A Viking's Life for Me
I had more fun in that life than any other I have had in over a thousand years.
So I had three lives as a Viking.. One was far to east of Norway. One began in Norway and I think we were instrumental in starting the Iceland colony. However, the one life that I recall the most and recall the most fondly was as Leif.
We were armed merchant men. Armed to the teeth. The armor was almost exclusively for defense against pirates. We did not rape and pillage.*
First of all there was nothing to pillage in these fishing villages when we first visited them. Fishing boats and an old plate or two was about all they ever seemed to have in the Hebredies. Their only source of income was often the oil they got from whales which I guess they sold and traded to people who needed it for lamps. Many of the men would spend all the money they got from it on dairy products (which was the code for whisky).
Fish had no value since it got too ripe by the time they got inland any distance.
We liked to come right after that time to start new ventures and mostly with the women. The men thougth it would amount to nothing and let their wives start it as a hobby. So we gave them the first batch of goods on credit and we told them exactly how much to sell the items for to the people that lived further inland. We made a profit the second time we visited and they made a healthy profit the third time and by then the family we dealt with was the weathiest one around.
As far as women and forced affection? Assume for a minute that you are a 19 year old virgin in a fishing village. Half the men in the village have been killed at sea by the North Atlantic storms that come up in a few minutes and swamp the little boats that they used. The rest are all married and as coarse as fishermen. The last available man got married to the 15 year old he got pregnant so you are liable to remain a ‘maiden’ the rest of your life on some lonely shore in the Hebrides.
I am the Captain of a Viking ship that arrives one day, a strapping 6'2" man with a red beard, a broad sword and incredible treasures. Wouldn't you like me to sail into your port? So forced affection did occur but my men never had a chance to say 'no' before the women were all over them. For the life of me I can't recall a single crew member ever complaining about it though. So with some villagers we opened up more than just trade.
Do you know what the hardest part of being the captain was? It was my responsibility to explain to the women that got involved with my men why they couldn't come with us when we left. A Viking ship was no place for a woman and so it was verboten to take them along. Every port seemed to have one woman who couldn't stand to see the Viking she had fallen in love with leave. I couldn't just take the ship out since they would often swim alongside until they went under (of course we took them out of the water and back to land) so I would have to pay someone to hold her while we left. Just the memories of all those pleading faces looking up into mine while I explained the situation makes me kind of sorry that I even recalled this life. That was the biggest drawback of the job.
We occasionally had to open up the trade lines from the coast. When we started trading along a coast those who lived inland were thrilled. Then as time went by those lived by the road often decided to raise their road fares way too high. Sometimes the path got blocked by men who 'wanted blood and not milk'. (Extract milk and recovery occurs as nature intended just as the taxes our traders paid along the way allowed everyone to enjoy the fruits of commerce and look forwards to a future bright with prospects. Exact blood or too many taxes and either death ensues or it takes an unnaturally long time to recover. So when the tax stations exacted too much from our merchants it could kill them financially or keep them from prospering. We would set the situation straight for the merchant, often for a price.
Once there was a town that had blocked the road inland because of a great greed that developed in some people of dubious character. We had a standard way of settling these kinds of confrontations. I had little patience for these people who taxed our merchants but weren't satisfied with even that. It made everyone miserable including the men who had blocked the road but perhaps they already had miserable lives so they didn't notice anything. I also resented the prospect facing shining new swords that they had gotten from us to begin with! But we went to the village.
We had this one guy named Karl. He was our ace. While we lounged around on the rocks I would tell the men we faced to chose their best two men. Almost all the time it was a sadistic man who had started the whole thing and he wanted to make a name for himself by besting a Viking. Then I'd laugh about the two men and tell them I would just use one man and in fact he would be my worse swordsman. All my men would laugh. I'd tell Karl to get up. He would look miffed and point at himself and then at another tougher looking Viking. (This was all choreographed.) Then Karl would finally stand up and accept the responsibility. The challengers would be so relieved that it wasn't the other mean looking guy they would fail to notice Karl unwind his lanky body to it's six and a half foot height. Though he was lanky, like all of us, he had legs that were bigger around than a mans head.**
Now I have to tell you about Karl. Every Viking team had a member who was a 'Karl'. These men often charged three times the going rate of an ordinary Viking sailor/soldier but they were worth every penny of it. Our Karl was a great guy as a friend and member of the team. He was just the opposite as an enemy. He came from a very modest family and grew up in a pretty large city where he lived next door to a school that taught fencing. When he was about 5 the school sponsored his classes in sword fighting. They needed an expert child to duel with the boys that were from royalty that came to the school. He had to be well trained so he wouldn't accidentally poke a kids eye out and start a war. The school saw to him being trained exceedingly well. At the age of 5 he could beat the 11 year old children who were sent to the school. When the boys came to the school they had often had their way with everything their entire life. But with swordplay that could result in problems if he hurt another child of royalty. So that they would behave about the fifth to the fifteenth day Carl would be asked to 'treat' the student so he would mercilessly beat them and left a cut on the boys arm. It just completely destroyed the ego of any arrogant child. By leaving them in tears with a cut it was a disgrace for some reason. So they became open to accepting the discipline of learning. Karl said he was earning more money than his father by the age of 11. In those six years he had gotten only one scar from a cut and he won the rematch.
3/29/03 Donald Southerland in a goofy screen role like the Doctor he played in the movie 'Mash' reminds me of a smaller version of Karl. I recall now that Karl was born near Stockholm but his family moved to Revel, Estonia-Russia*. Lots of people would send their sons there from all around the Baltics. Karl's father did contracts for trading companies. It was there that Karl learned to wield a sword. The Russians were the swordsmen par excellent at the time but they acted rather strange about this sword business. When they would go to battle with Vikings they often stood off 80 meters and drew their swords and challenged us. So the Vikings would let loose a volley of arrows that would kill about 20% of them and the other 80% would be waiting for the Vikings to run up and fight with swords but our men would repeat the shower of arrows again and again until they ran away which was often not until there were only two left standing. It was like really dumb but they were in a mood of: 'We spent a lot money learning to use these swords and we won't use anything else.'
So Karl was there at the school to educate the children about the truth of Viking swordsmanship. I recall why the wound was so humiliating. It meant the other man had let you live and you owed you life and obedience to him. That would bring them under control.
(If I notice one thing it
is this: Russians have the exact same ability to deceive themselves
and other Russians about what is true as they had 1000 year ago. It's
really bizarre but Russians still die over the lack of truth exactly
like they did a millennium ago. They seem to put those lies on us too.)
In case you don't know about Damascus steel, a sword made of Damascus steel will cut through any European sword of that era like a hot knife goes through butter. That took out one of mens swords. Karl would then just laugh and throw his sword aside even though the leader was still fully armed. Karl had leather arm protectors that were studded. That way he could easily block any sword using just his arms. The studs many people aren't aware of are just to keep the blade of the sword from slipping of the side of the leather and cutting the skin underneath. So just using his feet Karl then proceeded to break each the leaders major limbs at least once and one leg a second time near the hip so the man would never be able to walk very well again. About 15 bones would be broken.
Then we left not only the field but the entire coast line. Otherwise we would end up facing a crowd three to twenty times our size the next day wanting vengeance. The object here was not to kill the men but to figure out which one was in command or had the worse reputation around and easily cripple him for life in a more than 'fair' fight. You see if we had had fought them in a clear field our men against theirs, force against force, there would have been bodies all over the place. Had Karl killed the men the other side would only be thinking about 'what ifs' until they got up their nerve to challenge a Viking ship again. This way nobody would ever bother us again. Not within 100 miles of that port. So we got that reputation of being super powerful and impossible to kill.
We would try to stay away from that area for at least 3 months. When we came back we often had three times the business. Karl was very important and worth every bit of those three times normal wages. Karl got his bonus in the form of grateful women, also three times normal.
One of my strangest memories is that we nearly never felt the emotions of fear and aggression. Fear and aggressive behavior was breed to a low level. You can see that today in the actions of Icelandic's and Norwegians when they are around others. Anger, fear and all those emotions are excellent in warmer countries. If your life is in danger in warmer areas it is most likely to be caused by another person. Running away and then waiting until everyone calmed down could save your life. People forgive and forget. In the Arctic the danger is different. The danger is the cold weather and fear is less than useless there. Nature does not forgive and forget. Get frightened in a storm and run away like in a warm country means your death from exposure. Feeling too much emotion was a dangerous thing.
So Vikings plan everything ahead of time to avoid having any threatening situation occur in the first place. That's what kept you alive not reacting afterwards. For a similar reason we made the best merchants. Viking merchants always made certain the trade was good for the customer. To unfairly take advantage of any one meant that their survival the next winter might be threatened. We also carried the best and gave excellent guarantees. If an axe blade broke in the fall it meant no wood could be cut that winter and that would threaten the existence an entire family or monastery. If a smuggler came in he was trying to make as much money as possible. If he dumped a 1000 axe blades along the coast, knowing it was a one shot deal, they would inevitably be made of low grade ore, except for a few sold to the leaders. That could literally mean the death by exposure of hundreds of families. We had opened up most of the areas to iron tools for the first time so often the natives had no exposure to inferior quality iron and did not know how to tell good from bad, if they even knew bad quality metals existed to begin with.
Also they had been exposed to us and many new things including iron at the same time so to them anything made of iron was Viking. Due to one simgle smuggler in the spring time we might find 1000 very angry people, minus the ones that had died of exposure, waiting for us Vikings. The Vikings gave only one punishment for smugglers and you can figure out what that was.
We were good for everyone except those who violated other peoples freedom.
*The only time we pillaged was to exact vengeance when one of our ships crews had been massacred, and never unless there was strong proof. It was always the helmets that convicted the murderers. When one of our ships went missing we went looking for the men's helmets. Just like a cop never gives up his gun, a Viking never gave up his helmet unless his head was still in it.
Sometimes we were able to avoid an attack when a woman fixated on our helmets. We watched for that. Any woman who had one of those for a cooking pot had the only thing like it within a hundred miles. If they owned one they automatically shot up to the top of the female hierarchy.
Any woman whose husband brought home a Viking helmet from raiding our ships wouldn't give it up for the world. It was always the same thing. The pirates upon hearing about our search parties would take care to sink ship and hide every thing they had taken for months but the plain fact was that they couldn't get a wife to give up her iron cooking pot for the world. When one of our ships went missing, all the other ships in the area became involved in the investigation. I was involved in one investigation early in my career and am grateful for it. Wariness became ingrained in every action at every port I sailed into from the beginning.
We were assigned to look for a ship that had gone missing during a foggy time. We went to one village and were told that all the men had gone fishing but they had left behind their boats. Then one of my men found the first helmet and called me over. When the woman looked at me with a cheerful 'we whipped your butt' look I wanted to strangle her right then and there. Then another helmet was found buried behind a neighbors hut and that convicted the two families. Then a third was found. They all had all been used for cooking.
The display of even one helmet of a murdered man who had come in peace made the entire village guilty of murder as the others allowed the evidence to be displayed openly. The next step was to allow the little boys to talk. (These are boys whose fathers had bragged to them.) They would tell us just how our men died and how their fathers who were hiding in the mountains were going to do the same to us. The little boys believed that braggado. They would tell us how their father were going to come down from the mountains and do the same thing to us. These boys were now un-human. They would only grow up thinking that killing other people was a right of theirs. The women as is always true could have kept their own men from killing our men so they were guilty. The next step was obvious. We marched the entire village to the sea and killed each person in turn in front of the others. This was in plain view of the mountains where their men were watching. Then we chopped up the bodies and cast them into the ocean, except for the heads. We put them each at the proper house where they had lived.
Men never recover from such punishment and many of the pirates killed themselves. The few who lived left the area.
Once we were in a new village and the village men started going into a building at intervals. Soon almost all of them were inside. We knew we were being set up. One of my men knew to take off his helmet and set it down at arms length. He ignored it while he bartered and sold to the women that were there. We didn't ignore the helmet though. This was a routine we had discovered. Karl was alert and we all pretended to be un-interested by walking about but my men took turns watching the women's reactions. I walked away. Respect, danger, honor, honesty as well as any number of virtues about the women and the groups morality as a whole could be ascertained quickly. After a few minutes I came back and laughing. In our native language the men reported their observations. The leaders wife had worked up the courage to walk up to the helmet and run her finger around the rim (laying claim to it in front of the other women). When I heard this my face got dead serious and the women tried to bail! Karl blocked one and we grabbed two more. We took them to the nearest major port. I found out from these women that the men were going to kill us that night. We warned all other Viking ships never to go there. They were taken back to the village alive.
When we first set foot in a port it was very important that every male in the area was gathered. We read our policy which included clauses for grievance committee's. I read that damn thing out loud hundreds of times and it included everything from how much our rates could be changed to the amount of stipend a women was given when she got pregnant. That stipend was what left a legacy of fair haired Nordic children where ever we went. Actually women who mothered our children were the first on our list as trading partners since they had a vested interest in seeing us do good over the long haul.
I find that history is wrong about 50% of the time and significantly in error 20% of the time. I know this upsets a lot of historians but it's true. The one with the pen wins. Again arguing with what I say occurred is about like me arguing with you about something you did 15 years ago using your neighbors diary. Unless, of course, you have integrity and start asking for the truth instead of telling me and others second and third hand bull.... Aspects of certain events and many minor details are going to be off but try to get beyond these mistakes. It's like trying to telling your friends on your 15th wedding anniversary exactly how you met your wife or details of your wedding while she is with you. You will see exactly what I mean about forgetting minor details when she keeps cutting in and correcting you time and again with 'Honey it wasn't that way'. Ten minutes of conversation and your wife will be so miffed about your 'forgetting the most important event of our life' that you will be lucky to end up sleeping on the couch that night.
**Karl lived in the capital of Estonia. It's name was "Revel" before the first Estonian independence ~1219-1918 when the country was under Danish / German / Swedish / Russian domination.
***We ate lots of high protein fish. We would have been skinnier if our ship was like a Roman slave ship where their men often rowed continuously but we only rowed intermittently. That was during lulls in the wind which often occurred in the afternoon for an hour when the wind switched directions or when we were going into shore when we needed the control of our boat that oars gave us. (You didn't want to hit a rock and hole your ship when you were hundreds of miles from the only port with good repair facilities.) Even when we didn't need to row we usually did each day in the morning for an hour just to let off the testosterone steam that develops on a ship full of men.
© 2003 John Pinil