In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, in all the villages and towns around the shores of the Baltic, the viking race was born.
It has been said that the name "vikings" was first given to those Northmen who dwelt in a part of Denmark called Viken. However that may be, it was the name given to all the Northmen who took to a wild, sea-roving life, because they would often seek shelter with their boats in one or another of the numerous bays which abounded along their coasts.
Thus the vikings were not by any means all kings, as you might think from their name; yet among them were many chiefs of royal descent. These, although they had neither subjects nor kingdoms over which to rule, no sooner stepped on board a viking's boat to take command of the crew, than they were given title of king.
The Northmen did not, however, spend all their lives in harrying and burning other countries. When the seas were quiet in the long, summer days, they would go off, as I have told you, on their wild expeditions. But when summer was over, and the seas began to grow rough and stormy, the viking bands would go home with their booty and stay there, to build their houses, reap their fields, and, when spring had come again, to sow their grain in the hope of a plenteous harvest.
There was thus much that the viking lad had to learn beyond the art of wielding the battle-axe, poising the spear, and shooting an arrow straight to its mark. Even a free-born yeoman's son had to work, work as hard as had the slaves or thralls who were under him.
The old history books, or Sagas, as the Norseman called them, have, among other songs, this one about the duties of a well-born lad:
"He now learnt
To tame oxen
And till the ground,
To timber houses
And build barns,
To make carts
And form plows."
Indeed, it would have surprised you to see the fierce warriors and mighty chiefs themselves laying aside their weapons and working in the fields side by side with their thralls, sowing, reaping, threshing. Yet this they did.
Even kings were often to be seen in the fields during the busy harvest season. They would help their men to cut the golden grain, and with their own royal hands help to fill the barn when the field was reaped. To king and yeomen alike, work, well done, was an honorable deed.
Long before the Sagas were written down, the stories of the heroes were sung in halls and on battle-fields by the poets of the nation. These poets were named skalds, and their rank among the Northmen was high.
Sometimes the Sagas were sung in prose, at other times in verse. Sometimes they were tales which had been handed down from father to son for so many years that it was hard to tell how much of them was history, how much fable. At other times the Sagas were true accounts of the deeds of the Norse kings. For the skalds were ofttimes to be seen on the battle-fields or battleships of the vikings, and then their songs were of the brave deeds which they had themselves seen done, of the victories and defeats at which they themselves had been present.
The battles which the vikings fought were fought on the sea more frequently than on the land.
Their warships were called long-ships and were half-decked The rowers sat in the center of the boat, which was low, so that their oars could reach the water. Sails were used, either red or painted in different stripes, red, blue, yellow, green. These square, brightly colored sails gave the boats a gay appearance which was increased by the round shields which were hung outside the gunwale and which were also painted red, black, or white. At the prow there was usually a beautifully carved and gorgeously painted figurehead. The stem and stern of the ships were high. In the stern there was an upper deck, but in the forepart of the vessel there was nothing but loose planks on which the sailors could step. When a storm was raging or a battle was being fought, the loose planks did not, as you may imagine, offer a very firm foothold.
The boats were usually built long and pointed for the sake of speed, and had seats for thirty rowers. Besides the rowers, the long-boats could hold from sixty to one hundred and fifty sailors.
Harald Fairhair was one of the foremost of the kings of Norway. He was so brave a Northman that he became king over the whole of Norway. In eight hundred and sixty-one, when he began to reign, Norway was divided into thirty-one little kingdoms, over each of which ruled a little king. Harald Fairhair began his reign by being one of these little kings.
Harald was only a boy, ten years of age, when he succeeded his father; but as he grew up he became a very strong and handsome man, as well as a very wise and prudent one. Indeed he grew so strong that he fought with and vanquished five great kings in one battle.
After this victory, Harald sent, so the old chronicles of the kings of Norway say, some of his men to a princess named Gyda, bidding them tell her that he wished to make her his queen.
But Gyda wished to marry a king who ruled over a whole country, rather than one who owned but a small part of Norway, and this was the message she sent back to Harald:
"Tell Harald," said the maiden, "that I will agree to be his wife if he will first, for my sake, subdue all Norway to himself, for only thus methinks can he be called the king of a people."
The messengers thought Gyda's words too bold, but when King Harald heard them, he said, "It is wonderful that I did not think of this before. And now I make a solemn vow and take God to witness, who made me and rules over all things, that never shall I clip or comb my hair until I have subdued the whole of Norway with scat [land taxes], and duties, and domains."
Then, without delay, Harald assembled a great force and prepared to conquer all the other little kings who were ruling over the different parts of Norway.
In many districts the kings had no warning of Harald's approach, and before they could collect an army they were vanquished.
When their ruler was defeated, many of his subjects fled from the country, manned their ships and sailed away on viking expeditions. Others made peace with King Harald and became his men.
Over each district, as he conquered it, Harald placed a jarl or earl, that he might judge and do justice, and also that he might collect the scat and fines which Harald had imposed upon the conquered people. As the earls were given a third part of the money they thus collected, they were well pleased to take service with King Harald. And indeed they grew richer, and more powerful too, than they had ever been before.
It took King Harald ten long years to do as he had vowed, and make all Norway his own. During these years a great many new bands of vikings were formed, and led by their chief or king they left the country, not choosing to become King Harald's men.
These viking bands went west, over the sea, to Shetland and Orkney, to the Hebrides, and also to England, Scotland, and Ireland.
During the winter they made their home in these lands, but in summer they sailed to the coast of Norway and did much damage to the towns that lay along the coast. Then, growing bolder, they ventured inland, and because of their hatred against King Harald, they plundered and burned both towns and villages.
Meanwhile Harald, having fulfilled his vow, had his hair combed and cut. It had grown so rough and tangled during these ten years that his people had named him Harald Sufa, which meant "Shock-headed Harald." Now, however, after his long, yellow hair was combed and clipped, he was named Harald Fairhair, and by this name he was ever after known. Nor did the King forget Gyda, for whose sake he had made his vow. He sent for her, and she, as she had promised, came to marry the King of all Norway.
Now the raids of the vikings along the coasts of Norway angered the King, and he determined that they should end. He therefore set out with a large fleet in search of his rebellious subjects.
These, when they heard of his approach, fled to their long-ships and sailed out to sea. But Harald reached Shetland and slew those vikings who had not fled, then, landing on the Orkney Isles, he burned and plundered, sparing no Northman who crossed his path. On the Hebrides King Harald met with worthy foes, for here were many who had once themselves been kings in Norway. In all the battles that he fought Harald was victorious and gained much booty.
When he went back to Norway the King left one of his jarls to carry on war against the inhabitants of Scotland. Caithness and Sutherland were conquered by this jarl for Harald, and thereafter many chiefs, both Norsemen and Danes, settled there. While Harald Fairhair was ruling in Norway, a grandson of Alfred the Great became king in England. His name was Athelstan the Victorious. Now Athelstan liked to think that he was a greater king than Harald Fairhair. It pleased him, too, to play what seemed to him a clever trick on his rival across the sea.
He sent a beautiful sword to Harald. Its hilt was covered with gold and silver, and set with precious gems. When Athelstan's messenger stood before the King of Norway he held out the hilt of the sword toward him, saying "Here is a sword that King Athelstan doth send to thee." Harald at once seized it by the hilt. Then the messenger smiled and said, "Now shalt thou be subject to the King of England, for thou hast taken the sword by the hilt as he desired thee." To take a sword thus was in those olden days a sign of submission.
Then Harald was very angry, for he knew that Athelstan had sent this gift only that he might mock him. He wished to punish the messenger whom Athelstan had sent with the sword. Nevertheless he remembered his habit whenever he got angry, to first keep quiet and let his anger subside, and then look at the matter calmly. By the time the prudent King had done this, his anger had cooled, and Athelstan's messenger departed unharmed.
But with Athelstan Harald still hoped to be equal.
The following summer he sent a ship to England. It was commanded by Hauk, and into his hands Harald intrusted his young son Hakon, whom he was sending to King Athelstan. For what purpose you shall hear.
Hauk reached England safely, and found the King in London at a feast. The captain boldly entered the hall where the feasters sat, followed by thirty of his men, each one of whom had his shield hidden under his cloak.
Carrying Prince Hakon, who was a child, in his arms, Hauk stepped before the King and saluted him. Then before Athelstan knew what he meant to do, Hauk, had placed the little prince on the King's knee.
"Why hast thou done this?" said Athelstan to the bold Northman.
"Harald of Norway asks thee to foster his child," answered Hauk. But well he knew that his words would make the King of England wroth. For one who became foster-father to a child was usually of lower rank than the real father. This, you see, was Harald's way of thanking Athelstan for his gift of the sword.
Well, as Hauk expected, the King was very angry when he heard why the little prince had been placed on his knee. He drew his sword as though he would slay the child.
Hauk, however, was quite undisturbed, and said, "Thou hast borne the child on thy knee, and thou canst murder him if thou wilt, but thou canst not make an end of all King Harald's sons by so doing."
Then the viking, with his men, left the hall and strode down to the river, where they embarked, and at once set sail for Norway.
When Hauk reached Norway and told the King all that he had done, Harald was well content, for the King of England had been forced to become the foster-father of his little son.
Athelstan's anger against his royal foster-child was soon forgotten, and ere long he loved him better than any of his own kin.
He ordered the priest to baptize the little prince, and to teach him the true faith.
While King Harald was reigning in Denmark, he built on the shores of the Baltic a fortress which he called Jomsburg. In this fortress dwelt a famous band of vikings named the Jomsvikings. It is one of their most famous sea-fights that I am going to tell you now.
The leader of the band was Earl Sigvald, and a bold and fearless leader he had proved himself.
It was at a great feast that Sigvald made the rash vow which led to this mighty battle. After the horn of mead had been handed round not once or twice only, Sigvald arose and vowed that, before three winters had passed, he and his band would go to Norway and either kill or chase Earl Hakon out of the country.
In the morning Sigvald and his Jomsvikings perhaps felt that they had vowed more than they were able to perform, yet it was not possible to withdraw from the enterprise unless they were willing to be called cowards. They therefore thought it would be well to start without delay, that they might, if possible, take Earl Hakon unawares.
In a short time therefore the Jomsviking fleet was ready, and sixty warships sailed away toward Norway. No sooner did they reach Earl Hakon's realms than they began to plunder and burn along the coast. But while they gained booty, they lost time. For Hakon, hearing of their doings, at once split a war-arrow and sent it all over the realm.
It was in this way that Hakon heard that the Jomsvikings were in his land. In one village the vikings had, as they thought, killed all the inhabitants. But unknown to them a man had escaped with the loss of his hand, and hastening to the shore he sailed away in a light boat in search of the earl.
Hakon was at dinner when the fugitive stood before him.
"Art thou sure that thou didst see the Jomsvikings?" asked Hakon, when he had listened to the man's tidings.
For answer, the peasant stretched out the arm from which the hand had been sundered, saying, "Here is the token that the Jomsvikings are in the land."
It was then that Hakon sent the war-arrow throughout the land and speedily gathered together a great force. Eric one of his sons, also collected troops, but though the preparations for war went on apace, the Jomsvikings heard nothing of them, and still thought that they would take Earl Hakon by surprise.
At length the vikings sailed into a harbor about twenty miles north of a town called Stad. As they were in want of food some of the band landed, and marched to the nearest village. Here they slaughtered the men who could bear arms, burned the houses, and drove all the cattle they could find before them toward the shore.
On the way to their ships, however, they met a peasant who said to them, "Ye are not doing like true warriors, to be driving cows and calves down to the strand, while ye should be giving chase to the bear, since ye are come near to the bear's den." By the bear the peasant meant Earl Hakon, as the vikings well knew.
"What says the man?" they all cried, together; "can he tell us about Earl Hakon?"
"Yesternight he lay inside the island that you can see yonder," said the peasant; "and you can slay him when you like, for he is waiting for his men."
"Thou shalt have all this cattle," cried one of the vikings, "if thou wilt show us the way to the jarl."
Then the peasant went on board the vikings' boat, and they hastened to Sigvald to tell him that the earl lay in a bay but a little way off.
The Jomsvikings armed themselves as if they were going to meet a large army, which the peasant said was unnecessary, as the earl had but few ships and men.
But no sooner had the Jomsvikings come within sight of the bay than they knew that the peasant had deceived them. Before them lay more than three hundred war-ships.
When the peasant saw that his trick was discovered he jumped overboard, hoping to swim to shore. But one of the vikings flung a spear after him, and the peasant sank and was seen no more.
Now though the vikings had fewer ships than Earl Hakon, they were larger and higher, and Sigvald hoped that this would help them to gain the victory.
Slowly the fleets drew together and a fierce battle began. At first Hakon's men fell in great numbers, for the Jomsvikings fought with all their wonted strength. So many spears also were aimed at Hakon himself that his armor was split asunder and he threw it aside.
When the earl saw that the battle was going against him, he called his sons together and said, "I dislike to fight against these men, for I believe that none are their equals, and I see that it will fare ill with us unless we hit upon some plan. Stay here with the host and I will go ashore and see what can be done."
Then the jarl went into the depths of a forest, and, sinking on his knees, he prayed to the goddess Thorgerd. But when no answer came to his cry, Hakon thought she was angry, and to appease her wrath he sacrificed many precious things to her. Yet still the goddess hid her face.
In his despair Hakon then promised to offer human sacrifices, but no sign was given to him that his offering would be accepted.
"Thou shalt have my son, my youngest son Erling!" cried the King, and then at length, so it seemed to Hakon, Thorgerd was satisfied. He therefore gave his son, who was but seven years old, to his thrall, and bade him offer the child as a sacrifice to the goddess.
Then Hakon went back to his ships, and lo! as the battle raged, the sky began to grow dark though it was but noon, and a storm arose and a heavy shower of hail fell. The hail was driven by the wind in the faces of the vikings, and flashes of lightning blinded them and loud peals of thunder made them afraid. But a short time before the warriors had flung aside their garments because of the heat; now the cold was so intense that they could scarce hold their weapons.
While the storm raged, Hakon praised the gods and encouraged his men to fight more fiercely. Then, as the battle went against them, the Jomsvikings saw in the clouds a troll, or fiend. In each finger the troll held an arrow, which, as it seemed to them, always hit and killed a man.
Sigvald saw that his men were growing fearful, and he, too; felt that the gods were against them. "It seems to me," he said, "that it is not men whom we have to fight to-day but fiends, and it requires some manliness to go boldly against them."
But now the storm abated, and once more the vikings began to conquer. Then the earl cried again to Thorgerd, saying that now he deserved victory, for he had sacrificed to her his youngest son.
Then once more the storm-cloud crept over the sky and a terrific storm of hail beat upon the vikings, and now they saw, not in the clouds, but in Hakon's ship, two trolls, and they were speeding arrows among the enemies of Hakon.
Even Sigvald, the renowned leader of the Jomsvikings, could not stand before these unknown powers. He called to his men to flee, for, said he, "we did not vow to fight against fiends, but against men."
But though Sigvald sailed away with thirty-five ships, there were some of his men who scorned to flee even from fiends. Twenty-five ships stayed behind to continue the fight.
The viking Bui was commander of one of these. His ship was boarded by Hakon's men, whereupon he took one of his treasures-chests in either hand and jumped into the sea. As he jumped he cried, "Overboard, all Bui's men," and neither he nor those who followed him were ever seen again.
Before the day was ended, Sigvald's brother had also sailed away with twenty-four boats, so that there was left but one boat out of all the Jomsvikings' fleet. It was commanded by the viking Vagn.
Earl Hakon sent his son Eric to board this boat, and after a brave fight it was captured, for Vagn's men were stiff and weary with their wounds, and could scarce wield their battle-axes or spears.
With thirty-six of his men Vagn was taken prisoner and brought to land, and thus Earl Hakon had defeated the famous vikings of Jomsburg. The victory was due, as Hakon at least believed, to the aid of the goddess Thorgerd.
When the weapons and other booty which they had taken had been divided among the men, Earl Hakon and his chiefs sat down in their warbooths and appointed a man named Thorkel to behead the prisoners.
Eighteen were beheaded ere the headsman came to Vagn. Now, as he had a dislike to this brave viking, Thorkel rushed at him, holding his sword in both hands. But Vagn threw himself suddenly at Thorkel's feet, whereupon the headsman tripped over him. In a moment Vagn was on his feet, Thorkel's sword in his hand, and before any one could stop him he had slain his enemy.
Then Earl Eric, Hakon's son, who loved brave men, said, "Vagn, wilt thou accept life?"
"That I will," said the bold viking, "if thou give it to all of us who are still alive."
"Loose the prisoners!" cried the young earl, and it was done. Thus of the famous band of Jomsvikings twelve yet lived to do many a valiant deed in days to come.