Norwegian #Food: How #Vikings invented Norwegian delicacies

Over on Thomo’s Hole he has a handy guide to how Norwegian cuisine was invented. I heartily recommend reading it before you head over to Scandinavia. I fear that much Scandinavian food was invented in the same way. Just follow this link to find out the horrific truth: Norwegian Cuisine

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#Vikings: The #Berserkers (2014) – A Review of Sorts #Movies

A random corvid does not Odin’s presence betoken. In the earliest scene where a young man has his heart cut out and held up to the camera, the scene cuts to a close-up of a jackdaw. I guess the producers could not afford a raven, or thought that we would not notice the difference. Sadly this omen is not a good one for the movie.

The date is 835AD and a fearsome, extremist Viking faction called ‘The Berserkers’ has arrived in Saxon England intent upon carnage, pillage, and probably sackage, sockage and tillage too. They capture some Saxons and start a ritual man-hunt to honour Odin, or something like that anyway. It’s a chase film with the Saxons being pursued through the woods by the vicious Vikings. There’s a lot of fighting, not a lot of dialogue and some gratuitous drug-taking by the Vikings to induce frenzy, just like Samuel Ødman suggested berserkers did, based on Siberian shamanic practice. Sadly, there is no historical evidence for this practice, but, hey, this film should not be judged on its historical accuracy. I could go on and on about that, and it would get tedious really quickly.

Vikings: The Berserkers is advertised as the ‘Viking Hunger Games’ and really needs to be considered as a fantasy film with a thin veneer of Vikingness. It revolves around the Berserkers and their five victims, two women and three men. After a large group of Saxons have been captured, five are chosen for the ritual hunt. Their hearts will be cut out and presented to the völva whose penchant for extreme make-up knows no bounds. Her appearance made me think more of Mad Max than Viking Age Scandinavia. The Berserkers also adopt whiteface make-up for the hunt. They froth at the mouth, wear animal skins and are bestial in nature. To be honest, they remind me more of Celtic Frost than real Vikings but we’ll let that slide for now.

The Saxon characters are more diverse than the Vikings. There is the cowardly male, the needy female, the heroic but slightly shrill monk, the young male with a lot of growing to do during the film, and the pretty and feisty female, plus a cage full of children. Guess which ones die and which survive.

I guess that sets the scene enough. So, how was the film? Well, I found it virtually impossible to engage with any of the characters. I cheered neither for the Saxons nor for the Vikings. Something was really lacking. Perhaps I have just watched too many films like this to care about the characters any more. The actors seemed competent enough. The script was ok with a few holes where characters suddenly knew things, such as that the Vikings could not follow their scent if they covered their faces in blood. The cinematography, and the landscape in which the film was shot were probably the best bits about the film, although there were a couple of odd moments with some weird ‘bloom’ in the lighting. I wonder if those were artefacts of my DVD. I did rather like the moment where the children in the cage ate the mushrooms and turned into berserkers themselves. I wonder if they needed counselling for biting Vikings’ throats out afterwards. That moment made me laugh a little because it seemed a tad OTT and silly. Overall, I was not particularly taken with this film. It was ok, but unengaging. Not bad in the way that some of the other films I have written about on here were bad, but not exciting enough to make me want to watch it again. I can see where it would appeal to some, and it might easily be the focus of a student Viking film night with snacks, beer, and friends to marvel at it together, but it’s not one for the lone viewer or a couple’s night in.

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My 16th International Saga Conference Experience #Vikings #OldNorse

I spent 9th to 15th August in Zurich at the 16th International Saga Conference. Contrary to what most of my friends have to say on the topic, this is not a conference about holidays for retired people. Instead it is an entire week spent geeking out about Vikings, Old Norse literature and related topics. The week was brilliant, despite the heat. The team of organisers and volunteer staff pulled all the stops out to make sure everything ran like clockwork and did a great job. They all deserve hearty congratulations for their work

I was particularly pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response I received for my paper on generic naming practices in the sagas. Although my main conclusion was negative, it appears to have been appreciated by the audience who provided some useful feedback and ideas, and many of whom approached me afterwards to discuss the paper in more detail. This has left me feeling very positive about the article I am working on that the paper summarised.

There were a lot of very interesting papers presented at the conference: more than I could physically attend, and many of which were on at the same time. Some of those that particularly inspired me were:

Tsukusu ‘Jinn’ Ito’s paper on Viking themes in manga. He emphasised the popularity of Vikings in Japan, highlighting the idea that what we in the West might consider mainstream is perceived as ‘other’ and ‘exotic’ in Japan. Interestingly, there is sufficient knowledge of the Vikings in Japan for the authors of Viking manga not to have to explain details, thus permitting them to dive straight into the story. It is always interesting to get alternative perspectives, and really helps stop us from taking particular ideas for granted.

Sean Lawing gave a great and grisly paper on the disposal of severed body parts as legislated for in Grágás. This was clearly a thing in Iceland at the time the laws were codified, because they legislated for being able to recognise individual body parts and treating them as if they were the whole body, as well as how to dispose of the bits of people that you cannot recognise.

Heidi Støa’s paper on golem constructs in Old Norse literature highlighted the social effects of the artificial people and led to an interesting discussion on why they were made of wood in particular. One area of the discussion that intrigued me was the idea that ON draugr also means ‘dead wood’. Given that Askr (ash) and Embla (elm) were the first people according to Old Norse mythology, I am keen to have a deeper look at this concept of the undead as dead wood.

Andrea Whitacre, Marie Novotná and Gwendolyne Knight Kempeima all presented in a session on shape-changing where their papers neatly dove-tailed together to form a coherent discussion about shape-changing, the skin as a liminal area (thin veneer of humanity?), and notions of the integrity of the individual. Given that they were all so neatly related, this session might have benefited from the round-table format instead but I really enjoyed it anyway, and felt inspired by it. I look forward to seeing how all three sets of research progress.

One final shout-out goes to Sirpa Aalto’s paper on the construction of space between Sámi and Norwegians in the sagas. She examined a range of sagas to see where interaction took place and considered how the Sámi and the Norwegians interacted in those sagas. I have a strong interest in such cross-cultural relations so it was fascinating to hear such a good analysis of how the social space was constructed. I hope Sirpa publishes more on this soon, because I want to read it.

There were many other good papers, but space precludes mentioning them all, so I apologise to those I missed out. There were many more papers that I would have liked to attend but could not. I hope they all appear as articles soon, so that I can catch up on what I missed.

Overall, the Saga Conference was brilliant, despite the excessive heat in Zurich this week. Note to future conference organisers: I study Vikings because I like cooler climes! I took something positive from every paper I attended, and from all the discussions I had over the week. I met up with old friends and made new ones. I got to see Bede’s death Song, the Isruna tract, Notker the Stammerer and the Nibelungenlied, as well as several books of law codes that were over a thousand years old, all at St Gallen. Talk about blissing out! All this means that the 2018 Saga Conference in Reykjavik has a lot to live up to. I’m starting saving for it now just to make sure I can go.

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The rewards of teaching about #Vikings

I ran a small workshop for Year 5 at Burford Primary School in Nottingham a week ago and found it very rewarding. The reward of which I write is not the beer they gave me as thanks for my efforts but rather the simply incredible level of engagement of the whole class.Beer

We began the day with a discussion about what is cool about the Vikings (my answer would be ‘everything’), looking at how far they travelled and the ships they used, before turning to Viking-related things closer to home like place names and English words that derive from Old Norse. Then we looked at how we know about the Vikings, what their daily lives would have been like and the stories they told. Viking riddles were told and answered, notes were written home to the children’s parents in runes and many questions were asked and answered . I was particularly taken with the question about why the Vikings fought the Anglo-Saxons: “Did they fight because they could not understand each other?”

We concluded the day by forming up in shieldwall and chanting “Odin” in the playground to get the children in character as berserkers while banging on their (imaginary) shields with their (imaginary) weapons. Note to self: I need a large stock of foam shields and swords! There was some shield-biting but no foaming at the mouth fortunately. I hope that the children are all suitably enthused about Vikings now and I look forward to hearing that they have pursued this interest further in the future.

My thanks go to Year 5 and to Ms Chapleo for being so good to work with. Your enthusiasm has really enthused me further. Oh, and the beer is a pretty good reward on top of the children’s enthusiasm, and it is very much appreciated!

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#Berserker: Hell’s Warrior – A #movie review

Berserker: Hell's Warrior

Berserker: Hell’s Warrior

Not my movie review, I should add. When I came across this movie review for Berserker: Hell’s Warrior, I realised how deeply it cut to the core of the movie and realised that I had not reviewed it yet. I felt that I could not better the review, so I shall not write my own version now. Therefore, here is the link to the review on Dungeons and D-Listers.

For me, Berserker: Hell’s Warrior is like a Viking Age Highlander with vampiric Valkyries and dirty, smelly, half-naked berserkers using dustbin lids as shields because the props department ran out of proper shields. The plot makes little sense and things happen because the director or editor or producer or somebody thought they would be cool. I could go on, but Alex Wolfe really does it so much better. Go! Read the review. The film really is that bad. And yet I enjoyed it. Maybe it’s the sparkly-ass vampires, umm, I mean, Valkyries. Something in me must be broken …

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Did #Viking berserkers go #berserk?


Fly Agaric Mushroom from Örebro, Sweden

This is a slightly modified and shortened extract from a paper I gave at the Unlocking the Vikings 2014 conference.

One question I am almost invariably asked when I mention my thesis topic to people is, “How did berserkers go berserk?” People are fascinated by berserker pharmacology, berserker psychology and berserker physiology. Most commonly they want to know if berserkers really took magic mushrooms. When I inform them that we have no contemporary or literary evidence for the consumption of magic mushrooms as an aid in battle, they often move on to ask if they were just psychologically unbalanced, or had something physically wrong with them (like Paget’s Disease, as Byock has suggested for Egill Skallagrimsson).

There is a problem with this question: it assumes that berserkers actually did go berserk and never questions whether this is really the case. Some examples of warriors going berserk do occur in Old Norse literature. For example, At Vínheiðr, Egill Skallagrimsson’s brother Þórólfr appears to go berserk when he slings his shield on his back and strikes forward into the melee killing all around him as he goes:

‘Þórólfr gerðisk þá svá óðr, at hann kastaði skildinum á bak sér, en tók spjótit tveim höndum; hljóp hann þá fram ok hjó eða lagði til beggja handa; stukku menn þá frá tveggja vegna, en hann drap marga.’ (Thorolf became so enraged that he slung his shield on his back and took his spear in both hands. Then he ran forward and laid about him on both sides. Men all around him ran from him but he killed many), Egils saga, Chapter 53.

Likewise Haraldr harðraði at the Battle of Stamford Bridge appears to go berserk in a passage written in very similar style to that in Egils saga.

‘Þá varð Haraldr konungr Sigurðarson svá óðr at hann hljóp fram allt ór fylkingunni ok hjó báðum höndum. Helt þá hvártki við honum hjálmr né brynja. Þá stukku frá allir þeir, er næstir váru.’ (King Harald Sigurdsson became so enraged that he ran forward all the way out of his battle-line and laid about him on both sides. Neither helm nor mailcoat could withstand him. Then all those who were nearest ran away) Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 92.

The circumstances are similar to those under which modern soldiers have gone berserk, which suggests that the sagas’ authors were familiar with the idea that men might go berserk in battle. However, neither Þórólfr nor Haraldr is ever called a berserker. It is never stated that they undergo berserksgangr, and they do not engage in the activities normally associated with berserkers such as biting their shields or howling. The medieval saga authors did not treat them as berserkers and probably did not consider them to be berserkers.

Berserksgangr (usually translated as ‘berserker fit’ or ‘berserker fury’ although that is a different can of semantic worms that I shall save for another time) is signalled by shield-biting and howling. It usually occurs before a fight or battle and has been construed by most scholars as symptomatic of an altered state of mind: of going berserk. I dispute this, as the examples below show.

In Grettis saga (chapter 40), Snækollr begins biting his shield and howling even before dismounting from his horse, as he readies himself for battle with Grettir, an act that Grettir uses to good advantage. He kicks the base of the shield up into Snækollr’s mouth apparently breaking his jaw and then drags him from the horse and cuts off head. Snækollr was obviously not ready for battle and had certainly not gone berserk.

In Egils saga (chapter 64), the berserker Ljótr inn bleiki (Ljot the Pale) also bites his shield and howls at the start of the fight as he approaches the place for the duel. However, this berserksgangr is not an example of going berserk, because he then pauses to exchange words with Egill before taking a bit more time to get ready for the fight. Then, in the middle of the duel, Ljótr asks for a break, and he and Egill have a rest and a verbal exchange before continuing the fight which ends with the death of Ljótr. A berserk warrior is unlikely to have had the presence of mind to ask for a break.

Finally, to take one last example, the Viking or half-berserker Moldi in Svarfdæla saga (chapter 7) turns up with eleven men to discuss marrying jarl Herröðr’s daughter in a variant of the berserk suitor motif that Blaney identified as the most common usage of berserkers in sagas. He and his men enter the hall, wade through the fire and bite their shields. Then, instead of attacking in a frenzy as one might expect from the shield-biting motif, Moldi greets the jarl well and is invited to take a seat. Moldi’s suit does not end well, because he is killed in a duel as a result of the exchange regarding the jarl’s daughter, but he had certainly not gone berserk when he entered the hall, because he was sufficiently in control to stop and have a chat.

These examples show that the authors of these sagas did not consider berserkers to have lost all control. Given that berserksgangr only occurs at the start of combat, and not during the battle, it seems likely that the shield-biting and howling that are part of it were a form of posturing intended to help the berserker motivate himself for battle, while also intimidating his foes. One might compare it to the haka performed by the All Blacks before a rugby match which has all the hallmarks of berserksgangr with grimacing and posturing to put the opponents off while building team spirit and morale.

So, to answer the question in the title, berserkers in Old Norse literature did not generally go berserk. By extension, I would suggest that Viking berserkers did not go berserk either. Those elements of their activities that are remembered in Old Norse literature do not indicate a berserk state. Going berserk is likely to have been more of a hindrance than a help in a period when warfare relied upon maintaining an unbroken wall of shields. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that some warriors went berserk in any army of the period (not just Viking armies), because of the stress of warfare, but the evidence does not support habitual berserk states for Viking berserkers.

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Movie Monday: The Viking (1928)

I just came across this film today which led to this blog post about it. If you scroll down a bit, there is a link to the whole film on Youtube. I plan to watch it soon, but loved the tone of this post from Gonzo History and wanted to share it.

The Gonzo History Project


This week’s film is kind of an oddity. It’s silent — one of the last big silent films — but it’s in colour. In fact, just as it was one of the last big silent films, it was one of the first big colour films, widely considered at the time to be one of the best uses of the Technicolour process. As we’ll see, it looks pretty good!

Well, OK, maybe not good per se.

Anyway, it’s an adaptation of a 1902 novel, the which you can find on Gutenburg and which I have also put on my Kindle but not read yet. The novel is in turn sort of based on The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Sort of.

Ready? Here we go.

Our story begins with a little casual … not racism as such, but a little reminder that 1928…

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