Searching for Vikings in Norway

by Judith Fein

I wish I could climb into a time machine and be catapulted back to the Viking period between 793 and 1066 A.D. I don’t care for the raiding and pillaging but I have been to L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland twice (the only authenticated Viking site in North America), I have held my breath as I read the Iceland sagas, and I know these hunting and planting people were resilient, artistic and resourceful; the women had power and prestige, and their governance was of the democratic variety. They wrote on rune stones, were brilliant ship builders and goldsmiths. They drank mead from horns, braved the cold and produced mighty sorcerers.

Last month, I went to Norway on the trail of the Vikings; actually, I felt as though I were in Viking school.  At the archeological museum in Stavanger, I learned that the Vikings probably practiced a form of yoga and that diverse elements in nature like swimming birds and halibut were thought to help the sun on its daily journey. They believed in night ships that went into the water and the dark earth at night, and day ships that came up again in daytime.

On a Fjord tour, while everyone else snapped pictures, I stared at an island where King Olaf held an important assembly in 998; islands were easier to defend than land meeting places.

At Haugesund, I took a boat to the small island of Vibrandsoy to meet Marit Synnove Vea and Terje Andreassen. The duo poured over old sagas and navigational protocol written in Old Norse. They found and studied remnants of Viking shipbuilding techniques in modern day Norway and, for the first time in our modern age, are creating a 35-meter-long Viking ship using the brilliant ancient technology. This prodigious undertaking includes 40-45 trees, root knees soaked in salt water for at least 3 months, 10,000 rivets, a silk sail, and a tremendous amount of heart.

At Avaldsnes, where King Harald the Fair Haired had his most important castle and royal seat, I visited a Viking village with houses used for animals, storage and weaving. A round house, held up by four posts, may have been a pagan temple. The village was entirely reconstructed from archeological finds. I learned from a red-haired, lyre-playing guide named Eirik that the Vikings kept slaves, who were people without any property. Eventually they would join the family they worked for and be freed. Also, the Vikings gave gifts to guests at feasts and weddings. Marriage was like a business deal and, if shame was brought on the family or there was economic hardship, the couple could divorce. If a husband behaved poorly or wasn’t “male” enough, his wife could leave him.

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@ Paul Ross.At Gudvagen,

in a spectacular fjord, I spent two days at a Viking Market with 500 Viking re-enactors who were so close in spirit and dress to the real thing that I actually felt I had been transported there by the time machine of my dreams.  My head and heart burst open when I met the bearded organizer, Georg Olafr Reydarsson Hansen, who sailed up in a Viking ship, clad in a fur-trimmed hat and a large sword in a scabbard at his waist.

I was surprised to see the lute-playing Eirik, who came to the Market on his time off. I also met needle binders, blacksmiths, a fire juggler, rune crafters, a poet who uses Old Norse metric forms, sword fighters, actors, cooks, potters, candle makers, artists, furniture and blow horn artisans and leatherworkers who congregated to exchange information, eat, sleep, perfect their crafts and live the Viking life.  In the real world, whatever that means, they are scholars, miners, jewelers, traders, administrators, students, businesspeople, teachers, marine archeologists, cartoonists and musicians.

With costumed teachers and more runes than I could shake a sword at, I was thrilled to be in Viking school. I learned how the Viking Age ended. In 1066, Harald Hardratha (Hard-Ruler) attacked York with 200 ships full of warriors and support personnel.  When only six of the ships returned, and one of them bore Harald’s body, it was end game in Viking land.

Besides being fierce fellows with swords, the Vikings were also traders who wanted wine, honey and silk, and offered iron and grindstones. They were reindeer hunters, farmers, craftspeople, blacksmiths, storytellers and magicians.

“I wish I could meet a Viking magician,” I thought, and within l5 minutes, Lars Magnar Enoksen appeared. As soon as I learned that he writes books on Vikings and runes, I hitched my travel wagon to his star. He told me that ever since he was a little kid, while other boys were probably scrapping, swapping tall tales and rolling around in the dirt, he would go by himself to museums and stare at the artifacts.

When he grew up and had to make a living, he became a punk rocker, a writer for Disney comics and a martial artist. The latter piqued his interest in the Viking version of Glima wrestling.  He went to Iceland to track down the last humans alive who knew about it.  One was 80 and one 90 years old, and the latter tossed him before he could ask, “Are you still practicing?” So, blessed by fate and good timing, Lars learned the old form of Glima before it disappeared forever, and now he trains and coaches wrestlers.  When I asked him how it differed from other wrestling, he said they use eye gouging. But it’s not what you think. I watched the wrestlers and they don’t actually yank the eyeballs out; they press on them. It sure stops an opponent in his tracks.

At night, along with Lars’s sorcery students, I learned how to do a Galdur, or Viking incantation. We looked up at the sliver of moonlight in the sky, drank mead from a horn and then spat it out on a rock to give it back to the earth, and roared our incantation up to the heavens. I think we were heard.

All that remained was to see a Viking sailing vessel in Norway, and that happened in Oslo at the Viking Ship Museum. Actually, they display three magnificent ships (the Osberg, the Gokstadt and the Tune) that were excavated from burial mounds between l867 and 1904. In the Osberg ship, they found an older woman (she died of cancer and had cannabis in a small purse) and a younger woman who may have been her slave. They were interred with the ship in 850 A.D. In the other two ships they found men who were buried around 900 A.D.

In the brilliantly and ornately carved Osberg ship, which was a luxurious pleasure boat, 12 horses, a wagon, 3 ceremonial sleds, bread dough, jewels, wild apples and blueberries were found. In the Gokstadt vessel, 32 rowers once plied the waves and then the boat was used to bury a chief.  The Tune ship is very damaged, and one can only guess at what it looked like when brawny Vikings rowed it out to sea.

I am sad to be out of the time machine and back in contemporary life.  But I know that before long, I will enroll again in Viking school, with Galdurs and glima, runes, burial ships and wily magicians.

Judith Fein is the editor of www.YourLifeisaTrip.com and travel editor of Spirituality and Health magazine. Her new book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel, takes readers on 14 exotic trips where, through interaction with other cultures, they can learn lessons that transform their lives.

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