An anecdote of life and death in the North Sea at the end of the Viking Age
March 2, 2020 — Viking raiding was more often than not a part-time occupation. The Orkneyinga saga (included in the Icelandic Flateyjarbók) describes the habits of one Norse gentleman by the name of Sveinn Ásleifarson. In the spring, he oversaw the planting of grain on his farm at Gáreksey (today a small island in Orkney, Scotland with the modern name Gairsay.) When the farming preparation was completed, he went off raiding in the Hebrides and Ireland, but he was back to his home on Gáreksey to take in the hay and the grain by mid-summer.
Then, in the autumn, Ásleifarson and his comrades went off adventuring again, until the arrival of winter. Vikings loved the autumn, the dangerous allure of fickle September waves only strengthened their urge to tame the beastly waves of the ancient Atlantic. They even sailed as far north as to the Arctic Ocean, way beyond Iceland, to the sea the Vikings called the “Dumbshaf” (in Old Norse, dumb- suggest pointless or silent or dumb; as in “nothing there to see” except, there was much to see there, not the least incredible sea mammals that have since gone extinct.)
Going Viking in the harsh waters of the North Sea was more than petty raiding adventures. It was blood sworn tradition and a way of life, one which not only provided bounty that allowed offerings to the Old Gods but also provided a noble opportunity to honor one’s ancestors through brave deeds. Exploring unchartered waters in the unpredictable conditions of the Atlantic was not a suitable activity for the weak-heartened.
The Orkneyinga saga is also known as the History of the Jarls/Earls of Orkney, or Jarls’ Saga. The Norwegian rulers began losing control of the Orkney islands in 1231 since the power of the Norse Jarls and their family clans, who had been a ruling class of Viking Age Scotland and its adjacent islands since the 800s, had begun to weaken in the early 1100s. As Christianity tightened its grip on Scandinavia, the former worldview shifted away from the Norwegian petty kingdoms in the Northsea and England, to far-away Jorsalir (Jerusalem) and the Holy Land itself, where Norsemen would go not only to fight Saracens and Moors but also as a form of royal pilgrimage. Norse sailors and warriors were needed for expeditions in Grikklands hafi (Old Norse for the Mediterranean) of which many stories and accounts can be found in the Norwegian Crusade. Orkney and Shetland were pledged to Scotland by Norway in 1468–69, and some historians argue this rather peaceful event (that favored Scotland,) was a “final nail in the coffin” that abruptly ended the Viking Age.
In addition, the Mongol invasions in 1237 posed a threat to then “Norse-controlled” Garðaríki (modern Russia and Ukraine,) but how those far-east horse lord warriors ties into the decline of late Viking Age dominance in the North Sea, and why the ancestor of the Mongolian warhorse is still thriving on Iceland is a story for another day.