Patience Harris / June 4th, 2023
The class I’m currently taking in Copenhagen is called Nordic Mythology! I’ve already learned so much and I’m looking forward to sharing some of it here. I chose this course because as a history student it appealed to my interest in both religious/mythological studies and the time period of the Viking Age (about 750-1066 C.E.) is one that I didn’t know much about prior to the course. I really enjoy learning about the medieval era, so this seemed like a good way to fill in the gap between the first few centuries C.E. and the later years of medieval history.
An aspect about the course that I appreciated immediately is how targeted the topic is. As opposed to taking a broad, survey-based course, we quickly got into the primary texts and archaeological details. We spend time in class reading sagas – both prose and poetry – and outside of class we read different surviving documents and chapters from Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, which gives an in depth yet digestible overview of Viking mythology.
Bettina Sommer teaches the course, and she is definitely one of the most engaged professors I’ve interacted with during my undergraduate studies. She is an expert in the field and can spew obscure facts about Viking society at any given moment, whether relating to religion and ritual, dress, language, or etymology. She will often break down Old Norse words into their etymological roots, which is always very fascinating. Bettina also gives each question that we raise her full attention, and is open to hearing a new perspective on something that she has spent years studying.
Field Study to Roskilde
Last week we took a Field Study to Roskilde, about 45 minutes by bus, where we went sailing on a replica Viking ship. Luckily it was a windy day on the water, so we were able to gain some speed. We then visited the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, which houses the remains of five ships found (in the same spots we sailed!) from the Viking Age. Conservators very carefully disassembled the ships and submerged the wood in a mixture of water and glycol to ensure that the fragile wood wouldn’t dry out in the museum. Some of the pieces were submerged for years before being ready to face air exposure. The work of conservators are always fascinating for me because I’d like to work in the field one day, and I’m constantly reminded of the painstaking attention to detail they give to ensure preservation for future generations.
We had a quick lunch stop on the way to our next destination, which was an experiential archeology site. Here, we encountered a replica King’s Hall, which was a place of extreme importance and prestige in Viking society. We also visited a replica sacrificial bog and a stone Viking ship memorial. Scandinavian bogs were seen as portals into the afterlife and held in high regard among Nordic pagans for that reason. Here, they would offer gifts of animal sacrifice to the gods, and sometimes deceased people would be laid to rest in bogs as well.
Our final stop of the day was at the real archeological site where they discovered the remnants of a King’s Hall and a ship burial. Sadly, there were a few boulders from the burial site missing as a result of people taking them to make into gravel.
On Thursday we took another Field Study, this one being more local. We went to the National Museum to visit the Viking exhibition. Here, you can see ornate jewelry, religious iconography from post-Christianization in Scandinavia, and a dramatic reenactment of a failed Viking raid. I really enjoyed looking at the religious iconography from after Scandinavian countries officially adopted Christianity. This is a topic that we talk extensively in class, because most of the sources about Viking society are written after Christianization took place. The implication is that we have to read with a fair amount of skepticism and watch out for how Christian theology could be creeping in to accounts of pagan Nordic beliefs.
Below is a photo of a tiny figuring depicting a shield maiden. The actual existence of shield maidens is highly contested among scholars, but they are represented in some sagas. In 2017, archeologists discovered that a highly regarded warrior grave was actually female instead of male – as had previously been assumed. This discovery ushered in a very fascinating conversation about if warrior women actually existed in the Viking Age, and if so, what their role was and how were they perceived by those around them. This is a conversation that fascinates me, as well as many of my classmates.
Last week was full of experiential learning, which is always very fun. Unfortunately this week is the final one of session 1, but upon reflecting on my course decisions, I am very glad that I chose to take Nordic Mythology.