Homelands
History 3D


Bent Sword and Punctured Shield Boss
Viking Invasion
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Vikings are a pre-historic people; they did not write history books themselves. However, there are some contemporary accounts written by their more southerly neighbors who had occasion to meet small traveling groups of Vikings. These historic records focus primarily on single events, making it difficult to know how widespread the behavior described by the author was and the accounts often present very different views of what the Vikings were like. Even so, such documents reveal information about powerful people in the Viking age, some of the beliefs and practices of the Vikings, and the personality of the characters the authors met.

One of the earliest historic records is the work of Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat who journeyed up the Volga River in A.D.922 and met a group of people he called the Rus. Rus is an eastern Norse word which seems to have refered to Swedish Vikings who traveled and traded along the Russian rivers. Ibn Fadlan's description portrayed them as an unkempt, violent, and sexually aggressive people who staged an elaborate burial for him when he died. The chieftain was set in his ship together with all the things he would need in the next life, including a slave girl, and then the ship and its contents were set on fire. This is the most complete description of the Vikings by a contemporary outsider, and it has heavily influenced understanding of Viking religious beliefs, personal habits, and norms of sexual conduct. The Ibn Fadlan account helps support information contained in the Russian Primary Chronicle that three Swedish brothers were invited to establish a kingdom in Russia centered in Novgorod and Kiev.

Bent Sword and Punctured Shield Boss
"Killed" and Punctured Shield Boss
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Another historic account comes from the court of King Alfred of Wessex, who was visited by a Norwegian trader named Ottar (Othere). Ottar described the geography of Norway: "All that they can either graze or plough lies by the sea, and even that is very rocky in some places; and to the east, and alongside the cultivated land, lie wild mountains." He went on to explain the spectacular animal products that could be obtained from the high arctic, some of which Ottar received as tribute from the Saami (Lapps), including reindeer, seal, bear skins, bird feathers, walrus hides and ivory. Ottar's report helps us understand Vikings' complex trade economy in the northernmost Viking regions.

In A.D.1070, near the very end of the Viking Age, Adam of Bremen, a cleric who was writing a history of the Archbishopric of Hamberg-Bremen, met with the king of Denmark, Svein Estridsson. Adam's account includes a detailed description of the Danish landscape and states that "north of the Danish homelands are Norway and Sweden, two vast northern countries." Adam gives an elaborate description of the pagan temple at Old Uppsala and notes with concern that heathen (non-Christian) ceremonies were still practiced there. The account also mentions the newly-discovered land in the west, Vinland, where grapes and wheat grow; this is the only non-Icelandic source confirming the name, discovery, and general description of Vinland.

Runestones
The Vikings did leave a few written clues of their own. They carved short inscriptions on stones and pieces of wood using an alphabet made up of characters called runes. Runes are similar to roman letters, but have more straight lines, making them easier to carve on wood and stone. Runic inscriptions on stones commemorate the deeds of named individuals, leading runologists to suggest that the Vikings were extremely concerned with their status and visible display of social standing. There are also runestones which commemorate women who commissioned bridges, and who inherited their father's land. Like the Oseberg burial, this helps us understand the role of Viking women.


Jelling Stone in Cult3D
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The most famous runestone, and perhaps the earliest, is the Jelling Stone, erected sometime between A.D. 965 and 985 by King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark. It reads, "Harald had this stone erected in memory of his father Gorm and his mother Thyra. That Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes Christian." This important monument tells us far more than that the Vikings were concerned with status; it highlights how much the Viking world was changing. In this stone we see that political boundaries have been redrawn and traditional Viking religion has suddenly, by order of the king, been switched to another religion. In fact, the conversion to Christianity and the rise of powerful, central kings mark the end of the Viking Age.

 

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