Icelandic summer

Today is sumardagurinn fyrsti – the first day of summer in Iceland. Since 1971 the first day of summer is a national holiday, complete with celebrations, parades, sporting events. At +13 Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit) it’s a really warm summer day as well. I am not joking.

When we first came to Iceland in June 2017, the temperature on the day of our arrival was +14 Celsius. We saw boys on skateboards, having fun on the street, wearing tiny tank tops. I was dressed in full leather from head to toe and wouldn’t say that I was in danger of overheating. We asked our landlady whether it was normal for kids to dress like this in sub-Arctic temperatures. She explained that +14 in June was, in fact, a heatwave. She wasn’t lying. On the day of our departure it was +7 at the Keflavík airport and +29 when we arrived in Amsterdam (40 degrees Fahrenheit difference). This was how I discovered that I was now old enough not to cope with heat well and realised with a startle that I preferred the cold.

First day of summer in April? Sounds legit

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll probably guess: I’m going to go a thousand (and a bit) years ago, then talk about the Norsemen.

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Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Rollo

Warning: contains multiple spoilers for Vikings seasons 1-5!!!

Old Norse: Hrólfr, played by: Clive Standen

In Vikings, Rollo serves as a frenemy/adversary to Ragnar, his famous brother, only to end up becoming a French aristocrat. Part of this is even historically correct. Rollo was born either in Norway or Denmark around 860, i.e. five years before Ragnar’s possible death, was a Viking, and became the first ruler of Normandy (“the Land of the Northmen”). As Snorri’s Heimskringla mentions, when he grew up into adulthood his name was extended to Göngu-Hrólfr, “Rollo the Walker”, since he became too heavy to be carried by a horse. Remembering that Heimskringla is a Saga, I would also assume that he was the most handsome, wise, and brave of all the men who were too large to ride any horse.

Rollo is possibly the most… adapted of all characters in Vikings. First of all, there’s the problem of Ragnar and Rollo being brothers, despite the fact that Rollo was born in 860, when Ragnar was at least in his sixties. Second, I am almost certain I saw the TV Rollo on a horse. Third, we know for a fact that he existed, but in this particular case unpacking the differences between history and History could fill a book three times as long as this one.

The earliest historical event noting Rollo’s existence is his leadership over the Vikings who laid siege to Paris in 885-886. At this point I already get a headache, because it immediately throws the chronology of Vikings off the cliff. The series depicts Ragnar, Rollo, the invasion of Paris, Rollo’s marriage and subsequent leadership of the French, glossing over the fact that Paris was invaded twenty years after Ragnar had died.

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Do you have Viking blood?

The last time I was asked “do you have Viking blood?” was four days ago. I can’t remember what exactly my answer was, but I did write the question down to use for a blog post later.

My DNA-based ancestry report is all over the place. So is yours, by the way. And everybody else’s. Most importantly, there is no “Viking blood marker”, although I’m sure 23andme etc. wish they could sell that, and somebody probably does. Still, there is a chance you have Viking blood indeed, even if you have no Scandinavian blood at all. In fact, that might increase your chances…

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings series on TV shares a certain characteristic with novels, books such as The World of Vikings, etc. Namely, the TV focuses on epic battles (and half-naked men and women, and amazing hairstyles, but I digress), longboats, settlements that never lasted too long. There are few craftsmen, farmers, animal herders who are mentioned other than in passing or when a blacksmith needs to make more axes faster.

Surprisingly, this is a correct representation.

The noun “víkingr” (feminine version: “víking”) means “pirate”. There is a reason why “Viking Age” is considered to be a clearly defined period between 793-1066 A.D. The Norse neither suddenly appeared in 793, nor did they die out in 1066. When used as a verb, (a-)víking meant raiding by sea. Farmers and craftsmen were not, er, viking around – unless they were particularly brave, I suppose. (I’ll admit I haven’t researched that yet.)

The exact date when the Viking Age began is known to the day: on June 8th, 793 the raiders invaded the monastery in Lindisfarne. They didn’t call themselves “Vikings”, same as they didn’t refer to their language as “Old Norse”. At the beginning they would raid, take what they could, then return home. Soon enough they discovered that they didn’t just have to take gold – there was land to be settled as well, in warmer climate, with more fertile soil. The raids started to turn into explorations. This would eventually lead to the discovery of America by Leifur Eiríksson – curiously enough it happened when he was on his way to bring Christianity to Greenland and got lost.

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Fire and a heathen (part 2)

Part one here.

The Norse deities rarely have just one task to be busy with. Freya, for instance, is a Goddess of love, sex, death, war, fertility, gold, and seiðr magic. This strikes me as an awful lot of work, but there are more Gods taking care of those things, possibly with the exception of gold, because Freya is a bit…possessive when it comes to gold. There are many types of fire, and many Gods who are “assigned” to take care of it.

Let me start with berating Wagner, who put it into people’s mind: Loki is not the “god of fire”. That’s Logi. (Which means “fire” in Old Norse, in case you forgot the name, but had a dictionary at hand.) In one of the Sagas, Loki is put to competition with Logi to see which one can eat faster. They meet in the middle, but while Loki ate all the meat, Logi also took care of the bones, plates, and the table itself. Later the deities involved find out that Loki was competing with the fire itself. Logi is the God associated with wildfire, and if you’ve seen any news from California in the recent months I don’t need to explain why Loki had to lose this contest. Loki plays with fire, Logi is fire.

There are good sides to forest fires, although I wouldn’t say Californians (and others) think the same way. A fire cleanses the nature, preparing it for new growth. You have to destroy in order to build. It’s when the destruction gets completely out of hand that the real trouble starts…but I will talk about Surtr in a moment.

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Resolutions not welcome

‘Tis almost the time to start working on New Year’s resolutions. But I’m old and decrepit, and have enough experience with those. Before you make NY resolutions, be aware that:

  1. You’ll probably decide New Year’s Day is a holiday anyway, then Jan 2 is when you have to go to work which is UNFAIR, then the weekend is coming, and you’ll reluctantly get to it on Jan 7, already feeling guilty. (Or is it just me?)
  2. You’ll totally adhere to them for approximately 17 days. (Or is it just me?)
  3. Your reserve to avoid sweets will begin to crumble when your significant other tells you his colleague Jerry did something. At this point your brain will start flashing BEN & JERRY in huge, red lights. (Or is it just me?)
  4. Your decision to go to the gym five times a week will begin to crumble when you realise how many weeks there are per year. (Or is it just me?)
  5. You’ll be ready to start preparing NY resolutions for 2020 around the 25th of January, 2019. (That will NOT be me.)

Instead of resolutions, this year I am trying to have goals. The nice thing with goals is that they’re not a binary 0/1 made it/failed sort of thing, unless you decide to torment yourself by thinking like this, at which point you’ve made New Year’s resolutions, then called it something else.

Imagine that on January 1 you give yourself a goal to become a bazillionaire. (Note the lack of “…before December 31st”.) At the end of the year, you find yourself being a mere multi-millionaire. If it were a resolution, being a mere multi-millionaire would constitute a big FAIL. Since it’s a goal, you’re doing tremendously well. Also, you’re now my best friend and can I borrow $100,000 please?

Without further ado, here are my goals for 2019…

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Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Harald Fairhair and Halfdan The Black

To celebrate the return of Vikings to TV screens, I decided to focus on two characters that might – or not – prove important in the coming episodes: Harald Fairhair and Halfdan The Black, the well-tattooed brothers who… you know spoilers for all previous episodes are coming, right? Click to read further.

Note: I intend to clean up, expand, and put together the posts from Vikings Deconstructed series as a free e-book which will then be offered exclusively to subscribers to my newsletter. Subscribe using the form on the top left of the page.

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Norse mythology: three takes

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology became a bestseller last year and continues to sell well today. Vikings spawned a range of movies and TV series, some of them absolutely cringe-worthy, some just about watchable. One could argue whether the true beginning of Norse reign (hoho) over TV and cinema screens was caused by Chris Hemsworth’s chest or Clive Standen’s chest, but one thing seems certain. Soon the Vikings will go the way of sparkling vampires and billionaires owning Red Rooms of Pain. But, luckily for me, not yet.

In the first season of Vikings, before History Channel gave up pretending it’s actually showing Norse history, Aslaug tells her children fairytales. Those fairytales are Norse myths, ones more suitable for kids. If you’ve found them interesting, you might try and read a bit more, including bits that are very much 18+. What did the Norse Gods actually do when they weren’t busy just, you know, being Gods and ruling the Nine Worlds? I could spend the next ten years writing about it, but I don’t have to, because other authors did it already… Here’s a very short primer to what’s easily available and, in my opinion, worth checking out.

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Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Floki

Warning: contains multiple spoilers for Vikings seasons 1-5!!!

If you’ve been watching the History Channel’s Vikings series, you couldn’t have possibly not noticed Floki (later referred to as Flóki), the humble boat-builder who loves to brag, the biggest believer in the Gods, the fan of make-up and his wife Britney Spears. I mean, Helga. As so often with Vikings, Flóki is based on an actual person, Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson (Raven-Flóki, son of Vilgerd).

Okay, spoilers ahead, click the button below before proceeding…

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Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Ragnar Lothbrok (and family)

This post contains spoilers for seasons 1-4 of ‘Vikings’. You’ve been warned.

I’ve been a big fan of the ‘Vikings’ series, and in particular of Travis Fimmel’s character, since the first episode. I spent a while grinding my teeth at inaccuracies until I had to remind myself that Þórr, according to Marvel and Hollywood, is a clean-shaven blondie who wears a costume with six nipple shields. Later on I acquired ‘The World of Vikings’ by Justin Pollard and Michael Hirst (the series’ producer). The book shows very clearly that Hirst is not only well educated in the Viking history, but also has enough wits to understand that sometimes history doesn’t make very exciting TV. After reading the book, which by the way I wholeheartedly recommend, I forgave the inaccuracies. Especially as knowing history spoils the pleasure of watching, and any departures from facts – of “facts” – provides extra excitement.

You’ve probably read one of the “10 Facts About Ragnar Lothbrok That Will Change Your Life Forever” articles on the Internet. My take on this is a bit longer, features less illustrations, and also is more accurate – if you find any mistakes in this post, please point them out for me to fix.

I want to steal his entire wardrobe. If such shocking theft ever happens, I was joking and you can’t prove anything.

Let’s start with the big one. When was Ragnar born? Ha. Gotcha. There is no proof whatsoever that Ragnar existed at all. In 1979, Hilda Ellis Davidson wrote:

Certain scholars in recent years have come to accept at least part of Ragnar’s story as based on historical fact.

Note the careful wording of ‘certain scholars’ and ‘at least part’.

In 2003, Katherine Holman disagreed:

Although his sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived, and he seems to be an amalgam of several different historical figures and pure literary invention.

Holman’s view seems to be the most accurate, at least with the knowledge we possess today. It’s also very Ragnar, so to say, to not even exist, yet have many sons whose existence is proven beyond all doubts.



Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) on a bad hair day

Ragnar’s first wife was a shieldmaiden named Lagertha (Old Norse: Hlaðgerðr). She wasn’t a delicate flower. Saxo Grammaticus:

Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All-marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

(Yes. Saxo was sexist. I hope this isn’t surprising. In his defence, he died approximately 800 years ago.)

Lagertha wasn’t particularly into Ragnar, even though he hadn’t begun to wear his hairy breeches (see below) yet. As he courted her, impressed by her courage in battle, Lagertha gracefully invited him over for tea and light refreshments. Her idea of hospitality involved setting a bear and a great hound upon him. Ragnar killed both beasts, which impressed Lagertha so greatly they ended up with three children: son called Fridleif Ragnarsson, and two daughters whose names have not been recorded. None of those three children are mentioned in the TV series.

Lagertha did not bear him a son called Björn. While Lagertha existed as a historical figure, most of the stories surrounding her are considered to be Saxo Grammaticus’s inventions. Saxo, of course, did not approve of the idea that a woman does anything else than giving birth, cooking, and crying as her husband goes away to war, therefore Lagertha served him as an example of how horrible heathens must have been. Ragnar divorced her later in order to marry Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr (not pictured on TV).


Lothbrok = Hairy breeches

The story behind the name ‘Lothbrok’ is a variation on Polish and Russian folk stories. (Aside: Vikings spent surprising amounts of time in Poland and Russia.) The origin of the name comes from Ragnar’s desire to marry Þóra. Her doting dad, Herrauðr, presented her with a small lindworm (according to Wikipedia – “wingless serpentine monster”). This struck me as a somewhat odd gift, especially when the lindworm grew uncontrollably, eventually trapping poor Þóra in her dwelling. Herrauðr promised her hand in marriage to the man who would slay the serpent. The sources do not mention what Herrauðr would have done if the beast was slain by a woman, but a man who literally surrounds his daughter with something that serves as giant phallic symbol probably never spent too much time thinking of shieldmaidens and Valkyries. In the story, Ragnar put on trousers made of fur, then covered himself with tar in order to kill a snake. The snake must have been somewhat bewildered by the sight of tar-smeared Travis Fimmel, yet the trousers proved to be great defense against snake venom. Ragnar, in his excitement, decided those pants were suitable for all occasions and made a habit of wearing them. I suppose, however, that Þóra was happy enough to be able to go for a nice, serpent-free stroll and allowed her husband to continue donning such a handy protective garment. Unfortunately, once Þóra gave Ragnar two songs, Eiríkr and Agnar, she died of illness.

You will note none of the people mentioned in the passage above appear in the TV series either, and if I remember correctly neither do his hairy breeches. As a side note, none of his wives changed their surnames to “Lothbrok” for the simple reason that it wasn’t his surname, but a nickname.

Lagertha didn’t get over Ragnar all that fast, which was very helpful when he fought a civil war in Denmark. At the time she was the queen of Norway and sent over 120 ships to help her ex. Upon her return home, she killed her husband and became the ruler of Norway. This was pictured in ‘Vikings’. I think it’s safe to say Lagertha did not have much luck in love. What Saxo had to say about this was quite predictable: she “usurped the whole of his [her husband’s] name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him”. How presumptuous of the dame!



Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) looking awesome and magical – like always.

The third wife of Ragnar was Aslaug, daughter of legendary Sigurd, slayer of a dragon, and shieldmaiden Brynhildr. None of her parents is considered to be a real historical figure, as the slaying of the dragon might have already suggested. There was no exciting rivalry between her and Lagertha, since Lagertha was busy killing her husband and ruling Norway. But there’s more to Aslaug’s story.

Her foster father, Heimer, was concerned about the girl’s safety. He decided to make a harp, inside which he hid the little Aslaug. It is hard for me to understand why he thought a harp would be the best place to hide a child, but I suppose a piano would have been even harder to carry around. Upon their arrival in Norway Heimer stayed over for the night in the house of peasants Áke and Grima. Grima, who was certain the harp must have been filled with valuables – after all, what warrior would feel like carrying a harp around – made her husband kill Heimer. Grima must have been quite disappointed to find a girl instead of gold and jewels, nevertheless they renamed her Kráka (Crow) and raised as their own.

Kráka, who was a beautiful lady, didn’t quite fit in the household, therefore Grima decided she needed to be rubbed in tar and dressed in a long hood at all times. Upon meeting Kráka Ragnar immediately 1) fell in love (he had experience with tar, which might have helped), and 2) decided to marry her. However, fickle as he was, he decided to marry Ingeborg, a daughter of a viceroy named Eysteinn Beli. Very unimpressed by his undecisiveness, well-informed Kráka decided to share the information about her noble origins with Ragnar. It is not known how she knew she was a noblewoman, but possibly the harp contained her birth certificate as well. Eysteinn, understandably, was not impressed by this change of mind. He died at the hands of…


Ragnar’s sons

Four out of many sons of Ragnar (from left: David Lindström as Sigurd, Alex Høgh Andersen as Ivar The Boneless, Jordan Patrick Smith as Ubbe, Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk)

Speaking of sons, Aslaug and Ragnar had five: Ivar the Boneless; Björn Ironside; Hvitserk; Rognvald; and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Sigurd was born with the image of Ouroboros (or perhaps the Midgard Serpent) in his eye due to Ragnar’s impatience to consummate the marriage despite Aslaug’s insistence to wait a bit longer. Aslaug prophecied the mark in Sigurd’s eye. She also prophecied that Ragnar’s invasion of England wouldn’t go well due to the fact his fleet was in bad shape, and she was right. Ever so careful Aslaug provided her husband with a magical shirt, which would prevent him from snake venom. Somehow, the shirt was removed after Ragnar was cast into the snake pit, and only then did he die. I assume his breeches were too worn out at this point for him to continue wearing them. Big mistake. Huge.

King Aelle looking sepulchral (Ivan Kaye)

As I mentioned, it is not known whether Ragnar actually existed at all, was an amalgam of stories of multiple other warriors, or simply a mythological figure. The confusion is aided further by the multiple stories describing his death. As we’ve seen on TV, King Ælla decided to throw him into a snake pit, but according to sources Ælla did so not knowing he was dealing with Ragnar Lothbrok himself. Ragnar must have felt rather aloof, refusing to inform Ælla about his credentials even as he was already in the snake pit. This clashes with the much less romantic version of the story, according to which Ragnar died of illness in France. He did, however, kill a lot of Franks first.

To sum things up:

– ‘Vikings’ TV series skips one wife. I’ll admit Lagertha and Aslaug are quite a handful without Thóra’s help.
– None of the children he had with Thóra and Lagertha are featured in the TV series.
– Björn Ironside was the son of Aslaug, same as all the other ones featured in the TV series. The departure from sources was necessary to create a very exciting conflict between him and (TV) Aslaug’s sons.
– While it is accepted that Ragnar’s sons existed, there is a theory (see Ben Waggoner’s book) that multiple warriors called themselves “Ragnar’s sons” in order to scare their opponents or make themselves look more important.
– As shown on TV, Ragnar demanded that Aslaug shows up in his camp “neither dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor eating, and neither alone nor in company”, which strikes me as rather demanding seeing as he wanted to marry her, not the other way round. Honestly, Ragnar? Your way of dealing with the ladies should not be an example to any of the people reading this post. Actually, your habit of killing tons of people wherever you go shouldn’t either.

Travis Fimmel, who has no business looking THAT good

I can also exclusively reveal that Rollo, Ragnar’s brother in the TV series, never actually met Ragnar, not to mention the fact they were not related. More on Rollo soon, because any excuse is good to post photos of pre-awful-haircut-and-handlebar-moustache photos of Clive Standen.


All photos used are promotional materials for the ‘Vikings’ TV series, property of History Channel.


Subscribe to my newsletter and receive a free e-book (released March 17 with the next newsletter) – Vikings: from history to History, featuring rewritten and greatly expanded versions of the posts from the Deconstructing ‘Vikings’ series. The book includes chapters on Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha, Áslaug, Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Ivar’s brothers, Flóki, Harald Fairhair and Halfdan the Black, and Athelstan.

Other posts in the series:

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Rollo

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Flóki

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Harald Fairhair and Halfdan the Black

Photos: promotional materials of History Channel

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