I always believed that the Vikings were a bunch of raiders and pillagers whose only redeeming quality was that they built sophisticated ships to carry out their murderous missions. But one day, at an exhibit in Los Angeles, I saw elegant jewellery by Viking goldsmiths, encountered writing on rune stones, and learned that Vikings practiced a form of democracy and that their women had personal and political power. That’s when my fascination with the eighth-to-eleventh-century culture began.
I planned a trip to L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, Canada; it’s the only authenticated Viking site in North America. There I saw my first longhouse, built with thick sod walls and a sod-covered roof. Inside, historical interpreters recreated quotidian Viking chores such as weaving, candle making, and cooking over an open fire. But what made the deepest impression was learning that Vikings suffered from lung disease, caused by smoke from indoor fires. They were no longer “the Vikings” but, rather, humans who lived, loved, laughed, worked, and had lung issues.
I wanted to know where the Vikings hailed from, and if there were any left, so I headed to Norway. And I developed a sort of traveller’s tunnel vision. All I wanted to see were places connected to the Vikings. On the small island of Vibrandsøy, I met a couple who were constructing a 115-foot-long Viking ship by using the exact building methods and materials the Norse did.
Inspired by their passion for Viking vessels, I set off for the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, where I saw three beautiful ships that had carried Vikings and then carried their bodies. It made me long to encounter living, breathing Vikings.
I went on Facebook and connected to Georg Olafr Reydarsson Hansen, the director of the annual Viking Market in Gudvangen. I jumped on a bus in Voss and rode to an encounter that transformed my fascination into an obsession. At the edge of a fjord, Viking re-enactors came together as blacksmiths, bards, cooks, rune-makers, and weavers to live the ancient lifestyle.
My Facebook friend Georg, in a fur-trimmed hat, sailed up to the site on a Viking ship. He greeted a gaggle of buff, bare-chested young men who were flinging each other around in the Viking sport of glima wrestling. He introduced me to their coach, Lars Magnar Enoksen, who gleefully said to me that even eye gouging was permitted. I was relieved when Lars explained that gouging actually meant pressing on an opponent’s eyes—much more civilised.
I was gobsmacked when Lars invited me to attend his evening sorcery class. Inside a wooden cabin I sat around a crackling fire with Lars’s students, learning the fine art of galdurs, or Viking incantations. Several hours later we were outside, swilling from a mead-filled horn, cajoling the powerful forces of nature with our alliterative galdur.
Once back home, when I would give public talks, I ended them with an Old Norse galdur. And the nightstand next to my bed became a repository for Icelandic sagas, which are masterworks of medieval literature about—what else?—the Vikings. By night I read and by day I planned a trip to Iceland.
It was at the National Museum of Iceland, in Reykjavík, that I saw my first real Viking sword. A confirmed pacifist, I was nonetheless mesmerised by a culture as sensitive as it was violent. At Viking World I boarded a replica of a ninth-century ship and then planted myself in front of videos that explained the secrets of Viking shipbuilding and the navigational technology that allowed them to raid, conquer, and sail by dead reckoning.
Then I raced to Thingvellir National Park, the epicentre of the Viking legal system, where the world’s oldest existing parliament first assembled in A.D. 930.
Everyone back then was invited to attend the annual event, where the laws of the land were proclaimed aloud by a lawspeaker, who stood at the still extant Law Rock. Alas, there was no system in place to enforce the Vikings’ subtle and brilliant legal decisions, so they literally took matters into their own hands and used their deadly swords.
Murderers. Sorcerers. Storytellers. Farmers. Traders. Adventurers. Inventors. Artists. Lawyers. I am haunted by this complex culture that dominated a large chunk of the globe a thousand years ago. I recently learned that archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Sarah Parcak has used satellite imagery to try to locate new Viking sites, which I long to see. Those fearless ancient mariners speak to the traveller and explorer in me, and they have become my mentors, guides, and inspiration as I set off once again in their wake.
THE ICELANDIC SAGAS
Who said Vikings didn’t have a sense of humour? “Icelandic Sagas: The Greatest Hits” is a 75-minute uproarious theatrical show (in English) in Reykjavík that surprisingly sums up the ancient tales really well (icelandicsagas.com; ISK 4,900/ Rs 2,840; check website for dates).
UP HELLY AA
Dating from the 1880s, this annual Viking-themed community event in Shetland, Scotland, takes place on
the last Tuesday in January. The highlights are a torch-lit procession and the burning of a replica Viking galley (uphellyaa.org; next event on January 30, 2018).