Tuesday, October 9, 2007

'The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia' by Neil S. Price: Some thoughts

A long, dark, cold Scandinavian winter, 1000 years or more ago: the sun barely, if at all, makes an appearance. In the northern, inland areas, all signs of life are completely covered in snow for months at a time. Only the reindeer manage to scrape below the snow to find sustenance. As a human being, you are just about totally dependent on this animal for food and clothing. In the southern and coastal areas of Scandinavia, you may not be buried in snow, but icy cold rain, driven by an unrelenting wind, pelts you mercilessly. In the dark sky you see the dramatic, frightening Aurora Borealis. Who are those spirits in the sky? Will summer ever return? Will warmth come? Will new animals be born? Will crops grow? How can I be sure?

And what of your own life? How can you be assured that you will enjoy health, good fortune, and life rather than their opposites? Why do some enjoy the former while others are doomed to the latter? Indeed, we all must die eventually: Why?

In the The Viking Way Neil S. Price allies archaeology with anthropology, folklore, literature, sociology, and psychology, to begin to illuminate the unrecorded beliefs of our Viking ancestors. Some of the conclusions that he reaches are familiar to me. Others are very new, and having just finished his book a couple of days ago, I'm still reaching for them, trying to integrate them into my view of how things must have been on the Swedish west coast 1000 years ago.

At stake is this pressing question: How did those people address the twin mysteries of life and death? Clearly in those northern climates (not only Scandinavia proper but also Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, the Faeroes, Shetland) there is not an overabundance of sustenance for all; survival was touch-and-go at best in certain places, perhaps slightly more assured in others. Famine, sickness and injury were probably never far removed from any of them. But it's very interesting to me that these people addressed life and death as a holistic totality, not as two irreconcilable things (i.e. life/good vs. death/evil) as in "we're going to eradicate evil." They knew better.

In fact, they saw very clearly that in a very literal way, death is necessary for the continuation of life. If no one dies, there simply won't be enough to go around. Perhaps the custom of exposing infants gained some legitimacy from this view. (It is known to have been a bone of contention in the Icelandic conversion to Christianity.) There is also a suggestion that the earliest Scandinavian kings were subject to death in order to secure the fertility and prosperity of their realms. And of course, animal and human sacrifice were also performed with, presumably, the same goals.

But how to make these sacrifices work? For that it is necessary to have some access to the gods or the spirit world, the agents who keep the machinery of the life/death cycle humming. It is here that Dr. Price places sei∂r, a complex of magical/religious practice that encompasses sorcery and ritual. He puts sei∂r in the context of circumpolar religious belief and practice, analogous to shamanism as it exists among the Saami, and more broadly in Siberia and North America.

My understanding of shamanism is limited, at best, though Dr. Price does an admirable job of providing an overview. I think it's safe for me to say that one aspect of shamanism has a connection to fertility: those dependent on the reindeer and on the hunting of other animals felt an urgent need to see that the animals who provided them sustenance were in turn replenished. This need for assurance regarding the continuation of life is definitely a concern echoed in the literary depictions of sei∂r.

But as Dr. Price points out, the twist here is in the translation of the above necessity to the Nordic context. How does this idea (understandable to us today in the concept of "sustainability") become useful for the support of a warrior society, in the context of the organization of warfare and larger fighting forces?

There clearly remains a link to fertility here, albeit a link that at first seems odd and elusive. Dead souls go both to Odin (the war god) and to Freyja (the fertility goddess). Dead bodies on the battlefield, however, become, as it says on runestones, "food for the ravens/wolves." In the past I always thought that this was either a simple statement of fact or a more poetic (and gruesome) way of saying that those guys were goners, but now I realize I was being both too literal and too figurative. It seems that those corpses were actually thought of as sacrificial victims dedicated to Odin (ravens and wolves being his animal helpers). This makes perfect sense in the context of fertility and rebirth, because those fallen soldiers were brought to Valhalla by Odin's valkyries so that they could live and fight again at Ragnarök.

In the sparse environment of the north, where kings and chieftains needed portable wealth to sustain their warrior bands, raids and battles became a way of life. Did what was essentially a fertility cult provide the underlying structure for the beliefs and more importantly, the rituals (in the form of sei∂r) needed to sustain these kings or chieftains and their culture? And how in the world did this all fit together?

I took the above photo in the summer, believe it or not, in Varberg, on the Swedish west coast, in between rain storms. It was a summer that made you wonder if Ragnarök was at hand. Click on photo to enlarge.