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Vikings on the move

As the world waits to see if peace will ever come to the eastern
Mediterranean, the Norsemen (or Vikings) are celebrating the thousand-year
peace of Northern Europe. It is hard to remember now, but the Vikings,
ordinary Scandinavians, were once considered the fiercest and most savage
raiders, not only of Europe, but of the entire Northern Hemisphere, their
raids feared like an outbreak of the Plague.

In 965 A.D., Erik Thorvaidsson, known to history as “Erik the Red,” left
Norway for Iceland. Having killed one too many enemies in Iceland, Erik was
banished and, assembling followers, set sail once more for the West. Some
time about 985, he departed Iceland with 15 ships carrying settlers and
their livestock. Only four of these ships arrived in the New World, nine
having either turned back or been lost at sea. But nothing discouraged the
fearless Norsemen; their pagan religion told them that man was destined to
perish in fire, and perhaps they reasoned that the sea therefore contained
no danger for them.

Mind you these men had no navigational equipment or notion of geography.
They had no compass. No sextant. Their ships, although graceful and admired
for centuries for their performance in water, had only one sail and were
made of wood. The crew — as indeed all Scandinavia — had not yet
discovered the magic of the written word and knew only the Norse sagas. It
is not clear to us today just what these mad Scandinavians were after or
where they thought they were going. They held on in the New World for only
some 300 years, after which a climate shift made the area perhaps 30 degrees
colder and they departed. It was still warm enough in the Mediterranean and
they continued their raiding of the ports of Europe for some hundreds of
years, leaving behind a mythic memory of merciless men of the sea.

They founded Dublin, and at one time or another conquered Constantinople
and even Baghdad, and were feared everywhere as the raiders who swept in
from the sea. It was often marveled that the Viking ships, aided by only one
sail, were carried the length and breadth of the world by the strength of
their men’s arms at the oars. During the dynastic wars of the Persian
Empire, the Sultan organized a special elite corps of Vikings to defend his

England also had its Viking age, beginning with the storming of the
monastery at Lindisfarne. The same Vikings soon landed in East Anglia, which
shook England to the bone. They soon took York (which they called Jorvik).
And before long three of England’s four kingdoms were under Viking rule. By
the 10th century nearly half of England was under Viking dominion — an area
called the “Danelaw” which extended to the border of Scotland.

Going past the Baltic, the Vikings advanced along the great rivers of the
continent, covering an area twice the size of Alaska with trading
settlements. By the early ninth century Vikings were navigating the Volga
and the Dnieper and reaching the merchants of the Abbasid Caliphate. The
Slavs and Finns called the Vikings “Rus,” which caught
on to the extent that throughout Eastern Europe Westerners and invaders of
German origin are to this day called “Rus” or Russians, which is one of the
ironies of history.

Norway in particular is still famous for its rugged people. And Oslo has
used this reputation for its own purposes. in the modern age Norwegians are
still considered rather tough types. I was on a pan-Scandinavian excursion
to Europe’s regions once myself, and the joshing among the various
Scandinavian nationalities was endless. The Swedes and Danes were supposed
to be the urban sophisticates, while an endless line of banter identified
the Norwegians as the “hard men” of the frontier. And you couldn’t argue
with them; it was their history.