Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Viking Women Were "Very Stirring"

What were Viking women like? Were they really as tough and macho as Lathgertha in the History Channel's "Vikings" series?

The Icelandic sagas, although written hundreds of years after the Viking Age people and events they describe, can give us some hints--especially if we examine their descriptions word for word.

Gudrun the Fair, heroine of Laxdaela Saga, for example, is one of many saga women described as a skörungr. It's a word translators have serious trouble with--although the saga-writer clearly thinks it's a compliment. In modern Icelandic, the word means a fireplace poker. Concentrating on what a fireplace poker does, William Morris in the 1890s came up with "a very stirring woman." And Gudrun does stir things up, mostly trouble.

Yet a man labeled a skörungr Morris called "a shaper" or "a leader." Other early translators turned a female "poker" into "brave-hearted," "high-spirited," "noble," "of high mettle," "fine," "superior," "of great magnificence," and "a paragon of a woman." They might have done better to think what a poker looks like. For skörungr does, in the end, have to do with manhood. The root skör means an edge, like the edge of a sword.

Let's look more closely at Gudrun the Fair. The female characters in Laxdaela Saga are so strong and admirable that some readers suspect the story was written by a woman in response to some of the other, more male-oriented, sagas. We read of Unn the Deep-Minded, who emigrated from Scotland with all her kin, claimed a chunk of land "as big as a man's," parceled it out to her followers, and lived out her life as a chieftain in all but name, marrying off her grandchildren to make alliances. There is Melkorka, who comes to Iceland as a sex-slave: Melkorka pretended to be a deaf-mute, revealing nothing. Not until she was caught speaking Irish to her son, Olaf the Peacock, did she admit she was the daughter of an Irish king. After her status as a princess came out, her owner bought her a farm and set her up as an independent woman. Olaf married well and had five sons and three daughters. He offered to raise his half-brother's son, Bolli, to mend fences in the family, and with that we come to the crux of the saga.

Bolli was handsome and talented-second only to Olaf's own son, Kjartan. The two boys were best friends. Both fell in love with Gudrun the Fair, who had already been widowed twice when she met them. Gudrun loved Kjartan. Like every Icelandic boy his age, he decided to go to Norway to make a name for himself, and asked her to wait the usual three years for him. She suggested he take her abroad instead. He refused. She refused to promise to wait. Three years passed, and he didn't come home. But Bolli did, full of tales of the impression Kjartan had made on the king's beautiful sister.

Bolli was not lying; his crime was more on the order of wishful thinking. Still, while Kjartan was "talking" with the king of Norway's sister, Bolli wooed and wed Gudrun. Then Kjartan returned home. His sister counseled him to "do the right thing" and make peace with his friend and cousin Bolli. She introduced Kjartan to a fine woman of good family, and Kjartan was soon happily married.

Gudrun became insanely jealous. Sometimes she thought Bolli had tricked her into marrying him. Other times she believed Kjartan had spurned her and, when he had come home and made light of her marriage, had insulted her. And indeed, he did insult her after a golden headdress he had given his wife (a gift from the princess intended for Gudrun) was stolen. Kjartan gathered his men and surrounded Gudrun's house, forcing everyone to go to the bathroom inside for several days with no indoor privy. Gudrun arranged his death and then deeply regretted it. As she told her son many years later, "I was worst to the one I loved best."

But for none of these deeds is Gudrun called a skörungr. That comes on the occasion of her fourth marriage. At the urging of her staunch supporter, the chieftain Snorri of Helgafell, and with the agreement of her young sons, Gudrun betrothed herself to Thorkel Eyjolfsson, a wealthy trader and friend of the king of Norway. Gudrun had extensive landholdings and the backing of many men who had been loyal to her recently deceased father. Since her brothers were all exiled after killing Kjartan, Gudrun's husband would wield the influence of a chieftain.

As a mark of her power in the relationship, Gudrun insisted on holding the wedding at her own farm, bearing the cost herself. Among the 160 wedding guests, however, her bridegroom Thorkel recognized a man who had killed one of his friends. Thorkel grabbed the criminal and was about to put him to death when Gudrun stood up from her place at the women's table, brushed her fancy linen headdress out of her eyes, and called to her men, "Rescue my friend Gunnar and let nothing stand in your way!"

As the saga so nicely understates it, "Gudrun had a much bigger force. Things turned out differently than expected."

Before anyone could draw a sword, Snorri of Helgafell stood up and laughed. "Now you can see what a skörungr Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us."

What quality is Chieftain Snorri admiring? Translators from 1960 to 2002 have called Gudrun and her saga sisters "exceptional," "outstanding," "remarkable," "determined," "forceful," "capable," "brave," "of strong character," "one to be reckoned with," and a woman "with a will very much her own." These are better than the nineteenth century's "high-mettled" and "very stirring," but they're still not quite right.

Historian Jenny Jochens turns skörungr into "manly," and the best equivalent is indeed man. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Gudrun spotted the killer of her friend on Thorkel's side of the hall. Thorkel had the bigger fighting force. Chieftain Snorri, eager to make peace and see the wedding proceed (and it does), stepped in, laughed, and said to Gudrun, "Now you can see what a man you're marrying, when he gets the better of both of us."

A Viking's character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to weak, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser or, in the Old Norse terms, hvatr to blauðr. Hvatr, always a compliment, means "bold, active, vigorous." It appears to be related to the verb hvetja, a cognomen for our verb "to whet"--to sharpen (a sword), to put a good, sharp skör (or edge) on it. Its opposite, blauðr, always an insult, means "soft, weak." It is, says the standard dictionary, "no doubt a variant of blautr," which means "moist." Hard, sharp, and vigorous versus soft, yielding, and moist. Think dirty and you've got it.

When the beautiful skörungr Hallgerd Long-legs called Njal, the hero of Njal's Saga, "Old Beardless," she was not saying he was funny-looking: She was saying he was blauðr--weak, cowardly, powerless, and craven. A loser.

And when Chieftain Snorri praised Gudrun the Fair as a skörungr, and a better one than both himself and Thorkel Eyjolfsson, he was locating her far out on the male end of the power spectrum. He was calling her a winner.

"This is a world," writes Old Norse scholar Carol Clover, "in which 'masculinity' always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman." There was only one standard, only one way to judge a person adequate or inadequate. "The frantic machismo" of the men in the Icelandic sagas, Clover concludes, suggests "a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which  distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others."

The women who are mentioned in the sagas, the ones who are admired as skörungr, are the ones who have acquired that distinction. Among them is Gudrid the Far-Traveler, about whom I have written two books: the young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), and the nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (2007), from which this discussion of skörungr was taken.

Read more about Viking women on my blog here:

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Cook Like a Viking

What did the Vikings eat? We imagine them gorging on roast leg of lamb and buckets of ale. In Valhalla, according to Snorri Sturluson, the heroes eat boiled pork and drink bottomless horns of mead. When Odin and Loki dine out, in one myth, they spit-roast an ox (though Odin is said elsewhere to subsist only on wine).

But is all that meat and alcohol realistic?

Daniel Serra, one of the authors (with Hanna Tunberg) of An Early Meal: A Viking Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, thinks not.

Serra is an archaeology student--the book is based on his Ph.D. dissertation--and a Viking re-enactor who was hired to "reconstruct Viking Age food" by the Lofotr Viking Museum in Lofoten, site of the largest Viking longhouse ever discovered, in the far north of Norway.

There's nothing like having to actually do it to make you figure out how something was done.

His book concentrates on Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Beginning at Lofoten, he takes the reader (or cook) on a "culinary odyssey," sailing to important archaeological sites at Kaupang, Lejre, Hedeby, Uppåkra, and Birka, with a side trip to Jorvik in England. For each site, he describes the archaeological evidence for what people in Viking times ate and how they prepared it.

We can learn a lot from bones, seeds, utensils, pots, and, yes, feces.

Serra also explores the Icelandic sagas and other post-Viking Age written sources for hints on food and cooking, such as the stories of yogurt-like skyr being stored in leather bags, vats of whey big enough for a man to hide in, cheeses made in round cheese forms, porridge served with a large ladle, and leek or onion soup fed to a wounded man to determine (by the smell) if his intestines had been pierced.

Serra and Tunberg then create a few recipes that plausibly could be connected with each archaeological site, being careful to only mix foods that were available and in season. This is the ultimate in seasonal, locavore cooking--with a very few luxury items thrown in, where the archaeological record warrants it.

Don't expect a lot of spice. The Vikings used mustard seeds (both black and yellow), thyme, dill, caraway, coriander, and lots of onions, leeks, and garlic. Salt was expensive to buy or, if home-made (by burning seaweed), labor-intensive and inefficient to make.

Sweets were scarce: The main sources were dried or frost-bitten berries and fruits, honey (expensive, as bees could only survive in some parts of Scandinavia), and malt (which was mostly used for making ale).

The most common taste was sour: Turnips and kale, as well as sausages and joints of meat, were pickled in whey, the leftover fluid from cheese-making. Whey was also the drink of choice, when ale wasn't available--and sometimes the two were mixed (ugh).

And that roast leg of lamb? It was more likely to be smoked or dried, then cut up and cooked as a stew with onions and turnips.

Valhalla's boiled pork doesn't sound nearly so tasteless, though, when you read Serra and Tunberg's recipe for Boar Stew: It contains leeks, butter, bacon, boar's meat, mustard, kale, wheat seeds, and thyme, along with the boiled pork. The photograph makes it look actually appetizing.

The recipes throughout An Early Meal are, in fact, beautifully illustrated. The instructions are clear and easy--according to my friend Linda, an excellent cook who reads cookbooks for pleasure--and the book's paper and binding are sturdy enough to survive heavy kitchen use.

Still, I only found a few meals I'd want to try. (Linda, more adventurous in her eating, found more.) For me, the value of the book is for re-enacting--in fiction--what Viking life was really like.

I learned, for instance, how to make a cooking pit to roast a goat. Did you know that you should put the layer of stones under the firewood if you plan to use the pit more than once, but lay them over the firewood if the ground is cold? And how do you keep the meat from charring? Serra suggests several medieval replacements for aluminum foil.

Did you know that to make dried cod tasty, you should beat it with a wooden mallet for "well over an hour," then soak it in hot water for at least 12 hours?

Or that Vikings ate lots of hazelnuts? Mixed with honey, says a medieval Scandinavian herbal, they are good for a cough.

Or that the best way to cook the mash and boil the wort, when making large quantities of ale, was to heat stones in the longfire, then drop them one by one into a large tub of mash or wort until it reached the required temperature? (Your thermometer in this case was your finger.) If making a smaller quantity of ale, you use smaller tubs and smaller stones--these stones are called "pot-boilers." How often have I used that term to refer to a formulaic mystery novel without knowing what it really meant?

Then there's the question of bread. I knew grain was hard to grown in Iceland, but I assumed bread was common throughout the rest of Scandinavia. Archaeologists have found signs of bread in burials and funeral pyres. They could tell it was unleavened, cooked on a griddle or a hot stone (rarely baked in an oven), and made of some mixture, depending on the location, of barley, oats, wheat, rye, pea, and broad-bean flours.

I never gave a thought to how hard it was to grind the flour. That's why I love experimental archaeology. When Daniel Serra made bread at the Lofotr Viking Museum, he started with grain (seeds) and a hand quern.

He describes the quern as "two stone discs on top of each other." The stone is mica-schist with small hard garnets in it. The larger stone, on the bottom, "is fixed by nothing else but its weight." The upper stone has a handle; sometimes that handle extends to the roof of the building to get better torque. "In order to get the best result," Serra writes, "the cereals must be fed to the quern constantly so that friction is kept low and the two discs suffer less wear."

And you don't just feed the cereals in once. "Grinding with a hand quern is hard work." In his experiment, Serra ground half a kilogram (18 ounces) of grain; a bread recipe he includes in An Early Meal uses about that much barley flour for a loaf meant to feed four (modern) people as part of a larger meal.

"The experiment showed that the seeds had to be ground several times and sieved in order to achieve a flour that was fine enough with which to bake. After two grindings, the grains were fine enough to be used for a porridge. After another four or five more sessions, and half an hour, the seeds were fine enough to bake with. With experience and the right conditions, the time could probably be halved. The time and effort needed suggests that one would produce only enough flour to cover the needs of the day."

Making flour for bread "was a rather strenuous activity," he concludes, adding that "Milling seems to have been mainly considered a female chore, and some skeletal remains have a tear in the shoulder joints which may stem from constantly working with a hand quern."

Don't assume, though, that Viking women did all the cooking. "In Norwegian burials," Serra points out, "certain cooking implements have been almost equally distributed between men and women--e.g., frying pans, spits, and soapstone vessels."

It's for these sorts of insight that An Early Meal deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey, by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg, was published in Sweden in 2013 by ChronoCopia Publishing. I purchased my copy over

For more about food in Norse mythology, see these earlier blog posts:

For more on Snorri Sturluson and the making of Norse mythology, see my book Song of the Vikings:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Sunstone, or how did Vikings navigate?

Elise Skalwold graciously calls it a typo. In her article "Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence", she explains in scientific detail how the Vikings could use a crystal called a "sunstone" to navigate when out of sight of land. At the end of the article, she calls out my book:

"That ancient Viking mariners made such voyages sans modern instrumentation inspires awe in many, not least of all me, as I have traveled in those waters in more modern craft, as well as been out on a replica of a cabinless sea-faring longboat. For a glimpse into the Viking sea-faring world, the authors recommend The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown, but in regards to the sunstone, beware the typo which identifies it as 'Icelandic feldspar.'"

It should be "Iceland spar."

I'm not the only one to make this mistake, Elise told me when we met last October at Cornell University. The name "sunstone" is commonly used in English to refer to completely different minerals in the feldspar family, particularly a translucent type known as "aventurescent feldspar." This feldspar is sunny because it contains tiny, flat mineral inclusions that, when the stone is turned the right way toward the light, give off a bright flash.

This sunstone is not the Viking sunstone. The Viking sunstone is more bizarre even than that.

Elise came to listen to me lecture on my latest book, Ivory Vikings, but also to give me a quick lesson in mineral identification. For Elise is a consulting gemologist. In her backpack, she had samples of Iceland spar and a copy of the book Secrets of the Viking Navigators, by Leif K. Karlsen, which she generously gave to me.

My reaction to the crystal she set in my palm that afternoon was very much like Karlsen's. He writes, "In a natural world that is filled with rare and exquisite examples of incredible uniqueness, sunstones defy the rational mind."

It is ice-clear. But worse, it looks machined. Living in a modern world I simply can't look at it properly. My eyes tell me it has been cut, that it's manmade, that it's fake.

And it's not. No wonder the Icelandic Saga of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson considers the gift of a sunstone equal to that of a pair of fine stallions.

"Sunstones," Karlsen writes, "are roughly the shape of a three-dimensional parallelogram. All sunstones, without exception, have the same geometric shape and the same angularity. Take a large sunstone and break it into smaller pieces and you will have pieces with the exact same angles and geometry as the original. Additionally, every face of the stone has a tilt of 11.5 degrees."

Imagine finding something like that on an Icelandic mountainside. Just looking at it, you'd know it was magical.

And the Vikings did find sunstones there. Karlsen names three places in Iceland where the crystals are readily found. He even visited one, the site of an old mine. "In the days before synthetics," he notes, "this mineral was also used for various types of scientific optical equipment such as microscope lenses." Karlsen met an old man named Gisli who had worked at the mine in 1937 and offered to take him there.

"After some rough driving on gravel roads with several unbridged rivers and streams and then cross-country where there were no roads, we arrived safely at our destination," Karlsen writes. "We climbed up to a plateau about 400 feet up the mountain. ... Gisli pointed out numerous pieces of Iceland spar that had washed out of the vein higher in the mountain and then tumbled down the mountain in the scree. Some of the stones were clear and shiny where they had broken along the facets of the crystal as they fell. Others had an opaque surface due to weathering and abrasion. Many of the pieces we saw were at least 1.5 x 2 x 1 inches ... large and clear enough to be used for navigation."

How did the sunstone work? If you want the technical answer, read "Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence."

But if you just want the gist of it, Karlsen presents it as a short story in his book, Secrets of the Viking Navigators. During a fictional Viking voyage, the navigator teaches his younger brother "the secrets of the sunstone."

"To use the sunstone," he says, "you must place a small spot of pine tar on top of the stone, on the side which faces towards the sky. When you are using the crystal for the first time, place a small wooden pointer along either one of the longest sides. This will be a guide for which side to point toward the brightest part of the sky. Then you must hold the stone overhead and view the stone from underneath. Notice the double image of the black dot? ... When you rotate the stone slightly back and forth, holding it flat, you will see that one spot fades and the other becomes darker. When the two images appear to be equal in value, note the position of the stone and the direction of the pointer. This is the true bearing to the sun."

Karlsen tried it out on a replica Viking ship sailing the coast of Norway in 1996. Playing the part of the navigator, he was able to teach each of his crew members how to use the sunstone--and confirmed their results with modern instruments.

Its optical magic is most impressive under conditions of "Arctic sea smoke," when very cold air moves over warmer water and the ship is wrapped in fog almost to the top of its mast. "When the light from the rising or setting sun was lost in the fog bank, but the zenith was clear," he writes, "the navigator could tell the exact position of the sun by using the sunstone, even though the sun itself was unseen."

I'll remember that the next time I imagine a Viking voyage.

"Double Trouble: Navigating Birefringence," by Elise A. Skalwold and William Bassett, was published in late 2015 by the Mineralogical Society of American and is available online here:

Leif K. Karlsen's Secrets of the Viking Navigators was published in Seattle by One Earth Press in 2003.

For more on The Far Traveler, see my website at: