leifericssonI just returned from a holiday to Scandinavia last week (Denmark and Norway). It was my first time there and the fulfilment of something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to the peninsula, its geography, scenery, history and unique philosophies. In particular, I’ve always had a thing for Vikings and leading up to this trip, decided to do a bit of reading on their history.

The history of the Vikings is a story of outliers, innovation, picking battles and free-thinking. The lands of the Norse were among the outer chunks of Europe that were not touched by the Roman Empire. This was significant for at least two reasons. Firstly, being on the periphery meant Scandinavia was not drawn into he Empire’s long and tortuous descent into the Dark Ages – it was spared both the inward looking politics of a crumbling Empire and the wrecking ball of hordes such as the Goths, Huns and Vandals. Secondly, not being tethered to Christendom’s stiffening sense of intellectual and moral order (from both Rome and Byzantium) had allowed the Norse worldview to strengthen and find even stronger forms of expression. From these rough people came science, reason, inquiry and technology that mystically transcended the logic of Plato or Archimedes that prevailed in urbanised Europe at the time. From these rough people, whose culture straddled the space between nomadic and feudal, came feats of engineering and exploration that would not be matched for at least another half millennium.

The rise of the Viking age around the ninth century teaches us a lot about ancient concepts of risk and strategy. So does the decline of the Viking age about two centuries later. Here are some loose ramblings on this period:

The edge of certainty

J.C. Dollman's

J.C. Dollman’s “The Ravager”, 1909.

The Norse were a warrior race. As with other Germanic peoples, battle was the highest calling in life and projected in almost sensual terms, in much the same way food, wine, music and sex were. In battle, the Vikings found either spoils and glory from their earthly conquests or eternal gratification in the Valhalla afterlife. And battle was not just a means to an end. According to one 12th century source, for those who had fallen in battle, Valhalla offered the daily joy of slaying each other (again) followed by feasting and drinking. Indeed, battle in its own right appears to be a sacrament and poetic tributes to this age esteem battle with the sort of boyish delight you’d expect from, well, boys.

The Norse had their gods and creation stories that overlapped with other Germanic peoples that brought us characters such as Odin and Thor. But looming large in the Scandinavian cosmology was a sense of chaos that ringed the world the Vikings knew: the chaos of warfare and the chaos of nature. While Vikings appeased their gods through sacrifices (including human sacrifices), even the divine were doomed for destruction in the future Norse apocalypse known as Ragnarok. The eschatology was arguably more bleak and destructive than those of other traditions. Without the dogma, institutions or sense of certainty Abrahamic religions provided, the Vikings saw chaos as an inevitable reality. Rather than seek refuge from chaos in the cloisters of organised religion or ecclesiastically-centered communities, the Vikings embraced uncertainty and sought to ride it as far as it would take them.

Nature’s curves


The Hershey Kiss of Gokstad.

There are few things from the Dark Ages more beautiful than the Viking ship. From the front, the miraculously-preserved Gokstad burial ship (believed to have been built in 890 AD), housed in a museum just outside Oslo, looks like a melting Hershey Kiss with its aquiline curves drawing to a curly tip. There were no engineering schools or great libraries in Scandinavia yet these vessels outclassed anything that Rome, Athens or Phoenicia had ever produced and were certainly better than anything the Anglo-Saxons had made. And by the beginning of the second millennium, Viking ships would be discovering the New World, long before any other European power. The feminine elegance of their curling bows and slender decking belie the longship’s hardiness and versatility in both the high seas and shallow estuaries. It was precisely this ability to cut across to other lands and then slip quietly into protected waterways that made them formidable ships of conquest across Europe and beyond.

The Vikings did not build their ships according to plans or blueprints. Rather, the traditions of the craft followed a keenly observed sense of line and shape that mimicked the buoyancy of waterborne creatures and the curves of the sea’s waves.

The Viking age is generally defined as starting with the raid of the Lindisfarne Priory in Northumberland, England in 793 AD. It was from this savage smash and grab of the monastery’s treasures that the Vikings’ utter disregard for the sacred became renowned throughout the West. And it was the power of their vessels that allowed to them to get the upper hand.

The Vikings were making trans-Atlantic crossings in these stealthy vessels before Southern European ships with much deeper draughts and imposing keels would try the same in the 15th century. Over their age of conquest, the Vikings moved from the Scandinavian peninsula, first to the Faeroe Islands, then to Iceland and then onto Greenland and eventually North America. Straying far from the sight of land, the Vikings relied on natural cues and landmarks to navigate their way to these new lands and the Hauksbok, a 13th century Icelandic manuscript, includes instructions on how to get to Greenland from Scandinavia by following the signs:

From Hernar in Norway one should keep sailing in west to reach Hvarf in Greenland and then you are sailing north of Shetland, so that it can only be seen if visibility is very good; but south of the Faeroes, so that the sea appears halfway up their mountain slopes; but so far south of Iceland that one only becomes aware of birds and whales from it.

The Vikings had a sophisticated sense of natural philosophy that expressed itself not in essays or dialogues, but in practical solutions and forward thinking. Their history of thought was an uninterrupted line from the Bronze Age to the economic and political realities of the Middle Ages. Their intellectual connection to nature was not confined to folk rituals and farming; it shaped and inspired their many political exploits. Unlike other raiders and invaders, their conquests did not come through extensive sweeping lines but followed the natural pathways of coasts, currents and rivers.

Urbanization was as much a life-changing imposition in ancient European civiliization as it is throughout the world today. But being on the periphery and away from the center of the action, as the Scandinavians were, doesn’t mean we have to live in intellectual and cultural cul-de-sacs. In fact, it’s often out in the sticks that we make some of our greatest breakthroughs.