in this and in the other lectures.
But if this was the mythological landscape of the Vikings in their mind, who lived in it? Because it was very highly populated. Though besides people, it was populated with an invisible population, lots of different kinds of beings in all these different worlds.
To us, all of them are, more or less, supernatural. I'd be quite careful using that word, even though you see I have up there. Because in fact, they were highly natural. There was nothing separate about them. They're part of exactly the same world as everybody else. So bear that in mind, too.
You can see the first on the list are the gods and the goddesses. I'm not really going to say very much about them today, partly because they're so numerous. And this is a tiny fragment of their family tree. I hope you're paying attention. We'll go through this in detail. There will be questions at the end. No, I'm not going to do that.
There's an awful lot of Norse gods and goddesses. And there's an awful lot of stories about them. Many of them are relatively well known.
And if you'd like to know more about them to find out more about those stories, they're very accessible. You can find the tales of the Norse gods in any decent bookshop and online.
Mainly, I want to talk relatively little about the gods, because I think their connection with the everyday world of the Viking mind was also relatively small, by comparison with their connection to the rest of that invisible population that I mentioned. And it's part of redressing that imbalance that I spoke about earlier, the focus on the Viking stereotype, that I want to get away from the gods a little bit.
I think it's true to say that they've received the overwhelming bulk of scholarly attention and also popular cultural attention. Over the last couple of centuries, the Norse gods have been imagined and re-imagined over, and over, and over again.
You've got the 19th century, Victorian, rather romantic views of them here, all the way to comic book Norse gods today. And I think it's quite an interesting comment on the impact they've made on popular consciousness that there are no less than eight completely independent comic book series about the Norse gods. And they also pop up in a great many more.
It's really quite remarkable for the belief system of a people who lived 1,000 years ago. And you can even find them in LEGO.
I don't want to say too much about the gods. But before we move on, I just want to say something about their relationship with human beings. When we talk about gods, we're accustomed, I think, to attach to that the idea of worship.
And the worship required by the Norse gods had nothing to do with adoration, or gratitude, or even approval. You didn't have to like the gods or approve of what they did. And in that, that relationship between people and gods is utterly unlike anything we have today in the world faiths.
They seem to demanded only a recognition that they existed as an unchanging, fixed part of everything, this nature, rather than super-nature, that I mentioned. And that as such, they had a kind of-- this is hard to explain. They had a kind of inherent rightness about them, perhaps even a rather terrible kind of beauty.
And if you wanted to avoid disaster, you had to come to terms with those gods. And the terms would be theirs, not yours. And that's important, because if you refused to acknowledge them, you could come to grief in all kinds of ways.
And as I mentioned, the idea of believing in the Norse gods was rather irrelevant. OK, let's leave them now.
The gods certainly had servants, many of them animals. And they served a function as beasts of burden. Sometimes they pull the various vehicles of the gods. Or the gods rode on them.
And to some extent, they seem to symbolize the different divinities. They were the animals of choice for their sacrifices as well.
We have Odin's ravens, Thor's goats, Freyja's cats, and her boar. Her brother Freyr also has a boar. Heimdal has a ram. There are many others, lots and lots of animals around this world of gods.
In addition to these, there is another category of being directly connected to the gods, though not divine in themselves. And I can guarantee that you've heard of them. They're the valkyrjur, the valkyries. Excuse me while I take a drink.
Their name means the choosers of the slain. And there's different images of them in different texts, different sources. But if you put them together, their function seems to have been to visit the battlefields of our world and bring the spirits of the best of the dead warriors up to Asgard, to be shared between Odin and Freyja. You might have heard of Freyja as the god of love.
She's not, really. She's a sort of goddess of sex, actually-- much, much earthier kind of divinity. She's also a goddess of war.
So the valkyries don't just bring the dead to Odin in Valhalla, or Valholl. Valhalla's a Victorian misspelling. They also bring the warrior dead to Freyja as well.
Today, we tend to see the valkyries, I think, filtered either through Wagner, becoming a sort of elegant, heroic abstraction, or more depressingly, as a particularly dreary kind of male fantasy, which I'll spare you pictures of. I would just say, believe me, you do not want to look up valkyries on Google image.
But in the Viking Age, if you go back to what they originally were, the valkyries seem to have been particularly terrifying demons of carnage. They embodied everything that battle was. And they certainly didn't look very much like this.
We don't know whether we have any Viking Age depictions of them. These things don't come with labels. We have to try and interpret them.
About the closest that we have-- and these are very recent discovery, the last couple of years-- are little silver pendants like this. They're quite small. They're about this big, if you can see there.
And you can see this is a mounted woman. There she is on a horse, with weapons, another woman in front of her with a shield, another woman here with a helmet and a sword. I'm sorry these are so dark. They look very clear on my computer. But I hope you can see them.
Interesting that their clothes are quite mixed. They have these long, flowing dresses. But the woman on the horseback-- on the horse there-- is wearing trousers, which is very, very unusual for women to do in the Viking Age. In fact, if you wear clothes that are associated with the opposite sex-- trousers for women or an open-neck shirt for men-- this is actually grounds for divorce. So this is very, very unusual clothing. And I think if we try and translate that into something approximating reality, that's about as close as we might get to how the Vikings thought the valkyries could have looked.
There's also a variety of beings who performed a kind of cosmological function. They had a job. The valkyries had a job. There are others that did as well.
And the most prominent of them are the nornir, the norns. These are three women, who live at the foot of the World Tree in a shining hall. They're the people who keep the World Tree going.
They put cooling clay on its trunk. They feed it from the well, give it water. They keep the cosmos running, if you like.
Their names mean past, present, and future. And you might recognize them from a number of other mythologies as well. They crop up in Greek mythology, Roman mythology, under different names.
They seem to have been in charge of the fates of humans, governing the course of a person's life. There are references to them throwing lots, casting lots to decide what would happen to a person. But most commonly, they're depicted as weaving a person's life as a kind of tapestry, making a fabric of you, of what you do. And at the end of a person's life, they'd cut the final thread.
There are several descriptions of them, some rather interesting details. Their fingernails are covered with runes, for example. And there's one rather interesting description that says that, in fact, there are lots of norns for different kinds of beings.
So there are norns for the dwarfs, norns for the elves and the giants, even norns for the gods. So everybody and everything has these women of fate to take care of their destiny.
I mentioned earlier on that we were going to come back to the giants. There they are-- a very dark giant. I do apologize. He's very bright on my screen.
Alongside the gods, probably, they're the most important mythological beings. You've seen that they play quite a role in cosmogony, in the creation of the universe. They seem to have been viewed, in some way, as beings of nature, representing the wilderness and the wild. Remember that picture of Jotunheimr, that mountainous, giant world.
In a way, kind of representatives everything outside human experience-- they're definitely not people. They're often quite aggressive, quite nasty things. There's a historian of religion who's put together a marvelous compendium of all the names used to describe giants and sort of condensing their meanings.
I quote, dirty, hairy, ugly, stupid, and especially, loud. So there they are.
They're rarely described in detail. But they're very strong. They're very cunning. Some of them are quite wise. They're occasionally very learned.
But they have very few dealings with people. So like the gods, they're relatively apart from the world of humans.
Well, all different beings that I've been talking about so far, they're quite powerful in different kinds of ways. They have a role to play in the ordering of the universe. But how much do they really have to do with people? Remember, I mentioned that distance between the gods and humans. The same is true of the giants, and the norns, and the rest.
If we could put it very simply, I don't think any Vikings thought that they would come into contact with Odin on a Saturday night. These are not everyday encounters. You might contact the gods under very, very special and rare circumstances.
But there are other categories of beings that form a much more common, everyday part of the Viking world and the Viking mind. And among them are the dvergar, the dwarves. Quite important in the mythology, they often appear in the stories of the gods.
We know a lot of their names, more than 100 of them, from a remarkable document with an unfortunate title. It's known as the "Catalog of Dwarves". It sounds like you have to order them by mail order.
Incidentally, you might be interested to know that all of Tolkien's dwarf names come from that catalog, including the names of some beings who are not the dwarves. Gandalf's name comes from that list, for example.
The dwarves are generally helpful, occasionally devious. They're often very wise. They are guardians of knowledge.
And above all, they make things. They make the gods' tools, and weapons, and jewelry, their vehicles, all kinds of things. They're very, very clever. And their transformation of ore and metal into precious things has a kind of mystical quality that sets them apart. They live underground, under the mountains, in their halls.
They're quite lecherous. They sometimes demand sexual favors in return for their services, especially concerning Freyja. And I think that there is some evidence that they played a part in cultic ceremonies, that humans offered to the dwarves. They could certainly interact with humans, mainly in a positive way.
We know very little about what they look like. But an interesting thing about them is that their smallness, which you might think would be characteristic of the dwarves, is a largely medieval invention. There's nothing to say how big or small the dwarves were in the Viking Age.
Then there's another category of being, who play very little role in the mythology, but they have an awful lot to do with humans. And they're the elves, the alfar. They're also, today, quite late survivors in folklore, especially in Iceland, where they're known as the huldufolk, the hidden people-- the people out of the way, under the ground, inside rocks, and so on.
They seem to have had a lot of interaction with the gods in some surprising ways. There's a rather wonderful poem, called "Lokasenna" in which the mischievous demigod Loki wanders around the halls of Asgard and systematically insults each of the gods in turn. And his insult for Freyja is that she's slept with every elf in Asgard. So that tells you something about them.
They often had contact with humans. There's suggestions that they had links to Odin. And they were sacrificed to. People make them offerings of animal blood in special ceremonies in special places.
They're bringers of good and bad fortune. They can heal the sick. They can help your animals-- very, very important things. And they lived all around you, in the natural environment around the homes of people.
Then there are also rather more unpleasant beings, also things that have lasted a very long time in folklore. You can still find them in folklore today in Scandinavia. And these are the trolls, these rather unpleasant creatures of rock and stone, who you find in a great many of the tales of Norse mythology.
They seem to be largely a kind of embodiment of the natural world. In the text, they're sometimes associated with the dead, sometimes associated with all kinds of deviant behavior. They're described as living in the rocks, in the mountains, in streams and rivers, or generally underground. And if you look at the whole range of beliefs in these kinds of beings, the trolls are the ones that have lasted longest down to the present day.
Finally, probably the most ubiquitous of all of these beings and powers, the landvaettir, the land-spirits. These were all the beings of stone, and water, and ice, and earth, and air, all the elements that made up the world. And they were absolutely everywhere.
Any time you went out into the world, outside your home, along the stream, along the road, wherever it is, you're surrounded by the land-spirits. They're the embodiment of nature itself. And the sagas often talk about how important it was to respect the land-spirits, to accommodate them, and of all the terrible misfortune that could result if they were slighted.
And that brings us back to here. In one sense, what I've been talking about this afternoon is a very basic, very brief kind of overview of classic Norse mythology-- albeit, I hope, with some observations about different ways to view it. But the reason I've been doing that is to set the scene for what comes next in the rest of these talks and really to get some distance between the Vikings as we see them here-- real, though they were-- and the Vikings as they saw themselves.
Because everything I've been talking about was inside these people's heads. And the point I really, really want to get across to you very strongly is that everything I've been talking about was not mythology at all. The Norse didn't know they had Norse myths. We've invented those for them.
We've taken all those tales, which, of course, were very organic things, like all stories. They changed over time, according to who was telling them, from one place to another. And we've taken their fossilized, medieval form, when someone finally wrote them down hundreds of years later. And we put them together into books that we call the Norse myths-- and we sell in our bookshops, and we teach in our universities, and so on.
But this kind of canon of Norse mythology is an illusion, because for them-- and not only them, but all the people that stayed at home, young and old, men and women, everybody in that Viking worle-- it was just reality, quite simply that. It was the world in which they lived. And as I've said, that reality was very, very different, not only to our world, but also to the world of most of the people with whom these guys came into contact.
So when we see the Vikings, as depicted through the chronicles of the Anglo-Saxons, who mainly talk about what they've burned down this year, they don't see all of that world that I've been talking about. They just see this. And what I want to do is get behind that to the way these people were thinking.
So I hope you can see the really enormous difference between the Vikings, inverted commas, and the Children of Ash and their worlds of stories, even though they're the same people.
These are, of course, the ideas of the living, mixed with the perception of the dead. As we'll see in the coming lectures, the dead have a highly active agency in the Viking world. The dead are not really dead. They just live differently to everyone else.
There's a constant interaction between the world of the dead and the world of the living. And that's something that I want to bring out in this Viking mind. And of course, that world is not empty.
It's not just peopled with people. It's peopled with that invisible, supernatural population.
And what this really concerns-- the makeup of the Viking mind-- is the connections between all those different elements. All the things I've been talking about-- that extraordinary richness of the different kinds of beings with whom the Viking shared their world-- how people got in touch with them and for what reason-- how do you interact with an elf? What you do if you meet a giant?
What do you do with your dead relatives? Are they still a part of your life and so on? All of this mixed together and importantly, manifested in material culture.
What I've been talking about today is mainly ideas. And I've emphasized that all these stories of the mythology come largely out of the texts, those stories written down. That's how we know about them. I mentioned how difficult it was to illustrate them.
In the coming lectures, I'm going to be looking very much at material culture, things, the ways the Vikings put all of this-- all of those interactions-- into practice. Because they certainly put them into practice. They acted out on those beliefs, in the way they ordered their settlements, the kinds of buildings they lived in, the kinds of clothes they wore, the way they buried their dead, and so on.
So in the next lecture, I'm going to be looking at ideas about the afterlife and therefore, by reflection, ideas about life. And the avenue I'm going to take to get in touch with that is the dead, or rather, the ways in which the living dealt with the dead.
We're going to be looking in detail at some stories of burials, some stories of graves. And my colleagues tell me I tend to get carried away when I talk about Viking graves. They really are tremendously exciting and deeply weird.
And I hope, tomorrow, I'm going to be able to give you an overview-- as much as I can in an hour or whatever-- of this extraordinary variety which is evidence of not only how the Norse saw their dead, but how they saw themselves in life, and by extension how they formulated their ideas about their own mortality. And I do hope you can join me there. Thank you.
You were talking about the different conception of geography, really, in the Viking mind, of terrifying things out in the east, or out in the north, and so on. And how did that affect their perception of the real world and how they ventured out into it? Did they find it terrifying in the east or whatever?
One of the things I find very interesting about the Vikings is that-- and I'm very conscious this is part of this stereotype, but it's a real part of it-- is that they actually went on voyages of exploration, because they wanted to. And this is a comparatively modern phenomenon. There are very few ancient cultures that really do that, who set off into something that is largely unknown to find out what's there.
Bear in mind that we're not talking about empires wanting to extend their control and so on. They really are going on expeditions.
And I think their perception of the North-- bear in mind, we're talking about Scandinavia, so it's the Scandinavian north-- is quite a realistic one, in that the further north you go, the harder it is to survive, generally. Though there are exceptions to that. The geography of Scandinavia is quite complicated.
Especially in the winter, the north is a progressively worse and worse place to be. And in fact, we know that in the Viking Age, the Scandinavian population doesn't get anywhere near as far north as it does today. So I think there's a practical element to that.
Out in the East, which is-- this is Utgardhr, the outer world in their mythology. Bear in mind that the texts that we have are largely Christian products. They're medieval Christian texts looking back. So we have to be a bit careful about how much Christian ideas are in there.
But the Christian writers were trying to rationalize the Norse gods, because of course they couldn't believe in them, and thought that they were people, originally, who had come from the East. And they make all kinds of very complicated associations.
So I mentioned that the name of that divine family, the Aesir. And they say they came from Asia. That's where the Aes of it comes from. And it's all a bit of a reach, really.
But there is an element that the East is alien and different. And there's one-- sorry, it's a very long answer. There's one particular Viking expedition, probably the most ambitious ever mounted. It sets off in 1014, deep in the Christian period, when a man called Ingvar, who was nicknamed the far-traveled with good reason, takes a fleet of 26 ships out into Asia.
And he goes down the Russian river systems, which is where the Vikings went quite a lot. And then he somehow goes almost off the map. And there's a sense that he did something that people hadn't done before. And he's certainly going east.
And I think that the memory of Ingvar's journey-- and it's memorialized on lots and lots of runestones. I should've said, by the way, his expedition ended in disaster. Everybody died. A few made it back and told the story.
And there's an idea that he went into somewhere that wasn't quite real. And therefore, he should be especially remembered, because just going to the East was rather commonplace. So I think that's the point at which we get this view of the world that coincides with action.
We don't really know how they viewed the West. I mentioned that they're the first Europeans to get to North America. One of the ironies of the Viking Age is that having achieved this thing that, to us, seems extraordinary, there's no evidence at all that they thought it was an extraordinary thing to do. And they didn't know where they were, either. They're just islands, as they saw them, out in the ocean.
So we don't get any sense of any kind of special mythology around those Western journeys.
You asked me what kind of motivation the Vikings had for going into the Frankish empire, what's now France, whether it was searching for food, or wealth, or whatever. Almost entirely to monetary gain-- it really is plundering.
That map I showed you earlier on, with all the raids all over it, this is the very beginning of the Viking Age. And they're using the river systems, the great rivers of France-- the Loire, the Seine, the Somme, that's up in the low countries-- as kind of motorways into the heart of France. And what they're doing is plundering. They're taking as much look as they can carry.
In the beginning, they're taking it back to Scandinavia. After a while, it gets to be so profitable they start to make little bases, usually on islands and easily defended places. And they stay over the winter.
And as that goes on into the ninth century, into the 800's, they progressively stay longer and longer, until in the end, they don't leave. And at that point, they start to become something a little bit different from those raiders who were opportunistically going back and forth in their boats.
And I think, at that point, these Viking forces start to become a kind of state in their own right. They're not a state based on territory, but a state based on being them, wherever it is they happen to be. And at that point, they start to get different ideas about power, and expansion, and you were saying.
And this is the point at which one of the most long-lived of the Viking conquests is formed, which is Normandy, on the French coast, in the north of France. And this is when-- what happens, actually, is that a particular band of Vikings is paid by the Franks to settle there in return for acting as a buffer against all the other Vikings. And this goes spectacularly wrong, because the first thing they do is send messages back to Scandinavia saying come on in.
And they use it as a kind of bridgehead. And Normandy, which is initially very small, gets bigger and bigger rather fast. And in the end, they sort of found a kind of Viking kingdom. And then over the next generations, this transforms into being a place called Normandy, no longer a Viking settlement, but a place in its own right.
And this is how you get this changing relationship with Francia. So it goes from initially raiding through to opportunistic settlement, which then turns into land-taking and conquest. So it's a progressive thing.
You asked me whether there's any geographical variation in the mythological beliefs that I was talking about within Scandinavia. Yes, there is. It's very hard to pinpoint the detail. If you look at the kinds of things I'll be looking at tomorrow, burial ritual and things like that, there are certainly regional traditions.
One thing that I should've emphasized, perhaps, is that everything to do with these spiritual beliefs and the Viking mind is variable. I hope you sort of gathered that these things are contradictory and so on. They vary from one place to another.
A part of the bias that we have is that most of our sources, those sources that I listed on the screen, are Icelandic. And Iceland is a very specific place. It's not Scandinavia. It has its own environment. People have speculated whether the fiery things in Norse mythology are because of all the volcanoes in Iceland, for example.
When you get into Scandinavia itself, there are some indications of variation, especially in place names. The place names of Scandinavia-- they vary in date. But there's a level of them that are very old, that certainly go back to the Viking period.
And among them are what's called theophoric names. These are place names that include the name of a god. And it's normally, you have a god's name connected with a word for a kind of special place.
So you have Odenslunda, which means Odin's Grove, or [NON-ENGLISH], Thor's Field, things like that. And you have lots and lots of different gods' names as part of these things, names for islands, and trees, and all kinds of things.
And there's certainly geographical variation in which gods' names you find where. So there's lots of Odin names in Denmark, for example and Sweden, very few of them in Norway. And several people have argued, perfectly reasonably, that this is variation, that they worship Odin a lot over there and not down there. And actually, it's a different god that's popular here and so on. And that might be the case.
But one thing I've wondered about-- and this is a modern comparison. But if you go to Latin American countries, think how often it is or how common it is to find the male personal name Jesus. And I don't know a single European man called Jesus. But that doesn't mean that there's no Christians in Europe.
And so there are different naming customs, which doesn't necessarily reflect beliefs. And I wonder if that might be going on as well.
Also, the further north you go in Scandinavia, you start to get deeper and deeper into the territory of a people I haven't mentioned at all today, the Sami. They used to be known as the Laps, though not to themselves.
These are a nomadic people, largely living in the north of Scandinavia, but also in the areas where the Vikings lived as well. And as you get further to the north, you find a blending of Sami mythology and Norse mythology. So you get-- some of the Norse gods to pop up in Sami tales and vice versa.
And particularly when you get into something that I haven't mentioned today, but I'll be talking about it on a Thursday-- which is magic and sorcery-- you get lots of Sami elements in that. So yes, there is a variation. Sorry, a long answer to your question, but yeah.
You asked me where the Yggdrasil, the World Tree was conceptualized as permeating everything or as a connector between different worlds. It's certainly a connector. In the mythology, you can travel along the branches and the roots of the tree, between the different worlds.
And it's part of the game of reconstructing Yggdrasil how you get that to work. It's very difficult.
And you can use special means to travel along those branches. There's a sense that you travel between things. You travel between the worlds or between planes of existence. You can do this using a special kind of magic to send out some part of yourself. Or you can ride particular animals will take you there and so on.
Whether it permeates everything is an interesting question. I suspect that it does. I also think we shouldn't try to overly define something that probably never had a very rigid definition to begin with.
If you take the modern faiths and ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a member of any faith how much they really know about the detailed theology of their faith, most people don't know that much, if you really go into it. And I think the same is true for the Vikings, especially as their set of beliefs is not an orthodoxy. This is not a religion of a book, with a consistent picture of it. It's very vague.
And I think, probably, people negotiated this in their own way. This is what you thought there. And what they do over there, well, we don't know. They're odd. It's a very regional world.
There's also the problem of Yggdrasil's name. It relates to one of the names of Odin. Odin has nearly 200 names. And the beginning of that word, Yggdr, means the terrible one.
And so Yggdrasil is the steed of the terrible one. And there's an idea that the tree is something along which Odin travels to go into the different worlds. So it's certainly a connector, perhaps a part of everything.
It's very hard to find depictions of it in Viking Age art. I showed you that tapestry. There are few others like that, where something resembling a tree is growing out of something else. So I suspect that they saw that in everything, in the same way as you might-- a Christian might see God in the natural world, that kind of transference.
Your question was, is there a moral component of this world that I've described in the same way as there is in, for example, Christianity? And if there is, how did that play out in the Viking's attitudes to everybody else?
I think it's a question that feeds in very well to what I'm talking about, because the answer is no. There is no moral component in the Viking view of the world, as expressed through the mythology. There's no sense in which your behavior in life influences where you go after death, for example.
There are a number of different destinations for the dead. And they're very complicated. I'll talk a bit about them tomorrow and on Thursday. But there's no idea of a good behavior, in a religious sense.
One thing that I'll come back to near the end of this series is the idea of predestination, that your fate is fixed. And there's nothing you can do to alter it. So you can't-- your fate is fixed by the norns when you're born. And they know where you're going. You don't know it. But they do.
And what's important-- and this is where morality does come into it, but not as a result of religious ideas, really-- what's important is the manner of your conduct as you go to meet that fate that you can't change. So there are certain ideas about-- for example, hospitality is very important. You should be good to your guests.
Among these poems that I mentioned, there's some lists of good advice. And you could find them today published as kind of Viking words of wisdom. There's some great things in there, things like the stupid man does best to keep silent, because nobody will know how stupid he is if he doesn't say anything, things like that. So there's these kinds of sort of guidelines for how you should behave, but not that sort of detailed morality.
And in terms of how that plays out in the Viking's actions-- one of the things that their victims go on about, again and again, is that these people don't see the world the way we do. So when they-- one of the things that really upsets the Anglo-Saxons is how much they attack monasteries. They destroy the shrines, and they take the relics, and so on.
And there's no evidence that this means anything at all to the Vikings. They're just stuff to do.
And there is a kind of sense in which-- sorry, it's another long answer. I do apologize. But it's linked to this.
You know how today, when people describe-- often criminals, they talk about them using metaphors of animals. Someone behaves like a beast. This is a despicable way to behave. This person's an animal.
And that's quite common. You find this in a lot of cultures.
The Vikings seem to subvert that. And when they talk about their own raiding and all this pillaging and so on that you mentioned, they talk about themselves as animals. And they convert their victims as the prey that it's quite legitimate for those animals to feed on.
It's a very different way of viewing yourself. You turn yourself into that thing that is usually the object of contempt. And I think that's also a kind of moral thread that runs through those actions.
Your question was, looking at the genetic and DNA studies in Britain, mapping the possible ethnic origins of different areas of the country-- in terms of Angles, and Saxons, and so on-- and asking whether similar work has been done in terms of Viking genetic traces, either in the places they went or back in the places they came from with the slaves that they took. The answer is yes, quite a lot of work.
Before I say anything about that, I think we need to be very cautious about putting ethnic identity onto genetic material. We're a lot more complicated than our genes. That said, there are some very clear patterns that emerge. And there are certainly genetic markers that are very common in, for example, the Norwegian population, or the Swedes, and so on.
The trace is clearest back in Scandinavia and in places that the Vikings colonized that didn't have an existing population. And the main one is Iceland. Iceland is a kind of laboratory for all of these things, because there's nobody there when the Vikings get there. There are a few Irish priests. But we're talking a dozen people, maybe, very, very few.
So the population the Vikings bring to Iceland has come from somewhere else. And there's been a lot of genetic studies there. And it looks as if the male population of the early Icelanders is almost entirely from Scandinavia, mainly from Norway. And the female population is very largely from what's now Scotland and Ireland, which certainly implies-- not necessarily slaving, though probably-- but certainly intermarriage with local people, and the intermarriage of outsider men with local women. It doesn't go both ways.
There's also suggestion there's quite a few Samis in Iceland. I don't think the raids leave a great deal of genetic trace in the places that they hit. But when you start getting more permanent Scandinavian settlements, that does start to introduce a lot of genetic material into the population.
And there is, broadly speaking, a greater degree of Danish and Norwegian genetic signatures in the eastern and northern part of England, which is what you'd expect. It's where we know that they settled.
And in the late ninth century, there's a kind of frontier that's drawn up very formally through England. And that is reflected in the genetic traces.
One thing I should add, as well, is that there's been some surprising things done with the isotopes in teeth. When you're a child, up to your teens, your teeth, as the enamel builds up-- they absorb oxygen isotopes, which are geographically specific to particular places. And these things are preserved inside your teeth for the rest of your life.
So what you can do is study the teeth of adults, from graves, for example. And you can unlock those geographical signatures in the isotopes and find out where they come from. And often, where you find them is very different to where they came from.
And you can see that where we have large samples of Viking populations, they're from all over the place. These were very, very mixed groups of people, from all over Scandinavia, from the high Arctic to the far South. And sometimes, especially when we have traces of organized Viking groups, they include people who we wouldn't think of as Vikings at all-- so people from what's now Germany, the Baltic states, Finland. I think Viking is an activity just as much as it's an identity.
Good question, whether all this variety in the personification of different aspects of nature and life in the gods and the different things is possibly a projection of Greco-Roman mythology coming through the Christian sources that we have on the Viking Age. One of the things that I think mitigates against that is that, unlike most of the Greco-Roman divinities, the Norse gods are not really gods of something.
They're gods of lots of things. So you sometimes see Thor described as a god of war. And he is. But he's a god of a certain aspect of war. He's a god of brute fighting, basically.
Odin is also a god of war. But he's a god of the mind. And one of the things you see in poetic descriptions of fighting in the Viking period is a tremendous focus on being clear in your mind.
People don't have uniforms. It's a tremendously chaotic thing, with noise and all kinds of things. You have to take care about who's in front of you, who's behind you, what you're doing. And Odin is the god of that in war.
And there are other things like this. So the pattern of the Norse gods is quite different to Greco-Roman mythology. Having said that, there's clearly an element of sentient nature-- for want of a better word-- that might be coming from the Greco-Roman world.
And in any case, we know that the Roman Empire had an enormous influence on the peoples and the territories across its borders, especially in the North. Scandinavia was never occupied by the Romans. But we certainly find, in the centuries before the Viking Age, lots of Roman material, particularly to do with things like fashion.
So some people were drinking wine, rather than beer and mead. And they were drinking it out of Roman glass, because that was a good thing to do. And you can see it in weapons, and jewelry, and all kinds of things.
And you can also see jewelry in the Viking Age, very much in Viking art styles, of depictions Odin and things like this. But you can trace the design them back centuries to Roman models. So in some way, there's an idea of imitation.
What's going on down in the South in that great empire is worth thinking about and worth acting on. And that idea carries on into the Viking Age. And I think it probably does so in the mythology as well.
Whether much of it comes through the Christian writers in Iceland, for example, who are writing about this, I don't know, because they're even more remote from that world. Though of course, they are following a Catholic faith, which is ultimately based down in Rome.
Sorry, I'm very conscious my answers for these are long and rambling. I apologize.
But we should also remember that Rome, in a different sense, was very powerful in the Viking Age, as Christian Rome. And I mentioned the voyages that brought the first Europeans, Scandinavians, to North America. One of the women who made those journeys, a woman called Guthrith-- in the course of her life, she-- this really typifies the amazing range of their travels.
She met Native Americans in what's now Newfoundland. And she also met the pope. She made a pilgrimage to Rome.
So this idea of the papal world of Rome was very much in their minds. And there's even ideas that things like the description of Valholl, Valhalla-- this is Odin's hall. I'll talk a bit about that tomorrow or Thursday.
Valholl has many, many doors. I think it's 540 doors. It's like a mega-hall.
And out of these doors, lots of warriors pour forth to fight. And there's been a suggestion that it's the Colosseum.
If you think of the Colosseum, with lots of little openings in it, and what happens in there. Lots of people come out of them and fight. There's an idea that maybe it's a memory that someone has been down in Rome, and seen this, and come back. And it's the biggest building they've ever seen, and et cetera, et cetera. So there may be influences like that coming through as well.
You were talking about definitions-- what is a Viking, as opposed to someone who's not? That's a difficult one to answer. Viking, in the English language, tends to be anybody who lived over there at that time.
But in the Scandinavian languages, even today, Viking is much more specific. It's those people I showed you at the beginning, who go out and do all the raiding and things like that.
There's an idea that being a Viking, in that specific sense, is almost a job. It's a career choice. You can do that. And then you can stop doing that and do something else. And you can go back to it, if you want.
And you also don't necessarily have to come from what's now Scandinavia. So there's people from all over Europe doing this. Though most of them are Scandinavians.
In terms of a cultural connection, at the beginning of the Viking Age, Scandinavia is a series of small, tribal communities. There are no nation-states. There are no Swedes, and Danes, and Norwegians. That process of building that is what happens during the Viking Age, partly as a result of all this raiding and so on, which brings a lot of money that fuels these kinds of attempts to build thrones, and small kingdoms, and so on.
And you have this process of gradual consolidation of social groupings that get bigger and bigger with more and more powerful kings. And in our sense, that's what eventually makes you a Viking.
But there's also-- the geographical boundaries are much more flexible. So Sweden-- what we would think of as Swedish influence in the Viking Age-- certainly extends very far into what's now Finland. Denmark goes into what's now southern Sweden and what's now northern Germany and so on.
There is evidence that, certainly by the end of the Viking period, people are starting to differentiate themselves. So there was an idea of being a Dane, which is different from being that. And being in Icelander is different from being a Norwegian, even though your grandparents were probably Norwegians and so on.
So this is a period when those identities are, first, very fluid and then start to get more and more rigid. So being a Viking is something that evolves during this period. But it is centered on Scandinavia.
OREN FALK: Wonderful. I hear the bells tolling for us. So I think it's time to give Neil a chance to rest.
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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.