The Axe Factor
Sure enough, in the morning, it was still steadily raining and over the first cup of tea of the day there developed an awful realisation that this might turn into a ‘killing off time’ sort of day.
We took our time and then stretched breakfast out for as long as we realistically could and discussed our rather limited choices. I could read but Kim hadn’t brought a book with her and she wasn’t excited by my spare one which was a rather heavy going ‘history of modern Spain’ so that meant that a library sort of morning also seemed to be ruled out.
As we lamented the weather and talked through the options however the rain started to ease off and by half past ten, although it had not stopped completely it was at last possible to go outside.
It was another depressing morning, the city crippled under the weight of a leaden grey sky, as we set out in a northerly direction along the black granite coast towards Huagesund’s most famous visitor attraction, the Haroldshaugen Norges Riksmonument a couple of kilometres outside of the city. We joined a handful of local people in brightly coloured ‘North Face’ kagools and hiking boots who were wandering along the coast line cinder path stopping occasionally for no apparent reason than to stare out into the grey nothingness of the North Sea.
We found the monument and it struck me as rather strange for an Anglo-Saxon to be visiting a monument that commemorates the Viking Age and a starting off point for longships full of heathen bullies on their way across the North Sea to rape and pillage a part of England where I now live.
They could certainly travel that’s for sure. The Vikings were Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe and the North Atlantic from the late eighth to the mid eleventh century. These Norsemen used their famous longships to travel as far east as Russia, as far west as Newfoundland and as far south as modern Spain in a period known as the Viking Age.
Whilst we tend to retain the school boy image of them it actually becomes increasingly evident that Viking society was quite complex and popular conceptions of them are often in conflict with the truth that emerges from archaeology and modern research. A romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the eighteenth century and this developed and became widely propagated for over a hundred years.
The traditional view of the Vikings as violent brutes and intrepid adventurers are part true, part fable and although if these guys paid a visit it is probably true to say that you probably wouldn’t want to put a welcome mat by the front door or get the best china out, no one can be absolutely sure of the accurate ratio and popular representations of these men in horned helmets remain for now highly clichéd.
But now it seems historical revisionism has gone too far for some people especially for Professor Simon Keynes, an Anglo-Saxon historian at Cambridge University – ‘There’s no question how nasty, unpleasant and brutish they were. They did all that the Vikings were reputed to have done.’
They stole anything they could. Churches were repositories of treasure to loot. They took cattle, money and food. It’s likely they carried off women, too, he says. ‘They’d burn down settlements and leave a trail of destruction.’ It was unprovoked aggression. And unlike most armies, they came by sea, their narrow-bottomed longships allowing them to travel up rivers and take settlements by surprise. It was maritime blitzkrieg at first.’
Norsemen from Greenland and Iceland were the first Europeans to reach North America in what is today Newfoundland in Canada when Leif Ericson reached the Continent via Norse settlements in Greenland around the year 1000. Nearly a thousand years later many Norwegian immigrants went to the United States primarily in the second half of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century.
According to the most recent United States census there are more than four and a half million Norwegian Americans and most live in the Upper Midwest and currently comprise the tenth largest American ancestry group. In Minnesota, 868,361 Minnesotans claim Norwegian ancestry, 16.5% of the population of the State. No wonder then that in professional football the team from Minneapolis was officially named the Minnesota Vikings on September 27th 1960; the name is partly meant to reflect Minnesota’s importance as a centre of Scandinavian American culture.
The association between Vikings and sport is not surprising because physical strength, speed, resilience and endurance were important qualities for a Viking. As in the USA, England has its own Vikings with the Widnes Vikings Rugby League Football Club. Widnes was one of the original twenty-two rugby clubs that formed the Northern Rugby Football Union in 1895, making them one of the world’s first rugby league teams. Their traditional nickname is ‘The Chemics’ after the main industry in Widnes, but the club now generally use their more modern nickname.
Haraldshaugen was erected during the millennial celebration of Norway’s unification into one kingdom under the rule of King Harald I and was unveiled on July 18th 1872 by Crown Prince Oscar to commemorate the one thousand year anniversary of the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Truthfully I found it a bit disappointing I have to say, a seventeen metre high granite obelisk surrounded by a memorial stones in a Stonehenge sort of way, next to an deserted car park, a closed visitor centre and an empty vending machine but I’m sure I am being unfair because places such as these are not really meant to be visited on a cold, wet day in January.
We walked back along the same route and into the suburbs of the city which felt a bit like a deciduous tree coping with winter; existing, hibernating, waiting and watching for the first signs of spring. The people with pale complexions, weary streets, grass burned brown by frost and houses battered and besieged and firmly closed to the outside world, a city beaten to the edge of submission by winter and still only part way through.