Aesir battle Jötnar

How to Understand the Vikings: A World View

In order to understand the Vikings, Author Neil Price asserts that we must understand the world they lived in. Their world wasn’t one of facts as we understand them. Instead, it was a world of facts as the Vikings understood them.

Other Beings

The Viking world is inhabited by others. The term includes people from other nations. It also includes the gods, their messengers, spirits, and other beings that would now be considered folklore. The Vikings didn’t question that these creatures existed any more than we question that there are dogs and cats. They knew these other beings were as real as the sea, the trees, and their families.

It would be a mistake to call the dwarves, elves and other beings supernatural. To the Vikings they were natural and normal. There was no question that, even if they couldn’t be seen, the creatures were around and influenced people and events.

The Multiverse

The Norse conception of existence includes a multiverse of different beings. It may have started with Ymir, two realms, and Ginnungagap, but at the time of the Vikings, it was a collection of universes with each group of beings living in their own universe. At the center of the universes was Yggdrasill, an ash tree that connected the universes and could function as a travel byway for those who knew how to use it to get to the other realms.

The Individual

The Viking person was really four separate and independent beings.

  • The body was the shell that carried the other three beings. For those who had the talent, the body could transform. Your neighbor down the road may be known to become a bear when irritated.
  • A person’s absolute essence – this is the core identity of who a person was. It could leave the body and was likely what existed in the afterlife.
  • A person’s luck – The English saying “your luck has run out” may come from the idea of a person’s luck being an independent being. A person’s luck could leave them, literally, in the Viking age. If an army were facing another army that had several strongly lucky people, it would decide not to attack because there would be no point.
  • Fylgja – this was a female spirit that lived in men and women. She was a guardian and protector. She was related to the ancestors and only appeared in dreams.

The Slaves

One unfortunate reality recent tales often gloss over is that the Vikings were human traffickers. They bought, owned, traded, and enslaved other people, who they treated as property. They were no longer people. Owners could kill slaves on the whim. Owners could also sexually abuse their slaves, both male and female. There were different categories of slaves, and a very few may have won their freedom. However, even those who attained freedom were still beholden to the family that had kept them as slaves.

Understand the Vikings

It is difficult for us to throw off our modern sensibilities and think back to what it may have been to be a Viking. In some cases, we would only want to experience the good parts of Viking life. Avoiding the child mortality and the preference for male over female children, the illnesses that were incurable in that time period, the malnutrition that appears to have ravaged the lower classes, and the enslavement of others isn’t necessarily the best way to learn about Viking life. We may not want to experience those things, but they are important if we want to understand the Vikings and learn how they thought, felt, and saw the world. Through the confrontation of the complete reality of Viking life, we can gain insight into our own nature, learning how to overcome our weaknesses and become better people.

Sources: Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price (2020).

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