This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Vikings! The very word conjures up longships, shieldmaidens, old Norse mythology, runes and of course rape and pillage.

I first got interested in Vikings as an adult while reading a series of historical novels called The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell.  The protagonist of the series is Uhtred Uhtredsson of Bebbanburgh (who is, by the way, an actual ancestor of Cornwell’s), an Anglo-Saxon boy who was captured and raised by Danes, aka Vikings, after his father and others were defeated at York in the 9th century CE.  Uhtred becomes a great warlord for Alfred the Great, but he is always torn by his sympathies for the Vikings, who were so kind to him.

I’m really looking forward to the tenth book in Cornwell’s series, which will be published this October:

Bernard Cornwell The Flame Bearer cover

My interest in the Vikings continued as I looked into my father’s family’s genealogy, which goes back to the Norman (aka Vikings) Conquest of Britain in 1066.  Our family sprang from a Norman lord who followed William the Conqueror into England, where he was rewarded for his military service and loyalty with a wide swath of land in Norfolk, some of which is still held by Townsends today.  A good book about the Normans that details their Viking heritage:

The Normans Book Cover

So, I’m a Viking!

A great book about 1066 and the Norman Conquest specifically is:

1066 Book cover

A few months ago I discovered The History Channel’s series Vikings, which will be showing its fifth season on TV this fall.  The photos above, in the slideshow, are all from this TV series.  The hero of the TV series is the semi-legendary Ragnar Lothbrok (Lodbrok), but several other characters are featured in depth, including Ragnar’s first wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha, mother of Bjorn Ironside, and Ragnar’s brother Rollo, who is a documented historical figure who became the first Duke of Normandy.

The Vikings were known as the Northmen or Normans in France. Rollo is my personal favorite in the series, even when he sells out to Emperor Charles, weds the Emperor’s daughter, slaughters a bunch of his brother’s fellow Vikings, and then becomes the first Duke of Normandy (with a funny haircut).  I like him best as a Viking!  He looks pretty damn good as a 21st C. guy, too:

rollo Clive Standen
Clive Standen, the British actor who plays Rollo

Once I caught Vikings fever, I turned to books to research the Viking Age, its culture, its ships and the early histories documenting the Vikings’ raids and later settlements in England and France.  I went into a book-buying frenzy on Amazon.  My favorite book about the Vikings was published in 2000 as a guide to the Museum of Natural History’s and the Smithsonian Institution’s Vikings exhibition.  Lovely photos and illustrations.  Not only is it a great reference work on all things Viking, but it also carries a preface by none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton!

Vikings book cover

Another top-rate illustrated reference work about the Vikings:

Vikings Life and Legend book cover

Of course, you don’t want to just read histories about the Vikings, you want to read some of their own works, right?  These works are called Eddas and Sagas.  I prefer the Sagas, although the Eddas are very important to give you the scoop on Norse mythology (albeit as understood in the main by monks writing down the oral traditions a couple of centuries after the Viking Age, which is considered by scholars to have run from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century CE).  The sagas read more like adventure stories and are the oral histories of the various Viking peoples, written down as they were told.  My favorite set of sagas comes from Iceland, which was settled by the Vikings in the late 9th century CE:

the sagas of Icelanders book cover

In this hefty tome, my favorite saga is one that features strong women, The Saga of the People of Laxardal.  A strong woman I know personally spent time on the very farms mentioned in that saga while she was living and researching Icelandic sagas for her Ph.D.  She told me that the people who live there now are very knowledgeable about their history and heritage and have a continuity of culture and place that is fairly rare in the USA (except for the Native Americans, who were largely decimated and displaced by Europeans settling North America and who are in the process of reclaiming their heritage).

This year, the largest modern-built (but in completely traditional fashion) Viking long-ship, the Draken Harald Harfagre, sailed from its home port in Norway to the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland,  and Greenland, and is now making its way through the Great Lakes.  I had bought tickets to go see it and have an onboard tour at Fairport Harbor, Ohio on Lake Erie, but at the last minute I was unable to go, alas.  I have followed its voyage this year on its site:

Draken is sailing into the Great Lakes on the hypothesis that the Vikings could have penetrated this far into North America, although we don’t yet have any evidence of their doing so.  So far the North American evidence is on Newfoundland.

Someplace I hope to go see someday is the reconstructed Viking settlement on Newfoundland, L’Anse Aux Meadows.  Wikipedia says:

“Discovered in 1960, it is the most famous site of a Norse or Viking settlement in North America.

Dating to around the year 1000, L’Anse aux Meadows is widely accepted as evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. It is notable for its possible connection with the attempted colony of Vinland established by Leif Erikson around the same period or, more broadly, with Norse exploration of the Americas. It was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1978.”

L'Anse_aux_Meadows_National_Historic_Site panorama


I’m proud of my Viking heritage!