A Mondo Esoterica Historybook Guide

The Vikings


     
About The Vikings:

The History

The term Viking is derived from the old Norse, meaning raider, but is now generally applied to all the Scandinavian peoples living between the 8th and 11th Centuries (700 - 1099 A.D.), both in region itself and later in their colonies in Britain, Iceland and Greenland. The first settlers into Scandiavia date back as far as 11.000 B.C., but the harsh climate made development slow and there was only small scale growth. It was not until the 8th Century A.D. that the first signs of a Scandiavian society can be found - most notably the large scale construction of a canal through the Danish island of Samsř - and it is usually marked as the beginning of the Viking age.

The Swedish Vikings were the first to expand outside of Scandinavia itself in the 8th Century with regular raiding and exploring in areas of North-Western Russia, and by the 9th Century had established regular trade routes, via the Russian rivers, into Turkey and Arabia - helping to establish settlements along the routes including Kiev and Novgarod. The Norweigan Vikings suffered from over-population and travelling East they first raided and settled in the Orkney and Shetland islands during the late 8th Century, as well as parts of Ireland in the early 9th Century, taking advantage of the fractured nature of the Celtic society. Later they discovered and settled in Iceland, Greenland and briefly established a colony in North America, and are especially renowned for their sailing and navigating abilities. Danish Vikings could more easily navigate by simply following the European coastline south, and after attacking Britain in the early 9th Century, they moved on to attack areas of France, and between 844 and 861, made a series of raids on the Iberian penninsula and into the Mediteranean.

For both Danish and Norweigan Vikings, the most popular taget was Britain - at the time it was a mix of kingdoms with often very fragile alliances, and throughout the Viking era, it was subject to raids and conquest, as the Vikings first pillaged, and then attempted to establish settlements, most notably in the North-East around York. The English Kings engaged in frequent conflicts with the Vikings with areas like York changing hands many times, but often found themselves at the mercy of the invaders, and forced to pay Danegeld, or tribute money to raiding parties to try and stop the devistating attacks. King Knut II was the only monarch to control both England and Norway, between 1016 and his death 1035. A final Viking attempt to conquer Britain came in 1066 when Harald Hardrada landed with over 300 ships in the Humber estuary, but was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by English King Harold, who would be defeated days later by the invading Norman King William. Danish Vikings continued to attack Britain, assisting the Saxon rebels against the Normans, but were not sucessful, and their final landings on the country took place in 1076 by which time their Saxon allies had been completely subdued by the Normans. Most historians class this as the end of the Viking era.



The Viking society was heirarchical, with much emphasis placed on the ownership of land - monarchs did exist, but often had limited power and scope - they would usually have to consult a public assembly, consisting of landowners and freemen, before making any policy decisions. Known as a Thing, the assemblies would meets for 2 or 3 weeks every year, and existed in all of the Viking homelands and later settlements. As well as political debates,
the assembly would act as a Court of Law for any unsettled grievances between members of the community, and would often impose fines on the guilty parties, with only the most serious cases ending in duels or banishment.

At the beginning of the Viking era, almost all of Scandinavia was Pagan. The first signs of religion in the region date back as far as 4000 B.C. with some
rock carvings indicating a belief in zoomorphism - a basic link between spirits and nature. By the Viking era, the religion had become more sophisticated, with elaborate creation and apocalypse stories, and several clans of Gods and mythical creatures inhabiting nine worlds, built around the tree Yggdrasil. There was no centralised "church" or priesthood, to the extent of many other religions from the era (such as the Celts), but there did exist Shamans, known as Völvas, who were almost exclusively female, and would be responsible for predicting the future, and treating certain ailments. Most of our knowledge of Viking religion comes from Icelandic writings (cut off from mainland Europe, it retained its Norse culture much longer) and from Christian missionaries. Christianity was soon adopted by Viking settlers in Britain and Ireland and some attempts were made to send missionaries into Scandinavia, but it was not until the reign of Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (who ruled from 958 to 985) that the faith really became widespread, eventually being taken to the Viking territories of Iceland and Greenland - although it is believed that the traditional religion did live on for many generations, especially in more remote tribes, with some evidence of conversions taking place into the 13th Century.

Several elements of the Norse religion have entered popular culture, and thusly fiction: Valhalla is the Hall of the Slain where warriors killed in battle or conflict go after their death, to spend their days fighting and feasting, and preparing for Ragnarök - the epic battle at the end of days, between the Gods and the Giants (in contrast, those who died with dishonour would go to Hel - a frozen place at the bottom of the World Tree). Odin was the first God, who moulded the nine worlds from the body of the giant Ymir, creating the Earth from his eyebrows, and was responsible for starting wars, inspiring poets and running Valhalla. He was destined to be killed by the giant wolf Fenrir, in the battle for the end of days. Odin's son Thor represented law and order and always carried his famous hammer Mjollnir - its use seen on earth as lightning blots - his demise would come at the hands of his mortal enemy, the serpent Jörmungandr.


 
The Films

Since the end of the Viking era in the 11th Century, the Norseman carried a reputation for savagery and brutality. It was not until the 17th Century that writers began to explore the culture behind the pillaging, and many original Norse texts were translated into modern tounges for the first time, revealing the surprisingly advanced culture. This 'revival' reached its peak during the Victorian era in the 19th Century when a highly romanticised notion of sea-faring explorers lead to an avid yearning to find links to Viking culture - thus towns in Britain quickly proclaimed their Viking roots, and even Queen Victoria was claimed to be a descendant of a Viking King. A wide ranging collection of fictional tales sprung up around this increased popularity, and new and translated Viking Sagas were quickly sucessful. The first full scale Viking movie was the experimental The Viking (1928), filmed using a new Technicolor film process (a subtractive two-colour dye transfer print) and only the second feature length film ever shot to include a recorded soundtrack, with music and effects although without dialogue. Directed by future Universal Horror film-maker Roy William Neil (The Scarlet Claw (1944)) the story tells the epic tale of explorer Leif Ericsson who travels from Scandinavia, past Greenland, in search of new lands to the West. Despite the film's sucess, it was to be three decades before another dedicated Viking movie was filmed.

The 1950s saw a big rise in the Hollywood epics; from Biblical to historical stories, every period of history and mythology was ripe for putting on the big screen. The Vikings (1958) from director Richard Fleischer, starred a rugged Kirk Douglas and bearded Ernest Borgnine and was based on the real Norse legend of Ragar Lodbrok, a semi-legendary King of Denmark in the 9th Century. Preceeded by over a year of painstaking research, the film ranks as one of the more accurate Viking movies and proved very sucessful and influencial. Low budget filmmaker Roger Corman was the first to capitalise; before the film had even been released, he shot the incredibly low budget, and suitably daft
Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957), while British based producer Irving Allen crossbred the Vikings with the popular Arabian themes of the Sinbad films to create The Long Ships (1964) starring Richard Widmark and a mis-cast Sidney Poitier. Meanwhile, The Vikings' editor, Elmo Williams, used stock footage and costumes from the film to create the television series Tales of the Vikings (1959).

European filmmakers had similarly tapped into the craze for historical adventure films with a string of mythological 'sword and sandal' films known as Pepla. After the sucess of the Hollywood film, several of the Italian studios switched production over to Viking movies, leading to such exploitation films as L'Ultimo dei Vikinghi (1961) and Erik, il Vichingo (1965), and the impressive double bill of Gli Invasori (1961) and I Coltelli del Vendicatore (1966) from Italian director Mario Bava. The latter film, better known as Knives of Avenger is of particular interest, being the first Viking film to focus entirely on internal conflicts rather than exploration, looking and feeling more like a Western than a typical Viking movie but probably quite authentic.



The into the 1970s, Vikings became the opponents for lost explorers in The Island at the Top of the World (1974) and for cowboys in the surreal Spaghetti Western Get Mean (1976) before being subject to the ignominy of The Norseman (1978), with Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors in the title role as a Viking bound for America to avenge his father's capture by natives - rather lacking in historical accuracy, it is ranked as one of the most embarrasingly bad Viking movies. In the 1980s a wave of low budget Italian Sword and Sorcery films followed in the wake of Conan the Barbarian (1982), and among the lowest budgeted of them all was the appaling Thor il Conquistatore (1983), very loosely inspired by Viking mythology. Relatively more sucessful was former Monty Python member Terry Jones' comedy Erik the Viking (1989) starring Tim Robbins, Mickey Rooney and John Cleese, although it met with limited sucess compared to their other ventures.

It was in response to these inaccurate and often very bad Viking films, that Icelanding filmmaker Hrafn Gunnlaugsson began work on Hrafninn Flýgur (1984), which despite a low budget, was the most gritty and realistic Viking film made to date, and was eventually followed by the better budgeted Í Skugga Hrafnsins (1988) and Hvíti Víkingurinn (1991) - the trilogy, all filmed in native languages, capture a realism and authenticity of day-to-day life during the period that has never been bettered, although sadly they have been very poorly distributed outside of Scandinavia.  In 1995, another attempt to create a more authentic Viking movie came with the American production The Viking Sagas (1995), filmed in Iceland with a largely Scandiavian cast - although unlike
Hrafn Gunnlaugsson's films, it was shot in English to allow for better distribution (although it has still remained obscure).

Into the late 90s and early 2000s, there have been a series films with rather usual twists on the classic Viking stories. Most well known is The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas as an Arabian courtier, brought back to Scandiavia by a Viking raiding party who come into conflict with a seemingly supernatural force that has been destroying their home villages - based on a book by Michael Crichton it was critically mauled on release and went through a very mixed up production, but remains entertaining. The Berseker (2001) was a much less effective, low budget, straight-to-video production with a Highlander inspired story of a Viking warrior who is cursed by Odin to live through the centuries as an insane warrior. The poorly received Pathfinder (2007) is the story of a Viking boy left behind by the first Nordic raiders in North America, and raised by the native tribes, who later comes into conflict with a returning party of Norse warriors. Yet to be released is Outlander (2007) starring
James Caviezel as a space traveller who crashes into Viking-era Scandinavia, bringing with him a deadly alien monster - possibly the most unusual Viking movie to date.




   DVD Reviews: Viking Movies

The 13th Warrior (1999)
USA Touchstone Region 1 DVD
This modern film takes an original twist on the Viking sagas, but an over-rushed script doesn't make the most of it.
Recommended.
Erik the Conqueror (1961)
German Colloseo Film Region 2 DVD
An exciting Viking adventure film, with excellent direction making up for an obviously low budget production and a hole-filled script.
Recommended.
Knives of the Avenger (1966)
German E-M-S Region 2 DVD
A rather usual Viking film, with the emphasis more on storyline than action, giving great characterisation - very well directed with some good acting.
Highly recommended.
The Long Ships (1964)
USA Columbia Region 1 DVD
Completely unconnected to the novel, this is a very enjoyable adventure film although with a few flaws.
Recommended
Tarkan versus the Vikings (1971)
USA Mondo Macabro Region 0 DVD
An utterly daft, but completely enjoyable Turkish made Viking movie based on a popular comic-book series.
Recommended.
The Viking Sagas (1995)
USA Image Region 1 DVD
A very authentic small-scale Viking movie set and filmed in Iceland and benifiting from a good budget and production.
Highly Recommended to anyone interested in Vikings.
The Vikings (1958)
USA MGM Region 1 DVD
Hollywood's famous take on the Vikings is surprisingly accurate, and an enjoyable story, but never quite gels, and suffers from indifferent acting.
Recommended to adventure movie fans.


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All text on this page written by Timothy Young - July/August 2007.
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