National Geographic : 2017 Mar
34 national geographic • March 2017 By Heather Pringle Photographs by Robert Clark and David Guttenfelder A helmet outfitted with beardlike chain mail (right) protected a wealthy lord who lived before the Viking age, when Scandinavia was wracked by turmoil. Recent discoveries reveal that warfare wasn’t the exclusive domain of Viking men. The sword above was buried with a female commander. GABRIEL HILDEBRAND, SWEDISH HISTORY MUSEUM/CC BY (SWORD, IN TWO PIECES); ROBERT CLARK, PHOTOGRAPHED AT GUSTAVIANUM, UPPSALA UNIVERSITY MUSEUM A cold drizzle falls as we shiver in the streets, wait- ing for the Viking lord and his band of raiders to appear. It’s a raw January night in the old Shetland town of Lerwick, but there’s euphoria in the air. Beside me, a man with two young children laughs as he spots a red smoky haze rising behind the town hall. “Looks like they torched the whole building,” he shouts, to grins all around. Fire, after all, is why we are here. It’s Up Helly Aa, the great incendiary celebration of the Viking past in Shetland. Like everyone else, I’ve come to see a Viking ship burn. As the lord’s squad and dozens of others pour into the street, fire seethes from hundreds of torches. A roar of delight goes up from the crowd as it catches sight of the sleek longship the raid- ers tow. The Vikings first landed on these rocky shores north of the Scottish mainland some 1,200 years ago, crushing the local resistance and taking the land. For nearly seven centuries Norwegian lords ruled Shetland, until they finally pawned the islands to a Scottish king. Today the old Norse dialect—Norn—is all but forgotten in Shetland, but the islanders remain intensely proud of their Viking past. Each year they prepare obsessively for Up Helly Aa, assembling, plank by plank, a replica of a Viking ship. Now, as the crowd belts out old songs of sea kings and dragon ships, the torchbearers tow the vessel into a walled field. As the lord gives the signal, a hail of torches sets the ship ablaze. Fire races up the mast, and embers fly into the night sky. On the sidewalk, children stomp their feet and dance, nearly delirious with excitement. Later that evening, as revelers kick up their heels at parties, I marvel at the power the Vikings still hold over our imaginations. Dead and gone for centuries, these medieval seafarers 360° VIDEO Step into the thick of Viking warfare at natgeo.com/vikings360.