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It Takes a Pillage...
By Kregg P. J. Jorgenson
Posted June 21, 2007


Several Vikings sealed up leaks in their longboat using a traditional mix of wool and tar as caulking material. Hard at work in the wind whipped ancient Danish capital of Roskilde, the stout and serious men looked as though they would prefer to be charging into battle, savagely wielding axes and sharp swords, rather then focusing on the mundane repair work. However the care on their Drakkar skippe, Dragon boat, was necessary. Winter was slowly shedding its cold mantle and the sailing season would be coming soon –– they had to be ready.

For well over 300 years the sight of the long sleek warships, with Dragon neck prows, striped square sails, and fighting shields hanging from the gunnels, struck fear and panic into the hearts of the English, Irish, Scots and other enemies of the Norse raiders.

 The fierce Vikings, who attacked with speed and ferocity, introduced the word berserk into the English vocabulary, representing the frenzied fighting of their own shock troop of berserkrs. The Old Norse word berserkr, comes from the bear skin shirts the warriors wore to distinguish themselves in combat. Although some experts say it had more to do with their manic actions in battle, not their manner of dress.

Some leading authorities in the field have suggested that the manic and battle crazy actions of the berserkers were possibly brought on by several reasons. Those reasons vary from their alcohol being spiked with bog myrtle, to spirit possession, ingestion of magic mushrooms or other psychotropic stimulants, or even that the berserkers might have been bi-polar.

Bi-polar or not, the marauding Vikings of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries who contributed much to the history of the region also contributed to the prayers of the English –– in Latin no less. Intoning the phrase A furore normannorum libera nos dominethey pleaded to the Almighty, “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!” 

However, for several hundred years it didn’t seem to help. God, as far as everyone in Minnesota knows during football season, is always on the side of the Vikings. Oh, and in case you’re wondering… bog myrtle is a plant that grows in bogs. Traditionally, it has been used as an insect repellant, to treat acne, and briefly in the 1500s as a flavoring in beer.

            Today, the Vikings are confined to the historical sight of longboats in the Roskilde Fjord, which brings joy to the army of visitors who make the short bus trip –– or even shorter train ride –– out of Copenhagen to visit the interactive Viking museum in the picturesque and quite town.

Roskilde was also recently discovered as the original capital of the country Denmark. Its unique brick cathedral holds the interred remains of a millennium of Danish royals, 37 in fact.

In addition, Roskilde serves as the site of one of Europe’s largest and some say, raucous annual four-day Rock Festival. The late June outdoor festival that originated in 1971 features top named performers and bands as well as regional talent in a program that rivals the best of Woodstock, the three-day outdoor concert held in the late 60s in upstate New York. Woodstock became three days of some of the best music to come out of that era; it also became “three days of searching for a place to pee.”

The Roskilde Rock Festival, with its own unique stamp and flavor, carries on the legacy of Woodstock and other notable festivals, it also shares the same problems associated with large outdoor venues; overcrowding and limited facilities.

            But we weren’t there for the festival and we weren’t there in June. This trip was in mid-April and we were there to visit the Vikings instead, to learn something of their boat building techniques, and to see how they went about their daily lives with thoughts of pillaging dancing through their heads.

Visitors are delighted to dress up in the traditional Viking garb, complete with wool cloak, chain mail armor, and metal helmet (without horns because there’s no proof Vikings ever really wore horned helmets). Tourists also have the chance to pick up a real battle-axe, wooden shield, or authentic sword at the Viking Museum in Roskilde.

In the warmer summer months visitors can even sail in a detailed replica of the legendary longboats, but unlike non-Vikings in the past, tourists can happily leave when they wish.

A visit to the Viking Museum and its grounds also gets you acquainted with contributions of the Old Norse, such as the fact that four of the seven days of the week are named in honor of Viking lore. Tuesday named after Tyr, god of single combat and heroic glory; Wednesday for Wodin or Odin, the chief god who welcomes warriors to Valhalla; Thursday for Thor, god of Thunder; and Friday for Frigg or Frigga, goddess of love and fertility. Frigga was Odin’s first wife, a historical hottie. 

Besides learning the extraordinary boat building skills that allowed the Vikings to sail the world’s oceans and seas, you also discover words that came from the Vikings like ‘law’. The word ‘by-law’ pertained to laws in villages or towns (‘By’ being the word for village or town). You also learn that Vikings introduced the concept of a jury, which they called a Ting, where twelve people could decide the fate of an accused in a public trial.

On the other hand they also subscribed to the principal of Holmgang  –– a duel where to win the fight meant the gods were on your side. Today, we call it painful party politics, and while some politicians in expensive suits are well groomed, perfumed, and coifed, it’s plain to see at times they can be berserk and sinister as well.

You can get all this experience and more for a nominal price of admission at the Viking Museum in Roskilde, Demark.


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