Normally, I am not a fan of the pillaging and plundering era of the Vikings and know very little of the history of the Viking era between 793-1066AD. But, I must admit, I am more than slightly enamored with The History Channel’s hit television show, The Vikings.
The series is beautifully filmed in Northern Ireland with great attention to period detail. I find the main character, Ragnar Lothbrok, oddly compelling. Now, I know what you are thinking and you may be right, Travis Fimmel makes a mighty fine Viking warrior. He certainly has remarkable blue eyes and totally rocks the blood and grime look. Well played, History Channel!
It may sound a bit sexist, like saying you read PlayBoy for the articles but I really love the complexity of Ragnar Lothbrok’s character. He is a leader struggling to reconcile his actions of murder and mayhem while making peace with his soul. He achieves the rank of Earl by killing the old one, of course. And yet he struggles in his relationships with women, (what man doesn’t)and continually forgives his treacherous brother, all the while remaining man enough to cuddle a baby goat. Call me crazy but I’m a sucker for a warrior with a pet goat. Although, I suspect I will see the remains of barbequed goat in some future episode.
Being the curious minded individual that I am, I decided to do a bit of Googling on the real Ragnar Lothbrok and the Vikings in general. Afterall, Vikings drank a lot of mead which is made from fermented honey and…, well, you get the picture. I can always bring the subject back to bees.
But as it turns out, I didn’t have to look too hard to tie Vikings to bees. Mead, a popular Viking drink made from fermented honey was used early and often amongst Viking warriors. Legend says the Valkyries, those Brunhilda type female warriors, descended from Valhalla astride their winged horses.
Dah-da-da-dah-da…, cue the opening notes of Wagner’s stirring prelude in the beginning of Act III.
Ha! I had you there for a moment, but I bet you hummed a few notes while picturing a host of Valkyries landing onto the battlefield littered with the scarred bodies of bloody Viking warriors.
The word valkyrie is actually Old Norse meaning slain on the battlefield. The Vikings believed the Valkyries chose who lived or died in battle. The Valkyries would take half of the slain warriors back to Valhalla, which is the Viking version of the big mead hall in the sky. The other half would be taken to the hall of Freyja, an earthbound goddess who by all accounts, was no slouch in the looks department. But, I guess to a Viking, its a bit like being in the Super Bowl. Both teams may get to play in the big dance but only one side goes home with the ring. Apparently an eternity as a warrior to Odin, drinking mead with a bevy of Valkaries is a realm every self-respecting Viking warrior aspires to ascend.
In reality, Ragnar Lothbrok is a legendary Norse ruler who it turns out, may have never existed. Ragnar Lothbruk or Ragnar Hairy Breeches( you gotta love that!) was called the scourge of England and France. Legend says he was tossed into a pit of poisonous snakes by the King of Northumbria and died. And before you say it, yes, it turns out the adder is the only poisionous snake to exist in England. He was eventuallly avenged by one of his sons, all of whom have really cool Viking names like Ivar the Boneless. Siguard Snake in the Eye and Hubba. (not to be confused with the Redneck version of Bubba)
Ragnar Lothbrok is more than likely a fictional character invented to embellish the exploits of the Danish King Reginherous who attacked Paris in the ninth century. And oh, by the way, that Radnar hairy breeches name can be explained by two competing theories. One of which the legendary Radnar wore breeches stitched from animal skins coated in pitch and rolled in sand, as protection against a battle with a poisonous serpent. The other is that King Reginherous died of dysentery during his campaign against Paris and well we all know what happens to your breeches when you get dysentery. It ain’t pretty. If I were Ragnar’s descendants, I would stick with the serpent story as well.
There are many thoughts as to why the Vikings made so many voyages to loot and plunder other lands. Some suggest it was the spread of Christianity throughout the continent. Others say the Scandinavian peninsular became crowded and raiding was a way to secure lands without fighting among themselves. Indeed, the History Channel’s Ragnar Lothbrok suggests joint raiding parties with competing clans to alleviate the lack of land issue. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. But whatever the reason, the Vikings were great navigators and ship builders. Some of their designs have influenced boat building techniques throughout history.
But what about the mead, you ask? The Vikings were not the first culture to ferment honey into the mead. On the European continent, mead production traces back to the Bronze Age. (2800-1800BC) Honey was a commodity among these early cultures and crude forms of beekeeping included hollowed out logs and ceramic storage vessels. The skep or skeppa is an old Norse word for bushel or basket. This handwoven straw basket was used to house the beehive.
The bees would be smoked from the skep and the honey and comb removed. The remains of the hive would be doused in boiling water to dissolve the wax comb and honey. It’s safe to say that Viking mead production would have involved the boiling of a lot of bees and contain a lot of dead bee parts. Some might say it would have been a healthier version of the clear, filtered mead of today. You can decide, but I’ll take the clean version, thank-you.
It would take until the 18th century before beekeepers would refine their techniques for retrieving honey without the total destruction of the hive.
Through understanding of bee behavior and biology, modern day beekeeping has evolved a long way from the early plundering techniques used in the Viking era. Yet, we have learned much of our modern world by these intrepid, fearless navigators. And one cannot deny the influence Norse mythology has had on our modern culture. Just think about J.R.R. Tolkien and his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. So, if you haven’t already, check out The Vikings on the History Channel. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did!
Fare, hail and hearty wherever you heart lists to go! (A traditional Norse blessing)