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The Viking Experience by Marjolein Stern and Roderick Dale

This is a very interesting story about the Viking age, an era that is full of myths and rumours. The Vikings were ruthless people with unique craftmanship. They went on long journeys with wood boats and managed to conquer many lands.

They discovered and settled in foreign places such as Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. They settled in Ireland and this early trading place later became Dublin. Before that, there were no cities there. Around 1000 A.D. they discovered North America, which they called Vinland, that today are parts of Canada. The word ”discover” is of course difficult. Just as Columbus, ”discovered” America around 500 years later, the Vikings simply took Vinland and these other places, occupying them. For the sake of argument, there is also a theory about an Irish monk that might have reached North America as early as the sixth century. Unfortunately, the people already living in these places didn't count when European self-appointed leaders with imaginary warrants turned up.

The Swedish Vikings set out for the east, to Byzantium. Among the late tenth century guards of the Byzantine emperor, many of the elite fighters were Scandinavian, the Varangian guard. They even carved their names into the big church Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

But the Vikings were not only brutal warriors. They were intelligent people. They used a compass made of wood and a piece of crystal to navigate and locate the sun during bad weather. They used hundreds of ships when concuring places around the world. Cnut had 93 ships and ruled an empire that consisted of Denmark, England, Norway, Orkney and south western Sweden. There seem to have been a great exchange of information and cultural traditions. Cnut introduced Danish culture to England and at the same time, many of the Danish words of church organisation are English in origin.

The most fascinating part of the book is where the authors explain the true identity of the Vikings. Most of the time, they seem to have lived a quiet life, away from battle. Most of the Viking Age Scandinavians were farmers. After their raids they came home and tended to their farms. They were more civilized and sophisticated then they usually get credit for. The oldest evidence for a Viking Age legal system is the Forsa rune ring from the ninth century, from Hälsingland, Sweden. Women were independent, owing and inheriting landed property, and able to marry and divorce. Burials indicate that some women were cult leaders, prophetesses and sorceresses. The book contains many pictures of beautiful objects, such as carefully crafted jewellery. Children toys have been found, and objects indicate that the adults played board games, sports, and those from a high social strata were hunting. The Vikings were intellectuals, and appreciated storytelling and poety. There were skalds, poets, appreciated especially by the kings.

The Vikings believed in the gods Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyja. Everyone in Sweden have heard of the Viking spirituality and there is still jewellery with Thor's hammer to buy. There was also a belief in giants, trolls and the underworld. Mythological poems called the Eddic poems had their roots in the Viking poems and were recorded onto vellum later in the Middle Ages. Other poems were about kings, battles and every day life, written by these skalds, professional poets. Many of the Icelandic sagas originate from the Viking age. Eventually, Scandinavia became Christianized, but it took a while. The conversion period took the longest in Sweden, which was Christianized as late as in the thirteenth century.

What's special about the book is that all the facts and information about the era don't feel heavy. Text and pictures make the story come alive. It's exciting to be able to come close to a people that have lived and ruled over a great number of lands, more a thousand years ago. There are many photographs of excavations of Viking settlements and culture, as well as small envelopes with pieces of copies of old manuscripts and maps, one of which shows where Vinland, North America, was discovered. These objects are pieces, drawing the reader into the story.

This is a wonderful book that gives insight into a lost world, a mythical world and a historical world. In the nineteenth century, the interest grew and the modern Viking was born. The interest was much due to the national romanticism of the time. Unfortunately, much research has had to be reinvestigated and changed because of untruthful theories, such as the one wrongfully claiming they drank from the skulls of their beaten enemies. But perhaps the misinterpretations and misconceptions have served as fueling the fire of interest around the world. Still, today, there are festivals celebrating the Vikings. These mythological people are still very present.