Thursday, November 14, 2013

Vikings - The Other Side of the Story

Whenever the topic of Vikings is discussed, images of violence and aggression come up in the conversation; this is because the Vikings are known for killing and plundering all over Europe and beyond. The word Viking actually means to go on an expedition to plunder, and no one knew this better than the people of Europe during Medieval times. Anyone who saw a Viking ship approach tried to protect themselves but were usually underprepared for the barbaric fury which met them when the Vikings got out of their vessels and on to the shore.

The Vikings soon discovered it was more profitable to attack European towns on Sunday morning when most of the village was attending Church. That way everyone was in one place, no one had weapons, and all of the gold, tools and usually food and drinks were kept there. The Vikings simply had to walk in, take the gold, burn nearly every book or record they could find, take a few slaves, kill everyone else and burn the place down.

With all of their fierceness, it is significant to note that the Vikings were also called by another name, Norsemen. When they were Vikings they were plundering and killing, but when they were Norsemen, they were planting crops, herding animals to pasture, raising families, and preparing for the winter months. They lived like most of the people of the world during this time.

While doing some research on the Vikings, I found that around 900 BCE, the Vikings ruled Northern Scotland, The Hebrides, Faroe Islands, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and Isle of Man; they continued to live at these remote locations for about 500 years. This caught my attention because I had previously written a blog about Skara Brae, which was discovered on the Orkney Islands. As I looked for these islands on maps I was impressed with the isolated locations the Vikings settled in. These small islands are in the middle of the Norwegian Sea - all by themselves. No one else dared sail so far north during this time. I looked further for pictures of these locations I found them to be some of the most dramatic and incredible places in the world.

These islands contain huge rock formations with vertical cliffs that drop to meet the white waves of the sea far below. The tops of the islands are covered in verdant green as a result of the cool, moist breezes from the surrounding waters. There are also many rivers along the top edges of these beautiful islands with waterfalls that plummet hundreds of feet down to join the sea.

Staring at these photos, I am transported back to 900 BCE and I can see the Norsemen and their families, living on these isolated islands. During the warm days, they work together to plant seeds to provide fresh food to eat with their meals. They always plant more than is needed so they can hang extra onions, garlic and various herbs from the rafters of their homes betwixt the dried fish; each are a necessity during the cold, winter months, so far north of the equator. They keep baskets of turnips and parsnips in the corners of their home to prevent them from rotting in the wet air too quickly. This way they have a variety of food to eat during the winter months. During the summer the Norsemen put their dried fava beans, peas, apples and berries into earthen jars and tuck them away to be eaten on days when it is too icy for plants to grow.

I also see children of all ages chasing and playing with the animals around their homes. The baby goats and lambs entertain the small children for most of the day as they dance and fight along the lengthy, lush plateaus. Older children work to milk the cows and goats to provide a drink with their meal and to make butter.

I envision the Norsemen eating their two daily meals, one after working for a few hours each morning and the last after the work is complete in the evening. Bread is not a staple for them as it is over much of Europe. This is because they live so far north, which makes it difficult to grow any grains.

The lives of the Vikings were centered around oceans, seas and ships. When the rest of the world was afraid to sail into unknown waters, the Vikings set out with their fabled sunstones and found their way around unmarked waters. Living on these majestic islands near the top of the world, everywhere the Norsemen looked, they saw miles and miles of endless water. Some days the entire family stood on the high bluffs of their island and watched violent storms with dark clouds and high winds come from over the waters and fall on their homes. Other times, the women and children watched anxiously for any sign of a returning ship filled with men from their town; a ship that would be filled with gold, tools, new foods and different people from foreign lands. As the Norsemen looked out over the waters each day, they would have lingered some nights, until the sky became deep black and filled with countless stars. They needed to be familiar with the night sky early on, so when they went “a Viking” they would know how to navigate their ships in unmapped waters.

When a Viking’s life was over, they did not leave their love of sailing and ships behind them. Those that were buried were left in an enclosure made of large rocks, carefully placed in the shape of a ship. That way the noble Viking could sail out of this world and on to Valhalla – their ultimate waterway destination. Sailing as Viking warriors and noble Norsemen.