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Book Review - "Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings"

By Tom Shippey

Reaktion Books, London, 2018

Reviewed by Hrolfr

This is a well-researched and reference heavy work written by Tom Shippey. That said, it is an easy and enjoyable read for those who are interested in the Viking era and/or Norse heathenry and Norse culture in general. Shippey is an emeritus professor at St. Louis University and he has placed his finger on the pulse of the psychology of the Vikings. He explores the period from roughly the year 750 CE, including the raid on Lindesfairne, to 1066 CE and the death of king Harold “Hard Counsel” at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Viking was of course a job description, and a verb “fara I Viking” (to go raiding) and did not refer to all Norsemen or any particular class of Norsemen other than those who were Vikings - raiders. Shippey’s thesis is that Norse culture, and those who led the life of Vikings, had a sense of humor and an approach to death that to quote Shakespeare can be described as “however strange and admirable.’ This sense of humor is tied up with their sense of honor. The Viking, or rather Norse, view of death goes beyond the simplistic idea that if you die in battle you get a ticket to Valhalla, which is not the case anyway as that itself is not a guaranteed process. Odin gets to choose who he wants as his guests in Valhalla as Einherjar and Freya also has a say in choosing fallen warriors, according to some Eddic sources, but I digress.

Drengskaper is a Norse term that means honorable behavior for a warrior or Viking who could also be called a Drengr. This word is found in many Scandinavian languages and can mean a man or even “en lille Drengr” (a little boy) in Danish. Overall, perhaps “honorable bad ass” is a good way to describe the meaning in English. Drengskaper is the Viking- age equivalent to the laws of dueling that existed in the 1700 and 1800’s though different. What made these famous Vikings Drengr and how they followed Drengskaper is indeed what much of the book is about.

One of the famous Vikings whose life serves as an example of a Drengr is Ragnar Lodbruk (Lothbruk) – “hairy breeches” – who has been made more popular by the History Channel show “Vikings.” Long before that though there was, and is, “The Saga of Ragnar Lodbruk,” which I highly recommend. The real Ragnar only survives partly in history and myth, but it is believed he probably existed as did his sons who became equally famous. There are Frankish records that in 845 a Reginherus or Ragnar attacked Paris. In the saga, when he is captured in England, Ragnar is thrown in a pit of adders by his English captors. Ragnar’s sense of humor involves composing a death poem as he is being bitten to death. The poem concludes with the line “Laughing shall I die.” Before that though, as he lay dying in the pit Ragnar sees the Valkyries coming and his own arrival at Valhalla where he will sit with the Allfather and knows that his sons (the piglets in the poem) will seek revenge on King Ella. Indeed in the saga, King Ella is subjected to a long, slow, and painful death – the saga says by blood eagle. While the television show “Vikings” takes great liberties with Viking history on these points it follows the saga and King Ella is killed by the sons of Ragnar by blood eagle. There are other details that I enjoyed learning such as the sons of Ragnar flew the raven banner.

There may have been five historical sons of Ragnar Lodbruk, and one of those historical sons of Ragnar was most likely Ivar “the Boneless.” We know he lived and he was a very important historical figure. No one is really sure why his nickname was the boneless. He was known to terribly cruel. Ivar and his Viking Army took Dublin, York, and much of Mercia. Bjorn Ironside may have been another son as well as Ubbi, who is believed to have been killed by the Devonshire militia in 878.

In this book Tom Shippey explores what gave the Vikings their edge in combat and exploration and allowed them to sweep across Europe from Russia to the Middle East to England, Iceland, Greenland and the New World. The Vikings disdained death. They did not fear it and in some cases they welcomed it. Like the Norse Gods, who know their own fate at Ragnarok and fight anyway, so did the Vikings accept their own fate. They went to meet it boldly and sometimes not too seriously –with a sense of humor. Like the Gods they worshipped, the Vikings are not immortal or immune to death, but they do not fear it. As Shippey writes, “Refusal to give in is what is important.”

The book explores many Norse vocabulary words and the concepts behind them. One of them is the word “Ragr.” That was a fighting word and an insult so severe that old Norwegian law excused the person from murder if they took revenge for being called such. The whole concept of challenges in Norse society among males is explored. Vikings did not turn down a challenge. Also boasting, which for a Drengr can be a good thing, but on this point, Shippey notes as many heathens know, taking oaths is quite a serious thing. There are examples of some Vikings getting a bit too intoxicated and then making oaths they could not keep and other oaths that were fulfilled with a deep sense of irony. Another Norse concept explored is how male Vikings are supposed to hide their feelings or perhaps even grin when things are bad. No matter how stoic they appear, in the long run Vikings will take their time and seek revenge – true to the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Indeed lashing out immediately at an insult might be seen as a weakness or feminine behavior in Norse society, but rest assured the remark was noted and vengeance sought.

Ancestry and descent from famous persons is something that was very important to Vikings and they knew their lineage. Many modern heathens often incorporate this ancestor worship into their belief practices. The author describes how some Vikings were buried. One was buried with a Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer necklace, his sword, and the wing of a bird – perhaps symbolizing a Raven. Shippey helps clarify the tale of Brunhild the Valkyrie and Kriemhild (Gudrun) the wife of Sigurd – Siegfried the dragon slayer and their drama. Shippey also explores the role of women in Norse society, but not very deeply. He mentions that they had many rights, like choosing their partner, and ability to divorce, and that they were behind many of the worst deeds in the sagas. In the sagas, many women egg their men on, or get their servants, to do terrible things that are against the Drengskaper. It is often the women in the sagas that set in motion many unfortunate events.

One of my favorite saga heroes is Egil Skallgrimsson – both a poet and a Viking. Egil was exceptionally strong and ugly with a rather large head. His family believed they had Troll blood. There is a real theory that he had Paget’s disease. After his death, there was also a discovery of a skull that was believed to be his that was incredibly dense. In one twist of many in the story of Egil, who has the gift of the Skald, he saves his own life by his skill at poetry. He dedicates a poem to King Erik, an enemy, who has captured him. Despite King Erik’s wife being a witch, and wanting revenge against Egil for another deed, King Erik is so moved that he spares Egil’s life after hearing his poem.

Before he dies Egil suffers tragedy in the loss of two of his sons. After the loss of the second of them he composes “Sonnatorrek,” a beautiful poem still known and revered in Iceland. In the poem, Egil is mad at Odin who he believes has taken his sons too early despite their friendship, but in the poem Egil also thanks Odin for all the gifts he has bestowed on Egil, including the gift of poetry. The Last lines of “Sonnatorrek” are: “Still I shall gladly, with a good will, and not grieving, wait for death.” Many believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egil’s Saga based on the oral traditions or accounts that do not survive, but despite Snorri’s Christian beliefs, he captured Egil’s heathen spirit. Snorri also claimed Egil as an ancestor. Near the end of his life, Egil goes blind and he takes two man servants with him to bury his two chests of silver coins that he won as a Viking so that no one else would have it. He and the servants bury the treasure, but the servants do not return. Egil killed them and people are still looking for the treasure in that part of Iceland – I was tempted on a recent trip to go look myself.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Hrolfr - Rollo. He is one of my own ancestors and the historical Rollo was very successful in gaining land and power as the Duke of Normandy. Hrolor was a Norwegian/Danish Jarl, and the Frankish King gave him the land, title, and his own daughter in the deal so he would stop raiding Frankish lands (he too had besieged Paris) and instead protect that at the mouth of the Seine in Normandy. Rollo also had to agree to be baptized.

The book is loaded with historical details, including a small analysis of the Viking ship found buried at Gokstad in Norway. In Viking lore, great deaths are determined by how stoically the person died and perhaps with some humor. There is a case of one Viking named Bui the Broad, who after having had his lower jaw hacked off (how could he speak?), is recorded as saying, “The Danish women in Bornholm won’t think it so pleasant to kiss me now.” Shippey covers professional Vikings, including the Jomsvikings, subject of the Saga of the Jomsvikings, who lived on the southern shores of the Baltic in Jomsberg and operated under a strict martial code. One of their codes features is that all would share equally in any loot.

Shippey covers well the Vikings and their involvement in England and Ireland. In many cases they simply got rid of a handful of rulers and took their places. While Shippey talks about how some heathens converted to Christianity he also mentions that some Christians in Ireland and England probably converted to heathenry and adopted Norse names. Shippey tries to make sense of Njal’s Saga, but this is a complex one and I have had to reread it several times myself and actually went to many of the locations in Iceland related to the Saga, before I began to understand it. When I drove to the site of the farmstead at Bergthorsknoll where Njal, his wife, and grandson died in a fire set by their enemies I was greeted by two friendly dogs who guarded the place. He also speaks to remnants of Norse religious beliefs surviving much later than is normally believed as attributed to a runic carving in Norway dating from around 1185 that mentions Odin and Thor.

I enjoyed Shippey’s talking about the gold and silver the Vikings plundered, received as hostage money, or were paid to go away essentially. In one episode a group of Vikings kidnapped a Christian Governor in Northwest Spain and ransomed him for half a ton of gold. These sums were enormous and some of the buried hoards are still being found like the Cuerdale Hoard, which consists of 7,000 coins and hack silver. The largest hoard found seems to be on Gotland in Sweden and consisted of 150lbs of silver much of it in coins, including Arab ones. He also covers the Varangian guard – Vikings who served Byzantine. In the east there was more trading than fighting and Vikings made money by selling furs and slaves. On this point, Shippey does look at the Viking attitude towards slaves. Many writers choose to overlook this. While many Vikings who took Irish or Celtic slaves to Iceland married them or freed them, the Vikings often sold captives from European lands to Arabs. That could not have ended well for those slaves.

Overall, this book covers a lot of material. It is magnificent and I highly recommend it.

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