Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Vikings - A New History, by Neil Oliver

This is wide-ranging portrayal of Scandinavian history, beginning in the Bronze Age and ending with the conversion to Christianity in around 1000 A.D. I hadn't realized that Swedish Vikings went east to Russia and Constantinople, or that Russia is named for the "Rus" Vikings who ended up ruling the native Slavic population. Did you know that William the Conqueror conquered the last Anglo-Saxon king, King Harald, just two days after Harald had finally defeated a huge Viking army that had occupied England for decades? The Viking leader Hardrada asked King Harald how much of England he would give him in return for peace. Harald replied, "I will grant you seven feet of English ground, or as much more as you are taller than other men."

I also didn't realize how dark their pagan religion was, particularly its funeral rites. I won't go into it in detail, but for a suitably powerful man, a funeral could involve the brutalization and death of his servants. This is attributed to Odin, king of the Viking gods, in one of the ancient sagas:
I know that I hung 
On the tree lashed by winds 
Nine full nights, 
And gave myself to Odin, 
Myself to myself; 
On that tree 
The depth of whose roots 
No one knows. 
No bread sustained me 
Nor goblet. 
I looked down, I gathered the runes, 
Screaming I gathered them; 
And from there I fell 


I enjoyed the part about Icelandic culture, especially the first hand descriptions of eating rancid food.

My main irritation was the way he paints both the Russian and Viking conversions to Christianity in cynical political terms, much as other writers do with Constantine. It's time to retire the tired canard of the king who forces Christianity onto his unwilling subjects. It's more likely that Christianity had already made significant inroads into Viking culture through trading contacts and missionary visits.


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