Shapeshifters of the North

My first serious exposure to Vikings was probably Nancy Farmer’s book The Sea of Trolls, also one of the first books (without pictures) I ever owned. I don’t remember too many details, except the young protagonist gets captured and carried away in a Viking raid. I also remember the atmosphere: cold, blue-gray, swashbuckling, lashed by wind and water.

If it wasn’t that book, it was Age of Mythology. We didn’t play many videogames at home, so it was a special treat and a foundational strategy game in my childhood. I learned about Odin, Loki, and others according to the game logic, where they were not so much legendary characters as strategic resources.

Some of the cool Norse god powers were turning trees into basically Ents, summoning a dragon, and triggering Ragnarok, which supercharged your peasants into berserkers. These often weren’t the most effective during the game, but they were pretty dramatic. I remember them less for how many games they won me than for how wondrous they were to watch. I was thinking the lightning bolt, a perfect assassin, came from Thor but no. It was Zeus. Nor did the Norse get the most spectacular power—that would have to be Thoth’s meteors. But I digress.

Obviously Vikings have an outsized influence on fantasy (don’t deny it, Tolkien). In the medieval Icelandic sagas I’ve read about sorcery, shapeshifting, ghosts and fetches, prophetic dreams, fate, characters rising from the dead, and other hallmarks of fantasy. This year I took a university class on the Viking Age, because why not. Having written about a cool magic concept, I figured it’s relevant to an SF/F blog. Here’s a reduced version of my final paper for the class to give you a glimpse of real-world Viking magic:

Crafting Hamr: How Foreign Objects Made Vikings

One of the enduring elements of the Viking Age is the berserker: a warrior who rages like an animal in battle, biting the shield, minding no wounds. Think D&D barbarian class. It’s controversial among scholars but defines the viking in popular imagination. While perhaps an ideal rather than a reality, the concept still reveals an integral belief in Scandinavian society at this period in history.

The berserkr, Old Norse for “bear-coat,” is a familiar example of the folk-magic concept of hugr/hamr, a spirit roving far from its home body to attack or interact with others’ hugr (Raudvere 2008 p.241). A person with great hugr, or spirit and vital essence, ventured abroad in the form of a hamr. Hamr can be described as a “skin” (its literal meaning) or “temporary body.” It often took an animal form. Raudvere notes that in literary examples of wandering hugr, the physical body always remains behind, in whole or part, insensible (ibid.). Transformation was therefore a splitting action, making the shapeshifter at once stronger and more vulnerable.

I do not refer to a romanticized “Viking spirit” as the Victorians or the Nazis did. Hugr is a native Scandinavian notion, and a path to understanding how their worldview defined the shape of their society and its infamous exploits abroad. This notion applies to individuals. However, it also offers an excellent framework to understand the trader-plunderers known as vikings (lowercase ‘v.’ I use Viking, capital ‘V,’ to refer more generally to their culture.) These travelers represent their communities of origin, or “bodies,” reaching out as wandering “spirits” to raid and negotiate with others.

The Role of Myth and Magic

Ynglinga saga tells that Oðinn was chief among shapeshifters, and the warriors of Oðinn emulated this ability as bears and wolves in battle (Raudvere 2008 p.241). Sagas and outside sources tell they would sometimes wear animal furs and howl like animals in combat. We have several depictions of such dress and behavior—the shield-biting Lewis chessmen, Scotland, twelfth century; the helmet plates from Torslunda, Sweden, seventh century; and felt animal masks from Hedeby, Denmark, tenth century (Raffield et al. 2016 p.43). Animal skins like these, if really worn in battle, would create an eerie encounter.

Torslunda helmet plate with warrior dressed as bear.
Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons
Lewis chess piece of warrior biting shield.
Nachosan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether literal or poetic to the Scandinavians, hamr framed their worldviews, actions and reactions. Metaphor was powerful in the Vikings’ “intensely storied world” (Price, 2010, p.145), where war and poetry harmonized in such figures as Oðinn or human characters like Egill Skallagrimsson. As expressions of hamr, the vikings and their lords shifted shape by presenting exotic identities. Charisma and status were rooted in the ability to inhabit the apparent form of another being and thereby become one of its kind. Jewelry, clothing, slaves, and other possessions from abroad all comprised the hamr “skin.”

Most transactions in the Norse economy happened in a more local and kin-based sphere (Sindbæk 2008 p.150), so the vikings abroad are best seen as a special minority branch of Norse society. Like magic practitioners, they stood out from the rest. The only difference might be that vikings, especially expedition leaders, enjoyed more legitimacy than sorcerers.

The Norse made mythical distinctions between their sphere of influence, Midgarðr, and the outlying domain of the Sámi, Útgarðr (Zachrisson 2008 p.36). Midgard, or Middle Earth as Tolkien would have it, means more literally “central farm/enclosure.” It is an island of civilization surrounded by the outside wilderness. It’s telling to find the Sámi described as occupying a different world, since they were and are living in what we now consider Scandinavia, intertwined with Norse culture and genealogy. This mythical worldview defined Norse relations with other societies. It suggests they did not see the supernatural aura of exotic goods in merely figurative terms. Traveling to distant lands was akin to, perhaps just the same as, the gods’ movements across Yggdrasil or shamanic passage between worlds. As Price (2008) observes, shamanism likely infused Nordic society from the circumpolar region shared by Sámi and other peoples.

Sitting Odin figurine from Lejre, Denmark, c. 900.
Harafnisa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Odin depiction from England, 7th century. The horns end in his ravens, Thought and Memory.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The chief Norse god of war was not a warrior but a magician, shaman, and shapeshifter. According to Schjødt (2008), written sources never portray Oðinn as a combatant, but rather as one who guides, inspires, and equips the warriors and leaders who worship him. Oðinn’s role implies not only a connection between viking forays and shamanism, but the primacy of shamanism in this relationship.

Objects Carry People

Scholars on the Viking Age have outlined a path to understand the belief in hamr. Discussing the origins of viking raids, Ashby (2015) asserts that viking voyagers pursued not only wealth but social status gained by plundering meaningful foreign objects. The act of plunder mattered as much for individuals as the exotic nature of the artifacts they collected. In Ashby’s view, objects have both agency and biography. They “carried people, places and stories” in their travels and conferred power on their looters (p.99).

Possessions manifest identity and can therefore remake it. Price agrees: objects and materials “actually constitute and structure behavior…we make things, but things also make us” (2010 p.131). He seems to include all humans past and present in the term “us,” which is appropriate since tools are a distinguishing feature of the human species. Crafted objects and humans are symbiotes, inextricably interdependent. This idea would likely be more real to a Viking. Weapons, heirlooms, treasure, and the body—alive or dead—could be objects at times and agents at times.

Clover (1993) has argued that agency defined gender categories among Viking-Age Scandinavians. Agency was always in flux: “distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others” (p.380). This distinction, the power of self-definition, came from taking and controlling loot.

Objects and Bodies Reborn

One clear example of re-authoring is the Arabic silver coins, so widely trafficked in the Viking Age that they are even cited as a primary cause of viking activity (Ashby 2015 p.91). These coins told their own origins in the inscription. They also carried quotes from the Quran and thus would “act as small, yet important ‘missionary tracts’” (Mikkelsen 2008 p.546).

Some of these coins were literally reinscribed: scratched with Thorr’s hammers, Christian crosses, runes, and other symbols. Mikkelsen suggests this Scandinavian graffiti made the Islamic content “harmless” and “dissociated” a Norse owner from that faith (ibid.).

Arabic silver coin from Viking Age with Christian text in Latin, using runic characters.
Unknown / Roberto Fortuna Kira Orsem, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Arabic silver coins (without graffiti) from a Viking hoard in Norway.
Bjoertvedt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the graffiti may however indicate religious or magical overtones. Perhaps the owner instead wanted to adapt or claim whatever power Islam might have. A close parallel would be the blending of Christian with pre-Christian symbology, such as Thorr/Christ and the hammer/cross. Past peoples often did not hold their gods in such exclusivity as do many modern people. Syncretism is evident among Scandinavians; why not incorporate Islam?

The coins are only one example of objects reborn into Norse culture. Ablution vessels also probably shed their Islamic meaning and function. Beads that might be sacred offerings in Buddhist India became Muslim rosaries, then grave necklaces in Scandinavia (Mikkelsen 2008 p.546–48). Trefoil sword buckles from the Continent became women’s jewelry. Perhaps some of these transformations happened not in ignorance but with deliberate intent.

Bodies in death provided special opportunities for making exotic identities. The famous Bj.581 chamber grave at Birka, near modern Stockholm, Sweden displays status through otherworldly materials. Her silk kaftan and cap with its distinctive tassel mark her connection to the Eurasian steppe. Birka was a thriving node of Scandinavia’s eastern trade network (Sindbæk 2008). The grave held only emblems of war and trade—weapons, gaming pieces, riding equipment, and scales (Price et al. 2019 pp.184, 187). Bj.581 is not unique in its eastern connections, but it is an especially rich source. These the grave goods would ensure she entered the afterlife with the hamr of an aristocratic warrior.

Bj.581 chamber grave of elite female warrior at Birka, Sweden.
Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Raffield, et al. point to the idea that lamellar armor and equipment with eastern features at Birka may represent an “overtly exotic material identity” for the warriors based there (2016 p.42). Silks in Birka graves are definitively sourced from the Chinese Tang dynasty, Syria, and Arabia, as well as Byzantium (Larrsson 2008 p.181). Larrsson has proposed that such “costly and exotic materials…[reflect] innovation, mobility and perhaps a sense of adventure” (p.183). According to a pragmatic perspective, power is expressed in rare and exclusive items simply because these mark a difference the lower classes cannot approach (Ashby 2015 pp.93–94). This is true. A wide trade network brings materials, styles, and technologies from beyond the familiar environs, inserting emblems of a foreign world into the local one. The ones who mediated this network could manipulate awe to forge power.

It is hard to know exactly how many people in Norse society accepted these magical beliefs in the fullest literal sense, how symbolic they might have instead been, and how this varied across time and place. Even where intentions are honest and data abundant, we always risk romanticizing and homogenizing the Vikings. Having only bones and artifacts to interview, we struggle to illuminate the “shadowy realm of world-views, mentalities and perceptions” (Price 2010 p.146). Yet the shamanic tradition of hugr/hamr must have played at least a background role in the emergence and perpetuation of the viking figure.

Works Cited

Ashby, S.P., 2015. What really caused the Viking Age? The social content of raiding and exploration. Archaeological dialogues, 22(1), pp.89–106.

Clover, C.J., 1993. Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. Speculum, 68(2), pp.363–387.

Larrsson, A., 2008. Textiles. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.12.

Mikkelsen, E., 2008. The Vikings and Islam. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.39.

Price, N., 2008. Sorcery and Circumpolar Traditions in Old Norse Belief. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.17(1).

Price, N., 2010. Passing Into Poetry: Viking Age Mortuary Drama and the Origins of Norse Mythology. Medieval Archaeology, 54, pp.123–156.

Price, N., et al., 2019. Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581. Antiquity, 93(367), pp.181–198.

Raffield, B., et al., 2016. Ingroup identification, identity fusion and the formation of Viking war bands. World Archaeology, 48(1), pp.35–50.

Raudvere, C., 2008. Popular Religion in the Viking Age. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.17.

Sindbæk, S.M., 2008. Local and Long-Distance Exchange. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.9.

Zachrisson, I., 2008. The Sámi and Their Interaction with the Nordic Peoples. In: S. Brink and N. Price, eds. 2008. The Viking World. London & New York: Routledge. Ch.3.

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