Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok

The Sagas of Ragnar LodbrokThe Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok by Ben Waggoner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not an easy read. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok is patchwork of literary styles, genres, and stories. Add a lot of names and genealogies and a rather wordy translation, and you have a bit of work ahead of you.

But it’s worth it. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok contains tree sagas, a list of Swedish kings, and a long poem, Krákumál. If you’re unaccustomed with the Old Icelandic literary style, you should start with the sagas: Read The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok first, then The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Sögubrot last. Taken together, the sagas give the heroic legends of Ragnar and his sons: Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and the others.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Human sacrifice

In episode eight of Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok with family and friends travel to Uppsala, the most renowned sacrificial site in all the Viking World. The description in Vikings builds closely on Adam of Bremen’s accounts of the Uppsala temple and rituals in Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church.

When Ragnar visited the temple in the episode, I got associations to a church and to Christian liturgy, and details in Adam’s description remind more of Christian churches from the eighth and ninth centuries than a pagan offering place. Extensive searches and excavations at Uppsala have never revealed signs of a temple, but rather of a great king’s hall that Adam may have heard of.

Adam’s descriptions of rituals and human sacrifices at Uppsala have also been doubted and ascribed to Christian bishops’ habit of gross exaggerations in their anti-pagan propaganda. Human sacrifices, however, are told of many places in the old sagas.

Human sacrifice
King Domaldi is sacrificed. Illustration to Heimskringla by Erik Werenskiold.

Sunday, 14 April 2013


RagnarokRagnarok by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is a great book: well-written, interesting, exciting. I read it twice.

Ragnarok is about a little girl. Evacuated from Sheffield, she grows up in the English Second World War countryside. Here she starts reading the English version of the German book Asgard and the Gods. Digging into the mind of the child, Byatt simultaneously tells the girl’s life, her experiences with Asgard and the Gods, and the story of the Norse gods and Ragnarok. It’s elegant.

I don’t understand the end of the book. Does it give a stripe of hope? I don’t know. In Voluspå (the great Edda poem telling of the World’s beginning and end), a new and cleansed Earth rises after Ragnarok. But I prefer to believe that the Vikings and Byatt see Ragnarok as the ultimate destruction. Humanity lives and dies. End of story.

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Friday, 12 April 2013

Ship burial

The most famous description of a Viking ship burial is an eyewitness account given by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller. He visited Kievian Vikings (in present-day Ukraine) in the 10th century. In episode six in the TV series Vikings, Earl Haraldson is buried in much the same way as the chieftain is buried in Ahmad ibn Fadlan's description. Both stories involve the burning of a ship with lots of grave offering, intercourses with a thrall woman who is sacrificed and buried alongside the chieftain in the ship, and a death angel.

Friday, 5 April 2013


"Earlier this morning, the first knorr had arrived. Now, the crew were busy unloading the ship. The men were wading the water, carrying barrels and bales on their shoulders. Vik was a trading centre and the landing a shallow beach with poles driven into the sands at deeper waters."
(From The Slayer Rune)

This is a photo from present-day Vik, the place where Sigve the Awful lived and where the action in the first books in The Awful Saga takes place. More images and maps here.