Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 9

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

Season 2, Episode 9: The Choice

Question: Viking warriors are recruited to fight on behalf of Princess Kwenthrith. Historically, how often did Vikings fight as mercenaries and how did those arrangements come about?

Justin Pollard: We have plenty of examples of Viking individuals and warbands fighting as mercenaries and this doesn’t seem to have been problematic for them. Indeed, when Frankish or English kings paid off a warband to go and cause trouble elsewhere, they were effectively paying mercenaries. Within Viking society, there was also fluidity within raiding groups. A leader who stopped bringing home the booty might be reposed or his best men might simply go to fight for another leader where the rewards looked better. To that extent, every Viking was mercenary.

The most famous mercenary groups we know about are the (possibly legendary) 10th and 11th century Jomsvikings who, the sagas tell us, had a strict membership code, which included dueling with a current member for acceptance into the group. The Jomsvikings would fight for anyone who would pay their fee, including Christian kings.

One other very real group did act as the personal bodyguard of a Christian ruler–the Byzantine emperor. The Varangian guards were the personal bodyguard of the emperor from the 9th to the 14th centuries and were originally recruited from Varangians amongst the Kievan Rus. We even get a glimpse of a pagan Vikings celebration preserved in the court records of the early 10th century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. These show how one Christmas the emperor, who had extensive trading links with Scandinavia, invited a party of these pagans to entertain him during the holiday, and how:

“…two companies danced in a ring, striking their shields with sticks and shouting ‘Yol, Yol, Yol!’, and in each company two men were dressed in furs and masks.”

So prestigious and popular did entry into the Varangian Guard become that in Sweden laws had to be passed to try to prevent the exodus of fighting men to Byzantium.

Q: What is the story of Baldr, Odin’s favorite son? Of how nothing could injure him in battle?

JP: Baldr was the son of Odin and Frigg and his death is seen as the beginning of a chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök. Baldr will then be reborn in the new world. Baldr dreamed of his own death and so Frigg made every object on Earth swear never to harm him. She didn’t ask the mistletoe, however, as it seemed so innocuous. As Baldr was now invulnerable, the gods used to make a game of throwing objects at him and watching them fall to the ground as they refused to hurt him. Loki came upon the game and handed Baldr’s brother, the blind god Höðr, a spear made of mistletoe. He threw it at Baldr and it killed him. In one version of the story, Loki throws the spear himself. Either way, Frigg was heartbroken and banished the little mistletoe, never allowing its roots to touch the ground again–hence why it now only grows on the tops of other trees. Baldr and Höðr (who was killed by a son of Odin for the crime) were condemned to Hel only to be released after Ragnarök, when they would be reconciled and rule over a new world.

Q: Athelstan sees ravens circling above. What do the ravens represent to Vikings?

JP: The raven was an iconic bird to the Vikings and a powerful symbol of war. Pagan legends said that Odin owned two ravens called “Thought” and “Memory” and that when ravens descended on a battlefield and began picking at the bodies of the slain, it represented that God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifice he had been offered. The ravens were also his messengers, travelling the Earth during the day and returning to him at night to tell him of the deeds of men.

Indeed so powerful was the image of the raven that it can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry, carried into battle in 1066 by the Norman descendants of the Viking Hralf during their invasion of England. The Raven banner was a magical talisman for the Vikings. We know that the sons of Ragnar carried magical raven banners as early chronicles specifically mention the capture of Ubba’s banner after his arrival in Devon, on Alfred’s exposed west flank at the time Guthrum looked like defeating Wessex. Ubba, like his brothers, was a man around whom many legends had been built. It was said by the St Neots annalist that he carried with him the traditional raven banner that Vikings took into battle.  But Ubba was a son of Ragnar and his raven banner was different. Woven by his three sisters, this was a magical talisman that would flutter before victories, but which hung limp ahead of defeat.

Ravens were also practically used to aid navigation on long voyages as they could fly up and see what was beyond the horizon.


Q: Rollo is very badly injured. How do the Vikings take care of those who are wounded? What kind of medical treatment is possible?

JP: As we have precious little written down by 9th century Vikings we are slightly in the dark as to their medical practices. We do, however, have some Anglo-Saxon sources and later saga texts which probably give a reasonable idea of how Vikings dealt with trauma injuries.

In the Heimskringla, we are told that women would wash and clean wounds with warm water. For puncture wounds to the abdomen, the book describes how a wound-dresser would feed a man a boiled broth of leeks and herbs. If she could then smell the leeks in the wound, she knew that the stomach was pierced. Where an arrow head or similar remained in the wound, tongs were used to try to remove it. Where the foreign object was hard to find, one source suggests cutting in to find it. When the object was removed and the wound cleaned, it would be bound in clean cloth.

Most of these healers were women who probably had a good knowledge of herbal medicine, as well as the skills to clean and bind trauma wounds. Men, however, did also practice some battlefield medicine, although this is usually limited to using tongs tor remove arrows and spearheads. Snorri goði would famously notice the reason for certain of his fellows failing to eat or remove their breeches–because there was an arrow or spear stuck in their throat or legs. We might have to treat these accounts with a pinch of salt as even a Viking would probably notice a spear through his leg.

Doctors also existed and are mentioned in the laws which deal in great detail with the compensation payable for the loss of various body parts or faculties. Someone found guilty of maiming a man would not only have to pay the blood-price inflicting that particular injury, but might also have to pay the doctor, presumably for his efforts with the aggrieved party.


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