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The Legendary Viking Berserkers

One of the most well known yet still much unknown warriors of ancient times are the Berserkers (Berserkr) of the Viking Age. These fierce warriors said to go into an animalistic rage and even trance like in ferocity would bang their axes against their shields and would even chew on their shields whilst gnashing their teeth. They are mentioned in the Sagas and even an account of one famous Berserker who held off an army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. So let us now dive into the what is known and what is thought of these ancient Special Ops warriors of the North.

Hrolf’s Saga tells of the hero Bjarki, who takes on the shape of a bear in battle:

Men saw that a great bear went before King Hrolf’s men, keeping always near the king. He slew more men with his forepaws than any five of the king’s champions. Blades and weapons glanced off him, and he brought down both men and horses in King Hjorvard’s forces, and everything which came in his path he crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept through King Hjorvard’s army…” (Gwyn Jones. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. NY: Oxford Univ. Press. 1961. p. 313).

Another Óðinnic quality possessed by the berserk is a magical immunity to weapons. In Havamál, Óðinn speaks of spells used to induce this immunity:

A third song I know, if sore need should come
of a spell to stay my foes;
When I sing that song, which shall blunt their swords,
nor their weapons nor staves can wound
….
An eleventh I know, if haply I lead
my old comrades out to war,
I sing ‘neath the shields, and they fare forth mightily;
safe into battle,
safe out of battle,
and safe return from the strife.
(Lee M. Hollander, trans. Poetic Edda. Austin.
Univ. of Texas Press. 1962. pp. 44-45)

The berserk was sometimes inherently possessed of this immunity, or performed spells to induce it, or even had special powers to blunt weapons by his gaze. Many tales say of their berserkers, “no weapon could bite them” or “iron could not bite into him.” This immunity to weapons may also have been connected with the animal-skin garments worn by the berserk. As we saw above, while in animal form, “blades and weapons glanced off” Bodvar Bjarki. Similarly, Vatnsdæla Saga says that “those berserks who were called ulfhednar had wolf shirts for mail-coats” (Ellis-Davidson, “Shape Changing,” p. 133). This concept of immunity may have evolved from the berserker’s rage, during which the berserk might receive wounds, but due to his state of frenzy take no note of them until the madness passed from him. A warrior who continued fighting while bearing mortal wounds would surely have been a terrifying opponent. SOURCE

The mushroom Amanita muscaria is known to have hallucinogenic properties and is theorized to have been consumed by Berserkers.

Viking berserkers may have used henbane to induce trance-like state

It tells of the exploits of King Hrolf and of his famous champions, including Bodvar Bjarki, the ‘bear-warrior’
The Lewis Chessmen, discovered in Scotland but believed to be Norwegian, date to the 12th century and include a number of pieces showing wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields.

Further Resources:

The Viking Berserkers Were Norse Warriors Who Entered A Trance-Like Rage During Battle

Berserker: Norse Warrior

Viking Age Berserkers

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Úlfheðnar: The Wolf Spirit Warriors

The Úlfheðnar (Ulfhednar) from Viking age history was actually chronicled during the Viking Age and they have been described with definite specifics. A fascinating “Special Forces” of the Viking forces during raids and even on homelands these warriors were said to have a spiritual ability to shapeshift into Wolves. Many like to adopt the title of Úlfheðnar in modern times but my personal opinion is that is as ridiculous as someone calling themselves a modern Viking. I will expand on this opinion in a future Blog post. Now I for one am of the Wolf Spirit animal kind and give much respect to that which is why I feel this post must be looked upon as what once was and preserved with due respect.

The oldest extended description of Viking beast men comes from a 9th-century poem called Haraldskvæði, describing the army of Harald Fair-Hair:

   I’ll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
   Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
   Those who wade out into battle?
   Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
   They bear bloody shields.
   Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
   They form a closed group.
   The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
   Who hack through enemy shields.

The four Torslunda plates, Knut Stjerna (1874–1909) – Knut Stjerna, “Hjälmar och svärd i Beovulf” (1903)

The Ulfhednar wore wolfskins (Wolf-shirts, vargstakkar) over coats of mail, and unlike the Berserkers, who fought as squads, entered combat singly as guerrilla fighters. There were also the Ulfhamir, the wolf-shirts, who are believed to have fought, like the Berserkers, without armor.

Some had hammered, metal plates on their helmets used to magically protect them. There is a carving from the eleventh century showing these warriors. It depicts a wolf-mask with a human head looking out and armed with a spear.

Similar masks are used by shamans, acting as spirit receptacles when worn. One of the by-names of Odin, Grim, means ‘the masked one’ and the old Norse warriors wore a literally grim visage when going about their business.

The Ulfhednar used the superhuman strength of the wolf as their basis for martial arts. Their techniques were fraught with dangers, especially for the uninitiated.

From the Volsunga Saga we can learn some secrets about the Ulfhednar. Sigmund and his son put on wolf skins, agreed to follow certain rules when they fought, ‘They spoke in wolf-language,’ both understood that speech. The wolf-language is a form of ‘call’ like the Kiai of oriental martial arts, which has a momentary lowering of the blood pressure of opponents, allowing the warrior to strike. “The Beserks bayed…..the Ulfhednar howled!”

The tradition of the wolf-warriors is not just Nordic. A wolf-like cult is also ascribed to the Celtic race. From the Irish book, “The Wonders of Ireland”, “For by an evil craft they can at will change themselves into the shape of wolves with sharp tearing teeth.”

Feats of arms attributed to members of these warrior clans, and also others bearing names of wolf and bear, are legendary. The greatest Anglo-Saxon poem is about a wolf-cult warrior; “Beowulf”. Beowulf is a compound name composed of the Saxon fertility god, Beow and the wolf. SOURCE

Úlfhednar, Wolf Warriors

Beast Men: Berserkir and Úlfhéðnar in the Viking Age

Úlfhéðnar, Werewolves, Warriors and Winter Sacrifices

About Ulfhednar

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Huldra – The Seductive Forest Lady

A Huldra is a dangerous seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore. She is a member of a family of a very ancient beings that inhabit the forest, but remain hidden from humankind.

In Scandinavian folklore, the Huldra (Norwegian, derived from a root meaning “covered,” “hidden,” or “secret”) is a very elusive and seductive creature of the forest. The huld-rå being is a rå, which is a keeper or warden of a particular location or land-form. The different species of rå are sometimes distinguished according to the different spheres of nature with which they were connected, such as Skogsrå or Huldra (forest), Sjörå (freshwater) or Havsrå (saltwater), and Bergsrå (mountains).

Other names include: Huldra, huldrå, Hylda, Skogsrå or Skogsfru/Skogfru (meaning ‘lady (ruler) of the forest’ or ‘forest wife/woman/spirit’) and Tallemaja (‘Pine Tree Mary’). They are often referred to as Ulda by the Sámi.

As a whole, they are known as Huldrefolk or Huldufólk. They are hidden folk of the forest. Her name suggests that she is originally the same being as the Völva Huld and the German Holda. “In Scandinavian mythology, Huld is only referenced by Völva or Seiðkona, which is a woman who practiced the Seiðr. She is mentioned in Icelandic tales and sagas, such as the Ynglinga saga, Sturlunga saga and a late medieval Icelandic tale. One source states that she is Odin’s mistress and the mother of the demi-goddesses Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa. As her name suggests, Huld may be in origin the same being as the Huldra and the German Holda.” <Nordisk familjebok (1909)>

The males are called Huldrekall (hulder man), Huldu, or Huldrekarl are often said to be hideous in appearance and have grotesquely long noses.

A Swedish forest spirit visiting a charcoal burner. Illustration by Per Daniel Holm, from Svenska folksägner, Herman Hofberg (1882), Public Domain.

The Huldra (forest woman)

Huldra/skogsrå, The Scandinavian Goddesses

Skogsrået

Huldra – Norse Forest Lady

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Uppsala – History, Legends and More

The Temple of Uppsala

Around the year 1070, Adam of Bremen described the great pagan cult center of Uppsala, Sweden in his work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, the most famous source to pagan ritual practice in Sweden. It was written with the agenda of showing how barbaric and immoral were the practices and religion of the pagans, in defense of the still somewhat fragile position of the Christian church in Sweden at the time. Thus it cannot be read as an objective source to paganism, but rather as a strongly biased attack on paganism. Yet it is one of the only sources we have, and must make do with. The temple of Uppsala is described in the fourth book, chapter 26:

“This people have a widely renowned sanctuary called Uppsala. By this temple is a very large tree with extending branches. It is always green, both in winter and in summer. No one knows what kind of tree this is. There is also a spring there, where the heathens usually perform their sacrificial rites. They throw a live human being into the spring. If he does not resurface, the wishes of the people will come true.

The Temple is girdled by a chain of gold that hangs above the roof of the building and shines from afar, so that people may see it from a distance when they approach there. The sanctuary itself is situated on a plain, surrounded by mountains, so that the form a theater.

It is not far from the town of Sigtuna. This sanctuary is completely covered with golden ornaments. There, people worship the carved idols of three gods: Thor, the most powerful of them, has his throne in the middle of the hall, on either side of him, Odin and Freyr have their seats. They have these functions: “Thor,” they say, “rules the air, he rules thunder and lightning, wind and rain, good weather and harvests. The other, Odin, he who rages, he rules the war and give courage to people in their battle against enemies. The third is Freyr, he offers to mortals lust and peace and happiness.” And his image they make with a very large phallus. Odin they present armed, the way we usually present Mars, while Thor with the scepter seems to resemble Jupiter. As gods they also worship some that have earlier been human. They give them immortality for the sake of their great deeds, as we may read in Vita sancti Ansgarii that they did with King Eirik.”

The following is largely quoted, or abridged from the book Frey’s Offspring: Rulers and Religion in Ancient Svea Society by Olaf Sundqvist (2002) p.  94-136. Most of the evidence and copious examples have been truncated or omitted. Please refer to the original text for details:

“Gamla Uppsala is one of the most complex archaeological monuments in Scandinavia. The finds are sufficient for it to be considered a central place during the entire Late Iron Age. The mounds, boat-graves, traces of hall(s) and the wall to the north indicate the presence of a ruling stratum at least from the 5th or the 6th century. These finds, together with the phosphate values at the Eastern Mound and the Middle Mound, may also indicate ritual activity. Archeological analysis shows the site has been settled since the Roman period. It is an important site from at least the Migration Period up to the Middle Ages, though it may have experienced some troughs during the 9th century, after the hall on the southern plateau was burnt down.” SOURCE

Offering by Johann Lund 1831, depicting a horse being led to a statue of Thor for sacrifice.

Resources:

The Viking Age Temple at Gamla Uppsala

The Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala, Ancient Pagan Site of Sweden

Human Sacrifices?

The Temple at Uppsala

The Viking temple of Uppsala

Vikings in Uppsala

Pre-Viking Grave in Uppsala Reveals Ornate Sword and Jewelry

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Saxo Grammaticus – Danish Historian

Saxo, who lived in the latter part of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, was probably a canon of Lund Cathedral (then Danish). He was secretary to Archbishop Abslon, who encouraged his gifted protégé to write a history of his own country to emulate those of other nations, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Absalon was able to supply him with a large amount of material for the last few of the 16 books, since, as a warrior archbishop, he had taken a leading part in the Danish campaigns against the Wends of North Germany.

The work is a prosimetrum: in the prose text of six of the first nine books he inserts poems, some quite substantial. The poetry, he tells us, are meant to put into metrical Latin verse some of the narratives he had found in old Danish (and probably Icelandic) heroic poetry, such as the courageous last stand of Biarki and Hialti defending their lord after a Swedish ambush on the royal palace. He begins his work with the ancient myths and legends. Only in Book Nine does he start to introduce recognizable historical figures, after which he proceeds through the lives and activities of Viking kings, like Cnut the Great, ending in 1185 with the earlier exploits of Cnut Valdemarson.

As the first major Danish historiographer, Saxo’s work is a valuable fund of material, even though, like many other medieval historians, his accuracy can be variable, sometimes to the extent of invented episodes. Nevertheless, he is the only source available for the period in places. Needless to say, he favours the Danes against neighbouring nations like the Swedes and Germans (we read a great deal about the treachery of the Holy Roman emperors), and he is keen to trace the rise and spread of Christianity in Scandinavia.

The Gesta Danorum is also the first outstanding work of Danish literature. Although his general style is elegant and complex, he is a consummate story-teller, and when he gets his teeth into a good yarn, he can relate it in a swift and lively manner. These narratives range from heroic tales like those told of the tough old warrior Starkath (who loathes German sausages), to the tender love stories in Book Seven, and the early books are full of dragons, witches, wizards, and tales of the supernatural, including one about a vampire. He often displays a wry sense of humour, as in the story about a drunkard who persistently defies the king’s edict forbidding the brewing and consumption of beer. One of Saxo’s claims to literary importance is his inclusion of the first-known version of the Hamlet story. The fortunes of his Amleth foreshadow those of Shakespeare’s hero in surprising detail. SOURCE

Saxo Grammaticus about Jelling, 1644 edition

The nine books of the Danish history of Saxo Grammaticus

The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Learned”)

Saxo Grammaticus – Danish Historian

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Landvættir: Spirits of the Land

The Landvættir also known as Wights or Spirits of the land are spiritual beings that have always fascinated me and even have had my own experiences with them ever since I was a child. Much like the Vantavættir (Water spirits) or Hafvættir (Sea spirits) which I also have had experiences with, the Landvættir hold great importance for those who know of them in Norse and Germanic Lore and yes I do believe these Beings do indeed exist. So I felt the urge to share with you all some really great sources that are worth taking the time to have a look at.

Landvættir are Land-Spirits who are the guardians of particular places or countries. Landnámabók, The Book of Settlements, states that dragon-prows of ships must be removed close to land in fear of disturbing or offending these spirits. Egil Skallagrimsson left a niðstöng, a scorn-pole topped by a horse’s head and inscribed with threatening or offensive runes, in Norway in order to upset these land-spirits so badly that they would drive Eirik Bloodaxe from his kingdom; within a year Eirik was gone, deposed by his brother Hakon. Clearly, these are beings to be reckoned with.” – Somerville and McDonald, The Viking Age: A Reader (Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures: XIV, 2010), pp. 104-105.

Landvaettir-land wights

Land Spirits

Supernatural Beings in Norse Society

Landvaettir

Landvaettir the Land Wights

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The Sámi People: Everything You Should Know

Years ago when I discovered I have Finnish blood it led me to learn much about the Kalevala which actually led me to begin studying the Saami (Sámi) people, their culture and of course their Gods and Goddesses which do vary depending on the region. The variety is due to the fact that these amazing people live in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Someday I wish to visit a Saami town and spend time with one of their Spiritual ones.

For those of you interested in learning about the Saami and their Gods and Goddesses, here are some great resources.

Sami, also spelled Saami, or Same, Sami, Sabme, any member of a people speaking the Sami language and inhabiting ….. and adjacent areas of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They belong to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family. Almost all Sami are now bilingual, and many no longer even speak their native language. In the late 20th century there were from 30,000 to 40,000 Sami in Norway and about 20,000 in Sweden, 6,000 in Finland, and 2,000 in Russia.

The Sami are the descendants of nomadic peoples who had inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. When the Finns entered Finland, beginning about ad 100, Sami settlements were probably dispersed over the whole of that country; today they are confined to its northern extremity. In Sweden and Norway they have similarly been pushed north. The origin of the Sami is obscure; some scholars include them among the Paleo-Siberian peoples; others maintain that they were alpine and came from central Europe. Continue reading HERE.

The Sami vs. Outsiders

By Káre (Kimmi Woodard)

Early History:

According to historians, the proto-Sami were said to have inhabited most of Scandinavia and Northwest Russia. We first hear of them in the year 98 AD from the Roman historian Tacitus in his book Germania. At that time, they were called “Fenni.” Tacitus described them as a primitive hunting tribe who roamed the forests near Germany. In the second century A.D, Ptolemy of Alexandria spoke of a tribe in Scandinavia called the “Phinnoi.” And then in 555 AD the Greek historian Procopius in describing a war between the Romans and the Goths referred to a people called the “Skridfinns” who inhabited Scandinavia. And then once again in 750 AD Paulus Diaconus mentions a people called the “Skridfinns” who kept animals resembling deer. This name then spread throughout Scandinavia, to the Finns, the Russians and later to the Germans, Hungarians, Estonians and other groups. Today, the Sami prefer the name Sami, and their land is called Sapmi.

Viking Age Trade:

In the Viking Age there was a tremendous amount of trade (called the Finn Trade) along the coast of the Gulf of Finland and Bothnia. This area brought seasonal visits from Finns, Russians, and Scandinavian merchants, which eventually attracted the attention of the emerging nation states. It was during this early period that the Finns colonized the southwest corner of Finland. And in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, there was also emigration into Sweden. As the Swedes, Finns and Norwegians pushed northward, Sapmi steadily decreased in size. In this early period we learn that the Sami merchants first traded with the Vikings, and later they traded with the travelers from northern Europe. According to the article “Important Years in Same History,” because of this early cultural contact, the Sami people advanced from a Stone Age society to a society that eventually developed its own monetary system; their currency was named tjoervie. The cultural contact not only benefited the Sami but other groups as well. The contact was often mutually beneficial. For example, it was quite common during this early period for different cultures to borrow words from one another. The Sami language, for instance, has hundreds of loanwords of Scandinavian or Germanic origin, as well as many from Finnish. Similarly, the Scandinavians and Finns have many words from each other. Continue reading HERE.

Saami Deities: List and Descriptions

The Sami People

The Sami in Sweden

Cultures of Norway: The Sami people

The Story of the Sami People & Culture

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The Legendary Kraken

Ever since I first watch the movie Clash of the Titans as a kid I have always been fascinated by the legends and tales of the deep sea monstrous beast who has been described in a number of forms and sizes from Scandinavia all the way to Greece. There are quite a lot of theories regarding the origins of the Kraken from it being encounters with Giant Squids to there perhaps being a deep sea creature that we have yet to discover. Considering we know more about our solar system than we still know regarding our oceans says a lot.

By looking at the characteristics of different descriptions of the Kraken, it is quite easy to see how natural occurrences other than sea creatures have influenced the legends and stories. For example the 13th century Old Icelandic saga Örvar-Odds saga tells of two massive sea-monsters called Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the Kraken. In other sources, the Kraken is told to usually appear, and attack vessels in patches of thick mist at sea, particularly around Iceland. The mist is also told to be created from the Kraken itself, with the mist smelling awful, likened to rotting fish coming from the Krakens stomach. This can most likely be explained by further volcanic activity under and around Iceland, explaining the cases with the foul-smelling mist.

Other elements of a Kraken attack include pulling apart ships with tentacles, or it simply lying in wait, appearing to be an island, and allowing for ships to flow into its mouth in the obscuring mist. These can also be explained; with the attacks form the creature’s tentacles perhaps really being the undersea volcanic activity mentioned earlier, creating sudden bubbles of water, and large dangerous waves and currents that would pull a ship apart in severe cases. The mentions of a Kraken appearing as an island and allowing ships to sail into its mouth most likely also come from volcanic activity, with small islands being pushed above the surface of the water fairly frequently in the high activity volcanic area of which Iceland itself was made from.

Overall, it is fairly simple to see how stories of a horrific and deadly sea creature emerged from such occurrences. With the combination of sudden, deadly currents of water, unexpected pieces of land popping up and the sightings of large creatures in the water, all obscured by a strange, disgusting smelling mist, it’s no wonder that the Scandinavian seafarers of the time thought something ‘supernatural’ was happening in their waters, Especially when ships went missing or were found wrecked and deserted.

Vintage engraving of The Kraken, a legendary sea monster of large proportions.
getty

The Kraken

Alfred Lord Tennyson – 1809-1892

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His
ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The real-life origins of the legendary Kraken

The Kraken: When myth encounters science

The Legendary Kraken: The Real Animal Behind the Monster

What is the Kraken?

The Legendary Kraken

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The Story of Ragnhildr Hrólfsdóttir

There are a number of Women who’s stories are mentioned in the Sagas of the Viking Age that I find quite fascinating and one of these Women is Hildr also known as Ragnhildr Hrólfsdóttir. Her story is wrapped into several Sagas which I will include in this blog post along with some videos I highly recommend regarding this subject. I do plan to post of other key female figures of the Sagas but for now here is the tales of this lady.

According to the sagas, Hild was the daughter of Rolv Nefia (Hrólfr nefja) jarl at Trondhjem (modern day Trondheim). In the Orkneyinga saga, the daughter of Rolv Nefia was called Ragnhild, although in the Heimskringla she was called Hild. Her father used to go on Viking expeditions. One summer he plundered in Vík. This aroused king Harald Fairhair’s anger and he was banished. Hild appealed unsuccessfully for clemency for her father. On this occasion she composed a scaldic stanza (lausavísa), which is one of the few testimonies of scaldic poetry composed by a woman that has come down to us.

She was married to Rognvald Eysteinsson (Ragnvald Øysteinsson Mørejarl) who was the jarl of Møre. They had three sons: Ívarr, Þórir and Hrólfr. Thorir (Þórir) succeeded his father as jarl of More. Rolv (Hrólfr), nicknamed Gange-Rolv, became known as Rollo of Normandy. The death of Ivar (Ívarr) during an earlier campaign in support of King Harald Finehair resulted in the Northern Isles (Norðreyar) being gifted to his family as compensation. According to the Historia Norvegiae, Rognvald’s family conquered Orkney and Shetland islands in the late ninth century.

The Orkneyinga saga

The Saga of Olaf Haraldson

Lausavísa — Hildr

Lausavísa: Hildr Hrólfsdóttir nefju

Ragnhild Hildr Hrolfsdottir

Landnámabók


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A History of the Vikings – Gwyn Jones

Time for another book recommendation from my personal library and this is a really good one. A History of the Vikings by the late Gwyn Jones (24 May 1907 – 6 December 1999). Jones was a Welsh novelist and story writer, and a scholar and translator of Nordic literature and history.

The subject of this book is the Viking realms, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, their civilization and culture, and their many sided achievements at home and abroad.
A highly readable narrative follows the development of these Northern peoples–the Nordmenn–from their origins and the legendary pre-history to the military triumphs of Canute and the defeat of Harald Hardrádi at Stamford Bridge in 1066, which symbolically ended the Viking age.
The book recounts the Vikings’ exploits in war, trade, and colonization: the assault on Western Christendom; the trading and military ventures to the Slav and Muslim worlds and to Byzantium; and the western voyages of discovery and settlement to Greenland, Iceland, and America.
Numerous photographs, maps, and drawings contribute to Gwyn Jones’s rounded portrait of Viking civilization and vividly evoke the importance in their culture of religion, art, and seafaring.

Here is a list of his other works. Books by Gwyn Jones

Get your copy here.