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Today’s post is a follow-up…a follow-up to the Viking age! (and, um, also to this Ferrebeekeeper post).  On September 17th, the world’s largest Viking ship, the Draken Harald Harfagre, sailed into New York Harbor and tied up at the North Cove Marina in southern Manhattan.  The ship has sailed across the Atlantic from Norway where it was made by master boatwrights in the best approximation of ancient methods.  Doughty and fearless sailors have navigated the craft through horrible northern seas filled with giant whales, icebergs, volcanoes, Greenland, and other sundry hazards.   When it reached Vinland…er North America, the boat sailed up the Saint Lawrence Seaway, toured the Great Lakes, and now it has come to New York City by traveling through the canals and down the Hudson.

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You can see the magnificent vessel for $10.00 (or for $5.00 if you are a child) until this coming Sunday (the schedule and details are here).  Don’t delay!  Before you know it the Viking age will be gone forever…

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

Today we have an extremely special treat to counteract the treacle of yesterday’s fluffy movie review: it’s the skull of a Viking king complete with a period crown! Hooray! The skull is what remains of King Erik IX who ruled Sweden from 1156 until 1160 when a political misunderstanding resulted in his head violently flying off his body (admittedly with some help from a large man with an axe). Well, at least that is what we think happened…no historical records have survived from Erik’s reign so all we have are myths, legends, and archaeological evidence (like this bitchin’ skull and crown).

The skull and crown from a different angle

The skull and crown from a different angle

Like many Swedish royals, Erik IX seems to have hailed from Götaland (which is to say he was a Geat)! Erik claimed the throne in 1150 while Sverker the Elder was still king and the two men bitterly contested the throne. In 1156 some mysterious party ordered the murder of Sverker on Christmas day and thereafter Erik was the uncontested king until he himself was murdered while attending mass at Uppsala. Uppsala had long been the center of political and spiritual life in Sweden and it was once the site of a huge temple to the old gods (which stood surrounded by sacrificed human beings and the barrows of ancient kings), however in Erik’s era Christians were taking over and there was already a church at Uppsala in 1160.

The cathedral at Uppsala today

The cathedral at Uppsala today

A fair amount of whitewash seems to have been applied to Erik by Christians who were still in the process expunging the ancient pagan faith from Scandinavia. Additionally his son Knud was fighting for the throne with the Sverkers and shamelessly mixed together facts and legends about Erik to consolidate his position. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that Erik IX formalized Swedish law and led an invasion/crusade against the pagan Finns. Today Erik IX is known as Eric the Lawgiver, Erik the Saint, and Eric the Holy. His severed head is on the coat of arms of Stockholm.

 

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

Although Erik was never formally recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, his skull and crown have long been held in Uppsala cathedral. Historians and archaeologists opened the casket in April of 2014, and the contents will go on public display in June. The crown of Erik is made of gilded copper inset with semi-precious jewels.

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The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)

The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)


The kraken is a giant sea monster from Norwegian and Icelandic lore. Various sailors who wrote epics from the golden age of northern exploration along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland described vast beings, larger than whales. The Örvar-Odds saga from the 13th century describes a being so large that it could be mistaken for a land mass. Its jaws looked like headlands and its teeth like rocks, yet it was capable of submerging and rising. The monster was dangerous for causing great whirlpools which could swallow ships.

Such bizarre sightings might be attributable to the vagaries of weather (or the treacherous volcanic nature of Iceland—where lands do indeed rise and sink), yet sometimes whales would be seen fighting with giant arms. Indeed occasionally 269503these arms would wash ashore. Living in a dangerous and superstitious profession, sailors kept the stories of a huge boat-sinking monster alive.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and biological classification, took these sailor’s tales seriously enough to classify the kraken as a cephalopod in his first edition of Systema Naturae (published in 1735), however subsequent editions omitted the animal. Various eighteenth and nineteenth century armchair natural scientists kept stories of the animal alive, until modern marine biologists untangled the myth from the (even stranger) realities of the giant squid and the colossal squid.
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Today the kraken has moved definitively into the realm of unicorns, leprechauns, quilins, and other mythical creatures, but its popularity has not been affected. The huge squid monster haunts pirate movies and fantasy oceans all while selling rum and fending off the latest Hollywood heroes in CG animation. In fact the beast has even scaled the pinnacles of literary fame. The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson is an irregular sonnet which describes the benthic monster in language which a poetic merger of Victorian gardening and Lovecraft horror. The monster sleeps in the depths of the ocean awaiting the day of revelation! Here is the poem in its entirety:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
kraken-art

The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”).   Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength.  Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave.  Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways.  The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature:  Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics.  Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.

Burial Mound

In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength.  Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living.  They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans).   Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.

Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure.  A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound.  In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.”  When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him.  As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest.  When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).

Viking Hoard

We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve.  Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body.  After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm.  The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them.  More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target).  After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir.  In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes.  In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,

 “I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired.  But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out.  You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings.  Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy.  You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone.  And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone.  This will drag you to your death.”

Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.

There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar.  Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things.  Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful.  When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).

The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence.   To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside).   The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.

As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings.  Then even these undead sailors began to fade away.  Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend.   Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead.  However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today.  The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes.   These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers.   More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world:  in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

Unicursal form of Valknut–the Triquetra Knot

 

Tricursal form of Valknut–the Borromian Rings

 

The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new).  A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles.  Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden).  The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.

A relief carving of human sacrifice from the Stora Hammars stones of Lärbro (circa 8th to 11th century)

Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones).  The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin:  a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead.  To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree.  The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure.  Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice.  Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil.  In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups.  Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!

The valknut as closed 3-link chain–a modern topological configuration not used by Vikings

Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012).  One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon!  In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.

Dragon Harald Fairhair. Drawing by Øystein Ormbostad

Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time.  They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing.  The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between).  Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable.  From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (Havhingsten fra Glendalough) is the largest replica Viking ship built to date. The ship is 29 metres long and carries 60 oarsmen, with a crew of 70 – 80.

The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet.  The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials.  The project’s website describes the completed boat

At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.

The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on  each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.

When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com).  The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.

Dragon Harald Fairhair under construction February 2012 (Arne Terje Sæther)

A Heavy Tank made from a Blueberry carton and an Anchovy Can

I have been working hard on a children’s book about how to construct toy vehicles out of items from the rubbish bin.  Since I am getting close to finishing the 75 items required for the book, I thought I would share a few of my creations with you.  I have been using things I found in the garbage can, plus wooden hobby wheels, dowels, and paint from the craft store (although I think the wheels could be cut out of cardboard, and, in a pinch, straws or chopsticks could stand in for dowels).  Any feedback would be appreciated!

A Drag Racer Made out of a Coat Hanger and some Cardboard

The book is part of the “Green and Groovy Crafts” series from Downtown Bookworks, which has already featured titles such as The Lonely Sock Club: One Sock, Tons of Cool Projects! and Boy-Made: Green & Groovy which are available at those online links and at finer bookstores around the nation.  The theme of my book will be “Things that Go.” If the publishers like it, I am slated to make another one about how to create toy robots out of garbage!

The real shock of the project (other than realizing that 75 is a large number) is coming to terms with how much rubbish a household really produces.  I regard myself as an environmentalist in the sense that I care deeply for the earth, its ecosystems, and the organisms that dwell there (although I feel that a great deal of the contemporary green movement is misguided in its philosophy and its ends).  I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods (because they’re expensive and because many seem unnecessary).  I cook rather than ordering take-out. I don’t even drive an automobile: when I go somewhere I take the train or walk.  So, aside from the mixed-up-animal toys I design and produce (which are referenced in this post) I have always thought I have a fairly small ecological footprint.

A Helicopter made out of Cardboard, a Spool, and a Plastic Pod

Looking at all of the plastic bins, anchovy cans, milk cartons, syrup bottles, ointment jars, cups, rolls, bags, cans, bottles, and so on ad nauseum, that have showed up in my garbage certainly calls that view into question.

Anyway on to the rest of the pictures…. It has been fun to build a little society in miniature and my cat enjoyed stalking around the tiny vehicles and associated playscapes like she was Godzilla (you can see her there in a couple of the pictures).  I’ll try to post some more images closer to when the book is due to come out and, naturally, I’ll tell you when that happens.

A Riverboat made from a Shoebox, a Peanut Can, a Clip box, and a Toilet Paper Roll

A Steam Roller Made of a Coffe Can, an Almond Can, and a Shoebox

A Buggy made from a Detergent Bottle and a Coat Hanger

A Viking Boat Made from Carboard and Chopsticks (notice my cat ready to maraud)

A Regional Jetliner made from Cardboard, Spools, a Clothes Hanger, and a Paper Towel Roll

A Locomotive (Soapbox, Corks, Toilet Paper Roll, and Cut-up Bottle) and Caboose (Shoe Box, Milk Carton, and Toilet Paper Roll)

A Playscape with Hospital and Fire House

An Old-Fashioned Hearse Made From Cardboard

Hollywood's Interpretation of the Geats

The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat).  The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast.  They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.

It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist.   Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity.  Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden.  This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest:  the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes.  In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.

All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths.   Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza.  Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:

Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.

Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place.  In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology.  Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century.  Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them.  Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats.  The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.

If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle.  The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth.  Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement.  With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors).  The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere.  I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa.  Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings.  The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?

Geat?

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