National Geographic : 1970 Apr
Strolling through the trees, I glanced up, half expecting to see the same grisly fruit sil houetted against the sky. The ancient religion of the north boasted little theology and no promise of salvation. Immortality of a sort came if you died fighting. Then the warrior maids called Valkyries would carry you to Valhalla to banquet on mead and pork until the far-distant day when the gods themselves -because in that fatalistic religion even the gods were doomed-fell in battle before the powers of darkness. Superstition reigned supreme. Of all the desirable qualities a man might possess, luck ranked far above skill or intelligence or virtue. Certain individuals won wide renown for woman-luck or weapon-luck. And when a Norseman decided to go viking for a season, he sought a chief famed for victory-luck. HE VIKINGS balanced their blood reeking religion with apassion for poetry. The art of the skalds, or court poets, fol lowed a complex, rigid formula that featured alliteration, internal rhyme, and the elaborate metaphors called kennings. "Hawkfell," for example, formed a kenning for "hand," since thereon perched one's hunting falcon; a battle might be "the reddening of spears" or "the Valkyries' magic song." Blood became "wound-dew" and to slay enemies was "to feed the ravens" or "sate the eagles." Poets of the Viking Age prospered as never before, for verse alone could memorialize the deeds of great men. No self-respecting king or jarl would venture into battle without a complement of skalds behind his shield-wall. King Harald Hardraada of Norway, himself no mean poet, cannily assured eternal fame by employing ten of the finest. The poets traded their verse unashamedly for gold; the greatest of them, Egil Skallagrimsson, in a stately lament on the death of his friend and patron, Arinbj0rn, candidly wondered who would now ... fill high hawkfell of my hand With skald's reward for skilled word? Poetry, if well enough crafted, could even forestall the wrath of kings. The mid-10th century offers the bizarre spectacle of the same Egil literally composing for his life. After falling into the hands of his sworn enemy, King Eric Bloodax, Egil fashioned a poem overnight and, as the king brooded on his high seat the next morning, the skald recited 20 dazzling stanzas in praise of his 500 royal captor. With an eye wisely cocked to immortality rather than the mere doing of justice, Eric spared his blood enemy. If a skald's words could buy life, so could they also mock death. In the 11th-century battle of Stiklestad, the skald Thormod jerked an enemy arrow from his chest, examined the tip, and proclaimed, "Well has the king fed us. I am fat even at the heart-roots." Where upon he fell dead. "Before the Vikings, Scandinavia was aself- Intricate artistry of a rug pattern fascinates author LaFay in a factory at Baku, on the Cas pian Sea, as he traces the sweep of the far contained society," said Arne Emil Christen sen, Jr., a curator of the Museum of Antiqui ties in Oslo, as we approached the Viking Ship Hall. "Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes spoke a common language, shared a common cul ture, and knew little of the world outside Scandinavia. Just preceding the Viking Age, we find evidence of a marked population explosion. The number of burials multiplies and place names increase. "But the land couldn't support more people.