Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 10

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History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode. 

Season 2, Episode 10: The Lord’s Prayer

Question: Ragnar, King Horik and the Vikings are celebrating with a feast. How long would a Viking feast go on for? What kinds of activities would it involve? What kinds of games did they play?

Justin Pollard: Viking society revolved around the hall, the warm inviting home with a great fire that keeps the dark and cold of the Scandinavian winter at bay. Here one could eat, sing and tell stories both from folklore and from your own past. Providing food and drink to accompany this was a duty and the more wealthy an individual was the more lavish his entertaining was expected to be. It was all part of providing for his kin and demonstrating his wealth and power. Major feasts, such as a wedding, could last a week and travelers might expect hospitality for a senior jarl or king to last the whole winter.

Vikings loved games and there were numerous to choose from. Dice were made of antler for the most part, although examples of bone, walrus ivory and jet are known. Wood and horn were also probably used. They were often rectangular, with the 1 and 2 on either end and the 3, 4, 5 and 6 on the four long sides. The nature of the games played with dice are unknown, but simple games such as “who can get the highest (or lowest) number” were probably common (and are suggested by some of the sagas).

The “long-dice” normally have the numbers 1 and 2 on the smallest face, suggesting they were used for a game where low numbers were needed. Dice have also been excavated that when x-rayed, revealed small weights inside them, deliberate cheats like medieval “Fulhams.”

There are many finds of board games and gaming pieces from Scandinavia and from the British Isles. Whilst we have lots of mentions in the sagas of board games, it can be tricky to work out exactly how they were played. Hnefatafl was probably the most common and probably developed from the Roman game latrunculi (soldiers). The game works superficially like chess, with one side trying to capture a king and the other trying to escape. A carved board with 13×13 squares, which is a double sided board with a nine men’s morris on the reverse, was found at Gokstad in Norway.

Other board games included Kvatrutafl, which was a development of the popular Roman game of duodecim scripta, Nine Men’s Morris, which has survived to this day, and Halatafl, which appears from the sagas to be a form of solitaire.

Q: What is the story of Loki’s first wife?

JP: According to the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Loki’s wife Angrboða, whose name means “she who brings grief” was a female jötunn, a giantess, one of the race of giants who live in the world known as Jötunheimr, having been refused entry into Asgard by the Aesir gods. The Eddas differ on exactly which children she had with Loki, but the Prose Edda states that their children were:

  • Fenrir, the monstrous wolf that will kill Odin during Ragnarök
  • Jörmungandr, the World Serpent who will kill Thor at Ragnarök
  • Hel, who presides over the dead in Hel

As such, she represents the mother of the creatures who will bring about the end of the current world, a fairly frightening image, although as Ragnarök was unavoidable it’s difficult to know what exactly most Vikings thought of this giantess. We don’t have much detail on Angrboða beyond this, although one tale suggests that Loki bore the three children having eaten Angrboða’s heart.

Loki is also credited as the father of various other supernatural creatures. By his wife Sigyn, he was the father of Narfi and Nari (possibly just one although they may be the same person). Still more unusually, by the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki was the mother to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir (having taken the form of a mare).

Vikings

Q: King Horik refers to his sword as the Sword of Kings. How prevalent were swords amongst the Vikings? How did Vikings name their swords?

JP: The sword was a relatively rare weapon, being hugely costly. It was the preserve of the professional fighter and leader and might be passed down through the generations. Swords were given personalities and names such as “war-flame,” “life-taker” and “truce-breaker.” The hilts could be highly decorated with gold and even jewels. The hilt usually had a cross guard and heavy pommel as a counterweight to the blade. By our period, it is somewhat more common for them to have iron cross guards and pommels with silver inlay. Blades were tapering, often pattern-welded (usually German), two inches wide and around 30 inches long. There was often a groove down the center (a fuller) which made the blade lighter and more flexible without losing strength.

Viking sword smiths were faced with one fundamental problem when constructing that most emblematic of all weapons. The essential contradiction in making a sword was that it had to be both hard and flexible. A sword with a soft edge would chip and blunt, whilst a rigid blade would keep a keen edge, but might shatter when hit. As the producing of very pure steel was limited by the temperatures obtainable in forges and the availability of high-purity ores, this required a compromise. So how did they do it?

The solution Viking smiths employed, and greatly improved upon, was one that has been in use in various European cultures since the Iron Age–pattern welding. Pattern welding combines the flexibility of softer iron with the cutting edge of carbon steel by forming blades from layers of these different metals which are forge-welded and twisted together. This twisting, hammering and grinding processes formed intricate patterns in the finished blade–hence the modern name for the technique. By building up the blade from layers of metal with different qualities, each can be combined in one weapon with a softer, springier core and a harder, sharper edge.

A single blade could be made up of numerous layers of different types of iron alloy and, by the Viking age, smiths had become so adept at this technique that sheets of pattern welded steels could be applied over an iron core, giving the weapon the strength of patterned steel and the flexibility of an iron center. In some cases, a separate high carbon steel edge was then welded on to this to make a weapon that was as sharp as a kitchen knife, but which would rebound from clashes with other blades without snapping or bending.

These were also beautiful and highly valued weapons and sources sometimes comment on the intricate patterns visible on their surface. These might be enhanced by etching the blade slightly with a weak acid to reveal the twists and turns of the weld in the rods with a higher phosphorus content (which remains lighter after etching). Kormák’s Saga, which dates from slightly after our time, talks about how, by blowing on the sword Sköfnung, its owner might make a “small snake” creep from under the guard. This may well be a reference to breathing on the blade to reveal the swirling patterns of the pattern-weld.

For all the skill and beauty of the technique, the method fell out of use towards the end of the Viking age as higher quality ores became available.

The naming of weapons added to their value in the eyes of the Vikings, making them heirlooms with their own characters and histories that could be passed down the generations. We know of hundreds of names of weapons including “foot-biter,” “battle-blaze” and “Adder” for swords and “heaven-scraper,” “battle-hag” and “glancer” for axes.

 

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