brooch box fyrkat © National Museum of Copenhagen

Viking Myths

This summer “VIKING 2013” presents us with four new angles on the Vikings. The fourth one is about Viking myths…

Finally the ship was laid to rest in the harbour near Roskilde. At that time (1039) Vikings were no longer buried in boats covered by mounds but laid to rest in churches or the new churchyards nearby. In Roskilde around 1040 the first stone church was erected. Although it is believed that heathen practices continued to unfold somewhat secretly for a long time, Viking kings had at that point – at least in Western parts of Scandinavia – for a long time subscribed to the new monopolistic religion: Christianity.

But what went before? And how should we understand the conversion? And not least: how have the curators chosen to exhibit the answers to these particular questions, which they subscribe to?

reliquary cross bornholm
Reliquary cross from Bornholm
© National Museum of Copenhagen

First they have chosen to focus on a spectacular find at Fyrkat, the burial of a Viking sorceress (prophetess) or Völva. Here at one of the Viking fortresses, built by the self-professed first Christian king in Denmark, Harold Bluetoth, a woman was buried around 980 in the body of a carriage, signifying a female grave of some status. She was wearing a blue dress probably embellished with some fine red ribbons. At least fragments of red textiles were found interwoven with gold thread. It is believed that her dress was “modern” (European import) in the sense that she was not carrying the obligatory traditional pair of oval brooches. Further: While some of the things, which accompanied her were traditional (e.g. a scissor and a spindle whorl), her jewellery was of a very peculiar art. Some of it was cheap charms made of gilded silver – a chair, a couple of swan feet hanging from chains etc. Another piece, however, was truly remarkable: a box brooch from Gotland, which contained white lead, which can be used as make-up or ointment. To this should be added a round-bottomed vessel of copper, probably of Middle Eastern or Asian origin. This contained remains of a fatty substance and a small thin-walled glass, which contained another white substance. A purse must have contained a number of poisonous seeds from the plant Herbane, which can be used to induce a hallucinatory state, when pounded, mixed with an ointment and rubbed into the skin. Possibly she was also accompanied by a so-called seeress’s staf indicative as her status as a traditional Viking sorceress or female shaman. It is believed that a core part of the religion in the Northern Hemisphere was the belief in the possibility for especially gifted persons and gods to delve into the skin of animals or birds, thus moving seamless through the world – like on a boat –gaining access to prophesies of all kinds. Here the archaeology substantiate the rich myths, which were written down in the 13th century and which by most scholars have been considered compromised by their Christian context. Supported by archaeological finds like that of the Völva and others like her, the old stories are once again considered worth while visiting.

Secondly the curators have chosen to fill a showcase with a series of Early Christian artefacts – primarily crosses. Especially interesting is a very recent find from the island of Bornholm, which may bee seen here for the first time. This is flanked by a life-size copy of the famous Runic Stone (post 963 AD) of Harold Bluetooth from Jelling, according to which he “ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

And may we add: That Harold, who was the father of Swein Forkbeard and grandfather to Canute the Great, whom the ship was probably built to serve.

Maybe this part of the exhibition is most complicated to access without a proper guide in the form of a written explanation. Luckily, however, a series of books and not least the well-written catalogue may help us out.

 

Read the general presentation and review of the exhibition Viking 2013

Read about the different sections of the exhibition here:

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