A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm

Book review

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, by Neil Price

A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm, by Neil Price, published by Basic Books, 2020.

Laguna Woods, Calif.

There is nothing that brings more satisfaction to a Norwegian than eating lefse with coffee. This book delivers the same level of satisfaction as drinking black coffee with a big lefse filled with butter and cinnamon sugar. Written by Professor Neil Price of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm (Basic Books, New York, 2020) is a masterpiece of its genre and a must-read for anyone interested in the Vikings. Price ably employs the various lenses of social anthropology, history, and archaeology to examine and illuminate Viking lives as they were lived between the years 750 CE to 1050 CE. This book is the closest thing I have found to a time machine. It brilliantly clears the fog of the past from the Viking Era.

Price begins with an overview of Viking religion, mythology, and worldview. The “Ash” and “Elm” of the book’s subtitle are the names of the first humans, Ash the man, Elm the woman, who were brought to life from two driftwood logs by Odin and his brothers soon after the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. Following his introduction to how the Vikings viewed the unseen world of the Scandinavian gods, Valkyries, Norns, elves, dwarfs, trolls, and other spirits, he delves into how the preceding Iron Age (500 BCE to 750 CE) eventually gave birth to the Viking Age and shaped its forward trajectory.

He then describes the political and social fabric that shaped and governed the lives of the Scandinavians of the Viking Age. Using rich detail, he covers the wealthy and the powerful, the free farmers, the poor, and the enslaved people. To his credit, he does not neglect the role and status of women, and he devotes an entire chapter to the living Viking’s close relationship to the dead, especially their ancestors.

After building a solid understanding of Viking belief systems, politics, and society, Price launches into the actual history of the Viking Age. He uses both historical sources and archaeology to follow the Vikings from their first raids in the eighth century to their gradual withdrawal from the larger world stage in the 11th century.

Price advances the theory that the primary driver of Viking raiding and overseas settlement was the intense competition for power, status, and wealth among the many local chieftains and petty kings who ruled the coastal lands of Scandinavia. Their ambitions were made possible by large numbers of young warriors who were second and third sons with no prospects for inheritance and therefore limited chances for marriage. Up until the adoption of the sail, these minor “sea kings” and warriors were limited to raiding each other or attacking the inhabitants of the south Baltic Coast. In the eighth century, with the coming of the sail and numerous other improvements in the sea worthiness of their ships, they were able to turn their attention to the rest of Europe, Russia, and even the lands of the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Their sleek, shallow draft longships not only allowed them to cross open oceans with relative safety and speed but also enabled the Vikings to penetrate deep into Europe’s vast river systems.

By the 10th century, the original small Viking war bands had congealed into armies of thousands of men (and at least a few women) who not only sought out portable wealth but also lands upon which to permanently settle. Many Vikings were keen traders as well as raiders, and the Scandinavians of the Viking Age founded numerous trading centers and towns, both abroad and at home. Goods flowed into these emporia from as far away as the Caspian Sea, Baghdad, Greenland, and even China. Among the imported items were rich silks, silver coins, swords, ivory, precious stones, and in one case even a small statue of Buddha.

The political center of the Viking World was the “Great Hall.” The most imposing and most ornate of these timber halls belonged to the regional kings, the smaller to local subordinate chieftains. These halls were usually not located in the trading centers or towns, but nearby on the main farm of the local ruler. As one archeologist put it, each of these large halls served multiple functions in the Viking Age as “theatre, court, and cult hall.” These beautifully constructed timber halls were the “cathedrals” of the Viking Age. Those of regional kings could be quite large. The Danish royal hall at Gammel Lejre was 165 feet long and 38 feet wide. The largest yet found, at Borg in the Lofoten Islands of north Norway, measured 272 feet by 39 feet. These large central halls were generally surrounded by smithies and other outbuildings devoted to craft work, food storage, and animal shelter.

Despite their violent pursuit of both loot and land, Price emphasizes that the Vikings were remarkably tolerant of other peoples and cultures. Unlike their Christian successors, the people of Viking Age Scandinavia respected the Sámi and held them in high regard for their mastery of the magical arts and hunting skills. The Sámi were also close trading partners with the Vikings, and many Vikings married Sámi women, including the famous King Harald Fairhair.

In a similar light, it is noteworthy that wherever the Vikings settled in foreign lands they tended to marry locals and quickly took on many of the customs of their neighbors, be they Slavic, French, English, Scottish, or Irish. In Weymouth, England, 50 Vikings had been executed by the English and thrown in a mass grave in the 10th  or 11th century. Isotopic analysis of their teeth revealed that they came from very diverse geographic regions. The mass grave contained men from such varied regions as the Arctic, Subarctic, northern Iceland, southern Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltic coasts.

Interestingly, one of the leading Viking chiefs of Iceland was the child of a Scandinavian merchant and a Siberian Samoyed woman, and he rose to prominence with his mixed genetic heritage and dark complexion. Price also argues with solid archaeological and historical evidence that Viking women warriors were active participants in the war bands, although he does think their numbers were relatively small.

A History of the Vikings is extremely well written. The book is specifically targeted for a popular audience, and if you are seeking an accessible, yet definitive, and up-to-date book on the Vikings, this is the book you want. But Price strongly urges you to also read the Icelandic sagas in addition to his book. He pleads, “Please, read the sagas.” Sagas like Egil’s Saga and the Laxdæla Saga read much like novels and allow you to surreptitiously experience the world of the Vikings from their perspective. Though written largely in the 13th century, well after the end of the Viking Age, most of the sagas are based on stories and accounts that had been carefully passed down through oral tradition from the earlier era.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.