How Much Viking Lore Is True?

Archaeologists have confirmed key details in Norse oral histories (but not the dragons, elves, and trolls).

In TV series from Vikings to Game of Thrones, the icy wastes of the north provide the backdrop to dramatic, often violent, stories of kings and warriors, dragons and trolls. The source for many of these dramas is the Icelandic sagas. In her new book, Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explores the world of the sagas, teasing fact from fiction to show that there was much more to the Norse peoples than rape and pillage. 

Speaking from her home in Durham, England, she explains how the United States should really celebrate Leif the Lucky, not Columbus, why the Soviets hated the idea that Russia had been founded by the Vikings, and how the gruesome Viking torture known as the Blood Eagle may have been more poetic conceit than historical practice. 

You write, “The Vikings have always had a reputation as the bad boys of the medieval world.” Is it time to rethink this prejudice?

The idea of the Vikings being the bad boys in the medieval world goes right back to the medieval world. The first big Viking raid took place around A.D. 793 on the island of Lindisfarne, home of the Lindisfarne Gospels. But it’s important to think about how we know of this raid—from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written a hundred years later, in the time of King Alfred, who we know as a Viking basher. At about the same time, a strongly devout Anglo-Saxon cleric at the court of King Charlemagne, named Alcuin, writes a letter to the abbot of Lindisfarne, saying “Never before has a terror appeared on our shores like this. Remember the words of the prophets, from the north, evil breaks forth.” So from the start we have the idea of the Viking raiders somehow being God’s punishment for sins committed.

When we say "Vikings," we think of any inhabitant of the medieval Nordic world. But Viking literally means raider; it’s a job title. The people living in the Nordic world during the Viking age did raid and pillage. But there was much more to them than that. They were far travellers. They colonised the North Atlantic, parts of the Scottish Isles, Iceland. They’re in Arctic Scandinavia and on the Russian waterways. They founded a colony in Greenland that lasted 500 years and got all the way to the edge of North America.

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Columbus is celebrated as the person who “discovered” America. But the Vinland Saga suggests that Americans should really celebrate Erik the Red day.

[Laughs] Well, maybe Leif the Lucky day, who is Erik the Red’s son. Greenland was settled from around [A.D.] 985, initially by Erik the Red. We know this partly because of the Vinland Sagas, two Icelandic sagas called Saga of Erik the Red, and Saga of the Greenlanders. These same sagas are our main written accounts of how Norse Greenlanders, a generation after Erik the Red, set out from Greenland and reached the edge of North America. First Baffin Island, then Labrador—which they called Markland, “forest land”— and finally Newfoundland.

But until the 1960s, the Vinland Sagas were our only source of information for these voyages. People weren’t even sure if they’d actually happened. Then, in the ’60s excavations on the tip of Newfoundland at L’Ans-Aux-Meadows showed clear evidence that there had been Norse visitors. I wouldn’t say settlers. There are long houses but they seem to be more overwintering sites, where they could mend their ships, then carry on farther south. There were women on these voyages, too. In one saga, a woman is said to have had a child out there, making her the first European woman to give birth on the North American continent.

What’s interesting is that, in the past, even before the archaeological evidence, Americans were very keen on this Viking heritage. Toward the end of the 19th century, there were lots of paintings showing big, romantic Norse coming across in their boats. But you also find lots of forgeries and fakes because if you can’t find a past, then you create it. There were fake rune stones dug up in a Minnesota field, fake weapons, and, of course, the famous Vinland Map forgery.

You call the sagas “Medieval Iceland’s unparalleled storytelling legacy to the world.” Are they fact—or fiction?

The sagas were written in 13th-century Iceland and continued to be written and copied in manuscripts. In some ways, the medieval period didn’t end in Iceland until the 20th century. Saga comes from the Norse word sayer, which means “to say.” That gives a clue to the origins of these sagas. They weren’t just conjured up out of some scribe’s head in the 13th century and then written down. They had a long oral history going back centuries. These are stories told and retold, passed down through the generations. But that doesn’t make them pure fact. Stories change, they adapt, they’re embellished, facts drop out of them, pieces of information are added. So by the time they are written down, it’s very hard to separate the facts from the fiction.

A statue of Leif Erikson stands before the Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Viking is believed to have reached the Americas five centuries before Columbus.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JON BOWER ICELAND, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Trolls and dwarves have become familiar to us from Lord of The Rings. Dragons form an important story thread in Game of Thrones. The sagas are full of them, aren’t they?

They do crop up in the sagas but the sagas can also be pretty realistic. Not all sagas are filled with dragons and elves. But the interesting thing is that they were clearly seen as part of the Norse worldview. When they do appear, they’re not seen as necessarily fantastical. You can be having a normal saga episode, where someone’s having a dream or wandering through a mountain, and suddenly a creature will appear. The idea of trolls lurking just outside, at the edge of your peripheral vision, is a common one.

The far north has always had supernatural, even diabolical associations, stretching all the way back to the Bible. We see it in the Anglo-Saxon worldview, all the way up to 19th century and Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen. The farther north you go, the more inhospitable the landscape becomes. There are mountains and deep crevasses, strange rock formations. So it becomes easier to imagine in these inhuman parts of the world, that the only things that could live in them would themselves be inhuman, like trolls.

One of the surprises in your book is that the Vikings also voyaged east— and overland—to what is now Russia. Tell us about these journeys—and why the Soviets downplayed the Viking connection.

The initial impetus to go into Russia from the Norse world came from the people facing east: in particular, the Swedes. They crossed the Baltic then headed down the Russian waterways. If you want to know where the Norse go, follow the money. [Laughs] There are enormous amounts of Islamic silver flowing up and down the waterways during the Middle Ages, and the Norse are following those. They also are bringing things of their own to trade, like furs and skins, which fetched a very high price. And they’re bringing slaves, which is another reason we have all these raids and violence.

The word “Russia” seems to be derived from the term Rus, which, in origin at least, seems to have come from Sweden or some part of the Nordic world. These Norse tribes founded Kiev and created the polity that becomes known as Kievan Rus, the foundation of modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. But during the Soviet era, it wasn’t a good thing to go around saying that your founding nation was built by Europeans. You wanted it to be built by Slavs, your own people, in opposition to Europe. But if you look at the first archaeological layers of trading towns, such as Staraya Ladoga in the far north, there are clearly Norse elements.

Vikings travelled widely, from Russia to North America, but they probably didn't make it to Petersburg, Alaska, where this replica Viking ship celebrates the town's Norwegian heritage. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY MACDUFF EVERTON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

One of the most gruesome scenes in the TV series Vikings is when the lead character, Ragnar Lothbrok, an actual historical figure, subjects one of his enemies to a torture known as the Blood Eagle. What is it? And did it really exist? Sensitive readers should look away.

[Laughs] The Blood Eagle was a particularly gruesome form of torture and killing, where you sliced down the spine of your victim, take the rib cage and pull it back, then pull out their lungs, which look like a pair of eagle’s wings. Academics argue as to whether this actually ever took place because the original source of evidence is a couple of skaldic verses. A skald is a Norse poet, so skaldic verses are written by Norse poets, usually a court poet.

One of the features of a skaldic poem is that it’s incredibly convoluted, like a cryptic crossword puzzle. If you have a reference to what appears to be the Blood Eagle in a skaldic verse, it’s quite likely this is a poetic conceit. Roberta Frank, at Yale, argues that the Blood Eagle is just the idea of a carrion bird scratching at the back of the dead. If you create lots of corpses, you are a very good warrior. That’s what is being referred to. But when later writers made prose stories around these skaldic verses, they seem to have interpreted it literally. So it’s quite likely that there was no such thing as this horrible form of torture, but it grew in the telling.

I presume you are not a fan of the Vikings TV Series?

[Laughs] I absolutely love it! Brilliant! They do so much research! For instance, when they set sail in episode one of the first season, trying to find the British Isles, they say, “How are we going to navigate, it’s so cloudy?” They then hold up this thing they call the sunstone. The idea is that you are able to see where the light’s coming from and that enables you to navigate. There’s a lot of debate whether something like this stone actually existed. There are written accounts of it. But they haven’t found any examples from other Viking contexts. But the idea that they wouldn’t know that the British Isles existed is absolute bollocks! [Laughs] They’d been trading for years.

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You are an academic—but you definitely left your ivory tower to research this book. Talk about some of the highlights of your travels, and how working on this book changed your view of the Vikings.

I’m not much of a fan of the ivory tower. I find libraries boring [Laughs] So going to Greenland was part of the reason I wanted to write the book. I was there over two summers. The first summer I did it on the back of an Icelandic pony with a guide, who was this amazing, pioneer-type woman. We trekked from Norse ruin to Norse ruin, staying at Greenlandic farms, which were often in the same place as the Norse ruins. Later, I got on a three-day ferry and chugged up the coast past the Arctic Circle to a place called Ilulissat, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it’s full of icebergs. It may even be the fjord where the iceberg that sank the Titanic calved.

In Greenland, I was seeing the archaeological evidence for the view of the world I’d got from the sagas: the farms described in some of the sagas, the fjord where Erik the Red lived. I stayed right next door to his farm! More than anything, it gave me a sense of how extraordinary these people were; how far they went; how dangerous it was; how intrepid and brave they were to go out to the edge.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Header image: The Vikings had "a long oral history going back centuries," says Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough. "It's very hard to separate the facts from the fiction." Here, a replica of a Viking boat floats on a Norwegian lake. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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