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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
May 2012
Vikings

     Before we tackle the mythic material, we need to pause for a moment to consider the historical context in which they arose.  Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the story elements (e. g., the World Tree, the Chariot of the Sun) may have existed as early as the Bronze Age in Scandinavia, but the bulk of the myths were certainly in place by the Viking Age (hence the frequent references to Norse mythology as Viking-Age mythology).

     Who--or what--were the Vikings?  The popular-culture view that the name Vikings can be applied to all the Scandinavian peoples of the period from roughly 800 to 1100 A. D.--and that they were nothing more than roving bands of bloodthirsty pagan pirates--is both simplistic and inaccurate.  During the Viking Age, the vast majority of Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes were farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, or merchants . . . or some combination thereof.  The relatively small number that did go "a'viking" (usually a seasonal occupation) were often opportunistic in their behavior aboad.  Where they encountered peoples with weak defenses, they might very well take by force what they wanted (mobile wealth, including slaves).  Where defenses were strong, the Vikings might choose to trade or sell goods from home.

     A third option could be to establish a settlement amidst the locals with whom they often intermarried.  A few cities that arose in this manner would include Dublin (by the Norwegians) and York (by the Danes).  The Swedish Vikings sailed eastward across the Baltic and established what became Russia (named after a Swedish tribe, the Rus).  Viking domination of coastal Europe eventually waned as other peoples improved their own seacraft (previously overmatched by the Viking dragon ships), and because of family feuds among Viking leaders.

     Cultural exchanges--including myths, legends, and folklore--inevitably took place whenever Viking traders or settlers had peaceful interactions with the locals, so it should come as no surprise to find Norse, Celtic, Finnish, Saami, and Christian influences intermixed throughout northwestern Europe.  Finding "pure," unadulterated stories of any one group is nigh unto impossible, so please bear that in mind as we begin our exploration of Norse mythology.

 

2012  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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