Advertisements

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

Featured image

There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

Norway’s Medieval Wooden Churches Look Plucked From a Fairy Tale

Starting in the Middle Ages, when Norway became a Christian country, former Vikings-turn-Christians built immense cathedrals and churches to honor the new religion—all made entirely from wood rather than the typical stone construction of the time. Known as “stave” churches, after the wooden “stavers” or corner posts and load-bearing pillars that keep the church from collapsing, these churches range from modest structures to ornate, multi-layer architectural masterpieces.

At one point, more than 1,000 stave churches existed throughout Norway, but many of the original ones fell apart over time or were destroyed. Often, the original stavers were driven directly into the ground, allowing for quick rot; other churches were ravaged by fires or storms. Now, only 28 historical stave churches remain, many of which feature elaborate carvings that mix Christian and Viking symbols.

These are the ten oldest in Norway:

Urnes Stave Church in Luster

Urnes Stave Church
Urnes Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Built about 1130, Urnes is Norway’s oldest stave church and the only one on the Unesco Heritage list. The site, though, is much older, and was home to two earlier churches. Parts of the previous churches, include a door opening, a corner post and several wall planks, were repurposed in the new construction. The northern wall features the most intricately decorated panel found in any existing stave church. The carvings, created in a traditional Viking style, show a snake biting and being bitten by another animal. The carvings combined with the Romanesque basilica layout make the church a fascinating example of the melding of pre-Christian Nordic symbology with Christian medieval influences. The church and cemetery are still in use today.

Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik

Hopperstad Stave Church
Hopperstad Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hopperstad was also built around 1130, but unlike Urnes, much of the interior has been removed and replaced. Over the years, the original construction fell into disrepair and neglect. In the early 1880s, architect Peter Andreas Blix saw the historical significance of the church and offered to restore it free of charge. Blix based his restoration on other existing stave churches, but preserved the church’s original consecration crosses. Thanks to strong Norwegian heritage in the Midwest, there’s an exact replica of Hopperstad in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Kaupanger Stave Church in Sogndal

Kaupanger Stave Church
Kaupanger Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Twenty-two staves support this church, the largest number of all the remaining stave churches in Norway. Kaupanger is also the best preserved and is still the parish church used by the surrounding community today. Two previous churches stood here before the current church was built, one of which was partially burned as a consequence of a farmer’s revolt in 1183 that resulted in the governor Ivan Dape’s murder. The architecture at Kaupanger is fairly different from Norway’s other stave churches—emphasizing height rather than ornate carvings.

Undredal Stave Church in Undredal

Undredal Stave Church
Undredal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From looking at it, one wouldn’t expect this tiny church to be in the same league as the other stave churches dotting Norway. White clapboard siding covers the exterior, making it look like a little chapel rather than a Viking-era relic. Undredal is one of the smallest historic wood churches, seating only about 40 people. A few artifacts are on display inside: the first bell and chandelier, dating back to the Middle Ages; a kneeler from 1647; candleholders from 1702; a 1680 baptismal font; the original wall paintings from the 1600s; and a pulpit from 1696. When the church was first built in 1147, it was called St. Nicholas Chapel.

Høyjord Stave Church in Vestfold

Høyjord Stave Church
Høyjord Stave Church (Creative Commons)

This church is half restoration, half reconstruction. The original layout of the church was built over twice, in the 1600s and the 1800s. In the 1950s, the stave foundation from the original medieval church was discovered, and it was rebuilt to match the original footprint. Originally, the church had a dirt floorand benches only along the sides for the elderly and infirm. Everyone else stood for services. The paintings on the walls inside are recreations, made to match décor on older parts of the church. Høyjord also has a stave supporting the church from the middle of the sanctuary, a feature found in only two stave churches in Norway.

Flesberg Stave Church in Buskerud

Flesberg Stave Church
Flesberg Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Originally, Flesberg was a simple rectangular stave church when it was built in the late 1100s. In the 1730s, it was expanded to a cross shape. The original church stands as the western arm of the cruciform. Church services and concerts are still held in the building in the summer. Flesberg also holds the honor of being the subject of the oldest existing painting of a stave church, a landscape from 1701.

Lom Stave Church in Oppland

Lom Stave Church
Lom Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From the time the church was built in the 1160s until the 1800s, Lom was used as both a church and a resting place for those traveling throughout the country. Remodeling began in the 1600s when the church was deemed too small and was expanded into a cruciform shape. It was expanded again in the 1660s, making it one of the largest stave churches in Norway. The carved dragon heads featured in the eaves are exact modern replicas, installed in 1964, so that the originals could be preserved.

Torpo Stave Church in Hallingdal

Torpo Stave Church
Torpo Stave Church (Creative Commons)

The Torpo church is the oldest building in Hallingdal. Built in the late 1100s, it is well known for a series of 13th-century paintings depicting the the martyrdom of St. Margaret, the saint the church was consecrated to. One of the more unique features in Torpo is an inscription on a chancel rail from the original builder. In runic script, it reads, “Torolf built this church.”

Hedalen Stave Church in Oppdal

Hedalen Stave Church
Hedalen Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hedalen is yet another stave church that continues to be used as a parish church. It was built around 1163 and is decorated with dragon and vine carvings meant to represent the act of leaving behind evil forces as you enter the church. There’s a bearskin in the sacristy, and legend has it the skin belonged to a bear shot before the altar once the church was rediscovered in the woods after The Plague. The church holds some medieval relics, including a Madonna statue from 1250, a crucifix from 1270, and a font cover from 1250. The church’s prize possession is a copper-gilded wood reliquary, also from 1250. These artifacts are unique and rare throughout Norway as many Catholic objects were destroyed after the Reformation.

Nore Stave Church
Nore Stave Church (Creative Commons)

When Nore was built in the late 1160s, the construction was unique for the time: it was built as a choir church and has balconies, an apse, a choir and cross arms. A large amount of the original building is still standing, though it was remodeled and partially rebuilt in both the 1600s and 1700s. Some of the original decorative paintings can still be seen, as well as a prayer inscription and two crucifixes dating back to the Middle Ages.

Heddal Stave Church in Notodden

Heddal Stave Church
Heddal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Though not in the top ten oldest stave churches, Heddal is the largest in Norway. It was first built around 1250, and as it’s still in continual use, visitors can see several historical eras reflected in the décor. Some of the prized items inside and on the exterior are rose paintings from the 1600s, runic inscriptions and carvings telling the Viking legend of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. There’s also a café, an exhibition about the history of the church, and an open-air historical museum of a farm and buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.

Three giant Viking swords stand buried in a stone in Hafrsfjord, Norway, recalling a mythic struggle for unity

Featured image

By now many of us are at least to some extent acquainted with Sir Thomas Malory’s classic tale of the Lady of the Lake and how she gave Excalibur to King Arthur, or the tale told in Robert de Boron’s poem of Merlin about the magical sword in the stone that could be drawn out only by the rightful ruler of the land.

They differ in some aspects, but both speak of the same Arthurian legend and a mighty sword that could only be swung by a man worthy to hold it in possession. This story about a powerful weapon identified with a single hero is as old as time. Whereas in this specific legend it was Excalibur for King Arthur, ancient Greek mythology speaks of many magical swords. Other legendary blades include Crocea Mors, the sword belonging to Julius Caesar, which was considered to hold supernatural powers, and for Attila the Hun it was the Sword of Mars. Most recently, in George R. R.  Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it is the Lightbringer, the sword of Azor Ahai.

“In this dread hour, a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.”

While all these stories tell of individuals who drew their swords out of fire or a stone to aid mankind in times when it was needed the most, a statue in Norway speaks of a time when groups and individuals put their petty differences aside and even buried them, so they could put an end to bloodshed and stand united under the same flag.

Little is known of the particular event, but what information that exists points to a great battle that took place in 872 on one of the fjords in Norway. The Battle of Hafrsfjord, as it is known today, was the result of a long-lasting conflict between three different factions and their leaders in Western Norway, among whom was Harald Fair Hair (Harald Hårfagre), son of Halfdan the Black Gudrödarson.

“The Saga of Harald Fairhair” (Heimskringla) is a Scandinavian saga that was written two centuries after the event. According to the story, the Hordaland-Rogaland and Agder-Thelemark factions were advancing with their troops towards Hafrsfjord, they were met there by the strong force of Harald Fair Hair, who was on a mission to unite the Norwegians who up until then lived in small tribes and villages.

The Norwegian tribes led a warring life, constantly fighting with one another. According to the legend, Harold, who was in love with Gyda, the daughter of King Erik of Hordaland, had to convince her of his love and devotion by uniting the tribes and thus putting an end to all the fighting between them once and for all. He was the son of a king who wanted to marry the daughter of rival one, and she was the daughter of a king who despised the man who wanted her hand. So marriage was not an option if peace between the two was not reached.

Harold, prior to the battle, had taken rulership over several small kingdoms in Vestfold, and continued with his conquest believing that negotiating peace from a position of strength would bring more fruition to his noble cause, and a better chance to negotiate the terms with the father of his loved one. But as he was growing in strength and force, the other kings allied against him and planned a secretive attack. News spread from the south that Erik of Hordaland, King Sulke of Rogaland, Earl Sote, the King of Agder and brothers Hroald and Had the Hard from Thelemark had joined forces and were headed towards the mainland with a large fleet.

This was a clear indication that an imminent attack was on the way and there was no space for a peaceful resolution. As a result, Harald assembled his troops and intercepted them at Hafrsfjord, where a great battle was set in motion, in which many, including King Eirik, lost their lives. In the midst of all the dead bodies spread around the battlefield, Harald was the last man standing and his troops fortunate to see the light of day. Many fled to the nearby Icelandic islands, and everyone left on the land came to live united under the rulership of King Harald Fair Hair, the first King of Norway.

His mission was completed. Harald got to marry Erik’s daughter, but at a devastating cost. This story is more of a romanticized legend than of actual historical evidence, and complete peace and unity took probably hundreds of years to be achieved. However, this battle is considered the greatest contributor to the unification of Norway into one country.

Three giant Viking swords are now forever embedded in solid stone on a Nordic hill in Hafrsfjord, and stand tall against the sun as a reminder of an ancient battle that eventually unified the kingdoms of Norway and its people into one nation. The swords were forced through solid rock so that they can never be removed and such a battle never to occur again. They stand for peace, unity, and freedom, and the place where they are impaled is near the city of Stavanger in the Rogaland region.

The memorial itself is named “Sverd i fjell” (swords in rock) and was constructed in 1983 by sculptor Fritz Røed upon the request of King Olav V. It consists of three bronze swords, each higher than 30 feet. The highest represents the sword of King Harald Fair Hair, while the other two symbolize the opposing factions

It stands proudly as a tourist attraction, and a historical reminder for Norwegians never to draw a weapon again against fellow countrymen.

 Martin Chalakoski

%d bloggers like this: