Researchers discovered hnefatafl game pieces made of whale bone in upper- and middle-class Vendel graves. (Rudolf Gustavsson in Smithsonian)
The ancient Norse loved the game of hnefatafl, in which a king’s faithful followers try to protect him against raiding forces, which pretty well describes so much of early medieval politics.
An article in Smithsonian, however, suggests that these game pieces “were the product of early industrial whaling. If so, the pieces would be evidence of the earliest-known cases of whaling in what is today Scandinavia, and a sign of the growing trade routes and coastal resource use that paved the way for future Viking expansion.”
This is interesting: Sikh men in the US military had gotten permission to wear beards as part of their religion. (Normally, beards are not allowed except, for instance, for special operations personnel in the Afghan back country who want to blend in, or something like that.)
Some years ago — the late 1990s? — I had a Swedish freshman student in one of my classes. Looking over his shoulder as he was typing at his computer station, I noticed that he had a silver Mjöllnir (Thor’s hammer) pendant on a thin chain around his neck.
Naturally, I wondered if he was following Norse religion or just proud of his heritage. I complimented him on the pendant, and he told me that he was interested in the Viking Age.
“But if I wear this at home,” he said, “they call me a Nazi.”
I told him that I did not think he had to worry about that in Pueblo, Colorado.
Now here comes the New York Times plodding down the Nazi/Heathen trail — in Sweden.
Amid a boom in Viking-related TV shows and films — and a corresponding surge in Viking-inspired tourism and advertising campaigns — there is increasing political tension and social unease over the use of various runes, gods and rituals from the Viking era.
Here is another way of approaching such reportage from a leading establishment media voice. Maybe it’s not about “Nazis” at all, except that is the insult of the moment, a way to dismay something disturbing to the materialist world view. These elites are good at dismissing Christianity — it is all “fundamentalist crazies,” “deplorables,” and people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”
Religion is dangerous. The people in power have always realized this. Either they must tame it — make it all about how King Zork enjoys the Will of Heaven —or keep a heavy, cast iron lid on it.
The trouble with religious people is that they are not always loyal enough — to the king, to the government, to the Party, to the corporation.
Nowadays Paganism(s) is growing. You can’t call the Pagans “deplorables” or “bitter clingers” or “fundamentalist crazies.” Those insults just don’t fit.
But you can call (some of) them “Nazis” or “racists” as a way of marginalizing them, a way of making it clear that nobien pensant, “woke” or “progressive” person would want to have anything to do with that experience that they are offering.
• “I realized that if I designed my metal band, it would definitely be a pagan feminist folkcore band, which is a Swedish/Norwegian style of metal music. It’s really ambient and loud even though it’s not using as much electricity-style [sic] instruments. I realized that I didn’t know anything about paganism. I was grabbing onto it because it seemed logical for this brand of metal. Slowly, over the years, I started researching goddesses and figuring out that in paganism there is a lot of mathematics and numerology. That instantly peaked [sic] my curiosity because I like working with numbers.”
Being avante-garde these days is such a lot of work. And you have to learn about runes and electricity and stuff. (Does anyone still say “avante-garde”?)
• “Your eyes appear to have a magical power all of their own”? “You operate at a lower body temperature than the people around you.” You might be descended from Fairies. Yeah, sure, tell it to Krampus.
3. Last weekend M.’s and my old home of Manitou Springsheld its annual coffin races. They started right after we moved away, but we met in Manitou, bought our first slightly-more-than-tiny house there, and have lots of memories.
The [Manitou Springs Heritage Center] will be the starting point of “ghost tours” featuring “spirit guides” who will show people around town for 45 minutes, stopping at sites where actors will play out tales of the colorful past.
“Manitou was full of witchcraft,” [Jenna[ Gallas says. “Not that it is anymore, but I think people still like to believe ooky-spooky happens here, and if we’re gonna celebrate Halloween, we’re gonna do it in Manitou, where the freaks come out every day.”
What is this “was,” Ms. Gallas? Yes, we did our part in the 1980s. Rituals upstairs in the Spa Building? You bet. Rituals outdoors downtown around the mineral springs? Those too. I have to think that someone else has carried on!
Images of witches being veiled in darkness, casting spells over cauldrons endure, but a new generation of Wiccans and witches have established growing communities in D.C. and across the country.
Yada, yada. But this good:
“[Hallowe’en is] a celebration of the witch. You can have sexy witches, you can have scary witches, but it’s still a celebration of the witch. Even if the witch isn’t shown in a positive light,” said Stephens, a 37-year-old Wiccan who also practices witchcraft.
Who knew the old Norse were into runic candle magic? Not me.
All right, you should not judge a museum exhibit by what is in the gift shop. It’s just that the designers of the Vikings: Beyond the Legend traveling exhibit, chiefly from the Swedish History Museum, if I understand correctly, took great pains to lay waste to “the one-dimensional stereotype of bearded barbarians with horned helmets.” And then you see for sale something that I am pretty sure is non-historical.1)What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.
In fact, the exhibit explains multiple times that Norse fighters did not wear horned helmets but that those originated with a 19th-century opera costumer’s designs for Wagner’s Ring cycle.2)If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.
The show is in Denver now, but apparently, like Cirque du Soleil, it has multiple versions on the road, one being now in Salt Lake City. 3)If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!
A Norse reenactor prepares to demonstrate how to spin woolen thread with a weighted spindle. I bet the original home lighting was never so good.
And since I am unlikely to visit Scandinavia soon, I will accept well-crafted replica ships rather than the real thing.
Exploration and settlement is rather down-played in favor of life in the homelands, since the focus is not so much on “going viking” but on trying to get by as Iron Age farmers and fisherfolk, raising little cows and sheep (by our standards) and chickens the size of “Cornish game hens.”
And there is definitely a Norse Paganism 101 component with interactive exhibits about the Aesir and Vanir.
What does the Lore say about about magic candles? Too bad. Syncretism for the win.
If you stop to think about it, horns make poor tactical sense. If an opponent’s downward blow struck the projecting horn, it might knock off your helmet, if you had no chin strap. If you had a chin strap, then it would give you a neck-crunching twist — bad news either way. Better to have the blow slide off.
If it were truly like Cirque du Soleil, one exhibit would have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Instead of runic hoodoo candles, Valkyrie showgirls!
The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.
Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:
In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.
The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.
Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.