Death, Narrative and Understanding the Viking Mind

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We think we understand the Vikings and their ways as a culture of warriors and pirates. The Vikings plagued the coast of early medieval Britain, robbing from monastic and secular sites until they finally set up permanent residence in the Danelaw.

In reality, however, the Vikings inhabited a nebulous dichotomy between violent warrior and peaceful merchant.

Yet these views of the Norsemen originate from sources outside Viking culture, they originate from the victims, such as the monasteries that were attacked. As a result, our view of the Viking world is rarely from the perspective of people who were part of it. In a series of lectures to Cornell University, delivered in September 2012, Professor Neil Price of Aberdeen University attempts to bridge this gap and get inside the Viking mind.

Professor Price puts forward the argument that stories are at the heart of the Viking consciousness and that the Vikings perceived the world as a series of interconnected stories passed orally and lived out day to day. What modern scholars interpret as “Norse myths”, i.e. tales of the gods collected in what we call the Prose and Poetic Edda, were not only stories to entertain on the long Scandinavian nights, they were also a very real part of the nature of the world.

Stora Hammars stone : Wiki Commons
Stora Hammars stone : Wiki Commons

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Aside from these literary works, Professor Price suggests that the grave assemblages of the Viking Age may be used to tell stories and provide an insight into the Viking conscious. There is an “infinite diversity of Viking Age burial,” he says, and whilst certainly there are similarities, these common aspects are ‘themes’ for the burial stories to be played out. So how do these stories take place?

Price likens the grave assemblages to the stage at the end of a production of Hamlet. The area is littered with bodies, each in a specific place, having fallen in a specific manner, but the casual observer would not know what has transpired. Such is our understanding of Viking burials. It would seem that everything within the grave then is an actor in this play; its position representing its final resting place after its role within the story has been fulfilled.

A clue to the importance of the ‘actors’ in these stories could be found in the Gotland Picture Stones. These incredible standing stones are richly carved and stand up to nearly 4m in height; they are unique in the Viking world. Yet Professor Price argues that their purpose is not so different from the spectacle of these grave stories. Each panel on the stone is a chapter in a narrative not only relating to a legendary story, such as that of Sigurd and Fafnir, but also a more personal tale.

Image stones on display in a Museum on Gotlan : Wiki Commons

Across several of the stones themes and motifs can be seen, which Professor Price interprets as a system of references between them, like chapters. A similar idea can be seen within the grave assemblages, not only with artifacts but also with the very graves themselves. He gives the example of the burials at Kaupang, Norway, in which in one instance a 27ft ship is buried atop a pre-existing grave in direct alignment. There is nothing random about this act, but it is, like the picture stones another chapter in the story being told.

The real question then is what are these stories? The answer to this we cannot know until the roles of the grave goods and the deceased have been deciphered, as Professor Price puts it, until we know the grammar to make sense of the narrative. He suggests that aside from honoring the deceased, as one would expect, these performances reinforce social and ancestral links. These multi-layered stories then are as much, if not more, for the living than the deceased. Stories told in burials that are as individual as the occupants of their graves.

Cornell University recorded Professor Price’s lectures and have put them on YouTube for all to see.

The Children of Ash: Cosmology and the Viking Mind, Messenger Lectures 2012.

Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age, Messenger Lectures 2012.

Shape of the Soul: The Viking Mind and the Individual, Messenger Lectures 2012.

Written by Jonathan Hutchings

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