A Migration Era Puzzle from Evebø in Norway

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This is a striking example of how many strange things may have been put in the graves. But how many things have been lost to the fragility of the material, or the indiscretion of the excavation!
— archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson, 1890

The purpose of archaeology is the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the human past by studying studying artifacts and their contexts. Through the accumulation of such data, as well as applied interdisciplinary methods, archaeology has allowed us to decipher languages and make tangible societies that would have been only footsteps in the sands of time, destined for erasure if it weren't for the academic, retroactive battle against our collective forgetfulness. Effectively, this makes archaeology almost a kind gnostic pursuit, if you’ll excuse such an unorthodox use of the term.

Though the modern approach to history, and even the modern human’s conception of time itself, differs from the mythic and legendary perspectives of the vast majority of our ancestors, I believe that ever since the dawn of our sentience, humanity has always been entranced and perplexed, and curious about its origins. It is only recently that the historicist approach, though a long time coming, resulted in the commonplace chronologies and methodologies of today.

I don't think that the two approaches to time are mutually exclusive. Not entirely at least. In terms of making sense of what and who we are, and finding meaning in our origins and development, the antiquarian sciences are indispensable, even if the interpretative hoarding of artifacts and data can only take us to the proverbial so far. Then there is the trite cliché saying, though entirely true, that the more we know, the greater becomes our understanding of how much we don't understand. For those of us dreaming of this "understanding", the study of the past is distinguished by a certain dissatisfaction that fills us with both with both wonder and frustration. Yearning for an "Eternal Return” in spite of our separation, towards a realization that, in the words of the poet Tor Ulven, "you, too, belong in a Stone Age". As we know we can only move forward, if time is a circle we must necessarily return. If so, there would actually be no escape. But I have hedged my bets just in case, on this god forsaken antiquarian vocation, and my obsessions with the past.

 The dimensions and allignment of the "Evebø chieftain's" burial chamber from Gustavson (1890a: 4)

The dimensions and allignment of the "Evebø chieftain's" burial chamber from Gustavson (1890a: 4)

One find that exemplifies, to me, all of the above is the princely burial at Evebø in Gloppen, Norway. It ranks among the finest archaeological sites of all Scandinavian prehistory (though as always, criminally overlooked outside of its niche field). At its excavation in 1889, the barrow was 25 meters across and 2 meters tall. It was built around a long and narrow stone chamber sealed with birch bark, where a man was laid to rest on a bear skin in the final quarter of the 5th century. His body was dressed in the finest garments available to the upper crust of Migration Era Scandinavia. A red tunic with gilt metal clasps, and a rectangular cloak with tassels (a so-called prachtmantel), both of which included richly dyed zoomorphic brocade bands.  On his waist was an eye-catcher of a belt covered in bronze fittings and an inlaid fire-striking stone (a popular status symbol of male dignitaries at the time). His trousers were probably tightly tailored. He was buried with a sword with a beautiful but functional wooden hilt, in a scabbard decorated with gilt fittings. A shield covered his lap. Then there was a lance, an angon (a Germanic harpoon-style javelin). In other words, a complete set of weapons suitable for a regional warrior king, no doubt part of an influential dynasty. This must have been quite a time to be alive, with Germanic kleptocrats basking in the Roman collapse, setting the scene for history yet to be made, and blissfully unaware of the climate crisis and Justinian Plague coming right around the corner.

The burial reflects a man who made the most of his networks in an unprectiable time where overseas trade involved rowing across the ocean. A gold solidus minted under emperor Theodosius II converted into a medallion to be worn around the neck, a Roman glass beaker from today's Syria, a wooden feasting bucket plated with copper alloy, pottery, weights and scales, and several other items and trinkets. Among the latter is the focus of our article: A strange wooden object of uncertain significance and purpose, later dubbed "the mind ring". Here are some of the original fragments:

The object lay over the man's waist region, by the belt, and consisted of a warped and broken frame of  three barbed, interlocking pieces of wood. A fourth part had apparently rotted away. It became clear that the object, which was approximately 20 centimeters on each side, had formed a square carved from one single piece of wood. On further inspection it was also revealed that this was not fixed: Originally, the object could be shaped and reconfigured into a variety of geometric shapes, and folded into a rectangle, presumably for easy storage. It was decorated with simple incisions of geometric lines and patterns, as well as two Nydam style depictions, one of a beast (perhaps a dog or a wolf) and another figure more difficult to identify.

 Sketch of "The mind ring" as it was found. From Gustafson (1890a: 12)

Sketch of "The mind ring" as it was found. From Gustafson (1890a: 12)

The object appears to be some sort of puzzle, toy, or tool. It was precisely carved from one single piece of wood without resorting glue or joins of any kind. It's obvious that whoever made it was a highly skilled woodcarver with access to very fine tools. The hand that carved its decoration seems less steady, and it might have been secondary addition. Gabriel Gustafson, the head archaeologist who supervised the excavation and stands as the prime scholar associated with the object, uses the technical term monoxylon to describe an item carved from one single piece of wood (Gustafson 1890a: 29).

It's worth mentioning that monoxylic objects were well regarded in later Scandinavian folk art. Associated techniques were often used to make courtship gifts (This blog post by my wife gives a few examples), as they demonstrated the great skill of the carver. As we can imagine, there might also have been an esoteric level to the concept of something that is completely made out of itself without breaking its structure, and to produce something that is entirely integral to, and indelibly linked to itself. We'll be returning to this subject later in the article.

 Decorated fragments. From Johansen (1979).

Decorated fragments. From Johansen (1979).

The term "mind ring" (tankering) is foremost associated with the Gabriel Gustafson, as he wrote the bulk of the material dealing with the object. However, he attributes the coining of the name to Johan Sverdrup who felt reminded of popular wooden puzzle games. Gustafson makes it very clear that he did not quite agree with Sverdrup on the matter (hence he usually refers to the (so-called) "mind ring", or "the ring-puzzle" in quotation marks), because Nordic puzzles generally consist of several loose pieces. He could find no parallels to the object within Scandinavia beyond speculation, in the form of a few peculiar wood fragments reported from since disturbed burial contexts. Eventually he found a nearly identical artifact, apparently of Persian origin in London's South Kensington Museum (today Victoria and Albert Museum).

 The "persian puzzle" of South Kensington Museum. From gustafson (1890b: 8).

The "persian puzzle" of South Kensington Museum. From gustafson (1890b: 8).

The similarity between these two artifacts lead Gustafson to pursue the idea that the Evebø object came from the orient. There are two issues with this: First of all the "Persian puzzle" was apparently produced in relative modernity, and as it turned out, the Evebø "mind ring" was carved from locally sourced birch, excluding the possibility of import. With the undeniable likeness between the Persian and Norwegian objects, many later scholars have postulated that the Evebø object was based on eastern counterparts (cf. Hatling 2009: 69), though no such ancient artifacts have come to light, as far as I know.

With more than a millennium and half a world separating the two, Gustafson failed to find any monoxylic counterparts in the orient, apart form certain Islamic Quran desks, and western Chinese pedestals and religious effigies with moving limbs produced with the same technique. He found it striking that many such monoxylons were intended for sacred or ceremonial use, which gave him confidence that that the "puzzle toy" from Evebø in fact had religious importance. If so, the underpinning concept might be expressed in symbols seen elsewhere in Scandinavian Iron Age ornaments. Perhaps, he argued, the object itself could be folded into a shape reminiscent of certain symbols in Migration Era art.

Let's pause for a semiotic meditation on the so-called thought ring. Being carved from a single piece of wood, the four parts that comprise the object are seamlessly and completely anchored to one another, or to itself. Are we to regard its constituents as separate, or same? The “limbs” mirror one another in perfect symmetry. Each share the same origin in the thing itself. No external material was added to produce the object. Though created, it was never built or assembled (though we might say the physical object was sculpted). You cannot take it apart without breaking it. It is self-contained. Complete, yet bound. Further, we may discern that the object appears to have an active aspect, and an inactive, passive, aspect. Active when manipulated or shaped into any desired form the object allows, and passive when folded, or closed to be put away and stored. We can note that the object was found in close proximity to the belt, an important attibute of his identity, power and status. It was laid on the deceased persons torso in an open - square - configuration in conjunction with the burial ceremony, which suggests an intimate relationship between the dead and the object. We may presume that this was an important public event with many witnesses. There is nothing random about the selection and placement of objects. They are statements, but what is being said, and what story were they trying to convey through these objects? Was it a treasured curiosity? A final gift from a loved one? Was it used in lithurgy? Did it work as some kind of divination tool? Was it used to illustrate principles of religious, philosophical or cultural importance? Or was it simply the fancy toy of a priviledged child?

To return to Gustafson, we can't expect to find the Evebø object depicted, but there are some symbols in Iron Age art that remind us of its various configurations. When fully opened there is a certain likeness to the "looped square" that came to popularity in the Migration Era, and is sometimes called a “valknute” in later Norwegian folk art (not to be mistaken for that other “valknut” symbol, which is a modern anachronism). Gustafson notes that the loops in the corners are sometimes minimally small, highlighting its square shape (1890b: 20). The roughly contemporary bracteate from Lyngby, Denmark is particularly interesting, as the symbol is enclosed by a ouroboros, which is a snake swallowing itself, and a symbol of unity and eternity through its own consumption and self-reproduction. Could the Evebø-object have conveyed a similar symbolism, of a totality is nothing without its own uncompromised self? In Norse mythology this idea is expressed in the Midgard Serpent: On the one hand a horrific monster and object of dread, but also a cosmic sustainer without which the physical world cannot continue to exist. It is both antagonist and counterpart to the god Þórr, a divine protector, who is also a wrathful deity constantly hovering on the verge of cosmic annihilation due to his ongoing conflict with the aforementioned serpent (Storesund 2013: 73), and they seem locked in a world-affirming, cosmic compromise or paradox.

 Gold Bracteate from Lyngby

Gold Bracteate from Lyngby

It is also clear that Scandinavian society later developed an affinity with the symbolism of knots. This is typified in the Viking Era Borre style of art, with its elaborate knotwork, and the gaze of gripping beasts. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson hypothesizes that Borre style ornaments were ascribed apotropaic properties, and brings attention to the fact that Norse craftsmen seem to have avoided Borre style ornaments on offensive weapons (sword hilts, for example). On shields they would only be visible to the carrier (Hedenstierna-Johnson 2006: 321). Likewise, the the Lyngby amulet had the looped square on the adverse side, facing the wearer's body. Gustafson also compares the puzzle's cruciform to variants of a design known from occasional Iron Age and Early Medieval objects that appear to "represent two plates, which by means of a longitudinal groove in the middle are stuck into each other. If that is to be done in reality the whole must be wrought out of one single block" (Gustafson 1890b: 21). Though his main example is first and foremost found on early Christian runestones in Sweden, we may take note of the argument that a cross is not always the cross as far as Iron Age Scandinavia is concerned.
 

 Gustafson's semotic toolchest (Gustafson 1890b: 17)

Gustafson's semotic toolchest (Gustafson 1890b: 17)

While we are likely unable to extract the intent, function or symbolism behind the Evebø object in any way that would finally satisfy our curiosity, it stands as a preciously unique contribution to our understanding of Iron Age culture and society. And while the range of information related to ancient Scandinavia accumulates, there is some safety in knowing that there is also wonder and mystery to be found even between the growing heaps of data for generations to come.


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July 18th and the Myth of Harold Fairhair: Some brief reflections on national mythology

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Heyrði í Hafrsfirði,
hvé hizug barðisk
konungr enn kynstóri
við Kjǫtva enn auðlagða;
knerrir kómu austan,
kapps of lystir,
með gínǫndum hǫfðum
ok grǫfnum tinglum.

 

Did you hear in Hafrsfjord
how fiercely they clashed?
The highborn king
against Kjotvi the rich,
ships came from the east,
eager to compete,
with gaping heads
and carved prows!

 

Thus spake the poet Þorbjǫrn Hornklófi in Haraldskvæði, a praise poem in honor of Norways first and unifying king. July 18th celebrates the day of king Haraldr Hárfagri's victory at the Battle of Harfsfjorð and consequently the first (but certainly not the last) unification of the Norwegian Kingdom, traditionally held to have happened in 872. This event is interesting for a number of surprising reasons.

First of all, we don't know when the battle actually happened, or even if it happened at all, so why July 18th? The mundane answer is that July 18th was chosen because this was the only vacant date in the Swedish crown-prince Oscar II's schedule when it came to unveiling of the Haraldshaugen National Monument ("Harold's Barrow") for the 1000 year anniversary of Norway's unification (we were still in union at the time). Surrounded by 28 granite stones, all sourced from the equal number of districts of Harold's conquest, Haraldshaugen's centerpiece consists of a 17 meter obelisk raised on top of king Harold's alleged burial mound. The occasion was a national holiday, and 20.000 visitors descended upon Haugesund to participate, a sizeable crowd for town of only 4000 people at the time.

A plaque at the pillar's base translates:
"Harold Fairhair was buried here in this mound, 933"

But this laconic statement is not true.

The first source to comment upon Harold's burial site is Ágrip, a short royal saga from the turn of the 13th century, whose author identifies the original unifier's barrow on the farm of Hauge by Hasseløysund. Drawing from what seems to be the same tradition, Snorri gives a detailed description of what he considered to be Harold's grave in Heimskringla. He probably visited the site during his tour of Norway in 1218, which would make him an eye-witness to a local historical tradition. The problem is that Snorri seems describe a stone cyst grave, which is not a Viking Period custom. Barring an archaeological anomaly, Snorri must be mistaken.

Snorri's description was picked up by the Icelandic historian Thormod Thorfæus in the 18th century, who was exiled to Norway after a drunken tavern slaying. Thormod, who was no wiser than Snorri in terms of archaeological theory, found no grave at Hauge, but claimed he found the lid of Harold's tomb on the neighboring farm of Gard, where it was used as a threshold, and sometimes a floor for village dances.

Later antiquarians were not so sure, and frequently argued for and against various locations of the burial, including a "Harold's Mound" on the aforementioned farm Hauge, which had been turned into a root cellar by the local peasants. Though archaeological evidence on Gard was lacking, the identification of a Medieval church site was taken to confirm Snorri's account, and a series of vague exchanges, with ample help from a popular poem by Ivar Aasen, cemented the notion that Gard was indeed the site of of Harold's burial. Among the barely discernible graves on the site, none of which fit Snorri's original description, the monument was raised in part thanks to a populist appeal by prominent local citizens, on what seems to be a Bronze Age cairn with no evidence of a secondary, Viking Age, burial.

This isn't the only scrutiny poor Harold has suffered. Many historians have questioned the narrative of national unification presented by Snorri and other Medieval chroniclers, and some have even gone so far as to question whether Harold ever lived at all, or if he is simply a figment of political propaganda. For all intents and measures, a Medieval PSYOP. This extreme reductionist stance inadvertently highlights an interesting point: What does "being real" mean in the context of a legend? Whether or not Harold lived as his saga describes, the man only set the ball rolling: the myth far outshines the human being.

In the context of myth, a narrative is true: The myth was real enough to Norse monarchs, who attached actions with very real and tangible results to the idea. As myth, Harold is the founding father of not one, but two nations: Iceland and Norway, who interpret his role divergenly as either a manifestation of Norwegian ethnolinguistic integrity, or a catalyst for an apparently innate Icelandic desire to serve no masters, and suffer no tyrants.

The transition of Harold from a man of flesh and blood into a larger than life entity began with the skaldic poetry celebrating him, and he has been a symbol and a tool ever since. It laid the foundation for a myth of origin, which Norway could cling to on the path to independence in the very far removed historical context of the nation state. In that regard, Haraldshaugen remains an anachronism, but one that demonstrates the continuity of a heroic and legendary figure whose real personality eludes us. Above all, it highlights the power of stories.


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Brute Norse Podcast ep.9: The Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia pt.3 - Pillaging the Past

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In the final segment of the Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia, Eirik and Aksel tackle the slippery slope of commodification of viking heritage, its uses and abuses. Topics raised include, but are not limited to:
- Are meaderies the devil?
- Are viking re-enactors destroying traditional crafts?
- Is the Society for Creative Anachronism a totalitarian organization?
- Is Greco-Roman heritage a threat to democracy?
- Is human sacrifice as bad as they say?
- Can our admiration for the thieving, hyperviolent, cheating, and overall sinful ways of our ancestors be morally justified?

We even find some time to talk about the chronology! Subscribe using any podcasting service, share to your hearts content, and definitely do consider supporting Brute Norse on Patreon. Also check out the Brute Norse teespring store for some rad shirts.

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"The Viking Factor": An Entry from the Personal Journal of Mircea Eliade

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Oslo, 23 August 1970

. . . we head towards the Viking Museum on the other side of the road. The spacious, well-lit rooms house boats dating from the ninth century and admirably decorated four-wheeled wagons. What to say about this head of a man from which emanates such an expression of suffering that one might believe he had just been tortured? Every time I try, for my own interest, to understand the Viking phenomenon, I can't help experiencing a feeling of frustration. There is in that phenomenon an enigma that no historian has yet succeeded in solving. But what is most serious is that this enigma resides in the Vikings' destiny. They loomed up in history at the end of the eighth century, went from conquest to conquest, pillaged, destroyed, founded dynasties, swarmed into Iceland and Greenland, and discovered North America.

The Viking era lasted for two centuries. Aboard ships similar to the one I am contemplating, they launched themselves into all the seas of the North, attacked England, Ireland, France, crushing the kings and princes who attempted to resist them, taking their places, establishing the kingdoms of Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. For a time they dominated England, carved out a fief in Normandy, extended as far as Spain, and made their way into the Mediterranean. Eventually, those in Normandy went as far as Sicily, where they encountered the descendants of other Vikings, the Varangians, who, having left the Baltic, headed toward the east, conquered a portion of the Slavs, established the kingdom of Gardarike with the two famous cities of Kiev and Novgorod, and then traveled down south on the great Russian rivers. Some of them reached as far as the Caspian Sea and had dealings with the caliphate of Baghdad. Others, in greater number, headed towards Constantinople, where they joined the armies of the Byzantine emperor. It was from there that they ventured as far as Sicily.

 Photo: UiO

Photo: UiO

Around the year 1000 all their leaders were converted to Christianity. Some of them returned to their respective lands, imposed the new religion on their subjects, reclaimed their thrones or devoted themselves to trade. By 1030, the Viking era had met its end.

Quite obviously, the spirit, the institutions, and all that the Vikings had brought about had a profound impact on all medieval Nordic culture, and the Viking era is an integral part of the history of all Nordic nations. This heroic and orgiastic exuberance, this debauchery of bloody violence, energy, and creative genius such as were known from 800 to 1000, never again reached such heights. After 1030, the "Viking factor" disappeared from history. Under the circumstances one can't help thinking of the Mongol era, except that the followers of Genghis Khan succeeded in remaining in the empire of the steppes that they had carved out for themselves, whereas the Vikings dissipated their efforts in multiple unique, disordered, or eccentric undertakings. Their adventure brings to mind that of the Polynesians, who in a few centuries swarmed onto all the islands of the Pacific, bringing their civilization with them.

 Photo: UiS

Photo: UiS

In the Viking adventure that stands out most clearly is the omnipresence and the weight of destiny. It is sufficient to recall that in the year 1002 the famous Leif Erikson discovered and colonized a territory he called Vinland, and which was most probably none other than the present-day Newfoundland, for recent archaeological digs there have brought to light vestiges of Viking establishments. Some of the colonists then traveled south and went as far as the region of Rhode Island. The connection between Vinland and Greenland persisted up until around the middle of the fourteenth century. What eventually happened, we don't know. The fact remains that at the end of the fifteenth century there was no longer any trace of Norwegians, descendants of the Vikings, on American shores.

It would be useless to wonder, or to imagine "what would have happened if...": If, for example, Leif Erikson had landed on the same shores, not between Labrador and Virginia, but several hundred kilometers further south and had thus discovered the rich territories that six or seven hundred years later would feed the dreams of thousands upon thousands of colonists from England. How would world history itself have evolved if the discovery and the colonization of North America had taken place before the discovery of firearms, and in an age, therefore, when it wouldn't have been as easy to get rid of the autochthonous populations by displacing or exterminating them, a confrontation and a symbiosis between the two civilizations still being possible.

When I was young my friends and I had endless discussions on the fatality inherent in minor, provincial civilizations, a fatality which willed that their creative genius would be exercised to no purpose in rediscovering ideas or technical developments that had already been discovered and had been in use elsewhere for a long time. Just as if someone reinvented the bicycle twenty or thirty years after it had begun to be mass produced in the West. But even more tragic is the destiny of individuals or nations whose unique genius is wasted on creations and discoveries before their time, and much too early. Thus the apparent futility of the efforts, sacrifices, courage, and intelligence of a Leif Erikson, who only needed to discover America three or four centuries later and three or four hundred kilometers farther south...

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian author, philosopher and historian of religions. Though heavily criticized in recent decades, Eliade's theories and work on the nature and history of religions changed the face of religious studies. His books The Sacred and the Profane (1961) and The Myth of the Eternal Return (1971) remain classics in the field of comparative religion.

Work Cited:

  • Eliade, Mircea. 1989. Journal III, 1970-1978. Translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago

The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.8: The Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia pt.II

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In this part, Aksel and Eirik get into the actual timeline of Scandinavian prehistory with an emphasis on the Bronze and Iron Ages, including the Viking Age. We talk about the materiality of these periods, the language, and regional variation, before we segway drunkenly into our own snobbery.

ᛊᚢᛈᛟᚱᛏ:ᛒᚱᚢᛏᛖ:ᚾᛟᚱᛊᛖ:ᛟᚾ:ᛈᚨᛏᚱᛖᛟᚾ

“An Old Norse Word Meaning Kill”: was the Zodiac killer into vikings?

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Between the late 60's and early 70's, the California Bay Area was haunted by one of the most cryptic serial killers of the 20th century. Though only seven victims have been conclusively tied to the case, the Zodiac killer orchestrated much of his own notoriety through a series of letters – frequently containing codes and ciphers – which he would send to various newspapers in and around San Francisco.

The case is cold as the grave, but whoever he was, he put a lot of thought into his image. Unlike most serial killers, Zodiac was quite talkative. He chose his own nom the guerre, and signed his letters with a crossed circle, resembling a Celtic cross or, rather, the wheel of the zodiac. The likeness to the crosshairs of gun scope is quite obvious, and surely deliberate. This symbol served as his personal logogram throughout his letters, which often contained intertextual references, and sometimes more famous passages of symbol-ciphers, of which only one has been successfully deciphered.

It's difficult to make a non-speculative assessment based on the limited information revealed in these letters. Besides, it would not be unfair to characterize the Zodiac as an unreliable narrator, as he often distorted or embellished the facts surrounding his crimes. Almost every letter he wrote is a cornucopia of spelling errors and mistakes, which might suggest that the killer suffered from severe dyslexia. If he really did is anybody's guess, but reading the notes I can't help but feel that many of the typos seem a tad too deliberate, down to over-obvious, childlike mistakes such as inverted characters. This seems incongruous with the more or less fluent diction and clevernes of some of his other alleged letters, if these are authentic, and not penned by copy cats and impersonators. I would not put it past him to plant such ruses, and that Zodiac was gaslighting the police with layers of conflicting information and red herrings.

If his strategy was to spawn a cacophony of speculations, his efforts were clearly a huge success: The references, as well as the playful, even creative contents of the letters, have lead some to think that he might have been an artist, graphic designer, musician, or other such cultured person. Then again, if he's not the evil genius he's made out to be, he could simply be reaching far and wide for symbolism he knew would give him a chime of mystery. He wouldn't be the first person with a kinda-sorta creative knack to be lauded as a genius, despite being about as deep as a puddle. Guesswork about the Zodiac's identity has made him a modern day Jack the Ripper, and the chaotic tangle of imaginative theories far outgrow the facts we know about the actual personality behind the crimes. While not exactly a fully developed armchair theory, I have come across some things myself that have left me wondering if the Zodiac killer might have been interested in the Viking Age.
 

Exhibit A: A letter to the San Francisco Chronicle

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Dear Mr. Editor,
Did you know that the initials SLAY (Symbionese Liberation Army) spell “sla,” an Old Norse word meaning “kill.”
a friend

The above letter was received by the the San Francisco Chronicle on February 14th 1974, and is assumed to be one of the many letters penned by the Zodiac killer to various newspapers during his active years. The Symbionese Liberation Army was a shortlived far-left terrorist group, and some speculate that their activities, and subsequent media notoriety following the kidnapping and recruitment of Patty Hearst – the daughter of a senator – might have left Zodiac feeling that the SLA was stealing his thunder. It's possible that the SLA roused Zodiac's jealousy, but again there is nothing but the letter to support the assumption. Though a minor detail in a complex narrative, my eyes remain glued to the last phrase of the letter. I find it odd that Zodiac should have any interest (or knowledge) about Old Norse as a (presumably) non-academic American living in the 1970's. It could be an example of him reaching for obscurity in an attempt to seem creepy, but it seems like a far-fetched and unnecessary reference.
 

 Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

The one thing we do know, is that the Zodiac seemed to mention things that interest him, such as movies he liked, or criminal cases he followed. It might be that he felt some sort of affinity to a perceived Norse brutality, so common in outward depictions of the culture, especially in those days. Though this is the only example of him making an unveiled reference to Old Norse, it does exhibit a highly specific sort of know how, even if he was in fact wrong about the etymology: The Old Norse verb slá does not specifically mean "to kill", but "to strike". Conversely, the verb drepa can mean "to kill" but also "to strike, knock, beat". I don't think he would have been aware of these nuances (he did, after all, mispell slá. Anybody with a background in Old Norse would hardly have left out the diacritic). It seems safe to suggest that he was a better graphic designer than he was a linguist.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

Constructing a theory

While we won't get more definite answers from the Zodiac's vocabulary, the postcard above features a peculiar monogram or symbol, speculated by some to be a runic ligature. If so, it could be the runes lǫgr , or týr , and áss . In any case you'll be hard pressed to find a meaningful message drawing on that piece of evidence alone, but since it's impossible to muddy the waters more than armchair detectives already have across half a century's worth of digging, I'm going to entertain this idea a little further. The symbol (or whatever it is) sort of resembles the runic ciphers from the early 9th century Rök stone, though these ciphers are constructed differently (each rune runs along one axis, and they criss-cross. They don't turn 90 degrees like in the postcard above). If the Zodiac killer was familiar with runes, perhaps we might expect to find some rune-like symbols in his other ciphers? There are none as far as I can see. If there is any deliberate model for the Zodiac's coded letters, then Greek seems to be a more likely candidate.

 Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

In fact, the Zodiac's other ciphers have quite a striking resemblance to the so-called Oak Island inscription which, of course, some bozos think was carved by the vikings. Admittedly, that is not the most popular theory, but it does seem to be yet another one of the many inscription-based hoaxes endemic to North America. Any similarities to Zodiac's writing could be coincidental, but apparently the inscription has only been in circulation since the mid-20th century, so who knows what Mr.Z might have picked up along the way:

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Now compare it to one of Zodiac's ciphers below:

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Another point addressed by many interested in the Zodiac case, is the fact that his main symbol of choice is also extremely similar to the Celtic cross, popular among American white supremacists. However, I've found no evidence to support that Zodiac's “interest” in Old Norse was influenced by a neo-nazi or otherwise far-right movement. All of his victims were pale as the driven snow, so there seems to be no white nationalist angle to the killings, and he certainly doesn't mention it in his letters. Besides, the Celtic cross does not seem to have been widely used in a white pride context at the time, though The Minutemen, a 1960's anti-communist paramilitary group had a logo not dissimilar. In this case it's clearly a gunsight, rather than a Celtic cross. If nothing else, I do believe Zodiac intended his signature reminded people of a gunsight, given that one of his ciphered letters stated:

I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest [sic] because man is the most dangeroue [sic] anamal [sic] of all […]

While there seems to be no political motivation for the crimes, it's not impossible that Zodiac was a man with casual counter-cultural affiliations, perhaps associated with some of the many subcultures thriving in 60's and 70's California. Again, the evidence for this is spurious. True to the theatrical marketing of his crimes, it should come to nobody's surprise that people have tried to frame the Zodiac as everything from a satanist, to a victim of government mind control experiments. But when all is said and done, I don't think we need to buy into media hype to think there might be something to the Zodiac's alleged fringe interests, the time and place of the murders considered. One of the more interesting subjects among the countless suspected Zodiacs out there is Earl Van Best, who was supposedly friends of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and allegedly jammed with Kenneth Anger's crush/Manson Family affiliate Bobby Beausoleil. One would suppose that such a character had a passing fascination with norseness, at a time when anything remotely Teutonic had a spooky spectre hovering around it. However, there seems to be nothing but guilt by association tying Van Best to the case.

 A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

Slaves in Valhalla, or: How deep was the Zodiac?

If I may allow myself to wade deeper yet into these waters of speculative insanity, I'm going to pretend that not only is the apparent “runic cipher” hypothesis completely true, but I will also entertain the notion that the Zodiac killer was actually a full fledged Old Norse nerd, possibly with academic credentials. Of course, we may have to assume that he was playing dumb when he penned the SLA letter for this hypothesis to work.

In several of his letters, Zodiac refers to a belief that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife. Even if I'm not convinced that Zodiac actually believed this himself, I have to wonder where on Earth he got the idea from. Continuing down the road with our Norse goose chase, we may state that if he had read the 10th century Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan's account the so-called Rus on the Volga river, he would have found a vivid description of dead chieftain's cremation in great detail. The exact ethnicity of the Rus in Ibn Fadlan's description is debated, but it suffices to say that most scholars assume they were Scandinavian. If Zodiac was an academic specializing in the viking age at the time, he probably wouldn't have doubted it either. Most famous of all is the passage where a slave girl is killed in order to serve the dead chieftain in the afterlife, which is also indicated in Viking Age burial practices more broadly.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

It doesn't quite add up if we presume that Zodiac's belief in otherworldly servitude was governed by academic rationality. If indeed he was a scholar he was probably pedantic enough to notice that there is a certain difference in terms of social dynamic between a slave being buried with their master (their relationship is continued, not established, in the afterlife), and gunning down heavy-petting teenagers on Lover's Lane. But let's imagine Zodiac as a man who knew his comparative sources. If so, he might have come across Leo the Deacon, who was a chronicler employed at the imperial Byzantine court in the second half of the 10th century. Being an eye-witness to some of the empire's many run-ins with the Rus (He called them Tauroscythians), Leo mentions a practice of martial suicide among them, through which they believed they could avoid becoming their killer's slave in the afterlife:

This also is said about the Tauroscythians, that never up until now had they surrendered to the enemy when defeated; but when they lose hope of safety, they drive their swords into their vital parts, and thus kill themselves. And they do this because of the following belief: they say that if they are killed in battle by the enemy, then after their death and the separation of their souls from their bodies they will serve their slayers in Hades. And the Tauroscythians dread such servitude, and, hating to wait upon those who have killed them, inflict death upon themselves with their own hands.

One possible parallel to this belief is found in the Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, who rightfully earned the name “Hunding's bane” by becoming a guy named Hunding's bane. It is in stanza 39, after Helgi himself has given up the ghost, that he finds Hunding waiting for him in Valhalla. Helgi immediately tells him:

Þú skalt, Hundingr,
hverjum manni
fótlaug geta
ok funa kynda,
hunda binda,
hesta gæta,
gefa svínum soð,
áðr sofa gangir.

You shall, Hunding,
wash the feet
of every man,
and kindle fires;
bind dogs,
herd horses,
feed pigs,
before you go to sleep.

 

Long story short, Hunding is Helgi's bitch in paradise. Is it possible, even likely, that Zodiac acted on convictions handed to him by Byzantine historians and Norse poetry? Before we start taking the names of every medievalist active in 60's and 70's California, I'd wager it's about as realistic as him being an MK Ultra lab rat, satanist, kabbalist nerd, a government psy-op, a Mossad agent, the Unabomber, or whatever else people have taken him for over the years. In other words, it's pretty damn unlikely. If nothing else, it proves how easy it is to craft a theory.

If you are interested in the Zodiac case, check out www.zodiackillerfacts.com for an impressive archive of articles, pictures, and newspaper clippings dedicated to exploring one of the most confusing serial killers of the 20th century. 

The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.7: The Chronology of Ancient Scandinavia pt.I

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Tick tock, friends and foes. In the next few episodes we're tackling time itself, or rather our tendency to divide the fourth dimension into eras!

Aksel joins the podcast once again to help unravel the dense issue of Scandinavian chronology. We start off softly with a primer on the origin and development of the ages themselves, from the Greek concept of the Golden Age, to the timeline of modern archaeology, before we get into how the Norsemen developed their own system of ages based on surprisingly scientific criteria.

Augvald Granbane: Confessions of a Reluctant Archaeo-Activist and Spruce Murderer (Interview)

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Driving along the Norwegian coast, you're bound to pass some the many spruce forests dotting the countryside. You'd be excused for thinking that these are naturally occuring features, but in fact they are the wild remnants of man-made plantations. Spruce gardens for the lumber industry. Imported from Canada, it is estimated that some 500.000 acres worth of sikta spruce were planted in the 20th century. Much of it in the years following the second world war, when the rebuilding of the nation raised demand for timber to new heights.

For this, the sitka spruce was a well suited material: It grows fast, straight, and tall. It has excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and more importantly, it thrives in Norway's thin, nutrion deprived coastal soil. There is a sad irony to this, but also a familiar pattern seen wherever the short-sighted decission is made to introduce a new species to a foreign environment.

In a sense, you could say that sitka forests have quite a literal dark side. As anyone who ever set foot in their forests will know, they tend to be dark and lifeless places. The sunless forest floor, though it makes for excellent mushrooming ground, is invariably covered in nothing but spruce needles and cones. If the sitka spruce demands little, it strangles all competition. Considering that most of these plantations are abandoned, they are allowed to spread without regulation. The qualities that made the sitka such a desirable source of timber, have turned it into a monster, and the scheme to meet lumber demands became a sort pact with the devil.

 «Guttorm's Mound» (Also called The Prince's Mound), Karmøy. Photo: UiS

«Guttorm's Mound» (Also called The Prince's Mound), Karmøy. Photo: UiS

A new threat to an ancient landscape

Conservationism comes in many forms. In the past, overgrowth was kept in check by traditional livelihoods. A flock of sheep or goats was all you needed to keep the landscape open. With the decline of subsistence farming and rural lifestyles, saplings that would have ended as treats for livestock, now live well into maturity. With landowners uneager to finish the work their grandparents left behind, you can imagine the result. Trees are left as they are, even if they ripe beyond their years for logging. Sooner or later, a gust of wind will tip them over, and their shallow root systems will rip up the soil. This leaves an ugly crater or bare mountain. If a tree grows on a burial mound tips over, which is certainly a realistic scenario, it can ruin the mound forever. And since they they tend to grow in dense concentrations, they'll often take their neighbors with them when they fall. It's not unusual to see huge clusters of fallen trees after winter storms. Sometimes eradicating old pathways.

Landscapes that would have been just as familiar to an Bronze Age sheep herder as they would have been to a 19th century fisherman, are quickly disappearing. Ancient shrublands and pastures are dwindling away in the shadow of an invasive species. It outcompetes local flora, and rips through the innumerable ancient sites along the Norwegian coast.

Today, the sitka spruce is a recognized ecological threat, an unwanted species. It should have happened much sooner, but the fact that it made the national blacklist at all, is probably thanks to a national awareness that has come over time, much through the effort of a few individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty to save our pastures, moors, meadows, and monuments from the sitka's sprawl.

Enter Augvald, vigilante spruce killer

Arguably, the most infamous character in the saga of the sitka spruce, is the mysterious rebel activist going by the name of Augvald Granbane - the spruce bane. Nobody knows who the person behind the name is, only that he (or she) has haunted the ancient landscape of Avaldsnes, on the West Norwegian island of Karmøy, since 2003. His mission? To completely rid the heritage site and its vicinity of the hooligan spruce, as he calls it.

Avaldsnes itself was allegedly the main estate of Harold Fairhair, Norway's first, Viking Age unifier, and forms part of one of the most find dense archaeological areas in the entire country. Including two ship burials from the 8th century, several massive Bronze Age mounds, standing stones, hill forts, and the 3rd century princely burial of Flaghaug, which contained a 600g solid gold torque, among other things. It is also a recurring, important area in the kings' sagas, and was mentioned in mythological Eddic poetry. 

Taking his title from the mythical king that gave Avaldsnes its name, Augvald's nom de plume is not a random choice. In a sense he has written himself into the rich mythology of Karmøy's history soaked moors and mires, taking as his emblem a sketch of a lost, local bronze artifact. Coming and going, issuing updates on his latest activities, leaving a trail of mutilated sitkas in his wake. Emerging every now and then to make statements remniscent of a guerilla leader taking responsibility for an assasination or kidnapping.

But Augvald's intent is not to instil fear or subvert the law. If anything, he seems see himself as a necessary evil against bureacratic passivity. Killing spruce trees at night, and writing by day. His resin stained hands elegantly steering his pen, loaded with literary wit and sarcastic remarks. Demonstrating passion, interest, and understanding of the unique value of Avaldsnes and its surroundings as an archaeological smörgåsbord, which covers the entirety of Norwegian history, from the Ice Age to the Oil Age. Having absolutely no mercy for local politicians without skin in the game, it is hard not to see this anonymous rebel as an example of the great Norwegian archetype of the subversive underdog who sticks it to the big man. As you can expect, not everybody is too thrilled about his vigilante conservationism. Even in the local history scene, he remains a controversial figure.

 The Viking Farm by Avaldsnes. Hidden in the sitka jungle. Photo: Eirik Storesund.

The Viking Farm by Avaldsnes. Hidden in the sitka jungle. Photo: Eirik Storesund.

This is close and familiar ground to me. I grew up around the area, where I spent my formative youth reenacting the Iron Age, eventually working as a seasonal educator and guide at the Viking Farm open air museum, and the Nordvegen History Centre on Avaldsnes. Which in turn led me down the path I find myself on to this day. Augvald had a sort of spectral presence there, I recall, as I would spend the hours after drinking and walking from burial mound to burial mound with my friend Aksel, musing and meditating on the mysteries of the past. Very often, Augvald's signature cutmarks adorned the overgrowth around us. 

It was obviously just a matter of time before I reached out to Augvald Granbane for an interview. The rest of the article, I dedicate to our conversation. 

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Confessions of a reluctant archaeo-activist: Augvald Granbane

Brute Norse: It's not every day one gets the honor of questioning a living, local legend. I think it would be most prudent to let you describe yourself in your own words. Who exactly are you, Augvald?

Augvald: Living legend is a flattering exaggeration. Shady instigator with a narrow, and local agenda is, perhaps, a better description. I've arranged civilly disobedient operations on Avaldsnes since 2003. This is done to demonstrate my severe dismay with a situation where the invasive sitka spruce was allowed to dominate – exceedingly – a cultural landscape, one that has always been clear and wide open, ever since people first began to keep pastures along Karmsund [That is, a narrow strait between the isle of Karmøy and the Norwegian mainland]. I've done this anonymously, and as an eye-catcher for websites where I have published my thoughts and observations under the pen name Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: The core of your activism seems rooted in the fact that spruce forests are an anachronistic and destructive element, unfitting in a protected historical landscape such as Avaldsnes. Reading your statements, it seems the spruce has become somewhat of a symbol of some overarching bureaucratic tendency. Perhaps you could you elaborate on that?

Augvald: First of all, sitka spruce is a concrete and obvious foreign element on Avaldsnes. That these trees were allowed to grow in peace for half a century is bad and difficult to comprehend. Personally, this situation became unbearable when the trees were still standing a decade after this mistake was pointed out, loudly and clearly. And all while the spruces kept growing, vast resources were spent on building a reconstructed viking farm in the middle of the spruce forest on nearby Bukkøy, and a history center up on Avaldsnes itself. For my own part, the invading trees became an increasingly potent symbol of a nonchalant, restricted, and embarrassing display of historical ignorance among those people whose responsibility it was to take action.

 Part of the Migration Era hillfort at Steinfjell, Karmøy, before and after clearing. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Part of the Migration Era hillfort at Steinfjell, Karmøy, before and after clearing. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Brute Norse: The sitka spruce is a blacklisted, invasive species, and is considered a terrible nuisance in other parts of the country as well. Is Granbane's mission primarily cultural historical, or is there an element of ecological conservationism as well?

Augvald: My actions were motivated by cultural history from the start. Eventually, the WWF and other environmental organizations have also begun to combat the «hooligan-spruce». Their methods are clearly more effective than mine. In some places along the coast, there's a real ongoing struggle against these invasive forests, which were planted in the post-war era. But unsurprisingly, this trend has not reached our local backwater. 

 Girdled sitka spruce. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Girdled sitka spruce. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: You've become somewhat infamous for your weapon of choice: So-called girdling, in which you cut a groove along the circumference of the tree, thereby severing the tree's access to water and nutrients, which slowly kills it. I have to admit it's been a bit eerie stumbling across these girdled trees over the years. This has been a sort of trademark and signature of your presence, but I understand you went through a more experimental phase in your early days, when you used poison. Beyond visibility, are there any other perks to girdling that a budding tree-killer should take note of?

Augvald: Girdling, also known as ring-barking, requires patience, but it's simple and effective if you do it right. In the growing season, poisoning the tree with glyphosate will do the trick in about two weeks. Girdling on the other hand won't take effect until the end of the second growth season. With my long-term perspective, it's okay to wait two years. Besides, if you're going to put down another man's spruce, you might as well do it in a way where you cannot be accused of hurting the environment.

Brute Norse: Absolutely, I imagine pesticides would be somewhat counter-productive to your image in the long run. Do you think your ghostly presence has had an impact on local development, say, in terms of environmental intervention?

Augvald: That's hard for me to determine, but anybody can go there and see for themselves that not even a single spruce remains on Avaldsnes itself. Those involved would of course claim that the trees were due to be removed anyway. That may be partly correct, but obviously they've been forced to deal with a somewhat unpredictable, anonymous figure. A recurring fly in the ointment.

Brute Norse: That's for sure! I know one mutual friend of ours reached for his saw and lopper to clear up a Migration Era hillfort outside of Åkra [a small town South on the island], certainly inspired by your own efforts. Do you hope to inspire others to do similar acts in their own local area?

Augvald: Absolutely! But the fact of the matter is, that there is rarely a reason to do this anonymously and illicitly anymore. On the contrary: Combating «hooligan-spruce» and other examples of overgrowth has by far become accepted as a necessity. There's a lot you can do, and today it's even possible to apply for public funding. 

 Hill fort site at Steinfjell, Karmøy. Note the girdled tree in the background. This was done with the landowner's permission. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Hill fort site at Steinfjell, Karmøy. Note the girdled tree in the background. This was done with the landowner's permission. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Brute Norse: There must be room for some hope with that sort of development. I think it's fundamental that we teach the public to see these sitka forests as the run-amok plantations they are, and not as natural occurring forests. How do you think the situation is a hundred years from now?

Augvald:

I hope the sitka spruce is gone from the entire North and West Norwegian coast, but I am a realist. I expect it will continue to be very dominant in the landscape. Keeping it away from selected areas is a realistic goal, and Avaldsnes is obviously one such area, but it seems it's certainly here to stay. The hope of eradicating this foreign element must necessarily lie in some (bio)technological solution, and that doesn't exist as of today.

Brute Norse: As one would expect, there's no shortage of speculation surrounding your identity. Personally, I think the power of Augvald Granbane's activism lies in all the uncertainty, which seems to give it an element of folklore. Like some sort of modern outlaw, shrouded in hearsay and legend. For example, the story of Augvald ties in with the occasion where Olaf Tryggvason, by many considered one of Norway's great tyrants, was subverted by the god Odin. In a sense, the old taking back from the new.

Do you think Augvald would have made the same impact without the evocative imagery, and the mythology surrounding his name? Is he just a mask for you to hide behind, or do you consider him a being with ambitions of his own? I can imagine such a character taking on a life of his own.

Augvald: The pseudonym was, originally, a purely practical device, and it's served this purpose well. But regarding both the name and means of expression, this was a conscious strategy I chose in order to make the message I wanted to convey a topic of discussion, questions, rumors, and at best even jokes among a local audience. I had a pretty concrete and longstanding plan at the base of it, but it took a while before I came to realize that Augvald Granbane also had a more mythological potential. On a day to day basis, Granbane plays only a marginal and passive role in my real life, but after 14 years it's safe to say he's left his mark on me. Maybe I've even contracted something of a personality disorder? At least he's certainly developed a few stances and values that somewhat differ from my own, and I've grown strangely capable of distinguishing between his opinions and those of mine.

 The 13th century St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2004. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

The 13th century St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2004. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: Speaking of which, the name Augvald Granbane is frequently uttered in the same breath as the terms «vandal» and «eco-terrorist», but many consider you a kind of folk hero. I suppose I am guilty of this line of thinking, too. Do you keep track of all the speculations and characteristics projected onto you?

Augvald: No... Well, I've obviously heard a variety of more or less puzzling guesses and peculiar commentaries, but for the most part I just let Granbane's reputation go wherever it pleases. But I found an exception relatively early on in his career, when there was an overabundance of rumors about my identity, and some of them were quite unfair. I found it best to contribute with some simple facts to dispel a few of the most imaginative and paranoid theories. Hopefully, this served to clear the names of certain people who were unjustly accused, who may unfortunately have felt it as a burden.

 St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2012. Not a spruce in sight. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2012. Not a spruce in sight. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: The area around Avaldsnes, actually the entire region, is unbelievably rich in ancient and historical monuments, yet, in the local branding, we see that it is the Viking Era and Harold Fairhair that steals the show. Hence the local slogan «Homeland of the Viking Kings», which is probably the first thing people see when they land at the local airport. What are your thoughts about this «viking circus», as you like to call it?

Augvald: «Homeland of the Viking Kings – Norway's Birthplace!» was the most outrageous version. An undocumented and obviously unreasonable claim. Made even more edgy by the fact that it was presented in English only - from the very beginning. As if it would become more true or trustworthy if one could avoid expressing this hollow nonsense in the native language of the primary audience.

Initially, I think it's absolutely great that the municipal council of Karmøy, and other local institutions want to shine a light on cultural heritage. My complaint is that this is done in a narrow, historically ignorant, short-sighted, clumsy, stale, and partly destructive way. All the while the cultural landscape and the real historical sites go for lye and cold water [a Norwegian expression: to suffer in neglect], get overgrown or outright ruined, unless antiquarian institutions or private forces intervene. Local politicians and municipal bureaucrats have barely any understanding of the fact that the landscape forms an entirely central part of cultural heritage. Their attitude seems to be, that only the Viking Age is worthy of interest, and that it is better to construct new and completely artificial Viking cultural sites, than it is to take care of the actual and far too dull monuments, for the simple fact that they too often belong to the wrong period. The remains of the amazing ship burial Storhaug [A late Merovingian/Vendel Era find, straight north of Avaldsnes] is perhaps the most depressing example of this. Not many years ago, Storhaug was conveniently «forgotten» by the local council, and almost ended up as an industrial site. Today, what remains of the mound is wedged up against, and probably partially within the industrial zone. Storhaug was by no measure a lesser mound than those which hid the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, neither in terms of content nor size. Some persons of influence should reserve a field trip to Vestfold and see how the ship-mounds are taken care of there. On the plane back home, it would be nice if they could find a moment to silently contemplate the state of things, and the verdict that will be passed on them by future generations. Do they think that our descendants will favour their efforts to fund construction of «real» viking houses in the spruce forest on Bukkøy, while at the same time letting actual historical sites – some of them world class – be destroyed by industry, roads, and real estate?

Sadly, it is my impression that the occasionally extreme commotion about the Viking Age locally, is a product of a collective inferiority complex, need for attention, awkward search for identity, and a dream of great economic profits when all the tourists start flooding in to experience these constructed delights. A proper mess, in other words. Let me tell you: Pointing this out won't make you popular...

Brute Norse: A firm statement. There are numerous other examples of such local hypocrisy. When they renewed the road to Saint Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes for its 700 year anniversary, they actually removed several burial mounds to save themselves a few extra truckloads of stone! In 1950! Anyway, I guess the last word is yours. Is there anything you want to add?

Augvald: On my homepage, I've explained the prelude to my actions in detail, as well as the development up until today. It's a long and winded saga about delays, narrow-mindedness, and hopeless ignorance of history. The angle is rather localized. Even to readers who understand Norwegian, but lack a local connection, it's probably difficult to pick up all the details. Google translate works badly for this text, and to a non-Norwegian reading audience I'm sorry to say that only the pictures offer some impression of its content.

Apart from this, I'll keep my action firm. Going in the same tempo, and with the same goal and strategy in mind as before.

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http://avaldsnes.blogspot.com/

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A Supernatural Guide to the Oseberg Ship (The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.5)

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In this Halloween special, we tackle the weird and mysterious case of the Oseberg ship, and the lesser known, but true, story of how a Brooklyn clairvoyant may have caused the discovery of the most extravagant Viking Age burial ever found.

The episode is available from all podcast apps worthy of praise. If you like my stuff, feel free to rate, review or subscribe. Or better yet; pledge your support over at Patreon.com/brutenorse!

Barbarian Warlords of Free Germania (Pt.1) - The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.3

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Archaeologist Aksel Klausen came knocking to discuss the ecstacy of gold in the Nordic Iron Age, weapon sacrifices, and the emergence of ancient Germanic warrior kleptocrats. A royal mind germ that would only grow as Rome's power grew weaker, giving birth to powerful empires - and eventually the nation state. This is the first half of my two-part interview with a man who will no doubt visit us again in the future. The episode is available through Youtube, iTunes, Soundcloud, and any podcast app worth mentioning. If you want a head start on all future episodes, or hear Aksel and I yack on about ancient booze (recipes included), then pledge your support over at the Brute Norse Patreon page today. The gods will be most pleased. 

For those who want to go beyond:

  • Curious to know more about Aksel's research and the princely burial at Avaldsnes? Check out his Master's Thesis here.
  • We also mentioned the research of our friend Håkon Reiersen, who just released his PhD on Roman and Migration Era Central places in  West Norway. Check it out.

The Viking Sword from Vik - A 1000 Year Old Heirloom?

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This summer, I had the pleasure of staying in a 18th century farmhouse, high in the slopes overlooking the historic valley of Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. There was much to be loved about it: Fragrant mountain air, smelly local pultost cheese, juniper ale, the screaming ghosts of Scottish mercenaries, and my favorite person at my side. Simple amenities only added to the charm.

Our hosts were a family of sheep farmers, though the old man who originally bought the farm back in the 1960's had since retired. Now spending his days weeding the carrot patch, and taking ritual weekend baths in his outfarm sauna. To call him a hippie would be too easy, though one might say he had a few of the associated qualities. He seemed like a character who sees the world around him with a grounded, but keen eye, laughing lots, always reading the landscape. He was courteous enough to show us around a bit, wording his concerns about climate change and how it had visibly affected the valley over the past few decades, pointing out ridges where old footpaths and shortcuts were slowly being erased by overgrowth.

The enthusiastic storyteller served up various tidbits of local history, which was highly welcome in our company. After all, visiting historical sites was half the motivation for our trip, and many gems are all too easily overlooked in a landscape as rich as Central Norway's. The candid perspectives of a local guide can't be beaten.

Surveying the landscape from the steep hillside, he pointed to a bend in the bottom of the valley where the Lågen river snakes Southwards. It was the farm Vik - apparently the birthplace of Saint Olaf, according to local legend. While it's hardly the first place to make the claim, I was unaware of this one. First and foremost, I knew the area as an important pagan cult center, associated with the Thor-worshiping chieftain Dale-Gubrand and his estate, Hundorp, further south.

 Vik, 1907. Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen

Vik, 1907. Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen

I would later realize that I did know about this farm, Vik, after all. It was memorable for an entirely different reason, one that the old man had left out:The Vik sword, which is one of the most peculiar stray finds of Norwegian archaeology, though the term "find" is hardly a fitting description for an item that was never actually lost to begin with.

The Vik sword, an ancient heirloom?

In 1872, the Trondheim Museum of Science came in possession of a very special sword. It was of a kind that would later be dubbed a Petersen type Q sword of continental production, imported to Norway some time in the 10th century. That in itself does not particularly set it apart from other Viking Age swords, as most non-single-edged swords were imported. This one particular sword, however, is uniquely set apart by the fact that it shows no sign of ever having been in the ground. Presumably, it was passed down as an heirloom for just a hundred years shy of a millennium before it came into the hands of archaeologists, who described it with the following, brief words:

Sword of the typical Younger Iron Age shape, but peculiar in that it is entirely unscathed by rust, as it has not been in the ground. The blade is 31'' long, aprox. 2'' broad above. The fuller stops 2 1/4'' from the tip. The hilts are robust and slightly curved, 4'' and 2 1/4'' long. No upper pommel. 3 1/2'' between upper and lower guard. Been kept at Vik in Gudbrandsdalen in the old cottage that the legend calls St. Olaf's.

(Link to the catalog entry here)

Let's stop again for a moment and consider how baffling this is: First of all, most Viking Age swords are found in mortuary contexts. Those that are not, are often stray, accidental finds made in association with agricultural activity and construction. Most of these these, too, were likely put in graves that have since been erased. 

Though the majority of viking swords were in fact produced on the continent, in the Frankish Empire or elsewhere, they are exceedingly rare to find outside of Scandinavia, or wherever Norsemen settled. This is almost entirely thanks to Viking Age mortuary practices, where swords were taken permanently out of circulation by being put in the ground, allowing archaeologists to find them later on. Wherever else, their metal was eventually re-purposed. Statistically, the odds of a sword changing hands continuously for a thousand years in a small, rural community is nothing short of a miracle.

 The Vik sword (T921). Photo: NTNU

The Vik sword (T921). Photo: NTNU

Recently, another miracle discovery was made in the highlands by Lesja, not far from the area in question, where a Viking Age sword of amazing condition had spent over a thousand years in a glacier, owing its condition to a combination of sub-zero temperatures, and a sheltered, well ventilated spot between the rocks. Despite this, it's got nothing on the from Vik in terms of conservation.

Though they might exist, I am not aware of any examples quite like it. There are however other artifacts which have been ascribed a similar provenance. One famous case being the so-called King Olaf's Helmet, a relic taken from Trondheim to Sweden in 1564, during the Northern Seven Years' War. In reality, it never belonged to the martyred king, and neither is it viking helmet, but a 15th century sallet, forged some 450 years after king Olaf's death. 

In the humorous 19th century travelogue Three in Norway (by two of them), one of the two English narrators mention a visit to the farm Bjølstad in Heidal, which is right up the road from Vik. There their host Ivar Tofte (amiably nicknamed Bluebeard) presented them with a similar curiosity during a tour of the estate:

Bluebeard first took us through the state apartments, which contained many curious and interesting things of all ages, from an axe nearly a thousand years old, to a Birmingham plated teapot won at the Christiania horse show in 1860.

Of course, we don't know whether or not "Bluebeard" was correct: Knowledge about viking weapon typology was still crude in the 1880's, nearly 40 years before Jan Peteren published his dissertation on the chronology of Norwegian viking swords. As the story of the helmet of Saint Olaf proves; people without the help of modern archaeology couldn't be trusted to identify an object less than a hundred years old, let alone a thousand.

It's doubtful that a farmer would have been able to determine the age of a viking axe without consulting a specialist, which could also have been the case. Ivar Tofte seems to have been well connected, and was apparently somewhat of a local bigman. However, he could also have relied on local legend and hearsay when he claimed it was "almost a thousand years old". The authors go on to mention that he claimed descendance from Harold Fairhair, another important king, and ancestor of Saint Olaf.

It's speculative, but it makes me wonder if the more well-off farmers around the Gudbrandsdalen valley kept such artifacts to give credence to their claims of legendary ancestry. Demonstrating ties to the Norse past was very fashionable at the time, after all, with Norwegian identity going through a veritable renaissance. This was a time where formerly obscure pieces of Norse literature now being translated and widely distributed. Whatever the fate of the axe: No such artifact from Bjølstad is mentioned in the public record. 

 Bjølstad in 1926. Riksantikvaren.

Bjølstad in 1926. Riksantikvaren.

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Barbarian Beverages: The Noble Savage - a simple cocktail with an archaeological twist

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While recording the latest, third, episode of the Brute Norse Podcast, me and my guest Aksel Klausen strayed into a long digression about one of our favorite subjects: Drinking culture in the past. The act of drinking is, as I've mentioned elsewhere, a deeply symbolic act. What, where, and how we drink unveils our identities, and often our taboos. Drinking correctly can earn you social prestige, but drinking inappropriately has a wider range of possible outcomes, from the carnivalesque to the abhorrent. Next time you go to a party, bring wine and drink it out of a ceramic mug, or a jar. It will raise questions.

Drinking is socially stratified: For example drinking beer was considered somewhat antithetical to drinking wine, historically. I am thinking of my own, native Norwegian society, but it could apply to many other places too. Beer was unpretentious, but also not "cultured". Today, it does not always make sense to talk about beer in broad terms: It's been accepted as the rich culinary expression it is.

With this came an admittance that beer is also culture - obviously, there was never a point where it wasn't. Even the archetype of the village drunk is a saturated cultural expression. What we're really talking about, is shifting perceptions of what constitutes high and low culture.

Anyway, the dichotomy of beer against wine has ancient roots: Wine drinking cultures, such as ancient Rome and Greece, have tended to perceive beer drinking as barbarian, or at the very least vulgar. Bavarians obviously see no stigma in the consumption of beer, while prohibition era Iceland eventually made exceptions for wine and hard liquor (you might say that Nordic drinking culture was spiritual, wink wink), but they made no exception for beer which , unbelievable as it may sound, was illegal until 1989. It was branded a gateway drug, which can be compared to legalizing cocaine, but not cannabis. A poignant metaphor given Rekjavík's past (?) reputation as a safe harbor for yuppies, who were all drinking prosecco anyway.

Beer drinking cultures have tended to be less judgmental, though there are certainly examples where proponents of beer culture have accused wine of promoting decadence and snobbery, both today and in the ancient past. In Norse and Germanic society, there seems to have been a social hierarchy of beverages: Beer is good, and mead is excellent, but wine is the stuff of legend. Heroic poems like Atlakvi­ða passionately refer to the glory of the feasting hall, where champions take deep sips from "wine-heavy ale bowls". Talk about hedonism. 

 

 at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

Under the Roman Influence

A proverbial dip into some of the archaeological evidence for Bronze and Iron Age Nordic beverages, primarily in the form of residue on the inside of drinking vessels and containers, suggest that these Nordic cultures were far from purists when it came to what they drank. The residue bears witness to the spectral presence of berries, malt from beer, and pollen and wax from honey mead. There are also occasional traces of wine, and pitch that could either be used to flavor the beverages, but probably as a sealant for the vessels. Wine, of course, being telltale of contact with the mediterranean.

While it is impossible to tell whether or not all of this was contained in the vessels at once, there are enough of these examples to suggest that people living in prehistoric, Bronze Age, and Iron and Dark Age Northern Europe, consumed mixed beverages, often referred to as Nordic grog by the venerable professor Patrick McGovern, who refers to them in such classics as Ancient Wine, Uncorking the Past, and lastly, Ancient Brews - the most recent addition to his bibliography.

I've not read that last one, but you should definitely read the former if you're interested in history, fermented beverages, the history of fermented beverages, or the fermented beverages of history. Let me rephrase that: If you are culturally conscious person person who eats and drinks, then you should read at least one of these books, or die. If you are a scholar, you should buy Uncorking the Past, sit down with a typewriter, and retype every word of it. You will have grown as an educator by the end of it.

There are a lot of opinions about what constitutes a so-called serious academic. I believe it is one who takes his or her material so seriously, that they cannot help but reach out to the public. Who are unafraid of breaking the mold. McGovern is just that, as his impassioned, amiable writing style demonstrates. His books achieve to be both pioneering academic text books, and page turners.

Anyway, my friend and I were chatting. We were already somewhat tipsy on his homemade Roman inspired mulled wine. An earthy, spicy beverage he had fashioned from amphora-fermented Sicilian nectar. As it ran out we decided to return to our barbarian roots and recreate a drink we'd enjoyed many times before, usually by an open fire under the blushing sky of long Norwegian summer nights. This simple, contemporary interpretation of Nordic grog requires only two ingredients: Red wine and lager beer. 

Our choice of ingredients was unpretentious, in true barbarian fashion. The wine came from a Shetland duty free, apparently branded by the store itself. If I recall, I found it somewhat dry and earthy, yet not too heavy on the tannins. Online reviews absolutely slaughter it. We topped it off with Faxe Premium. This Danish pilsner was a no brainer given the horned viking adorning the can.

The result was, according to the words of my companion, the best of both worlds: A drink that achieves to be both diluted wine, and fortified beer, satisfying Roman, as well as barbarian thirsts in equal measure! Like a patrician in the gutter in the final days of Rome. Mind you, the wine provides a better complement to the beer than the beer does to the wine, leaving a wine-heavy product laced with the light head and tapered fizz of the danish pilsner. While both ingredients matter as they need to balance each other, don't go overboard with the choice of wine. Save your wallet. Even then it feels significantly fancier to drink than the beer would have felt on its own, as it proved to be quite silky and easy on the tongue. 

Recipe: The noble Savage

1 parts dry, young red wine

1 parts pilsner or similar lager beer

Preparation:

1. Chill the ingredients slightly

2. Pour stoically into a glass drinking bowl,

(Alternately: a highball glass)

3. Mix carefully, don't spill a drop!

4. Sip medio-slowly

Suggested pairings:

Cured ham, gift exchange and blood oaths.

If you would like to hear Aksel's favorite recipe for Roman spiced wine, pledge your support over at the Brute Norse Patreon page.

The Brute Norse Podcast ep. 2: What the Romans Did for Us

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It's been an indecent while since the last episode of the Brute Norse podcast hit the web. Now that autumn is in the air and I awake from the slothful haze of summer it's time to pick up the speed, and thus I bring you this hour long retreat into the Germanic tribal hinterlands.

The Germanic tribes are often credited with the destruction of the Western Roman Empire. There are no Roman roads in Scandinavia, still the empire resonated in the cultural memory of the Vikings. From Teutoburger Wald to the Taliban, Brute Norse joins forces with Krister Vasshus, PhD student in onomastic sciences at the University of Bergen, to discuss just how far the Roman shadow fell beyond its Northern border.

The episode is now available on Soundcloud and all podcast apps worth their salt. Image courtesy the University of Bergen.

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Archaeologists Enable The Black Market By Destroying Historical Artifacts

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These are sad days for Scandinavian museum objects. Last week, 1some 400 objects were viciously burgled from the University Museum in Bergen, in all likelihood bound for the black market. Now, words of lament are howling from across the Swedish border as archaeologists have been forced to destroy artifacts recovered from digs, and objects such as scales, coins, knives, decorated foils, pre-Christian cult objects etc. are sent for scrap metal right on the site, if they are not considered unique enough to warrant conservation. Apparently too precious to own, but not to precious to be thrown.

This has already been discussed elsewhere on English language sites that are, diplomatically speaking, more tendentious in disposition, and where it plays right into the hands of a narrative where Sweden is on a masochistic binge to erase its own cultural memory to better accommodate swarthy hordes from across the sandy dunes. This will not be yet another article about that, but you cannot help but think that with this legislated destruction of their own cultural heritage, Sweden is not doing a very good job at combating the stereotypes pinned against them.

Let's add some much needed nuance: To my understanding, the destruction is for the most part carried out by private companies sourced to conduct routine and emergency digs on behalf of state archaeologists. Additionally, the items bound for the grinder are usually of negotiable historical value. These are digs that are often done in association with construction work, which none the less make up the bulk of Scandinavian digs, to the point where contemporary Nordic archaeology is more or less synonymous with highway projects and the like. Sweden, however, is unique in its employment of private archaeological companies for such tasks.

The fun thing about archaeology is that you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes you get little, sometimes you get a lot. This rings particularly true when it comes to emergency digs, in which the lack of time necessitates many tough choices. I'm sure more than a few artifacts and their contexts have met an untimely demise at the hands of such gambles, but it's debatable whether or not this is problematic if they would have been obliterated by machinery anyway.

Blasting the past

It's not unheard of to find examples of house remains, burials, or even cult sites where archaeologists can do little but step back and let the bulldozers in. In my hometown, there is the particularly grim example of the destruction of the Bronze Age burial mound at Tjernagel. A site unique not only for its impressive size, but for the fact that it's referenced in a skaldic poem from the beginning of the 11th century. The 3000 year old mound was destroyed in 1983 to make room for a since decommissioned radio transmitter. As baffling as this might seem, such practices have generally been accepted sacrifices on the altar of societal infrastructure.

However, extending this logic to artifacts is a new turn, or should I rather say; shockingly old. Especially considering that contemporary archaeology explicitly distances itself from its antiquarian roots in the 19th century, where conservation was entirely up to the excavators  who could more or less scrap whatever they saw fit. Deliberate destruction was not entirely unheard of, either, as the fate of the 8th century Storhaug ship shows. Buried in a massive mound on a particularly fertile stretch of farmland on my own native island of Karmøy, it was Excavated in 1886 by Anders Lorange. The Storhaug ship is estimated to have been at least 27 meters long. Three meters longer, and a century older, than the Gokstad ship. Lorange had no idea what to do with such a find, so he rounded up the artifacts and let the local peasants tear the ship apart for firewood. 

A child of his time, for sure. I have not met a sane archaeologist that didn't roll their eyes at Lorange's choice of action, so it's shocking to me that any Scandinavian archaeologist would return to the antiquated practice of scrapping artifacts they don't consider beautiful or important enough to save. You know, I really don't want to be one of those argument-by-current-year sort of people, I really do. But that sort of practice would hardly be tolerated in 1917 archaeology, let alone 2017.

The reasoning behind the choice to destroy these artifacts lies with the fact that museum stores are filled with metal objects of negotiable public interest. Okay, they better be filled to the brink, to the edge of absolute collapse, because the case applies to all the other Nordic countries, or Western Europe for that matter, but so far I've yet to see anybody else making screws and bottle openers out of Viking Age iron. The world may be headed off the deep end, we don't need to enforce such dystopian levels of recycling just yet.

It's been pointed out that most of the recycled material is more recent, modern trash that archaeologists are under no obligation to conserve. But there is an obvious paradox in the fact that, in theory, pocketing a rusty nail is a criminal offense but throwing it in the trash is not.

Absurdly, Sweden is the only Scandinavian country that allows private archaeological companies to perform such excavations, but it's significantly harder to acquire a private permit to use metal detectors there than it is in Norway or Denmark. Sweden banned unlicensed use of metal detectors in 1991 (Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist gives an outline of their legality on his blog). Consequently, Sweden reports the fewest number finds from private detectorists, while the opposite is true for Denmark, which appears to be winning the karmic game as far as conservation goes. Whether or not metal detectors should be subject to draconian restriction is debatable, and is only relevant to this discussion as far as it relates to the black market. It's possible to argue that Sweden's restrictive legislation in itself serves as an enabler to so-called nighthawks. That is antiquarian slang for illicit detectorists. 

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The economy of destruction

Like the destruction of ivory, there is every reason to believe that destroying archaeological artifacts increases their perceived market value, even though they have never been legally obtainable to the public in the first place. With news spreading like wildfire about archaeologists destroying their own finds, the topsy-turvy world of Swedish archaeology finds itself in the situation where nighthawks may choose to claim a moral high ground. It is ironic and utterly inexcusable that artifacts have a better chance of surviving in the illicit market, than in the hands of archaeologists. If given the choice between seeing such items destroyed by the excavation teams, or sold privately, I would see them used as paperweights or mantle pieces in a private home any day. If museums can't even find a shoe box to keep them in, they might as well hand out licenses and auction them off legally. Any fate is preferable to legislated vandalism. If this is how the laws simply are, then one could argue that the laws regulating Swedish conservationism are long overdue for reconsideration. If the core of the matter lies with the fact that Swedish museums are criminally underfunded, then all the more reason to raise concerns.

It is particularly idiotic and counter-productive because archaeologists have been struggling to make themselves understood by the public for well over a hundred years. Archaeologists across Scandinavia struggle enough to communicate with landowners as it is, and this will only perpetuate the vilification of archaeology that is still prevalent in Scandinavian agricultural communities. The message these actions are sending out, is one where not only will archaeologists rip up your yard, but they might destroy whatever they find too. By standardizing last resort actions, they have created means for the black market justify itself, and where illegal possession of historical artifacts becomes preferable to their destruction.

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Raping The Muses: Burglars In The Bergen University Museum

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The other day I was met with a lunchtime read of the dreariest kind: Museum break-in, objects of great historical value stolen, said the headline in my news feed. Consider the picture below if you've never been to Bergen. It is the facade of the Bergen University Museum, specifically the Cultural History Collections, or The Historical Museum as they call themselves these days. Knowing the museum world, cold sweat struck me as I realized the gravity of the situation. After all, I live in Bergen and work for another museum group in the same town. I send tourists their way with warm endorsements, knowing they will have a great experience.

I'm sure we all hoped for minimum losses. That we were up against a clumsily executed crime by some aimless small-timer on an amphetamine bender. That security arrived swiftly, sending the burglar - or burglars - running. If not exactly leaving a trail of coins and flint fragments to follow, then at least some solid footage to identify perpetrators by.

 The scene of the crime. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

The scene of the crime. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

 

It was too much to hope for. Assuming there was more than one, the thieves had climbed a scaffold outside the museum (discernible in the picture above) and smashed a window on the seventh floor which, by Odin's knackers, is part of the magazines. I've been up there myself during my brief stint as an archaeology student.

There is some seriously impressive stuff up there, and the timing could not have been worse: The permanent viking exhibit was down and due for reopening later this year. This may mean that many of the artifacts usually displayed downstairs might have been boxed up in the aforementioned storage. In other words, the thieves may have gotten away with a sizeable chunk of some of the museums most recognized treasures.

The dust settles I'm writing this less than a week after the incident, and many questions are still unanswered. Local newspaper Bergens Tidende quoted the museum director, the venerable Henrik von Achen, as saying that the stores dedicated to the safe keeping of Iron Age objects had had been plundered, among them several artifacts from the Migration and Viking Eras. After some initial confusion as to the extent of the raid the museum now reports 2̶4̶5̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶i̶r̶m̶e̶d̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶s̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶. They expect the numbers to rise significantly as the tally continues. [Update 18/08/17: The museum has adjusted the number of losses to 400]

Thankfully, the museum maintains an extensive photo documentation program. Images of confirmed missing artifacts are uploaded to a dedicated Facebook group run by the staff, hoping to ease recovery by raising awareness and reaching out to the public eye. Though English information is somewhat lacking, these pictures say all you need to know: Dozens of tortoise brooches, bracelets, torques, keys, pennanular brooches, horse tacks, insular fittings, vessels, trefoil brooches, hack silver, coins, and amulets are confirmed so far. Who knows what else. Join the group it and see for yourself.

 Just two of the many stolen tortoise brooches. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

Just two of the many stolen tortoise brooches. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

The questions we need to ask

There are a few serious question to be begged about how this was allowed to happen. Bergen has been plagued by professional art theft in the past, and the sad story of the presumably contracted raid on the Historical Museum in Lund also comes to mind, where precious objects from Uppåkra were lost in 2013. That incident bore all the markings of a professional, well planned burglary. It's less clear cut in the case of Bergen, because the items were practically handed to the burglars on a silver platter - and I'll tell you why.

First of all, the break-in is believed to have taken place some time on Saturday night, which is interesting insofar that it was only discovered about 8am Monday morning. Pardon my Ostrogothic, but if this is true, how the blazing hell does that happen? At first it was claimed that the burglars had executed the break-in without setting off alarms, but it was later admitted that the alarm went off twice. Are the Bergen Museum's security systems so dated that they do not point to a specific floor? How did the security guard fail to notice the broken window? If the burglar consciously set the alarm off twice to simulate false alarm, hiding in the meantime, then security must have fallen victim to the oldest trick in the book. One they should have anticipated. It would be an absolute humiliation to the integrity of the company, for such false positives should have no consequence to security routines - especially at an object of that importance. If this is the case, the guard is obviously not fit for such duties.

How could the construction company be so daft as to not secure the site better? I would presume that security concerns would be part of the work routine, but really, the accountability lies with the museum trusted to keep these artifacts safe. Here's the museological bottom line: The security company screwed up, the construction company screwed up, and they should answer for it, but these were red flags that should have been recognized by the museum itself.

 Contrary to the picture, Henrik von Achen isn't pointing any fingers. Courtesy Mette Anthun/NRK.

Contrary to the picture, Henrik von Achen isn't pointing any fingers. Courtesy Mette Anthun/NRK.

On that note I must add that the museum handled the situation as honorably as they possibly could. As the director Mr. Achen expressed, no museum suffering a break-in can honestly say that their security measures were good enough, so his integrity can't be questioned in that department. They have taken full responsibility for their own, painful losses. If thieves could be accurately anticipated, these things would obviously never happen, yet it goes to show that an up-to-date, thorough security regime is an undeniable and absolute necessity, because this is the alternative is the exact situation they are up against: There is no security footage, there are no suspects. These fragile artifacts may never be recovered, and some have most certainly sustained some kind of permanent damage. They could be sitting in the back of truck bound for the black market in Eastern Europe, or corroding in a puddle of bong water across town, but really they could be anywhere. Your guess is as good as mine. [Update 18/08/17: Media report evidence pointing in the direction that this was indeed a planned, professional strike. This is congruent with the types of artifacts that were stolen.]

Bergen University Museum is pointing no fingers. I suppose they can't, but as an independent voice, I can. I've worked in museums my whole adult life. I know the meager budget sob story all too well. Bad funding affects the security of artifacts, buildings and, last but not least, the museum work force itself. To update their security - as mentioned, an absolute necessity - I fear many museums will have to make cuts that do damage to other departments. We need artifact security, but job security too. To achieve this, many museums will require better funding, one way or another.

The first, cheapest, and easiest line of security belongs to the attentive museum worker, but while museums and their employees hold the task of protecting our cultural heritage, their ability to do this is remarkably dependent on politicians, and the biggest finger of them all, I shall point at them. Blessed is the museum that runs on ticket sales alone. I've certainly never worked at one. In fact, most museums are at the mercy of either private or government funding. Theft is not the only threat here. It's no secret that many museum magazines simply aren't up to scratch in terms of climatization. Finally I shall also break the taboo of criticizing the public, though I usually try to take their side in heritage matters.

Many Norwegians, spoiled by the nanny state as we tend to be, have entirely unrealistic expectations in terms of the duties and services of museums. As citizens of a heavily taxed social democracy claiming to care about public enlightenment, they expect museums to offer their services cheaply, or even for free. Even though entry fees are comparably cheap here, some will not pay the equivalent of two bus rides, or about 70% the price of a movie ticket to see a national treasure. Simultaneously, governments both past and present relieve themselves of their duties by cutting as much cultural funding as their conscience allows them, preferring to build anew rather than maintaining what they started. Meanwhile, museums who have been asking for decades, don't receive the funds to modernize. Still they are expected to fight off mold and vandals alike, even when they barely have enough to pay their workers in the first place. Relying to a great extent on intermediate positions taken as works of passion, with little to no hope of career development.

 Replicas of the lost horns of Gallehus. The National Museum in Copenhagen.

Replicas of the lost horns of Gallehus. The National Museum in Copenhagen.

The museum is a sacred space

I extend my condolences not only to the Bergen University Museum, but to the Norwegian public whose cultural memory has been severely pillaged through this deplorable crime. Norway is a small country built on trust, and the benefit of the doubt. These are core ideals, and relevant to the ongoing domestic debate about so-called Norwegian values.

If, by any chance, the guilty party reads this essay, I want to tell you this, cocksucker, that I hope you realize the symbolic gravity of your deed. You stand shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, who as a gesture of defiance against world heritage, reduced to rubble the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Your are hardly different from the black market speculation and outright destruction carried out by the zealots of the Islamic State. You are a 1:1 scale copy of the crooked goldsmith Niels Heidenreich who stole and destroyed the Golden Horns of Gallehus for the sake of nothing more sacred than his own greed.

 Bamiyan. Picture courtesy of the Taliban.

Bamiyan. Picture courtesy of the Taliban.

This is what's at stake. Museums are sacred institutions, and I mean this quite literally, not as a trite, literary embellishment. The very term comes from the Greek mouseion (Μουσεῖον), which originally denoted a shrine or temple dedicated to the muses, minor deities of art and inspiration. Museums are temples to the memory of mankind. They are shrines in which we may converse with the past, which grounds us and gives our time and lives context. Offering new and old perspectives alike. Where culture is produced, examined, interpreted, and enjoyed. I'd even wager that beyond visiting the graves of loved ones, and family rites of remembrance, it is the closest thing the Western world has to ancestor worship. While all artifacts have indiscriminate value to the museum, the fact that these items were from Iron Age and Viking Era makes it all the more painful, as these periods have a firm grip on the Norwegian consciousness. The Viking Era being is our founding myth, the Norwegian ethnogenesis, the womb of the nation.

This is not lost on thieves. For artifacts to be recognized in terms of market value, all of the above must be taken into account. But this is nothing compared to the cultural worth of these artifacts. Like a temple, artifacts are deposited and sacrificed. Though they may move from museum to museum, from temple to temple, they must never be fully removed. Art theft is sacrilege. The burglar rapes the muses.

How can you help? By raising awareness, joining the Facebook group, sharing this article, and by keeping an eye open for any suspicious artifacts on the online market. I'm aware several auction houses have been notified. Let's not make it any easier for the criminals.

Fimbulwinter 536 AD: Ragnarok, demographic collapse, and the end of Proto-Norse language

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The gods have abandoned you. The sun's rays are fainter than they used to be. Dim and barely discernible behind a misty veil that stretches across the sky in all directions, reaching far beyond the horizon. You are weak and sickly, your stomach grumbles but there is nothing eat. The pantry is empty and the crops won't grow. It should have been summer by now in this year of constant twilight, but the soil is still frozen. The year is 536, and in Byzantium the chronicler Procopius writes:

It came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

Crisis on a cosmic scale

Irish annals attest to famine, of crop failures and shortages of bread. A dense expanse of fog is described in both Europe and the Middle East. Summer snow is reported as far away as China, where witnesses claim to have heard a powerful boom emanating from the South the year before. In Scandinavia, researchers will later find evidence of severe retardation in tree growth at this point in time owing it to climactic instability, with tree rings bearing tell-tale signs of frost damage in the summer of 536. In the district of Jæren, South-West Norway – a comparatively fertile area by Norwegian standards, archaeologists see indications of agricultural collapse. There must have been famine, pestilence, social and political turmoil. Generations of accumulated power must have poured like sand between the fingers of ancient dynasties and prestigious families. Winter followed winter, without the pleasant respite of summer. Beneath the seemingly dying sun a wolf and axe age erupted. Brothers clashed against their brethren, spawning a militant reorganization of society.

 From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

We are not entirely sure what caused these terrible and cataclysmic events, or where it all started. Most scholars argue in favor of a super-volcanic eruption. Others suggest it could have been caused by a bombardment of meteorites, which would have flung dust high into the atmosphere, causing a global cooling event. There is also some evidence to suggest an unlucky combination of both. The eighteen kilometer wide Grendel crater, which lies at the bottom of the sea in Skagerrak, betwixt Norway, Sweden and Denmark, may have been created at this time. A meteorite this size would certainly have unleashed a massive tsunami as well, eradicating nearby coastal settlements. Whatever the origin, we may all agree on one single thing: This must have been a terrible time to be European.

But it didn't end there. Just when the North was getting back on its feet, Mother Nature threw another punch: Only five years later, between 541 and 542, the Justinian plague spreads across Europe, «by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated» Procopius states. Historians speculate it might have killed off just about 50% of the European population at the time. The bacterium in question was the dreaded Yersinia pestis, a pathogen of the same breed as the Black Death that swept across the world in the mid-1300's.

 

 

 J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

From the ashes came a new language

As grim as it must have been to live through these decades, it's an exciting period from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. We may identify and reconstruct ancient linguistic shifts, but we are often clueless about their exact causes. But the extreme conditions following the 536 crisis lead to one of the most prominent linguistic transitions in Scandinavian history, comparable only to the changes caused by the black death some 800 years later. The 6th century climate crisis coincides with the demise of the Proto-Norse language, which in turn gave rise to an early form of Old Norse.

Proto-Norse, originally a dialect of North Germanic, is the language of the oldest runic inscriptions, and you could say that Proto-Norse is the grandfather of all the North Germanic languages. This metaphor is striking for a somewhat bleak reason: Judging from runic inscriptions, the language developed so rapidly that the younger generation must have spoken a distinctly different language from their grandparents. But not due to an external linguistic influence. It's indicative of a demographic crisis: Vast portions of the population were dying, and they must have died young.

I'll use my name as an example: Had I been born around the middle of the 6th century, my Proto-Norse speaking parents would have known me as *Ainaríkiaʀ, or “Single Ruler” in modern English. Had I, on the other hand, been born in the second half of the 7th century, my name would have been something akin to *Ęinríkʀ, and Eiríkr not long after that. Easily recognizable in the modern variants Eirik, Erik, Eric, and so on. If I was proficient in runes, I mightstill discern the phonological content of centuries old inscriptions carved in the elder fuþark script, but their linguistic contents would have seemed as alien as any foreign language.

 From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

Ragnarok as collective trauma

1500 years later, historians would start using words like the late Antique little ice age and the crisis of the sixth century to describe these events. In Scandinavia a handful of researchers, notably the Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund, would begin to see these events in light of the Eddic poems and Norse mythology. Suddenly, the words Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok are featured in conference presentations about frost damaged growth rings, an increase in votive sacrifices in the late migration era, and extraterrestrial particles in Greenlandic ice cores.

It's been speculated that Ragnarok, the mythological end of the world, is a cultural recollection of the 6th century crisis. Sources forebode it by social conflict and ecological disaster, including three winters with no summer between them, stars falling from the heavens, societal collapse and extinction. The fact that Norse religion had such a prominent eschatological myth sets it apart from most other ethnic and polytheistic religions. Perhaps the story of Ragnarok was really a fossilized, metaphorical account of the traumatic experiences of their migration era ancestors.

I suppose we are all children of our time in one way or another, and this is mirrored in our interpretations of the sources. Many German philologists of the 1930's were obsessed with secret ocieties of ecstatic warrior-initiates, and cultic male bonding. The 1970's gave rise to eroticized readings of the myths, as well as feminist revisions that that say more about the effects of the sexual revolution, than they do about Norse religion. The study of Indo-European mythologies itself became a decidedly unsexy topic for decades in the post-war era. From this it should be clear that we always ought to stop and question the scope and agenda of current antiquarian sciences. Popular research topics may reveal as much about our own age as they may about the past. Ecology and pluralism are both strong features of public discussion today, and is inevitably reflected in archaeology and historiography. Climate change as a doomsday scenario affects our view of the world, therefore it provides a reasonable trigger of application to the soft sciences. Critics of this theory may think it a little far out, and I agree that the 536-event can't account for the entirety of Norse eschatology. Regardless, the disastrous events have left a significant mark on Scandinavian Iron Age society.

I wonder which myths will come of us.

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist

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It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.

This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.

At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.

Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.

I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.

 

 Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum


*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different

Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork. 

As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.

This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.

 Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.

The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.

They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.

 

 Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.

A multivalent symbol

While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.

It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.

 

 The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in  other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use. 

The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol. 

Conclusion

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.

I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.



Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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Brute Norse Podcast Ep.1: The Archaeology of Emotion with Leszek Gardeła

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It is my supreme pleasure to reveal the next chapter in the Brute Norse saga, namely the spanking new Brute Norse Podcast. Keeping up with the public can be a difficult task. I guess it's all about meeting your audience where they are at. While articles have their charm, they lack the versatility and perks of the podcast format. My readers have been suggesting I try it out for some time, and I admit that I've shied away from certain topics in the past, thinking they deserved something more sparkly than my usual article format. With the recent revamp of the blog I think the time is ripe to try something fresh and new.

A podcast allows me to let someone else do the talking for a change, and lets me invite people with talents and knowledge I may not possess. This episode was a treat to produce for that exact reason. I the had pleasure of meeting up with Leszek Gardeła, who is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Rzeszów, Poland. A rising star of viking scholarship, his vast body of work includes magical staffs, ritual specialists, the viking diaspora in Poland, and the spooky world of "atypical burials". We sat down for a discussion about the ambiguity of magic, morbid viking burials, and the ethics of studying the dead. He recently published his doctoral thesis about magic staffs in the viking era. I've featured his work previously in my article on the magical practice of seiðr.

Leszek frequently works with the Polish artist and illustrator Mirosław Kuźma to reconstruct the various graves he studies, adding imagination and color to the dark past. I highly recommend you check out his work.

As for the podcast itself: It is now available through Soundcloud, iTunes, and any podcast app worth it's salt, so be sure to subscribe!

 Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Ninjas of the North: Royal assassins in medieval Norway

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On the fifth day of Christmas in the year 1181, an angry, drunken mob took to arms and stormed the palace of king Magnús Erlingsson in Bergen, Norway. The assailants were called guests, but they were not visitors. The title of guest was actually a rank within the royal guard. And they served a function comparable to that of secret police or special forces units. As one source puts it, they lent their name from the fact that they “pay visits to the homes of many men, though it is not always friendly.” In short, the guests often served as spies and assassins doing the king's dirty work.

Now they were rebelling, killing servants and vandalizing royal property, breaking their way into the hall, door by door, and catching the king's retainers unarmed and off-guard, who relied on a few armed guardsmen and hot stones from the fire to keep their assailants at bay. Before long the town guard rushed to their aid and the attack was finally suppressed. The king seized the conspirators in the ensuing aftermath, executing the worst aggressors and made examples of the rest by amputating feet and hands. The reason for the uprising? The king had merely served them beer and confined them to drink in a separate building, reserving mead and the best quarters for the higher ranks of his bodyguard. But who were these “guests”, exactly?

Knock knock, who's there?

The key to understanding their title lies in the society they belonged to. As mentioned in the King's Mirror – a 13th century book of noble customs, the guests were named because of their habit of stalking the king's enemies. It is easy forgotten in the relative peace of the 21th century that visitors aren't always wanted, and medieval Scandinavia could certainly be a volatile and dangerous place. The warrior ethos of the Viking era was still alive and well, and strangers should well be treated with equal measures of hospitality and caution.

The guests were oath-sworn members of the king's retinue, or hirð in Old Norse. But unlike his other retainers, who were nobles, the guests were low-born. They earned only half a hirdman's pay, and though they were considered second in rank to them, they were formally above some of the lesser ranks of the retinue. However, noble birth meant that these could hope to rise in status, something that the low-born guests could not. They were held separate and, apart from Christmas day and Easter day, were not allowed to eat and drink at the king's table like the noble retainers.

The hirðskrá – literally the Book of the Retinue – was a law code compiled in the 1270's regulating the Norwegian royal guard. It states a great deal about the guests, who seemed to serve as the king's eyes and ears around the country. Often they were sent to complete specific clandestine tasks. In practice this could be anything from assasinating opponents to delivering letters. It is stated that the king should refrain from sending the guests out on impossible missions, as well as those that would «displease God». Meaning there must have been some ethical concern associated with their function, at least officially, which would serve to explain why the guests could not be nobles. This might also imply that the guests had been involved in past atrocities, and that kings might have been too unscrupulous in their deployment, perhaps even sending them on outright suicide missions. The law code also encouraged the guests to understand, and carefully consider their contracts, as to make sure there were no misunderstandings. They were allowed to question their missions to some degree. Still, the task of the guest was to do the king's bidding, even when the task was grim.

 Hrafninn Flýgur (1984), Dir: Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.

Hrafninn Flýgur (1984), Dir: Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.

For king and country

Judging from the sources, their assignments were as varied as they were dangerous. Ranging from downright political assassination to sabotage, the confiscation of property, kidnapping and espionage. The sagas paint a picture of gritty shock troops with license to kill, going behind enemy lines to exterminate strategic targets, even in the midst of an army, which must have required tremendous military skill. They existed all over the realm, and were required to be on the lookout for any military or political threats to the king. Wherever such enemies were spied, they ought to try and kill them, or so the King's Mirror says. 

The Book of the Retinue, however, gives the impression of a more organized force, and being the younger of the two texts, it might point towards a formal development to regulate the guests' behavior more strictly. For example, instead of outright executions, guests should ideally abduct their targets and bring them before a priest to perform their last rites, before ultimately taking them to an executioner. Several accounts reveal that this wasn't always carried out, and many a man's political ambitions must have ended with their guts spilling across the business end of a guest's blade, or dangling from a tree in the forest, as is purported to have been the fate of one particular band of Swedish interlopers.

The guests enjoyed many perks otherwise out of reach to people of low birth. As the king's men they qualified for tax exemption, and crimes against them punished more harshly. They were probably rewarded with properties and special services exclusive to veterans in the king's service. This, along with the brotherly security that came with being part of Norway's elite licensed killers, must have earned them some notoriety.

Loot to kill

Despite being representatives of the king, these professional party crashers didn't always have the best intentions. The aforementioned law code expressly states that the guests couldn't confiscate anything that wasn't directly relevant to their mission. It seems likely that this amendment was a reaction to the guests being a bit too eager to loot and kill. Some thirty years earlier, the King's Mirror claimed that the guests were allowed to keep all the loot they could carry from assassinations (apart from gold, which was forfeited to the king). Such abuse of their position was evidently not acceptable from the 1270's on. Thus we might speculate that guests were using their license to kill to line their pockets.

Like other agents of some majesty's secret service, ill treatment of women is also an issue here. The law code takes special concern for guests on the subject of robberies and women's safety, suggesting a history of sexual assault and larceny within their ranks. All in all, the guests had a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous.

This leads us to the other ethical conundrums of being a contract killer in Norse culture: The guests could only do as they did because they acted on behalf of the highest authority in the country, namely the king. Otherwise, Norse culture frowned upon clandestine activities of any kind, and the deeds of the guests could easily have been condemned as cowardly and unmanly, had they been performed by any other member of society. The mere act of accusing someone of being unmanly was a defamation that could legally get you killed, so this was no small matter. Norwegian society in the 13th century was a transparent one, centered around family ties and a strict code of honor/shame ethics. Between the viking era and the better part of the high middle ages, killing someone was somewhat excusable as long as you openly admitted to it and accepted penalty. Covert killing was, at least in most cases, considered dishonorable, and would qualify a person to outlawry by default. This was effectively a death sentence back then. The fact that guests sometimes had to resort to such methods may explain why this position was reserved for low-born people, as it seems out of step with the chivalric ideals of 13th century nobility. Despite all this, the guests seem to have been highly respected and trusted confidants of the king.

As a guest you might be torching a political opponents house one day and delivering mail the next, with all the immunity of a government agent. Not much has changed in 800 years, has it? 

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Literature

  • Flugeim, Morgan. 2006. Gjestene i kongens hird. Ein samla gjennomgang av deira virke. The Faculty of Humanities: The University of Bergen
  • Imsen, Steinar. 2000. Hirdloven til Norges konge og hans håndgangne menn. Riksarkivet: Oslo
  • Kongsspegelen. 1976. Translated by Alf Hellevik. Norrøne bokverk. Samlaget: Oslo