There are many accounts of warrior women in the Viking sagas, however, they are only legend. There is much evidence to confirm the existence of male warriors in the Viking age through burials and grave goods, however, there has been little archaeological evidence to suggest that shieldmaidens ever existed.
A grave found in Birka in the 1880s, assumed to be the remains of a Viking male, has in fact been identified as the remains of a warrior women using genome testing. These results have proven controversial however, as the lack of the male (y) chromosome is the only proof needed.
The only B we’re thinking about today is Burns!
Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard is famed for his poetry and lyrical talents worldwide. Auld Lang syne, Ode to a Haggis, My Love is like a red, red rose, To a mouse and Tam o’ Shanter are just a few of his most notable pieces of work.
Burns hailed from Ayrshire, which is also home to the Largs Viking Centre, Vikingar. He also holds strong ties to where we are based in Dunoon. He had a lover by the name of Mary Campbell who lived in our town, and who tragically died at the age of 23. However, she lives on through Burns’ work as Highland Mary. It is said within the town that Highland Mary would stand on Castle Hill and look over the water towards Ayrshire, longing after her lover Robert. A statue was erected on the hill in 1896 of Highland Mary looking towards her love.
It wouldn’t be Burns day without some Scottish cuisine.
We’ve teamed up with Hamlyns Porridge to bring you this delicious Burns day Cranachan recipe using their Pinhead Oatmeal.
This silver arm ring is based on a Viking age piece housed in the National Museum of Denmark. Similar finds have also been uncovered in Sejero Denmark and in the 10th century Norwegian Slemmedal Hoard. The smaller rings that hang on the bracelet could have been used as currency as it would have been easy to cut off individual rings.
The Perfect Viking Gift
As part of this year’s Yule giveaway we have teamed up with the folk at Raven Gin and Highland Park Whisky to bring you the perfect Norse themed prize.
Up for grabs is a bottle of Thought and Memory gin from Raven gin, and a bottle of Dragon Legend from Highland park.
What has inspired these two distilleries to produce these fabulous spirits?
Sleipnir was the eight-legged horse born of Loki, and belonged to Odin. Loki gave birth to Sleipnir after turning himself into a female horse when his father demanded he sabotage the work of a craftsman from being able to complete the fortification of Asgard in one season.
In the early days of Valhalla, a craftsman came to visit. He offered to create a citadel around Asgard which could keep out the giants who may attack from any direction. The man claimed he could complete the fortification of Asgard in three seasons, and for payment demanded that the goddess Freyja be his bride and that he receives the sun and the moon also. The gods however thought his choice of payment was steep and negotiated that he would be paid in full, if he completed the wall in just one season and that he receives no help from any man. The man accepted this with the condition that his stallion, Svadilfari, could help. The gods were unsure, but Loki convinced them that even with the help of his horse, the man would not be able to uphold his end of the bargain, so Freyja, and the sun and moon were not at risk at all.
And so the man set to work on the first day of winter, yet it was his huge stallion that did all the work, effortlessly hauling huge boulders. The progress of the citadel progressed swiftly, and it was so tall and strong that no enemy would be able to take Asgard. Three days before the winter was over the gods sat down for counsel and discussed how they could avoid giving the man payment. Whilst discussing this the gods began to question who had agreed to the man’s terms in the first place. The consensus was that Loki was to blame. The evil Loki was demanded to obstruct the craftsman from completing the last part of the citadel so that they would not need to pay him. Loki would face violence and death if not, so he swore oath that he would stop the man and his horse from completing the citadel.
The intriguing Viking history of a Neolithic burial mound
Maes Howe chambered tomb sits at the heart of the stunning Neolithic landscape of Mainland, Orkney, in close proximity to the stone circles of Brodgar, and Stenness, and the recently discovered temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. The mound is also home to a collection of 30 runic inscriptions, said to date from the 12th century.
But who made these inscriptions, and what do they say? The Orkneyinga Saga sheds a little light on this, and more recently, scholars[i] have translated the carvings, giving us some answers. However, this leaves us with more questions than we started with. The inscriptions in the tomb talk about buried treasure, they refer to the mound as Orkahaugr – Orc Mound, not Maes Howe, and the earth mound itself seems to have been bolstered in the 9th century[ii].
Were there piles of gold under the earth? Where is it now? Were orcs marauding across the land? The runes and sagas don’t tell us everything, some of the stories may be fabricated, and much is left undocumented.
So let’s start at the beginning. Maes Howe is around 4,800 years old. There is no evidence to suggest that burial chambers of this period had gold and silver placed in them. If it had been opened for the first time today, then we would expect to find nothing but bones. Archaeological excavations at the site have shown that the mound was re-enforced in the 9th century, with more earth added to the mound. The end of the 9th century corresponds with the start of the Orkneyinga Saga, and the arrival of the Earls of Orkney.
King Harald Fine-Hair of Norway ruled from 879-930A.D. The Saga tells us that he gave the land to Earl Rognvald after the Earl’s son, Ivar died fighting for the King in/around Ireland and the Isle of Man. Rognvald hands the land to his brother, Sigurd, who becomes the first Earl of Orkney. After Sigurd, the title passes to his son, Guthrum, then to Hallard, Sigurd’s nephew. Hallard couldn’t keep raiders at bay, so skulked back to Norway with his tail between his legs. Two Danes, Thorir Tree-Beard, and Kalf Scurvy decide to take the islands, so Earl Rognvald sent his youngest son, Einar to remove the Danes. There was much turmoil in the late 9th, and early 10th century in Orkney, but the Norse were certainly there.
There is more than one theory to explain why Vikings re-enforced the mound in the early years of the Earls. One[iii] is that it was stripped of the old bones, and turned into a burial mound by the vikings. Another, put forward by Dr Alexandra Sanmark[iv] is that it is was a thing site – a Viking parliament, and that Maes Howe was not actually called Orkahaugr by the Vikings, because Mesow (as written in the 1845 New Statistical Account) could be old norse for Meadow Mound.
Orkahaugr is only referenced twice in history – once in the Orkneyinga Saga – it remains in the English translation of the late 1800’s[v], but was swapped out for Maes Howe in a later edition[vi], and in the actual chamber itself in one of the rune carvings. Despite how fun it sounds, there is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings thought Orkney a mystical land filled with boggarts, fey creatures, and orcs, and Orkahaugr may simply mean ‘that big mound in Ork’ instead of a mound filled with Orcs. The Irish referred to the lands as Insi Orc, the land of the wild boars. We simply don’t know why it was referred to as Orkahaugr instead of Maes Howe, though it should be noted that the Saga was written in Iceland, and the man carving the runes may not have been native to the Orkneys.
And the treasure that these Vikings speak of? The inscriptions say it was hidden to the north-west of the mound, that is was removed by Hakon, and that it was taken away 3 nights before they opened the mound. Is any of this true? We will never know, but it could be said that if the theory about the 9th century Vikings burying someone in the tomb was correct, then there could well have been gold and silver among the grave goods. Or it could simply have been a story or myth told in Viking times to explain these huge monuments in the landscape. The Orkneyinga Saga makes no reference to the contents of the mound.
Do we actually know for sure who carved the runes in Maes Howe? The Orkneyinga Saga says that Earl Harald was travelling from Hamna Voe to Firth 13 days after Christmas, with 100 men, and they sheltered from a snow storm in the Howe. Two men went mad during the night. It is suggested that it was these men that wrote some of the runic inscriptions. This could be true, though you may struggle to fit 100 men in Maes Howe for the night, as it’s not that big internally. Also mentioned in the saga are the men of Earl Rognvald Kali, who went on crusade in 1153. This looks to be around the same time as the incident with Earl Harald, however there is no mention of Maes Howe in the Saga in relation to Earl Rognvald Kali. However, the date ties with the style of runes they are using, the fact that they use the word crusader in one inscription, and the addition of a cross carved into one of the stones, so it could have been these men.
Beyond the date of the original tomb, the earth works done in the 9th century, and the runes dated to the 12th century, it looks like we can theorise until Ragnarok about what really happened inside that mound. What we can certainly take away from the carvings inside Maes Howe, is that runes do have immense power. At some point, men called Hegli, Erlinger, Thorir, Tryggar, Ofram, Thorfir, Ottarfila, and Haermund Hardaxe stood in that small, dark space and left their mark, so that we may sit here nearly 1000 years later, and still know their names.
[i] John Mitchell. Mesehow: Illustrations of the Runic Literature of Scandinavia, Translations in Danish and English of the Inscriptions in Mesehowe, Visits of the Northern Sovereigns to Orkney, Notes, Vocabularies, etc. Edinburgh: 1863.
[iii] Sigurd Towrie. http://www.orkneyjar.com/
[iv] Dr Alexandra Sandmark. Althing and lawthing in Orkney. The Orcadian 2012
[v] Joeseph Anderson. Orkneyinga Saga 1873
[vi] Palsson Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Orkneyinga saga : the history of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981
It wouldn’t be Yule at Asgard without our favourite, easy to make dessert, Cranachan.
Oyster Shells have been found in middens across the Viking world. They’d make a great starter for any Yule feast. Allow 3-4 per person and open them as close to time of eating as possible.
Did you know that the Vikings had purple carrots? You can now find them in some supermarkets, greengrocers, or from farm shops.
Today we want to tell you a bit more about the story behind our newest T-shirt, Odin and the Runes:
In Norse mythology, it is told that Yggdrasil, the world-tree that holds all known nine worlds, grows out of the Well of Urd, often referred to as the Well of Destiny. In this well live three norns (Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld), who carve the destiny of all people into the base of the tree. These carvings are the first account of the use of runes.
We first saw the massive Hiddensee hoard pendants in 2013 at the Vikings exhibition in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and nothing can prepare you for seeing just how big these pieces of gold jewellery really are! Of course, we were already familiar with the hoard, and the style of pendant is well known from the Viking era, but these individual pieces are just so big, that they were instantly added to the list of designs we wanted to make.
The grand reopening of the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, took place this year, on April 8th and Asgard are proud to have played a small part in the re-imagining of this world class display of Viking archaeology. We reproduced several Viking bone, antler, and metal objects from the Jorvik collection. Some will go on sale in the shop, and others will be used by staff to demonstrate the Viking way of life including an intricate, thousand year old, working padlock.
I graduated from the University of York with a degree in Archaeology in 1994, and an interest in Viking culture that was expressed through Viking re-enactment. Involving fighting, re-creating some Viking age objects for personal use, and, what I later came to realise was, interpreting Viking age history and archaeology for the general public at events up and down the British Isles.