Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ragnar Lothbrok's Viking Style

Tomorrow the sexy Viking Ragnar Lothbrok returns to the TV screen in Season Two of the History Channel's series, "The Vikings." I hope he still has his fancy hairstyle.

At first it didn't say "Viking" to me. I wanted shaggy, "Thor"-style hair and a forked and braided beard. But as I've been rereading the historical texts from the Viking Age, as research for my next book The Ivory Vikings, I keep stumbling upon the sources the History Channel's writers must have used.

Ragnar Lothbrok's hairstyle seems to me to have been modeled on that of Sviatoslav, the prince of Kiev, whom the Byzantine historian Leo Diakonus met in about 950 on the banks of the Danube. As quoted by Robert Ferguson in The Vikings: A History (Viking Penguin, 2009):

"He manned the oars just as his followers did…. He was of medium height, neither too big nor too small. He had thick eyebrows, blue eyes, and a short nose. He was not bearded, but wore a long, drooping mustache."(Ragnar Lothbrok needs one of these.) "His head was shaven apart from a single lock of hair on one side of his head, this being a sign of his aristocratic status. His neck was thick, his shoulders broad, and all in all he looked quite magnificent. There was something wild and bleak about him."

That's the History Channel's Ragnar Lothbrok to a "T"--except for the mustache and the fact that Ragnar's single lock is down the back, not off to one side, and is braided, but those are minor points. He certainly is "wild and bleak" and "magnificent."

Leo Diakonis also says Sviatoslav wore a large earring in one ear: It was a gold hoop with three gems set into it, the middle one a red ruby. Perhaps Ragnar will acquire one on his next raid.

Other than this Byzantine description of a Viking on the "East Way" from Russia to Byzantium, we have few descriptions of Viking men's hairstyles. The 13th-century English chronicler John of Wallingford complained that Vikings were always combing their hair to look pretty to the women, and considering the number of combs archaeologists find in Viking settlements and graves, he was probably right. (Another reason to comb hair was to pick out the lice.)

A silk hairnet was found in Viking Dublin, but that probably belonged to a woman. Depictions on Viking artifacts show that both men and women favored long hair, according to the 1994 Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. Some men "wore theirs tightly rolled into a bun at the nape of the neck, others had their hair shaved, while the women sometimes arranged their long flowing locks in rather complicated styles knotted on the crown of the head."

There's a famous saga episode that centers around a man's "long flowing locks." As told by Snorri Sturluson in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (in Lee Hollander's translation), the famous Viking band that haunted the Baltic, the Jomsvikings, were defeated and captured. Thirty of them were forced to sit on a log, their feet tied to each other but their hands free. They are to be beheaded. Each Viking wants to die memorably.

"Then one of them said, 'Here I have a dagger in my hand, and I shall stick it in the ground if I am conscious when my head is chopped off.' He was beheaded, and the dagger dropped from his hand."

So much for experimental science in the Viking Age.

Snorri continues: "Next to him sat a handsome man with long and fine hair. He swept his hair forward over his head and stretched out his neck, saying, 'Don't sully my hair with blood.' A man took hold of his hair with a firm grip. Thorkel swung his axe, but the viking swiftly jerked his head back, so the man holding his hair was forced forward, and the axe fell on both hands, shearing them off so that the axe struck the ground.

"Then Earl Eirik came up and asked, 'Who is this handsome man?'
"'They call me Sigurth,' he said, 'and I am said to be the son of Bui. Not yet are all Jomsvikings dead.'

"Eirik said, 'You are truly likely to be the son of Bui. Would you have quarter?'

"'That depends on who offers it,' said Sigurth.

"'He offers,' said the earl, 'who has the authority to do so--Earl Eirik.'

"'Then I accept,' said he. Thereupon he was released from the rope."

Ah, for Viking braggadoccio.

Then there's the eye-makeup and the tattoos. All the Vikings in the History Channel's series seem to have tattoos, while some, like Floki and the seer are remarkable for their gobs of black eye-shadow. Both of these were singled out for attention by Arab travelers.

The Arabic sources on the Vikings are collected and translated in a handy volume by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness (Penguin, 2012). The 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who described the Viking funeral I wrote about two weeks ago [2-12], is our only source for the idea that Vikings liked tattoos. He met a party of Viking (or "Rus") traders by the Volga River and wrote, "From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth."

The eye-makeup comes from a different source. In 965, Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub traveled through northern Europe. He came to Schleswig--the Danish Hedeby--which he described as "a very large city on the coast of the ocean." It was "poor in grain and the climate was bad. The inhabitants mostly eat fish." Then he mentions the make-up: "Both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes." That pretty much leaves it up to interpretation how much make-up they used and where they applied it.

Floki's big black eyes might or might not be accurate, but it's certainly effective. He might not be "wild and bleak" and "magnificent," but in many ways he's my favorite character. I've always loved a trickster.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Earl

To get ready for Season Two of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD, as I mentioned in last week's post [here]. And I've been reminded of some of the things that bothered me.

I'm glad that Earl Haraldsson died--much as I like the actor Gabriel Byrne--because that name drove me nuts. Haraldsson? If you know anything about Old Norse, the Viking language, you know that "Haraldsson" literally means "Harald's son," and no self-respecting Viking chieftain is going to live his life in his father's shadow. For a while, I thought his first name was "Earl." Odd, but not impossible. (I know a horse named "Earl.") But no, "Earl" is a title, as we learned when Ragnar Lothbrok became earl.

Some people in the Icelandic sagas are referred to by their patronymics (or matronymics). There are the Hildaridarsons, for example, in Egil's Saga, named for their mother Hildirid. 

In the far north of Norway, we read in Chapter 7 of the Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, "there was a man called Bjorgolf, farming on Torg Island. He was a land-holder, rich and powerful, though he was a hill-giant on one side of his family, as you could tell from his size and strength. He had a son called Brynjolf, very much like his father."

One autumn, when Bjorgolf was getting on in years, he was invited to a feast. "As was the custom, lots were cast every evening to decide which pairs were to sit at the same drinking horn." A beautiful young girl named Hildirid was paired with the old half-troll. "They had plenty to talk about all evening and he thought her a fine-looking girl."

A few weeks later, Bjorgolf sets off in his Viking ship with a crew of 30. He walks up to Hildirid's house and announces to her father that "I'm taking your daughter back home with me and mean to tie a loose marriage-knot here and now." He pays the father an ounce of gold (a good bride-price: an ounce of gold is worth eight ounces of silver, and you could buy a slave girl for one ounce of silver) "and off they went to bed."

Hildirid soon has two sons--and then old Bjorgolf dies. "No sooner had he been carried to the grave, than Brynjolf"--Bjorgolf's older son--"told Hildirid to take her sons and clear out, so she wet back to her father on Leka Island, where her sons grew up." The boys got none of their father's inheritance (though their mother's father left them pretty well-off), and turned into spiteful, sly, manipulative sneakers generally referred to as that "pair of bastards" or "the Hildaridarsons." They didn't deserve names.

Soon the Hildaridarsons had wheedled their way into King Harald's confidence. They began slandering the great warrior Thorolf, son of Kveld-Ulf ("Evening-Wolf"--not only do we have hill-trolls in this saga, we have werewolves). The king had asked Thorolf to collect the tribute of furs that the Finns owed each year. It was a lucrative position, even if the tax-collector didn't skim off the best for himself, as the Hildaridarsons claimed Thorolf did.

"The King would never believe such a pack of lies," said Thorolf, when his friends told him of the slander. "There's not a scrap of evidence here that I'd betray him."

Yet King Harald did believe it. In Chapter 22, he sails north with 300 men in six ships. They catch Thorolf unaware in the middle of a feast, surround his great hall and set fire to it. The women and children, old people, slaves, and servants are allowed out. Thorolf and his warriors break down a wall and burst from the burning hall.

"Fighting broke out at once and for a time Thorolf and his men used the house to shield their backs, but as it blazed up the fire started threatening them and soon many had been killed. Thorolf ran forward towards the King's banner striking out to left and right.… Thorolf came right up to the thick wall of shields and ran the standard-bearer through with his sword.
"'I'm just three paces short,' Thorolf said.
"He had been pierced with spears and swords, but it was the King who gave him his death-wound and Thorolf dropped down at his feet."

When Kveld-Ulf heard the news he had only one question: Did his son die on his face or on his back? "Old men used to say that anyone who fell face down would be avenged, and that the retribution would come as close to the killer as the victim's fall was close to him."

And so the saga begins.

Back to the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings." Are we, as viewers, supposed to know all this? Are we supposed to know that someone referred to only by his mother's or father's name is a coward and a conniver? Does Earl Haraldsson--or his wife--ever refer to him by his real name? Or are we supposed to accept the idea that he thinks of himself as too poor an example of manhood to deserve a name? What were the writers thinking?

The Icelandic poem called Hávamál, or "Words of the High One," presents the closest thing we have to a Viking code. The most famous verse runs like this:

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
Every man must die.
But one thing only never dies:
A name with honor earned.

From what I saw of Gabriel Byrne's Earl Haraldsson, in Season One of the History Channel's TV series, "The Vikings," I think he earned a name. Shall we give him one?

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you want to learn what happened next in Egil's Saga, join me on the Song of the Vikings tour from, where we'll ride through the landscape of Part Two of the saga.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Funeral

Looking forward to Season Two of the History Channel's series, "Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD. One of the things I've enjoyed about this series is seeing how they've brought to life some of the most famous historical documents about the Vikings.

The funeral of Earl Haraldsson in Episode 6, "Burial of the Dead," with the Angel of Death strangling a slave girl to accompany her master on the burning ship to Valhalla, is a good example. It is closely based on the report of a 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.

On June 21, 921, Ibn Fadlan left Baghdad with a large caravan of camels. He was part of a delegation from the Caliph Al-Muqtadir to the Volga Bulghars, who lived thousands of miles north at the meeting of the Volga and Kama rivers in what is now Russia. The Bulghar king had asked the caliph to send him people to "acquaint him with the religious codes of Islam" and to construct a mosque. Ibn Fadlan went along in some official role--exactly what, we don't know.

The embassy was a failure--"the 'correction' of the Bulghar practice of Islam did not go over smoothly," writes Thorir Jonsson Hraundal, who wrote his 2013 Ph.D dissertation for the University of Bergen on "The Rus in Arabic Sources." (You can find it online here:

But that didn't stop Ibn Fadlan from writing wonderful traveler's tales, which you can read in the book Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness in translations by Paul Lund and Caroline Stone: "We saw a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us," Ibn Fadlan writes. His beard, after a bath, became a block of ice. His cheek at night froze to his pillow. "In this country, when a man wishes to make a nice gesture to a friend and show his generosity, he says: 'Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there.'"

For the history of the Vikings, the most important of Ibn Fadlan's tales are the ones about the "Rus," a people scholars have connected with Vikings from Scandinavia who traded and raided from what is now Russia (named for the "Rus") south to Baghdad.

In the 10th century, the Volga Bulghars, whom Ibn Fadlan visited, were one of four powers that controlled the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian. South of the Caucasus Mountains was the Islamic Empire. To the west was the Christian Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople. North of the mountains were the Khazars, whose king was Jewish, but whose people were of all faiths: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans of several varieties lived side-by-side, though some had to pay higher taxes than others. The Volga Bulghars were farther north--technically Muslim, but apparently not firm in the faith--and again, their culture accommodated many religions.

Ibn Fadlan's tale is the longest of 30 Arabic sources that mention the Rus--some just a sentence, others several pages long. The other main source on the Rus is the Russian Primary Chronicle, which describes the trade route from Russia to Constantinople and the founding of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Arab writers, says Hraundal, "provide us with a significantly different version of Rus, reporting them not only in a different geography to that of the Primary Chronicle, but also as having different social structures and roles in relationship with their neighbors. Importantly, too, these Rus seem to have no ambition either to found a state or to become Christian, two subjects that have especially occupied scholars of early Rus history."

The Rus the Arabs met were traders and raiders and mercenaries--and by the 10th century, they were well on their way to being integrated into the local cultures, which were Turkish and Altaic. Analyzing Ibn Fadlan's funeral scene, for example, Hraundal finds several similarities to the pagan rituals of the western Eurasian steppes, including the strangling of the slave girl. He concludes, "At the very least it seems that comparing various Turkic or Altaic elements cannot reasonably be deemed more implausible than doing so with the Scandinavian elements. On the whole, it is perhaps more prudent to assume that the ritual is attributable to the traditions and customs of not one culture, but two or several."

Judith Jesch in her classic book, Women in the Viking Age, Hraundal notes, "warns of generalising from Ibn Fadlan's account about practices elsewhere in the Viking world. Everywhere the Scandinavians went, she maintains, 'they developed new ways of living which owed something both to the culture of the immigrant Vikings and to that of the country in which they found themselves, so that no two areas colonised by Scandinavians were alike.'" The people Ibn Fadlan meant "are likely to have been a select band of merchant-warriors," Jesch adds, "who, like other touring professionals, may not have behaved the same way when abroad as they did at home."

Which brings us back to the History Channel's "Vikings." The funeral in "The Burial of the Dead" is closely based on a historical document, but it's not exactly a "Viking" funeral from around 800, the era in which the TV series is set. It's a "Rus" funeral from 921--and no one knows how a chieftain's funeral in Scandinavia a hundred and some years earlier might have been different.

Snorri Sturluson, writing in about 1220, does say that the god Baldur was burned in his ship. Snorri also tells us that Baldur's wife, Nanna, was burned along with her husband--though she wasn't strangled. Instead, her death was an accident: She died of grief when she saw his dead body. What does this tell us about Viking funerals? Alas, nothing. Snorri was writing 400 years later than the era in which the History Channel series is set, and his Edda cannot in any way be considered "history." (I discuss Snorri's myth of Baldur's Death in my book, Song of the Vikings, as well as on this blog, in the series "Seven Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri.")

Archaeological research tells us a little more. We've found Viking graves with the remains of burned ships--a famous one is at Île de Groix in France. But we've also found Viking graves from around 800 in which chieftains were buried inside their ships, not burned with them--most famously, the Gokstad burial.

Recent studies of rich Viking graves containing two bodies have confirmed that one of the dead ate less well than the other, meaning that one body could have been a chieftain and the other a slave. But these slaves who accompanied their masters in death were not strangled: They were beheaded. [For more on this research, see]

To create a dramatic TV series about the Vikings, the writers for the History Channel have to walk a fine line between making use of the historical sources we have and filling in the gaps with their own imaginations. In this case, I think they've done an excellent job bringing Ibn Fadlan's account to life. But viewers need to keep in mind that Ibn Fadlan's account was just one report from one place (Russia) in one time (921) and not really applicable to the lives of people a hundred years earlier and many thousands of miles away. Not to mention that Ibn Fadlan, like all travelers, was prone to exaggerating. Did his cheek really freeze to the pillow?

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer (and acquire a few travelers' tales of your own), check out the tours at

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Still Carried Away

Today marks two years of weekly "God of Wednesday" posts, and to celebrate I'm going to revisit my very first entry--not coincidentally the beginning of my very first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse:


I could hear the horses before I saw them, their hoofbeats the high slap of cupped hands clapping, beating the punctuated four-beat rhythm of the tolt, the breed's distinctive running-walk gait. From our summerhouse, I watched them through binoculars. Pinpricks on the silvery wet sand, they shimmered like a vision out of the Icelandic Sagas, the medieval literature that had brought me to Iceland in the first place. Briefly the horses took shape as they cut across the tide flats: necks arced high, manes rippling, long tails floating behind. Their short legs curved and struck, curved and struck. I would watch them until they disappeared beyond the black headland and wonder who their riders were, where they went on their rapid journey. I wanted to go with them. 

Icelandic folktales warn of the gray horse that comes out of the water, submits briefly to bridle and saddle, and at dusk carries its rider into the sea. For me, it was the watcher who was carried away.

I'm happy to say I'm still carried away: by Iceland, its folklore, its sagas, its people, its language, and its horses. A Good Horse Has No Color is back in print, in paperback, and has been joined on my shelf by two more books about Iceland, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman and Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. A young adult novel based on The Far Traveler will be coming out this year, and my new nonfiction book, The Ivory Vikings, scheduled for spring of 2015, has a strong Icelandic focus.

Birkir and Gaeska, the two Icelandic horses at the center of A Good Horse Has No Color are still frolicking in my pastures, now ages 23 and 24, and have two younger stablemates, Mukka and Naskur, both from the American farm Alfasaga. In addition to riding them most days (when there's no snow on the ground), I'm now collaborating with the horse-trekking firm America2Iceland to organize historical riding tours to Iceland. There's still room on our Song of the Vikings tour this June 5-11: See if you're interested. I'd love to show you the Iceland that inspires me. One of their trips even takes you along that same silvery wet sand, across the tide flats, past the black headland into … another world.

For me, being carried away by Iceland has been a wild and wonderful trip. I hope you'll continue to come along for the ride.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.