Valkyrie. Excellent New Book on Women of the Viking Age.

Sometime during the second half of the 11th century, a Swedish woman named Gerlög went to Torbjörn the Skald and asked him to do something for her. Gerlög’s daughter Inga had recently died, and as Inga’s only living relative, Gerlög came to inherit her own daughter. To avoid any accusations of having come into her inheritance by unlawful means, Gerlög needed to make a public statement of the course of events that led up to her inheriting Inga. Torbjörn the Skald was knowledgeable in runes, and this is the message that Gerlög hired him to carve into the bedrock.

U 29 Hillersjöhällen

The Hillersjö Hill where Gerlög explains how she came to inherit her daughter, Inga. Source: U 29, the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Interpret, you! Germund was given Gerlög as his wife when she was a maiden. Then they had a son, before he (Germund) drowned. And the son died after. Then she was given Gudrik as her husband. He… this… Then they had children. But only one girl survived; her name was Inga. Her Ragnfast in Snottsta was given as his wife. Soon after he died and then the son. And the mother (Inga) came to inherit her son. Then she was given Erik as her husband. Soon after she died. Then Gerlög came to inherit Inga, her daughter. Torbjörn the Skald carved the runes.

9781788314770This inscription is known as the Hillersjö Hill (Hillersjöhällen) and is included in Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s new book Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020). Valkyrie is a history of the Viking Age that places the women of the time at the center of the story.

The Viking Age is commonly viewed as a time dominated by men where women are barely visible, but Viking society couldn’t function without a tight relationship between men and women. To run a farm, both men and women were needed, which means that women participated in those supposedly all-male Viking expeditions that invaded and settled all the way from Newfoundland in North America to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Because without both men and women working together, those settlements wouldn’t have survived and the iconic Viking ships wouldn’t have been able to set sail.

Jóhanna’s contribution to the study of Viking history and society is immense. In her book, she successfully views the Viking Age from the point of view of its women and in doing so, she refreshingly and unapologetically pushes Viking men to the side.

Her use of source material is broad. In addition to using the sagas, she also uses rune carvings, grave goods, and other archaeological artifacts. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of the rune carvings seeing as they are the only texts where the Vikings speak to us directly, many of them women like Gerlög. Rune carvings are mainly found in Sweden and using them as source material broadens the view of the Viking world, which all too often ends up focused on the British Isles, France, and Iceland in translation.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World provides a new perspective on old knowledge by letting Viking Age women take center stage and speak to us in their own voices.

In the words of my friend the Australian, I shall return.

 

Dr337 The Valleberga Runestone

On this Brexit Day when Great Britain is officially leaving the European Union, I give you Dr 337, also known as the Valleberga Runestone (Vallebergastenen). The inscription on this runestone shows that we are all connected in what is today Europe, and that we have been connected for over a thousand years.

Dr 337 Vallebergastenen | The Boomerang

Dr 337, the Valleberga Runestone (Vallebergastenen). Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet, Kulturmiljöbild (http://kmb.raa.se/cocoon/bild/show-image.html?id=16000300013212)

The inscription on the stone reads:

Sven and Torgöt made these memorials after Manne and Svenne. God help their soul well. And they lie in London. (My translation)

Sven och Torgöt gjorde dessa minnesmärken efter Manne och Svenne. Gud hjälpe väl deras själ. Och de ligger i London. (Raa translation)

Swen auk Þorgøtr gærðu kumbl þæssi æftiR Manna auk Swena. Guð hialpi siöl þera wæl; æn þer liggia i Lundunum. (Old Norse transcript)

The style of the runic inscription is interesting. The text looks like the RAK style, which consists of bands of runic text that meander across the surface of the stone. But, the RAK style is not known to include any decorations, and this runestone has a cross carved on it. The RAK style has been dated to c. 980–1015, but because of the cross, the dating of this particular runestone has been pushed forward to c. 1050.

We don’t know the exact identity of the men mentioned on the runestone. However, there are some clues that we can glean from the inscription.

First of all the runestone was made in memory of two men who lay buried in 11th century London. The two men who commissioned the runestone, Sven and Torgöt, were Christians. Manne and Svenne were probably Christians as well, but we don’t know that for certain. Runestones were commonly raised over family members or very close friends. Some runestones explain the relationship between the commissioner(s) and the person(s) commemorated. This is not the case with Dr337.

The runestone was made in and currently stands in the south-Swedish region of Scania (Skåne). At the time of the stone’s creation, Scania was part of the Danish sphere of influence. Based on this evidence, scholars believe that Manne and Svenne were two of the warriors who made up the Scandinavian defense force of England created by Danish king Cnut the Great after he became king of England in 1035. England’s close ties with Scandinavia were severed after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

We need to keep in mind, though, that the story of Manne and Svenne as Scandinavian defenders of the Danish kingship over England is based on circumstantial evidence and conjecture. It could very well be that they were Viking raiders who sailed to England and died in London, either in battle or from some other cause.

Regardless of who Manne and Svenne really were, the Valleberga Runestone demonstrates the close ties between the different parts of Europe that have been ongoing for more than a thousand years.

Sources:
The Swedish National Heritage Board/Riksantikvarieämbetet, Kulturmiljöbild, Dr 337 Vallebergastenen.
Vallebergastenen.
Runstensstilar.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones

On October 24, 2019, I published the following post on Mental Floss.

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones | Mental Floss

Runestone Sö 106. Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet/Swedish National Heritage Board.

Vikings. The word evokes ferocious warriors, swords, battleaxes, and bloodthirsty raids. Most of what we know about the Vikings, however, are exaggerations written by people who encountered them. There is a way for us to hear the Vikings speak for themselves: by reading messages carved on runestones…
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

I’m on The Week.

On June 10, 2019, I published the following article on The Week. I had so much fun writing this article. I could talk about runestones all day.

Viking Runestones Were the Original Tweets.

Runestones the First Tweets |The Week |The Boomerang

Runestone Sö 106. Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet/Swedish National Heritage Board.

In the remote Swedish countryside, a 1,000-year-old stone slab stands raised by the side of a road. Chiseled onto it, a message has been carved in runes — symbols that served as letters in the ancient Germanic alphabet. The runes tell onlookers that a man named Alrik commissioned and raised this stone slab in commemoration of his father, Spjut, a Viking famous for destroying and laying siege to fortifications in the west. Alrik basks in the glory of Spjut’s accomplishments: “Alrik raised the stone, son of Sigrid, after his father Spjut, he in the west had been, castle he had broken and conquered. The arts of the siege, he knew them all.”

Thousands of Viking Age runestones like this one dot the Swedish landscape, providing direct glimpses into the lives of the Vikings. The messages are short, self-expressive, and, for us onlookers, very out-of-context. More often than not, they contain the unsolicited opinions of the person who commissioned the stone. In many ways, these ancient dispatches are similar to another, more modern style of communication: tweets.

If you would like to read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.